The Demon by Jack Kirby


By Jack Kirby & Mike Royer (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-7718-5

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: A Christmas Chiller to Warm the Coldest Nights… 9/10

Jack “King” Kirby shaped the very nature of comics narrative. A compulsive storyteller, Jack was an astute, spiritual man who had lived through poverty, gangsterism, the Depression and World War II. He had seen Post-War optimism, Cold War paranoia, political cynicism and the birth and death of peace-seeking counter-cultures. He was open-minded and utterly wedded to the making of comics stories on every imaginable subject.

He began at the top of his game, galvanising the comicbook scene from its earliest days with long-term creative partner Joe Simon: creating Blue Bolt, drawing Captain Marvel and adding lustre to Timely comics with creations such as Red Raven, Hurricane, Captain America and The Young Allies.

In 1942 Simon & Kirby moved to National/DC and hit even more stellar highs with The Boy Commandos, Newsboy Legion, Manhunter and The Sandman before the call of duty saw them inducted into the American military.

On returning from World War II, they reunited and formed a creative studio working primarily for the Crestwood/Prize publishing outfit where they invented the entire genre of Romance comics. Amongst that dynamic duo’s other concoctions for Prize was a, noir-ish, psychologically underpinned supernatural anthology Black Magic and its short-lived but fascinating companion title Strange World of Your Dreams.

All their titles eschewed traditional gory, heavy-handed morality plays and simplistic cautionary tales for deeper, stranger fare, and until the EC comics line hit their peak were far and away the best and most mature titles on the market.

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

When the 1950s anti-comics comics witch hunt devastated the industry, Simon & Kirby parted ways. Jack went back to DC briefly and created newspaper strip Sky Masters of the Space Force before partnering with Stan Lee at the remains of Timely Comics to create the monolith of stars we know as Marvel.

After more than a decade there he felt increasingly stifled and side-lined and in 1970 accepted an offer of complete creative freedom at DC. The jump resulted in a root and branch redefinition of superheroes in his quartet of interlinked Fourth World series.

After those controversial, grandiose groundbreaking titles were cancelled Kirby looked for other concepts to stimulate his vast creativity and still appeal to an increasingly fickle market. General interest in the Supernatural was rising, with books and movies exploring the unknown in gripping and stylish new ways, and the Comics Code Authority had already released its censorious choke-hold on mystery and horror titles, thereby saving the entire industry from implosion when the superhero boom of the 1960s fizzled away.

At DC’s suggestion Kirby had already briefly returned to his supernatural experimentation in a superb but poorly received and largely undistributed monochrome magazine. Spirit World launched in the summer of 1971, but as before, editorial cowardice and back-sliding scuppered the project before it could get going. You can see what might have been in a collected edition re-presenting the sole published issue and material from a second, unreleased sequel in the recent Jack Kirby’s Spirit World

With most of his ideas misunderstood, ignored or side-lined by the company Kirby opted for more traditional fare. Never truly defeated though, he cannily blended his belief in the marketability of the mystic unknown with flamboyant super-heroics to create another unique and lasting mainstay for the DC universe: one that lesser talents would make a pivotal figure of the company’s continuity.

This Trade Paperback (and eBook) compilation gathers the entire eerie 16-issue run from August/September 1972 through January 1974 and opens with a fulsome Introduction detailing how The Demon came to be from Kirby’s then-assistant Mark Evanier before the astounding adventures begin…

Inked by Mike Royer, The Demon #1 introduces a howling, leaping monstrosity (famously modelled after a 1939 sequence from Hal Foster’s Arthurian epic Prince Valiant) battling beside its master Merlin as Camelot dies in flames: a cataclysmic casualty of the rapacious greed of sorceress Morgaine Le Fey.

Out of that apocalyptic destruction, a man arises and wanders off into the mists of history…

In our contemporary world (or at least the last quarter of the 20th century) demonologist and paranormal investigator Jason Blood has a near-death experience with an aged collector of illicit arcana. This culminates in a hideous nightmare about a demonic being and the last stand of Camelot.

He has no idea that Le Fey is still alive and has sinister plans for him…

And in distant Moldavia, strange things are stirring in crumbling Castle Branek, wherein lies hidden the lost Tomb of Merlin…

Blood is wealthy, reclusive and partially amnesiac, but one night he agrees to host a small dinner party, entertaining acquaintances Harry Mathews, psychic UN diplomat Randu Singh, his wife Gomali and their flighty young friend Glenda Mark. The soiree does not go well.

Firstly, there is the painful small talk, and the sorcerous surveillance of Le Fey, but the real problems start when an animated stone giant arrives to “invite” Blood to visit Castle Branek. This shattering voyage leads to Merlin’s last resting place but just as Blood thinks he may find some answers to his enigmatic past, Le Fey pounces. Suddenly he starts to change, transforming into the horrific beast of his dreams…

Issue #2 – ‘My Tomb in Castle Branek!’ – opens with wary villagers observing a terrific battle between a yellow monster and Le Fey’s forces, but when the Demon is defeated and Blood arrested, only the telepathic influence of Randu in America can help him. Le Fey is old, dying, and needs Merlin’s grimoire, the Eternity Book, to extend her life.

Thus, she manipulates Blood – who has existed for centuries unaware that Merlin’s hellish Attack Dog the Demon Etrigan is chained inside him – to regain his memories and awaken the slumbering master mage. It looks like the last mistake she will ever make…

Kirby’s tried and trusted approach was always to pepper high concepts throughout blazing, breakneck action, and #3 was one the most imaginative yet.

‘The Reincarnators’ finds Blood back in the USA, aware at last of his tormented history, and with a small but devoted circle of friends. Adapting to a less lonely life, he soon encounters a cult able to physically regress people to a prior life – and use those time-lost beings to commit murder…

The Demon #4-5 comprise one single exploit, wherein a simple witch and her macabre patron capture the reawakened, semi-divine Merlin. ‘The Creature from Beyond’ and ‘Merlin’s Word’s… Demon’s Wrath!’ introduced cute little monkey Kamara the Fear-Monster (later used with devastating effect by Alan Moore in Saga of the Swamp Thing #26-27) and features another startling “Kirby-Kreature” – Somnambula, the Dream-Beast

It seems odd in these blasé modern times but The Demon was a controversial book in its day – cited as providing the first post-Comics Code depiction of Hell and one where problems were regularly solved with sudden, extreme violence.

‘The Howler!’ in issue #6 is a truly spooky yarn with Blood hunting a primal entity of rage and brutal terror that transforms its victims into murderous lycanthropic killers, whilst #7 debuts a spiteful, malevolent young fugitive from a mystical otherplace.

‘Witchboy’ Klarion and his cat-familiar Teekl were utterly evil little sociopaths in a time where all comicbook politicians were honest, cops only shot to wound and “bad” kids were only misunderstood: another Kirby first…

An extended epic, ‘Phantom of the Sewers’ skilfully combines movie and late-night TV horror motifs in the dark and tragic tale of actor Farley Fairfax, cursed by the witch he once spurned. Unfortunately, Glenda Mark is the spitting image of the departed Galatea, and when, decades later, the demented thespian kidnaps her (in ‘Whatever Happened to Farley Fairfax?!!’) to raise the curse, it could only end in a flurry of destruction, death, consumed souls and ‘The Thing That Screams’

This 3-part thriller is followed by another multi-part masterpiece (The Demon #11-13). ‘Baron von Evilstein’ is a powerful parable about worth and appearance featuring the ultimate mad scientist and the tragic, misunderstood monster he so casually builds. It’s a truth that bears repeating: ugly doesn’t equal bad…

Despite all Kirby’s best efforts The Demon was not a monster hit – unlike his science-fiction disaster drama Kamandi – and by #14 it’s clear that the book was in its last days. Not because the sheer pace of imagination, excitement and passion diminished – far from it – but because the well-considered, mood-drenched stories were suddenly replaced by rocket-fast eldritch romps populated with returning villains.

First back was Klarion the Witchboy who creates a ‘Deadly Doppelganger’ to replace Jason Blood and kill his friends in #14-15, before the series – and this wonderful treasury of wicked delights ended in a climactic showdown with the ‘Immortal Enemy’ Morgaine Le Fey…

Kirby carried on with Kamandi, returned to The Sandman, explored WWII in The Losers and created the magnificent Omac: One Man Army Corps, but still could not achieve the all-important sales the company demanded. Eventually he returned to Marvel and new challenges such as Black Panther, Captain America, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Devil Dinosaur, Machine Man and especially The Eternals.

As always in these wondrously economical collections it should be noted that the book comes stuffed with un-inked pencilled pages and roughs in bonus feature ‘The Art of Jack Kirby’, and Evanier’s fascinating, informative Introduction is, as ever, a fact-fan’s delight.

Jack Kirby was and is unique and uncompromising: his words and pictures are an unparalleled, hearts-and-minds grabbing delight no comics lover could resist. If you’re not a fan or simply not prepared to see for yourself what all the fuss has been about then no words of mine will change your mind.

