Showcase Presents Wonder Woman volume 1


By Robert Kanigher, Ross Andru & Mike Esposito & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-1373-2 (TPB)

Until DC finally get around to republishing and digitally releasing their vast untapped comic treasures, I’m reduced to recommending some of their superb past printed glories whenever I feel like celebrating a key anniversary of the world’s preeminent female superhero who first caught the public’s attention in October 8 decades ago…

Wonder Woman was created by polygraph pioneer William Moulton Marston – apparently at the behest of his remarkable wife Elizabeth and their life partner Olive Byrne. The vast majority of the outlandish adventures were limned by classical illustrator by Harry G. Peter. She debuted in All Star Comics #8 (cover-dated December 1941) before gaining her own series and the cover-spot in new anthology title Sensation Comics a month later. She was an instant hit, and won her own eponymous title in late Spring of that year (Summer 1942).

Using the nom de plume Charles Moulton, Marston & Co scripted all the Amazing Amazon’s many and fabulous exploits until his death in 1947, whereupon Robert Kanigher took over the writer’s role. The venerable H.G. Peter continued until his own death in 1958. Wonder Woman #97 – in April of that year – was his last hurrah and the discrete end of an era.

This first cheap and cheerful monochrome Showcase collection covers what came next: specifically issues #98-117, spanning May 1958-October 1960.

With the notable exception of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and inoffensive back-up B-listers Aquaman and Green Arrow (plus – arguably – Johnny Quick, who held on until December 1954 and cowboy crimebuster Vigilante who finally bit the dust a month earlier), costumed heroes died out at the beginning of the 1950s, replaced by a plethora of merely mortal champions and a welter of anthologised genre titles.

When after almost no time at all, Showcase #4 rekindled the readership’s imagination and zest for masked mystery-men with a new iteration of The Flash in 1956, the fanciful floodgates opened wide once more. As well as re-imagining Golden Age stalwarts such as Green Lantern, The Atom and Hawkman, National/DC consequently updated all its hoary survivors such as the aforementioned Emerald Archer and Sea King. Also included in that revitalising agenda were the company’s High Trinity: Man of Steel, Caped Crusader and the ever-resilient Princess of Power…

Artists Ross Andru & Mike Esposito had debuted as cover artists 3 issues earlier, but with opening inclusion Wonder Woman #98 they took over the entire comic book as Robert Kanigher reinvented much of the old mythology and even tinkered with her origins in ‘The Million Dollar Penny!’ when goddess Athena visits an island of super-scientific immortal women, informing Queen Hippolyta that she must send an emissary and champion of justice to crime-ridden “Man’s World.”

Declaring an open competition for the job, the queen isn’t surprised when her daughter Diana wins and is given the task of turning a penny into a million dollars in a day – all profits going to children’s charities, of course…

Just as the new Wonder Woman begins her coin chore, American airman Steve Trevor bails out of his malfunctioning jet high above the magically hidden isle, unaware that should any male set foot on Amazon soil the immortals would lose all their powers. Promptly thwarting impending disaster, Diana and Steve team up to accomplish her task, encountering along the way ‘The Undersea Menace’ before building ‘The Impossible Bridge!’

Issue #99 opened in similar bombastic fashion with ‘Stampede of the Comets!’ as Trevor is lost undertaking a pioneering space mission and Wonder Woman goes to his rescue thanks to incredible Amazon engineering ingenuity. After foiling an alien attack against Earth, the reunited lovers return in time for the introduction of the Hellenic Heroine’s new covert identity as Air Force Intelligence Lieutenant Diana Prince in ‘Top Secret!’ – beginning a decade of tales with Steve perpetually attempting to uncover her identity and make the most powerful woman on Earth his blushing bride, whilst his bespectacled, glorified secretary stands unnoticed, exasperated and ignored right beside – or slightly behind – him…

The 100th issue was a spectacular battle saga commencing with ‘The Challenge of Dimension X!’ and an alternate Earth Wonder Woman competing with the Amazing Amazon for sole rights to the title: all culminating with a deciding bout in ‘The Forest of Giants!’, whilst ‘Wonder Woman’s 100th Anniversary!’ deals with the impossibility of capturing the far-too-fast and furious Amazon’s exploits on film for Paradise Island’s archives…

‘The Undersea Trap!’ opened #101, with Steve tricking his “Angel” into agreeing to marry him if she has to rescue him three times in 24 hours (just chalk it up to simpler times, or you’ll pop a blood vessel, OK?) after which the odd couple are trapped by a temporal tyrant in ‘The Fun House of Time!’

Steve’s affection and wits are tested by an alien giant in ‘The Three Faces of Wonder Woman’ when he’s forced to pick out his true love from a trio of identical duplicates to save the world in #102, before ‘The Wonder Woman Album’ returns to the previously explored “impossible-to-photograph” theme in #103, but devotes most space to sinister thriller ‘The Box of Three Dooms!’ wherein the murderous Gadget Maker attempts to destroy the Amazon with a booby-trapped gift.

‘Trial By Fire’ pits Diana Prince against a host of deadly traps only Wonder Woman could survive after which ‘Key to Deception!’ closes #104 by reintroducing Golden Age villain the Duke of Deception as a militaristic Martian marauder in a gripping interplanetary caper.

Issue #105 debuted Wonder Girl in the ‘Secret Origin of Wonder Woman’, revealing how centuries ago the gods and goddesses of Olympus bestowed unique powers on the daughter of Queen Hippolyta and how – as a mere teenager – the indomitable Diana brought the Amazons to Paradise Island. Continuity – let alone consistency and rationality – were never as important to Kanigher as strong story or breathtaking visuals, and this eclectic odyssey is a great yarn that simply annoyed the heck out of a lot of fans… but not as much as the junior Amazon would in years to come…

Second feature ‘Eagle of Space’ is a more traditional tale of predatory space Pterodactyls and a dinosaur planet where Steve and Diana lend a civilising hand to the indigenous caveman population.

‘The Human Charm Bracelet!’ in #106 sees Wonder Woman battling an unbeatable extraterrestrial giant who wants Earth for his plaything, and her younger self encounters a chameleonic lass in ‘The Invisible Wonder Girl!’

The high fantasy adventures of the junior heroine clearly caught somebody’s fancy as they started coming thick and fast: ‘Wonder Woman – Amazon Teen-Ager!’ opened #107 as the youngster finds a romantic interest in merboy Ronno, undergoing a quest to win herself a superhero costume, whilst her adult self is relegated to a back-up battle against ‘Gunslingers of Space!’

‘Wanted… Wonder Woman!’ features Flying Saucer aliens framing our heroine for heinous crimes as a precursor to a planetary invasion and ‘The Stamps of Doom!’ offers a plot by another murderous inventor to kill the Princess in #108, before the next issue steps back in time to feature ‘Wonder Girl in Giant Land’ with the nubile neophyte easily overcoming ambush by colossal aliens. Her mature self is represented by ‘The Million Dollar Pigeon!’ wherein gangsters think they’ve found a foolproof method of removing the Amazing Amazon from their lives…

Wonder Woman #110 was a full-length saga with the indomitable warrior maid searching Earth for a missing alien princess in ‘The Bridge of Crocodiles!’ If the wanderer can’t be found, her concerned family intend laying waste the entire planet…

In #111, ‘The Robot Wonder Woman’ commissioned by gangsters provides no competition for the genuine article, whilst ‘Battle of the Mermen!’ sees Wonder Girl drawn into a sub-sea rumble between competing gangs of teenaged fish-boys…

The youthful incarnation led off the next issue. ‘Wonder Girl in the Chest of Monsters!’ takes the concept to unparalleled heights of absurdity as, in contemporary times, a heroic girl is rewarded with three Amazon wishes and travels back in time for an adventure with Wonder Woman’s younger self, whilst #113 return to relatively straight action with ‘The Invasion of the Sphinx Creatures!’ with the Adult Amazon battling the ancient weapons of a resurrected Pharoah-Queen, before ‘Wonder Girl’s Birthday Party!’ recounts how each anniversary event seems to coincide with geological disaster, mythological menace or uncanny event…

Aliens once more attack in #114’s ‘The Monster Express!’, turning parade balloons into ravening monsters until Diana and Steve intercede, after which ‘Wonder Girl’s Robot Playmate!’ demonstrate how hard it is growing up special…

Old enemy Angle Man returns revamped for the Silver Age in #115’s ‘Graveyard of Monster Ships!’ whilst ‘Mer-Boy’s Undersea Party!’ proves that above or below the waves Wonder Girls just don’t want to have fun, whilst in #116 both Ronno and Young Diana prove capable of serious heroism in ‘The Cave of Secret Creatures!’, before the Adult Amazon finally stops a millennial menace to mankind in ‘The Time -Traveller of Terror!’

This initial enchanting epistle concludes with Wonder Woman #117 wherein ‘The Fantastic Fishermen of the Forbidden Sea!’ revive Golden Age stars Etta Candy and the Holliday Girls – in modernised, marginally less offensive incarnations – for a fantastic tale of aquatic invaders before Amazon time-travel techniques allow the impossible to occur when ‘Wonder Girl Meets Wonder Woman!’… or do they?

By modern standards these exuberant, effulgent fantasies are all-out crazy, but as examples of the days when less attention was paid to continuity and concepts of shared universes and adventure in the moment were paramount, these outrageous romps simply sparkle with fun, thrills and sheer spectacle.

Wonder Woman is rightly revered as a focal point of female strength, independence and empowerment, but the welcoming nostalgia and easy familiarity of these costumed fairy tales remain a delight for all open-minded readers with the true value of these exploits being the incredible quality of entertainment they provide.
© 1958-1960, 2007 DC Comics, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Deitch’s Pictorama


By Kim, Simon & Seth Kallen Deitch (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-560979-52-4 (TPB)

There may be something to this DNA stuff. Eugene Merril “Gene” Deitch (August 8th 1924-April 16th 2020) was a revered, Oscar-winning animator, filmmaker and cartoonist who worked on or created timeless classics like Popeye, Tom & Jerry, Munro, Tom Terrific and Nudnik, whilst his first son Kim has been at the forefront of comics’ avant-garde since the days of the Counter Culture and “underground commix” scene. Kim’s brothers Simon and Seth Kallen have both made their mark in the popular creative arts. Then again, maybe it’s simply growing up exposed to open-minded creativity that makes exemplary artists and artisans…

In this classic collaborative venture the Deitch boys crafted a graphic narrative oddity that is both compelling and utterly captivating. Cunningly combining heavily illustrated prose, comics, calligraphy, illustrative lettering, cartooning and plain old strips, the five tales herein contained blend into a tribute to the versatility of illustrated storytelling in all its variations.

It begins more-or-less traditionally with ‘the Sunshine Girl’: a potent and beguiling paean to bottle caps and the all-consuming collecting bug, promptly followed by intriguing prose-ish fantasy, ‘The Golem’. This salutary account in turn leads into the disturbing ‘Unlikely Hours’, and whimsical shaggy (talking) dog story ‘Children of Aruf’.

Wisely leaving the very best until last, the Picto-fictorial fun concludes with the superbly engaging and informative semi-autobiographical ‘The Cop on the Beat, the Man in the Moon and Me’: a particular treat for anyone interested in the history of comics and popular music.

Naturally I’ve been as vague as I can be, because this is a book that revels and rejoices in storytelling, with half the artistry and all the joy coming from reading it for yourself, so – as long you’re an older reader – you should do just that.
© 2008 Gene, Kim, Seth Kallen and Simon Deitch. All Rights Reserved.

