The Marvel Art of Savage Sword of Conan the Barbarian


By John Rhett Thomas, Roy Thomas, P. Craig Russell, Barry Windsor-Smith, John Buscema, Gil Kane, Neal Adams, Alex Toth, Walter Simonson, M.W. Kaluta, Tony DeZuñiga, Richard Corben, Boris Vallejo, Earl Norem, Joe Jusko, Michael Golden & many & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-1-3029-2382-2 (HB)

During the 1970’s the American comic book industry opened up after more than 15 years of cautious and calcified publishing practises that had come about as a reaction to the censorious oversight of the self- inflicted Comics Code Authority. This body was created to keep the publishers’ product wholesome after the industry suffered their very own McCarthy-style Witch-hunt during the 1950s.

One of the first genres revisited was Horror/Mystery comics and from that sprang pulp icon Conan the Barbarian, via a little tale in anthology Chamber of Darkness #4, whose hero bore no little thematic resemblance to the Cimmerian. It was written by Roy Thomas and drawn by Barry (now Windsor-) Smith: a recent Marvel find, and one who was gradually breaking out of the company’s all-encompassing Jack Kirby house-style.

Despite some early teething problems – including being cancelled and reinstated in the same month – the comic book adventures of Robert E. Howard’s brawny warrior soon became as big a success as the revived prose paperbacks which had heralded a world boom in tales of fantasy and the supernatural.

After decades away, and despite being fully owned by CPI (Conan Properties International), the brawny brute returned to the aegis of Marvel in 2019 and made himself fully at home. As well as his own title and in-world spin-offs, many collections celebrating “the Original Marvel Years” – due to the character’s sojourn with other publishers – have been released. This one is indubitably the most pretty to look upon.

The first time around, Conan broke many moulds, including being able to sustain not just his general audience boutique of titles and a newspaper strip, but also easily fitting Marvel’s black & white magazine division, offering more explicitly violent and risqué fare for supposedly more mature readers. For this market he debuted in Savage Tales #1 (1971) before winning his own monochrome title. Savage Sword of Conan launched in August 1974, running 235 issues until its cancellation in July 1995.

Throughout its life SSoC offered powerful stories, features on all things Robert E Howard and some of the most incredible artwork ever to grace comics pages.

All of that is covered by legendary Hyborian Scribe Roy Thomas in his Introduction and the page-by-page annotations of compiler John Rhett Thomas, but what’s really of interest is the painted covers, pin-ups, portfolios and extracts of story sequences by a stunning pantheon of internationally acclaimed artists which include John Buscema, Barry Windsor-Smith, Alex Toth, Neal Adams, Tony DeZuñiga, Jim Starlin, Frank Brunner, Alfredo Alcala, Alex Niño, Mike Zeck, Walter Simonson, Tim Conrad, Val Mayerik, Richard Corben, Steve Leialoha, Vicente Alcazar, Dick Giordano, Gene Colan, Pablo Marcos, E.R. Cruz, Rudy Nebres, Kerry Gammil, Nestor Redondo, Ernie Chan, Gene Day, Pat Broderick, Bill Sienkiewicz, Armando Gil, Gary Kwapisz, Adam Kubert, Dale Eaglesham, Dave Simons, Mike Docherty, Rafael Kayanan, Andrew Currie and P. Craig Russell, who also provides a picture-packed Afterword and appreciation of the mighty magazine and it’s star. I’m sure there are plenty more artists I’ve missed here, but you get the picture. Everyone and his granny wanted a shot at Conan…

Cover artists providing pulse-pounding paintings include Buscema, Adams, Starlin, Conrad, Sienkiewicz, Mayerik, Boris Vallejo, Earl Norem, Bob Larkin, Joe Jusko, Joe Chiodo, Michael Golden, Steve Hickman, Doug Beekman, David Mattingly, Dorian Vallejo, Nick Jainschigg, Ovi Hondru, Michael William Kaluta, George Pratt, Julie Bell and more, making this bombastic compilation a must-have bestiary of how to have cathartic fun and get paid too…

Groundbreaking, gripping, graphic wonderment, this astounding hardback and digital delight is every fantasy fan’s dream come true – and you know gift-giving season is just around the corner, right?
Conan the Barbarian published monthly by MARVEL WORLDWIDE INC., a subsidiary of MARVEL ENTERTAINMENT LLC. Conan © 2020 Conan Properties International LLC.

Problematic: Sketchbook Drawings 2004-2012


By Jim Woodring (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-594-5 (HB)

Some creators in the world of comics just defy description and their collected works are beyond the reviewer’s skills (mine certainly) to elucidate or encapsulate. Some are just so pedestrian or mind-numbingly bad that one simply can’t face writing about them. Others are so emphatically wonderful that no collection of praise and analysis can do them justice.

At the apex of that tricky funnybook pyramid is Jim Woodring: a position he’s maintained for years and appears capable of holding for years to come. Woodring’s work is challenging, spiritual, philosophical, funny, beautiful and extremely scary. And, even after reading that sentence, you will have absolutely no idea of what you will be seeing the first time you read any of it.

Moreover, even if you have scrupulously followed cartoonist, animator, Fine Artist, toy-maker and artistic Renaissance Man James William Woodring through an eccentric career spanning his first mini-comics in 1980; groundbreaking Fantagraphics magazine series such as Jim (1986), notional spin-offs Frank and Weathercraft, Tantalizing Stories, Seeing Things, Congress of the Animals or more mainstream storytelling such as Star Wars and Aliens tales for Dark Horse, you’ll still have no idea how you will respond to his work.

