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.

Jaimie Smart’s Bunny Vs Monkey: Rise of the Maniacal Badger


By Jaimie Smart, with Sammy Borras (David Fickling Books)
ISBN: 978-1-78845-280-9 (TPB) 978-1-78845-118-5 (Waterstones Exclusive Edition)

Bunny vs. Monkey has been a staple of comics phenomenon The Phoenix since the very first issue in 2012: recounting a madcap vendetta gripping animal arch-enemies set amidst an idyllic arcadia masquerading as more-or-less mundane but critically endangered English woodlands.

Concocted with gleefully gentle mania by cartoonist, comics artist and novelist Jamie Smart (Fish Head Steve!; Looshkin; Flember), the trendsetting, mindbending yarns have been wisely retooled as graphic albums available in remastered, double-length digest editions such as this one.

All the tail-biting tension and animal argy-bargy began yonks ago after an obnoxious little beast popped up in the wake of a disastrous British space shot. After crashlanding in Crinkle Woods – scant miles from his launch site – lab animal Monkey believed himself the rightful owner of a strange new world, despite all efforts from reasonable, sensible, genteel, contemplative forest resident Bunny to dissuade him. For all his patience, propriety and good breeding, the laid-back lepine just could not contain the incorrigible idiot ape, who was – and is – a rude, noise-loving, chaos-creating loutish troublemaker…

Problems are exacerbated by the other unconventional Crinkle creatures, particularly a skunk called Skunky who has a mad scientist’s attitude to life and a propensity to build extremely dangerous robots and super-weapons…

Here – with artistic assistance from Sammy Borras – the war of nerves and mega-ordnances resumes and intensifies. The unruly assortment of odd critters loitering around and cluttering up the bucolic paradise have finally picked sides: shifting and twisting into bipartisan factionalism. They all seem to have forgotten that rapidly encroaching Hyoomanz as they respond to another personal crisis and the rise to power of an unsuspected third force in woodland politics…

As ever divided into seasonal outbursts, the saga starts slowly with a chilly teaser tale as Winter ends in the ‘Thaw of the Snow-Bots’…

The assorted animals have been in stasis in a giant freezer, and once fire-breathing snowmen attack, they decide it’s best to have a little more kip… or do they?

The story actually resumes in Spring and the far future where time-traveller Ai – a superfast Ai-Ai not naturally indigenous to our sylvan glades and endangered shores – learns of a disaster that’s history here but her tomorrow. A good person, she undertakes ‘The Journey Home’ but arrives too late as ‘A Rather Maniacal Badger’ details how the woods have been conquered at last…

Previously, a catastrophic rivalry erupted when rival evil genius Maniacal Badger vied with Skunky for the title of “The Most Brilliant Animal in the Woods”. Now, while everyone was hibernating, the black-&-white bounder has occupied the region and established a base in a 50-foot (15-24 meters) high statue of himself as the first step in building his dream of Badgertopia.

The shock of defeat particularly affects Skunky, who descends into a spiral of depression and lowering esteem…

Universal innocents Weenie squirrel and Pig have their own way of de-stressing and not even roving robot drones can upset ‘A Quiet, Uneventful Day’ on the lake. Old animosities are paused and enemies become temporary allies planning to resist through ‘Distraction’ and strategic deployment of brain-battered, bewildered suicide bomber/former stuntman Action Beaver, but when that scheme flops we instead focus on ‘A Sad Skunk’ as the original mad scientist undergoes an existential crisis and needs Bunny to share it with…

The relative inactivity soon triggers his robot back-up to mischief mode, but even ‘Mecha Skunky!’ is not immune to the doldrums and there’s nothing ‘Action Beaver!’ can do to rectify the situation, especially after the badger activates a gross flying terror who swallows everybody in ‘The Whale!’

Having retreated to the tunnels built by long-gone but not forgotten local legend Fantastic Le Fox, the uneasy animal animals hide from the tyrant’s tantrums in ‘Too Noisy!’: unexpectedly discovering a hidden, weapon-stocked lair that will be the base for their fight back… once they have safely reassembled ‘All the Toys in the Toyshop!’

Although initial giant robot ‘Battle Bat!’ spectacularly fails, resistance efforts continue, but Monkey is easily distracted and soon moves to make his own empire in ‘Monkeyopia Rises!’ and as Summer begins ‘Divisions!’ proliferate. Before long the war with Bunny flares up again and instantly moves into the province of war crimes as the simian unleashes his flatulence-powered ‘Rofl-Copter!’

Weenie and Pig go on a ‘Treasure Hunt!’ in the mouldering pile of toxic rubbish kindly left by the Hyoomanz, but find no shield from the badger’s latest infamy: mind controlling everyone and turning the Woods into his digital plaything in ‘Game Over!’

A brief diversion follows in an exclusive Bunny vs Monkey Detective Story, but ‘The Curious Case of the Pig in the Night-Time’ is less baffling than Bunny’s failure to join mystic brotherhood ‘The Order of the Moose’…

When young Hyoomanz find themselves ‘(Not) Alone in the Woods’ during a class trip one little girl renews her old acquaintance with Metal Steve after he saves them from Maniac Badger attacks, whilst elsewhere ‘Monst-Ughs!’ run wild after improper use of Skunky’s old monster ray, leading to a glimpse at the tyrant’s origins and family issues in ‘The Making of a Maniacal Badger!’

Incorrigible Monkey then loses control of marauding robot ‘Doom Fists!’ after he is attacked by his wicked doppelganger Evil Monkey and partner in crimes Evil Monkey Wife, whilst elsewhere Skunky recovers some of life’s zest after helping Weenie and Pig repair one of the badger’s ‘Evil Drones!’

