The X-Men and the Avengers: Gamma Quest – a Marvel Omnibus


By Greg Cox (Titan Books)
ISBN: 978-1789093339 (PB) eISBN: 978-1789093346

After a few half-hearted and ultimately abortive attempts in the 1960s and a more strategic – but no less enduring – attempt at the close of the 1970’s, Marvel finally secured a regular presence on prose bookshelves in the 1990s with a select series of hardback novels. Since then, those fans who want to supply their own pictures to gripping MU exploits have enjoyed a successive string of text thrills in all formats…

In recent times, British publisher Titan Books have been repackaging and rereleasing many of those powerhouse prose publications. Latest on the list in their Novels of the Marvel Universe line is this hefty paperback representing a trilogy first released in 1999.

Written by adaptions and licensed properties specialist Greg Cox (all iterations of Star Trek; Buffy The Vampire Slayer; Batman: The Court of Owls; Daredevil; Iron Man, Fantastic Four; Underworld; Warehouse 13; The Librariansand many more) this Titanic tome bundles linked novels Gamma Quest: Lost and Found, Search and Rescue and Friend or Foe? into a vast, action-packed thrill ride.

Although newcomers and casual fans won’t notice, all three books comprising Gamma Quest are deeply embedded in the minutiae of Marvel’s comic book continuity, and relate how mutant sorceress Wanda Maximoff AKA the Scarlet Witch, power parasite Rogue and immortal berserker Wolverine are abducted by a deranged super-scientific megalomaniac and his secret ally, eager to master the genetic anomalies that fuel their incredible powers.

With such prominent members of the world-famous Avengers and outlaw heroes the X-Men, missing it’s not long before their comrades and allies are on the trail.

Tragically, thanks to deviously-planted false clues, both teams are soon erroneously hunting the Gamma-generated gargantuan know as the Incredible Hulk whilst battling each other…

The issue is further complicated when S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury is forced to admit that top secret, illegally-constructed mutant hunting Sentinels have been stolen from his helicarrier…

Starring Iron Man, Captain America, The Vision, The Beast, Cyclops, Storm, Iceman and a wealth of guest stars, this riotous page-turner offers tons of twists, stacks of suspense and an abundance of action as both squads first battle then unite to hunt their true enemies, visiting the most outlandish locations both on and off Earth before everything concludes in the kind of cataclysmic clash Marvel fans and movie buffs expect…

Strong, accurate characterisation, fast-paced, non-stop super-powered conflict and ever-ratchetting tension make this impossible to put down, but picture lovers might be disappointed that there’s no room for interior illustrations this time out…
© 2019 Marvel.

The X-Men and the Avengers: Gamma Quest – a Marvel Omnibus will be released on 21st January 2020 and is available for pre-order now.

The Light


By Jim Alexander, edited by Kirsten Murray (Planet Jimbot)
ISBN: 978-1-9164535-2-4 (PB) eISBN: 978-1-9164535-3-1

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: A Decidedly Different Spooky Saga for the Season… 9/10

Apparently tireless raconteur and comics veteran Jim Alexander is back with another prose novel (available in paperback and a variety of eBook formats).

His pictorial back-catalogue includes Star Trek the Manga, Calhab Justice and other strips for 2000AD, licensed properties such as Ben 10 and Generator Rex as well as a broad variety of comics and strips for The Dandy, DC, Marvel, Dark Horse Comics, Metal Hurlant Chronicles, and loads of other places including his own publishing empire Planet Jimbot. He’s imminently due back in the mainstream too, with a forthcoming Marvel Graphic Novel in the offing…

Everyone dies. That’s biology. How they die isn’t as important as how they lived, right?

That’s an assumption that is devilishly challenged in The Light as a world so very much our own takes a path less travelled after a global catastrophe in 1998.

Here and now, twenty years after the event, humanity has gained an eerie new ability: unfailing certainty in the knowledge of when your time is up.

It’s not a proper super power: decedents only know from the moment they wake up that it’s their Last Day and not everyone is sure – or convinced – until they place a palm on the ubiquitous domestic device (also available on all street corners and in every lamp post) and a purple hue tells them its time…

Socially, things haven’t changed much: Capitalism has devised new ways to monetise the change and the elites and powers-that-be have found fresh ways to restrict the thinking and spending of the masses. Someone has turned Last Day into the world’s most debauched, powerful and unavoidable religion, and on dark fringes of the planet, outsiders try to live beyond the newly-established margins and avoid collaborating with the system that demands that all citizens test their light every day…

The rest of us? We just comply, testing ourselves every 24 hours and going about our lawful business until it’s that day and we have a decision to make: lie down and die or rebel and act out…

Told through a string of narrative viewpoints from the highest and mightiest to the most excluded and lowly, how The Light works – and how it ultimately fails – is beguilingly exposed in a wry and mordant, satire-saturated tale that delves like a forensic exam into the nature of what it means to be human and truly alive…

And when this has sufficiently blown your mind, you really should really read the author’s first novel GoodCopBadCop and track down the superb comics by Alexander and his confederates Luke Cooper, Gary McLaughlin, Will Pickering, Aaron Murphy, Chris Twydell & Jim Campbell.

The Jims – Alexander & Campbell – have been providing challenging, captivating and enthralling graphic narratives for ages now and you owe it to yourself to catch them too.
© 2019 Jim Alexander.

