Arena – A Marvel Graphic Novel


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marada the She-Wolf


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alone volume 1: The Vanishing


By Gazzotti & Vehlmann, translated by Jerome Saincantin (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-1-849181-96-9 (PB Album)

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

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

Bruno Gazzotti is Belgian, born in 1970 and was a student of Institut Saint Luc in Liège. Another artist addicted to comics from his earliest years, he started being paid to draw them in 1988, after being hired by Spirou editor Patrick Pinchart on the strength of his portfolio alone. Before long he was illustrating Le Petit Spirou with Tome & Janry. In 1989, he and Tome created New York Cop Soda, which kept Gazzotti busy until 2005, when he resigned to co-create award-winning feature Seuls

Released in January 2006, Seuls – La disparition is a superb example of a kids’ thriller suitable for all ages: evoking the eerie atmosphere of TV series Lost and the most disturbing elements of Philip Wylie’s The Disappearance and William Golding’s Lord of the Flies.

Translated as The Vanishing, the first chapter show us peeks of an ordinary bustling town, with simple folk going about their business. Our swift glimpses show us a cross section of kids: Ivan, an imaginative child of wealth who wants for nothing but never sees his dad any more and Leila, a born engineer, inventor and tinkerer. Her poor but honest dad always has time to play and critique her latest gadget…

Camille is studious and over-focussed on exams and achievement and Terry is pretty much still a baby. He certainly acts like one, trying to stay up late, binge watching TV and throwing tantrums if he doesn’t get his way.

Sadly, not all children in town have such typical lives. Dodzi has just been taken into the system. His early life has made him tough and resilient but won’t stop the other young inmates handing him a beating on this ominous, odd-feeling night…

Next morning dawns overcast and forbidding. The city is quiet. Roaming empty streets, Dodzi calls out to anybody who can hear and is met – or actually run over – by Leila and Terry on her bike. They are all pretty scared and have seen nobody else at all…

No one else is around. All the adults have gone, and all their child pals. The internet is down, television and radio only blare out static. Above, fearsome storm clouds gather. Within minutes fear turns to panic and violence but eventually Dodzi brutally enforces calm and leads them away, only to stumble into Camille being attacked by a dog. As the tough guy tries to fight it off, the rabid beast senses something in the shadows of an alley and flees…

As they wander, someone watches the waifs and after they joyously blow off steam in a fountain, they meet final lost boy Ivan. He invites them back to his mansion on the edge of town where they find food while being subjected to his theories on what’s happened: everything from a shared dream to an extinction event to the possibility that they’re dead and in hell…

Needing more information, Dodzi and Leila try to drive one of many cars on the estate while the smaller ones sort out a proper meal, but neither task goes well. The cooking is a disaster while the near-lethal reconnaissance only finds more empty streets, wrecked shop fronts and wild animals in the streets. While the motoring minors seek to evade two rhinos, Terry and Camille are almost eaten by a white tiger that’s got through the estate gates…

When Dodzi and Leila return – and following a burst of viciously released tensions – the kids modify and weaponize a 4 by 4 and head back to town. Ivan’s dad owns the tallest building in the city: somewhere stuffed with resources and easily fortified and defended…

As the first day alone ends, the kids are bloated with vending machine snacks and playing in the vast office block’s upper reaches, but de facto leader Dodzi is still uneasy.

When Leia reports little Terry is missing, he heads out to search and finds to his horror where all the animals have come from: a scene of destruction that distracts him enough that a hidden stalker almost takes him.

Thankfully, the others have ignored his orders and followed so it isn’t Dodzi that dies…

Thus begins a spooky, powerful and often shocking tale of mystery and imagination with the bereft children facing increasingly daunting physical hazards and an escalating series of events which can have no logical or rational explanation…

Alone rapidly became one of the biggest critical and commercial comics hits of the decade and if you love eerie enigmas and powerful tale-telling, you’ll soon be buying this and seeing why for yourself…
© Dupuis 2006 by Gazzotti & Vehlmann. All rights reserved. English translation © 2014 Cinebook Ltd.

