Bluecoats volume 1: Robertsonville Prison

By Lambil & Raoul Cauvin, translated by Erica Jeffrey (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-905460-71-7

The mythology of the American West has never been better loved or more honourably treated than by Europeans. Hergé was a passionate devotee, and the range of incredible comics material from Tex Willer to Blueberry, Yakari to Lucky Luke display over and over again our fascination with all aspects of that legendary time and place.

Les Tuniques Bleues or Bluecoats began at the end of the 1960s, visually created by Louis “Salvé” Salvérius and scripted by Raoul Colvin – who has also written the succeeding 62 volumes of this much-loved Belgian comedy western series. The strip was created on the fly to replace the aforementioned Lucky Luke when the gunslinger defected from prominent weekly anthology Le Journal de Spirou to rival comic Pilote, and is one of the most popular series on the Continent.

After its initial run, Bluecoats graduated to the collected album format (published by French publishing powerhouse Dupuis) that we’re all so familiar with in Un chariot dans l’OuestA Wagon in the West – in 1972).

Salvé was an artist proficient in the Gallic style of big-foot/big-nose humour cartooning, and when he died suddenly in 1972 his replacement Willy “Lambil” Lambillotte gradually leavened the previous broad style with a more realistic – but still comedic – illustrative manner. Lambil is Belgian, born in 1936, and after studying Fine Art, joined Dupuis as a letterer in 1952.

In 1959 he created Sandy – about an Australian teen and a kangaroo – later self-parodying it and himself with Hobby and Koala and Panty et son kangaroo as well as creating the comics industry satire ‘Pauvre Lampil’.

Belgian writer Raoul Cauvin was born in 1938 and, after studying Lithography joined Dupuis’ animation department in 1960. His glittering and prolific writing career began soon after. Almost exclusively a humourist and always for Le Journal de Spirou, other than Bluecoats he has written at least 22 other long-running and award-winning series – more than 240 separate albums. Bluecoats alone has sold in the region of 20 million copies.

The protagonists are Sergeant Cornelius Chesterfield and Corporal Blutch, a hopeless double act of buffoons in the manner of Laurel and Hardy, or perhaps Abbot & Costello or our own Morecambe & Wise: two hapless and ill-starred cavalrymen posted to the wilds of the arid frontier.

The first strips were single-page gags based around an Indian-plagued Wild West fort but with the second volume Du Nord au Sud (North and South) the sorry soldiers went back East to fight in the American Civil War (this scenario was retconned in the 18th album Blue retro which described how the everyman chumps were first drafted into the military).

All subsequent adventures, although ranging all over the planet and taking in a lot of genuine and thoroughly researched history, are set within that tragic conflict.

Blutch is your average little man in the street: work-shy, reluctant and ever-critical of the army – especially his inept commanders. Ducking, diving, deserting when he can, he’s you or me – except sometimes he’s quite smart and heroic if no other easier option is available. Chesterfield is a big man, a career soldier, who has bought into all the patriotism and esprit de corps. He is brave, never shirks his duty and wants to be a hero. He also loves his cynical little pal. They quarrel like a married couple, fight like brothers and simply cannot agree on the point and purpose of the horrendous war they are trapped in…

Robertsonville Prison, the first release in the series from Cinebooks, is actually the sixth French volume. Available in paperback and digital formats, it’s loosely based on the actual Confederate-run Andersonville Prison compound in Georgia. It finds the irascible, inseparable pair captured after a calamitous battle and interned with many other Union soldiers. However, these two aren’t prepared to stay put – albeit for vastly differing reasons – and a series of increasingly bold and bonkers escape ploys eventually result in a crazy but appropriate reversal of fortunes…

The secret to the unbelievable success of Les Tuniques Bleues is that it is an anti-war comedy like M.A.S.H. or Catch 22, cleverly pitched at a young and less cynical audience. Historically authentic, uncompromising in terms of portrayed violence but always in good taste, the attitudes expressed by our oafish, down-to-earth anti-heroes never make glorious war anything but arrant folly and, like the hilarious yet insanely tragic war memoirs of Spike Milligan, these are comedic tales whose very humour makes the occasional moments of shocking verity doubly powerful and hard-hitting.

Fun, informative, beautifully realised and tellingly worthy, Bluecoats is the kind of battle book that any parent would be happy to let their children read – if they can bear to let go of it themselves…
© Dupuis 1975 by Lambil & Cauvin. English edition © 2008 Cinebook Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

Papyrus volume 2: Imhotep’s Transformation

By Lucien De Geiter, coloured by Colette De Geiter: translated by Luke Spear (Cinebooks)
ISBN: 978-1- 905460-50-2

Once you get a certain taste in your mind you just can’t stop – well I can’t – so here’s another all-ages Euro-classic saga just not available through American funnybooks these days – although you can now get it digitally…

British and European comics have always been happier with historical strips than our cousins across the pond (a pugnacious part of me wants to say that’s because we have so much more past to play with – and yes, I know they’re responsible for Prince Valiant, but it’s an exception, not a rule) and our Franco-Belgian brethren in particular have made an astonishing art form out of days gone by.

The happy combination of past lives and world-changing events blended with drama, action and especially broad humour has resulted in a genre uniquely suited to beguiling readers of all ages and tastes. Don’t take my word for it – just check out Asterix, Adèle Blanc-Sec, The Towers of Bois-Maury, Iznogoud or Thorgal to name the merest few which have made it into English, or even our own much missed classics such as Olac the Gladiator, Dick Turpin, Heros the Spartan or Wrath of the Gods …all long overdue for collection in mass market album form and on the interweb-tubes….

Papyrus is the spectacular magnum opus of Belgian cartoonist Lucien de Gieter. It began in 1974 in the legendary weekly Le Journal de Spirou, running to 35 albums, plus a wealth of merchandise, a television cartoon show and a video game.

