Ray & Joe: The Story of a Man and His Dead Friend and Other Classic Comics


By Charles Rodrigues, Bob Fingerman & Gary Groth (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-668-3(HB)

Charles Rodrigues (1926-2004) is arguably one of the most influential – and certainly most darkly hilarious – American cartoonists of the last century.

His surreal, absurd, insane, anarchic, socially disruptive and utterly unforgettable bad-taste doodles were delivered with electric vitality and galvanising energetic ferocity in a number of magazines. He was most effective in Playboy, The National Lampoon (from its debut issue) and Stereo Review: the pinnacle of a cartooning career which began after WWII and spanned almost the entire latter half of the 20th century.

After leaving the Navy and relinquishing the idea of writing for a living, Rodrigues used his slice of the G.I. Bill provision to attend New York’s Cartoonists and Illustrator’s School (now the School of Visual Arts). In 1950, he began schlepping gags around the low-rent but healthily ubiquitous “Men’s Magazine” circuit and found a natural home. He gradually graduated from those glorified girly-mags to more salubrious publications and in 1954 began a lengthy association with Hugh Hefner in a revolutionary new venture even while still contributing to what seemed like every publication in the nation buying panel gags, from Esquire to TV Guide, Genesis to The Critic.

Rodrigues even found time to create three strips for the Chicago Tribune-New York News Syndicate: Eggs Benedict, Casey the Cop and Charlie.

Despite such legitimacies though, the quiet, genteel devout Catholic’s lasting monument is the wealth of truly gob-smacking, sick, subversive, offensive and mordantly, trenchantly wonderful strip-series he crafted for The National Lampoon. Editor Henry Beard sought him out in the earliest pre-launch days of 1969, and offered Rodrigues carte blanche, complete creative freedom and a regular full-page spot. He stayed with the prestigious mag from the 1970 debut until 1993, a mainstay of its legendary comics section…

In this superbly appalling hardback or digital tome – bracketed by informative text pieces ‘Introduction: An Appreciation of a Goddamn Great Cartoonist’ and ‘Biography: Charles Rodrigues’ by passionate devotee Bob Fingerman – the parade of diabolical disgust and fetid fun begins with the eponymous ‘Ray and Joe – the Story of a Man and his Dead Friend’ which follows the frankly disturbing buddy-movie path of Joe – whose death doesn’t upset his wife as much as you’d expect. In fact, when the cadaver’s former pal meekly inquires, she’s more than happy to let Ray keep the body. After all, it’s cheaper than a funeral…

There’s no agenda here: Ray just wants to keep his friend around, even going so far as to have him embalmed and put on roller skates. Of course, most people simply don’t understand…

Rodrigues regularly broke all the rules in these strips: taste, decency, even the contract between reader and creator. Often, he would drop a storyline and return to his notional continuities at a later date. Sometimes he would even stop mid-episode and insert a new strip or gag if it offered bigger chortles or shocks…

Next up is ‘Deirdre Callahan – a biography’: the gut-wrenching travails of a little girl so ugly she could cause people’s eyeballs to explode and make almost everyone she met kill themselves in disgust. Of course such a pitiful case – the little lass with a face “too hideous for publication” – did elicit the concern of many upstanding citizens: ambitious plastic surgeons, shyster lawyers, radical terrorists, enemy agents, bored, sadistic billionaires in need of a good laugh, the mother who threw her in a garbage can before fully examining the merchandising opportunities…

The artist’s most long-lived and inspired creation was ‘The Aesop Brothers – Siamese Twins’, which ran intermittently from the early 1970s to 1986 in an unceasing parade of grotesque situations where conjoined George and Alex endured the vicissitudes of a life forever together: the perennial problems of bathroom breaks, getting laid, enjoying a little “me time”…

In the course of their cartoon careers the boys ran away to the circus to be with a set of hot conjoined sisters, but that quickly went bits-up, after which sinister carnival owner Captain Menshevik had them exhibited as a brother/sister act with poor Alex kitted out in drag.

There’s a frantic escapade with a nymphomaniac octogenarian movie goddess, assorted asshole doctors, Howard Hughes’ darkest secret, a publicity-shy rogue cop, marriage (but only for one of them), their horrendous early lives uncovered, the allure of communism, multiple choice strips, experimental, existential and faux-foreign episodes, and even their outrageous times as Edwardian consulting detectives.

This is not your regular comedy fare and there’s certainly something here to make you blanch, no matter how jaded, strong-stomached or dissolute you think you are…

As always with Rodrigues, even though the world at large hilariously exploits and punishes his protagonists, it’s not all one-sided. Said stars are usually dim and venal and their own worst enemies too…

Hard on their four heels comes the saga of ‘Sam DeGroot – the Free World’s Only Private Detective in an Iron Lung Machine’: a plucky unfortunate determined to make an honest contribution, hampered more by society’s prejudices than his own condition and ineptitude…

After brushes with the mob and conniving billionaires’ wives, no wonder he took to demon drink. Happily, Sam was saved by kindly Good Samaritan Everett, but the gentle giant then force-fed him custard and other treats because he was a patient urban cannibal. Thankfully, that’s when Jesus enters the picture…

During the course of these instalments, the strip was frequently usurped by short guerrilla gag feature ‘True Tales of the Urinary Tract’ and only reached its noxious peak after Sam fell into a coma…

The artist was blessed – or, perhaps, cursed – with a perpetually percolating imagination which drove him to craft scandalously inaccurate Biographies. Included here are choice and outrageous insights into ‘Marilyn Monroe’, ‘Abbie Hoffman’, ‘Chester Bouvier’, ‘Eugene O’Neill’ and ‘Jerry Brown’ as well as ‘An American Story – a Saga of Ordinary People Just Like You’, ‘The Man Without a County’ and ‘Joe Marshall Recalls his Past’

The horrific and hilarious assault on common decency concludes with a selection of shorter series collected as The Son of a Bitch et al, beginning with an exposé of that self-same American institution.

The Son of a Bitch’ leads into the incontinent lives of those winos outside ‘22 Houston Street’, the ongoing calamity of ‘Doctor Colon’s Monster’, the domestic trauma of ‘Mama’s Boy’ and the sad fate of ‘The “Cuckold”’

‘The Adventures of the United States Weather Bureau starring Walter T. Eccleston’ is followed by ‘Mafia Tales’ and ‘VD Clinic Vignettes’, after which ‘A Glass of Beer with Stanley Cyganiewicz of Scranton, PA’ goes down smoothly, thanks to the then-contentious Gay question addressed in ‘Lillehammer Follies’, before everything settles down after the recipe for ‘Everett’s Custard’

Fantagraphics Books yet again struck gold by reviving and celebrating a lost hero of graphic narrative arts in this superb commemoration of a mighty talent. This is an astoundingly funny collection, brilliantly rendered by a master craftsman and one no connoisseur of black comedy can afford to miss; especially in times when we all feel helpless and can only laugh in the face of incompetence, venality, stupidity and death…
All strips and comics by Rodrigues © Lorraine Rodrigues. Introduction & Biography © Bob Fingerman. All rights reserved. This edition © 2011 Fantagraphics Books.

