Yoko Tsuno volume 7 – The Curious Trio


By Roger Leloup (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-1-84918-127-3 (PB Album)

The edgy yet uncannily accessible European exploits of Japanese scientific adventurer Yoko Tsuno began gracing the pages of Le Journal de Spirou from the September 24th issue in 1970 and are still going strong, with 29 albums at the last count. The mind-blowing, eye-popping, extremely expansive multi-award-winning series was created by Belgian author, artist and novelist Roger Leloup, who was born in 1933 and worked as one of Hergé’s meticulous background assistants on the iconic Adventures of Tintin strip before striking out on his own.

Compellingly told and superbly imaginative, whilst always framed in hyper-realistic settings and sporting utterly authentic and unshakably believable technology, these illustrated epics were at the forefront of a wave of strips featuring competent, brave and immensely successful female protagonists which began revolutionising European comics in the 1970s and 1980s and are as potently empowering now as they ever were.

The series has a complex history in English. Comcat previously released a few adventures – albeit poorly translated and adapted – before British-based Cinebook acquired the franchise and opened a comprehensive and entrancing sequence in 2007 with the seventh collected exploit (1976’s La frontière de la vie– AKA On the Edge of Life).

Moreover, in French and Dutch the first Spirou stories ‘Hold-up en hi-fi’, ‘La belle et la bête’ and ‘Cap 351’ were all brief, introductory vignettes testing the waters. Miss Tsuno truly hit her stride with premier full-length epic Le trio de l’étrange, which started serialisation with the May 13th 1971 issue. Translated as The Curious Trio, it was actually the 7th chronicle released by Cinebook and is still not available digitally…

The story opens in a busy TV studio at midnight (back when actual humans pushed, pulled and focussed the clunky paraphernalia) as young Director Vic Van Steen loses his rag with best pal Pol Paris for falling asleep on his camera. Later, still smarting from another fractious tiff, the pair walk home past a deserted construction site and espy what looks like an elegantly brilliant burglary…

The quietly flamboyant break-in is, in fact, a pre-arranged test by a sleekly capable freelance Japanese electrical engineer named Yoko Tsuno. She has been hired by the owners of a major company to test their new security. After apologising for nearly ruining her trial with their well-intentioned interference, the lads invite the enigmatic tech-bod to join their film crew as sound engineer on a proposed outside shoot.

The gig is to explore a region of flooded caves for a documentary and before the week ends the new friends are hauling equipment to a spectacular cavern, ready to work out the technical details. No sooner do they begin, however, than something goes terribly wrong when the trio are dragged deep underground by irresistible, swirling waters…

From here the achingly realistic and rationalist strip takes a huge leap into the uncanny as their subterranean submersion dumps them into a huge metal-shod vault where they are seized by blue-skinned humanoids.

The colossal complex is of incredible size and, as the captives are bundled into a fantastic vessel which runs on rails via magnetic levitation and driven even deeper underground, a handy translation helmet enables the only friendly-seeming stranger to explain. Her name is Khany and her race, the Vineans, have been sleeping deep beneath the Earth for almost half a million years…

However, since recently awakening, internecine strife has entered the lives of the colonists. Ambitious militaristic brute Karpan now constantly manoeuvres to seize power from the vast electronic complex known as The Centre, which regulates the lives of the colonists.

The humans’ first meeting with the blustering bully does not go well. When he attempts to beat Khany, martial artist Yoko gives him a humiliating and well-deserved thrashing…

Infuriated, Karpan tries to disintegrate them but is pulled away by security forces. As the newcomers resume their trip to the Centre, he secretly follows their magnetocarrier, resolved to destroy them…

As the maglev ship hurtles to unimaginable depths, Khany introduces the humans to a stowaway – her young daughter Poky – while relating the astounding tale of the Vineans’ escape from planetary doom and two-million-light-year voyage to Earth. Accustomed to subterranean living, on arrival the Vineans hollowed out a mountain and dug down even further.

The history lesson is interrupted by Karpan’s murderous attack, which is only thwarted by Yoko’s quick thinking and her companions’ near-insane bravery…

Eventually, after another, far more subtle murder attempt, the badly damaged magnetocarrier reaches its destination and the astonished visitors are brought before a stupendous computer to plead their case and expose Karpan’s indiscretions. The vast calculator dubbed The Centre controls every aspect of the colony’s life and will deliver judgement on the human invaders’ ultimate fate. After mind-scanning Yoko its pronouncement is dire: the strangers are to be placed in eternal hibernation…

When Pol plays his long-hidden trump card and threatens to destroy the machine with a stolen disintegrator, diplomatic Khany proposes a solution; suggesting simply waiting until they can all confront the still-absent Karpan. Yoko is still deeply suspicious and not convinced that Karpan is responsible for every attempt on their lives. That “night”, while Yoko’s resting, Poky sneaks into her habitation chamber and takes her on an illicit tour of the underside and innards of the impossibly huge complex. The jaunt verifies the engineer’s suspicions with a ghastly revelation. What they expose is a horrific threat not just to the Vineans – Karpan included – but to every human on the surface of Earth…

The eerie mystery then explodes into spectacular action and a third act finale worthy of a James Bond movie as Tsuno’s dramatic duel with an incredible malign menace settles the fate of two species…

Absorbing, rocket-paced and blending tense suspense with bombastic thrills, spills and chills, this is a terrific introduction to a world of rationalist mystery and humanist imagination with one of the most unsung of all female action heroes and one you’ve waited far too long to meet…
Original edition © Dupuis, 1979 by Roger Leloup. All rights reserved. English translation 2012 © Cinebook Ltd.

