The Spectacular Spider-Man: Lo, This Monster

By Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, John Romita Sr., Jim Mooney, Bill Everett & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-1-3029-2064-7 (TPB)

The Amazing Spider-Man was always a character and concept which matured with – or perhaps just slightly ahead – of its fan-base. That thought might well have contributed to a rare Marvel misstep during the 1960s as the House of Ideas increasingly challenged the dominance of DC; finally collected here in its own nostalgia-soaked trade paperback and digital tome for your delight and delectation…

After a shaky start, the Wondrous Wallcrawler quickly became a sensational “must-see” with kids of all ages. Before long, the quirky, charming, thrillingly action-packed comics drama would become the model for an entire generation of younger heroes impatiently elbowing aside the (relatively) staid thirty-something mystery-men of previous publications and hallowed tradition.

You know the story: Peter Parker was a smart-but-alienated teenager bitten by a radioactive spider during a high school science trip. Discovering he’d developed astonishing arachnid abilities – which he augmented with his own natural chemistry, physics and engineering genius – the Parker did what any lonely, geeky nerd would do with such newfound prowess: he tried to cash in for girls, fame and money.

Crafting a costume to hide his identity in case he made a fool of himself, Parker became a minor media celebrity – and a criminally self-important one. To his eternal regret, when a thief fled past him one night, he didn’t lift a finger to stop him, only to find when he returned home that his beloved guardian uncle Ben Parker had been murdered.

Crazed and vengeful, Peter hunted the assailant who’d made doting Aunt May a widow and killed the only father he had ever known. When, to his horror, he discovered it was the self-same felon he had neglected to stop, and that irresponsibility had resulted in the death of the man who raised him, the traumatised boy swore to forevermore use his powers to help others…

Since that night, the Wondrous Wallcrawler has tirelessly battled miscreants, monsters and madmen, with a fickle, ungrateful public generally baying for his blood even as he saves them.

Already the darlings of college campuses and media intelligentsia, the Amazing Arachnid’s rise increased pace as the Swinging Sixties closed, with Peter and his ever-expanding cast of comrades well on the way to being household names. Stan Lee’s scripts were completely in tune with the times – as perceived by most kids’ parents at least – and an increasing use of soap opera plots kept older readers glued to the series even if the bombastic battle sequences didn’t.

In 1968, the company finally broke free of a restrictive distribution deal and exponentially expanded. All these factors combined to prompt a foray into the world of oversized mainstream magazines (as successfully developed by James Warren with Eerie, Creepy and Vampirella) which could be higher priced and produced without restrictive oversight from The Comics Code Authority. The result was the quarterly Spectacular Spider-Man #1-2 (July-November 1968): a genuinely wonder-filled thrill for 9-year-old me, but clearly not the mainstream mass of Marvel Mavens…

Re-presented here are both issues, material from the unpublished third and a variety of background supplements, beginning with that first bombastic booklet.

Following a painted cover – Marvel’s first – by John Romita (senior) and illustrator Harry Rosenbaum, the main feature of Spectacular Spider-Man #1 was ‘Lo, This Monster!’ by Lee, John Romita (senior) & Jim Mooney: an extended, political thriller with charismatic reformer Richard Raleigh tirelessly campaigning to become Mayor, but targeted and hunted by a brutish titan seemingly determined to keep the old political machine in place at all costs…

Rendered in moody wash tones, the drama soon disclosed a sinister plotter directing the monster’s campaign of terror… but his identity was the last one Spidey expected to expose…

Also included in the magazine and here was a retelling of the hallowed origin tale as described above. ‘In the Beginning…’ is crafted by Lee, with brother Larry Lieber’s pencils elevated by inks-&-tones from the legendary Bill Everett. Rounding out the experience is a tantalising ‘Next issue’ ad which neatly segues into an all-Romita painted cover and the magazine experiment’s premature the conclusion…

Three months later The Spectacular Spider-Man #2 came out. It was radically different from its predecessor. To offset disappointing sales, Marvel had swiftly switched to a smaller size and added comic book colour. It also sported a Comics Code symbol.

A proposed third issue which would have debuted the Prowler never appeared. It was to be the last attempt to secure ostensibly older-reader shelf-space until the mid-1970s. At least the story in #2 was top-rate…

Following monochrome recap ‘The Spider-Man Saga’ Lee, Romita & Mooney dealt with months of foreshadowing in the monthly comic book series by finally revealing how Norman Osborn had shaken off selective amnesia and returned to full-on super-villainy in ‘The Goblin Lives!’

Steeped in his former madness and remembering Peter Parker was Spider-Man, Osborn plays cat and mouse with his foe, threatening all the hero’s loved ones until a climactic closing battle utilising hallucinogenic weapons again erases the Green Goblin personality… for the moment…

A full colour teaser for never-seen #3’s “The Mystery of the TV Terror!” leads off the extra features, followed by a Dean White version of #2’s cover which fronted 2012’s Marvel Masterworks: The Amazing Spider-Man vol 7 and house ads from various 1968 Marvel comics for Spectacular Spider-Man #1 & 2.

Also included are Romita’s original pencils for the covers of both, with the painted end-products by Harry Rosenbaum and Romita respectively and a 1988 text feature from Marvel Visions #29 detailing ‘The Greatest Comics Never Seen’, and offering sketches and unused pages of the antihero we know as The Prowler (who was legendarily invented by schoolboy John Romita Jr.).

This book is Marvel and Spider-Man at their peak. If you fancy a taste of something simultaneously tried-&-true and spectacularly radical, this might be the book for you.
© 2019 MARVEL

The Spider’s Syndicate of Crime

By Ted Cowan, Jerry Siegel & Reg Bunn (Rebellion)
ISBN 978-1-78108-905-7 (TPB)

I find myself in a genuine quandary here. When you set up to review something you need to always keep a weather eye on your critical criteria. The biggest danger when looking at certain comic collections is to make sure to remove the nostalgia-tinted spectacles of the excitable, uncritical scruffy little kid who adored and devoured the source material every week in the long ago and long-missed.

However, after thoroughly scrutinising myself – no pleasant task, I assure you – I can honestly say that not only are the adventures of the macabre and malevolent Spider as engrossing and enjoyable as I remember but also will provide the newest and most contemporary reader with a huge hit of superb artwork, compelling, caper-style cops ‘n’ robbers fantasy and thrill-a-minute adventure. After all, the strip usually ran two (later three) pages per episode, so a lot had to happen in pretty short order.

Part of Rebellion’s Treasury of British Comics strand and available in paperback and digital editions, The Spider’s Syndicate of Crime is the opening salvo of what I hope is many welcome returnees. It gathers material from peerless weekly anthology Lion spanning June 26th 1965 to June 18th 1966 and that year’s Lion Annual which for laborious reasons is designated 1967.

What’s it all about? The Spider is a mysterious super-scientist whose goal is to be the greatest criminal of all time. As conceived by writer/editor Ted Cowan – who among many other venerable triumphs, also scripted Ginger Nutt, Paddy Payne, Adam Eterno, and created the much-revered Robot Archie strip – the flamboyantly wicked narcissist begins his public career by recruiting a crime specialists safecracker Roy Ordini and evil inventor Professor Pelham before attempting a massive gem-theft from a thinly veiled New York’s World Fair. It also introduces Gilmore and Trask, the two crack detectives cursed with the task of capturing the arachnid arch-villain.

A major factor in the eerily eccentric strip’s success and reason for the reverence with which it is held is the captivating – not to say downright creepy – artwork of William Reginald Bunn. His intensely hatched line-work is perfect for the towering establishing shots and chases, and nobody ever drew moodier webbing or more believable weird weapons and monsters.

