U.S.S. Stevens – The Collected Stories


By Sam Glanzman (Dover Comics & Graphic Novels)
ISBN: 978-0-486-80158-2 (HB)

To the shame and detriment of the entire comics industry, for most of his career Sam Glanzman was one of the least-regarded creators in American comicbooks. Despite having one of the longest careers, most unique illustration styles and the respect of his creative peers, he just never got the public acclaim his work deserved. Thankfully that all changed in recent years and he lived long enough to enjoy the belated spotlight and bask in some well-deserved adulation.

Glanzman drew and wrote comics since the Golden Age, most commonly in classic genres ranging from war to mystery to fantasy, where his work was – as always – raw, powerful, subtly engaging and irresistibly compelling.

On titles such as Kona, Monarch of Monster Island, Voyage to the Deep, Combat, Jungle Tales of Tarzan, Hercules,The Haunted Tank, The Green Berets, The Private War of Willie Schultz, and especially his 1980s graphic novels A Sailor’s Story and Wind, Dreams and Dragons – which you should buy in a single volume from Dover – Glanzman produced magnificent action-adventure tales which fired the imagination and stirred the blood. His stuff always sold and at least won him a legion of fans amongst fellow artists, if not from the small, insular and over-vocal fan-press.

In later years, Glanzman worked with Tim Truman’s 4Winds outfit on high-profile projects like The Lone Ranger, Jonah Hex and barbarian fantasy Attu. Moreover, as the sublime work gathered here attests, he was also one of the earliest pioneers of graphic autobiography; translating personal WWII experiences as a sailor in the Pacific into one of the very best things to come out of DC’s 1970s war comics line…

U.S.S. Stevens, DD479 was a peripatetic filler-feature which bobbed about between Our Army at War, Our Fighting Forces, G.I. Combat, Star Spangled War Stories and other anthological battle books; quietly backing-up the cover-hogging, star-attraction glory-boys. It provided wry, witty, shocking, informative and immensely human vignettes of shipboard life, starring the fictionalised crew of the destroyer Glanzman had served on. It was, in most ways, a love story and tribute to the vessel which had been their only home and refuge under fire.

In 4- or 5-page episodes, the auteur recaptured and shared a kind of comradeship we peace-timers can only imagine and, despite the pulse-pounding drama of the lead features, us fans all knew these little snippets were what really happened when the Boys went “over there”…

A maritime epic to rank with Melville or Forester – and with stunning pictures too – every episode of this astounding unsung masterpiece is housed in one stunning hardback compilation (also available digitally for limp-wristed old coots like me) and if you love the medium of comics, or history, or just a damn fine tale well-told, you must have it…

That’s really all you need to know, but if you’re one of the regular crowd needful of more of my bombastic blather, a much fuller description follows…

As I’ve already stated, Glanzman belatedly enjoyed some earned attention, and this tome opens by sharing Presidential Letters from Barack Obama and George Herbert Walker Bush for his service and achievements. Then follows a Foreword from Ivan Brandon and a copious and informative Introduction by Jon B. Cooke detailing ‘A Sailor’s History: The Life and Art of Sam J. Glanzman’.

Next comes a brace of prototypical treats; the initial comic book appearance of U.S.S. Stevens from Dell Comics’ Combat #16 (April-June 1965) and the valiant vessel’s first cover spot from Combat #24, April 1967.

The first official U.S.S. Stevens, DD479 appeared after Glanzman approached Joe Kubert, who had recently become Group Editor for DC’s war titles. He commissioned ‘Frightened Boys… or Fighting Men’ (appearing in Our Army at War #218, April 1970), depicting a moment in 1942 as boredom and tension are replaced by frantic action when a suicide plane targets the ship…

A semi-regular cast was introduced slowly throughout 1970; fictionalised incarnations of old shipmates including skipper Commander T. A. Rakov, who ominously pondered his Task Force’s dispersal, moments before a pot-luck attack known as ‘The Browning Shot’ (Our Fighting Forces #125, May/June) proved his fears justified…

Glanzman’s pocket-sized tales always delivered a mountain of information, mood and impact and ‘The Idiot!’ (OAaW#220, June) is one of his most effective, detailing in 4 mesmerising pages not only the variety of suicidal flying bombs the Allies faced, but also how appalled American sailors reacted to them.

Sudden death was everywhere. ‘1-2-3’ (OFF #126, July/August) details how quick action and intuitive thinking saves the ship from a hidden gun emplacement whilst ‘Black Smoke’ (Our Army at War #222, from the same month) shows how a know-it-all engineer causes the sinking of the Stevens’ sister-ship by not believing an old salt’s frequent, frantic warnings…

All aboard ship were regularly shaken by the variety of Japanese aircraft and skill of the pilots. ‘Dragonfly’ (OFF #127, September/October) shows exactly why, whilst an insightful glimpse of the enemy’s psychological other-ness is graphically, tragically depicted in the tale of ‘The Kunkō Warrior’ (OAaW #223, September).

A weird encounter with a wooden WWI vessel forces a ‘Double Rescue!’ (Star Spangled War Stories #153, October/November) before OFF #128’s (November/December) ‘How Many Fathoms?’ again counts the human cost of bravery with devastating, understated impact. ‘Buckethead’ (OAaW #225, November) then relates one swabbie’s unique reaction to constant bombardment.

‘Missing: 320 Men!’ (G.I. Combat #145, December 1970-January 1971) debuted Glanzman-avatar Jerry Boyle who whiled away helpless moments during a shattering battle by sketching cartoons of his astonished shipmates. ‘Death of a Ship!’ (OAaW #227, January 1971) then deals with classic war fodder as submarine and ship hunt each other in a deadly duel…

A military maritime mystery was solved by Commander Rakov in ‘Cause and Cure!’ (Our Army at War #230, March) whilst the next issue posed a different conundrum as the ship loses all power and sticks ‘In the Frying Pan!’ (April 1971).

The vignettes were always less about warfare than its effect – immediate or cumulative – on ordinary guys. ‘Buck Taylor, You Can’t Fool Me!’ (OAaW #232) catalogues his increasingly aberrant behaviour but posits some less likely reasons, after which old school hero Bos’n Egloff saves the day during the worst typhoon of the war in ‘Cabbages and Kings’(OFF #131, July/August) whilst ‘Kamikaze’ (OAa #235 August) boldly and provocatively tells a poignant life-story from the point of view of the pilot inside a flying bomb…

An informative peek at the crew of a torpedo launch station in ‘Hip Shot’ (G.I. Combat #150 October/November) segues seamlessly into the dangers of shore leave ‘In Tsingtao’ (OFF #134, November/December) whilst ‘XDD479’ (Our Army at War #238 November) reveals a lost landmark of military history.

