Master of Kung Fu Epic Collection volume 2: Fight Without Pity


By Doug Moench, Paul Gulacy, Sal Buscema, Keith Pollard, Jim Craig & various (MARVEL)
ISBN: 978-1-3029-0135-6 (TPB/Digital edition)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: All-Out Action Blockbusterism… 9/10

Comic books have always operated within outworld popular trends and fashions – just look at what got published whenever westerns or science fiction dominated on TV – so when the ancient philosophy and discipline of Kung Fu made its mark on western entertainment, it wasn’t long before all those kicks and punches found their way onto four-colour pages of America’s periodicals. Early starter Charlton Comics added Yang and House of Yang to the pioneering Judo Joe and Frank McLaughlin’s Judomaster; DC debuted Richard Dragon and rebooted Karate Kid; Atlas/Seaboard opened (and as quickly closed again) The Hands of the Dragon and Marvel converted a developing proposed literary adaptation into an ongoing saga about a villain’s son.

A month after it launched, a second orient-inspired hero debuted with Iron Fist: combining combat philosophy, high fantasy and magical forces with a proper superhero mask and costume…

Although largely retrofitted for modern times, inspirational Master of Kung Fu star Shang-Chi originated with a lot of tricky baggage. He launched in the autumn of 1973, cashing in on a contemporary craze for Eastern philosophy and martial arts action that generated an avalanche of “Chop Sockey” movies and a controversial TV sensation entitled Kung Fu. You may recall that the lead in that western-set saga was a half-Chinese Shaolin monk, played – after much publicised legal and industry agitation – by a white actor…

At Marvel, no one at that time particularly griped about the fact that Shang-Chi was designed by editor Roy Thomas and artisans Steve Englehart, Jim Starlin & Al Milgrom as a naive innocent (also half Chinese, with an American mother) thrown into tumultuous modern society as a rebellious but involved counterpoint to his father: an insidious scheming fiend intent on global domination. Back then, securing rights to a major literary property and wrapping new comics in it was an established practise. It had worked spectacularly with Conan the Barbarian and horror stars like Dracula and Frankenstein. The same process also brilliantly informed seminal science fiction icon Killraven in War of the Worlds and plenty more…

These days we comics apologists keep saying “it was a different era”, but I genuinely don’t think anyone in the editorial office paused for a moment of second thoughts when their new Kung Fu book secured the use one of literature’s greatest villains as a major player. Special Marvel Edition #15 (cover-dated December 1973 so Happy 50th Anniversary) launched to great success, and an overarching villain already a global personification of infamy… Fu Manchu.

Arthur Henry Sarsfield Ward AKA Sax Rohmer’s ultimate embodiment of patronising mistrust and racist suspicion had been hugely popular since 1913’s The Mystery of Dr. Fu-Manchu. The prime archetype for mad scientists and the remorseless “Yellow Peril” threatening civilization, the character spread to stage, screen, airwaves and comics (even appropriating the cover of Detective Comics #1, heralding an interior series that ran until #28), but most importantly, became the visual affirmation and conceptual basis for countless evil “Asiatics”, “Orientals” and “Celestials” dominating popular fiction ever since.

In recent years we’ve all (well, mostly all) acknowledged past iniquities and Shang-Chi has been fully reimagined, with that paternal link downplayed and ultimately abandoned – as much for licensing laws as social justice. And cultural respect.

Like most comics companies, Marvel employed plenty of “Yellow Peril” knock-offs and personifications – including Wong Chu; Plan Tzu (AKA the Yellow – or latterly Golden Claw); Huang Zhu; Silver Samurai; Doctor Sun, ad infinitum: all birds of another colour that are still nastily pejorative shades of saffron. Perhaps this is just my white guilt and fanboy shame talking. These stories, crafted by Marvel’s employees were – and remain – some of the best action comics you’ll ever encounter, but never forget what they’re actually about -distrust of the obviously other…

Without making excuses, I should also state that despite the casual racism suggested by legions of outrageously exotic, inscrutable lemon-hued bad guys haunting this series at every level, Master of Kung Fu did sensitively address issues of race and honestly attempt to share non-Christian philosophies and thought whilst, most importantly, offering potently powerful role models to kids of Asian origins. So at least there’s that …

Packed with stunning adventure and compellingly convincing drama, this second collection gathers Master of Kung Fu #29-53 and Master of Kung Fu Annual #1 (collectively spanning June 1975-August 1977). Written entirely by Doug Moench, surrendering to his love of spy fiction it opens without a preamble in the middle of a mighty struggle…

Previously: the series launched in bimonthly reprint title Special Marvel Edition as The Hands of Shang Chi: Master of Kung Fu and by the third issue (April 1974) became exclusively his. Origin episode ‘Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu!’ introduced a vibrant, brilliant young man raised in utter isolation in the style and manner of imperial China. Reared by monks and savants, the boy is the result of a match between a physically perfect American woman and “misunderstood patriot” Fu Manchu: a noble hero unfairly hunted and slandered by corrupt western governments and the communist usurpers now blasphemously controlling the world’s greatest empire.

His son was schooled to respect and obey his sire, trained to perfection in martial arts: designed as the ultimate warrior servant and the doctor’s devoted personal weapon against lifelong enemies Sir Dennis Nayland Smith and Doctor Petrie.

On reaching maturity, Shang – whose name means “the rising and advancing of a spirit” – was despatched to execute Petrie. However, after the obedient weapon completes his mission, he subsequently questions his entire life and the worldly benefit of killing an elderly, dying man. An emotional confrontation with Nayland Smith – who endured daily agonies from being maimed at the Devil Doctor’s command – further shakes the boy’s resolve and eventually Shang’s sublime education demands he reassess everything his father has taught him…

After invading the villain’s New York citadel and crushing his army of freaks and monsters, Shang Chi faces his father and rejects all he stands for. The battle lines of an epic family struggle were drawn…

Banished from his cloistered childhood home and environs, the philosophically minded innocent was forced to adapt rapidly to frenetic constant violence in the modern world and eventually accepted shelter with Nayland Smith in return for (espionage) services rendered…

A turning point in his rising and advancement came in MOKF #29 (cover-dated June 1975) as Shang finds a reason to abandon his pacifistic aspirations and become involved in western affairs after seeing firsthand the harm drugs cause. He joins Nayland Smith’s team – Petrie,  Blackjack Tarr and Clive Reston (descendent of a famed “Consulting Detective” and a Double-0 operative “on Her Majesty’s Secret Service”) – to cripple the drug trade.

The entire series was slowly morphing into a James Bond pastiche and with this mission to end effetely urbane drug dealer/ covert nuclear terrorist Carlton Velcro, illustrator Paul Gulacy began a visual progression that would make him one of most watched and admired artists of the era as he referenced movie star and set pieces throughout the saga.

‘The Crystal Connection’ begins with Reston undercover at Velcro’s French coast fortress, playing heroin buyer Mr Blue until Shang and Tarr can infiltrate and secure the dope stocks . Nobody was expecting the massive defences, an army of killers led by deadly assassin Razor-Fist and a nuclear arsenal hidden below ‘A Gulf of Lions’ (#30, inked by Dan Adkins), with the pitched battle ranging far and wide as Razor Fist’s defeat led to Shang clashing with whip-wielding panther woman Pavane before a truly explosive conclusion in ‘Snowbuster’

‘Assault on an Angry Sea!’ was a hasty fill-in illustrated by Sal Buscema & Mike Esposito as Shang returns to London by ship and is drawn into the hunt for an undercover courier who is unaware that counteragents intend to intercept and end them. A proper mystery yarn, Chi has many suspects and can’t tell friend from foe from target, but triumphs nonetheless…

MOKF #33 resumes the Moench/Gulacy filmic fun-fest as ‘Wicked Messenger of Madness’ introduces seductive, conflicted agent Leiko Wu as both romantic interest and wedge between Shang Chi and his colleagues, as a robotic mannequin fails to assassinate Nayland Smith thanks to martial arts mastery but opens the door to a complex web of lies, double-dealing, insane artificial intelligences and a doomsday weapon.

The robot was a tool of agent Simon Bretnor, revealed too late as narcissistic hired killer and would-be world conqueror Mordillo who wants a space weapon using the ozone layer and sunlight to ravage sites on Earth. The plans for it are encoded in Wu’s brain, but by the time she realises her current boyfriend Bretnor is the bad guy Leiko’s his prisoner on a manically murderous version of Fantasy Island

As Shang and Resto race to the madly modified atoll-turned-playground-of-peril, Wu is attempting to reason with the crazed Mordillo, but gets more sense from his Pinocchio-like robot sidekick Brynocki who is trying to mediate the ‘Cyclone at the Center of a Madman’s Crown!’ She does, however, learn her captor had a connection to Pavane and Carleton Velcro and holds Chi responsible for a huge loss of face and fortune…

Another spectacular conclusion comes when manic and martial artist clash in the skies above the island as the villain briefly unleashes his stolen Solar Chute and rains destruction down on the island in ‘Death-Hand and the Sun of Mordillo’

What feels like a reformatted leftover from the Giant-Size Master of Kung Fu era follows in #36 and 37 (January & February 1976, by Moench, Keith Pollard & Sal Trapani) as Shang enters a magical maze of mystery: seeking to defend a carnival of freaks voluntarily living in ‘Cages of Myth, Menagerie of Mirrors!’ from ninjas and their leader Darkstrider who weaves a ‘Web of Dark Death!’

Moench, Pollard, John Tartaglione & Duffy Vohland then continue the fantasy themes in Master of Kung Fu Annual #1 and a team-up with fellow transplanted warrior Iron Fist. Danny Rand and Shang are tricked into entering another dimension and invading ‘The Fortress of S’ahra Sharn!’ by trickster wizard Quan-St’ar, whose true goal is the destruction of immortal city K’un-Lun, but he made one big mistake…

At their creative peak Moench & Gulacy started an epic, ambitious, truly sophisticated and industry-changing run in MOKF #38 (March 1976). Here Shang Chi reluctantly accepts a rescue mission to extract an agent from Hong Kong, meeting lies, passion, disinformation and deadly love in ‘Cat’. Nayland Smith has again orchestrated events to satisfy his own agenda and saving Julia leads Chi into a ‘Fight Without Pity’ against an opponent who might well be his superior in combat ability and also holds the moral high ground…

The landmark clash is simply prologue to an extended, character driven serial that opens at ‘The Murder Agency’ (#40 with Gulacy inking himself) as the on-fire creators pioneer storytelling techniques later employed in Christopher Nolan’s Memento. A traitor in British Intelligence is murdering agents and the information Nayland Smith wanted from Julia should have given them vital advantage. However, as Shang again quits all “games of death and deceit” he, Tarr and Leiko are attacked by apparently Chinese agents masquerading as “Oriental Expediters”.