Bunn was an absolute master of his field art whose work in comics – spanning 1949 to his death in 1971 – such as Robin Hood, Buck Jones, Black Hood, Captain Kid and Clip McCord – was much beloved. Once the industry found him, he was never without work. He died on the job and is still much missed.

Also scripted by Cowan, second adventure ‘The Return of the Spider’ sets the tone for the rest of the strip’s run as the unbelievably colossal vanity of the Spider is assaulted by a pretender to his title. The Mirror Man is a swaggering arrogant super-criminal who uses incredible optical illusions to carry out his crimes, and the Spider must crush him to keep the number one most wanted spot – and to satisfy his own vanity.

The pitifully outmatched Gilmore and Trask return to chase the Spider but must settle for his defeated rival after weeks of devious plotting, bold banditry and spectacular serialized thrills and chills.

“Dr. Mysterioso” is the first adventure by Jerry Siegel, who was forced to look elsewhere for work after an infamous falling out with DC Comics over the rights to the Man of Steel.

The aforementioned criminal scientist of the title here is another contender for the Spider’s crown and their extended battle – broken on repeated occasions by a crafty subplot wherein the mastermind’s treacherous, newly-expanded gang of thugs seek to abscond with his stockpiled loot whenever he appears to have been killed – is a retro/camp masterpiece of arcane dialogue, insane devices and rollercoaster antics.

By the time of the final serialised saga herein contained – ‘The Spider v. The Android Emperor’ – the page count was up to 4: packed with fabulous fantasy and increasingly surreal exploits as the Arachnid Archvillain battles the super science of a monster-making maniac who might have survived the sinking of Atlantis but somehow gets his fun from baiting and tormenting the self-styled king of crime. Big mistake…

The book concludes with a short yarn from the 1967 Lion Annual. ‘Cobra Island’ gives the artist a chance to show off his skills with brushes and washes as the piece was originally printed in the double-tone format (in this case black and red on white) which was a hallmark of British annuals.

It finds the mighty Spider and Pelham drawn to an exotic island where plantation workers are falling under the spell of a demonic lizard being… but all is not as it seems and the very real danger is more prosaic than paranormal…

Also offering an introduction from Paul Grist and full creator biographies, this initial collection confirms that the King is back at last and should find a home in every kid’s heart and mind, no matter how young they might be, or threaten to remain.

Bizarre, baroque and often simply bonkers, The Spider proves that although crime does not pay, it always provides a huge amount of white-knuckle fun…
© 1965, 1966, 1967 & 2021 Rebellion Publishing IP Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

Michael Jackson in Comics

By Céka, illustrated by Patrick Lacan, Filippo Neri & Piero Ruggeri, JGSB, Laurent Houssin, Lu-K, Guillaume Griffon, Sarah Williamson, BiG ToF, Nikopek & Lou, Vox, Domas, Clément Baloup, Martin Trystram, Bast, Guillaume Tavernier, Aurélie Neyret, Anthony Audibert, Yigaël, Julien Akita, Lapuss, Kyung-Eun Park, Jean-Christophe Pol & Vallale; translated by Montana Kane (NBM)
ISBN: 978-1-68112-228-1 (Album HB) eISBN: 978-1-68112-230-4

Graphic biographies – especially those produced in Europe dissecting the lives of iconic celebrities and artists – are incredibly popular these days. This one was originally released in 2018: an inevitable but accessible addition and one featuring probably the most popular and controversial musical star of all time.

If you’ve never heard of Michael Jackson, there’s very little point in you carrying on any further.

Still with us? Okay then…

Offering cannily repackaged popular culture factoids and snippets of celebrity history, this tome – written by journalist Céka, with a legion of illustrators providing vivid and vibrant mini-strips – hones in on key moments in the controversial star’s career: detailing them through brief text essays.

It all began at ‘2300 Jackson Street’ where an extended family of juvenile performers were harshly schooled by their ruthless dad, after which the inner life of an abused kid is depicted in ‘I Wish I Could Have Been… A Child’, as portrayed in strip-form by Patrick Lacan.

The euphoria of winning talent contests and getting picked up by a major label is described in text article ‘From the Apollo Theater to Motown’ before Filippo Neri & Piero Ruggeri detail the draconian rehearsal regimen forced on the Jackson 5 by ambitious father Joe.

As their fame grew, little Michael constantly sought surrogate maternal relationships from a string of female celebrities. This is detailed in ‘One Father and Five Mothers’, with vividly lurid cartoon extrapolation ‘Diana Ross: THE Lady in his Life’ exploring the situation courtesy of JGSB.

‘From the Jackson 5 to Michael’ details the fractious move to solo stardom and hard-won autonomy ‘Made in Motown’(art by Laurent Houssin), whilst ‘5% Talent, 95% Hard Work’ explore the boy star’s ultimate idol in Lu-K’s ‘James Brown, the Mentor’.

The start of autonomy comes with ‘The Quincy Jones Trilogy’, depicting the global-shocks attending the making of‘Thriller: No Mere Mortal Can Resist!’ by Guillaume Griffon. Status is confirmed by ‘Birth of an Icon’ and attendant Moonwalk step-chart ‘An Extraterrestrial on Earth’ (Sarah Williamson art) before I Have a Dream’ starts tracing the cracks, and ‘The MTV Blackout’ – by Big ToF – discloses the colour bar keeping certain performers’ videos off pioneering music channels…

‘Jackson’s Jackpot’ and Nikopek & Lou’s linked visualisation of ‘A 47-and-a-Half Million-Dollar Blunder’ explore the tensions between the young star and Paul McCartney as well as music ownership rights, whilst – courtesy of Vox – carton strip ‘The Man with the White Socks’ illustrates the consequences of Prince of Pop’s style decisions as textually defined and described in ‘Fashionista’. ‘Dancing Machine’ examines signature moves, with Domas limning the steps in cartoon guide ‘The Man Who Slides on Clouds’. Before, social conscience engaged, ‘We are the World’ recalls the era of charity mega-records, with Clément Baloup depicting how the song was written in ‘Check Your Egos at the Door’.

The crown starts to wobble as ‘Neverland’ reveals how the fabulous ranch of dreams began, with Martin Trystram illustrating ‘Now Go Go Go Where you Want’, after which the media rumour mill runs wild in ‘Animal Spirit’, with Bast fancifully sketching out the story of exotic pets like ‘Bubbles, Muscles, and Co.’

Once unleashed, the press is relentless and ludicrous, as exposed in ‘Tabloid of Fact?’, with Guillaume Tavernier offering a strip further covering ‘The Rumor Mill’, whilst Aurélie Neyret’s cartoon tale of ‘Ryan White: Gone Too Soon’ adds balance to the uncomfortable reports of child-centred indiscretions recounted in ‘The Lost Children’

Excesses real or otherwise dominate in ‘Tabloid Junkie’, with Anthony Audibert vignetting ‘The Elephant Man Case’before the years of defensive self-isolation are detailed in ‘Blood on the Dance Floor’ and Yigaël draws the benefits – and not – of ‘Privacy’.

‘Scandal at Neverland’ leads to Julien Akita’s sensitive exploration of ‘Jordan Chandler vs Peter Pan’, a review of ‘Family Life’ with attendant strip ‘Once Upon a Time’ from Lapuss, after which ‘The Man With 240 Awards’ reveals ‘The Whims of a Star’ thanks to cartoonist Kyung-Eun Park.

