Sandman Mystery Theatre: Book One


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

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Eerie Mystery-Mood Masterpiece… 8/10

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time passed and in the late 1980s Neil Gaiman, Sam Keith & Mike Dringenberg took the property in a revolutionary new direction, eventually linking all the previous decades’ elements into an overarching connective continuity under DC’s new “sophisticated suspense” imprint Vertigo.

Within a few years the astounding success of the new Sandman prompted the editorial powers-that-be to revisit the stylishly retro original character and look at him through more mature eyes. Iconoclastic creator Matt Wagner (Mage, Grendel) teamed with artistic adept Guy Davis (Baker Street, B.P.R.D.) and colourist David Hornung to create a grittier, grimier, far more viscerally authentic 1930s, where the haunted mystery man pursued his lonely crusade with chilling verisimilitude.

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

This is a warning: Sandman Mystery Theatre is not for kids…

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

Each chapter preceded by its original evocative faux pulp photo cover created by Gavin Wilson and Hornung, the dark drama opens with The Tarantula, taking us back to New York in 1938 where District Attorney Larry Belmont is having the Devil’s own time keeping his wild-child daughter out of trouble and out of the newspapers.

She’s gallivanting all over town every night with her spoiled rich friends; drinking, partying and associating with all the wrong sorts of people, but the prominent public servant has far larger problems too. One is a mysterious gas-masked figure he finds rifling his safe soon after Dian departs…

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

Dian, after a rowdy night of carousing with scandalous BFF Catherine Van Der Meer and her latest (gangster) lover, awakes with a similar hangover but still agrees to attend one of her father’s dreary public functions that evening. The elder Belmont is particularly keen that she meet a studious young man named Wesley Dodds, recently returned from years in the Orient to take over his deceased dad’s many business interests.

Dodds seems genteel and effete, yet Dian finds there’s something oddly compelling about him. Moreover, he too seems to feel a connection…

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

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

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

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

Furious and humiliated, Dian then insists that she officially identifies Catherine and nobody can dissuade her.

Shockingly, the savagely ruined body is not her best friend but yet another victim…

Somewhere dark and hidden, Van Der Meer is being tortured but the perpetrator has far more than macabre gratification in mind…

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

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

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

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

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

Of course, he does but not without appalling consequences…

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

Jimmy Shan once worked in her father’s office but now serves as lawyer and fixer for his own people amongst the teeming restaurants, gambling dens and bordellos of the oriental district…

Dian would be horrified to see Jimmy – or Zhang Chai Lao as his Tong masters know him – consorting with unsavoury criminals, and would certainly not be considering reviving her scandalous out-of-hours relationship with him. All frivolous thoughts vanish, however, when the diners vacate the restaurant and stumble upon a severed head: a warning that the ruling factions are about to go to war again in Chinatown. As usual, white police are utterly ineffectual against the closed ranks of the enclave…

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

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

As the grisly murder-toll mounts, The Sandman’s investigations lead to one inescapable conclusion: a third party is responsible. But who, and why…

Before the drama closes, Dian will learn more hard truths about the world and the money-men who secretly run it…

Issues #9-12 (December 1993-March 1994) are illustrated by R.G. Taylor and plumb the darkest depths of human depravity in the tale of ‘The Brute’.

The friendship of Dian and Wesley slowly deepens and life seems less fraught in the city, but that soon ends as hulking degenerate stalks the back-alleys, killing and brutalising prostitutes and their clients…

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

Eventually, with Dian in tow, Wesley accepts a party invitation from the speculator and meets his dynasty of worthless, over-privileged children. None of them seem right or well-adjusted…

Later, when Eddie tries to come clean by informing the authorities of Riesling’s illegal fight events, he’s attacked by the promoter’s thugs and saved by the Sandman – at least until the colossal mystery killer attacks them both and they’re forced to flee for their lives…

As Dodds returns home to recuperate, the punishing dreams escalate to mind-rending intensity.

Eddie, meanwhile, is left with no safe option and takes to the streets with Emily. His decision will lead to revolting horror, total tragedy and utter heartbreak…

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

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

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

Mean


By Steven Weissman (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-56097-866-4

Steven Weissman was born in California in 1968 and grew up to be an exceptionally fine and imaginative cartoonist. He’s worked for Alternative Comics, Last Gasp, Dark Horse, Marvel, DC, Vice and Nickelodeon Magazine among others, and his artistic sensibilities have been influenced and shaped by such disparate forces as Super-Deformed manga, “Our Gang” comedies, Abbott and Costello, Dan Clowes, Mike Allred and Peanuts – the strip, not the versatile if sometimes potentially fatal foodstuff.

Much of his groundbreaking, award-winning early work, dating from the mid-1990s, offered a post-modern, skewed and alternative view of friendship, childhood, world weirdness and people’s meanness and can all be enjoyed over and over again in such stunning compilations as Tykes, Lemon Kids, Don’t Call Me Stupid, White Flower Day, Chocolate Cheeks and others. The French and Japanese – who really know quality comics – love him lots and have done so for years.

In 2012 Weissman literally went back to the drawing board, un-and-re-creating himself and his aesthetic methodology for a and unbelievably enchanting hardcover weekly online strip entitled Barack Hussein Obama which has since been collected into a series of stunning cartoon books about the unsuspected nature of modern America. Gosh, I miss those days…

Today though in the spirit of the season we’re revisiting some of his earlier material…

If there is such a thing as ‘Dark and Comforting’ then Weissman’s weird and wicked early cartooning is a perfect example. Following the success of Chewing Gum in Church and Kid Firechief, Fantagraphics promptly compiled earlier works from his self-published Yikes!; amply supplemented with other rare and even unpublished strips to create a lovely insight into the development of a truly unique graphic vision.

