Buz Sawyer volume 4: Zazarof’s Revenge


By Roy Crane, with Henry G. “Hank” Schlensker & Edwin Granberry (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-975-2 (HB)

Modern comics evolved from newspaper strips: pictorial features that were, until relatively recently, utterly ubiquitous. Hugely popular with the public and highly valued by publishers who used them as a weapon to secure sales and increase circulation, strips seemed to find their only opposition in blinkered local editors who often resented the low brow art form, which cut into potential ad space and regularly drew complaint letters from cranks…

It’s virtually impossible for us today to understand the overwhelming allure and power of the comic strip – especially from the Great Depression to the end of the 1950s. With limited television, broadcast radio far from universal and movie shows at best a weekly treat for most folk, household entertainment was mostly derived from the comics sections of daily and especially Sunday Newspapers. “The Funnies” were universally enjoyed recreation for millions who were well served by a fantastic variety and incredible quality of graphic sagas and humorous episodes.

From the start comedy was king; hence our terms “Funnies” and “Comics”. From these jest and stunt beginnings – blending silent movie slapstick, outrageous fantasy and vaudeville antics – came an entertaining mutant hybrid: Roy Crane’s Wash Tubbs.

Debuting in April 1924, Washington Tubbs II was a comedic, gag-a-day strip which evolved into a globe-girdling adventure serial. For years, Crane spun addictive high-quality pictorial yarns – until his introduction of moody swashbuckler Captain Easy ushered in the age of adventure strips with the landmark episode for 6th May, 1929.

This led to a Sunday colour page which was possibly the most compelling and visually imaginative of the entire Golden Age of Newspaper strips (see Roy Crane’s Captain Easy, Soldier of Fortune: The Complete Sunday Newspaper Strips volumes 1-4). Improving almost minute by minute, it benefited from Crane’s relentless quest for perfection. His fabulously imaginative compositional masterpieces attained a timeless immediacy that made each page a unified piece of sequential art. The influence of his pages can be seen in the works of near-contemporaries like Hergé, giants-in-waiting such as Charles Schulz or comic book masters Alex Toth, John Severin and many more.

The material was obviously as much fun to make as to read. In fact, Crane’s cited reason for surrendering the Sunday strip to his assistant Les Turner in 1937 was NEA/United Features Syndicate’s abrupt and arbitrary diktat that all strips would henceforward be produced in a rigid panel-structure to facilitate their being cut up and re-pasted as local editors dictated.

They just didn’t lift the artist any more so he stopped making them. At the height of his powers, Crane walked away from the astounding Captain Easy Sunday page; concentrating on the daily feature until his contract expired in 1943 whereupon he left United Features: lured away by that grandee of strip poachers William Randolph Hearst.

The result was an aviator strip set in then-ongoing World War II: Buz Sawyer.

Where Wash Tubbs was a brave but largely comedic Lothario and his pal Easy a surly, tight-lipped he-man, John Singer “Buz” Sawyer was a joyous amalgam of both: a handsome, big-hearted, affable country-boy who went to war because his country needed him…

Buz was a fun-loving, skirt-chasing, musically-inclined pilot daily risking his life with his devoted gunner Rosco Sweeney: a bluff, brave ordinary Joe – and one of the most effective comedy foils ever created.

The wartime strip was – and remains – a marvel of authenticity: portraying not just action and drama of the locale and situation but crucially also capturing the quiet, dull hours of training, routine and desperate larks between the serious business of killing and staying alive. When the war ended the action-loving duo – plus fellow pilot/girl-chasing competitor Chili Harrison – all went looking for work that satisfied their thirst for action and adventure…

Crane had mastered popular entertainment tastes, blending adventure with drama and sophisticated soap opera, all leavened with raucous comedy in a seamless procession of unmissable daily episodes. He and his team of assistants – which over decades comprised co-writers Ed “Doc” Granberry, Clark Haas and Al Wenzel, and artists Hank Schlensker, Joel King, Ralph Lane, Dan Heilman, Hi Mankin & Bill Wright – soldiered on under relentless deadline pressure, producing an authentic and exotic funny romantic thriller rendered in his stark signature style as well as a prerequisite full-colour Sunday page.

This fourth stout and sturdy hardcover edition is a mostly monochrome tome re-presenting more magnificent strip shenanigans starring a dynamic All-American good guy, but now Buz is just another fading war hero: albeit admittedly a globetrotting, troubleshooting one and a newlywed husband to boot.

Having – after much kerfuffle, procrastination, intrigue, bloodshed, sexy skulduggery and delay – finally married extremely understanding childhood sweetheart Christy Jameson, our clean-cut boy-next-door then dragged her into his regularly perilous and frequently lethal working world as prime problem-solver for Frontier Oil: a company with fingers in many international pies and one most modern readers will find hard to consider “the Good Guys”…

These strips – made in collaboration with Granberry & Hank Schlensker – cover the societally turbulent period spanning July 1949 to June 1952, as America leaned hard into its dreams of Exceptionalism and enjoyed domestic boom times while embracing it’s self-appointed role as the World’s Policeman. Crane and his creative laboured long, hard, often acrimonious hours to produce each daily strip; all beguilingly rendered in black-&-white through Crane’s masterly techniques employing line art and craftint (a tricky mechanical monochrome patterning effect which added greys and halftones to produce miraculous depths and moods to the superb base drawing) but the toll was heavy on personnel and feelings.

Before the ten self-contained tales here kick off, heavily-illustrated preliminary prose piece ‘The Three of Us are a Team’ (‘remarks at the New York Banshee Society’ from transcripts donated to Syracuse University) revisits Crane’s acceptance speech on winning the 1961 Silver Lady Award as determined by a collation of contemporary communications executives. Effusive and reminiscent, it sees him give his partners all the credit for the hard work in crafting the feature…

Buz Sawyer began on November 1st 1943 and ran until 1989. Crane officially retired with the April 21st 1977 episode (dying on July 7th) while it continued under Granberry, Schlensker, Haas, Wenzel and John Celardo until cancelation on October 7th 1989.

The story resumes with an example of contemporary trends…

Chimpanzees were becoming a popular story addition for most media as the 1940s ended (just look at movies or comic books) and ‘Monkey Business’ finds our happy couple back in the USA after an African honeymoon (of sorts) which left the them owners of a young chimp named Junior

Anticipating decades of future sitcoms, the tale details how Junior plays up during a critical dinner party/holiday weekend held by Sawyer’s boss Colonel Harrison but the resulting debacle at a swish soiree on Harrison’s palatial estate fails to impress potential business partner Mr Tidley Bragg. A cheeky excuse for manic screwball comedy and social gaffes, the chaos generates explosive hilarity, humiliation and Buz’s sacking before fate intervenes to show everyone that Junior was a boisterous blessing in disguise…

Swiftly rehired, Buz heads south, encountering ‘Revolution’ (September 19th 1949 – January 18th 1950) in a Central American republic. Frontier Oil was seeking an oil concession, but apparently their agent – Barstain – had played a double game. Before long, Buz is using his war experiences to lead a counter revolution to save democracy…

January 20th- June 17th offers a grimly chilling change of pace as ‘Buz Alone’ sees Christy and her husband on a well-earned vacation at a Florida honeymoon cottage. Tragically, danger is never far from them, and the brief idyll is shattered after a nature-watching boat trip leaves them stranded on a sandbar with no food, water, shelter or prospect of rescue.

A true champion, Buz survives a gruelling swim to the mainland and returns in a seaplane only to find three men on the sandbar and no trace of Christy. When he gets agitated, he’s accused of making it all up and – if she ever existed – doing away with the woman…

Beaten up when he tries to search their boat, Buz is left to pick up the pieces and track down Christy. In his hunger for clues, he is manipulated by a woman seeking a new husband – and someone to remove her current one – before eventually clashing with vengeful old enemy Harry Sparrow. At no time does he ever get near his missing better half…

While he flounders, a comely, capable lady with no memory is picked up on the mainland before losing herself amidst the sleazy local underworld. With the police now assisting, Buz sets out on the fresh trail, aided by trusty pal Sweeney. After more trauma and tribulation, Christy is found, but it’s not the girl Buz married yet – not by a long shot…

A return to lighter intrigue and enterprise comes when spoiled debutante ‘Diana’ (June 19th – November 24th) makes Daddy find her a job. Unluckily for Buz, Remington Chase is a bigwig at Frontier and his bored hellion of a daughter likes the idea of being Sawyer’s secretary – or at least the idea of Sawyer…

Even debonair Chili Harrison can’t sway her aim and when Buz “escapes” into work – despatched to Iron Curtain nation Sovmania just when he and Christy began looking at homes to buy – Miss Chase infuriatingly follows. Negotiating with the Soviets is tricky enough, but when it’s a US corporation demanding the communists hand back wells and refineries they illegally annexed and expropriated, Sawyer knows he can’t win and may end up mysteriously deceased. It’s no surprise to find Diana draws attention and danger like a magnet, but her response when the oppressors decide to arrest them is a life-changing revelation.

Spectacular spy games give way to a lighter interlude when Buz reunites with Christy and they babysit a parrot named ‘William Shakespeare’ (November 24th 1950-January 6th 1951). The beloved baby of a poetry professor, with an astounding talent for repeating what he hears, the bird proves to be even more trouble that their chimp was…

Clearly qualified in policing difficult customers, Buz is then assigned to locate a wandering landowner with 6,000 prime acres to lease. ‘Wish Jones’ (January 8th to April 19th) is old, homely, rich, romantic, suggestible and (suddenly) married to exotic dancer Taffy Fawn. However, he hasn’t signed the contracts Frontier needs, leaving Buz playing catch across all the love nests of the South Pacific. The fixer’s greatest asset is Taffy herself, who never thought wedded bliss and matchless wealth included so much sand, birds or bugs. His biggest problem is that even desert island paradises have crooks, radios and newspapers…

Another episode of animal husbandry catastrophes – this time a dachshund and a voracious baby heron – leads implausibly to a sojourn in ‘Alaska’ (26th April – August 22nd) with Sawyer undercover as John Singer.

While seeking a geologist’s killers, he’s also acting as courier for the Government in a serious and solid spy escapade worthy of Alfred Hitchcock with abductions, misreported deaths, murderous sailors, devious twins, fake relatives and hidden uranium reserves all in play, with Buz’s survival skills pushed to the limit before his mission is accomplished.

In dire need of relaxation, the reunited Mr & Mrs Sawyer trust to fate and pluck a name out of an atlas for a vacation. They land in a lakeside resort boasting peace and quiet but dreary ‘Doldrums’ (August 23rd – September 29th) is soon a pandemonium of envy and excitement as bored couples seek to spice up their passionless lives by emulating the infamous, glamorous newcomers…

Eponymous epic ‘Zazarof’s Revenge’ spans October 1st 1951-January 10th 1952, opening with a global sabotage campaign against Frontier, leading Buz to Switzerland where there’s no doubt of mystery man Igor Zazarof’s guilt, but apparently no way to find or face him.

