Showcase Presents the Losers Volume 1

By Robert Kanigher, Russ Heath, Joe Kubert, Ross Andru & Mike Esposito, John Severin, Ken Barr & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-3437-9-8

Team-ups are a valuable standby of comics, and war stories have always thrived by mixing strange bedfellows together. None more so than this splendid composite: another woefully neglected series in today’s modern print/digital graphic novels marketplace.

The Losers were an elite unit of American soldiers formed by amalgamating three old war series together. Gunner and Sarge (later supplemented by the Fighting Devil Dog Pooch) were Pacific-based Marines; debuting in All-American Men of War #67, (March1959) and running for fifty issues in Our Fighting Forces (#45-94, May 1959-August 1965), whilst Captain Johnny Cloud was a native American fighter pilot who shot down his first bogie in All-American Men of War #82.

The “Navaho Ace” flew solo until issue #115, (1966) and entered a brief limbo until the final component of the Land/Air/Sea team was filled by Captain Storm, a disabled PT Boat skipper who fought on despite his wooden left leg in his own eponymous 18-issue series from 1964 to 1967. All three series were created by comicbook warlord Robert Kanigher.

The characters had all pretty much passed their individual use-by dates when they were teamed-up as guest-stars in a Haunted Tank tale in 1969 (G.I. Combat #138 October), but these “Losers” found a new resonance together in the relevant, disillusioned, cynical Vietnam years and their somewhat nihilistic, doom-laden group anti-hero adventures took the lead spot in Our Fighting Forces #123 for a run of blistering yarns written by Kanigher and illustrated by such giants as Ken Barr, Russ Heath, Sam Glanzman, John Severin and Joe Kubert.

With the tag-line “even when they win, they lose” the team saw action all over the globe, winning critical acclaim and a far-too-small but passionate following. This magnificent monochrome tome collects that introductory tale from the October 1969 G.I. Combat and the complete formative run of suicidal missions from Our Fighting Forces #123-150 (January /February 1970-August/September 1974), after which comicbook messiah Jack Kirby took over the series for a couple of years and made it, as always, uniquely his own. For that seminal set you must see Jack Kirby’s The Losers Omnibus (no really, you must. That’s an order, Soljer…)

Kanigher often used his stories as a testing ground for new series ideas, and G.I. Combat #138 (October 1969) introduced one of his most successful. ‘The Losers!’, illustrated by the magnificent hyper-realist Russ Heath, saw the Armoured Cavalry heroes of the Haunted Tank encounter a sailor, two marines and grounded pilot Johnny Cloud, each individually and utterly demoralised after negligently losing all the men under their respective commands.

Guilt-ridden and broken, the battered relics were inspired by tank commander Jeb Stuart who fanned their sense of duty and desire for vengeance until the crushed survivors regained a measure of respect and fighting spirit by uniting in a combined suicide-mission to destroy a Nazi Radar tower…

By the end of 1969 Dirty Dozen knock-off Hunter’s Hellcats had long outlived their shelf-life in Our Fighting Forces and with #123 (January/February 1970) evacuated in the epilogue ‘Exit Laughing’ which segued directly into ‘No Medals No Graves’, illustrated by Scottish artist Ken Barr (whose stunning work in paint and line has graced everything from Commando Picture Library covers, through Marvel, DC and Warren, to film, book and TV work) and picked up the tale as Storm, Cloud, Gunner and Sarge sat in enforced, forgotten idleness until the aforementioned Lieutenant Hunter recommended them for a dirty, dangerous job no sane military men would touch…

It appears Storm was a dead ringer for a British agent – even down to the wooden leg – and the Brass needed the washed-up sailor to impersonate their vital human resource. The only problem is that they wanted him to be captured, withstand Nazi torture for 48 hours and then break, delivering damaging disinformation about a vast commando raid that wouldn’t be happening…

The agent would do it himself but he was actually dead…

And there was even work for his despondent companions as a disposable diversionary tactic added to corroborate the secrets Storm should hopefully betray after two agonising days…

Overcoming all expectation the “Born Losers” triumphed and even got away intact, after which Ross Andru & Mike Esposito became the regular art team in #124 when ‘Losers Take All’ showed how even good luck was bad, after a mission to liberate the hostage king of a Nazi-subjugated nation saw them doing all the spectacular hard work before losing their prize to Johnny-come-lately regular soldiers…

‘Daughters of Death’ in #125 found the suicide squad initially fail to rescue a scientist’s children only to blisteringly return and rectify their mistakes, Of course, by then the nervous tension had cracked the Professor’s mind, rendering him useless to the Allied cause…

‘A Lost Town’ opened with The Losers undergoing a Court Martial for desertion. Reviled for allowing the obliteration of a French village, they faced execution until an old blind man and his two grandkids revealed what really happened in the hellish conflagration of Perdu, whilst in ‘Angels Over Hell’s Corner’ a brief encounter with a pretty WREN (Women’s Royal Navy Service) in Blitz-beleaguered Britain drew the unit into a star-crossed love affair that even death itself could not thwart…

In a portmanteau tale which disclosed more details of the events which created The Losers, Our Fighting Forces #128 described the ‘7 11 War’ wherein a hot streak during a casual game of craps presaged disastrous calamity for any unlucky bystander near to the Hard Luck Heroes, after which ‘Ride the Nightmare’ saw Cloud endure horrifying visions and crack up on a mission to liberate a captive rocket scientist, before the team again became a living diversion in #130’s ‘Nameless Target’. However, by getting lost and hitting the wrong target, The Losers gifted the Allies with their greatest victory to date…

John Severin inked Andru in OFF #131, in preparation to taking over the full art chores on the series, and ‘Half a Man’ hinted at darker, grittier tales to come when Captain Storm’s disability and guilty demons began to overwhelm him. Considering himself a jinx, the sea dog attempted to sacrifice himself on a mission to Norway but had not counted on his own brutal will to survive…

Back in London, Gunner & Sarge were temporarily reunited with ‘Pooch: the Winner’ (#132 by Kanigher & Severin), prompting a fond if perilous recollection of an exploit against the Japanese in the distant Pacific. However, fearing their luck was contagious, the soldiers sadly decided the beloved “Fighting Devil Dog” was better off without them…

Dispatched to India in #133’s ‘Heads or Tails’, The Losers were ordered to assassinate the “the Unholy Three” – Japanese Generals responsible for untold slaughter amongst the British and native populations. In sweltering lethal jungles, they only succeeded thanks to the determined persistence and sacrifice of a Sikh child hiding a terrible secret.

Our Fighting Forces #134 saw them brutally fighting from shelled house to hedgerow in Europe until Gunner cracked. When even his partners couldn’t get him to pick up a gun again it took the heroic example of indomitable wounded soldiers to show him who ‘The Real Losers’ were…

Issue #135 began a superb extended epic which radically shook up the team after ‘Death Picks a Loser’. Following an ill-considered fortune telling incident in London, the squad shipped out to Norway to organise a resistance cell, despite efforts to again sideline the one-legged Storm. They rendezvoused with Pastor Tornsen and his daughter Ona and began by mining the entire village of Helgren, determined to deny the Nazis a stable base of operations.

Even after the Pastor sacrificed himself to allow the villagers and Americans time to escape, the plan stumbled when the explosives failed to detonate and Storm, convinced he was a liability, detonated the bombs by hand…

Finding only his wooden leg in the flattened rubble, The Losers were further stunned when the vengeful orphan Ona volunteered to take the tragic sailor’s place in the squad of Doomed Men…

The ice-bound retreat from Helgren stalled in #136 when she offered herself as a ‘Decoy for Death’ leading German tanks into a lethal ambush, after which Cloud soloed in a mission to the Pacific where he found himself inspiring natives to resist the Japanese as a resurrected ‘God of the Losers’

Reunited in OFF #138, the Bad Luck Brigade became ‘The Targets’ when sent to uncover the secret of a new Nazi naval weapon sinking Allied shipping. Once more using Ona as bait they succeed in stunning fashion, but also pick up enigmatic intel regarding a crazy one-eyed, peg-legged marauder attacking both Enemy and Allied vessels off Norway…

Our Fighting Forces #139 introduced ‘The Pirate’, when a band of deadly reivers attacked a convoy ship carrying The Losers and supplies to the Norwegian resistance. Barely escaping with their lives the Squad was then sent to steal a sample of a top secret jet fuel but discovered the Sea Devil had beaten them to it.

