The Secrets of Chocolate: A Gourmand’s Trip Through a Top Chef’s Atelier


By , translated by Montana Kane (NBM)
ISBN: 978-1-68112-278-6 (HB) eISBN: 978-1-68112-279-3

It seems there’s nothing you can’t craft compelling comics about if you’re talented and inspired, as this spellbinding catalogue of the chocolatiers’ art proves. Originally released au Continent as Les Secrets du Chocolat in 2014, it’s a combination history, travelogue, docudrama and recipe book wherein Bande Dessinée star Franckie Alarcon is invited to spend a year shadowing a celebrated chocolatier at the Jacques Genin Chocolate Workshop. In a scintillating and oddly moreish manner he imparts his sheer joy at discovering how new sweetmeats are created; subsequently learning the history of the wonder stuff and even travelling to South America with a maker to source a new supply of the magic beans…

It all kicks off in December 2013 as the artist s recaps his recent past, detailing moments in his lifelong love affair with chocolate and revealing how he landed his ultimate passion project. Offered exclusive all-access to a literal chocolate factory, Alarcon began at Genin’s glamorous store/outlet, meeting dedicated apprentices and journeymen and absorbing the basic skills of production while being subtly retrained in how to eat and appreciate the subject of his dreams…

With positively lascivious renderings of classical chocs, and the secret recipes for making Candies, Truffles, Pralines,Chocolate Tart, Ganache, Hot Chocolate and Chocolate Mendiants, Alarcon learns under a true inventive master in ‘Chocolates’ with each new taste sensation triggering a positively Proustian Madeleine moment in the gobsmacked artist…

The next phase of the journey of discovery follows in ‘Stephane Bonnat, From Bean to Bar’ as Alarcon explores the history and processes of chocolate production from France’s most prestigious manufacturer before celebrating with elan an industry holy day in ‘Valentine’s Day: Love in the Form of Chocolate’

Another big deal demanding the mastery of new skills is covered – or is that “enrobed”? – in ‘Easter: Art on Chocolate’after which May 20th 2014 sees the artist become fully-fledged as an ‘Intern: A Difficult Learning Experience’ mastering ‘Taste: The Source of Pleasure’ under Genin’s patient tutelage…

Making good on an earlier offer, Alarcon then joins Bonnat on a resource-hunting trip to the Amazon rainforest in search of a new kind of bean in ‘Cocoa: The Origins of Chocolate’ before the voyage of gustatory discovery concludes in September 2014 with some laudatory thoughts and even more tantalising visuals in ‘Parting Words: An All-Consuming Passion’

Beguiling, seductive and simply delightful, this is an inviting comics divertissement that will surely be to practically everyone’s taste…
© Editions Delcourt 2014. © 2021 NBM for the English translation.

The Secrets of Chocolate: A Gourmand’s Trip Through a Top Chef’s Atelier will be released digitally on June 15th2020 and published in hardback on June 17th. It is available for pre-order now. For more information and other great reads see http://www.nbmpub.com/

Artichoke Tales


By Megan Kelso (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-344-6 (HB)

Megan Kelso has been producing unique, idiosyncratic, thought-provoking comics stories for over 30 years; the very best of which can be seen in her award-winning collections Queen of the Black Black and The Squirrel Mother. In 2004 she edited exclusively-female comics anthology Scheherazade: Stories of Love, Treachery, Mothers, and Monsters, following up in 2007 with weekly strip Watergate Sue for The New York Times Magazine.

She works far too slowly for my greedy nature to be completely happy with, but as the results are always superb, I should just be patient and count myself lucky whenever something new hits the bookshelves. Until then, though, here’s another look at my personal fave-rave, happily still available in both hardcover and digital editions…

Artichoke Tales is a generational saga which recounts, like film run backwards, the aftermath, events of and build-up to a tragic and devastating civil war on a serene, stable agrarian culture: a land of farmers, foragers and fisher-folk who all look like they’re sporting vegetable hair-dos. Don’t be fooled though – despite the stalks sprouting from their skulls these are not Arcadian vegan characters dreamily dwelling in their own sylvan Pogle’s Wood: these are people, gullible, fallible and intensely complex.

Kelso first created her artichoke people for a tale in anthology comic Girlhero, before beginning this epic in 1999; citing such thematic influences as the Little House on the Prairie books, Colleen McCullough’s The Thorn Birds and Anthony Minghella’s Cold Mountain for her gently compelling, beguiling story of the Quicksand family – apothecaries to the village of Ladle – and how an insane and unwelcome split between North and South sorely wounds not only the nation but three generations of women caught up in it…

Young Brigitte was gathering herbs for her grandmother when she once again met the dashing soldier Adam. Military types weren’t particularly welcome and Northerners even less so, despite all the years that had passed since the War, but young hormones and the promise of something fresh and exotic always win out over common sense…

Torn between imminent passion, a sudden hatred for her boring old life and fear of the unknown. Brigitte forces Grandma Charlotte to tell the previously unspoken history of the conflict and how it shaped the Quicksand family: a tale of pride, high-handedness and avoidable mistakes that led to those bitter prejudices which still scar people on every side.

Told in a stunning minimalist manner demanding the reader’s closest scrutiny and collaboration, the refined drawings unfold stories within stories, like the skin of an onion, with truths peeling away to reveal some depressingly universal truths about families, society and the use of power.

Be warned: despite the engagingly simple art and storytelling style, this is not a book for younger readers, so parents should read this beautiful parable before you let your kids at it…

Those of you without impressionable progeny can just go right ahead and dig in: Artichoke Tales is truly magical and awaits your avid, appreciative attention and consumption…
© 2010 Megan Kelso. All Rights Reserved.

