Albion: Origins

By Tom Tully, Scott Goodall, Ken Mennell, Solano Lopez, Eric Bradbury & various (Titan Books)
ISBN: 978-1-84576-172-1

Here’s a truly superb collection of British comic strips from the glory days of the 1960s courtesy of Titan Books and originally released to support and cash in on the profile-raising American Albion miniseries and collection.

In this stunning, non-nonsense monochrome hardback are four complete early exploits of some of Britain’s weirdest comic strip heroes.

Kelly’s Eye featured ordinary, thoroughly decent chap Tim Kelly who came into possession of the mystical “Eye of Zoltec”: a fist-sized gem that kept him free from all harm… as long as held on to it.

You won’t be surprised to discover that, due to the demands of weekly boys’ adventures, Tim lost, dropped, misplaced and was nefariously deprived of that infernal talisman pretty darned often – and always at the most inopportune moment…

The moody and compelling artwork of Argentinean Francisco Solano Lopez was the prime asset of this series, with the story reprinted here being about a Seminole Indian uprising threatening modern Florida. Complete with eerie evil witch doctor, supernatural overtones from a demonic drum and consumer America imperilled, this story is a classic. Tom Tully & Scott Goodall were the usual scripters for this little gem of a series.

And yes, due to the pressure of these weekly deadlines, occasionally fill-in artists had to pinch-hit in most British strip-series every now and then. Such was the breakneck pacing though, that us kids hardly even noticed and I doubt you will either. Still. If you are eagle-eyed, you might spot such luminaries as Reg Bunn, Felix Carrion, Carlos Cruz, Franc Fuentesman, and Geoff Campion in this volume. But you probably won’t…

House of Dolman was a curious and inexplicably absorbing blend of super-spy and crime-buster strip from Tully and utterly wonderful master illustrator Eric Bradbury. Dolman’s cover was as a shabby ventriloquist (I digress, but an awful lot of “our” heroes were tatty and unkempt – we had “Grunge” down pat decades before the Americans made a profit out of it!) who designed and constructed an army of specialised robots which he disguised as his puppets.

Using these as his shock-troops, the enigmatic Dolman waged a dark and crazy war against the forces of evil…

Featured here are a number of his complete 4-page thrillers wherein he defeats high-tech kidnappers, rascally protection racketeers, weapons thieves, blackmailers and the sinister forces of arch super-criminal ‘The Hawk’.

Janus Stark was a fantastically innovative and successful strip. Created by Tully for the relaunch of Smash in 1969, the majority of the art was from Solano Lopez’s studio, providing an aura of eerie, grimy veracity well suited to this tale of a foundling who grew up in a grim orphanage only to become the greatest escapologist of the Victorian age.

The Man with Rubber Bones also had his own ideas about retribution and justice and would joyously sort out those scoundrels the Law couldn’t or wouldn’t touch. A number of creators worked on this feature, which survived until the downsizing of the publisher’s comics division in 1975 – and even beyond – since Stark escaped oblivion by emigration.

When the series ended in Britain it was continued in French publications – even unto Stark’s eventual death and succession by his son. Here though, we get to see his earliest feats and I for one was left hungry for more. Encore!

The last spot in this sturdy hardback treasury falls to the Spooky Master of the Unknown Cursitor Doom. This series is the unquestioned masterpiece of Eric Bradbury – an artist who probably deserves that title as much as his visual creation.

Writer Ken Mennell, who usually invented characters for other writers to script, kept Doom for himself and the result is a darkly brooding Gothic thriller quite unlike anything else in comics then or since. If pushed, I’ll liken it most to William Hope Hodgson’s Karnacki the Ghost Breaker novelettes – although that’s more for flavour than anything else and even that doesn’t really cover it.

Doom is a fat, bald, cape-wearing foul-tempered know-it-all who just happens to be humanity’s last-ditch defence against the forces of darkness. With his strapping and rugged young assistant Angus McCraggan and Scarab, a trained raven (or is it, perhaps, something more?), Cursitor crushed without mercy any threat to humanity’s wellbeing.

Re-presented here is the ‘Dark Legion of Mardarax’ wherein a cohort of Roman soldiers extracted from the mists of antiquity rampages across the British countryside, intent on awaking an ancient and diabolical monstrosity from the outer Dark!

Perhaps these tales are a thrill for me because I first read them when I was just an uncomprehending nipper, but I don’t think so. It’s a tremendous thrill now to realise that despite all the age, wisdom, and sophistication I can now muster, that these strips really were – and are – as great if not better, than most of the comics I’ve seen in fifty-plus years of reading. Don’t take my word for it: track down this book and see if you’re not as hungrily avid for more of the same…
© 2005 IPC Media Ltd. All rights reserved.

Werewolf by Night – the Complete Collection volume 1

By Gerry Conway, Len Wein, Marv Wolfman, Roy & Jean Thomas, Mike Ploog, Werner Roth, Ross Andru, Tom Sutton, Gil Kane, Gene Colan & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-1-30290-839-3

Inspiration isn’t everything. In 1970, as Marvel consolidated its position of market dominance – even after losing their two most innovative and inspirational creators, Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby – they did so with a wave of new young talent but less by experimentation and more by expanding proven concepts and properties.

The only real exception to this was the mass creation of horror titles in response to the industry down-turn in superhero sales – a move expedited by a rapid revision in the wordings of the increasingly ineffectual Comics Code Authority rules.

Almost overnight nasty monsters (and narcotics – but that’s another story and a different review) became acceptable fare within four-colour pages and whilst a parade of 1950s pre-code reprints made sound business sense (so they repackaged a bunch of those too) the creative aspect of the contemporary fascination in supernatural themes was catered to by adapting popular cultural icons before risking whole new concepts on an untested public.

As always, the watchword was fashion: what was hitting big outside comics was to be incorporated into the print mix and shared universe mix as readily as possible. When proto-monster Morbius, the Living Vampire debuted in Amazing Spider-Man #101 (October 1971) and the sky failed to fall in, Marvel moved ahead with a line of scary superstars – beginning with a werewolf and a vampire – before chancing something new in a haunted biker who could tap into both Easy Rider’s freewheeling motorcycling chic and the supernatural zeitgeist.

Werewolf By Night debuted in Marvel Spotlight #2 (preceded by western masked hero Red Wolf in #1, and followed by the afore-hinted Ghost Rider) although the series title, if not the actual star character, was cribbed from a classic pre-Comics Code short suspense-thriller from Marvel Tales #116, July 1953.

Marvel always favoured a long-time tradition of using old (presumably already copyrighted) names and titles when creating new series and characters. Hulk, Thor, Magneto, Doctor Strange and many others all got nominal starts as throwaways in some anthology or other…

This copious compendium collects – in paperback or eBook formats – the early adventures of a young West Coast lycanthrope and comprises the contents of Marvel Spotlight #2-4, Werewolf by Night volume 1 #1-15; a guest-shot in Marvel Team-Up #12 and material from the appropriate half of a horror crossover with Tomb of Dracula #18, cumulatively spanning February 1972 through 1974.

Following an informative, scene-setting Introduction by long-term Marvel Editor Ralph Macchio, the moonlit madness begins with the landmark first appearance, introducing teenager Jack Russell, who is suffering some sleepless nights…

‘Werewolf by Night!’ (Marvel Spotlight #2, February 1972), was written by Gerry Conway and moodily illustrated by Mike Ploog from an outline by Roy & Jeanie Thomas, describing the worst day of Jack’s life – his 18th birthday – which begins with nightmares and ends in something far worse.

Jack’s mother and little sister Lissa are everything a fatherless boy could hope for but new stepfather Philip and creepy chauffeur Grant are another matter…

That night at his party Jack has a painful seizure and flees into the Malibu night to transform for the first time into a ravening vulpine man-beast. The next morning, he awakes wasted on the beach to discover that his mother has been gravely injured in a car crash. Something had happened to her brakes…

Creeping into her hospital room he is astonished as she relates the story of his blood-father; an Eastern European noble who loved her deeply but locked himself away three nights every month…

The Russoff line was cursed by the taint of Lycanthropy: every child doomed to become a wolf-thing under the full-moon from the moment they reach eighteen years of age. Jack was horrified and then realised how soon his sister would reach her own majority…

With her dying breath Laura Russell made her son promise never to harm his stepfather, no matter what…

Scenario set, with the traumatised wolf-boy transforming for three nights every month, the weird, wild wonderment began in earnest with the beast attacking Grant the chauffeur – who had doctored those car-brakes – but refraining, even in vulpine form, from attacking Philip Russell…

The second instalment sees the reluctant nocturnal predator rescue Lissa from a sick and rowdy biker gang (they were everywhere back then) and narrowly escape the police only to be abducted by a sinister dowager seeking knowledge of a magical tome called the Darkhold. The eldritch spell-book is the apparent basis of the Russoff curse, but when Jack can’t produce the goods he’s left to the mercies of ‘The Thing in the Cellar!’

