Death Threat


By Vivek Shraya & Ness Lee (Arsenal Pulp Press Vancouver)
ISBN: 978-1-55152-750-5 (HB/Digital edition)

Vivek Shraya is a poet, musician, educator, writer and performer of immense creativity, as can be appreciated in books such as God Loves Hair; even this page is white; The Boy & the Bindi; I’m Afraid of Men and She of the Mountains or her many albums and films.

On her 35th birthday Shraya publicly announced her status as Trans and requested that she be henceforward addressed with female pronouns. That seems inoffensive enough to me and you, and nobody’s business but hers, but sadly and all too typically these days, the announcement inspired the by-now pro forma response from certain quarters: a tirade of vitriol and harassment from nasty busybodies hiding behind and tainting social media…

Unevolved old jerks like me just get angry and hunger to respond in kind – with vituperative counterattacks – but happily, more civilised people find better ways. This book is perhaps the best of them as, in collaboration with Toronto-based artist and designer Ness Lee, Shraya transformed fear and disappointment into art with a heavy helping of surreal, satirical soul searching.

The liberating act of turning those unsolicited, unreasoning email assaults – all couched in offensive terms by people who hide behind religions whose fundamental tenets they will gleefully cherry pick – into a gloriously incisive and witty exploration of the inexplicable mindless aggression that continues to debase so much of modern society is eyepopping and mind-blowing…

Unlike those who cower behind the cowardly anonymity of keyboards and phones, Shraya & Lee proudly appended their names to this vibrant voyage, detailing how the bile of ignorant bullies (you simply won’t believe just how dumb some bigots can be until you see the hate mail here!) inspired beautiful images and empowering inclusivity.

My generation’s parents told us to ignore or strike back, but today’s ostracised, oppressed and unfairly targeted have found a far better way to respond to bullies: turn their hate into beauty and take ownership of it.
Death Threat: Text © 2019 Vivek Shraya. Illustrations © 2019 Ness Lee. All rights reserved.

Miss Don’t Touch Me volumes 1 and 2


By Hubert & Kerascoët, translated by Joe Johnson (NBM)
ISBN: 978-1-56163-544-3 (TPB) & 978-1-56163-592-4 (TPB)

Hubert Boulard was a French comics writer and colourist who died suddenly on February 12th 2020. He is criminally unknown in the English-speaking world.

“Hubert” was born on January 21st 1971, and after graduating in 1994 from the École régionale des beaux-arts d’Angers, began his comics career as an artist for seasoned pros such as Éric Ormond, Yoann, Éric Corberyan, Paul Gillon and others. He started writing strips for others in 2002, with Legs de l’alchimiste limned by Herve Tanquerelle, followed up with Yeaux Verts for long-term collaborator Zanzim.

He produced another 14 separate series – many of them internationally award winning like Les Ogres-Dieux and Monsieur désire? – and in 2013 contributed to collective graphic tract Les Gens normaux, paroles lesbiennes gay bi trans: released to coincide with France’s national debate on legalizing same sex marriage.

His final book was with artist Zanzim. Peau d’homme – a comedy exploring gender and sexuality at the height of an era of medieval religious intolerance and social stratification – was posthumously published in June 2020… and is as yet unavailable in English translation.

Debuting in 2006, Miss Pas Touche was Hubert’s third scripting venture and remains arguably his most successful. It was originally released as four volumes in France, which – when translated by NBM – were delivered as two deliciously wicked tomes…

This slim, sleek initial translated tome offers a superb period murder mystery from visual creators probably best known in the English speaking world as contributors to Joann Sfar & Lewis Trondheim’s Dungeon series of interlinked fantasy books.

Here, Paris at the end of the 19th century is plagued by its very own Jack the Ripper – a knife-wielding maniac dubbed “the Butcher of the Dances” because he picks his victims from lower class girls frequenting suburban Tea-dances where the young people gather…

Blanche is a maid in a fine socially prestigious house: pious, repressed and solitary, unlike her sister Agatha – also a maid in the same residence – who is fun-loving and vivacious. They share the attic room at the top of the house where one night, Blanche accidentally sees “the Butcher” at his bloody work through a crack in the wall.

He sees her too, and some nights later she finds Agatha dead, as if by her own hand. Blanche knows what must have really happened…

Anxious to avoid scandal, the mistress of the house dismisses Blanche, who is forced to fend for herself on inhospitable streets. Through a combination of detective enquiry and sheer luck, she finds a lead to the killer and secures a position in The Pompadour, the most exclusive brothel in the city. By catering to a rich and powerful elite, here she will find the Butcher and exact her revenge…

Originally published in France as La Vierge du Bordel and Du Sang sur le Mains, this witty, and hugely engaging crime conundrum cleverly peels back its layered secrets as our star finds a way to turn her steadfast virginal state and overwhelming frustration to her advantage amidst the decadent rich and sexually bored of Paris. Maintaining her virtue against all odds, Blanche discovers the other side to a world she previously despised, while valiantly achieving her goal, even though it threatens to topple two empires!

Feeling very much like a cheeky grown-up version of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1905 novel A Little Princess, this saucy confection from writer/colourist Hubert is delightfully realized with great panache by the Kerascoët to the delight of a wide variety of grown-up readers.

 

Miss Don’t Touch Me volume 2

Let’s return to the eclectic world of the French demi-Monde – in the oddly inappropriate guise of formerly naive and still virginal ex-housemaid Blanche, who one night espied a psychopathic murderer at work. Intent on silencing the pesky witness, “the Butcher of the Dances” mistakenly killed Blanche’s sister Agatha in her stead, before the surviving sibling was unceremoniously sacked by her employers to avoid scandal.

Thrown onto the streets of fin de siècle Paris, our pious innocent found refuge and unique employment within the plush corridors of the city’s most exclusive and lavishly opulent bordello. Fiercely hanging on to her virtue against all odds, Blanche became Miss Don’t Touch Me: a spirited – and energetic – proponent of the “English Method” – specifically, an excessively enthusiastic flagellating dominatrix, beating the dickens out of men who delighted in enduring exquisite pain and exorbitant expense. The first volume ended with justice for both Blanche and the Butcher but her adventures were not over…

This delightfully audacious and risqué sequel opens with Blanche – virtue still notoriously and profitably intact – as the Pompadour’s most popular attraction, even though the magnificent edifice is undergoing an expensive and disruptive refit.

However, she is deeply unhappy with her life and tries to flee, buy and even blackmail herself out of her onerous contract. She is soon made brutally aware of how business is really done in the twilight world of the courtesan-for-hire…

Utterly trapped, Blanche loses all hope, even while becoming gradually enamoured of Apollo-like young dandy Antoine: one of the wealthiest men in the country and a man apparently content to simply talk with her. Complications mount when her unscrupulous, conniving mother returns to Paris and begins to avail herself of the surviving daughter’s guilt-fuelled generosity and social contacts…

Blanche’s velvet-gloved imprisonment seems set to end when her bonny bon vivant boy begins to talk of marriage, but just as suddenly, her life at the brothel begins to radically unravel. Obviously the aristocrat’s dowager mother has no stomach for the match, but social humiliation is not the same as the malicious lies, assaults, attacks and even attempted poisoning Blanche experiences.

Moreover, the genteel dominatrix’s mother seems to hold a hidden secret concerning Antoine’s family and, if they are to be wed, why doesn’t the prospective groom want his bride-to-be to give up her day – or more accurately – evening job?

Originally published in France as Le Prince Charmant and Jusqu’à ce que la Mort Nous sépare, this enticing, knowing and hugely enthralling tale trumps the inspired murder-mystery of the introductory volume with a turbulent period melodrama of guerrilla Class Warfare that promises tragic and shocking consequences, especially after Antoine abruptly vanishes and the apparently benevolent brain surgeon Professor Muniz begins his terrifying work…

A compelling saga stuffed with secrets, this engagingly sophisticated confection from writer/colourist Hubert, illustrated with irrepressible panache by Kerascoët (married artistic collaborators Marie Pommepuy & Sébastien Cosset) will further delight the wide variety of grown-up readers who made the first book such a popular and critical success.
© 2007 Dargaud by Kerascoet & Hubert. All Rights Reserved. English Translation © 2007, 2008, 2010 NBM.

OMAC – One Man Army Corps by Jack Kirby


By Jack Kirby with D. Bruce Berry, Mike Royer & various (DC)
ISBN: 978-1-7795-1026-6 (TPB/Digital edition)

There’s a magnificent abundance of Jack Kirby collections around these days – but still not everything, so I reserve my right carrying on whining…

This slim trade paperback/digital collection re-presents possibly his boldest, most bombastic and most heartfelt creation after the comics landmark that was his Fourth World Cycle.