Master of Kung Fu Epic Collection volume 1: 1973-1975 Weapon of the Soul


By Steve Englehart, Jim Starlin, Doug Moench, Gerry Conway, Len Wein, Roger Stern, Paul Gulacy, Ron Wilson, Al Milgrom, Ross Andru, Keith Pollard, Alan Weiss, Walter Simonson, John Buscema, Ed Hannigan, Aubrey Bradford, P Craig Russell, Frank McLaughlin, Jeff Aclin & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-1-3029-0135-6 (TPB)

Comic books have always operated within the larger bounds of popular trends and fashions – just look at what got published whenever westerns or science fiction dominated on TV – so when the ancient philosophy and discipline of Kung Fu made its unstoppable mark on domestic western entertainment, it wasn’t long before all those kicks and punches found their way onto four-colour pages of America’s periodicals. Early starter Charlton added Yang and House of Yang to the pioneering Judo Joe and Frank McLaughlin’s Judomaster; DC debuted Richard Dragon and rebooted Karate Kid; Atlas/ Seaboard opened The Hands of the Dragon and Marvel rapidly converted a proposed literary adaptation into an ongoing saga about a villain’s son. A month after it launched, a second orient-tinged hero in Iron Fist: combining combat philosophy, high fantasy and magic powers with a proper superhero mask and costume…

At their core, comics are just another mass-media entertainment form, but even (or do I mean especially?) the most frivolous fun for the largest audiences may carry at its heart cultural and social iniquity, easily-exploitable prejudices and dangerously-pernicious stereotyping and profiling. With that in mind, here’s a thorny subject for all concerned, on so many levels…

After the sublime success and cultural phenomenon of the Black Panther movie, people of colour finally had a heroic icon and cultural touchstone of their very own. The glorious and affirmative characters and stories were based on comics generated over many years by a multitude of talented, well-meaning creators, all originating at a company that was generally liberal, socially aware and earnestly seeking to address issues of prejudice and inclusivity whenever and wherever they found them.

That was black folk sorted, right? However, people of Asian ancestry still cry out for something of relevance and meaning to them. That’s why there’s a blockbuster Shang-Chi movie heading towards our screens in September.

It’s also notionally based on some incredible comics by a variety of gifted individuals and teams, but the white world in general and Marvel in particular have a different kind of history with those of Asian heritage…

Although largely retrofitted for modern times, inspirational Master of Kung Fu star Shang-Chi comes with a lot of tricky baggage. He debuted in the autumn of 1973, cashing in on a 1970s craze for Eastern philosophy and martial arts action which generated an avalanche of “Chop Sockey” movies and a controversial TV sensation entitled Kung Fu. You may recall that the lead in that western-set saga was a half-Chinese Shaolin monk, played – after much publicised legal and industry agitation – by a white actor…

At Marvel, no one at that time particularly griped about the fact that Shang-Chi was designed by editor Roy Thomas and artisans Steve Englehart, Jim Starlin & Al Milgrom as a naive innocent (also half Chinese, with an American mother) thrown into tumultuous modern society as a rebellious but involved counterpoint to his father: an insidious scheming fiend intent on global domination.

Back then, securing rights to a major literary property and wrapping new comics in it was an established practise. It had worked spectacularly with Conan the Barbarian and horror stars like Dracula and Frankenstein. The same process also brilliantly informed seminal science fiction icon Killraven in War of the Worlds and plenty more…

These days we comics apologists keep saying “it was a different era”, but I genuinely don’t think anyone in the editorial office paused for a moment of second thoughts when their new Kung Fu book secured the use one of literature’s greatest villains as a major player. Special Marvel Edition #15 (cover-dated December 1973) launched to great success, and the overarching villain was already a global personification of infamy …Fu Manchu.

Arthur Henry Sarsfield Ward AKA Sax Rohmer’s ultimate embodiment of patronising mistrust and racist suspicion had been hugely popular since 1913’s The Mystery of Dr. Fu-Manchu. The prime archetype for mad scientists and the remorseless “Yellow Peril” threatening civilization, the character spread to stage, screen, airwaves and comics (even appropriating the cover of Detective Comics #1, heralding an interior series that ran until #28), but most importantly, became the visual affirmation and conceptual basis for countless evil “Asiatics”, “Orientals” and “Celestials” dominating popular fiction ever since.

In recent years as we’ve all (well, mostly all) acknowledged past iniquities, Shang-Chi has been reimagined, with that paternal link downplayed or abandoned – as much for licensing laws as social justice.

For the movie, the villainous sire is now The Mandarin, but that only reminds us that, over its decades of existence, Marvel has employed plenty of “Yellow Peril” knock-offs and personifications – including Wong Chu; Plan Tzu (AKA the Yellow – or latterly GoldenClaw); Huang Zhu; Silver Samurai; Doctor Sun ad infinitum: all birds of another colour that are still nastily pejorative shades of saffron. Perhaps this is just my white guilt and fanboy shame talking. These stories, crafted by Marvel’s employees were – and remain – some of the best action comics you’ll ever encounter, but never forget what they’re actually about… distrust of the obviously other…

Without making excuses, I should also state that despite the easy, casual racism suggested by legions of outrageously exotic, inscrutable bad guys haunting this series at every level, Master of Kung Fu did sensitively address issues of race and honestly attempt to share non-Christian philosophies and thought whilst, most importantly, offering potent and powerful role models to kids of Asian origins. So at least there’s that to defend…

Packed with stunning adventure and compellingly convincing drama, this trade paperback and digital collection gathers far-ranging appearances from Special Marvel Edition #15-16; Master of Kung Fu #17-28; Giant-Size Master of Kung Fu #1-4; Giant-Size Spider-Man #2, plus material from Iron Man Annual #4 (collectively spanning December 1973-August 1977) and it opens without a preamble in the middle of a mighty battle…

‘Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu!’ introduces a vibrant, brilliant young man raised in utter isolation in the style and manner of imperial China. Reared by monks and savants, the boy is the result of a match between a physically perfect American woman and misunderstood patriot Fu Manchu: a noble hero unfairly hunted and slandered by corrupt western governments and the communist usurpers now blasphemously controlling the world’s greatest empire.

