Kevin Keller: Drive Me Crazy

By Dan Parent, Bill Galvan, Rich Koslowski & various (Archie Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-936975-58-7 (TPB)

Following the debut of Superman, MLJ were merely one of many publishers to jump on the mystery-man bandwagon, generating their own small but inspired pantheon of gaudily-clad crusaders.

In November 1939 they launched Blue Ribbon Comics, and swiftly followed up with Top-Notch and Pep Comics. The content was the era’s standard mix of masked champions, clean-cut, two-fisted adventurers, genre prose pieces and gags.

Not long after, Maurice Coyne, Louis Silberkleit and John Goldwater (hence MLJ) spotted a gap in the blossoming yet crowded market. In December 1941 the Fights ‘n’ Tights, heaving he-man crowd were gently nudged aside by a far less imposing hero; an ordinary teenager having everyday adventures just like the readership, laden with companionable laughs, good times and budding romance.

Goldwater developed the youthful everyman protagonist concept, tasking writer Vic Bloom & artist Bob Montana with making it all work. Inspired by and referencing the successful Andy Hardy movies (starring Mickey Rooney), their new notion premiered in Pep Comics #22. The unlikely star was a gap-toothed, freckle-faced, red-headed kid desperate to impress the pretty blonde girl next door.

A 6-page untitled tale introduced hapless boob Archie Andrews and wholesomely fetching Betty Cooper. The boy’s wry, unconventional best friend and confidante Jughead Jones also debuted in that vignette, as did idyllic small-town utopia Riverdale. The piece was a huge hit with readers and by the winter of 1942 the kid had won his own series and latterly a solo-starring title.

Archie Comics #1 was MLJ’s first non-anthology magazine and with it began an inexorable transformation of the company. With the debut of ultra-rich, raven-haired Veronica Lodge, all the pieces were in play for the industry’s second Genuine Phenomenon…

By 1946, the kids were in charge and MLJ officially reinvented itself as Archie Comics, retiring the majority of its costumed characters years before the end of the Golden Age to become, to all intents and purposes, a publisher of family-friendly comedies.

The hometown settings and perpetually fruitful premise of an Eternal Romantic Triangle – with girl-hating Jughead to assist or deter and scurrilous love-rat rival Reggie Mantle to test, duel and vex our boy in their own unique ways – the scenario was one that not only resonated with fans, but was somehow infinitely fresh and engaging…

Like Superman, Archie’s success forced a change in content at every other US publisher (except Gilberton’s dryly po-faced Classics Illustrated), creating a culture-shifting multi-media brand encompassing TV, movies, newspaper strips, toys and merchandise, a chain of restaurants and – in the swinging sixties – a pop music sensation when Sugar, Sugar (taken from the animated TV cartoon) became a global summer smash hit. Clean and decent garage band “The Archies” has been a fixture of the comics ever since just waiting for the comeback hit…

The perennial eternal triangle has generated thousands of charming, raucous, gentle, thrilling, chiding and even heart-rending humorous dramas expressing everything from surreal wit to frantic, frenetic slapstick, with the kids and a constantly expanding cast of friends (boy genius Dilton Doily; genial giant jock Big Moose and occasional guest Sabrina the Teenage Witch amongst so many others): growing into a national institution and part of America’s cultural landscape.

The feature thrives by constantly refreshing its core archetypes; boldly, seamlessly adapting to a changing world outside its bright and cheerful pages, shamelessly co-opting youth, pop culture, fashion trends and even topical events into its infallible mix of comedy and young romance. Each and every social revolution has been painlessly assimilated into the mix and over the decades the company has confronted most social issues affecting youngsters in a manner both even-handed and tasteful.

Constant addition of new characters such as African-American Chuck Clayton and his girlfriend Nancy Woods, fashion-diva Ginger Lopez, Hispanic couple Frankie Valdez and Maria Rodriguez, student film-maker Raj Patel and spoiled home-wrecker-in-waiting Cheryl Blossom all contributed to a wide, refreshingly diverse and broad-minded scenario.

In 2010 Archie jumped the final hurdle – for decades a seemingly insurmountable one for kids comicbooks – when openly gay student Kevin Keller joined the gang: becoming an admirable advocate capably tackling and dismantling the last major taboo in mainstream comics.

Created by writer/artist Dan Parent and inker Rich Koslowski, Kevin Keller debuted in Veronica #202 (September 2010), a charming, good-looking and exceedingly-together young man who utterly bowled over the rich go-getter. Ronnie was totally smitten with him, but Kevin was far more interested in food, sports and hanging out with Jughead

When he finally explained to Veronica why she was wasting her time, she became Keller’s best buddy as they had so much in common – stylish clothes, shopping and cute guys…

Immensely popular from the outset (Veronica #202 was the first comic book in the company’s long history to go into a second printing), Kevin struck a chord with the readership. Soon, frequent guest shots evolved into a miniseries before the new kid on the block inevitably won his own ongoing title.

Trade paperback & digital compilation Kevin Keller: Drive Me Crazy collects issues #5-8 of his groundbreaking solo title and opens with an effusive Introduction from actor, author and rights activist George Takei, in anticipation of his walk-on part in the opening chapter here.

