John Constantine, Hellblazer volume 3: The Fear Machine (New Edition)


By Jamie Delano, Richard Piers Rayner, Mike Hoffman, Mark Buckingham, Alfredo Alcala & various (Vertigo/DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-3519-2 (TPB)

You’ve either heard of John Constantine by now or you haven’t, so I’ll be as brief as I can. Created by Alan Moore during the early days of his groundbreaking run on Swamp Thing, John Constantine is a mercurial modern wizard, a dissolute chancer who plays like an addict with magic on his own terms for his own ends. He is not a hero. He is not a nice person. Sometimes though, he’s all there is between us and the void…

Given his own series by popular demand, he premiered in the dying days of Reaganite Atrocity in the US but at the height of Thatcherite Barbarism in England, so as we’re singing the same song now – but with second-rate Britain’s Got Talent cover-artist wannabes as leaders – I thought I’d cover a few old gems that might be regaining relevance in the days ahead…

In 1987 Creative Arts and Liberal attitudes were dirty words in many quarters and the readership of Vertigo was pretty easy to profile. Jamie Delano began the series with relatively safe horror plots, introducing us to Constantine’s unpleasant nature, chequered history and odd acquaintances but even then, discriminating fans were aware of a joyously anti-establishment political line and wildly metaphorical underpinnings.

Skinheads, racism, Darwinian politics, gender fluidity, plague, famine, gruesome supernature and more abound in the dark dystopian present of John Constantine – a world of cutting edge mysticism, Cyber-shamanism and political soul-stealing. In Delano’s world the edges between science and magic aren’t blurred – they simply don’t exist.

Some terrors are eternal and some seem inextricably tied to a specific time and place. The Fear Machine (available in paperback and digital formats and collecting issues #14-22 spanning December 1988-September 1989) is an engrossing extended epic which begins in ‘Touching the Earth’ (by Delano, Richard Piers Rayner & Mark Buckingham) as the wizard goes on the run thanks to the tabloid press pillorying him as a sex-crazed Satanist serial killer.

Forced to flee his London comfort-zone, Constantine is adopted by neo-pagan Travellers and journeys through the heartland of Britain. Apparently, these dangerous non-conformists are responsible for all the ills plaguing society of the 1980s and 1990s, just like fat people, the poor and immigrants are today…

Going native amongst the drop-outs, druggies, bath-dodgers and social misfits, Constantine buddies up with an immensely powerful psychic girl named Mercury and her extremely engaging mum, Marj, but even amidst these freewheeling folks he can feel something nasty and unnatural building. The first inkling occurs in ‘Shepherd’s Warning’when Mercury discovers an ancient stone circle has been fenced off by a quasi-governmental company named Geotroniks. It seems someone is trying to shackle Mother Earth’s circulatory system of Ley lines.

Meanwhile elsewhere, people are compelled to kill and mutilate themselves while Geotroniks boffins watch and take notes…

Mercury is abducted when police raid the Travellers’ campsite in ‘Rough Justice’. Imprisoned in a secret complex where the mind’s limits and the Earth’s hidden forces are being radically tested, she witnesses horrors beyond imagining and cutting-edge science. If only the subjects and observing scientists can be persuaded to stop committing suicide…

Mike Hoffman illustrates fourth chapter, ‘Fellow Travellers’ wherein Constantine heads back to London for help in finding Mercury and uncovering Geotroniks’ secrets. He gains one horrific insight when the train he’s on is devastated by a psychic assault which forces the passengers to destroy themselves…

With Buckingham & Alfredo Alcala assuming the art duties, ‘Hate Mail & Love Letters’ begins two months later. Marj and the travellers are hiding in the Scottish Highlands with a fringe group called the Pagan Nation, led by the mysterious Zed – an old friend of the wily trickster. Constantine keeps digging, but across the country, suicide and self-harm are increasing. Society itself seems diseased, but at least the Satanist witch hunt has been forgotten as the bloody pack of Press vultures rage on to their next sanctimonious cause celebre

Touching base with his precious few police contacts and pet journalists, the metropolitan mage soon stumbles into a fresh aspect of mystery when a Masonic hitman begins removing anyone who might further his enquiries in ‘The Broken Man’. Constantine saves journalist Simon Hughes from assassination in a particularly exotic manner guaranteed to divert attention from his politically-damaging investigations, and discovers new clues. It all points the psychic horror and social unrest being orchestrated by reactionary factions of the government employing a sinister and all-pervasive “Old Boy network”…

And somewhere dark and hidden, Mercury’s captors are opening doors to places mortals were never meant to go…

As the Pagan Nation’s priestesses work subtle magics to find the missing girl and save humanity’s soul, a disgusting, conglomerate beast-thing is maturing, made from fear and pain, greed, suffering and deep black despair: provoking a response from and guest-appearance by Morpheus, the Sandman, which prompts Constantine, Hughes and possibly the last decent copper in London to go hunting…

After picking up another recruit in the form of KGB scientist Sergei in ‘Betrayal’, events spiral ever faster as the Freemasons – or at least their “Magi Caecus” elite – are revealed as organisers of the plot to combine Cold War paranormal research, economic imperialism, divisive Thatcherite self-gratification and the Order’s own quasi-mystical arcana to create a situation in which their guiding principles will dominate society and the physical world. It’s nothing more than a greedy, sleazy power-grab using blood and horror to fuel the engines of change…

All pretence of scientific research at Geotroniks is abandoned in ‘The God of All Gods’ as Masonic hitman Mr. Webstergoes off the deep end, ignoring his own Lodge Grandmaster’s orders to abort the project amidst an escalating national atmosphere of mania. He is determined to free the fearful thing they’ve created and unmake the modern world at all costs. Constantine’s allies are all taken and the wizard is left to fight on alone.

Knee deep in intrigue, conspiracy and spilled guts, humanity is doomed unless Constantine’s band of unhappy brothers and a bunch of Highland witch-women can pull the biggest, bloodiest rabbit out of the mother of all hats in spectacular conclusion ‘Balance’

The heady blend of authoritarian intransigence, counterculture optimism, espionage action, murder-mystery, conspiracy theories and ancient sex-magic mix perfectly to create an oppressive tract of inexorable terror and shattered hope before an astounding climax forestalls – if not saves – the day of doom, in this extremely impressive dark chronicle which still resonates with the bleak and cheerless zeitgeist of the time.

