Steve Ditko Archives volume 2: Unexplored Worlds


By Steve Ditko & various, edited by Blake Bell (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-289-0

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Immaculate Yule Yarn-Spinning… 9/10

Once upon a time the anthological title of short stand-alone stories was the sole staple of the comicbook profession, where the plan was to deliver as much variety as possible to the reader. Sadly, that particular vehicle of expression seems all but lost to us today…

Steve Ditko is one of our industry’s greatest talents and one of America’s least lauded. His fervent desire to just get on with his job and to tell stories the best way he can – whilst the noblest of aspirations – has always been a minor consideration or even stumbling block for the commercial interests which for so long controlled all comics production and still exert an overwhelming influence upon the mainstream bulk of comicbook output.

Before his time at Marvel, young Ditko perfected his craft creating short sharp yarns for a variety of companies and it’s an undeniable joy today to be able to look at this work from such an innocent time when he was just breaking into the industry: tirelessly honing his craft with genre tales for whichever publisher would have him, utterly free from the interference of intrusive editors.

This superb full-colour series of hardback collections (also available as digital editions) has reprinted those early efforts (all of them here are from 1956-1957) with material produced after the draconian, self-inflicted Comics Code Authority sanitised the industry following Senate Hearings and a public witch-hunt.

Most are wonderfully baroque and bizarre supernatural or science fantasy stories, but there are also examples of Westerns, Crime and Humour: cunningly presented in the order he completed and sold them rather than the more logical but far-less-revealing chronological release dates. Moreover, they are all helpfully annotated with a purchase number to indicate approximately when they were actually drawn – even the brace of tales done for Stan Lee’s pre-Marvel Atlas company.

Sadly, there’s no indication of how many (if any) were actually written by the moody master…

This second sublime selection reprints another heaping helping of his ever-more impressive works: most of it courtesy of the surprisingly liberal (at least in its trust of its employees’ creative instincts) sweat-shop publisher Charlton Comics.

And whilst we’re being technically accurate, it’s also important to reiterate that the cited publication dates of these stories have very little to do with when Ditko crafted them: as Charlton paid so little, the cheap, anthologically astute outfit had no problem in buying material it could leave on a shelf for months – if not years – until the right moment arrived to print. The work is assembled and runs here in the order Ditko submitted it, rather than when it reached the grubby sweaty paws of us readers…

Following an historically informative Introduction and passionate advocacy by Blake Bell, concentrating on Ditko’s near-death experience in 1954 (when the artist contracted tuberculosis) and subsequent absence and recovery, the evocatively eccentric excursions open with a monochrome meander into the realms of satire with the faux fable – we’d call it a mockumentary – ‘Starlight Starbright’ as first seen in From Here to Insanity (volume 3 #1 April 1956) before normal service resumes with financial fable ‘They’ll Be Some Changes Made’ (scripted by Carl Wessler from Atlas’ Journey Into Mystery #33, April 1956) wherein a petty-minded pauper builds a time machine to steal the fortune his ancestors squandered, whilst a crook seeking to exploit a mystic pool finds himself the victim of fate’s justice in ‘Those Who Vanish’ (Journey Into Mystery #38, September 1956 and again scripted by Wessler).

Almost – if not all – the Charlton material was scripted by the astoundingly fast and prolific Joe Gill at this time, and records are spotty at best so let’s assume his collaboration on all the material here beginning with ‘The Man Who Could Never Be Killed’ from Strange Suspense Stories #31, published in February 1957. This tale of a circus performer with an incredible ethereal secret segues into ‘Adrift in Space’ (Mysteries of Unexplored Worlds #8 June 1958) wherein a veteran starship captain pushes his weary crew over the edge whereas ‘The King of Planetoid X’ – from the previous MoUW (February) details a crisis of conscience for a benevolent and ultimately wise potentate…

The cover of Strange Suspense Stories #31 (February 1957) leads into ‘The Gloomy One’ as a misery-loving alien intruder is destroyed by simple human joy before the cover to Out of This World #5 September 1957 heralds that issue’s ‘The Man Who Stepped Out of a Cloud’ and an alien whose abduction plans only seem sinister in intent…

Mysteries of Unexplored Worlds #5 (October 1957) tells the story of a young ‘Stowaway’ who finds fulfilment aboard a harshly-run space ship after which the cover for Out of This World #3 (March 1957) leads to an apparent extraterrestrial paradise for weary star-men in ‘What Happened?’

Next up is a tale from one of Charlton’s earliest star characters. The title came from a radio show that Charlton licensed the rights to, with the lead/host/narrator acting more as voyeur than active participant. “The Mysterious Traveler” spoke directly to camera, asking readers for opinion and judgement as he shared a selection of funny, sad, scary and wondrous human-interest yarns, all tinged with a hint of the weird or supernatural. When rendered by Ditko, whose storytelling mastery, page design and full, lavish brushwork were just beginning to come into its mature full range, the contents of Tales of the Mysterious Traveler were always exotic and esoteric and utterly mesmerising…

From issue #2, February 1957, ‘What Wilbur Saw’ reveals the reward bestowed on a poverty-stricken country bumpkin who witnessed a modern-day miracle after which Out of This World #3 provides a cautionary tale of atomic mutation in ‘The Supermen’

The eerie cover to Out of This World #4 (June 1957) leads to a chilling encounter for two stranded sailors who briefly board the ‘Flying Dutchman’ and Strange Suspense Stories #32’s cover (May 1957) dabbles in magic art when a collector is victimised by a thief who foolishly stumbles into ‘A World of His Own’. From the same issue comes a salutary parable concerning a rich practical joker who goes too far before succumbing to ‘The Last Laugh’, after which ‘Mystery Planet’ (Strange Suspense Stories #36, March 1958) offers a dash of interplanetary derring-do as a valiant agent Bryan Bodine and his comely associate Nedra confounds an intergalactic pirate piloting a planet-eating weapon against Earth!

