Metropolis


By Thea von Harbou, illustrated by Michael W. Kaluta (Donning/Starblaze)
ISBN: 0-89865-519-6 (HB)

People who work in comics adore their earliest influences, and will spout for hours about them. Not only did they initially fire the young imagination and spark the drive to create but they always provide the creative yardstick by which a writer or artist measures their own achievements and worth. Books, comics, posters, even gum cards (which mysteriously mutated into “Trading Cards” in the 1990s) all fed the colossal hungry Art-sponge which was the developing brain of the kids who make comics.

But by the 1970s an odd phenomenon was increasingly apparent. It became clear that new talent coming into the industry was increasingly aware only of comic-books as a source of pictorial fuel. The great illustrators and storytellers who had inspired the likes of Howard Chaykin, Bernie Wrightson, Mike Kaluta, P. Craig Russell, Charles Vess, Mike Grell, and a host of other top professionals were virtually unknown to many youngsters and aspirants. I suspect the reason for this was the decline of illustrated fiction in magazines – and general magazines in general.

Photographs became a cheaper option than artwork in the late 1960s and, as a broad rule, populations read less and less each year from that time onwards.

In the late 1980s, publisher Donning created a line of oversized deluxe editions reprinting “lost” prose classics of fantasy, illustrated by major comics talents who felt an affinity for the selected texts. Charles Vess illustrated Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, P. Craig Russell created magic for The Thief of Bagdad and Mike Grell revisited Pyle’s take on the world’s greatest archer in The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood of Great Renown in Nottinghamshire.

Arch period stylist Mike Kaluta lucked in to something a little more exotic; illustrating the original film scenario (a broad shooting script used by movie-makers in the days before dialogue) written by Thea von Harbou after her husband returned from a trip to America.

Herr “von Harbou” was German expressionist genius Fritz Lang, and his account of his fevered impressions, responses and reminiscences became the ultimate social futurist fiction film Metropolis – possibly the most stirring, visually rich and influential movie of the silent era – and officially the most expensive film ever made during the pre-Talkies era.

If you haven’t seen the film… Do. Go now, a new re-re-restored version was released in 2010 – the most complete yet. I’ll wait…

The plot – in simple terms – concerns the battle between proletarian workers and the rich, educated elite of a colossal city where workers toil in hellish, conformist subterranean regiments to provide a paradise for the bosses and managers who live like gods in the lofty clouds above.

It would be the perfect life for Freder, son of the grand architect Joh Fredersen, except for the fact that he has become besotted with Maria, an activist girl from the depths. The boy will move Heaven and Earth to have her love him. He even abandons his luxuries to become a worker near her…

Distraught Fredersen renews his tempestuous relationship with the crazed science-wizard Rotwang, once an ally and rival for the love of the seductive woman Hel.

Rotwang offers his aid but it is a double-edged sword. He kidnaps Maria and constructs an incredible robotic replacement of her, to derail her passive crusade and exact his own long-deferred revenge…

This “novelisation” – for want of a better term – is as engrossing as the film in many ways, but the story is elevated by the incredible illustrations produced by Kaluta: 5 full page artworks in evocative chalk-and-pastel colour, two incredible double-page spreads in black line plus 32 assorted monochrome half-frames and full pages rendered in black & white line, grey-tones, charcoal, chalk monotones and pastel tints – an absolute banquet for lovers of art deco in particular and immaculate drawing in general.

Whilst no substitute for the actual filmic experience, this magnificent book is a spectacular combination of art and story that is the perfect companion to that so-influential fantasy masterpiece beloved by generations of youngsters. Well overdue for refit, recovery and revival…
© 1988 by the Donning Company/publishers. Art © 1988 Michael W. Kaluta. All rights reserved.

Golden Age Starman Archives volume 1


By Jack Burnley, Gardner Fox, Alfred Bester, Ray Burnley & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-56389-622-4 (HB)

After the staggering success of Superman and Batman, National Comics/DC rapidly launched many new mystery-men in their efforts to capitalise on the phenomenon of superheroes, and – from our decades-distant perspective – it’s only fair to say that by 1941 the editors had only the vaguest inkling of what they were doing.

Since newest creations The 6Sandman, The Spectre and Hourman were each imbued with equal investments of innovation, creativity and exposure, the editorial powers-that-be were rather disappointed that these additions never took off to the same explosive degree.

Publishing partner but separate editorial entity All American Comics had meanwhile generated a string of barnstorming successes like The Flash, Green Lantern, Hawkman and radio sensation Hop Harrigan and would imminently produce the only rival to Superman and Batman’s status when Wonder Woman debuted late in the year.

Of course, AA had the brilliantly “in-tune” creative and editorial prodigy Sheldon Mayer to filter all their ideas through …

Thus, when Starman launched in the April 1941 issue of Adventure Comics (relegating Sandman to a back-up role in the venerable heroic anthology), National/DC trusted in craft and quality rather than some indefinable “pizzazz”. The editors were convinced the startlingly realistic, conventionally dramatic illustration of Hardin “Jack” Burnley would propel their newest concept to the same giddy heights of popularity as the Action Ace and Gotham Guardian.

Indeed, the strip – always magnificently drawn and indisputably one of the most beautiful of the period – was further blessed with mature and compelling scripts by Gardner Fox and Alfred Bester: compulsive and brilliant thrillers and even by today’s standards some one of the very best comics ever produced.

However – according to the artist in his Foreword to this stunning deluxe hardback collection – that was possibly the problem. Subtle, moody, slower-paced stories just didn’t have the sheer exuberance and kinetic energy of the most popular series, which all eschewed craft and discipline for spectacle and all-out action.