Sacrificing chronological order for star attraction, ‘By George!’ comes from Kevin Keller #6 (January 2013) wherein a class project about inspirational heroes leads to the kids invading a local comic convention headlined by the Star Trek star, after which Mr. Takei surprises all concerned by returning the favour at Riverdale High. If only Kevin wasn’t so distracted by the return of old flame Brian and the promise of new romance…

Eponymous tale ‘Drive Me Crazy!’ (Kevin Keller #5 December 2012) then targets the next milestone in a young man’s life as the affable pedestrian finally gains independence with the arrival of his first car. It is, in fact, an old jeep belonging to his dad (a retired army colonel) and the fun really hits high gear after Moose and Dilton offer to spruce it up and make it roadworthy in their own inimitable manner… just in time to play havoc with Kevin’s date with old pal Todd.

Back on track for #7 (March, 2013), ‘Decisions, decisions!’ finds Kevin dating aggressive bad boy Devon: a student determined to keep his status as a macho hetero male. Patience, love and understanding only go so far though, and when Kevin convinces Devon to finally come out, the misunderstood lout faces repercussions from his family and friends that Kevin never anticipated…

Piling on the pressure, an old secret admirer who remained anonymous chooses this moment to identify himself to the ever-popular Mr. Keller…

Everything boils over in concluding episode ‘Play by the Rules!’ (Kevin Keller #8, June 2013) when Veronica cons Kevin into starring in her self-penned stage drama Teenagers: The Musical! His proximity to former secret admirer Pauldrives Devon to jealousy and stalking, but thankfully in the unavoidable denouement, the only real casualty is Ronnie’s atrocity of a show…

Following the compelling comics is an ‘Official Kevin Keller Bonus Features’ section offering ‘Kevin, Betty and Veronica Fashions’, to supplement a cover gallery that includes modern cartoon masterpieces, remastered classic Archie images retrofitted to suit our 21st century all-star and variant covers spoofing Star Trek and Superman.

Drive Me Crazy is superbly diverse, hilariously welcoming and magically inclusive collection for you, your kids and grandparents to enjoy over and over again…
© 2013 Archie Comics Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.

Menkui! Volume 1

By Suzuki Tanaka (Blu/TokyoPop)
ISBN: 1-59816-358-2 (Tankōbon PB)

It’s Pride Month and not all comics are about earthdoom and racial slaughter. Here’s a lost diamond long overdue for another run in the sun – or at least a new English language revival on paper or in digital form…

Here’s a Yaoi story, (romanticised fantasy relationship tales of beautiful young men created for female audiences; like Shonen-Ai but with a more explicit erotic content) although very mild – to the point of chaste gentility – by that standard.

Kotori is a shyly demure young man living in the big shadow of his older brother Kujaku, who’s smarter, prettier and much more successful, however that’s measured in terms of school life. This gentle tale of first love recounts Kotori’s growing confidence and closeness with “Boy-Hottie” Akaiwa whose attentions, though heartfelt, are constantly questioned by the insecure second son.

Set in the crucible of a Japanese high school, populated with a lovely-looking, manipulative bunch of gossips and back-stabbers – Yaoi guys are apparently all the same sort of snotty mean-yet-popular princesses beloved by TV teen soap operas – the tentative pair meander down the path of true love, hampered by eternal obstacles of misapprehension, misunderstanding and the impossible dream of a little privacy.

Funny, unassuming, charmingly and painfully romantic, the main narrative tells a very familiar story but tells it exceedingly well, with minor characters adding to the mix in their own sub-adventures in separate chapters, rather than as scene-stealers in the major text. This can seem a little disconcerting to western sensibilities, but these drastic jumps soon resolve into the big picture, so bear with it.

I personally couldn’t grasp the oddly unwholesome concentration – an almost veiled sexual subtext – regarding the physical attraction between brothers, but I might be reading too much into the family relationships of another culture, so you should really decide for yourselves or trade siblings like I did…

Menkui translates as “shallow” or “superficial” and although this everyday saga of pretty-boy angst might seem to condemn itself with this title, these characters had the potential for a genuinely moving tale. Sadly, the series never got the chance. After running in from July 2000 to June 2003, the series closed abruptly. The tales were released in English as three volumes and are still available if you are a grown-up romantic and desire to continue…
© 2000 Suzuki Tanaka. All Rights Reserved. First published in Japan by BIBLOS Co., Ltd. English text ©2006.

The Artist Himself: A Rand Holmes Retrospective

By Rand Holmes; written and compiled by Patrick Rosenkranz (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-170-1 (TPB)

Randolph Holton Holmes was a unique individual: a self-taught artist who grew up troubled, found peace and sufficiency if not fame and fortune, and died far too young on March 15th 2002. Available in wrist-wrenching paperback and soothing digital editions, this superbly curated compilation and biography re-presents scads of sketches; reproductions of drawings; cartoons and paintings he created in later life, preserved alongside a copious collection of his wickedly wonderful underground and alternative comic strips for fans and the soon to be devoted…

As usual, I’ll deliver here my warning for the easily offended: this book contains comic strips never intended for children. If you are liable to be offended by raucous adult, political and drug humour, or beautifully illustrated scenes of explicit sex, unbelievable comedic violence and controversial observations, don’t buy this book. In fact, stop reading this graphic novel review. You won’t enjoy any of it and might be compelled to cause a fuss.

