Superman: Brainiac


By Geoff Johns, Gary Frank, Jon Sibal & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-84856-230-1 (TPB)

Since his first appearance in Action Comics #242 (July 1958), robotic alien reaver Brainiac has been a perennial favourite foe of the Man of Steel, and has remained so even through being subsequently “retooled” many times. Brilliant and relentless, the one thing he/it has never been is really scary – until this latest re-imagining from Geoff Johns and Gary Frank.

In post-Crisis on Infinite Earths continuity the raider was a computerised intellect from planet Colu who inhabited and transformed the body of showbiz mentalist Milton Fine, until it grew beyond physical limits to become a time-travelling ball of malignant computer code, constructing or co-opting ever-more formidable physical forms in its self-appointed mission to eradicate Superman.

However, in this slim but evocative tome – collecting Action Comics #886-870 and Superman: New Krypton Special #1 – the truth is finally revealed… or if you prefer, edited into a sensible scenario combining the best of dozens of previous plot strands.

Long ago, an alien invader attacked Krypton: merciless and relentless robotic berserkers slaughtered hundreds of citizens before physically removing the entire city of Kandor. Decades later, one of those robots lands on Earth only to promptly fall before the Man of Tomorrow’s shattering fists.

This ‘First Contact’ leads to a revelatory conversation with Supergirl – a fortunate survivor of the Kandor Incident, as seen in ‘Hide and Seek’. Now we know every Brainiac Superman has ever faced has only been a pale shadow of the true villain: autonomous automatic probes and programming ghosts of a malevolent entity that has stalked the universe for centuries, stealing representative cities before destroying the redundant worlds they once thrived upon. Most importantly, the real Brainiac has found Earth…

What nobody realises is that the Cosmic Kidnapper has been scouring the cosmos ever since Krypton died. He actually wants to possess every last son and daughter of that long-dead world and neither time nor distance will hinder him…

Superman rockets into space to confront the monster, unaware that the marauder is already en route to Earth, and as the Metropolis Marvel confronts his old foe for the very first time in a titanic, horrific clash, ‘Greetings’ sees Supergirl lead the defence of embattled planet Earth against the monster’s diabolical mechanical marauders.

The war on two fronts continues in ‘Mind Over Matter’, concluding in an overwhelming moment of ‘Triumph and Tragedy’ as Superman defeats Brainiac and frees an entire city of fellow Kryptonians he never knew still existed, only to lose one of the most important people in his life, ending on an uncharacteristically sombre, low key note in ‘Epilogue’.

Geoff Johns was then at the forefront of the creative movement to restore and rationalize DC’s Pre-Crisis mythology, and by combining a modern sensibility with the visual flavour of Ridley Scott’s Alien movies here added a tangible aura of terror to the wide-eyed imagination and wonder of those old and much-loved tales. The visceral, gloriously hyper-realistic art of Gary Franks & John Sibal adds to the unease, and their deft touch with the welcome tension-breaking comedic breaks is a sheer delight.

Available in both print and digital formats, this is a Superman yarn anybody can pick up, irrespective of their familiarity – or lack of – with the character: fast, thrilling, spooky and deeply moving, for all that it’s also the introduction to major event New Krypton – but that’s a tale and review for another time…
© 2008, 2009 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Steel Commando: Full Metal Warfare


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Machine Man: The Complete Collection by Kirby and Ditko


By Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, with Marv Wolfman, Tom DeFalco, Roger Stern, Mike Rockwitz, Sal Buscema & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-9577-1 (TPB)

Jack Kirby was – and nearly 30 years after his death, remains – the most important single influence in the history of American comics. There are innumerable accounts of and testaments to what the man has done and meant, and you should read those if you are at all interested in our medium.

Off course, I’m now adding my own tenpence’s worth, pointing out what you probably already know: Kirby was a man of vast imagination who translated big concepts into astoundingly potent and accessible symbols for generations of fantasy fans. If you were exposed to Kirby as an impressionable child you were his for life. To be honest, the same probably applies whatever age you jump aboard the “Kirby Express”…

For those of us who grew up with Jack, his are the images which furnish and clutter our interior mindsets. Close your eyes and think “robot” and the first thing that pops up is a Kirby creation. Every fantastic, futuristic city in our heads is crammed with his chunky, towering spires. Because of Jack we all know what the bodies beneath those stony-head statues on Easter Island look like, we are all viscerally aware that you can never trust great big aliens parading around in their underpants and, most importantly, we know how cavemen dressed and carnosaurs clashed…

In the late 1930s, it took a remarkably short time for Kirby and his creative collaborator Joe Simon to become the wonder-kid dream-team of the new-born comicbook industry. Together they produced a year’s worth of the influential monthly Blue Bolt, dashed off Captain Marvel Adventures (#1) for overstretched Fawcett and, after Martin Goodman appointed Simon editor at Timely Comics, co-created a host of iconic characters such as Red Raven, the original Marvel Boy, Mercury, Hurricane, The Vision, Young Allies and of course million-selling mega-hit Captain America.

When Goodman failed to make good on his financial obligations, Simon & Kirby were snapped up by National/DC, who welcomed them with open arms and a fat chequebook. Bursting with ideas the staid industry leaders were never really comfortable with, the pair were initially an uneasy fit, and awarded two moribund strips to play with until they found their creative feet: Sandman and Manhunter.

They turned both around virtually overnight and, once established and left to their own devices, switched to the “Kid Gang” genre they had pioneered at Timely. Joe & Jack created wartime sales sensation Boy Commandos and a Homefront iteration dubbed the Newsboy Legion before being called up to serve in the war they had been fighting on comic book pages since 1940.

Once demobbed, they returned to a very different funnybook business, and soon after left National to create their own little empire…

Simon & Kirby heralded and ushered in the first American age of mature comics – not just by inventing the Romance genre, but with all manner of challenging modern material about real people in extraordinary situations – before seeing it all disappear again in less than eight years.

After years of working for others, Simon & Kirby had finally established their own publishing house, producing comics for a far more sophisticated audience, only to find themselves in a sales downturn and awash in public hysteria generated by an anti-comicbook pogrom. Their small stable of magazines – generated for the association of companies known as Prize, Crestwood, Pines, Essenkay and/or Mainline Comics – blossomed and as quickly wilted when the industry abruptly contracted throughout the 1950s.

Hysterical censorship-fever spearheaded by US Senator Estes Kefauver and opportunistic pop psychologist Dr. Frederic Wertham led to witch-hunting Senate hearings. Caving in, most publishers adopted a castrating straitjacket of draconian self-regulatory rules. Horror titles produced under the aegis and emblem of the Comics Code Authority were sanitised and anodyne affairs in terms of Shock and Gore, even though the market’s appetite for suspense and the uncanny was still high. Crime comics vanished and mature themes challenging an increasingly stratified and oppressive society were suppressed…

Simon quit the business for advertising, but Jack soldiered on, taking his skills and ideas to a number of safer, more conventional and less experimental, companies. As the panic abated, Kirby returned briefly to DC Comics where he worked on mystery tales and Green Arrow (at that time a mere back-up page-filler in Adventure Comics and World’s Finest Comics) whilst concentrating on his passion project: newspaper strip Sky Masters of the Space Force.