Surviving more by luck than power, Jack’s third try-out issue fetches him up on an ‘Island of the Damned!’: introducing aging writer Buck Cowan, who became Jack’s best friend as they jointly investigate the wolf-boy’s stepfather.

The elder Russell had apparently sold off Jack’s inheritance, leaving the boy nothing but an old book. Following a paper trail to find proof Philip had had Laura Russell killed leads the pair to an offshore fortress, a dungeon full of horrors and a ruthless mutant seductress…

That episode ended on a cliffhanger, presumably as added incentive to buy Werewolf by Night #1 (September 1972), wherein Frank Chiaramonte took over inking with ‘Eye of the Beholder!’

As ruthless freak Marlene Blackgar and her monstrous posse capture the entire Russell family looking for the Book of Sins, once more a fearsome force of supernature awakes to accidentally save the day as night falls…

With ‘The Hunter… and the Hunted!’ Jack and Buck deposit the trouble-attracting grimoire with Father Joquez, a Christian monk and scholar of ancient texts, but are still hunted because of it. Jack quits the rural wastes of Malibu for a new home in Los Angeles, trading concrete for forests but life is no easier.

In #2, dying scientist Cephalos tries to harness Jack’s feral life-force to extend his own and lives but briefly to regret it. Meanwhile Joquez succeeds in translating the Darkhold, but his accomplishment allows an ancient horror to possess him in WbN #3 during ‘The Mystery of the Mad Monk!’ Whilst the werewolf is saddened to end such a noble life it feels far happier dealing with millionaire sportsman Joshua Kane, who desires a truly unique head mounted on the wall of his den in the Franke Bolle inked ‘The Danger Game’.

Half-naked, exhausted and soaked to his now hairless skin, Jack must next deal with Kane’s psychotic brother who wants the werewolf for his pet assassin in ‘A Life for a Death!’ (by Len Wein & Ploog) after which ‘Carnival of Fear!’ (Bolle inks again) finds the beast – and Jack, once the sun rises – a pitiful captive of the mystic Swami Calliope and his deadly circus of freaks.

The wolf was now the subject of an obsessive police detective too. “Old-school cop” Lou Hackett is an old buddy of trophy-hunter Joshua Kane and every bit as charming, but his off-the-books investigation has hardly begun when the Swami’s plans fall apart in the concluding ‘Ritual of Blood!’ (inked by Jim Mooney).

The beast is safely(?) roaming loose in the backwoods for #8’s quirky monster-mash just as an ancient demon possesses a cute little bunny in ‘The Lurker Behind the Door!’ (Wein, Werner Roth & Paul Reinman), before neatly segueing to a slight but stirring engagement in Marvel Team-Up #12 wherein Wein, Conway, Ross Andru & Don Perlin expose a ‘Wolf at Bay!’

When webspinning wallcrawler meets the Werewolf they initially battle each other – and ultimately malevolent mage Moondark – in foggy, fearful San Francisco before Jack heads back to LA and ‘Terror Beneath the Earth!’

Here Conway, Tom Sutton & George Roussos delve into an impeding and thoroughly nefarious scheme by business cartel the Committee. These out-of-the-box commercial gurus somehow possess a full dossier on Jack Russell’s night-life and hire a maniac, sewer-dwelling sound engineer to execute their radical plan to use monsters and derelicts to boost sales in a down-turned economy.

However, the bold sales scheme to frighten folk into spending more is ended before it begins since the werewolf proves to be far from a team-player in the wrap up ‘The Sinister Secret of Sarnak!’

Werewolf by Night #11 revelled in the irony as Marv Wolfman signed on as writer for ‘Comes the Hangman’ – illustrated by the incredible Gil Kane & Sutton – in which we learn something interesting about Philip Russell and the Committee, whilst Jack’s attention is distracted by a new apartment, a very odd neighbour and a serial kidnapper abducting young women to keep them safe from “corruption.”

When the self-deluded hooded hero snatches Lissa, he soon finds himself hunted by a monster beyond his wildest dreams…

Concluding chapter ‘Cry Werewolf!’ brings in the criminally underappreciated Don Perlin as inker. In a few short months he would become the strip’s penciller for the rest of the run, but before that Ploog & Chiaramonte returned for another session, introducing a manic mystic and a new love-interest (not the same person) in #13’s ‘His Name is Taboo’.

An aged sorcerer coveting the werewolf’s energies for his own arcane purposes, the magician is stunned when his adopted daughter Topaz finds her loyalties divided and her psionic abilities more help than hindrance to the ravening moon-beast.

‘Lo, the Monster Strikes!’ pits the wolf against Taboo’s undead – but getting better – son and sees revelation and reconciliation between Philip and Jack Russell. As a result, the young man and new girlfriend Topaz set off for Transylvania, the ancestral Russoff estate and a crossover confrontation with the Lord of Vampires.

Tomb of Dracula #18 (March 1974) begins the clash in ‘Enter: Werewolf by Night’ (Wolfman, Gene Colan & Tom Palmer) as Jack and Topaz investigate a potential cure for lycanthropy, only to be attacked by Dracula. Driven off by the girl’s psychic powers the Count realises the threat she poses to him and determined to slay her…

It concludes with Werewolf by Night #15 and the ‘Death of a Monster!’ (Wolfman, Ploog & Chiaramonte) as the battle of beasts resolves into a messy stalemate, but only after Jack learns of his family’s long connection to Dracula…

Supplemented with an unused Ploog cover for Marvel Spotlight#4, Gil Kane’s pre-corrections cover to ToD #18 and previous collection covers by Ploog & Dan Kemp, this first volume also includes a wealth of original art pages (20 in total) by Ploog, Sutton and Andru. A moody masterpiece of macabre menace and all-out animal action, this compilation covers some of the most under-appreciated magic moments in Marvel history: tense, suspenseful and solidly compelling. If you must have a mixed bag of lycanthropes, bloodsuckers and moody young misses, this is a far more entertaining mix than many modern movies, books or miscellaneous matter…
© 1972, 1973, 1974, 2017 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Tales from The Crypt volume 1

By Christina Blanch, Danica Davidson, David Anthony Kraft, Onrie Kompan, Scott Lobdell, Stefan Petrucha, Bob Camp, Dean Haspiel, Russ Heath, Miran Kim, Steve Mannion, John McCrea, Jolyon Yates, Bernie Wrightson & various (Super Genius/Papercutz)
ISBN: 978-1-62991-460-2

The EC comics of the Pre-Comics Code 1950s were possibly the most influential genre strips of all time. Their Crime, (anti-)War, Science Fiction and especially Horror anthologies targeted mature readers before the term even existed, purveying sophisticated, cynical, satirical, sardonic and always sublimely illustrated stories. These changed the lives of not only comics creators in waiting, laying the groundwork for the Underground Comix and counter-culture movements, but also spread far beyond the world of funny-book fans to influence novelists and film-makers.

The most influential of all was premiere title Tales from The Crypt. As well as spawning numerous companion mags and an avalanche of knock-offs, it inspired forays into movies (Amicus Productions produced Tales from The Crypt in 1972 and The Vault of Horror the following year, directed by Freddie Francis and based on two paperback reprint collections issued in 1965 by Ballentine Books) as well as many television iterations.

The hallowed title inspired George A. Romero and Stephen King to synthesise their personal fond childhood memories into Creepshow: a stylish portmanteau film using a horror comic-book as a maguffin and framing sequence for five darkly comedic tales of supernatural come-uppance.

The format of infernal introducer and short sharp shocker is eternally evergreen and although EC might be defunct as a publisher, it’s influence as a creative force remains strong as ever, and not only in the perpetual run of archival reprint volumes from Dark Horse, Fantagraphics, Gladstone, Russ Cochran and others. In 2007, Papercutz revived the title and brand for a fresh run of parlous parables and fearsome fables from the likes of Kyle Baker, Don McGregor, Joe R. Lansdale and more.

This iteration lasted until 2010, but has now been gloriously, gore-iously revived under Papercutz’ mature Super Genius imprint, with the signature horror-hosts – the Crypt-Keeper, Vault-Keeper and Old Witch – back in the house to leaven the dread proceedings with wry insights and lethally dreadful puns. What more could a certified “GhouLunatic” want?

