Axa Adult Fantasy Color Album


By Enrique “Enric” Badía Romero & Donne Avenell (Ken Pierce Books/Eclipse Comics)
ISBN: 0-912277-27-0 (TPB)

Born in 1930 Enrique “Enric” Badía Romero’s comics career began in his native Spain fifteen years later when he was apprenticed to popular creator Emilio Freixas. By 1949 – as “Badia” – he was drawing strips for Susy and other publications, and in 1953, launched his own magazine Alex, before going on to found publishers Ruiz Romero where he produced everything from westerns, sports, war stories and trading cards – mostly in conjunction with his brothers Jorge and Jordi. Their most memorable series were Cromos, Hombres de Lucha and Historia de la Guerra.

“Enric” began working for the higher-paying UK market in the 1960s, on strips such as ‘Cathy and Wendy’, ‘Isometrics’ and ‘Cassius Clay’ before successfully assuming drawing duties on the high-profile Modesty Blaise adventure-serial in 1970. He left in 1978 when an enticing new prospect appeared whilst he was simultaneously illustrating Modesty and Rahan with André Chéret for Franco-Belgian weekly Pif gadget. Even for the prolific artist something had to give…

Axa ran in The Sun Monday to Saturday from 14th July 1978 to her abrupt cancellation on November 16th 1986 – purportedly a victim of political and editorial intrigue which saw the strip cancelled in the middle of a story. Other than the First American Edition series from strip historian Ken Pierce and this colour collection, there has never been a definitive English language collection. It should be noted also that at the time of this book she was still being published with great success and to popular acclaim.

Back then in Britain it often appeared the only place where truly affirmative female role-models appeared to be taken seriously were cartoon sections, but even there the likes of Modesty Blaise, Danielle, Scarth, Amanda, Wicked Wanda and all the other capable ladies who walked all over the oppressor gender – both humorously and in straight adventure scenarios – lost clothes and shed undies repeatedly, continuously, frivolously and in the manner they always had…

Nobody complained (at least no one important or who was ever taken seriously): it was just tradition and the idiom of the medium… and besides, artists have always liked to draw bare-naked ladies as much as blokes liked to see them. It was even “educational” for the kiddies – who could buy any newspaper in any shop without interference, even if they couldn’t get into cinemas to view Staying Alive, Octopussy or Return of the Jedi without an accompanying adult…

Tough ’n’ sexy take-charge chicks (without clothes) were a comic-strip standard by the time the Star Wars phenomenon rekindled interest in science fiction, and the infallible old standby of scantily-clad, curvy amazons in post-apocalyptic realms never had greater sales-appeal than when The Sun – Britain’s sleaziest yet best-selling tabloid – hired Romero & Donne Avenell to produce a new fantasy feature for their already well-stacked cartoon section.

This beautifully illustrated but oddly out of kilter collection doesn’t bear much similarity in terms of tone or format to the (ostensibly) family-oriented daily strip, and features none of the regular supporting cast like long-suffering lover Matt or robotic companion Mark 10, which leads me to suspect it was created independently for a European market, perhaps as a Sunday page in Romero’s homeland or elsewhere where attitudes and mores were more liberal.

Certainly in the early 1980s Axa appeared in adult bande dessinée icon Charlie Mensuel (which reprinted many classic newspaper strips from around the world) and after that closed in Swedish publication Magnum.

Whatever their origin, the tales collected here are far stronger and more explicitly sexual in nature; occasionally coming close to being macho rape-fantasies, so please be warned as such content, no matter how winningly illustrated, will certainly offend most modern consumers.

The eponymous heroine was raised in a stultifying, antiseptic and emotionless domed city: a bastion of technological advancement in a world destroyed by war, pollution and far worse. Chafing at the constricting life of loveless living dead men, Axa broke out and, ancient sword in hand, chose to roam the shattered Earth searching for something real and true and free…

This slim oversized tome opens with Axa crossing trackless wasteland under a scorching sun until she finds a hidden grotto beneath a ruined building. The coolly sensual hidden pool is a welcome delight but harbours a ghastly monster and mutant voyeur…

Captured by a hideously scarred human degenerate Axa discovers his gentle nature but is soon abducted by his far-less sympathetic brethren who want to use her as a brood mare for their next generation. Ultimately, fate, her newfound friend and that ever-present longsword combine to effect her escape…

Resuming aimless exploration, Axa encounters a coastal village and is almost killed by wild dogs. Desperate flight takes her to a lighthouse on the promontory above the deserted town where ruggedly handsome Juame and his teenaged daughter Maria have been trapped for months. Swiftly, sexual tension between Axa and Jaume culminates in the only way it can as Maria is driven mad by jealousy she can barely comprehend. When a roving band of vicious post-apocalyptic Hell’s Angels hits town hungry for slaughter and kicks, the conflicted teen opens the tower doors for them…

The brutes casually murder her father and are intent on adding her and Axa to their string of human playthings, when a terrific storm hits and Axa breaks loose to become the bloody tool of harsh, uncompromising and final fate…

This incarnation of the warrior wanderer is certainly harder-hitting and more visceral than the British strip version and has little of the feature’s sly, dry humour, but art-lovers cannot fail to be impressed by Romero’s vibrant mixed-media illustration and imaginative, liberating page compositions.

Lush, lavish, luxurious and strictly for adventure-loving adults, Axa is long overdue for a comprehensive ethical overhaul and definitive comics collection. Is there a bold publisher out there looking for the next big thing and prepared to face a barrage of ethical vituperation?
Axa © 1985 Enrique Badia Romero. Previously © 1983, 1984 in Spanish. Express Newspapers, Ltd.

The Cabbie volume 1


By Marti, with an introduction by Art Spiegelman (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-4504 (HB/Fantagraphics) 978-0874160420 (Album PB Catalan Communications)

Although out of print since 1987, in 2011 Fantagraphics rescued from relative obscurity one of the darkest yet most grimly illuminating classics of European cartooning in this remastered and augmented reissue of The Cabbie: a stylish, nightmarish psycho-sexual noir thriller that has as much seedy kick now as it had when first translated by Catalan Communications…

Now as the macabre maestro has died, my conscience prompts me to pay for neglecting such wonderful comics and it’s only right we should pause to revisit his greatest achievement. Maybe some publisher will endeavour to bring some of his other dark wonders – like Doctor Vertigo, Propaganda Moderna, crime fantasy-thriller Calvario Hills, Cien dibujos por la libertad de Prensa or Terrorista – to a wider international audience.

