Promethea: Book One – 20th Anniversary Deluxe Edition


By Alan Moore, J H Williams III & Mick Gray, with Charles Vess, José Villarrubia & Jeromy Cox (America’s Best Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-40128-866-2 (HB)

After far too long away, let’s welcome back a notable addition to the canon of not-embarrassing, happily recommendable “Strong Female Characters” in hardback and digital editions that do her justice

I wonder if, when Alan Moore first conceived this series as part of his private superhero universe (now inexorably subsumed into the greater DC cosmology), he realised quite how far he would take this tale, or just how far he and long-haul collaborators J H Williams III & Mick Gray would push the boundaries of Graphic Narrative?

Ignoring the superficial resemblances to Wonder Woman – herself more archetype than property these days, but don’t tell the lawyers I said that – what’s on offer here? Promethea #1-12 are collected in this first Deluxe volume and are preceded by Moore’s introduction: ‘The Promethea Puzzle : An Adventure in Folklore’ (clipped from the first issue)…

Sophie Bangs lives in the big city, in a world of Science Heroes, multi-powered villains and real, scary monsters. She’s a smart kid, if not traditionally pretty, doing teen-age things with her best friend Stacia. She’s also a student researching a term paper on a name that has cropped up in esoteric poems, art and popular culture since the 5th century AD. Sophie seems inexplicably fascinated by and drawn to the concept of Promethea

After interviewing the widow of the writer of a Promethea comic book, she’s attacked by a shadowy demon and rescued by the widow, who is the comic heroine she’s been researching. It transpires Promethea is a little girl taken into the Immateria, the Realm of Imagination. She became a concept.

Throughout history, she has since become real by incarnating in women who inspire art and creativity. These women – and even some men – have been able to manifest as incarnations of a Spirit of Imagination residing in the greater world of the unconscious. The Immateria is where all Gods, Stories and Ideas dwell. As the shadow-monster returns, Sophia finds her own artistic method of contacting the fable realm and becomes its latest physical incarnation…

Having discovered the metaphysical nature of Promethea Sophie begins to adjust. In real terms that means she can transform into a super-powerful flying Amazon, and perhaps join the legions of Science Heroes who protect – and frequently endanger – the world, but as her story unfolds, she begins to see just how different her version of the old story can be. Sophie is not some frustrated do-gooder suddenly flush with new-found power; she is and always has been concerned with knowing things.

Thus begins a journey of metaphysical as well as metahuman adventure. Sophie fights monsters and meets heroes, but the never-ending battle is not what this series is about. She obsessively wants to know more, and whilst various flamboyant forces array themselves against her, she is constantly seeking deeper answers for questions she never knew she had.

As various real-world forces align themselves in response to the latest resurgence of Promethea, Sophie explores the Immateria, hunting answers and examining the careers of her predecessors. When those antithetical forces attack the hospital where her new friend Barbara is slowly dying, the resultant battle with the forces of Hell reveal just how potent a weapon Promethea can be. The serious reader is advised to examine closely the running sub-plot with hero team The Five Swell Guys and psychotic serial killer The Painted Doll. As well as divertingly action-packed in an otherwise very cerebral tale, the long-running side-bar will have major repercussions in volumes to come.

Having dealt with the demon-horde, and the secret organisation that summoned them, Sophie again deviates from the expected in her dealings with infamous sorcerer Jack Faust, and has a Y2K monster battle before the volume ends with a mystical primer on the history, meaning and symbolism of The Tarot that is the closest I’ve seen the printed page get to a multi-media experience.

Moore’s sly and subversive scripting, in a superhero universe pushed to its illogical extreme, is superbly matched by artists Williams III & Gray, who increasingly raise the bar on graphic creativity and printing technology for a visual experience that is simply staggering to behold.

Adding extra lustre to the affair, Brad Meltzer offers an Afterword asking ‘Who Wants to Read a Fantasy Comic?’ and Moore’s script for issue #3 a fascinating diagnostic appointment with the creative process, augmented by Williams III’s artwork for the issue.

Promethea always had the most experimental aspirations. It will never have universal appeal, but if you are serious about comics it is an experience you owe yourself to try. And don’t be fooled. This book isn’t a lecture or a lesson, it’s a journey…
© 1999, 2000, 2001, 2009, 2019 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

The Phantom – The Complete Series: The Charlton Years Volume One


By Dick Wood, Steve Skeates, Bill Harris, D. J. Arneson, Jim Aparo, Frank McLaughlin, Pat Boyette, Bill Lignante & various (Hermes Press)
ISBN: 978-1-61345-006-2 (HB)

In the 17th century a British sailor survived an attack by pirates, and, washing ashore on the African coast, swore on the skull of his murdered father to dedicate his life and that of all his descendants to destroying all pirates and criminals. The Phantom fights crime and injustice from a base deep in the jungles of Bengali, and throughout Africa is known as the “Ghost Who Walks”.

His unchanging appearance and unswerving war against injustice have led to him being considered an immortal avenger by the credulous and the wicked. Down the decades one hero after another has fought and died in an unbroken family line, and the latest wearer of the mask, indistinguishable from the first, continues the never-ending battle…

Lee Falk created the Jungle Avenger at the request of his syndicate employers who were already making history, public headway and loads of money with his first strip sensation Mandrake the Magician, and although technically not the first ever costumed hero in comics, The Phantom became the prototype paladin to wear a skin-tight body-stocking and the first to have a mask with opaque eye-slits.

He debuted on February 17th 1936 in an extended sequence pitting him against a global confederation of pirates called the Singh Brotherhood. Falk wrote and drew the daily strip for the first two weeks before handing over the illustration side to artist Ray Moore. A hugely successful Sunday feature began in May 1939.

For such a long-lived and influential series, in terms of compendia or graphic novel collections, The Phantom has been very poorly served by the English language market (except in Australia where he has always been accorded the status of a pop culture god).

Various companies have tried to collect the strips – one of the longest continually running adventure serials in publishing history – but in no systematic or chronological order and never with any sustained success.

But, even if it were only of historical value (or just printed for Australians), surely “Kit Walker” is worthy of a definitive chronological compendium series?

Happily, his comic book adventures have fared slightly better – at least in recent times…

From November 1962 through July 1966 all new adventures were published by West Coast giant Gold Key Comics after which King Features Syndicate dabbled with a comicbook line of their biggest stars – including Popeye, Flash Gordon, Mandrake and The Phantom – between 1966 and 1967. When they gave up the ghost, plucky dependable, cheap Charlton Comics were there to pick up the slack…

The Phantom was no stranger to funnybooks, having been featured since the Golden Age in titles such as Feature Book and Harvey Hits, but only as reformatted newspaper strip reprints. The Gold Key exploits were tailored to a big page and a young readership, a model King maintained for their own run but which was tweaked when Charlton took over the license.

This splendid full-cover hardcover – or eBook for the modern minded – gathers the contents of The Phantom #30-38 (originally released between February 1969 and June 1970) and opens with an erudite Introduction from Christopher Irving relating all you need to know about ‘The Phantom and Charlton Comics’, illustrated by the first of many pages of original art by Jim Aparo.