This son was schooled to respect and obey his sire, trained to perfection in martial arts: designed as the ultimate warrior servant and the doctor’s devoted personal weapon against lifelong enemies Sir Dennis Nayland Smith and Doctor Petrie.

On reaching maturity, Shang – who’s name means “the rising and advancing of a spirit” – is despatched to execute Petrie, but after the obedient weapon executes his mission, he subsequently questions his entire life and the worldly benefit of killing an elderly, dying man. An emotional confrontation with Nayland Smith – who endures the daily agonies of being maimed at the Devil Doctor’s command – further shakes the boy’s resolve and eventually Shang’s sublime education demands that he reassess everything his father has taught him…

After invading the villain’s New York citadel and crushing his army of freaks and monsters, Shang Chi faces his father and rejects all he stands for. The battle lines of an epic family struggle are drawn…

Focusing on the madness of modern living, outcast misfit Shang navigates the perils of New York City in the next episode, before reluctantly fighting his childhood companion M’nai in ‘Midnight brings Dark Death!’ It’s another bittersweet betrayal, since Midnight has always known of Fu’s true nature and happily acted as his infallible assassin… until now…

The series had launched in bimonthly reprint title Special Marvel Edition as The Hands of Shang Chi: Master of Kung Fu and by the third issue (April 1974) it became exclusively his. Issue #17’s ‘Lair of the Lost!’ introduced (a painfully, equally stereotypical) True Brit foe who would soon become a trusted ally.

Blackjack Tarr seeks vengeance for his old ally Petrie; luring Shang Chi to a private murder mansion. However, the battle royal ends with all concerned re-evaluating their positions and agreeing to unite to defeat the actual enemy of all humanity…

Scripted by Englehart and inked by Milgrom, #18 was the true turning point in the series. Newcomer Paul Gulacy became penciller, blending a love of popular cinema with a vivid illustration style based on the comics designs of Jim Steranko. ‘Attack!’ sees Shang taking his war to Fu Manchu and his complex, convoluted secret society of assassins and acolytes, invading Fu’s New York base to deliver a salutary declaration of war before undertaking his first mission for spymaster Nayland Smith.

Despatched to Florida to intercept mysterious smugglers and an unknown cargo, the Master of Kung Fu foils a scheme to poison America’s gasoline supply, defeats a supernaturally enhanced Dacoit (look it up: Rohmer’s literary creation enlisted almost every Asian subculture into an admittedly beguiling army of oriental killers faithfully aligned against white imperialism) and escapes a hallucinogenic ambush…

Promoted to monthly with #19 (August 1974), the next chapter sees the hero’s full initiation into the Marvel Universe with a crossover. ‘Retreat’ depicts the still-drugged Shang lost in the Everglades, hunted by assassins and clashing with the monstrous Man-Thing. There’s even a cheeky acknowledgement of the series’ antecedents with a cameo starring a certain TV Sino-American wandering philosopher…

Gerry Conway scripts ‘Weapon of the Soul’ as Mafia boss Demmy Marston targets Shang Chi in an effort to curry favour with Fu Manchu before Doug Moench begins his long association with the series in concluding chapter ‘Season of Vengeance…’ (illustrated by Ron Wilson & Milgrom) clearing the decks for explosive action and epic adventure by demonstrating why Fu is the most dangerous ally an ambitious crook could ever encounter…

By this time – the summer of 1975 – the series was one of Marvel’s most successful, spawning guest shots and extra issues galore. Cover-dated September 1974, Giant-Size Master of Kung Fu #1 offered even more martial arts mayhem in a quarterly spin-off that opened with ‘Death Masque!’ (Moench, Gulacy & Dan Adkins). To celebrate Shang’s birthday, his father orchestrates a terrifying gauntlet of killers, even as the son infiltrates his administrative Council of 7: the Si-Fan

The double-sized issue also offers apparent change-of-pace yarn ‘Frozen Past, Shattered Memories’ (Moench & P. Craig Russell) as Shang fails to foil a museum robbery; a fact page on ‘Shaolin Temple Boxing’ by comic book Kung Fu pioneer Frank McLaughlin and a parable on racism and psychopathy in Moench, Wilson & Mike Esposito’s ‘Reflections in a Rippled Pool!’

In quick order, Giant-Size Spider-Man #2 (October 1974, by Len Wein, Ross Andru & Milgrom) reinforced the hero’s crossover credentials as ‘Masterstroke!’ finds the wondrous webslinger drawn into battle with the Master of Kung Fu after Fu Manchu frames Spider-Man for attacking Chinese-Americans and sabotaging New York’s power grid. Eventually the duped heroes clear the air Marvel-style in ‘Cross… and Double-Cross!’ before uniting to foil the madman’s true scheme to mindwipe America from the ‘Pinnacle of Doom!’

