GoodCopBadCop


By Jim Alexander, edited by Elinor Winter (Planet JimBot)
ISBN: 978-1-9164535-0-0                  eISBN: 978-1-9164535-1-7

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Crime Does Not Pay, but it does make for a cracking good read… 9/10

With criminal intent and malice aforethought, comics veteran Jim Alexander has widened his already prodigious and prolific rap sheet by shifting Modus Operandi and releasing a spookily wry novel (available in paperback and a variety of eBook formats) featuring possibly his best – and award-winning – character.

Alexander’s 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, and loads of other places including his own publishing empire Planet Jimbot.

GoodCopBadCop began life as series of contemporary police dramas set in Glasgow and garnered much praise and many awards. Now the characters have seamlessly segued to the realm of Val McDermid and Ian Rankin and the variously-named Celtic or Tartan noir.

If you look it up, experts describe the sub-genre’s influences as James Hogg and Robert Louis Stevenson, focusing on the duality of the soul and the individual, Good against Evil and redemption and damnation. It’s fascinating stuff: you should all read more books without pictures…

This craftily concocted cops’n’robbers saga blends procedural action with a whiff of supernal terror, utilising a gimmick that is perfect for a genre where conflicted, essentially good guys regularly face human monsters and only ever see ordinary folk at their absolute worst…

City of Glasgow Police Inspector Brian Fisher is a worthy, weary, dedicated public servant with the oddest (generally silent) partner an honest copper could ever imagine. And no, it’s not harassed, hard-pressed Detective Sergeant Julie Spencer, who fruitlessly attempts to get her solitary new boss fraternising with other officers after she’s ordered to be his new tag-along assistant… until she gets a glimpse of what her associate is really like…

Before he was a quietly effective Detective with a phenomenal clear-up rate, Fisher learned his trade in the mounted police division and spent many educational hours doing community policing for the Violence Reduction Unit, visiting schools where kids are more ruthlessly ferocious than any full-grown bad guy.

Now he’s solving a lot of nasty cases like abductions, dismemberments and floating human jigsaws in the Clyde with an uncanny display of instinct and perception. It’s like he has an inside track to the mind of maniacs…

All the usual suspects and signature cases of the genre are in attendance: mostly-harmless burglars like local legend the Partick Cat, supposedly-straight domestic problems like Mrs MacPhellimey, missing persons who aren’t, local mobsters and hard-men and their ganglords all come to Fisher’s attention… and most especially raving psycho-killers.

There’s a lot of them and some days they’re turning up on both sides of the Interview Room table…

Obviously, Fisher has some kind of advantage and, as in the manner of The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, the situation is deteriorating and people are starting to notice…

And that’s where I’m stopping. If you are familiar with the comics iteration, all your favourite moments and characters are here, suitably tweaked for a more internalised, psychologically edged reinterpretation – and a definitive conclusion. If you’re a newcomer, you can revel and reel as a convoluted nested-doll of interlinked mysteries cleverly unwind with startling complexity, loads of twisty-turny surprises and a succession of shocking moments. And that’s all delivered in sparky and bleakly hilarious first-person monologues.

Yeah. Monologues. Plural…

If you don’t read this book, you’ll have to wait for some Wise Soul at BBC Scotland or media clever-clogs chancer to turn this into a movie or late-night Scandi-style drama serial…

Best see it as the creator intended. You’ll thank me for it in the long run…

This deftly underplayed, chillingly believable and outrageously black-humoured yarn is a perfect addition to the annals of Tartan Noir: smart, sarcastic and ferociously engaging. If you like your crime yarns nasty and your heroes deeply flawed, GoodCopBadCop is a book you must not miss.

And when this has sufficiently blown your mind, you really should 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 and Campbell – have been providing captivating and enthralling graphic narratives for ages now and you owe it to yourself to catch them too.

Planet Jimbot has a splendid online shop so why not check it out?
© 2018 Jim Alexander.

If you like shopping from the safety of your home, here’s a few useful addresses.
UK
Amazon (print & digital)
Blackwell’s (print)
Kobo (digital)

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

First Names: Emmeline Pankhurst and First Names: Elon Musk


By Haydn Kaye & Michael Cotton-Russell (David Fickling Books)
By Tracey Turner & Mike Smith (David Fickling Books)
ISBN: 978-1-910989-61-6 (Emmeline) 978-1-910989-62-3 (Elon)

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 and growing legion of totally engaged kids and parents who read it avidly…

The potent periodical is rapidly approaching its 300th issue and shows no signs of slowing down. In fact, parent company David Fickling Books is expanding its output through a range of graphic novels and a new imprint of cartoon and strip illustrated biographies highlighting historical and contemporary groundbreakers and earthshakers.

The First Names imprint gets readers on intimate terms with a number of worthy achievers rightly deemed role models and launches in August with the two books under scrutiny today. Further enticing stalwarts promised in future include Harry Houdini, Abraham Lincoln and Amelia Earhart…

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.

Written by Haydn Kaye, Emmeline Pankhurst traces the life of the great Suffrage campaigner, deftly navigating a rather grim tale of oppression and imparting a great deal of necessary detail in a most delicate but effective manner through such enlightening chapters as ‘Emmeline Falls Out with her Father’, ‘Emmeline Kicks Up a Fuss’ and ‘Emmeline Forgives and Forgets’… Aiding and abetting, illustrator Michael Cotton Russell provides witty contextualising drawings on almost every page, with absorbing sidebars such as ‘Emmeline Explains Politics’ and ‘A Miserable Life for Match Girls’.

Working in tandem and conspicuous light-hearted good taste, the creators here have delivered a topical and timeless introduction to a woman who changed the world and deserves to be on First Name basis with every kid who’s claimed “It’s not Fair!”

Still very much in the news and attempting to change the world, the eccentric life and career of Elon Musk is traced by scribe Tracey Turner and cartoonist Mike Smith from his earliest explosive beginnings through a string of highly bankable innovations to his current elevated status as premier exponent of green technologies and interplanetary colonisation.

