Gomer Goof volume 2: It’s a Van Goof!


By André Franquin, Jidéhem & Delporte, translated by Jerome Saincantin (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-1-84918-365-9 (PB Album)

Like so much in Franco-Belgian comics, it all started with Le Journal de Spirou. The magazine had debuted on April 2nd 1938, with its engaging lead strip created by Rob-Vel (François Robert Velter). In 1943 publishing giant Dupuis purchased all rights to the comic and its titular star, after which comic-strip prodigy Joseph Gillain (“Jijé”) took the helm.

In 1946 Jijé’s assistant André Franquin assumed the creative reins, gradually side-lining the previously-established short gag vignettes in favour of extended adventure serials. He introduced a broad, engaging cast of regulars; creating phenomenally popular magic animal Marsupilami (first seen in Spirou et les héritiers in 1952 and eventually a spin-off star of screen, plush toy store, console games and albums in his own right) to the mix.

Franquin continued crafting increasingly fantastic tales and absorbing Spirou sagas until his resignation in 1969. During that period the creator was deeply involved in the production of the weekly Spirou comic

Franquin was born in Etterbeek, Belgium on January 3rd 1924. Drawing from an early age, the lad only began formal art training at École Saint-Luc in 1943. When the war forced the school’s closure a year later, he found work at Compagnie Belge d’Animation in Brussels where he met Maurice de Bévère (AKA Lucky Luke creator “Morris”), Pierre Culliford (Peyo, creator of The Smurfs and Benny Breakiron) and Eddy Paape (Valhardi, Luc Orient).

In 1945 all but Peyo signed on with Dupuis, and Franquin began his career as a jobbing cartoonist/illustrator, producing covers for Le Moustique and scouting magazine Plein Jeu. During those early days, Franquin and Morris were being tutored by Jijé, who was the main illustrator at Spirou. He turned the youngsters and fellow neophyte Willy Maltaite (AKA “Will” – Tif et Tondu, Isabelle, Le jardin des désirs) into a smoothly functioning creative bullpen known as La bande des quatre or “Gang of Four”. They later reshaped and revolutionised Belgian comics with their prolific and engaging “Marcinelle school” style of graphic storytelling…

Jijé handed Franquin all responsibilities for the flagship strip part-way through Spirou et la maison préfabriquée (Spirou #427, June 20th 1946). He ran with it for the next two decades; enlarging the scope and horizons of the feature until it became purely his own. Almost every week fans would meet startling new characters such as comrade/rival Fantasio or crackpot inventor and Merlin of mushroom mechanics the Count of Champignac.

Spirou &Fantasio became globe-trotting journalists, travelling to exotic places, uncovering crimes, exploring the fantastic and clashing with a coterie of exotic arch-enemies. However, throughout all that time Fantasio was still a full-fledged reporter for Le Journal de Spirou and had to pop into the office all the time.

Sadly, lurking there was an accident-prone, big-headed junior in charge of minor jobs and dogs-bodying. His name was Gaston Lagaffe

There’s a long history of fictitiously personalising the mysterious creatives and all those arcane processes they indulge in to make our favourite comics, whether its Stan Lee’s Marvel Bullpen or DC Thomson’s lugubrious Editor and underlings at the Beano and Dandy. Let me assure you that it’s a truly international practise and the occasional asides on text pages featuring well-meaning foul-up/office gofer Gaston – who debuted in #985, February 28th 1957 – grew to be one of the most popular and perennial components of the comic.

I’d argue, however, that current iteration Gomer Goof (his name is taken from an earlier, abortive attempt to introduce the character to American audiences) is an unnecessary step. The quintessentially Franco-Belgian tone and humour doesn’t translate particularly well (la gaffe translates as “the blunder”) and contributes nothing here. When the big idiot surprisingly appeared in a 1970s Thunderbirds annual as part of an earlier syndication attempt, he was rechristened Cranky Franky. Perhaps they should have kept the original title…

In terms of entertainment schtick and delivery, older readers will certainly recognise beats of Jacques Tati and timeless elements of well-meaning self-delusion British readers will recognise from Some Mothers Do Have ‘Em or Mr Bean. It’s slapstick, paralysing puns, pomposity lampooned and no good deed going noticed, rewarded or unpunished…

This second album-sized paperback compilation (available also in digital formats) consists of half-page shorts, longer cartoon strips and comedic text story “reports” from the comic’s editorial page as well as ultimately full episodes of madcap buffoonery.

As previously stated, Gomer is employed (let’s not dignify or mis-categorise what he does as “work”) at the Spirou offices, reporting to go-getting hero journalist Fantasio and generally ignoring the minor design jobs like paste-up and reading readers’ letters (the official reason why fans requests and suggestions are never answered…) he’s paid to handle.

He’s lazy, opinionated, forgetful and eternally hungry and his most manic moments stem from cutting corners or stashing and illicitly consuming contraband food in the office…

These characteristics frequently lead to clashes with police officer Longsnoot and fireman Captain Morwater, but the office oaf remains eternally easy-going and incorrigible. Only two questions are really important here: why does Fantasio keep giving him one last chance, and what can gentle, lovelorn Miss Jeanne possible see in the interfering, self-opinionated idiot?

Originally released in 1968 as sixth volume Gaston – Des gaffes et des dégâts, the translated chaos (available in paperback and digital formats) commences with a quartet of short, sharp two-tier episodes involving Gomer’s office innovations and war of nerves with Longsnoot, before the first illustrated text “report” from the comic’s editorial page details a catastrophe in glass in ‘Whistle While You Work’.

A second, entitled ‘Letter from the Countryside’ shares space with a calamitous seaside excursion and selection of rural escapades turned camping Armageddon…

Prose missive ‘Gomer Writes Us’ (on the joys of go-karting) leads to a ‘Conversation on a Street Corner’ and details on a new kind of music in ‘Honky-honk copper’, after which computer-assisted design is proved to be one more thing Gomer must never attempt in ‘Chorus and Bridge’

The remainder of the volume is all picture strip pandemonium as the imbecile’s attempts at rooftop cookery lead to aviation disasters, projectile peril, standoffs on staircases and a unique form of petty theft…

Rallying and racing capture his mayfly attention-span, but a hunt for a new vehicle never succeeds and Gomer always returns to his appallingly decrepit and dilapidated Fiat 509 auto(barely)mobile, but the fool is set in his ways and even doctors can’t fix or remove him…

However, somebody rational really should have foreseen what the slacker was capable of when he brought in a chemistry set…

Far better enjoyed than précised or described, these strips allowed Franquin and fellow scenarists Yvan Delporte and Jidéhem (in reality, Jean De Mesmaeker: his analogue is a regular in the strips as an explosively irate and unfortunate foil for the Goof) to flex their whimsical muscles and even subversively sneak in some satirical support for their beliefs in pacifism and environmentalism, but at their core the gags remain supreme examples of all-ages comedy: wholesome, barbed, daft and incrementally funnier with every re-reading.