Woodring delivers surreal, abstract, wild, rational, primal cartooning: his clean-mannered art a blend of woodblock prints, Robert Crumb style, wry humour and eerie conviviality, Dreamscape, religious art and monstrous phantasmagoria. His works form a logical, progressional narrative pockmarked with multiple layers of meaning but generally devoid of speech or words, magnificently dependent on the intense involvement of the reader as a fully active participant.

So you can imagine what his first formative thoughts, passing observations and moments of wild unfettered graphic whimsy must be like…

This stunning hardback or digital compilation opens the gates of dream just a crack wider than is safe, offering selected graphic snippets from the artist’s sketchbooks covering a superbly productive period following the millennium and offering a few choice views of other graphic avenues he might have pursued if the world of harnessed hallucinations had not exhibited such a strong hold…

In his ‘Introduct’, Woodring describes his abandonment of traditional graphic tomes for diminutive “Moleskine” doodle-pads: using the flimsy palm-sized books to capture ideas roughly, quickly and with intense immediacy. The gimmick clearly works. The material collected here – mostly enlarged 140% up from the originals – simply buzzes with life and energy….

Many Frank regulars show up, including the eponymous Krazy Kat-like ingénue himself, and there are absolute torrents of bizarre, god-like household appliances, vulture-things, frog-things, rhino-things, plant-things and unspeakable Thing-things, all resident in the insanely logical traumic universe of his sensoria.

There are snippets of reportage, plenty of designs and even roughs and layouts from finished stories. Woodring also proves himself a pretty sharp pencil when it comes to capturing the weird moment of reality we all experience, a keen caricaturist and a deliciously funny “straight gag-man”, glamour artist and capturer of friends in idle moments – just like all of us sad art-school escapees who break into a cold sweat whenever we realise we’ve left the sketchbook at home and there’s only beer-mats and napkins to draw on….

Woodring is not to everyone’s taste or sensibilities – for starters, his drawings have a distressing habit of creeping back long after you’ve put the book down and scaring the bejeezus out of you – but he is an undisputed master of the form and an innovator always warping the creative envelope.

As such, this welcome peek into his creative process and conceptual/visual syllabary offers encouragement and delight to artists and storytellers of every stripe, as well as being just plain wonderful to see.

All art-forms need such creators and this glorious hardback monochrome tome could well change your working and reading habits for life.

Go on, aren’t you tempted, tantalized or terrified yet? What about curious, then…?
© 2012 Jim Woodring. This edition © 2012 Fantagraphics Books. All rights reserved.

Hope and Hell’s Flaw – Shame books 4 and 5


By Lovern Kindzierski, John Bolton & Todd Klein (Renegade Arts Entertainment)

ISBN: 978-1-98782-548-0 (Hope TPB) ISBN: 978-1-98890389-7 (Hell’s Flaw TPB)

Comics are unequivocally a visual medium and that’s never more ably demonstrated than in a seductively bewitching allegorical fable from writer Lovern Kindzierski, painter John Bolton and letterer Todd Klein.

The story began with three Original Graphic Novels released between 2011 and 2013, before the entire epic was housed in its proper setting: a lavish and sublime full-colour hardback tome, liberally garnished with beguiling bonus features and all the usual digital equivalents.

So, if you’re sitting comfortably with all the doors locked and windows covered, let’s begin with a swift reprise…

Once upon a time in Conception a benevolent but homely witch named Mother Virtue spent all her days doing little favours and grand good deeds for the ordinary and unfortunate, and for these kind actions she was beloved by all. Spiritually, she was probably the most perfect woman in the world, but as for her looks…

She lived life well, growing old and content, but one day, after decades of joyous philanthropy, a single selfish thought flashed idly through her mind: a momentary longing for a daughter and wish for it to be true, that she might be a mother in fact as well as name…

The weak moment was instantly exploited by malign Shadow of Ignorance Slur. Through dark magics, he impregnated the champion of Good with a vile seed of evil, bragging to the wise-woman that her wish-made daughter would be a diabolical demon deserving the name Shame

Deeply repenting that selfish whim and dreading horrors yet to come, Mother Virtue transformed her idyllic cottage in the woods into a floral prison; a Cradle reluctantly repurposed to isolate and eventually contain the thing growing in her belly. The miserable matron-to-be also assembled Dryads to care for and guard the baby. Once Virtue finally births Shame, she leaves the devil’s burden to be reared in the mystical compound, where it grows strong and cruel but so very beautiful…

After much concentrated effort, however, minions of Shame’s sire breach Cradle’s green ramparts and school the child in vile necromancy to ensure her dire, sordid inheritance. With malefic potency, Shame refashions her guardians into something more pliable and appropriately monstrous…

As the devil’s daughter physically ripens, Slur himself comes to his evil child and through him Shame learns the terrifying power of sex. With the aid of an infernal incubus which has stolen seed from many men, she quickens a child in her own belly and eventually births a beautiful baby girl.