 

 

Showcase Presents Showcase


By Many and various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-78116-364-1 (TPB)

If you’re a book reviewer, Christmas often comes incredibly early. We received lots and lots of lovely new tomes in the last week and I’ve still not caught up yet, so in the meantime, I’m fobbing you all off with a reworked recommendation I was saving for our actual Christmas promotion season. It’s still a wonderful read criminally in need of re-release and a digital edition, but readily available – for now…

The review is incredibly long. If you want to skip it and just buy the book – because it’s truly brilliant – then please do. I won’t mind and you won’t regret it at all…

In almost every conceivable way, DC’s original “try-out title” Showcase created and dictated the form of the Silver Age of American comic books and is responsible for the multi-billion-dollar industry and art form we all enjoy today.

For many of us old lags, the Silver Age is the ideal era and a still-calling Promised Land of fun and thrills. Varnished by nostalgia (because it’s the era when most of us caught this crazy childhood bug), the clean-cut, unsophisticated optimism of the late 1950s and early 1960s produced captivating heroes and compelling villains who were still far less terrifying than the Cold War baddies then troubling the grown-ups. The sheer talent and unbridled professionalism of the creators working in that too-briefly revitalised comics world resulted in triumph after triumph and even inspired competitors to step up and excel: all of which brightened our young lives and still glow today with quality and achievement.

The principle was a sound one and graphically depicted in the very first issue: the Editors at National/DC were apparently bombarded with readers’ suggestions for new titles and concepts and the only possible way to feasibly prove which would be popular was to offer test runs and assess fan reactions – for which read Sales…

Firmly ensconced in the age of genre thrillers and human adventurers, this magnificent, monolithic monochrome tome covers the first 21 issues from that historic series, spanning March/April 1956 to July/August 1959, and starts the ball rolling with the first and last appearances of Fireman Farrell in a proposed series dubbed Fire Fighters.

Following the aforementioned short ‘The Story Behind Showcase’ by Jack Schiff & Win Mortimer, the human-scaled dramas begin in ‘The School for Smoke-Eaters’ by Schiff and the superb John Prentice (Rip Kirby), introducing trainee fireman Mike Farrell during the last days of his training and desperate to simultaneously live up to and escape his father’s fabulous record as a legendary “smoke-eater”.

The remaining stories, both scripted by Arnold Drake, deal with the job’s daily dilemmas: firstly in ‘Fire under the Big Top’ wherein an unscrupulous showman ignored Farrell’s Fire Inspection findings with tragic consequences, and in‘Fourth Alarm’ mixing an industrial dispute over fireman’s pay, a crooked factory owner and a waterfront blaze captured on live TV in a blisteringly authentic tale of human heroism.

Showcase #2 featured Kings of the Wild: tales of animal valour imaginatively related in three tales scripted by Robert Kanigher – who had thrived after the demise of superheroes with a range of fantastical genre adventures covering western, war, espionage and straight adventure. Stunningly illustrated by Joe Kubert, ‘Rider of the Winds’ tells of a Native American lad’s relationship with his totem spirit Eagle; ‘Outcast Heroes’ (Ross Andru & Mike Esposito) relates how an orphan boy’s loneliness ends after befriending a runaway mutt who eventually saves the town’s kids from a flood before ‘Runaway Bear’ – drawn by Russ Heath – uses broad comedy to describe how an escaped circus bruin battles all the horrors of the wilderness to get return to his comfortable, safe life under the Big Top.

Issue #3 debuted Kanigher & Heath’s The Frogmen in an extended single tale following candidates for a US Underwater Demolitions Team as they move from students to successful undersea warriors. Beginning with ‘The Making of a Frogman’ as the smallest diver – mocked and chided as a ‘Sardine’ by his fellows (especially ‘Shark’ and ‘Whale’) – perseveres and forges bonds until the trio are dumped into blazing Pacific action in ‘Flying Frogmen’, learning the worth of teamwork and sacrifice by destroying a Japanese Sub base in ‘Silent War’

The feature returned as a semi-regular strip in All-American Men of War #44 (April #1957) amongst other Kanigher-edited war comics: making Frogmen the first but certainly not the last graduate of the try-out system. The next debut was to be the most successful but the cautious publishers took a long, long time to make it so…

No matter which way you look at it, the Silver Age officially arrived began with The Flash. It’s an unjust but true fact that being first is not enough; it also helps to be best and people have to notice. The Shield beat Captain America to the news-stands by over a year yet the former is all but forgotten today.

The industry had never really stopped trying to revive superheroes when Showcase #4 was released in late summer of 1956, with such precursors as The Avenger (February-September 1955); Captain Flash (November 1954-July 1955); Marvel’s Human Torch, Sub-Mariner and aforementioned Sentinel of Liberty (December 1953-October 1955) and even DC’s own Captain Comet (December 1953-October 1955) and Manhunter from Mars (November 1955 until the close of the 1960’s and almost the end of superheroes again!) still turning up in second-hand-stores and “Five-and-Dime” bargain bins. What made the new Fastest Man Alive stand out and stick was … well, everything!

Once DC’s powers-that-be decided to try superheroes once more, they moved pretty fast themselves. Editor Julie Schwartz asked office partner and Golden-Age Flash scripter Kanigher to recreate a speedster for the Space Age, aided and abetted by Carmine Infantino & Joe Kubert, who had also worked on the previous incarnation.

The new Flash was Barry Allen, a forensic scientist simultaneously struck by lightning and bathed in the exploding chemicals of his lab. Supercharged by the accident, Barry took his superhero identity from a comic book featuring his predecessor (scientist Jay Garrick, who was exposed to the mutagenic fumes of “Hard Water”). Designing a sleek, streamlined bodysuit (courtesy of Infantino – a major talent rapidly approaching his artistic and creative pinnacle), Barry Allen became the point man for the spectacular revival of a genre and the entire industry.

‘Mystery of the Human Thunderbolt’ (Kanigher) and ‘The Man Who Broke the Time Barrier’ (written by the superb John Broome) are polished, coolly sophisticated stories introducing the comfortingly suburban superhero and establishing the broad parameters of his universe. Whether defeating bizarre criminal masterminds such as The Turtle or returning criminal exile Mazdan to his own century, the new Flash was a protagonist of keen insight and sharp wits as well as overwhelming power. Nonetheless the concept was so controversial that despite phenomenal sales, rather than his own series the Fastest Man Alive was given a Showcase encore almost a year later…

Showcase #5 featured the last comics concept in years that didn’t actually develop into an ongoing series, but that’s certainly due to changing fashions of the times and not the quality of the work. The three crime yarns comprising cops-&-robbers anthology Manhunters, begin with ‘The Greatest Villain of all Time’ by Jack Miller & Mort Meskin, revealing how Hollywood screenwriter-turned-police detective Lt. Fowler is dogged by a madman playing for real all the fantastic bad guys the mystery author had once created, whilst ‘The Two Faces of Mr. X’ (Miller, Curt Swan & Sy Barry) finds a male model drafted by the FBI to replace a prominent mob-boss. Unfortunately, it’s the day before the gangster is scheduled for face-changing plastic surgery…

‘The Human Eel’ (Miller & Bill Ely) then pits a cop unable to endure heights against an international high-tech rogue who thinks he hold all the winning cards…

The next try-out was on far firmer fashion grounds and was the first feature to win two issues in a row.

The Challengers of the Unknown were a bridging concept. As the superhero genre was ever so cautiously alpha-tested in 1956 here was a super-team – the first new group-entry of this still-to-be codified era – but with no uncanny abilities or masks, the most basic and utilitarian of costumes, and the most dubious of motives: Suicide by Mystery…

If you wanted to play editorially safe you could argue that were simply another para-military band of adventurers like the long running Blackhawks… but they weren’t.

A huge early hit – winning their own title before The Flash (March 1959) and just two months after Lois Lane (March 1958, although she had been a star in comics since 1938 and even had TV, radio and movie recognition on her side) – the Challs struck a chord resonating for more than a decade before they finally died… only to rise again and yet again. The idea of them was stirring enough, but their initial execution made their success all but inevitable.

Jack Kirby was – and remains – the most important single influence in the history of American comics. There are quite rightly millions of words written about what the man has done and meant, and you should read those if you are at all interested in our medium. When the comic industry suffered a collapse in the mid 1950’s, Kirby briefly returned to DC, crafting genre mystery tales and revitalising the Green Arrow back-up strip whilst creating newspaper strip Sky Masters of the Space Force. He also re-packaged for Showcase an original super-team concept that had been kicking around in his head since he and long-time collaborator Joe Simon had closed their innovative but unfortunate Mainline Comics.

The Challengers of the Unknown were four extraordinary mortals; heroic adventurers and explorers brought together for a radio show who walked away unscathed from a terrible plane crash. Already obviously what we now call “adrenaline junkies”, they decided that since they were all living on borrowed time, they would dedicate what remained of their lives to testing themselves and fate. They would risk their lives for Knowledge and, of course, Justice.

Showcase #6, dated January/February 1957 – which meant it came out in time for Christmas 1956 – introduced pilot Ace Morgan, wrestler Rocky Davis, acrobat Red Ryan and scholarly marine explorer “Prof” Haley in a no-nonsense romp by Kirby, scripter Dave Wood, inkers Marvin Stein and Jack’s wife Roz, before devoting the rest of the issue to a spectacular epic with the doom-chasers hired by duplicitous magician Morelian to open an ancient casque holding otherworldly secrets and powers in ‘The Secrets of the Sorcerer’s Box!’

This story roars along with all the tension and wonder of the B-movie thrillers it emulates, and Kirby’s awesome drawing resonates with power and dynamism as the heroes tackle ancient horrors such as ‘Dragon Seed!’, ‘The Freezing Sun!’ and ‘The Whirling Weaver!’

The fantasy magic continued in the sequel: a science fiction crisis caused when an alliance of Nazi technologies with American criminality unleashes a robotic monster. Scripted by Kirby, ‘Ultivac is Loose!’ (Showcase #7, March/April 1957) introduces quietly capable boffin Dr. June Robbins, who becomes the fifth Challenger at a time when most comic females had returned to a subsidiary status in that so-conservative era.

As her computers predict ‘A Challenger Must Die!’, the lads nevertheless continue to hunt a telepathic, sentient super-robot who inadvertently terrorises ‘The Fearful Millions’ but soon find their sympathies with the tragic artificial intelligence after ‘The Fateful Prediction!’ is fulfilled…

Showcase #8 (June 1957) again featured the Flash, leading with another Kanigher tale – ‘The Secret of the Empty Box’. This perplexing but pedestrian mystery sees Frank Giacoia debut as inker, but the real landmark is Broome’s thriller ‘The Coldest Man on Earth’. With this yarn the author confirmed and consolidated the new phenomenon by introducing the first of a Rogues Gallery of outlandish super-villains. Unlike Golden Age stalwarts, new super-heroes would face predominantly costumed foes rather than thugs and spies. Henceforth, Bad Guys would be as visually arresting and memorable as the champions of justice. Captain Cold would return time and again as pre-eminent Flash Foe and Broome would go on to create every single member of Flash’s classic pantheon of super-villains.

Also included is filler reprint ‘The Race of Wheel and Keel’ by Gardner Fox, Gil Kane & Harry Lazarus, from All-Star Comics #53 (June/July 1950): a true story of how in 1858 a shipping magnate and stagecoach tycoon competed to prove which method of transportation was fastest…

When Lois Lane – arguably the oldest supporting character/star in the Superman mythology if not DC universe – finally received her own shot at a solo title, it was very much on the terms of the times.

