James Bond: Hammerhead


By Andy Diggle, Luca Casalanguida & various (Dynamite Entertainment)
ISBN: 978-1-52410-322-4 (HB) 978-1-52410-713-0 (TPB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Epic Blockbuster Entertainment… 10/10

James Bond is the ultimate secret agent. You all know that and have – thanks to the multi-media empire that has grown up around Ian Fleming’s novel creation – your own vision of what he looks like and what he does. That’s what dictates how you respond to every new movie, game or novel.

Amongst those various iterations are some exceedingly enjoyable comicbook and newspaper strip versions detailing the further exploits of 007 which have never truly found the appreciation they rightly deserve. This collection – available in hardback trade paperback and digital iterations – is probably one of them. It originates from 2017, compiling a 6-issue miniseries from licensing specialists Dynamite Entertainment.

Their fabulously engaging take on the veteran antihero was originally redefined by Warren Ellis & illustrator Jason Masters, who jettisoned decades of gaudy paraphernalia that had accumulated around the ultimate franchise star, opting instead for a stripped-down, pared-back, no-nonsense agent who is all business. Successive creative teams have maintained that sleek, swift efficiency and at last Andy (The Losers, Green Arrow: Year One, Shadowland, Gamekeeper, Uncanny) Diggle: a British writer seemingly born to extend the adventures of 007.

Deftly and effectively handling the stunning visuals is Luca Casalanguida whose art – in combination with colourist Chris Blythe and letterer Simon Bowland – stirs wonderfully potent echoes of illustrator Yaroslav Horak who made the original newspaper strip such a heady delight.

This high-tech terrorism tale opens with Bond in Venezuela, bloodily failing his assignment to capture lethal hacker-for-hire Saxon and gather intel on enigmatic terrorist Kraken. Hauled – after the opening credits, of course – back to MI6 HQ in Vauxhall Cross, London, the agent is suitably carpeted by M before being fobbed off with a babysitting job.

His charge is Lord Bernard Hunt, a British Arms magnate currently upgrading the UK’s tired old Trident Nuclear arsenal. Hunt’s company is also a major exporter of cutting-edge weaponry, and Bond is to shadow him at an arms fair in Dubai…

Thankfully there’s compensation of a sort as the gunsmith’s luscious daughter Victoria is also the firm’s Vice President. A dedicated patriot and anglophile, “Tory” finds plenty of ways to amuse the bodyguard: everything from a guided tour of the company’s new super toy – a colossal rail gun dubbed Hammerhead – to drinking and games…

Tragically, Kraken is again one step ahead of Bond and the mission goes disastrously wrong…

Meanwhile back in Blighty, an attack on a Hunt helicopter in Scotland results in the loss of a mothballed Trident warhead…

With Tory’s help, Bond is soon on the track of the suspected perpetrators. After a great deal of research, battle and bloodshed, a trail leads to Yemeni smuggler Karim Malfakhar. However, despite being responsible for most of the bodycount, Bond is not content with how the mission is unfolding. Something is not right…

Black Crannog is Hunt’s Nuclear Reprocessing Facility: a sea platform in the Outer Hebrides where Tory welcomes M, Miss Moneypenny and Defence Secretary Simon Wallis to discuss the crisis. When Kraken springs a trap, not all of them survive…

Happily, in the interim, Bond has put all the piece together correctly and is heading for the rig in a Royal Navy Ballistic Missile Submarine with a full team of SBS (Special Boat Service) commandos. As Kraken proudly initiates the final stage of a plan to nuke London and usher in a new era of warfare, Bond makes another spectacular last-ditch assault to save the day and kill his latest foe.

Luckily, Black Crannog is literally packed with super weapons…

Offering all the traditional Bond set-pieces such as exotic locales, spectacular chases and astoundingly protracted fight sequences, this is a rousing mystery romp fans will adore, supported by a gallery of eye-catching variant covers by Francesco Francavilla, Robert Hack & Ron Salas, plus art features detailing Casalanguida’s process from layout to finished line art and character design sketches.

This riotous espionage episode is fast, furious and impeccably stylish: in short, another ideal James Bond thriller, that will leave you both shaken and stirred…
© 2017 Ian Fleming Publications, Ltd. James Bond and 007 are ™ Danjaq LLC, used under license by Ian Fleming Publications, Ltd. All rights reserved.

Mata Hari


By Emma Beeby, Ariela Kristantina, with Pat Masioni & Sal Cipriano (Berger Books/Dark Horse)
ISBN: 987-1-50670-561-3(TPB) eISBN: 987-1-50670-590-3

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Because History is Never Straightforward or Straitlaced… 9/10

Until relatively recently (some would argue that should read “hopefully soon”), History has never really treated women well or even fairly. When not obscured, sidelined or just written out, they have been cruelly misunderstood and misrepresented.

Moreover, we’re all painfully aware these days, a bold lie or convenient fabrication has far more veracity that simple, muddled, messy truth.

Margaretha Geertruida “Margreet” MacLeod (née Zelle) was born on August 7th 1876 in Leeuwarden, in the Dutch Netherlands, to milliner and later industrialist Adam Zelle. She was the eldest of four children and raised in wealth until her father lost it. Her life became more troubled and remarkable after that, before she died on 15th October 1917 in front of a French Firing Squad.

In between, she had married, lived in the East Indies, had children she never really knew and remade herself as a rather scandalous dancer and performer. Margreet adopted the stage name Mata Hari (it means “eye of the dawn” in Malay) and her gifts led to her becoming a courtesan in the highest circles of privileged society, with princes, ambassadors, tycoons and generals all clamouring for her attention. She was also courted by some countries – including France and Great Britain – to act as an espionage operative…

After a chequered life during a period when European society welcomed strong independent women, she was accused on meagre evidence of spying for the Germans during the Great War, and convicted.