Beginning in ‘Pretoria, South Africa 1981’ the astounding progress is charted through ‘Elon’s Easter Eggs and Blasting Stars’ through ‘Elon Makes Millions’ and ‘Elon on Mars’ to ‘What Elon Did Next’.

It’s one heck of a ride and is engagingly limned by Mike Smith who provides contextual illustrations, charts recipes and family trees, illuminates maps and codifies micro-lectures such as ‘Elon Explains Solar Energy and Fossil Fuels’, ‘Elon Explains Silicon Valley’ and ‘Elon Explains Space Rockets’.

You may not like him or believe him, but this guy is at the forefront of today’s Thinkers and Do-ers, so you should at least have some idea of what he’s done and what he wants…

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 window on a most complex and potentially daunting maze of past-and-present Stuff To Know and do it with great charm and efficiency.

More Please!

First Names: Emmeline Pankhurst Text © Haydn Kaye 2018 and illustrations © Michael Cotton-Russell 2018. All rights reserved.
First Names: Elon Musk Text © Tracey Turner 2018 and illustrations © Mike Smith 2018. All rights reserved.

First Names: Emmeline Pankhurst and First Names: Elon Musk will be published on August 2nd and are available for pre-order now.

Superman Smashes the Secret of the Mad Director


By George S. Elrick and anonymous (Whitman)
ASIN: B000H7WMWA

It’s Superman’s Birthday! Sadly, more people know the Man of Steel as a screen star than a paragon of print.

I bang on a lot about comics as an art form and (justifiably, I think) decry the fact – despite the current vogue for superhero movies – that printed comics have never been given the mainstream recognition other forms of popular creative expression enjoy. I also encourage all and sundry to read more graphic narrative (I’m blurring my own terms here by including any product where text and image work co-operatively to tell a story, rather than simply a sequence of pictures with words attached), and I’m judicious and even selective (really and truly – there’s stuff I’m never going to share and recommend because, by most critical criteria, it’s better off ignored and forgotten).

However sometimes I’m caught in a bind: I tend to minimise the impact of nostalgia on my beloved world of “funnybooks”, but so often that irresistible siren call from the Golden Years will utterly trump any hi-falutin’ aesthetic ideal and proselytising zeal for acceptance and recognition.

Good luck finding this one; it’s well worth the search.

Superman Smashes the Secret of the Mad Director is such a product from a simpler time when it could be truly said that everybody had seen some sort of comic in their lives (not so easy to claim these days, I fear): a standard paperback most probably released to capitalise on the groundbreaking Saturday morning cartoon series The New Adventures of Superman (first hit for the fledgling Filmation Studios) than on the periodical delights of the “World’s Best Selling Comics Magazine!”

The half-hour cartoon show was a huge success, running three seasons; initially piggybacked with Superboy in its first year (beginning September 10th 1966), expanding into The Superman/Aquaman Hour of Adventure in 1967 and finally The Superman/Batman Hour in 1968. It was cancelled in September 1969 due to pressure from the censorious Action For Children’s Television who agitated against it for its unacceptably violent content!

As was the often the case in those times Big Little Books were produced under license by Whitman Publishing (the print giant that owned Dell and Gold Key Comics) in a mutually advantageous system that got books for younger readers featuring popular characters and cartoon brands (Man From U.N.C.L.E., the Monkees, Shazzan!, Flintstones, Journey to the Centre of the Earth, Batman, even the Fantastic Four amongst literally hundreds of others) into huge general store chains such as Woolworth’s, thus expanding recognition, product longevity – and hopefully sales.

Don Markstein’s superb Toonopedia site defines Big Little Books as: a small, square book, usually measuring about 3″x3″, with text on the left-hand pages and a single full-page illustration on the right. Big Little Books were originally created in the 1930s, to make use of small pieces of paper that had formerly gone to waste when magazines were trimmed after printing. By running a separate publication on paper that would otherwise go in the trash, the printer was able to create a salable product almost for free.

Big Little Books were an ideal way to merchandise comic strip characters, as the drawings could simply be taken directly from the strips themselves. Big Little Books flourished during the days of pulp magazine publishing, which mostly came to an end after World War II. The form was revived in the 1960s, partly as a nostalgia item, and has been used sporadically ever since. These latter-day Big Little Books are generally printed on better paper, and some, at least, have color illustrations.

This novel for children, written by BLB mainstay George S. Elrick, is slightly different, having no colour illustrations on its 166 interior pages and reformatted like a bookstore paperback of the sort that proliferated during the 1960s “Camp Superhero Craze” (check out our archived review for High Camp Super-Heroes for a handy example), and tells a rather good action/mystery yarn about a demented movie maker whose search for ultimate realism draws investigative reporters Clark Kent and Lois Lane into a pretty pickle…

To be frank the illustrations are pretty poor, originals not clipped pictures, but ineptly traced from reference material provided by comics drawn by the great Kurt Schaffenberger. Still, the wholesome naivety, rapid pace and gentle enthusiasm of the package surprised and engrossed me – even after the more than forty years since I last read it.

It’s a crying shame that the world still won’t take comics seriously nor appreciate the medium’s place and role in global society and the pantheon of Arts. Still, as long as graphic narrative has the power to transport such as me to faraway, better places I’m not going to lose too much sleep over it…

© 1966 National Periodical Publications, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

The Adventures of Superman


By George Lowther, illustrated by Joe Shuster (Applewood Books)
ISBN: 978-1-55709-228-1

Without doubt the creation of Superman and his unprecedented reception by a desperate and joy-starved generation quite literally gave birth to a genre if not an actual art form. Within months of his June 1938 launch in Action Comics #1, the Man of Tomorrow had his won his own supplementary solo comicbook and a newspaper strip; secured overseas licensing deals, became a star of radio show and animated movie series, and generated loads and loads of merchandising deals.

In 1942 he even made the dynamic leap into “proper” prose fiction, resulting in still more historic “firsts”…

George F. Lowther (1913-1975) was a Renaissance man of radio in the days when sound not vision dominated home entertainment. He scripted episodes of such airwave strip adaptations as Dick Tracy and Terry and the Pirates as well as the Mutual Radio Network’s legendary Adventures of Superman show.

