The Marsupilami volume 2: Bamboo Baby Blues

By Franquin, Batem & Greg; coloured by Leonardo and translated by Jerome Saincantin (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-1-84918-364-2

One of Europe’s most popular comic stars is an eccentric, unpredictable, rubber-limbed ball of explosive energy with a seemingly infinite elastic tail. The frantic, frenetic Marsupilami is a wonder of nature and bastion of European storytelling who originally spun-off from another immortal comedy adventure strip…

In 1946 Joseph “Jijé” Gillain was crafting eponymous keystone strip Spirou for flagship publication Le Journal de Spirou when he abruptly handed off the entire kit and caboodle to his assistant Franquin. The junior took the reins, slowly abandoned the previous format of short complete gags in favour of longer epic adventure serials, and began introducing a wide and engaging cast of new characters.

In 1952’s Spirou et les héritiers he devised a beguiling and boisterous little South American critter dubbed Marsupilami to the mix. The little beast returned over and over again: a phenomenally popular magic animal who inevitably grew into a solo star of screen, toy store, console games and albums all his own.

Franquin frequently included the bombastic little beast in Spirou’s increasingly fantastic escapades until his resignation in 1969…

André Franquin was born in Etterbeek, Belgium on January 3rd 1924. Something of a prodigy, he began formal art training at École Saint-Luc in 1943, but when the war forced the school’s closure a year later, the lad found animation work at Compagnie Belge d’Animation in Brussels. Here he met Maurice de Bevere (Lucky Luke creator Morris), Pierre Culliford (Peyo, creator of The Smurfs) and Eddy Paape (Valhardi, Luc Orient).

In 1945 all but Culliford signed on with publishing house Dupuis, and Franquin began his career as a jobbing cartoonist and illustrator, producing covers for Le Moustique and scouting magazine Plein Jeu.

During those formative early days, Franquin and Morris were being trained by Jijé – at that time the main illustrator at Spirou. He quickly turned the youngsters and fellow neophyte Willy Maltaite – AKA Will – (Tif et Tondu, Isabelle, Le jardin des désirs/The Garden of Desire) into a potent creative bullpen dubbed La bande des quatre – or “Gang of Four” – who subsequently revolutionised Belgian comics with their prolific and engaging “Marcinelle school” style of graphic storytelling.

Jijé handed Franquin all responsibilities for the flagship strip part-way through Spirou et la maison préfabriquée, (Le Journal de Spirou #427, June 20th 1946). The eager novice ran with it for two decades, enlarging the scope and horizons until it became purely his own.

Almost every week fans would meet startling and zany new characters such as comrade and eventual co-star Fantasio or crackpot inventor the Count of Champignac.

In the ever-evolving process Spirou et Fantasio became globe-trotting journalists, continuing their weekly exploits in unbroken four-colour glory and “reporting back” their exploits in Le Journal de Spirou

In a splendid example of good practise, Franquin mentored his own band of apprentice cartoonists during the 1950s. These included Jean Roba (La Ribambelle, Boule et Bill/Billy and Buddy), Jidéhem (Sophie, Starter, Gaston Lagaffe/Gomer Goof) and Greg (Bruno Brazil, Bernard Prince, Achille Talon, Zig et Puce), who all worked with him during his tenure on Spirou et Fantasio.

In 1955 a contractual spat with Dupuis resulted in Franquin signing up with publishing rivals Casterman on Journal de Tintin, where he collaborated with René Goscinny and old pal Peyo whilst creating the raucous gag strip Modeste et Pompon.

Franquin soon patched things up with Dupuis and returned to Le journal de Spirou, subsequently co-creating Gaston Lagaffe in 1957, but was now legally obliged to carry on his Tintin work too…

From 1959, writer Greg and background artist Jidéhem assisted Franquin but by 1969 the artist had reached his Spirou limit and resigned for good, happily taking his mystic yellow monkey with him…

Plagued in later life by bouts of depression, Franquin passed away on January 5th 1997, but his legacy remains: a vast body of work that reshaped the landscape of European comics. Moreover, having learned his lessons about publishers, Franquin retained all rights to Marsupilami and in the late 1980’s began publishing his own new adventures of the fuzzy and rambunctious miracle-worker.

He tapped old comrade Greg as scripter and invited commercial artist/illustrator Luc Collin (pen name Batem) to collaborate on – and later monopolise – the art duties for a new series of raucous comedy adventures.

Now numbering 30 albums (not including all-Franquin short-story collection volume #0, AKA Capturez un Marsupilami), the second of these was Le Bébé du bout du monde, released in 1988 and translated here as Marsupilami: Bamboo Baby Blues.

Blessed with a talent for mischief, the Marsupilami is a devious anthropoid inhabiting the rain forests of Palombia and regarded as one of the rarest animals on Earth. It speaks a language uniquely its own and also has a reputation for causing trouble and instigating chaos…

Although primarily set once again in the dense Palombian rainforest, this saga begins in bustling, politically unstable capital city La Grande Ciudad where two young Chinese envoys attempt to charter an aircraft to deliver a very special animal to its ultimate destination in adjoining South American country Palo-Plagia.

The very junior and fiercely idealistic officials have not been prepared for the very shaky – if not shady – nature of all transactions in this part of the capitalist world and, after falling foul of an airline strike, are forced to complete their mission through regrettably “extra-legal” channels.

That’s why they are soon bouncing around in a decrepit ex-WWII bomber piloted by demented drug-runner and former German war criminal Helmut Ersatzauweis von Lilimarlehn who can’t tell their legitimate mission from his usual clandestine recreational pharmaceuticals deliveries…

After taking a most circuitous and totally unnecessary route, the ramshackle Aguila del Paradisio falls apart in mid-air over a certain patch of dense jungle and the befuddled captain ditches, leaving the diligent envoys to their fate. Without a qualm the Democratic People’s Servants attach their parachutes to the baby Giant Panda they have been escorting, trusting it to fate. Their last thoughts are of a particularly worrisome fact: the Panda can only eat bamboo and there is none in Palombia.

All known growing areas in the rogue state have been turned over to the cultivation of poppies and cannabis…

In the green fastness below the commotion is detected by a native fisherman who might be able to turn the tragedy to his advantage. Yafegottawurm is up for the change of pace too; anything is better than sitting on a log waiting for the vile and voracious piranha to bite…

Another witness with far more sympathetic motivations is also quick to react: the infernal, eternally mischievous, big-hearted Marsupilami…

When the golden beast brings the Panda cub back to his family he is disappointed to find the little creature reluctant to eat until it encounters Yafegottawurm’s recently abandoned fishing poles.

Apparently, bamboo is not quite extinct in the verdant interior: the Havoca natives secretly cultivate the grass in enclosed areas. It is a material crucial to their daily existence, highly prized and practically sacred…

That’s a fateful fact Helmut now shares, having being brought to the Havoca village by Yafegottawurm and taken under the wing of local witch doctor Yajussashahm. That dubious charlatan was originally educated at Harvard and Heidelberg and now, after years scamming the natives of their “useless” emeralds, plans on returning to civilisation to enjoy his last years in utter luxury.

Helmut would a useful companion for the return trip but their schemes are suddenly scotched when all that sacred bamboo starts vanishing and the enraged tribesmen demand their shaman sort out the escalating chaos and sacrilege…

The puzzled pilot thinks the Chinese might still be alive and behind the thefts, so all too soon he is despatched to his downed plane to check, while Yajussashahm does his magic act using his huge stockpile of fireworks and explosives. However, things come to a cataclysmic head when the frantically foraging Marsupilamis are cornered during another bamboo raid for their voracious new cub…

Even as the Havoca are painfully reminded why they have never successfully captured the frenetic yellow perils, the situation worsens for Helmut and the Witch Man when the River Police turn up on a diplomatic rescue mission…

Another masterfully madcap rollercoaster of hairsbreadth escapes, close shaves and sardonic character assassinations, this fresh exploit of the unflappable golden monkeys is fast-paced, furiously funny and instantly engaging: providing riotous romps and devastating debacles for wide-eyed kids of every age all over the world. Why not embrace your inner wild side and join in the fun?