Deemed to have caused the death of 50,000 men, and the moral ruination of countless others, Mata Hari has become the purest and most enduring symbol of the deadly, cunning femme fatale…

In the last few decades, serious historical investigation has cast a rather different, and far fairer complexion on the mythical spy in film, song, ballet, books, musicals and all arenas of popular culture, none better than an imaginative 5-issue miniseries from Dark Horse’s Berger Books imprint, a collaboration of writer Emma Beeby (Judge Dredd, Doctor Who, Judge Anderson), artist Ariela Kristantina (Wolverine: The Logan Legacy, Deep State, Insexts), colourist Pat Masioni and letterer Sal Cipriano.

Blending hard fact with emotive supposition and informed extrapolation, the sorry episode unfolds in the flashbacks and daydreams of a prisoner held at the Saint-Lazare Prison for Prostitutes in Paris in October 1917. Opening chapter ‘Bare Faced’ introduces Margreet as she desperately struggles to complete a book that will tell her story in her own words…

Against a backdrop of political and military manipulation resolved to make an example of her, ‘Bare Breast’ details her disastrous, life changing marriage and its terrible consequences whilst ‘Bare Heart’ relates her fight back to independence and notoriety after which ‘Bare Teeth’ moves on to the war and the great love for a Russian soldier that leads to her ultimate downfall in ‘Bare All’…

Real life doesn’t work the way narrative would like and the people there aren’t actors. This contemplative tale (packed with documentary photos and available in paperback and digital formats) carefully acknowledges that frustrating complexity in an account scrupulously devoid of heroes and outright villains whilst exposing centuries of institutionalised injustice – in an extremely entertaining manner. It closes with a series of textual Codas (offering many more intimate photos of the woman and her times) with ‘Mata Hari’s Conviction’ relating the oddities and strange events regarding the disposal of her body and an authorial opinion by Beeby in ‘Was Mata Hari a Martyr?’…

In both word and imagery, Mata Hari is a potent, beguiling, evocative and uncompromising retelling of a murky and long-misconceived historical moment that any fan of history and lover of comics will adore…
Mata Hari text and illustrations © 2019 Emma Beeby and Ariela Kristantina. All rights reserved.

Frankenstein Alive, Alive – The Complete Collection


By Steven Niles & Bernie Wrightson, with Kelley Jones & various (IDW)
ISBN: 978-1-68405-337-7 (HB) eISBN: 978-1-68406-544-8

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Masterfully Macabre Masterpiece… 9/10

In our house, just as Christmas is all about Disney and Archie and Batman comics, in the days leading up to “Knock! Knock!BOO!! Night”, my thoughts always settle like a murder of crows on one particular artist. Despite his wide range of creations in many genres, and irrepressible sense of fun and whimsy, Bernard Albert Wrightson will always be the king of graphic suspense and macabre imagination.

As the turbulent 1960s closed, a cluster of fresh talent was trying to break into the comics industry at a time when a number of publishers were experimenting with black & white magazines rather than four-colour comic books. Warren Publishing and its many imitators were hiring kids who honed their craft in public – just like their forebears had to.

A respectable number of those Young Turks – such as Bruce Jones, Mike Kaluta, and “Berni” (a young man who soon became a living legend even in that prestigious cabal) – grew into big names by making pastiches of the EC Comics they had loved as kids: paving the way for when the market again turned to shock, mystery and black comedy to sell issues.

Wrightson was born a few days before Halloween (October 27th) 1948 in Dundalk, Maryland and his artistic training came via TV, reading comics and a correspondence course from the Famous Artists School.

His first professional publication was fan art, printed in Creepy #9 (June 1966). Soon after, he was toiling as a junior illustrator for The Baltimore Sun, when he met his EC idol Frank Frazetta at a convention. Gravitating to New York City, he hooked up with those above-cited band of newcomers, and other hopefuls, and was soon crafting short horror tales for National/DC, Marvel and other eager publishers. His top-rank reputation was cemented with the co-creation (beside writer Len Wein) of Swamp Thing.

His first association with DC ended in 1974, as he left to work at Warren on more adult-oriented tales which provided him an opportunity to try different techniques: a bountiful period of experimentation that culminated with his joining Catherine (nee Jeffrey) Jones, Kaluta and Barry Windsor-Smith in arts collective The Studio.

During this period, he also produced commercial commissions, film material and humorous strips for National Lampoon whilst over seven years creating a series of astoundingly complex plates for his signature work: an illustrated rerelease of Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein; 50 breathtaking illustrations authentically capturing the mood and tone of the gothic literary landmark.

In later years he illustrated posters, trading cards and graphic novels such as Creepshow, Cycle of the Werewolf and Freakshow (with Bruce Jones) among other print collectibles, before returning to mainstream comic books. Notable successes include The Weird and Batman: The Cult with Jim Starlin, and Spider-Man: Hooky and The Hulk and the Thing: The Big Change as well as a number of Punisher miniseries and OGNs.

Wrightson died in 2017. At the time he was working with Steve Niles (30 Days of Night) on a new Frankenstein miniseries: a splendid codicil to the character he had nor originated, but – at least visually – had made as much his own as Mary Shelley’s. He almost finished it. The quintessential professional to the last, Bernie even made provision for another artist to complete the job before passing. This is it…

Somewhere in America, sometime between the Wars, Stengler’s Funland Circus & Carnival entertains an endless progression of hicks in a never-ending cycle of short stays and “one night only!”. Undisputed star of the freak tent is ‘Frankenstein’s Monster’, but the jaded thrill-seekers would be astonished to learn that the corpse-like giant is in fact the real deal: an immortal re-assemblage of mortal parts with the mind of a genius and the soul of a poet.

As he enjoys a family life with his fellow outcasts, the Modern Promethean casts his mind back, to confrontations with his mortal flawed creator, hibernation in ice and reawakening in a later time.

