Starling


By Sage Stossel (Penguin/InkLit)
ISBN: 978-0-42526-631-1 (PB)

Once upon a time only little boys (of any age from 3 to 99) liked superheroes.

That’s all different now.

Just like always, girls eventually steal boy’s stuff and break it or point out how stupid it is and ruin it or decorate and fancy it up so that it makes proper sense and is generally better, but it was still ours first though…

Let’s start again.

Sage Stossel is a children’s book author (On the Loose in Boston, On the Loose in Washington DC, We’re Off to Harvard Square), editorial cartoonist (Sage, Ink.) and Editor at The Atlantic, whose smart, wry, ostensibly innocuous efforts have also appeared in The Boston Globe, CNN Headline News, New York Times Week in Review and scads of other extremely prominent and worthily impressive places. You can go online and see how much fun and work she got out of the 45th President…

A native Bostonian, she majored in English and American Literature and Languages at Harvard where she permanently succumbed to the cartooning bug, producing student-life strip Jody for The Harvard Crimson. She was instrumental in creating The Atlantic’s online iteration.

Starling is a superbly knowing sideswipe at the world’s newest fiction archetype, cleverly delving deep into the psyche of the kind of person who might actually fight crime if they had superpowers and how such a “career” might actually impact upon a sensible person.

Stossel also manages to tell a winning story about overcoming adversity, finding oneself and even having a shot at achieving true love, all lovingly ladled out in a savvy, self-deprecating, droll, artfully humorous manner…

Amy Sturgess has a secret. Up until now she’s only shared it all with her therapist, but balancing her job in the back-stabbing world of Marketing with the constant demands of the Vigilante Justice Association (who perpetually text her about occurring crimes she’s expected to foil immediately, no matter what she’s doing) is taking its toll.

At the Agency, a conniving male co-worker is actively stealing her work and sabotaging her career. Her cat-hoarder mom lives in a world of her own. Her brother Noah is a druggie lowlife – but at least he’s trying to get his life together, whilst her own (especially as regards dating) is a stalled and floundering disaster…

No wonder she relies so heavily on prescription meds and is plagued by bouts of crippling procrastination…

Things take a tortured upturn when her college sweetheart resurfaces. Russell is married to a wonderful woman (who actually becomes one of Amy’s best friends) but is clearly trying to rekindle those heady student passions with Amy and the situation soon begins to affect both sides of Amy’s work.

B-list costumed crusader Starling even begins to let certain offenders go: robbers stealing from banks who repossessed their homes, a homeless man trying to free his dog from the Animal Control impound…

A crisis point is reached when rival gangs begin a turf war and a modern Artwork is stolen. It doesn’t take much investigation to link Noah to both crimes, but when he disappears and Starling frantically hunts for him, she is incessantly stymied and interrupted by the hunky rogue and illicit gambling organiser Matt McRae.

The enigmatic hustler seems to have connected Amy to Starling and says he only wants to help, but he’s a crook.

A really, really good-looking, apparently unattached crook…

Amy isn’t Wonder Woman or Ms. Marvel. She’s just a well-intentioned young woman who found she was different and got pushed into a second (full time, secret and unpaid) career when she couldn’t even decide on how to make her first one work. Talk about your Mental, Emotional and Ethical Loads…

Now she has a really serious crime to solve, a brother to save, a romantic triangle to square and an unsuitable suitor to sort out…

More RomCom than Summer Blockbuster, Starling is a slow-paced, lovingly crafted, laconic, ironic and purely humorous tonic for lovers of the medium reared on adolescent wish-fulfilling, juvenile male power-fantasies who now yearn for something a little different. It even deliciously points out all the reasons why superheroes are dumb before wittily showing how that’s not necessarily bad and showing one way of making them better…
© 2013 Sage Stossel.

Benny Breakiron volume 3: The Twelve Trials of Benny Breakiron


By Peyo, with Yvan Delporte & Walthéry, translated by Joe Johnson (Papercutz/NBM)
ISBN: 978-1-59707-492-6 (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 time spent 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 to the tale. They were called Les Schtroumpfs.

Culliford – by now using 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 little lonely, Benny just happens to be the mightiest boy on Earth; able to crush steel 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 case 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 – both as robust full-colour hardbacks and as all-purpose eBooks – and this third exploit begins in the sedate city of Vivejoie-la-Grande, where the kid goes about his solitary life, doing good deeds in secret and being as good a boy as he can….

During the annual fair, his elderly friend Monsieur Dussiflard meets an old chum from their days in a jazz band. In the course of catching up, they learn that another mutual pal has become emir of an Arabian kingdom. Long ago, he gave the members of the band a charter granting them rights to a piece of desert… one that is now worth billions in oil revenues…

Back then, the comrades thought it hilarious to scrupulously divide the precious paper into nine parts, but none of them ever threw way their scrap…

As the adults chat and Benny listens, dark deeds are underway. Dussiflard’s home is burgled, triggering a frantic race around the world, with our heroes one step behind a cunning mastermind who will baulk at nothing to secure the entire document and the riches it promises…

All over the globe, Little Benny performs a succession of incredible feats – each one completely missed by Dussiflard and his beleaguered Jazz men – to stymie the malevolent schemer, before arriving home to deal the villain his just desserts…

Fast-paced, wry and sporting a fine eye for the dafter side of super-heroics, this is another fabulously winning fantasy about childhood validation and agency, 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.

Geek-Girl Volumes 1: Lightning Strikes! & 2: Crime War


By Sam Johnson, Carlos Granda, with Nahp, Chunlin Zhao & Paul McLaren (Markosia)
ISBN: 978-1-911243-31-1 (Lightning Strikes!) 978-1-912700-64-6 (Crime War)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Fan Friendly Fights ‘n’ Tights Fun… 8/10

Because I’m such an ethical idealogue I’m again admitting a potential conflict of interest before telling you to haul off and buy something. During the 1980s and 1990s, I worked for the London College of Printing, The London Cartoon Centre and other fine educational institutions, teaching eager youths of all ages the rudiments of scriptwriting and comic production. You may have subsequently bought comics and graphic novels produced by a handful of them. Sam Johnson was one of several hundred – if not actually more than a thousand – who put up with me. The sheer volume of those who haven’t achieved fame, wealth and glory should tell you all you need to know about my teaching abilities whilst placing the credit where it firmly belongs…

When I was teaching comics, almost all of the students expressed a strange love-hate relationship with the concept of superheroes. They all knew that was where the money was, and most – like me – were still hopelessly nostalgically engaged with the whole cathartic, wish-fulfilling rigmarole, whether or not they avowed the higher aspirations of an Eisner, Spiegelman, Moebius or Jodorowsky.

