Arena – A Marvel Graphic Novel


By Bruce Jones (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-87135-557-7

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 customer’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 screenwriter,  novelist, artistic Everyman and ardent EC fan 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 Lisa 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 book long overdue for re-release, but until that happy future materialises, this remains a time-lost gem you should track down however long it takes…
© 1989 Bruce Jones. All Rights Reserved.

Marada the She-Wolf


By Chris Claremont & John Bolton (Titan Books)
ISBN: 987-0-85768-632-9 (HB) (TPB)

Scantily clad hot chicks swinging swords have been a staple of fantasy comics from their very inception. It’s a meme that has endured even as we (some of us anyway) grew up a bit and discovered it’s just as prevalent in the movies and on TV. If it going to be a thing, at least let’s see it done properly and probably nobody has done it better – certainly visually – than Chris Claremont and John Bolton.

This recycled yet supremely satisfying, luxuriously oversized (302 x 226 mm) hardback compilation of their collaborative fantasy saga will satisfy all aficionados of wild adventure and stirring sagas – especially in a world where faux historical dramas like Game of Thrones and The Witcher are still garnering interest in “Things Old, Things Forgotten”…

As detailed in Jo Duffy’s Introduction and collection Editor Steve Cook’s background essays ‘Birth of a Warrior’, ‘The Art of War’, ‘Epic Tales’ and ‘Legacy’, these stories – set in the cosmopolitan days of Imperial Rome – originated in Epic Illustrated (Marvel’s 1980’s response to Heavy Metal magazine) beginning with #10, February 1982.

Originally the strip appeared in beautiful monochrome wash-&-line, and although I would have preferred them to have been left that way for this collection, Bolton’s sensitive conversion of the art to painted colour is lush, lovely and stunningly effective.

By the way, that possibly waspish crack about recycling doesn’t just refer to the art, superb though it is. The original story started life as a Red Sonja yarn for monochrome anthology Bizarre Adventures, before Claremont & Bolton reworked the thing and, by inserting the whole kit and caboodle into the “real” world of the Ancient Roman – albeit embroidered with Celtic myth and legend – and added a satisfying layer of dramatic authenticity to the mix which still leaves it head-and-shoulders above all other Sword and Sorcery “Bad Girls” tales, as well as most fantasy fiction…

The literary pre-game warm-up also includes an effusive memo from the author as ‘Claremont on Bolton’ offers more creative insight on why these seldom-seen stories are just so darn good before the wonderment unfolds in the initial tale ‘Marada the She-Wolf: The Shattered Sword’.

The ferociously independent warrior woman is a wandering mercenary whose grandfather was Julius Caesar. When her parents fell into political disfavour, she was whisked from the Eternal City to live free and grow wild. Now, years later in the deserts near Damascus she is rescued from slavers by charismatic Warrior-Magician Donal MacLlyanllwyr. Strangely, the indomitable Marada he remembers is gone and all he liberates is a broken doll, traumatised by some unspoken horror and utterly devoid of will and spirit…

Mystically transporting her to the arboreal citadel of Ashandriar, amidst the misty hills of distant Britain, the baffled soldier seeks the aid of patron sorceress Rhiannon to diagnose, if not cure, her malady.

As Marada gradually recovers, she forms a bond with Donal’s daughter Arianrhod; a girl of vast, if unschooled, magical power. Before long, the ghastly secret of Marada’s malaise is revealed when a demonic creature invades the mystic keep, killing Donal and abducting Arianrhod.

Enraged and desperate, Marada braves Hell itself and slashes her way through an army of devils to rescue the child she now considers as much daughter as friend from a wizard and demon conclave. They initially broke the warrior woman as part of a convoluted scheme to reign on Earth…

The re-galvanised She-Wolf is ultimately victorious, but the horrific confrontation leaves her and Arianrhod stranded in East Africa. With no other option, the triumphant duo begin the long exhausting walk home to Albion…

From Epic #12, ‘Royal Hunt’ is a shorter, self-contained tale wherein Marada and Arianrhod, after escaping the Infernal Realm, are taken by Ashake, barbaric Empress of Amazonian nation of Meroë. The Battle Queen offers her captives the dubious distinction of being the quarry in a hunt (a competent if cheekily uninspired variation of Richard Connell’s landmark 1924 short story – and equally influential 1932 movie – The Most Dangerous Game).