Happily, these days with an appreciably older and more discerning audience, Starman’s less-than-stellar career in his own time can be fully seen for the superb example of Fights ‘n’ Tights wonderment it truly is, and – in his anniversary years – cries out for a definitive archival collection… especially since his legacy descendant Stargirl is a big shot TV sensation…

This epic collection reprints the earliest astounding exploits of the Astral Avenger from Adventure Comics #61-76 (spanning April 1941- July 1942), including some of the most iconic covers of the Golden Age, by Burnley and, latterly, wonder-kids Joe Simon & Jack Kirby.

Burnley came up with the Starman concept but, as was often the case, a professional writer was assigned to flesh out and co-create the stories. In this case said scribe was the multi-talented Gardner Fox who wrote most of them. The illustrator also liberally called on the talents of his brother Dupree “Ray” Burnley as art assistant, and sister Betty as letterer to finish the episodes in sublimely cinematic style.

In those simpler times origins were far less important than today, and the moonlit magic here begins with ‘The Amazing Starman’ from #61 as America suddenly suffers a wave of deadly electrical events. Appalled and afraid, FBI chief Woodley Allen summons his latest volunteer operative. Bored socialite Ted Knight promptly abandons his irate date Doris Lee to assume his mystery man persona, flying off to stop the deranged scientist behind all the death and destruction.

Almost as an aside we learn that secret genius Knight had previously discovered a way to collect and redirect the energy of Starlight through an awesome handheld device he calls a “gravity rod” and resolved to do only good with his discoveries…

The intrepid adventurer tracks diabolical Dr. Doog to his mountain fortress and spectacularly decimates the subversive Secret Brotherhood of the Electron.

In #62 the Sidereal Sentinel met another deadly deranged genius who had devised a shrinking ray. It even briefly diminishes Starman before the sky warrior extinguishes ‘The Menace of the Lethal Light’, after which ‘The Adventure of the Earthquake Terror’ (#63) depicts the nation attacked by foreign agent Captain Vurm, using enslaved South American tribesmen to administer his grotesque ground-shock engines. He too falls before the unstoppable cosmic power of harnessed starlight. America was still neutral at this time, but the writing was on the wall and increasingly villains sported monocles and Germanic accents…

Adventure Comics #64 pits the Astral All-Star against a sinister mesmerist who makes men slaves in ‘The Mystery of the Men with Staring Eyes’, after which – behind a stunning proto-patriotic cover – Starman solves ‘The Mystery of the Undersea Terror’, wherein the ship-sinking League of the Octopus proves another deadly outlet for the greedy genius of The Light…

‘The Case of the Camera Curse’ in #66 layered a dose of supernatural horror into the high-tech mix as Starman tackles a crazed photographer employing a voodoo lens to enslave and destroy his subjects, before #67’s ‘The Menace of the Invisible Raiders’ introduced the Astral Avenger’s greatest foe. The Mist devised a way to make men and machines imperceptible and would have conquered America with his unseen air force had not the Starry Knight stopped him…

Alfred Bester provides a searing patriotic yarn for #68 as ‘The Blaze of Doom’ sees Starman quenching a forest fire and uncovering a lumberjack gang intent on holding America’s Defence effort to ransom, after which Fox was back for #69’s ‘The Adventure of the Singapore Stranglers’ in which the heavenly hero stamps out a sinister cult. In actuality, the killers were sadistic saboteurs of a certain aggressive Asiatic Empire. American involvement in WWII was mere months away…

The martial tone continued in ‘The Adventure of the Ring of Hijackers’ as Starman battles Baron X, whose deadly minions are wrecking American trains carrying munitions and supplies to embattled British convoy vessels, although a welcome change of pace came in #71 when ‘The Invaders from the Future’ strike. Brigands from Tomorrow are bad enough, but when Starman discovers one of his old enemies had recruited them, all bets are off…

In #72, an Arabian curse seems the reason explorers are dying of fright, but the ‘Case of the ‘Magic Bloodstone’ proves to have a far more prosaic – if no less sinister – cause…

With Adventure Comics #73, Starman surrendered the cover-spot, as dynamic duo Simon & Kirby took over ailing strips Paul Kirk, Manhunter and Sandman. However, ‘The Case of the Murders in Outer Space’ proved the Knight Errant was not lacking in imagination or dynamic quality, as he matches wits with a brilliant mastermind murdering heirs to a Californian fortune by an unfathomable method before disposing of the bodies in an utterly unique manner…

Sinister science again reigned in #74 as ‘The Case of the Monstrous Animal-Men’ finds the Starlight Centurion tragically battling ghastly pawns of a maniac who turns men into beasts, whilst #75’s ‘The Case of the Luckless Liars’ details how Ted Knight’s initiation into a millionaires’ fibbing society leads to Starman becoming a hypnotised terror tool of deadly killer The Veil

This initial foray into darkness ends with a rollicking action riot in ‘The Case of the Sinister Sun’ wherein cheap thugs of the Moroni Gang upgrade their act with deadly gadgets: patterning themselves after the solar system in a blazing crime blitz until Starman eclipses them all…

Enthralling, engaging and fantastically inviting, these Golden Age adventures are a lost high-point of the era – even if readers of the time didn’t realise it – and offer astonishing thrills and amazing chills for today’s sophisticated readership. Starman’s exploits are some of the best but most neglected thrillers of those halcyon days, but modern tastes will find them are far more in tune with contemporary mores. This book is a truly terrific treat for fans of mad science, mystery, murder and stylish intrigue…
© 1941, 1942, 2000 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Steed and Mrs Peel volume One: A Very Civil Armageddon


