The Phantom – The Complete Series: The King Years


By Bill Harris, Dick Wood & Bill Lignante, Giovanni Fiorentini & Senio Pratesi & various (Hermes Press)
ISBN: 978-1-61345-009-3

In the 17th century a British sailor survived an attack by pirates, and, washing ashore in Africa, 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 quest for justice 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

Although technically not the first ever costumed hero in comics, The Phantom was 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 that pitted 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. The Sunday feature began in May 1939.

For such a successful, 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.

Various small 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, who have long been manic devotees of the implacable champion) 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…

Between 1966 and 1967 King Features Syndicate dabbled with a comicbook line of their biggest stars – Flash Gordon, Mandrake and The Phantom – developed after the Ghost Who Walks had enjoyed a solo-starring vehicle under the broad and effective aegis of veteran licensed properties publisher Gold Key Comics.

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 straight reformatted strip reprints. The Gold Key exploits were tailored to a big page and a young readership, a model King maintained for their own run.

This splendid full-cover hardcover – or eBook for the modern minded – gathers the contents of The Phantom #19-28 (originally released between November 1966 and December 1967) as well as four back-up vignettes from Mandrake #1-4, spanning September 1966 to January 1967.

Following fascinating Introduction ‘The Phantom, the King Years’ from fans and scholars Pete Klaus and Howard S. Gesbeck (which includes some splendid unseen art and candid photos) the procession of classic wonders resumes.

As with the Gold Key issues, the majority of the stories are scripted by Bill Harris or Dick Wood and drawn in comicbook format by Bill Lignante, with cover by or based on images from the daily strip as limned by Sy Barry.

Opening the King archive is a fabulously wry romp as a coterie of crooks inveigles their way into the Phantom’s jungle home, intent on stealing ‘The Treasure of the Skull Cave’. Over the centuries the Ghost Who Walks has amassed the most fantastic hoard of legendary loot and astounding artefacts, but the trio of crooks can’t agree on what is or isn’t valuable and soon pay the price for their folly and genocidal intent…

Issue #19 tapped into the global excitement as America neared its first manned moonshots with ‘The Astronaut and the Pirates’ finding the Phantom hunting the seagoing brigands who abduct and ransom an American spaceman after his off-course splashdown lands him in very hot water…

The second tale in the issue relies on more traditional themes as ‘The Masked Emissary’ intervenes in a civil war; protecting an ousted democratic leader from a tyrannical despot, until liberty can be restored to the people.

The Phantom #20 – cover dated January 1967 – led with a bold departure from tradition. Scripted by Pat Fortunato ‘The Adventures of the Girl Phantom’ delved into the meticulous family chronicles to reveal how, a few generations previously, the feisty twin sister of a former Ghost Who Walked took her brother’s place to police the jungles of Bengali after he was laid low.

Counterpointing that radical drama is a moody mad science thriller as the current masked marvel battles old enemy Dr. Krazz and aliens from the Earth’s interior in ‘The Invisible Demon’

In #21 ‘The Treasure of Bengali Bay’ finds the Phantom battling bandits using their own fake ghost to secure sunken loot after grudge-bearing Indian Prince Taran lures our hero to the sub-continent as fodder for specially trained animal assassin ‘The Terror Tiger’.

Full-length drama ‘The Secret of Magic Mountain’ pits The Immortal Avenger against sly witch doctor Tuluck who mixes misconceived ancient history and a freshly-active volcano to turn the local tribes against The Phantom, whilst in #23 merciless pirate ‘Delilah’ takes the place of a Peace Corps worker to get lethally close to the guardian of the jungle.

However, her devious wiles, brainwashing techniques and super-submarine prove of little use against the dauntless and implacable Ghost Who Walks…

Girl Phantom Julie steals the show again in #24 as she and faithful friend Maru challenge the forces of darkness to defeat a vicious manipulator in ‘The Riddle of the Witch’

Writer Giovanni Fiorentini and illustrator Senio Pratesi tackle #25 as the modern hero and famous athlete and sportswoman (and prospective wife) Diana Palmer frustrate slave-taking diamond smugglers intent on subjugating ‘The Cold Fire Worshippers’ before issue #26 marks a return to double story instalments.

Lignante’s ‘The Lost City of Yiango’ sees the Phantom compelled to solve a 50-year old mystery and prevent a resurgence of tribal warfare, after which he answers a desperate plea to safeguard an irreplaceable treasure and goes undercover to thwart ‘The Pearl Raiders’

The Phantom #27 reveals the origins of the African Avenger’s wonder-horse as ‘The Story of Hero’ discloses how he once rescued kidnapped Princess Melonie of Kabora and how – following ‘The Long Trip Home’ – he was thanked with a most marvellous equine gift…

The Phantom’s King chronicles concluded in #28 ‘Diana’s Deadly Tour’ as the celebrity embarks on a global exhibition jaunt and is targeted by ruthless spies. Not only must her enigmatic paramour keep her safe but also solve the bewildering mystery of why they keep trying to kill her…

Wrapping up the issue is an ultra-short yarn as a frustrated world champion boxer hunts the Ghost Who Walks determined to prove who’s the toughest guy in ‘The Big Fight’

As mentioned above the Phantom guested in vignettes in Mandrake #1-4. Those ‘Back-Up Stories’ round out the comics cavalcade here beginning with ‘SOS Phantom’ as the Guardian Ghost responds to secret drum signals to quell an outbreak of fever, whilst ‘SOS Phantom: The Pirate Raiders’ finds him answering similar “threat tomtoms” to tackle and terrify superstitious coastal raiders…

Those self-same drums are crucial in thwarting a murderous criminal mastermind intent on penning the Phantom in ‘The Magic Ivory Cage’ and the flurry of little epics ends with another outing for ‘The Girl Phantom’ who here outwits a brutal strongman whose brawn and belligerence are no match for cool head…

Sprinkled liberally with original art, unused cover designs for the never-printed issues #29 and 30, examples from foreign editions and a wealth of original art pages by Jim Aparo (from forthcoming volume The Phantom: The Complete Series: The Charlton Years: volume 1) this another 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 can’t afford to miss…
The Phantom® © 1966-1967 and 2012 King Features Syndicate, Inc. ® Hearst Holdings, Inc. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.

Amazing Mysteries: The Bill Everett Archives volume 1


By Bill Everett and others, edited and complied by Blake Bell (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-488-7

Thanks to modern technology and diligent research by dedicated fans, there is a sublime superabundance of collections featuring the works of too-long ignored founding fathers and lost masters of American comic books. A magnificent case in point is this initial chronicle (available in both print and digital formats) revisiting the incredible gifts and achievements of one of the greatest draughtsmen and yarn-spinners the industry has ever seen.

You could save some time and trouble by simply buying the book now rather than waste your valuable off-hours reading my blather, but since I’m keen to carp on anyway feel free to accompany me as I delineate just why this tome needs to join the books on your “favourites” shelf.

