What We Don’t Talk About


By Charlot Kristensen (Avery Hill)
ISBN: 978-1-91039-555-4 (TPB/digital edition)

There’s plenty wrong with the world, but most of it could probably be sorted if people got together and discussed things rationally and honestly. Some individuals, however, don’t want to change positions or even agree that there even is a problem. This book isn’t for them, and we’ll have to find more drastic ways to deal with their nonsense…

Charlot Kristensen graduated from Middlesex University in 2015 with a degree in Illustration and thereafter pursued a career in the arts. Her visual and narrative gifts are prodigious and superbly highlighted in this vibrant examination of an interracial relationship in crisis. Kristensen is of Afro-Danish descent and clearly knows what she’s talking about and how best to depict it…

Painted in lavish and mood-setting colours, What We Don’t Talk About focuses on an idyllic modern romance as (demi-autobiographical?) artist Farai accompanies her white English boyfriend Adam to Lake Windemere to finally meet his parents. The young couple have been lovers for two years now, ever since University, but her beautiful gentle musician soulmate is uncharacteristically nervous – even short-tempered – as the journey begins. Farai almost regrets the trip, even though she’s been pushing for it from the start. Her nerves and his tension dissipate on the trip north, but are all revived when she meets Charles and Martha. The look on their faces and the tone of the greeting tell Farai an old story…

In frosty diffidence, the social amenities are followed but it’s not just a barely suppressed attitude of polite condescension Farai experiences. Martha’s blunt opinions extend to all aspects of her son’s life. Although she clearly opposes Adam’s choice of career, after meeting the girlfriend, Mother now has a new problem to gnaw at…

As the weekend progresses Martha’s sneering, passive aggressive comments go from dismissive to openly hostile: mocking Farai’s clothes and denigrating the achievements of her Zimbabwean parents (a doctor and engineer respectively). It soon becomes clear that it’s not just her who’s a problem: people with funny names or difficult accents and all Muslims also fail Martha’s tests of decency and acceptable standards. The matriarch also thinks the world should be grateful for British colonialism…

And Adam? He’s loving and conciliatory but ultimately weak and keen to avoid the issue. He knows what his mum says is objectionable, offensive and just plain wrong, but can’t or won’t bring himself to say anything or rebuke his parents. He seeks to divert conversations rather than defend Farai, even employing the “just a joke” defence at a most distressing family dinner. He doesn’t seem to believe their attitudes are unacceptable or that it even matters. Farai’s seen it all before. This is a love story that cannot possibly end well…

Like a contemporary Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, this powerful graphic drama forensically picks open the sores underlying so much of modern society’s attempts to integrate and assimilate long-entrenched attitudes: revealing not just how far we’ve all come, but how far we still have to go.

Comics have always had an admirable record in addressing issues of bigotry and racial injustice, and this tale takes that to the next level with potent moving empathy displayed and seen through the eyes of someone who’s clearly “been there, done that” all too often…

That ignorance and intolerance still daily endured by so many today is perpetually ignored, diminished and dismissed by those in charge has never been more effectively shown as in this unforgettable tale. Luxuriant colours and a welcomingly accessible cartoon style subversively act to devastatingly prove that prejudice doesn’t just lurk in dark corners any more but instead proudly rears its head everywhere it can. But that just means we must slap it down more forcefully and decisively.
© 2020 Charlot Kristensen.

Numbercruncher


By Simon Spurrier & P.J. Holden, with Jordie Bellaire (Titan Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-78276-004-7 (HB/Digital edition)

Sometimes a story just cries out to be told – especially if your tastes run to the sentimentally cynical, soppily savage or wide-eyed yet jaded. If that’s you, Numbercruncher will confirm all your suspicions about life whilst providing a really good time.

The tale – by Simon Spurrier (Judge Dredd, X-Men: Legacy, Six-Gun Gorilla, Damn Them All, John Constantine: Hellblazer) & P.J. Holden (also your man Dredd, Rogue Trooper, Battlefields, Terminator/Robocop Skullduggery Pleasant, The Moon Looked Down and Laughed) – began as a creator-owned project in The Judge Dredd Megazine before being expanded into a 4-issue miniseries at Titan Comics: a clever, controversial confection that will confound, delight and astound lovers of metaphysical whimsy, romantic fantasy and unnecessarily extreme violence.

Like 1939’s The Wizard of Oz, Werewolf by Night (2022) and especially A Matter of Life and Death, this unearthly tale is told on two separate levels of existence, differentiated by full-colour mundanity sections and monochrome views of The Afterlife. Unlike those movies, it’s a nasty and wittily vicious piece of work; just like handy geezer Bastard Zane, AKA operative #494, employed by The Divine Calculator to enforce Karmic Accountancy and keep souls circulating through the great cosmic All.

The Universe is just numbers and God is a mean, pedantic bean-counter, only concerned with the smooth running of his Grand Algorithm. Unfortunately, it all starts to fall apart when Zane is tasked by the weaselly Big Boss with stopping an in-love but dying young mathematician from gaming the system. SuperGenius Richard Thyme in his final seconds of mortal life, has a Eureka moment and divines the true and exact nature of everything… and how to manipulate it…

Armed with that inspirational knowledge, Thyme’s soul arrives before the Writer in the Grand Ledger and wheedles another spin on the Karmic Wheel – Reincarnation.

Brilliant Richard had been utterly in love with a dippy hippy chick named Jessica Reed, and when he bargains for another chance at a life with her, the petty-minded Divine Calculator gleefully accepts the proposition. Thyme will be reborn, with all memories intact, but when this second life ends, his soul will be gainfully employed – just like Zane – by the Karmic Accountancy Agency as a collector. Standard term of employment is for eternity… unless he can convince someone to take his place. The indentured operatives call it “Recirculation”…

There is only one get-out: a “Zero-clause” which means that if Thyme can live a life completely and totally without sin, his contract becomes null and void. But who could possibly live a mortal life without the slightest transgression?

