Sabrina the Teenage Witch


By Kelly Thompson, Veronica Fish, Andy Fish, Jack Morelli & various (Archie Comic Publications)
ISBN: 978-1-68255-805-8 (TPB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Merry Magical Mirth and Mayhem… 9/10

Sabrina the Teen-Age Witch debuted in Archie’s Mad House #22 (October 1962), created by George Gladir & Dan DeCarlo as a throwaway character in the gag anthology which was simply one more venue for comics’ undisputed kings of kids’ comedy. She soon proved popular enough to become a regular in the ever-burgeoning cast surrounding the core stars Archie Andrews, Betty Cooper, Veronica Lodge and Jughead Jones.

By 1969 the junior conjurer had grown popular enough to win her own animated Filmation TV series (just like Archie and Josie and the Pussycats), concomitantly graduating to a lead feature in Archie’s TV Laugh Out before finally winning her own title in 1971.

The first volume ran 77 issues from 1971 to 1983 and, when a hugely successful live action TV series launched in 1996, an adapted comicbook iteration followed in 1997. That version folded in 1999 after a further 32 issues.

A third volume – simply entitled Sabrina – was based on TV show Sabrina the Animated Series. This ran for 37 issues from 2000 to 2002 before a back-to-basics reboot saw the comicbook revert to Sabrina the Teenage Witch with #38.

A creature of seemingly infinite variation and variety, the mystic maid continued in this vein until 2004 and issue #57 wherein, capitalising on the global popularity of Japanese comics amongst primarily female readers, the company boldly switched format and transformed the series into a manga-style high school comedy-romance in the classic Shōjo manner.

A more recent version abandoned whimsy altogether and depicted Sabrina as a vile and seductive force of evil (for which see Chilling Adventures of Sabrina).

The link between comics and screen are constantly self-reinforcing, carefully blending elements of all the previous print and TV versions in to whatever comes next. That’s certainly happened again now, as the recent TV renaissance of Riverdale has sparked a fresh, edgier small-screen debut (also entitled Chilling Adventures of Sabrina) and another comic book revision for the mystic Miss Spellman…

Collecting in trade paperback and digital formats issues #1-5 of the 2019 iteration of Sabrina the Teenage Witch, plus a special preview bonus comic team up, this vivid and engaging reinterpretation by Kelly Thompson, Veronica Fish, Andy Fish, and letterer Jack Morelli finds anxious Sabrina Spellman moving to the happy hamlet of Greendale, just a forest’s distance from Riverdale.

No one likes to be the new kid in High School, but Sabrina has a lot to be worried about. A half-human witch, she’s been abruptly bundled off to the boonies by her formidable arcane aunts Zelda and Hilda for reasons she can’t understand and just knows something big and scary is lurking around her…

Having rapidly-developing sorcerous abilities doesn’t stop her making an instant enemy in apex Mean Girl Radka and a true connection with hapless victim/new bestie Jessa Chiang …or falling foul of the sports coach and the principal on her first day.

Still, there’s also lots of romantic potential in cute scholarly Harvey Kinkle and motorbike-riding bad boy Ren Ransom. The rivals are soon making life even more confusing and frustrating for Sabrina as she strives to solve the enigma of why she’s been banished to this old, witch-haunted town.

However, the main problem to settling in seems to be non-educational. A pervasive aura of menace around the woods at the edge of town soon turns into a horde of mythological monsters all bent on dragging her off or enacting the young sorceress’ doom. The worst of it is that thanks to her gifts, Sabrina soon learns that the marauding horrors are all apparently built by magic and science from the bodies of her friends and classmates…

As the perils increase exponentially, the puissant aunts also fall prey to the mysterious force behind the eldritch events, and before long it’s only Sabrina and her talking cat Salem left to deal with the threat that’s wiped out the most powerful witches of the era…

Packed with wit and both sorts of charm, this is a fast-paced, clever and vastly amusing teen comedy thriller that also offers a wealth of bonus material, beginning with an Introduction by author Kelly Thompson (Jem and The Holograms;A-Force; Captain Marvel & The Carol Corps; Heart In A Box; The Girl Who Would Be King), a fulsome Character Sketch Gallery from Veronica Fish (Spider-Woman; Silk; Archie; Pirates of Mars) and a vast and wonderful variant cover Gallery by Fish, Stephanie Buscema, Adam Hughes, Victor Ibanez, Sandra Lanz, Paulina Ganucheau, Jenn St-Onge, Audrey Mok and Gary Erskine.

Wrapping up the thrills and chills with a tantalising teaser, this unmissable treat concludes with a bonus comic yarn as Nick Spencer, Sandy Jarrell, Matt Helms & letterer Jack Morelli introduce Archie and Sabrina: an engrossing team-up wherein the Riverdale Romeo and Teenage Witch begin a romantic tryst by tricking all their friends and the boy’s previous paramours – Betty, Veronica and Cheryl Blossom – into completely the wrong idea about who’s doing what to who…

That’s all slated to unfold and conclude in a graphic novel in 2020…

Epic, enticing and always enchanting, the adventures of Sabrina the Teenage Witch are always sheer timeless delight that no true fan will ever grow out of…
© 1962-1972, 2017 Archie Comic Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.

The Art of Hellboy


By Mike Mignola (Dark Horse Books)
ISBN: 978-1-56971-910-7(HB) 978-1-59307-089-2(TPB) eISBN 978-1-62115-749-6

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Indulge Yourself in the Art of Terror… 9/10

Hellboy is a creature of vast depth and innate mystery; a demonic child summoned to Earth by Nazi occultists at the end of World War II. Intercepted and rescued by allied troops, the infernal infant was reared by Allied parapsychologist Professor Trevor “Broom” Bruttenholm. After years of devoted intervention, education and warm human interaction, in 1952 Hellboy began destroying unnatural threats and supernatural monsters as lead agent for the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense.

As the decades of his career unfold, Hellboy gleans snatches of his origins, learning he is an pit-born creature of dark portent: born an infernal messiah, somehow destined to destroy the world and bring back ancient powers of evil. It is a fate he despises and utterly rejects…

Above all, Hellboy is one of those rare tragic, doomed heroes who somehow fits into every conceivable niche and genre, and that’s a tribute to the narrative and illustrative gifts of creator Mike Mignola (and his many collaborators) and – as this book and editor Scott Allie’s Introduction reveals – a diabolical amount of sheer hard work…

This magnificent oversized (229 x 310 mm) hardback or paperback (also available in digital formats) reproduces a wealth of comics pages and covers, roughs and sketches, beginning with the very first rendering of the proto-wonder.

A treasure trove of Mignola’s pencil designs and ink renderings trace the concept’s development, and are accompanied by the author/artists own recollections, augmented by early comics pages (published and not) and covers (ditto) as well as thumbnail layouts in a variety of media and finished original art pages; all offering the kind of working secrets all wannabe artists never tire of seeing…

Also revelatory are the inclusions from Mignola’s sketchbooks, affording us a far more precious insight into his narrative process…

As well as the creative secrets, this fabulous tome includes many promo pieces, finished but unused pages as well as designs and premium images, and crossover art featuring other folks’ characters such as Batman, The Spirit and Ghost plus out-industry artwork (such as Christmas cards).

Baroque, grandiose, eye-catching and unforgettably powerful, the images in this bombastic book combine as a timeless treat for friends and fiends who love the dark and revere the verve, imagination and, longevity of the greatest Outsider Hero of All: a supernatural thriller no comics fan should be without.

And we’re well past due for a second volume too…
The Art of Hellboy™ © 1991, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1993, 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003 Mike Mignola. All rights reserved.

 

The Light


By Jim Alexander, edited by Kirsten Murray (Planet Jimbot)
ISBN: 978-1-9164535-2-4 (PB) eISBN: 978-1-9164535-3-1

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: A Decidedly Different Spooky Saga for the Season… 9/10

Apparently tireless raconteur and comics veteran Jim Alexander is back with another prose novel (available in paperback and a variety of eBook formats).