I must shamefacedly admit to a deep, nostalgic affection for her bright, breezy, fantastically fun adventures, but as a free-thinking, (nominally) adult liberal of the 21st century I’m astounded now at the jolly, patronising, patriarchally misogynistic attitudes underpinning so many of the stories.

Yes, I’m fully aware that the series was intended for young readers at a time when “dizzy dames” like Lucille Ball or Doris Day played to a popular American stereotype of Woman as jealous minx, silly goose, diffident wife and brood-hungry nester, but asking kids to seriously accept that intelligent, courageous, ambitious, ethical and highly capable females would drop everything they’d worked hard for to lie, cheat, inveigle, manipulate and entrap a man just so that they could cook pot-roast and change super-diapers is just plain crazy and tantamount to child abuse.

I’m just saying…

Showcase #9 (cover-dated July/August 1957) featured Superman’s Girl Friend Lois Lane in three tales by Jerry Coleman, Ruben Moreira & Al Plastino; opening with seminal yarn ‘The Girl in Superman’s Past’ wherein Lois first meets red-headed hussy Lana Lang. The childhood sweetheart of Superboy seems to be a pushy conniving go-getter out to win Lois’ intended at all costs. Naturally Miss Lane invites Miss Lang to stay at her apartment and the grand rivalry is off and running…

‘The New Lois Lane’ aggravatingly saw Lois turn over a new leaf and stop attempting to uncover his secret identity just when Superman actually needs her to do so, and the premier concludes with concussion-induced day-dream ‘Mrs. Superman’ with Lois imagining a life of domestic super-bliss…

The next issue (September/October 1957) offered three more of the same, all illustrated by Wayne Boring & Stan Kaye, beginning with ‘The Jilting of Superman’ – scripted by Otto Binder – wherein the Man of Tomorrow almost falls for an ancient ploy as Lois pretends to marry another man to make the Kryptonian clod realise what she means to him…

‘The Sightless Lois Lane’ by Coleman reveals how a nuclear accident temporarily blinds the journalist, before her unexpected recovery almost exposes Clark Kent’s secret when he callously changes to Superman in front of the blind girl. Binder delightfully closes the issue with ‘The Forbidden Box from Krypton’: a cache of devices dug up by a Smallville archaeologist originally packed by Jor-El to aid the infant superbaby on Earth. Of course, when Lois opens the chest all she sees is a way to become as powerful as the Man of Steel before becoming addicted to being a super-champion in her own right…

Superman’s Girlfriend Lois Lane launched into her own title scant months later, clearly exactly what the readers wanted…

Showcase #11 (November/December 1957) saw the Challengers return to combat an alien invasion on ‘The Day the Earth Blew Up’, with unique realist Bruno Premiani inking a taut doomsday chiller that keeps readers on the edge of their seats even today. Whilst searching for missing Antarctic explorers the Challs discover an under-ice base where double-brained aliens prepare to explosively alter the mass and gravity of Earth. Although intellectually superior, ‘The Tyrans’are no match for the indomitable human heroes and with their Plan A scotched, resort to brute force and ‘The Thing That Came out of the Sea’, even as Prof scuttles their aquatic ace in the hole with ‘One Minute to Doom’

By the time of their final Showcase cases (#12, January/February 1958) they had already secured their own title. Here, though, ‘The Menace of the Ancient Vials’ is defused by the usual blend of daredevil heroics and ingenuity (with the wonderful inking of George Klein, not Wally Wood as credited here) as international spy and criminal Karnak steals a clutch of ancient chemical weapons which create giants and ‘The Fire Being!’, summon ‘The Demon from the Depths’and materialise ‘The Deadly Duplicates!’ before the pre-fantastic four put their enemy down.

Flash zipped back in Showcase #13 (March/April 1958) in a brace of tales pencilled by Infantino and inked by Joe Giella. Written by Kanigher, ‘Around the World in 80 Minutes’ follows the Scarlet Speedster as he tackles atomic blackmail in Paris, foils kidnappers and rebuilds a pyramid in Egypt; dismantles an avalanche in Tibet and scuttles a pirate submarine in the Pacific, before Broome’s ‘Master of the Elements’ introduces outlandish chemical criminal Al Desmond who ravages Central City as Mr. Element until the Flash outwits him.

One last try-out issue – inked by Giacoia – cemented the Flash’s future: Showcase #14 (May/June 1958) opens with Kanigher’s eerie ‘Giants of the Time-World!’ as the Fastest Man Alive smashes dimensional barriers to rescue his girlfriend Iris West from uncanny cosmic colossi and stamp out an alien invasion plan, after which Al Desmond returns with an altered M.O. and new identity. Doctor Alchemy’s discovery of the mystic Philosopher’s Stone makes him ‘The Man who Changed the Earth!’: a stunning yarn and worthy effort to bow out on, but it was still nearly a year until the first issue of The Flash finally hit the stands.

To reiterate: Showcase was a try-out comic designed to launch new series and concepts with minimal commitment of publishing resources. If a new character sold well initially, a regular series would follow. The process had been proved with Frogmen, Lois Lane, Challengers of the Unknown and Flash, so Editorial Director Irwin Donenfeld now urged his two Showcase editors to create science fiction heroes to capitalise on the twin zeitgeists of the Space Race and the popular fascination with movie monsters and aliens. Jack Schiff came up with a “masked” crimefighter of the future – who featured in issues #15 and 16 – whilst Julie Schwartz concentrated on the now in the saga of a contemporary Earth explorer catapulted into the most uncharted territory yet imagined.

Showcase #15 (September/October 1958) commenced without fanfare – or origin – the ongoing adventures of Space Ranger – beginning in ‘The Great Plutonium Plot’ (plotted by Gardner Fox, scripted by pulp veteran Edmond Hamilton and illustrated by Bob Brown).

Their hero was in actuality Rick Starr, son of a wealthy interplanetary businessman who – thanks to incredible gadgets and the assistance of shape-shifting alien pal Cryll and capable Girl Friday Myra Mason – spent his free time battling evil and injustice. When Jarko the Jovian space pirate targets only ships carrying the trans-uranic element, Rick suspects a hidden motive. Donning his guise of the Space Ranger, he lays a cunning trap, exposing a hidden mastermind and a deadly ancient device endangering the entire solar system…

From his base in a hollow asteroid, Space Ranger ranges the universe and ‘The Robot Planet’ brings him and his team to Sirius after discovering a diabolical device designed to rip Sol’s planets out of their orbits. At the end of his voyage, Starr discovers a sublime civilisation reduced to cave-dwelling and a mighty computer intelligence intent on controlling the entire universe unless he can stop it…

Issue #16 opened with ‘The Secret of the Space Monster’ (plot by John Forte, scripted by Hamilton, illustrated by Brown) with Rick, Myra and Cryll investigating an impossible void creature and uncovering a band of alien revolutionaries testing novel super-weapons. ‘The Riddle of the Lost Race’ (Fox, Hamilton & Brown) then takes the team on a whistle-stop tour of the Solar system in pursuit of a vicious criminal and hidden treasures of a long-vanished civilisation.

A few months later Space Ranger was transported to science fiction anthology Tales of the Unexpected, beginning with issue #40 (August 1959) to hold the lead and cover spot for a 6-year run…

One of the most compelling and revered stars of those halcyon days was an ordinary Earthman who regularly travelled to another world for spectacular adventures, armed with nothing more than a ray-gun, a jetpack and his own ingenuity. His name was Adam Strange, and like so many of that era’s triumphs, he was the brainchild of Julius Schwartz and his close team of creative stars.

Showcase #17 (November/December 1958) proclaimed Adventures on Other Worlds, courtesy of Gardner Fox, Mike Sekowsky & Bernard Sachs, telling of an archaeologist who, whilst fleeing from enraged natives in Peru, jumps a 25-foot chasm only to be hit by a stray teleport beam from a planet orbiting Alpha Centauri. Rematerialising on another planet filled with giant plants and monsters, he is rescued by a beautiful woman named Alanna who teaches him her language via a cunning contrivance. ‘Secret of the Eternal City!’ reveals Rann is a world recovering from atomic war, and the beam Adam intercepted was in fact a simple flare, one of many sent in an attempt to communicate with other races.

In the four years (Speed of Light, right? As You Know, Bob – Alpha Centauri is about 4.3 light-years from Sol) the Zeta-Flare travelled through space, cosmic radiation converted it into a teleportation beam. Until the radiation drains from his body Strange is a most willing prisoner on a fantastic world of mystery, adventure and romance…

And an incredibly unlucky one apparently, as no sooner has Adam started acclimatising than an alien race The Eternalsinvades, seeking a mineral that grants them immortality. Strange’s courage and sharp wits enable him to defeat the invaders only to have the Zeta radiation finally fade, drawing him home before his adoring Alanna can administer a hero’s reward. Thus was established the principles of this beguiling series. Adam would intercept a Zeta-beam hoping for some time with his alien sweetheart, only to be confronted with a planet-menacing crisis.

The very next of these, ‘The Planet and the Pendulum’ sees him obtain the crimson-and-white spacesuit and weaponry that became his distinctive trademark in a tale of alien invaders attacking a lost colony of Rannians. They reside on planetary neighbour Anthorann – a fact that also introduces the major subplot of Rann’s still-warring city-states, all desperate to progress and all at different stages of recovery and development….

The next issue featured the self-explanatory ‘Invaders from the Atom Universe’ – with sub-atomic marauders displacing the native races until Adam unravels their nefarious plans – and ‘The Dozen Dooms of Adam Strange’, wherein our hero outfoxes the dictator of Dys who plans to invade Alanna’s home-city Rannagar.

With this last story, Sachs was replaced by Joe Giella as inker, although the former did ink Showcase #19’s stunning Gil Kane cover, (March/April 1959) which saw the unwieldy Adventures on Other Worlds title replaced with eponymous logo Adam Strange.

‘Challenge of the Star-Hunter’ and ‘Mystery of the Mental Menace’ are classic puzzle tales wherein the Earthman must outwit a shape-changing alien and an all-powerful energy-being. After so doing, Adam Strange took over the lead spot and cover of anthology comic Mystery in Space with the August issue.

Clearly on a creative high and riding a building wave, Showcase #20 (May/June 1959) introduced Rip Hunter… Time Master and his dauntless crew as Prisoners of 100 Million BC’ (by Jack Miller & Ruben Moreira) in a novel-length introductory escapade seeing the daredevil physicist, his engineer friend Jeff Smith, girlfriend Bonnie Baxter and her little brother Corky travel to the Mesozoic era, unaware they are carrying two criminal stowaways.

Once there, the thugs hi-jack the Time Sphere, holding it hostage until the explorers help them stock up with rare and precious minerals. Reduced to the status of castaways, Rip and his team become ‘The Modern-Day Cavemen’, but when an erupting volcano provokes ‘The Great Beast Stampede’, our dauntless chrononauts finally turn the tables on their abductors…

Miller was always careful to use the best research available, but never afraid to blend historical fact with bold fantasy for Hunter’s escapades, and this volume concludes with an epic follow-up. Illustrated by Sekowsky & Joe Giella, ‘The Secret of the Lost Continent’ (Showcase #21, July/August, 1959,) has the Time Masters jump progressively further back in time in search of Atlantis. Starting with a dramatic meeting with Alexander the Great in 331 BCE, the explorers follow the trail back centuries to ‘The Forbidden Island’ of Aeaea in 700 BCE and uncover the secret of the witch Circe before finally reaching 14,000 BCE and ‘The Doomed Continent’ only to find the legendary pinnacle of early human achievement to be a colony of stranded extraterrestrial refugees…

Rip Hunter would appear twice more in Showcase before winning his own comic. The succeeding months would see the Silver Age truly kick into High Gear with classic launches coming thick and fast…

These stories from a uniquely influential comic book determined the course of the entire American strip culture and for that alone they should be cherished, but the fact they are still some of the most timeless, accessible and entertaining graphic adventures ever produced is a gift that should be celebrated by every fan and casual reader.

