Papyrus volume 3: Tutankhamun, the Assassinated Pharaoh


By Lucien De Geiter, coloured by G. Vloeberghs & translated by Luke Spear (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-1-90546-084-7 (Album PB)

British and European comics have always been happier with historical strips than our American cousins (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 he’s an exception, not a rule).

Our Franco-Belgian brethren in particular have made an astonishing art form out of days gone by. The happy combination of familiar exoticism, past lives and world-changing events blended with drama, action and especially broad humour has resulted in a genre uniquely suited to enchanting 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 but a few which have made it into English, or our own much missed period classics such as Olac the Gladiator, Dick Turpin, Janus Stark, Heros the Spartan or Wrath of the Gods; all far too long overdue for collection in archival form, I might add…

Papyrus is the magnificent magnum opus of Belgian cartoonist Lucien de Gieter. He first saw the light of day in 1974 in legendary weekly Le Journal de Spirou, running to 35 albums thus far, as well as a wealth of merchandise, a television cartoon show and a video game.

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 jump into sequential narrative in 1961, first through ‘mini-récits’ (fold-in, half-sized-booklets) inserts for Spirou, starring his jovial little cowboy ‘Pony’, and later by writing for art-star regulars such as Kiko, Jem, Eddy Ryssack and Francis. He then joined Peyo’s studio as inker on Les SchtroumpfsAKA The Smurfs – and took over the long-running newspaper strip Poussy .

In the 1960s, De Gieter launched South Seas mermaid fantasy Tôôôt et Puit whilst Pony was promoted to the full-sized interior pages of Spirou, deep-sixing the Smurfs gig to expand his horizons working for Le Journal de Tintin and Le Journal de Mickey.

From 1972-1974 De Gieter assisted cartooning legend Berck on Mischa for Germany’s Primo, whilst applying the finishing touches to his dream project: a historical confection which would occupy his full attention and delight millions of fervent fans for the next forty 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 style and content towards a more realistic, dramatic and authentic iteration. The journey came through light fantasy romps leavened and flavoured with the latest historical theories and discoveries and starring a fearlessly forthright boy fisherman favoured by the gods to become a hero of Egypt and friend to Pharaohs…

As a youngster the plucky “fellah” was blessed by the gods and given a magic sword courtesy of the daughter of crocodile-headed Sobek, and the lad’s initial task was to free supreme god Horus from imprisonment in the Black Pyramid of Ombos: thereby restoring peace to the Double Kingdom, but his most difficult and never-ending duty was to protect Pharaoh’s wilful, high-handed and safety-averse daughter Theti-Cheri – a princess with an unparalleled gift for seeking out trouble…

Now available digitally as well as in traditional paperback album format, Tutankhamun, the Assassinated Pharaoh was the third Cinebook translation – 17th in the series and originally released in 1994 as Toutânkhamon, le Pharaon assassiné. The sand and sandals mystery skilfully blends fact and fantasy into a strange and disturbing tale of grave robbery, unquiet ghosts and madness…

It all begins with a squabble between the Mayor of the City of the Dead and his equivalent civil servant for the City of Thebes. The vast, desolate region of imperial tombs, sepulchres and lesser burials is being systematically ransacked by blasphemous thieves and, whilst the aforementioned Executive of the Interred Paur claims the sacrilegious raids must be the work of roving Bedouins, Thebes’ Mayor Paser posits that the vile defilers’ knowledge of the holy sites indicates they must be Egyptians… perhaps even some of Paur’s workers or tomb guards…

Bored with the interminable bickering, Theti-Cheri drags Papyrus and court jester Puin away, demanding they join her father’s lion hunt in the deep desert. Amidst the hustle and bustle, the jolly dwarf is left behind and forced to frustratingly follow on his astoundingly smart donkey Khamelot.

Naturally, this leads to him being attacked by the self-same decrepit man-eater Pharaoh is trying to eradicate, but as Puin frantically flees the hungry cat he sees chariot-borne scout Papyrus save a fellah from brutal grave guards. The grateful peasant is a plant, however, and secretes a golden tomb treasure on the boy hero before knocking him out…

When Papyrus comes to, he is surrounded by soldiers and accused by Paur’s captain Rhama of tomb-robbing. A crowd of suspiciously overly-incensed citizens even try to stone him to death and Pharaoh has no choice but to have the boy imprisoned for trial. However, before the doughty lad can gather his wits, Paur attempts to assassinate the boy hero with snakes and then kidnaps him from his temple cell, hiding his drugged, unconscious form in a secret access shaft to the grave of tragic boy king Tutankhamun

Falling through into the tomb proper, Papyrus’ spirit is suddenly accosted by the ghost of Ankhsenamun and discovers from Tutankhamun’s beloved child-bride how his own peasant great-grandfather played a major role in their tragic romance and the brief, complex reign of the murdered Boy-King…

As Papyrus learns the incredible, unpalatable truth about the legendary ruler’s fate, in the physical world Puin – and Khamelot – have informed Theti-Cheri of the plot. The impetuous Princess rushes to the site and subsequently traps herself in the tomb whilst gold-crazed Paur’s men close in to murder everybody who knows of the Mayor of the City of the Dead’s perfidy. However, the blasphemous bandits have not reckoned on Pharaoh’s cunning perspicacity or a certain donkey’s loyal ingenuity…

This astounding, amazing adventure will thrill and enthral fans of fabulous fantasy – although some of the finer points of Pharaonic marriage customs might distress fainter-hearted parents and guardians – and De Gieter’s clever merging of archaeological revelation with gothic romance and ghost story make for a particularly impressive treat…

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, Asterix or Lucky Luke volumes would be wise beyond their years in acquiring all these classic chronicles. Even smarter would be publisher Cinebook finally releasing the rest of the translated canon before much more sand passes through the hourglass…
© Dupuis, 1994 by De Gieter. All rights reserved. English translation © 2009 Cinebook Ltd.

