Oh, Wicked Wanda!


By Frederic Mullally & Ron Embleton (Penthouse)
No ISBN

Not all comics are for kids nor ever were they. The men’s magazine trade has often featured graphic narratives, usually sexually explicit in nature, often highly satirical, invariably of a much higher quality than their mainstream contemporaries, and always much better regarded and financially rewarded.

Where Playboy had Little Annie Fanny (created by Harvey Kurtzman & Will Elder: it ran intermittently from 1962 until 1988, and revived in 1998, illustrated by Ray Lago & Bill Schorr), publishing rival Bob Guccione wanted the same but better for his own publication Penthouse.

Used to getting his way, he hired journalist, editor (of left-wing magazine Tribune), columnist, novelist and political writer Frederic Mullally to script the ongoing exotic, erotic adventures of Wanda Von Kreesus, the richest woman in the world. The sultry star would be accompanied by Candyfloss, her insatiable jailbait paramour and an outrageous coterie of faithful employees including an all-girl army, a mad scientist and a brutal looking thug with the soul of a poet.

To illustrate he secured the talents of oil painter and comic strip veteran Ron Embleton (who had astounded comic readers with his lush and vibrant strip Wulf the Briton in Express Weekly and his numerous stunning illustrations in weekly fact-based periodical Look and Learn).

Oh, Wicked Wanda! was originally a prose serial illustrated by Bryan Forbes, beginning in 1969 before becoming, in 1973, the unbelievably lavish and torrid strip reprinted here, continuing until 1980 when it was replaced by Sweet Chastity, also painted by Embleton, and scripted by proprietor Guccione himself.

The bored and mischievous hellion on parade here is a sexually adventurous woman from a time when sexual politics and liberation were huge issues (not like now, of course), and therefore prime targets for low comedy and high satire.

Mullally peppered his scripts with topical references (many of which, sadly, would escape today’s casual reader, I’m sure) and the phenomenal Embleton would depict them with hyper-realistic accuracy.

Harold Wilson, Edward Heath, Ted Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger, Fidel Castro, Lyndon Johnson, Spiro Agnew, Mao Tse-tung, showbiz icons such as John Wayne or Bob Hope, and even comic strip greats like Pogo, Mutt and Jeff or Krazy Kat, all meandered through the glossy pages, a cross between a Greek Chorus and pictorial ad-libs.

Many celebrities were actively parodied participants. Henry Kissandrun, mafia Don Marlon Blondo/Burpo, Jane Fondle and demented California Governor Ronald Reekin’ all found themselves victims of the wilful minx and her team. Also, classical and contemporary erotic allusions abound ranging from a little “nymphette” lounging about reading William Burroughs’s Naked Lunch to visual and verbal references to Shelley’s Leda and the Swan.

This slim album reprints the earliest adventures as Wanda collects the rich and the famous for a Museum of Deviancy, takes on the Mafia, the CIA and the Cubans and does her bit to solve the Oil Crisis.

Later adventures saw her romp through the ages in a time machine but to my knowledge these tales have never been reprinted – although they really, really should be.

Perhaps a little dated, definitely for easy-going adults only, Oh, Wicked Wanda! is nonetheless still a funny read and inarguably one of the most beautiful British strips ever made. It is a tragedy that such work is unavailable to aficionados of comic art.
© 1973, 1974, 1975 Penthouse International Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

Bread & Wine – an Erotic Tale of New York


By Samuel R. Delaney & Mia Wolff (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-632-4

The demands of drama dictate that true love never runs smooth but that’s not the case in real life. The trade-off is that those actual romances which stand the test of time and tedium are painfully devoid of the remarkable circumstance and miraculous “gosh-wow” moments of fiction.

But this remarkable account proves That Ain’t Necessarily So…

In 1999 independent publisher Juno released a small graphic novel memoir, written by Samuel R. Delaney and illustrated by Mia Wolff (Catcher), which recounts how a celebrated gay black literary giant, college professor and social theoretician with a mantelpiece crowded of awards, and a teenaged daughter in tow, met and romanced one of society’s most outcast and forgotten souls.

At the time of publication, they had been a couple for some years and they are together still, more than 25 years later. Julia Roberts and Richard Gere won’t be in this movie and not a single dragon or muscle car had to die…

Following an Introduction from Alan Moore, this welcome and long-overdue new edition reveals how “Chip” Delaney took a walk on New York’s Upper West Side, bought a book from homeless Dennis and struck up a conversation with the kind of person most people refuse to acknowledge the very existence of…

In seamlessly seductive understated style the words and pictures detail how gradually, gently, unsurprisingly they became first friends and then lovers.

In the manner of all lasting true romances, this is the history of two full equals who accidentally find each other, not some flimsy rags-to-riches Cinderella tale of predestination and magical remedies. The brilliance and position of one is perfectly complemented by the warmth, intelligence and quiet integrity of the other, and although far from smooth – or rose scented – their path to contentment was both tension-fraught and heart-warming.

Oh, and there’s sex: lots of rapturously visualised sex, so if you’re the kind of person liable to be upset by pictures of joyous, loving fornication between two people separated by age, wealth, social position and race who happily possess and constantly employ the same type of naughty bits on each other, then go away and read something else.

In fact, as I keep on saying, just please go away.

And that’s all the help you get from me. This lyrical, beguiling tale is embellished throughout with interwoven extracts from the poem Bread and Wine by German lyric poet Friedrich Hölderlin and illustrated in a mesmerising organic monochrome variety of styles by artist and Delaney family friend Mia Wolff, and you really need to have it unfold for you without my second-hand blether or kibitzing…

This is one of the sweetest, most uplifting comics love stories ever written: rich with sentiment, steeped in literary punch and beautiful to behold. Moreover, this lavish, stout and steadfast hardback (also available in digital formats) also includes a celebratory commentary by Chip, Dennis and Mia and other protagonists in the Afterword, plus a sketch-packed, earnest and informative interview with the creative participants.