Into that infant Slur pours Mother Virtue’s soul; gorily ripped from the despondent dotard’s aging carcase at the moment of her granddaughter’s delivery. Even the nunnery Virtue had locked herself within was no proof against the marauding Shadow of Ignorance…

With her despised mother now her own child, securely bound within the floral penitentiary, Shame goes out into the world to make her mark…

Pursuit took up the story sixteen years later. Infant Virtue has grown strong and lovely, despite every effort of malformed, mystically mutated Dryads and Shame’s own diabolical sorcery toiling constantly but to no effect in a campaign of corruption, making every day of her young life a savage test of survival. This daily failure makes Shame – now elevated by her own evil efforts to queen of a mortal kingdom – furious beyond belief.

When not burning witches and wise women who might threaten her absolute domination, or having her armies ravage neighbouring realms, the haughty hell-spawn spies upon her offspring/ancestor with infernal devices, but is always bitterly disappointed and enraged….

Elsewhere, a valiant knight lies dying and mournfully bids his afflicted son Merritt farewell. With his last breaths, the swift-failing father dreads how his foolish, naïve, beloved boy will fare in a world ruled by the Queen who has ended him…

The hopeless dreamer is stubborn above all else and – when Merritt discovers the vegetable hell-mound of Cradle – stories his mother told him long ago run again through his head. Odd, inexplicable yearning compels him to overcome appalling arcane odds and break in. He liberates the beautiful prisoner… although she actually does most of the work…

Freed from Cradle, Virtue’s mystic might blooms. Far away, Shame reels. Slur cares little for his daughter but much for his plans: disclosing Merritt is Destiny’s wild card: a Sword of Fate who could reshape the future of humanity. Of course, that depends on whose side he joins…

The young heroes near the capital but are ambushed. After a tremendous mystic clash, Merritt awakens in a palace with a compelling dark-haired vision ministering to his every need and desire. Meanwhile, far below in a rank, eldritch dungeon, Virtue languishes, patiently adjusting plans…

This eldritch esoterically erotic epic concluded with Redemption as Merritt fell deeper under the sultry sway of the dark queen, devolving into her submissive tool of human subjugation, whilst Virtue languished in fetid squalor, weaving intricate magic with the paltry, debased materials at hand…

In the Queen’s arms, Merritt remains a child shaped by his mother’s bedtime stories. When Virtue contacts him, he readily sneaks down to her cell, dreams of nobility and valiant deeds filling his addled head…

With a final confrontation between mother and daughter imminent, Virtue sends Merritt to Hell on a vital quest to recover the Hope of the World. His triumphant return saves the kingdom and redeems the downcast…

As with all great fairy tales, justice is delivered and the world is set right side up again, with Shame dead, Slur confined to the Pit and pure reborn soul Hope in charge…

But what actually happens on the first day of “Happy Ever After”? The answer comes as the initial trilogy is extended via a second tranche of Original Graphic Novels, with Kindzierski & Bolton picking up their eldritch tapestry again in Hope

The day after Shame’s dismemberment and descent to Hell, chaos and uprising grips the kingdom, forcing Merritt and rebel wisewoman Miss Grace to escort bewildered Hope to safety outside the castle. The war has been won but evil cannot die and the rioting crowds are almost as much a danger as the Queen’s remaining stooges and free-roaming satanic spirits. Moreover, the child’s unschooled mystic force makes her a danger to herself and all around her…

Transporting her to the peaceful countryside fills Merritt with memories of his childhood and reveals what happened to his own mother, subsequently provoking Grace to review her own chequered past. Both have suffered grievously from Shame’s actions, and have no idea that the monster is still active in Hell, manipulating ghosts and demons to effect her return to Earth using the infernal contamination that used to be Cradle…

In the forests, Hope sees visions of forthcoming atrocity, which confirmed by Grace’s scrying, force the caravan to divert towards the once-green hell and meet the threat head on…

To Be Continued…

Fifth volume Hell’s Flaw resumes the epic quest, as Shame marshals her forces to secure the pathway from Hell to the living world, while the wary, weary band of heroes struggles to the verdant hellmouth.

Their way is blocked demonic forces too horrible to bear, but Grace has learned to tap Hope’s raw magic to fight them off. Slowly though, she becomes more controlling, her promises to teach the child somehow never materialising, although her need for her as a living battery constantly increases. Eventually, however, during a truly formidable assault, Hope asserts herself to save Merritt and the entire course of the quest changes…

In Hell, Shame’s own cunning endeavours have borne black fruit and she is ready to return…

To Be Concluded…

Epic and fanciful, the fairy tale trappings mask a most mature examination of Good and Evil, and the shimmering photorealistic expressionism of John Bolton’s lush painting transforms the familiar settings of fantasy standards and set-pieces into visions truly bleak and bizarre, perfectly complementing the grim, earthily seedy meta-reality of Kindzierski’s script.

Dark and nasty yet packed with sumptuous seductions of every stripe, the salutary saga of Shame is every adult fantasist’s desire made real and every comic fan’s most fervent anticipation in one irresistible package…

Hope, Hell’s Flaw and Shame: the series conceived and written by Lovern Kindzierski. The story, characters, world and designs are © Lovern Kindzierski, John Bolton and Renegade Arts Canmore Ltd.

Chicago – A Comix Memoir


By Glenn Head (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-878-6 (HB)

One of the things comics can do better than almost any other medium is autobiography. Words are immensely potent, but when wed to the images a confessor wants you to see and has devised especially for that purpose, the response is always immediate, visceral and permanent.