Obscura


By Luke Cartwright & Lukasz Wnuczek (Marcosia)
ISBN:978-1-64764-746-9 (HB)

We haven’t looked at a really engrossing horror yarn for simply ages, so it’s a good thing that this stunning dose of macabre graphic gothic mania plunked down in my review copies vestibule…

Obscura comes from and is about the Land Down Under (Tasmania actually!): an act of love and perseverance begun in 2012 but finally perfected and released last year by author Luke Cartwright and illustrator Lukasz Wnuczek. It’s presented here for your delectation and elucidation (and probably trepidation)…

Set on the island of Van Diemen’s Land (a former Crown prison colony and site of one of the British Empire’s most appalling atrocities: just look up the Black War if you have the stomach), it opens in 1870 with the rather outré preoccupations of master William Morier. The 12-year old is already a gifted cosmetician and mortician like his father, but his odd-yet-comfortable life is ruined by a double blow: meeting with the spiritualist children Catherine and Annabel White and a scandal involving body-snatching and the local medical school.

The White girls are controversial celebrities in the township, a place even more death-obsessed than most Victorian enclaves. When Annabel ends up on the Morier mortuary slab, dead from causes unknown, William’s path in life is forever altered…

A crafty tale within a tale, the drama resumes a decade later. As well as burying bodies, William is a gifted photographer and, after discussing the profitability of his wife’s childhood scams, sets upon a new enterprise, for his need is great and urgent.

Catherine Morier (nee White) suffers a dire medical malady and her doting husband needs plenty of cash to pay for an operation. His solution is Spirit Photography: combining portraits of living clients with the ghosts of departed loved ones who still cling unseen to them.

Sadly, not everyone’s a believer. A certain policeman keeps hanging around, especially after one of the captured phantasms is seen working in a local shop…

As William gets deeper and deeper into the fraudulent hole he’s dug for himself, the walls between chicanery, criminality, murder and the inescapable horror of the true Unknown start to blur and bleed together…

Mordant and compelling, this bleak tale is rendered in mesmerising monochrome tones and washes (almost like daguerreotypes, maybe?), building a noir edifice of stark choices and unlikely outcomes for the protagonists whom it’s simply impossible to dislike. Especially effective is the period language, which is authentic sounding, remarkably restrained and deliciously sparse. Cartwright is a writer who knows when to let Wnuczek’s pictures do the talking.

A decidedly effective dalliance with the dark and one no lover of period thrillers and slyly witty horror should miss.
Text & illustrations © Luke Cartwright & Lukasz Wnuczek 2019

Showcase Presents The Phantom Stranger volume 1


By Mike Friedrich, John Broome, France Herron, Bob Kanigher, Mike Sekowsky, Denny O’Neil, Gerry Conway, Jack Oleck, Len Wein, Steve Skeates, Mark Hanerfield, John Albano, Jerry Grandenetti, Leonard Starr, Carmine Infantino, Sy Barry, Bill Draut, Frank Giacoia, Neal Adams, Murphy Anderson, Curt Swan, Jim Aparo, Tony DeZuñiga, Jack Sparling & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-1088-5 (TPB)

Since 1936 DC Comics have published an incalculable wealth of absolutely wonderful comics tales in a variety of genres and addressing a wide variety of age ranges and tastes.

Sadly, unlike rival Marvel, these days they seem content to let most of it languish beyond the reach of fans, so as a new decade – possibly or last – unfolds, I’ll be continuing my one-person campaign to remind them and inform you that – like The Truth – the Fiction is also Out There… even if only still available in older collections…

Spanning the end of 1968 to October 1972, this mammoth monochrome tome collects Showcase #80 and Phantom Stranger #1-21, attempting to blend the rising taste for blood and horror with more traditional masked mystery man derring-do…

The Phantom Stranger was also one of the earliest transitional heroes of the Golden Age of comics, created at the very end of the first superhero boom as readers moved from costumed crimefighters to other genres such as mystery, crime, war and western tales. A trench-coated, mysterious know-it-all, with shadowed eyes and hat pulled down low, he would appear, debunk a legend or foil a supernatural-seeming plot, and then vanish again.

