Buz Sawyer volume 3: Typhoons and Honeymoons

By Roy Crane (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-703-1 (HB)

I’m making an effort not to be snarky or political today. Powerless ranting and supposedly scathing asides don’t do much to change the world and nothing at all good for my blood pressure. What does is wonderful comics masterpieces. Here’s one now…

In these seen-it-all 21st century days, science is flashy: astounding and confounding us on a daily basis (I assume you’ve all seen the supermassive black hole doughnut by now?). It’s perhaps an effort, then, to remember simpler times when folk were impressed by amazing things we now take for granted, when human-scaled drama and adventure was enough to set pulses racing and hearts pounding… until you read a book like this one.

This third stout and sturdy hardcover edition re-presents more magnificent newspaper strip exploits of dynamic all-American everyman Buz Sawyer: war hero, globetrotting troubleshooter and here an imminent groom-to-be. The strips cover the epochal period from July 21st 1947 to October 9th 1949 wherein – after much procrastination, intrigue, bloodshed and sexy skulduggery – our boy clean-cut boy-next-door finally marries his extremely understanding sweetheart Christy Jameson.

Of course, he then dragged her into his lethally adventurous world as prime problem-solver for Frontier Oil – a company with fingers in many international pies…

Before the two-fisted romance kicks off, however, the ever-erudite Rick Norwood uses a letter from Crane’s personal papers (donated to Syracuse University) to examine the creator’s history, influence and opinions in his own forthright words in ‘The Life of a Professional Artist’.

Crane and his creative team (see Buz Sawyer volume 2: Sultry’s Tigerfor details) laboured long, hard, often acrimonious hours to produce each daily strip; all beguilingly rendered in monochrome through Crane’s masterly techniques employing line art and craftint (a tricky mechanical monochrome patterning effect which added greys and halftones to produce miraculous depths and moods to the superb underlying drawing) but the toll was heavy on personnel and feelings.

The colour Sundays were usually the province of ghost artist Hank Schlensker and starred Buz’s grizzled old sidekick Roscoe Sweeny, and this volume concludes with a brief selection that primarily guest-starred the named lead and Roscoe in wartime reminiscences and occasional contemporary gag goof-offs…

The never-ending rollercoaster of thrills, spills and chills picks up as Frontier Oil’s Mr. Fixit reels at the realisation that he’s at long last formally engaged to his girl…

Buz is only just coming to grips with the marriage in prospect, whereas avowed “Ladies Man” Chili Harrison is cynically unmoved that his former office-mate is on Cloud 9… at least until they get a desperate call from mutual Navy buddy Thirsty Collins. Their homely shipmate has a problem only Buz can solve…

The old salt had made good since hostilities ended and owns his own plantation on his own island. He has, however, been maimed in an accident whilst wooing a woman by post. Now she is coming to marry her Mr. Collins, based on his winning words and a single photo… of Buz. With the jig up, Thirsty deeds Patricia Patterson all his worldly goods, sets up Sawyer to marry her and attempts his own wildly flamboyant suicide…

Reluctantly flying down to Puerto Rico, Buz is soon embroiled in a ludicrous imbroglio as, even after having everything explained, Pat professes to prefer the hunk at hand rather than her timid, missing matrimonial mystery man.

Thankfully, a colossal hurricane and a conniving, lecherous playboy cad do more to convince Collins to fight for and win his baffled bride than all Buz’s indignant, infuriated, exasperated arguments…

In Roy Crane’s world there are no tidy beginnings and endings. Each adventure follows seamlessly on from the last and even as Buz makes his way back to New York the next escapade is well underway.

Patient sweetheart Christy has had enough waiting around and goes looking for a job, landing up as Chili’s secretary, but only after the unrepentant, blithely unaware hound-dog clears the way by promoting his own highly efficient but unsightly amanuensis – at great personal and financial cost – so that he can have unrestricted access to the pretty stranger joining Frontier Oil.

Naturally, sparks fly when Sawyer finds his fiancée toiling for his dissolute and (probably) degenerate former wingman, whilst Chili is horrified to find he had lost this particular hot babe to “old Buzzo” even before he had hired her…

As Buz lays his wedding plans and retirement, his crafty boss Mr. Wright convinces him to sideline all that mushy stuff for one last job, and soon Sawyer and Sweeney are in the Goat Islands off Portugal, hunting a devious gunrunning ring supplying rebels in Salvaduras.

Masquerading as itinerant writers on a yachting jaunt, our heroes don’t fool bombastic Brobdingnagian bully Hammerhead Gool or his puny, effete but Machiavellian boss Harry Sparrow for a moment. It’s only the diminutive mastermind’s overwhelming squeamishness and sensitivity to the thought of blood that prevents their immediate destruction.

Moreover, when deception, bribery and seduction fail to deter the undercover operatives, Sparrow resorts to abducting them whilst immediately despatching the cached ordnance and munitions to the revolutionaries wrecking Frontier’s Salvaduran oil fields.

That slow voyage of the damned only leads to the explosive loss of Sparrow’s ship and shipment, as well as the end of the coup…

Back in America, Buz has proved himself too valuable to lose, and Frontier’s most important executive J.J. Freeze finds herself – when all is said and done, a “mere woman” – compelled to employ him as a bodyguard on her secret mission to secure lucrative mineral rights deals in Java and points East.

Sawyer is just as reluctant, but the promise of enough money to retire in style proves too tempting. Yet again, patient, understanding Christy is again left behind to fret and worry. She has good reason: Sparrow is still alive and eagerly anticipating the prospect of a vast payoff and some sadistically-enacted vengeance…

Tracking Freeze and Sawyer from Ireland to Egypt to Singapore, the little weasel poisons Freeze, who orders Buz to go on to Surabaya alone, carrying a cash payment of $1,000,000 for the nation’s capricious and over-educated Maharaja.

Harry even brazenly confronts Buz; putting our hero off guard as he instigates his latest master-plan: hiring a double to blacken Sawyer’s name and reputation in prim and proper Javanese High Society.

With the deal effectively scuppered, Sparrow maroons Buz on a desert island to force him to surrender the cash – unsuccessfully – before playing his final stroke: drugging the valiant Yank with a solution that causes amnesia…

Back in America, when word comes that the deal has flopped and both Buz and a million bucks are missing, Christy refuses to accept the slanderous stories and sells everything she owns to buy passage to Java. Soon she is an innocent abroad searching the dives and alleys of Surabaya for her man. When she is targeted by bandits and worse, Christy’s frantic escape brings her into contact with a crazy old lady who collects stray cats – and did the same for a derelict American with no name or memory…

The action seamlessly shifts into romantic melodrama as Christy tries to win back Buz from the lonely and dangerous harridan he has come to love, but even after that struggle heart-wrenchingly succeeds, the greater fight to clear his mind and good name continues…

When that minor miracle is finally accomplished, the restored Buz at last begins the oft-postponed wedding plans, only to be kidnapped by his rich, crazy and somehow not dead stalker Sultry, the Maharani of Batu.

