Big Scoop of Ice Cream


By Conxita Herrero Delfa: translated by Jeff Whitman (NBM)
ISBN: 978-1-68112-294-6 (PB) eISBN: 978-1-68112-295-3

Comics are a nigh-universal, extremely powerful medium that lends itself to a host of topics and genres, but the area where it has always shined brightest is in its chimeric capacity for embracing autobiographical self-expression. Whether through fictionalised narratives or scrupulously candid revelation, imaginative forays into self-realisation and self-expression frequently inevitably forge the most impressive and moving connections between reader and author.

Conxita Herrero Delfa’s vibrant collection Gran bola de helado was originally released in 2016, containing lifestyle short stories crafted before COVID changed the world. She is Barcelona born – in 1993 – and studied Fine Arts, but found another outlet for her artistic and raconteurial tendencies by publishing fanzines exploring aspects of free discourse, tireless observation and personal introspection. If you’re open-minded and well-travelled, you may have seen her follow-up work in various magazines and collective books. She’s also a singer, so look out for the album Abducida por forma una pareja by Tronco, if you’re so inclined…

Big Scoop of Ice Cream sees Conxita explore in compelling detail her metamorphic life via comic strips, with what appears to be relentless honesty and inspired veracity. Gathered here is a broad menu of experiences true, slightly true, made up, tedious, meta-real and maybe even a bit untrue, made in response to an ineffectual youth becoming – in fits and starts – a grown up. Everyday tasks, major achievements, personal breakthrough and moments without merit jostle beside strange days and minor miracles in ‘Resolutions’, after which we survive spectral invasion ‘Ghosts’ and learn what “adulting” means in ‘The Bathroom’.

The significance of playing alone shapes ‘Talking’, and perhaps a hint of potential romance looms in ‘The Couch Cushion’, before ‘The Arrival of Spring’ induces travel and causes a mini crisis. Sex happens in dusky pink monotones while ‘Relating’ before solitude returns, sparking thoughts of ‘The South of California’ and triggering ominous internet hook ups in ‘Enter’

Acquiring an item of furniture attains the status of ‘The Metaphor’ for her and her friends whilst a beach break with Ricardo in ‘Alghero’ turns into a partial break with reality before ‘The Castles’ sees perspective restored – and endangered – by an over-sharing drinking buddy and other travelling companions…

A temporary liaison doesn’t pan out, but that’s okay because of what Conxita carries in ‘The Pocket’, and there are always marvels in abundance when ‘Looking Up’ or finding someone who will play ‘The Game’

Visually experimental, the eponymous ‘Big Scoop of Ice Cream’ contrasts flavours and relationships without reaching any useful conclusions but segues neatly into a strange encounter in a bar with ‘The Reject’ before the ruminations conclude with confirmation that ‘People are Only Human’

Boasting quotes from Marcel Proust, José Sainz, and Conxita herself, this whimsical confection is uplifting but never self-deluding, wryly inviting and features a breakout performance by pet cat Julia and a recurring box of toffee apples.

These 17 slices of Latin soul are delivered with verve and gusto in a minimalist cartooning style afforded surprising depth by swathes of flat colour: stylishly masking earnest inquiry and heavy introspection with charm, wit and carefully ingenuous nonsense. Big Scoop of Ice Cream is a book to delight and enthral and get in your head, and should be there with you wherever or however you holiday and forever after when you get back to mundane reality.
© 2016 Conxita Herrero Delfa and apa apa comics. © 2022 NBM for the English translation. All rights reserved.

Big Scoop of Ice Cream is scheduled for UK release July 14th 2022 and is available for pre-order now. For more information and other great reads see http://www.nbmpub.com/. Most NBM books are also available in digital formats.

Jaimie Smart’s Bunny Vs Monkey: Rise of the Maniacal Badger


By Jaimie Smart, with Sammy Borras (David Fickling Books)
ISBN: 978-1-78845-280-9 (TPB) 978-1-78845-118-5 (Waterstones Exclusive Edition)

Bunny vs. Monkey has been a staple of comics phenomenon The Phoenix since the very first issue in 2012: recounting a madcap vendetta gripping animal arch-enemies set amidst an idyllic arcadia masquerading as more-or-less mundane but critically endangered English woodlands.

Concocted with gleefully gentle mania by cartoonist, comics artist and novelist Jamie Smart (Fish Head Steve!; Looshkin; Flember), the trendsetting, mindbending yarns have been wisely retooled as graphic albums available in remastered, double-length digest editions such as this one.

All the tail-biting tension and animal argy-bargy began yonks ago after an obnoxious little beast popped up in the wake of a disastrous British space shot. After crashlanding in Crinkle Woods – scant miles from his launch site – lab animal Monkey believed himself the rightful owner of a strange new world, despite all efforts from reasonable, sensible, genteel, contemplative forest resident Bunny to dissuade him. For all his patience, propriety and good breeding, the laid-back lepine just could not contain the incorrigible idiot ape, who was – and is – a rude, noise-loving, chaos-creating loutish troublemaker…

Problems are exacerbated by the other unconventional Crinkle creatures, particularly a skunk called Skunky who has a mad scientist’s attitude to life and a propensity to build extremely dangerous robots and super-weapons…

Here – with artistic assistance from Sammy Borras – the war of nerves and mega-ordnances resumes and intensifies. The unruly assortment of odd critters loitering around and cluttering up the bucolic paradise have finally picked sides: shifting and twisting into bipartisan factionalism. They all seem to have forgotten that rapidly encroaching Hyoomanz as they respond to another personal crisis and the rise to power of an unsuspected third force in woodland politics…

As ever divided into seasonal outbursts, the saga starts slowly with a chilly teaser tale as Winter ends in the ‘Thaw of the Snow-Bots’…

The assorted animals have been in stasis in a giant freezer, and once fire-breathing snowmen attack, they decide it’s best to have a little more kip… or do they?

The story actually resumes in Spring and the far future where time-traveller Ai – a superfast Ai-Ai not naturally indigenous to our sylvan glades and endangered shores – learns of a disaster that’s history here but her tomorrow. A good person, she undertakes ‘The Journey Home’ but arrives too late as ‘A Rather Maniacal Badger’ details how the woods have been conquered at last…

Previously, a catastrophic rivalry erupted when rival evil genius Maniacal Badger vied with Skunky for the title of “The Most Brilliant Animal in the Woods”. Now, while everyone was hibernating, the black-&-white bounder has occupied the region and established a base in a 50-foot (15-24 meters) high statue of himself as the first step in building his dream of Badgertopia.

The shock of defeat particularly affects Skunky, who descends into a spiral of depression and lowering esteem…

Universal innocents Weenie squirrel and Pig have their own way of de-stressing and not even roving robot drones can upset ‘A Quiet, Uneventful Day’ on the lake. Old animosities are paused and enemies become temporary allies planning to resist through ‘Distraction’ and strategic deployment of brain-battered, bewildered suicide bomber/former stuntman Action Beaver, but when that scheme flops we instead focus on ‘A Sad Skunk’ as the original mad scientist undergoes an existential crisis and needs Bunny to share it with…

The relative inactivity soon triggers his robot back-up to mischief mode, but even ‘Mecha Skunky!’ is not immune to the doldrums and there’s nothing ‘Action Beaver!’ can do to rectify the situation, especially after the badger activates a gross flying terror who swallows everybody in ‘The Whale!’

Having retreated to the tunnels built by long-gone but not forgotten local legend Fantastic Le Fox, the uneasy animal animals hide from the tyrant’s tantrums in ‘Too Noisy!’: unexpectedly discovering a hidden, weapon-stocked lair that will be the base for their fight back… once they have safely reassembled ‘All the Toys in the Toyshop!’

Although initial giant robot ‘Battle Bat!’ spectacularly fails, resistance efforts continue, but Monkey is easily distracted and soon moves to make his own empire in ‘Monkeyopia Rises!’ and as Summer begins ‘Divisions!’ proliferate. Before long the war with Bunny flares up again and instantly moves into the province of war crimes as the simian unleashes his flatulence-powered ‘Rofl-Copter!’

Weenie and Pig go on a ‘Treasure Hunt!’ in the mouldering pile of toxic rubbish kindly left by the Hyoomanz, but find no shield from the badger’s latest infamy: mind controlling everyone and turning the Woods into his digital plaything in ‘Game Over!’