He was coolly ambiguous, never revealing whether he was man, mystic or personally paranormal. Probably created by John Broome & Carmine Infantino, who produced the first story in Phantom Stranger #1 (August/September 1952) and most of the others, the 6-issue run also boasted contributions from Jack Miller, Manny Stallman and John Giunta. The last issue was cover-dated June/July, 1953, after which the character vanished.

Flash-forward to the end of 1968. The second superhero boom is rapidly becoming a bust, and traditional costumed heroes are dropping like flies. Suspense and mystery titles are the Coming Thing and somebody has the bright idea of reviving Phantom Stranger. He is the last hero revival of DC’s Silver Age and the last to graduate to his own title during the star-studded initial run of Showcase, appearing in #80 (cover-dated January/February 1969) before debuting in his own comic three months later. This time, he found an appreciative audience, running for 41 issues over seven years.

Rather than completely renovate the character, or simply run complete reprints as DC had when trying to revive espionage ace King Faraday (in Showcase #50-51), Editor Joe Orlando had writer Mike Friedrich and artist Jerry Grandenetti create a contemporary framing sequence of missing children for 1950s tale ‘the Three Signs of Evil’, and – in a masterstroke of print economy – introduced (or rather reintroduced) another lost 1950s mystery hero to fill out the comic, and provide a thoroughly modern counterpoint.

Dr. Terrence Thirteen is a parapsychologist known as the Ghost Breaker. He had his own feature in Star-Spangled Comics #122-130 (November 1951 to July 1952). With fiancée (later wife) Marie he roamed America debunking supernatural hoaxes and catching mystic-themed fraudsters, a vocal and determined cynic who was imported whole into the Showcase try-out as a foil for the Stranger. Reprinted here was origin tale ‘I Talked with the Dead!’ by an unknown writer – probably “France” Herron – with art by Leonard Starr & Wayne Howard.

Despite this somewhat choppy beginning, the try-out was a relative success and (Follow Me… For I Am…) The Phantom Stranger launched with a May/June 1969 cover-date. In another framing sequence by Friedrich & Bill Draut, a tale of impossible escape from certain death is revealed in ‘When Ghosts Walk!’, a 1950s thriller from John Broome, Carmine Infantino and Sy Barry, followed by an all new mystery ‘Defeat the Dragon Curse… or Die!’ Firmly establishing that the supernatural is real, Friedrich & Draut pit the Stranger and Dr. 13 against each other as well as an ancient Chinese curse.

‘The Man Who Died Three Times’ in the second issue relates a mystery with a mundane yet deadly origin, with the incorporated reprint Stranger tale ‘The House of Strange Secrets’ (Broome, Infantino and Barry) and Dr. 13’s ‘The Girl Who Lived 5,000 Years’ both providing the uneasy chills that Friedrich & Draut’s by-the-numbers tale do not.

Issue #3 once again employs frightened kids as a vehicle to encapsulate vintage thrillers in a tale with a sinister carnival component. The Stranger relives ‘How Do You Know My Name?’ (by Broome & Frank Giacoia) whilst Dr. 13 proves once more that there are ‘No Such Thing as Ghosts!’ (Herron & Starr).

With such a formularised start it’s a miracle the series reached the landmark issue #4 where Robert Kanigher & Neal Adams (who had been responsible for the lion’s share of eerie, captivating covers thus far) produced a much more proactive hero in the mystery triptych ‘There is Laughter in Hell This Day!’, ‘There is Laughter in Hell Tonight!’ and ‘Even the Walls are Weeping!’

Stalwart Bill Draut provided inks for this classy classic in which Terry Thirteen becomes a far more militant – and consequently frustrated – debunker of the Stranger’s “hocus-pocus” when Tala, the demonic Queen of Evil and Mistress of Darkness escapes her ancient tomb to bedevil the modern world with only the Phantom Stranger and an eclectic gang of runaway teens to oppose her.

