Black Widow: Marvel Team-Up


By Chris Claremont, Tom DeFalco, Marv Wolfman, Roger McKenzie, Bill Mantlo, Priest, Fabian Nicieza, Robert Campanella, Dan Slott, Bob Brown, Sal Buscema, Will Meugniot, Ron Frenz & Greg LaRocque, Rob Liefeld, Larry Alexander & Dwayne Turner & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-3029- (TPB)

The concept of team-ups – an established star pairing or battling (usually both) with new or less well-selling company characters – has been with us since the earliest days of comics, but making the temporary alliance a key selling point really took hold with DC’s The Brave and the Bold before being taken up by their biggest competitor.

Marvel Team-Up was the second regular Spider-Man title, launching at the end of 1971. It went from strength to strength, heralding expansion and spawning a second collaborative vehicle in Marvel Two-In-One (with the Fantastic Four’s strong man The Thing), both offering regular venues for uncomplicated action romps in addition to the House of Ideas’ complex sub-plot fare.

However, even in the infinite Marvel Multiverse, certain stars shine more brightly than others and some characters turn up in team-ups more often than others…

In recent years, carefully curated themed collections from the back-catalogue have served to initiate new readers intrigued by Marvel’s Movie and TV endeavours, and this engaging trade paperback/eBook compilation gathers a selection of potent pairings starring superspy The Black Widow, taken from MTIO #10; Marvel Team-Up #57, 82-85, 98, 140-141 and short tales from fortnightly anthology Marvel Comics Presents #53, 70 and 93: collectively spanning July 1975 – January 1992.

Natasha Romanoff (sometimes Natalia Romanova) is a Soviet Russian spy who came in from the cold and stuck around to become one of Marvel’s major female stars. She started life as a svelte, sultry honey-trap during the early “Commie-busting” days, targeting Tony Stark and battling Iron Man in her debut (Tales of Suspense #52, April, 1964).

She was subsequently redesigned as a torrid tights-&-tech super-villain before defecting to the USA, falling for an assortment of superheroes – including Hawkeye and Daredevil – before finally enlisting as an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., setting up as a freelance do-gooder and joining/occasionally leading the Avengers.

Throughout her career she was always ultra-efficient, coldly competent, deadly dangerous and yet somehow cursed to bring doom and disaster to her paramours. As her backstory evolved, it was revealed Natasha had undergone experimental processes which enhanced her physical capabilities and lengthened her lifespan, as well as assorted psychological procedures which had messed up her mind and memories…

Traditionally a minor fan favourite, the Widow only really hit the big time after the Marvel Movie franchise was established, but for us unregenerate comics-addicts her print escapades have always offered a cool, sinister frisson of delight.

The multi-player mayhem opens with Marvel Two-In-One #10 by Chris Claremont, Bob Brown & Klaus Janson: a slice of inspired espionage action-intrigue with Ben Grimm joining the Widow’s war against suicidal terrorist Agamemnon who plans to detonate the planet’s biggest nuke at the bottom of the ocean in a blockbuster 007-styled thriller ‘Is This the Way the World Ends?’.

With artists Sal Buscema & Dave Hunt, Claremont continues defining the Widow’s ways in Marvel Team-Up #57 (May 1977) starting a complex extended thriller embroiling Spider-Man in a devious and deadly espionage plot which begins ‘When Slays the Silver Samurai!’ After being saved from a lethal ambush by Natasha and implausibly holding up a collapsing building, Spidey takes reluctant possession of a strange statuette but soon forgets all about it

The scheme comes to fruition in MTU #82 (June 1979) when Claremont, Sal B & Steve Leialoha craft a 4-part, multi-operative conclusion starting with Spider-Man saving Natasha from street thugs. In ‘No Way to Treat a Lady’ the lethal superspy has escaped capture and torture by retreating into a timid, ineffectual cover personality, and the Arachnid must keep “Nancy Rushman” alive until he learns how and why. The job gets even harder after S.H.E.I.L.D.’s Strike Forcecome mercilessly gunning for her…

The first (white) Nick Fury joins the fray in ‘Slaughter on 10th Avenue!’ capturing Nancy before discovering – when Spidey steals her back – that his entire organisation has been taken over by hidden mastermind Viper and her super hench-thugs Silver Samurai and Boomerang

‘Catch a Falling Hero’ (MTU #84) reveals the purpose of that long-forgotten statuette, as Viper targets Washington DC and President Jimmy Carter. Meanwhile Spider-Man and the slowly recovering Nancy infiltrate the compromised flying fortress Helicarrier and Fury calls in British operative Shang Chi, Master of Kung Fu for a distracting frontal assault, culminating in all-out war above the Capitol and the closest of close shave conclusions for all concerned in ‘The Woman Who Never Was!’

A far simpler motive reunited the widow and the webspinner when separate cases overlapped in MTU #98 (October 1980, in an untitled tale by Marv Wolfman, Roger McKenzie, Will Meugniot & Bruce Patterson). Here dockside gunrunners and ambitious mobsters draw the heroes into a clash with The Owl, after which we jump to April 1983 and MTU #140 for the first part of a morally trying dilemma posed by Bill Mantlo, Tom DeFalco, Ron Frenz & Mike Esposito with ‘Where Were You …When the Lights Went Out?’

A city-wide blackout provokes riots and looting and Spider-Man is on scene when a skeevy pawnshop owner is shot dead. The next day, lawyer Matt Murdock is appointed to defend gangbanger teen Juan Santiago who is indicted for the murder. Press photographer Peter Parker is also in attendance, and both know the kid is not guilty. As Spider-Man resolves to investigate further, Daredevil’s old flame Natasha Romanoff volunteers to fact-find for the overworked attorney. When investigations overlap a street gang are exposed as behind the incident, but the new murder suspect triggers a deadly car chase and hostage situation before being apprehended.