Strong, assertive, uncompromising and proudly unapologetic, this is love we should all aspire to, and Bread & Wine is another graphic novel every adult should know.
Introduction © 2013 Alan Moore. Contents © 2013 Samuel R. Delaney & Mia Wolff. This edition © 2013 Fantagraphics Books. All rights reserved.

Transposes


By Dylan Edwards (Northwest Press)
ISBN: 978-0-9845940-8-5

I don’t hold many unflinching beliefs; but one of the few is that I, you and certainly no church, government or pressure group has any damn right to dictate what consenting adults do with or to their bodies. And yes, that includes parents, families and partners. Discuss, debate, disagree but never, ever demand…

I may reserve the right to privately snigger at some of the more ambitious or physically-ill-judged things consenting adult people get up to in order to get their rocks off, but I can’t help that: after all I’ve lived through Flower Power, Free Love, New Men, flared jeans (twice!) and an era when both religions and politicians tolerated gays and evolution, and believed women were (in principle, at least) equal to men.

I’m more than happy for anybody to assert, clarify or reassign their gender identity or lack thereof as they see fit, and as for when “Life begins” and what you’re born as, I’m far more concerned by the fact that the most vocal advocates “know” exactly when, what and how it begins whilst it’s inside a human yet feel no compunction or duty of care or wellbeing for any baby – or mother – as soon as the (still developing until age 30 years or more) agglomeration of cells is out of the womb and into the world…

Whilst we’re sharing, I also feel we should probably all pass an exam before we’re allowed to vote or voice an opinion; and require every person seeking office to endure weekly sobriety tests, financial background checks and regular psychiatric evaluations, but maybe that’s just me…

There are a lot of acronyms in today’s book and I’m not going to play translator or decoder interminably, so if we miss linking any just use that search engine OK? This is comics, not University Challenge…

LGBT comics have long been the best place in the graphic narrative business to portray real romance: an artefact, I suppose, of a society that seems determined to simultaneously establish sex and love as two utterly separate beasts and exactly the same thing.

I’d still love to think that in the 21st century we’ve all outgrown the juvenile, judgemental bad old days and can simply appreciate powerful, moving and funny comics about people of all sorts without any kind of preconception…

Unless we’re talking girl/vampire/werewolf menageries à trois: that stuff is just plain wrong…

The very fact of being adjudged “different” now seems to be an increasingly common badge of courage in a world where fanatics and bigots become daily more rabid, and actual religious leaders can claim with straight faces that God so hates homosexuals and fornicators (or atheists or scientists or ginger-haired, left-handed people or…) that in His wisdom He sends fires and floods or tornados and tsunamis every year to wreck the homes of the faithful and worshipful – presumably because they ain’t doin’ nothin’ ‘bout it…

Dylan Edwards, AKA NDR, is a graphic artist, cartoonist and sculptor: author of Politically InQueerect, sports strip The Outfield and many others, plus the creator of really cute monsters – as seen on his Feeping Creatures site. In Transposes he masterfully employs comics to celebrate the history of seven ordinary souls just living their lives as FTMs (Females Transitioning to Males).

Dylan – who extensively interviewed each star before crafting these elucidating mini-epics – encapsulates their unconventional existences for the wider world with disarming candour and certified charm. Of course, all the “hot button issues” touted by a hypocritically moralising media (coming out, bullying, role models, gay identity, promiscuity vs. monogamy, childhood sexual abuse, risky sex and/or partners, STIs, parental approval and rejection) are present here – which only goes to show just how widespread and universal these perennial difficulties are…

Regardless of that, this collection comes off as a wonderfully positive and affirming chronicle celebrating determination and difference and, after an effusive and informative Introduction by Alison Bechdel (cartoonist, author of Fun Home and Are You My Mother? and inadvertent deviser of the truly transformative Bechdel Test), there’s an engaging comic strip Foreword by storymaker Dylan Edwards explaining the process that led to the impressive pictorial reportage that follows.

Delivered with jokey aplomb, this savvy and smart ice-breaker gently eases the uninitiated into issues of transgender, cisgender and that subset-within-a-subset defined here as “queer-identified female-to-male-transpersons” before the terrific tale-spinning begins…

Over coffee ‘Cal’ tells of his trip to physically hook-up with an adventurously like-minded internet contact and how it all led to a few surprises, a whole new set of skills and a great story to dine off for months to come…

The gloriously hilarious ‘Henry’ scrupulously – perhaps even compulsively – recorded every aspect of his satisfyingly unconventional life and was quite content to share insights and horror stories from the astounding Museum of Natural Henry…

Confusion and insecurity were a way of life for ‘Adam’ until he met Marni, who, after an intense and nurturing time, helped her beau discover that she really wasn’t the girl for him, whilst for ‘Blake’ an intoxicating brief encounter led to unexpected and life-long repercussions.

Scholarly, happily-in-control ‘Avery’ learned his greatest lessons early from an intolerant father and the wise, understanding and joyously gay uncle the family had ostracised, after which the cavalcade of human drama ends with a gloriously moving, entwined tale of two young outsiders simply destined for each other in the parallel-lives journey of ‘Aaron & James’; ending our odyssey on a fabulous, happy high note…

We are then comfortingly caught-up by a brief Epilogue in which all the participants are revisited and updated on life since their interviews to re-emphasise that feeling of pleasing continuance…

Comics as a medium is already a symbolically intensive one; honed and irresistibly one-step-removed from the mundane faux reality of film or photography. As such its powers to skin away confusing or misleading surface and reveal unalloyed intent and meaning are without parallel.

Don’t take my word for it. Check out any political caricature by Hogarth, Scarfe or Steve Bell…

It’s an admission of annoying embarrassment to me that I’ve felt compelled to put in so much equivocating background and bumph before coming to the meat of this review. In the final analysis Transposes is a subtly sensitive, evocative, romantic and humorously rewarding collection of “people stories” which any open-minded fan will adore.