After helping to defeat the attackers, Wu leaves on a similar extraction mission and suggests that the embattled operatives re-enlist disgraced former agent and current drunken sot James Larner. When they try, he’s got a new pal also boozing himself to death… Reston…

That’s when another well-armed gang burst in guns blazing, laying down their lives simply to bait a trap the agents can’t afford to avoid…

With the spy saga solidly underway everything suddenly screeched to a halt as a deadline crunch necessitated another fill-in moment, with Moench, Sal Buscema & Esposito revealing a childhood moment in ‘Slain in Secrecy, and by Illusion!’ Here Shang recalls reluctant clashes with childhood companion M’nai – AKA Si Fan assassin Midnight – to prove Fu Manchu’s hallowed home harboured a thief and traitor…

Inked by Tom Sutton, the main event resumes in #42 with a welter of flashbacks, cross-cuts and flash forwards as ‘The Clock of Shattered Time’ introduces an electrically enhanced martial arts assassin who almost kills Chi. Shock-Wave has a strong but top-secret connection to Nayland Smith and nearly succeeds in blowing up the spy chief too…

As the MI5 mole and Shock-Wave set more bombs, MOKF #43 sees a changed and vengeful Shang Chi win a rematch with the amplified assassin in ‘A Flash of Purple Sparks’. As Leiko Wu escorted her own living package across Europe with the Oriental Expediters chasing them all the way to an MI5 safehouse in Switzerland, Shang was waiting, but his triumph was short-lived as Leiko’s charge revealed who was behind all the deaths and the Oriental Expediter organisation, and that in London another of his allies had fallen…

The drama kicked into overdrive with a long-anticipated event. Cover-dated September 1976, #44 heralded ‘The Return of Fu Manchu, Prelude: “Golden Daggers (A Death Run)”’ as the scattered British agents head for home under a hail of gunfire and assorted ambushes. At last revealed is how the Devil Doctor’s recalcitrant first-born Fah Lo Suee is at war with their father for control of his empire.

She originally debuted in third novel The Si-Fan Mysteries / The Hand of Fu-Manchu in 1917 (or fourth outing The Daughter of Fu-Manchu in 1931, depending on who you ask) and was a minor character here since Master of Kung Fu #26, but here steps into the spotlight after Nayland Smith is finally downed by his most trusted ally…

On the back foot and losing, Fah Lo Suee seeks alliances and her brother’s aid in ‘Part One (Shang Chi): “The Death Seed!”’ while Fu Manchu is occupied with resurrecting his founding ancestor to be his new – loyal – son/enforcer. In London, Larner saves Nayland Smith even as Reston, Shang and Wu reunite and rebuff the “daughter of the Devil” – and that’s when Clive makes a big mistake and is taken by Fah Lo Suee…

Inked by Pablo Marcos, ‘Part Two (Clive Reston): “The Spider Spell!”’ divides attention between the British agent’s trial and eventual triumph and Fu resurrecting legendary warlord Shaka Kharn, whilst ‘Part Three (Leiko Wu): “Phantom Sand”’ details how she and Shang infiltrate a fantastic city at the north pole in advance of what’s left of the team joining them to destroy the citadel. Before that, though, the final clash between father and daughter again confirms the total mastery of the malevolent mandarin…

The true appalling scope of the Devil Doctor’s ambitions are exposed in ‘Part Four (Black Jack Tarr): “City in the Top of the World”’ as the schemer prepares to leave Earth and cull its population by 90% as Shang duels resurrected revenant Shaka Kharn, and battles his way aboard his sire’s space shuttle even as his companions destroy the base at the cost of another valiant soul in ‘Part Five (Sir Dennis Nayland Smith): “The Affair of the Agent Who Died!”’

The astounding saga – and Gulacy’s interior involvement – ends with #50 with the villain speaking for himself as his plans and perhaps his over-extended life are ended in ‘Part Six (Fu Manchu): “The Dreamslayer!”’

Master of Kung Fu #51 saw Jim Craig join Moench & Marcos, taking over the art for ‘Epilogue: “Brass and Blackness!” (A Death Move!!)’ infilling details of interments and getting back to Earth where the unhappy warrior again quit the spy world…

The final tale here (#52, May 1977) is one more fill-in as Moench & Pollard reintroduce Groucho Marx tribute Rufus T. Hackstabber who invites our baffled battler to ‘A Night at the 1001 Nights!’ in search of family (such as reprobate/WC Fields analogue Quigley J. Warmflash), riches and safety from mercenaries led by Si-Fan general Tiger-Claw

Ernie Chan’s cover to MOKF #53 (which reprinted #20) leads into an extras section including Gil Kane & Adkins’ covers to Savage Fists of Kung Fu tabloid collectors edition, house ads and 10 pages of original art, unused and modified covers. The published ones throughout were crafted by Kane, Adkins, Sal Buscema, Rich Buckler, Dave Cockrum, Marie Severin, Chan, Gulacy, John Romita Jr., Ron Wilson & Jack Abel, Al Milgrom, Esposito, Joe Sinnott, Frank Giacoia and Klaus Janson.

In recent years, Shang Chi’s backstory has been adapted and altered. His father was understandably reinvented as Zheng Zu, Mr. Han, Chang Hu, Wang Yu-Seng and The Devil Doctor so depending on your attitude, you have the ultimate choice and sanction of not buying or reading this material. If you do – with eyes wide open and fully acknowledging that the past is another place that we can now consign to history – your comics appreciation faculties will see some amazing stories incredibly well illustrated: ranking amongst the most exciting and enjoyable in Marvel’s canon.
© 2018 MARVEL.

Iron Man Masterworks volume 16


By Denny O’Neil, Roger McKenzie, Peter B. Gillis, Ralph Macchio, Luke McDonnell, Carmine Infantino, Paul Smith, Steve Ditko, Marie Severin, Mike Vosburg, Jerry Bingham, Michael Golden & various (MARVEL)
ISBN: 978-1-3029-4920-4- (HB/Digital edition)

One of Marvel’s biggest global successes thanks to the film franchise, Iron Man celebrated his 60th anniversary in March 2023, so let’s again acknowledge that landmark and all who wear the suits offering more of the same…

Tony Stark is a super-rich supergenius inventor who moonlights as a superhero: wearing a formidable, ever-evolving suit of armour stuffed with his own ingenious creations. The supreme technologist hates to lose and constantly upgrades his gear, making Iron Man one of the most powerful characters in the Marvel Universe. However, in Iron Man #120-128 (March to November 1979), the unrelenting pressure of running a multinational corporation and saving the world on a daily basis resulted in the weary warrior succumbing to the constant temptations of his (originally sham) sybaritic lifestyle. Thus, he helplessly slipped into a glittering world drenched with excessive partying and drinking.

That dereliction was compounded by his armour being usurped by rival Justin Hammer: used to murder an innocent. The ensuing psychological crisis forced Stark to confront the hard fact that he was an alcoholic …and probably an adrenaline junkie too. Landmark story ‘Demon in a Bottle’ saw the traumatised hero plumb the depths of grief and guilt, bury himself in pity, and alienate all his friends and allies before an unlikely intervention forced him to take a long, hard look at his life and actions…

A more cautious, level-headed and wiser man, Stark resumed his high-pressure lives, but he could not let up and the craving never went away. Then in 1982 author/editor Denny O’Neil made him do it again, with the result that Marvel gained another black superhero at long last…

It was the dawn of a period of legacy heroes inheriting mantles, established roles and combat identities from white, mostly male champions, and was certainly a move in the right direction…

This grand and gleaming chronological compendium navigates that transitional period, re-presenting Iron Man #158-170 and material from Iron Man Annual #5 and Marvel Fanfare #4: episodically spanning cover-dates May 1982-May 1983. It’s accompanied by an Introduction from Luke McDonnell at the front and house ads and Direct Sale promo poster by him at the end, as the title experienced many creative personnel shuffles before settling on a stalwart team to tackle the biggest of changes. Also on show are covers by Bob Layton, Smith, Jim Starlin, Ed Hannigan & Al Milgrom, Jerry Bingham & Brett Breeding, McDonnell, Brent Anderson & Steve Mitchell.

Opening with Iron Man #158, O’Neil, Carmine Infantino, Dan Green & Al Milgrom breeze through the motions as a deranged junior genius attacks modern technology from his literal man-cave by tapping the latent psychic power of his ‘Moms’ after which Roger McKenzie, rising art star Paul Smith & inking collective “Diverse Hands” step in to relate what occurs ‘When Strikes Diablo’. Here the Fantastic Four’s alchemical nemesis infiltrates Stark International to steal the techno-wizard’s resources and obsolete suits, only to unleash a mystic menace beyond all control…

With pressure mounting and threats everywhere, the craving for booze painfully manifests in ‘A Cry of Beasts’ – by O’Neil, Steve Ditko, Marie Severin & Green – as Stark’s party-persona collides with hot, willing babes… until an attack on his factory by the sinister Serpent Squad reminds him of his priorities.

Preceding Iron Man Annual #5 – and by O’Neil, McDonnell, Mike Esposito & Steve Mitchell – a brief encounter with new hero Moon Knight sees Stark at odds with rival rich man Steven Grant (one of four people comprising the edgy crusader) in ‘If the Moonman Should Fail!’

Frenemies at first sight, the Golden Avenger and Fist of Khonshu swallow their rich-boy differences to save mutual friends held hostage by Advanced Idea Mechanics, after which the extra-length Annual extravaganza sees Iron Man in Wakanda where The Black Panther must defeat mysteriously resurrected nemesis and determined usurper Eric Killmonger

Crafted by Peter B. Gillis, Ralph Macchio, Jerry & Bingham & Green, the action-packed ‘War and Remembrance!’ exposes an old foe methodically manoeuvring Stark and Iron Man into an inescapable trap, which closes tighter in Iron Man #162 as O’Neil, Mike Vosburg & Mitchell expose ‘The Menace Within!’ when a trusted employee sabotages S.I.…

There seems to be more than one campaign to crush Stark, and – as O’Neil, McDonnell & Mitchell become the regular creative team – ‘Knight’s Errand!’ opens an extended gambit with another hidden plotter turning ruthless capitalism, corporate raiding, advanced weaponry and an obsession with chess into a war for control of the company.

Up first is fast-flying tech terror The Knight who makes short work of Tony’s bodyguard, pilot, friend and confidante James Rhodes, but the real threat comes from a new acquaintance and future companion, covertly hollowing out Stark at close hand. Rising in the rankings after defeating the hovering horseman, Iron Man barely survives ‘Deadly Blessing’ of The Bishop after his security team digs up leads to the plot in Scotland…

In IM #165, the trail leads to Jamie, Laird of Glen Travail and another deadly duel of devices, where the true purpose is to destabilise Stark by abducting Rhodey in an effort to coerce his capitulation. The resultant ‘Endgame’ seemingly goes Stark’s way, but the battle is fought on many levels by a distanced player secretly commanding the Laird: one with a cruel emotional counterpunch long-prepared to destroy the hero from within…

On ‘One of Those Days…’ old foe The Melter attacks Stark’s New York facility whilst Rhodey still recuperates in Scotland. As Stark yet again faces enforced inactivity in the land of sublime alcoholic beverages, he abruptly abandons his friend to jet home to stop the supervillain. He also learns his brilliant security chief Vic Martinelli has uncovered the identity of one of the hidden players attacking the company: chess grandmaster turned armaments entrepreneur Obadiah Stane

As Rhodey goes missing again, the newcomer wants all Stark’s creations and, in the most hostile of takeovers, uses every trick in the book – from honey traps to guided missiles and abduction to intoxication – to seize the advantage. ‘The Empty Shell’ sees that nefarious plan bear evil fruit as Stark finally cracks under interminable pressure and one last betrayal, leading to a crushing fall “off the wagon” and into the gutter in ‘The Iron Scream’.

Permanently drunk and deprived of all judgement, Stark dons his armour to clash with Machine Man, even as far away, Rhodey makes his own life-threatening break for freedom and home…

As chaos ensues at Stark’s plant, a major player debuts in the form of junior employee and minor boffin Morley Erwin: on hand for Stark’s reunion with Rhodey and an aghast witness to one of the smartest men alive crawling into a bottle and trying to drown away his pain…

That process begins in #169 as ‘Blackout!’ sees Stark simply give up when confronted by volcanic B-list villain Magma, and sleep through the moment Jim Rhodes steps up – and into – the role and armour of Iron Man

The new era properly begins in #170’s ‘And Who Shall Clothe Himself in Iron?’ (cover-dated May 1983) as the former military airman promotes Erwin to tech support adviser to help him pilot the most complex weapon he’s ever used to defeat Magma and save a far from grateful Tony Stark…

The Beginning…

Rounding off the wonderment is a short tale by Michael Golden as originally seen in Marvel Fanfare #4 (September 1982) wherein Stark battles his dreams, inner demons and incalculable pride…

As comics companies sought to course correct old attitudes and adapt their wares to a far wider and more diverse readership than they had previously acknowledged, some rash rushed decisions were made that did not suit all the fans. Thankfully, that never stopped the editors and publishers from trying and the wonderful results are here and everywhere in comics because of it. Go read and enjoy and see how it all began to change.
© 2023 MARVEL.