Lowther also wrote episodes for Roy Rogers, Tom Mix and a host of other series and serials. In 1945 he moved into television with equal success as writer, producer, director and even performer, adding a string of novels for kids to his CV along the way.

With the stunning success of the Superman radio broadcasts, a spin-off book was a sure-fire seller and in 1942 Random House released a glorious, rocket-paced rollercoaster ride: a tome outlining the Man of Steel’s still undisclosed history, fleshing out the character’s background (almost a decade before such detail became part of the comics canon).

The novel described the hero’s rise to fame and even found room for a thrilling pulp-fuelled contemporary adventure in a handsome hardback lavishly illustrated by co-creator Joe Shuster. The novel was the first Superman tale not scripted by Jerry Siegel and the world’s first novelisation of a comicbook character.

That first edition book will set you back silly sums today but in 1995, Applewood Press (a firm specialising in high-quality reproductions of important and historic American books) recreated all the early magic in its stunning entirety with a terrific hardback facsimile tome which included a copious and informative introduction from contemporary Superman writer Roger Stern as well as the original 1940s Foreword by National/DC’s then-Staff Advisor for Children’s literacy, Josette Frank.

The art inserts and panels are Joe Shuster at the peak of his creative powers: including the dust-jacket and 4 full-colour painted plates (all reproduced from the original artwork); a half-dozen full-page black-&-white illustrations and 34 vibrant and vital pen-and-ink spot sketches of the Caped Kryptonian in spectacular non-stop action, gracing a fast and furious yarn that opens with the destruction of Krypton and decision of scientist Jor-El in ‘Warning of Doom’ and ‘The Space Ship’.

The saga continues with the discovery of an incredible baby in a rocket-ship by farmer Eben Kent and his wife Sarah in ‘Young Clark Kent’ and encompasses the unique foundling’s early days and first meeting with Perry White in ‘The Contest’.

Following ‘The Death of Eben’ the young alien refugee moves to the big city and assumes the role of ‘Clark Kent, Reporter’ after which we switch to then present-day for the main event.

Now investigative reporter and blockbusting champion of justice combine to crush a sinister plot involving spies, saboteurs, submarines and supernatural shenanigans in the classy conundrum of ‘The Skeleton Ship’ and ‘The Vanishing Captain’ before being resolved in the epic ‘Fire at Sea’, ‘Mystery of the Old Man’, ‘Attempted Murder’, ‘Enter Lois Lane’ and ‘Return of the Skeleton Ship’

This culminates in ‘The Unmasking’, the revelation of a ‘Special Investigator’ and an enthralling ‘Underwater Battle’ before at last the wonderment ends with ‘The Mystery Solved’.

This magical book perfectly recaptures all the frantic fervour and breathless mind-boggling excitement of the early days of action adventure storytelling and is a pulp fiction treasure as well capturing a pivotal moment in the creation of the world’s premier superhero.

No serious fan of the medium or art-form should miss it and hopefully with another landmark Superman anniversary on the horizon another facsimile edition is on the cards. If not, at least this volume is still readily available…
© 1942 DC Comics. Introduction © 1995 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

An Android Awakes: Fictional Alignment


By Mike French & Tony Allcock (Elsewhen Press)
ISBN: 978-1-911409-20-5                  eISBN: 978-1-911409-30-4

It’s been a while since we looked at anything non-traditional so here’s an intriguing illustrated book which has a lot to recommend it… most importantly, that it’s a long-awaited sequel to a captivating and fascinating tome we reviewed way back in 2015…

In the far future of An Android Awakes, human beings are practically extinct and androids have become the dominant intellects ruling the planet. Sadly, our synthetic successors are as prone to emotional foibles, personal insecurities, obsessive manias and ruthless zealotry as us meat-bags ever were.

To a great extent they also assimilated our creative urges too. One such was Android Writer PD121928 who was part of the Android Publishing Program. The state provided for his needs (drugs, whores, deep-frozen pets and the removal of his wife so that he can achieve the proper frame of artistic angst and squalor) and in return he was to conceive increasingly outré and wild adventure tales. The same deal applied for every creative automaton in the system: Filmmakers, photographers, artists, whatever…

His ultimate failure and tragic martyrdom allowed and compelled his human lover Sapphira to recycle his failed ideas into a global bestseller entitled Humans (An Arrangement of Minor Defects).

On its release – the first human work of fiction for over a century – the volume became the best-selling book of all time, but in the aftermath of publication an ideological schism triggered a violent change in Android government and philosophy leading to a pogrom against everything non-factual…

Eleven years later, with society in crisis and the mythoclasts in charge, Fiction is deemed filth and all creativity is consecrated to Fact. The mighty Pravda and his Proseologist assumed control of the Vatican and began excising everything non-verifiable – mood, tone, poesy, flights of fancy – from the world’s literature.

But even that is not enough. Thus, androids Heisenberg and Tractatus are ordered to conduct arch-imagineer Sapphira – and a select band of equally unwilling and iconic characters – on a succession of journeys through time to re-enact her book’s greatest feats and feasts of fictive excess, rendering them factual in every respect…

Sadly, whilst stage-managing great moments of love, death, spectacle, science fantasy and comedy to prove the fanciful concrete and validatable, the sheer corrupting power of imagination and the forces needed to make creativity and inspiration real have an implacably metamorphic effect of the agents of change and they begin using millennia of time travel to reshape the mission to their own twisted ever-shifting agendas…

Featuring old An Android Awakes favourites such as The Great Explorer Umberto Amunsden, The Locust Wife and The Amazing Arctic Sinking Man and introducing us to the almighty Digitised Treasury and the Real Jesus, this mind-bending Scientific Romance from Mike French offers a challenging odyssey through the theocracy of thought and depicts a trenchant guerrilla war between What Is, What Might and What Should be…

Devotees of Michael Moorcock, Brian Aldiss, J. G. Ballard, Thomas M. Disch and other heavyweights of the last century’s SF New Wave movement will love this challenging stand-out return to Big Idea, Deep Thought emotionally expressive speculative fiction, as will any reader hungry to have heart and mind expanded…
Text and artwork © Mike French 2018. Cover artwork © Tony Allcock 2018. All rights reserved.