Sadly, both predator and prey are unaware malign male mercenaries are lurking about, with the worst of all intentions for the unsuspecting women. Hard-fought combat and the sudden intervention of the sneaking male scum makes allies of Ashake and Marada, leading to the voyagers’ final tale, ‘Wizard’s Masque’ (Epic Illustrated #23-24, April & June 1984) which finds the long-lost Europeans aboard merchant ship Raven, bound for Roman port Massilia. However, impetuous Arianrhod gets bored with their slow progress and tries a transportation spell, opening a portal to nether realms and letting something really ghastly out of hell…

Beating the beast back, Marada falls though the gap in reality to materialise on an Arabic pirate ship currently engaged in a life-and-death clash with soldiers of an Eastern Kaydif. Her sudden presence turns the tide and soon she is partner to flamboyant corsair Taric Redhand, who swears to get her back to her home and lost “daughter”…

Typically, Marada has also been noticed by sinisterly seductive sorcerer Jaffar Ibn Haroun Al-Rashid. Although he purports to be a friend – and potential lover – able to reunite her with The Raven, he conceals a connection to the same demonic alliance that originally targeted the She-Wolf in faraway Rome. He is also, in all things, a creature of passion and self-serving convictions, capable of absolutely anything to achieve his own ends…

Ultimately however, the wanderer knows she can only depend upon herself to find her way back to Arianrhod and home…

Moody, passionate and powerfully evocative, this is a classic work of comics fantasy that will certainly all delight fans of the genre.
© & ™ 2013 John Bolton and Christ Claremont. All rights reserved.

Phoolan Devi: Rebel Queen


By Claire Fauvel, translated by Montana Kane (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-68112-251-9 (HB)

Born in 1988, award-winning graphic novelist Claire Fauvel (À la recherche d’Alvaro Dolor; Sur les pas de Teresa, la religieuse de Calcutta [w/Marie-Noëlle Pichard]; Une Saison en Égypte; Catherine’s War [w/Julia Billet]) studied illustration at Paris’ l’école Estienne and animation at l’école des Gobelins before beginning an illustrious career in bande dessinée. She’s particularly adroit and adept with female historical figures and her latest tome gives her plenty to work with…

Phoolan Devi: Rebel Queen is that rare event, a history that has all the energy and impetus of a great action adventure and pioneering, political tract. Despite being a factual graphic biography, this is the stuff of legend and grand drama, detailing the astounding, appalling, tragic and triumphant life of a woman who bucked India’s ancient, all-pervasive caste system. Victim from birth of poverty and inequality, she sought change through bloody deeds and ultimately political action in a country where prejudice is institutionalised: expressed via cultural violence, and which fostered for millennia a tyrannical social system of inherent, inbuilt corruption where gods and birth status forever dictate one’s position in life…

Phoolan suffered a double blow at birth: born both poor and female. Never educated, she remained illiterate all her life. A life of being shunned and grinding poverty was exacerbated when she was married off at age 11, starting a harrowing pattern of slavery and sexual abuse lasting until she was rescued by a troop of the legendary bandits infesting Uttar Pradesh at the time. They were actually more decent – and heroic – than most respectable citizens (men), civil authorities and police officers of the region. Becoming lover to one of the gang, she suffered even greater abuse when he was murdered by a rival from a different caste.

Surviving these assaults, Phoolan organised an infamous vengeance massacre at the village of Behmai. That slaughter was picked up by the press, who recast her as a rebel queen and her lover a martyr. The public began using the honorific “Devi” for her and, after a mythic career, she surrendered to authorities in 1983. Over eleven years of imprisonment, 48 capital charges including murder, plunder, arson and kidnapping were incrementally dropped before a trial that never came. In 1994, the state government led by Mulayam Singh Yadav of the Samajwadi Party withdrew all charges and she walked free. Joining the party, she was elected to national office twice, becoming a strong advocate for radical change, in the caste system and the patriarchal treatment of women. Regarded as the “voice of the oppressed”, on 26th July 2001 her past caught up with her when she was assassinated by relatives of the bandits killed at Behmai.