Forced to bargain with the merciless mercenary for the prototype, they found themselves in financial and combat competition with an equally determined band of German troops who simply wouldn’t take no for an answer…

‘Lost… One Loser’ revealed that Ona had been with Storm at the end and was now plagued by a survivor’s guilty nightmares. Almost convincing her comrades that he still lived, she led the team on another mission into Norway, the beautiful traumatised girl again used herself as a honey trap to get close to a German bigwig and found incontrovertible proof that Storm was dead when she picked up his battered, burned dog-tag…

Still troubled, she commandeered a plane and flew back to her home to assassinate her Quisling uncle in #141’s ‘The Bad Penny’, only to be betrayed to the town’s German garrison and saved by the pirate who picked that moment to raid the occupied village for loot.

Even with the other Losers in attendance the Pirate’s rapacious rogues were ultimately triumphant but when the crippled corsair snatched Ona’s most treasured possession, the dingy dog-tag unlocked many suppressed memories and Storm (this is comics: who else could it be?) remembered everything…

Answers to his impossible survival came briskly in OFF #142 and ‘½ a Man’ concentrated on the Captain’s struggle to be reinstated. Shipping out to the Far East on a commercial vessel, he was followed by his concerned comrades and stumbled into an Arabian insurrection with three war-weary guardian angels discreetly dogging his heel.

Back with The Losers again in #143, Storm was soon involved in another continued saga as ‘Diamonds are for Never!’ found the Fatalistic Five sent to Africa to stop an SS unit from hijacking industrial diamonds for their failing war effort. However, even after liberating a captured mine from the enemy, the gems eluded the team as a pack of monkeys made off with the glittering prizes…

Hot on their trail in ‘The Lost Mission’ the pursuers stumble onto a Nazi ambush of British soldiers and determine to take on their task – demolishing an impregnable riverside fortress…

Despite being successful the Squad are driven inland and become lost in the desert where they stumble into a French Foreign Legion outpost and join its last survivor in defending ‘A Flag for Losers’ from a merciless German horde and French traitor

Still lost in the trackless wastes they survived ‘The Forever Walk!’ in #146, battling equally-parched Nazis for the last precious drops of water and losing one of their own to a terrifying sandstorm…

In ‘The Glory Road!’ the sun-baked survivors encountered the last survivor of a German ambush, but British Major Cavendish seemed unable to differentiate between his early days as a star of patriotic films and grim reality and when a German patrol captures them all the mockery proves too much for the troubled martinet…

Again lost and without water, in #148 ‘The Last Charge’ saw The Losers save a desert princess and give her warrior father a chance to fulfil a prophecy and die in glorious battle against the Nazi invaders, whilst #149 briefly reunited the squad with their long-missing member before tragically separating again in ‘A Bullet for a Traitor!’

This volume concludes with ‘Mark our Graves’ in #150 as The Losers linked up with members of The Jewish Brigade (a special British Army unit) who all paid a steep price to uncover a secret Nazi supply dump…

Although a superbly action-packed and moving tale, it was an inauspicious end to the run and one which held no hint of the creative culture-shock which would explode in the pages of the next instant issue when the God of American Comicbooks blasted in to create a unique string of “Kirby Klassics”…

With covers by Joe Kubert, Frank Thorne and Neal Adams, this grimly efficient, superbly understated and beautifully rendered collection is a brilliant example of how war comics changed forever in the 1970s and proves that these stories still pack a TNT punch few other forms of entertainment can hope to match.
© 1969, 1970, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1974, 2012 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Showcase Presents Jonah Hex volume 1


By John Albano, Arnold Drake, Michael Fleisher, Robert Kanigher, Denny O’Neil, Tony DeZuñiga, Noly Panaligan, Doug Wildey, George Moliterni, José Luis García-López, Gil Kane, Jim Aparo & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-0760-1

These days comics fans are not well-served in regard to genre fare. Although Marvel has gone a long way towards recovering (at least in digital formats) its back catalogue of war, crime horror and western yarns, DC – which arguably excels in all those categories as well as teen humour and funny animal publications – seems content to let such riches lie fallow.

So if you want classic material you need to look at older offerings such as their wonderful Showcase Presents archive line…

The Western is an odd story-form which can almost be sub-divided into two discrete halves: the sparkly, shiny version that dominated kids’ books, comics and television for decades, best typified by Zane Grey stories and heroes such as Roy Rogers and Gene Autry… and the other stuff.

That sort of cowboy tale – grimy, gritty, excessively dark – was done best for years by Europeans in such strips as Jean-Michel Charlier’s Lieutenant Blueberry or Bonelli and Galleppini’s Tex Willer, which made their way into US culture through the films of Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone.

Jonah Hex was always the latter sort.

DC – or National Periodicals as it then was – had run a notable stable (sorry!) of clean-cut gunslingers since the collapse of the super-hero genre in 1949, with such dashing – and immensely readable – luminaries as Johnny Thunder, The Trigger Twins, Nighthawk, Matt Savage and dozens of others in a marketplace that seemed limitless in its voracious hunger for chaps in chaps. However, all things end and comic tastes are notoriously fickle, and by the early sixties the sagebrush brigade had dwindled to a few venerable properties as an onslaught of costumed super-characters assaulted the newsstands and senses.

They too would temporarily pass…

As the 1960s closed, the thematic changes in the cinematic Cowboy filtered through to a comics industry suffering its second superhero retreat in twenty years. Although a critical success, the light-hearted Western series Bat Lash couldn’t garner a solid following, but DC, desperate for a genre that readers would warm to, retrenched and revived an old and revered title, gambling once again on heroes who were no longer simply boy scouts with six-guns.

All-Star Western #1 was released with an August/September 1970 cover date, packed with Pow-Wow Smith reprints, and became an all-new anthology title with its second bi-monthly issue.

The magazine was allocated a large number of creative all-stars, including Robert Kanigher, Neal Adams, Gray Morrow, Al Williamson, Gil Kane, Angelo Torres, and Dick Giordano, working on such strips as Outlaw!, Billy the Kid and the cult sleeper hit El Diablo, which combined shoot-’em-up shenanigans with supernatural chills, in deference to the true hit genre that saved comics in those dark days.

But it wasn’t until issue #10 and the introduction of a disfigured and irascible bounty hunter created by writer John Albano & Tony DeZuñiga that the company found its greatest and most enduring Western warrior.

This superb collection of the early appearances of Hex has been around for a few years, so consider this a heartfelt attempt to generate a few sales and lots of interest…

But before we even get to the meat of the review let’s look at the back of this wonderfully economical black-&-white gunfest where some of those abortive experimental series have been included at no added expense.

Outlaw was created by Kanigher and DeZuñiga, a generation gap drama wherein Texas Ranger Sam Wilson is compelled by duty to hunt down his troubled and wayward son Rick. Over four stylish chapters – ‘Death Draw’, ‘Death Deals the Cards!’ (#3, illustrated by Gil Kane), ‘No Coffin for a Killer’ and the trenchant finale ‘Hangman Never Loses’ (#5, drawn by Jim Aparo), the eternal struggles of Good and Evil, Old and New effectively played out, all strongly influenced by Clint Eastwood Spaghetti Westerns.

The series was replaced by one of the best and definitely the most radical interpretation of Billy the Kid ever seen in comics; a sardonic, tragic vengeance-saga that begins with the hunt for the killer of Billy’s father and develops into a poignant eulogy for the passing of an era.

