The Golden Age Spectre Archives


By Jerry Siegel & Bernard Baily with various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-5638-9955-3 (HB)

There are a lot of comics anniversaries this year. Many will be rightly celebrated, but it appears that some few are going to be unjustly ignored. As a feverish fanboy wedged firmly in the past, I’m abusing my privileges here to kvetch yet again about another brilliant vintage book, criminally out of print and not slated for revival either physically or in digital formats. That means I’ll be occasionally recommending some items that might be a bit hard to find. But at least that means you might be buying from those poor beleaguered comics shops and specialists desperately in need of your support now, rather than some faceless corporate internet emporium…

In fact, considering the state of the market, how come DC doesn’t just convert its entire old Archive line into eBooks and win back a few veteran fans? Don’t ask me, I only work here…

The Spectre is one of the oldest characters in DC’s vast stable of characters, created by Jerry Siegel and Bernard Baily in 1939 before debuting with a 2-part origin epic in More Fun Comics #52 and 53 (cover-dated February and March 1940). He was the first superhero to star in the previously all-genres adventure anthology. For a few years, the Ghostly Guardian reigned supreme in the title with flamboyant and eerily eccentric supernatural thrillers, but gradually slipped from popularity as firstly Dr. Fate and successively Johnny Quick, Aquaman, Green Arrow and finally Superboy turned up to steal the show.

By the time of his last appearance in More Fun #101 February 1945, the Spectre had been reduced to a foil for his own comedic sidekick Percival Popp, the Super-Cop

Just like Siegel’s other iconic creation, the Dark Man suffered from a basic design flaw: he was just too darn powerful. Unlike the vigorously vital and earthy early Superman however, the ethereal champion of justice was already dead, so he couldn’t be logically or dramatically imperilled. Of course, in those far-off early days that wasn’t nearly as important as sheer spectacle: grabbing the reader’s utter attention and keeping it stoked to a fantastic fever pitch. This the Grim Ghost could do with ease and always-increasing intensity.

Re-presenting the first 19 eerie episodes and following a fulsome Foreword from pre-eminent Comics historian Dr. Jerry Bails, detailing the state of play within the budding marketplace during those last months of the 1930s, the arcane action in this astoundingly enticing full-colour deluxe hardback collection commences with ‘The Spectre: Introduction’ from More Fun Comics #52.

This wasn’t the actual title: like so many strips of those early days, most stories didn’t have individual titles and have been only retroactively designated for compilations such as this.

The Ghostly Guardian was only barely glimpsed in this initial instalment. Instead, the action rests upon hard-bitten police detective Jim Corrigan, who is about to wed rich heiress Clarice Winston when they are abducted by mobster Gat Benson. Stuffed into a barrel of cement and pitched off a pier, Corrigan dies and goes to his eternal reward.

Almost…

Rather than finding Paradise and peace, Corrigan’s spirit is accosted by a glowing light and disembodied voice which, over his strident protests, orders him return to Earth to fight crime and evil until all vestiges of them are gone…

Standing on the seabed and looking at his own corpse, Corrigan began his mission by going after his own killers…

In #53 ‘The Spectre Strikes’ find the outraged revenant swiftly, mercilessly and horrifically ending his murderers and saving Clarice, before calling off the engagement and moving out of the digs he shared with fellow cop and best friend Wayne Grant. After all, a cold, dead man has no need for the living…

The origin ends with Corrigan implausibly sewing himself a green and white costume and swearing to eradicate all crime…

Splendidly daft, this 2-part yarn comprises one of the darkest and most memorable origins in comic book annals and the feature only got better with each issue as the bitter, increasingly isolated lawman swiftly grows into most overwhelmingly powerful hero of the Golden Age.

In MFC #54 the Supernatural Sentinel tackled ‘The Spiritualist’, a murderous medium and unscrupulous charlatan who almost kills Clarice and forever ends the Spectre’s hopes for eternal rest, after which #55 introduces ‘Zor’: a ghost of far greater vintage and power, dedicated to promulgating evil on Earth. He too menaces Clarice and only the intervention of the Heavenly Voice and a quick upgrade in phantasmal power enables The Spectre to overcome his malign menace.

More Fun Comics #56 was the first to feature Howard Sherman’s Dr. Fate on the cover but the Spectre was still the big attraction, even if the merely mundane bandits and blackmailers instigating ‘Terror at Lytell’s’ are no match for the ever-inventive wrathful wraith. Far more serious was ‘The Return of Zor’ in #57, as the horrific haunt escapes from beyond to frame Corrigan for murder and again endanger the girl Jim dare not love…

An embezzler turns to murder as ‘The Arsonist’ in #58, but is no match for the cop – let alone his eldritch alter ego – whilst ‘The Fur Hi-Jackers’ actually succeed in killing the cop, yet are still suffer the Spectre’s unique brand of justice.

In #60, ‘The Menace of Xnon’ sees a super-scientist using incredible inventions to frame the ghost – and even menace his ethereal existence – prompting The Voice to again increase its servant’s power. This means giving The Spectre the all-powerful Ring of Life – but not before the Ghostly Guardian has been branded Public Enemy No. 1.

With Corrigan now ordered to arrest his spectral other self on sight, #61 (another Dr. Fate cover) features ‘The Golden Curse Deaths’ wherein prominent citizens perish from a scientific terror with a deadly Midas Touch, after which ‘The Mad Creation of Professor Fenton’ pits the Phantom Protector against a roving, ravaging, disembodied mutant super-brain…

In #63, a kill-crazy racketeer gets his just deserts in the electric chair only to return and personally execute ‘Trigger Daniels’ Death Curse’ upon all who opposed him in life. Happily, The Spectre proves to be more than his match whereas ‘The Ghost of Elmer Watson’ is a far harder foe to face. Murdered by mobsters who also nearly kill Wayne Grant, the remnant of the vengeful dead man refuses to listen to The Spectre’s brand of reason. Thus, its dreadful depredations must be dealt with in fearsome fashion…

‘Dr. Mephisto’ was a spiritualist who utilised an uncanny blue flame for crime in #65, after which the Ghostly Guardian battles horrendous monsters called forth from ‘The World Within the Paintings’ (probably written by the series’ first guest writer Gardner Fox), before Siegel returns with ‘The Incredible Robberies’ putting the phantom policeman into fearful combat with diabolical mystic Deeja Kathoon to the death and beyond…

With MFC #68 The Spectre finally lost his protracted cover battle to Dr. Fate even though, inside, the ‘Menace of the Dark Planet’ features a fabulously telling tale of Earthbound Spirit against alien invasion by life-leeching Little Green Men. In his next exploit ‘The Strangler’ murders lead Corrigan into an improbable case with an impossible killer…

This terrifying titanic tome terminates with issue #70 and ‘The Crimson Circle Mystery Society’ in which a sinister cult employs a merciless phantasmal psychic agent named Bandar to carry out its deadly schemes…

Although still a mighty force of fun and fearful entertainment, The Spectre’s Glory Days and Nights were waning and more credible champions were coming to the fore. He would be one of the first casualties of the post-War decline in mystery men and not be seen again until the Silver Age 1960’s…

Moreover, when he did return to comics, the previously omnipotent ghost was given strict limits and as he continued to evolve through various returns, refits and reboots The Spectre was finally transmogrified into a tormented mortal soul bonded inescapably to the actual embodiment of the biblical Wrath of God. Revamped and revived in perpetuity, revealed to be the Spirit of Vengeance wedded to a human conscience, Jim Corrigan was finally laid to rest in the 1990s and HalGreen Lantern) Jordan replaced him. Returning to basics in more recent years, the next host was murdered Gotham City cop Crispus Allen.