Cartoonist, illustrator and editor Glenn Head (Hot Wire, Snake Eyes, Weirdo) studied under Art Spiegelman at the School for Visual Art in the early 1980’s but bided his time in commercial illustration for publications like Advertising Age, Screw, Sports Illustrated and The Wall Street Journal, and with comix such as Guttersnipe and Head Shots before releasing his first graphic novel in 2015.

It was worth the wait…

In monochrome hardback Chicago – available in sturdy hardback and trustworthy digital formats – Head turned a harsh, stark spotlight on his own life, literally baring all and detailing how a troubled teenaged virgin from New Jersey turned his back on the American Dream and his own personal hopes and aspirations before touching bottom and courting madness to reach his current (still tenuous) state.

Following an incisive Introduction from Phoebe Gloeckner, the history lesson begins in a graveyard in the Garden State. “Glen” is nineteen and troubled, but not necessarily unhappy: he’s just painfully aware that he doesn’t fit in.

It’s the summer of 1977 and he’s obsessed with the cartoons and paraphernalia of the hippie Counterculture then experiencing its death-throes. Dad works on Wall Street and desperately wants to understand why his son seems at such a loss. The boy doesn’t even seem happy to be going to Art School in Cleveland, even though he claims that’s what he wants…

What Glenn actually wants most is Sarah: his best friend and a girl appallingly emotionally scarred by the treatment she has received from her Holocaust-Survivor parents. She’s already well down the road to dissolution though: pregnant, a runaway and being used to turn tricks by her latest scumbag boyfriend…

The season turns and Glen reluctantly reports to the Cleveland Institute of Art, his intolerant, abrasive attitude winning him few friends amongst staff or students. There’s something indefinably wrong inside his head and before long he drops out and starts panhandling to survive.

A casual conversation with another student attains the status of a sign from God and Glen – who we’re starting to think might suffer from bipolar disorder – abruptly hitchhikes to Chicago, determined to sell cartoons to Playboy magazine…

And thus begins an intense period of privation, hallucination, harassment by hustlers, constant danger and creeping horror, all punctuated by unexpected kindnesses from strangers, rejections, connections and moments of incomprehensible good fortune as chance meetings with Muhammad Ali and Robert Crumb begin turning the street-meat’s life around…

‘Decompression’ sees Glen in January 1978, back in comfortably suburban Madison, N.J. thanks to his amazingly understanding yet still-uncomprehending father. Although the threat of imminent starvation and murder have faded, the boy is still at risk – from his own actions after a telephone conversation with idealised inamorata Sarah’s manic mother and his own father’s poorly hidden handgun…

The final section of this diary occurs in 2010 as Brooklyn-dwelling single-dad Glen gets an email one morning. Sarah, the one that got away, the great missed opportunity, has tracked him down and wants to meet up. Is this his chance to stop being that painful, pathetic, unresolved 19-year-old virgin at last?

Breathtakingly candid, intoxicatingly forthright and irresistibly visually exhilarating, Chicago is a startling examination of the power of obsessions and memories: a potential roadmap to finding your own identity… as long as you have the nerve and stomach to try…
Chicago © 2015, Glenn Head. This edition © 2015 Fantagraphics Books, Inc.

Can’t Get No


By Rick Veitch (Vertigo)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-1059-5 (TPB)

The terrorist atrocity of September 11th, 2001 changed the world and in our own small corner, generated a number of graphic narrative responses of varying quality, not to mention deep emotional honesty. Rick Veitch’s 2006 entry Can’t Get No was as powerful and heartfelt as any, but benefited greatly from a little time and distance.

Chad Roe’s company sold the world’s most permanent and indelible marker pen, the “Eter-No-Mark”. Everyone was flying high but then the lawsuits hit all at once. A cheap, utterly irremovable felt-pen is a godsend to street-artists and the most virulent of vandalistic weapons to property owners…

As his universe collapses on him, Chad goes on a bender, picks up two hippie-artist-chicks in a bar and wakes up a human scribble-board, covered literally from head to toe in swirling, organic, totally permanent designs.

Even then he tries so very hard to bounce back. A walking abstract artwork, he is ostracized by mockery, unable to conceal his obvious “otherness”, and neither self-help philosophies, drugs, nor alcohol can make him feel normal again. Defeated, reviled and eventually crushed in spirit, he’s trapped in a downward spiral. He meets the pen-wielding girls again and finds solace and uncomplicated joy in the artist’s world of sex, booze and dope.

Lost to “normal” society, Chad goes on a road-trip with the women, but they haven’t even left the city before they’re all arrested. It is morning on September 11th and as the girls violently resist the cops an airplane flies overhead, straight towards the centre of Manhattan…

With no-one looking at him, just another part of the shocked crowd, he watches for an eternity, and then no longer anything but another stunned mortal, Chad drives away with an Arab family in their mobile home.

And thus begins a psychedelic, introspective argosy through America’s philosophy, symbolism and meta-physicality. With this one act of terrorism forever changing the nation, Chad is forced on a journey of discovery to find an America that is newborn both inside and out. His travels take him through vistas of predictable cruelty and unexpected tolerance, through places both eerily symbolic and terrifyingly plebeian, but by the end of this modern Pilgrim’s Progress, both he and the world have adapted, accommodated and accepted.

Born in 1951, Rick Veitch is a criminally undervalued creator who has lived through post-war(s) America’s many chimeric social revolutions. He has a poet’s sensibilities and a disaffected Flower-Child’s perspectives informing a powerful creative consciousness – and conscience. Can’t Get No is a landmark experiment in both form and content which deserves careful and repeated examination.