MOKF #22 (November) sets up the next phase of Shang’s life as a secret agent. In ‘A Fortune of Death!’ (Moench, Gulacy & Dan Adkins) he saves Nayland Smith and Blackjack Tarr while foiling another attempt to destroy America’s complacency and security before Giant-Size Master of Kung Fu #2 (December 1974, by Moench, Gulacy & Jack Abel) declares ‘The Devil-Doctor’s Triumph’ with romantic distraction Sandy Chen enticing our young lonely warrior before tragically teaching him the power of deceit while courting his aid to rescue her father from his father…

With Gulacy going from strength to strength in the Giant-Size tales, Al Milgrom & Klaus Janson stepped in for Moench’s next twisty epic; beginning in MOKF #23 as Shang agrees to quash his father’s potential alliance with a Nazi war criminal, necessitating a lethal voyage up the ‘River of Death!’ The bloody debacle goes completely off-script in ‘Massacre Along the Amazon!’ (Milgrom, Alan Weiss, Starlin, Walt Simonson & Sal Trapani) as Si-Fan, neo-Nazis and indigenous forest people clash, leading to Shang running a savage gauntlet in brutal conclusion ‘Rites of Courage, Fists of Death!’ (Gulacy & Trapani).

Vince Colletta inks Giant-Size Master of Kung Fu #3 (March 1975) as ‘Fires of Rebirth’ introduces British agent Clive Reston (an homage to and descendent of literary icons like James Bond and Sherlock Holmes) as both sides in the unending war seek the last remaining stock of Fu Manchu’s immortality-inducing Elixir Vitae. The hunt catastrophically encompasses Central Park West, the British Museum and Buckingham Palace, involving lethal Phansigars, reanimated Neanderthals and potential new archnemesis Shadow-Stalker before delivering an utterly life-altering surprise to Shang-Chi…

Digging deeper into Romer’s novels, Moench increasingly capitalizes on Fu Manchu’s expansive cast with Master of Kung Fu #26. Limned by Keith Pollard & Trapani, ‘Daughter of Darkness!’ features the Devil Doctor’s recalcitrant first-born Fah Lo Suee (who debuted in either third book The Si-Fan Mysteries/The Hand of Fu-Manchu in 1917 or fourth outing The Daughter of Fu-Manchu in 1931, depending on who you ask) and the son of former valiant Brit Shan Greville and her latest treacherous scheme to supplant her sinister sire using an ancient Egyptian relic…

John Buscema & Frank Springer unite to depict Moench’s ‘Confrontation’ as the family war intensifies over possession of the last dregs of Elixir Vitae and conflicted Shang is pressed to pick a side after the collateral death of an innocent bystander after which Wilson, Ed Hannigan & Aubrey Bradford join Moench and Trapani for #28 as ‘A Small Spirit Slowly Shaped…’ finds Shang Chi invading his childhood home in Honan to save Nayland Smith from his ascendant sister…

Slightly askew of the tight continuity, Giant-Size Master of Kung Fu #4 (June 1975) absurdly enquires ‘Why a Tiger-Claw?’ in a surreal comedy thriller from Moench, Pollard & Trapani as Shang encounters Groucho Marx tribute and living force of irascible nature Rufus T. Hackstabber when a mundane bank robbery leads to a rebellious Si-Fan assassin with a personal agenda and big ambitions…

Wrapping up the martial arts mastery is a short piece from Iron Man Annual #4 (August 1977): an out-of-place Kung Fu vignette by Roger Stern, Jeff Aclin & Don Newton. ‘Death Lair!’ stars the long dead but never forgotten Midnight on a mission of murder for Fu Manchu and targeting Vietnamese rival and old Iron Man enemy Half-Face

Adding value to the package are Starlin & Milgrom’s original art for the cover of Special Marvel Edition #15; Roy Thomas’ editorial from that issue and assorted house ads, a spoof ad from official fanzine F.O.O.M. and an unused Starlin & Milgrom cover for #17.

In recent years, Shang Chi’s backstory has been forced to adapt and alter. His father has been reinvented as Zheng Zu, Mr. Han, Chang Hu, Wang Yu-Seng and The Devil Doctor and in the end, you have the ultimate choice and sanction of not buying or reading this material.

If you do – with eyes wide open and fully acknowledging that the past is another place that we can now consign to history – your comics appreciation faculties will see some amazing stories incredibly well illustrated: ranking amongst the most exciting and enjoyable in Marvel’s canon.
© 1973, 1974, 1975, 1977, 2018 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

August Moon


By Diana Thung (Top Shelf)
ISBN: 978-1-60309-069-8 (PB)

Here’s a mysterious thing. For a while, a few years back, Diana Thung was a glittering name and shining prospect in graphic storytelling, but after two brilliant all-ages fantasy triumphs she dropped out of sight. I don’t know why – or to be honest have any right to. But it is a shame as her work was superb. I hope she’s well and happy, but I’m not going to stop recommending her delightful creations…

Thung was born in Jakarta, and grew up in Singapore before eventually settling in Australia. She is a natural storyteller, cartoonist and comics creator of sublime wit and imagination with a direct hotline to infinite thoughtscapes of childhood. Every single thing populating her astonishingly unique worlds is honed to razor sharpness and pinpoint logical clarity, no matter how weird or whimsical it might initially seem.