There’s not much fighting, but plenty of punch, and in an ideal world, this book would be readily available in every school library for any confused kid in need of inspiration, comfort, understanding, encouragement and hope.

Sadly, because it deals openly and frankly with sex and gender, it’s probably banned in more than half of the United States and still pilloried in our free and impartial Press…

Well, if nothing else this meagre, reminding poke will garner some publicity and be useful in ensuring that folk who need to can still find it…
© 2012 Dylan Edwards. All rights reserved.

It’s A Bird…


By Steven T. Seagle & Teddy Kristiansen (Vertigo)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-0109-8 (HB)                    :987-1-4012-7288-3 (TPB)

Since his debut in June 1938 Superman has proven to be many things to billions of people, to the point of even changing their lives and shaping their actions.

It’s a Bird… was originally released in 2004 (and recently re-released in a new edition): offering something of a departure from typical Superman graphic novel fare with author Steven T. Seagle working through his understandable angst about writing the ongoing adventures of the Man of Steel without simply rehashing what has gone before.

Seagle (whose other comics work includes Uncanny X-MenSandman Mystery Theatre and Big Hero 6, and is part of TV cartoon creation collective Man of Action) actually scripted Superman #190-200 – published between April 2003 and February 2004.

The intriguing, demi-therapeutic exercise revealed in this slim and beguiling pictorial introspection deals with the author’s misgivings about contributing to the canon of an eternally unfolding legend.

However, underpinning what might so easily become a self-gratifying ego-stroke is a subtle undercurrent of savvy verity which strikes a chord with many creative professionals and insightful consumers as the professional writer finally finds the themes he needs to explore to be satisfied with his commission.

Let’s be honest here, every comic fan, indeed every twitcher and hobbyist, looks for a way to present and explain their particular passion to the “real” world and not feel like an imbecile in the process…

“Steve” is a writer working through some emotional baggage. He is still coming to terms with his family’s gradual disintegration – mental, physical and spiritual – from hereditary genetic disease Huntington’s Disease (Chorea, as was).

In everyday life, his father has gone missing, his mom and partner are making the “let’s have kids” noises whilst Steve’s waiting for the hammer to fall regarding his own potential prognosis with a condition that cannot be beaten…

He never wanted to write comics – even though he’s successful at it – and now his editor wants him to write Superman. He’s never had any feeling for the character or the medium and his damned editor just keeps on and on and on about… You get the picture?

It’s a Bird… is slow and lyrical in its deconstructive self-absorption as Steve makes his choices, and Teddy Kristiansen’s range of enticing drawing styles is a marvel and won him the 2005 Eisner Award for Best Painter/Multimedia Artist (Interior).

If you feel the urge to go beyond the panel borders of your private obsession, this one is well worth a look.
© 2004, 2017 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

The Massive: Ninth Wave


By Brian Wood, Garry Brown, Jordie Bellaire, Jared K. Fletcher & various (Dark Horse)
ISBN: 978-1-50670-009-0

Between April 2012 and 2014, prolific scripter, artist and games designer Brian Wood (X-Men, Aliens, Conan, DMZ, Demo, Northlanders, Channel Zero) crafted a chilling and potent post-disaster tale of failed activist sea captain Callum Israel: a man driven to ply the seas of an ecologically broken Earth, searching for lost sister ship The Massive.

Full of missing comrades, the other vessel had vanished during the final collapse, perhaps taking with it the reasons why the world had suddenly tipped too far and toppled into environmental, political, financial and social Armageddon.

Israel had been leader of the Marine Conservation Direct Action Force and helmed the converted eco- trawler Kapital. Before the end of all days, his days had been spent with a band of equally dedicated and extremely capable non-violent volunteers, all working on the very edge of ecological terrorism: foiling and confounding polluters, climate change deniers, world leaders and money maniacs.

That had been backstory during the ongoing odyssey, whereas this new trade paperback volume (re-presenting the 6-issue miniseries The Massive: Ninth Wave) collects in a mass-market edition 2015’s prequel series that followed the series’ culmination. Here Israel and his band of beaten survivors still go about their unlawful pursuits in their hopeful heyday: racing around a still viable Earth to confront and frustrate the greedy bastards pushing our planet over the edge through corrupt actions, callous neglect and sheer indifference…

Following Wood’s ruminatory Introduction, a compelling string of self-contained, stand-alone tales relentlessly unfold in a perfect storyboard for TV’s next big, sensationally hard-hitting drama series (no, I’m not saying it is happening, just that it should…), rendered by returning team of illustrator Garry Brown, colourist Jordie Bellaire and letterer Jared K. Fletcher.

The suspenseful action opens with the infamous and preeminent global environmental rescue group seemingly in a stalling pattern. As Callum Israel and his deputies debate ultra-billionaire industrialist Bors Bergen at sea and beyond all international scrutiny, Ninth Wave operatives Rimona, Max, Lars and Purge covertly land in Germany and get to work beneath the most opulent and prestige-packed housing enclave of Berlin.

Bors thinks his money buys unlimited influence and insulates him from the repercussions of his shady deals, but the Ninth Wave see further targets where the money man sees resolute allies. The eco-warriors’ point and their ‘Manifesto’ is potently proved with one simple act of innovative plumbing that reduces the callous Croesus to the global media’s latest scandalous, shamed pariah du jour…

Callum’s non-violent principles are then tested to the limit when he joins maverick Park Ranger Amanda Gray of Canada’s Ministry of Forests to thwart far more bloodthirsty eco-terrorists determined to sabotage and eager to kill loggers during a forest clearcut operation in ‘Para’.