Three part saga ‘The Saving of Skunky!’ sees order restored after the badger’s plan to kidnap Skunky and steal what’s left of his evil genius goes awry. Trapped together in the Dark Woods, the skunk experiences a ghastly visitation and by the time the Maniacal one gets back to his conquered kingdom, there’s a restored archenemy waiting to deliver ‘A Sharp Shock’ with electrified clouds and a Zeus costume…

Badger’s retaliation is ancient thought monster ‘Ragnaggtrix!’ but there’s an inherent flaw in something dependent on belief that the evil genius didn’t consider. Thankfully, Skunky is preoccupied ‘Distracting the Monkey!’ from cadging more superweapons to misuse…

Bunny becomes guinea pig when Skunky and Monkey test emotion-warping Mind Mines in ‘Highly Strung!’ and as ‘Autumn begins The Rise of an Empire!’ finds expansionist Monkeytopia devasted by its ruler’s idiocy, even as the badger traps the woodland creatures inside his new phone app in ‘Game On!’ It’s a huge, costly mistake…

‘Balloonacy!’ breaks out when Weenie and Pig try to attend Ai’s birthday party, before a new character debuts. ‘Lucky!’ is a red panda who escaped a lab doing weird experiments. It might not have been in time though, since the three-way war for supremacy in the woods triggers an odd reaction…

The action and drama ramp up for a big finish as Badger is made to clean his room and employs the ‘Doomsday Device!’ that opens portals to Hell. Shame about his mum and dad…

Skunky makes a silly mistake and gives the wrong animal some atomic powered ‘Explosive Sweets!’ which makes Halloween’s ‘Fright Night!’ Scare-Off pretty anticlimactic war, before another peek at the future reveals the legend of ‘Jetpack Beaver!’

A distant relative tries to make one woodland weirdo ‘Pigging Rich!’ with little success, after which a bad tooth and unwise consultation with Skunky results in Monkey taking a big bite out of everything in ‘Chomp!’

The cataclysmic end begins when the Maniacal one pressgangs ‘The Badger Army’ to do his bidding but forgets the species’ tendency to unionise even as Skunky creates a ‘Terraforming Orb!!’ to purpose-build a new world. It’s a shame Monkey dropped it on his own head while it was switched on…

Winter begins with 3-chapter epic ‘A Very Badger Christmas’ that delivers shocking big reveals, pulls all the plot threads of the past year together, ends the world and still leaves rueful survivors wondering what comes next in ‘Aftermath’. Whatever you think happened you’re wrong, so you just have to buy this book to see how…

The animal anarchy might end for now there’s one more secret to share with detailed instructions on ‘How to Draw Maniacal Badger’ so, as well as beguiling your young ’uns with stories, you can use this book to teach them a trade…

The zany zenith of absurdist adventure, Bunny vs Monkey is weird wit, brilliant invention, potent sentiment and superb cartooning crammed into one eccentrically excellent package: never failing to deliver jubilant joy for grown-ups of every vintage, even those who claim they only get it for their kids. This is the kind of comic parents beg kids to read to them. Is that you yet?

Text and illustrations © Jamie Smart 2022. All rights reserved.
Bunny vs Monkey: Rise of the Maniacal Badger is published on July 7th 2022 and is available for pre-order now.

Doctor Solar, Man of the Atom Dark Horse Archives volume Four


By Dick Wood, Roger McKenzie, Don Glut, Al McWilliams, Ernie Colón, José Delbo, Dan Spiegle, Jesse Santos, George Wilson & various (Dark Horse Books)
ISBN: 978-1-59307-825-6 (HB) 978-1-61655-512-2 (TPB)

Comics colossus Dell/Gold Key/Whitman had one of the most complicated publishing set-ups in history, but that didn’t matter one iota to kids of all ages who consumed their vastly varied product. Based in Racine, Wisconsin, Whitman had been a crucial component of the monolithic Western Publishing and Lithography Company since 1915: drawing upon commercial resources and industry connections that came with editorial offices on both coasts. They even boasted a subsidiary printing plant in Poughkeepsie, New York.

Another connection was with fellow Western subsidiary K.K. Publications (named for licensing legend Kay Kamen who facilitated extremely lucrative “license to print money” merchandising deals for Walt Disney Studios between 1933 and 1949).

From 1938, the affiliated companies’ comic book output was released under a partnership deal with a “pulps” periodical publisher under the umbrella imprint Dell Comics – and again those creative staff and commercial contacts fed into the line-up of the Big Little, Little Golden and Golden Press books for children. This partnership ended in 1962 and Western had to swiftly reinvent its comics division as Gold Key.

Western Publishing had been a major player since comics’ earliest days, blending a huge tranche of licensed titles including newspaper strips, TV tie-in and Disney titles (like Nancy and Sluggo, Tarzan, or The Lone Ranger) with in-house originations such as Turok, Son of Stone, Brain Boy, and Kona Monarch of Monster Isle.

Dell and Western split just as a comic book resurgence triggered a host of new titles and companies, and a superhero boom. Independent of Dell, new outfit Gold Key launched original adventure titles including Mighty Samson; Magnus – Robot Fighter; M.A.R.S. Patrol, Total War; Space Family Robinson and – in deference to the atomic obsession of the era – a cool, potently understated thermonuclear white knight…

The new company’s most recognisable and significant stab at a superhero bore the rather unwieldy codename of Doctor Solar, Man of the Atom, who debuted in an eponymous title cover-dated October 1962 and thus on sale in the last days of June – Happy 60th Birthday Doc! – sporting a captivating painted cover by Richard M. Powers which made it feel like a grown up book rather than a simple comic.

With #3, George Wilson took over the iconic painted covers: a glorious feature that made the hero unique amongst his costumed contemporaries…

This fourth and final collection spans April 1968 via a 12-year hiatus – all the way to March 1982, encompassing a period when superheroes again faded from favour, whilst supernatural themes proliferated in comics books. Gold Key had their own stable of magical mystery titles: anthologies such as Boris Karloff Tales of Mystery, Ripley’s Believe it or Not, Grimm’s Ghost Stories and The Twilight Zone. They even ran a few character-driven titles including Dagar the Invincible, Tragg and the Sky Gods and The Occult Files of Dr. Spektor.

Included in this volume are the contents of Doctor Solar, Man of the Atom #23-31, plus a guest cameo from The Occult Files of Dr. Spektor #14: a very mixed bag preceded by an Introduction from the late Batton Lash (Supernatural Law; Archie Meets the Punisher; Wolff and Byrd, Counselors of the Macabre).

The Supreme Science Hero was born when a campaign of sabotage at US research base Atom Valley culminated in the death of Dr. Bentley and accidental transmutation of his lab partner Doctor Solar into a (no longer quite) human atomic pile with incredible, impossible and apparently unlimited powers and abilities. Of course, his mere presence is lethal to all around him until scientific ingenuity devises – with dutiful confidantes girlfriend Gail Sanders and mentor Dr. Clarkson – a few brilliant work-arounds…

Solar was created by Paul S, Newman but the majority of later tales were written by Golden Age all-star Dick Wood (Sky Masters of the Space Force; Crime Does Not Pay; The Phantom; Mandrake the Magician; Flash Gordon and countless others). In this final volume a number of artists shared duties, beginning with Alden “Al” McWilliams (Danny Raven/Dateline: Danger; Star Trek, Flash Gordon; Twilight Zone; Buck Rogers; Justice Inc.; Star Wars and so much more) who drew the first tale here.

