Incredible Hulk Epic Edition volume 8 (1976-1978): The Curing of Dr. Banner


By Len Wein, Roger Stern, Sal Buscema, Herb Trimpe, Jim Starlin, David Anthony Kraft, George Tuska, Keith Pollard, Joe Staton, Ernie Chan, Tom Palmer, Alfredo Alcala, Frank Giacoia, Mike Esposito, Joe Sinnott, Josef Rubinstein & various (MARVEL)
ISBN: 978-1-3029-4879-5 (TPB/Digital edition)

Bruce Banner was a military scientist accidentally caught in a gamma bomb blast of his own devising. As a result, stress and other factors trigger transformations into a big green monster of unstoppable strength and fury. One of Marvel’s earliest innovations and first failure, after initially troubled early years he finally found his size-700 feet and a format that worked, becoming one of the company’s premiere antiheroes and most popular features.

The Gamma Goliath was always graced with artists who understood the allure of shattering action, the sheer cathartic reader-release rush of spectacular “Hulk Smash!” moments, and here – following in the debris-strewn wake of Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Marie Severin and Herb Trimpe – Sal Buscema was showing the world what he could do when unleashed…

This chronologically complete compendium re-presents Incredible Hulk King Size Annual #6 and issues #201- 226 of his monthly magazine, spanning July 1976 – August 1978.

Crafted by writer Len Wein and illustrated by Buscema & Joe Staton, Hulk #201 features ‘The Sword and the Sorcerer!’ wherein the monster is marooned on a perilously primitive sub-atomic world just long enough to liberate its people from brutal despot (and demon-possessed pawn) Kronak the Barbarian before starting to shrink uncontrollably. He soon arrives in the promised land of his beloved long-lost alien love Queen Jarella

 ‘Havoc at the Heart of the Atom’ reveals how his last visit had rendered the barbarous world tectonically unstable and wrecked the ancient civilisation which once had the power to blend Banner’s mind with the Hulk’s body. Moreover, the once-gentle population then turned on the queen they held responsible…

Reunited with his beloved, the simplistic brute swears to fix the problem confronting the antediluvian horror who first hijacked him to the Microverse… and who still craves bloody revenge. Once again evil fails at great personal cost. The ‘Assault on Psyklop!’ delivers crushing defeat to the vile insectoid and a guardedly happy ending for the man-brute – until a rescue attempt from Earth brings Hulk home, carrying an astounded Jarella with him…

Herb Trimpe briefly returned in #204 to plot and pencil a tale of time-bending might-have-beens, as brilliant theoretician Kerwin Kronus offers to eradicate Banner’s problems by turning back time and undoing the accident which created the Hulk. Sadly, the experiment succeeds all too well: briefly forming an alternate timeline wherein original sidekick Rick Jones died and the time-master became an even greater menace to reality. Banner/Hulk must make a heartbreaking sacrifice to close that unacceptably ‘Vicious Circle’

‘Do Not Forsake Me!’ in #205 depicts the most tragic moment in the Green Goliath’s tortured life when Jarella sacrifices herself to save a child from rampaging robbery robot Crypto-Man, leaving the bereft Hulk ‘A Man-Brute Berserk!’ His trail of destruction leads from Gamma Base, New Mexico all the way to New York City where even his friends and allies cannot calm the grieving green goliath, leading to a brutal battle ‘Alone Against the Defenders!’ who finally realise compassion is the only method that will work against their traumatised ally-turned-foe…

The bereft beast is still beside Defender-in-Chief Doctor Strange for David Anthony Kraft, Trimpe and inkers Frank Giacoia & Mike Esposito for Incredible Hulk King Size Annual #6’s ‘Beware the Beehive!’ wherein a band of mad scientists attempt to recreate their greatest success and failure. Morlak, Hamilton, Shinsky and Zota were a rogue science collective known as The Enclave, who – from their hidden “Beehive” lair – had originally spawned puissant artificial man Him (latterly AKA Adam Warlock).

Here, three of them reunite for another go at building a compliant god they can control, but when they abduct Stephen Strange to replace their missing fourth, the magician has the Jade Juggernaut save him from the experiment’s inevitable consequences: a compassionless super-slave dubbed Paragon whose first task is to eradicate Strange and subdue mankind. Happily, after a border-shattering, army-crunching global rampage, that’s when the Hulk kicks the wall in and goes to work…

In Incredible Hulk #208 Wein, Buscema & Staton reveal ‘A Monster in Our Midst!’ as Bruce Banner finally rejects ending his pain-wracked existence and begins a new and – hopefully – stress-reduced life where his alter ego will never be seen again. That resolve only lasts as long as it takes maniacal Crusher Creel – freed as a consequence of the Jade Juggernaut’s most recent rampage – to accept a commission from a triumvirate of hooded schemers who want the Hulk dead. Of course, even though ‘The Absorbing Man is Out for Blood!’, the super-thug proves no match for Hulk’s unfettered fury, but his well-deserved drubbing results in Banner collapsing unconscious in alley where he is eventually found by a mystic do-gooder in search of an ally…

With #210, Ernie Chan became Buscema’s regular inker as Wein’s ‘And Call the Doctor… Druid!’ finds both Banner and his brutish alter ego crucial to a plan to defeat ancient mutant Maha Yogi, his vast mercenary army and alien bodyguard Mongu before they complete their preparations for world domination. Although the battles of ‘The Monster and the Mystic!’ are a close-run thing, virtue is eventually victorious, but makes little difference to the Hulk’s former teen companion Jim Wilson as he hitchhikes across America, utterly unaware he is the target of a vicious criminal conspiracy. The plots hatch once Jim reaches New York City where his hidden tormentors decide that he must be ‘Crushed by… the Constrictor!’ Neither they nor their ruthless high-tech hitman expected the Hulk to intervene…

With a friend and confidante who shares his secrets, you’d expect Banner’s life to get a little easier, but the authorities never stop hunting the Hulk, who initially realises ‘You Just Don’t Quarrel with the Quintronic Man!’ (inked by Tom Palmer) before bouncing back to trash a formidable five-man mecha suit. As Chan returns, this bout leads to a frenzied clash with a new hyper-powered hero resolved to make his name by defeating America’s most terrifying monster in ‘The Jack of Hearts is Wild!’

Macabre old enemy Bi-Beast is resurrected in #215; still eager to eradicate humanity in ‘Home is Where the Hurt Is’ and nearly succeeding after seizing control of SHIELD’s Helicarrier. Only desperate action by General Thaddeus Ross saves the day, as the old soldier uses the carrier’s tech to shanghai Banner: letting nature take its savage course and hoping the right monster wins the inevitable blockbuster battle before a ‘Countdown to Catastrophe!’ leaves the planet a smoking ruin…

A moodily poignant change of pace comes in #217 as ‘The Circus of Lost Souls!’ sees the shell-shocked Hulk lost somewhere in Europe, defending a band of carnival freaks from the dastardly depredations of The Ringmaster and his Circus of Crime: a solid demarcation signalling Wein’s move  away from scripting in favour of co-plotting, allowing Roger Stern to find his own big green feet to guide the Green Goliath’s future…

That begins with ‘The Rhino Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore’ (#218 by Wein & Stern, with George Tuska, Keith Pollard & Chan handling visuals) as super-strong, gamma-tainted psychologist “Doc” Leonard Samson takes centre stage battling the ruthless Rhino, whilst in #219 Banner learns ‘No Man is an Island!’ (Wein, Stern, Sal Buscema & Chan) after hiring on as a freighter deckhand, only to have it sunk from under him by submarine-based pirate Cap’n Barracuda. Washed ashore on a desert atoll, Hulk is befriended by a deluded soul who believes himself to be Robinson Crusoe. As events unfold an even stranger truth is revealed when Barracuda captures the madman to pluck the secret of making monsters from his broken mind. The cruel corsair has utterly underestimated the ferocious loyalty and compassion of the Hulk, who unleashes devastating destructive ‘Fury at 5000 Fathoms!’

With Stern in authorial control, Sal Buscema is joined by Alfredo Alcala for #221’s ‘Show Me the Way to Go Home’, with still all-at-sea Banner rescued from drowning by marine explorer Walt Newell. He ferries his exhausted passenger back to Manhattan where he is recognised as Banner. Realising he has unwittingly unleashed The Hulk on a major population centre, Newell exposes his own secret identity as subsea superhero Stingray and pursues his former guest. The battle is painfully one-sided and Stingray near death when Jim Wilson intervenes, saving the marine crusader’s life, but only at the cost of Hulk’s trust…

Wein returned for one last hurrah in #222, scripting a plot by artist Jim Starlin (abetted by Alcala). A potently creepy horror yarn begins as the Jade Juggernaut tears through another unfortunate army unit before being gassed into unconsciousness. Banner awakens in the care of two children living in a cave, but they’re not surprised by the fugitive’s transformations: not since the radioactive stuff changed their little brother…

Now people have been disappearing and although they haven’t grasped the truth of it yet, Bruce instantly grasps what is involved in ‘Feeding Billy’… and what his intended role is…

Now firmly established, Stern began an ambitious storyline in #223 (illustrated by Sal & Josef Rubinstein) as ‘The Curing of Dr. Banner!’ sees the monster’s human half spontaneously purged of the gamma radiation that triggers his changes. Heading for Gamma Base to verify his findings, Bruce discovers the entire facility has been taken over: mind-controlled by his ultimate archenemy…

As the villain makes everyone ‘Follow the Leader!’, Doc Samson and General Ross escape and beg Banner to again sacrifice his humanity for the sake of mankind. Only the Hulk has ever defeated The Leader and their only hope is to recall and harness his unstoppable fury. Tragically, the halfway measures fail at the final moment and the villain has cause to ask ‘Is There Hulk After Death?’ With Bruce seemingly deceased, his compatriots jumpstart his system with another overwhelming dose of gamma rays and soon everybody involved has cause to regret the resurrection of the original Gamma Goliath as another ordnance-obliterating clash with the military in #226’s ‘Big Monster on Campus!’ (Stern, Buscema & Joe Sinnott) leads to the man-monster invading his old college and suffering a psychological trauma that could end his rampages forever…

To Be Hulk-inued…

Graced throughout with covers by Rich Buckler, John Romita, Trimpe, Dan Adkins, Dave Cockrum, Marie Severin, Giacoia, Ed Hannigan, Chan, Starlin, Rubinstein and Ron Wilson, this cataclysmically cathartic tome is rounded out with a blitz of bonus features. Front & back covers for The Incredible Hulk Marvel Treasury Edition #17 (1978) by Jeff Aclin & Tony DeZuñiga precede a panoramic landscape pin-up poster by Trimpe of Hulk smashing the Hulkbusters from a UK Marvel mag (by way of F.O.O.M. #19). These are followed by an airbrush treat by Ken Steacy, starring old Jade Jaws, Ant-Man & The Wasp as first seen on Marvel Comics Index #7A (1978) plus its star-studded frontispiece by Franc Reyes. Contemporary house ads lead into an unused Cockrum cover and a selection of original art by Buckler, Chan, Starlin, Alcala, Buscema & Rubinstein, said pictorial treasure treats climaxing with 5 stunningly beautiful pencilled pages of a never-completed story by Wein and Swamp Thing co-creator Bernie Wrightson.