I’ll cover something far more wholesome tomorrow so please come back then if you want. Be warned again though: I think you are being silly and may just cover something just as unseemly. That’s just the way I am…

Rand Holmes was born in Nova Scotia on February 22nd 1942 and raised in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. After a rather remarkable early life (no clues from me – the whole point is to get you to buy this book) which included honing a prodigious artistic talent through diligently absorbing the work and drawing styles of Jack Davis, Will Eisner, Harvey Kurtzman (who bought Rand’s first profession efforts for Help! magazine) – and most especially Wally Wood – Holmes became a jobbing cartoonist and illustrator at The Georgia Straight in 1969: one of many youth-oriented, counter-culture /“underground” newspapers that blossomed during the period.

Whilst there he created signature character Harold Hedd. It ran as a regular strip, and was assembled in 1972 into an outrageously hilarious, adults-only comic-book The Collected Adventures of Harold Hedd. A second volume followed a year later. Married young and always restless, Holmes generated an astounding amount of cartoon and comic work, which appeared in White Lunch Comix, All Canadian Beaver Comics, Slow Death, Fog City Comics, Gay Comics, Dope Comics and Snarf, amongst many others.

Holmes was by inclination a completely liberated sexual and political satirist. Sadly, his meticulously lush and shockingly explicit strips often obscured powerful social commentaries by being just too damn well-drawn. He produced strips for Rolling Stone and Cheri magazine and, in the 1980s, worked briefly in the mainstream comics market. When the Direct Sales revolution first flourished, he crafted EC-flavoured yarns for genre anthologies Twisted Tales and Alien Worlds,reuniting with long-time publishing collaborator Denis Kitchen for horror anthology Death Rattle as well as the fabulous mini-series Hitler’s Cocaine: the hip, trippy, return of Harold Hedd (included in its entirety in this volume).

Holmes married a second time in 1982 and moved his family to the idyllic, isolated artistic community of Lasqueti Island where he increasingly concentrated on a self-sufficient life-style, with oil painting replacing cartooning as an outlet for his relentless artistic drives. Here, with other creative hermits, he built an art centre which has become his lasting monument.

He passed away from Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in 2002 and this book was the result of the first retrospective show compiled by his family from the treasury of superb material he left behind.

As well as a photo-stuffed and highly engaging history, this volume contains a wealth of artwork from early doodles to teen cartoons; illustrations and covers from his commercial art days; sketches; paintings; fascinating excerpts from the journals he kept for most of his life and a wonderful selection of his comics.

These last include many ‘Out to Lunch’ hotrod strips; early Harold Hedd pages from the Georgia Straight; sexy horror yarn ‘Raw Meat’; assorted ultra-nasty Basement Man tales; ‘Nip an’ Tuk – Those Cute Little Fuzzy Mices’; even more Hedd in ‘Wings Over Tijuana’ plus an unfinished story, as well as the aforementioned ‘Hitler’s Cocaine’ saga. Also on view are ‘And Here He Is… the Artist Himself’; ‘Killer Planet’; ‘Junkyard Dog’ (written by Mike Baron) and ‘Mean Old Man’ (written by Rob Maisch) – a powerful yarn that smacks of autobiography – before the artist portion concludes with a gallery of the stunning paintings that occupied his later days.

Rand Holmes was a true artist in every sense of the word: mostly producing work intended to change society, not fill his pockets. This terrific tome is a splendid and fitting tribute: one any grown-up art lover will marvel at and cherish.
© 2010 Patrick Rosenkranz, with the exception of the Rand Holmes diary entries which are © 2010 Martha Holmes. All artwork © 2010 Martha Holmes. Individual comic stories © their respective writers. All rights reserved.

Apocalypse Cancelled

By Luke Melia, Jamie Norman & Valerie Quatrocchi, Geoff Jones, David Anderson, Mike Smith, Dennis O’Shea, Kat Humphries, Grame Stewart, Dan Wilkinson, Leor King, INKY CONDITIONS & various (Dreamspace Books)
ISBN: 978-1-70859-669-9 (PB)

The following review contains language and expletives used by grown-ups. If you are offended or upset by words, and descriptions of rude stuff, perhaps you will want to give this one a miss.

We’ve all just been through an horrific experience and it’s certainly wedged itself into the global collective unconsciousness on many levels. I’ll wager it has forced many people to reassess the world and their place in it. On that note comes a wickedly mordant, topically charged satirical anthology of comics, prose and poetry from veteran indie author/publisher Luke Melia and his band of literary merry pranksters…

Likely suspects on the next Extinction Event list are limited and we can all cite them thanks to many, many movies and media outlets. The premise of this themed collection is a killer asteroid drawing an unmistakeable, irrevocable bead on the planet. Once it’s spotted, confirmed and made public, humanity reacts pretty much as you’d expect – with a few intriguing exceptions as detailed herein – before the worst thing possible happens: the bloody thing misses Earth and everybody still alive must deal with what they did when they thought the end was literally here…

An enticingly trenchant exploration and assessment of human nature in a shotgun blast of illustrated novellas, vignettes, epigrams and assorted poetic forms, the wild ride opens (and ultimately circularly closes) with ‘Prime Minister’s Speech’by Luke Melia: a rap-style 10 Downing Street press conference very much in the pompously profuse and profligate manner of our current old-school Glorious Leader, but with a hearty dose of biting whimsy salting the pot…

Précising the mindset of the masses as the big rock closes in, ‘Apocalypse Please’ precedes the first of a sequence of Police Memos addressing rapidly-shifting constabulary priorities and a jaunty ‘Limerick’ by Mike Smith, before Melia’s prose novella ‘Did You Have a Nice Weekend?’ hones in on one recurring aspect of the aftermath of Armageddon interruptus.

