Yoko Tsuno volume 10: Message for Eternity


By Roger Leloup translated by Jerome Saincantin (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-1-84918-251-5 (Album PB)

The uncannily edgy yet excessively accessible exploits of Japanese scientific adventurer Yoko Tsuno first graced the pages of Le Journal de Spirou in September 1970 and are still going strong, with 29th album Anges et Faucons (Angels and Falcons) released in 2019.

The eye-popping, expansively globe-girdling multi-award-winning series is the brainchild of Roger Leloup, another hugely talented Belgian who worked as a studio assistant on Herge’s Adventures of Tintin before striking out on his own. Compellingly told, astoundingly imaginative yet always grounded in hyper-realistic settings whilst sporting utterly authentic and unshakably believable technology, these illustrated epics were at the vanguard of a wave of comics featuring competent, clever and brave female protagonists that revolutionised Continental comics from the last third of the 20th century onwards and are as potently empowering now as they ever were.

The initial Spirou stories ‘Hold-up en hi-fi’, ‘La belle et la bête’ and ‘Cap 351’ were short introductory vignettes prior to the superbly capable Miss Tsuno and her always awestruck and overwhelmed male comrades Pol and Vic truly hitting their stride with premier extended saga Le trio de l’étrange (which began serialisation with the May 13th 1971 issue).

That epic of extraterrestrial intrigue was the first of many European albums, with the one here first serialised in LJdS #1882-1905 (from 9th May-17 October 17th 1974) and released a year later as Message pour l’éternité. A skilfully crafted suspenseful mystery thriller, the chronologically fifth album over there reaches us as Cinebook’s 10th translated chronicle.

It all begins as Yoko perfects her skills in a new hobby. Gliding high above Brittany. she fortuitously sets down in a field near a vast telecommunications complex. Offered a tour of the space-probing facility, she learns from one of the scientists of a fantastic “ghost message” recently picked up by their satellites: a Morse code signal from a British plane lost in 1933. Moreover, the signal is still being regularly broadcast…

As Yoko tries to arrange for her glider to be collected, a mysterious Englishman offers her a lift in his private helicopter but he has an ulterior motive. He works for the company which insured the lost flight and is looking for someone with certain exacting qualifications to trace the downed flight and recover a fortune in jewels from it. Her fee will be £20,000…

His firm has known where the plane went down for quite some time, but geographical and logistical difficulties have prevented them from undertaking a recovery mission until now. Moreover, although they have now started the process, the petite engineer is physically superior to the candidates the company are currently working with…

Cautiously accepting the commission, Yoko starts planning but even before Pol and Vic can join her the following day, strange accidents and incidents impact and imperil her life…

The boys are understandably reluctant but that attitude turns to sheer frustration and terror after someone tries to shoot Yoko down as she practises in her glider. This only makes her more determined to complete the job at all costs…

Two weeks later the trio are heading to the daunting Swiss fortress the company uses as a base, when another spectacular murder attempt almost ends their lives. Yoko remains undaunted but not so Vic and Pol, especially after overhearing that two of her fellow trainees recently died in similar “accidents” in the mountains…

Carrying on regardless, she assesses the technologically sophisticated glider-&-launch system which will take her to the previously unattainable crash site and perfects her landing technique in a fantastic training simulator. Eventually more details are provided and the real story unfolds.

In November 1933, the Handley-Page transport they are hunting was conveying diplomatic mail from Karachi to London before vanishing in a storm over Afghanistan. Decades later, a satellite somehow picked up a broken radio message stating it had landed…

Somewhere…

The businessman the trio call “Milord” identifies himself as Major Dundee – a spymaster from Britain’s Ministry of Defence – who explains how a shady American former U2 pilot approached the British government, claiming to have spotted the downed ship during a clandestine overflight of Soviet territories.

He provided purloined photos showing the plane in the centre of a vast circular crater on the Russo-Chinese border, but subsequent reconnaissance flights revealed nothing in the hole so the decision was taken to make a physical assessment, even though the already inaccessible site was deep in hostile enemy territory. Since then, it has become clear that some unidentified agent or group is acting against the recovery project, presumably intent on retrieving the ship’s mysterious but valuable cargo for a foreign power.

Events spiral out of control when a traitor in the training team attempts to kill Yoko and “Operation Albatross” is rushed to commencement before the unknown enemy can try again…

Within a day she is transported in a speedy manner around the world before her space-age glider prototype is secretly deployed over the enigmatic crater…

Narrowly avoiding patrolling Soviet jets, Yoko deftly manoeuvres into the mist-covered chasm and plunges into one of the most uncanny experiences of her life.

The old plane is certainly gone. The floor of the crater is strangely  cracked and at the centre stands a burned and blackened monolith; there are uncharacteristic animal bones everywhere and at one end of the vast cavity is a primitive but large graveyard…

When the astounded girl goes exploring, she is ambushed by her treacherous fellow trainee who has raced after her by conventional means before parachuting into the bizarre basin. However, his original plans have changed drastically since arrival, and despite the machine gun he wields, he needs Yoko’s help. He’s already located the Handley-Page – somehow manually dragged under an unsuspected overhang in the crater – but is mortally afraid of what he describes as the “tiny people” infesting the terrifying impact bowl…

As the unlikely allies head towards the eerily preserved plane, the truth about the terrifying homunculi is shockingly revealed and they encounter the last human survivor of the downed Diplomatic Flight, discovering to their cost the uncanny and ultimately deadly atmospheric anomaly which has kept the plane a secret for decades and turned the crater into a vast geological radio set…

When the dust settles, Yoko realises she is trapped in the subterranean anomaly. With all her escape plans rendered useless she must align herself with the bizarre sole survivor and his bestial, rebellious servants, but she also refuses to give up on the recovery mission. Of course, that doesn’t mean that she has to trust anything the old relic in the hole or Major Dundee has said. With that in mind she lays her own plans to settle matters…

As ever, the most potent asset of these breathtaking dramas is the astonishingly authentic and staggeringly detailed draughtsmanship and storytelling, which benefits from Leloup’s diligent research and meticulous attention to detail, honed through years of working on Tintin.

With this sleekly beguiling tale Yoko proved that she was a truly multi-faceted adventurer, equally at home in all manner of dramatic milieux and able to hold her own against the likes of James Bond, Modesty Blaise, Tintin or any other genre-busting super-star: as triumphantly capable thwarting spies and crooks as alien invaders, weird science effects or unchecked forces of nature…

This is a splendidly frenetic, tense thriller which will appeal to any fan of blockbuster action fantasy or devious espionage exploit.
Original edition © Dupuis, 1973, 1979 by Roger Leloup. All rights reserved. English translation 2015 © Cinebook Ltd.

Batman Year 100 and Other Tales Deluxe Edition


By Paul Pope, with José Villarrubia, Ted McKeever, James Jean & others (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-5807-8 (HB)

Paul Pope is one of the most individualistic comics creators in the business, both in his writing and the superbly moody drawing which usually resembles a blend of manga and European modern realism.

He was born in 1970 and straddles a lot of seemingly disparate arenas. The multi award-winning raconteur began making waves in 1995 with self-published Sci-Fi caper THB, simultaneously working for Japan’s Kodansha on the serial feature Supertrouble.

Pope is dedicated to innovation and inquiry: taking fresh looks at accepted genres with works such as One-Trick Ripoff, 100%, Escapo, Heavy Liquid, Sin Titulo or his Young Adult OGN franchise Battling Boy. He’s worked on a few DC projects over the years but none quite as high-profile or well-received as his 2006 prestige mini-series Batman: Year 100.