Planet Jimbot has a splendid online shop so why not check it out? Conversely why not go to:

UK
Amazon (print) (ebook)
Kobo

US
Amazon (print) (ebook)
Kobo
Barnes & Noble
 

Captain America: Dark Designs – a Novel of the Marvel Universe


By Stefan Petrucha & various (Titan Books)
ISBN: 978-1789093483 (PB) eISBN: 978-1789093490

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Epic Fights ‘n’ Tights Adventure… 8/10

After a few half-hearted and ultimately abortive attempts in the 1960s and a more strategic – but no less enduring – attempt at the close of the 1970’s, Marvel finally secured a regular presence on prose bookshelves in the 1990s with a select series of hardback novels. Since then, those fans who want to supply their own pictures to gripping MU exploits have enjoyed a successive string of text thrills in all formats…

In recent times, British publisher Titan Books have been repackaging and rereleasing many of those prose powerhouse publications, and this handy paperback from 2016 is the tenth in their Novels of the Marvel Universe line.

Scripted by novelist, educator and comics writer Stefan Petrucha (X-Files, Walt Disney Comics & Stories, Nancy Drew: Girl Detective, Time Tripper) this explosive thriller also manages to pile on mood and psychological pressure in a tale of the Star-Spangled Avenger that addresses one of the biggest fears of modern times…

Although newcomers and casual fans won’t notice, Captain America: Dark Designs is deeply embedded in the minutiae of Marvel’s comic book continuity, as the WWII hero – who was frozen in ice for decades – faces the horror of voluntarily returning to the icy isolation of hibernation when, in the course of his hectic crime-busting, terrorist-thrashing activities, he is diagnosed as carrier of a deadly virus that can wipe out all life on Earth…

However, even as he contemplates his fate from a quarantine cage, his greatest enemy The Red Skull is planning one last hurrah. The Nazi fiend has previously survived his own death by occupying a clone of Steve Rogers but has subsequently developed an advanced form of the virus riddling Cap’s genetic structure.

With oblivion and increasing helplessness tormenting him, the swiftly-fading Skull unleashes Adolf Hitler’s last battalion of robotic Sleepers, resolved that his hated enemy will precede him to the grave, even if all Earth burns in the process…

Despite the assistance of Nick Fury, S.H.I.E.L.D., Iron Man and a host of other guest stars, the onus of saving himself and preserving humanity ultimately rests on the broad shoulders of the indomitable Sentinel of Liberty whose tireless efforts always seemed able to extract miracles from the most hopeless of situations.

However, it’s a devilish twist of fate that truly saves the day this time…

Strong, accurate characterisation, fast-paced, non-stop yet feasible action and ever-ratchetting tension make this a book impossible to put down, and supplementing the high-octane thrills are a wealth of monochrome illustrations by cap artists Steve Epting, Jackson Guice, Michael Lark, Jay Leisten, Steve McNiven, Mike Perkins, Dexter Vines and Patrick Zircher, making this compulsive page-turner a solid example of how comics books can transfer to prose and why they should…
© 2019 Marvel.

Where’s My Cow?


By Terry Pratchett, illustrated by Melvyn Grant (Doubleday)
ISBN: 978-0-38560-937-1

Here’s a charming little thing. Not strictly a comic strip or a graphic novel, but rather a beautifully illustrated picture book. Originally a plot device from Thud!, one of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld prose fantasy novels, until some bright spark wisely decided to manufacture the thing for real. They also pulled the same trick for The World of Poo, as seen in Snuff

What’s it all about?: Watch Commander Sam Vimes is the best copper in Anhk Morpork (the most unpleasant city in all fact and fiction), and his day job ranges from colourful to sheer hell. What makes worth living for him is to get home, kick off his boots and breastplate, and read his baby boy their favourite bedtime story – and do all the noises too.

And so can you if you get this wonderful book (sadly only available in hardback, not digital editions) which manages to be both an engaging, clever side-bar to the novels and also a superbly illustrated easy reader for the very young.

If you’re a fan of the Discworld you’ll want this, if you’re not, buy the novels and become one, and if you have small kids get them one of the prettiest picture books on the market. It’s the first sure step to getting them hooked on pictorial wonderment, and a darn fine thing besides.

Text © 2005 Terry Pratchett & Lyn Pratchett. All Rights Reserved.
Illustrations © 2005 Melvyn Grant. All Rights Reserved.W

Flember – the Secret Book (Advance galley proof copy)


By Jaimie Smart (David Fickling Books)
ISBN: 978-1-910989-46-3 (PB Illustrated novel)

There are precious few perks in the high stakes, cut & thrust world of writing about graphic novels and books, but one is getting to see great stories before you all do and then acting all smugly know-it-all and blasé about how good they are, as if I’m in with the In Crowd.

This review of Flember is based on a proof copy and I’ll probably review the proper book too when it comes out in Early October. It’s that good…

Unlike writer/artist Jamie Smart’s previous outings (Fish Head Steve!, Space Raoul, Bunny vs. Monkey, Looshkin – the Adventures of the Maddest Cat in the World!!, Corporate Skull and bunches of brilliant strips for The Beano, Dandy and others), this is an illustrated novel, not comics strips, but that only means he’s really good at the wordy stuff too, and even so his dynamic cartoons, diagrams and maps are lavished all over the text and act as an integral part of the storytelling.

Here’s a little digression that might assuage any confusions I’ve inadvertently caused…

The old demarcations – whether in format or content – between comics and books are all but gone these days but once the items of printing were reckoned as different as chalk and chuck wagons.