Famed for larger than life characters and gigantic, cosmic imaginings, “King” Kirby was an astute, spiritual man who had lived through poverty, gangsterism, the Depression and World War II. He experienced Pre-War privation, Post-War optimism, Cold War paranoia, political cynicism and the birth and death of peace-seeking counter-cultures, but always looked to the future while understanding human nature intimately. In OMAC: One Man Army Corps, he gave his darkest assumptions and prognostications free rein, and his “World That’s Coming” has proved far too close to the World we’re frantically trying to escape now…

In 1974, with his newest creations inexplicably tanking at DC, Kirby tentatively considered a return to Marvel, but – ever the consummate professional – he scrupulously carried out every detail of an increasingly onerous and emotionally unrewarding DC contract. When The Demon was cancelled, the King needed another title to maintain his Herculean commitments (Jack was legally obliged to deliver 15 completed pages of art and story per week!) and returned to an idea he had shelved in 1968.

That was to re-interpret Captain America for a possible future where all Kirby’s direst suspicions and fears could be made manifest. In 1974 he revisited those anxieties: producing a nightmare scenario that demanded not a hero but a warrior.

Dubbing his Day-After-Tomorrow dystopia “The World That’s Coming”, Kirby let his mind run free – and scared – to birth a frighteningly close appreciation of our “Now”, where science and wealth have outstripped compassion and reason, and humanity teeters on the brink of self-inflicted global destruction. His thoughts then are represented here in the editorial that accompanied the premier issue…

OMAC #1 launched in September-October 1974, introducing the Global Peace Agency, a world-wide Doomwatch-style police force who manufactured a super-soldier to course-correct mankind and crisis-manage the constant threats to a species with hair-trigger fingers on nuclear stockpiles, chemical weapons of mass destruction and made-to-measure biological horrors.

Base human nature was the true threat behind this series, and that was first demonstrated by decent young man Buddy Blank who – whilst working at Pseudo-People Inc. – discovers that the euphemistically entitled Build-A-Friend division hides a far darker secret than merely pliant girls that come in kit-form. (I believe we even have those now, too…)

Luckily Buddy has been singled out by the GPA’s resident genius Professor Myron Forest for eternal linkage to sentient satellite Brother Eye. His atoms shifted and reconstructed, Buddy is rebuilt to become a living God of War, and the new-born human weapon easily destroys his ruthless employers before their murderous plans can be fully realised. ‘Buddy Blank and Brother Eye’ was followed by a truly prophetic tale, wherein impossibly wealthy criminal Mister Big purchases an entire city simply to assassinate Professor Forest in ‘The Era of the Super-Rich!’

Kirby’s tried and trusted approach was always to pepper high concepts throughout blazing action, and #3 was the most spectacular thus far. OMAC fought ‘One Hundred Thousand Foes!’ to get to murderous Marshal Kafka; terrorist leader of a Rogue State with a private army, WMDs and a solid belief that the United Nations can’t touch him. Sound familiar…? That incredible clash carries on and concludes in #4’s ‘Busting of a Conqueror!’

With #5, Kirby moved on to other new crimes for a new world. The definition of a criminal tends to blur when you can buy anything – even law and justice – but rich old people cherry-picking young men and women for brain-implantation is (hopefully) always going to be a no-no. Still, you can sell or plunder specific organs even now…

Busting the ‘New Bodies for Old!! racket took two issues, and after the One-Man-Army-Corps smashed ‘The Body Bank!’ he embarked on his final adventure. Ecological disaster and water shortage was the theme of the last tale, but as our hero trudges across a dry, desolate lake bottom amidst the dead and dying marine life he is horrified to discover the disaster is the work of one man. ‘The Ocean Stealers!’ (#7) introduced scientific madman Doctor Skuba, who mastered atomic manipulation techniques that had turned feeble Buddy Blank into an unstoppable war machine.

Joe Kubert drew the cover to final outing OMAC #8. ‘Human Genius Vs Thinking Machine’; was an epic episode seeing Brother Eye apparently destroyed as Skuba and Buddy Blank died together in an incredible explosion.

But that final panel was a hasty, last-minute addition by unknown editorial hands, for the saga never actually finished. Kirby, his contract completed, had promptly returned to Marvel and new challenges like Black Panther, Captain America, 2001, Devil Dinosaur, Machine Man and especially The Eternals.

Hormone treatments, Virtual Reality, medical computers, satellite surveillance, genetic tampering and all the other hard-science predictions in OMAC pale into insignificance against Kirby’s terrifyingly accurate social observations in this bombastic and tragically incomplete masterpiece.

OMAC is Jack Kirby’s Edwin Drood: an unfinished symphony of such power and prophecy that it informs not just the entire modern DC universe and inspires ever more incisive and intriguing tales from the King’s artistic inheritors but still presages more truly scary developments in our own mundane and inescapable reality…

As always in these wondrously economical collections it should be noted that the book includes Kirby pencilled pages.

Jack Kirby is unique and uncompromising. If you’re not a fan or simply not prepared to see for yourself what all the fuss has been about then no words of mine will change your mind. That doesn’t alter the fact that Kirby’s work from 1937 to his death in 1994 shaped the entire American comics scene, affected the lives of billions of readers and thousands of creators in all areas of artistic endeavour around the world for generations and still wins new fans and apostles every day, from the young and naive to the most cerebral of intellectuals. His work is instantly accessible, irresistibly visceral, deceptively deep whilst being simultaneously mythic and human: and just plain Great.

© 1974, 1975, 2021 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists


By Robert Tressell; adapted by Scarlett & Sophie Rickard (SelfMadeHero)
ISBN: 978-1-910593-92-9 (TPB/Digital edition)

Born in Dublin to unfavourable circumstances, Robert Croker – AKA Robert Noonan – (17 April 1870 – 3 February 1911) was a man of many parts. His short, globetrotting, eventful life ended with him a housepainter and signwriter (a skilled trade) dying of tuberculosis in The Liverpool Royal Infirmary in 1911.

In all likelihood nobody today would remember him if he hadn’t spent his off hours in the declining years of 1906 to 1910 writing a book. He failed to have it published in his lifetime, but his daughter Kathleen Noonan persevered and a first (heavily edited, highly abridged and politically redacted) version was released on April 23 1914 – four months before the Great War began. That clash resulted in a changed planet and the first socialist (sic) state…

The full manuscript didn’t reach the public until 1955. Even bowdlerized editions were potent enough to make it one of the most important books of the century. Released under the nom de plume Robert Tressell, the cultural satire and barely-disguised socialist polemic was The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists.

After reading the million plus-selling, never out-of-print pioneering prose opus of working class literature, you should research the times it was set in and read up on the author, if you want to see how a fascinating man responded to the injustice of his world. There’s a splendid Afterword by the creators in this hefty graphic novel to get you started…

A more jaded person might assume current businesses and governments have also studied the text, with a view to rolling back all the hard-won advances made since then, returning us to the days where workers toiled in a brutal gig economy without safety nets of social housing, medicine or pensions. Work or die was the way of world and it’s well on its way back…

The tale – masquerading, like a Thomas Hardy Wessex novel, as a peek at the lives of poor working folk – was a major influence on thinkers in the aftermath of WWI, and many of the civil rights and common benefits of civilisation that we’re gradually allowing to be taken from us were predicted in its more utopian moments…

Politics aside however, it’s also a sublime realisation and examination of the working classes in all their warty, noble, scurrilous, generous, mean-spirited, self-sacrificing, self-serving, gullible, aspirational, tractable, intractable, skiving, hard-working, honest and human glory: a state perfectly realized in this warm-hearted and supremely inviting comics adaptation by Sophie Rickard, illustrated with charm, simplicity and abiding empathy by Scarlett Rickard. You will also want to see Mann’s Best Friend and A Blow Borne Quietly and their eagerly-anticipated adaptation of suffragist Constance Maud’s inspirational No Surrender…

The semi-autobiographical story detailed here closely follows a group of workers and their families over a year in the town of Mugsborough: proudly go-getting municipal powerhouse (closely based on Hastings, where Croker had worked) with the usual band of rich, mercantile bastards in charge and on the Council, feathering their own lavish nests with the approval and assistance of the local churches and clergy…

The 23 chapters span a year as seen through the eyes of skilled labourers at a time when jobs were scarce and cut-throat competition had the men who hire them fiercely undercutting each other to secure commissions. The artisans are currently refurbishing an ornate house on the cheap for a grasping boss, under the penny pinching eye of foreman Mr. ’Unter.

In breaks and off moments the disparate crew – dispassionately at first – discuss the job, the way of the world and ever-present threat of work drying up again. Artisan painter/signwriter Frank Owen argues the greed and dishonesty of capitalism and enlightening sense of socialism to his highly resistant and openly hostile mates. Over many days, they all hotly debate ‘The Causes of Poverty’ and the Church’s complicity in maintaining an unfair status quo in ‘The Lord Our Shepherd’. Further discussion in ‘The Economists’ focuses on the impossibility of making do on ever-diminishing wages and ‘The Ever-Present Danger’ of being thrown away once a worker is no longer usable.