In no mood to be balked, however, the impatient two-fisted groom-to-be fights his way out of her palace and onto a Honolulu-bound plane…

Back in their rural hometown in time for Christmas, Buz and Christy finally tie the knot and prepare for the rest of their lives but the new Mrs. Sawyer is still terrified that domesticity might kill her over-active husband…

As the newlyweds enjoy a carefully sequestered and discreet honeymoon off-panel, Sweeney appropriates the daily strip for a few weeks for a hilarious comedy sequence as he attempts to find them the perfect wedding present and ends up hunting Longhorn Sheep off-season in the near-arctic conditions of the Rocky Mountains in December…

A turning point began in early 1948 as Wright and the Frontier Oil brass track down Buz to offer him a life-threateningly dull desk job or a perilous field assignment in Darkest Africa.

Perfect wife Christy, understanding Buz’s needs, bravely ignores her own feelings and talks him into the latter, offering to share his addiction to danger and the unknown…

Soon the couple are trekking across the Veldt: pioneers tasked with carving an airport and oil installation out of the jungle, but the natural wonders and threats of Africa are as nothing compared to the murderously conniving schemes of their nearest neighbour.

Dashing, debonair Kingston Diamond is solicitous in advice and unctuous in his welcome of the young Americans, but his patient game includes sabotage, terrorism, slaughtering Christy’s menagerie of pets and even murdering Buz to eventually win him the only white woman in 100 miles…

As previously mentioned, also included here are fourteen of the best Sundays – all notionally with appearances by Buz (spanning July 29th 1945 to 17th February 1963) – a cheerily tantalising bonus which will hopefully turn one day into an archival collection of their own. Whilst not as innovative or groundbreaking as Captain Easy, they’re still proficient works by one of the Grandmasters of our art form.

Buz Sawyer: Typhoons and Honeymoons is a sublime slice of compelling comics wonder and an ideal way to discover or reconnect with Crane’s second magnum opus. Bold, daring, funny and enthralling, these adventures influenced generations of modern cartoonists, illustrators, comics creators and storytellers. The series ranks amongst the very greatest strip cartoon features ever created: always offering comics tale-telling that is unforgettable, unmissable and utterly irresistible. Try it and see for yourself.
Buz Sawyer: Typhoons and Honeymoons © 2014 Fantagraphics Books. All Buz Sawyer strips © 2014 King Features Syndicate, Inc. All other material © the respective copyright holders. All rights reserved.

Bloody Mary

By Garth Ennis, Carlos Ezquerra & various (Image)
ISBN: 978-1-63215-761-4

Let’s go back to a future that never happened… yet…

Fleetway veterans Garth Ennis and Carlos Ezquerra have a long association with British war comics and the apocalyptic visions of alternate lifestyle bible 2000AD, so combining those sensibilities in a near-future World War III adventure must have seemed a natural for the fledgling DC science fiction imprint Helix when they began publishing at the end of the last century.

Since the first 4-part miniseries spawned an almost immediate sequel, they must have been more or less correct, but as Helix folded in the space of a year, with its surviving projects being absorbed by sister/parent imprint Vertigo, this compilation comes to us via them and their championing of creator rights but actually courtesy of creator-owner outfit Image Comics.

Confused yet? Surely not?

In 1999, Europe went back to war: massive, bloody conventional war with the bankrupt and barmy US of A and it’s grovelling toady ally Great Britain, ostensibly over economic and religious differences, but actually because our creators needed a backdrop for the world-weary Mary to display her exceptional talent for slaughter in the signature arena of idiot Generals and venal politicians whose sole reason for existing seems to be to prune back the surplus of the current generation of decent folk.

My other screen is currently updating me on the escalating tariff clashes between the orange office of Trumplestiltskin and the EU, China and probably any country without a national golf course, but I’m sure that’s coincidence, not the late-running of a prediction from a comicbook Nostradamus or two…

Now imagine it’s 2012 again. Under the guise of a mission to secure a biological super-weapon, American commando Corporal Mary Malone – who affects the look of a very mean nun – and a crack team of expendables including her only friend “The Major” spectacularly and gratuitously battle a spectre from her gore-splattered past and the EU’s top psychotic hit-man. Carving a swathe of destruction through Europe’s few remaining landmarks, their mission is to secure the key to immortality (a parasitic organism dubbed the Blood Dragon), but, of course, their superiors have been less than candid in what it actually does or what it’s for and have only themselves to blame when Mary – and her opponents – go off-mission…

Violently engaging, sublimely cathartic and painfully accurate in far too many prognostications, this first tale (released in 1996) was followed by an equally engaging follow up.

Bloody Mary: Lady Liberty was issued a year later and sees an older, wiser Malone return to a devastated America. With the Major in tow she agrees to wrest New York City from the half-million religious maniacs who have captured it. The messiah du jour is Achilles Seagal: a bigoted, populist raving lunatic with the common touch, a unique manner of phrasing complex issues who knows just what to say to make people do what he wants…

Trenchant, savagely satirical, gripping and never less than totally thrilling, this slice of dark, edgy fun shows Ennis and the much-missed Ezquerra at their anarchic irreverent best, ably assisted by letterer Annie Parkhouse and colourists Matt Hollingsworth & Chris Chuckry , giving you an everyman view of all the hell-and-stupidity our leaders happily drag us ordinary mortals through far too often.

Grown-up comics at its very best and long overdue for its rightful place on your bookshelf or in your digital library.
© 2016 Garth Ennis & Carlos Ezquerra. All rights reserved.

Buck Danny volume 2: The Secrets of the Black Sea

By Francis Bergése & Jacques de Douhet; colours byFrédéric Bergése and translated byJerome Saincantin (Cinebooks)
ISBN: 987-1-84918-018-4 (TPB)

Premiere pilot Buck Danny premiered in Le journal de Spirou in January 1947 and continues soaring across the Wild Blue Yonder to this day. The strip details the improbably long but historically significant career of the eponymous Navy pilot and his wing-men Sonny Tuckson and JerryTumbler. It is one of the world’s last aviation strips and a series which has always closely wedded itself to current affairs such as The Korean War, Bosnia and latterly Gulf and Afghanistan.

The Naval Aviator was created by Georges Troisfontaines whilst he was director of the Belgian publisher World Press Agency, and initially depicted by Victor Hubinon before being handed to the multi-talented Jean-Michel Charlier, who was then working as a junior artist.

When Charlier, with fellow creative legends Albert Uderzo and René Goscinny, formed the Édifrance Agency to promote the specialised communication benefits of comics strips, he continued to script Buck Danny and did so until his death. From then on, his artistic collaborator Francis Bergése (who had replaced Hubinon in 1978) took complete charge of the adventures of the All-American Air Ace, occasionally working with other creators such as in this captivating political thriller scripted by Jacques de Douhet.

Like so many artists involved in stories about flight, Francis Bergése (born in 1941) started young with both drawing and flying. He qualified as a pilot whilst still a teenager, enlisted in the French Army and was a reconnaissance flyer by his twenties. At age 23 he began selling strips to L’Étoile and JT Jeunes (1963-1966), after which he produced his first aviation strip Jacques Renne for Zorro. This was soon followed byAmigo, Ajax, Cap 7, Les 3 Cascadeurs, Les 3 A, Michel dans la Course and many others.

Bergése worked as a jobbing artist on comedies, pastiches and WWII strips until 1983 when he was offered the plum job of illustrating the venerable and globally syndicated Buck Danny. A man with his head very much in the clouds, Bergése even found time in the 1990s to produce some tales for the European interpretation of Great British icon Biggles. He finally retired in 2008, passing on the reins to illustrator Fabrice Lamy & scripter Fred Zumbiehl.