That doesn’t alter the fact that Kirby’s work from 1937 to his death in 1994 shaped the entire American comics scene and indeed the entire comics planet – affecting the lives of billions of readers and thousands of creators in all areas of artistic endeavour for generations and still winning new fans and apostles every day, from the young and naive to the most cerebral of intellectuals. His work is instantly accessible, irresistibly visceral, deceptively deep and simultaneously mythic and human.

He is the King and time has shown that the star of this book is one of his most potent legacies.
© 1972, 1973, 1974, 2017 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Pride of a Decent Man


By T.J. Kirsch (NBM)
ISBN: 978-1-68112-120-8

Although the world still generally thinks of graphic novels as a source of frenetic, all-out adventure and outrageous high drama (often cloaked in weird metal, leather, rubber or plastic outfits) the truth is that the medium is simply a potently effective method of telling all sorts of stories in both words and pictures.

That means the heroes aren’t always larger than life. Sometimes, in their own minds antagonists and protagonists are barely life-sized at all…

T.J. Kirsch started out as a colourist at Archie Comics, before creating his own comics for Oni Press (Lost and Found) and Image (Outlaw Territory) and branching out into book illustration (She Died in Terrebonne with Kevin Church and So Buttons by Jonathan Baylis).

In this compact (235 x 156 mm) full-colour hardback (also available as an eBook), he skilfully demonstrates his own grasp of compelling visual storytelling in a seductively sedate, powerfully evocative and poignantly human-scaled fable of a guy with no hope and the odds stacked against him from the get-go…

In the hind-end of New England, Andrew Peters is back in the old home town after time spent in prison. He escaped from an abusive home the way most kids do: falling in with the wrong crowd. Andy was always thoughtful and contemplative and moved beyond beatings and daily frustrations by keeping journals.

Andy loved to write, and after he got caught trying to rob the local Safe-Mart he had plenty of opportunity. Girlfriend Jess vanished about the time constant crony Whitey talked Andy into pulling the job with him, but Whitey’s dad had connections and only Peters went away.

Now he’s back and just coasting, but everything changes when he thinks he sees Jess.

In fact, it’s the daughter he never knew he had…

Now utterly determined to be better and do better, Andy resolves to start his life over, but even in the sleepiest of towns and armed with the best of intentions, the sins of the past can exert an irresistible pressure…

Sleek, simple and seemingly straightforward, Pride of a Decent Man offers a thoughtful and totally immersive glimpse of a life both remarkable and inescapably pedestrian: a reflection on common humanity and day-to-day existence with all the lethal pitfalls they conceal and joys they promise.

A superb slice of modern fiction that should quench the thirst of all ‘mature’ comic fans in need of more than just a flash of nipple and sprinkle of salty language in their reading matter, here is a real story of authentic people in extraordinary circumstances. This is the kind of tale diehard fans need to show civilians who don’t “get” comics. Sit them down, put Bob Seger’s “Mainstreet” on the headphones and let them see what it can be all about…
© 2017 T.J. Kirsch. All rights reserved

Scary Godmother


By Jill Thompson (Dark Horse Books)
ISBN: 978-1-59582-589-6

The Eisner-Award winning Scary Godmother started life in 1997 as a full-colour, strip-format children’s book before evolving into a comicbook series, hit stage show and brace of Cartoon Network animated specials.

The original fully-painted picture book spawned three equally captivating annual sequels from Indie publisher Sirius Entertainment and all four of those astoundingly enthralling, wickedly hilarious books were resurrected in 2010 by Dark Horse as a stunning all-ages trade paperback collection just in time for Halloween.

And now it’s that time again…

Created by the terrifyingly multi-talented Jill Thompson (The Sandman, The Invisibles, Swamp Thing, Wonder Woman, The Little Endless Storybook) these stories offer comfortably spooky chills frosted with cracking comedy whilst proudly defending the inalienable right to be different…

Debut volume ‘The Scary Godmother’ introduced little Hannah Marie who is frantic to start her first ever Trick or Treat night, and only the teensiest bit disappointed that she has to go with her older, rather mean cousin Jimmy and his friends.

Naturally the big kids aren’t that keen on taking a baby along as they desperately try to score vast amounts of candy and cake, so as the evening progresses they try all they can think of to ditch the wide-eyed waif. It’s Jimmy who has the idea to scare Hannah by taking her to the old Spook House…

As they all nervously enter the ramshackle, abandoned old mansion, Jimmy tells Hannah Marie that the new kid has to give the monsters in the house some candy or they will eat all the children in the world, but he has severely underestimated his cousin’s grit. Although scared, she enters the dilapidated pile and the gang have no choice but to follow her inside…

As she looks for the horrible creatures Hannah Marie starts to cry and her sobs cause a strange thing to happen: someone joins in with sobs even louder than hers. And that’s how she meets the twisted fairy called Scary Godmother and befriends all the actual magic monsters who live in the weird midnight realm known as the Fright Side…

Scary Godmother is the Ambassador of Spooky and pretty much runs Halloween. After being introduced to the bats and beasts and boggles, Hannah Marie is no longer afraid and her new friend even has some ideas on how to teach Jimmy and his pals how to be less mean…

One year later ‘The Revenge of Jimmy’ finds the nasty boy deeply traumatised by his most memorable encounter with actual monsters last year. Now settled on the notion that if he sabotages Halloween, the horrors, haunts and horrible things won’t be able to come back to the real world for a second chance at him, Jimmy sets out on a mission of sabotage…

Across the dark divide the inhabitants are all gearing up for their night of fun in the real world and perplexed that something is gumming the works. The magic bridge that forms to carry them over is only half-formed, strange webs bar their path and other peculiar events temporarily hamper their preparations for the special night.

It’s all Jimmy’s fault but every time one of his cunning schemes looks like scuttling the town’s forthcoming festivities, some busybody or other finds a way to turn his sneaky dirty work into an exercise in ingenuity. With nothing apparently stopping Halloween coming and the Fright Siders crossing over, Jimmy steps up his campaign, unaware that all that meanness and loose magic is causing a rather strange transformation in Jimmy…

Nevertheless his most appalling act of sabotage almost succeeds until little Hannah Marie sees an upside to his horrible acts.

Halloween is saved but Jimmy almost isn’t… until one bold monster steps up to set things right…

Another year rolls by and Hannah Marie is preparing for a Halloween block party. As Mum and the other parents toil to make all the seasonal treats, the little girl is writing invitations to all the monsters in Fright Side. Hannah Marie has learned how to cross over to the nether realm, but when she gets there Scary Godmother is also busy, ensuring the night will be suitably spooky and wonderful.

As Hannah Marie distributes the invitations, a strange thing occurs: Scary Godmother gets a different invitation. It’s unsigned but from a Secret Admirer begging her attendance on ‘The Mystery Date’

Captivated by the notion, Hannah Marie and little vampire Orson start canvassing all the likely candidates on the Fright Side – causing no end of trouble and embarrassment for Halloween’s startled and bemused Ambassador – before they all shamefully cross over to the real world where a real romantic surprise awaits the Scary Godmother…

The final book of the quartet was ‘The Boo Flu’ wherein our magical mystery madame succumbs to the worst of all eldritch aliments at the least favourable time, compelling Hannah Marie to step up, put on the big magic hat and ride the broomstick to marshal the monsters and take charge of all the necessary preparations if All Hallows Eve is to happen at all this year…

That’s a big ask for a little human girl, but help soon comes from all sorts of unexpected directions…

Almost as soon as the first book was released, Scary Godmother started popping up in comics too. Most of those tales are collected in a companion volume to this gleeful grimoire but there’s room here for one cheeky treat as ‘Tea for Orson’ (from Trilogy Tour Book) focuses on the vampire boy’s attempts to crash a girls-only soiree at Scary Godmother’s house. Harry the Werewolf also wants in – but more for the food than the company – and the banned boys’ combined, increasingly outrageous, efforts to gatecrash make for a captivating lesson in being careful what you wish for…

Wrapping up the tricks and treats is a liberal dose of ‘More Art’ in a huge and comprehensive ‘Scary Mother Sketch Book’ section; comprising roughs, designs, character development drawings, working paintings, promotional art and comic ads, design, background and model sheets and, for the animated specials, original book covers and rejected pages and scenes.

Still readily available – and now as a digital download too – Scary Godmother is a magical treat for youngsters of any vintage and would make a perfect alternative treat to candy and cakes…
Text and illustrations of Scary Godmother © 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2010 Jill Thompson. All rights reserved.

Krazy & Ignatz volume 3 1922-1924: “At Last my Drim of Life Has Come True”


By George Herriman, edited by Bill Blackbeard (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-477-1

The cartoon strip starring Krazy Kat is unquestionably a pinnacle of graphic innovation, a hugely influential body of work which shaped the early days of the comics industry and became an undisputed treasure of world literature.

Krazy and Ignatz, as it is dubbed in these glorious commemorative collected tomes from Fantagraphics, is a creation which can only be appreciated on its own terms. It developed a unique language – at once both visual and verbal – and dealt with the immeasurable variety of human experience, foibles and peccadilloes with unfaltering warmth and understanding without ever offending anybody.

