Ant-Man/Giant-Man Marvel Masterworks volume 1


By Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, Jack Kirby & Dick Ayers, with Ernie Hart, Don Heck & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-2049-0 (HB) 978-0-7851-6768-6 (TPB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Nostalgic Marvel Mayhem… 8/10

Marvel Comics initially built its fervent fan base through strong, contemporarily relevant stories with strikingly illustrated art, but most importantly by creating a shared continuity closely following the characters through not just their own titles but also through frequent guest appearances in other comics. Such interweaving meant that even today completists seek out extraneous stories for a fuller picture of their favourite’s adventures. The quest was not helped by the House of Ideas releasing vintage tales in any kind of chronological order, and Henry Pym (in all his many costumed iterations) was one of the last Marvel Superheroes to get the prestigious Masterworks treatment. The movie franchise might also have had something to do with it…

If you’re of a particularly picky nature – and what comic fan isn’t? – you could consider the Astonishing Ant-Man to be one of the earliest heroes of the Marvel Age of Comics. He first appeared in Tales to Astonish #27 (cover-dated January 1962), in one of the splendidly addictive men-vs-monsters anthology titles that dominated in those heady days of Science Fiction Double-Feature B-Movies.

This episodic, eclectic and entomologically edifying compendium – available in hardback, trade paperback and digital formats – gathers pertinent portions of January 1962 cover-dated Tales to Astonish #27 and the first tranche of the succeeding superhero series that eventually followed. Included herein are the relevant contents of issues #35-52, spanning September 1962 to February 1964, preceded by a fascinating and informative Introduction from Dick Ayers who inked the debut tale and was artistically associated with the characters for much of the run.

The itty-bitty sagas reveal the scintillating solo outings of a brilliant but troubled scientist who became an unlikely, uncomfortable and even mentally unstable superhero and here begins with what was just intended to be another throwaway filler thriller…

The initial 7-page short introduces Dr Henry Pym, a maverick scientist who discovers a shrinking potion and becomes ‘The Man in the Anthill!’: discovering peril, wonder and even a kind of companionship amongst the lowliest creatures on Earth… and under it…

This engaging piece of fluff, which owed more than a little to classic movie The Incredible Shrinking Man, was plotted by Stan Lee, scripted by Larry Lieber and stunningly illustrated by Jack Kirby & Dick Ayers.

Clearly, the character struck a chord with someone since – as the DC Comics-inspired superhero boom flourished – Pym was rapidly retooled as a full-fledged costumed do-gooder, debuting again with TTA #35 in ‘The Return of the Ant-Man’(Lee, Lieber, Kirby & Ayers). The plot concerns a raid by Soviet agents (this was during the height of Marvel’s “Commie-Buster” period when – a bit like now – every other villain was a Red somebody or other and rampaging socialism was a cultural bête noir) wherein Pym is captured and held prisoner in his own laboratory. Forced to disinter the abandoned shrinking gases and cybernetic devices he’d ambitiously built to communicate with ants, Dr. Pym soundly trounces the spies and resolves to use his powers for the good of Mankind…

The same creative team produced the next four adventures, beginning with ‘The Challenge of Comrade X!’ (#36) as an infallible Soviet super-spy is dispatched to destroy the Diminutive Daredevil, after which Ant-Man is temporarily ‘Trapped by the Protector!’ – a cunning jewel-thief and extortionist who ultimately proves no match for the Tiny Titan.

‘Betrayed by the Ants!’ features the debut of intellectual arch-foe Egghead, a maverick and mercenary research scientist who attempts to usurp the hero’s control of insects whilst ‘The Vengeance of the Scarlet Beetle!’ sees a momentary return to scary monster stories as a radioactively mutated, super-intelligent bug seeks to eradicate humanity with only Pym capable of stopping him…

Sol Brodsky replaced Ayers as inker for ‘The Day that Ant-Man Failed!’ in #40, as a deadly Hijacker robbing freight trucks pushes the shrinking inventor to new heights of ingenuity, after which Kirby moved on: his lavishly experimental perspectival flamboyance replaced by the comforting realism and enticing human scale of Don Heck who limned a classy alien invasion yarn in ‘Prisoner of the Slave World!’ before depicting a mesmerising menace who controls people with ‘The Voice of Doom’ in TTA #42.

The following issue H. E. Huntley (AKA veteran writer/artist Ernie Hart) replaced Lieber as scripter with ‘The Mad Master of Time’: a run-of-the-mill mad – or, rather, disgruntled and misguided – scientist yarn. With the next issue (#44) Kirby returned to pencil a significant change to the series….

Inked by Heck, ‘The Creature from Kosmos’ introduces The Wasp – Pym’s bon vivant crime-fighting partner Janet Van Dyne – in a double-length tale featuring a murderous alien marauder who kills her father. There was even an expanded secret origin for Ant-Man: a rare and uncharacteristic display of depth revealing that Pym was actually a tragic widower. When his Hungarian wife Maria was murdered by Communist agents, it irrevocably changed the young scientist from a sedentary scholar into a driven man of action….

Ant-Man uses his discoveries to endow bereaved and vengeful Janet with the power to shrink and grow wings and she becomes his crime-fighting partner. In double-quick time they overcome ‘The Terrible Traps of Egghead’ (Lee, Huntley & Heck) before travelling to Greece to thwart another alien invasion ‘When Cyclops Walks the Earth!’

Back in the USA, the Diminutive Duo battle magic trumpeter Trago in ‘Music to Scream By’ and defeat an avaricious weapons designer who builds himself a unique battle suit to become super-thief ‘The Porcupine!’: all serving as placeholding before the next big change which manifests with Tales to Astonish #49’s ‘The Birth of Giant-Man!’.

Lee scripted and Heck inked Kirby who had returned to pencil the epic story of how Pym learns to enlarge as well as reduce his stature, just in time to tackle the threat of trans-dimensional kidnapper The Eraser. In the next issue Steve Ditko inked The King in ‘The Human Top’, the first episode of a 2-part tale showing how our hero struggles to adapt to his new strength and abilities.

The blistering conclusion ‘Showdown with the Human Top!’ was inked by Ayers who would go on to draw the bulk of the succeeding stories until the series’ demise. Moreover, with this issue (#51) back-up feature The Wonderful Wasp Tells a Tale began. It initially mixed sci-fi mystery vignettes narrated by the heroine, fact-features and solo adventures, before evolving into Marvel’s first female starring solo feature. Here however Janet is simply a whimsical narrator detailing chilling space thriller ‘Somewhere Waits a Wobbow!’ (actually related by Lee, Lieber & George Roussos in his Marvel identity of George Bell).

The super-hero adventures settled into a rather predictable pattern from then on: individually effective enough but rather samey and uninspired when read in quick succession. You’ll need the next volume for most of those but here at least the comics craziness concludes with a straightforward super-villain clash as TTA #52 ‘The Black Knight Strikes!’ (Lee & Ayers) is supplemented by the Wasp’s crime & punishment homily ‘Not What They Seem!’

Despite variable quality and treatment, the eclectic, eccentric and always fun exploits of Marvel’s original “little guy” and premier “odd couple” remain an intriguing and engaging reminder that the House of Ideas didn’t always get it right, but generally gave their all to entertaining fans.

By turns superb, stupid, enthralling and merely engaging, this tome is augmented by house ads and a gallery of original art pages by Kirby & Brodsky and Don Heck, epitomising the best and worst of Early Marvel (with the delightful far outweighing the duff). It certainly won’t appeal to everybody, but if you’re a Fights ‘n’ Tights fan with a forgiving nature or a movie-goer looking for extra input, the good stuff here will charm and amaze you whilst the rest could just be considered as a garish garnish to provide added flavour…
© 2020 MARVEL.

Jack Kirby’s OMAC: One Man Army Corps


By Jack Kirby with D. Bruce Berry, Mike Royer & various (DC)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-1790-7 (HB) 978-1-4012-4042-4 (TPB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: A Terrifying Timeless Blockbuster… 9/10

There’s a magnificent abundance of Jack Kirby collections around these days – ‘though still not everything, so I’ve still got reason to carp. This slim hardback, trade paperback or digital collection re-presents possibly his boldest and most heartfelt creation after the comics landmark that was his Fourth World Cycle.

