Ordinary


By Rob Williams & D’Israeli (Titan Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-78276-009-2 (HB)

Admit it. We’ve all wondered – and both comics and movies have explored at length and in various tones and styles – a particularly thorny contemporary question: what happens if everybody wakes up with superpowers?

Collecting a rather witty riff on that quandary, this wickedly charming little fable from Rob Williams & Matt “D’Israeli” Brooker – first seen in Judge Dredd Megazine #340-345 at the end of 2013, then as a Titan Comics miniseries and here gathered into one scintillating colour hardback or digital tome – takes the big question a step further by positing that on that day of astounding ascension everybody becomes a modern Prometheus but you…

After an effusive Introduction from Warren Ellis the strange tale of off-the-books plumber and inept gambler Michael Fisher begins one apparently typical morning as he wakes up in Queens, NYC. He’s late for another call-out and stumbling almost unthinkingly straight into a great big bunch of complete insanity…

Narrowly escaping a thorough thumping from Samoan thugs he owes cash to, the harried divorcee arrives at his latest job just in time to see the elderly client rapidly de-age to squelchy nothingness and short-tempered boss Brian turn into a talking bear.

Metamorphic madness is everywhere. Giants, flaming men and snotty dragons are popping up every second, but all Michael can think of is calling his ex, Sarah to see if their son Josh is okay.

As freaked-out military rapidly fail to control the situation, the truth slowly dawns. Not just New Yorkers but all of humanity has, in the space of an instant, become a race of shapeshifters, superhumans and worse.

Everyone except Michael…

As madness and panic grips the world, Mike naturally heads for a bar. When Brian joins him they watch the President’s emergency news conference. It would have gone much better if someone had been able to tell PotUS that his new power is broadcasting his actual thoughts in little cartoon thought balloons above his head…

When TV news shows Josh’s school is on fire, Brian urges Michael to get across the river and find his boy, but the now-empowered Samoans almost catch him and it takes low cunning, a Midas touch and a cosmically aware cabbie to save the day…

With chaos and carnage ravaging the nation, deep in the Pentagon the President is visibly losing it as his fundamentalist Vice-President stridently argues that the power proliferation is a Heaven-sent blessing intended to help the Land of the Free smite all the world’s unbelievers.

Scottish Genomics Professor and resident scientific expert Dr. Tara McDonald has a more reasoned argument. The situation is a literal plague and uncontrolled super-abilities will destroy mankind unless a cure is quickly found. Already, America’s enemies are gathering and nations all over Earth are marshalling their burgeoning meta-resources to settle age-old scores and eradicate contemporary rivals.

However, before McDonald can even postulate a remedy, they have to find someone immune to the catastrophic contagion…

Against all his normal instincts and incredible odds – which comprise both transformees and the increasingly hard-pressed, savagely dictatorial remnants of the civil authorities – Michael has made his way into Manhattan even as in Washington, McDonald’s best efforts have yielded pitiful results.

Things really go south after a nuke detonates in Afghanistan and the Veep seizes command. The rabid Christian doesn’t want a cure and when the only man in existence without uncanny abilities becomes a minor media celebrity by rescuing his son from a New York school, the acting Commander-in-Chief’s zealots are only one of a number of ruthless factions instantly targeting unfortunate Mr. Fisher…

Now it’s a race against time as deadly opponents from warring and friendly nations alike contend to control the unluckiest, most useless man in the world, with the fate of humanity in the balance. Fate and science, however, have teamed up to deliver a big surprise for everybody…

Augmenting this thought-provoking package is a gallery of guest pinups from Edmund Bagwell, Ben Oliver, Laurence Campbell, Brian Ching & Michael Atiyeh, Brendan McCarthy, Neil Googe, Dom Reardon, Henry Flint, Alison Sampson & Ruth Redmond, James Harren, Ale Aragon, Mark Buckingham & D’Israeli, plus a little learned discourse – stuffed with the illustrator’s behind-the-scenes sketches and working drawings – on ‘Ordinary Science’ from Evolutionary Biologist and comics fan JV Chamary (PhD)…

Devilishly clever, cruelly passionate, potently humane and devastatingly funny, this sharp treatise on the true meaning of power politics offers a uniquely British spin on the eternal fantastic flight of idle fantasy and will delight all lovers of the genre with a world-weary eye to the way life really works…
Ordinary is ™ and © 2014 Rob Williams and Matt Brooker. All rights reserved.

Yoko Tsuno volume 9: The Forge of Vulcan


By Roger Leloup (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-1-84918-197-6 (Album PB)

The uncannily edgy yet excessively accessible European exploits of Japanese scientific adventurer Yoko Tsuno began first began gracing the pages of Le Journal de Spirou in September 1970 and are still going strong.

The explosive, eye-popping, expansively globe-girdling, multi award-winning series was devised by Roger Leloup, another hugely talented Belgian who worked as one of Hergé’s assistants on the Adventures of Tintin strip before striking out on his own.

Compellingly told, superbly imaginative but always solidly placed in hyper-realistic settings sporting utterly authentic and unshakeably believable technology, these illustrated epics were at the vanguard of a wave of strips starring smart, competent and brave female protagonists which revolutionised Continental comics from the last third of the 20th century onwards and are as potently empowering now as they ever were.

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

That epic of extraterrestrial intrigue was the first of 30 European albums, with this one was first serialised in 1973 (Spirou #1819-1840) before being released the same year as La forge de Vulcain. A spectacular earth-shaking rollercoaster romp, it was chronologically the third album and reached us as Cinebook’s ninth translated chronicle.

It all begins when Yoko spots a TV report of a disaster on an oil rig near Martinique and realises the drill has impacted and penetrated the same strange material – “vitreous, luminous and ultra-magnetic” – that was a basic building material of the subterranean aliens known as the Vineans

Those ancient wanderers had been secretly hibernating deep within the earth for hundreds of thousands of years until she, TV producer Vic Van Steen and his frivolous cameraman pal Pol Paris encountered them to set the lost race on a new path…

Now the Vineans seem to be at the heart of a burgeoning ecological catastrophe of cataclysmic proportions, and none too soon Yoko and the lads are winging their way to the Caribbean. Upon landing, they waste no time in bluffing their way into the offices of oil company Forex, aided by a few mementoes of their under-earth adventure.

They are, however, about to be unceremoniously ejected when news comes that the soon-to-explode rig has encountered a new problem: a strange craft, unlike any ever seen, trapped in the rig’s legs even as inexplicable seismic distortions propagate, creating an area of meteorological instability.

Yoko convinces the manager she has prior experience in matters like these and is promptly jetting over in a helicopter. Of course, she had to stow away first…

Before long she is valiantly prying a live Vinean and his scout vessel out of a boiling gusher of mud and has discerned the true scale of the threat. The rig’s drill has intercepted a Vinean magma tunnel – used in their construction projects – which has strayed too close to the oil field, triggering a potential geological time-bomb…

Thankfully the crisis has brought forth an unexpected benefit too as old friend and benevolent alien scientist Khanyarrives to take charge. The forthright technologist already has a plan but needs her old surface allies’ assistance to carry it out. Soon Yoko, Pol and Vic are abandoning the incredulous rig engineers and heading back under earth where an unpleasant surprise is awaiting them.

The Vineans had slept in huge, manufactured caverns for almost half a million years, but since recently reviving, internecine strife has entered the lives of the blue-skinned colonist/refugees.

In The Curious Trio, ambitious militaristic throwback Karpan made a play to seize power from the vast electronic complex known as The Centre which regulated the lives of the colonists. The blustering bully was ultimately frustrated by Khany and her newfound surface pals but now – thanks to humanity’s underground atomic testing – has returned to prominence amongst his terrified people and set in motion a dangerous scheme to destroy Earth’s civilisation and conquer the survivors.

Subverting a plan to divert magma and grow a new continent for the Vineans to occupy, Karpan wants to use the colossal magma-shifting technology to drown the surface world. Khany and her followers were already attempting to scuttle the scheme, but now grim fortune and the humans’ drill have damaged the super-engineered magma-tubes, a drastic solution is necessary to save the planet both species occupy from exploding like a cosmic firecracker…

Naturally Yoko has a plan, but this one depends as much on luck as her scientific ingenuity and martial arts prowess as she tries to mould lava like plasticine and thwart Karpan’s globally suicidal schemes…

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

Possibly the most frenetic and visually spectacular of all her adventures, The Forge of Vulcan is a relentless, rocket-paced race to doom or salvation that will appeal to any fan of blockbuster action fantasy.
Original edition © Dupuis, 1973, 1979 by Roger Leloup. All rights reserved. English translation 2014 © Cinebook Ltd.

