Iron Man Marvel Masterworks volume 11


By Len Wein, Bill Mantlo, Archie Goodwin, Gerry Conway, Roger Slifer, Jim Shooter, Herb Trimpe, Steve Gerber, Roger Stern, George Tuska, Sal Buscema, Jeff Aclin & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-1-3029-1090-7(HB)

Arch-technocrat and supreme survivor Tony Stark has changed his profile many times since his debut in Tales of Suspense #39 (March 1963) when, whilst a VIP visitor in Vietnam observing the efficacy of the munitions he had designed, the inventor was critically wounded and captured by sinister, savage Communists.

Put to work building weapons with the dubious promise of medical assistance on completion, Stark instead created the first of many technologically augmented suits to keep himself alive and deliver him from his oppressors. From there it was a simple – transistor-powered – jump to full time superheroics as a modern Knight in Shining Armour…

First conceived in the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis at a time when Western economies were booming and “Commie-bashing” was an American national obsession, the emergence of a new and shining young Thomas Edison, using Yankee ingenuity, wealth and invention to safeguard the Land of the Free and better the World, seemed an obvious development. Combining the then-sacrosanct faith that technology and business in unison could solve any problem, with the universal imagery of noble knights battling evil, Stark – the Invincible Iron Man – seemed an infallibly successful proposition.

Of course, whilst he was the acceptable face of 1960s Capitalism – a glamorous millionaire industrialist/scientist and a benevolent all-conquering hero when clad in the super-scientific armour of his alter-ego – the turbulent tone of the 1970s soon relegated his suave, “can-do” image to the dustbin of history.

With ecological disaster and social catastrophe from the myriad abuses of big business the new zeitgeists of the young, the Golden Avenger and Stark International were soon confronting a few tricky questions from the increasingly politically savvy readership.

With glamour, money and fancy gadgetry not quite so cool anymore the questing voices of a new generation of writers began posing uncomfortable questions in the pages of a series that was once the bastion of militarised America …

This grand and gleaming chronological compendium – available in hardback and digital editions – completes that transitional period; reprinting Iron Man #82-94 (January 1976 – January 1977) plus Annuals #3 and 4: aided and abetted by an informative and insightful measure of historical context courtesy of historian and author Bruce Canwell in his Introduction.

With an extended epic spanning the world and alternate dimensions finally completed long-term writer Mike Friedrich moved on, and Iron Man #82 welcomed a new era and tone as Len Wein, Herb Trimpe, Marie Severin & Jack Abel revamped the armour just in time for the Red Ghost and his super simians to kidnap super genius Stark in ‘Plunder of the Apes!’

Debuting in that issue was NYPD detective Michael O’Brien, who holds Tony responsible and accountable for the tragic death of his brother Kevin. The deceased researcher had been Stark’s confidante until his mind snapped. He had died running amok whilst wearing a prototype suit of Guardsman armour. Here and now Mike smells a cover-up…

IM #83 reveals ‘The Rage of the Red Ghost!’ (inked by Marie Severin) as the deranged Russian forces Stark to cure his gradual dispersal into component atoms, only to realise, following a bombastic battle, that the inventor has outwitted him once again, after which Wein, Roger Slifer, Trimpe & John Tartaglione detail how the infamous Enervator again turns a grievously injured Happy Hogan into a mindless monster. This time, the medical miracle machine saturates him with so much Cobalt radiation that he becomes a ticking inhuman nuke on the ‘Night of the Walking Bomb!’

The tense tick-tock to doom is narrowly and spectacularly stopped in ‘…And the Freak Shall Inherit the Earth!’ (Slifer w/Wein, Trimpe, Severin) after which Bill Mantlo, George Tuska & Vince Colletta revive and revamp one of the Golden Avenger’s oldest and least-remembered rogues when disgraced thermal technologist Gregor Shapanka sheds his loser status as Jack Frost to attack Stark International in a deadly new guise in # 86’s ‘The Gentleman’s Name is Blizzard!’

Despite his improved image, the sub-zero zealot can’t quite close ‘The Icy Hand of Death!’, leading to the first of this cracking chronicle’s mid-year spectaculars as Iron Man Annual #3 (June 1976) unveils ‘More or Less… the Return of the Molecule Man!’ courtesy of Steve Gerber, Sal Buscema & Abel.

Whilst Tony Stark looks into redeveloping some soggy Florida real estate, a little local girl finds a strange wand and is possessed and transformed by the consciousness of one of the most powerful creatures in existence…

Although Iron Man is helpless to combat the reality-warping attacks of the combination petulant girl/narcissistic maniac, luckily for the universe, the shambling elemental shocker dubbed Man-Thing had no mind to mess with or conscience to trouble…

Iron Man #88 signals the too-brief reunion of veteran scribe Archie Goodwin with George Tuska as ‘Fear Wears Two Faces!’ finds the Armoured Avenger battling escaped aliens the Blood Brothers after the vicious space thugs are psychically summoned to a mystery rendezvous with another old enemy of Iron Man. Inked by Colletta, the tale concludes in ‘Brute Fury!’ as Daredevil deals himself in to the cataclysmic clash and just barely tips the scales…

The hidden manipulator is exposed in #90 (By Jim Shooter, Tuska & Abel) ‘When Calls the Controller!’, as the life-force thief seeks to escape months of entombment by enslaving and feeding off hapless down-&-outs. His rapid defeat is only a prelude to greater catastrophe as Gerry Conway scripts and Bob Layton inks #91’s ‘Breakout!’ wherein the fiend tries too hard, too fast and again fades into helpless captivity…

The manic Melter soon regrets his ill-advised grudge rematch in ‘Burn, Hero… Burn!’ (Conway, Tuska & Abel) before Herb Trimpe returns as plotter and penciller in Iron Man #93, pitting Old Shellhead against a British-based modern-day pirate in ‘Kraken Kills’ (Conway Script & Abel inks), with the self-declared Commander deducing Stark’s secret identity before blackmailing the inventor into building weapons for his super-submarine fleet. Never at a loss, Stark turns the tables, sparking ‘Frenzy at Fifty Fathoms!’ to scupper the madman’s plans…

This bombastic book concludes with Invincible Iron Man Annual #4 (August 1977) and an all-action alliance with newly constituted super-team The Champions by Mantlo, Tuska & inker Don Perlin. When psychic assassin M.O.D.O.K. overwhelms the Golden Avenger, Iron Man calls in old allies Black Widow and Hercules (plus teammates Ghost Rider, Iceman, Darkstar and the Angel) to thwart ‘The Doomsday Connection!’

Also from that issue comes an out-of-place martial arts vignette by Roger Stern, Jeff Aclin & Don Newton. ‘Death Lair!’ stars former Master of Kung Fu villain Midnight on a mission of murder against old Iron Man enemy Half-Face

Closing the covers on this stellar compilation are a selection of house ads and a short cover gallery of original art by Gil Kane, Esposito, Ed Hannigan & Frank Giacoia.

From our distant vantage point the polemical energy and impact might be dissipated, but the sheer quality of the comics and the cool thrill of the eternal aspiration of man in perfect partnership with magic metal remains.

These Fights ‘n’ Tights classics are amongst the most underrated but impressive tales of the period and are well worth your time, consideration and cold hard cash…
© 1976, 1977, 2018 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

X-Campus


By Francesco Artibani, Michele Medda, Denis Medri, Roberto Di Salvo & Marco Failla; translated by Luigi Mutti (Marvel/Panini UK)
ISBN: 978-1-90523-998-6 (Marvel/Panini UK PB)

Here’s an intriguing reimagining of the key elements which made X-Men a global phenomenon, courtesy of the company’s international connections. Created in 2008 by European creators informed by the movie franchise and published under the Marvel Transatlantique imprint, this oddly numbered miniseries (1A&B – 4A&B) is set on the sprawling campus of the Worthington Foundation in Greenwich, Connecticut. This unique academy draws special students from all over the world…

The guy in charge is Professor Magnus whilst Charles Xavier is a biology teacher with an assistant named Jean Grey. The student body is highly polarised: First year students Hank McCoy, Scott Summers, Bobby Drake, Ororo Munroe, Warren Worthington III and the unruly Logan are all good kids.

Magnus’s favoured group (all analogues of the Marvel Universe Hellfire Club and led by telepathic jailbait wild-child Emma Frost) – not to mention his school caretakers Mesmero, Pyro, Toad and Blob – are clearly operating under a hidden agenda and turn all their dubious charms to getting new girl Anna Raven to join their clique. You’ll know her as Rogue and it’s her narrative voice that drives this tale…

Magnus/Magneto is using the school to recruit a homo superior army and Xavier’s plan is to covertly rescue impressionable adolescent mutants before it’s too late. Foiling the villain’s plan to acquire both teleporter Kurt Wagner and Russian Man of Steel Peter Rasputin only leads to greater conflict and the rapidly-maturing kids must ultimately decide once and for all whether they’ll be friends or foes of humanity…

Compacting all the elements of X-lore into a school divided between “goodies” and “baddies” works surprisingly well, as does making all the heroes troubled teens. This oddly engaging blend of The Demon Headmaster and Roswell High – and every latterday young adult yarn with teachers as evil “Thems” – is written with great charm by Artibani and Medda, and whilst the manga style art (reminiscent of many modern animation shows for kids) is a little jarring to my old eyes, it does carry the tale with clarity and effectiveness, aimed as it is at drawing in contemporary readers, not cranky old gits like me.