A similarly bold defender then saves ‘The Conquered Earth’ from alien subjugation (Out of This World #4, June 1957) whilst in ‘Assignment Treason’ (Outer Space #18. August 1958) the clean-cut hero goes undercover to save earth from the predatory Master of Space whilst in Out of This World #8 (May 1958) ‘The Secret of Capt. X’ reveals that the inimical alien tyrant threatening humanity is not what he seems to be…

The cover to Mysteries of Unexplored Worlds #3 (April 1957) gives way to a trio of fantastic thrillers beginning with ‘The Strange Guests of Tsaurus’ as an alien paradise proves to be anything but and ‘A World Where I Was King’ sees a clumsy janitor catapulted into a wondrous realm where he wins a kingdom he doesn’t want. Diverting slightly, Fightin’ Army #20 (May 1957) provides a comedic interlude as a civil war soldier finds himself constantly indebted to ‘Gavin’s Stupid Mule’ before ‘A Forgotten World’ wraps up the MoUW #3 contributions with a scary tale of invasion from the Earth’s core…

‘The Cheapest Steak in Nome’ turns out to be defrosted from something that died millions of years ago in a light-hearted yarn from Mysteries of Unexplored Worlds #7 (February 1958) after which the cover to MoUW #4 (July 1957) precedes more icy antediluvian preservations found in the ‘Valley in the Mist’ whilst the cover to Strange Suspense Stories #33 (August 1957) leads into a bizarre corporate outreach project as the ‘Director of the Board’ attempts to go where no other exploitative capitalist has gone before…

It’s back to Mysteries of Unexplored Worlds #3 for a brush with the mythological in ‘They Didn’t Believe Him’ before ‘Forever and Ever’ (Strange Suspense Stories #33) reveals an unforeseen downside to immortality and Out of This World #3 sees a stranger share ‘My Secret’ with ordinary folk despite – or because – of a scurrilous blackmailer…

cover Mysteries of Unexplored Worlds #5 October 1957

‘A Dreamer’s World’ from Mysteries of Unexplored Worlds #5 (October 1957) follows the chilling cover thereof as a test pilot hits his aerial limit and discovers a whole new existence, before Unusual Tales #7 (May 1957) traces the tragic path of ‘The Man Who Could See Tomorrow’ whilst the cover of Tales of the Mysterious Traveler #4 (August 1957) opens a mini-feast of the voyeur’s voyages beginning with that issue’s ‘The Desert’ a saga of polar privation and survival.

Tales of the Mysterious Traveler #3 (May 1957) offers the appropriate cover and a ‘Secret Mission’ for a spy parachuted into Prague after which TotMT #4 offers ‘Escape’ for an unemployed pilot dragged into a gun-running scam in a south American lost world; ‘Test of a Man’ sees a cruel animal trainer receive his just deserts and ‘Operation Blacksnake’ grittily reveals American venality in the ever-expanding Arabian oil trade…

Returning to Mysteries of Unexplored Worlds #5, ‘The Mirage’ torments an escaped convict who thinks he’s escaped his fate whilst Texas Rangers in Action #8 (July 1957) sees a ruthless rancher crushed by the weight of his own wicked actions in ‘The Only One’, after which the stunning covers to Unusual Tales #6 and 7 (February and May 1957) lead into our final vignette ‘The Man Who Painted on Air’: exposing and thwarting a unique talent to preserve humanity and make a few bucks on the side…

This sturdily capacious volume has episodes that terrify, amaze, amuse and enthral: utter delights of fantasy fiction with lean, plots and stripped-down dialogue that let the art set the tone, push the emotions and tell the tale, from times when a story could end sadly as well as happily and only wonderment was on the agenda, hidden or otherwise.

These stories display the sharp wit and contained comedic energy which made so many Spider-Man/J. Jonah Jameson confrontations an unforgettable treat half a decade later, and this is another cracking collection not only superb in its own right but as a telling tribute to the genius of one of the art-form’s greatest stylists.

This is something every serious comics fans would happily kill or die or be lost in time for…
Unexplored Worlds: The Steve Ditko Archive Vol. 2. This edition © 2010 Fantagraphics Books. Introduction © 2010 Blake Bell. All rights reserved.

Thelwell Goes West


By Norman Thelwell (E P Dutton/Magnum/Eyre Methuen)
ISBN: 978-0-87690-189-2 (HB)                  978-0-41701-110-3 (PB)

Norman Thelwell was and remains one of Britain’s greatest cartoonists. His genteel yet rowdily raucous artistic endeavours combined Bigfoot abstraction with a keen and accurate eye for detail, not just on the horse-riding and countryside themes that made him a household name, but on all the myriad subjects he turned his canny eye and subtle brushstrokes to.

His wittily wry observations and gloriously rendered pictures are an immaculate condensation of a uniquely unchanging United Kingdom – everything warmly resonant, resolutely Post-War and Baby-Boomingily British, without ever being parochial or provincial – starring a dangerous realm where all animals and inanimate objects loathe humanity and will go to any extreme to vex or even harm us…

His work has international implications and scope, neatly distilling and presenting us to the world. There were 32 collections of his work during his lifetime and every aficionado of humour – illustrated or otherwise – could do much worse than own them all.

