Conan: The Witch Queen of Acheron – Marvel Graphic Novel #19


By Don Kraar, Gary Kwapisz, Art Nichols & others (Marvel)
ISBN: 0- 87135-085-8

During the 1970′s the American comicbook industry opened up after more than fifteen years of calcified publishing practices maintained by the scrupulously-censorious oversight of the self-inflicted Comics Code Authority: A body created by publishers to police their product and keep it palatable and wholesome after the industry suffered their very own McCarthy-style witch-hunt during the early 1950s.

One of the first genres to be revisited was Horror/Mystery comics and from that came the creation of a new comics genre. 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 in 1954 and, by the 1960s, revivals of the two-fisted fantasies of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Otis Adelbert Kline, Fritz Lieber and others had been augmented by many modern writers such as Michael Moorcock and Lin Carter who kick-started their prose careers with contemporary versions of man against mage. The undisputed overlord of the genre was Robert E. Howard with his 1930s pulp masterpiece Conan of Cimmeria.

Gold Key had opened the field in 1964 with Mighty Samson, DC dabbled with Nightmaster in Showcase #82 -84 in 1969 whilst Marvel tested the waters with barbarian villain Arkon in Avengers #76 (April 1970) before going all-out with short tale ‘The Sword and the Sorcerers’ in horror anthology Chamber of Darkness #4.

Written by Roy Thomas and drawn by fresh-faced Marvel find Barry Smith, the tale introduced Starr the Slayer – who bore no small resemblance to the Barbarian in waiting…

Conan the Barbarian debuted with an October 1970 cover-date and despite some early teething problems, including being cancelled and reinstated in the same month, the comic-strip adventures of Howard’s primal hero were as big a success as the prose yarns that led the global boom in fantasy and the supernatural. Conan became a huge success: a pervasive brand that saw new prose tales, movies, a TV series and cartoon show, a newspaper strip and all the other paraphernalia of success.

Here the peripatetic Soldier-of-Fortune is enjoying some boisterous down-time in the flesh-pots of Belverus when the gold he’s spending like water comes to the attention of wicked Prince Tarascus. The coins are over three thousand years old and the ambitious ruler wants to know how a common sell-sword got hold of artefacts from a dead civilisation famed as the wealthiest in the world.

After spectacularly beating up most of the Prince’s Guard Conan passes out dead drunk and awakens in the infamous Tower of Pain. The Prince absolutely refuses to believe Conan’s tale of finding the gold on a dying man, who left them to him in return for a decent burial, so to avoid further torture Conan drags Tarascus, his hot-blooded wife Demetzia and a cohort of soldiers to the site of the long-dead city state in search of the fabled Treasure Mines of Acheron’s legendary Queen Xaltana…

Simply looking for a chance to escape, the Cimmerian inadvertently leads the rapacious army of gold-grubbers to a remote mountain range where they encounter a very unfriendly lost tribe of savages who claim to be the last Acheronians, who ambush and decimate Tarascus’ force.

Conan and the survivors’ headlong flight leads them to the lost mine which miraculously also houses the mythic Tomb of Xaltana, but Tarascus’ jubilation at the potential wealth of the discovery is marred by his advisors and engineers’ suspicions. Who ever heard of tomb that was locked and barred from the outside, as if to hold something in rather than keep robbers out…?

Nobody can safely tell a Prince of Nemedia what do however, so with the still-captive Conan in tow the tomb is broached… and all Hell hungrily breaks loose…

The Witch Queen of Acheron is classic rip-roaring pulp fare, chockfull of all the visceral elements that first propelled the barbarian to popular acclaim, written by veteran fantasy scripter Don Kraar (best known as the writer of the Tarzan newspaper strip for thirteen years as well as TRS properties for DC and a number of Hyborian epics for Marvel) and realised by artists Gary Kwapisz & Art Nichols, coloured by Julianna Ferriter and lettered by Janice Chiang.

Stuffed with two-fisted action, dripping with tension and loaded with the now-mandatory scantily-clad damsels, this worldly-wise, delightfully cynical horror-thriller produced in the European Album format (crisp and glossy white pages 285mm x 220mm rather than the customary US comicbook proportions of 258 x 168mm), perfectly revives the raw energy of the original tales and will provide untrammelled pleasures for lovers of the genre and fans of the greatest hero of the Hyborian Age.
© 1985 Conan Properties, Inc. Conan the Barbarian and all prominent characters are TM Conan Properties Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Steven Brust’s Jhereg – A Marvel Graphic Novel


By Steven Brust, adapted by Alan Zelenetz & John Pierard (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-8713-5674-1

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 even the occasional licensed asset, such as the adaptation of the fantasy fiction 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.

Jhereg, by Steven Brust was first published in 1983, the first of three novels (Jhereg, Yendi and Teckla, later collected as The Book of Jhereg omnibus) starring Vlad Taltos, an assassin-for-hire on the magic-drenched world Dragaera. The setting was faux-feudal with castes, guilds, brotherhoods and covens all rubbing silk-draped shoulders with fantastic creatures and incredible alien forces.