As with previous publishers, the majority of the stories are scripted by Dick Wood (with some contributions from Bill Harris and Charlton mainstay Steve Skeates) but the big attraction here is a large body of illustration by up-&-coming superstar Jim Aparo in his last work for CC before moving to DC…

Opening the Charlton archive is a brace of thrilling escapades by Dick Wood and Frank McLaughlin (with possibly some inking assistance from Sal Trapani?) beginning with ‘The Secret of the Golden Ransom’ as Julie – sister of the Ghost Who Walks – again dons the purple long-johns to secretly save her brother from a devilish trap, after which the ‘The Living Legend’ sees the jungle guardian put the fear of god into an western-educated tribesman who no longer believes in ghosts…

Issue #31 sees an epic full-length tale by Wood and Aparo as ‘The Phantom of Shang-Ri-La’ finds the hero on a rescue mission to the fabled Valley of the Sun to save his best friend from devious crooks masquerading as benevolent immortals…

Following more original art, #32’s ‘The Pharaoh Phantom’ takes the masked marvel to Egypt and an impossible confrontation with a freshly-revived mummy who claims to be the original and genuine Ghost Who Walks…

Pat Boyette & Nick Alascia limn Wood’s lead story in The Phantom #33 as ‘The Curse of Kallai’ exposes an ancient mystery wherein an Indian death cult returns to plunder Africa, claiming an earlier Phantom was their bound and sworn ally, after which Steve Skeates & Aparo detail how a young native boy is pivotal in reversing ‘The Phantom’s Death’

Using the nom de plume Norm Dipluhm, D. J. Arneson scripts a brace of tales for Aparo in #34 beginning with ‘The Cliff Kingdom’ as the Phantom destroys a tribe hunting low flying aircraft before going on to defeat the far-fromxsupernatural menace dubbed ‘The Giant Ape of Tawth’

Veteran team Bill Harris & Bill Lignante return in #35 to reveal the sinister secret of ‘The Ghost Tribe’ plundering and slave-taking in Bengali, but not before the Phantom infiltrates the marauders’ inner circle and is ‘Trapped’ in an almost inescapable situation. Almost…

Dipluhm & Aparo open #36 with ‘The River That Never Ends’ as the Phantom is drawn into a subterranean underworld whilst battling merciless modern pirates, and close with a pithy smuggling yarn as the spectral avenger intercepts some ‘Very Special Timber’ to punish a very ingenious evildoer…

In #37 the format changes to shorter stories beginning with ‘Bandar Betrayers’ as a strange blossom warps the minds of the Phantom’s greatest friends and allies whilst ‘Skyjack’ sees him undercover as Kit Walker, flying to America when his plane is attacked by a fanatic, and a last exploit sees him back in Africa as a new commander for the private jungle police force is almost compelled to ‘Disband the Patrol’

Wrapping up these volatile verdant voyages, #38 starts on ‘The Dying Ground’ as rogue hunters trap the hero in hopes of learning the location of the fable Elephant’s Graveyard before a crisis of conscience and capability is countered by uncanny natural phenomena in ‘The Phantom’s New Faith’ after which Jungle Patrol intel allows The Phantom to save his ever-so-patient intended bride Diana Palmer from murderous art-thieves setting ‘The Trap’

Packed with original art by Aparo, this is another riveting, nostalgia-drenched triumph: straightforward, captivating rollicking action-adventure that has always been the staple of comics fiction.

If that sounds like a good time to you, this is a traditional action-fest you must not miss…
The Phantom® © 1969-1970 and 2012 King Features Syndicate, Inc. ® Hearst Holdings, Inc. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.

Jack Kirby’s Silver Star


By Jack Kirby, with Mike Royer, D. Bruce Berry, Janice Cohen, Erik Larsen & Eric Stephenson (Image)
ISBN: 978-1-58240-764-7 (HB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Monumental Marvel Magic for Fun Seekers… 8/10

Jack Kirby was – and remains – the most important single influence in the history of American comics. There are millions of words about what the man has done and meant, and you should read those if you are at all interested in our medium.

Of course I’m going to add my own two-bobs’-worth, pointing out what you probably already know: Kirby was a man of vast imagination who translated big concepts into astoundingly potent and accessible symbols for generations of fantasy fans. If you were exposed to Kirby as an impressionable kid you were his for life. To be honest, the same probably applies whatever age you jump aboard the “Kirby Express”…

For those of us who grew up with Jack, his are the images which furnish our interior mindsets. Close your eyes and think “robot” and the first thing that pops up is a Kirby creation. Every fantastic, futuristic city in our heads is crammed with his chunky, towering spires. Because of Jack, we all know what the bodies beneath those stony-head statues on Easter Island look like, we are all viscerally aware that you can never trust great big aliens parading around in their underpants and, most importantly, we know how cavemen dressed and carnosaurs clashed…

Kirby’s creations are magical: they all inspire successive generations of creators to pick up the ball and keep running with it…

In the late 1930s, it took a remarkably short time for Kirby and his creative partner Joe Simon to become the wonder-kid dream-team of the new-born comic book industry. Together they produced a year’s worth of pioneering influential monthly Blue Bolt, rushed out Captain Marvel Adventures (#1) for overstretched Fawcett and, after Martin Goodman appointed Simon editor at Timely Comics, co-created a host of iconic characters such as Red Raven, the original Marvel Boy, Mercury, Hurricane, The Vision, Young Allies and of course million-selling mega-hit Captain America.

When Goodman failed to make good on his financial obligations, Simon & Kirby were snapped up by National/DC, who welcomed them with open arms and a fat chequebook. Bursting with ideas the staid company were never really comfortable with, the pair were initially an uneasy fit, and were given two moribund strips to play with until they found their creative feet: Sandman and Manhunter.

They turned both around virtually overnight and, once established and left to their own devices, switched to the “Kid Gang” genre they had pioneered at Timely. Joe and Jack created wartime sales sensation Boy Commandos and a Homefront iteration dubbed the Newsboy Legion before being called up to serve in the war they had been fighting on comicbook pages since 1940.

Once demobbed, they returned to a very different funnybook business and soon left National to create their own little empire…

Simon & Kirby heralded and ushered in the first American age of mature comics – not just by inventing the Romance genre, but with all manner of challenging modern material about real people in extraordinary situations – before seeing it all disappear again in less than eight years.

Their small stable of magazines – generated for the association of companies known as Prize, Crestwood, Pines, Essenkay and/or Mainline Comics – blossomed and as quickly wilted when the industry abruptly contracted throughout the 1950s.

After years of working for others, Simon & Kirby had finally established their own publishing house, producing comics for a far more sophisticated audience, only to find themselves in a sales downturn and awash in public hysteria generated by an anti-comicbook pogrom.

Hysterical censorship-fever spearheaded by US Senator Estes Kefauver and opportunistic pop psychologist Dr. Frederic Wertham led to witch-hunting Senate hearings. Caving in, publishers adopted a castrating straitjacket of draconian self-regulatory rules. Horror titles produced under the aegis and emblem of the Comics Code Authority were sanitised and anodyne affairs in terms of Shock and Gore, even though the market’s appetite for suspense and the uncanny was still high. Crime comics vanished and mature themes challenging an increasingly stratified and oppressive society were suppressed…

Simon quit the business for advertising, but Jack soldiered on, taking his skills and ideas to a number of safer, if less experimental, companies. As the panic abated, Kirby returned briefly to DC Comics where he worked on mystery tales and Green Arrow (at that time a mere back-up, page-filler in Adventure Comics and World’s Finest Comics) whilst concentrating on his long-dreamed-of newspaper strip Sky Masters of the Space Force.

During that period Kirby also re-packaged an original super-team concept that had been kicking around in his head since he and Joe Simon had closed their innovative, ill-timed ventures. At the end of 1956 Showcase #6 premiered the Challengers of the Unknown

After three more test issues the “Challs” won their own title with Kirby in command for the first eight issues. Then a legal dispute with Editor Jack Schiff exploded and the King was gone…

He found fresh fields and an equally hungry-for-change new partner in Stan Lee at ailing Atlas Comics (which had once been mighty Timely) and there created a revolution in superhero comics storytelling…

After just over a decade of never-ending innovation and crowd-pleasing wonderment, Kirby felt increasingly stifled. His efforts had transformed the little publisher into industry-pioneer Marvel but now felt trapped in a rut. Thus, he moved back to DC for another burst of sheer imagination and pure invention.

Kirby always understood the fundamentals of pleasing his audience and strived diligently to combat the appalling state of prejudice about the comics medium – especially from industry insiders and professionals who despised the “kiddies’ world” they felt trapped in.