XIII volumes 3 & 4 – All the Tears of Hell and SPADS


By William Vance & Jean Van Hamme, coloured by Petra (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-1-8491-8051-1 (Album PB/Digital Tears of Hell) 978-1-84918-058-0 (Album PB/Digital SPADS)

One of the most consistently entertaining and popular adventure serials in Europe, XIII was created by writer Jean Van Hamme (Wayne Shelton, Blake and Mortimer, Lady S.) and artist William Vance while working on numerous strips like Bruce J. Hawker, Marshal Blueberry, Ramiro, Bob Morane and more.

Born in Brussels in 1939 Van Hamme is one of the most prolific writers in comics. After academically pursuing business studies he moved into journalism and marketing before selling his first graphic tale in 1968.

Immediately clicking with the public, by 1976 he had also branched out into novels and screenwriting. His big break was the monumentally successful fantasy series Thorgal for Le Journal de Tintin magazine. He then cemented his reputation with mass-market bestsellers Largo Winch and XIII as well as more cerebral fare such as Chninkel and Les maîtres de l’orge. Van Hamme has been listed as the second-best selling comics author in France, ranked beside the seemingly unassailable Hergé and Uderzo.

Born in Anderlecht, William Vance was the comics nom de plume of William van Cutsem, (September 8th 1935 – May 14th 2018). After military service in 1955-1956 he studied art at the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts and promptly became an illustrator of biographic features for Le Journal de Tintin in 1962. His art is a classical blend of meticulous realism, scrupulous detail and spectacular yet understated action. In 1964 he began maritime serial Howard Flynn (written by Yves Duval) before graduating to more popular genre work with western Ray Ringo and espionage thriller Bruno Brazil (scripted by Greg).

Further success followed when he replaced Gérald Forton on science fiction classic Bob Morane in Femmes d’Aujourd’hui, (and later Pilote and Le Journal de Tintin).

Constantly working on both serials and stand-alone stories, Vance’s most acclaimed work was his collaboration with fellow Belgian Van Hamme on a contemporary thriller based on Robert Ludlum’s novel The Bourne Identity

XIII debuted in 1984, originally running – to great acclaim – in prestigious comics anthology Le Journal de Spirou. A triad of albums were rushed out – simultaneously printed in French and Dutch editions – before the first year of serialisation ended.

The series was a monumental hit in Europe – although publishing house Dargaud were initially a little slow to catch on – but has fared less well in its many attempts to make the translation jump to English, with Catalan Communications, Alias Comics and even Marvel all failing to maximise the potential of the gritty mystery thriller. That all changed when Cinebook took over. To date the original series and most spin-offs have seen print…

The grand conspiracy saga of unrelenting mood, mystery and mayhem opened in The Day of the Black Sun when an old beachcomber found a body. The human flotsam had a gunshot head wound and was near death when Abe and his wife Sally found him. She discovered a key sewn into his clothes and the Roman numerals for thirteen tattooed on his neck. The remote hideaway offered little in the way of emergency services, but their alcoholic, struck-off surgeon friend managed to save the stranger…

As he recuperated, a complication became apparent. The patient – a splendid physical specimen clearly no stranger to action or violence – had suffered massive, irreversible brain trauma. Although increasingly sound in body he had completely lost his past. Language, muscle memories, even social and reflexive conditioning all remained, but every detail of his life-history was gone…

They named him Alan after their own dead son – but hints of the intruder’s lost past explosively intruded when hitmen attacked the beach house with guns blazing. Alan lethally retaliated with terrifying skill, but too late. In the aftermath he found a photo of himself and a young woman on the killers and traced it to nearby Eastown. Desperate for answers and certain more killers were coming, the human question mark headed off into unimaginable danger to hopefully find the answers he craved.

The picture led to a local newspaper and a crooked cop who recognised the amnesiac but said nothing. The woman in the photo was Kim Rowland, a local widow recently gone missing. Alan’s key opened the door of her house. The place had been ransacked but a thorough search utilising his mysterious talents turned up another key and a note warning someone named Jake that The Mongoose” had found her…

Alan was ambushed by the cop and newspaper editor Wayne. Calling him “Shelton”, they demanded the return of a large amount of missing money…

Alan/Jake/Shelton reasoned the new key fitted a safe-deposit box and bluffed the thugs into taking him to the biggest bank in town. Staff there called him Shelton, but when his captors examined the briefcase in Shelton’s box, a booby trap detonated. Instantly acting, the mystery man expertly escaped and eluded capture, holing up in a shabby hotel room, pondering again what kind of man he used to be…

Preparing to leave, he stumbled into a mob of armed killers and in a blur of lethal action escaped, running  into more heavies led by a Colonel Amos. This chilling executive referred to his captive as “Thirteen”, claiming to have dealt with his predecessors XI and XII in regard to the “Black Sun” case…

Amos very much wanted to know who Alan was, and offered shocking titbits in return. The most sensational was film of the recent assassination of American President, William B Sheridan, clearly showing XIII was the lone gunman…

Despite the amnesiac’s heartfelt conviction that he was no assassin, Amos accused him of working for a criminal mastermind, and wanted that big boss. The interrogator failed to take Alan’s instinctive abilities into account and was astounded when his prisoner leapt out of a fourth floor window…

The fugitive headed back to Abe’s beach, but more murderers awaited; led by a mild-seeming man Alan inexplicably knew was The Mongoose. The criminal overlord expressed surprise and admiration: he thought he’d killed Thirteen months ago…

Following an explosion of hyper-fast violence leaving the henchmen dead and Mongoose vanished but vengeful, Alan regretfully hopped a freight train west towards the next stage in his quest for truth.

His journey of discovery took him to the army base where Kim Rowland’s husband was stationed, where enquiries provoked an unexpected and violent response resulting in his interrogation by General Ben Carrington and his sexily capable aide Lieutenant Jones.

They’re from the Joint Chiefs of Staff, know an awful lot about black ops units and have proof their memory-challenged prisoner is in fact their agent: believed-deceased Captain Steve Rowland

After testing the amnesiac’s abilities Carrington drops him off in Rowland’s home town of Southberg to pursue his search for his missing wife, but the prodigal’s return to his rat’s nest of a family rekindles long-simmering passions and jealousies. The entire town seems to want Rowland’s blood and before long he’s the target of an assassination attempt and victim of a diabolical murder-plot. Despite Carrington and Jones’ last-minute intervention Alan/Steve is framed for murdering his father, and grabbed by a furious posse.

Gripping third instalment All the Tears of Hell (originally 1986 European album Toutes Les larmes de l’enfer) opens with Steve Rowland undergoing the worst kind of psychiatric care at the Plain Rock Penitentiary for the Criminally Insane. Despite drugs and shock treatments, his progress at the Maximum Security Facility is negligible. Young Dr. Ralph Berger seems amenable enough but elderly martinet Dr. Johansson’s claims of seeking a cure for his amnesia are clearly no more than a proselytising, judgemental sadist’s justifications for inflicting pain.

Meanwhile in Washington DC, Carrington and Jones have met with Colonel Amos who has a strange request and troubling new information. His investigations have revealed that the amnesiac in the desert hell of Plain Rock has undergone plastic surgery and his army records have been altered. Steve Rowland is definitely not Steve Rowland…

Moreover, Amos has information proving that the plotters who had the President killed are still active and their amnesiac assassin is the only link and hope of finding them. Acting on her own initiative, Jones decides it’s time she took a hands-on approach to the problem…

Meanwhile, anxious and isolated Not-Rowland has a visitor who galvanises him out of his electro-chemically induced fugue-state. The Mongoose gloatingly informs the prisoner that his days are numbered…

Deep within the corridors of power, Colonel Amos informs Carrington his investigations have resulted in a name. He has solved the mystery of XIII and the man they are actually dealing with is former soldier and intelligence operative Ross Tanner.

Probably.

Knowing time is limited, Rowland/Tanner opts for escape and decides to take along the kid who shares his cell. It’s as if he’s forgotten they’re in a maximum security facility for criminal maniacs, but he’s painfully reminded of the fact when sweet little Billy starts killing again as soon as they’re clear of the detention wing…

Recaptured and restricted to the medical section, XIII is helpless when the Mongoose’s inside man makes a move. Luckily, Jones has also inserted herself in a position where she can do the most good…

Spectacularly busting out of the prison, “Rowland” and the mystery-woman race into the desert, somehow avoiding a massive manhunt before vanishing without trace. Later Amos and Carrington confer over the disappearance, but one already knows exactly where the fugitive is. Now, with another new name, the warrior without a past and his new powerful allies lay plans to take the fight to their secret enemy…

To Be Continued…

XIII: SPADS
First released in Europe in 1987, SPADS is the fourth complex and convoluted chapter in the saga, opening with a more concise visual recap than I’ve just given, before kicking the plot into high gear as the race to replace murdered President Sheridan hots up. The contenders are Old Boy Network hack and former Vice President Joseph Galbrain battling Sheridan’s glamorous and idealistic younger brother Walter: latest scion of a venerable dynasty of leaders…

Amos’ diligent investigation is relentless. After exhuming many bodies, he can confidently claim to know who Tanner really is, but when the search leads him into a trap that kills his assistant and incapacitates him, he starts to wonder if he’s tracking a target or being led onto a bullseye…

Elsewhere, in a green hell of sweat and testosterone, Ross Tanner is making no friends as he trains to join elite combat unit SPADS (Special Assault and Destruction Squads). He doesn’t fit in and is always causing trouble. It’s as if he’s there under false pretences…

When Amos and Judge Allenby confront Carrington at the Pentagon with news that Tanner is also an alias for an as yet unknown operative, the reaction is explosive. Soon after, special aide Lieutenant Jones goes AWOL…

Back in the Bayou, the man everybody is hunting has made a fresh advance into uncovering his occluded past. Sergeant Betty served with the real Rowland and knows he didn’t die at the time and in the manner official reports describe. Before she shares the details, however, she has an itch that needs scratching…

That cosy conversation is curtailed by camp commander Colonel McCall, who tells the undercover operative that he’s being transferred out in the morning by direct order of General Carrington. With his chance to solve his personal mystery evaporating, XIII settles a few outstanding scores before sneaking into Betty’s quarters…

Amos and Allenby meanwhile have not been idle, and the former is certain he has at last gleaned the actual identity of multi-named XIII, but when they visit a certain grave they walk into another ambush and a well-placed mole is forced to break cover…

As Amos is plucked from the firefight by the last person he expected to see, a continent away Tanner’s liaison gets even more dangerous when another Mongoose mole interrupts, trying to kill them both. Happily, Carrington’s back-up agent is well placed to save them and they all flee together, unaware their escape vehicle has been boobytrapped and sabotaged…

Amos by now is securely ensconced in a palatial hideaway, being feted by a coterie of political heavyweights who finally reveal the truth about all the men Ross Tanner is and isn’t. They explain the incredible reason for the smoke-&-mirrors operation and earth-shattering stakes…

To Be Continued…

XIII is one most compelling, multi-layered mystery adventures ever conceived, with subsequent instalments constantly taking the restless human enigma two steps forward, one step back, stumbling through a world of pain and peril whilst cutting through an interminable web of past lives he seemingly led. Rocket-paced and immensely inventive, this is a series no devotee of action sagas and conspiracy thrillers will want to miss.
Original edition © Dargaud Benelux (Dargaud-Lombard SA), 1986, 1987 by Van Hamme, Vance & Petra. All rights reserved. This edition published 2010 by Cinebook Ltd.

