Superman: The Golden Age Volume Five


By Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster, John Sikela, Leo Nowak, Ed Dobrotka, George Roussos, Sam Citron & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-8797-9 (TPB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Vital Vintage Superhero Fun and Fantasy… 9/10

The American comicbook industry – if it existed at all by now – would have been an utterly unrecognisable thing without The Man of Tomorrow. His unprecedented invention and adoption by a desperate and joy-starved generation gave birth to an entire genre if not an actual art form.

Imitation is the most honest compliment and can be profitable too. Superman triggered an inconceivable army of imitators and variations and, within three years of his Summer 1938 debut, the intoxicating blend of action and social wish-fulfilment which hallmarked the early Action Ace had grown to encompass cops-and-robbers crime-busting, socially reforming dramas, science fiction, fantasy, and whimsical comedy. Once the war in Europe and the East finally involved America, to that list was added patriotic relevance for a host of gods, heroes and monsters – all dedicated to profit through exuberant, eye-popping excess and vigorous dashing derring-do.

In comicbook terms at least, Superman was master of the world. He had already utterly changed the shape of the fledgling industry by the time of these tales. There was a successful newspaper strip, foreign and overseas syndication and the Fleischer studio was producing some of the most expensive – and best – animated cartoons ever conceived.

Thankfully the quality of the source material was increasing with every four-colour release, and the energy and enthusiasm of Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster had infected the burgeoning studio that grew around them to cope with the relentless demand.

This latest addition to the splendid Golden Age/Silver Age strand of DC reprint compendia presents more of an epochal run of raw, unpolished but viscerally vibrant stories by Siegel, Shuster and the sterling crew of their “Superman Studio”. This stalwart band collaboratively set the nascent comics world on fire with crude, rough, uncontrollable wish-fulfilling, cathartically exuberant exploits of a righteous and superior man dealing out summary justice equally to social malcontents, exploitative capitalists, thugs and ne’er-do-wells, and captured the imagination of a generation.

This fifth remastered paperback collection (also available digitally) of the Action Ace’s early exploits – reprinted in the order they first appeared – covers the turbulent, times spanning May 1942 to February 1943: encompassing escapades from Action Comics #48-57, Superman #16-19 and his solo-adventures from World’s Finest Comics #6-8 (an oversized anthology title where he shared whimsical cover-stardom with Batman and Robin).

As always, every comic appearance is preceded by the original cover illustration depicting Superman trouncing scurrilous Axis War-mongers and reminding readers what we were all fighting for – captivating graphic masterpieces from Fred Ray, Jack Burnley and John Sikela – whilst each tale is credited to prolific co-originator Siegel.

I sometimes think – like many others I know – that superhero comics were never more apt or effective than when they were whole-heartedly combating global fascism with explosive, improbable excitement courtesy of a myriad of mysterious, masked marvel men.

All the most evocatively visceral moments of the genre seem to come when gaudy gladiators soundly thrashed – and I hope you’ll please forgive the offensive contemporary colloquialism – “Nips and Nazis”. However, even in those long-ago dark days, comics creators were wise enough to offset their tales of espionage and imminent invasion with a barrage of home-grown threats and gentler or even more whimsical four-colour fare…

Jerry Siegel was producing some of the best stories of his career, showing the Action Ace in all his morale-boosting glory; thrashing thugs, spies and masters of bad science whilst America kicked the Axis fascists in the pants…

Co-creator Joe Shuster, although plagued by punishing deadlines for the Superman newspaper strip and his rapidly failing eyesight, was still fully involved in the process, overseeing the stories and drawing character faces whenever possible, but as the months passed the talent pool of the “Superman Studio” increasingly took the lead in the comicbooks as the demands of the media superstar grew and grew. Thus, most of the stories in this volume were drawn by John Sikela with occasional support from others…

The magic begins with ‘The Merchant of Murder!’ from Action Comics #48 wherein the hero topples an insidious gang of killers led by The Top who uses wartime restrictions to sell used cars with deadly faults and defects until reporter Lois Lane and her soft-spoken leg man get involved…

Sikela flew solo on all of Superman #16, beginning with ‘The World’s Meanest Man’ as the Caped Kryptonian crushes a mobster attempting to plunder a social program giving deprived slum-kids a holiday in the countryside, before moving on to battle an astrologer prepared to murder his clients to prove his predictions in ‘Terror from the Stars’.

‘The Case of the Runaway Skyscrapers’ pits the Metropolis Marvel against Mister Sinister, a trans-dimensional tyrant who makes buildings vanish, after which the power-packed perilous periodical concluded with a deeply satisfying and classic campaign against organised crime as Superman crushes the ‘Racket on Delivery’.

Action Comics #49 introduced The Puzzler – a despicable, deadly and obsessive criminal maniac who hated losing and never played fair in ‘The Wizard of Chance’ (inked by Ed Dobrotka).

The debut of Superman propelled National Comics to the forefront of their fledgling industry and in 1939 the company collaborated with the organisers of the New York World’s Fair: producing two commemorative comic books celebrating the event. The Man of Tomorrow prominently featured on the appropriately titled New York World’s Fair Comics beside such four-colour stars as Zatara, Gingersnap, The Sandman and Batman and Robin. The spectacular card-cover 96-page anthologies were a huge hit and convinced National’s owner and editors that such an over-sized package of their pantheon of characters, with Superman and Batman prominently featured, would be a worthwhile proposition.

The bountiful format was retained for a wholly company-owned quarterly which retailed for the then-hefty price of 15¢. Launching as World’s Best Comics #1 (Spring 1941), the book transformed into World’s Finest Comics from #2, beginning a stellar 45-year run which only ended as part of the massive decluttering exercise that was Crisis on Infinite Earths.

From WFC #6 (Summer 1942), Siegel, Leo Nowak & Sikela’s ‘The Man of Steel vs. the Man of Metal’ pits our hero and newsboy Jimmy Olsen against Metalo: a mad scientist whose discoveries make him every inch Superman’s physical match…

Back in Action Comics #50, Clark Kent and Lois are despatched to Florida to scope out sporting skulduggery in ‘Play Ball!’– a light-hearted baseball tale illustrated by Nowak & Ed Dobrotka before Superman #17 offers a quartet of tales beginning with ‘Man or Superman?’ (pencilled by Shuster with Sikela inking), wherein Lois first begins putting together snippets of evidence and at last sensing that klutzy Clark might be hiding a Super-secret, even as the subject of her research tangles with sinister saboteur The Talon.

Following that, ‘The Human Bomb’ (art by Nowak) sees a criminal hypnotist transform innocent citizens into walking landmines until the tireless Action Ace scotches his wicked racket.

Sikela handled the last two tales in the issue beginning with ‘Muscles for Sale!’, in which Superman’s Fortress of Solitudeand Trophy Room debut and the Man of Steel battles another mad mesmerist turning ordinary citizens into dangerously overconfident louts, bullies and thieves, whilst ‘When Titans Clash!’ depicts a frantic and spectacular duel of wits and incredible super-strength after Luthor regains the mystic Power Stone to become Superman’s physical – but never intellectual – master …

Action Comics #51 introduces the canny faux-madness of practical-joking homicidal bandit The Prankster in the rollercoaster romp in Sikela’s ‘The Case of the Crimeless Crimes’ and the next issue features the ‘The Emperor of America!’, wherein an invading army are welcomed with open arms by all Americans except the indignantly suspicious Man of Steel who single-handedly liberates the nation in a blistering, rousing call-to-arms classic…

As the war progressed the raw passion and sly wit of Siegel’s stories and the rip-roaring energy of Shuster and his team were galvanised by the parlous state of the planet and Superman got even became better and more flamboyant to deal with it all. His startling abilities and take-charge, can-do attitude won the hearts of the public at home and he was embraced as a patriotic tonic for the troops across the war-torn world.

The rise was meteoric, inexorable and unprecedented. He was the indisputable star of Action and World’s Finest Comics plus his own dedicated title, whilst a daily newspaper strip (begun on 16th January 1939, with a separate Sunday strip following from 5th November of that year) garnered millions of new fans globally. A thrice-weekly radio serial had been running since February 12th 1940 and, with a movie cartoon series, games, toys, apparel and a growing international media presence, Superman was swiftly becoming the entire Earth’s hero…

Although the gaudy burlesque of evil aliens, marauding monsters and slick super-villains still lay years ahead of our hero, thrilling tales of villainy, criminality, corruption and disaster were just as engrossing and spoke powerfully of the tenor of the times, and are all dealt with in a direct and captivating manner by our relentlessly entertaining champion in summarily swift and decisive fashion.

No “To Be Continueds” here!

A perfect example of the done-in-one tale is Siegel, Nowak & Sikela’s ‘The Eight Doomed Men’ from World’s Finest Comics #7: a tale involving a coterie of ruthless millionaires targeted for murder because of the wicked past deeds of their privileged college fraternity. This enthralling crime mystery is suitably spiced up with flamboyant high-tech weaponry that pushes the Man of Tomorrow to his limits…

Superman #18 (September/October 1942) then offers a quartet of stunning sagas, leading with Sikela’s ‘The Conquest of a City’ wherein Nazi infiltrators use a civil defence drill to infiltrate the National Guard and conquer Metropolis in the Fuehrer’s name… until Superman spearheads the counter-attack…

Nowak’s ‘The Heat Horror’ posits an artificial asteroid threatening to burn the city to ashes until the Metropolis Marvel defeats Lex Luthor, the manic mastermind who initially aimed it at Earth.