The atomic adventuring resumed with the latest ploy of evil mastermind Nuro: Solar’s nemesis and a madman who defeated death by implanting his personality inside a super-android. ‘King Cybernoid Strikes Part I & II’ (#23: cover-dated April 1968 by Wood & McWilliams) sees the malevolent man-machine escape his destroyed citadel of evil to replace a billionaire philanthropist, infiltrate Atom Valley and orchestrate his enemy’s demise by shutting down the nuclear reactors Solar needs to sustain his existence. The hero’s plan to survive seems like nuclear suicide but happily works out…

Ernie Colón was next to render the Atomic Ace beginning with #24’s (July 1968) Wood-written ‘The Deadly Trio Part I & II’.

Born in Puerto Rico on July 13th 1931, Ernie Colón Sierra was a multi-talented maestro of the American comics industry whose work delighted generations of readers. Whether as artist, writer, colourist or editor, his contributions affected the youngest of comics consumers (Monster in My Pocket, Richie Rich, Casper the Friendly Ghost at Harvey Comics and Marvel’s Star Comics imprint) to the most sophisticated connoisseur with strips.

His mature-reader material comprised newspaper sci fi classic Star Hawks, comic book graphic novels Ax, Manimal, The Medusa Chain and more, and comics as wide-ranging as Vampirella, Battlestar Galactica, Arak, Son of Thunder, Damage Control, Doom 2099, I… Vampire, Amethyst: Princess of Gemworld, and Airboy. He also drew the 1990s revival of Magnus: Robot Fighter for Valiant amongst so very many others.

Colón was master of many trades and served as an innovative editor, journalist, historian and commentator as well. Amongst his vast output were sophisticated experimental works and seminal genre graphic novels done in collaboration with Harvey Comics/Star Comics collaborator Sid Jacobson. These include The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation, After 9/11: America’s War on Terror, Che: a Graphic Biography and Vlad the Impaler. In 2010 they released Anne Frank: The Anne Frank House Authorized Graphic Biography and 2014’s The Warren Commission Report: A Graphic Investigation into the Kennedy Assassination with Gary Mishkin.

While diligently hard at work on newspaper strip SpyCat (Weekly World News 2005-2019) he sought other challenges, like historical works A Spy for General Washington and The Great American Documents: Volume 1, both collaborations with his author wife Ruth Ashby. He died on August 8th 2019…

Here he adds an edge of high-octane dramatic tension to Solar’s exploits as the fugitive King Cybernoid unleashes three deadly war machines, each the ultimate weapon in its preferred environment of earth, air and water and each a crucial component in a lethal booby trap…

‘The Lost Dimension Part I & II’ (#25, October) began a continued tale with Atom Valley’s teleportation experiments opening Earth to attacks from an evil parallel dimension. Impatient to solve the mystery of vanishing test subjects, Gail’s nephew and resident teen super-genius Hamilton Mansfield Lamont uses the apparatus on himself and is captured by mirror universe duplicates. When Solar follows he uncovers a plot to invade and conquer our universe and must use his intellect as well as atomic powers to resist the wicked facsimiles’ plans ‘When Dimensions Collide parts I & II’ (#26 January 1969).

A new year saw a fresh illustrative hand. Argentinian illustrator José Delbo (Billy the Kid; Mighty Samson; Yellow Submarine; The Monkees; Wonder Woman; Superman; Batman; Turok, Son of Stone; Transformers,) had been a prolific US comics illustrator since 1965, and was a valued contributor to Gold Key’s licensed titles. He took on the Atomic Ace in a 2-issue run that spanned 12 years, beginning with Doctor Solar, Man of the Atom #27.

Cover-dated April 1969, the done-in-one yarn written by Wood saw the titanic troubleshooter clashing again with cyborg Nuro. It began at a British radio telescope as the hero sought to prevent marauding energy beings using the installation to invade Earth via ‘The Ladder to Mars’. After solving ‘The Mystery Message’, Solar triumphs in an outer space ‘Battle of the Electronic Fighters’.

This was the last appearance for quite a while, as the taste for men in tights waned. A guest shot from the genre-experimental 1970s was a rare treat, before a superhero resurgence saw Solar’s return in what I’m assuming was an inventory tale that had sat in a drawer since cancellation. In the meantime, Gold Key had undergone a few changes and was now using the publishing umbrella of “Whitman”.

Cover-dated April 1981, Doctor Solar, Man of the Atom #28 featured Wood & Delbo’s ‘The Dome of Mystery’: a traditional 2-chapter saga that saw Nuro use a deadly force field dome to destroy his enemies. Although initially helpless against ‘The Movable Fortress’, Solar’s persistence and ingenuity eventually triumphs in ‘The Dome of Mystery: An Army of Molecules’. Also included was an informational strip by Al McWilliams ‘A Day at the Man of the Atom’s Secret Training Grounds’.

The next issue was cover-dated October 1981, with writer Roger McKenzie (Captain America; Daredevil; Next Man; Battlestar Galactica; Men of War: Gravedigger) joined by veteran artist Dan Spiegle. Criminally unsung, his career was two-pronged and incredibly long. Born in 1920, Spiegle wanted to be a traditional illustrator but instead fell – after military service in the Navy – into comics at the end of the 1940s. He was equally adept at dramatic narrative art and humorous cartooning, and his impossibly large and varied portfolio includes impeccable work on Hopalong Cassidy; Rawhide; Sea Hunt; Space Family Robinson; Blackhawk and Nemesis for DC; Crossfire; Scooby Doo; Who Framed Roger Rabbit?; Indiana Jones; the entire Hanna-Barbera stable and so much more.