This is no pedant’s dry and dusty tirade. “Tressell’s” arguments are bolstered by the declining state of the wives, elders and children of the workers – most of whom still argue ferociously against improvement of their own conditions. As those above them reduce wages and increase hours, uncaring of the horrific repercussions of their parsimony, Frank and enigmatic associate George Barrington gradually convert many, but a resolute group cannot countenance any change to the old system.

That begins changing in ‘The Truth’, and revelation is heightened after the Church is exposed to ‘The Shining Light’, especially once Owen makes a breakthrough by explaining ‘The Money Trick’ underpinning Capitalism.

The damaging power of booze on the hopeless is witnessed after a night at ‘The Cricketers’, presaging work briefly pausing for ‘The Christmas Party’. A New Year exposes corporate skulduggery and public malfeasance by ‘The Council’ of Mugsborough…

Every opinion expounded by the painters can be seen here and now: echoed on modern TV vox-pop segments with today’s exploited, bread & circus sated citizens repeating that we should let the rich (our “betters”) do the hard job of making the big decisions for us, happily abrogating all responsibility for their own evermore parlous state…

Deepening personal crises auger greater tragedies as ‘The Beginning of The End’ finds a beloved friend condemned to the Workhouse as a cynically tongue-in-cheek glimpse at what the Establishment considers ‘The Solutions’ to poverty lead to a long look at ‘The Meetings’ inside the Municipal Council and how a glimmer of reform is crushed by the prestigious clique…

After a period of scarcity, fresh work at a lower wage comes in ‘The Summer’ before a turning point comes when Barrington challenges the Bosses on a rare day’s holiday jaunt in ‘The Beano’ (slang for “BNO” – Boys Night Out).

Again arguing – but with a much smaller and more vocal group of workmates – Owen and Barrington begin ‘The Great Oration’, overruling and disproving ‘The Objections’ of bellicose working class holdouts – the apologists and willing henchmen who happily betray their own sort for elevated status, extra pennies and the cheery disdain of the capitalists. However, grief has not ended and as talk of elections and the growth of a socialist Labour Party blooms, death comes again. Even here the rich and their lackeys find a way to make a profit in ‘The Rope’ and a sordid exhibition at ‘The Funeral’. After the worker’s death comes what we today call “the cover-up”…

Feelings of hope manifest in final chapters ‘The Will of the People’, ‘The Sundered’ and ‘The New Position’ as utopian ideals and practical solutions are leavened with home truths, and a concentration on making change happen…

Uplifting ending notwithstanding, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is a major milestone in the west’s path to becoming truly civilised, and this beautifully accessible iteration – deliciously illustrated in the manner of an inviting children’s picture book – could not be more timely, both as a reminder and warning from history. It’s also a wonderfully human drama gauging the limitations and frailties of the most exploited and vulnerable in society and “a book that everyone should read”.

I didn’t write that, George Orwell did, in 1946. Who could argue with that? Class is class no matter what you think…
© 2020 SelfMadeHero. Text © 2020 Sophie Rickard. Artwork © 2020 Scarlett Rickard. All rights reserved.

Operation Liberate Men volume 1 & 2


By Mira Lee (NetComics/Ecomix)
ISBN: 978-1-60009-231-2 and 978-1-60009-232-9 (Tankōbon PB/Digital editions)

Authored by Mira Lee (Land of Silver Rain), Operation Liberate Men began in the late 1990s: a challenging comics concept released in a country where female roles in society were still painfully hidebound, and the concept of the “Ideal Woman” was a very real anchor to freedom of expression and lifestyle. The wild fantasy ran for 9 volumes before going on hiatus.

Now controlled by South Korean publisher Ecomix, episodes are available online with the promise of resumption and a conclusion after Lee concludes her current comics projects.

In volume 1, Sooha Jung is sixteen and an officially inadequate woman. For her whole life, she never fitted in, and has now failed the High School Admissions Exam. In achievement-oriented, socially-conservative, gender-orthodox South Korea, it’s damaging enough just to be a tomboy who prefers fighting to preening, primping or dating boys, but now she must add mediocre student to her list of failings.

Then, all of a sudden, the ethereally beautiful and androgynous Ganesha literally bumps into her…

Sooha is unsure if the lovely but weird foreigner is boy or girl, but quickly realises that it’s not as relevant as the fact that the stranger is completely crazy, claiming to come from another dimension – the Para Empire – where men are slaves and sex objects dominated by sadistic, domineering women. Disbelieving yet inspired by the thought of a world where women are in charge, she humours Ganesha, agreeing to travel to the Para Empire. Unfortunately, the story is completely accurate and she’s soon trapped on a very alien and dangerous world. Moreover, when they first met, Ganesha had assumed she was a ferocious male – the perfect man to lead the downtrodden males of Para to freedom!

Embroiled in a civil war in a fantastical primitive place, Sooha bolts, but soon realises the genuine need of the oppressed in the ruthless, savage society. She also discovers Ganesha has a secret. As the most beautiful man in the worlds, he’s not only a secret freedom-fighter but also the cherished, pampered plaything of the utterly diabolical Supreme Ruler: a woman called The Emperor…
Malevolent schemers, Court intrigues, broad humour and a remarkably progressive take on gender discrimination elevates this old, old plot, whilst healthy doses of supernatural conflict, countered by Sooha’s Bull-in-a-China-Shop temperament, make this tale an unexpected treat.
It’s nice to see a less-than-deferential, plain girl as lead character for once and the cliffhanger the first volume concludes on ensures readers will return to see what happens next. Give it a go and perhaps you’ll feel the same way too…

Operation Liberate Men volume 2 steams straight in with the next step in the campaign of sexual revolution, as Sooha Jung reviews her position. It was hard enough to get by as a mannish young girl, better at fighting than dating, and a poor student too, in modern society, but when you’re so ashamed that you make a foolish decision and end up trapped in a parallel dimension where sadistic, autocratic, bullying women have enslaved men, it’s almost too much to bear.

When you compound all that with the shameful fact that the oppressed men who expect you to deliver them from bondage are all completely oblivious of the fact that you are actually female, you can see why the teenager thinks she might have made a major mistake in travelling to this magical realm to liberate the men of the Para Empire.
Grudgingly accepting command of the Laharshita (“Male Liberation Army”) she now falls foul of the brutal women – also unaware of Sooha’s gender – leading to a savage battle in which rebel conspirator and undercover Boy-Toy Ganesha is near-fatally wounded.

Desperate and on the run, Sooha is soon captured and imprisoned and, as events in the rebel hierarchy proceed without her, suddenly realises that this is not her first contact with the male denizens of the Para Empire. There was an incident so long ago, back when she was just a little girl…

A touch of Aubrey Beardsley and the occasional flurry of Charles M Schulz in the dreamy artwork is so effective in elevating this compelling manhwa (Korean for manga or comics) fantasy. Ending on another cliffhanger, this war story will grip readers in fevered anticipation for that hopefully imminent conclusion…
© 1997, 2001 Mira Lee. All Rights Reserved. English text © 2007 NetComics.

Edwurd Fudwupper FIBBED BIG – Explained by Fannie Fudwupper with Berkeley Breathed Helping Slightly


By Berkeley Breathed (Little, Brown & Co./Storyopolis)
ISBN: 978-0-316-14291-5 (HB) 978-0-316-14425-4 (Album PB)

I’ve been watching The News and getting upset by politicians’ obnoxiously blatant disregard for probity and dearth of ethical standards, not just in my own bankrupt-in-every-aspect Britain, but everywhere else too – except maybe New Zealand (Nice One, Jacinda).

As is always the case in such circumstances, I turned to comics and cartoons for solace and found this. Please read, enjoy and act according to the dictates of your conscience, if you have one…

Please Note: any similarity to other malign, malformed, bribe-fattened, emotionally stunted, eternally misbehaving overprivileged schoolboys currently serving at the Nation’s expense is just the way things are these days…

Throughout the 1980s and for half of the 1990s, Berke Breathed dominated the newspaper strip scene with agonisingly funny, edgy-yet-surreal political fantasy Bloom County and, latterly, Sunday-only spin-off Outland. They are all fully available digitally – so don’t wait for my reviews, just get them now!

At the top of his game and swamped with awards like Pulitzers, Breathed retired to concentrate on books like Red Ranger Came Calling, Mars Needs Moms! or Flawed Dogs: The Year End Leftovers at the Piddleton “Last-Chance” Dog Pound and sequel Flawed Dogs: The Shocking Raid on Westminster. They rank among the best America has ever produced. Get them too.

His first foray into the field was 1991’s A Wish for Wings That Work: a Christmas parable featuring his signature character, and the most charmingly human one. Between 2003 and 2008, Breathed revived Opus as a Sunday strip, before eventually capitulating to his career-long antipathy for the manic deadline pressures of newspaper production and often-insane, convoluted contradictions of editorial censorship.