What’s stopping you from Goofing off?
© Dupuis, Dargaud-Lombard s.a. 2017 by Franquin. All rights reserved. English translation © 2017 Cinebook Ltd.

Bent


By Dave Cooper (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-378-1 (HB)

Every so often I tend to stray a little from my accustomed comfort zone and regulation hunting grounds: moving beyond narrative art into broader realms of imagination. In that vein, here’s a little item available in hardback and digital formats that promises all of that and more. Whilst not sequential art the enticing yet profoundly disturbing images contained herein are certainly full of technical craft and intense imagination; and moreover, the chillingly subversive pictures tell stories the way no thousand words ever could… by boring straight into your brain and making themselves uncomfortably at home.

Dave Cooper was born in November 1967 in Nova Scotia, before relocating – presumably with adult guardians of some sort – to Ottawa when he was nine. A few years later, he was swept up in the massive mid-1980s Independent comics Boom & Bust that generated great and wonderful series such as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Puma Blues, Flaming Carrot and Silent Invasion, as well as lots of awful couldn’t die fast enough stuff. Young Cooper toiled for schlockmeister Barry Blair on numerous Aircel Comics titles and doesn’t like to talk about it much now…

Thoroughly “blooded”, his real career began in the 1990’s at Fantagraphics, creating challenging underground comix styled material like Suckle, Weasel and graphic novel Ripple amongst other strips. In 2007, as Hector Mumbly, he published his first kid’s book Bagel’s Lucky Hat.

By 2002 he had transformed into an acclaimed oil painter with international gallery shows and awards and ended the decade as a creator/designer of animated kids TV shows such as Pig Goat Banana Cricket (with Johnny Ryan for Nickelodeon) and The Bagel and Betty Show (Teletoon/BBC) as well as short film for adults The Absence of Eddy Table. He’s still painting and is now a Director of the Saw Gallery.

A sequence of Cooper’s darker, violently sinister and most sexually surreal paintings is assembled in this pictorially grotesque catalogue of forbidden delights, preceded by effusive Introduction ‘Bent and Free’ from Guillermo del Toro.

The illustrative technique is sheer, Impressionistic welcoming seduction, but the content is deranged, deformed and disturbingly gelid: all soft contours, glossy surfaces and childhood dreams, offering human forms distorted and reformed by Lovecraftian physics and biology. It’s a uniquely horrid beauty and one that, once seen, is so very hard to forget…

As well as fully-realised paintings, the book also features pencil & pen sketches and working drawings offering a glimpse into the mind and process of a one-of-a-kind talent.

If you crave images that push every envelope, track down this macabre tome…
© 2010 Dave Cooper. All rights reserved.

Invincible Iron Man Epic Collection volume 3 1968-1970: The Man Who Killed Tony Stark


By Archie Goodwin, George Tuska, Johnny Craig & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-1-3029-1630-5 (TPB)

Marvel’s rise to dominance of the American comicbook industry really took hold in 1968 when most of their characters finally got their own titles. Prior to that – and due to a highly restrictive distribution deal – the company was contractually tied to a limit of 16 publications per month.

To circumvent this drawback, Marvel developed “split-books” with two solo features per publication, such as Tales of Suspense wherein Iron Man was joined by Captain America with #59 (cover-dated November 1964).

When the division came, the armoured Avenger started afresh with a “Collectors’ Item First Issue” – after a shared one-shot with the Sub-Mariner that rationalised divergent schedules – with Cap retaining the numbering of the original title: thus his “premiering” in number #100, while the Steel-Shod Avenger got a first issue at last….

Tony Stark is the acceptable face of 1960s Capitalism; a glamorous millionaire-industrialist and inventor. He is also a benevolent all-conquering hero when clad in the ultra high-tech armour of his alter-ego, Iron Man.

Created in the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis and at a time when “Red-baiting” and “Commie-bashing” were American national obsessions (just like now), the emergence of a brilliant new Thomas Edison, using Yankee ingenuity and invention to safeguard and better the World, seemed inevitable.

Combine the then-sacrosanct belief that technology and commerce could solve any problem with the universal imagery of noble knights battling evil and the concept behind the Golden Avenger seems an infallibly successful proposition. Of course, it helps that all that money and gadgetry is great fun and very, very cool…

With an Iron Clad promise of stunning adventure and suspenseful drama, this iconic trade paperback (and digital) chronological compendium covers Iron Man #2-24, spanning June 1968 – April 1970, and features a creative dream sequence as master scripter Archie Goodwin worked with EC legend Johnny Craig and Golden Age veteran George Tuska.

A bold new era began with Invincible Iron Man #2. Long-established illustrator Gene Colan had moved on and, with ‘The Day of the Demolisher!’, the slick understated mastery of Craig adds a sheen of terrifying authenticity to proceedings. His first job was a cracker, since Goodwin introduces Janice Cord as a new romantic interest for the playboy inventor. The problem thwarting true love is a monolithic killer robot built by her deranged father and the start of a running plot-thread examining the effects of the munitions business and the nature of those inventors who work for it…

Goodwin & Craig then bring back Stark’s old bodyguard Happy Hogan to help rebuild the now-obsolete Iron Man armour before consequently devolving him back into a monstrous super-strong menace in ‘My Friend, My Foe… the Freak!’ for #3; surpassing themselves one issue later by retooling a long-forgotten Soviet super-villain into a major threat in ‘Unconquered is the Unicorn!’

This particular ultra-enhanced maniac is dying from his own powers and believes Tony would be able – if not initially willing – to fix him…

With Iron Man #5, another venerated veteran from the industry’s dawn joined the creative team. George Tuska – who had worked on huge hits such as the original (Fawcett) Captain Marvel and Crime Does Not Pay, plus newspaper strips such as The Spirit and Buck Rogers – would illustrate the majority of Iron Man’s adventures over the decade and become synonymous with the Armoured Avenger…

With Craig adding his solid dependable inks, ‘Frenzy in a Far-Flung Future!’ is an intriguing time-paradox tale wherein Stark is kidnapped by the last survivors of humanity. They are determined to kill him before he can build the super-computer that eradicated mankind. Did somebody say “Terminator”…?

A super-dense (by which I mean strong and heavy) Cuban Commie threat then returned – but not for long – in ‘Vengeance… Cries the Crusher!’

Next, a sinister scheme started way back in Tales of Suspense #97 finally bears brutal – and for preppie S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Jasper Sitwell (assigned as Stark’s security advisor) – painful fruit in 2-part thriller ‘The Maggia Strikes!’ and ‘A Duel Must End!’, as old Daredevil foe the Gladiator leads a savage attack on Stark’s factory, friends and would-be new love…

The saga also reveals the tragic history of mystery woman Whitney Frost and lays the seeds of her evolution into one of Iron Man’s most implacable foes…

A daring 3-part saga follows as ultimate oriental arch-fiend The Mandarin resurfaces with a cunning plan and the certain conviction that Stark and Iron Man are the same person… Beginning with an apparent Incredible Hulk guest-shot in #9’s ‘…There Lives a Green Goliath!’ and proceeding through the revelatory and explosive Nick Fury team-up ‘Once More… The Mandarin!’, the epic climaxes in spectacular “saves-the-day” fashion as our hero is ‘Unmasked!’