They’re all worth tracking down and exhuming: spooky comic champions who have never failed to deliver an enthralling, haunted hero rollercoaster – or is that Ghost Train? – of thrills and chills.
© 1940, 1941, 2003 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Pure Trance


By Junko Mizuno (jaPress/Last Gasp)
ISBN: 978-0-86719-878-2 (HB)

If you’re over a certain age or have eclectic tastes in art and music, you might feel a pang of nostalgia at this remastered work of coyly adults-only fiction: the first subversively compelling creation of iconic Manga master Junko Mizuno.

Since her emergence in 1995, the author has become renowned – more accurately, infamous – for mixing childhood innocence with grim, gory action and unwholesome or stridently clashing, wildly inappropriate content in a sub-genre now dubbed Gothic or Noir kawaii (where kawaii describes cutely drawn protagonists and subjects).

Moreover, the skewed sensibilities of such works as Cinderalla, Hansel & Gretel, Princess Mermaid, Momongo no Isshō (the Life of Momongo), Little Fluffy Gigolo Pelu and Ravina the Witch has escaped the comics ghetto to be embraced by a larger fashion-based audience with art exhibitions (Heart Throbs and Tender Succubus), art-books (Hell Babies, Collector File and Flare) and high-end designer toys for adults which include plush animals, vinyl figures, stationery, postcards, stickers, original art T-shirts and a line of condoms and erotic paraphernalia.

Her shojo-derived style (that’s “stories for girls”, in case you’re wondering) also borrows heavily from the most iconic imagery of the 1960s and early 1970s, particularly the Graphic Psychedelia which grew out of Pop Art. Her stars and support characters are huge eyed, large-headed poppet girls, drawn to look young or, more accurately, actively, innocently, illicitly under-aged: all acting in simplified environments where detail is reduced to bare minima.

The stories are always sharply at odds with her drawing style – like cartoons for toddlers, but involving unpleasant visits to the gynaecologist or being consumed by cannibals – and much of her material incorporates splashy full colour despite the overwhelming preponderance of black and white material in Japan.

Rereleased in tactilely-satisfying hardback and ebook editions, Pure Trance is strictly monochrome throughout and was the auteur’s first official book, even though it is, in fact, a compilation of a minicomics series created to be given away with CD music albums. From 1996-1998 these deeply disturbing Sci Fi adventures of hard-pressed nurses and beauticians in a dystopian future were included in Pure Trance volumes 11 to 20.

I can’t help but wonder what the blissed-out music fans made of the creepily tongue-in-cheek horror stories, but at least the work reached a more amenable audience when Mizuno revised and updated the pamphlets in 1998 for a single book edition. That was first translated into English in 2005 and now it’s back again…

I hesitate to attempt a précis of this wonderfully baroque extravaganza of sugar ‘n’ spice, unnecessary surgical procedures, creeping mutant terrors, animal antics, walk-in Eating Disorder clinics, fetish and bondage catalogues and the indomitable triumph of the human spirit over its own darkest desires, but the chilling whimsy unleashed here is a brilliant and intoxicating progression that needs some highlighting, so…

In the aftermath of WW3, Earth is a toxic wasteland and humanity has retreated underground. Deep beneath Tokyo, society carries on but is currently beleaguered by a plague of uncontrollable hunger: an unappetising condition dubbed “hyperorexia” which is caused by the life-sustaining Pure Trance pill everyone takes. In a bleak commercialised underworld, the condition is treated by dedicated clinicians in specialised hospitals…

Our story focuses on Overeaters Treatment Center 102 and its deviant director Keiko Yamazaki; an officious, drug-abusing, sadistic tyrant who makes life hell for the poor nurses under her command. Her cruel practises – such as humiliation, torture and eating any animal (artificial or real) unfortunate enough to fall into her clutches – eventually sparks a revolution, but not before some of her subordinates make a daring and desperate dash for the abandoned surface world to discover things both amazing and life-changing…

Supplemented by info pin-ups highlighting the many characters wandering about and accompanied by sidebar inserts detailing people, places, beasts, items of interest and key moments under the designation “Pure Trance Trivia”, this epic exploration of an uncanny alternate tomorrow is both splendid and terrifying.

Everything, especially the legion of pretty girls, is drawn in the style of early Playboy icons, in the brand of cartoon stylisations that featured in movie title sequences like What’s New, Pussycat? or Yellow Submarine. Anybody British who remembers the children’s animation Crystal Tipps and Alistair, or the hippo from Rainbow, will feel a frisson of nostalgia – which is of course the point. The art is an irresistible velvet trap designed to reduce readers to a receptive state in which the author can make telling points about contemporary culture.

By co-opting children’s entertainment Mizuno addresses fundamental aspects of human existence in a form designed to shock, subvert, upset and most importantly, provoke. So, if some thought on the readers’ part extends beyond our old-fashioned, but still visceral gut-reaction to innocent girls in distress and the ridiculous and idealistic spiritual purity that used to be associated with such imagery, then she’s done her job…

This groundbreaking social satire is a supremely edgy and funny fantasy with plenty to say about society, relationships and the planet we should be safeguarding – especially now, when and where we’re all under similar pressures of isolation and survival.
© 2005, 2019 Junko Mizuno. All Rights Reserved.

I Am Not Okay with This



By Charles Forsman (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-68396-193-2 (FB PB) 978-0-57135-012-4 (Faber & Faber PB)

Teenage rites of passage are an evergreen source for dramatic material – and comedy too, if you’re fortunate enough to survive the inescapable maturation process relatively unscathed and not too warped – especially when viewed from a bit of distance and with the right perspective.