His pictorial back-catalogue includes Star Trek the Manga, Calhab Justice and other strips for 2000AD, licensed properties such as Ben 10 and Generator Rex as well as a broad variety of comics and strips for The Dandy, DC, Marvel, Dark Horse Comics, Metal Hurlant Chronicles, and loads of other places including his own publishing empire Planet Jimbot. He’s imminently due back in the mainstream too, with a forthcoming Marvel Graphic Novel in the offing…

Everyone dies. That’s biology. How they die isn’t as important as how they lived, right?

That’s an assumption that is devilishly challenged in The Light as a world so very much our own takes a path less travelled after a global catastrophe in 1998.

Here and now, twenty years after the event, humanity has gained an eerie new ability: unfailing certainty in the knowledge of when your time is up.

It’s not a proper super power: decedents only know from the moment they wake up that it’s their Last Day and not everyone is sure – or convinced – until they place a palm on the ubiquitous domestic device (also available on all street corners and in every lamp post) and a purple hue tells them its time…

Socially, things haven’t changed much: Capitalism has devised new ways to monetise the change and the elites and powers-that-be have found fresh ways to restrict the thinking and spending of the masses. Someone has turned Last Day into the world’s most debauched, powerful and unavoidable religion, and on dark fringes of the planet, outsiders try to live beyond the newly-established margins and avoid collaborating with the system that demands that all citizens test their light every day…

The rest of us? We just comply, testing ourselves every 24 hours and going about our lawful business until it’s that day and we have a decision to make: lie down and die or rebel and act out…

Told through a string of narrative viewpoints from the highest and mightiest to the most excluded and lowly, how The Light works – and how it ultimately fails – is beguilingly exposed in a wry and mordant, satire-saturated tale that delves like a forensic exam into the nature of what it means to be human and truly alive…

And when this has sufficiently blown your mind, you really should really read the author’s first novel GoodCopBadCop and track down the superb comics by Alexander and his confederates Luke Cooper, Gary McLaughlin, Will Pickering, Aaron Murphy, Chris Twydell & Jim Campbell.

The Jims – Alexander & Campbell – have been providing challenging, captivating and enthralling graphic narratives for ages now and you owe it to yourself to catch them too.
© 2019 Jim Alexander.

Planet Jimbot has a splendid online shop so why not check it out? Conversely why not go to:

UK
Amazon (print) (ebook)
Kobo

US
Amazon (print) (ebook)
Kobo
Barnes & Noble
 

The Pits of Hell


By Ebisu Yoshikazu (Breakdown Press)
ISBN: 978-1-91108-108-1 (PB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Shocking, Momentous, Unmissable… 8/10

Please be warned: I’ll be using some harsh language further down: if you of your dependents are likely to be offended, please skip this review. You certainly won’t be comfortable reading the book we’re reviewing here…

If you’re one of those people who’s never read a manga tale, or who’s been tempted but discouraged by the terrifying number of volumes these tales can run to, here’s a delicious feast of fantasy fables complete in one book revealing all that’s best about comics from the East in one darkly digestible big gulp.

Although an industry of immense, almost incomprehensible variety, much of Japan’s output is never seen in western translation, so for us, most manga – divided into story genres we easily recognise – can be lazily characterised by a fast, raucous, over-stylised, occasionally choppy style and manner of delivery, offering peeks into the quirks of a foreign culture through coy sensuality, carefully managed action and “aw shucks” conviviality.

It’s not all like that.

This volume gathers emphatically eerie and definitely disturbing short stories for adults that originate from the nation’s rebellious heta-uma movement (equivalent to but not the same as our late 1970s Punk revolution), all crafted by a fringe creator who became a true national treasure…

Ebisu Yoshikazu began as an outsider: a self-trained manga maker who shunned the sleek polish of mainstream Japanese comics to craft deeply personal ant-art yarns, initially for avant-garde counter culture anthology style icon Garo and landmark experiment Jam, but later for many other magazines after his harsh material struck a chord with 1970s-1980s readers, increasingly reeling from social and economic change.

Mr. Yoshikazu was born in Amakusa, Kumamoto Prefecture in October 1947 and raised in Nagasaki, where he was fatefully shaped by the post war trauma that permeated the region and the country. Drawing comics from early on, he was especially influenced by the fantasy works of Osamu Tezuka and Mitsuteru Yokoyama, but as a teenager his life changed when he discovered the gekiga (“Dramatic Pictures”) comics sub-genre as well as American action movies.

He moved to Tokyo in 1970 and – while working menial jobs – began submitting stories to Garo in 1973. His bleak, violently surreal, dream-based efforts featured bizarre, antisocial situations and outcomes and found a welcome – if unpaid – home in the magazine. He became a fan favourite without his knowledge and when years later he finally released a compilation of his tales, was astonished to see it become a huge hit with many reprintings.

The creatively-driven working-class manga-maker – think more Harvey Pekar than Harvey Kurtzman – parlayed his growing fame as an outsider artist and misfit into mass-media celebrity, but latterly suffered a great loss of fame, prestige and revenue following a gambling scandal.

In Japan, commercial betting is illegal except in certain, highly proscribed and policed situations. That doesn’t bother Ebisu Yoshikazu who remains a proud advocate and champion of what many people consider a shameful addiction. His passion for wagers has shaped his life and continues to …

Heta-uma transliterates to “bad-good” or “bad but nice”: glorying in the power of raw, primitivist graphics and narratives that are seductively seditious whilst exploring uncomfortable themes, so please be warned that most of these nine early vignettes are brutally violent and also distressing on other, more intimate levels. If you’re looking for Western equivalents, go no further than the more excessive outings of Gary Panter and Johnny Ryan…

This potent tome reprints that first compilation in English and is preceded (or followed by – depending on your graphic orientation, as the comics portion of the book is traditional manga right to left, end to beginning format) by a series of text features including ‘Why is This So Good?’: a deconstruction of the stories by Garo editor Minami Shinbō from the 1981 original compilation.

‘About these Comics’ offers the author’s own thoughts on the material from 2016 and is followed by extended essay ‘Damn All Gamblers to the Pits of Hell’ by translator/editor Ryan Holmberg affording us not only history, context and insight into the artist but also gauging the effects of his works on the industry and society.

The stories begin with a shocking answer to classroom inattention in ‘Teachers Damned to the Pits of Hell’ after which a poor family hungrily await the results of father’s latest addictive session at the pachinko parlour in ‘Fuck Off’.

Many stories take a hard but always off-kilter look at employment and wage earning. ‘Workplace’ deals with a time when Yoshikazu worked as a sign designer’s much-abused assistant and vicariously, cathartically, depicts what the menial wanted most, whereas ‘Wiped Out Workers’ details a plague of selective narcolepsy that grips salarymen and other hapless toilers during their daily travails.

‘Tempest of Love’ addresses the imbalance and inequality of the sexes as a job-enhancing abacus class devolves into a ghastly crime scene, whilst a punter’s obsessive attention to the sanctioned boat races and his crucial bets result in a strange series of events that can only be explained by ‘ESP’…

More uncomfortable sexual tension is dangerously unleashed at the ‘Late Night Party’ provided by a smug boss before the spiralling cost of living sparks civil unrest and deadly consequences in ‘Battles without Honor and Humanity: A Documentary’.

The walk on the weird wild side then concludes with a phantasmagorical deluge of uncanny situations and crises as a worker takes his son for a walk in ‘Salaryman in Hell’

By no means a work of universal appeal, The Pits of Hell provides a stunning and revelatory look at the other side of Japanese comics: one no fan of the medium can afford to miss.
English edition © 2019 Breakdown Press. Translation and essay © 2019 Ryan Holmberg. All rights reserved.

The Bad Bad Place


By David Hine & Mark Stafford (Soaring Penguin Press)
ISBN: 978-1-908030-276 (HB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Dread Delight for Darkest Nights… 9/10

Happy Día de Muertos…

I’d planned to make this new release part of our annual Occultoberfest, but fortunately, my review copy didn’t arrive in time so now it gets an extra chance to impress as it now stands out even further from the pack.

