Steel Commando: Full Metal Warfare


By Frank S. Pepper, Alex Henderson, Vince Wernham & various (Rebellion)
ISBN: 978-1-78108-681-0 (Digest PB)

UK comics readers have always loved robots. A veritable battalion of bronzed (ironed, steeled, coppered, etc.) Brit-built battlebots and Caledonian comedic constructions have graced our strips since the earliest of times. Surely, every old kid fondly remembers amazing artificial all-stars such as Brassneck, the Juggernaut from Planet Z, Rebbel Robot, Klanky, Robot Archie, the Iron Teacher, the Smasher, the Iron Major, Mr. Syrius Thrice or any of the host of mechanoid marvels populating the pages of 2000AD.

Our fascination remains strong and entices all ages, as recently seen in new junior star Freddy from the Phoenix’s Mega Robo Bros – 21st century Britain’s response to the mighty Astro Boy

This dinky, mostly monochrome paperback and digital digest collects strips from Thunder (specifically, 17th October 1970 to 27th February 1971); Lion & Thunder (20th March 1970-16th December 1972); Valiant & Lion (25th May- 22ndJune 1974) and further fun material from Thunder Annual 1972, 1973 and 1974, reviving classic comedy combat capers in a beloved favourite theme: war robots who aren’t what they’re cracked up to be…

In 1970 grand marshal of English comics Frank S. Pepper (Rockfist Rogan; Roy of the Rovers; Captain Condor; Dan Dare; Jet-Ace Logan; The Spellbinder and countless others) first mixed slapstick humour, war stories and fantasy in the cheekily wry exploits of a WWII British secret weapon with a mind of his own and a handy habit of crushing enemy schemes…

During WWII, shiftless slacker ErnieExcused BootsBates is accorded the dubious accolade of “the laziest soldier in the British Army”, but as seen in the first episode from Pepper and illustrators Alex Henderson, becomes the most important individual ever to be called up…

While the slob is stuck spud-bashing on a secret British base, he encounters a hulking metal monster called the Mark 1 Indestructible Robot. The super-strong, humanoid tank is fully expected to win the war, but nobody can make it work…

However, when it blunders into the kitchens, Ernie orders it to stop and it happily – and quite chattily – complies. It’s a feat no one else can copy. Still unable to find the programming fault, the top brass negotiates and compels the slacker into become the war machine’s handler. Unluckily and all too soon and for newly promoted Lance-Corporal Bates, that means a few extra treats, but also personally visiting every battle hot-spot the military can think of, such as a French coastal radar base where the Steel Commando strikes terror into the hearts of the horrified Hun…

The tone of the times was frequently appallingly racist by today’s standards – but no more so than such still-popular TV shows like Dad’s Army – and over the weeks to come, dodgy Ernie and his mighty metal mate faced countless ill-prepared enemies and the bonkers bureaucracy of the British Army in short complete and satisfying episodes. Channelling the post-Sixties era of working-class whimsical irony, and discontented but laconic world-weariness, this strip places an unstoppable force for change in the hands of an Andy Capp style shirker who can’t even be bothered to exploit the power he has beyond securing permission to don comfortable footwear (plimsolls and flipflops)…

Illustrated by Henderson and Vince Wernham, the unlikely duo perpetually faced enemy action in Europe, Africa and the Pacific, whilst failing to dodge unwelcome duties (like playing on the base football team or PT exercises) with stoic reluctance and applied anarchy. All the while though – and despite recurring brain glitches – the odd couple always triumphed: destroying enemy bases, sinking ships, learning (almost) to fly, wrecking trains and whatever else the boffins and generals could think of to test their terrible toy. They even outsmarted German scientists who captured the Commando to jump-start their own Nazi robot project and a truly daft Allied enterprise to create a superior, officer-class British droid – the appalling “Metal Major”…

As weeks passed, however, Ernie began to gel as the archetypal “little man” at war with authority. Always agitating for his pal to be treated as human, he made the boffins teach their creation to read, and even successfully won regular home leave for the Steel Commando. It didn’t go well when they got back to Blighty, but at least they got what all soldiers deserved…

Many episodes see the heroes dealing with temporary malfunctions such as robotic deafness, becoming super-magnetic, falling in love (with a railway station weighing machine) or parenthood (don’t ask, just read!) and even Ernie losing his voice to toffee, but always emphasising the burdens of the lowly, charming absurdity and excessive cartoon action.

However, tastes change quickly in weekly comics and even the perennial guilty pleasures of manic situation, comedy accents and mass carnage ultimately palled. Thus, following 29 complete weekly episodes is a truly deranged sequence of five team-ups between ‘Captain Hurricane and Steel Commando’ which finds the disturbingly “outspoken” (you can say culturally dismissive and jingoistic if you want) super-strong Marine commando a not-so-friendly rival of the mechanical marvel.

These come from Valiant & Lion (25th May-22nd June 1974) and find hyper-aggressive Hurricane frantically attempting to outmatch the Steel Substitute as they are despatched against a German army in retreat. …

Filling out the collection are three longer tales from assorted Annuals, beginning with a rescue mission to an Italian town where “our boys” are battling German soldiers and their own haughtily useless commanding officer.

Next up is a sly tale wherein an upgrade accidentally infests and afflicts the Commando with a Nazi boffin’s pre-recorded personality before everything winds up with a full-colour romp seeing old Ironsides getting soused on super-fuel and drunkenly attacking Nazi super-tanks well out of his league…

The colour section also includes the multihued covers for Thunder Annual 1973, Lion Holiday Special 1974, and Lion Annual 1977: a wondrous window onto simpler times that still offer fascinating fun for the cautiously prepared reader. Why not sign up for a few classic encounters?
© 1970, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1974, 2019 Rebellion Publishing Ltd.

Archie: 1941


By Brian Augustyn & Mark Waid, Peter Krause, Kelly Fitzpatrick, Jack Morelli & various (Archie Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-68255-823-2 (TPB)

Since his debut in Pep Comics #22 (cover-dated December 1941) Archie Andrews has epitomised good, safe, wholesome cartoon fun, but the company that now bears his name has always been a deviously subversive one. Family-friendly iterations of superheroes, spooky chills, sci fi thrills, licensed properties and genre yarns of every stripe have always been as much a part of the publisher’s varied portfolio as the romantic comedy capers of America’s clean-cut teens.

As initially realised by John L. Goldwater and Bob Montana, the first escapade set the scene and ground rules for decades to come Archie has spent his entire existence chasing both the gloriously attainable Betty Cooper and wildly out-of-his-league debutante Veronica Lodge, whilst best friend Jughead Jones alternately mocked and abetted his romantic endeavours and class rival Reggie Mantle sought to scuttle every move…

Crafted over time by a veritable legion of writers and artists who’ve skilfully created the stories of teenage antics in and around the idyllic, utopian small town of Riverdale, these timeless tales of decent, upstanding, fun-loving kids have captivated successive generations of readers and entertained millions worldwide both on comic pages and in other media such as film, television, radio, newspaper strips, music and even fast food.

To keep all that accumulated attention riveted, the company has always looked to modern trends with which to expand upon their archetypal storytelling brief. In times past they cross-fertilised their stable of stars through such unlikely team-ups as Archie Meets the Punisher or Archie Meets Kiss, whilst every type of fashion fad and youth culture sensation has invariably been accommodated into and explored within the pages of the regular titles. The gang has been reinvented and remodelled numerous times, even stepping outside the parameters of broad comedy to offer dramatic – albeit light-hearted – “real-world” iterations of the immortal cast of characters and clowns…

With a major Anniversary in sight, in 2019 the publishers took an extraordinarily bold step and recast the characters in memorable “What If?” scenario and took the gang back to the origin days in a way never seen before…

Devised by comics superstars Brian Augustyn (Gotham by Gaslight; Crimson; Black Mask; Flash) & Mark Waid (pretty much everything, but especially Flash; Daredevil; JLA; X-Men; Kingdom Come; Captain America; Empire; Incorruptible; Impact Comics; Archie) and illustrated by Peter Krause (Star Trek; Irredeemable; Superman; Power of Shazam; Birds of Prey) with moody colours from Kelly Fitzpatrick and letters by veteran Jack Morelli, Archie: 1941 takes a disturbingly hard look at what that year would have meant to real teenagers…

It begins in May as graduating seniors Archibald Andrews and Forsythe Pendleton “Jughead” Jones join their classmates in celebrating and frittering away ‘The Last Summer’. However, generally happy-go-lucky Arch is increasingly sullen and withdrawn, fixated on news and newsreels of the “European Conflict”…

His dad is angry: concerned that the kid is frittering away his time, but Pop Tate at the Diner which was the school kids’ hangout fears the war news means another generation will be lost…

Even the lifelong rivalry with Reggie Mantle has taken on a more serious, violent overtone, especially since rich kid Veronica Lodge returned to Riverdale. She had been in Paris where her millionaire dad was making deals in preparation for future bad times…

Even Betty cannot shake Archie’s despondent mood, which proves prescient as passing, wasted days lead to shocking events on December 7th and ‘It’s War!’