Frustratingly, although responsible for much of the tragedy on that night, he quickly proves to also be innocent of the pawnbrokers’ death…

This yarn takes place at the beginning of Marvel’s Secret Wars event and pauses for Spidey to go to The Beyonder’s Battleworld; fight lots and come back with his all-black Symbiote uniform, so it’s a much-altered Spider-Man who joins Daredevil and the Widow in obtaining ‘Blind Justice’ in #141 (DeFalco, Jim Owsley AKA Priest, Greg LaRoque & Esposito) as the heroes uncover mob connections and a trail to Kingpin Wilson Fisk, the real killer and the true nature of the kid they’ve been defending…

The team-ups conclude with a selection from twice monthly rotating anthology Marvel Comics Presents, starting with ‘Heads I Win, Tails You Lose’: a jurisdictional clash between Natasha and mercenary antihero Silver Sable from #53 (July 1990) by Fabian Nicieza, Rob Liefeld & Bob Wiacek, and continuing with ‘One into Three Won’t Go!’ (#70, February 1991 by Robert Campanella, Larry Alexander, Jack Abel & Al Milgrom) as the Widow and fellow former Champion Darkstar battle the hyper-irradiated Red Guardian when her master The Presence orders her to capture them for his harem.

Their valiant resistance inspires Tania Belinskaya to overthrow her own mental shackles and transform into new hero Starlight before this collection closes with an early outing for superstar scripter Dan Slott & artist Dwayne Turner who end the ultra-espionage alliances with a ‘Split Seconds’ reunion for the Widow and Daredevil from MCP #93, battling Hydra goons and deactivating deadly booby traps in a midtown building.

The book’s bonus section offers original art from Meugniot & Patterson; Frenz & Esposito and cover-art by Ed Hannigan & Klaus Janson, plus data pages of Black Widow and her weapons and gear from the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe and a painted cover by Al Milgrom.

These stories may vary in quality, but all stem from an honest drive to entertain and most fans will find little to complain about. Although primarily a tome for casual or new readers – who will have a blast – there’s also a ton of nostalgic delights and patented Marvel mayhem to be had by veteran viewers, and surely that’s reason enough to add this titanic tome to your secret stash of great reads…
© 2020 MARVEL

Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales: One Dead Spy


By Nathan Hale (Abrams/Amulet Books)
ISBN: 978-0-4197-0396-6 (HB)

Author/cartoonist Nathan Hale has a famous namesake and has been riffing on him, with great effect, for nearly a decade now. I don’t know if he – and his familial collaborators – have any genealogical connection to the American undercover operative and war hero of the same name, but the lightly comedic cartoon history books – such as Alamo All-Stars, Big Bad Ironclad and more bearing their shared name – are a sheer, educative treat. They make some pretty tough and harrowing material palatable and memorable by mixing fact and happenstance with a witty veneer of whimsy. You might also want a peek at more of his general fiction fun stuff like Rapunzel’s Revenge, One Trick Pony and Apocalypse Taco

Debuting the series in 2012, One Dead Spy sets the scenario on a surreal yet jolly note as September 22nd 1776 sees a dim but jolly executioner and British Army Provost bring an earnest young man to the Hanging Tree on Manhattan Island. The eager crowd of spectators soon leave after learning the day’s entertainment is not the arsonist plaguing the district but only a spy. Moreover, even he can’t be dealt with promptly because no one’s brought the official orders…

With time to kill, Hangman and Nathan Hale strike up a conversation: discussing last words, possible regrets, sandwiches and – eventually – just how a meek school teacher became America’s “first” spy. As is duly noted, Nathan Hale really wasn’t a very good one…

The delay is then further extended by a bizarre event involving a magic tome (“The Big Huge Book of American History”) that shows him all his nascent nation’s years to come – a key factor in future volumes – and Hale becomes a revolutionary era Scheherazade, spinning yarns to extend his last moments on Earth…

Rendered in welcoming, comfortable but fact-intense muted color and monochrome cartoon strips with beguiling overtones of the Horrible History books, “unlucky” Hale’s own unremarkable life unfolds, tracing the build-up to and key moments of the War of Independence through his acquaintance with figures such as George Washington, Ben Tallmadge, Henry Knox,

Major battles like Bunker Hill, Winter Hill and the siege of Boston are demythologised and legendary figures such as Ethan Allen (and his Green Mountain Boys), traitorous Major Robert Rogers and Colonel Thomas Knowlton are reassessed. It was Knowlton who convinced the obsessively honest and utterly out of his depth Hale to take up the shameful role of clandestine information-gatherer in his one and only espionage mission…

And as this book closes with the promise of more gallows’ yarns to come, there-even an illustrated section offering ‘A Little More Biographical Info About…’ Hale Knox, Knowlton, Allen, Benedict Arnold, Rogers, Stephen Hempstead, Benjamin Tallmadge and the actual execution of our spy star as well as map of North America showing which nations owned what in 1775; a full bibliography; a Q&A feature and ‘First to Defy, First to Die!’ – an 8-page mini-comic tale of African American Revolutionary and former slave Crispus Attucks who died during the 1770 Boston Massacre.

Charming, wittily informative, extremely funny and delightfully compelling, Hale’s cartoon tales detail incredible exploits that will enthral you and your kids and – like the other volumes of this wonderful series – ought to be a treasured part of every school library… if we ever have those again…
Text and illustrations © 2012 Nathan Hale. All rights reserved

Necromantic


By Lovern Kindzierski, David Ross, Geof Isherwood, Chris Chuckry & Taylor Esposito (Renegade Arts Entertainment)
ISBN: 978-1-98890-369-9 (TPB) eISBN: 978-1-98890-373-6

Real and fictionalised espionage tales are equally gripping when done well, and modern drama demands a healthy dose of genre cross-fertilisation. A perfect example catering to modern tastes is this opening salvo from Lovern Kindzierski (author of the Shame trilogies, Underworld, VMT and colourist of most of your favourite US superhero comics) and veteran illustrators David Ross (Star Wars; X-Men; Alpha Flight; Rai) and Geof Isherwood (Suicide Squad; Conan the Barbarian; Silver Surfer; Doctor Strange). In case you’re wondering, the crucial backroom boys here are Chris Chuckry on colours, and Taylor Esposito delivering calligraphic sound, captions and dialogue…

This rowdy, raunchy introductory action-fest reveals a critical turning point in the life of top-gun US Special Forces operative Jesse Harris whose latest successful mission in North Africa is forever blighted in ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’ after she learns that her beloved Blake Williams has been killed in action.

