The Complete Calvin and Hobbes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wally Gropius

By Tim Hensley (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-355-2 (HB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Because it’s the Thoughts That Count… 9/10

Comics are the most subversive means of communication yet devised. If you’re a creator at the top of your game with no editorial restrictions you can depict and say one thing, in a manner that even the primmest censor would approve of and adore, whilst surreptitiously advocating the most unsavoury, improper and civilisation-threatening dogma. In comics there are no “tells” to give the game away and the manner in which an author writes and draws can actually enhance the propaganda or outright lies…

Have you met Tim Hensley?

A gifted musician, cartoonist and second-generation comics fan, Hensley’s graphic narrative work began popping up all over the alternative scene following his minicomics series Ticket Stub (9 issues published between 2000 and 2006). He subsequently appeared in such magazines as Kramer’s Ergot, Smoke Signal, Dirty Stories, The Believer, Comic Art, Duplex Planet Illustrated, special editions of The Comics Journal and Fantagraphics’ sublime anthology Mome from where the intensely sly, brash, revolutionary and mind-bendingly beguiling Wally Gropius emerged to challenge our every precept of Capitalist culture. This book collects all those Mome moments and also includes – at no extra charge – new and revised material.

Available digitally and as a colossal 64-page 260 x 320 mm hardback potently reminiscent of the earliest English-language Tintin albums, the compilation is illustrated in a starkly jolly, primary-coloured pastiche of Baby-Boomer kids comics – and not just the obvious and overt Richie Rich or Archie Andrews trappings, but with a tip of the pen to lost classics of a once ubiquitous, now nearly-forgotten 1960s graphic style ranging from Mort (Spider, Beetle Bailey) Walker, Irving Tripp and John Stanley to the animated creations of Jay Ward and all those unnamed geniuses who drew such Dell/Gold Key classics as The Little Monsters and Thirteen Going on Eighteen.

Wally Gropius is barbed and edgy teen satire. The wealthiest teenager on Earth and scion of a petrochemical dynasty, Wally can have anything he wants. He sings in his band The Dropouts and doesn’t have a care in the world – until his father orders him to marry “the saddest girl on Earth.” With every girl in range tearfully throwing herself at him, Wally suddenly notices the stand-offish and highly hard-to-get Jillian Banks

Wally Gropius is a devastating, vicious and subversive cartoon assault on the modern bastions of Commercialism, Celebrity, and Casual Power. Wally tries everything money can buy to win Jillian, but there’s something he’s blithely unaware of…

A madcap, screwball and incredibly surreal comedy with many hidden and time-delayed laugh-traps cunningly concealed for later effect by a keen observer with a disturbingly-honed intellect and a laudable absence of taste, this a subversive treasure no thinking being should miss – especially at this time of year. Take note: Money isn’t Everything and Subtext über Alles

Wally Gropius is Even Cleverer Than It Thinks It Is. Invest in it and enjoy a thoroughly mature modern masterclass in mercantile mockery and morbidly Infantile Analysis.
© 2010 Tim Hensley. All rights reserved.

Ant-Man/Giant-Man Marvel Masterworks volume 1

By Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, Jack Kirby & Dick Ayers, with Ernie Hart, Don Heck & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-2049-0 (HB) 978-0-7851-6768-6 (TPB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Nostalgic Marvel Mayhem… 8/10

Marvel Comics initially built its fervent fan base through strong, contemporarily relevant stories with strikingly illustrated art, but most importantly by creating a shared continuity closely following the characters through not just their own titles but also through frequent guest appearances in other comics. Such interweaving meant that even today completists seek out extraneous stories for a fuller picture of their favourite’s adventures. The quest was not helped by the House of Ideas releasing vintage tales in any kind of chronological order, and Henry Pym (in all his many costumed iterations) was one of the last Marvel Superheroes to get the prestigious Masterworks treatment. The movie franchise might also have had something to do with it…

If you’re of a particularly picky nature – and what comic fan isn’t? – you could consider the Astonishing Ant-Man to be one of the earliest heroes of the Marvel Age of Comics. He first appeared in Tales to Astonish #27 (cover-dated January 1962), in one of the splendidly addictive men-vs-monsters anthology titles that dominated in those heady days of Science Fiction Double-Feature B-Movies.