In luxurious and sturdy hardback (and digital) compilation The Bad Bad Place, material originally created as a serial for Soaring Penguin Press’ excellent comics anthology Meanwhile… has been modified, tweaked and at last completed for the delectation of fans of bizarre black comedy, gross Lovecraftian horror and uniquely British macabre tomfoolery…

Before we get started, I must acknowledge that I’ve known all involved in the project for many years – although I trust they’ve either forgotten or at least forgiven me for all that’s occurred (they know what I mean and you’ll never know…), so any thoughts of nepotism, favouritism and dishonourable conduct should be redirected to modern political and commercial life, where they properly belong…

This wry but effective pastiche of Chthonic horrors is the morbid brainchild of Dave Hine (Strange Embrace, Spider-Man: Noir, Batman, X-Men, The Bullet Proof Coffin) and Mark Stafford (Cherubs!) who have wrought previous similar graphic marvels together in The Man Who Laughs and Lip Hook.

The unease begins in ‘Warning Signs’ as a gaunt and ragged town crier accosts a young woman in the strangely deserted new town of Faraway Hills. Jenny is forthright and determined and refuses to obey old Ned Trench‘s admonitions that she should flee for her life…

Over a nice cup of tea, the rank, decrepit dotard – and former town crier – details how the rapidly-built modern conurbation was situated over the ruins of a Victorian village that had died in mysterious circumstances, and how, one night a plot of vacant land was suddenly filled with long-vanished Castavette House and the much-neglected grounds which had once dominated the ancient hamlet of Crouch Heath…

With rumours flying about and the town council dithering, events took a while to kick off, but when they despatched a flurry of official forms to the mansion in ‘Going Postal’ the postman was never seen again.

Those that knew him privately thought it was no less than he deserved. Later investigations proved they weren’t wrong…

In ‘The Lottery Winner, the Minstrel and the Narcissist Who Would Not Stop…’ a trio of friends trapped in a love triangle are declared to have also suffered dreadful fates after passing the gates of the House, seduced by mystic music and the promise of tawdry pleasures within…

Ned and Jenny’s discourse takes a dramatic turn in ‘Close Up and Personal’ when the aged doomsayer describes the fate of a young photojournalist and she reveals her own intimate connection to the missing snapper…

The incredible truth of Trench’s origins comes out in The Truth, the Whole Truth and Anything But…’ as Jenny learns how and why Crouch Heath disappeared from the map so long ago, thanks in large part to the manorial family’s devotion to vile elder gods and the innate casual cruelty of their all-too human neighbours…

A bereaved and vengeful mother literally wedded to ancient monsters takes her revenge in ‘Let Not Man Put Asunder…’ before more ghastly secrets are shared in ‘The Birthing’, so by the time Jenny gets ‘A Short History of the Twentieth Century’ from Trench’s weirdly skewed perspective, the anxious listener fully appreciates the lack of ‘Logic and Proportion’ exercised by the mistress of Castavette House when the entire population of Faraway Hills invaded the grounds of the returned estate, seeking unearned rewards and illicit gratifications…

The arcane malign saga concludes with the unwise expression of Jenny’s own ‘Heart’s Desire’, but just as all hope seems lost in the bowels of the House, there comes an intervention from a most unexpected quarter…

Afterword ‘The Good Good Place’ then offers context and background on the creation of this macabre treat courtesy of author Hine, whilst creator biographies plus a moody graphic gallery turns up the tension tone to round out this exemplary example of pictorial gothic terror.

Mordant and moody, occasionally deliberately daft and always deeply disturbing, The Bad Bad Place is a treat no terror-seeker can afford to miss.
This edition © 2019 Soaring Penguin Press. Created by and © David Hine & Mark Stafford.

Asterix and the Chieftain’s Daughter


By Jean-Yves Ferri & Didier Conrad, coloured by Thierry Mébarki and translated by Adriana Hunter (Orion Books)
ISBN: 978-1-51010-713-7 (HB) 978-1-51010-714-4 (PB Album) eISBN: 978-1-5101-0720-5

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Celebrate the Season in Classical Style… 9/10

Asterix le Gaulois debuted in 1959 and has since become part of the fabric of French life. His exploits have touched billions of people all around the world for five and a half decades and for almost all of that time his astounding adventures were the sole preserve of originators Rene Goscinny and/or Albert Uderzo.

After nearly 15 years dissemination as weekly serials (subsequently collected into book-length compilations), in 1974 the 21st saga – Asterix and Caesar’s Gift – was the first to be released as a complete, original album prior to serialisation. Thereafter each new tome became an eagerly anticipated, impatiently awaited treat for legions of devotees.

The eager anxiety hasn’t diminished any even now that Uderzo’s handpicked replacements -scripter Jean-Yves Ferri (Fables Autonomes, La Retour à la terre) and illustrator Didier Conrad (Les Innomables, Le Piège Malais, Tatum) have properly settled into the creative role since his retirement in 2009.

Whether as an action-packed comedic romp with sneaky, bullying baddies getting their just deserts or as a sly and wicked satire for older-if-no-wiser heads, these new yarns are just as engrossing as the established canon.

As you already know, half of the intoxicating epics take place in various exotic locales throughout the Ancient World, whilst the alternating rest are set in and around Uderzo’s adored Brittany where, circa 50 BC, a little hamlet of cantankerous, proudly defiant warriors and their families resist every effort of the mighty Roman Empire to complete the conquest of Gaul.

Although the land is divided by the conquerors into provinces Celtica, Aquitania and Armorica, the very tip of the last-named region stubbornly refuses to be properly pacified. The otherwise supreme overlords, utterly unable to overrun this last little bastion of Gallic insouciance, are reduced to a pointless policy of absolute containment – even though the irksome Gauls come and go as they please…

Thus, a tiny seaside hamlet is permanently hemmed in by heavily fortified garrisons Totorum, Aquarium, Laudanum and Compendium, filled with veteran fighters who would rather be anywhere else on earth than there…

Those contained couldn’t care less; daily defying and frustrating the world’s greatest military machine by going about their everyday affairs, bolstered by magic potion brewed by resident druid Getafix and the shrewd wits and strategic aplomb of diminutive dynamo Asterix and his simplistic, supercharged best friend Obelix

Ferri & Didier’s fourth album (and 38th canonical chronicle of Asterix) La Fille de Vercingétorix was released on October 17th 2018, with an English edition hitting shelves – and the digital emporia – as Asterix and the Chieftain’s Daughter on the 24th.

It similarly debuted that day in 19 other languages with an initial global print run of more than 5,000,000 copies.

As proof that time marches and on that youth will ultimately have its day, the narrative focus here is on a new generation of characters, but as always, action, suspense and comedy are very much in evidence. There’s a healthy helping of satirical lampooning of the generation gap, fads and trends as well as the traditional regional and nationalistic leitmotifs…

It all begins one evening when elderly Averni warriors Monolithix and Sidekix arrive at the village in search of Chief Vitalstatistix. They are aged survivors of the climactic battle of Alesia which culminated in the Romans taking control of Gaul. That occurred after great Vercingetorix ignominiously capitulated to Julius Caesar: a shame so great that most Gauls can no longer speak his name aloud…

In his grand hut, Vitalstatistix hears out his old comrades and agrees to take in a young girl. Surly teenager Adrenalin is the daughter of the defeated commander in chief and wears the great gold torc that symbolised his rule. Resolved that she will one day lead a liberating revolt, Monolithix and Sidekix have reared the girl in secret, but recently learned that a Gaulish traitor – Binjwatchflix – has informed Caesar of her existence.

Now the emperor wants the torc and the girl – whom he plans to indoctrinate into Roman ways and use as a puppet proxy – so the wrinkly resistance fighters need time to arrange a smuggled flight to Britain for their juvenile charge.