The real DD479 was one of three destroyers test-trialling ship-mounted spotter planes. This little gem explains why that experiment was dropped…

Buck pops back in ‘Red Ribbon’ (G.I.C #151 December 1971-January 1972), sharing a personal coping mechanism for making shipboard chores less “exhilarating”, whilst ‘Vela Lavella’ (OAaW #240, January 1972) captures the claustrophobic horror of night time naval engagement before ‘Dreams’ (G.I.C #152 February/March) peeps inside various heads to see what the ship’s company would rather be doing. ‘Batmen’ (OAaW #241, February) uses a lecture on radar to recount one of the most astounding exploits of the war…

Every U.S.S. Stevens episode was packed with fascinating fact and detail, culled from the artist’s letters home and service-time sketchbooks, but those invaluable memento belligeri also served double duty as the basis for a secondary feature.

The debut ‘Sam Glanzman’s War Diary’ appeared in Our Army at War #242 (March 1972): a compendium of pictorial snapshots sharing quieter moments, such as the first passage through the Panama Canal, sleeping arrangements or K.P. duties peeling spuds, and precedes an hilarious record of the freshmen sailors’ endurance of an ancient naval hazing tradition inflicted upon every “pollywog” crossing the equator for the first time in ‘Imperivm Neptivm Regis’ (OFF #136 (March/April 1972).

A second ‘Sam Glanzman’s War Diary’ (OAaW #244, April) reveals the mixed joys of “Liberty in the Philippines” after which a suitably foreboding ‘Prelude’ (Weird War Tales #4 (March/April 1972) captures the passive-panicked tension of daily routine whilst a potentially morale-shattering close shave is shared during an all-too-infrequent ‘Mail Call!’ (G.I. Combat #155, April/May)…

A thoughtful man of keen empathy and insight, Glanzman often offered readers a look at the real victims. ‘What Do They Know About War?’ (OAaW #244, April) sees peasant islanders trying to eke out a living, only to discover far too many similarities between Occupiers and Liberators, whilst the next issue focussed on the sailors’ jangling nerves and stomachs. ‘A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the War!’ (#245, May) reveals what happened when DD479 was mistakenly declared destroyed and, thanks to an administrative iron curtain, found it impossible to refuel or take on food stores…

Cartoonist Jerry Boyle resurfaced in a ‘Comic Strip’ in OFF #138 (July/August) after which Glanzman produced one of the most powerful social statements in an era of tumultuous change.

Our Army at War #247 (July 1972) featured a tale based on decorated Pearl Harbor hero Doner Miller who saved lives, killed the enemy and won medals, but was not allowed to progress beyond the rank of shipboard domestic because of his skin. ‘Color Me Brave!’ was an excoriating attack on the U.S. Navy’s segregation policies and is as breathtaking and rousing now as it was then…

‘Ride the Baka’ (OAaW #248 August) revisits those constant near-miss moments sparked by suicide pilots after which Glanzman shares broken sleep in ‘A Nightmare from the Beginning’ (OFF #139, September/October) whilst ‘Another Kunkō Warrior’ (OFF #140, November/December) sees marines taking an island and encountering warfare beyond their comprehension.

1973 began with a death-dipped nursery rhyme detailing ‘This is the Ship that War Built!’ (G.I.C #157 December 1972-January 1973) before ‘Buck Taylor’ (OFF #141 January/February) delivers an impromptu lecture on maritime military history. Glanzman struck an impassioned note for war-brides and lonely ships passing in the night with ‘The Islands Were Meant for Love!’ (Star Spangled War Stories #167 February)…

Terror turns to wonder when sailors encounter the ‘Portuguese Man of War’ (OAaW #256 August), a shore leave mugging is thwarted thanks to ‘Tailor-Mades’ (OFF #143 June/July) and letters home are necessarily self-censored in ‘The Sea is Calm… The Sky is Bright…’ (OAaW #257 June), but shipboard relationships remain complex and bewildering, as proved in ‘Who to Believe!’ (SSWS #171, July).

The strife of constant struggle comes to the fore in ‘The Kiyi’ (OAaW #258 July) and is seen from both sides when souvenir hunters try to take ‘The Thousand-Stitch-Belt’ (SSWS #172 August), but, as always, it’s non-combatants who truly pay the price, just like the native fishermen in ‘Accident…’ (OAaW #259, August).

Even the quietest, happiest moments can turn instantly fatal as the good-natured pilferers swiping fruit at a refuelling station discover in ‘King of the Hill’ (SSWS #174, October).

An unlikely tale of a kamikaze who survives his final flight but not his final fate, ‘Today is Tomorrow’ (OAaW #261, October) precedes a strident, wordless plea for understanding in ‘Where…?’ (OAaW #262 November 1973) before the sombre mood is briefly lifted with a tale of selfishness and sacrifice in ‘Rocco’s Roost’ from OAaW #265, February 1974.

The following issue provide both a gentle ‘Sam Glanzman’s War Diary’ covering down-time in “The Islands” and a brutal tale of mentorship and torches passed in ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’, after which a truly disturbing tale of what we now call gender identity and post-traumatic stress disorder is recounted in the tragedy of ‘Toro’ from the April/May Our Fighting Forces #148…

‘Moonglow’ from OAaW #267 (April 1974) reveals how quickly placid contemplation can turn to blazing conflagration, whilst – after a chilling, evocative ‘Sam Glanzman’s War Diary’ (OAaW #269 June) – ‘Lucky… Save Me!’ (OAaW #275, December 1974) shows how memories of unconditional love can offset the cruellest of injuries…

‘Heads I Win, Tails You Lose!’ (OAaW #281, June 1975) explores how both friend and foe alike can be addicted to risk, after which the next issue’s ‘I Am Old Glory…’ sardonically transposes a thoughtful veneration with the actualities of combat before ‘A Glance into Glanzman’ by Allan Asherman (Our Army at War #284, September 1975) takes a look at the author’s creative process.

