Showcase Presents Secrets of Sinister House


By Mary Skrenes, Len Wein, Jack Oleck, Frank Robbins, Mary DeZuñiga, Lynn Marron, Michael Fleisher, Sheldon Mayer, John Albano, Maxene Fabe, E. Nelson Bridwell, Steve Skeates, Robert Kanigher, John Jacobson, Fred Wolfe, Leo Dorfman, George Kashdan, Dave Wood, Don Heck, John Calnan, Tony DeZuñiga, Jack Sparling, Alex Toth, Frank Giacoia, Doug Wildey, Mike Sekowsky, Michael Wm. Kaluta, Alfredo Alcala, Sergio Aragonés, Ed Ramos, Bill Draut, Nestor Redondo, June Lofamia, Sam Glanzman, Lore Shoberg, Ruben Yandoc, Alex Niño, Abe Ocampo, Rico Rival, Gerry Taloac, Larry Hama, Neal Adams, Rich Buckler, Jess Jodloman, Romy Gamboa, Don Perlin, Vicente Alcazar, Ernie Chan, Ramona Fradon, Howard Chaykin, Sy Barry, Win Mortimer, Angel B. Luna, Murphy Anderson, Jerry Grandenetti, Gil Kane & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-2626-8 (PB)

American comicbooks just sort of idled along until the invention of Superman provided a flamboyant new genre of heroes: subsequently unleashing a torrent of creative imitation and imaginative generation for a suddenly thriving and voracious new entertainment model.

Implacably vested in World War II, these Overmen swept all before them until the troops came home. However, as the decade closed, more traditional themes and heroes resurfaced and eventually supplanted the now passé and unbelievable Fights ‘n’ Tights crowd.

Whilst a new generation of kids began buying and collecting, many of the first fans also retained their four-colour habit, but increasingly sought out more mature themes in their reading matter. The war years had irrevocably altered the psychological landscape of the readership and as a more world-weary, cynical young public came to see that all the fighting and dying hadn’t really changed anything, their chosen forms of entertainment (film, theatre and prose as well as comics) increasingly reflected this.

As well as the trinity of Western, War and Crime comics, celebrity tie-ins, madcap escapist or teen comedy and anthropomorphic funny animal features were immediately resurgent, but gradually another of the cyclical revivals of spiritualism and a public fascination with the arcane led to a wave of impressive, evocative and shockingly addictive horror comics.

There had been grisly, gory and supernatural stars before, including a pantheon of ghosts, monsters and wizards draped in mystery-man garb and trappings (the Spectre, Mr. Justice, Sgt. Spook, Frankenstein, The Heap, Sargon the Sorcerer, Zatara, Zambini the Miracle Man, Kardak the Mystic, Dr. Fate and dozens of others), but these had been victims of circumstance: The Unknown as a power source for super-heroics. Now the focus shifted to ordinary mortals thrown into a world beyond their ken with the intention of unsettling, not vicariously empowering, the reader.

Practically every publisher jumped on the increasingly popular bandwagon, with B & I (which became the magical one-man-band Richard E. Hughes’ American Comics Group) launching the first regularly published horror comic in the Autumn of 1948, although their Adventures into the Unknown was technically pipped by Avon.

That book and comics publisher had released an impressive single issue entitled Eerie in January 1947 but didn’t follow-up with a regular series until 1951. Classics Illustrated had already secured the literary end of the medium with child-friendly comics adaptations of The Headless Horseman, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (both 1943), The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1944) and Frankenstein (1945) among others.

If we’re keeping score, this was also the period in which Joe Simon & Jack Kirby identified another “mature market” gap by inventing Romance comics with Young Romance #1, (September 1947) but they too saw the sales potential for spooky material, resulting in the seminal Black Magic (launched 1950) and boldly obscure psychological drama anthology Strange World of Your Dreams (1952).

National, the company that would become DC Comics, bowed to the inevitable and launched a comparatively straitlaced anthology that nevertheless became one of their longest-running and most influential titles with the December 1951/January 1952 launch of The House of Mystery.

After the hysterical censorship debate which led to witch-hunting Senate hearings in the early 1950s was curtailed by the industry adopting a castrating straitjacket of self-regulation, titles produced under the aegis of the Comics Code Authority were sanitised, anodyne affairs in terms of Shock and Gore, but the audience’s appetite for suspense was still high and in 1956 National introduced sister titles Tales of the Unexpected and House of Secrets.

Stories were soon dialled back from uncanny spooky phenomenon yarns to always marvellously illustrated, rationalistic fantasy-adventure vehicles and eventually straight monster-busting Sci Fi tales which then dominated the market until the 1960s.

That’s when super-heroes – which had begun to revive after Julius Schwartz began the Silver Age of comics by reintroducing the Flash in Showcase #4 – finally overtook them.

Green Lantern, Hawkman, the Atom and a growing coterie of costumed cavorters generated a gaudy global bubble of masked mavens which forced even dedicated anthology suspense titles to transform into super-character books. Even ACG slipped tights and masks onto some of its spooky stars.

When the caped crusader craziness peaked and popped, superheroes began dropping like Kryptonite-gassed flies. However, nothing combats censorship better than falling profits and, at the end of the 1960s, with the cape-and-cowl boom over and some of the industry’s most prestigious series circling the drain, the surviving publishers of the field agreed on revising the Comics Code, loosening their self-imposed restraints against crime and horror comics.

Nobody much cared about gangster titles at that moment but, as the liberalisation coincided with yet another bump in public interest in supernatural themes, the resurrection of scary stories was a foregone conclusion and obvious “no-brainer.” Even ultra-wholesome Archie Comics re-entered the field with their rather tasty line of Red Circle Chillers…

Thus, with absolutely no fanfare at all, spooky comics came back to quickly dominate the American funnybook market for more than half a decade. DC led the pack by converting The House of Mystery and Tales of the Unexpected into mystery-suspense anthologies in 1968 and resurrected House of Secrets a year earlier.

However, horror wasn’t the only classic genre to experience renewed interest. Westerns, War, Adventure and Romance titles also reappeared and – probably influenced by the stunning popularity of supernatural TV soap Dark Shadows – the industry mixed a few classic idioms and invented gothic horror/romances.

The mini-boom generated Haunted Love from Charlton, Gothic Romances from Atlas/Seaboard and from undisputed industry leader National/DC Dark Mansion of Forbidden Love and sister ship Sinister House of Secret Love.

The 52-page Sinister House of Secret Love launched with an October/November 1971 cover-date, offering book-length graphic epics in the manner of venerated gothic romances such as Jane Eyre, before transforming into a more traditional anthology package as Secrets of Sinister House with #5 (June/July 1972): reducing to the traditional 36-page format with the next issue. The format remained until its cancellation with #18 in June/July 1974.

In keeping with the novel enterprise, the dark, doomed love stories were extra-long affairs such as the 25-page Victorian period chiller ‘The Curse of the MacIntyres’ (by Mary Skrenes & Don Heck) which opened issue #1; recounting how recently-bereaved Rachel lost her scientist father and fell under the guardianship of her cousin Blair. Moving into his remote Scottish castle she readily befriends Blair’s son Jamie but can’t warm to dwarfish cousin Alfie.

As days and weeks pass, she becomes increasingly disturbed by the odd household and the family’s obsessive interest in “mutations”…

There was even room for a short back-up and the Jane Eyre pastiche is nicely balanced by a contemporary yarn of hippies in love, undying passion and ghostly reincarnation in ‘A Night to Remember – A Day to Forget!’ by an unknown author, effectively illustrated by John Calnan & Vince Colletta.

Editor Joe Orlando and scripter Len Wein closely collaborated on the Tony DeZuñiga limned ‘To Wed the Devil’ in the next issue, wherein beautiful, innocent Sarah returns to her dad’s estate and discovers the place is a hotbed of Satanism where all the old servants indulge in black magic rituals.

Moreover, her father is forcing her to abandon true love Justin and wed appalling and terrifying Baron Luther Dumont of Bohemia to settle an outstanding debt. This grim bodice-ripper tale featured the return of Victorian demon-busting duo Father John Christian and Rabbi Samuel Shulman who appeared far too infrequently in succeeding years (see Showcase Presents the House of Secrets volume 1 and Showcase Presents the Phantom Stranger volume 2) whose last-minute ministrations save the day, quell an unchecked evil and, of course, kickstart the obligatory Happy Ever After…

Sinister House of Secret Love #3 is the most impressive of these early issues. ‘Bride of the Falcon’ is a visual feast from Alex Toth, Frank Giacoia & Doug Wildey, with author Frank Robbins detailing a thoroughly modern mystery. American proof-reader Kathy Harwood answers a “Lonely Hearts” ad in her own magazine and finds herself in Venice, Italy, trapped on the isolated Isola Tranquillo with tragic, scarred, lovelorn and heartsick Count Lorenzo Di Falco and his ever-present but paralysed mother.