Unlike the other Families and Noble Clans, the House of Jhereg is a brotherhood of unaffiliated individuals elevated to Noble status due solely to ability not merit or bloodline. The house does scut-work and unseemly tasks – originally for the Emperors but now also for selected clientele. They take their name from the predatory jhereg: a venomous dragon-like flying lizard with near-human intellect, telepathic abilities and the power of teleportation.

The graphic adaptation, published under Marvel’s Epic imprint in collaboration with groundbreaking graphics packager Byron Preiss Visual Publications, opens with the grimly efficient Vlad Taltos plying his trade with the help of his jhereg familiar and best friend Loiosh.

When a Jhereg potentate of the ruling Organization Council offers him the biggest commission of his life Vlad’s greed and caution are tweaked in equal amounts.

A member of the inner circle has embezzled millions in funds and although they would like the money back, what the overlords really want is a very public example made. Moreover, in a society where immortality is commonplace and resurrection just a matter of who you know, the council need the Lord Leareth permanently deceased with absolutely no chance of revivification…

Taking the gig, Vlad sets his resources – human, alien and mystical – into locating the thieving absconder and soon finds him holed up in the worst possible place: as an honored guest of powerful Dragonlord Morrolan in his floating castle, cynically using the nobility’s Code of Hospitality to stay safe and unmolested.

Not every member of the clan is happy with the situation and the assassin has a powerful ally in young Aliera, Morrolan’s cousin, and a puissant sorceress in her own right.

Time is running out but Vlad and Loiosh have hatched a cunning plan…

The high fantasy trappings and milieu will delight fans of the genre but the real delight of this colourful, imaginative romp is the plain and simple fact that even with all the witchcraft and weirdness on display, at its heart this is a classy, hard-boiled, private eye thriller dressed up in fantastic fancy-dress: sly, dry, funny, impressively adult and breathtakingly fast-paced… and there’s never been an ethnic-buddy/sidekick like that smart-aleck flying iguana…

Zelentz’s adaptation rockets along, perfectly blending de rigueur tough-guy inner monologue with the land-of-miracles setting and John Pierard’s full-colour artwork is especially appealing – lush, bold, bright and satisfyingly reminiscent of Howard Chaykin’s painted narratives.

An enticing, appetising change of pace for the usual comics crowd, this sorcerous saga might well win a few fans amongst the dedicated Fights ‘n’ Tights fraternity too.
© 1990 Byron Preiss Visual Publications, Inc. Introduction © 1990 Steven Brust. Original novel Jhereg © 1983 Steven Brust. All Rights Reserved.

The Original Adventures of Cholly and Flytrap – A Marvel Graphic Novel


By Arthur Suydam (Marvel)
ISBN: 0- 87135-734-8

Scantily clad hot chicks swinging swords have been a staple of fantasy comics from their very inception, but there are none of those on view in this beautifully realised collection from illustrator, designer, screenwriter and musician Arthur Suydam, whose anarchically humorous, offbeat confections and magical renderings have graced such disparate products as magazines Heavy Metal, National Lampoon, Penthouse Comix and Epic Illustrated (where these brutally madcap little graphic novellas first appeared – specifically issues #8, 10, 13, 14 and 34), comicbooks like Tarzan, Conan, Batman, House of Mystery and Marvel Zombies and movie spin-offs Aliens and Predator.

He has also well as produced covers for novels including Max Allan Collins and Mickey Spillane’s collaborative Dead Street and Game box-art for Touch the Dead. Periodically Suydam returns to his own uniquely creative projects such as Mudwogs and the military muck-ups of Cholly and Flytrap, teasingly releasing another snippet every so often…

This then is the other sort of fantasy: lavishly grotesque, manically arch and surreptitiously satirically subversive; a lavish blend of dryly witty pastiches combining elements of Moebius’ Arzach, the imaginative  sci-fi earthiness of Vaughn Bode and a surreal anti-war temperament that imbues the blackly comic ultra-violence with a hauntingly tragic undertone.

Long ago the space-barge Exodus II crashed on an uncharted world. After untold ages the survivors have bred but never prospered, locked as they are in the constant struggle for survival. It’s not that the planet is particularly inhospitable… it’s just that the denizens -indigenous and not – adore war-making and love killing…

Apparently Cholly began life as a bat-riding warrior: an image for the poster advertising the animated Heavy Metal movie, but he was mysteriously transformed into a hot chick on a pterodactyl after acceptance (this sort of inexplicable conceptual metamorphosis happens a lot in film-land) leaving Suydam with a cool-looking visual and a lot of ideas…

Time passed, Marvel started a creator-owned, rights-friendly fantasy periodical in response to the success of Heavy Metal and a reinvented bat-riding, goggles-wearing icon of conflict began appearing. Of course, he had evolved slightly and the chiropteran had become a colossal, naked, bald fat man. Cholly still rode him like a seasoned veteran though…

The collected insanity begins with ‘A Little Love, a Little Hate!’ from 1981, a frenetic chase/duel between a foul-mouthed, flying jacketed war-hawk and his slug-like arch-enemy, which showed Cholly’s streetwise cunning in spectacular, over-the-top fashion.