Well, how about some vintage yet unseen 1970’s classic chillers by the greatest horror artist never to work for EC…?

Collecting the contents of the first two issues from 2017, this gruesome grimoire of graphic excess opens with ‘Stake-Out’: a deliciously dark spoof to get the ball rolling written and drawn by Bernie Wrightson for fanzine I’ll Be Damned #2 in July 1970 and remastered here by colourist Laurie E. Smith and letterer Tom Orzechowski.

Tapping into truly contemporary modern terrors, ‘Die-Vestment!’ by Stefan Petrucha, Jolyon Yates & JayJay Jackson then looks a little into a future where the world’s richest and most despised man extends his life by swindling the poor out of their organs. However, even he can’t survive without a modicum of public approval, so he listens to the PR consultant hired to soften his image. Big mistake…

David Anthony Kraft & Miran Kim detail the problems of wage-slave Marty whose daily grind and lovelorn life both spiral downwards after the undead infest his workplace in ‘Zombie Bank’, after which Scott Lobdell, John McCrea & Dee Cunliffe further pursue financial woes when the partners in an exploitative corporation are systematically wiped out by ‘The Were-wolf of Wall Street’

Social media, body-shaming and cyber-bullying come under the spotlight in Danica Davidson, Yates & Jackson’s ‘Picture Perfect’ after a vicious High School Mean Girl picks on the wrong victim, whilst in Christina Blanch & Kim’s ‘Undertow’ death, madness and retribution grow from the tragic consequences of a day at the beach…

Wrightson again exerts his gothic mastery in ‘Feed It’ – coloured up here from an original appearance in black-&-white magazine Web of Horror #3 (April 1970) – and advocating the wisdom of good pet care before the sinister storytelling ceases with grotesque social commentary and black comedy in ‘Leather or Not’ by Blanch & Kim. In the future, the rich will still want the most desirable fashions, even if the skins and hides now being trapped and traded are young, poor, pretty and human…

Also offering a stylish gallery of 8 covers and variants by Kim, Yates, Bob Camp, Dean Haspiel, Russ Heath, Kyle Baker & Steve Mannion, this casque of brash, irreverent and deeply disturbing yarns is a true treat for fright-fans of every vintage and a fine addition to the annals of an undying tradition of dark delights.
Tales from The Crypt © 2017 William M. Gaines, Agent, Inc. The EC logo is a registered trademark of William M. Gaines, Agent, Inc. and used with permission. “Stake-Out” and “Feed It” are © 1969, 1970, 2017 Bernie Wrightson. The Crypt-Keeper™, The Old Witch™ and the Vault-Keeper™ are registered trademarks of William M. Gaines, Agent, Inc. and used with permission.

In the Pines – 5 Murder Ballads

By Erik Kriek (Canongate Books)
ISBN: 978-1-8689-214-0

If you don’t know what a murder ballad is you should start this sublime hardcover anthology by reading Jan Donkers’ superb background essay at the back of the book before treating yourself to the grim graphic glories crafted by Dutch artisan and illustrator Erik Kreik.

In ‘Murder Ballads’ you will learn the history of the ancient musical sub-genre as well as the direct genealogy of the quintet of sordid, sorry sagas adapted from sound to stunning words and pictures here…

However – and just because it’s you – the term generally applies to folk music story-songs from many countries dealing with love, crime, sex, social transgressions and unnatural death…

In 2016 Erik Kreik (creator of silent superhero spoof Gutsman; Little Andy Roid; Het Onzienbare/From Beyond) – adapted a number of vintage and modern Murder Ballads into strip format. A huge fan of all forms of popular Americana, he also covered the songs with his band The Blue Grass Boogiemen on a CD naturally entitled In the Pines – 5 Murder Ballads.

The book won Germany’s 2016 Rudolf Dirks Award and the spin-off garnered Album of the Year 2017 from Dutch Comics.

Amsterdam-born Kriek is a graduate of the Rietveld Academy for Art and Design and a hotly in-demand illustrator of books (including Holland’s Tolkien and Harry Potter editions), magazines, apparel, skateboards, et cetera and can turn his hand to many styles and disciplines. Gutsman was reconceived as a soundless mime ballet in 2006 and his collection of Lovecraft adaptations Het onzienbare, en andere verhalen H. P. Lovecraft has been republished in many languages…

He has just released first children’s book Mika, the Little Bear That Didn’t Want to Go To Sleep

Now a multi-national phenomenon, In the Pines delivers its moody messages of ill-starred love in dreamy, two-coloured episodes. American fans will recognise the drawing style as echoing the very best EC horror tales by “Ghastly” Graham Ingels or the early Bernie Wrightson. The concert of terror opens with ‘Pretty Polly and the Ship’s Carpenter’: a much-covered traditional ditty (The Byrds; Judy Collins; The Stanley Brothers) rendered here in green and black on white crisp white pages. It details the doomed fate of a young man who fled to sea to escape his sins, only to see them resurface in death for his shipmates in a seemingly supernatural storm…

Tinted in sepia, ‘The Long Black Veil’ is a relatively modern song: composed and written by Marijohn Wilkin & Danny Dill in 1959 and most notably recorded by Lefty Frizzell, The Band, Johnny Cash, Mick Jagger, Nick Cave and many others. It reveals how a farmer is faced with a staggering choice: hang for a murder he did not commit or betray the confidence of the adulterous women who is his only alibi…

Racially-charged and rendered in tones of muddy ochre, ‘Taneytown’ was originally written by Steve Earle: a synthesis of so many lynching incidents that shame and blight the history of early 20th century America. Here a young black man, sick of the life he’s subjected to in rural Maryland, takes the knife his negro war hero father used in the trenches of the Great War and heads for trouble in the whitest part of town…

Written by singer Gillian Welch, ‘Caleb Meyer’ is adapted in tones of chilling aquamarine and presents a young wife betrayed, terrorised and assaulted who wins for herself a potent dose of ironic retribution…

Closing the graphic grimoire in tones of watered down blood, ‘Where the Wild Roses Grow’ is based on the song created by Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds for their 1996 album Murder Ballads. Sung as duet with Kylie Minogue, the song was based on traditional air Down in the Willow Garden.

The story seen here presents a complex web of trauma and tension involving a murderous escaped convict, a gang of hidden outlaws, lost treasure, a solitary house in the deep woods and a protective mother conveniently absent.

However, neither the rapidly pursuing posse nor the vile-intentioned villain have any idea what young Elisa is truly capable of, or why her father called her his “wild rose”…

Making something compelling and beautiful from the worst aspects and acts of human behaviour is no mean feat, either in song or pictures, but In the Pines accomplishes the deed with gripping style, vibrant polish and immense charm. This is a book every lover of human foibles will adore: Potent and evocative with a sly gift to captivate and transport the reader just as the music intoxicates the mind’s eye through the ears.

One last note: Kriek relaxes in Irish bars – possibly drinking but mostly singing and playing the banjo – so my hopes are high that he’s got many more songs yet to draw…
© Erik Kriek, 2016. “Murder Ballads” © Jan Donkers. 2016All rights reserved.
In the Pines – 5 Murder Ballads will be published on February 1st 2018.

Tales from the Dreamspace

By Luke Melia, Vinny Smith, Bobby Peñafiel, David Anderson, Dennis O’Shea, Timothy Conroy, Steve Andrews, Rees Finlay, Jonny Pearson & various (Dreamspace Comics/CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform)
ISBN: 978-1-97629-398-6

As I’ve frequently proclaimed, I’m a huge fan of creators with the drive and dedication to take control of their own destinies and that’s why it’s such a delight to see another splendid home-grown tome from Luke Melia and his trusty band of cartoon collaborators.

Comprising comic strips, illustrated prose pieces and a scattershot selection of short, sharp, mood-setting epigrams, this particular package of perils stems from a communal spooky story session which grew into an online competition and resulted in the blood-curdling book of fearsome phantasms before us today.

Committed to full-colour paperback form as a macabre and unsettling graphic grimoire, the uneasy experiences begin with the true story of Dreamspace’s inception, after which a few tone-teasing text titbits lead into a darkly twisted hostage situation with ‘It’s in the Basement’.