Discovered by a team working for avid scholar Dr. Simon Ingles, the monster found a friend and mentor and was made welcome in an environment of peace and learning. In such a world, with knowledge at his fingertips, the beast flourished: his hunger for peace and thirst for intellectual growth satiated by the only friend he had ever known. Of course, horror stories are simply tragedies in deep shadow, and a vile secret in the doctor’s abode soon forces upon the monster a painful, unavoidable moral dilemma…

Frankenstein Alive, Alive! was released as a 4-issue miniseries, and, well aware of his fading health, Wrightson produced extremely detailed sketches and roughs and designated artist Kelley Jones (Batman; Swamp Thing; Deadman, Aliens; The Sandman; Micronauts) – whose own style was heavily influenced by Wrightson – to complete the book if his own time ran out.

The result is not seamless, but more than satisfactorily details how the creature agonisingly weighed companionship and his own happiness against ethical perfection and was not found wanting…

The salutary saga is prefaced by a moving Introduction from Niles and closes with a ‘Bernie Wrightson Gallery’ beautifully revealing the power and work of the artist’s pencilwork, attention to staging and detail and his authorial commentary of the story process.

Wrightson considered this work to be a continuation of his epic labour of love adaptation of the source novel: once again seen through the monster’s eyes, told with his voice and revealing what every booklover has always wanted after finishing a favourite tome – What Happened Next…

Reproduced from the original artwork and resplendent in stark monochrome line with lush painterly tones and shades of grey, this award-winning chronicle is a true landmark of the genre and a fitting bow for the master of comics horror to leave the stage with. Whether you’re a fan of the artist or the novel, this is a book you must see.
Frankenstein Alive, Alive! – The Complete Collection Story © 2018 Steve Niles. Artwork © 2018 Bernie Wrightson. © 2018 Ideas and Design Works, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Edgar Allen Poe: The Fall of the House of Usher and Other Tales of Horror


Adapted by Richard Corben & Rich Margopoulos (Catalan Communication/Del Rey)
ISBNs: Catalan signed hb 0-87416-013-8   Del Rey pb 978-0-34548-313-3

Richard Corben is one of America’s greatest proponents of graphic narrative: a multi-award-winning legendary animator, illustrator, publisher and cartoonist surfing the tumultuous wave of independent counterculture commix of the 1960s and 1970s to become a major force in pictorial storytelling with his own unmistakable style and vision. He is renowned for a mastery of airbrush and captivatingly excessive anatomical stylisation and infamous for delightfully wicked, darkly comedic horror and beguiling eroticism in his fantasy and science fiction tales. Corben is also an acclaimed and dedicated fan of the classics of gothic horror literature, so no season of Halloween reviews could be complete without invoking his name and at least some of his work.

Always garnering huge support and acclaim in Europe, he was regularly collected in luxurious albums even as he fell out of favour – and print – in his own country. This collection gathers a number of adaptations of works by Godfather of eerie fantasy Edgar Allan Poe, first seen in issues of Creepy magazine between 1974-1975 and in Pacific Comics’ A Corben Special in 1984.

This superb hardback Catalan collection (one of many long overdue for a definitive archival compilation) was re-released in softcover by prose publisher Del Rey Books in July 2005.

The terror commences with the moody monochrome madness of ‘The Oval Portrait’ (from Creepy #69, February 1975 and adapted by writer Rich Margopoulos, as were all the Warren originated stories here) wherein the wounded survivor of a duel breaks into an abandoned chateau to recover and falls under the sinister spell of a beguiling painting and seductive journal…

‘The Raven’ is a fully airbrushed, colour phantasmagoria from Creepy #67 (December 1974) which perfectly captures the oppressive majesty of the classic poem, as is the next macabre vignette wherein the focus shifts to ancient Greece and the inevitable approach of death amongst the warriors at a funeral: a wake tainted by an invisible ‘Shadow’ (Creepy #70 April, 1975).

The obvious and worthy star turn of this tome is the artist’s own adaptation of ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’, created for the comicbook A Corben Special in May 1984 and here expanded and reformatted for the larger, squarer page of this European album.

Traveller Edgar Arnold is trapped in the bilious swamp where the ancestral seat of the ancient Usher clan is slowly dissolving into the mire that surrounds it.

The tainted blood of the melancholic master Roderick and his debauched clandestinely closeted, sumptuously seductive, deranged sister Madeline proves certain to extinguish the family long before the dank Earth reclaims the crumbling manse, but if it doesn’t Roderick is determined to expedite matters himself.

Madeline however, has other dreams and desires and is not above using her unique charms to win her objectives…

Corben – with the assistance of colourists Herb & Diana Arnold – perfectly captures the trenchant, doom-laden atmosphere, erotic charge and cataclysmic denouement of the original and this seminal, seductive work is undoubtedly one of the very best interpretations of this much-told and retold tale.

The artist’s sublime acumen in depicting humanity’s primal drives has never been better exemplified than with these immortal stories and this is a book no comics or horror fan should be without.
© 1974, 1975, 1984, 1985 1993 Richard Corben and Richard Margopoulos. All rights reserved.

John Constantine, Hellblazer volume 2: The Devil You Know (New Edition)


By Jamie Delano, David Lloyd, Richard Piers Rayner, Mark Buckingham, Bryan Talbot, Mike Hoffman, Dean Motter & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-3302-0 (TPB)

Originally created by Alan Moore during his groundbreaking run on Swamp Thing, John Constantine is a mercurial modern wizard, a dissolute chancer who plays like an addict with magic on his own terms for his own ends. He is not a hero. He is not a nice person. Sometimes, though, he’s all there is between us and the al-consuming void…

Granted his own series by popular demand, Constantine premiered at the height of Thatcherite Barbarism in Britain, during the dying days of Reaganite Atrocity in the US, to become a founding father of DC’s adult-oriented Vertigo imprint. Ah, what happy, simple times they seem now…

This collection – available in paperback and digital formats – collects Hellblazer #10-13, Hellblazer Annual #1 plus 2-part tangential miniseries The Horrorist: cumulatively spanning January to October 1988 and revelling in the renaissance of comicbook horror these yarns spearheaded, and which thrive to this day.