From the pre-print era of illustrated manuscripts, books always possessed a capacity (time, manpower and budgets permitting) to include images in the text. As the book trade evolved, pictures were generally phased out of cheaper, mass-market editions because they required costly, time-consuming extra effort by skilled technicians. Most artists and illustrators wanted payment for their efforts too, so volumes with pictures were regarded as extra special, most often crafted for children, students or aficionados of textbooks…

Comics strips grew out of cartoon images, beginning as static illustrations accompanied by blocks of printed text before gradually developing into pictorial sequences with narration, dialogue and sound effects incorporated into the actual design. Print procedures and physical strictures of manual typesetting often dictated that pictures (printed on the pages or added as separate plates) frequently appeared nowhere near the snippets of text they illumined).

These days digital print processes are speedy, efficient and flexible, and many creative bright sparks have realised that they can combine all these tangential disciplines into a potent synthesis.

Gosh, wasn’t that lecture dull?

What I’m saying is that these days, the immediacy of comics, the enchantment of illustrated images, the power of well-designed infographics and the mesmeric tone and mood of well-written prose can all be employed simultaneously to create tales of overwhelming entertainment. Flember – The Secret Book does it with aplomb, imagination, dexterity and sundry other fruit and veg you’ve never heard of. That’s an inside joke until you read the book…

But what’s it about, Win?

I’m giving little away but suffice to say that somewhere far away the island of Flember houses a rather rural and backwards facing community who live in a little walled village called Eden. The citizens are an odd bunch, set in the old traditional ways and they don’t particularly like inventors anymore.

Young Dev Everdew doesn’t really fit in. His brother is a snarky would-be leader of the local Guild and Mum doesn’t like to cause a fuss. Dad used to be Mayor but he’s gone now…

Life on the island depends on a seemingly-mystical force called Flember: an energising life force that animates the trees, living creatures and crops and even people. Did I mention that Dev’s addicted to inventing? He is, and all his contraptions always go wrong and cause the fuss previously mentioned.

The boy can’t stop himself, though, and just knows his devices can make life better for everybody. Despite the pleadings, help and advice of his young pals, Dev keeps making things and accidentally hurting people, but the situation gets completely out of hand after he builds a giant bear that absorbs all the Flember and comes shockingly alive. Sadly, that puts the little genius on the trail of a colossal secret underpinning everything and teaches him the consequences of rash actions…

Fast-paced, astoundingly inventive, raucously hilarious, deeply moving even while sagely exploring how carefree childishness grows into empathy and responsibility, this is a marvellous romp and an ideal example of words and pictures acting in harmony… almost like a well-oiled machine.

Just to be clear here though; never oil books or any digital reading device, ok? Just use them to acquaint yourself with tales as good as this one…
Text and illustrations © Jamie Smart 2019. All Rights Reserved.

Flember – The Secret Book is scheduled for release on October 3rd 2019 and is available for pre-order now. It’s a perfect item if you’re already stuck for options about Great Big Gift-Giving Season…

First Names: Malala Yousafzai


By Lisa Williamson & Mike Smith (David Fickling Books)
ISBN: 978-1-78845-047-8 (PB)

Since its premiere in 2012, The Phoenix has offered humour, adventure, quizzes, puzzles and educational material in a traditional-seeming weekly comics anthology for girls and boys. The vibrant parade of cartoon fun, fact and fantasy has won praise from the Great and the Good, child literacy experts and the only people who really count – a dedicated legion of totally engaged kids and parents who read it avidly…

David Fickling Books provides other types of reading matter: novels, graphic novels and a newish imprint of cartoon and strip illustrated biographies highlighting historical and contemporary groundbreakers and earthshakers.

First Names introduces young readers to noteworthy achievers rightly deemed role models and adds now to its initial offerings (Emmeline Pankhurst, Elon Musk, Amelia Earhart and Harry Houdini) an utterly modern, indomitable young woman who has defied tyranny, defeated oppression and changed the lives of millions if not billions of young people.

Devised along the lines of the mega-successful, eternally-engaging Horrible Histories books, these prose paperbacks come with a superabundance of monochrome cartoon illustrations to keep the pace of learning fast and fact-packed, and are bright, breezy, easily-accessible hagiographies with the emphasis on graphics.

Written by Lisa Williamson, Malala Yousafzai presents a rather darker tale than we’re used to, as it details the astonishing accomplishments of a knowledge-hungry schoolgirl who stared death in the face, defying terrorists and religious bigotry to defend the rights of all girls to enjoy the fruits of proper education.

The amazing story begins with a moody ‘Introduction’ describing the events of 9th October 2012, when two deluded zealots boarded a school bus in the Swat Valley of Pakistan. They were hunting an outspoken advocate of female education who had defied the edicts of their leader for years. Finding teenager Malala Yousafzai, they opened fire…

Malala was born in 1997 and was blessed with amazingly brave and progressive parents. In ‘No Party for Malala’, we meet teacher Ziauddin Yousafzai and his wife Toor Pekai, who refused to consider their firstborn child a disappointment and financial burden simply because she was a girl. Their struggles against the wider family and the attitudes of the local community reveal the child to be precocious but decidedly everyday and straightforward… Except that she loved books and learning…

As the country descended into religious civil war, Ziauddin opened his own school and in ‘Malala Makes Some Decisions’ and ‘Malala Gets Angry’ the descent into chaos is detailed as his forthright daughter begins to show her true self: helping him, pushing herself and attempting to secure schooling for the poorest children and outcasts of her town…

The unrest was fomented by a self-appointed extremist spokesman named Maulana Fazlullah using local gangs and a pirate radio station. His arcane demands that people abandon all western trappings – such as televisions and radios – and live according to his interpretation of Islam spread fear and dissent far and wide. When he proclaimed that girls should not go to school Malala saw red and began speaking out…

The story unfolds in great but easily accessible detail in ‘Malala And the Taliban’, ‘Malala Spreads the Word’, ‘Malala On the Move’, before culminating in the horrific attack mentioned earlier.