Hoobee, Hoobah Hoobah!
© Dupuis, Dargaud-Lombard s.a. 2017 by Franquin, Greg & Batem. English translation © 2017 Cinebook Ltd.

Superman in the Forties

By Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster & the Superman studio (DC Comics/Little, Brown & Co)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-0457-0

Part of a series of trade paperbacks intended to define DC’s top heroes through the decades (the other being Batman, of course), these much-missed books always delivered a superb wallop of comicbook magic and a tantalising whiff of other, perhaps better, times.

Divided into sections partitioned by cover galleries, this box of delights opens with the untitled initial episodes from Action Comics #1 and 2 (even though they’re technically ineligible, coming from June and July 1938) as written and drawn by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.

With boundless enthusiasm the Man of Tomorrow explodes into action, saving an innocent condemned to the electric chair, teaching a wife-beater a salutary lesson, terrorising mobsters and teaching war profiteers to think again. It’s raw, unpolished and absolutely captivating stuff.

Swiftly following from Superman #58 (May/June 1949) is a beguiling teaser written by William Woolfolk and illustrated by Wayne Boring and Stan Kaye. ‘Lois Lane Loves Clark Kent!’ finds the intrepid pioneering lady reporter seeing a psychiatrist because of her romantic obsession with the Man of Steel. His solution?

The quack tells her to switch her affections to her bewildered, harassed workmate with resultant hilarity and chaos ensuing! A rare treat follows as the seldom seen Superman prose story from Superman #1 (Summer 1939 and of course written by Siegel with accompanying art by Shuster) reappears for the first time in decades.

In 1948 the editors finally declassified the full and original ‘Origin of Superman’ written by Bill Finger with art from Boring and Kaye (Superman #53, cover-dated July/August). It was sequelled a year later and is directly followed in this volume by ‘Superman Returns to Krypton’ (Finger and Al Plastino) wherein the Man of Tomorrow breaks the time barrier to observe his lost homeworld at first hand.

This little gem (from Superman #61, November/December, 1949) provided the comic-book explanation for Kryptonite – which was originally introduced on the radio show in 1943 then promptly forgotten – and opened the door for a magical expansion of the character’s universe that still resonates with us today.

During the late 1940s Siegel & Shuster retrofitted their creation by creating Superboy (“the adventures of Superman when he was a boy”) for More Fun Comics #101 (January/February 1945). An instant hit, the youthful incarnation soon took the lead spot in Adventure Comics and won his own solo title in 1949.

From Superboy #5 (November/December, 1949) comes the charming tale of a runaway princess ironically entitled ‘Superboy Meets Supergirl’ by Woolfolk and the hugely talented John Sikela.

The second section is dedicated to the Man of Steel’s opponents, starting with ‘Superman Meets the Ultra-Humanite’ (Action Comics #14; (July 1939) by Siegel, Shuster and Paul Cassidy. They also devised a much more memorable criminal scientist in Lex Luthor who debuted in an untitled tale from Action #23 (April 1940). This larcenous landmark is followed by ‘The Terrible Toyman’ (Action #64, September 1943) by Don Cameron, Ed Dobrotka & George Roussos.

In such socially conscious times one of Superman’s most persistent foes was a heartless swindler called Wilbur Wolfingham. ‘Journey into Ruin’ by Cameron, Ira Yarbrough & Stan Kaye (Action #107; November #107) is a fine example of this type of tale and the hero’s unique response to it.

A different kind of whimsy is in play when Lois’s niece – a liar who could shame Baron Munchausen – returns with a new pal who can make her fantasies reality in ‘The Mxyztplk-Susie Alliance’ (from Superman #40; May/June 1946), charmingly crafted by Cameron, Yarbrough & Kaye.

The American Way section begins with a genuine war-time classic. ‘America’s Secret Weapon’ is from Superman #23 (July/August 1943, by Cameron, Sam Citron and Sikela): a masterpiece of patriotic triumphalism, as is the excerpt from the Superman newspaper strip which reveals how the over-eager Man of Tomorrow accidentally fluffs his own army physical. These strips by Siegel, Shuster & Jack Burnley originally ran from 16th – 19th February 1942,

Look Magazine commissioned a legendary special feature by the original creators for their 27th February 1943 issue. ‘How Superman Would End the War’ is a glorious piece of wish-fulfilment which still delights, and it’s followed by a less famous but equally affecting human interest yarn ‘The Superman Story’.

Taken from World’s Finest Comics #37 (1947, by Finger, Boring & Kaye), it pictures a pack of reporters trailing Superman to see how the world views him…

The book ends with ‘Christmas Around the World’ as Superman becomes the modern Spirit of the Season in a magical Yule yarn by Cameron, Yarbrough & Kaye from Action #93 (February 1946).

With a selection of cover galleries, special features and extensive creator profiles this is a magnificent Primer to the greatest hero of a bygone Golden Age, but one that can still deliver laughter and tears, thrills and spills and sheer raw excitement. No real fan can ignore these tales…
© 1940-1939, 2005 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Showcase Presents Jonah Hex volume 1

By John Albano, Arnold Drake, Michael Fleisher, Robert Kanigher, Denny O’Neil, Tony DeZuñiga, Noly Panaligan, Doug Wildey, George Moliterni, José Luis García-López, Gil Kane, Jim Aparo & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-0760-1

These days comics fans are not well-served in regard to genre fare. Although Marvel has gone a long way towards recovering (at least in digital formats) its back catalogue of war, crime horror and western yarns, DC – which arguably excels in all those categories as well as teen humour and funny animal publications – seems content to let such riches lie fallow.

So if you want classic material you need to look at older offerings such as their wonderful Showcase Presents archive line…

The Western is an odd story-form which can almost be sub-divided into two discrete halves: the sparkly, shiny version that dominated kids’ books, comics and television for decades, best typified by Zane Grey stories and heroes such as Roy Rogers and Gene Autry… and the other stuff.

That sort of cowboy tale – grimy, gritty, excessively dark – was done best for years by Europeans in such strips as Jean-Michel Charlier’s Lieutenant Blueberry or Bonelli and Galleppini’s Tex Willer, which made their way into US culture through the films of Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone.

Jonah Hex was always the latter sort.

DC – or National Periodicals as it then was – had run a notable stable (sorry!) of clean-cut gunslingers since the collapse of the super-hero genre in 1949, with such dashing – and immensely readable – luminaries as Johnny Thunder, The Trigger Twins, Nighthawk, Matt Savage and dozens of others in a marketplace that seemed limitless in its voracious hunger for chaps in chaps. However, all things end and comic tastes are notoriously fickle, and by the early sixties the sagebrush brigade had dwindled to a few venerable properties as an onslaught of costumed super-characters assaulted the newsstands and senses.

They too would temporarily pass…

As the 1960s closed, the thematic changes in the cinematic Cowboy filtered through to a comics industry suffering its second superhero retreat in twenty years. Although a critical success, the light-hearted Western series Bat Lash couldn’t garner a solid following, but DC, desperate for a genre that readers would warm to, retrenched and revived an old and revered title, gambling once again on heroes who were no longer simply boy scouts with six-guns.

All-Star Western #1 was released with an August/September 1970 cover date, packed with Pow-Wow Smith reprints, and became an all-new anthology title with its second bi-monthly issue.

The magazine was allocated a large number of creative all-stars, including Robert Kanigher, Neal Adams, Gray Morrow, Al Williamson, Gil Kane, Angelo Torres, and Dick Giordano, working on such strips as Outlaw!, Billy the Kid and the cult sleeper hit El Diablo, which combined shoot-’em-up shenanigans with supernatural chills, in deference to the true hit genre that saved comics in those dark days.