‘The Man with the Cane’ offers a grand, old-fashioned and highly entertaining espionage murder mystery for Dobrotka & Sikela to illustrate after which Superman takes on his first fully costumed super-villain when ‘The Snake’ perpetrates a string of murders during construction of a river tunnel in a moody Nowak-drawn masterpiece.

Sikela is inked by George Roussos on fantastic thriller ‘The Man Who put Out the Sun!’ from Action Comics #53, wherein bird-themed bandit Night-Owl uses “black light” technology and ruthless gangsters to plunder at will until the Man of Steel takes charge, whilst in #54, ‘The Pirate of Pleasure Island!’ (Sikela) follows the foredoomed career of upstanding citizen Stanley Finchcomb, a seemingly civilised descendent of ruthless buccaneers who succumbs to madness and becomes a modern day merciless marine marauder. Or perhaps he truly is possessed by the merciless spirit of his ancestor Captain Ironfist in this enchanting supernatural thriller…?

A classic (and much reprinted) fantasy shocker opened Superman #19. ‘The Case of the Funny Papers Crimes’ (Sikela & Dobrotka) sees bizarre desperado Funnyface bring the larger-than-life villains of the Daily Planet’s comics page to terrifying life in a grab for loot and power, after which ‘Superman’s Amazing Adventure’ (Nowak) finds the Man of Steel battling incredible creatures in an incredible extra-dimensional realm – but all is not as it seems…

Some of the city’s most vicious criminals are commanded to kill a stray dog by the infamous Mr. Z in ‘The Canine and the Crooks’ (Nowak) and it takes all of Clark and Lois’ deductive skills to ascertain why before ‘Superman, Matinee Idol’breaks the fourth wall for readers as the reporters visit a movie house to see a Superman cartoon in a shameless yet exceedingly inventive and thrilling “infomercial” plug for the Fleischer Brothers cartoons then currently astounding movie-goers; all lovingly rendered by Shuster and inked by Sikela…

This latest leaf through times gone by continues with a witty and whimsical Li’l Abner spoof illustrated by Sikela & Dobrotka. ‘A Goof named Tiny Rufe’ focuses on desperate cartoonist Slapstick Sam who co-opts, plagiarises and ruins the simple lives of a couple of naïve hillbillies to fill his idea-empty panels and pages… until Superman intercedes to give the hicks their lives back and the devious dauber the drubbing he so richly deserves……

World’s Finest #8 (Winter, 1942-1943) next exposed ‘Talent Unlimited’ (Sam Criton & Sikela) as Superman tracks down a missing heiress who had abandoned wealth for a stage career and poor but honest theatrical friends. Unfortunately, even though she didn’t want her money, other people did…

A brace of episodes from Action Comics brings this gleaming Golden Age visit to a close, starting with ‘Design for Doom!’ from #56. Illustrated by Sikela, it pits the Caped Kryptonian against a deranged architect who creates global city-wrecking catastrophes simply to prove the superiority of his own creations.

Superman was pitifully short on returning villains in the early days so #57’s return of the Prankster as ‘Crime’s Comedy King’ made a welcome addition to his meagre Rogues Gallery, especially as the Macabre Madcap seems here to have turned over a new philanthropic leaf. Of course, there’s malevolence and a big con job at the heart of his transformation…

As fresh, thrilling and compelling now as they ever were, these endlessly re-readable epics are perfectly presented in these glorious paperback collections where the graphic magic defined what being a Super Hero means, with every tale dictating the basic iconography of the genre for all others to follow.

These Golden Age tales are priceless enjoyment at absurdly affordable prices and in a durable, comfortingly approachable format. What dedicated comics fan could possibly resist them?
© 1942, 1943, 2020 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Gahan Wilson Sunday Comics


By Gahan Wilson (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-612-6 (HB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: One Last Hard-Earned Laugh in the Face of the Toughest Holiday Season in Living Memory… 9/10

Born on February 18th 1930 and dying a year ago today, Gahan Allen Wilson was an illustrator, cartoonist, essayist and author who always had his eyes and heart set on the future. According to Gary Groth’s Afterword in this sublime collection, he and grew up reading comic strips as much as fantasy fiction.

It always showed.

The mordantly macabre, acerbically wry and surreal draughtsman tickled funnybones and twanged nerves with his darkly dry graphic confections from the 1960s; contributing superb spoofs, sparklingly horrific and satirically suspenseful drawings and strips and panels as a celebrated regular contributor in such major magazines as Playboy, Collier’s, The New Yorker and others. He also wrote science fiction for Again Dangerous Visions, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, The Twilight Zone Magazine and Realms of Fantasy as well as contributing criticism, book and film reviews for them all.

In an extremely broad and long career he wore dozens of creative hats, even embracing the modern digital universe by creating – with Byron Preiss – his own supernatural computer game, Gahan Wilson’s the Ultimate Haunted House.

When National Lampoon first began its devastatingly satirical (geez, do modern folk even recognize satire anymore?) all-out attack on the American Dream, Wilson was invited to contribute a regular strip to their comics section. His sublimely semi-autobiographical, darkly hilarious paean to lost childhood ran from 1972 and until 1981 and was collected as Nuts, another superb compilation from this publisher that you should own and share.

Few people – me included – knew that during that period he also, apparently more for fun and relaxation than profit, produced his own syndicated Sunday strip feature. For two years – beginning on March 3rd 1974 – Gahan Wilson Sunday Comics appeared in a small cross-section of newspapers from Boston to Los Angeles and, as with all his work, it bucked a trend.

At a time when most cartoonists were seeking a daily continuity strip, building a readership and eking jokes out with sensible parsimony, Wilson let himself go hog-wild, generating a half-dozen or so single-shot gags every Sabbath, blending his signature weird, wild monsters, uncanny aliens and unsavoury scenes with straight family humour, animal crackers, topical themes and cynically socio-politically astute observations.

Looking at them here it’s clear to me that his intent was to have fun and make himself laugh as much or even more than his readership; capturing those moments when an idea or notion gave him pause to giggle whilst going about his day job…

I’m not going to waste time describing the cartoons: there are too many and despite being a fascinating snapshot of life in the 1970s they’re almost all still outrageously funny in the way and manner that Gary Larson’s Far Side was a scant six years later.

I will say that even whilst generating a storm of humorous, apparently unconnected one-offs, consummate professional Wilson couldn’t restrain himself and eventually the jokes achieved an underlying shape and tone with recurring motifs (clocks, beasts, wallpaper, etc), guest appearances by “The Kid” (from Nuts) and features-within-the-feature such as The Creep and Future Funnies

Collected in a gloriously expansive (176 pages, 309x162mm) full-colour, landscape hardback, as well as in digital formats, this complete re-presentation of a lost cartooning classic offers a freewheeling, absurdist, esoterically banal, intensely, trenchantly funny slice of nostalgia. These fabulous joke page compendiums range from satire to slapstick to agonising irony and again prove Wilson to be one of the world’s greatest visual humourists.

This is a book no fan of fun should miss and, with Christmas oppressively bearing down on us, could be a crucial solution to the perennial “what to get him/her/them/they” question…
All comic strips © 2013 Gahan Wilson. This Edition © Fantagraphics Books, Inc. All rights reserved.

The Complete Calvin and Hobbes

By Bill Watterson (Andrews McMeel)
ISBN: 978-0-74074-847-9 (HB boxed set) 978-1-44943-325-3 (PB boxed set)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: The Absolute Epiphany of Joyous Delight… 10/10

Almost any event big or small is best experienced through the eyes of a child – and better yet if he’s a fictional waif controlled by the whimsical sensibilities of a comic strip genius like Bill Watterson.

Calvin is the child in us all; Hobbes is the sardonic unleashed beast of our Aspirations; no, wait… Calvin is this little boy, an only child with a big imagination and a stuffed tiger that has become his common sense and moral sounding board…

No; Calvin is just a lonely little boy and Hobbes talks only to him. That’s all you need or want.

An immediate best-selling strip and perennial award-winning critical hit running from November 18th 1985 through December 31st 1995, Calvin and Hobbes came and went like a bright, soft comet and we’re all the poorer for its passing. In the decade of its existence, the strip redefined depictions of the “Eyes of Wonder” which children possess, and made us mere adults laugh, and so often cry too. Its influence shaped a generation of up-and-coming cartoonists and comicbook creators.

We all wanted a childhood like that pesky kid’s; bullies, weird teachers, obnoxious little girls and all. At least we can – and still do – revisit…

The Daily and Sundays appeared in more than 2,400 newspapers all over the planet and – from 2010 – reruns have featured in over 50 countries. There were 18 unmissable collections (selling well in excess of 45,000,000 copies thus far), including the fabulous complete boxed set edition in both soft and hard cover formats I’m plugging today. Yes, it’s a comparatively expensive item but I gloat over my hardback set almost every day and cannot count the number of times I’ve dipped into it over the years.