Arena – A Marvel Graphic Novel


By Bruce Jones (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-87135-557-7

In  the early 1980s Marvel led the publishing pack in the development of high quality original graphic novels: mixing out-of-the-ordinary Marvel Universe tales, new in-continuity series launches, creator-owned properties, licensed assets, movie adaptations and even the occasional creator-owned property in extravagantly expansive packages (a square-ish standard page of 285 x 220mm rather than the now customary elongated 258 x 168mm) that felt and looked instantly superior to the average comicbook no matter how good, bad or incomprehensible (my way of saying outside your average Marvel customer’s comfort zone) the contents might be.

By 1990 Marvel’s ambitious line of outré all-area epics had begun to stall and some less-than-stellar tales were squeaking into the line-up. Moreover, the company was increasingly relying on hastily turned out cinema adaptations with built-in fan appeal and safe in-continuity stories offering established and company copyrighted characters rather than creator-owned properties and original concepts. The once-unmissable line began to have the appearance of an over-sized, over-priced clearing house for leftover stories.

So this stunning suspense saga counts as one of the last – and very best – indie/mainstream fiction experiments from before the rot set in; a creepy, clever, sexy thriller from screenwriter,  novelist, artistic Everyman and ardent EC fan Bruce Jones which sets up shop in Stephen King and Ray Bradbury territory to deliver an overwhelmingly impressive rollercoaster of shocks and twists.

Sharon and her 12 year old daughter Lisa are driving through the majestic rural backwoods of America. It’s a pretty acrimonious journey and when the opportunity presents itself Mom takes a break and goes for a refreshing dip in a mountain pool whilst daughter stays in the car sulkily playing with her toy planes.

Sharon’s idyllic moment is shattered when she sees a jet crash scant yards away. However she can’t find any wreckage or even the slightest sign of it. Lisa saw and heard nothing and neither did the sinister voyeur who had been spying on them…

Rushing back to his shack simpleminded Lem tells his demented Granny about the strange woman. The old crone smells opportunity: if they can capture her and if she’s fertile they can sell her babies in the Big City… and even if she’s not big brother Rut will have a new plaything for awhile…

Lost in the deep woods Lt. Roberts, USAF crawls out of her crashed plane and hears voices. Sharon and the downed pilot start talking and realise that although they can’t see each other they are standing side by side. They’re invisible because they’re separated by two decades…

Somehow the mountain and forest are one huge time-warp… and increasingly, various eras are overlapping. Even though Sharon can only talk to Roberts, dinosaurs and cavemen are chaotically roaming over the hills, endangering both women in their own time-zones…

At that moment Lem and Rut strike, snatching Sharon. locking her up ready to make some money-spinning young ‘uns. From the car little Lisa sees her mother taken and twenty years in the future pilot Lisa Roberts suddenly remembers the horrifying moment her mother was killed by Hillbilly rapist psychopaths…

The time-shifts briefly stabilise and the two Lisas meet…

With beasts and worse roaming the woods the elder Lisa realises she has a chance to unmake the worst day of her life, but there are complications she could never have imagined in store for her and the girl she used to be…

Sultry, sinister and devilishly cunning, this chronal conundrum is beautifully illustrated by Jones and his corkscrew plot is packed full of genuine surprises. Don’t think you’ve guessed the ending because you most likely haven’t…

A perfect sci fi movie-in-waiting, this terse and evocative yarn follows all the rules for a great screen shocker without ever having to “dumb-down” the temporal mechanics in deference to the Great Un-read in the popcorn seats.

Smart, seductive storytelling for sharp-witted punters, this is book long overdue for re-release, but until that happy future materialises, this remains a time-lost gem you should track down however long it takes…
© 1989 Bruce Jones. All Rights Reserved.

Firestorm the Nuclear Man: Reborn


By Stuart Moore, Jamal Igle & Keith Champagne & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-1219-3 (TPB)

One of the best “straight” superhero series of the last decade came and went with very little fanfare and only (thus far) this intriguing collection to mark its passage. Firestorm the Nuclear Man was created by Gerry Conway & Al Milgrom, launched in 1978 and promptly fell foul of the “DC Implosion” after five flamboyant, fun-filled issues.

High School Jock Ronnie Raymond and Nobel winning nuclear physicist Martin Stein were, due to a bizarre concatenation of circumstances, caught in an atomic blast that melded their bodies and minds into a fusion-powered being with extraordinary powers over matter and energy. Ronnie had conscious control of their consolidated body, and became an exuberant, flashy superhero, with a unique pantheon of villains all his own.

He was drafted into the Justice League of America, and eventually won a  well-received back-up series in The Flash (#289 to 304) which led to his second chance; Fury of Firestorm (100 issues and five Annuals between June 1982 and August 1990) before fading into the quiet semi-obscurity of team-books and guest-shots.

In 2004 Dan Jolley & Chrisscross reinvented the character. Black Detroit kid Jason Rusch was brought back from the brink of death thanks to a blazing energy ball (the Firestorm matrix seeking a new host after the murder of its previous body – although nobody discovered that for nearly a year…). This new version of the Nuclear Man can absorb any other body into the matrix, using them as a kind of battery – or more accurately spark plug – for Jason’s powers.

After impressively establishing himself as a hero in his own right he joined Donna Troy’s Space Strike Force in the Infinite Crisis, consequently suffering hideous injuries.