This episodic, eclectic and entomologically edifying compendium – available in hardback, trade paperback and digital formats – gathers pertinent portions of January 1962 cover-dated Tales to Astonish #27 and the first tranche of the succeeding superhero series that eventually followed. Included herein are the relevant contents of issues #35-52, spanning September 1962 to February 1964, preceded by a fascinating and informative Introduction from Dick Ayers who inked the debut tale and was artistically associated with the characters for much of the run.

The itty-bitty sagas reveal the scintillating solo outings of a brilliant but troubled scientist who became an unlikely, uncomfortable and even mentally unstable superhero and here begins with what was just intended to be another throwaway filler thriller…

The initial 7-page short introduces Dr Henry Pym, a maverick scientist who discovers a shrinking potion and becomes ‘The Man in the Anthill!’: discovering peril, wonder and even a kind of companionship amongst the lowliest creatures on Earth… and under it…

This engaging piece of fluff, which owed more than a little to classic movie The Incredible Shrinking Man, was plotted by Stan Lee, scripted by Larry Lieber and stunningly illustrated by Jack Kirby & Dick Ayers.

Clearly, the character struck a chord with someone since – as the DC Comics-inspired superhero boom flourished – Pym was rapidly retooled as a full-fledged costumed do-gooder, debuting again with TTA #35 in ‘The Return of the Ant-Man’(Lee, Lieber, Kirby & Ayers). The plot concerns a raid by Soviet agents (this was during the height of Marvel’s “Commie-Buster” period when – a bit like now – every other villain was a Red somebody or other and rampaging socialism was a cultural bête noir) wherein Pym is captured and held prisoner in his own laboratory. Forced to disinter the abandoned shrinking gases and cybernetic devices he’d ambitiously built to communicate with ants, Dr. Pym soundly trounces the spies and resolves to use his powers for the good of Mankind…

The same creative team produced the next four adventures, beginning with ‘The Challenge of Comrade X!’ (#36) as an infallible Soviet super-spy is dispatched to destroy the Diminutive Daredevil, after which Ant-Man is temporarily ‘Trapped by the Protector!’ – a cunning jewel-thief and extortionist who ultimately proves no match for the Tiny Titan.

‘Betrayed by the Ants!’ features the debut of intellectual arch-foe Egghead, a maverick and mercenary research scientist who attempts to usurp the hero’s control of insects whilst ‘The Vengeance of the Scarlet Beetle!’ sees a momentary return to scary monster stories as a radioactively mutated, super-intelligent bug seeks to eradicate humanity with only Pym capable of stopping him…

Sol Brodsky replaced Ayers as inker for ‘The Day that Ant-Man Failed!’ in #40, as a deadly Hijacker robbing freight trucks pushes the shrinking inventor to new heights of ingenuity, after which Kirby moved on: his lavishly experimental perspectival flamboyance replaced by the comforting realism and enticing human scale of Don Heck who limned a classy alien invasion yarn in ‘Prisoner of the Slave World!’ before depicting a mesmerising menace who controls people with ‘The Voice of Doom’ in TTA #42.

The following issue H. E. Huntley (AKA veteran writer/artist Ernie Hart) replaced Lieber as scripter with ‘The Mad Master of Time’: a run-of-the-mill mad – or, rather, disgruntled and misguided – scientist yarn. With the next issue (#44) Kirby returned to pencil a significant change to the series….

Inked by Heck, ‘The Creature from Kosmos’ introduces The Wasp – Pym’s bon vivant crime-fighting partner Janet Van Dyne – in a double-length tale featuring a murderous alien marauder who kills her father. There was even an expanded secret origin for Ant-Man: a rare and uncharacteristic display of depth revealing that Pym was actually a tragic widower. When his Hungarian wife Maria was murdered by Communist agents, it irrevocably changed the young scientist from a sedentary scholar into a driven man of action….

Ant-Man uses his discoveries to endow bereaved and vengeful Janet with the power to shrink and grow wings and she becomes his crime-fighting partner. In double-quick time they overcome ‘The Terrible Traps of Egghead’ (Lee, Huntley & Heck) before travelling to Greece to thwart another alien invasion ‘When Cyclops Walks the Earth!’

Back in the USA, the Diminutive Duo battle magic trumpeter Trago in ‘Music to Scream By’ and defeat an avaricious weapons designer who builds himself a unique battle suit to become super-thief ‘The Porcupine!’: all serving as placeholding before the next big change which manifests with Tales to Astonish #49’s ‘The Birth of Giant-Man!’.