Like all Danny tales this second Cinebook volume is astonishingly authentic in feel and fact: a suspenseful and compelling, politically-charged adventure yarn originally published in 1994 as Buck Danny #45: Les secrets de la mer Noire: blending mind-boggling detail and technical veracity with good old-fashioned blockbuster derring-do.

It’s 1991 and in the dying days of the Soviet Empire a submarine incident leads the American Chief of Naval Operations to dispatch Buck into the newly open Russia of “Glasnost and Perestroika” to ascertain the true state and character of the old Cold War foe. All but ordered to be a spy, Buck is further perturbed by his meeting with ambitious Senator Smight, the US dignitary who is supposed to be his contact and cover-story on the trip to heart of Communism.

Buck is an old target of the KGB and knows that no matter what the official Party Line might be, a lot of Soviet Cold Warriors have long and unforgiving memories…

No sooner does he make landfall than his greatest fears are realised. Shanghaied to a top secret Russian Naval super-vessel, Buck knows he’s living on borrowed time: but his death is apparently only a pleasant diversion for the KGB renegade in charge, whose ultimate plans involve turning back the clock and undoing every reform of the Gorbachev administration… and the key component to the scheme will be a conveniently dead American spy in the wrong place at the right time…

Of course, the ever-efficient US Navy swings into action, determined to rescue their pilot, clean up the mess and deny the Reds a political victory, but there’s only so much Tumbler and Tuckson can do from the wrong side of the re-drawn Iron Curtain. Luckily, Buck has some unsuspected friends amongst the renegades too…

Fast-paced, brimming with tension, packed with spectacular air and sea action and delivered like a top-class James Bond thriller, The Secrets of the Black Sea effortlessly plunges the reader into a delightfully dizzying riot of intrigue, mystery and suspense. This is a superb slice of old-fashioned razzle-dazzle that enthrals from the first page to the last panel and shows just why this brilliant strip has lasted for so long.

Suitable for older kids and boys of all ages and gender, the Adventures of Buck Danny is one long and enchanting tour of duty no comics fan or armchair adrenaline-junkie can afford to miss. Chocks Away…
© Dupuis, 1994 by Bergése& de Douhet. English translation © 2009 Cinebook Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

Airboy: The Return of Valkyrie

By Chuck Dixon, Timothy Truman, Tom Yeates, Stan Woch & Will Blyberg (Eclipse)
ISBN: 0-913035-59-9 (limited edition) ISBN: 978-0-91303-560-3 (TPB)

The wonderful prospect of It’s Alive’s efforts to revive the magnificent Airboy have prompted me to rerun this review from days past.

There are some nifty omnibus editions available too, and they’re on my To Do Soon list…

Created for Hillman Periodicals by the brilliant Charles Biro (Steel Sterling, the original Daredevil, the Little Wiseguys and Crime Does Not Pay among many other triumphs), Airboy featured a plucky teen and his fabulous super-airplane, affectionately dubbed ‘Birdie’.

He debuted in the second issue of Air Fighters Comics in November 1942 and once the war concluded the comic was renamed Airboy Comics in December 1945. For more than twelve years of publication the boy-hero tackled the Axis powers, crooks, aliens, monsters, demons and every possible permutation of sinister threat – even giant rats and ants!

The gripping scripts took the avenging aviator all over the world and pitted him against some of the most striking adversaries in comics. He was the inspiration for Jetboy in the many Wild Cards braided mega-novels by George R.R. Martin and friends.

Then the world moved on and he vanished with many other comicbook heroes whose time had run out. In 1982 comics devotee Ken Pierce collected all the Airboy adventures that featured the pneumatic Nazi-turned-freedom-fighter Valkyrie, which apparently inspired budding independent comics company Eclipse to revive the character and all his Hillman comrades.

Always innovative, Eclipse were experimenting at that time with fortnightly (that’s twice a month, non-Brits) comics with a lower page count than the industry standard, at a markedly reduced price. Airboy premiered at 50 cents a copy in 1986 and quickly found a vocal, dedicated following. And looking at this compilation once more, it’s easy to see why.

Deep in the Florida Everglades the monstrous bog-creature known as The Heap stirs after decades of inactivity. Something momentous is beginning to unfold. It remembers a previous life, brave heroes and a diabolical evil. It begins to walk towards a distant villa…

In Napa Valley, David Nelson is a bitter, broken old man. Not even his teenaged son can bring joy to his life. Trained since birth by the Japanese Ace and martial artist Hirota, the boy is a brave, confident fighter but still doesn’t know why his life has been one of constant training.

Then suddenly a horde of assassins attacks the compound and the old man dies in a hail of machine gun bullets. Only then does young Davy discover the truth about his father. Once he was the hero known as Airboy, with valiant comrades and a unique super-aircraft. Once he loved a beautiful German woman-warrior named Valkyrie. But for 30 years she has been trapped in suspended animation by Misery, a supernatural being who feeds on evil and steals the souls of lost fliers…

Forced to do the monster’s bidding for three decades (such as providing weapons for South American despots to slaughter and enslave innocents) the old hero had gradually died inside. But now his son is ready to avenge him and free the beautiful sleeper, aided by such combat veterans as Hirota and the legendary Air Ace Skywolf

Fast-paced, beautifully illustrated and written with all the gung-ho bravado of a Rambo movie, this tale of liberation and revolution rattles along, a stirring blend of action and supernatural horror that sweeps readers along with it. The book collects issues #1-5 of the comic plus an 8-page promotional preview with a cover gallery that includes art from Stan Woch. Tim Truman, and the late, great Dave Stevens.

The title was briefly one of the best indie titles available and spawned a mini-franchise of equally unmissable spin-offs, and I’m extremely hopeful that the potential revival makes Airboy a three-time success.

I’m reviewing my signed and numbered hardcover limited edition which has a beautiful colour plate included plus a superb Steranko painted cover, but the standard trade paperback is almost as good, if that’s all you can find.
Story © 1989 Timothy Truman and Chuck Dixon. Art © 1989 Timothy Truman, Tom Yeates, Stan Woch and Will Blyberg. Cover art © 1989 Jim Steranko. Airboy, Valkyrie, Skywolf, Misery, The Heap ™ Eclipse Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Buz Sawyer volume 2: Sultry’s Tiger

By Roy Crane & various (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-499-3

Modern comics evolved from newspaper comic strips, and these pictorial features were, until relatively recently, utterly ubiquitous. Hugely popular with the public and highly valued by publishers who used them as an irresistible weapon to guarantee sales and increase circulation, the strips seemed to find their only opposition in the short-sighted local paper editors who often resented the low brow art form, which cut into advertising and frequently drew complaint letters from cranks…

It’s virtually impossible for us today to understand the overwhelming allure and power of the comic strip in America (and the wider world) from the Great Depression to the end of World War II. With no television, broadcast radio far from universal and movie shows at best a weekly treat for most folk, household entertainment was mostly derived from the comics sections of daily and especially Sunday Newspapers. “The Funnies” were the most universally enjoyed recreation for millions who were well served by a fantastic variety and incredible quality of graphic sagas and humorous episodes over the years.

From the very start comedy was paramount; hence the terms “Funnies” and “Comics”, and from these gag and stunt beginnings – a blend of silent movie slapstick, outrageous fantasy and the vaudeville shows – came a thoroughly entertaining mutant hybrid: Roy Crane’s Wash Tubbs.

