The Eldritch Kid volume 1: Whisky and Hate


By Christian Read & Michael Maier (Gestalt Publishing)
ISBN: 978-0-980782-35-6 (TPB)

Felt like a scary western today. Here’s one…

There was a time, not so very long ago, when all of popular fiction was bloated and engorged with tales of Cowboys and Indians.

As always happens with such periodic populist phenomena – such as the Swinging Sixties’ Super-Spy Boom, the Vampire Boyfriend or recent Misunderstood Teens vs Corrupt Adult Dystopias trends – there was a goodly amount of momentary merit, lots of utter dross and a few spectacular gems.

Most importantly, once such surges peter out there’s also always a small cadre of frustrated devotees who mourn the passing and, resolve to do something to venerate or even revive their lost and faded favourite fad…

After World War II, the American family entertainment market – for which read comics, radio and the rapidly burgeoning television industry – were comprehensively enamoured of clear-cut, simplistic sensibilities and easy, escapist solutions offered by Tales of the Old West: at that time already a firmly established standby of paperback publishing, movie serials and low-budget feature films.

I’ve often ruminated on how and why, simultaneously, the dark, bleakly nigh-nihilistic and left-leaning Film Noir genre quietly blossomed alongside that wholesome rip-snorting range-&-rodeo revolution, seemingly only for a cynical minority of entertainment intellectuals who somehow knew that the returned veterans still hadn’t found a Land Fit for Heroes… but perhaps that’s a thought for another time and a different review.

Even though comics had encompassed Western heroes from the get-go (there were cowboy strips in the premier issues of both Action Comics and Marvel Comics), the post-war boom years saw a vast outpouring of titles with gun-toting heroes ousting the rapidly-dwindling supply of costumed Mystery Men. True to formula, most of these pioneers ranged from transiently mediocre to outright appalling…

Despite minor re-flowerings in the early 1970s and mid-1990s, Western strips have largely vanished from funny book pages: apparently unable to command enough mainstream support to survive the crushing competition of garish wonder-men and furiously seductive futures.

Europe and Britain also embraced the Sagebrush zeitgeist, producing some extremely impressive work, before France, Belgium and Italy made the genre emphatically their own by the end of the 1960s. They still make the best straight Western strips in the world for an avid audience still possessing an appetite for them…

Fantasy and Horror stories, on the other hand, have never really gone away and this superb entertaining entry from Australian graphic raconteurs Christian Read & Michael Maier superbly blends time-honoured tropes of the wild west with sinister sorcerous sensibilities to create a bewitching alternate reality where dark bloody deeds are matched by dire demonic forces and the decent guys called upon to combat them have to dabble in the diabolical too…

Following the tantalising Introduction ‘Our shadow goes where we go’ from author K. J. Bishop, the full-colour mystic mayhem begins with the recollections of an Oxford-educated shaman detailing his life following his return to the land of his birth.

Spring 1877 and the great Indian Wars are over. Custer is dead but so is Crazy Horse. The Whites are greedily covering the entire country and an erudite, educated man with the wrong skin tones is reduced to playing scout for a bunch of barely literate morons wagon-trekking across the plains to California. They need him but regard their supremely capable guide with suspicion, disdain and barely-disguised disgust…

One particular incident of second-guessing his decisions involves a detour around a stony butte that simply reeks of bad magic. Accusing him of leading them into an ambush and other dishonourable deeds, the lazy, work-shy Christians drive him to ignore his instincts and better judgement and reluctantly check out the pinnacle personally…

Wicasa Waken, outcast Shaman of the Oglala Lakota, Ten Shoes Dancing of the mighty Sioux and lately graduated Master of Arts and Literature, Oxford, England (1875), always knew devil magic when he smelled it, but – since his teachers taught him to treasure human life – he remained faithful to their training and climbs a mountain into hell…

At the top he encounters five-headed snakes and zombies and a strange white man they were taking their time killing…

Losing their lands to the pale invaders has soured many of his people and allowed a growth of bad spirits and corrupted medicine like the long-fled Bloody Knife to control many points on the map, but the man these horrors are torturing jangle the shaman’s mystic senses in way nothing ever has before.

Piling in, he starts killing monsters and the “victim” – once freed – eagerly joins in; his accursed guns making short work of the ravening Heyokas. Soon they’re all dispatched and Ten Shoes Dancing – after exorcising and sanitising the spiritually defiled butte – realises he has made the rather prickly acquaintance of a modern Western Legend…

The pioneering settlers are ecstatic to have celebrated dime novel hero The Eldritch Kid join their party and, whilst still treating his rescuer like a barely housebroken monkey, fête the grim gunslinger like a messiah. It’s hard for even the most enlightened man to watch a surly, taciturn, creepy freak basking in hero-worship, hot vittles and wanton female attention…

It’s not just this becoming-nation America that is awash with blood and wickedness. The entire world is swamped with boggles, spectres and worse, but since the War Between the States, the Kid has achieved a certain notoriety for dealing harshly and permanently with all things supernatural and predatory.

Nevertheless, he’s a mean, mercenary bastard and a tough man to like for the philosophically inclined, poetry-loving Ten Shoes… until the wagons arrive at a thriving prairie town the shaman knows wasn’t there a month previously.

Opting to investigate the bustling hamlet together, the mismatched heroes are soon fighting for their lives against an army of hungry ghosts and the Lakotan learns that although his personal patron god Lord Hnaska is grossly offended by the crawling things that hunger for human morsels, he is more worried by the cold, dark deity who sponsors his avatar’s gun-toting partner in peril…

A loveless alliance is forged in that ghastly spirit-trap and, as the wagon train proceeds towards California, the kid finally opens up enough to share the history that made him the most feared gunhawk in the West.

The story began in 1865 at Camp Elmira, New Jersey where Confederate prisoners were held. The detention centre was a hellhole even by human standards, but when a ravenous demon began taking inmates, one of the terrified, beaten, sitting duck captives was offered a deal by an invading ancient northern god. This grim King of Death was unhappy with the beasts and night things increasingly infesting the Earth and offered a trade: power for service…

After a suitably painful and gory “offering” the prisoner was given just enough of a supernatural advantage to kill the monsters – human and otherwise – and escape. He’s been doing his Lord’s work ever since…

At trail’s end the settlers naturally bilk the generally good-natured Ten Shoes who chalks it up to experience. However, his new associate still has many secrets unshared and exacts his own brand of instant karma.

…And thus is born another legend of the Wildest West Ever…

Bleak, moody, spectacularly action-packed and cathartic, Whisky & Hate is a smart, blackly funny yarn that will astound lovers of genre fiction and witty mash-ups.

The Western has long been a part of world culture and perhaps that fact has relegated the genre in too many minds to the status of a passé fascination of a bygone generation. If so, this fresh, hypnotically beguiling look at an overexposed idiom proves there’s still meat to chew on those old bones, and cow-punching aficionados, fear-fans, lovers of nostalgia-tainted comics and seekers of the wild and new alike can be assured this range-riding rollercoaster of thrills and macabre mystery proves that excitement and terror still lurk in those hills and over that horizon…

Black hats, white hats, alternate worlds, haunts and horrors, stunning visuals and macabre twists – what more could you possibly ask for?

Apparently, a sequel, so I’ll be getting to that too in the fullness of time…
© 2011 Christian Read, Michael Maier & Gestalt Publishing Pty Ltd. All rights reserved.

