Black Hole


By Charles Burns (Jonathan Cape)
ISBN: 978-0-37542-380-2 (HB) 978-0-22407-778-1 (TPB)

On this day in 2019, those happy Big Science people at the Event Horizon Telescope Project released the first picture of a black hole as located at the centre of galaxy M87. No one’s done a graphic novel of that yet but there’s this superb tome that seems to have slipped from common consciousness…

One of the most impressive and justifiably lauded graphic novels ever, Black Hole is a powerfully evocative allegorical horror story about sex, youth and transformation, but don’t let that deter you from reading it. It’s also a clever, moving, chilling and somehow uplifting tale displaying the bravura mastery of one of the greatest exponents of sequential narrative the English language has ever produced – even if he has found his spiritual and commercial home producing comics in Europe.

Originally released as a 12-issue limited series under the aegis of Kitchen Sink Press, the tale was rescued and completed through Fantagraphics when the pioneering Underground publisher folded in 1999. On completion, Black Hole was promptly released in book form by Pantheon Press in 2005, although many fans and critics despaired at the abridged version which left out many of Burns’ most potent full-page character studies of the deeply troubled cast “an error of economy” corrected in subsequent editions. It won eleven of the comic world’s most prestigious awards and I’m revisiting my battered Jonathan Cape UK edition because it’s still not available digitally

It’s the 1970s in Seattle, and there’s something very peculiar happening amongst local teens out in the safe secure suburbs. In ‘Biology 101’, Keith Pearson can’t concentrate on properly dissecting his frog because his lab partner is Chris Rhodes, the veritable and literal girl of his dreams.

Trying to keep cool only makes things worse and when he suddenly slips into a fantastic psychedelic daydream, the swirling images resolve into a horrific miasma of sex, torn flesh and a sucking void. Suddenly he’s regaining consciousness on the floor with the entire class standing over him. They’re all laughing at him… all except Chris.

‘Planet Xeno’ is a quiet patch of woodland adults don’t know about, where kids can kick back, drink, smoke, get stoned and just talk. The big topic among the guys is “the bug”: a sexually transmitted disease that causes bizarre, unpredictable mutations like uncontrolled growths, extra digits, pigmentation changes, and new orifices that don’t bleed…

As Keith and best buds Dee and Todd shoot the breeze and goof off, they discover an odd encampment, strewn with old toys and bottles and junk. Some of the sufferers of the “Teen Plague” have relocated here to the forest, founding a makeshift camp away from prying eyes and wagging tongues. When Keith finds a girl’s shed skin hanging from a bush, he fears creepy mutants are closing in and suffers a crazy disorienting premonition…

In ‘SSSSSSSSSS’ Chris is dreaming: a ghastly phantasmagoria involving naked swimming in pollution, a bunch of strange guys, monsters and that fainting kid Keith turning into a serpent. It all ends with her examining the new holes in her body before ripping off her old skin and leaving it hanging on a bush…

She’s drinking illicit beer by the lake in ‘Racing Towards Something’, remembering that wild party a week ago and what she did with the cool guy Rob Facincanni. As she came on to him he kept trying to tell her something but she was in no mood to listen. She just didn’t want to be the good girl anymore…

She recalls the moment of explosive climax and horror when she discovered a hideous second mouth in his neck… and the noises. It seemed to be speaking…

In the sordid guilty aftermath she felt awful but had no idea what that furtive, disappointing assignation had done to her.

Rob is still sleeping with Lisa. She’s accepted the cost of the curse and the ghastly changes in her body, but what she won’t take is him screwing around. She has heard Rob’s second mouth talking as they lay together and needs to know ‘Who’s Chris?’

Keith and his bros are getting stoned again when he hears some guys have just watched the so-virginal Chris skinny-dipping and seen her sex-caused mutation. The virgin queen isn’t any more…

In ‘Cut’ their teasing proves too much and he storms off into the scrub, accidentally spotting the object of his desire as she gets dressed again. Guiltily voyeuristic, he’s prompted to action when she steps on broken glass and cries out. Dashing to her rescue he bandages her foot, too ashamed to admit just how much of her he’s really seen. All Keith knows is that someday he will be with her. Fate was obviously on his side…

‘Bag Action’ finds him and Dee trying to buy weed from some skeevy college guys, but our frustrated romantic is utterly unable to get lascivious, furtive, distracting naked images of Chris out of his mind.