This new combative format and repositioning of the book was presumably for the benefit of older kids. The protagonist teens were a strange composite of counter-culture stereotypes named Spartacus (black kid), Attila (greasy biker), Wild Rose (blonde flower child) and Mister Square (conformist drop-out) who feel a little forced now but were the saving of the book, as was the dropping of 17-year old reprints. From now on the stranger would really battle the Dark Powers and Dr. 13 would assume the metaphorical role of a blustering, officious parent who had no idea what was really going on.

An added bonus in this cracking issue was a nifty 3-page horror vignette from Kanigher and the wonderful Murphy Anderson entitled ‘Out of This World’.

Anderson returned to ink the unique Mike Sekowsky in Phantom Stranger # 5, a full-length ghostly thriller featuring more of Tala’s handiwork in ‘the Devil’s Playground!’, topped off with another horror short by Kanigher, credited to Sekowsky here but actually a fine example of Curt Swan’s subtle mastery, especially as it’s inked by Anderson.

Sekowsky wrote and illustrated the next issue, under inks from Vince Colletta. ‘No. 13 Thirteenth Street’ is a Haunted House tale with those meddling kids and Dr. 13 getting underfoot in a delightfully light and whimsical diversion before Kanigher and Tala return in #7’s dark saga ‘The Curse!’, wherein both the Stranger and Terry Thirteen are right and the solution to madness and sudden deaths is both fraud and the supernatural!

This issue is particularly important in that it features the debut of up-and-coming Jim Aparo as illustrator. Over the next few years his art on this feature would be some of the very best in the entire industry.

Issue #8 unearthed an early arctic eco-thriller with supernatural overtones as Denny O’Neil described the tragic ‘Journey to the Tomb of the Ice Giants!’ whilst Dr. 13 returned to his own solo feature to deal with ‘The Adventure of the Brittle Blossom!’ Sekowsky scripted #9’s ‘Obeah Man!’ a tense shocker of emerging nations and ancient magic which showed Aparo’s superb versatility with exotic locales.

Young Gerry Conway wrote ‘Death… Call Not My Name!’ for #10, introducing another stylish returning villain in immortal alchemist Tannarak, whilst finding room for a quickie as the Stranger proves to be no match for ‘Charlie’s Crocodile.’ Phantom Stranger #11 (Conway & Aparo) details a colossal new threat as evil-doers everywhere begin to vanish in ‘Walk Not in the Desert Sun…’ before Kanigher returns with a classy haunted love-story in ‘Marry Me… Marry Death!’ in #12. This issue also offers another debunking solo stand for the Ghost Breaker in Jack Oleck and Tony DeZuñiga’s ‘A Time to Die’.

Science meets supernature in #13 when death stalks a research community in ‘Child of Death’ and Dr. 13 survives an encounter with ‘the Devil’s Timepiece’: both scripts from Kanigher with art by Aparo and DeZuñiga respectively.

Len Wein wrote possibly the spookiest ever adventure to feature Phantom Stranger in #14’s ‘The Man with No Heart!’: a story which resolves forever the debate about the dark hero’s humanity whilst introducing another long-term adversary for our delectation. The Ghost Breaker has his own brush with super-science – but definitely not the supernatural, no sir! – in Wein & DeZuñiga’s ‘The Spectre of the Stalking Swamp!’ – a tale that actually pushes the Stranger off his own front cover!

Issue #15 returns him to the Dark Continent as a robotics engineer is caught up in revolution in Wein & Aparo’s ‘The Iron Messiah’ whilst Kanigher & DeZuñiga send Dr. 13 up against ‘Satan’s Sextet’. On a roll now, the Phantom Stranger creative team surpass themselves with each successive issue, beginning with an ancient horror captured as an ‘Image in Wax’, nicely balanced by sneaky murder mystery ‘And the Corpse cried “Murder!”’ (Wein & DeZuñiga).