During that period Kirby also re-packaged an original super-team concept that had been kicking around in his head since he and Joe Simon had closed their innovative, ill-timed ventures. At the end of 1956 Showcase #6 premiered the Challengers of the Unknown

After three more test issues they won their own title with Kirby in command for the first eight. Then a legal dispute with Editor Jack Schiff exploded and the King was gone…

He found fresh fields and an equally hungry new partner in Stan Lee at the ailing Atlas Comics outfit (which had once been mighty Timely) and there created a revolution in superhero comics storytelling…

After a decade of never-ending innovation and crowd-pleasing wonderment, Kirby felt increasingly stifled. His efforts had transformed the little publisher into industry-pioneer Marvel but now felt trapped in a rut. Thus, he moved back to DC for another burst of sheer imagination and pure invention.

Kirby always understood the fundamentals of pleasing his audience and strived diligently to combat the appalling state of prejudice about the comics medium – especially from industry insiders and professionals who despised the “kiddies world” they felt trapped in.

After his controversial, grandiose Fourth World titles were cancelled, Kirby looked for other projects that would stimulate his own vast creativity yet still appeal to a market growing ever more fickle. These included science fictional heroes Kamandi and OMAC, supernatural star The Demon, war stories starring The Losers, and even a new Sandman– co-created with old Joe Simon – but although the ideas kept coming (Atlas, Kobra, Dingbats of Danger Street), once again editorial disputes increased. Reluctantly, he left again choosing to believe in promises of more creative freedom elsewhere…

His return to Marvel in 1976 was much hyped and eagerly anticipated at the time, but again turned controversial. New works such as The Eternals and Devil Dinosaur found friends rapidly, but his return to earlier creations Captain America and Black Panther divided the fanbase.

Kirby was never slavishly wedded to tight continuity, and preferred, in many ways, to treat his stints on titles as a “Day One”: a policy increasing at odds with the close-continuity demanded by a strident faction of the readership…

Kirby was fascinated by the evolution of humanity and how it was ultimately defined. Gods, devils, ascension, devolution and especially artificial intelligence were themes he regularly revisited. As early as 1957, in his second Challengers of the Unknown yarn, tragic Ultivac was a misunderstood mechanoid built by war criminals who spontaneously achieved sentience, sapience and a profound sense of self-preservation. This concept of machine soul re-emerged constantly in characters as diverse as King Kra, Recorder 211, Torgo, Mother Box and many others but found its greatest expression in a strip spun off from licensed property 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Although not included here, Machine Man actually debuted in July to September 1977 in #8-10 of that series – so Marvel are being a tad generous with the term “complete” in this epic trade paperback and digital compilation. X-51/Aaron Stack/Mister Machine was a government-built war droid who achieves passionate, unique self-actualisation after an encounter with the enigmatic alien Monolith of Kubrick and Clarke’s movie classic. When the publishing license expired, Jack’s metal miracle catapulted into his own eccentric series and a little slice of history was made…

Collecting the 19-issue run of Machine Man spanning April 1978 to January 1989, and including material from Incredible Hulk #234-237 and Marvel Comics Presents #10, this canny compilation offers a rare chance to see how a single character can fare under the widely differing and unique artistic visions of the visual founders of the Marvel Universe.

Brushing over the embargoed origins, a fully sentient but unschooled and inexperienced ‘Machine Man’ exploded into the Marvel Universe in his first issue (April 1978, by Kirby & Mike Royer), on the run from the US Army.

As X-51, he had been condemned to eradication when his 50 predecessors malfunctioned, attacking the soldiers they were designed to replace. “Aaron” was different, however, reared as a human in the household of psychologist Dr. Abel Stack. When the official order came to scrap all X-models, Stack gave his life to remove his “son’s” self-destruct trigger, sending the innocent out to find his place in the world. On his trail was veteran warrior Colonel Kragg, maimed sole survivor of a brutal X robot assault…

On the run and plagued by nightmares, Aaron makes friends easily in the easy-going, post-Hippie region around Central City, California, and holes up in the asylum run by psychiatrist Dr. Peter Spalding. As they debate the nature of existence, soldiers close in and a fresh crisis is triggered in the ‘House of Nightmares’ when an inmate psionically connects to an alien being about to die countless light years away…

Stack’s on-board technologies confirm the contact is no delusion, and empathy moves the assembled earthlings to open a door for the dying stranger. Sadly, ‘Ten-For, the Mean Machine’ is a devious, arrogant professional world-conqueror who believes his kind of mechanical life superior to organics and sets about adding Earth to the Autochron empire, just as Kragg’s forces breach the building…

The Colonel is no fan of artificial beings but is soon overwhelmed, leaving Machine Man to ‘Battle on a Very Busy Street’, before briefly abandoning humanity and questioning the point of his tormented existence. His status as a despised ‘Non-Hero’ changes after attending a wild party and meeting empathetic communications executive Tracy Warner, who inspires Aaron to defeat the rapidly-approaching invasion fleet with a ‘Quick Trick’

Issue #7 opens in the aftermath as a Special Congressional Committee convenes to rule on the robot’s autonomy and continued existence. ‘With a Nation Against Him!’ shows humanity’s prejudices and willingness to exploit Aaron, and when Spalding is kidnapped, Congressman Miles Brickman sees a way to ride that bigotry all the way to the White House…

As Aaron seeks to save Peter from nefarious capitalist criminals The Corporation, Kragg undergoes a change of heart and helps foil their plans to mass-produce X-Units, resulting in a spectacular ‘Super-Escape’ and a tenuous détente between mankind and Machine Man when they cooperate ‘In Final Battle!’ (Machine Man #9, December 1978)…

The series ended there, with the unresolved issues carrying over to a story arc in Incredible Hulk. Here a 6-page extract from #234’s ‘Battleground: Berkeley’ (April 1979 by Roger Stern, Sal Buscema & Jack Abel) sees Corporation high flyer Mr. Jackson frame Machine Man for kidnapping the Hulk’s friend Trish Starr, and lure the Jade Juggernaut to Central City…

Followed by the entirety of #235-237, the resultant clash gears up the metal marvel for a fresh run, opening with ‘The Monster and the Machine’ (Stern, Sal Buscema & Mike Esposito) as the Hulk runs amok and shreds the real Aaron Stack, whilst in Washington DC, opportunistic Brickman is elevated to the Senate…

The rematch in #236 furiously escalates in ‘Kill or Be Killed!’, but by the time the truth has emerged, the Hulk is beyond all reason and turns his wrath on Jackson with horrific effect in concluding chapter ‘When a City Dies!’ (by Stern, S Buscema & Abel)…

One month later Machine Man returned to his own title but it couldn’t have been more different…

In an industry and medium packed with imaginative graphic iterations of mechanoid marvels and malcontents, nobody ever drew robots like Steve Ditko…

He was one of comics’ greatest and most influential talents and – during his lifetime – probably America’s least lauded. Reclusive and reticent by inclination, his fervent desire was always to just get on with his job, telling stories the best he could: letting his work speak for him.