The skulking traitor is not the only problem: truculent Adrenalin is currently rebelling against her destiny and tends to run away at every opportunity. Suitably warned and worried, the Chief assigns his two top men – and their canine companion Dogmatix – to watch over her…

As the girl is assimilated into the village, nefarious Binjwatchflix steals into the garrison of Totorum and drafts the unwilling commander into a nasty scheme to capture the unwary, unruly child…

Back in the village, Adrenalin is causing a bit of a stir amongst the younger crowd. She’s rude, insolent and dresses in men’s clothes: the local lads just can’t stop following her about…

She’s especially interesting to the sons of Unhygienix the fishmonger and his great rival Fulliautomatix the blacksmith. Little Crabstix thinks she’s cool, but his elder sibling Blinix and the armourers’ boy Selfipix both know she’s far more than that…

Soon there’s a new gang in town, rejecting all the old ways and sassing their elders – and their music is just appalling and incomprehensible. Raucous bard Cacofonix is the only adult they can tolerate…

Already overmatched, Asterix and Obelix try to stay close, but although the massive menhir man is extremely childlike, he’s no teenager and is soon well out of his depth. Doughty Asterix just doesn’t understand what’s happening these days…

Adrenalin has already planned her escape: she’s going to ditch all the expectations of her elders, the plans to fight and liberate the land and run away to fabled Thule…

Oblivious to the rapidly-coalescing plot of vile Binjwatchflix, she convinces the village lads to help, just as the far-from-eager soldiers from Totorum infiltrate the forest surrounding the town and the long-suffering, lethally-optimistic and unlucky sea pirates make a disastrous foray upriver and unwittingly provide her with the one thing her plans lacks thus far: a ship…

As Monolithix and Sidekix covertly sail back from Britain with gorgeous mariner Captain Peacenix to retrieve their regal charge, all the enemy forces arraigned against Adrenalin close in.

Realising almost too late that she’s gone, odd-men-out Asterix and Obelix follow in their own boat, but happily, they’re not the only magic-potioned players in action as the Roman navy intercepts: further complicating a rapidly escalating catastrophe in the making…

Cue, glorious, uproarious action and a host of twisty, turny surprises…

Despite Asterix, Obelix and old our favourites very much playing second fiddle in this riotous tale of kids in revolt, the result is refreshingly off-kilter yet still suitably engaging. Teen-oriented, heavy on sardonic caricatures and daft wordplay – especially pop tunes given the old Crackerjack! (“Crackerjack! ..ack! …ack! …ack!!”*) – punny-rewrite treatments – and cannily sentimental, this yarn is awash with sneaky diversions, dirty tricks and vile villainy; providing non-stop thrills and spills to as we battle our way to the most effective of happy endings.

Asterix and the Chieftain’s Daughter is a sure win and another triumphant addition to the mythic canon for laugh-seekers in general and all devotees of comics.
© 2019 Les Éditions Albert René. English translation: © 2019 Les Éditions Albert René. All rights reserved.
*You must be British, at least 40 years old or aware of what’s coming in 2020 to understand this reference…

Showcase Presents the House of Mystery volume 1


By Joe Orlando, Otto Binder, Jack Miller, Bob Haney, Neal Adams, Arnold Drake, John Albano, Marv Wolfman, Howie Post, E. Nelson Bridwell, Gil Kane, Mike Friedrich, Bob Kanigher, Jack Oleck, Joe Gill, Gerry Conway, Len Wein, Virgil North, Alan Riefe, Francis X. Bushmaster, Lee Elias, Doug Wildey, Carmine Infantino, Mort Meskin, Sergio Aragonés, Bernard Baily, George Roussos, Jack Sparling, Sid Greene, Bill Draut, Jim Mooney, Win Mortimer, Jerry Grandenetti, Bernie Wrightson, Wally Wood, Wayne Howard, Alex Toth, Al Williamson, John Celardo, Tony DeZuñiga, Leonard Starr, Tom Sutton, Ric Estrada, Jim Aparo, Gray Morrow, Don Heck, Russ Heath, Jack Kirby, Nestor Redondo, Lore Shoberg, John Costanza & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-0786-1 (TPB)

These days DC – particularly its prestigious Vertigo sub-division – are acknowledged leaders in comic book horror and dark fantasy fiction, with titles and characters like Swamp Thing, Sandman and Hellblazer riding high beside anthological and creator-owned properties all designed to make readers think twice and lose sleep…

As National Periodical Publications, the company was slow to join the first horror boom that began in 1948, but after a few tenuous attempts with supernatural-themed heroic leads in established titles (Johnny Peril in Comic Cavalcade, All Star Comics and Sensation Comics and Dr. Terry Thirteen, The Ghostbreaker in Star-Spangled Comics) bowed to the inevitable.

The result was a rather prim and straitlaced anthology that nevertheless became one of their longest-running and most influential titles. The House of Mystery launched with a December 1951/January 1952 cover date and neatly dodged most of the later flak aimed at horror comics by the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency (April- June 1954). When the industry adopted a castrating straitjacket of self-regulatory rules, HoM and its sister title House of Secrets were dialled back into rationalistic, fantasy adventure vehicles, without any appreciable harm. They even became super-hero tinged split-books (with Martian Manhunter and Dial H for Hero in HoM, and Eclipso sharing space with mystic detective Mark Merlin – latterly Prince Ra-Man – in HoS)…

Nothing combats censorship better than falling profits and when the Silver Age superhero boom stalled and crashed at the end of the 1960s, it led to the surviving publishers of the field agreeing to loosen their self-imposed restraints against crime and horror comics. Nobody much cared about gangster titles, but as the liberalisation coincided with another bump in global interest in all aspects of the Worlds Beyond, the resurrection of scary stories was a foregone conclusion and obvious “no-brainer.” Even ultra-wholesome Archie Comics re-entered the field with their tasty line of Red Circle Thrillers

Thus with absolutely no fanfare at all issue #174, cover dated May-June 1968 fronted a bold banner heading demanding “Do You Dare Enter The House of Mystery?” whilst reprinting a bunch of – admittedly excellent – short fantastic thrillers originally seen in House of Secrets from the heady days when it was okay and quite profitable to scare kids…

Incomprehensively, these classic yarns are still unavailable in digital compilations, although there’s a new (and rather expensive) hardback Bronze Age Omnibus edition out if you aren’t afraid of wrist strain. If cost is an issue and you don’t mind monochrome reproduction, this classic trade paperback – collecting the contents of The House of Mystery #174 -196 (May 1968 to September 1971) – is still easy to find and impossible to not enjoy…

Starting off with The House of Mystery #174, the opening shot is ‘The Wondrous Witch’s Cauldron’, by an unknown writer and compellingly illustrated by the great Lee Elias. It comes from 1963’s HoS #58, as does the tale that follows it. Equally anonymous, ‘The Man Who Hated Good Luck!’ is limned by Doug Wildey and leads to the only new feature of the issue – one which would set the tone for decades to come.

Page 13 was a trenchantly comedic feature page scripted by Editor and EC veteran Joe Orlando, suitable cartooned by manic genius Sergio Aragonés. It states quite clearly that, whilst the intent was to thrill, enthral and even appal, it was all in the spirit of sinister fun, and gallows humour was the true order of the day.

The comic then continued with an Otto Binder/Bernard Baily tale of the unexpected: ‘The Museum of Worthless Inventions’ (from HoS #13) and concluded with Jack Miller, Carmine Infantino & Mort Meskin’s fantasy fable ‘The Court of Creatures’ (a Mark Merlin masterpiece from HoS #43).

The next issue can probably be counted as the true start of this latter-day revenant renaissance, as Orlando revived the EC tradition of slyly sardonic narrators by creating the Machiavellian Cain, “caretaker of the House of Mystery” and wicked raconteur par excellence.

Behind the first of a spectacular series of creepy covers from Neal Adams lurked another reprint, ‘The Gift of Doom’ (from HoM #137, illustrated by George Roussos) followed by ‘All Alone’, an original, uncredited prose chiller.