The final days approach, as seen in essay ‘Fans, I Love You More!’ with Jean-Christophe Pol & Vallale visually enquiring ‘What Kind of Fan Are You?’ of the music man’s broad church of devotees.

The star-studded, star-crossed story concludes with ‘Never Can Say Goodbye’ as Clément Baloup draws things to a close with ‘Michael Forever’

Although intellectually slight and far from incisive or comprehensive in addressing the many controversies surrounding the star in question, Michael Jackson in Comics is far from a concealing hagiography either and presents a remarkably readable and beautifully rendered confection for comics and music fans alike.
© 2018 Editions Petit a Petit. © 2021 NBM for the English translation.

For more information and other great reads see


By Genndy Tartakovsky, Stephen DeStefano & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-2786-4 (TPB)

For most of modern history black consumers of popular entertainments enjoyed far too few fictive role models. In the English-speaking world that began changing in the turbulent 1960s and truly took hold during the decade that followed. Many characters stemming from those days come from a cultural phenomenon called Blaxploitation. Although criticised for its seedy antecedents, stereotypical situations and violence, the films, books, music and art were the first mass-market examples of minority characters in leading roles, rather than as fodder, flunkies or flamboyant villains. If you scroll back a bit, you’ll see a rather pompous review by (old, white) me detailing how that groundbreaking era led to the birth of superheroic cultural icon Luke Cage. You should read those stories: they’re rather good.

In 2016, animation superstar Genndy Tartakovsky (Dexter’s Laboratory, Samurai Jack, Hotel Transylvania) reminded readers of something else: those tales were outrageously frantic fun too.

Four-issue miniseries Cage! dials us back to that fabulous mythical moment – or at least 1977 in New York – for a sublimely daft interlude as the street-jivin’ Hero for Hire interrupts roller skating bank robbers before being drawn into an incredible mystery…

Super heroes and top ass-kickers like his friends Misty Knight and Iron Fist are going missing and diligent investigation leads him into nothin’ but trouble…

Soon the bewildered champion is facing off against an army of old enemies, enduring psychedelic enlightenment, and battling simian Professor Soos to liberate the lost defenders and survive a deadly festival of combat on a lost island…

With raucous and rowdy guest appearances from the pre-Dark Phoenix X-Men, Dazzler, Black Panther, Ghost Rider, Brother Voodoo and a host of period stars of the Marvel Pantheon, this timeless delight also includes a full reprint of origin/debut ‘Out of Hell… A Hero!’ (by Archie Goodwin, George Tuska, Billy Graham, Roy Thomas &John Romita Senior) as seen in Luke Cage Hero for Hire #1, plus a stunning covers-&-variants gallery by Tartakovsky, Trevor Von Eeden, Marco D’Alfonso, Joe Quesada, Damion Scott, Bruce Timm, Bill Pressing and Arthur Adams & Paul Mounts

I honestly don’t know what the commissioning editors were thinking, but By Gosh, It Works! This is a superb pastiche and spoof of distant days, packed with fun and frenetic energy. Read it fast with loud music playing and preferably wearing orange rayon slacks. Dig it in paperback or digital, but do, do dig it Baby…
© 2016 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Hip Hop Family Tree Book 1: 1970s-1981

By Ed Piskor (Fantagraphics)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-690-4 (PB)

Comics is an all-encompassing narrative medium and – even after 40-plus years in the game – I’m still amazed and delighted at innovative ways creators find to use the simple combination of words and pictures in sequence to produce new and intoxicating ways of conveying information, tone, style and especially passion to their audience.

A particularly brilliant case in point was this compulsive compilation of strips and extras from self-confessed Hip Hop Nerd and cyber geek Ed Piskor (author of the astonishing Hacker graphic novel Wizzywig) which originally appeared in serial form on the website Boing Boing.

In astounding detail and with a positively astounding attention to the art styles of the period, Piskor detailed the rise of the rhyme-and-rhythm musical art form (whilst paying close attention to the almost symbiotic growth of graffiti and street art) with wit, charm and astonishing clarity.

Charting the slow demise of the disco and punk status quo by intimately following fledgling stars and transcendent personalities of the era, ‘Straight Out of the Gutter’ begins mid-1970s with South Bronx block parties and live music jams of such pioneers as DJ Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash, Grandwizard Theodore and Afrika Bambaataa.

The new music is mired in the maze of inescapable gang culture but as early word-of-mouth success leads to first rare vinyl pressings and the advent of the next generation, the inevitable interest of visionaries and converts leads to the circling of commercial sharks…

The technical and stylistic innovations, the musical battles, physical feuds, and management races by truly unsavoury characters to secure the first landmark history-making successes are all encyclopaedically yet engaging revealed through the lives – and, so often, early deaths – of almost-stars and later household names such as Furious 4-plus-1, Kurtis Blow, The Sugarhill Gang, the Furious Five, and those three kids who became Run-DMC.

The story follows and connects a bewildering number of key and crucial personalities – with a wealth of star-struck music biz cameos – and ends with Hip Hop on the very edge of global domination following the breakout single Rapture (from new wave icons and dedicated devotees Blondie) as well as the landmark TV documentary by Hugh Downs and Steve Fox on national current affairs TV show 20/20 which brought the new music culture into the homes of unsuspecting middle America…

To Be Continued…

Produced in the tone and style of those halcyon, grimily urban times and manufactured to look just like an old Marvel Treasury Edition (an oversized – 334x234mm – reprint format from the 1970s which offered classic tales on huge and mouth-wateringly enticing pulp-paper pages), this compelling confection (available in very large paperback and variably-proportioned digital formats) – also includes a copious and erudite ‘Bibliography’, ‘Discography’ and ‘Funky Index’, an Afterword: the Hip Hop/Comic Book Connection (with additional art by Tom Scioli) and a fun-filled Author Bio.

Moreover, there’s also a blistering collection of ‘Pin Ups and Burners’ with spectacular images from guest illustrators including The Beastie Boys by Jeffrey Brown, Afrika Bambaataa by Jim Mahfood; Fat Boys by Scioli; Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five by Ben Marra; Vanilla Ice by Jim Rugg; Run-DMC by Dan Zettwoch; Eric B. and Rakim by John Porcellino; Salt-n-Pepa by Nate Powell; KRS-One by Brandon Graham & Snoop Dogg by Farel Dalrymple, to get your pulses racing, if not your toes tapping…

Cool, informative and irresistible, Hip Hop Family Tree is wild, fun and deliciously addictive: sparking a revolution and sub-genre in comics creation. This is what cultural cross-pollination is all about and you should dive in right now…
This edition © 2013 Fantagraphics Books. All Hip Hop comic strips by Ed Piskor © 2013 Ed Piskor. Pin ups and other material © 2013 their respective artists. All rights reserved.

Bogart Creek volume 1

By Derek Evernden (Renegade Arts Entertainment)
ISBN: 978-1-98890-349-1 (PB) eISBN: 978-1-98890-355-2

Fancy a laugh? Not one of those genteel chuckles, but a big hearty guffaw laced with a heaping dose of old-fashioned guilt because the subject matter might be a bit cruel or near-the-knuckle. Hilarity evincing undertones of nervous titters because the whole thing is just a bit strange and surreal?