However, after sampling some of the dope in the Frat boys’ dilapidated house, he meets their housemate Eliza: an eccentric artist extremely high, nearly naked and very hungry. Just as baked, achingly horny and fascinated by her cute tail (not a euphemism), Keith almost has sex with her but is interrupted by his idiot pal at just the wrong moment…

Many of those infected by The Bug are camped out in the woods now and ‘Cook Out’ finds them having a desperate party around a roaring fire. Rob is there, bemoaning the fact Lisa has kicked him out, but he’s also acutely aware that the sex-warped kids are getting oddly wild, manic, even dangerous…

‘Seeing Double’ finds downcast, devastated Chris talking things over with Rob at the outcast encampment. The naive fool has just discovered what’s she got and what it means. Lost and disgusted, convinced she’s a dirty monster with a biological Scarlet Letter as part of her flesh, Chris drinks and talks and, eventually, finds comfort in her bad boy’s arms…

In ‘Windowpane’ Pearson, Dee and Todd drop their first tabs of acid and head for a party at Jill’s house. Increasingly morose and troubled Keith is feeling ever-more isolated and alienated and the LSD coursing through his system isn’t helping, When Dee and Jill start to make out, he leaves and finds her big sister crying outside. After she shouts at him he turns and, still tripping off his nut, heads into the woods.

Lost and confused, he sees horrific and bizarre things in the trees and bushes before stumbling into some of the infected kids around their fire. In a wave of expiation he begins to talk and keeps on going, slowly coming down amongst temporary friends. Keith has no suspicion that some of the things he saw were not imaginary at all…

‘Under Open Skies’ sees Chris and Rob playing hooky. Fully committed to each other now, they head to the coast and a perfect solitary day of love at the beach. They think it’s all going to be okay but the voice from Rob’s other mouth says otherwise…

Back home again, Chris’ recent good times are ruined by her parents’ reaction. Grounded, the former good girl makes up her mind and, gathering a few possessions, elopes with her lover to a new life in ‘The Woods’ where grotesquely bestial but kindly Dave Barnes takes them under his wing.

Although they have bonded, Rob cannot stay with Chris and returns to his home and High School. Although he spends as much time as possible at the encampment, Chris is too often alone and on one of her excursions into the wilds finds a bizarre and frightening shrine. Little does she know it’s one of the things the tripping Keith thought he’d hallucinated…

Summer grinds on and Pearson plucks up nerve to go back to the college guys’ house. ‘Lizard Queen’ Eliza is on the porch, drawing but obviously upset by something. Confused, scared and without knowing what they’re doing. they end up in bed consummating that long-postponed act of drug-fuelled passion…

Chris’ days of innocent passion end suddenly when Rob is brutally attacked by a lurking intruder in ‘I’m Sorry’. She descends into a stupor for days until spotting nice safe Keith at one of the camp’s evening bonfire parties. Soon, he’s arranged for her to move into an empty property he’s housesitting over ‘Summer Vacation’ but even though he’s attentive, kind, solicitous and so clearly wants to be with her, he’s just not Rob.

Chris has been going slowly crazy since her beloved boy vanished: reliving memories good and bad, feeling scared and abandoned, playing dangerously with the gun he left her “for protection”. Keith is still plagued by nightmares and X-rated thoughts of Eliza in ‘A Dream Girl’, but hopeful he now has a chance with Chris. That swiftly changes when he checks on her and discovers the house he’s supposed to be guarding has been trashed. There’s garbage everywhere, a bunch of her fellow outcasts have moved in and she’s clearly avoiding him, locked in a room, constantly “sleeping”…

Despondent, confused Pearson doesn’t know what to do. Chris is having some kind of breakdown and the house – his responsibility – is a wreck. The lovesick fool is trapped and crumbling when Eliza breezes back into his life. If only his own bug mutation wasn’t so hideous…

Heading back to the home once more he finds Chris has gone and the pigsty has become a charnel house. All summer there has been a frightening, oppressive presence in the woods and with the Fall coming the mood is beginning to darken. When Dave is barracked and abused whilst trying to buy takeout food, he snaps and pulls out Chris’ gun. Calmly taking his fried chicken from the crime-scene he walks back to the woods and the troubled soul known as ‘Rick the Dick’. It’s going to be their last meal…

Keith meanwhile has found his own happy ending, ‘Driving South’ with gloriously free spirited, undemanding Eliza, but is still gripped by what he found at the house. At least he and Eliza helped survivors get away, but now – happily content with his idyllic artist girl and after all the horrible secrets they’ve shared – he can’t help wondering what happened to Chris.

That mystery and how Dave got the gun are only revealed in the compulsively low key and wildly visual climax ‘The End’

Complex, convoluted, utterly compelling, expressive, evocative and deeply, disturbingly phantasmagorical, Black Hole is a comics masterpiece of graphic genius and astoundingly utilised allegory and metaphor merged with the eternal dissatisfaction and alienation of youth. It explores and reexamines evolution and cultural ostracization as well as the verities of love, aspiration, jealousy and death to concoct a tale no other medium could (although perhaps Luis Buñuel, David Lynch or David Cronenberg might have made a good go of it in film).

If you are over 16 and haven’t read it, do – and soon.
© 2005 Charles Burns. All rights reserved.