Inexplicably this volume (reprinting issues #23-27 of the third Firestorm comicbook series) ignores all that back-story and begins as part of the One Year Later narrative strand. Jason can now only combine with fellow atomic hero Firehawk, and their un-combined personas cannot safely be more than a mile apart. That’s rather problematic as Jason is a student in New York and Lorraine Reilley, when not Firehawk, is a United States Senator. Jason’s teleporting girlfriend Gehennaisn’t too keen on how much time her man and that “Older Woman” spend together either…

As Firestorm they are desperately searching for Martin Stein, missing for a year and somehow connected to a plot to destroy the Earth, but their quest has also made them/him the target for some extremely dangerous people…

By trying not to give too much away I might have made this tale seem a bit daunting or confusing, but it really isn’t. This is a deliciously clever and witty adventure, providing plenty of opportunities to bring first-time fans up to speed, with likable characters, dastardly villains, an intriguing mystery, plenty of action and loads of laughs – just like the rest of the series was. It reads enchantingly and is really beautiful to look at, so I just don’t understand why newcomers’ first exposure to this material should be with the 23rd chapter and not the first…

You would have thought Firestorm’s appearances in TV animation delight the Brave and the Bold or as one of the Legends of Tomorrow would have prompted somebody to release the rest of this utterly appetising little gem in trade paperback or digital editions by now. Still it’s never too late to start agitating for change is it?
© 2006 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Star Trek Classics Volume 4: Beginnings


By Mike Carlin, Pablo Marcos & various (IDW)
ISBN: 978-1-61377-671-1 (TPB)

Many companies have published comic book adventures based on the exploits of Gene Roddenberry’s legendary brainchild, and the run from the 1980s produced under DC’s aegis were some of the finest. Never flashy or sensationalistic, the tales embraced the same storytelling values as the shows and movies, and were strongly character and plot-driven.

A fine example can be found in this epic primer by long-time writer Michael Carlin, illustrated by the underrated Pablo Marcos, which collects miniseries Star Trek: The Next Generation #1-6 from February – July 1988 and not to be confused with the monthly comic-book that followed it.

With inks by Carlos Garzon & Arne Starr, colours by Carl Gafford and letters from Bob Pinaha, the bold adventures – available in trade paperback or in digital formats you can scan on your personal PADD™ – commence with double length saga ‘…Where No One Has Gone Before!’

Here, the revamped and reimagined NCC-1701-D starship Enterprise heads into a completely unexplored sector of the galaxy. As freshly-installed and formidably prestigious Captain Jean-Luc Picard acclimatises to his new crew and mission, the ship is fired upon by beings unknown on recently discovered planet Syntagus Thelev.

That’s a bizarre mystery, considering the unseen inhabitants are currently negotiating with the Starfleet vessel and claim they know nothing about the attacks…Although the ship is in no imminent danger, the quandary Picard to despatch a top-level Away Team to find out where the barrages are coming from…

In the end, it requires the uncanny psychic abilities of Ship’s Counsellor Deanna Troi to reveal the uncanny source and motives of the astral assaults…

The second tale is a Christmas yarn wickedly spoofing a certain tale by Dr. Seuss, as ‘Spirit in the Sky!’ finds the Enterprise in festive mode, with the many cultures and families all celebrating their particular version of the Yule Season, before a flock of mysterious strangers invite themselves to the feasts. Happily, their obsessive covert hunt for a eerie energy spirit ends joyously… after a few tense moment and close encounters…

Issues #3-5 comprise an extended repeat confrontation with an apparently omnipotent moral gadfly. ‘Factor Q’ finds the crew assaulted by terrifying memories made real. Particularly targeted is Security Chief Tasha Yar who relives her appalling abusive early years as a survivor of The Colony, when an Away Mission traps her on an alien vessel, even as the almighty Q attempts to seduce Picard into a shooting war with an equally-manipulated stranger ship.

Events escalate in ‘Q’s Day’ as the increasing unstable instigator turns the screw: bringing Yar’s old abuser back to torment her, killing helmsman Geordi LaForge, terrifying the crew and rapidly descending into frustration-induced insanity, before the impossible becomes commonplace as more judgemental intruders from the Q Continuum manifest with their own imponderable agenda in concluding chapter ‘Q Affects!’

Wrapping up this initial foray into the future, ‘Here Today’ sees Enterprise ordered to investigate seeming paradise planet Faltos via concealed orders somehow hardwired into android crewman Lieutenant Data. An extragalactic Shangri-La, the weird world has – over uncounted eons – been able to pacify and integrate every hostile visitor, but when the benevolent emissaries of the Foundation beam down, they find that the miraculous haven is a unique and inescapable trap…

Or is it?

These tales originate from the earliest days of the TV series so there are a few uncertain moments and quirks of characterisation obsessive fans might quibble over, but overall these are solid adventure yarns in the tried-&-trusted Rodenberry manner that will astound and satisfy Trekkies, Trekkers, comics fans and even the Next-est Generation just coming to the franchise via the current Star Trek: Picard TV revival/revamp…
® & © 2013 CBS Studios Inc. STAR TREK and related marks and trademarks of CBS Studios Inc. © 2013 Paramount Pictures Corporation. All rights reserved.

