The Massive: Ninth Wave


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

The secret – as always – is quality.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Android Awakes: Fictional Alignment


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shaft volume 1: A Complicated Man


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Headrack to Claude – Collected Gay Comix of Howard Cruse


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For further information and great stuff check out Howardcruse.com

Tramps Like Us volume 1


By Yayoi Ogawa (Tokyopop)
ISBN: 978-1-595321-39-8

Returning to TV screens in 2017 – for the second adaptation since the manga originally debuted – this intriguing, introspective love story offers a beguiling and surprisingly tasteful exploration of modern relationships at the margins of societal norms.

Eventually wracking-up 14 collected volumes, the series originated from stand-alone story ‘Pet’ published in the June 2000 issue of Kiss Carnival. It quickly reappeared in expanded form in Kiss as ‘Kimi wa Pet’: running to 82 chapters between December 2000 and October 2005.

The serial was a global comics hit, translated into many languages and spawning a Japanese live action TV drama series airing in 2003 and a South Korean movie in 2011 plus – as previously mentioned – a new television iteration.

Sumire Iwaya is a thoroughly modern woman, with a good job, promising prospects and all her priorities properly sorted. But like so many career women – especially in Japan – the romantic side of her life is problematic.

Comfortably situated but still recovering from a messy affair with the boss’s son, she is constantly evaluating her admittedly high relationship standards. What this actually means is that most of the time now she’s tired, stressed and terribly, terribly lonely.

For no reason she can explain then, when she one day discovers a beautiful young man inhabiting a dumpster, Sumire grudgingly gives him shelter in her home. The full-grown waif appears to be an utter innocent: vital, energetic and totally without guile – or manners…

Fed up with her life and with the kind of men she seems to attract, the salary woman enters into a bizarre pact with the vagrant. Naming him Momo – after a dog she had as a child – Sumire adopts him as her secret pet.

She will feed, bathe and pamper him in return for companionship, warmth and the kind of unconditional love only an animal can provide.

But what is “unconditional”? As her life proceeds, with friends, career and even a new boyfriend all piling their respective pressures on, her secret pet increasingly becomes her only haven of contentment. But Momo is not a dumb animal. He has his own life no matter how ardently he might seek to deny it….

And in this classic When Harry Met Sally dilemma the couple are being compelled by their own incessantly and increasingly inharmonious natures to reassess their relationship and thereby endanger the only emotional refuge each can retreat to…

Sharp, charming and strikingly drawn, this out-of-print saga is long-overdue for revival: a proper grown-up comics story that manages to be mature and sophisticated whilst still being decorous.
© 2000, 2004 Yayoi Ogawa. All Rights Reserved.

One Year Affair


By Byron Preiss & Ralph Reese (Workman Publishing Co.)
ISBN: 978-0-91110-486-8

It seems cruel to point it out if you’re currently unpartnered or between dalliances, but love is in the air at this time of year. It’s also wise to reiterate that even though your grand passion is comics, maybe your current inamorata is more indulgent and understanding than equally addicted to masks, tights or batmobiles…

So, even though we’re going to be talking romantic comics for the next week, why not consider flowers (and not from a garage forecourt), exotic excursions or shopping somewhere other than a comicbook store over the next few days?

Before beginning his own attempts to invent the Graphic Novel, Byron Preiss worked on a number of projects including a comic strip for the American humour magazine National Lampoon. With celebrated cartoonist and illustrator Ralph Reese he produced a wry, charming and oddly engaging examination of the contemporary dating scene, circa 1973.

Steve is just some guy and his casual meeting with the so-with-it, so-sexy Jill over a dropped feminine hygiene product leads to a funny, quirky and thoroughly readable modern romance of the type we’d call a RomCom nowadays.

From one-night stands to open relationships, through engagements to the ending (and I’m not telling you just in case you find a copy of this criminally overlooked and out-of-print item) this little treat shows with crushing warmth and superbly beguiling artwork (like Mort Drucker meeting Jack Davis with Wally Wood and Dick Giordano doing the catering) how human mating rituals have never really changed since men eschewed Big Wooden Clubs and tried to grow “A Good Sense of Humour” instead.