Harris goes to pieces in ‘Much Ado About Nothing’: not simply from grief and anger, but also because she still sees him. It’s the kind of situation she has secretly endured and ignored since childhood, when she first discovered a facility for seeing and talking to people no one else can see…

Dragged out of shattering despondency by fellow ISA agent Rich Boon, she takes a “soft” mission in Afghanistan, only to find herself dragged to the edge of hell and a bittersweet reunion with Blake. In the course of her duties, she realises the local governor/warlord is a mortal agent of infernal demons pressganging recently deceased human souls into a legion intended to oust the devil, and install a new lord of the Damned. To aid the recruitment program, still-breathing Prince Minyar has bolstered his brutal living forces with rampaging zombies and ruthless killer ghosts only Jesse can perceive…

Facing modern arms and ancient devils revelling in another chance to spill blood, her team are swept away in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, but Harris gains valuable intel from the King’s vizier – an enslaved spirit determined to end the horrific recruitment program – and eventually a blessed ally when Blake escapes the Pit to render assistance and battle beside her to deliver earth and the afterlife from ‘The Tempest’

Savage, fast-paced and strictly for adult eyes only, Necromantic is a blockbuster thrill-ride for the action-movie generation and a manic joy for those who still crave their cathartic release in print of digital comics form.
© Lovern Kindzierski and Renegade Arts Canmore Ltd. 2020

Clifton volume 2 The Laughing Thief


By De Groot & Turk, translated by Luke Spear (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-1-905460-07-4 (Album PB)

For some inexplicable reason most of Europe’s comics cognoscenti – most especially French and Belgians – seem fascinated with us Brits. Maybe it’s our shared heritage of Empires lost and cultures in transition? An earlier age would have claimed it’s simply a case of “Know your Enemy”…

Whether we look at Anglo air ace Biggles, indomitable adventurers Blake and Mortimer, the Machiavellian machinations of Green Manor or even the further travails of Long John Silver, the serried stalwarts of our Scepter’d Isles cut a dashing swathe through the pages of the Continent’s assorted magazines and albums.

And then there’s Clifton

Originally devised by child-friendly strip genius Raymond Macherot (Chaminou, Les croquillards, Chlorophylle, Sibylline) for iconic magazine Le Journal de Tintin, this doughty True Brit troubleshooter first appeared in December 1959. After three albums worth of material – compiled and released between 1959 and 1960 – Macherot quit Tintin for arch-rival Le Journal de Spirou leaving his eccentric comedic crime-fighter to flounder until LJdT revived him at the height of the Swinging London scene, courtesy of Jo-El Azaza & Greg (Michel Régnier).

Those strips were subsequently collected as Les lutins diaboliques in French and De duivelse dwergen for Dutch-speakers in 1969.

Then it was back into retirement until the early 1970s when writer Bob De Groot and illustrator Philippe “Turk” Liegeois revived Clifton for the long haul, producing ten tales of which this – Le voleur qui rit – Clifton (from 1973) – was their second collaboration.

From 1984 on, artist Bernard Dumont – AKA Bédu – limned De Groot’s scripts; eventually assuming the writing chores as well, persevering until the series ended in 1995. In keeping with its rather haphazard nature and typically undying nature, the Clifton experience resumed once again in 2003, crafted by De Groot & Michel Rodrigue in four further adventures; a grand total of 26 to date.

The setup is deliciously simple: pompous and irascible Colonel Sir Harold Wilberforce Clifton, ex-RAF, former Metropolitan Police Constabulary and recently retired from MI5, has a great deal of difficulty dealing with being put out to pasture in rurally bucolic Puddington. He thus takes every opportunity to get back in the saddle, occasionally assisting the Government or needy individuals as an amateur sleuth.

Sadly for Clifton – as with that other much-underappreciated national treasure Captain Mainwaring in Dad’s Army – he is convinced that he is usually the only truly competent man in a world full of blithering idiots…

In this second translated album from 2005, the Gentleman Detective is embroiled in not one but two uncanny incidences, beginning with eponymous epic ‘The Laughing Thief’ wherein the still much-missed lawman rather forcefully inserts himself into a current case baffling Scotland Yard.

London is wracked by devilishly clever crimes executed with infallible precision by a crack crew of blaggers, but the profits of each caper seem far below what such expert criminals should be bothering with. Moreover, each perfectly executed heist is preceded by a telephone warning from a braying braggart with the most annoying and distinctive laugh imaginable…

These felons are incredibly bold and arrogant. Even after Clifton intervenes in the second robbery, the scoundrels easily outwit him, leaving the dapper sleuth unconscious with dozens of other peculiarly proud and strangely supportive victims…

Moreover, although police “higher-ups” welcome Clifton’s help, officer-in-charge Lieutenant Hardfeeling doesn’t want the show-stealer around and is doing all he can to impede the Colonel’s investigations, despite protests from senior colleagues and the bobbies on the beat…

Nevertheless, persistence is its own reward, and when Clifton finally deduces the true reasons for the publicity-seeking crime-spree, the resultant confrontation is spectacularly satisfying and hilariously rewarding…

Being British and an ex-spy, Clifton has hung on to the odd gadget or two, such as an amazingly tricked out umbrella which plays a major part in this volume’s second tale ‘The Mystery of the Running Voice’. A suspenseful spooky yarn, it begins when the unhappy pensioner meets old comrade Donald McDonald Muckyduck, who appears to have worn out every vestige of verve and is on the verge of a nervous breakdown…

Close consultation reveals that the former Police Inspector is being haunted by a robber ghost; one that has already claimed six victims. However, upon viewing crime scene photos Clifton gains an inkling into how the trick is done and temporarily moves to sedate and sedentary village Flatfish-on-Apron, setting himself up as bait for a diabolical genius with a penchant for clever gimmicks…

Visually spoofing Swinging Sixties London and staidly stuffy English Manners with wicked effect, these gentle thrillers are big on laughs but also pack loads of consequence-free action into their eclectic mix. Delightfully surreal, instantly accessible and doused with daft slapstick à la Jacques Tati and intrigue like Margaret Rutherford as Miss Marple, this brace of romps rattle along in the grand old tradition of Will Hay, Terry-Thomas and Alistair Sim – or Wallace and Gromit if you’re of a later generation – offering splendid fun and timeless laughs for all.
Original edition © 1973 Le Lombard (Dargaud-Lombard S. A.) 1988 by De Groot & Turk. English translation © 2005 Cinebook Ltd.