The Wolf of Baghdad


By Carol Isaacs/The Surreal McCoy (Myriad Editions)
ISBN: 978-1-912408-55-9 (TPB) eISBN: 978-1-912408-71-9

Contemporary history is a priceless resource in creating modern narratives. It has the benefits of immediacy and relevance – even if only on a generational level – whilst combining notional familiarity (could you tell the difference between a stone axe and a rock?) with a sense of distance and exoticism. In comics, we’re currently blessed with a wealth of superb material exploring the recent past and none better than this enchanting trawl through a tragic time most of us never knew of…

Carol Isaacs is a successful musician (just ask the Indigo Girls, Sinead O’Connor or the London Klezmer Quartet) and – as The Surreal McCoy – a cartoonist whose graphic gifts are regularly on show in The New Yorker, Spectator, Private Eye, Sunday Times and The Inking Woman: 250 Years of Women Cartoon and Comic Artists in Britain. She found her latest inspiration in a two-thousand-year old secret history that’s she been party to for most of her life…

British-born of Iraqi-Jewish parents, Isaacs grew up hearing tales of her ancestors’ lives in Baghdad: part of a thriving multicultural society which had welcomed – or at least tolerated – Jews in Persia since 597 BCE.

How 150,000 Hebraic Baghdadians (a third of the city’s population in 1940) was reduced by 2016 to just 5 is revealed and eulogised in this potently evocative memoir, told in lyrical pictures and the curated words of her own family and their émigré friends, as related to her over her growing years in their comfortably suburban London home.

Those quotes and portraits spark an elegiac dream-state excursion to the wrecked, abandoned sites and places of a socially integrated and vibrantly cohesive metropolis she knows intimately and pines for ferociously, even though she has never set a single foot there…

As well as this enthralling pictorial experience, the art and narrative have been incorporated into a melancholy motion comic (slideshow with original musical accompaniment) that also demands your rapt attention.

The moving experience is supplemented by an Afterword comprising illustrate text piece ‘Deep Home’ (first seen in ‘Origin Stories’ from the anthology Strumpet) which details those childhood sessions listening to the remembrances of adult guests and family elders and is followed by ‘The Making of The Wolf of Baghdad’ which explains not only the book and show’s origins, but also clarifies the thematic premise of ‘The Wolf Myth’ which permeates the city’s intermingled cultures.

‘Other Iraqis’ then reveals some interactions with interested parties culled from Isaacs’ blog whilst crafting this book, whilst the comprehensive ‘Timeline of the Jews in Iraq’ outlines the little-known history of Persian Jews and how and why it all changed, before ‘A Carpet’s Story’ details 1950’s Operations Ezra and Nehemiah which saw 120,000 Jews airlifted to Israel.

Wrapping up the show is a page of Acknowledgements and Suggested Reading.

Simultaneously timeless and topical, The Wolf of Baghdad is less a history lesson than a lament for a lost homeland and way of life: a wistful deliberation on why bad things happen and on how words pictures and music can turn back the years and make the longed for momentarily real and true.
© Carol Isaacs (The Surreal McCoy) 2020. All rights reserved.

The Wolf of Baghdad will be published on January 30th 2020 and is available for pre-order now. Isaacs will be touring the motion-comic throughout 2020 at various venues and festivals around England. For more information please check her blog.

Countdown Annual 1972


By Many & various, edited by Dennis Hooper (Polystyle Publications)
SBN: 85096-018-5

As the 1960s ended, comics editors realised their readership was becoming increasingly sophisticated and sought to keep their attention with upscale rebrandings and style changes. Venerable old TV Comic and even TV21 were no longer dynamic enough and one answer to the situation – from licensing specialist Polystyle – was Countdown.

Running for a mere 58 weeks (beginning 20th February 1971) as a glossy, high end periodical, before its first dramatic makeover – which saw it relaunched on April 1st 1972 as TV Action + Countdown and ultimately TV Action – it subsisted until August 1973 when it was rolled up into TV Comic.

The magazine boasted a rich creative throughput, but the majority of the television-fuelled drama strips were written by editor Dennis Hooper, with additional material from Robin Hillborn, Allan Fennell and possible Angus Allen. However, as the company had access to TV 21’s archive and used reprint material, I could just be misremembering…

This is the only official Annual. The following year it became Countdown Annual… for TV Action, but don’t let that put you off: whether you’re a telly addict or comics fanboy, this book is stuffed with superb entertainment.

The action opens with a full-colour UFO thriller ‘The Circus’ illustrated by Jon Davis. The saga of a predatory alien body-snatcher used as a cash-cow by a failing Irish carnival show is interrupted (like an advert break?) by photo/fact feature ‘The Defenders’, wherein the secrets of Gerry Anderson’s covert anti-extraterrestrial force SHADO (Supreme Headquarters, Alien Defences Organisation) are outlined, but the story finale remains explosive and satisfying.

Rendered in black-&-red on white paper, 2-page gag strip ‘Dastardly and Muttley’ (by Peter Ford?) sees the cartoon clowns still hunting that infernal pigeon, after which a ‘Countdown Quiz’ tests your knowledge of the Space Race.

Staying in the Wild Black Yonder, Don Harley limns tense Thunderbirds thriller ‘Terror at Torreba’ with a crashed meteor bringing madness and destruction to Africa…

Arnold Kingston was the chief writer of extremely contemporary science fact features for the Countdown comic so it’s safe to assume he’s responsible for the ‘Think Tank! News from the Frontiers of Science’ photo noticeboard here, and another ‘Countdown Quiz’ as well as later features in the book.