Fauvel took her inspiration from acclaimed 1996 autobiography Moi, Phoolan Devi, reine des bandits by Phoolan Devi & Marie-Thérèse Cuny, and although not all of those events are included in this stunning and uncompromising account, the supremely enticing and engaging art manages to mix in a few moments of hopeful aspiration, happy romance and family unity to offset the revolting iniquities Phoolan and other women had to survive on a daily basis.

Nevertheless, this brilliant tale is grim and unflinching in the portrayal of the constant assaults and abuses she endured, so you’d better gird yourself for plenty of righteous indignation and outright anger at the catalogue of venality and casual intolerance civilised folk still seem capable of…

Potent, unmissable, and primed to continue the fight, this is a book you must read.
© 2018 Casterman. © 2020 NBM for the English translation.

Phoolan Devi: Rebel Queen will be published on March 19th 2020 and is available for pre-order. NBM books are also available in digital formats. For more information and other great reads go to NBM Publishing at nbmpub.com

Luba


By Gilbert Hernandez (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-56097-960-9 (HB)

In the 1980s a qualitative revolution forever destroyed the clichéd, stereotypical ways different genres of comic strips were regarded. Most prominent in destroying these comfy pigeonholes we’d built for ourselves were three guys from Oxnard, California; Jaime, Mario (occasionally) and Gilberto Hernandez.

Love and Rockets was an anthology comics magazine featuring the intriguing, sci-fi-ish larks of punky young things Maggie and Hopeylas Locas – and heart-warming, terrifying, gut-wrenching soap-opera fantasy of the town of Palomar. These gifted synthesists captivated us all with incredible stories that sampled a thousand influences conceptual and actual – everything from Archie Comics and alternative music to German Expressionism and masked wrestlers. The result was pictorial and narrative dynamite.

Palomar was the playground of Gilberto, created for the extended serial Heartbreak Soup: a poor Latin-American village with a vibrant, funny and fantastically quotidian cast. Everything from life, death, adultery, magic, serial killing and especially gossip could happen in Palomar’s meta-fictional environs – and did – as Beto mined his own post-punk influences, comics, music, drugs, comics, strong women, gangs, sex, family and comics, in a style that seemed informed by everything from the Magical Realism of writers like Carlos Fuentes and Gabriel García Márquez to Saturday morning cartoons and The Lucy Show.

He returned to the well of Palomar constantly, usually tales centred around formidable matriarch – or perhaps Earth Mother figure – Luba, who ran the village’s bath house, acted as Mayor – and sometimes police chief – as well as adding regularly and copiously to the general population. Her children, brought up with no acknowledged fathers in sight, are Maricela, Guadalupe, Doralis, Casimira, Socorro, Joselito and Concepcion. A passionate, fiery woman who speaks her mind and generally gets her own way, her truest, constant life-long companion is a small claw-hammer…

Luba defies easy description and I don’t actually want to: As one of the most complex women in literature, let alone comics, she’s somebody you want to experience, not learn of second-hand. You will probably notice that she has absolutely enormous breasts. Deal with it. These stories are casually, graphically, sexually explicit. Luba’s story is about Life, and sex happens, constantly and often with the wrong people at the wrong time. If harsh language and cartoon nudity (male and female) are an insurmountable problem for you, don’t read these tales. It is genuinely your loss.

After a run of spectacular stories (all of which have been collected in a variety of formats and editions which I really must get around to systematically reviewing) like An American in Palomar, Human Diastrophism and Poison River, the magazine ended. Luba and her extended family then graduated to a succession of mini-series concentrating on her moving to the USA and reuniting with half-sisters Rosalba (“Fritz”) and Petra, taken when her mother Maria fled from Palomar decades previously.

Which brings us to this delightfully massive and priceless tome (sadly, not available in any digital formats yet). Luba collects in one monumental volume her later life as a proud immigrant refusing to learn English (or is she?): more than 80 stories covering 596 monochrome pages ranging from lengthy sagas to sparkling single page skits taken from Luba, Luba’s Comics and Stories, Luba in America, Luba: the Book of Ofelia and Luba: Three Daughters. The tone and content range from surreal to sad to funny to thrilling. The entire world can be found in these pages, and you really should go looking…

Although in an ideal world you would read the older material first, there’s absolutely no need to. Reminiscence and memory are as much a part of this brilliant passion-play as family feeling, music, infidelity, survival, punk rock philosophy, and laughter – lots and lots of laughter.