Famed for his larger than life characters and gigantic, cosmic imaginings, “King” Kirby was an astute, spiritual man who had lived through poverty, gangsterism, the Depression and World War II. He had seen Post-War optimism, Cold War paranoia, political cynicism and the birth and death of peace-seeking counter-cultures. He always looked to the future and he knew human nature intimately. In OMAC: One Man Army Corps, he let his darkest assumptions and prognostications have free rein, and his “World That’s Coming” was far too close to the World we’re frantically trying to escape now…

In 1974, with his newest creations inexplicably tanking at DC, Kirby tentatively considered a return to Marvel, but – ever the consummate professional – he scrupulously carried out every detail of his draconian DC contract. When The Demon was cancelled, the King needed to find another title to maintain his Herculean commitments (Jack was legally obliged to deliver 15 completed pages of art and story per week!) and returned to an idea he had shelved in 1968.

That was to re-interpret Captain America into a possible future where all Kirby’s direst prognostications and fears could be made manifest. In 1974 he revisited those worries and produced a nightmare scenario that demanded not a hero but a warrior.

Dubbing his Day-After-Tomorrow dystopia “The World That’s Coming”, Kirby let his mind run free – and scared – to birth a frighteningly close appreciation of our now, where science and wealth have outstripped compassion and reason, and humanity teeters on the brink of self-inflicted global destruction.

OMAC #1 launched in September-October 1974, introducing the Global Peace Agency, a world-wide Doomwatch police force who manufactured a super-soldier to crisis-manage the constant threats to a species with hair-trigger fingers on nuclear stockpiles, chemical weapons of mass destruction and made-to-measure biological horrors.

Base human nature was the true threat behind this series, and that was first demonstrated by decent young man Buddy Blank who, whilst working at Pseudo-People Inc., discovers that the euphemistically entitled Build-A-Friend division hides a far darker secret than merely pliant girls that come in kit-form. (I think we even have those now, too…)

Luckily Buddy has been singled out by the GPA’s resident genius Professor Myron Forest for eternal linkage to sentient satellite Brother Eye. His atoms shifted and reconstructed, Buddy is rebuilt until he becomes a living God of War, and the new-born human weapon easily destroys his ruthless employers before their murderous plans can be fully realised. ‘Buddy Blank and Brother Eye’ was followed by a truly prophetic tale, wherein impossibly wealthy criminal Mister Bigpurchases an entire city simply to assassinate Professor Forest in ‘The Era of the Super-Rich!’

Kirby’s tried and trusted approach was always to pepper high concepts throughout blazing action, and #3 was the most spectacular yet. OMAC fought ‘One Hundred Thousand Foes!’ to get to murderous Marshal Kafka; terrorist leader of a Rogue-State with a private army, WMDs and a solid belief that the United Nations can’t touch him. Sound familiar…?

That incredible clash carries on and concludes in #4’s ‘Busting of a Conqueror!’ With #5, Kirby moved on to other new crimes for a new world. The definition of a criminal tends to blur when you can buy anything – even justice – but rich old people cherry-picking young men and women for brain-implantation is (hopefully) always going to be a no-no. Still, you can sell or plunder specific organs even now…

Busting the ‘New Bodies for Old!!  racket took two issues, and after the One-Man-Army-Corps smashed ‘The Body Bank!’ he embarked on his final adventure. Ecological disaster and water shortage is the theme of the last tale, but as our hero trudges across a dry and desolate lake bottom amidst the dead and dying marine life he is horrified to discover the disaster to be the work of one man. ‘The Ocean Stealers!’ (#7) introduces Doctor Skuba, a scientific madman who mastered the very atomic manipulation techniques that had turned feeble Buddy Blank into an unstoppable war machine.

Joe Kubert drew the cover to OMAC #8 ‘Human Genius Vs Thinking Machine’; an epic episode seeing Brother Eye apparently destroyed as Skuba and Buddy Blank die together in an incredible explosion.

But that final panel is a hasty, last-minute addition by unknown editorial hands, for the saga never actually finished. Kirby, his contract completed, had promptly returned to Marvel and new challenges such as Black Panther, Captain America, 2001, Devil Dinosaur, Machine Man and especially The Eternals.

Hormone treatments, Virtual Reality, medical computers, satellite surveillance, genetic tampering and all the other hard-science predictions in OMAC pale into insignificance against Kirby’s terrifyingly accurate social observations in this bombastic and tragically incomplete masterpiece.

OMAC is Jack Kirby’s Edwin Drood, an unfinished symphony of such power and prophecy that it informs not just the entire modern DC universe and inspires ever more incisive and intriguing tales from the King’s artistic inheritors but still presages more truly scary developments in our own mundane and inescapable reality…

As always in these wondrously economical collections it should be noted that the book is also stuffed with un-inked Kirby pencilled pages and roughs, and Mark Evanier’s fascinating, informative introduction is a fact-fan’s delight. Crucially, as ever, Kirby’s words and pictures are an unparalleled, hearts-and-minds grabbing delight no comics  lover could resist.

Jack Kirby is unique and uncompromising. If you’re not a fan or simply not prepared to see for yourself what all the fuss has been about then no words of mine will change your mind. That doesn’t alter the fact that Kirby’s work from 1937 to his death in 1994 shaped the entire American comics scene, affected the lives of billions of readers and thousands of creators in all areas of artistic endeavour around the world for generations and still wins new fans and apostles every day, from the young and naive to the most cerebral of intellectuals. His work is instantly accessible, irresistibly visceral, deceptively deep whilst being simultaneously mythic and human: and just plain Great.
© 1974, 1975, 2009 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Sublife volumes 1 and 2


By John Pham (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN-13: 978-1-56097-946-3 (TPB vol 1) 978-1-60699-309-5 (TPB vol 1)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Because Excellence Cannot be Allowed to Wither… 9/10

Born in Saigon and raised in the USA, self-publishing wizard and minicomic genius John Pham joined with the wonderfully progressive Fantagraphics to release two volumes in a proposed twice-a-year book series dedicated to the sheer joy of pictorial storytelling in our modern, miracle-free world, blending joyous creation with incisive social interrogation. These astoundingly satisfying anthologies are still available in paperback or digital formats and if you or yours love the power of comics to engender reaction, they really belong with you….

The initial offering, a sublimely designed landscape-format tome printed in quirky two-tone (Magenta and Cyan combined to produce a huge variety of colours welcomingly familiar to anybody who grew up reading Beano or The Dandy) features a series of intertwined tales featuring the odd denizens of ‘221 Sycamore St.’

Poignant and surreal by turns, the lives of exhausted ‘Mildred Lee’, dubious stud ‘Vrej Sarkissian’, tragic and disturbing religious studies teacher ‘Hubie Winters’ and those guys ‘Los Hermanos Macdonald’ are a captivating and laconic examination of the kind of people you probably wouldn’t like or make time for…

The silent, deadly pantomime of the house cat seeking safety outside is worth the price of admission alone, but when the abstract and symbol-stuffed existences on display here shuffle into your head and just sit there twitching, you too will wonder how you ever got on without this on your “must-read” list.


The second volume dedicated to the sheer expressive joy of pictorial storytelling in our modern, wonder-deprived world, is also crafted in an immaculately designed landscape-format tome, printed in quirky two-tone (orange and blue here combined to produce a huge variety of colours) features another series of seemingly unconnected tales linked more by sensibility and tone rather than content.

After faux newspaper strip ‘Mort’ examines the passions of a failed blogger, the main experience begins with a continuation of ‘Deep Space’, wherein extraordinarily pedestrian star-farers strive to find their way home: a beautifully rendered piece reminiscent of a wistful Philippe Druillet, before resuming Pham’s exploration of the frankly peculiar residents of ‘221 Sycamore St.’

This time runaway teen Phineas sees a disturbing side to his cool uncles when they all go “dog-training”…

This leads into anti-elegiac autobiographical memoir ‘St. Ambrose 1984-1988’ before the majority of the volume recounts the adventures of ‘The Kid’: a practically wordless post-apocalyptic science fiction yarn. It deals with scavenging and the price of love, channelling of – and deeply respectful to – Mad Max, with perhaps just a touch of A Boy and his Dog thrown in, all drawn in a pencil-toned style that is both deeply poignant and powerfully gripping.

The volume fun finishes with nostalgic one-pager ‘Socko Sarkissian’: a fond paean to baseball’s greatest fictional Armenian batsman.

Seductive, quietly compulsive, authentically plebeian and surreal by turns, John Pham’s work is abstract, symbol-stuffed and penetratingly real. Fascinated by modern prejudices, he tells strange stories in comfortable ways and makes the bizarre commonplace without ever descending to histrionics: like a cosmic witness to everything you might or might not want to see.

If you’re wearied by mainstream comics but still love the medium too much to quit, you need to see these stories and refresh your visual palate. In fact, even if not, check out Sublife anyway, in case it’s your horizons not your tastes which need the attention…
© 2008, 2009 John Pham. All Rights Reserved.