The sentiment is pure and unrefined; scenarios are perfectly constructed and effectively, authentically realised …and when things get tense and scary they are excessively tense and really, really scary…

After SLG published debut series Captain Long Ears in 2010, Thung catapulted to (relative) fame two years later following the release of her first graphic novel. August Moon is a magnificent blending of eastern and western comics influences that remixed many standard elements of fantasy into a superbly fresh conjunction for young and old alike.

Rendered in stunning, organically enticing black and white, the scene opens in the Asian township of Callico: an isolated little metropolis in the midst of lush jungle verdure, and a place with a few strange secrets…

Accessible only by one solitary bridge, generally cut off from the wider world by dense surrounding forests and innate unchanging dullness, the town moves at its own pace. Life is slow, existence is bucolic and the biggest deal for the people is the perennial debate over whether the strange dancing lights seen in the trees at night are actually Soul Fire dead ancestors watching over the town – or just some unexplained scientific phenomenon…

Answers start coming for a select few after ugly, business-suited strangers begin buying up empty shops for a company named Mon & Key. Some older street vendors are understandably anxious, but only Grandma and her peculiar little associate Jaden know the appalling threat these interlopers pose…

Events start spiralling out of control when the newcomers murder a hitherto unknown “animal” and news of the bizarre beast’s corpse leaks out into the wider world. The amazing discovery brings college biologist Dr. Gan back to the town his dead wife grew up in for the first time in years, dragging unhappy teenaged daughter Fiona with him.

Reluctant to be there, Fi keeps to herself; spending time snapping photos with her instamatic camera. The dull old backwater suddenly becomes far more intriguing after she captures a candid shot of a boy leaping like a grasshopper over the rooftops…

When she finally meets the incomprehensibly enigmatic Jaden, Fi is quickly drawn into his bizarre struggle against the ape-like invaders. After meeting the clandestine forest creatures who are the true source of Soul Fire, she makes their struggle her own…

The cruel and cunning interlopers of Mon & Key worship commerce and progress. Their agenda involves destroying forests to build factories. Ruthless and multi-resourced, they retaliate by killing all objectors, whilst attempting to dissuade and eventually assassinate Fi’s father.

However, with the aid of Callico’s street children – and a few clued-in, sympathetic adults like her Uncle Simon – Fi and super-powered, magic moon-boy Jaden spearhead a spirited secret war to destroy the rapacious deforestation machines of Mon & Key.

As the holiday season nears its end, the town prepares for its annual Soul Fire Festival and parade. As Mon & Key’s forces assemble for one final deforesting assault, they have totally underestimated Jaden’s resolve, Fi’s ingenuity and Callico’s communal desire to remain unchanged and unchanging…

A funny, scary, magical and thrilling modern fable, August Moon seamlessly stitches together ecological themes with beguiling myth to create a captivating tale of youthful empowerment and rebellious wonder. This is a fabulously enticing young reader’s epic every lover of comics and storytelling should take to their hearts.
© 2011 Diana Thung.

Batgirl volume 1: Silent Knight


By Scott Peterson, Kelley Puckett, Chuck Dixon, Damion Scott, Mike Deodato Jr., Pablo Raimondi & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-6627-1 (TPB)

Way back when, after Gotham City was devastated in a massive earthquake (see Batman: Cataclysm and Batman: No Man’s Land in 2000) it was written off and abandoned by the US government in a spookily prescient foretaste of what would happen to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina hit in August 2005. Amidst the rubble, a number of heroes struggled to protect the innocent. One of these was a brand-new incarnation of Batgirl.

As the crisis ended and a semblance of normality returned to the battered metropolis, the new heroine got her own series and a mentor in the form of Babs Gordon, the wheelchair-bound crime-fighter called Oracle, who was also the first Batgirl.

The new operative is an enigmatic problem. Raised in utter isolation as an experiment by martial arts super-assassin David Cain, she cannot communicate. Part of the process creating Cassandra Cain was depriving and overriding her language centres in an effort to make combat her only communication tool. An apparent runaway, she was briefly adopted by the Batman as another weapon in his never-ending battle, before the more humane Oracle becomes her guardian and teacher.

In this first paperback/digital volume – spanning April 2000-March 2001 by collecting #1-12 of the monthly series and first Annual – the new Batgirl is trying to find her way, bereft even of the ability to learn, whilst revelling in the role of defender of the helpless, but her development as a human being threatens to diminish her capacity as a weapon, and the mystery of her past would indicate that she is possibly a two-edged sword in Batman’s arsenal…

In a bold experiment, initiating writers Scott Peterson and Kelly Puckett eschewed the standard format of individually titled stories to craft a continuous string of high action, deeply moving episodes which saw the neophyte street warrior battle the dregs of Gotham City while attempting to adapt to a life where not every person was her enemy.

Fast, furious, frenetic, visually expressive incidents (illustrated by Damion Scott with inkers Robert Campanella & Coy Turnbull) are interspersed with flashbacks to her lethal and cruel formative years with Cain pitting her against assassins and worse, while keeping a stunning secret of her natal origins all for himself…

In contemporary moments, Cassandra prowls the streets determined to honour her saviour Batman and sole friend Babs, battling thieves, thugs, rapists and all the worst human predators the city can throw at her.

All too soon, her first failure – to preserve an innocent life – leaves her emotionally wounded and susceptible to metahuman attack, even as Batman discovers his new operative may have blood on her own hands. Complicating the crisis, a telepath Cassandra rescues boosts her ability to speak, but inadvertently destroys her gift to read body language leaving her helpless against ordinarily easy opposition.

As Batman hunts and confronts Cain to clear Batgirl’s reputation, the embattled, dauntless wild child continues to risk her life in Gotham: going rogue and defying the Dark Knight to patrol the streets until she is targeted by Lady Shiva Woosan.