From 1950 when his gag-panel Chicko first began in the Eagle, and especially two years later with his first sale to Punch, Thelwell built a solid body of irresistible, seductive and always funny work. His canny cartoons appeared in a host of magazines, comics and papers ranging from Men Only to Everybody’s Weekly. His first curated cartoon collection – Angels on Horseback – was released in 1957 and in 1961 he made the rare return journey by releasing a book of all-original gags that was subsequently and rapturously serialised in the Sunday Express.

His dry, sly, cannily observed drawings were a huge success and other books followed to supplement his regular periodical appearances. He is most famous for his countryside and equine subjects. The phrase “Thelwell Pony” is an instant verbal shortcut to a whole other world of adroit, goblin-like little girls constantly battling malevolent, chubby mini-horses gifted with the guile of Machiavelli, the mass and temerity of a deranged mule and the cheery disposition of Bill Sikes.

The artist’s fascination and endless reservoir of dressage drollery originated with a pair of short obnoxious muses in the field next door to his home, where also roamed two shaggy ponies. They were, in his own words “Small and round and fat and of very uncertain temper” – and apparently owned by “Two little girls about three feet high who could have done with losing a few ounces themselves….”

“As the children got near, the ponies would swing round and present their ample hindquarters and give a few lightning kicks which the children would side-step calmly as if they were avoiding the kitchen table, and they had the head-collars on those animals before they knew what was happening. I was astonished at how meekly they were led away; but they were planning vengeance – you could tell by their eyes.”

His observations were best depicted in the classic Penelope and Penelope Rides Again, but in this particular instance, the master of the hounds and hilarious horseflesh cast his gaze a little further afield for a wickedly insightful and memorable draughtsman’s discourse, acutely weighing the benefits and pitfalls (oh, so very many painful falls) of Brit and Yank riding preferences and techniques.

After his introductory comparison/blueprint ‘The English Rider’ and ‘The Western Horseman’ Thelwell pits cocky little Cowboys against surly Show-jumping Schoolgirls in such compelling, picture packed chapters as Western Riding, What to Wear, Western Horses, Quick on the Drawl, How to Understand Your Horse, On the Trail, How to Manage a Mean Horse, How to Cross Water and Rodeo Dough before ending with a comprehensive Western Quiz.

So, which is best: East or West?

The answer, of course, is simple: Best to avoid all close encounters of an equine kind and read this book instead.
© 1975 Norman Thelwell.

Tex: The Lonesome Rider


By Claudio Nizzi & Joe Kubert. English-language adaptation by Pete Carlsson & Philip R. Simon (Dark Horse)
ISBN: 978-1-61655-620-4(HC)                      eISBN: 978-1-63008-169-0

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Pure Poetry in Perfectly Rendered Motion… 10/10

One of the most popular western strips ever created, Tex premiered in September 1948, the brainchild of writer Gian Luigi Bonelli and artist Aurelio Galleppini. Very much an Italian synthesis of the classic Hollywood western, the strip is both mythically traditional and unflinchingly dark in a way US material wasn’t until the advent of the filmic “spaghetti westerns” of the 1960s and later. Gosh, I wonder if there’s some kind of connection there?

Bonelli was a prolific writer of books, articles screenplays and comics for more than fifty years and artist Galleppini eventually dropped a prestigious career as a book illustrator to draw approximately 200 issues of Tex and four hundred covers.

Comics featuring Tex Willer and his legendary allies Kit Carson, Kit Willer and Tiger Jack have been translated far and wide for decades, scoring big not only all over Europe but also in Brazil, Finland, Turkey, India and elsewhere. Guest artists for specials have included Ivo Milazzo, Jordi Bernet and the masterful Joe Kubert.

Kubert was born in 1926 in rural Southeast Poland (which became Ukraine and might be Outer Russia by the time you read this). At age two his parents took him to America where he grew up a Brooklyn kid. Joe’s folks encouraged him to draw from an early age and the precocious prodigy began a glittering career at the start of the Golden Age, before he was even a teenager.

Working and learning at the Chesler comics packaging “Shop”, MLJ, Holyoke and assorted other outfits, he began his close association with National/DC in 1943. A canny survivor of the Great Depression, Joe also maintained outside contacts, dividing his time and energies between Fiction House, Avon, Harvey and All-American Comics, where he particularly distinguished himself on The Flash and Hawkman.

In the early 1950s he and old school chum Norman Maurer were the creative force behind publishers St. Johns: creating evergreen caveman Tor and launching the 3D comics craze with Three Dimension Comics.

Joe never stopped freelancing, appearing in EC’s Two-Fisted Tales, Avon’s Strange Worlds, Lev Gleason Publications & Atlas Comics until in 1955 when, with the industry imploding, he took a permanent position at DC, only slightly diluted whilst he illustrated the contentious and controversial newspaper strip Tales of the Green Berets (1965-1968). From then, he split his time drawing Sgt. Rock and other features, designing covers and editing DC’s line of war comicbooks. He also drew his fair share of westerns such as DC’s incarnation of Firehair, Tomahawk and Son of Tomahawk. He later created a host of superb. Hard-hitting mature reader graphic novels such as Fax from Sarajevo, Jew Gangster and Yossel: April 1943.

In his quiet moments he also created and ran the Joe Kubert School of Cartoon and Graphic Art, training and mentoring a host of new funnybook superstars beside many of his fellow comics veterans.

Hugely popular and venerated in Europe, Kubert stretched his wings in 2000 by adding Tex to his list of achievements, written by Claudio Nizzi for Sergio Bonelli Editore’s premier Tex Albo Speciale/Texone imprint. Nizzi began writing comics in 1963, and created many popular series – such as Larry Yuma, Captain Erik and Rosco & Sonny – before moving to Bonelli in 1983 to craft stories of Mr. No, Nick Raider and Tex.