Putin’s Russia – The Rise of a Dictator


By Darryl Cunningham (Myriad Editions)
ISBN: 978-1-912408-91-7 (TPB)

Artist and journalist Darryl Cunningham was born in 1960, lived a pretty British life (didn’t we all back then?) and graduated from Leeds College of Art. A regular on the Small Press scene of the 1990s, his early strips appeared in legendary paper-based venues such as Fast Fiction, Dead Trees, Inkling, Turn amongst many others. In 1998, he & Simon Gane crafted Meet John Dark for the much-missed Slab-O-Concrete outfit. It is still one of my favourite books of the era. You should track it down or agitate for a new edition.

Briefly putting comics on the backburner as the century ended, Cunningham worked on an acute care psychiatric ward: a period which informed 2011 graphic novel Psychiatric Tales, a revelatory inquiry into mental illness delivered as cartoon reportage.

When not crafting web comics for Forbidden Planet or working on his creations Uncle Bob Adventures, Super-Sam and John-of-the-Night or The Streets of San Diablo, he’s been steadily consolidating his position at the top of the field of graphic investigative reporting; specifically science history, economics and socio-political journalism through books such as Science Tales, Supercrash: How to Hijack the Global Economy, Graphic Science: Seven Journeys of Discovery, The Age of Selfishness: Ayn Rand, Morality and the Financial Crisis and Billionaires: The Lives of the Rich and Powerful.

His latest offering is his boldest yet, particularly as the subject of these investigations and revelations has a scary track record of suddenly outliving every critic, commentator, judge and denouncer. Of course, part of that murderous mystique also includes ludicrous gaffes, fumbles and cock-ups, so perhaps it’s a fair risk for a potential big reward…

Simply put, what’s on show here is another sublimely forensic and easily digestible dissection of one more major cause of global concern, in the form of a mediocre Soviet spy who became the biggest crook on Earth.

Cunningham methodically traces the path of Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin from childhood in a St Petersburg (then Leningrad) communal apartment to the world’s most tasteless billionaire mancave (“Putin’s Palace” at Gelendzhik), translating dry facts and shocking atrocities into irrefutable, easily assimilated data snippets, tracing the Dictator-in-Chief’s cunning rise in the shadow of and on the coattails of far more flamboyant and unwise would-be leaders until suddenly he’s the last man standing…

A much-curated personal life is unmade and remeasured against a historical yardstick as the Soviet Union stumbles into oblivion: broken up and its riches redistributed by pirates and brigands in suits amongst a cabal of soon-to-be Oligarchs only marginally less unsavoury than their notional leader.

Gorbachev, Yeltsin, Sobchak and a flurry of Western appeasers and greedy bankers are all indicted for their failings as Putin climbed a greasy pole soaked in the blood of opponents, competitors and particularly journalists and critics. Especial attention is rightly paid to manufactured and proxy wars, terrorist acts and inept interventions; modern imperialism and global calamities, weaponized bigotry, harnessed ancient grudges and sheer unrelenting opportunism at every possible juncture. That’s a big bill to lay on one person, but the arguments are all there in black and white and magenta and green and…

You will also be sagely reminded of assassinations as acts of petty spite; western money laundering of a nation’s pilfered assets, the suborning of national leaders (and we’re not just talking about orange hairpiece #45, here!) and the sadly pathetic ongoing quest for validation of a self-described hard man…

A heady mix of cold fact, astute deduction and beguiling visualisation, this deft examination of a bandit who stole a nation and how at last his comeuppance is at hand is a delicious blend of revelation and confirmation, and Cunningham even has the courage to offer bold – and serious – suggestions on how to rectify the current state of affairs, all backed up with a vast and daunting list of References from print, media and other sources for everything cited in the book.

Comics have long been the most effective method of imparting information and eliciting reaction (that’s why assorted governments and militaries have used them for hard and soft propaganda over the last century and a half), and with Putin’s Russia you can see that force deployed against one of today’s greatest threats…
© Darryl Cunningham 2021. All rights reserved.

Putin’s Russia will be released on September 16th 2021 and is available for pre-order now.

Steed and Mrs Peel volume 3: The Return of the Monster


By Caleb Monroe, Steve Bryant, Will Sliney, Yasmin Liang & Chris Rosa (Boom! Studios)
ISBN: 978-1-60886-363-1 (TPB) eISBN: 978-1-61398-363217-4

The (British) Avengers was an astoundingly stylish, globally adored TV show glamorously blending espionage with arch comedy and deadly danger with technological extrapolation from swinging Sixties through to the beginning of the 1980s. A phenomenal cult hit, it and sequel The New Avengers call up pangs of Cool Britannia style, cheeky action-adventure, kinky quirkiness, mad gadgetry, dashing heroics, bizarrely British festishistic attire, surreal suspense and the wholly appropriate descriptive phrase “Spy Fi”.

Enormously popular everywhere, the show evolved from 1961’s gritty crime thriller Police Surgeon into a paragon of witty, thrilling and sophisticated adventure lampoonery with suave, urbane British Agent John Steed and dazzlingly talented amateur sleuth Mrs. Emma Peel battling spies, robots, criminals, secret societies, monsters and even “aliens” with tongues very much in cheeks and always under the strictest determination to remain calm, dashingly composed and exceedingly eccentric…

The format was a winner. Peel, as played by Dame Diana Rigg, and replacing landmark character Cathy Gale – the first hands-on fighting female on British TV history – took the show to even greater heights of success. Emma Peel’s connection with viewers cemented the archetype of a powerful, clever, competent woman into the nation’s psyche: largely banishing the screaming, eye-candy girly-victim to the dustbin of popular fiction.

