The Other Side

By Jason Aaron, Cameron Stewart with Dave McCaig & various (Image: Vertigo)
ISBN: 978-1-53430-222-8 (Image HB)                     978-1-4012-1350-3 (Vertigo PB)

The Viet Nam conflict scarred the American psyche the way no other war has – not even the still somehow-technically-ongoing debacle in Iran, Afghanistan and all points pointless.

Depending on your politics you will either agree or disagree with that statement. These days there are no shady areas or topics of nuance to debate.

What is indisputable is the effect Viet Nam still has on the American consumer. So, it was intriguing to see an attempt to portray that earlier conflict less in term of “Us and Them” and more as “You and Me”.

This superb and deeply memorable tale contrasts the journey from happy home to bloody combat of surly average teen Billy Everette, his counterpart, farmer’s son Vo Binh Dai, and their predestined clash at the Battle of Khe Sanh.

Drafted from his Alabama home, Everette is a reluctant screw-up turned into an average Marine by the sheer hell of Boot Camp, where even the terrifying and very real hallucinations and delusions he suffers from can’t keep him from that dreaded Tour of Duty.

In contrast, patriotic, dutiful Vo Dai enlists in the People’s Army of Vietnam and endures starvation and disease on his long march south, determined to sell his life dearly to free his country from oppression. He too is plagued both by doubts of his worth, and terrifying hallucinations…

This simple tale, powerfully told and subversively drawn, is a sensitive, darkly magical, horrific parable about war, politics and insanity, if indeed they aren’t all the same thing in the end.

The paperback book also contains sketches and artist Cameron Stewart’s photo diary of his research trip to modern Viet Nam – a compelling bonus greatly amplified in the 2017 deluxe hardcover edition from Image comics as well as the various digital editions – and hopefully those gentle counterpoints to history’s blunders from a later if no less wise era can offer a shred of hope to soldiers and families currently reliving the traumas of another age.
© 2007 Jason Aaron & Cameron Stewart. All Rights Reserved.

Pioneers of the New World, Book 1: The Pillory and Book 2: The Great Upheaval

By J. F. Charles (Michel Deligne Co)
ISBN: 2-87135-020-5 and 2-87135-021-3

European comics are different. Despite the notable exceptions of Tintin and Asterix, a huge number of classy and wonderful strips and characters have flown over the heads of the English-speaking public and foundered.

These tragically hard-to-find (but worth the effort) albums are from 1985, when America briefly looked elsewhere for graphic entertainment and the publisher Editions Michel Deligne rushed a rather poorly translated version of Jean-François Charles’ (AKA Bof) utterly compelling 1982 adventure serial Les Pionniers du Nouveau Monde into production.

Set in America and Canada in 1755, the saga follows the life of Parisian wastrel Benjamin Graindall, a hothead whose predilection for duelling makes France too small and far too hazardous for him. Rapidly despatched to Montreal to make his fortune and keep out of trouble, Banjamin joins his uncle at the New France Company, bitter trading rival of England’s Hudson Bay Company.

War is brewing, and feuding native tribes have allied themselves with each Imperial nation, dividing along ancient tribal lines as bitter and hate-filled as Britain and France’s. Thus, when Graindall and experienced trapper Billy the Nantese go deep inland trading furs, they find that Europe’s cold war has turned hot and bloody in the new World.

Rescuing a number of French settlers – including a beautiful aristocrat’s daughter – they make their way towards Fort Niagara, but are captured by the British whose Ox River Fort lies directly opposite the French bastion at the great falls.

As prisoners, they must ensure that their enemies do not realize that the girl Louise is in fact the daughter of Fort Niagara’s commanding officer…

This is classic adventure and historical drama in the grand tradition: sparking with intensity, brim-full of captivating authenticity and yet still entrancingly readable. Charles is a master of incredible wilderness scenes and breathtaking battle sequences, and the story (written from the 7th album with his wife Maryse), is a broad-scoped and powerful one.

Pioneers of the New World Book 2: The Great Upheaval
Further detailing how the west was won or lost (depending on your geographical standpoint), this translation of Le Grand Dérangement resumes the tempestuous history of the struggle between France and Britain in the 18th century whilst relating the story of bourgeois wastrel Benjamin Graindall, who fled Paris for Canada to make his fortune.

At the close of The Pillory Graindall and other French survivors of a massacre are being held prisoners by the British at Fort Niagara. When French forces attack to rescue Louise, Benjamin’s lover and daughter of a French General, the ensuing following the assault provides an opportunity for rescue – at least for trapper Billy the Nantese and the bewildered, bereft woman. Graindall, though, seems to have been killed by cannon-fire…

The liberated French settlers are evacuated to Montreal and Louise, pregnant with the wastrel’s child, is taken by Billy to her aunt in Greenbay on the St Lawrence River.

The war is unrelenting and by 1756 the pair are overtaken by British forces. Until this time the joint Anglo-French Nova Scotia trading company controlled the resources of the New World region of Acadia, but the British advance allows the English to dispossess the French and keep everything for themselves.

Like the Highland Clearances in Scotland (from 1725 until well into the 19th century), French settlers were forced from their lands between 1755 and 1762, literally driven into the sea. Most Acadians made their way down the coast, eventually settling in Louisiana. Forced together by hardship and circumstance, Louisa and Billy grow closer and closer when their ship is forced into safe-harbour in Boston Bay…

Benjamin survived the attack on Fort Niagara. Wounded in the first attack, he was dragged to safety by the wayward firebrand Mary Shirley. Braving the horrors of New England winters and aided by friendly Indians, they make their torturous way to New York and ultimately Albany where Benjamin is astounded to discover that his lascivious wild-child companion is actually the daughter of a wealthy and extremely powerful family.

He grudgingly becomes Mary’s stud and boy-toy, but chafes under the witless pomp and snobbery of the English gentry. At one of the interminable social soirees he accidentally maims malignant Mr. Crimbel, manager of the Hudson Bay Company, during a drunken brawl and is forced to flee.

Frustrated Mary swears bitter vengeance but Benjamin is already in Boston just as a refugee ship carrying Acadians beaches to avoid a winter storm. On the sands the three companions are finally reunited but Louise is torn as her first love and the father of her child greets his long-lost best friend… her current lover…

This powerful adventure saga of classic adventure is an historical drama in the inimitable Franco-Belgian manner, compelling and entrancing. Charles is a master of his visual craft and here natural beauty is augmented by the veracity of historical grandeur he imparts into renditions of genteel English society.