Scripted by Luke Melia and illustrated by Bobby Peñafiel, the monster is designed by Christopher Wallace. It’s not what you’re thinking…

Following more zingy scary word-salads, Melia then segues into prose to propose a morally confounding challenge with a devastated mother failing in her own eyes and subsequently taking horrific steps to correct ‘The Imbalance’ before David Anderson & Steve Andrews resort to potent monochrome to expose – and expedite – a distressingly Kafkaesque ‘Skeleton in the Closet’

The micro-yarns are by many and varied contributors and suitably divide all the longer tales, which resume now with Dennis O’Shea’s prose piece ‘Motel’ revealing the awful aftermath of a well-nasty Boy’s Night Out, whereas coal black humour and sordid surreality colour an extended strip-saga splatter-fest of misbegotten youth, vengeance paid in full and the ‘Bath time Bastard’, courtesy of Melia, Vinnie Smith & Peñafiel…

Anderson switches to prose mode for a macabre tale of dystopian survival in ‘The Rat Queen’ after which Rees Finlay & Jonny Pearson illumine a shocking plunge into detention, demonic delirium and ‘Damnation’ before Melia & Timothy Conroy revisit Beauty and the Beast via the wedding vows with ‘In Sickness’ to bring the shock therapy to a close…

Like previous outings Oculus and The White Room of the Asylum, this compendium of bloody wit, dark humour and caustic circumstance is judiciously rendered in a range of palettes from full colour to black & red to overwhelmingly stark black-&-white, all combining to highlight the morbid power of narrative in service to night terrors: a menu of compulsive and terrifying tales you’d be absolutely crazy to miss, but wisest to peruse with the doors locked and all the lights on.
© 2017 Luke Melia. All rights reserved.

The Books of Magic

By Neil Gaiman, John Bolton, Scott Hampton, Charles Vess & Paul Johnson (DC/Vertigo)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-3781-3 (HB)                :978-1-4012-4686-0 (PB)
:978-1-85286-470-5 (Titan Books Edition)

Way back when Neil Gaiman was just making a name for himself at DC, he was asked to consolidate and rationalise the role of magic in that expansive shared universe. Over the course of four Prestige Format issues a quartet of mystical champions (thereinafter known as “the Trenchcoat Brigade”) took a supposedly typical London schoolboy on a Cook’s Tour of Time, Space and Infinite Dimensions in preparation for his long-anticipated ascendancy. This meant becoming the most powerful wizard of the 21st Century, and an overwhelming force for either Light or Darkness.

Shy, bespectacled Timothy Hunter is an inoffensive lad unaware of his incredible potential for Good or Evil (and yes, I know who he looks like but this series came out eight years before anybody had ever heard of Hogwarts, so get over it).

In an attempt to keep him righteous, the self-appointed mystic guides provide him and – through literary extension – us, with a full and dangerously immersive tutorial in the history and state of play of “The Art” and its major practitioners and adepts.

However, although the four guardians are not unanimous or even united in their plans and hopes for the boy, the “other side” certainly are. If Hunter cannot be turned to the Dark, he has to die…

Thus, following an Introduction by master fantasist Roger Zelazny, the thaumaturgical thrills begin in Book I, painted by John Bolton.

Here the Phantom Stranger conducts his youthful charge on a trip through ‘The Invisible Labyrinth’ revealing to Tim the history of magic with introductions to Lucifer, Atlantis, and other Ancient Empires, Jason Blood and the boy Merlin as well as mid-20th century crime-busting mystics Zatara and Sargon the Sorcerer.

Scott Hampton picks up the brushes for the second chapter, wherein irrepressible urban trickster-wizard John Constantine hosts a trip to ‘the Shadow World’ of the then-established DCU: introducing the wide-eyed lad to contemporary paranormal players such as Deadman, Madame Xanadu, the Spectre, Doctor Fate, Baron Winter (of Night Force fame), Dr. Terry Thirteen (AKA the Ghost-Breaker) and mystic super-hero Zatanna, who boldly organises a trip to a mage’s bar where the likes of Tala, Queen of Darkness and the diabolical opportunist Tannarak attempt to take matters – and Tim – into their own wicked hands…

For his third work-experience trip, Dr. Occult (created by Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster years before Superman debuted) escorts the messianic boy on a voyage to the outer lands and Realms of Faerie, courtesy of Charles Vess in ‘The Land of Summer’s Twilight’. This ethereal, beautifully evocative segment would inform much of Timothy Hunter’s later life in the Vertigo comicbook series and graphic collections that inevitably spun off from this saga. Cameos here include Warlord/Travis Morgan, Nightmaster, Amethyst and Gemworld, Etrigan the Demon, Cain, Abel and the (Gaiman-originated) Sandman Morpheus.

Bringing the initial educational experience to a close, ‘The Road to Nowhere’ is painted by Paul Johnson and concludes the peregrinations as ruthlessly fanatical zealot Mister E whisks our astounded boy to the end of time, where the sightless fanatic attempts to twist Tim to his own bleak, black agenda. Beyond Darkseid and the climactic battles and crises of our time; progressing even forward past the Legion of Super Heroes, to the end of Order and Chaos, unto the moment Sandman’s siblings Destiny and Death switch off the dying universe, Tim sees how everything ends before returning to make his choice: Good or Evil; Magic or mundane?

Books of Magic still stands a worthy primer for newcomers who need a little help with decades of back-story which cling to so many DC tales, even today. Despite an “everything and the kitchen sink” tone, this is still a cracking good yarn (available in hardback, trade paperback, eBook and even a British edition from Titan Books), offers useful grounding for all things supernaturally DC and still has overwhelming relevance to today’s much rebooted continuity.

© 1990, 1991, 1993, 2014 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.


By Matthias Lehmann (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-56097-733-9 (HB)

This stirring and deeply disturbing, psycho-thriller combines the not-so dissimilar forms of road movies and buddy flicks with straight crime thrillers as hardboiled private detective René Pluriel hits the highways of France in pursuit of the deadly “Heimlich Killer”.

He hasn’t gone far before he picks up flamboyant hitch-hiker Agatha, who reveals that she too is a detective on the trail of the notorious serial murderer.

As they wend their way through the back roads and, consequently, history of France, diligently interviewing the killer’s associates and survivors, they build a tense picture not just of their quarry but also of each other, and inevitably realise that the conclusion of the quest won’t be happy for everybody.

Lehmann’s dark voyage is gripping and often surreal, and the tension is augmented by the spectacular, moody art, stylishly etched in a powerful scraperboard style. The narrative is blistered with flashbacks, literary diversions and hallucinogenic asides that amplify the dissociative feel of this ostensibly simple tale. This award-winning fear-fable was the author’s first original graphic novel and it remains a bravura performance almost impossible to top; I eagerly await the attempt.
Characters, stories & art © 2006 Actes Sud. All Rights Reserved. This edition © 2006 Fantagraphics Books.

The Demon by Jack Kirby

By Jack Kirby & Mike Royer (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-7718-5

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: A Christmas Chiller to Warm the Coldest Nights… 9/10

Jack “King” Kirby shaped the very nature of comics narrative. A compulsive storyteller, Jack was an astute, spiritual man who had lived through poverty, gangsterism, the Depression and World War II. He had seen Post-War optimism, Cold War paranoia, political cynicism and the birth and death of peace-seeking counter-cultures. He was open-minded and utterly wedded to the making of comics stories on every imaginable subject.

He began at the top of his game, galvanising the comicbook scene from its earliest days with long-term creative partner Joe Simon: creating Blue Bolt, drawing Captain Marvel and adding lustre to Timely comics with creations such as Red Raven, Hurricane, Captain America and The Young Allies.

In 1942 Simon & Kirby moved to National/DC and hit even more stellar highs with The Boy Commandos, Newsboy Legion, Manhunter and The Sandman before the call of duty saw them inducted into the American military.

On returning from World War II, they reunited and formed a creative studio working primarily for the Crestwood/Prize publishing outfit where they invented the entire genre of Romance comics. Amongst that dynamic duo’s other concoctions for Prize was a, noir-ish, psychologically underpinned supernatural anthology Black Magic and its short-lived but fascinating companion title Strange World of Your Dreams.

All their titles eschewed traditional gory, heavy-handed morality plays and simplistic cautionary tales for deeper, stranger fare, and until the EC comics line hit their peak were far and away the best and most mature titles on the market.

Kirby understood the fundamentals of pleasing his audience and always strived diligently to combat the appalling state of prejudice about the comics medium – especially from industry insiders and professionals who despised the “kiddies world” they felt trapped in.

When the 1950s anti-comics comics witch hunt devastated the industry, Simon & Kirby parted ways. Jack went back to DC briefly and created newspaper strip Sky Masters of the Space Force before partnering with Stan Lee at the remains of Timely Comics to create the monolith of stars we know as Marvel.

After more than a decade there he felt increasingly stifled and side-lined and in 1970 accepted an offer of complete creative freedom at DC. The jump resulted in a root and branch redefinition of superheroes in his quartet of interlinked Fourth World series.