In the aftermath, a surprising number of young and old Riverdale residents seek to enlist – many with shocking results and consequences – but ultimately ‘Home & Away’ finds Archie at boot camp in Speck, Alabama in May 1942, still sparring with his nemesis and fellow soldier Reggie, while those left behind due to infirmity or family pressure discover how the crisis has brought out the very worst in their fellow citizens – and even civic leaders such as Hiram Lodge who turn profiteer as rationing bites hard…

Wit tensions rising everywhere, ‘Into the Fire’ sees the Riverdale boys deployed to North Africa in November 1942 even as tensions boil over in the old home town. Unable to face her father’s actions, Ronnie makes a defiant move. She and Betty are cruelly unaware just how much Archie is missing them or the changes his new life have wrought. Unable to join them, Jughead learns all about war from Pop Tate and makes a decision to change his own path.

And, far, far away, Archie’s unit enters history at Kasserine Pass…

Final chapter ‘The Lost’ begins in Riverdale after the telegrams have been opened and funerals arranged. The place has forever changed and the gang are preparing to part forever, but then something quite miraculous happens. Be warned though, it’s not a happy ending for everyone…

Packed with delicious in-jokes for the cognoscenti (like the gang’s opinions on Mickey Rooney as teen archetype Andy Hardy), searing tension when appropriate, and all the warmth and heart of contemporary melodramas like Best Years of Our Lives or trauma-tinged fantasies such as A Matter of Life and Death and It’s a Wonderful Life, this moving extrapolation captures perfectly what life must have felt like in those distant, doom-laden days.

The novel experience is further enhanced by Special Features including a scene-setting Introduction; cover concept sketches by Krause and a full covers-&-variants gallery by him, Rosario “Tito” Peña, Sanya Anwar, Francesco Francavilla, Dave Johnson, Aaron Lopresti, Dan Parent, Audrey Mok, Marguerite Sauvage, Derek Charm, Ray Anthony Height, Jon Lam, Cory Smith, Tula Lotay and Jerry Ordway & Glenn Whitmore. There’s also character designs, alternate logo concepts and a fascinating interview with the entire creative team, who also plug the inescapable Rock n’ roll follow-up Archie! ’55
© 2019 Archie Comic Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.

War Stories Volume Two


By Garth Ennis, with David Lloyd, Cam Kennedy, Carlos Ezquerra, Gary Erskine & various (Avatar Press)
ISBN 978-1-59291-241-4 (TPB)

Garth Ennis understands the point of war stories. He knows they’ve never been about gratification, glorification or even justification. Tales of combat have always been a warning from the sharp end of history to the callow, impressionable and gullible.

Humans have never needed much reason to fight, but when nations do it, it’s usually because our leaders have failed us and need a means to make citizens eager to die and cover up failings of leadership. Stories of conflict recounted by those who have actually dodged bullets and seen comrades die generally have a different flavour to histories or the memoirs of great men, and precious few academics or national leaders have ever been diagnosed with PTSD…

Although never having endured the trials of soldiering, Ennis is an empathetic, imaginative and creative soul whose heart firmly beats in tune with the common man, and a devout aficionado of the (practically anti-war, politically-charged) British combat comics, strip and stories he read as a lad. It’s what distinguishes him as a major writer of mature-audience fiction with a distinct voice and two discrete senses of humour.

In 2004, he began exploiting his lifelong passion for the past and unique viewpoint in an occasional series of WWII one-shots for DC’s Vertigo imprint. The tales were graced by an impressive cast of illustrators assembled to produce some of their finest work.

The first 8 of these were collected in two volumes of War Stories from Vertigo/DC and again in 2015 via Avatar Press in both trade paperback and digital editions. They remain a true highpoint in the history of combat comics.

This second compilation – complete with a heartfelt Ennis Afterword (and commentary, detailing the historical events that formed the basis of these astounding fictionalised encounters), plus a bibliography of sources used to craft them – rounds out the original Vertigo run, prior to later volumes which collect tales crafted since then…

It all opens with the haunting and distressing ‘J for Jenny’, exploring the stresses of a British Bomber crew as they carry out their nightly missions. The plot is carried along via a bitter row between pilot and co-pilot who constantly debate the necessity of their task; one constantly bemoaning the horrendous cost to German civilians whilst the other gloats and glories in the death of each and every woman and child.

As always, nothing is ever what it seems and the finale is a tribute to the creators’ skills and the unpredictable insanity of war itself. David Lloyd’s atmospheric meta-realistic art and colours powerfully underpin a tale few could do justice to.

With Cam Kennedy illustrating and Moose Baumann adding hues, the next yarn focuses on a ramshackle squad of hit-&-run specialists, dashing in under cover of darkness to blow up German airstrips and bases in the deserts of Africa. Apparently, this sort of tactic directly led to today’s Special Ops units and this unruly wild bunch certainly echo modern fiction’s image of beer-swilling, gung-ho nutters ready to fight and die, and always up for a bit of a giggle.

The breakneck action is laced with blackly ironic, slap-stick humour, but never permits the reader to long forget the deadly and permanent nature of the business at hand. Increasingly, conflict mars the relationship between battle-wearied team leader and his second in command: a death-or-glory obsessed Scot who likens the unit to the infallible, mythical bandit warlords his ancestors dubbed ‘The Reivers’

Baumann also colors ‘Condors’: set during the Spanish Civil war and the war-comic equivalent of a shaggy dog story. During a particularly hectic bout of fighting four combatants crawl into the same smoking crater to wait out the shelling. There’s an Englishman, an Irishman, a Spaniard and a German – two from each side of the conflict…

To pass the time they trade life stories and philosophies. This antisocial gathering feels the most authentic to what one might deem an authorial opinion, as motivation for fighting and killing are scrutinised through eyes and ears that have seen and heard all the explanations and reasons – and still judged them wanting.

Spaniard Carlos Ezquerra perfectly captures the camaraderie and insanity in his powerfully expressive renderings. This is an absolute gem of a story.

Final tale ‘Archangel’ closes the book on a lighter note, although the premise – based on actual missions of the convoy service – is one that hardly lends itself to easy reading.

Until the cracking of the Enigma code, every Trans-Atlantic shipment of materiel – especially to our Soviet allies – was practically defenceless against Axis submarine and bomber assault. One counter-scheme was to station a fighter plane on an accompanying vessel which would be launched to fend off airborne attacks. All well and good on paper…until you realise only obsolete planes could be spared for such service, and that once launched – by rocket catapult, no less – they could not land again, but had to ditch or aim for whatever dry land could be reached on whatever fuel remained.

It should also be noted that not all land was in friendly hands, either. This tale of an RAF misfit and his arctic odyssey is full of the ‘hapless prawn triumphant’ that typified vintage post-war British films and the meticulous artwork of Gary Erskine and colourist Paul Mounts lends credibility to a tale that sheer logic just can’t manage.

Ennis’s war works are always a labour of love, and his co-creators always excel themselves when illustrating them. Combine this with a genre that commands respect most comics just don’t get and you have a masterpiece of graphic fiction to even the most discerning library or bookshelf.
© 2015 Avatar Press. Afterword © 2015 Garth Ennis. WAR STORY: J FOR JENNY © 2015 Garth Ennis & David Lloyd. WAR STORY: THE REIVERS © 2015 Garth Ennis & Cam Kennedy. WAR STORY: CONDORS © 2015 Garth Ennis & Carlos Ezquerra. WAR STORY: ARCHANGEL © 2015 Garth Ennis & Gary Erskine.