When the event fizzles, go-getting businessman Tony Clarke reassembles the remains of his crack team to capitalise on the reconstruction of society. Sadly, the uncontrolled, panicked personal excesses of those presumed end days may have resulted in words and actions that not everyone in the office can forgive or forget…

Melia’s vignette ‘Running Out of Tomorrows’ proves not everyone knows how to let go, before Smith’s epigrammatic treatise on ‘Terry’s Best Friend’ segues into Jamie Norman & Valerie Quatrocchi’s comic strip ‘Little Rock’ wherein man and beast each find a new way to wait for death. A police report on Cannibalism is balanced by ‘FUCK!’ (Leor King) as a cult leader is lost for words – or deeds – after which ‘Once Upon an Apocalypse’ by Geoff Jones shares one last grim bedtime tale between a father and his little princess…

More Melia moments follow as ‘The Conspiracy Wolf’ outlines a dedicated doomsday fantabulist’s dilemma and dysmorphic delusional ‘Eleanor’ finds an identity at last, whilst David Anderson & Melia explore a gamer’s solution in ‘Apocalypse Online’.

The pressing business of finishing a binge watch marathon occupies Dan Wilkinson in ‘En Route’ whilst Melia’s ‘First Day of School’ eases us into his examination of faith under inexorable pressure in Nun’s tale ‘Dear Lord’

The crime of Murder is reassessed in a police report as ‘A Big Change’ (by INKY CONDITIONS/Stevie Mitchell) offers cartoon commentary before ‘Louise’s Crater’ (Smith) sees possible spectral intervention for a single dad and his traumatised son when the end of days results in enforced separation due to a swift uptick of sales and compulsory overtime in underground bomb shelters…

A brace of Melia shorts opens with a bungee jumper in ‘Saving Grace’ and asks the space rock what it wants in ‘Journey’, before ‘Shuttle’ (Dennis O’Shea & Melia) observes how Earth’s latest astronauts handle the crisis, after which Benjamin Parkin’s ‘HIM’ homes in on a serial killer’s liberated spouse and Melia’s ‘Salvation Day’ takes us into the future when the crisis has been at last reduced to just another bank holiday.

Visually explicit, Melia & Anderson’s ‘We’re All Fucked!’ explores the plebian side of orgiastic release, after which a police report on Uncategorised Offences and Anderson’s ‘Bedside’ vigil lead to a delightfully different take from Kat Humphries as a string of loners bond over animal care in prose homily ‘Cat Lovers Wanted’

For ‘Bumping into People at Orgies’ Melia dryly dissects the morning after the night before, and Smith addresses passion and paranoia in ‘It’s Outside’ before O’Shea dabbles with just desserts – and entrees – in a tale of bullying entitled ‘Howard the Coward’.

Domestics reports get a police revision and Melia recounts the fate of ‘Yappy’ before Grame Stewart gets extremely down and dirty in a tale of ‘Dark Desires’ fulfilled, after which Melia’s ‘Freed’ addresses a new self-help system and Norman reveals the contributions of veteran nonconformist power engineer ‘Big Rock’. A mini masterpiece of character writing from Melia offers a tantalising counterpoint to liberated madness in ‘Business as Usual’ with data entry clerk Melvin Toddliving his perfect life as society crumbles. It’s not what you think…

Optimism in O’Shea’s ‘World Piece’ is countered by dark malice in Ryan Howe’s ‘Repent’ before ‘Bunker’ by O’Shea & Melia takes us into the future to reveal what today’s survivalist nuts did when the crash came, before a police report on Public Order and wry comic strip ‘Samson’ (Melia & Bobby Peñafiel) lead to a psychological aberration back at work in Melia’s ‘Cinnamon Glaze’. The entire calamity confection then concludes with the aforementioned redux performance of ‘Prime Minister’s Speech Part 2’, capping the madness with more – and better – of the same…

Perhaps best summed up by exalted prophet “Boring” Bob Grover of The Piranhas “The whole thing’s daft, I don’t know why. You have to laugh or else you’d cry”…

Conversely, you can simply read this and make up your mind in the comfort of your own retreat from reality…
All right reserved. Each piece © 2021 the relevant author.

This Was 2020

By Peter S. Conrad (
ISBN: 979-8-589501-56-8 (Digest PB)

Peter Conrad (Markdown Dreams; Love, Death and DRIVING; Vidrio Café) is an artist, designer and author working in San Francisco, and one of those bold, diligently disciplined creative souls who maintain some form of cartoon journal. Last year was pretty remarkable for everyone, so rather than keep all those pictorial observations to himself and his intimate circle, he opted to publish and share his experiences.