After those controversial, grandiose groundbreaking titles were cancelled Kirby looked for other concepts to stimulate his vast creativity and still appeal to an increasingly fickle market. General interest in the Supernatural was rising, with books and movies exploring the unknown in gripping and stylish new ways, and the Comics Code Authority had already released its censorious choke-hold on mystery and horror titles, thereby saving the entire industry from implosion when the superhero boom of the 1960s fizzled away.

At DC’s suggestion Kirby had already briefly returned to his supernatural experimentation in a superb but poorly received and largely undistributed monochrome magazine. Spirit World launched in the summer of 1971, but as before, editorial cowardice and back-sliding scuppered the project before it could get going. You can see what might have been in a collected edition re-presenting the sole published issue and material from a second, unreleased sequel in the recent Jack Kirby’s Spirit World

With most of his ideas misunderstood, ignored or side-lined by the company Kirby opted for more traditional fare. Never truly defeated though, he cannily blended his belief in the marketability of the mystic unknown with flamboyant super-heroics to create another unique and lasting mainstay for the DC universe: one that lesser talents would make a pivotal figure of the company’s continuity.

This Trade Paperback (and eBook) compilation gathers the entire eerie 16-issue run from August/September 1972 through January 1974 and opens with a fulsome Introduction detailing how The Demon came to be from Kirby’s then-assistant Mark Evanier before the astounding adventures begin…

Inked by Mike Royer, The Demon #1 introduces a howling, leaping monstrosity (famously modelled after a 1939 sequence from Hal Foster’s Arthurian epic Prince Valiant) battling beside its master Merlin as Camelot dies in flames: a cataclysmic casualty of the rapacious greed of sorceress Morgaine Le Fey.

Out of that apocalyptic destruction, a man arises and wanders off into the mists of history…

In our contemporary world (or at least the last quarter of the 20th century) demonologist and paranormal investigator Jason Blood has a near-death experience with an aged collector of illicit arcana. This culminates in a hideous nightmare about a demonic being and the last stand of Camelot.

He has no idea that Le Fey is still alive and has sinister plans for him…

And in distant Moldavia, strange things are stirring in crumbling Castle Branek, wherein lies hidden the lost Tomb of Merlin…

Blood is wealthy, reclusive and partially amnesiac, but one night he agrees to host a small dinner party, entertaining acquaintances Harry Mathews, psychic UN diplomat Randu Singh, his wife Gomali and their flighty young friend Glenda Mark. The soiree does not go well.

Firstly, there is the painful small talk, and the sorcerous surveillance of Le Fey, but the real problems start when an animated stone giant arrives to “invite” Blood to visit Castle Branek. This shattering voyage leads to Merlin’s last resting place but just as Blood thinks he may find some answers to his enigmatic past, Le Fey pounces. Suddenly he starts to change, transforming into the horrific beast of his dreams…

Issue #2 – ‘My Tomb in Castle Branek!’ – opens with wary villagers observing a terrific battle between a yellow monster and Le Fey’s forces, but when the Demon is defeated and Blood arrested, only the telepathic influence of Randu in America can help him. Le Fey is old, dying, and needs Merlin’s grimoire, the Eternity Book, to extend her life.

Thus, she manipulates Blood – who has existed for centuries unaware that Merlin’s hellish Attack Dog the Demon Etrigan is chained inside him – to regain his memories and awaken the slumbering master mage. It looks like the last mistake she will ever make…

Kirby’s tried and trusted approach was always to pepper high concepts throughout blazing, breakneck action, and #3 was one the most imaginative yet.

‘The Reincarnators’ finds Blood back in the USA, aware at last of his tormented history, and with a small but devoted circle of friends. Adapting to a less lonely life, he soon encounters a cult able to physically regress people to a prior life – and use those time-lost beings to commit murder…

The Demon #4-5 comprise one single exploit, wherein a simple witch and her macabre patron capture the reawakened, semi-divine Merlin. ‘The Creature from Beyond’ and ‘Merlin’s Word’s… Demon’s Wrath!’ introduced cute little monkey Kamara the Fear-Monster (later used with devastating effect by Alan Moore in Saga of the Swamp Thing #26-27) and features another startling “Kirby-Kreature” – Somnambula, the Dream-Beast

It seems odd in these blasé modern times but The Demon was a controversial book in its day – cited as providing the first post-Comics Code depiction of Hell and one where problems were regularly solved with sudden, extreme violence.

‘The Howler!’ in issue #6 is a truly spooky yarn with Blood hunting a primal entity of rage and brutal terror that transforms its victims into murderous lycanthropic killers, whilst #7 debuts a spiteful, malevolent young fugitive from a mystical otherplace.

‘Witchboy’ Klarion and his cat-familiar Teekl were utterly evil little sociopaths in a time where all comicbook politicians were honest, cops only shot to wound and “bad” kids were only misunderstood: another Kirby first…

An extended epic, ‘Phantom of the Sewers’ skilfully combines movie and late-night TV horror motifs in the dark and tragic tale of actor Farley Fairfax, cursed by the witch he once spurned. Unfortunately, Glenda Mark is the spitting image of the departed Galatea, and when, decades later, the demented thespian kidnaps her (in ‘Whatever Happened to Farley Fairfax?!!’) to raise the curse, it could only end in a flurry of destruction, death, consumed souls and ‘The Thing That Screams’

This 3-part thriller is followed by another multi-part masterpiece (The Demon #11-13). ‘Baron von Evilstein’ is a powerful parable about worth and appearance featuring the ultimate mad scientist and the tragic, misunderstood monster he so casually builds. It’s a truth that bears repeating: ugly doesn’t equal bad…

Despite all Kirby’s best efforts The Demon was not a monster hit – unlike his science-fiction disaster drama Kamandi – and by #14 it’s clear that the book was in its last days. Not because the sheer pace of imagination, excitement and passion diminished – far from it – but because the well-considered, mood-drenched stories were suddenly replaced by rocket-fast eldritch romps populated with returning villains.

First back was Klarion the Witchboy who creates a ‘Deadly Doppelganger’ to replace Jason Blood and kill his friends in #14-15, before the series – and this wonderful treasury of wicked delights ended in a climactic showdown with the ‘Immortal Enemy’ Morgaine Le Fey…

Kirby carried on with Kamandi, returned to The Sandman, explored WWII in The Losers and created the magnificent Omac: One Man Army Corps, but still could not achieve the all-important sales the company demanded. Eventually he returned to Marvel and new challenges such as Black Panther, Captain America, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Devil Dinosaur, Machine Man and especially The Eternals.

As always in these wondrously economical collections it should be noted that the book comes stuffed with un-inked pencilled pages and roughs in bonus feature ‘The Art of Jack Kirby’, and Evanier’s fascinating, informative Introduction is, as ever, a fact-fan’s delight.

Jack Kirby was and is unique and uncompromising: his words and pictures are an unparalleled, hearts-and-minds grabbing delight no comics lover could resist. If you’re not a fan or simply not prepared to see for yourself what all the fuss has been about then no words of mine will change your mind.

That doesn’t alter the fact that Kirby’s work from 1937 to his death in 1994 shaped the entire American comics scene and indeed the entire comics planet – affecting the lives of billions of readers and thousands of creators in all areas of artistic endeavour for generations and still winning new fans and apostles every day, from the young and naive to the most cerebral of intellectuals. His work is instantly accessible, irresistibly visceral, deceptively deep and simultaneously mythic and human.

He is the King and time has shown that the star of this book is one of his most potent legacies.
© 1972, 1973, 1974, 2017 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

The Jack Kirby Omnibus volume 2 – starring The Super Powers

By Jack Kirby with Joe Simon, Mike Royer Paul Kupperberg, Adrian Gonzalez & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-3833-9

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Epic Entertainment… 9/10

Famed for his larger than life characters and gigantic, cosmic imaginings, Jack Kirby was an astute, imaginative, spiritual man who had lived through poverty and gangsterism, the Depression, Post-War optimism, Cold War paranoia, political cynicism and the birth and death of peace-seeking counter-cultures. He was open-minded and utterly wedded to the making of comics stories on every imaginable subject. He also always believed that sequential narrative was worthy of being published as real books beside mankind’s other literary art forms.

Looks like he was right, and – as usual – just ahead of the times, doesn’t it?

There’s a magnificent abundance of Kirby commemorative collections around these days (though still not all of it, so I remain a partially disgruntled dedicated fan). This particular magnificent hardback compendium re-presents most of miscellaneous oddments of the “King’s Canon” crafted for DC – at least those to which the company still retains rights.