A brief diversion follows in an exclusive Bunny vs Monkey Detective Story, but ‘The Curious Case of the Pig in the Night-Time’ is less baffling than Bunny’s failure to join mystic brotherhood ‘The Order of the Moose’…

When young Hyoomanz find themselves ‘(Not) Alone in the Woods’ during a class trip one little girl renews her old acquaintance with Metal Steve after he saves them from Maniac Badger attacks, whilst elsewhere ‘Monst-Ughs!’ run wild after improper use of Skunky’s old monster ray, leading to a glimpse at the tyrant’s origins and family issues in ‘The Making of a Maniacal Badger!’

Incorrigible Monkey then loses control of marauding robot ‘Doom Fists!’ after he is attacked by his wicked doppelganger Evil Monkey and partner in crimes Evil Monkey Wife, whilst elsewhere Skunky recovers some of life’s zest after helping Weenie and Pig repair one of the badger’s ‘Evil Drones!’

Three part saga ‘The Saving of Skunky!’ sees order restored after the badger’s plan to kidnap Skunky and steal what’s left of his evil genius goes awry. Trapped together in the Dark Woods, the skunk experiences a ghastly visitation and by the time the Maniacal one gets back to his conquered kingdom, there’s a restored archenemy waiting to deliver ‘A Sharp Shock’ with electrified clouds and a Zeus costume…

Badger’s retaliation is ancient thought monster ‘Ragnaggtrix!’ but there’s an inherent flaw in something dependent on belief that the evil genius didn’t consider. Thankfully, Skunky is preoccupied ‘Distracting the Monkey!’ from cadging more superweapons to misuse…

Bunny becomes guinea pig when Skunky and Monkey test emotion-warping Mind Mines in ‘Highly Strung!’ and as ‘Autumn begins The Rise of an Empire!’ finds expansionist Monkeytopia devasted by its ruler’s idiocy, even as the badger traps the woodland creatures inside his new phone app in ‘Game On!’ It’s a huge, costly mistake…

‘Balloonacy!’ breaks out when Weenie and Pig try to attend Ai’s birthday party, before a new character debuts. ‘Lucky!’ is a red panda who escaped a lab doing weird experiments. It might not have been in time though, since the three-way war for supremacy in the woods triggers an odd reaction…

The action and drama ramp up for a big finish as Badger is made to clean his room and employs the ‘Doomsday Device!’ that opens portals to Hell. Shame about his mum and dad…

Skunky makes a silly mistake and gives the wrong animal some atomic powered ‘Explosive Sweets!’ which makes Halloween’s ‘Fright Night!’ Scare-Off pretty anticlimactic war, before another peek at the future reveals the legend of ‘Jetpack Beaver!’

A distant relative tries to make one woodland weirdo ‘Pigging Rich!’ with little success, after which a bad tooth and unwise consultation with Skunky results in Monkey taking a big bite out of everything in ‘Chomp!’

The cataclysmic end begins when the Maniacal one pressgangs ‘The Badger Army’ to do his bidding but forgets the species’ tendency to unionise even as Skunky creates a ‘Terraforming Orb!!’ to purpose-build a new world. It’s a shame Monkey dropped it on his own head while it was switched on…

Winter begins with 3-chapter epic ‘A Very Badger Christmas’ that delivers shocking big reveals, pulls all the plot threads of the past year together, ends the world and still leaves rueful survivors wondering what comes next in ‘Aftermath’. Whatever you think happened you’re wrong, so you just have to buy this book to see how…

The animal anarchy might end for now there’s one more secret to share with detailed instructions on ‘How to Draw Maniacal Badger’ so, as well as beguiling your young ’uns with stories, you can use this book to teach them a trade…

The zany zenith of absurdist adventure, Bunny vs Monkey is weird wit, brilliant invention, potent sentiment and superb cartooning crammed into one eccentrically excellent package: never failing to deliver jubilant joy for grown-ups of every vintage, even those who claim they only get it for their kids. This is the kind of comic parents beg kids to read to them. Is that you yet?

Text and illustrations © Jamie Smart 2022. All rights reserved.
Bunny vs Monkey: Rise of the Maniacal Badger is published on July 7th 2022 and is available for pre-order now.

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists


By Robert Tressell; adapted by Scarlett & Sophie Rickard (SelfMadeHero)
ISBN: 978-1-910593-92-9 (TPB/Digital edition)

Born in Dublin to unfavourable circumstances, Robert Croker – AKA Robert Noonan – (17 April 1870 – 3 February 1911) was a man of many parts. His short, globetrotting, eventful life ended with him a housepainter and signwriter (a skilled trade) dying of tuberculosis in The Liverpool Royal Infirmary in 1911.

In all likelihood nobody today would remember him if he hadn’t spent his off hours in the declining years of 1906 to 1910 writing a book. He failed to have it published in his lifetime, but his daughter Kathleen Noonan persevered and a first (heavily edited, highly abridged and politically redacted) version was released on April 23 1914 – four months before the Great War began. That clash resulted in a changed planet and the first socialist (sic) state…

The full manuscript didn’t reach the public until 1955. Even bowdlerized editions were potent enough to make it one of the most important books of the century. Released under the nom de plume Robert Tressell, the cultural satire and barely-disguised socialist polemic was The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists.

After reading the million plus-selling, never out-of-print pioneering prose opus of working class literature, you should research the times it was set in and read up on the author, if you want to see how a fascinating man responded to the injustice of his world. There’s a splendid Afterword by the creators in this hefty graphic novel to get you started…

A more jaded person might assume current businesses and governments have also studied the text, with a view to rolling back all the hard-won advances made since then, returning us to the days where workers toiled in a brutal gig economy without safety nets of social housing, medicine or pensions. Work or die was the way of world and it’s well on its way back…

The tale – masquerading, like a Thomas Hardy Wessex novel, as a peek at the lives of poor working folk – was a major influence on thinkers in the aftermath of WWI, and many of the civil rights and common benefits of civilisation that we’re gradually allowing to be taken from us were predicted in its more utopian moments…

Politics aside however, it’s also a sublime realisation and examination of the working classes in all their warty, noble, scurrilous, generous, mean-spirited, self-sacrificing, self-serving, gullible, aspirational, tractable, intractable, skiving, hard-working, honest and human glory: a state perfectly realized in this warm-hearted and supremely inviting comics adaptation by Sophie Rickard, illustrated with charm, simplicity and abiding empathy by Scarlett Rickard. You will also want to see Mann’s Best Friend and A Blow Borne Quietly and their eagerly-anticipated adaptation of suffragist Constance Maud’s inspirational No Surrender…

The semi-autobiographical story detailed here closely follows a group of workers and their families over a year in the town of Mugsborough: proudly go-getting municipal powerhouse (closely based on Hastings, where Croker had worked) with the usual band of rich, mercantile bastards in charge and on the Council, feathering their own lavish nests with the approval and assistance of the local churches and clergy…

The 23 chapters span a year as seen through the eyes of skilled labourers at a time when jobs were scarce and cut-throat competition had the men who hire them fiercely undercutting each other to secure commissions. The artisans are currently refurbishing an ornate house on the cheap for a grasping boss, under the penny pinching eye of foreman Mr. ’Unter.

In breaks and off moments the disparate crew – dispassionately at first – discuss the job, the way of the world and ever-present threat of work drying up again. Artisan painter/signwriter Frank Owen argues the greed and dishonesty of capitalism and enlightening sense of socialism to his highly resistant and openly hostile mates. Over many days, they all hotly debate ‘The Causes of Poverty’ and the Church’s complicity in maintaining an unfair status quo in ‘The Lord Our Shepherd’. Further discussion in ‘The Economists’ focuses on the impossibility of making do on ever-diminishing wages and ‘The Ever-Present Danger’ of being thrown away once a worker is no longer usable.

This is no pedant’s dry and dusty tirade. “Tressell’s” arguments are bolstered by the declining state of the wives, elders and children of the workers – most of whom still argue ferociously against improvement of their own conditions. As those above them reduce wages and increase hours, uncaring of the horrific repercussions of their parsimony, Frank and enigmatic associate George Barrington gradually convert many, but a resolute group cannot countenance any change to the old system.

That begins changing in ‘The Truth’, and revelation is heightened after the Church is exposed to ‘The Shining Light’, especially once Owen makes a breakthrough by explaining ‘The Money Trick’ underpinning Capitalism.