Unlike most of his fellows, Watterson shunned the spotlight and the merchandising Babylon that generally follows a comic strip mega-hit. He dedicated all his spirit and energies into producing one of the greatest testaments to childhood and the twin and inevitably converging worlds of fantasy and reality anywhere in fiction. All comics purists need to know is that the creator cites unique sole-auteur strips Pogo, Krazy Kat and Peanuts as his major influences and all mysteries are solved…

Calvin is a hyper-active little boy growing up in a suburban middle-American Everytown. There’s a city nearby, with museums and such, and a little bit of wooded wilderness at the bottom of the garden. The kid is smart, academically uninspired and utterly happy in his own world. He’s you and me. His best friend and companion is stuffed tiger Hobbes, who – as I might have already mentioned – may or may not be actually alive. He’s certainly far smarter and more ethically evolved than his owner…

And that’s all the help you’re getting. If you know the strip you already love it, and if you don’t you won’t appreciate my destroying the joys of discovery. This is beautiful, charming, clever, intoxicating and addictive tale-telling, blending awe, bliss and laughter, socially responsible and wildly funny.

After a miraculous decade, at the top of his game Watterson retired the strip and himself, and though I bitterly resent it, and miss it still, I suppose it’s best to go out on a peak rather than fade away by degrees. I certainly respect and admire his dedication and principles.

I cannot imagine any strip fan – or indeed, parent – living life without Calvin and Hobbes. Imaginative, dazzling, unforgettably captivating, these are some of the best cartoons ever crafted. You should have them in your house.

Usually I plug a specific item – and I am here too – but today’s lesson is really a big thank you and heartfelt recommendation for an iconic strip and its brilliant creator.

I normally shy away from excessively priced items too, but in this case (not a pun, no matter how much I want it to be) the expense is worth the outlay. This is a set of books to summon up glorious childhood memories, meant to be read lying on the floor with kids and pets and snacks all jostling for the best vantage point.

The entire Calvin and Hobbes canon is still fully available in solo volumes and so is this aforementioned wrist-cracking box set, but not, sadly, in a digital edition yet. You can, however, enjoy digital dollops of this graphic milestone if so inclined by going to gocomics.com/calvinandhobbes. They are also available online through the Andrews McMeel Uclick platform, so there’s no reason for you not to make this brilliant example of our art form a permanent part of your life. And you’ll thank me for it, too…
© 1989, 2005, 2012 Universal Press Syndicate. All rights reserved.

Conan the Barbarian Epic Collection volume 1: The Coming of Conan 1970-1972


By Roy Thomas & Barry Windsor-Smith, with John Jakes, Gil Kane & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-1-3029-2555-0 (TPB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Because We Believe in Blockbusters… 9/10

During the 1970’s the American comic book industry opened up after more than 15 years of cautious and calcified publishing practises that had come about as a reaction to the censorious oversight of the self- inflicted Comics Code Authority. This body was created to keep the publishers’ product wholesome after the industry suffered their very own McCarthy-style Witch-hunt during the 1950s.

One of the first genres revisited was Horror/Mystery comics and from that sprang pulp masterpiece Conan the Cimmerian, via a little tale in anthology Chamber of Darkness #4, whose hero bore no little thematic resemblance to the Barbarian. It was written by Roy Thomas and drawn by Barry (now Windsor-) Smith, a recent Marvel find, and one who was gradually breaking out of the company’s all-encompassing Jack Kirby house-style.

Despite some early teething problems – including being cancelled and reinstated in the same month – the comic book adventures of Robert E. Howard’s brawny warrior soon became as big a success as the revived prose paperbacks which had heralded a world flowering in tales of fantasy and the supernatural.

After decades away, the brawny brute recently returned to the Aegis of Marvel. Subtitled “the Original Marvel Years” (due to the character’s sojourn with other publishers and intellectual properties rights holders), this bombastic tome of groundbreaking action fantasy yarns re-presents the contents of Conan the Barbarian #1-13 plus that trailblazing short story, cumulatively spanning April 1970 to January 1972.

Digitally remastered and available as a trade paperback or digital formats, these absorbing arcane adventures sparked a revolution in comics and a franchising empire in my youth, and are certainly good enough to do so once again.

The drama begins most fittingly with a classic map of ‘The Hyborean Age of Conan’ plus an accompanying quote I’m sure every devoted acolyte already knows by heart…

Set in modern America, ‘The Sword and the Sorcerers’ primes the pump with the tale of a successful writer who foolishly decides to kill off his most beloved character Starr the Slayer: a barbarian so beloved that he has taken on a life of his own and is determined to do whatever is necessary to keep it…

After that we are catapulted back in time approximately 12,000 years into a forgotten age of wonders as writer Thomas broadly follows Howard’s life path for young Conan, beginning with the still teenaged hero’s meeting with a clairvoyant wizard who predicts his regal destiny (‘The Coming of Conan’ inked by Dan Adkins), through brief but brutal enslavement in ‘The Lair of the Beastmen’ (inked by Sal Buscema), before experiencing a minor Ragnarok in ‘The Twilight of the Grim Grey God!’

An aura of lyrical cynicism grows to balance the wealth of mystical menaces and brooding horror as the wandering youth becomes a professional thief and judge of human foibles in ‘The Tower of the Elephant’. Conan’s softer side is revealed in issue #5 after meeting the bewitching ‘Zukala’s Daughter’ (inked by Frank Giacoia) and liberating a wizard-plagued town. Buscema returned for ‘Devil Wings over Shadizar’, wherein the warrior tackles a welter of antediluvian terrors and both Adkins & Sal B applied their pens and brushes to expose ‘The Lurker Within’ – based on Howard’s magnificent The God in the Bowl – after which tomb-raider Conan crushes zombies and dinosaurs in ‘The Keepers of the Crypt’ (inked by Tom Palmer and Tom Sutton)

Thomas’s avowed plan was to closely follow Conan’s literarily-established career from all-but boyhood to his eventual crowning as King of Aquilonia, adding to and adapting the prose works of Howard and his posthumous collaborators on the way. This agenda led to some of the best, freshest comics of the decade. The results of Barry (not-yet-Windsor-) Smith’s search for his own graphic style led to unanimous acclaim and many awards for the creative duo.

By issue #9 the character had taken the comics world by storm and any threat of cancelation was long gone. ‘The Garden of Fear’ – adapted by Thomas & Smith, with inks by Sal B from Howard’s short story – features a spectacular battle with a primordial survivor in a lost valley before the wanderer returns to big city life, and learns too late to ‘Beware the Wrath of Anu!’

This god-slaying bout is mere prelude to another classic Howard adaptation, ‘Rogues in the House’: an early masterpiece of action and intrigue benefitting from a temporary doubling in page count.

‘Dweller in the Dark’ is an all-original yarn of monsters and maidens, notable because artist Smith inked his own pencils, and indications of his detailed fine-line illustrative style can be seen for the first time. An added bonus in that issue was a short back-up yarn by Thomas & Gil Kane with “Diverse Hands” called in to ink ‘The Blood of the Dragon!’ which tells of a very different Hyborian hero getting what he deserves…

Fantasy author John Jakes plotted the final tale in this initial outing as ‘Web of the Spider-God’ offers a sardonic tale of the desert with the surly Cimmerian battling thirst, tyranny pompous priests and a big, big bug in a riotous romp finished off by Thomas, Smith & Buscema.

Adding value to the treasury is a vast bonus section which includes pencilled cover art (used and unused), Thomas’ original script breakdowns annotated by the artist, extracts from Marvelmania (the company’s in-house fanzine), unused illustrations, house ads and Marvel bulletin items, cover roughs, concepts and finished art by Marie Severin & Gil Kane, John Jakes’ plot synopsis and many pages of original art from the tales collected herein.

Also on show are cover galleries of the Marvel Books reprint paperback line and the Conan Classic comics series – all by Windsor-Smith – plus even before-&-after alterations demanded by the Comics Code Authority on the still contentious and controversial title.

These re-mastered epics are a superb way to enjoy some of American comics’ most influential and enjoyable blockbuster moments. They should have a place on your bookshelf.
© 2020 Conan Properties International, LLC (“CPI”).

The Definitive Charley’s War volume 1: Boy Soldier


By Pat Mills & Joe Colquhoun & various (Rebellion)
ISBN: 978-1-78108-619-3 (TPB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Because Some Things Must Never Be Forgotten… 10/10

When Pat Mills & Joe Colquhoun began their tale of an impressionable lad who joins up just in time to fight in the disastrous Somme campaign, I suspect they had, as usual, the best of authorial intentions but no real idea that this time they were creating comics history. The landmark feature was originally published in British war anthology Battle (AKA Battle Picture Weekly, Battle Action, etc.). A surprise hit, the serial proper launched in issue #200, running from January 1979 until October of 1986.

It recounted, usually in heartrending and harrowing detail and with astounding passion for a Boys’ Periodical, the life of an East-End kid who lies about his age to enlist with the British Army reinforcements setting out to fight the Hun in 1916.

The stunning strip contingent contained within this superb trade paperback and digital edition – 86 weekly episodes in all, spanning January 6th 1979-25 October 1980 – form one of the most powerful and influential characterisations of the oh-so-ironic “war to end all wars”. The lovingly researched, lavishly limned and staggeringly authentic saga touches upon many diverse aspects of the conflict and even the effects on the Home Front, all delivered with a devastatingly understated dry sense of horror and cruel injustice, frequently leavened with gallows humour as trenchant as that legendarily “enjoyed” by the poor trench-bound “Tommies” of the time.