A two-pronged assault defines the next tale as Israel fights in court to prevent the destruction by commercial exploitation of a precarious island habitat and its iconic wildlife. In the meantime, his go-team resort to far more traditional tactics and ‘Occupy’ the embattled Arctic atoll. Then the ruthless money guys send in security teams, Blackhawk copters and napalm… just as the Ninth Wave veterans expected…

‘Hunted’ hones in on the total absence of enforceable law at sea beyond national borders as an outlaw vessel responsible for crimes ranging from illegal fishing to human trafficking seizes and holds hostage the Ninth Wave volunteers attempting to stop them. With all authorities refusing assistance, Callum’s people are forced to prove that “non-violent” doesn’t mean “helpless” or “toothless”…

After saving and relocating a boatload of war refugees, Callum and his people face the full might of the US government in ‘Blacksite’ when the superpower subsequently accuses the eco-warriors of harbouring and covertly transporting fugitive terrorists…

The powerful blend of activism, agitprop, realpolitik and dark drama concludes with a refreshingly personal social apotheosis as the team target a rich American who’s paid a fortune to shoot a certain lion in an African Preserve. ‘Oasis’ shows that in conservation there are no small or acceptable wrongs and weapons exist far crueller and more effective than guns…

With covers by J. P. Leon, this slim, seductive and deliciously uplifting book is a sublime beacon of hope and promise as we all watch the world get ever more unpalatable and potentially uninhabitable… And the Doom Clock continues to inexorably count down…
The Massive™ © 2015, 2016, 2017 Brian Wood. All rights reserved.

The Moon Looked Down and Laughed – a Holy Cross graphic novel


By Malachy Coney & Paul J. Holden (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-56097-263-1

The Irish have always rightly prided themselves on their innate ability to tell a tale and comics especially have long-benefited from that blessed boon. One writer especially gifted and yet inexplicably still not world famous is Malachy Coney, who first started turning heads in Fleetway’s socially informed Crisis anthology in 1989 when he was invited by Pat Mills to co-write a sequence of the controversial serial Third World War set in Ireland.

Coney was raised in the Ardoyne area of Belfast during the time of “The Troubles” and much of his work deals with the politics of the era and issues of gender and gay rights.

In 1993 he scripted the miniseries Holy Cross for Fantagraphics: three separate tales all linked by history, geography and incidental characters Jimmy and Davy – a local gay couple. The yarns were illustrated respectively by Davy Francis, Chris Hogg and P. J. Holden. That lost delight happily led to the lovely book under discussion on this most Gaelic of days.

Coney, who is also a cartoonist and publisher, latterly wrote a number of Gay-themed superhero tales (Major Power and Spunky, The Dandy Lion, The Simply Incredible Hunk), socially aware material such as The Good Father and Catholic Lad; worked with Garth Ennis on Top Cow’s The Darkness and Steven Grant on Vampirella.

Active in the arts in Northern Ireland, he co-wrote animated short film Second Helpings and has contributed to DNASwamp, Small Axe and Fortnight, whilst producing material for the internet and self-publishing his own Good Craic Comics.

Paul Jason Holden is also from Belfast and, as well as working closely with Coney on the Holy Cross stories, The Dandy Lion and The Simply Incredible Hunk, has illustrated Mike Carey’s ‘Suicide Kings’ and worked for Warhammer Monthly, 2000AD, Judge Dredd Megazine, Image Comics, Garth Ennis’ Battlefields and Strip Magazine. He is also active in developing web- and app-based comics…

Rendered in stark and seductive monochrome, The Moon Looked Down and Laughed is again set in the Holy Cross district of Belfast and narrated by hopeful writer Tommy Doherty, a decent and sentimental young man just starting to learn the way of the world.

Tommy’s always got time to listen to his old dad’s stories about the bad days just past, especially the one when he was a young man doing odd jobs for a mean, rich old sod named Burke.

That privileged, demented sour swine used to work him like a slave every day and then set the dog on him if he stayed on his land one second after quitting-time. Sometimes Burke even deliberately kept him late just to watch him run…

That all changed on the fateful day Pa Doherty’s watch stopped and the vicious landowner gloatingly gawped as the manic canine brought him down…

Of course, that was the day sheer terror made the worm turn and a scared lad learned another use for the hated shovel in his calloused hands…

From that event, the Da learned a hard but necessary lesson: there are mad dogs everywhere and usually the shovel is the best way of dealing with them…

With thoughts of wildlife documentaries, carnivores and prey in his head, Tommy heads for the pub and a drink with his outrageous pals Jimmy and Davy. However he obliquely encounters the district’s apex predator when Francie O’Neill’s gang of thugs and troublemakers harass him for hanging out with “faggots”…

It had only been weeks since the surly pack of jackals had beaten up Jimmy and Davy in one more gay-bashing incident. O’Neill had been a bully since they were all at school but always managed to come off like some roguish golden boy. Nobody could understand why the loveliest girl in school had married him, especially Tommy, for whom Annie would always be “the one”, ever since that incident when they played “spin-the-bottle” as nippers…

Now she was shackled to a possessive, brutal thug, permanently pregnant and with all the life leaching slowly out of her.

Staggering away at closing time, Tommy and the boys spot Francie stalking the streets, looking for a fight to start. Not for the first time, the writer ponders the worth of pens against swords and why people like that are allowed to get away with so much…

Pa Doherty’s pride and joy is his allotment garden and on the way to it next day, father and son see an ambulance rushing away. It seems poor fat Big Junior has had a breakdown and harmed himself. The lad hasn’t been the same since his ma died and surely the constant bullying and sadistic harassment by certain people has pushed him over the edge…

As they watch Annie O’Neill and her two oldest pass by, Pa invites them to spend time in his garden. The kids have the best day of their life just playing and, with a bit of peace at last, Annie idly chats about the old days with Tommy…

The next day the author-in-waiting answers a desperate call: the father is in a bad way. It seems someone has destroyed his precious, beloved garden; razed it to rubble and ruins…

Consoling the heartbroken, despondent elder, Tommy sees Francie’s unmistakable signature in the despicable act. Soon after, locating the psychotic lout terrorising his own wife and children, the frustrated scribe realises he has found his own mad dog…

Disposing of the body on the nearby railway tracks, the shell-shocked and traumatised scribe is utterly unaware that Jimmy and Davy have been witnesses to the whole thing…

And that’s just the start of Tommy Doherty’s road from boy to man in this superbly told tale, blending wry humour and bucolic Celtic charm with shatteringly personal conflicts that test the miraculous bonds of childhood loyalty and friendship, revealing not only the horrific acts good men can be pushed to, but also how deeds shape character and how little the universe cares…

Long overdue for re-issue – preferably in a bumper edition collecting the three-issue Holy Cross miniseries and the fabled unpublished fourth issue as well – this is a sublimely beguiling and memorably incisive story of human life at its most vibrant and compelling…
© 1997 Malachy Coney & Paul J. Holden. This edition © 1997 Fantagraphics Books. All rights reserved.