It seemed his ludicrous yet appealing cast of misfits – all deadly exponents of irony and common sense residing in the heartland of American conservatism – were gone for good, until the internet provided a platform for Breathed to resume his role as a gadfly commentator on his own terms. Since 2015, Bloom County has mocked, exposed and shamed capitalism, celebrities, consumerism, popular culture, politicians, religious leaders and people who act like idiots. Donald Trump figures prominently and often, but that might just be coincidence…

These later efforts, unconstrained by syndicate pressures to not offend advertisers, are also available as book collections. You’ll want those too, and be delighted to learn that all Breathed’s Bloom County work is available in digital formats – fully annotated to address the history gap if you didn’t live through events such as Iran-Gate, Live-Aid, Star Wars (both cinematic and military versions), assorted cults and televangelists experiencing less than divine retribution and sundry other tea-cup storms that make us Baby Boomers so rude and defensive…

Not quite as renowned, but every inch as crucial to your enjoyment, is the lost gem on display today: a paean to the power of principles and effects of honesty, all wrapped up in a children’s book about a mean kid with no moral compass…

As previously stated, after the all-too-brief, glittering outing as a syndicated strip cartoonist and socio-political commentator (usually the very same hallowed function) Breathed left strips to create children’s picture books.

He lost none of his perception, wit or imagination, and actually got better as an artist. Even so, he never quite abandoned his entrancing cast of characters and always maintained the gently excoriating, crusading passion and inherent bittersweet invective which underscored those earlier narratives.

Moreover, he couldn’t ignore that morally uplifting component of his work that so upset hypocrites, liars, greedy people and others who let us all down while carping on about being unfairly judged and how we don’t really understand complex issues. Trust me, we – and Breathed – understand perfectly…

This crushingly captivating cartoon catechism ruminates on the cost and worth of family and idiocy of arrogant aggrandizement and self-congratulatory self-importance. It is lensed through the fabled truism of the Boy Who Cried Wolf, as little sister Fannie complains again about her idiot brother…

Edwurd Fudwupper tells lies because he wants to, because he can and because of the chaotic consequences his dissembling causes. The only thing he isn’t, is convincing. Always in trouble, he narrowly and perpetually weasels out of instant retribution due to his facility for fibs, but now Fannie recalls the day when that stopped working…

After a couple of whoppers lead to the disappearance of a neighbour and destruction of beloved family property, Edwurd’s automatic response of lying big and compounding nonsense with bigger balderdash sparks community calamity, mass military deployment and imminent alien invasion. As the Earth stands still in the moment before utter disaster, a small voice speaks out…

Delivered in sharp and lyrical rhyme like a weaponised Dr. Seuss story, and with lush lavish illustrations painted in the stunningly grotesque exaggeration beloved of Ralph Steadman and Terry Gilliam cartoons, this is a book to trigger personal reflection, audit consciences and promote better behaviour, but it will make grown citizens howl and children sit up and pay attention. It’s also deliciously funny. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll think hard before calling in sick or blaming the dog – or opposition or asylum seekers – for eating your homework…
© 2000 Berkeley Breathed. All rights reserved.

Bluecoats volume 12: The David


By Willy Lambil & Raoul Cauvin, translated by Jerome Saincantin (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-1-849184-30-4 (Album PB/Digital edition)

Devised by Louis “Salvé” Salvérius & Raoul Cauvin – who scripted the first 64 best-selling volumes until retirement in 2020 – Les Tuniques Bleues (The Bluecoats) debuted at the end of the 1960s, specifically created to replace Lucky Luke when the laconic maverick defected from weekly anthology Le Journal de Spirou to rival publication Pilote.

From its first sallies, the substitute strip swiftly became hugely popular: one of the most popular bande dessinée series in Europe. In case you were wondering, it is now scribed by Jose-Luis Munuera and the BeKa writing partnership…

Salvé was a cartoonist of the Gallic big-foot/big-nose humour school, and after his sudden death in 1972, successor Willy “Lambil” Lambillotte gradually adopted a more realistic – but still overtly comedic – tone and manner. Lambil is Belgian, born in 1936 and, after studying Fine Art in college, joined publishing giant Dupuis in 1952 as a letterer.

Born in 1938, scripter Cauvin was also Belgian and – before entering Dupuis’ animation department in 1960 – studied Lithography. He soon discovered his true calling – comedy – and began a glittering, prolific writing career at Le Journal de Spirou. In addition to Bluecoats he scripted dozens of long-running, award winning series including Cédric, Les Femmes en Blanc and Agent 212: more than 240 separate albums. The Bluecoats alone has sold more than 15 million copies of its 65 (and counting) album sequence. Cauvin passed away on August 19 2021 but his vast legacy of laughter remains.

Here, our long-suffering protagonists are Sergeant Cornelius Chesterfield and Corporal Blutch; worthy fools in the manner of Laurel & Hardy: hapless, ill-starred US cavalrymen defending America during the War Between the States.

The original format featured single-page gags set around an Indian-plagued Wild West fort, but from the second volume – Du Nord au Sud – the sad-sack soldiers were situated back East, fighting in the American Civil War. All subsequent adventures – despite ranging far beyond the traditional environs of America and taking in a lot of genuine and thoroughly researched history – are set within the timeframe of the Secession conflict.

Blutch is your run-of-the-mill, whinging little-man-in-the street: work-shy, mouthy, devious and especially critical of the army and its inept commanders. Ducking, diving, even deserting whenever he can, he’s you or me – except sometimes he’s smart. principled or heroic if no easier option is available.

Chesterfield is a big, burly professional fighting man; a proud career soldier of the 22nd Cavalry who passionately believes in the patriotism and esprit-de-corps of the Military. He is brave, never shirks his duty and hungers to be a medal-wearing hero. He also loves his cynical little troll of a pal. They quarrel like a married couple, fight like brothers and simply cannot agree on the point and purpose of the horrendous war they are trapped in… a situation that stretches their friendship to breaking point in this deceptively edgy instalment.

The David is the 12th translated Cinebook volume and 19th sequential European release. As Les Tuniques Bleues: Le David it was originally serialised in Le Journal de Spirou #2265-2275 before collection as another mega-selling album in 1982, with C.H.A.B. & Philippe Francart credited for additional research.

The comedic drama is another based on – but broadly extrapolating upon – actual historical events, specifically the deployment of the CSS David: an early success in the development of submarine warfare. Built in 1863 by businessman T. Stoney in Charleston, South Carolina, it was a 4-man, steam-powered submersible torpedo boat used by the Confederate States Navy to challenge the Union’s shipping blockade. David was largely unsuccessful and one of many different protypes built to challenge the North’s “Ironclads”, with its last recorded action occurring on April 18, 1864. As is usually the case, legend far exceeds factual truth, but that’s no bad thing here as the unlikely warriors undertake one of their most dangerous ventures…

Off the Carolina coast, a Union warship spots a blockade-runner trying to reach port with desperately-needed supplies. As the warship confidently closes in, the steamer sends a signal to shore, and within minutes disaster strikes…

Days later, in Washington DC, Abraham Lincoln and the War Cabinet argue the impossibility of fighting an invisible enemy. With the almost-accomplished siege of attrition endangered, the President orders the mystery solved and neutralised at any cost…

Meanwhile inland, Blutch has had enough of the bloodbath battle tactics of utterly deranged, apparently invulnerable maniac Captain Stark. That glory-addicted cavalry charger has caused the deaths of more Union soldiers than the enemy ever could. Thus, at the end of his tether, the little man has downed tools. Refusing to ride again directly into Confederate guns – apparently 11 times in one day is his limit – he has gone on strike. This leads to detention in a stockade where he happily awaits execution by firing squad. At least, at last, his worries will be over…

Nothing loyal Chesterfield can do will change his mind, but when the time comes, typical army inefficiency keeps Blutch impatiently hanging on. In the meantime, the Generals receive orders to send two spies into Charleston to discover the secret of the invisible ship-killer. Knowing no regular soldiers are crazy enough to volunteer, they ask Gung Ho Chesterfield, and offer his inseparable little pal a full discharge from the army if he goes with him. The wily “Brass” are confident neither pest will return…

It’s not quite a done deal or easily achieved, but eventually the pair roll up in Charleston, disguised as wounded soldiers proudly wearing their grey uniforms. Blutch is feigning blindness whilst Chesterfield sits comfortably in a chair with wheels and directs… as usual!