This epic from Goodwin, Tuska & Craig offers astounding thrills and potent drama with plenty of devious twists, just as the first inklings of the social upheaval America was experiencing began to seep into Marvel’s publications.

As the core audience started to grow into the Flower Power generation, future tales would take arch-capitalist weapon-smith Stark in many unexpected and often peculiar directions. All of a sudden maybe that money and fancy gadgetry weren’t quite so fun or cool anymore…?

The sterling run of science-flavoured dramas resumes with the introduction of a new sinister super-foe in #12 as ‘The Coming of the Controller’ sees a twisted genius using the stolen life-energy of enslaved citizens to power a cybernetic exo-skeleton.

Along the way, he and his brother embezzle the fortune of Stark’s girlfriend Janice Cord to pay for it all. Of course, Iron Man is ready and able to overcome the scheming maniac, tensely culminating in cataclysmic clash ‘Captives of the Controller!’, wherein the mind-bending terror attempts to extend his mesmeric, parasitic sway over the entire populace of New York City…

IM#14 revealed that ‘The Night Phantom Walks!’, with Goodwin craftily paying tribute to Craig’s past history drawing EC’s landmark horror comics. Here the artist pencilled and inked the story of a zombie-monster prowling a Caribbean island and destroying Stark Industry installations. As well as being a terse, moody thriller, this story marks the first indications of a different attitude, as the menace’s ecologically-inspired reign of terror includes some pretty fair arguments about the downsides of “Progress” and rapacious globalisation…

With Craig again inking, Tuska returned with #15 and ‘Said the Unicorn to the Ghost…!’ The demented former superspy allies himself with Fantastic Four foe Red Ghost in a desperate last-ditch bid to find a remedy for his drastically shortened life-span.

Attempting to kidnap Stark, the Ghost betrays the Unicorn and retrenches to an African Cosmic Ray research facility in concluding instalment ‘Of Beasts and Men!’, where it takes a fraught alliance of hero and villain to thwart the phantom mastermind’s ill-conceived plans…

A suspenseful extended epic kicked off in Iron Man #17 when an advanced android designed to protect Stark’s secret identity achieves sinister sentience and sneakily replaces him.

‘The Beginning of the End!’ also introduces enigmatic Madame Masque and her malevolent master Midas, who plans to take control of America’s greatest technology company…

Dispossessed and on the run, Stark is abducted and reluctantly aligns with Masque and Midas to reclaim his identity, only to suffer a fatal heart attack in ‘Even Heroes Die!’ (guest-starring the Avengers), before a ground-breaking transplant – still practically science fiction in those distant days – gives him renewed hope in ‘What Price Life?’

When the ruthlessly opportunistic Midas instantly strikes again, the mysterious Madame Masque switches sides and all hell breaks loose…

The X-Men’s dimensionally displaced alien nemesis attacks the restored and recuperating hero in ‘Who Serves Lucifer?’ (inked by Joe Gaudioso – AKA moonlighting Mike Esposito) before being rudely returned to his personal dungeon dimension, after which African-American boxer Eddie March briefly becomes a new Iron Man in #21’s ‘The Replacement!’ Stark – free from the heart-stimulating chest-plate which had preserved his life for years – is understandably tempted into a life without strife, but unfortunately, and unknown to all, Eddie has a little health problem of his own…

When Soviet-sponsored armoured archenemy Titanium Man resurfaces, it’s in conjunction – if not union – with another former Cold War warrior in the form of a newly-upgraded Crimson Dynamo in #22’s chilling classic confrontation ‘From this Conflict… Death!’

With a loved one murdered, vengeance-crazed Iron Man goes ballistic in innovative action-thriller ‘The Man Who Killed Tony Stark!!’ before ultimately finding solace in the open arms of Madame Masque.

Ending this compilation in classic style, Johnny Craig returns to fully illustrate a superb mythological monster-mash in ‘My Son… The Minotaur!’

The galvanised wonderment is supplemented with a sublime selection of Tuska and Craig original art pages and covers to wrap up this collection with the Golden Gladiator being politically repositioned at a time when Marvel solidly set itself up at the vanguard of a rapidly changing America increasingly at war with itself – so, no change there then…

This is a fantastic period in the Golden Gladiator’s career and one that perfectly encapsulates the changes Marvel and America went through: seen through some of the best and most memorable efforts of a simply stellar band of creators.
© 1968, 1969, 1970, 2019 Marvel. All rights reserved.

Superman the Man of Steel Volume 3


By John Byrne, Marv Wolfman, Jerry Ordway & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-0246-0 (TPB)

In 1985, when DC Comics decided to rationalise and reconstruct their continuity with Crisis on Infinite Earths, they used the event to regenerate their key properties at the same time. The biggest gun they had was Superman and it’s hard to argue that change came none too soon.

The big guy was in a bit of a slump, but he’d weathered those before. So how could a major makeover be anything but a pathetic marketing ploy that would alienate the real fans for a few Johnny-come-latelies who would jump ship as soon as the next fad surfaced? The popular wisdom amongst fans was that this new Superman was going to suck.

They couldn’t have been more wrong.

Superman titles were cancelled or suspended for three months, and yes, that did make the real-world media sit-up and take notice of the character for the first time in decades. But there was method in the corporate madness.

Beginning with 6-part miniseries Man of Steel – written and drawn by mainstream superstar John Byrne and inked by venerated veteran Dick Giordano – the experiment was a huge and instant success. So much so, that when it was first collected as a stand-alone graphic novel in the 1980s, it became one of the industry’s premiere break-out hits. From his overwhelming re-inception the character returned to his suspended comicbook homes with the addition of a third monthly title premiering that same month.

Superman, Adventures of Superman, and Action Comics (which became a fan-pleasing team-up book guest-starring other heroes of the DC Universe) were instant best-sellers. So successful was the relaunch that by the early 1990’s Superman would be able to sustain four monthly titles as well as Specials, Annuals, guest shots and his semi-regular appearances in titles such as Justice League.

It was quite a turnaround from the earlier heydays of the Man of Steel when editors were frantic about not over-exposing their biggest gun.

With Byrne’s controversial reboot now a solid hit, the collaborative teams tasked with ensuring his continued success really hit their stride with the tales collected in this third volume.