Lee scripted and Heck inked Kirby who had returned to pencil the epic story of how Pym learns to enlarge as well as reduce his stature, just in time to tackle the threat of trans-dimensional kidnapper The Eraser. In the next issue Steve Ditko inked The King in ‘The Human Top’, the first episode of a 2-part tale showing how our hero struggles to adapt to his new strength and abilities.

The blistering conclusion ‘Showdown with the Human Top!’ was inked by Ayers who would go on to draw the bulk of the succeeding stories until the series’ demise. Moreover, with this issue (#51) back-up feature The Wonderful Wasp Tells a Tale began. It initially mixed sci-fi mystery vignettes narrated by the heroine, fact-features and solo adventures, before evolving into Marvel’s first female starring solo feature. Here however Janet is simply a whimsical narrator detailing chilling space thriller ‘Somewhere Waits a Wobbow!’ (actually related by Lee, Lieber & George Roussos in his Marvel identity of George Bell).

The super-hero adventures settled into a rather predictable pattern from then on: individually effective enough but rather samey and uninspired when read in quick succession. You’ll need the next volume for most of those but here at least the comics craziness concludes with a straightforward super-villain clash as TTA #52 ‘The Black Knight Strikes!’ (Lee & Ayers) is supplemented by the Wasp’s crime & punishment homily ‘Not What They Seem!’

Despite variable quality and treatment, the eclectic, eccentric and always fun exploits of Marvel’s original “little guy” and premier “odd couple” remain an intriguing and engaging reminder that the House of Ideas didn’t always get it right, but generally gave their all to entertaining fans.

By turns superb, stupid, enthralling and merely engaging, this tome is augmented by house ads and a gallery of original art pages by Kirby & Brodsky and Don Heck, epitomising the best and worst of Early Marvel (with the delightful far outweighing the duff). It certainly won’t appeal to everybody, but if you’re a Fights ‘n’ Tights fan with a forgiving nature or a movie-goer looking for extra input, the good stuff here will charm and amaze you whilst the rest could just be considered as a garish garnish to provide added flavour…
© 2020 MARVEL.

A Secret History of Coffee, Coca & Cola

By Ricardo Cortés (Akashic Books)
ISBN: 978-1-61775-134-9 (HB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Potent, Punchy and Thought-Provoking Fodder to Ponder and Enjoy after Overindulging… 9/10

The astounding power of graphic narrative to efficiently, potently and evocatively disseminate vast amounts of information in layered levels has always been best utilised in works with a political or social component. That’s seldom been better demonstrated than in this stunning and scholarly work from Ricardo Cortés.

Born in 1973, illustrator/artistic intellectual activist Cortés has had a sublimely seditious career thus far. He made waves in Vanity Fair, Entertainment Weekly, The New York Post, The Village Voice, San Francisco Chronicle, and been challenged on CNN and FOX News after his controversial children’s book Marijuana: It’s Just a Plant – written by Marsha Rosenbaum – was mentioned in Congress. He followed up by illustrating Adam Mansbach’s Times Best-Selling Go the F**k to Sleep and sequel Seriously, Just Go to Sleep, and created the colouring book I Don’t Want to Blow You Up! about famous Muslims who aren’t terrorists.

In 2011 he received a grant from the Department of Cultural Affairs’ Greater New York Arts Development to create Jury Independence Illustrated – a public booklet dealing with Jury Nullification produced with the intention of educating potential jurors about their powers to acquit if they disagree with specific laws or judicial rulings. Clearly a born troublemaker…

This particular project is a brilliantly engrossing exploration of acceptable addictions blending scrupulously scholarly reportage with a seductively beautiful selection of captivating images and historical reproductions.

The story starts with the origins and history of ‘Coffee’ from its mythic discovery as a berry fruit for goats in Ethiopia, through being taken up by Yemeni traders who disseminated “qahwah” throughout the Islamic world. A proven intoxicant, concerns over its salubrity, morality and legality grew and it was soon being trafficked by desperate men. In the 16th century the beverage was banned in Mecca, Cairo and elsewhere, but its taste and effects were impossible to resist.

By the time “kahveh” reached Turkey, trading in the beans carried the death penalty. As “Coffee” it reached Europe in the 17th century, touted as a miracle cure-all for everything from headache to miscarriage and grew explosively into an intellectual’s seditious vice. In 1675, Charles II ordered it suppressed and closed England’s Coffee Houses by Royal Edict.