The Incredible Hulk is one of the most well-known comic characters on Earth, and these stories, as much as the cartoons, TV shows, games, toys, action figures and movies are the reason why. For an uncomplicated, earnestly vicarious experience of Might actually being Right, you can’t do better than these exciting episodes, so why not Go Green now?
© MARVEL 2023

Black Hole


By Charles Burns (Jonathan Cape)
ISBN: 978-0-37542-380-2 (HB) 978-0-22407-778-1 (TPB)

On this day in 2019, those happy Big Science people at the Event Horizon Telescope Project released the first picture of a black hole as located at the centre of galaxy M87. No one’s done a graphic novel of that yet but there’s this superb tome that seems to have slipped from common consciousness…

One of the most impressive and justifiably lauded graphic novels ever, Black Hole is a powerfully evocative allegorical horror story about sex, youth and transformation, but don’t let that deter you from reading it. It’s also a clever, moving, chilling and somehow uplifting tale displaying the bravura mastery of one of the greatest exponents of sequential narrative the English language has ever produced – even if he has found his spiritual and commercial home producing comics in Europe.

Originally released as a 12-issue limited series under the aegis of Kitchen Sink Press, the tale was rescued and completed through Fantagraphics when the pioneering Underground publisher folded in 1999. On completion, Black Hole was promptly released in book form by Pantheon Press in 2005, although many fans and critics despaired at the abridged version which left out many of Burns’ most potent full-page character studies of the deeply troubled cast “an error of economy” corrected in subsequent editions. It won eleven of the comic world’s most prestigious awards and I’m revisiting my battered Jonathan Cape UK edition because it’s still not available digitally

It’s the 1970s in Seattle, and there’s something very peculiar happening amongst local teens out in the safe secure suburbs. In ‘Biology 101’, Keith Pearson can’t concentrate on properly dissecting his frog because his lab partner is Chris Rhodes, the veritable and literal girl of his dreams.

Trying to keep cool only makes things worse and when he suddenly slips into a fantastic psychedelic daydream, the swirling images resolve into a horrific miasma of sex, torn flesh and a sucking void. Suddenly he’s regaining consciousness on the floor with the entire class standing over him. They’re all laughing at him… all except Chris.

‘Planet Xeno’ is a quiet patch of woodland adults don’t know about, where kids can kick back, drink, smoke, get stoned and just talk. The big topic among the guys is “the bug”: a sexually transmitted disease that causes bizarre, unpredictable mutations like uncontrolled growths, extra digits, pigmentation changes, and new orifices that don’t bleed…

As Keith and best buds Dee and Todd shoot the breeze and goof off, they discover an odd encampment, strewn with old toys and bottles and junk. Some of the sufferers of the “Teen Plague” have relocated here to the forest, founding a makeshift camp away from prying eyes and wagging tongues. When Keith finds a girl’s shed skin hanging from a bush, he fears creepy mutants are closing in and suffers a crazy disorienting premonition…

In ‘SSSSSSSSSS’ Chris is dreaming: a ghastly phantasmagoria involving naked swimming in pollution, a bunch of strange guys, monsters and that fainting kid Keith turning into a serpent. It all ends with her examining the new holes in her body before ripping off her old skin and leaving it hanging on a bush…

She’s drinking illicit beer by the lake in ‘Racing Towards Something’, remembering that wild party a week ago and what she did with the cool guy Rob Facincanni. As she came on to him he kept trying to tell her something but she was in no mood to listen. She just didn’t want to be the good girl anymore…

She recalls the moment of explosive climax and horror when she discovered a hideous second mouth in his neck… and the noises. It seemed to be speaking…

In the sordid guilty aftermath she felt awful but had no idea what that furtive, disappointing assignation had done to her.

Rob is still sleeping with Lisa. She’s accepted the cost of the curse and the ghastly changes in her body, but what she won’t take is him screwing around. She has heard Rob’s second mouth talking as they lay together and needs to know ‘Who’s Chris?’

Keith and his bros are getting stoned again when he hears some guys have just watched the so-virginal Chris skinny-dipping and seen her sex-caused mutation. The virgin queen isn’t any more…

In ‘Cut’ their teasing proves too much and he storms off into the scrub, accidentally spotting the object of his desire as she gets dressed again. Guiltily voyeuristic, he’s prompted to action when she steps on broken glass and cries out. Dashing to her rescue he bandages her foot, too ashamed to admit just how much of her he’s really seen. All Keith knows is that someday he will be with her. Fate was obviously on his side…

‘Bag Action’ finds him and Dee trying to buy weed from some skeevy college guys, but our frustrated romantic is utterly unable to get lascivious, furtive, distracting naked images of Chris out of his mind.

However, after sampling some of the dope in the Frat boys’ dilapidated house, he meets their housemate Eliza: an eccentric artist extremely high, nearly naked and very hungry. Just as baked, achingly horny and fascinated by her cute tail (not a euphemism), Keith almost has sex with her but is interrupted by his idiot pal at just the wrong moment…

Many of those infected by The Bug are camped out in the woods now and ‘Cook Out’ finds them having a desperate party around a roaring fire. Rob is there, bemoaning the fact Lisa has kicked him out, but he’s also acutely aware that the sex-warped kids are getting oddly wild, manic, even dangerous…

‘Seeing Double’ finds downcast, devastated Chris talking things over with Rob at the outcast encampment. The naive fool has just discovered what’s she got and what it means. Lost and disgusted, convinced she’s a dirty monster with a biological Scarlet Letter as part of her flesh, Chris drinks and talks and, eventually, finds comfort in her bad boy’s arms…

In ‘Windowpane’ Pearson, Dee and Todd drop their first tabs of acid and head for a party at Jill’s house. Increasingly morose and troubled Keith is feeling ever-more isolated and alienated and the LSD coursing through his system isn’t helping, When Dee and Jill start to make out, he leaves and finds her big sister crying outside. After she shouts at him he turns and, still tripping off his nut, heads into the woods.

Lost and confused, he sees horrific and bizarre things in the trees and bushes before stumbling into some of the infected kids around their fire. In a wave of expiation he begins to talk and keeps on going, slowly coming down amongst temporary friends. Keith has no suspicion that some of the things he saw were not imaginary at all…

‘Under Open Skies’ sees Chris and Rob playing hooky. Fully committed to each other now, they head to the coast and a perfect solitary day of love at the beach. They think it’s all going to be okay but the voice from Rob’s other mouth says otherwise…

Back home again, Chris’ recent good times are ruined by her parents’ reaction. Grounded, the former good girl makes up her mind and, gathering a few possessions, elopes with her lover to a new life in ‘The Woods’ where grotesquely bestial but kindly Dave Barnes takes them under his wing.

Although they have bonded, Rob cannot stay with Chris and returns to his home and High School. Although he spends as much time as possible at the encampment, Chris is too often alone and on one of her excursions into the wilds finds a bizarre and frightening shrine. Little does she know it’s one of the things the tripping Keith thought he’d hallucinated…

Summer grinds on and Pearson plucks up nerve to go back to the college guys’ house. ‘Lizard Queen’ Eliza is on the porch, drawing but obviously upset by something. Confused, scared and without knowing what they’re doing. they end up in bed consummating that long-postponed act of drug-fuelled passion…

Chris’ days of innocent passion end suddenly when Rob is brutally attacked by a lurking intruder in ‘I’m Sorry’. She descends into a stupor for days until spotting nice safe Keith at one of the camp’s evening bonfire parties. Soon, he’s arranged for her to move into an empty property he’s housesitting over ‘Summer Vacation’ but even though he’s attentive, kind, solicitous and so clearly wants to be with her, he’s just not Rob.

Chris has been going slowly crazy since her beloved boy vanished: reliving memories good and bad, feeling scared and abandoned, playing dangerously with the gun he left her “for protection”. Keith is still plagued by nightmares and X-rated thoughts of Eliza in ‘A Dream Girl’, but hopeful he now has a chance with Chris. That swiftly changes when he checks on her and discovers the house he’s supposed to be guarding has been trashed. There’s garbage everywhere, a bunch of her fellow outcasts have moved in and she’s clearly avoiding him, locked in a room, constantly “sleeping”…

Despondent, confused Pearson doesn’t know what to do. Chris is having some kind of breakdown and the house – his responsibility – is a wreck. The lovesick fool is trapped and crumbling when Eliza breezes back into his life. If only his own bug mutation wasn’t so hideous…

Heading back to the home once more he finds Chris has gone and the pigsty has become a charnel house. All summer there has been a frightening, oppressive presence in the woods and with the Fall coming the mood is beginning to darken. When Dave is barracked and abused whilst trying to buy takeout food, he snaps and pulls out Chris’ gun. Calmly taking his fried chicken from the crime-scene he walks back to the woods and the troubled soul known as ‘Rick the Dick’. It’s going to be their last meal…

Keith meanwhile has found his own happy ending, ‘Driving South’ with gloriously free spirited, undemanding Eliza, but is still gripped by what he found at the house. At least he and Eliza helped survivors get away, but now – happily content with his idyllic artist girl and after all the horrible secrets they’ve shared – he can’t help wondering what happened to Chris.