The Incredible Adventures of Professor Branestawm


By Norman Hunter, illustrated by W. Heath Robinson (Puffin/Red Fox and others)
ISBNs: PSS33 (1969 Puffin edition)              978-1-86230-736-0 (Red Fox 2008)

In a year packed with anniversaries pertinent to comics and related fantasy entertainments, I’d be remiss if I didn’t note the particular delights of this worthy British institution, originally illustrated by a veritable giant of world cartooning and recently the freshly revived star of BBC television.

The venerably traditional illustrated novel used to be a happily inescapable staple of bedtime for generations in this country and this particular example is particularly memorable, not simply because it’s a timeless masterpiece of purely English wit and surreal invention, but also because most editions are blessed with a wealth of stunning pictures by an absolute master of absurdist cartooning and wry, dry wit.

Norman George Lorimer Hunter was born on November 23rd 1899 in Sydenham; a decade after that part of Kent was absorbed by the ever-expanding County of London. He started work as an advertising copywriter before moving into book writing with Simplified Conjuring for All: A collection of new tricks needing no special skill or apparatus for their performance with suitable patter; Advertising Through the Press: A guide to press publicity and New and Easy Magic: A further series of novel magical experiments needing no special skill or apparatus for their performance with suitable patter. They were all published between 1923 and 1925.

Hunter was working as a stage magician in Bournemouth during the early 1930s when he first began concocting the genially explosive exploits of the absolute archetypical absent-minded boffin for radio broadcasts. These tales were read by the inimitable Ajax – to whom the first volume is dedicated – as part of the BBC Home Service’s Children’s Hour.

In 1933 The Incredible Adventures of Professor Branestawm was published in hardback, including 76 enthrallingly intricate illustrations by W. Heath Robinson to great success, prompting the sequel Professor Branestawm’s Treasure Hunt (illustrated by James Arnold & George Worsley Adamson) four years later.

During WWII Hunter moved back to London and in 1949 emigrated to South Africa where he worked outside the fiction biz until his retirement. Following the release of Thames Television’s Professor Branestawm TV series (which adapted many of the short stories from the original books in the summer of 1969) Hunter returned to Britain in 1970, and resumed writing: another 11 Branestawn tomes between 1970-1983, plus a selection of supplemental books including Dictionary (1973): Professor Branestawm’s Compendium of Conundrums, Riddles, Puzzles, Brain Twiddlers and Dotty Descriptions (1975); Professor Branestawm’s Do-it-yourself Handbook (1976) and many magic-related volumes.

Norman Hunter died in 1995.

William Heath Robinson was born on May 31st 1872 into something of an artistic dynasty. His father Thomas was chief staff artist for Penny Illustrated Paper. His older brothers Thomas and Charles were also renowned illustrators of note.

After schooling William tried unsuccessfully to become a watercolour landscape-artist before returning to the family trade and, in 1902, produced the fairy story ‘Uncle Lubin’ before contributing regularly to The Tatler, Bystander, Sketch, Strand and London Opinion. During this period, he developed the humorous whimsy and a penchant for eccentric, archaic-looking mechanical devices that made him a household name.

During the Great War William uniquely avoided the Jingoistic stance and fervour of his fellow artists, preferring instead to satirise the absurdity of conflict itself with volumes of cartoons such as The Saintly Hun.

Then, after a 20-year career of phenomenal success and creativity in cartooning, illustration and particularly advertising, he found himself forced to do it again in World War Two.

He died on13th September 1944.

Perhaps inspired by the Branestawm commission, Heath Robinson’s 1934 collection Absurdities hilariously describes the frail resilience of the human condition in the Machine Age and particularly how the English deal with it all. They are also some of his funniest strips and panels. Much too little of his charming and detailed illustrative wit is in print today, a situation that cries out for Arts Council Funding or Lottery money, perhaps more than any other injustice in the sadly neglected field of cartooning and Popular Arts.

The first inspirational Professor Branestawm storybook introduces the dotty, big-domed, scatty savant as a ramshackle cove with five pairs of spectacles – which he generally wears all at once – gadding about with his clothes held together by safety pins …as the constant explosions he creates blow his buttons off.

The wise buffoon spends most of his days thinking high thoughts and devising odd devices in his “Inventory” whilst his mundane requirements are taken care of by dotty, devoted, frequently frightened or flustered housekeeper Mrs. Flittersnoop. Branestawm’s best chum is the gruff Colonel Dedshott of the Catapult Cavaliers, although said old soldier seldom knows what the big thinker is babbling on is about…

The over-educated inspirationalist and his motley crew first appeared in ‘The Professor Invents a Machine’ which featured the debut of an arcane device that moves so quickly that Branestawm and Dedshott are carried a week into the past and accidentally undo a revolution in Squiglatania, upsetting everybody on both sides of the argument.

In ‘The Wild Waste-Paper’ Mrs. Flittersnoop’s incessant tidying up causes a spill of the Professor’s new Elixir of Vitality: with the consequent enlargement and animation of a basket full of furiously angry bills, clingy postcards and discarded envelopes, whilst in ‘The Professor Borrows a Book’ the absent-minded mentor mislays a reference tome and has to borrow another copy from the local library.

A house full of books is the worst place to lose one, and when the second one goes AWOL Branestawm must borrow a third or pay the fine on the second. By the time he’s finished the potty Prof has checked out fourteen copies and is killing himself covertly transporting it from library to library…

When his stuff-stuffed house is raided by Burglars!’ the shocked and horrified thinker concocts the ultimate security system. It is the perfect device to defend an Englishman’s Castle – unless he’s the type who regularly forgets his keys or that he has built and installed an anti-burglar machine…

After losing a day because he hasn’t noticed his chronometer had stopped, the Professor devises a new sort of timepiece that never needs winding and becomes something of a business success. Even the local horologist (look it up) wants one.