Still readily available in trade paperback and easily obtainable digital formats, this is a refreshing take on the merry mutants and I’d honestly welcome more of the same. If you’re not too wedded to continuity and could stand a breezy change of pace, why not give this intriguing return to turbulent School Daze a go?
© 2008 Marvel Entertainment, Inc. and its subsidiaries. All Rights Reserved. (A BRITISH EDITION BY PANINI UK LTD)

Spidey volume 2: After-School Special


By Robbie Thompson, André Lima Araújo, Nathan Stockman & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-9676-1 (TPB)

Since its earliest days the publishing company now known as media monolith Marvel always courted the youngest of comicbook consumers. Whether through animated tie-ins and licensed properties such as Terrytoons Comics, Mighty Mouse, Duckula, assorted Hanna-Barbera and Disney licenses and a myriad of others, or original characters such as Millie the Model, Homer the Happy Ghost and Calvin, the House of Ideas always understood the necessity of cultivating the next generation of readers.

These days, however, kids’ interest titles are a tricky balancing act and, with the Marvel Universe’s characters all over screens large and small, the company usually prefers to create child-friendly versions of its own proprietary pantheon in their own playground, making that eventual hoped-for transition to more mature comics and other venues as painless as possible.

In the 1980s-1990s Marvel published an entire line of kiddie titles through its Star Comics line and, in 2003, the company created a Marvel Age line to update and retell classic original tales by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby & Steve Ditko, mixing it in with the remnants of its manga-inspired Tsunami imprint: again, all intended for a younger readership.

The experiment was tweaked in 2005, becoming the Marvel Adventures line, with titles reflecting the most popular characters and whatever was on TV screens at the time. In 2012 these were superseded by specific comicbook titles tied to Disney XD TV shows designated as “Marvel Universe cartoons”.

Today’s featured item – Spidey: After-School Special – is a horse of a different colour: similar but different…

Rather than simply crafting a wallcrawler for younger sensibilities, this iteration – presumably sparked by the teenaged, light-adventure version seen in the Spider-Man: Homecoming movie – innovates and modernizes by once again looking back and superbly succeeds in recapturing a sense of the madcap gaiety that counterbalanced the action and pathos of the earliest Lee/Ditko stories. This series is all about thrills and fun…

Scripted throughout by Robbie Thompson and re-presenting Spidey#7-12 (originally released from August 2016 to January 2017), the non-stop, youngster-appropriate mayhem recommences with a cracking catch-up origin-page illustrated by Nick Bradshaw and colourist Jim Campbell.

Firmly set in The Now, our hero is still and once again a callow schoolboy, fighting crime and making enemies between High School classes. In his off-hours he’s also a crimefighting sensation of the internet and social media whenever he puts on his blue-&-red duds. As ever, news magnate J. Jonah Jameson is there to vilify the webslinger at every opportunity…

Sadly, thanks to the kid’s double life, Peter Parker’s grades – except for science and maths – are tanking now, and the secret superhero is forced to accept Popular Girl Gwen Stacy as a much-needed history tutor. Not only is she the hottest girl in school, but she also decks Flash Thompson with one punch after the jocks starts bullying “Puny” Parker again…

That tricky triangle develops in captivating manner over the next half dozen arachnid escapades, starting with an untitled team-up co-starring African monarch T’Challa the Black Panther and illustrated by André Lima Araújo. Here, the tutoring of classmates is counterbalanced by a spectacular teaching moment as the schoolboy hero stumbles into a subterranean smuggling operation masterminded by the diabolical and unhuman Klaw, Master of Sound…

Peter Parker’s dream “maybe date” with Gwen takes an even-more terrifying turn in ‘Blackout!’ (art by Nathan Stockman) as voltaic villain Electro assaults the city in a deadly but foredoomed attempt to kill Spider-Man. His spectacular trouncing is only slightly mitigated when he is sprung from custody by a band of fellow murderous Arachnophobes…

Peter’s desperate schemes to earn enough cash for Aunt May’s birthday present lead to confrontations with occasional-employer Jameson and all-out war with psycho-stalker Kraven the Hunter in ‘To Catch a Spider’ after which the wallcrawler’s media-created ‘Bad Reputation’ is temporarily redeemed after a dynamic team-up with Captain America against AIM and their lethal leader M.O.D.O.K.

The year-long story arcs detailing the tricky triangle of Gwen, Flash and Peter and the gradual coalition of a new Sinister Six coalesce in ‘Missing Out’ as the kids take their dreaded exams and Spidey attempts to join in a mass battle against Galactus, only to stopped at every stage by a far more important and immediate crisis – such as an unrelenting attack by brainwashed villain Scorpion – before the drama magnificently concludes in the boy hero’s best day ever. Unless, of course, Doctor Octopus, Mysterio, Sandman, Kraven, Electro and the Vulture succeed with their plan in ‘Spidey No More!’

Supplemented with a wealth of behind-the-scenes artwork and illustration secrets from Lima Araújo and Stockman, this is a sublime slice of fun and action, referencing the intoxicating days of Stan Lee & Steve Ditko whilst offering an enthrallingly refreshing reinterpretation of an evergreen heroic icon. Here is an intriguing and more culturally accessible means of introducing character and concepts to kids born two and three generations or more away from those far-distant 1960s originating events. These Spidey super-stories are outrageously enjoyable yarns, and well worth seeking out.
© 2016 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Popeye Classics volume 5

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By Bud Sagendorf, edited and designed by Craig Yoe (Yoe Books/IDW)
ISBN: 978-1-63140-175-6(HB) eISBN: 978-1-62302-720-9

How many cartoon classics can you think of still going after a century? Here’s one…

There are a few fictional personages to enter communal world consciousness – and fewer still from comics – but a grizzled, bluff, uneducated, visually impaired old sailor with a speech impediment is possibly the most well-known of that select bunch.

Elzie Crisler Segar was born in Chester, Illinois on 8th December 1894. His father was a general handyman, and the boy’s early life was filled with the kinds of solid, dependable blue-collar jobs that typified his generation of cartoonists. He worked as a decorator, house-painter and also played drums; accompanying vaudeville acts at the local theatre.

When the town got a movie-house, he played for the silent films, absorbing all the staging, timing and narrative tricks from keen observation of the screen. Those lessons would become his greatest assets as a cartoonist. It was while working as the film projectionist, at age 18, that he decided to become a cartoonist and tell his own stories.

Like so many others in those hard times, he studied art via mail, in this case W.L. Evans’ cartooning correspondence course out of Cleveland, Ohio, before gravitating to Chicago where he was “discovered” by Richard F. Outcault – regarded by most in the know today as the inventor of modern newspaper comic strips with The Yellow Kid and Buster Brown.

The celebrated pioneer introduced Segar around at the prestigious Chicago Herald. Still wet behind the ears, the kid’s first strip, Charley Chaplin’s Comedy Capers, debuted on 12th March 1916.

In 1918, Segar married Myrtle Johnson and moved to William Randolph Hearst’s Chicago Evening American to create Looping the Loop, but Managing Editor William Curley saw a big future for Segar and packed the newlyweds off to New York, HQ of the mighty King Features Syndicate.

Within a year Segar was producing Thimble Theatre, which launched December 19th 1919 in the New York Journal. It was a smart pastiche of cinema and knock-off of movie-inspired features like Hairbreadth Harry and Midget Movies, with a repertory of stock players to act out comedies, melodramas, comedies, crime-stories, chases and especially comedies for vast daily audiences. It didn’t stay that way for long…

The core cartoon cast included parental pillars Nana and Cole Oyl; their lanky, highly-strung daughter Olive, diminutive-but-pushy son Castor and the homely ingenue’s plain and (very) simple occasional boyfriend Horace Hamgravy (latterly, just Ham Gravy).

Segar had been successfully, steadily producing Thimble Theatre for a decade when he introduced a brusque, vulgar “sailor man” into the everyday ongoing saga of hapless halfwits on January 29th 1929. Nobody suspected the giddy heights that stubborn cantankerous walk-on would reach…

In 1924 Segar created a second daily strip The 5:15: a surreal domestic comedy featuring weedy commuter and would-be inventor John Sappo and his formidable wife Myrtle. This one endured – in one form or another – as a topper/footer-feature accompanying the main Sunday page throughout the author’s career. The feature even survived his untimely death, eventually becoming the trainee-playground of Popeye’s second great humour stylist: Bud Sagendorf.