The plucky “fellah” (look it up) was blessed by the gods and gifted with a magic sword courtesy of the daughter of crocodile-headed Sobek. His original brief was to free supreme Horus from imprisonment in the Black Pyramid of Ombos and thereby restore peace to the Two Kingdoms. More immediately however the lad was also charged with protecting Pharaoh’s wilful and high-handed daughter Theti-Cheri – a princess with an unmatchable talent for finding trouble…

De Gieter was born in 1932 and, studied at Saint-Luc Art Institute in Brussels, before going into industrial design and interior decorating. He made the logical jump into sequential narrative in 1961, first through ‘mini-récits’ inserts (fold-in, half-sized-booklets) for Spirou, of his jovial little cowboy Pony, and later by writing for established regulars as Kiko, Jem, Eddy Ryssack and Francis.

He then joined Peyo’s studio as inker on Les Schtroumpfs – AKA The Smurfs – and took over the long-running newspaper strip Poussy.

In the mid-1960s he created South Seas mermaid fantasy Tôôôt et Puit even as Pony was promoted to the full-sized pages of Spirou, so De Gieter deep-sixed his Smurfs gig to expand his horizons producing work for Le Journal de Tintin and Le Journal de Mickey.

From 1972-1974 he assisted cartooning legend Berck on Mischa for Germany’s Primo, whilst putting the finishing touches to his new project. This creation would occupy his full attention – and delight millions of fervent fans – for the next 40 years.

The annals of Papyrus encompass a huge range of themes and milieus: blending boys-own adventure with historical fiction and interventionist mythology, gradually evolving from traditionally appealing “Bigfoot” cartoon content towards a more realistic, dramatic and authentic iteration. Throughout, these light fantasy romps depict a fearlessly forthright boy fisherman favoured by the gods as a hero of Egypt and friend to Pharaohs.

Imhotep’s Transformation was the second Cinebook translation (and 8th yarn, originally released in 1985 as La Métamorphose d’Imhotep): opening with our hero and his one-legged friend Imhotep (no relation) paddling a canoe through the marshes of the Nile.

The peaceful idyll is wrecked when Theti-Cheri and her handmaidens hurtle by in their flashy boat, but the boys don’t mind as they have a message for the princess.

The new holy statue of her father has arrived from the Priests of Memphis and the daughter of Heaven is required at the ceremony to install it at the pyramid of Saqqara before the annual “Heb Sed” King’s Jubilee.

As the girls and boys race back, an old peasant is attacked by a crocodile. Diving after him, Papyrus wrestles the reptile away and is about to kill it when Sobek appears, beseeching him to spare it.

On the surface Theti-Cheri and her attendants are ministering to the aged victim and the princess can’t help noticing how he bears an uncanny resemblance to her dad…

By the time they all reach the pyramid, the monumental task of hauling the statue into place is well under way, but suddenly blood begins pouring out of the monolith’s eyes. Terrified workers panic and the colossal effigy slips, crashing to destruction. The populace are aghast and murmurs of curses and ill omens abound…

Rather than running away, Imhotep heads for the rubble and discovers the statue’s head is hollow. Moreover, inside there is a dead dwarf and a smashed flask which had held blood…

Papyrus is in the royal compound where the recent events have blighted the anticipation of the court. During Heb Sed, the Pharaoh has to run around the sacred pyramid three times and fire his bow at the four corners of the kingdoms to prove his fitness to rule, but now it appears the gods have turned against their chosen emissary on Earth…

Papyrus is not so sure and when he tries to speak to a royal server the man bolts. Giving chase, the lad is in time to prevent the attendant’s murder, but not his escape.

And then a cry goes up: Pharaoh has been poisoned…

Knowing there is no love lost between the Memphis Priests of Ptah and the loyal Theban clerics doctoring the fallen king, Papyrus warns of a possible plot, but has no proof. What is worse, Chepseska, leader of the Memphis faction, is of royal blood too and will inherit if Pharaoh is unable to complete the Heb Sed ritual…

As loyal physicians and priests struggle to save their overlord’s life, Theti-Cheri remembers the old man in the swamp. If only the crocodile bite has not left him too weak to run…

The doughty dotard is willing to try and also knows of a wise woman whose knowledge of herbs can cure Pharaoh, but ruthless Chepseska is on to the kids’ ploy and dispatches a band of killers to stop Papyrus and Imhotep.

The gods, however, are behind the brave lads and after the assassins fall to the ghastly judgement of Sobek, the boys rush an antidote back to Saqqara, only to fall into the lost tomb of Great Imhotep, first Pharaoh, builder-god and divine lord of the Ibis.

With time running out for his distant descendent, the resurrected ruler rouses himself to administer justice for Egypt and inflict the punishment of the gods upon the usurpers…

This is an amazing exploit to thrill and astound fans of fantastic fantasy and bombastic adventure. Papyrus is a brilliant addition to the family-friendly pantheon of continental champions who marry heroism and humour with wit and charm, and anybody who has worn out those Tintin or Asterix volumes would be wise beyond their years in acquiring these classic chronicles tales.

…And Cinebook would be smart to keep on translating these magical yarns, too…
© Dupuis, 1985 by De Gieter. All rights reserved. English translation © 2008 Cinebook Ltd.

Blade of the Immortal volume 1: Blood of a Thousand

By Hiroaki Samura translated by Dana Lewis & Toren Smith (Dark Horse)
ISBN: 978-1-56971-239-9

Born in Chiba Prefecture in 1970, manga master Hiroaki Samura differs from many of his contemporary colleagues in that he actually pursued classical art training before abandoning oil paints and easels for the monochrome freedom and easy license of the “whimsical drawings” industry.

He was, however, plucked from college in the early 1990s before finishing his degree, to find huge success creating the astonishing fantasy saga Mugen no Jūnin (The Inhabitant of Infinity) for Seinen magazine Afternoon.