But it wasn’t until issue #10 and the introduction of a disfigured and irascible bounty hunter created by writer John Albano & Tony DeZuñiga that the company found its greatest and most enduring Western warrior.

This superb collection of the early appearances of Hex has been around for a few years, so consider this a heartfelt attempt to generate a few sales and lots of interest…

But before we even get to the meat of the review let’s look at the back of this wonderfully economical black-&-white gunfest where some of those abortive experimental series have been included at no added expense.

Outlaw was created by Kanigher and DeZuñiga, a generation gap drama wherein Texas Ranger Sam Wilson is compelled by duty to hunt down his troubled and wayward son Rick. Over four stylish chapters – ‘Death Draw’, ‘Death Deals the Cards!’ (#3, illustrated by Gil Kane), ‘No Coffin for a Killer’ and the trenchant finale ‘Hangman Never Loses’ (#5, drawn by Jim Aparo), the eternal struggles of Good and Evil, Old and New effectively played out, all strongly influenced by Clint Eastwood Spaghetti Westerns.

The series was replaced by one of the best and definitely the most radical interpretation of Billy the Kid ever seen in comics; a sardonic, tragic vengeance-saga that begins with the hunt for the killer of Billy’s father and develops into a poignant eulogy for the passing of an era.

Billy’s quest (‘Billy the Kid… Killer’, Bullet for a Gambler’ and ‘The Scavenger’: all by Albano & DeZuñiga) ran in issues #6-8. The book closes with a classic spooky Western tale from issue #7: ‘The Night of the Snake’ was written by Gil Kane & Denny O’Neil, and strikingly illustrated by Kane & DeZuñiga, clearly showing each creator’s love for the genre…

As good as those lost gems are, the real star of this tome is the very model of the modern anti-hero, Jonah Hex, who first appeared in All-Star Comics #10: a vulgarly coarse and callous bounty hunter clad in a battered Confederate Grey tunic and hat.

With half his face lost to some hideous past injury he was a brutal thug little better than the scum he hunted and certainly a man to avoid. ‘Welcome to Paradise’ by Albano & DeZuñiga introduced the character and his world in a powerful action thriller, with a subtle sting of sentimentality that anyone who has seen the classic Western Shane cannot fail to appreciate.

From the first set-up Albano was constantly hinting at the tortured depths hidden behind Hex’s hellishly scarred visage and deadly proficiency. In ‘The Hundred Dollar Deal’ (#11) the human killing machine encounters a wholesome young couple who aren’t at all what they seem and the scripts took on an even darker tone from #12. The comic had been re-titled Weird Western Tales (aligning it with the company’s highly successful horror/mystery books) and ‘Promise to a Princess’ combine charm and tragedy in the tale of a little Pawnee girl and the White Man’s insatiable greed and devilish ingenuity.

From the very start the series sought to redress some of the most unpalatable motifs of old-style cowboy literature and any fan of films like Soldier Blue and Little Big Man or Dee Brown’s iconoclastic book Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee will feel a grim sense of vicarious satisfaction and redress at most of the stories here.

There’s also a huge degree of world-weary cynicism that wasn’t to be found in other comics until well past the Watergate Scandal, when America as a whole lost its social and political innocence…

Issue #13 ‘The Killer’s Last Wish!’ again tugged the heartstrings in the tale of a lovable old man and his greedy, impatient son, with Hex the unlikely arbiter of final justice. ‘Killers Die Alone!’ is an vicious tear jerker as Hex’s only friend dies to save him from the vengeance of killers who blame the bounty man for their brother’s death, whilst ‘Grasshopper Courage’ (#16 – Hex didn’t appear in #15) displays a shrewd grasp of human nature as Hex and an inept young sheriff track a gang of stagecoach robbers.

‘The Hangin’ Woman’ in #17 is a classy thriller wherein Hex runs afoul of a sadistic harridan who rules her hometown with hemp and hot lead, after which ‘The Hoax’ finds him embroiled in a gold-rush scam that – as usual – ends bloody.

With this tale the length of the stories, always growing, finally reached the stage where they pushed everything else out of the comic for the first time. Before too long the situation would become permanent. ‘Demon on my Trail’ in #19 dealt with kidnapping and racism, whilst ‘Blood Brothers’ (written by Arnold Drake) again addressed Indian injustice as Hex is hired by the US Cavalry to track down a woman stolen by a charismatic “redskin”.

Albano returned for ‘The Gunfighter’, as an injured Hex at last hinted about his veiled past while tracking a gang of killers, but it was new writer Michael Fleisher (assisted at first by Russell Carley) who would reveal Hex’s secrets beginning with Weird Western Tales #22’s ‘Showdown at Hard Times’.

A chance meeting in a stagecoach sets a cabal of ex-Confederate soldiers on the trail of their former comrade for some unrevealed betrayal that inevitably ends in a six-gun bloodbath and introduces a returning nemesis for the grizzled gunslinger.

More is revealed in ‘The Point Pyrrhus Massacre!’ as another gang of Southern malcontents attempt to assassinate President Ulysses Grant, with Hex crossing their gun-sights for good measure.

Issue #24 was illustrated by Noly Panaligan, and ‘The Point Pyrrhus Aftermath!’ finds the grievously wounded Hex a sitting duck for every gunman hot to make his reputation, and depending for his life on the actions of a down-and-out actor…

‘Showdown with the Dangling Man’ looked at shady land deals and greedy businessmen with a typically jaundiced eye – and grisly imagination – whilst train-robbers were the bad-guys in the superb ‘Face-Off with the Gallagher Boys!’, illustrated by the inimitable Doug Wildey. Issue #27, by Fleisher & Panaligan featured ‘The Meadow Springs Crusade’ as the bounty hunter is hired to protect suffragettes agitating for women’s rights in oh-so-liberal Kansas, before ‘Stagecoach to Oblivion’ (drawn by George Moliterni) sees him performing the same service for a gold-shipping company.

Hex’s awful past is finally revealed in #29’s ‘Breakout at Fort Charlotte’, a 2-part extravaganza that gorily concludes with ‘The Trial’ (illustrated by Moliterni), as a battalion of Confederate veterans pass judgement on the man they believe to be the worst traitor in the history of the South.

‘Gunfight at Wolverine’ is a powerful variation on the legend of Doc Holliday after which the Hex portion of the book concludes with a 2-part adventure from Weird Western Tales #32 and 33, drawn by the great José Luis García-López.

‘Bigfoot’s War’ and ‘Day of the Tomahawk’ is a compelling tale of intrigue, honour and double-cross as Hex is again hired to rescue a white girl from those incorrigible “injuns” – and, as usual, hasn’t been told the full story…

Jonah Hex is the most unique and original character in cowboy comics, darkly comedic, rousing, chilling and cathartically satisfying. It’s a Western for those who despise the form whilst being the perfect modern interpretation of a great storytelling tradition. No matter what your reading preference, this is a collection you don’t want to miss.
© 1970-1976, 2008 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Blackmark – 30th Anniversary Edition

By Gil Kane, with Archie Goodwin, Harvey Kurtzman & Neal Adams (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 1-56097-456-7

Gil Kane was one of the pivotal players in the development of the American comics industry, and indeed of the art form itself. Working as an artist, and an increasingly more effective and influential one, he drew for many companies since the 1940s, on superheroes, action, war, mystery, romance, movie adaptations and most importantly perhaps, Westerns and Science Fiction tales. In the late 1950s he became one of editor Julius Schwartz’s key artists in regenerating the super-hero. Yet by 1968, at the top of his profession, this relentlessly revolutionary and creative man felt so confined by the juvenile strictures of the industry, that he struck out on bold new ventures that jettisoned the editorial and format bondage of comic books for new visions and media.