The world’s deadliest assassin has personal reasons for testing herself against Cassandra, and provides a cure for her lost battle assessment sense, but only to further her own insane agenda…

As Batman further unravels the convoluted mystery of Cassandra’s origins, Batgirl returns to duty, but again confronts failure at metahuman hands. Barely recovered, she finally faces her father and helps save Commissioner Gordon (in ‘Mute Witness’ from Batgirl #12 by Chuck Dixon, Dale Eaglesham & Andrew Hennessy). Her never-ending battle pauses for now after Batgirl Annual #1 takes her to Madras, India for ‘Introducing: Aruna’ by Peterson, Mike Deodato Jr. & John Stanisci.

Joining her mentor Batman and shapeshifting local hero Aruna, Cassandra explosively confronts millennia-old prejudice and ingrained racism whilst hunting for an abducted Bollywood child star exposed as a member of the “untouchables” caste. The shocking tragedy is supplemented by an origin for the shapeshifter, courtesy of Peterson, Pablo Raimondi & Walden Wong

Spellbinding, overwhelmingly fast-paced and terse to the point of bombastic brevity, this is a breakneck, supercharged thrill-ride of non-stop action that still manages to be heavily plot-based with genuine empathy and emotional impact. Truly superb comic storytelling which should be on every fan’s wish-list or bookshelf.
© 2000, 2001, 2015 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

They Called Us Enemy


By George Takei, Justin Eisinger, Steve Scott & Harmony Becker (Top Shelf)
ISBN: 978-1-603094-50-4 (TPB) 978-1-603094-70-2 (Expanded HB)
eISBN 978-1-684067-51-0

Graphic biographies are a relatively new form for English-language comics, but the wealth and variety of material already available is truly breathtaking and laudable. This exemplary example is a subtly understated but deeply moving chronicle exploring the events and repercussions of a truly shameful moment in American history, recalled and relived by a global icon of popular culture who also happens to be one of the USA’s most ardent advocates of democracy, justice and equality and top-level activist in the arenas of LGBTQ and Asian-American rights.

Although George Takei has celebrated and commemorated his life in prose autobiography To the Stars, here – in collaboration with writers Justin Eisinger & Steven Scott and illustrator Harmony Becker – the Hollywood star slyly shifts focus to explore in painful and revelatory detail the early years of his life: a formative period spent as a non-person behind barbed wire in his own country.

Recounted as non-linear, non-chronological episodes, the history and self-serving actions of American leaders (like Lt. General John L. DeWitt or Los Angeles Mayor Fletcher Bowron) who systematically stripped people of Japanese ethnicity of their rights, livelihoods, possessions and autonomy are seen through the eyes of a small child: observations which inevitably shaped the actor into a crusading defender of democratic principles of later life.

I’d love to say that’s simply a thing of the past, but kids are still being locked in cages and families split up…

On February 19th 1942, following the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, dividing the country into military zones and effectively declaring all American citizens of Japanese origins enemy aliens. This led to their internment for the duration of the war in 10 isolated camps between the West Coast and Mississippi river.

In surprisingly fond recollections of camp life, we share the notions of baffled children (George, brother Henry, sister Nancy Reiko and many new pals) and the lasting, post-war consequences of divisively authoritarian stunts such as legally-binding loyalty pledges, de-fanged and counterpointed by modern day discussions and triumphant moments of past injustices finally addressed.

As well as exposing the human costs of a shameful period of state-sanctioned, opportunistic profiteering and proud racism, this tale is a testament to human endurance, perseverance and innate dignity, with moments of delightful warmth and genuine humour, bolstered by actions of unsung humanitarian heroes like Takei’s own parents and pioneering civil rights lawyer Wayne M. Collins. Their tireless fortitude and resistance to oppression, along with the efforts of countless others, offers inspiration and hope for all suffering similar restraint and abuse while sadly proving that some battles may never end.

They Called Us Enemy is a compelling, charming and informative account of injustice and unchecked ignorance endured with plenty of points as pertinent now as they ever were.

In 2020 and expanded edition was released with 16 pages of extra material and is also available as both a physical hardback and in digital formats.
They Called Us Enemy © 2019 George Takei. All Rights Reserved.

Orwell


By Pierre Christin & Sébastien Verdier, with André Juillard, Olivier Balez, Manu Larcenet, Blutch, Isabelle Merlet, Juanjo Guarnido, Enki Bilal & more: translated by Edward Gauvin (SelfMadeHero)
ISBN: 978-1-910593-87-5 (TPB)

We all have our heroes. One whom I apparently share with another of my most admired and revered favourites is Eric Arthur Blair, who you’ll know as George Orwell.

One of the most significant literary, societal, cultural and political figures of the 20th century, Orwell is also a particular fascination of comics icon Pierre Christin, co-creator of epically barbed, venerable sci fi masterpiece Valerian and Laureline. A seditiously canny political commentator in his own right – as seen in such thought-provoking graphic subversions as The Town That Didn’t Exist, The Black Order and The Hunting Party – Christin began this particular piece of literary reportage after completing a personal project investigating the world’s various functioning – if not necessarily functional – Communist regimes…

A writer to his core, Eric Blair was a true and ardent democratic socialist: an author, critic, essayist and unflinching observer of humanity saddled with a loathing of privilege and an inescapably, embarrassingly obvious upper-class education.

