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:

Amazon (print) (ebook)

Amazon (print) (ebook)
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…
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