Back in 1987, Creative Arts and Liberal Sentiments were dirty words in many quarters and the readership of Vertigo was pretty easy to profile. British scripter Jamie Delano began the Constantine solo series with a relatively safe horror-comic plot about an escaped hunger demon, introducing us to Constantine’s unpleasant nature and odd acquaintances – such as Papa Midnite – in a tale of infernal possession and modern voodoo, but even then, discriminating fans were aware of a welcome anti-establishment political line amidst the metaphorical underpinnings.

The wonderment begins by concluding an epic eldritch saga started in Hellblazer: Original Sins (go read that, it’s great too) as the sanctimonious Resurrection Crusade attempt to re-enact the birth of Christ and their rivals the Damnation Army try to stop them, using Constantine as their weapon. Both sides learn that such a vile trickster is never to be trusted. ‘Sex and Death’ is by Jamie Delano with art from Richard Piers Rayner & Mark Buckingham.

The same team are responsible for the next trinity of linked stories ‘Newcastle’: A Taste of Things to Come (from #11 of the monthly comic) forms the beginning of an origin of sorts for the sordid sorcerer as we flashback to 1978 where punk rock singer/would-be wizard John Constantine takes a motley assortment of mystic wannabees into a possessed nightclub for what they think will be a simple exorcism.

It’s anything but, and the horrific events twist the survivors for the rest of their lives… ‘The Devil You Know’ features the mage’s return (from an insane asylum and worse) and revenge on the hellbeast that shaped his life….

Issue #13 finds him ‘On the Beach’, chilling after all the horror, but still somehow sucked into an ecological nightmare. What follows is an epic tale of two Constantines, as a ghastly heritage of magic and monstrosity is revealed.

Taken from the first Hellblazer Annual in 1989, ‘The Bloody Saints’ parallels the urban occultist’s squalid existence against the history of Kon-Sten-Tyn, mighty mythic Merlin’s apprentice and a putative successor to King Arthur.

A glamorous rogue and unprincipled cheat, Kon-Sten-Tyn steals Merlin’s magic, makes pacts with devils, feigns conversion to Christianity, assumes unearned sainthood and generally does whatever he wants in a vividly dark, outlandish comedy terror beautifully illustrated by Bryan Talbot.

Also from the Annual comes an illustrated version of ‘Venus of the Hard-Sell’ originally “recorded” by Constantine’s punk band Mucous Membrane. Whatever you think it is, you’re wrong. Just get the book, revel in it and the wonderful creativity of writer/artist Dean Motter.

The 2-part miniseries The Horrorist fills the remainder of the book. Written by Delano and stunningly painted by David Lloyd, this is a bleak, cold fable which finds – in a state just like ‘Antarctica’ – an emotionally paralysed Constantine dutifully hunting across traumatised cityscapes and wretched broken America for a destructive force wreaking bloody havoc. All the trauma and misery of an uncaring world is the irresistible tool of a third world survivor and only more suffering seems to satisfy her…

As the creature called Angel passes, a typhoon of guilt, fear and terror is inevitably unleashed, savagely ending unfulfilled lives. She can’t be stopped by any means the wizard has used before, but there is one appalling tactic he can try…

John Constantine is probably the most successful horror comic character ever, with mood, tension and his surly, smug, intransigent attitude easily overwhelming and outlasting mere gore and splatter time after time. Ambivalent and ever-changing, the antihero of this series and the worlds he exposes never fail to deliver shock after shock.

Delivered by creators capable and satiric, but still wedded to the basic tenets of their craft, these superb examples of contemporary horror fiction – inextricably linking politics, religion, human nature and sheer bloody-mindedness as the root causes of all ills – are still powerfully engaging. Beautifully constructed, they make a truly abominable character seem an admirable force for our survival. The art is clear, understated and subtly subversive, while the slyly witty, innovative stories jangle at the subconscious with scratchy edginess.

This is a book no fear-fan should miss.
Hellblazer 10-13, Hellblazer Annual © 1988, 1989, 2011 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved. The Horrorist #1-2 © 1995, 1996, 2011 Jamie Delano & David Lloyd. All Rights Reserved.

To Hell You Ride


By Lance Henriksen, Joseph Maddrey, Tom Mandrake & various (Dark Horse Books)
ISBN: 978-1-61655-162-9 (HB) eISBN: 978-1-62115-870-7

With all the chaos and kerfuffle besetting the world, it’s possibly therapeutic to dip into fantasy and disaster that we can control to some extent. In that spirit, here’s a good old-fashioned horror yarn to curl your toes in these eco-political end times…

Originally released as a 5-part miniseries from December 2012 to July 2013, To Hell You Ride was a lifetime dream project for actor Lance Henriksen (Aliens, Millennium, Near Dark) inspired by a visit to the town of Telluride, Colorado in the 1970s.

He saw his idea as a movie, but eventually, after working with screenwriter and documentarian Joseph Maddrey (Nightmares in Red, White and Blue), shifted his ideas to sequential narrative, with horror veteran Tom Mandrake (Swamp Thing, Grimjack, Martian Manhunter, Batman) rendering the project into stunning creepy visuals. Finishing the package were colourists Cris Peter & Mat Lopes and letterer by Nate Piekos of Blambot®.

Told in parallel time periods and trenchant flashbacks, the drama begins in the snow-swamped Colorado Mountains of 1880 where a greedy trapper plunders Indian graves and finds gold. A year later, the sacred ground is utterly defiled, turned into a pit of depravity as dozens of prospectors rip up the terrain in search of yellow metal.