Prez: The First Teen President


By Joe Simon, Jerry Grandenetti & Creig Flessel, with Cary Bates, Neil Gaiman, Ed Brubaker, Frank Miller, Grant Morrison, Art Saaf, Mike Allred, Bryan Talbot, Mark Buckingham, Eric Shanower & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-6317-1 (TPB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Because We Believe … 9/10

I’ve been saving this fabulously funny, viciously satirical gem for the closing moments of an actual election, and now that my interference can’t possibly affect what has become the strangest and most contentious campaign in US history and the icing on the Great Big Cake celebrating the utter devaluation of democracy, I think it well past time to offer the world a different vision of leadership and governance before it’s too late…

It won’t change anything in the grand scheme of things, but at least we can comfortably claim that this time around it can’t possibly get any stranger than fiction, right?

At a time when American comic books were just coming into their adolescence – if not maturity – Prez was a hippie teenager created by industry royalty. In the early 1970s, Joe Simon made one of his irregular yet always eccentrically fruitful sojourns back to DC Comics, managing to sneak a bevy of exceedingly strange concepts right past the usually-conservative powers-that-be and onto the spinner racks and newsstands of the world.

Possibly the most anarchic and subversive of these postulated a time (approximately twenty minutes into the future) when and where teenagers had the vote. The first-time electorate – idealists all – elected a diligent, honest young man who was every inch the hardworking, honest patriot every American politician claimed to be…

In 2015 that concept was given a devilishly adroit makeover for the post-millennial generation and the result was the superbly outrageous cartoon assessment of the State of the Nation known as Prez: Corndog-in-Chief. Once you’re done here, you should read that too and then ferociously lobby DC to release the concluding chapters in that saga…

Back here, however, and in 1972, Simon (Captain America, Fighting American, The Fly, Black Magic, Young Romance) was passionately doing what he always did: devising ways for ever-broader audiences to enjoy comics…

This carefully curated trade paperback compilation (also available in digital formats) deftly gathers every incidence of the best leader they never had from original run Prez #1-4 (September 1973-March 1974), through unpublished tales from Cancelled Comics Cavalcade #2, through guest cameos and revivals in Supergirl #10, The Sandman #54, Vertigo Visions: Prez #1, The Dark Knight Strikes Again and The Multiversity Guidebook #1.

It all begins in the little town of Steadfast where average teen Prez Rickard makes a minor splash by fixing all the clocks to run on time, whilst throughout the urban USA, dissent, moral decay and civil breakdown terrify the populace in an election year. Corrupt businessman and political influencer Boss Smiley, wants to capitalise on the new amendment allowing 18-year olds to vote and picks young Rickard as his perfect patsy, but all his chicanery comes awry when newly elected Prez turns out to have a mind and agenda of his own…

With early – if rather heavy-handed – salutes to ecological and native rights movements, ‘Oh Say Does That Star Spangled Banner Yet Wave?’ by Simon, veteran illustrator Jerry Grandenetti set the scene for a wild ride unlike any seen in kids’ comics…

Equal parts hallucinogenic political satire, topical commentary and sci-fi romp, the mandate mayhem expanded with second issue ‘Invasion of the Chessmen’, as a global goodwill tour threatens to bring worldwide peace and reconciliation until America’s chess master provokes an international incident with the chess-loving Soviet Union. Cue killer robots in assorted chess shapes and a sexy Russian Queen and watch the fireworks…

‘Invasion of America’ in issue #3 tackles political assassination and social repercussions after Prez decides to outlaw guns. I think no more need be said here…

The original run ended with the fourth saga, which examined international diplomacy as Transylvania dispatches its latest Ambassador to Washington DC: an actual werewolf paving the way to devious conquest and a ‘Vampire in the White House’ (inked by Creig Flessel)…

Although the series was cancelled, a fifth tale was in production when the axe fell. It appeared with other prematurely curtailed stories in 1978’s Cancelled Comics Cavalcade #2 and in monochrome appears here as ‘The Devil’s Exterminator!’ with a bug infestation in DC tackled by a mythical madman. When Congress refuses to pay his sky-high bill ($5 million or three lunches in today’s money!), Clyde Piper abducts all the children, and PotUS is forced into outrageous executive action…

There was one final 1970s appearance. Supergirl #10 (October 1974) featured ‘Death of a Prez!’ by Cary Bates, Art Saaf & Vince Colletta wherein the youthful Commander in Chief was targeted for assassination by killer witch Hepzibah, using an ensorcelled Girl of Steel to do her dirty work… with predictable results…

Prez Rickard vanished in a welter of superhero angst and science fiction spectacle after that but made a quiet reappearance in Neil Gaiman’s iconic Sandman story arc World’s End. Illustrated by Michael Allred, Bryan Talbot & Mark Buckingham, ‘The Golden Boy’ (The Sandman #54 October 1993) offers a typically askance view of the boy leader’s origins, his enemies, the temptations of power and the ends of his story. This generated enough interest to spark follow-up one-shot Vertigo Visions: Prez #1 (September 1995) wherein Ed Brubaker & Eric Shanower crafted ‘Smells Like Teen President’. After being missing for years, America’ youngest President is being trailed by a young hitchhiker who might well be his son…

The moving search for family, identity, belonging and purpose is followed by a typically iconoclastic vignette by Frank Miller & Lynn Varley taken from The Dark Knight Strikes Again (December 2001) with the Leader of the Free(ish) World exposed as a computer simulation before the history lesson concludes with Grant Morrison, Scott Hepburn & Nathan Fairbairn’s page on Hippie-dippy ‘Earth 47’ and its comic book landmarks (Prez, Brother Power, The Geek, Sunshine Superman and other) as first seen in The Multiversity Guidebook #1 (January 2015).

I used to think comics were the sharpest reflection of popular culture from any given era. That’s certainly the case here, and maybe there are even lessons to be learned from re-examining them with the eyes of experience. What is irrefutable, and in no way fake news, is that they’re still fun and enjoyable if read in a historical context.

So read this, vote if you can and get ready. I can guarantee not even funnybook creators can predict what’s coming next…
© 1973, 1974, 1978, 1993, 1995, 2001, 2002, 2015, 2016 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Showcase Presents Weird War Tales volume 1


By Robert Kanigher, Bob Haney, Bill Finger, Sheldon Mayer, Jack Oleck, Len Wein, Marv Wolfman, Joe Kubert, Carmine Infantino, Dennis O’Neil, Russ Heath, Mort Drucker, Frank Thorne, Alex Toth, Reed Crandall, Sam Glanzman, John Severin, Howard Chaykin, Ed Davis, Frank Robbins, Nestor Redondo, George Evans, Alex Niño, Russ Heath, Neal Adams & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-3694-6 (TPB)

American comicbooks just idled along rather slowly until the invention of Superman provided a flamboyant new genre for heroes and subsequently unleashed a torrent of creative imitation and imaginative generation for a suddenly thriving and voracious new entertainment model.

Implacably vested in World War II, these gaudily-attired mystery men swept all before them until the troops came home, but as the decade closed more traditional themes and heroes began to resurface and eventually supplant the Fights ‘n’ Tights crowd.

Even as a new generation of kids began buying and collecting, many of the first fans who had retained their four-colour habit increasingly sought more mature themes in their pictorial reading matter. The war years and post-war paranoia had irrevocably altered the psychological landscape of the readership and as a more world-weary, cynical young public came to see that all the fighting and dying hadn’t really changed anything.Their chosen forms of entertainment (film, theatre and prose as well as comics) increasingly reflected this.

To balance the return of Western, War, Crime and imminent Atomic Armageddon-fuelled Science Fiction, comics created new genres. Celebrity tie-ins, madcap escapist or teen-oriented comedy and anthropomorphic funny animal features sprang up, but gradually another of the cyclical revivals of spiritualism and a public fascination with the arcane led to a wave of impressive, evocative and shockingly addictive horror comics.

There had been grisly, gory and supernatural stars before, including a pantheon of ghosts, monsters and wizards draped in superhero trappings but these had usually been victims of circumstance: The Unknown as a power source for super-heroics. Now focus shifted to ordinary mortals thrown into a world beyond their ken with the intention of unsettling, not vicariously empowering the reader.

Almost every publisher jumped on an increasingly popular bandwagon, with B & I (which became the magical one-man-band Richard E. Hughes’ American Comics Group) launching the first regularly published horror comic in the Autumn of 1948, although their Adventures Into the Unknown was technically pipped by Avon. The book and comics publisher had released an impressive single issue entitled Eerie in January 1947 but didn’t follow-up with a regular series until 1951.