As is the case with all such long-lived action icons, the working premise of the Western Wonder is devilishly uncomplicated. Former outlaw Tex Willer clears his unjustly besmirched name and joins the Texas Rangers. He marries an Indian maiden and becomes an honorary chief of the Navajo (called “Eagle of the Night”) after she dies.

Over the years, Tex travels far and wide to dispense justice and has encountered every kind of peril you might have seen in western films, but like any great comics character also has a few outlandish arch-enemies such as evil prestidigitator Mefisto, piratical foreign prince Black Tiger and master of disguise Proteus.

After being published to great success and acclaim as The Four Killers in Italy in 2001, this particular tale finally became available to English speakers in 2015 as a sturdily redoubtable hardback (and latterly, ephemeral eBook) packing the entire pulse-pounding saga into one fearsome fable of electrifying energy and dogged determination…

Following an informative and appreciative Foreword by co-translator and letterer Pete Carlsson, the drama opens with the aging lawman approaching the remote farm of his old friends the Colters. He will not get there in time…

On finding the slain and defiled bodies of the family, doctored to appear the victims of an “injun” outrage, Tex reads the trail signs and deduces the killers are three white men and a renegade Indian, before setting off to arrest them. At this stage he is ready to let the law judge them. However, after being ambushed and thrown him off a cliff, the miraculously still surviving manhunter is ready to do whatever is necessary…

When the killers split up, the patiently remorseless peacekeeper becomes repeatedly embroiled in the webs of brutal violence the quartet spin around them and many more people will die before justice is finally served…

Raw, primal and visually grandiose, Tex: The Lonesome Rider is a stripped-down epic of the genre in the manner of Unforgiven and Once Upon a Time in the West; a masterclass in civilisation triumphing over chaos and greed, played out in a pitiless arena shaped by Big Sky Country aesthetics with the iconic scenery honed by a matchless craftsman into a major player and contributor to the mood of the story.

This is the genre at its most potent, pure and powerful: perhaps the best and credible cowboy comic you’ll ever see.
© 2001, 2005, 2015 Sergio Bonelli Editore. Licensed through Panini SpA All rights reserved.

Guns of Shadow Valley


By James M. Clark, Dave Wachter & Thomas Mauer (Dark Horse)
ISBN: 978-1-61655-435-4

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Forward-Looking Traditional Fun You Must Not Miss… 9/10

Westerns are very much in the eye of the beholder. Some of my very favourites include The Seven Samurai, The Thirteenth Warrior and Outland …and not a six-gun or Stetson in the bunch.

Actually, the form’s all about tone and timbre: motivation and resolution you see; trappings and locations are not as important as the Why and the How…

And as such, they lend themselves perfectly to crossing genres such as detective thrillers or horror. A superb case in point is superbly enchanting superhero shocker The Guns of Shadow Valley.

Concocted by Dave Wachter, James Andrew Clark and letterer Thomas Mauer and originally disseminated as a web-comic which began in 2007, the stunning saga was eventually collected as a sturdy landscape format hardback tome (with attendant eBook edition). It is one of the moodiest, most beautifully realised tales you’ll ever see.

The chills start with a freakish attack on a couple of surveyors foolishly assaying isolated Shadow Valley before ‘Welcome to Malice’ introduces Bill Dawson, sheriff of that lonely outpost of civilisation and a man with a strange secret.

When superfast shooter Frank BreakneckKelley hits town, the laconic lawman and his assistant “Killshot” prepare for a confrontation. Dean Cooper is an unmatchable marksman, and when using his 1874 Sharps Rifle is the most accurate and deadly long-distance shooter in the world.

However, the showdown goes down in a most unexpected manner and the permanently-drunk Kelley ends up in jail. Eventually Bill learns the speedster can outrun his own bullets and stays soused only so that he can slow down enough to interact with other people…

And not too far distant, an atrocity occurs. US Army Colonel Thaddeus Bale lost his left arm in the war and replaced it with a lethally multi-purposed artificial limb. A fanatical zealot, he runs a covert unit with special dispensation from President Grant to tackle problems and crises no decent soldier would countenance.

With his ruthless division of veteran soldiers and malignant metahuman servants Scorpion, Wurm and Shane Langston, Bale claims to be doing the Lord’s work and is getting ever-nearer to Malice, hunting an impossible dream hidden in the remote and forbidding region…

The cast and scope expand in ‘Incident at Holden Pass’ as a stagecoach is hit by something indescribable whilst at a nearby railroad navvy camp, cruel Chinese wizard Feng finally loses the trust and confidence of his super-strong disciple Shoushan.

Back in Malice meanwhile, blacksmith Clyde Elliot is showing off the properties of a strange mineral found in the valley. Clyde is a driven tinkerer and master maker, devising and building incredible devices to solve any conceivable problem. He’s never seen anything like the stone currently in his workshop…

If the sheriff knows what’s going on, he’s keeping it to himself, but that doesn’t stop him bringing Killshot and Breakneck with him when he inexplicably attacks a prison stagecoach to liberate a convicted felon.

Pearl Rivera is a gunfighter and gambler; risky careers for a woman but made a little easier because of her uncanny empathic abilities and talents as a human lie detector. Even she is unprepared for the effect of her runaway armoured coach when it smashes into the startled but ultimately unharmed oriental giant who has recently quit the railroad building business…

And Bale’s column gets closer, now transporting an unearthly child as the sole spoils of his many depredations…

‘Leave the Bottle’ offers hints into an ancient Indian tragedy that underpins all the mysterious events as Bale’s expedition reaches the valley and uncovers some of the mystery mineral. In Malice, wizened Indian outcast Kuecan the Crow haunts the main street whilst, in the desert scrub outside, Bale mystically confers with his true paymaster.