Sadly however it baffled far more than a few…

It was never a strip for dull, slow or unimaginative people who simply won’t or can’t appreciate the complex multilayered verbal and pictorial whimsy, absurdist philosophy or seamless blending of sardonic slapstick with arcane joshing. It is still the closest thing to pure poesy that narrative art has ever produced.

Herriman was already a successful cartoonist and journalist in 1913 when a cat and mouse who had been cropping up in his outrageous domestic comedy strip The Dingbat Family/The Family Upstairs graduated to their own feature. Krazy Kat debuted in William Randolph Hearst’s New York Evening Journal on Oct 28th 1913 and, largely by dint of the publishing magnate’s overpowering direct influence and interference, gradually spread throughout his vast stable of papers.

Although Hearst and a host of the period’s artistic and literary intelligentsia (notably – but not exclusively – e.e. Cummings, Frank Capra, John Alden Carpenter, Gilbert Seldes, Willem de Kooning, H.L. Mencken and later Jack Kerouac) all adored the strip, many local and regional editors did not; taking every potentially career-ending opportunity to drop it from the comics section.

Eventually the feature found a home and safe haven in the Arts and Drama section of Hearst’s papers. Protected there by the publisher’s heavy-handed patronage, the Kat flourished unharmed by editorial interference and fashion, running generally unmolested until Herriman’s death in April 1944.

The basic premise is simple: Krazy is an effeminate, dreamy, sensitive and romantic feline of indeterminate gender hopelessly in love with Ignatz Mouse: rude crude, brutal, mendacious and thoroughly scurrilous.

Ignatz is a true unreconstructed male; drinking, stealing, constantly neglecting his wife and children and always responding to Krazy’s genteel advances by smiting the Kat with a well-aimed brick (obtained singly or in bulk from noted local brick-maker Kolin Kelly) which the smitten kitten invariably deems tokens of equally recondite affection.

The third crucial element completing an animalistic eternal triangle is lawman Offissa Bull Pupp, who is completely besotted with Krazy, well aware of the Mouse’s true nature, but hamstrung by his own amorous timidity and sense of honour from removing his devilish rival for the foolish feline’s affections.

Krazy is blithely oblivious of Pupp’s dilemma…

Also populating the ever-mutable stage are a stunning supporting cast of inspired bit players such as dreaded deliverer of unplanned, and generally unwanted, babies Joe Stork; hobo Bum Bill Bee, unsavoury trickster Don Kiyoti, busybody Pauline Parrot, self-aggrandizing Walter Cephus Austridge, inscrutable – often unintelligible – Chinese mallard Mock Duck, Joe Turtil and a host of other audacious characters – all equally capable of stealing the limelight and even supporting their own features.

The exotic quixotic episodes occur in and around the Painted Desert environs of Coconino (based on the artist’s vacation retreat in Coconino County, Arizona) where surreal playfulness and the fluid ambiguity of the flora and landscape are perhaps the most important member of the cast.

The strips are a masterful mélange of unique experimental art, wildly expressionistic and strongly referencing Navajo art forms whilst utilising sheer unbridled imagination and delightfully evocative lettering and language: alliterative, phonetically and even onomatopoeically joyous with a compelling musical force (“He’s simpfilly wondafil”, “l’il dahlink” “is it pussible?” or “It aint kendy afta all – it’s a brick”).

Yet for all that, the adventures are poetic, satirical, timely, timeless, bittersweet, self-referential, fourth-wall bending, eerie, idiosyncratic, astonishingly hilarious escapades encompassing every aspect of humour from painfully punning shaggy dog stories to riotous, violent slapstick.

There have been numerous Krazy Kat collections since the late 1970s when the strip was rediscovered by a better-educated, open-minded and far more accepting audience. This third volume – covering 1922-1924 in a reassuringly big and hefty (231 x 15 x 305 mm) softcover edition – completes the controversial, tempest-tossed feature’s run of full-page comic strips and also includes a legendary run of full-colour extra pages Herriman produced in a last-ditch attempt to escape a largely intellectual ghetto and break into the lives of John Q. Public.

The colour works – intense, expansive but never dumbed down – are some of Herriman’s very best and most inspired, but they still failed to hit with the bustling hoi polloi way back then…

Context, background and possible explanations are delivered by Bill Blackbeard in his effusive essay ‘A Kat of Many Kolors: Jazz Pantomime and the Funny Papers in 1922’ describing the creation of the rainbow-hued Saturday specials – which ran for 10 Saturdays from January 7th to March 11th 1922 – and the text feature also covers the tragically lost modern dance ballet created by composer John Alden Carpenter.

After this comes samples of an earlier Herriman strip ‘Little Tommy Tattles’ from 1903 and Michael Tisserand’s scholarly expose ‘Better Late Than Never: Herriman’s First Daily Strip Finally Unearthed!’ describing – with a vast hoard of compelling examples of ‘Mrs. Waitaminnit – the Woman Who is Always Late’ – how funny business got done in the days before newspaper photography, powered flight, laugh tracks or emojis…

The prose section then ends with a moving tribute In Memoriam to Bill Blackbeard ‘The Man Who Saved Comics’ and who, like Moses, toiled long and hard but never got to see his great work completed…

On to the strips then: within this magical atlas of another land and time the unending drama plays out as usual, but with some intriguing diversions. We open with 1922 where, following traditional jests about New Years and voluntary behaviour modifications, the acutely surreal colour pages rub shoulders with the regular monochrome masterpieces, tackling such issues as the growing of breadfruit, jailing “elefints” and door mice and the doors they carry about with them at all times.

The perils of smoking are visually exposed, as are the surprising perils and problems of coconuts, telephone reception in Coconino County and jail overcrowding. Things even get weirdly self-referential when Krazy discovers he’s the star of a newspaper comic strip…

Herriman continues to divide his efforts between beguiling word plays and stunningly smart silent slapstick sequences. Whilst dreaded stork Joe’s natal missions go into overdrive and increasingly awry, disease, despair and sporadic brick provision also provides plenty of drama for Ignatz, Offissa Pupp and the motley irregulars

As the Jazz Era further unfolds through 1923 and 1924, technological advancements such as aeroplanes, radio, motion pictures, flashlights, electrical gimmicks and radium shampoo increasingly offer plenty of fodder for foolish thoughts and deeds.

Seasonal landmarks – New Years, St. Valentine’s Day, Easter, Christmas – take on a greater relevance but the old standbys remain paramount: Prohibition sidestepped; pomposity punctured and penny-pinching money-making schemes from the town’s great and good always coming to nothing…

Also unchanging but infinitely fresh are instances of weather which thinks it’s a comedian, the endless pursuit of hyperactive jumping beans, the street value of the common house brick and a certain foul mouse’s attempts to murder, marmelise and maltreat the Kat, which grow ever more intricate, but are always met with the same unshakeable gratitude and unswerving devotion…

New hobbies are tried: astronomy, inventing, driving automobiles; and Krazy tries to barter a unique singing voice into a career in the entertainment arts.

…And sometimes plain mischief rules such as when Herriman puckishly reverses plot, pictures and dialogue just to see what will happen…

At the nether end of this tome the scholarly amongst you can enjoy some full-colour archival illustration as Jeet Heer discusses ‘The Domestic Herriman: “Us Husbands”’: a strip the tireless artist created as a populist family comedy which ran in Sunday papers for most of 1926. It’s represented here by 48 pages complete with alternating “topper” strips ‘A Big Moment in a Man’s Life’ and ‘Mistakes Will Happen’.

Wrapping up the cartoon gold is another batch of erudite and instructional ‘Ignatz Mouse Debaffler Pages’, providing pertinent facts, snippets of contextual history and necessary notes for the young and potentially perplexed and one last surprise – a lost Krazy Kat page never published before…

Herriman’s epochal classic is a remarkable achievement: in all the arenas of Art and Literature there has never been anything like these comic strips which have shaped our industry and creators, inspired auteurs in fields as disparate as prose fiction, film, dance, animation and music whilst delivering delight and delectation to generations of wonder-starved fans.

If, however, you are one of Them and not Us, or if you actually haven’t experienced the gleeful graphic assault on the sensorium, mental equilibrium and emotional lexicon carefully thrown together by George Herriman from the dawn of the 20th century until the dog days of World War II, this glorious compendium is the most accessible way to do so. Don’t waste the opportunity…
© 2012 Fantagraphics Books. All rights reserved.

Krazy & Ignatz volume 2 1919-1921: A Kind, Benevolent and Amiable Brick


By George Herriman, edited by Bill Blackbeard (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-364-4

The cartoon strip starring Krazy Kat is unquestionably a pinnacle of graphic innovation, a hugely influential body of work which shaped the early days of the comics industry and became an undisputed treasure of world literature.

Krazy and Ignatz, as it is dubbed in these glorious commemorative collected tomes from Fantagraphics, is a creation which can only be appreciated on its own terms. It developed its own unique language – at once both visual and verbal – and dealt with the immeasurable variety of human experience, foible and peccadilloes with unfaltering warmth and understanding without every offending anybody.