Giant


By Mikaël, translated by Matt Maden (NBM)
ISBN: 978-1-68112-253-3 (HB) eISBN: 978-1-68112-254-0

As a purported land of promises and untapped opportunity, America has always fascinated storytellers – especially comics-creators – from the “Old World” of Europe: an inclination and interest that has frequently delivered potent and rewarding results. This continentally-published yarn – by self-taught, multi-disciplined, multi award-winning French-born Québécois auteur Mikaël (Junior l’Aventurier, Rapa Nui, Promise) was first released by Dargaud in 2018 as two European albums and now breaks into English via a monolithically oversized hardback (229 x 305mm) edition that gets the entire story done-in-one.

Everything about this stylish Depression-era drama is big and powerfully mythic. In March 1932, with poverty wracking the nation and the world, and Herbert Hoover dreading the upcoming Presidential election, immigrants and natives flock to Manhattan and the bustling, dangerous construction site that will one day be Rockerfeller Center. Casualties are high as we focus on the Irish contingent rushing daily into the skies to rivet and weld a concrete and steel colossus into New York City’s ever-changing skyline.

The story unfolds through the eyes of fresh-off-the-boat new recruit Dan Shackleton who joins the crew after the death of “high-steel” man Ryan Murphy. Dan is a garrulous, easy-going son-of-the-sod, but even he has difficulty befriending the taciturn, thoughtful, barely-human behemoth everyone calls Giant. A formidable worker, Giant lives in a grubby flop-house and keeps to himself, but affable Dan persists and eventually the big man almost-imperceptibly thaws – at least enough that Shackleton becomes unwitting witness to a strange ritual…

Hiding a tragic secret that dates back to the recent Irish War of Independence, the Big Man is a solitary creature of fiercely controlled passions who keeps his every opinion to himself. A dutiful worker, Giant was given the task of informing Murphy’s widow in Ireland when he died. Instead, he began impersonating the dead man in a string of letters containing the bulk of his own carefully-hoarded wages and savings. Over months, a bizarre one-sided relationship develops that metastasizes into a full-blown crisis after the silent bruiser falls foul of organised crime. When the letters and money stop, Mary Ann Murphy and her children take ship for America to be reunited with her beloved husband. As the wounded colossus recuperates, he has no idea of the troubles that are heading his way…

Tapping into a wealth of powerful socially-crusading movies that have immortalised pre-WWII America and packed with period detail and mythology, pungent political commentary, a broad cast of moving characters and timeless drama, this is a human-scaled tale playing out amongst mighty edifices – both human and architectural – with warmth, passion, humour and beguiling humanity.

Supplemented with an Introduction by Jean-Louis Tripp and a stunning selection of production sketches, covers and other art, Giant is a stunning saga of uncommon folk in perilous times and one no lover of grand stories could possibly resist.
© 2018 Dargaud-Benelux. © 2020 NBM for the English Translation. All rights reserved.

Giant is scheduled for UK release April 23rd 2020 and is available for pre-order now.
Most NBM books are also available in digital formats. For more information and other great reads go to NBM Publishing at nbmpub.com.

An Age of Reptiles Omnibus volume 1


By Ricardo Delgado with colours by James Sinclair & Jim Campbell (Dark Horse)
ISBN: 978-1-59582-683-1 (TPB)

As we’re confronted with the prospect of our own extinction-level event – yes, that’s hyperbole, but tell that to the scared millions who can’t actually envisage a world without themselves in it – let’s enjoy ourselves whenever and however we can. For me that’s comics, so let’s look at a classic paperback tome now available in digital editions…

There’s an irresistible, nigh-visceral appeal to dinosaurs. Most of us variously – and too often haphazardly – over-evolved apes seem to be irresistibly drawn to all forms of education and entertainment featuring monster lizards of our primordial past.

Designed as a purely visual experience, this hypnotically beguiling series of sequences from Ricardo Delgado still represents one of the most honestly enchanting brushes with prehistory ever imagined. Age of Reptiles opens a window onto distant eons of saurian dominance and – completely devoid of sound or text – provides a profound, pantomimic silent movie that focuses on a number of everyday experiences which simply have to be exactly how it was, way back then…

Crafted by one of the most respected concept and storyboard men in Hollywood (with credits for Men in Black, The Incredibles, WALL-E, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, The Matrix and much more) these dino-dramas and sauro-sagas offer – even in comics – a unique reading experience that must be seen to be believed, which is why I’m forgoing my usual laborious forensic descriptive blather in favour of a more general appreciation…

The tales originally appeared as a sequence of miniseries between 1993 and 2010 before being subsequently collected as individual compilations. In 2011 this titanic tome, part of Dark Horse’s excellent and economical Omnibus line, gathered the material into one handy Brachiosaur-sized book to treasure forever.

Following the expansive praise of Animator, Director and Producer Genndy Tartarkovsky in his Foreword, the original introductions to initial outing ‘Tribal Warfare’ (from Ray Harryhausen, Burne Hogarth and John Landis) precede a fantastic extended clash between a pack – or perhaps more properly clan – of Deinonychus and a particularly irate opportunistic and undeterrable Tyrannosaur.

The savage struggle, literally red in tooth and claw, takes both sides to the very edge of extinction…

As in all these tales, the astoundingly rendered and realised scenery and environment are as much leading characters in the drama as any meat and muscle protagonists. Moreover, all the other opportunistic scavengers and hangers-on that prowl the peripheries of the war, are ever-eager to take momentary advantage of what seems more a mutual quest for vengeance than a simple battle for survival…

That theme is further explored in ‘The Hunt’ (with then-Disney chief Thomas Schumacher offering his observations in the attendant introduction) wherein the eat-or-be-eaten travails of a mother Allosaurus end only after she dies defending her baby. The culprits are a determined and scarily-organised pack of Ceratosaurs who latterly expend a lot of energy trying to consume the carnosaur’s kid amidst scenes of staggering geographical beauty and terrifying magnificence.