This collection – available in hardback and digital formats – gathers the entire saga whilst also representing a few other pertinent titbits for your delectation and delight…

In Gotham City 2039AD there’s a conspiracy brewing. It’s a dystopian, authoritarian world where the Federal Government is oppressive, ruthless and corrupt, but from out of the shadows a long-vanished threat to that iron-fisted control has resurfaced. In spite of all odds and technologies of the ultimate surveillance society, a masked vigilante is once again taking the law into his own hands…

Eschewing our contemporary obsession with spoon-fed explanations and origin stories, Pope leaps head-first into the action for this dark political thriller. We don’t need a backstory. There’s a ‘Bat-Man of Gotham’ dispensing justice with grim effectiveness. There’s a good but world-wearied cop named Gordon, helpless but undaunted in the face of a bloated and happily red-handed bureaucracy. There’s a plot to frame this mysterious vigilante for the murder of a federal agent. Ready, steady, Go!

Fast paced, gripping, eerie and passionate, this stripped-down version of the iconic Batman concept taps into the primal energy of the character seldom seen since those early days of Bob Kane, Bill Finger & Jerry Robinson. Once more, a special man who – at the end – is only human fights for good against all obstacles, and uncaring of any objections… especially the police.

For me, Guys with Suits and a Plan have always been scarier than nutters in spandex and it’s clear I’m not alone in that anxiety, as Pope’s smug, officious civil servant antagonists callously and continually cut a swathe of destruction through the city and populace they’re apparently protecting. Like so many previous Administrations in US history, the objectives seem to have obscured the intentions in Gotham 2039. With such sound-bite gems as “To save the village, we had to destroy the village” echoing in your head, follow the projected Caped Crusader and his dedicated band of associates as they clean house in the dirtiest city in a dirty world.

Following that clarion call to liberty are a small selection of graphic gems beginning with Pope’s first ever Bat tale from 1997. Accompanied by a commentary, ‘Berlin Batman’ (originally published in The Batman Chronicles #11) sees Pope and colourist Ted McKeever relate the career of a German Jewish costumed avenger plaguing the ascendant Third Reich in the dark days of 1939.

Winning the 2006 Eisner Award for Best Short Story, ‘Teenage Sidekick’, from Solo #3, sees first Robin Dick Graysonescape a chilling fate and learn a chilling lesson at the hands of both his masked mentor and the Joker, before Batman: Gotham Knights #3 (May 2000) provides a black & white memory as a neophyte Dark Knight ponders the repercussions of his first ever ‘Broken Nose’ and takes a rather petty revenge on the perpetrator…

Also included here are ancillary text pages to supplement the main story, delivered as ‘Batman: Year 100 News Archives’and as plus notes, design sketches and unused artwork

All science fiction is commentary on the present, not prognostication of tomorrows. The Heroic Ideal is about wish-fulfilment as much as aspiration and escapism. Batman: Year 100 is a moody yet gloriously madcap story honouring the history and conventions of the primal Batman by speaking to modern audiences in the same terms as the 1939 prototype did. This is a book for the generations.
© 1998, 2000, 2005, 2006, 2015 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Metropolis


By Thea von Harbou, illustrated by Michael W. Kaluta (Donning/Starblaze)
ISBN: 0-89865-519-6 (HB)

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. It became clear that new talent coming into the industry was increasingly aware only of comic-books 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 general magazines in general.

Photographs became a cheaper option than artwork in the late 1960s and, as a broad rule, 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” prose classics of fantasy, illustrated by major comics talents who felt an affinity for the selected texts. Charles Vess illustrated Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, P. Craig Russell created magic for The Thief of Bagdad and Mike Grell revisited Pyle’s take on the world’s greatest archer in The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood of Great Renown in Nottinghamshire.

Arch period stylist Mike Kaluta lucked in to something a little more exotic; illustrating the original film scenario (a broad shooting script used by movie-makers in the days before dialogue) written by Thea von Harbou after her husband returned from a trip to America.

Herr “von Harbou” was German expressionist genius Fritz Lang, and his account of his fevered impressions, responses and reminiscences became the ultimate social futurist fiction film Metropolis – possibly the most stirring, visually rich and influential movie of the silent era – and officially the most expensive film ever made during the pre-Talkies era.

If you haven’t seen the film… Do. Go now, a new re-re-restored version was released in 2010 – the most complete yet. I’ll wait…

The plot – in simple terms – concerns the battle between proletarian workers and the rich, educated elite of a colossal city where workers toil in hellish, conformist subterranean regiments to provide a paradise for the bosses and managers who live like gods in the lofty clouds above.

It would be the perfect life for Freder, son of the grand architect Joh Fredersen, except for the fact that he has become besotted with Maria, an activist girl from the depths. The boy will move Heaven and Earth to have her love him. He even abandons his luxuries to become a worker near her…

Distraught Fredersen renews his tempestuous relationship with the crazed science-wizard Rotwang, once an ally and rival for the love of the seductive woman Hel.

Rotwang offers his aid but it is a double-edged sword. He kidnaps Maria and constructs an incredible robotic replacement of her, to derail her passive crusade and exact his own long-deferred revenge…

This “novelisation” – for want of a better term – is as engrossing as the film in many ways, but the story is elevated by the incredible illustrations produced by Kaluta: 5 full page artworks in evocative chalk-and-pastel colour, two incredible double-page spreads in black line plus 32 assorted monochrome half-frames and full pages rendered in black & white line, grey-tones, charcoal, chalk monotones and pastel tints – an absolute banquet for lovers of art deco in particular and immaculate drawing in general.

Whilst no substitute for the actual filmic experience, this magnificent book is a spectacular combination of art and story that is the perfect companion to that so-influential fantasy masterpiece beloved by generations of youngsters. Well overdue for refit, recovery and revival…
© 1988 by the Donning Company/publishers. Art © 1988 Michael W. Kaluta. All rights reserved.

Showcase Presents Metal Men volume 2


By Robert Kanigher, Otto Binder, Mike Sekowsky, Ross Andru & Mike Esposito, Gil Kane & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-1559-0 (TPB)

The metamorphic Metal Men first appeared in four consecutive issues of National-DC’s prestigious try-out vehicle Showcase. Legendarily the concept and first issue script were created over a weekend by veteran author/editor Robert Kanigher after the intended feature blew its press deadline, then rapidly-but-inspirationally rendered by the iconic art-team of Ross Andru & Mike Esposito.

This last-minute filler attracted a large, avid readership’s eager attention and within months of their fourth and final exploit, the gleaming gladiatorial gadgets were stars of their own title.

This iteration of the sterling squad is sadly neglected these days and their earliest adventures are egregiously unavailable in modern collections or digital formats but can be re-enjoyed of discovered in a previous collection and this follow-up mammoth monochrome tome. It collects the solid gold stories from Metal Men #16-35 and the second of their nine guest appearances in Brave and the Bold (#66).

Once upon a time, brilliant young polymath Will Magnus constructed a doomsday-duelling suicide squad of self-regulating, intelligent automatons, governed by astounding microcomputers dubbed “Responsometers”. These miracles of nano-engineering not only simulate – or perhaps originate – thought processes and emotional character for the robots, but also constantly reprogram their basic forms – allowing them to instantaneously change shapes.

Magnus patterned his handmade heroes on pure metals, with regal leading-man Gold commanding a tight knit team of Iron, Lead, Mercury, Platinum and Tin warriors. Thanks to their responsometers, each robot specialised in physical changes based on its elemental properties, but due to some quirk of programming the robots developed personality traits mimicking the metaphorical attributes of their base metal.

This compendium takes the manmade myrmidons through the best and worst of the 1960s “Camp Craze” and solidly into the bizarrely experimental phase that presaged a temporary decline of costumed heroes and rise of mystery and supernatural comics: a fascinating period of social and emotional experimentation that allowed comics to finally start “growing up”…

Metal Men #16 (October/November 1966) opens proceedings as Kanigher, Andru & Esposito pull out all the stops for the spectacularly whacky ‘Robots for Sale!’