Buy this for yourself, get it for your friends and get a spare just because you can…
© 1956, 1957, 1958, 1959, 2012 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Steed and Mrs Peel volume 2: The Secret History of Space


By Caleb Monroe, Yasmin Liang, Ron Riley & various (Boom! Studios)
ISBN: 978-1-60886-340-2 (TPB)

The (other) Avengers was an incredibly stylish, globally popular British TV show which blended espionage with arch glamor, seductively knowing comedy and deadly danger with elements of technological fantasy. It ran from the 1960s through to the beginning of the 1980s. A phenomenal cult hit, the show (and sequel The New Avengers) is best remembered for Cool Britannia outreach, stylish action-adventure, kinky quirkiness, mad gadgetry, dashing heroics, uniquely English festishistic trappings, surreal suspense and the wholly appropriate descriptive phrase “Spy Fi”.

Enormously popular all over the globe, the show evolved from 1961’s gritty crime thriller Police Surgeon into a paragon of witty, thrilling and sophisticated drama/lampoonery with suave, urbane British Agent John Steed and dazzlingly talented amateur sleuth Mrs. Emma Peel battling spies, robots, criminals, secret societies, monsters and even “aliens” with tongues very much in cheeks and always under the strictest determination to remain calm, dashingly composed and exceedingly eccentric…

The format was a winner. Peel, as played by Dame Diana Rigg, had replaced landmark character Cathy Gale – the first hands-on fighting female on British TV history – and took the show to even greater heights of success. Emma Peel’s connection with viewers cemented into the nation’s psyche the archetype of a powerful, clever, competent woman: largely banishing the screaming, eye-candy girly-victim to the dustbin of popular fiction.

Rigg left in 1967, herself replaced by another feisty female: Tara King (Linda Thorson) who carried the series to its demise in 1969. Continued popularity in more than 90 countries led to a revival in the late 1970s. The New Avengers saw glamorous Purdey (Joanna Lumley) and manly Gambit (Gareth Hunt) as partners and foils to agelessly debonair but deadly Steed…

The show remains an enduring cult icon, with all the spin-off that entails. During its run and beyond, The Avengers spawned toys, games and collector models; a pop single, stage show and radio series, plus audio adventures, posters, books and all the myriad merchandising strands that inevitably accompany a media sensation. The one we care most about is comics and naturally, the popular British Television program was no stranger there either.

Following an introductory strip starring Steed & Gale in listings magazines Look Westward and The Viewer – plus the Manchester Evening News – (September 1963 to the end of 1964), legendary children’s staple TV Comic launched its own Avengers strip in #720 (October 2nd 1965) with Emma Peel firmly ensconced.

This ran until #771 (September 24th 1966), and the dashing duo also starred in TV Comic Holiday Special, whilst a series of young Emma Peel adventures featured in June & Schoolfriend, before transferring to DC Thomson’s Diana until 1968 whereupon it returned to TV Comic with #877, depicting Steed and Tara King until #1077 in 1972.

In 1966, Mick Anglo Studios unleashed a one-off, large-sized UK comicbook, and two years later in America, Gold Key’s Four-Color series published a try-out book using recycled UK material as John Steed/Emma Peel – since Marvel had since secured an American trademark for comics with the name “Avengers”. Although a constantly evolving premise, fans mostly fixate on the classic pairing of Steed and Peel – which is handy as the Avengers title is embargoed up the wazoo now.

There were wonderful, sturdily steadfast hardback annuals for the British Festive Seasonal trade, beginning with 1962’s TV Crimebusters Annual and thereafter pertinent TV Comic Annuals before a run of solo editions graced Christmas stockings from 1967-1969: supplemented by a brace of New Avengers volumes for 1977 and 1978.

Most importantly, Eclipse/ACME Press produced a trans-Atlantic prestige miniseries between 1990 and 1992. Steed & Mrs. Peel was crafted by Grant Morrison & Ian Gibson with supplementary scripting from Anne Caulfield. That tale was reprinted in 2012 by media-savvy publishers Boom! Studios: a notional pilot for the later iteration under review here.

The Adventures of Steed and Mrs. Peel began with issue #0-3 (August 2012), reintroducing the faithful and newcomers to a uniquely British phenomenon and saw the grand dames of Spy Fi tackle old (TV) enemies The Hellfire Club at the height of the 1960s.

After quelling last volume’s A Very Civil Armageddon, the intrigue resumes here and now with Steed and Peel clearing up loose ends by attending a highly suspect gala soiree in ‘Ballroom Dance Fu’ (by Caleb Monroe, Yasmin Liang & colourist Ron Riley). The scoundrel du jour under investigation is wealthy rogue Lloyd Cushing, but the true target is scurrilous brainwasher Mr. Blackwell – the sinister mindbender who facilitated the Hellfire Club’s schemes and previously warped Mrs Peel into their Queen of Sin.

Sadly, despite a minimum of murders and the defeat of their foe, our heroes are left little wiser, and blithely unaware that the schemes of a hidden mastermind are still proceeding apace…

Main event ‘The Secret History of Space’ then kicks off with the abduction of British Air Chief Marshal Trevor Seabrook’s wife in opening gambit ‘Steed Drifts Off into Space’. The hidden villain’s ultimate aim is achieved when the distraught airman – head of the UK’s Space Program – hands over an item long stored and forgotten in a research facility. Investigating the extortion, Steed and Peel are baffled to learn that the top-secret booty is a decades-old empty glass jar…

Diligent investigation leads the Derring Duo to a warehouse where old enemy Dr. Peter Glass (another TV series recruit) has been continuing his deadly experiments into optical lasers. It’s quite the conundrum since Steed clearly remembers killing him…

The answer is forthcoming as ‘Time Flies’ reveals a bit of chronal meddling from the bonkers boffin’s future assistant Jamie upsetting the timeline and risking things from beyond our comprehension getting dangerously close to humanity. Thankfully, even a gang of time-duplicated henchpersons are no match for Mrs Peel in full assault mode…

With normality restored, our heroes then voyage to small Welsh mining town Abergylid, where an unlikely cluster of suicides (24 in one month) has the Ministry deeply concerned. After both almost simultaneously succumb to manic death-urges, simple deduction leads to an outside influencer callously operating with malign intent and methods in ‘Tawdry Little Endings’.

Wry, sharp and wickedly satisfying, these classy cloak-&-dagger dramas are sheer delight for staunch fans and curious newcomers alike and this volume also includes a wealth of covers and variants gallery by Joe Corroney & Brian Miller; Drew Johnson, Mike Perkins, Barry Kitson and Davis (all coloured by Vladimir Popov), Lorena Carvalho and Chan Hyuk Lee.
© 2012, 2013 Studio Canal S.A. All rights reserved.

DC’s First Issue Specials


By Jack Kirby, Joe Simon & Jerry Grandenetti, Bob Haney & Ramona Fradon, Robert Kanigher & John Rosenberger, Michael Fleischer & Steve Ditko, Mike Grell, Martin Pasko & Walter Simonson, Gerry Conway & Frank Redondo, Mike Vosburg, Denny O’Neil & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1779501776 (HB)

Nobody knows where ideas come from, but at least in comics it’s easy to see how they turn out. Mainstream companies have always favoured try-out vehicles – like Gold Key’s Four Color; Magazine Enterprises’ A-1; DC’s Showcase and The Brave and the Bold; Charlton Bullseye; Marvel Premiere and Marvel Spotlight – and the principle was a sound one, graphically depicted in every first issue. In the late 1950s, editors at National/DC were apparently bombarded with readers’ suggestions for new titles and concepts and the only possible way to feasibly prove which would be popular was to offer test runs and assess the fans reactions. The results kickstarted the Silver Age and introduced dozens of immortal, profitable characters and concepts…

When the comic book revolution seemed to be fading out in the mid-1970s it was revived in part by innovative scheduling and a new awareness of the need to experiment, leading to this sturdy hardback/digital compilation of some genuine hits and near-misses…

Originally printed as 1st Issue Special #1-13, spanning April 1975 to April 1976, it’s supplemented by then-Editor Gerry Conway’s revelatory Introduction ‘If at First You Don’t Succeed’.

Famed for his larger-than-life characters and gigantic, cosmic imaginings, Jack Kirby was an astute, imaginative, spiritual man who had lived through poverty and gangsterism, the Depression, Post-War optimism, Cold War paranoia, political cynicism and the birth and death of peace-seeking counter-cultures. He was open-minded and utterly wedded to the making of comics stories on every imaginable subject. He always believed sequential narrative was worthy of being published as real books beside mankind’s other literary art forms. It’s a genuine shame he didn’t live long enough to see today’s vibrant and vastly varied graphic novel industry.

On ending his third sojourn at the company – just prior to returning to Marvel for 2001: A Space Odyssey/Machine Man, Captain America, Black Panther and more – Kirby unleashed a bunch of new options for DC to expand and capitalise on over the coming decades. Other than Kobra – which was hastily reworked by other hands and given its own series – they all appeared in the new Comics Showcase.

Debuting in the debut 1st Issue Special #1 and inked by D. Bruce Berry, ‘Atlas the Great!’ harks back to the dawn of human civilisation and the blockbusting travails of mankind’s first super-powered champion in a bombastic and tantalizing Sword & Sorcery yarn.

Kirby’s collaborations with fellow industry pioneer Joe Simon always produced dynamite concepts, unforgettable characters, astounding stories and huge sales, no matter what genre avenues they pursued. They blazed trails for so many others to follow; reshaping the nature of American comics with their innovations and sheer quality. Simon & Kirby offered stories shaped by their own sensibilities: always testing fresh ideas and avenues. They chased ideas for comics nobody else ever had before, identifying gaps and probing potential.

Although junior plutocrat Richie Rich had been coining it for Harvey Comics for decades, Simon and old collaborator Jerry Grandenetti looked for drama as well as laughs in the set-up and came up with ‘The Green Team: Boy Millionaires’ for the second 1st Issue.

Here magnate minors The Commodore (shipping), JP Houston (oil) and Cecil Sunbeam (moviemaker) are joined by black shoeshine boy Abdul Smith after a banking error turns the industrious lad into an instant parvenu. Dedicated to adventure and social advancement, the kids then unwisely back ‘The Great American Pleasure Machine’

The first of a string of potential revivals follows as Metamorpho the Element Man returns courtesy of fabled originators Bob Haney & Ramona Fradon. ‘The Freak and the Billion-Dollar Phantom’ sees Rex Mason seeking to thwart the vengeful schemes of a ghost betrayed by America’s Founding Fathers and resolved to destroy Washington DC.

For #4, Robert Kanigher, John Rosenberger & Vince Colletta introduce a truly novel but now unfortunately dated concept in ‘Lady Cop’.