This magnificent (mostly) monochrome mega-compilation opens with a 4-page instalment (for much of the middle run the series came in 3-page episodes) ‘Charley’s War – the Story of a Soldier in World War One’, following 16-year-old London Bus Company worker Charley Bourne as he eagerly enlists and so-quickly graduates to the unending, enduring horrors of the muddy, blood-soaked battlefield of The Somme.

Military life was notoriously hard and unremittingly dull… except for those brief bursts of manic aggression and strategic stupidity which ended so many lives. Closely following the recorded course of the war, Mills & Colquhoun put young Charley in the Westshire Regiment and show a rapidly changing cast being constantly whittled away by various modes of combat attrition.

The weekly hellscapes showed lesser-known, far from glorious sides of the conflict that readers in the 1970s and 1980s had never seen in any other war comic. Each strip was cunningly punctuated and elucidated by the telling narrative device of the simple lad’s letters to his family in “Blighty” and also cleverly utilised reproductions of cartoons and postcards from the period.

With Boer War veteran Ole Bill Tozer as his mentor, Charley narrowly survives shelling, mudslides, digging details, gas attacks, the trench cat, snipers, the callous stupidity of his own commanding officers – although there are examples of good officers too – and the far too often insane absurdity of a modern soldier’s life.

Slowly but irrevocably the callow, naïve boy became a solid, dependable warrior – albeit one with a nose for trouble and a blessed gift for lucky escapes.

When Tozer leads a party across No-Man’s Land to capture prisoners for interrogation new pal Ginger sustains a frankly hilarious wound in his nether regions. As a result, however, and despite the sortie establishing the inadvisability of an attack, the Allied generals continue their plans for a “Big Push”. Thus, Charlie is confronted with an agonising moral dilemma when he catches a comrade trying to wound himself and get sent home before the balloon goes up.

This time, grim fate intervenes before the boy soldier can make a terrible choice…

The unit’s troubles increase exponentially when arrogant, ruthless aristocrat Lieutenant Snell arrives; constantly undermining if not actively sabotaging every effort by sympathetic officer Lieutenant Thomas to make the riffraff cannon fodder’s lives tolerable. The self-serving toff takes a personal dislike to Charley after the lad drops the huge picnic hamper belonging to the rich twat in the trench mud…

On July 1st 1916 The Battle of the Somme began and, like so many other unfortunates, Charley and his comrades are ordered “over the top”: expected to walk steadily into the mortars and machine gun fire of the entrenched German defenders. Thomas, unable to stand the stupidity, cracks and commands them to charge at a run. It saves his squad but lands his men in a fully-manned German dug-out…

After ferocious fighting the lads gain a brief respite but the retreating Huns have left insidious booby-traps to entice and destroy them. Many beloved characters die before Charley, Ginger and poor shell-shocked Lonely are finally captured by “the Boche”.

As they await their fate, the traumatised veteran of 1914 reveals to Ginger and Charley the horrific events of the previous Christmas and why he so wants to die. Moreover, the sole cause of that appalling atrocity was the same Snell who now commands their own unit…

Through Charley’s dumb luck they escape, only to blunder into a gas attack and British Cavalry. The mounted men gallop off to meet stiff German resistance (resulting in some of the most baroque and disturbing scenes ever depicted in kids’ comics) whilst Bourne and the lads. are miraculously reunited with their comrades.

The combat carnage has not ceased however. Waiting for the order to attack, Lt. Thomas and his hard-pressed men are suddenly subjected to a terrific barrage. With horror the officer realises they are being shelled by their own big guns and dispatches a runner to Snell who has a functioning line to Allied HQ.

The role of messenger was the most dangerous in the army but, with no other means of communication except written orders and requests, failure to get through was never acceptable. By the time Charley volunteers a dozen men have failed. With British shells still butchering British troops, Bourne is determined to pushing his luck as the “Thirteenth Runner”…

As previously stated, Charley’s War closely follows key events of the war, using them as a road map or skeleton to hang specific incidents upon, but this was not the strip’s only innovation. The highly detailed research concentrated more on characters than the fighting – although there was still plenty of heartrending action – and declared to the readership (which at the time of original publication were categorically assumed to be boys between ages 9-13) that “our side” could be as monstrous as the “bad guys”.

Mills also fully exercised his own political and creative agendas on the series and was constantly amazed at what he got away with and what seeming trivialities his editors pulled him up on (more fully expanded upon in the author’s informative ‘Strip Commentary’ which concludes this edition)…

With the Thirteenth Runner storyline, likable everyman Charley Bourne slowly began his descent from fresh-faced innocent to weary, battle-scarred veteran as the war reached beyond the cataclysmic opening moves of the Somme Campaign and into the conflict’s most bloody events.

Frantically making his way to the rear positions, Charley successfully passes the fallen twelve runners but only encounters more officer arrogance and Professional Soldier stupidity before the battle ends. Snell refuses to even read the message until he has finished his tea…

Helpless before the aristocrat’s indifference Charley angrily returns to the Front. Finding everybody apparently dead, he snaps: reduced to a killing rage he is only dragged back to normal when Ginger, Smith Seventy and the Sarge emerge from a shattered support trench.

The lad’s joy is short-lived. Thomas is arrested for showing cowardice in the face of the enemy, and with him gone Snell now commands the unit of despised disposable commoners…

Removed to the Rear to have their wounds treated, Charley and his chums meet Weeper Watkins. The former ventriloquist cries permanently. His eyes have been ruined by exposure to poison gas but he is still considered fit for duty. All too soon they fall foul of sadistic military policeman Sergeant Bacon who has earned his nickname as “the Beast” over and over again…

With a chance to blow off steam – such as a hilarious volunteer Concert Party show – Charley and Weeper are soon in the Beast’s bad books. However, his first attempt to beat and break Bourne goes badly awry when a couple of rowdy Australian soldiers join the fray and utterly humiliate the Red Cap.

Bullies are notoriously patient and Bacon’s turn comes at last when Lt. Thomas is found guilty. Charley and Weeper refuse to be part of the firing squad which executes him and are punished by a military tribunal, leaving them at the Beast’s non-existent mercy. Enduring savage battlefield punishments which include a uniquely cruel form of crucifixion, their suffering only ends when the base is strafed by German aircraft…

With sentence served and Bacon gone, Charley is soon back in the trenches, just in time for the introduction of Tank Warfare to change the world forever.

A fascinating aspect of the battle is highlighted here as the strip concentrates heavily upon the German reaction to the military innovation. The Central Powers considered the tank an atrocity weapon in just the same way modern soldiers do chemical and biological ones.

In the build-up to the Big Push, Charley is singled out by a new replacement. Unctuous Oliver Crawleigh is a cowardly spiv and petty criminal, but he’s also married to Charley’s sister Dolly. The chancer ignobly attaches himself to the young veteran like a leech, offering to pay Charley to either protect him or wound him some minor way which will get “Oiley” safely back to Britain…

The next day the Empire’s new landships make their terrifying debut with army infantry in close support and the effect on the Germans is astounding. In a ferociously gripping extended sequence, Mills & Colquhoun take the readers inside the hellish iron leviathans as outraged Huns devote their manic utmost efforts into eradicating the titanic terrors.

The carnage is unspeakable but before long Charley, Oiley and Smith Seventy are inside one of the lumbering behemoths, reluctantly replacing the dead crew of clearly deranged tank man Wild Eyes as the modern-day Captain Ahab drags them along for the ride: seeking a madman’s redemption for the loss of his comrades, the slaughter of a town and destruction of a church…

In the quiet of the weary aftermath, Oiley deliberately puts his foot under a tank to “get a Blighty” (a wound sufficiently serous to be sent home to England) and attempts to bribe Charley into silence. The disgusted, exhausted teenager responds in typically cathartic manner…

During this lull in the fighting, events on the German side see despised commoner and Eastern Front veteran Colonel Zeiss spurn his aristocratic Junker colleagues’ outdated notions before devising a new kind of Total Warfare to punish the British for their use of mechanised murder machines…

Charley meanwhile is wounded and his comrades celebrate the fact that he will soon be home safely. Naturally, things are never that simple and the callous indifference of the British army’s medical contingent – especially the notorious “Doctor No”, who never lets a man escape his duty – means that any soldier still able to pull a trigger is sent back into battle.

Bourne returns to the trenches just in time to meet the first wave of Zeiss’ merciless “Judgement Troops”, who storm the British lines, slaughtering everyone – including German soldiers who get in the way – in a savage, no-holds-barred assault, whose “Blitzkrieg tactics” overwhelm everything in their path.

Charley and his mates experience fresh horrors: battlefield executions, new and experimental forms of poison gas, flamethrowers, strafing by steel javelins and brutal, uncompromising hand-to-hand combat in their own overrun trenches before the bloody battle peters out indecisively…

Zeiss is subsequently cashiered by his own appalled superiors, but knows that one day his concepts of Blitzkrieg and Total War will become the norm…

Exhausted, battle-weary Charley is again injured, losing his identification in the process and returned eventually to England as a shell-shocked temporary amnesiac. His mother undergoes slow torture as she receives telegrams declaring her son, missing, dead, found wounded and lost again…

Mills & Colquhoun now begin a masterful sequence that breaks all the rules of war comic fiction; switching the emphasis to the Home Front where Charley’s family are mourning his apparent death and working in the war industries, just as the German Zeppelin raids on British cities are beginning.