Classics Illustrated had already secured the literary end of the medium with child-friendly comics adaptations of The Headless Horseman, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (both 1943), The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1944) and Frankenstein (1945) among others.

If we’re keeping score this was also the period in which Joe Simon & Jack Kirby identified another “mature market” gap and invented Romance comics (Young Romance #1, September 1947) but they too saw the sales potential for spooky material, resulting in the seminal Black Magic (launched in 1950) and boldly obscure psychological drama anthology Strange World of Your Dreams (1952).

The company which would become DC Comics bowed to the inevitable and launched a comparatively straight-laced anthology that nevertheless became one of their longest-running and most influential titles with the December 1951/January 1952 launch of The House of Mystery.

After the hysterical censorship debate which led to witch-hunting Senate hearings in the early 1950s was curtailed by the industry adopting a castrating straitjacket of self-regulation, titles produced under the aegis of the Comics Code Authority were sanitised, anodyne affairs in terms of Shock and Gore, but the audience’s appetite for suspense was still high and in 1956 National introduced sister titles Tales of the Unexpected and House of Secrets.

Stories were dialled back from uncanny spooky yarns to always marvellously illustrated, rationalistic fantasy-adventure vehicles and, eventually, straight monster-busting Sci Fi tales which dominated the market into the 1960s. That’s when super-heroes – which had gradually enjoyed their own visionary revival after Julius Schwartz reintroduced the Flash in Showcase #4 – finally overtook them.

Green Lantern, Hawkman, the Atom and a growing coterie of costumed cavorters generated a gaudy global bubble of masked mavens which forced previously staunchly uncompromising anthology suspense titles to transform into super-character books. Even ACG slipped tights and masks onto its spooky stars.

When the caped crusader craziness peaked and popped, superheroes began dropping like Kryptonite-gassed flies. However, nothing combats censorship better than falling profits and, at the end of the 1960s with the cape-and-cowl boom over and some of the industry’s most prestigious series circling the drain, the surviving publishers of the field agreed to revise the Comics Code, loosening their self-imposed restraints against crime and horror comics.

Nobody much cared about gangster titles but, as the liberalisation coincided with yet another bump in public interest concerning supernatural themes, the resurrection of scary stories was a foregone conclusion and obvious “no-brainer.”

Even ultra-wholesome Archie Comics re-entered the field with their rather tasty line of Red Circle Chillers…

Thus, with absolutely no fanfare at all, horror comics came back and quickly dominated the American market for more the next half decade. DC led the pack: converting House of Mystery and Tales of the Unexpected into supernatural suspense anthologies in 1968 and resurrecting House of Secrets a year later.

Such was not the case with war comics. Tales of ordinary guys in combat began with the industry itself and although mostly sidelined during the capes-&-cowls war years, quickly began to assert themselves again once the actual fighting stopped.

National/DC were one of the last publishers to get in on the combat act, converting superhero/fantasy adventure anthology Star Spangled Comics into Star Spangled War Stories the same month it launched Our Army at War (both cover-dated August 1952). They repurposed All-American Comics into All-American Men of War a month later as the “police action” in Korea escalated.

They grew the division slowly but steadily, adding Our Fighting Forces #1 (November 1954) – just as EC’s groundbreaking combat comics were vanishing – and in 1957 added GI Combat to their portfolio when Quality Comics got out of the funnybook business.

As the 1950s closed however, the two-fisted anthologies all began incorporating recurring characters such as Gunner and Sarge – and latterly Pooch – from Our Fighting Forces #45 on, (May 1959), Sgt Rock (Our Army at War #83 (June 1959) and The Haunted Tank (G.I. Combat #87, April/May 1961). Soon all DC war titles had a lead star or feature to hold the fickle readers’ attention.

The drive to produce superior material never wavered however, hugely aided by the diligent and meticulous ministrations of writer/editor Robert Kanigher.

In America after the demise of EC Comics in the mid-1950’s and prior to the game-changing Blazing Combat, the only certain place to find controversial, challenging and entertaining American war comics was DC. In fact, even whilst Archie Goodwin’s stunning but tragically mis-marketed quartet of classics were waking up a new generation of readers in the 1960s, the home of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman was a veritable cornucopia of gritty, intriguing and beautifully illustrated battle tales presenting warfare on a variety of fronts and from many differing points of view.

Whilst the Vietnam War escalated, 1960s America increasingly endured a Homefront death-struggle pitting deeply-ingrained Establishment social attitudes against a youth-oriented generation with a radical new sensibility. In response the military-themed comicbooks from National Periodical Publishing, as it then was, became even more bold and innovative…

However, the sudden downturn in superheroes led to some serious rethinking here and although the war titles maintained and even built sales, they beefed up the anthological elements.

Thus in 1971 a title combining supernatural horror stories with bombastic battle yarns in an anthological setting seemed a forgone conclusion and sure thing to both publishers and readers alike and this economically epic monochrome tome collects the contents of Weird War Stories #1-21 (cover-dated September/October 1971 to January 1974), offering a broad blend of genre mash-ups for readers with a taste for the dark and uncanny to relish.

The series launched in a 52-page format combining new material with adapted reprints featuring a veritable Who’s Who of top flight creative talent – both seasoned veterans and stars in waiting – and #1 saw Editor Joe Kubert writing and illustrating an eerie linking story entitled ‘Let Me Tell You of the Things I’ve Seen’ as a lost GI meets the personification of Death (the title’s long-term narrator in various blood-stained uniforms) who tells him a few stories…

The reaper begins with ‘Fort Which Did Not Return!’ by Kanigher & Russ Heath, as originally seen in GI Combat #86, detailing how a bomber continues its mission even after the crew bail out, following up with all-new ‘The Story behind the Cover’ wherein Kubert reveals how a shunned German soldier carried on his duties after death…

From Star Spangled War Stories #71 (July 1958) Bob Haney & Kubert revealed ‘The End of the Sea Wolf!’ as a sadistic U-Boat captain is sunk by one of his own earlier victims, whilst SSWS #116 (August/September 1964) originally debuted France Herron & Irv Novick’s ‘Baker’s Dozen’, with a fresh-faced replacement to a super-superstitious platoon battling to prove he’s not their unlucky thirteenth man…

The issue ends with that lost GI realising just who has been telling tales in Kubert’s ‘You Must Go!’

The reprints included in these early issues were all taken from a time when supernatural themes were proscribed by the Comics Code Authority, but even so they all held fast to eerie aura of sinister uncertainty – the merest hint of the strange and uncanny to leaven the usual blood and thunder of battle books…

In Weird War Tales #2 Kubert reprised his bridging vehicle as ‘Look… and Listen…’ sees a crashed Stuka pilot meeting a ghastly stranger at a battle-torn desert oasis before ‘Reef of No Return’ (Haney & Mort Drucker from Our Fighting Forces #43, March 1959) details a determined frogman’s most dangerous mission before Kanigher & Frank Thorne’s new WWI silent saga ‘The Moon is the Murderer’ proves that overwhelming firepower isn’t everything…

Kubert’s ‘Behind the Cover’ features a prophetic dream and terrifying telegram after which ‘A Promise to Joe!’ (Kanigher & Novick, G.I. Combat #97 (December 1962-January 1963) sees a dead gunner seemingly save his friend from beyond the grave after which the superb ‘Monsieur Gravedigger’ – by Jerry DeFuccio & the legendary Reed Crandall – follows the follies of a sadistic Foreign Legionnaire who pushes his comrades too far…

Cartoonist John Costanza delivers some gag-filled ‘Military Madness’ and Kubert & Sam Glanzman offer a fact-packed ‘Sgt. Rock’s Battle Stations’ about ‘The Grenadier’ before Bill Finger, Ross Andru & Mike Esposito examine a young recruit’s rite of passage and development of ‘The Face of a Fighter’ (Our Fighting Forces #25, September 1957) before ‘Oasis’ concludes the sorry saga of that downed Aryan airman…

American Naval Aviators ditching at sea were the unwilling audience for Death’s stories as WWT #3 opens with Kubert’s ‘Listen…’

The roster starts with ‘Been Here Before!’ (Finger, Andru & Esposito, G.I. Combat #44 January 1957) as a soldier under fire turns his mind back to boyhood games to save the day, after which we see an aerial battle and parachute drop from the perspective of ‘The Cloud That Went to War!’ (Our Fighting Forces #17, January 1957) courtesy of Dave Wood, Andru & Esposito).