The tribe’s only response is to begin a ritual of atonement. Undertaken by their holiest warriors – “The Old Ones” – even this act of pious desperation is despoiled. Interrupted by miners, four celebrant warriors are killed and their derailed devotions slowly poison the environment, becoming a curse for future generations and another prime example of ‘White Man’s Guilt’… that is, none at all…

The ritual is not done, however, and continues to proceed at its own pace…

More than a century later, drunk, lost and perpetually angry Native American Seven George (his true name is “Two Dogs”) continues being a pain in the ass to everybody. Yet again, sheriff Jim Shipps gives the kid a pass, but by the time the young man reaches his desolate, dilapidated shack, he’s become aware that something’s changed: an unnatural alteration that’s killing the birds…

Thankfully, he knows the history and takes steps to protect himself from an interrupted ritual that’s coming back and coming to a close…

The never-ending wounds to the region have affected both his father Six George and grandfather Five George in their own times, bring trouble and death to those who could least risk it, and as Two Dogs sits in a jail cell at Christmas, waiting for his own fate to unfold, the unnatural takes over. Soon the mountain town is buried in a wall of white, courtesy of ‘The Alchemy of Snow’

Greedy town officials like Cubby Boyer just see another way to make money. Snow tourists rapidly flood in, but the joy and profits freeze once the visitors start dying: victims of a bloody, explosive ‘Metamorphosis’

All the region’s wildlife is frightened and aware of big change coming. With chaos growing and a news blackout intensifying the crisis, Two Dogs and Shipps are forced to work together, but certainly not with the same ends in mind…

As the death toll mounts government spooks move in, setting up a quarantine line to keep America safe from “plague carriers” and “contaminated snow”… And they’re not really real Feds either…

Although the lands’ original occupiers feel their time is returning, they can’t hold a solid front, dividing into factions based on ancient spirits. With the Spider and the Trickster apparently walking the land, somehow, only Two Dogs knows what’s really needed. He begins his personal ‘Ghost Dance’ to the ever-present Watchers from the Spirit World, seeking to save who he can of the terrified survivors but, ultimately all that’s left is to accept his fate and ready himself for his ‘Death Song’

Perhaps here is the solution he’s been searching for…?

Deftly blending contemporary horror themes with judiciously cherrypicked – or just plain cod – First Nations mythology, To Hell You Ride is not as spiritually astute as it would like but is far more fun than you possibly imagine: a superbly chilling race against doom with epic undertones and potent symbology.

Adding to the experience is text feature ‘Origins’, detailing how the story evolved over decades and supplemented with character studies, commentary, notes and developmental drawings of Two Dogs, The Watchers, Jim Shipps, Mary Ambrose, Cubby Boyer & the Town, The Spider, The Trickster, Smokin’ Bones, and recurring key image The Appeal to the Great Spirit (derived from Cyrus E. Dallin’s sculpture of the same name).

Sheer, unalloyed spooky delight, this is a magical yarn that really would make a brilliant movie. Why hasn’t anybody thought of it?
To Hell You Ride™ © 2012, 2013 Lance Henriksen, Joseph Maddrey & Tom Mandrake. All rights reserved.

Death Be Damned


By Acker, Blacker & Miller, Hannah Christenson, Juan Useche & various (Boom! Studios)
ISBN: 978-1-68415-039-7 (PB) eISBN: 978-1-61398-716-2

First seen as a 4-issue miniseries in 2017 written by Ben Acker, Ben Blacker (The Thrilling Adventure Hour; Deadpool; Thunderbolts; Supernatural) and Andrew Miller (Backstrom; League of Pan; The Secret Circle), spooky sagebrush saga Death Be Damned is a deft and compelling addition to the growing and cross-fertilising genre of supernatural westerns. The series was visualised by celebrated illustrator Hannah Christenson (Harrow County; Mouse Guard; Jim Henson’s Storyteller) with colours by Juan Useche and letters from Colin Bell.

In delivery the tale is stripped down, raw and utterly engaging, delivered in sweeping tributes to more than a century of high plains cinema and begins in 1873 Wyoming when brutalised settler Miranda Coler awakes face down in the river to find her entire family have been butchered. A tough, determined survivor, she buries her husband and child and, picking up her man’s rifle, sets about tracking down the gang who killed them.

By the time she reaches South Pass City, she’s ready to accept any passing pain or humiliation if it leads to her justified vengeance, but anger doesn’t make her good enough to kill one of the marauders in the town whorehouse. He casually puts a bullet in her brain…

Local undertaker Murray takes his job far too seriously. Since his wife passed, he’s become an expert of death rituals and is letting his studies affect his work. He keeps trying to raise the dead and can’t believe he’s succeeded with the crazy woman just killed in the cathouse…

Events eventually prove he hasn’t, really, but perhaps his attempts to retrieve the dead have set something incredible in motion…

And in Laramie City, mass killer Bickford hangs for his crimes. A little later he also gets up: drawn inexorably to South Pass where something unnatural needs to be quashed…

Miranda thinks Murray is crazy, but after he kills her and she comes back again, she finally hears him out. He wants the revenant to rescue his wife from Hell, but has no idea what the land of death is really like. Miranda still wants revenge though, and she’s happy to exploit the undertaker’s foolish whims if it gets her closer to her goal, no matter how many times she has to die in the doing of it…

A tale of dark obsessions played out through a nest of gradually-unfolding mysteries, the sinister saga employs all the iconography of “big sky” westerns to add mood to a blistering tale of debts incurred and accounts called due. Unstoppable Miranda even beats her devils to exact precious retribution and learns the painful truths of her life, her man and a hell of a lot of death…

Available in paperback and digital editions, Death Be Damned also offers an expansive cover gallery by Christenson and Konstantin Tarasov; as well as character designs and also reveals the secrets of the illustrator’s Cover Process.
Death Be Damned is ™ and © 2017 Workjuice Corp. & Andrew Miller.