Marti Riera Ferrer (1955 – 19th January 2024) was born in Barcelona during the heyday of fascist rule. He studied at the Massana School of Arts and Crafts where his efforts coincided with the Generalissimo’s death, and from 1975 to 1979 a liberalisation saw “Marti” creating comics for alterative magazines like Rock COMIC and Star.

From its launch in 1979 he also began contributing to apocalyptic iconoclast El Vibora: short stories and series such as Tony Nuevaola and – with Rodolfo – Lola Lista contra los Nada. These efforts brought international interest and Marti began appearing in Raw and Drawn & Quarterly. Il TaxistaThe Cabbie – began in 1982 and he episodically added to the canon over succeeding years, and although semi-retired from the early Nineties he continued generating other material at his own pace for the magazine Makoki and Tobalina. These tales varied from erotic fiction to general illustrated fare.

Dick Tracy is one of the most well-known strips on Earth and the super-cop’s contributions to the art form are many and indisputable. They occurred over many decades and the medium of graphic narrative grew up with it. Imagine the effect instant exposure – or overexposure – to such an uncompromising, bombastic, iconic property on the artists of a nation where free-expression and creative autonomy was suppressed for generations. That’s what happened when the death of General Franco (who had held Spain in a fascistic time-warp from his victory in April 1939 until his death in November 1975) opened up and liberalised all aspects of Spanish life. When Marti saw the strip he was changed for life…

As Art Spiegelman says in his introduction, “decades of political and social repression gave way to a glorious eruption of creativity that allowed a full-fledged counterculture to come to life at just about the same time that America’s “Love Generation” gave way to what Tom Wolfe labelled the “Me Generation.””

How odd yet fitting then that an American symbol of “The Establishment” so enchanted and captivated young cartoonist Marti Riera that he assimilated every line and nuance to create a bleak, stripped-down and extremely angry homage detailing the tribulations of a seedy, desperate taxi-driver trapped in an abruptly vanished past and prey to a world at once free and dangerous, ungoverned and chaotic…

Driving around the seediest part of town our hero picks up a high-rolling gambler who’s just won big, but the driver’s night goes horribly wrong when a knife-wielding thief hijacks the cab and robs his passenger. Luckily, the Cabbie can handle himself and he quickly, brutally subdues the thug.

Our protagonist is a decent, hard-working man who lives with his ailing mother, humouring her talk of a mysterious inheritance, and allowing her to keep the embalmed cadaver of his father in the spare bedroom, but he’s tragically unaware that his citizen’s arrest will have terrible repercussions for them both. When the son of the thief he captured is released from prison, the ingrate immediately begins a grim campaign of retribution against the Cabbie that creates a maelstrom of tragedy, degradation and despair.

This is a harsh, uncompromising tale of escalating crime and uncaring punishments: blackly cynical, existentially scary and populated with a cast of battered, desolate characters of increasingly degenerate desperation. Even the monsters are victims, but for all that The Cabbie is an incredibly compelling drama with strong allegorical overtones and brutally mesmerizing visuals.

Any mature devotee of comics should be conversant with Marti’s superb work, and with a second volume out there and the hope of digital editions (One bloody Day!), hopefully we soon all will be…
The Cabbie (Taxista) © 2011 Marti. Introduction © 2011 Art Spiegelman. This edition © 2011 Fantagraphics Books.

Shaft volume 2: Imitation of Life


By David F. Walker, Dietrich Smith & various (Dynamite Entertainment)
ISBN: 978-1-52410-260-9 (TPB/Digital edition)

For most of modern history black consumers of popular entertainments in what used to be called the “Free West” have found far too few fictive role models. In the English-speaking world that began changing in the turbulent 1960s as America’s Civil Rights Movement gained traction and truly took hold during the decade that followed. Many characters stemming from those days come from a commercially-led cultural phenomenon called Blaxploitation.

Although criticised for seedy antecedents, stereotypical situations and extreme violence, the films, books, music and art were the first mass-market examples of minority characters in charge and in leading roles, rather than as fodder, flunkies or flamboyant villains. One of the earliest movie icons of the genre was the man called Shaft. His filmic debut in 1971 was scripted by journalist and screenwriter Ernest Tidyman (The French Connection; High Plains Drifter; A Force of One) adapting his own 1970 novel. Tidyman authored six more between 1972 and 1975, with his urbane urban warrior simultaneously starring in numerous films and a (far, far tamer) TV series. He even had in his own retro-themed, adults-only comic book.

An eighth prose novel – Shaft’s Revenge – was released in 2016, written by David F. Walker. Amongst his many talents – you should hunt down his online culture-crunching ’zine BadAzzMoFo and you won’t be sorry – Walker numbers writing intriguing, hard-edged comics (Occupy Avengers, Cyborg, Red Sonja, Tarzan on the Planet of the Apes and many more), so in 2014 it was probably inevitable he be invited to write that long-overdue comics iteration…

Blockbusting premier miniseries Shaft: A Complicated Man – relating the lone wolf’s origins – led to this sequel, illustrated by Dietrich Smith and coloured by Alex Guimarães, with Walker himself lettering the series. Whereas that comic book took its look, settings and tone from the novels more than the Richard Roundtree (whom we tragically lost in October last year) films, this one carefully refocuses and aims for a satisfactory blending of prose and film iterations.