‘Like a Ghost from the Ashes’ debuts a nominal love-interest in blind psychic Cassandra Craft as well as reintroducing an old foe with new masters in the first chapter of an extended saga – so extended it pushed Ghost Breaker out of #17 altogether. He was back in the back of the next issue in Steve Skeates & DeZuñiga’s tense phantom menace ‘Stopover!’, with the artist drawing double duty by illustrating lead strip ‘Home is the Sailor’: a gothic romance with a sharp twist in the tail.

Old enemies resurface in ‘Return to the Tomb of the Ice Giants!’ as does artist Aparo, whilst Skeates & DeZuñiga’s ‘The Voice of Vengeance’ proves to be another stylish murder mystery in spook’s clothing. ‘A Child Shall Lead Them’ is written by Kanigher, who easily adapts to the new style to craft a tense, powerful chase thriller as all and sundry search for the newest incarnation of a High Lama murdered by magic. Two short suspense tales top off the issue, both illustrated by the veteran Jack Sparling: ‘The Power’, scripted by Mark Hanerfield and John Albano’s ‘A Far Away Place’.

Phantom Stranger #21 completes this superb collection of menace and magic with Wein and Aparo’s ‘The Resurrection of Johnny Glory’ wherein a reanimated assassin finds a good reason to stay dead whilst Dr. 13 debunks one final myth in ‘Woman of Stone’, prompting the question “why don’t killers use guns anymore?”

The DC Showcase compendia were a brilliant and economical way to access superb quality comics fare, and these black and white telephone books of wonderment still offer tremendous value for money. If you’re looking for esoteric thrills and chills this first Phantom Stranger volume has it all. If you’re not a fan yet give it a chance… you will be.
© 1969-1972, 2006 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Marvel Masterworks: Ghost Rider volume 1


By Roy Thomas, Gary Friedrich, Marv Wolfman, Doug Moench, Len Wein, Mike Ploog, Tom Sutton, Jim Mooney, Herb Trimpe, Ross Andru & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-1302918170 (HB)

At the end of the 1960s American comicbooks were in turmoil, much like the youth of the nation they targeted. Superheroes had dominated for much of the decade; peaking globally before explosively falling to ennui and overkill. Older genres such as horror, westerns and science fiction returned, fed by radical trends in movie-making where another, new(ish) wrinkle had also emerged: disenchanted, rebellious, unchained Youth on Motorbikes seeking a different way forward.

Green Lantern/Green Arrow, Jack Kirby’s Jimmy Olsen, Captain America and many others all took the Easy Rider option to boost flagging sales (and if you’re interested the best of the crop was Mike Sekowsky’s tragically unfinished mini-masterpiece of cool Jason’s Quest in Showcase). Over at Marvel, a company still reeling from Kirby’s defection to DC/National in 1970, canny Roy Thomas green-lighted a new character who combined the freewheeling, adolescent-friendly biker-theme with the all-pervasive supernatural furore gripping the entertainment fields.

Back in 1967, Marvel published a western masked hero named Ghost Rider: a shameless, whole-hearted appropriation of the cowboy hero creation of Vince Sullivan, Ray Krank & Dick Ayers (for Magazine Enterprises from 1949 to 1955), who utilised magician’s tricks to fight bandits by pretending to be an avenging phantom of justice.

Scant years later, with the Comics Code prohibition against horror hastily rewritten – amazing how plunging sales can affect ethics – scary comics came back in a big way and a new crop of supernatural superheroes and monsters began to appear on the newsstands to supplement the ghosts, ghoulies and goblins already infiltrating the once science-only scenarios of the surviving mystery men titles.

In fact, the lifting of the Code ban resulted in such an avalanche of horror titles (new stories and reprints from the first boom of the 1950s), in response to the industry-wide down-turn in superhero sales, that it probably caused a few more venerable costumed crusaders to – albeit temporarily – bite the dust.

Almost overnight nasty monsters (and narcotics – but that’s another story) became acceptable fare within four-colour pages and whilst a parade of pre-code reprints made sound business sense, 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 in entertainment, the watch-world was fashion: what was hitting big outside comics was to be incorporated into the mix as soon 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 shocking superstars – beginning with a werewolf and a vampire – before chancing something new with a haunted biker who could tap into both Easy Rider’s freewheeling motorcycling chic and the prevailing supernatural zeitgeist.