After Segar’s far-too-premature death in 1938, Doc Winner, Tom Sims, Ralph Stein and Bela Zambouly all worked on the strip, even as the Fleischer Studio’s animated features brought Popeye to the entire world, albeit a slightly different vision of the old salt of the funny pages. Sadly, none of them had the eccentric flair and raw inventiveness that had put Thimble Theatre at the forefront of cartoon entertainments. But then, finally, Bud arrived…

Born in 1915, Forrest “Bud” Sagendorf was barely 17 when his sister – who worked in the Santa Monica art store where Segar bought his drawing supplies – introduced the kid to the master cartoonist who became his teacher and employer as well as a father-figure. In 1958, after years on the periphery, Sagendorf finally took over the strip and all the merchandise design, becoming Popeye’s prime originator…

When Sagendorf became the main man, his loose, rangy style and breezy scripts brought the strip itself back to the forefront of popularity and made reading it cool and fun all over again. Bud wrote and drew Popeye in every graphic arena for 24 years and when he died in 1994, he was succeeded by controversial “Underground” cartoonist Bobby London.

Young Bud had been Segar’s assistant and apprentice, and from 1948 onwards was exclusive writer and illustrator of Popeye’s comicbook adventures. These launched in February of that year in a regular monthly title published by America’s unassailable king of periodical licensing, Dell Comics.

When Popeye first appeared, he was a rude, crude brawler: a gambling, cheating, uncivilised ne’er-do-well. He was soon exposed as the ultimate working-class hero: raw and rough-hewn, practical, but with an innate, unshakable sense of what’s fair and what’s not; a joker who wanted kids to be themselves – but not necessarily “good” – and someone who took no guff from anyone…

Naturally, as his popularity grew, Popeye mellowed somewhat. He was still ready to defend the weak and had absolutely no pretensions or aspirations to rise above his fellows, but the shocking sense of dangerous unpredictability and comedic anarchy he initially provided was sorely missed… but not in Sagendorf’s comicbook yarns…

Collected in their entirety in this beguiling full-colour hardback (also available in digital editions) are issues #20-24 of Popeye’s comic book series, produced by the irrepressible Sagendorf and collectively spanning April-June 1952 to April-June 1953.

The stunning, almost stream-of-consciousness slapstick stories are preceded as ever by an effusively appreciative Foreword‘Society of Sagendorks’– by inspired aficionado, historian and publisher Craig Yoe, offering a mirthful mission statement.

Every volume includes a collation or ephemera and merchandise courtesy of the ‘Bud Sagendorf Scrapbook’. Included here are newspaper clippings, ads and assorted trivia such as packaging for candy, toys, stationery, fridge magnets, plates, Dutch newspaper strips & comics covers plus a selection of images from a colouring book.

We rejoin the ceaseless parade of laughs, surreal imagination and thrills with #20 which opens and closes with a prose yarn adorning both inside front and back covers. ‘Big House Bill in “House for Rent”’ reveals how a churlish sea snail is inveigled to join the other molluscs’ games…

Sagendorf was a smart guy who kept abreast of trends and fashions as well as understanding how kids’ minds worked and these tales are timeless in approach and delivery. In the era of rapid television expansion, cowboys were King, with westerns dominating both large and small screens as well as plenty of comics. Thus, many sagas featured Popeye as a horse-riding sagebrush wanderer who ran a desert railroad when he wasn’t prospecting…

The comics kick off with ‘Here Comes the Bride!!’ detailing how the saddle-sore Sailor-Man upsets a lost tribe of Indians and can only end his sea of trouble by marrying the chief’s beautiful daughter. Of course, that assuming his ferociously possessive – and possibly psychic – sweetie-pie Olive doesn’t find him first…

‘Little Kids Should Have Ice Cream! or Swee’ Pea Gets It!’ then pictures the precocious kid pushing the limits of everyone’s patience to score a cold treat, after which back-up feature Sherman sees another bright spark youngster become an inadvertent counterfeiter – and getaway driver – in ‘Rolling Along!’ The issue concludes with a salutary back cover Popeye gag as Swee’ Pea digs a backyard well with catastrophic results…

Issue #21 of the quarterly delight covered July-September 1952 and again offered a Sagendorf illustrated prose yarn on the interior covers: this one detailing how ‘Harry the People Horse’ attempts to assimilate with humanity by wearing clothes…

The comics commence with ‘Interplanetary Battle’ which taps into the era’s other mass obsession: a growing fascination with UFOs. On Earth prize fighter Popeye cannot find an opponent brave enough to face him, so Wimpy innocently seeks to aid his old pal by broadcasting a message to the universe. Sadly, what answers the clarion call is a bizarre, shapeshifting swab with sneaky magic powers…

An engaging Micawber-like coward, cad and conman, the insatiably ravenous J. Wellington Wimpy debuted in the newspaper strip on May 3rd 1931 as an unnamed and decidedly partisan referee in one of Popeye’s pugilistic bouts. The scurrilous yet scrupulously polite oaf struck a chord and Segar gradually made him a fixture. Always hungry, keen to solicit bribes and a cunning coiner of many immortal catchphrases – such as “I would gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today” and “Let’s you and him fight” – Wimpy is the perfect foil for a simple action hero who increasingly stole the entire show… and anything else unless it was extremely well nailed down…

After an unseemly moment of jealousy, Popeye is compelled to take over the redecoration of Olive’s house in ‘Paper and Paste’, but his lack of experience and Wimpy’s assistance soon combine to create the usual chaos after which the back-up feature – now redubbed Sherm – finds the kid in dire straits after leaving his wiener dog Winky alone in the ‘Dog House!’

Proceedings again conclude with a back-cover gag involving Swee’ Pea and eggs…

Another prose ‘Horse Tale’ brackets the interiors of #22 (October-December 1952), detailing a desert steed’s gold prospecting woes before the Old Salt suffers a tragic reversal of fortune during a shortage of his favourite vegetable. Sadly, starting a ‘Spinach Farm’ and making a go of it prove distressingly difficult once Wimpy starts helping…

‘Swee’ Pea’s Vacation!’ then sees the valiant nipper take an eventful voyage to Spinachovia, that shatters the island’s economy and devastates their armed forces, before Sherm takes ‘The Long Way Home!’ in a wry episode incorporating a host of puzzles and mazes to keep reader interest honed and the back cover Popeye gag sees Swee’ Pea become a dirt magnet…

Popeye #23 (January-March 1953) opens and closes with prose tale ‘The Rocket Horse’ detailing a non-consensual trip to Mars, whilst lead strip ‘Boom! Boom! or Pirates is Rodents!’ returns the Sailor-Man to his nautical roots to eradicate scurvy corsairs besmirching his beloved seven seas. His only miscalculation is bringing Olive and Wimpy with him…

His sweety takes centre stage in ‘Ship Shape!’ as she tries to make Popeye and his dad Poopdeck Pappy clean up their scruffy sea-going vessel, whist Sherm indulges in winter sports and a spot of detecting when Pa goes missing in ‘Snow-Father!’, and the issue closes with Popeye and Swee’ Pea disastrously disputing ownership of a dingy in the traditional back-cover vignette.

Closing this vivid and varied volume is #24 (April-June), which begins and ends with text triumph ‘Apple House’ – highlighting a housing crisis for cute maggot Vernon Greentop – before cartoon chaos ensues with ‘Popeye an’ Pappy in Golden Street!’ as the seasoned mariners become western prospectors and the incorrigible elderly reprobate finds gold in the most likely place imaginable, leaving Popeye to fix the mess as usual…

Fantasy reigns supreme in ‘Hole in the Mountain!’ as Popeye & Swee’ Pea discover a fantastic unknown kingdom on a desert island ruled by a perilously familiar tyrant before more puzzles and mazes bedevil automobile-mad Sherm and the readership in ‘The Race!’ The last word again goes to a short sharp back-page gag starring innocent demon Swee’ Pea to wrap up another treasure trove of timeless entertainment…

Outrageous and side-splitting, these all-ages yarns are evergreen examples of surreal narrative cartooning at its most inspirational. Over the last nine decades Thimble Theatre and its most successful son have unfailingly delighted readers and viewers around the world. This book – available in sturdy hardback or accessible eBook formats – is simply one of many but definitely top-tier entertainment for all those who love lunacy, laughter, frantic fantasy and rollicking adventure. If that’s you, add this compendium of wonder to your collection.
Popeye Classics volume 5 © 2014 Gussoni-Yoe Studio, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Popeye © 2014 King Features Syndicate. ™ Heart Holdings Inc.

Daredevil Marvel Masterworks volume 5


By Stan Lee, Roy Thomas, Gene Colan, Barry Windsor-Smith & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-3042-0 (HB)

Matt Murdock is a blind lawyer whose remaining – radioactively enhanced – senses hyper-compensate, make him an astonishing acrobat, formidable fighter and living lie-detector. Very much a second-string hero for his early years, Daredevil was nonetheless a striking and popular one, due in large part to the roster of brilliant artists who illustrated the series. He only really came into his own, however, after artist Gene Colan signed up for the long haul and wunderkind scripter Roy Thomas added an edge of darkness to the swashbuckling derring-do…

Covering July 1968 to June 1969, this tumultuous collection (in both hefty hardback and ephemeral eBook formats) reprints Daredevil #42-53 (plus a surprise comedy bonus), capturing the significant moments and radical shifts in treatment and content as Lee surrendered the scripter’s role to Thomas. Following a fascinating Introduction from Gene Colan, an aura of barely-contained, ever-escalating madness increasingly permeates the soap opera narrative beats, peerlessly pictured by his own astounding illustration – as well as a powerful interlude by a promising British fill-in artist named Barry Smith….