The series ran from June 25th 1993 to December 25th 2012, a total of 30 volumes which spectacularly blended ubiquitous Samurai comics themes and scenarios with vengeful supernatural plots, political intrigues, existential philosophy and punk-era nihilism. Its driven, murderously efficient antihero constantly deployed his outrageously eccentric arsenal of fanciful edged weapons, whilst pondering the merits of salvation and the meaning and point of living too long…

The series was picked by Dark Horse in 1996 and released as Blade of the Immortal, first as a monthly comicbook series (the first six issues of which comprise this monochrome masterpiece) and, from 2007 onwards, exclusively in collected graphic novel editions. These days you can take the creative anachronism one step beyond and enjoy the high-energy antics in digital fashion…

One note of caution for purists: the series’ dialogue is written in an updated, quirkily moderne literary style which strives for emotional veracity rather than (faux) period authenticity, so it might all be a little disconcerting at first…

Set in middle of the Tokugawa Shogunate (between 1600 and 1868 CE), this first sublimely engaging volume opens with ‘About the Translation’ – a prose section explaining the translation process and the symbology of the piece – before the graphic miracles begin with ‘Prologue: Criminal’; introducing debased and unsavoury ronin Manji: one-eyed outlaw and weary killer looking for peace and redemption in all the wrong places…

The “Slayer of 100 Good Men” – including his own peacekeeper brother-in-law – Manji is currently stalking Gyobutsu “Johnny”: a mass-murderer who kills his victims whilst disguised as a priest.

When a cunning trap goes wrong, the debased ronin manfully ignores a pistol shot through his brain to finish his sacrilegious quarry.

This ronin is no longer as other men. There are worms in his head, and as they knit his inexplicably non-fatal wound back together, Manji broods.

In his despicable past he was a cheap sell-sword who killed as he pleased. When his misdeeds brought him into conflict with his “cop” brother-in-law he simply butchered him. The shock drove his sister Machi mad.

She was the only thing Manji ever cared about…

Yaobikuni has no problem with living forever – she won’t die until she’s saved every soul in Japan – and when the unkillable reprobate again meets the 800-year old nun who inflicted on him the sacred Kessen-chu bloodworms which can heal any hurt, she draws him into the old pointless discussion about salvation.

Yaobikuni urges him to give up the sword, but all he wants to do is die….

Even if he could, it’s no longer an option now that he has to care for his grievously damaged sister Machi…

The problem is savagely solved when the vengeful brother and 20-strong gang of “Johnny” abduct her, determined to make her murderous brother pay emotionally and physically for the death of their leader.

Manji’s botched rescue attempt leaves him triumphant above a sea of corpses and utterly alone in the world…

Pushed too far, he finds Yaobikuni and offers her a deal: if he kills one thousand truly evil men, she must remove the Kessen-chu and let Manji rest at last.

Despite misgivings that he’s just found another way to keep on killing, the nun agrees…

‘Conquest’ debuts young Rin, whose father Asano was targeted for slaughter by a merciless gang of anarchist thugs calling themselves the Ittō-ryū.

Long ago, the grandfather of their leader Anotsu Kagehisa had been shamefully and unjustly expelled from Asano’s Mutenichi-ryū fencing dojo, and the grandson resolved to destroy all such schools and the socially stratified, arrogantly smug advocates of privilege who populate them.

Gathering an army of similarly aggrieved, like-minded rebels and outcasts, Anotsu murdered many Swords-masters: destroying their legacies and accumulating a powerful army before seeking his ultimate triumph over a despised ancestral enemy…

After ending Rin’s father, Anotsu gave her mother O-Toki to his men, but told them to leave the little girl alone.

Rin never saw her mother again and now, aged sixteen, the last sword of the Mutenichi- ryū School is in the metropolis of Edo looking for payback. What she finds is a jolly little nun who suggests she seek out a maimed-and-mangy, mean-looking ronin to act as her bodyguard…

They don’t hit it off. Manji is condescending and patronising and wants her to prove her contention that members of Ittō-ryū are genuinely evil before he subtracts them from his target tally of 1000 human monsters…

Reaching an agreement of sorts, the pair join forces, unaware that Rin has been followed by Anotsu’s macabre lieutenant Kuroi Sabato. The deranged psycho-poet has been sending taunting verses to the girl ever since that fateful night, whilst secretly treasuring his macabre keepsake of her mother O-Toki all these lonely years…

Now he’s ready for Rin to complete a ghastly set of horrific personalised trophies, but the satanic stalker has never met – or killed – anyone like Manji before…

The eerie epic closes here with ‘Genius’ wherein the decidedly odd couple seek aid and assistance from an old friend of Rin’s father. Retired samurai Sōri has dedicated his remaining years to becoming an artist, but still struggles to master the tricky discipline of “sword-painting”.

The uncouth Manji can barely contain his scornful taunts, especially as the artist seems unwilling to assist a lady in distress, apparently far more concerned with the trivial problem that he can never get the reds right in his compositions…

Of course, the revenant ronin has no idea that once Sōri was the Shogun’s Ninja …

More of Anotsu’s psycho-killer goons have followed Rin and Manji to the painter’s lodgings however, looking for the blade-wielding girl genius who killed the lethally adept Kuroi. When they attack the sleeping Rin, they soon discover to their everlasting regret the mettle of her new allies…

In the stillness after the slaughter, Rin and Manji move on to continue their vendetta against the Ittō-ryū, but Sōri regretfully remains behind to pursue his art. At least now he knows what pigments suit him best…

‘An Interview with Hiroaki Samura’ and a selection of cover illustrations from the comicbook iteration complete this viscerally brutal, staggeringly beguiling first volume of mythic martial mastery…

Although crafting other works such as the western Emerald, romantic comedies, erotic works and horror stories such as Night of the Succubus and Bradherley’s Coach, Blade of the Immortal is unquestionably Mr. Samura’s signature creation and a truly unparalleled delight for fans of not just manga but for all lovers of dark fantasy.
© 1996, 1997 Hiroaki Samura. All rights reserved. English translation rights arranged through Kodansha Ltd. New and adapted artwork & text © 1996, 1997 Studio Proteus and Dark Horse Comics Inc. All other material © 2000 Dark Horse Comics Inc. All rights reserved.

The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood of Great Renown in Nottinghamshire

By Howard Pyle, illustrated by Mike Grell (Donning/Starblaze edition)
ISBN: 978-0-89865-602-2 (TPB)

People who work in comics adore their earliest influences, and will spout for hours about them. Not only did they initially fire the young imagination and spark the drive to create but they always provide the creative yardstick by which a writer or artist measures their own achievements and worth.

Books, comics, posters, even gum cards (which mysteriously mutated into “Trading Cards” in the 1990s) all fed the colossal hungry Art-sponge which was the developing brain of the kids who make comics.