The Big Kahn


By Neil Kleid & Nicholas Cinquegrani (NBM/ComicsLit)
ISBN: 978-1-56163-561-0 (TPB)

When Rabbi Kahn died it shook the close-knit, devout community he had spent four decades building and guiding. Yet despite the best of intentions, his funeral – where first-born son Avi delivers a eulogy and prepares to assume his father’s role – devolves into a shocking shambles. Rebellious, troubled daughter Lea prefers furtive sex in a synagogue broom-closet to her rightful place beside her grieving mother and young Eli is clearly in a state of shock…

So tempers naturally flare when unsavoury gentile Roy Dobbs intrudes upon the event, demanding to see the body of his brother one final time…

With mixed emotions, the surviving family and larger congregation are forced to confront a terrible truth. David Kahn, Holocaust survivor, brilliant rabbinical scholar, wise and loving parent and spiritual glue for an entire community over more than forty years, was in fact Donnie Dobbs: a two-bit grifter and con-man who came to the neighbourhood to fleece the yokels but instead found something better and stayed to grow and blossom…

With his death, everything has changed. The man they all knew was a lie, so doesn’t that mean everything he said and did was too? Surely the children of David Kahn are tarred with the wicked same brush and destined to repeat his thoughts and deeds?

How these implications affect the Kahn children and their broken, bereft mother offers a masterpiece of human scrutiny, depicted with deft skill and great understanding, and the discreet, superbly underplayed monochrome art is effective and compassionate, wisely never intruding into the tale but always providing just what the reader needs to see.

Although not yet available digitally, The Big Kahn is an intriguing, compelling, thought-provoking human drama deserving the widest possible attention: a witty and powerful exploration of truths big and small, set against the backdrop of a traditional Jewish American community, cannily exploring not only faith’s effect on individuals but how mortals shape religion and all the big questions in life and after it…

It’s a subject we can all benefit from contemplating packaged as one of the best dramas you’ll ever read, so make the effort to add this lost gem to your must-own list ASAP…
© 2009 Neil Kleid & Nicholas Cinquegrani.

Sickness Unto Death volumes 1 & 2


By Hikaru Asada & Takahiro Seguchi (Vertical)
ISBN: 978-1-939130-09-9(tankōbon PB vol. 1) 978-1939130105(tankōbon PB vol. 2)

Here’s an intriguing and tragically underrated and sadly forgotten saga deftly examining the devastating effects of despair that still has plenty to say and much to offer…

Takahiro Seguchi’s gripping psychological melodrama Sickness Unto Death is a bleak and enthralling, emotionally complex tale of love, compulsion and dependency, transformed into spellbinding comics by artist Hikaru Asada.

Inspired by Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard’s treatise Sygdommen til Døden (The Sickness Unto Death – a Christian existentialist examination of the “Sin of Despair”), this extremely accessible tale began in 2009 as Shi ni Itaru Yamai; serialised in Hakusensha’s fortnightly Seinen magazine Young Animal.

This translated version opens with a Professor standing beside a student over the grave of his first case – and greatest love…

A flashback begins revealing how, as a young man, Kazuma Futaba came to the city to study clinical psychology, and how he was lucky to find lodgings in an old house. However, on his way there he encountered a young girl with white hair suffering a crushing anxiety attack in the street. Although everybody ignored the crippled creature, he rushed to her assistance and happily complied with her desperate need to be held.

‘Emiru’ was impossibly cold to the touch and although both were merely 18 years old, she seemed inexorably gripped by an ancient despondency and overwhelming gloom…

After she recovered, he hurried on to find his new digs in a vast old house, meeting the butler Kuramoto who reveals the place belonged to the orphan Emiru Ariga, a beautiful, vivacious creature who had within the last two years suddenly succumbed to a crushing ‘Despair’ so great it had bleached her hair, triggered drastic weight-loss, weakened her heart and caused her body temperature to fall to far below normal. He describes it as a “terminal illness of the spirit”. She now spends most of her time locked in her room, drawing monsters and waiting to die…

Intrigued, desperate to help but painfully aware of how inexperienced he is, Futaba examines the compliant, barely-living corpse and determines to somehow help her. At least she shows some animation when he is near. Both Kuramoto and his young mistress want Futaba to fix her…

In ‘Haunted Mansion’ the relationship develops further as the student transfers what he learns by day at school into evening therapy. Emiru seems brighter, even though she believes the house harbours ghosts…

When Kuramoto is called away for a few days, he leaves Futaba in charge, but after the frail girl spends too long in a bath, the boy panics. Breaking in, he sees her painfully thin, nude form for the first time. Embarrassed and confused, he dashes away and stumbles upon a mystery room, its door nailed shut with heavy planks.

Emiru sees ghosts: a crying, lonely child and a monster with teeth but no face…

Her sleep is perpetually disturbed, and Futaba – after learning about Night Terrors in class – agrees to ‘Sharing a Bed’, even though he is no longer certain his own motives are strictly professional. Nevertheless, resolved to save her he begins a ‘Psych Assessment’, gathering facts and personal history, but learns little more than once she was normal and then, suddenly, she wasn’t…

Emiru is increasingly time-locked in lengthy periods of despair, weeping outside the barred room; her traumatic nights eased by Kazuma’s platonic presence, although she feels the spectral presence of ‘The One in the Mansion’ whenever he goes away…

In the present, Professor Futaba and student Minami – who thinks she too can see a ghost in the abandoned dwelling – explore the deserted, decrepit mansion which housed his greatest regret. When they stop at a monster drawing scrawled on a wall, it takes him back to those troubled years…

A setback in Emiru’s recovery occurs when another ghost sighting unleashes a wave of depression and young Futaba learns of her carefree ‘High School Years’ from fellow psych student Koizumi – a former classmate of Emiru when she a healthy, happy, raven-haired ball of wild energy, fun and adventure…

Koizumi ardently believes she became burdened with some terrible secret that overnight transformed her into the frail, fading creature Futaba describes, prompting the floundering lad to confer with his tutor Professor Otsuki. The mentor responds by lending him a copy of Kierkegaard’s infamous tract…

For such a weakened patient, even a cold might be fatal, but with Futaba at her side Emiru pulls through. However, after recovering, she entices him into crossing a ‘Forbidden Line’ but neither as therapist nor lover is young Futaba assured of securing her ‘Happiness and Beauty’ until and unless he can her unburden her obsessive soul of the dark secret strangling it from within…

Beguiling and hypnotic, this exceptional medical mystery/ghostly love story is far from the familiar – to Western eyes at least – explosive bombast and action slapstick normally associated with Japanese comics. As such it might just make a few manga converts amongst die-hard holdouts who prefer sensitive writing, deep themes and human scale to their comics.

Moody, moving and far more than just another adult manga, Sickness Unto Death is that rarest of things: a graphic novel for people who don’t think they like comics…
© 2010 Hikaru Asada. © 2010 Takahiro Seguchi. All rights reserved.

The End


By Anders Nilsen (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 987-1-60699-635-5 (HB)

Cartoonist and educator Anders Nilsen graduated from the University of New Mexico with an arts degree in 1996. After quitting his Masters course in 1999, he began winning awards for his strips and graphic novels. There are a dozen or so superb graphic tomes out there you can delight in.

Cheryl Weaver and Anders Nilsen were a couple. They were engaged and together forever and then in 2005 she died.

Her passing wasn’t sudden or dramatic and he had time to say goodbye. He carried on doing so for the next year, while his sketchbooks filled with questions and notions and helpless, hapless, hurt responses as he adjusted to his new, so very much unwanted, normal; all expressed in the form of his other reason for living – sequential narrative art.

Born in Minneapolis in 1973, Nilsen lives in Chicago – when not travelling the world – producing such thought-provoking, comics as Dogs and Water, Poetry is Useless, Rage of Poseidon, Monologues for the Coming Plague, Big Questions and Don’t Go Where I Can’t Follow – the heartbreaking thematic companion to today’s featured recommendation.

Much of that sketchbook material – collected in this astoundingly frank and distressingly intimate hardcover and digital memoir – first appeared in the author’s therapeutic 2007 comic book The End #1, whilst other portions of this much-expanded record originated in such disparate places as much-missed anthology Mome (Spring 2007) and even from screen-prints created in the months and years encompassing Nilsen’s slow voyage to acceptance.