Somehow, thanks to the efforts of surgeons in Pakistan, Malala did not die and the great and the good of the outside world – already listening to her brave stand – acted to remove her from the troubled region as expediently as possible. ‘Watch Out, Malala’, ‘Malala Loses a Week’, ‘Malala Wakes Up’ and ‘Malala Moves Out’ takes us from the battleground of the Swat Valley to her recuperation and rehabilitation in Britain, where she was – for a while – one more girl in the English school system.

As seen in ‘What Malala Did Next’, during that time of new friends and exams, she was also feted by kings and presidents and her outspoken criticism of those who oppress women and suppress universal education never faltered. Lauded (almost) everywhere, she eventually became the youngest ever recipient of a Nobel Peace Prize. She donated her prize money to rebuild bombed schools in Gaza…

A truly inspirational person, Malala’s story has barely begun, and this summation of it should affirm to kids everywhere that they have rights, a voice and power if they seek to use it. Moreover, in clear, simple terms, author Williamson has worked marvels in explaining complex issues and condensing critical history and context into a story that’s easy to read and impossible to forget.

Naturally, for such a scholarly endeavour, this book also contains fulsome Timeline, Glossary and Index appendices for those eager to check out the facts and educate themselves even further…

Aiding and abetting, illustrator Mike Smith tirelessly crafts engaging and contextualising pictorial aids and chats with Malala herself, whilst clarifying contexts and social technicalities, whilst putting faces to the names and places in smart cartoon collations such as ‘Pakistan in 1988 Explained’, ‘Toor Pekai’s First (and Last) Day at School’, ‘Schools in Pakistan Explained’, ‘The Pashtun People Explained’ and ‘The Taliban Explained’.

There’s also plenty of visual sidebars detailing the basics of ‘Sharia Law’, ‘Madrasas’, ‘Nobel Peace Prize’ and ‘Girl Power Goes Global’ as well as brief but comprehensive potted biographies of the demagogue ‘Fazlullah’, and Malala’s own inspiration idol ‘Benazir Bhutto’…

Working in tandem with delicate sensitivity, the creators have constructed a crucial appreciation to a young woman who has changed the world and proved to bigots and bullies that common decency will always triumph in the end.

First Names: Malala Yousafzai Text © Lisa Williamson 2019 and illustrations © Mike Smith 2019. All rights reserved.
First Names: Malala Yousafzai will be published on August 1st 2019 and is available for pre-order now.

King Coo: The Curse of the Mummy’s Gold


By Adam Stower (David Fickling Books)
ISBN: 978-1-78845-052-2 (PB)

The old demarcations – whether in format or content – between comics and “proper books” are all but gone these days and the results are, quite frankly, long overdue and simply intoxicating…

Since the pre-print era of illustrated manuscripts, books have always possessed the capacity (budgets permitting) to include images in the text. As the book trade progressed, pictures were generally phased out of cheaper, mass-market editions because they required costly and time-consuming extra effort by skilled technicians. Most artists and illustrators wanted payment for their efforts too, so books with pictures were regarded as extra special, most often crafted for children, students or aficionados of textbooks…

Comics strips grew out of cartoon images, beginning as static illustrations accompanied by blocks of printed text before gradually developing into pictorial sequences with narration, dialogue and sound effects incorporated into the actual design.

These days print processes are speedy and efficient, and many creative bright sparks have realised that they can combine all these tangential disciplines into a potent synthesis.

Gosh, wasn’t that lecture dull?

What I’m saying is that these days, the immediacy of comics, the enchantment of illustrated images, the power of well-designed infographics and the mesmeric tone and mood of well-written prose can all be employed simultaneously to create tales of overwhelming entertainment.

A perfect example of this is artist Adam Stower’s (Bottom’s Up!, Spymice, The Dragons of Wayward Green, The Secret Country) second adventure of Ben Pole and his fabulous companion King Coo.

When Ben was being pitilessly persecuted by bullies at school, one desperate attempt to escape took him to a vast and fantastic forest that lay somehow hidden at the bottom of a hole in a tatty alleyway between skyscrapers in the city. Here he met capable wild-child King Coo: a spear-carrying, crown-wearing girl who builds incredible, impossible inventions and lives in a tree house with her wombat chum Herbert. Most of the time, Coo is covered from her nostrils to her sturdy bare feet in a luxuriant, all-encompassing beard.