The damaging power of booze on the hopeless is witnessed after a night at ‘The Cricketers’, presaging work briefly pausing for ‘The Christmas Party’. A New Year exposes corporate skulduggery and public malfeasance by ‘The Council’ of Mugsborough…

Every opinion expounded by the painters can be seen here and now: echoed on modern TV vox-pop segments with today’s exploited, bread & circus sated citizens repeating that we should let the rich (our “betters”) do the hard job of making the big decisions for us, happily abrogating all responsibility for their own evermore parlous state…

Deepening personal crises auger greater tragedies as ‘The Beginning of The End’ finds a beloved friend condemned to the Workhouse as a cynically tongue-in-cheek glimpse at what the Establishment considers ‘The Solutions’ to poverty lead to a long look at ‘The Meetings’ inside the Municipal Council and how a glimmer of reform is crushed by the prestigious clique…

After a period of scarcity, fresh work at a lower wage comes in ‘The Summer’ before a turning point comes when Barrington challenges the Bosses on a rare day’s holiday jaunt in ‘The Beano’ (slang for “BNO” – Boys Night Out).

Again arguing – but with a much smaller and more vocal group of workmates – Owen and Barrington begin ‘The Great Oration’, overruling and disproving ‘The Objections’ of bellicose working class holdouts – the apologists and willing henchmen who happily betray their own sort for elevated status, extra pennies and the cheery disdain of the capitalists. However, grief has not ended and as talk of elections and the growth of a socialist Labour Party blooms, death comes again. Even here the rich and their lackeys find a way to make a profit in ‘The Rope’ and a sordid exhibition at ‘The Funeral’. After the worker’s death comes what we today call “the cover-up”…

Feelings of hope manifest in final chapters ‘The Will of the People’, ‘The Sundered’ and ‘The New Position’ as utopian ideals and practical solutions are leavened with home truths, and a concentration on making change happen…

Uplifting ending notwithstanding, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is a major milestone in the west’s path to becoming truly civilised, and this beautifully accessible iteration – deliciously illustrated in the manner of an inviting children’s picture book – could not be more timely, both as a reminder and warning from history. It’s also a wonderfully human drama gauging the limitations and frailties of the most exploited and vulnerable in society and “a book that everyone should read”.

I didn’t write that, George Orwell did, in 1946. Who could argue with that? Class is class no matter what you think…
© 2020 SelfMadeHero. Text © 2020 Sophie Rickard. Artwork © 2020 Scarlett Rickard. All rights reserved.

Operation Liberate Men volume 1 & 2


By Mira Lee (NetComics/Ecomix)
ISBN: 978-1-60009-231-2 and 978-1-60009-232-9 (Tankōbon PB/Digital editions)

Authored by Mira Lee (Land of Silver Rain), Operation Liberate Men began in the late 1990s: a challenging comics concept released in a country where female roles in society were still painfully hidebound, and the concept of the “Ideal Woman” was a very real anchor to freedom of expression and lifestyle. The wild fantasy ran for 9 volumes before going on hiatus.

Now controlled by South Korean publisher Ecomix, episodes are available online with the promise of resumption and a conclusion after Lee concludes her current comics projects.

In volume 1, Sooha Jung is sixteen and an officially inadequate woman. For her whole life, she never fitted in, and has now failed the High School Admissions Exam. In achievement-oriented, socially-conservative, gender-orthodox South Korea, it’s damaging enough just to be a tomboy who prefers fighting to preening, primping or dating boys, but now she must add mediocre student to her list of failings.

Then, all of a sudden, the ethereally beautiful and androgynous Ganesha literally bumps into her…

Sooha is unsure if the lovely but weird foreigner is boy or girl, but quickly realises that it’s not as relevant as the fact that the stranger is completely crazy, claiming to come from another dimension – the Para Empire – where men are slaves and sex objects dominated by sadistic, domineering women. Disbelieving yet inspired by the thought of a world where women are in charge, she humours Ganesha, agreeing to travel to the Para Empire. Unfortunately, the story is completely accurate and she’s soon trapped on a very alien and dangerous world. Moreover, when they first met, Ganesha had assumed she was a ferocious male – the perfect man to lead the downtrodden males of Para to freedom!

Embroiled in a civil war in a fantastical primitive place, Sooha bolts, but soon realises the genuine need of the oppressed in the ruthless, savage society. She also discovers Ganesha has a secret. As the most beautiful man in the worlds, he’s not only a secret freedom-fighter but also the cherished, pampered plaything of the utterly diabolical Supreme Ruler: a woman called The Emperor…
Malevolent schemers, Court intrigues, broad humour and a remarkably progressive take on gender discrimination elevates this old, old plot, whilst healthy doses of supernatural conflict, countered by Sooha’s Bull-in-a-China-Shop temperament, make this tale an unexpected treat.
It’s nice to see a less-than-deferential, plain girl as lead character for once and the cliffhanger the first volume concludes on ensures readers will return to see what happens next. Give it a go and perhaps you’ll feel the same way too…

Operation Liberate Men volume 2 steams straight in with the next step in the campaign of sexual revolution, as Sooha Jung reviews her position. It was hard enough to get by as a mannish young girl, better at fighting than dating, and a poor student too, in modern society, but when you’re so ashamed that you make a foolish decision and end up trapped in a parallel dimension where sadistic, autocratic, bullying women have enslaved men, it’s almost too much to bear.

When you compound all that with the shameful fact that the oppressed men who expect you to deliver them from bondage are all completely oblivious of the fact that you are actually female, you can see why the teenager thinks she might have made a major mistake in travelling to this magical realm to liberate the men of the Para Empire.
Grudgingly accepting command of the Laharshita (“Male Liberation Army”) she now falls foul of the brutal women – also unaware of Sooha’s gender – leading to a savage battle in which rebel conspirator and undercover Boy-Toy Ganesha is near-fatally wounded.

Desperate and on the run, Sooha is soon captured and imprisoned and, as events in the rebel hierarchy proceed without her, suddenly realises that this is not her first contact with the male denizens of the Para Empire. There was an incident so long ago, back when she was just a little girl…

A touch of Aubrey Beardsley and the occasional flurry of Charles M Schulz in the dreamy artwork is so effective in elevating this compelling manhwa (Korean for manga or comics) fantasy. Ending on another cliffhanger, this war story will grip readers in fevered anticipation for that hopefully imminent conclusion…
© 1997, 2001 Mira Lee. All Rights Reserved. English text © 2007 NetComics.

Dungeon: Twilight Vols. 1-2 – Cemetery of the Dragon


By Joann Sfar, Lewis Trondheim & Kerascoet, translated by Joe Johnson (NBM)
ISBN: 978-1-68112-293-9, (TPB/Digital)

Somewhere way out there, is a planet called Terra Amata. On this populated world of rich history and diverse ways of life, there’s a magic castle in a fantastic land of miracles, quests and adventures. There was once also a rather dangerous meeting place called the Dungeon…

As primarily crafted by prolific artisans Joann Sfar (Le Ministère secret, Professeur Bell, Les olives noires, The Rabbi’s Cat) and Lewis Trondheim (Kaput and Zösky, Little Nothings, Stay, Ralph Azham) in collaboration with assorted associates of their New Wave-ish collective of bande dessinée creators (most often seen under the aegis of L’Association) – the Donjon saga has generated more than fifty volumes since debuting in 1998 and become a cult hit all over the world. It began as a fanciful spoof/parody of roleplaying fantasy games, but as so often with stories of innate charm and high quality, it grew beyond its intentions…

After a cruelly long hiatus, English translations of the epic are at last returned. Repackaged in the first of a series of full-colour paperback collections, the initial quartet of the Donjon Crepuscule series have been rereleased for your delight and delectation.