After his controversial, grandiose Fourth World titles were cancelled, Kirby looked for other concepts which would stimulate his own vast creativity yet still appeal to a market growing evermore fickle. His follow-ups included science fiction themed heroes Kamandi and OMAC, supernatural star The Demon, a run of war stories starring The Losers, and even a new Sandman co-created with old Joe Simon, but although the ideas kept coming (Atlas, Kobra, Dingbats of Danger Street), yet again editorial disputes ended up with him leaving for promises of more creative freedom elsewhere…

Jack Kirby’s return to Marvel in 1976 was much hyped at the time but again turned out to be controversial. His new works and creations (2001: A Space Odyssey, The Eternals, Devil Dinosaur, Machine Man) found friends rapidly, but his return to earlier creations Captain America and Black Panther divided the fanbase.

Kirby was never slavishly wedded to tight continuity, and preferred, in many ways, to treat his stints on titles as another “Day One”: a policy increasing at odds with the close-continuity demanded by a strident faction of the readership…

They were apparently blind to the unfettered, joyous freedom of imagination run wild, the majesty of pulse-pounding thrills and galvanising BIG ART channelling BIG IDEAS!

The end of the 1970s saw Kirby drift into animation: designing characters and scenarios for shows such as Turbo-Teen, Thundarr the Barbarian and even The New Fantastic Four. His comics efforts included graphic novel The Hunger Dogs and Super Powers for DC, and an adaptation of movie The Black Hole for syndicated strip Walt Disney’s Treasury of Classic Tales.

However, his most memorable move was to validate the newly-minted Independent Comics/Direct Sale Market sector where he launched bombastic sci fi shocker Captain Victory and the Galactic Rangers for distributor-turned-publisher Pacific Comics.

For Eclipse, he co-created with Steve Gerber the industry-excoriating symbol of creative rebellion Destroyer Duck (part of a grass-roots campaign that ultimately destroyed the iniquitous work-for-hire business model that had made creators little more than indentured servants for decades).

Also for Pacific at that time, Kirby crafted a 6-issue miniseries returning to his cherished themes of human advancement and perfection. The lure of these projects was that after decades of toil and unleashed genius, now Jack owned his stuff and had complete editorial control…

That’s paid off here in this deluxe hardback and digital edition celebrating the sheer power and exuberance of The King’s gifts. Kirby never threw away a notion or design, and from his copious “Maybe Later/Maybe One Day” file in 1983, he crafted this frantic, frenetic superhero/espionage/doomsday thriller based on an unsuccessful screenplay he and then-assistant Steve Sherman had put together in the 1970s.

Accompanied by an early concept drawing, the origins and impact of the original Silver Star miniseries – which ran from February 1983 to January 1984 – are discussed by Pacific’s editorial director Dave Scroggy in his Introduction before we meet Morgan Miller: Homo Geneticus! in premiere outing ‘Silver Star is here!!’ as, via a communal psychic network, the next stage in human evolution reveals his secrets…

Morgan’s incredible powers come from prenatal genetic tampering by his father Dr. Bradford Miller, who was seeking to offset the repercussions of prospective atomic war, and the son is apparently not the only one of this “Next Breed”.

He soon might be though, since earlier prototype Darius Drumm is methodically and ruthlessly exterminating them whenever he tracks them down…

Morgan’s powers manifest when he comes under heavy fire as a good soldier fighting in another American overseas war. After such a public debut, he’s quickly co-opted by Secret Service agent Floyd Custer to protect America, but Drumm’s campaign of terror against ‘The Others’ continues, not just with uncanny powers in the all-too-frail physical world, but also in torment-fuelled sorties into the communal astral plane where Morgan seeks to preserve the life and sanity of mysterious gamin Tracy Coleman

Sadly, the hero’s success rate is pretty abysmal, and Drumm’s twisted religious mania gives him an advantage in the war, as seen in ‘The Super-Normals: Are they God’s or Satan’s Children?’  It seems the tireless demagogue is also charismatic leader of a vast, anti-happiness and wellbeing cult…

The first four issues were inked & lettered by Mike Royer with colours from Janice Cohen, but the remaining two chapters (which coincided in the 1980s with Pacific moving to more experimental print processes and paper stock, with a noticeable loss of reproduction quality) are graced with the pens and brushes of D. Bruce Berry. They have been re-coloured for this edition by Erik Larsen & Eric Stephenson, who usher in a climactic showdown and moment of global revelation as ‘The World According to Drumm!’ finds hard-pressed hero Silver Star and his surviving species-mates zeroing in on the killer, who has expanded his remit to encompass all Earth, forcing the hero to battle a science-spawned ‘Angel of Death!’

Peppered with concept and developmental sketches, unused artwork and covers, plus pin-ups and designs inked by the likes of Jim Lee and Joe Sinnott, Kirby’s self-described and long-awaited Visual Novel also offers a lavishly illustrated look at his and Steve Sherman’s Silver Star Original Screenplay.

Jack Kirby’s commitment to wholesome adventure, breakneck action and breathless wonderment, combined with his absolute mastery of the comic page and unceasing quest for the Next Big Thrill always makes for a captivating read. His comics should be compulsory for all and found in every home…
© 2007 the Jack Kirby Estate. All rights reserved.

Doctor Solar, Man of the Atom Archives volume 1


By Paul S. Newman, Matt Murphy, Bob Fujitani, Frank Bolle & various (Dark Horse Books)
ISBN: 978-1-59307-285-8 (HB) 978-1-59582-586-5 (TPB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Epic Atom Age Adventure… 9/10

The comics colossus identified by fans as Dell/Gold Key/Whitman had one of the most complicated publishing set-ups in history but that didn’t matter one iota to the kids of all ages who consumed their vastly varied product.

Based in Racine, Wisconsin, Whitman had been a crucial part of the monolithic Western Publishing and Lithography Company since 1915 and could draw on the commercial resources and industry connections that came with editorial offices on both coasts (and even a subsidiary printing plant in Poughkeepsie, New York).

Another connection was with fellow Western subsidiary K.K. Publications (named for licensing legend Kay Kamen who facilitated extremely lucrative “license to print money” merchandising deals for Walt Disney Studios between 1933 and 1949).

From 1938, Western’s comicbook output was released under a partnership deal with a “pulps” periodical publisher under the umbrella imprint Dell Comics – and again those creative staff and commercial contacts fed into the line-up of the Big Little, Little Golden and Golden Press books for children. This partnership ended in 1962 and Western had to swiftly reinvent its comics division as Gold Key.

As previously cited, Western Publishing had been a major player since comics’ earliest days, blending a huge tranche of licensed titles such as newspaper strip, TV and Disney titles, (such as Nancy and Sluggo, Tarzan, or the Lone Ranger) with home-grown hits like Turok, Son of Stone and Space Family Robinson.

In the 1960s, during the camp/superhero boom these original adventure titles expanded to include Brain Boy, M.A.R.S. Patrol, Total War (created by Wally Wood), Magnus, Robot Fighter (by the incredible Russ Manning) and – in deference to the atomic age of heroes – Nukla and another brilliantly cool and understated nuclear white knight…

Despite supremely high quality and passionate fan-bases, they never really captured the media spotlight of DC or Marvel’s costumed cut-ups. Western eventually shut up their comics division in 1984 having lost or ceded their licenses to DC Marvel and Charlton.

All this and much more can be found far more clearly explained by the wonderful Mark Evanier in this hardback or trade paperback collection’s Foreword – ‘The Golden Years’ – as well as a fond critical appraisal of the superb comics yarn-spinning that follows…

As a publisher, Gold Key never really “got” the melodramatic, breast-beating, often-mock-heroic Sturm und Drang of the 1960s superhero boom – although for many of us, the understated functionality of Silver Age classics like Magnus, Robot Fighter or the remarkably radical concepts of atomic crusader Nukla and crime-fighting iterations of classic movie monsters Dracula, Frankenstein and Werewolf were utterly irresistible. The sheer off-the-wall lunacy of features like Neutro or Dr. Spektor I will save for a future occasion…

The company’s most recognisable stab at a superhero was an understated nuclear era star with the rather unwieldy codename Dr. Solar, Man of the Atom who debuted in an eponymous title dated October 1962, sporting a captivating painted cover by Richard M. Powers that made the whole deal feel like a grown up book rather than a mere comic.