She soon helped him sort out his bullying problem once and for all…

Now, as summer holidays end, Ben is heading back to school, just as his mum starts her new job as a security guard at the City Museum. As if having a massive new exhibition featuring the priceless golden treasures of mummified medicine-man Mighty Ozozo of the Blue-Foots Tribe isn’t enough to worry about, many other museums and galleries have recently been plundered by the sinister and mysterious Midnight Mob

Sadly for Ben, his homebody dad’s culinary escapades haven’t gotten any better either…

Ben’s desire to continue having life-&-limb threatening adventures with Coo and her bizarre gizmos is slightly lessened after his class is introduced to substitute teacher Professor Pickering and his attendant transfer students: the oddly fascinating pupils of the Lilly Lavender Private Academy for Exceptional Girls

And thus unfolds a thrill-stuffed, action-packed romp involving vile villains, daring robberies, a hostage situation, dastardly deception and the terrifying prospect of supernatural revenge from beyond the grave. Happily, King Coo has a plan… but then again, she always has a plan, and blueprints and prototypes and…

Fast-paced, astoundingly inventive and laugh-out-loud hilarious, this brilliant kids’ caper merges compact effective prose with beguiling monochrome pictures, comic strips, breathtaking double-page spreads, explanatory diagrams, informative info-pages, mini-posters and all the visual gimmicks that give comics their overpowering immediacy.

This is a book kids of all ages will adore, so why not grant yourself and your entourage a personal audience with King Coo at your earliest convenience?
Text and illustrations © Adam Stower 2019. All rights reserved.

King Coo: The Curse of the Mummy’s Gold will be released on 6th June 2019 and is available for pre-order now.

First Names: Amelia Earhart and First Names: Harry Houdini


By Andrew Prentice & Mike Smith (David Fickling Books)
By Kjartan Poskitt & Geraint Ford (David Fickling Books)
ISBN: 978-1-78845-023-2 (Amelia) 978-1-78845-024-9 (Harry)

Since its premiere in 2012, The Phoenix has offered humour, adventure, quizzes, puzzles and educational material in a traditional-seeming weekly comics anthology for girls and boys. The vibrant parade of cartoon fun, fact and fantasy has won praise from the Great and the Good, child literacy experts and the only people who really count – a dedicated legion of totally engaged kids and parents who read it avidly…

David Fickling Books provides other types of reading matter: novels, graphic novels and a newish imprint of cartoon and strip illustrated biographies highlighting historical and contemporary groundbreakers and earthshakers.

First Names introduces young readers to noteworthy achievers rightly deemed role models and adds now to its initial offerings Emmeline Pankhurst and Elon Musk the life stories of Amelia Earhart and Harry Houdini. Devised along the lines of the mega-successful, eternally-engaging Horrible Histories books, these prose paperbacks come with a superabundance of monochrome cartoon illustrations to keep the pace of learning fast and fact-packed, and are bright, breezy, easily-accessible hagiographies with the emphasis on graphics.

 

Written by Andrew Price, Amelia Earhart tracks the short but brilliant career of the indomitable aviation pioneer and women’s rights activist, adroitly delineating her character and achievements while deftly downplaying – but never sugar-coating – the facts of her tragic early death.

The reader gets a taste of her indefatigable character and gumption in ‘Introduction – Kansas, Winter 1907’ before ‘Amelia Arrives’ and ‘Amelia Gets A Chance’ follows an early life of frustrated potential and domestic tribulation before indomitable Amelia Mary “Millie” Earhart finally achieves her only ambition in ‘Amelia Takes To The Sky’.

The legend we appreciate – and think we know now – is carefully and engagingly deconstructed in successive chapters (‘Amelia Earns Her Wings’, ‘Amelia Takes The Plunge’ and ‘Amelia Finds Fame’) as we learn how much more there was to the young woman who passionately believed there was no task or job only men could accomplish.

Glory and notoriety – with all its rewards and pitfalls – follow in ‘Amelia Goes Solo’, ‘Amelia Soars Even Higher’ and ‘Amelia Flies The World’ before the details of ‘Amelia’s Final Flight’ are covered. Even in her own brief lifetime, Amelia Earhart was a global inspiration, and appendix ‘Then Along Came Jerrie’, reveals how one young girl who followed that final fateful excursion – to become the first woman to fly around the world – eventually accomplishing the feat in “Millie’s” name…

Aiding and abetting, illustrator Mike Smith crafts engaging and contextualising pictorial vox-pops and chats with the pilot herself and clarifies routes and technicalities, capturing the personalities of the period in witty cartoon spreads such as ‘Millie Explains: Being a Girl in 1910’, ‘Amelia Explains: Barnstorming’, ‘Amelia Explains: Early Aeroplanes’, ‘Air Races’, ‘Amelia’s Eventful Atlantic Crossing’ and ‘Amelia’s Round-the World Scrapbook’. As always, there are drawings and visuals on drawings on practically every page, with absorbing sidebars such as ‘The First Female Flyers’, offering potted biographies of Earhart’s rivals, teachers and comrades of the air.

Working in tandem and conspicuous light-hearted good taste, the creators have constructed a timeless appreciation to a woman who fired up the world and proved to naysayers that women were every inch the equal of men.

 

An indisputable legend and household name, the incredible life and eventful career of Harry Houdini is beyond the comprehension of most modern adults, but – as sketched out here by scribe Kjartan Poskitt & and illustrator Geraint Ford – is impressively covered in bullet points, snapshots and vignettes for the younger crowd who still retain their sense of sheer wonder.

A taste of the magnificent showman’s character comes in the ‘Introduction’ relating one of his most famous stunts before ‘Who Was Harry’ debunks some myths and details how ambitious, driven Hungarian émigré Ehrich Weiss came to America and began his greatest trick: turning a poor Rabbi’s son into the greatest magician, escapologist and illusionist the world has ever seen.