Nanjing: The Burning City


By Ethan Young (Dark Horse)
ISBN: 978-1-61655-752-2 (HB) 978-1-50671-085-3 (TPB)

Ethan Young comes from New York City, the youngest of three boys born to Chinese immigrant parents. Following studies at the School of Visual Arts, he began work as a commercial illustrator, supplementing that with debut graphic novel Tails: Life in Progress which won Best Graphic Novel award at the 2007 Independent Publisher Book Awards.

It thrived as a webcomic, as did his other ongoing all-ages project A Piggy’s Tale: The Adventures of a 3-Legged Super-Pup (created and written by Tod Emko). Later works include Firefly: Watch How I Soar; The Dragon Path; The Battles of Bridget Lee and more but they are all a far cry from this masterpiece. Nanjing: The Burning City is a stunning and excoriating anti-war parable, detailing one incomprehensibly dark night of horror in a war most of the world has conveniently forgotten about.

Whilst many Japanese – like Keiji Nakazawa (author of the astounding Barefoot Gen and a tireless anti-war campaigner for most of his life) – are fully prepared, able to acknowledge and “own” Japan’s horrific excesses throughout World War II (and the colonial expansion into China – noncommittally dubbed The Second Sino-Japanese War – which preceded it), far too many survivors of the original conflicts and – disturbingly – modern apologists and revisionists find it easier and more comfortable to excuse, obfuscate or even deny Japan’s role.

Sadly, I suspect today’s China is just as keen to systematically refute the excesses of the Maoist years and beyond…

Every nation that’s fought a war has committed atrocities, but no country or government has the right to dodge shame or excise blame by conveniently rewriting history for expediency or political gain: not Britain, not the USA, not Russia and never, ever those barbaric “Axis Powers” who tormented mankind between 1933 and 1945.

Delivered in stark, stunning yet understated black-&-white in hardback, paperback and digital editions, Young’s tale exposes callous brutality – without resorting to “us-and-them”, “good guys vs. bad guys” polemic – by simply focusing on one night and three very different military men caught up in the ghastly events.

The Second Sino-Japanese War began on July 7th 1937 when an aggressively expansionist Empire of Japan invaded complacent Shanghai. The well-equipped force moved swiftly inland towards Nanking, capital of Kuomintang Generalissimo Chang Kai-Shek’s newly established Republic of China.

The thoroughly modern Imperial army reached the city on December 12th, whereupon Nanking’s military and civil leaders fled in panic, leaving hundreds of thousands of Chinese soldiers and citizens to bear the brunt of a savage, bestial assault described by author Iris Chang as The Rape of Nanking.

Chinese Republican officers didn’t even issue orders for the soldiers they abandoned to retreat…

Over the next six weeks more than 300,000 died in a campaign of organised torture and massacre. Uncountable numbers of women and children were raped and brutalised. Before the Japanese military chiefs surrendered in 1945, they had all records of the taking of Nanking destroyed. The never-to-be-properly-accounted dead are rightly known as the Forgotten Ones…

An event almost completely overlooked for decades by western – and Japanese – historians, the torment began with a night of appalling, unparalleled atrocity with Young concentrating his tale on the efforts of a nameless Captain and a sole surviving subordinate making their way through the shredded remnants of the metropolis. The betrayed, beaten warriors harbour a fanciful hope of sanctuary in the enclave occupied by European diplomats, businessmen, missionaries and their servants: the sacrosanct “Safety Zone” where white people go about their business largely untouched by strictly Asian “local politics”…

It’s only a few kilometres to salvation, and the Zone indeed houses many sympathetic foreign souls who will risk their lives for humanitarian reasons, but to get to them the soldiers must avoid the hordes of prowling, drunken, blood-crazed conquerors and deny their own burning desire to strike back at the invaders – even if it costs their lives…

As they slowly scramble through hellish ruins, they are doggedly pursued by a Japanese colonel who apparently has no stomach for the gleeful bloody debaucheries of his soldiers but rather carries out his duties with a specialised zeal and for a different kind of reward…

Whilst the weary Kuomintang survivors make their way to the Safety Zone, however, a far more deadly hazard constantly arises: crushed, beaten, desperate fellow Chinese begging them to stop and help…

This is a gripping story with no happy ending, supplemented by Young’s large Sketchbook and Commentary sections, offering character studies, developmental insights and rejected cover roughs, as well as a formidable Bibliography for further reading…

Nanjing: The Burning City is a beautiful, haunting book designed to make you angry and curious and in that it succeeds with staggering effect. It’s not intended as a history lesson but rather a signpost for the unaware, offering directions to further research and greater knowledge, if not understanding; a provocative lesson from history we should, now more than ever, all see and learn from.
© 2015 Ethan Young. All rights reserved.

Bob Powell’s Complete Jet Powers


By Bob Powell with James Vance, John Wooley, Steve Rude & various (Kitchen Sink Books/Dark Horse)
ISBN: 978-1-61655-764-5 (HB) eISBN:978-1-63008-646-6

Like every art form, comics can be readily divided into masterpieces and populist pap, but that damning assessment necessarily comes with a bunch of exclusions and codicils.

Periodical publications, like pop songs, movies and the entirety of television’s output (barring schools programming and I’m not sure about them, anymore), are designed to sell stuff to masses of consumers.

As such, the product must reflect the target and society at a specific moment in time and perforce quickly adapt and change with every variation in taste or fashion. Although very much an artefact of its time, I consider the Buzzcocks single “Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve)” to be the perfect pop song, but I’m not going to waste time trying to convince anybody of the fact.

For me, and perhaps only for me, it just is.

The situation is most especially true of comics – especially those created before the medium gained any kind of popular credibility: primarily deemed by their creators and publishers as a means of parting youngsters from cash. The fact that so many have been found to possess redeeming literary and artistic merit or social worth is simply post hoc rationalisation.

Creators striving for better, doing the very best they could because of their inner artistic drives, were being rewarded with just as meagre a financial reward as the shmoes just phoning it in for the paycheck…

That sad state of affairs in periodical publication wasn’t helped by the fact that most editors thought they knew what the readership wanted – safe, prurient gratification – and usually they were right.

Even so, from such swamps gems occasionally emerged…

A certain kind of two-fisted, brawny science fiction has always been part-&-parcel of the comics experience, and retrospectives – no matter how impressive – generally come with some worrisome cultural baggage. However, ways can be found to accommodate crystallised or outdated attitudes, especially when reading from a suitably detached historical perspective and even more so for many when the art is crafted by a master storyteller like Bob Powell.

After all, even though change is gradually coming now, it’s not that big a jump from fictionalised 1950s futures to the filmic metropolises of today where tech-bolstered (and usually white) Adonises with godlike power paternalistically save us all from something unimaginable, or our own folly, whilst winning over some initially unresponsive piece of feminine exotica…

I truly adore all comics in all genres from all eras, but sometimes the “guilty pleasure” alarm on my conscience just redlines every so often and I can’t stop it. Repeat after me, it’s not real. It’s not real, it’s never been real…

As businessmen, editors and publishers “knew” what hormonal kids wanted to see and they gave it to them. It’s no different today. Peruse any comic-shop shelf or cover listings site and see how many fully-clad, small-breasted females you can spot and how many hunky heroes pack teeny-weeny pistols…

No more prevaricating. Let’s talk about Bob…

Born in 1916 in Buffalo, New York, Stanley Robert Pawlowski studied at the Pratt Institute in Manhattan before joining one of the earliest comics-packaging outfits: the Eisner-Iger Shop.

He was a solid and dependable staple of American comicbooks’ Golden Age, illustrating many key features. He drew original Jungle Queen Sheena in Jumbo Comics plus other Jungle Girl features and Spirit of ’76 for Harvey’s Pocket Comics.

Powell handled assorted material for Timely titles such as Captain America in All-Winners Comics, Tough Kid Comics and sundry genre material like Gale Allen and the Women’s Space Battalion for anthologies like Planet Comics,Mystery Men Comics and Wonder Comics.

Relatively recently he was revealed to have co-scripted/created Blackhawk as well as drawing Loops and Banks in Military Comics and so many more now near-forgotten strips: all under a variety of English-sounding pseudonyms, since, white or not, the tone of those times was unforgiving for creative people of minority origins…

Eventually the artist settled on S. Bob Powell and had his name legally changed. Probably his most well-remembered and highly regarded tour of duty was on Mr. Mystic in Will Eisner’s legendary national newspaper insert The Spirit Section. After serving in World War II, Bob came home and quit to set up his own studio. Eisner never forgave him…

Powell – with assistants Howard Nostrand, Martin Epp and George Siefringer – quickly established a solid reputation for quality, versatility and reliability. They supplied a huge variety of material for Fawcett (Vic Torry & His Flying Saucer,Hot Rod Comics, Lash Larue); Harvey Comics (Man in Black, Adventures in 3-D and True 3-D) and Street & Smith’s Shadow Comics.