That mystery and how Dave got the gun are only revealed in the compulsively low key and wildly visual climax ‘The End’

Complex, convoluted, utterly compelling, expressive, evocative and deeply, disturbingly phantasmagorical, Black Hole is a comics masterpiece of graphic genius and astoundingly utilised allegory and metaphor merged with the eternal dissatisfaction and alienation of youth. It explores and reexamines evolution and cultural ostracization as well as the verities of love, aspiration, jealousy and death to concoct a tale no other medium could (although perhaps Luis Buñuel, David Lynch or David Cronenberg might have made a good go of it in film).

If you are over 16 and haven’t read it, do – and soon.
© 2005 Charles Burns. All rights reserved.

Showcase Presents Teen Titans volume 2


By Mike Friedrich, Bob Haney, Neal Adams, Marv Wolfman, Robert Kanigher, Steve Skeates, Gil Kane, Wally Wood, Nick Cardy, Sal Amendola, George Tuska, Carmine Infantino, Dick Dillin, Joe Giella, Jim Aparo & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-84576-677-1 (TPB)

Hey, Super Kids! Happy 60th Anniversary!

It’s perhaps hard to grasp these days that once kid heroes were a rarity and at the beginning of the Silver Age, often considered a liability. Now the massive Teen Titans brand – with numerous comic book iterations, assorted TV shows, movies and even an award-winning early reading version (Aw, Yeaah! Tiny Titans!) their continuance as assured as anything in our biz. Nevertheless, during the tumultuous 1960s the series – never a top seller – courted controversy and actual teenage readers by confronting controversial issues head on.

I must have been just lucky, because these stories of lost youth searching for great truths and meaning were released just as I turned Teen. They resonated especially because they were talking directly to me. It didn’t hurt that they were brilliantly written, fantastically illustrated and staggeringly fresh and contemporary. I’m delighted to declare that age hasn’t diminished their quality or impact either, merely cemented their worth and importance.

The concept of underage hero-teams was not a new one when the Batman TV show fuelled DC’s move to entrust big heroes’ assorted sidekicks with their own regular comic as a hip and groovy ensemble as dedicated to helping kids as they were to stamping out insidious evil.

The biggest difference between wartime groups like The Young Allies, Boy Commandos or Newsboy Legion and such 1950s holdovers as The Little Wise Guys or Boys Ranch and the DC’s new team was quite simply the burgeoning phenomena of “The Teenager” as a discrete social and commercial power bloc. These were kids who could be allowed to do things themselves (within reason) without constant adult aid or supervision. As early as spring 1964, Brave and the Bold #54 had tested the waters in a gripping tale by Bob Haney & Bruno Premiani in which Kid Flash, Aqualad and Robin foiled a modern-day Pied Piper.

What had been a straight team-up was formalised a year later when the heroes reunited and included Wonder Girl in a proper super-group with a team-name: Teen Titans. With the stories in this second merely monochrome print-only relic of a collected volume of those early exploits the series had hit a creative peak, with spectacular, groundbreaking artwork and fresh, different stories that increasingly showed youngsters had opinions and attitudes of their own – and often that they could be at odds with those of their mystery-men mentors…

Spanning cover-dated January 1969 to December 1971 and collecting Teen Titans #19-36, and team-up appearances from Brave and the Bold #83 & 94 and World’s Finest Comics #205, these tales cover the most significant period of social and political unrest in American history and do it from the perspective of the underdogs, the seekers, the rebels…

The wonderment begins with a beautifully realised comedy-thriller as boy bowman Speedy enlists. ‘Teen Titans: Stepping Stones for a Giant Killer!’ (#19, January/February 1969), by Mike Friedrich, Gil Kane & Wally Wood, pitted the team against youthful evil mastermind Punch who planned to kill the Justice League of America and thought a trial run against the junior division a smart idea…

Brave and the Bold # 83 (April/May 1969) took a radical turn as the Titans (sans Aqualad, who was dropped from the squad to appear in Aquaman and because there just ain’t that much sub-sea skulduggery) tried to save Bruce Wayne’s latest foster-son from his own inner demons in a tense thriller about trust and betrayal in the Haney & Neal Adams epic ‘Punish Not my Evil Son!’. TT #20 took a long running plot-thread about extra-dimensional invaders and gave it a counterculture twist in ‘Titans Fit the Battle of Jericho’, a rollicking romp written by Neal Adams, pencilled by him & Sal Amendola and inked by brush-maestro Nick Cardy – one of the all-out prettiest illustration jobs of that decade.

Exemplars of the era/symbolic super-teens Hawk and Dove join proceedings for #21’s ‘Citadel of Fear’ (Adams & Cardy): chasing smugglers, finding aliens and ramping up the surly teen rebellion quotient whilst moving the invaders story-arc towards its stunning conclusion. ‘Halfway to Holocaust’ is only half of #22, the abduction of Kid Flash & Robin leading to a cross-planar climax as Wonder Girl, Speedy and a radical new ally quash the invasion threat forever, but still leaving enough room for a long overdue makeover in ‘The Origin of Wonder Girl’ by Marv Wolfman, Kane & Cardy. For years the series – and DC editors in general – had fudged the fact the younger Amazon Princess was not actually human, a sidekick, or even a person, but rather an incarnation of Wonder Woman as a child. As continuity backwriting strengthened its stranglehold on the industry, it was finally felt that the team’s distaff member needed a fuller background of her own.

This moving tale revealed she was in fact a human foundling rescued by Princess Diana and raised on Paradise Island where super-science gave her all the powers of a true Amazon. They even found her a name – Donna Troy – and an apartment, complete with hot roommate. All Donna had to do was sew herself a glitzy new figure-hugging costume…

Now thoroughly grounded, the team jetted south in #23’s fast-paced yarn ‘The Rock ‘n’ Roll Rogue’ (by Haney, Kane & Cardy), trying to rescue musical rebel Sammy Soul from his grasping family and – by extension – his lost dad from Amazonian headhunters. ‘Skis of Death!’ (#24, November/December) by the same creative crew has the quartet holidaying in the mountains and uncovering a scam to defraud Native Americans of their lands. It was a terrific old-style tale, but with the next issue the most radical change in DC’s cautious publishing history made Teen Titans a comic which had thrown out the rulebook…

For a series which spoke so directly to young people, it’s remarkable to think that ‘The Titans Kill a Saint?’ and its radical departure from traditional superhero stories was crafted by Bob Kanigher & Nick Cardy – two of the most senior creators in the business. The emotion-charged thriller set the scene for a different type of human-scaled adventures that were truly gripping and bravely innovative. For the relatively short time the experiment continued, readers had no idea what might happen next…

While on a night out in their civilian identities, Robin, Kid Flash, Speedy, Wonder Girl, Hawk and Dove meet telepathic go-go dancer Lilith who warns them of impending trouble. Cassandra-like, they ignore her warnings and a direct result a globally revered Nobel Laureate is gunned down. Coming so soon after the deaths of John F. and Robert Kennedy, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, this was stunning stuff and in traumatised response all but Robin abandon their costumed personas and – with the help of mysterious millionaire philanthropist and mentor Mr. Jupiter – dedicate their unique abilities to exploring humanity’s flaws and graces: seeking fundamentally human ways to atone and make a difference in the world…

With Lilith beside them, they undertake different sorts of missions, beginning with ‘A Penny For a Black Star’ in which they attempt to live in a poverty-wracked inner city ghetto, where they find Mal Duncan, a street kid who becomes the first African-American in space…although it’s a one-way trip.

TT #27 reintroduced eerie elements of fantasy as ‘Nightmare in Space’ (Kanigher, George Tuska, Carmine Infantino & Cardy) sees the Titans en route to the Moon to rescue Mal, before encountering something far beyond the ken of mortal imagining. Meanwhile on Earth, Donna’s roommate Sharon stumbles upon an alien incursion. ‘Blindspot’ by Steve Skeates & Cardy was tangentially linked to another innovative saga then playing out in Aquaman’s comic book. You’ll need to see Aquaman: The Search For Mera and Aquaman: Deadly Waters for that extended delight. Both were edited by fresh-faced Dick Giordano, who was at this time responsible for the majority of innovative new material coming out of DC, even whilst proving himself one of the best inkers in the field.

Suffice to say that the Sea King’s foe Ocean Master had allied himself with aliens and Sharon became involved just as Aqualad returned looking for help. Unable to understand the Titan’s reluctance to get involved, Garth tries to go it alone but hits a snag only the original team can fix, which they do in Skeates & Cardy’s concluding chapter ‘Captives!’ However, once the alien threat is thwarted our heroes once more lay down their powers and costumes, but they have much to ponder after seeing what benefits their unique gifts can bring…

Teen Titans #30 featured three short tales, written by Skeates. Illustrated by Cardy, ‘Greed… Kills!’ is a cunning mystery exploring street and white-collar crime, whereas ‘Whirlwind’ is a Kid Flash prose novelette with art by Amendola before ‘Some Call it Noise’ (Infantino & Cardy) delivers an Aqualad solo tale in which his girlfriend Tula – AKA Aquagirl – takes a near-fatal wrong turn at a surface world rock concert.

Student politics took centre-stage in #31’s lead feature ‘To Order is to Destroy’ (Skeates, Tuska & Cardy) as the young heroes investigate a totally trouble-free campus where unhappy or difficult scholars are given a small brain operation to help them “concentrate”, whilst Hawk & Dove solo strip ‘From One to Twenty’ pits quarrelsome Don and Hank Hall against a band of murderous counterfeiters in a deft crime-caper from Skeates, Tuska & Cardy.

The creators then open up the fantasy element again with a time-travelling, parallel universe epic beginning in #32 with ‘A Mystical Realm, A World Gone Mad’ as Mal and Kid Flash accidentally change the past, turning Earth into a magical mad-scape. However, undoing their error results in a Neanderthal teenager being trapped in our time, presenting the group with their greatest challenge: educating a savage primitive and making him into a civilised modern man. Illustrated by Tuska & Cardy, ‘Less Than Human’ signalled the return of Bob Haney as main writer and triggered a gradual return of powers and costumes as the author picked up the pace of Jupiter’s grand experiment, restating it in terms that looked less harshly on comics’ bread & butter fights ‘n’ tights scenarios.

Brave and the Bold #94 (February-March 1971, by Haney & Cardy) offered potent counter-culture thrills as the team infiltrate an inner city commune to negate a nuclear bomb-plot in ‘Rebels in the Streets’, before the exigencies of publishing moved the series into the world of the supernatural as costumed heroes temporarily faded away in favour of tales of mystery and imagination. Haney, Tuska & Cardy’s ‘The Demon of Dog Island’ sees the team – including Robin who had quietly rejoined during the civilisation of cave-boy Gnarrk – desperately battling to prevent Wonder Girl’s possession by a gypsy ghost.