Bad Girls


By Steve Vance, Jennifer Graves, Christine Norrie, J. Bone & Daniel Krall (DC comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-2359-5 (TPB)

Ever since English-language comics proudly proclaimed they weren’t “just for kids anymore” the industry and art form has struggled to produce material to appeal to young consumers and a general teen readership.

Girls. We’re talking about girls. We’ve never been able to keep enough girls reading comics – or even talking to us, if I’m brutally honest. Flooding the market with derivations of popular shows, or adaptations of movies, toys and trends, has never addressed the issue.

Haunted by a terrifying suspicion that the core buyers were a specific hooked generation who aged with the passing years and would die out without renewing or replenishing the buying base, mainstream companies have, since the 1990’s, frantically sought ways to make the medium as attractive to new and youthful buyers and potential fans.

Fighting a losing battle on format – it’s always going to be sequential pictures, whether on a screen or in some kind of book or pamphlet, requiring a basic ability to read – and never able to combat the vibrant, bells-and-whistles immediacy of TV, DVDs, streamed video or games consoles, comic producers, apparently distrusting the basic innate strengths of our medium, could only repeatedly attempt to appeal to young consumers’ other sensibilities and interests.

Leaving aside the obvious – and ancient – failed tactic of making comicbook iterations out of their perceived rival entertainments, the only other way to entice newbies into our playground has been to widen the genre divides and offer fresh or imported ideas, stories and art styles that (like manga) might appeal to people who don’t normally think of comics as entertainment.

Sadly most of those – good, bad or indifferent – went unread anyway, because they were only advertised in comics and retailed through dedicated in comicbook stores – infamous as impenetrable girl-free zones…

One such delightful yet tragically lost experiment was released by DC as a 5-part miniseries in 2003. Author Steve Vance’s best comics work is child-accessible, with long and intensely enjoyable runs on the animation-inspired Adventures in the DC Universe and Simpsons Comics (among others) and in this witty blend of high school comedy and science fiction conspiracy movie, he and artist co-creator Jennifer Graves had a huge amount of sly fun producing what could still be a perfect Teen Movie in the manner of Heathers, Bring It On, Mean Girls, John Tucker Must Die or even Teen Wolf.

As a comic book, however, it just never found the wide audience it deserved. Yet here I am, telling you to track it down and give it a shot…

Apparently, almost every American kid endures the savage crucible of organised education, and the youthful attendees of San Narciso High are a pretty typical bunch. Even in a brand new institution opening for its very first day, there are the faceless majority and nerds and jocks and the popular ones: all part of the mythically perennial melting pot.

… And then there’s Lauren Case, a forthright, sensible young lady who has changed schools many, many times.

In ‘Girl Power’ she starts off well-enough, safely lost in the crowd, but before the first morning is over, an acrobatic and painful encounter with science geek Ronald Bogley leads to a face off with the community’s ultra-spoiled princesses Tiffany, Brittany, Destinee and Ashley.

Ms Case suffers the hallowed punishment of a crushing snub from the haughty Mean Girls whilst the Jock Squad – ever eager to impress the de facto rulers of the roost – treat poor Ronald to the traditional watery going-over in the restrooms. However a dunking in the oddly purple toilet water results, for just a split second, in the nerd gaining the strength to smash walls in his bare hands. Alert to all sorts of possibilities, Ronald fills a drinking bottle with the lavender lavatory liquid for testing in his lab…

Later in science class Lauren is partnered with Ronald and inadvertently blows up the lab, but at least she makes friend out of quick-thinking Simone who puts out the resultant conflagration.

At the end of a very trying first day Lauren offers a hand of peace and guiltily patronising friendship to the bespectacled geek – who is utterly smitten with her – when the Princess Pack turns up, intrigued that the new girl’s propensity for mischief and mayhem might make her eligible for their condescending attention. She might even, with a lot of hard work, become one of them…

Knowing anything they want is theirs by divine right, the girls drink the strange purple juice Ronald left and invite Lauren to join them at a club that night…

With their departure Ronald comes out of hiding and shows her his science project; lab mice Snowie and Doodles who are demonstrating increased vitality after drinking the purple potion he “discovered”…

Hating herself, Lauren joins the Popular People at Club Trystero and strikes up a conversation with Simone, but quickly drops her when the anointed ones show up. Soon she is lost in the swirl of drink, music and attentive, fawning, testosterone-fuelled boys but gets a severe unreality check when the spoiled ones abruptly begin demonstrating super-powers (Brittany – shape-shifting, Destinee – invisibility, Tiffany – flight and Ashley – super-strength), trashing the place with sublime indifference and their usual casual disregard to consequences.

Knowing that the insanely entitled girls will be more vile and malicious than ever, she tells Ronald, who reveals that after closely observing his beloved mice, he’s discovered that the liquid only imparts permanent abilities to females.

He then suggests that Lauren become a superhero to battle Tiffany and her terrible tarts, but naturally she hotly rejects his insane suggestion. Realising only he can now stop the bad girls, Ronald rushes to the toilets for more of the purple water only to find a repair crew fixing the damage he caused and the water there is fresh, clear and very, very, normal…

In ‘Party Girls’ (illustrated by Christine Norrie & J. Bone) the Petty, Pretty Things are going firmly off the rails, with stealing test answers and framing others for indiscretions – just because they can – quickly graduating to raiding ATMs, purloining booze and shop-lifting.

Meanwhile Ronald accidentally stumbles upon the true source of the purple power juice and begins more testing, unaware that a Federal investigation team is covertly examining the damaged washroom and other odd occurrences in San Narciso…

At an unsanctioned party the girls go wild, at last realising that their incredible abilities can make them… celebrities!

In her egomaniacal smugness Tiffany causes one boy severe injury but when the police arriveBrittanyturns into a cop and “escorts” her sinister sisters out of custody…

Narrowly escaping arrest herself, Lauren awakes the next morning feeling awful and gradually realises that she can read minds…

With her new cacophonous and distracting ability it doesn’t take long to discover that Ronald has dosed her with the mystery fluid, but ‘Mindfield’ offers temptation beyond endurance, as her power – once she gets the hang of it – makes Lauren’s life so much easier. Still a probationary member of Tiffany’s clique, she also becomes privy to the terrified intimate thoughts of Destinee, Ashley and Brittany, and what they really feel about themselves and their self-obsessed leader. Aware of how close to the dark side she has drifted, Lauren confides everything to Simone. Meanwhile Agents Osgood and Buckner are keenly watching the Bad Girls’ every move and when Destinee is caught shoplifting again a frantic chase results in the invisible girl’s death…

‘Girl, Intercepted’ (art by Norrie & Daniel Krall) opens at the funeral with Destinee, Ashley and Tiffany far more concerned about how they’re dressed than the fate of their departed… associate… uncaring of the rumours now circulating. Lauren decides to use her power to surreptitiously help her school mates and teachers – although for some reason she cannot read science teacher Mr. Heisenberg’s mind – but Ronald has his own problems: Snowie and Doodles have broken free of their cage and escaped…

At least that’s what Heisenberg wants the geeky kid to believe…

Events come to an unbelievable head after the girls finally discover Lauren’s sneaky secret power and throw her out of a skyscraper, before going on one final petulant rampage. In a torrent of frantic revelation the agents’ true aims are exposed, the origin of the power-potion disclosed, Heisenberg’s schemes are uncovered and a few more astounding surprises unleashed in ‘All Bad Things Must Come to an End’: a thrilling and cynically satisfying conclusion that will delight fun-loving readers and viewers alike.

This fabulous engaging tome also includes the gallery of spiffy covers by Darwyn Cooke and a Sketches section of Jennifer Graves’ production designs.

© 2003 Steve Vance and Jennifer Graves. All Rights Reserved. Cover, text and compilation © 2009 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

yeht: they


By Anonymous Busch & Michael A. Reed
ISBN: 978-3-9524704-6-6 (PB)

It’s been a fraught few years just recently, and if I’ve learned anything from them, it’s that anxiety is habit-forming. With that in mind here’s a fascinatingly compiled dossier offering a glimpse at how the world really runs, cunningly disguised as a science fiction thriller…

Crafted with subversive passion and loads of alternative data by Anonymous Busch with superb rendering in stark monochrome and oodles graphic aplomb by the clearly-pseudonymous Michael A Reed (who’s a dab hand with both typography and cruel caricature), there’s probably a wealth of covert meaning behind this ripping yarn of a dedicated journalist pulled into a cascade of fox-&-hound events just “20 minutes into the future”…

Young, but an old-school rebel at heart, Melissa “Missy” Anthrop is facing the end of her career before it starts because she won’t get the implants everybody else welcomes. Things suddenly change when a mystery phone and credit card wind up in her hands, ordering her to investigate certain events and people…

Soon she’s enmired in the network of 1-percenters, Faith leaders, politicians and celebrities who really run the world, escaping from faceless thugs and saving harvested children in a frantic dash to expose all the secrets. Especially, and most notably, who sent her the phone and card in the first place?