Originally released as a 4-issue miniseries, Imitation of Life finds the detective ‘Before and After’, regretting his life choices, successes and recent notoriety as the highly publicised rescue of an abducted girl suddenly make him a famous – if not actually notorious – man. It’s nothing he wanted: Shaft was literally forced to take the job by a major mobster no one in their right mind ever refuses, and now, after sorting the problem in his inimitably pitiless manner, the gumshoe is slowly drinking himself to death on the huge fee he also couldn’t safely turn down…

Eventually guilt and boredom compel him to get back in the game and, free of money worries, he can pick and choose from a big list of inquiries. That said, Shaft can’t explain just why he takes on the pointless problems of the Prossers: a hick white couple desperate to find their son. Mike is 18; a good-looking homosexual kid (we say “gay” today, apparently) swallowed up by the sleaze-peddlers of 1970s Times Square. The kid’s legal and not even a real missing person, but there’s something Shaft can’t get out of his head about this particular runaway…

Convinced it’s all pointless, Big John hits appropriate bars and clubs but no one knows anything: they never do. And then a kid named Tito recognizes him and just like that, the violence starts coming.

Surviving a homophobic attack – and teaching a few bigots the cost of intolerance – Shaft finds his case abruptly stalled just as shady wannabe filmmakers seeks to hire him to consult on their new (blaxsploitation) flick “The Black Dick”. It promises to be an easy gig, but they never are…

Before long, Shaft is writhing in discomfort as the script ludicrously bastardises his career and reputation, but when Tito turns up and bamboozles the detective into facing off with a Mafia pornographer just as the secret moneyman behind his own filmic fiasco starts demanding an early return on his investment, it all stops being a laugh and becomes deadly serious again. Once more, he remembers there’s no such thing as ‘Easy Money’

As fictional and real worlds increasingly intersect, Vice cops contact Shaft and he sees that somehow all his irons seem to be stacked in the same fire. When the ludicrous leading man is abducted and troublemaking Tito pops up again with some very perilous photographs from his own incessant snooping, Shaft discovers in penultimate chapter ‘Love & Loss’ just what happened to Mike Prosser before tooling up to rescue one bad actor while invading a film set where pornos and snuff films are the preferred hot product…

The strands all pull together in a typically cathartic climax as ‘All the World’s a Stage’ sees order restored, bad guys righteously dealt with and even sets up a delicious funny ending to usher us out…

Revisiting a legendarily foetid cesspool of civic corruption, warring mobsters and get-rich-quick chancers, this tour of a mythic milieu is another wry and intoxicating crime thriller no fan of the genre should miss.
Shaft is ™ & © 2016 Ernest Tidyman. All rights reserved.

What We Don’t Talk About


By Charlot Kristensen (Avery Hill)
ISBN: 978-1-91039-555-4 (TPB/digital edition)

There’s plenty wrong with the world, but most of it could probably be sorted if people got together and discussed things rationally and honestly. Some individuals, however, don’t want to change positions or even agree that there even is a problem. This book isn’t for them, and we’ll have to find more drastic ways to deal with their nonsense…

Charlot Kristensen graduated from Middlesex University in 2015 with a degree in Illustration and thereafter pursued a career in the arts. Her visual and narrative gifts are prodigious and superbly highlighted in this vibrant examination of an interracial relationship in crisis. Kristensen is of Afro-Danish descent and clearly knows what she’s talking about and how best to depict it…

Painted in lavish and mood-setting colours, What We Don’t Talk About focuses on an idyllic modern romance as (demi-autobiographical?) artist Farai accompanies her white English boyfriend Adam to Lake Windemere to finally meet his parents. The young couple have been lovers for two years now, ever since University, but her beautiful gentle musician soulmate is uncharacteristically nervous – even short-tempered – as the journey begins. Farai almost regrets the trip, even though she’s been pushing for it from the start. Her nerves and his tension dissipate on the trip north, but are all revived when she meets Charles and Martha. The look on their faces and the tone of the greeting tell Farai an old story…

In frosty diffidence, the social amenities are followed but it’s not just a barely suppressed attitude of polite condescension Farai experiences. Martha’s blunt opinions extend to all aspects of her son’s life. Although she clearly opposes Adam’s choice of career, after meeting the girlfriend, Mother now has a new problem to gnaw at…

As the weekend progresses Martha’s sneering, passive aggressive comments go from dismissive to openly hostile: mocking Farai’s clothes and denigrating the achievements of her Zimbabwean parents (a doctor and engineer respectively). It soon becomes clear that it’s not just her who’s a problem: people with funny names or difficult accents and all Muslims also fail Martha’s tests of decency and acceptable standards. The matriarch also thinks the world should be grateful for British colonialism…

And Adam? He’s loving and conciliatory but ultimately weak and keen to avoid the issue. He knows what his mum says is objectionable, offensive and just plain wrong, but can’t or won’t bring himself to say anything or rebuke his parents. He seeks to divert conversations rather than defend Farai, even employing the “just a joke” defence at a most distressing family dinner. He doesn’t seem to believe their attitudes are unacceptable or that it even matters. Farai’s seen it all before. This is a love story that cannot possibly end well…

Like a contemporary Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, this powerful graphic drama forensically picks open the sores underlying so much of modern society’s attempts to integrate and assimilate long-entrenched attitudes: revealing not just how far we’ve all come, but how far we still have to go.

Comics have always had an admirable record in addressing issues of bigotry and racial injustice, and this tale takes that to the next level with potent moving empathy displayed and seen through the eyes of someone who’s clearly “been there, done that” all too often…

That ignorance and intolerance still daily endured by so many today is perpetually ignored, diminished and dismissed by those in charge has never been more effectively shown as in this unforgettable tale. Luxuriant colours and a welcomingly accessible cartoon style subversively act to devastatingly prove that prejudice doesn’t just lurk in dark corners any more but instead proudly rears its head everywhere it can. But that just means we must slap it down more forcefully and decisively.
© 2020 Charlot Kristensen.