Ultimately, persistence and charm break down the villain’s obvious pawn Neri, whilst all attempts to bribe, frame, frighten or kill the American fail, leading to an extended and brutal duel to the death on a mountain peak as the only way to deal with Sawyer…

We conclude for now with home-grown bad men ‘The Hawks Boys’ (January 10th – June 19th) terrorising and sabotaging a Frontier installation in Utah. As assault escalates to murder, Buz discovers why the Hawks’ – already well-paid for the oil rights to their land – are doing everything they can to force the company to pull out. What could be worth more than oil and what won’t they do to keep their secret?

Completing this vivid vintage venture is a wry glimpse of Crane’s early days. With text written by Jeet Heer, ‘A Cartoonist’s Travels’ offers a brief gallery of cartoons about bums, hoboes, tramps and voyagers, with the artist drawing upon his own youthful experiences as an itinerant bindlestiff and drifter…

This a sublime slice of compelling comics wonder is an ideal way to discover or reconnect with Crane’s second magnum opus. Bold, daring, funny and astonishingly enthralling, these episodic exploits influenced generations of modern cartoonists, illustrators, comics creators and storytellers. The series ranks amongst the very greatest strip cartoon features ever created: always delivering comics tale-telling unforgettable, unmissable and utterly irresistible. Try it and see for yourself.
Buz Sawyer: Zazarof’s Revenge © 2016 Fantagraphics Books. All Buz Sawyer strips © 2016 King Features Syndicate, Inc. All other material © the respective copyright holders. All rights reserved.

Suicide Squad volume 1: Trial by Fire (New Edition)


By John Ostrander, Luke McDonnell, Bob Lewis, Karl Kesel, Dave Hunt & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-5831-3 (TPB)

Following the huge success of Crisis on Infinite Earths, fickle fan-interest was concentrated on DC, and many of their major properties – and indeed the entire continuity – were opened up for radical change, innovation and renewal.

So, how best to follow the previous year’s cosmic catastrophe? Why not a much smaller and more personal Great Disaster, spotlighting those strangers in familiar costumes and a bunch of beginnings rather than the deaths and endings of the Crisis?

Thus, Darkseid of Apokolips attacked humanity’s spirit by destroying the very concept of heroism and individuality in Legends and sent hyper-charismatic Glorious Godfrey to America to lead a common man’s crusade against extraordinary heroes, while he initiated individual assaults to demoralize and destroy key champions of Earth.

The rampant civil unrest prompted President Ronald Reagan to outlaw costumed crime-busters and opened the door for a governmental black-bag operation to use super-powered operatives who had no option but to obey the orders of their betters…

That was the beguiling concept behind the creation – or more accurately consolidation and reactivation – of separate but associated concepts dating back to the 1960s and the first revival of superhero comics.

John Ostrander was new to DC; lured with editor Mike Gold from Chicago’s First Comics where their work on Starslayer, Munden’s Bar and especially Grimjack had made the independent minnows some of the most popular series of the decade. Spinning out of Legends, Ostrander hit the ground running with a superb and compelling reinterpretation of the long neglected Suicide Squad: a boldly controversial revaluation of meta-humanity and the hidden role of government in a world far more dangerous than the placid public believed…

Devised by Robert Kanigher, The War that Time Forgot debuted in Star Spangled War Stories #90 (April-May 1960) and ran until #137 (May 1968). The wonderment began as paratroops and tanks of “Question Mark Patrol” were dropped on Mystery Island from whence no American soldiers ever returned. The crack warriors discovered why when the operation was overrun by Pterosaurs, Tyrannosaurs and worse: all superbly rendered by veteran art team Ross Andru & Mike Esposito.

What followed was years of astonishing action as various military disciplines – of assorted nationalities – pitted modern weapons and human guts against the most terrifying monsters ever to stalk the Earth…

The Brave and the Bold #25 (September 1959) was the first issue of the title in its new format as a try-out vehicle testing new characters and concepts before launching them into their own series. Inauspiciously, the premier starred a quartet of human specialists – Colonel Rick Flag, medic Karin Grace and big-brained boffins Hugh Evans and Jess Price – officially convened by the US government into a Suicide Squad codenamed Task Force X to investigate uncanny mysteries and tackle unnatural threats.

The gung-ho gang – another Kanigher, Andru & Esposito invention – appeared in six issues but never really caught the public’s attention – perhaps because they weren’t costumed heroes – and quickly faded from memory.

In April 1967, Our Fighting Forces #106 began running the exploits of homicide detective Ben Hunter who was recruited by the army during WWII to run roughshod over a penal battalion of prisoners who had grievously broken regulations.

Facing imprisonment or execution, the individually lethal military malcontents were given a chance to earn a pardon by undertaking missions deemed too tough or hopeless for proper soldiers. Hunter’s Hellcats – inarguably “inspired” by the movie The Dirty Dozen – ran until OFF #122 (December 1969) on increasingly nasty and occasionally fatal little sorties, before being replaced without fanfare or preamble by The Losers and similarly lost to posterity.

This reissued trade paperback/digital collection (spanning May to December 1987) gathers the in-filling, background-providing revised backstory from Secret Origins #14 and the first 8 issues of the decidedly devious thriller serial set in the darkest corners of the-then DCU. It opens sans fanfare in the Oval Office as strident political insider Amanda Wallerbriefs the President on ‘The Secret Origin of the Suicide Squad’ (by Ostrander, Luke McDonnell & Dave Hunt).

Smartly amalgamating the aforementioned Hellcats and Colonel Flag through early missions against those dinosaurs, Ostrander neatly tied together strands and linked obscure periods of recent events to provide a shocking secret history of America: a time when superheroes were forced into retirement after World War II, with the US military and Task Force X used to unobtrusively take out those monsters, spies, aliens and super-criminals who didn’t conveniently pack up with them…

Waller has a plan: she doesn’t want society to depend on the current crop of capricious super do-gooders and has recruited Flag’s damaged and driven son to run a new penal battalion comprising captured super-villains who will work off the books for the highest echelons of government, using metahuman force for the greater – i.e. political – good…

The true reasons and motivations for her actions are then disclosed in a tragic story of personal loss and criminal atrocity before she is grudgingly given the go-ahead, but told that if the new initiative fails or becomes public knowledge, she alone will bear the blame…

The series proper – by Ostrander and McDonnell – begins with ‘Trial by Blood’ (inked by Karl Kesel) as metahuman terrorist team The Jihad – working out of rogue state Qurac bloodily prepare to bring slaughter to America. Tipped off by an asset inside the killer sect, the US wants to stop the killers before they start. This means sending Waller’s convict team to kill off the Jihad before they even leave their impregnable mountain fortress.

Knowing criminals cannot be trusted, the set-up involves not just bribery – reduced sentence deals, favours and pardons – but also minor coercion. Combat operations are led by traumatised, obsessively patriotic Rick Flag Jr. – assisted by amnesiac martial arts master Bronze Tiger. To keep everybody honest and on-mission, convict-operatives Deadshot, Plastique, Mindboggler, Captain Boomerang and schizophrenic sorceress Enchantress are wired with remote-detonation explosive devices…

Backed by a support team which includes Flag’s ex-girlfriend Karin Grace and Briscoe, an oddball mystery pilot enjoying a rather unusual relationship with his seemingly sentient helicopter gunship, the squad seem ready for anything. However, even before they set off for Qurac, things go badly wrong after Boomerang and Mindboggler clash and the Australian promises bloody vengeance…

Linking up with undercover asset Nightshade, even more misfortune manifests as the teleporting covert op violently complains to Flag about the horrific things she has had to do since infiltrating Jihad. Challenged but committed now, the unwilling agents begin their assignments in assassination but the ‘Trial by Fire’ unravels when one of the Squad switches sides…

Thankfully, the US has another agent in play and undercover, so the damage is limited. Nevertheless, not every American makes it home…

Issue #3 finds defeated and deflated New God Glorious Godfrey incarcerated in Belle Reve: a superhuman detention centre and top secret base of the Suicide Squad, whilst a universe away his master Darkseid despatches Female Furies Lashina, Stompa, Bernadeth and Mad Harriet to fetch him home.

Tensions pop Earth-side when Flag strenuously objects to mind-wiping procedures being used on one of his “recruits”, and Waller takes flak from Nightshade and super-disguise expert Nemesis over her handling of the Qurac mission… even getting grief from mouthy felon Digger Harkness.

The erstwhile Captain Boomerang was promised a measure of leniency and even a place outside the walls if he behaved, and thinks it’s time he got his reward. All arguments end however when the unstoppable Furies bust in to administer Darkseid’s judgement in ‘Jailbreak’

Despite their best efforts the mere mortals are swept aside and only the renewal of an internecine struggle for command of the Furies prevents greater harm to the criminal crew…

As Bob Smith takes over inking these tense yarns, domestic issues take precedence when a new masked hero begins cleaning up the streets of Central City. Waller is painfully aware that the increasingly popular vigilante is turning minority criminals over to the cops, but letting white perps slide if they promise to join burgeoning political party the Aryan Empire

With undercover specialists Black Orchid and Nemesis taking the lead and obnoxious racist Harkness acting as thoroughly credible decoy, the team – supplemented by Time Thief Chronos – lay a trap for a white supremacist billionaire to end ‘William Hell’s Overture’

A disastrous dip into Cold War realpolitik then begins when Waller is ordered to send a team into a Soviet gulag to rescue a dissident novelist in ‘The Flight of the Firebird’.

Tapping criminal strategist The Penguin to plan the complex mission, neither she, her superiors nor indeed anyone seems aware that the Russians actually want to banish gadfly Zoya Trigorin to the West, but she wants to stay a martyr in the Novogorod “psychiatric centre”…

More importantly, the foredoomed scheme depends on Enchantress, who now exhibits all the more bloodthirsty symptoms of being crazier than a bag-full of rabid badgers…

Before they head off, Flag checks in on Harkness (who has earned his own place in New Orleans), blithely unaware that the unrepentant rogue is already planning to supplement his civil service stipend by returning to his old felonious ways…

The mission begins and the Squad slowly infiltrates the frozen town of Gorki and breaks into Novogorod, but when Trigorin refuses to leave they are forced to kidnap her and make a desperate escape across Russia in ‘Hitting the Fan’.