His Name Is Savage was an adult-oriented black & white magazine about a cold and ruthless super-spy in the James Bond/Matt Helm/Man Called Flint mould, co-written by friend and collaborator Archie Goodwin. It was very much a precursor in tone, treatment and subject matter of many of today’s adventure titles.

The other venture, Blackmark (also with Goodwin), not only ushered in the comic book age of Sword and Sorcery, but also became one of the first Graphic Novels. Technically, as the series was commissioned by fantasy publisher Ballantine as eight volumes, it was also envisioned as America’s first comic Limited Series.

Volume 1 was released in 1971, and volume 2 just completed when the publisher cancelled the project. Long term collaborator Roy Thomas reprinted the tales in Marvel’s black & white magazines Savage Sword of Conan and Marvel Preview, with the artwork rejigged to accommodate the different page format.

Enough background. Blackmark tells the tale of a boy born into a war-ravaged and primitive future where atomic holocaust has resulted in a superstitious society that has shunned technology and science. Feudal lords rule by might and terror, whilst rebel technophiles are hunted like dogs. Whilst fleeing persecution a married couple encounter a dying scientist king who pays the woman to impregnate her with a son pre-programmed to be a messiah of science.

Blackmark is born into a life of poverty and toil. When his parents are killed by a wandering warlord he devotes his life to vengeance, and learns the physical skills necessary when he is taken for a gladiator slave. It is sadly very familiar to us today, simply because it was so influential at the time – albeit with those few original purchasers who seem to have been the next generation of comic and literary creators.

Although the tale may seem old hat, the beauty and power of the illustration has never been matched. Kane designed the pages with blocks of text as part of the whole, rather than with willy-nilly blurb and balloons to distract the eye, and his evocative figure drawing has never been as taut, tense and passionate.  Always suffering from deadline pressures, the artist called in colleagues Harvey Kurtzman and Neal Adams to help lay out and finish the project on time. The script, over Kane’s story, is provided by the incomparable Goodwin, as much a master as Kane himself: Nevertheless, Blackmark is very much quintessential Gil Kane.

This compilation (incomprehensibly out of print and hard to find) collects the original volumes 1 and 2 and presents them in a size much larger than the original standard paperback. As well as a fantasy masterpiece, and a spectacular comic romp, it preserves and presents a literal breakthrough in comic story-telling that should be on every fan’s must-read list.
© 2002 Fantagraphics Books & the estate of Gil Kane. All Rights Reserved.

Mac Raboy’s Flash Gordon: Volume 1 Sunday Strips from 1948-1953

By Don Moore & Mac Raboy (Dark Horse)
ISBN: 978-1-56971-882-7

By most lights Flash Gordon is the most influential comic strip in the world. When the hero debuted on Sunday January 7th 1934 (with the superb Jungle Jim running as a supplementary “topper” strip) as an answer to the revolutionary, inspirational, but quirkily clunky Buck Rogers by Philip Nolan and Dick Calkins (which also began on January 7th, but in 1929) two new elements were added to the wonderment; Classical Lyricism and poetic dynamism. It became a weekly invitation to stunning exotic glamour and astonishing beauty.

Where Rogers blended traditional adventure and high science concepts, Flash Gordon reinterpreted fairy tales, heroic epics and mythology, spectacularly draping them in the trappings of the contemporary future, with varying ‘Rays’, ‘Engines’ and ‘Motors’ substituting for trusty swords and lances – although there were also plenty of those – and exotic craft and contraptions standing in for galleons, chariots and magic carpets. It was a narrative trick that kept the far-fetched satisfactorily familiar – and was continued by Raboy and Moore in their run. Look closely and you’ll see cowboys, gangsters and of course, flying saucer fetishes adding contemporary flourish to the fanciful fables in this volume…

Most important of all, the sheer artistic talent of Raymond, his compositional skills, fine line-work, eye for unmuddled detail and just plain genius for drawing beautiful people and things, swiftly made this the strip that all young artists swiped from.

When all-original comic books began a few years later, literally dozens of talented kids used the clean-lined Romanticism of Gordon as their model and ticket to future success in the field of adventure strips. Almost all the others went with Milton Caniff’s expressionistic masterpiece Terry and the Pirates (and to see one of his better disciples check out Beyond Mars, illustrated by the wonderful Lee Elias).

Flash Gordon began on present-day Earth (which was 1934, remember?) with a rogue planet about to smash the World. As global panic ensued, polo player Flash and fellow passenger Dale Arden narrowly escaped disaster when a meteor fragment downed their airliner. They landed on the estate of tormented genius Dr. Hans Zarkov, who imprisoned them in the rocket-ship he had built.

His plan? To fly the ship directly at the astral invader and deflect it from Earth by crashing into it…!

Thus began a decade of sheer escapist magic in a Ruritanian Neverland: a blend of Camelot, Oz and every fabled paradise that promised paradise yet concealed hidden vipers, ogres and demons, all cloaked in a glimmering sheen of sleek futurism. Worthy adversaries such as utterly evil but magnetic Ming, emperor of the fantastic wandering planet; myriad exotic races and shattering conflicts offered a fantastic alternative to drab and dangerous reality for millions of avid readers around the world.

Alex Raymond’s ‘On the Planet Mongo’ with Don Moore doing the bulk of the scripting, ran every Sunday until 1944, when the artist joined the Marines. On his return he eschewed wild imaginings for sober reality and created the gentleman detective serial Rip Kirby. The continuous, unmissable weekly appointment with sheer wonderment, continued under the artistic auspices of Austin Briggs – who had drawn the daily black and white instalments since 1940.

In 1948, eight years after beginning his career drawing for the Harry A. Chesler production “shop” comicbook artist Emanual “Mac” Raboy took over the illustration of the Sunday page. Moore remained as scripter and began co-writing with the artist.

Raboy’s sleek, fine-line brush style, heavily influenced by his idol Raymond, had made his work on Captain Marvel Jr., Kid Eternity and the especially Green Lama a benchmark of artistic quality in the proliferating superhero genre. His seemingly inevitable assumption of the extraordinary exploits led to a renaissance of the strip and in the rapidly evolving post-war world Flash Gordon became once more a benchmark of timeless, escapist quality that only Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant could touch.

This first 260 page volume, produced in landscape format and printed in bold stark monochrome (although one or two strips appear to have been scanned from printed colour copies) covers the period January 8th 1948 to May 10th 1953 and opens with Flash as President of Mongo when Slyk, a refugee from the believed-uninhabited moon of Lunita, arrives. Beseeching assistance to liberate his world from the tyrannical depredations of the wicked siblings Rudo and Lura, the Lunite accompanies Flash, Dale Arden and Dr. Zarkov to his hidden moon where the heroes are soon captured before Slyk saves the day.

This short transitional tale set up an unfailingly popular formula of nightmarish beasts, distressed damsels and outrageous adventure that would last until Raboy’s death in 1967.

Returning to Mongo Flash and Co. discovered a red comet hurtling towards that fabulous world. Whilst trying to deflect it they become trapped by the civilisation who inhabit its interior, creatures to whom gravity is but a toy… Once more romance, intrigue and beautifully depicted action were the order of many days until the trio toppled the masters and placed far more agreeable rulers in charge, saving their adopted world and the greater universe.

The saga lasted until June of 1949 and was promptly followed by a stunning undersea odyssey as a brief trip to Mongo’s beaches led Flash and Dale into murky waters when they rescued captivating Merma from monstrous sub-sea marauder Sharki and became enmeshed in a watery range-war and tricky romantic quadrangle involving hidden kingdoms, scaly savages and outrageous leviathans and sea-beasts.

