The Aladdin Effect – Marvel Graphic Novel #16


By James Shooter, David Michelinie, Greg LaRoque & Vince Colletta (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-87135-081-7

Marvel don’t generally publish original material graphic novel anymore but once they were market leader in the field with a range of “big stories” told on larger pages emulating the long-established European Album (285 x 220mm rather than the standard 258 x 168mm of today’s books) featuring not only proprietary characters in out-of-the-ordinary adventures but also licensed assets like Conan, creator-owned properties like Alien Legion and new character debuts.

This extended experiment with big-ticket storytelling in the 1980s and 1990s produced many exciting results that the company has never come close to repeating since. Most of the stories still stand out today – or would if they were still in print.

Released in 1985, The Aladdin Effect was an attempt to capitalise on the company’s growing stable of female characters and – I’m guessing – target the notoriously scarce and fickle maturing female readership with something more exclusively to their tastes and aspirations. This conventional but highly enjoyable Fights ‘n’ Tights thriller was conceived and concocted by Editor Jim Shooter, scripted by David Michelinie and illustrated by Greg LaRoque & Vince Colletta.

Joe Ember is a good man, loving husband and father: sheriff of the isolated community of Venture Ridge, Wyoming but someone looking the end of the world in the face…

Two months ago the little town lost all hope and has been sliding into decadence, anarchy and ruin. Sixty days ago, without explanation the rural community was surrounded by an invisible, impenetrable forcefield and trapped like bugs under glass.

Cut off from the world, with food and power dwindling, the people have begun to go mad…

Little Holly-Ann isn’t worried: the little girl knows her daddy will keep everyone safe even if so many old friends and neighbours are acting strange and scary. The little girl is a dreamer and fan of New York’s superheroes. She especially adores the women like Storm, She-Hulk, Tigra and the Wasp and wishes that she could be like them…

When Joe, crumbling under pressure, destroys her scrapbook Holly-Ann goes to sleep extremely upset and really, really wishes…

Next morning an amnesiac stranger is seen on the streets: a striking black woman with white hair and blue eyes. When the mob attacks her the stranger easily cows them all and Holly-Ann knows it is the mutant X-Man Storm.

At last an answer begins to form when a mysterious being called Timekeeper reveals himself and demands that the incomprehensible power-source hiding in the city reveals itself – or the city will be destroyed within 24 hours…

When Storm tries and fails to shatter the forcefield, the She-Hulk appears, also with muddled memories but just as determined to help little Holly-Ann. Soon after both the Wasp and Tigra are discovered and the sinister secret technologists of AIM (Advanced Idea Mechanics) are discovered as the true cause of all the town’s problems.

When She-Hulk tackles them she is almost beaten to death by the army of super scientific soldiers…

With only hours remaining before the deadline, the battered community and diminished super-women prepare for the overwhelming onslaught to come…

Terrified and outmatched Joe Ember is ready to surrender all hope but his valiant daughter shows him another way and, regaining his sense of purpose, he galvanises the ordinary folk and leads them in a last ditch battle for their town, their lives and their souls…

A stirring mix of childhood fantasy and mature B-movie thriller, all wrapped up in Marvel madness and with loving overtones of the Magnificent Seven, this extremely uncompromising and occasionally explicit tale delivers action, tension and soul-searching drama for both the faithful readership and even the newest kid on the block looking for a different kind of story….
© 1985 Marvel Comics Group/Marvel Characters, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Fear Itself: the Home Front


By Howard Chaykin, Christos N. Gage, Benjamin McCool, Peter Milligan, Mike Mayhew, Ty Templeton and many various (Marvel/Panini UK)
ISBN: 978-1-84653-495-9

Marvel’s 2011 multi-part, inter-company braided mega-saga focused on Captain America, Thor and the Avengers, recounting how an ancient Asgardian menace resurfaced, possessing a band of the planet’s mightiest mortals and compelling them to wreak unimaginable death and destruction on the global population whilst he drank the terror the rampage generated.

To accompany and expand the series Marvel released a seven-part anthology miniseries which offered brief continuing sagas and snapshots which focused on the peripheries of the main event.

Although every issue contained a chapter of each story-strand, this tome sensibly organises the tales into discrete story-blocks so with the “The Worthy” – Sin, the Hulk, Juggernaut, Absorbing Man, Titania, Attuma, Grey Gargoyle and Thing – storming through cities awash with slaughter in other books, Fear Itself: the Home Front opens with disgraced teen hero Speedball who had caused the deaths of six hundred innocent civilians and sparked the Civil War and Superpowers Registration Act clandestinely returned to the town of Stanford where his impulsive act had turned into a metahuman massacre…

Guilt-wracked the lad had been sneaking back in his secret identity of Robbie Baldwin to work as a volunteer, but when he is exposed by the mother of one of his victims the outraged citizens want to lynch him. Lucky for him a horde of escaped super-criminals pick that moment to turn up and the kid gets the chance to save some lives.