Something isn’t right, though, and as the wedding day approaches, a series of inexplicable deaths occur. Soon, the romance-obsessed dreamer realises she is in deadly danger. Luckily, poor but handsome gondolier Roberto has constantly refused her demands that he cease pestering her…

The gripping psychological thriller is supplemented by anonymous (prose) ghostly romance ‘Will I Ever See You Again’ illustrated by Jack Sparling…

In #4, ‘Kiss of the Serpent’ by Mary DeZuñiga, Michael Fleisher & Tony DeZuñiga takes us to Bombay (you can call it Mumbai if you’re feeling modern and PC) where freshly orphaned teacher Michelle Harlinson takes a job arranged by her uncle Paul.

Dazed by loss and the sheer exoticism of India, she is soon drawn into a terrible vendetta between her gorgeous wealthy employer Rabin Singh and his jealous brother Jawah. As the American finds herself falling under the seductive sway of Rabin, she uncovers a history of murder and macabre snake-worship that can only end in more death and heartbreak…

With the next extra-sized issue (June/July 1972), the title transformed into Secrets of Sinister House and Lynn Marron, Fleisher, Mike Sekowsky & Dick Giordano produced the eerie ‘Death at Castle Dunbar’ wherein modern American Miss Mike Hollis is invited to a desolate Scottish manse to complete a history of Clan Dunbar. However, most of the family and staff are inexplicably hostile, even though they are unaware of the writer’s true agenda…

Mike’s sister Valerie was married to the Laird Sir Alec, and apparently drowned in an accident. The author is even more convinced when – whilst snooping in the darkened midnight halls – she meet’s Val’s ghost…

Certain of murder, Mike probes deeper, uncovering deeply-concealed scandal and mystery, and becomes a target. However, when there are so many suspects and no one to trust, how long can it be before she joins her sibling in the spirit world?

In #6 the transition to a standard horror-anthology was completed with the introduction of a schlocky comedic host/raconteur along the lines of Cain, Abel and the Mad Mod Witch.

Charity offers her laconic first ‘Welcome to Sinister House’ (presumably scripted by Editor Orlando and illustrated by the astonishingly gifted Michael Wm. Kaluta), before pioneering industry legend Sheldon Mayer – who would briefly act as lead writer for the title – replaced romance with mordant terror and gallows humour by asking ‘When is Tomorrow Yesterday?’ (art by Alfredo Alcala) for a genre-warping tale of time-travelling magic and medicine.

‘Brief Reunion!’ by John Albano, Ed Ramos & Mar Amongo has a hitman find the inescapable consequences of his life, and veterans Robert Kanigher & Bill Draut showed a murdering wife that Karma was a vengeful bitch in ‘The Man Hater’.

Issue #7 featured ‘Panic!’ by Mayer and the sublimely talented Nestor Redondo, who together teach a mobster’s chiselling bookkeeper a salient lesson about messing with girls who know magic; Sergio Aragonés opens an occasional gag feature of ‘Witch’s Tails’ before Mayer & June Lofamia futilely warn a student taking ship for America ‘As Long as you Live… Stay Away from Water!’

Sam Glanzman llustrated Mayer’s twice-told tale of ghostly millennial vengeance in ‘The Hag’s Curse and the Hamptons’ Revenge!’ after which cartoonist Lore Shober takes a turn at the ‘Witch’s Tails’ to end the issue.

‘The Young Man Who Cried Werewolf Once Too Often’ – art by Draut – in #8 finds a most modern manner of dealing with lycanthropes, after which Maxene Fabe & Ruben Yandoc’s ‘Playing with Fire’ sees a bullied boy find a saurian pal to fix all his problems and E. Nelson Bridwell & Alex Niño again featured a wolf-man – but one who mistakenly believed lunar travel would solve his dilemma during a ‘Moonlight Bay’

Secrets of Sinister House #9 shows what might happen if impatient obnoxious neighbours are crazy enough to ‘Rub a Witch the Wrong Way!’ (Mayer & Abe Ocampo), whilst Kanigher & Rico Rival reveal ‘The Dance of the Damned’ – wherein an ambitious ballerina learns to regret stealing the shoes and glory of her dead idol – before Jack Oleck & Rival relate how obsessive crypto-zoologists learn a hard lesson and little else whilst hunting ‘The Abominable Snowman’…

In #10, Steve Skeates & Alcala’s ‘Castle Curse’ sees a family torn apart by vulpine heredity, whilst Gerry Taloac’s ‘The Cards Never Lie!’ shows a gang turf war ending badly because nobody will listen to a handy fortune teller, and a greedy hunchback goes too far and learns too much in his drive to surpass his magician master in ‘Losing his Head!’ by Larry Hama, Neal Adams & Rich Buckler.

Following another Kaluta ‘Welcome to Sinister House’, Fabe & Yandoc craft a period tale of greedy adventure and just deserts in ‘The Monster of Death Island’, after which all modern man’s resources seem unable to halt the shocking rampage of ‘The Enemy’ (by persons unknown).

More Aragonés ‘Witch’s Tails’ then precede an horrific history lesson of the 18th century asylum dubbed ‘Bedlam’ by John Jacobson, Kanigher & Niño and generations of benighted, deluded exploited souls…

Sekowsky & Wayne Howard lead off in #12 with a salutary tale of a greedy, ruthless furrier who becomes ‘A Very Cold Guy’, after which Oleck & Niño explore ‘The Ultimate Horror’ of a hopeless paranoid whilst – following more Aragonés ‘Witch’s Tails’ – Bridwell & Alcala adapted W. F. Harvey’s classic chiller of ravening insanity ‘August Heat’.

Shock and awe are the order of the day in #13 when giant animals attack a horrified family in the decidedly deceptive ‘Deadly Muffins’ by Albano & Alcala, whereas Oleck & Niño wryly combine nuclear Armageddon and vampires in ‘The Taste of Blood’, before Albano & Jess Jodloman wrap everything up in a nasty parable of great wealth and prognostication: ‘The Greed Inside’.

‘The Man and the Snake’ is another Bridwell & Alcala adaptation, this time of Ambrose Bierce’s mesmerising tale of mystery and imagination, but the original thrillers in #14 are just as good. In ‘The Roommate’ – by Fred Wolfe, Sekowsky & Draut – a college romance is wrecked by a girl with an incredible secret, whilst ‘The Glass Nightmare’ (Fleisher & Alcala) teaches an opportunistic thief and killer the reason why you shouldn’t take what isn’t yours…

Issue #15 begins with ‘The Claws of the Harpy’ (Fleisher & Sparling), wherein a murderous human monster reaps a whirlwind of retribution, followed up with Oleck & Romy Gamboa’s proof that there are more cunning hunters than vampires in ‘Hunger’ before culminating with a surprisingly heart-warming and sentimental fable in Albano & Jodloman’s ‘Mr. Reilly the Derelict!’

Despite the tone of the times, Secrets of Sinister House did not thrive. The odd mix of quirky tales and artistic experimentation couldn’t secure a regular audience, and a sporadic release schedule exacerbated the problems. Sadly, the last few issues, despite holding some of the best original material and a few fabulous reprints, were seen by hardly any readers and the series vanished with #18.

Still, they’re here in all their wonderful glory and well worth the price of admission on their own.

An uncredited page of supernatural facts opens #16, after which George Kashdan & Don Perlin tell a tale of feckless human intolerance and animal fidelity in ‘Hound You to Your Grave’, whilst the superb Vicente Alcazar traces the career of infamous 18th century sorcerer the Count of St. Germain who proudly boasted ‘No Coffin Can Hold Me’ (possibly scripted by Leo Dorfman?), before Kashdan returns with newcomer Ernie Chan to recount the sinister saga of the world’s most inhospitable caravan in ‘The Haunted House-Mobile’.

Perhaps ironic in choice as lead, #17’s ‘Death’s Last Rattle’ (Kashdan & the uniquely marvellous Ramona Fradon) combines terror with sardonic laughs as a corpse goes on trial for his afterlife, even as an innocent living man is facing a jury for the dead man’s murder, whilst ‘Strange Neighbor’ by Howard Chaykin and ‘Corpse Comes on Time’ from Win Mortimer told classic quickie terror tales in a single page each.

To close the issue, the editor raided the vaults for one of the company’s oldest scary sagas.

‘Johnny Peril: Death Has Five Guesses’ by Kanigher, Giacoia & Sy Barry was first seen in Sensation Mystery #112 (November/December 1952), pitting the perennial two-fisted troubleshooter against a mystery maniac in a chamber of horrors. But was Karl Kandor just a deranged actor or something else entirely…?

The curtain – or axe? – fell with #18, combining Kashdan & Calnan’s all-new ‘The Strange Shop on Demon Street’ – featuring a puppet-maker, marauding thugs and arcane cosmic justice – with a selection of reprints. From 1969, ‘Mad to Order’ by Murphy Anderson is another one-page punch-liner and Dave Wood – as D.W. Holtz – & Angel B. Luna offer New Year’s Eve enchantment in ‘The Baby Who Had But One Year to Die’. ‘The House that Death Built’, by Dorfman & Jerry Grandenetti, then sees plundering wreckers reap the watery doom for their perfidy.