Dastardly and Muttley then return, afflicted with dreams of cinematic stardom, after which Martin Asbury paints a full-colour ‘Captain Scarlet’ tale as the Mysterons suborn a giant killer robot and let it run amok…

Board game ‘Countdown Rescue Mission’ dovetails into dystopian prose sci fi short story ‘Countdown: Dangerous Friend’ – magnificently illustrated by John M. Burns – whilst ‘Rockets’ provides a potted photo-history of the real march into space.

Abortive Gerry Anderson Property ‘The Secret Service’ (Peter Ford again) finds priest and part-time secret agent Father Unwin leading the charge back into restricted colour as he and his partner Matthew use their Minimiser shrinking ray to steal back microdots from a hostile embassy

Photo feature ‘A Day with Dr. Who’ visits the locations used whilst filming The Daemons, before ‘U.F.O.s in history’offers a more evidential lesson on extraterrestrial encounters, whilst a colour ‘Jon Pertwee pinup’ brings us to a cracking Time Lord tale as Dr. Who battles floral doom in ‘The Plant Master’, brilliantly illustrated by Jim Baikie.

Slim but potent, this box of delight then ends with prose yarn ‘Joe 90 Resigns’ as the 9-year-old breaks the rules to rescue his father from an alpine emergency.

Closing with the ‘Answers’ to all those quiz questions and a stunning UFO photo section, this is a powerful and evocative treat you’d be crazy to miss…
© Polystyle Publications 1971.

Supercar Annual


By Alan Fennel, G. Wood and H.J. Cauldwell (Wm. Collins and Sons)
No ISBN:

For its entire existence British Comics have tapped into and exploited other entertainment icons such as stage, film and radio stars. As television became commonplace in the 1950s and exploded during the late 1960s – especially in the range and variety of children’s shows and cartoons – those programmes increasingly became a staple source for cheap weeklies but especially the Seasonal Annual market, not just for celebrities such as Arthur Askey or Abbott & Costello but increasingly the shows themselves: adding extra episodes to little aficionados’ finite canon.

Moreover, in an era before home recordings of any sort, these were exploits that could be enjoyed over and over again…

During that critical developmental period, Gerry Anderson’s innovative and increasingly high-tech puppet-show dramas revolutionised kids’ TV, and their comics tie-ins did exactly the same for our pictorial reading habits.

TV Century 21 (the unwieldy “Century” was eventually dropped) was patterned on a newspaper – albeit from 100 years into the future – and this shared conceit carried the avid readers into a multimedia wonderland as television and reading matter fed off each other. The incredible graphic adventures were supplemented with stills taken from the TV shows (and later, films), and a plenitude of photos also graced the text features and fillers which added to the unity of one of the industry’s first “Shared Universe” products,

Number #1 launched on January 23rd 1965, instantly capturing the hearts and minds of millions of children, and further proving to our comics editors the unfailingly profitable relationship between television shows and healthy sales.

Filled with high quality art and features, printed in gleaming photogravure, TV21 featured previous shows in strips such as Fireball XL5, Supercar and Stingray to supplement currently airing big draw Thunderbirds. In a bizarre attempt to be topical, the allegorically Soviet state of Bereznik constantly plotted against the World Government (for which read “The West”) in a futuristic Cold War to augment the aliens, aquatic civilisations and common crooks and disasters that threatened the general well-being of the populace. Even the BBC’s TV “tomorrows” were represented by a full-colour strip starring The Daleks.

Before all that, however, there were far simpler and more inclusive epics for kids at Christmas from the Anderson stable: such as this charming tome, credited to future Anderson staff writer Alan Fennel with cartoon art, strips, puzzles and illustrations by G. Wood and H. J. Cauldwell.

Supercar was Anderson’s (in conjunction with designer Reg Hill and scriptwriters Hugh and Martin Woodhouse) second marionette series, following on from comedy western Four-Feather Falls. Soundly science fictional, it was the first to be internationally syndicated and detailed the exploits of a futuristic flying car, as piloted by dashing test pilot Mike Mercury. His adventure prone entourage included batty boffins Professor Rudolph Popkiss and Dr. Horatio Beaker – who invented and built the mechanical beast – as well as boy sidekick Jimmy Gibson and his mischievous pet Mitch who was a monkey…

Located in a desert base at Black Rock, Nevada, the team had daring adventures all over the world (seen in the 39 episodes recorded between 1961-1962), and frequently faced wicked enemy agent Masterspy and his henchman Zarrin.

Broadcasts began in January 1962 and were eagerly awaited by millions of fans who found solace when the show closed by buying TV Comic for further exploits.

There were three annuals released, of which this is the last, offering an unconventional experience since all the strips and prose adventures comprise one large complete saga.