The star of this collection was a direct descendent and namesake of iconoclastic poet and artist William Blake. His tragic life and awe-inspiring body of work – Bill was quite possibly the most technically accomplished artist in US comicbook industry – reveals how a man of privilege and astonishing pedigree was wracked by illness, an addictive personality (especially alcoholism) and sheer bad luck, but nevertheless shaped an art-form and left twin legacies: an incredible body of superlative stories and art, and, more importantly, saved many broken lives by becoming a dedicated mentor for Alcoholics Anonymous in his later years.

William Blake Everett was born in 1917 into a wealthy and prestigious New England family. Bright and precocious, he contracted tuberculosis when he was twelve and was dispatched to arid Arizona to recuperate.

This chain of events began a life-long affair with the cowboy lifestyle: a hard-drinking, chain-smoking, tall-tale-telling breed locked in a hard-to-win war against slow self-destruction. All this and more is far better imparted in the fact-filled, picture-packed Introduction by Blake Bell. It covers the development of the medium in ‘The Golden Age of Comics’, the history of ‘Bill Everett the Man’ and how they came together in ‘Centaur + Funnies Inc. = Marvel Comics #1’.

Th essay also includes an astounding treasure trove of found images and original art including samples from 1940s Sub-Mariner, 1960s Daredevil and 1970s Black Widow amongst many others.

Accompanied by the covers – that’s the case for most of the titles that follow: Everett was fast and slick and knew how to catch a punter’s eye – for Amazing Mystery Funnies volume 1 #1, 2, 3a, 3b and volume 2 #2 (August 1938 – February 1939, Centaur) are a quartet of rousing but muddled interstellar exploits starring sci fi troubleshooter Skyrocket Steele.

These are followed by a brace of anarchic outer space shenanigans starring futuristic wild boy Dirk the Demon from Amazing Mystery Funnies vol. 1 #3a and vol. 2 #3 (November 1938 and March 1939 respectively).

The undisputed star and big draw at Centaur was always Amazing-Man: a Tibetan mystic-trained orphan, adventurer and do-gooder named John Aman. After years of dangerous, painful study the young man was despatched back to civilisation to do good (for a relative given value of “good”)…

Aman stole the show in the monthly Amazing Mystery Comics #5-8 (spanning September to December 1939) as seen in the four breakneck thrillers reprinted here: ‘Origin of Amazing-Man’; an untitled sequel episode with the champion saving a lady rancher from sadistic criminals; ‘Amazing-Man Loose’ (after being framed for various crimes) and a concluding instalment wherein the nomadic hero abandons his quest to capture his evil arch rival ‘The Great Question’ and instead heads for recently invaded France to battle the scourge of Nazism…

As previously stated, Everett was passionately wedded to western themes and for Novelty Press’ Target Comics devised an Arizona-set rootin’ tootin’ cowboy crusader dubbed Bull’s-Eye Bill. Taken from issues #1 and 2 (February and March 1940), ‘On the trail of Travis Trent’ and ‘The Escape of Travis Trent’ find our wholesome but hard-bitten cowpoke battling the meanest and most determined owlhoot in the territory.

Accompanying the strips is an Everett-illustrated prose piece attributed to “Gray Brown” entitled ‘Bullseye Bill Gets his Moniker’.

Thanks to his breakthrough Sub-Mariner sagas, Everett was inextricably linked to water-based action and immensely popular, edgy heroes. That’s why Eastern Comics commissioned him to create human waterspout Bob Blake, Hydroman for their new bimonthly anthology Reg’lar Fellers Heroic Comics.

Here then (spanning issues #1-5; August 1940 to March 1941), are five spectacular, eerily offbeat exploits, encompassing ‘The Origin of Hydroman’ and covering his patriotic mission to make America safe from subversion from “oriental invaders”, German saboteurs and assorted ne’er-do-wells. after which a Polar Paladin rears his frozen head.

Sub-Zero Man debuted in Blue Bullet Comics vol. 1 #2 (July 1940): a Venusian scientist stranded on Earth who, through myriad bizarre circumstances, becomes a chilly champion of justice. Everett is only credited with the episode ‘The Power of Professor X’ (from vol. 1 #5, October 1940) but also included here are the cover of vol. 1 #4 and spot illos for the prose stories ‘Sub-Zero’s Adventures on Earth’ and ‘Frozen Ice’ (from Blue Bullet Comics vol. 1 #2 and vol. 2 #3).

The Conqueror was another quickly forsaken Everett creation: a Red, White & Blue patriotic costumed champion debuting in Victory Comics #1 August 1941. Daniel Lyons almost died in a plane crash but was saved by cosmic ray bombardment which granted him astounding mental and physical powers in ‘The Coming of the Conqueror’.

He promptly moved to Europe to “rid the world of Adolf Hitler!” and Everett’s only other contribution was the cover of issue #2 (September 1941).

Accompanied by a page of the original artwork from Reg’lar Fellers Heroic Comics #12 (May 1941), The Music Master details how dying violinist John Wallace is saved by mystic musical means and becomes a sonic-powered superman righting injustices and crushing evil…

Rounding out this cavalcade of forgotten wonders are a selection of covers, spot illustrations and yarns which can only be described as Miscellaneous (1938-1942). These consist of the cover to the 1938 Uncle Joe’s Funnies #1; procedural crime thriller ‘The C-20 Mystery’ from Amazing Mystery Funnies vol. 2 #7 (June 1939) and ‘The Story of the Red Cross’ from True Comics #2 (June 1938).

The cover for Dickie Dare #1 (1941) is followed by a range of potent illustrative images from text tales beginning with three pages for ‘Sheep’s Clothing’ (Funny Pages vol. 2 #11; November 1940), a potent pic for ‘Birth of a Robot Part 2’ from Target Comics vol. 1 #6 (July 1940), two pages from ‘Death in a Box’ courtesy of Reg’lar Fellers Heroic Comics #5 (March 1941) and two from ‘Pirate’s Oil’ in Reg’lar Fellers Heroic Comics #13 (July 1942), before the unpublished, unfinished 1940 covers for Challenge Comics #1 and Whirlwind Comics #1 bring the nostalgia to a close.

Although telling, even revelatory and hinting at a happy ending of sorts, what this book really celebrates is not the life but the astounding versatility of Bill Everett. A gifted, driven man, he was a born storyteller with the unparalleled ability to make all his imaginary worlds hyper-real; and for nearly five decades his incredible art and wondrous stories enthralled and enchanted everybody lucky enough to read them. You should really invite yourself onto that list…
© 2011 Fantagraphics Books. Introduction © 2011 Blake Bell. All art © its respective owners and holders. All rights reserved.

Supermen: The First Wave of Comic Book Heroes 1936-1941


By various, edited by Greg Sadowski (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-56097-971-5

Long regarded as the bastion of the arcane, historic, esoteric and the just plain interesting arenas of the comic book marketplace, Fantagraphics Books fully entered the Fights ‘n’ Tights Game with this magnificent paperback and digital format collection of (mostly) superhero tales from the very dawn of the American comic-book industry.

Supermen sublimely gathers together a selection of pioneering stalwarts by names legendary and seminal from the period 1936-1941: combining 9 stunning covers, many interior ads (for further beguiling characters and publications) with twenty complete sagas of fantastic worlds and times, exotically-costumed heroes and Mystery-Men – masked or otherwise – from an era when there were no genre boundaries, only untapped potential…

After Jonathan Lethem’s instructive introduction, the wonderment begins with a 2-page instalment of Dr. Mystic, the Occult Detective by Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster, taken from Comics Magazine #1, May 1936.