Whimsical, waspish, drenched in paranoia and riffing on every conspiracy theory doing the rounds, this is either a delightful and engaging adventure spoof, or a real deal exposé I’m too rich, complacent and evil to spot.

Maybe it’s best that you read it yourself – while you still can – and make your own mind up?
© 2017 Anonymous Busch & Michael A. Reed. All rights reserved.

Black Jack volume 1


By Osamu Tezuka, translated by Camelia Nieh (Vertical)
ISBN: 978-1934287-27-9 (Tankōbon PB)

There aren’t many Names in comics. Lots of creators; multi-disciplined or single focussed, who have contributed to the body of the art form, but we don’t have many Global Presences whose contribution have affected generations of readers and aspirants all over the World, like a Mozart or Michelangelo or Shakespeare. There’s just Hergé and Jack Kirby and Osamu Tezuka.

Tezuka was born in Qsaka Prefecture on 3rd November 1928, and as a child suffered a severe illness that made his arms swell. The doctor who cured him inspired him to study medicine, and although Osamu began his professional drawing career while at university, he persevered with his studies and qualified as a doctor too. As he faced a career crossroads, his mother advised him to do the thing that made him happiest. He never practiced as a healer but the world was gifted with such classic cartoon masterpieces as Tetsuwan Atomu (Astro-boy), Kimba the White Lion, Buddha, Adolf and literally hundreds of other graphic narratives. Along the way Tezuka incidentally pioneered, if not created, the Japanese anime industry…

Able to speak to the hearts and minds of children and adults equally, Tezuka’s work ranges from the charming to the disturbing and even terrifying. In 1973 he turned his storyteller’s heart to the realm of medicine and created Burakku Jakku, a lone wolf surgeon living outside society’s boundaries and rules: a scarred and seemingly heartless mercenary working miracles for the right price but also a deeply human wounded soul who makes surgical magic from behind icy walls of cool indifference and casual hostility – think Silas Marner before the moppet turns up or Ebenezer Scrooge before bedtime; except Black Jack never, ever gets soft and cuddly.

These translated, collected adventures – available paperback and digital formats – begin with the frankly startling ‘Is There a Doctor?’, wherein the joyriding son of the richest man in the world is critically injured. The boy’s ruthless father forces Black Jack to perform a full body transplant on an unwilling victim… but the super-surgeon still manages to turn the tables on the vile plutocrat…

Each story is self-contained over about 20 pages, and the second – ‘The First Storm of Spring’ – tells the eerie, poignant tale of a young girl whose corneal transplant has gone strangely awry. Can the handsome boy she keeps seeing possibly be the ghostly original owner of the eye, and if so, what was he truly like?

With ‘Teratoid Cystoma’ the series solidly enters into fantasy territory whilst ramping up the medical authenticity. Tezuka chose to draw in a highly stylised, “Big-foot” manner (he was the acknowledged inventor of the Manga Big-Eyes artistic device) but with increasing dependence on surgical and anatomical veracity, his innate ability to render anatomy and organs realistically truly came to the fore.

A teratonous cystoma occurs when twins are conceived but one of the embryos fails to cohere. Undifferentiated portions of one twin, a limb or organ grows within and nourished by the other. As the surviving twin matures, the enclosed “spare parts” start to distend the body, appearing like a cyst or growth.

For the sake of narrative – and possibly to just plain freak you out – in this story a famous personage wishing total discretion requires the Ronin Doctor to remove a huge growth from her. Many Japanese have a frankly unhealthy prejudice against physical imperfection – for more search “the Hibakusha” – and this case is a much about stigma and position as wellbeing…

The mystery patient’s problem is exacerbated because whenever other surgeons have tried to operate, they have been debilitated by a telepathic assault from the growth. Overcoming incredible resistance, Black Jack succeeds, removing a fully-formed brain and nervous system. Ignoring the disgust of the patient and doctors, he then builds an artificial body for the stunted, sentient remnants; and calls her Pinoko.

‘The Face Sore’ combines Japanese legends of the Jinmenso (intelligent, garrulous tumours) with cases of disfiguring carbuncles and rashes to produce a very scary modern horror story – and by modern, I mean lacking a happy ending…

Pinoko, looking like a little girl (whether she’s a year old or eighteen is a running gag throughout the series) has meanwhile become Black Jack’s secretary/major domo and gadfly. In ‘Sometimes Like Pearls’, she opens a unique parcel addressed to him which leads to some invaluable back-story as the solitary surgeon travels to see his great teacher and learns one final lesson…

‘Confluence’ provides a little twisted romance as the medical maverick loses out on a chance at love when undertaking a radical procedure to save a young woman from uterine cancer, whilst in ‘The Painting is Dead!’ an artist caught in a nuclear test endures a full brain transplant just to be able to finish his painting condemning atomic warmongers.

‘Star, Magnitude Six’ exposes the pompous venality and arrant cronyism, not to mention entrenched stupidity, of hospitals’ hierarchical hegemonies in a tale satisfyingly reminiscent of Steve Ditko’s H series and J series of polemical objectivist parables before the ruthless outlaw surgeon meets his female counterpart in the bittersweet ‘Black Queen.’

‘U-18 Knew’ moves us into pure science fiction territory when the unlicensed doctor is hired by an American medical facility to operate on a vast medical computer that has achieved true sentience, leading to some telling questions about who – and what – defines “humanity.”

An annoying sidebar I feel compelled to add here: For many years broad, purely visual racial stereotypes were common “shorthand” in Japanese comics – and ours, and everybody else’s. They crop up here, but please remember that even at the time this story originated from, this was in no way a charged image; Tezuka’s depictions of native Japanese were just as broad and expressionistic. A simple reading of the text should dispel any notions of racism: but if you can’t get past these decades-old images, just put the book down. Don’t buy it. It’s your loss.

A heartrendingly powerful tale of determination sees a young polio victim almost fail a sponsored walk until an enigmatic stranger with a scarred face bullies, abuses and provokes him to finish. It also provides more clues to Black Jack’s past in ‘The Legs of an Ant’ before this first collection concludes with ‘Two Loves’ as a van driver deprives the greatest sushi artist in the world of his arm and his dreams when he runs him over. The lengths to which the driver goes to make amends are truly staggering… but sometimes Fate just seems to hate some people…

One thing should always be remembered when reading these stories: despite all the scientific detail, all the frighteningly accurate terminology and trappings. Black Jack isn’t medical fiction; it is an exploration of morality with medicine raised to the level of magic… or perhaps duelling.

This is a saga of personal combat, with the lone gunfighter battling hugely oppressive counter-forces (the Law, the System, himself) to win just one more victory: medicine as mythology, battles of a prescribing Ronin with a Gladstone bag.

Elements of rationalism, science-fiction, kitchen sink drama, spiritualism and even the supernatural appear in this saga of Japanese Magical Realism to rival the works of Carlos Fuentes and Gabriel García Márquez. Mostly though, these are highly addictive tales of heroism; ones that that will stay with you forever.
© 2008 by Tezuka Productions. Translation © 2008 by Camelia Nieh and Vertical, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Spirit of Wonder


By Kenji Tsuruta, translated
ISBN: 978-1-56971-288-7 (Tankōbon PB)

Just re-read this and it’s still great…

Despite carrying all the trappings of a blistering science fiction comedy romp, acclaimed author/illustrator Kenji Tsuruta’s beguiling fantasy Spirit of Wonder is a sweet romantic comedy with genteel, anything is possible sentimental yearning as the driving force.

Set in a charming alternate time and place so like our own world, it follows the Byzantine trials and tribulations of feisty, beautiful tavern owner Miss China and her truly bizarre, indigent and obnoxious upstairs tenants – genuinely bonkers Professor Breckenridge and his gorgeous, hunky assistant Jim Floyd

Creator Tsuruta (Emanon, Wandering Island) was born in 1961 and studied optical science, intending to pursue a career in photography before happily making the jump to narrative storytelling as manga artist, designer, book illustrator and anime creator.