Their failure leads to the beast’s eventual return and a bloody evening of the score. Think of it as Bambi with really big teeth and no hankies required…

The theme of unrelenting and ruthless species rivalry and competition is downplayed or at least diverted for the final episode. ‘The Journey’, with introduction and appreciation by educator and illustrator Ann Field, concentrates on an epic migration across the barren surface of the world as millions of assorted saurians undertake a prodigious and arduous trek to more welcoming feeding and spawning grounds. Because that’s how life works, they are dogged every step of the way by flying, swimming and remorselessly running creatures looking for their next tasty meal…

Supplementing the feral beauty of these astonishing adventures is a full Cover Gallery from the assorted original miniseries and earlier book compilations; Delgado’s fulsome and effulgent Essays on his influences (‘Ray Harryhausen and the Seventh Voyage to the Drive-In’, ‘Desi Arnaz and the Eighth Wonder of the World’, ‘Real Dinosaurs: the Art of Charles R. Knight’ and ‘Zen and Zdeněk Burian’) plus a fabulous, copious and – if you think you’re an artist – envy-invoking Sketchbook section, with everything from quick motion studies to full colour preliminary pieces for the final artwork..

Although occasionally resorting to a judicious amount of creative anachronism and historical overlap, Delgado has an unquestioned love for his subject, a sublime feel for spectacle and an unmatchable gift for pace and narrative progression. Coupled to the deft hand which imbues the vast range and cast of big lizards with instantly recognisable individual looks and characters, this always ensures that the reader knows exactly who is doing what. There’s even room for some unexpectedly but most welcome rough-love humour in these brilliantly simple forthright, primal dramas…
© 1993, 1994, 1996, 1997, 2009, 2010, 2011 Ricardo Delgado. All rights reserved.

Asterix Omnibus volume 1: Asterix the Gaul; Asterix and the Golden Sickle; Asterix and the Goths


By René Goscinny & Albert Uderzo, translated by Anthea Bell & Derek Hockridge (Orion)
ISBN: 978-0-75289-154-5(HB) 978-1-44400-423-6(TPB)

I’ve just heard the sad news about Albert Uderzo, who has just passed away after 92 amazing, gloriously productive and fun-filled years. In the current climate of horrific global crisis, it’s ultimately just one more death, no more or less important than any other, but I’m compelled to mark his end with sadness, inexpressible gratitude and this rerun of a review for his greatest work.

In a career absolutely packed with joyous invention, Uderzo brought happiness and inspiration to generations of readers across the world through Asterix and his many other creations, so I can only say “thank you” to him and urge you to revisit his works if you’re already au fait. If you have never seen his genius in action – especially in conjunction with his perfect partner René Goscinny – this collection is the ideal place to start, and you won’t be sorry…

Asterix the Gaul is probably France’s greatest literary export. The feisty, wily little warrior who fought the iniquities and viewed the myriad wonders of Julius Caesar’s Roman Empire with brains, bravery and – whenever necessary – a magical potion imbuing the imbiber with incredible strength, speed and vitality, is the go-to reference all us non-Gallic gallants when we think of France.

The diminutive, doughty darling was created at the close of the 1950s by two of our artform’s greatest masters…

René Goscinny is arguably the most prolific and remains one of the most-read writers of comic strips the world has ever known. Born in Paris in 1926, he grew up in Argentina where his father taught mathematics. From an early age René showed artistic promise. He studied fine arts and graduated in 1942. Three years later, while working as junior illustrator at an ad agency, his uncle invited him to stay in America, where he worked as a translator.

After National Service in France, he returned to the States and settled in Brooklyn, pursuing an artistic career and becoming, in 1948, an assistant for a small studio which included Harvey Kurtzman, Will Elder, Jack Davis and John Severin, as well as European giants-in-waiting Maurice de Bévère (Morris, with whom from 1955-1977 Goscinny produced Lucky Luke) and Joseph Gillain (Jijé).

Goscinny also met Georges Troisfontaines, head of the World Press Agency, the company that provided comics for the French magazine Le Journal de Spirou.

After contributing scripts to Belles Histoires de l’Oncle Paul and Jerry Spring, Goscinny was promoted to head of World Press’ Paris office where he met his ultimate creative collaborator Albert Uderzo. In his spare time, Rene also created Sylvie and Alain et Christine with Martial Durand (Martial) and Fanfan et Polo, drawn by Dino Attanasio.

In 1955, Goscinny, Uderzo, Charlier and Jean Hébrard formed the independent syndicate Édipress/Édifrance, creating magazines for business and general industry (Clairon for the factory union and Pistolin for a chocolate factory). With Uderzo, René spawned Bill Blanchart, Pistolet and Benjamin et Benjamine, whilst illustrated his own scripts for Le Capitaine Bibobu.

Under nom-de-plume Agostini he wrote Le Petit Nicholas (drawn by Jean-Jacques Sempé), and in 1956 began an association with revolutionary periodical Le Journal de Tintin, writing for various illustrators including Attanasio(Signor Spagetti), Bob De Moor (Monsieur Tric), Maréchal (Prudence Petitpas), Berck (Strapontin), Globule le Martienand Alphonse for Tibet; as well as Modeste et Pompon for André Franquin, and – with Uderzo – the fabulously funny adventures of inimitable Indian brave Oumpah-Pah. He also wrote for the magazines Paris-Flirt and Vaillant.

In 1959, Édipress/Édifrance launched Pilote, and Goscinny went into overdrive. The first issue featured re-launched versions of Le Petit Nicolas, Jehan Pistolet/Jehan Soupolet, new serials Jacquot le Mousse and Tromblon et Bottaclou(drawn by Godard), plus a little something called Astérix le gaulois: inarguably the greatest achievement of his partnership with Uderzo.

When Georges Dargaud bought Pilote in 1960, Goscinny became Editor-in-Chief, but still found time to add new series Les Divagations de Monsieur Sait-Tout (with Martial), La Potachologie Illustrée (Cabu), Les Dingodossiers (Gotlib) and La Forêt de Chênebeau (Mic Delinx).

He also wrote frequently for television, but never stopped creating strips such Les Aventures du Calife Haroun el Poussahfor Record and illustrated by Swedish artist Jean Tabary. A minor success, it was re-tooled as Iznogoud when it transferred to Pilote. Goscinny died far too young, in November 1977.