Billy’s quest (‘Billy the Kid… Killer’, Bullet for a Gambler’ and ‘The Scavenger’: all by Albano & DeZuñiga) ran in issues #6-8. The book closes with a classic spooky Western tale from issue #7: ‘The Night of the Snake’ was written by Gil Kane & Denny O’Neil, and strikingly illustrated by Kane & DeZuñiga, clearly showing each creator’s love for the genre…

As good as those lost gems are, the real star of this tome is the very model of the modern anti-hero, Jonah Hex, who first appeared in All-Star Comics #10: a vulgarly coarse and callous bounty hunter clad in a battered Confederate Grey tunic and hat.

With half his face lost to some hideous past injury he was a brutal thug little better than the scum he hunted and certainly a man to avoid. ‘Welcome to Paradise’ by Albano & DeZuñiga introduced the character and his world in a powerful action thriller, with a subtle sting of sentimentality that anyone who has seen the classic Western Shane cannot fail to appreciate.

From the first set-up Albano was constantly hinting at the tortured depths hidden behind Hex’s hellishly scarred visage and deadly proficiency. In ‘The Hundred Dollar Deal’ (#11) the human killing machine encounters a wholesome young couple who aren’t at all what they seem and the scripts took on an even darker tone from #12. The comic had been re-titled Weird Western Tales (aligning it with the company’s highly successful horror/mystery books) and ‘Promise to a Princess’ combine charm and tragedy in the tale of a little Pawnee girl and the White Man’s insatiable greed and devilish ingenuity.

From the very start the series sought to redress some of the most unpalatable motifs of old-style cowboy literature and any fan of films like Soldier Blue and Little Big Man or Dee Brown’s iconoclastic book Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee will feel a grim sense of vicarious satisfaction and redress at most of the stories here.

There’s also a huge degree of world-weary cynicism that wasn’t to be found in other comics until well past the Watergate Scandal, when America as a whole lost its social and political innocence…

Issue #13 ‘The Killer’s Last Wish!’ again tugged the heartstrings in the tale of a lovable old man and his greedy, impatient son, with Hex the unlikely arbiter of final justice. ‘Killers Die Alone!’ is an vicious tear jerker as Hex’s only friend dies to save him from the vengeance of killers who blame the bounty man for their brother’s death, whilst ‘Grasshopper Courage’ (#16 – Hex didn’t appear in #15) displays a shrewd grasp of human nature as Hex and an inept young sheriff track a gang of stagecoach robbers.

‘The Hangin’ Woman’ in #17 is a classy thriller wherein Hex runs afoul of a sadistic harridan who rules her hometown with hemp and hot lead, after which ‘The Hoax’ finds him embroiled in a gold-rush scam that – as usual – ends bloody.

With this tale the length of the stories, always growing, finally reached the stage where they pushed everything else out of the comic for the first time. Before too long the situation would become permanent. ‘Demon on my Trail’ in #19 dealt with kidnapping and racism, whilst ‘Blood Brothers’ (written by Arnold Drake) again addressed Indian injustice as Hex is hired by the US Cavalry to track down a woman stolen by a charismatic “redskin”.

Albano returned for ‘The Gunfighter’, as an injured Hex at last hinted about his veiled past while tracking a gang of killers, but it was new writer Michael Fleisher (assisted at first by Russell Carley) who would reveal Hex’s secrets beginning with Weird Western Tales #22’s ‘Showdown at Hard Times’.

A chance meeting in a stagecoach sets a cabal of ex-Confederate soldiers on the trail of their former comrade for some unrevealed betrayal that inevitably ends in a six-gun bloodbath and introduces a returning nemesis for the grizzled gunslinger.

More is revealed in ‘The Point Pyrrhus Massacre!’ as another gang of Southern malcontents attempt to assassinate President Ulysses Grant, with Hex crossing their gun-sights for good measure.

Issue #24 was illustrated by Noly Panaligan, and ‘The Point Pyrrhus Aftermath!’ finds the grievously wounded Hex a sitting duck for every gunman hot to make his reputation, and depending for his life on the actions of a down-and-out actor…

‘Showdown with the Dangling Man’ looked at shady land deals and greedy businessmen with a typically jaundiced eye – and grisly imagination – whilst train-robbers were the bad-guys in the superb ‘Face-Off with the Gallagher Boys!’, illustrated by the inimitable Doug Wildey. Issue #27, by Fleisher & Panaligan featured ‘The Meadow Springs Crusade’ as the bounty hunter is hired to protect suffragettes agitating for women’s rights in oh-so-liberal Kansas, before ‘Stagecoach to Oblivion’ (drawn by George Moliterni) sees him performing the same service for a gold-shipping company.

Hex’s awful past is finally revealed in #29’s ‘Breakout at Fort Charlotte’, a 2-part extravaganza that gorily concludes with ‘The Trial’ (illustrated by Moliterni), as a battalion of Confederate veterans pass judgement on the man they believe to be the worst traitor in the history of the South.

‘Gunfight at Wolverine’ is a powerful variation on the legend of Doc Holliday after which the Hex portion of the book concludes with a 2-part adventure from Weird Western Tales #32 and 33, drawn by the great José Luis García-López.

‘Bigfoot’s War’ and ‘Day of the Tomahawk’ is a compelling tale of intrigue, honour and double-cross as Hex is again hired to rescue a white girl from those incorrigible “injuns” – and, as usual, hasn’t been told the full story…

Jonah Hex is the most unique and original character in cowboy comics, darkly comedic, rousing, chilling and cathartically satisfying. It’s a Western for those who despise the form whilst being the perfect modern interpretation of a great storytelling tradition. No matter what your reading preference, this is a collection you don’t want to miss.
© 1970-1976, 2008 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

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


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

In the 17th century a British sailor survived an attack by pirates, and, washing ashore in Africa, swore on the skull of his murdered father to dedicate his life and that of all his descendants to destroying all pirates and criminals. The Phantom fights crime and injustice from a base deep in the jungles of Bengali, and throughout Africa is known as the “Ghost Who Walks”.

His unchanging appearance and unswerving quest for justice have led to him being considered an immortal avenger by the credulous and the wicked. Down the decades one hero after another has fought and died in an unbroken line, and the latest wearer of the mask, indistinguishable from the first, continues the never-ending battle…

Lee Falk created the Jungle Avenger at the request of his syndicate employers who were already making history, public headway and loads of money with his first strip sensation Mandrake the Magician

Although technically not the first ever costumed hero in comics, The Phantom was the prototype paladin to wear a skin-tight body-stocking, and the first to have a mask with opaque eye-slits.

He debuted on February 17th 1936 in an extended sequence that pitted him against a global confederation of pirates called the Singh Brotherhood. Falk wrote and drew the daily strip for the first two weeks before handing artist Ray Moore the illustration side. The Sunday feature began in May 1939.

For such a successful, long-lived and influential series, in terms of compendia or graphic novel collections, The Phantom has been very poorly served by the English language market. Various small companies have tried to collect the strips – one of the longest continually running adventure serials in publishing history – but in no systematic or chronological order and never with any sustained success.

But, even if it were only of historical value (or just printed for Australians, who have long been manic devotees of the implacable champion) surely “Kit Walker” is worthy of a definitive chronological compendium series?

Happily, his comic book adventures have fared slightly better – at least in recent times…

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

The Phantom was no stranger to funnybooks, having been featured since the Golden Age in titles such as Feature Book and Harvey Hits, but only as straight strip reprints. These Gold Key exploits were tailored to a big page and a young readership.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yoko Tsuno volume 6: The Morning of the World


By Roger Leloup translated by Jerome Saincantin (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-1-84918-082-5

Indomitable intellectual adventurer Yoko Tsuno debuted in 1970 with the September 24th 1970 edition of Le Journal de Spirou and is still delighting regular readers and making new fans to this day. Her astounding all-action, uncannily accessible exploits are amongst the most intoxicating, absorbing and broad-ranging comics thrillers ever created.

The globe-girdling, space-&-time-spanning serial saga of the slim, slight Japanese technologist-investigator was devised by monumentally multi-talented Belgian maestro Roger Leloup who began his spellbinding solo career after working as a studio assistant on Hergé’s Adventures of Tintin.