These 32 tales, (still available in paperback and digital editions) were all created between 1993 and 2002, and feature his cast of deeply peculiar children in a macabre tribute to Charles Schulz’s signature strip, but they are also literal embodiments of the phrase “little monsters”.

In simple childhood romps such as ‘The See-Thru Boy’, ‘The Loneliest Girl in Town’, ‘Inevitable Time-Travel Story’, ‘No Kiss!’ and many others, the bizarre cast of Li’l Bloody (a child vampire), Kid Medusa, Pullapart Boy and X-Ray Spence live an idyllically suburban 1950’s existence of school, fishing, skateboards, white picket fences, aliens, wheelchair jousting, marbles and weird science.

Weissman’s seductive cast all have huge round heads and ancient bodies like graphic progeria-sufferers, but the drawing is lavish, seductive and utterly convincing.

These are great comics about kids (but perhaps regarded as Best Not For Kids) that are a treat, a revelation and most definitely darkly comforting.
MEAN © 2007 Fantagraphics Books. All content © 2007 Steven Weissman. All Rights Reserved.

Chandler


By Steranko (Byron Preiss Visual Publications Inc/Pyramid Books)
ISBN: 978-0-515-04241-2 (Pyramid Books)

Steranko is an artist with many strings to his bow. Whether as publisher, typographer, graphic designer, artist, storyteller, historian, or musical performer he has always excelled.

As a magician and escapologist he found celebrity, inspiring new friend Jack Kirby to create Super Escape Artist Mister Miracle, but it’s as a comics creator that the man of many talents has most memorably succeeded.

At the peak of Marvel’s first creative flowering he revolutionised the telling of graphic stories with Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. His retro-revisionist take on Captain America is reverently remembered – as is his brief meddling with mutant outriders The X-Men.

Decades after his experimental forays in Marvel’s horror and romance titles, the results are remembered – if not actually in print anywhere – as high-points in style and cinematic design.

Steranko left Marvel to pursue his other interests and began publication of pop culture mainstay Mediascene Prevue, only rarely returning to the comic medium. If you’ve never seen his strip work you’ll know him by his film production concept art for blockbusters like Raiders of the Lost Ark and Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

In the mid-1970s he linked up with comics Svengali Byron Preiss to create this fabulous experimental precursor of the graphic novel: a dynamic and vivid tribute to the hard-boiled detective and film noir genres, and something which perhaps not altogether to the tastes of fans at the time is certainly now very much in the bailiwick of contemporary comics consumers.

Alternatively entitled FICTION ILLUSTRATED VOLUME 3 in its pocket digest sized paperback iteration (as well as proper full-sized graphic novel Chandler: Red Tide), it still packs a potent visual and narrative punch.

Chandler is a private eye, in the iconic myth-country of 1940’s New York City. One night a desperate man comes looking for someone to track down his inescapable killer.

Bramson Todd witnessed a mob hit and has somehow been poisoned because of it. With seventy-two hours to live, the walking corpse wants proactive revenge, and as well as a vast amount of money, he offers Chandler the chance to save the other three witnesses from the same fate or worse…

The familiar iconography of the seedy, noble gumshoe is augmented by two-fisted action, flying bullets, sundry thugs and scoundrels, memorable, glamorous women and a ticking clock, all working to make in this loving and effective pastiche a minor masterpiece…

Back then, however, a major stumbling block for many readers was the unconventional format of the book.

Each folio is divided into two columns – in the manner of the classic pulp prose page layouts – with each column comprising an illustration above a block of accompanying text.

Despite Steranko’s superb draughtsmanship and design skill (some spreads form extended visual continuities with four single pictures becoming one large illustration), there is an element of separation between prose and picture that can take a little adapting to. You should try. It’s worth it.

This is still a powerful tale, well told and worth any extra effort necessary to enjoy it. Another contender for immediate reissue, I think…
© 1976 Byron Preiss Visual Publications Inc.
The character Chandler © 1976 James Steranko.

Altered Boys volume 1: The Book of Billy


By Michael J. Uhlman, Brian Wasiak, Jon C. Scheide, Robert Rath & various (Shinebox Press)
ISBN: 25274-0480-3

The eternally meandering demarcation line between justice and vengeance has been a favoured theme of drama since storytelling began and is never going to grow stale or overused.

Such tales are always about addressing fundamental universal wrongs which impact on our core values, but they generally come seasoned by topical outrages, such as this moody and compelling opening act in what reads to me like a movie or TV miniseries in the making.

Altered Boys is the brainchild of Hollywood insiders Michael J. Uhlman, Brian Wasiak & Jon C. Scheide, brought to vivid life by illustrator Robert Rath.

It tackles, with cathartic venom and a hunger for redress, one of society’s most vile and iniquitous scandals: the historical and ongoing betrayal and abuse of the innocent faithful by their spiritual – and moral – leaders.

With the current global backlash against religions that value their own wealth and reputations over the harm (some) priests inflict upon the most vulnerable of their charges, here’s an honest and understandable reaction, couched in the trappings of a cop drama and conspiracy thriller.

Once upon a time in Boston there were four boys. It was 1984 and Michael, Mark, Christian and Billy were just your average best friends with their entire lives ahead of them enjoying nothing but high hopes and bold expectations. They were also altar boys at the local Catholic church where the formidable Father Fitzgerald officiated…

Today, the long-separated pals are attending Billy’s funeral. It’s a fractious ill-tempered reunion and there’s plenty of guilt to go around about what happened to him – and them – back then. Even more over how he ended up…

Michael can’t let it go and, displaying an unnerving set of strategies and skills, tracks down Fitzgerald, easily penetrating many devious layers of obfuscation the Church provided when they quietly relocated the paedophilic monster.