Black and white in a landscape format, and eschewing dialogue and personal monologues for ambient text (no word balloons or descriptive captions, just the words that the characters encounter such as signs, newspapers, faxes etc.) this graphic narrative – in paperback and digital editions – screams out its great differences to usual comic strip fare, but the truly magical innovation is the “text-track”, a continual fluid, peroration of poetic statements that supply an evocative counterpoint to the visual component.

Satirical, cynical, strident: Lyricism is employed for examination and introspection, in perhaps occasionally over-florid, but nonetheless moving and heartfelt free verse and epigrams don’t make this an easy read or a simple entertainment. They do make it a piece of work every serious consumer of graphic narrative should attempt.
© 2006 Rick Veitch. All Rights Reserved.

Desolation Jones: Made in England


By Warren Ellis & JH Williams III & various (WildStorm)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-1150-9 (TPB)

Los Angeles is a dump and a dumping ground. Personal opinions aside, that’s the premise of this deep, dark espionage thriller from comics wunderscribe Warren Ellis and graphic illuminator JH Williams III. When MI6 screw-up MichaelJones is no longer capable of doing his job, he’s offered a comfy testing role as his ticket out. No-one in their right mind should ever trust security service types, but that’s the point – the burnt out, alcoholic agent just isn’t all that anymore.

After years of unspeakable atrocities ostensibly intended to create better operatives – up to and including the bizarre and inexplicable Desolation Test, the ravaged remains of Michael Jones are consigned to the reservation provided by the West’s Intelligence Agencies for retired, rejected and discarded agents plus all the experiments that didn’t measure up: Los Angeles, USA.

There they can live out their lives as they see fit, but can never, EVER leave the city. There’s no pension scheme but the dregs can do whatever they need to make a living as long as it’s within city limits.

Jones is a mess, both physically and mentally. He can’t drink, won’t sleep and takes too many drugs. He avoids daylight, regularly hallucinates and is numb to all sensation and emotion. In “the Community” he freelances as a private eye/fixer: sorting out problems that can’t be resolved through legitimate methods.

In this first compilation (available in paperback and digital formats and collecting issues #1-6 of the WildStorm comic book) that problem is a retired NSA spook who’s being blackmailed by new members of the Community who have somehow stolen the Holy Grail of pornography. The ravaged Colonel Nigh wants Adolf Hitler’s homemade porno back and will do anything to get it. Unfortunately, so will all the other filthy rich deviants who populate Tinseltown.

However, something just isn’t right. Jones may not feel, but something deeper is hiding behind all the subterfuge and depravity…

Sardonic and rather bleak, this caustic, tension-soaked, trauma-packed action caper dwells on the nasty side of the espionage genre: a thriller with plenty of twists and a solid mystery to intrigue the most jaded reader. The content is strictly adults only – and by that, I mean that the subtext of duty, love and honour are assaults on the traditions of the hero-spy in as brutal a manner as the sex and violence underscore the dark side of the American Dream-town.

This is a story for cynical adults, not horny kids with appropriate IDs. Great stuff beautifully conceived and magically limned.
© 2005, 2006 Warren Ellis & JH Williams III. All Rights Reserved.

Necromantic


By Lovern Kindzierski, David Ross, Geof Isherwood, Chris Chuckry & Taylor Esposito (Renegade Arts Entertainment)
ISBN: 978-1-98890-369-9 (TPB) eISBN: 978-1-98890-373-6

Real and fictionalised espionage tales are equally gripping when done well, and modern drama demands a healthy dose of genre cross-fertilisation. A perfect example catering to modern tastes is this opening salvo from Lovern Kindzierski (author of the Shame trilogies, Underworld, VMT and colourist of most of your favourite US superhero comics) and veteran illustrators David Ross (Star Wars; X-Men; Alpha Flight; Rai) and Geof Isherwood (Suicide Squad; Conan the Barbarian; Silver Surfer; Doctor Strange). In case you’re wondering, the crucial backroom boys here are Chris Chuckry on colours, and Taylor Esposito delivering calligraphic sound, captions and dialogue…

This rowdy, raunchy introductory action-fest reveals a critical turning point in the life of top-gun US Special Forces operative Jesse Harris whose latest successful mission in North Africa is forever blighted in ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’ after she learns that her beloved Blake Williams has been killed in action.

Harris goes to pieces in ‘Much Ado About Nothing’: not simply from grief and anger, but also because she still sees him. It’s the kind of situation she has secretly endured and ignored since childhood, when she first discovered a facility for seeing and talking to people no one else can see…

Dragged out of shattering despondency by fellow ISA agent Rich Boon, she takes a “soft” mission in Afghanistan, only to find herself dragged to the edge of hell and a bittersweet reunion with Blake. In the course of her duties, she realises the local governor/warlord is a mortal agent of infernal demons pressganging recently deceased human souls into a legion intended to oust the devil, and install a new lord of the Damned. To aid the recruitment program, still-breathing Prince Minyar has bolstered his brutal living forces with rampaging zombies and ruthless killer ghosts only Jesse can perceive…

Facing modern arms and ancient devils revelling in another chance to spill blood, her team are swept away in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, but Harris gains valuable intel from the King’s vizier – an enslaved spirit determined to end the horrific recruitment program – and eventually a blessed ally when Blake escapes the Pit to render assistance and battle beside her to deliver earth and the afterlife from ‘The Tempest’