Not that that makes any difference to the grieving, angry people of Stamford…

And then the ensorcelled Juggernaut and Attuma hit town just ahead of a colossal tidal wave and the psychotic slaughterers The Sisters of Sin…

Powerfully written by Christos N. Gage and illustrated by Mike Mayhew & colourist Rainier Berado, ‘The Home Front’ is a splendid Coming-of-Age redemption tale, swiftly followed by four-part saga ‘The Age of Anxiety’ (by Peter Milligan, Elia Bonetti & John Rausch) as resurrected and future-shocked 1950s super-spy Jimmy Woo leads a group of similar vintage dubbed the Atlas Foundation (Sub-Mariner’s cousin Namora, Gorilla-Man, love-goddess Venus, the Uranian Marvel Boy and wonder-robot M11) against an upsurge of hate-group attacks. Something is causing all the supremacists to rise up in a wave of venom and hatred and it all leads back to the Nazi cult which first found the mystic hammers of the Asgardian Serpent-god…

‘The Chosen’ by (Fred van Lente, Alessandro Vitti & Javier Tartaglia) reveals how the next generation of Avenging heroes are triumphantly Assembled by their natural leader… at least that’s what the manipulative Prince of Power believes. His less-than-happy recruits Thunderstrike, Spider-Girl, Powerman and junior Wolverine X-23, however, think otherwise in a light action-packed and cynically sassy three-part thriller which sees the unlikely lads and lasses save Hawaii from a horrifying catastrophe.

Ordinary people are the focus of later tales. Jim McCann, Pepe Larraz & Chris Sotomayor describe how the war of the gods affects the Oklahoma town of Broxton, located in the shadow of the Fallen City of Asgard in ‘There’s No Place Like Homeless’ and Corinna Bechko, Lelio Bonaccorso & Brian Reber recount a subway crisis involving Tiger Shark, a mugger and terrified mom Liz Allan in ‘Between Stations’ before Ben McCool & Mike Del Mundo show how medical maverick and vigilante predator on “Big Phamaceutical” businesses Cardiac suffers a moral ‘Breakdown’

Forgotten hero Blue Marvel saves a nuclear sub and begins a slow return to the world in ‘Legacy’ by Kevin Grevioux, MC Wyman, John Wycough & Wil Quintana, Native crusader American Eagle smartly settles a hilariously dark dispute between anglos and tribesmen in ‘Red/White Blues’ by Si Spurrier & Jason Latour and ‘Fear and Loathing in Wisconsin’ hilarious leavens the horror with a magically quirky yarn from Elliott Kalan & Ty Templeton starring the Great Lakes Avengers, before the book concludes with a powerfully poignant vignette as Captain America meets the real heroes in Brian Clevinger, Pablo Raimondi & Veronica Gandini’s ‘The Home Front Lines’

Howard Chaykin wrote and illustrated a series of delightful single-page star-segment visual epigrams ‘A Moment With… J. Jonah Jameson’, ‘A Moment With… the Purple Man’, ‘A Moment With… the People of Paris’, ‘A Moment With… Kida of Atlantis’, ‘A Moment With… Mr. Fear’, ‘A Moment With… Dust’, and ‘Another Moment With… J. Jonah Jameson’ which intersperse the shorter pieces, and there is of course a full cover gallery to add to all the fun and thrills of this brilliantly broad and bombastic bunch of mini Marvel Tales.

Fear Itself: The Home Front is scheduled for publication on January 18th, 2012.

™ & © 2012 Marvel & Subs. Licensed by Marvel Characters B.V. through Panini S.p.A. Italy. A British Edition by Panini UK Ltd.

Ghost Rider: Fear Itself


By Rob Williams, Matthew Clark, Brian Ching, Lee Garbett & various (Marvel/Panini UK)
ISBN: 978-1-84653-499-7

In recent times Marvel has eschewed colossal braided mega-crossover events in favour of smaller, themed mini-epics but following the release of the Captain America and Thor films – not to mention the upcoming Avengers celluloid blockbuster – the time obviously seemed right to once more plunge their entire Universe into cataclysmic chaos and rebirth.

This collection gathers the prologue an 5-issue miniseries which reintroduced the Ghost Rider to contemporary continuity and can even be read without reference to the Fear Itself core volume and subsequent spin-off books (stemming from the 30-odd regular titles, miniseries and specials the saga expanded into).

In the main storyline an antediluvian Asgardian menace resurfaces and by possessing a selection of Earth’s heroes and villains sets in motion a terrifying bloodbath of carnage to feed on the fear of mankind and topple the established Norse pantheon. With that much spiritual energy unleashed its no surprise that other supernatural entities begin to feel threatened…

Years ago carnival stunt-cyclist Johnny Blaze sold his soul to the devil in an attempt to save his foster-father from cancer. As is always the way of such things Satan – or arch-liar Mephisto, as he actually was – followed the letter, but not spirit of the contract. Crash Simpson died anyway and when the Dark Lord came for Johnny only the love of an innocent saved the bad-boy biker from eternal pain and damnation.

Temporarily thwarted Johnny was afflicted with a body that burned with the fires of Hell every time the sun went down and became the unwilling host for outcast demon Zarathos – the spirit of vengeance.

In later years Blaze briefly escaped his doom and a tragic boy named Danny Ketch assumed the role of Zarathos’ host and prison.

