Viking Glory: The Viking Prince

Viking Glory: The Viking Prince

By Lee Marrs & Bo Hampton (DC Comics)
ISBN: 1-56389-001-1 ISBN-13: 978-1-56389-007-9

During the 1950s, when superheroes were in a seemingly inescapable trough, comic book companies looked to different forms of leading men for their action heroes. In 1955 writer/editor Robert Kanigher created a traditional adventure comic entitled The Brave and the Bold that featured historical strips. The Golden Gladiator, illustrated by Russ Heath was set in the declining days of Rome, The Silent Knight fought injustice in post-Norman Britain, courtesy of Irv Novick, and the already-legendary Joe Kubert drew the adventures of a valiant young Norseman dubbed the Viking Prince.

This last strip appeared in all but one issue (#6), eventually taking over the entire comic, until the burgeoning superhero boom saw B&B become a try-out title with its twenty-fifth issue. Those fanciful, practically “Hollywoodish” Viking sagas were among some of the finest adventure comics of all time and they’re long overdue for a definitive collection of their own, since the character of Jon has long been a fan favourite, intermittently returning in DC’s war titles and often guest-starring in such varied venues as Sgt. Rock and even Justice League of America.

This beautiful, vital and enchanting tale was released to very little fanfare in 1991, but remains a worthy sequel to those early strips. Scripter Lee Marrs took all the advances in our historical knowledge since the 1950s and blended them with the timeless basics of a Classical Edda to entrancing effect. Amidst a culture vibrantly brought to full life by her words and Bo Hampton’s awesome skill with a brush she has grasped a passionate but reserved old archetype and remade him as a fiery young hero of devastating charm, full of all the boisterous vigour of his mythic race, and confronted him with his worst nightmare.

In 10th century Scandinavia, Jon Rolloson, heir to Jarl Rollo of Gallund, is a perfect Northman’s son; fast, tough, fearless and irresistible to all the maids of the village. But the greatest horror of his sixteen years has finally come for him – an arranged marriage for political advantage. He must leave his home and the Viking life to wed a “Civilised” Princess. His joyous days are all done…

But Princess Asa of Hedeby is a young beauty every inch his match in vigour and vitality, and as composed and smart as he is coarse and oafish. Unfortunately, somebody is stealthily trying to thwart the match, even though Jon’s boorishness is enough to give both fathers cause to reconsider, and only the Viking Prince’s rash vow to recover a lost rune treasure and slay a fearsome dragon preserves the bargain. The wedding will proceed… Now all he has to do is find and kill Ansgar, the vilest of all Fire-Wyrms, and not die…

As well as being a superb writer Marrs is an underground cartoonist, animator and computer artist who has assisted Hal Foster on that other sword-wielding epic Prince Valiant, and her grasp of human character and especially comedy elevates this classic tale of romantic endeavour into a multi-faceted gem of captivating quality. Bo Hampton has created some of the best painted comics in the medium: This book is probably still the very best of them.

One of the most accomplished and enjoyable historical romances ever produced in comic form, Viking Glory deserves to be on every fan’s bookshelf. Let’s hope that it’s on DC’s shortlist for a swift re-release.

© 1991 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

War Stories Volume 1

War Stories Volume 1 

Garth Ennis & various (Vertigo)
ISBN 1-84023-912-3

Garth Ennis continues to blend his unique viewpoint with his love of the British war strip stories he read as a lad in an occasional series of WWII one-shots for Vertigo. The first four of these are collected in War Stories, with an impressive cast of illustrators assembled to produce some of their finest work to date.

“Johann’s Tiger” (with art by Chris Weston and Gary Erskine) charts the retreat of a Panzer crew from both the Russians and their own Nazi Field Police as their guilt-wracked commander seeks Americans he can safely surrender to. “The D-Day Dodgers” (illustrated by John Higgins) sees a raw English officer join a combat unit as it slogs its way through the supposedly “cushy” part of the war, namely the 20 month campaign to re-take Italy.

Dave Gibbons tackles the Americans in “The Screaming Eagles”, wherein a squad of G.I.’s take an unsanctioned – and thoroughly debauched – furlough in a freshly abandoned Nazi chateau. David Lloyd closes the volume with the moody and moving “Nightingale”, Ennis’s powerful tale of the dishonour and redemption of a British Destroyer on escort duty.