‘Flightus Interuptus’ followed, an airborne tussle (possibly started before the previous tale?) wherein the high-flying Cholly, sans Flytrap, battled a massive mammary zeppelin-bomber in nothing more that a primitive tri-plane pulled by a brace of the planet’s levitating anti-gravity breasts (no, really). Tragically shot down in the throes of victory, the adaptable aviator found a giant bat to ride (remember kids, recycling even of ideas and art is good for any planet). Sadly the noble beast didn’t last long…

Soldier and human(ish) steed were reunited for the longer saga ‘The Rites of Spring’ as Suydam expanded his cast and extemporized on the concept of mortals as organic war machines in a Horatian tale of Thermopylan courage with Cholly and faithful, mute Flytrap holding back a veritable horde of slug-troopers and big-ass war-wagons – a smart and lusciously graphic feast of visual violence and sassy back-chat.

‘The End’ begins with the war-lover tooling around the sky on some more of those flying hooters until he encountered a monolithic monster having a furious argument with his own outrageously outspoken boy-bits. Passions aroused and tempers flaring, Cholly was witness to an ending you simply don’t see every day…

The short, sweet, one-trick gags grew into something more complex (a portent of the substantial tales that followed far too infrequently over the next twenty years) in the hilarious concluding Epic entry ‘The Adventures of Cholly and Flytrap’ (plotted by Peter Koch) as the peripatetic pair hauled up at their favourite restaurant for a feed. Impatience, hunger, foreign food and honking big guns never make for a sedate evening…

Topped off with a glorious portfolio of monochrome sketches and working drawings plus the magnificent cover of Epic Illustrated’s last issue this sumptuous, gratuitous and entrancingly daft eye-candy, released in the extravagantly expansive European Album format (a square-ish, high-gloss page of 285 x 220mm rather than today’s elongated 258 x 168mm) is a mature readers delight and yet another classy piece of work to add to the “why is this out of print?” list.
© 1981, 1982, 1986, 1991 Arthur Suydam. All Rights Reserved.

Arena – A Marvel Graphic Novel


By Bruce Jones (Marvel)
ISBN: 0- 87135-557-6

In  the early 1980s Marvel led the publishing pack in the development of high quality original graphic novels: mixing out-of-the-ordinary Marvel Universe tales, new in-continuity series launches, creator-owned properties, licensed assets, movie adaptations and even the occasional creator-owned property in extravagantly expansive packages (a square-ish standard page of 285 x 220mm rather than the now customary elongated 258 x 168mm) that felt and looked instantly superior to the average comicbook no matter how good, bad or incomprehensible (my way of saying outside your average Marvel Zombie’s comfort zone) the contents might be.

By 1990 Marvel’s ambitious line of outré all-area epics had begun to stall and some less-than-stellar tales were squeaking into the line-up. Moreover, the company was increasingly relying on hastily turned out cinema adaptations with built-in fan appeal and safe in-continuity stories offering established and company copyrighted characters rather than creator-owned properties and original concepts. The once-unmissable line began to have the appearance of an over-sized, over-priced clearing house for leftover stories.

So this stunning suspense saga counts as one of the last – and very best – indie/mainstream fiction experiments from before the rot set in; a creepy, clever, sexy thriller from EC fan and artistic everyman Bruce Jones which sets up shop in Stephen King and Ray Bradbury territory to deliver an overwhelmingly impressive rollercoaster of shocks and twists.

Sharon and her 12 year old daughter Lisa are driving through the majestic rural backwoods of America. It’s a pretty acrimonious journey and when the opportunity presents itself Mom takes a break and goes for a refreshing dip in a mountain pool whilst daughter stays in the car sulkily playing with her toy planes.

Sharon’s idyllic moment is shattered when she sees a jet crash scant yards away. However she can’t find any wreckage or even the slightest sign of it. Lisa saw and heard nothing and neither did the sinister voyeur who had been spying on them…

Rushing back to his shack simpleminded Lem tells his demented Granny about the strange woman. The old crone smells opportunity: if they can capture her and if she’s fertile they can sell her babies in the Big City… and even if she’s not big brother Rut will have a new plaything for awhile…

Lost in the deep woods Lt. Roberts, USAF crawls out of her crashed plane and hears voices. Sharon and the downed pilot start talking and realise that although they can’t see each other they are standing side by side. They’re invisible because they’re separated by two decades…

Somehow the mountain and forest are one huge time-warp… and increasingly, various eras are overlapping. Even though Sharon can only talk to Roberts, dinosaurs and cavemen are chaotically roaming over the hills, endangering both women in their own time-zones…