After another Page 13 side-splitter, Aragonés launched his long-running gag page ‘Cain’s Game Room’ before the issue closed with all-new new comic thriller ‘The House of Gargoyles!’ by veteran scaremongers Bob Haney & Jack Sparling.

With winning format firmly established and commercially successful, the fear-fest was off and running. Stunning Adams covers, painfully punny introductory segments, interspersed with gag pages (originally just Aragonés but eventually supplemented by other cartoonists such as John Albano, Lore Shoberg & John Costanza).

This last feature eventually grew popular enough to be spun off into bizarrely outrageous comicbook called Plop! (but that’s a subject for another day…) and supplied an element of continuity to an increasingly superior range of self-contained supernatural thrillers. Moreover, if ever deadline distress loomed, there was always a wealth of superb old material to fill in with.

HoM #176 led with spectral thriller ‘The House of No Return!’ by writer unknown and the great Sid Greene after which young Marv Wolfman (one of an absolute Who’s Who of budding writers and artists who went on to bigger things) teamed with Sparling on paranoiac mad science shocker ‘The Root of Evil!’

Reprinted masterpiece of form from Mort Meskin, ‘The Son of the Monstross Monster’ – having previously appeared in House of Mystery #130 – leads off #177, and a 1950’s fearsome fact-page is recycled into ‘Odds and Ends from Cain’s Cellar’ before Charles King and Orlando’s illustrated prose piece ‘Last Meal’ segues into dream-team Howie (Anthro) Post & Bill Draut produce a ghoulish period parable in ‘The Curse of the Cat.’

Neal Adams debuts as an interior illustrator – and writer – with a mind-boggling virtuoso performance as a little boy survives ‘The Game’, after which Jim Mooney’s spooky credentials are affirmed with ‘The Man Who Haunted a Ghost’ (first seen in HoM #35) and E. Nelson Bridwell, Win Mortimer & George Roussos delineate an eternal dream with ‘What’s the Youth?’ before ‘Cain’s True Case Files: Ghostly Miners’ closes the issue.

Bridwell contributes the claustrophobic ‘Sour Note’ as lead in #179, rendered by the uniquely visionary Jerry Grandenetti & Roussos.

A next generation of comics genius begins with Bernie Wrightson’s first creepy contribution. ‘Cain’s True Case Files: The Man Who Murdered Himself’ was scripted by Wolfman and is still a stunning example of gothic perfection in Wrightson’s Graham Ingels-inspired lush, fine-line style.

This exceptional artist’s issue also contains moody supernatural romance ‘The Widow’s Walk’ by Post. Adams & Orlando: a subtle shift from schlocky black humour to terrifying suspense and tragedy presumably intended to appeal to the increasingly expanding female readership. The issue ends with another fact feature ‘Cain’s True Case Files: The Dead Tell Tales’.

Going from strength to strength, House of Mystery was increasingly drawing on DC’s major artistic resources. ‘Comes a Warrior’, which opened #180, is a chilling faux Sword & Sorcery classic written and drawn by da Vinci of Dynamism Gil Kane, inked by the incomparable Wally Wood, and the same art team also illustrate Mike Friedrich’s fourth-wall demolishing ‘His Name is Cain Kane!’

Cliff Rhodes & Orlando contribute text-terror ‘Oscar Horns In!’ and Wolfman & Wrightson return with prophetic vignette ‘Scared to Life’ before an uncredited forensic history lesson from ‘Cain’s True Case Files’ closes proceedings for that month.

Scripted by Otto Binder and drawn by the quirkily capable Sparling, ‘Sir Greeley’s Revenge!’ is a heart-warmingly genteel spook story, but Wrightson’s first long tale – fantastical reincarnation saga ‘The Circle of Satan’ (scripted by horror veteran Bob Kanigher) – ends #181 on an eerily unsettling note before #182 opens with one of the most impressive tales of the entire run.

Jack Oleck’s take on the old cursed mirror plot is elevated to high art as his script ‘The Devil’s Doorway’ is illustrated by the incredible Alex Toth. Wolfman & Wayne Howard follow with ‘Cain’s True Case Files: Grave Results!’, after which an Orlando-limned house promotion leads to nightmarish revenge tale ‘The Hound of Night!’ by Kanigher & Grandenetti.

In collaboration with Oleck, Grandenetti opens #183 with ‘The Haunting!’ after which, courtesy of Baily ‘Odds and Ends from Cain’s Cellar’ returns with ‘Curse of the Blankenship’s’ and ‘Superstitions About Spiders’ before Wolfman & Wrightson contribute ‘Cain’s True Case Files: The Dead Can Kill!’ and the canny teaming of Kanigher with Grandenetti and Wally Wood results in the truly bizarre ‘Secret of the Whale’s Vengeance.’

The next issue features the triumphant return of Oleck & Toth for a captivating Egyptian tomb raider epic ‘Turner’s Treasure’ whilst Bridwell, Kane & Wood unite for barbarian blockbuster ‘The Eyes of the Basilisk!’

House of Mystery #185 sees caretaker Cain take a more active role in the all-Grandenetti yarn ‘Boom!’, Wayne Howard illustrates the sinister ‘Voice from the Dead!’ and prolific Charlton scribe Joe Gill debuts with ‘The Beautiful Beast’: a lost world romance perfectly pictured by EC alumnus Al Williamson.

The next issue tops even that as Wrightson limns Kanigher’s spectacular bestiary tale ‘The Secret of the Egyptian Cat’, whilst Adams produces some his best art ever for Oleck’s ‘Nightmare’: a poignant tale of fervid imagination and childhood lost. Nobody who ever adored Mr. Tumnus could read this little gem without choking up… and as for the rest of you, I just despair and discard you…

Kanigher & Toth deliver another brilliantly disquieting drama in ‘Mask of the Red Fox’ to open #187, and Wayne Howard is at his workmanlike best on ‘Cain’s True Case Files: Appointment Beyond the Grave!’, before John Celardo & Mike Peppe render the anonymous script for period peril ‘An Aura of Death!’ (although to my jaded old eyes the penciller looks more like Win Mortimer…)

Another revolutionary moment occurs with #188’s lead story. Gerry Conway gets an early credit scripting ‘Dark City of Doom’: a chilling reincarnation mystery simultaneously set in contemporary times and Mayan South America, as the trailblazer for a magnificent tidal wave of Filipino artists debuted.

The stunning art of Tony DeZuñiga opened the door for many of his talented countrymen to enter and reshape both Marvel and DC’s graphic landscape and this black and white compendium is the perfect vehicle to see their mastery of line and texture…

Wrightson was responsible for time-lost thriller ‘House of Madness!’ which closes the issue whilst Aragonés opens the proceedings for #189, closely followed by Kanigher, Grandenetti & Wood’s ‘Eyes of the Cat’ and ‘The Deadly Game of G-H-O-S-T’ (from HoM #11: a 1953 reprint drawn by Leonard Starr) before another Charlton mystery superstar premiers as Tom Sutton illustrates Oleck’s ‘The Thing in the Chair’.

Kanigher & Toth team for another impeccable graphic masterwork in ‘Fright!’, Albano fills Cain’s Game Room and Aragonés debuts another long-running gag page with ‘Cain’s Gargoyles’ before this issue ends with Salem-based shocker ‘A Witch Must Die!’ by Jack Miller, Ric Estrada & Frank Giacoia.

HoM #191 saw the debut of Len Wein, who wrote terrifying puppet-show tragedy ‘No Strings Attached!’ for Bill Draut, as DeZuñiga returns to draw Oleck’s cautionary tale ‘The Hanging Tree!’ before Wein closes the show, paired with Wrightson on ‘Night-Prowler!’: a seasonal instant-classic that has been reprinted many times since.

Albano wrote ‘The Garden of Eden!’, a sinister surgical stunner made utterly believably by Jim Aparo’s polished art, Gray Morrow illustrates Kanigher’s modern psycho-drama ‘Image of Darkness’ and superhero veteran Don Heck returns to his suspenseful roots drawing Virgil North’s monstrously whimsical ‘Nobody Loves a Lizard!’