Debuting on April 21st 1924, Washington Tubbs II was a comedic, gag-a-day strip which evolved into a globe-girdling adventure serial. Crane produced pages of stunning, addictive high-quality yarn-spinning for years, until his eventual introduction of moody swashbuckler Captain Easy ushered in the age of adventure strips with the landmark episode for 6th May, 1929.

This in turn led to a Sunday colour page that was possibly the most compelling and visually imaginative of the entire Golden Age of Newspaper strips (see Roy Crane’s Captain Easy, Soldier of Fortune: The Complete Sunday Newspaper Strips volumes 1-4).

Practically improving minute by minute, the strip benefited from Crane’s relentless quest for perfection: his imaginative, fabulous compositional masterpieces achieved a timeless immediacy that made each page a unified piece of sequential art. The influence of those pages can be seen in the works of near-contemporaries such as Hergé, giants-in-waiting like Charles Schulz and comicbook masters such as Alex Toth and John Severin ever since.

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

They just didn’t lift the artist any more so Crane stopped making them.

At the height of his powers Crane just walked away from the astounding Captain Easy Sunday page to concentrate on the daily feature, and when his contract expired in 1943 he left United Features, lured away by that grandee of strip poachers William Randolph Hearst.

The result was a contemporary aviation strip set in the then still-ongoing World War II: Buz Sawyer.

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

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

The wartime strip was – and still is – a marvel of authenticity: picturing not just the action and drama of the locale and situation but more importantly capturing the quiet, dull hours of training, routine and desperate larks between the serious business of killing and staying alive. However when the war ended the action-loving duo – plus fellow pilot and girl-chasing rival Chili Harrison – all went looking for work that satisfied their penchant for adventure and romance wherever they could find it…

Crane was a master of popular entertainment, blending action and adventure with smart drama and compellingly sophisticated soap opera, all leavened with raucous comedy in a seamless procession of unmissable daily episodes.

He and his team of creative assistants – which over the decades comprised co-writer Ed “Doc” Granberry and artists Hank Schlensker, Clark Haas, Al Wenzel, Joel King, Ralph Lane, Dan Heilman, Hi Mankin and Bill Wright – soldiered on under relentless deadline pressure, producing an authentic and exotic funny romantic thriller rendered in the signature monochrome textures of line-art and craftint (a mechanical monochrome patterning effect used to add greys and halftones to the superb drawing for miraculous depths and moods) as well as the prerequisite full-colour Sunday page.

This primarily black-&-white tome contains an impressive selection of those colour strips – although Crane came to regard them only as a necessary evil which plagued him for most of his career…

The eternal dichotomy and difficulty of producing Sunday Pages (many client papers would only buy either Dailies or Sunday strips, but not both) meant that most creators had to produce different story-lines for each feature – Milt Caniff’s Steve Canyon being one of the few notable exceptions.

Whereas Dailies needed about three weeks lead-in time, hand-separated colour plates for the Sabbath sections meant the finished artwork and colour guides had be at the engravers and printers a minimum of six weeks before publication.

Crane handled the problem with typical aplomb; using Sundays to tell completely unrelated stories. For Wash Tubbs he created the prequel series starring Captain Easy in adventures set before the mismatched pair had met, whilst in Buz Sawyer he turned the slot over to Roscoe Sweeney for lavish gag-a-day exploits, big on slapstick laughs and situation comedy.

During the war years it was set among the common “swabbies” aboard ship: a far more family-oriented feature and probably much more welcome among the weekend crowd of parents and children than the often chilling or disturbing realistically sexy sagas that unfolded Mondays to Saturdays.

A year before Steve Canyon began, Crane tried telling a seven-days-a-week yarn in Buz Sawyer – with resounding success, to my mind, and you can judge for yourself here – but found the process a logistical nightmare. At the conclusion he retuned to weekday continuity whilst Sundays were restored to Roscoe with only occasional guest-shots by the named star.

This second lush and sturdy archival hardback re-presents the tense and turbulent period from October 6th 1945 to July 23rd 1947 wherein de-mobilised adrenaline addict Buz tries to adjust to peacetime life whilst looking for a job and career – just like millions of his fellow ex-servicemen…

Before getting out, he had returned home on leave and ended up accidentally engaged. Buz was the son of the town’s doctor; plain, simple and good-hearted. In that ostensibly egalitarian environment the school sporting star became the sweetheart of ice-cool and stand-offish Tot Winter, the richest girl in town,

Now when her upstart nouveau riche parents heard of the decorated hero’s return they hijacked the homecoming and turned it into a publicity carnival. Moreover the ghastly, snobbish Mrs. Winter conspired with her daughter to trap the lad into a quick and newsworthy marriage.

Class, prejudice, financial greed and social climbing were enemies Buz and Sweeney were ill-equipped to fight, but luckily annoying tomboy-brat girl-next-door Christy Jameson had blossomed into a sensible, down-to-earth, practical and clever young woman.

She’d scrubbed up real pretty too and showed Buz that his future was rife with possibility. Mercifully soon, the leave ended and he and Sweeney returned to the war. The Sawyer/Winter engagement fizzled and died…

When their discharge papers finally arrived (in the episode for September 9th 1945) an era of desperate struggle was over. However that only meant that the era of globe-girdling adventure was about to begin…

Before the comics wonderment resumes, Jeet Heer and Rick Norwood take some time here discussing ‘The Perfectionist and his Team’. Concentrating initially on ‘After the War’ the fascinating explorations then delve deep into the detail of the artist’s troubled and tempestuous relationship with ‘Crane’s Team’ before offering ‘A Word on Comic Strip Formats’ and the censorious iniquities local newspaper editors would regularly inflict upon Crane’s work…

With all the insightful stuff over, the cartoon adventure begins anew as the newly civilian Mr. Sawyer goes home to a life of indolence before his own restless nature starts him fretting again. The old town isn’t the same. Tot has inherited her father’s millions and moved to New York and even Christy is gone: away attending his old alma mater…

After a brief interlude wherein he visits the cheery Co-Ed and debates the merits of returning to college on the G.I. Bill, Buz instead opts for fulltime employment and heads to the Big Apple where Chili Harrison has a new job offer and an old flame waiting.

As he heads East, Buz chooses to ignore his instincts and the huge mysterious guy who seems to turn up everywhere he goes…

In NYC the aloof, alluring Tot is the cream of polite “arty” society but her wealth and clingy new fiancé – opera singer Count Franco Confetti – are all but forgotten when “the one who got away” hits town and she finds her interest in her High School beau rekindled.

Buz has moved in with Chili, blithely unaware that the strange and ubiquitous giant has inveigled himself into the apartment next door and is now actively spying on him…

Sawyer wants a job flying but is only one of hundreds of war-hero pilots looking for a position at International Airways. Moreover his reputation as a hot-shot risk-taker makes him the last person a commercial carrier might consider. However after well-connected Chili intercedes with a major player in the company – something does come up…

The truth about Buz’s hulking stalker comes out when the Maharani of Batu’s yacht docks in New York. The exotic Asian princess is one of the wealthiest women on Earth and cuts a stunning figure with her tiger on a leash. However when Buz first met her she was simply “Sultry”: a ferocious, remorseless resistance fighter helping him kill the occupying Japanese on her Pacific island.