Brilliantly illustrated, these are human tales as coarse and earthy any as any of Chaucer’s Pilgrims could tell, as varied and appetising as any of Boccaccio’s Decameron and as universally human as the best of that bloke Shakespeare.

I’m probably more obtuse – just plain dense or blinkered – than most, but for years I thought this stuff was about the power of Family Ties, but it’s not: at least not fundamentally. Luba is about love. Not the sappy one-sided happy-ever after stuff, but LOVE, that mighty, hungry beast that makes you always protect the child that betrays you, that has you look for a better partner whilst you’re in the arms of your one true love, and hate the place you wanted to live in all your life. The love of cars and hair-cuts and biscuits and paper-cuts and stray cats that bite you: selfish, self-sacrificing, dutiful, urgent, patient, uncomprehending, a feeling beyond words.

Just like the love of a great comic…
© 2009 Gilbert Hernandez. All Rights Reserved.

Moto Hagio’s A Drunken Dream and Other Stories


By Moto Hagio, translated by Matt Thorn (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-377-4 (HB)

Girls’ comics have always taken a secondary role in publishing – at least in most countries. In Japan this was the case until a new wave of female artists and writers stormed the male bastions in the 1970s transforming a very much distaff niche into a viable, autonomous marketplace, consequently reshaping the entire manga landscape in the process. At the forefront and regarded as part of a holy trinity of astoundingly gifted and groundbreaking creators is Moto Hagio. The other two, if you’re in the mood to Go Googling – and of course, other search engines are available – are Keiko Takamiyaand Yumiko Oshima…

This lovely hardback collection (regrettably not available in digital formats yet) presents ten of her best short stories gleaned from a career spanning more than 50 years, over which time she and her revolutionary compatriots created whole genres, advanced the status of fantasy, horror and science fiction tales, reinvented and perfected the shōjo (“girl’s story”) form, all while introducing a degree of literacy, symbology, authority and emotional depth to the medium that has gone on to transform comics in Japan and globally.

Editor, translator and cultural ambassador Matt Thorn has contributed an informative historical treatise on Japan’s comic world and those revolutionary comics creators (thoroughly annotated) as well as providing a far-reaching, moving and engrossing interview with the artist and academic herself.

Although her most popular works are generally science fictional (another arena where she broke new ground in such sagas as They Were Eleven!, Marginal and Otherworld Barbara), socially probing human dramas like Mesh and A Savage God Reigns explored previously forbidden realms of psycho-sexual and abusive family relationships with such deft sensitivity that they served to elevate manga from the realm of cheap escapism to literature and even Great Art – a struggle we’re still waging in the West…

This compelling volume traces her beginnings through more traditional themes of romance, but with growing success came the confidence to probe into far darker and more personal subjects, so whereas my usual warnings are about pictorial nudity and sexual situations, here I’m compelled to say that if your kids are smart enough, the contextual matter in these tales might be a tad distressing. It is all, however, rendered with stunning sensitivity, brilliantly visual metaphors and in truly beautiful graceful tones and lines.

The comics section (which is re-presented in the traditional front-to-back, “flopped” manner) begins with ‘Bianca’ from 1971: a wistful reminiscence and disguised disquisition on creativity wrapped in the tragic story of a childhood companion whose parents separated, whilst 1971’s ‘Girl on Porch with Puppy’ is a disquieting cautionary tale about disobedient little girls who don’t try to fit in. From the same year, ‘Autumn Journey’ is a complex mystery concerning a young man trying to meet his favourite author – as well as a painful exploration of families growing up apart.

‘Marié, Ten Years Late’ hails from 1977: a heartbreaking example of a “Sophie’s Choice” as a lonely, frustrated artist discovers the truth behind the breakup of a perfect friendship which twisted three lives, whilst the eponymous science fictional ‘A Drunken Dream’ (1980) deftly describes a doomed reincarnating romance which has spanned centuries and light-years. This is the only full colour story in a generally monochrome volume.