Following a selection of covers. ‘Murder by Proxy’ – an adventure of The Clock by George E. Brenner, from Detective Picture Stories #5 (April, 1937) – displays all the verve the new art form could muster. The Clock has the distinction of being the first masked comic-book hero of the era, whereas Dan Hastings – by Dan Fitch & Fred Guardineer – is accounted the first continuing science fiction hero in comic books, represented here by this appearance from Star Comics #5, 1937.

Dirk the Demon is a flamboyant boy hero created by young Bill Everett, taken from Amazing Mystery Funnies (vol.2 #3, March 1939), and is closely followed by a bombastic tale of The Flame from Wonderworld Comics #7 (November 1939). This gem comes from comics royalty Will Eisner & Lou Fine using the pen-name Basil Berold, whilst super-magician Yarko the Great debuted in Wonderworld Comics #8, written and drawn by Eisner.

The unique and brilliant Dick Briefer shines here in a Rex Dexter of Mars episode from Mystery Men Comics #4 (November 1939) before wonder boy Jack Kirby makes his first appearance, working as Michael Griffiths on a tale of Cosmic Carson for the May 1940 issue of Science Comics (#4).

The work of troubled maestro Fletcher Hanks was lost to posterity until rediscovered as the century ended by comics’ intelligentsia in such magazines as Raw! His woefully short career in comic-books is represented here by two pieces.

The first of these is the stunningly surreal and forceful Stardust, the Super Wizard from Fantastic Comics #12, (November 1940). Then in Pep Comics #3, from April of the same year, a turning point was reached in the brutal career of Jack Cole’s murderous superhero The Comet, followed by Al Bryant’s monster-hunting vigilante Fero, Planet Detective, (Planet Comics #5, May 1940). The second astounding Hanks offering, pseudonymously credited to Barclay Flagg, is followed the truly bizarre Fantomah, Mystery Woman of the Jungle from Jungle Comics #4 (April 1940).

Big Shot Comics combined reprints of established newspaper strips of the period with original characters and new material. From the first issue in May 1940 comes Marvello, Monarch of Magicians by Gardner Fox & Fred Guardineer: another in a veritable legion of wizard crimebusters inspired by Lee Falk’s Mandrake.

Plainclothes mystery-man Tony Trent fought crime by putting on a hideous mask and calling himself The Face. His gripping exploits were also written by Fox and drawn here by the wonderful Mart Bailey, working together as “Michael Blake”. The other major all-new star of Big Shot was the fabulous blend of Batman, G-8, Captain Midnight and Doc Savage dubbed Skyman, and this yarn by “Paul Dean” (Fox & Ogden Whitney) is a real cracker.

Jack Cole returns as “Ralph Johns” to tell a tale of super-speedster Silver Streak (from Silver Streak Comics #4, May 1940) and is followed by one of the most famous and celebrated tales of this dawn era, wherein a daring hero clashed with a sinister God of Hate in #7’s ‘Daredevil Battles the Claw’ (from January 1941).

The legendary Basil Wolverton steals the show next with the cover of Target Comics #7 and a startling story of Spacehawk, Superhuman Enemy of Crime from issue #11, (December 1940) after which artic avenger Sub-Zero stops crime cold in an episode from Blue Bolt #5, courtesy of rising star Bill Everett, before the pictorial magic concludes with an episode of Joe Simon & Jack Kirby’s incredible and eponymous Blue Bolt fantasy strip from the tenth issue of the magazine that bore his name (cover-dated the same month as another S&K classic entitled Captain America)…

Augmented by comprehensive background notes on the contents of this treasury of thrills, Supermen is a perfect primer for anyone seeking an introduction to the Golden Age, as well as a delightful journey for long-time fans. I’m sure there’s very little here that most of us have seen before, and as a way of preserving these popular treasures for a greater posterity it is a timely start. Much, much more, please…
All stories are public domain but the specific restored images and design are © 2009 Fantagraphics Books.

America’s 1st Patriotic Comic Book Hero – The Shield


By Irving Novick, Harry Shorten & various (Archie Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-87979-408-5

In the dawning days of the comic book business, just after Superman and Batman had ushered in a new genre of storytelling, many publishers jumped onto the bandwagon and made their own bids for cash and glory. Many thrived and many more didn’t, remembered only as trivia by sad blokes like me. Some few made it to an amorphous middle-ground: Not forgotten, but certainly not household names either…

The Shield was an FBI scientist named Joe Higgins who wore a suit which gave him enhanced strength, speed and durability. These advantages he used to battle America’s enemies in the days before the USA entered World War II. Latterly he also devised a Shield Formula that increased his powers.

Beginning with the first issue of Pep Comics (January 1940) he battled spies, saboteurs, subversive organisations and every threat to American security and well-being and was a minor sensation. He is credited with being the industry’s very first Patriotic Hero, predating Marvel’s iconic Captain America in the “wearing the Flag” field.

Collected here in this Golden-Age fan-boy’s dream (available as a trade paperback and in digital formats) are the lead stories from monthly Pep Comics #1-5 (January – May 1940) plus the three solo adventures from the hastily assembled spin-off Shield-Wizard Comics #1 (Summer 1940).

Following a Foreword from Robert M. Overstreet and context-providing Introduction from Paul Castiglia the wonderment opens with FBI agent and Joe Higgins smashing a Stokonian spy and sabotage ring in his mystery man identity of The Shield ‘G-Man Extraordinary’. Only his boss J. Edgar Hoover knows his dark secret and of the incredible scientific process that has made the young daredevil a veritable human powerhouse.

In Pep #2, as American oil tankers begin vanishing at sea, The Shield hunts down the ray-gun-wielding villains responsible and delivers punishing justice whilst in #3 mini parachute mines cause devastating destruction in US waters until the patriotic paragon discovers the undersea base of brilliant science-maniac Count Zongarr and deals out more all-American retribution…

There’s a whiff of prescience or plain military/authorial foresight to the blistering tale from Pep #4 (May 1940) when devious, diabolical Mosconians perpetrate a sneak attack on Pearl Harbor. Warned by a clairvoyant vision from new mystery man The Wizard Higgins hurtles to Hawaii to scotch the plot, and when fists and fury aren’t quite enough the Shield turns an exploding volcano on the murdering backstabbers!

With mission accomplished, Higgins takes an ocean liner home in issue #5 only to have the ship attacked by vengeful Mosconians. After thwarting the sinister ambushers and battling his way back, Joe arrives back in the USA just in time to thwart a tank column attack on Congress!

The blistering pace and sheer bravura of the Patriotic Paragon’s adventures made him an early hit and he soon found a second venue for his crusade in Shield-Wizard Comics. The shared titled launched in June 1940 and opened with an expanded origin for the red, white and blue blockbuster. In 1916 his father was a scientist and officer in US Army Intelligence.