In high energy action mode here, he limns the Atomic Ace’s close encounter with extradimensional energy vampire ‘Li’Rae’ and her subsequent attempt to colonise and consume Earth. The hero’s penultimate exploit was cover-dated February 1982, with McKenzie & Spiegle resurrecting the Man of the Atom’s greatest foe. When international Man of Mystery Mr. Dante gathers the world’s greatest scientist on his artificial paradise of New Atlantis, Solar soon uncovers his real identity and deadly scheme, but not before the villain unleashes a geothermal ‘Inferno’…

One month later the heroic exploits concluded with #31 and an assault by an misguided admirer of Gail’s. When actor Ron Barris gains incalculable power in a special effects accident, he targets “rival” Solar in his TV superhero role ‘When Strikes the Sentinel!’ in his deranged scheme to make her his own, but his new powers are no match for the Atomic Avenger…

The mid-70s cameo appearance previously mentioned closes this archive. It comes from The Occult Files of Dr. Spektor #14 (June 1975): a series starring a troubled mystic and supernatural troubleshooter in the classic vein. ‘The Night Lakota Died’ is by Don Glut & Jesse Santos (who also painted the cover) and finds famed ghostbuster Dr. Adam Spektor accused of murdering his assistant and lover. On the run, the magician uncovers a plot by archenemy Kareena to entrap the mage and seduce him to the side of her Dark Gods.

Her plan revolves around keeping a certain atomic superhero under her mesmeric spell, but once again the witch underestimates the resolve of the forces of light…

Enticingly restrained and understated, these Atom Age action comics offered a compelling counterpoint to the hyperbole of DC and Marvel and remain some of the most readable thrillers of the era. These tales are lost gems from a time when fun was paramount and entertainment a mandatory requirement. This is comics the way they were and really should be again…
DOCTOR SOLAR®, MAN OF THE ATOM ARCHIVES Volume 4 ® and © 1968, 1969, 1975, 1981, 1982, 2015 Random House, Inc. Under license to Classic Media, LLC. 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.

Adam Strange: Planet Heist


By Andy Diggle, Pasqual Ferry & Dave McCaig (DC Comics)
ISBN: 9787-1-4012-0727-4 (TPB/Digital)

As the Silver Age began in 1956 – reintroducing superheroes to markets overflowing with cops and cowboys and cosmic invaders – try-out vehicle Showcase #17 (cover-dated November/December 1958) launched a true hero for the space-age in a feature entitled ‘Adventures on Other Worlds’.

An instant success, it debuted as the lead in Mystery in Space #53, beguiling and enthralling a fresh generation of thrill-starved, starry-eyed  kids under the title Adam Strange.

Strange was an Terran archaeologist who, whilst fleeing from enraged tribesmen in Peru, jumped a 25ft chasm only to be hit by a stray teleport beam from a planet orbiting Alpha Centauri. He rematerialised on another world, filled with uncanny monsters and fabulous civilisations, and was rescued by a beautiful woman named Alanna.

Rann was a world of constant danger: non-stop peril for which brains, not brawn, were the best solution, but Strange was only able to stay on the atomic-war scarred planet for as long as it took the teleporting Zeta Beam radiation to dissipate, whence he would fade away to reappear on Earth until the next beam struck. He found true love with Alanna and unparalleled adventure, but the universe seemed determined to keep them apart.

After years of travail and turmoil Adam finally relocated permanently to Rann, but his new homeworld grew no less dangerous…

This smartly compelling rollercoaster ride (collecting an 8-issue miniseries acting as a prequel and introduction to the many story-strands forming the astoundingly ambitious Infinite Crisis crossover mega-event) finds the former academician on Earth to wrap up his affairs. However, when he is ready to depart, the Zeta beam fails to arrive…

After months of increasingly desperate research, his Justice League contacts reveal that Rann is gone: while he packed trinkets and underwear, a supernova wiped out everything he ever knew and loved…

Desolate and off the rails, Strange’s life goes swiftly downhill – until he is attacked by alien bounty hunters. In the wake of the resultant destruction, he knows something is not kosher, and the only logical conclusion must be that Rann still exists…

This is a breakneck-paced science fiction conspiracy-mystery that finally revives the rational, intellectual hero fans haven’t seen since the end of the Julie Schwartz days: an indomitable fighter who thinks things out as he roars through the universe, accused of destroying the very world he seeks, meeting – and usually pursued by – a legion of DC’s outer space icons such as Vril Dox, bellicose Thanagarians, the Omega Men and paramilitary space cops the Dark Stars, as well as an unexpected surprise über-villain…

Deducing a greater threat to all reality, avoiding the guns of a billion bloodthirsty foes and the machinations of many malignant masterminds, Adam Strange fights to regain his family and world and in so doing unravels a plot to shake the very stars…

Bombast and hyperbole aside, Planet Heist is a superb thriller (regrettably still not available in digital form) heavily draped in DC’s convoluted history and continuity, yet somehow still fresh and streamlined enough to entertain the most clueless neophyte and seasoned canon-feeder equally.

British writer Andy Diggle (Green Arrow: Year One, The Losers, Deadpool, Daredevil, Shadowland, James Bond 007, Star Wars) shines, blending astral wonderment with the gritty realism he’s famed for. The forceful illustration of Spain’s “Pascal” Ferry (Thor, Superman, Ultimate Fantastic Four, Tom Strong) – whose actual name Pasqual was apparently too tricky for English speakers – combines with colourist Dave McCaig’s lush, painterly hues to make even the most fantastic moments utterly authentic. This brilliant tale only falters on the last page, and that’s because the solution leads inexorably to another book…

Gripping and fun, this rocket-paced riot is well worth the time and attention of every fan of fantastic fiction, but be warned: for final resolutions you’ll need to read Rann-Thanagar War and Infinite Crisis… so you might as well line them all up as well as the other Infinite Crisis prequel series…
© 2004, 2005 DC Comics.  All Rights Reserved.

Artifice


By Alex Wolfson & Winona Nelson (AMW Comics)
ISBN: 978-0-9857604-0-3 (TPB/Digital edition)

Deacon sits in a featureless cell. He doesn’t look like much but has caused a lot of trouble and his two guards are each reacting in their own way: one with mounting aggression and bluster and the other with fear for his job and his life. When the taunting bigotry and disgust-fuelled bravado reach a tipping point, the immobile captive finally shows them both why they have every right to be scared…

Later, Deacon is debriefed by an interrogator. Dr. Maven is a highly qualified therapist highly ranked at NoNeCo: tasked with and determined to find out what went wrong on the mission to Da Vinci Four. It is crucial that she learns the truth. The Corporation has spent unimaginable sums building and programming Deacon and his four siblings, and can’t afford to casually scrap them. They were a highpoint in synthetic servants: stronger, smarter, faster than humanity and therefore the greatest potential threat to Man’s dominance ever encountered. Thus, he cannot be permitted further existence if what is reported to have happened there is even partially true…

When the puritanical colony needed pacifying, Deacon and his super-soldier kin eliminated all but one human being. The last battle left the other artificials destroyed in a trap. Now, Deacon explains how he allowed one organic – “Jeff” – to live because the colony systems were inoperable by synthetics and he needed to remain functional until relief arrived. Only organics could operate the rechargers supplying the artificial man with energy and life.