Degas & Cassatt: A Solitary Dance


By EFA & Rubio, translated by Edward Gauvin (NBM)
ISBN: 978-1-68112-324-0 (Album HB) eISBN: 978-1-68112-325-7

NBM’s line of graphic biographies never fails to delight, and this oversized luxury hardcover (also available digitally) is one of the most fascinating thus far: exploring one of painting’s greatest yet least understood masters and – deducing by inference – one of the most occluded, protracted and certainly frustrated romances in history…

Degas & Cassatt: A Solitary Dance reunites award-winning screenwriter, historian and novelist Salva Rubio (Max, The Photographer of Mauthausen) with animator/illustrator Ricard Fenandez AKA “Efa” (Les Icariades, Rodriguez, Le Soldat, L’Ãme du Vin: L’ail et l’huile). Their previous collaborations are also beautiful biographies – Monet: Itinerant of Light and Django, Hand on Fire: The Great Django Reinhardt.

First released in France, the translated Degas: La danse de la solitude is preceded by mood-setting quotes from Baudelaire and Shakespeare and closes with a detailed Bibliography of suggestions for further study and appreciation. Between those points is a compelling exploration of one of the most turbulent periods in European and Art history, as impacted upon and partially shaped by a controversial, conflicted, contradictory and misunderstood master of line, colour and form…

This pictorial conjecture gently deconstructs enigmatic Edgar Degas is rendered by EFA in the manner of the pastel crayon drawings so beloved and powerfully utilised by Hilaire-Germain-Edgar De Gas (July 19th 1834 – September 27th 1917). It affords a mistily miasmic uncertainty which never obscures detail whilst shaping a mystery to confound and unsettle readers. The stunning confection of painterly images traces – via flashback and supposition – the life of a troubled artistic genius raised almost completely by male relatives to covet success, scorn women and criticise himself mercilessly.

In Paris during the 1870s, a graciously-barbed, polite war of wills and conception began. The creative world was formalised and controlled by a hidebound elite – “The Salon” – dictating what could and could not be ART. The convention-constricted organisation even dictated form, method and content until that stultifying impasse was challenged by a haphazard band of free thinkers who would become derisively dubbed “The Impressionists”.

Among their most outspoken and headstrong proponents were Manet, Monet, Cezanne, Renoir, Berthe Morisot, Sisley, Bazille and others, but they only really started making waves once staid, bellicose and unfathomable Degas began associating with them. He bemused and bewildered his fellow outriders and the Bohemian set they congregated with, but never felt himself part of the group… or any human affiliation.

His story is seen from its conclusion as ‘1: Solitude’ opens on Saturday, 29th September 1917 with an elderly lady staring at a crypt in the Montmartre Cemetery in Paris. She is American painter Mary Cassatt who probably knew Degas better than any other person. On visiting his empty studio, sentiment swallows her as she opens his abandoned notebooks, thinks back and wonders…

In ‘2: Monsieur Degas’ the odd bourgeois’ formative days are selectively reviewed and his misanthropic, misogynistic, chauvinistic and racist stances are quizzed through his problems with his own output. Degas’ work does not and has never satisfied him and he can only find inspiration in places no decent person belongs. It seems the austere bookish elitist cannot open up to his peers but is addicted to being an anonymous, masked and untouchable patron of brothels, bawdy houses and ballet… where only the most degraded – or poverty stricken – go.

As his renown grows a meeting with an art dealer from the USA leads to a possibility of a different life in ‘3: Miss Cassatt’, but the voluntary hermit’s true genius appears to be self-sabotage. Even as the impressionists gradually destroy the influence of The Salon, Degas finally starts generating work worthy of his talent whilst sinking deeper into isolation and pushing away all those who could be friends… or perhaps more…

The story ends with ‘4: The Dance’, allowing some fanciful elaboration on the biographers’ part as the elderly artist confronts his muse and inhibitions in a kind of Happy Ever After that concludes with Rubio’s prose rumination ‘Did Monsieur Degas ever find peace?’

Enchanting, thought-provoking and supremely enthralling, Degas & Cassatt: A Solitary Dance is a soft-focus voyage of illicit discovery no lover of unforgettable pictures can be without.
© EFA/RUBIO/ ÉDITIONS DU LOMBARD (DARGAUD- LOMBARD S.A.) 2021. All rights reserved.

Degas & Cassatt: A Solitary Dance will be published on March 12th 2024 and is available for pre-order. For more information and other great reads see http://www.nbmpub.com/

Numbercruncher


By Simon Spurrier & P.J. Holden, with Jordie Bellaire (Titan Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-78276-004-7 (HB/Digital edition)

Sometimes a story just cries out to be told – especially if your tastes run to the sentimentally cynical, soppily savage or wide-eyed yet jaded. If that’s you, Numbercruncher will confirm all your suspicions about life whilst providing a really good time.

The tale – by Simon Spurrier (Judge Dredd, X-Men: Legacy, Six-Gun Gorilla, Damn Them All, John Constantine: Hellblazer) & P.J. Holden (also your man Dredd, Rogue Trooper, Battlefields, Terminator/Robocop Skullduggery Pleasant, The Moon Looked Down and Laughed) – began as a creator-owned project in The Judge Dredd Megazine before being expanded into a 4-issue miniseries at Titan Comics: a clever, controversial confection that will confound, delight and astound lovers of metaphysical whimsy, romantic fantasy and unnecessarily extreme violence.

Like 1939’s The Wizard of Oz, Werewolf by Night (2022) and especially A Matter of Life and Death, this unearthly tale is told on two separate levels of existence, differentiated by full-colour mundanity sections and monochrome views of The Afterlife. Unlike those movies, it’s a nasty and wittily vicious piece of work; just like handy geezer Bastard Zane, AKA operative #494, employed by The Divine Calculator to enforce Karmic Accountancy and keep souls circulating through the great cosmic All.

The Universe is just numbers and God is a mean, pedantic bean-counter, only concerned with the smooth running of his Grand Algorithm. Unfortunately, it all starts to fall apart when Zane is tasked by the weaselly Big Boss with stopping an in-love but dying young mathematician from gaming the system. SuperGenius Richard Thyme in his final seconds of mortal life, has a Eureka moment and divines the true and exact nature of everything… and how to manipulate it…

Armed with that inspirational knowledge, Thyme’s soul arrives before the Writer in the Grand Ledger and wheedles another spin on the Karmic Wheel – Reincarnation.