The all-new Ghost Rider debuted in Marvel Spotlight #5, August 1972 (preceded by western hero Red Wolf in #1 and the aforementioned Werewolf by Night in #2-4).

This sturdy hardback and equivalent yet barely tangible digital compendium collects those earliest flame-filled exploits: adventures from Marvel Spotlight #5-12, Ghost Rider #1-5 and a terror-tinged Marvel Team-Up (#15), spanning August 1972 to November 1973 and supplemented by an informative Introduction from then editorial head honcho Roy Thomas on how the series came to be. At the collection’s conclusion there’s also an effusive Afterword by Mike Ploog as he relates ‘My Ride with the Ghost Rider’

The comics thrills, spills and chills begin with that landmark first appearance introducing stunt biker Johnny Blaze, his fatally flawed father-figure Crash Simpson and Johnny’s devoted girlfriend: sweet innocent Roxanne Simpson.

Plotted by Thomas, scripted by Gary Friedrich and stunningly illustrated by Ploog, ‘Ghost Rider’ sees carnival cyclist Blaze sell his soul to the devil in an attempt to save his foster-father Crash from cancer. As is the way of such things, Satan follows the letter but not spirit of the contract and Simpson dies anyway, but when the Dark Lord later comes for Johnny his beloved virginal girlfriend Roxanne intervenes. Her purity prevents the Devil from claiming his due and, temporarily thwarted, Satan spitefully afflicts Johnny with a body that burns with the fires of Hell every time the sun goes down…

Haunting the night and terrorising thugs and criminals at first, the traumatised biker soon leaves the Big City and heads for the solitary deserts where – in ‘Angels From Hell’ – the flaming-skulled fugitive joins a biker gang led by enigmatic Curly Samuels: a resurrected agent of Satan attempting to destroy the protective Roxanne and claim Blaze’s soul.

No prizes for guessing Curly’s true identity then, since the next chapter (inked by Frank Chiaramonte) is entitled ‘Die, Die, My Daughter!’

The origin epic concludes with a monumental battle against ‘…The Hordes of Hell!’ (offering a rather uncomfortable artistic collaboration by Ploog & Jim Mooney), resulting in a torturous Cold War détente between the still nightly-transforming Blaze and the Lord of Lies, as well as the introduction of a new eldritch enemy in Native American Witch Man Snake-Dance

With Marvel Spotlight #9 the tragically undervalued Tom Sutton takes over the pencilling – with inks by Chic Stone – for ‘The Snakes Crawl at Night…’ as Medicine Man magic and demonic devil-worship combined to torment Blaze just as Roxanne goes west to look for him. To further confound the accursed cyclist, Satan decrees that although he must feel the pain, no injury will end Johnny’s life until his soul resides in Hell… which comes in very handy when Roxanne is sacrificed by Snake-Dance and the Ghost Rider has to battle his entire deviant cult to rescue her…

In #10, ‘The Coming of… Witch-Woman!’ (Friedrich, Sutton & Mooney) opens with Blaze a fugitive from the police and rushing the dying Roxanne to hospital. Meanwhile, on the Reservation tensions remain high as Snake-Dance’s daughter Linda Littletrees reveals her own connection to Satan, culminating in a devastating eldritch assault on Blaze in #11’s ‘Season of the Witch-Woman!’ (inked by the incomparable Syd Shores).

That cataclysmic conflict continued into Ghost Rider #1 (September 1973), which further extends the escalating war between Blaze and the Devil whilst introducing a new horror-hero who would take over the biker’s vacant slot in Spotlight.

Linda Littletrees isn’t so much a Satan-worshipping witch as ‘A Woman Possessed!’, but when her father joins fiancé Sam Silvercloud in calling Boston-based exorcist Daimon Hellstrom for help, they are utterly unprepared for the kind of assistance the demonologist offers.