If so, Derek Evernden has got you covered…

You know that old line about writing/drawing what you know? Evernden grew up in actual Bogart Creek, Ontario, so let’s all hope at least some of this stuff is just made up, right? He’s Canadian, so is polite and sympathetic, but clearly, he’s also the other sort of Canadian: someone with a lot to laugh at, plenty of time to sit up and take notice and probably perfused with that slow-burning, ever-mounting rage everyone gracious and well-mannered has boiling inside, because of the nonsense the rest of us get up to…

The strip Bogart Creek is a daily single panel gag delivered in a variety of artistic styles; turning a mordant, trenchant and cruelly satirical eye on modern life. It deftly offers the lighter side of suicide, philosophy, crime, psychiatry, the natural (!?) world, murder, movies, fashion, vengeance, sports, cryptozoology, popular culture and anything else two strangers might feel compelled to discuss at a water cooler or bus stop in deference to social convention…

The strip is also hopelessly addicted to painful punning on a mega “dad-joke” scale, absurdist revelation and surreal slapstick. The creator has mastered the art of marrying funny notions to effective dialogue and efficient, smart cartooning. Evernden proudly admits his debt to and influence of Gary Larson’s The Far Side, but he can’t blame that guy for all of this stuff…

Sick, inventive, witty: instantly addictive and charmingly outrageous, this is a collection (in paperback or digital editions) to delight any weary adult in need of tension release and a therapeutic slice of schadenfreude.
Cover illustration, book design and cartoons all © 2019 Derek Evernden. All rights reserved.


By Kim Deitch (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN 978-1-56097-771-1 (PB)

Roll, up! Roll, up!

Kim Deitch has been one of the leading lights of America’s Comix Underground since its earliest days, although as with Harvey Pekar and American Splendor, it was only relatively late on that he has won wider acclaim: in his case for 2002’s Boulevard of Broken Dreams and 2010’s The Search for Smilin’ Ed. For much of his cartooning career he has crafted occasional short stories about a down-at-heel carnival and the shabby, eccentric no-hopers that have populated it through-out the 150 years. Shadowland – available in paperback or digital formats – was the first complete collection, and also features a splendid colour gallery of supplemental artwork.

Combining science-fiction, conspiracy theory, urban history and legend, show-biz razzmatazz, Film Noir and an outrageously honed sense of the absurd, Deitch weaves an irresistible spell that charms, thrills and disturbs whilst his meticulous black and white drawing holds the reader in a deceptively fluffy grip.

Dripping authentic loving nostalgia and oozing the sleazy appreciation everyone secretly harbours for trashy entertainments, the story of clown and Carny Al Ledicker Jr. as he shambles his way through the sleaziest parts of the 20th century in this wonderful compendium and critique of the “Americana Way” is a truly unmissable, fabulously guilty pleasure. Fill yer boots, folks!
Text, art & characters © 2006 Kim Deitch. All rights reserved.

Merry Christmas, One and All

In keeping with my self-imposed Holiday tradition here’s another pick of British Annuals selected not just for nostalgia’s sake but because it’s my house and my rules…

After decades when only American comics and memorabilia were considered collectable or worthy, the resurgence of interest in home-grown material means there’s lots more of this stuff available and if you’re lucky enough to stumble across a vintage volume or modern facsimile, I hope my words convince you to expand your comfort zone and try something old yet new…

Still topping my Xmas wish-list is further collections from fans and publishers who have begun to rescue this magical material from print limbo in (affordable) new collections…

Great writing and art is rotting in boxes and attics or the archives of publishing houses, when it needs to be back in the hands of readers once again. As the tastes of the reading public have never been broader and since a selective sampling of our popular heritage will always appeal to some part of the mass consumer base, let’s all continue rewarding publishers for their efforts and prove that there’s money to be made from these glorious examples of our communal childhood.

Look and Learn Book 1964
By various (Fleetway)

One of the most missed of publishing traditions in this country is the educational comic. From the features in legendary icon The Eagle to the small explosion of factual and socially responsible boys’ and girls’ papers in the late 1950s, to the heady go-getting heydays of the 1960s and 1970s, Britain had a healthy sub-culture of kids’ periodicals that informed, instructed and revealed – and don’t even get me started on sports comics!

Amongst many others, Speed & Power, World of Wonder, Tell Me Why and the greatest of them all, Look and Learn, spent weeks over decades making things clear and bringing the marvels of the world to our childish but avid attentions. Moreover, when we had no screens of our own, it was all accomplished with wit, style and – thanks to the quality of the illustrators involved – astonishing beauty and clarity.

Look and Learn launched on 20th January 1962, the brainchild of Fleetway Publications Director of Juvenile Publications Leonard Matthews, and executed by Editor David Stone (almost instantly replaced by John Sanders), Sub-Editor Freddie Lidstone and Art Director Jack Parker.

For twenty years and 1049 issues. the comic delighted children by bringing the marvels of the universe to their doors, and became one of the county’s most popular children’s weeklies. Naturally, there were many spin-off tomes such as The Look and Learn Book of 1001 Questions and Answers, Look and Learn Book of Wonders of Nature, Look and Learn Book of Pets and Look and Learn Young Scientist, as well as the totally engrossing Christmas treat The Look and Learn Book.

Selected simply because it has a lovely and inclusive painted cover, this volume – released for Christmas 1963 (as with almost all UK Annuals they were forward-dated) is a prime example of a lost form. Within this168-heavy-stock-paged hardback are 49 fascinating features on all aspects of human endeavour and natural wonder from And in the beginning there was FIRE, Let’s Look at Canada, How this Book was Printed, It’s On the Map!, The Muscle Menders, When Man Goes to Mars, Every Carpet Tells a Story, The Charm of Canterbury, Puzzle Pix, Art Gallery in an Album, Photo Know-How, The Queen’s Bodyguard, Why Do Camels Have Humps? and dozens more articles, all cannily designed to beguile, enthral and above all else, inspire young minds.

Lavishly illustrated with photographs, diagrams, infographics, and paintings and drawings by some of the world’s greatest commercial artists including such luminaries as Ron and Gerry Embleton, Don Lawrence, Helen Haywood, Ron Turner, Ken Evans, Angus McBride, Severino Baraldi, Graham Coton, Ralph Bruce, Cecil Langley Doughty and many others, these books were an utter delight for hungry minds to devour whilst the turkey and Christmas pudding were slowly digested…

Earlier editions such as this one also valued literary entertainment and hands-on activity: providing illustrated extracts from classic books (as here with ‘Midshipman Easy Goes to Sea’ by Captain Frederick Marryat and illuminated poems ‘The Fall of Ratisbon’ by Robert Browning and William Wordsworth’s ‘An Evening Walk’) and hobby crafts as seen in a vast and detailed section on ‘How to build Model Boats’ – complete with plans and blueprints.

With the internet and TV, I suppose their like is unnecessary and irrelevant, but nostalgia aside, the glorious pictures in these volumes alone make them worth the effort of acquisition, and I defy any child of any age to not be sucked into the magic of learning stuff in such lively, lovely style…
© Fleetway Publications Ltd 1963. All Rights Reserved.

Hotspur Book for Boys 1975
By Many & various (DC Thomson)
Retroactively awarded ISBN: 978-0-85116-077-1

If you grew up British any time after 1960 and read comics, you probably cast your eye occasionally – if not indeed fanatically – over DC Thompson’s venerable standby The Victor.
The Dundee based publisher has long been a mainstay of British popular reading and arguably the most influential force in our comics industry. Its strong editorial stance and savvy creativity is responsible for a huge number of household names over many decades, through newspapers, magazines, books and especially its comics and prose-heavy “story-papers” for Girls and Boys.