Trent volume 8: Little Trent


By Rodolphe & Léo, coloured by Marie-Paule Alluard, translated by Jerome Saincantin (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-1-84918-398-7 (Album PB/Digital edition)

Continental audiences adore the mythologised American experience, both in Big Sky Wild Westerns and crime dramas of later eras. They enjoy a profound historical connection to the northernmost parts of the New World, generating many great graphic extravaganzas…

Born in Rio de Janeiro on December 13th 1944, “Léo” is artist/storyteller Luiz Eduardo de Oliveira Filho. Upon attaining a degree in mechanical engineering from Puerto Alegre, in 1968 he became a government employee for three years until forced to flee Brazil because of his political views. Whilst military dictators ran the homeland he lived in Chile and Argentina before illegally returning in 1974. He worked as a designer and graphic artist in Sao Paulo whilst creating his first comics art for O Bicho magazine, and in 1981 migrated to Paris to pursue a career in Bande Dessinée. He worked on Pilote and L’Echo des Savanes as well as handling advertising and graphic design jobs, until the big break when Jean-Claude Forest (Bébé Cyanure, Charlot, Barbarella) invited him to draw stories for Okapi.

This brought regular illustration work for Bayard Presse and, in 1988, Léo began his association with scripter/scenarist Rodolphe D. Jacquette – AKA Rodolphe. Prolific and celebrated, Léo’s writing partner had been a giant of comics since the 1970s: a Literature graduate who left teaching and running libraries to create poetry, criticism, novels, biographies, children’s stories and music journalism.

On meeting Jacques Lob in 1975, Jacquette expanded his portfolio: writing for many artists in magazines ranging from Pilote and Circus to à Suivre and Métal Hurlant. Amongst his most successful endeavours are Raffini (with Ferrandez) and L’Autre Monde (with Florence Magnin), but his triumphs in all genres and age ranges are far too numerous to list here.

In 1991 “Rodolph” began working with Léo on a period adventure of the “far north” starring a duty-driven loner. Taciturn, introspective, bleakly philosophical and relentlessly driven, Royal Canadian Mounted Police sergeant Philip Trent premiered in L’Homme Mort, forging a lonely path through the 19th century Dominion. He starred in eight moving, hard-bitten, love-benighted, beautifully realised albums until 2000, with the creative collaboration sparking later fantasy classics Kenya, Centaurus and Porte de Brazenac

Cast very much in the pattern perfected by Jack London and John Buchan, Trent is a man of few words, deep thoughts and unyielding principles who gets the job done whilst stifling the emotional turmoil boiling within him: the very embodiment of “still waters running deep”.

As Petite Trent in 2000, Little Trent was the 8th and final saga to date, offering a marked change in fortune. After years of second-guessing, procrastination and prevarication, he had finally won and wed the love of his life and now basked in connubial bliss – until the opening of this tale.

Years previously, the lovelorn peacekeeper had saved Agnes St. Yves (but not her beloved brother) and was given a clear invitation from her, albeit one he never acted upon. In the interim, Agnes met and married someone else. As before, Trent was unable to save the man in her life when banditry and destruction manifested during an horrific murder spree. The ball was again in Philip’s court and once more he fumbled it through timidity, indecision and inaction. He retreated into duty, using work to evade commitment and the risk of rejection…

Now even though he has fulfilled his dream and won the woman he loves, she is still missing.

It’s not a problem he can fix. Agnes has been called away with her mother to minister to a dying relative in Europe. She might be gone as much as eight months and Trent cannot shake the conviction that it will be much longer…

Nevertheless, duty always calls and the Mountie resolutely buries himself in his next case: protection duty for a mother and child he must escort to the Pacific coast – despite every effort of the estranged husband to stop them.

Poet Rodney Taylor is the alcoholic wastrel who abused his family and utterly refuses to accept the divorce he drove his wife to seek. Due to his repeated threats the authorities have agreed to safeguard the fugitives over the wishes of the extremely violent but exceeding charming drunk. The fleeing mother and child are daughter and grandson to retired Senator Charles Priestly and if Trent can deliver them to distant Whitehorse, the bigwig’s estate household can properly protect them thereafter. The slow tedious passage by rail to Prince Rupert Sound is punctuated by constant excited questions from boisterous, hero-struck and deeply impressionable Jeremy and Trent is further distracted by a letter from Agnes which has overtaken him and waits at the Post Office in Prince Rupert, from where they will travel up river on paddle steamer Reginald

Before Trent can read the missive from Agnes, Jeremy falls into the harbour and her precious words are soaked and ruined after the sergeant fishes him out. All Trent can make of the pulp is scraps and the phrases “wonderful news” and perhaps “expecting a happy event…”

Immediately his attitude to the pesky lad softens. Although dour and dutiful in public, Trent’s dreams are troubled, as the boy’s tireless exuberance combines with the new husband’s longing for his bride, sparking distracting notions of an heir of his own…

The journey takes a dire turn when Rodney Taylor also embarks on the Reginald playing the aggrieved husband and subtly threatening his former family. Seeking to avoid conflict, the Mountie soft peddles his responses and is caught off guard when Rodney’s initial warning and punishment provoke even greater acts of bullying and terror. When the stalker hires a band of thugs events quickly escalate and the entire ship is lost.

