Scarlett Couture


By Des Taylor (Titan Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-78276-062-7

During the early 1960s the world went crazy for suave and stylish superspies like James Bond, Napoleon Solo & Ilya Kuryakin, Matt Helm and Derek Flint. They even accepted – to a lesser degree – such distaff operatives as Modesty Blaise, Honey West and April Dancer (The Girl from U.N.C.L.E.).

Now with our multimedia-mad world again embracing the astonishing entertainment value of espionage extravaganzas there’s a healthy new crop of shadowy spooks, urbane operatives and ferocious femmes fatale vying for our attention but none more sleekly eye-catching than this late entry from triple-threat creator Des Taylor…

Simple, straightforward and as on-target as a sinister sniper sortie, this eye-catching yarn deftly blends the ultra-glamorous worlds of high fashion and movie blockbuster spy-craft; with this initial compilation collecting first 4-issue foray ‘Project Stardust’.

As is so often the case, the drama begins with a beautiful woman being tortured by a maniac…

She is no ordinary victim, however, but one of a number of high profile supermodels from the Chase Couture Agency, abducted during gigs in Las Vegas. The story is soon top of the news all over the world, but all those fervid journalists would be even more strident if they knew the truth.

The celebrated cheesecake-and-clothes club is actually a highly specialised CIA front dating back decades to when luscious Chase Carver created “The Showroom” for “The Company”: building a bevy of beautiful, glamorous patriotic honey-traps extensively trained to get information from powerful but ultimately fallible and predictable men…

Now the project is a very visible (quasi) legitimate concern, Chase is the indomitable matriarch of a fashion empire and her daughter Scarlett is the business’ extremely formidable Chief of Security. Some of the most accomplished girls on their books are still proper spies though…

Scarlett is a girl with a past. As a teenager she was kidnapped herself: held for more than a week until rescued by some very special agents who then became her teachers in a number of unique disciplines and skill-sets. Now they also work for mommy dearest…

Tonight the daughter is hot on the trail of her missing employees and has tracked them to a warehouse in Brooklyn, but as she breaches the seedy building all her suspicions are confirmed as a lethal trap closes around her…

The over-zealous gunmen are no match for Scarlett or her support team, but the nasty surprise the crazy torturer left on one of the captive girls almost ends the investigation before it’s begun…

And as the ultra-rich masterminds behind the scheme confer it becomes clear what the stakes are in a truly high risk game: one that has a shocking connection to the Couture family line…

When a third SC model is found executed in her own New York apartment Scarlett and her handler at Covert Investigations Group back-trace her to Vegas too, and attentions switch to Sin City “businessman” Dante Ramon just as the rest of the world’s focus is on the US Secretary of Defense’s visit to the city…

And that’s only the opening gambit in this rollicking, rollercoaster romp set solidly in the style of the Roger Moore/Pierce Brosnan Bond extravaganzas, involving shady pasts, sinister cabals, crazy radical terror groups, Machiavellian Get-Super-Rich-Quick villains, sunken planes, Nazi-bio-weapons and a proper sting in the tale; all the tried-and-true tropes of sexy spy thrillers from Charlie’s Angels via Emma Peel to La Femme Nikita…

Delivered in a superbly enticing animation-based illustrative style, this deceptively enticing spicy package also includes Special Bonus material such as ‘Dossiers & Mission Log’ offering profiles on ‘Scarlett Eva Carver’, her mega-mysterious mum ‘Chase Elizabeth Carver’, tutors/sidekicks ‘Spencer Kelly’ and ‘Trent Wayland’ as well as crusty curmudgeon/NYC cop dad ‘Lt. Jack Andrew Gillis’.

Adding to the attractions are a mocked-up photo-cover of ‘Hot Profile Magazine: The Chase Couture Collection Issue’, ‘Somebody Call Security’ a faux fashion-mag interview with Scarlett and a plus-sized ‘Gallery section’ featuring covers, photos (of actual model Viktoria Dobos – the visual inspiration for her), sketches, promo artwork, unused cover art and a selection of book covers from a proposed run of novels entitled ‘Scarlett Couture Pulp Designs’

Glitzy, fast-paced, inviting and superbly seductive, this is an action-packed asset to secure the undying attention of every red-blooded armchair operative.

Scarlett Couture will return in…
Scarlett Couture is ™ and © 2015 Des Taylor.

Yoko Tsuno volume 10: Message for Eternity


By Roger Leloup translated by Jerome Saincantin (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-1-84918-251-5

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

The explosive, eye-popping, expansively globe-girdling multi-award winning series was the brainchild of Roger Leloup, another hugely talented Belgian who worked as a studio assistant to Herge’s on The Adventures of Tintin before striking out on his own.

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

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

That epic of extraterrestrial intrigue was the first of 27 European albums to date, and the on show here was first serialised in Spirou #1882-1905 (9th May-17 October 17th 1974) and released the following year as Message pour l’éternité. A skilfully suspenseful mystery thriller, it was chronologically the fifth album and reaches us as Cinebook’s tenth translated chronicle.

It all begins as ever-restless Yoko perfects her skills in a new hobby. Gliding high above Brittany she fortuitously sets down in a field near a vast telecommunications complex. Offered a tour of the space-probing facility she learns from one of the scientists of a fantastic “ghost message” recently picked up by satellites: a Morse code signal from a British plane lost in 1933. Moreover the signal is still being regularly broadcast…

When Yoko tries to arrange to have her glider picked up and sort out her own departure, a mysterious Englishman offers her a lift in his private helicopter. He has an ulterior motive: an employee of the company which insured the lost flight he is looking for someone with certain precise qualifications to trace the downed flight and recover a fortune in jewels from it. Her fee will be £20,000…

It transpires that his firm has known where the plane went down for some time, but geographical and logistic difficulties have prevented them from undertaking a recovery mission until now. Moreover, although they have now started the process, the petite engineer is physically superior to the candidates the company are currently working with…

Cautiously accepting the commission, Yoko starts planning but even before Pol and Vic can join her the following day, strange accidents and incidents begin to imperil her life…

The boys are understandably reluctant but that attitude turns to sheer frustration and terror after someone tries to shoot down Yoko as she practises in her glider. This only makes her more determined to complete the job at all costs.

Two weeks later the trio are heading to the daunting Swiss fortress the company uses as a base when another spectacular murder attempt almost ends their lives, but Yoko is undaunted. Not so Vic and Pol, especially after hearing that two of her fellow trainees have recently died in similar “accidents” in the mountains…

Carrying on regardless, she is introduced to the fantastic glider-&-launch system which will take her to the previously unattainable crash site and begins perfecting her landing technique in a fantastic training simulator.

Eventually more details are provided and the real story unfolds. The Handley-Page transport they are seeking was conveying diplomatic mail from Karachi to London in November 1933, but vanished in a storm over Afghanistan. Decades later a satellite somehow picked up a broken radio message stating it had landed… somewhere…

The businessman the trio call “Milord” identifies himself as Major Dundee – a spymaster from Britain’s Ministry of Defence – and explains how a shady American former U2 pilot approached the British government, claiming to have spotted the downed ship during a clandestine over-flight of Soviet territories.

He provided purloined photos showing the plane in the centre of a vast circular crater on the Russo-Chinese border, but subsequent reconnaissance flights revealed nothing in the hole and the decision was taken to make a physical assessment, even though the already inaccessible site was deep in hostile enemy territory…

Since then it has become clear that some unidentified agent or group is acting against the recovery project, probably intent on retrieving the ship’s mysterious but valuable cargo for a foreign power.

Events spiral out of control when a traitor in the training team attempts to kill Yoko and “Operation Albatross” is rushed to commencement before the unknown enemy can try again…

Within a day she is transported in a most fantastic and speedy manner around the world before her space-age glider prototype is secretly deployed over the enigmatic crater…

Narrowly avoiding patrolling Soviet jets, Yoko deftly manoeuvres into the mist-covered chasm and plunges into one of the most uncanny experiences of her life.

The old plane is certainly gone. The floor of the crater is strangely cracked and at the centre stands a strangely burned and blackened monolith, there are uncharacteristic animal bones everywhere and at one end of the vast cavity there is a primitive but large graveyard…

Whilst the astounded girl is exploring she is ambushed by her treacherous fellow trainee who has raced after her by conventional means and parachuted into the bizarre basin. However, his original plans have changed drastically since arrival and despite the machine gun he wields he needs Yoko’s help.