One or two fully embraced the maligned genre and looked for ways to modernise and contextualise it. Nowadays, Superheroes rule global popular culture, and people like me have the devil’s own time getting anyone to read books like Mikaël’s Giant, The Silent Invasion, Blackwood or anything by Tillie Walden. So it goes…

Sam Johnson clearly loves Costumed Dramas but has also given a lot of thought to them: especially considering how their stars must act as ordinary people once the masks and capes come off…

Gathering the first four issues of the eponymous comic book series, Geek-Girl: Lightning Strikes! takes us to Acorn Ridge, Maine, where flighty fun-loving student Ruby Kaye finds her hedonistic lifestyle taking an abrupt left turn into chaos, after flirtatiously tricking brilliant but sheltered science geek Trevor Goldstein into giving her his latest invention: spectacles that give the wearer super-powers…

In rapid time and before the booze can really wear off, Ruby is patrolling town in a skimpy costume, saddled with an unwelcome code-name thanks to best friend and fellow usual suspect Summer James

And that’s when it all gets real. Ruby sees one of the municipality’s genuine costumed do-gooders almost murdered by a genuine supervillain – and freezes. Ruby is an appalled and helpless witness to a brutal beating, after which almost-dead Neon Girl demands that neophyte Geek-Girl avenge her and bring the deadly Lightning Storm to justice…

So far so standard, right, but this author and his able co-creator Carlos Granda aren’t really about the fist-to-face action. This series concentrates more on superhero comics’ propensity for soap opera drama and laughs, particularly channelling the dynamic of shows like How I Met Your Mother and Friends.

As Ruby tries to focus on her mission, distractions like the college crowd, drinking, the guys and girls now constantly hitting on her, booze, that psycho Nina Dante, studies and late night partying all keep delaying her. Even top costumed champion Pit Bull is an inveterate booze hound and is soon also benched. Happily – or maybe not – Lightning Storm has her own agenda and isn’t the patient sort…

As opportunistic villains like Mr. Mash-up and Silver Speedz take advantage of the super power vacuum, Ruby’s social life gets increasingly complex but, ultimately, it’s bound to end in a big fight…

 

Set some later, second volume Crime War reveals that ‘There’s a New Geek in Town!’ as a slowly recuperating Ruby wallows in the aftereffects of a rather pyrrhic victory. While she’s bed bound in hospital Summer has been wearing the glasses and costume and proving to be a far more dedicated and effective crimebuster. All Ruby can do is fret and try to fend off the attentions of distinctly off-kilter frenemy Stacy and low watt bulbs Caitlin and Jennifer while the new Geek-Girl and her mentor Pit Bull clean up minor rogues such as The Cad.

Tragically, they’re not prepared for a concerted campaign from the League of Larcenists

As events escalate, ‘Welcome Back Ruby’ sees the return of the original Geek, an emotional tussle for the super-spectacles, manic mecha combat on the streets of Acorn Ridge and even Nina Dante getting her own power upgrade in ‘The Welcoming Party’, all leading to an inevitable riotous assembly and a major smackdown in Maine…

With a gallery of variant covers by Granda, Iván Sarnago, William Calleja, this homegrown hero-fest is a splendidly engaging feast of straightforward super shenanigans and character driven fun every fan of the genre should see – if only to prove it’s not all about angst, adrenaline and bicep size.
™ & © 2017 & 2019 Sam Johnson & Markosia Enterprises Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

Mandrake the Magician: Dailies volume 1 – The Cobra


By Lee Falk & Phil Davis (Titan Books)
ISBN: 978-1178276-690-2 (HB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: A Masterpiece of Vintage Mystery and Imagination… 9/10

Considered by many as the first superhero, Mandrake the Magician debuted as a daily newspaper strip on 11th June 1934. An instant hit, it was soon supplemented by a full-colour Sunday companion page which launched on February 3rd 1935.

Creator Lee Falk had actually sold the strip to King Features Syndicate years earlier as a 19-year old college student, but asked the monolithic company to let him finish his studies before dedicating himself to the strip full time. With his schooling done, the 23-year old master raconteur settled in to begin his life’s work: entertaining millions with his astounding tales.

Falk – who also created the first costumed superhero in the moodily magnificent form of The Phantom – spawned an actual comicbook subgenre with his first creation. Most publishers of the Golden Age boasted at least one (and usually many more) nattily attired wonder wizards amongst their gaudily-garbed pantheons; all roaming the world making miracles and crushing injustice with varying degrees of stage legerdemain or actually sorcery.

Characters such Mr. Mystic, Ibis the Invincible, Sargon the Sorcerer, and an assortment of “…the Magician” such as Zanzibar, Zatara, Kardak and so many, many more all borrowed heavily and shamelessly from the uncanny exploits of the elegant, enigmatic man of mystery who graced the pages of the world’s newspapers and magazines.

In the Antipodes, Mandrake was a suave stalwart regular of the Australian Women’s Weekly and also became a cherished icon of adventure in the UK, Italy and Scandinavia.

Over the years he has been a star of radio, movie chapter-serials, a theatrical play, television and animation (as part of the cartoon series Defenders of the Earth). With that has come the usual merchandising bonanza of games, toys (including magic trick kits), books, comics and more…

Falk worked on Mandrake and “The Ghost who Walks” until his death in 1999 (even on his deathbed he was laying out one last story), but also found a few quiet moments to become a renowned playwright, theatre producer and impresario, as well as an inveterate world-traveller.

A man of many talents, Falk actually drew the first few weeks himself before uniting with sublimely polished cartoonist Phil Davis whose sleekly understated renditions took the daily strip – especially the expansive full-page Sunday offerings collected in a sister volume – to unparalleled heights of sophistication. His steady, assured realism was the perfect tool to render the Magician’s mounting catalogue of spectacular miracles.

Those in the know are well aware that Mandrake was educated at the fabled College of Magic in Tibet, thereafter becoming a suave globe-trotting troubleshooter, always accompanied by his faithful African friend Lothar and beautiful companion (eventually, in 1997, bride) Princess Narda of Cockaigne, co-operatively solving crimes and fighting evil.

Those days, however, are still to come as a wealth of fact-filled features begins here with college Classics Professor Bob Griffin vividly recalling ‘From Fan to Friend: My Memories of Lee Falk’. Mathematics lecturer and comics historian Rick Norwood then traces comic book sorcerers and sources in ‘Mandrake Gestures Hypnotically’ before the comics section of this luxury monochrome landscape hardback (also available digitally, but impossible to gift wrap) opens on the hero’s first case.

A classy twist on contemporary crime dramas and pulp fiction, ‘The Cobra’ (June 11th – November 24th 1934) sees the eponymous criminal mastermind menace the family of US ambassador Vandergriff until a dapper haunting figure and his gigantic African companion insert themselves into the affair. Initially mistrusted, Mandrake and Lothar guide the embattled diplomat through a globe-girdling vendetta against a human fiend with mystic powers and a loyal terrorist cult. Employing their own miracles, wonders and ruthless common sense, the heroes defeat every scheme leading to a ferocious final clash in the orient and the seeming destruction of the wicked evil wizard.