Platinum or “Tina” believes herself passionately in love with Magnus and his constant rebuffs regularly drive her crazy. Here, his latest rejection makes her so mad she flees into space. When the Metal Men chase her, everyone ends up doll-sized on a derelict planet where ravenous mechanical termites have almost eradicated native wooden robots living there…

Issue #17 depicts Tina’s worst nightmare as Magnus and his motley metal crew investigate cosmic cobwebs fallen across Earth. The inventor is bizarrely bewitched by a horrifying mechanical Black Widow in ‘I Married a Robot!’, before the team tackle a terrifying technological tyrannosaur in #18’s ‘The Dinosaur Who Stayed for Dinner!’

‘The Man-Horse of Hades!’ features a mythic menace who has waited centuries for his true love to return, and promptly mistakes Tina for his missing “centaurette”, after which the Alloyed Avengers meet Metamorpho, the Element Man in Brave and the Bold #66 (June/July 1966).

‘Wreck the Renegade Robots’ (by Bob Haney & Mike Sekowsky) sees the reluctant heroic freak beg Magnus to remedy his unwelcome elemental condition, just as utterly mad scientist Kurt Borian resurfaces from years of self-imposed obscurity. He’s got his own Metal Men, and is extremely distressed that somebody else has already patented his idea. Tragically, the only way to stop Borian’s rampage involves reversing Metamorpho’s cure…

‘Birthday Cake for a Cannibal Robot!’ offers a second appearance for Kanigher’s craziest – not to say incredibly racist – creation. Egg Fu is a colossal, ovoid Chinese Communist constructed robot programmed to “Destloy Amelica” (I know, I know: deeply unsuitable but tolerated under the “different times” rule, OK?).

The mechanical mastermind had first battled Wonder Woman, but resurfaces here to crush the West’s greatest homemade heroes with a giant automaton of his own, after which ‘The Metal Men vs the Plastic Perils!’ plays it all slightly more seriously in a guest-star-stuffed romp (Batman, Robin, Wonder Woman and Flash) pitting the team against criminal genius Professor Bravo and his synthetic stalwarts Ethylene, Styrene, Polythene, Silicone and Methacrylate

Soviet scientist Professor Snakelocks then unleashes an unpredictable synthetic life-form against the heroes in #22’s ‘Attack of the Sizzler!’ before launching an invasion of America. Although the canny constructs can handle hordes of mechanical Cossacks, they are completely outgunned when the sparkling synthezoid transforms Magnus into a robot and the Metal Men into flesh and blood humans…

Issue #23 sees the robots restored, but Doc still steel-shod as they face ‘The Rage of the Lizard!’ – another sinister spy attacking the Free World – but before the inevitable end, Magnus too, regains mortal form. Unfortunately, now Tina and Sizzler are rivals for his non-existent affections…

Metal Men #24 pits the expanded team against a monstrous marauding inflatable alien in ‘The Balloon Man Hangs High!’ after which the ‘Return of Chemo…the Chemical Menace!’ sees tragedy strike as Sizzler is destroyed and Doc grievously injured just before the toxic terror attacks. Mercifully, the Shiny Sentinels prove equal to the task even without their mentor-inventor and it’s back to tried-and-true zaniness for #26’s ‘Menace of the Metal Mods!’ wherein mechanical fashion icons go on a robbing rampage. ‘The Startling Origin of the Metal Men!’ rehashes their first mission as a modern Mongol Genghis Khan launches an anti-American assault.

‘You Can’t Trust a Robot!’ finds a fugitive gang-boss taking control of the Metal Men’s spare bodies, resulting in a spectacular “evil-twin” battle between good and bad mechanoids, before it’s back into outer space to battle ‘The Robot Eater of Metalas 5!’ and his resource-hungry masters: a staggeringly spectacular romp marking an end to Kanigher, Andru & Esposito’s connection with the series.

Metal Men #30 (February/March 1968) featured the first of 2 fill-in issues by Otto Binder and Gil Kane – with Esposito hanging on to provide inks – after which a highly radical retooling began.

Following a laboratory accident that leaves Magnus in a coma, ‘Terrors of the Forbidden Dimension!’ finds metal marvels exploring other realms in search of a cure. No sooner do they defeat a host of hazards to fix him than he insults them by building another team! Issue #31’s ‘The Amazing School for Robots!’ introduces Silver, Cobalt, Osmium, Gallium, Zincand Iridium – although she prefers “Iridia”…

It’s all barely manageable until disembodied alien intelligence Darzz the Dictator possesses the newcomers and civil war breaks out…

By1968, superhero comics were in steep and rapid decline. Panicked publishers sought new ways to keep audiences as tastes changed. Back then, the entire industry depended on newsstand sales, so if you weren’t mass-popular, you died.

Editors Jack Miller and George Kashdan tapped veteran Mike Sekowsky to stop the metal fatigue, and he had a radical solution: the same nuts and bolts overhaul he was also helming with Denny O’Neil on the de-powered Diana Prince: Wonder Woman.

The enchantingly eccentric art of Sekowsky was a DC mainstay for decades and his unique take on the Justice League of America had cemented its overwhelming success. He had also scored big with Gold Key’s Man from Uncle and Tower Comics’ T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents and Fight the Enemy!

Now he was creatively stretching himself with a number of experimental, youth-targeted projects; tapping into the teen zeitgeist with the Easy Rider-inspired drama Jason’s Quest, sci-fi reboot Manhunter 2070, the (at that time) hopelessly moribund Amazon and eventually Supergirl.

Sekowsky began conservatively enough in MM #32 as illustrator, with Binder scripting ‘The Metal Women Blues!’wherein Doc builds counterparts and companions for his valiant crew – with disastrous results – after which the boldly innovative “relevancy” direction kicked in with The New Hunted Metal Men #33 (cover-dated August/September 1968).

Kanigher resumes as scripter with Sekowsky & George Roussos crafting a darkly paranoic tone for ‘Recipe to Kill a Robot!’ wherein the once-celebrated team go on the run from humanity. The problems start when Magnus increases their power-levels exponentially, causing them to constantly endanger the very people they are trying to help. The tension is compounded after their creator is injured: plunged into yet another coma.

Pilloried by an unforgiving public and only stopping briefly to defeat an invasion by voracious giant alien insects, the misunderstood mechanoids flee, finding sanctuary with Doc’s brother David – a high-ranking military spook.

Issue #33’s ‘Death Comes Calling!’ sees them encountering a ghastly extraterrestrial force which murderously animates America’s shop mannequins after Tina rejects its amorous advances. The concomitant carnage and highly visible collateral damage are exacerbated in #35 – the last tale in this rousing tome – which adds to humanity’s collective woes when a vast, love-starved Volcano Man joins the chase in ‘Danger… Doom Dummies!’

Kanigher’s unmatched ability to dream up outlandish visual situations and bizarre emotive twists might have dropped out of vogue, but this simply opened the door for more evocative and viscerally emotive content more in keeping with the series’ now teen-aged audience, and the best was still to come…

It’s long past time we saw those tales – as well as these lost comics classics – again in suitable archival editions and all modern formats: ASAP, please!
© 1965-1969, 2008 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Malinky Robot – Collected Stories and Other Bits


By Sonny Liew & various (Image)
ISBN: 978-1-60706-406-0 (TPB)

The concept of man-made servants and their subsequent moral and spiritual plight has been with us for centuries, long before Czech playwright Karel Čapek coined the term “robot” in his drama R.U.R. (Rossumovi Univerzální Roboti). Automata, clockwork toys and mechanoids have fascinated humans both for their connotations of childlike innocence and the terrifying potential they harbour. For many, robots also insights into what it means to be human…

Sonny Liew (The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye; Godshaper; Wonderland; Liquid City; Marvel Adventures Spider-Man; Re-Gifters; Flight and more) was born in Malaysia, educated in Singapore and at Clare College, Cambridge where he took Philosophy. In 2001, he studied illustration under David Mazzucchelli at Rhode Island School of Design, but had already been a comics pro since 1995: crafting the strip Frankie and Poo for Singapore’s The New Paper. From Rhode Island he moved to DC’s Vertigo imprint working with Mike Carey & Marc Hempel on My Faith in Frankie. Since then, he’s become a celebrated, award-winning global force of comics wonder.