Whilst working on a formula to make men superhuman, Tom Higgins was attacked by enemy agents and he lost his life when they blew up a fleet of ammunition barges. To make matters worse, the agent was posthumously blamed for the disaster…

Joe grew up with the shame but swore to complete his father’s work and clear his name…

By achieving the first – and gaining super-powers – Joe lured out spy master Hans Fritz (who had framed his dad) and accomplished the most crucial component of his crusade: exonerating Tom Higgins. Then, with his dad’s old partner J. Edgar as part of the secret, the son joined the FBI and began his work on America’s behalf…

Shield-Wizard #1 contained three complete exploits of the Star-Spangled Centurion with the second introducing Joe to his new partner Ju Ju Watson: a doughty veteran dedicated to completing the young operative’s training. Together they investigate a steel mill infiltrated by crooks holding the owner hostage and aiming to purloin the payroll…

Young Higgin’s next case involves grisly murder as corpses are found concealed in a floating garbage scow and the trail leads back to vice racketeer Lou Zefke whose ongoing trial is stalling for lack of witnesses. With only the slimmest of leads but plenty of enthusiasm, The Shield steps in and cleans up the mess…

Raw, primitive and a little juvenile perhaps, these are still unadorned, glorious romps from the industry’s exuberant, uncomplicated dawning days: Plain-and-simple fun-packed thrills from the gravely under-appreciated Irving Novick, Harry Shorten and others whose names are now lost to history.

Despite not being to everyone’s taste these guilty pleasures are worth a look for any dyed-in-the-woollen-tights superhero freak and comprise a rapturous tribute to a less complicated time with simpler solutions to complex problems.
© 1940, 2002 Archie Publications In. All Rights Reserved.

The Phantom – The Complete Series: The Gold Key Years volume 2


By Bill Harris & Bill Lignante with George Wilson (Hermes Press)
ISBN: 978-1-61345-023-9

In the 17th century a British sailor survived an attack by pirates, and, washing ashore in Africa, 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 quest for justice 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 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

Although technically not the first ever costumed hero in comics, The Phantom was 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 that pitted 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 artist Ray Moore the illustration side. The Sunday feature began in May 1939.

For such a successful, 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. Various small 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, who have long been manic devotees of the implacable champion) 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…

In the 1960’s King Features Syndicate dabbled with a comicbook line of their biggest stars – Flash Gordon, Mandrake and The Phantom – but immediately prior to that, the Ghost Who Walks helmed a solo-starring vehicle under the broad and effective aegis of veteran licensed properties publisher Gold Key Comics. Each issue was fronted by a stunning painted cover by George Wilson.

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 straight strip reprints. These Gold Key exploits were tailored to a big page and a young readership.

This second superb full-cover hardcover – with equivalent eBook editions for the modern minded – gathers The Phantom #9-17 (originally released between November 1964 and July 1966) and opens with fan and scholar Pete Klaus’ Introduction ‘The Gold Key Phantom’: offering original art panels (many by Sy Barry) and a welcoming overview of the immortal strip star.

Scripted by Bill Harris and drawn in comicbook format by Bill Lignante, the illustrated adventures resume with full-length epic ‘The Sixth Man’ from #9 as the Ghost Who Walks takes a rare trip into modern civilisation only to be shanghaied by crooks. The miscreants realise too late that they have made the biggest mistake of their shady lives…

Determined to discover what’s behind the nefarious scheme, Kit Walker allows himself to be taken to a remote island ruled by bored, cruel queen Sansamor who thrives on making powerful men duel to the death.

Once the hero sees the kind of creature she is, her downfall is assured…

The issue is concluded by a single-page historical recap of the legend of ‘The Phantom’ and equally brief monochrome run-down of the mystery man’s intended bride ‘Diana’ (Palmer).

Cover-dated February 1965, The Phantom #10 opens with devious action thriller ‘The Sleeping Giant’ wherein the long-peaceful tribe of Itongo headhunters take up the old ways after their ancestral idol Tuamotu comes to life.

Thankfully, the Phantom is on hand to stem the potential carnage and expose crooked diamond prospector Joe Gagnon and his oversized circus performer inciting the tribesmen to war and conquest. All he has to do is defeat the giant warrior in unarmed combat…

Assisting the masked peacekeeper in policing the tribes and criminals of the region is ‘The Patrol’. These worthy soldiers have no idea who their mysterious “Commander” actually is and when the latest recruit tries to find out he receives a startling shock in this wry vignette.

Issue #11 (April 1965) features ‘Blind Man’s Bluff’ with two brutal convicts breaking out of the Bengal Penal Colony to terrorise native communities by masquerading as demonic spirits. When the Ghost Who Walks apprehends them as they link up with pirates, he is struck sightless by a flare gun. Not even blindness can stop the resourceful champion from dispensing justice, however…

Closing the issue is a one-page tour of ‘The Skull Cave’ by Joe Certa, after which #12 (June) introduces ‘The Beast of Bengali’, with art by Sparky Moore & Lignante. Here a golden giant capable of seeming miracles subjugates the locality until the masked marvel exposes his magical feats for the tricks they really are…

Following a mouth-watering period ad for the Phantom Revell model kit, issue #13 (August) opens ‘The Phantom Chronicles’ as the Jungle Sentinel consults his ancestor’s meticulous records for tips on defeating seemingly immortal bandit Rachamond

The Phantom #14 (October) begins with ‘The Historian’ as scholar Dr. Heg consults with the Jungle Patrol on a book chronicling their achievements. His ulterior motive is to destroy the only law for hundreds of miles, but he has not reckoned on the true identity of their enigmatic leader…

‘Grandpa’ then switches locales to America where Diana Palmer’s doting ancestor is playing unwelcome matchmaker. Eventually, after violent incidents involving bears and robbers, the old man warms to African mystery man Kit Walker…

Closing 1966, issue #15 (December) details the downfall of ‘The River Pirates’ who ravage along the mighty waterways of the region. Their modern weapons prove little use against the cunning and bravery of the Deep Woods Guardian…

‘The Tournament’ then focuses on an unlucky prison escapee who finds the Phantom’s clothes and is stuck fighting a native gladiator in a centuries-old grudge match. Sadly, if he loses, the prestige lost means chaos will return to the tribes enjoying The Phantom’s Peace…

‘The Chain’ opens #16 (April 1966) as a world-weary Phantom considers quitting after an interminable period negotiating peace between warring tribes. Even Diana cannot change his mind, but when ancient wise man Wuru appears he relates a story of the hero’s father, who endured hardship, mockery and even slavery in a quest to rescue a woman from vile bondage. Her name was Maude, and she was to be the Phantom’s mother…

A brace of single-pagers follow, revealing Kit Walker’s unrecorded boxing bout against ‘The Champ’ and a battle in a bar won by ‘The Milk Drinker’ before ‘The Crescent Cult’ sees the Jungle Ghost crushing an assassination gang determined to murder their country’s new Maharani. The comic concludes with another 1-page yarn as ‘The Diggers’ examine old ruins and discover proof that the Phantom has lived and fought evil for centuries!