The uncomfortably earnest eulogy begins with a poetic ‘Prologue’, before ‘Is That All There Is?’ wordlessly depicts an all-engulfing sense of loss and isolation, interrupted only by the text soliloquy ‘Love Story’.

The heart-rending catalogue of painful solitary moments ‘Since You’ve Been Gone I Can Do Whatever I Want To Do All the Time’ leads into inspirational prose observation with ‘I Have Two Lives’ after which the artist coolly examines the simple equation of loss and emotional paralysis with ‘Solve for X’

Poem ‘In the Future’ and cartoon pantomime ‘Pulling a Giant Block’ precede harsh but ultimately uplifting debate in ‘25 Dollars’ (originally seen in Mome as ‘It’s OK, You Have Everything You Need’), after which diagrammatic epigram ‘Eternity Analogy’ offers welcome hope and advice to fellow sufferers…

Primitivist drawing and photographic collage colourfully and philosophically combine in ‘You Were Born and So You’re Free’ before stark, simple lines return to illustrate an extensive imaginary conversation with the memory of love in ‘Talking to the Dead’ whilst print photomontages resume for the wistfully querulous ‘How Can I Prepare You for What’s To Follow?’ – created to welcome a newborn into the world…

The painful truism “life goes on” is reinterpreted in one final chat with the inevitable truth to close this memento mori in quiet contemplation with ‘Only Sometimes’

To say this is a deeply moving book is grotesquely trite and staggeringly obtuse, but it’s also true. Every loss is always completely unique and utterly, selfishly personal, but most of us also have some capacity to empathise, share and see our own situation in the emotional disclosures of others. That’s never been more true than in these past months and the unknowable times to come.

When such commemorations are undertaken as honestly, effectively and evocatively as here, the result is simply, devastatingly, unforgettably magical.
© 2013 Anders Nilsen. All rights reserved.

Y: The Last Man Book One


By Brian K Vaughan, Pia Guerra, José Marzán & various (DC/ Vertigo)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-1921-5 (HB) 978-1-4012-5151-2 (TPB)

Back in 2002, an old, venerable and cherished science fiction concept got a new and pithy updating in the Vertigo comic book Y: The Last Man. These days it’s more relevant than ever as the premise reveals the consequences of a virulent plague. This one is primarily a mystery as it kills every male mammal on Earth – including all the sperm and the foetuses…

If it had a Y chromosome, it died. All except, somehow, for amateur stage magician, escapologist and all-round slacker goof-ball Yorick Brown and his pet monkey, Ampersand. One night, the gormless guy goes to bed pining for absent girlfriend Beth – who’s an anthropology grad on a gig in Australia – and the next day he’s the last functioning seed-dispenser in existence…

As a shady sub-culture of international espionage and conspiracy comes out of the shadows, Yorick’s mother is revealed as part of the new – for which read Female-and-Still-Standing after a failed power-grab by the widows of Republican Congressmen – American Presidential cabinet. This makes her, by default, a stand-in Leader of the Free World until the new President can get to Washington and take office…

Once Yorick makes his desperate, whiny way to her through a devastated urban landscape that used to be Washington DC, some things become clear. The plague hit during rush-hour on the East Coast and, with all the male take-charge types expiring in an eyeblink, the damage to civilisation has been inconceivable.

Planes, Trains, Automobiles and every other machine monopolised by male privilege across the planet stopped being piloted at the same moment and collateral damage was almost instantaneous and cataclysmic…

In the wreckage and ruins of man-kind, the new US leaders try to lock her son in a bunker as a crucial national resource, but he escapes and immediately announces he’s off Down Under.

After some delicate and acrimonious “negotiation”, Mum and Madam President finally allows the world’s only known propagator of the next generation to undertake a hazardous cross-country trek rather than subjecting him to some more rational project… such as milking him for IVF resources…

Off Yorick goes with a lethal and ambiguous secret agent known only as 355 to the secret California laboratory of Dr Allison Mann. This good doctor is a geneticist who secretly fears she might be the root cause of all the trouble…

Also out to stake their claim – and adding immeasurably to the tension and already prodigious body count – are a crack squad of Israeli commandos with a hidden agenda and mysterious sponsor, plus post-disaster cult The Daughters of the Amazon who want to make sure once and for all that there really are no more men. The hardest thing for the final baby-daddy to take is that they’re led by Yorick’s own sister Hero

Throughout all this grief, he remains a contrary cuss. Defying every whim and “Hey, I’m a Guy” stereotype, all he wants is to be reunited with his dearly beloved marooned in Oz. Like a stubborn and now extinct male mule, he will not be dissuaded…

Although this first escapade is mostly set-up, the main characters are engaging and work well to dispel the inevitable aura of familiarity and cliché this series had to initially struggle against.

Second story-arc ‘Cycles’ kicks off with Brown & Ampersand still laboriously trekking across an America now utterly feminised. Even with pitiless psycho-killers hunting him and with only a lethally-skilled government agent and disturbed geneticist to escort him across the devastated, death-drenched landscape to the West Coast, all the young oaf can think of is reuniting with Beth…

As the trio (quartet if we simply count primates) pass from Boston to Ohio, they end up in a curiously stable community in the Midwest where the sight of a male barely ruffles the assembled feathers. Yorick experiences his first instance of genuine sexual temptation. Sadly, the idyll is short-lived as the relentless Amazon Daughters catch up to the wanderers with tragic circumstances…

Moreover, the Israeli commandos hunting Earth’s last sperm-donor are also increasingly going off-book, heralding more chaos to come. And as Yorick and Co. resume their journey, hundreds of miles above Earth, another crisis is brewing…

To Be Continued…

This collection re-presents – in hardback, trade paperback and digital formats – issues #1-10 of Y: The Last Man (which were subsequently released as early graphic novel hits Unmanned and Cycles) and includes a comprehensive art gallery section in ‘Y: The Sketchbook’ courtesy of illustrator Pia Guerra.

Despite the horrific narrative backdrop, Brian K. Vaughn’s tale unfolds at a relatively leisurely pace and there’s plenty of black humour, socio-political commentary and proper lip service paid to the type of society the world would be without most of its pilots, entrepreneurs, mechanics, labourers, abusers and violent felons, but there’s precious little story progression in this tome, so if you’re a regular consumer of mindless action thrillers and blockbuster chase movies you’ll need to be patient. When you ultimately reach high gear, the wait will be worth it…

However, if you’re of a contemplative mien and can enjoy your entertainments unfolding on a human scale with luxuriously barbed wit on their own darkly nasty terms, there is an inconceivably great time waiting for you here…
© 2002, 2003, 2014 Brian K. Vaughan & Pia Guerra. All Rights Reserved.

Eden: It’s an Endless World! volume 1


By Hiroki Endo (Dark Horse)
ISBN: 978-1-59307-406-7 (Dark Horse tankōbon PB) 978-1-84576-487-6 (Titan Books Edition)

Here’s an eerily out-of-print but disturbingly topical series from a decade ago that’s worth tracking down, not just because of its sheer depth and entertainment quality, but also because it now qualifies for a growing subgenre of fiction (retroactively seen in prose, film, TV, comics, documentaries and national/international governmental reports and recommendations) that many people are calling “We Bloody Warned You”…

Despite the truly monumental breadth and variety of manga, I suspect that to western eyes Japanese comics are inextricably and inescapably conflated with science fiction in general and cataclysm in particular. That doesn’t mean they aren’t individually good and worthy of merit and acclaim, just saddled with some unfair presuppositions. With that stated and in mind, any fair reader should sit down to Hiroki (Meltdown, Soft Metal Vampire) Endo’s Eden: It’s An Endless World! and be prepared for a treat. The tale was originally serialised in Kodansha’s Monthly Afternoon between 1998-2008, eventually filling 18 tankōbon volumes.