Following an enthralling painted double-page frontispiece of the wonder vehicle at the bottom of the sea, the action opens with Cauldwell’s full-colour strip ‘Killer Whale’ as the action-ready team save ocean-going scientist Doctor Bombay from one of his own maddened experiments. In the aftermath, they learn the savant has been recently been restored to his previous role as Maharajah of Subahn and agree to escort him home to take up the reins of power…

Before they can set off, however, a fresh emergency occurs, and Supercar is needed to fix a sabotaged trestle in Wood’s 2-colour strip ‘Bridge of Danger’ and their base is plundered of secrets in prose mystery yarn ‘The Workshop Robbery’. Thankfully, Mike is as adept at crimefighting and counterespionage as he is at flying…

Following puzzle page ‘World Flight’, monochrome strip ‘Close-Up on Danger’ finally sees the journey to Subahn begin, but during a stopover in London deposed former dictator Randah Singh deploys a hired assassin to kill Bombay in front of a live studio audience…

Plot foiled, the voyagers resume their flight, leaving us to enjoy a puzzle-maze in ‘S-O-S’ before a flashback prose tale details how Beaker and Popkiss discovered ‘The Treasure of Mesa Verde’ despite the larcenous efforts of Masterspy and Zarrin…

Another full-colour section begins with activity pages ‘What is Wrong with this Picture?’ and ‘Memory Game: Exploring Space’, before ‘Sahara Inferno’ finds Supercar diverted again to help extinguish a blazing natural gas well. General knowledge teaser ‘Nevada Quiz’ then segues into a new restricted colour section foe Wood’s ‘Kidnapped’ wherein Randah Singh hires Masterspy and Zarrin to ensure Maharajah Bombay never takes up his throne…

Rebus page ‘The Lost Diplomatic Plane’ leads to another prose flashback for ‘Mission to Destroy’; revealing how Supercar was instrumental in eradicating an illegal weapons cache in Malaya, after which a return to the present sees Bombay’s triumphal accession procession interrupted by the ‘Eruption!’ of the local volcano…

Memories evoked, a prose tale follows of a time in Switzerland when a souped-up mechanical doll triggered ‘The Avalanche’ before the extended saga concludes in full-colour with ‘The Triumphant Procession’ as Randah Singh plays his last murderous ace…

Blending charm with action and exoticism with big laughs, this is a splendid example of simpler times and all-ages storytelling that no nostalgia-afflicted baby boomer could possibly resist.
© 1963, A.P. FILMS and A.T.V. Ltd. All rights reserved.

Smash! Annual 1975


By many and various (IPC Magazines, Ltd)
SBN: 85037-166-X

Smash! launched with a cover-date of February 5th 1966: an ordinary Odhams anthology weekly which was quickly re-badged as a Power Comic at the end of the year; combining home-grown funnies and British originated thrillers with resized US strips to capitalise on the American superhero bubble created by the Batman TV series.

Power Comics was a sub-brand used by Odhams to differentiate those periodicals which contained reprinted American superhero material from the company’s regular blend of sports, war, western, adventure and humour comics – such as Buster, Valiant, Lion or Tiger.

During the Swinging Sixties the Power weeklies did much to popularise the budding Marvel universe characters in this country, which was still poorly served by distribution of the original American imports.

The increasingly expensive American reprints were dropped in 1969 and Smash! was radically retooled with the traditional mix of action, sport and humour strips. Undergoing a full redesign, it was relaunched on March 15th 1969 with all-British material and finally disappeared into Valiant in April 1971 after 257 issues.

However, the Seasonal specials remained a draw until October 1975 when Smash Annual 1976 properly ended the era. From then on, the Fleetway brand had no room for the old guard – except as re-conditioned reprints in cooler, more modern books…

As I’ve monotonously repeated, Christmas Annuals were forward-dated so this monumental mix of shock, awe and haw-haw was probably being put together between spring and September 1974, combining new strip or prose stories of old favourites with remastered reprints from other Fleetway-owned comics and a wealth of general interest fact features.

Here then, following a contents page/cast pin-up double page spread of the Swots and Blots, the festive fun kicks off with a promise of trouble to come – and a modicum of editorial fourth wall-busting – from ‘Bad Penny’ with what today seems a rather uncomfortable photo spread featuring chimps in human dress entitled ‘Monkey Music Tricks’

Devised by Barrie Mitchell and unbelievably popular, ‘His Sporting Lordship’ was a light-hearted everyman comedy drama and one of the most popular strips of the era. Debuting in Smash!, in 1969 Henry Nobbins survived the merger with Valiant and only retired just before the comic itself did.

Cover-featured Nobbins was only a common labourer when he unexpectedly inherited £5,000,000 and the title Earl of Ranworth. Unfortunately, he couldn’t touch the cash until he restored the family’s sporting reputation… by winning all the championships, prizes and awards that his forebears had held in times past…

Further complicating the issue was rival claimant Parkinson who, with henchman Fred Bloggs, constantly tried to sabotage his attempts. Luckily the new Earl was ably assisted by canny, cunning butler Jarvis…

With art (possibly?) by Douglas Maxted, this red-&-black-hued romp is his last ever appearance as the unlikely toff and his capable manservant attempt a sporting double – in ballooning and knitting – despite the scurrilous efforts of the skulking nemeses…

The first of a series of puzzle pages is next as ‘Smash Quiz No. 1’ asks questions on sporting subjects after which a prose tale of ‘Master of the Marsh’ (illustrated by the Solano Lopez studio) sees enigmatic hermit/P.E. teacher Patchman taking his pack of hooligans and rabble-rousers on an exchange trip to America, after which gags return in a perilous sub-sea lark for the crew of ‘Ghost Ship’ (by Sid Burgon?) and a nasty dose of civic pride causes carnage amidst the ongoing class war on Reg Parlett’s ‘Consternation Street’.

Also splitting sides and tickling ribs is Leo Baxendale’s ‘The Swots and the Blots’ – with a cataclysmic snowy guest shot from minxish Penny – whilst Fool who Fell to Earth ‘Monty Muddle’ (originally Milkiway – The Man from Mars in Buster) explores Earthlings’ obsession with digging holes.