By Mark Waid, Caleb Monroe, Steve Bryant, Will Sliney, Yasmin Liang & Chris Rosa & various (Boom! Studios/Titan Books)
ISBN: 987-1-60886-306-8 (TPB)

Generally, when I write about the Avengers, we’re all thinking about an assembled multitude of Marvel superheroes, but – until the blockbuster movie franchise stormed the 21st century world – for most non-comics civilians that name usually conjured up images of dashing heroics, old world charm, incredible, implausible adventure and true British style – not to say bizarrely fetishistic attire. It’s easy to see how that might lead to some consumer confusion…

In this anniversary year for the TV show, I thought we’d revisit some of the many comics outings of the English iteration, so we’re starting here. Be prepared for a sparkling variety of follow-up treats in the months ahead…

The (other) Avengers was a stylish, globally popular crime/spy TV show made in Britain: glamorously and seductively blending espionage thrills with arch, knowing comedy. After a grim-‘n’-gritty start in 1961, it gradually combined deadly danger with elements of technological fantasy, capturing the mood of two distinct eras, A phenomenal cult hit, the show and its1980s sequel The New Avengers are best remembered now for Cool Britannia-styled action, kinky quirkiness, mad gadgetry, surreal suspense and the wholly appropriate descriptive phrase “Spy Fi”.

The legacy of the series is apparent in many later shows like The Invisible Man (both TV spy iterations); Chuck, the Mission: Impossible movie franchise and Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Enormously popular across the globe – even Warsaw Pact Poland was crazy for Rewolwer i melonik (“A Revolver and a Bowler Hat”) – the show evolved from bleak vengeance thriller Police Surgeon (September-December 1961) into the epitome of wittily sophisticated adventure lampoonery with suave, urbane British Agent John Steed partnering with a succession of dazzlingly talented women displaying the true meaning of the term “agency”.

Most revered was amateur sleuth Mrs. Emma Peel who battled spies, supervillains, robots, criminals, secret societies, monsters and even “aliens” with tongue very much in cheek and always under the strictest determination to remain cool, dashingly composed and exceedingly eccentric…

The format was a winner. Peel, as played by (Dame) Diana Rigg, had been a replacement for landmark and breakthrough character Cathy Gale – the first hands-on fighting female in British television history. She left the show in 1964 to become Bond Girl Pussy Galore (in Goldfinger), but her replacement with Rigg took the show to even greater heights of success. The role of recently bereaved Emma Peel hit a chord with viewers and cemented the archetype of a powerful, clever, competent woman into the nation’s psyche: forever countering – if not quite abolishing – the screaming, eye-candy girly-victim to the dustbin of popular fiction.

Rigg left in 1967 (to marry James Bond in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service) and another feisty female was found in the person of Tara King (Linda Thorson) to carry the series to its demise in 1969. Its continued popularity in more than 90 countries eventually resulted in a revival during the late 1970s. The New Avengers saw glamorous “Sloane Ranger” Purdey (Joanna Lumley) and brutishly manly Gambit (Gareth Hunt) acting as partners and foils to the agelessly debonair and deadly Steed…

The show has remained a hugely enticing cult icon. There was a rather ill-conceived major motion picture in 1998, but the television version regularly features in Top 20 rankings for assorted polls assessing Cult TV Shows. During its run and beyond, the internationally adored series has spawned toys; games; collector models; a pop single and stage show; radio series; posters and books plus all the myriad merchandising strands that inevitably accompany an evergreen media sensation.

Naturally, as a popular British Television program these Avengers were no stranger to our comics pages either.

Following an introductory cartoon strip starring Steed & Gale in listings magazines Look Westward, The Viewer and Manchester Evening News (September 1963 to the end of 1964), legendary children’s staple TV Comic launched its own Avengers strip in #720 (October 2nd 1965) with Emma Peel firmly ensconced and crushing crime.

This serial ran until #771 (September 24th 1966), with the dashing duo also starring in TV Comic Holiday Special, whilst a series of young Emma Peel adventures featured in June & Schoolfriend. This feature transferred to DC Thomson’s Diana, running until 1968 whereupon it returned to TV Comic (from #877): now depicting Steed and Tara King until 1972 (#1077).

In 1966 there was a one-off, large-sized UK comicbook from Mick Anglo Studios whilst in America, Gold Key’s Four-Color series published a try-out book in 1968 using recycled UK material under the rather obvious title John Steed/Emma Peel – since Marvel had already secured an American trademark for comics with the name “Avengers”.

There were also a number of wonderful, sturdily steadfast hardback annuals for the British Festive Season trade, beginning with 1962’s TV Crimebusters Annual and thereafter pertinent TV Comic Annuals after which a run of solo editions graced Christmas stockings from 1967-1969, augmented by plus a brace of New Avengers volumes for 1977 and 1978.

Between 1990 and 1992, Eclipse Comics and the UK’s ACME Press produced a trans-Atlantic prestige miniseries, Steed & Mrs. Peel: crafted by Grant Morrison, Anne Caulfield & Ian Gibson. Stay tuned for a review of that one too…

Repackaged and reprinted in 2012 by media-savvy publishers Boom! Studios, that event acted as a pilot for a fresh iteration, the first compilation of which is under review here. Wisely set in the series’ Swinging Sixties Britain heyday, this volume of Steed and Mrs. Peel collects issues #0-3 (August-December 2012): a worthy reintroduction for the faithful and happily accessible introduction for notional newcomers as the dedicated followers of felons return for another clash with memorable TV antagonists The Hellfire Club.