Things got even stranger in 1820 after the alkaloid “Caffe-ine” was finally distilled from the coffee cherry…

The rest of caffeine’s turbulent and torturous legal and commercial progress to today’s status as the world’s most popular stimulant is followed by the story of ‘Cola and Coca’ in which caffeine’s other singularly popular method of natural dissemination is examined. The Kola Nut of West Africa is amazingly high in the stimulant alkaloid and has been used for centuries – if not millennia – as an energy-intensifying fortifier by the various tribes and nations either by chewing the raw nut or brewing a drink called “cola”.

Cola is one of the most popular ancient beverages on Earth and when in 1886 Dr. John Pemberton devised his own formulation – dubbed Coca-Cola – by adding a dash of coca leaves, his medicinal tonic, after an initial shaky start, grew to become the most monolithic drinks brand on Earth.

…But not, apparently, without a little government help…

Coca originated in the Andes, where for centuries indigenous peoples used the herbal bounty as a pick-me-up. Indios chewed coca leaves the way we do gum in the west and in 1499 explorer Amerigo Vespucci brought back tales of the wonder herb’s propensity to promote feats of concentration and endurance. In 1859, Dr. Karl Scherzer returned to Austria after a 2-year scientific voyage aboard the Frigate Novara with 60 pounds of coca, as previously requested by German pharmacologists. Soon after doctoral student Albert Niemann isolated from the samples a new alkaloid which he dubbed “Coca-ine”. This fresh medical marvel – its transparent crystals easily derived from coca leaves – was from 1884 enthusiastically prescribed by the likes of Sigmund Freud for melancholia. Oculist Carl Koller discovered it to be an incredible regional (or as we now say “local”) anaesthetic, allowing unprecedented new surgical procedures to be performed. It became a popular treatment for toothache, labour pains, nervousness, fatigue, impotence, asthma and as a cure for morphine addiction – hence Pemberton’s inclusion of the stuff in his health tonic.

By 1889 cases of compulsive use and abuse began to be reported, leading to heated medical debate, and when the era’s obsessive racial concerns were added to the mix (“cocaine made negroes insane” and it was peddled by “greedy Jewish doctors”) the writing was on the puritanical wall for the foreign import.

On a rising tide of public disapproval, the 1914 Harrison Narcotics Act prohibited Cocaine use and coca importation in the USA. However, due to some truly unbelievable backroom dickering, the already powerful Coca-Cola Company secured a constant supply of the banned substance – re-designated “Merchandise No. 5” – for their Schaefer Alkaloid Works in New Jersey – still thriving today as the Stepan Chemical Company. This mercantile miracle was all due to diligent work of Commissioner Harry J. Anslinger of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics and Ralph Hayes, a former aide to the US Secretary of War and – from 1932 – a vice President of the Coca-Cola Company.

Anslinger was a rabid anti-drug zealot, so just why did he spend 40 years – under seven different US Presidents – enforcing draconian and often expensive, nigh-impossible bans on a vast number of natural pharmaceutical products whilst actively securing and defending Coca-Cola’s uninterrupted supply of cocaine? He even facilitated clandestine schemes to grow coca on American soil and his campaign was so successful that American policy became UN and global norms, forcibly negating all the proven scientific benefits of resources which grew naturally in countries which could never afford Western drugs and chemical advances.

Trust me; you only think you know the answer…

Astonishingly addictive and intoxicatingly revelatory, Coffee, Coca & Cola offers an impressively open-minded history lesson and an incredible look at the dark underbelly of American Capitalism. Exposed here through telling research and beguiling illustrations is a catalogue of hypocrisy wherein successive political administrations and big business always found ways to place commercial interests ahead of any specious moral imperative ingenuously forwarded by the “World’s Cop”.