She never forgot him and will ensure no other woman can have him…

Sultry moves into the penthouse adjoining Tot’s and is witness to the ploys of the Winter woman as she sidelines Confetti and makes a play for Buz. She is also a key figure in the tragic heiress’ sudden death…

Just prior to Tot’s gruesome demise Buz had finally met the unconventional Mr. Wright of International Airways. The doughty executive had no need for pilots but wanted a quick-thinking, capable fighter who could solve problems in the world’s most troubled conflict zones. He even has a spot open for good old Roscoe Sweeney…

Buz is all set for his first overseas assignment when the cops decide he’s the other prime suspect in Tot’s murder and, with Sawyer and Count Confetti in jail, Sultry tries to flee America before the truth comes out.

However Sweeney and the freshly exonerated Buz soon track her down, but Sultry turns the tables on them and shanghais her erstwhile lover, imprisoning him on her yacht, determined to make him her permanent boytoy, far, far away from American justice…

Never short of an idea and blessed with the luck of the damned, Buz’s escape results in a terrifying conflagration and the seeming death of his obsessed inamorata – but Sultry’s body isn’t recovered…

It takes a lot of pleading to get Mr. Wright to give him another chance but, soon after, Buz and Sweeney are winging north to Greenland to stop a crazed sniper taking pot-shots at aircraft passing over the “Roof of the World”.

This savage, visceral extended saga soon reveals the shooter to be a deranged leftover Nazi and his hapless attendants, but the heroes’ astonishing hunt for and capture of the Teutonic trio is as nothing compared to the harrowing trek to get them back to civilisation: especially since poor Roscoe is putty in the hands of Frieda, beautiful devil-daughter of the utterly mad Baron von Schlingle.

Before Buz get the survivors home safely, he loses his plane, has to forcibly trek across melting floes, gets them all stranded on a iceberg and even has his pretty-boy face marred forever…

Worst of all by the time he gets back to civilisation his job no longer exists. Mr. Wright has quit and moved on to another company…

It’s not all bad news: Wright has euphemistically become “Personnel Director” for Frontier Oil, a truly colossal conglomerate active all over Earth and wants Buz to carry on his unique problem-solving career for his new employers.

Despite a large bump in salary, the weary war hero is undecided – until he hears Christy is helping her father in the Central American nation of Salvaduras in his role as a geologist for Frontier Oil. This happily ties in with an outstanding missing persons case; said vanished victim being Bill Daniels, playboy son of a prominent company executive.

It takes very little to convince Wright to despatch Buz and Roscoe south of the border to investigate, opening the floodgates to a spectacular epic of light-hearted romantic adventure a world apart from the previous harrowing tale…

The story also saw Crane and Co. merging the Daily and Sunday strips into a single storyline (with the Sundays primarily illustrated by Schlensker) as the boys tried to trace the missing American in a country that seems locked in fear and poverty…

After initially hitting a wattle-and-daub wall, Buz takes time off for a picnic with Christy and, after a close call with a faux Mexican bandit (in actuality a Yankee fugitive from justice with an atrocious fake accent), declares his undying lover for her.

He is not rebuffed and there’s the hint of wedding bells in the air…

First however he and Sweeney need to finish their mission, and help comes from a brave peon who breaks the regional code of silence to put them on the trail of the mysterious Ranch of the Caves and its American émigré who runs the isolated canton with blood and terror.

After romancing the daughter of vicious “Don Jaime” Buz and Roscoe infiltrate the desolate fiefdom and the gang boss’ international band of thugs, discovering not only the very much alive missing playboy but an incredible lost Mayan treasure trove…

Mission accomplished, Buz returns to New York to marry Christy, only to find he’s already needed elsewhere. Christy too is having doubts, worried that she will always play second fiddle to her man’s lust for action, whereas in truth the real problem is that trouble usually comes looking for Buz…

Boarding a Frontier plane for the Yukon, Sawyer is merely a collateral casualty when the ship’s other passenger is kidnapped. The mysterious men abducting plastic surgeon Dr. Wing take their helpless hostages all the way to deepest Africa where they expected the medic to change the face of an infamous madman everybody in the world believes died in a Berlin Bunker…

Tragically the fanatics are not prepared for the physician’s dauntless sense of duty and sacrifice nor Buz’s sheer determination to survive…

The latter part of this tale describes Buz’s epic river trek with mercenary turncoat honey-trap Kitty as they flee from the vengeful Nazis, but even after reaching the coast and relative safety the insidious reach of the war-criminals is not exhausted and one final attack looms…

Eventually Buz returns to New York alone and wins time from the slave-driving Mr. Wright to settle things with Christy. He follows her to Nantucket Sound but even their romantic sailboat ride turns into a life-changing adventure…

This splendid collection is the perfect means of discovering – or reconnecting with – Crane’s second magnum opus: spectacular, enthralling, exotically immediate romps that influenced generations of modern cartoonists, illustrators, comics creators and storytellers.

Buz Sawyer ranks amongst the very greatest strip cartoon features ever created: stirring, thrilling, outrageously funny and deeply moving tale-telling that is irresistible and utterly unforgettable.
Buz Sawyer: Sultry’s Tiger © 2012 Fantagraphics Books, all other material © 2012 the respective copyright holders. All Strips © 2010 King Features Syndicate, Inc All rights reserved.

Showcase Presents Sgt. Rock volume 1

By Robert Kanigher, Joe Kubert, Bob Haney, Ross Andru, Mort Drucker, Irv Novick, Russ Heath & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-1713-6

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

This initial compendium collects in stunning black and white the tentative first steps in the character’s evolution from G.I. Combat #68 and Our Army at War #81-82 to the first full barrage of battle blockbusters from OAAW #83-117, covering January 1959 (and many happy returns to you, Sarge!) through April 1962: a period wherein the American comicbook market was undergoing a staggering revolution in style, theme and quality.

Behind the stunning Jerry Grandenetti cover (the first of many in this bulky and impressive monochrome paperback tome) for G.I. Combat #68 lurks a quiet, moodily unassuming story (by Kanigher & Joe Kubert) of an anonymous boxer who wasn’t particularly skilled but simply refused to be beaten. When ‘The Rock!’ enlisted in the US Army, however, that same Horatian quality attained mythic proportions as he held back an overwhelming Nazi attack by sheer grit and determination, remaining bloody but unbowed on a field littered with dead and broken men.

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

Our Army at War #83 (June 1959) saw the true launch of the immortal everyman hero in Kanigher & Kubert’s ‘The Rock and the Wall!’: a tough-love, battlefield tutor shepherding his men to competence and survival amidst the constant perils of war. Here the grizzled nomcom meets a rival for his men’s admiration in the equally impressive Joe Wall

Irv Novick illustrated ‘Laughter on Snakehead Hill!’ as the embattled dog-faces of Easy fight to take a heavily-fortified citadel before OAAW #85 introduces the first continuing cast member in the Kubert-limned ‘Ice Cream Soldier!’ Here Rock assuages a fearful replacement’s jangled nerves with tales of another hopeless “green apple” who grew into his job.