Wrightson contributes the first of many magnificent covers for #193, depicting the graveyard terrors of Alan Riefe & DeZuñiga’s ‘Voodoo Vengeance!’, whilst Draut skilfully delineates the screaming tension of Francis X. Bushmaster’s ‘Dark Knight, Dark Dreams!’

For #194, which saw House of Mystery expand from 32 to 52 pages (as did all DC’s titles for the next couple of years, opening the doors for a superb period of new material and the best of the company’s prodigious archives to an appreciative, impressionable audience), the magic commences with another bravura Toth contribution in Oleck’s ‘Born Loser’, swiftly followed by Russ Heath-illustrated monster thriller ‘The Human Wave’ (from House of Secrets #31), Jack Kirby monster-work ‘The Negative Man’ (House of Mystery #84) before Oleck and the simply stunning Nestor Redondo close the issue and this volume with metamorphic horror ‘The King is Dead’.

These terror-tales captivated the reading public and comics critics alike when they first appeared, and it’s no exaggeration to posit that they may well have saved the company during the dire downward sales spiral of the 1970. Now their blend of sinister mirth and classical suspense situations can most usually be seen in such series as Goosebumps, Horrible Histories and their many imitators. However, if you crave beautifully realised, tastefully, splatter-free sagas of tension and imagination, not to mention a huge supply of bad-taste, kid-friendly creepy cartooning, The House of Mystery is the place for you…
© 1968-1971, 2006 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Halloween Tales


By O.G. Boiscommun & D-P Filippi, translated by Montana Kane (HumanoidsKids)
ISBN: 978-1-59465-654-5 (HB)

The trauma-tinged, gluttonously anarchic ceremonies of Halloween are celebrated far and wide these days, and although the basic principles are fairly homogenised now, different regions can throw up a few enticing variations that are well worth noting.

A graphic series that proved a huge European best-seller when released in 2017, the three stories comprising this magnificent hardback compilation are also available digitally in the original 3-album format, albeit translated into English for your delectation and approval.

Snob and eco-supporter that I am, these days, I’m going to say buy or gift the book if you like: I’m reviewing the electronic editions here…

Devised by writer/artist Olivier Boiscommun (Renaissance: Children of the Nile) and full-time screenwriter/scenarist Denis-Pierre Filippi (Gregory and the Gargoyles, Muse, Fondation Z, John Lord), the overlapping adventures focus on a band of kinds in an oddly archaic city of indeterminate vintage. It’s a place of towers and cathedrals, strange moods and winding streets, perfectly captured by Boiscommun’s exaggerated painting style…

The first album – Halloween Tales: Halloween – finds a gaggle of adolescent children gathering to celebrate the night with frolics and mischief: elaborately costumed and frightening each other. However, gauntly-garbed Asphodel remains gloomy and aloof and soon heads off alone. Her thoughts are locked on death, until she is accosted by a strange clownish figure who seems barely real and seeks to alter her mood and mind with a strange philosophy…

Second volume Halloween Tales: The Story of Joe is delivered in eerie monochrome tones and hues and returns us to the mountainous outskirts of that dreaming city where little Bea can’t understand why her playmate Joe is being so mean. As they idle about on the rooftops, the boy and his new pet cat survive a close encounter with a huge bat that leaves Joe scarred and bleeding.

His doting dad is too busy working these days, so it’s Bea who first notices the bizarre changes – physical as well as emotional – that afflict her friend and culminate in him dealing with the bullies who persecute them with terrifying power…

Only when Joe’s awful transformation is nearly complete do Bea, the cat and his father find a way to challenge the tainted child’s descent into nocturnal isolation and monstrosity…

Scripted by D-P Filippi, Halloween Tales: The Book of Jack completes the trilogy with a return to vibrant colour as a pack of children led by overbearing Stan dare little runt Jack to break into a spooky haunted mansion. As the group approaches the dilapidated pile through a statuary-infested overgrown garden – or is it a graveyard? – lanky Sam tries to reason with her little companion. She has plenty of misgivings and a really bad feeling about all this…

Bravado and peer pressure win out though, and Jack enters the derelict building and soon discovers the biggest library in the world in its centre.

Suddenly panicking, he snatches up a tatty tome to prove he succeeded and dashes for the door. Only when they are all safely back outside the gates does Sam realise there’s something odd about the book. Many pages are blank, but gradually filing with spindly writing every moment – each unfolding line magically recording what Jack is doing as he does it.

Mean, jealous Stan sees an opportunity for mischief…

Next morning the book has vanished, and Jack is slowly transforming into a gigantic savagely uncontrollable beast. Sam instantly knows what’s happened and starts searching the city for the miraculous chronicle, determined to get it and literally rewrite her friend’s appalling future…

With All Hallows festive celebrations inexorably installed in so many modern cultures, it’s grand to see an alternative to the almost-suffocating commercialising and movie tropes where heart, sentiment and yes, unease and outright fear can be safely experienced and expunged.

These moody escapades are a true treat, in darkness or in light, and that’s no mean trick …
© 2017 Humanoids, Inc. Los Angeles (USA) All rights reserved.

Frankenstein Alive, Alive – The Complete Collection


By Steven Niles & Bernie Wrightson, with Kelley Jones & various (IDW)
ISBN: 978-1-68405-337-7 (HB) eISBN: 978-1-68406-544-8

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Masterfully Macabre Masterpiece… 9/10

In our house, just as Christmas is all about Disney and Archie and Batman comics, in the days leading up to “Knock! Knock!BOO!! Night”, my thoughts always settle like a murder of crows on one particular artist. Despite his wide range of creations in many genres, and irrepressible sense of fun and whimsy, Bernard Albert Wrightson will always be the king of graphic suspense and macabre imagination.

As the turbulent 1960s closed, a cluster of fresh talent was trying to break into the comics industry at a time when a number of publishers were experimenting with black & white magazines rather than four-colour comic books. Warren Publishing and its many imitators were hiring kids who honed their craft in public – just like their forebears had to.

A respectable number of those Young Turks – such as Bruce Jones, Mike Kaluta, and “Berni” (a young man who soon became a living legend even in that prestigious cabal) – grew into big names by making pastiches of the EC Comics they had loved as kids: paving the way for when the market again turned to shock, mystery and black comedy to sell issues.

Wrightson was born a few days before Halloween (October 27th) 1948 in Dundalk, Maryland and his artistic training came via TV, reading comics and a correspondence course from the Famous Artists School.

His first professional publication was fan art, printed in Creepy #9 (June 1966). Soon after, he was toiling as a junior illustrator for The Baltimore Sun, when he met his EC idol Frank Frazetta at a convention. Gravitating to New York City, he hooked up with those above-cited band of newcomers, and other hopefuls, and was soon crafting short horror tales for National/DC, Marvel and other eager publishers. His top-rank reputation was cemented with the co-creation (beside writer Len Wein) of Swamp Thing.

His first association with DC ended in 1974, as he left to work at Warren on more adult-oriented tales which provided him an opportunity to try different techniques: a bountiful period of experimentation that culminated with his joining Catherine (nee Jeffrey) Jones, Kaluta and Barry Windsor-Smith in arts collective The Studio.

During this period, he also produced commercial commissions, film material and humorous strips for National Lampoon whilst over seven years creating a series of astoundingly complex plates for his signature work: an illustrated rerelease of Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein; 50 breathtaking illustrations authentically capturing the mood and tone of the gothic literary landmark.

In later years he illustrated posters, trading cards and graphic novels such as Creepshow, Cycle of the Werewolf and Freakshow (with Bruce Jones) among other print collectibles, before returning to mainstream comic books. Notable successes include The Weird and Batman: The Cult with Jim Starlin, and Spider-Man: Hooky and The Hulk and the Thing: The Big Change as well as a number of Punisher miniseries and OGNs.