Pioneers of the New World is a minor masterpiece. Translated here are Le Pilori and Le Grand Dérangement, the merest tip of a spectacular graphic narrative iceberg. There have been 20 albums to date in French – with the latest arriving in 2015 – and I sincerely believe this magnificent adventure is long overdue for some wise publisher to revive. After all, there’s plenty to catch up on…

I’d imagine these books are practically impossible to find nowadays, and to be honest the translation and re-lettering are a little disappointing and distracting. But since so much European material is accessible these days, I’d thought I’d mention this series as being one that is crying out for a decent shot from a considerate and dedicated patron. Cross your fingers, mes braves…
© 1985 Editions Michel Deligne SA and JF Charles. All Rights Reserved.

The Campbells volume 1: Inferno

By Jose Luis Munuera, coloured by Sydas and translated by Emma Wilson (Europe Comics)
Digital Edition No ISBN:

Arrr! It be International Talk Like a Pirate Day once morrrre, me Hearties! That gives me license to act like a complete berk whilst plugging a suitably themed graphic yarn. This ‘un be a real cracker, too…

As heavily influenced by a certain Disney movie franchise as continental Europe’s long-standing affection for the genre, and exhibiting a deft hand with the traditions and history of light-hearted freebooting romps, Inferno is the introductory salvo in a convoluted yet engaging family saga about a most unconventional bunch of buccaneers.

Crafted by Andalusian comics veteran Jose Luis Munuera (No Hay Domingos en el Infierno, Merlin, Walter le Loup, Spirou et Fantasio, P’tit Boule et Bill) who has been delighting readers since his debut in 1996, the epic voyage of discovery commences here with smart, snappy episodes introducing an extremely large cast of roguish characters.

First up are devious rapscallion “Captain” Carapepino and his trusty dogsbody Haggins. A very minor player with huge aspirations, the smooth talker is off burying his first chest of treasure on a sun-kissed tropical island when he is ambushed and hijacked by the infamous – and long-missing – Captain Campbell.

Through a most cunning ploy, the pirate’s pirate (with his two young daughters at his side) appropriates the gem-strewn chest and smugly paddles away to another paradisiacal atoll…

The next vignette sees the wonder man at ease in his luxurious haven on Garden Island, patiently watching teenaged Itaca explode again as her obnoxiously bratty sister Genova reads excerpts from her stolen secret diary…

Despite their acting out and outrageous feats of derring-do, the well-educated, ultra-fit kids love each other and desperately miss their mother…

Out in the briny depths, formidable Captain Inferno terrorises victims and his own men. He is a man of dark moods and soaring ambition, but haunted by visions of a dead woman who comes to him often to repeat three horrifying predictions that he cannot escape.

His night terrors are suppressed but not abated by the arrival of the unctuous Carapepino who reveals his encounter with the sea terror’s most despised enemy… and husband of the ghost who currently plagues him…

The Campbells might be a sea-wolves but they are most unconventional ones. Amongst those who love them most are the inhabitants of the Isle of Bakaloo, a leper colony the family regularly visit with supplies of food, books and other life-easing essentials.

On this latest trip, the canny corsairs bring along the latest chest of valuables: after all, what normal, superstitious rogues would risk their scurvy skins amongst the unclean and diseased?

Some days later, the family visit the fiercely neutral township of Bahia Cambalanche, Port Franc. Here all hawks of the seas can meet to trade, carouse and fence their stolen booty. Here and now, Itaca and Genova reluctantly attend lessons arranged by their father.

Right here, right now, Carapepino and a press gang provided by Inferno attempt to abduct the girls only to be beaten back by their unbridled fury and the late intervention of gorgeous teenager Blond Luca.

Itaca is instantly smitten by the glorious hero, blithely unaware that her saviour is a pawn in a dastardly long con…

The deception blossoms soon after as Garden Island is invaded by Carapepino’s borrowed forces. Nevertheless, the trio of Campbells fight free, humiliate the craven dogs and make a bold escape to a new sanctuary…

In the interim, Inferno has not been idle. By ruthless manipulation and scurrilous deals, he has ingratiated himself with English nobility – and Campbell’s oldest enemies – in order to have himself admitted to the top flight of the corrupt aristocracy.

Now invested as Baron of England, with a warrant to hunt all shipping but British vessels, Inferno moves quickly to consolidate power and replace the crown’s agents with his own people…

The Campbells have relocated to Bakeloo where Itaca broods over Luca’s betrayal and her father worries about her distress. Father is blithely oblivious to the passionate adoration of native lovely Nutel-La but the practical islander finally makes a big impression when she suggests that the devoted dad needs to have “the talk” with his swiftly maturing daughter…

Having lost yet another ship, Carapepino and his surviving crew at last link up with former employer Baron Inferno, just in time to become his first prisoners as the newly ennobled provincial ruler moves into his new Governor’s Palace.

The interloper eases gracefully to the head of the aristocratic pack, gleaming in fine clothes, sparkling with newfound power and respectability. After all, aren’t these rich privileged fools just another gang of self-proclaimed predators? Especially the shockingly blunt and ruthlessly amoral Lady Helvetia, who soon becomes his boon companion and more…

However, when the revels end, the Baron’s mind races back decades to the docks of London where he and his bold, inventive, loyal brother picked pockets and sought to escape their monster of a father. How far they have come since then. How far they have drifted apart…

To Be Continued…

Only currently available in English in digital editions, The Campbells is a fabulously engaging rollercoaster of thrills and fun, as good as the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie and far more entertaining and satisfying than the rest of that franchise.

Combining smart and constant laughs with bombastic action, an enticing generational war, murder mystery and heartbreakingly winning characters – goodies and baddies! – the series goes from strength to strength. This first volume is captivating from the outset, with its hyper-kinetic Marcinelle School-derived art grabbing the attention and dragging readers along as though caught in a bow wave, with the raffish gags subtly counterbalancing a strong, and complex family-based conflict and just the merest hint of supernatural menace lurking in the shadows.

Don’t wait for a surely-inevitable print release, scour the electric waves and track down this book and series…
© DUPUIS – MUNUERA 2017. Al rights reserved.