Skeates, Dick Dillin & Joe Giella crated ‘The Computer That Captured a Town’ in World’s Finest Comics #205 (September 1971), slyly examining racism and sexism as Superman finds the Titans trapped in a small town that had mysteriously re-adopted the values of the 1890s – a lot like middle America today but with culprits a lot easier to punch in the face…

Teen Titans #35 reiterated supernatural themes as the team travels to Verona in ‘Intruders of the Forbidden Crypt’ (Haney, Tuska & Cardy) wherein Lilith and the son of Mr. Jupiter’s business rival are drawn into a mesmerising web of tragedy: compelled to relive the doomed love of Romeo and Juliet despite all the rationalisations of modern science and the best efforts of the young heroes…

By the same creators, ‘A Titan is Born’ is a rite of passage for Mal as the everyman “token black guy” faces and defeats the murderous Gargoyle alone and unaided, before the reincarnation tragedy concludes with fate foiled in ‘The Tomb Be their Destiny’: the cover feature of #36. Filling out that issue and this book are two brief vignettes: Aqualad 3-page teaser ‘The Girl of the Shadows’ by Skeates & Jim Aparo and Haney & Cardy’s beguiling opening episode in the origin of Lilith ‘The Teen-Ager From Nowhere’. This showed a 10-year-old orphan’s first prescient exploit and the distrust it engendered, promising much more to come: a perfect place to end this second monochrome masterpiece of graphic literature.

Although perhaps dated in delivery now, these tales were a liberating experience for kids when first released. They truly betokened new empathy with independent youth and tried to address problems that were more relevant to and generated by that specific audience. That they are so captivating in execution is a wonderful bonus. This is absolute escapism and absolutely delightful and demand a fresh edition as soon as possible.
© 1969, 1970, 1971, 1972, 2007 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Elektra Lives Again


By Frank Miller & Lynn Varley (Marvel/Epic Comics)
ISBN (hardback):0-87135-738-0 ISBN13 (softcover): 978-0-7851-0890-0

Matt Murdock is a blind lawyer who fights crime and injustice as Daredevil: a costumed acrobat and martial artist whose other senses are so hyper-sensitive he can track a bullet leaving a gun, hear pulse-rates across a street and identify felons by their scent. In college he loved and lost a girl named Elektra Natchios, whose father was murdered before her eyes. She left Matt and became a ninja assassin. Years later they briefly reunited before she was murdered by Bullseye, one of Daredevil’s greatest foes.

Ninja masters The Hand brought Elektra back from death before Murdock granted her final redemption and peace. He was left not knowing if she was actually dead or alive.

Now plagued by nightmares in which her murdered victims are pursuing her, sightless Murdock is being driven mad by visions of her. In the waking world, The Hand are back too and plan to kill Bullseye and reanimate him as their Prime Assassin. Elektra is definitely alive now and intends to stop them…

This cold, lyrical tale of love and horror is a powerful example of Frank Miller’s ability to tell a raw, stripped-down iconic story. Although an uncomfortable fit for the continuity conscious, its bleak and desolate scenario, the balletic grace of the action sequences – all superbly finished with the icy palette of Lynn Varley’s painted colours – and the sheer depth of characterisation makes this one of the most compelling Daredevil stories ever told, although not one to read if unfamiliar with Elektra’s back-story.

Best to track down those stories – collected as Daredevil Visionaries: Frank Miller: Volume II, or in Daredevil Masterworks and Epic Collection editions – first then …

I’m looking at the superb hardback released in 1990, but the most recent release was as part of the ultra-rare, digitally unavailable Elektra by Frank Miller & Bill Sienkiewicz Omnibus from 2016: one of number of revived editions spanning 2002 to 2008. It will be worth your efforts as this multi-award-winning saga is a remarkably impressive and contemplative psychological thriller of obsession and loss and one of the high points in Daredevil’s 60-year history.
© 1990 Epic Comics. © 2002 Marvel Characters, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

The Adventures of Red Sonja volume 1


By Roy Thomas, Bruce Jones, Frank Thorne, Dick Giordano, Esteban Maroto, Neal Adams, Ernie Chan & various (Dynamite Entertainment)
ISBN: 978-1-93330-507-3 (TPB/Digital edition)

Once upon a time, busty women expertly wielding swords and kicking butt were rarer than politicians and business leaders who respected personal boundaries. Then – for an inexplicably long time – it seemed no lady’s ensemble was complete without a favourite pig-sticker and accompanying armour accessories. That phenomenon eventually settled into women who fight kitted out and tooled up and those who battled unfeasibly underdressed and usually in gear that looked like it really chafed…

If you’d like more fascinating insights on this state of affairs in entertainment arenas you should also check out Jill Bearup’s Just Stab Me Now and/or her YouTube commentaries and lectures on safely and convincingly fighting with sharp objects, heavy implements and a sanguine attitude…

Meanwhile back in comics, you can probably trace the trend for combative, unsuitably cuirassed or chest plated cuties (just stab ME any time now!) to one breakthrough character. Although Diana Prince/Wonder Woman, Valkyrie, Asgardian goddess Sif and even Modesty Blaise all used bladed weapons on a daily basis, none of them ever racked up the kill quotient you’d expect or believe of women in battle until ‘The Song of Red Sonja’ (Conan the Barbarian #23, February 1973).

Drawn, inked and coloured by Barry Windsor-Smith with Roy Thomas scripting, the fragment of a larger epic introduced a dark-eyed hellion to the world. The tale became one of the most popular and reprinted stories of the decade, winning that year’s Academy of Comic Book Arts Awards in the Best Individual Story (Dramatic) category.

Although based on Robert E. Howard’s Russian war-woman Red Sonya of Rogatine (as seen in the 16th century-set thriller The Shadow of the Vulture, with a smidgen of Dark Agnes de Chastillon thrown into the mix) the comic book Red Sonja is very much Thomas’ brainchild.

In his Introduction here – ‘A Fond Look Back at Big Red’ – he shares many secrets of her convoluted genesis, development and achievements as part of the first (of three) archival collection (available in trade paperback and digital editions) of her Marvel appearances. Originally released at a time when accepted editorial wisdom declared comics starring women didn’t sell, Marvel Feature (volume 2) was launched to capitalise on a groundswell of popular interest stemming from Sonja’s ongoing guest shots in Conan stories. This first compilation collects issues #1-7 (November 1975-November 1976) and opens with a then scarce-seen reprint…

Sonja graduated from cameo queen to her first solo role in a short eponymous tale scripted by Thomas and illustrated by Esteban Maroto, Neal Adams & Ernie Chan, tucked into the premiere issue of monochrome mature-reader magazine Savage Sword of Conan – cover-dated August 1974. Colourised by Jose Villarrubia and edited to remove the racier bits, it filled out the premier general distribution Marvel Feature, and revealed in sumptuous style how the wandering woman mercenary undertook a mission for King Ghannif of Pah-Dishah. That task led to her momentous first meeting with Conan and her successful completion of the mission; which was supposed to pay off with the potentate’s most treasured gift. When that reward turned out to be a position as his next wife, Sonja’s response was swift, sharp and so very memorable…

That captivating catch-up yarn leads here to ‘The Temple of Abomination’ (Thomas & Dick Giordano) as the restless sell-sword stumbles upon a lost church dedicated to debauched antediluvian gods and saves a dying priest of Mitra from further torture at the paws of monstrous beast-men…

MF #2 delivered the last key component of Red Sonja’s ascendancy as Frank Thorne (June 16th 1930-March 7th 2021) signed on as illustrator. One of the most individualistic talents in American comics, he began his career in 1948, drawing romances for Standard Comics with the legendary Alex Toth before graduating to better paid newspaper strips. Thorne illustrated Perry Mason for King Features Syndicate and at Dell/Gold Key drew Flash Gordon, Jungle Jim and The Green Hornet, as well as the first years of seminal sci-fi classic Mighty Samson.

At DC he produced compelling work on Tomahawk and Son of Tomahawk before being hired by Thomas at Marvel to illustrate (belated) breakthrough strip Red Sonja. Forever-after connected with feisty, earthy, highly sexualised women, in 1978 Thorne created outrageously bawdy (some say vulgar) swordswoman Ghita of Alizarr for Warren’s adult science fantasy anthology 1984/1994 and a succession of adult satirical strips like Moonshine McJugs for Playboy and Danger Rangerette for The National Lampoon. He won the National Cartoonists Award for Comic Books, an Inkpot Award, a Playboy Editorial Award and countless international honorariums over his astoundingly long career. Throughout his controversial career, steadfast supportive wife Marilyn worked beside him. Their 69-year marriage ended when they both died on same day – March 7th 2021.

Applying his loose, vigorous style and frenetic design sense to a meticulously plotted script from Bruce Jones, Thorne hit the ground running with ‘Blood of the Hunter’ wherein Sonja tricks formidable rival Rejak the Tracker out of an enigmatic golden key. She has also unsuspectingly unleashed a whirlwind or torment as the hunter remorselessly stalks Sonja, butchering everyone she befriends and driving her to the brink of death before their final confrontation…

Marvel Feature #3 reveals the secret of the key after Sonja takes some very bad advice from an old wise-woman and reawakens a colossal death-engine from an earlier age in ‘Balek Lives!’ before endless meanderings bring her to a village terrorised by a mythological threat. However, when she looks into the ‘Eyes of the Gorgon’ she discovers the most merciless monsters are merely human. That same lesson is repeated when ‘The Bear God Walks’ but – after joining a profitable bounty hunt for a marauding beast – Sonja and her new comrades soon find that fake horrors can inadvertently summon up real ones…

With #6, Thomas returned as scripter and set up a crossover with Conan and then-paramour Bêlit: pirate queen of the Black Coast. Although the concomitant issues of Conan the Barbarian (#66-68) aren’t reproduced here, the story is constructed in such a way that most readers won’t notice anything amiss…

Thus, ‘Beware the Sacred Sons of Set’ sees Sonja – after routing a pack of jackal-headed humanoid assailants – commissioned by Karanthes, High Priest of the Ibis God, to secure a magical page torn from mystic grimoire the Iron-Bound Book of Skelos in demon-haunted Stygia. She’s barely aware of an unending war between ancient deities, or that old colleague and rival Conan of Cimmeria is similarly seeking the arcane artefact…

After clashing repeatedly with her rivals and defeating numerous beasts and terrors, Sonja believes she has gained the upper hand in ‘The Battle of the Barbarians’, but there is more at stake than any doughty warrior can imagine…

To Be Continued…

Augmented by a colour-remastered cover gallery by Gil Kane and Thorne, this is a bold and bombastic furiously fun fiesta for fantasy action fans of all ages, genders or persuasions.