More Costanza comedy from ‘The Kreepy Korps!’ precedes an early tale by relative newcomers Len Wein & Marv Wolfman, ably illustrated by Heath as both cave tribes and modern soldiers battle to possess ‘The Pool’, before the artists’ earlier collaboration with Bob Haney reveals how ‘Combat Size!’ is all a matter of mental attitude in a tale first seen in Our Army at War #66 (January 1958).

Glanzman’s ‘Battle Album’ explains ‘Flying Guns’, after which a finny friend helps a US submarine sink an aircraft carrier in Finger & Drucker’s ‘Pilot for a Sub!’ (Our Army at War #68, March 1958) and the issue ends as Kubert sends a ‘Lifeboat’ for those tragic aviators…

The fourth issue opens with Kubert’s final linking tale as a ‘Gypsy Girl’ and her family find wounded soldier Tony after his buddy runs off to get a medic. They kindly offer to pass time with him, sharing stories such as ‘Ghost Ship of Two Wars’ (Kanigher & Novick from All-American Men of War #81, September 1960) wherein an obsessed WWI pilot seemingly slips into 1944 while pursuing of his unbeatable arch-enemy the Black Ace.

‘Time Warp’ by Kanigher & Gene Colan originally appeared as ‘The Dinosaur Who Ate Torpedoes!’’ in Star Spangled War Stories #123 (October/November 1965 and part of the uniquely bizarre War That Time Forgot series), pitting US frogmen against colossal sea-going saurians, after which ‘The Unknown Sentinel’ (by author unknown & Mort Meskin from House of Mystery #55, October 1956) saves the lives of two soldiers lost on manoeuvres on America’s most famous battlefield.

Glanzman then offers one of his magnificently engaging autobiographical USS Stevens vignettes with the all-new, elegiac ‘Prelude’ before Kubert wraps up his chilling drama as ‘I Know Them to be True’ sees medics arriving to find Tony a much-changed man, leaving Costanza to close things down with a laugh and some ‘Military Madness’

Weird War Tales #5 opens with Haney & Alex Toth providing the book-end tale of ‘The Prisoner’ held by Nazis in Italy. Seeking a way out, he recalls tales of escape such as ‘The Toy Jet!’ (Haney & Heath from All-American Men of War#78, March/April 1960), a chilling psychological thriller about an interned pilot in North Korea, and ‘Human Trigger’(Herron, Andru & Esposito, Star Spangled War Stories #18, February 1954) which shows how a soldier lying on a mine deftly saves his own life…

Herron & Carmine Infantino then reveal how an American spy is forced to ‘Face a Firing Squad!’ (SSWS #14, November 1953) and Norman Maurer instructs with the history of ‘Medal of Honour: Corporal Gerry Kisters’ while Willi Franz & Heath detail the victory of a ‘Slave’ in Roman times before Haney & Toth offer a final release in ‘This Is It!’

Issue #6 saw Weird War drop to a standard 36-page package and take a step into tomorrow with Haney & Toth’s battlefield test of ‘Robots’. Wolfman & Frank Thorne expanded the theme in ‘Pawns’ as humans and mechanoids finally decide who works for whom whilst ‘Goliath of the Western Front!’ (Herron, Andru & Esposito from SSWS #93 (October/November 1960) features a giant mechanical Nazi and an American David who finally does for him, before Haney & Toth settle all debate with the conclusive ‘Robot Fightin’ Men’

Wolfman & Kubert combined to provide thematic bookends for issue #7, beginning with ‘Out of Action’ and wounded GIs awaiting the worst and trading tales like William Woolfolk, Jerry Grandenetti & Joe Giella’s ‘Flying Blind’ (Our Army at War #12 July 1953) as a wounded pilot is forced to trust someone else for the first time in his life if he wants to land his burning jet. Kanigher & Kubert’s ‘The 50-50 War!’ (All-American Men of War #41, January 1957) finds sporting rivals forced to help each other after both suffer injuries on an alpine mission, with Costanza adding more welcome levity through his ‘Military Hall of Fame’

‘The Three GIs’ (Finger & Heath, SSWS #62, October 1957) riffs smartly on those monkeys who respectively can’t see, hear and speak and the Purple Heart yarns end with Wolfman & Kubert’s chilling ‘I Can’t See’

From #8, editorial control switched to the mystery division under the control of Joe Orlando and with it the reprints were shelved in favour of all-original material as publication frequency graduated from six times a year to monthly.

This all German-focused issue begins with a gruesome ‘Guide to No-Man’s Land’ (probably written by assistant editor E. Nelson Bridwell and illustrated by Tony DeZuñiga) before moving on to ‘The Avenging Grave’ by Kanigher & DeZuniga with SS officers learning too late the folly of desecrating the dead of WWI. Anonymously scripted ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill!’– with art by Steve Harper & Neal Adams – then sees more gloating Nazis facing a vengeful golem…

Kanigher & DeZuñiga return to reveal the fate of an arrogant 1916 air ace in the skies over No-Man’s Land in ‘Duel of the Dead’ before the artist’s ‘Epilogue’ wraps things up…

Weird War Tales #9 invites us to ‘Enter the Portals of War’ in an introduction drawn by Howard Chaykin, swiftly followed by a trio of Kanigher yarns illustrated by the cream of DC’s Filipino artists.

‘The Promise’ was limned by Alfredo P. Alcala, telling a tale in two eras as both Teutonic knights in 1242 and German tankers seven centuries later fail to cross frozen Lake Chud, whilst Gerry Talaoc renders the disastrous end of deathly, determined ‘Blood Brothers! during the American Civil War and incomparable Alex Niño details ‘The Last Battle’between East and West before Chaykin pops back to declare ‘Death, the Ultimate Winner’.

Sheldon Mayer & Toth open WWT #10 with a deliciously whimsical ghostly love story in ‘Who is Haunting the Haunted Chateau?’ before Raymond Marais & Quico Redondo change the tone as a Death-Camp commandant returns after the war to salvage his ill-gotten gains from ‘The Room that Remembered’, whilst Wein & Walter Simonson – on the artist’s pro comics debut – reveal why invading Nazis shouldn’t abuse the town idiot, incurring the wrath of ‘Cyrano’s Army’

Always experimental, the creative team of Mayer, DeZuñiga, Alcala, Talaoc & Niño tried their hand at a time-twisting complete adventure for issue #11. Occurring on ‘October 30’ over 99 years beginning in 1918, the tale compares the progress of an ambitious German General granted a wish for glory by a treacherous spirit of war with three ghostly Americans determined to fix a long-standing mistake whatever the cost…

DeZuñiga draws the introduction to #12, featuring tales of ‘Egypt’ starting with Kanigher & Talaoc’s tale of an ancient warlord who learned to regret spitting on the ‘God of Vengeance’, whilst ‘Hand of Hell’ (Kanigher & DeZuniga) sees Anubis similarly deal with one of Rommel’s least reputable and most sadistic deputies. Arnold Drake & Don Perlin then switch locales to Roman Britain where a centurion takes an accidental time-trip and ultimately overthrows the Druids in ‘The Warrior and the Witch-Doctors!’

Weird War Tales #13 opens with ‘The Die-Hards’ by Oleck & Nestor Redondo, with Nazis realising there are even worse killers than they haunting their latest conquered village, before Drake & Niño determine that ‘Old Samurai Never Die’ when a would-be shogun offends the patron spirit of Bushido. ‘Loser’s Luck’ – by Michael J. Pellowski, George Kashdan & DeZuñiga – details the harsh choices facing the unfortunate winners of the next, last war…

Mayer, DeZuñiga & Alcala reunite in #14 to tell an eerie tale of doomed love and military injustice from the days before Pearl Harbor which begins with a ‘Dream of Disaster’, incorporates a deadly flight with a ‘Phantom for a Co-Pilot’ and marines who arrive ‘Too Late for the Death March!’ before finally meetingThe Ghost of McBride’s Woman’ and vindicating an unsung hero…

A little boy enamoured of war’s glory learns a lesson in WWT # 15 when his dead grandfather takes him back to WWI to see how ‘“Ace” King Just Flew in from Hell’ (Drake & Perlin) before Oleck & Talaoc reveal the doom of ‘The Survivor’of a Viking raid which offends a sorceress, and Oleck & Alcala detail the shocking fate of a fanatical crusader who succumbs to ‘The Ultimate Weapon’ of a Saracen wise man…

Drake & Alcala describe transplant science gone mad in #16’s ‘More Dead than Alive!’, whilst the first of a Niño double bill sees him delineate ‘The Conquerors’ (scripted by Oleck) who eradicate humanity – but not the things that predate on them – before Drake’s ‘Evil Eye’ sees a little boy inflict hell’s wrath on both Allies and Axis alike…

In #17, Kanigher & George Evans disclose how a dishonourable French Air Ace is punished by ‘Dead Man’s Hands’before Pellowski, E. Nelson Bridwell & Ernie Chan reveal how a murdered soldier is avenged by ‘A Gun Named Marie!