Mills’ acerbic social criticism makes powerful use of history as the recovering hero experiences the trials of submarine warfare, when the troop ship carrying him and Bill Tozer back to Blighty is torpedoed…

When their perilous North Sea odyssey at last brings Charley back to Silvertown in London’s West Ham, it is in the wake of a catastrophic disaster in which 50 tons of TNT detonate at a munitions factory, killing more than 70 workers and injuring a further 400…

No longer comfortable around civilians and with no stomach for the jingoistic nonsense of the stay-at-homes or the covert criminal endeavours of boastful “war-hero” (and secret looter) Oiley, Charley hangs out in pubs with the Sarge and thereby reconnects with old soak and Crimean War survivor Blind Bob

London is a city under constant threat, not just from greedy munitions magnates who care more for profit than the safety of their workers or even the victory of their homeland, but also increasingly common aerial bombing raids which provoke mindless panic and destruction at the very heart of the British Empire.

Focus here divides as Charley’s days are contrasted with the zealous mission of devoted family man Kapitan Heinrich von Bergmann who leads his squadron of Zeppelins in a carefully calculated night sortie against the hated English…

When Blind Bill is evicted from his rooms, Charley invites him to stay with the Bournes and the beggar’s incredible hearing (coupled with the area’s quaint air-raid listening devices) provides enough warning to seal Bergmann’s doom, but not before the airman has rained tons of explosive death on the capital…

During the bombing Charley discovers his mum is still toiling in the local munitions works. The exploitative owner has decided not to sound his air raid evacuation alarm as he has his profits and contracts to consider. Charley is not happy and dashes to get her out…

This stunning collection ends with a sharp jab at the dubious practices of British recruitment officers (who got bonuses for very volunteer they signed up) as Charley stops his extremely little brother Wilf from making the same mistake he did, and teaches the unscrupulous recruiter a much-deserved lesson

To Be Continued…

Charley’s War is a highpoint in the narrative examination of the Great War through any artistic medium and exists as shining example of how good “Children’s Comics” can be. It is also one of the most powerful pieces of fiction ever produced for readers of any age.

I know of no anti-war story that is as gripping, as engaging and as engrossing, no strip that so successfully transcends its mass-market, popular culture roots to become a landmark of fictive brilliance. We can only thank our lucky stars that no Hollywood hack has made it a blockbuster which would inescapably undercut the tangibility of the “heroes” whilst debasing the message. There is nothing quite like it and you are diminished by not reading it.

Included in this volume are a full cover gallery and restored colour sections (reproduced in monochrome for earlier collections but vibrantly hued here to vivid effect) and writer Mills’ wonderfully informative chapter notes and commentary on the episodes. Not just a great war comic, Charley’s War is a highpoint in the narrative examination of the Great War through any artistic medium. I won’t belabour plot, script or even the riveting authentic artistic depictions. I won’t praise the wonderful quality. I simply state if you read this you will get it, and if you don’t, you won’t.

Let’s all make ensure that it’s NOT all over by Christmas!
© 1979, 1980, 1981, 1982, 1983, 1984, 1985 & 2018 Rebellion Publishing Ltd. All rights reserved. Charley’s War is ™ & © Rebellion Publishing Ltd. All rights reserved.

Jack Kirby’s OMAC: One Man Army Corps


By Jack Kirby with D. Bruce Berry, Mike Royer & various (DC)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-1790-7 (HB) 978-1-4012-4042-4 (TPB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: A Terrifying Timeless Blockbuster… 9/10

There’s a magnificent abundance of Jack Kirby collections around these days – ‘though still not everything, so I’ve still got reason to carp. This slim hardback, trade paperback or digital collection re-presents possibly his boldest and most heartfelt creation after the comics landmark that was his Fourth World Cycle.

Famed for his larger than life characters and gigantic, cosmic imaginings, “King” Kirby was an astute, spiritual man who had lived through poverty, gangsterism, the Depression and World War II. He had seen Post-War optimism, Cold War paranoia, political cynicism and the birth and death of peace-seeking counter-cultures. He always looked to the future and he knew human nature intimately. In OMAC: One Man Army Corps, he let his darkest assumptions and prognostications have free rein, and his “World That’s Coming” was far too close to the World we’re frantically trying to escape now…

In 1974, with his newest creations inexplicably tanking at DC, Kirby tentatively considered a return to Marvel, but – ever the consummate professional – he scrupulously carried out every detail of his draconian DC contract. When The Demon was cancelled, the King needed to find another title to maintain his Herculean commitments (Jack was legally obliged to deliver 15 completed pages of art and story per week!) and returned to an idea he had shelved in 1968.

That was to re-interpret Captain America into a possible future where all Kirby’s direst prognostications and fears could be made manifest. In 1974 he revisited those worries and produced a nightmare scenario that demanded not a hero but a warrior.

Dubbing his Day-After-Tomorrow dystopia “The World That’s Coming”, Kirby let his mind run free – and scared – to birth a frighteningly close appreciation of our now, where science and wealth have outstripped compassion and reason, and humanity teeters on the brink of self-inflicted global destruction.

OMAC #1 launched in September-October 1974, introducing the Global Peace Agency, a world-wide Doomwatch police force who manufactured a super-soldier to crisis-manage the constant threats to a species with hair-trigger fingers on nuclear stockpiles, chemical weapons of mass destruction and made-to-measure biological horrors.

Base human nature was the true threat behind this series, and that was first demonstrated by decent young man Buddy Blank who, whilst working at Pseudo-People Inc., discovers that the euphemistically entitled Build-A-Friend division hides a far darker secret than merely pliant girls that come in kit-form. (I think we even have those now, too…)

Luckily Buddy has been singled out by the GPA’s resident genius Professor Myron Forest for eternal linkage to sentient satellite Brother Eye. His atoms shifted and reconstructed, Buddy is rebuilt until he becomes a living God of War, and the new-born human weapon easily destroys his ruthless employers before their murderous plans can be fully realised. ‘Buddy Blank and Brother Eye’ was followed by a truly prophetic tale, wherein impossibly wealthy criminal Mister Bigpurchases an entire city simply to assassinate Professor Forest in ‘The Era of the Super-Rich!’

Kirby’s tried and trusted approach was always to pepper high concepts throughout blazing action, and #3 was the most spectacular yet. OMAC fought ‘One Hundred Thousand Foes!’ to get to murderous Marshal Kafka; terrorist leader of a Rogue-State with a private army, WMDs and a solid belief that the United Nations can’t touch him. Sound familiar…?

That incredible clash carries on and concludes in #4’s ‘Busting of a Conqueror!’ With #5, Kirby moved on to other new crimes for a new world. The definition of a criminal tends to blur when you can buy anything – even justice – but rich old people cherry-picking young men and women for brain-implantation is (hopefully) always going to be a no-no. Still, you can sell or plunder specific organs even now…

Busting the ‘New Bodies for Old!!  racket took two issues, and after the One-Man-Army-Corps smashed ‘The Body Bank!’ he embarked on his final adventure. Ecological disaster and water shortage is the theme of the last tale, but as our hero trudges across a dry and desolate lake bottom amidst the dead and dying marine life he is horrified to discover the disaster to be the work of one man. ‘The Ocean Stealers!’ (#7) introduces Doctor Skuba, a scientific madman who mastered the very atomic manipulation techniques that had turned feeble Buddy Blank into an unstoppable war machine.

Joe Kubert drew the cover to OMAC #8 ‘Human Genius Vs Thinking Machine’; an epic episode seeing Brother Eye apparently destroyed as Skuba and Buddy Blank die together in an incredible explosion.

But that final panel is a hasty, last-minute addition by unknown editorial hands, for the saga never actually finished. Kirby, his contract completed, had promptly returned to Marvel and new challenges such as Black Panther, Captain America, 2001, Devil Dinosaur, Machine Man and especially The Eternals.

Hormone treatments, Virtual Reality, medical computers, satellite surveillance, genetic tampering and all the other hard-science predictions in OMAC pale into insignificance against Kirby’s terrifyingly accurate social observations in this bombastic and tragically incomplete masterpiece.

OMAC is Jack Kirby’s Edwin Drood, an unfinished symphony of such power and prophecy that it informs not just the entire modern DC universe and inspires ever more incisive and intriguing tales from the King’s artistic inheritors but still presages more truly scary developments in our own mundane and inescapable reality…

As always in these wondrously economical collections it should be noted that the book is also stuffed with un-inked Kirby pencilled pages and roughs, and Mark Evanier’s fascinating, informative introduction is a fact-fan’s delight. Crucially, as ever, Kirby’s words and pictures are an unparalleled, hearts-and-minds grabbing delight no comics  lover could resist.