In 2011, he released this selection of charm-drenched tales featuring tough street kids just getting by. As revealed in the author’s Introduction, the lads and their world had been around for a decade or so, popping up in various publications and al over Europe before finally settling in here in a fancy trade paperback/digital edition…

Very much a love letter to bustling, vibrant Southeast Asian urban life, the tales are set in San’ya city: a sprawling, semi-derelict, intensely inhabited – if not overpopulated – metropolis of the future with shabby survivors Oliver and Atariintroducing themselves and their lives as in ‘Stinky Fish Blues’ as the city is suddenly saturated with an odour that cannot be ignored.

A little investigation reveals a crucial part of the waste-processing infrastructure has gone extinct – except perhaps for the singular specimen of Foetidus Piscis the boys have lucked into… and are keen to sell…

Another day and another fresh hope dawns as Atari and Oliver “borrow” a ‘Bicycle’ or two and voyage all the way to Sanreo to see old pal Misha. As well as lethal traffic and noxious fumes, they find a world of placid wonder and green joy which expands as Misha buys them lunch and shares a kaleidoscope of miracles from the Sunday Funnies section of the newspaper and Oliver dreams of a career in cartooning…

This delicious pastiche features a welter of parodies to delight – or maybe outrage – fans of Calvin and Hobbes, The Far Side and many others. Sadly, the consequences of their earlier velocipede liberations are drawing closer…

The gritty, Dickensian whimsy continues with ‘Karakuri’ as the cheery chancers help old Mr. Nabisco move to a new apartment. While carting boxes they strike up a relationship with his battered old, home-made robot, sparking a furious discussion of just what makes a real mechanoid…

Liew’s superb imagination is highlighted in a wealth of ‘Sketches’, including Mr. Bon Bon, Atari, Dakota & Friends, the Bums of San’ya and lots more, after which the strip fun resumes with bittersweet vignette ‘New Year’s Day’ as Nabisco’s makeshift metal man makes his desolate and lonely way home after being left in a bar. Thankfully, people are mostly kind with directions and fuel top-ups…

‘Dead Soul’s Day Out’ – with fonts by Blambot.com – flashes back to the day the boys were begging and found beaucoup bucks – a large denomination bill! – in a junk pile. It was the day Misha left town for Sanreo and their splurge of excesses was tinged with sadness and joy…

Wrapping up proceedings is a glorious and evocative ‘Guest Gallery’, with delightful contributions from Gene Yang, Roger Langridge, Koh Hong Teng, Nancy Zhang, Aaron McConnell, Bannister, Evan Larson, Skottie Young, F.S.C., Tony Sandoval, Mike Allred, Gary Choo, Nick Jainschigg and Robb Mommaerts.

Witty, moving, contemplative and beguiling, these tales of kids surviving the “hard-knocks life” are a lovely counterpoint to colossal combat, sexualised terror and weaponized angst: a true discourse on folks – artificial or otherwise – becoming heroes by just getting by and being friends.

Go. Do. Enjoy!
™ & © 2011 Sonny Liew. All rights reserved.

Superman: Brainiac


By Geoff Johns, Gary Frank, Jon Sibal & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-84856-230-1 (TPB)

Since his first appearance in Action Comics #242 (July 1958), robotic alien reaver Brainiac has been a perennial favourite foe of the Man of Steel, and has remained so even through being subsequently “retooled” many times. Brilliant and relentless, the one thing he/it has never been is really scary – until this latest re-imagining from Geoff Johns and Gary Frank.

In post-Crisis on Infinite Earths continuity the raider was a computerised intellect from planet Colu who inhabited and transformed the body of showbiz mentalist Milton Fine, until it grew beyond physical limits to become a time-travelling ball of malignant computer code, constructing or co-opting ever-more formidable physical forms in its self-appointed mission to eradicate Superman.

However, in this slim but evocative tome – collecting Action Comics #886-870 and Superman: New Krypton Special #1 – the truth is finally revealed… or if you prefer, edited into a sensible scenario combining the best of dozens of previous plot strands.

Long ago, an alien invader attacked Krypton: merciless and relentless robotic berserkers slaughtered hundreds of citizens before physically removing the entire city of Kandor. Decades later, one of those robots lands on Earth only to promptly fall before the Man of Tomorrow’s shattering fists.

This ‘First Contact’ leads to a revelatory conversation with Supergirl – a fortunate survivor of the Kandor Incident, as seen in ‘Hide and Seek’. Now we know every Brainiac Superman has ever faced has only been a pale shadow of the true villain: autonomous automatic probes and programming ghosts of a malevolent entity that has stalked the universe for centuries, stealing representative cities before destroying the redundant worlds they once thrived upon. Most importantly, the real Brainiac has found Earth…

What nobody realises is that the Cosmic Kidnapper has been scouring the cosmos ever since Krypton died. He actually wants to possess every last son and daughter of that long-dead world and neither time nor distance will hinder him…

Superman rockets into space to confront the monster, unaware that the marauder is already en route to Earth, and as the Metropolis Marvel confronts his old foe for the very first time in a titanic, horrific clash, ‘Greetings’ sees Supergirl lead the defence of embattled planet Earth against the monster’s diabolical mechanical marauders.

The war on two fronts continues in ‘Mind Over Matter’, concluding in an overwhelming moment of ‘Triumph and Tragedy’ as Superman defeats Brainiac and frees an entire city of fellow Kryptonians he never knew still existed, only to lose one of the most important people in his life, ending on an uncharacteristically sombre, low key note in ‘Epilogue’.

Geoff Johns was then at the forefront of the creative movement to restore and rationalize DC’s Pre-Crisis mythology, and by combining a modern sensibility with the visual flavour of Ridley Scott’s Alien movies here added a tangible aura of terror to the wide-eyed imagination and wonder of those old and much-loved tales. The visceral, gloriously hyper-realistic art of Gary Franks & John Sibal adds to the unease, and their deft touch with the welcome tension-breaking comedic breaks is a sheer delight.

Available in both print and digital formats, this is a Superman yarn anybody can pick up, irrespective of their familiarity – or lack of – with the character: fast, thrilling, spooky and deeply moving, for all that it’s also the introduction to major event New Krypton – but that’s a tale and review for another time…
© 2008, 2009 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Steel Commando: Full Metal Warfare


By Frank S. Pepper, Alex Henderson, Vince Wernham & various (Rebellion)
ISBN: 978-1-78108-681-0 (Digest PB)

UK comics readers have always loved robots. A veritable battalion of bronzed (ironed, steeled, coppered, etc.) Brit-built battlebots and Caledonian comedic constructions have graced our strips since the earliest of times. Surely, every old kid fondly remembers amazing artificial all-stars such as Brassneck, the Juggernaut from Planet Z, Rebbel Robot, Klanky, Robot Archie, the Iron Teacher, the Smasher, the Iron Major, Mr. Syrius Thrice or any of the host of mechanoid marvels populating the pages of 2000AD.