This is a superb example of true horror fiction, inextricably linking politics, religion, human nature and sheer bloody-mindedness as root cause of all ills. That our best chance of survival is a truly reprehensible, exploitative monomaniac seems a perfect metaphor for the world we’re locked into…

Clever, subversive and painfully prophetic, even at its most outlandish, this tale jabs at the subconscious with its scratchy edginess and jangles the nerves from beginning to end. An unmissable feast for fear fans, humanists and political mavericks everywhere…
© 1989, 2012 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Julio’s Day


By Gilbert Hernandez (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-606-5 (HB)

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

Love and Rockets was an anthology magazine featuring slick, intriguing, sci-fi tinted hi-jinx of punky young things Maggie & Hopey – the outrageously beguiling las Locas – as well as heart-warming, terrifying, gut-wrenching soap-opera fantasies from the rural Central American paradise of Palomar.

Supreme synthesists, Los Bros Hernandez enthralled and enchanted with incredible stories that sampled a thousand influences, conceptual and actual; everything from Comics, TV cartoons, masked wrestlers and the emergent exotica of American Hispanic pop culture to iconic German Expressionism. There was also a perpetual backdrop displaying the holy trinity of the young: Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll – for which please hear alternative music and punk rock.

The result was dynamite. Mario only officially contributed on rare occasions, but Jaime’s slick, enticing visual feasts explored friendship and modern love whilst destroying stereotypes of feminine attraction through his fetching coterie of Gals Gone Wild, whilst “Beto” exhaustively crafted a hyper-authentic rural landscape and playground of wit and passion created for his extended generational saga Heartbreak Soup: a quicksilver chimera of breadline Latin-American village life with a vibrant, funny and fantastically quotidian cast.

Everything from life, death, adultery, magic, serial killing and especially gossip could happen in Palomar’s meta-fictional environs, as the artist mined his own post-punk influences through a powerfully effective primitivist style which blended the stylised mythologies and iconographies of comics, music, recreational drugs, gangs, sex, forceful, capable, dominating women and the inescapable bonds of family using a narrative format which is at the graphic vanguard of Magical Realism.

There’s fiction, there’s Meta-fiction and then there’s Gilbert Hernandez. In addition to his astonishingly captivating Palomar tales he has authored stand-alone books such as Sloth, Grip, Birdland and Girl Crazy, all marked by his boldly compelling, disingenuous artwork and a mature, sensitive adoption of literary techniques by writers like Carlos Fuentes and Gabriel García Márquez: techniques which he has amplified and, visually at least, made his own.

He later played with his own filmic and literary influences – Roger Corman, John Cassavetes, Elmore Leonard and Jim Thompson – breaking new ground by reprocessing the cultural influences forming all us baby-boomers, through “adaptations” of the trashy B-Movies which were perennial plot “maguffins” in his stories. Those became a little more actual in his “adaptations” of thrillers like Chance in Hell, The Troublemakers and Love from the Shadows

Accruing critical acclaim but seldom financial reward, the brothers eventually went their own ways, but a few years ago creatively reunited to produce annual collections of new material in their particularly peculiar shared – or, rather, adjacent – pen-and-ink universes. This beguiling pictorial elegy began in Love and Rockets volume II, #1 but remained unfinished until completed in this stark evocative monochrome hardback and digital delight.

Here, Gilbert foregoes many signature elements and the frenetic youth-fuelled backdrop he’s famous for to methodically detail the moving life-story of an ordinary man.

Of course, once you start looking. you realise there’s really no such thing as ordinary…

It’s about families and friends, the secrets we must keep and how, even though the World changes, sometimes we just can’t…

I’d be doing you and the author a huge disservice by going into too much detail, but suffice to say that somewhere in Southern California a baby is born in 1900. From the start Julio is nourished and cherished by a loving family – excepting his uncle Juan, whom only the infant’s older sister Sofia realises should be kept well away from all children at all costs…

Over 100 pages, until his passing in 2000, Julio grows up with friends Tommy and Araceli, dimly aware of yet barely affected by humanity’s great crises. Sadly, the uncompromising nature of the times, elements and environment shape the people of the village just as powerfully as any global war or Stock Market crash. One slip in a mere mudslide affects the family for three tragic generations. Moreover, even in such placid outreaches, bullying, cruelty, bigotry and intolerance exist in abundance to mould young hearts and minds…

As he grows to maturity, Julio loses family, makes new friends and comes to realises he has a secret he cannot share with anyone: one that, despite the way the times change society before his very eyes, he simply cannot admit or acknowledge…

Dedicated to the proposition that big history happens somewhere else even as its effects touch us all, this warm-hearted, deceptively heartrending, challenging, and incontrovertibly groundbreaking epic is a grown-up comics fan’s dream come true; proving again just how far the medium has progressed.

From traditional world-saving, anodyne fist-fights, fanciful fantasies and children’s escapism to the likes of Maus, One Bad Rat, Palestine, Persepolis, Pride of Baghdad, Sailor Twain and so many more, comics have evolved until they not only produce material equal to other art forms, but with Julio’s Day – a diamond point at the cutting edge of graphic narrative – have arrived at masterpieces which can only be truly told as graphic narratives…

…As you will surely see…
© 2013 Gilbert Hernandez. This edition © 2013 Fantagraphics Books, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Artichoke Tales


By Megan Kelso (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-344-6 (HB)

Megan Kelso has been producing unique, idiosyncratic, thought-provoking comics stories for over 30 years; the very best of which can be seen in her award-winning collections Queen of the Black Black and The Squirrel Mother. In 2004 she edited exclusively-female comics anthology Scheherazade: Stories of Love, Treachery, Mothers, and Monsters, following up in 2007 with weekly strip Watergate Sue for The New York Times Magazine.