Jack Kirby is unique and uncompromising. If you’re not a fan or simply not prepared to see for yourself what all the fuss has been about then no words of mine will change your mind. That doesn’t alter the fact that Kirby’s work from 1937 to his death in 1994 shaped the entire American comics scene, affected the lives of billions of readers and thousands of creators in all areas of artistic endeavour around the world for generations and still wins new fans and apostles every day, from the young and naive to the most cerebral of intellectuals. His work is instantly accessible, irresistibly visceral, deceptively deep whilst being simultaneously mythic and human: and just plain Great.
© 1974, 1975, 2009 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Mandrake the Magician: The Hidden Kingdom of Murderers – Sundays 1935-1937


By Lee Falk & Phil Davis (Titan Books)
ISBN: 978-0-85768-572-8 (HB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Because We Believe in Magic… 10/10

Regarded by many as the first superhero, Mandrake the Magician debuted as a daily newspaper strip on 11th June 1934. An instant hit, it was soon supplemented by a full-colour Sunday companion page which launched on February 3rd 1935.

Creator Lee Falk had actually sold the strip to King Features Syndicate years earlier as a 19-year old college student, but asked the monolithic company to let him finish his studies before dedicating himself to it full time. With his schooling done, the 23-year old master raconteur settled in to begin his life’s work: entertaining millions with his astounding tales.

Falk – who also created the first costumed superhero in moodily magnificent mystery man The Phantom – spawned an actual comicbook subgenre with his first creation. Most publishers of the Golden Age boasted at least one (and usually many more) nattily attired wonder wizards amongst their gaudily-garbed pantheons; all roaming the world making miracles and defeating injustice with varying degrees of stage legerdemain or actual sorcery.

Characters such Mr. Mystic, Ibis the Invincible, Sargon the Sorcerer, and an assortment of “…the Magicians” such as Zanzibar, Zatara, Kardak and so many, many more, all borrowed heavily and shamelessly from the uncanny exploits of the elegant, enigmatic white knight who graced the pages of the world’s newspapers and magazines.

In the Antipodes, Mandrake was a stalwart regular of the Australian Women’s Weekly, and also became a cherished star in the UK, Italy and Scandinavia. Over the years he has been a star of radio, movie chapter-serials, a theatrical play, television and animation as part of the cartoon series Defenders of the Earth. With that has come the usual merchandising bonanza of games, toys (including magic trick kits), books, comics and more…

Falk worked on Mandrake and “The Ghost who Walks” until his death in 1999 (even on his deathbed he was laying out one last story) but he also found time to become a playwright, theatre producer and impresario, as well as an inveterate world-traveller.

A man of many talents, Falk drew the first few weeks himself before uniting with sublimely imaginative cartoonist Phil Davis, whose sleekly understated renditions took the daily strip – and especially these expansive full-page Sunday offerings – to unparalleled heights of sophistication: his steady assured realism the perfect tool to render the Magician’s mounting catalogue of wondrous miracles…

Those in the know are well aware that Mandrake was educated at the fabled College of Magic in Tibet, thereafter becoming a suave globe-trotting troubleshooter, always accompanied by his faithful African partner Lothar and beautiful, feisty companion (and eventually, in 1997, bride) Princess Narda of Cockaigne, solving crimes and fighting evil. Those days, however, are still to come as the comics section opens in this splendidly oversized (315 x 236 mm) full-colour luxury hardback – and digital equivalents – with ‘The Hidden Kingdom of Murderers’ (which ran from February 3rd to June 2nd 1935) as the urbane Prince of Prestidigitation and his herculean companion are approached by members of the international police to help expose a secret society of criminals and killers acting against the civilised world from their own hidden country.

After officer Duval is assassinated, Mandrake and Lothar – accompanied by panther woman Rheeta and surviving cop Pierce – embark upon a multi-continental search which, after many adventures, eventually brings them to a desolate desert region where they are confronted by bloody-handed Bull Ganton, King of Killers.

With the master murderer distracted by Rheeta, Mandrake easily infiltrates the odious organisation and quickly begins dismantling the secret society of two million murderers. By the time Ganton wises up and begins a succession of schemes to end Mandrake, it’s too late…

That deadly drama concluded, Mandrake and Lothar head to India to revisit old haunts and end up playing both peacemaker and cupid in the ‘Land of the Fakirs’ (running from June 9th to October 6th).

When Princess Jana, daughter of Mandrake’s old acquaintance Jehol Khan is abducted by rival ruler Rajah Indus of Lapore, the Magician ends his mischievous baiting of the street fakirs to intervene. In the meantime, Captain Jorga – who loves Jana despite being of a lower caste – sets off from the Khan’s palace to save her or die in the trying…

After many terrific and protracted struggles, Mandrake, Lothar and Jorga finally unite to defeat the devious and duplicitous Rajah before the westerners set about their most difficult and important feat; overturning centuries of tradition so that Jorga and Jana might marry…

Heading north, the peripatetic performers stumble into amazing fantasy after entering the ‘Land of the Little People’ (13thOctober 1935 to March 1st 1936), encountering a lost race of tiny people embroiled in a centuries-long war with brutal cannibalistic adversaries. After saving the proud warriors from obliteration, Mandrake again plays matchmaker, allowing valiant Prince Dano to wed brave and formidable commoner Derina who fought so bravely beside them…

With this sequence illustrator Davis seemed to shake off all prior influences and truly blossomed into an artist with a unique and mesmerising style all his own. That is perfectly showcased in the loosely knit sequence (spanning 8th March to 23rd August 1936) which follows, as Mandrake and Lothar return to civilisation only to narrowly escape death in an horrific train wreck.

Crawling from the wreckage, our heroes help ‘The Circus People’ recapture and calm the animals freed by the crash, subsequently sticking around as the close-knit family of nomadic outcasts rebuild. Mighty Lothar has many clashes with jealous bully Zaro the Strongman, culminating in thwarting attempted murder, whilst Mandrake uses his hypnotic hoodoo to teach sadistic animal trainer Almado lessons in how to behave, but primarily the newcomers act as a catalyst, making three slow-burning romances finally burst into roaring passionate life…

Absolutely the best tale in this tome and an imaginative tour de force which inspired many soon-to-be legendary comicbook stars, ‘The Chamber into the X Dimension’ (30th August 1936 to March 7th 1937) is a breathtaking, mind-bending saga starting when Mandrake and Lothar search for the missing daughter of a scientist whose experiments have sent her literally out of this world.

Professor Theobold has discovered a way to pierce the walls between worlds but his beloved Fran never returned from the first live test. Eager to help – and addicted to adventure – Mandrake and Lothar volunteer to go in search of her and soon find themselves in a bizarre timeless world where the rules of science are warped and races of sentient vegetation, living metal, crystal and even flame war with fleshly humanoids for dominance and survival.

After months of captivity, slavery, exploration and struggle our human heroes finally lead a rebellion of the downtrodden fleshlings and bring the professor the happiest news of his long-missing child…

Concluding this initial conjuror’s compilation is a whimsical tale of judgement and redemption as Mandrake uses his gifts to challenge the mad antics of ‘Prince Paulo the Tyrant’ 14th (March 14th – 29th August 1937).

The unhappy usurper stole the throne of Ruritanian Dementor and promptly turned the idyllic kingdom into a scientifically created madhouse. Sadly, Paulo had no conception of what true chaos and terror were until the magician exercised his mesmeric talents…

This epic celebration also offers a fulsome, picture-packed and informative introduction to the character – thanks to Magnus Magnuson’s compelling essay ‘Mandrake the Magician Wonder of a Generation’ – plus details on the lives of the creators (‘Lee Falk’ and ‘Phil Davis Biography’ features) plus a marvellous Davis pin-up of the cast to complete an immaculate confection of nostalgic strip wonderment for young and old alike.
Mandrake the Magician © 2016 King Features Syndicate. All Rights Reserved. “Mandrake the Magician Wonder of a Generation” © 2016 by Magnus Magnuson.

Sucker Bait and Other Stories


By illustrated by Graham Ingels, written by Al Feldstein with Ray Bradbury & Bill Gaines (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-689-8 (HB)

For most people who have heard of them, EC Comics mean one thing only: shocking, appalling, stomach-turning horror. Moreover, the artist they’re probably picturing – even if they can’t name him – is Graham Ingels, who wryly sighed his work “Ghastly”…

The company began in 1944 when comicbook pioneer Max Gaines – presumably seeing the writing on the wall – sold the superhero properties of his All-American Comics company to half-sister National/DC, retaining only Picture Stories from the Bible. His plan was to produce a line of Educational Comics with schools and church groups as the major target market.

He augmented his flagship title with Picture Stories from American History, Picture Stories from Science and Picture Stories from World History but the worthy projects were all struggling when he died in a boating accident in 1947.

As detailed in the comprehensive closing essay of this superb graphic compilation (‘Crime, Horror, Terror, Gore, Depravity, Disrespect for Established Authority – and Science Fiction Too: the Ups and Downs of EC Comics’ by author, editor, critic and comics fan Ted White), his son William was dragged into the company by unsung hero and Business Manager Sol Cohen who held the company together until the initially unwilling Bill Gaines abandoned his dreams of being a chemistry teacher and transformed the ailing Educational enterprise into Entertaining Comics…

After a few tentative false starts and abortive experiments copying industry fashions, Gaines took advantage of his multi-talented associate Al Feldstein, who promptly graduated from creating teen comedies and westerns into becoming Gaines’ editorial supervisor and co-conspirator.