Elijah Ballard is one of a small group of immunes who have survived a global pandemic named the “Closure Virus”. Most of humanity has been eradicated, and those infected who have survived an initial exposure are doomed to a slow deterioration compelling them to augment their failing bodies with cybernetics simply to survive. Thus, they barely qualify as human by most old standards and definitions…

Pockets of survivors immune to the plague are dotted about the planet and as years pass various factions form to take control of the world. Through a series of flashbacks, we see the immediate aftermath of the plague before jumping twenty years to follow this Ballard’s picaresque ramblings through a devastated South America. Accompanied by a robotic bodyguard, he is eking out a precarious existence when captured – or perhaps adopted – by a rag-tag band of soldiers.

When the world died, political society divided into two camps. The fragmented remnants of the United Nations tried to retain some degree of control but found themselves under attack by Propater, a revolutionary paramilitary organisation that had been planning a world coup even before the virus hit. Global war has raged among the survivors ever since…

Now caught up in this conflict, Elijah realises that his long-missing parents are major players in the new world order and day to day survival is no longer his only concern…

Despite the cyberpunk appurtenances and high-octane pace of the narrative, this is in many senses a very English approach to the End of the World. There are echoes of that other Ballard (J. G.: the author, and regrettably never a comic strip scripter), Aldous Huxley, and even Chapman Pincher. The mature themes presented here aren’t simply nudity and violence – although they are here in an abundance that will satisfy any action manga fan – but also a lyrical philosophy and moral questioning of political doctrine that underpins the text in the manner of much Cold War era science fiction and nothing at all like the majority of contemporary investigative journalism…

Subtly engaging, beautifully illustrated and deftly balancing swift action with introspective mystery, this series will appeal to that literate sector that needs their brains tickled as well as their pulse rates raised.
© 2007 Hiroki Endo. All Rights Reserved.

Time Clock (Eye of the Majestic Creature volume 3)


By Leslie Stein (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-930-1 (TPB)

With the once-constant supply of review books understandably curtailed and my latest actual paid work recently completed, I find myself retreating into old favourites to pass the time now. Happily, most of them are still great, and a goodly number of them have finally made the transition to digital editions, meaning you can read them too without risking life, lung or limb. All that threatens you is the strong chance of becoming equally besotted and addicted to great comics…

Help Wanted: Girl cartoonist seeks meaning of contemporary existence and like-minded individuals to share bewilderment and revelations with. Interests/Hobbies include: drinking, counting sand, growing stuff, antiquing for pop culture “trash”, drinking, meaningful conversations with musical instruments, playing board games with same, recreational herbal intoxicants, reminiscing about wild-times with gal-pals and old cronies, drinking, visiting difficult relatives.

Employment: unwanted but regrettably necessary. Although not native to the Big City, is extremely adaptable and will do anything – unless it’s hard, boring or she sucks at it…

After graduating from the New York School of Visual Arts, Leslie Stein began producing astonishingly addictive cartoon strips in the self-published Yeah, It Is. Upon winning a Xeric Grant for her efforts, she then started an even better comicbook entitled Eye of the Majestic Creature, blending autobiographical self-discovery, surreal free-association, philosophical ruminations, nostalgic reminiscences and devastatingly dry wit to describe modern life as filtered through her seductive meta-fictional interior landscape.

She is a creator who sees things as they really aren’t, but makes them authentic and even desirable to anyone willing to pay attention…

This superbly enticing third volume of the …Majestic Creature sequence resumes her airy, eccentric and engaging pictorial mood-music, with her mythologized autobiography continuing to reveal the history and ambitions (for want of a better term) of Larrybear – a girl deliberately and determinedly on her own, trying to establish her own uniquely singular way of getting by.

Eschewing chronological narrative for an easy, breezy raconteur’s epigrammatic delivery, and illustrated in loose, free-flowing line-work, detailed stippling, hypnotic pattern-building or even honest-to-gosh representational line-drawing, Stein operates under the credo of “whatever works, works” – and clearly, she’s not wrong…

Larrybear makes friends easily: bums, winos, weirdoes, dropouts, misfits, non-English-speaking co-workers and especially inanimate objects. Her bestest buddy of all is her talking guitar/flatmate Marshmallow: one of the many odd fellow travellers who aggregate around her, briefly sharing her outré interests and latest dreams.

However, Larrybear doesn’t want an average life, just more experiences, less hassle and affable companions to share it all with.

The self-service graphic dinner party starts with another Friday at work. After scrupulously completing her wage-slave tasks, Larrybear heads off to show her latest creation at the long-awaited Sand Counters Convention. The guy at the next table next is annoying but okay, and she’s touched when venerable old Sand Counter Henry Peet admires her work but, after seeing über-stylist Tim Heerling swanking and lapping up the adulation of the audience, she is mysteriously moved and promptly decides that now she has a new nemesis…

In the meantime, stay-at-home stringed instrument Marshmallow – feeling unfulfilled – takes up baking to shorten the incessant loneliness…

A second untitled segment then finds Larrybear hanging out with old pal Boris, sharing stories and intoxicants, but still blithely unaware of how he feels about her…

After months of prevaricating, and whilst still enduring dreams about that Heerling guy, our aimless star finally relocates to the countryside where she, Marshmallow and the rest of her animated instrument collection enjoy a life of bucolic fulfilment and idle contemplation until they can’t stand it anymore…

This superbly quirky diversion concludes with ‘Boy’ as Larrybear learns that living miles from the nearest bar and being unable to drive is severely impacting her precious drinking time, whilst having competition-quality sand delivered is a huge mistake…

All too soon, she’s back in her natural urban environment, dealing booze to drunks and sharing their buzz, just as the biggest storm in living memory threatens to close up the city…
All delivered in an oversized (292 x 204 mm if you’re still wedded to dead tree ownership) mesmerising monochrome package, these incisive, absurdist, whimsically charming and visually intoxicating invitations into a singularly creative mind and fabulous alternative reality offer truly memorable walks on the wild side.

For a gloriously rewarding and exceptionally enticing cartoon experience – one no serious fan of fun and narrative art can afford to miss – you simply must spend a few hours with a Time Clock.
© 2016 Leslie Stein. All rights reserved.

Showcase Presents Superman Family volume 1


By Otto Binder, Curt Swan & Ray Burnley, Jerry Coleman, Ruben Moreira, Al Plastino, Don Cameron, Ed Dobrotka & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-0787-8 (TPB)

Stress-alleviating Fun is in pretty short supply everywhere these days, but if you’re a comics fan susceptible to charming nostalgia, this item – readily available in paperback, but tragically still not compiled in any digital format yet – might be a remedy for those old Lockdown Blues…

When the blockbusting Man of Tomorrow debuted in Action Comics #1 (June 1938) he was instantly the centre of attention. However, even then the need for a solid supporting cast was apparent and quickly catered to. Glamorous daredevil girl reporter Lois Lane premiered with Clark Kent and was a constant companion and foil from the outset…

Although unnamed, a plucky red-headed, be-freckled kid worked alongside Clark and Lois from Action Comics #6 (November 1938) and was called by his first name from Superman #13 (November-December 1941) onwards. The lad was Jimmy Olsen and he was a major player in The Adventures of Superman radio show from its debut on April 15th 1940: somebody the same age as the target audience in place for the hero to explain stuff to (all for the listener’s benefit) and the closest thing to a sidekick the Man of Tomorrow ever needed…

When the similarly titled television show launched in the autumn of 1952, it became a monolithic hit. National Periodicals thus began tentatively expanding their increasingly valuable franchise with new characters and titles. First up were the gloriously charming, light-hearted escapades of that rash, capable but naïve photographer and “cub reporter” from the Daily Planet. The solo-career of the first spin-off star from the Caped Kryptonian’s ever-expanding entourage began with Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen #1, which launched in 1954 with a September-October cover date.