Wrightson died in 2017. At the time he was working with Steve Niles (30 Days of Night) on a new Frankenstein miniseries: a splendid codicil to the character he had nor originated, but – at least visually – had made as much his own as Mary Shelley’s. He almost finished it. The quintessential professional to the last, Bernie even made provision for another artist to complete the job before passing. This is it…

Somewhere in America, sometime between the Wars, Stengler’s Funland Circus & Carnival entertains an endless progression of hicks in a never-ending cycle of short stays and “one night only!”. Undisputed star of the freak tent is ‘Frankenstein’s Monster’, but the jaded thrill-seekers would be astonished to learn that the corpse-like giant is in fact the real deal: an immortal re-assemblage of mortal parts with the mind of a genius and the soul of a poet.

As he enjoys a family life with his fellow outcasts, the Modern Promethean casts his mind back, to confrontations with his mortal flawed creator, hibernation in ice and reawakening in a later time.

Discovered by a team working for avid scholar Dr. Simon Ingles, the monster found a friend and mentor and was made welcome in an environment of peace and learning. In such a world, with knowledge at his fingertips, the beast flourished: his hunger for peace and thirst for intellectual growth satiated by the only friend he had ever known. Of course, horror stories are simply tragedies in deep shadow, and a vile secret in the doctor’s abode soon forces upon the monster a painful, unavoidable moral dilemma…

Frankenstein Alive, Alive! was released as a 4-issue miniseries, and, well aware of his fading health, Wrightson produced extremely detailed sketches and roughs and designated artist Kelley Jones (Batman; Swamp Thing; Deadman, Aliens; The Sandman; Micronauts) – whose own style was heavily influenced by Wrightson – to complete the book if his own time ran out.

The result is not seamless, but more than satisfactorily details how the creature agonisingly weighed companionship and his own happiness against ethical perfection and was not found wanting…

The salutary saga is prefaced by a moving Introduction from Niles and closes with a ‘Bernie Wrightson Gallery’ beautifully revealing the power and work of the artist’s pencilwork, attention to staging and detail and his authorial commentary of the story process.

Wrightson considered this work to be a continuation of his epic labour of love adaptation of the source novel: once again seen through the monster’s eyes, told with his voice and revealing what every booklover has always wanted after finishing a favourite tome – What Happened Next…

Reproduced from the original artwork and resplendent in stark monochrome line with lush painterly tones and shades of grey, this award-winning chronicle is a true landmark of the genre and a fitting bow for the master of comics horror to leave the stage with. Whether you’re a fan of the artist or the novel, this is a book you must see.
Frankenstein Alive, Alive! – The Complete Collection Story © 2018 Steve Niles. Artwork © 2018 Bernie Wrightson. © 2018 Ideas and Design Works, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

The Simon & Kirby Library: Horror!


By Joe Simon, Jack Kirby, Mort Meskin, Bill Draut, Martin Stein, Ben Oda, George Roussos, Vic Donahue, Bill Walton, Harry Lazarus, Jim Infantino, Bruno Premiani, John Prentice, Jerry Grandenetti, Ernie Schroeder and various (Titan Books)
ISBN13: 978-1-84856-959-1 (HB)

There’s some magnificent vintage Jack Kirby material around these days but tragically a lot of it hasn’t made the jump to digital yet. One such tragic omission is Titan Books’ splendidly sumptuous Simon & Kirby Library: gathering that iconic team’s groundbreaking genre contributions. Today, let’s look at one of the most compelling: a compendium of mystery, suspense and the supernatural…

Kirby’s collaborations with fellow industry pioneer Joe Simon always produced dynamite concepts, unforgettable characters, astounding stories and huge sales no matter what 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.

Comic books started slowly in 1933, until the creation of superheroes like Superman unleashed a torrent of creative imitation and invented a new genre. Implacably vested in the Second World War, the Mystery Man swept all before him (very occasionally her or it) until the troops came home and older genres supplanted the Fights ‘n’ Tights crowd.

Although new kids kept up the buying, much of the previous generation also retained their four-colour habit, but increasingly sought more mature themes in the reading matter. The war years altered the psychology of society and a more world-weary, cynical reading public came to see that all the fighting and dying hadn’t really changed anything. Their chosen forms of entertainment – film and prose as well as comics – increasingly reflected this.

Western, War and Crime comics, madcap teen comedy and anthropomorphic funny animal features were immediately resurgent, Simon & Kirby introduced Romance comics in 1947 even as pulp-style Science Fiction began to spread. In the real world, another global revival of spiritualism and interest in the supernatural – possibly provoked by the monstrous losses of the recent conflict (just as had happened in the 1920s, following WWI) – led to a wave of increasingly impressive, evocative and even shocking horror comics.

There were grisly, gory and paranormal paragons previously, including a pantheon of ghosts, monsters and wizards draped in costumed hero trappings (The Spectre, Mr. Justice, The Heap, Frankenstein, Sargon the Sorcerer, Zatara, Dr. Fate and dozens of others), but these had been victims of circumstance: the Unknown as convenient power source for super-heroics.

Now the focus shifted to ordinary mortals thrown into a world beyond their ken with the intention of unsettling, not vicariously empowering, the reader…

Practically every publisher jumped on the monumentally popular juggernaut, but B & I (which became the magical one-man-band Richard E. Hughes’ American Comics Group) launched the first regularly published horror comic in the autumn of 1948. Adventures Into the Unknown was technically pipped by Avon whose impressive single issue release Eerie debuted and closed in January 1947. They wised up late and launched a regular series in 1951…

By this time Classics Illustrated had already long milked the literary end of the medium with adaptations of The Headless Horseman, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (both 1943), The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1944) and Frankenstein (1945) among others.

It was at this time that Joe Simon and Jack Kirby identified another “mature market” gap for the line of magazines they autonomously packaged for publishers Crestwood/Prize/Essenkay to supplement Headline Comics, Justice Traps the Guilty, Police Trap, Young Romance and their other anthologies.

They too saw the sales potential for macabre material, resulting in the superb and eerily seminal Black Magic (launched with an October/November 1950 cover-date) and boldly obscure psychological drama anthology Strange World of Your Dreams in 1952.

Marvel had jumped on the bloody bandwagon early, but National/DC Comics only reluctantly bowed to the inevitable, launching a comparatively strait-laced short story title that nevertheless became one of their longest-running and most influential titles with the December 1951/January 1952 launch of The House of Mystery.

Soon after, a hysterical censorship scandal led to witch-hunt Hearings (see the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency, April-June 1954) which panicked most comics publishers into adopting a castrating straitjacket of self-regulatory rules…

Just like today, America back then cast about wildly looking for external contaminants rather than internal causes for a perceived shift in social attitudes and youthful rebellion: happily settling on bloodthirsty comics about crime or horror, drenched in unwholesome salacious sex, as the reason their children were talking back, acting up and staying out late.

S&K didn’t do those kinds of comicbooks but they got tarred – and metaphorically feathered too – in the media-fuelled frenzy…

This striking full-colour hardback begins with the essay ‘That Old Black Magic’ by series editor Steve Saffel; delineating the history of the title and tone of the times whilst ‘Simon and Kirby’s Little Shop of Horror’ details the workings of the small but prolific studio of rotating artists who augmented the output of the named stars: creators such as Mort Meskin, Bill Draut, Martin Stein, Ben Oda, George Roussos, Vic Donahue, Bill Walton, Jim Infantino, Bruno Premiani, John Prentice, Jerry Grandenetti and more…

With vast output across many titles, S&K simply couldn’t produce every story and many yarns here are ghosted by other hands, although each and every one does begin with a stunning Kirby splash panel.

As with all their titles, Simon & Kirby offered themed material tweaked by their own special sensibilities. Black Magic – and the Mort Meskin-inspired The Strange World of Your Dreams – eschewed cheap shocks, mindless gore and goofy pun-inspired twist-endings in favour of dark, oppressive suspense soaked in psychological paralysis and inexplicable unease: Tension over Teasing…

The stories presented fantastic situations and, too frequently for comfort, there were no happy endings, pat cosmic justice or calming explanations: sometimes The Unknown just blew up in your face and you survived or didn’t… but never whole or unchanged.