Sadly however it baffled far more than a few…

It was never a strip for dull, slow or unimaginative people who simply won’t or can’t appreciate the complex multilayered verbal and pictorial whimsy, absurdist philosophy or seamless blending of sardonic slapstick with arcane joshing. It is the closest thing to pure poesy that narrative art has ever produced.

Some brief background then: Herriman was already a successful cartoonist and journalist in 1913 when a cat and mouse that had been cropping up in his outrageous domestic comedy strip The Dingbat Family/The Family Upstairs graduated to their own feature. Krazy Kat debuted in William Randolph Hearst’s New York Evening Journal on Oct 28th 1913 and mainly by dint of the publishing magnate’s overpowering direct influence spread throughout his vast stable of papers.

Although Hearst and a host of the period’s artistic and literary intelligentsia (notably but not exclusively e.e. Cummings, Frank Capra, John Alden Carpenter, Gilbert Seldes, Willem de Kooning, H.L. Mencken and Jack Kerouac) adored the strip, many local and regional editors did not; taking every potentially career-ending opportunity to drop it from the comics section.

Eventually the feature found a home in the Arts and Drama section of Hearst’s papers. Protected there by the publisher’s heavy-handed patronage the Kat flourished unharmed by editorial interference and fashion, running generally unmolested until Herriman’s death in April 1944.

The basic premise is simple: Krazy is an effeminate, dreamy, sensitive and romantic feline of indeterminate gender hopelessly in love with Ignatz Mouse: rude crude, brutal, mendacious and thoroughly scurrilous.

Ignatz is muy macho; drinking, stealing, neglecting his wife and children and always responding to Krazy’s genteel advances by smiting the Kat with a well-aimed brick (obtained singly or in bulk from noted local brickmaker Kolin Kelly). A third element completing an animalistic eternal triangle is lawman Offissa Bull Pupp, utterly besotted with Krazy, well aware of the Mouse’s true nature, yet bound by his own amorous timidity and sense of honour from removing his rival for the foolish feline’s affections. Krazy is blithely oblivious of Pupp’s dilemma…

Also populating the ever-mutable stage are a stunning supporting cast of inspired bit players such as deliverer of babies Joe Stork, hobo Bum Bill Bee, unsavoury Don Kiyoti, busybody Pauline Parrot, pompous Walter Cephus Austridge, Chinese mallard Mock Duck, Joe Turtil and a host of other audacious characters – all equally capable of stealing the limelight and even supporting their own features. The exotic quixotic episodes occur in and around the Painted Desert environs of Coconino (based of the artist’s vacation retreat Coconino County Arizona) where the surreal playfulness and fluid ambiguity of the flora and landscape are perhaps the most important member of the cast.

The strips are a masterful mélange of unique experimental art, strongly referencing Navajo art forms and utilising sheer unbridled imagination and delightfully expressive language: alliterative, phonetically and even onomatopoeically joyous with a compelling musical force (“He’s simpfilly wondafil”, “A fowl konspirissy – is it pussible?” or “I nevva seen such a great power to kookoo”).

Yet for all that, the adventures are poetic, satirical, timely, timeless, bittersweet, self-referential, fourth-wall bending, eerie, idiosyncratic astonishingly hilarious escapades encompassing every aspect of humour from painfully punning shaggy dog stories to riotous slapstick.

There have been an absolute wealth of Krazy Kat collections since the late 1970s when the fondly remembered strip was generally rediscovered by a far more accepting audience and this particular compendium continues a complete year-by-year series begun by Eclipse and picked up by Fantagraphics when the former ceased trading in 1992. This specific and fabulous monochrome volume – A Kind, Benevolent and Amiable Brick – re-presents the years 1919-1921 in a reassuringly big and hefty (231 x 15 x 305 mm) softcover edition.

Within this magical atlas of another land and time the unending drama plays out as usual, but with some intriguing diversions, such as recurring tribute’s to Kipling’s “Just So Stories” as we discover how the Kookoo Klock works, why bananas hang around in bunches and why Lightning Bugs light up.

Joe’s natal missions go increasingly awry, disease, despair and dearth of alcoholic imbibements take their toll in the years of Prohibition, the weather thinks it’s a comedian and the value of the common brick rollercoasters from low to high and back again.

We also meet a few trans-species alternates of our triangular stars and even peer into the misty past to see Kwin Kleopatra Kat and Marcatonni Maus whilst exploring the ever-changing seasons in a constant display of visual virtuosity and verbal verve…

Frontloading Added Value to the romantic tribulations are fascinating articles and background features such as ‘A Mouse by any Other Name: Krazy and Ignatz’s Early Life Under the Stairs’ by Bill Blackbeard, intimate photo portraits and the mesmerisingly informative ‘Geo. Herriman’s Los Angeles’ by Bob Callahan.

At the far end of the tome you can enjoy some full-colour archival illustration and another batch of erudite and instructional ‘Ignatz Mouse Debaffler Pages’, providing pertinent facts, snippets of contextual history and necessary notes for the young and potentially perplexed…

Herriman’s epochal classic is a remarkable one-off: in all the arenas of Art and Literature there has never been anything like these comic strips which have shaped our industry and creators, inspired auteurs in fields as disparate as prose fiction, film, dance, animation and music whilst delivering delight and delectation to generations of wonder-starved fans.

If however, you are one of Them and not Us, or if you actually haven’t experienced the gleeful graphic assault on the sensorium, mental equilibrium and emotional lexicon carefully thrown together by George Herriman from the dawn of the 20th century until the dog days of World War II, this glorious compendium is the most accessible way to do so. Don’t waste the opportunity…
© 2011 Fantagraphics Books. All rights reserved.

Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland


By Harvey Pekar & Joseph Remnant (Zip Comics/Top Shelf)
ISBN: 978-1-60309-091-9

Before finding relative fame in the 21st century, Harvey Pekar occupied that ghastly niche so good at trapping the truly creative individual: lots and lots of critical acclaim, and occasional heart-breakingly close brushes with super-stardom (which everyone except him felt he truly deserved) without ever actually getting enough ahead to feel secure or appreciated.

In the 1970s whilst palling around with Robert Crumb, Pekar began crafting compelling documentary narratives of ordinary, blue-collar life – primarily his own – and over the following decades invented “literary comics”. Despite negligible commercial success, the activity fulfilled some deep inner need and he persevered in his self-publishing and soul-searching.

One of those aforementioned brushes with the Big Time came in the 1980s with the release of two compilations by mainstream publisher Doubleday of selected strips from his American Splendor comicbooks. To this day those tomes remain some of the most powerful, honest and rewarding comics ever seen.

By mercilessly haranguing, begging and even paying (out of his meagre civil service wages and occasional wheeler-deal) any artists who met his exacting intellectual standards Pekar soldiered on, inadvertently creating the comics genre of autobiographical, existentially questing, slice-of-life graphic narratives whilst eking out a mostly solitary, hand-to-mouth existence in Cleveland, Ohio.

How the irascible, opinionated, objectionable, knowledge-hungry, self-educated, music-mad working stiff came to use the admittedly (then) impoverished comicbook medium to make a fiercely vital social commentary on American life for the “ordinary Joe” is a magical journey into the plebeian far better read than read about, so go do that if you haven’t already.

Life picked up late for Harvey Pekar – mostly through an award-winning movie of his career and the publication of Our Cancer Year (a stunning documentation of his and third wife Joyce Brabner’s response to his disease). This all led to an elevated and celebrated intellectual status, allowing him to the opportunity to produce even more personal and compelling tales such as The Quitter, The Beats and Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me. Harvey Pekar died in 2010, aged 70.

For all of that time he lived in Cleveland, Ohio and the city is as much a character in all his autobiographical works as the man himself. This book was his last, published posthumously and offering in his own simple, informative, plain spoken words – beguilingly illustrated by the inspirationally diligent Joseph Remnant (Blind Spot) – the history, geography and cultural lowdown of the legend-laden conurbation alternatively dubbed the “the best location in the nation” and “the mistake by the lake”…

An irrepressible autodidact in the truest sense of the term, Pekar made it his business to learn everything about anything he was interested in… and he could be initially interested in everything.

Keeping his mercurial engaged attention, however, was a far harder task. One thing which held his attention on many levels – from first breath to last – was the city he was born in.

Cleveland is an erudite, eyes-wide-open appreciation, encompassing the shrinking metropolis’ creation, rise, fall, descent into mediocrity and position as media whipping-boy as well as the truth behind all the myths.

Walking through town pictorially and in full avuncular academician mode, Pekar shares facts, opinions and judgments with equal passion and force: detailing simultaneously both treasures and flaws like a man happily married to the same bride for seven decades. The result is magical…

There’s the expected and welcome incisive examination of socio-political changes, employment and race issues, a broad inclusion of the author’s love of sporting achievement and his obsessive collecting: startling moments of intimate revelation and, as ever, his miraculous gift of sharing his passions as he blends historical insights, family milestones and oddments of existence with deft dexterity.

Harvey Pekar was called the “poet laureate of Cleveland” and this superb paean to the home he never abandoned is a graphic delight to equal any literary travelogue commemorating Defoe’s London or Damon Runyon’s New York.