Crafted by writers Paul S. Newman & Matt Murphy with art by Bob Fujitani, the 2-part origin ‘Solar’s Secret’ and ‘An Atomic Inferno’ detailed how a campaign of sabotage at research base Atom Valley culminates in the death of Dr. Bentley and the accidental transmutation of his lab partner Doctor Solar into a (no longer) human atomic pile with incredible, impossible and apparently unlimited powers and abilities. Of course, his very presence is lethal to all around him…

The espionage and murder are at the instigation mysterious Bad Actor Nuro, who wants the monopoly on atomic science and when his operative targets Solar’s girlfriend Gail Sanders, the reluctant hero – still learning his potential and limitations – is forced to act fast…

Powers painted a second rousing cover (before handing the job over to Gold Key mainstay George Wilson for the rest of this collections inclusions) and #2 (December) opens with Nuro’s latest plot: using radio implants to turn Gail into ‘The Remote-Control Traitor’ before unwise atomic testing triggers tectonic terror for the entire region on ‘The Night of the Volcano’…

By the time of Dr. Solar, Man of the Atom #3 (March 1963), a solid pattern was in place. Solar continued his researches aided by his two confidantes, Gail and project leader Dr. Clarkson, facing a wide variety of nefarious challenges and unnatural disasters at a rate of two stories per issue.

In ‘The Hidden Hands’ the science hero becomes a clandestine globetrotter to foil a plundering terrorist with the power of invisibility, whilst Atom Valley’s own prototype weather satellite triggers atmospheric conditions which split the hero into polar opposites in ‘Solar’s Deadly Double’.

June 1963 brought #4 atomic contamination to the Atlantic as Solar scuppers a certain mystery mastermind’s gold extraction engine in ‘The Deadly Sea’ before ‘The Treacherous Trap’ finds the Atomic Man – who must regularly absorb lethal amounts of radiation to live – accidentally imperilled by fellow scientist Thor Neilsen’s radical rad poisoning cure. The good-looking swine has also turned poor Gail’s head with romantic notions…

A big change came with #5 in September as the until-now top-secret activities of Solar are first exposed to a ruthless thief trying to steal the Atomic Ace’s latest elemental discovery in ‘The Crystallized Killers’. This, and his advancing mutation, leads to ‘The New Man of the Atom’ as Solar adopts a public masked persona and finally dons a costume: all whilst stopping an incipient atom war…

With #6 (November 1963) illustrator Frank Bolle joins Newman & Murphy to detail Solar’s stories, beginning with ‘The Impostor’ wherein Nuro despatches a face-shifting automaton to infiltrate Atom Valley and discover the masked hero’s true identity: a saga which concludes in spectacular nuclear combat in ‘Android Against the Atom’…

This volume’s action concludes with #7 (March 1964), beginning with a drastic drop in sea levels. Upon investigation Solar discovers malevolent extraterrestrials are behind the ‘Vanishing Oceans’ but no sooner does he deal with them than ‘The Guided Comet’ covertly controlled by Nuro, simultaneously threatens human existence and acts as an almost-foolproof deathtrap for the Man of the Atom. Almost…

Augmented by fulsome ‘Biographies’ of the creative personnel, this charismatic collection offers potently underplayed and scientifically astute (as far as the facts of the day were generally known) adventures blending the best of contemporary movie tropes with the still fresh but burgeoning mythology of the Silver Age super hero boom. Enticingly restrained, these Atom Age action comics offered a compelling counterpoint to the eccentric hyperbole of DC and Marvel and remain some of the most readable thrillers of the era.

These tales are lost gems from a time when fun was paramount and entertainment a mandatory requirement. This is comics the way they were and really should be again…
DOCTOR SOLAR®, MAN OF THE ATOM ARCHIVES Volume 1 ™ and © 2010 Random House, Inc. Under license to Classic Media, LLC. All rights reserved.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Tempest


By Alan Moore & Kevin O’Neill, with Ben Dimagmaliw, Todd Klein, Charles Barnard, Christian LeBlanc, Joe Brown & various (Top Shelf/Knockabout)
ISBN: 978-0-86166-282-1 (HB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: A Fantastical Celebration of All That’s Profoundly Us… 10/10

The Victorian era saw the birth of both popular and populist publishing, particularly the genres of fantasy and adventure fiction. Writers of varying skill unleashed unbounded imaginations, expounding personal concepts of honour and heroism, wedded unflinchingly to the innate belief in English Superiority. In all worlds – and even beyond them – the British Gentleman took on all comers for Right and Decency, viewing danger as a game and showing “Johnny Foreigner” just how that game should be played.

For all the problems this raises with modern sensibilities, many of the stories remain uncontested classics of literature and form the roadmap for all modern fictional heroes. Open as they are to charges of racism, sexism (even misogyny), class bias and cultural imperialism, the cream of them remain the greatest of all yarns.

In 1999, an august selection of just such intrepid prototypes were seconded by Alan Moore & Kevin O’Neill for a miniseries saying as much about our world as that long-gone one; craftily relating a captivating tale as compelling as any of its antecedents.

In short succession there was an inevitable sequel, once more pressing into service vampire-tainted Wilhelmina Murray, aged Great White Hunter Allan Quatermain, Invisible Man Hawley Griffin, the charismatic piratical genius Captain Nemo and both cultured Dr. Henry Jekyll and his bombastic alter-ego Mister Hyde. As the concept grew – seemingly of its own volition – it eventually encompassed the best and brightest of the planet’s fictive print pantheon from drama, books and comics.

The idea of combining shared cultural brands is not new: Philip Jose Farmer in particular spun many a yarn teaming such worthies as Sherlock Holmes, Doc Savage, Tarzan and their like; Warren Ellis succumbed to similar temptation in Planetary and Jasper Fforde worked literary miracles with the device in his Thursday Next novels, but the sheer impetus of Moore & O’Neill’s para-steampunk revisionism, rush of ideas (and the stunning, startling visuals that carry them) make this book (and all the previous ones) form an irresistible experience and absolute necessity for every fiction fan, let alone comic collector.

Now, after two decades and numerous further sequels and iterations – dotted like stations of the cross through periods of history both utterly imaginary and consensually real – the saga closes with a final chronicle pulling together all the strings of plot and parodies involving these beloved immortal characters, rendered in a startling array of styles from slapstick bigfoot cartoons to realistically-rendered girl’s comics to OTT, hyperkinetic Sci Fi pastiches, the doomed 1960s UK superhero boom and more. There’s even room – and necessity – for sections rendered in 3D (glasses included, kids!) and Fumetti photo stories. Oh, the debilitating force of that nostalgia!

This last volume focuses most ardently on the British comics canon, memorialising past monuments of mirth and mayhem through deftly managed pastiche and homage whilst also incorporating film and TV’s greatest icons as it draws its ever-fluctuating cast into a vast time-bending crisis designed by devious villains to end and remake all existences…

You don’t want me to spoil the deliriously crafted intricacies of this yarn but just let me throw some other names at you: Jerry Cornelius; Captain Universe; Ayesha; Justin – or is it Mark? – Tyme; Tommy Walls; Jason King; James Bond (all of them); the Purple Hood; Quatermass and a leather-clad 1960s daredevil dubbed Emma something, all interacting with subtly altered (curse you, intellectual properties laws) characters you know but can’t mention aloud…

As previously stated, each chapter (first released as six oversized comicbooks) is framed in the style of a bygone British periodical and begins with ‘Illustrated Masterpieces: The Tempest’ laying the trail as the wonders of the Earth are systematically destroyed, forcing a band of protagonists (no actual heroes here!) to undertake a fantastic voyage to stranger places and times in hope of averting impending Armageddon…

Further intrigue unfolds in ‘TV Tempest 2010: Adventures in the Present Century’ as forces malign and benign gather whilst ‘Mina – for Young Ladies’ further stirs the pot as pasts and futures collide with a most fragile present…

A rambunctious paean to Albion’s comedy capers comes via ‘Tempest – incorporating Thud! Gurgle! and Whimper!’, and our cheesy knockoff reprint era is channelled in ‘Blazing Worlds’ before trans-cosmic catastrophe is averted(ish) for earthlets and other sentients in Thrill-throbbing conclusion ‘2010 A.D.’