Savage, fast-paced and strictly for adult eyes only, Necromantic is a blockbuster thrill-ride for the action-movie generation and a manic joy for those who still crave their cathartic release in print of digital comics form.
© Lovern Kindzierski and Renegade Arts Canmore Ltd. 2020

Connective Tissue


By Bob Fingerman (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-143-5 (HB)

The always innovative and entertaining Bob Fingerman (Minimum Wage; Recess Pieces; Bottomfeeder; Garbage Pail Kids; Scooby Doo) turned his post-modern attentions to the burgeoning sector of illustrated novellas (picture books for grown-ups) with this classy, sassy and wickedly beguiling blend of Alice in Wonderland, Stranger in a Strange Landand Clerks – with just a dash of Allan Moyle’s hugely underrated 1995 movie Empire Records peppering the mix.

There’s a whole other class of people in the world: eternally young, worldly-wise and yet unaccountably innocent. They dress oddly, know cool but useless things, don’t care about pension plans or job security and work only to live their outside lives. They are the disaffected tribe who work for minimum wage in the odd corners of modern retail: record stores, non-chain book shops, computer games stores, comic shops…

They’re not an underclass, just a different one.

Darla Vogel earns her living at Kwok’s Video rental store. As a cool and rudely healthy chick in a venue that attracts a lot of loners, weirdoes and social no-hopers, she often finds herself the object of fumbling attention and unwanted gifts. One particular night when she gets home she finds herself abducted via a poster on her wall into a disturbing new universe: bleakly undulating, slightly skewed, grossly organic and filled with far too much of the wrong kind of nakedness. Darla wants to go home…

Fingerman takes a classic plot with a much funnier, feistier heroine, adds a dollop of queasy otherworldliness, peppers it all with dry wit and an avalanche of contemporary references – everything from celebrity gossip to comic – before adding his own subversively funny tone-and-wash illustrations (a delightful remembrance of the best Mad Magazine pages) to produce a runaway delight for full-grown childish lovers of the outré and outrageous.

Get it: it’s yummy scrummy!
© 2009 Bob Fingerman. All rights reserved.

The Puma Blues: The Complete Collection in One Volume


By Stephen Murphy & Michael Zulli, with Alan Moore & various (Dover Comics & Graphic Novels)
ISBN: 978-0-846-79813-4 (HB)

Introduction by Dave Sim and Afterword by Stephen R. Bissette

During the 1980s, American comics experienced an astounding proliferation of new titles and companies following the creation of the Direct Sales Market. With publishers now able to firm-sale straight to specialised, dedicated retail outlets – rather than overprint and accept returned copies from general magazine vendors – the industry was able to risk resources on less commercially-driven titles whilst authors, artists and publishers could experiment without losing their shirts.

The huge outpouring of fresh material deriving from the Direct Sales revolution resulted in a plethora of innovative titles and – naturally – a host of appalling, derivative, knocked-off, banged-out trash too. There were even some genuine landmarks and milestones…

The period was an immensely fertile time for English-language comics-creators. Comics shops – run by people in touch with their customers and who actually read and loved at least some of what they sold – sprang up everywhere and a host of new publishers began to experiment with format, genre and content, whilst eager readers celebrated the happy coincidence that everybody seemed to have a bit of extra money to play with.

Consequently, newcomers were soon aggressively competing for the attention and cash of punters who had wearied of getting their sequential art jollies from DC, Marvel, Archie and/or Harvey Comics. European, Japanese and Canadian material began creeping in, and by 1983 companies such as WaRP Graphics, Pacific, Eclipse, Capital, Now, Comico, Dark Horse, First, Renegade and others established themselves and made impressive inroads.

Most importantly, by circumventing traditional family-focussed sales points like newsstands, more mature material could be produced: not just increasingly violent or sexually explicit but also more political and intellectually challenging too. Subsequently, the “kid’s stuff” stigma afflicting comics largely dissipated and America began catching up to the rest of the world, at least partially acknowledging that comics might be a for-real art-form.

New talent, established stars and different takes on old forms all found a thriving forum and marketplace desperate for something a little different. Even tiny companies and foreign outfits had a fair shot at the big time. Lots of great material came – and, almost universally, as quickly went – without getting the attention or success they warranted. One of the most critically acclaimed and enthralling features was published by the Moses of Independent creators, Dave Sim.

Sim started self-publishing Cerebus the Aardvark in 1977 and pretty much trail-blazed the entire phenomenon for the rest of us. Passionately, stridently non-mainstream, he soldiered on in complete control of every aspect of his creation and occasionally published other titles by creators who impressed him or he liked. Eventually, however, Sim ditched a coterie of fine and uniquely different books that were nurtured by his Aardvark-Vanaheim outfit, leaving them with his ex-wife’s new company Renegade, re-concentrating all his efforts on Cerebus once more.