The botched job leads American authorities to disavow all knowledge of their efforts, but the real problem is still the killing cold, vast distance and murderously determined efforts of Soviet super-team The People’s Heroes, who relentlessly hunt the survivors who have been ‘Thrown to the Wolves’ by their own bosses…

This glimpse at the grubby underside of super-heroics concludes with a smart yet incisive perusal of project psychologist Simon La Grieve’s ‘Personal Files’: offering insights and setting up future subplots for Waller, Flag, Deadshot Floyd Lawton, Boomerang and temporarily curtailed, mystically-bound Enchantress as well as her helpless human host June Moon

These were and remain a magnificent mission statement for the DC Universe, offering gritty, witty, cohesive and contemporary stories that appealed not just to Fights ‘n’ Tights fanatics but also lovers of espionage and crime capers. This collection is perfect fun-fodder for today’s so-sophisticated, informed and thrill-seeking readers.
© 1987, 2021 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved. Original compilation © 2011, DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Pow! Annual 1971


By unknown writers & artists and Miguel Quesada Cerdán, Vicente Ibáñez Sanchis, José Ortiz Moya, Matías Alonso, Enric Badia Romero, Eustaquio Segrelles del Pilar, Leopoldo Ortiz & various (Odhams Books)
SBN: 60039607X

This quirky item is one of my fondest childhood memories and quite inspirational in directing my career path, and as well as being still a surprisingly splendid read I can now see it as a bizarre and desperately belated sales experiment…

By the end of the 1960s, DC Thomson had overtaken the monolithic comics publishing giant that had been created by Alfred Harmsworth at the beginning of the twentieth century. The company – variously named Fleetway, Odhams and IPC – had absorbed rivals such as The Eagle’s Hulton Press, and stayed at the forefront of sales by latching onto every fad they had kept their material contemporary, if not fresh, but the writing was on the wall, but now

the comedy strip was on the rise and action anthologies were finding it hard to keep readers attention.

By 1970 – when this annual was released – the trend generated by the success of the Batman TV show was thoroughly dead, so why release a book of all-new superhero strips in a title very much associated with comedy features and cheap Marvel Comics reprints?

A last ditch attempt to revive the genre? Perhaps a cheap means of using up inventory?

I don’t know and I don’t care. What they produced that year was a wonderful capsule of fanboy delight, stuffed with thrills, colourful characters and a distinctly cool, underplayed stylishness, devoid of the brash histrionics of American comic books.

Conceived by tragically uncredited writers – but purportedly all created by Alan Hebden – this is a visual delight illustrated in alternating full colour (painted) and half-colour (black and magenta) sections by IPC’s European stable of artists: some of the greatest artists of the era, and delivered in a thoroughly different and grittily dark take on extraordinary champions, costumed crimebusters and the uncanny unknown…

The wonderment kicked off with ‘Magno, Man of Magnetism’ drawn by Miguel Quesada Cerdán: a valiant crimecrusher who seemed a cross between Simon Templar and James Bond, who donned his mask and used his superpowers only if things got really rough…

Eerily off-kilter sea scourge ‘Aquavenger’ was an oceanic crimefighter illustrated by The Victor veteran Vicente Ibáñez Sanchis, while ‘Mr. Tomorrow: Criminal of the Future’ – illustrated by jack of all genres Matías (Air Ace, Battle Action, Commando, The Victor, Twinkle) Alonso was an outright rebel from an oppressive state in days to come.

I don’t know who wrote or drew edgy, self-contained thriller ‘The Hunter and the Hunted’, but ‘Electro’ (no relation to the Marvel villain – other than the high-voltage shtick) is gloriously rendered by the legendary José Ortiz Moya (Caroline Baker, Barrister at Law; Smokeman; UFO Agent; The Phantom Viking; Commando Picture Library; BattlePicture Library; Vampirella; The Thirteenth Floor; Rogue Trooper; Tex Willer, Judge Dredd and many more).

In the most  traditional tale of the book, Eddie Edwards defends Surf City, USA as a voltaic vigilante and as part of the hero-heavy Super Security Bureau defeating terrors such as the crystalline marauders on view here…

Limned by future Modesty Blaise and Axa illustrator Enric Badia Romero, the fascinating psionic super-squad ‘Esper Commandos’ infiltrate and eliminate the competition before urban hunter ‘Marksman’ deals with a deadly saboteur and faux vengeful spectre ‘The Phantom’ (again no relation to any US star and illustrated by watercolours specialist Eustaquio Segrelles del Pilar) hands out summary justice decked out in a spooky uniform loaded with cunning gadgets…

We dip into the mind of a monster when aquatic horror ‘Norstad of the Deep’ – illustrated by Leopoldo Ortiz – invades the upper world but revert to heroic adventure for closing yarn ‘Time Rider’. Rendered by Ibáñez, it details how a bored genius millionaire builds a time-travelling robot horse and goes in search of adventure…

These are all great little adventures, satisfactorily self-contained, beautiful and singularly British in tone, even though most of the characters are American – or aliens (and no, that’s not necessarily the same thing). This tome easily withstands a critical rereading today, but the most important thing is the inspiring joy of these one-off wannabes. They certainly prompted me to fill sketchbook after sketchbook and determined that I would neither be a “brain surgeon nor a bloke wot goes down sewers in gumboots”. This great little tome gave me that critical push towards the fame and fortune I now enjoy, and could probably do it again!
© 1970 The Hamlyn Publishing Group Limited.

DC Goes to War


By Will Eisner, Bob Powell, Jon L. Blummer, Joe Simon & Jack Kirby, Robert Kanigher, Ed Herron, Len Wein, Marv Wolfman, David Michelinie, Chuck Dixon, Garth Ennis, Chuck Cuidera, John Severin, Joe Kubert, Jerry Grandenetti, Mort Drucker, Russ Heath, Jack Abel, Alex Toth, Gerry Talaoc, Judith Hunt, Sam Glanzman, Eduardo Barreto, Chris Weston, Christian Alamy & various (DC Comics)

ISBN: 978-1-7795-0015-1 (HB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Blockbuster Thrills No Movie Could Match… 9/10

For America, the genre of war comics only really took in 1950, as the Korean War scared the pants off a world still recovering from WWII. Even so, while war was current affairs, publishers didn’t shirk making stories and heroes amidst the bomb blasts and strafing runs…

Many publishers fed the trend, but although a firm fan fave, the sector soon settled into mediocrity. However, after the meteoric rise and sudden demise of EC Comics in the mid-1950’s and prior to the game-changing Blazing Combat, the only sure place to find controversial, challenging, exceptional and entertaining combat comics was DC.

In fact, even whilst Archie Goodwin’s stunning but tragically mis-marketed quartet of classics were waking up a generation, the home of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman (herself a true “war baby”) was a veritable cornucopia of gritty, intriguing and beautifully illustrated battle tales presenting combat on a variety of fronts and from many differing points of view.

As the Vietnam War escalated, 1960s America increasingly endured a Home Front death-struggle pitting deeply-ingrained Establishment social attitudes against a youth-oriented generation with a radical new sensibility. In response, DC/National Periodical Publications’ military-themed comic books became even more bold and innovative…

That stellar creative period came to an end as all strip trends do, but a few of the more impressive and popular features (Sgt. Rock, Haunted Tank, The Losers) survived well into the second superhero revival.

Currently, English-reading fans of the genre are grievously underserved in both print and digital formats, but this magnificent hardback and digital compendium is hopefully the vanguard of a change of fortune…

Re-presenting material from Military Comics #1; All-American Comics #48; Boy Commandos #1; Our Army at War#67, 83, 233, 235; Our Fighting Forces #49, 102; Star Spangled War Stories #87, 183; G.I. Combat #87; Showcase#57; Weird War Stories #3; The Losers Special #1; Sgt. Rock Special #2 and Enemy Ace: War in Heaven #1-2 spanning August 1941, this epic package chronologically samples the company’s wide and deep well of war tales…

Tales of ordinary guys in combat began with the industry itself and although mostly sidelined during the capes-&-cowls war years, they quickly re-asserted themselves again once the actual fighting stopped. Those early days of the industry were awash with both opportunity and talent, and these factors coincided with a vast population hungry for cheap entertainment. Comics had no acknowledged fans or collectors; only a large, transient clientele open to all varied aspects of yarn-spinning and tale-telling – a situation which persisted right up to the end of the 1960s. Thus, the action here starts before it started for America…

Even though loudly isolationist and more than six months away from active inclusion in the Second World War, creators like Will Eisner and publishers like Everett M. (“Busy”) Arnold felt Americans were ready for the themed anthology title Military Comics.

Nobody was ready for Blackhawk.

Military Comics #1 launched on May 30th 1941 (August cover-dated) and included in its line-up Miss America, Jack Cole’s Death Patrol, Fred Guardineer’s Blue Tracer, X of the Underground, The Yankee Eagle, Q-Boat, Shot and Shell, Archie Atkins and Loops and Banks (by “Bud Ernest” – actually aviation-nut and unsung comics genius Bob Powell).

None of the strips – not even Cole’s surreal and suicidal team of hell-bent fliers – had the instant cachet and sheer appeal of Eisner & Powell’s “Foreign Legion of the Air”, led by the charismatic Dark Knight of the airways known only as Blackhawk.

Happy Anniversary “Magnificent Seven”!

Chuck Cuidera, famed for creating Blue Beetle for Fox, drew ‘The Origin of Blackhawk’ wherein a lone pilot fighting the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939 is shot down by Nazi Ace Von Tepp, only to rise bloody and unbowed from his plane’s wreckage to form the World’s greatest team of airborne fighting men…

This mysterious paramilitary squadron of unbeatable fliers, dedicated to crushing injustice and smashing the Axis war-machine, battled on all fronts during the war and stayed together to crush Communism, international crime, Communism and every threat to democracy from alien invaders to supernatural monsters – and more Communism – becoming one of the true milestones of the US industry.

There were many melodramatic touches that made the Blackhawks so memorable in the eyes of a wide-eyed populace of thrill-hungry kids. There were the cool, black leather uniforms and peaked caps. The unique, outrageous – but authentic – Grumman F5F-1 Skyrocket planes they flew from their secret island base, and of course, their eerie battle-cry “Hawkaaaaa!”

But perhaps the oddest idiosyncrasy to modern readers was that they had their own song (would you be more comfortable if we started calling it an international anthem?) which Blackhawk, André, Stanislaus, Olaf, Chuck, Hendrickson and Chop-Chop would sing as they plummeted into battle…

This is a good place to remind everyone that historically, war comics have never been a place with comfortable depictions of race, ethnicity or creed. Please treat the material as necessarily historically authentic or simply find other more evolved and comfortable books to read…

Quality Comics adapted well to peacetime demands: Plastic Man and Doll Man lasted far longer than other superhero titles, whilst the rest of the line adapted into tough-guy crime, war, western, horror and racy comedy titles. The Blackhawks soared to even greater heights, starring in their own movie serial in 1952. However, the hostility of the marketplace to mature-targeted titles after the adoption of the self-censorious Comics Code was a clear sign of the times. In 1956 Arnold sold most of his comics properties and titles to DC and set up as a general magazine publisher.