The Provocative Colette

By Annie Goetzinger, translated by Montana Kane (NBM)
ISBN: 978-1-68112-170-3

Publisher NBM have struck a seam of pure gold with their growing line of European-created contemporary arts histories and dramatized graphic biographies. This latest luxury hardcover release (also available in digital formats) is one of the most enticing yet; diligently tracing the astoundingly unconventional early life of one of the most remarkable women of modern times.

Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (28th January 1873 – 3rd August 1954) escaped from rural isolation via an ill-considered marriage and, by sheer force of will and an astonishing gift for self-expression, rose to the first rank of French-language (and global) literature through her many novels and stories. The one you probably know best is Gigi, but you should really read a few more such as La Vagabonde or perhaps The Ripening Seed

For her efforts she was elected to the Belgian Royal Academy in 1935 and the French Académie Goncourt ten years later. She became its President in 1949, the year after she was nominated for a Nobel Prize. Her grateful country also celebrated her as Chevalier (1920) and Grand Officer (1953) of the Légion d’honneur.

Her unceasing search for truths in the arena of human relationships – particularly in regard to women’s independence in a hostile and patronising patriarchal society – also led her to pursue freedom of expression through dance, acting and mime, film and drama and as a journalist.

The fact that for most of her early life men controlled her money also prompted her far-reaching career path until she finally managed to win control of her own destiny and coffers…

Our drama unfolds in 1893 as 20-year old Sidonie-Gabrielle readies herself for her wedding to the prestigious and much older music journalist Henry Gauthier-Villars. The great man is celebrated nationally under his nom de plume “Willy”.

That’s also the name under which he will publish his wife’s first four hugely successful Claudine novels whilst pocketing all the profits and attendant copyrights…

Eventually breaking free to live a life both sexually adventurous and on her own terms, Colette never abandons her trust in love or reliance on a fiercely independent spirit. And she shares what she believes about the cause of female liberty with the world through her books and her actions…

This bold and life-affirming chronicle was meticulously crafted by the superb and much-missed Annie Goetzinger (18th August1951 – 20th December 2017) and was tragically her last.

The award-winning cartoonist, designer and graphic novelist (see for example The Girl in Dior) supplies sumptuous illustration that perfectly captures the complexities and paradoxes of the Belle Epoque and the wars and social turmoil that followed, whilst her breezy, seductively alluring script brings to vivid life a wide variety of characters who could so easily be reduced to mere villains and martinets but instead resonate as simply people with their own lives, desires and agendas…

The scandalous escapades are preceded by an adroit and incisive Preface from journalist and author Nathalie Crom and are bookended with informative extras such as ‘Literary References’, a full ‘Chronology’ of the author’s life and potted biographies of ‘Colette’s Entourage’ offering context and background on friends, family and the many notables she gathered around her.

Additional material includes a suggested Further Reading and a Select Bibliography.

Another minor masterpiece honouring a major force in the history and culture of our complex world, and guaranteed to be on the reading list for any girl who’s thought “that’s not fair” and “why do I have to…”, The Provocative Colette is a forthright and beguiling exploration of humanity and one you should secure at your earliest convenience.
© DARGAUD 2017 by Goetzinger. All rights reserved. © 2018 NBM for the English translation.

For more information and other great reads see NBM Publishing.

Hearts and Minds – A Vietnam Love Story

By Doug Murray & Russ Heath (Marvel/Epic Comics)
ISBN: 978-0-87135-699-4

I was deeply saddened to hear of the death of Russ Heath last week, so I’m repurposing an old review today to commemorate his astounding career and achievements. It’s an easy thing to do as his work was always amongst the rarefied top rank of illustrators to grace the American comics scene…

Russell Heath Jr. was born in New York City on September 29th 1926 and was raised in New Jersey. Influenced by cowboy artist Will James and others, Heath was self-taught and fiercely diligent, demanding authenticity of himself in all his work. This helped him break into the comicbook industry while still at High School (episodes of naval strip Hammerhead Hawley for Captain Aero Comics beginning with volume 2, #2 in September 1942).

Eager to serve, Heath left Montclair High School early in 1945 for the Air Force. Whilst in the military he contributed cartoons to the Camp newspaper before shipping out.

When peace broke out, he worked briefly as a gofer at an ad agency until in 1947 he landed a regular job with Timely Comics. Now married he soon started working from home, drawing Kid Colt and Two Gun Kid, offerings for the dwindling superhero market and sundry horror stories and covers.

He hit an early peak in the 1950s, with a wealth of western and horror features as well as co-creating Marvel Boy, working on crime and romance tales, Venus and the Human Torch during the abortive attempt to revive superheroes in 1953.

He branched out to other publishers: trying his hand on EC’s Mad and Frontline Combat, 3D comics for St. John’s and earned a reputation for gritty veracity in his war and adventure stories (such as Robin Hood and Golden Gladiator for DC’s The Brave and the Bold).

He began contributing to DC’s new war line in early 1954, with strips appearing in Our Army at War #23 and Star Spangled War Stories #22.

It was good fit and he spent the next decade and a half working with writer/editor Robert Kanigher, with whom he co-created The Haunted Tank, The Losers and Sea Devils. All along he remained a stalwart of anthological short war stories, guested on and eventually took over full time illustrating on the prestigious Sgt. Rock.

Infamously, many of his panels were co-opted by pop artist Roy Lichtenstein as the basis of his paintings (specifically Whaam!, Blam, Okay Hot-Shot, Okay!, and Brattata). Heath’s other contributions to American pop culture include iconic ads for toy soldiers and a stint on Harvey Kurtzman and Will Elder’s ubiquitous Playboy satire strip Little Annie Fanny.

Eventually he moved into animation and out to the west coast, but remained in contact with his comics roots, providing occasional returns on titles such as Planet of the Vampires, Mister Miracle, Ka-Zar, The Punisher, Shadowmasters, G.I. Joe and. the Immortal Iron Fist among others.

Having been awarded almost every award going, Heath was in semi-retirement when he died on the 23rd August 2018.

At the end of the 1980s Marvel began extending the scope of the Original Graphic Novels line and this potent and uncompromising fable was the impressive result.

Hearts and Minds – A Vietnam Love Story tells of a half-caste French/Vietnamese peasant girl, whose husband is killed by proselytizing Viet Cong Guerrillas, but who finds a kind of love with a green American college drop-out trapped in The Draft and sent to kill Commies for Uncle Sam.