Whilst the noblest of aspirations, that attitude was a minor consideration – and even actual stumbling block – for the commercial interests which controlled comics production and still exert overwhelming influence upon the bulk of comic industry’s output.

In 1966, after Ditko’s legendary disagreements with Stan Lee led to the artist quitting Marvel, he found work at Warren Comics and resumed a career-long association with Charlton Comics. That company’s casual editorial attitudes had always offered the most creative freedom, if not financial reward, but in 1968 their wünderkind editor Dick Giordano was poached by rapidly-slipping industry leader National Comics. He took his key creators with him, but whilst Jim Aparo, Steve Skeates, Frank McLaughlin and Denny O’Neil found a new home, Ditko began only a sporadic – if phenomenally productive – association with DC.

It was during that heady, unsettled period that the first strips stemming from Ditko’s interpretation of Ayn Rand’s Objectivist philosophy began appearing in indie publications like Witzend and The Collector, whilst for the “over-ground” publishing colossus, he devised cult classics The Hawk and the Dove and Beware the Creeper. Later efforts included Shade, the Changing Man, Stalker and The Odd Man, plus anthological Sci Fi and horror yarns; truly unique interpretations of Man-Bat, Kirby’s The Demon, Legion of Super-Heroes and many more…

In 1979, Ditko grudgingly returned to Marvel to work on Micronauts, Captain Marvel, Fantastic Four, Captain Universe, licensed properties and new characters like Speedball, Squirrel Girl and the automaton in question…

MM #10 offered ‘Renewal!’ courtesy of Marv Wolfman & Steve Ditko. Severely damaged in combat, the artificial avenger is frantically rebuilt by Spalding and X-Project originator Dr. Broadhurst, at the cost of much of his awesome armament. This arbitrary adjustment forces Aaron to reassess his status and condition, and after finding a message from Abel Stack, he resolves to chart a fresh course as part of the human race.

Even after Aaron saves the Senator from certain death, Brickman pins his future career on capturing the mechanical “menace”, but the robot perseveres and a battle with a high-tech thief in ‘Byte of the Binary Bug!’ leads to a new cover secret identity as an insurance investigator, a new confidante in businessman Byron Benjamin and a new nemesis in exotic millionaire Khan of Xanadu

When a freak accident turns ordinary mortals into ascendant angels in #12’s ‘Where Walk the Gods!’ Aaron is forced to confront his own biases and moral imperatives to save his life, and learns the value of mercy from a small child, before Khan returns in ‘Xanadu!’, determined to achieve immortality by occupying Aaron’s mechanical body…

Wolfman & Ditko sought to humanise Machine Man through a cast of fellow workers at Delmar Insurance, such as freeloading lazy moocher Eddie Harris and office vamp Maggie Jones, but the real counterbalance to Aaron is Brickman who announces his run for the White House based on a publicity pogrom against the synthetic superhero in #14. Here, the action stems from ‘The Man Who Could Walk Through Walls’: a tragic scientist accidentally turned super-dense and hired by the Senator’s assistants to impersonate and defame the robot champion…

Further inroads into mainstream continuity come as Tom DeFalco joins Ditko from #15 onwards. Transformed into a cloud of energized gas, Dr. Voletta Todd calls herself Ion and – demanding ‘Kill Me or Cure Me’ – crushes Machine Man. As the robot is repaired by garrulous blue collar engineering savant Gears Garvin, the Thing and Human Torch tackle the deranged suicidal monster but are grateful for Aaron’s last-minute save…

Issue #16 introduces the first in a string of maniacal baddies as ‘Baron Brimstone and His Sinister Satan Squad!’ go on a magic-backed crime spree, after which #17 debuts evil industrialist Sunset Bain and macabre Madame Menace who seek to profit from selling Aaron’s stolen limbs in ‘Arms and the Robot!’

Brickman makes his move in #18, using dubious political connections and outright lies to trick Canadian super-agents Sasquatch, Aurora and Northstar into attacking the metal marvel who stands ‘Alone Against Alpha Flight!’ before the quirky series ends with #19 (February 1981) and a brutal battle against a manic mercenary: a cruel clash that leaves Aaron dejected, deformed and dispirited after being ‘Jolted by Jack O’Lantern!’

Marvel Comics Presents #10 (January 1989) then offers one last hurrah as – written by Ditko & Mike Rockwitz with Dave Cockrum inking the abstract master’s compelling pencils – ‘Machine Man Meets the F.F…Failure Five’ finds Aaron Stack targeted by a robot fiasco determined to continue his own existence by occupying the astounding X-51 frame… irrespective of who might already be using it…

With extras including a complete cover gallery by Kirby, Ditko, Royer, Al Milgrom, Frank Giacoia, Dan Green, Joe Sinnott, Steve Leialoha, Walter Simonson, John Byrne, Rich Buckler & Frank Miller, plus a quartet of ‘Machine Mail’editorials by Kirby; house ads; original art pages by both titans and unused cover art from the period and full biographies of the founding titans, this compilation is a dose of utter, uncomplicated comics magic: bold, brash, and completely compelling. How can you possibly resist the clarion call of sheer eccentric escapism?
© 2016 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Freddy and the New Kid (The Awesome Robot Chronicles volume 2)


By Neill Cameron (David Fickling Books)
ISBN: 978-1-78845-164-2 (PB)

Neill Cameron (Bulldog Empire; Judge Dredd Megazine; Henry V; The DFC) knows how to charm and enthral kids of all ages, particularly with his work in the picture-perfect pages of wonderful weekly The Phoenix: strips like Tamsin of the Deep; How to Make Awesome Comics and Pirates of Pangea.

To my mind, the best of the proud bunch is Mega-Robo Brothers, set in a futuristic London (at least 3 months from now, but with flying buses…) with a pair of marvellous metal-&-plastic paladins who are not like other schoolkids – no matter how much they try…

Cameron became a stalwart of proper literature after migrating the younger of his artificial wonders to the prose pages of proper books in the grand manner of Just William or Billy Bunter – albeit heavily illustrated, cartoon stuffed ones – with Freddy Vs. School. Here he cracks on with a splendid sequel…

Welcome to the Future!