Robber Baron industrialist Thomas Percival Dumont is the most powerful man in America, a position gained by ruthless acts, devious planning and his powers of mind-manipulation. He wants to own and exploit whatever incredible energy-source rests in Shadow Valley and is now close to fulfilling his greatest ambitions. The wicked plotters are unaware that ferocious animal guardians afflicted by an ancient curse are watching them…

The black hats are the first to act as Bale’s sadistic multi-armed mercenary rides into town in ‘Tail of the Scorpion’. The brutal carnage he inflicts in Malice is reflected at the rail camp after Bale hands over his juvenile prize to Feng, but answers are equally unforthcoming. The only real result is a drawing together of lawmen and outlaws in the beleaguered town. Dawson now notionally leads the strangest posse in the annals of the West…

A dawn-age prairie myth becomes chilling reality as the true history of the region unfolds in ‘The Crow, the Coyote, and the Eagle’ with a supernal primordial – and largely mythological – event re-deciphered by modern eyes when the foredoomed Neci Indians, (shapeshifters accursed for eternity and awaiting the return of their tribe’s spirit and soul) finally make their move just as ‘The Best Laid Schemes’ presages the beginning of The End…

Dawson finally comes clean about what he’s been hiding as the forces of evil converge on Malice and battle is joined…

The arcane action escalates to a cataclysmic, revelatory conclusion in ‘Fools of Time and Terror’ before a tantalising ‘Epilogue’ set decades later posits that even when it’s over, it ain’t over…

Along with a Foreword by Gabriel Hardman and Afterword from Dave Wachter, plus full creator biographies, this blockbuster book also offers a large and fulsome Cast of Characters feature providing informative backstory and insight on all the major – and most of the minor – players.

Grandiose, ambitious and utterly compelling, The Guns of Shadow Valley is the best Sci-Fi/Horror/Western/Superhero summer-blockbuster action movie never made. You’d be an absolute gol’ dang fool not to at least read the bloody thing as soon as you can.
™ & © 2014 Dave Wachter and James Andrew Clark. All rights reserved.

Et Cetera volume 1


By Tow Nakazaki (TokyoPop)
ISBN: 978-1-59532-130-5

Western adventures and cowboy escapades are very much in the eye of the beholder. Many global cultures offer a unique spin on the already vastly protoplasmic genre and this tragically out-of-print series features one of the most engaging treatments I’ve ever seen.

As created by Tow Nakazaki, Etosetoro was originally released in Japan as nine volumes between February 1998 and January 2001 before being translated into French by Glénat and English by TokyoPop, to entertain and delight between August 2004 and April 2007. The exceedingly eccentric series is long overdue for revival…

An irreverent, genre-bending hilarious western pastiche, this delightful romp is not for you if history and logic are personal bugbears, but if it helps think of it all happening on an alternate Earth…

The story sees star-struck teenaged girl Mingchao quit her mountaintop shack and wild west roots to travel in search of the American Dream: that means a glitzy showbiz career in Hollywood.

With her she takes the fantastic Eto Gun built by her grandfather. This one-of-a-kind pistol fires the spirits of the (Japanese) Zodiac with fantastic bullets manifesting in the form of animate animal ghosts.

Naturally it takes a while – and lots of trial-and-error – for her to discover how it works. This eventually resolves into dipping the gun in the “essence” of a specific totem animal. That could mean food or clothing made from them but more often as not it demands dealing with their droppings…

Happily, the trouble she inevitably finds herself in is best dealt with by Mingchao’s innate feistiness and ingenuity. And along the trail to fame long she is been befriended by a mysterious, young and good-looking “Preacher-Man” named Baskerville.

As they make their way to far-distant California the ever-growing band of pilgrims encounter many of the icons of the untamed bad-lands, such as cowed townsfolk, villainous outlaws, evil cattle-barons, cows, ornery ol’ coots, cow-punchers, distressed widow-wimmin’, cows…

This light-hearted meander through the iconography of a million cowboy movies is fast paced, occasionally saucy and laugh-out-loud funny, and offers the inestimable benefit of sheer freshness afforded by seeing such old clichés through differently-conditioned Eastern eyes.

The first volume also includes a number of themed puzzle pages for anyone wanting to take a deeper dip into the legends that underpin the animal ammo…

Beguiling and irresistibly enticing, Et Cetera is a slice of marvellous mirth and magic for jaded fans and tops my list of Manga series in urgent need of contemporary revisiting and re-release
© 1998, 2005 Tow Nakazaki. All Rights Reserved. English script © 2005 TokyoPop Inc.

Lucky Luke volume 12: The Rivals of Painful Gulch


By Morris & Goscinny, translated by Luke Spear (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-1-905460-60-1

Lucky Luke is a rangy, good-natured, cowboy able to “draw faster than his own shadow”. He amiably roams the fabulously mythic Old West, having light-hearted adventures with his sarcastic horse Jolly Jumper, whilst interacting with a host of historical and legendary figures.

His continuing exploits over seventy years have made him one of the best-selling comic characters in Europe (more than 83 individual albums, sales totalling in excess of 300 million in 30 languages… so far…), with the usual spin-off toys, computer games, animated cartoons and a plethora of TV shows and live-action movies.