She works far too slowly for my greedy nature to be completely happy with, but as the results are always superb, I should just be patient and count myself lucky whenever something new hits the bookshelves. Until then, though, here’s another look at my personal fave-rave, happily still available in both hardcover and digital editions…

Artichoke Tales is a generational saga which recounts, like film run backwards, the aftermath, events of and build-up to a tragic and devastating civil war on a serene, stable agrarian culture: a land of farmers, foragers and fisher-folk who all look like they’re sporting vegetable hair-dos. Don’t be fooled though – despite the stalks sprouting from their skulls these are not Arcadian vegan characters dreamily dwelling in their own sylvan Pogle’s Wood: these are people, gullible, fallible and intensely complex.

Kelso first created her artichoke people for a tale in anthology comic Girlhero, before beginning this epic in 1999; citing such thematic influences as the Little House on the Prairie books, Colleen McCullough’s The Thorn Birds and Anthony Minghella’s Cold Mountain for her gently compelling, beguiling story of the Quicksand family – apothecaries to the village of Ladle – and how an insane and unwelcome split between North and South sorely wounds not only the nation but three generations of women caught up in it…

Young Brigitte was gathering herbs for her grandmother when she once again met the dashing soldier Adam. Military types weren’t particularly welcome and Northerners even less so, despite all the years that had passed since the War, but young hormones and the promise of something fresh and exotic always win out over common sense…

Torn between imminent passion, a sudden hatred for her boring old life and fear of the unknown. Brigitte forces Grandma Charlotte to tell the previously unspoken history of the conflict and how it shaped the Quicksand family: a tale of pride, high-handedness and avoidable mistakes that led to those bitter prejudices which still scar people on every side.

Told in a stunning minimalist manner demanding the reader’s closest scrutiny and collaboration, the refined drawings unfold stories within stories, like the skin of an onion, with truths peeling away to reveal some depressingly universal truths about families, society and the use of power.

Be warned: despite the engagingly simple art and storytelling style, this is not a book for younger readers, so parents should read this beautiful parable before you let your kids at it…

Those of you without impressionable progeny can just go right ahead and dig in: Artichoke Tales is truly magical and awaits your avid, appreciative attention and consumption…
© 2010 Megan Kelso. All Rights Reserved.

War Stories volume 1


By Garth Ennis, David Lloyd, Chris Weston, Gary Erskine, John Higgins & Dave Gibbons & various (Avatar Press)
ISBN 978-1-59291-238-4 (TPB)

Garth Ennis is a devout aficionado of the British combat comics, strip and stories he read as a lad. He’s also a major writer of mature-audience fiction with a distinct voice and two discrete senses of humour. In 2004, he demonstrated this lifelong affection for the past and his unique viewpoint in an occasional series of WWII one-shots for DC’s Vertigo imprint. The tales were graced by an impressive cast of illustrators assembled to produce some of their finest work.

The first four of these were collected a few years later in War Stories from Vertigo/DC and again in 2015 via Avatar Press in both trade paperback and digital editions. They remain a true highpoint in the history of combat comics, with this edition closed by Ennis’ Afterword, detailing the historical events that formed the basis of these astounding fictionalised encounters, plus a bibliography of sources used to craft them.

Kicking off the Big Show and limned by Chris Weston & Gary Erskine, “Johann’s Tiger” charts the retreat of a Panzer crew from both the Russians and their own Nazi Field Police, with their guilt-wracked commander urgently seeking Americans he can safely surrender to…

Set in 1944 and illustrated by John Higgins, the next mini saga sees raw English posh boy Second Lieutenant Ross join a combat unit of Ulstermen slogging their way through the supposedly “cushy” part of the war – namely the 20-month campaign to re-take Italy. It’s no picnic and mental health is not a priority, especially with the Nazis and booby traps and disparaging remarks in Parliament by Lady Astor who apparently deems their slow, bloody demise the work of “The D-Day Dodgers”

Dave Gibbons illuminates a thoroughly unconventional take on boots-on-the-ground America’s contribution in “The Screaming Eagles”, wherein a squad of weary G.I.s take an unsanctioned – and thoroughly debauched – furlough in a palatial chateau only recently abandoned by Nazi top brass. With time to decompress, minds turn to pleasure and peace, but the war isn’t that far away…

David Lloyd then closes this volume (the first of two) with the moody and moving “Nightingale”: Ennis’ painfully powerful tale of dishonour and redemption featuring a British Destroyer on escort duty and the sorry fate of those who chase death in the name of duty…

These are not tales for children. Due to Ennis’s immense skill as a scripter and his innate understanding of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances these stories strike home, and strike hard whether the author is aiming for gallows humour or lambasting Establishments always happy to send fodder to slaughter.

The visuals, from a brave band of Britain’s finest artists, are equally uncompromising: offering dangerous visions nobody should ever see except as a warning or in a nightmare. This is not glorious. This is madness made to stop future insanity and honour the lost.

These are the realest of people. This is war as I fear it actually is, and it makes bloody good reading.
© 2015 Avatar Press. Afterword © 2015 Garth Ennis. WAR STORY: JOHANN’S TIGER © 2015 Garth Ennis & Chris Weston. WAR STORY: D-DAY DODGERS © 2015 Garth Ennis & John Higgins. WAR STORY: SCREAMING EAGLES © 2015 Garth Ennis & Dave Gibbons. WAR STORY: NIGHTINGALE © 2015 Garth Ennis & David Lloyd.

I.R.$. volume 2: Blue Ice


By Vranken & Desberg; coloured by Coquelicot and translated by Luke Spear (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-1-905460-74-8 (Album PB)

As I’ve perpetually stated, the most appealing aspect of European comics is the sheer breadth of genres, styles and age-ranges their efforts address and their huge readerships support. Thus, this quirky exceedingly readable, all-action Franco-Belgian thriller-series with a tantalising twist offering a deliciously different spin on the tried-and-true trope of driven mystery-man superspy.

The unlikely champion of these sagas is a civil servant with the US government, which once upon a time started employing super-cool, infallibly effective special agents to go after the type of tax-dodger totally beyond the reach of the law. Maybe one day, fact will pilfer from fiction and perhaps every nation will have one…

Belgian writer Stephen Desberg is one of France’s most popular comics authors. He was born in Brussels in 1954, son of an American lawyer (the European distribution agent for Metro-Goldwyn Mayer) and a French mother. Stephen began studying law at Université Libre de Bruxelles but dropped out to follow a winding path into the comics biz.