A genuine lost masterpiece of sequential narrative, the strip and this collection was followed up by tragically uncompleted sequel Two Year Affair. Just like true love for most carbon-based lifeforms it was simply destined not to be…

Still you can always console yourself with this book, a big box of tissues and gallons of chocolate ice cream…
© 1973, 1974, 1975, 1976 Byron Preiss Visual Publications, Inc., by arrangement with Ralph Reese & Byron Preiss. All rights reserved.

Breaking the 10 volume 2


By Seán Michael Wilson & Michiru Morikawa (NBM)
ISBN: 978-1-68112-117-8

If God exists, why does he hate us?

It’s a question that has been asked countless times and – naturally – there has never been a universally satisfactory answer, but it’s made for plenty of philosophical and theological debate. It’s also provided many superb dramatists, satirists and comedians with a platform to create challenging and engaging stories of what might happen when the specimens in the cosmic Petri dish start complaining about the way we’ve been treated…

Scottish émigré and citizen of the world Seán Michael Wilson is a past master of “Deep” comics confronting real issues (Portraits of Violence – An Illustrated History of Radical Thinking; Goodbye God? – an Illustrated Examination of Science Vs Religion with Hunt Emerson) but is equally at home with more mainstream strip material such as The Story of Lee, Sweeney Todd or AX: Alternative Manga.

In the first volume of Breaking the 10 he combined fundamental life questions with an enticing manga sensibility to craft a powerfully absorbing tale of crushed hope, bitter disillusionment and grief-filled reaction. Simultaneous funny and thought-provoking, Breaking the 10 shared the tale of bereaved survivor and (formerly) devout Christian David

Compounding the heretical soul-searching here is award-winning illustrator Michiru Morikawa, who previously collaborated with Wilson on Yakuza Moon, Demon’s Sermon, Musashi and The Faceless Ghost and affords a sleek, seductive pictorial allure to the sordid affairs…

When David’s wife and child were cruelly taken from him by a hit-&-run driver, the tragic survivor broke inside. Grieving and enraged, he demanded a meeting with God and a chance to force Him to explain His actions and motivations. With no response to prayer and no other recourse, David resolved to become a sinner, methodically and systematically breaking the Ten Commandments.

Regardless of the harm he inflicted upon others around him, the aggrieved apostate meticulously contravened the first five – Thou shalt not… steal; …Covet your neighbor’s house, wife, male servant, female servant, ox, donkey, nor anything that is thy neighbor’s; Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy; Thou shalt not make for yourself a graven image’ and ‘Thou shalt not bear false witness against your neighbors’ – despite the unwarranted and repeated interventions of two strangers fostering their own agendas…

As the campaign of heresy unfolded, these two antithetical gentlemen moved from merely watching David to actively offering counsel and unwelcome advice. Mr. Black and Mr. White are as different as two people can be: each propounding a harsh, doctrinaire and unequivocal stance at opposite ends of the emotional and religious spectrum…

David listens but will not heed either one, nor does he believe them the supernatural advocates they seem to be. Whilst they bicker over him or debate with him, it’s clear that they don’t know what the true game plan actually is and – as his celestial attention-getting antics escalate – they are proved to be utterly ineffectual in influencing him one way or the other…

Nothing is as it appears: White may well be the agent of an Interventionist creator, but his opposite number claims to be a simple disciple of a modern humanist rationalism rather than an operative of any supernatural Infernal Antagonist…

David doesn’t really care: his first assaults upon scripture might have offended all the Abrahamic religions and gained him a certain notoriety in the media but he’s no closer to God than before. It’s time to up the ante and hope the intransigence silence ends before he gets to the Tenth Commandment…

In Chapter one, while still pondering his course, David is approached by Mr. Black who helpfully points out that the sinner is labouring under an accounting error and has actually broken six Commandments thanks to how he dealt with the Coveting one. David will not hear it, and carries on planning how best to tackle ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery’, but the heated arguments Mr. Black makes are irrefutable…

With his mind shredding as much as his life has, David heads for the local church for ‘Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord your God in vain’, but is intercepted and physically contained by Mr. White. Shrugging off the beating, David fitfully shares his doubts with the scripture-spouting intercessionary: in a world where profanity and blasphemy are commonplace and ubiquitous how can he break this one? Lulled into a discussion on how politicians might use god and religion to further their own ambitions, Mr. White inadvertently gets lured onto other Christian “hot-button” topics and provides David with his answer and plan of attack, leading directly into the truly appalling and sacrilegious actions necessary to destroy the edict ‘Thou shalt have no other gods before me’