A lifelong fan of “hard science” science fiction authors like Robert A. Heinlein and the comics of Tetsuya Chiba and Yukinobu (Saber Tiger) Hoshino, Tsuruta began selling his own works in 1986 after years of producing self-published dōjinshi whilst working as an assistant to established manga stars. His short fantasy serial Hiroku te suteki na uchū ja nai ka (‘What a Big Wonderful Universe It Is’) was published in Kodansha’s Weekly Morning magazine and his path was set.

Soon after, he began this enticing, enchanting scientific romance of gently colliding worlds which ran in both Weekly Morning and monthly magazine Afternoon – between 1987 and 1996 – before making the smooth transition to animated features and an award-winning TV series.

This English edition comes courtesy of Dark Horse Comics who published the first few translated episodes as a 5-issue monochrome miniseries in 1995-6.

In a comfortable faux-Victorian milieu, the exotic immigrant Lady China runs the Ten-Kai Tavern in the sleepy yet cosmopolitan port-town of Bristol. The generally peaceful burg hardly ever-changes, but China’s life is one of constant struggle to make a comfortable living, especially as she rents her upstairs rooms to a couple of crackpot deadbeats who continually mess up the place with their idiotic contraptions and persistently fail to pay rent.

The older guy is truly annoying and doesn’t care about anything beyond his latest weird invention but his assistant is a rather sweet and delightful young man who has captured China’s fast-beating heart…

The wonderment begins on another belated rent day with ‘Miss China’s Ring or Doctor Breckenridge and the Amazing Ether Reflector mirror!’ wherein the frustrated landlady is again forced to employ her formidable martial arts skills to get the insufferable scholar’s attention – if not the long-delayed and constantly accruing cash payable.

It’s really not a good time: Breckenridge is entertaining potential investors in his latest creation which promises safe travel to the Moon…

The meeting does not end well and both landlady and tenant depart unsatisfied, whilst in another part of town, Jim – whose responsibilities include doing everything and somehow finding the money to pay for it – is picking up a vital component from pretty “florist” Lily (a girl with amazing connections able to procure anything wayward inventors might ever require).

Unfortunately, China sees the object of her desire spending what should be rent money on a very pretty flower girl and goes ballistic…

Floyd adores China too, but as a typical guy is utterly unable to tell her. He can, however, thanks to his mad mentor Breckenridge and some astounding discoveries left by his own vanished father – another technological miracle man – give her the moon.

Literally…

Jim gives China a ring as a birthday present but she is too furious to care. She wants rent not trinkets from a flighty gadabout. If only she could calm down enough, she would see that the gift is carved from actual moon rock, but beaten into a strategic retreat, Jim realises he needs to make a somewhat grander gesture…

Heartbroken, China falls asleep and is much calmer when she awakes. Bringing her troublesome tenants tea, she looks up into the sky and sees the message Jim has carved into the shining luminous lunar surface…

Stunned and troubled, she moves through the days in a dream. Even with the evidence above his head Breckenridge still can’t get anyone to bankroll him and is driven to unwise acts. Soon the entire world is imperilled by his etheric meddling and the moon is plummeting on a deadly collision course with Bristol.

Luckily, the uniquely physical and practical talents of Miss China are of some use in averting disaster if not setting things totally aright…

‘The Flight of Floyd’ opens with the Mad Professor oafishly seeking to make amends by giving China a flying broomstick, before concluding that he will never understand women. The lovelorn landlady simply wishes she could make Jim pay attention to her, superstitiously wishing upon a shooting star, but the object of her infatuation is preoccupied with completing his missing father’s gravity disrupter and with off-handed tactlessness explains that she’s doing it wrong…

Once again the cause of increasing China’s woes, the hapless Floyd decides to use his Gravitation Gate to make things right – by creating a permanent rain of meteors for the lovely landlady to wish upon, momentarily forgetting that whilst pretty in the evening sky, a bombardment of incandescent rock packs a bit of a punch when hitting terra firma…

The marvellous merriment concludes with ‘China Strikes Back parts 1 and 2, or Doctor Breckenridge and the Astounding Instantaneous Matter Transmitter!’, which finds times hard in Bristol as the town shivers under a blanket of snow, and cash-strapped, customer-starved Lady China is forced to get increasingly heavy with her free-loading lodgers. She is also taking out her bad moods on the townspeople and the few customers still frequenting the inn for food and drinks.

However, when she once again busts in the upstairs door in search of her overdue payments, she finds the Professor and Jim have vanished, taking all their ludicrous junk with them.

They haven’t gone far, however. In fact, they haven’t gone anywhere at all, but simply set up a system by which China’s entrances and exits teleport her to and from an empty set of duplicate rooms, leaving the unscrupulous tinkerers free to stay at the tavern without being bothered.

Sadly, they hadn’t bothered to soundproof the floors of the upper rooms or warn black market tech dealer Lily of their latest innovation and when China discovers the scam – in the most embarrassing manner possible – Jim is forced into a fury of improvisation before he’s able to make things right…

This enchanting blend of Steampunk and gleeful science whimsy is a sharp, wry and fantastically ingenious human drama, filled with gentle good humour and warmth, rendered with such astonishing sensitivity and imagination that the most outrageous scenes appear thoroughly rational, authentic and real – although sadly some people might focus far too much on the innocent, unconscious and completely casual nudity rather than the superb story and characterisations on display.

Filled with extra cover illustrations, pin-ups and an engaging interview with the creator, Spirit of Wonder is a treat for every open-hearted, big-minded romantic and one no fantasy fan should be denied. Let’s hope it will be back in circulation ASAP…
© 1996 Kenji Tsuruta. All rights reserved.

Freddy Vs School


By Neill Cameron (David Fickling Books)
ISBN: 978-1-78845-143-7 (PB)

Great characters are hard to pin down in the modern-multi-media world – even if they’re relatively new. Here’s a delightful and extremely entertaining sideways move for a favourite comics character – oddly, from ultra-modern full-colour cartoon pages to the hoary hallowed traditions and trappings of illustrated prose…

Neill Cameron (Tamsin of the Deep, How to Make Awesome Comics, Pirates of Pangea) has charmed and enthralled kids of all ages with another serial originating in the picture-perfect pages of wonderful weekly The Phoenix. This one is the Mega-Robo Brothers, set in a charmingly inclusive and diverse futuristic London (at least 3 months from now…) and featuring a pair of marvellous metal-&-plastic paladins who are not like other kids – no matter how much they try…

Now he’s a stalwart of proper literature, let’s dip into this superb romp in the grand manner of Just William or Billy Bunter thanks to the smaller of those rather unique lads…

Welcome to the Future!

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

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

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

When occasion demands, the lads undertake missions, but mostly it’s just home, games, homework and School. At least that’s how it seems to Freddy: a typical, excitable 10-year-old (well, except for the built-in super-strength, flight rockets and lasers). Alex may be at the age when self-doubt and anxiety begin to manifest, but Freddy is insufferably exuberant and over-confident. And that’s where the trouble starts today…

Some kids just find themselves at the centre of unfortunate events, even without a suite of onboard tactical weaponry, and it all begins with another fraught parent-teacher conference between Deputy Head Mr. Javid and Freddy’s Mum. As usual it involves an unfortunate use of the metal boy’s unique gifts, subsequent destruction of property and trauma for the staff, but this time the repercussions are severe. Cash-strapped and at the end of his tether, Mr Javid imposes a draconian Code of Conduct forbidding students from using Super-strength, Booster Rockets or Lasers on school property. Obviously, it’s not a sanction that affects every pupil, and Mum is offended but, in the end, really wants her sons to grow up in a social environment and not be excluded or home-schooled…

Sadly, Freddy is wilful and easily led, especially by his best friend Fernando. He also hates boring learning and loves excitement. Dr. Sharma calls him an “instigator”, and hopes the influence of sporty Anisha or quietly studious new boy Riyad will have a calming effect on her son. She has no idea of the trouble lurking, hulking bully Henrik is planning, or the devasting consequences that will result from Freddy’s inability to do what he’s told…

Stuffed with monochrome cartoons and bouncy graphics, this is unmissable entertainment for kids of all ages and vintage: a splendidly traditional school days comedy romp, amped up on sci fi and superhero riffs and carrying a powerful message that no one is beyond saving. Freddy vs School is wonderful adventure for younger readers and one you’ll adore too.
Text and illustrations © Neill Cameron 2021. All rights reserved.