Our fascination remains strong and entices all ages, as recently seen in new junior star Freddy from the Phoenix’s Mega Robo Bros – 21st century Britain’s response to the mighty Astro Boy

This dinky, mostly monochrome paperback and digital digest collects strips from Thunder (specifically, 17th October 1970 to 27th February 1971); Lion & Thunder (20th March 1970-16th December 1972); Valiant & Lion (25th May- 22ndJune 1974) and further fun material from Thunder Annual 1972, 1973 and 1974, reviving classic comedy combat capers in a beloved favourite theme: war robots who aren’t what they’re cracked up to be…

In 1970 grand marshal of English comics Frank S. Pepper (Rockfist Rogan; Roy of the Rovers; Captain Condor; Dan Dare; Jet-Ace Logan; The Spellbinder and countless others) first mixed slapstick humour, war stories and fantasy in the cheekily wry exploits of a WWII British secret weapon with a mind of his own and a handy habit of crushing enemy schemes…

During WWII, shiftless slacker ErnieExcused BootsBates is accorded the dubious accolade of “the laziest soldier in the British Army”, but as seen in the first episode from Pepper and illustrators Alex Henderson, becomes the most important individual ever to be called up…

While the slob is stuck spud-bashing on a secret British base, he encounters a hulking metal monster called the Mark 1 Indestructible Robot. The super-strong, humanoid tank is fully expected to win the war, but nobody can make it work…

However, when it blunders into the kitchens, Ernie orders it to stop and it happily – and quite chattily – complies. It’s a feat no one else can copy. Still unable to find the programming fault, the top brass negotiates and compels the slacker into become the war machine’s handler. Unluckily and all too soon and for newly promoted Lance-Corporal Bates, that means a few extra treats, but also personally visiting every battle hot-spot the military can think of, such as a French coastal radar base where the Steel Commando strikes terror into the hearts of the horrified Hun…

The tone of the times was frequently appallingly racist by today’s standards – but no more so than such still-popular TV shows like Dad’s Army – and over the weeks to come, dodgy Ernie and his mighty metal mate faced countless ill-prepared enemies and the bonkers bureaucracy of the British Army in short complete and satisfying episodes. Channelling the post-Sixties era of working-class whimsical irony, and discontented but laconic world-weariness, this strip places an unstoppable force for change in the hands of an Andy Capp style shirker who can’t even be bothered to exploit the power he has beyond securing permission to don comfortable footwear (plimsolls and flipflops)…

Illustrated by Henderson and Vince Wernham, the unlikely duo perpetually faced enemy action in Europe, Africa and the Pacific, whilst failing to dodge unwelcome duties (like playing on the base football team or PT exercises) with stoic reluctance and applied anarchy. All the while though – and despite recurring brain glitches – the odd couple always triumphed: destroying enemy bases, sinking ships, learning (almost) to fly, wrecking trains and whatever else the boffins and generals could think of to test their terrible toy. They even outsmarted German scientists who captured the Commando to jump-start their own Nazi robot project and a truly daft Allied enterprise to create a superior, officer-class British droid – the appalling “Metal Major”…

As weeks passed, however, Ernie began to gel as the archetypal “little man” at war with authority. Always agitating for his pal to be treated as human, he made the boffins teach their creation to read, and even successfully won regular home leave for the Steel Commando. It didn’t go well when they got back to Blighty, but at least they got what all soldiers deserved…

Many episodes see the heroes dealing with temporary malfunctions such as robotic deafness, becoming super-magnetic, falling in love (with a railway station weighing machine) or parenthood (don’t ask, just read!) and even Ernie losing his voice to toffee, but always emphasising the burdens of the lowly, charming absurdity and excessive cartoon action.

However, tastes change quickly in weekly comics and even the perennial guilty pleasures of manic situation, comedy accents and mass carnage ultimately palled. Thus, following 29 complete weekly episodes is a truly deranged sequence of five team-ups between ‘Captain Hurricane and Steel Commando’ which finds the disturbingly “outspoken” (you can say culturally dismissive and jingoistic if you want) super-strong Marine commando a not-so-friendly rival of the mechanical marvel.

These come from Valiant & Lion (25th May-22nd June 1974) and find hyper-aggressive Hurricane frantically attempting to outmatch the Steel Substitute as they are despatched against a German army in retreat. …

Filling out the collection are three longer tales from assorted Annuals, beginning with a rescue mission to an Italian town where “our boys” are battling German soldiers and their own haughtily useless commanding officer.

Next up is a sly tale wherein an upgrade accidentally infests and afflicts the Commando with a Nazi boffin’s pre-recorded personality before everything winds up with a full-colour romp seeing old Ironsides getting soused on super-fuel and drunkenly attacking Nazi super-tanks well out of his league…

The colour section also includes the multihued covers for Thunder Annual 1973, Lion Holiday Special 1974, and Lion Annual 1977: a wondrous window onto simpler times that still offer fascinating fun for the cautiously prepared reader. Why not sign up for a few classic encounters?
© 1970, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1974, 2019 Rebellion Publishing Ltd.

Machine Man: The Complete Collection by Kirby and Ditko


By Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, with Marv Wolfman, Tom DeFalco, Roger Stern, Mike Rockwitz, Sal Buscema & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-9577-1 (TPB)

Jack Kirby was – and nearly 30 years after his death, remains – the most important single influence in the history of American comics. There are innumerable accounts of and testaments to what the man has done and meant, and you should read those if you are at all interested in our medium.

Off course, I’m now adding my own tenpence’s worth, pointing out what you probably already know: Kirby was a man of vast imagination who translated big concepts into astoundingly potent and accessible symbols for generations of fantasy fans. If you were exposed to Kirby as an impressionable child you were his for life. To be honest, the same probably applies whatever age you jump aboard the “Kirby Express”…

For those of us who grew up with Jack, his are the images which furnish and clutter our interior mindsets. Close your eyes and think “robot” and the first thing that pops up is a Kirby creation. Every fantastic, futuristic city in our heads is crammed with his chunky, towering spires. Because of Jack we all know what the bodies beneath those stony-head statues on Easter Island look like, we are all viscerally aware that you can never trust great big aliens parading around in their underpants and, most importantly, we know how cavemen dressed and carnosaurs clashed…

In the late 1930s, it took a remarkably short time for Kirby and his creative collaborator Joe Simon to become the wonder-kid dream-team of the new-born comicbook industry. Together they produced a year’s worth of the influential monthly Blue Bolt, dashed off Captain Marvel Adventures (#1) for overstretched Fawcett and, after Martin Goodman appointed Simon editor at Timely Comics, co-created a host of iconic characters such as Red Raven, the original Marvel Boy, Mercury, Hurricane, The Vision, Young Allies and of course million-selling mega-hit Captain America.

When Goodman failed to make good on his financial obligations, Simon & Kirby were snapped up by National/DC, who welcomed them with open arms and a fat chequebook. Bursting with ideas the staid industry leaders were never really comfortable with, the pair were initially an uneasy fit, and awarded two moribund strips to play with until they found their creative feet: Sandman and Manhunter.

They turned both around virtually overnight and, once established and left to their own devices, switched to the “Kid Gang” genre they had pioneered at Timely. Joe & Jack created wartime sales sensation Boy Commandos and a Homefront iteration dubbed the Newsboy Legion before being called up to serve in the war they had been fighting on comic book pages since 1940.

Once demobbed, they returned to a very different funnybook business, and soon after left National to create their own little empire…

Simon & Kirby heralded and ushered in the first American age of mature comics – not just by inventing the Romance genre, but with all manner of challenging modern material about real people in extraordinary situations – before seeing it all disappear again in less than eight years.

After years of working for others, Simon & Kirby had finally established their own publishing house, producing comics for a far more sophisticated audience, only to find themselves in a sales downturn and awash in public hysteria generated by an anti-comicbook pogrom. Their small stable of magazines – generated for the association of companies known as Prize, Crestwood, Pines, Essenkay and/or Mainline Comics – blossomed and as quickly wilted when the industry abruptly contracted throughout the 1950s.

Hysterical censorship-fever spearheaded by US Senator Estes Kefauver and opportunistic pop psychologist Dr. Frederic Wertham led to witch-hunting Senate hearings. Caving in, most publishers adopted a castrating straitjacket of draconian self-regulatory rules. Horror titles produced under the aegis and emblem of the Comics Code Authority were sanitised and anodyne affairs in terms of Shock and Gore, even though the market’s appetite for suspense and the uncanny was still high. Crime comics vanished and mature themes challenging an increasingly stratified and oppressive society were suppressed…

Simon quit the business for advertising, but Jack soldiered on, taking his skills and ideas to a number of safer, more conventional and less experimental, companies. As the panic abated, Kirby returned briefly to DC Comics where he worked on mystery tales and Green Arrow (at that time a mere back-up page-filler in Adventure Comics and World’s Finest Comics) whilst concentrating on his passion project: newspaper strip Sky Masters of the Space Force.