That last category – comprising Adventure, Rover, Wizard, Skipper and Hotspur – pretty much-faded out at the end of the 1950s when the readership voted overwhelming with their pocket money in favour of primarily strip-based entertainments…

The last of those venerable all-prose story-papers wasn’t dormant for long. Cover-dated 24th October 1959, Hotspur the comic seamlessly replaced the prose stalwart (which had run from 2nd September 1933 to October 17th 1959) as a (mostly) pictorial serial package, running for 1110 weekly issues until finally folding into Victor with the January 24th1981 edition. It was very much the company’s weird and wonderful repository, like a general interest magazine for kids but with strange and exotic leanings. It was always heavy on bizarre situations and splendidly esoteric superheroes. Hostspur Annuals ran from 1966 to 1992 and were an unmissable fact of many a boy’s Yule loot…

This particular example hit the shops in September 1974, and behind that Ian Kennedy (?) cover opened with a two-coloured fact frontispiece exploring ‘Oil from under the Sea – the Finders’. The feature is mirrored at the end with ‘Oil from under the Sea – the Keepers’.

‘The Black Sapper’ was reformed criminal turned globetrotting troubleshooter: a brilliant engineer who built a mighty mechanical Worm-ship ship to travel beneath the Earth. He transferred to Hotspur from The Beezer, and was illustrated by Jack Glass, Keith Shone and Terry Patrick, who here details how the adventurer extinguishes an Arabian oil fire and scotches a sinister plot to usurp the king, after which we’re clued in on industrial ‘Deep Sea Fishing’.

Combining football and nautical adventure, comedy yarn ‘The Rust Bucket Rovers’ (John Richardson art?) sees soccer-crazed Pacific islanders contending with a multinational crew to clear a cargo, after which hearty spoof ‘Grizzly Grant’(Mike Dorey, or perhaps CD Bagnall) finds a junior Mountie and his ursine assistant battle frontier crime.

Tank commander ‘Blake of the Ironfists’ (Peter Sutherland?) then wins a major engagement in WWII Africa, leading to Dorey’s ‘Willie the Winner’ entering yet more contests with hilarious outcomes, before a 1941 naval blockade is overcome by doughty British mariners in ‘HMS Dent – the Deadly Decoy’.

The secrets of ‘Coastal Fishing’ segue into more mirth as motor racing pioneers ‘Spick and Spanner’ compete on a snowbound course in the Italian Alps after which veteran star ‘Iron Teacher’ and his handler Special Agent Jake Toddtackle an evil hypnotist with designs on a circus.

The history of ballooning in ‘Up, Up and Away!’ neatly proceeds into Great War saga ‘Hasket’s Battle Basket’, after which ‘Last of the Warriors’ sees a Cheyenne cavalry scout solving a murder mystery before slapstick oaf ‘Ossie the Outlaw’ proves again that for him crime does not pay…

After aviation pioneer ‘Skyscraper Kidd’ crashes his flying machine on a desert island and thinks his way home, time-displaced highwayman ‘Nick Jolly’ (and his robot flying horse) do their best to make Christmas unforgettable at a ski resort and mega department store in a rousing romp from Ron Smith whilst ‘Parker’s Barkers’ sees the rundown pooches of a local kennel humiliate the elite racers of the local dog track

Fact feature ‘The King of the Tankers’ leads into Z-Cars spoof ‘The Voice of the Panda’ before serious drama returns as football star ‘Cracker Jackson’ takes some sage advice to get over his psychological barriers. After learning all about ‘The World’s Biggest Shovel’, it’s back to desert islands where castaway WWII survivors ‘Thudd and Blunder’ deal with a native uprising in a manner simply not acceptable to today’s audiences.

Stealing the show is Ron Smith’s captivatingly odd teen hero ‘Red Star Robinson’ who – with the invaluable assistance of his android butler Mr. Syrius Thrice – thwarts The Spider’s plan to steal England’s crown jewels, after which ‘Heavyweights’ details a selection of massive transport options before the fun wraps up in anarchic hilarity as clod-footed ‘Dim Dan the Boobyguard’ (Dorey?) tries escorting his own boss to a crucial meeting and everybody else pays the price for his eager ineptitude…

Divorcing the sheer variety of content and entertainment quality of this book from simple nostalgia may be a healthy exercise but it’s almost impossible. I’m perfectly happy to luxuriously wallow in the potent emotions this annual still stirs. It’s a fabulous read from a magical time and turning those stiffened two-colour pages is always an unmatchable Christmas experience… happily one still relatively easy to find these days.

You should try it…
© DC Thomson & Co., Ltd., 1974.

Hurricane Annual 1969
By Many & various (Fleetway)
SBN: 900376-04-X

From the late 1950s and increasingly through the 1960s, Scotland’s DC Thomson steadily overtook their London-based competitors – monolithic comics publishing giant Amalgamated Press.

Created by Alfred Harmsworth at the beginning of the twentieth century, AP perpetually sought to regain lost ground, and the sheer variety of material the southerners unleashed as commercial countermeasures offered incredible vistas in adventure and – thanks to the defection of Leo Baxendale and Ken Reid to the enemy – eventually found a wealth of anarchic comedy material to challenge the likes of the Bash Street Kids, Dennis the Menace, Minnie the Minx and their unruly ilk.

During the latter end of that period the Batman TV show sent the entire world superhero-crazy. Amalgamated had almost finished absorbing all its other rivals such as The Eagle’s Hulton Press to form Fleetway/Odhams/IPC and were about to incorporate American superheroes into their heady brew of weekly thrills.

Once the biggest player in children’s comics, Amalgamated had stayed at the forefront of sales by latching onto every fad: keeping their material contemporary, if not strictly fresh. The all-consuming company began reprinting the early successes of Marvel comics for a few years; feeding on the growing fashion for US style adventure which had largely supplanted the rather tired True-Blue Brit style of Dan Dare or DC Thompson’s Wolf of Kabul.

Even though sales of all British comics were generally – and in some cases, drastically -declining, the 1960s were a period of intense and impressive innovation with publishers embracing new sensibilities; constantly trying new types of character and tales. At this time Valiant and its stable-mate Lion were the Boys’ Adventure big guns (although nothing could touch DC Thomson’s Beano and Dandy in the comedy arena).

Hurricane was an impressive-looking upgrade that began during that period of expansion and counterattack, apparently conceived in response to DCT’s action weekly Hornet. It launched the week of February 29th 1964 and ran for 63 issues, but was revamped three times during that period before ultimately being merged into companion paper Tiger.

It carried a superbly varied roster of features in that that time, including two (and a half) stars who survived its extinction. Racing driver Skid Solo and comedy superman Typhoon Tracy as well as Sgt Rock – Paratrooper… but not for so long for him…

There was heavy dependence on European and South American artists initially, among them Mario Capaldi, Nevio Zeccara, Georgio Trevisan, Renato Polese and Lino Landolfi, some of whom lasted into the Annuals. As with so many titles, although the comics might quickly fade, Christmas Annuals sustained their presence for years after Hurricane seasonal specials were produced for every year from 1965 to 1974…

Following a tried-&-true formula, this book – published in 1968 – offers comics adventures, prose stories, fact-features, and funnies and puzzles, kicking off with visual vexations in ‘Fantastic – but True!’ before western star Drago joins an embattled cavalry troop in staving off an invasion from Mexico (no, really!) in duo-hued thriller ‘The Gun that Saved the West’ – possibly illustrated by Renato Polese.