Freddy vs School will be published on 7th January 2021 and is available for pre-order now

Merry Christmas, One and All

In keeping with my self-imposed Holiday tradition here’s another pick of British Annuals selected not just for nostalgia’s sake but because it’s my house and my rules…

After decades when only American comics and memorabilia were considered collectable or worthy, the resurgence of interest in home-grown material means there’s lots more of this stuff available and if you’re lucky enough to stumble across a vintage volume or modern facsimile, I hope my words convince you to expand your comfort zone and try something old yet new…

Still topping my Xmas wish-list is further collections from fans and publishers who have begun to rescue this magical material from print limbo in (affordable) new collections…

Great writing and art is rotting in boxes and attics or the archives of publishing houses, when it needs to be back in the hands of readers once again. As the tastes of the reading public have never been broader and since a selective sampling of our popular heritage will always appeal to some part of the mass consumer base, let’s all continue rewarding publishers for their efforts and prove that there’s money to be made from these glorious examples of our communal childhood.

Look and Learn Book 1964
By various (Fleetway)
No ISBN

One of the most missed of publishing traditions in this country is the educational comic. From the features in legendary icon The Eagle to the small explosion of factual and socially responsible boys’ and girls’ papers in the late 1950s, to the heady go-getting heydays of the 1960s and 1970s, Britain had a healthy sub-culture of kids’ periodicals that informed, instructed and revealed – and don’t even get me started on sports comics!

Amongst many others, Speed & Power, World of Wonder, Tell Me Why and the greatest of them all, Look and Learn, spent weeks over decades making things clear and bringing the marvels of the world to our childish but avid attentions. Moreover, when we had no screens of our own, it was all accomplished with wit, style and – thanks to the quality of the illustrators involved – astonishing beauty and clarity.

Look and Learn launched on 20th January 1962, the brainchild of Fleetway Publications Director of Juvenile Publications Leonard Matthews, and executed by Editor David Stone (almost instantly replaced by John Sanders), Sub-Editor Freddie Lidstone and Art Director Jack Parker.

For twenty years and 1049 issues. the comic delighted children by bringing the marvels of the universe to their doors, and became one of the county’s most popular children’s weeklies. Naturally, there were many spin-off tomes such as The Look and Learn Book of 1001 Questions and Answers, Look and Learn Book of Wonders of Nature, Look and Learn Book of Pets and Look and Learn Young Scientist, as well as the totally engrossing Christmas treat The Look and Learn Book.

Selected simply because it has a lovely and inclusive painted cover, this volume – released for Christmas 1963 (as with almost all UK Annuals they were forward-dated) is a prime example of a lost form. Within this168-heavy-stock-paged hardback are 49 fascinating features on all aspects of human endeavour and natural wonder from And in the beginning there was FIRE, Let’s Look at Canada, How this Book was Printed, It’s On the Map!, The Muscle Menders, When Man Goes to Mars, Every Carpet Tells a Story, The Charm of Canterbury, Puzzle Pix, Art Gallery in an Album, Photo Know-How, The Queen’s Bodyguard, Why Do Camels Have Humps? and dozens more articles, all cannily designed to beguile, enthral and above all else, inspire young minds.

Lavishly illustrated with photographs, diagrams, infographics, and paintings and drawings by some of the world’s greatest commercial artists including such luminaries as Ron and Gerry Embleton, Don Lawrence, Helen Haywood, Ron Turner, Ken Evans, Angus McBride, Severino Baraldi, Graham Coton, Ralph Bruce, Cecil Langley Doughty and many others, these books were an utter delight for hungry minds to devour whilst the turkey and Christmas pudding were slowly digested…

Earlier editions such as this one also valued literary entertainment and hands-on activity: providing illustrated extracts from classic books (as here with ‘Midshipman Easy Goes to Sea’ by Captain Frederick Marryat and illuminated poems ‘The Fall of Ratisbon’ by Robert Browning and William Wordsworth’s ‘An Evening Walk’) and hobby crafts as seen in a vast and detailed section on ‘How to build Model Boats’ – complete with plans and blueprints.

With the internet and TV, I suppose their like is unnecessary and irrelevant, but nostalgia aside, the glorious pictures in these volumes alone make them worth the effort of acquisition, and I defy any child of any age to not be sucked into the magic of learning stuff in such lively, lovely style…
© Fleetway Publications Ltd 1963. All Rights Reserved.

Hotspur Book for Boys 1975
By Many & various (DC Thomson)
Retroactively awarded ISBN: 978-0-85116-077-1

If you grew up British any time after 1960 and read comics, you probably cast your eye occasionally – if not indeed fanatically – over DC Thompson’s venerable standby The Victor.
The Dundee based publisher has long been a mainstay of British popular reading and arguably the most influential force in our comics industry. Its strong editorial stance and savvy creativity is responsible for a huge number of household names over many decades, through newspapers, magazines, books and especially its comics and prose-heavy “story-papers” for Girls and Boys.

That last category – comprising Adventure, Rover, Wizard, Skipper and Hotspur – pretty much-faded out at the end of the 1950s when the readership voted overwhelming with their pocket money in favour of primarily strip-based entertainments…

The last of those venerable all-prose story-papers wasn’t dormant for long. Cover-dated 24th October 1959, Hotspur the comic seamlessly replaced the prose stalwart (which had run from 2nd September 1933 to October 17th 1959) as a (mostly) pictorial serial package, running for 1110 weekly issues until finally folding into Victor with the January 24th1981 edition. It was very much the company’s weird and wonderful repository, like a general interest magazine for kids but with strange and exotic leanings. It was always heavy on bizarre situations and splendidly esoteric superheroes. Hostspur Annuals ran from 1966 to 1992 and were an unmissable fact of many a boy’s Yule loot…

This particular example hit the shops in September 1974, and behind that Ian Kennedy (?) cover opened with a two-coloured fact frontispiece exploring ‘Oil from under the Sea – the Finders’. The feature is mirrored at the end with ‘Oil from under the Sea – the Keepers’.

‘The Black Sapper’ was reformed criminal turned globetrotting troubleshooter: a brilliant engineer who built a mighty mechanical Worm-ship ship to travel beneath the Earth. He transferred to Hotspur from The Beezer, and was illustrated by Jack Glass, Keith Shone and Terry Patrick, who here details how the adventurer extinguishes an Arabian oil fire and scotches a sinister plot to usurp the king, after which we’re clued in on industrial ‘Deep Sea Fishing’.

Combining football and nautical adventure, comedy yarn ‘The Rust Bucket Rovers’ (John Richardson art?) sees soccer-crazed Pacific islanders contending with a multinational crew to clear a cargo, after which hearty spoof ‘Grizzly Grant’(Mike Dorey, or perhaps CD Bagnall) finds a junior Mountie and his ursine assistant battle frontier crime.

Tank commander ‘Blake of the Ironfists’ (Peter Sutherland?) then wins a major engagement in WWII Africa, leading to Dorey’s ‘Willie the Winner’ entering yet more contests with hilarious outcomes, before a 1941 naval blockade is overcome by doughty British mariners in ‘HMS Dent – the Deadly Decoy’.

The secrets of ‘Coastal Fishing’ segue into more mirth as motor racing pioneers ‘Spick and Spanner’ compete on a snowbound course in the Italian Alps after which veteran star ‘Iron Teacher’ and his handler Special Agent Jake Toddtackle an evil hypnotist with designs on a circus.

The history of ballooning in ‘Up, Up and Away!’ neatly proceeds into Great War saga ‘Hasket’s Battle Basket’, after which ‘Last of the Warriors’ sees a Cheyenne cavalry scout solving a murder mystery before slapstick oaf ‘Ossie the Outlaw’ proves again that for him crime does not pay…

After aviation pioneer ‘Skyscraper Kidd’ crashes his flying machine on a desert island and thinks his way home, time-displaced highwayman ‘Nick Jolly’ (and his robot flying horse) do their best to make Christmas unforgettable at a ski resort and mega department store in a rousing romp from Ron Smith whilst ‘Parker’s Barkers’ sees the rundown pooches of a local kennel humiliate the elite racers of the local dog track

Fact feature ‘The King of the Tankers’ leads into Z-Cars spoof ‘The Voice of the Panda’ before serious drama returns as football star ‘Cracker Jackson’ takes some sage advice to get over his psychological barriers. After learning all about ‘The World’s Biggest Shovel’, it’s back to desert islands where castaway WWII survivors ‘Thudd and Blunder’ deal with a native uprising in a manner simply not acceptable to today’s audiences.