Once again, the best is left till last as ‘The Half-Lucky Charm!’ by an unknown writer and artists Gil Kane & Bernard Sachs (from Sensation Mystery #115, May 1953) follows a poor schmuck who can only afford to buy 50% of Cagliostro’s good luck talisman and finds his fortune and life are being reshaped accordingly…

With superbly experimental and evocative covers by Victor Kalin, Jerome Podwell, DeZuñiga, Nick Cardy, Kaluta, Sparling & Luis Dominguez, this long-overlooked and welcomingly eclectic title is well overdue for a critical reappraisal and reissue under modern repro techniques, and fans of brilliant comics art and wry, laconic, cleverly humour-laced, mild horror masterpieces should seek out this monochrome monolith of mirth and mystery.

Trust me: you’ll love it…
© 1971, 1972, 1973, 1974, 2010 DC Comics, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

How to Be Happy


By Eleanor Davis (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-740-6 (HB)

Do acts of creation make one happy? They certainly do for me. but sometimes so do acts of wanton destruction. I’m sharing, not judging…

Eleanor Davis is one of those rare sparks that just can’t help making great comics. Born in 1983, and growing up in Tucson, Arizona, she was blessed with parents who reared her on classic strips such as Little Nemo, Little Lulu and Krazy Kat. Following unconventional schooling and teen years spent making minicomics, she studied at Georgia’s wonderful Savannah College of Art and Design, where she now teaches. Her innovative works have appeared in diverse places such as Mome, Nobrow and Lucky Peach.

A life of glittering prizes began after her award-winning easy reader book Stinky was released in 2008. Davis has since followed up with gems such as The Secret Science Alliance and the Copycat Crook (with her husband Drew Weing), You & a Bike & a Road and Why Art?

In 2014, Fantagraphics released her themed collection of epigrammatic tales, crafted in a mesmerising variety of styles and riffing on the concept of joy and contentment: causes, failings, and what to do with them when and if they happen. These are enigmatic variations on the most ephemeral of emotions and one you only really notice when it’s gone, but the individual episodes here are truly joyous to share.

How to Be Happy is NOT a self-help book – at least not in any traditional sense, but it did make me feel very good when I first read it and only increases my sense of fulfilment every time I pick it up, whether in its comforting reassuring hardback edition or my ever-present anxiety-reducing digital edition…

These observational short stories were created, it seems, for the sheer innocent joy of making them, and examine many aspects of life through self-contained yarns ranging from cautionary tales to excoriating self-diagnosis to flights of sardonic fancy. Some are titled like proper narratives whilst others just happen like life does. Those I’ve identified by first lines if no title is obvious…

Packed with evocative, stand-alone imagery, the episodes commence with line art pictorial pep talk ‘Write a Story’ before switching to lush colour for ‘In Our Eden’, wherein a primitive life of pastoral toil starts to grate on Adam and Eve. They are, unsurprisingly, not all they seem…

Further monochrome line art interventionism manifests in ‘First We Take Off Our Clothes’ after which a short hop into full-colour and a longer one into a fraught future examines family life on Tomorrow’s sub-continent when ‘Nita Goes Home’

Separation and rural isolation underpin black-&-white monologue ‘We Come Down on Clear Days’ before the restricted colour palette of ‘Stick and String’ offers a hard look at relationships and agency in the tale of a wandering minstrel and the captivating power of momentary fascination…

Relations are further tested in monochrome as ‘Darling I’ve Realized I Don’t Love You’ provides unwise solutions to ancient problems before a truly disquieting incident of mutual grooming in ‘Snip’ segues into a chilling visit to ‘The Emotion Room’.

Colour is employed to potent effect in ‘He turned a grey-green and thought he might pass out’ whilst ‘Seven Sacks’ addresses grisly problems in a fresh fable Aesop or the Brothers Grimm would be proud to pen.

Two colours and self-delusion tinge ‘Did you want to see the statue?’, whilst B&W lines detail the rewards of heroic vitality in ‘Make Yourself Strong’, after which young love blossoms in living colour in ‘Summer Snakes’

The pure exultation and imagination of childhood is exposed through stark monochrome in ‘Thomas the Leader’ before a brief Vox-pop moment in ‘I used to be so unhappy but then I got on Prozac’ is built upon in further untitled moments of self-realisation before a strong admonition to ‘Pray’

Observation, tribulation and revelation all come to the author in ‘In 2006 I took a Greyhound from Georgia to Los Angeles’ before a descent into dark moments and extreme actions in ‘The fox must have been hit pretty recently…’ is balanced by intimate sharing in ‘The woman feels sadness’.

Colour adds depth in an extended moment of group therapy release in ‘No Tears, No Sorrow’, after which the wandering introspection of ‘9/26’ leads to a conclusion of sorts in a cab ride to ‘25 Washington Street, Please’

A superb example of the range and versatility of image and text happily combined, this a true joy for all fans of unbridled expression no one could fail to enjoy.
© Eleanor Davis 2014. All rights reserved.

The Story of Lee volume 3


By Seán Michael Wilson & Piarelle (NBM)
ISBN: 978-1-68112-195-6

Just in time to make my St. Valentines’ day perfect comes the concluding volume of an engaging romance that’s kept fans on charmed tenterhooks for almost a decade now.

After far too long, the final instalment of the endearing confection which began delighting readers in 2011 brings some painful tension to a bittersweet transatlantic/transpacific shojo manga, which like its subject matter and stars was the happy product of more than one country…

As written by Scottish author Seán Michael Wilson (Breaking the Ten, Sweeney Todd, Portraits of Violence – An Illustrated History of Radical Thinking), The Story of Lee details the growth and relationships of a restless Hong Kong girl who falls for a young Scots poet and teacher.

Lee endured frustrated dreams dutifully working in her father’s shop. The situation was uncomfortable: although he meant well, the traditionally-minded parent disapproved of almost everything Lee did and never stinted in telling her so. His disparagement and constant pushing for her to achieve something (becoming a dentist) whilst staying true to his old-fashioned ideas was tearing her apart, and Wang, the nice, proper Chinese boy he perpetually forced upon her, was a really creepy turn-off…

What they never realised was that Lee was a closet poet and pop music junkie besotted with western culture, particularly myth-laden London. In those unwelcome fascinations she was clandestinely supported by her frail, aging grandmother and unconventional Uncle Jun, a globe-trotting playboy who long ago abandoned convention and tradition to follow his own dreams to America…

At 24 Lee was being gradually eroded away until she met gorgeous teaching temp Matt MacDonald. Exotically Scottish, polite and charming, he was also a sensitive, talented poet…

Lee quietly defied her father and her relationship with Matt deepened, but when tragedy struck and grandmother was no longer a factor, further upheaval occurred after Matt announced that he was returning to his home thousands of miles away.

He dropped his bombshell and asked her to go with him…

Against all odds and family sentiment and via a memorable stopover in London, the lovers make it to Edinburgh – Matt’s home town – and Lee enrols in college on a one-year student visa. Matt too goes back into full-time study…

The city is a revelation: so many old and beautiful buildings, unlike HK where everything is always being torn down and rebuilt, and perhaps it’s just that dizzying cultural adjustment which makes her feel Matt is acting a little differently now that he’s in his on his own turf again…

Or maybe it’s the oddly intimate relationship he has with the old college chum they’re crashing with? Richard is warm, welcoming and coolly into all the right music, but she can’t shake the feeling that his relationship with her man might go beyond the normal bonds of friendship…

Over following days Lee’s apprehensions increase as Matt gleefully shows her around the nostalgic landmarks of his past and apparent proofs of Richard’s feelings begin to emerge. Moreover, her charming man seems to be changing too: his gentle patience evaporates; he’s snappish and even reacts jealously when other students – and even the local musicians she slavishly seeks out – pay attention to her. One thing she cannot adjust to is the undercurrent of hostility and casual aggression expressed by the young men in Scotland…

Lee has never felt more vulnerable. She is a world away from home and security and increasingly wonders if she’s made the biggest mistake of her life. As tensions rise and the nurturing warmth the lovers shared deteriorates further, unexpected aid appears in the form of Uncle Jun who pops up for a visit and offers some startling advice…

The tale resumes here as Lee thrives academically and makes friends among the students – particularly Chinese classmate Bo – but Matt is changing more rapidly as he falls further under the sway of Richard and begins neglecting his studies to hang with his band…

Meeting his parents is an uncomfortable moment for the sensitive Lee and the mounting tensions come to an ironic head when news comes from Hong Kong.