Powell was particularly prolific in numerous titles for Magazine Enterprises (ME), including TV tie-in Bobby Benson’s B-Bar-B Riders, Red Hawk in Straight Arrow; a short but bombastic turn with quasi-superhero Strong Man and timely sci fi frolic Jet Powers.

A master of the human form and caricature, Powell easily turned his hand to a vast range of genre staples – War, Western, Science Fiction, Crime, Comedy and Horror material – and consequently rendered, as a by-product, some of the best and most glamorous “Good Girl art” of the era, both in comics and in premiums/strip packages for business clients.

In the 1960s, he pencilled the infamous Mars Attacks cards, illustrated Bessie Little’s Teena-a-Go-Go and the Bat Masterson newspaper strip. He ended his days drawing Daredevil, the Human Torch and Giant-Man for Marvel.

This captivating hardback compilation and electrifying eBook edition gathers all the Jet Powers appearances – some possibly written by ubiquitous jobbing scripter Gardner Fox. ME publications employed a truly Byzantine method of numbering their comicbooks, but this title is little easier than most. All Jet issues were actually part of expansive umbrella anthology vehicle A-1 comics. Jet #1 was also A-1 #30 January 1951 – cover-splashed as Jet Powers and Space Ace – whilst #2-4 were A-1 #32, #35 and #39.

It makes no real difference to your enjoyment of what’s to come but satisfies my pedantic and didactic side…

This splendid tome includes a biography ‘Bob Powell (1916-1967)’, an effusive Introduction by Steve Rude and an erudite essay – ‘My First Encounter with the Two-Fisted Brainiac Jet Powers’– by John Wooley.

Jet Powers began as a classic holdover of a pristine pulp Sci Fi concept: the scientific everyman who solves all problems with razor-sharp intellect and a something he’s just handily cobbled together. Powers was actually a cut well-above the crowd of valiantly brilliant space-jockey boffins whizzing about the funnybook cosmos in the early 1950s: a cerebral genius, true, but one who nevertheless solidly stuck to the action-adventure side of the equation, and one who was ultimately mutated by world events and political frenzy into a man unrecognisable to his earlier antecedents.

We first meet “The Master of Atoms and Molecules” in Jet #1 1951 – cover-splashed as Jet Powers and Space Ace. ‘Captain of Science!’ introduces a solitary researcher roused to action after America is wracked by shattering earthquakes. It doesn’t take him long to confirm the events are being triggered by an evil enemy somewhere in Southern Asia…

Rocketing to the sinister citadel and armed with his trusty antigravity gun, Powers finds and foils the diabolical schemes of Mr Sinn while deeply upsetting the loyalties and affections of the madman’s sultry catspaw Su Shan

The villain tries again in ‘The Man in the Moon!’, with meteors raining down on earth directed by his satellite fortress, but is again thwarted by the Man of Science after which a marauding intelligent alien bug ravages Earth, with only Jet capable of foiling ‘The Thing from the Meteor’

In Jet #2 (April-June), Powers tackles an invasion from the future in ‘The Three-Million-Year-Old Men!’; Su Shan is abducted by mad scientist Marlon Stone and requires rescue from deadly beasts in ‘The House of Horror!’ after which background radiation from atomic tests grant intelligence, autonomy and megalomania to a pile of scrap who allies with Mr Sinn and propagates ‘The Metal Monsters!’ it needs to conquer Earth. Calling Jet Powers…

The tech terrors continue in Jet #3, beginning with a radioactive space cloud that cuts off sunlight. Thankfully Powers has a bold plan to destroy the The Dust Doom!’ Shockingly for the era, he does not completely succeed and the series veers into post-apocalyptic dystopia…

As Earth recovers, deranged Professor Mikla unleashes biological atrocities via ‘The Devil’s Machine’, until Powers stops him. Barely pausing for breath Jet then jousts with Martians and Venusians to fend off ‘The Interplanetary War!’

Still feeling the effects of the doom-laden space dust, Earth endures ‘The Rain of Terror!’ in #4 as a cashiered general makes a bid for global domination and Jet spearheads a libertarian resistance, after which the industry trend for genre anthology sees Powers narrate the salutary tale of ‘The First Man in History Who Could Not Die!’.

Back in action for the last time as a science warrior, Jet then defeats ‘The Fleets of Fear!’ as war is rekindled by a Martian tyrant-in-waiting…

With no fanfare or warning the hero metamorphosed to follow a developing trend for anti-communist war stories, fuelled by the escalating Korean conflict. Jet morphed into The American Air Forces and, numbering maintained – #5/A-1 #45 in this instance – introduced visually identical ‘Army Air Ace Jet Powers’. Army Air Force Captain Johnny Powers is a fighter pilot from a family of fliers operating in Korea, but apparently afflicted with psychological inhibitions rendering him useless in combat. Not for long…

After a turbulent publishing year, issue #6/A-1 #54 opened 1952 in bombastic gung-ho style as Powers laments the noble, necessary sacrifice of a comrade on ‘MiG Alley Patrol’, after which #7(A-1 #58) introduces exotic fantasy as Powers and wingman Kenneth Loomis clash with murderous Red murderess Kali Soo in an ancient temple blasphemously converted into a commie fortress in ‘Whom the Gods Destroy!’

By the time of #8 (A-1 #65) comic book propaganda was in full swing as ‘Secret of the Tunnel’ lavishly adds torture, whipping and women in chains to the material Yankee kids could read. Despite being a jet ace, Powers spent a lot of time surviving crashes and battling on terra firma. After this fortuitous landing, he saves a slave girl and falls into a cavern full of North Korean ordnance he knows just how to ignite…

More of the same comes as 1952 closes as #9 (A-1 #69) finds him rescuing a downed buddy and narrowly dodging hundreds of ‘Bayonets Dipped in Blood!’, before 1953 opens with – and ends his service – in #12 (A-1 #91) with an actual aerial exploit as the fighter pilot downs a couple of MiGs, and narrowly avoids the typical Commie skulduggery of ‘The Death Trap’.

With the artistic action ended, this compelling compendium concludes with an incisive appreciation of the multi-talented hero courtesy of essay ‘The Jet Age’ by James Vance and John Wooley.

Despite my quibbles and cavils – and some genuine concerns about racial and gender holdover subtext of material produced 70 years ago – this book celebrates one of the mostly beautifully rendered characters in pictorial fiction and is a true tribute to the astounding talents of Bob Powell and his team. If you love perfect comic storytelling (of its time), but transcending fashion or trendiness, this is a treasure just waiting to be rediscovered.

Bob Powell’s Complete Jet Powers compilation © 2015 Kitchen, Lind and Associates LLC. Introduction © 2015 Steve Rude. “My First Encounter with the Two-Fisted Brainiac Jet Powers” © 2015 John Wooley. “The Jet Age” essay © 2015 James Vance and John Wooley. All rights reserved.

Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos Marvel Masterworks volume 4


By Roy Thomas, Gary Friedrich, Dick Ayers, John Tartaglione & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-5959-9 (HB)

Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos began as an improbable, decidedly over-the-top, rowdy and raucous WWII combat comics series similar in tone to later ensemble action movies such as The Magnificent Seven, The Wild Bunchand The Dirty Dozen. The surly squad of sorry reprobates premiered in May 1963; one of three action teams concocted by creative men-on-fire Jack Kirby & Stan Lee to secure fledgling Marvel’s growing position as the comics publisher to watch.

Two years later Fury’s post-war self was retooled as Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., beginning with Strange Tales #135, August 1965) when TV espionage shows such as The Man from U.N.C.L.E. or Mission: Impossible and the James Bond film franchise became global sensations.

Sgt. Fury started out as a pure Kirby creation. As with all his various combat comics and tales, The King made everything look harsh and real and appalling: people and places grimy, tired, battered yet indomitable. The artist had served in some of the bloodiest battles of the war and never forgot the horrific, heroic things he saw (and more graphically expressed in his efforts during the 1950s genre boom at numerous publishers). However, even at kid-friendly, Comics Code-sanitised Marvel, those experiences couldn’t help but seep through onto his powerfully gripping pages.