Stealing the show is Ron Smith’s captivatingly odd teen hero ‘Red Star Robinson’ who – with the invaluable assistance of his android butler Mr. Syrius Thrice – thwarts The Spider’s plan to steal England’s crown jewels, after which ‘Heavyweights’ details a selection of massive transport options before the fun wraps up in anarchic hilarity as clod-footed ‘Dim Dan the Boobyguard’ (Dorey?) tries escorting his own boss to a crucial meeting and everybody else pays the price for his eager ineptitude…

Divorcing the sheer variety of content and entertainment quality of this book from simple nostalgia may be a healthy exercise but it’s almost impossible. I’m perfectly happy to luxuriously wallow in the potent emotions this annual still stirs. It’s a fabulous read from a magical time and turning those stiffened two-colour pages is always an unmatchable Christmas experience… happily one still relatively easy to find these days.

You should try it…
© DC Thomson & Co., Ltd., 1974.

Hurricane Annual 1969
By Many & various (Fleetway)
SBN: 900376-04-X

From the late 1950s and increasingly through the 1960s, Scotland’s DC Thomson steadily overtook their London-based competitors – monolithic comics publishing giant Amalgamated Press.

Created by Alfred Harmsworth at the beginning of the twentieth century, AP perpetually sought to regain lost ground, and the sheer variety of material the southerners unleashed as commercial countermeasures offered incredible vistas in adventure and – thanks to the defection of Leo Baxendale and Ken Reid to the enemy – eventually found a wealth of anarchic comedy material to challenge the likes of the Bash Street Kids, Dennis the Menace, Minnie the Minx and their unruly ilk.

During the latter end of that period the Batman TV show sent the entire world superhero-crazy. Amalgamated had almost finished absorbing all its other rivals such as The Eagle’s Hulton Press to form Fleetway/Odhams/IPC and were about to incorporate American superheroes into their heady brew of weekly thrills.

Once the biggest player in children’s comics, Amalgamated had stayed at the forefront of sales by latching onto every fad: keeping their material contemporary, if not strictly fresh. The all-consuming company began reprinting the early successes of Marvel comics for a few years; feeding on the growing fashion for US style adventure which had largely supplanted the rather tired True-Blue Brit style of Dan Dare or DC Thompson’s Wolf of Kabul.

Even though sales of all British comics were generally – and in some cases, drastically -declining, the 1960s were a period of intense and impressive innovation with publishers embracing new sensibilities; constantly trying new types of character and tales. At this time Valiant and its stable-mate Lion were the Boys’ Adventure big guns (although nothing could touch DC Thomson’s Beano and Dandy in the comedy arena).

Hurricane was an impressive-looking upgrade that began during that period of expansion and counterattack, apparently conceived in response to DCT’s action weekly Hornet. It launched the week of February 29th 1964 and ran for 63 issues, but was revamped three times during that period before ultimately being merged into companion paper Tiger.

It carried a superbly varied roster of features in that that time, including two (and a half) stars who survived its extinction. Racing driver Skid Solo and comedy superman Typhoon Tracy as well as Sgt Rock – Paratrooper… but not for so long for him…

There was heavy dependence on European and South American artists initially, among them Mario Capaldi, Nevio Zeccara, Georgio Trevisan, Renato Polese and Lino Landolfi, some of whom lasted into the Annuals. As with so many titles, although the comics might quickly fade, Christmas Annuals sustained their presence for years after Hurricane seasonal specials were produced for every year from 1965 to 1974…

Following a tried-&-true formula, this book – published in 1968 – offers comics adventures, prose stories, fact-features, and funnies and puzzles, kicking off with visual vexations in ‘Fantastic – but True!’ before western star Drago joins an embattled cavalry troop in staving off an invasion from Mexico (no, really!) in duo-hued thriller ‘The Gun that Saved the West’ – possibly illustrated by Renato Polese.

‘The Worst Boy in the School’ – as illustrated by Geoffrey Whittam? – was a long-running boarding school saga enlivened by its star Duffy coming from Circus stock. Here the comedy chaos and espionage excitement stems from the boys trying to keep an escaped chimp and parrot secret from the Masters…

‘Two Fists Against the World!’ was a Regency-set strip featuring prize-fighter Jim Trim. Illustrated by Carlos Roume, this origin reprint sees how, in 1804, the husky orphan first sets out on his pugnacious path…

‘Casey and the Champ’ then details in strip form the last hurrah of a broken-down steam engine as prelude to a text feature of weird facts corralled here as ‘It Was the Way Out West’ feature. Truly gripping prose yarn ‘The Vanished Wreck’then recounts how a clever insurance scam is foiled by an inventive salvage crew, before Typhoon Tracy – Extra Special Agent stars in ‘Mad, Mad Mission’: baffling spies and American agents in equal measure with his blundering rescue of a kidnapped boffin. Switching back to prose, Rex Barton, Investigator of the Weird and Unknown foils a cunning robbery in ‘The Phantom Monks of Milborough’.

Following the comedy capers of ‘Rod the Odd Mod and ‘is old pal Pervy Vere’, pictorial history lesson ‘Into Battle with King-Sized Catapults!’ and ‘Safari Quiz’ segue into a thrilling prose sci-fi short illustrated by immaculate stylist Reg Bunn. ‘Hunt for the Human Time-Bomb!’ stars atomic accident survivors Ace Sutton and Flash Casey who use their abilities to walk through walls to avert imminent catastrophe, after which The Robot Builders (drawn by what looks like early Massimo Bellardinelli?) attend a New World symposium and experience ‘All the Fear of the Fair!’ when a giant mechanical brain goes haywire…

Masked cowboy ‘The Black Avenger’ then exposes a fake sheriff before we jump to luscious full-colour as the worst ship in the WWII navy again confounds the British Admiralty and escapes being broken up for parts in ‘HMS Outcast in the Big Scrap’. Geoff Campion’s unruly mob here stave off doom and dispersal by implausibly capturing an Italian super dreadnaught in the Mediterranean…

‘Defeat for the ‘Boy General’ – the True Story of Custer’s Last Stand’ gives a fairly jaundiced review of the cavalryman’s career (backed up by visuals from contemporary movie Custer of the West) whilst ‘War Under the Sea’ offers technical speculation on the development of the Oceans, ending the colour section and leading into monochrome soccer star Harry of the Hammers who wins his cup-tie after first foiling a robbery in prose piece ‘Mystery Marksman’

After gag magician ‘Marvo Brings the House Down’, Giovanni Ticci limns a sublime light-hearted ‘Sword for Hire’ romp starring Cavalier soldier-of-fortune Hugo Dinwiddie who pawns his blade but still manages to save the day against burglars and bandits, and racer Geoff Hart wins a war of wills and wheels in ‘Stock-Car Duel!’

Sport was a major fascination of publishers at this time and ‘Soccer Special by The Ref’ opens an extended section of pictorial mini-features comprised of ‘Cap-and-Cup Winners’, ‘Before they were Famous’, ‘Odd Things Happen in Soccer’ and ‘They Made Soccer History’, before full-on fantasy returns with cover-star ‘The Juggernaut from Planet Z’, who revisits his Earth chum Dr. Dan Morgan and foils alien invaders employing tectonic terror tactics.

Another outing for Rod the Odd Mod and ‘is old pal Pervy Vere brings us to prose fable ‘The Impostor Knight’, revealing how an affable blacksmith’s assistant wins a joust, augmented by fact-filled sidebar ‘Warriors in Armour’ before ‘Sgt. Rock – Special Air Service’ is assigned to destroy a Nazi fuel dump and ‘Typhoon Tracy Trouble-Shooter’ riotously ends a revolution far, far South of the Border in his own inimitable incompetent manner…

Mischievous moppet ‘Terrible Tich’ literally brings the house down and ‘Wild West Funmen’ offers a magazine of owlhoot hoots before the nostalgia-fest closes in spectacular style as Hugo Dinwiddie stalks a flamboyant highwayman and ends up as a ‘Courier for the King!’