In a London much cooler than ours Alex Sharma and younger brother Freddy are (mostly) typical kids: boisterous, fractious, argumentative but devoted to each other… and not too bothered that they’re adopted. It’s no big deal for them that they were originally built by mysterious Dr. Roboticus before he vanished, or that they are considered by those in the know as the most powerful robots on Earth.

That includes Mum and Dad. Mr Sharma may be just your average working guy, but Mum is actually a bit extraordinary herself. A renowned boffin, Dr. Nita Sharma carries some surprising secrets of her own, and occasionally allows her boys to be super-secret agents for R.A.I.D. (Robotics Analysis Intelligence and Defence).

It’s enough for the digital duo that they’re loved, even though they are more of a handful than most kids. They try to live as normal a life as possible; going to school, making friends, putting up with bullies and hating homework: it’s all part of Mega Robo Routine to blend boring lessons, fun with friends, games-playing, TV-watching and training in covert combat caverns under R.A.I.D. HQ…

When occasion demands, the lads undertake missions, but mostly it’s just home, games, homework and School. At least that’s how it seems to Freddy: a typical 10-year-old (well, except for the built-in super-powers).

Alex is at the age when self-doubt and anxiety take hold and counters the anxiety by trying to fit in, but Freddy is still insufferably exuberant and over-confident. It leads to frequent confrontations with unreasonable, unliked Deputy Head Mr. Javid and resulted in a specific set of school rules that apply only to the robot boy: a draconian Code of Conduct forbidding any students from using super-strength, booster rockets or lasers on school property…

Even when Freddy sticks to the rules, trouble just seems to go looking for him. He’s wilful and easily led, especially by best friend Fernando who also hates boring learning and loves excitement. Dr. Sharma calls him an “instigator”, but believes the influence of sporty Anisha, quiet swot Riyad and even (mostly) reformed bully Henrik can modify Freddy’s inability to do what he’s told…

Sadly, that was before ultra-competitive new girl Aoife arrived. She’s good at all subjects, a superstar on the sports field and quite likable, but for some reason hates and despises robots. All too soon, she and Freddy are arch enemies, engaged in a duel to prove whether humans or machines are best. The contest divides the school, separates Freddy from his friends and leads to a destructive plague of betting in the school…

Cash-strapped and cost obsessed, Mr Javid exacerbates the situation by systematically laying off human teachers and replacing them with low grade robots. It starts in the sports department but gradually the cheap mechanoids encroach on actual lessons, and all too soon Aoife has taught the students how to modify and reprogram them…

As the rivals strive to prove their point of view, chaos descends on the school. Lessons are affected; relationships shift; the remaining staff revolt and the robot replacements go berserk. Soon it’s time for lasers and rockets and maybe even some necessary explosions…

Somehow amidst all the madness, Freddy and Aoife start to see each other’s point of view, tone down their aggression and even properly get on. Now all they have to do is calm down the rioting kids, turn off the rebellious techno-teaching assistants, safely dismantle the gambling cabal and get their former friends to talk to them again…

Stuffed with monochrome cartoons and bouncy graphics, this is unmissable entertainment for all ages and vintages: a splendidly traditional potent school days comedy romp, amped up on sci fi and superhero riffs and carrying a powerful message that competition has a downside. Freddy and the New Kid is another amazing adventure for younger readers that you’ll adore too.
Text and illustrations © Neill Cameron 2021. All rights reserved.

Dick Tracy: The Collins Casefiles volume 1


By Max Allan Collins & Rick Fletcher (Checker Books)
ISBN: 978-0-97416-642-1 (TPB)

Time for another anniversary celebration. Here’s a superb collection crying out for revival in either physical or digital forms. Time to agitate against the publishing powers-that-be, I think…

All in all, comics have a pretty good track record for creating household names. We could play the game of picking the most well-known fictional characters on Earth – usually topped by Sherlock Holmes, Mickey Mouse, Superman, Batman and Tarzan – and supplement the list with Popeye, Blondie, Charlie Brown, Tintin, Spider-Man, Garfield, and – not so much now, but once definitely – Dick Tracy

At the height of the Great Depression cartoonist Chester Gould sought fresh strip ideas. The story goes that as a decent guy incensed by the exploits of gangsters like Al Capone – who monopolised the front pages of contemporary newspapers – the scribbler settled upon the only way a normal man could fight thugs: Passion and Public Opinion…

Raised in Oklahoma, Gould was a Chicago resident and hated seeing his home town in the grip of such wicked men, with far too many honest citizens beguiled by the gangsters’ charisma. He decided to pictorially get it off his chest with a procedural crime thriller that championed the ordinary cops who protected civilisation.

He took his proposal – “Plainclothes Tracy” – to legendary newspaperman and strips Svengali Captain Joseph Patterson, whose golden touch had already blessed strips like The Gumps, Gasoline Alley, Little Orphan Annie, Winnie Winkle,Smilin’ Jack, Moon Mullins and Terry and the Pirates among others. Casting his gifted eye on the work, Patterson renamed the hero Dick Tracy, also revising his love interest into steady, steadfast girlfriend Tess Truehart.

The series launched on October 4th 1931 through Patterson’s Chicago Tribune Syndicate and quickly grew into a monumental hit, with all the attendant media and merchandising hoopla that follows. Amidst toys, games, movies, serials, animated features, TV shows et al, the strip soldiered on, influencing generations of creators and entertaining millions of fans. Gould unfailingly wrote and drew the strip for decades until retirement in 1977.

The legendary lawman was a landmark creation who influenced not simply comics but the entirety of American popular fiction. Its signature use of baroque villains, outrageous crimes and fiendish death-traps pollinated the work of numerous strips (most notably Batman), shows and movies since then, whilst the indomitable Tracy’s studied, measured use – and startlingly accurate predictions – of crimefighting technology and techniques gave the world a taste of cop thrillers, police procedurals and forensic mysteries such as CSI decades before the current fascination took hold.

As with many creators in it for the long haul, the revolutionary 1960s were a harsh time for established cartoonists. Along with Milton Caniff’s Steve Canyon, Gould’s grizzled gangbuster especially foundered in a social climate of radical change where popular slogans included “Never trust anybody over 21” and “Smash the Establishment”.

The strip’s momentum faltered, perhaps as much from the move towards science fiction (Tracy moved into space and the character Moon Maid was introduced) and even more improbable, Bond-movie style villains as any perceived “old-fashioned” attitudes. Even the introduction of more minority and women characters and hippie cop Groovy Groovecouldn’t stop the rot. However, the feature soldiered on regardless…

Max Allen Collins is a hugely prolific and best-selling author of both graphic novels (Road to Perdition, CSI, Mike Mist, Ms. Tree) and prose thriller series featuring crime-creations Nathan Heller, Quarry, Nolan, Mallory, Krista Larson and a veritable pantheon of others. When Gould retired from the Tracy strip, the young author (nearly 30!) won the prestigious role as scripter, promptly taking the series back to its roots for a breathtaking 11-year run, ably assisted by Gould as consultant even as his chief artistic assistant Rick Fletcher was promoted to full illustrator.