As the decade progressed, the oh-so-cautious Editors at National/DC tentatively extended the franchise in 1957, just as the Silver Age of Comics was getting underway and it seemed there might be a fresh and sustainable appetite for costumed heroes and their unique brand of spectacular shenanigans. Try-out title Showcase – which had already launched The Flash (#4 & 8) and Challengers of the Unknown (#6-7) – followed up with a brace of issues entitled Superman’s Girl Friend Lois Lane in #9 and 10. Soon after, she won a series of her own – in actuality her second, since for a brief while in the mid-1940s she had her own solo-spot in Superman.

This scintillatingly addictive monochrome tome chronologically re-presents those experimental franchise expansions, encompassing Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen #1-22, (September/October 1954 to August 1957) and Showcase #9 (July/August 1957), plus the very first Lois Lane solo strip (from Superman #28 – May/June 1944) as a welcome bonus.

The vintage all-ages entertainment (courtesy of dedicated creative team Otto Binder, Curt Swan & Ray Burnley) begins with ‘The Boy of 1000 Faces’ in which the ebullient junior journalist displays his phenomenal facility for make-up and disguise to trap a jewel thief before heading to timber country and solving the ‘Case of the Lumberjack Jinx’ and latterly masquerading as ‘The Man of Steel’s Substitute’ to tackle public requests too trivial for his Kryptonian chum.

‘The Flying Jimmy Olsen’ opened the second issue with a daring tale of sheer idiocy as the lad swallows an alien power-potion with staggering disregard for the potential repercussions (a recurring theme of those simpler times) after which ‘The Hide and Seek Mystery’ displays his crime-solving pluck as Jim hunts down more jewel thieves. Then, the boy becomes ‘Jimmy Olsen, Superman’s Ex-Pal’ to expose a cunning conman.

The red-headed rascal became ‘The Boy Millionaire’ in #3 when a wealthy dowager repaid a kind deed with a vast cash reward. Sadly, all that money brought Jimmy was scammers, conmen and murderous trouble. After that he heads to Tumbleweed, USA to cover a rodeo and somehow is (mis)taken for ‘The Fastest Gun in the West’ before meeting the highly suspect eccentric who is ‘The Man Who Collected Excitement’.

‘The Disappearance of Superman’ perplexes Metropolis in #4 until his valiant pal solves the mystery and saves the Caped Kryptonian’s life, whilst – as ‘The Hunted Messenger’ – Jimmy cheats certain death to outwit gangsters before replacing a regal look-alike and playing ‘King for a Day’ in a far off land threatened by a ruthless usurper.

In issue #5, ‘The Boy Olympics’ shares Jimmy’s sentimental side as he risks his job to help young news vendors from a rival paper and is almost replaced by a computer in ‘The Brain of Steel’, before beguiling and capturing a wanted felon with ‘The Story of Superman’s Souvenirs’…

The cutthroat world of stage conjuring finds him competing to become ‘The King of Magic’ in JO #6’s first tale, after which the diminutive lad endures a punishing diet regime – hilariously enforced by Superman – to cover the sports story of the year in ‘Jockey Olsen Rides Star Flash’. The last tale sees Jimmy bravely recovering ‘100 Pieces of Kryptonite’ that fell on Metropolis, rendering Superman helpless and dying…

Jimmy Olsen #7 finds the boy teaching three rich wastrels a life-changing lesson in ‘The Amazing Mirages’, after which a magic carpet whisks him away to write ‘The Scoop of 1869’ before the lad’s boyhood skills enable him to become ‘The King of Marbles’, catching a crook and even more headlines…

In #8, pride in his investigative abilities and a slick conman compel him to uncover his pal’s secret identity in ‘The Betrayal of Superman’, after which he becomes ‘Superboy for a Day’ sort of) and wows the chicks when a sore throat transforms him into ‘Jimmy Olsen, Crooner’. Issue #9 opens with him disastrously switching jobs to become ‘Jimmy Olsen, Cub Inventor’: a TV quiz mastermind in kThe Million-Dollar Question’ and pilot of a prototype Superman robot in ‘The Missile of Steel’.

In #10, the canny lad turns the tables on a greedy hoaxer in ‘Jimmy Olsen’s Martian Pal’ and suffers amnesia in ‘Jimmy Olsen’s Forgotten Adventure’, before going back to nature as ‘Jungle Jimmy Olsen’, whilst the next issue sees him acting – after a stellar accident – as ‘Superman’s Seeing-Eye Dog’; dumping the neglectful and busy Man of Steel for a more appreciative comrade in kJimmy Olsen, Clark Kent’s Pal’ and – accidentally – exposing a corrupt boxing scam as ‘T.N.T. Olsen, the Champ’.

He helps out a circus chum by becoming ‘Jimmy Olsen, Prince of Clowns’ in #12, thereafter uncovering ‘The Secret of Dinosaur Island’ and falling victim to a goofy – or just plain mad – scientist’s bizarre experiment to reluctantly become ‘The Invisible Jimmy Olsen’. In #13 he tracks a swindler via a half dozen namesakes in ‘The Six Jimmy Olsens’ before criminals then targeted the cub reporter’s secret weapon in ‘The Stolen Superman Signal’ and the lad is himself subjected to a cruel but necessary deception when the Metropolis Marvel perpetrates ‘Jimmy Olsen’s Super Illusions’…

Issue #14 opened with a time-travel western tale as the lad instigates ‘The Feats of Chief Super-Duper’, after which a scientific accident seemingly imbues the bold boy with Clark Kent’s personality and creates ‘The Meek Jimmy Olsen’, before the cub is lost in the American wilderness and outrageously mistaken for ‘The Boy Superman’…

JO #15 finds him demoted and at a dog-show where his infallible nose for news quickly uncovers ‘The Mystery of the Canine Champ’, after which an injudiciously swallowed serum gives him super-speed and he reinvents himself as ‘Jimmy Olsen, Speed Demon’. Thereafter, a strange ailment forces him to dispose of his most treasured possessions in kUnwanted Superman Souvenirs’…

A scurrilous scammer in #16 offers to regress the kid’s consciousness and help him re-live ‘The Three Lives of Jimmy Olsen’, before a series of crazy coincidences compel identity-obsessed Clark to convince Lois Lane that Jimmy is ‘The Boy of Steel!’ Yet another chemical concoction then turns the lad into a compulsive fibber… ‘The Super Liar of Metropolis’.

The next thrill-packed issue featured ‘Jimmy Olsen in the 50th Century’ wherein the lad is transported to an era where history has conflated his and Superman’s lives, whilst in ‘The Case of the Cartoon Scoops’, he rediscovers a gift for drawing – and the curse of clairvoyance – before an horrific accident turns him into ‘The Radioactive Boy’…

In #18, humour is king as ‘The Super Safari’ finds young Jim using a “magic” flute to capture animals for a circus, whilst ‘The Riddle Reporter’ sees him lose scoops to a masked mystery journalist before having to nursemaid his best friend when a criminal’s time weapon turns the Man of Steel into ‘Superbaby, Jimmy Olsen’s Pal’…

In #19 ‘The Two Jimmy Olsens’ introduce a robot replica of the cub reporter whilst in ‘The Human Geiger Counter’ the kid becomes allergic to the Action Ace, after which a brain injury convinces him he is ‘Superman’s Kid Brother’. The next issue opened with ‘Jimmy Olsen’s Super-Pet’ as a prized souvenir hatches into a living, breathing dinosaur. Misguided efforts to save a small-town newspaper then culminate in kThe Trial of Jimmy Olsen’, after which Superman secretly makes his pal ‘The Merman of Metropolis’ in a convoluted scheme to preserve his own alter ego.