From April to June 1987 and re-presenting Superman #4-6, Action #587-589 and Adventures of Superman #427-429 in paperback and digital formats, the wonderment is preceded by an Introduction from writer/artist Jerry Ordway before the drama kicks off with an all-out battle against deranged gunman ‘Bloodsport!’ courtesy of Byrne and inker Karl Kesel. The merciless shooter is more than just crazy, however: some hidden genius has given him the ability to manifest wonder weapons from nothing and he never runs out of ammo… Marv Wolfman & Jerry Ordway concentrated on longer, more suspenseful tales. Adventures of Superman #427-428) take the Man of Tomorrow on a punishing visit to the rogue state of Qurac and an encounter with a hidden race of alien telepaths called the Circle, in a visceral and beautiful tale of un-realpolitik. ‘Mind Games’ and ‘Personal Best’ combine a much more relevant, realistic slant with lots of character sub-plots featuring assorted staff and family staff of the Daily Planet after which Byrne in Action Comics manufactures spectacle, thrills and instant gratification reader appeal.

‘Cityscape!’, in #587, teams the Metropolis Marvel with Jack Kirby’s Etrigan the Demon as sorceress Morgaine Le Fay attempts to gain immortality by warping time itself…

‘The Mummy Strikes’ and ‘The Last Five Hundred’ (Byrne & Kesel, Superman #5-6) then introduce the first hint of potential romance between the Man of Steel and Wonder Woman, before Lois Lane and Clark Kent are embroiled in an extraterrestrial invasion drama that started half a million years ago and feature rogue robots and antediluvian bodysnatchers.

In ‘Old Ties’ (Superman #6) Wolfman & Ordway reveal the catastrophic results of the Circle transferring their expansionist attentions to Metropolis, before this collection concludes with a cosmic saga from Action Comics #588-589 wherein Byrne & Giordano team the Caped Kryptonian with Hawkman and Hawkwoman in ‘All Wars Must End’, an epic battle against malign Thanagarian invaders, permitting Arisia , Salaak, Kilowog, Katma Tui and other luminaries of the Green Lantern Corps to meet and rescue the star-lost Superman in ‘Green on Green’ before uniting to eliminate an unstoppable planet-eating beast.

The back-to-basics approach lured many readers to – and back to – the Superman franchise, but the sheer quality of the stories and art are what convinced them to stay. Such cracking, clear-cut superhero exploits are a high point in the Action Ace’s decades-long career, and these chronological-release collections are certainly the easiest way to enjoy one of the most impressive reinventions of the ultimate comic-book icon.
© 1987, 2004 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Cave Girls of the Lost World,


By Richard Sala (Fantagraphics Books Digital Exclusive)
No ISBN: ASIN: B07H487P65

Richard Sala is a lauded and much-deserving darling of the Literary Comics movement (if such a thing exists), blending beloved pop culture artefacts and conventions – particularly cheesy comics and old horror films – with a hypnotically effective ability to tell a graphic tale. His compelling pictorial sagas appeal greatly to kids of all ages.

He grew up in Chicago and Arizona before earning a Masters Degree in Fine Arts. Soon after beginning a career as an illustrator he rediscovered his early love of comicbooks and icons of popular mass culture, such as cop shows and horror movies. He’s never looked back…

The release of potentially metafictional and self-published Night Drive in 1984 led to appearances in legendary 1980s anthologies Raw and Blab! and animated adaptations of the series on Liquid Television.

His work is welcomingly atmospheric, dryly ironic, wittily quirky and mordantly funny; indulgently celebrating childhood terrors, gangsters, bizarre events, monsters and manic mysteries, through iconic lead characters as girl sleuth Judy Drood and the glorious trenchant storybook investigator Peculia: to date the most well-known and utilised of his gratifyingly large repertory of characters.

Sala’s art is a joltingly jolly – if macabre – joy to behold and has also shone on many out-industry projects such as his work with Lemony Snickett, The Residents and even – albeit posthumously – Jack Kerouac; illustrating the author’s outrageous Doctor Sax and The Great World Snake. At the moment he’s devoting time to extended mystery webcomics Super-Enigmatix and The Cardinal. Oh, and this…

A (thus far) digital only release, Cave Girls of the Lost World is a marriage of text blocks and full-page illustrations cheekily referencing 1960s dinosaur cheesecake themes (as seen in One Million Years BC or When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth) with the plucky bonhomie of schoolgirls novels and comics of the same era. Think of The Four Marys in Conan Doyle’s Lost World and channelling the funnier parts of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies

Actually, no, don’t. Think of very fetching cartoons heaving with gleeful irony…

The saga unfolds in four chapters as a young boy wanders a beach and finds a message in a bottle. It is a diary detailing the extraordinary fate which befell 30 female college applicants whose plane crashed onto a strange plateau where giant saurians, extinct precursor races of mankind and vegetable horrors still thrived and relates how the castaways learned to kill or perish…

Fans of Super-Enigmatix will be delighted to discover that some of the characters from that unfolding drama play a crucial part here, too…

    Beguiling, clever, and staggeringly engaging, this yarn blends nostalgic escapism with the childish frisson of children scaring themselves silly under the bedcovers at night and will leave every unrepentant fantasy fan hungry for more…
    Cave Girls of the Lost World © 2018 Richard Sala. This edition © 2018 Fantagraphics Books, Inc. All rights reserved.

Captain Marvel Marvel Masterworks volume 3


By Jim Starlin, Gerry Conway, Marv Wolfman, Mike Friedrich, Steve Englehart, Wayne Boring, Al Milgrom, & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-3016-1 (HB)

In 1968, upstart Marvel was in the ascendant. Their sales were rapidly overtaking industry leaders National/DC and Gold Key Comics and, having secured a new distributor which would allow them to expand their list of titles exponentially, the company was about to undertake a creative expansion of unparalleled proportions.

Once each individual star of “twin-books” Tales of Suspense, Tales to Astonish and Strange Tales was awarded their own title, the House of Ideas just kept on going. In progress was a publishing plan which sought to take conceptual possession of the word “Marvel” through both reprint series like Marvel Tales, Marvel Collector’s Items Classics and Marvel Super-Heroes. Eventually, showcase titles such as Marvel Premiere, Marvel Spotlight and Marvel Feature also proudly trumpeted the name, so another dead-cert idea was to publish an actual hero named for the company – and preferably one with some ready-made cachet and pedigree as well.

After the infamous DC/Fawcett copyright court case of the 1940s-1950s, the prestigious designation Captain Marvel disappeared from newsstands. In 1967, during the “Camp” craze superhero boom generated by the Batman TV series, publisher MLF secured rights to the name and produced a number of giant-sized comics featuring an intelligent robot able to divide his body into segments and shoot lasers from his eyes.

Quirky, charming and devised by the legendary Carl Burgos (creator of the Golden Age Human Torch), the series nevertheless failed to attract a large following in that flamboyantly flooded marketplace and on its demise the name was quickly snapped up by Marvel Comics Group.

Marvel Super-Heroes was a brand new title: it had been reconfigured from double-sized reprint title Fantasy Masterpieces, which comprised vintage monster-mystery tales and Golden Age Timely Comics classics, but with the twelfth issue it added a showcase section for characters without homes such as Medusa, Ka-Zar, Black Knight and Doctor Doom, plus new concepts like Guardians of the Galaxy and Phantom Eagle to try out in all-new stories.

To start the ball rolling, the title headlined an alien spy sent to Earth from the Kree Galaxy. He held a Captain’s rank and his name was Mar-Vell.