The Files of Ms. Tree volume 1: I, For an Eye and Death Do Us Part


By Max Collins & Terry Beatty (Aardvark-Vanaheim)
ISBN: 0-919359-05-1             ASIN: B00072LQCW

Despite being one of the most popular genres in modern literature and the fact that most fiction books are bought and read by women, hard-boiled Private Eye crime stories are desperately short of female protagonists.

Marry that with the observation that in the 1980s “gum-shoe” comics were also as rare as hen’s teeth and it’s a wonder that a series such as Ms. Tree ever got off the drawing board.

The secret – as always – is quality.

The black widow of detective fiction first appeared in 1981 as a part-work serial in the groundbreaking black-and-white anthology comic Eclipse Magazine, rubbing padded shoulders with a number of other quirky alternatives to the East Coast superheroes that had a stranglehold on American comics at that time980s.

Associating with such gems as Sax Rohmer’s Dope (fabulously adapted by Trina Robbins and only recently collected and released in a wonderful pulp thriller edition); Steve Englehart & Marshal Rogers’ I Am Coyote; Don McGregor & Gene Colan’s Ragamuffins; B.C. Boyer’s masterful Masked Man and a host of other gems from the industry’s finest, Max Allan Collins and young humour cartoonist Terry Beatty introduced a cold, calculating and genuinely fierce avenger who put new gloss on the hallowed imagery and plot of the hard-bitten, tough-guy shamus avenging a murdered partner…

As conceived by the successful crime novelist (and scripter of the venerable Dick Tracy newspaper strip), the gun-toting dame was one of the first features to win a solo title: Ms. Tree’s Thrilling Detective Stories or simply Ms. Tree from the fourth issue. Although the marketplace was not friendly to such a radical concept, the series ran for 50 issues, and 2 specials, from three publishers (Eclipse, Aardvark-Vanaheim and Renegade Press) before finally dying in 1989.

Gone but not quickly forgotten, she was promptly revived as a DC comic in 1990 for another 10 giant-sized issues as Ms. Tree Quarterly/ Ms. Tree Special; three more blood-soaked, mayhem-packed, morally challenging years of pure magic.

Astonishingly, and as far as I know, there are no contemporary collections of her exploits – despite Collins’ status as a prolific and best-selling author of both graphic novels (Road to Perdition, CSI) and prose sequences featuring his crime-creations Nathan Heller, Quarry, Nolan, Mallory and a veritable pantheon of others.

In 2007 Collins released a classy prose novel, “Deadly Beloved” starring his troubled troubleshooter, but thus far The Files of Ms. Tree volumes are the only place to find the collected exploits of this superb crime-stopper.

The first volume, I, For an Eye and Death Do Us Part gathers the introductory escapade from Eclipse Magazine #1-6 (May 1981-July 1982) and the follow-up initial story-arc from Ms. Tree’s Thrilling Detective Stories #1-3 (August-December 1982): two chilling tales of regret and revenge, perfectly delivered as fair-play mystery tales.

You might not be able to extract your own retribution, but if you’re smart enough you can solve the clues as fast as our heroine does…

In ‘I, For an Eye’ we – so very briefly – meet Mike Tree, a true bastion of the detective profession. Hard, tough, sharp and fair he’s an ex-cop who set up in business for himself and did well. At the peak of his career he meets Mike Friday, a feisty, clever, pistol-packing, two-fisted modern woman who quickly moves from secretary to full partner. They fell in love…

On their wedding night her husband is gunned down by an unknown assailant and the new Mrs. Tree sets out to find the killer who made her a honeymoon widow. Assuming control over their detective agency she employs part of the staff to keep the business going but places her husband’s… her… best people onto finding out why her man died. With her tight, dedicated team she uncovers a web of corruption and lies which includes the fact that she was not the first Mrs. Tree.

Mike had a previous wife and a son who’s painfully like his departed dad…

Gritty, witty and darkly relentless, this tale of corruption and twisted friendship sets the pace for all the ensuing adventures; a brilliant odyssey which peels like an onion, always showing that there’s still more to uncover…

Even after finding Mike’s killer and delivering the traditional, mandatory vengeance in grand style, the investigation reveals a higher mastermind behind it all, in the scurrilous shape of mob boss Dominic Muerta, after which second tale ‘Death Do Us Part’ deals with the repercussions of Ms. Tree’s crusade against that psychotic grandee’s operations.

The unrelenting death and misery takes its toll on the traumatised widow: she turns to therapy but when that doesn’t work she takes a long-needed holiday to a distant honeymoon resort.

She even finds a new lover but when the newlyweds in the next cabin are murdered by a hit-man Tree realises that she is trapped on a path that can only lead to more death…

Adult, astute, and enchantingly challenging, this second drama is full of plot twists and clever set-pieces that will charm and beguile crime fans of every persuasion whilst the art by Beatty is a sheer revelation.

Presented as static, informative and understated, the visuals are remorselessly matter-of-fact and deadly in their cold efficiency. It’s a quality which might be off-putting to some but which so perfectly matches the persona of its pitiless star that I can’t imagine any other style working at all.

This volume, released in 1984, is stuffed with behind-the-scenes extras and commentary from both creators, including a colour cover gallery, and – as an added bonus – original illustrated prose short-story ‘Red Light’: a terse thriller that perfectly augments the grim mood of the book.