First seen in the 1947 Annual (L’Almanach Spirou 1947) of Le Journal de Spirou, Lucky was created in 1946 by Belgian animator, illustrator and cartoonist Maurice de Bévère (“Morris”), before ambling into his first weekly adventure ‘Arizona 1880’ on December 7th 1946.

Working solo until 1955, Morris produced nine albums of affectionate sagebrush spoofery before teaming with old pal and fellow trans-American tourist Rene Goscinny, who became regular wordsmith as Luke attained the dizzying heights of legend, commencing with ‘Des rails sur la Prairie’ (Rails on the Prairie), which began serialisation in Spirou on August 25th 1955.

In 1967, the six-gun straight-shooter switched sides, joining Goscinny’s own magazine Pilote with ‘La Diligence’ (The Stagecoach). Goscinny co-created 45 albums with Morris before his untimely death, from whence Morris soldiered on both singly and with fresh collaborators.

Morris died in 2001 having drawn fully 70 adventures, plus some spin-off sagas crafted with Achdé, Laurent Gerra, Benacquista & Pennac, Xavier Fauche, Jean Léturgie, Jacques Pessis and others, all taking their own shot at the venerable vigilante…

Lucky Luke first amused British readers during the late 1950s, syndicated to weekly anthology Film Fun, and rode back into comics-town again in 1967 in Giggle, where he used the nom de plume Buck Bingo.

In all these venues – as well as in numerous attempts to follow the English-language album successes of Tintin and Asterix – Luke sported a trademark cigarette hanging insouciantly from his lip. However, in 1983 Morris – amidst both pained howls and muted mutterings of “political correctness gone mad” – deftly substituted a piece of straw for the much-travelled dog-end, which garnered him an official tip of the hat from the World Health Organization.

The most recent and successful attempt to bring Lucky Luke to our shores and shelves comes from Cinebook (who have rightly restored the foul weed to his lips on the interior pages, if not the covers…), and it’s clearly no big deal for today’s readership as we’re well past sixty translated books and still going strong.

Lucky Luke – Les rivaux de Painful Gulch was the Dynamite Duo’s 10th collaboration (available in English on paper and as an e-book as The Rivals of Painful Gulch) and first published in Europe in 1962.

The outrageous tale draws on the legendary and infamous feud between the Hatfield and McCoy families in West Virginia and Kentucky between 1863 and1891 and opens with our hero and his chatty horse peaceably proceeding until repeatedly stopped by bushwackers demanding the cowboy remove his hat.

With his patience rapidly evaporating Luke eventually learns the region and township of Painful Gulch is plagued with two warring families who shoot at each other at every opportunity. The O’Haras all have enormous red noses whilst huge wingnut ears are the genetic marker of every son of the O’Timmins clan…

The rest of the townsfolk live in fear of the ferociously feuding families because the only thing they have in common is a mutual inability to hit anything they aim at. They always miss their targets but the collateral damage to bystanders, building and livestock is appalling…

Ever keen to keep the peace, Lucky attempts to play peacemaker, but even he can’t stop the gun-crazed whackos from blasting way at each other and blowing up any civic amenity that might possibly benefit their hated foes.

Eventually, even Luke’s cool patience is exhausted and when the rapidly departing Mayor nominates our hero as his successor, the furious newcomer resorts to subterfuge, pandering and chicanery to establish a lasting détente.

…And when even that doesn’t work, the lone gunman plays his ultimate trump card and ropes in the weary, long-suffering wimmin-folk of the O’Timmins and O’Haras to settle the issue…

Slick, sly and sassy, The Rivals of Painful Gulch is a fast-paced slapstick romp with plenty of action, lots of laughs and barrel-loads of buffoonery superbly crafted by comics masters, and offers a wonderful glimpse into a unique genre for today’s readers who might well have missed the romantic allure of an all-pervasive Wild West that never was…
© Dargaud Editeur Paris 1971 by Goscinny & Morris. © Lucky Comics. English translation © 2008 Cinebook Ltd.

Rick O’Shay and Hipshot: The Great Sunday Pages


By Stan Lynde (Tempo Books)
ISBN: 0-448-12522-6

Once upon a time, Westerns were the most popular genre in American mass entertainment, with novels, magazines, films, radio shows, TV series, comicbooks and of course newspaper strips all devoted to “Men Doin’ What They Gotta Do”: Riding Ranges, Rounding up stuff, Gun-fighting and all the other timeless iconic cultural activities we all think we know…

Over the decades hundreds of Western strips have graced the pages and increased the circulation of newspapers; from singing cowboy film-star Roy Rogers to Red Ryder, Casey Ruggles, the Lone Ranger, Lance and so many more. Even staid Britain got into the act with such lost masterpieces as Buffalo Bill, Matt Marriot, Gun Law and Wes Slade ranking highest amongst fans around the world…

With such a plethora of material concentrated in one genre it’s no surprise that different takes would inevitably develop. Thus, alongside The Big Country, High Noon, Soldier Blue or Unforgiven there blossomed less traditional fare such as Destry Rides Again, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid or Blazing Saddles.

Falling straight into the same comedy Western territory as The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw and Support Your Local Sheriff – whilst predating both – came one of the earliest and most successful modern gag-a-day continuity strips, blending iconic scenarios with memorable characters, playing out their daily antics against a spectacular backdrop of lavishly illustrated natural beauty.

Stan Lynde was born in Billings, Montana on 23rd September 1931, the son of a sheep farmer who grew up with a passion for comic strips. His first efforts appeared in the High School paper and after studying journalism at Montana State he served in the Navy from 1951-1955. During that tour of duty he created the strip Ty Foon for a Services magazine.