After two appearances, Captain Marvel catapulted straight into his own title and began a rather hit-and-miss career, battling spies, aliens, costumed cut-ups such as Sub-Mariner, Mad Thinker and Iron Man. Most frequently however he clashed with elements of his own rapaciously colonialist race – such as imperial investigative powerhouse Ronan the Accuser – all the while slowly switching allegiances from the militaristic Kree to the noble, freedom-loving denizens of Earth.

Disguised as NASA scientist Walter Lawson, he infiltrated a US airbase and grew closer to security chief Carol Danvers, gradually going native even as he was constantly scrutinised by his ominously orbiting commanding officer Colonel Yon-Rogg – Mar-Vell’s ruthless rival for the love of the teeming starship’s medical officer Una

The impossible situation came to a head when Mar-Vell gave his life to save the empire from overthrow from within. As a reward, colossal hive-mind the Supreme Intelligence inextricably bonded the expiring warrior with voice-of-a-generation and professional side-kick Rick Jones who – just like Billy Batson (the naïve lad who turned into the original Fawcett Captain Marvel by shouting “Shazam!”) – switched places with a mighty adult hero whenever danger loomed.

By striking a pair of ancient, wrist worn “Nega-bands” together they could temporarily trade atoms: one active in our universe whilst the other floated, a ghostly untouchable, ineffectual voyeur to events glimpsed from the ghastly anti-matter Negative Zone.

The Captain was an alien lost on Earth, a defector from the militaristic Kree who fought for humanity three hours at a time, atomically chained to Rick by mysterious wristbands which enabled them to share the same space in our universe, but whenever one was active here the other was trapped in a terrifying isolated antimatter hell…

The book was cancelled soon after that… only to return some more!

A series which would not die, Captain Marvel returned again in the summer of 1972 for another shot at stardom and intellectual property rights security.

This third stellar Masterworks compilation (spanning September 1972 to July 1974 whilst gathering Captain Marvel #21-33 plus a pivotal crossover appearances from Iron Man #55) finds him at his best and worst as mediocre tales by veteran creators were brushed aside and the hero was overnight transfigured by the talents of a very talented newcomer, making the directionless Kree Warrior briefly the most popular and acclaimed title in Marvel’s firmament.

Following another comprehensively contextualising reminiscence in Roy Thomas’ Introduction, it all begins rather inauspiciously with Captain Marvel #22 wherein scripter Gerry Conway and artists Wayne Boring & Frank Giacoia reintroduce the cosmic crusader. ‘To Live Again!’ sees Mar-Vell still bonded to Rick by the uncanny Nega-bands, having languished in the Negative Zone for a seeming eternity. Jones had been trying to carve out a rock star career and relationship with new love Lou-Ann, but eventually his own body betrays him and the Kree Captain is expelled back into our reality…

Luckily, Lou-Ann’s uncle Benjamin Savannah is a radical scientist on hand to help Rick’s transition, but as the returned Marvel unsteadily flies off, across town another boffin is rapidly mutating from atomic victim to nuclear threat and #23 (by Marv Wolfman, Boring & Frank McLaughlin) sees the Kree Warrior calamitously clash with rampaging maniac Megaton, resulting in ‘Death at the End of the World!’.

Wolfman, Boring & Ernie Chan then deal ‘Death in High Places!’ as Rick is targeted by lethal Madame Synn and felonious cyborg Dr. Mynde. They need Mar-Vell to help them plunder the Pentagon…

After seemingly running in place, perpetually one step ahead of cancellation (folding many times, but always quickly resurrected – presumably to secure that all important trademark name), the Captain was handed to a newcomer named Jim Starlin who was left alone to get on with it…

With many of his friends and fellow neophytes he began laying seeds (particularly in Iron Man and Daredevil) for a saga that would in many ways become as well regarded as Jack Kirby’s epochal Fourth World Trilogy which it emulated.

However, the “Thanos War”, despite superficial similarities, soon developed into a uniquely modern experience. And what it lacked in grandeur it made up for with sheer energy and enthusiasm.

The first inkling came in Iron Man #55 (February 1973) with Mike Friedrich scripting Starlin’s opening gambit in a cosmic epic that changed the nature of Marvel itself. ‘Beware The… Blood Brothers!’(inked by Mike Esposito) introduces haunted humanoid powerhouse Drax the Destroyer, trapped by extraterrestrial invader Thanos under the Nevada desert and in dire need of rescue. That comes when the Armoured Avenger blazes in, answering a mysterious SOS…

A month later in Captain Marvel #25, Friedrich, Starlin, & Chic Stone unleashed ‘A Taste of Madness!’ and the alien outcast’s fortunes changed forever.

When Mar-Vell is ambushed by a pack of extraterrestrials, he is forced to admit that his powers are in decline. Unaware that an unseen foe is counting on that, Rick manifests and checks in with Dr. Savannah, only to find himself accused by his beloved Lou-Ann of the scientist’s murder.

Hauled off to jail, Rick brings in Mar-Vell who is confronted by a veritable legion of old foes before deducing who in fact his true enemies are…

Issue #26 sees Rick free of police custody and confronting Lou-Ann over her seeming ‘Betrayal!’ (Starlin, Friedrich & Dave Cockrum). Soon, however, he and Mar-Vell realise they are the targets of psychological warfare: the girl is being mind-controlled whilst Super Skrull and his hidden “Masterlord” are manipulating them and others in search of a lost secret…

When a subsequent scheme to have Mar-Vell kill The Thing spectacularly fails, Thanos takes personal charge. The Titan is hungry for conquest and wants Rick because his subconscious conceals the location of an irresistible ultimate weapon.

Rick awakes to find himself ‘Trapped on Titan!’ (Pablo Marcos inks) but does not realise the villain has already extracted the location of a reality-altering Cosmic Cube from him. Rescued by Thanos’ father Mentor and brother Eros, the horrified lad sees first-hand the extent of genocide the death-loving monster has inflicted upon his own birthworld and summons Captain Marvel to wreak vengeance…

Meanwhile on Earth, still-enslaved Lou-Ann has gone to warn the Mighty Avengers and summarily collapsed. By the time Mar-Vell arrives in #28 she lies near death. Inked by Dan Green, ‘When Titans Collide!’ reveals another plank of Thanos’ plan. As the heroes are picked off by psychic parasite The Controller, Mar-Vell is assaulted by bizarre visions of an incredible ancient being. Fatally distracted, he becomes the massive mind-leech’s final victim…

Al Milgrom inks ‘Metamorphosis!’ as the Kree captain’s connection to Rick is severed and he is transported to an otherworldly locale where an 8-billion year old being named Eon reveals the origins of life whilst overseeing the abductee’s forced evolution into the ultimate warrior: a universal champion gifted with the subtly irresistible power of Cosmic Awareness…

Returned to Earth and reconnected to his frantic atomic counterpart, the newly-appointed “Protector of the Universe” goes after The Controller, thrashing the monumentally powerful parasite in a devastating display of skill countering super-strength in #30’s ‘…To Be Free from Control!’