As well as providing plenty of slapstick moments for us, the disguise works well for them and their calamitous progress through the enemy port is painful but largely unimpeded. One very public accident dumps them onto a German-flagged steamer unloading provisions, where – over a little schnapps – the Captain volubly discloses that the South have a diabolical machine ensuring his safe arrivals and departures…

Almost immediately after, Chesterfield and Blutch join crowds rushing towards the seafront to see it in action, and witness the deadly power of the secret weapon sinking another Union ship. When their imposture as veterans fails to get them inside the shipyard housing the devil boat, they resort to cruder methods, ultimately discovering the secret of The David – but only at the cost of their liberty.

Indomitable and utterly dedicated to preserving their own skins, the Odd Couple soon escape, and after failing spectacularly to destroy the weapon, flee desperately for their own lines, frantically pursued by the Confederate army. A sublime chase sequence across swathes of enemy territory proves their wiliness and when the spies are finally recaptured, it’s by their own side and the last person they ever wanted to see again…

With their information changing the shape of the war, Blutch and Chesterfield can only wait for their eagerly anticipated rewards (the big man was promised promotion to Lieutenant if he survived) but there’s a double sting in store as ponderous military procedure glacially expedites their cases…

Combining searing satire with stunning slapstick, this yarn delivers a hugely gratifying poke at the blood-&-glory boys of history. Deftly delivering its anti-war message to younger, less world-weary audiences, The David weds fact to fiction while delivering an uncompromising portrayal of state-sanctioned mass-violence and government’s callous disregard for individual citizens.

These stories weaponise humour, making occasional moments of shocking verity doubly powerful and hard-hitting. Funny, thrilling, beautifully realised and eminently readable, Bluecoats is the kind of war-story and Western to appeal to the best, not worst, of the human spirit.
© Dupuis 1982 by Lambil & Cauvin. All rights reserved. English translation © 2019 Cinebook Ltd.

Marsupilami volume 5 Baby Prinz


By Franquin, Batem & Yann; coloured by Cerise and translated by Jerome Saincantin (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-1-84918-542-4 (Album PB/Digital edition)

One of Europe’s most popular comic stars is an eccentrically irascible, loyally unpredictable, super-strong, rubber-limbed ball of explosive energy with a seemingly infinite elastic tail. The frantic, frenetic Marsupilami is a wonder of nature and icon of European entertainment invention who originally spun-off from another immortal comedy adventure strip…

In 1946 Joseph “Jijé” Gillain was crafting eponymous keystone strip Spirou for flagship publication Le Journal de Spirou when he abruptly handed off the entire kit and caboodle to his assistant Franquin. The apprentice took the reins, slowly abandoned a previous format of short complete gags to pioneer longer adventure serials, and began introducing a wide and engaging cast of new characters.

For 1952’s Spirou et les héritiers, he devised a beguiling and boisterous South American critter and tossed him like an elastic-arsed grenade into the mix. Thereafter – until his resignation in 1969 – Franquin frequently included the bombastic little beast in Spirou’s increasingly fantastic escapades …

The Marsupilami returned over and over again: a phenomenally popular magical animal who inevitably grew into a solo star of screen, toy store, console games and albums all his own.

André Franquin was born on January 3rd 1924 in Etterbeek, Belgium. Somewhat a prodigy, he began formal art training at École Saint-Luc in 1943, but when the war forced the school’s closure a year later, he found animation work at Compagnie Belge d’Animation in Brussels. Here he met Maurice de Bevere (Lucky Luke’s creator Morris), Pierre Culliford (Peyo, creator of The Smurfs) and Eddy Paape (Valhardi, Luc Orient).

In 1945, all but Culliford signed on with publishing house Dupuis, and Franquin began a career as a jobbing cartoonist and illustrator, drawing covers for Le Moustique and scouting magazine Plein Jeu. During those formative days, Franquin and Morris were being trained by Jijé – at that time the main illustrator at Le Journal de Spirou. He quickly turned the youngsters – and fellow neophyte Willy Maltaite (AKA Will: writer/artist of Tif et Tondu, Isabelle, The Garden of Desire and much more) – into a potent creative bullpen dubbed La bande des quatre; or “Gang of Four”. They subsequently revolutionised Belgian comics with their prolific and engaging “Marcinelle school” style of graphic storytelling.

Jijé handed Franquin all responsibilities for the flagship strip part-way through a storyline (Spirou et la maison préfabriquée, in Le Journal de Spirou #427, June 20th 1946). The eager novice ran with it and carried on with Spirou for two decades, enlarging the scope and horizons until the feature became purely his own.

Every week, fans would meet startling and zany new characters like comrade eventual co-star Fantasio or crackpot inventor Count of Champignac, and ultimately Spirou et Fantasio became globe-trotting journalists, “reporting back” their exploits in unbroken four-colour glory for and in Le Journal de Spirou…

In a splendid example of good practise, Franquin mentored his own band of apprentice cartoonists during the 1950s. These included Jean Roba (La Ribambelle, Boule et Bill/Billy and Buddy); Jidéhem (Sophie, Starter, Gaston Lagaffe/Gomer Goof) and Greg (Bruno Brazil, Bernard Prince, Achille Talon, Zig et Puce), who all worked with him during his tenure on Spirou et Fantasio.

In 1955 a contractual spat with Dupuis resulted in Franquin signing up with publishing rivals Casterman on Le Journal de Tintin, collaborating with René Goscinny and old pal Peyo whilst creating the raucous gag strip Modeste et Pompon.

Franquin and Dupuis patched things up within days, and he went back to Le Journal de Spirou. In 1957, he co-created Gaston Lagaffe, but was still legally obliged to carry on his Tintin strip work too. From 1959, writer Greg and background artist Jidéhem assisted Franquin, but a decade later the artist had reached his Spirou limit and in 1969 resigned for good, taking his mystic yellow monkey with him…

Plagued by bouts of depression, Franquin passed away on January 5th 1997, but his legacy remains: a vast body of work that reshaped the landscape of European comics. Moreover, having learned his lessons about publishers, Franquin retained all rights to Marsupilami and in the late 1980’s began publishing his own adventures of the rambunctious miracle-worker.

He tapped old comrade Greg as scripter and invited commercial artist/illustrator Luc Collin (pen-name Batem) to collaborate on – and later monopolise – the art duties for a new series of raucous comedy adventures. In recent years, the commercial world has triumphed again and since 2016 the universes of Marsupilami and Spirou have again collided allowing the old firm to act out in shared stories again…

Blessed with a talent for mischief, the Marsupilami is a deviously adaptive anthropoid inhabiting the rain forests of Palombia and regarded as one of the rarest animals on Earth. It speaks a language uniquely its own and also has a reputation for causing trouble and instigating chaos. The species is rare and is fanatically dedicated to its young. Sometimes that takes the form of “tough love”…

Baby Prinz was released in 1989, fifth of 32 albums (not including all-Franquin short-story collection volume #0, AKA Capturez un Marsupilami): a canny fable on the dangers of power which opens in Palombian capital city Chiquito, where zookeepers examine an all but forgotten exhibit. This Marsupilami has been caged for decades – nobody knows quite how many – and seems to by dying. The event has deeply agitated all the other animals, and during the fuss a macaw escapes, heading straight for the dark heart of the dense rainforest…

Soon, it finds jungle-dwelling white kids Bip and Sarah, who have been raising themselves in the green hell – with a little oversight from the Marsupilami patriarch. The bird carries a desperate request: the zoo “Marsu” is willing himself to die but the macaw believes a quick intervention from a fresh, wild cousin might give his oldest friend a reason to go on…

The bird has it all figured out. There’s a festival looming and all Chiquito is gearing up for fancy dress larks as the nation celebrates the anniversary of the coup that first brought Papa Prinz to tyrannical power. He’s been dead for years now and his son Baby Prinz is in charge but has to publicly appear to give a speech. It’s a tradition.

Everyone is very excited. Baby Prinz is seldom seen after surviving 12 annual coup attempts and assassinations. His Papa managed 27 before finally being killed by revolutionaries, and the people know that when Baby ceremonially appears again, they can have another go at the little dictator. It’s also tradition…

As festivities escalate, secret police are everywhere: spying on gatherings of one or more people and anticipating trouble on every side. The oppressed and very drunk citizens carry on regardless, gleefully aware of the covert Seguridad cops’ big blunder. Each spy/thug wears exactly the same Marsupilami costume…so they can recognize each other in the crowds…

There is one snag, however. Spoiled, despotic fop Baby Prinz has reached his emotional limit. His nerve has gone. He cannot face making a balcony speech to the foul, unwashed rabble who are literally beneath him.. and probably all concealing a weapon to kill him with. He just wants to curl up in his sensory deprivation tank with his collection of plush animal toys, but his overbearing and bullying major domo/butler/father’s best friend won’t let him…

Just one appearance is enough. The crowds confirm that their tyrant is not a “real man” and their shouts convince the army (the usual suspects and beneficiaries of every Palombian revolution) pick sides and start the process all over again…

As his guardian leads Baby Prinz to safety through long-disused escape tunnels, the rioting people are briefly halted by the rumour of deadly mechanised secret weapons. These mobile landmines are also disguised as Marsupilamis, and the entire revolution is being screened live by television cameramen even more ferocious than the rioters…

All this time the jungle kids, macaw and true Marsupilami have been heading towards the largely abandoned zoo, where the keeper and his wife are drinking and viewing all the excitement from the comfort of his office. The former government employees’ position of safely distanced neutral observance vanishes as the Baby and his major domo exit the escape tunnel under the lion enclosure (formerly the far-safer sloth cage), leaving the big cats their own way out via the tunnel back to the palace.