After the Navy, Lynde tried a succession of jobs and ended up in New York working for the Wall Street Journal. Whilst there he created Rick O’Shay which eventually found a home with the mighty Chicago Tribune Syndicate (home of Gasoline Alley, Terry and the Pirates and many others). The feature premiered as a Sunday page on April 27th 1958, adding a daily black-&-white strip from 19th May that year.

Lynde produced the strip until 1977 when he left the Syndicate to produce another wonderful Western Latigo (1979-1983). Tribune-News Syndicate owned Rick O’Shay outright and continued the feature with substitutes Marian Dern, Alfredo Alcala and Mel Keefer, but it just wasn’t the same and the strip was allowed to die in 1981.

Rick O’Shay took Western conventions to sly and winningly whimsical extremes as it followed the life of Rick, Deputy Marshal of the little town of Conniption. The series was set in the rugged Montana countryside where Lynde grew up and to which he returned as soon as the strip proved successful enough to support him.

Conniption was too small for a full Marshal and whatever order needed keeping was easily handled by the easy-going Deputy Rick and his friend; grizzled veteran gunslinger Hipshot Percussion. Apart from drinking, fighting and gambling, the township’s most serious problem was criminally bad puns, personified in the likes of saloon owner Gaye Abandon, newspaper editor Clarion McCall, hotelier Auntie Climax, town drunk Mooch McHooch, gunsmith Cap’n Ball, banker Mort Gage, gambler Deuces Wilde and a rather feisty young ‘un dubbed Quyat Burp.

The town’s spiritual needs were catered to by Reverend Jubal Lee and the local Indian tribe was led by Chief Horse’s Neck

As years passed the dailies began spoofing contemporary events such as the James Bond craze, pop music and TV shows but the Sunday episodes (such as the grand selection from 1972-1976 reprinted in this paperback sized, but regrettably monochrome collection) retained their integrity and continued to spoof the traditions and shibboleths of the mythical Old West.

Bright and breezy slapstick rib-ticklers and laconic, tongue-in-cheek jokes involving drunks, card-games, guys joshing with each other, the malicious recalcitrance of horses and other inanimate objects resonated beside perennial duels and showdowns. Hipshot facing down a succession of goofy young wannabes regularly called the old gun-hawk out to steal his rep played and replayed continuously; all set against the breathtaking geography of Montana’s “Big Sky Country”…

Lynde moved to Ecuador and continued working in the Western genre, producing the strip Grass Roots, new material for Swedish magazine Fantomen, assorted graphic novels and – after regaining the rights to Rick O’Shay for his own Cottonwood Publishing company – new works and chronological collections of this classic strip until his untimely death in August 2013.

This nifty and delightful book from 1976 actually belonged to my wife until I took greedy full-possession of it: part of that glorious 1970s era of easily concealable paperback collections featuring classic strips like Peanuts and The Perishers and so many other magical ways to lose yourself whilst teachers droned on around you in interminable obliviousness.

Most of the books were even returned at the end of term, although some unscrupulous educators operated a “confiscation is forever” policy…

Fun and fulsome entertainment, this little gem won’t be easy to track down, but if giggles, guffaws and gunfights are your thing you’ll definitely want to round up those later Rick O’Shay Cottonwood releases and hopefully his family will be able to convince some major publisher – digital or otherwise – to get these magical strips and yarns into comprehensive mainstream collections for comics posterity…
© 1972, 1973, 1974, 1975, 1976 The Chicago Tribune. All Rights Reserved.

Scalped Vol 1: Indian Country


By Jason Aaron & R.M. Guéra (DC Comics/Vertigo)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-1317-6

The Western is a tricky genre to pin down: all at once infinitely re-inventible, compellingly human and shockingly mythic. The genre also enjoys a chameleonic gift for subsuming the unique memes and tropes of other forms of story-making and pitting them against each other.

There are horror westerns, space westerns, comedy westerns and – because time and location aren’t key to our definition – especially crime stories that can be fully acknowledged as being pure Cowboys and Indians…

These revelations have always been best explored in the relatively recent phenomenon of “grim and gritty” comics. Initially the preserve of Good-Guys-In-Tights savagely slaughtering really bad folk instead of arresting them, now the tarnished grime of über-realism can be seen where it belongs – in tales of darkly desperate people facing their greatest challenges.

You don’t need a history degree to know that Native Americans have had a pretty crap time since Europeans colonized their country. However, in recent decades lip-service and guilt have been turned into some minor concessions to the most disadvantaged ethnicity in the USA, and contemporary Federal mandates that allow gambling on officially designated Indian Land have meant a cash bonanza for various tribes on reservations throughout the country. The Indians are getting rich.

Well, some of them are…

Disenchanted son of a 1970s Native American activist, Dashiell Bad Horse ran away from the desolate squalor of the Prairie Rose Indian Reservation as soon as he turned fifteen. Now he’s back and although there’s a snazzy new casino, “the Rez” is still a hell-hole and sordid Demilitarized Zone where his people subsist in crushing poverty, still prey to every self-destructive social toxin money or favours can buy or bestow.

Reluctantly Dash takes a sheriff’s job, but he knows he’s actually just another leg-breaker for current Tribal Leader and fully-installed crime boss Lincoln Red Crow. Still, whilst wiping out rival drug and booze gangs for his brooding boss, he is slowly growing closer to the all-powerful Indian Godfather…

The job even provides a number of tantalising, too-tempting fringe benefits, which facilitate Bad Horse finally getting to really know the former rebel who was once his mother’s closest ally in the all-but-forgotten freedom movement.