Kirby was – sadly – far too valuable a resource to squander on a simple war comic and was quickly moved on, leaving redoubtable fellow veteran Dick Ayers to illuminate later stories, which he did for almost the entire original run of the series (95 issues plus Annuals) until its transition with #121 (July 1974) to a reprint title. This version carried on until its ultimate demise in December 1981, with #167.

Former serviceman Lee remained as scripter until he too was pulled away by the developing Marvel phenomenon, after which a succession of youthful, next-generation writers took over, beginning with Roy Thomas who provides welcome background and informative anecdotes in his Introduction, after which this fourth ferocious hardback and eBook compendium re-presents Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos #33-43; spanning August 1966 to June 1967).

Crafted by regulars Thomas, Ayers and inker John Tartaglione, the action opens with ‘The Grandeur that was Greece…’as the squad are despatched to aid partisan and freedom fighters keep Greek treasures and historical artefacts out of Nazi hands. Unfortunately, it’s an elaborate trap that leaves many good men dead and the unit captured with only Fury free to save them…

Bloodied but unbowed, Fury then reviews his barnstorming early life and ‘The Origin of the Howlers!’ before #35 sees him infiltrate the heart of Nazi darkness to stage a ‘Berlin Breakout!’ of the captive Commandos, with the assistance arch rival Sgt. Bull McGiveney and old comrade Eric Koenig: an anti-fascist German with plenty of reasons to fight the Reich…

With the mission deemed a qualified success, ‘My Brother, My Enemy!’ sees Koenig join the squad, replacing a Howler who didn’t return intact. His first official outing takes the team to neutral Switzerland to intercept a Nazi strategist en route to Italy, burdened with the secret that their fanatical target was once his dearest childhood friend…

Issue #37 takes the squad to North Africa in search of charismatic Nazi rabble-rouser The Desert Hawk inciting attacks on British forces. The fiend’s capture reveals a shocking surprise when the warriors find themselves ‘In the Desert… to Die’

Wounded in escaping Berlin, one Howler has been recuperating in Hollywood. His recovery would be greatly aided if a certain doctor could be extracted from occupied Scandinavian island Danton. That and the title ‘This One’s for Dino!’ is all you need to know, after which #39’s ‘Into the Fortress of… Fear!’ focuses on action as the Howlers are despatched to invades a highly-fortified base and destroy a new super-weapon. The site is commanded by steel-fisted fanatic Colonel Klaue, but even he is no match for the Howlers…

After a far from lengthy recovery period, Dino returns in time to cheer on our heroes as they save a French Resistance leader in ‘…That France Might be Free!’, before Klaue returns, leading the Commandos’ arch enemies the Blitzkrieg Squad. The mission also involves an unlikely spy inside the Allied ranks base who pays the ultimate price for the ‘Blitzkrieg in Britain!’

It isn’t named as such, but Post Traumatic Stress Disorder grips a Howler in ‘Three Were A.W.O.L.!’, which saw the first script contributions of future scribe Gary Friedrich. When a veteran hero absconds, Fury goes after him, leaving his squad in the unwelcome charge of Bull McGiveney in a demolitions mission deep inside occupied Europe. When the absentees return, it’s only just in time to save them all…

The unlikely escapades pause here with a return trip to North Africa and a brush with Rommel, as ‘Scourge of the Sahara!’ (By Thomas, Friedrich, Ayers & Tartaglione) finds the weary warriors in pursuit of a protype super-tank that could reverse the Desert Fox’s failing fortunes…

Adding lustre to these military milestones, this volume also includes a selection of readers’ designs for the Howlers’ unique unit arm patch (Shoulder Sleeve Insignia for all you army buffs), and a gallery of original art covers and pages by Ayers & Tartaglione.

Whereas close rival DC increasingly abandoned the Death or Glory bombast at this time in favour of humanistic, practically anti-war explorations of combat and soldiering, Marvel’s take always favoured action-entertainment and fantasy over soul-searching for ultimate truths. On that level at least, these epics are stunningly effective and galvanically powerful exhibitions of the genre. Just don’t use them for history homework.
© 2017 Marvel Characters Inc. All rights reserved.

Showcase Presents Blackhawk volume 1


By uncredited, Dick Dillin & Chuck Cuidera (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-1983-3 (TPB)

The early days of the American comic book industry were awash with both opportunity and talent, and these factors coincided with a vast population hungry for cheap entertainment. Comics had no acknowledged fans or collectors; only a large, transient clientele open to all varied aspects of yarn-spinning and tale-telling – a situation which persisted right up to the middle of the 1960s.

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

Nobody was ready for Blackhawk.

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

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

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

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

Eisner wrote the first four Blackhawk episodes before moving on while Cuidera stayed until issue #11 – although he triumphantly returned in later years.

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

But perhaps the oddest idiosyncrasy to modern readers was that they had their own song (would you be more comfortable if we started calling it an international anthem?) which Blackhawk, André, Stanislaus, Olaf, Chuck, Hendrickson and (I am so sorry here!) Chop-Chop would sing as they plummeted into battle (to see the music and lyrics, you might check out the Blackhawk Archives edition); just remember this number was written for seven really tough leather-clad guys to sing while dodging bullets…

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

Many of the purchases were a huge boost to National’s portfolio, with titles such as GI Combat, Heart Throbs and Blackhawk running uninterrupted well into the 1970s (GI Combat survived until in 1987), whilst the unceasing draw and potential of characters such as Uncle Sam, the assorted Freedom Fighters costumed pantheon, Kid Eternity

Plastic Man have paid dividends ever since.

Despite the company largely turning its back on the “magnificent Seven” in recent years, these are terrific timeless tales as this commodious monochrome collection still proves. It covers the first National-emblazoned issue (#108, January 1957) through #127 (August 1958) which saw the Air Aces hit the ground running in a monthly title (at a time when Superman and Batman were only published eight times a year): almost instantly establishing themselves as a valuable draw in DC’s firmament.

Regrettably many of the records are lost so scripter-credits are not available (potential candidates include Ed “France” Herron, Arnold Drake, George Kashdan, Jack Miller, Bill Woolfolk, Jack Schiff and/or Dave Wood) but the art remained in the capable hands of veteran illustrators Dick Dillin & Cuidera: a team who meshed so seamlessly that they often traded roles with few any the wiser…

Moreover, although broadly formulaic, the gritty cachet of crime, B-movie Sci Fi underpinnings and international jurisdiction of the team always allowed great internal variety within the tales, so with three complete adventures per issue, this is a joyous celebration and compelling reminder of simpler yet more intriguing times.

The action begins with ‘The Threat from the Abyss’, an old-school “Commie-Stomper” yarn wherein the Magnificent Seven put paid to a sinister subsea Soviet rocket base, after which ‘Killer Shark’s Secret Weapon’ sustained the watery theme as the Blackhawks’ greatest foe returns with another outrageous mechanical masterpiece to aid his piratical schemes. Issue #108 concludes with ‘The Mutiny of the Red Sailors’, wherein a mass-defection of Russian mariners in Hong Kong proves to be a cunning scheme to destroy the then still-British colony.

‘The Avalanche King’ details the struggle against Red infiltrators in South America, ‘Blackhawk the Sorcerer!’ sees the team discover a lost outpost of Norman knights who missed the invasion of England in 1066 and ‘The Raid on Blackhawk Island’ pits the squad against their own trophies as an intruder invades their secret base, turning a host of captured super-weapons against them.

Blackhawk #110 opened with ‘The Mystery of Tigress Island’ as the doughty lads battle an all-girl team of rival international aviators; ‘The Prophet of Disaster’ proves to be no seer but simply a middle Eastern conman and ‘Duel of Giants’ sets the squad against a deranged scientist who can enlarge his body to blockbuster proportions.

‘The Menace of the Machines’ finds our heroes battling the incredible gimmicks of a Hollywood special effects wizard turned to crime, ‘The Perils of Blackie, the Wonder Bird’ features the team’s incredible feathered mascot – who cunningly turns the tables on a spy-ring which captures him – whilst ‘Trigger Craig’s Magic Carpet’ proves once again that Crime Does Not Pay, but also even ancient sorcery is no match for bold hearts and heavy machine-guns…

‘The Doomed Dogfight’ opened #112 as a Nazi ace schemes to rerun his WWII aerial duel against Blackhawk; criminal counterpart squadron ‘The Crimson Vultures’ prove no match for the Dark Knights and ‘The Eighth Blackhawk’ is shown as nothing more than a dirty traitor… or is he?