Safely stashing the fed-up, brain-shocked dictator in another cage, his bad but loyal butler goes looking for hidden passports, unaware that his useless boss has piqued the waning attention of an astoundingly ancient inmate… particularly the froufrou designer handbag with all the designer recreational pharmaceuticals in it…

As latest opportunist Aquileo Zavatas declares himself the new boss, the jungle-based rescue party’s progress is briefly halted when rioters attempt to remove Marsupilami’s “disguise” and discover to their eternal regret that there are worse things in life than a cop in a monkey suit… especially after the furious furry (called by Polombians “El diablo”, and “La catástrofe amarilla”) is trapped inside a tank carrying live rounds and more than lives up to his hype…

Joined by his friends, they continues causing chaos in the streets, even as the old Marsu revives and proceeds to enact his new last wish: travelling to the fabled Marsupilami’s grave yard to end his days among his own kind. Typically, the leechlike Baby Prinz has attached himself to the old beast and the macaw and goes with them…

Ending with astute political comics commentary and a fantastic twist of fate, this tale is a superbly savvy comparison of duty, family values and the power of corruption, but don’t worry about all that because it’s also another masterfully madcap rollercoaster of hairsbreadth escapes, close shaves and sardonic character assassinations, packed to the whiskers with wit and hilarity.

These eccentric exploits of the garrulous golden monkeys are moodily macabre, furiously funny and pithily pertinent, offering engagingly riotous romps and devastating debacles for wide-eyed kids of every age all over the world. Fancy channelling your inner El diablo and joining in the fun? It all stars with Hoobee, Hoobah Hoobah…
© Dupuis, Dargaud-Lombard s.a. 1990 by Franquin, Yann & Batem. English translation © 2020 Cinebook Ltd.

Lucky Luke volume 20: The Oklahoma Land Rush


By Morris & Goscinny, translated by Luke Spear (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-1-84918-008-5 (PB Album/Digital edition)

Doughty, dashing and dependable cowboy champion Lucky Luke is a rangy, implacably even-tempered do-gooder able to “draw faster than his own shadow”. He amiably ambles across the fabulously mythic Old West, enjoying light-hearted adventures on his rather sarcastic wonder-horse Jolly Jumper. The taciturn trailblazer regularly interacts with a host of historical and legendary figures as well as even odder folk in tales drawn from key themes of classic cowboy films – as well as some uniquely European notions, and interpretations…

Over 8 decades, his exploits have made him one of the top-ranking comic characters in the world, generating upwards of 85 individual albums with sales totalling in excess of 300 million in 30 languages thus far. That renown has led to a mountain of spin-off albums, plus toys, computer games, animated cartoons, a plethora of TV shows and live-action movies and even commemorative exhibitions. No theme park yet, but you never know…  when…?

The brainchild of Belgian animator, illustrator and cartoonist Maurice de Bévère (“Morris”) and first officially seen in Le Journal de Spirou’s seasonal Annual L’Almanach Spirou 1947, Luke sprang to laconic life in 1946, before inevitably ambling into his first weekly adventure ‘Arizona 1880’ on December 7th 1946.

Working solo until 1955, Morris produced nine albums of affectionate sagebrush spoofery before teaming with old pal and fellow trans-American tourist Rene Goscinny. When Rene became his regular wordsmith, Luke attained dizzying, legendary, heights starting with Des rails sur la Prairie (Rails on the Prairie) which began serialisation on August 25th 1955. In 1967, the six-gun straight-shooter switched sides, joining Goscinny’s own magazine Pilote for La Diligence (The Stagecoach).

Goscinny co-created 45 albums with Morris before his untimely death, whence Morris soldiered on both singly and with other collaborators. The artist died in 2001, having drawn fully 70 adventures, plus numerous sidebar sagebrush sagas crafted with Achdé, Laurent Gerra, Benacquista & Pennac, Xavier Fauche, Jean Léturgie, Jacques Pessis and others, all taking their own shot at the venerable vigilante…

Lucky Luke has history in Britain too, having first pseudonymously amused and enthralled young readers during the late 1950s, syndicated to weekly anthology Film Fun. He later rode back into comics-town in 1967 for comedy paper Giggle, using nom de plume Buck Bingo.

Ruée sur l’Oklahoma was Morris & Goscinny’s 5th collaboration, originally serialised in 1960 before becoming the 14th album release: a wryly satirical romp based on the actual property reallocation event of 1889, and is delivered with only the slightest application of a little extra whimsical imagination to the actual brutal skulduggery and chicanery of history…

In the real world, President Benjamin Harrison signed a proclamation on March 23rd 1889 opening the “Unassigned Lands” of Oklahoma to non-Indian settlers. Citing the 1862 Homestead Act, it promised any white who could stay on and improve a parcel of land for five years would own it free, clear and without cost. It led to a free-for-all scramble on April 22nd year with an estimated 50,000 people looking for a prime location to put down roots…

The comic version begins on the inhospitable plains of the Oklahoma territory where a representative of the American government trades a pile of trinkets and baubles to the resident Cherokee, Creek, Chickasaw, Choctaw and Seminole tribes who were originally dumped there against their collective will by white soldiers.

They are more than happy to leave those dry, dusty, dull, decidedly depressing regions…

In Washington DC, Senators are gloating over opening the region to colonisation, but troubled that all the settlers eager to own their own land and property might one day be accusing them of negligence or worse unless the allocation process is scrupulously fair. Agreeing on a strictly-monitored race as the most transparent method, the statesmen then need to ensure it’s an honest one, and call in American legend Lucky Luke to oversee the process and adjudicate disputes.

Heading westward on Jolly Jumper, the lone rider’s first task is removing the white folk already occupying their own parcels of land before the official start date. Some are there innocently and others have decided to get a head start and secure prime locations, but eventually all are moved back (some into makeshift jails) beyond the notional starting line of the great Oklahoma rush for land…

Backed up by the cavalry and a horde of lawyers Lucky leaves the “Promised Land” clean and clear for the big day, but is kept busy stopping cheating “sooners” from sneaking in early and staking claims illegally: wicked men and enterprising criminals like Beastly Blubber or Coyote Will and his simple stooge Dopey. Their escapades grow increasingly wild as the start day approaches, but Lucky can handle them. What’s more troubling is the ordinary everyday one-upmanship scurrilously employed by the “honest” citizen-contestants: sabotaging each other’s transport, doping their draft animals and worse.

Eventually, the moment comes, cannons boom and the race for space begins…

Humans being what they are, however, every competitor heads for the same few miles of the two million acres (8100 square kilometres) and overnight the mangy metropolis of Boomville springs up. Despite being held until the race was well underway Beastly Blubber, Coyote Will and Dopey are quick to capitalise on the progress and jealous hostility of the settlers, forcing Lucky to step in repeatedly and – ultimately – ban booze and all guns in the city…

Gradually civilisation blossoms and Luke thinks his job is done when the citizens call an election for Mayor. He couldn’t be more wrong, but the plebiscite does signal the end in another painfully ironic and tragically foreboding way…

Employing classic set-piece slapstick and crafty cinematic caricature but layering on an unusually jaundiced – but frighteningly accurate – view of politicians, government and human nature, The Oklahoma Land Rush deftly weaponizes history (Indian displacement, the future Dust Bowl and the billions of barrels of unexploited oil beneath that unhappy soil) to deliver a funny story with plenty of sharp edges and ends, and a sharp twist to keep readers smugly satisfied. Here is another wildly entertaining all-ages confection by unparalleled comics masters, affording an enticing glimpse into a unique genre for today’s readers who might well have missed the romantic allure of an all-pervasive Wild West that never was…
© Dargaud Editeur Paris 1971 by Goscinny & Morris. © Lucky Comics. English translation © 2009 Cinebook Ltd.