The licenses on stuff like his run on pulp adaptation Justice Inc. (or indeed Marvel’s 2001: A Space Odyssey comic) will not be forthcoming any time soon…

This massive tome begins with pages of hyper-kinetic Kirby pencil pages and a moving ‘Introduction by John Morrow’ before hurtling straight into moody mystery with a range of twice told tales.

On returning from WWII, Kirby reconnected with his long-term creative partner Joe Simon. National Comics was no longer a welcoming place for the reunited dream team supreme and by 1947 they had formed their own studio. They enjoyed a long and productive relationship with Harvey Comics (Stuntman, Boy’s Ranch, Captain 3-D, Lancelot Strong, The Shield, The Fly, Three Rocketeers and more) and created a stunning variety of genre features for Crestwood/Pines supplied by their Essankay/Mainline studio shop.

These included Justice Traps the Guilty, Fighting American, Bullseye, Police Trap, Foxhole, Headline Comics and Young Romance amongst many more (see the superb Best of Simon and Kirby for a salient selection of these classic creations): a veritable mountain of maturely challenging strip material in a variety of popular genres.

One of those was mystery and horror and amongst that dynamic duo’s “Prize” concoctions was noir-ish, psychologically-underpinned supernatural anthology Black Magic and latterly a short-lived but fascinating companion title Strange World of Your Dreams. These comics anthologies eschewed the traditional gory, heavy-handed morality plays and simplistic cautionary tales for deeper, stranger fare, and – until the EC comics line hit their peak – were far and away the best mystery titles on the market.

When the King quit Marvel for DC in 1970, his new bosses accepted suggestions for a supernatural-themed mature-reading magazine. Spirit World was a superb but poorly received and largely undistributed monochrome magazine. Issue #1 – and only – launched in the summer of 1971, but editorial cowardice and back-sliding scuppered the project before it could get going.

Material from a second, unpublished issue eventually appeared in colour comicbooks Weird Mystery Tales and Forbidden Tales of Dark Mansion but with his ideas misunderstood, ignored or side-lined by the company, Kirby opted again for more traditional fare. Never truly defeated though, he cannily blended his belief in the marketability of the supernatural with flamboyant super-heroics to create another unique and lasting mainstay for the DC universe. The Demon only ran a couple of years but was a concept later, lesser talents would make a pivotal figure of the company’s continuity.

His collaborations with fellow industry pioneer Joe Simon always produced dynamite concepts, unforgettable characters, astounding stories and huge sales, no matter what genre avenues they pursued, blazing trails for so many others to follow and always reshaping the very nature of American comics with their innovations and sheer quality.

As with all their endeavours, Simon & Kirby offered stories shaped by their own sensibilities. Identifying a “mature market” gap in the line of magazines they autonomously packaged for publishers Crestwood and Prize they saw the sales potential for high-quality spooky material. resulting in the superb and eerily seminal Black Magic (launched with an October/November 1950 cover-date), supplemented in 1952 by boldly obscure psychological drama anthology The Strange World of Your Dreams: a title inspired by studio-mate Mort Meskin’s vivid and punishing night terrors.

Dealing with fantastic situations and – too frequently for comfort – unable or unwilling to provide pat conclusions or happy endings, cosmic justice or calming explanations were seldom available to avid readers. Sometimes the Unknown just blew up in your face and you survived or didn’t… and never whole or unchanged.

Thus, this colossal compendium of cult cartoon cavortings commences with DC’s revival of Black Magic as a cheap, modified reprint title.

The second issue #1 launched with an October/November 1973 cover-date, offering rather crudely re-mastered versions of some astounding classics. Far better reproduced on the good quality paper here is ‘Maniac!’ (originating in Black Magic #32 September/October 1973); an artistic tour de force and a tale much “homaged” in later years, detailing how – and why – a loving brother stops villagers taking his simple-minded sibling away. This is followed by ‘The Head of the Family!’ (BM #30 May/June 1954, by Kirby & Bruno Premiani), revealing the appalling secret shame of a most inbred clan…

DC’s premier outing ended with a disturbing tale first seen in Black Magic #29 (March-April 1954). Specifically cited during the1954 anti-comicbook Senate Hearings, ‘The Greatest Horror of them All!’ told a tragic tale of a freak hiding amongst lesser freaks…

DC’s second issue – cover-dated December 1973/January 1974 – opened with ‘Fool’s Paradise!’ (BM #26, September/October 1953) wherein a petty thug stumbles into a Mephistophelean deal and revealed how ‘The Cat People’ (#27 November/December 1953) mesmerised and forever marked an unwary tourist in rural Spain before ‘Birth After Death’ (#20 January 1953) retold the true story of how Sir Walter Scott’s mother survived premature burial, and ‘Those Who Are About to Die!’ (#23 April 1953) sketched out the tale of a painter who could predict imminent doom…

‘Nasty Little Man!’ (#18 November 1952) fronted DC’s third foray and gets my vote for creepiest horror art job of all time. It saw three hobos discover to their everlasting regret why you shouldn’t pick on short old men with Irish accents. ‘The Angel of Death!’ (#15 August 1952) then detailed an horrific medical mystery far darker than mere mystic menace…

As the 1950s editions grew in popularity, Simon & Kirby were stretched thin. Utilising a staff of assistants and crafting fewer stories themselves meant they could keep all their deadlines…

The ‘Cover art for Black Magic #4, June/July 1974’ sensibly segues into ‘Last Second of Life!’, from Black Magic volume 1 #1, October-November 1950) wherein a rich man, obsessed over what the dying see at final breath, learns to regret the unsavoury lengths he went to in finding out: their only contribution to that particular DC issue.

There were two in the next release. ‘Strange Old Bird!’ (Black Magic #25 June/July 1953) is a gently eerie thriller of a little old lady who gets the gift of renewed life from her tatty and extremely flammable feathered old friend and ‘Up There!’ from the landmark 13th issue from June 1952 – the saga of a beguiling siren of the upper stratosphere scaring the bejabbers out of a cool test pilot…

DC issue #6 reprises ‘The Girl Who Walked on Water!’ (BM #11 April 1952) exposing the immense but fragile power of self-belief whilst the ‘Cover art for Black Magic #7, December 1974/January 1975’ (originally #17 October 1952) provides a chilling report on a satanic vestment ‘The Cloak!’ (from BM #2 December 1950/January 1951) and ‘Freak!’ (from the aforementioned #17) shares a country doctor’s deepest shame…

DC’s #8 revisited The Strange World of Your Dreams, beginning with “a typical insecurity nightmare” ‘The Girl in the Grave!’ (from #2, September/October 1952). The Meskin-inspired anthology of oneiric visions eschewed cheap shocks, mindless gore and goofy pun-inspired twist-ending yarns in favour of dark, oppressive suspense soaked in psychological unease and inexplicable unease: tension over teasing…

Following up with ‘Send Us Your Dreams’ from the same source (requesting readers’ ideas for parapsychologist Richard Temple to analyse), DC’s vintage fear-fest concludes with # 9 (April/May 1975) and ‘The Woman in the Tower!’ as originally seen in The Strange World of Your Dreams #3, (November/December 1952) detailing the symbolism of oppressive illness…

Kirby continued creating new material with Kamandi – his only long-running DC success – and explored WWII in The Losers whilst creating the radical, scarily prophetic, utterly magnificent Omac: One Man Army Corps, but still could not achieve the all-important sales the company demanded. Eventually he was lured back to Marvel and new challenges such as Black Panther, Captain America, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Devil Dinosaur, Machine Man and especially The Eternals.

Before then, though, he unleashed a number of new concepts and even filled in on established titles. As previously moaned about, however, his 3-issue run on Justice Inc. adapting licensed pulp hero The Avenger is not included here, but at least his frankly astounding all-action dalliance with martial arts heroics is…

Debuting in all-new try-out title 1st Issue Special #1 (April 1975, and inked by D. Bruce Berry), ‘Atlas the Great! harked back to the dawn of human civilisation and followed the blockbusting trail of mankind’s first super-powered champion in a blazing Sword & Sorcery yarn.

1st Issue Special #5 (August 1975, Berry) highlighted the passing of a torch as a devout evil-crusher working for an ancient justice-cult retired and tipped his nephew – Public Defender Mark Shaw – to become the latest super-powered ‘Manhunter’

A rare but welcome digression into comedy manifested as ‘The Dingbats of Danger Street’ (1st Issue Special #6, September 1975) with Mike Royer inking a bizarre and hilarious revival of Kirby’s Kid Gang genre starring four multi-racial street urchins united for survival and to battle surreal super threats…

Always looking for work Kirby – and Berry – stepped in for #3 of troubled martial arts series Richard Dragon, Kung Fu Fighter (August/September 1975). Scripted by Denny O’Neil, the savage shocker pits the lone fighter against an army of assassins in ‘Claws of the Dragon!’