Since each chapter celebrates an era of homegrown tomfoolery, there’s opportunity for a well-drafted balancing of historical scales. Bringing a tear of injustice to most eyes is a linked prose series of potted biographies memorialising and championing some of our greatest creators.

Leo Baxendale, Frank Bellamy, Marie Duval, Ken Reid, Denis McLoughlin and Ron Turner were all uniformly and deliberately used, abused and written out of history in the name of corporate dominance, and here Al & Kev strike a blow in their name. After looking them up online, you can read the less studious impartial (and therefore more accurate and honest) appreciation of their talents, achievements and fates here…

Celebrating our long-cherished love affair with comic cuts, this epic wheeze treats us to a tantalising taste of gloriously cheap, tawdry and irresistibly wonderful pop entertainment, intended for momentary juvenile diversion, but which locked us all into our own childhoods forever.

An undeserved but so welcome treat for a lost generation of British comics apologists who can now hold their heads a little higher as all the weird, cheap, shamefully knocked off, knocked out yet secretly adored cartoon ephemera of childhood is granted a measure of validity and immortality.

It’s enough to make you join a library and read some other very interesting books…

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen volume 4: The Tempest © & ™ 2019 Alan Moore & Kevin O’Neill. All Rights Reserved.
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Tempest will be released on November 28th 2019 and is available for pre-order now.
For more information and other great reads see Knockabout Comicsand Top Shelf Productions

Benny Breakiron volume 2: Madame Adolphine


By Peyo, with backgrounds by Will, translated by Joe Johnson (Papercutz/NBM)
ISBN: 978-1-59707-436-0 (HB Album)

Pierre Culliford was born in Belgium in 1928 to a family of British origin living in the Schaerbeek district of Brussels. An admirer of the works of Hergé and American comics licensed to Le Journal de Mickey, Robinson and Hurrah!, he developed his own artistic skills but the war and family bereavement forced him to forgo further education and find work.

After some time toiling as a cinema projectionist, in 1945 Culliford joined C.B.A. animation studios, where he met André Franquin, Morris and Eddy Paape. When the studio closed, he briefly studied at the Brussels Academy of Fine Arts before moving full-time into graphic advertising. In his spare time, he began submitting comic strips to the burgeoning post-war comics publishers.

His first sale was in April 1946: Pied-Tendre, a tale of American Indians in Riquet, the comics supplement to the daily L’Occident newspaper. Further sales to other venues followed and in 1952 his knight Johan found a permanent spot in Le Journal de Spirou. Retitled Johan et Pirlout, the strip prospered and in 1958 introduced a strange bunch of blue woodland gnomes called Les Schtroumpfs.

Culliford – who now used the nom de plume Peyo – would gradually turn those adorable little mites (known to us and most of the world as The Smurfs) into an all-encompassing global empire, but before being sucked onto that relentless treadmill, he still found time to create a few other noteworthy strips such as the titanic tyke on view here today.

In 1960 Benoît Brisefer – AKA Benedict Ironbreaker and/or (in Dutch) Steven Sterk – debuted in Le Journal de Spirou #1183 (December 1960). With a few slyly added tips of the hat to Siegel & Shuster’s Superman, the wryly bucolic adventures celebrated a small boy with superhuman strength living in a generally quiet and unassuming little Belgian town.

Quiet, well-mannered, gentle and a bit lonely, Benny just happens to be the mightiest boy on Earth; able to crush steel or stone in his tiny hands, leap huge distances and run faster than a racing car. He is also generally immune to all physical harm, but his fatal and rather ubiquitous weakness is that all his strength deserts him whenever he catches a cold…

Benny never tries to conceal his abilities but somehow no adults ever catch on. They generally think he’s telling fibs or boasting and whenever he tries to prove he can bend steel in his hands, the unlucky lad gets another dose of the galloping sniffles…

Most kids avoid him. It’s hard to make friends or play games when a minor kick can pop a football like a balloon and a shrug can topple trees…

Well-past-it Brits of my age and vintage might remember the character from weekly comics in the 1960’s. As Tammy Tuff – The Strongest Boy on Earth – and later as Benny Breakiron and Steven Strong – our beret-wearing champion appeared in Giggle and other periodicals from 1967 onwards.

With Peyo’s little blue cash-cows taking up ever larger amounts of his concentration and time, other members of his studio assumed greater responsibilities for Benoît as the years passed. Willy Maltaite (“Will”), Gos, Yvan Delporte, François Walthéry and Albert Blesteau all pitched in and Jean Roba created many eye-catching Spirou covers, but by 1978 the demands of the Smurfs were all-consuming and all the studio’s other strips were retired.

You can’t keep a good super-junior down, though, and after Peyo’s death in 1992, his son Thierry Culliford and cartoonist Pascal Garray revived the strip, adding six more volumes to the eight generated by Peyo and his team between 1960 and 1978.

Thanks to the efforts of US publisher Papercutz, the first four of those gloriously genteel and outrageously engaging power fantasies are available to English-language readers again – both as robust full-colour hardbacks and as all-purpose eBooks – and this second translated exploit begins in the sedate city of Vivejoie-la-Grande, where the kid goes about his rather solitary life, doing good deeds in secret and being as good a boy as he can….

After another day of being shunned by everyone around, disconsolate Benny heads for the park and is befriended by a sweet old lady named Adolphine. No respecter of old graceful retirement, the old dear romps boisterously and disgracefully with the lad – to the disgust of the other park patrons. Eventually, Benny escorts her to his home where she has a strange fit and collapses.

When even a doctor refuses to help, Benny finds a phone number in her bag and a rather strange gentleman comes to collect her. He’s none too gentle in his behaviour and even throws the old lady in the boot of his car…

Even more distressingly, when Benny sees her in the street next day, Madame Adolphine claims to have never met him before…
Baffled but unwilling to let the matter go, Benny tracks her down to a toyshop run by inventor Serge Vladlavodka and finds her standing over the tinkerer’s unconscious body with a massive mallet in her hand. Moreover, her manner is brusque and almost callous…

The belligerent biddy bustles off whilst Benny is trying to revive her prone victim, but when Serge recovers, he also rushes off, fearing the harm she might cause. Accompanying him, Benny learns a starling secret…

There are two Adolphines and one is indeed a sweet old lady. Unfortunately, the other is an increasingly unstable, aggressive and just plain mean robot doppelganger who soon begins robbing banks and terrorising the public, so guess which one the police subsequently arrest?

As indignant Benny single-handedly breaks the organic pensioner out of prison, the automaton Adolphine forms a gang of professional thugs and goes on a crime spree the cops are helpless to stop.

Good thing Benny is made of sterner stuff…

This superbly surreal spoof has delicious echoes of classic Ealing Comedies such as The Ladykillers and The Lavender Hill Mob as it follows the little wonder boy’s resolute, dynamic and spectacular campaign to save his friend: blending deft wit with bombastic and hilarious slapstick. Madame Adolphine is another fabulously winning fantasy about childhood validation and agency, offering a distinctly Old-World spin to the concept of superheroes and providing a wealth of action, thrills and chortles for lovers of incredible adventure and comics excellence.
© Peyo™ 2013 – licensed through Lafig Belgium. English translation © 2013 by Papercutz. All rights reserved.