Remnant’s monochrome line-work is remarkably effective: mixing reportage with architectural acuity and wrapping it all in a fulsome vivacity reminiscent of the best of underground art. These pictures pop; whether illuminating the Cleveland Indians’ 1948 victory over the Boston Braves, city landmarks like the Terminal  Tower and Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame; depicting gang fights in Woodhill Park or young Harvey’s first Chocolate Frosty Malt and first marital mismatches …

With an effusive and lyrical Introduction by Alan Moore and closing with ‘A Pal’s Goodbye’ from Harvey’s friend, associate and fellow Clevelander Jimi Izrael, this wry, witty, enchanting atlas of Middle America Then and Now is a book you must see if you love the art form of comics and magic of storytelling.
© & ™ 2012 Harvey Pekar and Joseph Remnant.

Krazy & Ignatz volume 1 1916-1918: Love in a Kestle or Love in a Hut


By George Herriman, edited by Bill Blackbeard (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBNs: 978-1-60699-316-3

I must admit to feeling like a fool and a fraud reviewing George Herriman’s winningly surreal masterpiece of eternal unrequited love. Although Krazy Kat is unquestionably a pinnacle of graphic innovation, a hugely influential body of work which shaped the early days of the comics industry and a paragon of world literature, some readers – from the strip’s earliest antecedents in 1913 right up to five minutes ago – just cannot “get it”.

All those with the right sequence of genes (“K”, “T”, “Z” and “A”, but not, I suspect “Why”) are lifelong fans within seconds of exposure whilst those sorry few oblivious to the strip’s inimitable charms are beyond anybody’s meagre capacity to help.

Still, since every day there’s newcomers to the wonderful world of comics I’ll assume my inelegant missionary position once more and hope to catch and convert some fresh souls – or, as today’s indisputable pictorial immortal might put it, save some more “lil Ainjils”…

Krazy Kat is not and never has been a strip for dull, slow or unimaginative people who simply won’t or can’t appreciate the complex multilayered verbal and pictorial whimsy, absurdist philosophy or seamless blending of sardonic slapstick with arcane joshing. It is the closest thing to pure poesy that narrative art has ever produced.

Think of it as a visual approximation of Dylan Thomas and Edward Lear playing “I Spy” with James Joyce amongst beautifully harsh and barren cactus fields whilst Gabriel García Márquez types up the shorthand notes and keeps score…

George Herriman was already a successful cartoonist and journalist in 1913 when a cat and mouse who had been cropping up in the corners and backgrounds of his outrageous domestic comedy strip The Dingbat Family/The Family Upstairs finally graduated to their own feature.

Krazy Kat the strip debuted in William Randolph Hearst’s New York Evening Journal on October 28th 1913 and, mainly by dint of the publishing magnate’s overpowering direct influence, spread throughout his vast stable of papers.

Although Hearst and a host of the period’s artistic and literary intelligentsia (which included Frank Capra, e.e. Cummings, John Alden Carpenter, Gilbert Seldes, Willem de Kooning, H.L. Mencken and Jack Kerouac) utterly adored the strip, many local editors -ever-cautious of the opinions of the hoi-polloi who actually bought newspapers – did not, and took every career-threatening opportunity to eject it from the comics section.

Eventually the feature found a home in the Arts and Drama section of Hearst’s vast empire of periodicals. Protected by the publisher’s patronage, the strip flourished unharmed by editorial interference and fashion, running until Herriman’s death in April 1944.

The basic premise of the eccentric enterprise is simple: in an arid, anthropomorphic region of America bordering the mighty Rio Grande dwells Krazy; an effeminate, dreamy, sensitive and romantic feline of indeterminate gender, in uncompromising total love with rude, crude, brutal, mendacious and thoroughly scurrilous, married-with-children (so very many children) bad boy Ignatz Mouse.

Ignatz is a real Man’s Muridae; drinking, stealing, cheating, carousing, neglectful of his spouse and progeny. He revels in spurning Krazy’s genteel advances by regularly, repeatedly and obsessively belting the cat with a well-aimed and mightily thrown brick (obtained singly or in bulk, generally by legitimate purchase from noted local brickmaker Kolin Kelly).

The third member of the classic eternal triangle is lawman Offissa Bull Pupp, hopelessly in love with Krazy, well-aware of the Mouse’s true nature, but bound by his own timidity and sense of honour from removing his rival for the cat’s affections. Krazy is, of course, blithely oblivious of Pupp’s true feelings and dilemma…

Also populating the dusty environs are a stunning supporting cast of inspired anthropomorphic bit players such as Joe Stork, (deliverer of babies), the hobo Bum Bill Bee, larcenous Don Kiyoti, busybody Pauline Parrot, Walter Cephus Austridge, Chinese mallard Mock Duck, Joe Turtil and a host of other audacious characters – all capable of stealing the limelight and even supporting their own features.

The episodes occur in and around the Painted Desert environs of Coconino (based of the artist’s vacation retreat Coconino County, Arizona) and the surreal playfulness and fluid ambiguity of the flora and landscapes are perhaps the most important members of the cast.

These strips are a masterful mélange of wickedly barbed contemporary social satire, folksy yarn-telling, unique experimental art, strongly referencing Navajo art forms and sheer unbridled imagination and delightfully expressive language: alliterative, phonetically and even onomatopoeically joyous and compellingly musical (“He’s simpfilly wondafil”, “A fowl konspirissy – is it pussible?” or “I nevva seen such a great power to kookoo”), yet for all that these adventures are timely, timeless, bittersweet, self-referential, fourth-wall bending, eerie, idiosyncratic and utterly hilarious escapades encompassing every aspect of humour from painfully punning shaggy dog stories to riotous silent-movie slapstick.

The Krazy & Ignatz series of collected Sunday pages was originally contrived by Eclipse Comics and the Turtle Island Foundation and taken over by Fantagraphics when the first publisher succumbed to predatory market conditions in the 1990s. Through diligence and sheer bloody determination matching Hearst’s own, the series was finally completed in 2015.

After years of scarily hand-to-mouth publishing, the entire Katty canon of magnificent Sunday pages has been collected in fabulous compilations and this first colour and monochrome volume opens with ‘And the First Shall Be the Last: A History of Kat Reprints’ and A Word from the Publisher by Kim Thompson delineating at length the eccentric orbit which finally resulted in Herriman’s masterpiece being collected in a complete, uniform, visually stunning 13 volume edition.

That’s followed by ‘The Kat’s Kreation’ from series Editor Bill Blackbeard; a fulsome, fascinating and heavily illustrated history tracing the development of the frankly freakish feline as briefly outlined above, and ‘Before He Went “Krazy”: George Herriman’s Aughts’, offering a liberal sampling of examples of the cartoonists many pre-Coconino strips and features such as ‘Lariat Pete’, ‘Bud Smith, the Boy Who Does Stunts’, ‘Rosy’s Mama’, ‘Zoo Zoo… (Goes Shopping, Entertains, And the Christmas Pie)’, ‘Alexander’ and ‘Daniel and Pansy’, spanning 1903 to 1909, with many sporting a certain prototype mad moggy in the corners…

From there it’s a short hop to the first cautious yet full-bodied escapades from 1916, delivered every seven days from April 23rd to December 31st.

Within that first year, as war raged in Europe and with America edging inexorably closer to the Global Armageddon, the residents of Coconino sported and wiled away their days in careless abandon but totally embroiled within their own – and their neighbours’ – personal dramas.

Big hearted Krazy adopts orphan kitties, accidentally goes boating and ballooning, saves baby birds from predatory mice and rats, survives pirate attacks, constantly endures assault and affectionate attempted murder and does lots of nothing in an utterly addictive, idyllic and eccentric way.

…And gets hit with bricks. Many, heavy and always evoking joyous, grateful raptures and transports of delight from the heart-sore hard-headed recipient…

In 1917 (specifically January 7th to December 30th), the eternal game played out as usual and with an infinite variety of twists, quirks and reversals. However there were also increasingly intriguing diversions to flesh out the picayune proceedings, such as recurring explorations of terrifying trees, grim ghosts and obnoxious Ouija Boards, tributes to Kipling as we discover why the snake rattles, meet Ignatz’s aquatic cousin, observe an invasion of Mexican Jumping Beans and a plague of measles, discover the maritime value of “glowerms”, learn who was behind a brilliant brick-stealing campaign of crime and at last see Krazy become the Bricker and not Brickee…

Fully in control of his medium, Herriman switched into poetic high gear as America finally entered the Great War in 1918.