These tales form a mere sub-division of a vast, eccentrically raucous and addictively wacky generational franchise which welds starkly adult whimsy to the weird worlds of Sword & Sorcery sagas. This resurrected, revised and enlarged (8.5 x 11 inch/ 216 x 279 mm) omnibus Twilight tomes take the loony legion of horribly human anthropomorphic characters into territories even wilder than those seen in Dungeon: Early Years, Parade, Zenith and Monstres. Latterly, new adjuncts such as Antipodes and Bonus have been added to the sprawling braided mega-saga set on an alien world very much like ours in all the ways that really matter…

Dungeon tells the story of Terra Armata in time-separated epochs via periodic glimpses of a fantastic magic castle on a magically unstable world. Anthropomorphic inhabitants of the strangely surreal realm include every kind of talking beast and bug, as well as monsters, demons, smart-a$$es, wizards, politicians and always – in all ways – stroppy women-folk. Whenever and wherever you look there’s always something happening and it’s usually quite odd…

The nominal star is a duck with a magic sword which enabled – and eventually compelled – him to channel and be possessed by dead heroes and monsters. By this declining period on the dying world, legendary hero Herbert of Craftiwich has risen to the unassailable rank of Grand Khan – though he’s still not quite sure how – and the doddering but still puissant old guy is now steeped in Total Evil…

Crafted by Sfar & Trondheim with the latter half illustrated by Kerascoët (Miss Don’t Touch Me; Jolies Ténèbres; Reine Beauté): joint pen name of married French illustrators, comics and animation artists Marie Pommepuy and Sébastien Cosset, Cemetery of the Dragon comprises four French albums (Donjon Crepuscule: Le Cimetiere des Dragons, Le Volcan des Vaucanson, Armageddon and Les Dojo du Lagon), spanning 1998-2005. At this time in-world, the planet has ceased spinning, with one half eternally seared whilst the obverse is frozen into chilled darkness. As it just sits rotting in space, life only clings on in the narrow band between the extremes, and is as harsh and unforgiving as it ever was…

We open with the eponymous ‘Cemetery of the Dragon’ as a little talking bat is enticed to become the eyes of immortal blinded dragon and political exile The Dust King. The action prompts a cascade of events which will shake and shatter the dying world. The unchanging saurian is a mage of incredible power under perpetual house arrest on the orders of the Khan and – ravaged by ennui – has decided to die at last. Although Dust King has decided to end it all, he is still too mighty for simple suicide. He needs to journey to a special place and requires a little assistance…

He and the Khan were once great friends, but over intervening eons the potentate had become increasingly wicked and isolated by a coterie of unctuous, ambitious hangers-on and would-be usurpers. The dragon’s decision is detected at the Black Fortress of Gehenna by one of those parasites. Vile functionary Shiwomeez fiendishly facilitates the prisoner’s escape with the tedious journey scrupulously monitored by the malign major domo who also despatches waves of military goons with orders to await an opportune moment to strike.

The last unit have instructions to eradicate the sundry soldiery beside them as the plotter believes the old wizard is travelling to the legendary and mystically significant “Dragon’s Graveyard” and doesn’t want too many menials knowing its location…

The trek is more complex than the sneaky pursuers realise. Dust King needs the assistance of elusive shaman Orlandoh to pass over, and is keenly aware of being followed. When he catches a crazy red rabbit warrior named Marvin the Destroyer, the ancient acts with precipitate haste and almost ends a willing would-be ally…

The obnoxious newcomer – named for a mighty killer of ancient times – attaches himself to the expedition and is stunned to find he is travelling with an old warrior who once also went by the legendary name Marvin…

After finally finding Orlandoh, the Dust King’s necropolitan journey takes a bizarre diversion and, before long, the pilgrims are battling Shiwomeez’s murderous minions and a host of diminutive horrors known as Olfs in their colossal citadel of Poopooloo. At long last the trek ends and the original Marvin prepares to let everything go…

However, in ‘Volcano of the Vaucanson’ events take a bizarre turn after the schemer’s mystic meddling accidentally drags long-eared young Marvin and the bitty bat to the Black Fortress where the crimson crusader’s manic skill with a sword causes utter carnage…

Not only is the pitiful plotter unable to stop the intruder, but Shiwomeez also disturbs the long-distant Grand Khan, calling him back to the mundane world… and the overlord seems to know everything…

Casually blasted back to the Dragon Cemetery, Marvin and the bat can only await further developments…

The Dust King’s demise isn’t going well and after a while the blind antediluvian gives up attempting to expire. Deciding to find what became of his odd acolytes, the testy titan stumbles across red rabbit Marvin dallying with some rather lascivious cat women.

The ancient mage has an announcement: emboldened by his brush with death, he has decided to force a meeting with old friend the Khan. All they have to do is retrace their wearisome path and fight their way through the legions of warriors determined to stop them…

The expedition results in a vast pile of exotic corpses, but one fine day old Marvin and his former friend Herbert have their long-deferred conference. The Dust King pleads with the Grand Khan to renounce Evil and ultimate power. Of course if he does, Terra Amata will begin revolving again and quickly explode…

Naturally, Herbert refuses and – with no other option – the Dust King tries to kill him. The cataclysmic clash ends inconclusively and Herbert, mentally displaced by one of the many monsters which periodically possess him, gives orders for the blind beast and his puny companions’ capture and execution…

Fleeing on giant war-bats into the nocturnal zone the trio soon arrive at the troubled military outpost of Craftiwich, built on a huge volcano. The site is an armoury operated by fanatical duck soldiers, ruled by the Grand Khan’s son Arch-Duke Papsukal. It also houses Herbert’s ogre son Elyacin and libidinous, troublesome daughter Duchess Zakutu. There’s no love lost between this father and these children…

Papsukal is developing firearms and explosive ordnance, so to make conservative warriors give up swordsmanship, he’s ordered all smiths to be hunted down and destroyed. Pretending to be an envoy from the Grand Khan, bunny Marvin tricks the military technicians into fitting him with the first fully-functional suit of nitro-powered super armour…

His impersonation – and assignation with the sexually voracious but insecure Zakutu – come a cropper, however, when the Khan arrives, at the head of an army to resume his death duel with the Dust King…

Now illustrated by Kerascoët, ‘Armageddon’ opens with the fugitives hiding out in a village of cat women. The Dust King had been terribly maimed in his struggle with the Khan but is still unable to die after regaining a terrible power which he anticipated would come in most useful when their pursuers finally catch up with them…

Packing the women off with Red Marvin as guardian, Dust King stays to meet the deadly duck forces. The result is the end of the Khan’s army and ambitions, but in the aftermath, as birdlike shaman Gilberto helps the dragon and his faithful bat hunt down his missing limbs, the surface of Terra Amata detonates, fragmenting into thousands of tiny floating islands above a core of lava…

Jaunting from islet to islet the mystic duo eventually track down old Marvin’s missing parts before landing in the remnants of once-formidable Poopooloo. Here they encounter no Olfs, but a far more deadly, invisible threat. Pausing only to pillage a vast stash of magic botanicals and thaumaturgic vegetable pharmaceuticals, the voyagers flee the hidden horrors before blundering into the free-floating Olf bastion of Boobooloo where they are condemned to death…

Whilst awaiting execution the emotionally repressed Dust King shares some of Gilberto’s plundered stash and in a traumatic daze relives the dogmatic days of dragon philosophy which lost him his family and the subsequent event which cost him his eyes…

When he comes to his senses again the Olf courtroom is a shredded, burning wreck and what few survivors remain are fleeing in terror. Gilberto too has swallowed too many drugs and is stricken with a debilitating possession of incredible new powers. One of them makes him a perfect predictor of every floating island’s path whilst another inflicts random, uncontrollable teleportation upon him…

Forced to escape by more prosaic means (at least by Terra Amata standards), old Marvin and his bat buddy find their own way to Orlandoh and the drifting Hut of Spirits to await fate’s next move…

This first encounter concludes with ‘The Dojo of the Lagoon Hereupon’ as, one day, Red Marvin turns up and is promptly recruited as the Dust King and shamans of the Spirit Hut make plans to combat the remnants of the Grand Khan’s forces. Despatched on an infiltration to the rapidly approaching remnants of Craftiwich, the dry old lizard unexpectedly goes off reservation and drags his bunny disciple to a passing islet inhabited by dragons. As the bunny makes eyes at a reptilian firebrand who subsequently swipes his super-armour, the elder Marvin is meeting a seductive sorceress who was once, so long ago, his wife…

The Dust King is desperate to amend the sacrilege which drove them apart and is astounded when he meets his grandchildren. The rabbit meanwhile has joined a school of dragons learning how to be true warriors. Sadly, he has trouble being taken seriously by the colossal students, let alone their grizzled old tutors. It takes a few pointers from the crestfallen Dust King to make the mockers pay proper attention to his eager friend. Once he’s got them listening, the saurian sage goes about dismantling the doctrinaire dragon religion which cost him his love, his children and his eyes before the heroes return to their shamanic mission in time to rescue Duchess Zakutu from a parched death.