Many of the purchases were a huge boost to National’s portfolio, with titles such as G.I. Combat, Heart Throbs and others running into the 1980s whilst the appeal and potential of characters such as Uncle Sam, assorted Freedom Fighters, Kid Eternity and others keep them coming back to this day…

Next up is Jon L. Blummer’s Hop Harrigan, America’s Ace of the Airways. He debuted in All-American Comics #1 in April 1939 as a dashing aviator: becoming a radio show phenomenon and ultimately a movie serial star. Harrigan was a serving pilot throughout the war and in this tale from All-American Comics #48 March 1943 tests a secret weapon launched from a B-24 bomber to inflict hell on the Japanese.

When Timely Comics failed to make good on financial obligations, Captain America creators Joe Simon & Kirby jumped ship to National/DC, who welcomed them with open arms. After establishing themselves with The Sandman and Manhunter, they returned to the “Kid Gang” genre they had created with The Young Allies and devised a juvenile Foreign Legion entitled The Boy Commandos.

These bellicose brats initially shared – or stole – some of the spotlight from Batman & Robin in flagship title Detective Comics before and whilst their solo title became one of the company’s top three sellers.

Frequently cited as the biggest-selling American comic book in the world at that time, Boy Commandos was such a success that the editors – knowing “The Draft” was lurking – green-lit the completion of a wealth of extra material to lay away for when their star creators were called up. S&K produced so much four-colour magic in a phenomenally short time that Publisher Jack Liebowitz suggested they retool some of it into adventures of a second kid gang… and thus was born Home Front heroes The Newsboy Legion

We never learn how American Captain Rip Carter got to command a British Commando unit nor why he was allowed to bring a quartet of war-orphans with him on a succession of deadly sorties into “Festung Europa”, North Africa, the Pacific or Indo-Chinese theatres of war. All we had to do was realise that cockney urchin Alfy Twidgett, French lad Pierre –latterly and unobtrusively renamed Andre Chavard – little Dutch boy Jan Haasen and rough, tough little lout Brooklyn were fighting the battles we would, if we only had the chance…

Boy Commandos #1 (Winter 1942-1943) here visits ‘The Town that Couldn’t be Conquered!’ as Rip leads the lads back to Jan’s home village to terrify the rapacious occupiers and start a resistance movement…

National/DC were one of the last publishers to fully embrace the end of decade combat trend, 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). All-American Comics was repurposed as All-American Men of War one 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 war comics were vanishing – and in 1957 added G.I. Combat to their portfolio when Quality Comics quit 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) – soon to be followed by Sgt.  Rock and The Haunted Tank. Ultimately, all war titles had a lead star or feature to hold the fickle readers’ attention.

The potency of the anthological model is demonstrated here by ‘Push-Button War!’ by Ed Herron & John Severin from Our Army at War #67, (February 1958) as a bombardier learns how the rest of his flight crew do their deadly jobs after which Our Army at War #83 (June 1959) depicts the birth of a legend…

Crafted by Robert Kanigher & Joe Kubert, ‘The Rock and the Wall!’ was actually the fourth appearance of a character undergoing constant revision. G.I. Combat #68 has an anonymous boxer who simply refused to be beaten. When ‘The Rock!’ enlisted in the US Army, that Horatian quality attained mythic proportions as he held back an overwhelming Nazi attack by sheer grit and determination, remaining bloody but unbowed on a field littered with dead and broken men.

Dubbed “Rocky”, the character returned as a sergeant in Our Army at War #81, again facing superior forces as ‘The Rock of Easy Co.!’ in a brief but telling vignette before finally winning a personal and extremely individualistic identity in the next issue. This was ‘Hold Up Easy!’: another harsh and declarative mini-epic from Kanigher which saw hard-luck heroes Easy Company delayed and then saved by callow replacements who eventually came good…

Only now can we see the story reprinted here as the true debut of the immortal everyman hero. Kanigher & Kubert’s ‘The Rock and the Wall!’ features a tough-love, battlefield tutor shepherding his men to competence and survival amidst the constant perils of war. Here the grizzled noncom meets a rival for his men’s admiration in the equally impressive Joe Wall

Sgt Rock and the “combat-happy Joes” of Easy Company are one of the great and enduring creations of the American comic-book industry. The gritty meta-realism of Robert Kanigher’s ordinary guys in life-or-death situations captured the imaginations of generations of readers, young and old. So pervasive is this icon of comic book combat, that’s it’s hard to grasp that Rock is not an immortal industry prototype like Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman – with us since the earliest moments of the industry – but is, in fact, a late addition to and child of the Silver Age of Comics.

For most fans, DC’s war comics are synonymous with two names. Individually and in partnership, Kanigher & Kubert built the combat division.

Robert Kanigher (1915-2002) was one of the most distinctive authorial voices in American comics, blending rugged realism with fantastic fantasy in his signature war comics, as well as horror stories, westerns and superhero titles likeTeen Titans, Hawkman, Metal Men, Batman plus other too numerous to cover here. A restlessly creative writer, he frequently used his uncanny but formulaic adventure arenas as a testing ground for future series concepts. Among the many epochal war features he created were Sgt. Rock, The War that Time Forgot, The Haunted Tank, The Losers and the controversial star of this stupendously compelling war-journal.

He sold his first stories and poetry in 1932, wrote for the theatre, film and radio, joined the Fox Features shop and created The Bouncer, Steel Sterling and The Web, whilst providing scripts for Blue Beetle and the original Shazam!-shouting Captain Marvel.

In 1945, he settled at All-American Comics as both writer and editor, staying on when the company amalgamated with National Comics to become the forerunner of today’s DC. He wrote Flash and Hawkman, created The Black Canaryand many memorable female villains such as Harlequin and Rose and the Thorn. This last turbulent terror he redesigned during the relevancy era of the early 1970s into a schizophrenic crime-busting vigilante who haunted the back of Superman’s Girlfriend Lois Lane – which he also scripted.

When the taste for mystery-men faded at the end of the 1940s, Kanigher moved seamlessly into adventure, westerns and war yarns: becoming in 1952 writer/editor of the company’s combat titles.

As well as scripting for All-American War Stories, Star Spangled War Stories and Our Army at War, he created Our Fighting Forces in 1954 before adding G.I. Combat to his burgeoning portfolio when Quality sold their titles to DC in 1956. This was whilst still working on Wonder Woman, Johnny Thunder, Rex the Wonder Dog, Silent Knight, Viking Prince and so many others.

In 1956 he scripted ‘Mystery of the Human Thunderbolt’ – the first story of the Silver Age which introduced Barry Allen as the new Flash to the hero-hungry kids of the world. Drawn by Carmine Infantino, the risky experiment included multi-talented veteran Joe Kubert as inker for the crucially important debut issue…

Kubert was born in 1926 in rural Southeast Poland (which became Ukraine and might be Outer Russia by the time you read this). At age two, his parents took him to America and he grew up in Brooklyn.

His folks encouraged Joe to draw from an early age and the precocious kid began a glittering career at the start of the Golden Age, before he was even a teenager. Working and learning at the Chesler comics packaging “Shop”, MLJ, Holyoke and assorted other outfits, he began his close association with National/DC in 1943, whilst still dividing his time and energies between Fiction House, Avon, Harvey and All-American Comics, where he particularly distinguished himself on The Flash and Hawkman.

In the early 1950s he and old school chum Norman Maurer were the creative force behind publishers St. Johns: creating evergreen caveman Tor and launching the 3D comics craze with Three Dimension Comics.

Joe never stopped freelancing, appearing in EC’s Two-Fisted Tales, Avon’s Strange Worlds, Lev Gleason Publications & Atlas Comics until 1955 when, with the industry imploding, he took a permanent position at DC, only slightly diluted whilst he illustrated the contentious and controversial newspaper strip Tales of the Green Berets (from 1965 to 1968). An elder statesman of the industry, he was creating new works and passing on knowledge and experience through his world-famous Joe Kubert School until his death in August 2012.

Here ‘Blind Gunner’ from Our Fighting Forces #49, (September 1959 by Kanigher & Jerry Grandenetti) revisits Pacific Theatre warriors Gunner and Sarge as the sharpshooter looses his sight and is paired up with an astounding – and scene-stealing – K-9 star… “Pooch”.

With Mort Drucker, Kanigher then hits a ‘T.N.T. Spotlight!’ (Star Spangled War Stories #87, November 1959) as French Resistance leader Mlle Marie defeats a Nazi manhunt and retains her reputation for ruthless infallibility before we witness the birth of another genuine phenomenon.

In G.I. Combat #87 (April/May 1961), Kanigher & Russ Heath launched one of the strangest and most beloved war series ever conceived. ‘Introducing – the Haunted Tank’ sees boyhood friends Jeb Stuart Smith, Arch Asher, Slim Strykerand Rick Rawlins all assigned to the same M-3 Stuart Light Tank, named for the legendary Confederate Army General who was a genius of cavalry combat. During a patrol they somehow destroy an enemy Panzer even though they were all knocked unconscious…

Narrated by Jeb in the Commander’s spotter-position (head and torso sticking out of the top hatch and completely exposed to enemy fire whilst driver Slim, gunner Rick and loader Arch remain inside), he recounts how a ghostly voice offered advice and prescient, if veiled, warnings, all while enduring the jibes of fellow soldiers who drive bigger, tougher war machines. Eventually the little tank proves its worth and Jeb wonders if he imagined it all due to shock and his injuries, but we know better – as decades of further exploits proved…

The war department was always pushing envelopes and experimenting and the next star is one of the most notorious and remarkable.

Enemy Ace first appeared as a back-up in flagship title Our Army at War in tales loosely based on “Red Baron” Manfred von Richthofen. The stories were a magnificent, thought-provoking examination of and tribute to the profession of soldiering, whilst simultaneously condemning the madness of war, produced by dream team Kanigher & Kubert during a period when the ongoing Vietnam conflict was beginning to tear American society apart.

An immediate if seminal hit, the series told bitter tales of valour and honour from the point of view of German WWI fighter pilot Hans von Hammer: a hidebound, noble warrior fighting for his country in a conflict that was swiftly excising all trace of such outmoded concepts from the business of government sanctioned mass-killing.