He’s already located the Handley-Page – somehow manually dragged under an unsuspected overhang in the crater – but is mortally afraid of what he describes as the “tiny people” infesting the terrifying impact bowl…

As the unlikely allies head towards the perfectly preserved plane, the truth about the terrifying homunculi is shockingly revealed and they encounter the last human survivor of downed Diplomatic Flight, discover to their supreme cost the uncanny and ultimately deadly atmospheric anomaly which has kept the plane a secret for decades and turned the crater into a vast geological radio set…

When the dust settles Yoko realises she is trapped in the subterranean anomaly. With all her escape plans rendered useless she must align herself with the bizarre sole survivor and his bestial, rebellious servants, but she also refuses to give up on the recovery mission.

Of course that doesn’t mean that she has to trust anything the old relic in the hole or Major Dundee has said. With that in mind she lays her own plans to settle matters…

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

With this sleekly beguiling tale Yoko proved that she was a truly multi-faceted adventurer, equally at home in all manner of dramatic milieus and able to hold her own against the likes of James Bond, Modesty Blaise, Tintin or any other genre-busting super-star: as triumphantly capable pitted against spies and crooks as alien invaders, weird science or unchecked force of nature…

This is a splendidly frenetic, tense thriller which will appeal to any fan of blockbuster action fantasy or devious espionage exploit.
Original edition © Dupuis, 1973, 1979 by Roger Leloup. All rights reserved. English translation 2015 © Cinebook Ltd.

Ian Fleming’s James Bond: Spectre – the Complete Comic Strip Collection


By Henry Gammidge, Jim Lawrence, John McLusky & Yaroslav Horak (Titan Books)
ISBN: 987-1-78565-155-7

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: A Truly Traditional Licence to Thrill… 9/10

There are sadly few British newspaper strips that can rival the influence and impact of the classic daily and Sunday “funnies” from America, especially in the field of adventure fiction. The 1930’s and 1940’s were particularly rich in popular, not to say iconic, creations and you’d be hard-pressed to come up with household names to rival Popeye, Dick Tracy or Flash Gordon, let alone Blondie, Li’l Abner, Little Orphan Annie or Popeye – and yes, I know I said him twice, but Elzie Segar’s Thimble Theatre was funny as well as thrilling, constantly innovative, and really, really good.

What can you recall for simple popularity let alone longevity or quality in Britain? Rupert Bear? Absolutely. Giles? Technically, yes. Nipper? Jane? Garth? I’d hope so, but I doubt it. The Empire didn’t quite get it until it wasn’t an empire any more. There were certainly many wonderful strips being produced: well-written and beautifully drawn, but that stubborn British reserve just didn’t seem to be in the business of creating household names.

Until the 1950’s…

Something happened in the Britain of the New Elizabethans – and I’m not going to waste any space here discussing it. It just did. Now we’re moving on.

In a new spirit that seemed to crave excitement and accept the previously disregarded, comics got carried along on the wave. Eagle, Lion, the regenerated Beano and girls’ comics in general all shifted into visually receptive high gear and so did newspapers.

Those facts and the canny repackaging of some classy classics which tie in to current Bond Blockbuster SPECTRE – just in time for the Christmas presents rush – means I can happily go on about one of British strip cartooning’s greatest triumphs as Titan Books release a splendidly lavish and sturdy oversized (294 x 277 mm) monochrome compilation of all the canonical adaptations of Fleming’s novels featuring the SPecial Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion…

The first 007 novel – Casino Royale – was published in 1953 and diligently serialised in the Daily Express beginning in 1958, beginning a run of book adaptations (by Anthony Hern, Henry Gammidge, Peter O’Donnell and Kingsley Amis) before eventually Jim Lawrence, a jobbing writer who had scripted the aforementioned Buck Rogers, came aboard with The Man With the Golden Gun to complete the transfer of the Fleming canon to comics format, thereafter staying to create all new adventures, which he did until the strip’s demise in 1983.

The art was always of the highest standard. John McLusky provided the gripping illustrations until 1966 and the conclusion of You Only Live Twice. Although perhaps lacking in flash or verve, the workmanlike clarity and solidly rugged drive of his drawing easily handled an immense variety of locales, technical set-ups and sheer immensity of cast members, whilst accomplishing the then-novel conceit of advancing a plot and ending each episode on a cliff-hanging “hook” every day.

He was succeeded by Yaroslav Horak, who like Lawrence debuted on Man With the Golden Gun, bringing a looser, edgier style to proceedings, at once more cinematic and with a closer attention to camera angle and frenzied action which seemed to typify the high-octane, all-action 1960’s.

Horak illustrated 26 complete adventures until 1977 when The Daily Express ceased carrying Bond and the then-running case suddenly switched to The Sunday Express (from January 30th until conclusion on May 22nd).

None of which is relevant for this stand-alone edition which commences with fond memories and keen insights in the Introduction ‘The Threat of Spectre’ by playwright, film producer and current 007 screenwriter John Logan…

The strip ‘Thunderball’ (11th December 1961-10th February 1962) adapted the ninth novel and proved to be both calamitous and controversial at the time of publication. The plot involves the theft of nuclear bombs by millionaire treasure hunter Emilio Largo, fronting an unsuspected terrorist group called SPECTRE …

Inexplicably for the paper, the tale was censored and curtailed at the direct demand of the Daily Express‘ owner Lord Beaverbrook. Five days worth of strips were excised (and for the full story you’ll need to read the book or track down Titan’s 2007 paperback album edition which provided an ancillary text feature detailing what was cut).

Nevertheless, what remains by Henry Gammidge & McLusky is still pretty engrossing comics-fare and at least some effort was made to wrap up the storyline before the strip ended.

It was then dropped for almost a year before Bond triumphantly returned with an adaptation of eleventh novel On Her Majesty’s Secret Service…

Here however there’s latitude to print the strip adaptation in proper chronological order so next up is ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’ (which appeared from 18th December 1967 to 3rd October 1968).

The action goes into overdrive as the ongoing strip saga reaches the point where Fleming’s last work is adapted, promptly to be followed by all-new adventures. The story is also generously fleshed out (Fleming’s novel was written from the viewpoint of damsel in distress Vivienne Michel and Bond doesn’t show up until the last third of the text).

What we have here is a complex and intriguingly taut battle of wits as Bond and Vivienne combat a duo of deadly arsonists and hitmen with the super-agent’s foray against the revived SPECTRE mob in Canada providing a tense battle of wits and suitably gratuitous just deserts all around…

Arguably the two best novels were then adapted back-to-back. After the falling out with the Express‘ owner, the Bond strip was absent from the paper’s pages from February 1962 until June 1964. The gap was explained as Bond’s year-long search for arch villain Ernst Blofeld…

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service – by Gammidge & McLusky – ran from 29th June 1964 to 17th May 1965) and depicted how the hunter finally discovered his worst enemy and his own ideal woman in a coolly suspenseful and blistering action-drenched extravaganza set primarily in the Swiss Alps. Closely adhering to Fleming’s script – as did the George Lazenby film version – it all ends with the wedding day murder of Bond’s bride Tracy (Draco) di Vicenzo, an atypically downbeat conclusion that directly led into ‘You Only Live Twice’ (18th May 1965 – 8th June 1966, by Gammidge & McLusky) wherein the shattered hero degenerates to the point of almost being fired by M until despatched to Japan on a milk-run to assassinate Dr Guntram Shatterhand and realises his target is actually despised monster and wife-killer Blofeld…

These stories are a must for not only aficionados of 007 but for all thriller fans; stunning examples of terse, gripping adventure uncluttered by superficial razzamatazz, jam-packed with adventure, sex, intrigue and sudden death and starring the world’s greatest clandestine operative who never rests in his vital mission to keep us all free, safe, shaken, stirred and thoroughly entertained.

Get back to basics and remember that classic style is never out of fashion in this, the Greatest Bond Film You’ll Ever Read…
Thunderball © Ian Fleming Publications Ltd/Express Newspapers Ltd 1961. The Spy Who Loved Me © Ian Fleming Publications Ltd/Express Newspapers Ltd 1962. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service © Ian Fleming Publications Ltd/Express Newspapers Ltd 1963. You Only Live Twice © Ian Fleming Publications Ltd/Express Newspapers Ltd 1964. James Bond and 007 are â„¢ of Danjaq LLC used under licence by Ian Fleming Publications Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

Secret Warriors volume 5: Night


By Jonathan Hickman, Mirko Colac, Alessandro Vitti, David Marquez & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-4803-6

In his “Infinity-formula” extended career, Marvel’s immortal secret agent Nick Fury fought in every war since WWII, worked for the CIA and ran numerous iterations of superspy agency S.H.I.E.L.D.; generally finding over and again that nobody could be trusted – not to stay clean and decent – in a world of temptation.