Issue #21 reveals an unsuspected family skeleton and a curse which seemingly transforms reporter into pirate in ‘The Legend of Greenbeard Olsen’. Ingenuity – and a few gimmicks – then briefly turn him into junior hero ‘Wonder Lad’ whereas plain old arrogance and snooping are responsible for the humiliation resulting from ‘The Wedding of Jimmy Olsen’ to Lois Lane…

A month later, the lady at last starred in her own comicbook when – galvanised by a growing interest in superhero stories – the company’s premiere try-out title pitched a brace of issues focused on the burgeoning Superman family of features.

Showcase #9 (cover-dated July/August 1957) featured Superman’s Girl Friend Lois Lane in a trio of tales by Jerry Coleman, Ruben Moreira & Al Plastino: opening with the seminal yarn ‘The Girl in Superman’s Past’ wherein Lois first meets red-headed hussy Lana Lang, childhood sweetheart of Superboy and a pushy, conniving go-getter out to win Lois’ intended at all costs.

Naturally, Miss Lane invites Miss Lang to stay at her apartment and the grand rivalry was off and running…

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

When Lois Lane finally received her own shot at solo stardom, it was sadly very much on the terms of the times. I shamefacedly admit to a deep, nostalgic affection for her bright and breezy, fantastically fun adventures, but as a free-thinking, liberal (notional) adult of the 21st century I’m simultaneously shocked nowadays at the patronising, nigh-misogynistic attitudes underpinning many of the stories.

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

Oddly enough, the 1940s interpretation of the plucky news-hen was far less derogatory: Lois might have been ambitious and life-threateningly precipitate, but at least it was to advance her own career and put bad guys away… as seen in the superb 4-page vignette which closes this volume.

Back-up series ‘Lois Lane, Girl Reporter’ debuted in Superman #28 (May/June 1944): a breathless fast-paced screwball comedy-thriller by Don Cameron & Ed Dobrotka wherein the canny lass fails to talk a crazed jumper down from a ledge but saves him in another far more flamboyant manner, reaping the reward of a front page headline.

Before that Golden Age threat, however, there’s one last issue of the junior member of the Superman Family. Jimmy Olsen #22 begins with ‘The Mystery of the Millionaire Hoboes’, as the lad tracks down the reason wealthy men are masquerading as down-and-outs, before exposing the evil secrets behind ‘The Super-Hallucinations’ afflicting the Man of Tomorrow and ending with ‘The Super-Brain of Jimmy Olsen’ wherein resident affable crackpot genius Professor Phineas Potter evolves the boy into a man from 1,000,000AD. That cold, but surely benevolent being has a hidden agenda in play and is able to bend Superman to his hyper-intelligent will…

These spin-off supporting series were highly popular top-sellers for decades: blending action, adventure, broad, wacky comedy, fantasy and science fiction in the gently addictive manner scripter Otto Binder had first perfected a decade previously at Fawcett Comics on the magnificent Captain Marvel and his own myriad mini-universe of associated titles.

As well as containing some of the most delightful episodes of the pre angst-drenched, cosmically catastrophic DC, these fun, thrilling and yes, occasionally deeply moving all-ages stories also perfectly depict the changing mores and tastes which reshaped comics from the safely anodyne 1950s to the seditious, rebellious 1970s, all the while keeping to the prime directive of the industry – “keep them entertained and keep them wanting more”.

I know I certainly do…
© 1944, 1954, 1955, 1956, 1957, 2006 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Impossible Tales: The Steve Ditko Archives volume 4


By Steve Ditko & various, edited by Blake Bell (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-640-9 (HB)

Once upon a time the short complete tale was the sole staple of the comic book profession, where the plan was to deliver as much variety as possible to the reader. Sadly, that particular discipline is all but lost to us today…

Steve Ditko (November 2nd 1927 – c. June 29th 2018) was one of our industry’s greatest talents and probably America’s least lauded. His fervent desire was to just get on with his job telling stories the best way he could. Whilst the noblest of aspirations, that dream was always a minor consideration and frequently a stumbling block for the commercial interests which for so long controlled all comics production and still exert an overwhelming influence upon the mainstream bulk of Funny book output. Let’s see what happens in the months to come now that COVID19 has wrought its horrific effects on the industry…

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

This fourth fantastic full-colour deluxe hardback – and potently punchy digital treasure trove – reprints another heaping helping of his ever more impressive works: published between July 1957 and March 1959, and all courtesy of the surprisingly liberal (at least in its trust of its employees’ creative instincts) sweat-shop publisher Charlton Comics. Some of the issues here were actually put together under the St. John imprint, but when that company abruptly folded, much of its already prepared in-house material – even entire issues – were purchased and published by clearing-house specialist Charlton with almost no editorial changes.

And, whilst we’re being technically accurate it’s also important to note that the eventual publication dates of the stories in this collection don’t have a lot to do with when Ditko rendered these mini-masterpieces: Charlton paid so little, the cheap, anthologically astute outfit had no problem buying material it could leave on a shelf for months – if not years – until the right moment arrived to print…

All the tales and covers reproduced here were drawn after implementation of the draconian, self-inflicted Comics Code Authority rules which sanitised the industry following Senate Hearings and a public witch-hunt. They are uniformly wonderfully baroque and bizarre fantasies, suspense and science fiction yarns, helpfully annotated with a purchase number to indicate approximately when they were actually drawn.

Sadly, there’s no indication of how many (if any) were actually written by Ditko, but as at the time the astoundingly prolific Joe Gill was churning out hundreds of stories per year for Charlton, he is always everyone’s first guess when trying to attribute script credit…

Following an historically informative Introduction and passionate advocacy by Blake Bell, the evocative tales of mystery and imagination commence with ‘The Menace of the Maple Leaves’, an eerie haunted woods fable from Strange Suspense Stories #33 (August 1957), closely followed a darkly sinister con-game which goes impossibly awry after a wealthy roué consults a supposed mystic to regain his youth and vitality before being treated in ‘The Forbidden Room’ (Mysteries of Unexplored Worlds #4 July 1957)…

From November 1957, Do You Believe in Nightmares? #1 offers a bounty of Ditko delights, beginning with the stunning St. John cover heralding a prophetic ‘Nightmare’; the strange secret of a prognosticating ‘Somnambulist’ and the justice which befalls a seasoned criminal in ‘The Strange Silence’ – all confirming how wry fate intervenes in the lives of mortals.