Secret Invasion


By Brian Michael Bendis, Leinil Francis Yu, Mark Morales & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-3297-4 (TPB/Digital edition Marvel) 978-1-84653-405-8 (TPB Panini/Marvel UK)

The Skrulls are shape-shifting aliens who have threatened Earth since the second issue of Fantastic Four, and have long been a cornerstone of the Marvel Universe. After decades of use and misuse the insidious invaders were made the stars of a colossal braided mega-crossover event beginning in April 2008 and running through all the company’s titles until Christmas. That landmark worlds-shaking epic has since been adapted to the company’s burgeoning, blockbuster Marvel Cinematic Universe. If you were a real fan, you’d have already seen the first episode…

We, however, are all about the comics so let’s revisit the stunning and all-pervasive source material. The premise is simple enough: the everchanging, corruptive would-be conquerors have undergone a mass religious conversion and are now utterly, fanatically dedicated to taking Earth as their new homeworld. To this end they have replaced over an unspecified time a number of key Earth denizens – including many of the world’s superheroes.

When the lid is lifted on the simmering plot, no defender of the Earth truly knows who is on their side…

Moreover the cosmic charlatans have also unravelled the secrets of humanity’s magical and genetic superpowers, creating amped-up equivalents to Earth’s mightiest. They are now primed and able to destroy the heroic defenders in face-to-face confrontations.

With the conquest primed to launch, everything starts to unravel when Elektra dies in battle and is discovered to be an alien, not a ninja. Soon, two teams of Avengers (Iron Man, The Sentry, Wonder Man, Daredevil, Ms. Marvel, Spider-Woman, Wolverine, Luke Cage, Iron Fist, Ronin, Echo, Cloak and Black Widow) and certain agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.  are covertly investigating in discrete operations. All are painfully aware that they have no way of telling friend from foe…

Crisis and confusion are compounded when a Skrull ship crashes in the primordial Savage Land, releasing a band of missing heroes claiming to have been abducted and experimented on. Among them are another Spider-Man, Luke Cage, recently killed Captain America Steve Rogers, Phoenix/Jean Grey and Thor, plus other heroes believed gone forever. Some must be Skrull duplicates but are they the newcomers or the ones facing them…?

As the champions second guess each other, the second strand triggers. Earths space defence station S.W.O.R.D. is blown up and a virus rips through the internet shutting down crucial systems including the Starktech comprising the operating systems of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Iron Man’s armour…

Now all over Earth, Skrulls attack and heroes – and even villains such as Norman (Green Goblin) Osborn – respond and retaliate in a last ditch effort to survive: a war of survival that ends in shock, horror and unforeseen disaster…

Rather than give any more away, let me just say that if you like this sort of blockbuster saga you’ll be in seventh heaven, and a detailed familiarity is not vital to your understanding. However, for a fuller understanding, amongst the other Secret Invasion volumes accompanying this, you should particularly seek out Secret Invasion: the Infiltration, Secret War (2004), Avengers Disassembled, and Annihilation volumes 1-3, as well as the Avengers: Illuminati compilation.

This American volume contains all 8 issues of the core miniseries plus a monumental covers-&-variants gallery (31 in total) by Gabriele Dell’Otto, Steve McNiven, Leinil Yu, Mel Rubi, Frank Cho, Laura Martin and Greg Horn, and a series of chilling house ads imploring us to ‘Embrace Change’, but is just one of 22 volumes comprising the vast number of episodes in convergent storylines of the saga.

Fast-paced, complex, superbly illustrated and suitably spectacular, this twisty-turny tale and its long-term repercussions reshaped the Marvel Universe, heralding a “Dark Reign” that pushed all the envelopes. If you are a comics newcomer, and can find the British edition from Panini, it also includes one-shot spin-off Who Do You Trust? and illustrated data-book Skrulls which claims to provide a listing and biography for every shapeshifter yet encountered in the Marvel Universe (but if they left any out, could you tell?).
© 2017 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

S.H.I.E.L.D. volume 1: Perfect Bullets


By Mark Waid, Carlo Pacheco, Humberto Ramos, Alan Davis, Chris Sprouse, Mike Choi, Chris Renaud & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-9362-3 (TPB/Digital edition)

Just as the 1960s espionage fad was taking off, inspired by the James Bond films and TV shows like Danger Man, war hero Nick Fury “re-debuted” in Fantastic Four #21 as a spy.

That was December 1963 – between issues #4 and 5 of his own blistering battle mag – where the perpetually grizzled warrior was re-imagined as a cunning CIA colonel lurking at the periphery of big adventures, craftily manipulating the First Family of Marvel superheroes into taking on a racist demagogue with a world-shattering secret…

Fury was already the star of the little company’s only war comic: Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos, an improbable and decidedly over-the-top, wild WWII-situated series similar in tone to later movies like The Magnificent Seven, Wild Bunch and The Dirty Dozen.

With spy stories globally going gonzo in the wake of The Man from U.N.C.L.E., the veteran’s elder iteration was given a second series (launching in Strange Tales #135, August 1965), set in the then-present. Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. combined Cold War tensions and sinister schemes of World Conquest by hidden, subversive all-encompassing enemy organisation Hydra, graphically gift-wrapped with captivating Kirby-designed super-science gadgets and explosive high energy. It was set solidly at the heart of the slowly burgeoning Marvel Universe…

Once iconic imagineer Jim Steranko took charge, layering in a sleek, ultra-sophisticated edge of trend-setting drama, the series became one of the best and most visually innovative strips in America, if not the world.

When the writer/artist Steranko left and the spy-fad faded, the whole concept simply withdrew into the background architecture of the Marvel Universe: occasionally resurfacing in new series but growing increasingly uncomfortable to read as the role of spooks “on our side” became ever more debased in a world where covert agencies were continually exposed as manipulative, out-of-control tools of subversion and oppression.

In 1989, a 6-issue prestige format limited series reinvigorated the concept. As a company targeting the youth-oriented markets, Marvel had experienced problems with their in-house clandestine organisation. In almost all of their other titles, US agents and “the Feds” were usually the bad guys. Author Bob Harras employed this theme as well as the oddly quirky self-referential fact that nobody aged in comic continuity to play games with the readers…

Here, Fury had discovered that everybody in his organisation had been “turned” and was now an actual threat to freedom and democracy. With his core beliefs and principle of leading “the Good Guys” betrayed and destroyed, he went on the run, hunted by Earth’s most powerful covert agency, but with all the resources he’d devised and utilised now turned against him.

Part of the resolution saw S.H.I.E.L.D. reinvented for the 1990s: a leaner, cleaner, organisation, notionally acting under UN mandate, and proactive throughout the Marvel Universe. Moreover, Fury’s taste of betrayal and well-planted seeds of doubt and mistrust never went away…

Following numerous global crises – including a superhero Civil War – Fury was replaced as director. His successor – Tony Stark – proved to be inadequate and a huge mistake. Following an alien invasion by Skrulls, the organisation was mothballed: replaced by the manically dynamic Norman Osborn and his fanatically loyal H.A.M.M.E.R. project. As America’s top Fed, he was specifically tasked with curbing the unchecked power and threat of the burgeoning metahuman community.

Osborn’s ascent was an even bigger error. As America’s Director of National Security, the former Green Goblin and not-really-recovering psychopath instituted a draconian “Dark Reign” of oppressive, aggressive policies which turned the nation into a paranoid tinderbox.

This spectacularly poor choice was, however, also directing a cabal of the world’s greatest criminals and conquerors intent on divvying up the planet between them. The repercussions of Osborn’s rise and fall were felt throughout and featured in many series and collections throughout the entire fictive continuity. His brief rule also drastically shook up the entrenched secret powers of the planet and his ultimate defeat destabilised many previously unassailable empires…

Fury, an old man driven by duty, fuelled by suspicion and powered by a serum which kept him vital far beyond his years, didn’t go away. He just went deep undercover to continue doing what he’d always done: save the world, one battle at a time. Even after Osborn was gone, Fury stayed buried, preferring to fight battles his way and with assets and resources he’d personally acquired and clandestinely built…

Since the concept became an integral part of Marvel’s cinematic and TV universe, the comics division has laboured to find a way to rationalise their two wildly dissimilar iterations of S.H.I.E.L.D. In 2015 scripter Mark Waid and a rotating squad of illustrators finally settled on a way to square that circle…

S.H.I.E.L.D. – now the acronym for Strategic Homeland Intervention Enforcement Logistics Division – is a major player in defending humanity from the unimaginable, but movie icon Phil Coulson, his core TV team of Melinda May, Leo Fitz and Jemma Simmons, plus hybrid versions of print-turned-screen stars like Bobbi (Mockingbird) Morse have been deftly hived off into their own niche of comic book continuity. Here Coulson runs an official sub-agency where – supplemented by S.H.I.E.L.D. resources – his own geekishly vast and deep knowledge of metahuman trivia and contacts with the entire super-heroic community combine to tackle unnatural crises on a case-by-case basis…

The result is a fresh and supremely appetising blend of spies, sinister secret villains and super folk that is a joy to behold…

Collecting issues #1-6 of the breakthrough series (technically S.H.I.E.L.D. volume 3, spanning February to July 2015, if you’re keeping count) this tome commences with the eponymous ‘Perfect Bullets’ (illustrated by Carlos Pacheco, Mariano Taibo & Jason Paz, and Dono Sanchez Almara providing the colours) as S.H.I.E.L.D. Special Ops Supreme Commander Coulson rallies a barely wet-behind-the-ears unit to tackle a middle-eastern terrorist who has somehow latched onto a magic sword allowing him to summon all the monsters of mythology to batter the Earth.

As all the planet’s public superheroes wage a losing war against the invasion of gargantuan terrors, Coulson’s unit rapidly identifies the blade’s true owner before deploying the two ideal superheroes able to counter its threat…

Sadly, however, with the sword restored to its rightful place and wielder, a hidden extra-dimensional presence is unleashed, forcing Coulson to improvise a final solution…

Then, adding funny to the fast and furious, a brace of comedic shorts follows. Crafted by Joe Quesada and starring boy-genius Fitz and his digital avatar H.E.N.R.Y., these strips were originally concocted to amuse the cast and crew of the TV show…

The all-comic book action resumes with ‘The Animator’ (art by Humberto Ramos, Victor Olazabo & Edgar Delgado) as Xenobiology specialist Simmons is sent undercover to a High School in Jersey City to crack a smuggling ring. Of course, as a S.H.I.E.L.D. Special Ops mission, the contraband being sought is not drugs of guns or something equally mundane, but rather weapons and tech stolen from super-villains.

Everything instantly goes bad when a Wizard power-glove stashed in a locker spontaneously activates, causing a riot. Thankfully, fresh new Ms. Marvel Kamala Khan is a student at the beleaguered institution and steps up, impressing Coulson in the process…

Sadly, it’s not the only crisis on campus, as bio-plasm from genetic meddler Arnim Zola infects the cafeteria food, turning hungry kids into ravenous horrors.

With that catastrophe stomach-churningly averted, Fitz and H.E.N.R.Y. make another mirthful appearance before Alan Davis, Mark Farmer and colourist Matthew Wilson make the pictures for ‘Home Invasion’ as Coulson, Spider-Man and mystic parolee Mr. Rasputin break into the bewitched citadel of Doctor Strange, confronting mystic mercenaries hired to plunder the storehouse of its magical wonders.