Sadly, the meandering mentalist forgets to add a what-not to stop them all striking more than twelve and as the beastly things inexorably add one peal every hour soon there are more dings than can fit in any fifty-nine minutes. ‘The Screaming Clocks’ quickly become most unwelcome and eventually an actually menace to life and limb…

Branestawm often thought so hard that he ceased all motion. Whilst visiting The Fair at Pagwell Green’ Mrs. Flittersnoop and Colonel Dedshott mistake a waxwork of the famously brilliant bumbler for the real thing and bring “him” home to finish his pondering in private. Conversely, the carnival waxworks owner alternatively believes he has come into possession of a wax statue which has learned to talk…

‘The Professor Sends an Invitation’ sees the savant ask Dedshott to tea yet forget to include the laboriously scripted card. By means most arcane and convoluted, the doughty old warrior receives an ink-smudged blotter in an addressed envelope and mobilises to solve a baffling cipher. Of course, his first port-of-call must be his clever scientific friend – who had subsequently forgotten all about upcoming culinary events…

‘The Professor Studies Spring Cleaning’ finds Branestawm applying his prodigious intellect and inventive acumen to the seasonal tradition that so vexes Mrs. Flittersnoop and inevitably perfecting a way to make an arduous labour far worse. He thus constructs a house-engine that empties and cleans itself. Sadly, it can’t differentiate between sofa, couch, cupboard or housekeeper…

‘The Too-Many Professors’ appear when the affable artificer invents a solution which brought pictures to life. Flittersnoop is guardedly impressed when illustrations of apples and chocolates become edibly real but utterly aghast when a 3-dimensional cat and elephant commence crashing about in the parlour.

So it’s pretty inevitable that the foul-smelling concoction be spilled all over the photograph albums…

In a case of creativity feeding on itself, ‘The Professor Does a Broadcast’ relates how the brilliant old duffer is invited to give a lecture on the Wireless (no, not about radio, but for it…). Unaccustomed as he is to public speaking, the tongue-tied boffin has Dedshott rehearse and drill him until he can recite the whole speech in eleven minutes. Unfortunately, the scheduled programme is supposed to last half an hour…

A grand Fancy Dress Ball results in two eccentric pillars of Pagwell Society wittily masquerading as each other. Naturally ‘Colonel Branestawm and Professor Dedshott’ are a great success but when the Countess of Pagwell’s pearls are pinched whilst the old duffers change back to their regular attire nobody notices the difference or believes them…

‘The Professor Moves House’ relates how the inventor is forced to rent larger premises because he has filled up the old one with his contraptions. However, Branestawm’s attempts to rationalise the Moving Men’s work patterns prove that even he doesn’t know everything…

At least the disastrous ‘Pancake Day at Great Pagwell’ rescues his reputation when his magnificent automatic Pancake-Making Machine furiously feeds a multitude of friends and civic dignitaries. The Mayor likes it so much he purchases the chaotic contraption to lay all the municipality’s pavements…

This gloriously enchanting initial outing ends with ‘Professor Branestawm’s Holiday’ as the old brain-bonce finally acquiesces to his housekeeper’s urgent urgings and indulges in a vacation at the seaside. Keen on swotting up on all things jellyfish, the silly savant sets off but forgets to check in at his boarding house, resulting in a desperate missing-persons search by Dedshott, Flittersnoop and the authorities.

Things are further complicated by a Pierrot Show which boasts the best Professor Branestawn impersonator in Britain: so good in fact that even the delinquent dodderer’s best friends can’t tell the difference…

With the actual performer locked up in a sanatorium claiming he isn’t a Professor, it’s a lucky thing the one-and-only wandering wise man is unable to discern the difference between a lecture hall and a seaside show-tent…

As I’ve already mentioned, these astonishingly accessible yarns were originally written for radio and thus abound with rhythmic cadences and onomatopoeic sound effects that just scream to be enjoyed out loud. Augmented by some of Heath-Robinson’s most memorable character caricatures and insane implements, this eternally fresh children’s classic offers some of the earliest and most enduring example of spiffing techno-babble and fantabulous faux-physics – not to mention impressive iterations of the divine Pathetic Fallacy in all its outrageous glory – and no child should have to grow up without visiting and revisiting the immortal, improbable Pagwell Pioneer.

In 2008 a 75th Anniversary edition of The Incredible Adventures of Professor Branestawm was released by Red Fox but you’re just a likely to find this uproarious ubiquitous marvel in libraries, second-hand shops or even jumble sales, so by all means do…
© 1933 Norman Hunter. All rights reserved.

The Ghost Stories of M. R. James


By M. R. James, illustrated by Rosalind Caldecott, selected & edited by Michael Cox (Tiger Books International)
ISBN: 978-1-85501-141-0

These days, thanks to cinema, television and latterly the internet, our deepest emotions are mostly prodded and provoked by creators through sound and most especially by visuals, but for the longest time artists got into our heads through words and pictures, letting our own imaginations do all the damage…

A truly Great British tradition is the Christmas Ghost Story and the art form – at least in its literary iteration – has never been better expressed than in the cool, dry, chillingly understated tales of scholar and cleric M. R. James.

A series of BBC TV adaptations appeared sporadically from the late 1960s onwards, thoroughly warping the unformed minds of a generation of kids like me and Mark Gatiss who, in fact, revived the tradition in 2013 with his dramatisation of The Tractate Middoth on December 25th 2013 with A Ghost Story for Christmas

There are naturally plenty of compilations of the macabre master’s creepy canon – although as far as I’m aware, no complete collection yet – but a treasured favourite of mine, incorporating the majority of his most infamous spellbinders, is this copiously illustrated commemorative hardback from 1986 which also offers a series of superb, atmosphere-evoking yet sublimely understated pencil drawings from Rosalind Caldecott for each eerie episode.