‘You Can Make Me Fly’ then goes a tad off-topic with a tale of brothers divided by morality and intellect after which the issue ends with a dinosaur-packed romp courtesy of ‘The Man Who Crashed into Another Era’

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

From issue #6 (December 1957), ‘Little Girl Lost’ chills spines and tugs heartstrings with the story of a doll that loved its human companion, followed by a paranoid chase from Strange Suspense Stories #35 (December 1957) as ‘There it is Again’ sees a scientist dogged by his most dangerous invention…

Unusual Tales #10 (January 1958) provides a spooky cover before disclosing the awesome secret of ‘The Repair Man from Nowhere’ and – following wickedly effective Cold War science fiction parable ‘Panic!’ from Strange Suspense Stories #35 – resumes with ‘A Strange Kiss’ that draws a mining engineer into a far better world…

Out of This World #6 (November 1957) provides access to ‘The Secret Room’ which forever changes the lives of an aging, destitute couple. Then cover and original artwork for Out of This World #12 (March 1959) lead to a tale in which a ruthless anthropologist is brought low by ‘A Living Doll’ he’d taken from a native village…

Returning to Tales of the Mysterious Traveler #6 results in three more captivating yarns. ‘When Old Doc Died’ is perhaps the best in this book, displaying wry humour in the history of a country sawbones who is only content when helping others, whilst ‘The Old Fool’ everybody mocked proves to be his village’s greatest friend, and ‘Mister Evriman’ explores the metaphysics of mass TV viewing in a thoroughly chilling manner…

The dangers of science without scruple informs the salutary saga of a new invention in ‘The Edge of Fear’ (Unusual Tales #10, January 1958), after which the cover of This Magazine is Haunted #14 (December 1957) ushers us into cases recounted by ghoulish Dr. Haunt; specifically, a scary precursor to cloning in ‘The Second Self’ and a diagnosis of isolation and mutation which afflicts ‘The Green Man’

The cover and original art for giant-sized Out of This World #7 (February 1958) precedes ‘The Most Terrible Fate’ befalling a victim of atomic warfare whilst ‘Cure-All’ details a struggle between a country doctor and a sinister machine which heals any ailment.

We return to This Magazine is Haunted #14 as Dr. Haunt relates a ghastly monster’s progress ‘From Out of the Depths’ before ‘The Man Who Disappeared’ tells his uncanny story to disbelieving Federal agents. Out of This World #7 in turn provides an ethereal ringside seat from which to view a time-traveller’s ‘Journey to Paradise’…

From Tales of the Mysterious Traveler #7 (March 1958), ‘And the Fear Grew’ relates how an Australian rancher falls foul of an insidiously malign but cute-looking critter, after which ‘The Heel and the Healer’ reveals how a snake-oil peddler finds a genuine magic cure-all, whilst ‘Never Again’ (Unusual Tales #10 again) takes an eons-long look at mankind’s atomic follies and ‘Through the Walls’ (Out of This World #7) sees a decent man framed and imprisoned, only to be saved by the power of astral projection…

Out of This World #12 (March 1959) declared ‘The World Awaits’ when a scientist uncovers an age-old secret regarding ant mutation and eugenics, Mysteries of Unexplored Worlds #7 (February 1958) exposes ‘The Angry Things’ which haunt a suspiciously inexpensive Italian villa, and the gripping cover to Tales of the Mysterious Traveler #10 (November 1958) segues into the unsuspected sacrifice of a jazz virtuoso who saves the world in ‘Little Boy Blue’

A tragic orphan finds new parents after ‘The Vision Came’ (Tales of the Mysterious Traveler #8, July 1958) before Dr. Haunt proves television to be a cause of great terror in ‘Impossible, But…’ (from This Magazine is Haunted volume 2 #16, May 1958) – an issue which also discloses the world-changing fate of a Soviet scientist who became ‘The Man from Time’…

Another selfless inventor chooses to be a ‘Failure’ rather than doom humanity to eternal servitude in a stunning yarn from Strange Suspense Stories #36 (March 1958), whilst the luckiest man alive at last experiences the downside of being ‘Not Normal’ (Tales of the Mysterious Traveler #7) after which Unusual Tales #11 – from March 1958 – reveals the secret of Presidential statesmanship to a young politician in ‘Charmed, I’m Sure’, and exposes a magical secret race through an author’s vacation ‘Deep in the Mountains’

This mesmerising collection concludes with the suitably bizarre tale of Egyptian lucky charm ‘The Dancing Cat’ (Strange Suspense Stories #37, July 1958) to ensure the spooky afterglow remains long after the final page and leaves you hungry for more mystic merriment and arcane enjoyment…

This sturdily capacious volume has episodes that terrify, amaze, amuse and enthral: utter delights of fantasy fiction with lean, stripped down plots and simple dialogue that let the art set the tone, push the emotions and tell the tale, from times when a story could end sadly as well as happily and only wonderment was on the agenda, hidden or otherwise. The stories display the sharp wit and contained comedic energy which made so many Spider-Man/J. Jonah Jameson confrontations an unforgettable treat a decade later, making this is cracking collection not only superb in its own right but as a telling examination into the genius of one of the art-form’s greatest stylists.

This is a book serious comics fans would happily kill or die or be lost in time for…
This edition © 2013 Fantagraphics Books. Introduction © 2013 Blake Bell. All rights reserved.

Wonder Woman: The Twelve Labors


By Martin Pasko, Elliot S. Maggin, Cary Bates, Len Wein, Curt Swan, John Rosenberger, Irv Novick, Dick Dillin, Kurt Schaffenberger, Dick Giordano, Jose Delbo & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-3494-2 (PB)

The Princess of Paradise Island originally debuted as a special feature in All Star Comics #8 (December 1941), conceived by polygraph pioneer William Moulton Marston and illustrated by Harry G. Peter in a calculated attempt to offer girls a positive and forceful role model and – on forward-thinking Editor M.C. Gaines’ part – sell more comic books.

She catapulted into her own series and the cover-spot of new anthology title Sensation Comics a month later. An instant hit, the Amazing Amazon won her own eponymous supplemental title a few months later, cover-dated Summer 1942.

Once upon a time on a hidden island of immortal super-women, American aviator Steve Trevor of US Army Intelligence crashed to Earth. Near death, he was nursed back to health by young, impressionable Princess Diana.

Fearful of her besotted child’s growing obsession with the creature from a long-forgotten and madly violent world, Diana’s mother Queen Hippolyte revealed the hidden history of the Amazons: how they were seduced and betrayed by men but rescued by the goddess Aphrodite on condition that they forever isolated themselves from the mortal world and devoted their eternal lives to becoming ideal, perfect creatures.

However, with the planet in crisis, goddesses Athena and Aphrodite instructed Hippolyte to send an Amazon back with the American to fight for global freedom and liberty. She would be chosen by triumphing over all her sisters in a grand tournament. Although forbidden to compete, Diana clandestinely overcame all other candidates to become their emissary – Wonder Woman.

On arriving in the Land of the Free, she purchased the identity and credentials of lovelorn Army nurse Diana Prince, elegantly allowing the Amazing Amazon to stay close to Steve whilst enabling the heartsick but poverty-stricken care-worker to join her own fiancé in South America. Diana soon gained a position with Army Intelligence as secretary to General Darnell, further ensuring she would always be able to watch over her beloved. She little suspected that, although the painfully shallow Steve only had eyes for the dazzling Amazon superwoman, the General had fallen for the mousy yet supremely competent and capable Lieutenant Prince…

That set up enabled the Star-Spangled Siren to weather the vicissitudes of the notoriously transient comicbook marketplace and survive the end of the Golden Age of costumed heroes along with Superman, Batman and a few lucky second-stringers who inhabited the backs of their titles.

She soldiered on well into the Silver Age revival under the canny auspices of Robert Kanigher, Ross Andru & Mike Esposito, but by 1968 superhero comics were in decline again and publishers sought new ways to keep audiences interested as tastes – and American society – changed.

Back then, the entire industry depended on newsstand sales and if you weren’t popular, you died. Editor Jack Miller & Mike Sekowsky stepped up with a radical proposal and made a little bit of comic book history with the only female superhero to still have her own title in that turbulent marketplace.

The superbly eccentric art of Sekowsky had been a DC mainstay for nearly two decades, and he had also scored big with fans at Gold Key with Man from Uncle and at Tower Comics in T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents and war title Fight the Enemy! His unique take on the Justice League of America had cemented its overwhelming success, and in 1968 he began stretching himself further with a number of experimental, young-adult oriented projects.