Things Undone


By Shane White (NBM/ComicsLit)
ISBN: 978-1-56163-563-4 (PB)

The sheer variety of themes and species in contemporary cartooning can be quite breathtaking to an old coot who grew up with the restricted comics fare of a baby-boomer in Britain – and I wouldn’t have it any other way. These days I can peruse a graphic novel on any subject in any style and incorporating any number of converging genres – and this compelling gem comes pretty close to defying categorisation.

Things Undone is a little bit romance, a little bit alternative biography, a little bit punk and a whole lot of terrific. Young Rick Watts is an artist and world-weary peon in the art-consuming field of video games graphics. He’s just moved to Seattle for a new job, but nothing’s really changed, and relationship-wise things aren’t going so great either. Long-distance never works so he dragged his girl-friend clear across the country, and his 7-year hitch with her couldn’t have ended more badly…

When you can’t catch a break and the new life proves no better than the old one, what can a guy do? And it’s only a matter of time before somebody notices that Rick is a zombie, what with him leaving decaying extremities and eyeballs and such like all over the place. Maybe he should just get a gun and do the job right…?

This sharp and bittersweet examination of modern life is funny and poignant, using the populist imagery of the walking dead as an effective metaphor for modern life, but it’s the amazingly comforting art and production (the book is printed in black, white and shocking orange, in a kind of raucous skate-punk cartoon style) that underpins this tale, making the tragic comedic, and making confusion the means of exploring the mundane horrors of urban living.

Clever, witty and one of the most sensitive funny/sad, real/imaginary stories you’ll ever read. Track this down and change your life…
© 2009 Studiowhite LLC.

Black Jack volume 1


By Osamu Tezuka, translated by Camelia Nieh (Vertical)
ISBN: 978-1934287-27-9 (Tankōbon PB)

There aren’t many Names in comics. Lots of creators; multi-disciplined or single focussed, who have contributed to the body of the art form, but we don’t have many Global Presences whose contribution have affected generations of readers and aspirants all over the World, like a Mozart or Michelangelo or Shakespeare. There’s just Hergé and Jack Kirby and Osamu Tezuka.

Tezuka was born in Qsaka Prefecture on 3rd November 1928, and as a child suffered a severe illness that made his arms swell. The doctor who cured him inspired him to study medicine, and although Osamu began his professional drawing career while at university, he persevered with his studies and qualified as a doctor too. As he faced a career crossroads, his mother advised him to do the thing that made him happiest. He never practiced as a healer but the world was gifted with such classic cartoon masterpieces as Tetsuwan Atomu (Astro-boy), Kimba the White Lion, Buddha, Adolf and literally hundreds of other graphic narratives. Along the way Tezuka incidentally pioneered, if not created, the Japanese anime industry…

Able to speak to the hearts and minds of children and adults equally, Tezuka’s work ranges from the charming to the disturbing and even terrifying. In 1973 he turned his storyteller’s heart to the realm of medicine and created Burakku Jakku, a lone wolf surgeon living outside society’s boundaries and rules: a scarred and seemingly heartless mercenary working miracles for the right price but also a deeply human wounded soul who makes surgical magic from behind icy walls of cool indifference and casual hostility – think Silas Marner before the moppet turns up or Ebenezer Scrooge before bedtime; except Black Jack never, ever gets soft and cuddly.

These translated, collected adventures – available paperback and digital formats – begin with the frankly startling ‘Is There a Doctor?’, wherein the joyriding son of the richest man in the world is critically injured. The boy’s ruthless father forces Black Jack to perform a full body transplant on an unwilling victim… but the super-surgeon still manages to turn the tables on the vile plutocrat…

Each story is self-contained over about 20 pages, and the second – ‘The First Storm of Spring’ – tells the eerie, poignant tale of a young girl whose corneal transplant has gone strangely awry. Can the handsome boy she keeps seeing possibly be the ghostly original owner of the eye, and if so, what was he truly like?

With ‘Teratoid Cystoma’ the series solidly enters into fantasy territory whilst ramping up the medical authenticity. Tezuka chose to draw in a highly stylised, “Big-foot” manner (he was the acknowledged inventor of the Manga Big-Eyes artistic device) but with increasing dependence on surgical and anatomical veracity, his innate ability to render anatomy and organs realistically truly came to the fore.

A teratonous cystoma occurs when twins are conceived but one of the embryos fails to cohere. Undifferentiated portions of one twin, a limb or organ grows within and nourished by the other. As the surviving twin matures, the enclosed “spare parts” start to distend the body, appearing like a cyst or growth.

For the sake of narrative – and possibly to just plain freak you out – in this story a famous personage wishing total discretion requires the Ronin Doctor to remove a huge growth from her. Many Japanese have a frankly unhealthy prejudice against physical imperfection – for more search “the Hibakusha” – and this case is a much about stigma and position as wellbeing…

The mystery patient’s problem is exacerbated because whenever other surgeons have tried to operate, they have been debilitated by a telepathic assault from the growth. Overcoming incredible resistance, Black Jack succeeds, removing a fully-formed brain and nervous system. Ignoring the disgust of the patient and doctors, he then builds an artificial body for the stunted, sentient remnants; and calls her Pinoko.

‘The Face Sore’ combines Japanese legends of the Jinmenso (intelligent, garrulous tumours) with cases of disfiguring carbuncles and rashes to produce a very scary modern horror story – and by modern, I mean lacking a happy ending…

Pinoko, looking like a little girl (whether she’s a year old or eighteen is a running gag throughout the series) has meanwhile become Black Jack’s secretary/major domo and gadfly. In ‘Sometimes Like Pearls’, she opens a unique parcel addressed to him which leads to some invaluable back-story as the solitary surgeon travels to see his great teacher and learns one final lesson…

‘Confluence’ provides a little twisted romance as the medical maverick loses out on a chance at love when undertaking a radical procedure to save a young woman from uterine cancer, whilst in ‘The Painting is Dead!’ an artist caught in a nuclear test endures a full brain transplant just to be able to finish his painting condemning atomic warmongers.

‘Star, Magnitude Six’ exposes the pompous venality and arrant cronyism, not to mention entrenched stupidity, of hospitals’ hierarchical hegemonies in a tale satisfyingly reminiscent of Steve Ditko’s H series and J series of polemical objectivist parables before the ruthless outlaw surgeon meets his female counterpart in the bittersweet ‘Black Queen.’

‘U-18 Knew’ moves us into pure science fiction territory when the unlicensed doctor is hired by an American medical facility to operate on a vast medical computer that has achieved true sentience, leading to some telling questions about who – and what – defines “humanity.”

An annoying sidebar I feel compelled to add here: For many years broad, purely visual racial stereotypes were common “shorthand” in Japanese comics – and ours, and everybody else’s. They crop up here, but please remember that even at the time this story originated from, this was in no way a charged image; Tezuka’s depictions of native Japanese were just as broad and expressionistic. A simple reading of the text should dispel any notions of racism: but if you can’t get past these decades-old images, just put the book down. Don’t buy it. It’s your loss.