‘The Worst Boy in the School’ – as illustrated by Geoffrey Whittam? – was a long-running boarding school saga enlivened by its star Duffy coming from Circus stock. Here the comedy chaos and espionage excitement stems from the boys trying to keep an escaped chimp and parrot secret from the Masters…

‘Two Fists Against the World!’ was a Regency-set strip featuring prize-fighter Jim Trim. Illustrated by Carlos Roume, this origin reprint sees how, in 1804, the husky orphan first sets out on his pugnacious path…

‘Casey and the Champ’ then details in strip form the last hurrah of a broken-down steam engine as prelude to a text feature of weird facts corralled here as ‘It Was the Way Out West’ feature. Truly gripping prose yarn ‘The Vanished Wreck’then recounts how a clever insurance scam is foiled by an inventive salvage crew, before Typhoon Tracy – Extra Special Agent stars in ‘Mad, Mad Mission’: baffling spies and American agents in equal measure with his blundering rescue of a kidnapped boffin. Switching back to prose, Rex Barton, Investigator of the Weird and Unknown foils a cunning robbery in ‘The Phantom Monks of Milborough’.

Following the comedy capers of ‘Rod the Odd Mod and ‘is old pal Pervy Vere’, pictorial history lesson ‘Into Battle with King-Sized Catapults!’ and ‘Safari Quiz’ segue into a thrilling prose sci-fi short illustrated by immaculate stylist Reg Bunn. ‘Hunt for the Human Time-Bomb!’ stars atomic accident survivors Ace Sutton and Flash Casey who use their abilities to walk through walls to avert imminent catastrophe, after which The Robot Builders (drawn by what looks like early Massimo Bellardinelli?) attend a New World symposium and experience ‘All the Fear of the Fair!’ when a giant mechanical brain goes haywire…

Masked cowboy ‘The Black Avenger’ then exposes a fake sheriff before we jump to luscious full-colour as the worst ship in the WWII navy again confounds the British Admiralty and escapes being broken up for parts in ‘HMS Outcast in the Big Scrap’. Geoff Campion’s unruly mob here stave off doom and dispersal by implausibly capturing an Italian super dreadnaught in the Mediterranean…

‘Defeat for the ‘Boy General’ – the True Story of Custer’s Last Stand’ gives a fairly jaundiced review of the cavalryman’s career (backed up by visuals from contemporary movie Custer of the West) whilst ‘War Under the Sea’ offers technical speculation on the development of the Oceans, ending the colour section and leading into monochrome soccer star Harry of the Hammers who wins his cup-tie after first foiling a robbery in prose piece ‘Mystery Marksman’

After gag magician ‘Marvo Brings the House Down’, Giovanni Ticci limns a sublime light-hearted ‘Sword for Hire’ romp starring Cavalier soldier-of-fortune Hugo Dinwiddie who pawns his blade but still manages to save the day against burglars and bandits, and racer Geoff Hart wins a war of wills and wheels in ‘Stock-Car Duel!’

Sport was a major fascination of publishers at this time and ‘Soccer Special by The Ref’ opens an extended section of pictorial mini-features comprised of ‘Cap-and-Cup Winners’, ‘Before they were Famous’, ‘Odd Things Happen in Soccer’ and ‘They Made Soccer History’, before full-on fantasy returns with cover-star ‘The Juggernaut from Planet Z’, who revisits his Earth chum Dr. Dan Morgan and foils alien invaders employing tectonic terror tactics.

Another outing for Rod the Odd Mod and ‘is old pal Pervy Vere brings us to prose fable ‘The Impostor Knight’, revealing how an affable blacksmith’s assistant wins a joust, augmented by fact-filled sidebar ‘Warriors in Armour’ before ‘Sgt. Rock – Special Air Service’ is assigned to destroy a Nazi fuel dump and ‘Typhoon Tracy Trouble-Shooter’ riotously ends a revolution far, far South of the Border in his own inimitable incompetent manner…

Mischievous moppet ‘Terrible Tich’ literally brings the house down and ‘Wild West Funmen’ offers a magazine of owlhoot hoots before the nostalgia-fest closes in spectacular style as Hugo Dinwiddie stalks a flamboyant highwayman and ends up as a ‘Courier for the King!’

Eclectic, wide-ranging and always of majestically high quality, this blend of fact, fiction, fun and thrills is a splendid evocation of lost days of joy and wonder. We may not be making books like this anymore but at least they’re still relatively easy to track down. Of course, what’s really needed is for some sagacious publisher to start re-issuing them…
© Fleetway Publications Ltd., 1968

Shazam! The World’s Mightiest Mortal volume 2

By E. Nelson Bridwell, Gerry Conway, Elliot S! Maggin, Denny O’Neil, Kurt Schaffenberger, Dick Giordano, Rich Buckler, Tenny Henson, Alan Weiss, Don Newton, Bob Oksner & various (DC)
ISBN: 978-1-7795-0117-2 (HB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Joyous Superhero Fun… 9/10

One of the most venerated and loved characters in American comics was created by Bill Parker and Charles Clarence Beck as part of the wave of opportunistic creativity that followed the successful launch of Superman in 1938. Although there were many similarities in the early years, the Fawcett character moved swiftly and solidly into the area of light entertainment and even broad comedy, whilst as the 1940s progressed the Man of Steel increasingly left whimsy behind in favour of action and drama.

Homeless orphan and thoroughly good kid Billy Batson is selected by an ancient wizard to battle injustice and subsequently granted the powers of six gods and mythical heroes. By speaking aloud the wizard’s name – itself an acronym for the six patrons Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles and Mercury – he can transform from scrawny boy to brawny (adult) hero Captain Marvel.

At the height of his popularity, Captain Marvel hugely outsold Superman and was even published twice a month. However, as the decade progressed and tastes changed, sales slowed, and an infamous court case begun in 1941 by National Comics citing copyright infringement was settled. Like many other superheroes, the “Big Red Cheese” disappeared, becoming a fond memory for older fans. A big syndication success, he was missed all over the world…

In Britain, where an English reprint line had run for many years, creator/publisher Mick Anglo had an avid audience and no product, and transformed Captain Marvel into atomic age hero Marvelman, continuing to thrill readers into the early 1960s.

Then, as America lived through another superhero boom-&-bust, the 1970s dawned with a shrinking industry and wide variety of comics genres servicing a base that was increasingly founded on collectors and fans rather than casual or impulse buyers. National – now DC – Comics needed sales and were prepared to look for them in unusual places.

After the court settlement with Fawcett in 1953 they had secured the rights to Captain Marvel and his spin-off Family. Now, and though the name itself had been taken up by Marvel Comics (via a circuitous and quirky robotic character published by Carl Burgos and M.F. Publications in 1967), the publishing monolith decided to tap into that discriminating if aging fanbase.

In 1973, riding a wave of national nostalgia on TV and in the movies, DC brought back the entire beloved cast of the Captain Marvel crew in their own kinder, weirder universe. To circumvent the intellectual property clash, they named the new title Shazam! (‘With One Magic Word…’): the memorable trigger phrase used by myriad Marvels to transform to and from mortal form and a word that had already entered the American language due to the success of the franchise the first time around.

Now the latest star of film and TV is back in print in this stylish Hardback and digital compendium, collecting select material from Shazam! #14-17 and all of 19-35; and All-New Collectors’ Edition #C-58 (spanning July 1975 – May 1978).

The previous volume – ya gotta gettem all! – revealed how the entire Marvel family was trapped in time for a generation before being released to preserve gain justice and decency on their own kindler, gentler, more whimsical Earth and here Shazam! #19 introduces extra-dimensional delinquent Zazzo, the malevolent culprit revealed when Elliot S! Maggin and Kurt Schaffenberger ask ‘Who Stole Billy Batson’s Thunder?’.