At their ease in Alexandria, Mandrake and Lothar are targeted by criminal mastermind ‘The Hawk’ (November 26th 1934 – February 23rd 1935) and meets distrait socialite Narda of Cockaigne, who employs her every wile to seduce and destroy them. Thwarting every plot, Mandrake eventually learns her actions are dictated by a monstrous stalker who is blackmailing Narda’s brother Prince Sigrid. With his true enemy revealed, the Magician sets implacably to work to settle the villain’s affairs for good…

With a sense of further entanglements to come, the wanderers leave Narda and eventually fetch up in the Carpathians, encountering a lonely embattled woman tormented by crazed Professor Sorcin and ‘The Monster of Tanov Pass’(February 25th – June 15th 1935). This time, there’s a fearsomely rational explanation for all the terror and tribulations…

Mandrake and Lothar meet weary policeman Inspector Duffy and clash with a brilliant mimic and master thief in Arabia where ‘Saki, the Clay Camel’ (June 17th – November 2nd 1935) drives the occupying British authorities to distraction. An offer of mystic assistance brings danger, excitement and a surprise reunion with Narda before the crook and his army of desperate criminals are defeated…

Heading north to frozen climes, the magician and the strongman encounter persecuted Lora, saving her from her own unscrupulous and cash-crazed family and ‘The Werewolf’ (November 4th 1935 – February 29th 1936) before this first volume concludes with ‘The Return of the Clay Camel’ March 2nd – July 18th 1936): a rip-roaring romp showing off Falk’s deft gift for comedy…

It begins with our heroes curing a raging sportsman of the urge to hunt and expands into a baffling mystery as the long vacationing Sir Oswald returns home to England only to discover someone has been perfectly impersonating him for months…

Devolving into a cunning robbery and comedy of mistaken identity, Mandrake and the false faced Saki test wits and determination, but even with the distraction of an impending marriage being hijacked too, its certain that the canny conjuror is going to come out on top…

Closing with ‘The Phil Davis Mandrake the Magician Complete Daily Checklist 1934-1965’ this thrilling tome offers exotic locales, thrilling action, bold belly laughs, spooky chills and sheer elegance in equal measure. Master taleteller Falk instinctively knew from the start that the secret of success was strong – and crucially recurring – villains to test and challenge his heroes and made Mandrake an unmissable treat for every daily strip addict. These stories have lost none of their impact and only need you reading them to concoct a perfect cure for the 21st century blues.
Mandrake the Magician © 2016 King Features Syndicate. All Rights Reserved. All other material © 2016 the respective authors or owners.

Mandrake the Magician: The Hidden Kingdom of Murderers – Sundays 1935-1937


By Lee Falk & Phil Davis (Titan Books)
ISBN: 978-0-85768-572-8 (HB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Because We Believe in Magic… 10/10

Regarded by many as the first superhero, Mandrake the Magician debuted as a daily newspaper strip on 11th June 1934. An instant hit, it was soon supplemented by a full-colour Sunday companion page which launched on February 3rd 1935.

Creator Lee Falk had actually sold the strip to King Features Syndicate years earlier as a 19-year old college student, but asked the monolithic company to let him finish his studies before dedicating himself to it full time. With his schooling done, the 23-year old master raconteur settled in to begin his life’s work: entertaining millions with his astounding tales.

Falk – who also created the first costumed superhero in moodily magnificent mystery man The Phantom – spawned an actual comicbook subgenre with his first creation. Most publishers of the Golden Age boasted at least one (and usually many more) nattily attired wonder wizards amongst their gaudily-garbed pantheons; all roaming the world making miracles and defeating injustice with varying degrees of stage legerdemain or actual sorcery.

Characters such Mr. Mystic, Ibis the Invincible, Sargon the Sorcerer, and an assortment of “…the Magicians” such as Zanzibar, Zatara, Kardak and so many, many more, all borrowed heavily and shamelessly from the uncanny exploits of the elegant, enigmatic white knight who graced the pages of the world’s newspapers and magazines.

In the Antipodes, Mandrake was a stalwart regular of the Australian Women’s Weekly, and also became a cherished star in the UK, Italy and Scandinavia. Over the years he has been a star of radio, movie chapter-serials, a theatrical play, television and animation as part of the cartoon series Defenders of the Earth. With that has come the usual merchandising bonanza of games, toys (including magic trick kits), books, comics and more…

Falk worked on Mandrake and “The Ghost who Walks” until his death in 1999 (even on his deathbed he was laying out one last story) but he also found time to become a playwright, theatre producer and impresario, as well as an inveterate world-traveller.

A man of many talents, Falk drew the first few weeks himself before uniting with sublimely imaginative cartoonist Phil Davis, whose sleekly understated renditions took the daily strip – and especially these expansive full-page Sunday offerings – to unparalleled heights of sophistication: his steady assured realism the perfect tool to render the Magician’s mounting catalogue of wondrous miracles…

Those in the know are well aware that Mandrake was educated at the fabled College of Magic in Tibet, thereafter becoming a suave globe-trotting troubleshooter, always accompanied by his faithful African partner Lothar and beautiful, feisty companion (and eventually, in 1997, bride) Princess Narda of Cockaigne, solving crimes and fighting evil. Those days, however, are still to come as the comics section opens in this splendidly oversized (315 x 236 mm) full-colour luxury hardback – and digital equivalents – with ‘The Hidden Kingdom of Murderers’ (which ran from February 3rd to June 2nd 1935) as the urbane Prince of Prestidigitation and his herculean companion are approached by members of the international police to help expose a secret society of criminals and killers acting against the civilised world from their own hidden country.

After officer Duval is assassinated, Mandrake and Lothar – accompanied by panther woman Rheeta and surviving cop Pierce – embark upon a multi-continental search which, after many adventures, eventually brings them to a desolate desert region where they are confronted by bloody-handed Bull Ganton, King of Killers.

With the master murderer distracted by Rheeta, Mandrake easily infiltrates the odious organisation and quickly begins dismantling the secret society of two million murderers. By the time Ganton wises up and begins a succession of schemes to end Mandrake, it’s too late…

That deadly drama concluded, Mandrake and Lothar head to India to revisit old haunts and end up playing both peacemaker and cupid in the ‘Land of the Fakirs’ (running from June 9th to October 6th).

When Princess Jana, daughter of Mandrake’s old acquaintance Jehol Khan is abducted by rival ruler Rajah Indus of Lapore, the Magician ends his mischievous baiting of the street fakirs to intervene. In the meantime, Captain Jorga – who loves Jana despite being of a lower caste – sets off from the Khan’s palace to save her or die in the trying…

After many terrific and protracted struggles, Mandrake, Lothar and Jorga finally unite to defeat the devious and duplicitous Rajah before the westerners set about their most difficult and important feat; overturning centuries of tradition so that Jorga and Jana might marry…

Heading north, the peripatetic performers stumble into amazing fantasy after entering the ‘Land of the Little People’ (13thOctober 1935 to March 1st 1936), encountering a lost race of tiny people embroiled in a centuries-long war with brutal cannibalistic adversaries. After saving the proud warriors from obliteration, Mandrake again plays matchmaker, allowing valiant Prince Dano to wed brave and formidable commoner Derina who fought so bravely beside them…

With this sequence illustrator Davis seemed to shake off all prior influences and truly blossomed into an artist with a unique and mesmerising style all his own. That is perfectly showcased in the loosely knit sequence (spanning 8th March to 23rd August 1936) which follows, as Mandrake and Lothar return to civilisation only to narrowly escape death in an horrific train wreck.