These baroque bounders appeared in episode ‘A Touch of Brimstone’ and so warped the maturing personalities of young Chris Claremont & John Byrne that they later created their own version for a comic book they were working on – the Uncanny X-Men

The drama here opens in ‘A Very Civil Armageddon: Prologue’ (written by Boom! chief creative guru Mark Waid and illustrated by Steve Bryant) as, way back then, our heroes are called upon to investigate ‘The Dead Future’, as an active – albeit murdered – agent seemingly ages decades overnight.

The situation reminds Mrs. Peel of the mind-bending, lethally effective fun-&-games perpetrated by the insidious Hellfire Club and its now-defunct leader the Honourable John Clever-Cartney

Further inquiries take them to the latest incarnation of the ancient Gentleman’s Club where avowed futurist Ian Lansdowne Dunderdale Cartney disavows any knowledge of the matter… or his dad’s old antisocial habits. In fact, the current scion is far more absorbed with the World of Tomorrow than the embarrassing peccadilloes of the past. However, it’s all a trap and whilst Mrs Peel is attacked by a killer robot maid, Steed is ambushed – only to awaken as a doddering old man 35 years later in the year 2000AD!

Forever undaunted, the temporarily separated Derring-Duo refuse to accept the improbable, impeccably and individually striking back to uncover the incredible answer to an impossible situation…

The main event – by Waid & Caleb Monroe with art from Will Sliney – depicts ‘London Falling’ as long-anticipated and dreaded nuclear Armageddon finally happens, leaving Steed, Peel and a swarm of politicians, Lords and civil servants as the only survivors, hunkered down in a battered atomic bunker beneath the utterly devastated Houses of Parliament.

The shattered, shaken remnants of Empire and Civilisation soon discover that the only other survivors are ghastly atomic mutants and a coterie of exceptionally well-stocked and fully prepared members of the Hellfire Club…

‘Life in Hell’ finds the former foes joining forces and combining resources, but Steed and Peel are convinced something is “not kosher”. For one thing, former members of once-important political committees and knowledgeable generals keep disappearing, but – most importantly – Ian Cartney and his deplorable sister Dirigent are now known to be masters of their father’s dark arts of illusion, trickery and brainwashing…

Almost too late, Steed rumbles the nature of an audaciously cunning Psy-Ops espionage scheme as Emma is once more transformed into a ferocious, whip-wielding bondage nightmare for concluding instalment ‘Long Live the Queen’. Of course, a good spy, like a boy scout, is always prepared, and the dapper detective adroitly turns the tables on his foes just in time for a rollicking, explosively old-fashioned comeuppance…

Wry, arch and wickedly satisfying, this opening salvo in the reborn franchise remains a delight for staunch fans and curious newcomers alike. This volume includes a vast (28) gallery of covers and variants by Joseph Michael Linsner, Phil Noto, Joshua Covey & Blond, Mike Perkins & Vladimir Popov and Drew Johnson to astound the eyes as much as the story assaults the senses…

…And the best is yet to come…
© 2013 StudioCanal S.A. All rights reserved.

Golden Age Captain America Marvel Masterworks volume 1


By Joe Simon & Jack Kirby with & various (Marvel Comics)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-1619-2 (HB) 978-0785157939 (TPB)

Arguably the biggest anniversary in this year of comics milestones is this guy. Whatever your real-world politics, this is a fictive icon without peer – unless you count Wonder Woman, Archie Andrews or the others as your favourite. Maybe we should just celebrate them all like Catholics and Saints…

Golden Age Captain America Marvel Masterworks volume 1- available in hardback, trade paperback and as an eBook – reprints the first four issues of original title Captain America Comics (cover-dated March to June 1941) and are a landmark combination of passion, enthusiasm and creative quality seldom seen at Marvel’s brash predecessor Timely Comics, who generally settled for any two out of three…

However, for true fans the groundbreaking and exceptional patriotic material generated by Joe Simon & Jack Kirby is not really the lure here… the real gold nuggets for us old sods are those rare back-up features from the star duo and their small team of talented youngsters. Reed Crandall, Syd Shores, Alex Schomburg and the rest worked on main course and filler features such as Hurricane, the God of Speed and Tuk, Caveboy: strips barely remembered, yet still brimming with the creative fires of legends in waiting.

Devised at the end of 1940 and boldly launched in his own monthly title with none of the publisher’s customary cautious shilly-shallying, Captain America Comics #1 was cover-dated March 1941 and was an instant monster, blockbuster smash-hit. The bombastic Sentinel of Liberty was instantly the absolute and undisputed star of Timely’s “Big Three” – the other two being the Human Torch and Sub-Mariner (as seen in Marvel Mystery Comics) – and one of the first to fall from popularity at the end of the Golden Age.

In comparison to their contemporaries at Quality, Fawcett, National/All American and Dell, or Will Eisner’s The Spirit newspaper strips, the standard of most Timely periodicals was woefully lacklustre in both story and – most tellingly – art. That they survived and prospered is a Marvel mystery, but a clue might lie in the sheer exuberant venom of their racial stereotypes and heady fervour of jingoism at a time when America was involved in the greatest war in world history. I suspect given the current tone of the times politically, such sentiments might be less controversial now than they have been for quite a while…

Nevertheless, the first ten Captain America Comics are the most exceptional comics in the fledgling company’s history, and I can’t help but wonder what might have been had National (née DC) been wise enough to hire Simon & Kirby before they were famous, instead of after that pivotal first year?

Of course, we’ll never know and although they did jump to the majors after a year, Simon & Kirby’s visual dynamism became the aspirational and approved house-style for superhero comics at the company they left and their banner-bedecked creation became the flagship icon for them and the industry.