Prose fact-feature ‘Fishing Can be Fun’ – illustrated by Ted Andrews and with photos – leads to history vignette ‘Pursuit in the Snow’ detailing an alpine pursuit during WWII before we enjoy a true gem of British comics suspense.

Written by Scott Goodall with Ken Mennell and Chris Lowder, ‘Cursitor Doom’ is the unquestioned masterpiece of Eric Bradbury – one of our greatest ever stylists. The strip is a darkly brooding Gothic thriller quite unlike anything else in comics then or since. If pushed, I’ll liken it most to William Hope Hodgson’s Karnacki the Ghost Breaker novelettes – although that’s more for flavour than anything else and even that doesn’t really cover it.

Doom is a fat, bald, foul-tempered, cape-wearing know-it-all who is also humanity’s last-ditch defence against the forces of darkness. With his strapping and rugged young assistant Angus McCraggan and Scarab, a trained raven (or is it, perhaps, something more?), Doom crushes without mercy any threat to humanity’s wellbeing. Here, that’s the sudden rising of ancient pagan gods animating the nations flora and imbuing it with a taste for blood…

Refreshing ourselves with more laughs, a brace of animal antics in Stan McMurtry’s ‘Percy’s Pets’ segues neatly into chilling chuckles in Leo Baxendale’s ‘The Haunts of Headless Harry’

Globe trotting journalist/adventurer Simon Test barely survives the diabolical ‘Revenge!’ of mad millionaire boffin Jabez Coppenger: a breathtaking thriller courtesy of Angus Allen & Bradbury, after which ‘Smash Hits’ doles out a double helping of single-panel gags and ‘Wacker’ (originally Elmer when first seen in Buster) finds the oaf trying out the job of lorry driver in a riotous romp from Roy Wilson, before we pause once more for intellectual stimulation as ‘Smash Quiz No. 2’ tests our affinity ‘For Motorcars’

A full-colour section begins and ends with a brace of strips starring smug know-it-all ‘Big ’Ead’ (another Buster ex-pat, limned by Nadal), bookending a lengthy photo-feature on model railways dubbed ‘Weeny Wonders’ before monochrome returns with ‘Smash Quiz No. 3 (For Animals)’ and another Baxendale (or maybe the legendary Mike Brown? You should look him up…) clash between ‘The Swots and the Blots’: a seasonal shocker as the kids perform a panto…

Another historical photo-feature on the British NRA and the shooting range at ‘Bisley’ follows, after which the spooks of the ‘Ghost Ship’ clash with a seagoing saurian and ‘Sam’s Spook’ gets his adopted mortal into more trouble before ‘Storm Hero’ tantalises in text with the tale of a daring cliff rescue.

‘Percy’s Pets’ (McMurtry or possibly Cyril Price) sees a skunk save the day before ‘Giants of Sport’ offers a roundup of contemporary legends and triumphs and ‘The Swots and the Blots’ indulge again in their own class war and thus won’t join us for ‘Smash Quiz No. 4 – For Soldiers’

Returning to full-colour, Victorian escapologist and showman ‘Janus Stark’ involves himself in a police hunt for a fantastic band of thieves only to discover all is not as it seems…

Stark was a fantastically innovative and successful strip. Created by Jack Legrand, and written by Tom Tully for the 1969 relaunch of Smash!, the majority of the art was from Francisco Solano Lopez’s Argentinean studio (including stints by Francisco Fuentes-Man, Juan García Quirós and Tom Kerr). The eerie moodiness well-suited the saga of a foundling who grew up in a grim orphanage to become the greatest escapologist of the Steam Age.

The Man with Rubber Bones also had his own ideas about Justice, and would joyously sort out scoundrels the Law couldn’t or wouldn’t touch. A number of creators worked on this feature, which survived until the downsizing of Fleetway’s comics division in 1975 – and even beyond – as Stark escaped oblivion when the series was continued in France – even unto Stark’s eventual death and succession by his son!

Back in black & white for the final stages, ‘Smash Quiz No. 5’ tests For Hobbies, ‘Big ’Ead’ goes skiing and photo-essay‘Clowning Around’ clues us in on everything we need to know about making kids laugh and some adults scream.

‘The World-Wide Wanderers’ were a literally international team of footballers drawn from many different countries – talk about prophetic! – who here star in prose yarn ‘Five-A-Side’ as acrimony and resentment between attack and defence divides the team, with unexpected benefits for a local charity before everything ends with ‘It’s Bad Penny Again’ as the tiny terror learns a painful lesson…

As my knowledge of British creators from this time is so woefully inadequate, I wouldn’t be surprised if I’ve misattributed and besmirched the good names of Leo Baxendale, Gordon Hogg, Stan McMurtry, Graham Allen, Mike Lacey, Terry Bave, Artie Jackson and numerous international artists anonymously utilised throughout this period. Even more so the unsung authors responsible for much of the joy in my early life – and certainly the childhoods of millions of others…

Christmas simply wasn’t right without a heaping helping of these garish, wonder-stuffed compendia offering a vast variety of stories and scenarios. Today’s celebrity, TV and media tie-in packages simply can’t compete, so why not track down a selection of brand-old delights with proven track record and guaranteed staying power…?
© IPC Magazines, Ltd. 1974.

On a Sunbeam


By Tillie Walden (Avery Hill)
ISBN: 978-1-910395-37-0 (HB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Epic and Groundbreaking Space Saga… 10/10

Just for a change, here’s a short review and recommendation for a lengthy but unmissable treat. You could just buy it now and not bother with what follows…

No matter its trappings or content, Science Fiction is about human relationships. The genre is the perfect vehicle to explore them and test the limits of what it means to be human – often to the point of destruction, beyond and even back again.