However, taking the faithless trollop back to the dragon isle proves a big – almost fatal – mistake for the besotted rabbit…

To be Continued…

Please be warned that these are welcoming cartoon tales that are a wee bit more sophisticated than general English/American fare. I know you’re okay with them vicariously indulging in extreme and excessive depictions of violence, but if you fear your children, loved ones or servants might be adversely affected by the odd mild swearword or nipples on lady lizards, take what you consider appropriate action. The rest of us will just carry on without you…

Surreal, earthy, sharply poignant, wittily hilarious and brilliantly outlandish, the sophisticated fantasy comedy is subtly addictive to read whilst the vibrant, wildly eccentric cartooning is an absolute marvel of exuberant, graphic style. Definitely not for the younger reader, Dungeon Twilight is the kind of near-the-knuckle, illicit and just plain smart epic older kids and adults will adore, but for a fuller comprehension – and even more insane fun – I strongly recommend acquiring all attendant incarnations too.
© Editions Delcourt 1999-2005. (Donjon Crepescule #101-104, by J. Sfar, L.Trondheim & Kerascoet). © 2006 NBM for the English translation.

Dungeon: Twilight Vols. 1-2 – Cemetery of the Dragon will be released on June 30th 2022 and is available for pre-order now. For more information and other great reads please go to http://www.nbmpub.com/

[Low Moon]


By Jason, translated by Kim Thompson (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-155-8 (HB/Digital edition)

In 1965, John Arne Saeterrøy, who creates under the pen-name Jason, was born in Molde, Norway. At age 30, he burst onto the international cartoonists scene with his first graphic novel Lomma full ay regn (Pocket Full of Rain) which won that year’s Sproing Award (Norway’s biggest comics prize).

Jason followed up with the series Mjau Mjau and won another Sproing in 2001. The following year he turned almost exclusively to produce graphic novels. He is now internationally renowned and (probably quite self-consciously) basks in the glow of critical acclaim for his 24 books to date and for winning so many major awards as far afield as France, Slovakia, the USA and all areas in-between.

His stories utilise a small cast of anthropomorphic animal characters (and occasional movie and pop culture monsters): a repertory company of cartoon colleagues, acting out on a stage of stiffly formal page layouts recounting dark, wry and sardonically bleak tales – often pastiches, if not outright parodies – in a visually welcoming yet coldly austere and Spartan narrative manner. This seemingly oppressive format somehow allows a vast range of emotionally telling tales – on a wide spectrum of themes and genres – to hit home like rockets whether the author’s intention was to make the reader smile or cry like a baby.

Drawing in a minimalist evolution of Hergé’s Claire Ligne style, Jason’s work bores right into the reader’s core, and this movie-themed collection of short tales is arguably his best work.

Redolent of quintessential Film Noir and especially the hard-boiled writing of Jim Thompson, poignant tale of vengeance ‘Emily Says Hello’ precedes what is billed as the World’s “first and only Chess Western”.

The eponymous ‘Low Moon’ was originally serialized in The New York Times Sunday Magazine in 2008: a splendidly surreal spoof of Fred Zinnemann’s 1952 classic High Noon wherein an old menace returns to terrorise the town… until at last the Sheriff capitulates to the incessant demands for one final return match…

‘&’ is a tragic anecdote of love, loss and marital persistence related in terms and stylings of Hal Roach’s silent comedies. ‘Proto Film Noir’ owes an inspirational tip of the thermally insulated hat to Tay Garnett’s The Postman Always Rings Twice (the 1946 version with John Garfield and Lana Turner) – by way of The Flintstones and Groundhog Day, whilst a concluding tale of love, family and abandonment assumes science-fictional trappings to relate the soap-opera, generational tale of a mother kidnapped by aliens and the effects it inflicts on the husband and son she left behind. ‘You Are Here’ is bemusing, evocative and moving, yet manages to never fall off the narrative tightrope into mawkishness or buffoonery.

Jason’s comic tales are strictly for adults but allow us all to look at the world through wide-open childish eyes. He is a taste instantly acquired and a creator any true fan of the medium should move to the top of the “Must-Have” list. This superb compendium could be your entry into a brave, old world, so get it while you can because stuff this good never lasts long…
© 2009 Jason. All right reserved.

Edwurd Fudwupper FIBBED BIG – Explained by Fannie Fudwupper with Berkeley Breathed Helping Slightly


By Berkeley Breathed (Little, Brown & Co./Storyopolis)
ISBN: 978-0-316-14291-5 (HB) 978-0-316-14425-4 (Album PB)

I’ve been watching The News and getting upset by politicians’ obnoxiously blatant disregard for probity and dearth of ethical standards, not just in my own bankrupt-in-every-aspect Britain, but everywhere else too – except maybe New Zealand (Nice One, Jacinda).

As is always the case in such circumstances, I turned to comics and cartoons for solace and found this. Please read, enjoy and act according to the dictates of your conscience, if you have one…

Please Note: any similarity to other malign, malformed, bribe-fattened, emotionally stunted, eternally misbehaving overprivileged schoolboys currently serving at the Nation’s expense is just the way things are these days…

Throughout the 1980s and for half of the 1990s, Berke Breathed dominated the newspaper strip scene with agonisingly funny, edgy-yet-surreal political fantasy Bloom County and, latterly, Sunday-only spin-off Outland. They are all fully available digitally – so don’t wait for my reviews, just get them now!

At the top of his game and swamped with awards like Pulitzers, Breathed retired to concentrate on books like Red Ranger Came Calling, Mars Needs Moms! or Flawed Dogs: The Year End Leftovers at the Piddleton “Last-Chance” Dog Pound and sequel Flawed Dogs: The Shocking Raid on Westminster. They rank among the best America has ever produced. Get them too.

His first foray into the field was 1991’s A Wish for Wings That Work: a Christmas parable featuring his signature character, and the most charmingly human one. Between 2003 and 2008, Breathed revived Opus as a Sunday strip, before eventually capitulating to his career-long antipathy for the manic deadline pressures of newspaper production and often-insane, convoluted contradictions of editorial censorship.

It seemed his ludicrous yet appealing cast of misfits – all deadly exponents of irony and common sense residing in the heartland of American conservatism – were gone for good, until the internet provided a platform for Breathed to resume his role as a gadfly commentator on his own terms. Since 2015, Bloom County has mocked, exposed and shamed capitalism, celebrities, consumerism, popular culture, politicians, religious leaders and people who act like idiots. Donald Trump figures prominently and often, but that might just be coincidence…

These later efforts, unconstrained by syndicate pressures to not offend advertisers, are also available as book collections. You’ll want those too, and be delighted to learn that all Breathed’s Bloom County work is available in digital formats – fully annotated to address the history gap if you didn’t live through events such as Iran-Gate, Live-Aid, Star Wars (both cinematic and military versions), assorted cults and televangelists experiencing less than divine retribution and sundry other tea-cup storms that make us Baby Boomers so rude and defensive…

Not quite as renowned, but every inch as crucial to your enjoyment, is the lost gem on display today: a paean to the power of principles and effects of honesty, all wrapped up in a children’s book about a mean kid with no moral compass…

As previously stated, after the all-too-brief, glittering outing as a syndicated strip cartoonist and socio-political commentator (usually the very same hallowed function) Breathed left strips to create children’s picture books.

He lost none of his perception, wit or imagination, and actually got better as an artist. Even so, he never quite abandoned his entrancing cast of characters and always maintained the gently excoriating, crusading passion and inherent bittersweet invective which underscored those earlier narratives.

Moreover, he couldn’t ignore that morally uplifting component of his work that so upset hypocrites, liars, greedy people and others who let us all down while carping on about being unfairly judged and how we don’t really understand complex issues. Trust me, we – and Breathed – understand perfectly…

This crushingly captivating cartoon catechism ruminates on the cost and worth of family and idiocy of arrogant aggrandizement and self-congratulatory self-importance. It is lensed through the fabled truism of the Boy Who Cried Wolf, as little sister Fannie complains again about her idiot brother…

Edwurd Fudwupper tells lies because he wants to, because he can and because of the chaotic consequences his dissembling causes. The only thing he isn’t, is convincing. Always in trouble, he narrowly and perpetually weasels out of instant retribution due to his facility for fibs, but now Fannie recalls the day when that stopped working…

After a couple of whoppers lead to the disappearance of a neighbour and destruction of beloved family property, Edwurd’s automatic response of lying big and compounding nonsense with bigger balderdash sparks community calamity, mass military deployment and imminent alien invasion. As the Earth stands still in the moment before utter disaster, a small voice speaks out…

Delivered in sharp and lyrical rhyme like a weaponised Dr. Seuss story, and with lush lavish illustrations painted in the stunningly grotesque exaggeration beloved of Ralph Steadman and Terry Gilliam cartoons, this is a book to trigger personal reflection, audit consciences and promote better behaviour, but it will make grown citizens howl and children sit up and pay attention. It’s also deliciously funny. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll think hard before calling in sick or blaming the dog – or opposition or asylum seekers – for eating your homework…
© 2000 Berkeley Breathed. All rights reserved.