At that moment Lem and Rut strike, snatching Sharon. locking her up ready to make some money-spinning young ‘uns. From the car little Lisa sees her mother taken and twenty years in the future pilot Lisa Roberts suddenly remembers the horrifying moment her mother was killed by Hillbilly rapist psychopaths…

The time-shifts briefly stabilise and the two Lisas meet…

With beasts and worse roaming the woods the elder girl realises she has a chance to unmake the worst day of her life, but there are complications she could never have imagined in store for her and the girl she used to be…

Sultry, sinister and devilishly cunning this chronal conundrum is beautifully illustrated by Jones and his corkscrew plot is packed full of genuine surprises. Don’t think you’ve guessed the ending because you most likely haven’t…

A perfect sci fi movie-in-waiting, this terse and evocative yarn follows all the rules for a great screen shocker without ever having to “dumb-down” the temporal mechanics in deference to the Great Un-read in the popcorn seats.

Smart, seductive storytelling for sharp-witted punters, this is a time-lost gem you should track down however long it takes…
© 1989 Bruce Jones. All Rights Reserved.

Harvey Kurtzman’s Strange Adventures


By Harvey Kurtzman & various (Epic Comics/A Byron Preiss Book)
ISBN: 0-87135-675-9

Creative cartoon genius Harvey Kurtzman is probably the most important cartoonist of the last half of the 20th century. His early triumphs in the fledgling field of comicbooks (Frontline Combat, Two-Fisted Tales and especially the groundbreaking Mad magazine) would be enough for most creators to lean back on but Kurtzman was a force in newspaper strips (See Flash Gordon Complete Daily Strips 1951-1953) and a restless innovator, a commentator and social explorer who kept on looking at folk and their doings and couldn’t stop creating.

He invented a whole new format when he converted the highly successful colour comicbook Mad into a black and white magazine, safely distancing the brilliant satirical publication from the fall-out caused by the 1950s comics witch-hunt which eventually killed all EC’s other titles.

He pursued comedy and social satire further with the magazines Trump, Humbug and Help!, all the while still creating challenging and powerfully effective funny strips such as Little Annie Fannie (for Playboy), The Jungle Book, Nutz, Goodman Beaver, Betsy and her Buddies and many more. He died far too soon in 1993.

This intriguing oddment from 1990 saw the Great Observer return to his comic roots by spoofing and lambasting strip characters, classic cinema and contemporary sentiments in a series of vignettes illustrated by some of the biggest names of the time.

After a captivating introduction from ex-student Art Spiegleman, a stunning pin-up from Moebius and an overview from project coordinator Byron Preiss, the fun begins with a typically upbeat cartoon appreciation from R.Crumb: ‘Ode to Harvey Kurtzman’ which was coloured by Eric Palma, after which the Harvey-fest begins in earnest…

‘Shmegeggi of the Cave Men’ visually revives the author’s legendary Goodman Beaver, dislocating him to that mythic antediluvian land of dim brutes, hot babes in fur bikinis and marauding dinosaurs to take a look at how little sexual politics has progressed in a million years – all exquisitely painted by cartoonist, movie artist and paleontological illustrator William Stout, after which Sergio Aragonés adds his inimitable mania to the stirring piratical shenanigans of the dashing ‘Captain Bleed’ (with striking hues supplied by his Groo accomplice Tom Luth).

Western parody ‘Drums Along the Shmohawk’ is an all Kurtzman affair as the scribe picks up his pens and felt-tips to describe how the sheriff and his stooge paid a little visit to the local tribe…

Cartoonist, fine artist and illustrator Tomas Bunk contributes a classically underground and exuberant job depicting ‘A Vampire Named Mel’ whilst arch-stylist Rick Geary helps update the most famous canine star in history with ‘Sassy, Come Home’.

Limey Living Legend Dave Gibbons utilises his too-seldom-seen gift for comedy by aiding and abetting in what we Brits term “a good kicking” to the superhero genre in the outrageous romp ‘The Silver Surfer’ and the cartoon buffoonery concludes with Kurtzman and long-time associate Sarah Downs smacking a good genre while it’s down and dirty in ‘Halloween, or the Legend of Creepy Hollow’.

But wait, there’s more…

This seductive oversized hardback also has an abundant section devoted to creator biographies supplemented with pages and pages of Kurtzman’s uniquely wonderful pencil rough script pages – almost like having the stories printed twice…

Fun, philosophical fantasy and fabulous famous, artist folk: what more do you need to know…
© 1990 by Byron Preiss Visual Publications Inc. Each strip © 1990 Harvey Kurtzman and the respective artist. All Rights Reserved.