These are not tales for children. Due to Ennis’s immense skill as a scripter and his innate understanding of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances these stories strike home, and strike hard whether the author is aiming for gallows humour or lambasting Establishments always happy to send fodder to slaughter. These are the realest of people. This is war as I fear it actually is, and it makes bloody good reading.

© 2004 Garth Ennis, David Lloyd, Chris Weston, Gary Erskine, John Higgins & Dave Gibbons. All Rights Reserved.

Los Tejanos

Los Tejanos

By Jack Jackson

(Fantagraphics Books)  No ISBN

Known as ‘Jaxon’ in his underground comix days, Jack Jackson’s infectious fascination with the history of Texas was seeping through into all his work even from those early days. Portions of Los Tejanos appeared as the comic books Recuerden el Alamo and Tejano Exile (published by Last Gasp) in the mid 1970s, which the author fleshed out for this early prototype of the Graphic Novel.

Drawn in a captivating, etching-like, cross-hatched style that simply screams ‘true story,’ Los Tejanos provides an absolute wealth of information, social texture and sheer entertainment. It tells the story of Juan Nepomuceno Seguin, a “Texian” of Mexican birth who sided with the rebels fighting for independence. Before becoming part of the United States of America, Texas was briefly a nation unto itself, having won its freedom from a Mexican empire that was bloated, corrupt and in decline. How Seguin turned his back on one culture, only to be eventually betrayed by the other during that period when Hispanic and Anglo-Saxon cultures battled for hegemony in continental America seems to echo even now with relevance. That battle still isn’t over.

The eventual fate of Juan N Seguin makes for powerful reading, rich in fact, well-paced as narrative, and even delivering the occasional solid horse-laugh. But the true measure of a history book, and this most wonderful tome is certainly that, is how the material impacts on the contemporary. Here it also succeeds. The issues were germane in 1840, they were just as much so in 1982, and they still are now.

Why this epic isn’t required reading for every US history or sociology course I’ll never understand.

©1982 Jack Jackson. All Rights Reserved.

Havoc in Heaven

Havoc in Heaven 

By Tang Cheng & various

(Foreign Languages Press)  No ISBN

Although not strictly Graphic Novels, and certainly hard to find in many parts of the country, the picture books portraying Chinese tales and legends are always a rewarding read. If you have a local Chinatown it’s certainly worth a scout around, or perhaps you might try Googling.

This time out is a double oddity, in that Havoc in Heaven, another tale of Monkey, taken from Wu Cheng’en’s classic Journey to the West features full colour stills from an animated film of the same name, embedded with small blocks of English text in the manner of Rupert the Bear, rather than those wonderful black line drawings that drive western artists to tears of jealousy.

The irrepressible and wayward Monkey is the bane of the pious and stiff denizens of Heaven, whom he offends with his carousing and fighting and mischief. In an effort to control him, The Jade Emperor invites Monkey to join the Celestials and even gives him a job in the palace, but Monkey’s wayward nature cannot be tamed and the resultant chaos and combat shakes the heavens and rattles the gods themselves.

Spectacular, bright and irresistibly engaging, this colourful interpretation is an absolute delight, thanks to the beautiful illustrations of Yan Dingxian, Pu Jiaxiang, Lin Wenxiao, Lu Qing, Gao Yang and Fang Pengnian. Although these books are seldom out of print for long, it would be nice if some entrepreneur could pick up a British license for both the books and the film too.

© Foreign Languages Press BEIJING 1979

Jonah Hex: Face Full of Violence

Jonah Hex: Face Full of Violence 

By Jimmy Palmiotti, Justin Gray & Luke Ross

(DC Comics) ISBN 1-84576-408-0

For a very long time westerns were an integral part of every comic publisher’s stable, and then they fell from favour. In the 1970s DC Comics published a grim, sardonic anti-western anti-hero with a ruined face who mirrored the dark turn that film cowboys had taken. Then the comic book West all but disappeared again.

There’s often a relationship between moving pictures and drawn ones, and I’m sure that the style and success of such shows as Deadwood has convinced the powers that be at DC that the time is once again right for Jonah Hex.

Lucky for us then that the creators involved have done such a bang-up job of updating him. What was once one of the best comics DC published, is almost as good in this incarnation — and looks like getting better with every issue. Electing to buck the modern trend for continued stories, the first six tales collected here are short, punchy, complete adventures displaying the character of the man and the true barbarity of the world he inhabits. With titles such as A Cemetery without Crosses, Bullets of Silver, Cross of Gold, The Slaughter at Two Pines, Chako Must Die, Christmas with the Outlaws and The Plague of Salvation owing more to Sam Pekinpah than Zane Gray, these splendid stories are worthy addition to a great tradition — and just the sort of thing to get more people reading comics.