Rigg left in 1967, herself replaced by another feisty female: Tara King (Linda Thorson) who carried the series to its demise in 1969. Continued popularity in more than 90 countries led to a revival in the late 1970s. The New Avengers saw glamorous Purdey (Joanna Lumley) and manly Gambit (Gareth Hunt) as partners and foils to the agelessly debonair but deadly Steed…

The show remains an enduring cult icon, with all the spin-off that entails. During its run and beyond, The Avengers spawned toys, games, collector models, a pop single and stage show, radio series, audio adventures, posters, books and all the myriad merchandising strands that inevitably accompany a media sensation. The one we care most about is comics and, naturally, the popular British Television program was no stranger there either.

Following an introductory strip starring Steed & Gale in listings magazines Look Westward and The Viewer – plus the Manchester Evening News – (September 1963 to the end of 1964), legendary children’s staple TV Comic launched its own Avengers strip in #720 (October 2nd 1965) with Emma Peel firmly ensconced.

This ran until #771 (September 24th 1966) and the dashing duo also starred in TV Comic Holiday Special, whilst a series of young Emma Peel adventures featured in June & Schoolfriend, before transferring to DC Thomson’s Diana until 1968 whereupon it returned to TV Comic with #877, depicting Steed and Tara King until #1077 in 1972.

In 1966 Mick Anglo Studios unleashed a one-off, large-sized UK comicbook, and two years later in America, Gold Key’s Four-Color series published a try-out book using recycled UK material as John Steed/Emma Peel – since Marvel had secured an American trademark for comics with the name “Avengers”…

A constantly evolving premise, fans mostly fixate on the classic pairing of Steed and Peel – which is handy as the Avengers title is embargoed up the wazoo now

There were wonderful, sturdily steadfast hardback annuals for the British Festive Season trade, beginning with 1962’s TV Crimebusters Annual and thereafter pertinent TV Comic Annuals before a run of solo editions graced Christmas stockings from 1967-1969: supplemented by a brace of New Avengers volumes for 1977 and 1978.

Eclipse/ACME Press produced a trans-Atlantic prestige miniseries between 1990 and 1992. Steed & Mrs. Peel was crafted by Grant Morrison & Ian Gibson with supplementary scripts from Anne Caulfield. That tale was reprinted in 2012 by media-savvy publishers Boom! Studios: a kind of pilot for the later iteration under review here.

The Adventures of Steed and Mrs. Peel began with issue #0 (August 2012), reintroducing the faithful and newcomers to a uniquely British phenomenon, and terminate here with #8-11, as Caleb Monroe, Yasmin Liang, Ron Riley and letterer Ed Dukeshire conclude the sparkling revival with a quartet of fabulous missions, beginning with ‘The Art of Resurrection’.

A long-delayed sequel to 1966 TV episode ‘A Touch of Brimstone’ sees the demented offspring of Hellfire Club Supremo the Honorable John Cleverly Cartney rescue their barely-alive sire and begin a campaign of vengeance decked out as doppelgangers of Steed and Peel.

The manic scheme takes a darker twist as daddy dearest’s personality is installed in a robotic body for ‘The Clothes Make the Cybernaut’ (who featured in three small screen episodes). His progeny might be no match for our True Brits, but Cartney 2.0 is far more formidable, easily subduing the agents when they track down the mad malefactors…

However, the perfidious plan unravels in ‘Punchlines and Proposals’ when the wicked kids accidentally discover their daddy never had any children and still intends on making Mrs Peel his bride…

The madness and mayhem spectacularly wrap up in wedding issue ‘What They Do’, with the reunited operatives firing on all cylinders to thwart all the treacherous plots and counterplots before enjoying a spot of bubbly and another splendid sunset…

Wry, arch and wickedly satisfying, this closing salvo of the reborn franchise is a delight for staunch fans and curious newcomers alike and includes a covers and variants gallery by Joseph Michael Linsner, Joe Corroney & Brian Miller, and Dan Davis & Vladimir Popov to charm the eyes whilst the story salves the senses…
© 2014 Studio Canal S.A. All rights reserved.

Iznogoud and the Magic Carpet (volume 6)


By Goscinny and Tabary (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-1-84918- 044-3 (Album PB)

For the greater part of his too-short lifetime (1926-1977), René Goscinny was one of the most prolific and most-read writers of comic strips the world has ever seen. He still is.

Among his most popular comic collaborations are Lucky Luke, Le Petit Nicolas and, of course Asterix the Gaul, but there were so many others, such as the dazzling, dark deeds of a dastardly usurper whose dreams of diabolical skulduggery perpetually proved to be ultimately no more than castles in the sand…

Scant years after the Suez crisis, the French returned to the hotly contested deserts as Goscinny teamed with sublimely gifted Swedish émigré Jean Tabary (1930-2011) – who numbered Richard et Charlie, Grabadu et Gabaliouchtou, Totoche, Corinne et Jeannot and Valentin le Vagabond amongst his hit strips – to detail the innocuous history of imbecilic Arabian (im)potentate Haroun el-Poussah. However, it was the strip’s villainous foil, power-hungry vizier Iznogoud who stole the show – possibly the conniving imp’s only successful coup.

Les Aventures du Calife Haroun el Poussah was created for Record; with the first episode appearing in the January 15th1962 issue. A minor hit, it subsequently jumped ship to Pilote – a comics magazine created and edited by Goscinny – artfully refashioned into a starring vehicle for the devious ratbag who had increasingly been hogging all the laughs and limelight.

Like all great storytelling, Iznogoud works on many levels: as a comedic romp with adorably wicked baddies invariably hoisted on their own petards and coming a-cropper for the youngsters, whilst older, wiser heads revelled in the pun-filled, witty satire of marvellously accessible episodic comic capers.

The same magic formula had made its more famous cousin Asterix a global success, and just like the saga of the indomitable Gaul, this irresistibly addictive Arabian nitwit is adapted by master translators Anthea Bell & Derek Hockridge who made those Roman Follies so very palatable to the English tongue.

Moreover, the deliciously malicious whimsy is always heavily laden with manic absurdity and brilliantly delivered creative anachronism which keeps the assorted escapades bizarrely fresh and inventive.