Naturally, The Accountant won’t play fair: stacking the deck so reborn Richard is unable to even get near his lost love until it’s too late. However, when Zane finally shows up in AD 2035, eagerly expecting to close the case-file and retire with Thyme taking his long-suffering place in The Register, the frustrated, cheated SuperGenius plays his own trump card…

He’d always expected to be short-changed and made his own Karmic side-deal. By selling his contract to another Accountancy operative, he had bought another life, and as psychotically furious Bastard Zane soon sees, Thyme has pulled this trick over and over again. No matter how often Richard dies, he’s already being born again somewhere else…

With the mathematician’s sold-&-resold soul promised to practically every agent in the Afterlife, Zane’s only hope of retirement rests in killing the canny lad’s each and every reincarnation whilst simultaneously slaughtering every Karmic operative who’s been suckered into a deal with the lovesick little sod… On Earth, despite perpetual setbacks, each brief existence inches Richard slowly ever closer to Jess. That should make his eventual capture inevitable – but even here the smart guy has an incredible Plan B in operation: one even the Supreme Architect of the Cosmos didn’t see coming and one which may well undo the Algorithm underpinning Everything That Is…

Poignant, funny, outrageously gory, gloriously rude and wickedly clever, this is a ferociously upbeat, hilariously dark black comedy no insufferable incurable romantic could possibly resist. Moreover, for all us dyed-in-the-wool comics freaks, there’s a host of background features included. Interspersed between a gallery of covers and variants plus unused iterations and loads of original art, roughs and sketches, an ‘Author’s Note’ explores the genesis of the tale, further expanded upon in ‘A Comic for Talking to God – an interview with Brian Truitt of USA Today’. A discussion and explanation of Jordie Bellaire’s colouring process is the focus of ‘Working Flat-Out’ and ‘Birth Placement’ details the procedure for creating a cover, before the usual Creator’s Biographies ends things on a knowledgeable note.

Love, Death, Sex, more Death, Rebirth, lots of Death and Numbers: there’s your Meaning of Life right there…
™ & © 2013 Simon Spurrier & P.J. Holden. All rights reserved.

Glorious Summers volume 2: The Calanque 1969


By Zidrou & Jordi Lafebre, with additional colour by Mado Peña, translated by Lara Vergnaud (Europe Comics)
No ISBN: Digital edition only

It’s close (OMG! LESS THAN A WEEK!) to the most stressful and commercialised event of the singleton calendar for unattached people who wish they weren’t, so let’s look at what all that amorous manoeuvring and romantic strategizing is supposed to lead to as perfectly depicted in a sublime and delightful family feast of “Happy Ever Afters”…

Until comparatively recently, comics in the English-speaking world mostly countenanced comedic or numerous adventure sub-genres (crime, superhero, horror, sci fi), with only a small but vital niche of “mundane world” ventures, usually depicted via graphic biographies and autobiographies like They Called Us Enemy, Breakwater, Love on the Isle of Dogs, Wage Slaves or Sour Pickles offering a different feel and flavour. Even historical sagas were treated as extraordinary moments with larger-than-life characters whenever possible.

What we have never had – and still largely don’t – is a comics equivalent to general fiction, drama and melodrama. That’s not so in Japan, South Korea or Europe, where a literal “anything goes” attitude has always accommodated and nurtured human-scaled, slice-of-life tales depicting ordinary people in as many quiet as extraordinary moments. Surely it can’t be that hard to tell engaging stories in pedestrian, recognisably ordinary settings? Medical traumas, love stories, school tales and family tragedies about common folk seem to play well on various-sized screens around the world, so why not in English language comics? The closest we seem to get are comedies like John Allison’s superb Giant Days (which I really must review soon)…

People being people is more than enough for Europeans. There apparently is an insatiable appetite for everyday events aimed at properly “mature readers”, joyfully sans vampires, aliens or men in tights. These even have sub-genres of their own. For example, there’s a wealth of superb material just about going on holiday. So, since our own Government-in-Absentia have ensured that it’s now all-but-impossible for any UK-based citizens to pop across and have une petite vacances in Europe, let’s stare & glare covetously at them having a good time. After all, over there holidays are an inalienable right, and they have some simply fabulous tales about a simple break. This one is probably amongst the best you’ll ever see…

An absolute exemplar of fantasy vacations made real, Glorious Summers: Southbound! (1973) was a nostalgia-drenched confection by Zidrou and regular collaborator Jordi Lafebre: a sublime example of idyllic group memory made into graphic sorcery in an everyday account utterly unafraid to temper humorous sweetness and light with real-world tragedy and suspense.

Perhaps some context is in order. Summer holidays – “Midi” – are a big deal in France and Belgium. The French divide into two tribes over the annual rest period, which generally lasts an entire month. Juilletistes only vacation in July, wielding dogmatic facts like rapiers to prove why it’s the only way to take a break. They are eternally opposed, heart, soul, and suntan lotion, by majority faction the Aoûtiens, who recharge their batteries in August whilst fully reciprocating the suspicion, disdain and baffled scorn of the early-leavers. Many European sociologists claim the greatest social division today is not race, religion, gender, political affiliation or whether to open boiled eggs from the top or the bottom, but when summer holidays begin and end…

Les Beaux Étés 1: Cap au Sud! was first in a string of family visits that began in 2015 courtesy of scripter Benoît “Zidrou” Drousie and Spanish illustrator Jordi Lafebre. Drousie is Belgian, Brussels-born in 1962 and was a school teacher prior to quitting marking books in 1990 to begin making them. His main successes include school dunce series L’Elève Ducobu, Petit Dagobert, Scott Zombi, La Ribambelle, Le Montreur d’histoires, the revival of Ric Hochet, African Trilogy, Léonardo, Shi and many more. His most celebrated and beloved stories are this memorable sequence and 2010’s Lydie, both illustrated by Lafebre.

That gifted, empathically sensitive illustrator and art teacher was born in Barcelona in 1979 and has created comics professionally since 2001, first for magazines like Mister K, where he limned Toni Font’s El Mundo de Judy. He found regular work at Le Journal de Spirou, creating the romance Always Never and collaborated with Zidrou on La vieille dame qui n’avait jamais joué au tennis et autres nouvelles qui font du bien, Lydie, and La Mondaine.

A combination of feel-good fable and powerful comedy drama, Glorious Summers depicts memories of an aging couple recalling their grandest family moments, beginning with a momentous vacation in 1973 where their four kids nearly lost their parents….

Here however, second volume The Calanque focuses on August 1969 as pregnant Maddie Faldérault (soon to deliver precociously hyperactive Paulette AKA Peaches) tries to amuse her three impatient kids whilst hubby Pierre frantically puts finishing touches to his latest comic strip. It’s a regular ritual before his month off, but this time less annoying as it’s also his first work as a named creator rather than an anonymous ghost artist for others. Apparently the world is finally ready for a four-armed cowboy gunfighter…

Their kids are immune to bedtimes and indulge in time-honoured holiday rituals like shouting, fighting and singing odd songs, before Pierre downs his brushes. Now the annual Faldérault escape from gloomy Brussels for a month in sun-drenched France can start.