A heartrendingly powerful tale of determination sees a young polio victim almost fail a sponsored walk until an enigmatic stranger with a scarred face bullies, abuses and provokes him to finish. It also provides more clues to Black Jack’s past in ‘The Legs of an Ant’ before this first collection concludes with ‘Two Loves’ as a van driver deprives the greatest sushi artist in the world of his arm and his dreams when he runs him over. The lengths to which the driver goes to make amends are truly staggering… but sometimes Fate just seems to hate some people…

One thing should always be remembered when reading these stories: despite all the scientific detail, all the frighteningly accurate terminology and trappings. Black Jack isn’t medical fiction; it is an exploration of morality with medicine raised to the level of magic… or perhaps duelling.

This is a saga of personal combat, with the lone gunfighter battling hugely oppressive counter-forces (the Law, the System, himself) to win just one more victory: medicine as mythology, battles of a prescribing Ronin with a Gladstone bag.

Elements of rationalism, science-fiction, kitchen sink drama, spiritualism and even the supernatural appear in this saga of Japanese Magical Realism to rival the works of Carlos Fuentes and Gabriel García Márquez. Mostly though, these are highly addictive tales of heroism; ones that that will stay with you forever.
© 2008 by Tezuka Productions. Translation © 2008 by Camelia Nieh and Vertical, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Ghost Rider Marvel Masterworks volume 2


By Tony Isabella, Gary Friedrich, Bill Mantlo, Marv Wolfman, Steve Gerber, Jim Mooney, Frank Robbins, George Tuska, Sal Buscema, Bob Brown, John Byrne & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-1-3029-2214-6 (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. 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 watchword was fashion: what was hitting big outside comics was 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 digital compendium collects more of those early flame-filled exploits: specifically Ghost Rider #6-20 pairing with the Thing in Marvel Two-in-One #8 and a crossover with Daredevil #138, spanning June 1974 to June 1976, and preceded by an informative Introduction in writer Tony Isabella’s ‘The Remembrance Run’

What Has Gone Before: Carnival cyclist Johnny Blaze sells his soul to the devil in an attempt to save his foster-father Crash Simpson from cancer. As is the way of such things, Satan follows the letter but not spirit of the contract and Simpson dies anyway. When the Dark Lord later comes for Johnny, his beloved virginal girlfriend Roxanne Simpsonintervenes. 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…

Creative team Isabella, Gary Friedrich, Jim Mooney & Sal Trapani hit the kickstart here as GR #6 sees a perhaps ill-considered attempt to convert the tragic haunted biker into a more conventional superhero. ‘Zodiac II’ sees Blaze stumble into a senseless fight with a man possessing all the powers of the Avengers’ arch-foes. However, there’s a hidden Satanic component to the mystery as Blaze discovers when reformed super-villain turned TV star Stunt-Master turns up to help close the case and watch helplessly as the one-man Zodiac falls foul of his own diabolical devil’s bargain in ‘…And Lose His Own Soul!’ (Isabella, Mooney & Jack Abel).

A final confrontation – of sorts – begins in Ghost-Rider #8 as ‘Satan Himself!’ comes looking for Johnny’s soul, with a foolproof scheme to force Roxanne to rescind her protection. She finally does so as the Hell-biker battles Inferno, the Fear-demon and most of San Francisco in a game-changing epic called ‘The Hell-Bound Hero!’. Here Blaze is finally freed from his satanic burden by the intervention of someone who appeared to be Jesus Christ

The cover of issue #10 (by Ron Wilson & Joe Sinnott) featured GR battling the Hulk, but a deadline cock-up delayed that tale until #11 and the already included origin from Marvel Spotlight #5 filled those pages. Gil Kane & Tom Palmer reinterpreted the scene for their cover on #11 as the issue finally detailed ‘The Desolation Run!’ (by Isabella, Sal Buscema, Tartaglione & George Roussos).

As Johnny joins a disparate band of dirt-bikers in a desert race, he collides with the legendarily solitary and short-tempered Green Goliath and learns who his true friends are, after which we divert to Marvel Two-in-One #8, teaming Ben Grimm with the supernatural sensation in a quirkily compelling Yuletide yarn. Crafted by Steve Gerber, Sal Buscema & Mike Esposito ‘Silent Night… Deadly Night!’ sees the audacious Miracle Man attempting to take control of a very special birth in a modern-day stable…

Artists Frank Robbins, Frank Giacoia & Mike Esposito limn Ghost Rider #12 wherein Isabella reveals the fate of World War I fighter ace Phantom Eagle. When Blaze tries to rescue a stranger from a ghostly aerial assault, he soon learns he has innocently thwarted justice and helped the warrior’s murderer avoid the ‘Phantom of the Killer Skies’

Ghost Rider #13 declares ‘You’ve Got a Second Chance, Johnny Blaze!’ (Isabella, George Tuska & Vince Colletta) as the terms of the hero’s on-going curse are changed again, just as the dissolute biker heads to Hollywood and a promised job as Stunt-Master’s body-double. No sooner has he signed up, however, than Blaze becomes involved with starlet Karen PageDaredevil’s one-time girlfriend – and a bizarre kidnap plot by super-villain The Trapster.

‘A Specter Stalks the Soundstage!’ features Blaze’s revenge-hungry nemesis The Orb who returns to destroy the Ghost Rider, an action yarn that spectacularly concludes with ‘Vengeance on the Ventura Freeway!’ (illustrated by Bob Brown & Don Heck).

Whilst hanging out on the West Coast Blaze joins new superteam The Champions, but they play no part in Bill Mantlo, Tuska & Colletta’s fill-in yarn ‘Blood in the Waters’, as the Ghost Rider oh, so topically tangles with a Great White Shark in the gore-soaked California surf.

Back on track in #17, ‘Prelude to a Private Armageddon!’ by Isabella, Robbins & Colletta sees a team-up with the Son of Satan wherein fellow stunt-actor Katy Milner is possessed by a demon and only Daimon Hellstrom can help…

The saga continues in ‘The Salvation Run!’ as Blaze must race through the bowels of Hell and relive his own traumatic past before finally saving the day, Katy and his own much-tarnished soul in ‘Resurrection’.

All this time the mystery of Karen’s attempted abduction had percolated through the subplots here, but explosively boil over in Daredevil #138 as ‘Where is Karen Page?’ (by Wolfman, John Byrne & Mooney) reveal the machinations of criminal maniac Death’s-Head to be merely part of a greater scheme involving Blaze, Stunt-Master, the Man without Fear and the homicidal Death Stalker. The convoluted conundrum cataclysmically climaxes in Ghost-Rider #20 with ‘Two Against Death!’ by Wolfman, Byrne & Don Perlin…

This spooky compendium compounds the chilling action with a cover gallery from repint series The Original Ghost Rider #14-20, and original art covers from Gil Kane to truly complete your fear-filled fun fest.

One final note: backwriting and retcons notwithstanding, the Christian boycotts and moral crusades of a later decade were what compelled the criticism-averse and commercially astute corporate Marvel to “translate” the biblical Satan of these early tales into generic and presumably more palatable or “acceptable” demonic creatures such as Mephisto, Satanish, Marduk Kurios and other equally naff downgrades, but the original intent and adventures of Johnny Blaze – and indeed series spin-offs Daimon Hellstrom and Satana, respectively the Son and Daughter of Satan – tapped into the period’s global fascination with Satanism, Devil-worship and all things Spooky and Supernatural which had begun with such epochal films as Rosemary’s Baby (Roman Polanski’s 1968 film more than Ira Levin’s novel) and remember these aren’t your feeble bowdlerised “Hell-lite” horrors.