Of course, it doesn’t end well…

1965: Despite himself Lieutenant Jim Brett is fitting in. He has an aptitude for the soldier’s life and has found his One True Love in the Officers’ Brothel. The half-white Nhi is overjoyed to have been purchased by the handsome young Lieutenant and looks forward to her new life in America as Mrs. Brett. But when the Viet Cong stage a successful assault on the city of Hue she discovers that her first husband is still alive and now a fanatical Guerrilla leader. And then the frantic Brett bursts into the house…

The examination of the greater conflict through a doomed romance is both subtle and evocative, and the hyper-precise drawing and bright happy colours of the artwork savagely underpin the oppressive brutality and doomed futility of the tale. Hearts and Minds is an anti-war tale with all the punch and poignancy of an artillery round, favouring no side whilst counting the human cost and yet still managing to balance blazing action with passionate intensity.

Concerned parents should note that if this is a novel for adults with graphic nudity and violence.

Russ Heath is a name that should be household, but is sadly someone who will only probably be missed by those of us fortunate and broadminded enough to have roamed beyond the attention-grabbing superhero comics ghetto. He is also an immortal talent whose work will live on as long as we keep seeking hyper-real, ultra-precise, breathtakingly powerful narrative graphics.

Remember the name and look for it when buying your old comics and albums in future.
© 1990 Doug Murray & Russ Heath. All Rights Reserved.

Corpse Talk: Queens & Kings and Other Royal Rotters

By Adam & Lisa Murphy (David Fickling Books)
ISBN: 978-1-78845-032-4

The educational power of comic strips has been long understood and acknowledged: if you can make the material memorably enjoyable, there is nothing that can’t be better taught with pictures. The obverse is also true: comics can make any topic or subject come alive… or at least – as here – outrageously, informatively undead…

The fabulous and effective conceit in Corpse Talk is that your scribbling, cartooning host Adam Murphy (ably abetted off-camera by Lisa Murphy) tracks down (or rather digs up) famous personages from the past: all serially exhumed for a chatty, cheeky This Was Your Life talk-show interview that – in Reithian terms – simultaneously “elucidates, educates and entertains”. It also often grosses one out, which is no bad thing for either a kids’ comic or a learning experience…

Another splendid album release culled from the annals of The Phoenix (courtesy of those fine saviours of weekly comics at David Fickling Books), this regally-themed recollection is dedicated to not-so-private audiences with a succession of famous, infamous and utterly unforgettable royal rogues and rapscallions in what would almost certainly not be their own words…

Catching up in order of date of demise, our fact-loving host begins these candid cartoon conferences by digging the dirt with ‘Ramesses II: Pharaoh of Egypt 1303 BCE – 1213 BCE’, who preferred to be called ‘Ramesses the Great’. Our intrepid interviewer incisively traces the “accomplishments” and gift for self-promotion of the dusty legend.

As always, each balmy biography is accompanied by a side feature examining a key aspect of their lives such as here with ‘How to Make a Mummy’ scrupulously and systematically revealing the secrets of interring the definitely departed, after which we refocus on the ancient orient to quiz ‘Qin Shi Huang Di: Chinese Emperor 259 BCE 210 BCE’ on his reign and once more sifts truth from centuries of post-mortem PR briefings.

Backing up the inquiry ‘The Emperor’s Tomb’ details the layout of the vast City of Death Qin was buried in, as well as the Palace of Shadows and its terracotta army and the treasures it guarded…

‘Cleopatra: Pharaoh of Egypt 69 BCE – 30 BCE’ then outlines her incredible life, whilst ‘Barging In’ examines her astounding gold sea-craft and how it brought her to the attention of back-up lover/sponsor Mark Anthony.

A thankfully thoroughly sanitised account of the sordid exploits of ‘Nero: Roman Emperor 37-68’ is backed up by an exploration of one of his feasts in ‘Café Nero’, after which ‘Justinian II: Byzantine Emperor 669-711’ explains how his guile and determination enabled him to rule, lose, recapture and retake control of the mighty late Roman Empire. The impenetrable defences of 8th century Constantinople are then dissected in ‘The Walled City’

As well as a bit about burned cakes, ‘Alfred the Great: King of Wessex 849-6899’ reveals the remarkable military and civilising feats of the learning-obsessed ruler and expands the knowledge base by defining the fractured kingdoms of ‘The Dark Island’ of Britain at the time.

The Norman conquest is unpicked from the (one-eyed) view of the losing contender in ‘Harold Godwinson: English King 1022-1066’ accompanied by an extended look at the historical source document in Born on the Bayeaux’ whilst the first English civil war is remembered by formable Angevin matriarch ‘Empress Matilda: English Queen 1102-1167’. This is followed by a detailed deconstruction of the sturdy castle defensive system in The Old Bailey’.

The Crusades are represented rival legends made real. First up is the admirable and noble ‘Saladin: Sultan of Egypt and Syria 1137-1193’, who is bolstered by a catalogue of Moslem contributions to global civilisation in Gifts of Genius’, after which the unhappy truth about ‘Richard the Lionheart: English King 1157-1199’ is laid bare. After debunking centuries of self-aggrandising myths The Siege of Acre’ then traces one of the crusaders’ few actual heroic exploits…

‘Moctezuma II: Aztec Emperor 1456-1520’ relates how his timidity and sense of self-preservation contributed to the destruction of his dominions at the hands of the conquistadores before ‘Temple of Doom’ takes us into the deepest inner workings of the bloodstained ziggurats dedicated to human sacrifice on an industrial scale…

The most complex and contentious period in British history is taken apart by the royals at the heart of it all when ‘Henry VIII: English King 1491-1547’ tries to give us his spin on events leading to the reformation and – following Full Tilt – a History of Jousting’‘The Six Wives of Henry VIII’ – consecutively Catherine of Aragon (1485-1536), Anne Boleyn (1507-1536), Jane Seymour (1508-1537), Anne of Cleves (1525-1557), Catherine Howard (1523-1542) and Catherine Parr (1512-1548) – offer their side of the arguments and events.

Their revelations are augmented by a breakdown of the duties of a Queen’s faithful attendants in The Waiting Game’.