Billy’s super sister Mary Marvel is the back-up feature, cannily solving E. Nelson Bridwell and Bob Oksner’s ‘Secret of the Smiling Swordsman!’, before the next issue teams the entire Marvel Family in full-length sci fi thriller ‘The Strange and Terrible Disappearance of Maxwell Zodiac!’, courtesy of Maggin and Schaffenberger.

Shazam! #21, 22, 23 and 24 were all reprint, represented here by covers from Ernie Chua & Bob Oksner, two from Schaffenberger and then another from Chua & Oksner, reflecting a scheduling change that saw the comic released quarterly.

I suspect, but have no proof, that this coincided with the TV show that ran in parallel being off-air, as – when issue #24 appeared in Spring 1976 – new editor Joe Orlando oversaw a massaging of the scenario which would see young Billy and Uncle Dudley (a mainstay of the TV incarnation) set off around America in a minivan as roving reporters, encountering threats and felons in America’s Bicentennial year.

Bridwell and Schaffenberger became the permanent creative team, with occasional inkers such as Vince Colletta, Bob Wiacek and Bob Smith pitching in, if seldom to the enhancement of Schaffenberger’s pencils.

There were even bigger changes in store. Shazam! #25 (September/October 1976) featured a team-up of the Captain with Mighty Isis, a TV character that DC was then licensing for a tie-in comic book. ‘Isis… as in Crisis!’ is by Denny O’Neil & Dick Giordano and sees Cap reduced to a cameo as Isis recalls how archaeologist Andrea Thomas uncovered an Egyptian Amulet and scroll, gaining the powers of an ancient goddess to fight modern crime and injustice…

That issue’s back-up ‘The Bicentennial Villain’ introduces a new roving format as TV reporter Billy briefly clashes with arch-nemesis Dr. Sivana and learns of a far-reaching plot to destroy America in its anniversary year, courtesy of Bridwell & Schaffenberger …

Issue #26 sees the saga properly launched in a highly enjoyable romp. ‘The Case of the Kidnapped Congress’ finds Billy and Uncle Dudley battling Sivana in Washington DC. Vince Colletta inked the self-explanatory ‘Fear in Philadelphia’, but that doesn’t detract from a right royal romp as the Mad Doctor uses a resurrection machine to bring back the greatest rogues in America’s history – a much shorter list to pick from in 1976…

Clearly having tremendous fun, writer Bridwell began his own resurrections: bringing back Fawcett and Quality Comics characters as guest-stars. First up was the ghostly Kid Eternity and Mister Keeper, and with issue #28 he scripted his masterstroke with ‘The Return of Black Adam’: a Golden-Age villain whose fabled single appearance was a landmark long remembered by fans.

That he is still a huge favourite today shows the astuteness of that decision. That was in Boston, with #29 set in Buffalo and Niagara Falls where ‘Ibac meets Aunt Minerva!’: a comedic battle of the sexes that was heavy on the hitting.

Another faux meeting with his greatest rival occurred in #30’s ‘Captain Marvel Fights the Man of Steel’, wherein the Batson bus reaches Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Here, inspired by a comic book Sivana recrates local folk legend Joe Magarac (the Paul Bunyan of Steel workers) and the Three Lieutenant Marvels guest-star.

All girl villain-team ‘The Rainbow Squad’ expose Captain Marvel’s gentlemanly weakness in #31, heralding the return of patriotic hero Minute Man to step in, step up and save the day.

Tenny Henson pencilled #32’s tale from Detroit (with Bob Smith inking) as aliens led by wicked space worm Mr. Mindattempt to eliminate baseball in ‘Mr. Tawny’s Big Game!’ and fans knew that the good old days were coming to an end. A radical change to Shazam!

issue #33 heralded the metamorphosis in ‘The World’s Mightiest Race’ (Bridwell, Henson & Colletta) as Nuclear robotic menace Mister Atom tries to disrupt the Indianapolis 500 motor race. The radical about-face came with #34 (April 1978) as Bridwell, Alan Weiss & Joe Rubinstein ditch the charming light-heartedness to insert a brutal dose of reality. ‘The Fuhrer of Chicago’ reintroduces sadistic super-fascist Captain Nazi, but his plans to annexe the city are brought to sorry end by a vengeful Captain Marvel Junior, eager for some payback on the monster who crippled him…

The realism was reinforced in #34 as Bridwell, Don Newton & Schaffenberger decreed ‘Backward, Turn Backward, O Time in Your Flight!’ with the Marvels battling murderous Beastman King Kull’s attempts to roll back history and re-establish his extinct race and empire. The war carries on into Hell itself and features a return for infernal foe Sabbac

Part of DC’s experimental line of bigger, bolder comics, All-New Collectors’ Edition #C-58 was a tabloid-sized, 72-page extravaganza intended to restore the “wow-factor” to the medium and industry.

Crafted by Gerry Conway, Rich Buckler & Giordano, ‘When Earths Collide!’ features a trans-dimensional team up of Captain Marvel and Superman, engineered by primordial Martian sorcerer Karmang, who seeks to resurrect his people and civilisation by destroying two Earths. Aid, abetting and adding tension are Black Adam and the Quarrmer Sand-Thing Superman, with Supergirl and Mary Marvel also intent on averting Armageddon.

The epic adventure wraps up with a series of essays and vignettes from Shazam! #14-17 and 22, detailing the histories of the Patrons in ‘Legends of Shazam!’ – specifically Solomon, Hercules, Atlas and Zeus in prose by Bridwell with Achilles rendered in strip form by Schaffenberger & George Papp.

Although still controversial amongst older fans like me, the 1970’s incarnation of Captain Marvel/Shazam! has a tremendous amount going for it. Gloriously free of angst and agony (mostly), beautifully, simply illustrated, and charmingly scripted, these are clever, funny wholesome adventures that would appeal to any child and positively promote a love of graphic narrative. There’s a horrible dearth of exuberant superhero adventure these days. Isn’t it great that there is somewhere to go for a little light action?
© 1974, 1975, 1976, 1977, 1978, 2020 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

The Complete Johnny Future

By Alf Wallace, Luis Bermejo & various (Rebellion Studios)
ISBN: 978-1-78108-758-9 (HB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Evergreen Wonderment and an Ideal Last-Minute Gift… 10/10

Until relatively recently, Britain never really had a handle on superheroes. Although every reader from the 1950s on can cite a particular favourite fantasy muscle-man or costumed champion – from Thunderbolt Jaxon to Morgyn the Mighty, or Gadget Man & Gimmick Kid to the Spider, Tri-Man and Phantom Viking to Red Star Robinson and Billy the Cat (& Katie!) – to have populated our pages, they all somehow ultimately lacked conviction. Well, almost all…

During the heady Swinging Sixties days of “Batmania”, just as Marvel Comics was first infiltrating our collective consciousness, a little-remembered strip graced the pages of a short-lived experimental title and the result was sheer, unbridled magic…

With Scotland’s DC Thomson steadily overtaking their London-based competitors – monolithic comics publishing giant Amalgamated Press – throughout the late 1950s and 1960s, the sheer variety of material the southerners unleashed to compete offered incredible vistas in adventure material. Thanks to the defection of Leo Baxendale and Ken Reid to Amalgamated, they also found a wealth of anarchic comedy material to challenge the likes of the Bash Street Kids, Dennis the Menace, Minnie the Minx and their unruly ilk.

During that latter end of the period, the Batman TV show sent the entire world superhero crazy just as Amalgamated absorbed all its local rivals such as The Eagle’s Hulton Press to form Fleetway/Odhams and ultimately IPC.