Mere months later, he starred in a brace of full-length thrillers for prestigious try-out vehicle Showcase. Issue #57 (July/August 1965) here declares him ‘Killer of the Skies!’: recapitulating all that had gone before whilst introducing a potential equal in the form of Canadian ace “The Hunter”. A new wrinkle was added to the mix as Von Hammer now perpetually agonised and bemoaned his inability to save the human conveyor belt of naive, foolish replacement pilots to his Jagdstaffel from killing themselves through enthusiasm, bravado and youthful stupidity…

Eventually the real war hit DC’s comic pages as Capt. Hunter began a personal crusade in Vietnam. Green Beret Captain Phil Hunter debuted in Our Fighting Forces #99, drawn to the conflict to find his twin brother Nick: shot down and now M.I.A. ‘Cold Steel for a Hot War!’ comes from Our Fighting Forces #102 (August 1966 by Kanigher & Jack Abel) and sees the obsessed warrior training child soldiers beside enigmatic turncoat femme fatale Kewpie Doll

Whilst the Vietnam War escalated, 1960s America increasingly endured a Home Front death-struggle pitting deeply-ingrained Establishment social attitudes against a youth-oriented generation with a radical new sensibility. In response DC’s military-themed comics became even more bold and innovative. However, the sudden downturn in superheroes led to some serious rethinking. Although war titles maintained and even built sales, they beefed up the anthological elements and began expressing anti-war sentiments…

Sgt, Rock increasingly became a mouthpiece for such sentiment: experiencing the horror and stupidity of fighting and revealing what lay behind the glory and patriotic fervour. Kanigher & Kubert’s ‘Head-Count!’ (Our Army at War #233, June 1971) detailed a new replacement to Easy Co who used the conflict to feed his own sick appetites, after which Kanigher & Alex Toth reveal how boyhood dreams turn to nightmares in shocking US Civil War vignette ‘The Glory Boys!’ (Our Army at War #235, August 1971)

The theme is revisited in ‘The Pool…’ from Weird War Stories #3 (January/February 1972): an early tale by relative newcomers Len Wein & Marv Wolfman, ably illustrated by Heath which shows how both cavemen tribes and modern soldiers battle eternally to possess the only source of water in a trackless wasteland…

Times and tastes constantly evolved, and simple fighting was no longer satisfactory…

One of the very best concepts ever devised for a war comic, The Unknown Soldier was a spin-off, first appearing as a walk-on in a 1966 Sgt. Rock story (Our Army at War #168, by Kanigher & Kubert). His later series featured a faceless super-spy and master-of-disguise whose forebears had proudly fought and died in every American conflict since the birth of the nation.

The strip became one of DC’s most popular and long-lived: Star Spangled morphed into Unknown Soldier in 1977 with #205: only folding in 1982 (#268) when sales of traditional comic books harshly declined. Since then the character has frequently been rebooted and reinvented: each iteration moving further and further way from the originating concept.

His origin revealed how two inseparable brothers joined up in the days before America was attacked and were posted together to the Philippines just as the Japanese began their seemingly unstoppable Pacific Campaign. Overwhelmed by a tidal wave of enemy soldiers one night the brothers held their jungle posts to the last and when relief came only one had survived, his face a tattered mess of raw flesh and bone…

As US forces retreated from the islands the indomitable survivor was evacuated to a state-side hospital. Refusing medals, honours or retirement, the recuperating warrior dedicated his remaining years to his lost brother Harry and determinedly retrained as a one-man-army intelligence unit. His unsalvageable face swathed in bandages, the nameless fighter learned the arts of make-up, disguise and mimicry, perfected a broad arsenal of fighting skills and offered himself to the State Department as an expendable resource who could go anywhere and do anything.

After a long run by numerous stellar creators, shifting fashions provoked a shift in emphasis. Relative neophytes David Michelinie & Gerry Talaoc came aboard with SSWS #183, resulting in an evocative change of direction with ‘8,000 to One’.

The horror boom peaked in 1974 and new editor Joe Orlando capitalised on that fascination with a few startling changes – the most controversial being to expose the Unknown Soldier’s grotesque, scar-ravaged face – presumably to draw in monster-hungry fear fans…

The story itself goes back to the Immortal G.I.’s earliest days as an American agent as he’s despatched to Denmark to rescue a ship full of Danish Jews destined for Hitler’s death camps. Disguised as SS Captain Max Shreik, the Soldier is forced to make an unconscionable choice to safeguard his mission. The degree and manner of graphic violence was also exponentially increased to accommodate the more mature readership as the Soldier took a very personal revenge…

Another result of changing tastes was teaming older strip stars. The Losers were an elite unit of American soldiers formed by amalgamating three old war series together. Gunner and Sarge – supplemented by Fighting Devil Dog Pooch – were Pacific-based Marines, debuting in All-American Men of War #67 (March1959). They ran for 50 issues in Our Fighting Forces (#45-94, May1959-August 1965), whilst Captain Johnny Cloud – Navajo Ace and native American fighter pilot – shot down his first bogie in All-American Men of War #82. He flew solo until issue #115 (1966), whilst the final component of the Land/Air/Sea team was filled by Captain Storm, a disabled PT Boat commander (he had a wooden leg) who had his own 18 issue title from 1964 to 1967. All three series were created by warlord Kanigher.

They had all pretty much passed their sell-by dates when they teamed-up as guest-stars in a Haunted Tank tale in 1969 (G.I. Combat #138 October), but these “Losers” found a new resonance together in the relevant, disillusioned, cynical Vietnam years, and their rather nihilistic, doom-laden anti-hero adventures took the lead spot in Our Fighting Forces#123 (January/February 1970), written by Kanigher with art from giants like Ken Barr, Russ Heath, Sam Glanzman, John Severin and Joe Kubert.

With the tag-line “even when they win, they lose” they saw action all over the globe, winning critical acclaim and a small, passionate following until #181 (September/October 1978) – when the comic was cancelled – and one last hurrah in 1982’s Unknown Soldier #265.

When DC revised its entire continuity in 1985 for Crisis on Infinite Earths a final tale was devised by Kanigher, Judith Hunt, Sam Glanzman & Mike Esposito in a one-shot. The Losers Special #1 saw the doomed heroes perish saving the war effort by destroying a German missile base. That’s not a spoiler: It’s comics and they haven’t all stayed dead…

Readers’ understanding and appreciation of war stories constantly matured over the decades and by the time of ‘Hammer and Anvil’ (Sgt. Rock Special #2, 1992 by Chuck Dixon & Eduardo Barreto) the tales were practically indistinguishable from film or TV fare. Seldom a matter of good versus evil, here, war itself and weather are the enemy as Easy Company endure the horrors of Bastogne and clash with Nazi infiltrators indistinguishable from G.I.’s at the Battle of the Bulge…

Ending this sortie of superb classics is a brilliant extrapolation by modern day keeper of the war flame Garth Ennis, ably assisted by Christian Alamy, Chris Weston & Russ Heath. Released in 2001 as a 2-issue miniseries, Enemy Ace: War in Heaven takes another look at the flyer on the other side, now transplanted to World War II and a far less defensible position…

Bavaria 1942, and 46 years old Baron Hans von Hammer is visited by an old flying comrade urging him to come out of retirement and serve his country. No lover of Nazism, the old ace has remained isolated until now, but Germany’s attack on Russia has proven a disastrous blunder, and this last plea is a much warning as request.

Neophyte pilots on the Eastern Front need his experience and leadership, whereas Hitler’s goons don’t need much excuse to remove a dissident thorn…

Based loosely on the lives of such German pilots as Adolf Galland, book 1 – rendered by Weston – finds von Hammer as indomitable as ever in the killer skies but unable to stomach the increasing horror and stupidity of the conflict and its instigators. The phrase “My Country, Right or Wrong” leaves an increasingly sour taste in his mouth as the last of his nation’s young men die above Soviet fields…

Book 2 is set in 1945 with Germany on the brink of defeat and von Hammer flying an experimental jet fighter (a Messerschmitt 262, if you’re interested): shooting down not nearly enough Allied bombers to make a difference and still annoying the wrong people at Nazi High Command.

He knows the war is over but his sense of duty and personal honour won’t let him quit. He is resigned to die in the bloody skies that are his second home, but is shot down and parachutes into a concentration camp named Dachau…

With art from comics legend Russ Heath, this stirring tale ends with a triumph of integrity over patriotism: a perfect end to the war record of a true soldier and another compelling, deeply incisive exploration of war, its repercussions, both good and bad, and the effects that combat has on singular men. This should be mandatory reading for every child who wants to be a soldier…

With covers Will Eisner & Gil Fox, Simon & Kirby, Grandenetti, Kubert, Dan Brereton and Alamy, this monument to combat comics is a stunning example of passion in play and a clarion call to publishers to return to their archives and release many more such tomes.
© 1941, 1943, 1958, 1959, 1961, 1965, 1966, 1971, 1972, 1974, 1985, 1994, 2001, 2020 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Black Widow Epic Collection volume 2: The Coldest War 1981-1998


By Ralph Macchio, Gerry Conway, D.G. Chichester, Jim Starlin, Cefn Ridout, Mindy Newell, Scott Lobdell, Paul Gulacy, George Pérez, George Freeman, Larry Stroman, Joe Chiodo, Charlie Adlard, Bob Layton, Butch Guice, John Stanisci, Sergio Cariello, Randy Green & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-1-3029-2126-2 (TPB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: All-Out Action Adventure to Rival Any Cinema Classic… 8/10

Natasha Romanoff (sometimes Natalia Romanova) is a Soviet Russian spy who came in from the cold and stuck around to become one of Marvel’s earliest female stars, using a nomme de guerre first coined for a golden age supernatural superstar. Today’s Black Widow started life as a svelte, sultry honey-trap during Marvel’s early “Commie-busting” days, targeting Tony Stark and battling Iron Man in her debut (Tales of Suspense #52, April, 1964).

She was subsequently redesigned as a torrid tights-&-tech super-villain before defecting to the USA, falling for an assortment of Yankee superheroes – including Hawkeye and Daredevil – before finally enlisting as an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., setting up as a freelance do-gooder and joining (occasionally leading) The Champions and The Avengers.

Throughout her career, she has always been considered ultra-efficient, coldly competent, deadly dangerous and yet somehow cursed to bring doom and disaster to her paramours. As her backstory evolved, it was disclosed that Natasha had undergone experimental processes which enhanced her physical capabilities and lengthened her lifespan, as well as assorted psychological procedures which had messed up her mind and memories…

Traditionally a minor fan favourite, the Widow only really hit the big time after Marvel’s cinematic franchise was established, but for us unregenerate comics-addicts, her print escapades have always offered a cool, sinister frisson of delight.