Insidious antihero Iznogoud is Grand Vizier to affable, easy-going Haroun Al Plassid, Caliph of Ancient Baghdad, but the sneaky little toad has loftier ambitions, or as he is always declaiming “I want to be Caliph instead of the Caliph!”…

The retooled series launched in Pilote in 1968, and soon became a massive European hit, with 30 albums to date (carried on by Tabary’s children Stéphane, Muriel and Nicolas); his own solo comic, computer games, animated films, a TV cartoon show and even a live-action movie.

When Goscinny died in 1977 Tabary began scripting his own sublimely stylish tales (from 13th album onwards), switching to book-length complete adventures, rather than the compilations of short, punchy vignettes which typified the collaborations.

There haven’t been any new translated volumes since 2017, but this sixth Cinebook album (actually the ninth French album, released in 1973 as Le Tapis Magique) is now available in digital formats and opens with lead tale ‘The Magic Carpet’: an exceptional, extended 20-page epic bolstered by a triumvirate of shorter yarns and prefaced as ever with a handy catch-up profile page of the unusual suspects…

It all starts in gloriously bustling Baghdad where the verminous Vizier unaccountably encounters a few famous faces (moonlighting from their day jobs in Le Journal de Tintin) before returning to plotting how to remove the gentle, isolated and very dim obstacle to power …

It’s the birthday of corpulent oaf Haroun Al Plassid and a nasty notion finally occurs: employing impecunious Fakir Khaledonyahn to make a very special kind of rug. Flying carpets are no big deal in the empire and the skies of Baghdad are crammed with them, but the Fakir’s are extraordinary…

They only travel one way. Anybody standing on one of these when the trigger word is pronounced takes a flight to who-knows-where and never returns…

Who-knows-where is actually Ancient Peking (you can say Beijing if you want) and soon the venerably inscrutable and imperturbable citizens there are having their legendary patience and implacability tested as rug after rug arrives because untrusting Iznogoud continually demands proof of concept before parting with cash. Meanwhile, the gullibly hapless Caliph can’t get the hang of the magic word his trusted advisor wants him to repeat…

This sharply convoluted pun-punctuated yarn is followed by a sneaky dose of inspired iniquity dubbed ‘Incognito’. The well-meaning Caliph has no idea of the dire depredations Iznogoud inflicts upon the populace in his name, or that his beloved people fear, despise and revile the Caliphate because of excessive taxes, prisons filled with tortured citizens and schools empty of children. When chimerically inquisitive Haroun Al Plassid decides to go out amongst the populace in all his regal splendour, he is disappointed and surprised to find the streets utterly deserted by the terrified common folk…

Asking his precious Iznogoud for advice, the Commander of the Faithful is then convinced to sneak out alone dressed as a common beggar. Unable to believe his luck, the venal Vizier quickly briefs bumbling, long-suffering crony Wa’at Alahfand orders the guards to throw into the deepest dungeon any beggars who approach the palace.

On his fact-finding mission, the shabby Caliph learns a lot he doesn’t like and determines to fix things as soon as he gets back. Unfortunately, being a newcomer in his own city he gets lost…

Soon Iznogoud is going insane with suspense. Al Plassid should be back and languishing in jail by now, but as long as he’s out there somewhere the coup cannot begin. Thus, the despot-in-waiting and his fatuous flunky are forced to disguise themselves as beggars, covertly creeping out into Baghdad to search for their missing lord.

In the meantime, the Caliph has the brilliant notion of asking for directions and shambles home just as the Guard is being changed. Nobody even notices the scruffy indigent who shambles back to his apartments and becomes again The Caliph. Down in the city the tired and frustrated plotters give up and head for home, just as the order to arrest all beggars becomes law…

Sheer broad slapstick-riddled farce is the secret ingredient of the perfectly paced saga of ‘The Tiger Hunt’ when Iznogoud convinces his boss to go for a low key safari – just him, the Vizier and faithful Wa’at Alahf, all armed with bows and blunt arrows – to bag the perfect bedside rug.

Typically, the murder plot goes hideously awry as a succession of hunters provide perfectly suitable, already skinned rugs to the happy ruler and the only living apex predators they can find are just not interested.

Forced to improvise, Iznogoud resorts to digging a huge pit, but whilst he’s at the bottom of it Haroun at last finds a way to really tick off a tiger – just before it tumbles into a great big hole in the ground…

The manic mirth concludes with ‘The Box of Souvenirs’ as a visitor from distant Nippon visits Baghdad with a strange device. Judoka Karate is a destitute tourist whose incredible hand-held cube can turn solid objects into two-dimensional pictures.

Instantly sensing an opportunity Iznogoud – after much spirited dickering – acquires the mystic souvenir-maker, but hasn’t fully considered the details. To turn a jug, jewel or Caliph into a black-&-white image, the object has to be the proper distance from the lens and the subject absolutely must keep completely still for a minute or two.

Confident he can cope, the Vizier has utterly underestimated the Caliph’s mayfly attention span and ingrained vanity which has led to large mirrors being placed all over the palace…

Just such witty, fast-paced hi-jinks and craftily crafted comedy set pieces have made this addictive series a household name in France where “Iznogoud” is common term for a certain type of politician: over-ambitious, unscrupulous – and frequently not that tall.

When first released in Britain in the 1970s (and again in 1996 as a periodical comic book) these tales made little impression, but this snappy, wonderfully beguiling strip deserves an appreciative audience among today’s more internationally aware, politically jaded comics-and-cartoon savvy Kids of All Ages…
Original edition © Editions TABARY 1991, by Goscinny & Tabary. All rights reserved. This edition published 2010 by Cinebook Ltd.

Connective Tissue


By Bob Fingerman (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-143-5 (HB)

The always innovative and entertaining Bob Fingerman (Minimum Wage; Recess Pieces; Bottomfeeder; Garbage Pail Kids; Scooby Doo) turned his post-modern attentions to the burgeoning sector of illustrated novellas (picture books for grown-ups) with this classy, sassy and wickedly beguiling blend of Alice in Wonderland, Stranger in a Strange Landand Clerks – with just a dash of Allan Moyle’s hugely underrated 1995 movie Empire Records peppering the mix.