Only… on the way they need to see his dad. Pépé Buelo moved to Brussels when General Franco took over Spain. He made a good life as bricklayer and husband, but now he’s on his own and a little lonely…

Eventually, the family set off with introspective toddler Louis reading, drawing and constantly sharing his far from limited knowledge of where babies come from, even as self-conscious oldest girl Jolly-Julie anxiously ponders life without bathrooms and in-betweener Nicole tells everyone they meet that mummy is going to be a mummy again. As they motor south in the dark – they left really, really late – they play their annual game of deciding where they’re going by solving riddles because planned destinations and pre-booked rooms are for wimps…

True free spirits, they pick up a hippie hitchhiker and scare him witless with their laid back attitudes – especially teasing Jolly-Julie’s reticence to use nature as a restroom. When he drops out they resume southern roaming and finally decide to camp in a shady wood for the night. In the morning the family Faldérault realise their error as elderly French couple Rufus and Ramona discover they have Belgians in the back garden…

After a few lovely days as guests who can’t politely escape, Pierre and Maddie learn that Rufus knows the perfect spot for travellers to enjoy their break, directing them to a hidden cove on the sea coast. It’s beautiful: an idyllic cliff-screened rustic paradise with a ramshackle fishing hut just ready to be temporarily occupied. Rufus even provides a guide in the form of his exuberant older brother – aging fisherman Marius.

What follows is timeless weeks of wonder and unforgettable explorations on endlessly sunny days, with local villagers taking the wanderers to heart and welcoming them to a taste of rustic heaven. Even the Americans landing on the moon or the Tour de France victory of Belgian Eddie Merckx can’t compare…

Ultimately the real world calls them back and the holidaymakers pack up for home. Awaiting them is bad news for Pierre, a new job for Maddie and a rainy grey hometown. One clear sign of normality resuming comes as they find a dog abandoned by the roadside, but brilliantly and boldly they turn that traumatic event into a lasting positive…

This tale is another beautifully rendered and realised basket of memories stitched seamlessly together. It’s funny, sweet and charming whilst delivering painful blows you never see coming. There aren’t any spectacular events and shocking crises and that’s the whole point…

If you’re British – and old enough – this series (six translated albums thus far, plus a French omnibus edition) will echo revered family sitcoms like Bless This House or Butterflies and generational ads starring the “Oxo Family”. (If that description doesn’t fit you, I pity your browsing history if you look up any of that…). The rest of you in need of an opening (but unfair) comparator could break out the Calvin and Hobbes collections and re-examine the bits with his embattled parents when the kid’s out of the picture…

Lyrical, laconic, engagingly demure, and debilitatingly nostalgic, this holiday romance is sheer visual perfection wrapped in sharp dialogue and a superbly anarchic sense of mischief. Vacations are built of moments and might-have-beens, packaged here in compelling clips making the mundane marvellous.
© 2018 -DARGAUD BENELUX (Dargaud-Lombard s.a.) – ZIDROU & LEFEBRE, LLC. All rights reserved.

Conan the Barbarian Epic Collection volume 4: Queen of the Black Coast (1974-1976)


By Roy Thomas, Fred Blosser, John Buscema, Mike Ploog, Tim Conrad & various (MARVEL)
ISBN: 1-84576-137-5 (TPB/Digital edition)

In the 1970’s, America’s comic book industry opened up after more than 15 years of calcified publishing practises promulgated by the censorious, self-inflicted Comics Code Authority: a self-imposed oversight organisation created to police product after the industry suffered its very own McCarthy-style 1950s Witch-hunt. The first genre revisited during the literary liberation was Horror/Mystery, and from those changes sprang migrated pulp star Conan.

Sword & Sorcery stories had been undergoing a prose revival in the paperback marketplace since the release of softcover editions of Lord of the Rings in 1954 and, in the 1960s, revivals of the fantasies of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Otis Adelbert Kline, Fritz Lieber and others were making huge inroads into buying patterns across the world. The old masters had also been augmented by many modern writers. Michael Moorcock, Lin Carter and others kick-started their prose careers with contemporary versions of man against mage against monsters. The undisputed overlord of the genre was Robert E. Howard with his 1930s pulp masterpiece Conan of Cimmeria.

Gold Key had notionally opened the field in 1964 with cult hit Mighty Samson, followed by Clawfang the Barbarian’ in Thrill-O-Rama #2 in 1966. Both steely warriors dwelt in post-apocalyptic techno-wildernesses, but in 1969 DC dabbled with previously code-proscribed mysticism as Nightmaster in Showcase #82 -84, following the example of CCA-exempt Warren anthologies Creepy, Eerie and Vampirella. Marvel tested the waters with barbarian villain/Conan prototype Arkon the Magnificent in Avengers #76 (April 1970) and the same month went all-out with short supernatural thriller ‘The Sword and the Sorcerers’ in their own watered-down horror anthology Chamber of Darkness #4.

Written by Roy Thomas and drawn by fresh-faced Barry Smith (a recent Marvel find who was just breaking out of the company’s still-prevalent Kirby house-style) the tale introduced Starr the Slayer who also bore no small resemblance to the Barbarian-in-waiting…

Conan the Barbarian debuted with an October 1970 cover-date and – despite early teething problems, including being cancelled and reinstated in the same month – these strip adventures of Howard’s primal hero were as big a success as the prose yarns they adapted. Conan became a huge hit: a blockbuster brand that prompted new prose tales, movies, TV series, cartoon shows, a newspaper strip and all the other paraphernalia of global superstardom.

However, times changed, sales declined and in 2003 the property found a different comics publisher, before – after decades away – in 2019 the brawny brute returned to the aegis of Marvel.

Their first bite of the cherry was retroactively subtitled “the Original Marvel Years” due to the character’s sojourn with Dark Horse Comics and other intellectual rights holders with this fourth compendium – spanning cover-dates August 1974 to February 1976 – reprinting Conan the Barbarian #43-59 plus a tale from Savage Sword of Conan #1. It highlights a period when the burly brute was very much the darling of the Comics universe and when artist John Buscema made the hero his very own.

Adaptor Thomas had resolved to follow the character’s narrative timeline as laid out by Howard and successors such as L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter, expanded and padded out with other adaptions of REH and his contemporaries and – almost as a last resort – all-new adventures. Thus, content was evermore redolent of pulp-oriented episodic action rather than traditional fantasy fiction.