These tales are about the real-deal Infernal Realm and a good man struggling to save his soul from the worst of all bargains – as much as the revised Comics Code would allow – so brace yourself, hold steady and accept no supernatural substitutes…
© 2020 MARVEL.

The Book of Human Insects


By Osamu Tezuka translated by Mari Morimoto (Vertical)
ISBN: 978-1-935654-20-9 (HB) 978-1935654773 (PB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: An Ideal Chiller to Disturb these Dark and Lonely Nights… 9/10

There aren’t many Names in comics. Lots of creators; multi-disciplined or single focussed, who have contributed to the body of the art form, but we don’t have many Global Presences whose contributions have affected generations of readers and aspirants all over the World, like a Mozart or Michelangelo or Shakespeare. There’s just Hergé and Jack Kirby and Osamu Tezuka.

Tezuka was born in Osaka Prefecture on November 3rd 1928 and, as a child, suffered from a severe illness which made his arms swell. The doctor who cured him inspired the boy to study medicine, and although Osamu began his professional drawing career while still at university, he persevered with his studies and qualified as a doctor too. As he faced a career crossroads, his mother advised him to do the thing that made him happiest…

Tezuka never practiced as a healer but the world was gifted with such classic cartoon masterpieces as Tetsuwan Atomu (Astro-boy), Kimba the White Lion, Buddha, Adolf and literally hundreds of other graphic narratives. Along the way, Tezuka incidentally pioneered, if not actually created, the Japanese anime industry.

Able to speak to the hearts and minds of children and adults equally, his works range from the childishly charming to the unsettling – and even terrifying. In 1970-1971 he produced the stark and moody psycho-thriller Ningen Konchuuki for Akita Shonen’s Play Comic, detailing the inexorable rise of a truly different kind of monster for the burgeoning audiences who were growing up and demanding more mature manga fare.

This superb monochrome 364-page hardback/trade paperback and digital delight opens with ‘Spring Cicada’ as failed and broken designer Ryotaro Mizuno ponders the incredible success of golden girl Toshiko Tomura; a bright young thing who has just scooped a major literary prize for her first novel.

Across town, a broken-down derelict also toasts her success whilst in a lonely garret a girl hangs from the end of a noose…

Mizuno confronts Toshiko in her moment of triumph, telling her failed author Kageri Usuba has committed suicide. Their tense exchange is observed by muck-raking journalist Aokusa

Convinced he’s on to something, the reporter perseveres and discovers Toshiko is a modern renaissance woman: emerging from obscurity to become a celebrated actress while still in her teens, she graduated to directing before becoming an award-winning designer. Abruptly she metamorphosed again, writing the stunning novel The Book of Human Insects. Still in her twenties, there seems to be nothing the angelic girl cannot do…

Further enquiry leads the obsessed newsman to her desolate rural home where the uncanny genius presents an entirely different, almost wanton aspect. Moreover, she keeps there a very creepy waxwork of her dead mother…

Toshiko catches the professional voyeur and agrees to an interview, but before that meeting Aokusa is accosted by shambling drop-out Hyoroku Hachisuka, a once-prominent stage-director who imparts the true story of Toshiko’s resplendent rise to fame and fortune.

Once, the universally approved-of, wholesome girl was a small, timid creature who inveigled her way into his theatre company. Once there, she attached herself like a lamprey to the star, learning her ways and mannerisms. A perfect mimic, Toshiko not only acquired the actress’s skills but also seemed to suck out her talent and inspiration. When the former star quit, Toshiko replaced her…

She performed that same slow consumption with the entire company and then turned her attentions to the director…

Moreover, the seemingly helpless waif was utterly amoral, using sex, slander and perhaps even murder to achieve her ends, which were always short-term: she had no goals or life ambitions, but merely flitted from victim to victim like a wasp seeking its next meal…

Ignoring the warning, Aosuka persists, discovering promising writer Usuba once had a room-mate named Toshiko whom she accused of plagiarising her novel…

Intriguingly, the lonely writer’s recent suicide occurred in extremely suspicious circumstances…

During a TV interview, Toshiko accidentally meets Mizuno again. Revealed as one of her earliest victims, can he possibly be the only man she ever loved?

In ‘Leafhopper’ Aosuka uncovers another of Toshiko’s secrets when he meets for the first and last time her shady associate Arikawa – a murderous anarchist who cleans ups the lovely mimic’s potential embarrassments – just as she tries to renew her relationship with the bitter and far wiser Mizuno.

Toshiko also meets war criminal and right-wing “businessman” Sesson Kabuto who immediately discerns her true nature and keeps a fascinated but wary professional distance from her…

Toshiko operates almost instinctively and according to immediate desire, but she has a terrifying capacity to clean up any potentially damaging loose-ends. After seducing Arikawa she spectacularly removes him during a political assassination and uses the affair to promote her next book…

Meanwhile Mizuno spirals further into despondency until he meets a prostitute who looks like Toshiko and finally finds redeeming true love – of a sort…

Toshiko almost overreaches her abilities when she is arrested by South Korean security forces in ‘Longhorn Beetle’ but is rescued and forced into marriage by a man every inch her ruthless, remorseless equal. This propels her to even more inspired acts of perversion and survival – which consequentially endanger the wellbeing of everybody in Japan – before ‘Katydid’ brings the unique drama to a shocking, bloody, poignant and utterly unexpected conclusion…

Murder-mystery, Greek Tragedy, trenchant melodrama, serial-killer horror story and much more, this supremely adult tale has hardly dated at all since its release and offers a chilling image of those hidden invisible predators who have supplanted vampires, witches and werewolves in the dark corners of our communal consciousness.

The beautiful maiden as lure and amoral predator possibly began with this truly disturbing tale and the story is one which will stay with readers long after the final page is turned…

“God of Manga” Osamu Tezuka died in 1989 but with ever more of his copious canon being released in English there’s plenty of brilliant material for all ages, intellects and inclinations to admire and adore, so why not start right here, right now.

Accept no imitations…
© 2011 by Tezuka Productions. Translation © 2011 by Mari Morimoto and Vertical, Inc. All rights reserved.

Blackwood


By Hannah Eaton, (Myriad Editions)
ISBN: 978-1-908434-71-5 (PB) eISBN: 978-1-908434-72-2

It’s all about personal tastes in the end, but when I assessed the many horror-themed and Halloween-adjacent review copies despatched from kind creators, PR sentinels and hopeful publishers this month (thank you one and all!), from very early on I knew we had to end on this one. Read on, read Blackwood itself and learn just why…

As nations and cultures, we all think we’re special, but every so often a piece of art comes along and you think “no other nationality could have produced this…” That’s an especially inescapable conclusion after indulging in the glorious melange that is this intriguing annal of Albion.