He began with plots and eventually scripts for Will (Willy Maltaite) on Tif et Tondu in Le Journal de Spirou, growing into a reliable jobbing scribe on established strips for younger readers before launching his own (the Stéphane Colman illustrated) Billy the Cat (a funny animal strip, not the DC Thomson superhero series).

Thereafter came 421 with Eric Maltaite, Arkel (Marc Hardy), Jimmy Tousseul (with Daniel Desorgher) and many others. During the 1980s he gradually redirected his efforts to material for older readerships (such as The Garden of Desire) and in 1999 created contemporary thriller IR$. Historical conspiracy thriller Le Scorpion joined his catalogue of hits a year later.

Bernard Vranken was an award-winning artist by the time he was fifteen. A year later he was working for Le Journal deTintin. Whilst studying architecture at Saint-Luc, he took some comics courses by legendary illustrator Eddy Paape at St. Gilles and his true career-path was set.

Vranken was crafting short stories for A Suivre when he met Desberg. In 1996 they collaborated for the first time on epic romance Le Sang Noir. Three years later they traded love for money with I.R.$.…

The premise is simple and delicious, and Cinebook’s second translated English edition from 2009 once again doubles the bang for your buck by combining third and fourth European albums – Blue Ice and Narcocratie – into one compelling compilation.

Blue Ice (originally released in 2001) opens with stylish American bean-counter Larry B. Max relaxing in his sumptuous home. The quiet start offers the observant reader a few hints into Larry’s past – and motivations – before he renews his odd, long-distance, anonymous relationship with favourite chat-line girl Gloria Paradise.

Larry hates complications in his life but there’s just something about her voice and attitude…

A little later he attends a piano rehearsal and promises his little sister he’ll be there for the recital on Friday. It’s just asking for trouble…

Meanwhile downtown, three very bad men are meeting excessively violent ends while Los Angeles airport sees an American passenger from Mexico trigger a wave of security alerts. Typically, though, just too late for the inattentive security staff to do more than watch him spectacularly disappear into the city, leaving two dead agents behind…

Later at DEA HQ, a high-level meeting of numerous Federal agencies convenes to discuss Ryan Ricks. During his tour in Vietnam, Ricks began managing the money of his platoon-mates, subsequently using it to make a killing on the Stock Exchange.

Slightly wounded, he then shipped out for home to be eagerly pursued by finance houses who saw his unique gift for using money and making it. Ricks settled in at a major tobacco company and started creating wealth…

Nobody noticed – or perhaps cared – that Ricks was making side-deals, nor that being utterly amoral, he went where the money was to be easily found: terrorist nations…

When the IRS found out he was using dirty cash to make the company more money – and making himself fabulously rich at the same time – Ryan was fired. He claimed to have no understanding of why terrorist money was bad, while profits from giving people cancer was good…

Ricks was a man ahead of his time. Even before the Cold War ended, he was saying New Capitalism would be beyond any laws, and consequently pursued that philosophy to its logical extreme. Specialising in creating off-shore accounts, he became the world’s greatest money-launderer, devising an international network for tax evasion.

That’s when Larry Max first encountered him, but the wily finance wizard simply vanished, with a swathe of alphabetised American agencies waiting for him to turn up ever since…

Now twelve years later he’s back in the USA, so scores can be settled and pride regained. However, some bigwigs are unconvinced. With so many major players in the Monterrey Cartel gunned down in the street, the feds would rather concentrate on a clearly-brewing turf war than some nebulous cash-converter.

Late-arriving Larry is “only” a tax collector, not a true cop, but he can’t help wondering why they all think the events are unconnected…

Consulting his own researches, Mr Max coolly exposes a traitor in the cross-agency conclave and foresees things becoming extremely dramatic for the Monterrey Cartel, but is fobbed off with only two agents to assist him. Hanson’s shadowy spook-show has access to covert satellite surveillance and phone monitoring whereas Ella Hidalgo of DEA is a stone killer everyone calls “Blue Ice”. She’s going to be useful once lead starts flying…

Across the border, the prediction has already come true. Aged, untouchable head of the clan Dion Monterrey has begun cleaning house, eradicating all dissent before heading to LA for the most important meeting of his life…

Aided by cutting-edge covert spy technology, the hunt for Ricks moves into high gear and it’s not long before Larry and Hildalgo are quietly closing in. Then, a second traitor inadvertently tips his hand too soon and the astounded IRS agent has the key piece of information he needs to complete the puzzle…

Ultimate harbinger of unfettered Free Enterprise, Ricks has returned to America because he’s acting as facilitator for the deal of the ages: selling off one of world’s largest drugs cartels…

Larry is not satisfied. The facts simply don’t add up, and as he ponders the mystery and sweats the details, Ricks is closing the deal and Dion is ensuring there’s no one left to contest the sale…

With every party understandably edgy, the final handover is set to occur on the roof of a luxury shopping mall. While fanatical Ricks describes the way business will be conducted in the until-now inefficiently managed, under-exploited market of modern coke consumption, the good guys quietly close in but they have grossly underestimated the guile and paranoia of their targets. Soon the entire scene is a hellish firefight of lethal proportions…

As ever, the end result is a pile of bodies, massive collateral damage and Ricks a ghost in the wind, but this time Larry is hot on his tail…

Without pause for breath the story concludes in Narcocracy as Max arrives in Tijuana, just as the next move in Ricks’ grand strategy goes live: acquisition and expansion…

Before dawn breaks in the seedy hellhole, many of the proud cartel hold-outs opposing the new order are gone and the game plan is clear. It’s not consolidation or merger Ricks and his mystery backers have in mind for the already lucrative drug trade, it’s a hostile takeover…

The only fly in the ointment is a certain white-haired American implacably following the money magician everywhere: someone proving utterly impossible to kill…

Help comes from a most unexpected quarter as the Mexican Federal Bureau of Narcotics picks up the taxman, claiming he’s about to blow a massive sting operation. Larry keeps his thoughts to himself when meeting the country’s top brass to warn them of Rick’s current ambitious activities. After all, money talks; he’s in a country notorious for corruption and the wizard of wealth-creation has more cash than any other crook in the world…

Soon Max is partnered with the Bureau’s top investigators and chasing his elusive quarry, but even though Larry knows a trap is waiting to spring somewhere, he’s not sure when or who’s going to trigger it. Moreover, behind all the double-dealing and staggering slaughter, he can perceive the kind of chicanery only real, Harvard-style business types are capable of.