Even so, it certainly seems that the problems faced get worse for each successive generation. I can remember my lot facing peer and parental pressure, sexual and/or gender confusion, the war against conformity, political despair and general powerlessness, all while trying to stay sober enough to finish A-Level exams and ponder our employment futures, but trolls and invisible bullies you can’t escape or confront? No, thanks…

Today’s issues have a unique (devil’s) advocate however, in a brilliant cartoonist who combines keen insight, devilish imagination and an uncanny ear for dialogue to make stories it’s impossible to not respond to, no matter your specific age or circumstance…

Charles Forsman is a multi-award-winning graduate of Vermont’s celebrated Center for Cartoon Studies, whose previous releases include Celebrated Summer, The End of the Fucking World, Hobo Mom and self-published minicomics such as Snake Oil, Revenger and Slasher

Already into its third physical printing, readily available digitally and the basis for an equally evocative – but by no means identical – TV adaptation, I Am Not Okay with This is rendered in a powerfully deceptive and underplayed cartoon primitivist manner which deviously disguises the fact that this yarn has the shock value and emotional impact of a chunk of concrete chucked through your windscreen from a motorway overpass…

The tale for our times opens with troubled outsider Sydney reluctantly complying to a school counsellor’s urgings to start a journal to catalogue and confront her feelings. Syd is 15 and confused: she’s so far from pretty, a poor student, and recently lost her war-veteran dad in a most unconventional manner.

She’s fighting with her mom – who wastes all her time at her crappy waitressing job – and idiot little brother Liam. Her only friend Dina is now ghosting her, having just discovered boys in the incomprehensibly form of vile jock Brad. He wants to keep the freak away from his “property” and calls Syd a dyke. Maybe she is? So what?

…And now – as if sexual confusion, family insecurity and disgusting body breakouts aren’t enough – Syd discovers a hidden and uncontrollable ability to cause harm and destruction with her mind. She also thinks someone dark and dangerous is dogging her heels and knows all her secrets…

The similarities to the broader elements of Stephen King’s epistolary landmark Carrie or Kazuya Kudō & Ryoichi Ikegami’s Mai the Psychic Girl soon vanish in this tale, as the progression of diary entries intimately expose a succession of poor decisions and relationship mistakes that reshape and transform Syd and everyone she knows.

Sadly, the choices made by one lost soul are increasingly irredeemable. They will never get the chance to live down or move away from the events that soon overtake them all, bringing tragedy and disaster in their wake…

Potent and moving, I Am Not Okay with This is a devastatingly affecting variation on a teenage theme, and an unforgettable exploration of becoming human everyone with a heart and mind must read.
© 2018 Charles Forsman. This edition © 2018 Fantagraphics Books Inc. All rights reserved.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer Omnibus volume 1


By Joss Whedon, Christopher Golden, Daniel Brereton, Scott Lobdell, Fabian Nicieza, Paul Lee, Eric Powell, Joe Bennett, Cliff Richards, & various (Dark Horse)
ISBN: 978-1-59307-784-6 (TPB)

I’m thoroughly enjoying a complete rescreening of Buffy at the moment and thus took a look at this premier compilation of her earliest comics outings. They’re still great too. You should track them down. They’re all available as eBooks these days…

Blood-drenched supernatural doomed love is a venerable, if not always creditable, sub-genre these days, so let’s take a look at one of the relatively ancient antecedents responsible for this state of affairs in the shape of Dark Horse Comics’ translation of cult TV show franchise Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Collected here in a big bad Omnibus edition is material from Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Spike & Dru #3 (December 2000), Buffy the Vampire Slayer: the Origin (January-March 1999) and Buffy the Vampire Slayer #51-59 (November 2002 to July 2003); nearly three hundred pages of full-colour, tongue-in-cheek mystical martial arts mayhem and merriment.

As explained in comicbook Editor Scott Allie’s Introduction, although the printed sagas and spin-offs were created in a meandering manner up and down the timeline, this series of Omnibus books re-presents them in strict chronological continuity order, beginning with a perilous period piece entitled ‘All’s Fair’ – by Christopher Golden with art from Eric Powell, Drew Geraci & Keith Barnett – originally seen in Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Spike & Dru #the 3 (from December 2000).

Although Buffy was a hot and hip teen cheerleader-turned-monster-killer, as the TV series developed it became clear that the bad-guys were increasingly the true fan-favourites. Cool vampire villain and über-predator Spike eventually became a love-interest and even a suitably tarnished white knight, but at the time of this collection he was still a jaded, blood-hungry, immortal, immoral psychopath… every girl’s dream date.

His eternal paramour was Drusilla: a demented precognitive vampire who killed him and made him an immortal bloodsucker. She thrived on a stream of fresh decadent thrills and revelled in baroque and outré bloodletting.

There has been an unbroken mystical progression of young women tasked with killing the undead through the centuries, and here we see the Chinese Boxer Rebellion of 1900, where Spike and Dru are making the most of the carnage after killing that era’s Slayer. The story then shifts to the Chicago World’s Fair of 1933 where the undying mad lovers are still on the murderous prowl. However, the scientific wonders of the modern world displayed in various exhibits are all eclipsed by one scientist who has tapped into the realm of Elder Gods as a cheap source of energy. To further complicate matters, Spike and Dru are being stalked by a clan of Chinese warriors trained from birth to destroy the predatory pair and avenge that Slayer killed back in Beijing…

Gods, Demons, Mad Scientists, Kung Fu killers, Tongs and terror all combine in a gory romp that will delight TV devotees and ordinary horrorists alike…

Next up is a smart reworking of the cult B-movie which launched the global mega-hit TV.

Starring Kristy Swanson, Donald Sutherland, Luke Perry and Rutger Hauer, the film was released in 1992 with a modicum of success and to the lasting dissatisfaction of writer/creator Joss Whedon. Five years later he got the chance to do it right and in the manner he’d originally intended. The ensemble action-horror-comedy series became a genuine phenomenon, inspiring a new generation of Goth gore-lovers as well as many, many “homages” in assorted media – including comics.

Dark Horse won the licensing rights in the USA, subsequently producing an enthralling regular comicbook series goosed up with a welter of impressive miniseries and specials. In 1999 the company – knowing how powerfully the inclusivity/continuity/completism gene dominates comics fan psychology – finally revisited that troublesome cinematic debut with miniseries Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Origin running from January to March.

Scrupulously returning to the author’s script and core-concept, restoring excised material, shifting the tone back towards what Whedon originally intended whilst reconfiguring events until they better jibed with the established and beloved TV mythology, adaptors Christopher Golden & Daniel Brereton (with artists Joe Bennett, Rick Ketcham, Randy Emberlin & J. Jadsen) produced a fresh 3-issue miniseries which canonically established just exactly what the formerly vapid Valley Girl did in her old hometown that got her transferred to scenic Sunnydale and a life on the Hellmouth…

It all kicks off in ‘Destiny Free’ as shallow yet popular teen queen/cheerleader Buffy Summers shrugs off recurring nightmares of young women battling and being killed by vampires throughout history to continue her perfect life of smug contentment. Even a chance meeting with grungy stoner bad-boys Pike and Benny can’t dent her aura of self-assured privilege and studied indolence…

The nightmares keep mounting in intensity, however, and all over town teenagers keep disappearing…

Things come to a head the week her parents leave town for a trip. In a dark park, a maniac attacks Pike and Benny and is only driven off by the intervention of a mysterious, formidable old man. Even so, the assailant manages to take the screaming Benny with him…