This second volume ends on a truly supernatural note as The Phantom #17 (July 1966) discloses how undying witch ‘Samaris’ has preyed on male suitors for centuries, and believes she has last found another cursed to live forever…

Following one-pager ‘The Waterfall’, detailing the secrets of the entrance to the fabled Skull Cave, ‘Samaris Part II’ finds the Ghost Who Walks captive of the Queen but resisting her every wile until justice, fate and an avalanche of deferred years catch up to her at last…

Wrapping up is a monochrome vignette detailing the secrets of The Phantoms’ devout helpers ‘The Bandar’ Poison Pygmy People and a sumptuous cover gallery by George Wilson.

Straightforward, captivating rollicking action-adventure has always been the staple of The Phantom. If that sounds like a good time to you, this is a traditional nostalgia-fest you won’t want to miss…
The Phantom® © 1964-1966 and 2012 King Features Syndicate, Inc. ® Hearst Holdings, Inc. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.

Benny Breakiron volume 1: The Red Taxis


By Peyo, with backgrounds by Will, translated by Joe Johnson (Papercutz/NBM)
ISBN: 978-1-59707-409-4

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 in 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 he 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 Pirlouit, 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 or (in Dutch) Steven Sterk – debuted in Spirou #1183 (December 1960). With a few slyly added tips of the hat to Siegel & Shuster’s Superman (check out that cover, fanboys!), the wry bucolic adventures star a small boy with superhuman strength living in a generally quiet and unassuming little French – or maybe Belgian? – town.

Quiet, well-mannered, gentle and a bit lonely, Benny is also 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 only real weakness is that all his strength deserts him whenever he catches cold…

Benny never tries to conceal his powers but somehow the adults never catch on. They usually 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 dropped.

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, these gloriously genteel and outrageously engaging power fantasies are available to English-language readers again, both as robust full-colour hardbacks and eBooks, and this initial exploit begins in the sedate city of Vivejoie-la-Grande, where the sweet kid goes about his rather solitary life, doing good deeds in secret and being as good a boy as he can.

However, his sense of fair play is outraged when aging taxi driver Monsieur Dussiflard becomes the target of a dirty tricks campaign by new company Red Taxis. When he and the incensed cabbie challenge the oily company CEO in his flashy high-rise office, Benny is shooed away and the elderly driver later vanishes.

Suspicions aroused, the boy investigates and is attacked by a gang of thuggish Red Taxi employees. Only after thrashing and humiliating the goons does Benny realise that he still doesn’t know where Dussiflard is, so he throws the fight…

Just as he is imprisoned with his fellow abductee, the worst happens and the bombastic boy comes down with a stinker of a cold! As helpless as any other eight-year old, Benny is stuffed in a crate with the codger cabbie and loaded onto a freighter headed to the Galapagos Islands…

With all opposition ended, the boss and his Red Taxi stooges begin the final stage of their devilish plot, utterly oblivious to the dogged determination of Benny who must escape the ship and an alluring tropical paradise and impatiently wait for his cold to clear up, before setting off on a race against time, the elements and his own woefully-lacking knowledge of geography if he is to stop the ruthless criminals…

A superbly genteel spoof and fabulously winning fantasy about childhood validation and agency, The Red Taxis offers a distinctly Old World spin to the concept of superheroes and provides 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.

Hellboy in Mexico


By Mike Mignola, Richard Corben, Mick McMahon, Fábio Moon, Gabriel Bá, Dave Stewart & Clem Robins (Dark Horse Books)
ISBN: 978-1-61655-897-0 (TPB)       eISBN: 978-1-63008-217-8

Happy Dia de los Muertos!

Let’s wind down our own Halloween celebrations and enjoy the more life-affirming Day of the Dead with a fabulously pertinent tome, formatted for your edification in both trade paperback and digital editions…

Towards the end of World War II an uncanny otherworldly baby was confiscated from Nazi cultists by American superhero The Torch of Liberty and a squad of US Rangers moments after his eldritch nativity on Earth. The good guys had interrupted a satanic ritual predicted by parapsychologist Professor Trevor Bruttenholm and his associates who were waiting for Hell to literally come to Earth…

The heroic assemblage was stationed at a ruined church in East Bromwich, England when the abominable infant with a huge stone right hand materialised in an infernal fireball. “Hellboy” was subsequently raised by Bruttenholm, and grew into a mighty warrior engaged in fighting a never-ending secret war against the uncanny and supernatural. The Prof assiduously schooled and trained his happy-go-lucky foundling whilst forming and consolidating an organisation to destroy arcane and occult threats – the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense.

After years of such devoted intervention, education and warm human interaction, in 1952 the neophyte hero began hunting down agents of the malign unknown, from phantoms to monsters as lead agent for the BPRD. Hellboy rapidly became its top operative; the world’s most successful paranormal investigator…

As decades passed, Hellboy gleaned snatches of his origins and antecedents, learning he was a supposedly corrupted beast of dark portent: a demonic messiah destined to destroy the world and bring back ancient powers of evil.

It is a fate he despised and utterly rejected…

This eerily esoteric collection of tales concocted by Mike Mignola and friends re-presents a selection of short stories as originally published Hellboy In Mexico, Dark Horse Presents Volume 2 #7, 31-32, Hellboy 20th Anniversary Sampler, Dark Horse Presents Volume 3 #7, and Hellboy: House of the Living Dead, collectively spanning 2010 and 2015. The premise is that in 1956 Hellboy was working south of the border and, thanks to booze and an unspecified crisis, went way, way, wa-aay off the reservation…

With each piece preceded by some informative commentary from Mignola, the arcane action begins with ‘Hellboy in Mexico or, A Drunken Blur’, (May 2010) illustrated by Richard Corben with colourist Dave Stewart & letterer Clem Robins applying their own seamlessly fitting contributions to the mix…

In 1982 Hellboy and amphibious ally Abe Sapien are winding down after a strenuous mission in Mexico. Looking for a quiet drink they amble into a ramshackle cantina and discover a sort of shrine comprising a Holy Virgin statue and hundreds of faded photos, posters and tickets for luchadors (masked wrestlers).

One of them features Hellboy and three grinning, hooded grapplers…

Shocked and stunned, Hellboy’s mind drifts back to a barely-recalled drunken binge three decades ago…

And thus is revealed an untold tale of sterling comradeship and collaborative chaos-crushing, as the Demon Detective joins a trio of fun-loving masked brothers who combined their travels on the wrestling circuit with a spot of monster-hunting and devil-destroying. Sadly, Hellboy also remembers how it all fell apart after young Esteban succumbed to the deadly embrace of vampiric bat-god Camazotz

With the golden times over, Hellboy indulged in an epic, memory-eradicating booze-bender until months later BPRD agents found, dried out and brought home their errant top gun…

Of course, since he was missing for months, there might be other exploits still unrecalled…

From Dark Horse Presents Volume 2 #7 (December 2011) – and fully crafted by Mignola – ‘Hellboy versus the Aztec Mummy’ returns to that lost time in Mexico as the powerfully pixilated paranormal paragon hunts down a devil-bat only to find himself overmatched in a clash with godly Quetzalcoatl, after which marvellous Mick McMahon picks up the illustrator’s brushes to render Mignola’s outrageous drunken tall tale ‘Hellboy Gets Married’ (DHP #31-32, December 2013 to January 2014).