Despite the tragic scenarios, ruthless characterisations and high body-count, this is a clever, funny affair steeped in the lore of detective fiction, stuffed with in-jokes for the cognoscenti (such as the unspoken conceit that heroine Mike Friday is the daughter of legendary TV cop Joe DragnetFriday) and dripping in the truly magical gratification factor that shows complete scum finally get what’s coming to them…

Ms. Tree is the closest thing the American market has ever produced to challenge our own Queen of Adventure Modesty Blaise: how they can let her languish in graphic obscurity is a greater crime than any described in this compelling classic collection. Hunt it down for your pleasure and pray somebody somewhere has the great good sense to bring back Ms. Tree.
© 1980, 1981, 1982, 1983, 1984 Max Collins and Terry Beatty. All Rights Reserved.

An Android Awakes: Fictional Alignment


By Mike French & Tony Allcock (Elsewhen Press)
ISBN: 978-1-911409-20-5                  eISBN: 978-1-911409-30-4

It’s been a while since we looked at anything non-traditional so here’s an intriguing illustrated book which has a lot to recommend it… most importantly, that it’s a long-awaited sequel to a captivating and fascinating tome we reviewed way back in 2015…

In the far future of An Android Awakes, human beings are practically extinct and androids have become the dominant intellects ruling the planet. Sadly, our synthetic successors are as prone to emotional foibles, personal insecurities, obsessive manias and ruthless zealotry as us meat-bags ever were.

To a great extent they also assimilated our creative urges too. One such was Android Writer PD121928 who was part of the Android Publishing Program. The state provided for his needs (drugs, whores, deep-frozen pets and the removal of his wife so that he can achieve the proper frame of artistic angst and squalor) and in return he was to conceive increasingly outré and wild adventure tales. The same deal applied for every creative automaton in the system: Filmmakers, photographers, artists, whatever…

His ultimate failure and tragic martyrdom allowed and compelled his human lover Sapphira to recycle his failed ideas into a global bestseller entitled Humans (An Arrangement of Minor Defects).

On its release – the first human work of fiction for over a century – the volume became the best-selling book of all time, but in the aftermath of publication an ideological schism triggered a violent change in Android government and philosophy leading to a pogrom against everything non-factual…

Eleven years later, with society in crisis and the mythoclasts in charge, Fiction is deemed filth and all creativity is consecrated to Fact. The mighty Pravda and his Proseologist assumed control of the Vatican and began excising everything non-verifiable – mood, tone, poesy, flights of fancy – from the world’s literature.

But even that is not enough. Thus, androids Heisenberg and Tractatus are ordered to conduct arch-imagineer Sapphira – and a select band of equally unwilling and iconic characters – on a succession of journeys through time to re-enact her book’s greatest feats and feasts of fictive excess, rendering them factual in every respect…

Sadly, whilst stage-managing great moments of love, death, spectacle, science fantasy and comedy to prove the fanciful concrete and validatable, the sheer corrupting power of imagination and the forces needed to make creativity and inspiration real have an implacably metamorphic effect of the agents of change and they begin using millennia of time travel to reshape the mission to their own twisted ever-shifting agendas…

Featuring old An Android Awakes favourites such as The Great Explorer Umberto Amunsden, The Locust Wife and The Amazing Arctic Sinking Man and introducing us to the almighty Digitised Treasury and the Real Jesus, this mind-bending Scientific Romance from Mike French offers a challenging odyssey through the theocracy of thought and depicts a trenchant guerrilla war between What Is, What Might and What Should be…

Devotees of Michael Moorcock, Brian Aldiss, J. G. Ballard, Thomas M. Disch and other heavyweights of the last century’s SF New Wave movement will love this challenging stand-out return to Big Idea, Deep Thought emotionally expressive speculative fiction, as will any reader hungry to have heart and mind expanded…
Text and artwork © Mike French 2018. Cover artwork © Tony Allcock 2018. All rights reserved.

Shaft volume 1: A Complicated Man


By David F. Walker, Bilquis Evely & various (Dynamite Entertainment)
ISBN: 978-1-60690-757-3

For decades Black consumers of popular entertainments had far too few fictive role models. In the English-speaking world that began changing in the turbulent 1960s and truly took hold during the decade that followed. A lot of the characters developed at that time came from a cultural phenomenon called Blaxploitation. Although criticised for its seedy antecedents, stereotypical situations and violence, these films and books were the first mass-market examples of minority characters in leading roles, rather than as fodder or flunkies.

One of the earliest movie icons of the genre was a man called Shaft.

The film was scripted by journalist and screenwriter Ernest Tidyman (The French Connection; High Plains Drifter) from his own 1970 novel. He authored six more between 1972 and 1975, with his timeless urban warrior starring in numerous films and a TV series. An eighth novel – Shaft’s Revenge – was released in 2016, written by David F. Walker. Amongst his many gifts Walker numbers writing comics (Occupy Avengers; Cyborg; Red Sonja and many more) and in 2014 was invited to write a long-overdue comics iteration. Illustrated by Bilquis Evely and coloured by Daniela & Miwa (Walker lettered the series himself), the comicbook took its look, settings and tone from the novels more than the Richard Roundtree films with the first 6-chapter story-arc collected as Shaft: A Complicated Man. In all the detective’s prior appearances, no mention was made of his past, but here Big John gets a proper origin story…

Following an Introduction by educator and author Shawn Taylor, the story – winner of the 2015 Glyph Comics Award for Story of the Year – begins in December 1968. Young John Shaft is a former marine and veteran of the Vietnam war who’s come home and is trying to find his place in the world. An indomitable fighter, he’s using boxing as his big chance, but when he refuses to throw a fight, he incurs the wrath of both local black gang boss Junius Tate and the area’s mafioso overlord Sal Venneri.