‘The Volunteers of Doom’ sees the team uncover sabotage whilst testing dangerous super-weapons for the US Government and ‘The Saboteur of Blackhawk Island’ only appears to be one of the valiant crew before ‘The Cellblock in the Sky’ has the heroes imprisoned by a disenchanted genius in floating cages – but not for long…

‘The Gladiators of Blackhawk Island’ depicts a training exercise co-opted by criminals with deadly consequences, whilst costumed criminal the Mole almost enslaves ‘20,000 Leagues Beneath the Earth’ and Blackie mutates into a ravening, uncontrollable menace in ‘The Winged Goliath’.

In ‘The Tyrant’s Return’, Nazi war criminals rally sympathisers around a new Hitler, ‘Blackie Goes Wild’ sees the gifted raptor revert to savagery but still thwart a South American revolution whilst ‘The Creature of Blackhawk Island’ reveals an extra-dimensional monster foolishly smashing through to our reality… onto the most heavily fortified military base on Earth…

As The Prisoners of the Black Palace’, the old comrades crush a criminal scheme to quartermaster the entire international underworld, before Blackhawk becomes ‘The Human Torpedo’ to eradicate a sea-going gangster but ends up in contention with a race of mermen, whilst old Hendrickson is ‘The Outcast Blackhawk’ after failing his annual requalification exams…

Blackhawk #117 began with the team tackling an apparent lost tribe of Vikings in ‘The Menace of the Dragon Boat’ before becoming targets of a ruthless mastermind in ‘The Seven Little Blackhawks’ and battling a chilling criminal maniac in ‘The Fantastic Mr. Freeze’ (no relation to the later Bat foe).

‘The Bandit with 1,000 Nets’ was yet another audacious thief with a novel gimmick, whereas the Pacific Ocean is the real enemy when an accident maroons ‘The Blackhawk Robinson Crusoes’ as they hunt the nefarious Sting Ray, after which ‘The Human Clay Pigeons’ sees the team helpless targets of international assassin and spymaster the Sniper.

A time-travel accident propels the aviators back to the old West in ‘Blackhawk vs Chief Black Hawk’, and on their return Frenchman Andre inherits a fortune to become ‘The Playboy Blackhawk’, before being kicked off the team. However, he’s happily reinstated for all-out dinosaur action in ‘The Valley of the Monsters’

‘The Challenge of the Wizard’ leads in #120, with the crew tackling an ingenious stage magician whilst a well-meaning kid makes plenty of trouble for them when he elects himself ‘The Junior Blackhawk!’. Then the sinister Professor tricks the heroes into re-enacting ‘The Perils of Ulysses’ with deadly robotic monsters.

‘Secret Weapon of the Archer’ pits the lads against a fantastic attention-seeking costumed menace, before ‘The Jinxed Blackhawk’ sees the team struggling against bad luck, superstition and a cunning criminal and ‘Siege in the Sahara’ findsthem re-enacting Beau Geste whilst rescuing hijacked atomic weapons from bandit chieftain the Tiger

‘The Movie that Backfired’ starts out as a biopic but develops into a deadly mystery when criminals make murderous alterations to the script, ‘The Sky Kites’ finds the heroes battling aerial pirate squadron The Ravens after which ‘The Day the Blackhawks Died’ sees the deadly Cobra laying a lethal trap, blithely unaware that he is the prey, not the predator…

Killer Shark resurfaces to unsuccessfully assault ‘The Underseas Gold Fort’, more leftover Nazis strive to solve a ‘Mystery on Top of the World’ involving the location of the Reich’s stolen gold and Blackhawk is ‘The Human Rocket’when thwarting an alien invasion.

In issue #124, figures from history rob at will and even the Blackhawks are implicated before the ‘Thieves with a Thousand Faces’ proved to be far from supernatural. Thereafter, ‘The Beauty and the Blackhawks’ sees shy Chuck apparently bamboozled by a sultry siren whilst ‘The Mechanical Spies from Space’ attempt to establish an Earthly beachhead but are soundly defeated by the Magnificent Seven’s unique blend of human heroism and heavy ordnance.

‘The Secrets of the Blackhawk Time Capsule’ proves an irresistible temptation for scientific super-criminal the Schemerwhilst ‘The Sunken Island!’ hides a lost Mongol civilisation in the throes of civil war and ‘The Super Blackhawk’ has an atomic accident transform the veteran leader into an all-powerful metahuman… unfortunately doing the same for the Mole and his gang too…

‘The Secret of the Glass Fort’ revisits the idea when the entire team briefly gain superpowers to battle alien invaders. The Prisoner of Zenda provides plot for ‘Hendrickson, King for a Day’, with the venerable Dutchman doubling for a missing monarch before ‘The Man Who Collected Blackhawks’ quickly learns to regret using a shrinking ray on the toughest crime-fighters in the World…

This stupendous selection climaxes with issue #127: starting with ‘Blackie – the Winged Sky Fighter’ wherein the formidable bird rescues his human comrades from an impossible death-trap, after which strongman Olaf takes centre-stage as ‘The Show-Off Blackhawk’ when a showbiz career diverts his attention from the most important things in life. The manly monochrome marvels conclude as a criminal infiltrates the squad disguised as American member Chuck: seemingly succeeds in killing the legendary leader in ‘The Ghost of Blackhawk’.

These stories were produced at a pivotal moment in comics history: the last great outpouring of broadly human-scaled action-heroes in a marketplace increasingly filling up with gaudily clad wondermen and superwomen. The iconic blend of weary sophistication and glorious, juvenile bravado where a few good men with wits, firearms and a trusty animal companion could overcome all odds was fading in the light of spectacular scenarios and ubiquitous alien encounters.

For this precious moment, though, these rousing tales of the miracles that (extra)ordinary guys can accomplish are some of the early Silver Age’s finest moments. Terrific traditional all-ages entertainment and some of the best comics stories of their time, these tales are forgotten gems of their genre and I sincerely hope DC finds the time and money to continue the magic in further collections and digital rereleases.

And so will you…
© 1957, 1958, 2008 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

The Adventures of Buck Danny volume 3: Ghost Squadron


By Francis Bergése, colours by Frédéric Bergése: translated by Jerome Saincantin (Cinebooks)
ISBN: 987-1-905460-85-4 (Album PB)

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

The US Naval Aviator was created by Georges Troisfontaines whilst he was director of 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.

Charlier’s fascination with human-scale drama and rugged realism had been seen in such “true-war” strips as L’Agonie du Bismark (The Agony of the Bismark – published in Spirou in 1946).

Charlier and René Goscinny were co-editors of Pistolin magazine from 1955 to 1958 and created Pilote in 1959. When they, with fellow creative legend Albert Uderzo, formed the Édifrance Agency to promote the specialised communication benefits of comic strips, he continued to script Buck Danny and did so until his death.

Thereafter his artistic collaborator Francis Bergése (who had replaced Hubinon in 1978) took complete charge of the adventures of the All-American Air Ace, on occasion working with other creators such as Jacques de Douhet.

Like so many artists involved in stories about flight, 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. Aged 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 by Amigo, Ajax, Cap 7, Les 3 Cascadeurs, Les 3 A, Michel dans la Course and many more.

Bergése worked as a jobbing artist on comedies, pastiches and WWII strips until 1983 when he took the coveted job of illustrating globally syndicated Buck Danny, beginning with 41st yarn ‘Apocalypse Mission’. He even found time in the 1990s to produce a few tales for the European interpretation of British icon Biggles before finally retiring in 2008, passing on the reins to illustrators Fabrice Lamy and Francis Winis and scripter Frédéric Zumbiehl. Gil Formosa replaced Winis in 2015, and the full tally thus far is 58 albums…

This third Cinebook volume is another astonishingly authentic yarn: a tense, rip-roaring and politically-charged contemporary war story originally published in 1996 as Buck Danny #46 (L’escadrille fantôme and coloured by Frédéric Bergése). It deftly blends mind-boggling detail and technical veracity with good old-fashioned blistering blockbuster derring-do.