Now in a classy fright-fest by Rob Williams (Cla$$war, 2000AD’s Low Life) and artists Matthew Clark, Brian Ching, Lee Garbett & Sean Parsons, with additional art from Valerio Schiti, the Angel from Hell possesses a new host and is unleashed again to punish the guilty, beginning in the Prologue issue ‘Give Up the Ghost’ wherein the emotionally shattered but still valiantly heroic Blaze – once again bonded to the flaming phantom – is tricked by the mysterious adept Adam into surrendering the curse to a more than willing new vessel…

As the fear-mongering “Worthy” decimate the planet and humanity’s psyche, a female Ghost Rider roars through the ruins on her flaming bike saving the innocent and destroying the things which prey on mortals, but finds her match in the transformed Asgardian herald Skadi

Meanwhile the liberated Blaze is confronted by his lifelong tormentor Mephisto who reveals that he is not the only Great Big Liar in creation: Adam, who claims to be the First Man, has a plan for the new Ghost Rider which will alter mankind forever…

Adam wants to eradicate all sin on Earth using the gullible, girlish novitiate acolyte Alejandra as his weapon but that is actually an even worse proposition and fate than anything any devil could devise…

Driven by conscience, Blaze makes another Devil’s Bargain to save humanity whilst the sheltered child who now contains the Ghost Rider begins to carry out Adam’s plan with staggering success.

Raiding Adam’s hidden temple. Blaze joins forces with British Zombie wizard Seeker – who knows far more than he’s letting on – just as Adam’s devoted disciple begins to find her own mind and path…

With the planet sliding swiftly into physical cataclysm and psychic Armageddon can the disparate forces of Free Will unite in time to save us all from salvation…?

The book ends on a superbly powerful human note as the mortal who eventually retains the power of Zarathos goes on a mission of old-fashioned vengeance only to be confronted with the most appalling of father figures…

Cool, action-packed, mightily moving and wryly witty, this is a splendid reinvention of a character who has been in equal amounts both the best and worst of Marvel’s mighty pantheon and one well worth a little of your time and money.

Ghost Rider: Fear Itself is scheduled for British release on January 12th 2012.

™ & © 2012 Marvel & Subs. Licensed by Marvel Characters B.V. through Panini S.p.A. Italy. A British Edition by Panini UK Ltd.

Daredevil and the Punisher: Child’s Play


By Frank Miller & Klaus Janson (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-087135-351-1

Here’s another slim, sleek and sublimely enticing lost treasure from the early days of graphic novel compilations that will undoubtedly enthral fans of hard-bitten, high-calibre Fights ‘n’ Tights fracas.

Released in 1988, this full-colour 64-page compendium collected three unforgettable issues of Daredevil (#182-184 from May-July 1982) which perfectly encapsulated everything that made the first Frank Miller run such a momentous, unmissable, “must-read” series…

Matt Murdock is a blind lawyer whose remaining senses hyper-compensate, making him an astonishing acrobat, formidable fighter and living lie-detector. Very much a second-string hero for most of his early years, Daredevil was nonetheless a striking and popular one, due in large part to the captivatingly humanistic art of Gene Colan. He fought gangsters, a variety of super-villains and even the occasional monster or alien invasion. He quipped and wise-cracked his way through life and life-threatening combat, but under the auspices of Jim Shooter, Roger McKenzie and finally Miller himself, the character transformed into a dark, moody avenger and grim, quasi-religious metaphor of justice and retribution…

Frank Castle saw his family gunned down in Central Park after witnessing a mob hit and thereafter dedicated his life to eradicating criminals everywhere. His methods are violent and permanent. It’s intriguing to note that unlike most heroes who debuted as villains (Wolverine comes to mind) the Punisher actually became more immoral, anti-social and murderous, not less: the buying public shifted its communal perspective – Castle never toned down or cleaned up his act nor did his moral compass ever deviate…

The story goes that Marvel were reluctant to give The Punisher a starring vehicle in their standard colour comic-book line, feeling the character’s very nature made him a bad guy and not a good one.

Debuting as a deluded villain in Amazing Spider-Man #129 (February 1974), Castle was created by Gerry Conway, John Romita Sr. & Ross Andru, in response to popular prose anti-heroes such as Don Pendleton’s Mack Bolan: the Executioner and at of other returning Viet Nam vets who all turned their training and talents to wiping out organised crime.

Maybe that genre’s due for a revival as sandy GI boots hit US soil in the months to come…?

The crazed crime-crusher had previously starred in Marvel Preview #2 (1975) and Marvel Super Action #1 (1976) but as these were both black-and-white magazines aimed at a far more mature audience: however in the early 1980s a number of high profile guest-shots: Captain America #241, Amazing Spider-Man Annual #15 (covered recently in Sensational Spider-Man) and the extended epic here, convinced the Powers-That-Be to finally risk a miniseries on the maniac vigilante (see The Punisher by Steven Grant & Mike Zeck. You all know where that led…

In this collection, a reeling Matt Murdock is trying to cope with the murder of his first love Elektra when ‘Child’s Play’ sees Castle clandestinely removed from prison by a government spook to stop a shipment of drugs the authorities can’t touch.