This criminally scarce but splendidly enthralling monochrome paperback compilation opens with publisher Mark Thompson’s informative Introduction ‘Flatfoot’, and offers a frankly startling ‘Dick Tracy Timeline’ listing the series achievements and innovations from 1931 to 1988 even before the captivating Cops-&-Robbers clashes recommence with Collin’s inaugural adventure.

Angeltop’s Last Stand’ (3rd January-March 12th 1978) rapidly sidelined all the fantastical science fiction trappings (Tracy’s adopted son Junior had previously married lunar princess Moon Maid) whilst reviving grittily ultra-violent suspense as old friend Vitamin Flintheart is targeted for assassination.

With the senior detective’s assistants Sam Catchem and Lizz Worthington on the case, it’s soon clear the assault is part of a plan to make Tracy suffer. Solid investigation turns up two suspects, relatives of old – and expired – enemies Flattop Jonesand The Brow confirming familial revenge is the motive…

Sadly, the Police Department’s resources are inadequate to prevent aggrieved daughter Angeltop Jones and the new Browfrom abducting Tracy. Tragically for the vengeful felons, the grizzled crimebuster might be old but he’s still inventive and indomitable, and a cataclysmic confrontation leads to a fatal conflagration at the place of Flattop’s demise…

The next tale features an original Gould villain making a surprise comeback in the ‘Return of Haf-and-Haf’ (March 13th-June 11th) as maniac murderer Tulza Tuzon – whose left profile had been hideously scarred with acid – is released from the asylum, rehabilitated by modern psychology and groundbreaking plastic surgery…

Of course, only his face was fixed and the fiend quickly tries to murder ex-fiancée Zelda – who had betrayed him to the cops a decade previously. Tracy is on hand to save her life but unable to prevent her from enacting grisly retribution on her attacker, leaving Tuzon woefully in need of fresh cosmetic repair.

The unscrupulous surgeon who fixed him on the State’s dime wants a huge amount of clandestine cash to repeat the procedure and the stage is soon set for doom and tragedy on a Shakespearean scale…

This first Collins collection concludes with an epic minor classic that harked back to Tracy’s first published case. ‘Big Boy’s Revenge’ – AKA ‘Big Boy’s Open Contract’ – ran from 12th June 1978 to January 2nd 1979) detailing the unexpected return of the thinly-disguised Al Capone analogue Tracy had sent to prison at the very start of his career.

Decades later Big Boy, still a member of the crime syndicate known as The Apparatus, has been diagnosed with terminal cancer and wants to take with him the cop first who brought him down…

Ignoring and indeed eventually warring with the other Apparatus chiefs, the dying Don puts a $1,000,000 contract on Tracy’s head and lies back to watch the fireworks as a horde of hitmen and women zero in on the blithely unaware Senior Detective…

The resulting collateral damage costs the hero one of his nearest and dearest, removes most of the strip’s accumulated sci fi trappings and firmly resets the scenario in the grim and gritty world of contemporary crime. The Good Guys triumph in the end but the cost is shockingly high for a family strip…

Dick Tracy has always been a fantastically readable feature and this potent return to first principles is a terrific way to ease yourself into his stark, no-nonsense, Tough-Love, Hard Justice world.

Comics just don’t get better than this…
© Checker Book Publishing Group 2003, an authorized collection of works © Tribune Media Services, 1978, 1979. All characters and distinctive likenesses thereof are trademarks of Tribune Media Services. All rights reserved.

Golden Age Starman Archives volume 1


By Jack Burnley, Gardner Fox, Alfred Bester, Ray Burnley & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-56389-622-4 (HB)

After the staggering success of Superman and Batman, National Comics/DC rapidly launched many new mystery-men in their efforts to capitalise on the phenomenon of superheroes, and – from our decades-distant perspective – it’s only fair to say that by 1941 the editors had only the vaguest inkling of what they were doing.

Since newest creations The 6Sandman, The Spectre and Hourman were each imbued with equal investments of innovation, creativity and exposure, the editorial powers-that-be were rather disappointed that these additions never took off to the same explosive degree.

Publishing partner but separate editorial entity All American Comics had meanwhile generated a string of barnstorming successes like The Flash, Green Lantern, Hawkman and radio sensation Hop Harrigan and would imminently produce the only rival to Superman and Batman’s status when Wonder Woman debuted late in the year.

Of course, AA had the brilliantly “in-tune” creative and editorial prodigy Sheldon Mayer to filter all their ideas through …

Thus, when Starman launched in the April 1941 issue of Adventure Comics (relegating Sandman to a back-up role in the venerable heroic anthology), National/DC trusted in craft and quality rather than some indefinable “pizzazz”. The editors were convinced the startlingly realistic, conventionally dramatic illustration of Hardin “Jack” Burnley would propel their newest concept to the same giddy heights of popularity as the Action Ace and Gotham Guardian.

Indeed, the strip – always magnificently drawn and indisputably one of the most beautiful of the period – was further blessed with mature and compelling scripts by Gardner Fox and Alfred Bester: compulsive and brilliant thrillers and even by today’s standards some one of the very best comics ever produced.

However – according to the artist in his Foreword to this stunning deluxe hardback collection – that was possibly the problem. Subtle, moody, slower-paced stories just didn’t have the sheer exuberance and kinetic energy of the most popular series, which all eschewed craft and discipline for spectacle and all-out action.

Happily, these days with an appreciably older and more discerning audience, Starman’s less-than-stellar career in his own time can be fully seen for the superb example of Fights ‘n’ Tights wonderment it truly is, and – in his anniversary years – cries out for a definitive archival collection… especially since his legacy descendant Stargirl is a big shot TV sensation…

This epic collection reprints the earliest astounding exploits of the Astral Avenger from Adventure Comics #61-76 (spanning April 1941- July 1942), including some of the most iconic covers of the Golden Age, by Burnley and, latterly, wonder-kids Joe Simon & Jack Kirby.

Burnley came up with the Starman concept but, as was often the case, a professional writer was assigned to flesh out and co-create the stories. In this case said scribe was the multi-talented Gardner Fox who wrote most of them. The illustrator also liberally called on the talents of his brother Dupree “Ray” Burnley as art assistant, and sister Betty as letterer to finish the episodes in sublimely cinematic style.

In those simpler times origins were far less important than today, and the moonlit magic here begins with ‘The Amazing Starman’ from #61 as America suddenly suffers a wave of deadly electrical events. Appalled and afraid, FBI chief Woodley Allen summons his latest volunteer operative. Bored socialite Ted Knight promptly abandons his irate date Doris Lee to assume his mystery man persona, flying off to stop the deranged scientist behind all the death and destruction.