Much of this saga occurs in other titles and for the full picture you will need to hunt down more comprehensive compilations but here and now, the story continues in Captain Marvel #31 with ‘The Beginning of the End!’ (inked by Green & Milgrom) wherein the Avengers – in a gathering of last resort – are joined by psionic priestess Moondragon and Drax – one of the Titan’s many victims resurrected by supernal forces to destroy Thanos…

The Titan has been revealed as a lover of the personification of Death and he wants to give her Earth as a betrothal present. To that end, he uses the Cosmic Cube to turn himself into ‘Thanos the Insane God!’ (Green) and with a thought captures all opposition to his reign. However, his insane arrogance leaves the cosmically aware Mar-Vell with a chance to undo every change; brilliantly outmanoeuvring and defeating ‘The God Himself!’ (inks by Klaus Janson)…

With the universe saved, this volume of cosmic conflict and stellar spectacle concludes with a choice selection of bonus bits, beginning with a comprehensive cutaway ‘Map of Titan’ from Captain Marvel #27, original artwork and covers and endpieces from 1980s reprint series The Life of Captain Marvel.

The Good Captain has never claimed to be the company’s most popular or successful character and some of the material collected here is frankly rather poor. However, the good stuff is amongst the very best the company has produced in its entire history. If you want to see how good superhero comics can be, you’ll just have to take the rough with the smooth and who knows… you might see something that will blow your mind…
© 1972, 1973, 1974, 2017 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Persepolis – The Story of a Childhood and Persepolis 2 – the Story of a Return


By Marjane Satrapi translated by Anjali Singh (Jonathan Cape/Vintage)
ISBN: 978-0-22406-440-8 (volume 1 HB); 978-0-22407-440-7 (volume 2 HB); 978-0-0-9952-399-4 (TPB)

No comics celebration of non-fictional women could be complete without acknowledging Marjane Satrapi’s astounding breakout memoirs, so let’s revisit her Persepolis books (also available in a complete paperback edition released to coincide with an animated movie of the tale)…

The imagery of a child, their unrefined stylings and shaded remembrances all possess captivating power to enthral adults. Marjane Satrapi grew up during the Fundamentalist revolution that toppled the Shah of Iran and replaced him with an Islamic theocracy.

For cartoon reminiscence Persepolis – The Story of a Childhood, she opted to relate key incidents from her life with the stark direct drawings and sharp, unleavened voice and perceptions of the young girl she was. This simple, direct reportage owes as much to Anne Frank as Art Spiegleman whilst she relates the incidents that shaped her life and her identity as a free-thinking female in a society that increasing frowned on that sort of thing…

Persepolis is the kind of graphic novel that casual and intellectual readers love, focusing on the content of the message and decrying or at best ignoring the technical skill and craft of the medium that conveys it. Yet graphic narrative is as much an art form of craft and thought as it is the dustbin of sophomoric genre stereotypes that many critics relegate it to. Satrapi created a work that is powerful and engaging, but in a sorry twist of reality, it is one that comics fans, and not the general public, still have to be convinced to read.

In the sequel Persepolis – The Story of a Return, the primitivist reminiscences of a girl whose childhood spanned the fall of the Shah and the rise of Iran’s Fundamentalist theocracy, Satrapi continues sharing her personal history, but now concentrates more fully on the little girl growing into a woman.

This idiosyncratic maturation unfortunately acts to somewhat diminish the power of simple, unvarnished observation that was such a devastating lens into the political iniquities that shaped her life, but does transform the author into a fully concrete person, as many of her experiences more closely mirror those of an audience which hasn’t grown up under a cloud of physical, political, spiritual and sexual oppression.

The story recommences in 1984 where 15-year old Marjane is sent to Vienna to (ostensibly) pursue an education. In distressingly short order, the all-but-asylum-seeker is rapidly bounced from home to home: billeted with Nuns; distanced acquaintances of her family; a bed-sit in the house of an apparent madwoman and eventually is reduced to living on the streets, in a catastrophic spiral of decline before returning to Iran in four years later. It is now 1988.

Her observations on the admittedly outré counter-culture European students, and her own actions as she grows to full womanhood seem to indicate that even the most excessive and extreme past experience can still offer a dangerously seductive nostalgia when faced with the bizarre concept of too much freedom too soon.

When she returns to her homeland, her adult life under the regime of the Ayatollah is still a surprisingly less-than-total condemnation than we westerners and our agenda-slanted news media would probably expect. The book concludes with her decision to move permanently to Europe in 1994…

The burgeoning field of autobiographical graphic novels is a valuable outreach resource for an industry desperately seeking to entice new audiences to convert to our product. As long as subject matter doesn’t overpower content and style, and we can offer examples such as Persepolis to the seekers, we should be making real headway.
© Marjane Satrapi 2004. Translation © 2004 Anjali Singh.

Billie Holiday


By José Muñoz & Carlos Sampayo, translated by Katy MacRae, Robert Boyd & Kim Thompson (NBM)
ISBN: 978-1-68112-093-5 (HB)

Argentinian José Antonio Muñoz was born on July 10th 1942 in Buenos Aires and studied at the prestigious Escuela Panamericana de Arte de Buenos Aires, under comics geniuses Hugo Pratt and Alberto Breccia. He then joined the prolific and prestigious Francisco Solano Lopez studio at the age of 18. Soon his work was appearing in Hora Cero and Frontera Extra whilst he ghosted episodes of the legendary serial Ernie Pike for his old tutor Pratt.

Through the Argentine-based Solano Lopez outfit, he began working on material for British publishing giant Amalgamated Press/IPC, but had no real feeling for the material he was producing. Moreover, like so many others, he was increasingly uncomfortable living in his homeland. Eventually, he was compelled to leave Argentina (in December 1972) as the military junta tightened its totalitarian grip on the country and clamped down on free expression and the arts, as well as all forms of overt or covert dissent.

Moving to England, Spain and later Italy, Muñoz met again fellow émigré and creative soul-mate Carlos Sampayo in Barcelona in 1974 and convinced the poet, music critic, copywriter and author to try his hand at comics. The result was the stunning expressionistic noir Private Detective masterpiece of loss and regret Alack Sinner

Born in 1943, the poet Sampayo grew up with all the same formative experiences as his artistic comrade and, after a similar dispiriting start (he’d tried writing and being a literary editor before resigning himself to work in advertising), moved to Spain in 1972.

The pair were first introduced in 1971 when mutual friend Oscar Zarate left Argentina in the forefront of the creative exodus sparked by the rise of “the Colonels”…

Urgently urged by mentor Hugo Pratt to “do something of your own”, the pair started producing the grimly gritty adventures of an ex-New York cop-turned-shamus haunting the shadows of the world’s greatest, darkest city, and encountering the bleak underbelly of the metropolis and all the outcasts, exiles and scum thrown together at its margins.