© 2006 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Comanche Moon

Comanche Moon

By Jack Jackson

(Rip Off Press Inc./Last Gasp)  ISBN 0-89620-079-5

One of the earliest Graphic Novels, Comanche Moon was originally published as the comic books White Comanche, Red Raider and Blood on the Moon during the 1970s by Last Gasp, a regular packager of work by underground cartoonists such as Jackson. This reworked and augmented edition appeared in 1979. So far as I know it’s not currently in print, although it really should be.

The book follows the astounding life of Cynthia Ann Parker and her son Quanah and the course of their lives among Texas Comanches and her own – white – people. Whilst the Parkers are eking out a living on the Southern Plains of Texas in 1836, their homestead is attacked by a Comanche raiding party and little Cynthia Ann and her younger brother are carried off. Separated from him she is raised as a squaw, eventually marrying a sub-chief and birthing a son. The folksy, matter of fact story-telling reinforces the powerful truth of this documentary of the final downfall of the Plains Indians under the relentless expansionist pressure of the new Americans.

Quanah grew to be the last chief of the Comanches and as the old ways died he was responsible for all the meagre concessions his people managed to gain from the unstoppable white men. He was a Judge, a Sheriff, a huckster for Teddy Roosevelt and died a loved and respected political figure among both the Comanches and the settlers.

My dry précis does nothing to capture the hypnotic skill of Jackson in making this history come alive. Comanche Moon reads as easily as the best type of fiction but never strays from the heartbreaking truth that underpins it. Jack Jackson’s work is powerful, charming, thoroughly authentic, astoundingly well-researched and totally captivating. If only all history books could be his good.

©1979 Jack Jackson. All Rights Reserved.

Charley’s War: Book III (17 October 1916 – 21 February 1917)

Charley’s War: Book III

By Pat Mills & Joe Colquhoun

Titan Books ISBN: 1-84576-270-3
                    ISBN-13: 9781845762704

After much too long a wait the third volume collecting the greatest war comic strip of all time is finally out. Charley’s War, originally published in the weekly comic “Battle” (beginning in issue #200 – 6 January 1979 and running until October of 1986), tells the story of underage East-Ender Charley Bourne, who lies about his age to enlist in the British Army setting out to fight the Hun in 1916.

By the beginning of this volume he has already survived the hellish conditions of trench warfare, endured the cruelty and stupidity of his own leaders and lost most of his friends. The introduction of Tanks has brought a furious response from the Germans, many of whom consider the innovation to be an atrocity weapon. In retaliation, they unleash a savage attack using “Judgement Troopers” whose “total war tactics” overwhelm the British Lines.

Book III opens with the brutal battle for the British positions in full swing, with neither side gaining any real advantage, and ends for Charley when he is wounded sufficiently to be sent home to England (called “getting a Blighty”). Naturally, things are never that simple and the callous indifference of the doctors behind the lines means that any soldier still able to pull a trigger is sent back into battle. Once more facing the Judgement Troops, Charley and his mates are forced to experience fresh horrors before the bloody battle peters out indecisively. Charley is again wounded, losing his identification in the process and returned eventually to England as a shell-shocked amnesiac.

Mills and Colquhoun now begin a masterful sequence that breaks all the rules of war comic fiction, by switching the emphasis to the home-front where Charley’s family are mourning his apparent death and working in the war industries, just as the German Zeppelin raids on British cities are beginning. The writer’s acerbic social criticism makes powerful use of history as the recovering hero experiences the trials of submarine warfare, bombing raids and the callous exploitation of British munitions magnates who care more for profit than the safety of their workers or even the victory of their homeland. The book ends as Charley attempts to rescue his mother from a bomb factory as Zeppelins drop lethal payloads all around them…

Included in this volume are a rare interview with artist Joe Colquhoun, a feature on the history of Zeppelin warfare and writer Pat Mills’ wonderfully informative chapter notes and commentary. Not just a great war comic, Charley’s War is a highpoint in the narrative examination of the Great War through any artistic medium.

© 2006 Egmont Magazines Ltd. All Rights Reserved.