Having killed off his fictitious alter ego twin brother Mike Murdock, Matt briefly considered hanging up his scarlet long-johns but eventually retained his secret other-life by “revealing” to his girlfriend Karen Page and closest friend Franklin “Foggy” Nelson that Mike was only one of a number of Men without Fear in the first part of a prolonged battle with a new nemesis…

‘Nobody Laughs at The Jester!’ (by Lee, Colan and inker Dan Adkins) shows how that Malevolent Mountebank only wants to be more successful as a criminal than he had been as a bit-playing actor, but his motivation changes when crooked mayoral candidate Richard Raleigh hires him to spoil incorruptible Foggys campaign for the position of District Attorney.

The role grew and the mission crept, precipitating a protracted saga which kicks off with a temporarily befuddled DD ‘In Combat with Captain America!’ (inked by Vince Colletta), before Hornhead is framed for killing the Jester’s alter ego Jonathan Powers in #44’s ‘I, Murderer!’

Soundly defeated in combat by the Jester, our hero experiences ‘The Dismal Dregs of Defeat!’ and becomes a wanted fugitive. Following a frenetic police manhunt, DD is finally arrested before snatching victory in the thoroughly enthralling conclusion ‘The Final Jest!’

With this episode, inker extraordinary George Klein began his long and impressive association with the series.

With the Vietnam War raging, a story involving the conflict was inevitable but – thanks in great part to Colan’s personal input – #47’s ‘Brother, Take My Hand!’ was so much more than a quick cash-in or even well-meaning examination of contemporary controversy. Here, Marvel found another strong and admirable African American character (one of far too few in those blinkered times) to add to their growing stable…

Newly-blinded veteran Willie Lincoln turns to Matt Murdock and Daredevil for help on his return home. A disgraced cop framed by gang-boss Biggie Benson before joining the army, Lincoln is now back in America and determined to clear his name at all costs. This gripping, life-affirming crime thriller not only triumphs in Daredevil’s natural milieu of moody urban menace but also sets up a long-running plot that would ultimately change the Man without Fear forever…

The return of Stilt-Man poses little more than a distraction in ‘Farewell to Foggy’, as Matt’s oldest friend wins the race for DA but acrimoniously turns his back on Murdock, seemingly forever….

Lee’s final script on the sightless crusader, ‘Daredevil Drops Out’ (#49), was illustrated by Colan & Klein, depicting Murdock as the target of a robotic assassin built by Mad-Scientist-for-Hire Starr Saxon. This tense, action-packed thriller grew into something very special with second chapter ‘If in Battle I Fall…!’ as neophyte penciller Barry Smith stepped in, ably augmented by veteran inker Johnny Craig. Colan had been shifted to the role of artist on prestigious title The Avengers, but he would soon return…

Lee then left comics-scripting protégé Roy Thomas to finish up for him in ‘Run, Murdock, Run!’ (Daredevil #51, April 1969 with art by Smith & Klein): a wickedly engaging, frantically escalating psychedelic thriller which sees Saxon uncover the hero’s greatest secret after the Man Without Fear succumbs to toxins in his bloodstream and goes berserk.

The saga climaxes in stunning style on ‘The Night of the Panther!’ (Smith & Craig) as African Avenger Black Panther joins the hunt for an out-of-control Daredevil before subsequently helping thwart, if not defeat, the dastardly Saxon.

The radically unsettling ending blew away all the conventions of traditional Fights ‘n’ Tights melodrama and still shocks me today…

Colan & Klein reunited for #53’s ‘As it Was in the Beginning…’ wherein Thomas reprised, revised and expanded Lee & Bill Everett’s origin script from Daredevil #1, allowing the troubled hero to reach a bold decision, which would be executed in #54 – or the next volume to us…

Adding extra value to the proceedings and ending on a comedic note, this enticing tome includes a pertinent parody by Lee & Colan from Marvel’s spoof title Not Brand Echh (#4, November 1967) as Splat Murdock – AKA Scaredevil – endures moments of hilarious existential angst and an identity crisis whilst being ‘Defeated by the Evil Electrico!’, concluding and complimenting a bonanza of bombastic battles tales that are pure Fights ‘n’ Tights magic in the grand Marvel Manner: comic epics no fan of stunning super-heroics can afford to ignore.
© 1968, 1969, 2016 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Eden: It’s an Endless World! volume 1


By Hiroki Endo (Dark Horse)
ISBN: 978-1-59307-406-7 (Dark Horse tankōbon PB) 978-1-84576-487-6 (Titan Books Edition)

Here’s an eerily out-of-print but disturbingly topical series from a decade ago that’s worth tracking down, not just because of its sheer depth and entertainment quality, but also because it now qualifies for a growing subgenre of fiction (retroactively seen in prose, film, TV, comics, documentaries and national/international governmental reports and recommendations) that many people are calling “We Bloody Warned You”…

Despite the truly monumental breadth and variety of manga, I suspect that to western eyes Japanese comics are inextricably and inescapably conflated with science fiction in general and cataclysm in particular. That doesn’t mean they aren’t individually good and worthy of merit and acclaim, just saddled with some unfair presuppositions. With that stated and in mind, any fair reader should sit down to Hiroki (Meltdown, Soft Metal Vampire) Endo’s Eden: It’s An Endless World! and be prepared for a treat. The tale was originally serialised in Kodansha’s Monthly Afternoon between 1998-2008, eventually filling 18 tankōbon volumes.

Elijah Ballard is one of a small group of immunes who have survived a global pandemic named the “Closure Virus”. Most of humanity has been eradicated, and those infected who have survived an initial exposure are doomed to a slow deterioration compelling them to augment their failing bodies with cybernetics simply to survive. Thus, they barely qualify as human by most old standards and definitions…

Pockets of survivors immune to the plague are dotted about the planet and as years pass various factions form to take control of the world. Through a series of flashbacks, we see the immediate aftermath of the plague before jumping twenty years to follow this Ballard’s picaresque ramblings through a devastated South America. Accompanied by a robotic bodyguard, he is eking out a precarious existence when captured – or perhaps adopted – by a rag-tag band of soldiers.

When the world died, political society divided into two camps. The fragmented remnants of the United Nations tried to retain some degree of control but found themselves under attack by Propater, a revolutionary paramilitary organisation that had been planning a world coup even before the virus hit. Global war has raged among the survivors ever since…

Now caught up in this conflict, Elijah realises that his long-missing parents are major players in the new world order and day to day survival is no longer his only concern…

Despite the cyberpunk appurtenances and high-octane pace of the narrative, this is in many senses a very English approach to the End of the World. There are echoes of that other Ballard (J. G.: the author, and regrettably never a comic strip scripter), Aldous Huxley, and even Chapman Pincher. The mature themes presented here aren’t simply nudity and violence – although they are here in an abundance that will satisfy any action manga fan – but also a lyrical philosophy and moral questioning of political doctrine that underpins the text in the manner of much Cold War era science fiction and nothing at all like the majority of contemporary investigative journalism…

Subtly engaging, beautifully illustrated and deftly balancing swift action with introspective mystery, this series will appeal to that literate sector that needs their brains tickled as well as their pulse rates raised.
© 2007 Hiroki Endo. All Rights Reserved.

Showcase Presents Superman Family volume 1


By Otto Binder, Curt Swan & Ray Burnley, Jerry Coleman, Ruben Moreira, Al Plastino, Don Cameron, Ed Dobrotka & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-0787-8 (TPB)

Stress-alleviating Fun is in pretty short supply everywhere these days, but if you’re a comics fan susceptible to charming nostalgia, this item – readily available in paperback, but tragically still not compiled in any digital format yet – might be a remedy for those old Lockdown Blues…

When the blockbusting Man of Tomorrow debuted in Action Comics #1 (June 1938) he was instantly the centre of attention. However, even then the need for a solid supporting cast was apparent and quickly catered to. Glamorous daredevil girl reporter Lois Lane premiered with Clark Kent and was a constant companion and foil from the outset…

Although unnamed, a plucky red-headed, be-freckled kid worked alongside Clark and Lois from Action Comics #6 (November 1938) and was called by his first name from Superman #13 (November-December 1941) onwards. The lad was Jimmy Olsen and he was a major player in The Adventures of Superman radio show from its debut on April 15th 1940: somebody the same age as the target audience in place for the hero to explain stuff to (all for the listener’s benefit) and the closest thing to a sidekick the Man of Tomorrow ever needed…

When the similarly titled television show launched in the autumn of 1952, it became a monolithic hit. National Periodicals thus began tentatively expanding their increasingly valuable franchise with new characters and titles. First up were the gloriously charming, light-hearted escapades of that rash, capable but naïve photographer and “cub reporter” from the Daily Planet. The solo-career of the first spin-off star from the Caped Kryptonian’s ever-expanding entourage began with Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen #1, which launched in 1954 with a September-October cover date.