Kull: The Vale of Shadow (A Marvel Graphic Novel)


By Alan Zelenetz & Tony DeZuniga, with Tom Vincent & Michael Heisler (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-87135-558-4

Following on from the creation of the comicbook Sword and Sorcery genre in the early 1970s with their magnificent adaptation of pulp superstar Conan the Barbarian, Marvel naturally looked for more of the same, and found it in Robert Ervin Howard’s prototypical wild warrior hero King Kull whose first adventure The Shadow Kingdom was published in the fantasy pulp Weird Tales in August 1929. Two more tales followed before Howard abandoned the character, but nine others and a poem ‘The King and the Oak’ were published posthumously, long after the troubled author had committed suicide.

The S&S genre had undergone a global prose revival through the paperback marketplace since the release of soft-cover editions of Lord of the Rings (first published in 1954), and by the 1960s the resurgence of two-fisted fantasies by such pioneer writers as Edgar Rice Burroughs, Otis Adelbert Kline and Fritz Lieber, whilst many modern writers such as Michael Moorcock and Lin Carter kick-started their careers with contemporary interpretations of man, monster and mage. Without doubt though, nobody did it better than the tragic Texan whose other red-handed stalwart included, Bran Mac Morn, Solomon Kane and El Borak as well tough guys in a variety of other genres such as Steve Costigan, Dark Agnes and Red Sonya of Rogatino.

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

Thomas was a huge fan of the prose genre and took great pains to adapt novels and short stories to the graphic medium, even transferring other Howard tales into the canon by replacing his admittedly formulaic leading men with the surly Cimmerian (as Howard himself had done rewriting his unused Kull tale ‘By This Axe, I Rule’ into Conan novella ‘The Phoenix on the Sword’).

Marvel found solid ancillary supporting features with Solomon Kane, Bran Mac Morn and, most successfully King Kull: a wandering Atlantean mercenary who took the throne of a mighty kingdom by force of arms only to spend the rest of his life battling supernatural threats to it and guarding his own back from greedy, ambitious courtiers.

His comics publishing history was as chequered as his prose one; debuting in spectacular manner in Kull the Conqueror (29 issues from 1971-1978 with artistic contributions from Ross Andru, Wally Wood, John and Marie Severin and Mike Ploog among others), a black and white mature magazine Kull and the Barbarians (3 issues, 1975) and a revived, revised, comicbook version from 1982-1985. He even stared with Spider-Man in Marvel Team-Up #112

This sleek and glossy, lavishly oversized gem (285mm x 220mm rather than today’s standard 258 x 168mm) comes from 1989: an eerie, lyrical and poetic tale as the aging King battles his greatest foe and defeats her in characteristically barbaric and unflinching manner…

Kull is dying, sweating and straining on his deathbed as infected wounds seem set to carry him into the great beyond. Gathered for the deathwatch are his most trusted advisors and as they individually reminisce about the gore-spattered gladiator who became Valusia’s greatest monarch, we share their recollections to discover the kind of man he was.

Oblivious, unaware, Kull’s body thrashes and writhes. He struggles on, his soul trapped in an ethereal realm, dancing an erotic duet with the darkly seductive angel of death who has come to take him to the gods…

This eldritch crossing of the final Rubicon is beautifully illustrated in the grand, ostentatiously humanesque manner of the Filipino artists who became such a mainstay of DC and Marvel during the 1970s and early 1980s. Tony DeZuniga was one of the first to break into American comics and his work is always of the highest quality, especially here, enhanced by the glowing, lush hues of colorist Tom Vincent.

Once upon a time Marvel led the publishing pack in high quality original graphic novels: mixing creator-owned properties, licensed assets like Kull and movie adaptations with Marvel Universe tales and even new series launches in extravagant squarebound packages based on the European album model. To me it seems these slim tomes always shine with some intangible extra oomph – perhaps it’s simply the bigger pages with more art on them?

Still readily available, this is a magnificent moody yarn that will delight any fan of the genre and should easily convert a few die-hards too.
© 1989 Conan Properties Inc All Rights Reserved.

The Death of Groo the Wanderer (Marvel Graphic Novel #32)


By Sergio Aragonés, Mark Evanier, Stan Sakai & Tom Luth (Epic/Marvel)
ISBN: 0-87135-290-7

Groo is a living paradox: a brilliant fighting man and unbeatable warrior sell-sword and simultaneously the dumbest collection of organic molecules on the planet. Always hungry, he wanders because most places where he pauses burn down, wash away or crash into rubble soon after he gets there. He loves to fight and the entire world trembles at the mention of his name. They do the same when they smell him too…

Produced in unique fashion by Sergio Aragonés, wordsmith Mark Evanier, letterer Stan Sakai (creator of Usagi Yojimbo) and colourist Tom Luth, the idiot’s adventures form one of the longest running humour comicbook series in America and there seems to be no chance of stopping the creators as long as we keep buying these incredible, hilarious sagas…

Both in comic narrative and the infinitely more strenuous field of gag-cartooning Sergio Aragonés has produced vast volumes of excellent work. His darkly skewed sensibilities and grasp of the cosmically absurd, wedded to a totally unique, anarchically meticulous drawing style and frankly terrifying professional discipline, have made his (usually) silent doodles a vibrant proof of the maxims that laughter is universal and a picture is worth a thousand words.