Following a revelatory look back from Golden Age maven and comics scribe supreme Roy Thomas, this initial volume opens with ‘Case No. 1: Meet Captain America’ by Simon & Kirby (with additional inks by Al Liederman) wherein we see how scrawny, enfeebled young patriot Steven Rogers, continually rejected by the US Army, is recruited by the Secret Service.

Desperate to counter a wave of Nazi-sympathizing espionage and sabotage, this passionate young man is invited to become part of a clandestine experimental effort create physically perfect super-soldiers. However, when a vile Nazi agent infiltrates the project and murders its key scientist, Rogers became the only successful graduate and America’s not-so-secret weapon.

Sent undercover as a simple private, Rogers soon encounters Bucky Barnes: a headstrong, orphaned Army Brat who becomes his sidekick and costumed confidante. All of that is perfectly packaged into mere seven-and-a-half pages, with untitled ‘Case No. 2’ taking just as long to resoundingly defeat Nazi showbiz psychics Sando and Omar as they spread anxiety and fear amongst the gullible Americans.

‘Captain America and the Soldier’s Soup’ is a rather mediocre and unattributed prose tale promptly followed by splendidly sinister 16-page epic ‘Captain America and the Chess-board of Death’, with our heroes thrashing more macabre murdering Nazi malcontents before facing the groundbreaking introduction of the nation’s greatest foe.

Solving ‘The Riddle of the Red Skull’ proves to be a thrill-packed, horror-drenched master-class in comics excitement…

The first of the B-features follows as Hurricane (“Son of Thor” and last survivor of the Greek Gods – don’t blame me, that’s what it says) sets his super-fast sights on ‘Murder Inc.’ in a rip-roaring but clearly rushed battle against fellow-immortal Pluto (so not quite the last god either; nor exclusively Norse or Greek…) who is once again using mortals to foment pain, terror and death…

Hurricane was a rapid reworking and sequel to Kirby’s ‘Mercury in the 20th Century’ from Red Raven Comics #1 (August 1940) whereas ‘Tuk, Caveboy: Stories from the Dark Ages’ is all-original excitement starring a teenaged boy in 50,000 BC raised by a beast-man. The wild child is resolved to regain the throne of his antediluvian kingdom Attilan from the usurpers who stole it…

This is an imaginative barbarian spectacular owing much to Tarzan and The Land that Time Forgot, but certainly delivers the thrills we might want…

Historians believe Kirby pencilled this entire issue and although no records remain, inkers as diverse as Liederman, Crandall, Bernie Klein, Al Avison, Al Gabrielle, Syd Shores and others may have been involved in this and subsequent issues…

Captain America Comics #2 screamed onto the newsstands a month later, boldly opening with monster mash-up ‘The Ageless Orientals Who Wouldn’t Die’: blending equal amounts of horror and jingoism into a terrifying thriller with a ruthless American capitalist exposed as the true source of a rampage against the nation’s banks…

‘Trapped in the Nazi Stronghold’ sees Cap and Bucky in drag and in Europe to rescue a pro-British financier kidnapped by the Nazis, whilst ‘Captain America and the Wax Statue that Struck Death’ returned to movie-thriller themes in the tale of a macabre murderer with delusions of world domination.

The Patriotic Partners deal with saboteurs in prose piece ‘Short Circuit’ before Tuk tackles monsters and mad priests in ‘The Valley of the Mist’ (by either the King and a very heavy inker or an unnamed artist doing a passable Kirby impression) whilst Hurricane – now “Master of Speed” – swiftly and spectacularly expunges ‘The Devil and the Green Plague’ deep in the fetid heart of the Amazon jungles.

CAC #3 led with 17-page epic ‘The Return of the Red Skull’ with the scarlet scoundrel booting Adolf Hitler off the cover-spot he’d hogged in #1 and #2 as Kirby opened up his layouts to enhance the mesmerising graphic action with a veritable production line of creators (including Ed Herron, Martin A, Burnstein, Howard Ferguson, William Clayton King, and possibly George Roussos, Bob Oksner, Max Elkan and Jerry Robinson) joining the creative team.

Despite eye-shattering scale and spectacle united with non-stop action and eerie mood as key components of the Sentinel of Liberty’s exploits, horror elements dominated ‘The Hunchback of Hollywood and the Movie Murder’ wherein a patriotic film is plagued by sinister and disturbing “accidents”…

Stan Lee debuts with text tale ‘Captain America Foils the Traitor’s Revenge’ before Simon & Kirby – and friends – recount ‘The Queer Case of the Murdering Butterfly and the Ancient Mummies’ in a riotous blending of eerie Egyptian antiquities and myths with a thoroughly modern costumed psychopath.

Tuk (drawn by either Mark Schneider – or perhaps Marcia Snyder) reaches ‘Atlantis and the False King’, after which Kirby contributes a true tale in ‘Amazing Spy Adventures’ whilst Hurricane confronts ‘Satan and the Subway Disasters’with devastating and final effect…

The final issue in this fabulous curated chronicle opens with ‘Captain America and the Unholy Legion’ as the star-spangled brothers-in-arms crush a murderous conspiracy of beggars terrorising the city, before taking on ‘Ivan the Terrible’ in a time-bending vignette and thereafter solving ‘The Case of the Fake Money Fiends’.

Their all-action exploits culminate in magnificent fashion when our heroes then expose the horrendous secret of ‘Horror Hospital’

Lee-scripted text tale ‘Captain America and the Bomb Sight Thieves’ leads to young Tuk triumphing over ‘The Ogre of the Cave-Dwellers’ before Hurricane brings down a final curtain on ‘The Pirate and the Missing Ships’.