Worse yet, even the best of men could be forced to whatever was necessary given the right motivation…

Too many times the spooks “on our side” became as debased as the bad guys in a world where covert agencies were continually exposed as manipulative, out-of-control tools of subversion, oppression and ambition.

The taste of betrayal and those seeds of doubt and mistrust never went away, and following a succession of global crises – including a superhero Civil War and the rise of a certified maniac to the second most powerful position in America – Fury was ousted as S.H.I.E.L.D. director.

His immediate successor Tony Stark proved to be a huge – if well-meaning – mistake, and after an alien invasion by Skrulls the entire organisation was mothballed. He was replaced by the dynamic Norman Osborn and his cultishly loyal H.A.M.M.E.R. outfit. It was a case of giving a rabid fox the keys to the henhouse…

As America’s Director of National Security, the former Green Goblin instituted a draconian “Dark Reign” of oppressive, aggressive policies which turned the USA into a paranoid tinderbox.

The nation’s Top Fed was specifically tasked with curbing the unchecked power and threat of a burgeoning metahuman community, but he was also covertly 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 inevitable fall) were felt throughout and featured in many series and collections throughout the entire fictive universe.

His brief rule also drastically shook up the entrenched secret empires of the planet and his defeat destabilised many previously unassailable clandestine Powers and States…

Fury, a 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 and continued doing what he’d always done – saving the world, one battle at a time. From this unassailable, unsuspected vantage point, free of the shackles of politically motivated oversight, Fury picked his battles and slowly gathered assets and resources he had personally vetted or constructed…

The indomitable freedom fighter had always known that to do the job properly he needed his own trustworthy forces and no constraints. To this end he had spent decades secretly sourcing and stockpiling his own formidable, unimpeachable army. Decades in charge of S.H.I.E.L.D. had provided him with mountains of data on metahumans. From these he had compiled “Caterpillar Files” covering many unknown, unexploited and, most importantly, untainted potential operatives who might one day metamorphose into true assets…

His first move was to assemble a crack squad of super-human agents. Team White initially comprised Yo Yo Rodriguez AKA Slingshot, neophyte mystic Sebastian Druid, Jerry “Stonewall” Sledge, J.T. “Hellfire” James, instinctive leader Daisy Johnson – codenamed Quake – and the terrifyingly volatile Alexander: a 12-year old boy with incredible power.

The child Phobos was destined to become a true god and personification of Fear itself but until then his daily-growing divine gifts were Fury’s to use… if he dared…

In the aftermath of the wave of crises the old soldier had come across a truly shocking piece of intel: for most of his career, S.H.I.E.L.D. had been no more than a deeply submerged and ring-fenced Hydra experiment.

All Fury’s world-saving triumphs had been nothing more than acceptable short-term losses for a secret society which claims to reach back to ancient Egypt, secretly steering the world for millennia.

However since Osborn and the Skrull invasion had shaken things up, the old war-dog now had an honest chance of wiping out his perfidious many-headed, faceless foe forever…

Hydra had been badly damaged by the crisis, and as the dust settled Baron Wolfgang von Strucker sought to capitalise on the chaos to regenerate the cult in his own image, seizing all fallow assets, technology and even experienced agents abandoned by friends and enemies alike…

To this end, Strucker co-opted breakaway factions of Hydra and convened a new hierarchy of deadly lieutenants loyal to him alone. However even with Viper, Madame Hydra, Kraken, Silver Samurai, The Hive and mystically resurrected mutant ninja The Gorgon on board, the prospect of wedding super-science and corporate rapaciousness with ancient magic and millennial covert cabals was a risky ploy…

Their rabid rapid expansion also gave Fury an opportunity to place one of his own deep within the organisation…

To further bolster his own relatively meagre forces, Fury reached out to selected old S.H.I.E.L.D. comrades and especially his former second-in-command Dum-Dum Dugan who had gathered up the most trustworthy agents and veterans into a private security agency – the Howling Commandos Private Military Company. Warriors to the last, they were all looking for one last good war and a proper way to die…

Some of them got their wish when the good guys launched a daring raid and stole three of the mothballed colossal flying fortress warships dubbed Helicarriers, laying the groundwork for an imminent, unavoidable and very public shooting war…

Fury’s counterattack failed spectacularly and in the resultant chaos that followed things only got worse…

Now Hydra has once more splintered into factions again leaving Strucker embroiled in a globe-spanning vendetta with Soviet-founded subversive organisation Leviathan. Moreover, their once-covert conflict has escalated into a monstrously damaging and destructively public shooting war resulting in thousands of collateral civilian casualties all over Earth…

Written throughout by Jonathan Hickman, this fifth complex and intriguing espionage epic collects Secret Warriors #20-24 (November 2010-March 2011) and opens with the eponymous 3-parter ‘Night’ and ‘How Did Things Ever Come to This?’ (art by Mirko Colak and Alessandro Vitti) wherein Fury briefs his diminished White team – Hellfire, Stonewall, Slingshot, Daisy, Phobos and human teleporter Eden Fesi – about the growing crisis and tells them how they’re going to stop it.

Once the squad’s preparations to raid and eradicate Hydra’s key base are finalised, the traitor in Fury’s handpicked team takes the first opportunity to pass on the plans to the always-one-step-ahead opposition…

Infiltrating the supposedly unsuspecting Gehenna Base in ‘This is How it was Always Going To Be’ Team White find a veritable army of hostiles led by Gorgon, Strucker and Madame Hydra waiting for them, but still manage to plant a devastating “mountain-breaker” bomb before beginning a frantic retreat. In the melee Fury and Phobos are separated from the rest.

Confronted by Gorgon, the boy-god tricks his grizzled human mentor into leaving before turning to duel the Gorgon. After a shattering battle with enchanted swords Alex dies heroically, enigmatically stating “this is how it’s supposed to be”…

The tragedy concludes with ‘I Gave Everything I Had’ as the mountain-breaker – aided by Daisy’s quake powers – detonates and Fury pragmatically drives his protégés to a secret rendezvous where his back-up escape plan is waiting.

The old warrior then selects one of the squad to join him in a rearguard action and, as they hold back the Hydra hordes, makes it plain that he’s aware of the greedy treachery which caused this debacle and Phobos’ death.

Only Fury rejoins the rest of Team White as they make their hairsbreadth escape…

In the aftermath, Strucker fumes, his frustration at fever pitch and his power further diminished by the desertion of The Gorgon and Madame Hydra. He is not expecting his faithful subordinate Kraken to try to kill him…

Illustrated by Alessandro Vitti, ‘Rebirth’ offers an elucidatory flashback which clarifies the mechanics of the team’s lucky escape. Six months previously Fury had very publicly kicked junior sorcerer Sebastian Druid out, declaring him a liability.

It was another ruse and ‘There Is No Out’ reveals how the portly mage was subsequently hot-housed by cyborg SHIELD agent John Garrett whose draconian training program turned the sad sack into a lethally capable operative in complete control of his eldritch abilities.

As a graduation test Garrett had Druid assassinate one of the Leviathan leaders and make it appear as if Hydra was behind the killing…

The Beginning of The End commences with ‘Wheels Within Wheels Part One’ (art by David Marquez & Vitti) as another strand of Fury’s Byzantine scheme seemingly falls apart. A year ago and unknown to all, he had activated another, completely covert Caterpillar team of super-agents, led by his own son Mikel.