The thieves think they have it covered but their meddling unleashes forces imperilling all of Earth. Moreover, in the aftermath, Coulson sees something which sets him thinking that one hand might be behind the many threats his team has recently tackled…

After another delightful Fitz and H.E.N.R.Y. escapade, Chris Sprouse, Carl Story & Almara illustrate a deeply disturbing tale as Invisible Woman Susan Richards is seconded to the Special Ops unit to save a reluctant Hydra informant from a radioactive prison five miles underground. Sadly, as ‘Fuel’ unfolds she discovers the truly vicious duplicity of her opponents and endures cruel whims of fate as the Mole Man attacks everybody and Coulson is forced to intervene before atomic Armageddon ensues…

The fifth instalment begins drawing disparate plot points together as Earth’s mystics and supernatural champions are systematically gunned down by an assassin firing purpose-built ‘Magic Bullets’ (with art by Mike Choi and colourist Rachelle Rosenberg)…

With his resources reduced to the Scarlet Witch and professional sceptics Fitz & Simmons, Coulson uncovers a connection to Asgard and a mystery magical mastermind, only to have his team supernaturally suborned as the hidden manipulator makes his long-anticipated move…

This immensely entertaining epic concludes as Earth is afflicted with an arcane plague transforming humanity into mindless monsters, compelling Coulson to assemble a squad of intellect-deficient atrocities – Zombie Simon Garth, The Living Mummy, Frankenstein’s Monster and Man-Thing – into an all-new unit of Howling Commandos to invade the ‘Dark Dimensions’ (illustrated by Paul Renaud & Romulo Farjado, Jr.) to stop the contagion and its creator at the source.

…And, because he’s the sneaky bastard he is, Coulson also takes along a secret weapon: the last villain anyone might expect to save the universe…

Fast-paced, action-packed, imaginative, thrilling, funny and superbly illuminated throughout, Perfect Bullets offers fantastic enjoyment for any Fights ‘n’ Tights fan with a smattering of Marvel history in their heads, but will especially reward any TV devotee willing to peek into the convoluted comic book universe all modern movie Marvels sprang from.
© 2015 Marvel Characters. All rights reserved.

Whiteout volume 1 & volume 2: Melt – Definitive Editions


By Greg Rucka & Steve Lieber & various (Oni Press)
ISBN: 978-1-932664-70-6 (TPB vol 1) 978-1-932664-71-3 (TPB vol 2) 978-1-620104-48-4 (TPB compendium)

When done right there’s no artistic medium which can better depict the myriad intricacies of a murder-mystery than the comic strip.

These superb and seminal slices of crime fiction were the 2D debut of novelist Greg Rucka and saw up-&-coming artist Steve Lieber achieve his full illustrative potential in a gripping chiller set in a world where, despite appearances, nothing is simply black and white…

Originally released in 1998 as a 4-part miniseries from Oni Press, Whiteout introduced disgraced Deputy U.S. Marshal Carrie Stetko, suffering banishment to the ends of the Earth – generally known as McMurdo Station, Antarctica – following a tremendous and unforgivable screw-up during her Stateside duties.

Seamlessly filling in crucial background detail as it swiftly progresses, we learn Antarctica is an international “Neutral Zone” co-managed by the USA, Britain, Russia, Argentina, Chile, Australia and other nations. Here, mineral exploitation is forbidden by treaty, military weapons are proscribed and there are 400 men to every woman. Antarctica is a place where all Man’s basest instincts are curtailed by official accord – or at least that’s the global party line…

In the cold and isolated outpost Stetko doesn’t go out of her way to adapt, settle in or make friends. This a place where few people stay for more than a few months, whether they’re involved with the military, explorers, scientists or even dubious business types.

It’s dull drudgery all the way… but that ends when Carrie is called out to examine a body on the ice…

The face has been horrendously removed from the brittle corpse but the remote surroundings are a mess, with multiple deep core-samples removed from the frozen wastes. Stetko wouldn’t even be involved if the body hadn’t been clad in a parka with American flags on it. Even after prying the cadaver loose from the ice, she has to wait days for it to thaw enough before the camp doctor everyone calls Furry can begin an autopsy.

More worryingly, further investigation reveals the international research expedition was supposed to comprise five men: two Americans, a Briton, an Argentinean and an Austrian. Where and who are the other four?

Sole friendly face Furry is having little luck with the body. Somebody has employed an ice hammer to make sure identification is impossible, but the diligent doc gets enough from the remains of the feet to fax off prints to the U.S. Eventually, details come back and Stetko starts searching for the killer of American citizen Alexander Keller… who is NOT one of the research team at all…

Interviewing the pilot who ferried the team out generates no leads, and days are wasted checking other bases by radio. Moreover, time is running out. With True Winter coming, most camps are preparing to shut down: ferrying all but the most essential staff back to civilisation until a slightly more hospitable Spring makes life on the ice survivable again. Once “Winter-over” begins, the killer will be impossible to find…

When she gets a call back from British-administered Victoria Station that two of the missing team are there, Carrie catches her first break by hitching on a flight ferrying Australian pilot John Haden to his next gig. Despite his easy charm and manner, Carrie knows something is not right about him…

Rendezvousing with officious administrator Lily Sharpe, Carrie refuses to wait out another impending storm. Eventually, both women venture out onto the ice to find the outlying cabin of the missing men. As they enter, they’re attacked by an axe-wielding masked man who has just killed both of her suspects in the same way Keller was dispatched…

Giving chase into the storm, Carrie is overpowered and her vital guide-wire cut. Lost in a binding whiteout with the temperature drastically dropping by the second, she is going to die mere feet from safety and will not be found for months… or at all…

As Sharpe recovers and follows, Stetko has, with Herculean determination and a deal of sheer luck, found a temporary sanctuary where she is safe if no longer sound. She never will be again…

Lost in delirium and suppressed memories, Carrie almost fights her way free from her last-minute rescuer but is at last taken to the Station’s infirmary. When fit enough to travel, the Marshal is ferried back to McMurdo by the mysterious Lily who reveals that the two remaining suspects have been spotted on the ice at Amundsen-Scott base.

As much through anger and resentment, at her boss’ insistence Carrie, with Sharpe in tow, heads after them. On reaching the far station she receives an astounding surprise on spotting “dead man” Keller in the canteen…

Sharpe, meanwhile, has the last two suspects. Or at least, their bloody, battered remains…

Keller eludes the Marshal and lies hidden in Sharpe’s plane, where he finds her gun. According to the Antarctica Treaty, all weapons are banned on the jointly-administered continent, but that’s far from being the British woman’s biggest secret sin…

Everything kicks into high gear as Keller and hidden allies mercilessly strike back before the mystery is exposed and murky motives are revealed as the stunning conclusion reveals just how dangerous trust can be in a land which scours the heart and soul every minute of every day…

Smart, cynical and intoxicatingly devious, this superb fair-play murder mystery was one of the best comics crime capers in a generation, and promptly spawned a sequel.  In Whiteout Rucka & Lieber created a powerful and determined truth-seeker wedded to a ferociously evocative and utterly distinct milieu in which to prove her worth.

Riding a wave of critical acclaim, writer and artist reunited for searing sequel Melt: another 4-issue miniseries released by Oni Press from September 1999 to February 2000 before being gathered into its own graphic novel compilation.

This dark, bleak tale begins with a quick body-bestrewn history lesson on Antarctica, from the deadly duel between Scott and Amundsen and following frantic scurry – and brief brush wars – by a host of nations hungry to possess the territory. That ceased in 1961, when Cold War caution and the threat of Mutually Assured Destruction resulted in the Antarctic Treaty.

This landmark pact saw the region designated a neutral area reserved for purely scientific research: one where all military activity was strictly prohibited.

Antarctica is still a bizarre Neutral Zone co-managed by many nations, where mineral and commercial exploitation is completely forbidden. At least officially…

In this follow-up fable, US Marshal Stetko is recuperating in New Zealand when the American embassy drags her in just so a CIA spook named James can tell her she’s going back to the ice – voluntarily or not.

The Agency monitors chatter and has discovered that a Russian science station has been destroyed by an explosion, with the loss of all 14 personnel. They believe it was no accident. Overruling Stetko’s arguments about jurisdiction, the Feds tell her she’s going to investigate, or “offer help, in the spirit of the Treaty” because – despite her naive beliefs – every nation represented officially present in Antarctica has weapons stockpiled there – even the “good guy” Americans – and Tayshetskaya Base was just such an armoury/staging ground for potential conflicts…

Weathering a tirade of threats and discounting a wealth of promised bribes, Carrie soon finds herself on a plane heading due south. At the burned-out site of the base she’s greeted – if not welcomed – by her Russian opposite number Pyotr Danilovich and his emergency team. The harassed investigator studiously knows nothing and is severely disquieted when Stetko points out that one of the burned bodies from the “accident” has a bullet hole in it.

Of course, according to the Treaty, all weapons are banned, but this isn’t like anything she’s seen before…

Leaving Pyotr desperately trying to convince himself that it’s all just a mistake and accident, Carrie wanders through burned-out wreckage and plunges through the flooring into a hidden room stuffed with crates of small arms. In a corner are three empty crates marked with the tri-foil – international symbol for radiation. The Russians had stored nukes here – and they’re gone now…

Far away, six killers race away on snowmobiles with their prizes, but have no appreciation or understanding of the ice. After crashing into a hidden crevasse there are only five…

Back at Tayshetskaya, a mysterious Russian arrives. Captain Aleksandr Ivanovich Kuchin claims to be Carrie’s official back-up and liaison: tasked by his government with giving her all the assistance she needs. He disarmingly and disingenuously adds that he’s also there to quash any embarrassing scandal…

He confirms that the killer thieves are former Speznaz: mercenaries who have seized the nukes for a client and will smuggle them out over the ice rather than through more reasonable channels. After checking in with her own bosses, Carrie is told to get them – and proof of the Russian government’s treaty-breaking – if she ever wants to leave Antarctica…

Using satellite tech, Stetko and Kuchin narrow down the mercs’ current location and set off after them on skis, but the mutually suspicious manhunters almost die in a booby trap and are buried alive in a crevasse…

Forced to trust each other for the duration, they brilliantly extricate themselves to resume the chase. They have an unsuspected ally: brutal remorseless Antarctica is gradually eroding the confidence and capability of the fleeing killers: now reduced to four cold, slowly dying men. Sadly, the ice plays no favourites and tries its damnedest to kill Carrie and her stoic companion too…

After surviving a huge storm, Carrie wakes up alone and – suspicions sadly confirmed – sets off after duplicitous Kuchin. She does not know the cagy Russian has been captured by their quarry and faces a most unpleasant end, but neither the mercs nor their intended victim realise the US Marshal has found their lost and flash-frozen comrade and now possesses the very best in freelance weaponry and camouflage…

Escalating into an inevitable, spectacularly bloody climax, this grim, gritty and stunningly gripping thriller confirms Carrie Stetko’s guts, resolve and sheer smarts in a devastating display of swift, effective, problem-solving violence and propensity to do the right thing no matter what the cost…

Sharp, hard-boiled and savagely ultra-cool, this magnificent cold-hearted intercontinental caper was a sublime second outing for one of the best female crimebusters in comics and remains a wonderful experience for mature readers to while away cold, lonely nights.

In 2017, these chilly classics were reissued in a classy compendium edition which sadly did nothing to offset the appalling 2009 movie adaptation that had followed the original comic’s release. Just remember Films are not the intended ended result of comics. Read the stories as intended and have as much fun as you can in your own head.

… And agitate for the returns of Carrie Stetko…

™ & © 1998, 1999 2007 Greg Rucka. All rights reserved.