RED SONJA® and related logos, characters, names and distinctive likenesses thereof are trademarks of Red Sonja Corporation unless otherwise noted. All Rights Reserved.

The Cabbie volume 1


By Marti, with an introduction by Art Spiegelman (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-4504 (HB/Fantagraphics) 978-0874160420 (Album PB Catalan Communications)

Although out of print since 1987, in 2011 Fantagraphics rescued from relative obscurity one of the darkest yet most grimly illuminating classics of European cartooning in this remastered and augmented reissue of The Cabbie: a stylish, nightmarish psycho-sexual noir thriller that has as much seedy kick now as it had when first translated by Catalan Communications…

Now as the macabre maestro has died, my conscience prompts me to pay for neglecting such wonderful comics and it’s only right we should pause to revisit his greatest achievement. Maybe some publisher will endeavour to bring some of his other dark wonders – like Doctor Vertigo, Propaganda Moderna, crime fantasy-thriller Calvario Hills, Cien dibujos por la libertad de Prensa or Terrorista – to a wider international audience.

Marti Riera Ferrer (1955 – 19th January 2024) was born in Barcelona during the heyday of fascist rule. He studied at the Massana School of Arts and Crafts where his efforts coincided with the Generalissimo’s death, and from 1975 to 1979 a liberalisation saw “Marti” creating comics for alterative magazines like Rock COMIC and Star.

From its launch in 1979 he also began contributing to apocalyptic iconoclast El Vibora: short stories and series such as Tony Nuevaola and – with Rodolfo – Lola Lista contra los Nada. These efforts brought international interest and Marti began appearing in Raw and Drawn & Quarterly. Il TaxistaThe Cabbie – began in 1982 and he episodically added to the canon over succeeding years, and although semi-retired from the early Nineties he continued generating other material at his own pace for the magazine Makoki and Tobalina. These tales varied from erotic fiction to general illustrated fare.

Dick Tracy is one of the most well-known strips on Earth and the super-cop’s contributions to the art form are many and indisputable. They occurred over many decades and the medium of graphic narrative grew up with it. Imagine the effect instant exposure – or overexposure – to such an uncompromising, bombastic, iconic property on the artists of a nation where free-expression and creative autonomy was suppressed for generations. That’s what happened when the death of General Franco (who had held Spain in a fascistic time-warp from his victory in April 1939 until his death in November 1975) opened up and liberalised all aspects of Spanish life. When Marti saw the strip he was changed for life…

As Art Spiegelman says in his introduction, “decades of political and social repression gave way to a glorious eruption of creativity that allowed a full-fledged counterculture to come to life at just about the same time that America’s “Love Generation” gave way to what Tom Wolfe labelled the “Me Generation.””

How odd yet fitting then that an American symbol of “The Establishment” so enchanted and captivated young cartoonist Marti Riera that he assimilated every line and nuance to create a bleak, stripped-down and extremely angry homage detailing the tribulations of a seedy, desperate taxi-driver trapped in an abruptly vanished past and prey to a world at once free and dangerous, ungoverned and chaotic…

Driving around the seediest part of town our hero picks up a high-rolling gambler who’s just won big, but the driver’s night goes horribly wrong when a knife-wielding thief hijacks the cab and robs his passenger. Luckily, the Cabbie can handle himself and he quickly, brutally subdues the thug.

Our protagonist is a decent, hard-working man who lives with his ailing mother, humouring her talk of a mysterious inheritance, and allowing her to keep the embalmed cadaver of his father in the spare bedroom, but he’s tragically unaware that his citizen’s arrest will have terrible repercussions for them both. When the son of the thief he captured is released from prison, the ingrate immediately begins a grim campaign of retribution against the Cabbie that creates a maelstrom of tragedy, degradation and despair.

This is a harsh, uncompromising tale of escalating crime and uncaring punishments: blackly cynical, existentially scary and populated with a cast of battered, desolate characters of increasingly degenerate desperation. Even the monsters are victims, but for all that The Cabbie is an incredibly compelling drama with strong allegorical overtones and brutally mesmerizing visuals.

Any mature devotee of comics should be conversant with Marti’s superb work, and with a second volume out there and the hope of digital editions (One bloody Day!), hopefully we soon all will be…
The Cabbie (Taxista) © 2011 Marti. Introduction © 2011 Art Spiegelman. This edition © 2011 Fantagraphics Books.

Conan the Barbarian Epic Collection volume 4: Queen of the Black Coast (1974-1976)


By Roy Thomas, Fred Blosser, John Buscema, Mike Ploog, Tim Conrad & various (MARVEL)
ISBN: 1-84576-137-5 (TPB/Digital edition)

In the 1970’s, America’s comic book industry opened up after more than 15 years of calcified publishing practises promulgated by the censorious, self-inflicted Comics Code Authority: a self-imposed oversight organisation created to police product after the industry suffered its very own McCarthy-style 1950s Witch-hunt. The first genre revisited during the literary liberation was Horror/Mystery, and from those changes sprang migrated pulp star Conan.

Sword & Sorcery stories had been undergoing a prose revival in the paperback marketplace since the release of softcover editions of Lord of the Rings in 1954 and, in the 1960s, revivals of the fantasies of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Otis Adelbert Kline, Fritz Lieber and others were making huge inroads into buying patterns across the world. The old masters had also been augmented by many modern writers. Michael Moorcock, Lin Carter and others kick-started their prose careers with contemporary versions of man against mage against monsters. The undisputed overlord of the genre was Robert E. Howard with his 1930s pulp masterpiece Conan of Cimmeria.

Gold Key had notionally opened the field in 1964 with cult hit Mighty Samson, followed by Clawfang the Barbarian’ in Thrill-O-Rama #2 in 1966. Both steely warriors dwelt in post-apocalyptic techno-wildernesses, but in 1969 DC dabbled with previously code-proscribed mysticism as Nightmaster in Showcase #82 -84, following the example of CCA-exempt Warren anthologies Creepy, Eerie and Vampirella. Marvel tested the waters with barbarian villain/Conan prototype Arkon the Magnificent in Avengers #76 (April 1970) and the same month went all-out with short supernatural thriller ‘The Sword and the Sorcerers’ in their own watered-down horror anthology Chamber of Darkness #4.

Written by Roy Thomas and drawn by fresh-faced Barry Smith (a recent Marvel find who was just breaking out of the company’s still-prevalent Kirby house-style) the tale introduced Starr the Slayer who also bore no small resemblance to the Barbarian-in-waiting…

Conan the Barbarian debuted with an October 1970 cover-date and – despite early teething problems, including being cancelled and reinstated in the same month – these strip adventures of Howard’s primal hero were as big a success as the prose yarns they adapted. Conan became a huge hit: a blockbuster brand that prompted new prose tales, movies, TV series, cartoon shows, a newspaper strip and all the other paraphernalia of global superstardom.

However, times changed, sales declined and in 2003 the property found a different comics publisher, before – after decades away – in 2019 the brawny brute returned to the aegis of Marvel.

Their first bite of the cherry was retroactively subtitled “the Original Marvel Years” due to the character’s sojourn with Dark Horse Comics and other intellectual rights holders with this fourth compendium – spanning cover-dates August 1974 to February 1976 – reprinting Conan the Barbarian #43-59 plus a tale from Savage Sword of Conan #1. It highlights a period when the burly brute was very much the darling of the Comics universe and when artist John Buscema made the hero his very own.

Adaptor Thomas had resolved to follow the character’s narrative timeline as laid out by Howard and successors such as L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter, expanded and padded out with other adaptions of REH and his contemporaries and – almost as a last resort – all-new adventures. Thus, content was evermore redolent of pulp-oriented episodic action rather than traditional fantasy fiction.

As we hurtle back in time approximately 12,000 years to a forgotten age of wonders, and – following the now traditional map of ‘The Hyborean Age of Conan’ plus accompanying mandatory establishing quote, the saga resumes with a riotous romp from Savage Sword of Conan #1 (August 1974).

The series had broken many moulds, including being able to sustain not just a general audience but also appropriate for Marvel’s monochrome magazine division, offering more explicitly violent and risqué fare for supposedly more mature readers. For this market he debuted in Savage Tales #1 (1971) before winning his own magazine residency. Savage Sword of Conan launched in August 1974, running 235 issues until its cancellation in July 1995. Throughout its life SSoC offered powerful stories, features on all things RE Howard and some of the most incredible artwork ever to grace comics pages. The antediluvian experience opens with #1’s lead yarn. Thomas, John Buscema & Pablo Marcos’ ‘Curse of the Undead-Man’ was adapted from Howard’s short story Mistress of Death with Conan meeting old comrade Red Sonja amongst the fleshpots of “The Maul” in Zamora’s City of Thieves before falling foul of sorcerer Costranno: a mage for whom being chopped to mincemeat is only a minor inconvenience but who still strenuously objected to being robbed and murdered…

A sequence of self-contained tales resumes in the colour newsstand Conan the Barbarian #43 (October 1974) as Thomas continues to follow Howard and de Camp’s roadmap. The saga begins with the warriors’ rapid escape from Zamora, relentlessly pursued by bounty hunters. Trouble finds them when they are taken by bat-monsters to a ‘Tower of Blood’ (inked by Erni Chan nee Chua) where the husky lout is forcibly “admired” by ancient queen-with-a-secret Uathacht and threatened by her sorcerer brother Morophla. The mage has been hiding from Conan’s sworn foe Thoth Amon for simply ages and has revolting plans for both warriors which go appallingly awry in #44’s ‘Of Flame and the Fiend!’ (collaboratively inked by “The Crusty Bunkers”). Exposed as less than human the siblings inflict a ghastly burden on Conan but aren’t sage enough to escape his and Sonja’s inevitable vengeance…

An eerily memorable change-of-pace tragedy sees the shaken and morbidly morose barbarian befriend a foredoomed bard in ‘The Last Ballad of Laza-Lanti’: agreeing to take the troubled troubadour to his place of origin and encountering yet again the horrors that lurk in the Hyborian age…

The next half year comprises a protracted and loving adaptation of prose pulp yarn Kothar and the Conjurer’s Curse, originally penned by the prolific and justifiably legendary Gardner F. Fox (if anybody deserves the title of Elder God of comic books it must be He!). Here our cantankerous Cimmerian is once again embroiled in war between wizards and wades through imperilled maidens and gore galore in equal amounts, beginning with ‘The Curse of the Conjurer!’ as inked by Joe Sinnott. When the wanderer is coerced by magician Merdoramon into delivering a protective amulet to embattled Regent Themas Herklar of Phalkar, the simple mission to safeguard the ruler from his own treacherous court wizards soon proves riddled with undisclosed peril and duplicity.