Then it’s back to those sketchbooks and another peep ‘Between the Pages’ (OAaW #293, June 1976) before ‘Not Granted!’ (OAaW #298, November 1976) discloses every seaman’s most fervent wish…

Stories were coming at greater intervals at this time and it was clear that – editorially at least – the company was moving on to fresher fields. Glanzman, however, had saved his best till last as a stomach-churning visual essay displayed the force of tension sustained over months in ‘…And Fear Crippled Andy Payne’ (Sgt. Rock #304, May 1977) before an elegy to bravery and stupidity asked ‘Why?’ in Sgt. Rock #308 from September 1977.

And that was it for nearly a decade. Glanzman – a consummate professional – moved on to other ventures. He was, however, constantly asked about U.S.S. Stevens and eventually, nearly a decade later, returned to his spiritual stomping grounds in expanded tales of DD479: both in his graphic novel memoirs and comic strips.

The latter appeared in anthological black-&-white Marvel magazine Savage Tales (#6-8, spanning August to December 1986) under the umbrella title ‘Of War and Peace – Tales by Mas’.

First up was ‘The Trinity’ blending present with past to detail a shocking incident of a good man’s breaking point, whilst a lighter tone informed ‘In a Gentlemanly Way’, as Glanzman recalled the different means by which officers and swabbies showed their pride for their ships. ‘Rescued by Luck’ than concentrated on a saga of island survival for sailors whose ship had sunk…

Next comes the hauntingly powerful black-&-white tale of then and now entitled ‘Even Dead Birds Have Wings’ (created for the Dover Edition of A Sailor’s Story from 2015) after which a chronologically adrift yarn (from Sgt. Rock Special #1, October 1992) evokes potently elegiac feelings, describing an uncanny act of gallantry under fire and the ultimate fate of old heroes in ‘Home of the Brave’

A few years ago, by popular – and editorial – demand, Glanzman returned to the U.S.S. Stevens for an old friend’s swan song series; providing new tales for each issue of DC’s anthological 6-issue miniseries Joe Kubert Presents (December 2012- May 2013).

More scattershot reminiscences than structured stories, ‘I REMEMBER: Dreams’ and ‘I REMEMBER: Squish Squash’recapitulate unforgettable moments seen through eyes at the sunset end of life; recalling giant storms and lost friends, imagining how distant families endured war and absence and, as always, balancing funny memories with the tragic, like that time when the stiff-necked new commander…

‘Snapshots’ continues the reverie, blending a veteran’s war stories with cherished times as a kid on the farm whilst ‘The Figurehead’ delves deeper into the character of Buck Taylor and his esoteric quest for seaborne nirvana…

Closing that last hurrah were ‘Back and Forth 1941-1944’ and ‘Back and Forth 1941-1945’: an encapsulating catalogue of war service as experienced by the creator, mixing facts, figures, memories and reactions to form a quiet tribute to all who served and all who never returned…

With the stories mostly told, the ‘Afterword’ by Allan Asherman details those heady days when he worked at DC Editorial, and Glanzman would unfailingly light up the offices by delivering his latest strips, after which this monolithic milestone offers a vast and stunningly detailed appendix of ‘Story Annotations’ by Jon B. Cooke.

This is a magnificent collection of comic stories based on real life and what is more fitting than to end it with ‘U.S.S. Stevens DD479’ (coloured by Frank M. Cuonzo & lettered by Thomas Mauer): one final, lyrical farewell from Glanzman to his comrades and the ship which still holds his heart after all these years…?

This is an extraordinary work. In unobtrusive little snippets, Glanzman challenged myths, prejudices and stereotypes – of morality, manhood, race, sexuality and gender – decades before anybody else in comics even thought to try.

He also brought an aura of authenticity to war stories which has never been equalled: eschewing melodrama, faux heroism, trumped-up angst and eye-catching glory-hounding to instead depict how “brothers in arms” really felt and acted and suffered and died.

Shockingly funny, painfully realistic and visually captivating, U.S.S. Stevens is phenomenal and magnificent: a masterpiece by one of the very best of “The Greatest Generation”. I waited 40 years for this and I couldn’t be happier: a sublimely insightful, affecting and rewarding graphic memoir every home, school and library should have and one every reader will return to over and over.
Artwork and text © 2015 Sam Glanzman. All other material © 2015 its respective creators.

Showcase Presents Showcase


By Many and various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-78116-364-1 (TPB)

If you’re a book reviewer, Christmas often comes incredibly early. We received lots and lots of lovely new tomes in the last week and I’ve still not caught up yet, so in the meantime, I’m fobbing you all off with a reworked recommendation I was saving for our actual Christmas promotion season. It’s still a wonderful read criminally in need of re-release and a digital edition, but readily available – for now…

The review is incredibly long. If you want to skip it and just buy the book – because it’s truly brilliant – then please do. I won’t mind and you won’t regret it at all…

In almost every conceivable way, DC’s original “try-out title” Showcase created and dictated the form of the Silver Age of American comic books and is responsible for the multi-billion-dollar industry and art form we all enjoy today.

For many of us old lags, the Silver Age is the ideal era and a still-calling Promised Land of fun and thrills. Varnished by nostalgia (because it’s the era when most of us caught this crazy childhood bug), the clean-cut, unsophisticated optimism of the late 1950s and early 1960s produced captivating heroes and compelling villains who were still far less terrifying than the Cold War baddies then troubling the grown-ups. The sheer talent and unbridled professionalism of the creators working in that too-briefly revitalised comics world resulted in triumph after triumph and even inspired competitors to step up and excel: all of which brightened our young lives and still glow today with quality and achievement.

The principle was a sound one and graphically depicted in the very first issue: the Editors at National/DC were apparently bombarded with readers’ suggestions for new titles and concepts and the only possible way to feasibly prove which would be popular was to offer test runs and assess fan reactions – for which read Sales…

Firmly ensconced in the age of genre thrillers and human adventurers, this magnificent, monolithic monochrome tome covers the first 21 issues from that historic series, spanning March/April 1956 to July/August 1959, and starts the ball rolling with the first and last appearances of Fireman Farrell in a proposed series dubbed Fire Fighters.

Following the aforementioned short ‘The Story Behind Showcase’ by Jack Schiff & Win Mortimer, the human-scaled dramas begin in ‘The School for Smoke-Eaters’ by Schiff and the superb John Prentice (Rip Kirby), introducing trainee fireman Mike Farrell during the last days of his training and desperate to simultaneously live up to and escape his father’s fabulous record as a legendary “smoke-eater”.