WWT #18 has Drake & DeZuñiga sketch the brief career of ‘Captain Dracula!’ as he marauds through (mostly) German forces in Sicily before Mayer & Talaoc return for the cautionary tale of a greedy German sergeant in France whose avarice makes him easy prey for the ‘Whim of a Phantom!’

Drake & Talaoc start #19 with the full-length story of the agent who infiltrates the Nazi terror weapon known as ‘The Platoon That Wouldn’t Die!’, whilst #20 reverts to short stories with Oleck & Perlin’s ‘Death Watch’ of a doomed coward who should have waited one more day before deserting, Drake & Alcala’s period saga of a witchcraft vendetta in ‘Operation: Voodoo!’ and their Battle of Britain chiller wherein a burned-out fighter pilot learns ‘Death is a Green Man’

This blockbusting blend of military mayhem, magical melee and martial madness concludes with Weird War Tales #21 and ‘One Hour to Kill!’ by Drake & Frank Robbins, wherein an American soldier is ordered to go back in time to assassinate Leonardo Da Vinci and prevent the invention of automatic weapons. Mayer & Bernard Baily then detail just how a foul-up GI becomes an unstoppable hero ‘When Death Took a Hand’

Classily chilling, emotionally intense, superbly illustrated, insanely addictive and Just Plain Fun, this is a deliciously guilty pleasure that will astound and delight any lover of fantasy fiction and comics that work on plot invention rather than character compulsion.
© 1971, 1972, 1973, 2012 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Leonardo2


By Stéphane Levallois, translated by Joe Johnson (NBM/Musée du Louvre Éditions)
ISBN: 978-1-68112-264-9(HB) eISBN: 978-1-68112-265-6

In 2005 one of the greatest museums in the world began an intriguing ongoing project with the upstart art form of comics; inviting some of the world’s most accomplished masters of graphic narrative to create new works in response to the centuries of acquired treasures residing within the grand repository of arts, history and culture.

The tales are produced in close collaboration with the forward-looking authorities of the Louvre, dedicated to pushing the envelope of what can be accomplished by master craftsmen inspired by their creative antecedents and forebears. These are no thinly-concealed catalogues of exhibition contents gift-wrapped in cartoon terms to gull potential visitors off their couches and into a stuffy edifice of public culture, but vibrant and challenging comics events calculated to make you think again about what creativity and history mean…

Since then, many of our medium’s greatest exponents have crafted 12 astounding and compelling graphic novels and the twelfth may well be the most potent and rewarding thus far.

Courtesy of those fine folks at NBM, that latest beguiling bande dessinée is now available in English, highlighting the genius of Leonardo DaVinci in a most intriguing and impressive manner…

The artist of record in this staggeringly large – 254 x 36 mm – hardback (and more manipulable digital edition) is Stéphane Levallois. He was born in 1970 and studied at the Penninghen Graduate School of Graphic Art from 1988-1992, taught sketching there and studied computer graphics. He’s worked mostly in poster-making and illustration, games design, film storyboarding and advertising. He also clearly remembers the golden age of Metal Hurlant

Originally released in 2019, Leonardo2 takes a stunning science fiction approach to the appreciation of great art as in the distant future and depths of space the last remnants of mankind approach a derelict museum proofed against the rigors of the void.

Through their advanced technologies, the last men of Earth harvest genetic material from a certain painting and clone a lost master. They don’t want him for his painting skills…

As the boy grows his life is imparted to him in the face of imminent extinction. an alien species is hunting humanity and what is needed is Leonardo the inventor, Da Vinci the Master of War…

Rendered alternately in in sepia and full colour, this incredible tale – two years in the making – began with Levallois learning to draw in Da Vinci’s style and the result is lovely and staggering. Moreover, the story is layered with psychological intrigue, questioning the power of creation and the morality of survival.

A glorious feast for the eyes, the saga is augmented by a sketch-packed essay detailing how it all came about ‘In Leonardo’s Footsteps’.

This is another astounding and ferociously strident comics experience no art lover or devotee of the visual narrative medium can afford to miss. Moreover, in this most unusual of years, I feel no compunction in breaking convention and saying this is a guaranteed 10 out of 10 Christmas certainty, if you’re looking to fill those stockings early…
© Futuropolis – Musée du Louvre Éditions 2019. © NBM 2020 for the English translation.

Leonardo2 will be released on October 15th and is available for pre-order now.

Most NBM books are also available in digital formats. For more information and other great reads see http://www.nbmpub.com/

Umbrella Academy volume 1: Apocalypse Suite


By Gerard Way & Gabriel Bá (Dark Horse)
ISBN: 978-1-50671-547-6 (HB) 978-1-59307-978-9 (TPB)

Superheroes have been around long enough now that they’ve even evolved into different sub-sets: straight Save-the-World continuity types as championed by DC and Marvel, obsessively “real” or realist iterations such as Marvelman,Masked Man, Crossfire or Kick-Ass, comedy versions like Justice League International, Ambush Bug, Unbeatable Squirrel-Girl, Deadpool, She-Hulk or Gwenpool and some truly rare ducks that straddle a few barstools in between.

Cut from the same cloth of Edgy, Catastrophic Absurdism as Scott McCloud’s Zot!, Brendan McCarthy’s Paradax and especially Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol and Flex Mentallo, the archly anti-didactic antics of The Umbrella Academy offers readers a subtly subversive take on the idiom which impressed the heck out of everybody and lured many disillusioned fans back to the pitifully tired and over-used genre when first released in 2012…

The debut collected volume gathers the initial 6-issue miniseries as well as a 2-page online tease from MySpace Dark Horse Presents and an introductory short story from the company’s Free Comic Book Day issue in 2007.

Once upon a time a strange event occurred. All across Earth 43 babies were unexpectedly born as the result of apparent immaculate conceptions – or perhaps some kind of inexplicable parthenogenesis. The births even surprised the mothers, most of whom abandoned or put up for immediate adoption their terrifying newborns.

Seven of these miracle babies were acquired by esteemed inventor and entrepreneur Sir Reginald Hargreeves. The inventor of the Levitator, mobile umbrella communicator, Clever Crisp cereal, Televator and a process which enabled chimps to speak was, in actuality, an over-achieving alien with a secret plan, and he raised the children to become superheroes to enact it.

He was not a good or caring parent…

The callously experimental family, after a number of early spectacular successes such as ‘The Day the Eiffel Tower Went Berserk’, soon proved to be unmanageable and the Umbrella Academy – created and trained “to save the World” – sundered in grief and acrimony, but not before poor Ben, Number 6 or “The Horror”, pointlessly lost his brave young life, and Number 5 – “The Boy” – took a short trip into the future and never came back…

An utterly dysfunctional superhero team, the children parted, but now, twenty years later, the surviving members gather again at the news that Hargreeves – whose nom de crime was The Monocle – has died…

In the interim, Number 1 son Luther became an off-earth defender and pioneer, but was hideously damaged on a doomed journey to Mars. To save him, The Monocle grafted his head onto the body of a colossal Martian Gorilla, but the “Spaceboy” found it far easier to live alone on the Moon than stay with his saviour and family.

Poor, neglected Vanya however – whose musical gifts Hargreeves deemed utterly useless – became a drop-out and wrote a scandalous tell-all book before becoming a voluntary exile amidst Earth’s lowest dregs…

In ‘We Only See Each Other at Weddings and Funerals’, the disparate clan gathers and Luther discovers The Boy has returned, looking not a day different. He isn’t – but his mind is 60-years old and has experienced horrors beyond all imagining…

Made welcome by technologist, housekeeper and talking chimp Dr. Pogo, Luther is startled by the return of Allison(Number 3, The Rumor). She’s changed a lot since her marriage – although she’s now single again – but Diego (Number 2, The Kraken) and Klaus (Number 4, The Séance) are just the same: physically mature but still completely, scarily demented…

The interment ceremony is a complete fiasco and descends into a brawl, but the savage bitterness the family exhibits towards each other is as nothing compared to the carnage caused by the arrival of merciless robotic Terminauts tasked with stopping the Umbrella Academy reforming at any cost…

Across town, poor forgotten Vanya has an audition with some very special musicians. The Orchestra Verdammten need only the best if their unconventional maestro, The Conductor is to perfectly premiere his latest opus – The Apocalypse Suite

As the reluctantly reunited Academy fall into old habits and dash off to save innocents from slaughter, The Boy drops his final bombshell: in the future he’s returned from, Earth was destroyed three days after the Monocle died…

Built by a long-vanquished foe, the killer mechanoids are ‘Dr. Terminal’s Answer’ to the pesky kids who ruined his plans, although they don’t fare well against Spaceboy, Rumor, Séance and The Kraken.