Alberto Aleandro Uderzo was born on April 25th 1927, in Fismes, on the Marne, a child of Italian immigrants. As a boy reading Mickey Mouse in Le Pétit Parisien, he showed artistic flair from an early age. Alberto became a French citizen when he was seven and dreamed of becoming an aircraft mechanic, but at 13 he became an apprentice of the Paris Publishing Society, learning design, typography, calligraphy and photo retouching.

When WWII broke out, he spent time with farming relatives in Brittany, joining his father’s furniture-making business. Brittany beguiled Uderzo: when a location for Asterix’s idyllic village was being decided upon the region was the only choice…

In the post-war rebuilding of France, Uderzo returned to Paris to become a successful illustrator in the country’s burgeoning comics industry. His first published work – a pastiche of Aesop’s Fables – appeared in Junior and, in 1945, he was introduced to industry giant Edmond-François Calvo (whose masterpiece The Beast is Dead is long overdue for the world’s closer attention…).

Young Uderzo’s subsequent creations included indomitable eccentric Clopinard, Belloy, l’Invulnérable, Prince Rollin and Arys Buck. He illustrated Em-Ré-Vil’s novel Flamberge, worked in animation, as a journalist, as an illustrator for France Dimanche and created vertical comic strip ‘Le Crime ne Paie pas’ for France-Soir.

In 1950, he drew a few episodes of the franchised European version of Fawcett’s Captain Marvel Jr. for Bravo!

Another inveterate traveller, the young artist met Goscinny in 1951. Soon fast friends, they decided to work together at the new Paris office of Belgian Publishing giant World Press. Their first collaboration was in November of that year; a feature piece on savoir vivre (how to live right or gracious living) for women’s weekly Bonnes Soirée, after which an avalanche of splendid strips and serials poured forth.

Jehan Pistolet and Luc Junior were created for La Libre Junior and they produced a comedy Western starring a very Red (but not so American) Indian who evolved into Oumpah-Pah. In 1955, with the formation of Édifrance/Édipresse, Uderzo drew Bill Blanchart for La Libre Junior, replacing Christian Godard on Benjamin et Benjamine before, in 1957 adding Charlier’s Clairette to his bulging portfolio.

The following year, he made his Tintin debut, as Oumpah-Pah finally found a home and rapturous audience. Uderzo also illuminated Poussin et Poussif, La Famille Moutonet and La Famille Cokalane

When Pilote launched in 1959, Uderzo was the major creative force for the new magazine, limning Charlier’s Tanguy et Laverdure and a humorous historical strip about Romans…

Although Asterix was a massive hit from the start, Uderzo continued working with Charlier on Michel Tanguy, (subsequently Les Aventures de Tanguy et Laverdure), but soon after the first serial was collected in a single volume 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 of Asterix tales dropped from two per year to one volume every three-to-five).

By 1967, Asterix 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 had to be convinced to continue the adventures as writer and artist. Happily, he gave in and produced a further ten volumes before retiring in 2009.

According to UNESCO’s Index Translationum, Uderzo is the 10th most-often translated French-language author in the world and 3rd most-translated French language comics author – right behind his old mate René and the grand master Hergé.

So what’s it all about?

Like all entertainments the premise works on two levels: as an action-packed comedic romp of sneaky and bullying baddies coming a-cropper for younger readers and as a pun-filled, sly and witty satire for older, wiser heads, transformed here by the brilliantly light touch of master translators Anthea Bell & Derek Hockridge (who played no small part in making the indomitable little Gaul so very palatable to the English tongue).

Originally published in Pilote #1-38 (29th October 1959-4th July 1960, with the first page appearing a week earlier in a promotional issue #0, distributed on June 1st 1959), the story is set on the tip of Uderzo’s beloved Brittany coast in the year 50BC.

Here a small village of redoubtable warriors and their families frustrate every effort of the immense but not so irresistible Roman Empire to complete their conquest of Gaul. Unable to defeat these Horatian hold-outs, the Empire resorts to a policy of containment leaving the little seaside hamlet hemmed in by the heavily fortified permanent garrisons of Totorum, Aquarium, Laudanum and Compendium.

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…

In Asterix the Gaul this immaculate comedy-drama scenario is hilariously demonstrated when Centurion Crismus Bonus– fed up with his soldiers being casually beaten up by the fiercely free Frenchmen – sends reluctant spy Caligula Minus to ferret out the secret of their incredible strength.

The affable insurgents take the infiltrator in and, soon dosed up with potion, the perfidious Roman escapes with the answer – if not the formula itself…

Soon after, wise Druid Getafix is captured by the invaders and the village seems doomed, but wily Asterix is on the case. Breaking into Compendium and determined to teach the Romans a lesson, he drives them crazy for ages by resisting all efforts at bribery and coercion, until abruptly wizard and warrior seemingly capitulate and make the Romans a magic potion – but not the one the rapacious oppressors were hoping for…

Although comparatively raw and unpolished, the good-natured, adventurous humour and sheer energy of the yarn barrels along, delivering barrages of puns, oodles of insane situations and loads of low-trauma slapstick action, all marvellously rendered in Uderzo’s seductively stylish bigfoot art-style.

From the second saga on the unique and expanding cast would encroach on events, especially the unique and expanded, show-stealing sidekick Obelix – who had fallen into a vat of potion as a baby – and became a genial, permanently superhuman, eternally hungry foil to our little wise guy…

Asterix and the Golden Sickle was originally serialised in Pilote #42-74 and recounts the disastrous consequences of Getafix losing his ceremonial gold sickle just before the grand Annual Conference of Gaulish Druids. Since time is passing and no ordinary replacement will suffice to cut ingredients for magic potion, Asterix offers to go all the way to Lutetia (you can call it Paris if you want) to find another.