With strips running from January 6th to December 29th, uncanny brick apparitions scotched somebody’s New Year’s resolutions, cantankerous automobiles began to disrupt the desert days, fun of a sort was had with boomerangs and moving picture mavens began haunting the region. There were deeply strange interactions with weather events, whilst music was made and occasional extended storylines began with the saga of an aberrant Kookoo Klock…

Surreal voyages were undertaken but over and again it was seen that there is literally no place like Krazy and Ignatz’s home. There was only one acknowledgement of Kaiser Bill and it was left to the missile-chucking mouse to deliver it…

And then it was Christmas and a new year and volume lay ahead…

To complete the illustrious experience and explore the ever-shifting sense of reality amidst the constant display of visual virtuosity and verbal verve this big, big book (305 x 230 mm and superbly designed by Chris Ware) ends with rare and informative bonus material such as ‘A Genius of the Comic Page’: a contemporaneous appreciation and loving deconstruction of the strip – with new illustrations from Herriman – by the astoundingly perspicacious and erudite critic Summerfield Baldwin taken from Cartoons Magazine and an oddly enigmatic biography of the reclusive creator in ‘George Herriman 1880-1944’ by Bill Blackbeard.

‘The Ignatz Mouse Debaffler Page’ then closes the show, providing pertinent facts, snippets of contextual history and necessary notes for the young and potentially perplexed…

Herriman’s epochal classic is a genuine Treasure of World Art and Literature. These strips shaped our industry, galvanised comics creators, inspired auteurs in fields as disparate as prose fiction, film, sculpture, dance, animation and jazz and musical theatre whilst always delivering delight and delectation to generations of devoted, wonder-starved fans.

If however, you are one of Them and not Us, or if you actually haven’t experienced the gleeful graphic assault on the sensorium, mental equilibrium and emotional lexicon carefully thrown together by Herriman from the dawn of the 20th century until the dog days of World War II, this glorious parade of cartoon masterpieces are your last chance to become a human before you die…

That was harsh, I know: not everybody gets it and some of them aren’t even stupid or soulless – they’re just unfortunate…

Still, There Is A Heppy Lend Furfur A-Waay if only you try to see…
© 2010 Fantagraphics Books. All rights reserved.

Groo: Friends and Foes volume 1


By Sergio Aragonés, Mark Evanier, Stan Sakai & Tom Luth (Dark Horse)
ISBN: 978-1-61655-814-7

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: A welcome wave of nostalgic nonsense and comic craziness… 8/10

Groo is the smelliest, ugliest, stupidest, unluckiest mercenary in the world – but he’s also the best swordsman in creation and far too stupid to be harmed. He is always hungry and wanders because most places he pauses in burn down, wash away or crash into rubble soon after his arrival.

He loves to fight and entire nations and navies reel at the mention of his name. Of course they do the same when they stand downwind of him too…

Produced in a unique traditional fashion by storyteller Sergio Aragonés, wordsmith Mark Evanier, colourist Tom Luth – with assistance from Michael Atiyeh – and letterer Stan Sakai (yeah, that Usagi Yojimbo guy), the Itinerant Imbecile’s adventures form one of the longest running comicbook humour series in America and there seems to be no chance of stopping his creators as long as we keep buying these incredible, hilarious sagas…

Both in comic narrative and the infinitely tougher field of gag-cartooning, Aragonés has produced vast volumes of incomparable work. His darkly skewed sensibilities and instinctive grasp of the cosmically absurd, wedded to his anarchically meticulous drawing style and frankly terrifying professional discipline, have made his pantomimic doodles vibrant proof of the maxims that laughter is universal and one picture is worth a thousand words.

In 1981, after years working for Mad Magazine whilst also producing gags for DC’s horror titles (plus the occasional full strip), he joined with Mark Evanier (who writes lots of stuff and Writes it Good), Sergio crafted a madcap 4-page parody of Sword-&-Sorcery yarns as a contribution to Eclipse Comics’ Creators Rights benefit comic Destroyer Duck.

Following a second outing in Mike Grell’s Starslayer (#5), Pacific Comics launched Groo the Wanderer in his own title. After 8 issues (December 1982-April 1984) the troubled company folded but the unsinkable barbarian (that’s a joke you’ll understand later) resurfaced in the Groo Special one-shot from Eclipse (October 1984), before finding a home at Epic Comics: Archie Goodwin’s creator-owned corner of the Marvel Universe.

Aragonés had first devised his witless warrior in the 1970s but no publisher would take on the property unless he surrendered all rights – an almost universal situation in the comics industry until the advent of the Direct Sales market transferred power from companies and distributors to creators and consumers.

With ownership issues settled to his maker’s satisfaction, Groo bedded in for an uproarious 120 issue run at Epic – resulting in loads of graphic novel compilations – until the imprint died, after which the witless wonder moved on to Image and Dark Horse Comics. They haven’t sunk yet…

In fact, the latter (gluttons for punishment) have even let the bumbling bladesman loose with new 12-issue miniseries Groo: Friends and Foes; each issue revisiting one of the silly saga’s regular cast who had inconceivably escaped being slaughtered by the star. This tawdry tome is but the first of four trade paperback collections and this first compilation collects issues #1-4, finding the perpetually puzzled peripatetic poltroon meeting again merchant mariner Captain Ahax, who has good reason to dread the consequences…

That sinking thing? Among his other lack of abilities Groo cannot travel by ship. He’s not sea-sick or anything, it’s just that his mere physical presence on a nautical apparatus of any sort causes it to founder and plunge into the fearsome fathoms below. Knowing that fact and unable to get rid of the affable oaf, Ahax surrenders to fate and opts to replace the crew with drunks, sell his ship and even his clients’ cargoes. Then he over-insures the vessel, confident that at least this time when she goes down he’ll actually profit from it.

But this time his ship comes in, despite Groo constantly waving sharp objects about, an attack by pirates and Ahax’s own increasingly desperate efforts to scuttle his livelihood. Perhaps it’s the calming influence of the sweet little girl who befriends the woeful warrior’s adoring dog Rufferto? She’s a fellow passenger all alone, searching for her long-lost father…

As disaster finally strikes – far too late for Ahax – the smelliest, ugliest, stupidest mercenary in the world shambles off and soon encounters a band of gypsies who seem familiar. They ought to: they’re led by his calculating grandmother Granny Groo. How fondly the weary wanderer remembers the way she used to beat him and his sister Grooella before selling him. Of course, being the kind of kid he was, Granny had to sell him many times before it finally stuck…

Now that he’s become the most terrifying person on Earth, however, she decides on a different plan to get rid of him before he brings calamity upon them all: raffling him off to greedy villagers who think they might profit from “controlling” the most dangerous man alive…

Baffled Rufferto gamely sticks with his master and soon discovers that the little girl from the ship has joined the gypsies too…

When that brief debacle ends as all Groo gigs do, the dog and his hero head further inland and soon encounter a magic-blighted region controlled by old enemies and devilish witches Arba and Dakarba.

The female fiends have good reason to fear the innocently intruding idiot and decide to get their retaliation in first by conjuring up the scariest thing they can think of to destroy him. Sadly, a marauding 50-foot Groo – even backed up by a hundred normal-sized facsimiles – are no match for the sheer force of destructive stupidity the real McCoy can muster and the witches inevitably fail, leaving their noodle-nosed nemesis to saunter off accompanied by a little girl he thinks he might have met before…

Groo’s initial outings end after a frantic reunion with Legendary Hero and shameless fraud Arcadio whom our pack of peregrinators stumble across as he tries to train a brace of dragons. The crafty champion plans on using them to gull villagers into hiring him, but when good-natured Groo offers his help, the plan – and the villagers – soon go up in smoke…

Closing this inaugural volume is a quartet of wordless strips starring Rufferto and a captivating cover-gallery by Aragonés adding to the wonderfully wonky misshapen madness and grand display of confusions, contusions, conflagrations, conflicts, pratfalls, pitfalls, punch-lines and punch-ups…

These are true masterpiece of mirth comedy addicts will love and the great strength of the series is that new readers can start practically anywhere – and still be none the wiser…
© 2015 Sergio Aragonés. Groo, all related characters and the distinctive likenesses thereof are trademarks of Sergio Aragonés. All rights reserved.

Barefoot Gen volume 10: Never Give Up


By Keiji Nakazawa (Last Gasp)
ISBN: 978-0-86719-601-6

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Shocking, Momentous, Unmissable… 10/10

Constantly revised and refined by its creator and publishers around the world, Barefoot Gen is the quintessential anti-war tract and message of peace for humanity. It is angry, uncompromising and never forgives those who seek to perpetuate greed, mendacity and bloody-handed stupidity.

After many years of struggle the entire epic semi-autobiographical saga has being remastered as an unabridged and uncompromising 10-volume English-language translation by Last Gasp under the auspices of Project Gen, a multinational organisation dedicated to peace and the abolition of nuclear weapons.

Hadashi no Gen was first seen in Japan began in 1973, serialised in Shūkan Shōnen Jampu (Weekly Boys Jump) following an occasional 1972 series of stand-alone stories in various magazines which included Kuroi Ame ni Utarete (Struck by Black Rain) and Aru Hi Totsuzen (One Day, Suddenly).

The scattered tales eventually led Shonen’s editor Tadasu Nagano to commission the 45-page Ore wa Mita (I Saw It) for a Monthly Jump special devoted to autobiographical works. Nagano clearly recognised that the author – an actual survivor of the word’s first atomic atrocity – had much more to say which readers needed to see and commissioned the serial which has grown into this stunning landmark epic.