As we hurtle back in time approximately 12,000 years to a forgotten age of wonders, and – following the now traditional map of ‘The Hyborean Age of Conan’ plus accompanying mandatory establishing quote, the saga resumes with a riotous romp from Savage Sword of Conan #1 (August 1974).

The series had broken many moulds, including being able to sustain not just a general audience but also appropriate for Marvel’s monochrome magazine division, offering more explicitly violent and risqué fare for supposedly more mature readers. For this market he debuted in Savage Tales #1 (1971) before winning his own magazine residency. Savage Sword of Conan launched in August 1974, running 235 issues until its cancellation in July 1995. Throughout its life SSoC offered powerful stories, features on all things RE Howard and some of the most incredible artwork ever to grace comics pages. The antediluvian experience opens with #1’s lead yarn. Thomas, John Buscema & Pablo Marcos’ ‘Curse of the Undead-Man’ was adapted from Howard’s short story Mistress of Death with Conan meeting old comrade Red Sonja amongst the fleshpots of “The Maul” in Zamora’s City of Thieves before falling foul of sorcerer Costranno: a mage for whom being chopped to mincemeat is only a minor inconvenience but who still strenuously objected to being robbed and murdered…

A sequence of self-contained tales resumes in the colour newsstand Conan the Barbarian #43 (October 1974) as Thomas continues to follow Howard and de Camp’s roadmap. The saga begins with the warriors’ rapid escape from Zamora, relentlessly pursued by bounty hunters. Trouble finds them when they are taken by bat-monsters to a ‘Tower of Blood’ (inked by Erni Chan nee Chua) where the husky lout is forcibly “admired” by ancient queen-with-a-secret Uathacht and threatened by her sorcerer brother Morophla. The mage has been hiding from Conan’s sworn foe Thoth Amon for simply ages and has revolting plans for both warriors which go appallingly awry in #44’s ‘Of Flame and the Fiend!’ (collaboratively inked by “The Crusty Bunkers”). Exposed as less than human the siblings inflict a ghastly burden on Conan but aren’t sage enough to escape his and Sonja’s inevitable vengeance…

An eerily memorable change-of-pace tragedy sees the shaken and morbidly morose barbarian befriend a foredoomed bard in ‘The Last Ballad of Laza-Lanti’: agreeing to take the troubled troubadour to his place of origin and encountering yet again the horrors that lurk in the Hyborian age…

The next half year comprises a protracted and loving adaptation of prose pulp yarn Kothar and the Conjurer’s Curse, originally penned by the prolific and justifiably legendary Gardner F. Fox (if anybody deserves the title of Elder God of comic books it must be He!). Here our cantankerous Cimmerian is once again embroiled in war between wizards and wades through imperilled maidens and gore galore in equal amounts, beginning with ‘The Curse of the Conjurer!’ as inked by Joe Sinnott. When the wanderer is coerced by magician Merdoramon into delivering a protective amulet to embattled Regent Themas Herklar of Phalkar, the simple mission to safeguard the ruler from his own treacherous court wizards soon proves riddled with undisclosed peril and duplicity.

En route he saves supposed witch Stefanya from burning at the stake and is diverted by her need to have him rescue her master Zoqquanor. Although a “good wizard”, the mage had linked her life force to his own and she needs to ensure his future safety. That proves tricky when they pull the comatose conjuror from his shattered castle and awaken crystal homunculus Shokkoth, and gets even harder in the Dan Adkins inked ‘Goblins in the Moonlight!’ (#47) as a R&R stopover in seemingly sedate ruins sparks an attack by more supernatural horrors…

The issue also provided a text feature on ‘Conan’s Parents’ illustrated by Tim Conrad, before the quest resumes in #48 where ‘The Rats Dance at Ravengard!’ Dick Giordano & Adkins inks) as a formative episode from Conan’s youth – with Priestess of the Wild Ursla – leads to a close shave with local warlord Torkal Moh, near death-by-rats and answers to many of the obscure machinations in play, thanks to Ursla’s latterday kinswoman Lupalina the Wolf Mistress

With the aid of the ‘Wolf-Woman!’ Conan rescues Stefanya – revealed as a crucial pawn in the region’s politics – and topples Torkal Moh, but retrieving the Amulet in #50 unleashes ‘The Dweller in the Pool!’ whose subsequent dispatch by the Cimmerian triggers civil war, the downfall of the Phalkar’s resident magicians and the horror they served and the restoration of a long lost princess in concluding chapter ‘Man Born of Demon!’

Cover-dated July 1975 and stunningly crafted by Thomas, Buscema and Tom Palmer, Conan The Barbarian #52 signalled a turning point in the Cimmerian’s life as he signs on to fight a war with old Corinthian associate Murilo (from Conan #11): now leading a mercenary army of Condottieri dubbed the Crimson Company. He can always use a proven warrior, and also takes under his wing a street urchin/acrobat called Tara of Hanumar whom Conan had saved from an unfair fight…

Re-outfitting the almost-naked wanderer in arms and armour (and clothes!), Murilo’s band are headed to Ronnoco in anticipation of a war between states but the march almost ends in disaster when the mercenaries accidentally awaken an interred horror from antiquity in ‘The Altar and the Scorpion!’ Thanks to Conan the horror from the age of King Kull is defeated, but as the survivors depart they are unaware that a second terror was aroused… and now follows…

Frank Spinger embellished #53 as the Crimson Company reach their client city but are attacked by those inside. When the costly misunderstanding is rectified, Conan has made another enemy after displaying his feelings to arrogant autocrat Prince Vanni who ordered the assault on his comrades and refuses to allow any mercenaries inside walled city of Ronnoco.

King Belzamo is at least more diplomatic as he outlines the causes of the war with rival city-states Carnolla and Pergona and demands his hirelings’ first action: kidnapping the princess Yvonna of Pergona so she can be made to wed Vanni. However, defeating her terrifying bodyguards the ‘Brothers of the Blade!’ proves harder than anticipated and unknown to all, a dark hungry shadow is slowly consuming everything it its path…

Palmer returns in #54 as teen sole survivor Yusef brings a warning of the hungry shadow leading to Conan, Tara and Yusef ordered away to consult ‘The Oracle of Ophir!’ Their reconnaissance and information gathering is hampered by myriad mystic deterrents that culminate in the brawny barbarian battling his own deadly doppelganger and only getting away with highly suspect vague proclamations by guile not force. The party arrives back at Ronnoco (in #55) to find ‘A Shadow on the Land!’ and untold horror besieging the city, prompting Conan to go AWOL and return to the site of a previous victory. His hunch proves correct and he unleashes the one thing the shadow cannot consume, bring an abrupt universally unsatisfactory end to the war – and their pay – through political compromise and economic pragmatism…