Dr. Pogo has stayed to examine The Boy and finds him exceedingly strange: a 60-year old mind wearing a 10-year old body that hasn’t aged a single second since it reappeared. There’s even stranger stuff going on which the monkey medic can’t detect, though…

Diego never stopped fighting monsters and has become a darkly driven vigilante, who even now has ignored the flamboyant threat of the robots to save imperilled kids. However, when Vanya – fresh from fleeing the deranged Conductor – stumbles into the conflagration he disparages her; calling her useless, just like Hargreeves used to.

As her strange siblings wrap things up and return to puzzle out exactly how the Earth will end in a matter of days, dejected, rejected Number 7 returns to The Orchestra Verdammten…

Subjected to outrageous experiments in ‘Baby, I’ll be Your Frankenstein’, Vanya is quickly transformed into a finely-tuned instrument to shatter reality, even as Pogo and The Boy stop for coffee and meet time-travelling trouble.

…And at the Icarus Theatre, the once disregarded and discarded White Violin makes her deadly, devastating debut…

At a certain Diner, distressed waitress Agnes tells Police Inspector Lupo how a veritable army of futuristic thugs were reduced in seconds to scarlet shreds and tatters by a little boy who politely said ‘Thank You for the Coffee’ before leaving with his chimpanzee friend. Lupo has endured a long and difficult unofficial association with ruthless avenger Kraken which has kept the city’s worst criminals from running riot, but when the old cop casually remarks that a lot of violinists have suddenly vanished, even he is quite unprepared for the vigilante’s reaction…

The family gathers at the Academy: Luther and Rumor slowly rekindling a long suppressed relationship even as The Boy makes the huge mistake of looking through Hargreeves’ trademark Monocle just as prodigal sister Vanya knocks on the door – with shattering, killing force…

The shocked stunned survivors quickly marshal their forces for ‘Finale or, Brothers and Sisters, I Am an Atomic Bomb’, but even though they achieve some sort of victory and save reality, it’s at a terrible, World-shattering cost…

Following Editor Scott Allie’s Afterword on the trials, tribulations and triumph of working with a big-name rock-star (yes, that Gerard Way: multi-talented musician/writer/artist/designer who once fronted My Chemical Romance…) whilst trying to maintain a comicbook schedule, illustrator Gabriel Bá and the author then reveal a host of production secrets in ‘Designing the Umbrella Academy’.

But that’s not all: the introductory ‘Short Stories’ – with notes and commentary from Bá – follow, revealing a lighter side to the team in ‘“Mon Dieu!”’ and a surprisingly deft surreal murder mystery in‘…But the Past Ain’t Through with You’(first seen in MySpace Dark Horse Presents and Dark Horse Free Comic Book Day 2007 respectively).

Whilst happily swiping, homaging, sampling and remixing the coolest elements from many and varied comics sources, The Umbrella Academy created a unique synthesis and achieved its own distinctive originality within the tired confines of the superhero genre. Maybe because it stylishly combines the tragic baroque tone of a La Belle Époque scenario with an ironic dystopian fin de siècle sensibility and repackages it all as a wittily post-modern heroic fable, or perhaps more likely simply because it’s all just really damned good, darkly sardonic fun, conceived with love and enthusiasm and crafted with supreme skill and bravura by extremely talented people who love what they do…?

A few years ago, the saga was adapted to television and became 2019’s most watched Netflix show. In response, a spiffy deluxe oversized hardcover was released, boasting an extra 50 pages of sketches and such. So you could opt for that or the digital edition if you love trees…

Read The Umbrella Academy: Apocalypse Suite if you’re smart, read it if you’re bored, read it because I said so, but if you too love the medium and the genre, read it, read it, read it.
™ © 2008 Gerard Way. All rights reserved.

The Light and Darkness War


By Tom Veitch & Cam Kennedy (Titan Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-78276-180-8 (HB)

During the 1980s, the American comics scene enjoyed an astounding proliferation of new titles and companies in the wake of the creation of the Direct Sales Market. With publishers able to firm-sale straight to retail outlets rather than overprint and accept returned copies from non-specialised vendors, the industry was able to support less generic titles and creators could experiment without losing their shirts.

In response, Marvel Comics developed a line of creator-owned properties at the height of the subsequent publishing explosion, launching a number of idiosyncratic, impressive series in a variety of formats under the watchful, canny eye of Editor Archie Goodwin. The delightfully disparate line was dubbed Epic Comics and the results reshaped the industry.

These days, that font of independence and creativity is threatened by the major publishers’ timidity in the face of COVID19 and just the general costs of doing business. The medium you love is under threat again. If you can support your local comic shop – even through online sales – please do so. If that’s too late, then just buy more stuff in digital form. At least then smaller publishers can keep going and we won’t lose comics as a form altogether…

Now, back to your irregularly scheduled reading recommendation…

One of the most evocative Epic releases was a darkly compelling war/fantasy/science fiction serial with a beautifully simple core concept: Valhalla is real and forever…

Conceived and created by author, poet and comics scribe Tom Veitch (Legion of Charlies, Antlers in the Treetops, Animal Man, Star Wars: Dark Empire) and Scottish national treasure Cam Kennedy (Fighting Mann, Judge Dredd, Batman, Star Wars: Dark Empire), The Light and Darkness War originally ran from October 1988 to September 1989, just as that period of exuberant creative freedom was giving way to a marketplace dominated by reductive exploitation led by speculators.

Because of that downturn, this fantastic saga of martial pride and redemption through valiant service in the Great Beyond never really got the popular acclaim it deserved, hopefully something this glorious hardback or eBook retrospective compilation from Titan Comics can belatedly address…

Following heartfelt reminiscences and an appreciation in the ‘Foreword by Commander Mike Beidler, USN Retired’, the astounding fable introduces paraplegic Vietnam war veteran Lazarus Jones, a broken, troubled warrior for whom the fighting never ended.

Home when he should have died with his inseparable friends, plagued with red-hot memories of beloved comrades lost when their Huey went down, by 1978 the wheelchair-bound wreck of a man is in a most parlous state.

Shattered by what will one day be designated Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Laz cannot help making life hell for his devoted wife Chris. His miserable existence takes an even darker turn when Jones begins seeing visions of long-gone Huff, Slaw and Engle, all calling him to join them.

A little later when Chris’ car crashes, Laz is severely hurt and left in a coma he might never awake from…

Elsewhere on the other side of Eternity, a shadowy shape speaks to Lazarus offering a choice: he can go back or he can join his long-departed brothers …

Thus begins a fantastic adventure as the half-man is restored to perfect health and reunited with those who know him best. The catch is that this afterlife is like nothing any holy book ever promised. It’s a vast cosmos of painful, unrelenting physicality where strange alien species commingle and Earth’s dead continue much as they had before.

Pilots steer gunships – albeit flying ones made of stone and levitated by little blue aliens called “menteps” – Leonardo da Vinci carries on inventing weapons for powerful lords, and soldiers from every era have one more chance to serve and die…

Miraculously and joyously restored, Laz eagerly rejoins Engle, Slaw and Huff in the only thing he was ever good at. Manning a flying boat armed with light-powered weapons he becomes part of a vast force perpetually defying an unimaginable wave of invading evil from the Outer Darkness.

It’s a war with no overall plan or envisaged endgame, just eternal conflict, but recently a dark lord named Na has risen to the foremost rank of the “Deadsiders” and the legions of night seem to be gaining an advantage in the never-ending conflict fought on a million planets and a billion fronts…

For five hundred years however, the genius da Vinci has created weapons that have checked the rapid advance and held the invaders to a tenuous stalemate, but Deadsiders are tirelessly patient and resort to inexorably taking worlds one at a time.

But now a novel event has taken place. Although Lazarus has happily enlisted in the army of Light comprised of those who died in battle on Earth, on the other side of the sky his body is still alive…

Stationed on besieged world Black Gate, Laz and the “Light Gang” are unable to prevent libidinous Lord Na from infiltrating and overcoming the planetary defences, but at least they save Governor Nethon’s daughter Lasha from becoming the conqueror’s latest power-supplying plaything.

Although gradually winning the war for the dark, Na is impatient for a faster outcome. To achieve that end he has his necromancers rediscover an ancient, long-forgotten way to contact the Earth realm and dupes millionaire arms-dealer and devout Satanist Niles Odom into creating a device to physically bridge the dimensions.