All he has to do is find out who and prove it…

Inevitably the hammer falls and bodies drop again. For a moment, it looks like someone’s going to miss a piano concert…

Complex, fast-paced, suspenseful and incredibly violent, this yarn is pure movie blockbuster: a sleek, lithe action-fest to seduce any thriller addict. IR$ is a splendidly effective, stylishly gritty series to delight fans of modern mayhem in all it’s artistic forms.

Only death and taxes are inescapable, and Larry B. Max offers either or both in one suavely economical package…
Original edition © 1977 Editions du Lombard (Le Lombard/Dargaud SA) 2001-2002 by Desberg &Vrancken. English translation 2008 © Cinebook Ltd.

Bosnian Flat Dog


By Max Andersson & Lars Sjunnesson (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-56097-740-7 (PB)

Very much in the far-too-large category of “why is this out of print and not available digitally?”, here’s a bizarre treat from long ago that you can still find with luck and persistence. And you should…

This manic lost gem is a startling and powerful excursion into the “collective unconsciousness of the Balkans” which resulted in a surprisingly compelling and funny tale from two of Sweden’s finest comic makers. It first emerged appeared in Death & Candy #2-4 before being remastered for this deliciously dark and daft tome which broke loose in 2006. Ostensibly, this is the account of a journey by the creators to Slovenia and an alternative cartoonists convention that spirals inescapably into a manic road-movie quest.

Just after they decide to reimburse an old friend for a story they had “borrowed” for their latest comic creation, an out-of-control ice cream truck begins shooting at them. After miraculously surviving, they discover amongst the debris an engraved grenade shell with the word “Sarajevo” on it. Taking this as sign that they must do the right thing, they resolutely embark on a Kafka-esque trip to the troubled Balkans. Along the way they encounter zombies, mummies, war atrocities and a man who has a refrigerator in his car containing the corpse of Marshal Tito (look him up if you have to and, in your next life, stay awake in history class).

Not to mention that rare breed of hound: The Bosnian Flat Dog

More treatise than adventure, and savagely underpinned by the appalling realities of the Sarajevo crisis at its worst, this thought-provoking psycho-comedy has compelling pictures, dark whimsy and enough fourth-wall contravention to supply the reader with much metaphysical and social meat to digest long after they’ve finished reading. As surreal as it seems, though, there is still a distressing amount of truth still to be found amid the icons of the fantasy world. This is a damned compelling book if you want a read that will wake you up and not lull you to sleep.
© 2006 Max Andersson & Lars Sjunnesson. All rights reserved.

Couch Tag


By Jesse Reklaw (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-676-8

In modern trend for graphic novels combining autobiography with a touch of therapy as they recount the lives of their authors is well established now, but once such “tragicomics” were a scarce but inviting commodity. Immensely appealing and frequently painfully unforgettable, they prove our medium fully capable of tackling the most contentious issues. One of the most moving and impressive came from veteran Indie cartoonist and mini comics self-publisher Jessie (Dreamtoons; Ten Thousand Things to Do; Lovf: An Illustrated Vision Quest of a Man Losing His Mind) Reklaw: who’s generated unmissable thought-provoking strips and stories since 1995 when he was working towards his doctorate in Artificial Intelligence.

Born in Berkley, California in 1971, he grew up in Sacramento before attending UC Santa Cruz and Yale, and his earliest publications – just like most of his modern output – delved into the phenomena and imagery of dreams. The experimental Concave Up led to syndicated weekly strip dream-diary Slow Wave, which uses readers’ contributions as the basis of the episodes. It ran from 1995 to 2012 in both printed periodicals and as a webcomic and is sorely missed.

His graphic autobiography is just as beguiling: a life reduced to brief vignettes serially grouped into 5 innocuous-seeming chapters which, through cleverly layered and carefully tailored reminiscences, describe Recklaw’s strangely unconventional (if not actually dysfunctional) family and personal struggle for stability.

Primarily crafted in monochrome wash, the history sessions begin with ‘Thirteen Cats of My Childhood’ – which older readers will recognises from Houghton Mifflin’s Best American Comics 2006, where it was also published – wherein succinct and ferociously functional recollections of a succession of ill-starred family pets serves as a splendid and powerfully effective narrative conceit to introduce the far from ordinary Walker clan.

By following the brief lives of ‘Black Star’, ‘Frosty’, ‘The Triplets’, ‘Mischief’, ‘Figgy Pudding’, ‘Gene’, ‘Survivor’,‘Tiger’, ‘Boots’ and ‘Harry’, we see a family of decidedly alternative outlook whilst also relating the rules of the furniture-based children’s game which gives this book its title.

‘A Note About Names Part One’ follows, revealing more about the sensibilities of the author’s parents, after which ‘Toys I Loved’ continues the amazingly instructive anecdotes about formative influences, as games and playthings act as keys to memory in increasingly unsettling, discordant and disturbing tales beginning in infancy with cuddly toy ‘Ruff-Ruff’ and skipping through a childhood dotted with sibling rivalries and sporadic best-friendships.

Jess, Sis, Mom and “Daddy Bill” are all defined courtesy of ‘The Mask’, ‘Me’s’, ‘Blankie’, ‘Sprinkler’, ‘Play-Doh’, ‘Stretch Armstrong’, ‘Six-Million-Dollar Man’, ‘The Hulk’, ‘Firecrackers’, ‘Green Cup’, ‘Diecast Robots’, ‘Drawers’, ‘Comic Books’, ‘Action Figures’, ‘Dirt Pile’, ‘Doll House’ and ‘Barbies’, before the life-changing advent of ‘Dungeons & Dragons’

‘The Fred Robinson Story’ details the potentially obsessive nature of teenage pranks with Jess and like-minded buddy Brendan – over a number of years – bombarding a complete stranger with a barrage of creative celebration; turning a random name in a phone book into the recipient of odd gifts and star of music and handmade comic books in ‘The Box’.