Pausing for breath and the Jack Kirby & Joe Sinnott cover for November 1975’s Giant-Size Conan #5 (a reprint vehicle teaming our hero with Michael Moorcock’s doomed king Elric and not included here) Conan, Tara and Yusef quit the Crimson company and in CTB #56 discover ‘The Strange High Tower in the Mist!’ Inked by Pablo Marcos, the tale finds the trio bewildered by a keep apparently populated by oblivious silent ghosts and a bat monster, but seeing in not always believing…

Still sticking to Howard’s roadmap, Thomas and illustrator Mike (Ghost Rider, Man-Thing, Werewolf By Night, Monster of Frankenstein, Weirdworld, Planet of the Apes) Ploog detail an ‘Incident in Argos!’ for #57 that acts as a prelude to a momentous stage in Conan’s life. Falling foul of stupid laws, city guards and sanctimonious judges, the barbarian and his teen charges face jail and punitive amputation until Conan goes wild. Separated, they escape individually just in time for the Cimmerian to reach the long-awaited beginning of Howard’s great love story…

Pulp novelette Queen of the Black Coast was published in the May 1934 Weird Tales, obliquely told of Conan’s time as infamous pirate “Amra”: plundering the coasts of Kush (prehistoric Africa) beside his first great love. The brief but tragic tale of bold buccaneer Bêlit would be expanded over the next few years in an epic storyline that ran to #100 of the monthly comic and officially launched with Conan The Barbarian #58.

Here Thomas, Buscema & Steve Gan launched Queen of the Black Coast!’ as the frantic Cimmerian fugitive finds safe harbour on an outward bound Argossean trading ship caught in a surging tide. Despite barely and extremely publicly escaping a fusillade of guards’ spears, the Northborn outlaw befriends entrepreneurial Captain Tito – himself a regular loser when faced with Argos’ corrupt lawmakers and taxmen – and settles into the mariner’s life.

After visiting many fabulous ports and exotic wild places, Conan’s life changes again when the ship encounters the most feared vessel afloat. When the fighting is done only Conan remains, having made a devil’s feast of the attacking pirates. Even he cannot beat this horde of Kushite warriors but as he prepares to die fighting, the white queen of these black pillagers grants him his life. When some pirates complain, Conan is allowed to earn his place by fighting the objectors and soon settles in… as Bêlit’s prize…

This volume concludes with Thomas, Buscema & Gan’s spellbinding origin yarn as #59 reveals in the words of shaman mentor/guardian N’yaga how the woman remade herself in ‘The Ballad of Bêlit!’. Conan hears how a Shemite child whose seafaring father was king of Asgalun until murdered by Stygians who placed her uncle on the vacant throne. He marvels at her life, growing up among barbarous tribesmen of the Silver Isles where she was trained in warrior arts to best any man. With amazement the Cimmerian learns how, by facing and mastering supernal horrors and using them to destroy a jealous chieftain, the war maiden became – in the eyes of the tribes – the earthly daughter of their Death Goddess Derketa, sworn to take her vengeance on Stygians and all who deal with them…

… And Conan also realises that he loves Bêlit beyond all else, even if she may not be human…

To Be Continued…

With covers by Boris Vallejo, Gil Kane, Dan Adkins, Neal Adams, John Romita, Tom Palmer, Dick Giordano, Jack Kirby, Joe Sinnott, Vince Colletta, this dark love story is also burnished by behind the scenes extras such as a more detailed map of ‘The Hyborean Age of Conan’ and world, taken from 1978’s Conan the Barbarian Marvel Treasury Edition #19 whilst #4 of the same name provides stunningly beautiful front & back covers by Barry Windsor-Smith, and text article ‘An Informal History of the Thomas/Smith Conan’.

There’s also Windsor-Smith’s watercolour Conan image and illustrated page (May) from the 1975 Mighty Marvel Calendar plus House ads, plus original Buscema unused cover art and pencil pages with equivalent inked version from Savage Sword of Conan #1. There are even pre and post CCA moderated images of Bêlit and Conan…

Stirring, evocative, cathartic and thrilling, these yarns are deeply satisfying on a primal level, and this is one of the best volumes in a superb series starring a paragon of adventure heroes. This is classic pulp/comic action in all its unashamed exuberance: an honestly guilty pleasure for old time fans and newbies of all persuasion. What more does any red-blooded, action-starved fan need to know?
© 2021 Conan Properties International, LLC (“CPI”)

What Am I Going To Do Without You?


By Patt Kelley (Top Shelf Digital)
No ISBN. A Digital Exclusive (2012)

We live not just in the End Days but also truly Fortean Times. That’s artfully demonstrated and perfectly embodied in this forgotten gem from Patt Kelley (Fedor, Scout, And Then There Was Nothing, What’s for Breakfast?) who here pokes gently with a soft stick the sore subjects of love, loss, loneliness, mortality and embracing enforced change…

A dozen years ago in his debut graphic novel Kelley captivatingly mixed small town small mindedness with a look at enduring relationships and dawning independence played against a backdrop of the world turned upside down…

When little kids discover a dead dinosaur (an apatosaurus, if you’re asking) in the woods it soon escalates into a full-on media circus with gawkers, reporters and chancers invading a little piece of hamlet heaven we’re all programmed to crave. The news sensation doesn’t really affect Jeanie, who’s more concerned with stopping her moronic provincial classmates – especially Kaylee and her God-fearing Mean Girls – picking on her because she’s the only goth in high school. Typically though, her miracle-hungry mom goes crazy and drags the rebel sophisticate into the building gossip frenzy.

Across town, Flo and her husband Murray get some bad news when the doctor reveals what’s causing his persistent cough. Flo is facing the rest of her life alone and asks herself a question she doesn’t want answered…

When Kaylee starts spiteful Satanic rumours about Jeanie it’s not long before the faculty jump on board to ostracise the nonconformist weird kid, but the authorities’ disposal of the dead dino is what’s really gripping the parochial townsfolk. Even rapidly-declining Murray is blown away by the big lizard story. Hubby seems pretty accepting of his own imminent extinction, and just won’t shut up about what Flo should do once he’s out of the picture…

Everywhere strangers start talking to each other, moved by the incredible once-in-a-lifetime event, but Kaylee is gleefully punishing proudly unrepentant voluntary outsider Jeanie… until another unique one-in-a-billion happenstance settles that confrontation. It’s only the start of more strange encounters and freak accidents that Flo is oblivious to. For now Murray is all the world to her…

As chaos increasingly unfolds peaks and finally fades, the inevitable comes and many players confront their fears and reconcile regrets where they can. In the aftermath, widow Flo tries to adjust and on a whim heads for those woods where the dinosaur died and happens on one last once-in-a-lifetime meeting…

Slowly building and beguilingly understated, the interplay of little lives Kelly unpicks and puts under the microscope here form a mosaic of overwhelming emotion, wedding pedestrian and universally shared aspects of human existence with the reminder that there is wonder everywhere if you just look. So why don’t you?
What Am I Going To Do Without You? © & ™ Patt Kelley. All Rights Reserved.