Crawling from the wreckage, our heroes help ‘The Circus People’ recapture and calm the animals freed by the crash, subsequently sticking around as the close-knit family of nomadic outcasts rebuild. Mighty Lothar has many clashes with jealous bully Zaro the Strongman, culminating in thwarting attempted murder, whilst Mandrake uses his hypnotic hoodoo to teach sadistic animal trainer Almado lessons in how to behave, but primarily the newcomers act as a catalyst, making three slow-burning romances finally burst into roaring passionate life…

Absolutely the best tale in this tome and an imaginative tour de force which inspired many soon-to-be legendary comicbook stars, ‘The Chamber into the X Dimension’ (30th August 1936 to March 7th 1937) is a breathtaking, mind-bending saga starting when Mandrake and Lothar search for the missing daughter of a scientist whose experiments have sent her literally out of this world.

Professor Theobold has discovered a way to pierce the walls between worlds but his beloved Fran never returned from the first live test. Eager to help – and addicted to adventure – Mandrake and Lothar volunteer to go in search of her and soon find themselves in a bizarre timeless world where the rules of science are warped and races of sentient vegetation, living metal, crystal and even flame war with fleshly humanoids for dominance and survival.

After months of captivity, slavery, exploration and struggle our human heroes finally lead a rebellion of the downtrodden fleshlings and bring the professor the happiest news of his long-missing child…

Concluding this initial conjuror’s compilation is a whimsical tale of judgement and redemption as Mandrake uses his gifts to challenge the mad antics of ‘Prince Paulo the Tyrant’ 14th (March 14th – 29th August 1937).

The unhappy usurper stole the throne of Ruritanian Dementor and promptly turned the idyllic kingdom into a scientifically created madhouse. Sadly, Paulo had no conception of what true chaos and terror were until the magician exercised his mesmeric talents…

This epic celebration also offers a fulsome, picture-packed and informative introduction to the character – thanks to Magnus Magnuson’s compelling essay ‘Mandrake the Magician Wonder of a Generation’ – plus details on the lives of the creators (‘Lee Falk’ and ‘Phil Davis Biography’ features) plus a marvellous Davis pin-up of the cast to complete an immaculate confection of nostalgic strip wonderment for young and old alike.
Mandrake the Magician © 2016 King Features Syndicate. All Rights Reserved. “Mandrake the Magician Wonder of a Generation” © 2016 by Magnus Magnuson.

X-Men: Asgardian Wars


By Chris Claremont, Paul Smith, Bob Wiacek, Arthur Adams, Terry Austin, Alan Gordon & Mike Mignola (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-4148-8 (HB) 978-0-7851-8872-8 (TPB)

In 1963, X-Men #1 introduced Cyclops, Iceman, Angel, Marvel Girl and the Beast: very special students of Professor Charles Xavier, a wheelchair-bound telepath dedicated to brokering peace and integration between the masses of humanity and the emergent off-shoot race of mutants dubbed Homo Superior. After years of eccentric and spectacular adventures, the mutant misfits disappeared at the beginning of 1970 during a sustained downturn in costumed hero comics whilst fantasy and supernatural themes once more gripped the world’s entertainment fields.

Although the title was revived at the end of the year as a reprint vehicle, the missing mutants were reduced to guest-stars and bit-players throughout the Marvel universe and the Beast was made over into a monster until in 1975 Len Wein, Chris Claremont & Dave Cockrum revived and reordered the Mutant mystique with a stunning new iteration in Giant Size X-Men #1.

To old foes-turned-friends Banshee and Sunfire was added a one-shot Hulk villain dubbed Wolverine, and all-original creations Kurt Wagner, a demonic German teleporter codenamed Nightcrawler, African weather “goddess” Ororo MonroeAKA Storm, Russian farmboy Peter Rasputin, who transformed at will into a living steel Colossus, and bitter, disillusioned Apache superman John Proudstar who was cajoled into joining the makeshift squad as Thunderbird.

The revision was an unstoppable hit and soon grew to become the company’s most popular and high-quality title. In time Cockrum was succeeded by John Byrne and, as the team roster shifted and changed, the series rose to even greater heights, culminating in the landmark “Dark Phoenix” storyline which saw the death of (arguably) the series’ most beloved and groundbreaking character.

In the aftermath, team leader Cyclops left and a naive teenaged girl named Kitty Pryde signed up just as Cockrum returned for another spectacular sequence of outrageous adventures.

The franchise inexorably expanded with an ever-changing cast and in 1985 a new slant was added as author Claremont began to forge links between Marvel’s extemporised Norse mythology and the modern mutant mythos through the two series he then scripted.

First released in 1990 as Marvel was tentatively coming to grips with the growing trend for “trade paperback” collections, this full-colour compendium (available as a deluxe hardcover, trusty trade paperback and digital delight) collects the 1985 two-issue Limited Series X-Men and Alpha Flight, plus The New Mutants Special Edition and X-Men Annual #9 which, taken together, comprise a vast saga of staggering beauty and epic grandeur…

Two-part tale ‘The Gift’ – illustrated by Paul Smith & Bob Wiacek, saw the retired Scott Summers and his new girlfriend Madelyne Prior ferrying a gaggle of environmental scientists over Alaska in a joint American/Canadian survey mission, only to fall foul of uncanny weather and supernatural intervention…

When the X-Men receive a vision of Scott’s crashed and burning body they head North and attack Canadian team Alpha Flight under the misapprehension that the state super-squad caused the disaster. Once the confusion has been cleared up and a tenuous truce declared, the united champions realise that mystic avatar Snowbird is dying: a result of some strange force emanating from the Arctic Circle…

In another time and place, Asgardian god Loki petitions a conclave of enigmatic uber-deities “They Who Sit Above in Shadow” for a boon, but their price is high and almost beyond his understanding…

When the assembled teams reach the crash site, they find not a tangle of wreckage and bodies but a pantheon of new gods dwelling in an earthly paradise, and amongst them Scott and Madelyne, also transformed into perfect beings. These recreated paragons are preparing to abolish illness, want and need throughout the world by raising all humanity to their level and most of the disbelieving heroes are delighted at the prospect of peace on Earth at last.

However, Kitty Pryde, Talisman and Rachel Summers (the Phoenix from an alternate future) are deeply suspicious and their investigations uncover the hidden cost of this global transfiguration. Once they convince Wolverine, Loki’s scheme begins to unravel like cobwebs in a storm. Soon all that is left is anger, recrimination and savage, earth-shaking battle…

Once the God of Mischief’s plan was spoiled, the malignant Prince of Asgard plots dark and subtle revenge which begins with ‘Home is Where the Heart is’ (Claremont, Arthur Adams & Terry Austin from The New Mutants Special Edition)when he recruits the Enchantress to abduct the junior X-Men-in-training whilst he turns his attentions to the adult team’s field commander Storm.