Increased political unrest has led to an assault on her father. He cannot work and Lee feels compelled to cut her studies short and return to run the shop. No one has asked her to, but she understands duty and responsibilities even if Matt has seemingly forgotten them…

With excellent art from much-lauded London-based debutante Piarelle (AKA Pamela Lokhun) taking over from previous illustrators Chie Kutsuwada (volume 1) and Nami Tamura (volume 2), the age-old story unfolds with understated power as the lovers make decisions that will that will affect everybody and satisfy no one…

Supplemented by a copious Glossary and Notes section defining the specific vagaries of accent and slang whilst offering geographical and historical perspective on the many actual locations depicted, this is a deliciously compelling drama playing with well-established conventions and idioms of romantic fiction and teen soap opera.

With beguiling subtlety, The Story of Lee explores themes of cultural difference, mixed-race-relationships, family and friendship pressures and the often-insurmountable barrier of different childhood experiences and expectations to weave an enchanting tale of independence, interdependence and isolation.

Moving and memorable, this is a timeless tale for modern lovers that you really should enjoy. And now that’s it’s all over, surely a bumper compendium can’t be far away…
© 2019 Seán Michael Wilson & Piarelle.

Showcase Presents Young Love


By Robert Kanigher, Julius Schwartz, John Romita, Bernard Sachs, John Rosenberger, Werner Roth, Bill Draut, Mike Sekowsky, Win Mortimer, John Giunta, Tony Abruzzo, Arthur Peddy, Dick Giordano, Jay Scott Pike Gene Colan & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-3438-6

As the escapist popularity of flamboyant superheroes waned after World War II, newer genres such as Romance and Horror came to the fore and older forms regained their audiences. Some, like Westerns and Funny Animal comics, had hardly changed at all but crime and detective tales were utterly radicalised by the temperament of the times.

Stark, uncompromising, cynically ironic novels and socially aware, mature-themed movies that would become categorised as Film Noir offered post-war society a bleakly antiheroic worldview that often hit too close to home and set fearful, repressive, middleclass parent groups and political ideologues howling for blood.

Naturally, these new sensibilities seeped into comics, transforming two-fisted gumshoe and Thud-&-Blunder cop strips of yore into darkly beguiling, even frightening tales of seductive dames, big pay-offs and glamorous thugs. Sensing imminent Armageddon, America’s moral junkyard dogs bayed even louder as they saw their precious children’s minds under seditious attack…

Concurrent to the demise of masked mystery-men, industry giants Joe Simon & Jack Kirby famously invented the love genre for comicbooks with mature, beguiling, explosively contemporary social dramas equally focussed on the changing cultural scene and adult themed relationships. They began with semi-comedic prototype My Date in early 1947 before plunging into the torrid real deal with Young Romance #1 in September of that year.

Not since the invention of Superman had a single comicbook generated such a frantic rush of imitation and flagrant cashing-in. It was a monumental hit and the team quickly expanded: releasing spin-offs such as Young Love (February 1949), Young Brides and In Love.

Simon & Kirby presaged and ushered in the first American age of mature comics – not only with their creation of the Romance genre, but with challenging modern tales of real people in extraordinary situations – before seeing it all disappear again in less than eight years.

Their small stable of magazines produced for the loose association of companies known as Prize/Crestwood/Pines blossomed and wilted as the industry contracted throughout the 1950s.

All through that turbulent period, comicbooks suffered impossibly biased oversight and hostile scrutiny from hidebound and panicked old guard institutions such as church groups, media outlets and ambitious politicians. A number of tales and titles garnered especial notoriety from those social doom-smiths, and hopeful celebration and anticipation amongst tragic, forward-thinking if psychologically scarred comics-collecting victims was quashed when the industry introduced a ferocious Comics Code that castrated the creative form just when it most needed boldness and imagination.

We lost and comics endured more than a decade and a half of savagely doctrinaire, self-imposed censorship.

Those tales from a simpler time, exposing a society in meltdown and suffering cultural PTSD, are mild by modern standards of behaviour, but the quality of art and writing make those pivotal years a creative highpoint long overdue for a thorough reassessment.

The first Young Love ran for 73 issues (1949-1956) before folding and re-launching in a far more anodyne, Comics-Code-approved form as All For Love in Spring 1957.

Unable to find an iota of its previous and hoped-for audience it disappeared after 17 issues in March 1959 before resurrecting as Young Love again a year later with #18. It then ran steadily but unremarkably until June 1963 when the experiment and the company died with #38.

Crestwood sold up its few remaining landmark, groundbreaking titles and properties – Young Romance, Young Love and Black Magic being the most notable – to National/DC and faded from the business…

The new bosses released their first edition in the autumn of 1963 as part of their own small, shy and unassuming romance ring: carrying on with it and a coterie of similar titles targeting teenaged girls (for which, read aspirational and imaginative 8 to 12-year olds) over the next fifteen years.

The savage decline in overall comicbook sales during the 1970s finally killed the genre off. Young Love was one of the last; dying with #126, cover-dated July 1977.

This quirky mammoth monochrome compilation gathers the first 18 DC issues (#39-56 spanning September/October 1963 through July/August 1966) but, although beautiful to look upon, it is sadly plagued with twin tragedies.

The first is that the stories quickly become fearfully formulaic – although flashes of narrative brilliance do crop up with comforting regularity – whilst the second is an appallingly inaccurate listing of creator credits.

Many fans have commented and suggested corrections online, and I’m adding my own surmises and deductions about artists whenever I’m reasonably sure, but other than the unmistakable, declamatorily florid flavour of Robert Kanigher, none of us in fandom are that certain just who was responsible for the scripting of these amatory sagas. However, research continues and sites like the Grand Comicbook Database and Lambiek are continually fixing history for us…

Here, likely contenders include Barbara Friedlander, Dorothy Woolfolk, George Kashdan, Jack Miller, Phyllis Reed, E. Nelson Bridwell and Morris Waldinger but I’m afraid we may never really know.

C’est l’amour…

On these anthological pages, the heartbreak and tears begin with the introduction of a soap-opera serial undoubtedly inspired by the romantic antics of television physicians such as Dr. Kildare (1961-1966) and Ben Casey (1962-1966). Written in an uncomfortably macho “me Doctor Tarzan, you Nurse Jane” style by Kanigher and illustrated with staggering beauty by John Romita, ‘The Private Diary of Mary Robin R.N.’ follows the painful journey and regular heartache of a nurse dedicated to her patients whilst fighting her inbuilt need to “settle down” with the man of her dreams, whoever he is… It’s usually a big-headed, know-it-all medic who has no time to waste on “settling down”…

The serial opened with ‘No Cure for Love’, a 2-part novelette in which a newly-qualified Registered Nurse starts her career at County General Hospital in the OR; instantly arousing the ire of surly surgeon Will Ames whose apparent nastiness is only a mask for his moody man-concern over his poor benighted patients – but never their billables…

However, even as he romances Mary and she dares to dream, the good doctor soon proves that medicine will always be his first and only Love…

I’m not sure of the inker but the pencils on stand-alone back-up ‘You’ve Always Been Nice!’ look like Werner Roth in a novel yarn of modern Texans in love that pretty much sets the tone for the title: Modern Miss gets enamoured of the wrong guy or flashy newcomer until the quiet one who waited for her finally gets motivated…

‘The Eve of His Wedding’ – by Bernard Sachs – goes with the other favourite option: a smug, flashy girl who loses out to the quiet heroine waiting patiently for true love to lead her man back to her…

In #40 Kanigher & Romita ask ‘Which Way, My Heart?’ of Mary Robin and she answers by letting Dr. Ames walk all over her before transferring to Pediatrics. She still found time to fall in love with a thankfully adult patient – but only until he got better…

Filling out the issue are ‘Someone to Remember’ (illustrated by Bill Draut) which sees sensible Judy utterly transform herself into a sophisticated floozy for a boy who actually prefers the old her, and ‘The Power of Love’ (incorrectly attributed to Don Heck but perhaps Morris Waldinger or John Rosenberger heavily inked by Sachs?) in which Linda competes with her own sister over new boy Bill

Although retaining the cover spot, the medical drama was relegated to the end of the comic from #41 on and complete stories led, starting on ‘End With A Kiss’ by Mike Sekowsky & Sachs, wherein calculating Anna almost marries wrong guy Steve until good old Neil puts his foot down, whilst for a girl who dates two men at the same time, ‘Heartbreak Came Twice!’: a tale that was almost a tragedy…

Mary Robin then cries – she cried a lot – ‘No Tomorrow for My Heart!’ as Will Ames continues to call when he feels like it and she somehow finds herself competing with best friend Tess for both him and a hunky patient in their care. She even briefly quits her job for this man of her dreams…

The superb John Rosenberger inking himself – mistakenly credited throughout as Jay Scott Pike – opens #42 with ‘Boys are Fools!’ wherein young Phyllis is temporarily eclipsed by her cynical, worldly older sister Jayne… until a decent man shows them the error of their ways. Vile Marty then uses unwitting Linda as a pawn in a battle of romantic rivals for ‘A Deal with Love!’ (Rosenberger or maybe Win Mortimer & Sachs?). I don’t have any corroborating proof, but a custom of the era was for artists to trade pages or anonymously collaborate on some stories; making visual identification a real expert’s game…

With a ‘Fearful Heart!’, Mary Robin closes up the issue by accidentally stealing the love of a blinded patient nursed by her plain associate. When the hunk’s sight returned, he just naturally assumes the pretty one was his devoted carer…

Young Love #43 opened with the excellent ‘Remember Yesterday’ (looking like Gil Kane layouts over Sachs) in which Gloria relives her jilting by fiancé Grant before embarking on a journey of self-discovery and finding her way back to love… Then the Sekowsky/Sachs influenced ‘A Day Like Any Other’ and ‘Before it’s Too Late’ disclose the difficulties of being a working woman and the temptations of being left at home all alone…

After that, Kanigher & Romita end the affairs by showing the childhood days of Mary Robin and just why she turned to nursing when her childhood sweetheart becomes her latest patient in ‘Shadow of Love!’