‘Fangs of the Kobra!’ comes from Kobra #1, released with a February/March 1976 cover-date. The tale is strange in both execution and delivery, with Kirby’s original updating of Dumas’ tale of The Corsican Brothers reworked by Martin Pasko, Steve Sherman and artists Pablo Marcos & Berry.

It introduces brothers separated at birth. Jason Burr grew up a normal American kid whilst his twin – stolen by an Indian death cult – was reared as Kobra, the most dangerous man alive. Sadly for the super-criminal, young adult Jason has been recruited by the authorities because of his psychic connection to the snake lord: a link which allows them to track each other and also feel and experience any harm or hurt the other incurs…

When Simon & Kirby came to National/DC in 1942 one of their earliest projects was revitalising the moribund Sandman strip in Adventure Comics. Their unique blend of atmosphere and dynamism made it one of the most memorable, moody and action-packed series of the period (as you can see by reading complete Sandman edition which is a companion to this volume).

The band was brought back together for The Sandman #1 (cover-dated Winter 1974); a one-shot project which took the name and created a whole new mythology…

Scripted by Simon and inked by Royer ‘General Electric’ revealed how the realm of dreams was policed by a scarlet-&-gold super-crusader dedicated to preventing nightmares escaping into the physical world. With unwilling assistants Glob and Brute, the Sandman also battled real world villains determined to exploit the unconscious Great Unknown. The heady mix was completed by frail orphan Jed, whose active sleeping imagination seemed to draw trouble to him.

The proposed one-off was a minor hit at a tenuous time in comics publishing, and DC opted to keep it going, even though the originators were not interested. Kirby & Royer did produce the ‘Cover art Sandman #2, April/May 1975’ and ‘Cover art Sandman #3, June/July 1975’ before returning to the series with #4.

‘Panic in the Dream Stream’ – August/September 1975 – was scripted by Michael Fleisher, and revealed how a sleepless alien race attempted to conquer Earth through Jed’s fervent dreams: a traumatic channel that even allowed them to invade the Sandman’s Dream Realm. The next issue (October/November 1975) heralded an ‘Invasion of the Frog Men!’ into an idyllic parallel dimension before the next issue reunited a classic art team. Wally Wood inked Jack for Fleisher’s ‘The Plot to Destroy Washington D.C.!’, with mind-bending cyborg Doctor Spider, subverting and enslaving Glob and Brute in his eccentric ambition to take over America…

Although Sandman #6 (December 1975/January 1976) was the last issue, another tale was already completed and it finally appeared in reprint digest Best of DC #22 in March 1982. ‘The Seal Men’s War on Santa Claus’ with Fleisher scripting and Royer handling the brushwork was a sinister seasonal romp with Jed’s wicked foster-family abusing the lad in classic Scrooge style before the Weaver of Dreams seconds him to help save Christmas from bellicose well-armed aquatic mammals…

During the 1980s costumed heroes stopped being an exclusively print cash cow. Many toy companies licensed Fights ‘n’ Tights titans and reaped the benefits of ready-made comicbook spin-offs. DC’s most recognizable characters became a best-selling line of action figures and were inevitably hived off into a brisk and breezy, fight-frenzied miniseries.

Super Powers launched in July 1984 as a 5-issue miniseries with Kirby covers and his signature characters prominently represented. Jack also plotted the stellar saga with scripter Joey Cavalieri providing dialogue, and Adrian Gonzales & Pablo Marcos illustrating a heady cosmic quest comprising numerous inconclusive battles between agents of Good and Evil.

In ‘Power Beyond Price!’, ultimate nemesis Darkseid despatches four Emissaries of Doom to destroy Earth’s superheroes. Sponsoring Lex Luthor, The Penguin, Brainiac and The Joker the monsters jointly target Superman, Batman & Robin, Wonder Woman, Flash, Aquaman and Hawkman

The combat escalates in #2’s ‘Clash Against Chaos’ with the Man of Steel and Scarlet Speedster tackling Luthor, whilst Aquaman and Green Lantern scupper the Penguin as Dark Knight and Winged Wonder confront a cosmically-enhanced Harlequin of Hate…

With Alan Kupperberg inking, an inconclusive outcome leads to a regrouping of evil and an attack by Brainiac on Paradise Island. With the ‘Amazons at War’ the Justice League rally until Superman is devolved into a brutal beast who attacks his former allies. All-out battle ensues in ‘Earth’s Last Stand’, before the King steps up to write and illustrate the fateful finale: cosmos-shaking conclusion ‘Spaceship Earth – We’re All on It!’ (November 1984, with Greg Theakston suppling inks)…

A bombastic Super Powers Promotional Poster leads into a nostalgic reunion as DC Comics Presents #84 (August 1985) reunited Jack with his first Fantastic Four.

‘Give Me Power… Give Me Your World!’ – written by Bob Rozakis, Kirby & Theakston (with additional art by the legendary Alex Toth) – pits Superman and the Challengers of The Unknown against mind-bending Kryptonian villain Zo-Mar, after which the ‘Cover art for Super DC Giant S-25, July/ August 1971’ (inked by Vince Colletta) segues into the Super Powers miniseries, spanning September 1985 to February 1986.

Scripted by Paul Kupperberg the Kirby/Theakston saga ‘Seeds of Doom!’ recounts how deadly Darkseid despatches techno-organic bombs to destroy Earth, requiring practically every DC hero to unite to end the threat.

With teams of Super Powers travelling to England, Rome, New York, Easter Island and Arizona the danger is magnified ‘When Past and Present Meet!’ as the seeds warp time and send Aquaman and the Martian Manhunter back to days of King Arthur

Super Powers #3 (November 1985) finds Red Tornado, Hawkman and Green Arrow plunged back 75 million years in ‘Time Upon Time Upon Time!’ even as Doctor Fate, Green Lantern and Wonder Woman are trapped in 1087 AD battling stony-faced giant aliens on Easter Island.

Superman and Firestorm discover ‘There’s No Place Like Rome!’ as they battle Darkseid’s agent Steppenwolf in the first century whilst Batman, Robin and Flash visit a future where Earth is the new Apokolips in #5’s ‘Once Upon Tomorrow’ before Earth’s scattered champions converge on Luna to spectacularly squash the schemes-within-schemes of ‘Darkseid of the Moon!’

Rounding out the astounding cavalcade of wonders, are a selection of Kirby-crafted ‘Who’s Who Profiles’ pages from Who’s Who: The Definitive Directory of the DC Universe 1985-1987: specifically, Ben Boxer, the Boy Commandos, Challengers of the Unknown, Crazy Quilt, Etrigan the Demon, Kamandi, the Newsboy Legion, Sandman (the Dream Stream version from 1974), Sandy, the Golden Boy and Witchboy Klarion.

Jack Kirby was and is unique and uncompromising: his words and pictures comprise an unparalleled, hearts-and-minds grabbing delight no comics lover can possibly resist. If you’re not a fan or simply not prepared to see for yourself what all the fuss has been about then no words of mine will change your mind.

That doesn’t alter the fact that Kirby’s life’s work from 1937 to his death in 1994 shaped the entire American comics scene – and indeed the entire comics planet – affecting the lives of billions of readers and thousands of creators in all areas of artistic endeavour for generations and is still winning new fans and apostles every day, from the young and naive to the most cerebral of intellectuals. His work is instantly accessible, irresistibly visceral, deceptively deep and simultaneously mythic and human.

He is the King and will never be supplanted.
© 1971, 1973, 1974, 1975, 1976, 1984, 1985, 1986, 1987, 2013 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Steve Ditko Archives volume 2: Unexplored Worlds

By Steve Ditko & various, edited by Blake Bell (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-289-0

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Immaculate Yule Yarn-Spinning… 9/10

Once upon a time the anthological title of short stand-alone stories was the sole staple of the comicbook profession, where the plan was to deliver as much variety as possible to the reader. Sadly, that particular vehicle of expression seems all but lost to us today…

Steve Ditko is one of our industry’s greatest talents and one of America’s least lauded. His fervent desire to just get on with his job and to tell stories the best way he can – whilst the noblest of aspirations – has always been a minor consideration or even 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 comicbook output.