As they began co-plotting the bulk of EC’s stories together, they changed tack, moving in a boldly impressive fresh direction. Their publishing strategy, wisely utilising the most gifted illustrators in the field, was to tell a “New Trend” of stories aimed at older and more discerning readers, not the mythical semi-literate 8-year-old all comicbooks ostensibly targeted.

From 1950 to 1954 EC was the most innovative and influential publisher in America, dominating the genres of crime, horror, war and science fiction and originating an entirely new beast: the satirical comicbook…

Feldstein had started life as a comedy cartoonist and, after creator/editor Harvey Kurtzman departed in 1956, Al became Mad’s Editor for the next three decades…

This seventh volume of the Fantagraphics EC Library gathers a mind-boggling selection of Feldstein’s most baroque and grotesquely hilarious horror stories – most co-plotted by companion-in-crime Gaines – and all illuminated by the company’s enigmatic yet unsurpassed master of macabre mood, in a lavish monochrome hardcover or digital edition packed with supplementary interviews, features and dissertations.

It begins with historian and lecturer Bill Mason’s touching and revelatory commentary ‘Mr. Horror Builds his Scream House’ before dipping into this diary of disgust and dread with ‘Hook, Line, and Stinker!’ (Vault of Horror #26, August/September 1952): the tale of a spinster’s vengeance after she finds the gentleman she’s been affianced to for fifteen years spends his weekends in the arms of a young floozy rather than on his precious – and fictitious – fishing trips…

The most memorable assets of EC’s horror titles were the uniquely memorable hosts whose execrable wisecracks bracketed each fantastic yarn. The Vault-Keeper, Crypt-Keeper and Old Witch were the company’s only returning characters during the New Trend era, becoming beloved favourites of the “Fan Addict” readership. Haunt of Fear #14 (July/August 1952) revealed the shocking and hilarious origins of the scurvy sorceress herself in a sublime pastiche of the Christian Nativity dubbed ‘A Little Stranger!’

A murderous elephant trainer’s infidelities come back to haunt him in circus chiller ‘Squash… Anyone?’ (Tales From the Crypt #32, October/November 1952), whilst in that same month, in Vault of Horror #27, a rat-infested kingdom where starving peasants are tormented by their over-stuffed queen provide grisly meat for ‘A Grim Fairy Tale!’

‘Chatter-Boxed!’ (Haunt of Fear #15, September/October 1952) is a superb blend of maguffins as a man terrified of premature burial takes special steps to ensure he’s never buried alive, but even after factoring in that his wife is always gabbing on the phone, there’s one element he could never have foreseen…

Next follows a wealth of material published in titles cover-dated December 1952/January 1953, beginning with ‘Private Performance’ from Crime SuspenStories #14, wherein a burglar witnesses a murder in an old Vaudevillian’s home before hiding in exactly the wrong place, whilst ‘None but the Lonely Heart!’ (Tales from the Crypt #33) reveals the ultimate downfall of a serial bigamist and black widower.

‘We Ain’t Got No Body’ (Vault of Horror #28), ghoulishly revels in the vengeance of a man murdered by fellow train commuters before ‘Sugar ‘n Spice ‘n…’ (Shock SuspenStories #6) toys wickedly with the fable of Hansel and Gretel, proving some kids get what they deserve…

A pioneering surgeon is blackmailed for decades by his greatest triumph in ‘Nobody There!’ (Haunt of Fear #16, November/December 1952), whilst ‘Hail and Heart-y!’ (from Crime SuspenStories #15 February/March 1953) sees a lazy husband driving his enduring wife to exhaustion and over the edge by feigning disability, before Ingels superbly captures the macabre eccentricity of Ray Bradbury’s story of a crusty dowager too mean to stay decently dead in ‘There Was an Old Woman!’ – from Tales from the Crypt #34 (February/March).

That same month Vault of Horror #29 featured ‘Pickled Pints!’, as unscrupulous rogues buying cut-rate blood from winos push their plastered pumps a little too far, after which Haunt of Fear #17 (January/February) offers the acme of sinister swamp scare stories in ‘Horror We? How’s Bayou?’: a tale of rural madness and supernatural revenge long acclaimed as the greatest EC horror story ever crafted…

An irritated and merciless mummy stalks an Egyptian dig in ‘This Wraps it Up!’ (Tales from the Crypt #35, April/May 1953; the same month Vault of Horror #30 told a truly chilling tale of human retribution when the good citizens of a small town finally find the writer of cruel poison-pen letters in ‘Notes to You!’, after which ‘Pipe Down!’ (Haunt of Fear#18, March/April) goes completely round the bend to describe how a young wife and handsome plumber get rid of her rich old man… and what the victim does about it…

Bradbury’s disturbing yarn ‘The Handler’ was adroitly adapted in Tales from the Crypt #36 (June/July) depicting how an undertaker’s secret liberties – inflicted upon the cadavers in his care – came back to haunt him, whilst over in Vault of Horror #31 that month ‘One Good Turn…’ revealed one little old lady’s gruesome interpretation of the old adage, and Haunt of Fear #19 (May/June 1953) discloses the incredible lengths some men will go to in order to kill vampires in eponymous shocker ‘Sucker Bait!’

From August/September, ‘The Rover Boys’ in Tales from the Crypt #37 is a purely bonkers tale of brain transplantation gone wild, whilst Vault of Horror #32 offers up more traditional fare with ‘Funereal Disease!’, describing how a murdered miser gets back what he loves most, and ‘Thump Fun!’ (Haunt of Fear #20, July/August) archly revisits Poe’s Tell-Tale Heart whilst adding a little twist…

‘Mournin’ Mess’ (Tales from the Crypt #38, October/November) is a stylish and clever mystery about rich men funding a paupers graveyard – and why – whilst over in Vault of Horror (#32) ‘Strung Along’ depicts the revenge marionettes inflicted on the greedy woman who murdered their elderly puppeteer before the artistic arcana all ends with ‘An Off-Color Heir’ (Haunt of Fear #21, September/October 1953) and the salutary tale of an artist’s wife who discovers just too late her man’s habits and horrific heritage …

Adding final weight to the proceedings is S.C. Ringgenberg’s biography of the tragic genius ‘Graham Ingels’, the aforementioned history of EC and a comprehensively illuminating ‘Behind the Panels: Creator Biographies’ feature by Mason, Spurgeon and Janice Lee.

The short, sweet but severely limited output of EC has been reprinted ad infinitum in the decades since the company died. These astounding stories and art not only changed comics but also infected the larger world through film and television and via the millions of dedicated devotees still addicted to New Trend tales.

However, the most influential stories are somehow the ones least known these days. Although Ingels turned his back on his comics career, ashamed of the furore and frenzy generated by closed-minded bigots in the 1950s, his incredible artistic talent and narrative legacy are finally gaining him the celebrity he should have had in life.

Sucker Bait is a scarily lovely tribute to the sheer ability of an unsung master of comics art and offers a fabulously engaging introduction for every lucky fear fan encountering the material for the very first time. Whether you are an aging fear aficionado or callow contemporary convert, this is a book you should have…
Sucker Bait and Other Stories © 2014 Fantagraphics Books, Inc. All comics stories © 2014 William M. Gaines Agent, Inc., reprinted with permission. All other material © 2014 the respective creators and owners.

Waiting for the Great Pumpkin


By Charles M. Schulz (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-772-7 (HB)

Peanuts is 70 years old today and not even death can stop it. Many happy returns Chuck…

Peanuts is unequivocally the most important comics strip in the history of graphic narrative. It is also the most broadly accepted, since – after the characters made the jump to television – the little nippers become an integral part of the American mass cultural experience.

Cartoonist Charles M. Schulz crafted his moodily hilarious, hysterically introspective, shockingly philosophical epic for fifty years. He published 17,897 strips from October 2nd 1950 to February 13th 2000 and died from the complications of cancer the day before his last strip was published…

At its height, the strip ran in 2,600 newspapers in 75 countries, translated into 21 languages. Many of those venues are still running perpetual reprints, as they have ever since his departure. Attendant book collections, a merchandising mountain and TV spin-offs made the publicity-shy artist a billionaire. That profitable sideline – one Schulz devoted barely any time to over the decades – is where this little gem originates from…

Peanuts – a title Schulz loathed, but one the syndicate forced upon him – changed the way comics strips were received and perceived by showing that cartoon comedy could have edges and nuance as well as pratfalls and punchlines.

The usual focus of the feature (we just can’t call him “star” or “hero”) is everyman loser Charlie Brown who, with high-maintenance, fanciful mutt Snoopy, endures a bombastic and mercurial supporting cast who hang out doing kid things in a most introspective, self-absorbed manner.

The daily gags centred on playing (pranks, sports, musical instruments), teasing each other, making ill-informed observations and occasionally acting a bit too much like grown-ups. The consistently expanding cast also includes mean girl Violet, infant prodigy Schroeder, “world’s greatest fussbudget” Lucy Van Pelt, her other-worldly baby brother Linus and dirt-magnet “Pig-Pen”: each with a signature twist to the overall mirth quotient and sufficiently fleshed out and personified to generate jokes and sequences around their own foibles. As a whole, the kids tackled every aspect of human existence in a charming and witty manner, acting as cartoon therapists and graphic philosophical guides to the world that watched them.