As Obelix has a cousin there – Metallurgix the Smith – he also volunteers for the trip and the punning pair are swiftly off, barely stopping to teach assorted bandits the errors of their pilfering ways but still finding a little time to visit many roadside inns and taverns serving traditional roast boar…

There is concurrently a crisis in Lutetia: a mysterious gang is stealing all the Golden Sickles and forcing prices up. The druid community is deeply distressed and, more worrying still, master sickle-maker Metallurgix has gone missing. Asterix and Obelix investigate the dastardly doings in their own bombastic manner and discover a nefarious plot that seems to go all the way to the office of the local Roman Prefect…

The early creative experiment was quickly crystallizing into a supremely winning format of ongoing weekly episodes slowly building into complete and readily divisible adventures. The next epic cemented the strip’s status as a popular icon of Gallic excellence.

Asterix and the Goths ran from 1962-1963 and followed the dangling plot-thread of the Druid Conference as Getafix, brand new sickle in hand, sets off for the Forest of the Carnutes to compete. However, on the Gaul’s Eastern border savage Goths – barbarians who remained unconquered by the might of the empire – crossed into pacified Roman territory. The barbarians are intent on capturing the mightiest Druid and turning his magic against the rule of Julius Caesar

Although non-Druids aren’t allowed into the forest, Asterix and Obelix had accompanied Getafix to its edge, and as the competition round of the Conference ends in victory for him and his power-potion, the Goths strike, abducting him in his moment of triumph…

Alerted by fellow Druid Prefix, our heroic duo track the kidnappers, but are mistaken for Visigoths by Roman patrols, allowing the Goths to cross the border into Germania. Although Romans are no threat, they can be a time-wasting hindrance, so Asterix and Obelix disguise themselves as Romans to invade the Barbarian lands…

Well-used to being held prisoner by now, Getafix is making himself a nuisance to his bellicose captors and a genuine threat to the wellbeing of his long-suffering translator. When Asterix and Obelix are captured dressed as Goths, the wily Gauls conceive a cunning plan to end the ever-present threat of Gothic invasion – a scheme that continues successfully for almost two thousand years…

Asterix is one of the most popular comics in the world, translated into 111 languages; with a host of animated and live-action movies, assorted games and even his own theme park (Parc Astérix, near Paris). More than 380 million copies of 38 Asterix books have been sold worldwide, making Goscinny & Uderzo France’s bestselling international authors.

This is sublime comics storytelling and you’d be as Crazy as the Romans not to increase that statistic by finally getting around to acquiring your own copies of this fabulous, frolicsome French Folly.
© 1961-1963 Goscinny/Uderzo. Revised English translation © 2004 Hachette. All rights reserved.

Marada the She-Wolf


By Chris Claremont & John Bolton (Titan Books)
ISBN: 987-0-85768-632-9 (HB) (TPB)

Scantily clad hot chicks swinging swords have been a staple of fantasy comics from their very inception. It’s a meme that has endured even as we (some of us anyway) grew up a bit and discovered it’s just as prevalent in the movies and on TV. If it going to be a thing, at least let’s see it done properly and probably nobody has done it better – certainly visually – than Chris Claremont and John Bolton.

This recycled yet supremely satisfying, luxuriously oversized (302 x 226 mm) hardback compilation of their collaborative fantasy saga will satisfy all aficionados of wild adventure and stirring sagas – especially in a world where faux historical dramas like Game of Thrones and The Witcher are still garnering interest in “Things Old, Things Forgotten”…

As detailed in Jo Duffy’s Introduction and collection Editor Steve Cook’s background essays ‘Birth of a Warrior’, ‘The Art of War’, ‘Epic Tales’ and ‘Legacy’, these stories – set in the cosmopolitan days of Imperial Rome – originated in Epic Illustrated (Marvel’s 1980’s response to Heavy Metal magazine) beginning with #10, February 1982.

Originally the strip appeared in beautiful monochrome wash-&-line, and although I would have preferred them to have been left that way for this collection, Bolton’s sensitive conversion of the art to painted colour is lush, lovely and stunningly effective.

By the way, that possibly waspish crack about recycling doesn’t just refer to the art, superb though it is. The original story started life as a Red Sonja yarn for monochrome anthology Bizarre Adventures, before Claremont & Bolton reworked the thing and, by inserting the whole kit and caboodle into the “real” world of the Ancient Roman – albeit embroidered with Celtic myth and legend – and added a satisfying layer of dramatic authenticity to the mix which still leaves it head-and-shoulders above all other Sword and Sorcery “Bad Girls” tales, as well as most fantasy fiction…

The literary pre-game warm-up also includes an effusive memo from the author as ‘Claremont on Bolton’ offers more creative insight on why these seldom-seen stories are just so darn good before the wonderment unfolds in the initial tale ‘Marada the She-Wolf: The Shattered Sword’.

The ferociously independent warrior woman is a wandering mercenary whose grandfather was Julius Caesar. When her parents fell into political disfavour, she was whisked from the Eternal City to live free and grow wild. Now, years later in the deserts near Damascus she is rescued from slavers by charismatic Warrior-Magician Donal MacLlyanllwyr. Strangely, the indomitable Marada he remembers is gone and all he liberates is a broken doll, traumatised by some unspoken horror and utterly devoid of will and spirit…

Mystically transporting her to the arboreal citadel of Ashandriar, amidst the misty hills of distant Britain, the baffled soldier seeks the aid of patron sorceress Rhiannon to diagnose, if not cure, her malady.

As Marada gradually recovers, she forms a bond with Donal’s daughter Arianrhod; a girl of vast, if unschooled, magical power. Before long, the ghastly secret of Marada’s malaise is revealed when a demonic creature invades the mystic keep, killing Donal and abducting Arianrhod.

Enraged and desperate, Marada braves Hell itself and slashes her way through an army of devils to rescue the child she now considers as much daughter as friend from a wizard and demon conclave. They initially broke the warrior woman as part of a convoluted scheme to reign on Earth…

The re-galvanised She-Wolf is ultimately victorious, but the horrific confrontation leaves her and Arianrhod stranded in East Africa. With no other option, the triumphant duo begin the long exhausting walk home to Albion…

From Epic #12, ‘Royal Hunt’ is a shorter, self-contained tale wherein Marada and Arianrhod, after escaping the Infernal Realm, are taken by Ashake, barbaric Empress of Amazonian nation of Meroë. The Battle Queen offers her captives the dubious distinction of being the quarry in a hunt (a competent if cheekily uninspired variation of Richard Connell’s landmark 1924 short story – and equally influential 1932 movie – The Most Dangerous Game).