Once he’s killed the gangsters, however, The Punisher refuses to go back to jail…

This story, concerning school kids using drugs, was begun by McKenzie & Miller but shelved for a year, before being reworked into a stunningly powerful and unsettling tale once Miller and Klaus Janson assumed the full creative chores on the title. When Matt Murdock visits a High School he is a helpless witness as a little girl goes berserk, attacking staff and pupils before throwing herself out of a third floor window.

She was high on Angel Dust and as the appalled hero vows to track down the dealers he encounters her bereaved and distraught younger brother Billy, determined to exact his own vengeance and later the coldly calculating Castle who has the same idea and far more experience…

The hunt leads inexorably to a certain street pusher and DD, Billy and the Punisher all find their target at the same time. After a spectacular battle the thoroughly beaten Daredevil has only a bullet-ridden corpse and Billy with a smoking gun…

The kid is innocent – and so, this time at least, is Castle – and after Murdock proves it in court, the investigation resumes with the focus falling on the pusher’s boss Hogman. When DD’s super-hearing confirms the gangster’s claims of innocence his alter-ego Murdock then successfully defends the vile dealer, only to have the exonerated slime-ball gloatingly admit to having committed the murder after all…

Horrified, shocked, betrayed and determined to enforce justice, DD finds a connection to a highly-placed member of the school faculty deeply involved with Hogman in the concluding ‘Good Guys Wear Red’ but far too late: Castle and Billy have both decided the end the matter Hogman’s way…

Tough, disturbing, beautiful and chillingly plausible, this epic encounter redefined both sides of the heroic coin for a decade to come and remains one  of the most impressive stories in both character’s canons.

With creator biographies and commentaries from Ralph Macchio, Mike Baron and Anne Nocenti this oft re-printed tale (in 2000 it was repackaged and released with a new cover as The Punisher vs. Daredevil) marks a genuine highpoint in the serried careers of both horrifically human heroes and is well worth tracking down.
© 1988 Marvel Entertainment Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

Fear Itself


By Ed Brubaker, Matt Fraction, Scott Eaton, Stuart Immonen & various (Marvel/Panini UK)
ISBN: 978-1-84653-494-2

Recently at Marvel, colossal braided mega-crossover events have been somewhat downplayed in favour of smaller mini-epics (the last biggie was Secret Invasion in 2008, I think), but following the release of the Captain America and Thor movies – not to mention the upcoming Avengers celluloid blockbuster – the time obviously seemed right to once more plunge their entire Universe into cataclysmic chaos and rebirth.

Collecting the one-shot Fear Itself Prologue: the Book of the Skull (March 2011) and the subsequent seven-issue core miniseries (which branched out into 30-odd other regular titles, miniseries and specials) this certainly spectacular puff-piece effectively presents a world-changing blockbuster via the comic equivalent of edited highlights whilst tempting readers to find the detail in the numerous spin-off books.

Quite simply: you can happily have old-fashioned funny-book fun and thrills just reading the basic story here and, should you want more, that’s available too

‘Book of the Skull’ by Ed Brubaker, Scott Eaton & Mark Morales follows Sin, daughter of the Fascist monster as she and Baron Zemo uncover a mystic weapon summoned to Earth during World War II, but rendered temporarily harmless in 1942 by The Invaders Captain America, Bucky and Sub-Mariner.

Only it wasn’t so much harmless as waiting for someone with the right blend of madness, need, hunger and sheer evil to wield it…

‘Fear Itself’ by Matt Fraction, Stuart Immonen & Wade von Grawbadger then opens with ‘The Serpent’ as global civil unrest and disobedience escalates into rioting as Sin picks up the mystic hammer which has been waiting for her, and transforms her into Skadi, herald of a dark and deadly menace from out of antediluvian Asgardian history…

The Home of the Gods has fallen to Earth in Oklahoma and, as Iron Man and the Avengers rally there to rebuild the Shining City, Odin appears and forcibly abducts the entire populace, even Thor, whom he has to batter into unconsciousness first.

Meanwhile Skadi has freed ancient fear-feeding god the Serpent from his prison on the sea-floor…

Soon seven other hammers turn the world’s most powerful denizens into harbingers of terror and mass destruction in ‘The Worthy’…

The Juggernaut, Hulk, Absorbing Man, Titania, Attuma, Grey Gargoyle and Thing are devastating the planet, generating global fear to feed the freed Asgardian outcast and in ‘The Hammer that Fell on Yancy Street’ the Avengers suffer their first tragic fatality, whilst in the nether-space which once housed the Citadel of the Gods the imprisoned Thor joins a secret rebellion against the clearly deranged Odin.