Their reunion and confrontation is short and very final…

In the aftermath, Michael enjoys a quiet reconciliation breakfast with Mark and Christian before leaving town. He then has a slanging match with his own superiors and starts lying to his bosses…

In Washington DC, FBI Director Rivera has a visitor. The Cardinal has received a disturbing file he doesn’t want but needs to share. Catholic priests are dying.

Many are committing what doctrine and faith considers a mortal sin and taking their own lives whilst others are just being shot in their homes.

It might not be clear to the authorities what’s going on, but His Eminence knows what all these priests have in common…

What nobody yet realises is that it’s not just Catholics or even simply Christian clerics at risk. Something very methodical and efficient is excising deviant officiants of every faith: those who betray their flocks and predate on their congregations whilst relying on their superiors’ silence to safeguard them.

Now person or persons unknown are using the Churches’ own abominable cowardice in covering up scandals to mask an unswerving elimination of the unholy…

Moreover, Michael’s enigmatic bosses are slowly realising their top operative is also off the rails and ministering to his own agenda…

To Be Continued…

Sharing an edgy tone with Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River and elements of both Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight and Amy Berg’s Deliver Us from Evil, this potent exploration of monsters and champions seeks to redefine notions of Good and Evil whilst telling a darkly gripping story of timeless appeal. It’s working so far…

On a personal note: Having been raised Catholic myself before rationality overwhelmed me, it’s an issue that has long personally aggrieved me and shamed every good and decent person I know (as it should everybody on Earth). It’s good to see mainstream adventure comics seriously addressing the issues in mature – if necessarily bombastic – manner. The second volume is in production as we speak and hopefully it won’t be long before we can see the investigation proceed in Altered Boys: The Book of Rebecca
© 2018 Shinebox Press.

Altered Boys: The Book of Billy is available digitally on Comixology and hard copies can be obtained via the website.

Pride of Baghdad


By Brian K Vaughan & Niko Henrichon (Vertigo)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-0314-6 (HB)                    978-1-4012-0315-3 (PB)

It would be far beyond crass to suggest that anything good at all ever came out of the monstrous debacle of the Iraq invasion, but trenchant-critique-masquerading-as-parable Pride of Baghdad at least offers a unique perspective on a small, cruel and utterly avoidable moment of that bloody mistake.

Brian K. Vaughan (Y: The Last Man, Ex Machina, Runaways, Paper Girls) and Niko Henrichon (Barnum!, Fables, Sandman, Spider-Man), combining the narrative tools of Walt Disney and George Orwell, reconstruct an anthropomorphised tale of a family of lions who are unwillingly liberated from the city zoo during the taking of Baghdad, and then left to run loose in the deadly streets until their tragic end. Throughout the entire debacle the beasts are scared, hungry, under attack and convinced that everything will be great now that they are free…

This is not a spoiler. It is a warning. This is a beautiful, uncompromising, powerful, tale with characters who you will swiftly come to love. And they die because of political fecklessness, commercial venality and human frailty. The seductively magical artwork makes the inevitable tragedy a confusing and wondrous experience and Vaughan’s script could make a stone, and perhaps even a Republican, cry.

Derived from a news item which told of the lions roaming the war-torn Baghdad streets, here we are made to see the invasion in terms other than those of commercial news-gatherers and government spin-doctors, and hopefully can use those different opinions to inform our own. This is a lovely, haunting, sad book: a modern masterpiece which shows why words and pictures have such power that they can terrify bigots and tyrants of all types.

Read this book. Maybe not to your kids, or not yet, but read it.
© 2006 Brian K Vaughan & Niko Henrichon. All Rights Reserved.

Silent Invasion volume 1: Red Shadows


By Michael Cherkas & Larry Hancock (NBM)
ISBN: 978-1-68112-174-1

The 1980s were an immensely fertile time for English-language comics-creators. In America a fresh wave of creativity had started with the birth of dedicated comics shops and, as innovation-geared specialist retailers sprung up all over the country, operated by fans for fans, new publishers began to experiment with format and content, whilst eager readers celebrated the happy coincidence that everybody seemed to have a bit of extra cash to play with.

Consequently, those new publishers were soon aggressively competing for the attention and cash of punters who had grown resigned to getting their on-going picture stories from DC, Marvel, Archie and/or Harvey Comics. European and Japanese material began creeping in and by 1983 a host of young companies such as WaRP Graphics, Pacific, Eclipse, Capital, Now, Comico, Dark Horse, First and many others had established themselves and were making impressive inroads.

New talent, established stars and fresh ideas all found a thriving forum to try something a little different both in terms of content and format. Even shoestring companies and foreign outfits had a fair shot at the big time and much great material came – and almost universally, just as quickly went – without getting the attention or success they warranted.

By avoiding the traditional family sales points such as newsstands, more mature material could be produced: not just increasingly violent and with nudity but also far more political and intellectually challenging too.

Moreover, much of the “brain-rotting trash” or “silly kid’s stuff” stigma had finally dissipated and America was catching up to the rest of the world in acknowledging sequential narrative as a for-real, actual Art-Form, so the door was wide open for gosh-darned foreigners to make a few waves too…

One of the most critically acclaimed and just plain enjoyable features came from semi-Canadian outfit Renegade Press. They had spun out by a torturous and litigious process from Dave Sim’s Canadian Aardvark-Vanaheim enterprise, and set up shop in the USA before beginning to publish at the very start of the black and white comics bubble in 1984.