Issue #44 declares ‘It’s You I Love!’ (Kane or Frank Giacoia with Sachs?) as wilful Chris foolishly sets her cap for the college’s biggest hunk, whilst in ‘Unattainable’ Lorna learns that she just isn’t that special to playboy Gary before Mary Robin endures ‘Double Heartbreak!’ when her own sister Naomi sweeps in and swoops off with on-again, off-again Dr. Ames…

Sekowsky & Sachs opened #45 with ‘As Long as a Lifetime!’ wherein poor April finds herself torn between and tearing apart best friends Tommy and Jamie, whilst ‘Laugh Today, Weep Tomorrow!’ (which looks like Jay Scott Pike & Jack Abel) has tragic Janet see her best friend Margot’s seductive allure steal away another man she might have loved…

‘One Kiss for Always’ then shows Mary Robin as the patient after a bus crash costs her the use of her legs.

During her battle back to health, and loss of the only man she might have been happy with, the melodrama finally achieves the heights it always aspired to in a tale of genuine depth and passion.

The captivating Rosenberger leads in #46 as Maria and Mark conspire together to win back their respective intendeds and discover exactly ‘Where Love Belongs’, after which Mortimer reveals ‘It’s All Over Now’ for Merrill who only gets Cliff because Addie went away to finishing school.

But then she came back…

This surprisingly mature and sophisticated fable is followed by ‘Veil of Silence!’ in which Nurse Robin takes her duties to extraordinary lengths: allowing a patient to take her latest boyfriend in order to aid her full recovery…

In #47 ‘Merry Christmas’ (Rosenberger) shows astonishing seasonal spirit as Thea cautiously welcomes back sister Laurie – and gives her a second chance to steal her husband – after which secretary Vicky eavesdrops on her boss and boyfriend: almost finishing her marriage before it begins in ‘Every Beat of his Heart!’(Mortimer).

Mary Robin’s ‘Cry for Love’ starts in another pointless fling with the gadabout Ames and ends with her almost stealing another nurse’s man in a disappointingly shallow but action-packed effort, after which – in #48 – ‘Call it a Day’ (Mortimer) finds an entire clan of women united to secure a man for little Alice, before Rosenberger limns ‘Trust Him!’ wherein bitter sister Marta’s harsh advice to love-sick sibling Jill is happily ignored. Kanigher & Romita then explore Mary Robin’s ‘Two-Sided Heart!’ after Ames again refuses to consider moving beyond their casually intimate relationship.

Of course, that shouldn’t excuse what she then does with the gorgeous amnesia patient who has a grieving girlfriend…

Young Love #49 opened with Rosenberger’s ‘Give Me Something to Remember You By!’ with Marge praying that her latest summer romance turns into a something more. Waiting is a torment but ‘Your Man is Mine!’ (Roth) shows what’s worse when sisters clash and Clea again tries taking what Pat has – a fiancé…

‘Someone… Hear my Heart!’ then unselfconsciously dips into the world of TV as Mary Robin dumps Dr. Ames for an actor and a new career on a medical show. It doesn’t end well and she’s soon back where she belongs with the man who can’t or won’t appreciate her…

Roth opened #50 with ‘Second Hand Love’ as Debbie dreads that the return of vivacious Vicky will lead to her taking back the man she left behind, whilst ‘Come into My Arms!’ (Ogden Whitney or Ric Estrada perhaps?) sees Mary Grant visit Paris in search of one man only to fall for another…

Mary Robin then finds herself pulled in many directions as she falls for another doctor and one more hunky patient before yet again rededicating herself to professional care over ‘The Love I Never Held!’

She jumps back to the front in #51 and discovers ‘All Men are Children!’ (still Kanigher & Romita) when an unruly shut-in vindictively uses her to make another nurse jealous, after which Rosenberger delivers a stunning turn with ‘Afraid of Love!’ Here, after years of obsessive yearning, Lois finally goes for it with the man of her dreams.

Romita then took a turn at an anthology solo story with ‘No Easy Lessons in Love’ as Gwen and Peter travel the world and make many mistakes before finally finding each other again.

The nurse finally got her man – and her marching orders – in #52’s ‘Don’t Let it Stop!’, but dashing intern Dan Swift only makes his move on Mary after being hypnotised! Hopefully, she lived happily ever after because, despite being advertised for the next issue, she didn’t appear again…

The abrupt departure was followed by vintage reprint ‘Wonder Women of History: Mary Kingsbury Simkhovitch’ (by Julius Schwartz & John Giunta from Wonder Woman #55, September/October 1952), detailing the life of a crusading social campaigner before Roth – possibly inked by Sheldon Moldoff – details how a flighty girl stops chasing husky lifeguards and finds a faithful adoring ‘Young Man for Me!’

‘The Day I Looked Like This!’ (by Dick Giordano, not Gene Colan) celebrates the day tomboy Judi finally starts gussying up like a proper girl and unhappily discovers she is the spitting image of a hot starlet…

Issue #53 opens with ‘A Heart Full of Pride!’ (Sachs) as naïve Mib proves to herself that, just like in school, determination and perseverance pay off in romance, before Mortimer details how standoffish Cynthia learns how she needs to play the field to win her man in ‘I Wanted My Share of Love’.

Romita describes the designs of Kathy who discovers the pitfalls of her frivolous lifestyle in ‘Everybody Likes Me… but Nobody Loves Me!’ before Draut illustrates the lead feature in #54 as ‘False Love!’ exposes a case of painfully mistaken intentions when a gang of kids all go out with the wrong partners… until bold Nan finally speaks her mind.

‘Love Against Time’ by Tony Abruzzo & Sachs shows schoolteacher Lisa that patience isn’t everything, after which ‘Too Much in Love!’(Romita) hints at a truly abusive relationship until Mandy’s rival tells her just why beloved Van acts that way…

‘An Empty Heart!’ (Arthur Peddy & Sachs or possibly Mortimer again) opens #55, revealing how insecure Mindy needs to date other boys just to be sure she can wait for beloved Sam to come back from the army, whilst Sachs’ ‘Heart-Shy’ Della takes took her own sweet time realising self-effacing Lon is the boy for her, after which the original and genuine Jay Scott Pike limns the tale of Janie who at last defies her snobbish, controlling mother and picks ‘Someone of My Own to Love’.

The romance dance concludes here with #56 and ‘A Visit to a Lost Love’ (actually Gene Colan): a bittersweet winter’s tale of paradise lost and regained, after which perpetually fighting Richy and Cindy realise ‘Believe it or Not… It’s Love’ (Abruzzo & Sachs), and ‘I’ll Make Him Love Me!’ (Sachs) show how scary Liz stalks Perry until she falls for her destined soul-mate Bud

As I’ve described, the listed credits are full of errors and whilst I’ve corrected those I know to be wrong I’ve also made a few guesses which might be just as wild and egregious (I’m still not unconvinced that many tales were simply rendered by a committee of artists working in desperate jam-sessions), so I can only apologise to all those it concerns, as well as fans who thrive on these details for the less-than-satisfactory job of celebrating the dedicated creators who worked on these all-but-forgotten items.

As for the tales themselves: they’re dated, outlandish and frequently borderline offensive in their treatment of women.

So were the times in which they were created, but that’s not an excuse.

However, there are many moments of true narrative brilliance to equal the astonishing quality of the artwork on show here, and by the end of this titanic torrid tome the tone of the turbulent times was definitely beginning to change as the Swinging part of the Sixties began and hippies, free love, flower power and female emancipation began scaring the pants off the old guard and reactionary traditionalists…

Not for wimps or sissies but certainly an unmissable temptation for all lovers of great comic art…
© 1963, 1964, 1965, 1966, 2012 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood of Great Renown in Nottinghamshire


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

People who work in comics adore their earliest influences, and will spout for hours about them. Not only did they initially fire the young imagination and spark the drive to create but they always provide the creative yardstick by which a writer or artist measures their own achievements and worth.

Books, comics, posters, even gum cards (which mysteriously mutated into “Trading Cards” in the 1990s) all fed the colossal hungry Art-sponge which was the developing brain of the kids who make comics.