And then in 1985, a couple of casual acquaintances showed Sim the opening instalment of something called The Puma Blues

The full story – including how that strangely compelling, so-slowly unfolding eco-fable became a helpless hostage and collateral casualty in the one-man publishing house’s lengthy battle with an international distributor determined to dictate how creators did business – is related here in painful, sordid detail in Sim’s Introduction for this impressive archival edition – complete with his equally stunning pin-up of the series’ iconic signature invention…

This monolithic monochrome tome gathers every published issue of The Puma Blues comic (except the non-canonical Benefit Issue #21, which was rushed out in solidarity by incensed fellow creators to generate publicity, support and funds) before, after almost a quarter century, reuniting writer Stephen Murphy & Michael Zulli to finally complete their story…

That aforementioned funnybook hostage was an eerily beautiful, disturbingly pensive oddment which first debuted as a black-&-white title in June 1986 (so Happy Anniversary, folks!); marrying then-escalating ecological concerns and tropes of science fictive paranoia with torturous soul-searching and the eternal quest for place in both family and the world…

The Puma Blues is a tale more about the Why and How of things rather than the usual Who and What of plot and character, so this overview will be brief and short on detail. Trust me, you’ll be grateful for my forbearance when you read this magnum opus yourself…

Accepting the premise that all Science Fiction – whenever it’s created – is always about Right Here, Right Now, the abiding undercurrent of The Puma Blues is an inexorable slide to tragic, unfixable, unwanted change. With the planet either on fire, suddenly underwater, poisoned or choking, it never been more relevant to ponder “what happens next”?

Since the 1970s and proceeding ever more unchecked into the 21st century, nations and human society have been plagued by horrors and disasters exacerbated – if not actually caused – by a world-wide proliferation of lying, greedy, venal, demented and just plain stupid bosses and governments. You could call it retro-futurism now, but Tomorrow, at least in terms of society – as seen from the shaky perch of 1986 – was for many a foredoomed and hopeless place.

Looking at my TV screen or out of a window, I’m not sure that Murphy & Zulli weren’t fundamentally right and doubling as prophets when they set their gentle epic 14 years into the future. 2000 AD and government agent Gavia Immer (look it up, they’re being very clever) is monitoring changes to flora and fauna in the wilderness Reserve around Quabbin Reservoir, Massachusetts on behalf of the US military.

Still a beautiful, idyllic landscape dominated by ancient apex predators like mountain lions, despite perpetual acid rains, ozone layer breaches and radioactive toxins left after White Supremacists nuked the Bronx, the harsh area monitored by the solitary researcher is the site of some radical changes…

Gavia’s job is not simply clerical. His mission is to periodically test fluctuating PH levels of the lake in between the state’s continual chemical readjustments of the body of water and, whenever he discovers a mutant species – whether “animute” or “biomute” – he has to utilise state-of-the-art technology to instantaneously ship specimens to a US-Sino laboratory Reserve somewhere in China.

That hasn’t prevented the hauntingly lovely flying mantas from proliferating and dominating the skies above his head, however…

Gavia’s only contact with the rest of humanity is his TV screen. It delivers reports, interviews and pep talks from his superiors and allows him to talk to his mother: allowing the solitary agent plenty of time to brood about his father’s death and their unresolved issues.

The fanatical film-maker has been gone four years now, but Gavia is still drowning in unresolved conflicts, which is probably what prompts his mum to forward tapes of all the strange documentaries he neglected his wife and son to make…

Is Gavia imagining it or is he actually gradually divining some inner cosmic revelation from his dad’s tapes and theories? Their examination of recent historical events draws solid links between the declining state of the world and a (frankly baffling and seemingly implausible) connection to patterns of UFO sightings. Surely though, his father’s clearly growing obsession with the strange “alien” creatures popularly known as “Greys” must only have his metaphorical way of searching for incontestable Truth?

Nonetheless, they slowly begin to have a similar effect on the thinking of the equally soul-searching son…

There’s certainly plenty of room for new answers: the growing dominance of flying mantas is clearly no longer a secret – as Gavia learns to his regret – after an old soldier and radical “neo-Audubon” called Jack invades the Preserve looking for proof of the flying (former) fish. Despite himself, Gavia lets the affable old coot stay; a decision he soon has cause to regret…

As animals old and new jostle and tussle to find their niche in the new world order, Gavia sinks further into his father’s videotaped philosophies until he has his revelation and takes off into the heart of America to find out how and why things are falling apart…

Proffering an increasingly strong but never strident message of environmental duty and responsibility, The Puma Blues outlined its arguments and questions as a staggeringly beautiful and compelling mystery play which ran for 23 formal issues, a Benefit special designated “Eat or Be Eaten” and a tantalisingly half-sized #24 before the exigencies of publishing made it extinct.

Before it was squeezed out of existence the saga was collected as two trade paperbacks – Watch That Man and Sense of Doubt – but this monumental hardback tome (also and preferentially available in an eco-sustainable digital edition) belatedly completes the story before offering a passionate defence and valiant elegiac testimony in ‘Acts of Faith: a Coda’by devoted follower and occasional contributor Stephen R. Bissette: even finding room to reprint two items from the aforementioned Benefit Issue: a page from ‘Pause’ by Murphy, Zulli & Bissette, plus the eerily erotic ‘Acts of Faith’ by Alan Moore, Bissette & Zulli, exploring the mating habits of those sky-borne Birostris (look that up too, now I’m being clever…)

The long-delayed walk on the wild side concludes with the quasi-theosophical ‘Mobile’: the full contents of Puma Blues #24½ mini-comic by Murphy & Zulli.

Haunting, chilling, beguiling, intensely imposing and never more timely than now, this is a massive accomplishment and enduring triumph in comics narrative. Read it now, before we’re all too busy treading burning water…
© 2015 Stephen Murphy & Michael Zulli. Introduction by Dave Sim © 2015 to be reciprocally owned by both Stephen Murphy & Michael Zulli. Afterword © 2015 by Stephen R. Bissette. All rights reserve.