Brilliant Richard had been utterly in love with a dippy hippy chick named Jessica Reed, and when he bargains for another chance at a life with her, the petty-minded Divine Calculator gleefully accepts the proposition. Thyme will be reborn, with all memories intact, but when this second life ends, his soul will be gainfully employed – just like Zane – by the Karmic Accountancy Agency as a collector. Standard term of employment is for eternity… unless he can convince someone to take his place. The indentured operatives call it “Recirculation”…

There is only one get-out: a “Zero-clause” which means that if Thyme can live a life completely and totally without sin, his contract becomes null and void. But who could possibly live a mortal life without the slightest transgression?

Naturally, The Accountant won’t play fair: stacking the deck so reborn Richard is unable to even get near his lost love until it’s too late. However, when Zane finally shows up in AD 2035, eagerly expecting to close the case-file and retire with Thyme taking his long-suffering place in The Register, the frustrated, cheated SuperGenius plays his own trump card…

He’d always expected to be short-changed and made his own Karmic side-deal. By selling his contract to another Accountancy operative, he had bought another life, and as psychotically furious Bastard Zane soon sees, Thyme has pulled this trick over and over again. No matter how often Richard dies, he’s already being born again somewhere else…

With the mathematician’s sold-&-resold soul promised to practically every agent in the Afterlife, Zane’s only hope of retirement rests in killing the canny lad’s each and every reincarnation whilst simultaneously slaughtering every Karmic operative who’s been suckered into a deal with the lovesick little sod… On Earth, despite perpetual setbacks, each brief existence inches Richard slowly ever closer to Jess. That should make his eventual capture inevitable – but even here the smart guy has an incredible Plan B in operation: one even the Supreme Architect of the Cosmos didn’t see coming and one which may well undo the Algorithm underpinning Everything That Is…

Poignant, funny, outrageously gory, gloriously rude and wickedly clever, this is a ferociously upbeat, hilariously dark black comedy no insufferable incurable romantic could possibly resist. Moreover, for all us dyed-in-the-wool comics freaks, there’s a host of background features included. Interspersed between a gallery of covers and variants plus unused iterations and loads of original art, roughs and sketches, an ‘Author’s Note’ explores the genesis of the tale, further expanded upon in ‘A Comic for Talking to God – an interview with Brian Truitt of USA Today’. A discussion and explanation of Jordie Bellaire’s colouring process is the focus of ‘Working Flat-Out’ and ‘Birth Placement’ details the procedure for creating a cover, before the usual Creator’s Biographies ends things on a knowledgeable note.

Love, Death, Sex, more Death, Rebirth, lots of Death and Numbers: there’s your Meaning of Life right there…
™ & © 2013 Simon Spurrier & P.J. Holden. All rights reserved.

Re-Gifters


By Mike Carey, Sonny Liew, Marc Hempel & various (Vertigo/Minx)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-0371-9 (Minx) 978-1-84576-579-8 (Titan Books edition)

In 2007 DC comics began a bold experiment in building new markets: creating the Minx imprint. It was dedicated to producing comics material for the teen/young adult audience – especially the ever-elusive girl readership – that had embraced translated manga material, momentous global comics successes such as Maus and Persepolis and those abundant and prolific fantasy serials which produced such pop phenomena as Roswell High, Twilight and even Harry Potter. Sadly after only a dozen immensely impressive and decidedly different graphic novels Minx shut up shop in October 2008, markedly NOT citing publishing partner Random House’s failure to get the books onto the appropriate shelves of major bookstore chains as the reason.

Nevertheless the books that were published are still out there and most of them are well worth tracking down – either in the US originals or British editions published by Titan Books.

My particular favourite remains the second release, a magnificently beguiling and engaging monochrome, cross-cultural romantic martial arts melange by writer Mike Carey (X-Men Legacy, Lucifer, Hellblazer, Crossing Midnight) and artists Sonny Liew (Malinky Robot, The Shadow Hero, Wonderland, Sense and Sensibility, Doctor Fate) & Marc Hempel (Blood of Dracula, Mars, Jonny Quest, The Sandman, Breathtaker).

The all-star trio’s gloriously offbeat and upbeat Vertigo miniseries My Faith in Frankie is generally regarded as prototype for the Minx model, and that quirky quixotic vivacity is in full flower in this tale of feisty yet desperately dutiful Korean-American teen Jen “Dixie” Dik Seong who channels her suppressed aggression into hapkido and her blossoming crush on hunky Adam into daydreaming, clumsiness and humiliating imbecility…

A total klutz in real life, Dixie is a demon in martial arts combat, but as her best friend and dojo-mate Avril is keenly aware, the flummoxed lass’s poor head is stuck in the clouds nowadays. It’s hard enough for Dixie to juggle school, her quick-fire temper, precious heritage and loving-but-generally clueless parents with burgeoning hormones and astoundingly annoying younger brothers piling on pressure without the added distraction of an infatuation with a rich, self-absorbed white boy who is also her only serious rival in the upcoming National Hapkido Tournament.

After a chance encounter with mouthy street punks and local bad boy Dillinger, Dixie blows all her savings and the Tournament entrance fee (which her father gave her) on an ancient warrior statue for Adam, sparking a huge fight with Avril but which also actually succeeds in getting the boy to notice her. So much so, in fact, that he wants her advice in getting snooty babe Megan to go out with him…

When Dixie discovers a business loan for her father from traditional Korean bankers depends on her performance in the tournament, the furious, lovelorn lass is forced to battle for a wild-card place in the event by joining a knockout “Street Sweep Competition” against half the kids in Los Angeles – including dire and dangerous Dillinger. Moreover, Adam has finally got into Megan’s good books – and other places – by re-gifting Dixie’s statue to the most popular girl in school…

Re-Gifters is a bright, witty, sublimely funny and intriguing coming of age comedy following all the rules of the romance genre but still able to inject a vast amount of novelty and character individuality into the mix: a perfect vehicle for attracting new young readers with no abiding interest in outlandish power-fantasies or vicarious vengeance-gratification.

Track this down for a genuinely different kind of comic book – but do it before some hack movie producer turns the tale into just another teen rom-com.
© 2007 Mike Carey, Sonny Liew & Marc Hempel. All rights reserved.