Re-Gifters


By Mike Carey, Sonny Liew, Marc Hempel & various (Vertigo/Minx)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-0371-9 (Minx) 978-1-84576-579-8 (Titan Books edition)

In 2007 DC comics began a bold experiment in building new markets: creating the Minx imprint. It was dedicated to producing comics material for the teen/young adult audience – especially the ever-elusive girl readership – that had embraced translated manga material, momentous global comics successes such as Maus and Persepolis and those abundant and prolific fantasy serials which produced such pop phenomena as Roswell High, Twilight and even Harry Potter. Sadly after only a dozen immensely impressive and decidedly different graphic novels Minx shut up shop in October 2008, markedly NOT citing publishing partner Random House’s failure to get the books onto the appropriate shelves of major bookstore chains as the reason.

Nevertheless the books that were published are still out there and most of them are well worth tracking down – either in the US originals or British editions published by Titan Books.

My particular favourite remains the second release, a magnificently beguiling and engaging monochrome, cross-cultural romantic martial arts melange by writer Mike Carey (X-Men Legacy, Lucifer, Hellblazer, Crossing Midnight) and artists Sonny Liew (Malinky Robot, The Shadow Hero, Wonderland, Sense and Sensibility, Doctor Fate) & Marc Hempel (Blood of Dracula, Mars, Jonny Quest, The Sandman, Breathtaker).

The all-star trio’s gloriously offbeat and upbeat Vertigo miniseries My Faith in Frankie is generally regarded as prototype for the Minx model, and that quirky quixotic vivacity is in full flower in this tale of feisty yet desperately dutiful Korean-American teen Jen “Dixie” Dik Seong who channels her suppressed aggression into hapkido and her blossoming crush on hunky Adam into daydreaming, clumsiness and humiliating imbecility…

A total klutz in real life, Dixie is a demon in martial arts combat, but as her best friend and dojo-mate Avril is keenly aware, the flummoxed lass’s poor head is stuck in the clouds nowadays. It’s hard enough for Dixie to juggle school, her quick-fire temper, precious heritage and loving-but-generally clueless parents with burgeoning hormones and astoundingly annoying younger brothers piling on pressure without the added distraction of an infatuation with a rich, self-absorbed white boy who is also her only serious rival in the upcoming National Hapkido Tournament.

After a chance encounter with mouthy street punks and local bad boy Dillinger, Dixie blows all her savings and the Tournament entrance fee (which her father gave her) on an ancient warrior statue for Adam, sparking a huge fight with Avril but which also actually succeeds in getting the boy to notice her. So much so, in fact, that he wants her advice in getting snooty babe Megan to go out with him…

When Dixie discovers a business loan for her father from traditional Korean bankers depends on her performance in the tournament, the furious, lovelorn lass is forced to battle for a wild-card place in the event by joining a knockout “Street Sweep Competition” against half the kids in Los Angeles – including dire and dangerous Dillinger. Moreover, Adam has finally got into Megan’s good books – and other places – by re-gifting Dixie’s statue to the most popular girl in school…

Re-Gifters is a bright, witty, sublimely funny and intriguing coming of age comedy following all the rules of the romance genre but still able to inject a vast amount of novelty and character individuality into the mix: a perfect vehicle for attracting new young readers with no abiding interest in outlandish power-fantasies or vicarious vengeance-gratification.

Track this down for a genuinely different kind of comic book – but do it before some hack movie producer turns the tale into just another teen rom-com.
© 2007 Mike Carey, Sonny Liew & Marc Hempel. All rights reserved.

The Silver Metal Lover


By Tanith Lee, adapted by Trina Robbins (Harmony/Crown Books)
ISBN: 0-517-55853-X (Album PB)

In the 1980s, comics finally began fully filtering into the mainstream of American popular culture, helped in no small part by a few impressive adaptations of works of literary fantasy such as Michael Moorcock’s Elric or DC’s Science Fiction Graphic Novel line. In 1985 pioneering cartoonist, feminist, author and comics historian Trina Robbins (A Century of Women Cartoonists, It Ain’t Me, Babe Comix, Dope, The Legend of Wonder Woman, Choices: A Pro-Choice Benefit Comic Anthology for the National Organization for Women, Misty, Honey West) joined that small but proliferating throng with this deceptively powerful and effectively bittersweet romance adapted from Tanith Lee’s short tale about an earnest young girl in a spoiled, indolent world who discovers abiding love in the most unexpected of places….

In the far-flung, ferociously formal and crushingly civilised future everything is perfect – if you can afford it – but human nature has not evolved to match Mankind’s technological and sociological advancements. Plus ca change plus ca meme chose, right?

Jane has everything a 16-year old could want but is still unhappy. Her mother Demeta provides all she needs – except human warmth – whilst her six registered friends do their best to provide for her growing associative and societal needs. Of her carefully selected peer circle, Jane only actually likes flighty, melodramatic needily narcissistic Egyptia – whom Jane’s mother approves of but considers certifiably insane.

In this world people can live in the clouds if they want, with robots performing most manual toil and providing all those tedious but necessary services, but it’s far from paradise. Humans still get suspicious and bored with their chatty labour-saving devices and monumental Electronic Metals, Ltd strive constantly to improve their ubiquitous inventions…

One day Jane accompanies Egyptia to an audition where the fully made-up thespian is accosted by a rude man who mistakes her for a new android and persistently seeks to buy her.

Ruffled by the pushy lout’s manner, Jane’s attention is suddenly distracted by a beautiful metal minstrel busking in the plaza. The robot’s performance and his lovely song move and frighten Jane in way she cannot understand. When S.I.L.V.E.R. (Silver Ionized Locomotive Verisimulated Electronic Robot) affably introduces himself the flustered girl bolts, running for the relative security of the nearby home of sardonic friend Clovis, where the beautiful man-tart is in the process of dumping yet another lover.