The lads develop their musical tendencies in ‘Los Angeles’ and penchant for creative vandalism in ‘Batsigns’, before returning to their lengthy cartooning crusade in ‘Fred Robinson X-ing’: relating how the prank publishing campaign mushroomed and Brendan’s girlfriend Kristin changes the status quo, after which Jess gets a ‘Letter from Norway’ and‘Better Fred’ reveals how things eventually ended…

‘The Stacked Deck’ recounts educational episodes and memorable moments resulting from the entire extended family’s passion for card games and tendency towards compulsive behaviour, as seen in ‘War’, ‘Go Fish’, ‘Spades’, ‘Pinochle’,‘Crazy Eights’, ‘Speed’, ‘Poker’, ‘31’, ‘Rummy’, ‘Solitaire’, ‘Spite & Malice’ and ‘Ascension’

Final chapter ‘Lessoned’ is delivered in a succession of distressed colour-segments: raw and disturbing pages of evocative collage and experimental narrative dealing out a unique tarot set of A-to-Z insights and disclosures, beginning with ‘Adults’, ‘Birth’ and ‘the Crash’.

Ranging between early days and contemporary times, the alphabetical summary and keen self-diagnosis continues with ‘Disease’, ‘Earache’, ‘Family’, ‘Gifted’, ‘Humor’ and ‘Invulnerability’, turning a corner towards understanding with ‘Joint’, ‘Kiersey Test’, ‘Legal Guardian’, ‘Melancholic’, ‘Number’ and ‘Obsession’.

After cleverly addressing the revelations of the author’s bipolar mood disorder and explosive determination to take control of his life by rejecting sickness and weakness, ‘Phlegmatic’, ‘Question’, ‘Role-Playing’, ‘Sanguine’, ‘Tests’ and ‘Unconscious’ carry the account to a new normal with ‘the Vandal’, ‘Walker’, ‘X-Mas’, ‘Yesterday’ and ‘Zero’.

Bleak yet uplifting, nostalgic and distressing, harsh and blackly funny, Couch Tag is a devastatingly moving account of coping with adverse heredity, sexual deviancy, social nonconformity and familial discord which I suspect could only be told in comics.

This is not a book everyone can like, but it’s definitely a story to resonate with anyone who has felt alone, odd or different.

And surely that’s all of us at some time…
© 2013 Jesse Reklaw. This edition © 2013 Fantagraphics Books, Inc. All rights reserved.

All the Places in Between


By John Cei Douglas (Liminal 11)
ISBN: 978-1-912634-23-1 (PB)

We’re all been locked up in our own heads as much as in our homes recently, constantly in search of solutions to ease anxiety, however we can. Here then – in timely fashion and most serendipitously – is a sublime gem in the conceptual mould of Tove Janson, laced with oblique yet helpful ruminations on healing mindfulness and enjoyed as a voyage of genuine inner discovery.

Not only is the message calming and helpful – and delivered in beguiling imagery guaranteed to restore your weary disposition – but it also guarantees a solidly entertaining mystery journey helping to moderate your hunger for physical travel and fresh experience.

Crafted in dreamy, silent passages, All the Places in Between follows a pensive girl by a barren seashore as she fretfully, nervously but determinedly passes from ‘All the places we’ve been’ to ‘All the places we’re going’

On the way she meets her exact opposite and is cast ‘adrift’: occupying ‘the lighthouse’ before finding civilisation drowned and devastated. Time drags ‘between’ before isolation draws her to ‘the city’ where she finds ‘a companion’ to care for. Eventually that temporary relationship sunders, ‘buried’ in the wreckage of the world and dwarfed by insurmountable chasms and a ‘tsunami’ that brings resolution of sorts as ‘the lighthouse returns’, prompting a revelatory resolution in ‘space’

Not a book to summarise, but definitely one to look at and wonder, John Cei Douglas’ oneiric ramble is a calming and enticing trip we can all benefit and draw comfort from.

Filled with delightful human moments.
© 2020 John Cei Douglas. All rights reserved.

All the Places in Between is scheduled for release on April 29th 2021 and is available for pre-order now.

Jim – Jim Woodring’s Notorious Autojournal


By Jim Woodring (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-752-9 (HB)

There are a few uniquely gifted and driven comics creators who simply defy categorisation or even description. There’s a pantheon of artisans: Kirby, Ditko, Hergé, Eisner, Clowes, Meskin, Millionaire and a few others who bring something utterly personal and universally effective to their work just beyond the reviewer’s skills (mine certainly) to elucidate, encapsulate or convey. They are perfect in their own way and so emphatically wonderful that no collection of praise and analysis can do them justice.

You just have to read the stuff yourself.

Arguably at the top of that distinguished heap of graphic glitterati is Jim Woodring. It’s a position he has maintained for years and clearly appears capable of holding for generations to come.

Woodring’s work has always been challenging, funny, spiritual, grotesque, philosophical, heartbreaking, beautiful and extremely scary. Moreover, even after reading that sentence you will still be absolutely unprepared for what awaits the first time you encounter any of his books – and even more so if you’ve already seen everything he’s created.

Cartoonist, animator, fine artist, toy-maker and artistic Renaissance man, Woodring’s eccentric output has delighted far too small and select an audience since his first mini-comics forays in 1980.

The reader may have avidly adored his groundbreaking, oneirically autobiographical Fantagraphics magazine Jim (1986 and cherry-picked for this collection) or its notional spin-off series Frank (of which Weathercraft won The Stranger 2010 Genius Award for Literature whilst 2018’s Poochytown marked Woodring’s last Frank foray to date). Perhaps it was Tantalizing Stories, Seeing Things or more mainstream features like his Star Wars and Aliens tales for Dark Horse Comics that hit home but, always, there is never anything but surprise waiting when his next story appears…

An accomplished storytelling technician these days, Woodring grows rather than constructs solidly surreal, abstractly authentic, wildly rational, primal cartoon universes, wherein his meticulous, clean-lined, sturdily ethereal, mannered blend of woodblock prints, R. Crumb landscapes, expressionist Dreamscapes, religious art and monstrous phantasmagoria all live and play …and often eat each other.