Earnest, well-meaning and immaculately rendered by the criminally-underappreciated Rosenberger, the tale of college student Liza Warner – who survives a serial killer and takes control of her life by becoming a police officer – is rather heavy-handed, but addresses in ‘Poisoned Love’ issues of controlling boyfriends, parental abuse, underage sex and venereal disease with a degree of mature understanding we’d be hard-pressed to see these days. I think she was one of the few characters still dormant since her debut…

Kirby – with Berry – returned in #5 (August 1975) to revise his own Golden Age stalwart safari guide Paul Kirk replaced by a frustrated lawyer. This passing of a torch sees a devout evil-crusher working for an ancient justice-cult retire: beguiling his nephew – Public Defender Mark Shaw – to become the latest super-powered ‘Manhunter’ battling ancient wickedness with alien super-tech…

A rare but welcome digression into comedy manifested as ‘The Dingbats of Danger Street’ disgraced 1st Issue Special #6, with Mike Royer inking a bizarre and hilarious revival of Kirby’s Kid Gang genre starring four multi-racial street urchins united for survival and annoying the heck out of cheesy thugs and surreal super threats like Jumping Jack and The Gasser

Steve Ditko’s startling psychedelic avenger The Creeper debuted in early 1968, parlaying his premier in Showcase #73 into a superb but brief run in Beware the Creeper before being cancelled with the sixth issue (March/April 1969) – by which time Ditko had all but abandoned his creation. It was fun and thrilling and – unlike many series which folded at that troubled time – even provided an actual conclusion, but somehow wasn’t satisfactory or what the public wanted.

This was a time when superheroes went into steep decline, with supernatural and genre material regaining prominence throughout the industry. With Fights ‘n’ Tights comics folding all over, Ditko concentrated again on Charlton’s mystery line, the occasional horror piece for Warren and his own projects…

In the years his own comic was dormant, the Creeper enjoyed numerous guest shots in other comics, which established that the city he prowled was in fact Gotham. When Ditko returned to DC in the mid-1970s, 1st Issue Special snapped him up.

Issue #7 (October 1975) gave the quirky crusader another shot at stardom in ‘Menace of the Human Firefly’ written by Michael Fleisher and inked by Mike Royer. It saw reinstated TV journalist Jack Ryder inspecting the fantastic felons in Gotham Penitentiary just as manic lifer Garfield Lynns breaks jail to resume his interrupted costumed career as the master of lighting effects.

By the time the rogue’s brief but brilliant rampage is over, the Creeper has discovered something extremely disturbing about his own ever-evolving abilities…

The story wasn’t enough to immediately restart the rollercoaster, but a few years later DC instituted a policy of giant-sized anthologies and the extra page counts allowed a number of lesser lights to secure back-up slots and shine again. Written and drawn by Ditko, The Creeper became a regular in World’s Finest Comics

During the troubled 1970s the American comics industry suffered one of the worst of its periodic downturns and publishers desperately cast about for anything to bolster the flagging sales of superhero comics.

By revising their self-imposed industry code of practice (administered by the Comics Code Authority) to allow supernatural and horror comics, publishers tapped into the global revival of interest in spiritualism and the supernatural, and as a by-product opened their doors to Sword-and-Sorcery as a viable genre with Roy Thomas & Barry Windsor-Smith’s take on R. E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian an early exemplar.

DC launched a host of titles into that budding market but although individually interesting nothing stuck until First Issue Special #8.

With The Warlord, popular Legion of Super-Heroes artist Mike Grell launched his pastiche, homage and tribute to Edgar Rice Burroughs’s works (particularly Pellucidar – At the Earth’s Core) which, after a rather shaky start (just like Conan, the series was cancelled early in the run but rapidly reinstated) went on to become for a time DC’s most popular title.

Blending swords, sorcery and super-science with spectacular, visceral derring-do, the lost land of Skartaris is a venue expertly designed for adventure: stuffed with cavemen, warriors, mythical creatures, dinosaurs and scantily-clad hotties. How could it possibly fail?

The magic commences with ‘Land of Fear!’ as in 1969, U2 spy-pilot Colonel Travis Morgan is shot down whilst filming a secret Soviet base. The embattled aviator manages to fly his plane over the North Pole before ditching, expecting to land on frozen Tundra or pack-ice on the right side of the Iron Curtain.

Instead, he finds himself inside the Earth, marooned in a vast, tropical jungle where the sun never sets. The incredible land is populated by creatures from every era of history and many that never made it into the science books. Plunging head-on into the madness, the baffled airman saves an embattled princess from a hungry saurian before both are captured by soldiers. Taken to the city of Thera, Morgan is taught the language by fellow captive Tara and makes an implacable enemy of the court wizard Deimos. After surviving an assassination attempt the pair escape into the eternal noon of the land beneath the Earth.

Within months Morgan had his own-bimonthly title written, pencilled and inked by Grell.

Another delayed reaction revival in #9 saw Golden Age mage ‘dr. fate’ reintroduced and revamped thanks to arch stylists Martin Pasko & Walter Simonson.

A brilliant imagination and, by his own admission, more designer than artist, Simonson broke through in the standard manner in the early 1970s by illustrating short stories for DC’s anthology comics – a valuable and much-missed proving ground for budding talent. Whilst working on Fritz Leiber’s licensed property Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser for the seminal Sword of Sorcery comic-book, he was commissioned by Archie Goodwin to illustrate groundbreaking, award-winning Manhunter feature for Detective Comics and instantly catapulted to the forefront of comics creators.

Here he and Pasko reintegrate the best elements of the Golden Age run as the master of magic battles accursed and murderous Egyptian mummy Khalis, who seeks to turn back time and unmake the world. The tale allowed the artist to stretch himself and explore his increasing fascination with patterns, symbols and especially typography. It’s a cracking good read too, which redefined and repositioned Fate for decades to come.

Simon & Grandenetti, with Creig Flessel, used #10 to unleash ‘The Outsiders’, a band of truly creepy freaks united by Doctor Goodie/Doc Scary to save the ugly, unwanted and persecuted from bigotry and intolerance after which ‘Code Name: Assassin’ sees Conway expand his concept of Good Bad Men (which created The Punisher) as augmented telekinetic Jonathan Drew declares war on crime and death to evil in a tantalising yarn-of-its-time illustrated by Frank Redondo & Al Milgrom. Assassin would eventually resurface as a Superman villain.

Starman is a character and property DC regularly revises, and First Issue Special #12 (March 1976) saw one of the most radical reinterpretations as Conway, Mike Vosburg & Royer introduce Mikaal Tomas: point-man for an imminent alien invasion of Earth. What could possibly make him betray his people, his duty and his true love to abruptly switch sides and fight for humanity?

The last try-out in this run was without doubt the most significant. Not only did the tale lead to an new series, but it also cemented New Genesis, Apokolips and especially ultimate villain Darkseid as pivotal to the further unfolding of the DCU. The characters have never been long absent from the continuity.

When Kirby moved back to DC in 1970, he created one of the most powerful concepts in comics history. His Fourth World inserted a whole new mythology into the existing DC universe and blew the minds of a generation of readers. Starting with Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen, he revived the 1940s kid-team The Newsboy Legion; introduced large-scale cloning in the form of The Project, and hinted the city’s gangsters had otherworldly backers. He then moved on to the Forever People, New Gods and Mister Miracle: an interlinked triptych of projected miniseries forming an epic mosaic.

These titles introduced rival races of gods – dark and light – risen from the ashes of a previous Armageddon to battle forever. And then their conflict spread to Earth…

Kirby’s concepts, as always, fired and inspired his contemporaries and successors. The gods of Apokolips and New Genesis have become a crucial foundation of the DC universe, surviving numerous revisions and retcons periodically bedevilling continuity-hounds.

Many major talents have dabbled with the concept over the years and many titles have come and gone starring Kirby’s creations. It all began with the final 1st Issue Special #13 and ‘Return of the New Gods’.

Almost before the dust had settled from Jack’s departure back to Marvel, his greatest creation was revived. With Conway plotting, Denny O’Neil scripting & Vosburg rendering a resurrection of the uncompleted saga, ‘Lest Night Fall Forever!’sees modern war god Orion battling Apokolyptian enemies on Earth as his wicked sire seeks again the anti-Life Equation. It’s time to assemble a new team and rush to humanity’s aid…

With covers by Kirby, Grandenetti, Fradon, Rosenberger & Dick Giordano, Ditko, Grell, Joe Kubert and Ernie Chan, plus apposite text features from original issues accompanying each tale telling ‘The Story Behind the Story’, this is a true gem for fans that will also impress newbies looking for the odd timeless thrill….
© 1975, 1976, 2020 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Farewell, Brindavoine


By Tardi, translated by Jenna Allen (Fantagraphics)
ISBN: 978-1-68396-433-9 (Album HB)

Credited with creating a new style of expressionistic illustration dubbed “the New Realism”, Jacques Tardi is one of the greatest comics creators in the world, blessed with a singular vision and adamantine ideals. A strident anti-war activist, he apparently refused France’s greatest honour because he wanted to be completely free to say and create what he wants.

Tardi was born in the Commune of Valence, Drôme in August 1946 studying at École Nationale des Beaux-Arts de Lyon and subsequently the prestigious Parisian École Nationale Supérieure des arts Décoratifs. He launched his comics career in 1969 at the home of modern French comics Pilote, with the series we’re looking at today first seen in 1972-1973.

From illustrating stories by Jean Giraud, Serge de Beketch and Pierre Christian, he moved on to westerns, crime tales and satirical works in magazines such as Record, Libération, Charlie Mensuel and L’Écho des Savanes all whilst graduating into adapting prose novels by Louis-Ferdinand Céline and Léo Malet.

The latter’s detective Nestor Burma was the subject of all-new albums written and drawn by Tardi once the established literary canon was exhausted, leading to the creation of Polonius in Métal Hurlant (1976) and the now-legendary Les Aventures Extraordinaires d’Adèle Blanc-Sec – an epic period fantasy adventure which ran in the daily Sud-Ouest. The series numbers ten volumes thus far and inhabits the same pocket reality as the star of this tome.

The passionate creator has crafted many crushingly powerful anti-war books and stories (C’était la guerre des tranchées, Le trou d’obus, Moi René Tardi, prisonnier de guerre au Stalag IIB and other) dealing with the common soldier’s plight; written novels, created radio series, worked in movies, and co-created – with writer Jean Vautrin – Le Cri du Peuple: a quartet of albums about the Parisienne revolt of the Communards.

Far too few of this French master’s creations are available in English (barely a dozen out of more than fifty) but, thanks to NBM, iBooks and Fantagraphics, we’re catching up.

This lavish full-colour hardback (also available digitally) began life as Adieu Brindavoine, with its obscure yet complex Victoriana, shady political intrigues, dastardly plutocratic plotters and cast-iron-&-clockwork chic, leading to Tardi being proclaimed in later years the Godfather of Steampunk. His surreally-structured absurdist episodes and incidents – strung together in an almost stream-of-consciousness mode – work best on the visual perceptions with dialogue used only to ensure clarity or bemuse perception…

Following a context-supplying appreciation in Benoít Mouchart’s Preface, we begin in Neuilly-Sur-Seine in May 1914, as an aged messenger braves the cluttered and controversial home of gentleman photographer Lucien Brindavoine. Surly Basil Zarkhov has a startling – and potentially life-changing – proposition, but is gunned down by a skylight-shattering intruder before he can share it. However, thanks to his deathbed exposition, Lucien is soon heading by steamship for Istanbul, and another risky meeting…

Constantly encountering strikingly odd individuals, he is soon unwillingly partnered with effetely obnoxious intoxicated Englishman Mr. Oswald Carpleasure and hurtling across the desert towards Afghanistan in a battered motor vehicle. In their immediate future is a fantastic lost city, but the sinister gunman is in hot pursuit and wicked Olga Vogelgesang is determined to destroy them with her deadly state-of-the-military-art biplane…

After much privation and bewilderment, Lucien finally reaches the lost Iron City and is greeted by the orchestrators of many of his woes. Learning of an incredible plutocratic plot affords him little comfort, but before long the baroque devils in nominal charge fall upon each other like deranged wolves, enabling, if not compelling Brindavoine to flee in the most advanced passenger craft in the world…

Thanks to a breaking world war, he doesn’t get far…

Following the tale’s conclusion, a compelling comic epilogue from a previously unseen narrator (think Rocky Horror Show) deviously adds to the confusion by “explaining” what’s happened and Lucien’s ultimate fate before introducing a thematic follow-up.