Still refusing to see sense or back off Rodney follows them to the very gates of the Priestly estate and Trent is forced to an action that crushes Jeremy’s hero-worshipping attitude forever.

Technically successful but feeling as if he failed, Trent makes his way home to find Agnes waiting. It has been nearly a year since they were together and her news is nothing like what her husband has imagined…

Another beguilingly introspective voyage of internal discovery, where human nature is a hostile environment, Little Trent delivers suspense, sentiment, riveting action and crushing poignancy in a compelling epic to delight all fans of widescreen cinematic entertainment. This is a sensitive contemplative graphic narrative series no fan of mature drama can afford to ignore.
Original edition © Dargaud Editeur Paris 2000 by Rodolphe & Leo. All rights reserved. English translation © 2017 Cinebook Ltd.

Showcase Presents Teen Titans volume 2


By Mike Friedrich, Bob Haney, Neal Adams, Marv Wolfman, Robert Kanigher, Steve Skeates, Gil Kane, Wally Wood, Nick Cardy, Sal Amendola, George Tuska, Carmine Infantino, Dick Dillin, Joe Giella, Jim Aparo & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-84576-677-1 (TPB)

Hey, Super Kids! Happy 60th Anniversary!

It’s perhaps hard to grasp these days that once kid heroes were a rarity and at the beginning of the Silver Age, often considered a liability. Now the massive Teen Titans brand – with numerous comic book iterations, assorted TV shows, movies and even an award-winning early reading version (Aw, Yeaah! Tiny Titans!) their continuance as assured as anything in our biz. Nevertheless, during the tumultuous 1960s the series – never a top seller – courted controversy and actual teenage readers by confronting controversial issues head on.

I must have been just lucky, because these stories of lost youth searching for great truths and meaning were released just as I turned Teen. They resonated especially because they were talking directly to me. It didn’t hurt that they were brilliantly written, fantastically illustrated and staggeringly fresh and contemporary. I’m delighted to declare that age hasn’t diminished their quality or impact either, merely cemented their worth and importance.

The concept of underage hero-teams was not a new one when the Batman TV show fuelled DC’s move to entrust big heroes’ assorted sidekicks with their own regular comic as a hip and groovy ensemble as dedicated to helping kids as they were to stamping out insidious evil.

The biggest difference between wartime groups like The Young Allies, Boy Commandos or Newsboy Legion and such 1950s holdovers as The Little Wise Guys or Boys Ranch and the DC’s new team was quite simply the burgeoning phenomena of “The Teenager” as a discrete social and commercial power bloc. These were kids who could be allowed to do things themselves (within reason) without constant adult aid or supervision. As early as spring 1964, Brave and the Bold #54 had tested the waters in a gripping tale by Bob Haney & Bruno Premiani in which Kid Flash, Aqualad and Robin foiled a modern-day Pied Piper.

What had been a straight team-up was formalised a year later when the heroes reunited and included Wonder Girl in a proper super-group with a team-name: Teen Titans. With the stories in this second merely monochrome print-only relic of a collected volume of those early exploits the series had hit a creative peak, with spectacular, groundbreaking artwork and fresh, different stories that increasingly showed youngsters had opinions and attitudes of their own – and often that they could be at odds with those of their mystery-men mentors…

Spanning cover-dated January 1969 to December 1971 and collecting Teen Titans #19-36, and team-up appearances from Brave and the Bold #83 & 94 and World’s Finest Comics #205, these tales cover the most significant period of social and political unrest in American history and do it from the perspective of the underdogs, the seekers, the rebels…

The wonderment begins with a beautifully realised comedy-thriller as boy bowman Speedy enlists. ‘Teen Titans: Stepping Stones for a Giant Killer!’ (#19, January/February 1969), by Mike Friedrich, Gil Kane & Wally Wood, pitted the team against youthful evil mastermind Punch who planned to kill the Justice League of America and thought a trial run against the junior division a smart idea…

Brave and the Bold # 83 (April/May 1969) took a radical turn as the Titans (sans Aqualad, who was dropped from the squad to appear in Aquaman and because there just ain’t that much sub-sea skulduggery) tried to save Bruce Wayne’s latest foster-son from his own inner demons in a tense thriller about trust and betrayal in the Haney & Neal Adams epic ‘Punish Not my Evil Son!’. TT #20 took a long running plot-thread about extra-dimensional invaders and gave it a counterculture twist in ‘Titans Fit the Battle of Jericho’, a rollicking romp written by Neal Adams, pencilled by him & Sal Amendola and inked by brush-maestro Nick Cardy – one of the all-out prettiest illustration jobs of that decade.