Yoko Tsuno volume 15: Wotan’s Fire


By Roger Leloup, translated by Jerome Saincantin (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-1-84918-536-3 (Album PB)

In 1970, indomitable intellectual adventurer and “electronics engineer” Yoko Tsuno began her career in Le Journal de Spirou. She is still delighting readers and making new fans to this day in amazing, action-packed, astoundingly accessible adventures which are amongst the most intoxicating, absorbing and far-ranging comics thrillers ever created.

The globe-girdling, space-&-time-spanning epics were devised by monumentally multi-talented Belgian maestro Roger Leloup, who began his own solo career after working as a studio assistant and technical artist on Hergé’s Adventures of Tintin, beginning in 1953.

Compellingly told, superbly imaginative and – no matter how implausible the premise of any individual yarn may seem – always firmly grounded in hyper-realistic settings underpinned by authentic, unshakably believable technology and scientific principles, Leloup’s illustrated escapades were at the vanguard of a wave of strips revolutionising European comics.

That long-overdue sea-change heralded the rise of competent, clever, brave and formidably capable female protagonists taking their rightful places as heroic ideals; elevating Continental comics in the process. These endeavours are as engaging and empowering now as they ever were, and none more so than the trials and tribulations of Miss Tsuno.

Her first outings (the still unavailable Hold-up en hi-fi, La belle et la bête and Cap 351) were mere introductory vignettes before the unflappable troubleshooter and her valiant if lesser male comrades Pol Paris and Vic Van Steen properly hit their stride with premier full-length saga Le trio de l’étrange in 1971 (Le Journal de Spirou’s May 13th edition)…

Yoko’s cases include explosive exploits in exotic corners of our world, sinister deep-space sagas and even time-travelling jaunts. There are 30 European albums to date but only 16 translated into English thus far, and – ironically – none of them digitally.

First serialised in LJdS #2388-2391, Le feu de Wotan hails from 1984: a compelling science crime thriller that was the 19th astounding album. It reached us Brits as Cinebook’s 15th outing, delivering dark drama, murderous mystery and enthralling intrigue…

It begins as Yoko Tsuno arrives at Eltz Castle near Koblenz. She has returned to West Germany after being contacted by an old pal with a problem. Ingrid Hallberg is one of the world’s most esteemed classical musicians and has been hired by the Richter family to examine and assess their collection of ancient musical instruments. On discovering something extraordinary, she immediately contacted her old partner in peril…

Their first encounter (see The Devil’s Organ) was strange and deadly, and now, surrounded by a daunting team of private security guards and other suspicious characters, Ingrid has called in the freelance electrical engineer to assess the castle’s “acoustic qualities”. It’s a ploy masking the fact that Ingrid has uncovered another superweapon from history…

Sneaking around to avoid the suspiciously constant attention of architecture student Franz Thaler, Ingrid shows Yoko a bizarre futuristic battery erratically emitting electrical charges and a larger, deconstructed device in an attic. When Yoko assembles it, the result looks very like a giant gun…

As a storm builds that night, Yoko learns former resident Hans Richter was an experimental physicist who died in 1930s. He built both mechanisms and it appears the briefcase-sized battery connects to the larger device: a tool that fires bolts of lightning …it’s a Death Ray!

Before they can react, Franz steals the battery and locks them in, but his frantic escape is ended when lightning is seemingly pulled from the turbulent skies into the car he’s driving…

Acting quickly, Ingrid and Yoko recover the unharmed battery from the wreck, exploiting the guards’ uncharacteristic eagerness to cover up the event. Later, searching Franz’s room for clues, Yoko finds a radio and is startled to hear from someone who was giving the dead man orders…

A complex string of anonymised instructions and directions soon leads Yoko and Ingrid across country to Wupperthal and a secret rendezvous on an automated suspended railway train. They are being closely observed and followed…

Splitting up, Ingrid follows the “sky-train” as, in the first carriage, Yoko meets Professor Zimmer: Richter’s supervisor on the “Wotan’s Fire” project. He tells her all about the endeavour and how it ultimately killed Richter. In the course of their discussions they realise that his instructions to her had been intercepted and altered. Both have stumbled into a trap set by an unsuspected third agency…

Confronted by a gunman, Yoko deftly disarms the attacker, but her escape is foiled when everyone disembarks at Oberbarmen and she find two more villains waiting. They are holding a gun to Ingrid’s head…

However, when they trade the battery for her, Yoko retains crucial computer discs. As the thieves flee, she realises it’s all as the aged professor hoped. Allying with him and tech businessman/secret agent Peter Hertzel, Yoko learns the plot was allowed to unfold thus in an effort to locate a full-scale version of Richter’s device and foil plans to terrorise the world for profit…

Hertzel pays her a small fortune to help him stop them and soon she and her trusted comrades Vic Van Steen and Pol Paris are in action again…

After deducing where and how the terrorists will strike, the troubleshooters move rapidly. With Ingrid and Zimmer along for the ride, they are soon repairing the long-abandoned bunker installation Zimmer and Richter used to perfect the original weapon: charging more super-batteries to literally fight fire with fire. It works, but almost costs another life…

The final act opens with Yoko spectacularly boarding an oil supertanker at sea to convince the captain that his vessel is about to be an example and object lesson of ruthless criminals.

Yoko’s plan is risky: using their own death ray to counter the impending attack. However, she’s not so much worried about whose gun is bigger, only that by saving the ship and crew she must kill the crooks. That’s when she risks everything on a suicidal strategy, desperate to save the terrorists from themselves…

Rocket-paced, deviously twisted and terrifying plausible, this race against time and war against greed is a superb and mesmerising thrill ride that shows not just the smarts and combat savvy of our adventuring crusader but also her aiding compassion.

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

Wotan’s Fire is a magnificently wide-screen thriller, tense and satisfying, and will appeal to any fan of blockbuster action fantasy or breathtaking derring-do.
Original edition © Dupuis, 1984 by Roger Leloup. All rights reserved. English translation 2020 © Cinebook Ltd.

Captain America Sam Wilson volume 1: Not My Captain America


By Nick Spencer, Daniel Acuña, Paul Renaud, Joe Bennett, Mike Choi, Romulo Fajardo Jr., Belardino Brabo & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-9640-2 (TPB/Digital edition)

Created by Joe Simon & Jack Kirby in an era of national turmoil and frantic patriotic fervour, Captain America was a dynamic, emphatically visible response to the horrors of Nazism and the threat of Liberty’s loss. Consequently, the concept quickly lost focus and popularity once hostilities ceased. The Sentinel of Freedom and Champion of Democracy faded away during post-war reconstruction, only to briefly reappear after the Korean War: a harder, darker Cold Warrior hunting monsters, subversives and “Reds” who lurked under every American bed.

He abruptly vanished once more, until the burgeoning Marvel Age resurrected him just in time to experience the Land of the Free’s most turbulent, culturally divisive era. He became a mainstay of the Marvel Revolution in the Swinging Sixties, but lost his way after that, except for a politically-fuelled, radically liberal charged period under scripter Steve Englehart.

Despite everything, Captain America evolved into a powerful symbol for generations of readers and his career can’t help but reflect that of the nation he stands for…

Devised in the fall of 1940 and on newsstands by December 20th, Captain America Comics #1 was cover-dated March 1941, and an instant monster, blockbuster smash-hit. The Sentinel of Liberty had boldly and bombastically launched in his own monthly title with none of the publisher’s customary caution, and instantly became the absolute and undisputed star of Timely’s top-selling “Big Three” (with The Human Torch and Sub-Mariner.)

He was, however, one of the first to fall from popularity as the Golden Age ended.

During that initial run, his exploits were tinged – or maybe “tainted” – by the sheer exuberant venom of appalling racial stereotyping and fervent jingoism at a time when America was involved in the greatest war in world history. Nevertheless, the first 10 issues of Captain America Comics remain amongst are the most exceptional comics in history…

You know the origin story like your own. Simon & Kirby revealed how scrawny, enfeebled patriot and genuinely Good Man Steven Rogers – after being continually rejected by the US Army – is recruited by the Secret Service. Desperate to stop Nazi expansion and Home Front mischief, the passionate kid joined a clandestine experimental effort to create physically perfect super-soldiers.

I have no idea if the irony of American Übermenschen occurred to the two Jewish kids creating that mythology, but here we are…

When a Nazi infiltrated the project and murdered the pioneering scientist behind it, Rogers was left as the only successful result and became America’s not-so-secret weapon. When he was lost, others took up the role and have periodically done so ever since. I might be wrong, but as I recall every substitute and replacement was white and male…

Over decades the story unfolded, constantly massaged and refined, yet essentially remaining intact. In 2002 – and in the wake of numerous real-world scandals like the revelations of the “Tuskegee Experiment” (AKA Tuskegee Syphilis Study 1932-1972) – Robert Morales & Kyle Baker took a trenchantly cynical second look at the legend through the lens of the treatment of and white attitudes towards black American citizens…

The result was Truth: Red, White & Black (link please): a hard-hitting view of the other side of a Marvel foundational myth that forever changed continuity: one using tragedy and injustice to add more – and more challenging – role models/heroes of colour to the pantheon.

As Marvel expanded and reached market dominance in the 1960s, its publications ceaselessly whittled away at the unacknowledged colour bar in comics. At this time, many companies (choked to bursting point with seditious Liberals and even some actual Intelligentsia!) were making tentative efforts to address what were national and socio-political iniquities.

However, issues of race and ethnicity took a long time to filter through to still-impressionable young minds avidly absorbing knowledge and formative attitudes via four-colour pages that couldn’t even approximate the skin tones of African-Americans or Asians…

As in television, breakthroughs were small, incremental and too often reduced to a cold-war of daring “firsts”. Excluding a few characters (like Matt Baker’s Voodah) in jungle-themed comic books of the 1940s-1950, Marvel clearly led the field with their black soldier in Sgt. Fury’s Howling Commandos team – the historically impossible Gabe Jones who debuted in #1, May 1963. So unlikely was Gabe that he was automatically and so helpfully re-coloured “Caucasian” at the printers, who clearly didn’t realise his ethnicity but knew he couldn’t be anything but white.

Jones was followed by an actual African superhero when Fantastic Four #52 (cover-dated July 1966) introduced The Black Panther. Throughout that intervening period, strong, competent and consistent black characters – like The Daily Bugle’s city editor Robbie Robertson (Amazing Spider-Man #51, August 1967) and detective Willie Lincoln (Daredevil #47, December 1968) – had been gradually and permanently added to the regular cast of many series. They were erudite, dignified, brave, proudly ordinary mortals distinguished by sterling character, not costume or skin tone: proving that the world wouldn’t end if black folk and white folk occupied the same spaces…

The first “negro” hero to helm his own title had already come (and gone largely unnoticed) in a little-regarded title from Dell Comics. Debuting in December 1965 and created by artist Tony Tallarico & scripter D.J. Arneson, Lobo was a black gunslinger in the old west, battling injustice just like any “white hat” cowboy would.

For Marvel, the big moment came in Captain America #117 (September 1969) as, during an extended battle against the Red Skull and his sinister Exiles, artist Gene Colan got his wish to create the industry’s first official African American superhero: Sam Wilson, The Falcon

After a few cautious months, he returned, became Captain America’s friend, student, partner and – after decades – ultimately his replacement…

Finally, change was acceptable. As the 1960s ended, more positive and inclusive incidences of ethnic characters appeared, with DC finally launching a black hero in John Stewart (Green Lantern #87, December 1971/January 1972) – although his designation as a replacement GL could be construed as more conciliatory and insulting than revolutionary.