An added and very welcome bonus for fans is the inclusion of all the absolutely beguiling house-ads for other titles and upcoming Cap books; contents pages; Sentinels of Liberty club bulletins; assorted pin-ups; merchandise and memorabilia and Joe Simon’s Afterword ‘My Bulletin Board’

Despite in many ways having a much shallower vintage well to draw from, this particular tome from the House of Ideas is a book that will always stands amongst the very best that the Golden Age of Comics can offer and should be on every fan’s “never-miss” bookshelf.
© 2018 MARVEL. All rights reserved.

Bob Powell’s Complete Jet Powers


By Bob Powell with James Vance, John Wooley, Steve Rude & various (Kitchen Sink Books/Dark Horse)
ISBN: 978-1-61655-764-5 (HB) eISBN:978-1-63008-646-6

Like every art form, comics can be readily divided into masterpieces and populist pap, but that damning assessment necessarily comes with a bunch of exclusions and codicils.

Periodical publications, like pop songs, movies and the entirety of television’s output (barring schools programming and I’m not sure about them, anymore), are designed to sell stuff to masses of consumers.

As such, the product must reflect the target and society at a specific moment in time and perforce quickly adapt and change with every variation in taste or fashion. Although very much an artefact of its time, I consider the Buzzcocks single “Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve)” to be the perfect pop song, but I’m not going to waste time trying to convince anybody of the fact.

For me, and perhaps only for me, it just is.

The situation is most especially true of comics – especially those created before the medium gained any kind of popular credibility: primarily deemed by their creators and publishers as a means of parting youngsters from cash. The fact that so many have been found to possess redeeming literary and artistic merit or social worth is simply post hoc rationalisation.

Creators striving for better, doing the very best they could because of their inner artistic drives, were being rewarded with just as meagre a financial reward as the shmoes just phoning it in for the paycheck…

That sad state of affairs in periodical publication wasn’t helped by the fact that most editors thought they knew what the readership wanted – safe, prurient gratification – and usually they were right.

Even so, from such swamps gems occasionally emerged…

A certain kind of two-fisted, brawny science fiction has always been part-&-parcel of the comics experience, and retrospectives – no matter how impressive – generally come with some worrisome cultural baggage. However, ways can be found to accommodate crystallised or outdated attitudes, especially when reading from a suitably detached historical perspective and even more so for many when the art is crafted by a master storyteller like Bob Powell.

After all, even though change is gradually coming now, it’s not that big a jump from fictionalised 1950s futures to the filmic metropolises of today where tech-bolstered (and usually white) Adonises with godlike power paternalistically save us all from something unimaginable, or our own folly, whilst winning over some initially unresponsive piece of feminine exotica…

I truly adore all comics in all genres from all eras, but sometimes the “guilty pleasure” alarm on my conscience just redlines every so often and I can’t stop it. Repeat after me, it’s not real. It’s not real, it’s never been real…

As businessmen, editors and publishers “knew” what hormonal kids wanted to see and they gave it to them. It’s no different today. Peruse any comic-shop shelf or cover listings site and see how many fully-clad, small-breasted females you can spot and how many hunky heroes pack teeny-weeny pistols…

No more prevaricating. Let’s talk about Bob…

Born in 1916 in Buffalo, New York, Stanley Robert Pawlowski studied at the Pratt Institute in Manhattan before joining one of the earliest comics-packaging outfits: the Eisner-Iger Shop.

He was a solid and dependable staple of American comicbooks’ Golden Age, illustrating many key features. He drew original Jungle Queen Sheena in Jumbo Comics plus other Jungle Girl features and Spirit of ’76 for Harvey’s Pocket Comics.

Powell handled assorted material for Timely titles such as Captain America in All-Winners Comics, Tough Kid Comics and sundry genre material like Gale Allen and the Women’s Space Battalion for anthologies like Planet Comics,Mystery Men Comics and Wonder Comics.

Relatively recently he was revealed to have co-scripted/created Blackhawk as well as drawing Loops and Banks in Military Comics and so many more now near-forgotten strips: all under a variety of English-sounding pseudonyms, since, white or not, the tone of those times was unforgiving for creative people of minority origins…

Eventually the artist settled on S. Bob Powell and had his name legally changed. Probably his most well-remembered and highly regarded tour of duty was on Mr. Mystic in Will Eisner’s legendary national newspaper insert The Spirit Section. After serving in World War II, Bob came home and quit to set up his own studio. Eisner never forgave him…

Powell – with assistants Howard Nostrand, Martin Epp and George Siefringer – quickly established a solid reputation for quality, versatility and reliability. They supplied a huge variety of material for Fawcett (Vic Torry & His Flying Saucer,Hot Rod Comics, Lash Larue); Harvey Comics (Man in Black, Adventures in 3-D and True 3-D) and Street & Smith’s Shadow Comics.

Powell was particularly prolific in numerous titles for Magazine Enterprises (ME), including TV tie-in Bobby Benson’s B-Bar-B Riders, Red Hawk in Straight Arrow; a short but bombastic turn with quasi-superhero Strong Man and timely sci fi frolic Jet Powers.

A master of the human form and caricature, Powell easily turned his hand to a vast range of genre staples – War, Western, Science Fiction, Crime, Comedy and Horror material – and consequently rendered, as a by-product, some of the best and most glamorous “Good Girl art” of the era, both in comics and in premiums/strip packages for business clients.

In the 1960s, he pencilled the infamous Mars Attacks cards, illustrated Bessie Little’s Teena-a-Go-Go and the Bat Masterson newspaper strip. He ended his days drawing Daredevil, the Human Torch and Giant-Man for Marvel.