Sunspot, Magik, Magma, Mirage, Cannonball, Wolfsbane, Karma, Warlock and Doug Ramsey are dragged to the sorceress’ dungeon in Asgard, but manage to escape through a teleport ring. Unfortunately, the process isn’t perfect and the kids are scattered throughout the Eternal Realm; falling to individual perils and influences, ranging from enslavement to adoption, true love to redemption and rededication…

Most telling of all, Mirage AKA Danielle Moonstar rescues a flying horse and becomes forever a Valkyrie, shunned by the living as one of the “Choosers of the Slain”…

With such power at her command Mirage soon gathers her scattered mutant comrades for revenge on the Enchantress before the dramatic conclusion in ‘There’s No Place Like Home’ (X-Men Annual #9, by Claremont, Adams, Alan Gordon & Mike Mignola)…

Loki, who has elevated the ensorcelled Storm to the position of Asgardian Goddess of Thunder, is simultaneously assaulted by a dimension-hopping rescue unit consisting of Cyclops, Wolverine, Nightcrawler, Rogue, Kitty Pryde, Colossus and future Phoenix as well as the thoroughly “in-country” New Mutants for a spectacular and cosmic clash which, although setting the worlds to rights, ominously promises that worse was yet to come…

This expansive crossover epic proved that, although increasingly known for character driven tales, the X-Franchise could pull out all the stops and embrace its inner blockbuster when necessary, and opened up a whole sub-universe of action and adventure which fuelled more than a decade of expansion. More than that, though, this is still one of the most entertaining mutant masterpieces of that distant decade or now.

Embellishing even this glittering prize, is a gallery of previous reprint covers and a total treasure trove of original pencil art too…

Compelling, enchanting, moving and oh, so very pretty, The Asgardian War is a book no Fights ‘n’ Tights fantasy fan can afford to miss.
© 1985, 1988, 1990 Marvel Entertainment Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

Umbrella Academy volume 1: Apocalypse Suite


By Gerard Way & Gabriel Bá (Dark Horse)
ISBN: 978-1-50671-547-6 (HB) 978-1-59307-978-9 (TPB)

Superheroes have been around long enough now that they’ve even evolved into different sub-sets: straight Save-the-World continuity types as championed by DC and Marvel, obsessively “real” or realist iterations such as Marvelman,Masked Man, Crossfire or Kick-Ass, comedy versions like Justice League International, Ambush Bug, Unbeatable Squirrel-Girl, Deadpool, She-Hulk or Gwenpool and some truly rare ducks that straddle a few barstools in between.

Cut from the same cloth of Edgy, Catastrophic Absurdism as Scott McCloud’s Zot!, Brendan McCarthy’s Paradax and especially Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol and Flex Mentallo, the archly anti-didactic antics of The Umbrella Academy offers 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 in 2012…

The debut collected volume gathers the initial 6-issue miniseries as well as a 2-page online tease from MySpace Dark Horse Presents and an introductory short story from the company’s Free Comic Book Day issue in 2007.

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 abandoned or put up for immediate adoption their terrifying newborns.

Seven of these miracle babies were acquired by esteemed inventor and entrepreneur Sir Reginald Hargreeves. The inventor of the Levitator, mobile umbrella communicator, Clever Crisp cereal, Televator and a process which enabled chimps to speak was, in actuality, an over-achieving alien with a secret plan, and he raised the children to become superheroes to enact it.

He was not a good or caring parent…

The callously experimental family, after a number of early spectacular successes such as ‘The Day the Eiffel Tower Went Berserk’, soon 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 or “The Horror”, pointlessly lost his brave young life, and Number 5 – “The Boy” – took a short trip into the future and never came back…

An utterly dysfunctional superhero team, the children parted, but now, twenty years later, the surviving members gather again at the news that Hargreeves – whose nom de crime was The Monocle – has died…

In the interim, Number 1 son Luther became an off-earth defender and pioneer, but was hideously damaged on a doomed journey to Mars. To save him, The Monocle grafted his head onto the body of a colossal Martian Gorilla, but the “Spaceboy” found it far easier to live alone on the Moon than stay with his saviour and family.

Poor, neglected Vanya however – 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…

In ‘We Only See Each Other at Weddings and Funerals’, the disparate clan gathers and Luther discovers The Boy has returned, looking not a day different. He isn’t – but his mind is 60-years old and has experienced horrors beyond all imagining…

Made welcome by technologist, housekeeper and talking chimp Dr. Pogo, Luther is startled by the return of Allison(Number 3, The Rumor). She’s changed a lot since her marriage – although she’s now single again – but Diego (Number 2, The Kraken) and Klaus (Number 4, The Séance) are just the same: physically mature but still completely, scarily demented…

The interment ceremony is a complete fiasco and descends into a brawl, but the savage bitterness the family exhibits towards each other is as nothing compared to the carnage caused by the arrival of merciless robotic Terminauts tasked with stopping the Umbrella Academy reforming at any cost…

Across town, poor forgotten Vanya has an audition with some very special musicians. The Orchestra Verdammten need only the best if their unconventional maestro, The Conductor is to perfectly premiere his latest opus – The Apocalypse Suite

As the reluctantly reunited Academy fall into old habits and dash off to save innocents from slaughter, The Boy drops his final bombshell: in the future he’s returned from, Earth was destroyed three days after the Monocle died…

Built by a long-vanquished foe, the killer mechanoids are ‘Dr. Terminal’s Answer’ to the pesky kids who ruined his plans, although they don’t fare well against Spaceboy, Rumor, Séance and The Kraken.

Dr. Pogo has stayed to examine The Boy and finds him exceedingly strange: a 60-year old mind wearing a 10-year old body that hasn’t aged a single second since it reappeared. There’s even stranger stuff going on which the monkey medic can’t detect, though…

Diego never stopped fighting monsters and has become a darkly driven vigilante, who even now has ignored the flamboyant threat of the robots to save imperilled kids. However, when Vanya – fresh from fleeing the deranged Conductor – stumbles into the conflagration he disparages her; calling her useless, just like Hargreeves used to.

As her strange siblings wrap things up and return to puzzle out exactly how the Earth will end in a matter of days, dejected, rejected Number 7 returns to The Orchestra Verdammten…

Subjected to outrageous experiments in ‘Baby, I’ll be Your Frankenstein’, Vanya is quickly transformed into a finely-tuned instrument to shatter reality, even as Pogo and The Boy stop for coffee and meet time-travelling trouble.