Now ‘I Did My Best’ reveals how that entire squad falls in battle against Hydra rebel Hive and a shell-shocked, heartbroken and utterly beaten Nick Fury surrenders himself to Kraken and his Hydra host…

To Be Concluded…

This excellent exercise in tense suspense and Machiavellian manipulation also includes a stunning ‘Cover gallery’ by Jim Cheung and Paul Renaud to supplement the bleak, engagingly cynical, convoluted, over-the-top action and dazzling cloak-and-dagger conflicts: employing enough intrigue to bamboozle even the most ardent espionage aficionado, with the added bonus that far less knowledge of Marvel continuity is necessary to fully appreciate this particularly intense and engaging effort to the full.
© 2010, 2011 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Black Widow: Kiss or Kill


By Duane Swierczynski, Joe Aherne, Manuel Garcia, Brian Ching, Lorenzo Ruggiero, Bit & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-4701-5

The Black Widow started life as a svelte and sultry honey-trap Russian agent during Marvel’s early “Commie-busting” days. Natalia Romanova was subsequently redesigned as a super villain, falling for an assortment of Yankee superheroes – including Hawkeye and Daredevil – defecting and finally becoming an agent of SHIELD, freelance do-gooder and occasional leader of the Avengers.

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

Always a fan favourite, the Widow only really hit the big time after featuring in the Iron Man, Captain America and Avengers movies, but for us unregenerate comics-addicts her print escapades have always offered a cool, sinister frisson of delight.

This particular caper compilation (reprinting Black Widow volume 4 #6-8 spanning November 2010 to January 2011) was the second and final story arc of a short-lived series and includes a riotous team up tale from the Iron Man: Kiss & Kill 1-shot (August 2010).

The espionage elitism opens with the eponymous 3-chapter ‘Kiss or Kill’ by writer Duane Swierczynski, illustrated by Manuel Garcia, Lorenzo Ruggiero, Bit and colourist Jim Charalapidis, as idealistic young journalist and recently bereaved son Nick Crane finds himself the target of two mega-hot, ultra lethal female super-spies in Houston’s club district.

Both of them say they want to save him but each seems far more intent on ending Nick’s life, and in between mercilessly fighting each other and hurtling across the city in a stampede of violent destruction both have demanded that he name his privileged source…

Nick is inclined to believe the blonde called Fatale. After all, he has a surveillance tape of the redhead – the Black Widow – with his father moments before he died…

After his senator dad was found with his brains all over a wall, Nick started digging and uncovered a pattern: a beautiful woman implicated in the deaths of numerous key political figures around the world…

After a staggering battle across the city Natalia is the notional victor but isn’t ready when Nick turns a gun on her. She still goes easy on him and he wakes up some time later in Roanoke, Virginia utterly baffled. She explains she’s on the trail of an organisation devoted to political assassination using a double of her to commit their high profile crimes but the angry young man clearly doesn’t believe her.

Further argument is curtailed by the sudden arrival of an extremely competent Rendition Team who remove them both to a secret US base in Poland. After a terrifying interval the Widow starts thinking that her extreme scheme to get the name out of Nick might be working but that all goes to hell when a third force blasts in and re-abducts them.

Realising that her government liaison is playing for more than one side, the Widow blasts her way out, dragging Nick with her, and soon they are on the run with only her rapidly dwindling and increasingly untrustworthy freelance contacts to protect them.

The escape has however almost convinced Nick to trust her with his source but that moment passes when the latest iteration of Crimson Dynamo and illusion-caster Fantasma derail the train they’re on…

Another explosive confrontation is suddenly cut short when Fatale arrives but rather than assassination she has an alliance in mind. The mysterious mastermind behind the killings and framing the Widow has stopped paying the killer blonde and thus needs to be taught a lesson about honouring commitments…

Now armed with Nick’s contact’s details they go after the enigmatic “Sadko” but the shady operator seems to be one step ahead of them as usual.

But only “seems”…

To Be Continued…

Rounding out this espionage extravaganza ‘Iron Widow’, written by Joe Aherne with art by Brian Ching and colourist Michael Atiyeh from Iron Man: Kiss & Kill, sees the Russian émigré give Avenging inventor Tony Stark a crash course in spycraft after a very special suit of Iron Man armour is stolen.

Fully schooled, the billionaire succeeds too well in locating his missing mech but falls into a terrifying trap set by sinister Sunset Bain and becomes a literal time-bomb pointed at the origin of The Avengers. Luckily Black Widow is on hand to prove skill, ingenuity and guts always trump mere overwhelming power…

A fast and furious, pell-mell, helter-skelter rollercoaster of high-octane intrigue and action, Kiss or Kill also includes a captivating collation of covers-&-variants by Daniel Acuña, J. Scott Campbell, Brian Stelfreeze, Ching & Chris Sotomayor and Stephane Perger, making this such a superb example of genre-blending Costumed Drama that you’d be thoroughly suspect and subject to scrutiny for neglecting it.
© 2010, 2011 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

The Secret Service: Kingsman


By Mark Millar, Dave Gibbons and Matthew Vaughn with Andy Lanning & Angus McKie (Titan Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-78116-703-8

We Brits know everything about the spy-game and think we’ve probably seen it all, from Bond to Smiley, Harry Palmer to Johnny Worricker and Spooks to Carry On Spying.

So it’s not often we get a look at a fresh take, but that’s what’s on offer here as comicbook legends Mark Millar & Dave Gibbons team up with film director/producer Matthew Vaughn (X-Men: First Class, Kick-Ass, Stardust, Layer Cake, Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels) to update the genre in a wickedly sly, cynically funny and irreverential thriller which nevertheless harks back to the glory-days of the “great game” of gentlemanly cloak-and-dagger as it was called when were still an empire, as well as the swinging superspy sagas of the 1960s and 1970s…

The original 6-issue miniseries The Secret Service was released as part of Millarworld’s unfailing hit-factory deal with Marvel Comics’ Icon sub-imprint, and this slick, sharp and wickedly tongue-in-cheek pastiche mixes all the favourite trappings and spectacle of big budget movie blockbusters with an archly satisfying class-war aesthetic that finds full expression following the traditional all-action opening attention-grabber, which finds actor Mark Hamill (almost) saved from abduction by an armed gang by an unlucky British secret agent…

The scene then switches to the urban wasteland of Peckham where Gary Unwin – known to his no-hoper wannabe-gangsta pals as “Eggsy” – is again at odds with the cheap thug who’s shacked up with his mum.

Dean is a former soldier. He’s also a bully and a brute: a typical South London Chav who thinks he’s hard and takes it out too often on Gary and his little brother Ryan as well as their long-suffering mother Sharon.

No wonder the jobless, shiftless teen spends all his time playing computer games, doing drugs, nicking cars and making mischief with his mates. Tonight is no exception, except for the part where the hapless joyriders crash their purloined ride and end up in police cells…

Meanwhile in the swank part of town, two movers-&-shakers in Intelligence are discussing a wave of mysterious abductions: actors from Star Wars, Doctor Who, Battlestar Galactica and Star Trek have all disappeared, as have scientists, sporting legends and other notables. There is clearly some major scheme afoot…

Jack London (I gather they’ve changed his name in the film version) is a self-made man. He escaped his lowborn origins and remade himself into a suave, sophisticated international man-of-mystery and Great Britain’s top operative: the spy who never fails. Nobody does it better. He’s also Sharon’s brother and is once again forced to apply his influence to save his nephew from the consequences of his actions…

He’s had to step in before but he swears it’s the last time and, after an unpleasant confrontation, determines to get Gary out of the toxic environment he escaped from decades ago…

As a mass wedding in Hawaii is turned into a bloodbath by a mysterious mastermind’s hi-tech secret weapon, in Peckham Uncle Jack is telling Eggsy the unbelievable truth. He gets a chance to prove his outrageous claims when Dean’s loutish cronies pick a fight…

Jack, plagued with guilt for neglecting his shameful family, then offers his nephew a chance to better himself by joining the Secret Service training program that made him one of the deadliest men alive…

The boy jumps at the chance to get away and is soon an outcast amongst the cream of Britain’s posh-boy private school and military college recruits, doggedly learning unarmed combat, ballistics, weapons training, tactics, computer science, seduction techniques, languages, piloting any vehicle and every skill and trick needed to keep the world safe from invasion and subversion…

Despite his background and lack of social skills Gary thrives – and even excels – in many of the less salubrious exercises (such as killing drug-dealers on a live fire exercise) even as Uncle Jack returns to his mystery kidnapping case. He slowly makes progress across the world, tracking a certain mad young billionaire with dreams of saving the planet from the plague of humanity. Doctor James Arnold is also extremely keen on preserving his childhood heroes from the Armageddon he’s about to trigger…

At precisely the wrong moment Gary drags Jack back to London again. When the pauper student overhears his well-meaning but privileged comrades condescending and pitying him, Eggsy steals Jack’s gadget-laden, weaponised sports car and goes for an explosive drunken joyride with his real mates from the estate.