Bluecoats volume 12: The David


By Willy Lambil & Raoul Cauvin, translated by Jerome Saincantin (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-1-849184-30-4 (Album PB/Digital edition)

Devised by Louis “Salvé” Salvérius & Raoul Cauvin – who scripted the first 64 best-selling volumes until retirement in 2020 – Les Tuniques Bleues (The Bluecoats) debuted at the end of the 1960s, specifically created to replace Lucky Luke when the laconic maverick defected from weekly anthology Le Journal de Spirou to rival publication Pilote.

From its first sallies, the substitute strip swiftly became hugely popular: one of the most popular bande dessinée series in Europe. In case you were wondering, it is now scribed by Jose-Luis Munuera and the BeKa writing partnership…

Salvé was a cartoonist of the Gallic big-foot/big-nose humour school, and after his sudden death in 1972, successor Willy “Lambil” Lambillotte gradually adopted a more realistic – but still overtly comedic – tone and manner. Lambil is Belgian, born in 1936 and, after studying Fine Art in college, joined publishing giant Dupuis in 1952 as a letterer.

Born in 1938, scripter Cauvin was also Belgian and – before entering Dupuis’ animation department in 1960 – studied Lithography. He soon discovered his true calling – comedy – and began a glittering, prolific writing career at Le Journal de Spirou. In addition to Bluecoats he scripted dozens of long-running, award winning series including Cédric, Les Femmes en Blanc and Agent 212: more than 240 separate albums. The Bluecoats alone has sold more than 15 million copies of its 65 (and counting) album sequence. Cauvin passed away on August 19 2021 but his vast legacy of laughter remains.

Here, our long-suffering protagonists are Sergeant Cornelius Chesterfield and Corporal Blutch; worthy fools in the manner of Laurel & Hardy: hapless, ill-starred US cavalrymen defending America during the War Between the States.

The original format featured single-page gags set around an Indian-plagued Wild West fort, but from the second volume – Du Nord au Sud – the sad-sack soldiers were situated back East, fighting in the American Civil War. All subsequent adventures – despite ranging far beyond the traditional environs of America and taking in a lot of genuine and thoroughly researched history – are set within the timeframe of the Secession conflict.

Blutch is your run-of-the-mill, whinging little-man-in-the street: work-shy, mouthy, devious and especially critical of the army and its inept commanders. Ducking, diving, even deserting whenever he can, he’s you or me – except sometimes he’s smart. principled or heroic if no easier option is available.

Chesterfield is a big, burly professional fighting man; a proud career soldier of the 22nd Cavalry who passionately believes in the patriotism and esprit-de-corps of the Military. He is brave, never shirks his duty and hungers to be a medal-wearing hero. He also loves his cynical little troll of a pal. They quarrel like a married couple, fight like brothers and simply cannot agree on the point and purpose of the horrendous war they are trapped in… a situation that stretches their friendship to breaking point in this deceptively edgy instalment.

The David is the 12th translated Cinebook volume and 19th sequential European release. As Les Tuniques Bleues: Le David it was originally serialised in Le Journal de Spirou #2265-2275 before collection as another mega-selling album in 1982, with C.H.A.B. & Philippe Francart credited for additional research.

The comedic drama is another based on – but broadly extrapolating upon – actual historical events, specifically the deployment of the CSS David: an early success in the development of submarine warfare. Built in 1863 by businessman T. Stoney in Charleston, South Carolina, it was a 4-man, steam-powered submersible torpedo boat used by the Confederate States Navy to challenge the Union’s shipping blockade. David was largely unsuccessful and one of many different protypes built to challenge the North’s “Ironclads”, with its last recorded action occurring on April 18, 1864. As is usually the case, legend far exceeds factual truth, but that’s no bad thing here as the unlikely warriors undertake one of their most dangerous ventures…

Off the Carolina coast, a Union warship spots a blockade-runner trying to reach port with desperately-needed supplies. As the warship confidently closes in, the steamer sends a signal to shore, and within minutes disaster strikes…

Days later, in Washington DC, Abraham Lincoln and the War Cabinet argue the impossibility of fighting an invisible enemy. With the almost-accomplished siege of attrition endangered, the President orders the mystery solved and neutralised at any cost…

Meanwhile inland, Blutch has had enough of the bloodbath battle tactics of utterly deranged, apparently invulnerable maniac Captain Stark. That glory-addicted cavalry charger has caused the deaths of more Union soldiers than the enemy ever could. Thus, at the end of his tether, the little man has downed tools. Refusing to ride again directly into Confederate guns – apparently 11 times in one day is his limit – he has gone on strike. This leads to detention in a stockade where he happily awaits execution by firing squad. At least, at last, his worries will be over…

Nothing loyal Chesterfield can do will change his mind, but when the time comes, typical army inefficiency keeps Blutch impatiently hanging on. In the meantime, the Generals receive orders to send two spies into Charleston to discover the secret of the invisible ship-killer. Knowing no regular soldiers are crazy enough to volunteer, they ask Gung Ho Chesterfield, and offer his inseparable little pal a full discharge from the army if he goes with him. The wily “Brass” are confident neither pest will return…

It’s not quite a done deal or easily achieved, but eventually the pair roll up in Charleston, disguised as wounded soldiers proudly wearing their grey uniforms. Blutch is feigning blindness whilst Chesterfield sits comfortably in a chair with wheels and directs… as usual!

As well as providing plenty of slapstick moments for us, the disguise works well for them and their calamitous progress through the enemy port is painful but largely unimpeded. One very public accident dumps them onto a German-flagged steamer unloading provisions, where – over a little schnapps – the Captain volubly discloses that the South have a diabolical machine ensuring his safe arrivals and departures…

Almost immediately after, Chesterfield and Blutch join crowds rushing towards the seafront to see it in action, and witness the deadly power of the secret weapon sinking another Union ship. When their imposture as veterans fails to get them inside the shipyard housing the devil boat, they resort to cruder methods, ultimately discovering the secret of The David – but only at the cost of their liberty.

Indomitable and utterly dedicated to preserving their own skins, the Odd Couple soon escape, and after failing spectacularly to destroy the weapon, flee desperately for their own lines, frantically pursued by the Confederate army. A sublime chase sequence across swathes of enemy territory proves their wiliness and when the spies are finally recaptured, it’s by their own side and the last person they ever wanted to see again…

With their information changing the shape of the war, Blutch and Chesterfield can only wait for their eagerly anticipated rewards (the big man was promised promotion to Lieutenant if he survived) but there’s a double sting in store as ponderous military procedure glacially expedites their cases…

Combining searing satire with stunning slapstick, this yarn delivers a hugely gratifying poke at the blood-&-glory boys of history. Deftly delivering its anti-war message to younger, less world-weary audiences, The David weds fact to fiction while delivering an uncompromising portrayal of state-sanctioned mass-violence and government’s callous disregard for individual citizens.

These stories weaponise humour, making occasional moments of shocking verity doubly powerful and hard-hitting. Funny, thrilling, beautifully realised and eminently readable, Bluecoats is the kind of war-story and Western to appeal to the best, not worst, of the human spirit.
© Dupuis 1982 by Lambil & Cauvin. All rights reserved. English translation © 2019 Cinebook Ltd.

Lifelike


By Dara Naraghi & various (IDW)
ISBN: 978-1-60010-122-9 (HB) 978-1-60010-286 8 (TPB)

We do it for fame, we do it for fortune (or at least to pay bills), we do it for fun and the very best of us make comics because we absolutely have to. Every story we hear, every event we see provokes the reaction “how would I break that down into panels? How many on a page?” All data – from shopping lists to bad TV – is taken in, panned like gold nuggets through an internal grid and then we worry about how we’ll draw that damn thing one day…

All creative people are a little bit chained to their art-form, and Dara Naraghi apparently more so than most. As well as his own celebrated BigCityBlues and Persia Blues comics, he keeps busy adapting licensed properties such as Robert Patterson’s Witch & Wizard novels, Terminator: Salvation, It! The Terror From Beyond Space and Ghostbusters into graphics narrative form, writing for DC, Image and IDW whilst running his own publishing house Ferret Press. He also scripts (and occasionally draws) utterly sublime tales covering every aspect of the human experience from wild fantasy to chilling slice-of-life in a splendid series of webcomic features.