Compellingly told, superbly imaginative and – no matter how implausible the premise of any individual yarn – always solidly grounded in hyper-realistic settings underpinned by authentic, unshakably believable technology and scientific principles, Leloup’s illustrated escapades were at the vanguard of a wave of strips revolutionising European comics in the mid-1970s.

That long-overdue attitude adjustment saw the rise of many competent, clever and brave female protagonists, all taking their places as heroic ideals beside the boys to uniformly elevate Continental comics. Best of all, the majority of their exploits are as engaging and empowering now as they ever were, and none more so than the trials and tribulations of Yoko Tsuno.

Her very first outings (the still unavailable and untranslated Hold-up en hi-fi, La belle et la bête and Cap 351) were simple introductory vignettes before the superbly capable engineer and her valiant if less able male comrades Pol Paris and Vic Van Steen properly hit their stride with premier full-length saga Le trio de l’étrange in 1971 in Spirou’s May 13th issue…

There have been 28 European albums to date – with a 29th being completed as we read this…

Yoko’s exploits include explosive escapades in exotic corners of our world, time-travelling jaunts and sinister deep-space sagas with the secretive, disaster-prone alien colonists from planet Vinea. However, for the majority of English translations thus far, the close encounters have been more-or-less side-lined in favour of intriguing Earthly exploits, but this tale stays strictly Earthbound while plumbing the depths of the fantastic…

Today’s particular tale was originally serialised in Spirou #2613-2630 and collected in 1988 as 17th album Le Matin du monde. Due to the exigencies of publishing it reached English eyes as Yoko’s sixth Cinebook outing; a time-bending mystery of glamour and action shedding a fraction of light on Yoko’s own shrouded origins…

It begins with Yoko and her new ward Morning Dew testing a new jet over Indonesia before reuniting with temporal refugee Monya. This time-travelling expatriate from 3872 AD (see The Time Spiral for further details) has had to settle in the present after her own timeline was overwritten, but she’s had a hard time adjusting and despite her best intentions regularly risks catastrophe by visiting other time-periods…

Monya originally came back in time to prevent a scientific experiment which would have resulted in Earth’s destruction by her own era. The voyager witnessed her father’s death and the planet turned to a cinder, relative moments before arriving in Yoko’s locale, so her predilection for exploration and meddling in earlier time periods is perhaps understandable…

Now, though, she’s gone too far: stealing a gold statue from its rightful era and endangering the life of a native…

Urgently summoned to help fix things, Yoko, Vic and Pol are quickly apprised of the situation. Monya has taken a sacred temple statue of a dancer from 1350 AD, a short time before history records the eruption of the Agung volcano and eradication of the entire community and civilisation dwelling there. Technically, Monya’s actions should cause no disruption to the timeline, but it has resulted in the long-dead priests condemning native dancer Narki to death for the crime…

A heated debate over the morality of keeping the immensely valuable statue versus using their time machine and attempting to save the life of a woman already dead for centuries consumes the adults. It only ends when Monya’s new acquaintance Mike – an obsessive religious fanatic – traps them all in the barn housing the chronal craft and sets it afire.

Compelled to use the time engine to save themselves, the entire party is plunged back to 1350 where Narki is condemned to die…

Befriending the local villagers, the travellers learn that the innocent scapegoat has been taken to the capital. Swiftly following, Yoko and Monya find her in a drugged state and determined to sacrifice herself to “winged demons” plaguing the city. Most confusingly, as they struggle to rouse her, Yoko realises that – somehow – she recognises the doomed Narki…

Desperate for solutions, Monya tries unsuccessfully to return the statue to the Brahmin priests, even as Yoko and her comrades assemble some clever 20th century kit they’d providentially stowed aboard the time-ship. Despite all their efforts, Narki is left to the mercies of the demons, and only Yoko and Vic’s spectacular intervention saves her from what turn out to be savage survivors of antediluvian vintage…

Yet, even after destroying one of the flying monsters and snapping Narki out of her trance, the future heroes are unable to save the damsel in distress. Accusing them of killing the gods’ messenger, Narki swears to throw herself into the now-erupting Agung volcano to expiate her sins and save everybody…

That pointless gesture is applauded by the priests, but again thwarted by Yoko and Vic, who snatch the dancer from the edge of fiery doom. They are, however, helpless to save the rest of the populace from the inescapable judgement of history and one of the greatest volcanic eruptions of all time…

Now the sole survivor of her civilisation, Narki makes no protest as Monya relocates her to another time and place she has extensively studied. And when the survivor is left with villagers in 1520 AD Borneo, Yoko realises with a shock how she knows the tragic temple dancer…

Complex, rocket-paced, explosively exciting and subtly suspenseful, this beguiling brush with paradox and passion blazes with thrills and chills, delivering a powerfully moving denouement which again affirms Yoko Tsuno as a top-flight trouble-shooter.

As always, the most effective asset in these breathtaking tales is the amazingly authentic and staggeringly detailed draughtsmanship and storytelling, which superbly benefits from Leloup’s diligent research and meticulous attention to detail.

The Morning of the World is an epic fantasy spectacle to delight and enthral all lovers of inventive adventure.

Original edition © Dupuis, 1988 by Roger Leloup. All rights reserved. English translation 2011 © Cinebook Ltd.

Betty Boop volumes 1-3


By Bud Counihan (Blackthorne Publishing/Comic Strip Preserves)
ISBNs: 0-932629-33-4, 0-932629-47-4 and 0-932629-69-5

Betty Boop is one of the most famous and long-lived fictional media icons on the planet. She’s also probably the one who has generated the least amount of narrative creative material – as opposed to simply merchandise – per year since debuting.

The ultimate passion paragon was created at the Fleischer Cartoon Studios either by Max Fleischer himself or cartoonist/animator Grim Natwick – depending on whoever you’ve just read – premiering in the monochrome animated short movie feature Dizzy Dishes. This was the sixth “Talkartoon” release from the studio, screening for the first time on August 9th 1930.

A deliberately racy sex-symbol from the start, Betty was based on silent movie star Clara Bow. The “the It-Girl” (as in “she’s got…”) was originally anthropomorphised into a sexy French Poodle; voiced in those pioneering days of “the talkies” by a succession of actresses including Margie Hines, Kate Wright, Ann Rothschild and Mae Questel who all mimicked Bow’s soft and seductive (no, really!) Brooklyn accent.

Betty evolved into a fully – if wickedly distorted – human girl by 1932’s Any Rags and, having co-opted and monopolised the remaining Talkartoons, graduated to the Screen Songs featurettes before winning her own animated cartoon series, to reign as “The Queen of the Animated Screen” until the end of the decade.

A Jazz Age flapper in the Depression Era, the delectable Miss Boop was probably the first sex-charged teen-rebel of the 20th Century, yet remained winningly innocent and knowledgably chaste throughout her career. Thus, she became astoundingly, incredibly popular – although her ingenue appeal diminished appreciably when the censorious Hayes Production Code cleaned up all the smut and fun coming out of Hollywood in 1934 – even though the Fleisher Studio was New York born and bred…

Saucy singer Helen Kane, who had performed in a sexy “Bow-esque” Brooklyn accent throughout the 1920s and was billed as “The Boop-Oop-A-Doop Girl” famously sued for “deliberate caricature” in 1932. Although she ultimately failed in her suit, even Betty couldn’t withstand a prolonged assault by the National Legion of Decency and the Hayes Code myrmidons.

With all innuendo removed, salacious movements restricted and drawn in much longer skirts, Betty gained a boyfriend and family whilst the scripting consciously targeted a younger audience. Her last animated cartoon stories were released in 1939.

The one advantage to Betty’s screen neutering and new wholesome image was that she suddenly became eligible for inclusion on the Funnies pages of family newspapers, romping amidst the likes of Popeye and Mickey Mouse. In 1934 King Features Syndicate launched a daily and Sunday newspaper strip drawn by Bud Counihan, a veteran ink-slinger who had created the Little Napoleon strip in the 1920s before becoming Chic Young’s assistant on Blondie.