Alack Sinner debuted in experimental Italian anthology Alter Linus, was picked up by Belgian giant Casterman (for A Suivre) and compiled in a number of albums across the continent. The feature was set solidly in history, confronting issues of prejudice, bigotry and corruption head-on through shocking words and imagery. In one of their stories Sinner played merely a bit part as the pages examined the life and times and fate of one of the most ill-starred women in the history of Jazz and modern America.

And that’s where this powerfully moving biography finds us…

Originally translated and published by Fantagraphics in the early 1990s, NBM’s Billie Holiday takes us into the heart and soul of the doomed and self-destructive nightingale whose incredible voice was all-but-lost to the world for decades before kinder, more evolved ears of all colours rescued her works from oblivion…

This epic hardcover – and digital – volume examines her life and influence through the eyes of distant observers and opens with essay ‘Billie Holiday: Don’t Explain’ by Francis Marmande, which provides a fact and photo-packed biographical appreciation of the singer in her heyday.

Eleanora Holiday – also known as Billie and “Lady Day” – was born April 7th 1915, and died July 17th 1959. In between those dates she won many fans and earned tons of money, but it never bought her acceptance in a world where black skin provoked revulsion, cruelty and smug superiority. It didn’t even buy her protection from New York cops who considered her a prostitute made good, an uppity subhuman who never knew her place…

Billie lost money as quickly as she earned it: to unscrupulous friends and management, or corrupt officials, although most of it was frittered away by the succession of cheating, brutal men she was perpetually drawn to and whom she could never resist…

A short, stark story of graphic flair offering many powerful full-page images, the tale begins in 1989 as a journalist is assigned to write a feature piece commemorating the thirtieth anniversary of a Jazz singer. He’s never heard of Billie Holiday but is good at his job and starts digging.

He reads about a poor black girl raped as a child and forced into child prostitution who almost escaped that trap by singing. She became successful, but never dodged the traps and pitfalls of her life: booze, drugs, sleazy men, manipulative bosses and a seeming hunger for conflict. Even so, the way she sang was uniquely hers and changed lives forever. She called herself Billie and always performed with a flower in her hair…

For a while the great and good came to watch and hear her and other jazz greats such as Louis Armstrong and Lester Young, whose gifts gave them limited entry to the privileged life, but never acceptance.

This intensely personal interpretation is less a biography and more a heartfelt paean of appreciation, channelling and exploring the hard, harsh tone of those troubled times where talented, dogged souls fought for recognition and survival in a world determined to exploit and consume them. In that respect, no one was more exploited than Lady Day…

Also included here, ‘Jazz Sessions’ offers a stunning gallery of 12 stark, chiaroscuric and powerfully evocative images based on scenes from Holiday’s short, stark life and dedication to the freedom of the musical form of Blues and Jazz that she graced and transformed through her vocalisations.

Moving, angry and sad, this tale holds the singer up to the light and must be read. Just remember, there’s no Happy Ever After here…
© 1991 Casterman All rights reserved. © 2017 NBM for the English version

Cancer Vixen


By Marisa Acocella Marchetto (Knopf Publishing/Pantheon)
ISBN: 978-0-30726-357-5 (US HB) 978-0-37571-474-0 (UK PB)

The comics medium is incredibly powerful and versatile: easily able to convey different levels of information and shades of meaning in a variety of highly individualistic and personal manners and styles and on any subject imaginable.

Although primarily used as a medium of entertainment, the sequential image is also a devastating tool for instruction and revelation as in this superb encapsulation of one woman’s knock-down drag-out tussle with the “Big C”…

Born in1962, Marisa Acocella studied painting at the Pratt Institute and the School of Visual Arts in New York City before becoming an Art Director for a major Madison Avenue ad agency. After a meteoric career in the field, in 1993 she turned to cartooning.

Acocella concocted the quasi-autobiographical fashion cartoon She which debuted in Mirabella Magazine before transferring to Elle in 1996. The feature was collected as Just Who the Hell Is She, Anyway? The Autobiography of She and the character was optioned for a show by HBO television.

The frenetic scribbler was subsequently head-hunted by Robert Mankoff – Cartoon Editor for iconic periodical The New Yorker – and soon after, with her work regularly appearing in Glamour (where she crafted the series Glamour Girls), Advertising Age, Talk, Modern Bride and ESPN magazine, she created ‘The Strip’ for the New York Times Sunday Styles section. It was that prestigious paper’s first ever continuing comics feature.

In 2004, at the top of her game and three weeks before her marriage to a dashing and highly successful restaurateur, seemingly with the world at her stylishly shod feet (there’s a great deal of attention paid to women’s shoes here, but at least it’s an apparently hereditary fetish: Marisa’s simply overwhelming mother Violetta Acocella was a designer for the Delman Shoe Company), the artist noticed a lump in her breast…

How the sometimes flighty, occasionally self-absorbed but ultimately tough and determinedly resolute Style-Zombie Fashionista cartoonist took control of her life and her situation to beat cancer makes for an utterly engrossing and ferociously vital read…

Told in overlapping flashbacks Cancer Vixen – because the artist loathed the term “Cancer Victim” – documents her emotional pilgrimage through denial, oppressive terror, turbulent anticipations, financial heebie-jeebies, desperate metaphysical bargaining, exploration of outrageous alternative therapies, grudging acceptance and onerous fight-back through her interactions with friends and family – especially that formidably overbearing ‘(S)Mother’ and man-in-a-billion husband-to-be Silvano Marchetto

As Marisa reveals the day-by-day, moment-to-moment journey from suspicion to diagnosis, through surgery and the horrifying post-op chemo-therapy with profound passion, daunting honesty and beguiling self-deprecating humour, what strikes the reader most is the cruelly unnecessary extra anguish caused by a silly mistake which might have cost the artist her life…

Even though thoroughly in-touch, on the go and in command of her life, this modern Ms. had accidentally let her Health Insurance lapse…

Coming from a country where – despite the best efforts of our current government to gut and sell off the National Health Service and neuter the social support and benefits net – nobody has to die from insufficient funds or endure ill-health because of their bank balance, the most gob-smacking strand of this graphic reportage is the cost-counting exercise which periodically tots up the dollars spent at crucial stages of treatment and the realisation that many of her potential care-givers are actually bidding against each other rather than working together to treat their patients customers…

Thankfully Glamour magazine nobly commissioned Marisa to turn her regular strip into a cartoon account of her illness and recovery (with the strip Cancer Vixen launching as a 6-page strip in the April 2005 issue), whilst bravely marrying Silvano – in defiance of her very real dread that he might be a widower before their first anniversary – at least got Marisa belatedly onto his insurance policy…

As a result of her experiences, Marisa Acocella-Marchetto apportioned a percentage of the book’s profits to The Breast Cancer Research Foundation and to underprivileged women at the St. Vincent’s Hospital Comprehensive Cancer Center in Manhattan, where she also established The Cancer Vixen Fund, dedicated to help uninsured women get the best breast care available.