War Stories Volume Two


By Garth Ennis, with David Lloyd, Cam Kennedy, Carlos Ezquerra, Gary Erskine & various (Avatar Press)
ISBN 978-1-59291-241-4 (TPB)

Garth Ennis understands the point of war stories. He knows they’ve never been about gratification, glorification or even justification. Tales of combat have always been a warning from the sharp end of history to the callow, impressionable and gullible.

Humans have never needed much reason to fight, but when nations do it, it’s usually because our leaders have failed us and need a means to make citizens eager to die and cover up failings of leadership. Stories of conflict recounted by those who have actually dodged bullets and seen comrades die generally have a different flavour to histories or the memoirs of great men, and precious few academics or national leaders have ever been diagnosed with PTSD…

Although never having endured the trials of soldiering, Ennis is an empathetic, imaginative and creative soul whose heart firmly beats in tune with the common man, and a devout aficionado of the (practically anti-war, politically-charged) British combat comics, strip and stories he read as a lad. It’s what distinguishes him as a major writer of mature-audience fiction with a distinct voice and two discrete senses of humour.

In 2004, he began exploiting his lifelong passion for the past and unique viewpoint in an occasional series of WWII one-shots for DC’s Vertigo imprint. The tales were graced by an impressive cast of illustrators assembled to produce some of their finest work.

The first 8 of these were collected in two volumes of War Stories from Vertigo/DC and again in 2015 via Avatar Press in both trade paperback and digital editions. They remain a true highpoint in the history of combat comics.

This second compilation – complete with a heartfelt Ennis Afterword (and commentary, detailing the historical events that formed the basis of these astounding fictionalised encounters), plus a bibliography of sources used to craft them – rounds out the original Vertigo run, prior to later volumes which collect tales crafted since then…

It all opens with the haunting and distressing ‘J for Jenny’, exploring the stresses of a British Bomber crew as they carry out their nightly missions. The plot is carried along via a bitter row between pilot and co-pilot who constantly debate the necessity of their task; one constantly bemoaning the horrendous cost to German civilians whilst the other gloats and glories in the death of each and every woman and child.

As always, nothing is ever what it seems and the finale is a tribute to the creators’ skills and the unpredictable insanity of war itself. David Lloyd’s atmospheric meta-realistic art and colours powerfully underpin a tale few could do justice to.

With Cam Kennedy illustrating and Moose Baumann adding hues, the next yarn focuses on a ramshackle squad of hit-&-run specialists, dashing in under cover of darkness to blow up German airstrips and bases in the deserts of Africa. Apparently, this sort of tactic directly led to today’s Special Ops units and this unruly wild bunch certainly echo modern fiction’s image of beer-swilling, gung-ho nutters ready to fight and die, and always up for a bit of a giggle.

The breakneck action is laced with blackly ironic, slap-stick humour, but never permits the reader to long forget the deadly and permanent nature of the business at hand. Increasingly, conflict mars the relationship between battle-wearied team leader and his second in command: a death-or-glory obsessed Scot who likens the unit to the infallible, mythical bandit warlords his ancestors dubbed ‘The Reivers’

Baumann also colors ‘Condors’: set during the Spanish Civil war and the war-comic equivalent of a shaggy dog story. During a particularly hectic bout of fighting four combatants crawl into the same smoking crater to wait out the shelling. There’s an Englishman, an Irishman, a Spaniard and a German – two from each side of the conflict…

To pass the time they trade life stories and philosophies. This antisocial gathering feels the most authentic to what one might deem an authorial opinion, as motivation for fighting and killing are scrutinised through eyes and ears that have seen and heard all the explanations and reasons – and still judged them wanting.

Spaniard Carlos Ezquerra perfectly captures the camaraderie and insanity in his powerfully expressive renderings. This is an absolute gem of a story.

Final tale ‘Archangel’ closes the book on a lighter note, although the premise – based on actual missions of the convoy service – is one that hardly lends itself to easy reading.

Until the cracking of the Enigma code, every Trans-Atlantic shipment of materiel – especially to our Soviet allies – was practically defenceless against Axis submarine and bomber assault. One counter-scheme was to station a fighter plane on an accompanying vessel which would be launched to fend off airborne attacks. All well and good on paper…until you realise only obsolete planes could be spared for such service, and that once launched – by rocket catapult, no less – they could not land again, but had to ditch or aim for whatever dry land could be reached on whatever fuel remained.

It should also be noted that not all land was in friendly hands, either. This tale of an RAF misfit and his arctic odyssey is full of the ‘hapless prawn triumphant’ that typified vintage post-war British films and the meticulous artwork of Gary Erskine and colourist Paul Mounts lends credibility to a tale that sheer logic just can’t manage.

Ennis’s war works are always a labour of love, and his co-creators always excel themselves when illustrating them. Combine this with a genre that commands respect most comics just don’t get and you have a masterpiece of graphic fiction to even the most discerning library or bookshelf.
© 2015 Avatar Press. Afterword © 2015 Garth Ennis. WAR STORY: J FOR JENNY © 2015 Garth Ennis & David Lloyd. WAR STORY: THE REIVERS © 2015 Garth Ennis & Cam Kennedy. WAR STORY: CONDORS © 2015 Garth Ennis & Carlos Ezquerra. WAR STORY: ARCHANGEL © 2015 Garth Ennis & Gary Erskine.