Moto Hagio is one of a select band of creators credited with creating the “boy’s love” sub-genres of shōnenai and Yaio: sensitively homoerotic romances, generally created by women for women and now more popularly described as BL (as opposed to Bara – gay manga created by men for men) and this lyrical, star-crossed fantasy is a splendid example of the form.

‘Hanshin: Half-God’ (1984) is a disturbing, introspective psychological exploration of Hagio’s favoured themes of familial pressure and intolerance, described through the lives of anther girls’ comic favourite; twin sisters. The siblings here however are conjoined: Yucy is a beautiful angelic waif whilst her monovular other Yudy is an ugly withered homunculus.

The story is told by ugly Yudy, whose life is changed forever by an operation to separate them. This incredibly moving tale adds barbed edges and ground glass to the ugly duckling fairytale and cannot fail to shock and move the reader…

From the same year comes longer romantic tale ‘Angel Mimic’ as a failed suicide eventually evolves into a slim chance of ideal love, which poesy leads into the harrowing tale of rejection that is ‘Iguana Girl’.

Although couched in fantasy terms, this tale of contemporary Japanese family life follows the life of Rika, an ordinary girl whose mother thinks she is a monster, and how that view warps the way the child perceives the world throughout her life.

‘The Child Who Comes Home’ (1998) again examines rejection, but uses the memory of a dead son and brother to pick open the hidden scabs of home and hearth – or perhaps it’s just a sad ghost story to clear the palate before this superb commemoration ends with the elegiac and almost silent, solitary pantomime of 2007’s ‘The Willow Tree’ which shows yet another side of family love…

Abuse of faith and trust. Love lost or withheld. Isolation, rejection, loss of purpose: all these issues are woven into a sensuously evocative tapestry of insightful inquiry and beautiful reportage. These tales are just the merest tip of a cataclysmic iceberg that invaded the stagnant waters of Girls’ comics and shattered their cosy world forever. The stories grew up as the readers did; offering challenging questions and options, not pat answers and stifling pipedreams.

Until the day our own comics industries catch up at least we have these stories – and hopefully many more from the same source. Sequels please, ASAP!
All rights reserved. Original Japanese edition published 1977, 1985, 2007, 2008 by Shogakukan Inc. English translation rights arranged through Viz Media, LCC, USA. © 2010 Fantagraphics Books.

Goblin Girl


By Moa Romanova, translated by Melissa Bowers (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-68396-283-0 (HB)

Scandinavian artists and authors seem to have a real knack for combining comics with therapy and producing truly memorable books you really want to tell your friends about. Here’s another…

Stockholm resident and dog-lover Moa Romanova was born in 1992. She’s an artist and musician who studied painting at the Gothenburg School of Fine arts and is a graduate of the wonderful Malmö Comic Art School. She’s probably done a whole bunch of other stuff too, if her debut graphic novel Goblin Girl is anything to go by. Already available in seven languages, it started life as Alltid Fucka Upp when first published in Sweden…

The Goblin in question is a young woman of artistic temperament and ambitions who suffers from panic attacks and other insecurities. Despite being broke and stuck in a grotty squat over a shop, she’s getting by, thanks to mum, friends and a counsellor I personally wouldn’t give house room to. Looking for love – aren’t we all? – she hooks up online with a minor TV celeb who’s far too old for her, but at least he seems to listen. It’s not undying passion, but in the absence of anything better…

He seems to want nothing, but validates her life and even offers to sponsor her art career. Are things finally looking up?  Aren’t there always strings attached?

And so, her life progresses: drink, panic attacks, other people, concerts, social services, work, no work, body issues, relationships, fraught travel, psych evaluations and admissions: all the crap that makes up a modern life if you’re not born perfect but still have a brain to be unhappy and discontented with…

Dealing with contemporary life, mental health issues and the inescapable problem of unequal power dynamics in all relationships in an uncompromising but astonishingly steady – if not upbeat – manner, Goblin Girl (available in breathtaking oversized hardback or digital editions) is a remarkable testament to modern living, beautifully drawn in a deliberately ugly way and deeply moving. You won’t all like it, but those of you who do will read it over and over again and still come away wanting more…
© 2020 Moa Romanova. English translation © 2020 Melissa Bowers. This edition © 2020 Fantagraphics Books. All rights reserved.