It was off to the frozen principality of Polaria next where ambitious Prince Polon was covering up a plague of giant monsters preying on the people. Of course the scurvy villain was behind the plot, using size-shifting rays and his ultimate aim was to become dictator of all Mongo…

The scheme obviously gave other regional rulers ideas. No sooner did President Flash return than he was off again to the Tropix Islands where “Queen” Rubia had fomented rebellion and seceded from the democratic federation of Mongo States. Hands-on Flash went undercover with Dale in an Arabian adventure to rival Sinbad’s greatest: before the people were liberated and the despots destroyed there was a panoply of spectacular action and fantastic creatures to survive…

Rubia, defeated, was dispatched to the prison moon Exilia, but all was not right on that grim penal colony. Once more surreptitiously investigating our hero discovered that villains had taken over the penal-planet and were preparing to attack civilized Mongo. Luckily Rubia and criminal mastermind Zin believed Flash to be his own double, dispatched to Exilia for impersonating the President – but they’re were not fooled for long…

This awesome extended epic ran from 6th March to November 5th 1950 and was followed by a proposed change-of-pace as Flash and Dale took off for a much-needed vacation on Earth. Unfortunately ever-malicious Rubia sabotaged their ship and they crash-landed on the unexplored Planet Zeta. It surely came as no surprise to fans when they discovered another beautifully barbarous lost civilisation there…

Zeta was a world of colossal plants and feudal warriors, but hid a dangerous secret. Something in the environment consumed metal. Within minutes Flash and Dale saw their ship and weapons melt away… Befriended instead of attacked the castaways found the inhabitants lived on a world seemingly immune to technological advancement, controlled by “wizards” who soon decided that Flash was a threat…

Flash discovers the metal-eating plague was artificial and helped the Zetans rebel and they helped him construct a new ship. Once more en route for Earth Flash and Dale encountered a stranger meteor, but without further mishap arrived safely. On March 25th 1951 (17 years and some months after they departed) two of earth’s first star-travellers finally returned to their birthworld and were feted like royalty. Sadly they should have paid closer attention to that vagrant space-rock as soon, Earth was under attack by strategically aimed meteors.

With Einsteinish Professor Brite in tow, Flash and Dale tracked the attacks to the Moon where they met beetle-men and human dictator Rak who planned to conquer Earth with his lunar meteor gun. He had never encountered a man like Flash Gordon before…

With Rak’s threat ended Flash helped Earth build a sentinel Space Platform, but when he, Dale, engineer Dr. Ruff and his annoying niece Ginger began work 1000 miles up they clashed with a strange race of flying saucer-riding space gnomes from Mars…

At this time Mars clearly preferred, if not actually needed, Earth women and with Dale and Ginger abducted, another sterling romp ensued. Flash outfoxed the malign gnome-king Toxo before subsequently leading a full expedition to the Red planet where he discovered another advanced feudal civilisation and that Martian women – or at least their Queen, Menta – had no worries, looks-wise…

Menta was however, a spoiled and murderous psychopath determined to conquer Earth…

This epic ran until February 24th 1952, whereupon Flash returned to Earth to discover his homeworld gripped in a new Ice Age. Jetting to the Arctic the good guys found Frost Giants from Saturn (the fifth moon Rhea to be exact) and that the big Freeze was artificially induced. Although he destroyed their forward base the Giants dragged Flash back to Rhea and inadvertently introduced human smallpox into their population…

Earth commander “Icy” Stark abandoned Dale after a space battle but Flash, with new Rhean allies rescued her and once more led a hostage society to overthrow its unfit rulers. On the return to Earth the fleet encountered a guided comet and met a new foe in Pyron the Comet Master.

Reunited with Dr. Zarkov the heroes battled the demented scientist’s horrendous creatures, saving Earth from flaming doom but were catapulted helplessly to the surface of enigmatic Venus for the last complete adventure in this stellar collection.

Not only is our solar system teeming with unsuspected life, but it appeared most of it was ruled by complete sods, as Flash, Dale and Zarkov battled winged tree-men, swamp horrors and the nefarious overlord Stang, enduring staggering hardship and hazard before crushing the tyrant and freeing two separate races from terror.

With a new ship, the far-flung travellers set off for Earth but were forced to land on the Moon where a secret human base had been established. For unknown reasons Dr. Stella and her thuggish aide Marc detained and delayed them, but when an increasing number of close shaves and mysterious accidents occurred, a little digging revealed that they were the unwitting guests of ruthless space pirates…

As is probably fitting for one of the world’s greatest continuity strips this first volume ends on a gripping cliffhanger, but with so much incredible action, drawn with such magnificent style there’s no way any fan of classic adventure can possibly feel short-changed

Mac Raboy was the last of the Golden Age of romanticist illustrators, but his lush and lavish flowing adoration of the perfected human form was already fading from popular taste. The Daily feature at this time had already switched to the solid, chunky, He-manly, burly realism of Dan Barry and even Frank Frazetta. Here, however, at least the last outpost of beautiful elegant heroism and gracefully pretty perils prevail, thanks to these Dark Horse volumes which you can visit just as often as Flash and Dale popped between planets…
© 2003 King Features Syndicate Inc. ™ Hearst Holdings, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Superman: Tales from the Phantom Zone

By Jerry Siegel, Edmond Hamilton, Otto Binder, Curt Swan & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-2258-1

Superman is comics’ champion crusader: the hero who effectively started a whole genre and, in the decades since his spectacular launch in June 1938, one who has survived every kind of menace imaginable. With this in mind it’s tempting and very rewarding to gather up whole tranches of his prodigious back-catalogue and re-present them in specifically-themed collections, such as this sinister set of sorties into the stark and silent realm of nullity designated the Phantom Zone: a time-proof timeless prison for the worst villains of lost planet Krypton.

This captivating trade paperback collection (gathering material from Adventure Comics #283, 300, Action Comics #336, Superman’s Girl Friend, Lois Lane #33, Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen #62, Superman #157, 205, Superboy #89, 104 and Who’s Who in the DC Universe volume 18) represents appearances both landmark and rare, crafted by the many brilliant writers and artists who have contributed to the Kryptonian canon over the years.

Naturally, this terrific tome begins with the very first appearance of the dolorous dimension in ‘The Phantom Superboy’ by Robert Bernstein & George Papp (from Adventure Comics #283 April, 1961).

Here, a mysterious alien vault smashes to Earth and the Smallville Sensation finds sealed within three incredible super-weapons built by his long-dead dad Jor-El. There’s a disintegrator gun, a monster-making de-evolutioniser and a strange projector that opens a window into an eerie, timeless dimension of stultifying intangibility.

However, as Superboy reads the history of the projector – used to incarcerate Krypton’s criminals – a terrible accident traps him inside the Phantom Zone and only by the greatest exercise of his mighty intellect does he narrowly escape…

Next is pivotal 2-part tale ‘Superboy’s Big Brother’ (by Robert Bernstein & Papp from Superboy #89, June 1961) in which an amnesiac, super-powered space traveller crashes in Smallville. Slightly older than Superboy, the befuddled visitor speaks Kryptonese and carries star-maps written by the long-dead Jor-El…

Jubilant, baffled and suspicious in equal amounts, the Boy of Steel eventually, tragically discovers ‘The Secret of Mon-El’ by accidentally exposing the stranger to a fatal, inexorable death before desperately providing critical life-support by depositing the dying alien in the Phantom Zone until a cure can be found…

Superman’s Girl Friend, Lois Lane #33 (May 1962), by a sadly unknown writer but illustrated by the always exceptional art team of Curt Swan & George Klein, further explored the dramatic potential of the Zone in ‘The Phantom Lois Lane!’ wherein a temporarily deranged Lana Lang dispatches all her romantic rivals for the Man of Tomorrow’s affections to the extra-dimensional dungeon.