As the decade progressed, the oh-so-cautious Editors at National/DC tentatively extended the franchise in 1957, just as the Silver Age of Comics was getting underway and it seemed there might be a fresh and sustainable appetite for costumed heroes and their unique brand of spectacular shenanigans. Try-out title Showcase – which had already launched The Flash (#4 & 8) and Challengers of the Unknown (#6-7) – followed up with a brace of issues entitled Superman’s Girl Friend Lois Lane in #9 and 10. Soon after, she won a series of her own – in actuality her second, since for a brief while in the mid-1940s she had her own solo-spot in Superman.

This scintillatingly addictive monochrome tome chronologically re-presents those experimental franchise expansions, encompassing Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen #1-22, (September/October 1954 to August 1957) and Showcase #9 (July/August 1957), plus the very first Lois Lane solo strip (from Superman #28 – May/June 1944) as a welcome bonus.

The vintage all-ages entertainment (courtesy of dedicated creative team Otto Binder, Curt Swan & Ray Burnley) begins with ‘The Boy of 1000 Faces’ in which the ebullient junior journalist displays his phenomenal facility for make-up and disguise to trap a jewel thief before heading to timber country and solving the ‘Case of the Lumberjack Jinx’ and latterly masquerading as ‘The Man of Steel’s Substitute’ to tackle public requests too trivial for his Kryptonian chum.

‘The Flying Jimmy Olsen’ opened the second issue with a daring tale of sheer idiocy as the lad swallows an alien power-potion with staggering disregard for the potential repercussions (a recurring theme of those simpler times) after which ‘The Hide and Seek Mystery’ displays his crime-solving pluck as Jim hunts down more jewel thieves. Then, the boy becomes ‘Jimmy Olsen, Superman’s Ex-Pal’ to expose a cunning conman.

The red-headed rascal became ‘The Boy Millionaire’ in #3 when a wealthy dowager repaid a kind deed with a vast cash reward. Sadly, all that money brought Jimmy was scammers, conmen and murderous trouble. After that he heads to Tumbleweed, USA to cover a rodeo and somehow is (mis)taken for ‘The Fastest Gun in the West’ before meeting the highly suspect eccentric who is ‘The Man Who Collected Excitement’.

‘The Disappearance of Superman’ perplexes Metropolis in #4 until his valiant pal solves the mystery and saves the Caped Kryptonian’s life, whilst – as ‘The Hunted Messenger’ – Jimmy cheats certain death to outwit gangsters before replacing a regal look-alike and playing ‘King for a Day’ in a far off land threatened by a ruthless usurper.

In issue #5, ‘The Boy Olympics’ shares Jimmy’s sentimental side as he risks his job to help young news vendors from a rival paper and is almost replaced by a computer in ‘The Brain of Steel’, before beguiling and capturing a wanted felon with ‘The Story of Superman’s Souvenirs’…

The cutthroat world of stage conjuring finds him competing to become ‘The King of Magic’ in JO #6’s first tale, after which the diminutive lad endures a punishing diet regime – hilariously enforced by Superman – to cover the sports story of the year in ‘Jockey Olsen Rides Star Flash’. The last tale sees Jimmy bravely recovering ‘100 Pieces of Kryptonite’ that fell on Metropolis, rendering Superman helpless and dying…

Jimmy Olsen #7 finds the boy teaching three rich wastrels a life-changing lesson in ‘The Amazing Mirages’, after which a magic carpet whisks him away to write ‘The Scoop of 1869’ before the lad’s boyhood skills enable him to become ‘The King of Marbles’, catching a crook and even more headlines…

In #8, pride in his investigative abilities and a slick conman compel him to uncover his pal’s secret identity in ‘The Betrayal of Superman’, after which he becomes ‘Superboy for a Day’ sort of) and wows the chicks when a sore throat transforms him into ‘Jimmy Olsen, Crooner’. Issue #9 opens with him disastrously switching jobs to become ‘Jimmy Olsen, Cub Inventor’: a TV quiz mastermind in kThe Million-Dollar Question’ and pilot of a prototype Superman robot in ‘The Missile of Steel’.

In #10, the canny lad turns the tables on a greedy hoaxer in ‘Jimmy Olsen’s Martian Pal’ and suffers amnesia in ‘Jimmy Olsen’s Forgotten Adventure’, before going back to nature as ‘Jungle Jimmy Olsen’, whilst the next issue sees him acting – after a stellar accident – as ‘Superman’s Seeing-Eye Dog’; dumping the neglectful and busy Man of Steel for a more appreciative comrade in kJimmy Olsen, Clark Kent’s Pal’ and – accidentally – exposing a corrupt boxing scam as ‘T.N.T. Olsen, the Champ’.

He helps out a circus chum by becoming ‘Jimmy Olsen, Prince of Clowns’ in #12, thereafter uncovering ‘The Secret of Dinosaur Island’ and falling victim to a goofy – or just plain mad – scientist’s bizarre experiment to reluctantly become ‘The Invisible Jimmy Olsen’. In #13 he tracks a swindler via a half dozen namesakes in ‘The Six Jimmy Olsens’ before criminals then targeted the cub reporter’s secret weapon in ‘The Stolen Superman Signal’ and the lad is himself subjected to a cruel but necessary deception when the Metropolis Marvel perpetrates ‘Jimmy Olsen’s Super Illusions’…

Issue #14 opened with a time-travel western tale as the lad instigates ‘The Feats of Chief Super-Duper’, after which a scientific accident seemingly imbues the bold boy with Clark Kent’s personality and creates ‘The Meek Jimmy Olsen’, before the cub is lost in the American wilderness and outrageously mistaken for ‘The Boy Superman’…

JO #15 finds him demoted and at a dog-show where his infallible nose for news quickly uncovers ‘The Mystery of the Canine Champ’, after which an injudiciously swallowed serum gives him super-speed and he reinvents himself as ‘Jimmy Olsen, Speed Demon’. Thereafter, a strange ailment forces him to dispose of his most treasured possessions in kUnwanted Superman Souvenirs’…

A scurrilous scammer in #16 offers to regress the kid’s consciousness and help him re-live ‘The Three Lives of Jimmy Olsen’, before a series of crazy coincidences compel identity-obsessed Clark to convince Lois Lane that Jimmy is ‘The Boy of Steel!’ Yet another chemical concoction then turns the lad into a compulsive fibber… ‘The Super Liar of Metropolis’.

The next thrill-packed issue featured ‘Jimmy Olsen in the 50th Century’ wherein the lad is transported to an era where history has conflated his and Superman’s lives, whilst in ‘The Case of the Cartoon Scoops’, he rediscovers a gift for drawing – and the curse of clairvoyance – before an horrific accident turns him into ‘The Radioactive Boy’…

In #18, humour is king as ‘The Super Safari’ finds young Jim using a “magic” flute to capture animals for a circus, whilst ‘The Riddle Reporter’ sees him lose scoops to a masked mystery journalist before having to nursemaid his best friend when a criminal’s time weapon turns the Man of Steel into ‘Superbaby, Jimmy Olsen’s Pal’…

In #19 ‘The Two Jimmy Olsens’ introduce a robot replica of the cub reporter whilst in ‘The Human Geiger Counter’ the kid becomes allergic to the Action Ace, after which a brain injury convinces him he is ‘Superman’s Kid Brother’. The next issue opened with ‘Jimmy Olsen’s Super-Pet’ as a prized souvenir hatches into a living, breathing dinosaur. Misguided efforts to save a small-town newspaper then culminate in kThe Trial of Jimmy Olsen’, after which Superman secretly makes his pal ‘The Merman of Metropolis’ in a convoluted scheme to preserve his own alter ego.

Issue #21 reveals an unsuspected family skeleton and a curse which seemingly transforms reporter into pirate in ‘The Legend of Greenbeard Olsen’. Ingenuity – and a few gimmicks – then briefly turn him into junior hero ‘Wonder Lad’ whereas plain old arrogance and snooping are responsible for the humiliation resulting from ‘The Wedding of Jimmy Olsen’ to Lois Lane…

A month later, the lady at last starred in her own comicbook when – galvanised by a growing interest in superhero stories – the company’s premiere try-out title pitched a brace of issues focused on the burgeoning Superman family of features.

Showcase #9 (cover-dated July/August 1957) featured Superman’s Girl Friend Lois Lane in a trio of tales by Jerry Coleman, Ruben Moreira & Al Plastino: opening with the seminal yarn ‘The Girl in Superman’s Past’ wherein Lois first meets red-headed hussy Lana Lang, childhood sweetheart of Superboy and a pushy, conniving go-getter out to win Lois’ intended at all costs.

Naturally, Miss Lane invites Miss Lang to stay at her apartment and the grand rivalry was off and running…

‘The New Lois Lane’ sees Lois aggravatingly turn over a new leaf and stop attempting to uncover his secret identity just when Superman actually needs her to do so, before the premier concludes with the concussion-induced day-dream ‘Mrs. Superman’ with Lois imagining a life of domestic wedded super-bliss…

When Lois Lane finally received her own shot at solo stardom, it was sadly very much on the terms of the times. I shamefacedly admit to a deep, nostalgic affection for her bright and breezy, fantastically fun adventures, but as a free-thinking, liberal (notional) adult of the 21st century I’m simultaneously shocked nowadays at the patronising, nigh-misogynistic attitudes underpinning many of the stories.