Next day the same old geezer is at school, annoying Buffy. She is blithely mocking until he tells her about her nightmares and explains that she has an inescapable destiny… as a slayer of monsters…

Meanwhile, deep in the bowels of the Earth a monster is marshalling his forces and making terrifying converts out of the spoiled, worthless – but tasty – children of California…

Buffy’s strange stalker is exceedingly persistent and that night, despite her disbelieving misgivings, she and Merrick – an agent of an ancient, monster-hunting secret society – lurk in a graveyard waiting for a recently murdered man to rise from his fresh grave…

When he does – along with unsuspected others – Buffy’s unsuspected powers and battle reflexes kick in and, against all odds, she spectacularly overcomes…

‘Defenseless Mechanisms’ finds the aggressively altered Buffy grudgingly dropping her fatuous after-school activities and friends to train with the increasingly strident and impatient Watcher Merrick. Even though her attitude is appalling and her attention easily diverted, the girl is serious about the job, and even has a few new ideas to add to The Slayer’s traditional arsenal…

Even as she starts her career by pretending to be a helpless lost girl to draw out vile vamps, across town Pike is in big trouble. He also knows what is happening: after all, every night Benny comes to his window, begging to be let in and offering to share his new life with his best bud…

At school, the change in Buffy is noticeable and all her old BFFs are pointedly snubbing her, even as every sundown Lothos’ legion gets bolder and bigger. A fatal mistake occurs on the night when Slayer and Watcher save the finally-outmanoeuvred Pike from Benny and the Vampire Lord. Only two of the embattled humans survive and escape…

The tale escalates to a shocking climax when an undead army invades the long-awaited Hemery High School dance, looking for Buffy and fresh meat/recruits. With his bloodsuckers surrounding the petrified revellers and demanding a final reckoning, Lothos believes his victory assured, but in all his centuries of unlife he’s never encountered a Slayer quite like Buffy Summers…

As Allie’s Introduction already revealed, there are major hassles involved in producing a licensed comicbook whilst the primary property is still unfolding. Thus, as the print series was winding up the editors opted for in-filling some glaring gaps in the Slayer’s early career. Buffy the Vampire Slayer #51-59, spanning November 2002 through July 2003, addresses the period between the film’s end and her first days in Sunnydale, leading off with ‘Viva Las Buffy’ (Scott Lobdell, Fabian Nicieza, Cliff Richards & Will Conrad) detailing what the Slayer did next: abandoning her disintegrating family as they prepared to leave LA and the reputation their daughter has garnered.

Buffy hooks up with sole survivor and wannabe monster-hunter Pike and they eventually fetch up in Nevada to investigate the apparently vampire-run Golden Touch Casino. The young warriors have no idea that a dark solitary stranger with a heavenly name is stalking them or that somewhere in England a Council of arrogant scholar-magicians are preparing a rather controversial candidate to join her as the new Watcher…

Sadly, Rupert Giles has a rival for the post who is prepared to do literally anything to secure the position…

Pike and the Slayer infiltrate the gambling palace as menial workers, whilst moodily formidable solo avenger Angelus goes straight to the top: hiring on as an enforcer for the management. When both independently operating factions are exposed, the Vamp with a Soul is tossed into a time-trap and despatched back to the 1930s as Buffy and Pike battle an army of horrors before confronting the ghastly family of monstrosities running the show across two eras.

The living and undead heroes endure heartbreak and sacrifice before this evil empire is ended forever…

Paul Lee then reveals the bizarre story of ‘Dawn & Hoopy the Bear’ wherein Buffy’s little sister accidentally intercepts a Faustian gift intended for the absent Slayer and finds herself befriended by a demonic Djinn who seems sweet but is pre-programmed for murder…

Through the narrative vehicle of Dawn reading her big sister’s diary, the last piece of the puzzle is revealed in ‘Slayer, Interrupted’ (Lobdell, Nicieza, Richards, Conrad, Lee & Horton) as Buffy’s own written words disclose her apparent delusional state. With no other choice, her parents have their clearly-troubled teen committed to a psychiatric institution.

Meanwhile in Ireland, Giles – having overcome his own opposition – completes his training preparations by undergoing a potentially lethal ritual and confronting his worst nightmare before heading to the USA, where Angelus and demonic attendant Whistler are still clandestinely watching over the Slayer.

That’s all to the good, as the asylum has been infiltrated by a sorcerous cult intent on gathering “brides” for infernal night-lord Rakagore

As Buffy undergoes talk therapy with the peculiar Dr. Primrose, she comes to realise the nature of her own mission, her role as a “Creature of Destiny” in the universe and, most importantly, that the elderly therapist is not all she seems either…

With her head clear at last, all Buffy has to do is prove she’s sane, smash an invasion of devils, reconcile with her family and prepare for the new school year at Sunnydale High…

To Be Continued…

Supplementing a hoard of supernatural treasures is a copious photo, Title Page and Cover Gallery with contributions from Ryan Sook, Guy Major, Bennett, Gomez, Jadsen, René Micheletti, Paul Lee & Brian Horton.

Visually impressive, winningly scripted and illustrated and – most importantly – proceeding at a breakneck rollercoaster pace, this supernatural action-fest is utterly engaging even if you’re not familiar with the vast backstory: a creepy chronicle as easily enjoyed by the most callow neophyte as by the dedicated devotee. Moreover, with the shows readily available, if you aren’t a follower yet you soon could – and should – be…
Buffy the Vampire Slayer ™ & © 1999, 2000, 2002, 2003, 2007 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All rights reserved.

Alone volume 2: The Master of Knives


By Gazzotti & Vehlmann, translated by Jerome Saincantin (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-1-84918-206-5 (PB Album)

Fabien Vehlmann was only born in 1972, yet his prodigious canon of work (from 1998 to the present) has earned him the soubriquet of “the Goscinny of the 21st Century”. He entered the world in Mont-de-Marsan and grew up in Savoie, studying business management before taking a job with a theatre group.

In 1996, after entering a writing contest in Le Journal de Spirou, Vehlmann caught the comics bug and two years later published – with illustrative collaborator Denis Bodart – a mordantly quirky and sophisticated portmanteau period crime comedy entitled Green Manor. From there on, his triumphs grew to include – many amongst others – Célestin Speculoos for Circus, Nicotine Goudron for l’Écho des Savanes and a stint on major-league property Spirou and Fantasio

Bruno Gazzotti is Belgian, born in 1970 and a former student of Institut Saint Luc in Liège. Another artist addicted to comics from his earliest years, he started getting paid to draw them in 1988, after being hired by Spirou editor Patrick Pinchart on the strength of his portfolio alone. Before long he was illustrating Le Petit Spirou with Tome & Janry.