The Umbrella Academy volume 3: Hotel Oblivion


By Gerard Way & Gabriel Bá, with Nick Filardi & Nate Piekos (Dark Horse)
ISBN: 978-1-50671-142-3 (TPB)

Superheroes have been around so long now that they’ve been able to evolve into different sub-sets: straight Save-the-World continuity types as championed by DC and Marvel, obsessively “real” or rationalist iterations such as Marvelman, Crossfire or Kick-Ass, comedic spins like Justice League International or Next Wave and some rare ducks that straddle a few barstools in between.

Addressing the same Edgy, Catastrophic Absurdism as Grant Morrison’s classic Doom Patrol, the archly anti-didactic antics of The Umbrella Academy offered readers a subtly subversive take on the idiom which impressed the heck out of everybody and lured many disillusioned fans back to the pitifully tired and over-used genre when first released. Author creator Gerard Way even parlayed the extraordinary success of the Weird Science heroes into a TV series for the team and built a second creative career steering DC’s outré, off-the-wall Young Animal imprint of alternative heroes…

Now a decade later, a new miniseries has resulted in the long-awaited third collected volume (available in trade paperback and digital formats) and is presented here with an effulgent Introduction from star writer and late-converted fan Jeff LeMire…

Once upon a time a strange event occurred. All across Earth, 43 babies were unexpectedly born as the result of apparent immaculate conceptions – or perhaps some kind of inexplicable parthenogenesis.

The births even surprised the mothers, most of whom discarded, abandoned, sold or arranged adoption of their unexpected, terrifying newborns.

Notorious scientist, entrepreneur and closet extraterrestrial Sir Reginald Hargreeves – inventor of the Levitator, mobile umbrella communicator, Clever Crisp cereal, Televator and a process which enabled chimps to speak – had a secret plan, and he knew these kids would all be special. He thus acquired seven of these miracle babies for an undisclosed purpose, subsequently rearing and training the children to become his private superhero team to enact it.

He was in no way a “good” parent…

The callously experimental family, after a spectacular early career, eventually proved to be unmanageable and the Umbrella Academy – created and trained “to save the World” – sundered in grief and acrimony, but not before poor Ben, Number 6 AKA “The Horror”, pointlessly lost his brave young life and Number 5 “The Boy” took a short trip into the future and never came back…

The surviving members of the utterly dysfunctional superhero team parted but were reunited twenty years later when the news broke that Hargreeves – whose nom de guerre was The Monocle – had died. You shouldn’t believe everything you hear on the news…

In the interim, Number 1 son Luther had become an off-earth defender and pioneer, so hideously damaged by a doomed journey to Mars that to save him, Hargreeves had grafted The Spaceboy‘s head onto the body of a colossal Martian Gorilla.

Poor, neglected Vanya, whose musical gifts Hargreeves deemed utterly useless, became a drop-out and wrote a scandalous tell-all book before becoming a voluntary exile amidst Earth’s lowest dregs. When Number 7 returned she was again rejected by her “family” and summarily seduced by a manic musician who unleashed her true potential and almost destroyed the world with her untapped power…

The Boy returned after 60 years of ranging through the time-stream and materialised in the body of the 10-year old he had been. However, his physical form was frozen and he stopped aging at that moment…

Favourite friend, technologist, housekeeper, actual lifelong care-giver and talking chimp Dr. Pogo had died in Vanya’s – or rather The White Violin‘s – apocalyptic attack which had left Allison (Number 3, The Rumor) with her throat severed, apparently forever deprived of her talent for warping reality with a word…

Diego (Number 2, The Kraken) remained the obsessive scary vigilante psychopath he’d always been but Klaus (Number 4, The Séance) was even weirder than before: a floating, shoeless space-case who talked to the dead and pulled the wings off the laws of physics…

Once upon a time, long ago and whilst still children, the Umbrella Academy saved Washington DC from an animated and extremely angry Lincoln Memorial. They’ve had an odd relationship with American Presidents ever since…

Having saved the entire world from prophesied destruction, the dysfunctional quintet were at a loss and killing time in the rubble of their old home until a fresh crisis boiled over and was cleaned up after The Boy’s hidden sponsors (ruthless chronal cops the Temps Aeternalis) sought to make him fulfil the mission they had originally recruited and rebuilt him for…

Now in the aftermath of the global carnage that generated, the battered survivors recuperate unaware that old ‘Evil’ is manifesting in their midst. Long ago, Hargreeves had taken steps to create the ultimate penitentiary for the violent, vicious, crazy and too-powerful foes of his pet Academy, but now the “guests” of his Hotel Oblivion are successfully checking out…

As The Boy explosively pursues the minion’s of The Perseus Corporation, elsewhere Spaceboy is consulting with aged savant Doctor Zoo. The old duffer is planning a trip into the bizarre region dubbed “Afterspace” in search of a lost legend…

The Séance has fallen very low, trading seedy encounters with dead loved ones for drugs, but when he attempts to scam his biker-thug minders events overtake him just when his old allies leave the universe behind in KMiniature War in a Miniature Home’

With Hargreeves’ guests loose in the hotel, ‘Violence’ mounts in a range of places and dimensions but the greatest threat comes as the nigh-omnipotent Scientific Man gathers his god-like powers and the deadly Murder Magician secures a televator back to Earth…

Chaos increases exponentially as the Academy heroes battle alone against a host of foes and heir own selfish agendas even as Spaceboy braves ‘The Labyrinth’ and discovers lost legend St. Zero hibernating in

The crisis breaks after The Boy’s current target – Perseus X – infiltrates the hotel to liberate his dad and realises that he’s too late… and that something even more diabolical is ‘Free’

With a host of monsters and super-creeps like Doctor Terminal, the Mothers of Agony and Medusa ravaging Earth, as well as the quandaries of an imminent attack by a trans-dimensional behemoth and a mysterious wonder baby and its revenant, rampaging mother to deal with, the scattered young comrades grudgingly work together against ‘The Fear You Cannot Speak’ but their late collaboration is all for naught as a new team of empowered players materialise with a shocking revelation in concluding chapter ‘Reunion’.

Sadly, the big reveal is a cosmic cliffhanger so be prepared for some major frustration…

Big on mood, bafflement-by-design and astounding action, this is compelling adventure if you’re fully au fait with the previous books and prepared to give the events your full attention, but Hotel Oblivion is only the beginning of the drama and should not be consumed casually. Trust me, though, it’s going to be worth it in the end…

Accompanying all the meta-real wonderment are a wealth of sketches, character drawings and variant covers by Way and Bá under the broad remit ‘Designing the Umbrella Academy Hotel Oblivion’.

Whilst happily swiping, homaging, sampling and remixing the coolest elements from many and varied comics sources, The Umbrella Academy offers a unique synthesis to achieve its own distinctive originality within the tired confines of the superhero genre. It’s a reading experience no jaded Fights ‘n’ Tights fan should miss.
© 2019 Gerard Way and Gabriel Bá. All rights reserved. The Umbrella Academy™ and all properties are trademarks of Gerard Way and Gabriel Bá.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen volume one


By Alan Moore & Kevin O’Neill, with Ben Dimagmaliw & Bill Oakley (America’s Best Comics/DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-56389-665-1 (HB) 978-1-56389-858-7 (TPB)

The Victorian era saw the birth of both popular and populist publishing, especially in the sub-genres of fantasy and adventure fiction.

Writers – and accompanying illustrators – of varying skill, but possessed of unbounded imaginations, explored and proselytized the concepts of honour and heroism, wedded unflinchingly to the underlying core-belief of English Supremacy in matters of culture and technology. In all worlds and even beyond them, the British gentleman took on all comers for Right and Decency, viewing danger as a game and showing “Johnny Foreigner” just how that game was played.