Tapping into the teen zeitgeist with Easy Rider style drama Jason’s Quest proved ultimately unsuccessful, but with the Metal Men and the hopelessly outdated and moribund Wonder Woman he had much greater impact. Sekowsky would subsequently work the same magic with equally stalled icon Supergirl

The big change came when the Amazons were compelled to leave our dimension, taking with them all their magic – including Wonder Woman’s powers and all her mystic weaponry. Now no more or less than human, she opted to stay on Earth permanently, assuming her own secret identity of Diana Prince, dedicated to fighting injustice as a mortal, very much in the manner of Emma Peel and Modesty Blaise.

Blind Buddhist monk I Ching rather rapidly trained her as a martial artist, and she soon became embroiled in the schemes of would-be world-conqueror Doctor Cyber. Most shockingly, her beloved Steve was branded a traitor and murdered…

Sekowsky’s root and branch overhaul offered a whole new kind of Wonder Woman, but as I’ve already said fashion ruled and, in a few years, without fanfare or warning, everything that had happened since Wonder Woman lost her powers was unwritten. Her mythical origins were revised and re-established as she returned to a world of immortals, gods, mythical monster and super-villains with a new nemesis: an African (or perhaps Hellenic?) American half-sister named Nubia

Such an abrupt reversal had tongues wagging and heads spinning in fan circles. Had the series offended some shady “higher-ups” who didn’t want controversy or a shake-up of the status quo?

Probably not. Sales were never great even on the Sekowsky run and the most logical reason is probably Television.

The Amazon had been optioned as a series since the days of the Batman TV show in 1967, and by this time (1973) production work had begun on the original 1974 pilot featuring Cathy Lee Crosby. An abrupt return to the character most viewers would be familiar with from their own childhoods seems perfectly logical to me…

By the time Lynda Carter made the concept work in 1975, Wonder Woman was once again “Stronger than Hercules, swifter than Mercury and more beautiful than Aphrodite”…

But as Diana returned to mainstream DC continuity, the readers and fans expected her to fully reintegrate, leading to this early and impressive example of a comics miniseries which ran in Wonder Woman #212 through 222 (cover-dates July 1974 – March 1976), detailing how the Amazing Amazon rejoined the JLA.

Scripter Len Wein and artists Curt Swan & Tex Blaisdell got the ball rolling with ‘The Man Who Mastered Women!’ as our Hellenic Hellion thwarts a terrorist attack at New York’s United Nations building… where Diana Prince now works as a translator. In the aftermath she surprisingly meets old friend Clark Kent.

Over the course of the conversation she realises her memories have been tampered with and suddenly understands why her JLA colleagues haven’t called her to any meetings… She had resigned years ago…

Although her former comrades beg her to re-enlist, she declines, fearing her memory lapses might endanger the team and the world. After much insistent pleading, she relents enough to suggest the League should covertly monitor her next dozen major cases – in the manner of Hercules’ twelve legendary tests – until she proves herself competent and worthy, for her own peace of mind, if not the JLA’s…

Once they grudgingly agree, she leaves and Superman begins the surveillance, observing her flying to Paradise Island in her Invisible Plane. Correctly deducing she has been subjected to Amazonian selective memory manipulation, Diana confronts her mother and learns of her time as a mere mortal… and of Steve’s death.

Although the past has been removed by her well-meaning Amazon sisters, Diana now demands that every recollection excised be returned…

Back in Man’s World, a crisis is already brewing as costumed crazy The Cavalier exerts his uncanny influence over women to control female Heads of State. Ultimately, however, his powers prove ineffectual over Wonder Woman…

As a result of that case, Diana Prince changes jobs, going to work as a troubleshooter for dashing Morgan Tracy at the UN Crisis Bureau, and her first mission isn’t long in coming…

Wonder Woman #213 was crafted by Cary Bates, Irv Novick & Blaisdell, detailing how an alien robot removes all aggression from humanity in one stroke. As the Flash helplessly observes, however, ‘The War-No-More Machine!’ also quashes all bravery, determination, confidence and capability. The species faced imminent – if long and drawn out – extinction.

Happily, Diana, a teenaged girl and a murderous criminal are all somehow immune to the invader’s influence…

Elliot S. Maggin, Swan & Phil Zupa then disclose Green Lantern Hal Jordan’s undercover observations after a lost Amazon gem in unwitting, unscrupulous hands almost starts World War III and the Princess of Power must avert nuclear holocaust triggered by a ‘Wish Upon a Star!’

The superb and vastly undervalued John Rosenberger pencilled Bates’ tale of the ‘Amazon Attack Against Atlantis’ (inked by Vince Colletta) as Aquaman watches Wonder Woman unravel a baroque and barbaric plot by Mars, God of War to set Earth’s two most advanced nations at each throats, after which #216 finds Black Canary uncovering the Amazon Sisterhood’s greatest secret in ‘Paradise in Peril!’ (Maggin, Rosenberger & Colletta).

The tale concerns an obsessed multi-millionaire risking everything – including possibly the collapse of civilisation – to uncover exactly what would happen if a man sets foot upon the hidden Island of the Amazons…

One of Wonder Woman’s oldest foes resurfaces in ‘The Day Time Broke Loose!’ (Maggin, Dick Dillin & Colletta) and Green Arrow is caught in the crossfire as the Duke of Deception attacks the UN with temporally torturous images and hallucinations designed to create madness and death on a global scale.

Produced by Martin Pasko & Kurt Schaffenberger, issue #218 offers two short complete tales. Firstly Red Tornado reports on the ‘Revolt of the Wonder Weapons’ as an influential astrologer uses mind-control techniques to gain power and accidentally undermine Diana’s arsenal, after which The Phantom Stranger stealthily witnesses her foil a mystic plot by sorcerer Felix Faust which animates and enrages the Statue of Liberty in ‘Give Her Liberty – and Give Her Death!’

This was a time when feminism was finally making inroads into American culture and Pasko, Swan & Colletta slyly tipped their hats to the burgeoning movement in a wry and fanciful sci-fi thriller. Thus, WW #219 sees Diana preventing a vile incursion by the dominating males of Xro, a ‘World of Enslaved Women!’, with stretchable sleuth Elongated Man covertly traversing the parallel dimensions in Wonder Woman’s wake.

With the epic endeavour almost ended, scripter Pasko added a patina of mystery to the affair as the Atom watches Diana tackle ‘The Man Who Wiped Out Time!’ Illustrated by Dick Giordano, Wonder Woman #220 found temporal bandit Chronos eradicating New York’s ability to discern time and time pieces: a plot foiled with style and brilliance by the on-form, in-time Power Princess.

The only problem was that during that entire exacting episode Hawkman had been simultaneously watching Diana tackle another potential disaster hundreds of miles away…

The Feathered Fury’s report details how Crisis Bureau operative Diana Prince was targeted by Dr. Cyber and Professor Moon – old enemies from her powerless period – who combine a hunger for vengeance with a plan to steal a UN-controlled chemical weapon in ‘The Fiend with the Face of Glass’ (illustrated by Swan & Colletta).

How she could be in two places simultaneously was revealed by Batman, who wraps up the twelve trials in ‘Will the Real Wonder Woman Please… Stand Up Drop Dead!’ (illustrated by Jose Delbo & Blaisdell), detailing how a beloved children’s entertainment icon has been subverted into a monster feeding off people whilst replacing them with perfect duplicates…

With covers by Bob Oksner, Nick Cardy, Mike Grell, Dick Giordano & Ernie Chan, this is a spectacular slice of pure, uncomplicated, all ages superhero action/adventure starring one of comics’ true all stars.

Stuffed with stunning art and witty, beguiling stories, here is Wonder Woman at her most welcoming in a timeless, pivotal classic of the medium: one that still provides astounding amounts of fun and thrills for anyone interested in a grand old time.
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