Exemplars of the era/symbolic super-teens Hawk and Dove join proceedings for #21’s ‘Citadel of Fear’ (Adams & Cardy): chasing smugglers, finding aliens and ramping up the surly teen rebellion quotient whilst moving the invaders story-arc towards its stunning conclusion. ‘Halfway to Holocaust’ is only half of #22, the abduction of Kid Flash & Robin leading to a cross-planar climax as Wonder Girl, Speedy and a radical new ally quash the invasion threat forever, but still leaving enough room for a long overdue makeover in ‘The Origin of Wonder Girl’ by Marv Wolfman, Kane & Cardy. For years the series – and DC editors in general – had fudged the fact the younger Amazon Princess was not actually human, a sidekick, or even a person, but rather an incarnation of Wonder Woman as a child. As continuity backwriting strengthened its stranglehold on the industry, it was finally felt that the team’s distaff member needed a fuller background of her own.

This moving tale revealed she was in fact a human foundling rescued by Princess Diana and raised on Paradise Island where super-science gave her all the powers of a true Amazon. They even found her a name – Donna Troy – and an apartment, complete with hot roommate. All Donna had to do was sew herself a glitzy new figure-hugging costume…

Now thoroughly grounded, the team jetted south in #23’s fast-paced yarn ‘The Rock ‘n’ Roll Rogue’ (by Haney, Kane & Cardy), trying to rescue musical rebel Sammy Soul from his grasping family and – by extension – his lost dad from Amazonian headhunters. ‘Skis of Death!’ (#24, November/December) by the same creative crew has the quartet holidaying in the mountains and uncovering a scam to defraud Native Americans of their lands. It was a terrific old-style tale, but with the next issue the most radical change in DC’s cautious publishing history made Teen Titans a comic which had thrown out the rulebook…

For a series which spoke so directly to young people, it’s remarkable to think that ‘The Titans Kill a Saint?’ and its radical departure from traditional superhero stories was crafted by Bob Kanigher & Nick Cardy – two of the most senior creators in the business. The emotion-charged thriller set the scene for a different type of human-scaled adventures that were truly gripping and bravely innovative. For the relatively short time the experiment continued, readers had no idea what might happen next…

While on a night out in their civilian identities, Robin, Kid Flash, Speedy, Wonder Girl, Hawk and Dove meet telepathic go-go dancer Lilith who warns them of impending trouble. Cassandra-like, they ignore her warnings and a direct result a globally revered Nobel Laureate is gunned down. Coming so soon after the deaths of John F. and Robert Kennedy, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, this was stunning stuff and in traumatised response all but Robin abandon their costumed personas and – with the help of mysterious millionaire philanthropist and mentor Mr. Jupiter – dedicate their unique abilities to exploring humanity’s flaws and graces: seeking fundamentally human ways to atone and make a difference in the world…

With Lilith beside them, they undertake different sorts of missions, beginning with ‘A Penny For a Black Star’ in which they attempt to live in a poverty-wracked inner city ghetto, where they find Mal Duncan, a street kid who becomes the first African-American in space…although it’s a one-way trip.

TT #27 reintroduced eerie elements of fantasy as ‘Nightmare in Space’ (Kanigher, George Tuska, Carmine Infantino & Cardy) sees the Titans en route to the Moon to rescue Mal, before encountering something far beyond the ken of mortal imagining. Meanwhile on Earth, Donna’s roommate Sharon stumbles upon an alien incursion. ‘Blindspot’ by Steve Skeates & Cardy was tangentially linked to another innovative saga then playing out in Aquaman’s comic book. You’ll need to see Aquaman: The Search For Mera and Aquaman: Deadly Waters for that extended delight. Both were edited by fresh-faced Dick Giordano, who was at this time responsible for the majority of innovative new material coming out of DC, even whilst proving himself one of the best inkers in the field.

Suffice to say that the Sea King’s foe Ocean Master had allied himself with aliens and Sharon became involved just as Aqualad returned looking for help. Unable to understand the Titan’s reluctance to get involved, Garth tries to go it alone but hits a snag only the original team can fix, which they do in Skeates & Cardy’s concluding chapter ‘Captives!’ However, once the alien threat is thwarted our heroes once more lay down their powers and costumes, but they have much to ponder after seeing what benefits their unique gifts can bring…

Teen Titans #30 featured three short tales, written by Skeates. Illustrated by Cardy, ‘Greed… Kills!’ is a cunning mystery exploring street and white-collar crime, whereas ‘Whirlwind’ is a Kid Flash prose novelette with art by Amendola before ‘Some Call it Noise’ (Infantino & Cardy) delivers an Aqualad solo tale in which his girlfriend Tula – AKA Aquagirl – takes a near-fatal wrong turn at a surface world rock concert.

Student politics took centre-stage in #31’s lead feature ‘To Order is to Destroy’ (Skeates, Tuska & Cardy) as the young heroes investigate a totally trouble-free campus where unhappy or difficult scholars are given a small brain operation to help them “concentrate”, whilst Hawk & Dove solo strip ‘From One to Twenty’ pits quarrelsome Don and Hank Hall against a band of murderous counterfeiters in a deft crime-caper from Skeates, Tuska & Cardy.