The early years are covered in ‘Harry And The Headless Man’ and how his initial brother act become a husband and wife team in ‘Harry And The Other Houdinis’, after which ‘Harry Hits The Bottom’, ‘Harry Gets A Break’ and ‘Harry Heads Abroad’ exposes the steady road to stardom – and all the traps and pitfalls the human marvel had to negotiate.

A global success, Houdini returned to America and started consolidating his life and legend, (as seen in ‘The House That Harry Built’) while always ramping-up his act in ‘Harry Gets Dangerous’, ‘Harry’s Death-Defying Mysteries!’ and ‘Harry Hangs Upside Down’

His love of inventions and gadgets is highlighted in ‘The Sea Monster And Other Sensations!’, as is his dalliance with movies, while his relentless pursuit and exposure of psychics, mediums and other conmen is covered in ‘Harry And The Spirits’. It’s also the closing of the final curtain as we learn of the ludicrous and tragic circumstances leading to his death…

At least his influence on magicians and other performers is properly addressed in The Legend Lives On

This biography is a bombastic thrill ride cunningly limned by Mike Smith who provides contextual illustrations, comic strips and details how tricks and stunts are performed in numerous pictorial asides such as ‘Magic Fingers’, ‘How To Be A Mind-Reader’, ‘So How Was It Done?’ and ‘How Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin Changed Magic’.

We will never know all the truths about this inspirational, world-changing performer and crusader but at least here is a perfect introduction into his astounding world of wonder…

Invoking the heady baby boomer days of factual entertainment comics such as Look and Learn and Tell Me Why, these extremely enticing books promise – and resoundingly deliver – a measured and informative dose of palatable fact from the world’s rich treasury of past-and-present Stuff To Know, and do it with great charm and efficiency.

More Please!
First Names: Amelia Earhart Text © Andrew Prentice 2019 and illustrations © Mike Smith 2019. All rights reserved.
First Names: Harry Houdini Text © Kjartan Paskitt 2019 and illustrations © Geraint Ford 2019. All rights reserved.

First Names: Amelia Earhart and First Names: Harry Houdini will be published on April 4th 2019 and are available for pre-order now.

Batman, Batman vs. The Penguin, Batman vs. The Joker


By Bob Kane, Bill Finger, Gardner Fox, Alvin Schwartz, Edmond Hamilton, David Vern Reed, Bill Woolfolk, Dick Sprang, Sheldon Moldoff, Lew Sayre Schwartz & various (Four Square/New English Library)
ISBNs: 1688, 1692 and 1694

The Silver Age of comicbooks utterly revolutionised the medium, bringing a modicum of sophistication to the returning genre of masked mystery men. However, for quite some time the changes instigated by Julius Schwartz in Showcase #4 (October 1956) which rippled out in the last three years of the decade to affect all of National/DC Comics’ superhero characters generally passed by Batman and Robin.

Fans buying Batman, Detective Comics, World’s Finest Comics and even Justice League of America would read adventures that in look and tone were largely unchanged from the safely anodyne fantasies that had turned the Dark Knight into a mystery-solving, alien-fighting costumed Boy Scout just as the 1940s turned into the1950s.

By the end of 1963, Schwartz having – either personally or by example – revived and revitalised much of DC’s line and the entire industry with his modernization of the Superhero, was asked to work his magic with the creatively stalled and nigh-moribund Caped Crusaders.

Bringing his usual team of top-notch creators with him, the Editor stripped down the core-concept, downplaying all the ETs, outlandish villains and daft transformation tales, bringing a cool modern take to the capture of criminals whilst overseeing a streamlining rationalisation of the art style itself. The most apparent change to us kids was a yellow circle around the Bat-symbol but, far more importantly, the stories also changed. A subtle aura of genuine menace had crept back in.

At the same time, Hollywood was preparing to produce a television series based on Batman and, through the sheer karmic insanity that permeates the universe, the producers were basing their interpretation upon the addictively daft material that the publishers were turning their Editorial backs on and not the “New Look Batman” that was enthralling the readers.

The TV show premiered on January 12th 1966 and ran for 3 seasons (120 episodes in total), airing twice weekly for its first two seasons. It was a monumental, world-wide hit and sparked a wave of trendy imitation. The resulting media hysteria and fan frenzy generated an insane amount of Bat-awareness, no end of spin-offs and merchandise – including a movie – and introduced us all to the phenomenon of overkill.

“Batmania” exploded across the world and then, as almost as quickly, became toxic and vanished.

To this day, no matter how much we might squeal and foam about it, or what has occurred since in terms of comics, games or movies, to a huge portion of this planet’s population Batman is always going to be that “Zap! Biff! Pow!” costumed buffoon…

To tap into the frenzy, American book publisher Signet/New American Library – a company well-used to producing media tie-in titles such as Girl from U.N.C.L.E. or novelisations like Breakfast at Tiffany’s – released 5 paperbacks starring Batman and Robin, beginning in March 1966.

Technically, it was 4 plus a prose adaptation of the movie that was released later in the year (and the second was in fact an all-new prose novel by Winston Lyon – AKA William Woolfolk – which I’ll be covering in a later review), so in the proper fashion of the times, British counterparts quickly followed.

This terrific little trio of monochrome paperback pocket books – spearhead of National Periodical Publications’ on-going efforts to reach wider reading audiences – were published in 1966 to accompany the launch of the Batman TV show, and fully fuelled the “Camp” superhero craze which saw Masked Manhunters and costumed crazies sneak into every aspect of popular entertainment.