This time the demon drink led to the infernal gladiator falling into an unlikely matrimonial match with a ghostly shapeshifter. Their wedding night was the stuff of nightmares…

Relentlessly following on is ‘The Coffin Man’ (by Mignola and Fábio Moon from March 2014’s Hellboy 20th Anniversary Sampler). Here another cantina night was interrupted by a little girl whose recently interred uncle was being pilfered by a sinister Brujo (witchman). Hellboy’s best attempts to take back the beloved cadaver were insultingly inadequate…

The sequel ‘The Coffin Man 2: The Rematch’ was illustrated by Moon’s twin brother Gabriel Bá and first appeared in Dark Horse Presents Volume 3 #7 (February 2015). A fortnight after that initial encounter the still smarting AWOL B.P.R.D. agent went looking for the corpse-stealer and yet again came off embarrassingly second-best…

‘House of the Living Dead’ originally emerged as an eponymous one-off graphic novel crafted by Mignola, Corben, Stewart & Robins. It was devised as loving tribute to the golden age of Universal monster movies, their Hammer Films descendants and legendary actors Boris Karloff, Glenn Strange, John Carradine & Lon Chaney Jr.

The saga starts during that hazy sun-drenched fugue season with Hellboy still revelling in the heady thrills of the travelling wrestling ring. That only makes him a target for a cunning plan that begins with the offer of a lucrative private bout. After refusing, our soused champion is convinced to comply when the stranger shows him the photo of the girl who will be killed if he doesn’t fight…

Soon he is reluctantly entering a dilapidated hacienda and climbing into a ring to clash with a mad doctor’s recently animated corpse-monster. And then vampires show up and the rising full moon bathes the deranged genius’ manservant…

A light-hearted romp with a potent twist and dark underpinnings, it’s no wonder Hellboy carried on drinking after all the grave dust settled…

Moderated and annotated by editor Scott Allie, the ‘Hellboy Sketchbook’ closes this festive fear fiesta, revealing story-layouts, doodles, roughs, designs and pencilled pages accompanied by creator comments and garnished with a full cover gallery.

Delivered as a succession of short, sharp shockers of beguiling wit and intensity, this potent piñata of horror history is a perfect example of comics storytelling at its very best: offering astounding supernatural spectacle, amazing arcane action and momentous mystical suspense – something every fear fan and adventure aficionado will enjoy.
™ and © 2010, 2011, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016 Mike Mignola. Hellboy is ™ Mike Mignola. All rights reserved.

Take That, Adolf! – The Fighting Comic Books of the Second World War


By Mark Fertig and many & various (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-987-5

Long the bastion of the arcane, historic, esoteric and the just plain interesting arenas of the comics experience, Fantagraphics Books here celebrates the dawn age of Fights ‘n’ Tights funnybooks with a magnificent collection of (mostly) superhero covers culled from the fraught period which most truly defined the comics industry.

Comicbook covers are a potent and evocative way of assessing the timbre of an era and a captivating shortcut into worlds far removed from our own. They are also half the sum total of fun generated by narrative art and arguably an art form all their own.

In this tome, educator, scholar and writer Mark Fertig (Chair of Art and Art History at Susquehanna University, Pennsylvania and revered film noir expert – check out his Where Danger Lives for more populist fun) offers an erudite and wide-reaching essay comprehensively addressing every aspect of the four-colour Home Front’s graphic endeavours in support of America’s WWII war effort.

Detailing how Jewish émigré artists’ and writers’ creative influences advocated America surrender its isolationist stance in ‘Four Color Fantasies’ and ‘Building Towards War’, Fertig then traces the development of ‘Red, White, and Blue Heroes’ such as The Shield and Uncle Sam before ‘The Coming of Captain America’ sparks the invention of ‘An Army of Captains’.

After the USA finally enters the war ‘All-Out Assault: August & September 1941’ is followed by an examination of female masked fighters in ‘She Can Do It!’ and reveals how Wonder Woman became ‘An Amazon for the Ages’.

‘Kids Can Fight Too!’ reveals the impact of junior and under-age crusaders as well as the sub-genre of Kid Gangs whilst ‘Attaboy, Steamboat!’ confronts head-on the depiction of ethnic characters – “evil” and Pro-democracy. From here in the distant future, some of the appalling jingoism and racism is even more disturbing than the tortures, torments and buckets of gore liberally scattered through the images of Evil Nazis and Japs…

Next ‘Into the Breach’ addresses the reasons omnipotent heroes such as Superman and Captain Marvel left the actual fighting in Europe and the Pacific to ordinary mortals before ‘Pulling Together’ details and the promotion of Home Front solidarity munitions manufacture and the arming of the armies of Freedom after which Hitler repeatedly gets his just deserts (in effigy at least) ‘In Der Führer’s Face!’

‘Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines!’ follows the development of more human fictional soldiers and heroes whilst and ‘More Thrilling Than Fiction’ sees the begins of fact-based accounts of true champions such as President Roosevelt and General Eisenhower before ‘Pitch Men’ follows the numerous examples of masked warriors and kiddie-characters inciting readers to help pay for the war through selling war bonds and liberty stamps and ‘On to Victory’ celebrates the end of hostilities and the aftermath.

The fact-packed lecture is also supplemented at the back of the book by creator biographies of industry giants and iconic cover crafters Charles Clarence Beck, Jack Binder, Charles Biro, Hardin “Jack” Burnley, Reed Crandall, Will Eisner, Lou Fine, Irv Novick, Manuel “Mac” Raboy and Alex Schomburg (regarded as the most prolific cover illustrator of the period) but the true merit of this enchanting tome is the covers gathered for your perusal.

Designed to incite patriotic fervour and build morale, the awesome majority of this tome features a potent avalanche of stunning covers from almost every company, displaying not only how mystery men and superheroes dealt with the Axis of Evil in those tense times but also the valiant efforts of “ordinary fighting men” and even cartoon fantasy stars such as Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig and Walt Disney stars such as Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck

Shopping List Alert: skip if you must…

This book celebrates an absolute cascade of spectacular, galvanising scenes of heroes legendary and obscure, costumed and uniformed, crushing tanks, swatting planes, sinking U-Boats and decimating enemy ranks, unleashed before your assuredly goggled eyes by artists long forgotten, and never known as well as more familiar names such as Joe Shuster, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, Eisner, Harry G. Peter, Jack Burnley, Frank Harry, Irwin Hasen, Al Avison, Bob Powell, Edd Ashe, Harry Lucey, Paul Gustavson, Bill Everett, Jerry Robinson, Gus Ricca, Al Gabriele, Charles Sultan, Gene Fawcette, Louis & Arturo Cazeneuve, Gill Fox, Sam Cooper, Jim Mooney, Elmer Wexler, Fred Ray, Dan Zolnerowich, Don Rico, Max Plaisted, Howard Sherman, Everett E. Hibbard, Ramona Patenaude, Pierce Rice, Harry Anderson, Lin Streeter, Dan Gormley, Bernard Klein, Stephen Douglas, Martin Nodell, Charles Quinlan, Dan Noonan, Sheldon Moldoff, Henry Keifer, Marc Swayze, Carl Buettner, Charles A. Winter, Maurice, del Bourgo, Jack Warren, Bob Montana, Bob, Fujimori, Vernon Greene, George Papp, John Jordan, Syd Shores, John Sikela, Alex Blum, Ray Ramsey, R. Webster, Harry Sahle, Mort Leav, Alex Kotzky, Dan Barry, Al Camy, Stan Kaye, George Gregg, Art Saaf, George Tuska, alexander Kostuk, Al Carreno, Fred Kida, Ruben Moreira, Sidney Hamburg, Rudy Palais, Joe Doolin, Al Plastino, Harvey K. Fuller, Louis Ferstadt, Matt Bailey, Ham Fisher, Walt Kelly, Wayne Boring, John Giunta, Creig Flessel, Harold Delay, Lee Elias, Henry Boltinoff, L.B. Cole and George Marcoux plus many more who did their bit by providing safe thrills, captivating joy and astounding excitement for millions.