The creators then open up the fantasy element again with a time-travelling, parallel universe epic beginning in #32 with ‘A Mystical Realm, A World Gone Mad’ as Mal and Kid Flash accidentally change the past, turning Earth into a magical mad-scape. However, undoing their error results in a Neanderthal teenager being trapped in our time, presenting the group with their greatest challenge: educating a savage primitive and making him into a civilised modern man. Illustrated by Tuska & Cardy, ‘Less Than Human’ signalled the return of Bob Haney as main writer and triggered a gradual return of powers and costumes as the author picked up the pace of Jupiter’s grand experiment, restating it in terms that looked less harshly on comics’ bread & butter fights ‘n’ tights scenarios.

Brave and the Bold #94 (February-March 1971, by Haney & Cardy) offered potent counter-culture thrills as the team infiltrate an inner city commune to negate a nuclear bomb-plot in ‘Rebels in the Streets’, before the exigencies of publishing moved the series into the world of the supernatural as costumed heroes temporarily faded away in favour of tales of mystery and imagination. Haney, Tuska & Cardy’s ‘The Demon of Dog Island’ sees the team – including Robin who had quietly rejoined during the civilisation of cave-boy Gnarrk – desperately battling to prevent Wonder Girl’s possession by a gypsy ghost.

Skeates, Dick Dillin & Joe Giella crated ‘The Computer That Captured a Town’ in World’s Finest Comics #205 (September 1971), slyly examining racism and sexism as Superman finds the Titans trapped in a small town that had mysteriously re-adopted the values of the 1890s – a lot like middle America today but with culprits a lot easier to punch in the face…

Teen Titans #35 reiterated supernatural themes as the team travels to Verona in ‘Intruders of the Forbidden Crypt’ (Haney, Tuska & Cardy) wherein Lilith and the son of Mr. Jupiter’s business rival are drawn into a mesmerising web of tragedy: compelled to relive the doomed love of Romeo and Juliet despite all the rationalisations of modern science and the best efforts of the young heroes…

By the same creators, ‘A Titan is Born’ is a rite of passage for Mal as the everyman “token black guy” faces and defeats the murderous Gargoyle alone and unaided, before the reincarnation tragedy concludes with fate foiled in ‘The Tomb Be their Destiny’: the cover feature of #36. Filling out that issue and this book are two brief vignettes: Aqualad 3-page teaser ‘The Girl of the Shadows’ by Skeates & Jim Aparo and Haney & Cardy’s beguiling opening episode in the origin of Lilith ‘The Teen-Ager From Nowhere’. This showed a 10-year-old orphan’s first prescient exploit and the distrust it engendered, promising much more to come: a perfect place to end this second monochrome masterpiece of graphic literature.

Although perhaps dated in delivery now, these tales were a liberating experience for kids when first released. They truly betokened new empathy with independent youth and tried to address problems that were more relevant to and generated by that specific audience. That they are so captivating in execution is a wonderful bonus. This is absolute escapism and absolutely delightful and demand a fresh edition as soon as possible.
© 1969, 1970, 1971, 1972, 2007 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Tarzan versus The Nazis (Complete Burne Hogarth Comic Strip Library volume 3)


By Burne Hogarth with Don Garden & Rubén Moreira (Titan Books)
ISBN: 978-1-78116-319-1 (Album HB)

The 1930 and 1940s was an era of astounding pictorial periodical adventure. In the years before television, newspaper strips (and later comic books) were the only visually-based home entertainment for millions of citizens young and old and consequently shaped the culture of many nations. Relatively few strips attained near-universal approval and acclaim. Flash Gordon, Terry and the Pirates and Prince Valiant were in that rarefied pantheon but arguably the most famous was Tarzan.

The dramatic adventure serial as we know it started on January 7th 1929 with Buck Rogers and Tarzan debuting that day. Both were adaptations of pre-existing prose properties and their influence changed the shape of the medium forever. An explosion of similar fare followed, launched with astounding rapidity and success. Not just strips but actual genres were created in that decade, still impacting on today’s comic-books and, in truth, all our popular fiction forms.

In terms of sheer quality, the adaptations of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ immensely successful novels starring jungle-bred John Clayton, Lord Greystoke by Hal Foster were unsurpassed, and the strip soon became a firm favourite of the masses, supplementing movies, books, a radio show and ubiquitous advertising appearances. As detailed in previous volumes of this oversized (330 x 254 mm), full-colour hardback series, Foster initially quit at the end of a 10-week adaptation of first novel Tarzan of the Apes and was replaced by Rex Maxon. At the insistent urging of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Foster returned when the black-&-white daily expanded to include a lush, full colour Sunday page featuring original adventures.