Black Jesus volume 1


By Jimmy Blondell & David Krintzman, Nicholas Da Silva & Bigjack Studios (Brazil) (Arcana)
ISBN: 978-1-897548-55-4 (TPB)

I’m always keen to spark a little controversy, so here’s an intriguing parable you probably missed when it launched in 2009…

Superheroes are frequently cited as a new mythology and occasionally comic books have dabbled with the idea that there’s not much difference between gods and metahumans. In a world where unnatural powers are common currency – at least in our fictions and entertainments – what happens when a genuinely different being appears and acts in ways neither the guardians of society nor the laws of physics will tolerate?

Conceived and written by Jimmy Blondell & David Krintzman and illustrated by Nicholas Da Silva (assisted by Brazil’s Bigjack Studios) this gripping thriller has all the facets of a urban/horror/conspiracy thriller but don’t be fooled. There’s more going on here than first appears…

Chris is a young black man in New York City. He’s a bit weird, and not just because of the recurrent nasty visions of cruel hunters slaughtering animals in the Serengeti…

He lives a peaceful life in a city where criminality, intolerance and hostility are everywhere, harming no one and caring for his pigeons in their rooftop roost. He’s got friends, a part-time job and plenty of questions about the strange things that keep happening around him. Case in point: despite never practising, he can score a basket from anywhere on the court without even trying. It’s a trick that’s earned the respect of violent angry young men throughout the neighbourhood, and when he’s not spends time breaking into Central Park Zoo to feed animals, or he’s studying with scholarly Rabbi Goldberg, a man who knows more about the boy’s past than he’s letting on…

His already complex existence takes a frantic turn the day Chris pulls some kids out of a car sinking into the Park Lake. He had to walk across the water to get to them and footage of the rescue made the news everywhere. Thankfully he kept his hoodie up and most viewers don’t know who he is…

That’s not a problem for the devout leader of the Black Christian Gang whose agenda is to reclaim the Messiah for people of colour and destroy forever the myth of a blond, blue-eyed white Christ. He sets his many brothers in the BCG to finding the miracle worker at all costs…

So does black televangelist Reverend Carnivean, whose millions of worshippers, billions of dollars and soaring political ambitions can’t afford any competition. Rather than true believers, he sets his moneymen, whores and assassins to finding the mystery man the media have dubbed Black Jesus…

That becomes even more urgent after a second tragedy strikes and witnesses at a charity gala all report seeing an anonymous young black waiter heal a woman mauled by a lion…

So begins a frantic race to control a potentially divine force or the next stage in human evolution: a trail peppered with bodies and shocking outrages. It doesn’t help that Chris himself has no idea what he truly is…

Understated and thoughtful, Black Jesus is a thriller about being born different (and yes, I do think that’s a metaphor for being black in America today), exploring dangerous ideas about the nature of divinity, poverty, status and belonging, as well as attempting to debunk the biggest and most divisive lie in politico-religious history.

The series was delving into some truly interesting corners before slumping into a hiatus triggered by the project being optioned as movie. Maybe when the film is finished, we can finally see how the comic would have progressed from the conclusion – but not ending – it reached…

Certainly not for everyone, but smart and compelling enough for you perhaps?
© 2009 by Black Jesus LLC. All rights reserved.

Obscura


By Luke Cartwright & Lukasz Wnuczek (Marcosia)
ISBN:978-1-64764-746-9 (HB)

We haven’t looked at a really engrossing horror yarn for simply ages, so it’s a good thing that this stunning dose of macabre graphic gothic mania plunked down in my review copies vestibule…

Obscura comes from and is about the Land Down Under (Tasmania actually!): an act of love and perseverance begun in 2012 but finally perfected and released last year by author Luke Cartwright and illustrator Lukasz Wnuczek. It’s presented here for your delectation and elucidation (and probably trepidation)…

Set on the island of Van Diemen’s Land (a former Crown prison colony and site of one of the British Empire’s most appalling atrocities: just look up the Black War if you have the stomach), it opens in 1870 with the rather outré preoccupations of master William Morier. The 12-year old is already a gifted cosmetician and mortician like his father, but his odd-yet-comfortable life is ruined by a double blow: meeting with the spiritualist children Catherine and Annabel White and a scandal involving body-snatching and the local medical school.