Learn here how corporations and statesmen conspired to ruthlessly crush the traditions, customs and rituals of other nations and cultures (as recently as 2010, America acted to suppress many sovereign South American countries’ social, spiritual, medicinal and nutritional use of coca) and continue to prevent poor countries utilisation of such ancient natural resources as caffeine and cocaine whilst peddling products inescapably wedded to both American Expansionism and Ideology…

A stunning, hardcover coffee-table book (also available in digital formats) for concerned adults, this captivating chronicle is a true treasure – or perhaps in the parlance of the idiom, I might just say – lip-smacking, trust-quenching, cool looking, stimulating, motivating, hard talking, fool busting, fast thinking, hard quizzing… and unmissable.
© 2012 Ricardo Cortés. All rights reserved.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Impending Blindness of Billie Scott

By Zoe Thorogood (Avery Hill)
ISBN: 978-1-910395-56-1 (PB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: A Topical Tale of Tragedy and Triumph Over Adversity… 9/10

I almost included this stunning debut in our Halloween horror program, but decided that no matter how disturbing the concept, this is essentially a very upbeat and joyous tale and one in need of being read on its own terms…

Zoe Thorogood is a young freelance artist and concept designer from Middlesbrough, who pays attention and thinks through what she conceives. That sounds overly obvious, but – speaking as an extremely aged freelance artist and concept designer from the halcyon days of social equality, equal opportunities and a sense of responsibility – it’s a rare level of consciousness that usually takes decades of mistakes to attain.

Having branched out into graphic novel storytelling, Thorogood has sagely stuck to what she knows for irony-drenched The Impending Blindness of Billie Scott. Here a struggling artist doubting and second-guessing her life in a poverty-afflicted northern town suddenly realises her greatest dream at the beginning of her career. After – incredibly – winning the “2020 New Artist of the Year Competition”, Billie is awarded her own gallery show of new works in London, and a guaranteed entrée to the shimmering world of the Art Business glitterati.

After an understandable moment of confusion and prevarication, she gets to work on the ten new paintings only to learn that she is going to abruptly, rapidly and incurably lose her sight in mere months…

Confronting her past and future, Billie packs up the bare essentials and heads on a pilgrimage to London, encountering and embracing the lowest tawdry dregs and survivors of modern society as she races to complete the last and most meaningful images she will ever see herself create…

Will she make it? Is it even worth the effort?

The concept isn’t new, but this delightful and evocative take on the Trials of Job is at its heart a delicious celebration of simple humanity and the fact that people are complex and must not be reduced to talking points for the worthy or used as PR fodder for governments who seek to equate being poor or nonconformist with criminality, deviancy, otherness or antisocial “unworthiness”.

…And, as every sanctimonious plutocrat, pious reformer or obsequious political self-server always seems to forget, if you push us too far for too long, eventually we rise…

In equal parts an examination of the creative impulse, indictment of Post-Austerity Britain and affirmation of the human spirit, this book is also a captivating tale beautifully rendered in smart line, restricted palettes and – when most impactful – glorious full colour. Positively Dickensian in tone, sublimely modernistic in delivery and splendidly displaying the community we all need to be, The Impending Blindness of Billie Scott is a damn fine read we all need to share.
© Zoe Thorogood 2020. All rights reserved.


By Daishu Ma (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-853-3 (HB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Perfectly Confirming Life and Liberty 9/10

Sequential Art – or “comics” as I stubbornly prefer to think of it – is generally typified as a marriage of text with a series of illustrations designed to tell a story and impart a mood, but it’s always been a nebulously open-ended venture with little time for hard and fast rules and happy to avoid definition.

For instance if a story has an overabundance of words in too few pictures, the result is little more than illustrated prose, but if you go the other way and minimise, or even completely exclude words, what you have is the absolute zenith in comics communication. And more often than not, it’s the best writers who use the least verbiage, whether they illustrate the story or not…

Daishu Ma is a Chinese cartoonist, artist and designer working in Barcelona. This, her first graphic novel Leaf, rapidly joined a rarefied band of international illustrative icons (Jim Woodring, Jason and our own Raymond Briggs being regularly amongst the most prominent) who frequently eschew and transcend the printed word and strictures of graphic narrative, allowing methodically crafted imagery to establish scenes, define characters, create nuance and carry a tale.

…Or rather here, a politically-edged, industrially-condemning eco-parable, since her sublime, meticulous and astonishingly beguiling pencil-tone art – enhanced by smartly applied splashes of mood-enhancing pastel colour – exposes a blandly bleak industrial environment on the brink of eradicating the last vestiges of the natural world…

This is a story you must experience for yourself so let’s content ourselves with the basic facts: when a young man on an excursion finds a fallen leaf which pulses with an uncanny, comforting radiance he covertly takes it back to the ever-sprawling city.

His teeming conurbation, bustling office of employment and even extremely basic, always empty apartment are all drab and dolorous despite the plentiful supply of monopolistic artificial lights and he realises that what he’s found is something special, even inspirational.