He proves unsurprisingly unsympathetic to Jane’s confusion and distress, telling her to go home where, still inexplicably upset, she tries to talk the experience out with mother. Impatient as always, the matron simply enquires if Jane is masturbating enough before telling her to record whatever’s bothering her for mummy to deal with later…

Sulking in a bath, Jane is awoken from a sleep by ecstatic Egyptia who has passed her audition. Bubbling with glee the neophyte actress demands Jane join her at a big party, but whilst avoiding a persistent old letch creepily fixated on the fresh young thing, Jane stumbles again upon S.I.L.V.E.R. … and once more reacts histrionically to his singing.

As he profusely apologizes for the inexplicable distress he’s somehow caused her, Jane realizes the disturbing mechanical minstrel has been rented by Egyptia for quite another kind of performance later – a private and intimate one. With a gasp of surprise Jane finally understands what she’s feeling and kisses the alluring automaton before fleeing…

Her mother is as useless as ever. Whilst futilely attempting to explain her problem but failing even to catch Demeta’s full attention, Jane gives up and claims she’s in love with Clovis just to cause a shock. The next day the heartsick waif visits the offices of Electronic Metals, Ltd ostensibly to rent the droid of her dreams – as a minor she has to lie about her age – but is sickened when she finds him partially dissembled as techs try to track down an anomalous response in his systems…

Despondent, she is astonished when Machiavellian Clovis intervenes, renting S.I.L.V.E.R. for Egyptia and convincing the too, too-busy starlet to let Jane look after it for her…

Alone with the object of her affection, insecure Jane’s imagined affair quickly becomes earthily, libidinously real, but the honeymoon ends far too soon when Clovis informs her the rental period is over. Crippled by her burning love for the artificial Adonis, Jane begs her mother to buy him for her. When the coldly withholding guardian refuses, the obsessed child at last rebels…

When Demeta disappears on another of her interminable business trips, Jane sells her apartment’s contents, moves into the slums and desperately claims her dream lover with the ill-gotten gains…

Following a tragically brief transformative period of sheer uncompromised joy with her adored mechanical man, reality hits the happy couple hard when Demeta tracks Jane down and smugly applies financial pressure to force her wayward child to return. Undaunted, the pair become unlicensed street performers and grow even closer but as Jane grows in confidence and ability, and becomes fiercely independent, public opinion turns against the latest generation of far-too-human mechanical servants. When Electronic Metals recalls all its now hated products, the improper couple flee the city. However, the heartless auditors track them down and reclaim Jane’s Silver Metal Lover…

Lyrical and poetic, this is a grand old-fashioned tale of doomed love which still has a lot to say about transformation, growing up and walking your own path, with Trina Robbins’ idyllic and idealised cartooning deceptively disguising the heartbreaking savagery and brutal cruelty of the story to superb effect, making the tragedy even more potent.

Regrettably out of print for years, this is a comics experience long overdue for revival – perhaps in conjunction with new interpretations of the author’s later sequels to the saga of love against the odds…
Illustrations © 1985 Trina Robbins. Text © 1985 Tanith Lee. All rights reserved.

He Done Her Wrong


By Milt Gross (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-56097-694-3 (TPB/Digital edition)

The power of comics comes not just from wedding text to image but also in the power of illustration. You can have comics without words but if you leave the letters and subtract the pictures what you have is just a book…

Bronx-born Milt Gross (March 4th 1895 – November 29th 1953) was a trailblazing pioneer in both cartooning and the wider arena of popular comedy, specialising in vernacular while refining and popularising Yiddish folk humour and slang into a certified American export to world culture: “Yinglish”. You should really look him up…

Gross was also an early adept in the animation field, bringing his cartoon characters to silent life in numerous short filler features for John R. Bray Studios, Universal and MGM. Far too few of his many books are in print now, but happily this astounding landmark is one of them and is even available digitally. He made his mark in comics, working for William Randolph Hearst’s newspaper chain on many syndicated strips including Banana Oil, Pete the Pooch, Dave’s Delicatessen, Count Screwloose from Tooloose, Babbling Brooks, Otto and Blotto, The Meanest Man, Draw Your Own Conclusion, I Did It and I’m Glad! And That’s My Pop! (which was promptly adapted into a popular radio show).

Released in 1930, He Done Her Wrong (The Great American Novel and Not a Word in It – No Music, Too) lampooned – and exploited – a notable trend of those troubled times: wordless novels. The woodcut-crafted parables derived from the German Expressionist art movement, offered (generally left-leaning) pictorial epigrams addressing social injustice. The first was Belgian Frans Masereel’s 25 Images of a Man’s Passion (1918), and American Lynd Ward followed suit 11 years later with God’s Man. Among many similar efforts they inspired (like Giacomo Patri’s White Collar) was Gross’ spoof of silent movie serials like The Perils of Pauline, pitched perfectly for pathos, bathos and pitiless hilarity…

A facsimile edition first released in 2005 by Fantagraphics, this edition is a completely unabridged restoration – which means the re-inclusion of some images, depictions and scenes that might appear a little controversial to modern sensibilities. It also offers a fascinating picture-packed Introduction by Craig Yoe (a devoted friend and patron of all comics vintage and fabulous) plus a closing Appreciation by eminent cartoonist, writer/editor Paul Karasik. What lies between them is a stunning masterclass in comedy staging, gag timing, timeless melodrama, delivered as a succession of wordless pantomimic pages. It all begins after a decent, hearty and trustworthy young woodsman, trapper and prospector falls in love with a virtuous barroom singer. True Love is thwarted by a dirty villain who swindles our hero and absconds to New York with his heartbroken, “abandoned” ingenue paramour.

As hero and victim both fall foul of the lures of the Big Bad City and vice unstoppably mounts in the woman’s benighted life, the Good Man overcomes all obstacles to find his darling: battling his way from the wilderness into far more savage civilisation where he will set things right no matter what the cost…

It all works out in the end of course, but only after an astoundingly convoluted course of action, buckets of tears, some well-earned vengeance and a little forgiveness… and plenty of near-misses and lethally close calls. That sounds like a great thriller – and it is – but Gross played it strictly for laughs, crafting a tale ranking with the best of his closest contemporary comedy peers: Charley Chaplin and Buster Keaton. He Done Her Wrong is a superb yarn and perfect picture into a world that only seems simpler and less complicated than today, and if you love classics stories and crave romance, you should “Dun’t Esk” and just buy it…
He Done Her Wrong © 2005 Fantagraphics Books. All rights reserved. Introduction © 2005 Craig Yoe. An Appreciation © 2005 Paul Karasik.