This expansive trade paperback and digital compilation gathers the contents of Bizarre Adventures #25, Marvel Fanfare #10-13; Solo Avengers #7; Black Widow: The Coldest War; Punisher/Black Widow: Spinning Doomsday’s Web; Daredevil/Black Widow: Abattoir; Marvel Comics Presents #135; Daredevil Annual #10; Fury/Black Widow:Death Duty and Journey into Mystery #517-519, cumulatively covering March 1981 to April 1998.

Preceded by prose  recaps ‘The Black Widow and Daredevil’ and ‘We are The Champions’, the action opens with an iconic appearance from 1981, first seen in monochrome mature-reader magazine Bizarre Adventures #25, featuring short tales starring female heroes.

Here Ralph Macchio scripted a far more devious spy yarn of double and triple cross with agents betraying each other while trying to ascertain who might be working for “the other side”…

‘I Got the Yo-Yo… You Got the String’ sees the Widow despatched by S.H.I.E.L.D. to assassinate her former tutor Irma Klausvichnova in an African political hot spot. However, as the mission proceeds, Natasha learns that she can’t trust anybody and everything she knows is either a lie or a test with fatal consequences…

The chilling, twist-ridden tale is elevated to excellence by the powerful tonal art of Paul Gulacy who fills the piece with sly tributes to numerous movie spies and the actors – such as Michael Caine and Humphry Bogart – who first made the genre so compelling.

Next up is a saga seen in Marvel Fanfare #10-13 (August 1983-March 1984), wherein Macchio and George Pérez – with inkers Brett Breeding, Jack Abel, Joe Sinnott, Al Milgrom & John Beatty – depict the spy in extreme peril as ‘Widow’finds her tapped again by S.H.I.E.L.D. to extract an abducted asset – her beloved mentor Ivan Petrovich.

As she tracks and trashes assorted killers and crazies, we get a potted rundown of her complex origins before she arrives ‘Back in the U.S.S.R.’: infiltrating a top-secret science project and facing the assembled killer elite of a mystery mastermind with a grudge…

As mercenary assassins close in, ‘The Web Tightens!’ until a last-minute rescue by agent Jimmy Woo and frenzied clash with mad killer Snapdragon at last leads to revelation and full disclosure after ‘The Widow… Alone!’ faces a foe long believed dead and spectacularly triumphs…

A short from Solo Avengers #7 (June 1988) by Bob Layton & Jackson “Butch” Guice) sees the Widow brave unimaginable peril to return to her old dancing teacher ‘The Token’ she no longer feels worthy of before intriguing superhero spy Original Graphic Novel The Coldest War unfolds.

Set in the last days of the US/Soviet face-off – with what looks to be an epilogue added to address the collapse of the Soviet State – the tale was clearly meant as a contemporary thriller (probably for fortnightly anthology Marvel Comics Presents) before events overtook the time-consuming process of printing a comic.

The afterword – set after the fall of the Berlin Wall – doesn’t jar too much and must have lent an air of imminent urgency to the mix at the time.

Gerry Conway provides a typically complex, double-dealing tale set in the dog-days of Mikhail Gorbachev’s “Perestroika” (“openness”) government, where ambitious KGB upstarts undertake a plan to subvert Natasha  and return her to Soviet control. Their leverage and bait is husband Alexei Shostokoff – whom she has believed dead for years. Naturally, nothing is as it seems, nobody can be trusted and only the last spy standing can be called the winner…

Low key and high-tech go hand in hand in this sort of tale, and although there’s much reference to earlier Marvel classics, it can be easily enjoyed by the casual reader or movie convert.

And what art! George Freeman is a supreme stylist, whose drawing work – although infrequent – is always top rate. Starting out on Captain Canuck, he has excelled on Jack of Hearts, Green Lantern, Avengers, Batman Annual #11 (with Alan Moore), Wasteland, Elric, Nexus and The X-Files (for which he won an Eisner Award). Here, inked by Ernie Colon, Mark Farmer, Mike Harris, Val Mayerik & Joe Rubinstein, with colours from Lovern Kindzierski, he renders a subtle and sophisticated blend of costumed chic and espionage glamour to make this tale a “must-have” item all by itself.

It’s followed by 1992’s OGN Punisher/Black Widow: Spinning Doomsday’s Web by D.G. Chichester, Larry Stroman & Mark Farmer. Action-packed and plot-lite, it sees Frank Castle clash with the super-agent as she tracks rogue killer Peter Malum: an atomic scientist with a taste for slaughter and an insatiable thirst to test the deadliest weapon he’s ever built…

Presumably her spicy spy cachet wasn’t deemed enough to garner a regular series but warranted plenty of guest shots. In 1993, Jim Starlin & Joe Chiodo reunited her with an old lover for OGN Daredevil/Black Widow: Abattoir as a duo of depraved psionic predators inflict the tortures of the damned upon the Widow until the Man Without Fear saves her… and she subsequently rescues him…

Released in Late August 1993, ‘Legacy’ by Mindy Newell, John Stanisci & Sergio Cariello, was one quarter of Marvel Comics Presents #135 and sees Natasha touch base with her roots in New York’s Russian enclave only to find prejudice, murder and hidden KGB agents, before 1994’s Daredevil Annual #10 ‘Dead End’ offers a kind of sequel by Newell, Cariello & Rich Rankin as Natasha retrieves a lost bio-agent and is unexpectedly forced into reviewing her own defection to find a supposedly long-deceased old enemy…

Presumably crafted under the aegis of the much-missed Marvel UK sub-division, 1995 OGN Fury/Black Widow: Death Duty is by Cefn Ridout & Charlie Adlard and is a bit of a misnomer.

Don’t be fooled by the title and brace yourself for a disappointment if you’re a huge fan of the World War II Howling Commando and irascible erstwhile leader of the planet’s most advanced espionage agency. Although he gets top billing, Nick Fury is largely absent from the post-Cold War proceedings in this pacy thriller that is in actuality the spiritual conclusion to the saga of the mysterious Night Raven.

The enigmatic wanderer was a masked vigilante who fought crime in New York and Chicago s between World Wars I and II. In later years, he was locked in a bloody, pitiless vendetta with immortal villainess Yi Yang, Queen of the Dragon Tong.

Here, when a S.H.I.E.L.D. asset is murdered inside Moscow’s US embassy soon after the fall of the Soviet system, expatriate Russian super-agent/Avenger Natasha Romanoff is dispatched to unravel the secrets the new rulers don’t want revealed.

What she discovers is the incredible fate of the fearsome urban legend now known as Black Bird as he slaughters his way through bureaucrats and Russian Mafia alike in his single-minded mission to destroy the woman who kept him from a peaceful grave.

Superbly illustrated and tightly scripted, this is nonetheless an uncomfortable blending of genres, with a strange pace to it: as if a propose serial was savagely trimmed and pruned with no thought to narrative cohesion.

Closing the file this time around is a 3-part exploit by Scott Lobdell, Randy Green & Rick Ketcham from Journey into Mystery #517-519 (February to April 1998). ‘The Fire Next Time… parts 1-3’ offers a convoluted hunt for a Far Right terror group’s hidden leader whose scheme to simultaneously murder every S.H.I.E.L.D. agent on Earth revolves around a hidden traitor. But as the plot unfolds, it’s clear to the beleaguered Widow that absolutely nobody is who or what they seem…

Supplemented by Gulacy’s stunning 1982 Black Widow Portfolio (six monochrome plates and the cover image); info pages from the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe and pin-ups and posters by Al Milgrom, Kevin Nowlan, Terry Austin, June Brigman & Jim Lee and Joe Chiodo, this monumental collection also contains original art pages from Chiodo, Stroman & Farmer and covers by Yancy LaBat, Mark Morales, Pérez & Layton from previous collections of Black Widow: Web of Intrigue combining to create a suspenseful dossier of devious delights no fan should miss.
© 2020 MARVEL.

The Adventures of Blake and Mortimer volumes 9 and 10: The Sarcophagi of the Sixth Continent parts 1 & 2


By Yves Sente & André Juillard, coloured by Madeleine DeMille & translated by Jerome Saincantin (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-1-84918-067-2 (Album PB) 978-1-84918-077-1 (Album PB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Blockbuster Thrills No Movie Can Match… 9/10

Pre-eminent fantasy raconteur Edgar P. Jacobs devised one of the greatest heroic double acts in pulp fiction: pitting his distinguished scientific adventurers Professor Philip Mortimer and Captain Francis Blake against a daunting variety of perils and menaces in a sequence of stellar action-thrillers blending science fiction scope, detective mystery suspense and supernatural thrills. The magic was made perfect through his stunning illustrations, rendered in the timeless Ligne Claire style which had made intrepid boy-reporter Tintin a global sensation.

The Doughty Duo debuted on 26th September 1946: gracing the pages of the very first issue of Le Journal de Tintin: an ambitious international anthology comic with editions in Belgium, France and Holland. It was edited by Hergé, with his eponymous, world-famous star ably supplemented by a host of new heroes and features for the rapidly-changing post-war world. Bon anniversaire, Chaps!…

Blake & Mortimer are the graphic personification of Britain’s Bulldog Spirit and worthy successors to the likes of Sherlock Holmes, Allan Quatermain, Professor Challenger, Richard Hannay and all the other valiant stalwarts of lost Albion: valiant champions with direct connections to and allegiance beyond shallow national boundaries…

After decades of fantastic exploits, the series apparently ended with the 11th album. The gripping contemporary adventure had been serialised between September 1971 and May 1972 in LJdT, but after the first volume was completed Jacobs simply abandoned his story due to failing health and personal issues.

Edgard Félix Pierre Jacobs died on February 20th 1987, never having returned to extended adventure Les 3 formules du professeur Satō. That concluding volume was only released in March 1990, after veteran cartoonist Bob de Moor was commissioned by the Jacobs family and estate to complete the tale from the grand originator’s pencils and notes.

The long-postponed release led to a republishing of all the earlier volumes, followed in 1996 by new adventures from two separate creative teams hired by the Jacobs Studio who would produce complete books rather than weekly serials.

The first was the L’Affaire Francis Blake by Jean Van Hamme & Thierry “Ted” Benoit which settled itself into a comfortably defined, familiar mid-1950s for a rousing tale of espionage and double-dealing. The tale controversially omitted the fantastic elements of futuristic fiction and fringe science which had characterised Jacobs’ creation, whilst focusing on the suave MI5 officer rather than bombastic, belligerent boffin and inveterate scene-stealer Mortimer…

The same was broadly true for the follow-up release, published in 1999, although references to the space race and alien infestation did much to restore the series’ fantasy credentials in Yves (XIII, Le Janitor, Thorgal) Sente & André (Arno, Bohémond de Saint-Gilles, Masquerouge, Mezek) Juillard’s La machination Voronov.