Renegade quickly established a reputation for excellence, picking up amongst others a surprisingly strong line of creator-based properties and some genuinely remarkable and impressive series such as Ms. Tree, Journey: The Adventures of Wolverine MacAlistaire, Normalman, Flaming Carrot, the first iteration of Al Davison’s stunning Spiral Cage autobiography and a compulsive, stylish Cold War, flying-saucer paranoia-driven thriller series entitled The Silent Invasion.

This last was a stunningly stylish retro-Red Scare saga bolting 1950s homeland terrors (invasion by Commies; invasion by aliens; invasion by new ideas…) onto Film Noir chic and employing 20-20 hindsight to produce a truly fresh and enticing concept in the Reagan-era Eighties.

The series was eventually collected as four superbly oversized monochrome tomes (a whopping 298 x 2058 mm), re-presenting the lead story from the first dozen issues of The Silent Invasion wherein co-creators Michael Cherkas & Larry Hancock concocted a delightful confection combining all the coolest genre elements of classic cult sci-fi, horror, spy, conspiracy theory, crime, romance and even comedy yarns…

Now, after far too long a wait – and with America once again enduring internecine struggle amongst the citizenry, corruption, collusion and cover-ups at every level of government and the press under attack from the people and traditions it seeks to inform and safeguard – the first two volumes have been re-released in a more manageable paperback size (or fully adjustable eBook format) with the expressed intention of catching up and finally completing the tensely compelling epic.

The 1950s in American were a hugely iconic and paradoxical time. Incredible scientific and cultural advancements, great wealth and desperate, intoxicating optimism inexplicably arose amidst an atmosphere of immense social, cultural, racial, sexual and political repression with an increasingly paranoid populace seeing conspiracy and subversive attacks in every shadow and corner of the rest of the world.

Such an insular melting pot couldn’t help but be fertile soil for imaginative outsiders to craft truly incisive and evocative tales dripping with convoluted mystery and taut tension, especially when wedded to the nation’s fantastic – and then-ongoing – obsessions with rogue science, flying saucers, gangsterism and espionage…

They were also obsessed with hot babes and bust sizes, but more of that elsewhere…

This first volume gathers prior collections Secret Affairs and Red Shadows and opens with Max Allan Collins’ expansive Introduction ‘Dick Tracy, Tintin and Serious Comics’, this titanic tale kicks off in April 1952 with ‘Chapter One: Atomic Spies’ within a dark desert landscape 22 miles outside Union City, USA.

Private eye Dick Mallet sees a strange light in the skies and in the morning the cops find his crashed car. There’s no sign of the infamous and distinguished Dick…

A month later reporter Matt Sinkage is still unhappy with his piece on “The Truth Behind Flying Saucers” but his mutterings and musings are interrupted by a hot blonde banging on the door of his foreign-sounding neighbour Ivan Kalashnikov.

Arriving at his desk on The Sentinel, Sinkage can’t believe the audacity of the Air Force’s official line about “marsh gas” and starts screaming at his Editor Frank Costello. The irascible bossman just bawls him out – again – and sends him off to cover real news…

Instead Sinkage heads out to the site of the latest sighting and starts interviewing local yokels. That night fiancée Peggy cooks him a meal but his mind is elsewhere, on that night six months back in Albany when he saw a UFO and impetuously chased after it: a night everyone but him remembers…

Later, in a bar, Matt continues badgering Frank until the booze gets to him. Eventually Sinkage slinks back to his apartment. Ivan’s door is open and a quick glance reveals the foreigner and others in front of a huge, weird machine and Matt realises they must be Reds! Atomic spies!

Before the reporter can react, Kalashnikov pulls a really strange gun and shoots. Next morning Sinkage awakes with another sore head and more fuzzy memories…

Days later Matt again collides with Mr K’s pretty friend Gloria Amber, but fails to get another look inside his neighbour’s place. Undeterred, he resorts to asking her out to lunch which somehow provokes the old guy into taking a sudden trip out of town. Things get even stranger when Gloria comes running to him, being chased by what she claims are Red agents…

Spiriting her away and stashing her somewhere safe, Matt doesn’t hear the pursuers accosting his landlord, claiming to be Federal Men…

‘Chapter Two: Secrets and Insidious Machinations’ finds the fugitives deep in the suburbs with Matt’s sedate brother Walter. The weary reporter is still seeing flying saucers and can’t understand why everybody else thinks they’re just jets. Meanwhile back in Union City, Frank is getting a grilling from FBI Agent Housley.

They’re old acquaintances. The G-Man regularly pops by to suppress one news item or another…

This time though the Feds want the vanished Sinkage and are not happy that Costello has no idea of the gadfly’s current location.

Back in suburbia, things are none too comfortable either. Stuck-up sister-in-law Katie is convinced Matt and his new floozy are up to no good and wants them out. At least she doesn’t know the FBI are scouring the city for them. Enigmatic Gloria, however, is more concerned that Sinkage is sleepwalking and having strange nightmares… just like Kalashnikov feared he might…

Matt and Gloria are just heading out in Walter’s borrowed car when Peggy pops by. She can’t understand why her man is with a flashy trollop and pointedly won’t talk to her. Gloria told Matt the real Reds are after Kalashnikov’s memoirs and convinced him to drive her to a quiet town in the desert where a “contact” will protect them both.