Almost as an aside we learn that secret genius Knight had previously discovered a way to collect and redirect the energy of Starlight through an awesome handheld device he calls a “gravity rod” and resolved to do only good with his discoveries…

The intrepid adventurer tracks diabolical Dr. Doog to his mountain fortress and spectacularly decimates the subversive Secret Brotherhood of the Electron.

In #62 the Sidereal Sentinel met another deadly deranged genius who had devised a shrinking ray. It even briefly diminishes Starman before the sky warrior extinguishes ‘The Menace of the Lethal Light’, after which ‘The Adventure of the Earthquake Terror’ (#63) depicts the nation attacked by foreign agent Captain Vurm, using enslaved South American tribesmen to administer his grotesque ground-shock engines. He too falls before the unstoppable cosmic power of harnessed starlight. America was still neutral at this time, but the writing was on the wall and increasingly villains sported monocles and Germanic accents…

Adventure Comics #64 pits the Astral All-Star against a sinister mesmerist who makes men slaves in ‘The Mystery of the Men with Staring Eyes’, after which – behind a stunning proto-patriotic cover – Starman solves ‘The Mystery of the Undersea Terror’, wherein the ship-sinking League of the Octopus proves another deadly outlet for the greedy genius of The Light…

‘The Case of the Camera Curse’ in #66 layered a dose of supernatural horror into the high-tech mix as Starman tackles a crazed photographer employing a voodoo lens to enslave and destroy his subjects, before #67’s ‘The Menace of the Invisible Raiders’ introduced the Astral Avenger’s greatest foe. The Mist devised a way to make men and machines imperceptible and would have conquered America with his unseen air force had not the Starry Knight stopped him…

Alfred Bester provides a searing patriotic yarn for #68 as ‘The Blaze of Doom’ sees Starman quenching a forest fire and uncovering a lumberjack gang intent on holding America’s Defence effort to ransom, after which Fox was back for #69’s ‘The Adventure of the Singapore Stranglers’ in which the heavenly hero stamps out a sinister cult. In actuality, the killers were sadistic saboteurs of a certain aggressive Asiatic Empire. American involvement in WWII was mere months away…

The martial tone continued in ‘The Adventure of the Ring of Hijackers’ as Starman battles Baron X, whose deadly minions are wrecking American trains carrying munitions and supplies to embattled British convoy vessels, although a welcome change of pace came in #71 when ‘The Invaders from the Future’ strike. Brigands from Tomorrow are bad enough, but when Starman discovers one of his old enemies had recruited them, all bets are off…

In #72, an Arabian curse seems the reason explorers are dying of fright, but the ‘Case of the ‘Magic Bloodstone’ proves to have a far more prosaic – if no less sinister – cause…

With Adventure Comics #73, Starman surrendered the cover-spot, as dynamic duo Simon & Kirby took over ailing strips Paul Kirk, Manhunter and Sandman. However, ‘The Case of the Murders in Outer Space’ proved the Knight Errant was not lacking in imagination or dynamic quality, as he matches wits with a brilliant mastermind murdering heirs to a Californian fortune by an unfathomable method before disposing of the bodies in an utterly unique manner…

Sinister science again reigned in #74 as ‘The Case of the Monstrous Animal-Men’ finds the Starlight Centurion tragically battling ghastly pawns of a maniac who turns men into beasts, whilst #75’s ‘The Case of the Luckless Liars’ details how Ted Knight’s initiation into a millionaires’ fibbing society leads to Starman becoming a hypnotised terror tool of deadly killer The Veil

This initial foray into darkness ends with a rollicking action riot in ‘The Case of the Sinister Sun’ wherein cheap thugs of the Moroni Gang upgrade their act with deadly gadgets: patterning themselves after the solar system in a blazing crime blitz until Starman eclipses them all…

Enthralling, engaging and fantastically inviting, these Golden Age adventures are a lost high-point of the era – even if readers of the time didn’t realise it – and offer astonishing thrills and amazing chills for today’s sophisticated readership. Starman’s exploits are some of the best but most neglected thrillers of those halcyon days, but modern tastes will find them are far more in tune with contemporary mores. This book is a truly terrific treat for fans of mad science, mystery, murder and stylish intrigue…
© 1941, 1942, 2000 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Avenger Epic Collection volume 6: A Traitor Stalks Among Us 1972-1973


By Roy Thomas, Harlan Ellison, Steve Englehart, Steve Gerber, Chris Claremont, Barry Windsor-Smith, Rick Buckler, John Buscema, Don Heck, George Tuska, Jim Starlin, Bob Brown, Sam Kweskin & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-1-3029-2911-4 (TPB)

One of the most momentous events in comics (and now, film) history came in the middle of 1963 when a disparate gang of heroic individuals banded together to combat an apparently out of control Incredible Hulk.

The Avengers combined most of the company’s fledgling superhero line in one bright, shiny and highly commercial package. Over the intervening decades the roster has unceasingly changed, and now almost every character in the Marvel multiverse has at some time numbered amongst their colourful ranks…

After instigators Stan Lee & Jack Kirby moved on, the team prospered under the guidance of Roy Thomas who grew into one of the industry’s most impressive writers, guiding the World’s Mightiest Heroes through a range of adventures ranging from sublimely poetic to staggeringly epic. He then handed over the scripting to a young writer who carried the team to even greater heights…

This stunning trade paperback compilation – also available in eBook iterations – assembles Avengers #98-114, plus a crucial crossover episode from Daredevil #99: collectively covering April 1972 to August 1973, confirming an era of cosmic catastrophe and cataclysmically captivating creative cross-pollination…

Even after saving the world, life goes on and seemingly gets more dangerous every day. Having ended war between the star-spanning Kree and Skrulls, ‘Let Slip the Dogs of War’ (#98, by Thomas, Barry Windsor-Smith & Sal Buscema) sees harried heroes Captain America, Iron Man, the Vision, Quicksilver, Scarlet Witch and Thor debating the loss of their comrade Goliath, missing in action since he explosively stopped a Skull warship from nuking Earth…

As the Thunderer heads for Asgard and its magic scrying mirrors, the fruitless debate is curtailed as war-mongering demagogue Mr. Tallon incites riot in the streets of New York. The gathered crowds attack the Avengers when they tried to quell the unrest and it is soon evident that the war-hawk has supernatural assistance.

…And in the dimensional void the Thunder God discovers all access to the Immortal Realms has been cut off…

By the time he returns to Earth his comrades are bewitched too. Joining with the seemingly immune Vision in a last-ditch, hopeless battle, the Storm Lord fights his greatest allies until the tide is turned by a perfectly-aimed arrow, heralding the return of Goliath to his original identity… Hawkeye.