Maxon was left to capably handle the weekday book adaptations, and Foster crafted the epic and lavish Sunday page until 1936 (233 consecutive weeks). He then left again, for good: moving to King Features Syndicate and his own landmark weekend masterpiece Prince Valiant in the Days of King Arthur which debuted in February 1937. Once the four-month backlog of material he had built up was gone, Foster was succeeded by a precociously brilliant 25-year-old artist named Burne Hogarth: a graphic visionary whose astounding anatomical acumen, cinematic design flair and compelling page composition revolutionised the entire field of action/adventure narrative illustration. The galvanic modern dynamism of the idealised human figure in today’s comicbooks can be directly attributed to Hogarth’s pioneering drawing and, in later years, educational efforts. Burroughs cannily used the increasingly popular comic strip to cross-market his own prose efforts with great effect…

This third titanic tome begins with the prolifically illustrated ‘Hogarth on Burroughs’: George T. McWhorter’s interview with the master draughtsman from 1982’s Edgar Rice Burroughs Quarterly volume 1 #1, after which the timeless adventure resumes. At this time Hogarth had assumed writing the strip too, with veteran collaborator Don Garden leaving to pursue other, more patriotic pursuits.

Running from 30th October 1943 – March 12th 1944 (episodes #660-679), ‘Tarzan Against Kandullah and the Nazis’ is an explosive procession of coiled-spring action and crushing suspense as the Ape-Man, incessantly crisscrossing fabled, unexplored Africa returns to the lands of the Boers. Here he discovers his old friends infiltrated by insidious Nazi deserters. The human monsters have seen the tide of history turn against them and instead of fighting on or surrendering are attempting to secure this desolate enclave from which they can rebuild a Fourth Reich to attack democracy again at some future date…

Their plan is to divide and conquer: fomenting strife between the indigenous Mogalla tribe and the isolationist Afrikaaners. After narrowly averting one blood-stained crisis, Tarzan swears to deliver a military packet for a dying Allied airman, undertaking a staggering trek across the hostile lands before anonymously completing his mission and heading back into the veldt. His travels next bring him into contention with a baroque and murderous slave-master in ‘Tarzan Against Don Macabre’ (#680-699, running from 19th March to 30th July). After rescuing beautiful captive Thaissa from his decadent clutches, the all-conquering Ape-Man decimates the Don’s menagerie of savage beasts – everything from a ravening bull to a giant octopus – and leads a slave revolt deep within his island citadel…

Once back on the mainland there was an extended return engagement for modern history’s most popular bad guys in ‘Tarzan Against the Nazis’ (#700-731, August 6th 1944-March 11th 1945). This clash began innocuously enough with the Jungle Lord saving albino ape Bulak from his own dark-pelted tribe, before being distracted by sadistic Arabian hunter Korojak. The vile stalker was trapping hundreds of animals for his master Emin-Nagra – and secretly mistreating his prizes for his own sick amusement – until Tarzan taught him the error of his ways. Sadly, it was not a lesson which stuck and before long both Bulak and Tarzan became part of the booty being transported to golden-domed city Bakhir

While the Ape-Man chafed in captivity as part of Emin-Nagra’s Circus, agents of Germany and Japan were negotiating for the oil under the cruel potentate’s pocket kingdom and quietly confident of a favourable deal, due to their column of storm troopers. However, when Tarzan faced a tidal wave of starved jungle beasts in the Circus, he turned them into his personal army to bring down the despot. Then he turned his merciless attention to the Nazis and their nearby new oil wells…

With the real-world war winding down, escapist fantasy became a larger part of the Sunday strip environment. ‘Tarzan Against the Gorm-Bongara Monster’ (#732-748, 18th March to July 8th) saw the nomadic Ape-Man encounter a lost tribe of pygmies in a primordial valley, battling against them before becoming their champion against a marauding, voracious dinosaur. His inevitable victory led directly into ‘Tarzan and The Tartars Part One’ (#749-768, July 15th – November 25th) wherein landless Prince Kurdu begged the Ape-Man’s assistance in overthrowing a usurper and saving his oppressed kingdom. The turbulent alliance offered privation, hardship, a quest for mystic relics and – for one of the heroes at least – the promise of true love. This romantic epic is divided into separate chapters because from December 2nd 1945 onwards, Hogarth was replaced as illustrator by Ruben Moreira, who finished the tale from his predecessor’s scripts.

‘Tarzan and The Tartars Part Two’ (pages #769-778) concluded with the February 3rd 1946) instalment, after which Don Garden returned to provide fresh material for Moreira. You won’t find that here…

Hogarth was in dispute with the feature’s owners and had moved to the Robert Hall Syndicate for whom he produced seminal adventure classic Drago and thereafter United Features where he created comedy strip Miracle Jones. During the time away from Tarzan, Hogarth – with Silas Rhodes – also opened the Cartoonists and Illustrators School which later evolved into the School of Visual Arts.