This captivating hardback compilation and electrifying eBook edition gathers all the Jet Powers appearances – some possibly written by ubiquitous jobbing scripter Gardner Fox. ME publications employed a truly Byzantine method of numbering their comicbooks, but this title is little easier than most. All Jet issues were actually part of expansive umbrella anthology vehicle A-1 comics. Jet #1 was also A-1 #30 January 1951 – cover-splashed as Jet Powers and Space Ace – whilst #2-4 were A-1 #32, #35 and #39.

It makes no real difference to your enjoyment of what’s to come but satisfies my pedantic and didactic side…

This splendid tome includes a biography ‘Bob Powell (1916-1967)’, an effusive Introduction by Steve Rude and an erudite essay – ‘My First Encounter with the Two-Fisted Brainiac Jet Powers’– by John Wooley.

Jet Powers began as a classic holdover of a pristine pulp Sci Fi concept: the scientific everyman who solves all problems with razor-sharp intellect and a something he’s just handily cobbled together. Powers was actually a cut well-above the crowd of valiantly brilliant space-jockey boffins whizzing about the funnybook cosmos in the early 1950s: a cerebral genius, true, but one who nevertheless solidly stuck to the action-adventure side of the equation, and one who was ultimately mutated by world events and political frenzy into a man unrecognisable to his earlier antecedents.

We first meet “The Master of Atoms and Molecules” in Jet #1 1951 – cover-splashed as Jet Powers and Space Ace. ‘Captain of Science!’ introduces a solitary researcher roused to action after America is wracked by shattering earthquakes. It doesn’t take him long to confirm the events are being triggered by an evil enemy somewhere in Southern Asia…

Rocketing to the sinister citadel and armed with his trusty antigravity gun, Powers finds and foils the diabolical schemes of Mr Sinn while deeply upsetting the loyalties and affections of the madman’s sultry catspaw Su Shan

The villain tries again in ‘The Man in the Moon!’, with meteors raining down on earth directed by his satellite fortress, but is again thwarted by the Man of Science after which a marauding intelligent alien bug ravages Earth, with only Jet capable of foiling ‘The Thing from the Meteor’

In Jet #2 (April-June), Powers tackles an invasion from the future in ‘The Three-Million-Year-Old Men!’; Su Shan is abducted by mad scientist Marlon Stone and requires rescue from deadly beasts in ‘The House of Horror!’ after which background radiation from atomic tests grant intelligence, autonomy and megalomania to a pile of scrap who allies with Mr Sinn and propagates ‘The Metal Monsters!’ it needs to conquer Earth. Calling Jet Powers…

The tech terrors continue in Jet #3, beginning with a radioactive space cloud that cuts off sunlight. Thankfully Powers has a bold plan to destroy the The Dust Doom!’ Shockingly for the era, he does not completely succeed and the series veers into post-apocalyptic dystopia…

As Earth recovers, deranged Professor Mikla unleashes biological atrocities via ‘The Devil’s Machine’, until Powers stops him. Barely pausing for breath Jet then jousts with Martians and Venusians to fend off ‘The Interplanetary War!’

Still feeling the effects of the doom-laden space dust, Earth endures ‘The Rain of Terror!’ in #4 as a cashiered general makes a bid for global domination and Jet spearheads a libertarian resistance, after which the industry trend for genre anthology sees Powers narrate the salutary tale of ‘The First Man in History Who Could Not Die!’.

Back in action for the last time as a science warrior, Jet then defeats ‘The Fleets of Fear!’ as war is rekindled by a Martian tyrant-in-waiting…

With no fanfare or warning the hero metamorphosed to follow a developing trend for anti-communist war stories, fuelled by the escalating Korean conflict. Jet morphed into The American Air Forces and, numbering maintained – #5/A-1 #45 in this instance – introduced visually identical ‘Army Air Ace Jet Powers’. Army Air Force Captain Johnny Powers is a fighter pilot from a family of fliers operating in Korea, but apparently afflicted with psychological inhibitions rendering him useless in combat. Not for long…

After a turbulent publishing year, issue #6/A-1 #54 opened 1952 in bombastic gung-ho style as Powers laments the noble, necessary sacrifice of a comrade on ‘MiG Alley Patrol’, after which #7(A-1 #58) introduces exotic fantasy as Powers and wingman Kenneth Loomis clash with murderous Red murderess Kali Soo in an ancient temple blasphemously converted into a commie fortress in ‘Whom the Gods Destroy!’

By the time of #8 (A-1 #65) comic book propaganda was in full swing as ‘Secret of the Tunnel’ lavishly adds torture, whipping and women in chains to the material Yankee kids could read. Despite being a jet ace, Powers spent a lot of time surviving crashes and battling on terra firma. After this fortuitous landing, he saves a slave girl and falls into a cavern full of North Korean ordnance he knows just how to ignite…

More of the same comes as 1952 closes as #9 (A-1 #69) finds him rescuing a downed buddy and narrowly dodging hundreds of ‘Bayonets Dipped in Blood!’, before 1953 opens with – and ends his service – in #12 (A-1 #91) with an actual aerial exploit as the fighter pilot downs a couple of MiGs, and narrowly avoids the typical Commie skulduggery of ‘The Death Trap’.

With the artistic action ended, this compelling compendium concludes with an incisive appreciation of the multi-talented hero courtesy of essay ‘The Jet Age’ by James Vance and John Wooley.