Deacon claims it was simply strategy. The young man was already an outcast, shunned and despised because of his genetic abnormality, and easy to psychologically manipulate. Deacon simply played on his uncorrected homosexual flaw to sustain his own existence until a scheduled follow-up mission landed four months later.

Deacon claims everything he subsequently did with Jeff and to the rescuers was simply to complete the mission, but the doctor isn’t fooled. She realises this android is even smarter and more devious than anyone imagined, but allows one final meeting with Jeff to test her theory… and discovers to her cost just how human and well-constructed the synthetic is, and how powerful is the outdated concept of love…

Alex Wolfson (The Young Protectors) writes a smartly compelling drama about intolerance and forbidden love overcoming all odds, whilst Winona Nelson (If You Lived During the Plimoth Thanksgiving) provides bleak, regimented and powerfully understated realism to the art that makes it so very believable.

A dystopian fable that ends on a note of hope and promise of a sequel, Artifice began life as a webcomic serial dealing in forthright manner with violence and sexual situations in service to a superbly engaging and enthralling drama that would already be a major motion picture if close-minded, parochial movie producers could get past the fact that it depicts guys snogging.

Thankfully, you aren’t so emotionally stunted and can enjoy the tale which closes here with ‘Reader Questions’ answered by the creative team, ‘Writer’s Notes’ by Wolfson describing the project’s genesis and ‘Artist’s Notes’ from Nelson, plus a fully illustrated run-down on their collaborative ‘Process’ and even faux press releases and reader response from evil mega-corp in ‘NoNeCo Responds’.

Proving yet again that there’s absolutely no appreciable difference in sexual orientation when telling wonderful stories of heroes, villains and lovers, Artifice is a lost treat you will definitely delight in, whoever you are and want to be.
© 2011, 2012, 2013 Alex Wolfson. All rights reserved. All characters, distinctive names and likenesses and all related elements are trademarks of Alex Wolfson and AMW Comics.

Walt Disney’s Donald Duck by Carl Barks: volume 6 – The Old Castle’s Secret


By Carl Barks & various (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-653-9 (HB/Digital edition)

Donald Duck ranks among a number of fictional characters who have transcended the bounds of reality to become – like Sherlock Holmes, Tarzan, Popeye and James Bond -meta-real. As such, his origins are complex and convoluted. His official birthday is June 9th 1934: a dancing, nautically-themed bit-player in the Silly Symphony cartoon short The Wise Little Hen.

However, that date is based on the feature’s release, as announced by distributors United Artists and latterly acknowledged by the Walt Disney Company. Recent research reveals the piece was initially screened at Carthay Circle Theatre in Los Angeles on May 3rd, part of a Benefit show. The Wise Little Hen officially premiered on June 7th at the Radio City Music Hall in New York City, before the general release date was settled.

The animated cartoon was adapted by Ted Osborne & Al Taliaferro for the Silly Symphonies Sunday comic strip and thus classified by historians as Donald’s official debut in Disney comics. Controversially though, he was also reported to have originated in The Adventures of Mickey Mouse strip which began 1931. Thus the Duck has more “birthdays” than the Queen of England (plus the generally disUnited Kingdom and gradually diminishing Commonwealth) which probably explains why he’s such a bad-tempered old cuss.

Visually, Donald Fauntleroy Duck was largely the result of animator Dick Lundy’s efforts, and, with partner-in-fun Mickey Mouse, is one of TV Guide’s 50 Greatest Cartoon Characters of All Time. The Duck has his own star on the Hollywood walk of fame and has appeared in more films than any other Disney player.

During the 1930s his screen career grew from background and supporting roles to a team act with Mickey and Goofy to a series of solo cartoons that began with 1937’s Don Donald, which also introduced love interest Daisy Duck and the nephews Huey, Louie and Dewey. By 1938 Donald was officially more popular than company icon Mickey Mouse, especially after his service as a propaganda warrior in a series of animated morale boosters and information features during WWII. The merely magnificent Der Fuehrer’s Face garnered the 1942 Academy Award (that’s an Oscar to you and me) for Animated Short Film…

Crucially for our purposes, Donald is also planet Earth’s most-published non-superhero comics character and has been blessed with some of the greatest writers and illustrators ever to punch a keyboard or pick up a pen or brush.

A publishing phenomenon and mega star across Europe – particularly Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, Greece, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland and Iceland – Donald & Co have spawned countless original stories and characters. Sales are stratospheric there and in the more than 45 other countries they export to. Japanese manga publishers have their own iterations too…

The aforementioned Silly Symphonies adaptation and Mickey Mouse newspaper strip guest shots were trumped in 1937 when Italian publisher Mondadori launched an 18-page story by Federico Pedrocchi in comic book format. It was quickly followed by a regular serial in Britain’s Mickey Mouse Weekly. The comic was produced under license by Willbank Publications/Odhams Press and ran from 8th February 1936 to 28th December 1957.

In #67 (May 15th 1937) it launched Donald and Donna (a prototype Daisy Duck girlfriend), drawn by William A. Ward. Running for 15 weeks it was followed by Donald and Mac before ultimately settling on Donald Duck, and a fixture until the magazine folded. The comic inspired similar Disney-themed publication across Europe with Donald regularly appearing beside company mascot Mickey…

In the USA, a daily Donald Duck newspaper strip launched on February 2nd 1938, with a colour Sunday strip added in 1939. Writer Ted Karp joined Taliaferro in expanding the duck cast, adding a signature automobile, dog Bolivar, cousin Gus Goose, grandmother Elvira Coot and expanded the roles of both Donna and Daisy…

In 1942, his licensed comic books canon began with the October cover-dated Dell Four Color Comics Series II #9 as Donald Duck Finds Pirate Gold: conceived by Homer Brightman & Harry Reeves, scripted by Karp and illustrated by Disney Studios employees Carl Barks & Jack Hannah. It was the moment everything changed…

Carl Barks was born in Merrill, Oregon in 1901, and raised in rural areas of the West during some of the leanest times in American history. He tried his hand at many jobs before settling into the profession that chose him. His early life is well-documented elsewhere if you need detail, but briefly, Barks was an animator before quitting in 1942 to work in the new-fangled field of comic books.