After working for years for Mad Magazine and DC’s horror titles on gag features and the occasional full comic strip, in 1981 with writer and associate Mark Evanier, Aragonés produced a madcap four-page parody of the Sword-and-Sorcery genre as a contribution to the Creators Rights benefit comicbook Destroyer Duck published by Eclipse Comics.

Following a second outing in Mike Grell’s Starslayer (#5) Pacific Comics launched Groo the Wanderer in his own title. After 8 issues (December 1982-April 1984) the troubled company folded but the unsinkable barbarian (that’s a joke I’ll explain later) resurfaced in the Groo Special one-shot from Eclipse (October 1984), before finding a home at Epic Comics: Archie Goodwin’s creator-owned corner of the Marvel Universe.

Aragonés first created his witless warrior in the 1970s but no publisher would take on the property unless he sold all rights – an almost universal situation in the industry until the advent of the Direct Sales market transferred power from companies and distributors to creators and consumers. After an uproarious 120 issue run at Epic, and dozens of graphic novel compilations, the witless wonder moved on to Image and Dark Horse Comics, but they haven’t completely gone belly-up yet…

This all original volume from 1987 reintroduces readers to the smelliest, ugliest, stupidest itinerant mercenary in the world. Luckily he’s also the best swordsman in creation and too thick to be harmed because when he shuffles his unshod, dirty feet into the domain of King Krag he inadvertently encounters a thoroughly nasty man with a good many reasons to psychotically hate him…

At that time the kingdom was being ravaged by a colossal dragon, but as the only man on the planet crazy enough to fight it has a huge bounty on his head, how stupid would he have to be to come and attempt to kill it? – and if you’re having difficulty answering that, either you’ve not been paying attention or Groo has found a new apprentice…

Due to the kind of circumstance-concatenation that only happens in this series, everybody in the land of Groo-haters thinks the oaf is finally dead – even Groo – but with all the folk who have ever suffered at his hands gathered in one place they all start to realise that a world without Groo just isn’t the same…

Fear not however: order, if not sense, is eventually restored – but only after a grand display of confusions, contusions, conflagrations, conflicts, pratfalls, pitfalls, punch-lines and punch-ups. There’s even a little room left over for a soupcon of romance (Mmmm, Soup! Mmmm, leftovers…)

Published in the extravagant, luxurious over-sized 285mm x 220mm European album format which allows even more room for the artist’s tireless tornado of visual gags and graphitti this is a masterpiece of mirth and madness that comedy addicts will love and the great strength of the series is that new readers can start practically anywhere – and still be none the wiser…

Oh yeah, that sinking thing: among his other lack of abilities Groo cannot travel by ship. He’s not sea-sick or anything – it’s just that his physical presence on a nautical apparatus of any sort causes it to sink – and this book has one of the very best riffs on that running (swimming? sinking?) gag I’ve ever seen…
© 1987 Sergio Aragonés. All Rights Reserved.

Conan of the Isles (Marvel Graphic Novel #42)


By Roy Thomas & John Buscema, with Danny Bulanadi, Ricardo Villamonte, Armando Gil and Dave Simons (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-87135-483-9

During the 1970′s the American comic book industry opened up after more than fifteen years of cautious and calcified publishing practices that had come about as a reaction to the scrupulously-censorious oversight of the self-inflicted Comics Code Authority: A body created by the publishers to police their product and keep it palatable and wholesome after the industry suffered their very own McCarthy-inspired Witch-hunt during the 1950s. One of the first genres to be revisited was Horror/Mystery comics and from that came the pulp masterpiece Conan the Cimmerian.

Simultaneously, Sword & Sorcery stories had undergone a global prose revival in the paperback marketplace since the release of soft-cover editions of Lord of the Rings (first published in 1954), and the 1960s saw the resurgence of the two-fisted fantasies of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Otis Adelbert Kline, Fritz Lieber, whilst many modern writers such as Michael Moorcock and Lin Carter kick-started their careers with contemporary versions of man, monster and mage. Indisputably the grand master of the genre was Robert E. Howard.

Marvel Comics tested the waters in early 1970 with a little tale called ‘The Sword and the Sorcerers’ (from the 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 young Englishman Barry Smith, a recent Marvel find, and one 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’s characters were as big a success as the prose yarns. Conan became a huge success: a mega-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 largely stemmed from the vast range of comics initiated by Thomas, Windsor-Smith (as he became) and the excellent succession of comics creators that followed.

Thomas was a huge fan of the prose material and took great pains to adapt the novels and short stories into the graphic canon. From the latter days when the barbarian was an established Marvel mainstay comes this utterly enchanting adaptation of the hero’s last recorded adventure, written by L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter, first released in 1968.