My Little Monster volume 1


By Robico, translated by Joshua Weeks (Kodansha Comics USA)
ISBN: 978-1-61262-597-3 (Tank?bon PB/Digital edition)

Solidly appealing to lovers of traditional Shoujo (“girls’ comics”) comes a grand and sassy tale of Right Girl, Right Time, Wrong Boy from enigmatic mangaka Robico, dealing with the thorny topic of wasteful distractions at school…

Tonari no Kaibutsu-kun or ‘The Monster Sitting Beside Me’ debuted in Dessert Magazine in 2008 with the first of a dozen volumes released a year later. The serial ran until June 2013 and spawned a highly successful anime adaptation.

Shizuku Mizutani is a schoolgirl determined to succeed. Throughout her entire scholastic career only one person has ever gotten higher grades than her – and she’s still obsessively burned up about it – but otherwise she’s solidly, comfortably set her sights on exceptional achievement and a great job. Absolutely nothing’s going to force her off her well-planned, carefully projected course. Her teen travails begin in ‘My Classmate Yoshida-kun’ where she explains how she’s never seen the boy who sits next to her. He got into a fight on his first day and hasn’t come to school since. That was three years ago…

Now, for some incomprehensible reason, the ideal student is stuck delivering printouts to the epic absconder as a “favour” (you can say “bribe”) to teacher Saeko-Sensei. Shizuku finds him in a sleazy games arcade where he regularly hangs out. She wasn’t expecting much, but Haru Yoshida fails to live up to even her lowest expectations.

He’s a veritable wild boy: manic, ill-mannered, actively extremely rude and his associates are little better than thugs and gangsters. He even attacks her, accusing her of spying on him. All those school rumours must be true: how he hospitalised three upperclassmen and was suspended…

Ice satisfactorily broken, Saeko-sensei pushes her star pupil to lure the wayward boy back to school (the suspension being long-expired) but when the rebel starts regularly attending, tongues begin to wag. Haru then arbitrarily decides they’re friends and follows Shizuku everywhere…

She’s never been more angry or frustrated. He’s always there, distracting her, getting in the way of her ideal future. She can’t stop thinking about him…

Following a brace of humorous of mini-strips – ‘I was Running as Fast as I Could!’ and ‘Spot-Billed Duck’ – the School Daze resume with ‘I Don’t Hate You’ as the apparently imprinted malcontent continues appearing everywhere she goes and captivatingly showing his softer, fragile side. Sadly, he’s painfully gullible and falls for many embarrassing pranks from his classmates …which he responds to with devastating violence. Soon Haru has gained an enticing, irresistibly dangerous bad boy reputation…

He also starts noticing other girls, but why should Shizuku care about that? She’s far more upset to learn that he was the mystery student who beat her test scores and that even after three years of lapsed education, he’s (probably!) still smarter than her!! Now for some reason, she’s finding it impossible to bear down and study, the only thing she used to be good at… And then Haru kisses her… but decides they can still be friends anyway…

Micro strips ‘Because She’s a Lady’ and ‘It’s Hard Not to Say It’, precedes the main event which resumes with ‘Weird’, wherein the wild boy displays the attention span of a mayfly. Adopting and then palming off a chicken on his newfound friends or tutoring vacuous Asako Natsune so she can avoid going to Afterschool Classes instead of partying are bad enough, but most significantly Haru utterly ignores this major change in their own relationship, and even that they have one at all…

Two small interludes with ‘Natsume and Haru’ lead into the final chapter as Shizuku is forced to admit to herself how much Haru has changed her life. However, when she finally confesses just how much she likes the annoying, confusing oaf, all he can say in response is that she’s not a ‘Nuisance’

To Be Continued…

Wrapping things up are two final cartoon vignettes ‘Just as Short’ and ‘That Guy’, plus a Comment from the author and a section of handy Translation notes.

Sweet, cruel and silly by turns, this delightful coming of age comedy brims with those crucial, critical moments that stay with you for decades after high school ends, smartly leavened with charming characters and situations superbly illustrated by a master of her genre. Not everyone’s cup of tea but sheer poetry for we who remember love can – and should – be fun.
© 2009 Robico. English translation © 2014 Robico. All rights reserved.

Dear Beloved Stranger


By Dino Pai (Urban-Fairy Tales/Top Shelf Productions)
ISBN: 978-1-60309-271-5 (TPB)

The search for love is a primal drive in almost every human being, but so are the equally obsessive, transcendent passions to find one’s station in the world and accomplish great deeds. What happens when none of those quests seem to be progressing or, even worse, when they seem to be implacably at odds?

In 2013 this stunning, Xeric Award-winning debut comic tale addressed just such thorny issues in an intimate, candid and introspective manner. Solitary, intense, dedicated Dino has just finished art school and ponders where his now directionless life is heading next. His search for work and zeal for aesthetic creation hasn’t left much time for a social life so he developed a novel coping mechanism. Moreover, now that he’s truly on his own, inspiration also seems to have died…

Somewhere “Out There” is a soulmate: “His Girl”, patiently waiting to be found. Until that happens, Dino writes notes sharing his life, thoughts and dreams, folds them into paper airplanes and trusts the breeze and fate to take them to where they need to be…

One directionless day when he’s restocking drawing supplies, he finds former classmate Cathy temping at the art store while she saves up for fashion school. The chance encounter makes him realise everyone is progressing but him and Dino resolves to try harder to make and enact choices.

… And somewhere across the city, Cindy finds a crumpled-up paper plane in the street…

He meets Cathy again at an art show and her casually spoken neutral words somehow inspire him. Returning home, Dino stares at the picture of the beautiful Japanese pop star on his wall and starts to create a story: a comic book tale of a boy’s journey…

It starts with a siren song calling him. He hears and climbs through a keyhole, following ever-onwards through strange, perilous and uncanny regions. Along the way are friendly animals who help him survive unnatural perils.

As the work laboriously nears completion it completely consumes him, but still, somehow, whenever Dino leaves his room and re-enters the real world, Cathy is there and slowly, inevitably his two existences drift together.

Crafted in a dazzling variety of styles, techniques and media, Dear Beloved Stranger superbly captures that all-consuming hunger for the indefinable something every frustrated lover feels must be out there somewhere: translating that debilitating absence into a candid examination every person in search of human completion has ever endured.

Sweet, sharp, sour and ultimately enlightening, this is a story for all lovers, would-be lovers and lovers of what might be.
© 2013 Shih-Mu Dino Pai. All rights reserved.