It’s 1995 and, above Sarajevo, Tuckson and pioneer female fighter pilot Cindy McPherson are patrolling as part of the UN Protection Force. “UnProFor” is the West’s broad and criminally ineffectual coalition to stop various factions in the region slaughtering each other.

The flight takes a dark turn when Cindy’s plane is hit by Serb rockets in contravention of the truce rules. Incensed, Tuckson peels off to open up with machine gun fire without obtaining the proper permissions.

Nursing Cindy’s burning plane back to their carrier in the Baltic, Sonny doesn’t care how much trouble he’s in, but rather than a Court Martial, the impetuous lad’s punishment is rather unique…

Called to interview with the Admiral, the pilot expects at the very least to be thrown as food to the skipper’s vile dog O’Connor, but instead meets the enigmatic Mr. Tenderman and is seconded to a top secret “Air Force/Navy Coordination” mission. Buck, meanwhile, is part of an op to locate a strange radar echo in an area supposed to be neutral and empty…

After wishing Cindy a fond farewell and hinting at his big CIA secret posting, Sonny ships out by helicopter to land at Prevesa Airbase in Greece. Bewilderment is replaced with terror and rage once he unpacks and discovers O’Connor has stowed away in his kit…

Now stuck with the infernal, nastily nipping mutt, Sonny’s screams draw an old friend into his room: maverick test pilot and old partner in peril Slim Holden. The inveterate rule-breaker also has no idea what they’ve been roped into…

The next day the conundrum continues as they and a small group of other pilots with no idea of why they’re here or where they’re going are shipped to a secret base in the mountains. After the military’s usual “hurry up and wait” the wary fliers are greeted by a familiar face…

Buck is introduced as Colonel Y by the grimly competent General X, who assigns each of the pilots a number from 1 to 16. All they know is that they have all committed serious breaches of military discipline which will be wiped from their records once the mission is over. Moreover, as long as they’re here they will only refer to each other by their code numbers…

Awaiting them are anonymous, unmarked F-16s without radios. They are to train on the jets in preparation for an unspecified single task under the strictest security conditions, until finally apprised of their specified purpose.

Days of exhausting preparation and pointless speculation are almost disrupted when an unidentified MiG-29 buzzes the base at extremely low altitude. Although Buck rapidly pursues, the quarry eludes him, but the chase does reveal their so-secret base is being covertly observed by a radar station on the Albanian border…

With no viable options, Buck returns and the training continues at full pace. Inevitably the regimen results in a fatality. With the warning of more to come before the strafing and low-level bombing runs end, the practicing goes on and rumours mount over what the actual targets of their illicit ground-attack squadron might be…

Back at the official war zone, tensions mount when two US Navy F-18s are shot down over Bosnia – apparently by a flight of unidentified jets – whilst at the hidden base, Buck’s security overflights still register radar tracks from an unknown source.

Buck and General X have no idea which of the many warring factions might be operating the MiGs or mobile radar unit, but have no choice except to proceed with their original plan. They might be far more concerned if they realised that one of the downed – official – combatants was Cindy McPherson…

With the situation worsening, word is given to go and the unofficial spectre squadron finally learn what they’re expected to do: take out the armoured concentrations and artillery emplacements relentlessly bombarding Sarajevo.

In the face of increasingly obvious NATO and UN impotence, it has been decided the Pan-Serbian aggressors need to be taught a hard lesson about keeping their word regarding cease-fires…

The mission is unofficial, with no radio contact and disabled ejector seats. Moreover, they all have permission to respond in kind to any attack – even by American forces…

As the doomed Ghost Squadron roars across the Adriatic to their targets, the Navy mission to rescue or recover their downed reconnaissance pilots proceeds and an ever-vigilant AWACS plane picks up the inexplicable bogeys heading for Sarajevo.

Of course, they reach the only conclusion possible…

When Major Tumbler and his Flight are despatched after the mystery jets an inconclusive dogfight leads him to suspect the nature and identities of some of his targets, but after breaking off hostilities the officially sanctioned Navy planes are ambushed by MiGs from a third faction…

Things look grim until NATO support arrives in the form of French Mirages and British Tornados. As the ghosts fly on to complete their punishment run, in the mad scramble behind them Tumbler tracks a MiG that has had enough and exposes a hidden Bosnian hangar housing a phantom flight of their own. Unfortunately, they see him too and he is shot down…

The CIA covert mission has been a success and a massive catalyst. In the aftermath, planes from many surrounding nations are tearing up the skies, and in the confusion, Tumbler makes his way from his landing point into the MiG base to discover old enemy and maniac mercenary Lady X running the show. He also learns that a beloved comrade may well be a traitor in her pay but resolves to save his friend and let the chips fall where they may…

This is a stunning slice of old-fashioned razzle-dazzle that enthrals from the first page to the last panel and shows just why this brilliant series has lasted for so long. Complex politics, personal honour and dastardly schemes all seamlessly blend into a breakneck thriller suitable for older kids of all ages.
© Dupuis, 1996 by Bergése. English translation © 2012 Cinebook Ltd. All rights reserved.

The Bluecoats volute 5: Rumberley


By Willy Lambil & Raoul Cauvin, translated by Erica Jeffrey (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-1-84918-108-2 (Album PB)

The myths and legends of the cinematic American West have fascinated Europeans virtually since the actual days of stagecoaches and gunslingers. Hergé and Moebius were passionate devotees and the wealth of stand-out Continental comics series ranges from Italy’s Tex Willer to such Franco-Belgian classics as Blueberry and tangential all-ages classics such as Yakari. Even colonial dramas such as Pioneers of the New World and Milo Manara & Hugo Pratt’s Indian Summer fit the broad-brimmed bill.

As devised by Louis “Salvé” Salvérius & Raoul Cauvin – who has scripted the first 64 best-selling volumes until his retirement in 2020 – Les Tuniques Bleues (The Bluecoats) debuted at the end of the 1960s, specifically created to replace Lucky Luke when the laconic maverick defected from weekly anthology Le Journal de Spirou to rival publication Pilote.

The substitute swiftly became one of the most popular bande dessinée series in Europe.

Salvé was a cartoonist of the Gallic big-foot/big-nose humour school, and when he died suddenly in 1972 his replacement, Willy “Lambil” Lambillotte slowly introduced a more realistic – but still overtly comedic – illustrative tone and manner. Lambil is Belgian, born in 1936 and, after studying Fine Art in college, joined publishing giant Dupuis in 1952 as a letterer.

Born in 1938, scripter Cauvin is also Belgian and before entering Dupuis’ animation department in 1960 studied Lithography. He soon discovered his true calling – comedy writing – and began a glittering and prolific career at Spirou. In addition to Bluecoats he scripted dozens of long-running, award winning series including Cédric, Les Femmes en Blanc and Agent 212: more than 240 separate albums. The Bluecoats alone has sold more than 15 million copies of its 65 (and counting) album sequence.

Our sorry, long-suffering protagonists are Sergeant Cornelius Chesterfield and Corporal Blutch; a pair of worthy fools in the manner of Laurel & Hardy: hapless, ill-starred US cavalrymen posted to the wild frontier and various key points of fabled America during the War Between the States.

The original format featured single-page gags set around an Indian-plagued Wild West fort, but from the second volume Du Nord au Sud, the sad-sack soldiers went back East to fight in the American Civil War (a tale was rewritten as 18thalbum Blue retro to describe how the chumps were drafted during the war). Every subsequent adventure, although often ranging far beyond America and taking in a lot of thoroughly researched history, is set within the timeframe of the Secession conflict.

Blutch is your run-of-the-mill, whinging little-man-in-the street: work-shy, mouthy, devious and especially critical of the army and its inept commanders. Ducking, diving, even deserting whenever he can, he’s you or me – except sometimes he’s quite smart and heroic if no other (easier) option is available.