So successful were M. R. James’ painfully small canon of stories that he has been given the honour of defining a genre. The “Jamesian” style revolves around and usually includes a familiar if bucolic setting such as an English hamlet, manorial estate or seaside town, ancient European edifices like an abbey or university library where quiet, naive bookish types finds antiquarian books or ancient artefacts and arouse the ire of something far better left dead and forgotten…

In this scholarly tome – befitting a man as well known for his educational, scholastic and ecumenical achievements as his horrorist hobby – the timeless terror tales are preceded by an epic and entrancing biography of Montague Rhodes James OM, MA, FBA (1862-1936) who, when not disturbing the dreams of a nation and empire, was a medieval researcher and latterly Provost of King’s College Cambridge and Eton College.

His life and works are here traced with meticulous precision in a photo-packed, illustration-augmented ‘Introduction by Michael Cox’ before begins a cavalcade of subdued, understated, ferociously evocative tales wherein comfortable elements of the ordinary and safely commonplace are over and again suddenly compromised by the relentless howling unknown…

The prose pilgrimage begins with ‘Canon Alberic’s Scrap-Book’ (first published in National Review, March 1895) as a student and collector of scriptural antiquities describes the close call he had when offered an illicit mediaeval manuscript volume. He had no qualms about purchasing the relic until he saw what was hidden at the back…

This is followed by the classic ‘Lost Hearts’ (debuting in Pall Mall Magazine, December 1895 and adapted into a TV masterpiece by Robin Chapman for the BBC’s Christmas top-slot in 1973) which describes how young orphan Stephen is adopted by his elderly cousin at a remote mansion. His extremely distant benefactor is obsessed with immortality but the truly disturbing problem is the frequent peripheral glimpses of a gypsy girl and Italian boy with holes in their chests…

A far more sedate yet equally sinister situation unfolds when a university museum curator acquires a rare artwork in ‘The Mezzotint’ (from Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, 1904). The local scene depicted seemingly changes whenever people look away and elements of the subtly shifting picture bear ghastly echoes of a local atrocity from years past…

From that same landmark anthology volume comes ‘The Ash-Tree’ which relates how the inheritor of an ancient and much-cursed country estate discovers to his horror the Things which have caused so much misery over the centuries and where they’ve been hiding, whilst a church historian staying at a Danish inn uncovers true terror through the uncanny appearances and disappearances of both his sometime neighbours and even room ‘Number 13’ (GSoaA, 1904) itself

A deservedly legendary and infamous tale from GSoaA, 1904, ‘“Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad”’ is one of James’ most celebrated chillers which, as adapted by Jonathan Miller in 1968, set the tone and format for the BBC’s seasonal horror-offerings for decades to come.

The original prose piece concerns a stuffy, solitary academic who discovers an old whistle whilst poking about in a ruin once occupied by the Knights Templar. He then unleashes something incomprehensible and malign after he blows on it…

‘The Tractate Middoth’ (More Ghost Stories, 1911) details how a college librarian is sucked into a protracted family legal dispute over a lost book being sought by both the living and the dead whilst ‘The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral’ (Contemporary Review, 1910) reveals how when the old Archdeacon dies in mysterious circumstances his successor becomes beguiled with – or is that stalked by? – a certain set of carved seats in the Cathedral…

A local scandal and subsequent court case finds the Squire accused of murdering a young girl he had been dallying with in ‘Martin’s Close’ (More Ghost Stories, 1911), but events take a strange turn after the prosecution enter into evidence the victim’s ghostly testimony, before ‘Mr Humphreys and his Inheritance’ (MGS, 1911) explains how a beneficiary’s windfall comes with a few unpleasant strings attached: specifically, a maze and Folly Temple which form part of his new estate and operate in a most bizarre and predatory fashion…

James preferred to distance himself and generally his story-narrators from the actual arcane action and this is seldom better seen than in the relatively lengthy and convoluted tale of ‘The Residence at Whitminster’ (A Thin Ghost, 1919) wherein the new modern rector at an ancient ecclesiastical home idly delves into the death of two children in 1730 and uncovers generations of tragedy locked in a simple old chest, unleashes unquiet spirits in the manse and lets loose demonic insects…

Another scholar investigating past parlous events informs ‘A Neighbour’s Landmark’ (The Eton Chronic, May 1925) wherein a visit to a friend’s country seat uncovers the reasons ancient woodland Betton Wood was dug up and ploughed over. However the eerie ghostly screams that used to emanate from it can still rattle the unwary…

‘A View From a Hill’ (The London Mercury, May 1925) then recounts how a historian on holiday visits a chum and borrows some very odd old binoculars. With them he rambles to a local beauty spot and sees something impossible and out of joint: an ancient tower and gibbet which are no longer situated on notorious local landmark Gallows Hill. …And then he sees through those ancient lenses impossible people moving with deadly purpose…

Minor classic ‘A Warning to the Curious’ was written after the Great War (The London Mercury, August 1925) and is one of James’ most bleak, chilling and hope-abandoned offerings. It tells of Paxton, an antiquarian/archaeologist on holiday in a Suffolk coastal resort who happens upon an important relic…

Unable to resist the lure of the long-lost Saxon Crown of Anglia – one of three fabled to protect the nation from invasion – he disinters and takes the artefact but is subsequently and relentlessly stalked by its sinister supernatural sentinel.

By the time Paxton unburdens himself to our narrator it is almost too late and, although he is convinced to restore the Crown to its resting place, his sin can be expiated only by occult judgement…

This sublimely supernal feast of fear and uneasy elucidation concludes with the disquieting and quasi-autobiographical ‘A Vignette’ which first appeared in The London Mercury in November 1936. It discloses how, on a quiet day in a typically idyllic English Country Garden, a sensitive young boy saw something he could not explain and felt somehow compelled to draw closer rather than run away…

This erudite edition also includes full ‘Publication Details’ of where and when the terror tales originated and where they were subsequently collected, whilst ‘Notes to the Introduction’ provide timely background to the storyteller’s eclectic life and everything ends with a tantalising ‘Select Bibliography’ to get your own antiquarian juices flowing…

Calmly disquieting, approachably uneasy and superbly scary, these are stories every fear fan should know and, whether through this illustrated item or any later collection, you must read these tales.
Copyright this edition © 1986 Nicholas Enterprises Limited. This edition published 1991 All rights reserved.