Moreover, he has with him another Avenger: an amnesiac Hercules, Prince of Power, whose only certain knowledge is that Earth and Asgard are jointly doomed…

Inked by Tom Sutton, ‘…They First Make Mad!’ expands the epic as the Avengers call on all their resources to cure Hercules and decipher his cryptic warning whilst Earth’s leaders seem determined to catapult the planet into atomic Armageddon.

As Hawkeye explains his miraculous escape from death in space and how he found Hercules, the desperate call to assemble goes out, summoning every hero who has ever been an Avenger. Suddenly, two Grecian Titans materialise to trounce the team, dragging the terrified Prince of Power back to Olympus…

The saga ends in the staggeringly beautiful anniversary 100th issue ‘Whatever Gods There Be!’ (inked by Smith, Joe Sinnott & Syd Shores) as thirteen Avengers – including even the scurrilous Swordsman and blockbusting Hulk – invade the home of the Hellenic Gods to discover old enemy Enchantress and war god Ares are behind the entire malignant plot…

It’s always tricky starting fresh after an epic conclusion but Thomas and debuting penciller Rich Buckler – doing his best Neal Adams impersonation – had a secret weapon in mind: a Harlan Ellison tale inked by veteran brushman Dan Adkins.

‘Five Dooms to Save Tomorrow!’ was based on the novella from 1964 and sees the Avengers battling Leonard Tippit, an ordinary man granted god-like power so that he could murder five innocent human beings. To be fair though, those innocuous targets’ continued existence threatened Earth’s entire future…

Determined to stop him whatever the ultimate consequences, the Avengers eschew murky moral quandaries and are tested to their utmost, before the crisis is averted…

They are on firmer, more familiar ground in #102 when the Grim Reaper returns, offering to place the Vision’s consciousness in a human body in return for the android’s allegiance in ‘What to Do till the Sentinels Come!’ (Thomas, Buckler & Joe Sinnott). Meanwhile, the mutant-hunting robots kidnap the Scarlet Witch and start another scheme to eradicate the threat of Homo Superior forever…

A budding romance between the Witch and the Vision exposes tensions and bigotries in most unexpected places as the cataclysmic tale continues with ‘The Sentinels are Alive and Well!’ as the team search the globe for the monstrous mechanical marauders before being captured themselves whilst invading their Australian Outback hive.

The tale concludes ‘With a Bang… and a Whimper!’ as the assemblers thwart a project to sterilise humanity – but only at the cost of two heroes’ lives…

The grieving Scarlet Witch takes centre stage in #105 as ‘In the Beginning was… the World Within!’ pairs neophyte scripter Steve Englehart with veteran artists John Buscema & Jim Mooney. The team travel to South America and encounter cavemen mutants from the antediluvian Savage Land, after which the Avengers discover ‘A Traitor Stalks Among Us!’ (art by Buckler, George Tuska & Dave Cockrum) with the revelation that perennial sidekick Rick Jones has become atomically bonded to alien hero Captain Marvel: a revelation that triggers a painful flashback in memory-blocked Captain America, just as an old foe turns the team against itself.

Limned by Jim Starlin, Tuska & Cockrum, Avengers #107 reveals ‘The Master Plan of the Space Phantom!’ and his complex and sinister alliance with the Grim Reaper even as the love-sick Vision finally accepts the Faustian offer of a human body.

Unfortunately, the corpus on offer is the Star-Spangled Avenger’s…

‘Check… and Mate!’ – illustrated by veteran Avenger artist Don Heck and inkers Cockrum & Sinnott – wraps up the intriguing saga in spectacular fashion as an army of Avengers thrash Phantom, Reaper and assorted hordes of Hydra hoods. However, the true climax is the Vision and Witch’s final acknowledgement of their love for each other.

The announcement provokes a storm of trouble…

In #109 Hawkeye – who’s always carried a torch for Wanda – quits the team in a dudgeon and ‘The Measure of a Man!’ (Heck & Frank McLaughlin) finds the heartsick archer duped by billionaire businessman Champion and nearly responsible for causing the complete destruction of California before wising up to save the day…

Next the depleted team of Captain America, Thor, Iron Man, Scarlet Witch, Vision and Black Panther investigate the disappearance of mutant heroes the X-Men and are thoroughly beaten by an old enemy with a new power.

‘… And Now Magneto!’ (Englehart, Heck, Frank Giacoia & Mike Esposito) ends with half the team brainwashed captives of the villain with the remaining crusaders desperately seeking new allies. We then pop over to San Francisco and a crossover from Daredevil and the Black Widow #99 (May 1973, by Steve Gerber, Sam Kweskin & Syd Shores).

‘The Mark of Hawkeye!’ sees Natasha Romanoff’s old boyfriend fetch up on the Widow’s doorstep, determined to “reclaim” her. The caveman stunt culminates in the Archer’s sound and well-deserved thrashing, and when the last Avengers arrive, asking him to return and assist, he refuses. DD and the Widow don’t, though…

The saga resumes and concludes in Avengers #111 as, ‘With Two Beside Them!’ (Englehart, Heck & Esposito) the returned heroes and West Coast vigilantes successfully rescue X-Men and Avengers enslaved by malevolent Magneto. With the action over, Daredevil returns to California, but the Black Widow elects to stay with the World’s Mightiest Heroes…

Escalating cosmic themes and colossal clashes commence here with Avengers #112 and ‘The Lion God Lives!’ (Don Heck & Frank Bolle art) wherein a rival African deity manifests to destroy the human avatar of the Panther God. As T’Challa and his valiant comrades tackle that threat, in the wings an erstwhile ally/enemy and his exotic paramour make their own plans for the team…

Unreasoning prejudice informs #113’s ‘Your Young Men Shall Slay Visions!’ (art by Bob Brown & Bolle) wherein a horde of fundamentalist bigots – offended by the “unnatural” love between Wanda, the mutant and artificial being the Vision – turn themselves into human bombs to destroy the sinful, unholy couple. Soon after, ‘Night of the Swordsman’ (Brown & Esposito) formally introduces the reformed swashbuckler and his enigmatic psychic martial artist paramour Mantis to the team… just in time to thwart the Lion God’s latest scheme…

Rewarded with probationary status and the benefit of the doubt, they are in place for a forthcoming clash that will rock the universes…

As if extra enticements are even necessary, also included in this compendium are the stunning front and back covers crafted by Stuart Immonen, Wade von Grawbadger & Marie Javins for Essential Avengers #1-3, and original art covers, pages and unused pencils by Windsor, Smith, Buckler, John Buscema, Starlin, Heck, Cockrum and Brown.

Roy Thomas and Steve Englehart were at the forefront of Marvel’s second generation of story-makers; brilliantly building on and consolidating the compelling creations of Stan Lee, Jack Kirby & Steve Ditko while spearheading and constructing a logical, fully functioning wonder-machine of places and events that so many others were inspired by and could add to.