The Betty Boop comic strip never really caught on and was cancelled early in 1937, but that relatively short run still leaves us with these three rather charming and wistfully engaging volumes, collected and edited by comics aficionado and historian Shel Dorf as part of Blackthorne’s low-budget 1980s reprint program, alongside other hard-to-find classics such as Tales of the Green Berets and Star Hawks, and one possibly never to be collected again elsewhere, more’s the pity…

There was a brief flurry of renewed Betty activity during the 1980s, leading to a couple of TV specials, a comic-book from First Comics Betty Boop’s Big Break (1990) and another newspaper strip Betty Boop and Felix by Brian Walker (son of Beetle Bailey and Hi & Lois creator Mort Walker).

That one she shared with fellow King Features nostalgia alumnus Felix the Cat and it ran from 1984-1988, but that’s still a pretty meagre complete canon for a lady of Betty’s fame, longevity and pedigree.

As stated, the collected strips in these Blackthorne editions feature the freshly-sanitised, family-oriented heroine of the later 1930s, but for devotees of the era and comics fans in general the strip still retains a unique and abiding screwball charm. Counihan’s Betty is still oddly, innocently coquettish: a saucy thing with too-short skirts and skimpy apparel (some of the outfits – especially bathing costumes – would raise eyebrows even now), and although the bald innuendo that made her a star is absent, these snappy exploits of a street-wise young thing trying to “make it” as a Hollywood starlet are plenty racy enough when viewed through the knowing and sexually adroit eyes of 21st century readers…

Book 1 of this cheap ‘n’ cheerful black-and-white series opens with an extended sequence of gag-a-day instalments that combine to form an epic comedy-of-errors as Betty’s lawyers do litigious battle with movie directors and producers. Their aim is to arrive at the perfect contract for all parties – clearly a war that rages to this day in Tinseltown – whilst labouring under the cost restrictions of what was still, after all, The Great Depression.

The full-page Sunday strips are presented in a separate section, but even with twice the panel-count the material was still broadly slapstick, cunning wordplay, single joke stories. However, one of these does introduce the first of an extended cast, Betty’s streetwise baby brother Bubby: a certified cinematic rapscallion to act as a chaotic foil to the star’s affably sweet, knowingly dim complacency.

There’s a succession of romantic leading men (usually called “Van” something-or-other) but none stick around for long as Betty builds her career, and eventually the scenario changes to a western setting as cast and crew begin making Cowboy Pictures, leading to many weeks’ worth of “Injun Jokes”, but ones working delightfully counter to old and unpleasant stereotypes, before the first volume concludes with the introduction of fearsome lower-class virago Aunt Tillie; chaperone, bouncer and sometime comedy movie extra…

Book 2 (Adventures of a Hollywood Star) continues in the same vein with lawyers, entourage and extras providing the bulk of the humour with Betty increasingly becoming the Straight Man in her own strip except in a recurring gag about losing weight to honour her contract (which stipulates she cannot be filmed weighing more than 100 pounds!)

Geez! Her head alone has got to weigh at least… sorry, I know… just a comic, …

Like many modern stars, Betty had a dual career and there’s a lot of recording industry and song jokes before the Native Americans return to steal the show some more.

Book 3 carries on in what is now a clear and unflinching formula, but with Bubby, Aunt Tillie and her diminutive new beau Hunky Dory increasingly edging Betty out of the spotlight and even occasionally off the page entirely…

By no means a major effort of “the Golden Age of Comics Strips”, Counihan’s Betty Boop (like most licensed syndicated features the strip was “signed” by the copyright holder, in this case Max Fleischer) is still a hugely effective, engaging and entertaining work, splendidly executed and well worthy of a comprehensive and complete compilation, especially in an era where female role models of any vintage remain a scarce resource.

With the huge merchandising empire built around the effervescent little cartoon gamin, waif and houri (everything from apparel to wallpaper, clocks and blankets), surely it isn’t too much to expect a proper home for all the wicked little japes, jests and junkets of her sojourn in sequential art?

Additionally, the second and third books also offer a selection of Paper Doll Bettys with outfits to cut out and colour, designed by Barb Rausch (Neil the Horse, Katy Keene, Barbie, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast among many others) a traditional “added-value” feature of the earliest comic strips that still finds irresistible resonance with much of today’s audience. Just remember, now we can make copies without cutting up those precious originals…
© 1986, 1987 King Features Syndicate. All rights reserved.

The True Death of Billy the Kid


By Rick Geary (NBM)
ISBN: 978-1-68112-134-5

Rick Geary is a unique talent in the comic industry not simply because of his style of drawing but especially because of his method of telling tales.

For decades he toiled as an Underground cartoonist and freelance illustrator of strange tales and wry oddments, published in locales as varied as Heavy Metal, Epic Illustrated, Twisted Tales, Bop, National Lampoon, Vanguard, Bizarre Sex, Fear and Laughter, Gates of Eden, RAW and High Times.

For these illustrious venues he honed a unique ability to create sublimely understated stories by stringing together seemingly unconnected streams of narrative to compose tales moving, often melancholy and always beguiling.

Discovering his natural oeuvre with works including biographies of J. Edgar Hoover or Trotsky and his multi-volumed Treasury of Victorian Murder series, Geary has grown into a grand master and towering presence in both comics and True Crime literature.

His graphic reconstructions of some of the most infamous murders ever committed since policing began combine a superlative talent for laconic prose, incisive observation and meticulously detailed pictorial extrapolation. These are filtered through a fascination with and understanding of the lethal propensities of humanity as his forensic eye scours police blotters, newspaper archives and history books to compile irresistibly enthralling documentaries.

In 2008 he turned to the last century for an ongoing Treasury of XXth Century Murder series, focusing on scandals which seared the headlines during the “Gilded Age” of suburban middleclass America. He has not, however, forsaken his delight in fiction nor his gift for graphic biography.

Delivered in stark monochrome in either luxurious collectors’ hardback or accessible eBook editions, his latest fact-finding expedition (originally released in 2014 as an extremely limited run private publication) diligently sifts fact from mythology to detail the demise of perhaps the most legend-laden outlaw in modern history.

The author is a unique talent not simply because of his manner of drawing but because of the subject matter and methodology in the telling of his tales. Geary always presents facts, theories and even contemporary minutiae with absorbing pictorial precision, captivating clarity and devastating dry wit, re-examining each case with a force and power Oliver Stone would envy.

“Being an Authentic Narrative of the Final Days in his Brief And Turbulent Life”, The True Death of Billy the Kid brings the last days of the killer alternatively known as Henry McCarty, Henry Antrim, William H. “Billy” Bonney or “The Kid” vividly into focus, beginning with ‘Chapter One: The Prisoner’ wherein the subject of our scrutiny languishes in cells of the Lincoln County Courthouse of the New Mexico Territory in April 1881.

Destined for the noose on May 13th, the prisoner provides reveries to encapsulate his sorry, short and blood-soaked life to date. Billy’s actions always seemed justified to him – and many others, both friends, comrades-in-arms and supporters – but nonetheless, his doom is assured.

With that thought ever foremost, The Kid determine not to die easy…

Much of the outlaw’s fame stems from the ‘His Greatest Escape’; broken down with mesmerising meticulousness in the Second Chapter and still a remarkable and spectacular feat of sheer bravado to this day, after which ‘Chapter Three: On the Dodge’ depicts his flight across vast tracts of wilderness before arriving in the rural enclave of Fort Sumner: a settlement well-known to Billy and one where he has many admirers…

In the meantime, veteran career lawman Pat Garrett reads reports and ponders before setting out to the one place he suspects his quarry will eventually hole up…

Events move inexorably in ‘Chapter Four: Death at Fort Sumner’ as Garrett and his handpicked deputies traverse the Pecos, arriving clandestinely in the peaceful hamlet on July 14th to begin surveillance before the last confrontation…

As ever supported by clear, informative maps, portraits of all major players and a copious index of sources consulted, this is a beguiling display of seductive storytelling, erudite argument and audacious drawing which makes for an unforgettable read.