Sadly, both predator and prey are unaware malign male mercenaries are lurking about, with the worst of all intentions for the unsuspecting women. Hard-fought combat and the sudden intervention of the sneaking male scum makes allies of Ashake and Marada, leading to the voyagers’ final tale, ‘Wizard’s Masque’ (Epic Illustrated #23-24, April & June 1984) which finds the long-lost Europeans aboard merchant ship Raven, bound for Roman port Massilia. However, impetuous Arianrhod gets bored with their slow progress and tries a transportation spell, opening a portal to nether realms and letting something really ghastly out of hell…

Beating the beast back, Marada falls though the gap in reality to materialise on an Arabic pirate ship currently engaged in a life-and-death clash with soldiers of an Eastern Kaydif. Her sudden presence turns the tide and soon she is partner to flamboyant corsair Taric Redhand, who swears to get her back to her home and lost “daughter”…

Typically, Marada has also been noticed by sinisterly seductive sorcerer Jaffar Ibn Haroun Al-Rashid. Although he purports to be a friend – and potential lover – able to reunite her with The Raven, he conceals a connection to the same demonic alliance that originally targeted the She-Wolf in faraway Rome. He is also, in all things, a creature of passion and self-serving convictions, capable of absolutely anything to achieve his own ends…

Ultimately however, the wanderer knows she can only depend upon herself to find her way back to Arianrhod and home…

Moody, passionate and powerfully evocative, this is a classic work of comics fantasy that will certainly all delight fans of the genre.
© & ™ 2013 John Bolton and Christ Claremont. All rights reserved.

Phoolan Devi: Rebel Queen


By Claire Fauvel, translated by Montana Kane (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-68112-251-9 (HB)

Born in 1988, award-winning graphic novelist Claire Fauvel (À la recherche d’Alvaro Dolor; Sur les pas de Teresa, la religieuse de Calcutta [w/Marie-Noëlle Pichard]; Une Saison en Égypte; Catherine’s War [w/Julia Billet]) studied illustration at Paris’ l’école Estienne and animation at l’école des Gobelins before beginning an illustrious career in bande dessinée. She’s particularly adroit and adept with female historical figures and her latest tome gives her plenty to work with…

Phoolan Devi: Rebel Queen is that rare event, a history that has all the energy and impetus of a great action adventure and pioneering, political tract. Despite being a factual graphic biography, this is the stuff of legend and grand drama, detailing the astounding, appalling, tragic and triumphant life of a woman who bucked India’s ancient, all-pervasive caste system. Victim from birth of poverty and inequality, she sought change through bloody deeds and ultimately political action in a country where prejudice is institutionalised: expressed via cultural violence, and which fostered for millennia a tyrannical social system of inherent, inbuilt corruption where gods and birth status forever dictate one’s position in life…

Phoolan suffered a double blow at birth: born both poor and female. Never educated, she remained illiterate all her life. A life of being shunned and grinding poverty was exacerbated when she was married off at age 11, starting a harrowing pattern of slavery and sexual abuse lasting until she was rescued by a troop of the legendary bandits infesting Uttar Pradesh at the time. They were actually more decent – and heroic – than most respectable citizens (men), civil authorities and police officers of the region. Becoming lover to one of the gang, she suffered even greater abuse when he was murdered by a rival from a different caste.

Surviving these assaults, Phoolan organised an infamous vengeance massacre at the village of Behmai. That slaughter was picked up by the press, who recast her as a rebel queen and her lover a martyr. The public began using the honorific “Devi” for her and, after a mythic career, she surrendered to authorities in 1983. Over eleven years of imprisonment, 48 capital charges including murder, plunder, arson and kidnapping were incrementally dropped before a trial that never came. In 1994, the state government led by Mulayam Singh Yadav of the Samajwadi Party withdrew all charges and she walked free. Joining the party, she was elected to national office twice, becoming a strong advocate for radical change, in the caste system and the patriarchal treatment of women. Regarded as the “voice of the oppressed”, on 26th July 2001 her past caught up with her when she was assassinated by relatives of the bandits killed at Behmai.

Fauvel took her inspiration from acclaimed 1996 autobiography Moi, Phoolan Devi, reine des bandits by Phoolan Devi & Marie-Thérèse Cuny, and although not all of those events are included in this stunning and uncompromising account, the supremely enticing and engaging art manages to mix in a few moments of hopeful aspiration, happy romance and family unity to offset the revolting iniquities Phoolan and other women had to survive on a daily basis.

Nevertheless, this brilliant tale is grim and unflinching in the portrayal of the constant assaults and abuses she endured, so you’d better gird yourself for plenty of righteous indignation and outright anger at the catalogue of venality and casual intolerance civilised folk still seem capable of…

Potent, unmissable, and primed to continue the fight, this is a book you must read.
© 2018 Casterman. © 2020 NBM for the English translation.

Phoolan Devi: Rebel Queen will be published on March 19th 2020 and is available for pre-order. NBM books are also available in digital formats. For more information and other great reads go to NBM Publishing at nbmpub.com

Muhammad Ali


By Sybille Titeux de la Croix & Amazing Améziane, translated by Nicole Seguin-Morris for Studio Cutie (Dark Horse Books)
ISBN: 978-1-50670-318-3 (HB) eISBN: 978-1-63008-899-6

Fuelled largely by European comics, there’s a superb wealth of graphic biographies and auto biographies around for us mere English-speakers and I’ve reviewed a fair few of them. One of the best is this redoubtable treat from 2016, crafted by all-round artist and musician Sybille Titeux de la Croix (L’Apparition, Dostoyevski’s Gratte Moi La Puce) who studied at the École nationale supérieure des arts décoratifs. Her tag-team partner and illustrator here goes by Amazing Améziane: a multi-disciplinary creator, screenwriter and avowed child of the 1970s. He started crafting comics in 2001 and his other efforts include Clan, Bagmen and Cuatro Manos.