That said, it’s truly heartening to see that even after more than a century of categorisable SF in prose, comics, film and other art forms it’s still possible to say something fresh in a distinct and moving way.

After all, once you accept the premise that technology is not what it’s all about, you can ask some truly searching questions…

Tillie Walden is a relative newcomer – albeit a prolific one – who has garnered heaps of acclaim and awards. Whether through her fiction or autobiographical works, she always presents a feeling of absolute wonder, combined with a fresh incisive view and measured, compelling delivery in terms of both story and character. Her artwork is a sheer delight.

After turning heads with shorter pieces such as The End of Summer, I Love This Part, A City Inside and Spinning, in 2018 her webcomic On a Sunbeam made the jump to print in a massive and monumental tome that might well be one of the most intriguing and engaging sci fi yarns I have ever read.

Vast and complex but easily accessible, it tells of pensive outsider Mia, who roams the stars with a collective of artisans, repairing dilapidated homes, buildings, space stations and other magnificent structures as a kind of celebration of communal past glories. Each of the workers has their own occluded backstory, but Mia’s is the one we share through a series of flashbacks detailing her time at an intergalactic boarding school.

A girl tainted with rebellion and destined for trouble, her life turned around after meeting exotic new student Grace: an actual princess from a fabled and troubled lost interstellar kingdom known as The Staircase…

Now, years after their slowly-developing relationship was abruptly curtailed by cruel fate, Grace returns to Mia’s life, compelling her and her comrades to undertake a hazardous rescue mission to a terrifying and uncanny forbidden planet…

Blending romance, soul-searching, the innate hunger to see what’s over the next horizon and drive to belong into a miraculous voyage filled with wonders and imagination, On a Sunbeam is a warm, sensitive, funny and ultimately gratifying excursion, mercifully free of pointless action and manufactured conflict, that will delight any mature reader whose sense of longing has remained somehow unfulfilled, even after all these years…
© Tillie Walden 2018. All rights reserved.

Lala Albert: Seasonal Shift – Comics 2013-2019


By Lala Albert (Breakdown Press/The Library of Contemporary Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-911081-09-8 (TPB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Because Not All Beautiful Things are Pretty… 9/10

All right-thinking people know that graphic narrative is the most expressive and expansive medium to work in, right? The range of themes explored, stories told and varieties of delivery are pretty near infinite if created by an inspired artisan.

The act of stringing pictures and/or words together is something almost everybody has done at some stage of their lives. It’s a key step in the cognitive path of children and, for an increasing number of us, that compulsive, absorbing euphoria never goes away.

Whilst many millions acquiesce to the crushing weight of a world which stifles the liberation of creativity, turning a preponderance of makers into consumers, a privileged, determined few carry on: drawing, exploring, and in some cases, with technology’s help, producing and sharing.

That emotional and creative volatility has never been better realised than in the modern crop of storymakers, many of whom are being rightly-celebrated in collections of minicomics and collections such as this compilation of works by Brooklyn-based Lala Albert as part of the Library of Contemporary Comics, which is collecting shorter works by the best cartoonists currently working in the medium right now.

Opening with a forthright ‘Interview’ conducted by Michael DeForge, this sequence of tales, vignettes and self-publications addresses body issues, human relationships, and most especially interactions with society and the ever more imperilled environment through terse short stories, generally framed in science fictional, fantasy and horror terms of reference.

Gathered from Albert’s last six years, the raw, primitivist, questing revelations begin with ‘Morning Dew’: a self-published moment of luxurious hedonism in natural circumstances from 2019 that lapses into a glimpse at the inevitable, if improbable, consequence of plastic saturation, first seen in Future Shock #7 (2014), before ‘Starlight Local’ – part of Alien Invasion volume 3, 2013 – details the disturbing outcome of a casual hook-up during an interstellar commute…

Consumerism and self-determination get a handy heads-up when a girl orders a ‘nu device’ (Trapper Keeper volume 4, 2016) after which a new kind of surveillance society dystopia is explored and overturned in ‘R.A.T.’ (crafted for Latvia’s Kuš Comics in 2015).

These tales are delivered in a range of styles and palettes, but for me, pure stark monochrome is always a blessing, so the ferocious attitude of ‘Brainbuzz’ (Weird Magazine volume 5, 2014) only intensifies the disturbing exploration of bodily invasion undertaken here…

Masks and the mutability of personas are thoroughly, forensically questioned in kJanus’’:a voyage of intense personal discovery first released by Breakdown Press UK in 2014, before a distressing fascination of what lurks under our skins is displayed in ‘Flower Pot’! courtesy of Marécage, Revue Lagon, France, 2019.

An epic of ecological combat and fairy survival is revealed in multi-chapter saga of survival ‘Wet Earth’ (Sonatina, 2017), pitting ethereal pixies against the lower ends of an uncaring food chain, before a modicum of sanity – but never safety or true security – returns via comforting self-assessment in ‘Pinhole’ (Over the Line, Sidekick Books UK, 2015). After everything, it’s always good to check back in with your own skin…

Dark but never hopeless, and always avoiding slick, glib professional sheen, these tales bore right in to the heart, asking questions we all have. Whether you find any answers truly depends on you…
All work © Lala Albert 2019. This edition © Breakdown Press 2019. All rights reserved.