Proud and resolute but no fool, Shaft wins his bout, accepts his brutal punishment from Tate’s conflicted leg-breaker Bamma Brooks and vanishes from the cloistered island-within an-island known as Harlem…

Just drifting, Shaft briefly goes to college before the call of adventure finds him joining private detective agency National Investigation & Security Services. His first job is as a plainclothes guard and “undercover negro shopper” at a fancy department store…

While on duty he meets pretty Arletha Havens and finds a reason to stop drifting and start planning. Before long he’s seeing a bright future together.

That all goes to hell when cheap thugs bust into their apartment looking for a hooker named Marisol Dupree and her pimp Jimmy Style

With Arletha hostage, Shaft is forced to accompany one of the abductors back to Harlem for the first time in years, hunting the missing woman and a package she’s holding that someone really important wants back. In fact, Marisol’s mystery treasure is something that has big city money men in a panic and all the criminal factions in Harlem at each other’s throats, but Shaft’s immediate problem is staying alive…

After surviving a savage gunfight that leaves five bodies piled up in an alley, he returns home to find Arletha’s body and resolves that somebody – maybe everybody – is going to pay…

All on his own again, the coldly furious killer finds his true calling, tracking down Marisol, methodically putting the pieces together in a chilling city-wide web of graft, favours, murder and money and ensuring that the guilty parties pay the ultimate price…

Comprising a devious wasps nest of civic corruption, crooked cops, warring mobsters and treacherous friends, played against a tragic backdrop of true love forever lost, Shaft’s first case is a superb crime thriller no fan of the genre should miss and comes with a bevy of bonus features including character designs, unused illustrations by Walker & John Jennings, script excerpts, in-production art pages and a covers and variants gallery by Denys Cowan, Bill Sienkiewicz, Ivan Nunes, Francesco Francavilla, Michael Avon Oeming, Ulises Farinas, Matt Haley, Sanford Greene, Nacho Tenorio & Sergio Mora. It even comes with a toe-tappingly cool playlist to track down and enjoy whilst reading…
Shaft is ™ and © 2015 Ernest Tidyman. All rights reserved.

From Headrack to Claude – Collected Gay Comix of Howard Cruse


By Howard Cruse (Nifty Kitsch Press/Northwest Press)
ISBN: 978-0-578-03251-1 (TPB)

It’s long been an aphorism – if not an outright cliché – that Gay (or we could be contemporary and say LGBTQ) comics have long been the only place in the graphic narrative business to see real romance in all its joy, pain, glee and glory.

It’s still true: an artefact, I suppose, of a society seemingly obsessed with demarcating and separating sex and love as two utterly different and possibly even opposite things. I prefer to think that here in the 21st century – at least in most sensible, civilised parts of it – we’ve outgrown the juvenile, judgemental, bad old days and can simply appreciate powerfully moving and/or funny comics about people of all sorts without any kind of preconception, but that battle’s still not completely won yet. Hopefully, compendia such as this will aid the fight…

Oh, and there’s sex and swearing so if you’re the kind of person liable to be upset by words and pictures of an adult nature (such as joyous, loving fornication between two people separated by age, wealth, social position and race who happily possess and constantly employ the same type of naughty bits on each other, or sly mockery of deeply-held, outmoded and ludicrous beliefs) then go away and read something else.

In fact, just go away: you have no romance in your soul or love in your heart.

Howard Cruse has enjoyed a remarkable cartooning career which has spanned decades and encompassed a number of key moments in American history and social advancement.

Beginning as a hippy-trippy, counter-culture, Underground Comix star with beautifully drawn, witty, funny (not always the same thing in those days – or now, come to think of it) strips, his work has evolved over the years into a powerful voice for change in both sexual and race politics through such superb features as Wendel and his masterpiece Stuck Rubber Baby – an examination of oppression, tolerance and freedoms in 1950s America.

Since then he has become a columnist, worked on other writers’ work, illustrating an adaptation of Jeanne E. Shaffer’s The Swimmer With a Rope In His Teeth and continued his own unique brand of cartoon commentary.

Born in 1944 the son of a Baptist Minister in Birmingham, Alabama, Cruse grew up amid the smouldering intolerance of the region’s segregationist regime; an atmosphere that shaped him on a primal level. He escaped to Birmingham-Southern College to study Drama in the late ’60s, graduating and winning a Shubert Playwriting Fellowship to Penn State University.

Campus life there never really suited him and he dropped out in 1969. Returning to the South he joined a loose crowd of fellow Birmingham Bohemians which allowed him to blossom as a creator and by 1971 was drawing a spectacular procession of strips for an increasingly hungry and growing crowd of eager admirers.

Whilst working for a local TV station as both designer and children’s show performer he created a kid’s newspaper strip about talking squirrels, Tops & Button, still finding time to craft the utterly whimsical and bizarre tales of a romantic quadrangle starring a very nice young man and his troublesome friends for the more discerning college crowd he remained in contact with. The strips appeared in a variety of college newspapers and periodicals

He was “discovered” by publishing impresario Denis Kitchen in 1972 who began disseminating Barefootz to a far broader audience in such Underground publications as Snarf, Bizarre Sex, Dope Comix and Commies From Mars: all published by his much-missed Kitchen Sink Enterprises outfit.

Kitchen also hired Cruse to work on an ambitious co-production with rising powerhouse Marvel Comics, attempting to bring a somewhat sanitised version of the counter-culture’s cartoon stars and sensibilities to the mainstream via The Comix Book: a traditionally packaged and distributed newsstand magazine. It only ran to a half-dozen issues and, although deemed a failure, provided the notionally more wholesome and genteel Barefootz with a larger audience and yet more avid fans…

As well as an actor, designer, art-director and teacher, Cruse has appeared in Playboy, The Village Voice, Heavy Metal, Artforum International, The Advocate and Starlog among countless others, yet the tireless storyman found the time and resources to self-publish Barefootz Funnies, two comic collections of his addictively whimsical strip in 1973.

Here in a captivatingly forthright grab-bag and memoir gathering the snippets and classics left out of previous must-have collections The Compete Wendel and Early Barefootz, Cruse traces his development through his cartoons and strips, all thoroughly and engagingly annotated and contextualised by the author himself and fondly, candidly explored through a backdrop of the men he loved at the time.