These powerful, evocative, charming, funny, thrilling, occasionally daft and often horrific images are controversial these days. Many people consider them Art with a capital ‘A’ whereas close-minded, reactionary, unimaginative, bigoted die-hard poltroons don’t.

Why not Dig back in time (For Victory!) and make your own decision?
© 2017 Fantagraphics Books, Inc. Main text© 2017 Mark Fertig. All comics covers and illustrations herein © 2017 the respective copyright holders All rights reserved.

Siegel and Shuster’s Funnyman: The First Jewish Superhero


By Siegel & Joe Shuster with Thomas Andrae, Mel Gordon & Jerome (Feral House)
ISBN: 978-1-932595-78-9

The comics industry owes an irredeemable debt to two talented and ambitious Jewish kids from Cleveland in the right place at the right time who were able to translate their enthusiasm and heartfelt affection for beloved influences and delight in a new medium into a brand-new genre which took the world by storm.

Writer Jerome Siegel and artist Joe Shuster were a jobbing cartoonist team just breaking into the brand-new yet already-ailing comicbook business with strips such as ‘Henri Duval’, ‘Doctor Occult’ and ‘Slam Bradley’. When they rejigged a constantly rejected newspaper strip concept for a new title they manifested the greatest action sensation of the age – if not all time…

Superman captivated depression-era audiences and within a year had become the vanguard of a genre and an industry. In those early days, the feature was both whimsical and bombastic – as much gag strip as adventure serial – and it was clear the utterly inspired whiz kids were wedded to laughs just as much as any wish-fulfilling empowerment fantasies.

As even the most casual scholar knows, Siegel & Shuster were not well-served by their publishers and by 1946 no longer worked for National Periodicals (today’s DC Comics). In fact, they were in acrimonious litigation which led to the originators losing all rights to their creation and suffering years of ill-treatment until an artist-led campaign at the time of the 1978 Superman movie shamed the company into a belated reversal and financial package (consisting mostly of having their names returned to the character’s logo and company medical benefits).

Long before this however, the dynamic duo produced an abortive “Last Hurrah”: another unique character based on early influences, but one who sadly did not catch the public’s attention in those post war years when the first super-heroic age was ending.

Based broadly on Danny Kaye, Funnyman was a stand-up comedian who dressed as a clown and used comedy gimmicks to battle criminals, super-villains and aliens: first in six issues of his own comic-book and then as a Daily and Sunday newspaper strip.

A complete antithesis to the Man of Steel, Larry Davis was a total insider, no orphan or immigrant, but a wealthy, successful man, revered by society, yet one who chose to become a ridiculous outsider, fighting for not the common good but because it gave him a thrill nothing else could match.

The series was light, beautifully audacious, tremendous fun and sank like a concrete-filled whoopee cushion.

In this smart paperback compilation – also available as a digital or perhaps hee-heBook (sorry, simply couldn’t resist. Should have, but couldn’t…) – social historians Thomas Andrae and Mel Gordon carefully re-examine the strip in the much broader context of Jewish Identity and racial character, with particular reference as it applies to Jewish-Americans, and make some fascinating observations and postulates.

Following an intriguing preface by author, writer, editor and comics historian Danny Fingeroth, this book assiduously dissects the history and psychology of the Judaic experience in a compelling series of astoundingly illustrated essays gathered under the umbrellas of Gordon’s ‘The Farblondjet Superhero and his Cultural Origins’ and Andrae’s ‘The Jewish Superhero’.

The former (and Farblondjet translates as “mixed up” or “lost”) probes ‘The Mystery of Jewish Humor’, ‘The Construct of Humor in Everyday Jewish Life’, ‘The Old Theories: ‘Laughter-Through-Tears’; ‘A Laughing People’; ‘Outside Observer’ and ‘The Badkhn Theory’ (Badkhn being performers hired to insult, offend and depress guests and celebrants at social gatherings such as weddings or funerals).

‘Characteristics of Modern Jewish Humor’ are subdivided and explored in ‘Aggression’, ‘The Yiddish Language’, ‘Self-Mockery’, ‘Inversion and Skepticism’, ‘Scatology’, ‘Gallows Humor’ and ‘Solipsism and Materialism’ before Gibson’s compelling, contextual potted-history concludes with ‘American-Jewish Comedy Before 1947’ (the year Funnyman debuted),‘Weber and Fields’, ‘On the Boards’, ‘The Borscht Belt’, ‘Cartoons and Jokebooks’ and ‘Hollywood Talkies and Syndicated Radio’.

Then, in ‘The Jewish Superhero’ Andrae examines Siegel & Shuster’s possible influences; everything from German expressionist cinema masterpiece ‘The Golem: How He Came into This World’ to real-life strongman Sigmund Breitbart, a Polish Jew who astounded the world with his feats in the early 1920s. On his American tour Sigmund appeared in Cleveland in October 1923. Siegel, a local resident, would have been nine years old which as everyone knows is the real “golden age of comics”…

‘Funnyman, Jewish Masculinity and the Decline of the Superhero’ explores the psychology and landscape of the medium through the careers and treatment of Siegel & Shuster in ‘The Birth of Funnyman’, ‘The Body Politic’, ‘The Schlemiel and the Tough Jew’, ‘The Decline of the Superhero’ and ‘Comic Book Noir’ before going on to recount the story of the newspaper strips in ‘The Funnyman Comic Strip’ and ‘Reggie Van Twerp’ (a last ditch attempt by the creators to resurrect their comic fortunes) before the inevitable axe falls in ‘End Game’

Thus far the engaging tome acts as a compulsive and hugely informative academic work, but in ‘Funnyman Comic Book Stories’ the resplendent fan fun truly takes hold with a full colour section reproducing a selection of strips from the 6-issue run.

‘The Kute Knockout!’ (Funnyman #2, March 1948) pits the Hilarious Hero against a streetwalker robot built to seduce and rob Johns after which ‘The Medieval Mirthquake’ (Funnyman #4, May 1948) propels the Comedy Crusader back to the time of Camelot. From the same issue comes ‘Leapin’ Lena’ as Funnyman tackles a female bandit who can jump like a kangaroo and #5 (July 1948) has him chasing a worrying new crime gimmick in ‘The Peculiar Pacifier’.