‘Charles II: English King 1630-1685’ relates how he came to power following the Second Civil War and backs up the personal reveries with A Memoir on Monarchy’ running down the changing role of rulers, before we cross the channel to hear how it all went wrong for France’s final female autocrat in ‘Marie Antoinette: French Queen 1755-1793’. Her fall from grace is abutted by a chilling lesson on the guillotine in Decapitation Stations’.

Contemporary cousin ‘Catherine the Great: Russian Empress 1729-1796’ managed to run things largely her own way, but as back-up Tsars in their Eyes’ shows, was plagued by a constant stream of pretenders, all claiming to be true, proper, better qualified and, yes, male contenders for her throne.

South African rebel and strategic genius ‘Shaka Zulu: Zulu King 1787-1828’, recounts how he literally created a mighty nation from nothing whilst The Battle of Isandlwana’ covers how his innovations were used to humiliate the overwhelmingly powerful British Army before the procession of pomp and circumstance closes with ‘Queen Victoria: English Queen 1819-1901’, accompanied by a phenomenally absorbing family tree, branching out and into every royal bloodline in Europe: a true Game of Thrones’

Clever, cheeky, outrageously funny and formidably factual throughout, Corpse Talk unyieldingly tackles history’s more tendentious moments whilst personalising the great, the grim and the good for coming generations.

It is also a fabulously fun read no parent or kid could possibly resist. Don’t take my word for it though, just ask any reader, royal-watcher or republican in waiting…
Text and illustrations © Adam & Lisa Murphy 2018. All rights reserved.

Corpse Talk: Queens & Kings will be released on 6th September 2018 and is available for pre-order now. Time to start thinking of Christmas Presents yet…?

Milton Caniff’s America: Reflections of a Drawingboard Patriot

By Milton Caniff, edited by Shel Dorf (Eclipse Books)
ISBN: 978-0-913035-25-2

This little rarity (happily still available through assorted online vendors) is a delightful introduction to the old-fashioned world and magical artistry of possibly the greatest strip cartoonist of all time.

Milton Caniff wasn’t an overnight sensation. He worked long and hard before he achieved his stellar status in the comic strip firmament. Before Terry and the Pirates brought him fame, and Steve Canyon secured his fortune and reputation, the strip which brought him to the attention of legendary Press Baron “Captain” Joseph Patterson (in many ways the co-creator of Terry) was an unassuming daily feature about a little boy hungry for adventure.

Caniff was working for The Associated Press as a minor jobbing cartoonist when a gap opened in their strips department. AP was an organisation that devised and syndicated features for the thousands of local and small newspapers which could not afford to produce the cartoons, puzzles, recipes and other fillers that ran between the local headlines and the regional sports.

Over a weekend Caniff came up with Dickie Dare, a studious lad who would read a book and then fantasize himself into the story, taking his faithful little white dog Wags with him. The editors went for it and the strip launched on July 31st 1933. Caniff would write and draw the adventures for less than eighteen months before moving on, although his replacement Coulton Waugh steered the series until its conclusion two decades later.

As well as being one of the greatest comic-strip artists of all time, Caniff was an old-fashioned honest American Patriot, from the time when it wasn’t a dirty word or synonym for fanatic.

The greatest disappointment of his life was that he was never physically fit enough to fight. Instead, during World War II he not only continued the morale-boosting China Seas adventure epic Terry and the Pirates newspaper strip seven days a week, he also designed art, brochures and posters (all unpaid) for the War Department and made live appearances for soldiers and hospital residents. Even that wasn’t enough.

Again unpaid, he devised Male Cale: a strip to be printed in the thousands of local military magazines and papers around the world. Originally using established characters from Terry, Caniff swiftly switched (for reasons best explained in Robert C Harvey’s wonderful Meanwhile… a Biography of Milton Caniff) to a purpose built (and was she built!) svelte and sexy ingénue who would titillate, amuse but mostly belong to the lonely and homesick American fighting men away from home and under arms.

Funny, saucy, even racy but never lewd or salacious, breakout star Miss Lace spoke directly to the enlisted man – the “ordinary Joe” – as entertainer, confidante and trophy date. She built morale and gave brief surcease from terror, loneliness or boredom. Although comparisons abound with our own Jane, the rationales behind each combat glamour girl were poles apart.

Created by Norman Pett in 1932, Jane ran in The Daily Mirror until 1959. She was infamously reputed to lose her clothes whenever the war effort needed a boost – always resulting in huge Allied successes.

Miss Lace was different. She spoke to and with the soldiers, and she wasn’t in normal papers. She was simply and totally theirs and theirs alone.

After leaving the incredibly successful, world-renowned Terry, Caniff created another iconic comic hero in demobbed WWII pilot Steve Canyon. The reasons for the move were basically rights and creative control, but it’s also easy to see another reason. Terry, set in a fabled Orient, even with the contemporary realism the author so captivatingly imparted, is a young man’s strip and limited by locale.

The worldly, if not war-weary, Canyon was a mature adventurer who could be sent literally anywhere and would appeal to the older, wiser readers of Atom-Age America, now a fully active, if perhaps reluctant, player on the world stage.

Canyon also reflects an older creator who has seen so much more of human nature and frailty than even the mysterious East could provide. Put another way, William Shakespeare could write Romeo and Juliet as a young man, but needed experience more than passion and genius to produce King Lear or The Tempest.

Milton Caniff’s America: Reflections of a Drawingboard Patriot was released in the mid-1980s when Caniff’s brand of patriotism was slowly giving way to a far more intolerant and infinitely crueller brand of paranoid nationalism. In many ways, it’s more valid now than ever before since these sublime excerpts from his vast body of graphic work forcefully remind the reader of a purer, more idealistic, welcoming and aspirational land of Freedom and Opportunity.

Here fans can delight in the chance to see some of the creator’s early reportage and portraiture, plus editorial cartooning and landmark strips such as the episode of Terry and the Pirates that was read into the Congressional Record. Also collected are Caniff’s public service drawings; a Steve Canyon sequence (from 1982) entitled ‘What is Patriotism?’ and many strips dedicated to departed comrades.

Of most moving consequence are the collected Armed Forces Day strips and every Steve Canyon Christmas Day episode (an unbroken string of graphic ruminations on the lot and role of the military everyman) spanning 1947 to 1987.