The tale was always controversial in a country which still generally prefers to ignore rather than confront its mistakes and indiscretions and, after 18 months, Hadashi no Gen was removed from Jump, transferred first to Shimin (Citizen), then Bunka Hyōron (Cultural Criticism), and Kyōiku Hyōron (Educational Criticism).

Just like his indomitable hero, Keiji Nakazawa never gave up and his persistence led to a first Japanese book collection in 1975, translated by the newly-constituted Project Gen team into Russian, English and then other languages including Norwegian, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Swedish, Finnish, Indonesian, Tagalog and Esperanto.

The author completed his story in 1985 and his telling testament of survival has since been adapted into live-action and anime films, operas, musicals and live-action television dramas; all spreading the message across every continent and all generations.

This concluding volume brings the story of irrepressible, ebullient Gen and his friends to a close, once again pitting the forceful vitality of a select band of bomb survivors against the constant shadow of tragedy which implacably dogs them in the city slowly recovering from nuclear conflagration.

Here the indomitable idealistic individualist, having finally found a way to express his anger and effectively fight back against the idiocies and injustices of a world which lets Atom bombs fall and is seemingly incapable of learning from its mistakes, at last strikes back at the demagogues and monsters who still keep the bad old ways alive even after their people suffered the most hideous of consequences…

Barefoot Gen: Never Give Up begins following the inspirational ‘Gen’s Message: A Plea for Nuclear Abolition’ by the Translators and Editors and, as always, the other end of this monochrome paperback balances the essay with a biography of the author and invaluable data ‘About Project Gen’

The graphic manifesto resumes in March 1953 as Gen prepares for his school graduation ceremony, despite seldom attending the hidebound institution for the past few years. Fellow bomb orphans Ryuta and quietly stolid Musubi – who have shared his shabby shack for years – are also in high spirits. They have been constantly selling dresses made by radiation-scarred outcast Katsuko on Hiroshima’s rebuilt street corners, diligently saving the proceeds until she has enough money to open a shop. Now the manager of one of the big stores wants to buy all the clothes they can manufacture to sell in his fashionable venues…

At the Graduation Ceremony Gen once again loses his temper when the faculty begin memorialising the past and celebrating the failed regime of the empire. Later, his savage confrontation with teachers and visiting dignitaries sparks a minor student revolution. For many of the juvenile delinquents it also presents an opportunity to inflict some long-delayed retribution on the educational bullies who have beaten them for years…

Encouragingly, however, not all the parents and attending adults take the teachers’ side and a potentially murderous confrontation is (rather violently) defused by Gen…

The boy’s life then changes forever when he bumps into a young woman and is instantly smitten. His pursuit of lovely Mitsuko will bring him into conflict with her brutal father, former employer and unrepentant war-lover Nakao; now a highly successful businessman going places in the reconstructed city…

Gen has been studying with elderly artist Seiga Amano, learning the skills his own father would have passed on had he not died in 1945. The mentor/father-figure encourages his protégé to pursue Mitsuko and it costs them both their jobs…

The seeming setback is in fact liberating and before long the star-crossed youngsters are in a fevered euphoria of first love. So engaged is Gen that he is not there when stolid Musubi is targeted by a cruel Yakuza honey-trap who addicts him to drugs and fleeces him of all Katsuko’s hard-earned savings…

With a happy ending so close he can touch it Gen is dragged back down to earth by a trio of tragedies which leave him near-broken and all alone. The legacies of the bombing have again cost him almost everything…

After a horrendous bout of death and vengeance-taking, Gen seems to have nothing to live for, but the despondent young man is saved by aged Amano who rekindles his spirit and wisely advises him to get out of Hiroshima and start his real life in the world beyond it…

Keiji Nakazawa’s broad cartoon art style has often been subject of heated discussion; his simplified Disney-esque rendering felt by some to be at odds with the subject matter, and perhaps diluting the impact of the message. I’d like to categorically refute that.

The style springs from his earliest influence, Osamu Tezuka, Father of Animé and God of Manga who began his career in 1946 and whose works – Shin Takarajima (New Treasure Island), Tetsuwan Atomu (Astro Boy) and so many more – eased some of the grim realities of being a bomb survivor, providing escape, hope and even a career path to the young illustrator. Even at its most bleak and traumatic the epic never forgets to shade horror with humour and counterpoint crushing loss with fiery idealism and enthusiasm.

As such the clear line, solid black forms and abstracted visual motifs act as tolerable symbols for much of the horror in this parable. The art defuses but never dilutes the horror of the tragedy and its aftermath. The reader has to be brought through the tale to receive the message and for that purpose drawings are accurate, simplified and effective. The intent is not to repel (and to be honest, even as they are they’re still pretty hard to take) but to inform, to warn.

Bleak and violent but ultimately impossibly uplifting, Nakazawa’s Barefoot Gen is without peer and its legacy will be pervasive and long-lasting. So now you’ve been warned, buy this book. Buy the entire series. Tell everyone you know about it. Barefoot Gen is an indisputable classic and should be available to absolutely everyone… © 2009 Keiji Nakazawa. All rights reserved.

Barefoot Gen volume 9: Breaking Down Borders


By Keiji Nakazawa (Last Gasp)
ISBN: 978-0-86719-600-9

I first found the Educomics magazine I Saw It! in 1982; initially seduced by a garish cover and the Chester Gould-like illustrations. There was precious little translated manga around then and the magazine was lumped in with the wild, wacky and often salaciously outrageous “Underground Comix” on the racks of my regular comics shop, across the road from Goldsmith’s College from where I had just graduated before starting as tea-boy on iconic Warrior magazine.

I was cocky, big-headed and, I thought, extremely well versed in all aspects of comics but still utterly gobsmacked after I read it…

In England we’ve had educational comics for decades, but this was something completely new to me. There was no tasteful distancing here; just an outraged scream of defiance and a direct plea to make things right. This was history and politics and it was deadly serious, not played for laughs or to make points as British cartooning traditionally did.

Constantly revised and refined by its creator and publishers around the world, I Saw It! became Barefoot Gen, and now the entire epic semi-autobiographical saga has being remastered as an unabridged and uncompromising 10-volume English-language translation by Last Gasp under the auspices of Project Gen, a multinational organisation dedicated to peace and the abolition of nuclear weapons.

Hadashi no Gen was first seen in Japan began in 1973, serialised in Shūkan Shōnen Jampu (Weekly Boys Jump) following an occasional 1972 series of stand-alone stories in various magazines which included Kuroi Ame ni Utarete (Struck by Black Rain) and Aru Hi Totsuzen, (One Day, Suddenly).

These eventually led Shonen’s editor Tadasu Nagano to commission the 45-page Ore wa Mita (I Saw It) for a Monthly Jump special devoted to autobiographical works. Nagano clearly recognised that the author – an actual survivor of the word’s first atomic atrocity – had much more to say which readers needed to see and commissioned the serial which has grown into this stunning landmark epic.

The tale was always controversial in a country which still often prefers to ignore rather than confront its mistakes and indiscretions and, after 18 months, Hadashi no Gen was removed from Jump, transferred first to Shimin (Citizen), then Bunka Hyōron (Cultural Criticism), and Kyōiku Hyōron (Educational Criticism).

Like his indomitable hero, Keiji Nakazawa never gave up and his persistence led to a first Japanese book collection in 1975, translated by the original Project Gen team into Russian, English and then other languages including Norwegian, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Swedish, Finnish, Indonesian, Tagalog and Esperanto.

The author at long last completed his story in 1985 and his telling testament of survival has since been adapted into live-action and anime films, operas, musicals and live-action television dramas.

Undoubtedly mirroring Nakazawa’s own creative journey, this penultimate volume shares the moment it all changed for a hardy, forward-looking and indomitable idealist and individualist who finally found a way to express his anger and effectively fight back against the idiocies and injustices of a world which had let Atom bombs fall, and at last challenge those pedagogues and self-seekers who chose to keep the bad old ways alive even after their people suffered the most hideous of consequences…

Possibly the most inspirational volume of Keiji Nakazawa’s graphic masterpiece, Barefoot Gen: Breaking Down Barriers begins following ‘Some Thoughts About Keiji Nakazawa’ by Project Gen Editor Alan Gleason, who has been with the grand design since 1977 – practically from inception – and offers here telling insights and historical perspective. The other end of this monochrome paperback balances the essay with a biography of the author and invaluable data ‘About Project Gen’

This stunning graphic manifesto resumes with an ancient history lesson as fearful peasants are told their precious rice paddies are to be destroyed by the local military in order to make a road for troop movements. As one bold serf dares to protest and suffers grievously for it, Gen awakes in the communal shack he and his friends cobbled together out of rubble and scavenged debris of Hiroshima. He shares it with other “bomb-orphans” and, until this morning, his last surviving family member.

Now however older brother Koji Nakaoka is moving out to get married, but at least rambunctious Ryuta and quietly stolid Musubi are staying put. The former reform school kids have become super-salesmen, selling dresses made by radiation-scarred outcasts Natsue and Katsuko on Hiroshima’s gradually restored and rebuilt street corners. The long-term goal is typically ambitious: the girls will sew and the boys will sell until they have saved enough money to open their own shop.