His stories follow a logical, progressional narrative – often a surging, non-stop chase from one insane invention to the next – layered with multiple levels of meaning yet totally devoid of speech or words, boldly assuming the intense involvement of the reader will participate and complete the creative circuit.

Such was not always the case and this superbly sumptuous oversized (292 x 228mm) hardcover compilation (also available digitally) gathers earlier formative and breakthrough efforts in colour and monochrome: offering the very best of his strips, paintings, poems and stories from JIM and other (sadly unnamed) sources between 1980 and 1996.

This compulsive collection also includes a new 24-page strip starring the artist’s hulking, bewhiskered, aggressively paranoid, dream-plagued family man/cartoonist alter ego, cementing his reputation as a master of subconscious exploration, surreal self-expression and slyly ironic comedic excoriation – and it’s still almost impossible to describe.

You really, really, really have to dive in and discover for yourself…

Packed with hallucinatory spot-images and JIM cover illustrations, the furtive fruits of Woodring’s ever-present dream-recording “autojournal” are prefaced by a beguiling and informative ‘Author’s Note’ before the wonderment begins with ‘Jim #1 in its entirety’: the complete contents of his very first self-published fanzine from 1980.

A master of silent expressive cartooning, Woodring’s playfully inventively fascination with and love of words and tale-making shines through in such laboriously hand-lettered, illustrated epigrammatic vignettes as ‘Lozenge’ and ‘Jim Today’, as well as witty iconographic concoctions like ‘Tales of Bears’ and ‘Troutcapper Hats’ before the premier strip saga details a doomed fishing trip in ‘Seafood Platter from Hell’, and a moment of early silent psychedelia reveals how ‘Two Children Inadvertently Kill an Agent of the Devil Through an Excess of Youthful High Spirits’

Another personal true story and painful brush with disability and imperfection is disclosed in ‘Invisible Hinge’ whilst ‘The Hour of the Kitten’ returns to distressed, disturbed prose before the first of many outrageous faux-ads offers indispensable conscience-pets ‘Niffers’, preceding another text-trek in ‘A Walk in the Foothills’.

Cats play a large part in these early strips and ‘Big Red’ is probably the cutest bloody-clawed, conscienceless killer you’ll ever meet whilst ‘Enough is Enough’ offers graphic pause before an ad for the home ‘Dreamcorder’ segues into a disturbing poster of rural excess in ‘A Lousy Show’.

‘Particular Mind’ provides a strip encapsulating relationships, hallucinations and life-drawing, after which the tempting services provided by ‘Jim’s Discipline Camp’ are counterbalanced by a paean to pharmacopoeia in ‘Good Medicine’.

More savage exploits of ‘Big Red’ lead to a commercial presentation in ‘This is the Meat (…That Changed Me, Dad!)’, whilst ‘Horse Sinister’ describes – in prose and pictures – another disturbing dream dilemma and ‘At the Old Estate’introduces a sophisticated loving couple whose wilderness paradise is forever altered by an unwelcome visitor’s incredible revelation. Thereafter, a worried young child describes how life changed after he found his parents’ ‘Dinosaur Cage’

The truly eccentric tale of ‘Li’l Rat’ (from a 1965 story by John Dorman) is followed by a visual feast of images from ‘Jim Book of the Dead’ and a surreal flyer for ‘Rolling Cabine’, after which ‘What the Left Hand Did’ captures in strip form the horrors of mutilation and malformation. The macabre tone-painting ‘Almost Home’ then leads to an epic strip of father and son fun beginning with ‘Let’s Play!’

Jim’s jaunt soon transports him to ‘Powerland’ where dad meets himself, whilst ‘Nidrian Gardner’ revisits a couple of suave swells whilst ‘Looty’ offers consumers a toy they just shouldn’t own…

‘The Hindu Marriage Game’ leads our unhappy bearded fool to a place where his lack of judgement can truly embarrass him, whilst ‘Quarry Story’ explores a debilitating recurring dream about the nature of artistic endeavour and ‘This House’explains how you can live life without ever going outside again – and how’s that for prophetic and timely?

The first inklings of the mature creator emerge in absurdist romp ‘The Birthday Party’ after which prose shaggy-dog story ‘The Reform of the Apple’ leads to a dark, distressing cartoon confrontation with doom on ‘The Stairs’, before largely monochrome meanderings give way to stunning full-colour surreal reveries in ‘Screechy Peachy’.

The radiant hues remain for galvanic image ‘Vher Umst Pknipfer?’ and pantomimic rollercoaster romp ‘Trosper’ after which bold black & white introspection resumes with a naked lady and a garrulous frog in ‘Dive Deep’.

A ghostly Hispanic condition of drunkenness haunts cruelly playful kids in ‘Pulque’ whilst little Max asks dad a leading question in ‘Echo’ and radio rebels Chip and Monk meet some girls and risk the wrath of civic authority with illegal broadcasting in ‘A Hometown Tale’, before an ideal wife has a bad-tempered off-day in ‘Obviously Not’.

As the years passed, many of Woodring’s later spiritual and graphic signature creatures slowly begun to appear in his strips. Old met new in ‘His Father Was a Great Machine’ wherein strident Jim has an encounter with a phantasmagorical thing, after which little Susan and a determined slug shaped up for an inevitable collision in the prose fable ‘When the Lobster Whistles on the Hill’.

Sheer whimsy informs ‘Cheap Work/Our Hero is a Bastard’ and the bizarre offerings of ‘Jimland Novelties’, whilst ‘The Smudge-Pot’ shows what all magazine letters pages should be like. ‘Pulque’ – in full colour strip mode – returns with a message for the dying before ‘Boyfriend of the Weather’ wraps up the surreal voyaging with a homey homily, and reproductions of Jim #1, volume 2 back cover and Jim #2, volume 2 cover bring this festival of freakish fun to the finale with style, aplomb and oodles of frosting…

Woodring’s work is not to everyone’s taste or sensibilities – otherwise why would I need to plug his work so earnestly – and, as ever, these astounding drawings have the perilous propensity of repeating like cucumber and making one jump long after the book has been put away, but the artist is an undisputed master of graphic narrative and an affirmed innovator always making new art to challenge us and himself.