Now the super-agent is forced to take extreme measures to sort him out…

Gary wakes up in Colombia with nothing but his underwear and is told he has 24 hours to return to Britain. The Resource Test is the final stage of an agent’s training and is make or break: neither the agency nor his uncle will have anything to do with him if he fails…

He passes with flying colours, and even destroys a drug cartel in the process, leading Jack to take him on as an apprentice, offering style tips and a chance for a palate-cleansing final confrontation with Dean and his mates in Peckham before setting off together to foil Dr. Arnold’s deadly scheme.

…And that’s when it all goes terribly wrong, leaving Gary to cope with imminent world collapse all on his own…

The film was in production simultaneously with the creation of the original six-issue miniseries with Millar, Vaughn and illustrator Gibbons (aided by inker Andy Lanning and colourist Angus McKie) frequently cross-fertilising and amending the print and movie iterations to produce a stunningly clever, outrageously rip-roaring, high-octane read which will astound all us paper-jockeys and no doubt be satisfactorily mirrored in the upcoming filmic extravaganza.

But why wait? Grab some popcorn, hit your favourite chair and experience all the thrills, spills and chills you can handle right now just by picking up this fabulous action comics classic in the making…
© 2012, 2013, 2014 Millarworld Limited, Marv Films Limited and Dave Gibbons Ltd. All rights reserved.

Steed and Mrs. Peel volume 1: A Very Civil Armageddon


By Mark Waid, Caleb Monroe, Steve Bryant, Will Sliney, Yasmin Liang & Chris Rosa (Boom! Studios/Titan Books)
ISBN: 987-1-60886-306-8

Generally when I write about the Avengers here we’re thinking about an assembled multitude of Marvel superheroes, but – until the recent movie blockbuster stormed the world – for most non-comics civilians that name usually conjured up images of dashing heroics, old world charm, incredible adventure and bizarrely British festishistic attire.

It’s easy to see how that might lead to some consumer confusion…

The (other) Avengers was/were an incredibly stylish and globally popular crime/spy TV show made in Britain which glamorously blended espionage with arch, seductively knowing comedy and deadly danger with elements of technological fantasy from the 1960s through to the beginning of the 1980s. A phenomenal cult hit, the show and its sequel The New Avengers is best remembered now for Cool Britannia style action, kinky quirkiness, mad gadgetry, surreal suspense and the wholly appropriate descriptive phrase “Spy Fi”.

The legacy of the series is still apparent in many later hit shows as The Invisible Man (both TV spy iterations), Chuck, the new Mission: Impossible movies and even Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Enormously popular all over the globe – even Warsaw Pact Poland was crazy for Rewolwer i melonik (or A Revolver and a Bowler Hat) – the show gradually evolved from a gritty crime/vengeance thriller entitled Police Surgeon in 1961 into a paragon of witty, thrilling and sophisticated adventure lampoonery with suave, urbane British Agent John Steed and dazzlingly talented amateur sleuth Mrs. Emma Peel battling spies, robots, criminals, secret societies, monsters and even “aliens” with tongues very much in cheeks and always under the strictest determination to remain cool, dashingly composed and exceedingly eccentric…

The format was a winner. Peel, as played by (Dame) Diana Rigg, had been a replacement for landmark character Cathy Gale – the first hands-on fighting female in British television history – who left the show in 1964 to become Bond Girl Pussy Galore in the movie Goldfinger. However Rigg’s introduction took the show to even greater heights of success and recently bereaved actress Emma Peel’s huge popularity with viewers cemented the archetype of a powerful, clever, competent woman into the nation’s psyche and forever banished the screaming, eye-candy girly-victim to the dustbin of popular fiction.

Rigg left in 1967 (she married James Bond in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service) and another feisty female was found in the person of Tara King (Linda Thorson) to carry the series to its demise in 1969. Its continued popularity in more than 90 countries eventually resulted in a revival during the late 1970s. The New Avengers saw glamorous Purdey (Joanna Lumley) and brutishly manly Gambit (Gareth Hunt) acting as partners and foils to the agelessly debonair and deadly Steed…

The show has remained a hugely enticing cult icon. There was a rather ill-conceived major motion picture in 1998, and in 2007 America’s TV Guide ranked the TV iteration the 20th Top Cult TV Show Ever. During its run and beyond, the internationally adored series spawned toys, games, collector models, a pop single and stage show, radio series, posters and books and all the myriad merchandising strands that inevitably accompany a media sensation.

Naturally, as a popular British Television program these Avengers were no stranger to our comics pages either.

Following an introductory strip starring Steed & Gale in listings magazines Look Westward and The Viewer plus the Manchester Evening News (September 1963 to the end of 1964), legendary children’s staple TV Comic launched its own Avengers strip in #720 (October 2nd 1965) with Emma Peel firmly ensconced. This serial ran until #771 (September 24th 1966) and the dashing duo also starred in the TV Comic Holiday Special, whilst a series of young Emma Peel adventures featured in June & Schoolfriend.

The feature then transferred to DC Thomson’s Diana until 1968 whereupon it returned to TV Comic with #877, depicting Steed and Tara King until 1972 and #1077.

In 1966 there was a one-off, large-sized UK comicbook from Mick Anglo Studios whilst in America, Gold Key’s Four-Color series published a try-out book in 1968 using recycled UK material under the rather obvious title John Steed/Emma Peel – since Marvel had already secured an American trademark for comics with the name “Avengers”…

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

Most importantly, Eclipse/ACME Press produced a trans-Atlantic prestige miniseries between 1990 and 1992. Steed & Mrs. Peel was crafted by Grant Morrison & Ian Gibson with supplementary scripting from Anne Caulfield.

That tale was reprinted in 2012 by media-savvy publishers Boom! Studios and acted as a kind of pilot for the current iteration under review here. The adventures of Steed and Mrs. Peel Ongoing began soon after and this initial compilation – collecting issues #0-3 from August to December 2012 – form a worthy reintroduction for the faithful and happily accessible introduction for notional newcomers as the dedicated followers of felons return for another clash with memorable TV antagonists The Hellfire Club.

These baroque bounders appeared in the TV episode ‘A Touch of Brimstone’ and so warped the maturing personalities of young Chris Claremont and John Byrne that they later created their own version for a comicbook they were working on – the Uncanny X-Men…

The drama here opens in ‘A Very Civil Armageddon: Prologue’ (written by Boom! chief creative guru Mark Waid and illustrated by Steve Bryant) as, back in the style-soaked Swinging Sixties, our heroes are called upon to investigate ‘The Dead Future’ and how an active – albeit murdered – agent can seemingly age decades overnight.

The situation reminds Mrs. Peel of the mind-bending, lethally effective fun-and-games perpetrated by the insidious Hellfire Club and its now-defunct leader the Honourable John Clever Cartney…

Further inquiries take them to the latest incarnation of the ancient Gentleman’s Club where the futurist Ian Lansdowne Dunderdale Cartney disavows any knowledge of the matter or his dad’s old antisocial habits. In fact the current scion is far more absorbed with the World of Tomorrow than the embarrassing peccadilloes of the past. However it’s all a trap and whilst Emma is attacked by a killer robot maid Steed is ambushed – only to awaken as an old man 35 years later in the year 2000AD!

Forever undaunted, the temporarily separated Derring-Duo refuse to believe the improbable and impeccably strike back individually to uncover the incredible answer to an impossible situation…

The main feature, by Waid and Caleb Monroe with art from Will Sliney, then sees ‘London Falling’ as the long-dreaded nuclear Armageddon finally happens, leaving Steed, Peel and a swarm of politicians, Lords and civil servants as the only survivors in a battered atomic bunker beneath a utterly devastated Houses of Parliament.