The All-Father plans to starve the fear-feeding Serpent of his food-source by scouring Earth of all life…

With ‘Worlds on Fire’ and the carnage and bloodletting ever-increasing, Thor escapes to Earth determined to aid his human allies and thwart his father’s insane scheme, just as retired hero Steve Rogers once again takes up the mantle of America’s Greatest Hero, and Iron Man forms an unlikely alliance to craft magical weaponry to combat the chaos before ‘Brawl’ finds the hammer-wielding Worthy uniting to crush human resistance, with the death-toll and slaughter escalating to extinction-event levels in ‘Blood-Tied & Doomed’ before Iron Man returns to turn the tide and save what remains of the day and humanity in the cataclysmic finale ‘Thor’s Day’ as the true history of the Gods is revealed and all Earths heroes, human, mortal or other, unite for one tragic last hurrah…

And make no mistake, this time even some of the A-list stars don’t make it…

Not that that means anything in comics, but it does make for an impressive – and breathtaking, beautifully illustrated – read, whilst the four portentous Epilogues (by a host of guest-creators) hint at more horror and heartbreak to come…

Owing far more to the aforementioned recent rash of movies and the general timbre of the times than the rugged mythologies created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, this is nevertheless a pretty effective cosmic punch-up which resets the playing field for the next few years and should make very friendly future reading for new and returning fans tantalised by the company’s Hollywood iterations.

With a splendid gallery of variant covers from Joe Quesada, Steve McNiven, Pablo Manuel Rivera, Guiseppe Camuncoli, Terry Dodson, Billy Tan, Humberto Ramos, Ed McGuinness, Mike McKone, this plot-light and action-overloaded epic should delight newer or less continuity-locked readers of Costumed Dramas and adventurous art lovers everywhere…

™ & © 2012 Marvel & Subs. Licensed by Marvel Characters B.V. through Panini S.p.A. Italy. A British Edition by Panini UK Ltd.

William Gibson’s Neuromancer – a Marvel Graphic Novel


By Tom de Haven and Bruce Jensen (Marvel/Epic)
ISBN: 0-87135-574-4

Even during the burgeoning comics boomtimes of the 1980s when the most inane, insane or banal illustrated material seemed capable of achieving a measure of success and acclaim, occasionally books everybody “knew” would be huge hits somehow failed to score or survive.

Perhaps the most surprising of these was a high-profile graphic adaptation of William Gibson’s landmark first novel, which looked great, triumphantly rode the zeitgeist of the era (in fact it created it) and was massively anticipated by avid readers within the industry and beyond it…

At this time Marvel led the field of high-quality original graphic novels: offering Marvel Universe tales, series launches, creator-owned properties, movie adaptations and licensed assets in lavishly expansive packages (square-ish pages of 285 x 220mm rather than the customary 258 x 168mm) which felt and looked instantly superior to the gaudily standard flimsy comicbook pamphlets – irrespective of how good, bad or incomprehensible the contents proved to be…

With the Gibson-minted term “Cyberspace” (first coined in his 1982 short story ‘Burning Chrome’ – as well as the acronym “ICE”: Intrusion Countermeasures Electronics) on everyone’s mind and the suddenly legitimised literary Noir sub-genre of Cyberpunk revolutionising film and comicbooks, Marvel’s Epic imprint released the first two chapters of the multi-award winning Neuromancer in an effective and challenging 48 page adaptation by author and screenwriter Tom de Haven (It’s Superman!, Galaxy Rangers), illustrated by bookcover illustrator Bruce Jensen.

This slim introductory teaser tome comprises ‘Chiba City Blues’ and ‘The Shopping Expedition’ describing a frantic and terrifying dystopian future where life is cheap, drugs are everywhere, money is everything and human bodies are merely the basic canvas for electronic or mechanical augmentations.

Those with any imagination, hope or human potential spend all the time they can in the omni-pervasive wonder-world of cyberspace where anything is possible and escape is always tantalising close… just like death.

Burned out hacker-hustler Case is on a downward spiral. He used to be a top “Cowboy”, hired to break data security and steal for the Big Boys. His major mistake was keeping some for himself and getting caught…

Instead of killing him, his “clients” took away his talent with chemicals and surgery and then let him loose to die slowly and very publicly by inches over years…

Now his trials are almost at an end: someone in the vast under-city is hunting him and all the derelict’s remaining connections are turning their backs on him…

When he is finally cornered by the deeply disturbing augmented assassin Mollie Millions (who first debuted in Gibson’s 1981 short story Johnny Mnemonic) Case’s life changes forever – but not necessarily for the better…

Mollie’s boss Armitage needs the world’s greatest hacker to crack an impossible data store and in return he’s prepared to repair all the cyber-cripple’s neural handicaps. Of course it won’t be pleasant and the boss is going to take a few biological precautions to ensure complete loyalty…

Addictively desperate to return to Cyberspace the hobbled hacker agrees, but as he undertakes his task he increasingly finds that everyone involved has their own exclusive agenda: even Armitage’s silent partner, the mysterious Artificial Intelligence Wintermute, is playing its own deadly game…

Intriguing and engrossing, this ultimately frustrating artefact isn’t so much my recommendation (although on its own truncated terms its not a bad piece of work and you might just like on its own terms) as a heartfelt wish for a new – and complete – pictorial interpretation and an impassioned plug for the prose novel itself if you still haven’t got around to it…
Introduction © 1989 William Gibson.  © 1989 Byron Preiss Visual Publications, Inc. Original novel Neuromancer © 1984 William Gibson. All rights reserved.