The remaining stories, both scripted by Arnold Drake, deal with the job’s daily dilemmas: firstly in ‘Fire under the Big Top’ wherein an unscrupulous showman ignored Farrell’s Fire Inspection findings with tragic consequences, and in‘Fourth Alarm’ mixing an industrial dispute over fireman’s pay, a crooked factory owner and a waterfront blaze captured on live TV in a blisteringly authentic tale of human heroism.

Showcase #2 featured Kings of the Wild: tales of animal valour imaginatively related in three tales scripted by Robert Kanigher – who had thrived after the demise of superheroes with a range of fantastical genre adventures covering western, war, espionage and straight adventure. Stunningly illustrated by Joe Kubert, ‘Rider of the Winds’ tells of a Native American lad’s relationship with his totem spirit Eagle; ‘Outcast Heroes’ (Ross Andru & Mike Esposito) relates how an orphan boy’s loneliness ends after befriending a runaway mutt who eventually saves the town’s kids from a flood before ‘Runaway Bear’ – drawn by Russ Heath – uses broad comedy to describe how an escaped circus bruin battles all the horrors of the wilderness to get return to his comfortable, safe life under the Big Top.

Issue #3 debuted Kanigher & Heath’s The Frogmen in an extended single tale following candidates for a US Underwater Demolitions Team as they move from students to successful undersea warriors. Beginning with ‘The Making of a Frogman’ as the smallest diver – mocked and chided as a ‘Sardine’ by his fellows (especially ‘Shark’ and ‘Whale’) – perseveres and forges bonds until the trio are dumped into blazing Pacific action in ‘Flying Frogmen’, learning the worth of teamwork and sacrifice by destroying a Japanese Sub base in ‘Silent War’

The feature returned as a semi-regular strip in All-American Men of War #44 (April #1957) amongst other Kanigher-edited war comics: making Frogmen the first but certainly not the last graduate of the try-out system. The next debut was to be the most successful but the cautious publishers took a long, long time to make it so…

No matter which way you look at it, the Silver Age officially arrived began with The Flash. It’s an unjust but true fact that being first is not enough; it also helps to be best and people have to notice. The Shield beat Captain America to the news-stands by over a year yet the former is all but forgotten today.

The industry had never really stopped trying to revive superheroes when Showcase #4 was released in late summer of 1956, with such precursors as The Avenger (February-September 1955); Captain Flash (November 1954-July 1955); Marvel’s Human Torch, Sub-Mariner and aforementioned Sentinel of Liberty (December 1953-October 1955) and even DC’s own Captain Comet (December 1953-October 1955) and Manhunter from Mars (November 1955 until the close of the 1960’s and almost the end of superheroes again!) still turning up in second-hand-stores and “Five-and-Dime” bargain bins. What made the new Fastest Man Alive stand out and stick was … well, everything!

Once DC’s powers-that-be decided to try superheroes once more, they moved pretty fast themselves. Editor Julie Schwartz asked office partner and Golden-Age Flash scripter Kanigher to recreate a speedster for the Space Age, aided and abetted by Carmine Infantino & Joe Kubert, who had also worked on the previous incarnation.

The new Flash was Barry Allen, a forensic scientist simultaneously struck by lightning and bathed in the exploding chemicals of his lab. Supercharged by the accident, Barry took his superhero identity from a comic book featuring his predecessor (scientist Jay Garrick, who was exposed to the mutagenic fumes of “Hard Water”). Designing a sleek, streamlined bodysuit (courtesy of Infantino – a major talent rapidly approaching his artistic and creative pinnacle), Barry Allen became the point man for the spectacular revival of a genre and the entire industry.

‘Mystery of the Human Thunderbolt’ (Kanigher) and ‘The Man Who Broke the Time Barrier’ (written by the superb John Broome) are polished, coolly sophisticated stories introducing the comfortingly suburban superhero and establishing the broad parameters of his universe. Whether defeating bizarre criminal masterminds such as The Turtle or returning criminal exile Mazdan to his own century, the new Flash was a protagonist of keen insight and sharp wits as well as overwhelming power. Nonetheless the concept was so controversial that despite phenomenal sales, rather than his own series the Fastest Man Alive was given a Showcase encore almost a year later…

Showcase #5 featured the last comics concept in years that didn’t actually develop into an ongoing series, but that’s certainly due to changing fashions of the times and not the quality of the work. The three crime yarns comprising cops-&-robbers anthology Manhunters, begin with ‘The Greatest Villain of all Time’ by Jack Miller & Mort Meskin, revealing how Hollywood screenwriter-turned-police detective Lt. Fowler is dogged by a madman playing for real all the fantastic bad guys the mystery author had once created, whilst ‘The Two Faces of Mr. X’ (Miller, Curt Swan & Sy Barry) finds a male model drafted by the FBI to replace a prominent mob-boss. Unfortunately, it’s the day before the gangster is scheduled for face-changing plastic surgery…

‘The Human Eel’ (Miller & Bill Ely) then pits a cop unable to endure heights against an international high-tech rogue who thinks he hold all the winning cards…

The next try-out was on far firmer fashion grounds and was the first feature to win two issues in a row.

The Challengers of the Unknown were a bridging concept. As the superhero genre was ever so cautiously alpha-tested in 1956 here was a super-team – the first new group-entry of this still-to-be codified era – but with no uncanny abilities or masks, the most basic and utilitarian of costumes, and the most dubious of motives: Suicide by Mystery…

If you wanted to play editorially safe you could argue that were simply another para-military band of adventurers like the long running Blackhawks… but they weren’t.

A huge early hit – winning their own title before The Flash (March 1959) and just two months after Lois Lane (March 1958, although she had been a star in comics since 1938 and even had TV, radio and movie recognition on her side) – the Challs struck a chord resonating for more than a decade before they finally died… only to rise again and yet again. The idea of them was stirring enough, but their initial execution made their success all but inevitable.

Jack Kirby was – and remains – the most important single influence in the history of American comics. There are quite rightly millions of words written about what the man has done and meant, and you should read those if you are at all interested in our medium. When the comic industry suffered a collapse in the mid 1950’s, Kirby briefly returned to DC, crafting genre mystery tales and revitalising the Green Arrow back-up strip whilst creating newspaper strip Sky Masters of the Space Force. He also re-packaged for Showcase an original super-team concept that had been kicking around in his head since he and long-time collaborator Joe Simon had closed their innovative but unfortunate Mainline Comics.