Stirring, gripping, heartfelt, these evocations from a master of his craft are the best tribute from, to and by an honest plain-dealer from an America we all long to see again. Simply Wonderful.
Artwork © 1987 Milton Caniff. © 2007 Ester Parsons Caniff Estate. Text features © their respective authors. All Rights Reserved

The Golden Years of Adventure Stories

By various (DC Thomson & Co., Ltd.)
ISBN: 978-0851165271

Here’s a wonderful compilation commemorating the truly unique DC Thomson comic experience, concentrating on their many action and adventure serials. The Dundee based company has long been a mainstay of British popular reading and the strong editorial stance has informed a huge number of household names over the decades.

The main tenet of the Thomson adventure philosophy is a traditional, humanistic sense of decency. Runner Alf Tupper‘The Tough of the Track’ – might be a poor, rough, working class lad, competing in a world of privileged “Toffee-Nosed Swells”, but he excels for the sheer joy of sportsmanship, not for gain or glory.

There are no anti-heroes in the Thomson heroic stable, almost in direct opposition to the iconic, anarchic, mischief-makers of their humour comics.

British spy Bill Sampson may be the dreaded ‘Wolf of Kabul’ to the Afghan tribesmen he encounters with devoted assistant Chung (who will live forever as the wielder of the deadly “Clicky Ba” – that’s a cricket bat to you and me), but he’s still just an ordinary chap at heart, as are all the other characters spotlighted here. They’re just the sort of people ordinary kids should want to grow up into.

Heroes like Samson actually predate the company’s conversion of prose adventure fiction into comic strips – generally accepted as 1961, when the proliferation of TV sets among the perceived audience dictated the switch from words to pictures.

For many years previously, what children bought were boys’ or girls’ “papers”, packed with well-written text stories and the odd illustration and features page. Thomson held these over in titles such as Adventure until the end of the 1950s, but eventually succumbed to the inevitable, converting their pulp-stars into pictorial idols.

Wolf of Kabul, for instance, began in 1922, but was easily and successfully translated into a comic strip in the 1960s.

In this compendium are both prose stories and strips featuring some of Britain’s best loved and longest running heroes subdivided into categories that mirror the average schoolboy’s interests.

So thrill again, or catch the bug with such Schooldays sagas as The Red Circle School (1940s) and Kingsley Comp (1980s); the sporting triumphs of The Tough of the Track (1949-onwards), Wilson the mysterious Man in Black (The Truth About Wilson: 1943-onwards), or Gorgeous Gus (a millionaire – even before he became a footballer – who didn’t like to run but had an infallible shot).

You might prefer to peruse Cast, Hook and Strike, the story of Joe Dodd: an exceptional angler from the 1970s (yes, a fishing strip, and don’t knock it ‘til you’ve tried it).

Or perhaps your fancy will be caught by the War stories I Flew with Braddock, Code-name Warlord, and V for Vengeance, or the outrageous heroics of Morgyn the Mighty (Strongest Man in Africa), The Laughing Pirate, or The Hairy Sheriff (a cowboy ape).

And, as ever, Wolf of Kabul will capture your fancy and fulfil that desire to sample simpler times.

These tales, taken from the classic periodical publications Adventure, The Skipper, The Wizard and Rover, latterly supplemented by material from Hornet, Hotspur, Victor and Warlord, are accompanied and augmented by numerous glorious cover reproductions and feature pages, loaded with fun and shiny with nostalgia.

I only wish I could name all the creators responsible, but Thomson’s long-standing policy of creative anonymity means I’d be guessing too many times. I can only hope that future collected celebrations will include some belated acknowledgement of all the talented individuals who between them shaped the popular consciousness of generations, and made childhoods joyful, wondrous and thrilling.
© 1991 DC Thomson & Co., Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

Dull Margaret

By Jim Broadbent & DIX (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-68396-098-0

Sequential graphic narrative is arguably the most effective and all-encompassing art form we possess, able to depict the most colossal spectacles and conflicts involving entire populations or the most obscure, internalised, micro-expressive emotional minutiae of a single character (human or otherwise) with equal bombast or subtlety.

It’s also a medium capable of the both broadest brushstrokes and forensic incisiveness, whether the creative intention is big belly laughs, moral outrage or heartbreaking empathy. The only thing that comes close to its infinite variety is acting.

Jim Broadbent is an actor. He’s won Oscars and BAFTAs and Emmys and more, and you’ve seen or heard him in stuff as varied as Brazil and Black Adder, Iris and Moulin Rouge, Harry Potter and Game of Thrones, King Lear and Teletubbies. He has a keen understanding of human foibles, motivations and how life shapes actions.

He once had an idea for a film after being inspired by Pieter Bruegel The Elder’s painting Dulle Griet but couldn’t find the necessary finance. Another avenue presented itself when he began reading DIX’s mordant cartoon strip Roll Up! Roll Up! in The Guardian newspaper…

DIX began his artistic career at British comics publisher Fleetway before moving into grown up political and satirical cartooning with the co-creation of legendary magazine Purr. Since then he graduated to the big time with Roll Up! Roll Up! and recently released the graphic novel KLAXON with collaborator Si Spencer.

When actor met illustrator a kindred sentiment was confirmed and they began turning that Bruegel-triggered idea into a moody masterwork of isolation, privation and misery endured. Set long, long ago in the bleak marshes and salt flats of Broadbent’s Norfolk childhood, the result is Dull Margaret: a pocket-baroque in the grand grotesque tradition and a cautionary tale of Faustian consequences.

In the flat, drear wastes where mud flats meet the sea, a worn-down woman of indeterminate vintage lives alone, combing the mires for interesting articles and catching eels to sell in the local town market. She is bluff, determined, utterly alone and almost certainly a bit mad…

Lost in her own head too much, she ekes out a drear existence in a bleak and unrelentingly austere locale. Even her too-infrequent interactions with her customers only lead to humiliation, disappointment and even robbery/assault…

Eventually, it’s all too much and Margaret fulfils the promise of her fetid appearance by trying her hand at a bit of witchcraft. As always, it’s a cack-handed affair and the muddy crone isn’t sure if she’s accomplished anything…

Two favours she asked of the unheeding unknown: untold riches and a friend to love, but she’s prepared to settle for either or lose both…

And then something happens when a barge is stranded on the mud flats…

Hope, aspiration, greed and loneliness are all viewed through a world-weary lens as a series of events unfold with confounding inexorability, but always the grey mire of her days is pulling Margaret back and down…

Enticing and loathly, this sorry soggy fable abounds with rich mordant humour and powerfully seductive sentiment, all compellingly realised by DIX’s muted palette and amorphous, soft-edged designs. Dull Margaret is a dark delight of character and circumstance to beguile readers who have had their fill of shallow flash and dazzle.
Dull Margaret is © 2018 Jim Broadbent & Dix. This edition © 2018 Fantagraphics Books. All rights reserved.