Barnaby volume 3 


By Crockett Johnson with Ted Ferro & Jack Morley (Fantagraphics Books) 
ISBN: 978-1-60699-823-6 (HB/Digital editions) 

This is one of those rare books worthy of two reviews. So, if you’re in a hurry… 

Buy Barnaby volume 3 – and all the rest – right now. It’s one of the five best newspaper comic strips of all time and this lavish hardcover/digital compilation has lots of fascinating extras. If you harbour any yearnings for the lost joys of childish wonder and the suspicious glee in catching out adults trying to pull a fast one, you would be crazy to miss this book… 

However, if you’re still here and need a little more time to decide… 

The once-huge range and breadth of newspaper strips – continuity drama, adventure strips or informational/sports inspired – has all but faded away as the 21st century proceeds. Cartoon strips aren’t a dying art form though: merely moved on to less valuable property in cyber-space. Check out the magnificent and resurgent return of Berke Breathed’s Bloom County – as released whenever he wants on Facebook…  

Back in the tangible world of typesetting, if a paper actually still runs any strips – as opposed to editorial cartoons – chances are they will be of the episodic variety typified by reprints of Charles Shultz’s Peanuts or the latest hot movie/media spin-off rather than series like Doonesbury or Prince Valiant which demand a little conspicuous consistency and regular attendance from the readership.  

You can describe the most popular strips such as Garfield or Hagar the Horrible as single-idea pieces with a set-up, delivery and punch-line, all rendered in a sparse, pared-down-to-basics drawing style. In that they’re nothing new and there’s nothing wrong any of that ilk on their own terms. 

Narrative impetus comes from the unchanging characters themselves, and a building of gag-upon-gag in extended themes. The advantage to the newspaper was always obvious. If you like a strip it encourages you to buy the paper. If you miss a day or two, you can return fresh at any time having, in real terms, missed nothing. 

Such was not always the case. Once upon a time the daily “funny” – comedic or otherwise – was a crucial circulation preserver and builder, with lush, lavish and magnificently rendered fantasies or romances rubbing shoulders with thrilling, moody masterpieces of crime, war, sci-fi and everyday melodrama, and the always-unmissable delights of legion of humour strips which maintained and sustained an avid, devoted following. 

And eventually came Barnaby, which in many ways bridged the gap between then and now. 

On April 20th 1942, with America at war for the second time in 25 years, liberal New York tabloid PM began running a kids’ strip which was simultaneously the most whimsically addicting, socially seditious and ferociously smart satire since Al Capp’s Li’l Abner – another utter innocent left to the mercy of scurrilous worldly influences. 

Crockett Johnson’s outlandish 4-panel daily was the product of a perfectionist who didn’t particularly care for comics, but who – according to celebrated strip historian Ron Goulart – just wanted steady employment… 

David Johnson Leisk (October 20th 1906-July 11th 1975) was an ardent socialist, passionate anti-fascist, gifted artisan and brilliant designer who had spent much of his working life as a commercial artist, Editor and Art Director. Born in New York City and raised in the outer wilds of Queens when it was still semi-rural (in Flushing Meadows near the slag heaps which would eventually house two New York World’s Fairs), “Dave” studied art at Cooper Union (for the Advancement of Science and Art) and New York University before leaving early to support his widowed mother.  

This entailed embarking upon a hand-to-mouth career drawing and constructing department-store advertising. He supplemented his income with occasional cartoons to magazines like Collier’s before becoming an Art Editor for magazine publisher McGraw-Hill. He also started a moderately successful, “silent” strip called The Little Man with the Eyes. 

Johnson divorced his first wife in 1939 and moved out of the city to Connecticut, to share an ocean-side home with student (and eventual bride) Ruth Krauss. Ceaselessly looking to create that steady something, almost by accident he devised a masterpiece of comics narrative… 

However, if friend Charles Martin hadn’t seen a prototype Barnaby half-page lying around the house, it might never have existed. Thankfully, Martin hijacked the sample, parlaying it into a regular feature in prestigious highbrow leftist PM simply by showing the scrap to the paper’s Comics Editor Hannah Baker. Among her other notable finds was a strip by Theodor (“Dr.”) Seuss Geisel which would run contiguously in the same periodical. Despite Johnson’s initial reticence, within a year Barnaby was the new darling of the intelligentsia… 

Soon came book collections, talk of a Radio show (in 1946 it was adapted as a stage play), a quarterly magazine and rave reviews in Time, Newsweek and Life. A small but rabid fan-base ranged from politicians and smart set paragons like President and First Lady Roosevelt, Vice-President Henry Wallace, Rockwell Kent, William Rose Benet and Lois Untermeyer to ultra-cool celebrities such as Duke Ellington, Dorothy Parker, W. C. Fields and legendary New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia. Of course, the last two might only have checking the paper because the undisputed, unsavoury star of the strip was a scurrilous if fanciful amalgam of them both… 

Not since George Herriman’s Krazy Kat had popular culture so infiltrated the halls of the mighty, whilst largely passing way over the heads of the masses or without troubling the Funnies sections of mass-circulation papers. Over its 10-year run (April 1942 to February 1952), Barnaby was only syndicated to 64 papers nationally – a combined circulation of just over five and a half million – but it kept Crockett (a childhood nickname) and Ruth in relative comfort whilst America’s Great & Good constantly agitated on the kid’s behalf. 

What more do you need to know?  

One dark night, during an air raid drill, a little boy wished for a Fairy Godmother and something strange and disreputable fell in through his window… 

Barnaby Baxter is a smart, ingenuous and scrupulously honest pre-schooler and his ardent wish was to be an Air Raid Warden like his dad. Instead he was “adopted” by a short, portly, pompous, distinctly unsavoury and wholly discreditable windbag with pink pixie wings. 

Installing himself as the lad’s “Fairy Godfather”, Jackeen J. O’Malley was a card carrying-member of the Elves, Gnomes, Leprechauns and Little Men’s Chowder and Marching Society – although he hadn’t paid dues in years. A lazier, more self-aggrandizing, mooching old glutton and probable soak could not be found anywhere. To be fair, although he certainly frequented taverns, he only ever raided the Baxter’s icebox, pantry and humidor, never their drinks cabinet…  

Due more to intransigence than evidence – there’s always plenty of physical proof, debris and fallout whenever O’Malley has been around – Barnaby’s parents adamantly refuse to believe in an ungainly, insalubrious sprite, whose continued presence hopelessly complicates the sweet boy’s life. Their abiding fear is that Barnaby was cursed with Too Much Imagination… 

In earlier episodes, O’Malley became implausibly – and almost overnight – an unseen and reclusive public Man of the Hour, preposterously translating that dubious cachet into a political career by accidentally becoming a patsy for a corrupt political machine. In even more unlikely circumstances O’Malley was elected to Congress… 

This strand gave staunchly socialist cynic Johnson ample opportunity to lampoon the electoral system, pundits and public. As usual, Barnaby’s folks perpetually overruled their boy: assertively assuring him the O’Malley grown-ups had elected was not a little man with pink wings… 

Despite looking like a fraud – he’s almost never seen using his magic and always has one of Dad’s stolen panatela cigars as a substitute wand – J. J. O’Malley is the real deal: he’s just incredibly lazy, greedy, arrogant and inept. He does – sort of – grant Barnaby’s wishes… but never in ways that might be anticipated… 

Once O’Malley got his foot in the door – or through the bedroom window – a succession of bizarre characters also turned up to baffle and bewilder poor Barnaby and Jane Shultz, the sensible little girl next door who was also privileged to perceive the pompous pixie.  

Even Barnaby’s new dog Gorgon was an oddity. The pooch could talk – but never when adults were around, and only with such staggering dullness that everyone listening wished him as mute as other mutts. More mythical oddballs and irregulars included timid ghost Gus; Atlas the Giant (a 2-foot tall, pint-sized colossus unimpressive until he got out his slide-rule to demonstrate that he was, in fact, a Mental Giant); Gridley the Salamander (a “Fire Pixey” who couldn’t raise a spark even if supplied with matches and gasoline); water hating sea god Davey Jones and puny Puritan pixie Cousin Myles O’Malley.  

The greatest of these wry creations was Launcelot McSnoyd: invisible Leprechaun and O’Malley’s personal gadfly, persistently proffering harsh, ribald counterpoints and home truths to the Godfather’s self-laudatory pronouncements… 

Johnson continually expanded his bizarre cast of gremlins, ogres, ghosts, policemen, bankers, crooks, financiers and stranger personages – all of whom could see O’Malley – while the unyieldingly faithful lad’s parents were always too busy and obdurately certain the Fairy and all his ilk were unhealthy, unwanted, juvenile fabrications. 

The officious elf’s schemes grew evermore fanciful. He was a boxing impresario, attempted to have constructed two utterly unnecessary hydroelectric dams, wrote the definitive text on Pixie Anthropology and usurped running the factory managed by Barnaby’s father. After that O’Malley campaigned in the then-ongoing Presidential Election, tried crime-busting and even took a turn as a most improbable Wall Street wizard and publishing mogul.  