The latter team eventually won the plum job of detailing the early days and origins of Blake & Mortimer in Les Sarcophages du Sixième Continent, Tome 1: La Menace universelle and Les Sarcophages du Sixième Continent, Tome 2: Le Duel des Esprits. The albums were the 16th and 17th published exploits of the peerless pair: a boldly byzantine epic spanning decades and stretching from India under the Raj to Cold War Europe and deep beneath Antarctic ice…

Retitled The Global Threat for English speakers, our mystery opens in Simla, former summer capital of India when Britain ruled the vast, disparate nation. It is February 1958, and a decade after independence and partition, a glittering conclave of rich men and maharajas has gathered, in splendour and secrecy…

Surveilling the ominous meeting of truculent minor warlords are agents of the Indian government, led by veteran warrior Lieutenant Ahmed Nasir. The mission goes badly wrong, but before the end, the operatives observe a fantastic demonstration of power from a masked demagogue who claims to be immortal Emperor Ashoka, and claims to hold an ultimate weapon that will make him – and them – the rightful rulers of all they desire…

As the discovered spies are ruthlessly dealt with, Ashoka heads for another meeting: this one with Soviet representative Major Varich (last seen in Blake and Mortimer: The Voronov Plot). The disgraced soldier soon realises his melodramatic new ally has an even greater hatred of the British do-gooders…

In a flashback to the last days of the empire, young graduate Philip Angus Mortimer travels home to Simla to stay with his military doctor father and elites of their social circle. India is in turmoil however, with independence agitators everywhere. In Bombay, he saves the life of a fellow English traveller and has an impromptu encounter with an aged gentleman called “the Mahatma” by the gathering crowd. Francis Percy Blake is also the son of a soldier and is seeing his father for the first time in years, so they agree to travel on together. After they separate at Ambala, Mortimer’s adventures continue when he is attacked by a mysterious stalker. The assault actually saves his life as the connecting train he was supposed to catch is blown up…

Despite everything, the young man eventually reaches Simla, but his fondly-remembered childhood days have clearly ended. His first clue is how lifelong friend Sushil treats him, later bolstered by a friendly warning from his mother to stay away from the natives…

That doesn’t stop him from trying to bridge barriers, but only leads to heartbreak after he meets Princess Gita, daughter of local rajah and militant the great Emperor Ashoka. Irresistibly drawn together, their brief romance stoked deadly tensions between the races and led to her death and his being cursed by the allegedly immortal rebel leader. For his own safety, the heartbroken boy is sent from India to lose himself in the study of physics at university…

February 1958, and older, sadder Mortimer wakes from a horrific familiar nightmare of the home and love he lost. Oddly, it has not gripped him for years but he has no time to ponder, as he is imminently to depart for Belgium: part of the British Pavilion contingent attending the Universal Exposition. As the cultural, scientific and trade fair of the world’s nations, it will be a hotbed of intrigue and propaganda…

Meanwhile in Antarctica, an Indian team are setting up their own science colony, aided by neighbouring British outpost Halley Station. However, “Gondwana Base” has been compromised from the start, and transformed – with the logistical assistance of Soviet technology and Major Varich – into a sub-surface citadel housing Emperor Ashoka’s fabled secret weapon. The last component to arrive is villainous Colonel Olrik, but the nemesis of Blake and Mortimer is a far from willing participant…

Day later, Mortimer is in Brussels, meeting Blake and supervising the breakthrough radio experiment connecting them to Halley Station, unaware that the expo – and his own team – are riven with spies and saboteurs. He is troubled by another dream, one where Olrik was menaced by Ashoka and the trained apes that followed him everywhere in long-ago Simla.

After quieting his friend’s concerns, the MI5 Intelligence Chief is introduced to the rest of the British contingent given a privileged tour of the whole site and meets again old ally Labrousse (S.O.S. Meteors). The French meteorologist has a bold new venture underway and is actually in transit to South Africa and ultimately Antarctica…

It’s a “busman’s holiday” for Blake too. He’s actually at the Expo to prevent the illegal transfer of uranium from a foreign power to a nebulous new independent threat and is working with the Indian government…

His seemingly casual meet-&-greet with representatives from third world countries soon bears fruit, even as, at Gondwana Base, Olrik is reluctantly encased in a high tech coffin. His previous susceptibility to the telecephalscope of Professor Septimus (The Yellow M) makes him an ideal candidate for Ashoka’s weapon: a system capable of turning cerebral energy into planet-spanning power capable of affecting electrical devices, heavy machinery and solid objects with tremendous force.

The results are catastrophically and almost instantly experienced at the Expo as a weird energy wrecks buildings and exhibits. Only technical difficulties at the base prevent more death and destruction in Brussels, but before it ends Olrik commandeers Pavilion TV screens to send a threatening message to his despised foes…

Mortimer canvases other countries’ science teams and while seeking to quash resurgent national rivalries and unrepentant suspicions soon forms a hypothesis which is suddenly confirmed by Nasir. Their old comrade has covertly made his  way to Europe to warn them and brings also the name of the traitor in the British party. They are too late to stop the uranium transfer, but now know it is southbound to Antarctica and meant to power a doomsday weapon. Without a moment’s pause the trio take a plane to South Africa in desperate pursuit…

Concluding volume The Sarcophagi of the Sixth Continent part 2: Battle of the Spirits opens with our heroes initially frustrated. Their plan had been to join old friend Labrousse as he transported his atomic powered-ice-boring submersible to the frozen continent, but his ship has already sailed. Their dashed hopes are restored after eccentric millionaire ecological advocate and adventurer Lord Archibald McAuchentoshan offers them his ship and crew.

Their hopes are even further elevated when the vessel turns out to be a capacious flying boat, not a luxury yacht. Three hours later they are reunited with Labrousse aboard the freighter Madeline and en route to Halley Base, but they have not reckoned with storms and icebergs. The stormy conditions prove fortuitous however, as they allow them to catch up to the uranium-carry traitor’s ship and a little cunning allows them to secrete Nasir aboard as a wounded sailor…

Ahead of them climate and geology are playing tricks on all concerned. A minor earthquake wrecks the British loading dock and a polar storm looms, prompting Ashoka’s minions into attacking Halley Base and abducting the staff. The Eternal Emperor knows Mortimer is coming and seeks time for his agent to deliver the uranium, but has again underestimated the determination and ingenuity of his foes. Even though the Professor is captured on arrival, Blake escapes into the icy wastes. His epic pursuit leads him to Varich and exposes Ashoka’s Soviet support system, before he eventually links up with Labrousse’s team and is offered the use of his ice-sub for a counterattack.

Meanwhile at Gondwana Base, gloating Ashoka is attempting to use Mortimer as a second living battery in his diabolical machine, until long-forgotten Nasir – who had infiltrated the base as the traitor agent – intervenes. In the chaos that ensues, the ice-borer breaks into the control room from below. Amidst bloodshed and tectonic turmoil, Mortimer is cut off and leans from a dying acolyte the true story of Gita’s death, shaking him from decades of guilt and shame, but is forced by an unrepentant and finally exposed Ashoka to man the second electronic sarcophagus. Soon, his consciousness joins the ether inhabited by Olrik’s personality, resolved to stop the crazed villain from wreaking havoc at the Universal Exposition, in a mind-bending and literal battle of wills…

Thankfully, the Professor’s allies are as swift-thinking and indomitable as he, and one final sally against the Emperor saves him as he saves the Expo and as Gondwana erupts and vanishes in a welter of fire and ice.

…But what happened to Olrik?…

Binding many vivid facets of the heroes’ prestigious past exploits and achievements into a vibrant sci fi romp, this epic extravaganza blends Cold War tension with modern ethical and ecological concerns in a rip-roaring chase yarn to delight fans of many genres.

These Cinebook editions – available in paperback album and digital formats – also include previews for other albums, plus a biographical feature and chronological publication chart of Jacobs’ and his successors’ efforts.

Gripping and fantastic in the truest tradition of pulp sci-fi and Boy’s Own Adventures, Blake and Mortimer are the very epitome of dogged heroic determination; always delivering grand, old-fashioned thrills and spills in timeless fashion and with astonishing visual punch. Any kid will experience the adventure of their lives… and so will their children.
Original editions © Editions Blake & Mortimer/Studio Jacobs (Dargaud-Lombardgreet s.a.) 2003, 2004 by André Juillard & by Yves Sente. All rights reserved. English translation © 2010, 2011 Cinebook Ltd.

Desolation Jones: Made in England


By Warren Ellis & JH Williams III & various (WildStorm)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-1150-9 (TPB)

Los Angeles is a dump and a dumping ground. Personal opinions aside, that’s the premise of this deep, dark espionage thriller from comics wunderscribe Warren Ellis and graphic illuminator JH Williams III. When MI6 screw-up MichaelJones is no longer capable of doing his job, he’s offered a comfy testing role as his ticket out. No-one in their right mind should ever trust security service types, but that’s the point – the burnt out, alcoholic agent just isn’t all that anymore.

After years of unspeakable atrocities ostensibly intended to create better operatives – up to and including the bizarre and inexplicable Desolation Test, the ravaged remains of Michael Jones are consigned to the reservation provided by the West’s Intelligence Agencies for retired, rejected and discarded agents plus all the experiments that didn’t measure up: Los Angeles, USA.

There they can live out their lives as they see fit, but can never, EVER leave the city. There’s no pension scheme but the dregs can do whatever they need to make a living as long as it’s within city limits.

Jones is a mess, both physically and mentally. He can’t drink, won’t sleep and takes too many drugs. He avoids daylight, regularly hallucinates and is numb to all sensation and emotion. In “the Community” he freelances as a private eye/fixer: sorting out problems that can’t be resolved through legitimate methods.

In this first compilation (available in paperback and digital formats and collecting issues #1-6 of the WildStorm comic book) that problem is a retired NSA spook who’s being blackmailed by new members of the Community who have somehow stolen the Holy Grail of pornography. The ravaged Colonel Nigh wants Adolf Hitler’s homemade porno back and will do anything to get it. Unfortunately, so will all the other filthy rich deviants who populate Tinseltown.

However, something just isn’t right. Jones may not feel, but something deeper is hiding behind all the subterfuge and depravity…

Sardonic and rather bleak, this caustic, tension-soaked, trauma-packed action caper dwells on the nasty side of the espionage genre: a thriller with plenty of twists and a solid mystery to intrigue the most jaded reader. The content is strictly adults only – and by that, I mean that the subtext of duty, love and honour are assaults on the traditions of the hero-spy in as brutal a manner as the sex and violence underscore the dark side of the American Dream-town.

This is a story for cynical adults, not horny kids with appropriate IDs. Great stuff beautifully conceived and magically limned.
© 2005, 2006 Warren Ellis & JH Williams III. All Rights Reserved.

Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales: One Dead Spy


By Nathan Hale (Abrams/Amulet Books)
ISBN: 978-0-4197-0396-6 (HB)

Author/cartoonist Nathan Hale has a famous namesake and has been riffing on him, with great effect, for nearly a decade now. I don’t know if he – and his familial collaborators – have any genealogical connection to the American undercover operative and war hero of the same name, but the lightly comedic cartoon history books – such as Alamo All-Stars, Big Bad Ironclad and more bearing their shared name – are a sheer, educative treat. They make some pretty tough and harrowing material palatable and memorable by mixing fact and happenstance with a witty veneer of whimsy. You might also want a peek at more of his general fiction fun stuff like Rapunzel’s Revenge, One Trick Pony and Apocalypse Taco

Debuting the series in 2012, One Dead Spy sets the scenario on a surreal yet jolly note as September 22nd 1776 sees a dim but jolly executioner and British Army Provost bring an earnest young man to the Hanging Tree on Manhattan Island. The eager crowd of spectators soon leave after learning the day’s entertainment is not the arsonist plaguing the district but only a spy. Moreover, even he can’t be dealt with promptly because no one’s brought the official orders…

With time to kill, Hangman and Nathan Hale strike up a conversation: discussing last words, possible regrets, sandwiches and – eventually – just how a meek school teacher became America’s “first” spy. As is duly noted, Nathan Hale really wasn’t a very good one…

The delay is then further extended by a bizarre event involving a magic tome (“The Big Huge Book of American History”) that shows him all his nascent nation’s years to come – a key factor in future volumes – and Hale becomes a revolutionary era Scheherazade, spinning yarns to extend his last moments on Earth…

Rendered in welcoming, comfortable but fact-intense muted color and monochrome cartoon strips with beguiling overtones of the Horrible History books, “unlucky” Hale’s own unremarkable life unfolds, tracing the build-up to and key moments of the War of Independence through his acquaintance with figures such as George Washington, Ben Tallmadge, Henry Knox,

Major battles like Bunker Hill, Winter Hill and the siege of Boston are demythologised and legendary figures such as Ethan Allen (and his Green Mountain Boys), traitorous Major Robert Rogers and Colonel Thomas Knowlton are reassessed. It was Knowlton who convinced the obsessively honest and utterly out of his depth Hale to take up the shameful role of clandestine information-gatherer in his one and only espionage mission…

And as this book closes with the promise of more gallows’ yarns to come, there-even an illustrated section offering ‘A Little More Biographical Info About…’ Hale Knox, Knowlton, Allen, Benedict Arnold, Rogers, Stephen Hempstead, Benjamin Tallmadge and the actual execution of our spy star as well as map of North America showing which nations owned what in 1775; a full bibliography; a Q&A feature and ‘First to Defy, First to Die!’ – an 8-page mini-comic tale of African American Revolutionary and former slave Crispus Attucks who died during the 1770 Boston Massacre.

Charming, wittily informative, extremely funny and delightfully compelling, Hale’s cartoon tales detail incredible exploits that will enthral you and your kids and – like the other volumes of this wonderful series – ought to be a treasured part of every school library… if we ever have those again…
Text and illustrations © 2012 Nathan Hale. All rights reserved

Necromantic


By Lovern Kindzierski, David Ross, Geof Isherwood, Chris Chuckry & Taylor Esposito (Renegade Arts Entertainment)
ISBN: 978-1-98890-369-9 (TPB) eISBN: 978-1-98890-373-6

Real and fictionalised espionage tales are equally gripping when done well, and modern drama demands a healthy dose of genre cross-fertilisation. A perfect example catering to modern tastes is this opening salvo from Lovern Kindzierski (author of the Shame trilogies, Underworld, VMT and colourist of most of your favourite US superhero comics) and veteran illustrators David Ross (Star Wars; X-Men; Alpha Flight; Rai) and Geof Isherwood (Suicide Squad; Conan the Barbarian; Silver Surfer; Doctor Strange). In case you’re wondering, the crucial backroom boys here are Chris Chuckry on colours, and Taylor Esposito delivering calligraphic sound, captions and dialogue…

This rowdy, raunchy introductory action-fest reveals a critical turning point in the life of top-gun US Special Forces operative Jesse Harris whose latest successful mission in North Africa is forever blighted in ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’ after she learns that her beloved Blake Williams has been killed in action.

Harris goes to pieces in ‘Much Ado About Nothing’: not simply from grief and anger, but also because she still sees him. It’s the kind of situation she has secretly endured and ignored since childhood, when she first discovered a facility for seeing and talking to people no one else can see…

Dragged out of shattering despondency by fellow ISA agent Rich Boon, she takes a “soft” mission in Afghanistan, only to find herself dragged to the edge of hell and a bittersweet reunion with Blake. In the course of her duties, she realises the local governor/warlord is a mortal agent of infernal demons pressganging recently deceased human souls into a legion intended to oust the devil, and install a new lord of the Damned. To aid the recruitment program, still-breathing Prince Minyar has bolstered his brutal living forces with rampaging zombies and ruthless killer ghosts only Jesse can perceive…

Facing modern arms and ancient devils revelling in another chance to spill blood, her team are swept away in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, but Harris gains valuable intel from the King’s vizier – an enslaved spirit determined to end the horrific recruitment program – and eventually a blessed ally when Blake escapes the Pit to render assistance and battle beside her to deliver earth and the afterlife from ‘The Tempest’

Savage, fast-paced and strictly for adult eyes only, Necromantic is a blockbuster thrill-ride for the action-movie generation and a manic joy for those who still crave their cathartic release in print of digital comics form.
© Lovern Kindzierski and Renegade Arts Canmore Ltd. 2020

Clifton volume 2 The Laughing Thief


By De Groot & Turk, translated by Luke Spear (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-1-905460-07-4 (Album PB)

For some inexplicable reason most of Europe’s comics cognoscenti – most especially French and Belgians – seem fascinated with us Brits. Maybe it’s our shared heritage of Empires lost and cultures in transition? An earlier age would have claimed it’s simply a case of “Know your Enemy”…

Whether we look at Anglo air ace Biggles, indomitable adventurers Blake and Mortimer, the Machiavellian machinations of Green Manor or even the further travails of Long John Silver, the serried stalwarts of our Scepter’d Isles cut a dashing swathe through the pages of the Continent’s assorted magazines and albums.

And then there’s Clifton

Originally devised by child-friendly strip genius Raymond Macherot (Chaminou, Les croquillards, Chlorophylle, Sibylline) for iconic magazine Le Journal de Tintin, this doughty True Brit troubleshooter first appeared in December 1959. After three albums worth of material – compiled and released between 1959 and 1960 – Macherot quit Tintin for arch-rival Le Journal de Spirou leaving his eccentric comedic crime-fighter to flounder until LJdT revived him at the height of the Swinging London scene, courtesy of Jo-El Azaza & Greg (Michel Régnier).

Those strips were subsequently collected as Les lutins diaboliques in French and De duivelse dwergen for Dutch-speakers in 1969.

Then it was back into retirement until the early 1970s when writer Bob De Groot and illustrator Philippe “Turk” Liegeois revived Clifton for the long haul, producing ten tales of which this – Le voleur qui rit – Clifton (from 1973) – was their second collaboration.

From 1984 on, artist Bernard Dumont – AKA Bédu – limned De Groot’s scripts; eventually assuming the writing chores as well, persevering until the series ended in 1995. In keeping with its rather haphazard nature and typically undying nature, the Clifton experience resumed once again in 2003, crafted by De Groot & Michel Rodrigue in four further adventures; a grand total of 26 to date.

The setup is deliciously simple: pompous and irascible Colonel Sir Harold Wilberforce Clifton, ex-RAF, former Metropolitan Police Constabulary and recently retired from MI5, has a great deal of difficulty dealing with being put out to pasture in rurally bucolic Puddington. He thus takes every opportunity to get back in the saddle, occasionally assisting the Government or needy individuals as an amateur sleuth.

Sadly for Clifton – as with that other much-underappreciated national treasure Captain Mainwaring in Dad’s Army – he is convinced that he is usually the only truly competent man in a world full of blithering idiots…

In this second translated album from 2005, the Gentleman Detective is embroiled in not one but two uncanny incidences, beginning with eponymous epic ‘The Laughing Thief’ wherein the still much-missed lawman rather forcefully inserts himself into a current case baffling Scotland Yard.

London is wracked by devilishly clever crimes executed with infallible precision by a crack crew of blaggers, but the profits of each caper seem far below what such expert criminals should be bothering with. Moreover, each perfectly executed heist is preceded by a telephone warning from a braying braggart with the most annoying and distinctive laugh imaginable…

These felons are incredibly bold and arrogant. Even after Clifton intervenes in the second robbery, the scoundrels easily outwit him, leaving the dapper sleuth unconscious with dozens of other peculiarly proud and strangely supportive victims…

Moreover, although police “higher-ups” welcome Clifton’s help, officer-in-charge Lieutenant Hardfeeling doesn’t want the show-stealer around and is doing all he can to impede the Colonel’s investigations, despite protests from senior colleagues and the bobbies on the beat…

Nevertheless, persistence is its own reward, and when Clifton finally deduces the true reasons for the publicity-seeking crime-spree, the resultant confrontation is spectacularly satisfying and hilariously rewarding…

Being British and an ex-spy, Clifton has hung on to the odd gadget or two, such as an amazingly tricked out umbrella which plays a major part in this volume’s second tale ‘The Mystery of the Running Voice’. A suspenseful spooky yarn, it begins when the unhappy pensioner meets old comrade Donald McDonald Muckyduck, who appears to have worn out every vestige of verve and is on the verge of a nervous breakdown…

Close consultation reveals that the former Police Inspector is being haunted by a robber ghost; one that has already claimed six victims. However, upon viewing crime scene photos Clifton gains an inkling into how the trick is done and temporarily moves to sedate and sedentary village Flatfish-on-Apron, setting himself up as bait for a diabolical genius with a penchant for clever gimmicks…

Visually spoofing Swinging Sixties London and staidly stuffy English Manners with wicked effect, these gentle thrillers are big on laughs but also pack loads of consequence-free action into their eclectic mix. Delightfully surreal, instantly accessible and doused with daft slapstick à la Jacques Tati and intrigue like Margaret Rutherford as Miss Marple, this brace of romps rattle along in the grand old tradition of Will Hay, Terry-Thomas and Alistair Sim – or Wallace and Gromit if you’re of a later generation – offering splendid fun and timeless laughs for all.
Original edition © 1973 Le Lombard (Dargaud-Lombard S. A.) 1988 by De Groot & Turk. English translation © 2005 Cinebook Ltd.