The compendium of bleak cartoon cavortings commences with ‘Last Second of Life!’ (from volume 1 #1, October-November 1950) wherein a rich man obsesses over what the dying see at the final breath, but learns to regret the unsavoury lengths he goes to in finding out, after which ‘The Scorn of the Faceless People!’ (#2 December 1950-January 1951) relates the meaning behind a chilling nightmare.

It’s not hard to believe this one must have prompted the creation of the spin-off Strange World of Your Dreams. Issue #2 also provided a chilling report on a satanic vestment dubbed ‘The Cloak!’ whilst an impossible love in the icy wastes of Canada ended with ‘A Silver Bullet for Your Heart!’ in #3 (February-March 1951).

Issue #4 provided ‘Voodoo on Tenth Avenue’ as a disgruntled wife went too far in her quest to get rid of her man, whilst in #5 ‘The World of Spirits’ recounted the uncanny predictions of Emanuel Swedenborg in a brief fact feature before #6 described psychic connection and a ‘Union with the Dead!’ and a ravaged mariner survived meeting ‘The Thing in the Fog!’ (#7) – an encounter with the legendary Flying Dutchman…

Black Magic #8 (December 1951-January 1952) details the sacrifice a woman made to save her man from ‘Donovan’s Demon!’ (mostly illustrated by Bob McCarty) whilst ‘Dead Man’s Lode!’ (#10 March 1952 – the series now being monthly) related a ghostly experience in an old mine and ‘The Girl Who Walked on Water!’ in #11 showed the immense but fragile power of self-belief…

Meskin & Roussos illustrated #12’s ‘A Giant Walks the Earth!’ as a downed pilot lost his best friend to a roving colossus in India, after which the utterly chilling and unforgettable ‘Up There!’ kicks off three stories from the landmark 13th issue…

The saga of a beguiling siren of the upper stratosphere is followed by ‘A Rag – a Bone and a Hank of Hair!’ (Meskin) and a walking pile of trash that learned to love, whilst ‘Visions of Nostradamus!’ (by Al Eadeh) tracks and interprets the prognosticator’s predictions.

‘The Angel of Death!’ in #15 outlines a horrific medical mystery and ‘Freak!’ (#17, possibly by Bill Draut) exposes a country doctor’s deepest shame.

Black Magic #18 (November 1952) is another multi-threat issue. ‘Nasty Little Man!’ gets my vote for scariest horror art job of all time as three hobos discover to their everlasting regret why you shouldn’t pick on short old men with Irish accents…

‘Come Claim My Corpse’ (Martin Stein?) offers a short, sharp, shocker wherein a convict discovers too late the flaw in his infallible escape plan, before an investigator tracing truck-wreckers learns of ‘Detour Lorelei on Highway 52’ (McCarty)…

‘Sammy’s Wonderful Glass!’ in #19 (December 1952) shows the tragic outcome of a retarded lummox whose favourite toy can expose men’s souls, after which two shorts from #20 (January 1953) follow. ‘Birth After Death’ retells the true story of how Sir Walter Scott’s mother survived premature burial, whilst ‘Oddities in Miniature: The Strangest Stories Ever Told!’ offers half a dozen uncanny tales on one page.

Issue #21 provided ‘The Feathered Serpent’ in which an American archaeologist uncovers the truth about an ancient god, before #22 (March 1953) slips into sci-fi morality play mode with UFO yarn ‘The Monsters on the Lake!’, and ‘Those Who Are About to Die!’ from #23 sketches out the tale of a painter who can predict imminent doom…

A brace of tales from #24 (May 1953) begins with a scholar who attempts to contact the living ‘After I’m Gone!’, complemented by half-page fact feature ‘Strange Predictions’ (Harry Lazarus) after which ‘Strange Old Bird!’ is the first of three stories from the (again bimonthly) Black Magic #25 (June/July 1953).

In this gently eerie thriller, a little old lady gets the gift of life from her tatty old feathered friend, whilst ‘The Human Cork!’ precis’ the life of literally unsinkable Angelo Faticoni, before a man without a soul escapes the morgue to become ‘A Beast in the Streets!’

There’s a similar surfeit of sinister riches from #26, beginning with ‘Fool’s Paradise!’, wherein a cheap bag-snatcher makes a deal with the devil, even as ‘The Sting of Scorpio!’ sees a rude sceptic wish she’d never taunted a fortune teller.

‘The Strange Antics of the Mystic Mirror!’ terrified nurses in a major metropolitan hospital and ‘Demon Wind!’ (Kirby inked by Premiani) finds a brash Yankee learning the efficacy of a primitive tribe’s justice system…

‘The Cat People’ (#27) mesmerise and forever mark an unwary tourist in rural Spain, and the same issue exposes a seductive Scottish supernatural shindig hosted by ‘The Merry Ghosts of Campbell Castle’, whilst #28 finds an unwilling organ donor reclaiming his “property” in ‘An Eye for an Eye!’ The same issue reveals with mordant wit how a mummy returns to make his truly beloved ‘Alive After Five Thousand Years!’

From an issue cited during those anti-comic book Senate Hearings, ‘The Greatest Horror of Them All!’ (#29 March-April 1954) tells of a freak hidden amongst freaks, before Black Magic #30 exposes the appalling secret of ‘The Head of the Family!’ (Kirby & Premiani) whilst #31 provides both alien invasion horror ‘Slaughter-House!’ and a cautionary tale of a child raised by beasts in ‘Hungry as a Wolf!’ (Ernie Schroeder).

‘Maniac!’ from #32 is another artistic tour de force and a tale much “homaged” in later years, detailing how a loving brother stops villagers taking his simple-minded sibling away, before the Black Magic section concludes with a terrifying fable of atomic radiation and mutated sea creatures in ‘Lone Shark’ from #33 (November/December 1954).

With the sagacious, industry-hip, quality-conscious Simon & Kirby undoubtedly seeing the writing on the wall, their uniquely macabre title was wisely cancelled in 1954, not long before the Comics Code came into effect. A bowdlerised version was relaunched in 1957, long after they had dissolved their partnership and moved into different areas of the industry.

However, the eerie treats don’t end yet, as a short but sublime sampling from their other mystery title is appended here.

We Will Buy Your Dreams’ discusses features and stories from abortive, revolutionary title The Strange World of Your Dreams: inspired by studio-mate Mort Meskin’s vivid night terrors. The premise involves parapsychologist Richard Temple explaining and analysing storied nightmares with pictorially dramatised dreams sent in by readers.

The too short comics section begins with ‘Send Us Your Dreams’ from #1 (August 1952); a “typical” insecurity nightmare and the chilling ‘I Talked with my Dead Wife!’, whilst #2 (September/October) provides a trio of taught traumatic tales. ‘The Girl in the Grave!’ is a scary wedding scenario in the ‘You Sent Us This Dream!’ sector, before ‘Send Us Your Dreams’ sees Dr. Tempe describe the extent of self-preservation imagery…

‘The Woman in the Tower!’ comes from #3 (November/December), detailing typical symbolism whilst ‘You Sent Us this Dream’ from the same issue explains away a nightmare climb up an unending tower…

Capping off everything is a spectacular Cover Gallery, reprinting Black Magic #1-33, and a stunning unpublished cover; performing the same service for The Strange World of Your Dreams #1-4, plus the unpublished #5, just to make our lives utterly complete.

The Simon & Kirby Library: Horror! is a gigantic compendium of classic dark delights that perfectly illustrates the depth and scope of their influence and innovation and readily displays the sheer bombastic panache and artistic virtuosity they brought to everything they did. This is a worthy, welcome introduction to their unique comics contributions, and needs the relative immortality of electronic iterations.

It would be far less grim on your hands and wrists, too…
© 2014 Joseph H. Simon and the Estate of Jack Kirby. All Rights Reserved.