Each breathtaking tome contains 5 reformatted stories of the Dynamic Duo, culled from the archives and crafted by some of the greatest scripters and illustrators the industry has ever seen. Collected here in incontrovertible black-&-white are the tales from this trio of cartoon books which blew my unformed little mind in that most auspicious year for fun and fantasy escapism…

The first UK release was Batman which featured primarily crime stories rather than the baroque super-villain fare that informed and monopolised the television iteration. In the aforementioned mid-1950s, fancy-dress felons had all but vanished from view, and the new Schwartz Batman also eschewed costumed crazies … at least until the TV show made them stars in their own right.

The reformatted mini-masterpieces start with the positively eerie 1940 origin tale ‘The Legend of the Batman – Who He Is and How He Came to Be!’ by Gardner Fox, Bob Kane & Sheldon Moldoff from Batman #1 (Spring 1940). This piece was actually recycled from portions of Detective Comics #33 and 34 (1939) but still offers in 13 perfect panels what is effectively the best ever origin of the character.

The drama continued with ‘The Web of Doom’ (from Batman #90, March 1955, by Bill Finger, Moldoff & Charles Paris), in which a biologist loses a package of deadly germ phials somewhere in Gotham City. Batman and Robin have only days to track down 3 criminals who hold the key to restoring the savant’s shattered memories and retrieving the deadly parcel…

Batman #92, from June 1955, provided ‘Fan-Mail of Danger!’ (Finger, Moldoff & Paris) as letters to the gracious heroes pile up and the lads hired a secretary to handle the load. Sadly, Susie Smith’s over-eager diligence almost exposes Batman’s secret identity to a cunning counterfeiter…

There was one exception in this collection to the “no loons” rule. The Joker tale ‘The Crazy Crime Clown!’ is something extra-special from Batman #74 (December 1952/January 1953, by Alvin Schwartz, Dick Sprang & Charles Paris) and sees the exotic but strictly larcenous Harlequin of Hate apparently go bonkers.

He is committed to the Gotham Institute for the Insane but, naturally, there’s method in the seeming madness which Batman only discovers after he too infiltrates the worthy asylum in disguise…

Cunning criminal mastermind Mr. Blank almost takes over the underworld by destroying a new super-computer in ‘The Crime Predictor!’ (Batman #77, June/July 1953, courtesy of Edmond Hamilton, Bob, Lew Sayre Schwartz & Paris), and it took all of the ingenuity of the World’s Greatest Detective to unravel the deadly mire of duplicity and prevent his own infallibly predicted demise…

‘The Man Who Could Change Fingerprints!’ (Batman #82, March 1954 by David Vern Reed, Sprang & Paris) is another clever scheme by brilliant killers who think to outwit the Caped Crusaders, before this initial volume closes with a thrilling suspense shocker in ‘The Testing of Batman!’ (Batman #83, April 1954) by Hamilton, Sprang & Paris.

Here a scientist’s exercise research is usurped by thugs who wanted to have fun killing the enemies of crime. At least that’s what they told the captive Gotham Gangbusters…

 

Six months later a second volume was released.

Batman vs. The Penguin followed the same beguiling format but, with flamboyant arch-foes predominating on the silver screen, the emphasis had shifted. As the title clearly shows, this compilation concentrated on cases featuring the Felonious Fowl and Bird of Ill Omen, but it also harboured a secret surprise…

The all-ages action and excitement kicked off with ‘The Parasols of Plunder’ (Batman #70 April/May 1952 by Bill Woolfolk, Kane, Sayre Schwartz & Paris) and details how, after being released from prison, The Penguin gives up his obsession with birds and starts selling umbrellas. But, oh… what deadly umbrellas…

He returned to ornithology for ‘The Golden Eggs!’ in Batman #99 (April 1956, Finger, Moldoff & Paris), as whilst on the run his hobby inspired a deadly retaliatory crime wave before Batman scrambled all his plans, whilst in ‘The Penguin’s Fabulous Fowls’ the Umbrella King turns crypto-biologist, capturing mythical avian monsters and turning them loose to devastate Gotham in a sharp suspense shocker from Batman #76 (April/May 1953 by Hamilton, Kane, Sayre Schwartz & Paris)…

His last appearance was in ‘The Return of the Penguin’ (Finger, Moldoff & Paris from Batman #155 May 1963) which sees the Bird Bandit coming out of retirement to match wits with Batman again. If only the Pompous Peacock had ignored the teasing of the other crooks when they called him a “has-been”…

This tome wraps up with a classic Catwoman yarn, as the Feline Temptress puts all the contestants of Gotham City’s “Queen for a Day” gala into catatonic trances. Moreover, suspiciously still-awake competitor Selina Kyle claims complete innocence and insists some other Catwoman was responsible for creating the ‘The Sleeping Beauties of Gotham City!’ in a taut mystery by Reed, Moldoff & Stan Kaye from Batman #84 (June 1954)…

 

Batman vs. The Joker followed a month later with a full quintet of comicbook curios starring Batman’s ultimate nemesis. The madcap mayhem began with ‘The Challenge of The Joker’ (Batman #136, December 1960 by Finger, Moldoff & Paris) in which the Clown Prince of Crime determines to prove to the world that modern police science is no match for cunning and the 4 ancient elements…

Then ‘The Joker’s Winning Team!’ (Batman #86, September 1954 Woolfolk, Moldoff & Kaye) reveals how the baseball-inspired brigand assembles a squad of crime specialist pinch-hitters to ensure he never loses a match against the Gotham Gangbuster, after which the gloriously engaging saga of ‘The Joker’s Millions!’ (Detective Comics #180, February, 1952 by Reed, Sprang & Paris) discloses how the villain’s crime rival takes deathbed revenge by leaving the Harlequin of Hate too rich to commit capers.