Rendered and reproduced as soft and subtle pencil drawings, Blackwood is quintessentially English: channelling our beloved countryside, quirky folk of different classes (co-existing if not actually living in harmony), witchcraft, cosy murder-mysteries, corrupt councils, devil-worshipping mystic masons, ordinary people well in over their heads, inbred insularity and racism, an extremely reserved, controlled sense of events getting away from you. There’s also a chilling sense that there’s always more going on under the surface of civility and respectability than meets your eye…

Best of all, as this tale of identical rural murders occurs simultaneously 65 years apart, we get to see – up close and personal – just how much and how little society has changed, especially when the modern-day killing draws in troublesome nosy strangers from outside the community… and even foreigners…

Augmented by an Afterword detailing the generational tale’s real-world inspirations, this is a yarn that only comes from gifted, thoughtful artists like Hannah Eaton (check out Naming Monsters while you’re at it) who have seen a bit of the world before settling down to devise their own.

Channelling delicious notes of Gary Spencer Milledge’s Strangehaven and the first series of Gracechurch, this very human-scaled drama is funny, scary and seductively compelling, like the best Scandi-dramas, but with tea and a Victoria Sponge all laid on.

Is Blackwood a heartfelt paean to a forgotten place and time or a devious attack on oppressive social structures and change-based bias that still hold us apart and down? Yes, no, maybe and mind your own business. It is a chilling, delightful and utterly compelling mystery that, once read, will not be forgotten.

So, go do that then, right?
© Hannah Eaton 2020. All rights reserved.

Sucker Bait and Other Stories


By illustrated by Graham Ingels, written by Al Feldstein with Ray Bradbury & Bill Gaines (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-689-8 (HB)

For most people who have heard of them, EC Comics mean one thing only: shocking, appalling, stomach-turning horror. Moreover, the artist they’re probably picturing – even if they can’t name him – is Graham Ingels, who wryly sighed his work “Ghastly”…

The company began in 1944 when comicbook pioneer Max Gaines – presumably seeing the writing on the wall – sold the superhero properties of his All-American Comics company to half-sister National/DC, retaining only Picture Stories from the Bible. His plan was to produce a line of Educational Comics with schools and church groups as the major target market.

He augmented his flagship title with Picture Stories from American History, Picture Stories from Science and Picture Stories from World History but the worthy projects were all struggling when he died in a boating accident in 1947.

As detailed in the comprehensive closing essay of this superb graphic compilation (‘Crime, Horror, Terror, Gore, Depravity, Disrespect for Established Authority – and Science Fiction Too: the Ups and Downs of EC Comics’ by author, editor, critic and comics fan Ted White), his son William was dragged into the company by unsung hero and Business Manager Sol Cohen who held the company together until the initially unwilling Bill Gaines abandoned his dreams of being a chemistry teacher and transformed the ailing Educational enterprise into Entertaining Comics…

After a few tentative false starts and abortive experiments copying industry fashions, Gaines took advantage of his multi-talented associate Al Feldstein, who promptly graduated from creating teen comedies and westerns into becoming Gaines’ editorial supervisor and co-conspirator.

As they began co-plotting the bulk of EC’s stories together, they changed tack, moving in a boldly impressive fresh direction. Their publishing strategy, wisely utilising the most gifted illustrators in the field, was to tell a “New Trend” of stories aimed at older and more discerning readers, not the mythical semi-literate 8-year-old all comicbooks ostensibly targeted.

From 1950 to 1954 EC was the most innovative and influential publisher in America, dominating the genres of crime, horror, war and science fiction and originating an entirely new beast: the satirical comicbook…

Feldstein had started life as a comedy cartoonist and, after creator/editor Harvey Kurtzman departed in 1956, Al became Mad’s Editor for the next three decades…

This seventh volume of the Fantagraphics EC Library gathers a mind-boggling selection of Feldstein’s most baroque and grotesquely hilarious horror stories – most co-plotted by companion-in-crime Gaines – and all illuminated by the company’s enigmatic yet unsurpassed master of macabre mood, in a lavish monochrome hardcover or digital edition packed with supplementary interviews, features and dissertations.

It begins with historian and lecturer Bill Mason’s touching and revelatory commentary ‘Mr. Horror Builds his Scream House’ before dipping into this diary of disgust and dread with ‘Hook, Line, and Stinker!’ (Vault of Horror #26, August/September 1952): the tale of a spinster’s vengeance after she finds the gentleman she’s been affianced to for fifteen years spends his weekends in the arms of a young floozy rather than on his precious – and fictitious – fishing trips…

The most memorable assets of EC’s horror titles were the uniquely memorable hosts whose execrable wisecracks bracketed each fantastic yarn. The Vault-Keeper, Crypt-Keeper and Old Witch were the company’s only returning characters during the New Trend era, becoming beloved favourites of the “Fan Addict” readership. Haunt of Fear #14 (July/August 1952) revealed the shocking and hilarious origins of the scurvy sorceress herself in a sublime pastiche of the Christian Nativity dubbed ‘A Little Stranger!’

A murderous elephant trainer’s infidelities come back to haunt him in circus chiller ‘Squash… Anyone?’ (Tales From the Crypt #32, October/November 1952), whilst in that same month, in Vault of Horror #27, a rat-infested kingdom where starving peasants are tormented by their over-stuffed queen provide grisly meat for ‘A Grim Fairy Tale!’

‘Chatter-Boxed!’ (Haunt of Fear #15, September/October 1952) is a superb blend of maguffins as a man terrified of premature burial takes special steps to ensure he’s never buried alive, but even after factoring in that his wife is always gabbing on the phone, there’s one element he could never have foreseen…

Next follows a wealth of material published in titles cover-dated December 1952/January 1953, beginning with ‘Private Performance’ from Crime SuspenStories #14, wherein a burglar witnesses a murder in an old Vaudevillian’s home before hiding in exactly the wrong place, whilst ‘None but the Lonely Heart!’ (Tales from the Crypt #33) reveals the ultimate downfall of a serial bigamist and black widower.

‘We Ain’t Got No Body’ (Vault of Horror #28), ghoulishly revels in the vengeance of a man murdered by fellow train commuters before ‘Sugar ‘n Spice ‘n…’ (Shock SuspenStories #6) toys wickedly with the fable of Hansel and Gretel, proving some kids get what they deserve…

A pioneering surgeon is blackmailed for decades by his greatest triumph in ‘Nobody There!’ (Haunt of Fear #16, November/December 1952), whilst ‘Hail and Heart-y!’ (from Crime SuspenStories #15 February/March 1953) sees a lazy husband driving his enduring wife to exhaustion and over the edge by feigning disability, before Ingels superbly captures the macabre eccentricity of Ray Bradbury’s story of a crusty dowager too mean to stay decently dead in ‘There Was an Old Woman!’ – from Tales from the Crypt #34 (February/March).

That same month Vault of Horror #29 featured ‘Pickled Pints!’, as unscrupulous rogues buying cut-rate blood from winos push their plastered pumps a little too far, after which Haunt of Fear #17 (January/February) offers the acme of sinister swamp scare stories in ‘Horror We? How’s Bayou?’: a tale of rural madness and supernatural revenge long acclaimed as the greatest EC horror story ever crafted…

An irritated and merciless mummy stalks an Egyptian dig in ‘This Wraps it Up!’ (Tales from the Crypt #35, April/May 1953; the same month Vault of Horror #30 told a truly chilling tale of human retribution when the good citizens of a small town finally find the writer of cruel poison-pen letters in ‘Notes to You!’, after which ‘Pipe Down!’ (Haunt of Fear#18, March/April) goes completely round the bend to describe how a young wife and handsome plumber get rid of her rich old man… and what the victim does about it…

Bradbury’s disturbing yarn ‘The Handler’ was adroitly adapted in Tales from the Crypt #36 (June/July) depicting how an undertaker’s secret liberties – inflicted upon the cadavers in his care – came back to haunt him, whilst over in Vault of Horror #31 that month ‘One Good Turn…’ revealed one little old lady’s gruesome interpretation of the old adage, and Haunt of Fear #19 (May/June 1953) discloses the incredible lengths some men will go to in order to kill vampires in eponymous shocker ‘Sucker Bait!’