Geary’s superb storytelling is a perfect exemplar of how graphic narrative can be so much more than simple fantasy entertainment. His murder masterclasses should be mandatory reading for every mystery addict and crime collector, and part of every school syllabus.
© 2014 Rick Geary.

For more information and other great reads see http://www.nbmpub.com/

Enemy Ace: War Idyll


By George Pratt (DC Comics)
ISBN: 0-930289-78-1 (HB)                978-0930289782 (TPB)

During the 1960s Marvel gave industry leader National (now DC) Comics an artistic and sales drubbing, overhauling their 20-year position as industry leader – but only in the resurgent genre of super-heroes. In such areas as young kids’ comics, teen-comedies and romance, the House of Ideas still lagged behind, and in the venerable and gritty war-comics market they rated lower even than Charlton.

Admittedly they weren’t really trying, with only the highly inconsistent Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos and latterly Captain Savage and his Leatherneck Raiders as publications of any longevity, but that didn’t stop National’s editors and creators from forging ahead: creating a phenomenal number of memorable series and characters to thrill and inform a generation very much concerned with all aspects of military life.

Enemy Ace first appeared as a back-up in issue #151 of flagship war comic Our Army at War (cover-dated February 1965): home of the already legendary Sergeant Rock.

Crafted by the dream-team of Robert Kanigher & Joe Kubert the series told bitter tales of valour and honour from the point of view of German WWI fighter pilot Hans Von Hammer: a pure and noble warrior fighting for his country in a conflict that was swiftly excising all trace of such outmoded concepts from the business of mass-killing.

The tales – loosely based on “Red Baron” Manfred von Richthofen – were a magnificent tribute to the discipline of soldiering whilst wholeheartedly condemning the utter madness of war, produced during the turbulent days of the Vietnam War. They are still moving and powerful beyond belief.

As is this seminal sequel, Enemy Ace: War Idyll. Delineated in moody, misty, strikingly sombre images by painter George Pratt, the story follows the quest of troubled veteran Edward Mannock, a recently returned Vietnam grunt turned photo-journalist. He is a man desperately seeking answers to imponderable questions and great truths to cure the damage his own combat experiences have caused.

1969, and Mannock’s search takes a pivotal turn when, on a routine assignment, he discovers elderly, infirm Von Hammer. The mythic “Hammer of Hell” is dying in a German nursing home but instantly sees that he and the distraught young man share a deep and common bond…

Inexplicably allowed to drop out of print in both hardback and softcover editions and still unavailable in digital formats, this is an astounding, deeply incisive exploration of war, its repercussions, both good and bad, and the effects that combat has on singular men. War Idyll is visceral, poetic, emotive, evocative and terrifyingly instructive: with as much impact as All Quiet on the Western Front or Charley’s War. Every child who wants to be a soldier should be made to read this book.

You don’t want me to talk about it, but you do need to experience it, and once you have you’ll want to share that experience with others…
© 1990, 1998 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

The Wyf of Bath (The Wife of Bath)


By Geoffrey Chaucer, illustrated by Greg Irons (Bellerophon Books)
ISBN: 978-0-88388-023-4

Perhaps I’m just showing off now, but this lost treasure, published in conjunction with a colouring book (The Chaucer Coloring Book, which collected the original woodcut illustrations from Caxton’s 1484 edition of The Canterbury Tales) is a terrific and logical blending of High Art and Our Art and one so very worthy of being republished.

Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, as well as being a venerable and lauded landmark of English literature, was a ribald, earthy, popular and much-loved concatenation of short story character sketches, full of humanity’s every foible and peccadillo. It was rude, crude, action-packed, jammed with incredible situations and even had talking animals…

Thematically, how much closer can you get to the general opinion and popular conception of the comicbook?

Marry that with the art of the irreverent, subversive aesthetic and attitude of the San Francisco underground movement of the early 1970’s and you have a brilliant slice of pop-art history that actually possesses lasting social relevance and educational value.

The text of the Wife of Bath is typeset and in the original continental accentual-syllabic metre which Chaucer used to champion the London-dialect dominance of Middle English.

That means this will make a lot more sense if read aloud phonetically (the book, not my review, and perhaps in a northern English/Manchester accent). Or you could simply look at the stonkingly brilliant and funny, ribald pictures drawn by the astounding Greg Irons.

Although the original softcover is still available through some online retailers, surely some college or publishing house simply has the wherewithal to get this magical book back into print?
Artwork © 1973 Greg Irons. All rights reserved.

Showcase Presents Men of War


By David Michelinie, Robert Kanigher, Roger McKenzie, Jack C. Harris, Cary Burkett, Paul Kupperberg, Ed Davis, Dick Ayers, Jerry Grandenetti, Howard Chaykin, Arvell Jones, Larry Hama, & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-4388-3

In America after the demise of EC Comics in the mid-1950’s and prior to the game-changing Blazing Combat, the only certain place to find controversial, challenging and entertaining American war comics was DC.

In fact, even whilst Archie Goodwin’s stunning but tragically mis-marketed quartet of classics were waking up a generation, the home of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman was a veritable cornucopia of gritty, intriguing and beautifully illustrated battle tales presenting combat on a variety of fronts and from many differing points of view.

Whilst the Vietnam War escalated, 1960s America increasingly endured a Home Front death-struggle pitting deeply-ingrained Establishment social attitudes against a youth-oriented generation with a radical new sensibility. In response DC’s (or rather National Periodical Publishing, as it then was) military-themed comicbooks became even more bold and innovative…

That stellar and challenging creative period came to an end as all strip trends do, but a few of the more impressive and popular features (Sgt. Rock, Haunted Tank, The Losers) survived well into the second superhero revival. One of the most engaging wartime wonders was a notional espionage thriller starring a faceless, nameless hero perpetually in the right place at the right time, ready, willing and so very able to turn the tide one battle at a time…

Currently English-reading fans of war stories are grievously underserved in both print and digital formats, but this magnificent monochrome reprint compendium is still readily available online. It collects the entire contents of Men of War: an all-new new anthology comicbook which debuted in August 1977 and ran 26 issues until March 1980.

Although offering the usual a variety of alternating back-up strips, Men of War controversially starred and cover-featured Gravedigger, a black American GI in WWII fighting prejudice, segregationist policies and blinkered authority as much as Fascist aggression.

The series was originated by scripter David Michelinie with art on the first episode by Ed Davis & Romeo Tanghal as MoW #1 introduced ‘Codename: Gravedigger’: grumbling US soldier Sergeant Ulysses Hazard in France and under fire in the Summer of 1942.

Of course, he had a lot to complain about. Being a negro, Hazard was not permitted to fight beside white enlisted men and could only be assigned to catering services or the Graves Registration team, marking and recovering the fallen.

A hard pill to swallow for a tough-minded ghetto kid who overcame polio, privation, bigots and bullies, and – through sheer determination – turned his body into a physically perfect human weapon.

When he single-handedly saves a French family from a gang of brutal Germans, white soldiers led by Lieutenant Gage claim the credit. The next day Hazard again displays his military superiority by saving the entire unit from a strafing attack, only to be told once more black men can’t fight.

When Ulysses realises he was saving racists whilst his best pal Andy died in the raid, Hazard fixes upon a desperate plan…

Arvell Jones & Tanghal illustrate the next chapter in #2 as Hazard goes AWOL: sneaking back into America to fight ‘The Five-Walled War!’. Breaking into the newly-constructed Pentagon, the outraged warrior battles his way past an army of troops to confront the astounded Undersecretary of War.