It’s a Bird…


By Steven T. Seagle, Teddy Kristiansen & various (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 first released in 2004, offering a departure from typical Superman graphic novel fare with author Steven T. Seagle working through his understandable creator-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-Men, Sandman Mystery Theatre, Big Hero 6 and Genius, 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 that struck a chord with many fellow industry professionals and insightful consumers as the professional writer finally found themes he needed 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” or perhaps “civilian” world and not feel like an imbecile in the process…

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

In everyday life, his father has gone missing, and his mom and partner are making the “let’s have kids” noises whilst Steve is helplessly waiting for a 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. Steve has 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 – eventually – makes his choices, whilst Teddy (The Sandman, The Dreaming, Grendel Tales, Genius) Kristiansen’s range of enticing drawing styles provides an eye-catching display of sensitivity and versatility – one which won him the 2005 Eisner Award for Best Painter/Multimedia Artist (Interior). If you feel the urge to go beyond panel borders of your private obsession, this one is well worth a look, and a book demanding a digital rerelease ASAP.
© 2004, 2017 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Sandman Mystery Theatre Book One


By Matt Wagner, Guy Davis, John Watkiss, R.G. Taylor, David Hornung & John Costanza & various (Vertigo)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-6327-0 (TPB/Digital edition)

Created by Bert Christman & Gardner F. Fox, The Sandman premiered in either Adventure Comics #40 July 1939 (two months after Batman debuted in Detective Comics #27) or two weeks earlier in New York World’s Fair Comics 1939, depending on which rather spotty distribution records can be believed.

Head and face utterly obscured by a gasmask and slouch hat; caped, business-suited millionaire adventurer Wesley Dodds was cut from the iconic masked mystery-man mould that had made pulp fictioneers The Lone Ranger, Green Hornet, The Shadow, The Spider and many more household names. Those dark red-handed heroes were also astonishing commercial successes in the early days of mass periodical publication…

Wielding a sleep-gas gun and haunting the night to battle a string of killers, crooks and spies, he was accompanied in the earliest comicbooks by his plucky paramour Dian Belmont, before gradually losing the readers’ interest and slipping from cover-spot to last feature in Adventure Comics, just as the cloaked pulp-hero avengers he emulated slipped from popularity in favour of more flamboyant fictional fare.

Possessing a certain indefinable style and charm but definitely no especial pizzazz, the feature was on the verge of being dropped when the Sandman abruptly switched to skin-tight yellow-&-purple and gained boy-sidekick Sandy the Golden Boy (Adventure Comics #69, December 1941, courtesy of Mort Weisinger & Paul Norris). All this, presumably to emulate the overwhelmingly successful Batman and Captain America models then reaping big dividends on newsstands.

It didn’t help much, but when Joe Simon & Jack Kirby came aboard with #72 it all changed. A semi-supernatural element and fascination with the world of dreams (revisited by S&K a decade later in their short-lived experimental suspense series The Strange World of Your Dreams) added moody conceptual punch to balance the kinetic fury of their art, as Sandman and Sandy became literally the stuff of nightmares to bizarre bandits and murderous mugs…

For what happened next you can check out the superb Simon & Kirby Sandman collection.

Time passed and in the late 1980s Neil Gaiman, Sam Keith & Mike Dringenberg took the property in a revolutionary new direction, eventually linking all the previous reboot elements into an overarching connective continuity under DC’s new “sophisticated suspense” imprint Vertigo. Within a few years the astounding success of the new Sandman prompted editorial powers-that-be to revisit the stylishly retro original character and look at him through more mature eyes. Iconoclastic creator Matt Wagner (Mage, Grendel, The Demon, Batman) teamed with artistic adept Guy Davis (Baker Street, B.P.R.D.) and colourist David Hornung to channel a grittier, grimier, far more viscerally authentic 1930s, where the haunted mystery man could pursue his lonely crusade with chilling verisimilitude.

The tone was darkly modernistic, with crime-busting played out in the dissolute dog-days of the Jazz Age and addressing controversial themes such as abuse, sexual depravity, corruption and racism; all presented against the rising tide of fascism sweeping the world then.

Consider this a warning: Sandman Mystery Theatre is not for kids.

This compendium collects the first three redefining story-arcs from issues #1-12 (April 1993 to March 1994) and commences after an absorbing introduction from veteran journalist, critic and pop culture historian Dave Marsh.

Each chapter preceded by its original evocative faux pulp photo cover created by Gavin Wilson and Hornung, the dark drama opens with The Tarantula, taking us to New York in 1938 where District Attorney Larry Belmont is having the Devil’s own time keeping his wild-child daughter out of trouble and out of the newspapers. Dian is gallivanting all over town every night with her spoiled rich friends: drinking, partying and associating with all the wrong people, but the prominent public servant has far larger problems too. One is a mysterious gas-masked figure he finds rifling his safe soon after Dian departs…

The intruder easily overpowers the DA with some kind of sleeping gas – which also makes you want to blurt every inconvenient truth – before disappearing, leaving Belmont to awaken with a headache and wondering if it was all a dream…

After a rowdy night carousing with scandalous BFF Catherine Van Der Meer and her latest (gangster) lover, Dian gets up with a similar hangover, but still agrees to attend one of father’s dreary public functions that evening. The elder Belmont is particularly keen that she meet a studious young man named Wesley Dodds, recently returned from years in the Orient to take over his deceased dad’s many business interests. Dodds seems genteel and effete, yet Dian finds there’s something oddly compelling about him. Moreover, he too seems to feel a connection…

The Gala breaks up early when the DA is informed of a sensational crime. Catherine Van Der Meer has been kidnapped by someone calling himself as The Tarantula

Across town, mob boss Albert Goldman meets with fellow gangsters from the West Coast and, as usual, his useless son Roger and drunken wife Miriam embarrass him. Daughter Celia is the only one he can depend on these days, but even her unwavering devotion seems increasingly divided. After another stormy scene, the conference ends early, and the visiting crimelords are appalled to find their usually diligent bodyguards soundly asleep in their limousines…

Even with Catherine kidnapped, Dian is determined to go out that night, but when Wesley arrives unexpectedly changes her mind, much to her father’s relief. The feeling doesn’t last long, however, after the police inform him the Tarantula has taken another woman…

When a hideously mutilated body is found, Dian inveigles herself into accompanying dear old Dad to Headquarters but is promptly excluded from the grisly “Man’s Business”. Left alone, she starts snooping in the offices and encounters a bizarre gas-masked figure poring through files. Before she can react, he dashes past her and escapes, leaving her to explain to the assorted useless lawmen cluttering up the place.