En route he saves supposed witch Stefanya from burning at the stake and is diverted by her need to have him rescue her master Zoqquanor. Although a “good wizard”, the mage had linked her life force to his own and she needs to ensure his future safety. That proves tricky when they pull the comatose conjuror from his shattered castle and awaken crystal homunculus Shokkoth, and gets even harder in the Dan Adkins inked ‘Goblins in the Moonlight!’ (#47) as a R&R stopover in seemingly sedate ruins sparks an attack by more supernatural horrors…

The issue also provided a text feature on ‘Conan’s Parents’ illustrated by Tim Conrad, before the quest resumes in #48 where ‘The Rats Dance at Ravengard!’ Dick Giordano & Adkins inks) as a formative episode from Conan’s youth – with Priestess of the Wild Ursla – leads to a close shave with local warlord Torkal Moh, near death-by-rats and answers to many of the obscure machinations in play, thanks to Ursla’s latterday kinswoman Lupalina the Wolf Mistress

With the aid of the ‘Wolf-Woman!’ Conan rescues Stefanya – revealed as a crucial pawn in the region’s politics – and topples Torkal Moh, but retrieving the Amulet in #50 unleashes ‘The Dweller in the Pool!’ whose subsequent dispatch by the Cimmerian triggers civil war, the downfall of the Phalkar’s resident magicians and the horror they served and the restoration of a long lost princess in concluding chapter ‘Man Born of Demon!’

Cover-dated July 1975 and stunningly crafted by Thomas, Buscema and Tom Palmer, Conan The Barbarian #52 signalled a turning point in the Cimmerian’s life as he signs on to fight a war with old Corinthian associate Murilo (from Conan #11): now leading a mercenary army of Condottieri dubbed the Crimson Company. He can always use a proven warrior, and also takes under his wing a street urchin/acrobat called Tara of Hanumar whom Conan had saved from an unfair fight…

Re-outfitting the almost-naked wanderer in arms and armour (and clothes!), Murilo’s band are headed to Ronnoco in anticipation of a war between states but the march almost ends in disaster when the mercenaries accidentally awaken an interred horror from antiquity in ‘The Altar and the Scorpion!’ Thanks to Conan the horror from the age of King Kull is defeated, but as the survivors depart they are unaware that a second terror was aroused… and now follows…

Frank Spinger embellished #53 as the Crimson Company reach their client city but are attacked by those inside. When the costly misunderstanding is rectified, Conan has made another enemy after displaying his feelings to arrogant autocrat Prince Vanni who ordered the assault on his comrades and refuses to allow any mercenaries inside walled city of Ronnoco.

King Belzamo is at least more diplomatic as he outlines the causes of the war with rival city-states Carnolla and Pergona and demands his hirelings’ first action: kidnapping the princess Yvonna of Pergona so she can be made to wed Vanni. However, defeating her terrifying bodyguards the ‘Brothers of the Blade!’ proves harder than anticipated and unknown to all, a dark hungry shadow is slowly consuming everything it its path…

Palmer returns in #54 as teen sole survivor Yusef brings a warning of the hungry shadow leading to Conan, Tara and Yusef ordered away to consult ‘The Oracle of Ophir!’ Their reconnaissance and information gathering is hampered by myriad mystic deterrents that culminate in the brawny barbarian battling his own deadly doppelganger and only getting away with highly suspect vague proclamations by guile not force. The party arrives back at Ronnoco (in #55) to find ‘A Shadow on the Land!’ and untold horror besieging the city, prompting Conan to go AWOL and return to the site of a previous victory. His hunch proves correct and he unleashes the one thing the shadow cannot consume, bring an abrupt universally unsatisfactory end to the war – and their pay – through political compromise and economic pragmatism…

Pausing for breath and the Jack Kirby & Joe Sinnott cover for November 1975’s Giant-Size Conan #5 (a reprint vehicle teaming our hero with Michael Moorcock’s doomed king Elric and not included here) Conan, Tara and Yusef quit the Crimson company and in CTB #56 discover ‘The Strange High Tower in the Mist!’ Inked by Pablo Marcos, the tale finds the trio bewildered by a keep apparently populated by oblivious silent ghosts and a bat monster, but seeing in not always believing…

Still sticking to Howard’s roadmap, Thomas and illustrator Mike (Ghost Rider, Man-Thing, Werewolf By Night, Monster of Frankenstein, Weirdworld, Planet of the Apes) Ploog detail an ‘Incident in Argos!’ for #57 that acts as a prelude to a momentous stage in Conan’s life. Falling foul of stupid laws, city guards and sanctimonious judges, the barbarian and his teen charges face jail and punitive amputation until Conan goes wild. Separated, they escape individually just in time for the Cimmerian to reach the long-awaited beginning of Howard’s great love story…

Pulp novelette Queen of the Black Coast was published in the May 1934 Weird Tales, obliquely told of Conan’s time as infamous pirate “Amra”: plundering the coasts of Kush (prehistoric Africa) beside his first great love. The brief but tragic tale of bold buccaneer Bêlit would be expanded over the next few years in an epic storyline that ran to #100 of the monthly comic and officially launched with Conan The Barbarian #58.

Here Thomas, Buscema & Steve Gan launched Queen of the Black Coast!’ as the frantic Cimmerian fugitive finds safe harbour on an outward bound Argossean trading ship caught in a surging tide. Despite barely and extremely publicly escaping a fusillade of guards’ spears, the Northborn outlaw befriends entrepreneurial Captain Tito – himself a regular loser when faced with Argos’ corrupt lawmakers and taxmen – and settles into the mariner’s life.

After visiting many fabulous ports and exotic wild places, Conan’s life changes again when the ship encounters the most feared vessel afloat. When the fighting is done only Conan remains, having made a devil’s feast of the attacking pirates. Even he cannot beat this horde of Kushite warriors but as he prepares to die fighting, the white queen of these black pillagers grants him his life. When some pirates complain, Conan is allowed to earn his place by fighting the objectors and soon settles in… as Bêlit’s prize…

This volume concludes with Thomas, Buscema & Gan’s spellbinding origin yarn as #59 reveals in the words of shaman mentor/guardian N’yaga how the woman remade herself in ‘The Ballad of Bêlit!’. Conan hears how a Shemite child whose seafaring father was king of Asgalun until murdered by Stygians who placed her uncle on the vacant throne. He marvels at her life, growing up among barbarous tribesmen of the Silver Isles where she was trained in warrior arts to best any man. With amazement the Cimmerian learns how, by facing and mastering supernal horrors and using them to destroy a jealous chieftain, the war maiden became – in the eyes of the tribes – the earthly daughter of their Death Goddess Derketa, sworn to take her vengeance on Stygians and all who deal with them…

… And Conan also realises that he loves Bêlit beyond all else, even if she may not be human…

To Be Continued…

With covers by Boris Vallejo, Gil Kane, Dan Adkins, Neal Adams, John Romita, Tom Palmer, Dick Giordano, Jack Kirby, Joe Sinnott, Vince Colletta, this dark love story is also burnished by behind the scenes extras such as a more detailed map of ‘The Hyborean Age of Conan’ and world, taken from 1978’s Conan the Barbarian Marvel Treasury Edition #19 whilst #4 of the same name provides stunningly beautiful front & back covers by Barry Windsor-Smith, and text article ‘An Informal History of the Thomas/Smith Conan’.

There’s also Windsor-Smith’s watercolour Conan image and illustrated page (May) from the 1975 Mighty Marvel Calendar plus House ads, plus original Buscema unused cover art and pencil pages with equivalent inked version from Savage Sword of Conan #1. There are even pre and post CCA moderated images of Bêlit and Conan…

Stirring, evocative, cathartic and thrilling, these yarns are deeply satisfying on a primal level, and this is one of the best volumes in a superb series starring a paragon of adventure heroes. This is classic pulp/comic action in all its unashamed exuberance: an honestly guilty pleasure for old time fans and newbies of all persuasion. What more does any red-blooded, action-starved fan need to know?
© 2021 Conan Properties International, LLC (“CPI”)

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 (TPB)

Team-ups are a valuable and all-but-inescapable comics standby, and war stories have always thrived by calling together strange bedfellows – none more so than this splendid composite: another woefully neglected series in today’s graphic novels marketplace. The Losers were an elite unit of US soldiers formed by amalgamating three previous 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, (March 1959) and running for 50 issues in Our Fighting Forces (#45-94, May 1959-August 1965). Captain Johnny Cloud was a native American fighter pilot who shot down his first bogie in All-American Men of War #82 (December 1960). The “Navaho Ace” flew solo until issue #115 (1966), and entered a brief limbo until the final component of the Land/Air/Sea unit was filled by Captain Storm. He was a disabled PT Boat skipper who fought on despite losing a leg and gaining a wooden prosthesis in his own eponymous 18-issue series from 1964 to 1967.

All three series were created by comic book warlord Robert Kanigher and had pretty much passed their individual use-by dates when they were seconded as guest-stars in a Haunted Tank tale (G.I. Combat #138 October 1969), but these “Losers” found a new resonance together in the “relevant”, disillusioned, cynical Vietnam years. The rather nihilistic, doom-laden antihero group assumed the lead spot in Our Fighting Forces #123 beginning a lengthy 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. Although they official died during Crisis on Infinite Earths, their missions ran until OFF # 181 (October 1978) and this year marks their 55th Anniversary – or 65th for most of the individual stars.