This book was originally self-published in 2008 and is now available digitally – with updates and extra material – from those wonderful people at Northwest Press.

Acting as an historical place-setter, Cruse’s informative ‘Preface’ sets the ball rolling, laconically tracing his artistic career and development and using domestic autobiographical strip ‘Communique’ (from Heavy Metal) as a smart indicator of his home life at the time before a more detailed exploration overview of the Queer comics scene in ‘From Miss Thing to Jane’s World’ before the book truly begins.

For a better, fuller understanding you’ll really want to see both the Wendell and Barefootz collections but for now we relive history in first chapter ‘Artefacts & Benchmarks’ Part 1: 1969-76 blending contextualising prose recollection with noteworthy strip ‘That Night at the Stonewall’, advertising art, abortive newspaper strip sample, an episode of Tops & Button, and other published work plus gay sitcom feature ‘Cork & Dork’.

An early example of advocacy comes from wry cartoon homily ‘The Passer-By’ before more reminiscences and picture extracts take us to an uncharacteristically strident and harsh breakthrough.

Preceded by explanatory sidebar ‘Backstory: Gravy on Gay’ we are introduced to Barefootz’, way-out friend confidante and openly gay hippy rebel Headrack in ‘Gravy on Gay’: in which the laid-back easy-going artist is confronted with the ugly, mouthy side of modern living as voiced by obnoxious jock jerk Mort

The march of progress continues in Artefacts & Benchmarks’ Part 2: 1976-80, detailing a variety of comics jobs from Dope Comix and Snarf to the semi-legitimacy of Playboy and Starlog and first meeting with life partner and eventual husband Eddie Sedarbaum before My Strips from Gay Comix 1980-90 traces his editorial career on the landmark anthology by reprints his own strip contributions.

It all begins with ‘Billy Goes Out’: recalling the joyous – or it that empty and tedious? – hedonistic freedoms of the days immediately before the AIDS crisis…

Incisive cloaked autobiographical fable ‘Jerry Mack’ takes us inside the turbulent mind of an ultra-closeted church minister in full regretful denial after which further heartbreak is called up in devious tragedy ‘I Always Cry at Movies…’ and home chores are dealt with in a manly manner in ‘Getting Domestic’.

Some historical and political insight is offered in ‘Backstory: Dirty Old Lovers’ before the outrageous and hilarious antics of the oldest lovers in town scandalise the Gay community in ‘Dirty Old Lovers’, whilst the thinking behind clarion call ‘Safe Sex’ is detailed in a ‘Backstory’ article prior to a straightforward examination of Acquired Immune-Deficiency Syndrome and its effects on personal health and public consciousness…

Surreal comedy infuses the tale of a man’s man and his adored ‘Cabbage Patch Clone’ after which faux ad ‘I Was Trapped Naked inside the Jockey Shorts of the Amazing Colossal Man!’ and Matt Groening spoof ‘Gay Dorks in Fezzes’ closes this chapter to make way for Topical Strips 1983-93.

With Cruse’s particular brand of LGBT commentary reaching more mainstream audiences through publications such as The Village Voice, a brief ‘Backstory’ relates the author’s ultimately unnecessary anxiety to inviting in the wider world through polemical sally ‘Sometimes I Get So Mad’ and wickedly pointed social and media satire ‘The Gay in the Street’. Both that oracular swipe and ‘1986 – An Interim Epilogue’ are also deconstructed by Backstory segments (the latter being a 2-page addendum created for the Australian release of ‘Safe Sex’ in Art & Text magazine) before ‘Backstory: Penceworth’ reveals one of Margaret Thatcher’s vilest moments. In 1988 her government attempted to send back sexual freedom to the Stone Age (or Russia, Nigeria and other uncivilised countries today) by prohibiting the “promotion of homosexuality”. The law in Britain – (un)popularly known as Clause 28 – was resisted on many fronts, including the benefit comic AARGH (Artists Against Rampant Government Homophobia). Invited to contribute, Cruse channelled Hillaire Belloc’s Cautionary Verses and excoriatingly assaulted the New Nazism with ‘Penceworth’: a charming illustrated poem like a spiked cosh snuggled inside a velvet slipper…

Luxuriating in righteous indignation and taking his lead from the New York Catholic Church’s militant stance against the LGBT community, Cruse then illuminated a supposed conference between ‘The Kardinal & the Klansman in Manning the Phone Bank’ and targeted similar anti-gay codicils in America’s National Endowment for the Arts in ‘Homoeroticism Blues’

Another Backstory explains how and why a scurrilous article in Cosmopolitan resulted in ‘The Woeful World of Winnie and Walt’ – a complacency-shattering tale in Strip AIDS USA pointedly reminding White Heterosexuals that the medical horror wasn’t as discriminating as they would like to believe…

That theme is revisited with the kid gloves off in ‘His Closet’, after which ‘Backstory: Rainbow Curriculum Comix’ and ‘The Educator’ clarify how School Board rabble-rouser Mary Cummings set back decades of progress in American diversity education through her oratorical witch hunts. Cruse’s potent responses ‘Rainbow Curriculum Comix’ and ‘The Educator’ follow…

Cruse has been relatively quiet in recent years, and the artist’s Late Entries 2000-08 follow, including a full-colour rebuttal fromm Village Voice to Dr. Bruce Bagemihl’s study on animal homosexuality. ‘A Zoo of Our Own’ is accompanied by a fulsome Backstory and is followed by wry and engaging modern fable ‘My Hypnotist’ and semi-autobiographical conundrum ‘Then There Was Claude’ before the bemused wonderment wraps up with prose article ‘I Must Be Important ‘Cause I’m in a Documentary (2011)’ and a superb Batman pin-up/put down…

This is a superb compilation: smart, funny, angry when needful and always astonishingly entertaining.
© 1976-2008 Howard Cruse. All rights reserved.

For further information and great stuff check out Howardcruse.com