The Challengers of the Unknown were four extraordinary mortals; heroic adventurers and explorers brought together for a radio show who walked away unscathed from a terrible plane crash. Already obviously what we now call “adrenaline junkies”, they decided that since they were all living on borrowed time, they would dedicate what remained of their lives to testing themselves and fate. They would risk their lives for Knowledge and, of course, Justice.

Showcase #6, dated January/February 1957 – which meant it came out in time for Christmas 1956 – introduced pilot Ace Morgan, wrestler Rocky Davis, acrobat Red Ryan and scholarly marine explorer “Prof” Haley in a no-nonsense romp by Kirby, scripter Dave Wood, inkers Marvin Stein and Jack’s wife Roz, before devoting the rest of the issue to a spectacular epic with the doom-chasers hired by duplicitous magician Morelian to open an ancient casque holding otherworldly secrets and powers in ‘The Secrets of the Sorcerer’s Box!’

This story roars along with all the tension and wonder of the B-movie thrillers it emulates, and Kirby’s awesome drawing resonates with power and dynamism as the heroes tackle ancient horrors such as ‘Dragon Seed!’, ‘The Freezing Sun!’ and ‘The Whirling Weaver!’

The fantasy magic continued in the sequel: a science fiction crisis caused when an alliance of Nazi technologies with American criminality unleashes a robotic monster. Scripted by Kirby, ‘Ultivac is Loose!’ (Showcase #7, March/April 1957) introduces quietly capable boffin Dr. June Robbins, who becomes the fifth Challenger at a time when most comic females had returned to a subsidiary status in that so-conservative era.

As her computers predict ‘A Challenger Must Die!’, the lads nevertheless continue to hunt a telepathic, sentient super-robot who inadvertently terrorises ‘The Fearful Millions’ but soon find their sympathies with the tragic artificial intelligence after ‘The Fateful Prediction!’ is fulfilled…

Showcase #8 (June 1957) again featured the Flash, leading with another Kanigher tale – ‘The Secret of the Empty Box’. This perplexing but pedestrian mystery sees Frank Giacoia debut as inker, but the real landmark is Broome’s thriller ‘The Coldest Man on Earth’. With this yarn the author confirmed and consolidated the new phenomenon by introducing the first of a Rogues Gallery of outlandish super-villains. Unlike Golden Age stalwarts, new super-heroes would face predominantly costumed foes rather than thugs and spies. Henceforth, Bad Guys would be as visually arresting and memorable as the champions of justice. Captain Cold would return time and again as pre-eminent Flash Foe and Broome would go on to create every single member of Flash’s classic pantheon of super-villains.

Also included is filler reprint ‘The Race of Wheel and Keel’ by Gardner Fox, Gil Kane & Harry Lazarus, from All-Star Comics #53 (June/July 1950): a true story of how in 1858 a shipping magnate and stagecoach tycoon competed to prove which method of transportation was fastest…

When Lois Lane – arguably the oldest supporting character/star in the Superman mythology if not DC universe – finally received her own shot at a solo title, it was very much on the terms of the times.

I must shamefacedly admit to a deep, nostalgic affection for her bright, breezy, fantastically fun adventures, but as a free-thinking, (nominally) adult liberal of the 21st century I’m astounded now at the jolly, patronising, patriarchally misogynistic attitudes underpinning so many of the stories.

Yes, I’m fully aware that the series was intended for young readers at a time when “dizzy dames” like Lucille Ball or Doris Day played to a popular American stereotype of Woman as jealous minx, silly goose, diffident wife and brood-hungry nester, but asking kids to seriously accept that intelligent, courageous, ambitious, ethical and highly capable females would drop everything they’d worked hard for to lie, cheat, inveigle, manipulate and entrap a man just so that they could cook pot-roast and change super-diapers is just plain crazy and tantamount to child abuse.

I’m just saying…

Showcase #9 (cover-dated July/August 1957) featured Superman’s Girl Friend Lois Lane in three tales by Jerry Coleman, Ruben Moreira & Al Plastino; opening with seminal yarn ‘The Girl in Superman’s Past’ wherein Lois first meets red-headed hussy Lana Lang. The childhood sweetheart of Superboy seems to be a pushy conniving go-getter out to win Lois’ intended at all costs. Naturally Miss Lane invites Miss Lang to stay at her apartment and the grand rivalry is off and running…

‘The New Lois Lane’ aggravatingly saw Lois turn over a new leaf and stop attempting to uncover his secret identity just when Superman actually needs her to do so, and the premier concludes with concussion-induced day-dream ‘Mrs. Superman’ with Lois imagining a life of domestic super-bliss…

The next issue (September/October 1957) offered three more of the same, all illustrated by Wayne Boring & Stan Kaye, beginning with ‘The Jilting of Superman’ – scripted by Otto Binder – wherein the Man of Tomorrow almost falls for an ancient ploy as Lois pretends to marry another man to make the Kryptonian clod realise what she means to him…

‘The Sightless Lois Lane’ by Coleman reveals how a nuclear accident temporarily blinds the journalist, before her unexpected recovery almost exposes Clark Kent’s secret when he callously changes to Superman in front of the blind girl. Binder delightfully closes the issue with ‘The Forbidden Box from Krypton’: a cache of devices dug up by a Smallville archaeologist originally packed by Jor-El to aid the infant superbaby on Earth. Of course, when Lois opens the chest all she sees is a way to become as powerful as the Man of Steel before becoming addicted to being a super-champion in her own right…

Superman’s Girlfriend Lois Lane launched into her own title scant months later, clearly exactly what the readers wanted…

Showcase #11 (November/December 1957) saw the Challengers return to combat an alien invasion on ‘The Day the Earth Blew Up’, with unique realist Bruno Premiani inking a taut doomsday chiller that keeps readers on the edge of their seats even today. Whilst searching for missing Antarctic explorers the Challs discover an under-ice base where double-brained aliens prepare to explosively alter the mass and gravity of Earth. Although intellectually superior, ‘The Tyrans’are no match for the indomitable human heroes and with their Plan A scotched, resort to brute force and ‘The Thing That Came out of the Sea’, even as Prof scuttles their aquatic ace in the hole with ‘One Minute to Doom’

By the time of their final Showcase cases (#12, January/February 1958) they had already secured their own title. Here, though, ‘The Menace of the Ancient Vials’ is defused by the usual blend of daredevil heroics and ingenuity (with the wonderful inking of George Klein, not Wally Wood as credited here) as international spy and criminal Karnak steals a clutch of ancient chemical weapons which create giants and ‘The Fire Being!’, summon ‘The Demon from the Depths’and materialise ‘The Deadly Duplicates!’ before the pre-fantastic four put their enemy down.