But by the 1970s an odd phenomenon was increasingly apparent. New talent coming into the industry was increasingly and overwhelmingly only aware of only comicbooks as a source of pictorial fuel. The great illustrators and storytellers who had inspired the likes of Howard Chaykin, Bernie Wrightson, Mike Kaluta, P. Craig Russell, Charles Vess, Mike Grell, and a host of other top professionals were virtually unknown to many youngsters and aspirants.

I suspect the reason for this was the decline of illustrated fiction in magazines – and of magazines in general. Photographs became a cheaper option than artwork in the late 1960s and generally populations read less and less each year from that time onwards.

In the late 1980s publisher Donning created a line of oversized deluxe editions reprinting “lost” classics of fantasy, illustrated by major comics talents who felt an affinity for the selected texts. Vess illustrated Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Kaluta did likewise with the script for the silent movie Metropolis, P. Craig Russell created magic for The Thief of Bagdad and Grell took the biggest risk of his career by providing new illustrations (6 in colour and 15 monochrome) for a fantasy masterpiece beloved by generations of youngsters – and still today an incredibly popular reissue in loads of different formats…

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

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

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

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

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

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

In a word: Action.

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

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

Forbidden Dance


By Hinako Ashihara (TokyoPop)
ISBN: 978-1-59182-345-2

This is the charming, if eccentric, tale of Aya, a young girl who has seemingly lost the ability to dance after an accident at the National Ballet Competition damages her ankle.

Her ruined, psychologically-scarred, miserable life finally drastically spins around again after she witnesses the astounding Akira Hibiya dancing with the COOL ballet troupe. The boy quite turns her head and makes her want to dance once more…

Revitalised, she makes joining COOL her life’s ambition, and nothing – not even the fact that Akira thinks she is just another crazy girl-fan stalker or, more importantly, that COOL is an all-male company – is going to stop her…

Aimed at a young teen audience, Forbidden Dance is replete with the school angst and constant, overwhelming pressure to succeed that dominates this branch of manga fiction, but the energy, power and enthusiasm of Hinako Ashihara’s story-telling elevates the tale above the crush of its peers.

As Aya’s story progresses (through 4 translated volumes originally released in 2003) the ending is never a foregone conclusion and even the most jaded reader must wonder “what next?”

In a crowded and conservative market, it’s good to see quality story-telling in varied settings, and many jaded comics fans or newcomers to our weird world would probably benefit from giving this book and its sequels a chance… if they can find them.
© 2003 Hinako Ashihara. All Rights Reserved.

Girls Bravo volumes 1-3


By Mario Kaneda, translated & adapted by Asuka Yoshizu & Steve Bunche (TokyoPop)
ISBNs: 978-1-59816-040-6, 978-1-59816-041-3 & 978-1-59816-042-0

Here’s another large, strange slice of manga magic that took the world by storm when it inevitably transferred to the anime screen, and another of those uncomfortably inappropriate teen-sex comedies that so delight the Japanese and generally bewilder we less socially ossified westerners.

Aimed at older teens, this type of tale fully acknowledges and draws seemingly endless amusement from the fact that boys and girls of a certain age are hormone-crazed muskrats desperate to catch furtive snatches of each other’s proscribed bits, and only conscience and social pressure keeps them from being even more intolerable than they are.

If only it got any easier with advanced age…

These stories first appeared in Japanese magazine Shōnen Ace from 2000 to 2005 and were eventually collected in ten volumes of frantic, frenetic slapstick, excruciating comedy-of-manners gaffes, replete with gusset glimpses, shower-scenes, fantasy fun and burgeoning young love.

‘Gārusu Burabō’ is the story of a hapless high school student named Yukinari Sasaki, a short, dim nebbish who is so put upon, teased and bullied by girls – and even his female teachers – that he has developed a condition which brings him out in hives every time anything with no Y chromosomes touches him.

His unfortunate condition is further compounded by the fact that the neighbours’ daughter Kirie, a girl he has known since childhood, and one he can at least talk to, has recently changed.

Her shy and awkward nature has developed into a crush he is utterly oblivious to, but unfortunately said crush has devolved into a series of violent assaults every time she gets flustered, and with Sasaki, she gets flustered a lot…

At some time when nobody was paying attention, she blossomed into an astonishingly well-endowed young woman – something else that embarrasses her greatly and often leads to red-faced punches and breath-curtailing kicks…

After a particularly trying day Yukinari returns home and stumbles into Kirie using his shower. He’s flustered, she’s naked and while he’s being pummelled by the blushing, panicked girl he falls into the bath… and emerges into another world and another naked girl’s bath…

But this is a completely different kind of girl. She is genuinely concerned, solicitous, even shorter than him and – most importantly – not screaming or hitting. Moreover, Miharu can touch him without setting off his allergic reaction. All she cares about is his welfare and what earth food is like.

The world of Siren is a revelation; a magical place where women outnumber men 9-1. When Miharu’s older sister Maharu spots the unattached male she makes a violent play for Yukinari, chasing him into the streets where every female in range also competes to capture the fleeing boy-toy.

Miharu rescues him and they double back to her bathroom, but the pursuers are too close and the fugitives fall into the bath – and arrive back in Yukinari’s shower. It is still occupied by the perplexed, naked and fuming Kirie.

Miharu is apparently stuck on Earth: the perfect companion for the gynophobic lad. She never attacks him, doesn’t cause hives, has magic powers and only cares about food. Unfortunately, she’s bewitchingly beautiful and as naive as a newborn hamster, so the hoi-polloi at school trail after her like dogs after biscuits, especially wealthy school stud Fukuyama.

He’s a real catch: a glorious young god of legendary manliness, but conceals a tragic secret of his own. Unknown to all, he is so male-phobic that he has an attack of hives every time a male touches him. Fukuyama is driven crazy by Miharu’s indifference to him…

Meanwhile, hopeless Yukinari is still being teased and bullied by girls of every type and regularly stumbling into situations where Kirie is undressed, volatile and trigger-primed to explode…

The first volume covers the set-up of the formulae, with lots of stories about simplistic Miharu’s desire to eat anything not nailed down, platonically care for Yukinari and her tendency to be duped into wearing revealing or fetishistic clothing by the lecherous Fukuyama.

Despite being always hungry and able to consume practically anything Miharu is a brilliant cook, unlike Kirie whose recipes are only really appreciated by terrorists looking for new bio-weapons. Yukinari increasingly has to spend his time protecting the gullible alien’s non-existent modesty…

Gradually the series takes a more supernatural turn as the unhappy ménage-a-trouble encounter an undressed ghost girl (and Fukuyama’s sister) Risa: a young sorceress convinced that beleaguered Yukinari is her predestined husband and thus willing to use all her wiles and witchcraft to make him hers. Even if it means destroying or even befriending Miharu and Kirie…

The first volume ends with a light-hearted and hottie-filled adaptation of traditional Japanese folk-tale Momotaro (the Peach Boy).

Volume 2 continues Risa’s campaign. She casts spells on Yukinari, and tries to convince Miharu that her attentions are preventing the diminutive lad from forming normal relationships or shaking his allergic phobia. Things get completely crazy when the Siren girl drinks alcohol and begins to replicate herself uncontrollably…

Yukinari still keeps getting accidental, unwelcome and concomitantly painful glimpses of undraped girls whilst growing increasingly fond of Miharu, even battling the hulking alpha male Fukuyama to protect her, but when amnesiac Koyomi appears thing get very strange indeed.

For one thing she is the only other girl able to resist the school stud’s dubious charms; she doesn’t give Yukinari contact-hives and, when she is flustered or scared, giant pits open in the floor under her…

She is in fact an agent from Siren sent to recover the missing Miharu, and when her memory returns Koyomi transports her quarry home before Yukinari’s tear-filled eyes…

Of course, the adored catalyst does return, and volume 2 concludes with another side story; a day in the life of sexy super-stud Fukuyama – or at least in his fevered, fetid mind…

Volume 3 opens with the cast being coerced by the loathsome Lothario into a game of strip Mah-Jong with the returned Konomi (on a secret mission for Miharu’s sister): Fukuyama’s latest lewd target. Sadly for him, she suffers from the same condition as he does – she too is androphobic and repelled by the touch of men…

Konomi’s mission is at last exposed and she begins searching for a perfect husband for Miharu’s strident, overbearing sister. This inevitably leads to some very uncomfortable situations, as do the girls’ communal attempts to earn some extra money, before everything goes really crazy after Kirie falls through Risa’s mirror into a world where all her friends have reversed personalities…

Sweet-natured Miharu’s attempts to buy all her friends New Year’s Gifts go painfully awry before all ends well, and her celebration of the Setsubun festival (where bad luck is symbolically removed by throwing Soya beans out of the house) also falls flat – but only because Risa summoned real evil spirits to the party…

The volume ends on a heartbreakingly beguiling tale of a little girl abandoned in the snow – a story so moving it’s worth buying all three volumes just to read this sparkling gem in perfect context…

Irrepressibly juvenile and hormone-fuelled but great fun and beautifully drawn, this is a series as likely to titillate as offend, but it’s all good clean smut really, harmless and charming and bound to delight girl watchers and anyone enduring puberty or recalling it with any degree of honesty…
© 2001, 2002 Mario Kaneda. English text © 2005, 2006 Tokyopop Inc. All rights reserved.