With Roxanne slowly recovering and Blaze still on the run, Ghost Rider #2 depicts the bedevilled biker dragged down to Hell in ‘Shake Hands With Satan!’ (Mooney & Shores) before the saga concludes in Marvel Spotlight #12 with the official debut of ‘The Son of Satan!’ by Friedrich, Herb Trimpe & Frank Chiaramonte, which reveals Daimon Hellstrom’s long-suppressed inner self to be a brutal scion of the Infernal Realm eternally at war with his fearsome father.

The liberated Prince of Hell swiftly rushes to Blaze’s aid – although more to spite his sire than succour the victim – and, with his own series off to a spectacular start, continues to take the pressure off the flaming-skulled hero. From Ghost Rider #3’s ‘Wheels on Fire’ (Friedrich, Mooney & John Tartaglione) a fresh direction is explored with more mundane menaces and contemporary antagonists such as the thuggish gang of biker Big Daddy Dawson – who has kidnapped the still frail Roxanne…

Blaze also learns to create a spectral motorcycle out of the Hellfire that perpetually burns through his body: a most useful trick considering the way he gets through conventional transport…

Eager to establish some kind of normal life, the wanted fugitive Blaze accepts a pardon by the State Attorney General in GR #4’s ‘Death Stalks the Demolition Derby’ (inked by Vince Colletta) in return for infiltrating a Las Vegas showman’s shady operation, leading to another supernatural encounter, this time against a demonic gambler dubbed Roulette in ‘And Vegas Writhes in Flame!’ by the transitional creative team of Marv Wolfman, Doug Moench, Mooney & Sal Trapani.

Closing up the show here – and slightly out of chronological order – is a yarn where Ghost Rider and Spider-Man battled a demented biker bad-guy. Marvel Team-Up #15 (November 1973 and by Len Wein, Ross Andru & Don Perlin) introduces lame-duck villain The Orb who had been maimed and disfigured years previously in a confrontation with Crash Simpson and now seeks belated revenge against his heirs in ‘If an Eye Offend Thee!’ He’d have been smarter to wait until Blaze’s roadshow was far away from superhero-stuffed New York City and its overly protective friendly neighbourhood webslinger…

Adding extra cachet following Ploog’s afterword are the August 1972 Marvel Bullpen Bulletins page announcing the debut of the Biker Ghost Rider and stunning selection of original art pages, cover and design sketches by Ploog, Chiaramonte, John Romita, Mooney & Shores, Gil Kane & Frank Giacoia and Andru & Perlin plus an eerie back-cover from FOOM #7 featuring early Ploog visualisations of the Blazing Biker.

In the 1990s The Original Ghost Rider reprinted these classic tales and the 13 covers by Mark Teixeira, Jimmy Palmiotti, Javier Saltares, Andy Kubert, Joe Quesada, Jan Anton Harps, Kevin Maguire, Brad Vancata, Mark Pacella, Jeff Johnson, Dan Panosian, Ploog, Klaus Janson, Michael Bair, Darick Robertson, Chris Bachalo, Kris Renkewitz & Andrew Pepoy suitably bring the fearsome fun to close for now…

One final note: backwriting and retcons notwithstanding, the Christian boycotts and moral crusades of 1980s and 1990s compelled the criticism-averse and commercially astute corporate Marvel to “translate” the biblical Satan of the early episodes into generic – and presumably more palatable or “acceptable” – demonic creatures such as Mephisto, Satanish, Marduk Kurios and other equally naff, low-rent downgrades.

However, the original intent and adventures of Johnny Blaze – and spin-offs Daimon Hellstrom and Satana (respectively the Son and Daughter of Satan), tapped into the late 1960’s global fascination with Satanism, Devil-worship and all things Spookily Supernatural which had begun with such epochal releases as Rosemary’s Baby (Roman Polanski’s 1968 film more than Ira Levin’s novel), so please remember these aren’t your feeble bowdlerised “Hell-lite” horrors here. These tales are about the real-deal Infernal Realm and a good man struggling to save his soul from the baddest of all bargains – as much as the revised Comics Code would allow – so brace yourself, hold steady and accept no supernatural substitutes…
© 2019 MARVEL.

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.