Mr K meanwhile has called in his own heavies to chase the couple, unaware that the FBI have visited Walter and Katie. A net is closing around Sinkage and the mystery woman he implicitly trusts… but really shouldn’t.…

The tension mounts in ‘Chapter Three: The Stubbinsville Connection’ as a mysterious Council of shadowy men convenes to discuss the Sinkage problem. As Housley’s report continues, when it becomes clear the reporter was also involved in the Albany event near-panic ensues…

In a cheap motel Matt’s suspicions are back. Gloria vanished from their room for a while during the night and hasn’t mentioned it…

They’re confirmed some time later when she helps Kalashnikov’s hoods Zanini and Koldst abduct her and rough him up. Back at Walter’s house the FBI turn up to interview them about Matt. They claim they’re the only Feds working on the case and no other government officials have been there before them…

Katie has had enough and spills all she knows. The agents instantly go into overdrive and organise all their forces to head for sleepy, remote Stubbinsville. Matt, meanwhile, has recovered and called the only guy he still trusts, his researcher Dan Maloney. That worthy warns him of the confusing profusion of agents all claiming to be working for the government, before sharing the same info with Frank Costello…

As Housley’s team fly in, Matt has decided to go on, hitchhiking to the rendezvous with a quirkily affable farmer who happily joins him in “pranking” the cops who have just arrested Zanini, Koldst and Gloria…

Reunited with his oddly-compliant mystery amour, Matt hurtles on to Stubbinsville in a stolen car, but with less than 100 miles to go Gloria falls ill. She makes him promise to get her there at all costs…

As the assorted pursuers converge, she directs Matt to a lonely wilderness area, but the forces of law and order have spotted them and follow. As the net closes a fantastic and terrifying lightshow ignites the dark skies. By the time Housley reaches the specified target area, all he finds is a comatose Sinkage.

As days pass, Matt finds himself free with all charges dropped, but he’s oddly content. Despite another blatant cover-up and no clue as to who all the various parties hounding him actually were, he knows what he knows and wonders when Gloria will be back…

By the time of ‘Chapter Four: A Pink Slip for a Pinko’ a little time has passed. It’s June 1952 and Matt Sinkage is tormented by nightmares of lights in the sky, Housley hunting him and Gloria beseeching him to join her kind…

His life has gone rapidly downhill. Stories of his being a “Commie” are everywhere, FBI agents shadow his every move and the oppressive tension is becoming overwhelming. When he gets a phone call from long-missing Dick Mallet, Matt arranges to meet the PI, and consequently notices that sister-in-law Katie is always listening recently and has become very chummy with his ominously ever-present G-Man surveillance detail…

First, though, Matt has to get the last of his belongings since the “Red” smear has allowed his landlord to terminate his lease. Aided by faithful fiancée Peggy and ever-friendly custodian Mr. Schneider, Sinkage collects his things and has an uncomfortable meeting with Kalashnikov. Almost in passing, Matt notices that he now has a different team of “Feds” dogging him.

When he finally meets Mallet, the gumshoe shows him an incredible set of photos: interior and exteriors shots of the flying saucers taken by the aliens…

At the Sentinel, Dan Maloney has made progress investigating Kalashnikov and Gloria but wants to finish his research before sharing. Sinkage has bigger problems though. His fellow workers have sent him to Coventry and the paper’s owner wants the “Commie” fired.

Costello is fighting back though. He suspects Housley is behind the disinformation and smear tactics targeting Matt.

Staying with Walter and Katie isn’t helping Matt’s mental state. As visions of the Albany event haunt him, his life takes another plunge when he finds Mallet murdered. Housley is there but frankly admits he knows Sinkage is innocent and (probably) the patsy of a cunningly contrived frame-up.

That doesn’t stop him trying to pump Matt for further information – just as his Council bosses ordered him to…

When Matt is finally fired and Maloney is killed in a freak accident the harried journalist knows is a case of Murder-By-Aliens, Sinkage feels the walls closing in and makes a run for it…

‘Chapter Five: Identity Crisis’ opens one night in July 1952 with Matt holed up in Maloney’s old hunting shack. He’s been utterly alone for weeks but is still seeing flying saucers in the night skies. He’s also reliving past events, helplessly mixing memories of Gloria with other moments. He’s so confused that when Peggy suddenly turns up, he mistakes her for his missing blonde mystery-woman…

Peggy visits him every night, offering food and company. She seems so different; warm and vivacious, but is always gone when he blearily wakes up in the morning.

Back in Union City, Housley and his secretary Meredith Monroe are reviewing the verifiable facts and reach a disturbing conclusion. Somebody on Phil’s team has their own agenda. He fears it’s his own boss – and Council stooge – Buzz Brennan but can’t find reasons to ignore their orders. Both his official employers and the secret ones above them want Sinkage found at all costs…

In the wilderness, Matt is starting to crack. Anonymously buying a gun from a local store he travels back to the city for Dan’s funeral and sees Housley and Brennan clash with Costello. He then sneaks back to his old building and breaks into Kalashnikov’s apartment. Sinkage finds a cache of files and as he reads them experiences a horrifying flashback: he’s strapped into some sort of brainwashing machine in a spaceship…

Matt is roused from the memories by Ivan’s return and bolts, leaving the scattered files behind. He then visits Peggy’s house where her mother’s hostile reception confirms a suspicion that has been growing in his mind…

His intended is waiting in the truck he borrowed, and as they furtively drive out to the country Matt drops his bombshell. He now believes he’s an alien consciousness improperly overlaid on a human mind and he knows Peggy is too: the same mental invader he used to know as Gloria Amber…

‘Chapter Six: What We Really Know about Flying Saucers’ pushes the drama into overdrive as Peggy frantically tries to dissuade Matt. He is adamant and, as Peggy storms off, Matt goes to Costello. They compare notes, unaware that the Council is mobilising all its covert assets in Housley’s FBI team to get Sinkage at all costs…

It might have worked had not Matt surprised everybody by turning himself in to share what he saw in Kalashnikov’s files with Housley and Meredith. Sadly, as he’s being taken to a safe-house Zanini and Koldst kidnap Sinkage and drag him back to Ivan… and Peggy!