With God still a no-show David then must steel himself for what is an incomprehensibly difficult task. Having overcome his scruples to harm innocents is one thing, but the things he says to his own parents before satisfactorily flouting ‘Honor your father and your mother’ leaves him dazed and furious…

With only one Commandment left unsullied, David again demands his meeting with the Supreme Being and is astonished when he finally has a vision. Sadly, after debating with God he wakes up in hospital and cannot accept that his unsatisfactory hallucination counts…

After Black and White contentiously visit him and sow more discord and confusion, David realises he must go the distance…

This is in many ways the most straightforward Commandment to break. Obtaining a gun, David heads for the local primary school, with ‘Thou shalt not kill’ burning in his brain…

Merging theosophy, political critique, a razor-sharp crash-course in ethics and responsibility whilst confronting faith, rationalism and religion in a genuinely funny and scary tragedy of everyday melodrama, Breaking the 10 asks hard questions in a deceptively easy-going manner.

Moreover, unlike previous graphic novels addressing this timeless theme – such Eisner’s A Contract with God or Garth Ennis & Warren Pleece’s True Faith – David’s eventual epiphanies and ultimate fate come more from pliable, tractable human nature than resolute divine order or intervention

Enquiring, engaging and utterly entertaining, this is a parable no saint or sinner should miss and every questing thinker should consider.
© 2018 Seán Michael Wilson & Michiru Morikawa.
Breaking the 10 volume 2 will released on February 2nd 2018 and can be pre-ordered now. It is also available in all e-book formats.
For more information and other great reads see http://www.nbmpub.com/

Doing Time


By Kazuichi Hanawa (Fanfare/Ponent Mon)
ISBN: 978-8493340902

Something of an obscure recommendation, this, but I wanted to highlight something different in manga, as I’m a little burned out with big eyes, big explosions, and big hair at the moment.

Doing Time doesn’t fall into any generally perceived Western stereotype of Japanese comics. For a start it’s an autobiography and bleak admonitory documentary. It’s a journal along the lines of Samuel Pepys’ with disquietingly intimate revelations calmly and casually rolled out at every available juncture. The account is also a moving insight into the psychology of the Japanese culture and mind-set as the pages unfold in relentless understatement with a complete lack of flash, dazzle or grand showmanship.

Born in Saitama Prefecture in 1947, Kazuichi Hanawa began creating manga in 1971, generally specialising in historical tales, Buddhist legends and fantasy subjects. A keen collector of imitation firearms, in 1994 Mr. Hanawa was caught firing a remodelled pistol in an isolated wooded area. The creator then served three years in prison for possessing and using replica guns, which seems pretty stern to me, but clearly retribution he feels he deserved every moment of…

At the risk of being accused of racism, I cannot imagine the thoughts here portrayed coming from an individual of any other culture. Mr. Hanawa constantly and genuinely bemoans the quality and quantity of the food. It’s too good for the miserable likes of him…

“Is it right for us to live so well in spite of having perpetrated such misdeeds?” he asks. The attention to detail and meticulous cataloguing of minutiae almost makes this a cookbook and journal planner. The narrative structure is so fluid that all one comes away with is a fine pattern of detail and no big picture… probably just like being banged up in jail…

On its release AX Magazine in 1998 and in 2000 as collected book Kemusho no naka (In Prison), the visual and philosophical diary swiftly garnered domestic and international acclaim and was made into a live action movie All Under the Moon.

I have to admit that I was bewildered and captivated in equal measure with this collection of strips drawn with astounding veracity and authenticity. Japanese prisons – at least at that time – apparently allow no records of any sort (including drawings) to be kept by inmates, so the chilling pages here were produced from memory, and to my mind read like moments you’d prefer to forget, but if you’re of an adventurous mien this may brighten your jaded day and will certainly open your eyes to the power and potential of the comics medium.
© 2000, 2004 Kaziuchi Hanawa & Ponent Mon.