With studio partner Jack Hannah (another future strip illustrator) Barks adapted Karp’s rejected script for an animated cartoon short into Donald Duck Finds Pirate Gold, and although not his first published comics work, it was the story that shaped the rest of his career.

From then until his official retirement in the mid-1960s, Barks operated in self-imposed seclusion: writing, drawing and devising a vast array of adventure comedies, gags, yarns and covers that gelled into a Duck Universe of memorable and highly bankable characters. These included Gladstone Gander (1948), Gyro Gearloose (1952), Magica De Spell (1961) and the nefarious Beagle Boys (1951) to supplement Disney’s stable of cartoon actors. His greatest creation was undoubtedly the crusty, energetic, paternalistic, money-mad giga-gazillionaire Scrooge McDuck: the World’s wealthiest winged nonagenarian.

Whilst producing all that landmark material Barks was also just a working guy, generating cover art, illustrating other people’s scripts when asked, and contributing stories to the burgeoning canon of Duck Lore. After Gladstone Publishing began re-packaging Barks material amongst other Disney strips in the 1980s, he discovered the well-earned appreciation he never imagined existed…

So potent were his creations that they inevitably fed back into Disney’s animation output itself, even though his brilliant comic work was done for Dell/Gold Key and not directly for the studio. The greatest tribute was undoubtedly the animated series Duck Tales: heavily based on his classic Uncle Scrooge tales.

Barks was a fan of wholesome action, unsolved mysteries and epics of exploration, and this led to him perfecting the art and technique of the blockbuster tale: blending wit, history, plucky bravado and sheer wide-eyed wonder into rollicking rollercoaster romps that utterly captivated readers of every age and vintage. Without the Barks expeditions there would never have been an Indiana Jones…

During his working life Barks was blissfully unaware that his work (uncredited by official policy, as was all Disney’s comics output) had been recognised by a rabid and discerning public as “the Good Duck Artist.” When some of his most dedicated fans finally tracked him down, a belated celebrity began.

In 2013, Fantagraphics Books began chronologically collecting Barks’ Duck stuff in wonderful, carefully curated archival volumes, tracing his output year-by-year in hardback tomes and digital editions that finally do justice to the quiet creator. These will eventually comprise the Complete Carl Barks Disney Library. The physical copies are sturdy and luxurious albums – 193 x 261 mm – that would grace any bookshelf, with volume 6 re-presenting works from 1948 – albeit not in strict release order. I should also note that all the Four Color issues come from Series II of that mighty anthological vehicle and all cover are by Barks.

It begins eponymously with ‘The Old Castle’s Secret’ (FC #189, June 1948) as a crisis in the McDuck financial empire triggers a mission for Donald and the nephews: accompanying Scrooge to the ancestral pile in Scotland to search for millions in hidden treasure. Apparently the craggy citadel is haunted, but what they actually encounter is both more rationalistically dangerous and fantastically unbelievable…

Two single-page gags from the same issue follow, with ‘Bird Watching’ exposing the hidden perils of the hobby whilst superstition is painfully debunked in ‘Horseshoe Luck’ before ‘Wintertime Wager’ (Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories #88, January) introduces annoying cousin Gladstone Gander. Amidst chilling winter snows, the miraculously lucky, smugly irksome oik invites himself over for Christmas and soon he and Donald are involved in an escalating set of ordeals that might cost the Duck his house. Thankfully, Daisy and the boys are there to solve the problem…

Gainful employment was a regular dilemma for Donald and February’s ‘Watching the Watchman’ (WDC&S #89) finds him taking a midnight-to-daybreak job at the docks, but pitifully unable to alter his sleep patterns. Once again, Huey, Louie and Dewey offer outrageous assistance but this time it’s the Duck’s inability to stay awake that foils a million dollar heist….

They’re actually Donald’s rivals in ‘Wired’ (WDC&S #90, March) when all seek big bucks as telegram messengers. Sadly, millionaires are not generally friendly, welcoming or prone to giving giant gratuities…

A dedicated social climber, Donald plans a garden party in WDC&S #91 (April), but his notion of fancy dress and family solidarity utterly anger the boys, who retaliate with manic mesmerism in ‘Going Ape’, after which March of Comics #20 finds butterfly-hunter Donald at war with avaricious lepidopterist Professor Argus McFiendy across two continents.

Donald’s sharp and ruthless tactics inspire onlooker Sir Gnatbugg-Mothley to fund a safari to ‘Darkest Africa’ in search of the rarest butterfly on Earth. The daunting quest for the Almostus Extinctus is frenetically fraught, astoundingly action-packed and fabulously fun-filled but please be aware that despite Barks’ careful research and diligent, sensitive storytelling some modern folk could be upset by his depictions of indigenous peoples in terms of the accepted style of those decades-distant times.

Nevertheless, the bombastic war ends with a delicious sting in the tail.

In case you were wondering: March of Comics releases were prestigious promotional giveaways tied to retail products and commercial clients like Sears, combining licensed characters from across Whitman/KK/Dell’s joint catalogue. The often enjoyed print runs topping 5 million copies per issue. Being a headliner for them was a low key editorial acknowledgement of a creator’s capabilities and franchise’s pulling power…

Back in the regular world, Donald’s eternal war of nerves with the kids boiled over in FC #189 (June) as ‘Bean Taken’ saw his obsessive side dominant in a guessing game, a single-pager, preceding another exploring the downside of sandlot baseball in ‘Sorry to Be Safe’ (FC #199, October) and standard 10-page romp ‘Spoil the Rod’ (WDC&S #92, May). Here passing do-gooder Professor Pulpheart Clabberhead seeks to stop Donald’s apparent abuse of Huey, Louie and Dewey – but only until he gets to know them…

Although the science fiction boom and flying saucer mania was barely beginning in 1948, Barks was an early advocate and ‘Rocket Race to the Moon’ (WDC&S #93, June) sees newspaper seller Donald suckered into piloting an experimental lunar exploration ship. Tragically, Professors Cosmic and Gamma seem more concerned with a large cash-prize contest than advancing science and rival rocketman Baron De Sleezy is a ruthless schemer, but no one – not even the stowaway nephews – were prepared for what lived on the moon…

Patriotism inspires our bellicose birdbrain to enlist as ‘Donald of the Coast Patrol’ (WDC&S #94, July) but it’s his innate gullibility and bad temper that helps him bag a bunch of spies before true wickedness rears its downy head as ‘Gladstone Returns’ (WDC&S #95, August).