Their subject certainly needs no introduction. Born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. on January 17th 1942, he rose to fame through professional boxing during the most turbulent period in American history. Smart, incredibly fit and ferociously determined, he used his fame to become an activist, philanthropist and political and social influencer long before the term was coined or even possible. You don’t need me to tell you how important he was: history does that perfectly well and this superb appreciation and distillation of his life – available in hardback and digital editions – adds stylish gloss and polish to it all.

Following the Introduction from author Titeux de la Croix, the potent blend of narrative art and calligraphic declamation begins with ‘Equality’, relating the early days in Louisville, Kentucky, describing the day to day hardships of segregation, racist atrocities such as ‘The Murder of Emmett Till’ and how little Cassius Clay accidentally falls into boxing after his bike is stolen…

Grit, determination and focus carry him to the Olympics where he wins gold, and back to America where he still can’t ride some buses or eat in any diner he chooses…

‘Islam’ relates the days of political and religious awakening, meeting Henry Cooper and Malcolm X, proving he’s “the Greatest” and changing his name…

Diverting for a detailed and comprehensive analysis of ‘Ali’s Technique’, we follow the champion’s major bouts and landmark fights in and out of the ring (with specific reference to FBI boss J. Edgar Hoover’s obsessive investigations) and the time when pro civil rights advocates started being assassinated, leading to a quest for ‘Justice’

The increasingly famous fighter becomes a figurehead through the late 1960s and spokesman in the 1970s, all the while combatting other boxers, media persecution and the aging process, before the later years of ‘Freedom’ culminate in 1984’s ‘Diagnosis: Parkinson’s’ and the long, slow unwinnable fight that ultimately claimed his life on June 3rd 2016…

Remarkable and uncompromising – the book, as well as the man – Muhammad Ali celebrates a unique life and unmatchable achievements with compelling effect. Even if you don’t like biographies or sports, this is a story and graphic treat every comics lover will want to see…
Muhammad Ali, Ali the Great © ÉDITIONS DU LOMBARD (DARGUAD- LOMBARD S.A.) 2015 by Amazing Améziane, Sybille Titeux de la Croix. All rights reserved.

Paul Robeson for Beginners


By Paul Von Blum, illustrated by Elizabeth Von Notias & Ramses (For Beginners)
ISBN: 978-1-934389-81-2 (PB)

The For Beginners book series produces heavily illustrated text primers: graphic non-fiction foundation courses in a vast variety of subjects from art to philosophy, politics to history and much more, all tackled in an accessible yet properly respectful manner. This particular volume was written by Paul Von Blum, author and Senior Lecturer in African American Studies and Communication Studies at UCLA with a wealth of strips and illustrations by graphic design specialist Elizabeth Von Notias and self-taught multi-media creator Ramses.

If remembered at all, Paul Robeson (April 9th 1898 – January 23rd 1976) is thought of by most people as that African American singer/actor with an incredible bass voice. Maybe some will recall that he was a left-wing political activist who fell foul of Senator Joe McCarthy during America’s infamous “Red-baiting” witch-hunting period.

That’s true enough, but he was also one of the most accomplished and gifted individuals in the nation’s history: a true Renaissance man cheated of his ultimate potential simply because his skin was the wrong colour…

The Introduction lists Robeson’s astonishing accomplishments – all the more amazing when you realise the lack of opportunities if not outright repression facing negroes in segregated America at the time of his birth, and not truly confronted until the Civil Rights movement began gaining traction in the late 1950s.

As told in more telling detail – both in word and pictures in ‘The Early Days’, ‘Paul Robeson the Athlete’, ‘Paul Robeson the Stage Actor’, ‘Paul Robeson the Screen Actor’ and ‘Paul Robeson the Singer’ – the unheralded superman was born in Princeton, New Jersey; the son of a preacher. He was the last of five children in a time and place rigidly defined by class and race divisions.

A brilliant student, Robeson graduated Somerville High School in 1915 and won a four-year scholarship to Rutgers University where, despite initial hostility and actual physical assaults, he became the star of the Football, Baseball, Basketball and Athletics squads, and was twice designated “All-American”.

From there he attended New York University Law School, before transferring to Columbia University Law School. Talented and seemingly tireless, he turned an interest in the dramatic arts into a part-time stage career and also became a professional Football player in 1920. He got married, acted, sang, played Pro ball and kept on studying. Graduating from Columbia in 1923, he worked as a lawyer at a prestigious law firm until the bigotry he experienced from his own subordinates became too much.

In 1924 he switched from stage acting to movies, but still carried on a glittering international career: starring as Othello in London and playing in many hit plays and musicals such as Showboat, Emperor Jones, Stevedore and All God’s Chillun’s Got Wings

Politically active, he visited the Soviet Union in 1934, spoke out against Fascism during the Spanish Civil War, co-founded the anti-colonial Council on African Affairs and used his name and fame to agitate for social and legal changes in such contentious areas as Southern lynch law and trade union legislation. These activities made him a prime target in the USA and in 1941 J. Edgar Hoover ordered the FBI to open a file on him…

In 1950 the US government took away Robeson’s passport because he refused to recant his pro-Soviet, pro-socialist stance and he became an exile in his own country. He was unable to leave America for eight years, until a Supreme Court ruling decreed the State Department had no right to revoke passports due to an individual’s political beliefs.

Robeson’s life was filled with such social and cultural landmarks. Once free to travel again, he became an international political celebrity and social commentator, using his concerts and stage appearances in places as disparate as Wales, Australia, Russia, East Germany and elsewhere to promote a dream of World “Freedom, Peace and Brotherhood”…

His beliefs, struggles achievements and failures are examined in ‘Paul Robeson the International Activist’, ‘Paul Robeson the Domestic Political Activist’ before culminating in a thorough appreciation of ‘The Final Years and His Lasting Legacy’

Augmented by a ‘Bibliography’, ‘Selected Chronology’ and creator biographies, this absorbing documentary – available in paperback and digital editions – proves again the astounding power of visual narrative when wedded to the life story of a truly unique individual.
© 2013 Paul Von Blum. Illustrations © 2013 Elizabeth Von Notias & Ramses. All rights reserved. A For Beginners Documentary Comic Book © 2013.