These terrific tales are ideal examples of superheroes done exactly right: pivotal points as the underdog company evolved into a corporate entertainment colossus. These are some of the best superhero stories you’ll ever read and Englehart’s forthcoming concoctions would turn the Marvel Universe on its head and pave the way for a new peak of cosmic adventure…
© 2021 MARVEL.

Green Arrow: Year One – The Deluxe Edition


By Andy Diggle & Jock & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-77950-114-1 (HB)

Green Arrow is one of DC’s Golden All-Stars. He’s been a fixture of the company’s landscape – in many instances for no discernible reason – more or less continually since his 1941 debut in More Fun Comics #73. Many Happy Returns, Emerald Archer!

In those distant heady days, origins weren’t as important as image and storytelling, so creators Mort Weisinger and George Papp never bothered. The first inkling of formative motivations came in More Fun Comics # 89 (March 1943) wherein Joe Samachson & Cliff Young detailed ‘The Birth of the Battling Bowman’ (and a tip of the feathered hat to Scott McCullar for bringing the tale to my belated attention). With the secret revealed, it was promptly ignored for years, leaving later workmen France Herron, Jack Kirby and his wife Roz to fill in the blanks again with ‘The Green Arrow’s First Case’ at the start of the Silver Age superhero revival. It appeared in Adventure Comics #256, coved-dated January 1959.

This time the story stuck, becoming – with numerous tweakings over successive years – the basis of the modern Amazing Archer on page and screen.

The most impressive recalibration came in 2006 courtesy of Brit-packers Andy Diggle & Jock (better unknown to all as Mark Simpson, ably assisted by colourist David Baron and letterer Jared K. Fletcher) which massaged with spectacular visuals and jaded, post-modern cynicism the well-worn tale of a wealthy wastrel who finds purpose after being marooned on a desert island. The result was a comfortably modern, unsettlingly bleak, dark and violent contemporary classic.

Adrenaline junkie and trust-fund millionaire Oliver Queen makes a public fool of himself at a society bash and is compelled by shame to join his bodyguard Hackett on a boating trip to the Pacific. On board, Ollie discovers that the man he regularly trusts his life with has stolen all his money and intends to kill him now to get away with it…

When the murder-attempt goes awry, Queen somehow washes up on a desolate volcanic island. His early days of privation and thirst only worsen when he discovers the place is a criminal venture: a vast drug factory complete with slave workers and a sadistic crime queen called China White.

After being wounded by gun-toting thugs, a drug-slave secretly ministers to his wounds, and once Ollie learns Hackett is also involved in these atrocities, long submerged feelings and ethics resurface. He built a bow to catch fish, but now that he has a new reason to live, can he use it to stay alive and save others too?

This modern retelling is sharp and edgy as you’d expect from such extremely talented creators: rocket paced, potently suspenseful and peppered with spectacular action set pieces. This modern spin actually benefits and improves the character of Queen/Green Arrow, elevating a fan favourite to the first rank of Super Heroes. An excellent addition to the legend of one of DC’s most enduring, endearing characters.

This deluxe hardback edition (available in digital formats) also offers an Introduction by Brian K. Vaughn, and a Survival Guide section which includes Script excerpts and a wealth of preliminary artwork.
© 2020 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Archie: 1941


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Roles We Play


By Sabba Khan (Myriad Editions)
ISBN: 978-1-912408-30-6 (Deluxe Paperback) eISBN: 978-1-912408-98-8

Do you know what’s one of the most scarily charged questions in modern life?

“Where are you from?”

It used to be a neutral opening: a simple introductory gambit when meeting new people, but has recently become fraught with purely British angst, dipped in layers of second, third and fourth-guessing for all parties concerned. Are the words a friendly, casual enquiry to establish social parity and share past experience, or is it a setting of the scene for a judgemental inquisition or even targeting for imminent disparaging condescension?

I’m Hertfordshire-born baby-boomer English, via a German mum and Polish dad: the whitest Old White Male you could ever imagine and my accent is just right to be wholly acceptable to doctors, publicans, posh gits, shopkeepers, schoolkids, sports fans of all descriptions, raving Gammons and sneaky leftist liberal socialists alike. In modern terms, that’s winning the British community lottery, but deep within, I’m tainted with foreignness to my core. Anybody feel like treating me differently now you know?

Not ticking all those boxes has made life increasingly difficult for a vast pool of my fellow Brits: a point I can perfectly prove by reference to the debut graphic novel of Architectural designer and visual artist Sabba Khan. She’s British too, but has to constantly remind not just the people around her, but also her own family…

Told over three transformative, illuminating stages The Roles We Play follows a young girl reared in a loving, abusive, restrictive, nurturing home that gave no shrift to individuality or accommodated personal dreams, but instead made everything of a culture, history and tradition forsaken for a new life in an incomprehensibly different world.

Khan grew up in East London when she was outside, but lived in a house that was a static box of ancestral Kashmiri life constructed following her parents move to England. They came as part of an Asian diaspora triggered by the 1947 partition of India and subsequent flooding of the Mirpur valley in Azad Kashmir in 1961. The project created a dam, power source and stable water supply, but forcibly displaced 15 million Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims who had previously farmed the valley in peace for generations.

Apparently, two thirds of British Pakistanis trace their ancestry back to the Mirpur Valley and the 1961 Water Treaty between India and Pakistan which still resonates in the ongoing battle for control of the Kashmir region…

Although womanly skills, and general history and context were abundant and scrupulously shared and passed on in the house, tolerance of British ways was not. Sabba grew up drawn in two directions: cherishing the love of family, support of faith and familiar ways, but constantly chided for her incomprehensible interest in the places, ways and temptations of the different life beyond the house walls.

Always keen to chart her own course, Khan spent years seeking to balance two lives before choosing to pursue art and architecture. She claimed independence: breaking away from controlling family, constant judgement, wheedling scrutiny and soft-power governance to create her own career and multicultural clan with a man of another world and friends of her own choosing.

Her ruminations, observations and bittersweet reminiscences are cannily transformed here into a captivating testament to a life of choice: exploring the truth of growing up Asian in Britain, seeking to assimilate the new whilst embracing the traditional. Seen in macrocosm, her superbly imaginative graphic designs and illustrative scenes trace a life of introspection and longing, deconstructing issues of race, alienation, rejection, cultural identity and sense-of-place-and-worth, whilst confronting on a personal level countless incidents covering a history of intolerance over religion, skin colour, gender, history, class and yes, race again…

Deftly sustaining a captivating balancing act between a British now with the idealised Kashmir she never knew, Khan has manifested a compelling journey laced with humour, warmth, hope and unshakable determination that should call out to not just the many migrant communities that make up modern society – and who have built the notion of Britain since before the Roman Invasion – but also to all of us who used to proudly welcome strangers here…
© Sabba Khan 2021. All rights reserved.

The Roles We Play is published on 15th July 2021 and is available for pre-order now.