By the time Housley realises what’s occurred and rushed to the apartment, it’s too late. The files are gone, but no one can determine whether they were cleared out by the foreigners or simply lost in the fire set by the Council’s inside man…

Matt has a different story. He survived the conflagration by rushing to the roof where he saw a saucer pick up one of his abductors, coldly leaving the rest to perish. It is a story he sticks to, even after he is committed…

To Be Continued…

Potently evocative, impeccably tailored and fabulously cool, The Silent Invasion remains a unique, boldly imagined and cunningly crafted adventure. Rendered in a style then considered revolutionary and even today still spectacularly expressionistic, this is a classic epic long-overdue for a modern revival: an unforgettable gateway to an eerily familiar yet comfortably exotic era of innocent joy and a million “top secrets” which no fan of fantastic thriller fiction should ignore.
© 1986, 1987, 2018 Michael Cherkas & Larry Hancock. Introduction © 1988, 2018 Max Allan Collins. All rights reserved.

Silent Invasion: Red Shadows will be published on September 25th 2018 and is available for pre-order now. For more information and other great reads see http://www.nbmpub.com/

Hearts and Minds – A Vietnam Love Story


By Doug Murray & Russ Heath (Marvel/Epic Comics)
ISBN: 978-0-87135-699-4

I was deeply saddened to hear of the death of Russ Heath last week, so I’m repurposing an old review today to commemorate his astounding career and achievements. It’s an easy thing to do as his work was always amongst the rarefied top rank of illustrators to grace the American comics scene…

Russell Heath Jr. was born in New York City on September 29th 1926 and was raised in New Jersey. Influenced by cowboy artist Will James and others, Heath was self-taught and fiercely diligent, demanding authenticity of himself in all his work. This helped him break into the comicbook industry while still at High School (episodes of naval strip Hammerhead Hawley for Captain Aero Comics beginning with volume 2, #2 in September 1942).

Eager to serve, Heath left Montclair High School early in 1945 for the Air Force. Whilst in the military he contributed cartoons to the Camp newspaper before shipping out.

When peace broke out, he worked briefly as a gofer at an ad agency until in 1947 he landed a regular job with Timely Comics. Now married he soon started working from home, drawing Kid Colt and Two Gun Kid, offerings for the dwindling superhero market and sundry horror stories and covers.

He hit an early peak in the 1950s, with a wealth of western and horror features as well as co-creating Marvel Boy, working on crime and romance tales, Venus and the Human Torch during the abortive attempt to revive superheroes in 1953.

He branched out to other publishers: trying his hand on EC’s Mad and Frontline Combat, 3D comics for St. John’s and earned a reputation for gritty veracity in his war and adventure stories (such as Robin Hood and Golden Gladiator for DC’s The Brave and the Bold).

He began contributing to DC’s new war line in early 1954, with strips appearing in Our Army at War #23 and Star Spangled War Stories #22.

It was good fit and he spent the next decade and a half working with writer/editor Robert Kanigher, with whom he co-created The Haunted Tank, The Losers and Sea Devils. All along he remained a stalwart of anthological short war stories, guested on and eventually took over full time illustrating on the prestigious Sgt. Rock.

Infamously, many of his panels were co-opted by pop artist Roy Lichtenstein as the basis of his paintings (specifically Whaam!, Blam, Okay Hot-Shot, Okay!, and Brattata). Heath’s other contributions to American pop culture include iconic ads for toy soldiers and a stint on Harvey Kurtzman and Will Elder’s ubiquitous Playboy satire strip Little Annie Fanny.

Eventually he moved into animation and out to the west coast, but remained in contact with his comics roots, providing occasional returns on titles such as Planet of the Vampires, Mister Miracle, Ka-Zar, The Punisher, Shadowmasters, G.I. Joe and. the Immortal Iron Fist among others.

Having been awarded almost every award going, Heath was in semi-retirement when he died on the 23rd August 2018.

At the end of the 1980s Marvel began extending the scope of the Original Graphic Novels line and this potent and uncompromising fable was the impressive result.

Hearts and Minds – A Vietnam Love Story tells of a half-caste French/Vietnamese peasant girl, whose husband is killed by proselytizing Viet Cong Guerrillas, but who finds a kind of love with a green American college drop-out trapped in The Draft and sent to kill Commies for Uncle Sam.

Of course, it doesn’t end well…

1965: Despite himself Lieutenant Jim Brett is fitting in. He has an aptitude for the soldier’s life and has found his One True Love in the Officers’ Brothel. The half-white Nhi is overjoyed to have been purchased by the handsome young Lieutenant and looks forward to her new life in America as Mrs. Brett. But when the Viet Cong stage a successful assault on the city of Hue she discovers that her first husband is still alive and now a fanatical Guerrilla leader. And then the frantic Brett bursts into the house…

The examination of the greater conflict through a doomed romance is both subtle and evocative, and the hyper-precise drawing and bright happy colours of the artwork savagely underpin the oppressive brutality and doomed futility of the tale. Hearts and Minds is an anti-war tale with all the punch and poignancy of an artillery round, favouring no side whilst counting the human cost and yet still managing to balance blazing action with passionate intensity.

Concerned parents should note that if this is a novel for adults with graphic nudity and violence.

Russ Heath is a name that should be household, but is sadly someone who will only probably be missed by those of us fortunate and broadminded enough to have roamed beyond the attention-grabbing superhero comics ghetto. He is also an immortal talent whose work will live on as long as we keep seeking hyper-real, ultra-precise, breathtakingly powerful narrative graphics.

Remember the name and look for it when buying your old comics and albums in future.
© 1990 Doug Murray & Russ Heath. All Rights Reserved.