Eclectic, wide-ranging and always of majestically high quality, this blend of fact, fiction, fun and thrills is a splendid evocation of lost days of joy and wonder. We may not be making books like this anymore but at least they’re still relatively easy to track down. Of course, what’s really needed is for some sagacious publisher to start re-issuing them…
© Fleetway Publications Ltd., 1968

The Complete Johnny Future


By Alf Wallace, Luis Bermejo & various (Rebellion Studios)
ISBN: 978-1-78108-758-9 (HB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Evergreen Wonderment and an Ideal Last-Minute Gift… 10/10

Until relatively recently, Britain never really had a handle on superheroes. Although every reader from the 1950s on can cite a particular favourite fantasy muscle-man or costumed champion – from Thunderbolt Jaxon to Morgyn the Mighty, or Gadget Man & Gimmick Kid to the Spider, Tri-Man and Phantom Viking to Red Star Robinson and Billy the Cat (& Katie!) – to have populated our pages, they all somehow ultimately lacked conviction. Well, almost all…

During the heady Swinging Sixties days of “Batmania”, just as Marvel Comics was first infiltrating our collective consciousness, a little-remembered strip graced the pages of a short-lived experimental title and the result was sheer, unbridled magic…

With Scotland’s DC Thomson steadily overtaking their London-based competitors – monolithic comics publishing giant Amalgamated Press – throughout the late 1950s and 1960s, the sheer variety of material the southerners unleashed to compete offered incredible vistas in adventure material. Thanks to the defection of Leo Baxendale and Ken Reid to Amalgamated, they also found a wealth of anarchic comedy material to challenge the likes of the Bash Street Kids, Dennis the Menace, Minnie the Minx and their unruly ilk.

During that latter end of the period, the Batman TV show sent the entire world superhero crazy just as Amalgamated absorbed all its local rivals such as The Eagle’s Hulton Press to form Fleetway/Odhams and ultimately IPC.

Formerly the biggest player in children’s comics, Amalgamated Press (created by Alfred Harmsworth at the beginning of the 20th century) had stayed at the forefront of sales by latching onto every fad: keeping their material contemporary, if not always fresh or original. The all-consuming monolith had been reprinting the early successes of Marvel comics for a few years; feeding on a growing fashion for US-style adventure which had largely supplanted the rather tired True-Blue Brit style of Dan Dare or DCT’s Wolf of Kabul or the Tough of the Track. A key point at that time was that although both part of the Mirror Group, Fleetway and Odhams were deadly rivals…

“Power Comics” was a sub-brand used by Odhams to differentiate their periodicals – which contained reprinted American superhero material – from the greater company’s regular blend of sports, war, western adventure and gag comics such as Buster, Valiant, Lion or Tiger. During this time, the Power weeklies did much to popularise budding Marvel characters and their shared universe in this country, which was still poorly served by distribution of the actual American imports.

The line began with Wham! – but only after the comic was well-established. Originally created by newly-ensconced Leo Baxendale, it launched on June 20th 1964. At the start, the title was designed as a counter to The Beano, as was Smash! (which launched February 5th 1966), but the tone of times soon dictated the hiving off into a more distinctive imprint, which was augmented by the creation of little sister Pow!

Pow! launched with a cover date of January 31st 1967, combining home-grown funnies such as Mike Higgs’ The Cloak,Baxendale’s The Dolls of St Dominic’s, Reid’s Dare-a-Day Davy, Wee Willie Haggis: The Spy from Skye and British originated thrillers such as Jack Magic and The Python with the now ubiquitous resized US strips: in this case Spider-Man and Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.

The next step was even bolder. Fantastic – and its sister paper Terrific – were notable for not reformatting or resizing the original US artwork whereas in Wham!, Pow! or Smash!, an entire 24-page yarn could be resized and squeezed into 10 or 11 pages, accompanied by British comedy and adventure strips.

These slick new periodicals – each with a dynamic back cover pin-up taken from Marvel Comics or created in-house by apprentice comics bods and future superstars Barry Windsor-Smith and Steve Parkhouse – reprinted US Superhero fare, supplemented by minimal amounts of UK originated filler and editorial.

Fantastic #1 debuted with cover-date February 18th 1967 (but was first seen in newsagents on Saturday 11th), revealing the origin stories of Thor, Iron Man and the X-Men, but from the get-go, savvy tykes like me were as engrossed by a short adventure serial also included to fill out the page count. The Missing Link was beautifully drawn and over the following year (February 18th 1967 – February 3rd 1968) would become a truly unique reading experience…

The series began inauspiciously as a kind of homegrown Incredible Hulk knock off. Oddly, editor and writer Alfred “Alf” Wallace crafted for the filler a tone very similar to that adopted by Marvel’s own Green Goliath when he became a small screen star a decade later…

The illustrator was the astoundingly gifted Luis Bermejo Rojo, a star of Spanish comics forced to seek work abroad after the domestic market imploded in 1956. He became a prolific contributor to British strips, working on a succession of moody masterpieces such as the Human Guinea Pig, Mann of Battle, Pike Mason, Phantom Force Five and Heros the Spartan, in a variety of genres, appearing in Girls Crystal, Tina, Tarzan Weekly, Battle Picture Library, Thriller Picture Library The Eagle, Buster, Boys World, Tell Me Why, Look and Learn and many more. He finally achieved a modicum of deserved acclaim in the 1970s, after joining fellow studio mates José Ortiz, Esteban Maroto and Leopoldo Sanchez working on adult horror stories for Creepy, Eerie and Vampirella.

I’m a big kid helplessly enmired in nostalgia, but to me his greatest moments were the year spent drawing Johnny Future

The Missing Link – as the feature was entitled for the first 15 episodes – was disturbingly similar to TV’s Hulk of the 1970s. Superhumanly strong, tragically misunderstood, the strip combined human-scaled drama with lost world exoticism in the manner of King Kong, as can be see seen following Steve Holland’s incisive and informative Introduction ‘Welcome to the Future!’, when the drama opens in the wilds of Africa.

A bestial man-beast roams the veldt, swamps and mountains, until great white hunter Bull Belson comes to capture him, accompanied by secretary/photographer Lita Munro. The infamous tracker sees only profit in the mute beast, who, after much frustratingly destructive behaviour, is lured into captivity by an inexplicable attraction to Miss Munro…

To be fair, she has the brute’s interests at heart, attempting to befriend and teach the Link on the slow voyage back to England, but on reaching London Dock, the sideshow attraction is spooked by mocking labourers and breaks his bonds and cage…

Brutally rampaging across the city at the heart of the Swinging Sixties, the Link is soon being hunted by the army, but nobody realizes that beneath the bestial brow is a cunning brain. Hopping a freight train up north, he seeks refuge in an isolated government atomic research laboratory run by Dr. Viktor Kelso and is accidentally dosed with vast transformative radiation…

The unleashed uncanny forces jumpstart an evolutionary leap, turning the primitive beast into a perfect specimen of manhood, while simultaneously sparking a near-catastrophic meltdown in the machinery, which is only averted by the massive instinctive intellect of the new man. Arrested as a terrorist spy, the silent superman is very publicly tried in court and again encounters Lita.

Meanwhile, Kelso has deduced the true course of events. As the Link uses his prison time to educate himself in the ways of the world, the scientist works on a deadly super-weapon, prompting the Link to escape jail and clear his name. With his super-strength and massive mind, the task is easy but he still needs Lita to complete his plan…

The series cheerfully plundered the tone of the times and the drama seamlessly morphs into chilling science fiction tropes as Kelso’s device brings the nation to a literal standstill leaving only the evolved outsider to thwart a staggeringly ambitious scheme…

Set on a new heroic path, although still a hunted fugitive, the Link creates a civilian identity (John Foster) and a costumed persona just as Britain is assaulted by ‘The Animal Man’: a psionic dictator able to control all beasts and creatures. Incredibly, that includes recently ascendant Johnny Future, but the villain is defeated after overextending himself and accidentally awakening a primordial horror from Jurassic times…

In short order, Johnny Future tackles Dr. Jarra and his killer robot; a society of evil world-conquering scientists, invention-plundering shapeshifting aliens, prehistoric giants, and deranged science tyrant The Master.

Fully hitting his stride, the future man overcomes personality warping psychopath Mr. Opposite and defeats the Secret Society of Science’s top assassins ‘The Brain, The Brute and the Hunter’ before saving Earth from marauding living metal and defeating Dr. Plasto’s animated waxwork killers.

And that was that. Without warning the comic merged with sister publication Terrific and there was no more room for a purely British superhero. Here, however, there’s one more delight: a 14-page, full-colour complete adventure with Johnny battling diabolical primordial revenant Disastro, first seen in Fantastic Annual 1968, plus a colour pin-up from Fantastic #30 (September 9th 1967).

Interest in superheroes and fantasy in general were on the wane and British weeklies were diversifying. Some switched back to war, sports and adventure stories, whilst with comedy strips on the rise again, others became largely humour outlets. Johnny Future (available in comforting hardback and accessible digital formats) is a unique beast: a blend of British B-movie chic, with classic monster riffs seen through the same bleak but compelling lens that spawned Doctor Who and Quatermass: the social sci fi of John Wyndham trying on glamourous superhero schtick whilst blending the breakneck pace of a weekly serial with the chilling moodiness of kitchen sink crime dramas.