Charlie Brown is settled into his existential angst and resigned to his role as eternal loser as if singled out by a gleeful Fate. It’s a set-up that remains timelessly funny and infinitely enduring…

This outing – available in a child-friendly hardback and the usual digital formats – celebrates the whimsy at the feature’s core and spotlights Lucy’s weird little brother Linus and a peculiar belief system all his own…

Waiting for the Great Pumpkin offers a quartet of vintage seasonal sequences dedicated to the kid’s attempts displace Santa Claus as the benevolent bestower of largesse to the good little boys and girls and promote a far earthier patron: one who comes to good children from a gourd plantation somewhere in America…

Like all zealots, Linus never ceases to proselytise, and Charlie Brown and Snoopy are happy to go along and see for themselves in ‘You Believe in Santa Claus and I’ll Believe in the Great Pumpkin’, but there’s a time limit to their willingness to convert…

Another year and the kids are back in fraught contention for ‘Santa Claus vs. the Great Pumpkin’, but how long can even the most devout devote last in the face of perpetual disappointment? According to ‘Oh, Great Pumpkin, You’re Going to Drive Me Crazy!’, not forever, but the year Linus convinces Charlie’s little sister Sally to wait with him is painfully revelatory as seen in ‘True Love Revealed in the Pumpkin Patch’

The tales are told in a series of monochrome panels (generally four to a page) that never fail to delight, recapturing the hilarious seriousness of childhood in a manner nobody else can match. Since you and yours are almost certainly not going out for “tricks or treats” this year, why not ameliorate your own existentialist family travails with online sweets deliveries and this handy gem?
Waiting for the Great Pumpkin © 2014 Peanuts Worldwide, LLC. All rights reserved.

Flash Gordon on the Planet Mongo: volume 1 Sundays 1934-1937 (The Complete Flash Gordon Library)


By Alex Raymond & Don Moore with restorations by Peter Maresca (Titan Books)
ISBN: 978-0-85768-154-6 (HB)

By most lights, Flash Gordon is the most influential comic strip in the world. When the hero debuted on Sunday January 7th 1934 (with the superb but rather dated Jungle Jim running as a supplementary “topper” strip) as response to revolutionary, inspirational, but clunky Buck Rogers (by Philip Nolan & Dick Calkins and which had also began on January 7th but in 1929), a new element was added to the realm of fantasy wonderment: Classical Lyricism.

Where Rogers had traditional adventures and high science concepts, this new feature reinterpreted Fairy Tales, Heroic Epics and Mythology. It did so by spectacularly draping them in the trappings of the contemporary future, with varying ‘Rays’, ‘Engines’ and ‘Motors’ substituting for trusty swords and lances – although there were also plenty of those – and exotic flying craft and contraptions standing in for Galleons, Chariots and Magic Carpets.

Most important of all, the sheer artistic talent of Raymond, his compositional skills, fine line-work, eye for concise, elegant detail and just plain genius for drawing beautiful people and things, swiftly made this the strip all young artists swiped from.

When all-original comic books began a few years later, literally dozens of talented kids used the clean lined Romanticism of Gordon as their model and ticket to future success in the field of adventure strips. Most of the others went with Milton Caniff’s expressionistic masterpiece Terry and the Pirates (which also began in 1934 – and he’ll get his go another day).

Thankfully, there are a few collections knocking about, but I’m plumping here for 2012’s hardcover archive from British publisher and keeper of old traditions Titan Books, who boldly began a Complete Library of the stellar crusader’s exploits that year…

Augmenting the epic entertainment are a brace of photo and illustration-packed introductory essays, beginning with uber-artist and fan Alex Ross’ exploration of ‘The Flash Gordon Legacy’ and continuing with ‘Birth of a Legend’ by comics writer and historical publisher Doug Murray, detailing the world and fantasy milieu into which the dauntless hero was born…

The very first tale begins with a rogue planet about to smash into the Earth. As panic grips the planet, polo player Flash and fellow airline passenger Dale Arden narrowly escape disaster when a meteor fragment downs the plane they’re traveling on. They parachute out and land on the estate of tormented genius Dr. Hans Zarkov, who imprisons them on the rocket-ship he has built. His plan? To fly the ship directly at the astral invader and deflect it from Earth by crashing into it!

And that’s just in the first, 13-panel episode. ‘On the Planet Mongo’ ran every Sunday until April 15th 1934, when, according to this wonderful full-colour book, second adventure ‘Monsters of Mongo’ (22nd April – 18th November 1934) began, to be promptly followed by ‘Tournaments of Mongo’ (25th November 1934 to 24th February 1935).

To the readers back then, of course, there were no such artificial divisions. There was just one continuous, unmissable Sunday appointment with sheer wonderment. The machinations of the utterly evil but magnetic Ming, emperor of the fantastic wandering planet; Flash’s battles and alliances with all the myriad exotic races subject to the Emperor’s will and the gradual victory over oppression captivated America, and the World, in tales that seemed a direct contrast to the increasingly darker reality in the days before World War II.

In short order the Earthlings become firm friends – and in the case of Flash and Dale, much more – as they encounter battle and frequently ally with beautiful, cruel Princess Aura, the Red Monkey Men, Lion Men, Shark Men, Dwarf Men, King Vultan and the winged Hawkmen.

The epic rebellion against seemingly unbeatable Ming opened with the awesome ‘Tournaments…’: a sequence wherein Raymond seemed to simply explode with confidence.

It was here that the true magic blossomed, with every episode more spectacular than the last. Without breaking step, Raymond moved on to next saga, as our hero entered ‘The Caverns of Mongo’ (March 3rd – 14th April 1935).

Veteran editor Don Moore was only 30 when he was convinced to “assist” Raymond with the writing, starting soon after the strip first gained popularity. Moore remained until 1953, long after Raymond departed. The artist joined the Marines in February 1944, and the last page he worked on was published on April 30th of that year. On his demobilisation, Raymond moved to fresh strip fields with Rip Kirby. Mercifully, that still leaves a decade’s worth of spectacular, majestic adventure for us to enjoy…

Without pausing for breath, the collaborators rapidly introduced a host of new races and places for their perfect hero to win over in the war against Ming’s timeless evil. On increasingly epic Sunday comics pages Flash and his entourage confronted the ‘Witch Queen of Mongo’ (April 21st – 13th October 1935), found themselves ‘At War with Ming’ (20thOctober 1935 – April 5th 1936) and discovered ‘The Undersea Kingdom of Mongo’ (12th April – October 11th 1936). The sheer beauty and drama of the globally syndicated serial captivated readers all over the world, resulting in not only some of the medium’s most glorious comic art, but also novels, three movie serials, a radio and later TV show, a monochrome daily strip (by Raymond’s former assistant Austin Briggs), comic books, merchandise and so much more.

The Ruritanian flavour of the series was enhanced continuously, as Raymond’s slick, sleek futurism endlessly accessed and refined the picture-perfect Romanticism of idyllic Kingdoms, populated by idealised heroes, stylised villains and women of staggering beauty.

In these episodes Azura, Witch Queen of Mongo wages a brutal and bloody war with Flash and his friends for control of the underworld, which eventually leads to all-out conflict with Ming the Merciless – a sequence of such memorable power that artists and movie-men would be swiping from it for decades to come. When the war ends our heroes are forced to flee, only to become refugees and captives of the seductive Queen Undina in her undersea Coral City…

The never-ending parade of hairsbreadth escapes, fights and/or chases continues as Flash, Dale and Zarkov crash into the huge jungle of Mongo. As this initial tome ends, the refugees enter ‘The Forest Kingdom of Mongo’ (October 18th 1936 to 31st January 1937), barely surviving its wild creatures before weathering the horrific tunnels of ‘The Tusk-Men of Mongo’ (February 7th to June 5th 1938). Here, struggling through desperate hardship and overcoming both monsters and the esoteric semi-humans they finally reach Arboria, the Tree kingdom of Prince Barin, Ming’s son-in-law. He is not what he seems…

And so the book ends, but not the adventure. Even stripped down to the bare plot-facts, the drama is captivating. Once you factor in the by-play, the jealousies and intrigues, all rendered with spectacular and lush visualisation by the master of classical realism, you can begin to grasp why this strip captured the world’s imagination and holds it still. To garnish all this enchantment, there’s even ‘The Alex Raymond Flash Gordon Checklist’ and biographies of both creators and this astounding tome’s key contributors

Along with Hal Foster (Prince Valiant) and Milton Caniff (Terry and the Pirates and Steve Canyon), Raymond’s work on Flash Gordon is considered pivotal to the development of American – if not world – comic art. These works overwhelmingly influenced everybody who followed until the emergence of manga and the advancement of computer technology. If you’ve only heard how good this strip is, you owe it to yourself to experience the magic up close and personal.

I never fail to be impressed by the quality of Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon. Yes, the plots are formulaic but what commercial narrative medium is free of that? What is never dull or repetitive is the sheer artistry and bravura staging of the tales. Every episode is the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen, but the next episode still tops it. You are a fool to yourself if you don’t try this wonderful strip out, and all the more so in such inexpensive yet lavish volumes. It’s not too soon to start dropping hints for Christmas, you know…
Flash Gordon © 2012 King Features Syndicate Inc., & ™ Hearst Holdings, Inc. All rights reserved.