A shrewd and ruthless opportunist, the politico sees a chance to create a different kind of soldier and maybe even buy black votes in the next election cycle. Decreeing Hazard a top secret, one-man strike-force and personal suicide squad, with typical unforced irony the demagogue designates his new, extremely expendable toy ‘Codename: Gravedigger’

Issue #3 finds newly-promoted Captain Hazard back in France within days; rescuing Gage and the soldiers who took credit for his actions. Even after they try to arrest him for desertion, Hazard pushes on with his first mission: ‘The Suicide Stratagem’ demanding he invade a mountain-top fortress to clear out a nest of Nazis holding up the entire war effort. No sooner has he done so than Gage and crew burst in to wipe out the survivors… especially any black soldiers who might get in the way…

Evergreen WWI anti-war feature Enemy Ace copped the first tranche of back-up slots for issues #1-3. Executed by Robert Kanigher, Ed Davis & Juan Ortiz, opening chapter ‘Death is a Wild Beast!’ has conflicted, honourable fighter pilot Hans Von Hammer downing a devil-themed British pilot who accomplishes a miraculous ‘Return from Hell!’ in the second instalment before experiencing ‘The Three Faces of Death’ in the final instalment.

As ever, the real meat of the macabre missions is the toll on the minds and bodies of the merely mortal fliers who die while Von Hammer lives on in guilty anguish…

The next triptych of back-ups (in #4-6) introduced New York Courier reporter Wayne Clifford, arriving in London in June 1940 to cover the “European War” for the still-neutral folks back home.

Crafted by Cary Burkett & Jerry Grandenetti ‘Dateline: Frontline’ focuses on the stories behind the war as neophyte Clifford is taken under the wing of veteran wordsmith Ed Barnes and learns some hard truths about propaganda, integrity and necessity after he tries to send back his account of a friendly-fire incident…

More gritty revelations add to the innocent’s education during an air raid spent with hard-pressed Londoners in a tube station in ‘Dateline: Frontline: Human Interest Story’ whilst #7 found the plucky news-hawk at ground zero on top of an unexploded bomb in ‘Dateline: Frontline Countdown!’

In Men of War #4 Dick Ayers took over as penciler as Gravedigger’s ‘Trial by Fire’ explosively ends with the pariah destroying the mountaintop Nazi base and saving Gage’s unit, only to be reviled and attacked by the man he humiliatingly saved, after which #5 welcomed Roger McKenzie as new writer.

Here Gravedigger enters the ‘Valley of the Shadow’ in an Alpine village turned impregnable German stronghold. His mission is to start an avalanche and eradicate the Nazi artillery nest but no one warned him of the captive populace held in the church…

MoW #6 then offers ‘A Choice of Deaths’ (McKenzie, Ayers & Tanghal) as the loner’s daring raid on a prison to free hostages is almost thwarted by the internees’ reluctance to leave behind certain works of art…

Men of War #7 featured Gravedigger’s first full-length exploit. ‘Milkrun’ sees the one-man army ordered to England for further intensive training at the hands of British expert Major Birch, but the journey back with mild-mannered clerk-turned-jeep driver Boston proves to be one of the most eventful rides Hazard has ever taken…

‘Death-Stroke’ leads in #8, as the American’s intensive training includes a potent degree of brainwashing. Unknow to anybody, Birch has been replaced by a Nazi agent who primes Ulysses to murder Winston Churchill

Another Enemy Ace triptych began in the back of #8 and ‘Silent Sky… Screaming Death!!’ (illustrated by Larry Hama & Bob Smith) details a trenchant tale of a family at war. Howard Chaykin took over the illustration as a regulation clash in the sky resulted in attack by vengeful siblings and the return of Von Hammer’s father in ‘Brother Killers!’ (#9), revealing aspects of the German Ace’s own childhood and culminating in a fateful and final ‘Duel at Dawn!’ in #10.

MoW #9’s ‘Gravedigger – R.I.P.’ exposed layer upon layer of deceit and deception. Thanks to a tip-off by investigative reporter Wayne Clifford, Hazard’s assassination attempt is foiled by the Allies’ own master-of-disguise super-agent (no prizes for guessing who) and the brainwashed killer is captured and de-programmed. His death then faked, Hazard clandestinely heads to Berlin to rescue the real Birch…

This issue included extra feature ‘Dateline: Frontline: Bathtub Blues’ by Burkett & Grandenetti. Now stationed in North Africa, Clifford is attached to the British Army and sees for himself the nauseating difference between a braggart and a hero…

Men of War #10 opened with a ‘Crossroads’ reached by Codename: Gravedigger when he is shot down miles short of his Berlin destination and meets a fugitive Jewish family torn apart less by the war than the hatred and horrors that sparked it…

Supplementing the Enemy Ace back-up cited above is another stark and moving Wayne Clifford yarn by Burkett & Grandenetti. ‘Dateline: Frontline: Glory Soldier’ sees the writer caught in the bloody orbit of a gung-ho suicidal British corporal…

In #11 Hazard and his new Jewish comrades invade top secret death camp ‘Berkstaten’ and discovering to his shock and relief that not all Germans are monsters, whilst ‘Dateline: Frontline: Funeral Pyre’ sees Wayne lose his journalistic distance and impartiality after rescuing a baby and being captured by Arab raiders who consider both Germans and British as ruthless invaders…

Jack C. Harris took over writing the lead feature in MoW #12 as ‘Where is Gravedigger?’ sees the black soldier and his youthful Jewish allies finally enter Germany’s capital, even with the entire German army hunting for them. Unfortunately for the hunters, the one place they neglect to check is the torture chamber holding Major Birch…

Kanigher & Chaykin began another doleful, doom-laden Enemy Ace drama in the same issue. ‘Banner of Blood!’ sees the troubled Rittmeister striving to retrieve the Von Hammer family standard from a cunning French air ace who is the latest scion of an ancestral foe.

The tale continued in #13 as Von Hammer’s face-to-face confrontation with ‘The Last Baron!’ leads to the final clash in a centuries-long vendetta with the Comtes de Burgundy ending forever in one last honourable ‘Duel!’

‘Project Gravedigger…Plus One’ was the blockbusting main attraction in #13 as Hazard and Birch blaze and blast their way out of Berlin and back to Britain, where a confrontation with original sponsor the US Undersecretary of War leads to the black warrior taking on a new and freer role in his own affairs.

In Germany, however, outraged bigot and madman Joseph Goebbels takes personal charge of punishing the “subhuman inferior” who has shamed the entire Reich…

Despatched to Egypt in #14, Hazard faces ‘The Swirling Sounds of Death’ when the interception of a crucial Nazi courier is briefly derailed after Gravedigger is captured by Arab bandits. By the time he resumes stalking his target, Ulysses rules the Tuaregs but leads them into disastrously battle with British tanks before being himself taken by his elusive enemy Eric Von King‘The Man with the Opened Eye’

Rounding out the issue are a brace of short combat yarns: underwater demolitions thriller ‘Wolf Pack’ by Bill Kelley, Hama & Jack Abel and American Civil War vignette ‘The Sentry’ by artist Bill Payne and an unknown writer.

A minor visual overhaul for Gravedigger comes with #16’s book-length thriller ‘Hide and Seek the Spy’ as Von King uses Hazard as a human shield during a Panzer assault on the British lines. Although the lone wolf escapes, he will forever bear the scars of his close shave. Worst of all, the slippery courier again eludes him with the critical plans known as Defense Packet 6

Never quitting, Hazard and an elite commando team continue their pursuit in MoW #17 reaching the Nile where a German mini U-boat turns the majestic waterway into ‘The River of Death’. Meanwhile in Germany, Goebbels’ top scientists edge closer to completing the perfect antidote to the Gravedigger’s perpetual interference…

In the back of the issue Paul Kupperberg & Grandenetti introduced a new historical star as ‘Rosa: The Castle Rhinehart Affair Part One’ depicts a 19th century secret agent and international man of mystery tasked in 1870 with ending the Franco-Prussian War by assassinating Bismarck’s top advisor…

The fraught and frantic mission in a strategically vital Schloss concludes in ‘Rosa: The Castle Rhinehart Affair Part Two’ with the master-spy completing his task and consequently uncovering top-level double-dealing amongst his own superiors. A creature of implacable moral fortitude, Rosa has his own cure for treachery…

Gravedigger’s apparent failure is rewarded with another suicidal solo mission in MoW #18 as ‘The Amiens Assault’ covertly returns him to France to extract atomic scientist Monsieur Noir; another doomed mission that gets a miraculous helping hand from French Resistance fighters and ‘An Angel Named Marie’ in #19.