From August/September, ‘The Rover Boys’ in Tales from the Crypt #37 is a purely bonkers tale of brain transplantation gone wild, whilst Vault of Horror #32 offers up more traditional fare with ‘Funereal Disease!’, describing how a murdered miser gets back what he loves most, and ‘Thump Fun!’ (Haunt of Fear #20, July/August) archly revisits Poe’s Tell-Tale Heart whilst adding a little twist…

‘Mournin’ Mess’ (Tales from the Crypt #38, October/November) is a stylish and clever mystery about rich men funding a paupers graveyard – and why – whilst over in Vault of Horror (#32) ‘Strung Along’ depicts the revenge marionettes inflicted on the greedy woman who murdered their elderly puppeteer before the artistic arcana all ends with ‘An Off-Color Heir’ (Haunt of Fear #21, September/October 1953) and the salutary tale of an artist’s wife who discovers just too late her man’s habits and horrific heritage …

Adding final weight to the proceedings is S.C. Ringgenberg’s biography of the tragic genius ‘Graham Ingels’, the aforementioned history of EC and a comprehensively illuminating ‘Behind the Panels: Creator Biographies’ feature by Mason, Spurgeon and Janice Lee.

The short, sweet but severely limited output of EC has been reprinted ad infinitum in the decades since the company died. These astounding stories and art not only changed comics but also infected the larger world through film and television and via the millions of dedicated devotees still addicted to New Trend tales.

However, the most influential stories are somehow the ones least known these days. Although Ingels turned his back on his comics career, ashamed of the furore and frenzy generated by closed-minded bigots in the 1950s, his incredible artistic talent and narrative legacy are finally gaining him the celebrity he should have had in life.

Sucker Bait is a scarily lovely tribute to the sheer ability of an unsung master of comics art and offers a fabulously engaging introduction for every lucky fear fan encountering the material for the very first time. Whether you are an aging fear aficionado or callow contemporary convert, this is a book you should have…
Sucker Bait and Other Stories © 2014 Fantagraphics Books, Inc. All comics stories © 2014 William M. Gaines Agent, Inc., reprinted with permission. All other material © 2014 the respective creators and owners.

Maids


By Katie Skelly (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-68396-368-4 (HB)

Sorry for the brief interruption. Disease and deadlines are things you just don’t dick with…

With Halloween pretty much on hold this year, our annual humour/horror fest has been pretty much decimated too. However, if you stretch a point, most of the recommendations over the next few days will qualify…

Illustrator Katie Skelly hails from Brooklyn by way of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania and caught the comics bug early, thanks to her newsstand owner dad. Her Barbarella inspired series Nurse, Nurse began after graduating from Syracuse University with a BA in Art History and becoming a postgrad at City College of New York.

Thanks to her inquisitive insights, striking art style and potent narrative voice, Skelly has been the subject of many gallery shows and is a star on the global lecture circuit.

Her first graphic novel – again inspired by Jean-Claude Forrest but also horror-meister director Dario Argento – was My Pretty Vampire (2017), supplanted by the collection Operation Margarine and The Agency. All her works ask uncomfortable questions about the role and permitted position of women in society as seen through exploitation genres of mass entertainment, and that’s never been more effectively seen than in this “semi-autobiographical” tome (available in present-worthy luxury hardback and accessible eBook formats) recounting the true-crime story of the Papin sisters.

History says that on February 2, 1933, former convent girls Christine and Léa (working as maids for the wealthy Lancelin family in Le Mans) one night bludgeoned and stabbed to death Madame Léonie to and her daughter Genevieve. The case was open and shut but became a Cause Célebre in France after reports of the killers’ early lives and years of service and physical abuse became public. Intellectuals championed them and the case was cited as a perfect example of the dangers of inequality and privilege…

Here, Skelly brings her own incisive interpretation to the case, and it’s a little gem that you will find hard to put down and impossible to forget…
© 2020 Katie Skelly. This edition © 2020 Fantagraphics Books, Inc. All rights reserved.

Showcase Presents House of Secrets volume 2


By E. Nelson Bridwell, Bill Meredith, Jack Oleck, John Albano, Lore Shoberg, Sergio Aragonés, Sheldon Mayer, Raymond Marais, Steve Skeates, Bill Riley, Maxene Fabe, Arnold Drake, George Kashdan, Michael Pellowsky, Gerard Conway, Michael Fleisher, Doug Moench, David Michelinie, Gerry Boudreau, Bernie Wrightson, Nestor Redondo, Jack Katz, Tony DeZuñiga, Michael Kaluta, Nick Cardy, Jack Sparling, Vic Catan, Tom Palmer, Mike Sekowsky, Alfredo Alcala, Alex Niño, June Lofamia, Frank Redondo, Abe Ocampo, Luis Dominguez, Ruben Yandoc, E.R. Cruz, Quico Redondo, Rico Rival, Virgilio Redondo, George Tuska, Jim Aparo, Gerry Taloac, Bernard Baily, Jess Jodloman, Fred Carrillo, Flor Dery, Romy Gamboa, Rudy Nebres, Frank Bolle, Nick Cardy, Mike Sekowsky, Ramona Fradon, Gerry Boudreau, George Evans, Arthur Suydam & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-84856-472-5 (TPB)

With superheroes on the decline again in the early 1970s, four of the six surviving American newsstand comicbook companies (Archie, Charlton, DC, Gold Key, Harvey and Marvel) relied increasingly on horror and suspense anthologies to bolster flagging sales. Even wholesome Archie briefly produced Red Circle Sorcery/Chillers comics and their teen-comedy core moved gently into whimsical tales of witchcraft, mystery and imagination.

DC’s first generation of mystery titles had followed the end of the first Heroic Age when most of the publishers of the era began releasing crime, romance and horror genre anthologies to recapture the older readership which was drifting away to other mass-market entertainments like television and the movies. As National Comics in 1951, the company bowed to the inevitable and launched a comparatively straightlaced anthology – which nevertheless became one of their longest-running and most influential titles – with the December 1951/January 1952 launch of The House of Mystery.

When a hysterical censorship scandal led to witch-hunting hearings attacking comicbooks and newspaper strips, the industry panicked, adopting a castrating straitjacket of stringent self-regulatory rules and admonitions.

Even though mystery titles produced under the aegis of the Comics Code Authority were sanitised and anodyne affairs in terms of shock and gore, reader appetite for suspense was still high, and in 1956 National introduced sister title The House of Secrets which debuted with a November-December cover-date.

Supernatural thrillers and monster stories were dialled back into marvellously illustrated, genteel, rationalistic, fantasy-adventure vehicles which nonetheless dominated the market until the 1960s when the super-hero (which had begun a renaissance after Julius Schwartz reintroduced the Flash in Showcase #4, 1956) finally overtook them. Green Lantern, Hawkman, the Atom and a host of other costumed cavorters generated a gaudy global bubble of masked myrmidons which even forced the dedicated anthology suspense titles to transform into super-character split-books with Martian Manhunter and Dial H for Hero in House of Mystery and Mark Merlin – later Prince Ra-Man – sharing space with anti-hero Eclipso in House of Secrets.