It is a double-barrelled scheme though and makes the Joker twice a fool, as the Caped Crusaders find to their great amusement…

‘The Joker’s Journal’ (Detective #193, March 1953 from Reed, Kane, Sayre Schwartz & Paris) follows the theme after the penniless Punchinello leaves prison and starts a newspaper. Everyone in Gotham knows it was only a matter of time until the Mountebank of Mirth returns to his old tricks, and this final volume concludes in the only way possible as the eternal archenemies’ minds are swapped in a scientific accident. Soon a law-abiding Joker and baffled Robin have to hunt down ‘Batman – Clown of Crime!’: a rousing romp by Reed, Moldoff & Paris from Batman #85, August 1954.

As I’ve constantly averred, the comics tales themselves are always special but somehow when they appeared in proper books it always made those fantastic adventure dreams a little more substantial; and perhaps even real…

Batman has proven to be all things to all fans over his decades of existence and, with the character undergoing almost perpetual overhaul these days, the peerless parables of wit and bravery encapsulated here are more welcome than ever: not just as memorial to what has been but also as a reminder that once upon a time everybody could read the fabulous Tales of Gotham City…

These books are probably impossible to find today – even though entirely worth the effort – but completists can achieve miracles if they put their minds to it and frankly, whatever format or collection you happen upon, in this anniversary year, such forgotten stories of the immortal Dark(ish) Knight are part of our cultural comics heritage and must always be treasured.
© 1940, 1951, 1952, 1953, 1954, 1955, 1956, 1963, 1966 National Periodical Publications. All rights reserved.

The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood of Great Renown in Nottinghamshire


By Howard Pyle, illustrated by Mike Grell (Donning/Starblaze edition)
ISBN: 978-0-89865-602-2 (TPB)

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. New talent coming into the industry was increasingly and overwhelmingly only aware of only comicbooks 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 of magazines in general. Photographs became a cheaper option than artwork in the late 1960s and generally 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” classics of fantasy, illustrated by major comics talents who felt an affinity for the selected texts. Vess illustrated Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Kaluta did likewise with the script for the silent movie Metropolis, P. Craig Russell created magic for The Thief of Bagdad and Grell took the biggest risk of his career by providing new illustrations (6 in colour and 15 monochrome) for a fantasy masterpiece beloved by generations of youngsters – and still today an incredibly popular reissue in loads of different formats…

The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood was first published in 1883; the first work of art prodigy and father of modern illustration Howard Pyle. A jobbing magazine illustrator, Pyle (1853-1911) gathered together many of the stories and legends about the bowman of Sherwood Forest, translating them into a captivating ripping yarn for youngsters. He furnished his book with 23 spellbinding pictures that created a mythic past for millions of readers.

It became the definitive work on the character: all iterations since has been working from or in reaction to this immensely readable and influential book. If you’d care to see the wondrous original illustrations you should track down The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood, a signet paperback (ISBN: 978-0451522849) which accurately reproduces the 1883 edition complete with Pyle’s drawings.

Pyle was a master storyteller and an incomparable artist who produced many other books illustrated in his unmistakable pen and ink flourish: both adaptations of heroic stories and wholly original material. These include: Otto of the Silver Hand, Pepper and Salt, The Wonder Clock, Men of Iron, The Garden Behind the Moon, plus a quartet of tomes that delineated the life of King Arthur: The Story of King Arthur and His Knights, The Story of the Champions of the Round Table, The Story of Lancelot and His Companions, and The Story of the Grail and the Passing of Arthur.

Believe it or not though, these books are not his greatest legacy and achievement. Pyle was a dedicated teacher also. In 1896 he took a position at the Drexel Institute of Arts and Sciences in Philadelphia where the first students included Violet Oakley, Maxfield Parrish, and Jessie Willcox Smith.

He held summer classes at Chadd’s Ford, Pennsylvania where the initial attendees included Stanley Arthurs, W.J. Aylward, Ida Daugherty, Harvey Dunn, George Harding, Percy Ivory, Thornton Oakley, Frank Schoonover and the just-as-legendary N.C. Wyeth (Dunn caught the bug here – becoming another dedicated educator, passing on the spark and the drive unto the next generation).

In 1903 Pyle founded his own art school in Wilmington, Virginia, and his dedicated, passionate and immensely talented followers became known as The Brandywine School. Why were they so successful and influential?

In a word: Action.

Before Howard Pyle, illustration was formal, staged, lovingly rendered but utterly static. There was no more life than in a posed photograph of the period with all elements locked in paralysis. Pyle introduced flowing, dynamic motion to illustrated art. He created “Life”.

All of which is a long way of saying that this is a great book with sumptuous Grell illustrations – especially the six paintings (a luxury most publisher’s budgets wouldn’t permit very often in Pyle’s lifetime) – and if you’re a fan of his work you should own it. However, you might also want to track down a reproduction of the original (as I said, there are many) with those groundbreaking original drawings and enjoy the pictorial component which inspired Grell fully as much as that stirring prose.
Art © 1989 Mike Grell.