There was never anything like this before or since and if you love dark edges to your comics escapism you must have this amazing collection far sooner than tomorrow.
™ & © 1967, 1968, & 2020 Rebellion Publishing Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

The Eternals by Jack Kirby: The Complete Collection


By Jack Kirby & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-1-3029-2200-9 (TPB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Monumental Marvel Magic for Movie-Oriented Fun Seekers… 9/10

Jack Kirby was – and remains – the most important single influence in the history of American comics. There are millions of words about what the man has done and meant, and you should read those if you are at all interested in our medium.

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

For those of us who grew up with Jack, his are the images which furnish our interior mindsets. Close your eyes and think “robot” and the first thing that pops up is a Kirby creation. Every fantastic, futuristic city in our heads is crammed with his chunky, towering spires. Because of Jack, we all know what the bodies beneath those stony-head statues on Easter Island look like, we’re all viscerally aware that you can never trust great big aliens parading around in their underpants and, most importantly, we know how cavemen dress and carnosaurs clash. Kirby’s creations are magical: they all inspire successive generations of creators to pick up the ball and keep running with it…

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

When Goodman failed to make good on his financial obligations, Simon & Kirby were snapped up by National/DC, who welcomed them with open arms and a fat chequebook. Bursting with ideas the staid company were never really comfortable with, the Dynamism Duo were initially an uneasy fit, and were given two moribund strips to play with until they found their creative feet: These were Sandman and Manhunter and they are an amazing feat of breathtaking bravura.

Both features turned both around virtually overnight and, once established, were parcelled off to studio staff as S&K switched to the “Kid Gang” genre they had pioneered at Timely. Joe ‘n’ Jack created wartime sales sensation Boy Commandos and Homefront iteration the Newsboy Legion, before being called up to serve in the war they had been fighting on comic pages since 1940.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After his controversial, grandiose Fourth World titles were cancelled, Kirby looked for other concepts which would stimulate his own vast creativity yet still appeal to a market growing evermore fickle. His follow-ups included science fiction themed heroes Kamandi and OMAC, supernatural stalwart The Demon, a run of war stories starring The Losers, and even a new Sandman, co-created with Simon, but although the ideas kept coming (Atlas, Kobra, Dingbats of Danger Street), yet again editorial disputes ended up with him leaving for promises of more creative freedom elsewhere…

Jack Kirby’s return to Marvel in 1976 was much hyped at the time but again turned out to be controversial. His new works and creations found friends rapidly, but his return to earlier creations Captain America and Black Pantherdivided the fanbase.

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

They were apparently blind to the unfettered, joyous freedom of imagination run wild, the majesty of pulse-pounding thrills and galvanising BIG ART channelling BIG IDEAS!

The end of the 1970s saw Kirby drift into animation: designing characters and scenarios for shows such as Turbo-Teen, Thundarr the Barbarian and even The New Fantastic Four. His comics efforts included graphic novel The Hunger Dogs and Super Powers for DC, and an adaptation of movie The Black Hole for syndicated strip Walt Disney’s Treasury of Classic Tales.

However, his most memorable move was to validate the newly-minted Independent Comics/Direct Sale Market sector where he launched bombastic sci fi shockers Captain Victory and the Galactic Rangers and Silver Star for distributor-turned-publisher Pacific Comics.

For Eclipse, he co-created with Steve Gerber the industry-excoriating symbol of creative rebellion Destroyer Duck (part of a grass-roots campaign that ultimately destroyed the iniquitous work-for-hire business model that had made creators little more than indentured servants for decades).

Let’s return to that final tenure at Marvel though. Despite his ideas frequently clashing with the company continuity, and being editorially sabotaged, his new ideas found an appreciative audience. 2001: A Space Odyssey, Devil Dinosaur and Machine Man broke new ground but his greatest and final contribution was undoubtedly his treatment of a contemporary crypto-science fad: The Eternals

Now with a blockbuster Marvel movie just waiting on the shelf for punters to come watch it, the eccentric original feature has been squeezed into a trade paperback and digital Complete Collection (containing issues #1-20 and Eternals Annual#1 from June 1976 to January 1978), and is just crying out for you to come get it…

Written and drawn by Kirby withs inks by John Verpoorten, it all begins on ‘The Day of the Gods’, as anthropologist Doctor Damian and his daughter Margo are steered by mysterious guide Ike Harris through an incredible South American temple to discover that aliens inspired and educated the ancients…

Simultaneously, half a world away, diabolical monsters emerge from millennia of self-isolation to resume a war that spans the length of human existence…

And so begins a frantic scrabble as history is rewritten and humanity learns terrible truths: how giant aliens had visited Earth in ages past, sculpting proto-hominids into three distinct species: Human Beings; monstrous, genetically unstable Deviants and god-like super-beings who called themselves Eternals. Moreover, those humungous Space Gods have returned once again to check up on their experiment…

Remember Ike? His real name is Ikaris and he’s an Eternal monitoring how ‘The Celestials!’ will react as they set up to assess their experiment. As a country-sized ship enters Earth orbit, a cadre of mountain-sized aliens set up a monitoring station in the ruins, ignoring humanity, Deviants and Eternals alike, but the monstrous faction who once subjugated mankind and inspired most of our infernal mythology have resolved to destroy their creators whatever the cost…

The plan involve provoking humanity into rash attacks and their warlord Kro unleashes hell as ‘The Devil in New York!’Sadly for him and his vile minions, Ikaris has just left potentially orphaned Margo with capricious party-loving Sersi at her Manhattan apartment just in time to be truly ticked off by ‘The Night of the Demons!’

Mike Royer takes over as series inker with #5 as the solitary Eternals finally respond by having a committee meeting in their isolated citadel ‘Olympia!’ In the meantime, Sersi, Margo and Ikaris have been abducted to the Deviants’ undersea city, invoking a brutal response from warrior princess Thena, excitable speedster Makkari and a novel one from supreme Eternal Zuras who calls a press conference to explain Earth’s real history in ‘Gods and Men at City College!’

As ‘The Fourth Host’ take their mysterious measurements around the world, spy agency SHIELD infiltrates the Space God compound and almost triggers Armageddon, even as in Deviant Lemuria clandestine war within the ruling family endangers ‘The City of Toads’, while introducing two more tormented characters who fit no mould or definition.

The first is comely Ransak, and the other horrific Karkas: but which one is ‘The Killing Machine!’ too savage even for the Deviant arena?

The question remains unanswered as a curious Celestial invades the city in ‘Mother!’ sparking catastrophe and mass evacuation, even as the still-gathering Eternals debate their future in Olympia. The world’s doom-clock then jumps closer to midnight as the Soviets respond precipitately in ‘The Russians are Coming!’ just as the godly Eternals form a psychic gestalt to meet the Space Gods on more equal terms in ‘Uni-Mind!’

An extra-length diversion follows as The Eternals Annual #1 pits recently-relocated Ransak and Karkas against ‘The Time Killers’, after which the mind-blowing Story of Us resumes with human ‘Astronauts’ breaking into the Celestial orbiter, and proving an unreasonable response from the youngest Eternal and a forgotten colossus of human legend…

Presumably in response to publisher pressure, Kirby almost perpetrates a guest appearance from the mainstream Marvel Universe as a college experiment unleashes uncanny cataclysm in ‘Ikaris and the Cosmic Powered Hulk’: a brutal battle leaving the local environs a ‘Disaster Area’ and uncovering a lost terror of antiquity imprisoned in a subterranean ‘Big City Crypt’

The awesome menace ignores the best the Eternals can muster, but ultimately falls to ‘Sersi the Terrible’, precipitating another crisis as sly, scheming Druig disregards the concerns of his fellow immortals and attempts ‘To Kill a Space God!’, before falling to the sheer determination of Ikaris in ‘The Pyramid’

And then it stopped. Never a comfortable fit with the rest of the Marvel Universe, the comic explored Kirby’s fascinations with Deities, Space and Supernature through the lens of very human observers. Once the series ended and Kirby left, other creators greedily co-opted the concept – with mixed success – into the company’s mainstream continuity. The concept remade the greater continuity and there’s been duff and excellent reinterpretations ever since.

No matter their merits though, nothing has ever matched The King’s verve, passion or scope and scale…

This volume also includes unused art and covers, character designs, original art pages, pages of Kirby pencils, promotional house ads and editorial pages, plus a gallery of covers from previous collections.

Jack Kirby’s commitment to wholesome adventure, breakneck action and breathless wonderment, combined with his absolute mastery of the comic page and unceasing quest for the Next Big Thrill always makes for a captivating read. His comics should be compulsory for all and found in every home…
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