The Umbrella Academy volume 3: Hotel Oblivion


By Gerard Way & Gabriel Bá, with Nick Filardi & Nate Piekos (Dark Horse)
ISBN: 978-1-50671-142-3 (TPB)

Superheroes have been around so long now that they’ve been able to evolve into different sub-sets: straight Save-the-World continuity types as championed by DC and Marvel, obsessively “real” or rationalist iterations such as Marvelman, Crossfire or Kick-Ass, comedic spins like Justice League International or Next Wave and some rare ducks that straddle a few barstools in between.

Addressing the same Edgy, Catastrophic Absurdism as Grant Morrison’s classic Doom Patrol, the archly anti-didactic antics of The Umbrella Academy offered readers a subtly subversive take on the idiom which impressed the heck out of everybody and lured many disillusioned fans back to the pitifully tired and over-used genre when first released. Author creator Gerard Way even parlayed the extraordinary success of the Weird Science heroes into a TV series for the team and built a second creative career steering DC’s outré, off-the-wall Young Animal imprint of alternative heroes…

Now a decade later, a new miniseries has resulted in the long-awaited third collected volume (available in trade paperback and digital formats) and is presented here with an effulgent Introduction from star writer and late-converted fan Jeff LeMire…

Once upon a time a strange event occurred. All across Earth, 43 babies were unexpectedly born as the result of apparent immaculate conceptions – or perhaps some kind of inexplicable parthenogenesis.

The births even surprised the mothers, most of whom discarded, abandoned, sold or arranged adoption of their unexpected, terrifying newborns.

Notorious scientist, entrepreneur and closet extraterrestrial Sir Reginald Hargreeves – inventor of the Levitator, mobile umbrella communicator, Clever Crisp cereal, Televator and a process which enabled chimps to speak – had a secret plan, and he knew these kids would all be special. He thus acquired seven of these miracle babies for an undisclosed purpose, subsequently rearing and training the children to become his private superhero team to enact it.

He was in no way a “good” parent…

The callously experimental family, after a spectacular early career, eventually proved to be unmanageable and the Umbrella Academy – created and trained “to save the World” – sundered in grief and acrimony, but not before poor Ben, Number 6 AKA “The Horror”, pointlessly lost his brave young life and Number 5 “The Boy” took a short trip into the future and never came back…

The surviving members of the utterly dysfunctional superhero team parted but were reunited twenty years later when the news broke that Hargreeves – whose nom de guerre was The Monocle – had died. You shouldn’t believe everything you hear on the news…

In the interim, Number 1 son Luther had become an off-earth defender and pioneer, so hideously damaged by a doomed journey to Mars that to save him, Hargreeves had grafted The Spaceboy‘s head onto the body of a colossal Martian Gorilla.

Poor, neglected Vanya, whose musical gifts Hargreeves deemed utterly useless, became a drop-out and wrote a scandalous tell-all book before becoming a voluntary exile amidst Earth’s lowest dregs. When Number 7 returned she was again rejected by her “family” and summarily seduced by a manic musician who unleashed her true potential and almost destroyed the world with her untapped power…

The Boy returned after 60 years of ranging through the time-stream and materialised in the body of the 10-year old he had been. However, his physical form was frozen and he stopped aging at that moment…

Favourite friend, technologist, housekeeper, actual lifelong care-giver and talking chimp Dr. Pogo had died in Vanya’s – or rather The White Violin‘s – apocalyptic attack which had left Allison (Number 3, The Rumor) with her throat severed, apparently forever deprived of her talent for warping reality with a word…

Diego (Number 2, The Kraken) remained the obsessive scary vigilante psychopath he’d always been but Klaus (Number 4, The Séance) was even weirder than before: a floating, shoeless space-case who talked to the dead and pulled the wings off the laws of physics…

Once upon a time, long ago and whilst still children, the Umbrella Academy saved Washington DC from an animated and extremely angry Lincoln Memorial. They’ve had an odd relationship with American Presidents ever since…

Having saved the entire world from prophesied destruction, the dysfunctional quintet were at a loss and killing time in the rubble of their old home until a fresh crisis boiled over and was cleaned up after The Boy’s hidden sponsors (ruthless chronal cops the Temps Aeternalis) sought to make him fulfil the mission they had originally recruited and rebuilt him for…

Now in the aftermath of the global carnage that generated, the battered survivors recuperate unaware that old ‘Evil’ is manifesting in their midst. Long ago, Hargreeves had taken steps to create the ultimate penitentiary for the violent, vicious, crazy and too-powerful foes of his pet Academy, but now the “guests” of his Hotel Oblivion are successfully checking out…

As The Boy explosively pursues the minion’s of The Perseus Corporation, elsewhere Spaceboy is consulting with aged savant Doctor Zoo. The old duffer is planning a trip into the bizarre region dubbed “Afterspace” in search of a lost legend…

The Séance has fallen very low, trading seedy encounters with dead loved ones for drugs, but when he attempts to scam his biker-thug minders events overtake him just when his old allies leave the universe behind in KMiniature War in a Miniature Home’

With Hargreeves’ guests loose in the hotel, ‘Violence’ mounts in a range of places and dimensions but the greatest threat comes as the nigh-omnipotent Scientific Man gathers his god-like powers and the deadly Murder Magician secures a televator back to Earth…

Chaos increases exponentially as the Academy heroes battle alone against a host of foes and heir own selfish agendas even as Spaceboy braves ‘The Labyrinth’ and discovers lost legend St. Zero hibernating in

The crisis breaks after The Boy’s current target – Perseus X – infiltrates the hotel to liberate his dad and realises that he’s too late… and that something even more diabolical is ‘Free’

With a host of monsters and super-creeps like Doctor Terminal, the Mothers of Agony and Medusa ravaging Earth, as well as the quandaries of an imminent attack by a trans-dimensional behemoth and a mysterious wonder baby and its revenant, rampaging mother to deal with, the scattered young comrades grudgingly work together against ‘The Fear You Cannot Speak’ but their late collaboration is all for naught as a new team of empowered players materialise with a shocking revelation in concluding chapter ‘Reunion’.