When the Cape ‘n’ Cowl craziness peaked and popped, Secrets was one of the first casualties and the title folded with the September-October 1966 issue.

However, nothing combats censorship better than falling profits and at the end of the 1960s the Silver Age superhero boom busted again, with many titles gone and some of the industry’s most prestigious series circling the drain …

This real-world Crisis 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 at the time but as the liberalisation coincided with another bump in public interest in all aspects of the Great Unknown, the resurrection of scary stories was a foregone conclusion and obvious “no-brainer.”

Thus, with absolutely no fanfare at all, The House of Secrets rose again with issue #81, (cover-dated August-September 1969) just as big sister The House of Mystery had done a year earlier.

Under a spookily bold banner declaiming “There’s No Escape From… The House of Secrets”, creators veteran and neophyte churned out a massive deluge of spooky, creepy, wryly tongue-in-cheek and often truly scary tales, all introduced by the innocuous and timid Abel; caretaker of a ramshackle, sentient old pile temporarily located somewhere in the Dark Heart of the USA…

This second enthralling and economical monochrome Showcase compendium collects the chilling contents of issues #99-119, spanning August 1972 – September 1973, and also features a stellar selection of covers from artists Michael Kaluta, Bernie Wrightson, Nick Cardy, Jack Sparling and Luis Dominguez.

‘Welcome to the House of Secrets’ by E. Nelson Bridwell & Wrightson began another pensive package of terrors after which ‘Beyond His Imagination’ by Bill Meredith & Nestor Redondo sees a comicbook artist travel to the other side of death in search of inspiration, after which ‘Beat the Devil’ (Jack Oleck, Jack Katz & Tony DeZuniga) dealt with a religious thief who repented too late before ‘Goodbye, Nancy’ by John Albano, Vic Catan, Frank Redondo & Abe Ocampo saw a lonely child go to lethal lengths in her attempts to find a playmate…

A huge boost to the battered American industry at his time was the mass hiring of top Filipino artists whose stylish realism, experience in many genres and incredible work ethic made them an invaluable and highly influential factor of the horror boom. This collection especially is positively brimming with their superb illustrative excellence.

First in issue #100 however is ‘Round-Trip Ticket’ by Lore Shoberg & Tom Palmer, wherein a hippy truth-seeker learns a little more about alternate lifestyles than he bargained for. These comics chillers were frequently leavened by the mordant and wordless cartoon gags of the legendary Sergio Aragonés, who here contributes a trio of gems starring ‘Cain & Abel’before Oleck, Mike Sekowsky & DeZuñiga reveal the fate of an escaped convict who briefly became ‘The Man Who Stopped Time!’ After a page of ‘Abel’s Fables’ cartoons by Shoberg, Oleck & Alfredo Alcala brought the issue to a close with period Voodoo yarn ‘Rest in Peace’…

Clever science fiction courtesy of Sheldon Mayer & Alex Niño opened#101 as ‘Small Invasion’ tells a tale of love, double-cross and vengeance when an alien infiltrator discovers true romance whilst preparing to destroy humanity, after which ‘The Sacrifice’ (Oleck & June Lofamia) pitted Witch against Warlock in a game as old as time…

Aragonés’ ‘Cain & Abel’ page then precedes ‘Hiding Place’ by Raymond Marais & Ruben Yandoc, with a murderous gangster picking the wrong home to invade after which an ‘Abel’s Fables’ page by Shoberg brings the issue to a close.

‘Make a Wish’, by Oleck & E.R. Cruz, led in #102 as a troubled boy periodically escapes the real world – until well-meaning adults take him in hand, whilst ‘The Loser’ (Oleck, Quico Redondo & Ocampo) details a hen-pecked husband who can’t even get his revenge right, and bracketed between a brace of Aragonés’ ‘Abel’s Fables’ Albano & Nestor Redondo shone with the salutary romantic chiller starring ‘A Lonely Monstrosity’

House of Secrets #103 began with a tale on con men and time travel in ‘Waiting… Waiting… Waiting’ by Mayer & Rico Rival, whilst ‘No Bed of Roses’ (Albano & Sparling) told a unique tale of reincarnation and revenge, before a post-apocalyptic revelation proved that man could never change in ‘The Village on the Edge of Forever’ by Steve Skeates & Niño, before Aragonés wrapped another issue with one of his ‘Cain & Abel’ pages.

In #104, ‘Ghosts Don’t Bother Me… But…’ from Mayer & Nestor & Virgilio Redondo told the sorry story of a hitman who found that his victims didn’t always rest in peace, whilst ‘The Dead Man’s Doll’, by Bill Riley & Alcala, and book-ended by two ‘Abel’s Fables’ by Aragonés & Albano, saw a beloved puppet take vengeance for his owner when the frail fellow was murdered by his uncaring carers, whilst ‘Lend Me an Ear!’ by Oleck & George Tuska saw merciless college pranksters hoisted on their own petard after playing in a morgue…

Issue #105 featured ‘Vampire’: an effective game of Ten Little Indians played out in an old Nevada mine by Maxene Fabe & Gerry Taloac, the gloriously dry ‘Coming Together!’ (Skeates & Jim Aparo) which showed that courage wasn’t everything when demons invaded a small town, and a great old-fashioned murdered man’s revenge yarn in ‘An Axe to Grind’ by Skeates & Alcala, whilst #106, after a magical ‘Welcome to the House of Secrets’ by E. Nelson Bridwell & Wrightson, opened with ‘The Curse of Harappa’ (Fabe & Yandoc) as a man dedicated to wiping out superstition found it wasn’t all nonsense, after which ‘The Island of No Return’ by Albano & Niño displayed the epitome of monstrous abiding terror, and Oleck and Alcala closed the show with a turn-of-the-century joker getting his just deserts in ‘This Will Kill You’.

In #107 Alcala illustrated Oleck’s ‘Skin Deep’: a dark tale of magic masks and ugly people in New Orleans and, after an Aragonés ‘Cain & Abel’, Arnold Drake’s hilarious hen-pecked howler ‘The Night of the Nebish!’ before ‘Winner Take All’ by Skeates & Bernard Baily restores some lethal gravitas to the proceedings when a greedy tramp learns too late the life-lesson of when to let go…

In #108 ‘Act III Eternity’ by George Kashdan & Jess Jodloman describes how a washed-up thespian unsuspectingly took method acting to unfortunate extremes whilst ‘A New Kid on the Block’ (Fabe & Rival) found a new wrinkle in the hoary legend of revivified mummies and ‘The Ghost-Writer’ by Riley & Taloac saw a dissolute author finally pay for taking undeserved credit during his successful career. This issue also featured two more bleak and black ‘Abel’s Fables’ by Aragonés.