But by the 1970s an odd phenomenon was increasingly apparent. New talent coming into the industry was increasingly and overwhelmingly only aware of only comicbooks as a source of pictorial fuel. The great illustrators and storytellers who had inspired the likes of Howard Chaykin, Bernie Wrightson, Mike Kaluta, P. Craig Russell, Charles Vess, Mike Grell, and a host of other top professionals were virtually unknown to many youngsters and aspirants.

I suspect the reason for this was the decline of illustrated fiction in magazines – and of magazines in general. Photographs became a cheaper option than artwork in the late 1960s and generally populations read less and less each year from that time onwards.

In the late 1980s publisher Donning created a line of oversized deluxe editions reprinting “lost” classics of fantasy, illustrated by major comics talents who felt an affinity for the selected texts. Vess illustrated Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Kaluta did likewise with the script for the silent movie Metropolis, P. Craig Russell created magic for The Thief of Bagdad and Grell took the biggest risk of his career by providing new illustrations (6 in colour and 15 monochrome) for a fantasy masterpiece beloved by generations of youngsters – and still today an incredibly popular reissue in loads of different formats…

The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood was first published in 1883; the first work of art prodigy and father of modern illustration Howard Pyle. A jobbing magazine illustrator, Pyle (1853-1911) gathered together many of the stories and legends about the bowman of Sherwood Forest, translating them into a captivating ripping yarn for youngsters. He furnished his book with 23 spellbinding pictures that created a mythic past for millions of readers.

It became the definitive work on the character: all iterations since has been working from or in reaction to this immensely readable and influential book. If you’d care to see the wondrous original illustrations you should track down The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood, a signet paperback (ISBN: 978-0451522849) which accurately reproduces the 1883 edition complete with Pyle’s drawings.

Pyle was a master storyteller and an incomparable artist who produced many other books illustrated in his unmistakable pen and ink flourish: both adaptations of heroic stories and wholly original material. These include: Otto of the Silver Hand, Pepper and Salt, The Wonder Clock, Men of Iron, The Garden Behind the Moon, plus a quartet of tomes that delineated the life of King Arthur: The Story of King Arthur and His Knights, The Story of the Champions of the Round Table, The Story of Lancelot and His Companions, and The Story of the Grail and the Passing of Arthur.

Believe it or not though, these books are not his greatest legacy and achievement. Pyle was a dedicated teacher also. In 1896 he took a position at the Drexel Institute of Arts and Sciences in Philadelphia where the first students included Violet Oakley, Maxfield Parrish, and Jessie Willcox Smith.

He held summer classes at Chadd’s Ford, Pennsylvania where the initial attendees included Stanley Arthurs, W.J. Aylward, Ida Daugherty, Harvey Dunn, George Harding, Percy Ivory, Thornton Oakley, Frank Schoonover and the just-as-legendary N.C. Wyeth (Dunn caught the bug here – becoming another dedicated educator, passing on the spark and the drive unto the next generation).

In 1903 Pyle founded his own art school in Wilmington, Virginia, and his dedicated, passionate and immensely talented followers became known as The Brandywine School. Why were they so successful and influential?

In a word: Action.

Before Howard Pyle, illustration was formal, staged, lovingly rendered but utterly static. There was no more life than in a posed photograph of the period with all elements locked in paralysis. Pyle introduced flowing, dynamic motion to illustrated art. He created “Life”.

All of which is a long way of saying that this is a great book with sumptuous Grell illustrations – especially the six paintings (a luxury most publisher’s budgets wouldn’t permit very often in Pyle’s lifetime) – and if you’re a fan of his work you should own it. However, you might also want to track down a reproduction of the original (as I said, there are many) with those groundbreaking original drawings and enjoy the pictorial component which inspired Grell fully as much as that stirring prose.
Art © 1989 Mike Grell.

Road to America

By Baru, with colour by Daniel Ledran (Drawn & Quarterly Publications)
ISBN: 978-1-89659-752-2

We privileged ones live in a world where gratification – if not instant – is far from arduous to attain or hard to enjoy. For us the only struggle is choosing how best to indulge ourselves and, if you’re a comics nut like me, the biggest mystery in a hedonistic existence is why so many truly superb artistic efforts get sidelined or forgotten, when relative immortality is merely a matter of scanning and publishing/posting.

Here’s a lost treasure that proves my point. I’ve got this in its paperback form, but I’d happily pay again to get it digitally. That won’t feed one single starving kid, but reading it in a freely accessible form might inspire them…

Sport, despite being a world obsession, has oddly dropped out of the remit of most comics storytellers these days which is both odd and a shame. The Road to America, by Baru, uses the fervour of the immigrant’s dream and the fierce metaphor of struggle as depicted in the boxing ring to create a compelling tale of adversity against a true historical backdrop.

Set in Algeria in the 1950s – when the country was struggling to achieve independence from France – it’s the story of the bloody rise of impoverished street urchin, Said Boudiaf. Becoming a boxer, he literally smashes his way out of the slums to the glittering lights of Paris, even as his less utilisable brother turns to bombs and a more permanent form of bloodletting as a freedom fighter determined to overthrow French Colonial rule.

Said is an unstoppable force in the ring, and becomes a sporting hero, but in the real world he’s a leaf in the wind. Civilised, cultured (white) French citizens despise his ethnicity whilst capitalising on his achievements, and he’s regarded as a puppet by the Algerian resistance forces. Nevertheless, both sides want him for his propaganda value….

Said wants nothing more than personal freedom. His fights are non-political, as is all sport, but when his successes mount, and his unstoppable rise culminates in him winning the French Championship, politics claims him anyway as a race-riot between native Algerian and French spectators erupts in the stadium.

The tragic culmination occurs when Said makes it to America, and qualifies for the World title, but on returning to Paris to train for the bout he is sucked into the events of October 17th 1961 – the day when a protest march against anti-Algerian policies and heavy-handed police suppression leads to a bloody riot and a terrible massacre…

This beautifully executed tale is both blunt and subtle: weaving threads of ambition, morality, freedom, sacrifice and prejudice, both personal and social, into a compelling if sometimes chaotic narrative that is a joy to behold but often a bitter pill to swallow.