‘Lambs to the Slaughter’ is set in November 1914 with deserters from all the armies involved holing up in a shattered church. Plagued by visions of perfect pasts and potential tomorrows, they are completely unprepared for when the mad military of today finds them…

Bizarre, visually resplendent, darkly funny, evocative and deliciously challenging, Farewell, Brindavoine is a comic tour de force on every level and a sublime example of how fashion, fantasy and futurism can work miracles when woven together by a master craftsman.
This edition of Farewell, Brindavoine © 2021 Fantagraphics Books, Inc. Adieu Brindavoine © 2011 Casterman. Translation © 2021 Jenna Allen. Preface © 2021 Benoít Mouchart. All rights reserved.

Farewell, Brindavoine is physically released on August 26th 2021 and available for pre-order. Digital editions can be purchased now.

The Puma Blues: The Complete Collection in One Volume


By Stephen Murphy & Michael Zulli, with Alan Moore & various (Dover Comics & Graphic Novels)
ISBN: 978-0-846-79813-4 (HB)

Introduction by Dave Sim and Afterword by Stephen R. Bissette

During the 1980s, American comics experienced an astounding proliferation of new titles and companies following the creation of the Direct Sales Market. With publishers now able to firm-sale straight to specialised, dedicated retail outlets – rather than overprint and accept returned copies from general magazine vendors – the industry was able to risk resources on less commercially-driven titles whilst authors, artists and publishers could experiment without losing their shirts.

The huge outpouring of fresh material deriving from the Direct Sales revolution resulted in a plethora of innovative titles and – naturally – a host of appalling, derivative, knocked-off, banged-out trash too. There were even some genuine landmarks and milestones…

The period was an immensely fertile time for English-language comics-creators. Comics shops – run by people in touch with their customers and who actually read and loved at least some of what they sold – sprang up everywhere and a host of new publishers began to experiment with format, genre and content, whilst eager readers celebrated the happy coincidence that everybody seemed to have a bit of extra money to play with.

Consequently, newcomers were soon aggressively competing for the attention and cash of punters who had wearied of getting their sequential art jollies from DC, Marvel, Archie and/or Harvey Comics. European, Japanese and Canadian material began creeping in, and by 1983 companies such as WaRP Graphics, Pacific, Eclipse, Capital, Now, Comico, Dark Horse, First, Renegade and others established themselves and made impressive inroads.

Most importantly, by circumventing traditional family-focussed sales points like newsstands, more mature material could be produced: not just increasingly violent or sexually explicit but also more political and intellectually challenging too. Subsequently, the “kid’s stuff” stigma afflicting comics largely dissipated and America began catching up to the rest of the world, at least partially acknowledging that comics might be a for-real art-form.

New talent, established stars and different takes on old forms all found a thriving forum and marketplace desperate for something a little different. Even tiny companies and foreign outfits had a fair shot at the big time. Lots of great material came – and, almost universally, as quickly went – without getting the attention or success they warranted. One of the most critically acclaimed and enthralling features was published by the Moses of Independent creators, Dave Sim.

Sim started self-publishing Cerebus the Aardvark in 1977 and pretty much trail-blazed the entire phenomenon for the rest of us. Passionately, stridently non-mainstream, he soldiered on in complete control of every aspect of his creation and occasionally published other titles by creators who impressed him or he liked. Eventually, however, Sim ditched a coterie of fine and uniquely different books that were nurtured by his Aardvark-Vanaheim outfit, leaving them with his ex-wife’s new company Renegade, re-concentrating all his efforts on Cerebus once more.

And then in 1985, a couple of casual acquaintances showed Sim the opening instalment of something called The Puma Blues

The full story – including how that strangely compelling, so-slowly unfolding eco-fable became a helpless hostage and collateral casualty in the one-man publishing house’s lengthy battle with an international distributor determined to dictate how creators did business – is related here in painful, sordid detail in Sim’s Introduction for this impressive archival edition – complete with his equally stunning pin-up of the series’ iconic signature invention…

This monolithic monochrome tome gathers every published issue of The Puma Blues comic (except the non-canonical Benefit Issue #21, which was rushed out in solidarity by incensed fellow creators to generate publicity, support and funds) before, after almost a quarter century, reuniting writer Stephen Murphy & Michael Zulli to finally complete their story…

That aforementioned funnybook hostage was an eerily beautiful, disturbingly pensive oddment which first debuted as a black-&-white title in June 1986 (so Happy Anniversary, folks!); marrying then-escalating ecological concerns and tropes of science fictive paranoia with torturous soul-searching and the eternal quest for place in both family and the world…

The Puma Blues is a tale more about the Why and How of things rather than the usual Who and What of plot and character, so this overview will be brief and short on detail. Trust me, you’ll be grateful for my forbearance when you read this magnum opus yourself…

Accepting the premise that all Science Fiction – whenever it’s created – is always about Right Here, Right Now, the abiding undercurrent of The Puma Blues is an inexorable slide to tragic, unfixable, unwanted change. With the planet either on fire, suddenly underwater, poisoned or choking, it never been more relevant to ponder “what happens next”?

Since the 1970s and proceeding ever more unchecked into the 21st century, nations and human society have been plagued by horrors and disasters exacerbated – if not actually caused – by a world-wide proliferation of lying, greedy, venal, demented and just plain stupid bosses and governments. You could call it retro-futurism now, but Tomorrow, at least in terms of society – as seen from the shaky perch of 1986 – was for many a foredoomed and hopeless place.

Looking at my TV screen or out of a window, I’m not sure that Murphy & Zulli weren’t fundamentally right and doubling as prophets when they set their gentle epic 14 years into the future. 2000 AD and government agent Gavia Immer (look it up, they’re being very clever) is monitoring changes to flora and fauna in the wilderness Reserve around Quabbin Reservoir, Massachusetts on behalf of the US military.

Still a beautiful, idyllic landscape dominated by ancient apex predators like mountain lions, despite perpetual acid rains, ozone layer breaches and radioactive toxins left after White Supremacists nuked the Bronx, the harsh area monitored by the solitary researcher is the site of some radical changes…

Gavia’s job is not simply clerical. His mission is to periodically test fluctuating PH levels of the lake in between the state’s continual chemical readjustments of the body of water and, whenever he discovers a mutant species – whether “animute” or “biomute” – he has to utilise state-of-the-art technology to instantaneously ship specimens to a US-Sino laboratory Reserve somewhere in China.

That hasn’t prevented the hauntingly lovely flying mantas from proliferating and dominating the skies above his head, however…

Gavia’s only contact with the rest of humanity is his TV screen. It delivers reports, interviews and pep talks from his superiors and allows him to talk to his mother: allowing the solitary agent plenty of time to brood about his father’s death and their unresolved issues.

The fanatical film-maker has been gone four years now, but Gavia is still drowning in unresolved conflicts, which is probably what prompts his mum to forward tapes of all the strange documentaries he neglected his wife and son to make…

Is Gavia imagining it or is he actually gradually divining some inner cosmic revelation from his dad’s tapes and theories? Their examination of recent historical events draws solid links between the declining state of the world and a (frankly baffling and seemingly implausible) connection to patterns of UFO sightings. Surely though, his father’s clearly growing obsession with the strange “alien” creatures popularly known as “Greys” must only have his metaphorical way of searching for incontestable Truth?

Nonetheless, they slowly begin to have a similar effect on the thinking of the equally soul-searching son…

There’s certainly plenty of room for new answers: the growing dominance of flying mantas is clearly no longer a secret – as Gavia learns to his regret – after an old soldier and radical “neo-Audubon” called Jack invades the Preserve looking for proof of the flying (former) fish. Despite himself, Gavia lets the affable old coot stay; a decision he soon has cause to regret…

As animals old and new jostle and tussle to find their niche in the new world order, Gavia sinks further into his father’s videotaped philosophies until he has his revelation and takes off into the heart of America to find out how and why things are falling apart…

Proffering an increasingly strong but never strident message of environmental duty and responsibility, The Puma Blues outlined its arguments and questions as a staggeringly beautiful and compelling mystery play which ran for 23 formal issues, a Benefit special designated “Eat or Be Eaten” and a tantalisingly half-sized #24 before the exigencies of publishing made it extinct.

Before it was squeezed out of existence the saga was collected as two trade paperbacks – Watch That Man and Sense of Doubt – but this monumental hardback tome (also and preferentially available in an eco-sustainable digital edition) belatedly completes the story before offering a passionate defence and valiant elegiac testimony in ‘Acts of Faith: a Coda’by devoted follower and occasional contributor Stephen R. Bissette: even finding room to reprint two items from the aforementioned Benefit Issue: a page from ‘Pause’ by Murphy, Zulli & Bissette, plus the eerily erotic ‘Acts of Faith’ by Alan Moore, Bissette & Zulli, exploring the mating habits of those sky-borne Birostris (look that up too, now I’m being clever…)

The long-delayed walk on the wild side concludes with the quasi-theosophical ‘Mobile’: the full contents of Puma Blues #24½ mini-comic by Murphy & Zulli.

Haunting, chilling, beguiling, intensely imposing and never more timely than now, this is a massive accomplishment and enduring triumph in comics narrative. Read it now, before we’re all too busy treading burning water…
© 2015 Stephen Murphy & Michael Zulli. Introduction by Dave Sim © 2015 to be reciprocally owned by both Stephen Murphy & Michael Zulli. Afterword © 2015 by Stephen R. Bissette. All rights reserve.

Osamu Tezuka’s Original Astro Boy volume 6 & 7



By Osamu Tezuka, translated by Frederik L. Schodt (Dark Horse Manga)
ISBN: 978-1-56971-681-6 (TPB 6) 978-1-56971-790-5 (TPB 7)

There’s nothing like the real thing. After a range of robotic rapscallions and kid-friendly constructions, here’s a double dose of the original and genuine mechanical marvel of any age…

From beginning his professional career in the late 1940s until his death in 1989, Osamu Tezuka generated an incomprehensible volume of quality work which transformed the world of manga and how it was perceived in his own country and, ultimately, across the globe. Devoted to Walt Disney’s creations, he performed similar sterling service with Japan’s fledgling animation industry.

The earliest stories were intended for children but right from the start Tezuka’s expansive fairy tale stylisations harboured more mature themes and held hidden pleasures for older readers and the legion of fans growing up with his manga masterpieces…

“God of Comics” was born in Osaka Prefecture on November 3rd 1928, and as a child suffered from a severe illness. The doctor who cured him inspired the lad to study medicine, and although Osamu began drawing professionally whilst at university in 1946, he persevered with college and qualified as a medical practitioner too. Then, as he faced a career crossroads, his mother advised him to do the thing which made him happiest.

He never practiced as a healer but the world was gifted with such masterpieces as Kimba the White Lion, Buddha, Black Jack and so many other graphic narratives.