Despite my quibbles and cavils – and some genuine concerns about racial and gender holdover subtext of material produced 70 years ago – this book celebrates one of the mostly beautifully rendered characters in pictorial fiction and is a true tribute to the astounding talents of Bob Powell and his team. If you love perfect comic storytelling (of its time), but transcending fashion or trendiness, this is a treasure just waiting to be rediscovered.

Bob Powell’s Complete Jet Powers compilation © 2015 Kitchen, Lind and Associates LLC. Introduction © 2015 Steve Rude. “My First Encounter with the Two-Fisted Brainiac Jet Powers” © 2015 John Wooley. “The Jet Age” essay © 2015 James Vance and John Wooley. All rights reserved.

Beano: Beanopedia


By Rachel Elliot, Hannah Baldwin, Rob Ward & various (Studio Press Books/D.C. Thomson)
ISBN: 978-1-7874-1-705-2 (HB)

Premiering on December 4th 1937, The Dandy broke the mould of traditional British comics’ antecedents by using word balloons and captions rather than narrative blocks of text under the sequential picture frames. A huge success, it was followed eight months later by The Beano – which launched on July 30th 1938. Together they utterly revolutionised the way children’s publications looked and, most importantly, how they were read.

Over the decades the “terrible twins” spawned a bevy of unforgettable and beloved household names who delighted countless avid and devoted readers, and the unmissable end of year celebrations were graced with bumper bonanzas of the comics’ weekly stars in extended stories in magnificent hardback annuals.

As WWII progressed, rationing of paper and ink forced the “children’s papers” into an alternating fortnightly schedule: on September 6th 1941, only The Dandy was published. A week later just The Beano appeared. The rascally rapscallions only returned to normal weekly editions on 30th July 1949. Although The Dandy closed up in 2012, The Beano has soldiered on, amusing generations of glad gigglers and fuelling a minor industry in TV adaptations, toys, games, food, apparel, “how to” books and so much more.

August 28, 2019 saw the landmark 4,000th issue and it’s still going strong. That’s a lot of years and countless pranks, japes, dodges, menacings and all, so last year this cheery tome was released: a vibrant dossier of pertinent info on the current status and occupants of kids’ comedy Ground Zero…

Aimed at the younger end of the market and offering all the facts and pictures any devotee could dream of, this slight-but-detailed tour around Beanotown offers tips and hints, insiders’ insights and intimate introductions to all the funny folk living there.

The indispensable hardback guide opens with a welcoming ‘Visitors’ Guide’ hosted by Dennis the Menace and cunning canine collaborator Gnasher, detailing the top nine points of civic pride and interest, backed up by vivid advice on ‘How to get here (and how to leave)’, ‘Weird ways to travel’, ‘How to completely escape’ and ‘How to find your way around’

A major portion of this guide features the lowdown on the town’s most notable inhabitants rendered as brief text, fact files, descriptive key quotes and a game. Of course, the first subjects are ‘The Menace Family’: Dennis, baby sister Bea, parents, Gran, pets and pesky archenemies, all supplemented by ‘Dennis’ Most Impressive Pranks’ and (cousin) ‘Minnie’s Most Magnificent Minxes’.

Minnie the Minx then similarly introduces her lot in ‘The Makepeace Family’, before a broad barrage of pages covers ‘The Bash Street Kids’ individually and collectively, with sections on the war-weary staff, ‘The Bash Street Pups’, the history of ‘Bash Street School’ and its ancestor institution ‘Horrible Hall’ and tips on ‘How to rule Bash Street School’

Posh, privileged foes of all fun ‘The Brown Family’ are examined next from sneaky Walter to his greedy, ambitious parents Wilbur and Muriel, after which shorter files give us the facts on lesser stars ‘Peter “Pieface” Shepard’, sporty ‘JJ’, ‘Billy Whizz’, ‘Betty and the Yeti’ and wheelchair wonder/girl gadget-boffin ‘Rubidium von Screwtop (Rubi)’.

Secret philanthropist and truly-decent rich kid ‘Lord Snooty’ has survived relatively unscathed since the comic’s earliest days and his profile neatly segues into the home set-up of Roger the Dodger in ‘The Dawson Family’ files and the kids’ garage band ‘The Dinmakers’, after which (relatively) recent arrivals ‘Dangerous Dan’ and ‘Tricky Dicky’ precede a large section on ‘Eric Wimp (Bananaman)’ which includes a rundown on ‘Bananaman’s Fiendish Foes’.

Unlucky lad ‘Calamity James’ is followed by the Numskulls ‘Lurking Unseen’ lead to a self-help section detailing ‘How to be a Top Beanotown Resident’ and sharing ‘Beanotown Friendship’ rituals, leading to a rundown of ‘Beanotown’s History’, ‘Where to Go’, ‘What to Do’ and graphic lectures on ‘Sport and Leisure’ with a few helpful scenes to visit, after which‘Wildlife’ sets a thrilling agenda and ‘Baby Minder’ suggests individuals every parent should have on speed dial…

Moving on to the end of our tour, ‘Beanotown’s Secrets’ lists unmissable sites you might have overlooked while ‘Perfect Pranks’ suggest some anarchic homework for later, rounded up lists of ‘Where Not to Go for Help’ and ‘Where to Go for Help’.

And because it’s not a proper day out without one, this lovely tome concludes with a ‘Beanotown Quiz’ immediately followed by the ‘Answers’

Slick, sleek, jolly and amazingly compelling, this is a perfect delight to bolster any kid’s introduction or re-submersion in a truly British icon.
A Beano Studios Product © D.C. Thomson Ltd 2020

“The Beano” ® © and associated characters ™© D.C. Thomson & Co., Ltd 2007. All Rights Reserved.

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 http://www.nbmpub.com/

Cage!


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.