In today’s poisoned political environment, it’s rather odd to see so much of that dated and offensive rhetoric revived and bombarding us from venal politicians’ untrustworthy mouths and online arsenals without a hint or trace of the splendid irony used in this delicious exercise in retro-imagination…

For all the faults our modern sensibilities can – or at least should – detect in those stirring sagas, many of them remain unshakable classics of adventure and the roadmap of all modern fictional heroes. Open as they are to charges of Racism, Sexism (and Misogyny; so, so much misogyny), Class Bias and Cultural Imperialism, the best of them remain the greatest of all our store of communally-shared ripping yarns.

As heroic prototypes, a gaggle of these Imperialist icons were fabulously deputized by Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill for a six-issue miniseries in 1999 (coloured by Ben Dimagmaliw and lettered by Bill Oakley) which managed to say as much or more about our modern world as that far ago one, and incidentally tell a truly captivating tale as compelling as any of its antecedents.

Available in deluxe hardcover, trade paperback, digital editions and omnibus collections, the story is also one of the best superhero exploits you’ll ever read, all presented as a faux seasonal compendium of that bygone age, with puzzles, paint-by numbers pages, pin-ups, a cover gallery and text features (such as novella ‘Allan and the Sundered Veil’ gilding the lily: a book no fan of fiction should miss.

Wilhelmina Murray survived a clash with a supernatural bloodsucking monster but was forever altered by the encounter. Some years later, recruited by British Secret Service chief Campion Bond, she is charged with organising a team of superior operatives to defeat an insidious foreign menace growing within the very heart of the British Empire. To this end, she circles the globe and convinces the greatest hero and most iniquitous outlaws of the era to band together.

Aged Great White Hunter Allan Quatermain is unlikely company for Invisible Man Hawley Griffin, Captain Nemo and Mister Hyde, although diffident and cultured Dr. Henry Jekyll can be considered a suitable companion for a widow under almost any circumstance…

Despite differences of class, honour, attitude, morality and disposition, together they ultimately foil a most dastardly plot only to discover that all is not as it seems…

The story grew beyond the authors’ avowed expectations of “a kind of Victorian Justice League” to become a veritable steampunk classic, with fin de siècle technology, trappings, expectations and attitudes, to establish itself as a powerful allegory for our own millennial end of days, and the act of its creation materialising as a game for creator and reader alike as every character in the tale was culled from existing works of literature and the audience all-but-dared to identify them…

The wit, artifice and whimsy of the compelling mystery – for that, gentle reader is what it is – as well as the vast, complex array of sub-texts and themed extras (such as faux advertising broadsheets woven into the text) all add to a truly immersive experience the inevitable film adaptation could not match.

To be Clear. This book is better than the movie. Do not watch it. Read This!

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is an incredible work of scholarship and artistry recast into a fabulous pastiche of an entire literary movement. It’s also a brilliant piece of comics wizardry of the sort that no other art form can touch.

If you haven’t seen the film – and even more so if you have – I urge you to read this. And then you can start in on Dickens, Rider Haggard, Stevenson, Wells, Verne, Conan Doyle, Stoker, Rohmer and all the glorious rest…
© 1999, 2000 Alan Moore & Kevin O’Neill. All Rights Reserved.

Abe Sapien: The Drowning and Other Stories


By Mike Mignola, John Arcudi, Scott Allie, Jason Shawn Alexander, Guy Davis, Patric Reynolds, Michael Avon Oeming, Santiago Caruso, Peter Snejbjerg, James Harren, Kevin Nowlan, Mark Nelson, Juan Ferreyra, Alise Gluškova & various (Dark Horse)
ISBN: 978-1-50670-488-3 (HB)

Hellboy is a creature of vast depth and innate mystery; a demonic baby summoned to Earth by Nazi occultists at the end of World War II but subsequently raised, educated and trained by democracy-loving parapsychologist Professor Trevor “Broom” Bruttenholm to destroy unnatural threats and supernatural monsters as the chief agent for the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense.

This book is not about him, but one of his equally engaging co-stars, whose occult and occluded back-story has been gradually and tantalising unfolding for more than 25 years in the potently cohesive and compelling universe built by Mike Mignola and his creative collaborators…

A brilliant intellect in a piscine (more likely piscoid?) body, he was discovered in a glass tank by B.P.R.D. agents in 1978: a bizarre fish-human hybrid with no memory of his past languishing in a secret chamber of St. Trinian’s Hospital in Washington D.C. He narrowly escaped being dissected before gradually emerging as a top investigator – in the Enhanced Talents Task Force – and scientific research asset, using the name Abraham Sapien.

Over the intervening decades he learned that once he was human. Early cryptozoologist and psychical researcher Dr. Langdon Everett Caul was a minor light in social and scientific circles who vanished after falling in with a group of like-minded men fascinated with arcane secrets. In 1859 certain events regarding this Oannes Society led to his transformation…

This omnibus collection relates through chronologically arranged comics tales (not necessarily publishing release date) the history of the fabulous fishman, supplemented by clarifying and contextualising Introduction and Interstitial Notes from editor and sometime writer Scott Allie.

The aquatic archive launches with neophyte Abe’s first official solo exploit: originally released as a 5-part miniseries from February to June, 2008.

Scripted by creative head honcho Mignola and moodily realised by Jason Shawn Alexander (who liberally contributes to a fabulous and informative Abe Sapien Sketchbook at the back of this full-colour walk – or is that swim? – on the weird and wild side), The Drowning is lettered by Clem Robins with benefits from the magical colours of Dave Stewart.

The action opens with a glimpse into demonic deeds of the past as, in 1884, occult detective Edward Grey boldly and bombastically defeats mighty warlock Epke Vrooman before sinking his hellish ship 60 miles off the French coast near the former leper-colony of Isle Saint-Sébastien.

In 1981 Hellboy is gone from the B.P.R.D. and Chief Bruttenholm pushes reticent trainee Abe into leading a milk-run mission to retrieve the fabulous, lore-laden Lipu Dagger Queen Victoria’s Most Special Agent used to end the malevolent mage almost a century before.

With experienced operatives already in place, all the merman has to do is dive deep and fetch back the prize artefact. Sadly, with the supernatural, nothing is ever easy…

As the on-site proceedings get underway none of the B.P.R.D. team are aware that unquiet spirits are already undertaking their own recovery mission and whilst horrific monsters intercept Abe at the sunken wreck, back on land an ancient crone puts into motion the ceremony she has waited her entire life to complete…

By the time the battered aquatic investigator struggles ashore almost everyone on Saint-Sébastien is dead and a pack of wizened devils are attempting to resurrect their diabolical master. Cut off from the outside world and unable to pass this mess on to somebody more qualified, Abe is flailing until the old woman takes charge, instructing him in some deeper truths about the Isle, the replacement god the benighted inhabitants chose to worship and what truly moved and motivated Vrooman on the last night of his former life…

Armed with appalling information and the knowledge that there’s no one to save the day, the reluctant troubleshooter turns to face his greatest challenge and worst nightmares…

‘B.P.R.D.: Casualties’ comes from the Dark Horse Digital Retailer Exclusive program and saw general release in the trade paperback B.P.R.D.: Being Human. Written by Mignola & Allie with art by Guy Davis, the vignette is set in the aftermath of The Drowning as Abe and pyrokinetic Liz Sherman investigate werewolf sightings in Minnesota. When Sapien makes a rookie mistake that endangers his team, all his self-doubt comes flooding back…

Mignola, John Arcudi & Patric Reynolds produce ‘The Haunted Boy’ as an Abe Sapien one-shot in 2009, detailing the submersible star’s investigation of a child drowning and ghostly phenomena in Vermont. On investigating the “simple” case, the cautious agent discovers a terrifying truth far worse than any expectation…