Before his time at Marvel, young Ditko perfected his craft creating short sharp yarns for a variety of companies and it’s an undeniable joy today to be able to look at this work from such an innocent time when 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 superb full-colour series of hardback collections (also available as digital editions) has reprinted those early efforts (all of them here are from 1956-1957) with material produced after the draconian, self-inflicted Comics Code Authority sanitised the industry following Senate Hearings and a public witch-hunt.

Most are wonderfully baroque and bizarre supernatural or science fantasy stories, but there are also examples of Westerns, Crime and Humour: cunningly presented in the order he completed and sold them rather than the more logical but far-less-revealing chronological release dates. Moreover, they are all helpfully annotated with a purchase number to indicate approximately when they were actually drawn – even the brace of tales done for Stan Lee’s pre-Marvel Atlas company.

Sadly, there’s no indication of how many (if any) were actually written by the moody master…

This second sublime selection reprints another heaping helping of his ever-more impressive works: most of it courtesy of the surprisingly liberal (at least in its trust of its employees’ creative instincts) sweat-shop publisher Charlton Comics.

And whilst we’re being technically accurate, it’s also important to reiterate that the cited publication dates of these stories have very little to do with when Ditko crafted them: as Charlton paid so little, the cheap, anthologically astute outfit had no problem in buying material it could leave on a shelf for months – if not years – until the right moment arrived to print. The work is assembled and runs here in the order Ditko submitted it, rather than when it reached the grubby sweaty paws of us readers…

Following an historically informative Introduction and passionate advocacy by Blake Bell, concentrating on Ditko’s near-death experience in 1954 (when the artist contracted tuberculosis) and subsequent absence and recovery, the evocatively eccentric excursions open with a monochrome meander into the realms of satire with the faux fable – we’d call it a mockumentary – ‘Starlight Starbright’ as first seen in From Here to Insanity (volume 3 #1 April 1956) before normal service resumes with financial fable ‘They’ll Be Some Changes Made’ (scripted by Carl Wessler from Atlas’ Journey Into Mystery #33, April 1956) wherein a petty-minded pauper builds a time machine to steal the fortune his ancestors squandered, whilst a crook seeking to exploit a mystic pool finds himself the victim of fate’s justice in ‘Those Who Vanish’ (Journey Into Mystery #38, September 1956 and again scripted by Wessler).

Almost – if not all – the Charlton material was scripted by the astoundingly fast and prolific Joe Gill at this time, and records are spotty at best so let’s assume his collaboration on all the material here beginning with ‘The Man Who Could Never Be Killed’ from Strange Suspense Stories #31, published in February 1957. This tale of a circus performer with an incredible ethereal secret segues into ‘Adrift in Space’ (Mysteries of Unexplored Worlds #8 June 1958) wherein a veteran starship captain pushes his weary crew over the edge whereas ‘The King of Planetoid X’ – from the previous MoUW (February) details a crisis of conscience for a benevolent and ultimately wise potentate…

The cover of Strange Suspense Stories #31 (February 1957) leads into ‘The Gloomy One’ as a misery-loving alien intruder is destroyed by simple human joy before the cover to Out of This World #5 September 1957 heralds that issue’s ‘The Man Who Stepped Out of a Cloud’ and an alien whose abduction plans only seem sinister in intent…

Mysteries of Unexplored Worlds #5 (October 1957) tells the story of a young ‘Stowaway’ who finds fulfilment aboard a harshly-run space ship after which the cover for Out of This World #3 (March 1957) leads to an apparent extraterrestrial paradise for weary star-men in ‘What Happened?’

Next up is a tale from one of Charlton’s earliest star characters. The title came from a radio show that Charlton licensed the rights to, with the lead/host/narrator acting more as voyeur than active participant. “The Mysterious Traveler” spoke directly to camera, 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 or 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 contents of Tales of the Mysterious Traveler were always exotic and esoteric and utterly mesmerising…

From issue #2, February 1957, ‘What Wilbur Saw’ reveals the reward bestowed on a poverty-stricken country bumpkin who witnessed a modern-day miracle after which Out of This World #3 provides a cautionary tale of atomic mutation in ‘The Supermen’

The eerie cover to Out of This World #4 (June 1957) leads to a chilling encounter for two stranded sailors who briefly board the ‘Flying Dutchman’ and Strange Suspense Stories #32’s cover (May 1957) dabbles in magic art when a collector is victimised by a thief who foolishly stumbles into ‘A World of His Own’. From the same issue comes a salutary parable concerning a rich practical joker who goes too far before succumbing to ‘The Last Laugh’, after which ‘Mystery Planet’ (Strange Suspense Stories #36, March 1958) offers a dash of interplanetary derring-do as a valiant agent Bryan Bodine and his comely associate Nedra confounds an intergalactic pirate piloting a planet-eating weapon against Earth!

A similarly bold defender then saves ‘The Conquered Earth’ from alien subjugation (Out of This World #4, June 1957) whilst in ‘Assignment Treason’ (Outer Space #18. August 1958) the clean-cut hero goes undercover to save earth from the predatory Master of Space whilst in Out of This World #8 (May 1958) ‘The Secret of Capt. X’ reveals that the inimical alien tyrant threatening humanity is not what he seems to be…

The cover to Mysteries of Unexplored Worlds #3 (April 1957) gives way to a trio of fantastic thrillers beginning with ‘The Strange Guests of Tsaurus’ as an alien paradise proves to be anything but and ‘A World Where I Was King’ sees a clumsy janitor catapulted into a wondrous realm where he wins a kingdom he doesn’t want. Diverting slightly, Fightin’ Army #20 (May 1957) provides a comedic interlude as a civil war soldier finds himself constantly indebted to ‘Gavin’s Stupid Mule’ before ‘A Forgotten World’ wraps up the MoUW #3 contributions with a scary tale of invasion from the Earth’s core…

‘The Cheapest Steak in Nome’ turns out to be defrosted from something that died millions of years ago in a light-hearted yarn from Mysteries of Unexplored Worlds #7 (February 1958) after which the cover to MoUW #4 (July 1957) precedes more icy antediluvian preservations found in the ‘Valley in the Mist’ whilst the cover to Strange Suspense Stories #33 (August 1957) leads into a bizarre corporate outreach project as the ‘Director of the Board’ attempts to go where no other exploitative capitalist has gone before…

It’s back to Mysteries of Unexplored Worlds #3 for a brush with the mythological in ‘They Didn’t Believe Him’ before ‘Forever and Ever’ (Strange Suspense Stories #33) reveals an unforeseen downside to immortality and Out of This World #3 sees a stranger share ‘My Secret’ with ordinary folk despite – or because – of a scurrilous blackmailer…

cover Mysteries of Unexplored Worlds #5 October 1957

‘A Dreamer’s World’ from Mysteries of Unexplored Worlds #5 (October 1957) follows the chilling cover thereof as a test pilot hits his aerial limit and discovers a whole new existence, before Unusual Tales #7 (May 1957) traces the tragic path of ‘The Man Who Could See Tomorrow’ whilst the cover of Tales of the Mysterious Traveler #4 (August 1957) opens a mini-feast of the voyeur’s voyages beginning with that issue’s ‘The Desert’ a saga of polar privation and survival.

Tales of the Mysterious Traveler #3 (May 1957) offers the appropriate cover and a ‘Secret Mission’ for a spy parachuted into Prague after which TotMT #4 offers ‘Escape’ for an unemployed pilot dragged into a gun-running scam in a south American lost world; ‘Test of a Man’ sees a cruel animal trainer receive his just deserts and ‘Operation Blacksnake’ grittily reveals American venality in the ever-expanding Arabian oil trade…

Returning to Mysteries of Unexplored Worlds #5, ‘The Mirage’ torments an escaped convict who thinks he’s escaped his fate whilst Texas Rangers in Action #8 (July 1957) sees a ruthless rancher crushed by the weight of his own wicked actions in ‘The Only One’, after which the stunning covers to Unusual Tales #6 and 7 (February and May 1957) lead into our final vignette ‘The Man Who Painted on Air’: exposing and thwarting a unique talent to preserve humanity and make a few bucks on the side…

This sturdily capacious volume has episodes that terrify, amaze, amuse and enthral: utter delights of fantasy fiction with lean, plots and stripped-down 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.

These stories display the sharp wit and contained comedic energy which made so many Spider-Man/J. Jonah Jameson confrontations an unforgettable treat half a decade later, and this is another cracking collection not only superb in its own right but as a telling tribute to the genius of one of the art-form’s greatest stylists.

This is something every serious comics fans would happily kill or die or be lost in time for…
Unexplored Worlds: The Steve Ditko Archive Vol. 2. This edition © 2010 Fantagraphics Books. Introduction © 2010 Blake Bell. All rights reserved.