The result is this captivating monochrome paperback (available through Amazon and on Kindle) which invites us into the life of a rather sedentary couple, who became – like all of us in non-critical occupations and services – passive observers and commentators on life in a total bollock of a year…

In gentle tones, and while never really surrendering a sense of wondrous bewilderment, Conrad details the intimate side of enforced self-internment for people like all of us, with the reader doubtless remarking “yep, we did that” or “nope! Not us”, while also detailing that other stuff happened too…

While remarking on celebrity fatalities – as opposed to disease-induced deaths – such as Kobe Bryant, and personal losses he lists other inescapable communal acts we all mostly lived through. There’s civic insouciance; cancelled plans; loss of social contact, murder hornets (!); the social niceties of quarantining; new hobbies and occupations; unexpected consequence of “staying fit” and the general lulling of human expectation, before the artist hones in on how everything changes after the murder of George Floyd seized the world’s attention…

Certainly, for the Conrads and their neighbours, life was a little more dramatic. Having to sit pat for riots on the streets of San Francisco (Black Lives Matter), endure how stressed people legally owning guns relieve tensions, vote in another – hopefully final – election involving the Orange Idiot in Chief, and barely escaping California’s worst fire season since the last – or next – one, totally trumps my part of scenic Kent enduring Brexit-inspired traffic chaos, but I suspect we all feel each other’s pain here…

Or maybe not.

Simultaneously encompassing and embracing stifling ennui and radical change, mass death and truly global lack of leadership, this superb graphic memoir laves on a laudable everyman perspective to the best and worst of times; serving to confirm that when we finally reach the actual apocalypse, we won’t have learned a damn thing and will still make the same mistakes again…

With any luck, there will also be books like this on to remind us that empathy, grace and hope are also parts of the human condition.
© 2021 by Peter S. Conrad. All rights reserved.

The Complete Peanuts volume 5: 1959 to 1960

By Charles M. Schulz (Canongate Books/Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-84767-149-3 (Canongate HB) 978-1-60699-921-9 (Fantagraphics PB)

Peanuts is unequivocally the most important comics strip in the history of graphic narrative. It is also the most deeply personal.

Cartoonist Charles M Schulz crafted his moodily hilarious, hysterically introspective, shockingly philosophical surreal epic for half a century: 17,897 strips from October 2nd 1950 to February 13th 2000. He died from the complications of cancer the day before his last strip was published…

At its height, the strip ran in 2,600 newspapers in 75 countries, translated into 21 languages. Many of those venues are still running perpetual reprints, as they have ever since his departure. Attendant book collections, a merchandising mountain and television spin-offs made the publicity-shy artist a billionaire.

None of that matters. Peanuts – a title Schulz loathed, but one the syndicate forced upon him – changed the way comics strips were received and perceived: proving cartoon comedy could have edges and nuance as well as pratfalls and punchlines.

Following a Foreword of fun and frank shared reminiscences between editor Gary Groth and mega star Whoopi Goldberg, the timeless times of play, peril and psychoanalysis resume as ever in marvellous monochrome, but this time major changes are in motion as the feature enters its true glory days …

Our focus is quintessential inspirational loser Charlie Brown who, with increasingly high-maintenance, fanciful mutt Snoopy, remains at odds with a bombastic, mercurial supporting cast, all hanging out doing kid stuff.

As always, daily gags centre on playing, pranks, and a seasonal selection of sports; musical moments, teasing, making baffled observations and occasionally acting a bit too much like grown-ups. However, with this tome, the themes and tropes that define the series (especially in the wake of all those animated TV specials) are truly bedded in.

Mean girl Violet, prodigy Schroeder, “world’s greatest fussbudget” Lucy and her off-kilter little brother Linus and dirt-magnet “Pig-Pen” are fixtures sufficiently fleshed out and personified to generate jokes and sequences around their own foibles, but a new disruptive force is introduced. The existential angst of Charlie Brown is magnified by more responsibility with the coming of his new baby sister Sally

Resigned to his role as eternal loser and singled out by fate and the relentless, diabolical Lucy – who now intensifies and monetises her spiteful verve with a 5¢ walk-in psychoanalysis booth – the round-headed kid really endures the trials of Job from now on. His attempts to fly a kite or kick a football are perpetually sabotaged, and he faces from all the females in his life constant face-to-face reminders of how rubbish he is. Can this new one in his own house be any different?

Other notable events include the first instances of Linus’ doomed relationships: primarily with alternative mythical entity The Great Pumpkin, but also unattainable, equally unseen schoolteacher/inamorata Miss Othmar

Wonder beagle Snoopy increases his strange development in all ways. His extended Cold War duel for possession of Linus’ cherished comfort blanket escalates but the manic mutt also finds time to philosophise, dance like a dervish and battle City Hall to save his doghouse from a proposed Freeway Bypass…

The Sunday page had debuted on January 6th 1952; a standard half-page slot offering more measured fare than 4-panel dailies. Both thwarted ambition and explosive frustration became part of the strip’s signature denouements as these weekend wonders gave the auteur room to be at his most visually imaginative, whimsical and weird…

By 1959, rapid-fire raucous slapstick gags were riding side-by-side with increasingly abstract, obscure, edgy, psychologically barbed introspections: deep ruminations in a world where kids and animals were the only actors. The relationships are now deep, complex and absorbing but there was still room and time for pure artistic expression. The “Clouds” page for Sunday August 14th was instantly revered by readers and cited by Schulz as his all-time personal favourite.

Sheer exuberance and a spontaneous tendency to barrack perceived failure or weakness at any provocation remains a trusted standby, supported by sporting crises, loneliness, the difficulties of learning to read and wearing long pants, plus a growing attention to issues of motherhood.