The Graphic Canon volume 1: From the Epic of Gilgamesh to Shakespeare to Dangerous Liaisons


By Many and Various, edited by Russ Kick (Seven Stories)
ISBN: 978-1-60980-376-6

Once upon a time in the English-speaking world, nobody clever, educated or in any way grown-up liked comics. Now we’re an accredited really and truly art form and spectacular books like this can be appreciated…

The Graphic Canon is an astounding literary and art project, instigated by legendary crusading editor, publisher, anthologist and modern Renaissance Man Russ Kick, which endeavours to interpret the world’s great books through the eyes of masters of crusading sequential narrative in an eye-opening synthesis of modes and styles.

The project is divided into three periods roughly equating with the birth of literature and its evolution up to the rise of the modern novel. Debut volume From the Epic of Gilgamesh to Shakespeare to Dangerous Liaisons covers literature from ancient times to the end of the 1700s in stories and poetry. Much of the material here has been taken from already extant or ongoing projects: indeed, as editor Russ Kick explains in his Introduction, it was a realisation that so many creative individuals were attempting to publish their own graphic responses to global heritage literature that led him to initiate this mammoth project in the first place…

Rather than simply converting the stories, the artists involved have enjoyed the freedom to respond to texts in their own way, producing graphics – narrative or otherwise, monochrome or something else, sequential or not – to accompany, augment or even offset the words before them and the result is simply staggering…

Make no mistake: this is not a simple bowdlerising “prose to strip” exercise like generations of Classics Illustrated comics, and you won’t pass any tests on the basis of what you see here. Moreover, these images will make you want to re-read the texts you know and hunger for the ones you haven’t got around to yet. You will of a certainty marvel at the infinite variety of the artistic responses the canonical works inspired…

They certainly did for me…

Each piece is preceded by an informative commentary page by Kick, and the wonderment begins with a colourful and outrageously engaging ‘Three Panel Review: Hamlet’ by Lisa Brown after which grateful Acknowledgements and that aforementioned Editor’s Introduction lead directly into a delirious snippet from The Epic of Gilgamesh.

Like many contributions collected here, The Bull of Heaven – as adapted by Kent & Kevin Dixon – was already in production when invited into this book. The finally-completed saga has recently re-manifested and you can read of it here.

Those august remnants of lost Babylonian Tablets are followed by a delicious retelling of the origin of the stars in ‘Coyote and the Pebbles’. The beguiling and witty Native American Folktale is given a compelling reworking by Dayton Edmonds & Micah Farritor and leads seamlessly into a double dose of Homeric grandiloquence.

Alice Duke samples the duel between Paris and Menelaus from The Iliad after which Gareth Hinds dips into The Odyssey to re-present the monstrous duel between the lost Greeks and the ghastly Cyclops, after which we stay firmly in the cradle of civilisation to enjoy Sappho’s ‘Poem Fragments’ as embellished by Alessandro Bonaccorsi before Tori McKenna sums up the vengeful force of Euripides’ ‘Medea’.

Aristophanes’ still-shocking and controversial play Lysistrata is potently and hilariously précised in strip form by Valerie Schrag before J.T. Waldman powerfully synthesises the erotic vision of ‘The Book of Ester’ from the Hebrew Bible and Yeji Yun translates Plato’s Symposium into stark yet effective pantomimic visuals.

Fred Van Lente & Ryan Dunlavey have adapted numerous deep thinkers in their series Action Philosophers! ‘Tao Te Ching’ as dictated by Lao Tzu is both wickedly funny and thoughtfully compelling and perfectly offset by Matt Wiegle’s colourful heroic snippet ‘The House of Lac’ from The Mahabharata.

Van Lente & Dunlavey bring us some Analects and Other Writings of Confucius – called here ‘Master Kong’ – before the Hebrew Bible provides Benjamin Frisch with the golden-hued inspiration for dreamy fable ‘The Book of Daniel’, after which Tom Bilby & Jonathan Fetter-Vorm (AKA Two Fine Chaps) graphically discourse On the Nature of Things as originally cited by Lucretius.

Michael Lagocki captures the graceful ferocity of Virgil’s ‘Aeneid’ – specifically the founding of Rome – before master cartoonist Rick Geary astoundingly encapsulates the entirety of ‘The Book of Revelation’ from the New Testament and Sharon Rudahl restores calm and sanity with ‘Three Tang Poems: Frontier Song by Wang Han, A Village South of the Capital by Cul Hu and Drinking Alone Beneath the Moon by Li Bai’

Gareth Hinds grittily adapts the battle between hero and monster in Anglo-Saxon Epic Poem Beowulf after which idyllic romance is referenced by Molly Kiely through a series of portraits of some of the many erotic conquests of an ideal Japanese prince as inspired by Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji.

Far darker and more troubled love guides the images crafted by Ellen Lindner to illustrate ‘The Letters of Heloise and Abelard’ after which Kiely illuminates the profoundly eco-activist poem ‘O Nobilissima Viriditas’ by Hildegard of Bingen (look her up, you really should…).

Andrice Arp puckishly illustrates stories within a story for ‘The Fisherman and the Genie’ from The Arabian Nights, after which the same source – albeit the unexpurgated translation by Sir Richard Burton – provides racy and outrageously wry ‘The Woman with Two Coyntes’ as adapted by Vicki Nerino.

Coleman Barks translates a wonderful plenitude of ‘Poems’ by Sufi sage – and advocate of a loving universe – Rumi for Michael Green to spectacularly illustrate, after which a double dose of Dante Alighieri begins with Seymour Chwast’s smart and sassy take on The Divine Comedy. Hunt Emerson than adds his own unique spin to ‘The Inferno’ (The Eighth Circle, if you’re keeping score) whilst Sanya Glisic sustains the post-viva theme by offering views of the Eastern afterlife as cited in Padmasambhava and Karma Lingpa’s translation of The Tibetan Book of the Dead (Bardo Thodol).