From one month later, ‘Superman’s Phantom Pal!’ (Leo Dorfman, Swan & Klein as seen in Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen #62) Jimmy Olsen in his Elastic Lad role is drawn through a miniscule rip in the fabric of reality and joins Mon-El in the Zone where the plucky cub reporter faces down the worst of Krypton’s villains and resists their ultimate temptation…

Adventure Comics #300 (September 1962) saw the launch of the Legion of Super-Heroes in their own series by Jerry Siegel, John Forte & Al Plastino. That premier yarn, ‘The Face Behind the Lead Mask!’, pits Superboy and the 30th century champions against an unbeatable foe until Mon-El intervenes, briefly freed from a millennium of confinement to save the day…

‘The Super-Revenge of the Phantom Zone Prisoner!’ by Edmond Hamilton, Swan & Klein (Superman#157, November 1962) saw the introduction of power-stealing Gold Kryptonite and Superman’s Zone-o-phone – which allows him to communicate with the incarcerated inhabitants – in a stirring tale of injustice and redemption. Convicted felon Quex-Ul uses the device to petition Superman for release since his sentence has been served, and despite reservations the fair-minded hero can only agree.

However further investigation reveals Quex-Ul has been framed and is wholly innocent of any crime, but before Superman can explain or apologise, he has to avoid the deadly trap the embittered and partially mind-controlled parolee has laid for the son of the Zone’s discoverer…

Superboy #104 (April 1963) contained an epic two-part saga ‘The Untold Story of the Phantom Zone’ and ‘The Crimes of Krypton’s Master Villains’. Crafted by Hamilton & Papp it describes Jor-El’s discovery of the Zone, his defeat of ambitious political criminal Gra-Mo and the reasons the vault of super-weapons was ultimately dispatched into space, after which ‘The Kid who Knocked Out Superboy!’ (illustrated by Swan & Klein) sees Gra-Mo return to take vengeance on the son of his nemesis.

‘The Man from the Phantom Zone!’ (Hamilton, Swan & Klein from Action Comics #336, April 1966) finds Superman releasing another convict whose time was served, leading to a captivating crime mystery in the Bottle City of Kandor as 50-year old juvenile delinquent Ak-Var discovers life in a solid and very judgemental world a most mixed blessing…

By April 1968, times and tone were changing, as seen in ‘The Man Who Destroyed Krypton!’ (Superman #205, Otto Binder & Plastino) as alien terrorist Black Zero comes to Earth, determined to blow it up just as he had planet Krypton decades ago!

Overmatched and stunned by the truth of his world’s doom, the Man of Steel is convinced that releasing Jax-Ur, the Zone’s wickedest inhabitant, is the only way to save his adopted homeworld… an absorbing, enthralling, and surprisingly gritty tale of vengeance acting as the perfect way to end this eclectic collection.

With a comprehensive informational extract from the 1986 Who’s Who in the DC Universe entry from the Zone and its most notorious inmates, illustrated by Rick Veitch, this compelling collection is an intriguing introduction to the aliens hidden amongst us and a superb treat for fans of every vintage.
© 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1966, 1968, 1986, 2009 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Star Wars: A New Hope – The 40th Anniversary

By Jess Harrold, Jordan D. White, Heather Antos & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-1-3029-1128-7

I’m sure we’re all familiar with the mythology of Star Wars. What you might not know – or maybe remember – is that the first glimpse future fanatics got of its enthrallingly expansive, potential-packed continuity and mythology-in-the-making way back in 1977 was the premier issue of the Marvel comicbook tie-in.

It hit US shelves and spinner racks two weeks before the film launched in cinemas (that screen release being May 25th, fact-fans), setting the scene for a legion of fans and kick-starting a phenomenon which encompassed the initial movie trilogy and expanded those already-vast conceptual horizons.

Marvel had an illustrious run with the franchise: nine years’ worth of comics, specials and paperback collections before the series ended in 1986.

After an abortive miniseries try-out in 1987-1988 from Blackthorne Publishing, regular comicbook exploits were properly reinstated in 1993 by Dark Horse Comics who built on the film legacy with numerous titles – supplemented by three more movies – until Disney acquired the rights to Star Wars in 2012.

The home of Donald & Mickey had already acquired Marvel Comics (in 2009) and before long the original magic was being rekindled…

When Marvel relaunched the enterprise, they included not just a core title but also solo books for the lead stars. Star Wars #1 debuted on January 14th 2015, with Princess Leia, Luke Skywalker, Darth Vader and Poe Damaron coming soon after. They haven’t looked back since.

2017 was the 40th anniversary of the movie premiere and in a slyly subtle salute to the event many comics were earmarked for a rather novel event: variant covers depicting unforgettable moments from the cinematic Star Wars: A New Hope. These were commissioned as 48 key images that would combine to relate and encapsulate the entire tale in an entirely new way.

Just So’s You Know: variant covers are alternative frontages for some comicbooks, usually by big-name artists; often “homaging” earlier covers or as part of an event, commemoration or even trends such as Skottie Young’s occasional series of star characters depicted as comedic babies. Star Wars #1 (2015) was released with a staggering 70 variant covers. Successive issues also had a plethora of the same.

This gleefully exuberant hardcover art-collection (also available in eBook formats), takes that sales-boosting process to a new level; gathering those covers designed to celebrate A New Hope and presenting them as a new way of enjoying the original story…

Following ‘Star Wars and Marvel’, which explains the process and progression of the project, those crucial moment-as-iconic-images – accompanied by narrative guides, appropriate quotes and often alternate sketch ideas and works-in-progress – unfold to tell a well-known tale of a galaxy long ago and far, far away…

Juan Giménez sets things off with ‘It is a period of Civil War…’, after which Stuart Immonen, Ryan Stegman & Jordan Boyd and Meghan Hetrick carry us from confrontations in space to the surface of Tatooine.

In quick succession Terry & Rachel Dodson, Pepe Larraz & David Curiel, Kevin Wada, Marc Laming & Matthew Wilson, Leinil Francis Yu & Sunny Gho, Paul Renaud and Javier Rodríguez advance the tale to the moment old hermit Ben Kenobi tells a young warrior-to-be ‘You must learn the ways of The Force.’

Stunning images follow from Rod Reis, Jef Dekal, Kevin Nowlan, Mike Mayhew, Greg Land & Edgar Delgado, David Marquez, Chip Zadarsky, Will Robson& Jordan Boyd and Jen Bartel before Stephanie Hans steals the show with a stunning rendition of the death of Alderaan for ‘No Star System will dare oppose the Emperor now.’

The memorable moments come thick and fast as Julian Totino Tedesco, David Lopez, Reilly Brown & Jim Charalampidis, Caspar Wijngaard, Paulina Ganucheau, Paolo Rivera, Daniel Acuña, Russell Dauterman & Matthew Wilson, Amy Reeder carry us ever onward until Tradd Moore & Wilson nail the key moment in a trash compactor where Han Solo utters the immortal phrase ‘I got a bad feeling about this.’

Taking us into the third act and final straits, Ed McGuiness, Mark Morales & Laura Martin, Nick Roche & Jordan Boyd, Chris Samnee & Wilson, Adi Granov, Greg Smallwood, Declan Shalvey & Jordie Bellaire, Rahzzah, Ryan Level & Boyd, Kris Anka, Will Sliney & Rachelle Rosenberg, Ashley Witter, Mark Brooks, Salvador Larroca & Angel Unzueta, Daniel Warren Johnson & Mike Spicer and Mike Del Mundo visualise the thrilling final fight culminating in Phil Noto’s triumphal procession scene in ‘Remember, The Force will be with you, always’

Backing up the picture feast is text feature ‘The Guardians of the Galaxy Far, Far Away’ wherein Marvel Star Wars editor Jordan D. White discusses the project with comics writers Jason Aarons (Star Wars) and Kieron Gillen (Darth Vader, Star Wars: Doctor Aphra, Star Wars) whilst Heather Antos incites insights from illustrators Terry Dodson, Stephanie Hans, Mike Mayhew and Will Sliney on ‘How to Draw Star Wars the Marvel Way’ for the anniversary project.