The Cimmerian’s wanderings had eventually led him to the throne of a vast kingdom, the founding of a dynasty and after twenty years, terminal boredom. He had outlived his comrades and beloved wife Zenobia and chafed under the yoke of responsibility. When seven hundred citizens of Tarantia were terrifyingly consumed by blazing bloody lights King Conan was furious and bewildered until a ghostly vision bade him to hunt down and destroy these marauding Red Shadows.

Secretly abdicating in favour of his son Conn, the aging warrior vanished from Court, returning to the life of a pirate, and as “Amra the Lion” gathered a crew of valiant brigands to covertly hunt down the master of the crimson shades – who have subsequently spread their depredations throughout the known world.

Still formidable and burdened with fearsome responsibilities, Amra and old comrades Sigurd of Vanaheim and Yasunga the Black Corsair rove the scattered islands of the Western Ocean, seeking their hidden foe and battling monsters, rogues and maddening mechanical dooms.

Even though nearly seventy years old Conan drove himself hard and soon the ship of rogues found their hidden foe in the form of the priest-cult of Xotli and their uncanny Black Kraken warriors of lost Atlantis. When the pirates were all captured Conan alone infiltrated the hidden citadel to solve the mystery of the Red Shadows, rescue his crew and save the whole Hyperborean world…

Divided into three chapters, ‘Red Shadows and Black Kraken!’ (inked by Danny Bulanadi, Ricardo Villamonte & Armando Gil), ‘Dragons from an Unknown Sea!’ and ‘Gods of Light and Darkness!’ (both inked by Dave Simons), I rather suspect this tale was originally intended for the comicbook spin-off King Conan before being bumped into this sleek and glossy oversized format

Once upon a time Marvel led the publishing pack in the development of high quality original graphic novels: mixing creator-owned properties, licensed assets like Conan, Marvel Universe tales and even new series launches in extravagant over-sized packages (a standard 285mm x 220mm rather than the now customary 258 x 168mm) that felt and looked like far more than an average comicbook no matter how good, bad or incomprehensible (a polite way of saying outside the average Marvel Zombie’s comfort zone) the contents might have been.

Fast-paced, action packed and stuffed with the red-handed wonderment beloved by his fans, Conan of the Isles is rip-roaring pulp fare, brimming with supernatural horrors, scantily-clad damsels in distress and spectacular derring-do, cannily recounted by veteran creators at the top of their form. Still readily available this is a classy tale that will delight any fan of the genre and could easily convert a few die-hards too.
© 1982, 1988 Conan Properties Inc All Rights Reserved.

Amazing Spider-Man: Crime and Punisher


By Marc Guggenheim, Joe Kelly, Barry Kitson, Chris Bachalo & various (Marvel Comics)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-5417-6

Although a little disingenuous and rather disjointed for my tastes Crime and Punisher is a splendid slice of spidery superhero shenanigans that proves the modern Wall-Crawler still has a broad reach and plot-themes to suit many moods and occasions.

First off ignore the term “Crime” as the very best part of this collection (comprising Amazing Spider-Man #474-577, and portions of Spider-Man: Brand New Day -Extra!! #1) is a poignant and moving human interest tale with oldest friend Flash Thompson reaching a huge and shocking turning point in his life after returning from a tour of duty in Iraq.

Written by Marc Guggenheim, illustrated by Barry Kitson & Mark Farmer, this low-key tale of inspiration and ordinary heroism is a genuinely moving tribute to soldiers and one of the best Spidey tales of the last twenty years, but it is light-years away from the dark and frenetic retooling of the strictly B-List villain that follows.

‘Death of a Wise Guy’ by Joe Kelly, Chris Bachalo & Tim Townsend (from Spider-Man: Brand New Day -Extra!! #1) tells the secret history of the screen-gangster obsessed young Mafioso who became the brain-damaged cyborg Hammerhead and how his painful rehabilitation and rebuilding under the aegis of new criminal mastermind Mister Negative elevates a clownish super-thug to the top of the villain heap…

When the Spider-Man continuity was drastically and controversially altered at the end of the “One More Day” publishing event a refreshed, now single-and-never-been-married Peter Parker was parachuted into a new life, so if this is your first Web-spinning yarn in a while or if you’re drawing your cues from the movies be prepared to be a little confused.