HoS #109 held two longer tales; ‘Museum of Nightmares’ by Michael Pellowsky, Fabe & Alcala, in which animated waxworks haunted the last case of a great detective whilst in ‘…And in Death there is No Escape!’, (Albano & Niño) a callous bluebeard and actor of towering ego at last regretted the many sins that had led him to physical immortality and infamous renown. Issue #110 opened with an entertaining vampire tale in ‘Domain of the Dead’ by Oleck & Fred Carrillo, continued with supernatural murder-mystery ‘Safes Have Secrets Too’ by Pellowsky, Fabe & Flor Dery and finished on a beguiling high note with Oleck & Taloac’s ‘Possessed’ as a simple farmer searched in all the wrong places for a deadly witch…

Gerard Conway & DeZuñiga provided a haunting tale of lonely lighthouses and other worlds in #111’s ‘A Watchtower in the Dark’, after which ‘Hair-I-Kari’ by Fabe & Romy Gamboa told a sordid tale of a magic baldness cure and Michael Fleisher & Taloac recounted a bold adventurer’s quest to defeat death in ‘The Land Beyond the Styx!’

In #112 ‘The Witch Doctor’s Magic Cloak’ by Fleisher & Rudy Nebres explored the grotesque consequences of alternative medicine and limb regeneration, after which Conway & Luis Dominguez pastiched Sherlock Holmes to great effect in ‘The Case of the Demon Spawn!’ whilst #113 opened with an all-out monster mash in the delightfully dark ‘Not So Loud – I’m Blind!’ by Doug Moench, Nick Cardy & Mike Sekowsky and after another Aragonés ‘Abel’s Fables’ Oleck & Nestor Redondo unleashed a truly nasty tale of child vampires in ‘Spawns of Satan’

HoS #114 led with Fleisher & Frank Bolle’s ‘Night Game’ – a chilling sports-story of corruption in hockey and murder on ice – and close with the same writers’ ‘The Demon and the Rock Star!’, concerning one Hell of a comeback tour and illustrated by Talaoc, whilst #115 featured ‘Nobody Hurts my Brother!’ by Drake & Alcala: a tale of once-conjoined twins who shared each other’s hurts but not morals, after which ‘Remembered Dead’ (Kashdan & Niño) dealt with a wax museum guard’s unhealthy attachment to one of the exhibits, and ‘Every Man my Killer!’, by Kashdan and Nardo & E.R. Cruz, followed a tormented soul the entire world wanted dead…

‘Like Father, Like Son’ by Oleck & Nestor Redondo in #116 followed the rise and fall of a 18th century peasant who sold more than his soul for wealth, love and power, and ‘Puglyon’s Crypt’ by David Michelinie & Ramona Fradon explored with delicious vivacity the obsession of a man determined never to suffer premature burial…

House of Secrets #117 opened with a tale of medieval feuds and bloody vendettas that inevitably led to ‘An Eye for an Eye’ (Oleck & Ernie Chan), whilst ‘Don’t Cry for Uncle Malcolm’ Gerry Boudreau & Niño provided a phantasmagorical glimpse at the power of modern Voodoo, after which another couple of Aragonés ‘Abel’s Fables’ bracket a wickedly ironic vignette entitled ‘Revenge For the Deadly Dummy!’ by Skeates Alcala.

The sinister magic of Hollywood informs the chilling delayed vengeance saga ‘The Very Last Picture Show’ by Fleisher & George Evans which opens #118, after which a ghostly ‘Turnabout’ (Skeates & Quico Redondo) proves too much for a cunning murderess, and Oleck & Fradon display a different look at leprechauns in ‘Nasty Little Man’…

This compendium concludes with issue #119 and ‘A Carnival of Dwarfs’ by Fleisher & Arthur Suydam, wherein an unscrupulous showbiz impresario comes between a gentle old man and his diminutive friends, and wedged between two final ‘Cain & Abel’ pages by Aragonés, Pellowsky, Kashdan & Alcala proved that primitive people are anything but when a callous anthropologist provided an ‘Imitation Monster!’ for an isolated tribe and lived to regret his foolishness…

If you crave witty, beautifully realised, tastefully splatter-free snippets and sagas of tension and imagination, not to mention a huge supply of bad-taste, kid-friendly cartoon chills, book your return to the House of Secrets as soon as you possibly can…
© 1972, 1973, 1974, 2009 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Dark Horse Book of Witchcraft


By Tony Millionaire, Mike Mignola, Clark Ashton Smith, Jim & Ruth Keegan, Mark Ricketts, Scott Morse, Evan Dorkin, Gary Gianni, Paul Lee, Sean Phillips, Jill Thompson & various; edited by Scott Allie (Dark Horse)
ISBN: 978-1-59307-108-0 (HB)

Scary stories have always been a staple of comics, and anthology collections invariably offer fearsome fun and the biggest Boo for your buck so I’m taking a skittish return peek at one that has definitely stood the test of time. It would be great if Dark Horse either re-released it – or at least offered it digitally…

Following a bucolic Introduction by series editor Scott Allie, this glorious hardback grimoire of ghoulish delights and funny fables opens with an illustrated extract from ‘Macbeth’ (guess witch bit) chillingly adapted by Tony Millionaire, after which comics and movie fans get a treat all their own.

This captivating “Book of…” mystery compilation is part of a series spinning out of legendary monster-hit Hellboy, and ‘The Troll Witch’ – by Mike Mignola – presents a terrific vignette of the hulking demon foundling who visits Norway in 1963 and has a tense conversation with a very peculiar Wise-woman.

Next up is a classic prose short story by Weird Tales horror star Clark Ashton Smith. Illustrated by Gary Gianni, ‘Mother of Toads’ offers the chilling and ghastly feudal tale of a lusty peasant, love philtres and the consequences of cavorting with strange women who live far off the beaten track…

Editor Scott Allie and artists Paul Lee and Brian Horton briefly abandoned their Devil’s Footprint series to recount the chilling choice of ‘The Flower Girl’ who, pushed to the limits by her diabolically spoiled and obnoxious little sister, is offered a vile solution by a neighbour with very dark secrets of her own…

Set in Louisiana in 1838 ‘The Gris-Gris’, by Jim & Ruth Keegan, blends the rich dark earth of voodoo with the theme of witchcraft as a cowardly Southern Gentleman picks the wrong crone to trifle with when trying to cheat his way out of a duel of honour, after which 1938 Mississippi hosts the ‘Golden Calf Blues’, by Mark Ricketts & Sean Phillips, exploring the power of an accursed guitar and the Devil’s Music to seduce the supposedly righteous…

‘The Truth About Witchcraft’ is an extended and fascinating interview with attorney, advocate and Wiccan High Priestess Phyllis Curott, after which the comics wonderment resumes with a stunning tale from the height of the infamous “Witch Trials” in ‘Salem and Mary Sibley’ by Scott Morse, before everything ends in an engaging and hilarious romp wherein the neighbourhood mutts and a deeply confused cat join forces to thwart the Forces of Darkness and the local coven of Crones in ‘Unfamiliar’, scripted by Evan Dorkin and magnificently rendered by Jill Thompson.

As anthologies go, horror and mystery are never out of style and collections like this serve as the ideal vehicle for pulling resistant readers into our world of comics. When they can be this diverse whilst maintaining such a staggering level of craft, variety and quality, they should be mandatory for any proselytizing fan, and hold pride of place on any aficionado’s bookshelf.
Dark Horse Book of Witchcraft ™ and © 2004 Dark Horse Comics, Inc. All rights reserved. All interior stories and features © their respective copyright holders.