…And at the Icarus Theatre, the once disregarded and discarded White Violin makes her deadly, devastating debut…

At a certain Diner, distressed waitress Agnes tells Police Inspector Lupo how a veritable army of futuristic thugs were reduced in seconds to scarlet shreds and tatters by a little boy who politely said ‘Thank You for the Coffee’ before leaving with his chimpanzee friend. Lupo has endured a long and difficult unofficial association with ruthless avenger Kraken which has kept the city’s worst criminals from running riot, but when the old cop casually remarks that a lot of violinists have suddenly vanished, even he is quite unprepared for the vigilante’s reaction…

The family gathers at the Academy: Luther and Rumor slowly rekindling a long suppressed relationship even as The Boy makes the huge mistake of looking through Hargreeves’ trademark Monocle just as prodigal sister Vanya knocks on the door – with shattering, killing force…

The shocked stunned survivors quickly marshal their forces for ‘Finale or, Brothers and Sisters, I Am an Atomic Bomb’, but even though they achieve some sort of victory and save reality, it’s at a terrible, World-shattering cost…

Following Editor Scott Allie’s Afterword on the trials, tribulations and triumph of working with a big-name rock-star (yes, that Gerard Way: multi-talented musician/writer/artist/designer who once fronted My Chemical Romance…) whilst trying to maintain a comicbook schedule, illustrator Gabriel Bá and the author then reveal a host of production secrets in ‘Designing the Umbrella Academy’.

But that’s not all: the introductory ‘Short Stories’ – with notes and commentary from Bá – follow, revealing a lighter side to the team in ‘“Mon Dieu!”’ and a surprisingly deft surreal murder mystery in‘…But the Past Ain’t Through with You’(first seen in MySpace Dark Horse Presents and Dark Horse Free Comic Book Day 2007 respectively).

Whilst happily swiping, homaging, sampling and remixing the coolest elements from many and varied comics sources, The Umbrella Academy created a unique synthesis and achieved its own distinctive originality within the tired confines of the superhero genre. Maybe because it stylishly combines the tragic baroque tone of a La Belle Époque scenario with an ironic dystopian fin de siècle sensibility and repackages it all as a wittily post-modern heroic fable, or perhaps more likely simply because it’s all just really damned good, darkly sardonic fun, conceived with love and enthusiasm and crafted with supreme skill and bravura by extremely talented people who love what they do…?

A few years ago, the saga was adapted to television and became 2019’s most watched Netflix show. In response, a spiffy deluxe oversized hardcover was released, boasting an extra 50 pages of sketches and such. So you could opt for that or the digital edition if you love trees…

Read The Umbrella Academy: Apocalypse Suite if you’re smart, read it if you’re bored, read it because I said so, but if you too love the medium and the genre, read it, read it, read it.
™ © 2008 Gerard Way. All rights reserved.

You Shall Die by Your Own Evil Creation!: More Comics by Fletcher Hanks


By Fletcher Hanks, edited by Paul Karasik (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-606699-160-2 (TPB)

Although he was a pioneering auteur and prolific creator, the work of troubled artisan Fletcher Hanks (December 1st 1889 – January 22nd 1976) was all-but lost to posterity for decades following the Darwinian dawn of the American comic book. Happily, he was rediscovered relatively recently by comics’ intelligentsia in such magazines as Raw!

Hank’s unique visual style and frankly histrionic manner of storytelling resulted in only 51 complete stories created over less than three years (1939-1941) – but those were during the make-or-break, crucially formative times that would shape the industry for decades to come.

Like so many of his contemporaries, Hanks was an artist plagued by a dependence on alcohol and a tendency to violence. Surviving on odd jobs and as a mural painter, he abandoned his wife and four children in 1930 and disappeared until the incredible commercial drive to fill comic book pages saw him resurface in 1939 as part of the Jerry Iger/Will Eisner production “Shop”. Here he generated whole stories (script, art, lettering and probably even colour-guides) for some of the most successful publishers of the Golden Age. All were fast-paced, action-packed, relentless blood-&-thunder thrillers, underpinned by what might well be hallucinogenic delirium…

Hanks is now globally prominent in art circles and regarded as a key Outsider Artist – defined by critic Roger Cardinal as an English-language equivalent to the French movement Art Brut or Raw/Rough Art: works created outside the boundaries of official culture. Jean Dubuffet connected the phenomenon especially and specifically to the paintings and drawings of insane asylum inmates but Cardinal extended the definition to include Naïve art, some Primitivism and sustained bodies of work by creators working at all fringes of the mainstream.

In his woefully short career, the impact of those 51 stories were further reduced since he only worked in a few returning characters. This book follows on from and concludes the complete works compilation begun in editor Karasik’s I Shall Destroy all the Civilized Planets! (which I simply must track down and review too).

Presented in chronological order, this book contains seven Space Smith adventures – ‘Captured by Skomah!’ (Fantastic#1, December 1939), ‘The Martian Ogres!’ (Fantastic #2, January 1940), ‘The Leopard Women of Venus’ (#3, February), ‘The Thinker’ (#4, March), ‘The Hoppers’ (#5, April), ‘The Vacuumites’ (#6, May) and ‘Planet Bloodu’ (#8, July): a single tale of Tabu, Wizard of the Jungle from Jungle Comics #1 (‘The Slave Raiders’, January 1940) plus a batch of red-blooded lumberjack yarns starring Big Red McLane: ‘King of the North Woods’, ‘The Timber Thieves’, ‘The Lumber Hijackers’, ‘The Sinister Stranger’, ‘The Paper Racketeers’, ‘Sledge Sloan Gang’, ‘The Monk’s War Rockets’ and ‘Searching for Sally Breen’ from the monthly Fight  Comics (#1, January 1940, and #3 through 9).

The incomparable Stardust the Super-Wizard (whose slick, sleek costume surely influenced Britain’s Mick Anglo when he redesigned Captain Marvel into All-English Marvel Man in 1954!) is stirringly represented by ‘Rip the Blood’(Fantastic #2 January 1940), ‘The Mad Giant’ (#4), ‘The Emerald Men of Asperus’ (#8) ‘The Super Fiend’ (#10), ‘Kaos and the Vultures’ (#12), ‘The Sixth Columnists’ (#14) and ‘The World Invaders’ (Fantastic #15, February 1941).

No violent genre was beyond Hanks and prototype sword-wielding barbarian hero Tiger Hart rousingly romped through the jungles of Saturn in ‘The Dashing, Slashing Adventure of the Great Solinoor Diamond’ in Planet Comics #2 (February 1940).

From early 1940, Daring Mystery #4 and #5 supply ‘Mars Attacks’ and ‘Planet of Black-Light’, two exploits of brawny, clean-limbed Whirlwind Carter of the Interplanetary Secret Service, whilst Yank Wilson, Super Spy Q-4 performed much the same role for the contemporary USA in ‘The Saboteurs’ from Fantastic #6 (May 1940).

For me the biggest, most enjoyable revelation is the captivating batch of uncanny tales featuring the frankly indescribable Fantomah. The “Mystery Woman of the Jungle” – a blend of witch, goddess and reanimated corpse – used startling magic to monitor and defend the green places of the world against all manner of threats from poachers to mad scientists and aliens.