I’m fully aware these stories were intended for young readers at a time when “dizzy dames” like Lucille Ball or Doris Day played to the popular American gestalt stereotype of Woman as jealous minx, silly goose, diffident wife and brood-hungry nester, but to ask kids to seriously accept that intelligent, courageous, ambitious, ethical and highly capable females would drop everything they’d worked hard for to lie, cheat, inveigle, manipulate and entrap a man just so that they could cook pot-roast and change super-diapers is indisputably crazy, downright insulting and tantamount to child abuse…

Oddly enough, the 1940s interpretation of the plucky news-hen was far less derogatory: Lois might have been ambitious and life-threateningly precipitate, but at least it was to advance her own career and put bad guys away… as seen in the superb 4-page vignette which closes this volume.

Back-up series ‘Lois Lane, Girl Reporter’ debuted in Superman #28 (May/June 1944): a breathless fast-paced screwball comedy-thriller by Don Cameron & Ed Dobrotka wherein the canny lass fails to talk a crazed jumper down from a ledge but saves him in another far more flamboyant manner, reaping the reward of a front page headline.

Before that Golden Age threat, however, there’s one last issue of the junior member of the Superman Family. Jimmy Olsen #22 begins with ‘The Mystery of the Millionaire Hoboes’, as the lad tracks down the reason wealthy men are masquerading as down-and-outs, before exposing the evil secrets behind ‘The Super-Hallucinations’ afflicting the Man of Tomorrow and ending with ‘The Super-Brain of Jimmy Olsen’ wherein resident affable crackpot genius Professor Phineas Potter evolves the boy into a man from 1,000,000AD. That cold, but surely benevolent being has a hidden agenda in play and is able to bend Superman to his hyper-intelligent will…

These spin-off supporting series were highly popular top-sellers for decades: blending action, adventure, broad, wacky comedy, fantasy and science fiction in the gently addictive manner scripter Otto Binder had first perfected a decade previously at Fawcett Comics on the magnificent Captain Marvel and his own myriad mini-universe of associated titles.

As well as containing some of the most delightful episodes of the pre angst-drenched, cosmically catastrophic DC, these fun, thrilling and yes, occasionally deeply moving all-ages stories also perfectly depict the changing mores and tastes which reshaped comics from the safely anodyne 1950s to the seditious, rebellious 1970s, all the while keeping to the prime directive of the industry – “keep them entertained and keep them wanting more”.

I know I certainly do…
© 1944, 1954, 1955, 1956, 1957, 2006 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Wonder Woman: The Twelve Labors


By Martin Pasko, Elliot S. Maggin, Cary Bates, Len Wein, Curt Swan, John Rosenberger, Irv Novick, Dick Dillin, Kurt Schaffenberger, Dick Giordano, Jose Delbo & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-3494-2 (PB)

The Princess of Paradise Island originally debuted as a special feature in All Star Comics #8 (December 1941), conceived by polygraph pioneer William Moulton Marston and illustrated by Harry G. Peter in a calculated attempt to offer girls a positive and forceful role model and – on forward-thinking Editor M.C. Gaines’ part – sell more comic books.

She catapulted into her own series and the cover-spot of new anthology title Sensation Comics a month later. An instant hit, the Amazing Amazon won her own eponymous supplemental title a few months later, cover-dated Summer 1942.

Once upon a time on a hidden island of immortal super-women, American aviator Steve Trevor of US Army Intelligence crashed to Earth. Near death, he was nursed back to health by young, impressionable Princess Diana.

Fearful of her besotted child’s growing obsession with the creature from a long-forgotten and madly violent world, Diana’s mother Queen Hippolyte revealed the hidden history of the Amazons: how they were seduced and betrayed by men but rescued by the goddess Aphrodite on condition that they forever isolated themselves from the mortal world and devoted their eternal lives to becoming ideal, perfect creatures.

However, with the planet in crisis, goddesses Athena and Aphrodite instructed Hippolyte to send an Amazon back with the American to fight for global freedom and liberty. She would be chosen by triumphing over all her sisters in a grand tournament. Although forbidden to compete, Diana clandestinely overcame all other candidates to become their emissary – Wonder Woman.

On arriving in the Land of the Free, she purchased the identity and credentials of lovelorn Army nurse Diana Prince, elegantly allowing the Amazing Amazon to stay close to Steve whilst enabling the heartsick but poverty-stricken care-worker to join her own fiancé in South America. Diana soon gained a position with Army Intelligence as secretary to General Darnell, further ensuring she would always be able to watch over her beloved. She little suspected that, although the painfully shallow Steve only had eyes for the dazzling Amazon superwoman, the General had fallen for the mousy yet supremely competent and capable Lieutenant Prince…

That set up enabled the Star-Spangled Siren to weather the vicissitudes of the notoriously transient comicbook marketplace and survive the end of the Golden Age of costumed heroes along with Superman, Batman and a few lucky second-stringers who inhabited the backs of their titles.

She soldiered on well into the Silver Age revival under the canny auspices of Robert Kanigher, Ross Andru & Mike Esposito, but by 1968 superhero comics were in decline again and publishers sought new ways to keep audiences interested as tastes – and American society – changed.

Back then, the entire industry depended on newsstand sales and if you weren’t popular, you died. Editor Jack Miller & Mike Sekowsky stepped up with a radical proposal and made a little bit of comic book history with the only female superhero to still have her own title in that turbulent marketplace.

The superbly eccentric art of Sekowsky had been a DC mainstay for nearly two decades, and he had also scored big with fans at Gold Key with Man from Uncle and at Tower Comics in T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents and war title Fight the Enemy! His unique take on the Justice League of America had cemented its overwhelming success, and in 1968 he began stretching himself further with a number of experimental, young-adult oriented projects.

Tapping into the teen zeitgeist with Easy Rider style drama Jason’s Quest proved ultimately unsuccessful, but with the Metal Men and the hopelessly outdated and moribund Wonder Woman he had much greater impact. Sekowsky would subsequently work the same magic with equally stalled icon Supergirl

The big change came when the Amazons were compelled to leave our dimension, taking with them all their magic – including Wonder Woman’s powers and all her mystic weaponry. Now no more or less than human, she opted to stay on Earth permanently, assuming her own secret identity of Diana Prince, dedicated to fighting injustice as a mortal, very much in the manner of Emma Peel and Modesty Blaise.

Blind Buddhist monk I Ching rather rapidly trained her as a martial artist, and she soon became embroiled in the schemes of would-be world-conqueror Doctor Cyber. Most shockingly, her beloved Steve was branded a traitor and murdered…

Sekowsky’s root and branch overhaul offered a whole new kind of Wonder Woman, but as I’ve already said fashion ruled and, in a few years, without fanfare or warning, everything that had happened since Wonder Woman lost her powers was unwritten. Her mythical origins were revised and re-established as she returned to a world of immortals, gods, mythical monster and super-villains with a new nemesis: an African (or perhaps Hellenic?) American half-sister named Nubia

Such an abrupt reversal had tongues wagging and heads spinning in fan circles. Had the series offended some shady “higher-ups” who didn’t want controversy or a shake-up of the status quo?

Probably not. Sales were never great even on the Sekowsky run and the most logical reason is probably Television.

The Amazon had been optioned as a series since the days of the Batman TV show in 1967, and by this time (1973) production work had begun on the original 1974 pilot featuring Cathy Lee Crosby. An abrupt return to the character most viewers would be familiar with from their own childhoods seems perfectly logical to me…

By the time Lynda Carter made the concept work in 1975, Wonder Woman was once again “Stronger than Hercules, swifter than Mercury and more beautiful than Aphrodite”…

But as Diana returned to mainstream DC continuity, the readers and fans expected her to fully reintegrate, leading to this early and impressive example of a comics miniseries which ran in Wonder Woman #212 through 222 (cover-dates July 1974 – March 1976), detailing how the Amazing Amazon rejoined the JLA.

Scripter Len Wein and artists Curt Swan & Tex Blaisdell got the ball rolling with ‘The Man Who Mastered Women!’ as our Hellenic Hellion thwarts a terrorist attack at New York’s United Nations building… where Diana Prince now works as a translator. In the aftermath she surprisingly meets old friend Clark Kent.

Over the course of the conversation she realises her memories have been tampered with and suddenly understands why her JLA colleagues haven’t called her to any meetings… She had resigned years ago…

Although her former comrades beg her to re-enlist, she declines, fearing her memory lapses might endanger the team and the world. After much insistent pleading, she relents enough to suggest the League should covertly monitor her next dozen major cases – in the manner of Hercules’ twelve legendary tests – until she proves herself competent and worthy, for her own peace of mind, if not the JLA’s…

Once they grudgingly agree, she leaves and Superman begins the surveillance, observing her flying to Paradise Island in her Invisible Plane. Correctly deducing she has been subjected to Amazonian selective memory manipulation, Diana confronts her mother and learns of her time as a mere mortal… and of Steve’s death.