Wonderfully expansive in narrative scope and illustrated by an astounding gathering of talented artisans, an exemplary bunch of these brief delights was compiled into a fabulous compilation. Every yarn in this anthology comes from the webcomic and are written (and lettered) by Naraghi, complete with commentary and context on the illustrators interpreting each piece.

The wonderment begins with ‘The Long Journey’ illustrated by Irapuan Luiz, following the dramatic escape of a disillusioned Iranian soldier determined to leave the Iran-Iraq War behind him forever. Naraghi is Iranian (born in Tehran in 1971) and his own journey to the west would make pretty interesting reading, although probably without the telling sting in the tale embedded here…

‘Imaginarians’ – winningly crafted by award winning Tom Williams – takes a barbed look at how the media deals with artists on the promo circuit, whilst equally lauded Marvin Mann’s atmospheric ‘Double Cross at the Double Down’ proves that even if crime doesn’t pay, stories about it certainly do.

Rendered by Neil Errar, ‘Art/Life’ is a feel-good fable about a comics creator we all concur with, and Jerry Lange’s moody, misty paint-and-Paintbox (showing my digital age there) treatment examines the exquisite pain of unconditional love lost with ‘Remembrance’, after which Stephen Spenser Ledford opts for monochrome ink washes to recount a particularly trenchant tale of crime and ‘Punishment.’

Sex and booze and rock ‘n’ roll form the basis of cheeky dating vignette ‘Intermission’, illustrated by Andy Bennett, whilst Jerry Lange’s watercolour expertise displays a different arena for the relationship dance in ‘Crush’ and Tim McClurg’s ‘Comeback’ describes a meteoric fall from stardom for one has-been actor.

Marvin Mann displays his artistic versatility in ‘Smoke Break’: a heart-warming peek at modern life and ‘The Routine’ by Steve Black touchingly reminds us that even small victories count in our work-a-day world, whereas the stunning drawing of Adrian Barbu’s gritty thriller ‘Rooftop Philosophy’ adds acres of edge to a dark tale of criminal Darwinism. Tom Williams then astounds again with ‘Skin Deep’, a charming semi-autobiographical shaggy-dog story before our pictorial programme ends on a heartwarming high note in‘Repair’ as Shom Bhuiya treats us to a view of the common man at his very best…

The 14 tales assembled in Lifelike demonstrate the sheer breadth and depth that comics can and should cover: a book that opens up all of human experience and imagination to the cartoonist’s particular skills and insights. Now it’s up to the rest of us to respond and react…
Created and © 2007 Dara Naraghi. All artwork © 2007 by its respective artist. © 2007 Idea and Design Workshop. All Rights Reserved.

Walt Disney’s Donald Duck by Carl Barks: volume 6 – The Old Castle’s Secret


By Carl Barks & various (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-653-9 (HB/Digital edition)

Donald Duck ranks among a number of fictional characters who have transcended the bounds of reality to become – like Sherlock Holmes, Tarzan, Popeye and James Bond -meta-real. As such, his origins are complex and convoluted. His official birthday is June 9th 1934: a dancing, nautically-themed bit-player in the Silly Symphony cartoon short The Wise Little Hen.

However, that date is based on the feature’s release, as announced by distributors United Artists and latterly acknowledged by the Walt Disney Company. Recent research reveals the piece was initially screened at Carthay Circle Theatre in Los Angeles on May 3rd, part of a Benefit show. The Wise Little Hen officially premiered on June 7th at the Radio City Music Hall in New York City, before the general release date was settled.

The animated cartoon was adapted by Ted Osborne & Al Taliaferro for the Silly Symphonies Sunday comic strip and thus classified by historians as Donald’s official debut in Disney comics. Controversially though, he was also reported to have originated in The Adventures of Mickey Mouse strip which began 1931. Thus the Duck has more “birthdays” than the Queen of England (plus the generally disUnited Kingdom and gradually diminishing Commonwealth) which probably explains why he’s such a bad-tempered old cuss.

Visually, Donald Fauntleroy Duck was largely the result of animator Dick Lundy’s efforts, and, with partner-in-fun Mickey Mouse, is one of TV Guide’s 50 Greatest Cartoon Characters of All Time. The Duck has his own star on the Hollywood walk of fame and has appeared in more films than any other Disney player.

During the 1930s his screen career grew from background and supporting roles to a team act with Mickey and Goofy to a series of solo cartoons that began with 1937’s Don Donald, which also introduced love interest Daisy Duck and the nephews Huey, Louie and Dewey. By 1938 Donald was officially more popular than company icon Mickey Mouse, especially after his service as a propaganda warrior in a series of animated morale boosters and information features during WWII. The merely magnificent Der Fuehrer’s Face garnered the 1942 Academy Award (that’s an Oscar to you and me) for Animated Short Film…

Crucially for our purposes, Donald is also planet Earth’s most-published non-superhero comics character and has been blessed with some of the greatest writers and illustrators ever to punch a keyboard or pick up a pen or brush.

A publishing phenomenon and mega star across Europe – particularly Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, Greece, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland and Iceland – Donald & Co have spawned countless original stories and characters. Sales are stratospheric there and in the more than 45 other countries they export to. Japanese manga publishers have their own iterations too…

The aforementioned Silly Symphonies adaptation and Mickey Mouse newspaper strip guest shots were trumped in 1937 when Italian publisher Mondadori launched an 18-page story by Federico Pedrocchi in comic book format. It was quickly followed by a regular serial in Britain’s Mickey Mouse Weekly. The comic was produced under license by Willbank Publications/Odhams Press and ran from 8th February 1936 to 28th December 1957.

In #67 (May 15th 1937) it launched Donald and Donna (a prototype Daisy Duck girlfriend), drawn by William A. Ward. Running for 15 weeks it was followed by Donald and Mac before ultimately settling on Donald Duck, and a fixture until the magazine folded. The comic inspired similar Disney-themed publication across Europe with Donald regularly appearing beside company mascot Mickey…

In the USA, a daily Donald Duck newspaper strip launched on February 2nd 1938, with a colour Sunday strip added in 1939. Writer Ted Karp joined Taliaferro in expanding the duck cast, adding a signature automobile, dog Bolivar, cousin Gus Goose, grandmother Elvira Coot and expanded the roles of both Donna and Daisy…

In 1942, his licensed comic books canon began with the October cover-dated Dell Four Color Comics Series II #9 as Donald Duck Finds Pirate Gold: conceived by Homer Brightman & Harry Reeves, scripted by Karp and illustrated by Disney Studios employees Carl Barks & Jack Hannah. It was the moment everything changed…

Carl Barks was born in Merrill, Oregon in 1901, and raised in rural areas of the West during some of the leanest times in American history. He tried his hand at many jobs before settling into the profession that chose him. His early life is well-documented elsewhere if you need detail, but briefly, Barks was an animator before quitting in 1942 to work in the new-fangled field of comic books.

With studio partner Jack Hannah (another future strip illustrator) Barks adapted Karp’s rejected script for an animated cartoon short into Donald Duck Finds Pirate Gold, and although not his first published comics work, it was the story that shaped the rest of his career.

From then until his official retirement in the mid-1960s, Barks operated in self-imposed seclusion: writing, drawing and devising a vast array of adventure comedies, gags, yarns and covers that gelled into a Duck Universe of memorable and highly bankable characters. These included Gladstone Gander (1948), Gyro Gearloose (1952), Magica De Spell (1961) and the nefarious Beagle Boys (1951) to supplement Disney’s stable of cartoon actors. His greatest creation was undoubtedly the crusty, energetic, paternalistic, money-mad giga-gazillionaire Scrooge McDuck: the World’s wealthiest winged nonagenarian.

Whilst producing all that landmark material Barks was also just a working guy, generating cover art, illustrating other people’s scripts when asked, and contributing stories to the burgeoning canon of Duck Lore. After Gladstone Publishing began re-packaging Barks material amongst other Disney strips in the 1980s, he discovered the well-earned appreciation he never imagined existed…

So potent were his creations that they inevitably fed back into Disney’s animation output itself, even though his brilliant comic work was done for Dell/Gold Key and not directly for the studio. The greatest tribute was undoubtedly the animated series Duck Tales: heavily based on his classic Uncle Scrooge tales.