Blair was a solitary individual who loved people, and an angry humanist vehemently opposed to greed, stupidity, totalitarianism, extremism and oppression (equally from the Left, Right and religious alike). He fought for his ideals during the Spanish Civil War and loathed Stalin, Hitler and probably his own and all other national leaders with equanimous passion.

The complex man’s fascinating private life is brilliantly and addictively detailed in Orwell: Old Etonian, copper, prole, dandy, militiaman, journalist, rebel, novelist, eccentric, socialist, patriot, gardener, hermit, visionary: Christin’s compelling graphic biography and appreciation primarily illustrated by Sébastien Verdier (Ultimate Agency; Le marathon de Safia; Zodiaque) with additional visual contributions from André Juillard, Olivier Balez, Manu Larcenet, Blutch, Juanjo Guarnido, Enki Bilal, colourist Isabelle Merlet and more.

Divided into ‘Orwell Before Orwell’, ‘Blair Invents Orwell’ and ‘Orwellian Orwell’, with an assessment of the world ‘After Orwell’, the narrative message and potent documentary depictions are bolstered with adapted snatches from Orwell’s groundbreaking stories and non-fiction, plus plenty of quotes taken from the cultural witness/prophet’s diaries.

Moving, revelatory, potent and supplemented by a methodological Afterword from Christin, this is a captivating graphic triumph no fan of graphic biography or devotee of the only man to provably predict the future should be without.
Orwell © DARGAUD 2019, by Christin, Verdier. All rights reserved. English translation © 2021 SelfMadeHero.

Nanjing: The Burning City


By Ethan Young (Dark Horse)
ISBN: 978-1-61655-752-2 (HB) 978-1-50671-085-3 (TPB)

Ethan Young comes from New York City, the youngest of three boys born to Chinese immigrant parents. Following studies at the School of Visual Arts, he began work as a commercial illustrator, supplementing that with debut graphic novel Tails: Life in Progress which won Best Graphic Novel award at the 2007 Independent Publisher Book Awards.

It thrived as a webcomic, as did his other ongoing all-ages project A Piggy’s Tale: The Adventures of a 3-Legged Super-Pup (created and written by Tod Emko). Later works include Firefly: Watch How I Soar; The Dragon Path; The Battles of Bridget Lee and more but they are all a far cry from this masterpiece. Nanjing: The Burning City is a stunning and excoriating anti-war parable, detailing one incomprehensibly dark night of horror in a war most of the world has conveniently forgotten about.

Whilst many Japanese – like Keiji Nakazawa (author of the astounding Barefoot Gen and a tireless anti-war campaigner for most of his life) – are fully prepared, able to acknowledge and “own” Japan’s horrific excesses throughout World War II (and the colonial expansion into China – noncommittally dubbed The Second Sino-Japanese War – which preceded it), far too many survivors of the original conflicts and – disturbingly – modern apologists and revisionists find it easier and more comfortable to excuse, obfuscate or even deny Japan’s role.

Sadly, I suspect today’s China is just as keen to systematically refute the excesses of the Maoist years and beyond…

Every nation that’s fought a war has committed atrocities, but no country or government has the right to dodge shame or excise blame by conveniently rewriting history for expediency or political gain: not Britain, not the USA, not Russia and never, ever those barbaric “Axis Powers” who tormented mankind between 1933 and 1945.

Delivered in stark, stunning yet understated black-&-white in hardback, paperback and digital editions, Young’s tale exposes callous brutality – without resorting to “us-and-them”, “good guys vs. bad guys” polemic – by simply focusing on one night and three very different military men caught up in the ghastly events.

The Second Sino-Japanese War began on July 7th 1937 when an aggressively expansionist Empire of Japan invaded complacent Shanghai. The well-equipped force moved swiftly inland towards Nanking, capital of Kuomintang Generalissimo Chang Kai-Shek’s newly established Republic of China.

The thoroughly modern Imperial army reached the city on December 12th, whereupon Nanking’s military and civil leaders fled in panic, leaving hundreds of thousands of Chinese soldiers and citizens to bear the brunt of a savage, bestial assault described by author Iris Chang as The Rape of Nanking.

Chinese Republican officers didn’t even issue orders for the soldiers they abandoned to retreat…

Over the next six weeks more than 300,000 died in a campaign of organised torture and massacre. Uncountable numbers of women and children were raped and brutalised. Before the Japanese military chiefs surrendered in 1945, they had all records of the taking of Nanking destroyed. The never-to-be-properly-accounted dead are rightly known as the Forgotten Ones…

An event almost completely overlooked for decades by western – and Japanese – historians, the torment began with a night of appalling, unparalleled atrocity with Young concentrating his tale on the efforts of a nameless Captain and a sole surviving subordinate making their way through the shredded remnants of the metropolis. The betrayed, beaten warriors harbour a fanciful hope of sanctuary in the enclave occupied by European diplomats, businessmen, missionaries and their servants: the sacrosanct “Safety Zone” where white people go about their business largely untouched by strictly Asian “local politics”…

It’s only a few kilometres to salvation, and the Zone indeed houses many sympathetic foreign souls who will risk their lives for humanitarian reasons, but to get to them the soldiers must avoid the hordes of prowling, drunken, blood-crazed conquerors and deny their own burning desire to strike back at the invaders – even if it costs their lives…

As they slowly scramble through hellish ruins, they are doggedly pursued by a Japanese colonel who apparently has no stomach for the gleeful bloody debaucheries of his soldiers but rather carries out his duties with a specialised zeal and for a different kind of reward…

Whilst the weary Kuomintang survivors make their way to the Safety Zone, however, a far more deadly hazard constantly arises: crushed, beaten, desperate fellow Chinese begging them to stop and help…

This is a gripping story with no happy ending, supplemented by Young’s large Sketchbook and Commentary sections, offering character studies, developmental insights and rejected cover roughs, as well as a formidable Bibliography for further reading…

Nanjing: The Burning City is a beautiful, haunting book designed to make you angry and curious and in that it succeeds with staggering effect. It’s not intended as a history lesson but rather a signpost for the unaware, offering directions to further research and greater knowledge, if not understanding; a provocative lesson from history we should, now more than ever, all see and learn from.
© 2015 Ethan Young. All rights reserved.