Kevin Keller: Welcome to Riverdale


By Dan Parent & Rich Koslowski & various (Archie Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-936975-23-5 (TPB)

Created by writer/artist Dan Parent and inker Rich Koslowski, Kevin Keller debuted in Veronica #202 (September 2010), a charming, good-looking and exceedingly together lad who utterly bowled over the rich go-getter. She was totally smitten with him whilst he was far more interested in food, sports and hanging out with Jughead…

When Kevin finally explained to Veronica why she was wasting her time, she became his best buddy: after all they had a lot in common – stylish clothes, shopping and boys…

Immensely popular from the outset (Veronica #202 was the first comicbook in the company’s long history to go into a second printing), Kevin struck a chord with the readership and soon guest shots evolved into a miniseries before the new kid on the block inevitably won his own ongoing title.

Trade paperback & eBook compilation Kevin Keller: Welcome to Riverdale collects the first four issues of his groundbreaking solo monthly title and opens here with handy text feature ‘Kevin Keller: Catch up with the Characters’: reintroducing the bonny lad, his (retired army colonel) dad Thomas, mum Kathy and feisty sisters Denise and Patty.

The feature also brings newcomers up to speed on recent history as seen in the previous volume) before the mirth and merriment kick off with ‘There’s a First Time for Everything’ from issue #1 wherein the much-travelled, journalism-obsessed “Army Brat” finally begins settling in at Riverdale High.

In short order he is elected Class President, has his first commercial writing published and reveals a shocking secret…

For all his accomplishments Kevin has never gone on a real date, and when a certain someone asks him out, the Keller kid turns to Betty for some confidence-boosting advice. He isn’t a complete neophyte; there was something like a date before, but due to his catastrophic nervousness it turned into a major disaster…

Unfortunately, Reggie overhears their huddled conversation and the self-proclaimed romance expert elects to give Kevin the benefit of his vast masculine experience…

The exuberant preparations turn into a catalogue of horror and, as more well-meaning friends get involved, it looks certain that Kevin will repeat that horrific experience…

Thankfully a few stabilising words from love-hating Jughead and an eventful morning with the remarkably understanding Colonel Keller quickly restore some necessary calm and equilibrium…

The next tale moves from straight slapstick to heart-warming empathy as Class President Kevin is asked to organise a prom in ‘May I Have this Dance?’ Only then does he discover that he has a secret admirer. Of course, once Veronica finds out it’s not a secret for long…

As the seventies-themed fashion disaster begins to take shape, further furtive communications reveal that the clandestine would-be wooer is someone still not fully at ease with his sexual orientation; forcing Kevin to be at his most understanding and forgiving…

Contentious themes and prejudices are tackled in ‘Stranded in Paradise’ when the summer vacation begins and Kevin gets a job as a lifeguard.

The beach is the time-honoured hangout of all Riverdale kids, but when spoiled princess Cheryl Blossom and her rich Pembroke School cronies invade the space, sparks soon fly. The grubby “Townies” are challenged to a surfing contest for possession of the sands with Kevin a star competitor and secret weapon for the home team. The fair-minded stalwart has, however, completely underestimated the vicious tactics of loathsome homophobe Sloan

The comics portion of this tome concludes with an international epic set at the 2012 London Olympics. ‘Games People Play’ sees Colonel Keller – who has dual British and American citizenship – invited to be a torchbearer.

Having spent four years in England, Kevin is delighted to be going back for a visit and reconnecting with old pal Brian. He doesn’t even mind when shopping-crazy Veronica inveigles an invite to join the family.

Moreover, when his nominated-runner Dad falls foul of London’s Underground at a crucial moment, Kevin is ready and more-or-less willing to step in for what appears to be the unluckiest and most dangerous section of the entire torch route…

Following a moving and appreciative ‘Afterword’ by Dan Parent there’s also a splendid section of ‘Official Kevin Keller Bonus Features’ including ‘Retro Fashion’ pages, ‘Kevin’s Prom Style’, ‘Kevin’s Summer Style with B & V’, ‘Kevin Keller & Friends Style’ and a triptych of ‘Unreleased Promotional Sketches’.

With a cover gallery that includes modern cartoon masterpieces and remastered classic Archie images retrofitted to suit our 21st century all-star, this is a superb, hilarious and magically inclusive collection for you, your kids and grandparents to enjoy over and over again…
© 2012 Archie Comics Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.

Archie’s Pal Kevin Keller


By Dan Parent, Rich Koslowski, Jack Morelli & Digikore Studios (Archie Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-87979-493-1 (HC)

Following the debut of Superman, MLJ were one of many publishers to jump on the “mystery-man” bandwagon, concocting their own small but inspired pantheon of gaudily clad crusaders. In November 1939 they launched Blue Ribbon Comics, and swiftly followed up with Top-Notch and Pep Comics. The content was the era’s standard mix of masked champions, clean-cut two-fisted adventurers, genre prose pieces and gags.

Not long after, Maurice Coyne, Louis Silberkleit and John Goldwater (hence MLJ) spotted a gap in the blossoming yet crowded market. In December 1941 the Fights ‘n’ Tights, heaving He-Man crowd were gently nudged aside by a far less imposing hero; an ordinary teenager having mundane adventures just like the readership, but with the companionable laughs, good times and romance emphasised.

Goldwater developed the youthful everyman protagonist concept and tasked writer Vic Bloom & artist Bob Montana with making it work. Inspired by and referencing the successful Andy Hardy movies (starring Mickey Rooney), their new notion premiered in Pep Comics #22. The unlikely star was a gap-toothed, freckle-faced, red-headed kid obsessed with impressing the pretty blonde next door.

A 6-page untitled tale introduced hapless boob Archie Andrews and wholesomely fetching Betty Cooper. The boy’s wry and unconventional best friend and confidante Jughead Jones also debuted in that vignette, as did idyllic small-town utopia Riverdale. It was a huge hit and by the winter of 1942 the kid had won his own series and then a solo-starring title.

Archie Comics #1 was MLJ’s first non-anthology magazine and with it began an inexorable transformation of the entire company. With the introduction of ultra-rich, raven-haired Veronica Lodge, all the pieces were in play for the industry’s second Genuine Phenomenon…

By 1946 the kids were in charge, and MLJ officially reinvented itself as Archie Comics, retiring most of its costumed characters years before the end of the Golden Age and becoming, to all intents and purposes, a publisher of family-friendly comedies.

The hometown settings and perpetually fruitful premise of an Eternal Romantic Triangle – with girl-hating Jughead to assist or deter and scurrilous love-rat rival Reggie Mantle to test, duel and vex our boy in their own unique ways – the scenario was one that not only resonated with fans but was somehow infinitely fresh and engaging…

Like Superman’s, Archie’s success forced a change in content at every other US publisher (except Gilberton’s dry and po-faced Classics Illustrated), creating a culture-shifting multi-media brand which encompassed TV, movies, newspaper strips, toys and merchandise, a chain of restaurants and (in the swinging sixties) a pop music sensation when Sugar, Sugar – from the animated TV cartoon – became a global summer smash hit.

Clean and decent garage band “The Archies” has been a fixture of the comics ever since…

The perennial eternal triangle has generated thousands of charming, raucous, gentle, frenetic, chiding and even heart-rending humorous dramas ranging from surreal wit to frantic slapstick, with the kids and a constantly expanding cast of friends (boy genius Dilton Doily, genial giant jock Big Moose and occasional guest Sabrina the Teenage Witch amongst so many others), growing into an American institution and part of the American cultural landscape.

The feature has thrived by constantly refreshing its core archetypes; boldly and seamlessly adapting to the changing world outside its bright and cheerful pages, shamelessly co-opting youth, pop culture, fashion trends and even topical events into its infallible mix of comedy and young romance.

Each and every social revolution has been painlessly assimilated into the mix and over the decades the company has confronted most social issues affecting youngsters in a manner both even-handed and tasteful.

Constant addition of new characters such as African-American Chuck Clayton and his girlfriend Nancy Woods, fashion-diva Ginger Lopez, Hispanic couple Frankie Valdez and Maria Rodriguez, student film-maker Raj Patel and spoiled home-wrecker-in-waiting Cheryl Blossom all contributed to a wide and refreshingly broad-minded scenario.

In 2010 Archie jumped the final hurdle – for decades a seemingly insurmountable one for kids comicbooks – when openly gay student Kevin Keller became an admirable advocate capably tackling and dismantling the last major taboo in mainstream comics.

Created by writer/artist Dan Parent and inker Rich Koslowski (lettered by Jack Morelli and coloured by Digikore Studios), Kevin debuted in Veronica #202 (September 2010). It was the first comicbook in the company’s long history to go into a second printing…

This landmark hardback (and eBook) compendium gathers that delightful debut from Veronica #205 plus the 4-issue Kevin Keller miniseries which cemented the new star’s popularity.