This magnificent monochrome tome collects that introductory tale from the October 1969 G.I. Combat and the formative run of suicidal missions from Our Fighting Forces #123-150 (January /February 1970-August/September 1974). At that point comic book 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 frequently used stories in established venues as a testing ground for new series ideas, and G.I. Combat #138 (October 1969) introduced one of his most successful. Illustrated by magnificent hyper-realist Russ Heath, ‘The Losers!’ saw the Armoured Cavalry heroes riding in 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 are re-inspired by tank commander Jeb Stuart who fans their sense of duty and desire for vengeance until the crushed survivors regain 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 outstayed their welcome in Our Fighting Forces and with #123 (January/February 1970) were evacuated in the epilogue ‘Exit Laughing’ which segued directly into ‘No Medals, No Graves’, illustrated by Scottish artist Ken Barr. His stunning work in paint and line had graced everything from Commando Picture Library covers, through Marvel, DC and Warren, to film, book and TV work and he continued the tale as Storm, Cloud, Gunner & Sarge sit in enforced, forgotten idleness until departing star Lieutenant Hunter recommends them for a dirty, dangerous job no sane military men would touch…

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

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

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

In #125 ‘Daughters of Death’ sees the suicide squad initially fail to rescue a scientist’s children, only to blisteringly return and rectify their mistakes, However, by then the nervous tension has cracked the Professor’s mind, rendering him useless to the Allied cause. ‘A Lost Town’ opens with The Losers undergoing a Court Martial for desertion. Reviled for allowing the obliteration of a French village, they face execution until an old blind man and his two grandkids reveal 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 draws the unit into a star-crossed love story even death itself cannot thwart…

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

John Severin inked Andru in OFF #131, in preparation to taking over full art chores, as ‘Half a Man’ hints at darker, grittier tales to come when Storm’s disability and guilty demons begin to overwhelm him. Considering himself a jinx, the sea dog attempts to sacrifice himself on a mission to Norway but has not counted on his own brutal will to survive. Back in London, Gunner & Sarge are temporarily reunited with ‘Pooch: the Winner’ (OFF #132 by Kanigher & Severin), prompting a fond if perilous recollection of a distant Pacific exploit against the Japanese. However, fearing their luck was contagious, the soldiers sadly decide the beloved “Fighting Devil Dog” is better off without them…

Dispatched to India in #133’s ‘Heads or Tails’, The Losers must assassinate the “the Unholy Three”: Japanese Generals responsible for untold slaughter amongst British and native populations. In sweltering deadly jungles, they only succeed thanks to the determined persistence and sacrifice of a Sikh child hiding a terrible secret. Our Fighting Forces #134 has them brutally fighting from shelled house to hedgerow in Europe until Gunner cracks. When even his partners can’t get him to pick up a gun again it takes the example of indomitable wounded soldiers to show him who ‘The Real Losers’ are…

OFF #135 began a compelling extended epic radically shaking up the team after ‘Death Picks a Loser’. Following an ill-considered fortune telling incident in London, the squad ship out to Norway to organise a resistance cell, despite efforts to again sideline one-legged Storm. They rendezvous with Pastor Tornsen and his daughter Ona and begin by mining the entire village of Helgren, determined to deny the Nazis a stable base of operations. Even after the Pastor sacrifices himself to allow villagers and Americans time to escape, the plan stumbles when the explosives fail to detonate and Storm, convinced he’s a liability, detonates the ordnance by hand. Finding only his wooden leg in flattened rubble, The Losers are further stunned when vengeful orphan Ona volunteers to take the tragic sailor’s place in the squad of Doomed Men…

The ice-bound retreat from Helgren stalls in #136 when she offers herself as a ‘Decoy for Death’, leading German tanks into a lethal ambush, after which Cloud solos in the Pacific: inspiring natives to resist the Japanese as a resurrected ‘God of the Losers’

Reunited in #138, the Bad Luck Brigade become ‘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 attack a convoy ship carrying The Losers and supplies to Norwegian resistance fighters. Barely escaping with their lives, the unit is then sent to steal a sample of top secret jet fuel but discover the Sea Devil has beaten them to it. Forced to bargain with the merciless mercenary for the prototype, they find themselves in financial and combat competition with an equally determined band of German troops who simply won’t take “nein” for an answer…

‘Lost… One Loser’ reveals Ona was with Storm at the end and is now plagued by survivor’s guilt nightmares. Almost convincing her comrades he still lives, the traumatised girl leads them on another Norway mission, again acting as a honey trap to get close to a German bigwig and secure incontrovertible proof Storm was dead when she picked up his battered, burned dog-tags…

Still troubled, Ona commandeers a plane and returns 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 picks that moment to raid the occupied outpost. Even with other Losers in attendance, the Pirate’s rapacious rogues are ultimately triumphant but when the crippled corsair snatches Ona’s most treasured possession, that dingy dog-tag unlocks suppressed memories and Storm (this is comics: who else would it be?) remembers everything…

Answers to his impossible survival come briskly in OFF #142 as ‘½ a Man’ concentrates on the Captain’s struggle for reinstatement. Shipping out to the Far East on a commercial vessel, he’s followed by his concerned comrades whilst stumbling into an Arabian insurrection with three war-weary guardian angels discreetly dogging his heel…

Back with The Losers again in #143, Storm is soon involved in another continued saga as ‘Diamonds are for Never!’ finds the Fatalistic Five in Africa to stop an SS unit hijacking industrial diamonds for their failing war effort. However, even after liberating a captured mine, the team fail to get the gems when monkeys make 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 apparent success, the Squad are driven inland and are 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 traitors…

Still lost in the trackless wastes they survive ‘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. ‘The Glory Road!’ then sees the sun-baked survivors encounter the last survivor of a German ambush, but British Major Cavendish is unable to differentiate between his early days as a star of patriotic films and grim reality. 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’ sees The Losers save a desert princess and grant her warrior father the opportunity to fulfil a prophecy and die in glorious battle against the Nazi invaders, whilst #149 briefly reunites the squad with their long-missing former comrade before tragically separating again in ‘A Bullet for a Traitor!’

This fateful combat fury concludes with ‘Mark our Graves’ from #150 as The Losers link up with members of The Jewish Brigade (a special British Army unit) who all pay a steep price to uncover a secret Nazi supply dump. Although a superbly action-packed and deeply moving tale, it was an inauspicious end to the run and one which held no hint of the creative culture-shock that would explode onto the pages of the next instant issue when the God of American Comic Books 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, beautifully rendered collection is a brilliant example of how war comics evolved in the 1970s, proving these stories still pack a TNT punch few other forms of entertainment can match. Surely by now there’s appetite for a revival and further volumes of this superb series?
© 1969, 1970, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1974, 2012 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Sandman Mystery Theatre Book One


By Matt Wagner, Guy Davis, John Watkiss, R.G. Taylor, David Hornung & John Costanza & various (Vertigo)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-6327-0 (TPB/Digital edition)

Created by Bert Christman & Gardner F. Fox, The Sandman premiered in either Adventure Comics #40 July 1939 (two months after Batman debuted in Detective Comics #27) or two weeks earlier in New York World’s Fair Comics 1939, depending on which rather spotty distribution records can be believed.

Head and face utterly obscured by a gasmask and slouch hat; caped, business-suited millionaire adventurer Wesley Dodds was cut from the iconic masked mystery-man mould that had made pulp fictioneers The Lone Ranger, Green Hornet, The Shadow, The Spider and many more household names. Those dark red-handed heroes were also astonishing commercial successes in the early days of mass periodical publication…

Wielding a sleep-gas gun and haunting the night to battle a string of killers, crooks and spies, he was accompanied in the earliest comicbooks by his plucky paramour Dian Belmont, before gradually losing the readers’ interest and slipping from cover-spot to last feature in Adventure Comics, just as the cloaked pulp-hero avengers he emulated slipped from popularity in favour of more flamboyant fictional fare.

Possessing a certain indefinable style and charm but definitely no especial pizzazz, the feature was on the verge of being dropped when the Sandman abruptly switched to skin-tight yellow-&-purple and gained boy-sidekick Sandy the Golden Boy (Adventure Comics #69, December 1941, courtesy of Mort Weisinger & Paul Norris). All this, presumably to emulate the overwhelmingly successful Batman and Captain America models then reaping big dividends on newsstands.

It didn’t help much, but when Joe Simon & Jack Kirby came aboard with #72 it all changed. A semi-supernatural element and fascination with the world of dreams (revisited by S&K a decade later in their short-lived experimental suspense series The Strange World of Your Dreams) added moody conceptual punch to balance the kinetic fury of their art, as Sandman and Sandy became literally the stuff of nightmares to bizarre bandits and murderous mugs…

For what happened next you can check out the superb Simon & Kirby Sandman collection.

Time passed and in the late 1980s Neil Gaiman, Sam Keith & Mike Dringenberg took the property in a revolutionary new direction, eventually linking all the previous reboot elements into an overarching connective continuity under DC’s new “sophisticated suspense” imprint Vertigo. Within a few years the astounding success of the new Sandman prompted editorial powers-that-be to revisit the stylishly retro original character and look at him through more mature eyes. Iconoclastic creator Matt Wagner (Mage, Grendel, The Demon, Batman) teamed with artistic adept Guy Davis (Baker Street, B.P.R.D.) and colourist David Hornung to channel a grittier, grimier, far more viscerally authentic 1930s, where the haunted mystery man could pursue his lonely crusade with chilling verisimilitude.

The tone was darkly modernistic, with crime-busting played out in the dissolute dog-days of the Jazz Age and addressing controversial themes such as abuse, sexual depravity, corruption and racism; all presented against the rising tide of fascism sweeping the world then.

Consider this a warning: Sandman Mystery Theatre is not for kids.

This compendium collects the first three redefining story-arcs from issues #1-12 (April 1993 to March 1994) and commences after an absorbing introduction from veteran journalist, critic and pop culture historian Dave Marsh.