Doesn’t that sound like something we should all be reading in the current world climate?
© 2002 Baru. All rights reserved.

Town of Evening Calm, Country of Cherry Blossoms

By Fumiyo Kouno (jaPress/Last Gasp)
ISBN: 978-0-86719-721-1 (HB)

First published in 2003/2004 in Japan’s Weekly Manga Action Yūnagi no Machi, Sakura no Kuni (Town of Evening Calm, Country of Cherry Blossoms) is an award-winning (2004 Grand Prize for manga, Japan Media Arts Festival and the 2005 Tezuka Osamu Cultural Prize Creative Award) collection of interlinked, generational short stories. The compelling stories deal with the aftermath of the atom bombing of Hiroshima, and particularly the treatment of bomb-affected survivors (“hibakusha”) by a culture that has traditionally shunned imperfection and studiously ignored unpleasant truths.

The book was made into an award-winning feature film and radio serial in 2007.

The project was instigated by her editor rather than Fumiyo Kouno (or Kōno Fumiyo, if you’d like to acknowledge her actual name): a native of modern Hiroshima and manga maker (Kokko-san; In a Corner of This World), who apparently never considered herself as being affected by the ghastly events of August 6th 1945.

The first story – ‘Town of Evening Calm’ – is set in 1955 and follows teenager Minami Hirano as she goes about her daily life in the slowly-recovering city. She lives with her ailing mother and sister in a seedy shack and ruminates on those she’s lost: father and two sisters to the bomb and baby brother Asahi who was mercifully staying with rural relatives when the bomb hit.

She hasn’t seen him since that day. Her aunt thought it best to keep the healthy boy away, and subsequently adopted him. The surviving family bravely struggle as seamstresses and clerks, trying to save enough money to visit him. Minami has an admirer; a shy young man named Yutaka Uchikoshi, who tries bombarding the quietly independent girl with presents, but ten years after the bomb, the explosion is inexorably still claiming victims. As tragedy looms, Minami is unaware that her long-lost brother is coming to see her…

Follow-up ‘Country of Cherry Blossoms’ is divided into two separate tales. The first is set in Tokyo in 1987 with tomboy schoolgirl Nanami Ishikawa railing against her life. She is Asahi’s daughter – a second-generation victim – and has never met her hibakusha relatives, but when her brother Nagio is hospitalised she sneaks into his room with new friend Toko Tone and showers him with cherry blossom petals to show him the spring he’s missing, unaware that his asthmatic condition is considered by many to be the taint of the bomb…

Admonished by her grandmother, she goes on about her life but as the family moves nearer the hospital, she abruptly loses touch with Toko…

Part Two takes up the story in 2004. Asahi has recently retired and moved in with Nanami, when medical graduate Nagio mentions that he has seen Toko at the hospital where he works. Nanami has other things to worry about: Asahi is disappearing for days at a time and she thinks he might be senile…

One day she follows him, and – just as years before with Nagio – Toko, a virtual stranger, appears and shares her journey and revelations. The troubled old man is travelling to the rebuilt Hiroshima, driven by an irresistible impulse, and as they follow him Nanami discovers that real reason Toko stopped seeing her family…

Pensive, serene and deftly sensitive, almost elegiac, this book deals with uncomfortable issues by advocating tolerance, understanding and endurance rather than the bombastic unyielding defiance of Keiji Nakazawa’s landmark Barefoot Gen, and the message hits home all the harder for it.

Initially reluctant to produce a work about Hiroshima, Ms. Kōno discovered a strong voice within – and her own unrealised, unexpressed attitudes – when faced with the behaviour still directed toward hibakusha more than five decades later. As she states in the Afterword of this superb commemorative hardcover, it was “unnatural and irresponsible for me to consciously try to avoid the issue” and she decided that “drawing something is better than drawing nothing at all.”

As far as I can tell this moving portmanteau is still only available in paperback form but it’s well worth tracking down: a quietly magnificent tribute to the truism that “Life goes on” and the proposition that even polite and passive intolerance should always be resisted. This is a book every politician in the world should read. It also holds a harsh lesson every cosy, comfortable family in existence needs to absorb… and it needs to be back in print and available digitally, too.
© 2003, 2009 Fumiyo Kouno. All Rights Reserved.

Asterix Omnibus volume 2: Asterix the Gladiator, Asterix and the Banquet, Asterix and Cleopatra

By René Goscinny & Albert Uderzo, translated by Anthea Bell & Derek Hockridge (Orion Childrens Books)
ISBN: 978-1-4440-0424-3

It’s been a painful year for lovers of comics, with many of our greatest practitioners – famous or otherwise – leaving us. I’m going to spend the remainder of the year dwelling on them and recommending examples of their work we can read to commemorate them in the best way possible… through enjoyment.

Suffolk-born Anthea Bell OBE came from prestigious stock. She was born in 1936 and translated numerous works from history books such as WG Siebald’s Austerlitz to the works of Hans Christian Andersen to fantasies such as Cornelia Funke’s Inkworld books Either singly or with Derek Hockridge, however, she found true immortality: translating thousands of pages of European comics and Bande Dessinée. She was a smart and dedicated woman and brilliantly adroit with worlds and concepts in many tongues. Her creative punning and naming techniques in the Asterix books garnered praise all over the world and many aficionados believe the strip is actually funnier in English than in any other language.

I can certainly confirm that’s the case with German…

Among her many triumphs are the aforementioned Asterix, Le Petit Nicolas, Lieutenant Blueberry and Iznogoud.

She died on 18th October 2018 and can never be replaced.

Asterix the Gaul is probably France’s greatest literary export: a wily wee warrior who resisted the iniquities, experienced the absurdities and observed the myriad wonders of Julius Caesar’s Roman Empire with brains, bravery and a magic potion which bestowed incredible strength, speed and vitality.

One of the most popular comics in the world, the chronicles have been translated into more than 100 languages; 8 animated and 3 live-action movies, assorted games and even into a theme park (Parc Astérix, near Paris). More than 325 million copies of 34 Asterix books have been sold worldwide, making Goscinny & Uderzo France’s bestselling international authors.