Barks was a fan of wholesome action, unsolved mysteries and epics of exploration, and this led to him perfecting the art and technique of the blockbuster tale: blending wit, history, plucky bravado and sheer wide-eyed wonder into rollicking rollercoaster romps that utterly captivated readers of every age and vintage. Without the Barks expeditions there would never have been an Indiana Jones…

During his working life Barks was blissfully unaware that his work (uncredited by official policy, as was all Disney’s comics output) had been recognised by a rabid and discerning public as “the Good Duck Artist.” When some of his most dedicated fans finally tracked him down, a belated celebrity began.

In 2013, Fantagraphics Books began chronologically collecting Barks’ Duck stuff in wonderful, carefully curated archival volumes, tracing his output year-by-year in hardback tomes and digital editions that finally do justice to the quiet creator. These will eventually comprise the Complete Carl Barks Disney Library. The physical copies are sturdy and luxurious albums – 193 x 261 mm – that would grace any bookshelf, with volume 6 re-presenting works from 1948 – albeit not in strict release order. I should also note that all the Four Color issues come from Series II of that mighty anthological vehicle and all cover are by Barks.

It begins eponymously with ‘The Old Castle’s Secret’ (FC #189, June 1948) as a crisis in the McDuck financial empire triggers a mission for Donald and the nephews: accompanying Scrooge to the ancestral pile in Scotland to search for millions in hidden treasure. Apparently the craggy citadel is haunted, but what they actually encounter is both more rationalistically dangerous and fantastically unbelievable…

Two single-page gags from the same issue follow, with ‘Bird Watching’ exposing the hidden perils of the hobby whilst superstition is painfully debunked in ‘Horseshoe Luck’ before ‘Wintertime Wager’ (Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories #88, January) introduces annoying cousin Gladstone Gander. Amidst chilling winter snows, the miraculously lucky, smugly irksome oik invites himself over for Christmas and soon he and Donald are involved in an escalating set of ordeals that might cost the Duck his house. Thankfully, Daisy and the boys are there to solve the problem…

Gainful employment was a regular dilemma for Donald and February’s ‘Watching the Watchman’ (WDC&S #89) finds him taking a midnight-to-daybreak job at the docks, but pitifully unable to alter his sleep patterns. Once again, Huey, Louie and Dewey offer outrageous assistance but this time it’s the Duck’s inability to stay awake that foils a million dollar heist….

They’re actually Donald’s rivals in ‘Wired’ (WDC&S #90, March) when all seek big bucks as telegram messengers. Sadly, millionaires are not generally friendly, welcoming or prone to giving giant gratuities…

A dedicated social climber, Donald plans a garden party in WDC&S #91 (April), but his notion of fancy dress and family solidarity utterly anger the boys, who retaliate with manic mesmerism in ‘Going Ape’, after which March of Comics #20 finds butterfly-hunter Donald at war with avaricious lepidopterist Professor Argus McFiendy across two continents.

Donald’s sharp and ruthless tactics inspire onlooker Sir Gnatbugg-Mothley to fund a safari to ‘Darkest Africa’ in search of the rarest butterfly on Earth. The daunting quest for the Almostus Extinctus is frenetically fraught, astoundingly action-packed and fabulously fun-filled but please be aware that despite Barks’ careful research and diligent, sensitive storytelling some modern folk could be upset by his depictions of indigenous peoples in terms of the accepted style of those decades-distant times.

Nevertheless, the bombastic war ends with a delicious sting in the tail.

In case you were wondering: March of Comics releases were prestigious promotional giveaways tied to retail products and commercial clients like Sears, combining licensed characters from across Whitman/KK/Dell’s joint catalogue. The often enjoyed print runs topping 5 million copies per issue. Being a headliner for them was a low key editorial acknowledgement of a creator’s capabilities and franchise’s pulling power…

Back in the regular world, Donald’s eternal war of nerves with the kids boiled over in FC #189 (June) as ‘Bean Taken’ saw his obsessive side dominant in a guessing game, a single-pager, preceding another exploring the downside of sandlot baseball in ‘Sorry to Be Safe’ (FC #199, October) and standard 10-page romp ‘Spoil the Rod’ (WDC&S #92, May). Here passing do-gooder Professor Pulpheart Clabberhead seeks to stop Donald’s apparent abuse of Huey, Louie and Dewey – but only until he gets to know them…

Although the science fiction boom and flying saucer mania was barely beginning in 1948, Barks was an early advocate and ‘Rocket Race to the Moon’ (WDC&S #93, June) sees newspaper seller Donald suckered into piloting an experimental lunar exploration ship. Tragically, Professors Cosmic and Gamma seem more concerned with a large cash-prize contest than advancing science and rival rocketman Baron De Sleezy is a ruthless schemer, but no one – not even the stowaway nephews – were prepared for what lived on the moon…

Patriotism inspires our bellicose birdbrain to enlist as ‘Donald of the Coast Patrol’ (WDC&S #94, July) but it’s his innate gullibility and bad temper that helps him bag a bunch of spies before true wickedness rears its downy head as ‘Gladstone Returns’ (WDC&S #95, August).

The ghastly Gander was designed as a foil for Donald, intended to be even more obnoxious than the irascible, excitable film fowl.

This originally untitled tale reintroduces him as a big noxious noise every inch as blustery a blowhard as Donald but still lacking his seemingly supernatural super-luck talent. Here, both furiously boast and feud, trying to one-up each other in a series of scams that does neither any good… especially once the nephews and Daisy join the battle…

Arguably Barks’ first masterpiece, ‘Sheriff of Bullet Valley’ was the lead tale from Dell Four Color Comics #199, drawing much of its unflagging energy and trenchant whimsy from Barks’ own love of cowboy fiction – albeit seductively tempered with his self-deprecatory sense of absurdist humour. For example, a wanted poster on the jailhouse wall portrays the artist himself, offering the princely sum of $1000 and 50¢ for his inevitable capture.

Donald is – of course – a self-declared expert on the Wild West (he’s seen all the movies) so when he and the boys drive through scenic Bullet Valley, a wanted poster catches his eye and his imagination. Soon he’s signed up and sworn in as a doughty deputy, determined to catch rustlers plaguing the locals. Unfortunately for him, the good old days never really existed and today’s bandits use radios, trucks, tommy guns and ray machines to achieve their nefarious ends. Can Donald’s impetuous boldness and the nephews’ collective brains and ingenuity defeat the ruthless high-tech raiders?

Of course they can…

That same issue first saw a brace of short gags, beginning with ‘Best Laid Plans’ as Donald’s feigned illness earns him extra hard labour rather than a malingering day in bed and closing with ‘The Genuine Article’ wherein suspicions of an antiques provenance leads to disaster…

The lads plans to go fishing are scuppered – but not for too long – when Donald demands their caddying services in ‘Links Hijinks’ (WDC&S #96, September). It all really goes south once Gladstone horns in and Donald’s competitive spirit overwhelms everybody…

That tendency to overreact informs ‘Pearls of Wisdom’ (WDC&S #97, October) when the nephews find a small pearl in a locally-sourced oyster and big-dreaming Donald goes overboard in exploiting the” hidden millions” probably peppering the ocean floor, before we close with another mission for Uncle Scrooge.

To close a deal with British toff Lord Tweeksdale, McDuck must prove his family pedigree by excelling in the most “asinine, stupid, crazy, useless sport in the world”: fox hunting. Designating Donald his champion, the Downy Dodecadillionaire of Duckburg is thankfully unaware Huey, Louie and Dewey also consider themselves ‘Foxy Relations’ (WDC&S #98, November), injecting themselves covertly into proceedings with catastrophic repercussions…

The visual verve over, we move on to validation as ‘Story Notes’ offers commentary for each Duck tale and Donald Ault relates ‘Carl Barks: Life Among the Ducks’, before ‘Biographies’ explain why he and commentators Alberto Beccatini, R, Fiore, Craig Fischer, Jared Gardner, Leonardo Gori, Rich Kreiner, Ken Parille, Stefano Priarone, Francesco (“Frank”) Stajano and Mattias Wivel are saying all those nice and informative things.

We close with an examination of provenance as ‘Where Did These Duck Stories First Appear?’ explains the somewhat byzantine publishing schedules of Dell Comics.

Carl Barks was one of the greatest exponents of comic art the world has ever seen, and almost all his work featured Disney’s Duck characters: reaching and affecting untold millions of readers across the world and he all too belatedly won far-reaching recognition. You might be late to the party but it’s never too soon to climb aboard the Barks Express.
Walt Disney’s Donald Duck “The Old Castle’s Secret” © 2013 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All contents © 2013 Disney Enterprises, Inc. unless otherwise noted. All rights reserved.