Increasingly obsessed, he roams the bustling city, seeking someone who can explain what he hides in his home. The revelatory journey takes him to unsuspected, people-packed enclaves of joy, wonder and despondency and into many folks’ lost memories of better times, when he encounters a young woman who has dedicated her life to understanding the rapidly vanishing flora of the world and a strangely timid old man who seems to know all the secrets of light-making…

And once the finder obsessively follows a convoluted trail to a hidden truth, how can he not risk everything in a bold act to change his overcrowded, oppressive, unhappy world?

Entrancing, subtle and seductive in a purely primal manner, Leaf offers a vision of hope for all lovers of beautiful simplicity and natural wonder.
© 2015 Daishu Ma. All rights reserved.

The Definitive Charley’s War volume 1: Boy Soldier

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To Be Continued…

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

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

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

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

Jack Kirby’s OMAC: One Man Army Corps

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sublife volumes 1 and 2

By John Pham (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN-13: 978-1-56097-946-3 (TPB vol 1) 978-1-60699-309-5 (TPB vol 1)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Because Excellence Cannot be Allowed to Wither… 9/10

Born in Saigon and raised in the USA, self-publishing wizard and minicomic genius John Pham joined with the wonderfully progressive Fantagraphics to release two volumes in a proposed twice-a-year book series dedicated to the sheer joy of pictorial storytelling in our modern, miracle-free world, blending joyous creation with incisive social interrogation. These astoundingly satisfying anthologies are still available in paperback or digital formats and if you or yours love the power of comics to engender reaction, they really belong with you….

The initial offering, a sublimely designed landscape-format tome printed in quirky two-tone (Magenta and Cyan combined to produce a huge variety of colours welcomingly familiar to anybody who grew up reading Beano or The Dandy) features a series of intertwined tales featuring the odd denizens of ‘221 Sycamore St.’

Poignant and surreal by turns, the lives of exhausted ‘Mildred Lee’, dubious stud ‘Vrej Sarkissian’, tragic and disturbing religious studies teacher ‘Hubie Winters’ and those guys ‘Los Hermanos Macdonald’ are a captivating and laconic examination of the kind of people you probably wouldn’t like or make time for…

The silent, deadly pantomime of the house cat seeking safety outside is worth the price of admission alone, but when the abstract and symbol-stuffed existences on display here shuffle into your head and just sit there twitching, you too will wonder how you ever got on without this on your “must-read” list.

The second volume dedicated to the sheer expressive joy of pictorial storytelling in our modern, wonder-deprived world, is also crafted in an immaculately designed landscape-format tome, printed in quirky two-tone (orange and blue here combined to produce a huge variety of colours) features another series of seemingly unconnected tales linked more by sensibility and tone rather than content.

After faux newspaper strip ‘Mort’ examines the passions of a failed blogger, the main experience begins with a continuation of ‘Deep Space’, wherein extraordinarily pedestrian star-farers strive to find their way home: a beautifully rendered piece reminiscent of a wistful Philippe Druillet, before resuming Pham’s exploration of the frankly peculiar residents of ‘221 Sycamore St.’

This time runaway teen Phineas sees a disturbing side to his cool uncles when they all go “dog-training”…

This leads into anti-elegiac autobiographical memoir ‘St. Ambrose 1984-1988’ before the majority of the volume recounts the adventures of ‘The Kid’: a practically wordless post-apocalyptic science fiction yarn. It deals with scavenging and the price of love, channelling of – and deeply respectful to – Mad Max, with perhaps just a touch of A Boy and his Dog thrown in, all drawn in a pencil-toned style that is both deeply poignant and powerfully gripping.

The volume fun finishes with nostalgic one-pager ‘Socko Sarkissian’: a fond paean to baseball’s greatest fictional Armenian batsman.

Seductive, quietly compulsive, authentically plebeian and surreal by turns, John Pham’s work is abstract, symbol-stuffed and penetratingly real. Fascinated by modern prejudices, he tells strange stories in comfortable ways and makes the bizarre commonplace without ever descending to histrionics: like a cosmic witness to everything you might or might not want to see.

If you’re wearied by mainstream comics but still love the medium too much to quit, you need to see these stories and refresh your visual palate. In fact, even if not, check out Sublife anyway, in case it’s your horizons not your tastes which need the attention…
© 2008, 2009 John Pham. All Rights Reserved.