An Android Awakes


By Mike French & Karl Brown (Elsewhen Press)
ISBN: 978-1-908168-63-4

It’s been a while since we looked at anything experimental so here’s an intriguing blend of illustrated book and graphic narrative which has a lot to recommend it.

In the world that’s coming, human beings are in decline and androids on the ascendant. Sadly our synthetic successors are prey to all the emotional foibles and insecurities we were. They’re very much like us except they can eat rivets and get really hammered on oil…

They especially have an overwhelming desire to experience fiction, even if the powers-that-be are as sleazy, quixotic, unpredictable, small-minded, corporate and blinkered as any meat-and-bone based publisher ever was…

Android Writer PD121928 is part of the Android Publishing Program. The state provides for his needs (drugs, whores, deep-frozen pets and the removal of his wife so that he can achieve the proper frame of artistic angst and squalor) and in return he conceives increasingly outré and wild adventure tales. It’s the same deal for every creative automaton in the system: Filmmakers, photographers, artists, whatever…

He hasn’t sold one yet which is becoming a bit of a problem since Android Writers are only allowed 42 submissions. If they can’t land a publishing contract before getting 42 rejection slips, they’re scrapped and another musing mechanoid gets his shot in the Program…

With the ignominious return of The Eating of Citizen Kane, PD121928 is down to his last 14 lives (a situation not unlike that of the succession of cats periodically thawed out to keep him company. It’s a shame they keep dying or going missing…) and the tension sends him into a paroxysm of creativity with us carried along on the surprisingly brief and exotic adventures of the pantheon of character-creations that have become so very real to the stressed creator…

Through the carefully crafted and impossibly interconnected stories of Finn, The Locust Wife, Abel Ford, Angel UK, Cai Lun, Richard Steinberger, The Great Explorer Umberto Amunsden, Commander Oleg, Aedus Cricklewood, Jiéyǔ The Detective and Mark, via recurrent motifs of mockingbirds and angel fish, the Android Writer pours out and repeatedly risks his life – even entering into unwise liaisons with a human prostitute on the Endangered List – as he struggles to survive and simultaneously wonders why he bothers…

Mike French’s beguiling, fantasy-vignette studded account of a creator-in-crisis is augmented by and combined with a wealth of raw and jarring monochrome illustrations from Karl Brown, but unlike most illustrated tomes these pictures are fully integrated into the text and often supplant the narrative entirely, detailing key moments of specific submissions such as ‘The Amazing Arctic Sinking Man’, ‘OAP Extraction’, ‘The Antiquity of Zero’, ‘The Great Sea in the Sky’, or ‘The Sacrament of Abel Ford’ with extended sections of mute sequential art just like the heydays of European sci fi comics or classic 2000AD.

And then it’s time for Submission 42 and the desperately spiralling writer has a really different idea…

Overtones of Barrington J. Bayley, Christopher Priest and especially Michael Moorcock (when he was writing Breakfast in the Ruins) give this portmanteau of tales within tales a splendidly refined and timeless feel as a litany of cool ideas and stand-out characters weep out in the truncated (1000 words per…) yet expansively polished format of tomorrow’s word-counted entertainments…

Smart, challenging and well worth any jaded fantasist’s rapt attention.
Text © Mike French 2015. Artwork © Karl Brown 2015. All rights reserved.
An Android Awakes is also available as an eBook (ISBN: 978-1-908168-73-3)

Baltimore, or, the Steadfast Tin Soldier & the Vampire


By Mike Mignola & Christopher Golden (Dark Horse)
ISBN: 978-1-61655-803-1

As well as being involved with some of the very best superhero yarns of the late 20th century, Legendary fantasist and comics-creator Mike Mignola has carved himself a splendid and memorable niche in the industry’s history by revitalising the sub-genre of horror-heroes via such macabre mayhem-mavens as Hellboy, B.P.R.D. and Lobster Johnson, creating his own very special dark place where thrill-starved fans can wallow in all things dire and dreadful…

Clearly he has far more ideas than he can successfully manage in one lifetime. As well all those sequential art endeavours he has expressed a deep and abiding love for the classical supernatural-thriller medium through illustrated prose novels such as Joe Golem and the Drowning City (co-crafted with long-time writing associate Christopher Golden) and this potent tribute to the writings of pioneers of the dread and uncanny H. P. Lovecraft, August Derleth and Clark Ashton Smith, with perhaps just a touch of Jack London…

Baltimore, or, the Steadfast Tin Soldier & the Vampire was first released as a luxurious Random House hardback 2007 and the captivatingly dark, doom-drenched blend of martial steampunk and classic vampire horror-yarn subsequently led to Mignola & Golden sporadically concocting further exploits of the titular hero in comics form from 2010 onwards, beginning with 5-issue miniseries Baltimore: The Plague Ships, illustrated by Ben Stenbeck.

This sturdy oversized paperback edition from Dark Horse re-presents that initial textual sortie into the outer reaches of imagination whilst also offering a brace of chilling comicstrip shockers by Mignola, Golden and Stenbeck culled from the 2013 one-shot Baltimore: The Widow and the Tank.

With constant and effective allusion to Hans Christian Andersen’s heartbreaking fairytale The Steadfast Tin Soldier, the eerie epic relates the transformative tale of dutiful if unimaginative Scion of Albion Lord Henry Baltimore who answered England’s call to arms in 1914 only to be severely wounded during the battles in Ardennes.