During that period Kirby also re-packaged an original super-team concept that had been kicking around in his head since he and Joe Simon had closed their innovative, ill-timed ventures. At the end of 1956 Showcase #6 premiered the Challengers of the Unknown

After three more test issues they won their own title with Kirby in command for the first eight. Then a legal dispute with Editor Jack Schiff exploded and the King was gone…

He found fresh fields and an equally hungry new partner in Stan Lee at the ailing Atlas Comics outfit (which had once been mighty Timely) and there created a revolution in superhero comics storytelling…

After a decade of never-ending innovation and crowd-pleasing wonderment, Kirby felt increasingly stifled. His efforts had transformed the little publisher into industry-pioneer Marvel but now felt trapped in a rut. Thus, he moved back to DC for another burst of sheer imagination and pure invention.

Kirby always understood the fundamentals of pleasing his audience and strived diligently to combat the appalling state of prejudice about the comics medium – especially from industry insiders and professionals who despised the “kiddies world” they felt trapped in.

After his controversial, grandiose Fourth World titles were cancelled, Kirby looked for other projects that would stimulate his own vast creativity yet still appeal to a market growing ever more fickle. These included science fictional heroes Kamandi and OMAC, supernatural star The Demon, war stories starring The Losers, and even a new Sandman– co-created with old Joe Simon – but although the ideas kept coming (Atlas, Kobra, Dingbats of Danger Street), once again editorial disputes increased. Reluctantly, he left again choosing to believe in promises of more creative freedom elsewhere…

His return to Marvel in 1976 was much hyped and eagerly anticipated at the time, but again turned controversial. New works such as The Eternals and Devil Dinosaur found friends rapidly, but his return to earlier creations Captain America and Black Panther divided the fanbase.

Kirby was never slavishly wedded to tight continuity, and preferred, in many ways, to treat his stints on titles as a “Day One”: a policy increasing at odds with the close-continuity demanded by a strident faction of the readership…

Kirby was fascinated by the evolution of humanity and how it was ultimately defined. Gods, devils, ascension, devolution and especially artificial intelligence were themes he regularly revisited. As early as 1957, in his second Challengers of the Unknown yarn, tragic Ultivac was a misunderstood mechanoid built by war criminals who spontaneously achieved sentience, sapience and a profound sense of self-preservation. This concept of machine soul re-emerged constantly in characters as diverse as King Kra, Recorder 211, Torgo, Mother Box and many others but found its greatest expression in a strip spun off from licensed property 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Although not included here, Machine Man actually debuted in July to September 1977 in #8-10 of that series – so Marvel are being a tad generous with the term “complete” in this epic trade paperback and digital compilation. X-51/Aaron Stack/Mister Machine was a government-built war droid who achieves passionate, unique self-actualisation after an encounter with the enigmatic alien Monolith of Kubrick and Clarke’s movie classic. When the publishing license expired, Jack’s metal miracle catapulted into his own eccentric series and a little slice of history was made…

Collecting the 19-issue run of Machine Man spanning April 1978 to January 1989, and including material from Incredible Hulk #234-237 and Marvel Comics Presents #10, this canny compilation offers a rare chance to see how a single character can fare under the widely differing and unique artistic visions of the visual founders of the Marvel Universe.

Brushing over the embargoed origins, a fully sentient but unschooled and inexperienced ‘Machine Man’ exploded into the Marvel Universe in his first issue (April 1978, by Kirby & Mike Royer), on the run from the US Army.

As X-51, he had been condemned to eradication when his 50 predecessors malfunctioned, attacking the soldiers they were designed to replace. “Aaron” was different, however, reared as a human in the household of psychologist Dr. Abel Stack. When the official order came to scrap all X-models, Stack gave his life to remove his “son’s” self-destruct trigger, sending the innocent out to find his place in the world. On his trail was veteran warrior Colonel Kragg, maimed sole survivor of a brutal X robot assault…

On the run and plagued by nightmares, Aaron makes friends easily in the easy-going, post-Hippie region around Central City, California, and holes up in the asylum run by psychiatrist Dr. Peter Spalding. As they debate the nature of existence, soldiers close in and a fresh crisis is triggered in the ‘House of Nightmares’ when an inmate psionically connects to an alien being about to die countless light years away…

Stack’s on-board technologies confirm the contact is no delusion, and empathy moves the assembled earthlings to open a door for the dying stranger. Sadly, ‘Ten-For, the Mean Machine’ is a devious, arrogant professional world-conqueror who believes his kind of mechanical life superior to organics and sets about adding Earth to the Autochron empire, just as Kragg’s forces breach the building…

The Colonel is no fan of artificial beings but is soon overwhelmed, leaving Machine Man to ‘Battle on a Very Busy Street’, before briefly abandoning humanity and questioning the point of his tormented existence. His status as a despised ‘Non-Hero’ changes after attending a wild party and meeting empathetic communications executive Tracy Warner, who inspires Aaron to defeat the rapidly-approaching invasion fleet with a ‘Quick Trick’

Issue #7 opens in the aftermath as a Special Congressional Committee convenes to rule on the robot’s autonomy and continued existence. ‘With a Nation Against Him!’ shows humanity’s prejudices and willingness to exploit Aaron, and when Spalding is kidnapped, Congressman Miles Brickman sees a way to ride that bigotry all the way to the White House…

As Aaron seeks to save Peter from nefarious capitalist criminals The Corporation, Kragg undergoes a change of heart and helps foil their plans to mass-produce X-Units, resulting in a spectacular ‘Super-Escape’ and a tenuous détente between mankind and Machine Man when they cooperate ‘In Final Battle!’ (Machine Man #9, December 1978)…

The series ended there, with the unresolved issues carrying over to a story arc in Incredible Hulk. Here a 6-page extract from #234’s ‘Battleground: Berkeley’ (April 1979 by Roger Stern, Sal Buscema & Jack Abel) sees Corporation high flyer Mr. Jackson frame Machine Man for kidnapping the Hulk’s friend Trish Starr, and lure the Jade Juggernaut to Central City…

Followed by the entirety of #235-237, the resultant clash gears up the metal marvel for a fresh run, opening with ‘The Monster and the Machine’ (Stern, Sal Buscema & Mike Esposito) as the Hulk runs amok and shreds the real Aaron Stack, whilst in Washington DC, opportunistic Brickman is elevated to the Senate…

The rematch in #236 furiously escalates in ‘Kill or Be Killed!’, but by the time the truth has emerged, the Hulk is beyond all reason and turns his wrath on Jackson with horrific effect in concluding chapter ‘When a City Dies!’ (by Stern, S Buscema & Abel)…

One month later Machine Man returned to his own title but it couldn’t have been more different…

In an industry and medium packed with imaginative graphic iterations of mechanoid marvels and malcontents, nobody ever drew robots like Steve Ditko…

He was one of comics’ greatest and most influential talents and – during his lifetime – probably America’s least lauded. Reclusive and reticent by inclination, his fervent desire was always to just get on with his job, telling stories the best he could: letting his work speak for him.

Whilst the noblest of aspirations, that attitude was a minor consideration – and even actual stumbling block – for the commercial interests which controlled comics production and still exert overwhelming influence upon the bulk of comic industry’s output.

In 1966, after Ditko’s legendary disagreements with Stan Lee led to the artist quitting Marvel, he found work at Warren Comics and resumed a career-long association with Charlton Comics. That company’s casual editorial attitudes had always offered the most creative freedom, if not financial reward, but in 1968 their wünderkind editor Dick Giordano was poached by rapidly-slipping industry leader National Comics. He took his key creators with him, but whilst Jim Aparo, Steve Skeates, Frank McLaughlin and Denny O’Neil found a new home, Ditko began only a sporadic – if phenomenally productive – association with DC.