Her beguiling feats open with ‘The Elephants Graveyard’ (Jungle Comics #2, February 1940) and just get wilder and wilder, continuing with ‘The Super-Gorillas’ (#4), ‘Mundoor and the Giant Reptiles’ (#5), ‘Phantom of the Tree-Tops’(#6), ‘The Temple in the Mud Pit’ (#8), ‘The Scarlet Shadow’ (#11), ‘The New Blitzers’ (#12) and ‘The Tiger-Women of Wildmoon Mountain’ before ominously concluding with ‘The Revenge of Zomax’ from February 1941’s Jungle #14.

These stunningly surreal and forceful stories created under the pseudonyms Barclay Flagg, Hank Christy, Henry and Chris Fletcher, Charles Netcher, C.C. Starr and Carlson Merrick are a window into a different, bolder, proudly unconventional era and the troubled mind of a true creative force. Seen in conjunction with Karasik’s insightful introduction and the many early sketches and illustrations from before that too-brief foray into comics, these pages present an intimate glimpse of a fascinating man at a crossroads he was clearly able to shape but never grasp.

This is a magical book for both fans of classical comics and the cutting edge of modern art: and just in case you were wondering, the stories are weird but read wonderfully.

It Must Be Yours!!!

All stories are public domain but the specific restored images and design are © 2009 Fantagraphics Books.

League of Extraordinary Gentlemen volume II


By Alan Moore & Kevin O’Neill & various (Americas Best Comics/WildStorm/DC)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-0118-0 (TPB)

The Victorian era saw the birth of both popular and populist publishing, particularly the genres of fantasy and adventure fiction. Writers of varying skill but possessing unbounded imaginations expounded 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 our 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 best of them remain the greatest of all yarns.

An august selection of just such heroic prototypes were seconded – and slyly re-examined under modern scrutiny – by Alan Moore & Kevin O’Neill for a miniseries in 1999 that managed to say as much about our world as that long gone one, and incidentally tell 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 genius Captain Nemo and both cultured Dr. Henry Jekyll and his bombastic alter-ego Mister Hyde. The tale also added cameos from the almost English Edwin Lester Arnolds’ Gullivar Jones, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars and even many creatures from C.S. Lewis’ allegorical sequence Out of the Silent Planet.

The idea of combining shared cultural brands is evergreen: 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…

In ‘Phases of Deimos’, as London rebuilds after the cataclysmic denouement of the previous volume, a savage planetary conflict on the fourth planet ends with the firing of gigantic projectiles at our fragile, unsuspecting world …

The barrage hits home in ‘People of Other Lands’ and the cohort of reluctant agents is on hand when hideous otherworldly invaders begin incinerating the best that Britain can offer. One of the operatives considers treachery as more cylinders arrive in ‘And Dawn Comes Up Like Thunder’ and acts upon the temptation as the incursion renders Earth’s most advanced defenders helpless…

With the Empire being dismantled by Tripods and other supra-scientific engines of destruction, ‘All Creatures Great and Small’ finds half of the chastened and dispirited agents seeking other allies and ideas, even as ‘Red in Tooth and Claw’ sees the traitor exposed and dealt with despite the inexorable advance of the Martian horde before the tide unexpectedly and shockingly turns in ‘You Should See Me Dance the Polka…’

This startlingly impressive and beguilingly effective interleaving of HG Wells’ landmark fantasy classic with the skewed but so-very plausible conceit that all the great adventurers of literature hung out together captures perfectly the feeling of a world and era ending. As one would expect, internal conflicts pull apart the champions – at no time do they ever even slightly resemble a team – and Moore’s irrepressible imagination and vast cultural reservoir dredges up a further elite selection of literary touchstones to enhance the proceedings.

Dark and genuinely terrifying, the tale unfolds largely unchanged from the original War of the Worlds plot, but a string of parallel side-stories are utterly gripping and unpredictable, whilst the inclusion of such famed and/or lost characters as Bill Samson, Doctor Moreau, Tiger Tim and even Rupert Bear (among others) sweetens the pot for those in the know.

Those who aren’t you can always consult A Blazing World: the official companion to the drama…

This book is an incredible work of scholarship and artistry recast into a fabulous pastiche of an entire literary movement. It’s also a stunning piece of comics wizardry of a sort no other art form can touch, and as with the other Moore & O’Neill collaborations there are wry visual supplements (including, activity pages, puzzles and mazes, faux ads and a board game) plus a substantial text feature – The New Traveller’s Almanac – at the back, in-filling the alternative literary history of the League.

It is quite wordy, but Read It Anyway: it’s there for a reason and is more than worth the effort as it outlines the antecedents of the assorted champions in a fabulously stylish and absorbing manner. It might also induce you to read a few other very interesting and rewarding books…
© 1999, 2000 Alan Moore & Kevin O’Neill. All Rights Reserved.

T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents Classics volume 4


By Wally Wood, Steve Skeates, Ralph Reese, Dan Adkins, Ogden Whitney, Chic Stone Mike Sekowsky, George Tuska, John Giunta, Frank Giacoia & various (IDW)
ISBN: 978-1-63140-084-1(TPB) eISBN: 978-1-62302-611-0

The meteoric lifespan and output of Tower Comics is one of the key creative moments in American comicbook history. The brief, bombastic saga of The Higher United Nations Defense Enforcement Reserves was a benchmark of quality and sheer bravura fun for fans of both the then-still-reawakening superhero genre and that era’s spy-chic obsession.

In the early 1960s, the Bond movie franchise was going from strength to strength, with blazing action and heady glamour utterly transforming the formerly low-key espionage genre. The buzz was infectious: soon Men like Flint and Matt Helm were carving out their own piece of the action as television shanghaied the entire bandwagon with Danger Man and the irresistible Man from U.N.C.L.E. – premiering in September 1964 – bringing the whole shtick inescapably into living rooms across the planet.

Archie Comics editor Harry Shorten was commissioned to create a line of characters for a new distribution-chain funded publishing outfit – Tower Comics. He brought in creative maverick Wally Wood, who sensibly called on some of the biggest names in the industry to produce material in the broad range of genres the company demanded (there was magnificent anthology war-comic Fight the Enemy and wholesome youth-comedy Tippy Teen as well as T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents and its spin-offs Undersea Agent, Dynamo and NoMan).

Samm Schwartz & Dan DeCarlo handled the funny stuff – which outlasted everything else – whilst Wood, Larry Ivie, Len Brown, Bill Pearson, Steve Skeates, Dan Adkins, Russ Jones, Gil Kane and Ralph Reese contributed scripts for themselves and the industry’s other top talents to illustrate on the interlinked adventure series.

With a ravenous appetite for super-spies and costumed heroes growing in comic-book popularity and amongst the general public, the idea of blending the two concepts seemed inescapable…

T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #1 appeared with no fanfare or pre-publicity on newsstands in August 1965 (with a cover off-sale date of November). Better yet, all Tower titles were in the beloved-but-rarely-seen 80-page Giant format, offering a huge amount of irresistible action and drama in every issue.

All that being said, these tales would not be so revered if they hadn’t been so superbly crafted. As well as Wood, the art accompanying the compelling, subtly more mature stories was by some of the greatest talents in comics: Reed Crandall, Gil Kane, George Tuska, Mike Sekowsky, Dick Ayers, Joe Orlando, Frank Giacoia, John Giunta, Steve Ditko and others.