In 1989, he and Tome created New York Cop Soda, which kept Gazzotti busy until 2005, when he resigned to co-create award-winning feature Seuls

Originally released in January 2006, Seuls – La disparition began a superb example of how to craft a thriller suitable for kids: evoking the eerie atmosphere of TV series Lost and the most disturbing elements of Philip Wylie’s The Disappearance and William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. In a post-virus, Lockdown-besieged world, it also has eerie echoes of how humans deal with enforced isolation…

Debut volume The Vanishing showed us how an ordinary bustling town, with simple folk going about their business overnight became an empty mausoleum, with a small cross-section of kids left behind to survive or die.

The scant remainers comprise Ivan, an imaginative child of wealth who wants for nothing but never saw his dad and Leila, a born engineer, inventor and tinkerer. Her poor but honest dad always found time to play and critique her latest gadget…

Studious Camille was over-focussed on exams and achievement whilst Terry is pretty much still a baby: refusing to obey orders and throwing tantrums if he doesn’t get his way.

Typically, even in an ideal environment, not all children lived comfortable lives. Dodzi was in the protective services system. His early life made him tough and resilient but couldn’t stop the other young inmates handing him a beating on this ominous, odd-feeling night before everything changed…

When it happened, the kids wandered a terrifyingly quiet and forbidding city until finding each other. All the adults were gone, and all their child pals. The internet was down, with only static from TVs and radios. Above, fearsome storm clouds hung low and ominous. As they went wild with freedom and panicked from anxiety, eventually Dodzi brutally enforced calm and lead them away to find a succession of temporary – albeit palatial – refuges to regroup and think… After an uncanny series of encounters with escaped circus animals, the little band settle in the towering Majestic Hotel and Master of Knives (originally released as Seuls: Le Maître des couteaux) opens with Dodzi scouting the empty metropolis and helping Leila consolidate supplies for a long stay in the lap of luxury. His nervousness remains high as there are still close calls with the liberated beasts in the streets, but the younger kids seem to have adapted well. It certainly helps that they are hoarding every toy and treat they can find in abandoned shops and houses…

Ivan has a plan to occupy him too: systematically calling every phone number in the phone book. No luck yet, though…

Things start to go south swiftly after he finds his father’s pistol and tempts Leila into a spot of target practice on the roof. As Dodzi furiously confiscates the lethal toy, he has no idea that he has become the chosen prey of a mysterious stalker. As the cloaked pursuer slowly enacts a chilling campaign of terror, the stressed leader agonisingly discovers he is not the only obsession of the terrifying, nebulous figure clad in cloaks and draped in blades and daggers…

As the other kids obliviously fritter away the day, Dodzi is remorselessly hunted over the rooftops by the manic killer. When he briefly eludes the hunter, the Master simply doubles back to menace the children in the hotel. A shocking confrontation then ensues, which sees the tables turned but only at the cost of Dodzi’s closely withheld secrets being exposed to all…

In the painful aftermath, the days of innocence are discarded and the little orphan family prepare to hit the open road to find out if other cities have been emptied too…

To Be Continued…

This spooky, powerful and often shocking tale of mystery and imagination sees bereft children facing increasingly daunting physical hazards and an escalating series of events which can have no logical or rational explanation, and the tension simply amplifies with every instalment. Alone became one of the biggest critical and commercial comics hits of the decade and if you love eerie enigmas and powerful tale-telling, you’ll buy this and successive releases to see why…
© Dupuis 2007 by Gazzotti & Vehlmann. All rights reserved. English translation © 2014 Cinebook Ltd.

Sickness Unto Death volumes 1 & 2


By Hikaru Asada & Takahiro Seguchi (Vertical)
ISBN: 978-1-939130-09-9(tankōbon PB vol. 1) 978-1939130105(tankōbon PB vol. 2)

Here’s an intriguing and tragically underrated and sadly forgotten saga deftly examining the devastating effects of despair that still has plenty to say and much to offer…

Takahiro Seguchi’s gripping psychological melodrama Sickness Unto Death is a bleak and enthralling, emotionally complex tale of love, compulsion and dependency, transformed into spellbinding comics by artist Hikaru Asada.

Inspired by Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard’s treatise Sygdommen til Døden (The Sickness Unto Death – a Christian existentialist examination of the “Sin of Despair”), this extremely accessible tale began in 2009 as Shi ni Itaru Yamai; serialised in Hakusensha’s fortnightly Seinen magazine Young Animal.

This translated version opens with a Professor standing beside a student over the grave of his first case – and greatest love…

A flashback begins revealing how, as a young man, Kazuma Futaba came to the city to study clinical psychology, and how he was lucky to find lodgings in an old house. However, on his way there he encountered a young girl with white hair suffering a crushing anxiety attack in the street. Although everybody ignored the crippled creature, he rushed to her assistance and happily complied with her desperate need to be held.

‘Emiru’ was impossibly cold to the touch and although both were merely 18 years old, she seemed inexorably gripped by an ancient despondency and overwhelming gloom…

After she recovered, he hurried on to find his new digs in a vast old house, meeting the butler Kuramoto who reveals the place belonged to the orphan Emiru Ariga, a beautiful, vivacious creature who had within the last two years suddenly succumbed to a crushing ‘Despair’ so great it had bleached her hair, triggered drastic weight-loss, weakened her heart and caused her body temperature to fall to far below normal. He describes it as a “terminal illness of the spirit”. She now spends most of her time locked in her room, drawing monsters and waiting to die…

Intrigued, desperate to help but painfully aware of how inexperienced he is, Futaba examines the compliant, barely-living corpse and determines to somehow help her. At least she shows some animation when he is near. Both Kuramoto and his young mistress want Futaba to fix her…

In ‘Haunted Mansion’ the relationship develops further as the student transfers what he learns by day at school into evening therapy. Emiru seems brighter, even though she believes the house harbours ghosts…

When Kuramoto is called away for a few days, he leaves Futaba in charge, but after the frail girl spends too long in a bath, the boy panics. Breaking in, he sees her painfully thin, nude form for the first time. Embarrassed and confused, he dashes away and stumbles upon a mystery room, its door nailed shut with heavy planks.