There’s a whole other class of people in the world: eternally young, worldly-wise and yet unaccountably innocent. They dress oddly, know cool but useless things, don’t care about pension plans or job security and work only to live their outside lives. They are the disaffected tribe who work for minimum wage in the odd corners of modern retail: record stores, non-chain book shops, computer games stores, comic shops…

They’re not an underclass, just a different one.

Darla Vogel earns her living at Kwok’s Video rental store. As a cool and rudely healthy chick in a venue that attracts a lot of loners, weirdoes and social no-hopers, she often finds herself the object of fumbling attention and unwanted gifts. One particular night when she gets home she finds herself abducted via a poster on her wall into a disturbing new universe: bleakly undulating, slightly skewed, grossly organic and filled with far too much of the wrong kind of nakedness. Darla wants to go home…

Fingerman takes a classic plot with a much funnier, feistier heroine, adds a dollop of queasy otherworldliness, peppers it all with dry wit and an avalanche of contemporary references – everything from celebrity gossip to comic – before adding his own subversively funny tone-and-wash illustrations (a delightful remembrance of the best Mad Magazine pages) to produce a runaway delight for full-grown childish lovers of the outré and outrageous.

Get it: it’s yummy scrummy!
© 2009 Bob Fingerman. All rights reserved.

Showcase Presents Wonder Woman volume 1


By Robert Kanigher, Ross Andru & Mike Esposito & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-1373-2 (TPB)

Until DC finally get around to republishing and digitally releasing their vast untapped comic treasures, I’m reduced to recommending some of their superb past printed glories whenever I feel like celebrating a key anniversary of the world’s preeminent female superhero who first caught the public’s attention in October 8 decades ago…

Wonder Woman was created by polygraph pioneer William Moulton Marston – apparently at the behest of his remarkable wife Elizabeth and their life partner Olive Byrne. The vast majority of the outlandish adventures were limned by classical illustrator by Harry G. Peter. She debuted in All Star Comics #8 (cover-dated December 1941) before gaining her own series and the cover-spot in new anthology title Sensation Comics a month later. She was an instant hit, and won her own eponymous title in late Spring of that year (Summer 1942).

Using the nom de plume Charles Moulton, Marston & Co scripted all the Amazing Amazon’s many and fabulous exploits until his death in 1947, whereupon Robert Kanigher took over the writer’s role. The venerable H.G. Peter continued until his own death in 1958. Wonder Woman #97 – in April of that year – was his last hurrah and the discrete end of an era.

This first cheap and cheerful monochrome Showcase collection covers what came next: specifically issues #98-117, spanning May 1958-October 1960.

With the notable exception of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and inoffensive back-up B-listers Aquaman and Green Arrow (plus – arguably – Johnny Quick, who held on until December 1954 and cowboy crimebuster Vigilante who finally bit the dust a month earlier), costumed heroes died out at the beginning of the 1950s, replaced by a plethora of merely mortal champions and a welter of anthologised genre titles.

When after almost no time at all, Showcase #4 rekindled the readership’s imagination and zest for masked mystery-men with a new iteration of The Flash in 1956, the fanciful floodgates opened wide once more. As well as re-imagining Golden Age stalwarts such as Green Lantern, The Atom and Hawkman, National/DC consequently updated all its hoary survivors such as the aforementioned Emerald Archer and Sea King. Also included in that revitalising agenda were the company’s High Trinity: Man of Steel, Caped Crusader and the ever-resilient Princess of Power…

Artists Ross Andru & Mike Esposito had debuted as cover artists 3 issues earlier, but with opening inclusion Wonder Woman #98 they took over the entire comic book as Robert Kanigher reinvented much of the old mythology and even tinkered with her origins in ‘The Million Dollar Penny!’ when goddess Athena visits an island of super-scientific immortal women, informing Queen Hippolyta that she must send an emissary and champion of justice to crime-ridden “Man’s World.”

Declaring an open competition for the job, the queen isn’t surprised when her daughter Diana wins and is given the task of turning a penny into a million dollars in a day – all profits going to children’s charities, of course…

Just as the new Wonder Woman begins her coin chore, American airman Steve Trevor bails out of his malfunctioning jet high above the magically hidden isle, unaware that should any male set foot on Amazon soil the immortals would lose all their powers. Promptly thwarting impending disaster, Diana and Steve team up to accomplish her task, encountering along the way ‘The Undersea Menace’ before building ‘The Impossible Bridge!’

Issue #99 opened in similar bombastic fashion with ‘Stampede of the Comets!’ as Trevor is lost undertaking a pioneering space mission and Wonder Woman goes to his rescue thanks to incredible Amazon engineering ingenuity. After foiling an alien attack against Earth, the reunited lovers return in time for the introduction of the Hellenic Heroine’s new covert identity as Air Force Intelligence Lieutenant Diana Prince in ‘Top Secret!’ – beginning a decade of tales with Steve perpetually attempting to uncover her identity and make the most powerful woman on Earth his blushing bride, whilst his bespectacled, glorified secretary stands unnoticed, exasperated and ignored right beside – or slightly behind – him…

The 100th issue was a spectacular battle saga commencing with ‘The Challenge of Dimension X!’ and an alternate Earth Wonder Woman competing with the Amazing Amazon for sole rights to the title: all culminating with a deciding bout in ‘The Forest of Giants!’, whilst ‘Wonder Woman’s 100th Anniversary!’ deals with the impossibility of capturing the far-too-fast and furious Amazon’s exploits on film for Paradise Island’s archives…

‘The Undersea Trap!’ opened #101, with Steve tricking his “Angel” into agreeing to marry him if she has to rescue him three times in 24 hours (just chalk it up to simpler times, or you’ll pop a blood vessel, OK?) after which the odd couple are trapped by a temporal tyrant in ‘The Fun House of Time!’

Steve’s affection and wits are tested by an alien giant in ‘The Three Faces of Wonder Woman’ when he’s forced to pick out his true love from a trio of identical duplicates to save the world in #102, before ‘The Wonder Woman Album’ returns to the previously explored “impossible-to-photograph” theme in #103, but devotes most space to sinister thriller ‘The Box of Three Dooms!’ wherein the murderous Gadget Maker attempts to destroy the Amazon with a booby-trapped gift.