Sadly, the big reveal is a cosmic cliffhanger so be prepared for some major frustration…

Big on mood, bafflement-by-design and astounding action, this is compelling adventure if you’re fully au fait with the previous books and prepared to give the events your full attention, but Hotel Oblivion is only the beginning of the drama and should not be consumed casually. Trust me, though, it’s going to be worth it in the end…

Accompanying all the meta-real wonderment are a wealth of sketches, character drawings and variant covers by Way and Bá under the broad remit ‘Designing the Umbrella Academy Hotel Oblivion’.

Whilst happily swiping, homaging, sampling and remixing the coolest elements from many and varied comics sources, The Umbrella Academy offers a unique synthesis to achieve its own distinctive originality within the tired confines of the superhero genre. It’s a reading experience no jaded Fights ‘n’ Tights fan should miss.
© 2019 Gerard Way and Gabriel Bá. All rights reserved. The Umbrella Academy™ and all properties are trademarks of Gerard Way and Gabriel Bá.

Signal from Space/Life on Another Planet


By Will Eisner with Andre LeBlanc (Kitchen Sink Press/DC Comics/W.W. Norton & Co)
ISBN: 978-0-87816-014-3 (Kitchen Sink colour HB): 0-87816-370-0 (KSP B&W PB):
978-1-56398-677-4 (DC Comics Library PB): 978-0-39332-812-7 (WW Norton PB)

Here’s a long-lost contemporary cartooning classic which – although readily available in a number of formats – is still seen best in its first release. Ambitious and deliberately targeting an adult book-reading rather than comics audience, this initial collection of Will Eisner’s trenchant political thriller-cum-social commentary proves once more that sometimes the medium really is the message…

William Erwin Eisner was one of the pivotal creators who shaped the American comicbook industry, with most of his works more or less permanently in print – as they should be. From 1936 to 1938 he worked as a jobbing cartoonist in the comics production hothouse known as the Eisner-Eiger Shop, creating strips for both domestic US and foreign markets.

Using the pen-name Willis B. Rensie he created and drew opening instalments for a huge variety of characters ranging from funny animal to historical sagas, Westerns, Detective fiction, aviation action thrillers… and superheroes… lots of superheroes …

In 1940 Everett “Busy” Arnold, head honcho of the superbly impressive Quality Comics outfit, invited Eisner to take on a new challenge. The Register-Tribune newspaper syndicate wanted a 16-page weekly comicbook insert for the Sunday editions. Eisner jumped at the opportunity to move beyond the limitations of the nickel and dime marketplace, creating three series which would initially be handled by him before two were delegated to supremely talented assistants.

Bob Powell inherited Mr. Mystic and distaff detective Lady Luck fell into the capable hands of Nick Cardy (then still Nicholas Viscardi) and later the inimitable Klaus Nordling.

Eisner kept the lead feature for his own and over the next twelve years The Spirit became the most impressive, innovative, imitated and talked-about strip in the business. However, by 1952 he had more or less abandoned it for more challenging and certainly more profitable commercial, instructional and educational strips. He began working extensively for the US military in manuals and magazines like P*S, the Preventative Maintenance Monthly, generally leaving comics books behind him.

After too long away from his natural story-telling arena, Eisner creatively returned to the streets of Brooklyn where he was born on March 6th 1906. After years spent inventing much of the visual semantics, semiotics and syllabary of the medium he dubbed “Sequential Art” in strips, comicbooks, newspaper premiums and instructional comics, he capped that glittering career by inventing the mainstream graphic novel, bringing maturity, acceptability and public recognition to English language comics.

In 1978 a collection of four original short stories in strip form were released as a single book: A Contract with God and Other Tenement Stories. All the material centred around 55 Dropsie Avenue, a 1930’s Bronx tenement housing impoverished Jewish and immigrant families. It changed the American perception of cartoon strips forever.

Eisner wrote and drew a further 20 further masterpieces, opening the door for all other comics creators to escape the funnybook and anodyne strip ghettos of superheroes, funny animals, juvenilia and “family-friendly” entertainment. At one stroke comics grew up.

Eisner was constantly pushing the boundaries of his craft, refining his skills not just on The Spirit but with his educational and promotional material. In A Contract with God he honed in on unexplored territory with truly sophisticated, mature themes worthy of Steinbeck or F. Scott Fitzgerald, using pictorial fiction as documentary to examine social experience.

One of the few genres where Eisner never really excelled was science fiction – and arguably he doesn’t in this tale either as, in Signal from Space, the big discovery is just a plot maguffin to explore politics, social interactions and greed – all premium Eisner meat…

As ‘Life on Another Planet’ the material in this collection was originally serialised as eight 16-page episodes in Will Eisner’s Spirit Magazine from October 1978 to December 1980, rendered in toned monochrome (a format adhered to and title revived in subsequent Kitchen Sink, DC and W.W. Norton collections).