The ghastly Gander was designed as a foil for Donald, intended to be even more obnoxious than the irascible, excitable film fowl.

This originally untitled tale reintroduces him as a big noxious noise every inch as blustery a blowhard as Donald but still lacking his seemingly supernatural super-luck talent. Here, both furiously boast and feud, trying to one-up each other in a series of scams that does neither any good… especially once the nephews and Daisy join the battle…

Arguably Barks’ first masterpiece, ‘Sheriff of Bullet Valley’ was the lead tale from Dell Four Color Comics #199, drawing much of its unflagging energy and trenchant whimsy from Barks’ own love of cowboy fiction – albeit seductively tempered with his self-deprecatory sense of absurdist humour. For example, a wanted poster on the jailhouse wall portrays the artist himself, offering the princely sum of $1000 and 50¢ for his inevitable capture.

Donald is – of course – a self-declared expert on the Wild West (he’s seen all the movies) so when he and the boys drive through scenic Bullet Valley, a wanted poster catches his eye and his imagination. Soon he’s signed up and sworn in as a doughty deputy, determined to catch rustlers plaguing the locals. Unfortunately for him, the good old days never really existed and today’s bandits use radios, trucks, tommy guns and ray machines to achieve their nefarious ends. Can Donald’s impetuous boldness and the nephews’ collective brains and ingenuity defeat the ruthless high-tech raiders?

Of course they can…

That same issue first saw a brace of short gags, beginning with ‘Best Laid Plans’ as Donald’s feigned illness earns him extra hard labour rather than a malingering day in bed and closing with ‘The Genuine Article’ wherein suspicions of an antiques provenance leads to disaster…

The lads plans to go fishing are scuppered – but not for too long – when Donald demands their caddying services in ‘Links Hijinks’ (WDC&S #96, September). It all really goes south once Gladstone horns in and Donald’s competitive spirit overwhelms everybody…

That tendency to overreact informs ‘Pearls of Wisdom’ (WDC&S #97, October) when the nephews find a small pearl in a locally-sourced oyster and big-dreaming Donald goes overboard in exploiting the” hidden millions” probably peppering the ocean floor, before we close with another mission for Uncle Scrooge.

To close a deal with British toff Lord Tweeksdale, McDuck must prove his family pedigree by excelling in the most “asinine, stupid, crazy, useless sport in the world”: fox hunting. Designating Donald his champion, the Downy Dodecadillionaire of Duckburg is thankfully unaware Huey, Louie and Dewey also consider themselves ‘Foxy Relations’ (WDC&S #98, November), injecting themselves covertly into proceedings with catastrophic repercussions…

The visual verve over, we move on to validation as ‘Story Notes’ offers commentary for each Duck tale and Donald Ault relates ‘Carl Barks: Life Among the Ducks’, before ‘Biographies’ explain why he and commentators Alberto Beccatini, R, Fiore, Craig Fischer, Jared Gardner, Leonardo Gori, Rich Kreiner, Ken Parille, Stefano Priarone, Francesco (“Frank”) Stajano and Mattias Wivel are saying all those nice and informative things.

We close with an examination of provenance as ‘Where Did These Duck Stories First Appear?’ explains the somewhat byzantine publishing schedules of Dell Comics.

Carl Barks was one of the greatest exponents of comic art the world has ever seen, and almost all his work featured Disney’s Duck characters: reaching and affecting untold millions of readers across the world and he all too belatedly won far-reaching recognition. You might be late to the party but it’s never too soon to climb aboard the Barks Express.
Walt Disney’s Donald Duck “The Old Castle’s Secret” © 2013 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All contents © 2013 Disney Enterprises, Inc. unless otherwise noted. All rights reserved.

Black Knight volume 1


By Kai Tsurugi (TokyoPop)
ISBN: 978-1-59816-522-7 (TPB)

So, it’s Pride Month and not all comics are about genocide or racial slaughter. Here’s a lost gem long overdue for another run in the sun – or at least a new English language revival on paper or in digital form…

Japan’s vast comics industry is formally sub-divided into discrete categories to avoid dithering and confusion. This is a fine historical example of a Yaoi story – a romanticised fantasy relationship drama starring beautiful young men in love. The genre was devised for female audiences: like Shounen-Ai (stories of two young men, but with more erotic content) although very mild – to the point of chaste gentility – by that standard.

As Kuro no Kishi, the serial first appeared from August 2003-October 2005 in Magazine Be x Boy, before filling 4 subsequent tankōbon tomes. These were translated via TokyoPop’s Blu Manga imprint and released between July 2006 and February 2009. There’s no English language digital editions that I know of, but the physical copies are still readily available.

This lyrical, sexually explicit fantasy opens by introducing wayward hero Zeke O’Brien: a trainee mercenary of lower class origins who rises to the rank of Black Knight by saving the life of a lovely young Prince targeted for assassination by the hidden enemies of the King of Aran.

When the royal neophyte is assigned to train as a Black Knight, Zeke thwarts every attempt to murder the elfin Prince Chris, but falls hopelessly in love with his charge. He is delighted to discover the feeling is mutual and furtively, frequently, passionately reciprocated. However, the King’s enemies are many and the trials for the young lovers are only just beginning in this splendidly Ruritanian Romance of intrigue and melodrama.

Lavish, ostentatious, beautifully illustrated and inoffensively charming, this initial volume carries an additional, modern tale of boy-on-boy romance that might upset some readers, but not for obvious reasons.

‘Deadly Sin’ tells of the intimate (and naturally, graphically explicit) affair between a young priest (a son of IRA terrorists who subsequently murdered the SAS killers of his parents) and an athlete/poet he meets on holiday. Despite being well written and drawn, this type of material is bound to offend devoutly Christian, sectarian and/or conservative sorts (note the small ‘c’) so if you are the type hanging around waiting to be outraged, please save us all some grief and don’t read it.
© 2003 Kai Tsurugi. English text © 2006 BLU Inc. All rights reserved.

If You Steal


By Jason (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-854-0 (HB/Digital edition)

Jason is secretly John Arne Saeterrøy: born in Molde, Norway in 1965 and an international cartoon superstar since 1995 when his first graphic novel Lomma full ay regn (Pocket Full of Rain) won that year’s Sproing Award (Norway’s biggest comics prize). He won another Sproing in 2001 for series Mjau Mjau and in 2002 turned almost exclusively to producing graphic novels.