The diminutive, doughty hero was created as the transformative 1960s began by two of the art-form’s greatest masters, René Goscinny & Albert Uderzo and even though their perfect partnership ended in 1977 the creative wonderment still continues – albeit at a slightly reduced rate of rapidity.

When Pilote launched in 1959 was Asterix was a massive hit from the start. For a while Uderzo continued working with Charlier on Michel Tanguy, (Les Aventures de Tanguy et Laverdure), but soon after the first epic escapade was collected as Astérix le gaulois in 1961 it became clear that the series would demand most of his time – especially as the incredible Goscinny never seemed to require rest or run out of ideas (after the writer’s death the publication rate dropped from two books per year to one volume every three to five).

By 1967 the strip occupied all Uderzo’s time and attention. In 1974 the partners formed Idéfix Studios to fully exploit their inimitable creation and when Goscinny passed away three years later Uderzo was convinced to continue the adventures as writer and artist, producing a further ten volumes since then.

Like all great literary classics, the premise works on two levels: for younger readers as an action-packed comedic romp of sneaky, bullying baddies regularly getting their just deserts and as a pun-filled, sly and witty satire for older, wiser heads, enhanced here by the brilliantly light touch of the translators who played such a massive part in making the indomitable Gaul so very palatable to the English tongue.

Launched in Pilote #1 (29th October 1959, with the first page appearing a week earlier in a promotional issue #0, June 1st 1959), the stories were set on the tip of Uderzo’s beloved Brittany coast in the year 50BC, where a small village of redoubtable warriors and their families resisted every effort of the all-conquering Roman Empire to complete their conquest of Gaul. Unable to defeat these Horatian hold-outs, the Empire resorted to a policy of containment and the little seaside hamlet is perpetually hemmed in by the heavily fortified garrisons of Aquarium, Laudanum, Petibonum and Barbaorum (the latter two becoming Compendium and Totorum for us Brits).

The Gauls don’t care: they daily defy the world’s greatest military machine by just going about their everyday affairs, protected by a magic potion provided by the resident druid and the shrewd wits of a rather diminutive dynamo and his simplistic best friend…

With these volumes a key pattern was established: the adventures would henceforth – like a football match – alternate between Home and Away, with each globe-trotting escapade balanced by an epic set in and around he happily beleaguered Gaulish village (if you’re counting, home tales were odd numbered volumes and travelling exploits even-numbered…)

Asterix the Gladiator debuted in Pilote #126-168 (1963) with the canny rebel and his increasingly show-stealing pal Obelix (who had fallen into a vat of potion as a baby and was a genial, permanently superhuman, eternally hungry foil to the smart little hero) despatched to the heart of the Roman Empire on an ill-conceived mission of mercy…

When Prefect Odius Asparagus seeks to give Julius Caesar a unique gift he decides upon one of the indomitable Gauls who had been giving his occupying forces such a hard time.

Thus, he has village Bard Cacofonix abducted and bundled off to Rome. Although in two minds about losing the raucous harpist, pride wins out and the villagers mount a rescue attempt, but after thrashing the Romans again they discover that their lost comrade is already en route for the Eternal City…

Asterix and Obelix are despatched to retrieve the missing musician and hitch a ride on a Phoenician galley operated under a bold new business plan by captain/general manager Ekonomikrisis. On the way to Italy the heroes first encounter a band of pirates who would become frequent guest-stars and perennial gadflies.

The pirates were a creative in-joke between the close-knit comics community: Barbe-Rouge or Redbeard was a buccaneering strip created by Charlier & Victor Hubinon that also ran in Pilote at the time.

As Asterix and Obelix make friends among the cosmopolitan crowds of Rome, Caesar has already received his latest gift. Underwhelmed by his new Bard, the Emperor sends Cacofonix to the Circus Maximus to be thrown to the lions just as his chief of Gladiators Caius Fatuous is “talent-spotting” two incredibly tough strangers who would make ideal arena fighters…

Since it’s the best way to get to Cacofonix, our heroes join the Imperial Gladiatorial school; promptly introducing a little Gallic intransigence to the tightly disciplined proceedings. When the great day arrives, the lions get the shock of their lives and the entertainment-starved citizens of Rome “enjoy” a show they will never forget…

As always, the good-natured, comedic situations and sheer finesse of the yarn rattles along, delivering barrages of puns, oodles of insane situations and loads of low-trauma slapstick action, marvellously rendered in Uderzo’s expansive, authentic and continually improving big-foot art-style.

Asterix and the Banquet originated in Pilote #172-213 (1963), inspired by the Tour de France cycle race.

After being continually humiliated by the intractable Gauls coming and going as they please, Roman Inspector General Overanxius instigates a policy of exclusion and builds a huge wall around the little village, determined to shut them off from their country and the world. Modern world leaders might get a clue from this book, here… if they read books. Even books with pictures…

Incensed, Asterix best the smug Prefect that Gauls can go wherever they please and to prove it invites the Romans to a magnificent feast where they can sample the culinary delights of various regions. Breaking out of the stockade and through the barricades, Asterix and Obelix gather produce from as far afield as Rotomagus (Rouen), Lutetia (Paris, where they also picked up a determined little mutt who would eventually become a star cast-member), Camaracum (Cambrai) and Durocortorum (Rheims), easily evading or overcoming the assembled patrols and legions of man-hunting soldiers. However, they don’t reckon on the corrupting power of the huge – and growing – bounty on their heads and some Gauls are apparently more greedy than patriotic…

Even with Asterix held captive and all the might of the Empire ranged against them, Gaulish honour is upheld and Overanxius, after some spectacular fights, chases and close calls, eventually is made to eat his words – and a few choice Gallic morsels – in this delightful, bombastic and exceedingly clever celebration of pride and whimsy.

Asterix and Cleopatra ran from 1963-1963 in issues #215-257 and, although deriving its title from Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, is actually a broad visual spoof of the 1963 movie blockbuster Cleopatra (the original collected album cover was patterned on the film poster).

Rome is a big empire to run but Caesar always has time to spare for the fascinating Queen of Egypt – even though she can be a little overbearing at times…

When Caesar calls her people decadent, Cleopatra announces that her Egyptians will build a magnificent palace within three months to prove their continued ingenuity and vitality.