However, for this luscious hardback, the auteur and long-time confederate Andre LeBlanc fully-painted the entire saga using evocative tones and hues to subtly enhance the sinister, cynical proceedings…

One momentous night, lonely radio astronomer Mark Argano – based at a New Mexico observatory – picks up ‘The Signal’: a mathematical formula originating from Barnard’s Star and thus proof positive of extraterrestrial intelligence…

One colleague wants to inform the public immediately, but Argano is adamant that they go slowly as he (secretly) harbours schemes to somehow “cash in”. Unfortunately, the other scientist he shares the secret with is a Soviet sleeper agent…

Almost immediately the first murder in a long and bloody succession is committed as various parties seek to use the incredible revelation to their own advantage. World-weary science advisor and maverick astrophysicist James Bludd is dispatched by the CIA to verify and control the situation, but he walks straight into a KGB ambush and narrowly escapes with his life…

There’s now a deadly Cold War race to control contact with the mysterious signallers and ‘The 1st Empire’ follows recovering addict Marco as he turns his life around; using the now-public sensation to create a personality cult dedicated to leaving Earth and joining the aliens. Whilst Marco’s Star People grab all the headlines, ruthless plutocrat Mr. MacRedy uses his monolithic Multinational Corporation to manipulate Russia and America, intending to be the only one to ultimately capitalise on any mission to Barnard’s Star…

Since travel to far space is still impossible for humans, MacRedy sanctions the unethical and illegal creation of a human/plant hybrid and starts looking for volunteers to experiment on in ‘A New Form of Life’, whilst Bludd – now more reluctant spy than dedicated scientist – accepts another undercover assignment.

Casualties moral, ethical and corporeal mount in ‘Pre-Launch’ whilst in distressed African nation Sidiami, a desperate despot declares his bankrupt nation a colony of Barnard’s Star to avoid UN sanctions and having to pay back his national debt to Earthly banks…

Soon, he’s offering a base to Multinational for their own launch site and sanctuary to those Star People anxious to emigrate…

In ‘Bludd’ the scientist and his sultry KGB counterpart find themselves odd-bedfellows just as the Mafia get involved in the crisis – for both personal and pecuniary reasons – whilst in America, MacRedy prepares to install his own President to expedite his company’s requirements…

Now determined to take matters into his own hands and screw all governments and interests, Bludd is caught up in an unstoppable, uncontrollable maelstrom of events in ‘Abort’, and, after the American President has a fatal accident in ‘The Big Hit’ MacRedy thinks he’s finally won. He is utterly unprepared for Bludd’s unpredictable masterstroke in ‘The Last Chapter’

Signal from Space is a dark and nasty espionage drama as well as a powerfully intriguing ethical parable: a Petrie dish for ethical dilemmas where Eisner masterfully manipulates his vast cast to display human foible and eventually a glimmer of aspirational virtue. This is a hugely underrated tale from a master of mature comics guaranteed to become an instant favourite. And it’s even better in this sumptuous oversized edition which is well worth every effort to hunt it down.

After all, Per Ardua ad Astra

However, if you can’t find this version, there are numerous later editions, in the original black & white that have their own potent appeal and if you were a really dedicated fan, you’d only be happy with both, wouldn’t you?
© 1978, 1979, 1980, 1983 Will Eisner. All rights reserved.

Freeway


By Mark Kalesniko (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-356-9 (PB)

It’s a strange occupation writing about a largely pictorial art-form and sometimes the only thing you want to say is “you have got to read this!” However, as I love to babble on, I’ll slightly elaborate about this forgotten gem: a superb quasi-autobiographical fable from animator and cartoonist Mark Kalesniko which features another moving and thought-provoking reverie starring his dog-faced alter ego Alex .

After working for Disney on such modern classics as The Little Mermaid, The Lion King, Mulan and Atlantis, in 1991, British Columbia-born Kalesniko began crafting powerful and imaginative comics, beginning with the audacious ‘Adolf Hears a Who.’

In 1994 he spawned Alex; the tale of an alcoholic ex-animator returning to his old hometown, following up in 1997 with Why Did Pete Duel Kill Himself? – an account of young Alex’s formative years. In 2001, the auteur diverged from Alex’s exploits to examine another aspect of the inherent isolationism of creative types in Mail Order Bride.

Freeway marked Kalesniko’s return to his signature character to describe in powerfully oppressive form the heartrending misery of successfully attaining your greatest dream…

Young Alex has left Canada for Hollywood to fulfil his lifelong ambition of being an animator for the monolithic Babbitt Jones Productions (a transparently veiled Walt Disney Studios analogue) but the achievement of his passionate wish is not working out how he had hoped.

The neophyte seems to spend most of his day trying to drive to or from the studio (no longer part of the colossal Babbitt Jones main complex but now hidden away in a seedy warehouse in a decidedly dodgy business district).

After the initial disappointment of discovering the animators and ideas that built the company have become sidelined and despised by corporate drones who now run the business, Alex settles in and begins the intolerable grind of making art by committee diktat. As he sees his fellow creatives slowly crumple under the unremitting pressures of office politics, daily compromise, poor leadership and lack of vision in a place where being good is less important than being compliant, his elation fades.

Succumbing to nostalgia and seduced by his own joyous yearning for those good old days he never experienced, Alex falls in love with a co-worker. Typically, her family considers him an outsider…

Every day he sees the talent, imagination, aspirations and sensitivity of his fellow artists mauled by malicious ambition and jealousy, and every day he wastes angry and frustrated hours embedded in the vast aggressive steam kettle of the Los Angeles rush hour…

Little wonder then that his fertile, repressed imagination begins to wander: but when daydreams of violent death and merciful release are more satisfying than your life, how long can a creative soul last before it withers or snaps?

This mesmeric saga is deliciously multi-layered: blending compelling narrative with tantalising titbits and secret snippets from the golden age of animation, with rosy reveries of the meta-fictional post-war LA and the sheer tension of a paranoid thriller. Kalesniko opens Alex’s mind and soul to us but there’s no easy ride. Like Christopher Nolan’s Memento, there’s a brilliant tale unfolding here but you’re expected to pay attention and work for it.

Available in paperback and in digital formats and illustrated with stunning virtuosity in captivating black line, Alex’s frustration, anger, despair, reminiscences and imaginings from idle ponderings to over-the-top, compulsive near-hallucinations are chillingly captured and shared in this wonderful book – which can be happily read in isolation of all the other tomes previously cited. And happily, they’re still available and recommended and can only enhance this glorious and bold truly graphic novel.
Contents © 2011 Mark Kalesniko. This edition © 2011 Fantagraphics Books. All rights reserved.T