This fourth fabulous compilation compiles and collates T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #11, Dynamo #3 and includes both issues of second spin-off No-Man – all originally released between November 1966 and March 1967 – with the incomparably cool concept and characters going from strength to strength and a spirit of eccentric experimentation and raucous low comedy slipping in to sweeten the pot…

For those who came in late: When brilliant Professor Emil Jennings was attacked by the forces of the mysterious Warlord, the savant perished. Happily, UN troops salvaged some of his greatest inventions, including a belt that increased the density of the wearer’s body until it became as hard as steel, a cloak of invisibility and a brain-amplifier helmet…

The prototypes were divided between several agents to create a unit of super-operatives to counter increasingly bold attacks of multiple global terror threats such as the aforementioned Warlord.

First chosen was affable, honest but far from brilliant file clerk Len Brown who was, to everyone’s surprise, assigned the belt and codename Dynamo. T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agent NoMan was once decrepit Dr. Anthony Dunn who chose to have his mind transferred into an android body and was then gifted with the invisibility cape. If his artificial body was destroyed Dunn’s consciousness could transfer to another android body. As long as he had a spare ready, he could never die…

Indomitable operative Guy Gilbert of crack Mission: Impossible style T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Squad was asked to beta-test an experimental super-speed suit. As gung-ho Lightning, he was proud to do so, even if every activation of the hyper-acceleration gimmick shortened his life-span…

After the death of telepathic agent Menthor, T.H.U.N.D.E.R. bigwigs created a new – flying – agent. Worryingly, the only operative capable of piloting the heavily-armed aerial warsuit was unscrupulous former mercenary Craig Lawson. Although ruthlessly effective, his attitude continues to give cause for concern …

The super-science spookshow resumes – in both paperback and digital formats – with the November 1966 debut issue of a second spin-off title. NoMan #1 was another sterling selection of superspy sagas with most of the writer credits once again an unresolved secret lost to posterity…

However, we know Gil Kane & Paul Reinman tackled the art for ‘Fingers of Fate’ as a robbery spree seems to implicate famed personages and celebrities in crimes they could not have committed. The trail of the real culprits leads the android agent to India to scotch a scheme to discredit global fingerprinting databases…

John Giunta illustrates ‘Secret in the Sky’ as NoMan battles criminal genius The Gnome after the diminutive demon seizes control of the world’s weather, after which Lightning foils ‘The Warp Wizard’s Master Plan’ (scripted by Steve Skeates with art from Chic Stone), when the teleporting bandit devises a seemingly unbeatable new weapon…

Subtly entrancing art veteran Ogden Whitney limns NoMan as the android agent is ‘Trapped in the Past’ by aliens and remains to render the tragedy of ‘The Good Subterranean’ who tried to reform despite a wave of human intolerance…

Next up is T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #11 (March 1967) which opens with the team’s top agent in big trouble and replaced by a deadly duplicate. ‘The Death of Dynamo’ (art by Dan Adkins & Wood) sees criminal society S.P.I.D.E.R. almost succeed but for one crucial oversight…

Steve Skeates, Mike Sekowsky & Frank Giacoia the detail ‘Lightning vs The Vortex’, pitting T.H.U.N.D.E.R.’s super-speedster against a wily crook with the – stolen – power to create tornados before immortal android NoMan escapes ‘The Trap’ set by telepathic tyrant The King and saves Humanity from mental enslavement in a terse thriller by Skeates & Giunta.

Drama gives way to sly whimsy in ‘Understudy for Dynamo’ (illustrated by Stone) wherein T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agent Dan Atkins – AKA Dynamite – is tapped to wear the power-inducing Thunderbelt until Dynamo recovers from exhaustion and pneumonia. Sadly, the substitute is keen but not so able…

The anthological exploits conclude with another quirky outing for winged wonder Raven written and illustrated by legendary craftsman Manny Stallman. ‘The Case of Jacob Einhorn’ finds robot-obsessed Mayven the Poet hired to kill a celebrated Nazi-hunter before he can expose escaped war criminals to the UN. Determined to stop her is a former mercenary who can still learn a few things about being a hero…

A star from the get-go, Dynamo quickly won his own giant-sized solo title. With a March 1967 cover-date, issue #3 kicked off with the husky hero spectacularly battling an alien invasion inside T.H.U.N.D.E.R. HQ that quickly escalates to endanger the entire city. Illustrated by Stone, Wood & Adkins, ‘The Unseen Enemy’ is a potent blockbuster yarn that promises an unmissable return match…

Ralph Reese scripted hilarious romp ‘Bad Day for Leonard Brown’ for Stone to draw as the simplistic hunky he-man hero falls foul of regular girlfriend Alice, sultry fellow agents Diana Dawn and Kitten Kane as well as steely sex siren Iron Maiden all whilst diligently trying to keep a new laser weapon out of the hands of diabolical demagogue Demo

Stone sticks around to limn Dynamo’s battle against middle eastern despot Phyllis Tyne, as the strongman is forced to reprise ‘The Feats of Samson’ after which Paul Reinman renders a sham marriage to T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agent Kitten which exposes S.P.I.D.E.R.’s high crimes in the oil industry and leads to ‘Honeymoon or High Noon?’

The issue ends with another lighthearted romp for Wally Wood’s cartoon alter ego as wily Agent William “Weed” Wylie tries to quell a South American revolution sponsored by rival cabals S.P.I.D.E.R. and Red Star. Drawn by George Tuska, ‘Weed Vs T.H.U.N.D.E.R.’ results in the scrawny pragmatist punching way above his weight when the villains co-opt the super-agents with mindbending gases…

This volume closes with the contents of NoMan #2 (March 1967) as Whitney illustrates ‘Dynamo vs NoMan’ – wherein Spider technologist Doctor Cyber usurps control of the Invisible Agent’s legion of android bodies – and follow-up thrill ‘The Weird Case of the Kiss of Death’ as a reincarnated Egyptian queen sustains her immortal life by consuming life force. Not, however, one enclosed in a plastic body…

Skeates & Stone then detail how battle-wounded Lightning loses his memory of a hidden S.P.I.D.E.R. stronghold in ‘The Web Tightens’ before Whitney returns for ‘Target NoMan’ as hidden organisation Reconquer schemes to resurrect the most evil man in history, before the espionage excitement pauses with Skeates & Whitney’s ‘A Quick Change of Mind’. Here a madman pillages scientists’ mentalities in pursuit of the ultimate weapon, only to fail thanks to the ultimate secret agent…

With stories all shaded in favour of fast pace, sparse dialogue, explosive action and big breathtaking visuals, T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents was decades ahead of its time and certainly informed everything in Fights ‘n’ Tights comics which came after it. These are truly timeless comic classics which improve with every reading, so do yourself a favour and add these landmark super-sagas to your collection.
T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents Classics volume 4 © 2014 Radiant Assets, LLC. All rights reserved.