Issues #19-20 (August and September 1979) also featured another Kanigher/Chaykin Enemy Ace back-up tale of nobly idiotic honour and wasted young lives as Von Hammer makes ‘A Promise to the Dying’ and seeks to restore a contentious souvenir to its rightful owner in ‘Death Must Wait!’

For Ulysses Hazard #20 meant a short trip to Sicily to find and destroy a munitions dump reinforcing German forces battling General Patton’s advance in ‘Cry: Jericho’

Men of War #21 provided a novel change of pace and locale as ‘Home – Is Where the Hell Is’ takes Hazard back to America after his mother is taken ill. Even a one-man army despised and reviled by his superiors is eligible for compassionate leave, but nobody realises the entire scheme has been concocted by Goebbels using surgically created doppelgangers to eliminate the black super soldier…

Taking up the rear, the most harrowing phase of Wayne Clifford’s career begins when Burkett & Grandenetti point his nose for news towards the Eastern Front in ‘Dateline: Frontline: Mother Russia’.

Barely surviving passage on a convoy ship and limping into a battered port, the journalist realises the true import of his next story only after meeting starving Russian children…

Ambushed in Atlantic City, New Jersey, Gravedigger opens issue #22 by killing his assailants, sinking a Nazi U-boat and causing a ‘Blackout on the Boardwalk’, after which ‘Dateline: Frontline: Scorched Earth, Crimson Snow’ further explores the Eastern hell as Clifford experiences first hand and up close the siege of Moscow…

Gravedigger’s ‘Mission: Six Feet Under!’ sees him plying his old trade with the Graves Registration unit during a highly suspicious trade of bodies with the Germans. It doesn’t take him long to determine that the American cadavers he’s retrieving have been gimmicked with the vilest form of biological weapon and respond accordingly…

Burkett & Grandenetti then record that ‘Dateline: Frontline: A Quiet Day in Leningrad’ is anything but…

MoW #24 starts a 2-part tale of ‘The Presidential Peril’ as Hazard is detailed to safeguard Franklin Delano Roosevelt on a trip to England that has all manner of Nazi spy and maniac crawling out of the woodwork…

‘Rosa: The Ambassador’s Son Affair Part One’ (Kupperberg & Grandenetti and concluding in the next issue) finds the master of intrigue sharing his (possible) origins with an imperilled junior dignitary in Mexico circa 1867 before #25 sees Gravedigger ‘Save the President’ through a phenomenal display of ingenuity and martial prowess only to be rewarded with an even more impossible mission…

Men of War was cancelled with #26 but went out in a blaze of glory as ‘Night on Nickname Hill’ (Harris, Ayers & Tanghal) sees Hazard despatched to Tunis in March 1943 to link up with Sgt Rock and lead Easy Company against a fortified artillery position: a critical battle that would determine the outcome of the Allies’ campaign in Africa…

With stunning covers by Joe Kubert, Ed Davis and George Evans, this mighty black-&-white treasure trove of combat classics is a type and style of storytelling we’re all the poorer without. Hopefully publishers will wise up soon and begin restoring their like to the wide variety of genre sagas currently available in graphic collections.
© 1977, 1978, 1979, 1980, 2014 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

The Batman Adventures: Mad Love Deluxe Edition


By Paul Dini & Bruce Timm, with Rick Taylor & Tim Harkins (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-5512-1

Harley Quinn wasn’t supposed to be a star… or even an actual comicbook character. As soon became apparent, however, the manic minx always has her own astoundingly askew and off-kilter ideas on the matter… and any other topic you could name: ethics, friendship, ordnance, true love…

Created by Paul Dini & Bruce Timm, Batman: The Animated Series aired in the US from September 5th 1992 to September 15th 1995. Ostensibly for kids, the breakthrough television cartoon revolutionised everybody’s image of the Dark Knight and immediately began feeding back into the print iteration, leading to some of the absolute best comicbook tales in the hero’s many decades of existence.

Employing a timeless visual style dubbed “Dark Deco”, the show mixed elements from all iterations of the character and, without diluting the power, tone or mood of the premise, reshaped the grim avenger and his extended team into a wholly accessible, thematically memorable form that the youngest of readers could enjoy, whilst adding shades of exuberance and panache that only most devout and obsessive Batmaniac could possibly object to…

Harley Quinn was first seen as the Clown Prince of Crime’s slavishly adoring, extreme abuse-enduring assistant in Joker’s Favor (airing on September 11th 1992) where she instantly captured the hearts and minds of millions of viewers. From there on she began popping up in the incredibly successful licensed comicbook and – always stealing the show – soon graduated into mainstream DC continuity.

After a period bopping around the DCU she was re-imagined as part of the company’s vast post-Flashpoint major makeover and appeared as part of a new gritty-but-still-crazy iteration of the Suicide Squad, but at heart she’s always been a cartoon glamour-puss, with big, bold, primal emotions and only the merest acknowledgement of how reality works…

Re-presenting the 1994 one-shot Batman Adventures: Mad Love, this slight and breezy hardcover is made up of mostly recycled material – including writer Paul Dini’s comfortably inviting Foreword and co-plotter/illustrator Bruce Timm’s effusive and candidly informative ‘Mad Love Afterword’.

However, a truly unmissable bonus treat for art-lovers and all those seeking technical insight (perhaps with a view to making comics or animation their day job) is the illustrator’s full monochrome ‘Original Layouts for The Batman Adventures: Mad Love’; displaying how the story materialised page by page; previous and variant covers to earlier editions and unused painted back cover art plus highly detailed, fully-annotated colour guides for the complete story offering a perfect “How To…” lesson for aspiring creators…

All that being said though, what we want most is a great story, and the magnificently madcap mayhem commences here as Police Commissioner James Gordon heads to the dentist. When Batman easily foils the Joker’s latest manic murder attempt, the mountebank of Mirth pettishly realises he’s lost his inspirational spark.

He’s therefore in no mood for lasciviously whining lapdog Harley’s words of comfort or flirtatious pep talks…

As the Dark Knight reviews his files on the Joker’s girlfriend and ponders on how Harleen Frances Quinzel breezed through college and came away with a psychology degree that got her a position at Arkham Asylum, the larcenous lady in question has gone too far in the Joker’s lair. The trigger was comforting sympathy and telling her “precious pudden” how his baroque murder schemes could be improved…

Kicked out and almost killed (again), Harleen harks back to her first meeting with the devilishly desirable crazy clown and how they instantly clicked. She fondly recalls how her original plan to psychoanalyse the Joker and write a profitable tell-all book was forgotten the moment she fell under his malign spell to become his adoring, willing and despised slave…

She also realises that Batman quickly scotched their budding eternal love by capturing the grinning psycho-killer she secretly aided and abetted, both before and after she created her own costumed alter ego…

In fact, Batman always spoils her dreams and brutalises her adored “Mistah J”! It’s long past time she took care of him forever…

Driven by desperation and fuelled by passion, Harley Quinn swipes one of the Joker’s abortive schemes and tweaks it, and before long the Gotham Gangbuster is duped, doped, bound and destined for certain doom.

Sadly, the triumphant Little Woman hasn’t reckoned on how her barmy beloved will react when he learns she has done in mere hours what he’s failed to accomplish over many bitter years…

Coloured by Rick Taylor and lettered by Tim Harkins, the classy and classically staged main feature plays very much like a 1940s noir blend of morbid melodrama and cunning crime caper – albeit with outrageous over-the-top gags, sharply biting lines of dialogue and a blend of black humour and bombastic action – and easily qualifies as one of the top five bat-tales of all time.

A frantic, laugh-packed hoot that manages to be daring and demure by turns, Mad Love is an absolute delight, well worth the price of admission and an irresistible treasure to be enjoyed over and over again.
© 1994, 2015 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.