Therefore this tale from the follow-up “Brand New Day” event sees Parker, a photographer for independent newspaper Front Line stumbling on Negative and Hammerhead’s scheme to consolidate the street gangs into a vast army of boy-soldiers, in ‘Family Ties’ (Amazing Spider-Man #475-6, with additional inks from Jaime Mendoza & Al Vey), a brooding, brutally epic clash wherein Parker puts his life on the line to save Gangsta kids from the Cyborg’s join-or-die recruitment campaign. Kelly’s signature wild comedy perfectly counterpoints the savage battles and highlights the quantum leap in malice the new Hammerhead is capable of…

The book ends with Punisher reluctantly and spectacularly reuniting with Spider-Man to stop their mutual old foe Moses Magnum, a ruthless arms-merchant who has found a way to weaponise Gamma radiation: giving any buyer a serum that producers berserker incredible Hulks to order…

‘Old Hunting Buddies’ (Amazing Spider-Man #477) parts 1 and 2 are written by Zeb Wells, drawn by Paolo Rivera and coloured by Javier Rodriguez & Dean White, with Kelly Kitson & Farmer’s ‘A Bookie Minute Mystery’ bisecting the saga. This last is a cheery little interlude that touches base with J. Jonah Jameson, recovering from heart-surgery and already making plans for his inevitable return…

Fast-paced, bold and extremely engrossing the quality of the individual tales is undeniable, but like an old time Vaudeville Show there’s a marked lack of cohesion, a start instead of a beginning and a close but no ending. Pretty even if lacking in context, it would be a shame if these stories were missed or passed over, so any Fights ‘n’ Tights fan should really give this book a look if they haven’t already…

© 2008, 2009 Marvel Characters, Inc.  All Rights Reserved.

The Groo Garden


By Sergio Aragonés, Mark Evanier & Stan Sakai (Epic/Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-78510-026-3

Both in comic narrative and the infinitely trickier field of gag-cartooning Sergio Aragonés has produced uncountable volumes of excellent work. His darkly skewed sensibilities and death-grip on the cosmically absurd, wedded to a totally unique drawing style and frankly terrifying professional discipline have made his (usually) silent doodles a vibrant proof of the maxims that laughter is universal and a picture is worth a thousand words.

After working for years for Mad Magazine and DC’s horror titles on gag features and the occasional full comic strip in 1981, with writer and associate Mark Evanier, Aragonés produced a madcap four-page parody of the Sword-and-Sorcery genre as a contribution to the Creators Rights benefit comicbook Destroyer Duck published by Eclipse Comics.

Following a second outing in Mike Grell’s Starslayer (#5) Pacific Comics launched Groo the Wanderer in his own title. After 8 issues (December 1982-April 1984) the troubled company folded but the unsinkable barbarian (that’s a joke I’ll explain later) resurfaced in the Groo Special one-shot from Eclipse (October 1984), before finding a home at Epic Comics: Archie Goodwin’s creator-owned corner of the Marvel Universe.

Aragonés had first created his witless warrior in the 1970s but no publisher would take on the property unless he sold all rights – an almost universal situation in the industry until the advent of the Direct Sales market transferred power from companies and distributors to creators and consumers.

The character is arguably the most successful creator-owned property of the American comic-book market, and this seventh volume (of 27 thus far) collects issues #25-28 (March-May 1987) from the Epic incarnation, with the itinerant idiot fully established in a capacious and vast feudal landscape of wizards, warriors, wild women and weird beasts. With a burgeoning supporting cast, Aragonés and his co-conspirators have plenty of wonky, misshapen leg-room to experiment with narrative and visual merry-making…

For the slow of mind however let me recapitulate:

Groo is the smelliest, ugliest, stupidest unluckiest mercenary in the world – but he’s also the best swordsman in creation and far too stupid to be harmed. He is always hungry and wanders because most places he pause in burn down, wash away or crash into rubble soon after he arrives. He loves to fight and entire nations and navies reel at the mention of his name. Of course they do the same when they stand downwind of him too…

The volume opens with ‘Divide and Conquer’ as the unemployable oaf has something similar to an idea and quite effectively foments unrest between relatively peaceful kingdoms in the hope that somebody will hire him to quell the unrest – with the usual catastrophic results, whilst two sinister sorceresses who really should know better are forced to employ the him again in ‘Arba Dakarba’, shrinking the wandering warrior to the size of his own intellect to steal a wishing amulet.

‘Spies’ places Groo in the background as The Sage and The Minstrel are captured by an army and accused of espionage. To forestall their executions the pair entertain the Commanding General with stories of the worst soldier in existence, but unlike Scheherazade, no tale of Groo can ever have a happy – or safe – ending. Then this chronicle concludes with ‘The Gourmet Kings!’ as the ever-ravenous reaving rover’s always empty stomach leads him to gainful employment and chef-stealing. Naturally the whole affair leads to an excess of chopping, slicing and dicing all around…

Marvelously cynical, wildly witty and stunningly silly Groo is the comic that people who hate comics read: brilliantly tongue-in-cheek, sharply sarcastic and devastatingly self-deprecating. An irresistible humour tour-de-force astoundingly scribed and illustrated by jesters who don’t know when – or how – to stop. New readers can start practically anywhere – and still be none the wiser…

The unstoppable brain-donor (Groo, not Aragones or even wordsmith Evanier, letterer Stan Sakai or colourist Tom Luth) has since rambled on to shut down Image Comics and now threatens to finish off Dark Horse, but as they haven’t completely gone belly-up yet there’s still plenty of material for you to track down…
© 1987, 1994 Sergio Aragonés. All Rights Reserved.