The White girls are controversial celebrities in the township, a place even more death-obsessed than most Victorian enclaves. When Annabel ends up on the Morier mortuary slab, dead from causes unknown, William’s path in life is forever altered…

A crafty tale within a tale, the drama resumes a decade later. As well as burying bodies, William is a gifted photographer and, after discussing the profitability of his wife’s childhood scams, sets upon a new enterprise, for his need is great and urgent.

Catherine Morier (nee White) suffers a dire medical malady and her doting husband needs plenty of cash to pay for an operation. His solution is Spirit Photography: combining portraits of living clients with the ghosts of departed loved ones who still cling unseen to them.

Sadly, not everyone’s a believer. A certain policeman keeps hanging around, especially after one of the captured phantasms is seen working in a local shop…

As William gets deeper and deeper into the fraudulent hole he’s dug for himself, the walls between chicanery, criminality, murder and the inescapable horror of the true Unknown start to blur and bleed together…

Mordant and compelling, this bleak tale is rendered in mesmerising monochrome tones and washes (almost like daguerreotypes, maybe?), building a noir edifice of stark choices and unlikely outcomes for the protagonists whom it’s simply impossible to dislike. Especially effective is the period language, which is authentic sounding, remarkably restrained and deliciously sparse. Cartwright is a writer who knows when to let Wnuczek’s pictures do the talking.

A decidedly effective dalliance with the dark and one no lover of period thrillers and slyly witty horror should miss.
Text & illustrations © Luke Cartwright & Lukasz Wnuczek 2019

Promethea: Book One – 20th Anniversary Deluxe Edition


By Alan Moore, J H Williams III & Mick Gray, with Charles Vess, José Villarrubia & Jeromy Cox (America’s Best Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-40128-866-2 (HB)

After far too long away, let’s welcome back a notable addition to the canon of not-embarrassing, happily recommendable “Strong Female Characters” in hardback and digital editions that do her justice

I wonder if, when Alan Moore first conceived this series as part of his private superhero universe (now inexorably subsumed into the greater DC cosmology), he realised quite how far he would take this tale, or just how far he and long-haul collaborators J H Williams III & Mick Gray would push the boundaries of Graphic Narrative?

Ignoring the superficial resemblances to Wonder Woman – herself more archetype than property these days, but don’t tell the lawyers I said that – what’s on offer here? Promethea #1-12 are collected in this first Deluxe volume and are preceded by Moore’s introduction: ‘The Promethea Puzzle : An Adventure in Folklore’ (clipped from the first issue)…

Sophie Bangs lives in the big city, in a world of Science Heroes, multi-powered villains and real, scary monsters. She’s a smart kid, if not traditionally pretty, doing teen-age things with her best friend Stacia. She’s also a student researching a term paper on a name that has cropped up in esoteric poems, art and popular culture since the 5th century AD. Sophie seems inexplicably fascinated by and drawn to the concept of Promethea

After interviewing the widow of the writer of a Promethea comic book, she’s attacked by a shadowy demon and rescued by the widow, who is the comic heroine she’s been researching. It transpires Promethea is a little girl taken into the Immateria, the Realm of Imagination. She became a concept.

Throughout history, she has since become real by incarnating in women who inspire art and creativity. These women – and even some men – have been able to manifest as incarnations of a Spirit of Imagination residing in the greater world of the unconscious. The Immateria is where all Gods, Stories and Ideas dwell. As the shadow-monster returns, Sophia finds her own artistic method of contacting the fable realm and becomes its latest physical incarnation…

Having discovered the metaphysical nature of Promethea Sophie begins to adjust. In real terms that means she can transform into a super-powerful flying Amazon, and perhaps join the legions of Science Heroes who protect – and frequently endanger – the world, but as her story unfolds, she begins to see just how different her version of the old story can be. Sophie is not some frustrated do-gooder suddenly flush with new-found power; she is and always has been concerned with knowing things.