When he fell history took a horrific turn which began when the terrified officer awoke amongst a crater full of dead men being fed on by ghastly bat-like vampires who had for centuries abandoned their predator roles for the safer niche of clandestine carrion-feeders. When the appalled aristocrat lashed out, taking an eye from the leech prematurely consuming his life’s blood, it roused the creature and its disgusting brethren to a fury of vengeance-taking which cost Baltimore his entire family, unleashed a plague which decimated all humanity and roused a demonic force intent on reclaiming the Earth after contentedly quiescent millennia…

The one thing the obsessed Nosferatu’s sustained campaign of cruelty did not do was break Baltimore. Instead it honed the once-effete and ineffectual product of civilisation into an unstoppable hammer to smash the reawakened vampiric forces wherever they could be found – although not before the world was reduced to a pitiful, disjointed and primitive killing field on the edge of utter obliteration…

For most of the novel Baltimore is an enigmatic, unknown force far from the spotlight, given shape and form by three strangers who meet in a befouled hostelry in broken city at the behest of a man they have all benefited from knowing…

As the day passes, former Army Surgeon Dr. Lemuel Rose, merchant seaman Demetrius Aischros and Baltimore’s childhood companion Thomas Childress Jr. compare notes on the currently missing monster-hunter and share their own horrendous intimate brushes with various agencies of diabolism that have left all three maimed, wary but resolutely prepared for the worst the magical realms can throw at them. Or so they think…

Constructed like a portmanteau novel as a series of linked short stories and told in the manner of Victorian after-dinner raconteurs, the drama and tension build slowly but inexorably towards the inevitable appearance of the transformed and unwavering vampire-killer and a confrontation years in the making and steeped in the blood of millions…

Ponderous, inexorable, moodily despondent and completely captivating, this aggregation of singular horrors experienced alone and perpetual perils shared is complemented by two short comics vignettes illustrated with cool understatement by Ben Stenbeck.

‘The Widow’ harks back to the days after the plague brought The Great War to a unofficial halt when Baltimore returned to England in search of a new breed of gore-drinker hiding amidst the mortal populace, whilst the second episode sees the implacable hunter ally temporarily with a bloodsucker to escape even worse paranormal predators lurking around ‘The Tank’.

Moreover the scintillating saga contained within this supremely satisfyingly tome is graced with 146 grittily monochrome full, half, third and quarter-page illustrations by Mignola to complete a joyous homage to the necromantic good old days.

Miss it at your peril, fright fans…
© 2007, 2015 Mike Mignola and Christopher Golden. All rights reserved.

Where the Bird Sings Best


By Alejandro Jodorowsky, translated Alfred MacAdam (Restless Books)
ISBN: 978-1-63206-028-0

Alejandro Jodorowsky Prullansky is a filmmaker, playwright, actor, author, comics writer, world traveller, philosopher and spiritual guru who was born in Tocopilla, Chile in 1929.

How his immediate ancestors got there from pogrom-afflicted Russia at the beginning of the 20th century is only the faintest shadow of the body of this astounding, marvellously mythologized and mesmerisingly “Magic Realism” filtered family history…

The amazing modern polymath is most widely known for such films as Fando y Lis, El Topo, The Holy Mountain, Sante Sangre, The Rainbow Thief, The Dance of Reality and others, as well as his vast comics output, including Anibal 5 (created whilst living in Mexico), Le Lama blanc, Aliot, The Meta-Barons, Borgia, Madwoman of the Sacred Heart and so many more, co-created with some of South America and Europe’s greatest artists.

His decade-long collaboration with Moebius on the Tarot-inspired adventure The Incal (1981-1989) completely redefined and reinvented what comics could aspire to and achieve.

Best regarded for his violently surreal avant-garde films, loaded with highly-charged, inspired imagery – blending mysticism and what he terms “religious provocation” – and his spiritually-informed fantasy and science fiction comics tales, Jodorowsky is also fascinated by humanity’s inner realms and has devised his own doctrine of therapeutic healing: Psychomagic, Psychogenealogy and Initiatic massage. He still remains fully engaged and active in all these creative areas to this day.

He is also a raconteur of spellbinding imagination and truly devilish wit, all fully exercised and demonstrated in this stunning, outrageous re-imagining of the history of his antecedents, which was first published in 1992 as Donde mejor canta un Pájaro.

An astounding prose poem – intoxicatingly translated from the Spanish for this first English-language hardback edition by Professor of Latin American Literature Alfred MacAdam – this is an addictively enjoyable rollercoaster of arcane and obscene episodes seamlessly sewn together as Jodorowsky bounces across time and space, weaving stories of apostate Jewish grandmothers sharing their hatred for God, unworldly yet adaptable husbands, incestuous relations and relatives, all with a knack for finding disasters, wars, inquisitions, exploiters, monstrous suppressions, wanton violence and casual brutality…

The mythologized epic of immigration and Diaspora is filled with unforgettable and improbable sexual situations, fortunes – usually in gold or diamonds – found and lost in the blink of an eye, animal encounters of the most outré kinds, earthquake-surfing and the kind of bizarre wisdom and ad hoc solutions only folk in perpetual crisis resort and adhere to.

The saga is engagingly peopled with utterly unique characters such as an assortment of plebeian and domestic visionary-seers, sheep-abusing Tsar/hermits, dwarves, prophets, prostitutes, sorcerers and demagogues, transsexual ballerinas, unlikely libertines, holistic bee-keeping pioneers, Kabbalists and victims of every stripe, shysters and gentle conmen, fully-immersive lion-tamers and knife-throwers and the ghost of a Rabbi whose path for successive generations of the family involves regular last-minute salvations but not necessarily happiness, safety or security…

With the history slyly couched in terms of entertainment performances and themes of ballet and the circus, the mystic and miraculous generational saga explosively unfolds, reveals and even chronologically doubles back upon itself to share the experiences of a most accursed and blessed clan during the most difficult and dangerous period in human history, and even finds a moment to reveal the true origins and history of the Tarot…

An absolute crescendo of beguiling ideas, breathtakingly shocking, surreal scenarios, unholy grotesques, outspoken opinions and wickedly blasphemous visions, this is a wonder to read and utterly pointless to attempt reviewing.

It’s brilliant, read it now or regret it forever.

Not for the innocent, unimaginative or faint-hearted – although those souls are the ones who would benefit most from seeing it – Where the Bird Sings Best is that rarest of literary curios: a book not to be merely read but fully experienced.
© 2014 Alejandro Jodorowsky. Translation © 2014 Alfred Macadam.