This comes with a multitude of non-Anniversary images from Mayhew, John Cassady, Immonen, the Dodsons, Yu, Brooks, Francesco Francavilla, Lee Bermejo, Michael Allred, Tula Lotay, Skottie Young, Alex Ross, Simone Bianchi, Granov, Kaare Andrews, Giménez, Kamome Shirahama, Samnee, Joe Quesada, Francesco Mattina, Giuseppe Camuncoli and David Aja.

Wrapping up the fabulous picture-fest is a stroll down memory lane for comics fans as ‘The Greatest Space-Fantasy of All!’ harks back to that initial comics release: reprinting adapter Roy Thomas’ introductory ‘Star Warriors’ columns and the full first issue as translated from an original, uncut shooting script by illustrator Howard Chaykin (and yes, that does mean scenes that didn’t make it into any cut of the movie…).

The Star Wars franchise has spawned an awful lot of comics, but this isn’t really one of them. It is, however, a fascinating art compendium commemorating the verve, vitality and sheer impact of the source material in a way no fan could possibly…
STAR WARS and related text and illustrations ™ and/or © of Lucasfilm Ltd. and/or its affiliates. © & ™ of Lucasfilm Ltd. All rights reserved.

Tintin in America

By Hergé & various; translated by Leslie Lonsdale-Cooper & Michael Turner (Egmont)
ISBN: 978-1-40520-802-4 (HB)                    : 978-1-40520-614-3 (PB)

By the time Georges Remi, known the world over as Hergé, began the boy-hero’s third adventure Tintin in America (which ran from 1931-1932), he was well on the way to mastery of his art but was still growing as a writer. Although the periodical format meant that a certain degree of broad comedy and seemingly directionless, action was necessary to keep the attention of the reader, his ability to integrate these set-piece elements into the building of a complete narrative was still developing.

Georges Prosper Remi created a true masterpiece of graphic literature with his many tales of a plucky boy reporter and his entourage of iconic associates. Singly, and later with assistants including Edgar P. Jacobs, Bob de Moor and the Hergé Studio, Remi completed 23 splendid volumes (originally produced in brief instalments for a variety of periodicals) that have grown beyond their popular culture roots and attained the status of High Art.

Like Charles Dickens with The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Hergé died in the throes of creation, and final outing Tintin and Alph-Art remains a volume without a conclusion, but still a fascinating examination and a pictorial memorial of how the artist worked.

It’s only fair though, to ascribe a substantial proportion of credit to the many translators whose diligent contributions have enabled the series to be understood and beloved in 38 languages. The subtle, canny, witty and slyly funny English versions are the work of Leslie Lonsdale-Cooper & Michael Turner.

On leaving school in 1925, Remi worked for Catholic newspaper Le XXe Siécle where he fell under the influence of its Svengali-like editor Abbot Norbert Wallez. The following year, the young artist – a dedicated boy-scout – produced his first strip series: The Adventures of Totor for the Boy Scouts of Belgium monthly magazine.

By 1928 was in charge of producing the contents of Le XXe Siécles children’s weekly supplement Le Petit Vingtiéme.

He was unhappily illustrating The Adventures of Flup, Nénesse, Poussette and Cochonette when Abbot Wallez urged Remi to create a new adventure series. Perhaps a young reporter who would travel the world, doing good whilst displaying solid Catholic values and virtues?

And also, perhaps, highlight and expose some the Faith’s greatest enemies and threats…?

Having recently discovered the word balloon in imported newspaper strips, Remi decided to incorporate this simple yet effective innovation into his own work. He would produce a strip that was modern and action-packed. Beginning January 10th 1929, Tintin in the Land of the Soviets appeared in weekly instalments, running until May 8th 1930.

The boy-hero – a combination of Ideal Good Scout and Remi’s own brother Paul (a soldier in the Belgian Army) would be accompanied by his dog Milou (Snowy to us Brits) and report back all the inequities from the “Godless Russias”.

The strip’s prime conceit was that Tintin was an actual foreign correspondent for Le Petit Vingtiéme

The odyssey was a huge success, assuring further – albeit less politically charged and controversial – exploits to follow. At least that was the plan…

Following directly on from Tintin in the Congo the valiant juvenile journalist heads for Chicago to sort out the gangster Al Capone, whose diamond smuggling enterprise he had inadvertently scotched whilst in Africa. However, Capone and his hoods are ready and waiting…

Thwarting the plots and schemes of the legendary gangster make for thrilling, uproarious reading, full of chases, fights and hairsbreadth escapes, but events take a darker turn – and broad detour – once Capone’s biggest rival Bobby Smiles enters the picture.

Head of the Gangsters Syndicate of Chicago, Smiles first tries to buy Tintin off and, when he is furiously rebuffed, tries repeatedly to have the nosy, crime-busting reporter killed.

Setting a trap with the police, Tintin smashes the GSC and chases Smiles out west to Redskin City, only to fall foul of a tribe of Indians the mobster has hoodwinked into attacking the indomitable lad.

Hergé had a life-long fascination with the American West, and it featured in many of his works (such as Tim the Squirrel and Popol Out West). It’s also clear that he watched a lot of movies, as many signature Western set-pieces are adapted to strip format as Tintin and Snowy hunt Smiles – a thrilling pursuit involving railroad chases, dynamite sabotage, a prairie wildfire and even tying our heroes to the tracks before the boy and his dog finally capture the desperate thug.

Returning to Chicago, Tintin is once more the target of the remaining criminal gangs, but they prove no match for his resourceful ingenuity, and the brave Belgian leaves America a better, cleaner place…

With this somewhat long and rambling series of exploits – still not quite a cohesive narrative – Hergé begins to pepper the instalments with sly, dry social commentary, beginning the process of sophisticating the stories. He also adds satire to the breakneck slapstick – an acknowledgement that adults, too, were devout fans and followers of the strip.

The comedy of such moments as the rush of speculators when oil is found on the Indian Reservation, or the inept way in which cowboys try to lynch Tintin and Snowy (is that PC these days? – Can’t decide, but it is still awfully funny), is graphically interesting, but surely aimed at a more worldly and cynical consumer.

Like your kids, or you…

Tintin in America: artwork © 1945, 1973, 2016 Editions Casterman, Paris & Tournai.
Text © 1978, Egmont UK Limited. All Rights Reserved.

Enemy Ace: War in Heaven

By Garth Ennis, Chris Weston, Christian Alamy & Russ Heath, with Robert Kanigher & Joe Kubert (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-56389-982-9

Enemy Ace first appeared as a back-up in issue #151 of DC’s flagship war comic Our Army at War (cover-dated February 1965): home of the already legendary Sergeant Rock. Produced by the dream team of Robert Kanigher & Joe Kubert during a period when the ongoing Vietnam conflict was beginning to tear American society apart, the series told bitter tales of valour and honour from the point of view of German WWI fighter pilot Hans Von Hammer: a noble warrior fighting for his country in a conflict that was swiftly excising all trace of such outmoded concepts from the increasingly industrialised business of mass-killing.

The sagas – loosely based on the life of “Red Baron” Manfred von Richthofen – were a magnificent tribute to the profession of soldiering whilst condemning the madness of war, produced during those turbulent days of foreign conflicts and intense home front unrest. They are still moving and powerful beyond belief, as is George Pratt’s seminal 1989 sequel, Enemy Ace: War Idyll.

In 2001, Garth Ennis – no stranger to combat fiction – took another look at the flyer on the other side in a 2-issue miniseries that extended his martial longevity by transplanting him to World War II and a far less defensible ethical position…

Bavaria, 1942 and forty-six-year-old Baron Hans von Hammer is visited by an old flying comrade who desperately urges him to come out of retirement and serve his country. No lover of Nazism, the old ace has kept himself isolated until now, but Germany’s attack on Russia has proven a disastrous blunder, and this last plea is as much warning as request…

The neophyte pilots on the Eastern Front need his experience and leadership, whereas Hitler’s goons and zealots don’t need much excuse to remove a dissident thorn…

Based loosely on the lives of such German pilots as Adolf Galland, book I of War in Heaven (illustrated by Chris Weston) finds von Hammer as indomitable as ever in the Eastern killer skies but unable to come to terms with the increasing horror and stupidity of the conflict and its instigators.