Particular moments to relish here involve Snoopy’s muzzle-pugilism; Charlie Brown’s “pencil-pal”; snow-games, rain, cooking gaffes; television, the dread power of romance and grandeur and weirdness of Autumn: all while offering more examples of Schroeder’s eternal love affair of Beethoven and inability to discern Lucy’s far-from-apparent attractions.

The general trends for all the kids being beguiled by stargazing, waxing philosophical at the heavens’ splendour and enduring St. Valentines’ Day traumas continues and there’s even a sighting of Lucy’s softer side. This collection features the first incidence of a minor phenomenon springing from the April 25th daily which first disclosed that “Happiness is a warm puppy…”

To wrap it all up, Gary Groth celebrates and deconstructs the man and his work in ‘Charles M. Schulz: 1922 to 2000’whilst a copious ‘Index’ offers instant access to favourite scenes you’d like to see again….

Readily available in hardcover, paperback and digital editions, this volume offers a rare example of a masterpiece in motion: comedy gold and social glue metamorphosing into an epic of spellbinding graphic mastery that remains part of the fabric of billions of lives, and which continues to make new fans and devotees long after its maker’s passing.
The Complete Peanuts: 1959-1960 (volume 5) © 2006 United Features Syndicate, Inc. The Foreword is © 2006 Whoopi Goldberg. “Charles M. Schulz: 1922 to 2000” © 2006 Gary Groth. All rights reserved.

Beano: Beanopedia

By Rachel Elliot, Hannah Baldwin, Rob Ward & various (Studio Press Books/D.C. Thomson)
ISBN: 978-1-7874-1-705-2 (HB)

Premiering on December 4th 1937, The Dandy broke the mould of traditional British comics’ antecedents by using word balloons and captions rather than narrative blocks of text under the sequential picture frames. A huge success, it was followed eight months later by The Beano – which launched on July 30th 1938. Together they utterly revolutionised the way children’s publications looked and, most importantly, how they were read.

Over the decades the “terrible twins” spawned a bevy of unforgettable and beloved household names who delighted countless avid and devoted readers, and the unmissable end of year celebrations were graced with bumper bonanzas of the comics’ weekly stars in extended stories in magnificent hardback annuals.

As WWII progressed, rationing of paper and ink forced the “children’s papers” into an alternating fortnightly schedule: on September 6th 1941, only The Dandy was published. A week later just The Beano appeared. The rascally rapscallions only returned to normal weekly editions on 30th July 1949. Although The Dandy closed up in 2012, The Beano has soldiered on, amusing generations of glad gigglers and fuelling a minor industry in TV adaptations, toys, games, food, apparel, “how to” books and so much more.

August 28, 2019 saw the landmark 4,000th issue and it’s still going strong. That’s a lot of years and countless pranks, japes, dodges, menacings and all, so last year this cheery tome was released: a vibrant dossier of pertinent info on the current status and occupants of kids’ comedy Ground Zero…

Aimed at the younger end of the market and offering all the facts and pictures any devotee could dream of, this slight-but-detailed tour around Beanotown offers tips and hints, insiders’ insights and intimate introductions to all the funny folk living there.

The indispensable hardback guide opens with a welcoming ‘Visitors’ Guide’ hosted by Dennis the Menace and cunning canine collaborator Gnasher, detailing the top nine points of civic pride and interest, backed up by vivid advice on ‘How to get here (and how to leave)’, ‘Weird ways to travel’, ‘How to completely escape’ and ‘How to find your way around’

A major portion of this guide features the lowdown on the town’s most notable inhabitants rendered as brief text, fact files, descriptive key quotes and a game. Of course, the first subjects are ‘The Menace Family’: Dennis, baby sister Bea, parents, Gran, pets and pesky archenemies, all supplemented by ‘Dennis’ Most Impressive Pranks’ and (cousin) ‘Minnie’s Most Magnificent Minxes’.

Minnie the Minx then similarly introduces her lot in ‘The Makepeace Family’, before a broad barrage of pages covers ‘The Bash Street Kids’ individually and collectively, with sections on the war-weary staff, ‘The Bash Street Pups’, the history of ‘Bash Street School’ and its ancestor institution ‘Horrible Hall’ and tips on ‘How to rule Bash Street School’

Posh, privileged foes of all fun ‘The Brown Family’ are examined next from sneaky Walter to his greedy, ambitious parents Wilbur and Muriel, after which shorter files give us the facts on lesser stars ‘Peter “Pieface” Shepard’, sporty ‘JJ’, ‘Billy Whizz’, ‘Betty and the Yeti’ and wheelchair wonder/girl gadget-boffin ‘Rubidium von Screwtop (Rubi)’.

Secret philanthropist and truly-decent rich kid ‘Lord Snooty’ has survived relatively unscathed since the comic’s earliest days and his profile neatly segues into the home set-up of Roger the Dodger in ‘The Dawson Family’ files and the kids’ garage band ‘The Dinmakers’, after which (relatively) recent arrivals ‘Dangerous Dan’ and ‘Tricky Dicky’ precede a large section on ‘Eric Wimp (Bananaman)’ which includes a rundown on ‘Bananaman’s Fiendish Foes’.