Furious and humiliated, Dian then insists that she officially identify Catherine and nobody can dissuade her. Shockingly, the savagely ruined body is not her best friend but yet another victim. Somewhere dark and hidden, Van Der Meer is being tortured, but the perpetrator has far more than macabre gratification in mind…

In the Goldman house, Celia is daily extending her control over darling devoted Daddy. They still share a very special secret, but these days she’s the one dictating where and when they indulge themselves…

With all the trauma in her life, Dian increasingly finds Wesley a comforting rock, but perhaps that view would change if she knew how he spends his nights. Dodds is tormented, plagued by bad dreams. Not his own nightmares, but rather somnolent screams of nameless victims and their cruel oppressors haunt his troubled slumbers. Worst of all, these dreams are unrelenting and somehow prophetic. What else can a decent man do then, but act to end such suffering?

In a seedy dive, uncompromising Police Lieutenant Burke comes off worst when he discovers the gas-mask lunatic grilling a suspect in “his” kidnapping case and again later when this “Sandman” is found at a factory where the vehicle used to transport victims is hidden.

Even so, the net is inexorably tightening on both Tarantula and the vigilante interfering in the investigation, but Burke doesn’t know who he most wants in his nice, dark interrogation room…

As the labyrinthine web of mystery and monstrosity unravels, tension mounts and the death toll climbs, but can The Sandman stop the torrent of depraved terror before the determined Dian finds herself swept up in all the blood and death?

Of course, he does but not without appalling consequences…

Scene and scenario suitably set, John Watkiss steps in to illuminate second saga The Face (issues #5-8). Attention switches to Chinatown in February of 1938, where Dian and her gal-pals scandalously dine and dish dirt… until Miss Belmont meets again an old lover.

Jimmy Shan once worked in her father’s office but now serves as lawyer and fixer for his own people amongst the teeming restaurants, gambling dens and bordellos of the oriental district. Dian would be horrified to see Jimmy – or Zhang Chai Lao as his Tong masters know him – consorting with unsavoury criminals, and would certainly not be considering reviving her scandalous out-of-hours relationship with him. All such frivolous thoughts vanish, however, when the diners vacate the restaurant and stumble upon a severed head: a warning that the ruling factions are about to go to war again in Chinatown. As usual, white police are utterly ineffectual against the closed ranks of the enclave…

Later at a swanky charity soiree to raise money for a school, Dian meets Jimmy again and agrees to a meeting. At the same shindig she later sees Wesley, and in the course of their small talk, Dodds reveals that he recognises Shan from somewhere.

…And in Chinatown, another beheading leads to greater tension between the Lee Feng and Hou Yibai Societies. When an enigmatic gas-masked stranger starts asking unavoidable questions, he finds both Tongs denying all knowledge of the killings…

As the grisly murder-toll mounts, The Sandman’s investigations lead to one inescapable conclusion: a third party is responsible. But who, and why? Before this drama closes, Dian will learn more hard truths about the world and the money-men who secretly run it…

Issues #9-12 (December 1993-March 1994) are illustrated by R.G. Taylor, plumbing the darkest depths of human depravity in the tale of ‘The Brute’. The friendship of Dian and Wesley slowly deepens and life seems less fraught in the city, but that ends as a hulking degenerate stalks the back-alleys, killing and brutalising prostitutes and their clients…

Dodds is also on the mind of boxing promoter and businessman Arthur Reisling who’s looking for a fresh financial partner in his global exploitations. The effete-seeming scholar is hard to convince, though, unlike Eddie Ramsey. He’s a poverty-stricken pugilist and single parent desperate to make enough money to pay for his daughter Emily’s TB medicine. Riesling’s offer to him is just as scurrilous but the broken-down pug doesn’t have the luxury of saying “no”…

Eventually, with Dian in tow, Wesley accepts a party invitation from the speculator and meets his dynasty of worthless, over-privileged children. None of them seem right or well-adjusted. Later, when Eddie tries to come clean by informing the authorities of Riesling’s illegal fight events, he’s attacked by the promoter’s thugs and saved by The Sandman – at least until the colossal mystery killer attacks them both and they’re forced to flee for their lives…

As Dodds returns home to recuperate, the punishing dreams escalate to mind-rending intensity. Eddie, meanwhile, is left with no safe option and takes to the streets with Emily. His decision will lead to revolting horror, total tragedy and utter heartbreak.

The Sandman returns to his covert surveillance, silently unearthing the depths of Reisling’s underworld activities and coincidentally exposing a turbulent, dysfunctional atmosphere in the magnate’s home life to match his criminal activities. In this house, corruption of every kind runs deep and wide, and the masked avenger decides it’s time to bring his findings to Dian’s father. This time, District Attorney Belmont is prepared to listen and to act…

As murders mount and Dodds’ dreams escalate in intensity, the strands of a bloody tapestry knot together and the appalling secret of the bestial killer’s connection to Reisling is exposed; only a detonation of expiating violence can restore order…

Stark, compelling and ferociously absorbing, these bleak thrillers depict a cruel but incisive assessment of good and evil no devotee of dark drama should miss, with the period perils accompanied by a gallery of the series’ original, groundbreaking comic book photo-covers and posters by Gavin Wilson, plus later collection covers and related art from Matt Wagner, Alex Toth and Kent Wilson.
© 1993, 1994, 1995, 2016 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Lobo by Keith Giffen & Alan Grant volume 1


By Keith Giffen & Alan Grant with Simon Bisley, Christian Alamy, Denys Cowan, Kevin O’Neill & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-7477-1 (TPB/Digital edition)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: ’Tis the Season To Be Fragged… 8/10

Lobo is an incredibly powerful, inescapably violent, perpetually drunken thug afflicted with a love of space dolphins, an utter disregard for all other life and an unshakable moral code hard for anyone else to grasp. The obnoxious, overbearing, unsanitary intergalactic bounty hunter was first seen in Omega Men #3, cover-dated June 1983. He then cropped up all over the DC universe, even becoming a mainstay of the popular L.E.G.I.O.N. series: indentured by cunning stunt as a (sort of) peacekeeper to the intergalactic commercial police force run by Vril Dox, “son” of one multiversal iteration of cosmic super-villain Brainiac.