Her architect Edifis is less confidant and subcontracts the job, recruiting his old friend Getafix the Druid to help, with Asterix, Obelix and faithful pooch Dogmatix coming along to keep him out of trouble…

After another short, sharp visit with the pirates, the voyagers reach the Black Lands only to find the building site an utter shambles. Edifis’ arch rival Artifis has stirred up unrest among the labourers and consequently sabotaged the supply-chain, entombing the visitors in a deadly tourist-trap and even frames Edifis by attempting to poison the Queen.

For all these tactics the ingenious Gauls have a ready solution and the Palace construction continues apace, but when Caesar – determined not to lose face to his tempestuous paramour – sends his Legions to destroy the almost-completed complex, it’s up to the two smallest, smartest warriors to come up with a solution to save the day, the Palace and the pride of two nations…

Outrageously fast-paced and funny and magnificently illustrated by a supreme artist at the very peak of his form, Asterix and Cleopatra is one of the very best epics from a series that has nothing but brilliant hits.

This is supremely enjoyable comics storytelling and if you’re still not au fait with these Village People you must be as Crazy as the Romans ever were…
© 1964-1965 Goscinny/Uderzo. Revised English translation © 2004 Hachette. All rights reserved.

Of Dust and Blood – A Story from the Fight at the Greasy Grass

By Jim Berry & Val Mayerik (Jim Berry)
ISBN: 978-0-692-63801-9

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Even More Potent, Powerful, Unmissable… 10/10

Back in October I reviewed a beautiful book published by NBM: a passionate and compelling re-examination of one of the most infamous and iconic moments in American history. I thought it was superb and said so in pixel-print.

After the review posted we were contacted by the writer of the book who very graciously thanked us. He also said that the original crowdfunded Kickstarter edition was not only better but how the book should be seen. He even sent us a copy to prove it.

He was right.

Here’s a tweaked review. Go buy this one. Even if you already have the perfectly excellent oversized, portrait format hardback edition. Get this one too. You won’t regret it…

Thanks to the twin miracles of humanity’s love of stories and the power of commercial narrative there’s no logic to how or why some events pass into the forgotten corners of history whilst others become touchstones of common experience or even actual living myths.

In 1875 final – official – tally of casualties for The Battle at Little Big Horn listed 268 US dead and 55 severely wounded men… and an unknown or unspecified number of native casualties.

Eleven years earlier the Chivington (Sand Creek) Massacre recorded a wildly estimated 500-600 killed and mutilated Cheyenne and Arapaho (two thirds of whom were women and children). To be fair, the figures might have been as low as 60 or 70 heathen souls, but practically nobody white really cared…

My point is that the reason you’ve heard of one but not the other is the force of publicity…

After Custer’s debacle and the slaughter of the 7th Cavalry, the Anheuser-Busch brewery commissioned prints of a painting memorialising “Custer’s Last Fight” and had them framed and hung in bars and saloons across America, forever connecting their product in the minds of generations of drinkers with unvarnished white heroism…

With historical veracity at a supreme disadvantage, the ill-judged clash at Little Big Horn – alternatively described by the winning side (on that day, at least) as the Battle of the Greasy Grass – has become the stuff of imagination and extrapolation.

Atrocity aside, that’s not necessarily a bad thing as it’s led numerous thoughtful creative types to examine the event on their own terms and applying the perspective of history to the events and the shameful, bloody aftermath…

Two of the very best are comics veteran Val Mayerik and journalist-turned-author Jim Berry who have here shaped the conflict to their own deeply moving ends with this superb offering. Originally crowdfunded through Kickstarter contributions, this stunning landscape format (295 x 192 mm) full-colour hardback explores truth and myth whilst adding another powerful fictive component to the sprawling patchwork.

Following Berry’s mood-setting and painfully timely Introduction – dramatically augmented by a linework Map of The Battle of the Greasy Grass/Little Big Horn by fellow graphic scholar and historian Rick Geary – the story (lettered by Simon Bowland) unfolds in rapid yet panoramic moments, and traces two ultimately converging paths.

On one side cavalry scout Greenhaw takes some time off to pen a letter to his beloved Rose, even as some distance away young Lakota warrior Slow Hawk performs the funeral rites for his brother. Now he is the last of his family…

Against the background of the tragically documented specifics of the inevitable, legendary greater clash, these two strangers are carried by events towards an inescapable and bloody confrontation…

Rendered with staggering virtuosity by Mayerik, the smaller moments and incidents contributing to the greater clash we all think we know are beguiling and breathtaking in their warmth and humanity, magnificently underscoring Berry’s incisive questioning of the point and merit of the battle.

Augmenting the visual narrative is a text essay describing what happened After the Battle and how commercial interests monetised and weaponised public sentiment against the Indians and led to America’s own final solution to the Indian Wars at Wounded Knee Creek in 1890.

Following on, Val Mayerik: The Process describes, with plenty of access to the artist’s sketchbook, how many of the most evocative images were created before this terrific tome concludes with a Bibliography (illustrated by Aaron McConnel of further reading for interested parties and a moving page of dedications dubbed ‘Philamayaa’… (it means “Thank You”)

This is a wondrous and sobering experience any comics fan or student of human nature must seek out share. And that’s best seen in the original edition.

© 2016 Jim Berry, all rights reserved. 1st Edition. All fictional characters are trademarks of Jim Berry and Val Mayerik.

Copies of the first edition Of Dust and Blood can be purchased on eBay.

The Beatles in Comics

By Michels Mabel, Gaet’s, Lu-K, Vox, Anne-Sophie Servantie, Ludivine Stock, Amandine Puntous, Romuald Gleyse, Julien Lamanda, Efix, Pierre Braillon, Ben Lebègue, Anthony Audibert, Bloop, Victor Giménez, Akita, Laurent Houssin, Richard Di Martino, Piero Ruggeri et Filipo Neri, Martin Trystram, Clément Baloup, Edwina Cosme et Christophe Billard, Patrick Lacan, Virginie de Lambert, Joël Alessandra, Odile Santi & various: translated by Joe Johnson (NBM)
ISBN: 978-1-68112-187-1 (HB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: A Magical Mystery Tour for All… 10/10

Graphic biographies are all the rage at the moment and this one – originally released on the continent in 2016 – is one of the best I’ve seen and the most likely to appeal to a far larger mainstream audience than comics usually reach. It certainly deserves to…

If you’ve never heard of the Beatles there’s very little point in you carrying on any further.