He makes us love it and leaves us hungry for more, and these early offerings provide the perfect starter course for a full-bodied feast of fantasy…

Are you feeling peckish yet…?
© 2014 Jim Woodring. All rights reserved.

IR$ volume 1: Taxing Trails


By Vranken & Desberg, coloured by Coquelicot: translated by Luke Spear (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-1-905460-51-9 (Album PB)

The most appetising thing about European comics (and manga too, although we only ever see the tip of that vast iceberg in English) is the sheer breadth of genres, styles and age ranges of material available.

The same used to be true of British and US comics, but creeping cultural colonisation by calcified fan-bases has slowly but surely eradicated many types of tale that might pique interest beyond the generalised ghettoes of superheroes, space opera, sexy horror and merchandised adaptations. Even crime and war comics are a rare exception these days.

Thus, finding that this quirky but exceedingly readable thriller series with a tantalising twist has finally arrived as eBooks is a welcome treat even if the Franco-Belgian original first saw print in 1999.

The unlikely champion of these sagas is a civil servant with the US government. Once upon a time these dedicate civil servants started employing super-cool and infallibly effective agents to go after the type of tax dodger far beyond the reach of the law. These days, every country should have one…

Belgian writer Stephen Desberg remains one of the bestselling comics authors in France. Son of an American lawyer (who was the distribution agent for Metro-Goldwyn Mayer) and a French mother, he was born in Brussels in 1954 and studied law at Université Libre de Bruxelles. However, he dropped out to follow a winding path into the comics biz…

Starting with plots and eventually scripts for Will (AKA Willy Maltaite) on Tif et Tondu in Le Journal de Spirou, he developed into a reliable jobbing creator on established strips for younger readers before launching his own in the Stéphane Colman illustrated Billy the Cat (a funny animal strip, not the DC Thomson superhero series).

Thereafter came 421 with Eric Maltaite, Arkel (Marc Hardy), Jimmy Tousseul (with Daniel Desorgher) and many others. During the 1980s, he gradually redirected his efforts to material for older readerships (such as The Garden of Desire), and in 1999 created this modern thriller before capping it all a year later with exuberant historical drama Le Scorpion joining his catalogue of major hits.

Bernard Vranken was an award-winning artist by the time he was fifteen and working on Le Journal de Tintin a year later. Whilst studying architecture at Saint-Luc, he took some comics courses by legendary illustrator Eddy Paape at St. Gilles and his true career path was set. Vranken was crafting short stories for A Suivre when he met Desberg, and in 1996 they collaborated for the first time on epic romance Le Sang Noir. Three years later they traded love for money and launched IR$

The premise is simple and delicious, and this English edition doubles your money by combining the first two albums – La voie fiscal and La stratégie Hagen – into one compelling compilation.

As Taxing Trails it opens with stylish American mystery man Larry B. Max calling his new favourite chat-line girl Gloria Paradise (Larry hates complications in his life) to kill some time before heading out.

A few days previously a Swiss banker had been rather ostentatiously splurging cash on a visit to California when he ended up as a freeway statistic. However, his spending spree and sudden demise raised a few red flags…

A right place, wrong time kind of guy, Larry was decisively ending a convenience store hold-up he’d stumbled into when he got a call and soon was working his way up a deadly chain of wealthy reprobates trying to track down who had issued the contract on the banker…

Before long Max identifies the former Luc Cretier as a minor banker and major blackmailer who pushed someone too hard and paid the price. That said, the person he was putting the squeeze to is of far more interest to the tax detective.

Jewish-American Abraham Loewenstein is a rags-to-riches holocaust survivor who turned tragedy into a life of success and good works. Larry, however, has seen something the rest of the world has not, and his interview with the aged activist (as an author investigating the scandal of Jewish gold illegally held in Swiss Banks) puts him on another profitable track…

Those esteemed institutions always found some legal chicanery to deny the claims of survivors and family members who tried to attempted to retrieve their property, but recent years – due to the efforts of people like Loewenstein – have seen frustrated victims begin to win justice through court cases exposing bank practises.

Now Larry’s forensic investigation leads straight to those so-secretive Swiss Banks and a generations-long scandal regarding the illegal retention and redistribution of Jewish funds deposited whilst Hitler was rising to power.

Although the Nazis are apparently long gone, their heritage of plunder remains in those Helvetic vaults and somehow, enigmatic, untouchable multi-billionaire survivor of the Death Camps Moshe Geldhof is involved…

Larry knows he’s on to something when his car is sabotaged and less feasible accidents – such as a girl on a motorbike blasting him with a machinegun – complicate his investigation. Undaunted, he confronts Geldhof in a fancy New York restaurant and finds hot lead is the first course on the menu…

After Abraham is murdered for knowing too much, a spectacular, breakneck car chase results in Max arresting Geldhof, but for once, the infallible tax man has grossly underestimated the sheer power of money…

The story concludes in The Hagen Strategy as the scene shifts to 1943 for the incredible truth about Moshe Geldhof, as the indefatigable Max delves deeper into the history of the man who has the ear of governments, especially Israel’s…

In America, the man himself seems to be “too big to fail” but his sudden liberation only pushes Larry to greater efforts. That means heading to Bern and cultivating the attentions of Geldof’s ferociously Amazonian daughter Lenni whilst dear daddy is tangled in red tape…

No sooner has Larry broached the palatial fortress-like mansion, however, than the sinister patron turns up and the hunt is on, with a cadre of heavily armed killers at his well-shod heels…

Larry has finally gleaned the true appalling secret of the contemporary Croesus and the truth is something his government can’t cover up for him. Now he has only one possible ally in his all-or-nothing war against the money-man… and places a call to Mossad.

Sleek, lean, almost Spartan in its lithe, muscular tribute to James Bond movies, IR$ is a splendidly effective, stylishly gritty thriller series to delight fans of modern mayhem in all its literary and artistic forms.

Only death and taxes are inescapable, and Larry B. Max offers either or both in one suavely economical package…
Original edition © 1977 EDITIONS DU LOMBARD (Dargaud-Lombard) 1999-2000 by Desberg &Vrancken. English translation © 2008 Cinebook Ltd.