Each chapter preceded by its original evocative faux pulp photo cover created by Gavin Wilson and Hornung, the dark drama opens with The Tarantula, taking us to New York in 1938 where District Attorney Larry Belmont is having the Devil’s own time keeping his wild-child daughter out of trouble and out of the newspapers. Dian is gallivanting all over town every night with her spoiled rich friends: drinking, partying and associating with all the wrong people, but the prominent public servant has far larger problems too. One is a mysterious gas-masked figure he finds rifling his safe soon after Dian departs…

The intruder easily overpowers the DA with some kind of sleeping gas – which also makes you want to blurt every inconvenient truth – before disappearing, leaving Belmont to awaken with a headache and wondering if it was all a dream…

After a rowdy night carousing with scandalous BFF Catherine Van Der Meer and her latest (gangster) lover, Dian gets up with a similar hangover, but still agrees to attend one of father’s dreary public functions that evening. The elder Belmont is particularly keen that she meet a studious young man named Wesley Dodds, recently returned from years in the Orient to take over his deceased dad’s many business interests. Dodds seems genteel and effete, yet Dian finds there’s something oddly compelling about him. Moreover, he too seems to feel a connection…

The Gala breaks up early when the DA is informed of a sensational crime. Catherine Van Der Meer has been kidnapped by someone calling himself as The Tarantula

Across town, mob boss Albert Goldman meets with fellow gangsters from the West Coast and, as usual, his useless son Roger and drunken wife Miriam embarrass him. Daughter Celia is the only one he can depend on these days, but even her unwavering devotion seems increasingly divided. After another stormy scene, the conference ends early, and the visiting crimelords are appalled to find their usually diligent bodyguards soundly asleep in their limousines…

Even with Catherine kidnapped, Dian is determined to go out that night, but when Wesley arrives unexpectedly changes her mind, much to her father’s relief. The feeling doesn’t last long, however, after the police inform him the Tarantula has taken another woman…

When a hideously mutilated body is found, Dian inveigles herself into accompanying dear old Dad to Headquarters but is promptly excluded from the grisly “Man’s Business”. Left alone, she starts snooping in the offices and encounters a bizarre gas-masked figure poring through files. Before she can react, he dashes past her and escapes, leaving her to explain to the assorted useless lawmen cluttering up the place.

Furious and humiliated, Dian then insists that she officially identify Catherine and nobody can dissuade her. Shockingly, the savagely ruined body is not her best friend but yet another victim. Somewhere dark and hidden, Van Der Meer is being tortured, but the perpetrator has far more than macabre gratification in mind…

In the Goldman house, Celia is daily extending her control over darling devoted Daddy. They still share a very special secret, but these days she’s the one dictating where and when they indulge themselves…

With all the trauma in her life, Dian increasingly finds Wesley a comforting rock, but perhaps that view would change if she knew how he spends his nights. Dodds is tormented, plagued by bad dreams. Not his own nightmares, but rather somnolent screams of nameless victims and their cruel oppressors haunt his troubled slumbers. Worst of all, these dreams are unrelenting and somehow prophetic. What else can a decent man do then, but act to end such suffering?

In a seedy dive, uncompromising Police Lieutenant Burke comes off worst when he discovers the gas-mask lunatic grilling a suspect in “his” kidnapping case and again later when this “Sandman” is found at a factory where the vehicle used to transport victims is hidden.

Even so, the net is inexorably tightening on both Tarantula and the vigilante interfering in the investigation, but Burke doesn’t know who he most wants in his nice, dark interrogation room…

As the labyrinthine web of mystery and monstrosity unravels, tension mounts and the death toll climbs, but can The Sandman stop the torrent of depraved terror before the determined Dian finds herself swept up in all the blood and death?

Of course, he does but not without appalling consequences…

Scene and scenario suitably set, John Watkiss steps in to illuminate second saga The Face (issues #5-8). Attention switches to Chinatown in February of 1938, where Dian and her gal-pals scandalously dine and dish dirt… until Miss Belmont meets again an old lover.

Jimmy Shan once worked in her father’s office but now serves as lawyer and fixer for his own people amongst the teeming restaurants, gambling dens and bordellos of the oriental district. Dian would be horrified to see Jimmy – or Zhang Chai Lao as his Tong masters know him – consorting with unsavoury criminals, and would certainly not be considering reviving her scandalous out-of-hours relationship with him. All such frivolous thoughts vanish, however, when the diners vacate the restaurant and stumble upon a severed head: a warning that the ruling factions are about to go to war again in Chinatown. As usual, white police are utterly ineffectual against the closed ranks of the enclave…

Later at a swanky charity soiree to raise money for a school, Dian meets Jimmy again and agrees to a meeting. At the same shindig she later sees Wesley, and in the course of their small talk, Dodds reveals that he recognises Shan from somewhere.

…And in Chinatown, another beheading leads to greater tension between the Lee Feng and Hou Yibai Societies. When an enigmatic gas-masked stranger starts asking unavoidable questions, he finds both Tongs denying all knowledge of the killings…

As the grisly murder-toll mounts, The Sandman’s investigations lead to one inescapable conclusion: a third party is responsible. But who, and why? Before this drama closes, Dian will learn more hard truths about the world and the money-men who secretly run it…

Issues #9-12 (December 1993-March 1994) are illustrated by R.G. Taylor, plumbing the darkest depths of human depravity in the tale of ‘The Brute’. The friendship of Dian and Wesley slowly deepens and life seems less fraught in the city, but that ends as a hulking degenerate stalks the back-alleys, killing and brutalising prostitutes and their clients…

Dodds is also on the mind of boxing promoter and businessman Arthur Reisling who’s looking for a fresh financial partner in his global exploitations. The effete-seeming scholar is hard to convince, though, unlike Eddie Ramsey. He’s a poverty-stricken pugilist and single parent desperate to make enough money to pay for his daughter Emily’s TB medicine. Riesling’s offer to him is just as scurrilous but the broken-down pug doesn’t have the luxury of saying “no”…

Eventually, with Dian in tow, Wesley accepts a party invitation from the speculator and meets his dynasty of worthless, over-privileged children. None of them seem right or well-adjusted. Later, when Eddie tries to come clean by informing the authorities of Riesling’s illegal fight events, he’s attacked by the promoter’s thugs and saved by The Sandman – at least until the colossal mystery killer attacks them both and they’re forced to flee for their lives…

As Dodds returns home to recuperate, the punishing dreams escalate to mind-rending intensity. Eddie, meanwhile, is left with no safe option and takes to the streets with Emily. His decision will lead to revolting horror, total tragedy and utter heartbreak.

The Sandman returns to his covert surveillance, silently unearthing the depths of Reisling’s underworld activities and coincidentally exposing a turbulent, dysfunctional atmosphere in the magnate’s home life to match his criminal activities. In this house, corruption of every kind runs deep and wide, and the masked avenger decides it’s time to bring his findings to Dian’s father. This time, District Attorney Belmont is prepared to listen and to act…

As murders mount and Dodds’ dreams escalate in intensity, the strands of a bloody tapestry knot together and the appalling secret of the bestial killer’s connection to Reisling is exposed; only a detonation of expiating violence can restore order…

Stark, compelling and ferociously absorbing, these bleak thrillers depict a cruel but incisive assessment of good and evil no devotee of dark drama should miss, with the period perils accompanied by a gallery of the series’ original, groundbreaking comic book photo-covers and posters by Gavin Wilson, plus later collection covers and related art from Matt Wagner, Alex Toth and Kent Wilson.
© 1993, 1994, 1995, 2016 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Ugly Mug #5, 6 & 7


By many and various aligned to The House of Harley, including Ed Pinsent, John Bagnall, Tom Baxter Tiffin, Marc Baines, Chris Reynolds, Savage Pencil, Jason Atomic, Patricia Gaignat, iestyn, Jim Barker, Masaman, Denny Derbyshire, Oxideguy, Vince Mancuso, Hal Weaver, Alberto Monteiro & various (House of Harley)
ISBN: N/A

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Wild Fun and the Epitome of Sheer Creativity Perfection… 8/10

Comics may be a billion dollar business these days, but at its core remains all about doing something creative and waiting for people to say “Oi! Come and look at this!”

At that charged and dynamic pictorial coalface are folk who would draw strips and cartoons even if the act carried the threat of exile or death penalty (so, missed a trick there, Soo-Ella Slaverman and Mr. not-so-Cleverly!): crafting and self-publishing the kind of word-wedded images the industry and art form continually renews and reinvents itself with.

Every year The House of Harley unleashes an annual (well duh!) anthology of short stories, posterworks, tableaux, diagrammatic diatribes – even further continued characters and serials – via the ranks of the British Small Press movement (it’s really more of a tendency these days but riveting nonetheless).The project also invites international guests, and it’s well past time you knew more about their splendid efforts.

Available at the moment for your delectation are a trio of tomes, with issue #5 being a horror themed treat including, amongst many, dark delights from Marc Baines, Chris Reynolds, Savage Pencil, Denny Derbyshire and Niall Richardson, an instalment of Ed Pinsent’s ‘Windy Wilberforce’ serial, John Bagnall’s ‘Father Gilderoy Investigates’, Tom Baxter Tiffin’s ‘Berserker’, Pinsent’s ‘R.S.D. Laing, Record Detective’ and some sinister self-help advice from Ess “Strange and Wonderful Creature” Hödlmoser.

City and Country in contention are compiled for #6, with Jim Barker (‘Cardboard Cities’) and Masaman (‘Japanese Graphix’), supplementing the old lags’ regular fare which here includes ‘Seb’ (by House of Harley), PCSO Dan, Dora the Art Restorer, more Windy Wilberforce et al…

This year’s model is a bonanza edition sporting an iestyn pettigrew wraparound cover, with a bumper crop of wonders addressing Karma and Chaos and dedicated to Chris Reynolds (1960-2023). Here lurk fantastic beasts from Pinsent, Bagnall’s crucial ‘How a Comic is Made’, Chris Reynolds’ fumetti ‘Batlight’, prophetic ‘Take the Children Out of Town’ (House of Harley) and epic exploration ‘Otherweirdly’ (Denny Derbyshire). These are backed up by briefer bits, graphic one-offs and episodes of extended exploits for ‘Mark E. Smith: Music Teacher’, Jason Atomic’s ‘King Kong Memories’ and ‘Respecto/Kanyok Hunting Fetish’ by Hal Weaver.

As jammed-packed with beguiling thrilling stuff as any British X-mas Annual of yore, these curated creations brim with surreal narrative force and come overloaded with wry and witty visual oomph, an example of the compulsion to leave our marks wherever we can.
All contents © their respective creators.

For all this and much more please check out: houseofharley.net/shop