Flash zipped back in Showcase #13 (March/April 1958) in a brace of tales pencilled by Infantino and inked by Joe Giella. Written by Kanigher, ‘Around the World in 80 Minutes’ follows the Scarlet Speedster as he tackles atomic blackmail in Paris, foils kidnappers and rebuilds a pyramid in Egypt; dismantles an avalanche in Tibet and scuttles a pirate submarine in the Pacific, before Broome’s ‘Master of the Elements’ introduces outlandish chemical criminal Al Desmond who ravages Central City as Mr. Element until the Flash outwits him.

One last try-out issue – inked by Giacoia – cemented the Flash’s future: Showcase #14 (May/June 1958) opens with Kanigher’s eerie ‘Giants of the Time-World!’ as the Fastest Man Alive smashes dimensional barriers to rescue his girlfriend Iris West from uncanny cosmic colossi and stamp out an alien invasion plan, after which Al Desmond returns with an altered M.O. and new identity. Doctor Alchemy’s discovery of the mystic Philosopher’s Stone makes him ‘The Man who Changed the Earth!’: a stunning yarn and worthy effort to bow out on, but it was still nearly a year until the first issue of The Flash finally hit the stands.

To reiterate: Showcase was a try-out comic designed to launch new series and concepts with minimal commitment of publishing resources. If a new character sold well initially, a regular series would follow. The process had been proved with Frogmen, Lois Lane, Challengers of the Unknown and Flash, so Editorial Director Irwin Donenfeld now urged his two Showcase editors to create science fiction heroes to capitalise on the twin zeitgeists of the Space Race and the popular fascination with movie monsters and aliens. Jack Schiff came up with a “masked” crimefighter of the future – who featured in issues #15 and 16 – whilst Julie Schwartz concentrated on the now in the saga of a contemporary Earth explorer catapulted into the most uncharted territory yet imagined.

Showcase #15 (September/October 1958) commenced without fanfare – or origin – the ongoing adventures of Space Ranger – beginning in ‘The Great Plutonium Plot’ (plotted by Gardner Fox, scripted by pulp veteran Edmond Hamilton and illustrated by Bob Brown).

Their hero was in actuality Rick Starr, son of a wealthy interplanetary businessman who – thanks to incredible gadgets and the assistance of shape-shifting alien pal Cryll and capable Girl Friday Myra Mason – spent his free time battling evil and injustice. When Jarko the Jovian space pirate targets only ships carrying the trans-uranic element, Rick suspects a hidden motive. Donning his guise of the Space Ranger, he lays a cunning trap, exposing a hidden mastermind and a deadly ancient device endangering the entire solar system…

From his base in a hollow asteroid, Space Ranger ranges the universe and ‘The Robot Planet’ brings him and his team to Sirius after discovering a diabolical device designed to rip Sol’s planets out of their orbits. At the end of his voyage, Starr discovers a sublime civilisation reduced to cave-dwelling and a mighty computer intelligence intent on controlling the entire universe unless he can stop it…

Issue #16 opened with ‘The Secret of the Space Monster’ (plot by John Forte, scripted by Hamilton, illustrated by Brown) with Rick, Myra and Cryll investigating an impossible void creature and uncovering a band of alien revolutionaries testing novel super-weapons. ‘The Riddle of the Lost Race’ (Fox, Hamilton & Brown) then takes the team on a whistle-stop tour of the Solar system in pursuit of a vicious criminal and hidden treasures of a long-vanished civilisation.

A few months later Space Ranger was transported to science fiction anthology Tales of the Unexpected, beginning with issue #40 (August 1959) to hold the lead and cover spot for a 6-year run…

One of the most compelling and revered stars of those halcyon days was an ordinary Earthman who regularly travelled to another world for spectacular adventures, armed with nothing more than a ray-gun, a jetpack and his own ingenuity. His name was Adam Strange, and like so many of that era’s triumphs, he was the brainchild of Julius Schwartz and his close team of creative stars.

Showcase #17 (November/December 1958) proclaimed Adventures on Other Worlds, courtesy of Gardner Fox, Mike Sekowsky & Bernard Sachs, telling of an archaeologist who, whilst fleeing from enraged natives in Peru, jumps a 25-foot chasm only to be hit by a stray teleport beam from a planet orbiting Alpha Centauri. Rematerialising on another planet filled with giant plants and monsters, he is rescued by a beautiful woman named Alanna who teaches him her language via a cunning contrivance. ‘Secret of the Eternal City!’ reveals Rann is a world recovering from atomic war, and the beam Adam intercepted was in fact a simple flare, one of many sent in an attempt to communicate with other races.

In the four years (Speed of Light, right? As You Know, Bob – Alpha Centauri is about 4.3 light-years from Sol) the Zeta-Flare travelled through space, cosmic radiation converted it into a teleportation beam. Until the radiation drains from his body Strange is a most willing prisoner on a fantastic world of mystery, adventure and romance…

And an incredibly unlucky one apparently, as no sooner has Adam started acclimatising than an alien race The Eternalsinvades, seeking a mineral that grants them immortality. Strange’s courage and sharp wits enable him to defeat the invaders only to have the Zeta radiation finally fade, drawing him home before his adoring Alanna can administer a hero’s reward. Thus was established the principles of this beguiling series. Adam would intercept a Zeta-beam hoping for some time with his alien sweetheart, only to be confronted with a planet-menacing crisis.

The very next of these, ‘The Planet and the Pendulum’ sees him obtain the crimson-and-white spacesuit and weaponry that became his distinctive trademark in a tale of alien invaders attacking a lost colony of Rannians. They reside on planetary neighbour Anthorann – a fact that also introduces the major subplot of Rann’s still-warring city-states, all desperate to progress and all at different stages of recovery and development….

The next issue featured the self-explanatory ‘Invaders from the Atom Universe’ – with sub-atomic marauders displacing the native races until Adam unravels their nefarious plans – and ‘The Dozen Dooms of Adam Strange’, wherein our hero outfoxes the dictator of Dys who plans to invade Alanna’s home-city Rannagar.