And that’s good. After all, that’s why the FBI planted him there in the first place…

As concocted by writer Jason Aaron and potently limned by R.M. Guéra, this slow-boiling saga is seedy, violent, overtly sexual and ferociously compelling: a darkly brutal, modern-day Western Noir.

The oddly familiar yet fiercely exotic locale and painfully unchanging foibles of people on the edge make this tale an instant classic and one still available as a either trade paperback or eBook.

Scalped: Indian Country is an uncompromising thriller that hits hard, hits often and hit home. Best of all, it’s just the opening salvo in a lengthy sequence of compulsive confrontations and unwrapped mysteries so why not hold on to your hat and jump right in?
© 2007 Jason Aaron & Rajko Milošević. All Rights Reserved.

Loveless Vol 2: Thicker Than Blackwater


By Brian Azzarello, Marcelo Frusin, Danijel Zezelj, Werther Dell’edera & various (Vertigo)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-1250-6

Hitching its wagon firmly to the grimy, gritty, excessively dark and overwhelmingly nihilistic end of the Western genre, Loveless is a bleak and brutal confection, utterly unsanitised and unsuitable for kiddie consumption, but one that seems far closer to historical truth than any six-gun shootout on Main Street or rhinestone spectacle…

In this second stunning collection (still as yet not in digital form) Brian Azzarello and Marcelo Frusin, who did so much to revive and revitalise crime comics genre with 100 Bullets and returned a razor-sharp hard edge to urban supernatural horror in Hellblazer, take a further good hard look at the Western with results both breathtaking and horrific…

The mysteries continue and deepen as the spiritually bereft and morally bankrupt town of Blackwater further festers under Union occupation in the days and months after the American Civil War. The freed slave population are no better off under Northern rule, returning southern men have taken to wearing white sheets whilst exacting bloody reprisals, and the ordinary citizens are terrified that their lives and their secrets will be found out by either the Yankees or ,worse yet, returned Confederate hard man Wes Cutter.

Nobody is sure what Cutter wants. He’s asking uncomfortable questions about the fate of his missing wife, and he doesn’t want to be anybody’s friend. Moreover, since the military commander and his Carpetbagging bosses have insultingly appointed Cutter sheriff of Blackwater, he’s a traitor with the authority to get away with whatever he wants.

How the guilty-as-sin townsfolk react to Occupation Forces, former slave/Union soldier turned bounty hunter Atticus Mann, and the rabble-rousing, murderous renegade Confederate returnees, let alone the despised sheriff, is chillingly and graphically depicted by Danijel Zezelj, Werther Dell’edera and Frusin when the citizens become victims of a sustained campaign of murder…

Combining classic Western themes with contemporary twists such as flamboyant serial killers and protracted murder mysteries, Azzarello even manages to include hot-off-the-presses contemporary political metaphor in this twisted, stark and uncompromising series (collecting issues #6-12 of the monthly Vertigo comicbook).

A brilliant Western and a dazzling adult comic strip.

Get it if you’re old enough and tough enough.
© 2006 Brian Azzarello & Marcelo Frusin. All Rights Reserved.

Secret of San Saba: A Tale of Phantoms and Greed in the Spanish Southwest


By Jack Jackson (Kitchen Sink Press)
ISBN: 978-0-87816-080-8 (HB)                    978-0-87816-081-5 (PB)

I’m reading lots of graphic novels digitally these days, and it’s clear how much superb classic material – especially genre works with war and western themes – isn’t much of priority to content providers yet.

You try tracking down Sam Glanzman’s The Haunted Tank or Joe Kubert Sgt. Rock compilations, or even a relatively well-exposed screen property like Jonah Hex (other than the admittedly superb Justin Grey/Jimmy Palmiotti books of recent vintage) and see what joy you get…

Another such classic omission is this stunningly impressive western/horror mash-up from the inimitable Jack Jackson, still tragically only available in the original oversized (277 x 201 mm) monochrome softcover and hardback album editions, originally published by Kitchen Sink as part of their Death Rattle Series.

Known as ‘Jaxon’ since his Underground Commix heyday, Jackson’s infectious fascination with the history of Texas is a signature of much of his work even from the earliest days. Here the Commix legend expertly combines a love of historical documentary with the fabulous Lovecraftian horrors of the cosmic void, resulting in a breathtaking and wonderful period supernatural thriller, skillfully woven into the fabric and lore of the Southwest desert lands…

When a silvery entity crashes to Earth in a blazing fireball, it galvanises the fading dreams of Xotl, a young Faraone warrior who had lost faith in his gods.

As the years pass, the natives worship the fearsomely fulgent power of the star-fallen thing, and when the mighty Apaches conquer the Faraone, the twice-defeated tribe turn to the newly arrived Europeans for help. This is a tragic mistake, revealed too late, after the tribe finds that Priests and Colonists might speak of God but only truly worship wealth.

When the newcomers learn of the Cosmic Slug that fell from the stars, all they can see is the overwhelming wealth its silver mantle represents…

The decades-long battle between Apaches and Missionaries to control the slimy silver wellspring makes for a powerful if cynical tale, full of the intoxicating artistry, spellbinding storytelling, and the mesmerising aura of authenticity that is Jackson’s most telling narrative tool.

Based on the ancient Texas stories and legends of ‘Blanco’ and ‘Negro Bultos’ (supernatural treasure mounds), this most fantastic story should be, has to be true, if only because he has drawn it.

Superbly compelling, this is a must-read item for any serious fan of both comics and horror fiction, so let’s have it back and out in every format possible, pretty please…
© 1989 Jack Jackson. All rights reserved.