Thus begins a journey of metaphysical as well as metahuman adventure. Sophie fights monsters and meets heroes, but the never-ending battle is not what this series is about. She obsessively wants to know more, and whilst various flamboyant forces array themselves against her, she is constantly seeking deeper answers for questions she never knew she had.

As various real-world forces align themselves in response to the latest resurgence of Promethea, Sophie explores the Immateria, hunting answers and examining the careers of her predecessors. When those antithetical forces attack the hospital where her new friend Barbara is slowly dying, the resultant battle with the forces of Hell reveal just how potent a weapon Promethea can be. The serious reader is advised to examine closely the running sub-plot with hero team The Five Swell Guys and psychotic serial killer The Painted Doll. As well as divertingly action-packed in an otherwise very cerebral tale, the long-running side-bar will have major repercussions in volumes to come.

Having dealt with the demon-horde, and the secret organisation that summoned them, Sophie again deviates from the expected in her dealings with infamous sorcerer Jack Faust, and has a Y2K monster battle before the volume ends with a mystical primer on the history, meaning and symbolism of The Tarot that is the closest I’ve seen the printed page get to a multi-media experience.

Moore’s sly and subversive scripting, in a superhero universe pushed to its illogical extreme, is superbly matched by artists Williams III & Gray, who increasingly raise the bar on graphic creativity and printing technology for a visual experience that is simply staggering to behold.

Adding extra lustre to the affair, Brad Meltzer offers an Afterword asking ‘Who Wants to Read a Fantasy Comic?’ and Moore’s script for issue #3 a fascinating diagnostic appointment with the creative process, augmented by Williams III’s artwork for the issue.

Promethea always had the most experimental aspirations. It will never have universal appeal, but if you are serious about comics it is an experience you owe yourself to try. And don’t be fooled. This book isn’t a lecture or a lesson, it’s a journey…
© 1999, 2000, 2001, 2009, 2019 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

The New Adventures of Jesus: The Second Coming


By Frank Stack (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-56097-780-3 (TPB)

One of the earliest exponents of the US counter-culture, at least in terms of his contributions to Underground Comix, Frank (Foolbert Sturgeon) Stack has sadly missed out on the benefits of fame and notoriety of such contemporaries as Gilbert Shelton and Robert Crumb.

He may well be the perpetrator of the first ever Underground Commix (a split decision with the late Jack Jackson, both of whom released work in 1964 – although a collection of Stack’s delirious doodles was compiled and Xeroxed by Shelton in 1962-3 as “The Adventures of Jesus”) but I’m sure he’s not that bothered.

What is important is that these throwaway scribbles by all these weirdo drop-out freaks changed the nature of comics and did a huge amount to reshape the society they came from and operated within – a bit like old JC himself, in fact…

Stack’s weapon of choice was the divine redeemer Jesus Christ, whom he made the star of an occasional series of strips satirising America. These intermittently appeared between 1964 and (since there’s new material in this collection) the present day.

A lot of the bite may seem dissipated by time, but that simply shows how effective and successful they were – and actually still are. Many people have pondered on what the Messiah would do if he came back today (sadly not enough of them people in power…), but no-one else could deliver the gentle, telling punches of ‘The Dog Messiah’, ‘Jesus Meets the Armed Services’ (released at the height of the Vietnam War, remember, and more pertinent than ever as America and Russia spar to see who’s best at being World Police), ‘Jesus Joins the Academic Community’ or ‘Jesus on Ice’.

In this collected epistle – available in traditional print and the miracle of digital formatting – those fables and parables are supplemented with the all-new ‘Jesus Meets Intellectual Property Rights’ which shows there’s room – and still a crying need for – Stack’s style of commentary.

This collection is extensive, informative (as well as a commentary from Stack, there are pieces from both Crumb and Shelton) but above all fun to read. You might not get Saved but you will get your money’s worth in entertainment, and if you have a soul it will be blessed and maybe even sanctified…
Text & art © 2006 Frank Stack. All Rights Reserved. This edition © 2006 Fantagraphics Books.