Working ceaselessly over decades, Tezuka and his creations inevitably matured, but he was always able to speak to the hearts and minds of young and old equally. His creations ranged from the childishly charming to the distinctly disturbing such as The Book of Human Insects.

Tezuka died on February 9th 1989, having produced more than 150,000 pages of timeless comics; created the Japanese anime industry and popularised a uniquely Japanese graphic narrative style which became a fixture of global culture.

These monochrome digest volumes (173 x 113 mm in the physical world and any size you like if you get the eBook edition) continue to present – in non-linear order – early exploits of his signature character, with the emphasis firmly on fantastic fun and family entertainment…

Tetsuwan Atomu (literally “Mighty Atom” but known universally as Astro Boy due to its dissemination around the world as an animated TV cartoon and one of post-war Japan’s better exports) is a spectacular, riotous, rollicking sci fi action-adventure starring a young boy who also happens to be one of the mightiest robots on Earth.

The series began in 1952 in Shōnen Kobunsha and ran until March 12th 1968 – although Tezuka often returned to add to the canon in later years, both in comics but in also in other media such as the newspaper strips reprinted and repackaged here. Over that period, Astro Boy spawned the aforementioned global TV cartoon boom, starred in comic book specials and featured in games, toys, collectibles, movies and the undying devotion of generations of ardent fans.

Tezuka frequently drew himself into his tales as a commentator, and in his later revisions and introductions often mentioned how he found the restrictions of Shōnen comics stifling; specifically, having to periodically pause a plot to placate the demands of his audience by providing a blockbusting fight every episode. That’s his prerogative: most of us avid aficionados have no complaints…

Tezuka and his production team were never as wedded to close continuity as fans are. They constantly revised both stories and artwork in later collections, so if you’re a purist you are just plain out of luck. Such tweaking and modifying is the reason this series of collections seem to skip up and down the publishing chronology. The intent is to entertain at all times so stories aren’t treated as gospel and order is not immutable or inviolate.

It’s just comics, guys…

And in case you came in late, here’s a little background to set you up…

In a world where robots are ubiquitous and have won (limited) human rights, brilliant Dr. Tenma lost his son Tobio in a traffic accident. Grief-stricken, the tormented genius used his position as head of Japan’s Ministry of Science to build a replacement. The android his team created was one of the most groundbreaking constructs in history, and for a while Tenma was content.

However, as his mind re-stabilised, Tenma realised the unchanging humanoid was not Tobio and, with cruel clarity, summarily rejected the replacement. Ultimately, the savant removed the insult to his real boy by selling the robot to a shady dealer…

One day, independent researcher Professor Ochanomizu was in the audience at a robot circus and realised diminutive performer “Astro” was unlike the other acts – or indeed, any artificial being he had ever encountered. Convincing the circus owners to part with the little robot, the Prof closely studied the unique creation and realised just what a miracle had come into his hands…

Part of Ochanomizu’s socialization process for Astro included placing him in a family environment and having him attend school just like a real boy. As well as providing friends and admirers the familiar environment turned up another foil and occasional assistant in the bellicose form of Elementary School teacher Higeoyaji (AKA Mr. Mustachio)…

The wiry wonder’s astonishing exploits resume after the now traditional ‘A Note to Readers’ – explaining why one thing that hasn’t been altered is the depictions of various racial types in the stories.

The author was also keen on combining all aspects of his creation into one overarching continuity. This volume opens with ‘“Once Upon a Time” Astro Boy Tales Part 1’ January 24th – December 23rd 1967: reprinting modified strips from the serial that ran in the Sankei newspaper. In his cartoon persona, the God of Comics explains how the cliffhanger ending of the TV series (falling into the sun on a malfunctioning nuclear fusion blocker) never sat well with him.

Filling in gaps, Tezuka here reveals how the depowered robot boy was originally rescued and repaired by insectoid aliens and restored to Earth, but also how he has since rejected that plot twist and replaced it with a new one in ‘Beginning of the Contradiction’

Now, while enjoying an evening flight over his beloved city, Astro is caught in the explosion of a crashing spaceship. He also saves a locust woman passenger who has taken more-or-less human form. After sharing her tale convoluted tale of romantic woe – involving two males determined to fight to the death for her – Scara Ohara realizes she is marooned on Earth, but that’s not the biggest problem she and her robot rescuer face. When Astro goes for help, he discovers the detonation has cracked the time barrier, plunging them back 50 years to March 1969…

While scouting ancient (by his lights) Tokyo and reeling in shock, Astro meets and befriends a little boy. He soon learns that there are no other true robots in existence and that little Shin-Chan is the world’s greatest beggar.

The diligent mendicant offers the stranded strangers accommodation in his plush house and is astounded when Astro reveals his artificial nature and great dilemma. The mechanoid needs constant atomic fuel top-ups or he will cease to function, but now – decades away from sustenance – is living on borrowed time…

‘Living on Earth 101’ finds Shin-Chan urgently schooling the strangers on the primitive, intolerant world they now live in: building a home, getting jobs as Astro deduces that – if he’s careful – he can live three more years. There are numerous embarrassing and simply dangerous moments where their secret is almost exposed, such as the time he digs up rare gems from inside a volcano but cannot explain how he got them to extremely curious diamond sellers…

Scara cannot understand the concept of work, but easily adapts to the joys of shopping, and lure of “fun” with a succession of attentive men, piling pressure on the sensible robot and triggering an encounter with ruthless thieves and the first of Astro’s contacts with people he will know half a century from “now”.

It’s the birth of the age of automation and Astro regularly meets prototype constructs that painfully remind him of home, where robots are sentient and have equal rights. Here, his kind are considered, silly fantasy, toys and potential job-stealers. Pioneering scientists often work in secret, such as the masked dabbler building his metal men in a secret underground lair.

The Birth of Neva #2’ sees a painfully young Ochanomizu take on the human-seeming weird kid Astro as an assistant… with startling repercussions.

As Scara continues to flounder in a strange world, ‘Baro, the Robot’ finds her at odds with her rescuer after she reveals that on her world, all mechanoids are slaves. Incensed, Astro rockets away, wasting precious energy to ostensibly investigate the rogue nation of Peakok, which has shocked the world with twin announcements: it is now a nuclear power, and its H-bombs are deployed by a robot delivery system…

As Astro enters the sinister police state, President Bundell is already taking charge of scientist Carpon’s beloved brainchild Baro. The dictator has no idea that the sentient machine has the mind and personality of a human toddler, whilst the nuclear weapon really hates the idea of killing or dying: opinions fortified after meeting and debating with Astro. That all tragically changes when the President murders rebellious Carpon and Baro seeks revenge…

Squandering power, Astro only has six months energy remaining when the next crisis occurs. ‘Scara Disappears’, reveals how the emotionally dislocated alien – growing evermore discontented – flees to the mountains to escape humanity. When the boy bot returns, guilt drives him to investigate Mount Tanigawa, eventually finding Scara has changed shape and joined the bugs living there. With time running out, he and Shin-Chan make contingency plans: a scheme to store Astro’s power-depleted form for the decades necessary to catch up with the technology needed to sustain him, when the moment of total depletion finally comes…

In the meantime, Astro works with young Ochanomizu on developing robots. Faced with constant failure and the fact that society hates and does not want truly autonomous mechanoids, the boffin is despondent and Astro considers sharing his astonishing secret. Suddenly disaster strikes when a building collapses, and the heroic droid sacrifices most of his dwindling reserves to save people trapped in the wreckage. To keep his secret, Astro wears an old robot shell, but the act provokes a crisis as the authorities want the saviour machine that Ochanomizu knows could not have even moved, let alone independently rescued the victims. Revealing his true nature to the Professor, Astro accidentally sparks a national manhunt before falling into the hands of spies with only three days power remaining.

These monstrous thugs have their eyes on another nation’s top-secret technology.

‘The Energy Tube’ could preserve Astro’s existence so he reluctantly agrees to join them and is soon being smuggled out of Japan in a submarine…

This volume ends on a chilling cliffhanger as Astro’s conscience overrides his survival instincts. Refusing to be anybody’s secret weapon, he scuppers the sub and escapes, only to fly into a massacre: US jets bombing peasants. The war in Southeast Asia was in full swing when Osamu Tezuka crafted these stridently anti-war episodes which depicts the Mighty Atom routing American ground and air forces with his last vestiges of energy. When he collapses and is reverently interred, his “corpse” is disturbed and sinks into the Mekong river when the revenge-hungry Americans return to obliterate the village that even ‘The Angel of Viet Nam’ could not save…

To Be Continued…

Osamu Tezuka’s Original Astro Boy Volume 7 offers the same standard preliminaries and The Story Thus Far’ before resuming the Sankei newspaper adventure ‘“Once Upon a Time” with Astro Boy Tales Part 2’ (spanning December 24th1967 to September 27th 1968). Returning to prognostication, the master jumps to ‘The Summer of 1993’ and a world largely at peace and thriving on scientific progress. A dredger in the Mekong plucks a strange doll out of the mud, and – thanks to a handy note attached by Astro Boy – is returned to a certain person in Tokyo.

Little beggar Shin-Chan is now prestigious, powerful businessman Shingo Yamanaka, but he has never forgotten his childhood companion and despite his subordinates suspicious quibbling, spends a fortune on a new energy tube system to repower the inert doll. Marginally successful, the magnate introduces Astro to a world far closer to, but still not his own.

He and his flighty daughter Surume are the only ones who know his secret, and share his woe that although robots are now commonplace, they are still deliberately limited: a worker underclass who “know their place” and always end up on scrap heaps…

With only one day of full power, Astro knows this is not a situation he can fix. Dutiful and loyal, his first action is to check on Scara, who has been with the locusts on Mount Tanigawa for a quarter of a century now. Unsuccessful in this task, he allows Surume to show him the sights, especially the colossal Fun-Zone where humans go to release tensions, Dancing, playing or acting out their frustrated desires to kill in robot-staffed theme parks. Thy have to be careful though, unsupervised robots are illegal and subject to instant destruction if caught in human zones…

Professor Ochanomizu has not been idle. He still seeks to perfect sentient robot creation and his latest success is his pride and joy. However, its advanced nature makes the construct a perfect patsy when criminals frame it for a bold robbery. ‘Robot Chiruchiru in Danger’ finds the nobly stoic automaton on trial for its life. Surume and Astro strive mightily and heroically to save it, but tragedy strikes when the thieves outsmart the robot boy and justice takes a cruelly biased turn…

After turning the tables on the crooks ‘Astro’s Energy Runs Out’ and his day in the sun ends with him again shutting down, this time in the meadow where he had last seen Scara…

More time passes and the story almost comes full circle, as the origins of Astro Boy revisited in ‘Dr. Tenma’ with the tragedy of the deranged genius and his son Tobio expanded to reveal how parental neglect, overwork and compensating guilt all contributed to the construction of the dead boy’s synthetic substitute, and what the obsession to build him actually cost…

A further unknown complication is simultaneously beginning on Mount Tanigawa, where hibernating Scara awakes beside the eroded body of Astro Boy and realises a long-anticipated time-loop paradox is about to occur with two versions of the same person now occupying the same timeline. The solution is horrible, inevitable and ultimately miraculous…

‘The Tragedy of Bailey’ focuses on the robot boy’s painful failure to fit into the Tenma household: his mother’s anxiety and father’s spiralling into madness, and reappearance of aged Professor Ochanomizu, with constantly-baffled “Tobio” stumbling from crisis to crisis before being summarily handed over to a businessman whose behind the scenes dealings had enabled Tenma to complete his resurrection project…

This embroils him in a bizarre doomed plot to force America to recognize robot rights, but end horrifically for pioneering freedom fighter Bailey…

Returned to Japan, Tobio’s relationship with Tenma further deteriorates and ‘Astro Goes to the Circus’ sees time turn a full circle as the Science Minister wearies of the farce and sells his robot boy to inspirationally sadistic circus impresario Hamegg who renames his goldmine star attraction Astro Boy…

Subjected to an escalating round of gladiatorial combats and life-threatening stunts, Astro rebels and runs away, but even personal tragedy and the wiles of Ochanomizu are enough to keep the mighty mech out of Hamegg’s brutal clutches and despite showing his valiant mettle, this tome concludes on another cliffhanger with Astro Boy a battered slave of the worst that humanity can produce…

To Be Continued…

Breathtaking pace, outrageous invention, slapstick comedy, heart-wrenching sentiment and frenetic action are hallmarks of these captivating comics constructions: perfect examples of Tezuka’s uncanny storytelling gifts, which can still deliver a potent punch and instil wide-eyed wonder on a variety of intellectual levels. The melange of marvels is further enhanced here by an older, more sophisticated tone and the introduction of political and social commentary, proving Astro Boy to be a genuine delight for all ages.
Tetsuwan Atom by Osama Tezuka © 2002 by Tezuka Productions. All rights reserved. Astro Boy is a registered trademark of Tezuka Productions Co., Ltd., Tokyo Japan. Unedited translation © 2002 Frederik L. Schodt.