This ploy of incorporating brief past-action episodes into a baptism of fire scenario would play over and over again, and never got old…

Haney returned in #86 to script ‘Tank 711’ for Kubert as the terse top-kick educated another newbie in combat etiquette. Kanigher returned to describe the taking of “No-Return-Hill” and the initiation of four more raw recruits in ‘Calling Easy Co.!’ after which Grandenetti illustrated a brace of tales in #88 and 89: ‘The Hard Way’, in which Rock suffers a shocking crisis of confidence and ‘No Shot from Easy!’ wherein the indomitable sergeant is forced to give his toughest ever order…

Issue #90 offered classic Kubert as ‘Three Stripes Hill!’ revealed the story of how Rock won his stripes after which the traditionally anthological Our Army at War offered three complete Sgt. Rock sagas in #91, beginning with ‘No Answer From Sarge!’ as the NCO risks everything to drag a recruit out of a crippling funk; ‘Old Soldiers Never Run!’ where he has to weigh an old man’s pride against Easy’s continued existence, and the Haney-scripted tragic fable of a sole-surviving Scottish soldier in ‘The Silent Piper!’

OAAW #92 saw Kanigher & Kubert tackle battlefield superstitions in ‘Luck of Easy!’, and ‘Deliver One Airfield!’ introduces Zack Nolan, a son of privilege who has to learn teamwork the hard way before #94’s ‘Target… Easy Company’ pits the unit against a German General determined to eradicate the increasingly high-profile heroes.

Issue #95 debuted charismatic and ambitious Bulldozer Nichols who wants Rock’s rank and position in ‘Battle of the Stripes!’, after which ‘Last Stand for Easy!’ sees the still in-charge topkick compelled to relinquish his lead-from-the-front position and ‘What Makes a Sergeant Run?’ finds him again sharing his hard-earned war wisdom with the young and the hapless.

Haney penned ‘Soldiers Never Die!’ in #98, with Rock forced to overcome his team’s trauma at losing a beloved comrade whilst Kanigher described ‘Easy’s Hardest Battle!’ in #99, as the weary warrior recalls a number of instances which all qualified, before once more triumphing over insurmountable odds and adding one more clash to the list.

The Stalwart Sergeant risked everything to save a broken replacement in #100’s ‘No Exit for Easy!’ and repeated the task in ‘End of Easy!’ as a parachute drop goes tragically awry, before #102’s ‘The Big Star!’ concedes the consequences of depending on a young man utterly unsuited for combat…

‘Easy’s Had It!’ in #103 was another Haney contribution, exploring what happens when Rock is wounded and the company has to fight without their guiding light and lucky talisman, after which Kanigher assumed regular scripting duties beginning with #104 and ‘A New Kind of War!’ depicting the grizzled vet totally outgunned by a valiant nurse who refuses to retreat and never surrenders.

In #105 a ‘TNT Birthday!’ has Rock worried about the underage kid who had somehow got past all the instructors to join Easy under terrifying fire whilst ‘Meet Lt. Rock!’ (illustrated by Novick) sees the dedicated noncom forcibly promoted until he manages to undo the horrifying prospect after which #107’s ‘Doom Over Easy!’ again sees the savvy soldiers afflicted by crippling superstition…

The superb Russ Heath drew his first Rock strip in OAAW #108: ‘The Unknown Sergeant!’ has the squad passing through a French village with a statue of a WWI Yank “doughboy” bearing an uncanny resemblance to their own indomitable leader – provoking some very uncomfortable historical hallucinations – before Kubert’s return in #109’s ‘Roll Call of Heroes!’ signals a dose of grim reality when Rock recalls his own deadly baptism of fire and lost comrades, after which a green Lieutenant almost provokes mutiny and murder until he learns the rules of Combat Arithmetic in ‘That’s An Order!’

‘What’s the Price of a Dogtag?’ is painfully answered in the occupied streets and on seemingly deserted beaches in #111, whilst ‘Battle Shadow!’ focuses on the burgeoning supporting cast in a blisteringly explosive extravaganza that heralds African American soldier Jackie Johnson taking centre stage (in a bold early example of comicbook affirmative action) for a memorable last-stand moment in ‘Eyes of a Blind Gunner’ in #113 (December 1961).

The incessant toll of lost comrades hits hard in ‘Killer Sergeant!’, whilst civilian survivors and partisans who comprise ‘Rock’s Battle Family!’ help him survive the worst the war can throw at him – featuring a cameo from French Resistance star Mademoiselle Marie – before the ragged warrior finds himself all alone when he answers #116’s ‘S.O.S. Sgt. Rock!’ to save lost comrade Ice Cream Soldier…

This inaugural battle-book concludes with a dramatic tale of three hopelessly square pegs who finally find their deep, round holes in #117’s traumatic saga of ‘The Snafu Squad!’

Robert Kanigher at his worst was a declarative, heavy-handed and formulaic writer, but when writing his best stuff – as he does here – remains an imaginative, evocative, iconoclastic and heart-rending reporter and observer of the warrior’s way and the unchanging condition of the dedicated and so very human ordinary foot-slogging G.I.

With superb combat covers from Kubert, Grandenetti, and Heath fronting each episode, this battle-book is a visually perfect compendium and is a lost delight for any jaded comics fan looking for something more than flash and dazzle.

A perfect example of true Shock and Awe, these are stories every fan should see, especially as modern tastes in books and digital compilations haven’t quite remembered that star warriors and superheroes are not the only flavours…
© 1959, 1960, 1961, 1962, 2007 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Milton Caniff’s Steve Canyon 1947

By Milton Caniff (Checker Book Publishing Group)
ISBN: 978-0-97102-49-9-1

Milton Caniff wasn’t an overnight sensation. He worked long and hard before he achieved stellar status in the comic strip firmament. Before Terry and the Pirates brought him fame, and Steve Canyon secured his fortune and reputation, the strip which brought him to the attention of legendary Press Baron “Captain” Joseph Patterson (in many ways the co-creator of Terry) was an unassuming daily feature about a little boy hungry for adventure.

Caniff was working for The Associated Press as an entry-level jobbing cartoonist when a gap opened in their strips department. AP was an organisation that devised and syndicated features for the thousands of local and small newspapers which could not afford to produce the cartoons, puzzles, recipes and other fillers that ran between the local headlines and the regional sports.

Over a weekend Caniff came up with Dickie Dare, a studious lad who would read a book and then fantasize himself into the story, taking his faithful little white dog Wags with him. The editors went for it and the strip launched on July 31st 1933. Caniff produced the adventures for less than eighteen months before moving on, but his replacement Coulton Waugh steered the series until its conclusion two decades later.

As well as being one of the greatest comic-strip artists of all time, Caniff was an old-fashioned honest American Patriot, from the time when it wasn’t a dirty word or synonym for fanatic.

The greatest disappointment of his life was that he was never physically fit enough to fight. Instead, during World War II he not only continued the morale-boosting China Seas epic Terry and the Pirates newspaper strip seven days a week, he also designed art, brochures and posters (all unpaid) for the War Department and made live appearances for soldiers and hospital residents. Even that wasn’t enough.

Again unpaid, he devised Male Cale: a strip to be printed in the thousands of local military magazines and papers around the world. Originally using established characters from Terry, Caniff swiftly switched (for reasons best explained in Robert C Harvey’s wonderful Meanwhile… a Biography of Milton Caniff) to a purpose-built (and was she built!) svelte and sexy ingénue who would titillate, amuse but mostly belong to the lonely and homesick American fighting men away from home and under arms.