Na’s wishes are simple; he wants earthly particle weapons, rail guns, atom bombs…

The unwitting dupe building Odom’s bridge is Nicky Tesla, a brilliant physicist whose intellect rivals that of his dead uncle Nikola, the wizard of electricity who once astounded the world.

With his clairvoyant girlfriend Delpha, little Nicky has used uncle’s old researches to complete an inter-realm gate for crazy-rich Odom, but when an army of zombies come through it and abduct him and Delpha nobody is prepared for what follows.

As the scientists are dragged across into an impossible world where Uncle Nikola is alive again, Laz and the Light Gang – following in Na’s wake – explosively head the other way…

They soon find themselves trapped on their birth-world, just as whole and hale as the day they died… and where Jones still languishes somewhere in a hospital bed.

With all the Afterworlds at stake, they have no choice but to fight their way back to the War again…

Also embellishing this gloriously fulsome chronicle is a sketch-&-developmental art ‘Background Briefing’ by Veitch & Kennedy, discussing the Underground Comic origins and antecedents of the story as well as the history, physics and metaphysics of The Light and Darkness War plus a potent overview and personal recollection from Stephen R. Bissette, ‘Endless War: The Life, Loss and Afterlife of Lazarus Jones’.

Fast paced, suspenseful, astonishingly imaginative and utterly beautiful to behold, the complex tale of Laz’s team and their struggle, how two generations of Tesla reshape a war that has been waged forever, and how in the end only love and devotion can battle overwhelming evil is a masterpiece of graphic endeavour and one no lover of fantasy fiction should miss.
The Light and Darkness War is ™ and © 2015 Tom Veitch & Cam Kennedy. All rights reserved.

Yoko Tsuno volume 8 the Devil’s Organ


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

The edgy yet uncannily accessible European exploits of Japanese scientific adventurer Yoko Tsuno began gracing the pages of Le Journal de Spirou in September 1970 and are still going strong, with latest album Anges et faucons released last year.

The engaging, eye-popping, expansively globe-girdling multi award-winning series was created by Belgian Roger Leloup, a man of many talents born in 1933. He toiled as one of Herge’s meticulous researchers and background assistants on the Adventures of Tintin strip before striking out on his own.

Compellingly told, superbly imaginative but always solidly placed in hyper-realistic settings sporting utterly authentic and unshakably believable technology, these illustrated epics were at the forefront of a wave of strips featuring competent, brave and immensely successful female protagonists which revolutionised European comics from the 1970s onwards and are as potently empowering now as they ever were. I just wish they were more popular in English (that’s my job I suppose) and that publisher Cinebook would release few more than the dozen or so currently available. It would also be nice if such a forward-looking feature was available in digital editions…

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

That epic of extraterrestrial intrigue was the first of 29 European albums, promptly followed here with a more down-to-earth but equally breathtaking contemporary thriller set in the heart of Germany against a merely mortal menace who was every inch her match…

Serialised in 1972 as L’orgue du diable in Spirou #1767-1793, the suspenseful thriller first reached us as 8th translated chronicle The Devil’s Organ and begins when young TV mogul Vic Van Steen and frivolous cameraman pal Pol Paristake their new chum – sleekly capable freelance Japanese electrical engineer Yoko Tsuno – with them up the so-scenic Rhine to shoot a travel documentary.

What the working tourists don’t realise is that the epic views and beautiful castles were recently the scene of a bizarre duel which left one man dead whilst his improbably garbed, demonic murderer escaped without anyone knowing a crime had been committed…

Now a week later, Pol is not so subtly ogling (and filming) a comely fräulein on the top deck of the stately, palatial riverboat when the subject of his attentions falls into the chilly waters.

Yoko is only seconds behind him as the cameraman hits the water trying to save the girl. When they are all hauled back aboard, the Japanese adventurer discovers the nearly drowned victim has been drugged…

Ingrid Hallberg is one of Germany’s most promising young classical organists and she has made the trip to the idyllic, fairy tale region to see where her father took his own life a week previously. However, when Pol’s voyeuristic photos are developed, they reveal a strange man injecting her with something before pushing her into the river and Yoko begins to suspect that the senior Hallberg’s death might not be all it appears either. Adding to the mystery is a strange tape he sent Ingrid which she was intending to play once she arrived at his now deserted home in Sankt Goar

As always, the most potent asset of these edgy dramas is the astonishingly authentic and hyper-realistic settings, which benefit from Leloup’s diligent research and meticulous attention to detail. Tourists could use these pages as an A-Z and never get lost, except in rapturous wonder…

As they accompany the damp damsel Yoko discovers the girl has been electronically bugged and urges all haste, with the party arriving just as a masked man flees the house with the tape. Giving chase, Yoko finds herself facing no ordinary foe and despite all her martial arts skills is near death by the time her friends catch up. The mystery man gets away but not with all of the tape…

The fragment that remains lead the baffled, battered heroes to buried copper artefacts which were part of an incredible restoration project. Werner Hallberg, being an expert in church music and instruments, was apparently contracted to restore a 16th century contraption for an anonymous millionaire. The colossal ancient device was known as The Devil’s Organ and, from what the modern tech team can discern, it was actually a sonic weapon of devastating power…

Tracking down the original location of the device at the world-famous Katz fortress, the self-appointed detectives settle on its current occupier Otto Meyer as the likely wealthy patron who hired Werner. Determined to get to the bottom of the criminal conundrum, they barge in on him, only to be attacked by his misanthropic and overprotective nephew Karl. Over the young man’s strenuous objections, the elder Meyer surprisingly invites the wary intruders to stay and look around all they want.

Cautiously accepting, they continue their enquiries in plain sight but are all too soon the latest targets in the mysterious murderer’s sights…

It takes all Yoko’s considerable ingenuity and boldness to stay one step ahead of the hidden killer, but when she finally unmasks the villain and learns his sordid reasons for the deaths it is almost too late: the Organ from Hell is ready to sound and nothing can prevent it from unleashing a horrific wave of destruction.

…But that doesn’t stop Yoko Tsuno from giving it one final mighty try…

Absorbing, compelling and blending tense suspense with blistering adventure, this is another superbly rationalist mystery and fantastic exploit of the most unsung of all female action heroes: one you’ve waited far too long to meet…
Original edition © Dupuis, 1973 by Roger Leloup. All rights reserved. English translation 2013 © Cinebook Ltd.

Vowels


By Skye Ogden (Gestalt Publishing)
ISBN: 978-0-9775628-1-7 (PB)

I’ve long admitted my love for comics in black & white and frequently expressed my admiration for creators who can tell a tale in utter silence, without benefit of text, and this lavish and splendid digest sized (212 x 144mm) paperback is one of my favourite examples of the form.

Created by Australian cartoonist, designer and illustrator Skye Ogden, Vowels is a phenomenally engaging sequence of five linked fables which mesmerically examine aspects of the human condition, all played out in an oddly welcoming, if harsh, desert landscape that houses hulking cavemen and their suitably formidable women, adorable lizards, wide eyed aliens and, latterly, extremely unpleasant invading soldiery…

This is one of those books you’ll thank me for staying non-specific about, so I’ll only go so far as to say that ‘a’ is a broadly comedic chase vignette starring those aforementioned dawn people and the unlucky reptile, whilst ‘e’ introduces a diminutive alien wanderer to the happy, hirsute couple before following the unhappy voyager into a most peculiar afterlife and rebirth…

In ‘i’ the little guy’s distant relatives take the stage in a bustling marketplace for a dose of Romeo and Juliet frustration and tragedy before overwhelming, abiding loss is expressively characterised in ‘o’, after which the fascinating, universally accessible discussion on the nature of existence concludes with the brutal horrors of war, occupation and vengeance…

Depicted in a beguiling, timelessly engaging cartoon style, deliciously reminiscent of the legendary Vaughn Bode and employing all the devastatingly expressive, pantomimic artifices of Charlie Chaplin, Vowels is a masterpiece of the cartoonist’s craft where life, death, love, hate, jealousy, obsession, protectiveness, greed, raw naked aggression and cruelty are pared down to the bone and graphically, forensically explored in a manner which only makes us hungry for more.

Deeply enticing, appealingly slick and intoxicatingly addictive, Vowels is an irresistible torrent of purely visual drama and which will delight all aficionados of the medium who value comics for their own sake, and don’t need a route map or score card to enjoy themselves. And it’s long overdue to be revived and rediscovered. In my alphabet, that rates a great big oooooo….
© 2007 Skye Ogden. All rights reserved.