Unlucky lad ‘Calamity James’ is followed by the Numskulls ‘Lurking Unseen’ lead to a self-help section detailing ‘How to be a Top Beanotown Resident’ and sharing ‘Beanotown Friendship’ rituals, leading to a rundown of ‘Beanotown’s History’, ‘Where to Go’, ‘What to Do’ and graphic lectures on ‘Sport and Leisure’ with a few helpful scenes to visit, after which‘Wildlife’ sets a thrilling agenda and ‘Baby Minder’ suggests individuals every parent should have on speed dial…

Moving on to the end of our tour, ‘Beanotown’s Secrets’ lists unmissable sites you might have overlooked while ‘Perfect Pranks’ suggest some anarchic homework for later, rounded up lists of ‘Where Not to Go for Help’ and ‘Where to Go for Help’.

And because it’s not a proper day out without one, this lovely tome concludes with a ‘Beanotown Quiz’ immediately followed by the ‘Answers’

Slick, sleek, jolly and amazingly compelling, this is a perfect delight to bolster any kid’s introduction or re-submersion in a truly British icon.
A Beano Studios Product © D.C. Thomson Ltd 2020

“The Beano” ® © and associated characters ™© D.C. Thomson & Co., Ltd 2007. All Rights Reserved.

Couch Tag

By Jesse Reklaw (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-676-8

In modern trend for graphic novels combining autobiography with a touch of therapy as they recount the lives of their authors is well established now, but once such “tragicomics” were a scarce but inviting commodity. Immensely appealing and frequently painfully unforgettable, they prove our medium fully capable of tackling the most contentious issues. One of the most moving and impressive came from veteran Indie cartoonist and mini comics self-publisher Jessie (Dreamtoons; Ten Thousand Things to Do; Lovf: An Illustrated Vision Quest of a Man Losing His Mind) Reklaw: who’s generated unmissable thought-provoking strips and stories since 1995 when he was working towards his doctorate in Artificial Intelligence.

Born in Berkley, California in 1971, he grew up in Sacramento before attending UC Santa Cruz and Yale, and his earliest publications – just like most of his modern output – delved into the phenomena and imagery of dreams. The experimental Concave Up led to syndicated weekly strip dream-diary Slow Wave, which uses readers’ contributions as the basis of the episodes. It ran from 1995 to 2012 in both printed periodicals and as a webcomic and is sorely missed.

His graphic autobiography is just as beguiling: a life reduced to brief vignettes serially grouped into 5 innocuous-seeming chapters which, through cleverly layered and carefully tailored reminiscences, describe Recklaw’s strangely unconventional (if not actually dysfunctional) family and personal struggle for stability.

Primarily crafted in monochrome wash, the history sessions begin with ‘Thirteen Cats of My Childhood’ – which older readers will recognises from Houghton Mifflin’s Best American Comics 2006, where it was also published – wherein succinct and ferociously functional recollections of a succession of ill-starred family pets serves as a splendid and powerfully effective narrative conceit to introduce the far from ordinary Walker clan.

By following the brief lives of ‘Black Star’, ‘Frosty’, ‘The Triplets’, ‘Mischief’, ‘Figgy Pudding’, ‘Gene’, ‘Survivor’,‘Tiger’, ‘Boots’ and ‘Harry’, we see a family of decidedly alternative outlook whilst also relating the rules of the furniture-based children’s game which gives this book its title.

‘A Note About Names Part One’ follows, revealing more about the sensibilities of the author’s parents, after which ‘Toys I Loved’ continues the amazingly instructive anecdotes about formative influences, as games and playthings act as keys to memory in increasingly unsettling, discordant and disturbing tales beginning in infancy with cuddly toy ‘Ruff-Ruff’ and skipping through a childhood dotted with sibling rivalries and sporadic best-friendships.

Jess, Sis, Mom and “Daddy Bill” are all defined courtesy of ‘The Mask’, ‘Me’s’, ‘Blankie’, ‘Sprinkler’, ‘Play-Doh’, ‘Stretch Armstrong’, ‘Six-Million-Dollar Man’, ‘The Hulk’, ‘Firecrackers’, ‘Green Cup’, ‘Diecast Robots’, ‘Drawers’, ‘Comic Books’, ‘Action Figures’, ‘Dirt Pile’, ‘Doll House’ and ‘Barbies’, before the life-changing advent of ‘Dungeons & Dragons’

‘The Fred Robinson Story’ details the potentially obsessive nature of teenage pranks with Jess and like-minded buddy Brendan – over a number of years – bombarding a complete stranger with a barrage of creative celebration; turning a random name in a phone book into the recipient of odd gifts and star of music and handmade comic books in ‘The Box’.

The lads develop their musical tendencies in ‘Los Angeles’ and penchant for creative vandalism in ‘Batsigns’, before returning to their lengthy cartooning crusade in ‘Fred Robinson X-ing’: relating how the prank publishing campaign mushroomed and Brendan’s girlfriend Kristin changes the status quo, after which Jess gets a ‘Letter from Norway’ and‘Better Fred’ reveals how things eventually ended…

‘The Stacked Deck’ recounts educational episodes and memorable moments resulting from the entire extended family’s passion for card games and tendency towards compulsive behaviour, as seen in ‘War’, ‘Go Fish’, ‘Spades’, ‘Pinochle’,‘Crazy Eights’, ‘Speed’, ‘Poker’, ‘31’, ‘Rummy’, ‘Solitaire’, ‘Spite & Malice’ and ‘Ascension’

Final chapter ‘Lessoned’ is delivered in a succession of distressed colour-segments: raw and disturbing pages of evocative collage and experimental narrative dealing out a unique tarot set of A-to-Z insights and disclosures, beginning with ‘Adults’, ‘Birth’ and ‘the Crash’.