DC’s first solo star in his own title was Black Lightning, but he didn’t debut until April 1977, although Jack Kirby had introduced Vykin in Forever People #1, the Black Racer in New Gods #3 (March and July 1971) and Shilo Norman as Scott Free’s apprentice/successor in Mister Miracle #15 (August 1973), whilst Archie Goodwin engineered Marvel’s biggest triumph with the launch of Luke Cage, Hero for Hire in the summer of 1972. A year later, Black Panther won his own series in Jungle Action #5 and Blade: Vampire Hunter debuted in Tomb of Dracula #10. At last, black people were part and parcel of a greater continuity society, not separate and isolated chimera on the fringes…

This big change came from incremental advances slowly achieved against the backdrop of a huge societal shift triggered by the Civil Rights movement, but even though it all grew out of raised social awareness during a terrible time in American history (yes, even worse than today’s festering social wars), kids and other readers knew something special was happening and they must participate…

Nearly half a century later, following a convoluted but generally steady and steadfast career, multi-talented flying superhero Sam Wilson was a tried and true star: holding a succession of civilian jobs – from social worker to architect to politician – whilst his true vocation was being a superhero, singly, in partnerships in the Avengers and as part of S.H.I.EL.D.

Recently: After spending 12 relative years in hellish time-bent Dimension Z raising a child and saving its indigenous people from sadistic Hitlerian uber-geneticist Arnim Zola, Steve Rogers finally returned to Earth to discover mere hours had passed in the “real” world.

Barely pausing, he went straight back to work, stopping deranged, drug-dependent US supersoldier Frank Simpson (AKA Nuke: a covert Captain America from the Vietnam era) slaughtering men, women and children in the nation’s name. Rogers was then sucked back into spy games: confronting former S.H.I.E.L.D. agent/messianic socialist Ran Shen, who aroused a sleeping dragon for its power to reshape the world to his liking. As the Iron Nail, he tried to destroy greedy, exploitative, destructive capitalism using tools and techniques taught him by Nick Fury (Senior) and Chinese iconoclast Mao Zedong

Rogers won that war of ideological wonder warriors at the cost of his faith and lifelong purpose of his existence, but fell victim to Dr. Mindbubble: ready, able and extremely willing to share his terrifying expanded sensibilities with the corrupt Establishment world…

Already disgusted by the procession of appalling creations his country has devised in the name of security, Cap’s peace of mind took another big hit when S.H.I.E.L.D. admitted Mindbubble was theirs: a countermeasure to possible rogue super soldiers, but one mothballed when the cure proved worse than the anticipated affliction…

When the so-very-mad Doctor triggered S.H.I.E.L.D.’s ultimate doomsday weapon, Captain America and The Falcon did what they always did to save the world. Ultimately though, it was Rogers, resolute and alone, who fought his greatest battle to save innocents and a nation he embodied but no longer trusted…

What the Falcon rescued from the rubble, Rogers was no longer Captain America at all…

In the aftermath, and as part of publishing relaunch “All-New, All-Different”, weary, worn-out enfeebled Rogers got a desk job as security supremo whilst Wilson was promoted to Captain America. Sam picked up the shield, rebuilt his wings and promptly proved himself by stopping a plot to destroy humanity perpetrated by Helmut Zemo, Baron Blood and Hydra: executed by Sin, Batroc, Taskmaster, Armadillo, Crossbones and a host of other old foes…

Here, though, we’re concentrating on a true fresh start as our so-patient hero officially launches his new role. Gathering Captain America: Sam Wilson #1-6 (cover-dated December 2015 – April 2016), it’s scripted by Nick Spencer (Spider-Man, Astonishing Ant-Man) and initially illustrated by Daniel Acuña (Eternals, Wolverine, Black Widow) & Mike Choi.

During his last exploit the “black Cap” had lost sidekick Nomad, formed a potent alliance with wonder warrior/deadly detective Misty Knight, and became a very public figure in all his identities. Now, as he flies coach from Phoenix to New York that celebrity comes back to bite him…

As a public hero, Wilson wanted to try new things and employed Knight, former ally Dennis Dunphy (Demolition Man) and digital whistleblowing vigilante The Whisperer to run a full-time support team. After again beating Crossbones, Wilson repurposed his role as national symbol and defender by taking a public stand on numerous social and political issues. Generating a storm of right-wing dissent and anti-minority hate-speech, he then doubled down by creating a hotline where literally anybody could ask for Captain America’s help…

Pilloried in the media, he soldiered on, despite being inundated by nutjob notices from across the nation. His idea paid off when someone who really needed help made contact…

In Arizona, immigration was always a hot topic, but when Wilson learned young Joaquín Torres had been abducted by ultra-racists The Sons of the Serpent for helping the Mexican community, Captain America got involved…

The kid was one of many minority ethnic Americans helping immigrants, so the Sons had given him to evil genius Karl Malus to use in his experiments. Although the desert end of the human pipeline was quickly crushed, it took some time for Cap to track the kid down. By the time he and Knight had crushed a legion of villains and worked their way up an abhorrent chain, Torres had been cruelly and continually mutated, merged with Wilson’s animal ally Redwing and infected with vampirism, and was well on his way to becoming something unhuman…

Slow, patient work revealed connections to corporate America and just more “business opportunities” for unchecked Capitalism, and led to utter catastrophe after Malus turned Wilson into a science-derived werewolf and himself into a shapeshifting horror in the manner of Venom and Carnage.

Inevitably – and with Joaquín’s help – Knight, D-Man, Whisperer and “Cap-Wolf” stop Malus, only to find the war against the weakest was orchestrated by reptile-themed old foes working with big business. Rebranded “Serpent Solutions”, the former Serpent Society of supervillains sought to control Wall Street and the world, using tactics perfected by Hydra and AIM.

Their campaign kicks off in a tense tale limned by Paul Renaud & colourist Romulo Fajardo Jr., as supposedly reformed “bad-girl” Diamondback plays both sides when the embattled heroes act to expose the snakes’ scheme…

With double-dealing double crosses, unchallenged racial hatred and unchecked greed unleashed, the good guys are completely overwhelmed until the Serpents’ latest victim takes charge of his destiny and the newest incarnation of the Falcon flies to the rescue: claiming his own share of justice and retribution in a spectacular all action finale illustrated by Joe Bennett, Belardino Brabo & Fajardo Jr.

With covers and variants by Acuña, Renaud, Óscar Jiménez Steve Epting, John Cassady & Laura Martin, Mahmud Asrar and Evan “Doc” Shaner, this epic reworking of an American Tale is wry, witty, controversially outspoken (for a mainstream comic, at least) and superbly rewarding: a saga of the Black Cap which laid much of the groundwork for today’s screen informed Sentinel of Liberty. It might be Not My Captain America, but it’s definitely one all fans should see.
© 2016 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Invincible Iron Man Epic Collection volume 10: The Enemy Within 1982-1983


By Denny O’Neil, Roger McKenzie, Peter B. Gillis, Ralph Macchio, Carmine Infantino, Steve Ditko, Paul Smith, Luke McDonnell, Jerry Bingham, Mike Vosburg, Marie Severin & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-8787-5 (TPB/Digital edition)

Tony Stark is a super-rich supergenius inventor who moonlights as a superhero: wearing a formidable, ever-evolving suit of armour stuffed with his own ingenious creations. The supreme technologist hates to lose and constantly upgrades his gear, making Iron Man one of the most powerful characters in the Marvel Universe.

However, in Iron Man #120-128 (March to November 1979), the unrelenting pressure of running a multinational corporation and saving the world on a daily basis resulted in the weary warrior succumbing to the constant temptations of his (originally sham) sybaritic lifestyle. Thus, he helplessly slipped into a glittering world drenched with excessive partying and drinking.

That dereliction was compounded by his armour being usurped by rival Justin Hammer: used to murder an innocent. The ensuing psychological crisis forced Stark to confront the hard fact that he was an alcoholic …and probably an adrenaline junkie too.

That crux landmark story ‘Demon in a Bottle’ saw the traumatised hero plumb the depths of grief and guilt, bury himself in pity, and alienate all his friends and allies before an unlikely intervention forced him to take a long, hard look at his life and actions…

A more cautious, level-headed and wiser man, Stark resumed his high-pressure lives, but he could not let up and the craving never went away. Then in 1982 author/editor Denny O’Neil made him do it again, with the result that Marvel gained another black superhero at long last…

It was the start of a period of legacy heroes inheriting the mantles, established roles and combat identities from white and mostly male champions, and was certainly a move in the right direction…

This grand and gleaming chronological compendium navigates that transitional period, re-presenting Iron Man #158-177 and Iron Man Annual #5: episodically spanning cover-dates May 1982 through December 1983, as the title experienced an uncomfortable number of creative personnel shuffles before settling on a steady team to tackle the biggest of changes…

It starts with Iron Man #158 as O’Neil, Carmine Infantino, Dan Green & Al Milgrom breeze through the motions as a deranged junior genius attacks modern technology from his literal man-cave by tapping the latent psychic power of his ‘Moms’

Roger McKenzie, rising art star Paul Smith & inking collective “Diverse Hands” stepped in to relate what occurs ‘When Strikes Diablo’, as the Fantastic Four’s alchemical nemesis infiltrates Stark International to steal the techno-wizard’s resources and obsolete suits, only to unleash a mystic menace beyond all control…

With pressure mounting and threats everywhere, the craving for booze painfully manifests in ‘A Cry of Beasts’ – by O’Neil, Steve Ditko, Marie Severin & Green – as Stark’s party-persona collides with hot, willing babes …until an attack on his factory by the sinister Serpent Squad reminds him of his priorities.

Preceding Iron Man Annual #5, and by O’Neil, Luke McDonnell, Mike Esposito & Steve Mitchell, a brief encounter with newcomer hero Moon Knight sees Stark at odds with rival rich man Steven Grant (one of four people comprising the edgy new crusader) in ‘If the Moonman Should Fail!’

Frenemies at first sight, the Golden Avenger and Fist of Khonshu swallow their differences to save mutual friends held hostage by Advanced Idea Mechanics, after which the extra-length Annual extravaganza sees Iron Man in Wakanda where The Black Panther must defeat mysteriously resurrected nemesis and determined usurper Eric Killmonger

Crafted by Peter B. Gillis, Ralph Macchio, Jerry & Bingham & Green, the action-packed ‘War and Remembrance!’ reveals an old foe methodically manoeuvring Stark and Iron Man into an inescapable trap, which closes tighter in Iron Man #162 as O’Neil, Mike Vosburg & Mitchell expose ‘The Menace Within!’ as a trusted employee sabotages S.I.…

There seems to be more than one campaign to crush Stark, and – as O’Neil, McDonnell & Mitchell become the regular creative team – ‘Knight’s Errand!’ opens an extended gambit with another hidden plotter turning ruthless capitalism, corporate raiding, advanced weaponry and an obsession with chess into a war for control of the company.

Up first is fast-flying tech terror The Knight who makes short work of Tony’s bodyguard, pilot, friend and confidante James Rhodey, but the real threat comes from a new acquaintance and future companion, covertly hollowing out Stark at close hand. Rising in the rankings after defeating the hovering horseman, Iron Man barely survives the ‘Deadly Blessing’ of The Bishop after his security team digs up leads to the plot in Scotland…

In IM #165, the trail leads to Jamie, Laird of Glen Travail and another deadly duel of devices, but the true purpose is to destabilise Stark by abducting Rhodey in an effort to coerce his capitulation. The resultant ‘Endgame’ seemingly goes Stark’s way, but the battle is fought on many levels by a distanced player secretly commanding the Laird: one with a cruel emotional counterpunch long-prepared to destroy the hero from within…

After a brief interlude offering original art pages from issues #161, 163 & 165, the stories resume and tensions mount on ‘One of Those Days…’ as old foe The Melter attacks Stark’s New York facility. Rhodey is recuperating in Scotland and Stark yet again faces enforced inactivity in the land of sublime alcoholic beverages, so he abruptly abandons his friend and jets home to stop the supervillain. He also learns his brilliant head of security Vic Martinelli has uncovered the identity of one of the hidden players attacking the company: chess grandmaster turned armaments entrepreneur Obadiah Stane

With Rhodey missing again in Scotland, the newcomer wants all Stark’s creations and in the most hostile of takeovers, has used every trick in the book – from honey traps to guided missiles and abduction to intoxication – to seize the advantage…

‘The Empty Shell’ sees that nefarious planning bear evil fruit as Stark finally cracks under interminable pressure and one last betrayal, leading to a crushing fall “off the wagon” and into the gutter in ‘The Iron Scream’.