It was during that heady, unsettled period that the first strips stemming from Ditko’s interpretation of Ayn Rand’s Objectivist philosophy began appearing in indie publications like Witzend and The Collector, whilst for the “over-ground” publishing colossus, he devised cult classics The Hawk and the Dove and Beware the Creeper. Later efforts included Shade, the Changing Man, Stalker and The Odd Man, plus anthological Sci Fi and horror yarns; truly unique interpretations of Man-Bat, Kirby’s The Demon, Legion of Super-Heroes and many more…

In 1979, Ditko grudgingly returned to Marvel to work on Micronauts, Captain Marvel, Fantastic Four, Captain Universe, licensed properties and new characters like Speedball, Squirrel Girl and the automaton in question…

MM #10 offered ‘Renewal!’ courtesy of Marv Wolfman & Steve Ditko. Severely damaged in combat, the artificial avenger is frantically rebuilt by Spalding and X-Project originator Dr. Broadhurst, at the cost of much of his awesome armament. This arbitrary adjustment forces Aaron to reassess his status and condition, and after finding a message from Abel Stack, he resolves to chart a fresh course as part of the human race.

Even after Aaron saves the Senator from certain death, Brickman pins his future career on capturing the mechanical “menace”, but the robot perseveres and a battle with a high-tech thief in ‘Byte of the Binary Bug!’ leads to a new cover secret identity as an insurance investigator, a new confidante in businessman Byron Benjamin and a new nemesis in exotic millionaire Khan of Xanadu

When a freak accident turns ordinary mortals into ascendant angels in #12’s ‘Where Walk the Gods!’ Aaron is forced to confront his own biases and moral imperatives to save his life, and learns the value of mercy from a small child, before Khan returns in ‘Xanadu!’, determined to achieve immortality by occupying Aaron’s mechanical body…

Wolfman & Ditko sought to humanise Machine Man through a cast of fellow workers at Delmar Insurance, such as freeloading lazy moocher Eddie Harris and office vamp Maggie Jones, but the real counterbalance to Aaron is Brickman who announces his run for the White House based on a publicity pogrom against the synthetic superhero in #14. Here, the action stems from ‘The Man Who Could Walk Through Walls’: a tragic scientist accidentally turned super-dense and hired by the Senator’s assistants to impersonate and defame the robot champion…

Further inroads into mainstream continuity come as Tom DeFalco joins Ditko from #15 onwards. Transformed into a cloud of energized gas, Dr. Voletta Todd calls herself Ion and – demanding ‘Kill Me or Cure Me’ – crushes Machine Man. As the robot is repaired by garrulous blue collar engineering savant Gears Garvin, the Thing and Human Torch tackle the deranged suicidal monster but are grateful for Aaron’s last-minute save…

Issue #16 introduces the first in a string of maniacal baddies as ‘Baron Brimstone and His Sinister Satan Squad!’ go on a magic-backed crime spree, after which #17 debuts evil industrialist Sunset Bain and macabre Madame Menace who seek to profit from selling Aaron’s stolen limbs in ‘Arms and the Robot!’

Brickman makes his move in #18, using dubious political connections and outright lies to trick Canadian super-agents Sasquatch, Aurora and Northstar into attacking the metal marvel who stands ‘Alone Against Alpha Flight!’ before the quirky series ends with #19 (February 1981) and a brutal battle against a manic mercenary: a cruel clash that leaves Aaron dejected, deformed and dispirited after being ‘Jolted by Jack O’Lantern!’

Marvel Comics Presents #10 (January 1989) then offers one last hurrah as – written by Ditko & Mike Rockwitz with Dave Cockrum inking the abstract master’s compelling pencils – ‘Machine Man Meets the F.F…Failure Five’ finds Aaron Stack targeted by a robot fiasco determined to continue his own existence by occupying the astounding X-51 frame… irrespective of who might already be using it…

With extras including a complete cover gallery by Kirby, Ditko, Royer, Al Milgrom, Frank Giacoia, Dan Green, Joe Sinnott, Steve Leialoha, Walter Simonson, John Byrne, Rich Buckler & Frank Miller, plus a quartet of ‘Machine Mail’editorials by Kirby; house ads; original art pages by both titans and unused cover art from the period and full biographies of the founding titans, this compilation is a dose of utter, uncomplicated comics magic: bold, brash, and completely compelling. How can you possibly resist the clarion call of sheer eccentric escapism?
© 2016 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Freddy and the New Kid (The Awesome Robot Chronicles volume 2)


By Neill Cameron (David Fickling Books)
ISBN: 978-1-78845-164-2 (PB)

Neill Cameron (Bulldog Empire; Judge Dredd Megazine; Henry V; The DFC) knows how to charm and enthral kids of all ages, particularly with his work in the picture-perfect pages of wonderful weekly The Phoenix: strips like Tamsin of the Deep; How to Make Awesome Comics and Pirates of Pangea.

To my mind, the best of the proud bunch is Mega-Robo Brothers, set in a futuristic London (at least 3 months from now, but with flying buses…) with a pair of marvellous metal-&-plastic paladins who are not like other schoolkids – no matter how much they try…

Cameron became a stalwart of proper literature after migrating the younger of his artificial wonders to the prose pages of proper books in the grand manner of Just William or Billy Bunter – albeit heavily illustrated, cartoon stuffed ones – with Freddy Vs. School. Here he cracks on with a splendid sequel…

Welcome to the Future!

In a London much cooler than ours Alex Sharma and younger brother Freddy are (mostly) typical kids: boisterous, fractious, argumentative but devoted to each other… and not too bothered that they’re adopted. It’s no big deal for them that they were originally built by mysterious Dr. Roboticus before he vanished, or that they are considered by those in the know as the most powerful robots on Earth.

That includes Mum and Dad. Mr Sharma may be just your average working guy, but Mum is actually a bit extraordinary herself. A renowned boffin, Dr. Nita Sharma carries some surprising secrets of her own, and occasionally allows her boys to be super-secret agents for R.A.I.D. (Robotics Analysis Intelligence and Defence).

It’s enough for the digital duo that they’re loved, even though they are more of a handful than most kids. They try to live as normal a life as possible; going to school, making friends, putting up with bullies and hating homework: it’s all part of Mega Robo Routine to blend boring lessons, fun with friends, games-playing, TV-watching and training in covert combat caverns under R.A.I.D. HQ…

When occasion demands, the lads undertake missions, but mostly it’s just home, games, homework and School. At least that’s how it seems to Freddy: a typical 10-year-old (well, except for the built-in super-powers).

Alex is at the age when self-doubt and anxiety take hold and counters the anxiety by trying to fit in, but Freddy is still insufferably exuberant and over-confident. It leads to frequent confrontations with unreasonable, unliked Deputy Head Mr. Javid and resulted in a specific set of school rules that apply only to the robot boy: a draconian Code of Conduct forbidding any students from using super-strength, booster rockets or lasers on school property…

Even when Freddy sticks to the rules, trouble just seems to go looking for him. He’s wilful and easily led, especially by best friend Fernando who also hates boring learning and loves excitement. Dr. Sharma calls him an “instigator”, but believes the influence of sporty Anisha, quiet swot Riyad and even (mostly) reformed bully Henrik can modify Freddy’s inability to do what he’s told…

Sadly, that was before ultra-competitive new girl Aoife arrived. She’s good at all subjects, a superstar on the sports field and quite likable, but for some reason hates and despises robots. All too soon, she and Freddy are arch enemies, engaged in a duel to prove whether humans or machines are best. The contest divides the school, separates Freddy from his friends and leads to a destructive plague of betting in the school…

Cash-strapped and cost obsessed, Mr Javid exacerbates the situation by systematically laying off human teachers and replacing them with low grade robots. It starts in the sports department but gradually the cheap mechanoids encroach on actual lessons, and all too soon Aoife has taught the students how to modify and reprogram them…

As the rivals strive to prove their point of view, chaos descends on the school. Lessons are affected; relationships shift; the remaining staff revolt and the robot replacements go berserk. Soon it’s time for lasers and rockets and maybe even some necessary explosions…

Somehow amidst all the madness, Freddy and Aoife start to see each other’s point of view, tone down their aggression and even properly get on. Now all they have to do is calm down the rioting kids, turn off the rebellious techno-teaching assistants, safely dismantle the gambling cabal and get their former friends to talk to them again…

Stuffed with monochrome cartoons and bouncy graphics, this is unmissable entertainment for all ages and vintages: a splendidly traditional potent school days comedy romp, amped up on sci fi and superhero riffs and carrying a powerful message that competition has a downside. Freddy and the New Kid is another amazing adventure for younger readers that you’ll adore too.
Text and illustrations © Neill Cameron 2021. All rights reserved.