Emiru sees ghosts: a crying, lonely child and a monster with teeth but no face…

Her sleep is perpetually disturbed, and Futaba – after learning about Night Terrors in class – agrees to ‘Sharing a Bed’, even though he is no longer certain his own motives are strictly professional. Nevertheless, resolved to save her he begins a ‘Psych Assessment’, gathering facts and personal history, but learns little more than once she was normal and then, suddenly, she wasn’t…

Emiru is increasingly time-locked in lengthy periods of despair, weeping outside the barred room; her traumatic nights eased by Kazuma’s platonic presence, although she feels the spectral presence of ‘The One in the Mansion’ whenever he goes away…

In the present, Professor Futaba and student Minami – who thinks she too can see a ghost in the abandoned dwelling – explore the deserted, decrepit mansion which housed his greatest regret. When they stop at a monster drawing scrawled on a wall, it takes him back to those troubled years…

A setback in Emiru’s recovery occurs when another ghost sighting unleashes a wave of depression and young Futaba learns of her carefree ‘High School Years’ from fellow psych student Koizumi – a former classmate of Emiru when she a healthy, happy, raven-haired ball of wild energy, fun and adventure…

Koizumi ardently believes she became burdened with some terrible secret that overnight transformed her into the frail, fading creature Futaba describes, prompting the floundering lad to confer with his tutor Professor Otsuki. The mentor responds by lending him a copy of Kierkegaard’s infamous tract…

For such a weakened patient, even a cold might be fatal, but with Futaba at her side Emiru pulls through. However, after recovering, she entices him into crossing a ‘Forbidden Line’ but neither as therapist nor lover is young Futaba assured of securing her ‘Happiness and Beauty’ until and unless he can her unburden her obsessive soul of the dark secret strangling it from within…

Beguiling and hypnotic, this exceptional medical mystery/ghostly love story is far from the familiar – to Western eyes at least – explosive bombast and action slapstick normally associated with Japanese comics. As such it might just make a few manga converts amongst die-hard holdouts who prefer sensitive writing, deep themes and human scale to their comics.

Moody, moving and far more than just another adult manga, Sickness Unto Death is that rarest of things: a graphic novel for people who don’t think they like comics…
© 2010 Hikaru Asada. © 2010 Takahiro Seguchi. All rights reserved.

Impossible Tales: The Steve Ditko Archives volume 4


By Steve Ditko & various, edited by Blake Bell (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-640-9 (HB)

Once upon a time the short complete tale was the sole staple of the comic book profession, where the plan was to deliver as much variety as possible to the reader. Sadly, that particular discipline is all but lost to us today…

Steve Ditko (November 2nd 1927 – c. June 29th 2018) was one of our industry’s greatest talents and probably America’s least lauded. His fervent desire was to just get on with his job telling stories the best way he could. Whilst the noblest of aspirations, that dream was always a minor consideration and frequently a stumbling block for the commercial interests which for so long controlled all comics production and still exert an overwhelming influence upon the mainstream bulk of Funny book output. Let’s see what happens in the months to come now that COVID19 has wrought its horrific effects on the industry…

Before his time at Marvel, the young Ditko mastered his craft creating short stories for a variety of companies and it’s an undeniable joy to be able to look at this work from a such an innocent time. Here he was just breaking into the industry: tirelessly honing his craft with genre tales for whichever publisher would have him, utterly free from the interference of intrusive editors.

This fourth fantastic full-colour deluxe hardback – and potently punchy digital treasure trove – reprints another heaping helping of his ever more impressive works: published between July 1957 and March 1959, and all courtesy of the surprisingly liberal (at least in its trust of its employees’ creative instincts) sweat-shop publisher Charlton Comics. Some of the issues here were actually put together under the St. John imprint, but when that company abruptly folded, much of its already prepared in-house material – even entire issues – were purchased and published by clearing-house specialist Charlton with almost no editorial changes.

And, whilst we’re being technically accurate it’s also important to note that the eventual publication dates of the stories in this collection don’t have a lot to do with when Ditko rendered these mini-masterpieces: Charlton paid so little, the cheap, anthologically astute outfit had no problem buying material it could leave on a shelf for months – if not years – until the right moment arrived to print…

All the tales and covers reproduced here were drawn after implementation of the draconian, self-inflicted Comics Code Authority rules which sanitised the industry following Senate Hearings and a public witch-hunt. They are uniformly wonderfully baroque and bizarre fantasies, suspense and science fiction yarns, helpfully annotated with a purchase number to indicate approximately when they were actually drawn.

Sadly, there’s no indication of how many (if any) were actually written by Ditko, but as at the time the astoundingly prolific Joe Gill was churning out hundreds of stories per year for Charlton, he is always everyone’s first guess when trying to attribute script credit…

Following an historically informative Introduction and passionate advocacy by Blake Bell, the evocative tales of mystery and imagination commence with ‘The Menace of the Maple Leaves’, an eerie haunted woods fable from Strange Suspense Stories #33 (August 1957), closely followed a darkly sinister con-game which goes impossibly awry after a wealthy roué consults a supposed mystic to regain his youth and vitality before being treated in ‘The Forbidden Room’ (Mysteries of Unexplored Worlds #4 July 1957)…

From November 1957, Do You Believe in Nightmares? #1 offers a bounty of Ditko delights, beginning with the stunning St. John cover heralding a prophetic ‘Nightmare’; the strange secret of a prognosticating ‘Somnambulist’ and the justice which befalls a seasoned criminal in ‘The Strange Silence’ – all confirming how wry fate intervenes in the lives of mortals.

‘You Can Make Me Fly’ then goes a tad off-topic with a tale of brothers divided by morality and intellect after which the issue ends with a dinosaur-packed romp courtesy of ‘The Man Who Crashed into Another Era’

Next up is a tale from one of Charlton’s earliest star characters. Apparently the title came from a radio show which Charlton licensed, and the lead/host/narrator certainly acted more as voyeur than active participant, speaking “to camera” and asking readers for opinion and judgement as he shared a selection of funny, sad, scary and wondrous human interest yarns all tinged with a hint of the weird and supernatural. When rendered by Ditko, whose storytelling mastery, page design and full, lavish brushwork were just beginning to come into its mature full range, the Tales of the Mysterious Traveler were esoteric and utterly mesmerising…

From issue #6 (December 1957), ‘Little Girl Lost’ chills spines and tugs heartstrings with the story of a doll that loved its human companion, followed by a paranoid chase from Strange Suspense Stories #35 (December 1957) as ‘There it is Again’ sees a scientist dogged by his most dangerous invention…

Unusual Tales #10 (January 1958) provides a spooky cover before disclosing the awesome secret of ‘The Repair Man from Nowhere’ and – following wickedly effective Cold War science fiction parable ‘Panic!’ from Strange Suspense Stories #35 – resumes with ‘A Strange Kiss’ that draws a mining engineer into a far better world…

Out of This World #6 (November 1957) provides access to ‘The Secret Room’ which forever changes the lives of an aging, destitute couple. Then cover and original artwork for Out of This World #12 (March 1959) lead to a tale in which a ruthless anthropologist is brought low by ‘A Living Doll’ he’d taken from a native village…

Returning to Tales of the Mysterious Traveler #6 results in three more captivating yarns. ‘When Old Doc Died’ is perhaps the best in this book, displaying wry humour in the history of a country sawbones who is only content when helping others, whilst ‘The Old Fool’ everybody mocked proves to be his village’s greatest friend, and ‘Mister Evriman’ explores the metaphysics of mass TV viewing in a thoroughly chilling manner…

The dangers of science without scruple informs the salutary saga of a new invention in ‘The Edge of Fear’ (Unusual Tales #10, January 1958), after which the cover of This Magazine is Haunted #14 (December 1957) ushers us into cases recounted by ghoulish Dr. Haunt; specifically, a scary precursor to cloning in ‘The Second Self’ and a diagnosis of isolation and mutation which afflicts ‘The Green Man’

The cover and original art for giant-sized Out of This World #7 (February 1958) precedes ‘The Most Terrible Fate’ befalling a victim of atomic warfare whilst ‘Cure-All’ details a struggle between a country doctor and a sinister machine which heals any ailment.