The shattered, shaken remnants of Empire and Civilisation are astounded to discover that the only other survivors are ghastly atomic mutants and a coterie of exceptionally well-stocked and fully prepared members of the Hellfire Club…

‘Life in Hell’ finds the former foes joining forces and combining resources, but Steed and Peel are convinced that something is “not kosher”. For one thing former members of once-important political committees and knowledgeable generals keep disappearing, but most importantly Ian Cartney and his deplorable sister Dirigent are now known to be masters of their father’s dark arts of illusion, trickery and brainwashing…

Steed rumbles to the nature of an audaciously cunning Psy-Ops espionage scheme almost too late as Emma is once again transformed into a ferocious, whip-wielding bondage nightmare in the concluding instalment ‘Long Live the Queen’. Of course, a good spy, like a boy scout, is always prepared and the dapper detective cleverly turns the tables on his foes just in time for a rollicking, explosively old-fashioned comeuppance…

Wry, arch and wickedly satisfying, this opening salvo in the reborn franchise is a delight for staunch fans and curious newcomers alike and this volume also includes a vast (28) covers and variants gallery by Joseph Michael Linsner, Phil Noto, Joshua Covey & Blond, Mike Perkins & Vladimir Popov and Drew Johnson to astound the eyes as much as the story assaults the senses…

© 2013 StudioCanal S.A. All rights reserved.

OK. All clued in?

Would you like to own this book without paying? If so then this is your chance.

All you have to do is enter this piffling little contest and trust to luck…

It’s free and absolutely anybody can join in. You can enter as many times as you want but there’s only one prize and my word is final in every instance.

Below are three multiple choice questions. Simply send your best guesses using Leave a Reply and we’ll pull a correct entry out of our digital bowler hat on December 1st.

Do Not Text, Tweet, Telephone or Telepath us. Just append the name of the lucky person you want to receive the prize with the three letters of your divination in the review’s comment section and we’ll take it from there.

Please do not send us your address. If you win we’ll contact you and ask for where you want the book sent.

Unless you’re residing at the ends of the Earth (in which case the parcel may take a little longer to arrive) the winner should have this treasured possession in time for Christmas, even with British post-privatised post practises…

Ready… Set… Go!

  1. The Avengers were known by what title in Poland?
    1. A Revolver and a Bowler Hat.
    2. Hard Hat and Leather Boots.
    3. Umbrellas and Kicks.
  2. Mrs Peel was Steed’s second karate-kicking female fighting partner. Who preceded her?
    1. Sue Storm.
    2. Tara Tempest.
    3. Cathy Gale.
  3. Patrick MacNee & Honor Blackman produced an infamous Avengers spin-off novelty pop single in 1964. What was it called?
    1. These Boots Are Made for Kicking.
    2. Have some Madeira, M’Dear.
    3. Kinky Boots.

Good luck one and all…

Secret Warriors volume 2: God of Fear, God of War


By Jonathan Hickman, Alessandro Vitti, Ed McGuiness, Tom Palmer & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851- 3865-5

Marvel’s very own immortal secret agent Nick Fury had in his time fought in every war since WWII, worked for the CIA and run numerous iterations of superspy agency S.H.I.E.L.D., generally finding over and again that nobody could be trusted – not to stay clean and decent – in a world of temptation or, worse yet, to never baulk at doing whatever was necessary to save the planet.

Too many times the spooks “on our side” became as debased as the bad guys in a world where covert agencies were continually exposed as manipulative, out-of-control tools of subversion and oppression.

The taste of betrayal and those seeds of doubt and mistrust never went away and following a succession of global crises – including a superhero Civil War – Fury was replaced as S.H.I.E.L.D. director.

His successor Tony Stark proved to be a huge mistake and after an alien invasion by Skrulls, the organisation was mothballed: replaced by the manically dynamic Norman Osborn and his cultishly loyal H.A.M.M.E.R. outfit. As America’s Director of National Security, the former Green Goblin and recovering psychopath instituted a draconian “Dark Reign” of oppressive, aggressive policies which turned the nation into a paranoid tinderbox and as the nation’s Top Fed he was specifically tasked with curbing the unchecked power and threat of the burgeoning metahuman community.

He 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 inevitable fall) were felt throughout and featured in many series and collections throughout the entire fictive universe.

His brief rule also drastically shook up the entrenched secret empires of the planet, and his ultimate defeat destabilised many previously unassailable clandestine Powers and States…

Fury, a 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 and continued doing what he’d always done – saving the world, one battle at a time. From this unassailable unsuspected vantage point Fury picked his battles and slowly gathered assets and resources he’d personally vetted or built…

The indomitable freedom fighter had always known that to do the job properly he needed his own trustworthy forces and no political constraints. To this end he had long endeavoured to clandestinely stockpile his own formidable, unimpeachable army. Decades in charge of S.H.I.E.L.D. had provided him with mountains of data on metahumans from which he compiled “Caterpillar Files” on many unknown, unexploited, untainted potential operatives who might one day metamorphose into powerful assets…

His first move was to assemble a crack squad of super-human operatives. Team White initially comprised Yo Yo Rodriguez AKA Slingshot, Sebastian Druid, Jerry “Stonewall” Sledge, J.T. “Hellfire” James and Daisy Johnson, codenamed Quake, and the terrifyingly volatile Alexander: a 12-year old boy with incredible power.

The child Phobos was destined to become a true god and personification of Fear but until then his daily-growing divine gifts were Fury’s to use… if he dared…

In the aftermath of the wave of crises the old soldier had come across a truly shocking piece of intel: for most of his career, S.H.I.E.L.D. had been no more than a deeply submerged and ring-fenced asset of Hydra. All Fury’s world-saving triumphs had been nothing more than acceptable short-term losses for a secret society which claimed to reach back to ancient Egypt, secretly steering the world for millennia.

However since Osborn and the Skrull invasion had shaken things up so much, the old warhorse now had an honest chance to wipe out the perfidious faceless foe forever…

Hydra too had been badly damaged by the crisis, and as the dust settled Baron Wolfgang von Strucker sought to capitalise on the chaos to regenerate the cult in his own image, seizing all fallow assets, technology and even experienced operatives abandoned by friends and enemies alike…

To this end, Strucker co-opted breakaway factions of Hydra and convened a new hierarchy of deadly lieutenants loyal to him alone. However even with Viper, Madame Hydra, Kraken, Silver Samurai, The Hive and resurrected mutant ninja the Gorgon on board, the prospect of wedding super-science and corporate rapaciousness with ancient magic and millennial covert cabals was a risky ploy…

The rabid rapid expansion also gave Fury an opportunity to place one of his own deep within the organisation…

To further bolster his own relatively meagre forces, Fury reached out to selected old S.H.I.E.L.D. comrades and especially his former second-in-command Dum-Dum Dugan who had gathered up the most trustworthy agents and veterans into a private security agency – the Howling Commandos Private Military Company. Warriors to the last, they were all looking for one last good war and a proper way to die…

Some of them got their wish when the good guys launched a daring raid and stole three of the mothballed colossal flying fortress warships dubbed Heli-Carriers, laying the groundwork for an imminent, unavoidable and very public shooting war…

Written throughout by Jonathan Hickman, this second intriguing and complex espionage epic declassifies material from Dark Reign, The List and Secret Warriors #7-10 from 2009, and opens in stunning style with ‘I Know Who You Work For’ (illustrated by Alessandro Vitti) as Fury secures operating capital for his private war by sending the team to rob a bank – a decent, reliable, reputable financial institution which just happens to be a covertly owned corporate holding of Hydra…

The audacious act prompts Strucker to reach out to Osborn who in turn condescends to deal with Fury as an insulting, double-edged “favour” to the despised former Nazi war-criminal. Osborn’s greatest advantage is his own team of Dark Avengers: ferocious ersatz heroes masquerading as genuine, altruistic champions of justice. One of the most formidable is Grecian war-god Ares. The Olympian is also the father of Fury’s wild-card agent Phobos…

The terrifying celestial child is snooping in Fury’s office with older but no-wiser bad influence J.T. James when they intercept a distress call from ex-Avenger and former S.H.I.E.L.D. operative Black Widow. She needs extraction immediately but when “Fury” rendezvous with her and partner Songbird, the desperate agents are all ambushed by Osborn’s Thunderbolts – a penal battalion of super-villains, purchasing pardons by doing dirty jobs for the Federal government…

In New York, captured and confronted by the Security Czar in ‘I’m the Perfect Means to an End’, Fury is shot in the head and everybody thinks it’s all over – until Phobos climbs out of the undetectable Life Model Decoy (a trusty robot duplicate the S.H.I.E.L.D. Director has utilised for decades to save his life from assorted threats)…

The real Fury is actually in Virginia with another old operative.