Safely back among the living, we turn to the outrageous lifestyle of French poet and courtier François Villon, who penned in a jailhouse ‘The Last Ballad’ illustrated here by Julian Peters long before his actual end. It’s followed by another medieval masterpiece as Seymour Chwast deftly tackles the ‘Wife of Bath’ from Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales.

Staying in England, Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur is given a stunning treatment by Omaha Perez who illumines the parable of ‘How the Hart was Chased into a Castle and There Slain, and How Sir Gawaine Slew a Lady’

The reason we have so much European and Asian literature today is the sheer fact that it wasn’t deliberately eradicated. That’s tragically not the case for the pre-Columbian Americas and a great pity since sole surviving Incan play Apu Ollantay – adapted here by Caroline Picard – is a smart and potent family star-crossed love affair worthy of the Greeks or even Shakespeare…

Outlaws of the Water Margin is a vast and sprawling epic of heroes battling against corruption and injustice in ancient China. As Shi Nai’an’s opus is far too large to handle here, illustrator Shawn Cheng has instead offered a rogues’ gallery of some of the heroic characters who feature in the portmanteau classics, whereas Isabel Greenberg has time and space to lyrically adapt Japanese Noh play ‘Hagoromo (Celestial Feather Robe)’ in full.

Roberta Gregory then pictorialises the decidedly more wholesome and charming creation myth from Popul Vuh – the Sacred Book of the Quiché Maya – and Edie Fake illuminates ‘The Visions of St. Teresa of Ávila’ as first seen in the Spanish religious reformer’s autobiography.

Almost forgotten English poet George Peele penned his own interpretation of the drama of Solomon and Bathsheba centuries ago, a snippet of which is here transformed by Dave Morice into stunning op-art masterpiece ‘Hot Sun, Cool Fire’. Conor Hughes then expertly covers in more traditional form ‘The Sun Rises’ from Wu Cheng’en’s revered Chinese epic Journey to the West before Michael Stanyer adapts and Eric Johnson illustrates a mere fragment from Edmund Spenser’s unfinished opus The Faerie Queene.

Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream must be one of the most popular comic strip topics of all, but Maxx Kelly & Huxley King still add fresh zest and contemporary sparkle to the scene where Titania and Oberon haggle over the fate of an abducted child…

Ian Pollock then tackles The Bard’s darkest drama as King Lear challenges the heavens themselves before Will Eisner lends his unique light touch to Miguel Cervantes’ Don Quixote.

Robert Berry and Josh Levitas then translate Shakespeare’s ‘Sonnet 18’ to an effectively modern setting whilst Aidan Koch applies a more esoteric approach to the eternally-mystifying ‘Sonnet 20’ before Noah Patrick Pfarr supplies a suitably raunchy setting and quirky twist to John Donne’s erotic poem ‘The Flea’.

Andrew Marvell’s equally celebrated devious love-ploy ‘To His Coy Mistress’ is given a sentimental 19th century makeover by Yien Yip after which real-life Restoration-Era Wonder Woman Aphra Behn provides moody inspiration for artist Alex Eckman-Lawn through her poem ‘Forgive Us Our Trespasses’.

John Milton’s magnificent Paradise Lost – specifically ‘the Fall of Satan’ – is astoundingly depicted by Rebecca Dart after which ‘Part II: A Voyage to Brobdingnag’ sees Gareth Hinds lovingly limning an extract from Jonathan Swift’s satirical salvo Gulliver’s Travels whilst Ian Ball uses abreaction to hammer home the finer points of Voltaire’s Candide.

Modern graphic crusader Peter Kuper then lambasts us with a lethally edgy visualisation of Swift’s brutally critical A Modest Proposal.

Benjamin Franklin’s scandalous epistle ‘Advice to a Young Man on the Choice of a Mistress’ is accompanied by a sumptuous painting from Cortney Skinner before James Bosworth’s shocking and sordidly biographical London Journal is captivatingly interpreted by comix pioneer Robert Crumb in ‘A Klassic Komic: excepts from Boswell’s London Journal 1762-1763’.

Veteran cartoonist Stan Shaw then captures the wryly scatalogical spirit of Benjamin Franklin’s ‘Letter to the Royal Academy of Brussels (AKA ‘Fart Proudly’)’ and van Lente & Dunlavey return with another Action Philosophers! titbit clarifying Mary Wollstonecraft’s momentous political tract A Vindication of the Rights of Woman before Molly Crabapple illustrates select moments from Choderios de Lacios’ dark and disturbing social satire Dangerous Liaisons to bring the art schooling to a close.

Wrapping up the elucidatory experience are suggestions of ‘Further Reading’ from Liz Byer, a full list of ‘Contributors’, plus details of ‘Credits and Permissions’ and an ‘Index to volume 1’.

Although no replacement for actually reading as much of the source material as you can find, this astonishing agglomeration of visual interpretations is a magnificent achievement and one every fan of the comics medium should see: a staggering blend of imperishable thoughts and words wedded to and springing from sublimely experimental pictures.

This type of venture is just what our art form needs to grow beyond our largely self-imposed ghetto, and anything done this well with so much heart and joy simply has to be rewarded.
© 2012 Russ Kick. All work © individual owners and copyright holders and used with permission. All rights reserved.

Oh, Wicked Wanda!


By Frederic Mullally & Ron Embleton (Penthouse)
No ISBN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bread & Wine – an Erotic Tale of New York


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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