It all begins with context-establishing essay ‘Get to Know Kevin Keller’ before comic introductions are made in ‘Isn’t it Bro-Mantic’ as Veronica encounters a charming, good-looking and exceedingly-together lad who utterly bowls her over.

She is totally smitten with him even though he can out-eat human dustbin Jughead and loves sports. Although suave Kevin inexplicably loves hanging out with the ghastly Jones boy she is determined to make him exclusively hers.

Jughead (who clearly possesses fully-functioning gaydar) is truly cool with his new pal, and soon sees an opportunity to pay Ronnie back for many of the mean things she has said and done over the years…

When Kevin finally explains to Veronica why she is wasting her time, she takes it fabulously well and soon they are hanging out as best buds. After all, they have so much in common: chatting, stylish clothes, shopping, boys…

Immensely popular from the outset, Kevin struck a chord with the readership and returned a few months later in ‘The Buddy System’, with Veronica’s bombastic dad giving the obviously perfect new student the all-clear to monopolise his daughter’s time. The following fun-filled days do have one major downside however, as poor Betty is increasingly neglected…

You’d think Archie would be jealous too, but he’s just glad that someone “safe” is keeping other guys away from “his” Ronnie. It seems the ideal scenario for everyone but Betty, but then man-hunting, filthy rich over-privileged and entitled princess Cheryl Blossom hits town and puts everything back into perspective…

The repeat guest shots rapidly evolved into a miniseries, expanding Kevin’s role whilst answering many questions about his past. It started with ‘Meet Kevin Keller’ wherein we learned he was an army brat, born in Britain but raised all over the world, and now lives in Riverdale with his dad (retired and invalided army colonel) Thomas, mum Kathy and feisty sisters Denise and Patty.

It also reveals Kevin is a typical guy: he loves practical jokes as much as food and sports…

Whilst sharing these facts with Betty and Ronnie, he also lets slip some less impressive details: how he was a nerdy, braces-wearing late-developer who was frequently the target of bullies…

‘The Write Stuff’ is set during the build-up to his father’s surprise birthday party and discloses how Kevin plans to serve in the army before becoming a journalist, whilst also showing the gentle hero’s darker side after he is compelled to intervene – and end – the persecution of a young Riverdale student by bullies…

In ‘Let’s Get it Started’ the newcomer is ambushed and pressganged by his new friends into participating in a scholastic TV quiz show where his nerves almost get the better of him. Happily, Ronnie inadvertently breaks his paralysing stage-fright with a humiliating gaffe, but that’s just a palate cleanser for a potent object lesson in the concluding chapter…

As Kevin steps in to shelter and help one of the kids who used to torment him long ago, ‘Taking the Lead!’ also finds him reluctantly running for Class President at the insistent urging of Ronnie and the gang.

It’s not that he wants the position particularly, but when bigoted jock and star school quarterback David Perkins starts a campaign based on intolerance, innuendo and intimidation, Kevin feels someone has to confront the smugly-macho, “real man” who boasts he is the most popular boy in school…

And despite a smear campaign and dirty tactics any Presidential candidate would be proud of, truth, justice and decency win out…

This breezy and engaging collection concludes with ‘An Interview with Kevin Keller’ offering further background direct from the horse’s mouth and also includes a host of covers, variants and remastered classic Archie images retrofitted to suit our 21st century star. Archie’s Pal Kevin Keller is a joyous and magically inclusive collection for you and everyone you know and like to enjoy over and over again.
© 2012 Archie Comics Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.

The Moon Looked Down and Laughed – a Holy Cross graphic novel


By Malachy Coney & Paul J. Holden (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-56097-263-1

The Irish have always rightly prided themselves on their innate ability to tell a tale and comics especially have long-benefited from that blessed boon. One writer especially gifted and yet inexplicably still not world famous is Malachy Coney, who first started turning heads in Fleetway’s socially informed Crisis anthology in 1989 when he was invited by Pat Mills to co-write a sequence of the controversial serial Third World War set in Ireland.

Coney was raised in the Ardoyne area of Belfast during the time of “The Troubles” and much of his work deals with the politics of the era and issues of gender and gay rights.

In 1993 he scripted the miniseries Holy Cross for Fantagraphics: three separate tales all linked by history, geography and incidental characters Jimmy and Davy – a local gay couple. The yarns were illustrated respectively by Davy Francis, Chris Hogg and P. J. Holden. That lost delight happily led to the lovely book under discussion on this most Gaelic of days.

Coney, who is also a cartoonist and publisher, latterly wrote a number of Gay-themed superhero tales (Major Power and Spunky, The Dandy Lion, The Simply Incredible Hunk), socially aware material such as The Good Father and Catholic Lad; worked with Garth Ennis on Top Cow’s The Darkness and Steven Grant on Vampirella.

Active in the arts in Northern Ireland, he co-wrote animated short film Second Helpings and has contributed to DNASwamp, Small Axe and Fortnight, whilst producing material for the internet and self-publishing his own Good Craic Comics.

Paul Jason Holden is also from Belfast and, as well as working closely with Coney on the Holy Cross stories, The Dandy Lion and The Simply Incredible Hunk, has illustrated Mike Carey’s ‘Suicide Kings’ and worked for Warhammer Monthly, 2000AD, Judge Dredd Megazine, Image Comics, Garth Ennis’ Battlefields and Strip Magazine. He is also active in developing web- and app-based comics…

Rendered in stark and seductive monochrome, The Moon Looked Down and Laughed is again set in the Holy Cross district of Belfast and narrated by hopeful writer Tommy Doherty, a decent and sentimental young man just starting to learn the way of the world.

Tommy’s always got time to listen to his old dad’s stories about the bad days just past, especially the one when he was a young man doing odd jobs for a mean, rich old sod named Burke.

That privileged, demented sour swine used to work him like a slave every day and then set the dog on him if he stayed on his land one second after quitting-time. Sometimes Burke even deliberately kept him late just to watch him run…

That all changed on the fateful day Pa Doherty’s watch stopped and the vicious landowner gloatingly gawped as the manic canine brought him down…

Of course, that was the day sheer terror made the worm turn and a scared lad learned another use for the hated shovel in his calloused hands…

From that event, the Da learned a hard but necessary lesson: there are mad dogs everywhere and usually the shovel is the best way of dealing with them…

With thoughts of wildlife documentaries, carnivores and prey in his head, Tommy heads for the pub and a drink with his outrageous pals Jimmy and Davy. However he obliquely encounters the district’s apex predator when Francie O’Neill’s gang of thugs and troublemakers harass him for hanging out with “faggots”…

It had only been weeks since the surly pack of jackals had beaten up Jimmy and Davy in one more gay-bashing incident. O’Neill had been a bully since they were all at school but always managed to come off like some roguish golden boy. Nobody could understand why the loveliest girl in school had married him, especially Tommy, for whom Annie would always be “the one”, ever since that incident when they played “spin-the-bottle” as nippers…

Now she was shackled to a possessive, brutal thug, permanently pregnant and with all the life leaching slowly out of her.

Staggering away at closing time, Tommy and the boys spot Francie stalking the streets, looking for a fight to start. Not for the first time, the writer ponders the worth of pens against swords and why people like that are allowed to get away with so much…

Pa Doherty’s pride and joy is his allotment garden and on the way to it next day, father and son see an ambulance rushing away. It seems poor fat Big Junior has had a breakdown and harmed himself. The lad hasn’t been the same since his ma died and surely the constant bullying and sadistic harassment by certain people has pushed him over the edge…

As they watch Annie O’Neill and her two oldest pass by, Pa invites them to spend time in his garden. The kids have the best day of their life just playing and, with a bit of peace at last, Annie idly chats about the old days with Tommy…

The next day the author-in-waiting answers a desperate call: the father is in a bad way. It seems someone has destroyed his precious, beloved garden; razed it to rubble and ruins…

Consoling the heartbroken, despondent elder, Tommy sees Francie’s unmistakable signature in the despicable act. Soon after, locating the psychotic lout terrorising his own wife and children, the frustrated scribe realises he has found his own mad dog…

Disposing of the body on the nearby railway tracks, the shell-shocked and traumatised scribe is utterly unaware that Jimmy and Davy have been witnesses to the whole thing…

And that’s just the start of Tommy Doherty’s road from boy to man in this superbly told tale, blending wry humour and bucolic Celtic charm with shatteringly personal conflicts that test the miraculous bonds of childhood loyalty and friendship, revealing not only the horrific acts good men can be pushed to, but also how deeds shape character and how little the universe cares…

Long overdue for re-issue – preferably in a bumper edition collecting the three-issue Holy Cross miniseries and the fabled unpublished fourth issue as well – this is a sublimely beguiling and memorably incisive story of human life at its most vibrant and compelling…
© 1997 Malachy Coney & Paul J. Holden. This edition © 1997 Fantagraphics Books. All rights reserved.