Chesterfield is a big burly professional fighting man; a career soldier who has passionately bought into all the patriotism and esprit-de-corps of the Military. He is brave, never shirks his duty and wants to be a hero. He also loves his cynical little troll of a pal. They quarrel like a married couple, fight like brothers and simply cannot agree on the point and purpose of the horrendous war they are trapped in…

Rumberley was the fifth translated Cinebook album (chronologically the 15th European volume) and a far darker affair than usual. After a horrific battle, Union and Confederate forces are spent and exhausted, although the Blues have advanced far into the South as a result of the sustained slaughter. However, with dwindling food and little ammunition, the Generals opt to fall back and re-supply with fresh troops and munitions. The only problem is what to do with the wounded. After all, bringing them back to safety would only slow down the rearward advance. Then one bright, over-privileged spark has the notion of just billeting the unusable Union soldiers on the nearest – albeit enemy – town…

Amongst the dead and dying are grievously injured Chesterfield and war-crazy Captain Stark. Even Blutch is there, but his leg wound might be minor, self-inflicted or possibly utterly bogus…

Their reception by the women, children, aged and infirm of Rumberley is hostile to say the least, but the Union dregs have no place else to go and no strength left to leave anyway. Forcibly appropriating the livery stable as a field hospital, Blutch and Chesterfield aid the exhausted doctors and surgeons as best they can, but the simmering tensions and occasional assaults by the townsfolk indicates there is real trouble brewing and this kettle is about to boil over very soon…

And then the townsfolk start drifting away. Rumours spread that a Confederate force is approaching Rumberley. The doctors try to move their charges out, and Blutch finds himself in the uncanny position of staying behind as rearguard when Chesterfield decides to buy them time to get away…

When it comes, the battle is a bizarre affair. The Rebels are fit but have little ammunition so the Bluecoats give a good accounting of themselves, but are almost done for when Stark unexpectedly leads a life-saving cavalry charge of the Union wounded to save them. During the insane clash, town buildings are set afire and the citizens of Rumberley rush back to save their home and possessions.

And then something strange happens: the killing stops and Blues, Greys and civilians work together to save rather than destroy…

This is a hugely amusing anti-war saga targeting younger, less world-weary audiences. Historically authentic, and always in good taste despite an uncompromising portrayal of violence, the attitudes expressed by our down-to-earth pair never make battle anything but arrant folly and, like the hilarious yet insanely tragic war-memoirs of Spike Milligan, these are comedic tales whose very humour makes the occasional moments of shocking verity doubly powerful and hard-hitting.

Funny, thrilling, beautifully realised and eminently readable, Bluecoats is the sort of war-story and Western which appeals to the best, not worst, of the human spirit.
© Dupuis 1979 by Lambil & Cauvin. English translation © 2011 Cinebook Ltd. All rights reserved.

Johnny Red: Falcon’s First Flight


By Tom Tulley & Joe Colquhoun (Titan Books)
ISBN: 978-1-84856-033-8 (HB)

Britons have been enamoured of fighting aviators since the earliest days of popular fiction, but wonderful and thrilling as Biggles, Paddy Payne, I Flew with Braddock or Battler Britton might have been, the true hellish horror of war in the air didn’t really hit home for comics readers until strip veterans Tom Tully & Joe Colquhoun began crafting the epic career of a troublesome working-class maverick pilot.

Kicked out of the RAF at our time of greatest need, he eventually carved a bloody legend for himself in the blistering skies of the Eastern Front. Johnny Red debuted in January 1977, in issue #100 of increasingly radical war comic Battle Picture Weekly and Valiant. He rapidly became a firm fixture, appearing for the next 500-odd issues, before finally calling it a day in 1987. Even then, the strip continued as a reprint feature in Best of Battle until Fleetway stopped publishing comics.

Presented in a sturdily lavish and reliable hardback archival tome (but not sadly in digital formats yet), Falcon’s First Flight collects chapters 1-37 of the aerial epic in the original stark monochrome and includes an effusive introduction from starry-eyed fan Garth Ennis, plus a fascinating historical essay from Jeremy Briggs.

Genesis of a Hero provides some intriguing perspective as well as revealing the incredible story of the pilot who was the real-life inspiration for Johnny Red…

The racing breakneck action (utterly unavoidable since almost all Battle instalments were between 3-4 pages long) opens on September 1941 as young Liverpool oik Johnny Redburn helplessly watches Stukas and Junkas strafe and bomb the merchant ship he’s working on. The Empire Cape is part of a relief convoy en route to Murmansk with supplies for Britain’s hard-pressed Russian allies.

Scared and helpless, Redburn recalls the incident which got him cashiered from RAF training and banned from flying – originally striking an officer, but later retconned into accidentally killing an instructor. He doesn’t miss the snobs and stupid rules, but Johnny was a natural flier and is still hungry for the skies…

Unable to provide fighter escorts or aircraft carriers, the Navy at this time outfitted some freighters with a catapult-launched plane. The Cape has one of these insane contraptions: a single Hurricane which would be launched into enemy-filled skies with a few hours’ fuel and a pilot expected to do whatever he could until German bullets or the seas claimed him. Convoy ships had no landing facility and if the flier survived the dogfights he was expected to ditch in the sea or crash…

When the assigned aviator is killed on the way to launch, Johnny takes his place and against all odds shoots down enough attackers to allow the crew of the Cape to successfully abandon ship. Now he faces a unique dilemma. He is an illegal pilot in a stolen plane he can’t land. Having no faith in British military justice or the cold cruel waters below, Redburn decides to try for the Russian mainland and a proper landing field…

Typically, it’s a case of out of the frying pan and into the freezer as lethal weather conditions close in. Miraculously escaping fog, storm and ice, Johnny lands at a hidden base, only to be mistaken for a German by the starving and desperate air fighters of the 5th Soviet Air Brigade… the “Falcons”.

These are patriotic but damned men, ordered to resist to the last in creaky biplanes against the overwhelming forces of the Luftwaffe. As the embattled communists close on Johnny, the Germans attack and a unique bond of comradeship is formed as his skill and modern Hurricane wreaks havoc amongst the complacent Nazis. With nowhere else to go Johnny joins the squadron of the doomed, galvanising them into a competent squadron of rule-breaking, triumphant aerial killers risking everything to save their beleaguered homeland.

Ill-supplied and written off by their own leaders, the Soviet airmen are convinced by “Johnny Red” to steal whatever food, replacements and weapons they need from their own retreating forces, quickly becoming a cohesive and credible threat to the once unstoppable Germans.

The warrior’s spectacular revival causes its own problems. Johnny is hiding from all contact with the British, convinced only jail or the gallows await him, whilst beyond the close brotherhood of his fellow Falcons, successive Soviet military bureaucrats such as demented political officer Major Alexie Kraskin – a martinet who loves executing his own troops if they won’t obey suicidal orders – or cowardly, carpet-bagging Comrade Colonel Grigor Yaraslov, politically appointed to lead the resurgent squadron, all seem far too eager to get rid of the humiliatingly competent foreign interloper…

In sortie after sortie, “Johnny Red” tackles privation, exhaustion and the enmity of his superiors whilst clearing Russian skies of fascist predators, but as this first volume closes he faces his greatest challenges.

With the Falcons posted to the frozen hell of Leningrad during the worst part of the German siege, Johnny is increasingly plagued by the recurring effects of an old head-wound causing sporadic fits of blindness. Simultaneously, a kill-crazy psychopathic replacement to the Falcons is determined to murder the Englishman, for stopping the strafing of Germans after they have surrendered…

These gritty, evocative tales are packed with historical detail, breathtaking passion and a staggering aura of authenticity. The classic theme of a misfit making good under incredible adversity has never been better depicted and Tom (Kelly’s Eye, Roy of the Rovers, Steel Claw, Raven on the Wing, Harlem Heroes, Mean Arena) Tully’s visceral scripts are perfectly realised by miracle worker Joe Colquhoun. The artist quit writing and drawing Roy of the Rovers to perfect his mastery of aviation war-stories on the long-running but more traditional Paddy Payne in Lion (from 1959 until the feature was retired) before co-creating Johnny Red in late 1976.

He illustrated 100 episodes before moving on to his greatest work Charley’s War.

This premiere collection is a grand moment in the transition of comics from boy’s own bravado in a Toff’s World to mature, mercurial yet moving adventures starring ordinary working-class heroes. Johnny Red was at the forefront of this invasion of extraordinary commoners during a war that almost abolished the class system forever.

However, whatever your dogma or preferred arena of struggle, there’s no question that these magnificent war-stories are among the Few: the cream of British comics well worth your avid time and attention, especially in these perilous times when today’s toffs continually seek to appropriate the language and actions of real wartime heroism for their own shameful, self-serving purposes.
Johnny Red © 2010 Egmont UK Ltd. All Rights Reserved. Introduction © 2010 Garth Ennis. Genesis of a Hero © 2010 Jeremy Briggs.