He had his own monthly title for a few years as well as multiple miniseries and specials, and was a popular candidate for inter and cross-company team-ups. He’s even been a repeat offender on screen in both live action and animated iterations. In-world, the name Lobo roughly translates as “he who devours your entrails and enjoys it”. Despite being pretty much a one trick pony and increasingly an exercise in outrageous graphic excess, this unstoppable, anarchic force-of-nature exploded in popularity in the decade following debut. He was exactly what many fans wanted.

This collection reprints Lobo #1-4; The Lobo Paramilitary Christmas Special; Lobo’s Back #1-4; Lobo: Blazing Chain of Love; Lobo Convention Special and material from Who’s Who in the DC Universe, collectively spanning all of infinity via cover-dates November 1990 to September 1993.

Without any kind of fair warning, this bloodbath of poor taste and shocking excess opens with initial Limited Series Lobo #1-4: ‘The Last Czarnian’. The skeevy brute always prided himself on being the final survivor of his planet, but here finds to his horror and disgust that he missed someone when he slaughtered his entire race. That lucky survivor is his old fourth grade teacher Miss Tribb, who has unbelievably and unwisely written an unauthorized tell-all biography of “the Main Man” who was her least favourite pupil ever…

Forbidden by his own honour-code from killing her, he must instead escort the snippy snarky old baggage to Dox at L.E.G.I.O.N. HQ with every nut-job in the universe pursuing them, hell-bent on killing one or other or preferably both of them. Subdivided into ‘Part One: Portrait of a Psychopath’, ‘Part Two: Lord of the Dance’, ‘Part Three: Spell or Die’ and ‘Part Four: The Last Last Czarnian’, this blistering bonkers baroque barbarity is plotted and laid out by Giffen, scripted by Grant and outrageously limned by hip headbanger Simon Bisley as colourist; Lovern Kindzierski and letterer Todd Klein aid and abet the cartoon carnage. As usual, despite all the forces ranged against him, The Main Man has the last – albeit misspelled – word…

The Lobo Paramilitary Christmas Special (January 1992) follows with Giffen, Grant, Bisley, Kindzierski and Gaspar Saldino expediting ‘The Lobo Xmas Sanction’ as cash-strapped parents of far-too-many brats look to save on end of year expenses and learn how a certain unsavoury soul and his dog Dawg were hired by The Easter Bunny to take out his biggest rival in the holiday icon game: Santa Claus. The elves were no real problem but old man Kringle was a harder nut to crack and left a surprise Lobo never anticipated…

Beginning in May 1992, and coloured by Danny Vozzo, Lobo’s Back #1-4 comprised ‘The Final Fragdown’, ‘Heaven is… a 4-Letter Word’, ‘If the Jackboot Fits…!’ and ‘The War in Heaven’ then details his return to the private sector after L.E.G.I.O.N. implodes and how he dies trying to bring in the infamous Loo, the most dangerous being in the universe.

What follows is an outrageous, darkly hilarious, blood-soaked spin on a venerable old tale (you’ve probably seen the Bugs Bunny cartoon classic) as Lobo makes himself persona non grata in every aspect of the afterlife. When both Heaven and Hell discover that the Main Man is too much to handle, there’s only one place to go and that’s back here, but nobody said it had to be in his original body…

Fans and the spiritually attuned will want to see what this creative team does with comic guest stars loke The Demon and General Glory and a host of pantheons and holy folk of all denominations…

Behind a cover by Dan Brereton, Lobo: Blazing Chain of Love sees artist Denys Cowan, colourist Noelle Giddings and letterer “Tanya” Klein join Giffen & Grant to explore the Main Man’s other main interest, only to encounter a forced shortage of willing babes of negotiable affection…

You’d think that’s the kind of problem relentless remorseless violence couldn’t fix. You’d be wrong…

This yarn will confound all your expectations as it is in fact a potent, brilliantly-conceived argument for safe sex crafted at the height of the fightback against HIV/AIDS, leading directly into our final furious foray… against Comics fandom itself…

The Lobo Convention Special – with the much-missed Kev O’Neill delivering another inimitable illustration masterclass, and Digital Chameleon adding hues to the queues at ‘Lobo-Con’ – is blackly comedic, ironic, sardonic and manic, as it depicts and cruelly deconstructs the people it depends upon. After skewering the great, good and especially unwashed of the industry, it all ends in carnage but begins with Lobo looking to replace his copy of the Death of Superman and heading to a convention packed with the kind of fanboys we’re all absolutely certain are FAR WORSE than we are…

The carnage concludes with info pages from Who’s Who in the DC Universe

At the height of his popularity the Main Man of Mayhem was a publisher’s dream. There was actual baying from fans and speculators for more product and a largely new and receptive audience which hadn’t seen the unleashed potential of grown up comics. These tales for (im)Mature readers aren’t to everybody’s taste, but Giffen & Grant’s wickedly sharp scripts gave Bisley (assisted by Christian Alamy) and later artists scope for breathtakingly memorable art sequences, and sometimes just going wild is as rewarding as the most intricately balanced craftwork and plot-building.

All that being said, if you’re in the right mood, his kind of gratuitous mayhem can be wonderfully entertaining and has much to recommend it if vicious, sardonic slapstick pushes your buttons. Comics excess at its finest.
© 1990, 1991, 1992, 1993, 2018 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.