Dull Margaret is published on 17th July 2018 and available for pre-order. Copies are available now from selected retailers.

For those in London, Jim Broadbent and DIX will be attending events (and presumably signing copies and prints) at Gosh Comics on Wednesday 27th June and Waterstones Piccadilly on Thursday 28th June.

Showcase Presents the Losers Volume 1

By Robert Kanigher, Russ Heath, Joe Kubert, Ross Andru & Mike Esposito, John Severin, Ken Barr & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-3437-9-8

Team-ups are a valuable standby of comics, and war stories have always thrived by mixing strange bedfellows together. None more so than this splendid composite: another woefully neglected series in today’s modern print/digital graphic novels marketplace.

The Losers were an elite unit of American soldiers formed by amalgamating three old war series together. Gunner and Sarge (later supplemented by the Fighting Devil Dog Pooch) were Pacific-based Marines; debuting in All-American Men of War #67, (March1959) and running for fifty issues in Our Fighting Forces (#45-94, May 1959-August 1965), whilst Captain Johnny Cloud was a native American fighter pilot who shot down his first bogie in All-American Men of War #82.

The “Navaho Ace” flew solo until issue #115, (1966) and entered a brief limbo until the final component of the Land/Air/Sea team was filled by Captain Storm, a disabled PT Boat skipper who fought on despite his wooden left leg in his own eponymous 18-issue series from 1964 to 1967. All three series were created by comicbook warlord Robert Kanigher.

The characters had all pretty much passed their individual use-by dates when they were teamed-up as guest-stars in a Haunted Tank tale in 1969 (G.I. Combat #138 October), but these “Losers” found a new resonance together in the relevant, disillusioned, cynical Vietnam years and their somewhat nihilistic, doom-laden group anti-hero adventures took the lead spot in Our Fighting Forces #123 for a run of blistering yarns written by Kanigher and illustrated by such giants as Ken Barr, Russ Heath, Sam Glanzman, John Severin and Joe Kubert.

With the tag-line “even when they win, they lose” the team saw action all over the globe, winning critical acclaim and a far-too-small but passionate following. This magnificent monochrome tome collects that introductory tale from the October 1969 G.I. Combat and the complete formative run of suicidal missions from Our Fighting Forces #123-150 (January /February 1970-August/September 1974), after which comicbook messiah Jack Kirby took over the series for a couple of years and made it, as always, uniquely his own. For that seminal set you must see Jack Kirby’s The Losers Omnibus (no really, you must. That’s an order, Soljer…)

Kanigher often used his stories as a testing ground for new series ideas, and G.I. Combat #138 (October 1969) introduced one of his most successful. ‘The Losers!’, illustrated by the magnificent hyper-realist Russ Heath, saw the Armoured Cavalry heroes of the Haunted Tank encounter a sailor, two marines and grounded pilot Johnny Cloud, each individually and utterly demoralised after negligently losing all the men under their respective commands.

Guilt-ridden and broken, the battered relics were inspired by tank commander Jeb Stuart who fanned their sense of duty and desire for vengeance until the crushed survivors regained a measure of respect and fighting spirit by uniting in a combined suicide-mission to destroy a Nazi Radar tower…

By the end of 1969 Dirty Dozen knock-off Hunter’s Hellcats had long outlived their shelf-life in Our Fighting Forces and with #123 (January/February 1970) evacuated in the epilogue ‘Exit Laughing’ which segued directly into ‘No Medals No Graves’, illustrated by Scottish artist Ken Barr (whose stunning work in paint and line has graced everything from Commando Picture Library covers, through Marvel, DC and Warren, to film, book and TV work) and picked up the tale as Storm, Cloud, Gunner and Sarge sat in enforced, forgotten idleness until the aforementioned Lieutenant Hunter recommended them for a dirty, dangerous job no sane military men would touch…

It appears Storm was a dead ringer for a British agent – even down to the wooden leg – and the Brass needed the washed-up sailor to impersonate their vital human resource. The only problem is that they wanted him to be captured, withstand Nazi torture for 48 hours and then break, delivering damaging disinformation about a vast commando raid that wouldn’t be happening…

The agent would do it himself but he was actually dead…

And there was even work for his despondent companions as a disposable diversionary tactic added to corroborate the secrets Storm should hopefully betray after two agonising days…

Overcoming all expectation the “Born Losers” triumphed and even got away intact, after which Ross Andru & Mike Esposito became the regular art team in #124 when ‘Losers Take All’ showed how even good luck was bad, after a mission to liberate the hostage king of a Nazi-subjugated nation saw them doing all the spectacular hard work before losing their prize to Johnny-come-lately regular soldiers…

‘Daughters of Death’ in #125 found the suicide squad initially fail to rescue a scientist’s children only to blisteringly return and rectify their mistakes, Of course, by then the nervous tension had cracked the Professor’s mind, rendering him useless to the Allied cause…

‘A Lost Town’ opened with The Losers undergoing a Court Martial for desertion. Reviled for allowing the obliteration of a French village, they faced execution until an old blind man and his two grandkids revealed what really happened in the hellish conflagration of Perdu, whilst in ‘Angels Over Hell’s Corner’ a brief encounter with a pretty WREN (Women’s Royal Navy Service) in Blitz-beleaguered Britain drew the unit into a star-crossed love affair that even death itself could not thwart…

In a portmanteau tale which disclosed more details of the events which created The Losers, Our Fighting Forces #128 described the ‘7 11 War’ wherein a hot streak during a casual game of craps presaged disastrous calamity for any unlucky bystander near to the Hard Luck Heroes, after which ‘Ride the Nightmare’ saw Cloud endure horrifying visions and crack up on a mission to liberate a captive rocket scientist, before the team again became a living diversion in #130’s ‘Nameless Target’. However, by getting lost and hitting the wrong target, The Losers gifted the Allies with their greatest victory to date…

John Severin inked Andru in OFF #131, in preparation to taking over the full art chores on the series, and ‘Half a Man’ hinted at darker, grittier tales to come when Captain Storm’s disability and guilty demons began to overwhelm him. Considering himself a jinx, the sea dog attempted to sacrifice himself on a mission to Norway but had not counted on his own brutal will to survive…

Back in London, Gunner & Sarge were temporarily reunited with ‘Pooch: the Winner’ (#132 by Kanigher & Severin), prompting a fond if perilous recollection of an exploit against the Japanese in the distant Pacific. However, fearing their luck was contagious, the soldiers sadly decided the beloved “Fighting Devil Dog” was better off without them…

Dispatched to India in #133’s ‘Heads or Tails’, The Losers were ordered to assassinate the “the Unholy Three” – Japanese Generals responsible for untold slaughter amongst the British and native populations. In sweltering lethal jungles, they only succeeded thanks to the determined persistence and sacrifice of a Sikh child hiding a terrible secret.