Still with us? Okay then…

As if cannily repackaged popular culture factoids and snippets of celebrity history – accompanied by a treasure trove of candid photographs, song lyrics, posters and other memorabilia – aren’t enough to whet your appetite, this addition to the lore of the Fab Four adds a vital and enticing extra element.

The individual chronological articles and the comics vignettes they each precede are all written by Michels Mabel & Gaet’s, with an army of illustrators providing vivid and vibrant mini-strips, beginning with the meeting of ‘John, Paul and George’, as envisioned by Lu-K.

Vox details the euphoria of the first gigs in ‘Hamburg’ before Anne-Sophie Servantie details the iconic contribution of photographer ‘Astrid Kirchherr’ to the band’s growing mystique after which the crucial contribution of their tragedy-marked manger is explored in ‘Mister Epstein’ with vivid illustration from Ludivine Stock.

A tone of smug schadenfreude tinges Amandine Puntous’ ‘The Man Who Refused to Sign the Beatles!’ before Romuald Gleyse recalls the moment the magic finally gelled as a proper music producer takes the rowdy kids in hand with ‘George Martin’s Wager’.

With the world at their feet, a close brush with respectability and civil honours are covered in

‘The Queen’s Rebels’ by Julien Lamanda after which Efix encapsulates conquest of the New World and ‘The Beginning of Beatlemania’; with Pierre Braillon tackling key appearances on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show’ and Ben Lebègue depicting ‘Shea Stadium and the American Tour’.

Once they started getting successful, tensions began to fracture the band’s enthusiastic solidarity. The creation of the song ‘Yesterday’ (Anthony Audibert art) and an anticlimactic meeting of giants, as seen in Bloop’s ‘The Beatles and Elvis’ starts tracing the cracks, whilst movie sensation ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ – by Victor Giménez – and Akita’s visualisation of ‘John’s Opinion’ reinforce the tensions.

Courtesy of Laurent Houssin, ‘New Musical Horizons’ are explored, and Richard Di Martino celebrates ‘The Triumph of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ before the hammer falls with the death of their protective manager. ‘Goodbye Brian’ by Piero Ruggeri et Filipo Neri signals a creative explosion and the beginnings of financial disaster as conmen target the band resulting in a fractious ‘Trip to India’ (by Martin Trystram), the advent of ‘Yoko Ono’ (from Clément Baloup) and the musical masterpiece that is ‘The White Album’ as depicted by Edwina Cosme & Christophe Billard.

Patrick Lacan then visually traces the insane and inane conspiracy theories claiming ‘Paul is Dead’ before more artistic triumphs are balanced by incipient catastrophe in Virginie de Lambert’s ‘Abbey Road/Let it Be’.

From there it’s all about ‘The Break-up’ (Joël Alessandra) after which Odile Santi scrapbooks 1971 to now in the postscriptive ‘Post Beatles’ section…

The compelling and remarkable biography concludes on a deliciously whimsical note as ‘Do you want to know a secret?’ offers 18 absurd anecdotes to delight everyone who loves to hear classic absurdism. The Beatles in Comics is an astoundingly readable and beautifully rendered treasure for comics and music fans alike: one that resonates with anybody who loves to listen and look. Without it, you’re simply nowhere, man…

© 2016 Petit as Petit. © 2018 NBM for the English translation.
NBM books are also available in digital formats. For more information and other great reads see

Follow Me In

By Katriona Chapman (Avery Hill Publishing)
ISBN: 978-1-910395-38-7 (HB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: The Perfect Holiday Getaway… 10/10

I read a lot of graphic novels. Some are awful, many are so-so and the rest I endeavour to share with you. Of that remaining fraction most can be summarised, plot-pointed and précised to give you a clue about what you might be buying if I’ve done my job right.

Sometimes, however, all that fuss is not only irrelevant but will actually impede your eventual enjoyment. This is one of those times…

Katriona Chapman is a story-maker based in London, from where she’s been crafting superb tales in Small Press titles like Tiny Pencil (which she-cofounded), Comic Book Slumber Party, Ink & Paper, Save Our Souls, Deep Space Canine and her own award-winning Katzine. She draws beautifully and knows how to quietly sneak up, grab your undivided attention and never let go… and she hasn’t spent all her life in the Smoke either…

Follow Me In is her first novel-length tale and combines recollections of a particularly troubling time in her life with clearly the most life-affirming and inspirational events one could hope to experience.

At the station, a young woman meets up with an old boyfriend. He’s a writer and she draws. It’s been years and they’re still awkward and uncomfortable in each other’s presence. They talk about the time in 2003 when they decided to trek the entire country of Mexico, north to south east to west. Back then they were looking for themselves. As her mind goes back, she realizes she’s a lot closer to answers than he is…

This magnificently hefty, pocket-sized (165 x 216 mm) hardcover then follows that voyage with exquisite detail, relating history, culture, the sights, and most especially the actual, non-screaming headlines, bad-movie images of a young nation with thousands of years of history, architecture and archaeology: a nation that proudly boasts dozens of indigenous cultures living in relative harmony, speaking at least 68 legally recognised languages and constantly being reshaped by political turmoil. Moreover, no traveller should miss this tome, if only for the advice on bugs, minibeasts and illnesses…

Follow Me In is slyly lyrical and enchantingly enticing; a moving and intoxicating graphic assessment of a crucial time in the illustrator’s life, filled with facts, warmth and conflict, offering fascinating data on such varied topic as ‘A Selection of Mexican Foods’, ‘Learning Spanish’, ‘Travel Sketching’, ‘What’s in our Bags?’ and ‘The Conquests’, all equally compelling and useful to know. And through it all, you’ll want to know what happened to our travellers as they transition from kids to grown-ups as much as what they’ll see next in this magnetic story within a story.

Refreshing, redemptive and rewarding, this is a book to chase away all winter blues and existential glums and a reading experience you must not deprive yourself – or your family – of.
© Katriona Chapman 2018. All rights reserved.