John Garrett is 90% mechanical after years of dutiful service to his country but the cyborg is prepared to risk all he’s got left for the right cause…

Back in the Big Apple, Team White agents J.T. and new recruit Eden Fesi attempt a rescue but it’s Phobos who saves them all by confronting Osborn head-on – earning the grudging respect of Ares who lets them all go. It’s not a reprieve, though, just a decent head start…

The rest of the squad are with severely wounded team-mate Yo Yo Rodriguez – whose arms have been replaced with mechanical limbs – when Alexander, J.T. and Eden teleport home with Ares, the Dark Avengers and lots of H.A.M.M.E.R. grunts hard on their heels in ‘The Starting Point is Everything’. With the base automatically initiating a data-purge and self-destruct program, Team White stage a spectacular holding action allowing everyone to relocate to a safe house…

And in Virginia, Garrett begins investigating former S.H.I.E.L.D. op Seth Waters, now a big-wig in the Department of the Treasury and just possibly a life-long dedicated Hydra agent…

Ed McGuiness & Tom Palmer provide the interlude ‘Start the Clock End Game’ wherein Nick breaks into the heart of Osborn’s citadel to put the Security Director on notice even as Waters is exposed as an agent of long-dormant terrorist group and universal threat Leviathan.

With Fury as Osborn’s willing hostage, H.A.M.M.E.R. officers and Dark Avengers lead the savage interrogation but Waters has unsuspected resources and distractingly suicides – just as the immortal superspy intended – allowing Fury to escape from the lion’s den with invaluable intelligence and ‘Leviathan Technical Data’ (all the bases, maps, files and diagrams any conspiracy nut could ever need to untangle the web of intrigue all diligently laid out for our perusal).

‘There Will Always Be War’ wraps up this saga with the full history of Phobos, beginning with an ancient parable of a forgotten war between the gods of Greece and Japan, the crafting of god-killing weapons and rare, telling insights into how Ares and Alexander grew apart.

A secret deal between undying war god and immortal spy is revealed before the fearsome inescapable fate and cost of inheritance is at last made clear to the slowly-maturing future god of Fear…

To Be Continued…

This excellent exercise in tense suspense and Machiavellian manipulation also includes a stunning ‘Cover gallery’ by Jim Cheung as well as variant covers from McGuinness, Adi Granov, Frank Cho & Gerald Parel to supplement the wry, engagingly cynical, blackly comical, staggeringly over-the-top action and dazzling cloak-and-dagger conflicts: employing enough intrigue to bamboozle even the most ardent espionage aficionado, with the added bonus that far less knowledge of Marvel continuity is necessary to fully appreciate this particularly intense and engaging effort to the full.
© 2009, 2010 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Secret Warriors volume 1: Nick Fury, Agent of Nothing


By Brian Michael Bendis, Jonathan Hickman, Stefano Caselli (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851- 3864-8

Just as the 1960s espionage fad was taking off, inspired by the James Bond films and TV shows like Danger Man, Nick Fury the spy debuted in Fantastic Four #21 (December 1963 – between #4 and 5 of his own blistering battle mag), a grizzled and cunning CIA Colonel lurking at the periphery of big adventures, craftily manipulating the First Family of Marvel superheroes.

He 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, raucous and wild WWII series similar in tone to later movies such as The Magnificent Seven, Wild Bunch or The Dirty Dozen.

When spy stories went global in the wake of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. the elder iteration was given a second series (in Strange Tales #135, August 1965) set in the then-present. Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. combined Cold War tension and sinister schemes of World Conquest by hidden, subversive all-encompassing enemy organisation Hydra – all gift-wrapped with captivating Kirby-designed super-science gadgets and explosive high energy.

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

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

After that story was resolved S.H.I.E.L.D. was reinvented for the 1990s: a new leaner organisation, nominally acting under UN mandate, soon pervaded the Marvel Universe. The taste of betrayal and those seeds of doubt and mistrust never went away though…

Following a number of global crises – including a superhero Civil War – Fury was replaced as S.H.I.E.L.D. director. His successor Tony Stark proved to be a huge mistake and after an alien invasion by Skrulls, the organisation was mothballed: replaced by the manically dynamic Norman Osborn and his cultishly loyal H.A.M.M.E.R. outfit.

Osborn’s ascent was an even bigger error. As America’s Director of National Security the former Green Goblin and recovering psychopath instituted a draconian “Dark Reign” of oppressive, aggressive policies which turned the nation into a paranoid tinderbox. AsAmerica’s top Fed he was specifically tasked with curbing the unchecked power and threat of the burgeoning metahuman community.

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 universe. His brief rule also drastically shook up the entrenched secret powers of the planet and his ultimate defeat destabilised many previously unassailable empires…

Fury, a 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 and continued doing what he’d always done – saving 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 built…

This beguiling and complex superspy thriller collects material from Dark Reign, New Nation and Secret Warriors #1-6 from 2008, beginning with a short recap of the current global crises, a gathering of heroic strangers and a reaffirmation of Captain America’s maxim that a few good men can change the world in ‘I Will Be the One Man’…

Fury had long known that to do the job properly he needed his own resources and no political constraints. Thus he had clandestinely built up his own formidable and unimpeachable resources. Decades in charge at S.H.I.E.L.D. provided him with mountains of data on metahumans from which he compiled “Caterpillar Files” on a host of unknown, unexploited, untainted potential operatives who might metamorphose into powerful assets…

With the nations and covert organisations in disarray he moved to fix the mess with a squad of dedicated super-human operatives. But it was a truly dangerous game, as evidenced by the fact that one of Fury’s most valued but volatile assets is the 12-year old son of Grecian war-god Ares. Phobos is destined to become the new god of Fear…

Yo Yo Rodriguez AKA Slingshot, Sebastian Druid, Jerry “Stonewall” Sledge, J.T. “Hellfire” James and Daisy Johnson, codenamed Quake, were his first picks, dubbed Team White and activated whilst Osborn was still in power.

Simultaneously battling both Hydra and H.A.M.M.E.R. forces whilst rendering a defunct S.H.I.E.L.D. facility useless to both agencies, the squad picked up valuable intelligence in ‘Come with Me and Save the World’, prompting Fury to break into the White House and apprise the new President of his intentions and the current status quo.

At no stage did he ask for permission or approval…

He kept the worst of the intel to himself. For most of his career S.H.I.E.L.D. had been no more than a deeply submerged asset of Hydra and all his victories nothing more acceptable losses for a secret society reaching back to ancientEgyptand which had been secretly steering the world for millennia.

Now Osborn and the Skrull invasion had shaken things up so much, Fury had an honest chance to truly wipe out the perfidious organisation forever…

‘Autofac’ then provides all the maps, data files and diagrams any conspiracy nut could ever need to untangle the web of assorted secret agencies, before ‘My Desire is Eternal’ shifts focus to the recent past when current Hydra supremo Baron Wolfgang von Strucker battled Skrull infiltrators.

In the months that followed, Hydra too was attacked, seemingly destroyed, but now Strucker sought to capitalise on the chaos and regenerate the cult in his own image, necessitating seizing all fallow assets, technology and even experienced operatives abandoned by friends and enemies alike…

As Team White slowly grew closer Strucker was recruiting breakaway factions of Hydra, unhappily marrying super-science and generational cabals with ancient magic. This rabid rapid expansion did however give Fury an opportunity to place one of his own deep within the organisation…

Now as Strucker creates a new hierarchy of deadly lieutenants – Viper, Madame Hydra, Kraken, Silver Samurai, The Hive and resurrected mutant ninja the Gorgon – Fury cautiously expands his own organisation, reaching out to old S.H.I.E.L.D. comrades he feels worthy of trust. It’s too little and too late. In ‘After a While You Simply Are What You Are’ finds Team White taking their first casualty and experiencing their biggest defeat when Daisy leads the squad against Gorgon as his forces attempt to kidnap an entire division of forcibly “retired” S.H.I.E.L.D. telepaths from the defunct and discredited Esper Agent section.

With the situation escalating, Druid and field-leader Daisy are sent to the Australian Outback to recruit a replacement for Team White from Fury’s Caterpillar Files. Meanwhile the old man himself goes to his oldest surviving friends for help and Phobos and J.T. rashly snoop in the secretive leader’s office and find something quite incredible in ‘It’s the World That’s Changed: I Haven’t Not One Bit’.

When S.H.I.E.L.D. was shut down, second-in-command Dum-Dum Dugan gathered up his most trusted fellow agents and veterans and went private, founding the Howling Commandos Private Military Company. Warriors to the last, they’ve been looking for one last good war and a proper way to die.