Golden Age Starman Archives volume 1


By Jack Burnley, Gardner Fox, Alfred Bester, Ray Burnley & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-56389-622-4 (HB)

After the staggering success of Superman and Batman, National Comics/DC rapidly launched many new mystery-men in their efforts to capitalise on the phenomenon of superheroes, and – from our decades-distant perspective – it’s only fair to say that by 1941 the editors had only the vaguest inkling of what they were doing.

Since newest creations The 6Sandman, The Spectre and Hourman were each imbued with equal investments of innovation, creativity and exposure, the editorial powers-that-be were rather disappointed that these additions never took off to the same explosive degree.

Publishing partner but separate editorial entity All American Comics had meanwhile generated a string of barnstorming successes like The Flash, Green Lantern, Hawkman and radio sensation Hop Harrigan and would imminently produce the only rival to Superman and Batman’s status when Wonder Woman debuted late in the year.

Of course, AA had the brilliantly “in-tune” creative and editorial prodigy Sheldon Mayer to filter all their ideas through …

Thus, when Starman launched in the April 1941 issue of Adventure Comics (relegating Sandman to a back-up role in the venerable heroic anthology), National/DC trusted in craft and quality rather than some indefinable “pizzazz”. The editors were convinced the startlingly realistic, conventionally dramatic illustration of Hardin “Jack” Burnley would propel their newest concept to the same giddy heights of popularity as the Action Ace and Gotham Guardian.

Indeed, the strip – always magnificently drawn and indisputably one of the most beautiful of the period – was further blessed with mature and compelling scripts by Gardner Fox and Alfred Bester: compulsive and brilliant thrillers and even by today’s standards some one of the very best comics ever produced.

However – according to the artist in his Foreword to this stunning deluxe hardback collection – that was possibly the problem. Subtle, moody, slower-paced stories just didn’t have the sheer exuberance and kinetic energy of the most popular series, which all eschewed craft and discipline for spectacle and all-out action.

Happily, these days with an appreciably older and more discerning audience, Starman’s less-than-stellar career in his own time can be fully seen for the superb example of Fights ‘n’ Tights wonderment it truly is, and – in his anniversary years – cries out for a definitive archival collection… especially since his legacy descendant Stargirl is a big shot TV sensation…

This epic collection reprints the earliest astounding exploits of the Astral Avenger from Adventure Comics #61-76 (spanning April 1941- July 1942), including some of the most iconic covers of the Golden Age, by Burnley and, latterly, wonder-kids Joe Simon & Jack Kirby.

Burnley came up with the Starman concept but, as was often the case, a professional writer was assigned to flesh out and co-create the stories. In this case said scribe was the multi-talented Gardner Fox who wrote most of them. The illustrator also liberally called on the talents of his brother Dupree “Ray” Burnley as art assistant, and sister Betty as letterer to finish the episodes in sublimely cinematic style.

In those simpler times origins were far less important than today, and the moonlit magic here begins with ‘The Amazing Starman’ from #61 as America suddenly suffers a wave of deadly electrical events. Appalled and afraid, FBI chief Woodley Allen summons his latest volunteer operative. Bored socialite Ted Knight promptly abandons his irate date Doris Lee to assume his mystery man persona, flying off to stop the deranged scientist behind all the death and destruction.

Almost as an aside we learn that secret genius Knight had previously discovered a way to collect and redirect the energy of Starlight through an awesome handheld device he calls a “gravity rod” and resolved to do only good with his discoveries…

The intrepid adventurer tracks diabolical Dr. Doog to his mountain fortress and spectacularly decimates the subversive Secret Brotherhood of the Electron.

In #62 the Sidereal Sentinel met another deadly deranged genius who had devised a shrinking ray. It even briefly diminishes Starman before the sky warrior extinguishes ‘The Menace of the Lethal Light’, after which ‘The Adventure of the Earthquake Terror’ (#63) depicts the nation attacked by foreign agent Captain Vurm, using enslaved South American tribesmen to administer his grotesque ground-shock engines. He too falls before the unstoppable cosmic power of harnessed starlight. America was still neutral at this time, but the writing was on the wall and increasingly villains sported monocles and Germanic accents…

Adventure Comics #64 pits the Astral All-Star against a sinister mesmerist who makes men slaves in ‘The Mystery of the Men with Staring Eyes’, after which – behind a stunning proto-patriotic cover – Starman solves ‘The Mystery of the Undersea Terror’, wherein the ship-sinking League of the Octopus proves another deadly outlet for the greedy genius of The Light…

‘The Case of the Camera Curse’ in #66 layered a dose of supernatural horror into the high-tech mix as Starman tackles a crazed photographer employing a voodoo lens to enslave and destroy his subjects, before #67’s ‘The Menace of the Invisible Raiders’ introduced the Astral Avenger’s greatest foe. The Mist devised a way to make men and machines imperceptible and would have conquered America with his unseen air force had not the Starry Knight stopped him…

Alfred Bester provides a searing patriotic yarn for #68 as ‘The Blaze of Doom’ sees Starman quenching a forest fire and uncovering a lumberjack gang intent on holding America’s Defence effort to ransom, after which Fox was back for #69’s ‘The Adventure of the Singapore Stranglers’ in which the heavenly hero stamps out a sinister cult. In actuality, the killers were sadistic saboteurs of a certain aggressive Asiatic Empire. American involvement in WWII was mere months away…

The martial tone continued in ‘The Adventure of the Ring of Hijackers’ as Starman battles Baron X, whose deadly minions are wrecking American trains carrying munitions and supplies to embattled British convoy vessels, although a welcome change of pace came in #71 when ‘The Invaders from the Future’ strike. Brigands from Tomorrow are bad enough, but when Starman discovers one of his old enemies had recruited them, all bets are off…

In #72, an Arabian curse seems the reason explorers are dying of fright, but the ‘Case of the ‘Magic Bloodstone’ proves to have a far more prosaic – if no less sinister – cause…

With Adventure Comics #73, Starman surrendered the cover-spot, as dynamic duo Simon & Kirby took over ailing strips Paul Kirk, Manhunter and Sandman. However, ‘The Case of the Murders in Outer Space’ proved the Knight Errant was not lacking in imagination or dynamic quality, as he matches wits with a brilliant mastermind murdering heirs to a Californian fortune by an unfathomable method before disposing of the bodies in an utterly unique manner…

Sinister science again reigned in #74 as ‘The Case of the Monstrous Animal-Men’ finds the Starlight Centurion tragically battling ghastly pawns of a maniac who turns men into beasts, whilst #75’s ‘The Case of the Luckless Liars’ details how Ted Knight’s initiation into a millionaires’ fibbing society leads to Starman becoming a hypnotised terror tool of deadly killer The Veil

This initial foray into darkness ends with a rollicking action riot in ‘The Case of the Sinister Sun’ wherein cheap thugs of the Moroni Gang upgrade their act with deadly gadgets: patterning themselves after the solar system in a blazing crime blitz until Starman eclipses them all…

Enthralling, engaging and fantastically inviting, these Golden Age adventures are a lost high-point of the era – even if readers of the time didn’t realise it – and offer astonishing thrills and amazing chills for today’s sophisticated readership. Starman’s exploits are some of the best but most neglected thrillers of those halcyon days, but modern tastes will find them are far more in tune with contemporary mores. This book is a truly terrific treat for fans of mad science, mystery, murder and stylish intrigue…
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