Championess


By Tarun Shanker, Kelly Zekas, Amanda Perez Puentes, & various (Legendary Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-68116-076-4 (TPB)

Legendary Comics (a print adjunct of Legendary Pictures – responsible for the Batman/Dark Knight movies as well as The Hangover, Man of Steel and 300) specialises in graphic narratives tailored for big screen film franchises, and this latest trade paperback may be a sleeper hit and potential contemporary blockbuster…

Women’s boxing is a rapidly growing sport and Britain is apparently a global leader. You might be surprised to know that – apart from an aberration of those deeply disturbed, morally hypocritical, history-rewriting Victorians – ‘twas ever so…

Championess is a hugely enjoyable melodramatic romp based on Georgian Elizabeth Wilkinson (nee Stokes) of Clerkenwell: a woman bareknuckle prize-fighter active between 1722-1728, and acclaimed star of a sport deliberately excised from history by those aforementioned, socially-censorious commentators and scribes.

Here, thanks to writers Tarun Shanker and Kelly Zekas – who have themselves taken a few literary liberties to deliver a knockout blow for racial diversity and female empowerment – Wilkinson is resurrected as a shunned but determined young woman of mixed race (British and Lascar/Indian) who wants to be a champion pugilist at a time when women fighters are commonplace, but considered simply as clowns and novelties.

Elizabeth fights for money to save her poor but saintly sister – who can “pass” for English – from debtors’ prison; she does it for revenge on an old friend who betrayed her; she does it to prove men don’t run the world; she eventually does it for and beside a man she

learns to trust and love, but mostly Elizabeth fights because she wants to and she’s really good at it. All she has to do is prove it to the scurrilous, bout-fixing fight arranger who runs the game in London, the public and in the end, herself…

Illustrated in monochrome grey washes by Amanda Perez Puentes, this is a bright, breezy, modernistic costume drama that would win plenty of notice on big and small screens. There’s not much in the way of narrative nuance or novelty, but it enthusiastically follows the arc of all good sports comics like Roy of the Rovers or the Tough of the Track, and Sport’s all about the action and the moment, right?

Backed up by sketch and design pages, cover gallery and variants and a feature on the process of script to finished art page, this tale is an unsophisticated but enthralling feelgood tale which I can certainly see fulfilling Legendary Comics’ remit and being adapted – assuming I and others can stifle that old-world, chauvinistic response to seeing women (or anybody, in fact) hitting each other for money and other peoples’ gratification…
© 2021, Legendary Comics, LLC. All rights reserved. Continue reading “Championess”

American Born Chinese

By Gene Luen Yang & Lark Pien (First Second – an imprint of Roaring Book Press)
ISBN: 978-1-59643-152-2 (TPB) 978-0-60614-484-1 (Turtleback Books PB)

A wondrous breakthrough and colossal gamechanger on its debut, here’s a quick tip of the hat to a modern masterpiece to celebrate the rather unwieldy but long overdue Asian Pacific American Heritage month.

An allegorical exploration of growing up visibly foreign in an often ignorant and unforgiving culture, Yang’s opus (coloured by Lark Pien and available in paperback and digital editions) braids three apparently separate tales of American Asian’s adolescent experience into a tapestry of wonder and revelation.

It begins as a witty reimagining of stories about Sun Wukong, the Monkey King of classical Eastern fiction and mythology. His bold exploits are flawlessly blended with two parallel storylines about Chinese Americans attempting to fit into the culture of what used to be called “The New World” and apparently is still regarded as such by many other parts of the globe. The result of such attempts is, of course, always something new and different, but why does getting there always have to be such a titanic struggle?

Jin Jang spent his formative years in the securely cosmopolitan enclave of San Francisco’s Chinatown before his family moved to the woefully provincial, inescapably European-descended suburbs. When his previously all-white High School offers an unofficial extracurricular course in sustained bullying and abuse, his miserable life changes with the late arrival of another kid like him – Taiwanese Wei-Chen Sun: but not in a way you’d hope or expect…

Jin’s experiences growing in this environment form a counterpoint to bright, vibrant reinterpretations of Monkey’s greatest exploits while a third strand features the struggles of all-American White boy Danny who is perpetually embarrassed by the grotesque living racial stereotype that is his obnoxious cousin ChinKee (sound it out… get it?)…

How these three elements seamlessly blend into a modern fantasy with a spectacular climax is a marvel you must not miss.

Pitilessly probing the experience of growing up foreign in your own country makes for a singular reading experience, but one that can surprisingly be enjoyed by all ages, although you should be aware that racial issues are dealt with head-on, and some images might appear offensive unless you’re actually paying attention.

Fifteen years on, American Born Chinese is a lauded, multi award-winning classic and remains a totally captivating breakthrough tale of adversity, diversity, acceptance and assimilation. It’s also a thrilling, deeply moving, funny and engaging read you will be infinitely enriched by.
© 2006 Gene Yang. All rights reserved.