As they are reacquainting themselves with their old boss, in Australia Daisy and Druid find unexpected success with the extraordinarily powerful but oddly naïve mystical teleporter and reality shaper Eden Fesi but realise that’s only because his mentor Gateway wouldn’t let him go with the guys from Hydra…

As Strucker’s cabal laid their plans and continued to accrue men and materiel, Fury and the Howling Commandos moved to secure some heavy armaments of their own, sneak attacking The Dock – a H.A.M.M.E.R. base where the mothballed fleet of colossal flying fortresses known as Heli-Carriers were stored.

Sadly Hydra knew they were coming and took the opportunity to lay an ambush of their own. With Fury swiftly losing beloved comrades and the three-way battle going against his veteran forces, things looked bad until Team White chose to disobey orders and teleported in for a blockbusting rescue mission in ‘Summon the Horde Wake the Beast’…

As the surviving Commandos escaped with three Heli-Carriers, the Secret Warrior put Daisy through a terse debrief, and she ferociously defended herself, claiming Team White only broke protocol and disobeyed orders because Fury pressed his Panic Button… Something he claims didn’t happen…

To Be Continued…

This excellent exercise in tense suspense and Machiavellian manipulation also includes a stunning ‘Cover gallery’ by Jim Cheung to supplement the wry, engagingly cynical, blackly comical and gloriously excessive cloak-and-dagger conflicts: employing enough intrigue to bamboozle even the most ardent espionage aficionado, although I fear that a thorough grounding in Marvel continuity might be necessary to fully appreciate this intense and engaging effort to the full.
© 2008, 2009 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Stormbreaker – an Alex Rider Graphic Novel


By Anthony Horowitz, adapted by Antony Johnston, Kanako & Yuzuru (Walker Books)
ISBN: 978-1-4063-1877-7

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Ignore the telly for once and get your postprandial Yuletide blockbuster hit from this superb comics classic… 8/10

One of the most thrilling and effective additions to Britain’s pantheon of spies and detectives in recent years is no hard-hearted and suavely mature super-agent but a conflicted yet ultimately indomitable English teenager, more worried about daily drudgery and bouts of lessons-induced coma than espionage and the end of civilisation as we adults know it…

In 2000 author and TV screenwriter Anthony Horowitz released Stormbreaker, the first of nine (and counting…) breathtaking, rollicking teen novels featuring 14-year old Alex Rider: a smart, fit, sports-mad lad like any other, who suddenly discovers that his guardian Uncle Ian had been keeping incredible secrets from his only kin…

After a dull English lesson and a tense schoolyard dalliance between the boy and classmate-of-his-dreams Sabina Pleasure inBrooklandSchool,London, the all-out action begins with a spectacular chase inCornwall as a desperate man in a tricked-up sports car desperately fights to avoid high speed death. It’s a futile effort: his dogged pursuers are on motor bikes and in helicopters and, in the midst of a hail of bullets and missiles, the quarry takes time out to call his nephew Alex and apologize for letting him down again.

It’s the last call Uncle Ian will ever make…

Returning to his Chelseahome Alex Rider is greeted by his eccentric Katana-wielding housekeeper Jack Starbright. She’s made sushi and thinks she’s perfected the recipe for fugu. Alex hopes so: Puffer fish is one of the deadliest poisons known to man…

The meal is interrupted by the police with some bad news…

At the funeral, staff from the private bank Ian Rider worked for tender their condolences but they’re like no businessmen Alex has ever seen, and when he and Ms. Starbright return to the flat they find workmen moving the last of Ian’s possessions into a van. Without thinking the furious schoolboy gives chase on his pedal-bike and the breakneck pursuit leads to an excessively secure junk yard inSouth Londonwhere Alex sees all his uncle’s stuff being destroyed. When the boy examines the soon to be crushed car he finds bullets holes and an ejector seat, but is trapped when the vehicle is dropped into a mechanical crusher.

Spectacularly escaping, he is then chased by gun-firing goons. Fighting his way clear the boy follows a lead to Liverpool Street Station and is lured, all unsuspecting, to a secret high-tech installation beneath the busy railway terminus.

Alex is greeted by the efficient Mrs Jones and her supercilious superior Mr. Blunt who reveal the incredible truth. Ian Rider was a secret agent working for MI6 and murdered in the line of duty. Moreover, the deceased super-spy had been surreptitiously teaching his nephew all the skills, techniques and disciplines needed to become a secret agent – and his successor…

When Blunt’s far-from-subtle hints that Alex should join up are hotly rejected, the Machiavellian spymaster resorts to blackmail and threatens to revoke Ms. Starbright’s visa and have her deported.

Soon Alex is training with an elite military unit inWalesand quickly distinguishes himself as someone with unique problem-solving capabilities and a knack for improvisation.

The case Ian was working on is still active. Mysterious billionaire philanthropist Darrius Sayle is a Man of the People, friend of the Prime Minister and about to donate one of his new Stormbreaker personal computers to every school inBritain. But Alex’s uncle was investigating Sayle’sCornwall factory/mine complex when he was killed and the agent’s last message warned of a virus. Now Blunt wants to send Alex in as a computer nerd competition winner to scope out the nature of the threat…

Alex’s grim, enforced resignation is briefly lifted when he is sent to a toyshop to pick up a batch of high-tech gadgets from ingenious and affable MI6 quartermaster Mr. Smithers, after which it’s all stations go and “Kevin Blake” is packed off to isolated South West village Port Tallon.

He is met by Sayle’s ferocious and formidable PA Nadia Vole and escorted deep into the depths of a facility that looks more like an army base than a factory. The billionaire himself is a creepy blend of Tim Curry and Richard Branson, and his other assistant – mute failed circus knife-thrower Mr. Grin – looks like a fugitive from a horror film…

Soon “Kevin” is experiencing the full incredible power and range of the virtual realities produced by Stormbreaker kit, but his unsanctioned investigations soon uncover an unspecified secondary purpose for the schools-destined computers…

After being caught wandering “lost” in the bowels of the installation, Alex has an effusive dinner chat with American ex-pat Sayle, unaware that Ms. Vole has tracked his origins and is currently attempting to murder Jack Starbright…

Later that night in Cornwall Alex spies on a conversation between Sayle and a lethal-looking Russian named Yassen Gregorovitch and, unaware that he has been compromised, sneaks into the deepest levels of the factory and uncovers a lab modifying a biological – not digital – virus to be hidden inside every free computer destined for the nation’s classrooms…

Confronted by Gregorovitch who nonchalantly admits to killing his uncle, the boy manages to escape but is swiftly recaptured and left to die in a tank of deadly jellyfish as Sayle triumphantly flies off to London and the culmination of a petty, vindictive, genocidal vengeance scheme thirty years in the making…

Following a staggering spectacular chase back to London, Alex, with only his unlucky amour Sabina to assist him, invades the Stormbreaker launch and dramatically prevents the virus from being released. On the roof ofLondon’s tallest skyscraper they clash with the bonkers billionaire in a brutal and extremely final confrontation before the madman meets his deserved doom from a most unexpected and bewilderingly unlikely source…

With the drama done with, the stunned and shaken kids return to school, but the shadowy worlds of tradecraft and spymasters are not done with Alex Rider just yet…

This adaptation is sharp and poignant, surely depicting the sense of loss and betrayal as Alex loses so much of his innocence amidst situations of breathtaking danger and nerve-tingling excitement.

Our popular literary heritage is littered with cunning sleuths and stealthy investigators from Sherlock Holmes and Dick Barton to the Scarlet Pimpernel, George Smiley, Harry Palmer and BondJames Bond – but the ongoing adventures of boy-hero Alex Rider seem set fair to match them all in time.

Transformed into graphic novel interpretations, the first four adventures have been recently repackaged and re-released in larger, more graphic-friendly editions: their easy blend of action, invention, youthful rebellion and engaging James Bond pastiche perfectly captured in adaptations by writer Antony Johnston and manga artists (and sisters) Kanako Damerum & Yuzuru Takasaki.

They’re well worth further investigation, but remember: even though this is a notionally a children’s book there is a lot of realistic violence and a big body-count so if you intend sharing the book with younger children, read it yourself first.

These books and their comic counterparts are a fine addition to our fiction tradition. Alex Rider will return… and so should you.
Text and illustrations © 2006 Walker Books Ltd. Based on the original novel Stormbreaker © 2000 Stormbreaker Productions Ltd. All rights reserved.