The Big Guy and Rusty, the Boy Robot (2nd Edition)


By Frank Miller, Geof Darrow & various (Dark Horse/Legend)
ISBN: 978-1-61655-853-6 (HB) eISBN 978-1-63008-645-9

Above all else, robots are an artefact of personal childhood mythology: a synthesis of comics and toys and cartoons absorbed without inhibition as your brain was laying out the blueprints of the mature (don’t snicker, it’s childish) person you became. They’re always going to taste of fear and wonder and uncomplicated joy. That doesn’t mean you can’t revisit them with adult eyes and sensibilities, only that the results might be a little… off-kilter.

The Big Guy and Rusty, the Boy Robot was an occasional but intense collaboration between Legendary creators Frank Miller & Geof Darrow (Hard Boiled): a gloriously madcap, stridently ironic tribute to 1950s/1960s B-movie madness and a post-modern love letter to the magic of Osamu Tezuka’s Astro Boy.

The characters first popped up in Dark Horse Comics’ Legend Imprint title Mike Allred’s Madman Comics #6-7 before graduating to their own oversized 1995 miniseries, and elsewhere. Like Bosch or Brueghel, Darrow’s exuberant, meticulously extravagant manically-detailed tableaux churned with life and macabre animation whilst Miller played with revered plot tropes and movie memes and took measured swipes at contemporary American society.

It all begins with ‘Rusty Fights Alone!’ as a landmark genetics experiment in Japan opens a doorway to ancient supernal terror, releasing a demonic beast that rampages through Tokyo devouring and transforming the populace into monsters. With police and defence forces helpless, the authorities have only one hope: a plucky prototype android boy determined to do his best…

His best is nowhere near enough and with deep regret and trepidation Japan’s Prime Minister concedes to the pleas of his panicked Cabinet and accepts an offer of assistance from the Americans…

Concluding chapter ‘The Big Guy Kicks Butt!’ sees a blockbusting, armed -&-armoured mammoth mechanoid – programmed with the amiable personality of a salt-of-the-earth US GI and carrying the acme of American ordnance – deployed to save the city and the world. It’s a knock-down, drag-out no-holds barred battle that devastates everything, but ultimately true grit and American know-how win the day. In the aftermath, the battered warrior-bot is lauded by the survivors and awarded the rather annoying little robot as his eternal companion, sidekick and protégé…

Added extras include a hilarious spoof cover gallery by Darrow & colourist Dave Stewart plus an extra vignette of comics fun. ‘Terror Comes on the Fourth!!!!!!’ finds the mechanoid marvels battling a disgusting giant bug-beast menacing Moonsanto Beach with its genetic atrocities, just as vacationing patriots seek to celebrate the nation’s birthday. Not on the rowdy, righteous robots’ watch, no sirree!…

Topped off with a bevy of brillant pin-ups by Darrow & Stewart, and guest cameos from Todd McFarlane’s Spawn and Joe Quesada & Jimmy Palmiotti’s Ash, this is a bombastic, blustering action riot: a sly pastiche dipped in satire and a powerfully self-indulgent treat for unrepentant kids of all ages.
™ & © 1995, 1996, 2015 Frank Miller, Inc. and Geofrey Darrow. All rights reserved.

Skydoll: Decade


By Barbara Canepa & Alessandro Barbucci (Titan Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-78276-736-7 (HB)

Astoundingly barbed political and anti-consumerist satirical allegory Skydoll has appeared sporadically since 2000. It’s the other work of frequent collaborators Alessandro Barbucci and Barbara Canepa, whose usual offerings include family-oriented fare such as W.I.T.C.H. and Monster Allergy. Although rendered in the seductive anthropomorphic style developed for and signifying decades of wholesome Disney cartooning, it’s a subtly strident attack on corporate consumerism, media mesmerism of the masses, political expediency, religion and the power of the Catholic church. It’s all wrapped up in the raunchy, beguiling trappings of super-sexy science fiction shenanigans with artificial people so that makes it all right, right?

The majority of the of the sporadic components thus far generated were beautifully bound up in a gloriously oversized (284 x 212mm) full-colour hardback edition for the English-speaking cognoscenti in 2016, which is still readily available physically if not yet digitally…

The subversive odyssey begins with prose ‘Preface: ten years of Skydoll’: a bold declaration of intent by The Authorsbefore speeding straight into fantastic fantasy with ‘Volume 1: The Yellow City’, introducing fetching, wind-up automaton Noa who’s asking God for a little fair treatment whilst working at the insalubrious Heaven Spaceshipwash. She’s not like all the other beautiful dolls working there. Although she still needs to be wound-up every 33 hours by her owner, this alluring animatron seems to have a memory that doesn’t delete itself every couple of days. This means she keeps thinking of difficult fresh questions to ask…

Furiously shoved back to work, Noa ignores the fabulously bland and vapid blather of TV talk show monolith Frida Decibel blasting out from every home and public broadcast screen, telling the populace of Papathea how good everything is now that they only have one Popessa… in the buxom form of the divine Ludovica.

Once upon a time there were two True Vicars of God: Agape – who embodied spiritual love – and Ludovica who personified its physical expression. When Agape mysteriously vanished, her corporeal partner became sole arbiter of the galactic empire the church controls, commencing a campaign of craftily concocted public miracles to pacify an increasingly irate and disillusioned populace. It’s not really working though, and a rising tide of rebellion and resentment is just beginning to pop…

Our story really begins when two of Ludovica’s “Diplomatic Agents” stop at Heaven to get their starcraft properly shined before heading out on their top-secret mission. Old Jahu is especially keen on the diversion: everybody knows lusting after or even indulging in pleasure with a Doll doesn’t count as sin. The Popessa said so…

However, whilst lathering up the ship of some fervent fundamentalists at the head of the queue, Noa accidentally kicks off a small riot, even as, across the city, Ludovica’s latest manufactured miracle kicks into high-gear with mesmerising effect…

By the time the barrage of supernal glitz and gaudy glitter subsides, Jahu and young idealistic Roy are well on their way. They have no idea there’s a dazed and surprised stowaway aboard, with her crucial, life-sustaining key still negligently left in her back…

On the rapidly dwindling planet behind them, Ludovica fumes. Despite getting rid of her rival, the lone Popessa’s grasp of power remains uncertain. The people still hunger for absent Agape and there are rumours of rebellion. The anxious, power-mad pontiff has no idea how close to home the sedition reaches…

Aboard ship, Roy has made a startling discovery. Unable to help himself, he turns the key in the inert innocent’s back and restores temporary autonomy to a vivacious creature he can’t help but like…

Doctrinaire Jahu is less sanguine, but the mission is too important to delay. They can always dump the doll on the way home…

Noa is eternally curious, asking questions about everything. Inexplicably, she is especially moved by an illicit image of Agape the voyagers encounter in a space restaurant. It triggers strange, terrifying visions and Roy has to physically restrain Noa. What happens next is regarded by the astounded onlookers as a miracle…

The story resumes with ‘Volume 2: Aqua’ as hints start circulating about Noa’s destiny and the unseen sponsors who seem to be guiding her destiny. The Popessa’s missionary ambassadors meanwhile land on the world without males: one successfully propounding a third spiritual way…

Governed by planetary Guru Gaia, the women of Aqua are steadily gaining support across the universe, supported and funded by their range of wellness centres and luxury goods which everyone wants to try. Roy is there to build diplomatic bridges between the Popessa and the completely antithetical Aquans in the cause of peace. He has no idea Jahu’s orders are a little different. That stalwart always knew the only way to really deal with heretics…

Noa inveigles her way into the official conference: she’s hopeful these strange women will have some insight into her own rapidly-expanding consciousness. She is stunned by what they do know and their connection to missing Agape.

And as Jahu goes about his bloody work, back on Papathea, bloody revolution breaks out…

The intrigue expands in ‘Volume 3: The White City’ when Roy, Jahu and constantly-maturing Noa return as triumphant heroes. When officially interviewed by the ubiquitous Frida Decibel, the web of intrigue and damnation expands to encompass some very unexpected personalities, even as the empire stands poised on the edge of Armageddon and real miracles are observed in the most unlikely places…

A broad, vast, clever and frustrating unfinished epic, Skydoll is still unfolding at its own tantalising pace. There has however been plenty of sidebar and ancillary material released such as ‘Volume 0: Doll’s Factory’ which offers a sequence of prequel events, fleshing out the main characters.

Here a strange woman visits a factory, placing something miraculous inside a doll in the final stages of manufacture, whilst ‘Heaven’s Dolls’ rewards the reader with information on the world and empire of the Popessa, affording insights into other Dolls such as Lovely Lou, Juicy Lee, Sandy Blue and God himself – proving just why he needed killing…

There’s also a hilarious Sky Doll ‘Psycho-grapho Test’ to further reveal how life and society really work…

This immaculate confection culminates in a huge collection of ‘Homages’: a breathtaking gallery of tribute images of the synthetic star and her chums by a staggeringly talented cast of fellow artists: Claire Wendling, Karla Diaz, Benjamin, Marguerite Sauvage, Mijin Shatje, Cyrille Bertin, Tony Infante, Bengal, Claudio Acciari, Tony Sandoval, Amélie Fléchais, Giovanni Rigano, Sefora Pons, Gradimir Smudja, Aurore, Augustin Rolland, Nenent, Guezav, Pierre-Mony Chan, Lucy Mazel, Véronique Meignaud, Matteo De Longis, Xavier Collette, Anne Cresci, Lilidoll, Jérémie Almanza, Lostfish and more.

Completing and concluding the quasi-religious experience is a comprehensive feature ‘About the Authors’ and ‘Acknowledgements & Credits’.

A phenomenal and beguiling work-in-progress, Sky Doll is a superbly engaging exploration of erotica, iconology and idolatry: one no fun-loving, deep-thinking devotee of comic iconoclasm or dedicated supportive lover of mechanical self-gratification (Eeew!) should miss.
Sky Doll and all contents are © Editions Soleil/Barbucci/Canepa. This translated edition © 2016 Titan Comics.