‘Trial By Fire’ pits Diana Prince against a host of deadly traps only Wonder Woman could survive after which ‘Key to Deception!’ closes #104 by reintroducing Golden Age villain the Duke of Deception as a militaristic Martian marauder in a gripping interplanetary caper.

Issue #105 debuted Wonder Girl in the ‘Secret Origin of Wonder Woman’, revealing how centuries ago the gods and goddesses of Olympus bestowed unique powers on the daughter of Queen Hippolyta and how – as a mere teenager – the indomitable Diana brought the Amazons to Paradise Island. Continuity – let alone consistency and rationality – were never as important to Kanigher as strong story or breathtaking visuals, and this eclectic odyssey is a great yarn that simply annoyed the heck out of a lot of fans… but not as much as the junior Amazon would in years to come…

Second feature ‘Eagle of Space’ is a more traditional tale of predatory space Pterodactyls and a dinosaur planet where Steve and Diana lend a civilising hand to the indigenous caveman population.

‘The Human Charm Bracelet!’ in #106 sees Wonder Woman battling an unbeatable extraterrestrial giant who wants Earth for his plaything, and her younger self encounters a chameleonic lass in ‘The Invisible Wonder Girl!’

The high fantasy adventures of the junior heroine clearly caught somebody’s fancy as they started coming thick and fast: ‘Wonder Woman – Amazon Teen-Ager!’ opened #107 as the youngster finds a romantic interest in merboy Ronno, undergoing a quest to win herself a superhero costume, whilst her adult self is relegated to a back-up battle against ‘Gunslingers of Space!’

‘Wanted… Wonder Woman!’ features Flying Saucer aliens framing our heroine for heinous crimes as a precursor to a planetary invasion and ‘The Stamps of Doom!’ offers a plot by another murderous inventor to kill the Princess in #108, before the next issue steps back in time to feature ‘Wonder Girl in Giant Land’ with the nubile neophyte easily overcoming ambush by colossal aliens. Her mature self is represented by ‘The Million Dollar Pigeon!’ wherein gangsters think they’ve found a foolproof method of removing the Amazing Amazon from their lives…

Wonder Woman #110 was a full-length saga with the indomitable warrior maid searching Earth for a missing alien princess in ‘The Bridge of Crocodiles!’ If the wanderer can’t be found, her concerned family intend laying waste the entire planet…

In #111, ‘The Robot Wonder Woman’ commissioned by gangsters provides no competition for the genuine article, whilst ‘Battle of the Mermen!’ sees Wonder Girl drawn into a sub-sea rumble between competing gangs of teenaged fish-boys…

The youthful incarnation led off the next issue. ‘Wonder Girl in the Chest of Monsters!’ takes the concept to unparalleled heights of absurdity as, in contemporary times, a heroic girl is rewarded with three Amazon wishes and travels back in time for an adventure with Wonder Woman’s younger self, whilst #113 return to relatively straight action with ‘The Invasion of the Sphinx Creatures!’ with the Adult Amazon battling the ancient weapons of a resurrected Pharoah-Queen, before ‘Wonder Girl’s Birthday Party!’ recounts how each anniversary event seems to coincide with geological disaster, mythological menace or uncanny event…

Aliens once more attack in #114’s ‘The Monster Express!’, turning parade balloons into ravening monsters until Diana and Steve intercede, after which ‘Wonder Girl’s Robot Playmate!’ demonstrate how hard it is growing up special…

Old enemy Angle Man returns revamped for the Silver Age in #115’s ‘Graveyard of Monster Ships!’ whilst ‘Mer-Boy’s Undersea Party!’ proves that above or below the waves Wonder Girls just don’t want to have fun, whilst in #116 both Ronno and Young Diana prove capable of serious heroism in ‘The Cave of Secret Creatures!’, before the Adult Amazon finally stops a millennial menace to mankind in ‘The Time -Traveller of Terror!’

This initial enchanting epistle concludes with Wonder Woman #117 wherein ‘The Fantastic Fishermen of the Forbidden Sea!’ revive Golden Age stars Etta Candy and the Holliday Girls – in modernised, marginally less offensive incarnations – for a fantastic tale of aquatic invaders before Amazon time-travel techniques allow the impossible to occur when ‘Wonder Girl Meets Wonder Woman!’… or do they?

By modern standards these exuberant, effulgent fantasies are all-out crazy, but as examples of the days when less attention was paid to continuity and concepts of shared universes and adventure in the moment were paramount, these outrageous romps simply sparkle with fun, thrills and sheer spectacle.

Wonder Woman is rightly revered as a focal point of female strength, independence and empowerment, but the welcoming nostalgia and easy familiarity of these costumed fairy tales remain a delight for all open-minded readers with the true value of these exploits being the incredible quality of entertainment they provide.
© 1958-1960, 2007 DC Comics, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

When Big Bears Invade


By Alexander Finbow & Nyco Rudolph with Ryan Ferrier (Renegade Arts Entertainment)
ISBN: 978-1-987982-549-7 (HB)

You might not know it when he/she/they put peanut butter poptarts on your vintage vinyl turntable or hide unwanted vegetables in the laptop, but kids always want to be heroes. They pick up what’s going in the world – local or global – and look for ways to fix it. Just compare the number of septuagenarians to middle schoolers who heard Greta Thunberg’s call to arms and decided now was the time to act…

There’s a wonderful tinge of all that in this hardback and digital picture book for the young and restless of all ages. Courtesy of writer/editor/publisher Alexander Finbow and illustrator Nyco Rudolph, When Big Bears Invade offers traditional rhyming couplets for humongous, cathartic painted spreads predicting what will happen when Earth finally has enough of humanity’s wasteful destructive ways and sets a legion of gigantic ursine avengers to settling scores and fixing the mess in the most effective manner possible…

Witty, pretty and deliciously satisfying, this is a full-on eco-fable for the rightly concerned of every vintage and persuasion: a perfect gift and a welcome diversion when the real world’s imminent demise drags you down…
© 2017 Alexander Finbow & Nyco Rudolph.