Although the past has been removed by her well-meaning Amazon sisters, Diana now demands that every recollection excised be returned…

Back in Man’s World, a crisis is already brewing as costumed crazy The Cavalier exerts his uncanny influence over women to control female Heads of State. Ultimately, however, his powers prove ineffectual over Wonder Woman…

As a result of that case, Diana Prince changes jobs, going to work as a troubleshooter for dashing Morgan Tracy at the UN Crisis Bureau, and her first mission isn’t long in coming…

Wonder Woman #213 was crafted by Cary Bates, Irv Novick & Blaisdell, detailing how an alien robot removes all aggression from humanity in one stroke. As the Flash helplessly observes, however, ‘The War-No-More Machine!’ also quashes all bravery, determination, confidence and capability. The species faced imminent – if long and drawn out – extinction.

Happily, Diana, a teenaged girl and a murderous criminal are all somehow immune to the invader’s influence…

Elliot S. Maggin, Swan & Phil Zupa then disclose Green Lantern Hal Jordan’s undercover observations after a lost Amazon gem in unwitting, unscrupulous hands almost starts World War III and the Princess of Power must avert nuclear holocaust triggered by a ‘Wish Upon a Star!’

The superb and vastly undervalued John Rosenberger pencilled Bates’ tale of the ‘Amazon Attack Against Atlantis’ (inked by Vince Colletta) as Aquaman watches Wonder Woman unravel a baroque and barbaric plot by Mars, God of War to set Earth’s two most advanced nations at each throats, after which #216 finds Black Canary uncovering the Amazon Sisterhood’s greatest secret in ‘Paradise in Peril!’ (Maggin, Rosenberger & Colletta).

The tale concerns an obsessed multi-millionaire risking everything – including possibly the collapse of civilisation – to uncover exactly what would happen if a man sets foot upon the hidden Island of the Amazons…

One of Wonder Woman’s oldest foes resurfaces in ‘The Day Time Broke Loose!’ (Maggin, Dick Dillin & Colletta) and Green Arrow is caught in the crossfire as the Duke of Deception attacks the UN with temporally torturous images and hallucinations designed to create madness and death on a global scale.

Produced by Martin Pasko & Kurt Schaffenberger, issue #218 offers two short complete tales. Firstly Red Tornado reports on the ‘Revolt of the Wonder Weapons’ as an influential astrologer uses mind-control techniques to gain power and accidentally undermine Diana’s arsenal, after which The Phantom Stranger stealthily witnesses her foil a mystic plot by sorcerer Felix Faust which animates and enrages the Statue of Liberty in ‘Give Her Liberty – and Give Her Death!’

This was a time when feminism was finally making inroads into American culture and Pasko, Swan & Colletta slyly tipped their hats to the burgeoning movement in a wry and fanciful sci-fi thriller. Thus, WW #219 sees Diana preventing a vile incursion by the dominating males of Xro, a ‘World of Enslaved Women!’, with stretchable sleuth Elongated Man covertly traversing the parallel dimensions in Wonder Woman’s wake.

With the epic endeavour almost ended, scripter Pasko added a patina of mystery to the affair as the Atom watches Diana tackle ‘The Man Who Wiped Out Time!’ Illustrated by Dick Giordano, Wonder Woman #220 found temporal bandit Chronos eradicating New York’s ability to discern time and time pieces: a plot foiled with style and brilliance by the on-form, in-time Power Princess.

The only problem was that during that entire exacting episode Hawkman had been simultaneously watching Diana tackle another potential disaster hundreds of miles away…

The Feathered Fury’s report details how Crisis Bureau operative Diana Prince was targeted by Dr. Cyber and Professor Moon – old enemies from her powerless period – who combine a hunger for vengeance with a plan to steal a UN-controlled chemical weapon in ‘The Fiend with the Face of Glass’ (illustrated by Swan & Colletta).

How she could be in two places simultaneously was revealed by Batman, who wraps up the twelve trials in ‘Will the Real Wonder Woman Please… Stand Up Drop Dead!’ (illustrated by Jose Delbo & Blaisdell), detailing how a beloved children’s entertainment icon has been subverted into a monster feeding off people whilst replacing them with perfect duplicates…

With covers by Bob Oksner, Nick Cardy, Mike Grell, Dick Giordano & Ernie Chan, this is a spectacular slice of pure, uncomplicated, all ages superhero action/adventure starring one of comics’ true all stars.

Stuffed with stunning art and witty, beguiling stories, here is Wonder Woman at her most welcoming in a timeless, pivotal classic of the medium: one that still provides astounding amounts of fun and thrills for anyone interested in a grand old time.
© 1974, 1975, 1976, 2012 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Avengers Marvel Masterworks volume 16

By Steve Englehart, Gerry Conway, Jim Shooter, Scott Edelman, Bill Mantlo, Stan Lee, George Pérez, John Buscema, Sal Buscema, Herb Trimpe, Sal Trapani, Don Heck, George Tuska, Jack Kirby & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-9542-9 (HB)

The Avengers have always proved that putting all one’s star eggs in a single basket pays off big-time: even when all Marvel’s classic all-stars such as Thor, Captain America and Iron Man are absent, it merely allows the team’s lesser lights to shine more brightly.

Of course, all the founding stars were regularly featured due to the rotating, open door policy, which means that every issue includes somebody’s fave-rave – and the boldly grand-scale impressive stories and artwork are no hindrance either. With the team now global icons, let’s look again at the stories which form the foundation of that pre-eminence.

Re-presenting Avengers #150-163, Avengers Annual #6 and Super-Villain Team-Up #9 (spanning August 1976 to September 1977), these stories again see the team in transition. That was a much a result of creative upheaval as narrative exigency – as explained in Gerry Conway’s Introduction When Chaos was King – detailing a time of editorial turbulence at Marvel. Times were changing for the company which would soon become a plaything for relentless corporate forces…

In the simple world of goodies and baddies, however, #150 saw an official changing of the guard in ‘Avengers Assemble’ by Steve Englehart, George Pérez, John Tartaglione & Duffy Vohland. The anniversary epic was supplemented part-way through by half of ‘The Old Order Changeth!’ (reprinted from Avengers #16 by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby & Dick Ayers) as it settled the membership drive question begun way back in #137. It made way for new scripter Conway in #151 whose ‘At Last: The Decision’ (with additional scripting by Jim Shooter & Englehart and art from Pérez & Tartaglione) set the group off on new, less cosmic adventures.

No sooner had the long-delayed announcement been made, though, than a mysterious crate disgorges the long-dead body of Wonder Man who shockingly shambles to his feet and accuses the stunned android Vision of stealing his mind…

Long ago, Simon Williams had been turned into a human powerhouse by arch-villain Baron Zemo and used as a Trojan horse to infiltrate the team. He eventually turned on his monstrous creator, giving his life to redeem himself. After he was buried, Williams’ brain patterns were used to provide an operating system for The Vision, inadvertently creating a unique human personality for the cold thing of plastic, wires and metal…

In #152 ‘Nightmare in New Orleans!’ kicks the simmering saga into high gear as the team start hunting for Wonder Man’s grave robber/re-animator, in a tale by Conway, John Buscema & Joe Sinnott which soon finds the team facing voodoo lord Black Talon in New Orleans…

‘Home is the Hero!’ then reintroduces 1940 Marvel sensation Bob Frank (AKA former Invader The Whizzer). In a tragic tale of desperation, the aged speedster seeks the heroes’ help before he is seemingly possessed and attacks the team…

Avengers Annual #6 reveals why, and answers all the meandering mysteries, wrapping up the storyline with ‘No Final Victory’ (illustrated by Pérez, Mike Esposito, Tartaglione & Vohland), as a conspiracy involving the Serpent-helmed Living Laser, Whizzer’s government-abducted mutant son Nuklo and rogue US Army General Pollock almost succeeds in conquering California, if not America – at least until the resurgent Avengers lay down the law…

Also included in the annual – and here – is by Scott Edelman & Herb Trimpe’s ‘Night Vision’: a stirring solo story of the Android Avenger battling super swift psychopath Whirlwind.

In Avengers #154, Conway, Pérez & Pablo Marcos begin a blockbuster battle bonanza which was in part a crossover with Super-Villain Team-Up. That series followed the uneasy coalition of Dr. Doom and Namor the Sub-Mariner, and this initial chapter ‘When Strikes Attuma?’ finds the Vision captured by subsea barbarian Attuma even as Earth’s Mightiest Heroes are ambushed and defeated by the warlord’s augmented Atlantean thrall Tyrak the Treacherous. The scheme is simple enough: use the enslaved surface champions as cannon fodder in an assault against Namor…

At this time, US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger had recently signed a non-aggression pact with the Dictator of Latveria, with Doom subsequently blackmailing the Sub-Mariner into serving as his unwilling ally. One American vigilante observed no such legal or diplomatic niceties. The Shroud thought he had freed the Atlantean from his vow by “killing” Doom, but the villain had survived the assault: rescued and secretly imprisoned by Sub-Mariner’s cousin Namorita and alien girlfriend Tamara under the misguided apprehension that they could force the Metal-shod Monarch into helping Atlantis and their lost Prince.

Simple, no?