Formerly the biggest player in children’s comics, Amalgamated Press (created by Alfred Harmsworth at the beginning of the 20th century) had stayed at the forefront of sales by latching onto every fad: keeping their material contemporary, if not always fresh or original. The all-consuming monolith had been reprinting the early successes of Marvel comics for a few years; feeding on a growing fashion for US-style adventure which had largely supplanted the rather tired True-Blue Brit style of Dan Dare or DCT’s Wolf of Kabul or the Tough of the Track. A key point at that time was that although both part of the Mirror Group, Fleetway and Odhams were deadly rivals…

“Power Comics” was a sub-brand used by Odhams to differentiate their periodicals – which contained reprinted American superhero material – from the greater company’s regular blend of sports, war, western adventure and gag comics such as Buster, Valiant, Lion or Tiger. During this time, the Power weeklies did much to popularise budding Marvel characters and their shared universe in this country, which was still poorly served by distribution of the actual American imports.

The line began with Wham! – but only after the comic was well-established. Originally created by newly-ensconced Leo Baxendale, it launched on June 20th 1964. At the start, the title was designed as a counter to The Beano, as was Smash! (which launched February 5th 1966), but the tone of times soon dictated the hiving off into a more distinctive imprint, which was augmented by the creation of little sister Pow!

Pow! launched with a cover date of January 31st 1967, combining home-grown funnies such as Mike Higgs’ The Cloak,Baxendale’s The Dolls of St Dominic’s, Reid’s Dare-a-Day Davy, Wee Willie Haggis: The Spy from Skye and British originated thrillers such as Jack Magic and The Python with the now ubiquitous resized US strips: in this case Spider-Man and Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.

The next step was even bolder. Fantastic – and its sister paper Terrific – were notable for not reformatting or resizing the original US artwork whereas in Wham!, Pow! or Smash!, an entire 24-page yarn could be resized and squeezed into 10 or 11 pages, accompanied by British comedy and adventure strips.

These slick new periodicals – each with a dynamic back cover pin-up taken from Marvel Comics or created in-house by apprentice comics bods and future superstars Barry Windsor-Smith and Steve Parkhouse – reprinted US Superhero fare, supplemented by minimal amounts of UK originated filler and editorial.

Fantastic #1 debuted with cover-date February 18th 1967 (but was first seen in newsagents on Saturday 11th), revealing the origin stories of Thor, Iron Man and the X-Men, but from the get-go, savvy tykes like me were as engrossed by a short adventure serial also included to fill out the page count. The Missing Link was beautifully drawn and over the following year (February 18th 1967 – February 3rd 1968) would become a truly unique reading experience…

The series began inauspiciously as a kind of homegrown Incredible Hulk knock off. Oddly, editor and writer Alfred “Alf” Wallace crafted for the filler a tone very similar to that adopted by Marvel’s own Green Goliath when he became a small screen star a decade later…

The illustrator was the astoundingly gifted Luis Bermejo Rojo, a star of Spanish comics forced to seek work abroad after the domestic market imploded in 1956. He became a prolific contributor to British strips, working on a succession of moody masterpieces such as the Human Guinea Pig, Mann of Battle, Pike Mason, Phantom Force Five and Heros the Spartan, in a variety of genres, appearing in Girls Crystal, Tina, Tarzan Weekly, Battle Picture Library, Thriller Picture Library The Eagle, Buster, Boys World, Tell Me Why, Look and Learn and many more. He finally achieved a modicum of deserved acclaim in the 1970s, after joining fellow studio mates José Ortiz, Esteban Maroto and Leopoldo Sanchez working on adult horror stories for Creepy, Eerie and Vampirella.

I’m a big kid helplessly enmired in nostalgia, but to me his greatest moments were the year spent drawing Johnny Future

The Missing Link – as the feature was entitled for the first 15 episodes – was disturbingly similar to TV’s Hulk of the 1970s. Superhumanly strong, tragically misunderstood, the strip combined human-scaled drama with lost world exoticism in the manner of King Kong, as can be see seen following Steve Holland’s incisive and informative Introduction ‘Welcome to the Future!’, when the drama opens in the wilds of Africa.

A bestial man-beast roams the veldt, swamps and mountains, until great white hunter Bull Belson comes to capture him, accompanied by secretary/photographer Lita Munro. The infamous tracker sees only profit in the mute beast, who, after much frustratingly destructive behaviour, is lured into captivity by an inexplicable attraction to Miss Munro…

To be fair, she has the brute’s interests at heart, attempting to befriend and teach the Link on the slow voyage back to England, but on reaching London Dock, the sideshow attraction is spooked by mocking labourers and breaks his bonds and cage…

Brutally rampaging across the city at the heart of the Swinging Sixties, the Link is soon being hunted by the army, but nobody realizes that beneath the bestial brow is a cunning brain. Hopping a freight train up north, he seeks refuge in an isolated government atomic research laboratory run by Dr. Viktor Kelso and is accidentally dosed with vast transformative radiation…

The unleashed uncanny forces jumpstart an evolutionary leap, turning the primitive beast into a perfect specimen of manhood, while simultaneously sparking a near-catastrophic meltdown in the machinery, which is only averted by the massive instinctive intellect of the new man. Arrested as a terrorist spy, the silent superman is very publicly tried in court and again encounters Lita.

Meanwhile, Kelso has deduced the true course of events. As the Link uses his prison time to educate himself in the ways of the world, the scientist works on a deadly super-weapon, prompting the Link to escape jail and clear his name. With his super-strength and massive mind, the task is easy but he still needs Lita to complete his plan…

The series cheerfully plundered the tone of the times and the drama seamlessly morphs into chilling science fiction tropes as Kelso’s device brings the nation to a literal standstill leaving only the evolved outsider to thwart a staggeringly ambitious scheme…

Set on a new heroic path, although still a hunted fugitive, the Link creates a civilian identity (John Foster) and a costumed persona just as Britain is assaulted by ‘The Animal Man’: a psionic dictator able to control all beasts and creatures. Incredibly, that includes recently ascendant Johnny Future, but the villain is defeated after overextending himself and accidentally awakening a primordial horror from Jurassic times…

In short order, Johnny Future tackles Dr. Jarra and his killer robot; a society of evil world-conquering scientists, invention-plundering shapeshifting aliens, prehistoric giants, and deranged science tyrant The Master.

Fully hitting his stride, the future man overcomes personality warping psychopath Mr. Opposite and defeats the Secret Society of Science’s top assassins ‘The Brain, The Brute and the Hunter’ before saving Earth from marauding living metal and defeating Dr. Plasto’s animated waxwork killers.

And that was that. Without warning the comic merged with sister publication Terrific and there was no more room for a purely British superhero. Here, however, there’s one more delight: a 14-page, full-colour complete adventure with Johnny battling diabolical primordial revenant Disastro, first seen in Fantastic Annual 1968, plus a colour pin-up from Fantastic #30 (September 9th 1967).

Interest in superheroes and fantasy in general were on the wane and British weeklies were diversifying. Some switched back to war, sports and adventure stories, whilst with comedy strips on the rise again, others became largely humour outlets. Johnny Future (available in comforting hardback and accessible digital formats) is a unique beast: a blend of British B-movie chic, with classic monster riffs seen through the same bleak but compelling lens that spawned Doctor Who and Quatermass: the social sci fi of John Wyndham trying on glamourous superhero schtick whilst blending the breakneck pace of a weekly serial with the chilling moodiness of kitchen sink crime dramas.

There was never anything like this before or since and if you love dark edges to your comics escapism you must have this amazing collection far sooner than tomorrow.
™ & © 1967, 1968, & 2020 Rebellion Publishing Ltd. All Rights Reserved.