We return to This Magazine is Haunted #14 as Dr. Haunt relates a ghastly monster’s progress ‘From Out of the Depths’ before ‘The Man Who Disappeared’ tells his uncanny story to disbelieving Federal agents. Out of This World #7 in turn provides an ethereal ringside seat from which to view a time-traveller’s ‘Journey to Paradise’…

From Tales of the Mysterious Traveler #7 (March 1958), ‘And the Fear Grew’ relates how an Australian rancher falls foul of an insidiously malign but cute-looking critter, after which ‘The Heel and the Healer’ reveals how a snake-oil peddler finds a genuine magic cure-all, whilst ‘Never Again’ (Unusual Tales #10 again) takes an eons-long look at mankind’s atomic follies and ‘Through the Walls’ (Out of This World #7) sees a decent man framed and imprisoned, only to be saved by the power of astral projection…

Out of This World #12 (March 1959) declared ‘The World Awaits’ when a scientist uncovers an age-old secret regarding ant mutation and eugenics, Mysteries of Unexplored Worlds #7 (February 1958) exposes ‘The Angry Things’ which haunt a suspiciously inexpensive Italian villa, and the gripping cover to Tales of the Mysterious Traveler #10 (November 1958) segues into the unsuspected sacrifice of a jazz virtuoso who saves the world in ‘Little Boy Blue’

A tragic orphan finds new parents after ‘The Vision Came’ (Tales of the Mysterious Traveler #8, July 1958) before Dr. Haunt proves television to be a cause of great terror in ‘Impossible, But…’ (from This Magazine is Haunted volume 2 #16, May 1958) – an issue which also discloses the world-changing fate of a Soviet scientist who became ‘The Man from Time’…

Another selfless inventor chooses to be a ‘Failure’ rather than doom humanity to eternal servitude in a stunning yarn from Strange Suspense Stories #36 (March 1958), whilst the luckiest man alive at last experiences the downside of being ‘Not Normal’ (Tales of the Mysterious Traveler #7) after which Unusual Tales #11 – from March 1958 – reveals the secret of Presidential statesmanship to a young politician in ‘Charmed, I’m Sure’, and exposes a magical secret race through an author’s vacation ‘Deep in the Mountains’

This mesmerising collection concludes with the suitably bizarre tale of Egyptian lucky charm ‘The Dancing Cat’ (Strange Suspense Stories #37, July 1958) to ensure the spooky afterglow remains long after the final page and leaves you hungry for more mystic merriment and arcane enjoyment…

This sturdily capacious volume has episodes that terrify, amaze, amuse and enthral: utter delights of fantasy fiction with lean, stripped down plots and simple dialogue that let the art set the tone, push the emotions and tell the tale, from times when a story could end sadly as well as happily and only wonderment was on the agenda, hidden or otherwise. The stories display the sharp wit and contained comedic energy which made so many Spider-Man/J. Jonah Jameson confrontations an unforgettable treat a decade later, making this is cracking collection not only superb in its own right but as a telling examination into the genius of one of the art-form’s greatest stylists.

This is a book serious comics fans would happily kill or die or be lost in time for…
This edition © 2013 Fantagraphics Books. Introduction © 2013 Blake Bell. All rights reserved.

Shade, the Changing Man volume: The American Scream


By Peter Milligan, Chris Bachalo, Mark Pennington & various (DC/Vertigo)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-0046-6 (TPB)

Even before DC hived off its “Mature Readers” sophisticated horror/hero series to become the backbone of the self-sustaining Vertigo line in 1993, the company had begun to differentiate between standard all-ages superhero sagas, new stand-alone concepts such as Gilgamesh II, Skreemer, Haywire or World Without End and edgy, off-the-wall, quasi-costumed fantasy and supernatural suspense titles as Doom Patrol, Black Orchid, Animal Man, Sandman, Hellblazer and Swamp Thing. Perhaps the most radical and challenging was a darkly psychedelic reworking of Steve Ditko’s lost masterpiece of modern paranoia Shade the Changing Man.

In the original 1977 mainstream series Rac Shade was a secret observer from the other-dimensional Meta-Zone. Framed for terrorism and sedition, he went rogue; using untried stolen technology to combat a wave of insanity that emanated from “the Area of Madness” within the Zero-Zone separating his world from ours. Said madness threatened both universes and Shade was resolved to stop it, despite the best efforts of sinister self-serving forces from Earth and Meta determined to destroy him.

When Peter Milligan, Chris Bachalo & Mark Pennington began to rework the character, much of Ditko’s original concept remained but was brutally tweaked for the far more cynical and worldly readers of the Blank Generation…

This collection – available in old-fashioned trade paperback and almost otherworldly digital formats – re-presents the first six issues of the new Shade from July to December 1990 and begins by introducing deeply disturbed Kathy George, patiently awaiting the final sanction on spree-killer Troy Grenzer.

Years previously, the unrepentant psycho-killer butchered her parents – and almost her too – and when her black boyfriend tackled the knife-wielding manic the Louisiana police shot her saviour instead of the white assailant…

Now in the final hours before Grenzer finally sits in the electric chair on ‘Execution Day’, Kathy is experiencing wild hallucinations. That’s nothing new: following the deaths of everyone she’d ever loved, Kathy was committed to an asylum until her inheritance ran out. Then she was released, apparently “too poor to be crazy” anymore.

Becoming a thief and a grifter, she wandered America until a radio report informed her Grenzer was about to be put to death. Inexplicably, Kathy found herself heading back to Louisiana…
On Death Row, things aren’t going according to plan. Bizarre lights, strange visions and electrical phenomena interrupt the execution and, as a fantastic reality-warping explosion occurs, Grenzer’s body vanishes…

On a hillside overlooking the prison, Kathy is pursued by an animated electric chair and Grenzer materialises in her car – only he claims not to be the serial killer but Rac Shade: a secret agent from another dimension who left his own body in an otherworldly Area of Madness to mentally occupy the now-vacant corpse of the serial killer.

It isn’t the craziest thing Kathy has ever heard, and even if it isn’t true, at least she has a chance to personally kill the man who destroyed her life…

As the drive away together, insane things keep happening. Shade explains that his transition to Earth caused a rupture in the fabric of the universes – a trauma in Reality…

Slowly acclimatising, Shade explains his original body is clad in experimental technology and his “M-Vest” connects his subconscious to the chaos of the Madness zone. His job was to come here and stop a plague of materialised insanity threatening both worlds, but now he’s actually given it easier access to ours…

After a climactic struggle with her own ghosts and traumas, Kathy reluctantly agrees to help the semi-amnesiac Shade in his mission.