Delivered in a chatty, snazzy blend of styles and bright, bold colours, this relentlessly factual book – and thus truly scary because of it – combines a gripping true report of terror and resilience with a glorious love story and inspiring celebration of family and friendship under the worst of all circumstances.

Whilst not the escapist fantasy fiction which is our medium’s speciality, this human drama and faithfully impassioned but funny memoir – with a happy ending to boot – is the kind of comic to enthral and elate real-world fans and devotees of the medium; and indeed, everyone who reads it.
© 2006 Marisa Acocella Marchetto. All rights reserved.

With Only Five Plums


By Terry Eisele & Jonathon Riddle (CreateSpace)
ISBNs: 978-1-48399-114-6 (TPB); 978-1-48399-123-8 (TPB) and 978-1-48399-127-6 (TPB)

As any long-time reader will attest, I’m a huge advocate of doing it yourself when it comes to making comics, and this collection – three books of an epic historical exposé of one of modern humanity’s greatest atrocities thus far – shows just why, as it spectacularly blends harsh fact with high drama to reveal the tragic story and eventual small triumph of Anna Nesporova whose family was targeted in error by the Nazis occupying Czechoslovakia…

Sadly unavailable in digital formats yet, but still readily available in trade paperbacks, the testament is divided into three quietly understated, deeply evocative volumes of ambitiously oversized monochrome memoirs, crafted by historian Terry Eisele & illustrator Jonathon Riddle from Nesporova’s own words, dramatizing the horrific story of the Nazi atrocity at Lidice in Czechoslovakia.

The memories are not merely those of a survivor but come from a woman whose entire family was intimately connected with the cause of the tragedy…

The history opens in With Only Five Plums: The Time Before as an elderly woman is encouraged by an interviewer to talk of times long past but never forgotten. She cautiously relates the idyllic life in the nondescript hamlet of Lidice before specifically concentrating on the expansive Horak family and her life as innocent, ordinary Anna Horakova during increasingly trying times.

Relating instances of village life, childhood experiences and the early days of her marriage, Anna’s story takes a dark turn when describing Christmas customs. In 1941, a cherished family meal tradition presaged disaster for the entire Horak clan…

In June 1938, European leaders trying to appease Hitler allowed Germany to annexe part of Czechoslovakia and, as a consequence, Anna’s brother Josef fled to Britain, joining the growing émigré/refugee population. He dutifully wrote home that he numbered amongst his new friends Edvard Benes and Jan Masaryk: the leaders of the government-in-exile…

The next stage in the tragedy came when Nazi aristocrat Reinhard Heydrich – a sadistic monster eagerly expediting Hitler’s pogrom against the Jews – was assassinated. The Horak family were mistakenly implicated in the plot.

Nazi retaliation was astoundingly disproportionate: the village where they lived – almost universally Christian – was eradicated from the Earth; the male population massacred and the women sent to concentration camps in a display of calculated butchery as bad as anything visited upon the Romani, Jews or any other ethnicity the Nazis deemed “subhuman”.

Heavily pregnant at the time, Anna – along with other expectant mothers – was separated from the rest. As the children were delivered, they were taken away. Those that passed certain tests were removed to be brought up German, whilst the mothers joined their sister villagers in packed cattle-cars at rail marshalling yards. The destination was Ravensbruck Concentration Camp…

The tale resumes in With Only Five Plums Book 2: This Dark Age where, following a brief recap, Anna details the appalling journey, paying especial detail to an elderly Jewish woman’s attempts to cheer up younger girls with the story of Rabbi Loew’s Golem. That fabulous avenger was created to protect the Jews of Prague during a previous wave of persecution…

After many days and hundreds of miles, the train arrives in Fürstenberg from where the survivors are force-marched to the camp. Anna’s record of daily humiliations and the slow, piecemeal destruction of bodies and spirits covers three years, but she considered herself lucky. At least she had a skill the Germans found useful (professional-standard sewing) and wasn’t part of a group considered genetically inferior such as the Roma “gypsies”.

Heartbreaking memories of Romani inmate Florica (and her folktale of the origins of blonde-haired people) poignantly counterpoints a diary of privation and desperation and serves to underline the horrific accounts of the scientist-torturers Ernst-Robert Grawitz and Ludwig Stumpfegger who used women as guinea pigs for their horrendous experiments…

The captivity suddenly ended in spring. The panicked Germans were in retreat: burning files and dismantling buildings. The women were led out of the gates with a few guards and ordered to march. They staggered through Germany and other countries shattered by bombs and, as the days passed, many died. Soon they were not enough soldiers and Anna and some other women slipped away, heading always towards a home that no longer existed.

Avoiding the “liberating” Russian soldiers, the group finally reached Czechoslovakia, battered but once more a free nation. Here Anna met Mrs. Kubrova; wife of her husband’s employer, who took her in and eventually drove her to Lidice… or at least where it had once been…

The chronicle concludes in With Only Five Plums Book 3: Life in the East is Worthless, which describes the aftermath of the war. Throughout all her trials and torments, Anna had been utterly oblivious to the fate of her family and her home. Now she learns that both had been eradicated with devastating efficiency. All that was left was the daughter taken from her at birth and lost seemingly forever somewhere in Germany…

From Kubrova, Anna discovers what the Nazis had done to turn a thriving, bustling village into a barren featureless field and of other survivors – mostly stolen children. These scenes are more harrowing in their understated simplicity than anything else in this grim graphic report…

However, there is a slight moral victory to be seen as aged Anna then relates how Lidice was rebuilt and repopulated (despite the Soviet Union’s absorbing the newly liberated nation into their Warsaw Pact-enforced alliance) before the saga concludes with an emotional Epilogue wherein Anna finally reveals the fate of her stolen daughter…

Slipping back and forth in time, conversationally adding depth and historical background to a remarkably restrained, tightly controlled and shatteringly effective examination of human nature at its worst and best, With Only Five Plums (a Czech expression akin to “with only the clothes on your back”) focuses on one of the most depraved and appalling acts in human history and manages to extract a message of hope and triumphant perseverance from the tragedy.

This triptych is a superb example of pictorial reportage and graphic memoir, with each big (280 x 216mm) book also offering poetry written about the atrocity (The Far-off Village by Mazo de la Roche, Lidice by C. Day Lewis and To Lidice by George England respectively); text features and extensive, fascinating excerpts from ‘Jonathon’s Sketchbook’.

Anna Nesporova passed away in 2006, before these books were completed, but the sense remains that the brooding, painfully oppressive and achingly moving story related would have made her proud. As with all accounts of Atrocity, the tale of Lidice needs to be told and retold, if there’s to be any hope of stopping such things from happening again and as always, such accounts work best when they come from the hearts and mouths of those who were there.

With Only Five Plums is a powerful story of inhumanity, stupidity and endurance that will certainly impress fans of war stories and devotees of fine storytelling, but hopefully it will most appeal to history teachers; professional and not…

© 2013 Terry Eisele. All rights reserved.
For more information and to obtain your own copies check out www.terryeisele.com