Our Fighting Forces #134 saw them brutally fighting from shelled house to hedgerow in Europe until Gunner cracked. When even his partners couldn’t get him to pick up a gun again it took the heroic example of indomitable wounded soldiers to show him who ‘The Real Losers’ were…

Issue #135 began a superb extended epic which radically shook up the team after ‘Death Picks a Loser’. Following an ill-considered fortune telling incident in London, the squad shipped out to Norway to organise a resistance cell, despite efforts to again sideline the one-legged Storm. They rendezvoused with Pastor Tornsen and his daughter Ona and began by mining the entire village of Helgren, determined to deny the Nazis a stable base of operations.

Even after the Pastor sacrificed himself to allow the villagers and Americans time to escape, the plan stumbled when the explosives failed to detonate and Storm, convinced he was a liability, detonated the bombs by hand…

Finding only his wooden leg in the flattened rubble, The Losers were further stunned when the vengeful orphan Ona volunteered to take the tragic sailor’s place in the squad of Doomed Men…

The ice-bound retreat from Helgren stalled in #136 when she offered herself as a ‘Decoy for Death’ leading German tanks into a lethal ambush, after which Cloud soloed in a mission to the Pacific where he found himself inspiring natives to resist the Japanese as a resurrected ‘God of the Losers’

Reunited in OFF #138, the Bad Luck Brigade became ‘The Targets’ when sent to uncover the secret of a new Nazi naval weapon sinking Allied shipping. Once more using Ona as bait they succeed in stunning fashion, but also pick up enigmatic intel regarding a crazy one-eyed, peg-legged marauder attacking both Enemy and Allied vessels off Norway…

Our Fighting Forces #139 introduced ‘The Pirate’, when a band of deadly reivers attacked a convoy ship carrying The Losers and supplies to the Norwegian resistance. Barely escaping with their lives the Squad was then sent to steal a sample of a top secret jet fuel but discovered the Sea Devil had beaten them to it.

Forced to bargain with the merciless mercenary for the prototype, they found themselves in financial and combat competition with an equally determined band of German troops who simply wouldn’t take no for an answer…

‘Lost… One Loser’ revealed that Ona had been with Storm at the end and was now plagued by a survivor’s guilty nightmares. Almost convincing her comrades that he still lived, she led the team on another mission into Norway, the beautiful traumatised girl again used herself as a honey trap to get close to a German bigwig and found incontrovertible proof that Storm was dead when she picked up his battered, burned dog-tag…

Still troubled, she commandeered a plane and flew back to her home to assassinate her Quisling uncle in #141’s ‘The Bad Penny’, only to be betrayed to the town’s German garrison and saved by the pirate who picked that moment to raid the occupied village for loot.

Even with the other Losers in attendance the Pirate’s rapacious rogues were ultimately triumphant but when the crippled corsair snatched Ona’s most treasured possession, the dingy dog-tag unlocked many suppressed memories and Storm (this is comics: who else could it be?) remembered everything…

Answers to his impossible survival came briskly in OFF #142 and ‘½ a Man’ concentrated on the Captain’s struggle to be reinstated. Shipping out to the Far East on a commercial vessel, he was followed by his concerned comrades and stumbled into an Arabian insurrection with three war-weary guardian angels discreetly dogging his heel.

Back with The Losers again in #143, Storm was soon involved in another continued saga as ‘Diamonds are for Never!’ found the Fatalistic Five sent to Africa to stop an SS unit from hijacking industrial diamonds for their failing war effort. However, even after liberating a captured mine from the enemy, the gems eluded the team as a pack of monkeys made off with the glittering prizes…

Hot on their trail in ‘The Lost Mission’ the pursuers stumble onto a Nazi ambush of British soldiers and determine to take on their task – demolishing an impregnable riverside fortress…

Despite being successful the Squad are driven inland and become lost in the desert where they stumble into a French Foreign Legion outpost and join its last survivor in defending ‘A Flag for Losers’ from a merciless German horde and French traitor

Still lost in the trackless wastes they survived ‘The Forever Walk!’ in #146, battling equally-parched Nazis for the last precious drops of water and losing one of their own to a terrifying sandstorm…

In ‘The Glory Road!’ the sun-baked survivors encountered the last survivor of a German ambush, but British Major Cavendish seemed unable to differentiate between his early days as a star of patriotic films and grim reality and when a German patrol captures them all the mockery proves too much for the troubled martinet…

Again lost and without water, in #148 ‘The Last Charge’ saw The Losers save a desert princess and give her warrior father a chance to fulfil a prophecy and die in glorious battle against the Nazi invaders, whilst #149 briefly reunited the squad with their long-missing member before tragically separating again in ‘A Bullet for a Traitor!’

This volume concludes with ‘Mark our Graves’ in #150 as The Losers linked up with members of The Jewish Brigade (a special British Army unit) who all paid a steep price to uncover a secret Nazi supply dump…

Although a superbly action-packed and moving tale, it was an inauspicious end to the run and one which held no hint of the creative culture-shock which would explode in the pages of the next instant issue when the God of American Comicbooks blasted in to create a unique string of “Kirby Klassics”…

With covers by Joe Kubert, Frank Thorne and Neal Adams, this grimly efficient, superbly understated and beautifully rendered collection is a brilliant example of how war comics changed forever in the 1970s and proves that these stories still pack a TNT punch few other forms of entertainment can hope to match.
© 1969, 1970, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1974, 2012 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.