Permanently drunk and deprived of all judgement, Stark dons his armour to clash with Machine Man, even as far away, Rhodey makes his own life-threatening break for freedom and home…

As chaos ensues at the Stark plant, a major player debuts in the form of junior employee and minor boffin Morley Erwin, who’s on hand for Stark’s reunion with Rhodey and an aghast witness to one of the smartest men alive willingly crawling into a bottle and trying to drown away his pain…

That process begins in #169 as ‘Blackout!’ sees Stark simply give up when confronted by volcanic B-list villain Magma, and sleep through the moment Jim Rhodes steps up – and into – the role and armour of Iron Man

The new era properly begins in #170’s ‘And Who Shall Clothe Himself in Iron?’ (cover-dated May 1983) as the former military airman promotes Erwin to the role of tech support adviser to help him pilot the most complex weapon he’s ever used to defeat Magma and save a far from grateful Tony Stark…

In the aftermath, the inventor just walks away: letting a new hero flounder even as, in the shadows, Stane gradually completes his takeover. Alone, isolated and under resourced, Rhodey and Erwin stumble into a heist in ‘Ball and Chain’, after seeking to arbitrate a domestic hostage situation triggered by Asgardian-powered supervillain Thunderball not knowing when no means no…

They are then duty-bound to intervene when Stark – completely off the rails – is arrested. However, his drunken debacle is only the start of their woes, as one the souse’s most murderous enemies tries to exact ‘Firebrand’s Revenge!’ and an entire hotel goes up in flames.

Thankfully Captain America is on hand to give the new guy in the suit a helping hand, but the distraction is just what Stane needs to seal his deal…

Homeless, broke and close to death on the streets, Stark is then accidentally saved by his conqueror, who lays the seeds of his own eventual downfall by dragging the lush to a grand takeover ceremony. Also attending is the new Iron Man who gets a lead to the woman who tempted and crushed Stark: an operative of freelance espionage ring The Sisters of Ishtar. This time both Stane and Rhodey learn that ‘Judas is a Woman’

During this period every effort to turn Stark around fails: shot down by his self-sabotage. Now however, his friends must pause their personal interventions as the national and international repercussions of Stane’s triumph grows. Refusing to let a ruthless war profiteer benefit from Iron Man tech, Rhodey and Morley take drastic steps: stealing all the old kit and prototypes from Stane International. They are blithely unaware Nick Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D. share those opinions and are making their own clandestine arrangements in ‘Armor Chase’ (inked by Sam de LaRosa)…

A three-way clash escalates in O’Neil, McDonnell, & Mitchell’s Iron Man #175 as all ‘This Treasure of Red and Gold…’ ends up dumped deep in the ocean: purportedly beyond human reach. Nobody seemed to think that maybe water breathers like bellicose Atlantean renegade Warlord Krang might be in the market for a weapons upgrade dropped right in his lap…

Still operating under what can only be described as trial-by-fire period, Rhodey dives right in, triumphs again and even makes a new friend…

Stark’s own deep descent is marginally arrested after befriending an elderly “un-homed” guy on the streets in ‘Turf’, even as far away Iron Man meets the Sisters of Ishtar again and has his first encounter with something not of this Earth…

This tome pauses for now with a transitional tale loaded with portents of bad times to come. After meeting Erwin’s even smarter sister Clytemnestra, Rhodey looks – after a chat with Heroes for Hire Luke Cage & Iron Fist – into forming a rather unique start-up company in ‘Have Armor Will Travel’. The idea only truly gels after he’s hired to bodyguard an officious unflappable official in South America and encounters – and survives – deadly armoured mercenary Flying Tiger. However, in all the furore, our hero barely notices that he’s having headaches almost constantly these days…

To Be Continued…

With covers by Bob Layton, Smith, Jim Starlin, Ed Hannigan & Al Milgrom, Bingham & Brett Breeding, McDonnell, Brent Anderson & Mitchell, the bonus section includes ‘Original art and covers’, the cover for The Many Armors of Iron Man collection by McDonnell, Mitchell, & Frank D’Armata and contemporary House ad from Marvel Age #12.

As comics companies sought to course correct old attitudes and adapt their wares to a far wider and more diverse readership than they had previously acknowledged, some rash rushed decisions were made that did not suit all the fans. Thankfully, that never stopped the editors and publishers from trying and the wonderful results are here and everywhere in comics because of it. Go read and enjoy and see how it all began to change.
© 2017 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Unknown Soldier volume 1: Haunted House


By Joshua Dysart, Alberto Ponticelli & various (DC/Vertigo)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-2311-3 (TPB)

One of the very best concepts ever devised for a war comic, The Unknown Soldier was actually a successful spin-off, having first appeared as a walk-on in a Robert Kanigher/Joe Kubert Sgt. Rock story (Our Army at War #168, cover-dated June 1966). He won his own series in 1970, beginning with Star-Spangled Comics #151, cover-dated July 1970 and an all-Kubert affair.

The timely interventionist was 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. This family’s last son had dedicated himself to ensuring the safety of his nation in the face of outrageous aggression from the Nazis and Japanese, and specifically the death of his own older brother in an enemy sneak attack…

The war strip grew to be one of DC’s most popular and long-lived: Star-Spangled became The Unknown Soldier in 1977 and the comic only folded in 1982 with issue #268, when sales of traditional comic books were in severe decline.

Since then the character has resurfaced numerous times – in superhero guest-shots and as a 12-issue miniseries in 1988-9; a 4-part Vertigo tale in 1997 and this ferocious politically-charged contemporary reboot which surfaced as an ongoing series in 2009. Another iteration was later revived and unsuccessfully updated as part of the 2011 “New 52” project.

With each iteration the hero moved further and further away from the originating concept, but never truly abandoned or escaped it.

As reimagined by Joshua Dysart (Violent Messiahs, Swamp Thing, Hellboy: B.P.R.D., Conan, Harbinger, Bloodshot, Goodbye Paradise) for adult imprint Vertigo Comics, the action shifts to Uganda at the beginning of this century, where almost continual tribal unrest since the fall of Idi Amin had turned the nation into a charnel house.

Especially appalling were the actions of murderous fundamentalist Christian demagogue Joseph Kony: a self-professed prophet whose “Lord’s Resistance Army” kidnapped, pressganged and brainwashed children: making killers of boys and sex slaves of girls – all forcibly indoctrinated into his religion-cloaked armed insurgency. If you’re old enough, you’ll recall a time when his atrocities were never far from our news…

Here, Dysart and illustrator Alberto Ponticelli (Dial H for Hero, Frankenstein, Come un cane, Sam & Twitch, Blade II, Alias, Blatta) co-opt those headlines as basis for a shocking tale of barbarity and duplicity set in 2002 when noted pacifist, physician and award-winning humanitarian Dr. Moses Lwanga returned to the country of his birth after decades away.

A successful refugee from Amin’s lethal reign, he has been raised in America since he was seven. After benefitting from an Ivy League education at Harvard, he intends on doing good for his benighted former countrymen. The move has already paid wonderful dividends as his first explorations won him a wife in the form of equally-accomplished local doctor Sera Christian.

Now, having endured the painful rigmarole of fundraising and gladhanding even the most well-meaning of interested parties – such as “involved and concerned” humanitarian cause-driven actress Mrs Margaret Wells – Moses is more than ready to head in-country and save actual lives.

It’s a painful, frustrating task as it’s not just modern problems causing bloodshed and carnage. The country suffers from ancient grievances underlying everything else: caused by the colonial British bundling together disparate tribes and adjacent regions into one country. When they left, eternal differences between the southern Ganda/Buganda and northern Acholi Peoples fuelled much of the brutal ambitions of all those monstrous “leaders” seeking to fill the power vacuum…

Into this morass of murder and exploitation the Lwangas plunge, setting up a field hospital in Acholiland and trying their very best. They are keenly observed by many, especially journalist Momolu Sengendo and President Museveni’s highly ineffective Ugandan People’s Defense Force (UPDF), who are providing security for the facility which is deep in the region where Kony’s atrocities are daily occurring…

Apart from Sera, nobody is aware of the horrific, violent nightmares Moses endures nightly, and even she does not know how she figures in them…

Weeks later, the couple are struggling to cope with a continuous stream of mutilation, rape and punishment amputation cases caused by Lord’s Resistance Army units: largely autonomous groups spreading chaos and terror in the name of Jesus and Kony. One morning it all becomes too much. When a dying boy is brought in and reveals the LRA have taken his sister, Moses snaps and heads into the bush, outdistancing his extremely reluctant guards. He is easily captured and forced to watch children brutalise even younger children. Deep inside him, something breaks and a terrifyingly different man emerges: one as skilled in combat and death as Moses Lwanga is in healing…

When the smoke clears and the shooting stops, he’s subject to flashbacks of things that never happened, ongoing hallucinations and a voice in his head giving him orders…

Days later, a kind of rationality returns as he awakens with a ruined infected face swathed in bandages. They’ve been applied by an Australian nun, running a home for orphan girls in the middle of the worst place on Earth they could possibly be…

The famous doctor’s disappearance has caused dangerous waves in the outer world, and the press and the UPDF are frantically beating the bushes, but a much more measured approach is being taken by mysterious overseas interests. They have tasked the local CIA office to sort the problem and the ops on the ground “commission” – extort – veteran agent and drunken renegade Jack Lee Howl to find Moses at all costs…

The subject of all that interest is physically recovering at the convent school, but not so much in his head. That voice is telling him that neither he nor the children are safe and it’s backed up by increasingly agonising flashbacks and ever more daring insurgent forays.

Inevitably, the attack comes and broken child soldiers come looking for war brides, only to meet a force of murderous nature no amount of training could prepare them for…

Nevertheless, the bandaged terror fails and is captured by local LRA commander Lieutenant Lakut. A fanatical, remorseless monster, he recognises another when he sees one, and tries to break and recruit his captive. He would have been far wiser killing him right at the start…

As helpful-seeming old lag Howl probes Sera Lwanga for clues, in the bush Moses – or at least the passenger in his head – escapes and even more kids die as he tries to save the convent school residents, but another partial failure only tips him further way from the good man he wants to be…

By the time Howl finds him, Moses is having hallucinations – or are they recollections? – about another, far older killer with a bandaged face and no morality…

Ultimately, Moses battles his way back to Sera at an Internally Displaced Persons camp, only to lead Lakut to fresh victims. In the course of the massacre that follows, the doctor is lost to the soldier and in the aftermath of driving way the LRA, the bandaged man resolves that the only way to heal this infection is to hunt down and kill Joseph Kony himself…

To be continued…

A powerful and unforgettable tale of inhumanity made ever more shocking by its real world origins, this is a staggeringly potent comics tale long overdue for further attention. This initial tome – still cruelly out of print and unavailable digitally – was coloured by Oscar Celestini and lettered by Clem Robins, and features a variant cover by Rich Corben, augmenting regular covers by Igor Kordey whose image for US #1 won the Glyph Comics Award for Cover of the Year.

Dark, brooding, painfully true, Haunted House is a book worthy of your time and deserving of everyone’s attention.
© 2008, 2009 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.