Meanwhile at a Mental Hospital, uncanny events culminate in a ghastly reordering of people and matter itself: a horrific nigh-sentient phenomenon dubbed “the American Scream” breaks through from somewhere else and threatens all life and rationality on Earth. With casual daydreams, flights of fantasy and vicious whims increasingly given substance and solidity, the government – well aware of the crisis – dispatched Federal Agents Stringer and Conner to investigate…

The quest proper begins as the fugitives from justice troll through the hinterlands of American Culture and its Collective Unconscious, ending up in Dallas where obsessed author Duane Trilby, determined to discover ‘Who Shot JFK?’, finds himself conversing with the tarnished martyr himself. As the murdered president returns to the scene of the crime, the city starts to literally unravel, with a giant idolatrous bust of the victim bursting through the tarmac of Dealey Plaza, incessantly screaming for answers…

The chaos affects Shade, as the last vestiges of Grenzer’s personality repossess the body they share, determined to at last add Kathy to his tally of victims, even as Agents Stringer and Conner – convinced she is connected to Grenzer’s abrupt disappearance from his own execution – follow her to Texas. With madness rampant, Shade and Kathy are drawn into Trilby’s materialisation of events, becoming JFK and Jackie, inexorably heading toward death in that open-topped car…

The measured insanity escalates in ‘All the President’s Assassins!’ as Trilby saves Shade/JFK and slowly reveals his own personal tragedy: one which drove him to solve an impossible conundrum and avoid an agonising admission…

All the while, the Metan’s consciousness is being dragged into a succession of traumatised participants before realising he must defeat this outbreak of the American Scream quickly or surely fragment and die…

Escaping into his own past on Meta in ‘Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know’, Shade physically re-experiences his early life, whilst in Dallas Stringer and Conner apprehend Kathy.

A lovelorn, impressionable poet, young dropout Rac Shade was tricked into becoming an agent and sent to Earth because it was apparently the source of devastating waves of insanity plaguing Meta, but en route he was sucked into the Area of Madness, meeting the American Scream face to face…

Falling back to Earth, Rac frees Kathy and they flee, arriving in Los Angeles in time to struggle with the dark underbelly of the film industry as it comes to murderous, sadistic life and starts stalking the stars and moguls who create the vicious yet glorious land of dreams. First singled out are the cast and crew of in-production zombie epic Hollywood Monsters, who endure shame and career destruction as impossible film-clips of their deepest secrets and darkest transgressions manifest. Soon after, mutilations and deaths begin, before a psychedelic crescendo is reached in ‘Hollywood Babble On II’ with Shade and Kathy fighting their way through a physically-realised and highly biased history of Tinsel Town triumphs and travesties, before finally seizing control of the noxious narrative and beating the Madness at its own game…

Sporting a stunning cover gallery by Brendan McCarthy, this terrifying tome is darkly ironic and blackly comedic, whilst gripping and dripping with razor-edged social commentary. Shade, the Changing Man added a sparkling brew of sardonic wit to the horror and action staples of the medium and remains one of the most challenging and intriguing series in comics history. Check it out.
© 1990, 2003, 2009 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Arena – A Marvel Graphic Novel


By Bruce Jones (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-87135-557-7

In  the early 1980s Marvel led the publishing pack in the development of high quality original graphic novels: mixing out-of-the-ordinary Marvel Universe tales, new in-continuity series launches, creator-owned properties, licensed assets, movie adaptations and even the occasional creator-owned property in extravagantly expansive packages (a square-ish standard page of 285 x 220mm rather than the now customary elongated 258 x 168mm) that felt and looked instantly superior to the average comicbook no matter how good, bad or incomprehensible (my way of saying outside your average Marvel customer’s comfort zone) the contents might be.

By 1990 Marvel’s ambitious line of outré all-area epics had begun to stall and some less-than-stellar tales were squeaking into the line-up. Moreover, the company was increasingly relying on hastily turned out cinema adaptations with built-in fan appeal and safe in-continuity stories offering established and company copyrighted characters rather than creator-owned properties and original concepts. The once-unmissable line began to have the appearance of an over-sized, over-priced clearing house for leftover stories.

So this stunning suspense saga counts as one of the last – and very best – indie/mainstream fiction experiments from before the rot set in; a creepy, clever, sexy thriller from screenwriter,  novelist, artistic Everyman and ardent EC fan Bruce Jones which sets up shop in Stephen King and Ray Bradbury territory to deliver an overwhelmingly impressive rollercoaster of shocks and twists.

Sharon and her 12 year old daughter Lisa are driving through the majestic rural backwoods of America. It’s a pretty acrimonious journey and when the opportunity presents itself Mom takes a break and goes for a refreshing dip in a mountain pool whilst daughter stays in the car sulkily playing with her toy planes.

Sharon’s idyllic moment is shattered when she sees a jet crash scant yards away. However she can’t find any wreckage or even the slightest sign of it. Lisa saw and heard nothing and neither did the sinister voyeur who had been spying on them…

Rushing back to his shack simpleminded Lem tells his demented Granny about the strange woman. The old crone smells opportunity: if they can capture her and if she’s fertile they can sell her babies in the Big City… and even if she’s not big brother Rut will have a new plaything for awhile…

Lost in the deep woods Lt. Roberts, USAF crawls out of her crashed plane and hears voices. Sharon and the downed pilot start talking and realise that although they can’t see each other they are standing side by side. They’re invisible because they’re separated by two decades…

Somehow the mountain and forest are one huge time-warp… and increasingly, various eras are overlapping. Even though Sharon can only talk to Roberts, dinosaurs and cavemen are chaotically roaming over the hills, endangering both women in their own time-zones…

At that moment Lem and Rut strike, snatching Sharon. locking her up ready to make some money-spinning young ‘uns. From the car little Lisa sees her mother taken and twenty years in the future pilot Lisa Roberts suddenly remembers the horrifying moment her mother was killed by Hillbilly rapist psychopaths…

The time-shifts briefly stabilise and the two Lisas meet…

With beasts and worse roaming the woods the elder Lisa realises she has a chance to unmake the worst day of her life, but there are complications she could never have imagined in store for her and the girl she used to be…

Sultry, sinister and devilishly cunning, this chronal conundrum is beautifully illustrated by Jones and his corkscrew plot is packed full of genuine surprises. Don’t think you’ve guessed the ending because you most likely haven’t…

A perfect sci fi movie-in-waiting, this terse and evocative yarn follows all the rules for a great screen shocker without ever having to “dumb-down” the temporal mechanics in deference to the Great Un-read in the popcorn seats.

Smart, seductive storytelling for sharp-witted punters, this is book long overdue for re-release, but until that happy future materialises, this remains a time-lost gem you should track down however long it takes…
© 1989 Bruce Jones. All Rights Reserved.

Marada the She-Wolf


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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