A global star among cartoon cognoscenti, he has received major awards from all over the planet. Jason’s work always jumps directly into a reader’s brain and heart, utilising the beastly and unnatural to gently pose eternal questions about basic human needs in a softly relentless quest for answers. That you don’t ever notice the deep stuff because of the clever gags and safe, familiar “funny-animal” characters should indicate just how good a cartoonist he is…

The stylised artwork is delivered in formalised page layouts rendered in a minimalist evolution of Hergé’s Claire Ligne style: solid blacks, thick outlines and settings of seductive simplicity; augmented by a deft and subtle use of flat colour which enhances his hard, moody, suspenseful and utterly engrossing Cinema-inspired world.

The superbly understated art acts in concert with his dead-on, deadpan pastiche repertoire of scenarios which dredge deep from our shared experience of old film noir classics, horror and sci fi B-movies and other visual motifs which transcend time and culture, and the result is narrative dynamite.

This compilation collects eleven short yarns and opens with the eponymous and eerie ‘If You Steal’, wherein cheap thug Paul perpetually risks everything – including the one person who keeps him feeling alive – in search of quick cash: only to lose it all in the end, after which ‘Karma Chameleon’ sees a small desert community dealing with the discovery of a giant, carnivorous and extremely predatory lizard which nobody seems able to see. Good thing masturbation-obsessed boffin Dr. Howard Jones and his long-suffering daughter Julia are in town…

The deliciously wry and whimsically absurdist Samuel Beckett spoof ‘Waiting for Bardot’ then segues neatly into a dashing mystery of masked derring-do as ‘Lorena Velazquez’ eventually tires of waiting for her ideal man to finish off a necessarily interminable and horrific army of villains prior to doling out a maiden’s traditional rewards, before a fugitive murderer narrates his own paranoia-fuelled downfall after his ‘New Face’ briefly tempts him with love and the never-to-be-achieved promise of peace and safety…

A series of six faux horror comics covers combines to relate the trials of chilling romances in ‘Moondance’. The classic fear theme extends into a rip-roaring battle against the undead in ‘Night of the Vampire Hunter’ and ‘Polly Wants a Cracker’ follows the other unique career path of artistic legend/assassin-for-hire Frida Kahlo.

A junkie musician pushes his luck against some very bad guys because ‘The Thrill is Gone’ after which ‘Ask Not’ takes a trawl through history from Stonehenge in 2583 BC to Salon de Provence in 1554 AD (courtesy of Nostradamus) to 1960s Cuba, revealing the truth behind the assassination of JFK and Abraham Lincoln and what parts Lee Harvey Oswald and Jack Ruby actually played in that millennial plot: a parallel worlds yarn like no other…

The book ends with a stunning, deeply moving graphic examination of dementia which is both chilling and oddly-heart-warming as aging Emma deals with the scary creatures who keep taking away the names of things in ‘Nothing’: proving once more that behind innocuous-seeming cartoons and contemporary fairy tale trappings Jason’s work is loaded with potent questions…

If You Steal resonates with Jason’s favourite themes and shines with his visual dexterity and skewed sensibilities. disclosing a decidedly different slant on secrets and obsessions. Primal art supplemented by sparse and spartan “hardboiled Private Eye” dialogue, enhanced to a macabre degree by solid drawing and skilled use of silence and moment, all utilised with devastating economy, affords the same quality of cold, bleak yet perfectly harnessed stillness which makes Scandinavian TV dramas such compelling, addictive fare.

These comic tales are strictly for adults, yet allow us all to look at the world through wide-open young eyes. They never, however, sugar-coat what’s there to see…
If You Steal is © 2015 Jason. All rights reserved.

2120


By George Wylesol (Avery Hill Publishing)
ISBN: 978-1-910395-65-3 (TPB)

Baltimore-based George Wylesol (Internet Crusader; Ghosts, Etc.) is a cartoonist with lots to say and intriguing ways of doing so. Past works have channelled his avowed fascinations – old computer kit/livery; anxiety; iconography; the nostalgic power of commercial branding and signage and a general interest in plebian Days Gone By – into chilling affirmations of his faith in the narrative power of milieu and environment as opposed to characters.

That remains the case in his latest retro-modernist extravaganza… a canny revival of a brief fad stillborn on the way to today’s computer game world; explored through a salutary experience befalling a rather bland service engineer…

Once upon a time (way back in the 1980s) books and graphic novels experimented with an interactive approach: constructing stories where readers could opt to proceed in a linear manner, whilst being encouraged to jump ahead or back, by following suggestions at certain decision points of the narrative. Depending on which one a reader followed, the story could travel in numerous directions and outcomes were many and varied…

The fad faded as technology surpassed physical print restrictions and now most games offer even more variety and immersion, but the process was and still is a powerful device for storytelling and point-making, if you know the trick of it.

Wylesol does, and in 2120 skillfully manipulates the form to create a chilling and potent suspense saga. The set-up is simple. Forty-something computer repairman Wade Duffy is booked to service a machine at 2120 Macmillan Drive: an isolated building in a vacant lot.

The place seems deserted and decommissioned, but after gaining entry, Wade dutifully proceeds through countless empty rooms and corridors – far more than seems possible for a facility of its size. The place seems to go down too many levels, and as he seeks endlessly for the broken computer he is determined to repair, his responsible work attitude gradually erodes under tidal waves of suspicion, uncertainty and nervous tension.

The place is just not right…

Too many rooms, odd sights and sounds, bizarre detritus, scraps and remnants indicating rapid abandonment… and his solitary, endless examinations and futile explorations only tip further into paranoia once he finally finds other occupants and his mind starts doubting him…

I first read the book without making any choices. I’m not saying you should, but if you do, let your mind build a story of its own then reread as often as you want, using the page directions to reshape the events and outcomes and see how that changes the momentous “Big Reveal” hidden within.

Genuinely disturbing in the manner of the best psychological dramas, with plenty of scary moments and distressingly eerie characters, the coldly diagrammatical illustration and workplace bright colour palette adds immensely to the overall aura of unease.

A compelling and compulsive experience, seamlessly wedding sensory evocation to carefully neutralised visual input, like the subject matter itself, this book is not what it seems and should not be missed.
© George Wylesol 2019. All rights reserved.