The phrase “My Country, Right or Wrong” leaves an increasingly sour taste in his mouth as the last of his nation’s young men die above Soviet fields…

Book II is set in 1945 and witnesses Germany on the brink of defeat with von Hammer flying an experimental early jet fighter (a Messerschmitt 262, if you’re interested); shooting down not nearly enough Allied bombers to make a difference and still annoying the wrong people at Nazi High Command.

He knows the war is over but his sense of duty and personal honour won’t let him quit. He is resigned to die in the bloody skies that have been his second home, but then he is shot down and parachutes into a concentration camp named Dachau…

With art from comics legend Russ Heath, this stirring tale ends with a triumph of integrity over patriotism: a perfect end to the war record of a true soldier.

This slim paperback volume (still findable, despite being incomprehensibly out of print and unavailable digitally) is supplemented by a classic anti-war tale of WWI by Kanigher & Kubert, taken from Star-Spangled War Stories #139.

‘Death Whispers… Death Screams!’ explores the Enemy Ace’s childhood and noble lineage as he endures the daily atrocities of being one of the world’s last warrior knights in a mechanised, conveyor-belt conflict. Just another day above the trenches but never away from them…

Here is another gripping, compelling, deeply incisive exploration of war, its repercussions, both good and bad, and the effects that combat has on singular men. This should be mandatory reading for every child who wants to be a soldier…
© 2001, 2002 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Jamie Smart’s Looshkin – the Adventures of the Maddest Cat in the World!!

By Jamie Smart (David Fickling Books)
ISBN: 978-1-78845-003-4

Since its premiere in 2012, The Phoenix has offered humour, adventure, quizzes, puzzles and educational material in a traditional-seeming weekly comics anthology for girls and boys. The vibrant parade of cartoon fun and fantasy has won praise from the Great and the Good, child literacy experts and the only people who really count – a dedicated and growing legion of totally engaged kids and parents who read it avidly…

The publishers would be crazy not to gather their greatest serial hits into a line of fabulously engaging album compilations, but they’re not so they do. They’re not; but the latest star to make the jump to book-based legitimacy certainly is…

Devised by Jamie Smart (Fish Head Steve!; Bunny vs. Monkey, Corporate Skull and bunches of brilliant strips for Beano, Dandy and others) from what I can only assume is keen close-hand observation and meticulous documentation comes Looshkin – the Adventures of the Maddest Cat in the World!!: a brilliantly bonkers new addition to the vast feline pantheon of truly horrifying hairballs infesting cartoondom.

This new magnum (dark, nutty, creamy and making your fillings hurt) opus features a totally anarchic kitty just like yours; cute, innocently malign and able to twist the bounds of credibility and laws of physics whenever the whim takes him…

Quite naturally, the epic begins with an origin of sorts as Mrs Alice Johnson brings home a kitten from the pet shop. Not one of the adorable little beauties at the front of the store, though, but the odd, creepy, lonely little fuzzy hidden at the back of the store…

The Johnsons are not your average family. Firstborn son Edwin watches too many horror films and keeps a book of spells in his room whilst Dad is a brilliant inventor who needs peace and quiet to complete his fart-powered jet-pack or potato-powered tractor. It’s not long before those days are gone for good…

The sweet little daughter isn’t all she seems either: when kitten Looshkin is subjected to an innocent tea party in the garden the toys all secretly warn the cat of the horrors in store. All too soon teddy bear Bear is subjected to a hideous cake-arson assault. Surprisingly, Looshkin takes it all in stride and even escalates the carnage and chaos. It seems he has found his natural home… or is it all in his be-whiskered little head?

Many of the short tales begin with “This Episode:…” and are frequently interspersed by hilarious pin-ups suggesting ‘What is This Biscuits?’, ‘Can I use your Toilet?’ or ‘Let’s Play… Pig or Fish?’ so consider yourself warned…

‘Colour in with Looshkin’ then details what happens if you let a cat help with home decoration after which Great (rich) Auntie Frank comes to visit with her precious ultra-anxious prize-winning poodle Princess Trixibelle. With an eye to a hefty bequest, the adults consign the kids and Looshkin to a bedroom where they can’t cause offence or make trouble. Challenge Accepted… so watch out for squirrels and exploding toilets!

…And where does that cat keep finding the wherewithal to phone Dial-a-Pig?

‘Mouse House’ then discloses the result of the cat’s dutiful attempt to deal with an invasion of rodents armed with cheese and firecrackers before arch-enemies manifest in the form of former TV host Sandra Rotund and her cat Mister Buns who soon come to regret exploiting Looshkin on the internet…

When the cat decides it’s his big day the rest of the house are too slow playing along and ‘Happy Birthday Looshkin’ becomes more of a battle cry and lament that celebratory wish after which all semblance of reality fades in ‘Blarple Blop Blop Frrpp! (Bipple!)’ when the frenzied feline gets a case of the friskies and starts rushing about…

‘Jeff’s Photocopying Services’ pits cat against street advertisers and a mystic masquerader leading to a longer saga wherein the Johnson’s engage the services of professor Lionel F. Frumples to assess their perturbed and petrifying pet. However, even “the World’s leading expert on Cat Psychology” is no match for the pint-sized barrel of crazy – especially after the kitty binges on super-sugary cereal…

As the insane antics mount, the cat finds a useful alibi after adopting glove-puppet Mister Frogburt to be his patsy in ‘I’m Not to Blame’, whilst ‘What a Lotta Otter Bother (it Nearly Rhymes!)’ reveals a perfectly understandable error: to whit, being sent a mail order shark instead of the cute river-dwelling mammal you wanted as a playmate…

‘The Sparrow (A Funny Story About Things)’ then sees the cat’s response to the advent of new superhero the Bluetit before circus acrobat Fido Lepomp becomes the latest victim of Looshkin’s lunacy and swears eternal vengeance utilising all his freakish carnival comrades…

Great (rich) Auntie Frank returns to be feted by a bonanza of ‘Cheeeeeeeeeeeese! (Please)’ but once again the cat’s misapprehensions lead to anger, upset and a rather nasty stain after which pretty new kitty Lucinda is on hand to see Looshkin at his most Looshkin-y in ‘Thpthbtthhhhhhhhhhhhonk! (How Rude)’.

An escaped penguin incites a bout of thermostat-abuse in ‘Cold for this Time of Year (I Can’t Feel my Legs!)’ and a door-stepping political candidate falls foul of the cat’s anarchic soul and disguise skills in ‘Old Lady Looshkin (Wears Frilly Knick-knacks!)’ after which the cat excels himself in causing catastrophe by consulting Edwin’s satanic grimoire whilst organising Bear’s birthday surprise…

Another dial-a-pig delivery then brings the house down in ‘You Did It (You Finally Did It)’ but – following a pin-up celebrating ‘The Enddddd!’ – one last episode declares ‘This Episode: insert title here. Make it something funny about pigs or monkeys or bottoms. Frilly Pants? Frilly Pants are Funny.’ and reveals why it isn’t clever or pro-survival to put a deranged cat or paranoid toy bear in your luggage and smuggle them aboard a passenger plane…

Utterly loony and deliciously addictive, this fiendishly surreal glimpse at the insanity hardwired into certain cats (probably not yours, but still…) is another unruly and astoundingly ingenious romp from a modern master of the rebellious whimsy that is the very bedrock of British children’s humour.

Text and illustrations © Jamie Smart 2018. All rights reserved.
Looshkin will be released on 3rd May 2018 and is available for pre-order now.