This third tipsy-turvy treasury opens with hearty appreciation from award-winning cartoonist Jeff Smith in the Foreword before Nathalie op de Beeck’s ‘Notes on a Haunted Childhood’ details the relationship of the author to his signature character, after which the whimsical wonderment resumes with the strips spanning January 1st 1946 to December 31st 1947. The serialised silliness opens with a delicious and delirious assault on the growing phenomenon of radio quiz shows as ‘Our Next Contestant, Mr. O’Malley’ (January 2nd -February 2nd). Seeking finance for making his prospective movie masterpiece the overconfident oaf inveigles his way onto the “Detect and Collect Show” but things don’t go quite his way… 

His overall scheme remains becoming ‘J. Darryl O’Malley, Movie Mogul’ (February 4th – March 16th) but when a suitable text for his magnum opus cannot be found he opts to pen his own bestselling book first. However, since he’s such a busy magnate, he eventually gets Gus to ghost-write for him while he secures stars. A simple phone call to Hollywood creates a storm of chaos in the glitzy land where Dreams Come True, scripts are judged by weight and page count and a confidant lie is the ultimate weapon… 

As sparks fly in Hollywood, the elf has already moved on. Taking umbrage at the senior Baxter’s perpetual rubbishing of his very existence ‘Professor O’Malley’ (March 16th – April 4th) seeks to prove his bona fides through atomic age Science and arranges a lecture on mythological folk, inviting Gridley, McSnoyd, Atlas, Gus and more. Tragically, a mix-up in scheduling venues soon scuppers the plan… 

As a result of the confusion, the Baxter and Schultz pantries and iceboxes took particularly significant hits and the astounded, anxious parents call in the police to track down ‘The Refrigerator Bandit’ (April 5th – May 11th). Filled with civic outrage, O’Malley joins the hunt, even organising a unique posse of his comrades, but somehow that only leads to greater atrocities on already abused larders… and now extends to cigar humidors…  

Midsummer madness is sparked when Mr. Baxter is cajoled into joining the office baseball team and the ever-helpful Fairy Godfather decides to offer the benefits of his vast coaching experience in ‘O’Malley at the Bat’ (May 13th – June 22nd). Although dad is unaware, the pixey and his team are in there, pitching for him… 

When Gorgon begins feeling enclosed and claustrophobic, hungry for a place of his own, the sensible suggestion of a dog house rapidly escalates into another major human headache and the absolutely unnecessary solution of ‘The J. J. O’Malley Housing Project’ (June 24th – August 24th). At a time when America faced an accommodation crisis, the Pixie’s posturing and proposal of “the Baxter Plan” soon triggers a land rush and city scandal with a totally bewildered Pa Baxter suddenly seconded to the City School Board. What a surprise then, when the always unseen winged wonder decides to open ‘The O’Malley School’ (August 26th – November 2nd) and radically reform the way teaching works… 

If you’re of an historical mien, during this strip, Johnson’s assistants Ted Ferro and Jack Morley began signing strips even as the teaching tale migrated into a canny poke at progressive methodology and bean-counting civic administrators seeking to save cash and instigate cut-rate education… 

Trend-based commerce and rampant consumerism fell under the satirical spotlight next as, in the last days of post-war shortages and rationing, Mr. Baxter applied for a new car. His chances seem slim but O’Malley has a plan – involving raffle tickets – and soon ‘The New Packomobile’ (November 4th – December 14th) arrives, albeit as the result of skulduggery, subterfuge and venal opportunism on the part of an automobile manufacturer. Of course, it doesn’t actually reach the perplexed parent the way any human intended…  

With Christmas bearing down on everyone, a discussion of seasonal demands on limited finances neatly segues – via a chemistry set gift – into an exploration of ‘The Atomic Age’ (December 16th 1946 – March 1st 1947). It’s triggered  by the Pixie noticing a marked lack of that most modern element Uranium in the toy box. His subsequent search almost creates as much carnage and catastrophe as an actual thermonuclear detonation, particularly after he finds a mallet perfect for splitting atoms…. 

Th mayhem magnifies when – despite all the Fairy Godfather’s efforts to avoid him – his disreputable reprobate “black sheep” brother ‘Orville O’Malley’ (March 3rd – May 24th) hits town and pays a visit. He seems very interested in stock market investments and the family finances… 

‘Top Dog’ (May 26th – June 28th) then focusses on Gorgon’s aspirations as the mouthy mutt refuses to enter a local kids’ pet show after which the absentee O’Malley returns just in time for the Baxter’s annual seaside excursion, and a brush with nervous teen lovers Bob and Angelica who need the assistance of an unseen coach to confirm their passion. Happily there’s ‘The Mysterious Troubadour’ (June 30th – August 23rd) and his bizarre backing band of spooks, fairies and kibitzers. Romantic melodies carry, however, and soon the Godfather is engaged himself…   

On the group’s return the chastened, still single sprite delves into domesticity, remodelling the Baxter abode and descending inevitably to the disaster via ‘Mr. O’Malley’s Book of Household Management’ (August 25th – September 13th) before being drawn back onto the world stage as humans pollute the sacred dell that is the nation home of all the assorted creatures of fancy and provoking a declaration of war against mankind… 

Lacking a sense of reason or proportion the inexorable march to conflict is exacerbated by the little Peoples’ quest for ‘Sylvania’s Secret Weapon’ (September 15th – December 23rd) as the year closes, storm clouds gather and talks cease. It’s a cliffhanging pause to ponder as ‘Sylvania Vs The United Nations’ (December 24th – 31st) barely begins before the comics time runs out. Don’t fret though: everything will continue and conclude in the next book…  

More elucidatory content follows in education scholar and Professor of English Philip Nel’s fact-filled, scene-setting, picture-packed Afterword essay ‘Escape Artist?’ which explores how and why Johnson turned the feature over to Ferro and Morley whilst deconstructing the series included is Coulton Waugh’s contemporary treatise ‘In Every Sense a Major Creation’ excerpted from The Comics (1947) before Nel returns with strip commentary, context and background in ‘The Elves, Leprechauns, Gnomes, and Little Men’s Chowder & Marching Society: a Handy Pocket Guide’… 

Intellectually raucous, riotous, sublimely surreal and adorably absurd, the razor-sharp whimsy of the strip is instantly captivating, and the laconic charm of its writing is irresistible, but the lasting legacy of this ground-breaking strip is the sparse line-work that reduces images to near-technical drawings, unwavering line-weights and solid swathes of black that define space and depth by practically eliminating it, without ever obscuring the fluid warmth and humanity of the characters. Almost every modern strip cartoon follows the principles laid down here by a man who purportedly disliked the medium… 

The major difference between then and now should also be noted, however. Johnson despised doing shoddy work, or short-changing his audience. His strips – always self-contained – built on the previous episode without needing to re-reference it, and contained three to four times as much text as its contemporaries. It’s a sign of the author’s ability that the extra wordage was never unnecessary, and uniquely readable, blending storybook clarity, the snappy pace of “Screwball” comedy films and the contemporary rhythms and idiom of authors like Damon Runyan or Dashiel Hammett. 

Johnson managed this miracle by type-setting the dialogue and pasting up the strips himself – primarily in Futura Medium Italic but with effective forays into other fonts for dramatic or comedic effect. No educational vigilante could claim Barnaby harmed children’s reading abilities by confusing the tykes with non-standard letter-forms (a charge levelled at comics as late as the turn of this century), and the device also allowed him to maintain an easy, elegant, effective balance of black and white rendering the deliciously diagrammatic art light, airy, fresh and accessible. 

During 1946-1947, Johnson surrendered the strip to pursue a career illustrating children’s book such as Constance J. Foster’s This Rich World: The Story of Money, but eventually he returned, crafting more magic before permanently retiring Barnaby in 1952 to concentrate on his books. When Ruth graduated she became a successful children’s writer and they collaborated on four tomes, The Carrot Seed (1945), How to Make an Earthquake, Is This You? and The Happy Egg.  

These days Johnson is best known for his seven Harold books which began in 1955 with Harold and the Purple Crayon. 

During a global conflagration and the ideological Cold War that followed, with heroes and villains aplenty, where no comic page could top the daily headlines for thrills, drama and heartbreak, Barnaby was an absolute panacea to the horrors without ever ignoring or escaping them. The entire glorious confection that is Barnaby is all about our relationship with imagination. This is not a strip about childhood fantasy. The theme here, beloved by both parents and children alike, is that grown-ups don’t listen to kids enough, and that they certainly don’t know everything. 

For far too long Barnaby was a lost masterpiece. It is influential, ground-breaking and a shining classic of the form. You are all the poorer for not knowing it, and should move mountains to change that situation. I’m not kidding. 

Liberally illustrated throughout with sketches, roughs, photos and advertising materials as well as Credits, Thank Yous and more, this big hardback book of joy is a welcome addition to 21st century bookshelves – most especially yours… 
Barnaby volume 3 and all Barnaby images © 2016 the Estate of Ruth Krauss. The Foreword is © 2016 Jeff Smith. “Notes on a Haunted Childhood” © 2016 Nathalie op de Beeck. The Afterword and Handy Pocket Guide are © 2016 Philip Nel