Incognegro: A Graphic Mystery (New Edition/10th Anniversary Edition)


By Mat Johnson & Warren Pleece, with Clem Robbins (Berger Books/Dark Horse)
ISBN: 978-1-50670-564-4 (HB) eISBN: 978-1-50670-591-0

What’s prejudice? How does bigotry and that unthinking fear and hatred of otherness work? What happens when haters can’t tell the difference between “us” and “them?” Those are frankly disturbing and astonishing questions first asked in 2008 in an Original Graphic Novel released by DC’s Vertigo imprint that made a lot of noise and changed some lives. The book won acclaim and awards and its subject matter started a few conversations in exactly the right places: classrooms where it became a selected text for high schools and colleges.

This 10th Anniversary edition reprints the original tale in all its moody monochrome glory, backed up by a contextualising Author’s Note (‘I grew up a black boy who looked white’) and Afterword; a copious sketchbook section featuring designs by Pleece and ‘Reading Group Guide/Questions & Topics for Discussion’.

The tale itself is set in the segregationist South in the early 1930s and opens at a social gathering in Tuscaloosa with families all happily gathering to see a black boy strung up. As the attendees patiently queue for a picture with the “strange fruit”, a newcomer takes their names and addresses. It’s only when the photographer denies hiring him that Zane Pinchback of New York City’s African American newspaper The New Holland Herald realises he’s pushed his luck and needs to run for his life…

Sadly, however, not before a visiting bigwig from the Ku Klux Klan gats a good look at him and starts wondering…

Safely back north of the Mason-Dixon Line, Zane’s latest headline grabber upsets liberals and shames the perpetrators but the journalist is still unhappy. His exposés change nothing and he feels a fraud: a proud black man who makes a living pretending to be white. He can’t even use his own name – hence the byline “Incognegro” – or face on his widely syndicated columns: that would instantly negate the genetic advantage of a negro who can “pass”…

Things are liberal enough in Manhattan that he and his debonair wastrel pal Carl can intermingle with most folk and go drinking in swish clubs, but Zane knows things can go bad easily enough and resolves to quit and go legit…

His editor staunchly refuses to accept, instead offering him a deal: one more undercover assignment. He is certain Zane will accept. The negro jailed in Tupelo, Mississippi and accused of killing a white woman is a man he’s known his entire life. Heading off in a hurry and readying himself to play the high stakes game of his life, Zane has no idea how complex and convoluted this case will be, or that blithely incautious Carl has invited himself along to a place where his kind of idiocy has lethal consequences…

Author Mat Johnson took inspiration from his own childhood and the activities of Walter White (ultimately Chief Exec of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) who began his career investigating lynchings because of the same genetic quirk as Zane Pinchback…

Available in hardcover, trade paperback, digital editions and even in its original DC/Vertigo edition – Incognegro is smart, funny where it can be and devastatingly effective whenever it needs to be. As well as the racial injustice so savagely skewered here, this is a cunning and engrossing murder mystery with plenty of twists, which even finds room to have a stab at the still largely unaddressed problems of women’s independence and transgender acceptance. If you love great storytelling underpinned by real-world issues, this is something you must see.
Incognegro™ © 2008, 2018 Mat Johnson and Warren Pleece. All rights reserved.

Obscura


By Luke Cartwright & Lukasz Wnuczek (Marcosia)
ISBN:978-1-64764-746-9 (HB)

We haven’t looked at a really engrossing horror yarn for simply ages, so it’s a good thing that this stunning dose of macabre graphic gothic mania plunked down in my review copies vestibule…

Obscura comes from and is about the Land Down Under (Tasmania actually!): an act of love and perseverance begun in 2012 but finally perfected and released last year by author Luke Cartwright and illustrator Lukasz Wnuczek. It’s presented here for your delectation and elucidation (and probably trepidation)…

Set on the island of Van Diemen’s Land (a former Crown prison colony and site of one of the British Empire’s most appalling atrocities: just look up the Black War if you have the stomach), it opens in 1870 with the rather outré preoccupations of master William Morier. The 12-year old is already a gifted cosmetician and mortician like his father, but his odd-yet-comfortable life is ruined by a double blow: meeting with the spiritualist children Catherine and Annabel White and a scandal involving body-snatching and the local medical school.

The White girls are controversial celebrities in the township, a place even more death-obsessed than most Victorian enclaves. When Annabel ends up on the Morier mortuary slab, dead from causes unknown, William’s path in life is forever altered…

A crafty tale within a tale, the drama resumes a decade later. As well as burying bodies, William is a gifted photographer and, after discussing the profitability of his wife’s childhood scams, sets upon a new enterprise, for his need is great and urgent.

Catherine Morier (nee White) suffers a dire medical malady and her doting husband needs plenty of cash to pay for an operation. His solution is Spirit Photography: combining portraits of living clients with the ghosts of departed loved ones who still cling unseen to them.

Sadly, not everyone’s a believer. A certain policeman keeps hanging around, especially after one of the captured phantasms is seen working in a local shop…

As William gets deeper and deeper into the fraudulent hole he’s dug for himself, the walls between chicanery, criminality, murder and the inescapable horror of the true Unknown start to blur and bleed together…

Mordant and compelling, this bleak tale is rendered in mesmerising monochrome tones and washes (almost like daguerreotypes, maybe?), building a noir edifice of stark choices and unlikely outcomes for the protagonists whom it’s simply impossible to dislike. Especially effective is the period language, which is authentic sounding, remarkably restrained and deliciously sparse. Cartwright is a writer who knows when to let Wnuczek’s pictures do the talking.

A decidedly effective dalliance with the dark and one no lover of period thrillers and slyly witty horror should miss.
Text & illustrations © Luke Cartwright & Lukasz Wnuczek 2019