With this last story, Sachs was replaced by Joe Giella as inker, although the former did ink Showcase #19’s stunning Gil Kane cover, (March/April 1959) which saw the unwieldy Adventures on Other Worlds title replaced with eponymous logo Adam Strange.

‘Challenge of the Star-Hunter’ and ‘Mystery of the Mental Menace’ are classic puzzle tales wherein the Earthman must outwit a shape-changing alien and an all-powerful energy-being. After so doing, Adam Strange took over the lead spot and cover of anthology comic Mystery in Space with the August issue.

Clearly on a creative high and riding a building wave, Showcase #20 (May/June 1959) introduced Rip Hunter… Time Master and his dauntless crew as Prisoners of 100 Million BC’ (by Jack Miller & Ruben Moreira) in a novel-length introductory escapade seeing the daredevil physicist, his engineer friend Jeff Smith, girlfriend Bonnie Baxter and her little brother Corky travel to the Mesozoic era, unaware they are carrying two criminal stowaways.

Once there, the thugs hi-jack the Time Sphere, holding it hostage until the explorers help them stock up with rare and precious minerals. Reduced to the status of castaways, Rip and his team become ‘The Modern-Day Cavemen’, but when an erupting volcano provokes ‘The Great Beast Stampede’, our dauntless chrononauts finally turn the tables on their abductors…

Miller was always careful to use the best research available, but never afraid to blend historical fact with bold fantasy for Hunter’s escapades, and this volume concludes with an epic follow-up. Illustrated by Sekowsky & Joe Giella, ‘The Secret of the Lost Continent’ (Showcase #21, July/August, 1959,) has the Time Masters jump progressively further back in time in search of Atlantis. Starting with a dramatic meeting with Alexander the Great in 331 BCE, the explorers follow the trail back centuries to ‘The Forbidden Island’ of Aeaea in 700 BCE and uncover the secret of the witch Circe before finally reaching 14,000 BCE and ‘The Doomed Continent’ only to find the legendary pinnacle of early human achievement to be a colony of stranded extraterrestrial refugees…

Rip Hunter would appear twice more in Showcase before winning his own comic. The succeeding months would see the Silver Age truly kick into High Gear with classic launches coming thick and fast…

These stories from a uniquely influential comic book determined the course of the entire American strip culture and for that alone they should be cherished, but the fact they are still some of the most timeless, accessible and entertaining graphic adventures ever produced is a gift that should be celebrated by every fan and casual reader.

Buy this for yourself, get it for your friends and get a spare just because you can…
© 1956, 1957, 1958, 1959, 2012 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Kabul Disco volume 1: How I Managed Not to be Abducted in Afghanistan


By Nicolas Wild, translated by Mark Bence & Fabrice Sapolsky (Life Drawn/Humanoids Inc.)
ISBN: 978-1-59465-868-6 (TPB)

Fiction and reality frequently blur, but stories – True, mostly True, totally True or Officially Confirmed by a Government Official and therefore Utterly Fallacious – told in comics form somehow always acquire an instant edge of veracity and patina of authenticity that is hard to dispute or refute.

Kabul Disco is a superb case-in-point: an example of sophisticated yet simple Euro-cartooning designed to inform, charm and challenge in equal amounts. I’m re-recommending this remarkable testament today because once again the people who govern us – apparently anywhere on Earth that people are governed – have a complete inability to read a room, movement, public opinion or security briefing and have once more abandoned guts, principles and common sense in the name of saving money and not making a fuss.

Assorted countries over centuries have made Afghanistan their football, only to get bored and leave it to even worse thugs. Lacking any power at all to make the callous bastards in charge everywhere pay or even feel discomfort, I’m opting to try and remind anyone who will listen that always, ALWAYS, us unimportant people suffer in the end. It’s just not right…

This seductive monochrome travel memoir was the debut episode in a sequence by French writer/artist Nicholas Wild, detailing his globe-trotting quest for employment: a worthy endeavour which took the wide-eyed political innocent to Afghanistan in 2005.

There’s always a war going on somewhere. That’s just the way it is. The enemy are always monsters and Our Side – there’s no option to refuse to take sides anymore – are always justified in what they do. Heaven forfend you slip up and start thinking of rivals or adversaries or opponents or even those who disagree with you as no more than people – with or without grievances or differing opinions…

In January 2005, Wild was in Paris; gripped by ennui and lack of inspiration and only mildly galvanised by lack of money and imminent homelessness. Responding to an online ad, he applied to a Communications Agency looking for a comics artist and was astounded to find himself accepted for a short commission. The job was overseas…

‘Part One: A Winter in Kabul’ follows the culture-shocked scribbler as he arduously transitions to a country in the throes of enforced reconstruction and modernisation, joining the somewhat sketchy and rather dubious NGO Zendagui Media as they work to bring the war-torn region into the arena of modern nations. Wild’s proposed task is to help define the fancy notion of democracy for the still-largely illiterate populace through comicbook versions of Afghanistan’s new Constitution…

The artist’s early difficulties in adjusting to the primitive conditions and superb gift for wry commentary afford the reader a brilliant example of the complex made simple as Wild succinctly unpicks Afghanistan’s convoluted history through the 20th century via a cartoon political primer that brilliantly defines how the place got to be such a corrupt mess. I certainly wish I’d had more comics like this when I studied modern history…

Days pass, and Nicholas settles in, toiling against impossible deadlines, conversely feeling locked in or anxiously exposed whenever he goes exploring; always aware that in this place foreigners go missing every day…

Although the security situation remains tense, trouble seems to only strike elsewhere and eventually Nick assimilates: befriending ordinary Afghanis, shopping, visiting Shiite mosques, eating in restaurants and even sightseeing in the stunning Bamiyan Valley…

All too soon the job is done and Wild is afraid he’s going to be let go…

‘Part Two: No Spring in Kabul’ finds him on April 1st 2005, happy to be retained, albeit on a 3-month contract as a graphic designer for Zendagui’s new project. The brief is to supply materials for a US military-sponsored push to recruit native Afghanis for the new National Army. The thought of crafting military propaganda is not a comforting or comfortable one…

Spiced with further insights about his improbable and unpredictable bosses and new eating experiences, the real kicker is meeting new recruit Laurie White: a political communications expert who worked with the 2000 Bush Election Campaign…

Trips to the University of Herat and enjoyable days amidst the villagers soon cement the visitor’s sense of belonging but that all takes a hard knock as the political situation intensifies and overconfidence leads to Wild getting lost in old Kabul…

When a fresh kidnapping results in a full lockdown for Zendagui staff, Laurie teasingly reveals the true story of Bush’s “victory” in Florida, but once the panic subsides it’s back to work. Even though Al Qaeda and the Taliban are ramping up their activities, Nick is sent to the far end of the Jalalabad Road to observe the filming of a recruitment ad just as Laurie is despatched to consult on the new voting form for a nation of more than two dozen different tribes and sects who don’t speak the same language and can’t read…

And so it goes, with fond reveries and razor-sharp observations peppering Wild’s irresistible account of an ordinary job in extraordinary times and a magical place: with idiocy and contradiction relentlessly piling up but also with progress somehow being made… until it’s time to go home again…

But is it for good?