SVT-U #9 expanded on the epic encounter with the heroes now ‘Pawns of Attuma’ (scripted by Bill Mantlo, with art by Jim Shooter & Sal Trapani). As the Avengers are unleashed upon the Atlanteans, they discover Doom is now in charge and easily able to thwart their half-hearted assault. In Avengers #155 (Conway Pérez & Marcos), the beaten heroes are abjectly enslaved, leaving only confused, despondent and battle-crazed Namor ‘To Stand Alone!’ Before long, though, he is joined by lone stragglers the Beast, Whizzer and Wonder Man to hunt down the triumphant barbarian sea lord.

The epic conclusion comes in ‘The Private War of Doctor Doom!’ (Avengers #156, by Shooter, illustrated by Sal Buscema & Marcos) wherein the liberated and furious heroes join forces to crush Attuma whilst simultaneously preventing Doom from turning the situation to his own world-conquering advantage…

A change of pace begins in #157 as kA Ghost of Stone!’ (Conway, Don Heck & Marcos) addresses a long-unresolved mystery. As seen in the Avengers/Defenders war, the Black Knight’s body had been petrified whilst his soul was trapped in the 12th century, but now a strange force reanimates the statue and sets it upon the weary heroes, after which ‘When Avengers Clash!!’ (Shooter, Sal Buscema & Marcos) sees the revived, restored, compos mentis and now fully-recovered Wonder Man clash with an impossibly jealous Vision over the Scarlet Witch.

That Wanda loves the android Avenger is seemingly forgotten as his “borrowed” brain patterns fixate on the logical assumption that eventually his flesh-and-blood wife will gravitate to a “normal” man with his personality rather than stay married to a mere mobile mechanism…

Domestic tantrums are quickly laid aside when the entire team – plus late arrivals Black Panther and Thor) battle research scientist Frank Hall following a lab-accident which grants him complete control over the forces of gravity…

Apparently unstoppable, Graviton almost destroys New York in #159 as the ‘Siege by Stealth and Storm!’ (Shooter, Sal B & Marcos) results in a savage clash and the unbeatable villain defeating himself…

Avengers #160 spotlights Eric Williams, the deranged Grim Reaper. With portentous hints of a hidden backer and his dead brother seemingly returned, he conducts ‘…The Trial!’ (Shooter, Pérez & Marcos) to see whether Wonder Man or the Vision is the “true” Simon Williams… but doesn’t like the answer he gets…

The next issue extends the sub-plot as ‘Beware the Ant-Man’ finds the team attacked by a frenzied Henry Pym, whose mind has somehow regressed to mere days after the Avengers first formed. The crazed hero has allied with the homicidal robot he no longer remembers creating and is unwittingly helping it build ‘The Bride of Ultron!’ (#162): pitifully oblivious that for the almost completed Jocasta to live his own wife Janet has to die…

At the close, the Avengers believe they have finally destroyed the murderous mechanoid, but yet again they are wrong…

This classic collection of costumed clashes closes with Shooter, George Tuska & Marcos’ stand-alone tale ‘The Demi-God Must Die!’, wherein mythological maniac Typhon returns to capture the team. Despite forcing Iron Man to attack Hercules to save his imperilled Avenging comrades – and even after lots of spectacular smashing – the scheme naturally fails and the World’s Mightiest are triumphant again…

Available in hardback and digital iterations, and supplemented by contemporary House Ads and an original art gallery by Pérez and John Buscema, this archival tome and this type of heroic adventure might not be to every reader’s taste but these – and the truly epic yarns that followed – set the tone for fantastic Fights ‘n’ Tights dramas for decades to come and can still boggle the mind and take the breath away, even here in the quietly isolated and no less dangerous 21st century…

No lovers of Costumed Dramas can afford to ignore this superbly bombastic book, and fans who think themselves above superhero stories might also be pleasantly surprised…
© 1976, 1977 2016 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Usagi Yojmbo: Yokai


By Stan Sakai (Dark Horse)
ISBN: 978-1-59582-362-5 (HB)

One of the very best and most adaptable survivors of the 1980s black-&-white comic book explosion/implosion is a truly bizarre and wonderful synthesis of historical Japanese samurai fiction and anthropomorphic animal adventure, as well as a perfect example of the versatility and strengths of a creator-owned character.

Usagi Yojimbo (which translates as “rabbit bodyguard”) first appeared as a background character in multi-talented Stan Sakai’s peripatetic anthropomorphic comedy feature The Adventures of Nilson Groundthumper and Hermy, which launched in 1984’s furry ‘n’ fuzzy folk anthology Albedo Anthropomorphics #1. The shaggy samurai subsequently appeared there on his own terms, as well as in Amazing Heroes, Furrlough and the Munden’s Bar back-up strips in Grimjack. The Lepine Legend also appeared in Albedo #2-4, The Doomsday Squad #3 and seven issues of Critters (#1, 3, 6-7, 10-11 and 14) before leaping into his own series…

Sakai is almost as widely-travelled and far-ranging as his signature creation. He was born in 1953 in Kyoto, Japan before the family emigrated to Hawaii in 1955. He attended University of Hawaii, graduating with a BA in Fine Arts, and pursued further studies at Pasadena’s Art Center College of Design after moving to California.

His first comics work was as a letterer, most famously for the inimitable Groo the Wanderer, before his nimble pens and brushes – coupled with a love of Japanese history and legend and hearty interest in the filmic works of Akira Kurosawa and his peers – combined to turn a proposed story about a historical human hero into one of the most enticing and impressive – and astoundingly authentic – fantasy sagas of all time.

The deliciously rambling and expansive period fantasy series is nominally set in a world of sentient animals and specifically references the Edo Period of Feudal Japan (how did we cloth-eared Westerners ever get “Japan” from Nihon” anyway?) as well as classic cultural icons as varied as Lone Wolf and Cub, Zatoichi and even Godzilla, by way of detailing the exploits of Ronin (masterless, wandering freelance Samurai) Miyamoto Usagi, whose fate is to be drawn constantly into a plethora of incredible situations.

And yes, he’s a rabbit – a brave, sentimental, indomitable, gentle, long-suffering, honourable, conscientious and heroic bunny who cannot turn down any request for help…
The Sublime Swordsbun has changed publishers a few times but has been in continuous publication since 1987 – with dozens of graphic novel collections to date – and has guest-starred in numerous other series, such as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and its TV incarnation. There are high-end collectibles, art prints, computer games and RPGs, a spin-off sci fi comics serial and lots of toys, and he even almost made it into his own small-screen show, but there’s still time yet and fashions can revive as quickly as they die out…

Sakai and his creation have won numerous awards both within the Comics community and amongst the greater reading public and in 2009 Dark Horse Comics commissioned an all-new, fully painted Silver Anniversary tale to celebrate 25 stunning years, which allowed the creator to hone his considerable skills with watercolours…

Yokai is a generic term that translates (as required) as ghosts, phantoms, spirits or even strange, otherworldly apparitions, all of whom hold a peculiarly eclectic place in Japanese folklore, being simultaneously mischievous and helpful, malevolent and miraculously beneficial. Generally, they have animal heads or are amalgams of diverse objects or body parts…

This scintillating scary story occurs over one night – an Oborozuki-Yo (“Night of the Hazy Moon”) – when Yokai are particularly restless, and this is a tale that grippingly explores the Japanese equivalent of our Halloween as the noble, gloom-shrouded Rabbit Ronin wanders lonely roads in search of a bite to eat and a place to sleep.

Seeing a light in the nearby woods, Miyamoto leaves the path, hoping to find a welcoming peasant hearth for the evening but is harassed by a taunting Kitsune (trickster-fox spirit) and becomes lost. Soon, however, he hears sobbing and is drawn to a weeping noblewoman…

The lovely distressed lady is Fujimoto Harumi whose pilgrimage to a temple was disrupted when a Kitsune stole her young daughter Hanako away. Pleading with the wisely reluctant Ronin, the lady convinces the wayfarer to plunge deeper into the wild woods to rescue the lost girl, leading to an epic series of contests against a horde of fantastic hostile creatures. The valiant warrior almost succumbs until he is unexpectedly saved by an old comrade, the mystic demon-queller Sasuke

It seems that this very evening is the dreaded Hyakki Yako, “Night Parade of a Hundred Demons”, when haunts and horrors of the netherworld form a procession into the world of people, seeking to subjugate all mortals. They simply need a living soul to lead them, a final sacrifice to light their way here…

Terrified for the stolen waif, Ronin and devil-slayer engage with an army of horrific, shape-shifting, fire-spitting, tentacle-wielding monstrosities to save an innocent and the entire world, but there are forces in play that the rapidly-tiring Miyamoto is painfully unaware of, and without the luck of the gods and the tragedy of an old friend, all will be inescapably lost…

Fast-paced yet lyrical, funny, thrilling and stuffed with spooky, all-ages action and excitement, Yokai is a magical tribute to and celebration of the long-lived Lepus’ nigh-universal irresistible appeal that will delight devotees and make converts of the most hardened hater of “funny animal” stories. This petite but power-packed chronicle – available in sturdy hardback and ethereal digital editions – also contains a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at how the artist created the stunning visuals in ‘The Real Magic Behind Yokai: an interview with Stan Sakai’ that will further beguile any prospective creators and cartooning hopefuls in the audience.

Sheer comicbook poetry, this is book to revisit time and time again…
Text and illustrations © 2009 Stan Sakai. All rights reserved.