Willow™ – A Marvel Graphic Novel


Adapted by Jo Duffy, Bob Hall & Romeo Tanghal (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-87135-367-2

In the early 1980s Marvel led the field in the development of high quality original graphic novels: mixing out-of-the-ordinary Marvel Universe tales, new series launches, creator-owned properties, movie adaptations and the occasional licensed asset, such as the adaptation of the fantasy film favourite under review here.

Released in lavishly expansive packages (a squarer page of 285 x 220mm rather than the now customary elongated 258 x 168mm) which felt and looked instantly superior to the standard flimsy comicbook no matter how good, bad or incomprehensible the contents might be. With the season upon us and in the sure and certain knowledge that this family fantasy epic will be screened somewhere, I thought I’d point some comic fans in a direction they might not have travelled otherwise…

In a fully-formed fantasy scenario where any Tolkein fan or Dungeons and Dragons player will feel completely at home, the eternal war between Light and Darkness finds a few unconventional warriors when a messianic baby is born…

The graphic adaptation opens with the demonic sorceress Bavmorda’s attempts to kill the newborn which has been dispatched Moses-like down river, fetching up in the custody of Willow Ufgood, a good-hearted Nelwyn (don’t call them Hobbits – these littluns all wear shoes) who dreams of being a great sorcerer one day…

The human baby is clearly trouble, so the callously cautious and insular villagers want rid of it as soon as possible, dispatching Willow and a few true-hearted friends on a quest to deliver her to the first human they find.

However chaos, calamity and Bavmorda’s warriors follow the child everywhere and the first man they find is Madmartigan: a mighty warrior but also a lying, shiftless, drunken womaniser hanging from a cage on a gibbet…

Bavmorda’s army, led by her conflicted daughter Sorsha, has invaded the land and all the nobler humans – or “Daikini” – are busy fighting to save their lives, so when the pixie-like Brownies steal the baby, subsequently revealing her destiny as the Chosen One Elora Danan; for reasons inexplicable even to himself, Madmartigan joins Willow in a spectacular and death-drenched quest to free her destined guardian and mentor Fin Raziel…

Ultimately they both are driven by events and their own better natures to become the unlikeliest heroes in their world’s history: crucial components in the fight to end Bavmorda’s threat forever…

The final movie release was overly concerned with fight scenes and chases at the expense of plot and character (an understandable flaw which marred all three Lord of the Rings films too, in my humble opinion) but this classy and fun-filled ensemble-cast yarn manages to rattle along full-pelt with all-out fantastic battle-action and still find some room for extra helpings comedy and romance…

The movie Willow, from a screenplay by Bob Dolman, was conceived by George Lucas, directed by Ron Howard and released on May 20th 1988 in the United States, but if you’d bought and read this canny little tome before that (it was published at the beginning of that year) you’d have seen many extra pieces of shtick that sadly didn’t make it into the final cut…

An enticing, appetising change of pace for the usual comics crowd, this enticing sorcerous saga might well win a few fans amongst the dedicated Fights ‘n’ Tights fraternity too.
Willow: ™ and © 1988 Lucasfilm Ltd. (LFL). All Rights Reserved.

Swords of the Swashbucklers – Marvel Graphic Novel #14


By Bill Mantlo & Jackson Guice; lettered by Ken Bruzenak & coloured by Alfred Ramirez (Marvel)
ISBN: 0-87135-002-5

During the 1980s the American comics scene experienced a magical proliferation of new titles and companies following the creation of the Direct Sales Market. With publishers now able to firm-sale straight to retail outlets rather than overprint and accept returned copies from non-specialised shops, the industry was able to support less generic titles and creators were able to experiment without losing their shirts.

In response Marvel developed its own line of creator-owned properties during the height of the creative explosion, generating a number of supremely impressive, idiosyncratic series on better quality paper in a variety of formats under the watchful, canny eye of Editor Archie Goodwin. The delightfully disparate line was called Epic Comics and the results reshaped the industry.

One of their earliest hits was a sparkling, rambunctious science fantasy serial with a delightfully familiar core concept: Pirates in Space.

Swords of the Swashbucklers debuted in a premiere Marvel Graphic Novel before graduating to an on-going Epic series in March 1985; created by the much missed Bill Mantlo and ‘Jackson “Butch” Guice, whose collaborative efforts had made the latter days of the Marvel Micronauts comicbook such a vibrant joy (and there’s another series simply gasping for an Essential Edition, should the arcane gods of Trademark and Licensing ever get their acts together…)

The oversized process-colour format had been a great success for the company: a venue for a variety of “big stories” told on larger than normal pages (285 x 220mm rather than the now customary 258 x 168mm, similar to the standard European albums of the times) featuring not only proprietary characters such as Iron Man or the New Mutants, but also licensed assets like Conan, media tie-ins such as Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and creator-owned properties including Jim Starlin’s Dreadstar, Cholly and Flytrap and many more.

Although little more than a prelude for the series that followed this scintillating romp is still a compelling rollercoaster adventure in its own right which begins on the South Carolina coastline the morning after a terrific storm had battered those isolated dunes.

Thirteen year old Domino Blackthorne Drake, descendent of a genuine buccaneer queen, is happily beach-combing with her cat Cap’n Kidd when they find an incredible alien device uncovered by the gales.