Ranging between early days and contemporary times, the alphabetical summary and keen self-diagnosis continues with ‘Disease’, ‘Earache’, ‘Family’, ‘Gifted’, ‘Humor’ and ‘Invulnerability’, turning a corner towards understanding with ‘Joint’, ‘Kiersey Test’, ‘Legal Guardian’, ‘Melancholic’, ‘Number’ and ‘Obsession’.

After cleverly addressing the revelations of the author’s bipolar mood disorder and explosive determination to take control of his life by rejecting sickness and weakness, ‘Phlegmatic’, ‘Question’, ‘Role-Playing’, ‘Sanguine’, ‘Tests’ and ‘Unconscious’ carry the account to a new normal with ‘the Vandal’, ‘Walker’, ‘X-Mas’, ‘Yesterday’ and ‘Zero’.

Bleak yet uplifting, nostalgic and distressing, harsh and blackly funny, Couch Tag is a devastatingly moving account of coping with adverse heredity, sexual deviancy, social nonconformity and familial discord which I suspect could only be told in comics.

This is not a book everyone can like, but it’s definitely a story to resonate with anyone who has felt alone, odd or different.

And surely that’s all of us at some time…
© 2013 Jesse Reklaw. This edition © 2013 Fantagraphics Books, Inc. All rights reserved.

The Last Lonely Saturday

By Jordan Crane (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-56097-743-8 (HB)

Award-winning Jordan Crane is a child of the 1970s and first garnered notice in comics circles with his 1996 anthology NON: an experimental vehicle very much in the manner of Art Spiegelman’s Raw and latterly quarterly anthology Uptight.

Working far too slowly for my greedy appetites, he’s also released a trio of graphic novels to date, Col-Dee, children’s adventure The Clouds Above and this one – his first and most moving.

Available in both hardcover and digital editions, The Last Lonely Saturday is crafted in a strange blend of vivid-yet-muted reds and yellows and comedically lugubrious cartoon style. Delivered in two panels per page, it recounts – almost exclusively without dialogue – one quiet day in August when a lonely widower once again diligently makes his way to the florist’s, the cemetery and inevitably the grave of his beloved Elenore.

It’s a ritual he’s enacted for many years, indulging in bittersweet memories as he clings to life while yearning to be reunited with his truly beloved. However, as the endless duty unfolds, events take an oblique turn and melancholy whimsy becomes something more as we’re reminded that it’s not just the living who feel the pangs of loss or yearn for reunion…

Smart, charming, witty and devilishly wry, this is a lost delight that proves the deceptive potency of comics and enduring power of love.
© 2000 Jordan Crane. All rights reserved.

The Hidden

By Richard Sala (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-385-6 (HB)

One of the cruellest side-effects of the current pandemic is its power to cut you down emotionally and fill you with guilt over things you have no power to control. Prime offender for me is finding out people I like admire or just simply know have gone, and I’m probably the last to know. Just like this guy…

Richard Sala was a lauded and brilliantly gifted exponent and creator of comics who deftly blended beloved pop culture artefacts and conventions – particularly cheesy comics and old horror films – with a hypnotically effective ability to tell a graphic tale.

A child who endured sustained paternal abuse, Sala grew up in Chicago and Arizona. Retreating into childish bastions of entertainment he eventually escaped family traumas and as an adult earned a Masters Degree in Fine Arts. He became an illustrator after rediscovering the youthful love of comic books and schlock films that had brightened his youth.

His metafictional, self-published Night Drive in 1984 led to appearances in legendary 1980s anthologies Raw, Blab! and Prime Cuts and animated adaptations of the series were produced for Liquid Television.

His work remains welcomingly atmospheric, dryly ironic, wittily quirky and mordantly funny; indulgently celebrating childhood terrors, gangsters, bizarre events, monsters and manic mysteries, with girl sleuth Judy Drood and the glorious trenchant storybook investigator Peculia the most well-known characters in his gratifyingly large back catalogue.

Sala’s art is a joltingly jolly – if macabre – joy to behold and has also shone on many out-industry projects such as his work with Lemony Snickett, The Residents and even Jack Kerouac; illustrating the author’s outrageous Doctor Sax and The Great World Snake.

One of my personal favourites is The Hidden which revels in the seamy, scary underbelly of un-life: an enigmatic quest tale following a few “lucky” survivors who wake up one morning to discover civilisation has succumbed to an inexplicable global Armageddon. The world is now a place of primitive terror, with no power, practically no people and ravening monsters roaming everywhere.

Trapped on in the fog on a mountain, Colleen and Tom emerge into the world of death and destruction before promptly fleeing back to the wilderness. As they run, they encounter an amnesiac bum, who uncomprehendingly leads them to other young survivors – each with their own tale of terror – and together they seek a place of sanctuary in the desert and the shocking true secret of the disaster…

Clever, compelling and staggeringly engaging, this fabulous full-colour hardback (also available in digital formats) is a perfect introduction to Sala’s world: a sublimely nostalgic escape hatch back to those days when unruly children scared themselves silly under the bedcovers at night. It is an ideal gift for the big kid in your life – whether he/she/they are just you, imaginary or even relatively real…
© 2011 Richard Sala. All rights reserved.