Funny, saucy, even racy but never lewd or salacious, Miss Lace spoke directly to the enlisted man – the “ordinary Joe” – as entertainer, confidante and trophy date. She built morale and gave brief surcease from terror, loneliness or boredom. Although comparisons abound with our own Jane, the rationales behind each combat glamour girl were poles apart. Miss Lace spoke to and with the soldiers, and she wasn’t in normal papers. She was simply and totally theirs and theirs alone.

After leaving the incredibly successful and world-renowned Terry and the Pirates Caniff created another iconic comic hero in the demobbed World War II pilot Steve Canyon. The reasons for the move were basically rights and creative control, but it’s also easy to see another reason. Terry, set in a fabled Orient – even with the contemporary realism the author so captivatingly imparted – is a young man’s strip and limited by locale.

The worldly, if not war-weary, Canyon was a mature adventurer who could be sent literally anywhere and would appeal to the older, wiser readers of Atom-Age America, now a fully active, if perhaps reluctant, player on the world stage.

Canyon also reflects an older creator who has seen so much more of human nature and frailty than even the mysterious East could provide. Put another way, William Shakespeare could write Romeo and Juliet as a young man, but needed more than passion and genius to produce King Lear.

Steve Canyon began on 13th January 1947, after a long period of public anticipation following a very conspicuous resignation from Terry. Always a master of suspense and adept at manipulating his reader’s attention, Caniff’s eponymous hero didn’t actually appear until January 16th (and then only in a “file photograph”).

The public first met Stevenson Burton Canyon, former bomber pilot, medal winning war-hero, Air-Force flight instructor and latterly, independent charter airline operator in the first Sunday colour page, on 19th January 1947.

By then, eager readers had glimpsed his friends and future enemies, how acquaintances felt about him and even been introduced to ultra-rich, super-spoiled Copper Calhoun, the latest in a startlingly long line of devastating Femme Fatales created by Caniff to bedevil his heroes and captivate his audiences. And thus, the magic began…

This series of collections from Checker re-presents the strip in yearly segments (regrettably, with the Sundays printed in the same black-&-white as the daily episodes) and this one begins as Calhoun manoeuvres Canyon’s Horizons Unlimited charter line into flying her to countries where her pre-war holdings were disrupted. That seemingly simple job results in deadly peril from both strangers and trusted employees. There’s also a goodly helping of old-fashioned intrigue, jealousy and racketeering in the mix too…

The action and tragedy lead directly to an encounter with a couple of deadly female con-artists in ‘Delta’, and a gripping, yet light-hearted, romp in the booming petroleum industry in ‘Easter’s Oil’ which also introduces off-the-wall supporting character Happy Easter and the lascivious Madame Lynx, who would play such large and charismatic roles in the strip’s future.

The first volume ends with ‘Jewels of Africa’, a classic of suspense with modern-day pirate and wrecker Herr Splitz falling foul of our heroes in a world rapidly becoming a hotbed of International tension.

As Caniff’s strip became more and more a compass of geo-political adventure, his skill with human drama became increasingly mature and intense. This was comic strip noir that was still irresistible to a broad spectrum of readers. And that’s as true now as it was then. Steve Canyon is magnificent comic art at its two-fisted best.

These stories are also available in a fancy IDW hardcover archive, but although lovely it does suffer from small print – unless you have a digital edition – so if you love stunning artwork stick with this cheap-&-cheerful monochrome version.
© 2003, Checker Book Publishing Group, an authorized collection of works © Ester Parsons Caniff Estate 1947.

All characters and distinctive likenesses thereof are trademarks of the Ester Parsons Caniff Estate. All rights reserved.

El Mestizo

By Alan Hebden & Carlos Ezquerra (Rebellion Studios)
ISBN: 978-1-78108-657-5

The world lost one of its most lost revered and distinguished comics artists this year in the form of multinational super-star Carlos Ezquerra. Thankfully, his work lives on and even previously ignored early works are at last making their way onto bookshelves, with new collections such as this recent release from Rebellion’s superb and ever-expanding Treasury of British Comics.

Carlos Sanchez Ezquerra was born in Aragon on November 12th 1947. Growing up in Ibdes, in the Province of Zaragoza, he began his career illustrating war stories and westerns for Spain’s large but poorly-paying indigenous comics industry. In 1973 he got a British agent (Barry Coker: a former sub-editor on Super Detective Library who formed Bardon Press Features with Spanish artist Jorge Macabich) and joined a growing army of European and South American illustrators providing content for British weeklies, Specials and Annuals.

Carlos initially worked on Girls’ Periodicals like Valentine and Mirabelle and more cowboys for Pocket Western Library as well as assorted adventure strips for DC Thomson’s The Wizard. The work proved so regular that the Ezquerras upped sticks and migrated to Croydon…

In 1974 Pat Mills and John Wagner tapped him to work on IPCs new Battle Picture Weekly, where he drew (Gerry Finley-Day’s) Rat Pack, and later Major Eazy, scripted by Alan Hebden. In 1977 he was asked to design a new character called Judge Dredd for a proposed science fiction anthology. Due to creative disputes, Carlos left the project and went back to Battle to draw a gritty western named El Mestizo

As we all know, Carlos did return to 2000AD, drawing Dredd, dozens of spin-offs such as Al’s Baby, Strontium Dog (1978), Fiends of the Eastern Front (1980), Harry Harrison’s Stainless Steel Rat adaptations and key Dredd storylines such as the epic Apocalypse War and Necropolis.

Soon after Ezquerra was “discovered” by America and I’ll carry on the eulogy there when I review Just a Pilgrim or Preacher or some other mature reader material that really let the artist shine…

Carlos had moved to Andorra where he died of lung cancer on October 1st this year. His last published Dredd work appeared in 2000AD #2023 (March 2017), forty years after his first piece there…

Here, however, it’s time to appreciate him in his bold, bad-ass prime, detailing the brief but vivid exploits of a black hero in the wrongest of places at the most inconvenient of times…

El Mestizo debuted amidst a plethora of British-based war features and didn’t last long – June 4th to 17th September 1977 – with original author Alan Hebden giving you his take on why in a concise Introduction before the action begins.

Heavily leaning on Sergio Leone “spaghetti westerns”, the first starkly monochrome episode (of 16) introduces a half-black, half Mexican bounty hunting gunfighter who offers his formidable services to both the Union and Confederate sides in the early days of the War between the States.

Proficient with blades, pistols, long guns and a deadly bola, El Mestizo plays both sides while hunting truly evil men, whether they be Southern raiders, out of control Northern marauders, treacherous Indian scouts, an army of deserters from all sides organised by a crazy, vengeful femme fatale or even a demented physician seeking to end the war by releasing plague in Washington DC.

Along the way, the mercenary even finds time to pay off a few old scores from his days as a starved and beaten plantation slave…

Sadly, the feature was always a fish out of water and was killed before it could truly develop, but the artwork is staggeringly powerful and delivers the kind of cathartic punch that never gets old.

This stunning hardback (and eBook) package is another nostalgia-punch from Battle collecting a truly seminal experience and, hopefully forging a new, untrodden path for fans of the grittily compelling in search of a typically quirky British comics experience.

This recovered gem is one of the most memorable and enjoyable exploits in British comics: acerbic, action-packed and potently rendered: another superb example of what British and European sensibilities do best. Try it and see…
© 1977 & 2018 Rebellion Publishing IP Ltd. Black Max and all related characters, their distinctive likenesses and related elements are ™ Rebellion Publishing Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

Day of Wrath

By Wayne Vansant (Caliber)
ISBN: 978-0-98363-077-7

Comics creators have a strong history of treating war stories right, and none more so that those who’ve actually served in combat. Wayne Vansant was born in Atlanta, Georgia on July 13th 1949, making him an ideal age to fight in the Vietnam War. After leaving the US Navy he attended Atlanta College of Art, graduating in 1975.