Today however Ryuta is in an excitable state. He’s the most devoted follower of the city’s woefully sub-par baseball team the Hiroshima Carp and is sharing his hopes and fears for the new season with any highly amused passer-by he can corral…

By the time the hapless sports fan returns to uncharacteristically gloomy Gen at the shack another crisis has arisen: a horde of military types are besieging the hovel intent on tearing it down to make way for a proposed “Peace Memorial City” and they don’t care that the kids have lived there for years and have nowhere else to go.

Gen and Ryuta’s vigorous, violent and initially successful “Dirty Protest” defence of their home is savage and disgusting but ultimately doomed to failure…

When the little war is finally lost Gen is painfully marked for life and carries another burden of stored anger, but at least ailing Natsue is not present to see the loss of their home. She is in the mountains, completing a ceramic urn to contain her ashes after she dies…

Gen has known her since the earliest aftermath of the bomb: a young dance student he twice saved from her own fatalistic intent, but recently she has been physically failing. Never quite recovering from appendix surgery, she is now convinced her remaining days are few and is preparing for the end…

Forcibly relocated to a tiny riverside shack, the disparate band gather to celebrate surviving another day, but when exhausted Natsue finally joins them and proudly shows off her beautiful funerary urn Gen “accidentally” shatters it. Next morning, increasingly furious Ryuta attacks his best friend for his clumsiness and apparent lack of remorse in upsetting Natsue and learns the true depth of Gen’s compassion. As their brutal clash accidentally envelopes and infuriates a haughty street fortune teller, Gen reveals he acted deliberately to shock Natsue out of her pervasive death-spiral, believing he can keep her alive by sheer anger. Eying the enraged seer screaming at them, he then concocts an even bolder plan to reinvigorate her vanished will to live…

When Ryuta later leads the entire gang past a heavily-bearded prognosticator-for-hire, the oracle predicts long life and a fabulous future for the fatally-depressed girl but can’t resist also having a hilarious pop at her mouthy Carp-loving companion. The session works splendidly however and Natsue agrees to return to hospital for doctors to treat her still unhealed surgical wounds. Sadly not even unflagging optimism and Gen’s guile can fix everything…

In the tragic aftermath fresh horror emerges as two pious gentlemen intrude upon the youngsters’ grief, offering to arrange a splendid funeral for Natsue. Gen however is not fooled and realises they are simply clever “Vultures” working for the Americans…

In occupied Japan news media was absolutely forbidden from discussing or reporting the effects of atom bombs and the populace had no knowledge of exactly what had happened at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Indeed, amidst the rubble of the destroyed cities, most of the 300,000 terrified, bewildered survivors had no idea what was happening to their bodies – or that they were not unique or even isolated cases – but were consoled by the seemingly-benign and tireless humanitarian efforts of the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission.

These were officials employed by the US Occupation forces, tasked with acquiring – even often buying – bodies of recently deceased bomb survivors for scientists to examine. The bomb-makers were hungry for information on the after-effects of their hell-weapons and apparently did not see victims as human. They simply dissected bodies, harvested organs and collated facts: always hungry for more data. Gen had dealt with them before, when they stole the fresh corpse of his little sister Kimie

The ABCC even pay for teams to go into schools to regularly examine the health of children, working to a hidden agenda aided by local Japanese doctors bribed to send everyone they could to the Americans. For each referral they were rewarded with fancy drugs, many sold for profit to the black market. No one with bomb-related symptoms was treated or cured; just tested and catalogued.

Now with the knowledge enflaming him, Gen responds with brutal violence, beating and driving off the Vultures before he and his friends steal Natsue’s body…

She had died on the 6-month anniversary of the beginning of the Korean War just as General Douglas MacArthur (Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers and de facto Emperor of Japan) convinced US President Truman to announce the deployment of atomic weapons for that conflict too. Thankfully, concerted global outcry convinced them to withdraw the threat…

In January 1951, Gen, Ryuta, Musubi and Katsuko are on a pilgrimage to inter their lost friend’s ashes above the city on Mount Hiji, but are thwarted by the discovery that the ABCC have built a vast complex on the once-beautiful site. After displaying their disdain in the approved scatological manner, the weary mourners decide to place the urn Gen worked so long and hard to reconstruct within the Nakaoka family grave, but as they trudge to the cemetery their precious cargo is stolen by a street urchin.

Giving ferocious chase they corner the little thief and administer the customary beating, leading to a confrontation with an old man who would change Gen’s life forever…

At first artist Seiga Amano cannot believe his grandson Tatsuro would stoop so low, but when he realises why the boy has turned to thievery, his proud heart almost breaks…

Eventually everybody calms down and Gen gives the old painter art materials he has stored ever since an old, dying man briefly stayed at their shack, sharing with the grateful painter the knowledge that his own father was also an artist before the bomb. Their riverside conversation inspires a life-changing aspiration within the lad that turns his life to a new path. Gen begs the elder to teach him everything he knows so that he can prove his new, all-consuming mantra “Art Has No Borders”…

The next lucky happenstance occurs when Gen stumbles onto a sign painter producing a cinema poster for a Kurosawa Double Feature. Toro Otsuki boasts he is the greatest exponent of his craft in Hiroshima, a claim brutally backed up by his thuggish assistant Kurosaki who foolishly attacks the loud-mouthed young gawker only to be soundly trounced for his temerity.

Sadly in the melee the painting is wrecked and honourable, guilt-struck Gen swears to make amends to the artist and his sadistic boss Nakao; an unrepentant former-soldier now bullying his way into civilian life…

When Seiga Amano and grandson Tatsuro pass by and see Gen enduring savage abuse in his attempts to atone, another fight begins and Otsuki breaks an arm, compelling Amano to step in and complete the poster. The rapidly-completed masterpiece instantly mollifies the militant Nakao who sees another business opportunity…

The constant stream the Boss provides is the making of Gen who serves as assistant and willing, eager student to Seiga, rapidly learning the basics of a discipline which will change his life.

As spring arrives more change is in the air. General MacArthur is summoned home and older conservative citizens begin to panic as their surrogate Emperor deserts them. Ryuta is typically scathing of the nervous old farts and isn’t there when a band of thugs target Gen, seeking to chop off his arm. The plucky little scrapper quickly ends their threat and knows jealous Kurosaki is behind the scheme, but after taking a measure of vengeance Gen surprises himself by getting to know his enemy and learning the horrific story of the abuse his fellow bomb orphan suffered at the hands of priests who were supposed to be protecting the lost children of Hiroshima…

With a deeper understanding but no real resolution to their stalled conflict, Gen returns to his diligent studies but his peace of mind will soon be shaken by the return of an old enemy…

Militaristic elements of Japan were deftly re-establishing themselves as the city grew again: attempting to whitewash their pasts for the New Japan. When ardent – and genuine – anti-war protestor Gen sees a poster announcing Denjiro Samejima, running for political office, claiming he opposed the war and was a “soldier for Peace”, Gen boils over at the villain’s hypocrisy and reacts with his usual earthy passion…

During the war that wily demagogue was a secret Black Marketeer who denounced Gen’s father – a genuine anti-war dissident – and led a hate-campaign that tormented the entire Nakaoka family. Now the rogue is profiting by stealing and feigning his beloved father’s ideals and dreams, just like so many other criminals who would deny history and the truth in search of self-advancement…

The scathing insights into the sordid character of political opportunists are potent reminders of why society never changes, reminiscent of George Orwell’s polemics, and by seemingly moving slightly off-message Nakazawa actually drives home his points with far greater force. Barefoot Gen is positively Reithian in its ability to Educate, Inform and Entertain and its legacy will be as pervasive and long-lasting…

And yet even at its most bleak and traumatic Keiji Nakazawa’s magnum opus never forgets to be funny, compelling and enjoyably Human. The broad cartoon style of Keiji Nakazawa’s art has often been the subject of heated discussion; the Disney-esque, simplified rendering felt by some to be at odds with the subject matter, and perhaps diluting the impact of the message. I’d like to categorically refute that.

Mister Nakazawa’s style springs from his earliest influence, Osamu Tezuka, Father of Animé and God of Manga who began his career in 1946 and whose works – Shin Takarajima (New Treasure Island), Tetsuwan Atomu (Astro Boy) and so many more – eased some of the grim realities of being a bomb survivor, providing escape, hope and even a career path to the young boy.

As such the clear line, solid black forms and abstracted visual motifs act as tolerable symbols for much of the horror in this parable. The art defuses, but never dilutes, the terrible facts and scenes of the tragedy and its aftermath. The reader has to be brought through the tale to receive the message and for that purpose the drawings are accurate, simplified and effective. The intent is not to repel (and to be honest, even as they are they’re still pretty hard to take) but to inform, to warn.

So now you’ve been warned, buy this series. Better yet, agitate your local library to get a few sets in as well. Barefoot Gen is a world classic and should be available to absolutely everyone…
© 2009 Keiji Nakazawa. All rights reserved.