Although clearly centuries old, the thing is still active and, as her distracted parents discuss their marital problems, the bold little girl gets too close and the artefact unleashes a torrent of impossible energy into the helpless lass…

As the authorities take over and place the now comatose waif and bizarre device into government quarantine, across the universe a solar-sailed marauder attacks a colossal slave ship of the rapacious Colonizer Empire. In command of the freebooter “Starshadow” is charismatic, ruthless half-breed Raader – the scourge of intergalactic civilisation…

A merciless conglomeration of greedy knaves and pitiless cutthroats, the Swashbucklers are still more welcome on many worlds than the resource-plundering, slave-taking Colonizers and, after freeing the captives (whilst keeping all their treasures and possessions) the Starshadow heads for safe-harbour on the hidden world Haven.

Here, amidst fair-weather friends and openly hostile rivals, the pirate princess clashes and carouses before awakening in her mother’s house – a citadel the mysterious “Earthling” Bonnie Blackthorne has maintained for over two hundred years…

When the pirates intercept a signal from a long-lost Colonizer probe coming from beyond the cosmic phenomena dubbed the Cloudwall, the race is on to secure the riches of the new world hidden there…

Daring the intergalactic unknown and expansion-obsessed Colonizer ships, the Starshadow arrives on the legendary planet Earth only hours ahead of the Imperial survey forces. The primitive human forces swiftly fall between attacks from both pirates and invading alien conquerors, whilst the somnolent Domino slumbers on.

When the Surveyors seize the sleeper and her family, the girl snaps awake, filled with irresistible, uncanny energies and routs the raiding party, but not before her mother and father are taken aboard the Imperial flagship, which retreats back beyond the Cloudwall to report a new world to conquer.

Rescued by Raader Domino discovers an impossible shared heritage with the alien privateer and determines to join her on the other side of the sky, both to rescue her parents and possibly save her own unsuspecting world…

Straightforward, fast-paced adventure in the grand manner, supplemented by a ‘Saga of the Swashbucklers’ additional feature, this is a fine fun book well worthy of rediscovery, preferably with the entirety of the comicbook run that followed in one deluxe collection.

Until then, though all these items are readily available through many internet retailers, so dig deep, me thrill-starved Hearties…
© 1984 Bill Mantlo & Jackson Guice. All rights reserved. Swords of the Swashbucklers is ™ Bill Mantlo & Jackson Guice.

Doctor Strange: Into Shamballa – Marvel Graphic Novel #23


By J.M. DeMatteis & Dan Green (Marvel)
ISBN: 0- 87135-559-0 or ISBN13: 978-0-87135-166-1

Once upon a time Marvel published far more all-original graphic novels than reprint collections or assorted compendia of past glories, utilising new formats and print innovations to tell “big stories” on larger than normal pages (285 x 220mm rather than the now customary 258 x 168mm) featuring not only licensed assets like Conan, high profile movie adaptations and creator-owned properties, but also proprietary characters the company owned lock, stock and barrel.

One such spectacular home-grown special event is this quirky, lyrically lovely visual and philosophical diversion starring the company’s own New Age Astral Avenger…

Steven Strange was once America’s greatest surgeon, a brilliant man, yet vain and arrogant, caring nothing for the sick, except as a means to wealth and glory. When a self-inflicted drunken car-crash ended his career, Strange hit the skids.

Then, fallen as low as man ever could, the debased doctor overheard a barroom tale which led him on a delirious odyssey – or perhaps pilgrimage – to Tibet, where an impossibly aged mage and eventual enlightenment through daily redemption transformed the derelict into a solitary, ever-vigilant watchdog for frail humanity against all the hidden dangers of the dark. Now he battles otherworldly evil as the Sorcerer Supreme, a Master of the Mystic arts.

After years of unceasing battle, a momentary lull in the eldritch crusade allows Strange time for contemplation and reminiscence. His thoughts return to the beginning of his second life amidst the misty crags of the Himalayas. He is often troubled by his long-departed mentor’s more impenetrable teachings and questions, even doubts begin to cloud the wizardly warrior’s sense of mission and purpose…

Visiting the Ancient One’s abandoned abode, Strange meets again his past master’s devoted body servant Hamir the Hermit and takes possession of his mentor’s final gift: a puzzle-box which defies his every effort to discern its true meaning.

Just as Strange’s frustration peaks he is summoned by the puissant and (seemingly) benevolent Lords of Shamballa and press-ganged into undertaking a global odyssey to jump-start the spiritual evolution of humanity and thereby mid-wife the Golden Age of Mankind.

But for that joyous miracle to occur the Doctor must perform three drastic and draconian feats of mystic surgery; in South America, India and England, harried each time by an unknown and deeply malevolent adversary.

However, no matter how far he travels or bravely he strives Stephen Strange cannot solve his most urgent internal dilemma: what kind of transcendent world can be built only on the corpses of three-quarters of humanity…?

Challenging, allegorical and elegiacally moving, Into Shamballa offers a far more mature and spiritual experience than most comics tales whilst still maintaining the thrill and wonder so necessary to lovers of graphic narrative.