He followed Michael Golden as illustrator on Marvel’s landmark 8-year miniseries The ‘Nam (notching up over 50 issues), and – with a few notable exceptions – has spent his career writing and drawing war comics and historical books about combat for companies as varied as Eclipse, Byron Preiss, Caliber, Dark Horse and Penguin. His canon includes New Two-Fisted Tales, Real War Stories, Shiloh, The Vietnam War: A Graphic History, Semper Fi (Tales of the Marine Corps) and Witches’ Caldron, as well as Foreign Legion epic Battron and Knights of the Skull.

His Heritage Collection: Civil War and World War II are superb and incisive commemorations of those conflicts and he’s also adapted Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage.

In the early 1990s he worked with Apple Comics, on a black and white miniseries detailing the early days of America’s Pacific war, immediately following Japan’s shameful attack on Pearl Harbor on the morning of Sunday December 7th 1941. It was collected as a trade paperback by Caliber in 2012 (still readily available) and is also out there in a number of eBook formats.

Seen through the eyes of a multi-generational and far-flung Texas family, the saga follows events and concerns affecting the Cahill clan and, by extension, every American from that horrific sneak attack to the critical turning point when they finally started winning battles against a seemingly inhuman and apparently unbeatable foe.

With a tremendous amount of detail easily delivered by a range of characters of every stripe and persuasion, the tale begins with a birthday party in Texas and an appalling war crime in Hawaii on the ‘Day of Infamy’, rapidly fleshed out by the immediate aftermath in ‘At Dawn We Slept, At Dusk We Wept’. Here the view is widened to encompass the multiple and simultaneous unannounced assaults on military and civilians in the Philippines…

The onslaught expands in ‘After Pearl Harbor – Japanese Juggernaut’ as British, French and Dutch colonies from Malaysia to Bangkok, Luzon to Burma, Borneo to Wake Island to Hong Kong fall to the Empire and Allied shipping and planes prove helpless against Japanese ordnance and tactics.

When General Douglas MacArthur abandons his responsibilities – and the population of Manilla – he leaves a token American force and many Philippine troops to a ‘Last Stand on Bataan!’ packed with revolting and amazing vignettes of personal courage before the all-conquering Nippon forces compel the survivors to endure the infamous atrocity of the ‘Bataan Death March!’

The unfolding saga and the trials of Assorted Cahills eventually bring us to May 30th 1942 and the narrow victory that changed everything as Admiral Chester Nimitz and the US Pacific Fleet and Japanese forces all converge on a fortified and still fighting island to see fate and destiny play out in final chapter ‘The Battle of Midway!’

Of course, what we regard as victory and turning point is still open to wide interpretation…

Supplementing the pictorial drama are numerous prose-&-pic extra features, including ‘Learning the Legacy of World War II’, ‘A date which will live in infamy…’ – the text of President Roosevelt’s request to Congress for a Declaration of War – plus ‘It will not only be a long war, it will be a hard war’ and ‘We are going to win the war, and… the peace that follows’ (his radio “Fireside Chat” to the nation on December 9th).

Adding context is The Cahill Family Tree, a map and history of ‘The Philippines’ plus ‘Angels of Mercy’ – a feature on the American nurses who attended the defenders and what happened to them.

Not only solidly authentic but overwhelming in its sense of veracity and initial hopelessness, this dramatized history lesson is potent and powerful, easily blending military data with human interest and interactions, giving a time of true terror and dry statistics a shockingly human face. Despite never pulling any punches, Days of Darkness is not gratuitous in its treatment of the characters, white, black or Asian, male or female, and remains one of the most accessible treatments of the events in any medium. If you crave knowledge and understanding or just love great comics, this is a book you must see.
© 1992 Wayne Vansant. All Rights Reserved.

Combat Zone: True Tales of GIs in Iraq

By Karl Zinsmeister, Dan Jurgens & Sandu Florea (Marvel Comics)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-1516-8

It’s always good to see a publisher venture outside its self-constructed ghetto of Proprietary Characters, rather than endlessly re-hash the names it’s already trademarked, and doubly so when it is to venture into genres that it has previously abandoned.

Sadly, in some cases the question then becomes one of seeking new markets as opposed to simply looking for fresh dramatic resources to exploit. Comics have a long and chequered history when it comes to militarism, ideological witch-hunting and band-wagon hopping. Despite that being said, there aren’t enough carefully-considered war comics around these days and this 2005 offering was then and remains now one of the few the genre had to offer.

Combat Zone features “real-life accounts” of US combatants in the 2003-2004 Iraq War, although “some incidents have been combined to make for a more condensed read”, and of course names have been changed to protect, etc. etc. …

Writer Zinsmeister was an embedded reporter during the conflict so I’m sure the events are as true as he saw them, but the overall feeling after first reading the book is one of curious detachment.

Maybe the modern military life does consist of immense boredom, talking to buddies and telling everyone how cool your ordnance is, interlaced with the occasional skirmish, but if such is the case it shouldn’t be in a drama-oriented comic-book.

It’s hard not to compare this series with the excellent Real War Stories produced in the late 1980s by Eclipse or even such personal visions as Sam Glanzman’s A Sailor’s Story and Don Lomax’s gruelling, compelling and, informative Viet Nam Journal, perhaps because all of those take the part, and the authorial voice, of the ordinary man not the war’s sponsors. Moreover, there was an implicit understanding that, though necessary, the job at hand was neither easy nor fun.

Even Robert Kanigher’s declamatory Sgt. Rock tales boast metafictional verisimilitude but that’s not what’s on offer here.

In Combat Zone when a character dies, the response is so anodyne that we know nobody really cares. There is more than the hint of the Press Release about it. Often it feels like the entire comic has passed through the same Pentagon ‘fact-checker’ that news reports do. A far cry, then, from Real War Stories #1, which the US government attempted to suppress. Alternatively, maybe that’s the way Uncle Sam manages conflicts these days…

On a narrative level, the problem here is one of heroic stature. When two desperate guys with nothing more than an old pick-up truck and a machine gun, give their lives in a dramatic, doomed attempt to stop an onslaught of high-tech juggernauts from crushing their homeland, those ought to be the heroes, not the “bad guys”!

There’s also a bit too much platitudinous speechifying in character’s mouths: presumably here to show the reader how justified the war might be, and no mention of the disastrous early days of allied blunders or numerous friendly fire incidents.

“Those didn’t happen where I might see them” is not an excuse in a documentary which has been subjectively edited “to make for a more condensed read”. You don’t get to pick and choose between Dramatic Authenticity and Journalistic Veracity at will, and not expect a few hits for it.

Illustrated by comic super-star Dan Jurgens – downplaying his usual bombastic Fights ‘n’ Tights styling – this collection didn’t sit well with me at first. My initial response was disappointment, but a careful rereading and 13 years of further constantly evolving conflict made me rethink. Maybe this really was telling it like it is. Maybe war has moved beyond comics fare and this is what feels like to serve today?

I can’t decide. What about you?
© 2005 Marvel Characters Inc. All rights reserved.