A master planner, Mignola has orchestrated a magnificent interconnected saga in his assorted tales and spin-off sagas. Another one shot (from 2013) ‘The Land of the Dead’ cowritten by Allie and illustrated by Michael Avon Oeming references stories from his Hellboy in Mexico sequence as in January 1983 Abe travels south of the border to Campeche in search of lost cave divers and discovers the basis for Mayan Hell Xibalba as well as a bizarre variant vampire…

‘Witchcraft & Demonology’ – by Mignola, Allie & Santiago Caruso – comes from Abe Sapien #30 (January 2016) and provides a potted history of Western Satanism and magic as Abe in full-research mode encounters arcane heavy-hitter Gustav Strobl: another man who cannot stay dead, but really should…

Set in 1984 and courtesy of Mignola, Arcudi & Peter Snejbjerg, ‘The Abyssal Plain’ was originally a 2-issue miniseries released in June and July 2010 detailing how ancient magic, Nazi experimentation and Cold War tensions collide. Here Abe and a team of agents are required to salvage a magical artefact in a Russian sub at the bottom of the Norwegian Atlantic. Everybody wants the magical helmet looted from the Vatican during WWII: the Soviets have sent a destroyer, the Americans have the B.P.R.D. and the unquiet dead have the fearsomely mutated zombie who has guarded Melchiorre’s Burgonet since the vessel went down with all hands in 1948…

‘The Devil Does Not Jest’ was another Mignola & Arcudi 2-issue miniseries; this time from September and October 2011. Eerily illustrated by James Harren, it reveals how in 1985 Sapien accompanies the descendant of a celebrated demonologist to the family manse in Maine, uncovering generational secrets and incalculable terror and tragedy…

A one-shot from 2015, ‘The Ogopogo’ is by Mignola, Allie & Kevin Nowlan, beguilingly recounting the far more professional fishman’s off-kilter 1992 encounter with a mythical beast venerated by the First Nations tribes of British Columbia. As he and Hellboy soon discover, it’s not always the monster who’s the bad guy…

‘Subconscious’ by Mignola, Arcudi & Mark Nelson originated in Dark Horse Presents #11 (June 2015) and is set in the aftermath of Professor Bruttenholm’s death with Abe revealing a bizarre and overwhelming dream encounter with subsea ghosts, after which ‘Lost Lives’ (Mignola, Allie & Juan Ferreyra from Abe Sapien #25, August 2015) jumps to 2005 where senior Agent Sapien squabbles with fellow specialist Roger the Homunculus. Abe is still reeling from the revelation that he used to be human when a recently-impounded artefact starts to possess him…

The drama-drenched suspense concludes with flashback tale ‘Icthyo Sapien’ (Mignola, Allie & Alise Gluškova, from Abe Sapien #27, October 2015) as, mourning the death of so many of his friends and comrades, Abe relives his time as Langdon Everett Caul, the Oannes Society’s war with rival sect the Heliopic Brotherhood and his fall from grace with all he previously believed in…

Closing out this mammoth maritime log is the aforementioned ‘Sketchbook’, with commentary and visual contributions from Mignola, Jason Shawn Alexander, Patric Reynolds, Peter Snejbjerg, James Harren, Michael Avon Oeming, Santiago Caruso, Kevin Nowlan, Juan Ferreyra & Alise Gluškova, a full cover gallery by Max & Sebastián Fiumara, Dave Johnson, Francesco Franca villa and others plus bonus story The Calm before the Storm: a Caul flashback story originally created by Alise Gluškova as a piece of fan fiction.

Mignola has an incredible knack for creating powerfully welcoming mythologies and this colossal hardback (or digital) compilation successfully salvages Abe Sapien from the overwhelming shadow of satanic superstar Hellboy and the B.P.R.D. to set him on his way as a celebrated solo star.

Potent, powerful and utterly sodden with uncanny atmosphere, this terrific tome is an irresistible siren calling to haunt your dreams.
ABE SAPIEN © 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2017, 2018 Mike Mignola. All key and prominently featured characters ™ Mike Mignola. All rights reserved.

Airboy: The Return of Valkyrie


By Chuck Dixon, Timothy Truman, Tom Yeates, Stan Woch & Will Blyberg (Eclipse)
ISBN: 0-913035-59-9 (limited edition) ISBN: 978-0-91303-560-3 (TPB)

The wonderful prospect of It’s Alive’s efforts to revive the magnificent Airboy have prompted me to rerun this review from days past.

There are some nifty omnibus editions available too, and they’re on my To Do Soon list…

Created for Hillman Periodicals by the brilliant Charles Biro (Steel Sterling, the original Daredevil, the Little Wiseguys and Crime Does Not Pay among many other triumphs), Airboy featured a plucky teen and his fabulous super-airplane, affectionately dubbed ‘Birdie’.

He debuted in the second issue of Air Fighters Comics in November 1942 and once the war concluded the comic was renamed Airboy Comics in December 1945. For more than twelve years of publication the boy-hero tackled the Axis powers, crooks, aliens, monsters, demons and every possible permutation of sinister threat – even giant rats and ants!

The gripping scripts took the avenging aviator all over the world and pitted him against some of the most striking adversaries in comics. He was the inspiration for Jetboy in the many Wild Cards braided mega-novels by George R.R. Martin and friends.

Then the world moved on and he vanished with many other comicbook heroes whose time had run out. In 1982 comics devotee Ken Pierce collected all the Airboy adventures that featured the pneumatic Nazi-turned-freedom-fighter Valkyrie, which apparently inspired budding independent comics company Eclipse to revive the character and all his Hillman comrades.

Always innovative, Eclipse were experimenting at that time with fortnightly (that’s twice a month, non-Brits) comics with a lower page count than the industry standard, at a markedly reduced price. Airboy premiered at 50 cents a copy in 1986 and quickly found a vocal, dedicated following. And looking at this compilation once more, it’s easy to see why.

Deep in the Florida Everglades the monstrous bog-creature known as The Heap stirs after decades of inactivity. Something momentous is beginning to unfold. It remembers a previous life, brave heroes and a diabolical evil. It begins to walk towards a distant villa…

In Napa Valley, David Nelson is a bitter, broken old man. Not even his teenaged son can bring joy to his life. Trained since birth by the Japanese Ace and martial artist Hirota, the boy is a brave, confident fighter but still doesn’t know why his life has been one of constant training.

Then suddenly a horde of assassins attacks the compound and the old man dies in a hail of machine gun bullets. Only then does young Davy discover the truth about his father. Once he was the hero known as Airboy, with valiant comrades and a unique super-aircraft. Once he loved a beautiful German woman-warrior named Valkyrie. But for 30 years she has been trapped in suspended animation by Misery, a supernatural being who feeds on evil and steals the souls of lost fliers…

Forced to do the monster’s bidding for three decades (such as providing weapons for South American despots to slaughter and enslave innocents) the old hero had gradually died inside. But now his son is ready to avenge him and free the beautiful sleeper, aided by such combat veterans as Hirota and the legendary Air Ace Skywolf

Fast-paced, beautifully illustrated and written with all the gung-ho bravado of a Rambo movie, this tale of liberation and revolution rattles along, a stirring blend of action and supernatural horror that sweeps readers along with it. The book collects issues #1-5 of the comic plus an 8-page promotional preview with a cover gallery that includes art from Stan Woch. Tim Truman, and the late, great Dave Stevens.

The title was briefly one of the best indie titles available and spawned a mini-franchise of equally unmissable spin-offs, and I’m extremely hopeful that the potential revival makes Airboy a three-time success.

I’m reviewing my signed and numbered hardcover limited edition which has a beautiful colour plate included plus a superb Steranko painted cover, but the standard trade paperback is almost as good, if that’s all you can find.
Story © 1989 Timothy Truman and Chuck Dixon. Art © 1989 Timothy Truman, Tom Yeates, Stan Woch and Will Blyberg. Cover art © 1989 Jim Steranko. Airboy, Valkyrie, Skywolf, Misery, The Heap ™ Eclipse Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.