Enticingly scripted by Searcher into the Mysteries J.M. DeMatteis and stunningly painted by Dan Green, this off-beat gem typifies all that was great about the bold and innovative middle-period of “the House of Ideas”.
© 1989 Marvel Entertainment Group/Marvel Characters, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Conan: The Ravagers Out of Time

– a Marvel Graphic Novel


By Roy Thomas, Mike Docherty & Alfredo Alcala (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-87135-911-7

During the 1970′s the American comic book industry opened up after more than fifteen years of cautious and calcified publishing practices which had come about as a reaction to the scrupulously-censorious oversight of the self-inflicted Comics Code Authority. The body was created by the publishers themselves to self-police their product and keep it palatable and wholesome after the industry had narrowly survived a McCarthy-style Witch-hunt during the mid-1950s.

One of the first genres to be revisited was Horror/Mystery comics and from that opening up came the pulp masterpiece Conan the Cimmerian.

Pulp-style Sword & Sorcery stories had been undergoing a prose revival in the paperback marketplace since the release of soft-cover editions of Lord of the Rings (first published in 1954) and by the 1960s the revival of the two-fisted fantasies of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Otis Adelbert Kline, Fritz Lieber and others were being supplemented by modern writers such as Michael Moorcock and Lin Carter who kick-started their careers with contemporary versions of man against mage. Undoubtedly the grand master of the genre was Robert E. Howard.

Marvel Comics tested the waters in early 1970 with ‘The Sword and the Sorcerers’ (from horror anthology Chamber of Darkness #4) whose hero Starr the Slayer bore no small resemblance to the Barbarian. It was written by Roy Thomas and drawn by Barry Smith, who was just breaking out of the company’s Kirby house-style.

Despite some early teething problems, including being cancelled and reinstated in the same month, the comic-strip adventures of Robert E. Howard were as big a success as the prose yarns that led the global boom in fantasy and, latterly, the supernatural.

Conan became a huge hit; a giant brand that saw new prose tales, movies, a TV series and cartoon show, a newspaper strip and all the other paraphernalia of success… and it all stemmed from the vast range of quality comics initiated by Thomas and Smith.

In Conan’s all-conquering wake Marvel developed comicbook interpretations of other Howard creations such as Bran Mak Morn, Solomon Kane and others. Undoubtedly the Silver and Bronze medals went to the fairly straight adaptation of King Kull of Atlantis and a rather more broadly reinterpreted Red Sonya of Rogatine.

Roy Thomas was a huge fan of the prose source material and took great pains to adapt the novels and short stories into the graphic canon, but he was also one of the top writers in his field and much of the franchise’s success devolves from his visceral grasp of the characters, which makes this particular graphic novel of particular interest.

All comics fans adore a team-up – especially if the antagonists fight each other as well as whatever menace brought them together – and this dream-ticket event, superbly illustrated by Mike Docherty & Alfredo Alcala, with painted colour from Tom Vincent, combines the big three in a stupendous battle to save the entire Hyborian Age from supernatural Armageddon.

When Conan leads a raid against a Turanian treasure caravan he once more meets friendly foe Red Sonja and an uncomfortably familiar ancient Pict shaman named Gonar who warns them of an old eldritch enemy recently risen from the dead for a third time and destined to become a threat to all who ever lived. After some heated debate the heroes determine to seek out the horror and Conan’s rag-tag bandit army accompany them – less concerned with saving the world than liberating the vast gold mine where Rotath the All-Conquering currently resides…

The sorcerer’s latest form is a hideous confused monster but it still recalls its most recent slayer Conan (see Chronicles of Conan volume 6). The re-resurrected, bewildered and utterly deranged mage wants a human body and when he fails to secure the Cimmerian’s, the gilded nightmare rips open the veil of time and drags Conan and Sonja back eight centuries, where they meet the only other hero ever to have killed Rotath – King Kull.

Determined to wreak final revenge upon all who have ever thwarted him, Rotath employs a legion of intelligent primates dubbed the Ape Lords to attack Kull’s empire of Valusia and blackmails Conan into abducting the King so that the monster can possess his form.

Of course after every mandatory battle of heroes they always unite in common cause and the greatest warriors of two ages are soon making the undying golden wizard rue the day he was reborn…

With brawny battles, warring wizards and enough suspense to choke a mastodon, this action-packed yarn is rip-roaring fantasy fare, brimming with supernatural horrors, wild women, wickedly worldly cynicism and spectacular titanic clashes, cannily recounted by immensely talented creators at the top of their form.

Still readily available, The Ravagers Out of Time is a another magnificently oversized tale produced in the European Album format with large, glossy white pages (285 x 220mm rather than the standard US proportions of 258 x 168mm) which provides another heady swig of untrammelled joy for lovers of the genre and fans of the greatest hero(es) ever to swing a sword or plunder a tomb…
© 1992 Conan Properties, Inc. Conan the Barbarian is a Registered Trademark of Conan Properties Inc. All rights reserved. Kull © 1992 Kull Productions, Inc. Kull and the distinctive likeness thereof is a Trademark of Kull Productions, Inc. All rights reserved. Red Sonja © 1992 Red Sonja Corporation. Red Sonja and the distinctive likeness thereof is a Trademark of Red Sonja Corporation. All rights reserved.