Primarily rendered in beguiling monochrome, Kabul Disco also offers a stunning, full colour ‘Bonus Section’ comprising candid personal photographs of Wild’s stay, plus extensive examples of Yassin & Kaka Raouf: the 10-volume educational comic book he illustrated to explain the new Constitution for the newly democratised country.

Captivating, warm, funny, scarily informative and unobtrusively polemical, Kabul Disco is a wittily readable, non-discriminating reverie that informs and charms with surprising effect: the perfect response to the idiocy of war and dangers of corporate imperialism as well as a sublime tribute to the potent indomitability of human nature. I can’t comprehend how a celebration of such miraculous change and progress can be lost in the space of 16 years…
© 2018, Humanoids Inc., Los Angeles (USA). All rights reserved. First published in France as Kabul Disco Tome 1: Comment je ne me suis pas fait kidnapper en Afghanistan, © 2007 La Boîte à Bulles & Nicholas Wild. All rights reserved.

Farewell, Brindavoine


By Tardi, translated by Jenna Allen (Fantagraphics)
ISBN: 978-1-68396-433-9 (Album HB)

Credited with creating a new style of expressionistic illustration dubbed “the New Realism”, Jacques Tardi is one of the greatest comics creators in the world, blessed with a singular vision and adamantine ideals. A strident anti-war activist, he apparently refused France’s greatest honour because he wanted to be completely free to say and create what he wants.

Tardi was born in the Commune of Valence, Drôme in August 1946 studying at École Nationale des Beaux-Arts de Lyon and subsequently the prestigious Parisian École Nationale Supérieure des arts Décoratifs. He launched his comics career in 1969 at the home of modern French comics Pilote, with the series we’re looking at today first seen in 1972-1973.

From illustrating stories by Jean Giraud, Serge de Beketch and Pierre Christian, he moved on to westerns, crime tales and satirical works in magazines such as Record, Libération, Charlie Mensuel and L’Écho des Savanes all whilst graduating into adapting prose novels by Louis-Ferdinand Céline and Léo Malet.

The latter’s detective Nestor Burma was the subject of all-new albums written and drawn by Tardi once the established literary canon was exhausted, leading to the creation of Polonius in Métal Hurlant (1976) and the now-legendary Les Aventures Extraordinaires d’Adèle Blanc-Sec – an epic period fantasy adventure which ran in the daily Sud-Ouest. The series numbers ten volumes thus far and inhabits the same pocket reality as the star of this tome.

The passionate creator has crafted many crushingly powerful anti-war books and stories (C’était la guerre des tranchées, Le trou d’obus, Moi René Tardi, prisonnier de guerre au Stalag IIB and other) dealing with the common soldier’s plight; written novels, created radio series, worked in movies, and co-created – with writer Jean Vautrin – Le Cri du Peuple: a quartet of albums about the Parisienne revolt of the Communards.

Far too few of this French master’s creations are available in English (barely a dozen out of more than fifty) but, thanks to NBM, iBooks and Fantagraphics, we’re catching up.

This lavish full-colour hardback (also available digitally) began life as Adieu Brindavoine, with its obscure yet complex Victoriana, shady political intrigues, dastardly plutocratic plotters and cast-iron-&-clockwork chic, leading to Tardi being proclaimed in later years the Godfather of Steampunk. His surreally-structured absurdist episodes and incidents – strung together in an almost stream-of-consciousness mode – work best on the visual perceptions with dialogue used only to ensure clarity or bemuse perception…

Following a context-supplying appreciation in Benoít Mouchart’s Preface, we begin in Neuilly-Sur-Seine in May 1914, as an aged messenger braves the cluttered and controversial home of gentleman photographer Lucien Brindavoine. Surly Basil Zarkhov has a startling – and potentially life-changing – proposition, but is gunned down by a skylight-shattering intruder before he can share it. However, thanks to his deathbed exposition, Lucien is soon heading by steamship for Istanbul, and another risky meeting…

Constantly encountering strikingly odd individuals, he is soon unwillingly partnered with effetely obnoxious intoxicated Englishman Mr. Oswald Carpleasure and hurtling across the desert towards Afghanistan in a battered motor vehicle. In their immediate future is a fantastic lost city, but the sinister gunman is in hot pursuit and wicked Olga Vogelgesang is determined to destroy them with her deadly state-of-the-military-art biplane…

After much privation and bewilderment, Lucien finally reaches the lost Iron City and is greeted by the orchestrators of many of his woes. Learning of an incredible plutocratic plot affords him little comfort, but before long the baroque devils in nominal charge fall upon each other like deranged wolves, enabling, if not compelling Brindavoine to flee in the most advanced passenger craft in the world…

Thanks to a breaking world war, he doesn’t get far…

Following the tale’s conclusion, a compelling comic epilogue from a previously unseen narrator (think Rocky Horror Show) deviously adds to the confusion by “explaining” what’s happened and Lucien’s ultimate fate before introducing a thematic follow-up.

‘Lambs to the Slaughter’ is set in November 1914 with deserters from all the armies involved holing up in a shattered church. Plagued by visions of perfect pasts and potential tomorrows, they are completely unprepared for when the mad military of today finds them…

Bizarre, visually resplendent, darkly funny, evocative and deliciously challenging, Farewell, Brindavoine is a comic tour de force on every level and a sublime example of how fashion, fantasy and futurism can work miracles when woven together by a master craftsman.
This edition of Farewell, Brindavoine © 2021 Fantagraphics Books, Inc. Adieu Brindavoine © 2011 Casterman. Translation © 2021 Jenna Allen. Preface © 2021 Benoít Mouchart. All rights reserved.

Farewell, Brindavoine is physically released on August 26th 2021 and available for pre-order. Digital editions can be purchased now.

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.