Also included are the striking covers of all six issues, the origin of Funnyman from #1, lots of splash pages and a selection of Shuster’s Superman art, but the most welcome benefit for collectors and collectors is a detailed précis of the entire run’s 20 tales.

The same consideration is offered for the newspaper strips. As well as similar synopses for the Sundays (12 adventures spanning October 31st 1948 to the end of October 1949) and Dailies (another dozen larks spanning October 18th 1948 to September 17th 1949), there are11 pages of full-colour Sunday sections and the complete black and white ‘Adventure in Hollywood’ (December 20th to January 12th 1949) to adore and marvel over.

Like Funnyman himself, this book is an odd duck. Whereas I would have loved to see the entire output gathered into one volume, what there is here is completely engrossing: a wonderful appreciation and compelling contextualization of genuine world-altering pioneers. This is a fabulous package with an appeal that ranges far beyond its possibly limited comic-fan audience.
Siegel and Shuster’s Funnyman © 2010 Thomas Andrae and Mel Gordon. All rights reserved.

Hellboy volume 11: The Dead Bride and others


By Mike Mignola, Richard Corben, Kevin Nowlan, Scott Hampton, Dave Stewart & Clem Robins (Dark Horse Books)
ISBN: 978-1-59582-740-1

Towards the end of World War II an uncanny otherworldly baby was confiscated from Nazi cultists by American superhero The Torch of Liberty and a squad of US Rangers moments after his eldritch nativity on Earth. The good guys had interrupted a satanic ritual predicted by parapsychologist Professor Trevor Bruttenholm and his associates who were waiting for Hell to literally come to Earth…

The heroic assemblage was stationed at a ruined church in East Bromwich, England when the abominable infant with a huge stone right hand materialised in an infernal fireball. This “Hellboy” was subsequently raised by Bruttenholm, and grew into a mighty warrior engaged in fighting a never-ending secret war against the uncanny and supernatural. The Professor assiduously schooled and trained his happy-go-lucky foundling whilst forming and consolidating an organisation to destroy arcane and occult threats – the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense.

After years of such devoted intervention, education and warm human interaction, in 1952 the neophyte hero began hunting down agents of the malign unknown, from phantoms to monsters as lead agent for the BPRD. Hellboy rapidly became its top operative; the world’s most successful paranormal investigator…

As decades passed, Hellboy gleaned snatches of his origins and antecedents, learning he was a supposedly corrupted beast of dark portent: a demonic messiah destined to destroy the world and bring back ancient powers of evil.

It is a fate he despised and utterly rejected…

This eerily esoteric collection of tales concocted by Mike Mignola re-presents a selection of short stories as originally published on/in USAToday.com, Hellboy In Mexico, Hellboy: Double Feature of Evil, Hellboy: The Sleeping and the Dead #1-2, Hellboy: The Bride of Hell and Hellboy: Buster Oakley Gets His Wish, all between 2009 and 2011. These tales draw together many subtly scattered clues disseminated throughout his innumerable tempestuous exploits and contribute to more than fifteen years of slowly boiling magical suspense… as well as hinting at the incredible enigma of the horrific hero’s doom-drenched double destiny…

Following some informative commentary from Mignola the arcane action begins with ‘Hellboy in Mexico or, A Drunken Blur’, (May 2010) illustrated by Richard Corben with colourist Dave Stewart & letterer Clem Robins applying their own seamless contributions to the mix…

In 1982 Hellboy and amphibious ally Abe Sapien are winding down after a strenuous mission in Mexico. Looking for a quiet drink they amble into a ramshackle cantina and discover a sort of shrine comprising a Holy Virgin statue and hundreds of faded photos, posters and tickets for luchadors (masked wrestlers). One of them features Hellboy and three grinning, hooded grapplers…

Shocked and stunned, Hellboy’s mind drifts back to a drunken binge in 1956…

And thus unfolds an untold tale of sterling comradeship and collaborative chaos-crushing as the Demon Detective joins a trio of fun-loving masked brothers who combined their travels on the wrestling circuit with a spot of monster-hunting and devil-destroying, and how it all fell apart after young Esteban fell to the deadly embrace of vampiric bat-god Camazotz

With the golden times over Hellboy went on an epic memory-eradicating booze-bender until months later BPRD agents found, dried out and brought home their errant top gun…

From Hellboy: Double Feature of Evil (November 2010) – and again illustrated by Corben – comes a brace of theatrically themed terrors. ‘Sullivan’s Reward’ sees Hellboy lured to a phantom-infested manse with a wicked reputation and corrupt mortal owner after which ‘The House of Sebek’ details the mystically inept lengths a horny Egyptology buff descends to in order to slake his lusts. Sadly for him, old crocodile gods never die but do get really ticked off when summoned for the wrong reasons…

A love of classic vampire yarns permeates the epic clash from ‘The Sleeping and the Dead’ #1-2 (December 2010-February 2011) as Scott Hampton, Stewart & Robbins render Mignola’s spooky saga of a nosferatu clan abiding for centuries in a sleepy Suffolk village until Hellboy visited England in 1966 and explosively cleaned house, hearth and home…

Corben returns to illustrate ‘The Bride of Hell’ (December 2009), wherein an American student vanishes in France in 1985. Sent to save her, Hellboy encounters deranged Satan-worshippers, fiends from the Pit and the ghosts of Knight Templar, and learns a small piece of lost history from the annals of the eternal war between Man and the Devil. Tragically, that lesson doesn’t include an appendix on the irresponsibility and unpredictability of human nature and the tale takes a sharp twist which leaves the hero bereft and defeated…

Created as a promotional piece for USA Today’s website ‘Hellboy: The Whittier Legacy’ (by Mignola with Stewart & Robbins from October 2010) sees the Paranormal Paragon track down the last disgruntled by-blow (it means “illegitimate child”: can’t say my stuff isn’t educational or informative) of an infamous family of Rhode Island Occultists (no; not eye-doctors) determined to enjoy the power and knowledge of his true ancestors. Of course, the old pretender might have shared the heritage, but not the wisdom or foresight to leave well enough alone…

Wrapping up the perilous proceedings, ‘Buster Oakley Gets His Wish’ (April 2011) affords man of many gifts Kevin Nowlan an opportunity to display his mastery of art, colours and letters in a blackly hilarious romp set in Rooks County, Kansas in 1985. Buster was just a bored young farmboy until he performed that ritual from the witchcraft book he’d gotten hold of. Now as Hellboy investigates cow mutilations, he is confronted by weird aliens and teams up with a tragic bovine ally who wishes he’d never heard of the Unknown…

‘Hellboy Sketchbook’ then shares all the covers, story-layouts, doodles, roughs, models and designs; all fully annotated by contributors Nowlan, Corben, Hampton, editor Scott Allie and Mignola, to flesh out the fearsome thrills and chills experience.

Delivered as a succession of short, sharp shockers of beguiling power and ingenuity, this succulent slice of Hellboy’s irresistible history is a perfect example of comics storytelling at its very best: offering astounding supernatural spectacle, amazing arcane action and momentous mystical suspense – something every fear fan and adventure aficionado will enjoy.
™ and © 2009, 2010, 2011 Mike Mignola. Hellboy is ™ Mike Mignola. All rights reserved.