After his two-year hiatus, Hogarth bombastically returned to the Lord of the Jungle in 1947, midway through an ongoing story. For the sake of convenience, Garden & Moreira’s ‘Tarzan on the Island of Ka-Gor Part One’ (#840-856, April 13th-3rd August 1947) is included here, setting the scene as sassy Texan heiress Dallas Doyle journeys to the home of Tarzan and his mate Jane, determined to recruit the famed adventurer in the search for her long-missing father. It takes a lot of persuading, but eventually Tarzan capitulates, due in no small part to the urgings of native mystic Maker of Ghosts

Following an old map of a diamond mine, the expedition proceeds slowly until sneak thief Dirk Mungo and a devious riverboat skipper steal it and frame Tarzan. Jailed by a corrupt police official, the Ape-Man abandons the niceties of civilisation and breaks out, following the villains with Dallas and golden lion Jad-Bal-Ja rushing to keep up. The trail takes them through all manner of incredible horror before culminating in an aeroplane dogfight. Shot down but surviving, the pursuers doggedly press on, until captured by pygmies who trade them to decadent priests…

‘Tarzan on the Island of Ka-Gor Part Two’ (#857-861, August 10th to 7th September 1947) sees Hogarth’s spectacular re-emergence, illustrating Garden’s script as the lost Doyle patriarch is finally found and rescued, just as the entire lost world he ruled succumbs to volcanic destruction. Hogarth then took sole control again for the concluding instalments.

‘Tarzan on the Island of Ka-Gor Part Three’ (#862-874, 14th September-7th December 1947) swiftly wrapped up the saga with the hero saving his companions but almost losing his own life in the process.

Wounded unto death, Tarzan is lost and expiring with rumours of his passing inciting various villains of the jungle lands to begin their raids and depredations again. However, saved by the tender ministrations of Manu the monkey and elephantine comrade Tantor, Tarzan soon storms back to restore his fair if heavy-handed peace…

To Be Continued…

These tales are full of astounding, unremitting, unceasing action with Hogarth and the other contributors spinning page after page of blockbuster Technicolor action over months of non-stop wonder and exoticism. Plot was never as important as engendering a wild rush of rapt and rousing visceral responses, and every Sunday the strip delivered that in spades.

Edgar Rice Burroughs was a master of populist writing and always his prose crackled with energy and imagination. Hogarth was an inspired intellectual and, as well as gradually instilling his pages with ferocious, unceasing action, layered panels with subtle symbolism. Heroes looked noble, villains suitably vile and animals powerful and beautiful. Even vegetation, rocks and clouds looked spiky, edgy and liable to attack at a moment’s notice…

These vivid visual masterworks are all coiled-spring tension or vital, violently expressively explosive motion: stretching, running, jumping, fighting in a surging rush of power and glory. It’s a dream come true that these majestic exploits are back in print for ours and future generations of dedicated fantasists to explore and enjoy.
Tarzan ® and Edgar Rice Burroughs ™ & © Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc. All Rights Reserved. All images Edgar Rice Burroughs, 2015. All text copyright Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc 2015.

Doctor Strange Epic Collection volume 2: I, Dormammu 1966-1969


By Stan Lee, Roy Thomas, Dennis O’Neil, Raymond Marais, Jim Lawrence, Dan Adkins, Bill Everett, Marie Severin, George Tuska, Tom Palmer, Gene Colan, John Buscema, Herb Trimpe, George Klein, Sam Grainger & various (MARVEL)
ISBN: 978-1-3029-5315-7 (TPB/Digital edition)

When the budding House of Ideas introduced a warrior wizard to their burgeoning pantheon in the summer of 1963 it was a bold and curious move. Bizarre adventures and menacing monsters remained incredibly popular but mention of magic or the supernatural – especially vampires, werewolves and their eldritch ilk – were proscribed by a censorship panel which dictated almost all aspects of story content.

At this time – almost a decade after a painfully public witch hunt led to Senate hearings – all comics were ferociously monitored and adjudicated by the Comics Code Authority. Even though some of the small company’s strongest sellers were still mystery and monster mags, their underlying themes and premises were almost universally mad science and alien wonders, not necromantic or thaumaturgic horrors.

That might explain Stan Lee’s low-key introduction of Steve Ditko’s mystic adventurer: an exotic, twilit troubleshooter inhabiting the shadowy outer fringes of rational, civilised society.

The company had already – and recently – published a quasi-mystic precursor. Trench-coated savant Doctor Droom – later redesignated Dr. Druid – had an inconspicuous run in Amazing Adventures (volume 1 #1-4 & #6: June-November 1961). He was a psychiatrist, sage and paranormal investigator tackling everything from alien invaders to Atlanteans (but not those Sub-Mariner ruled). Droom was subsequently retro-written into Marvel continuity as an alternative candidate and precursor for Stephen Strange’s ultimate role as Sorcerer Supreme.

Nevertheless, after a shaky start, the Marvel Age Master of the Mystic Arts became an unmissable icon of the cool counter-culture kids who saw in Steve Ditko’s psychedelic art echoes and overtones of their own trippy explorations of other worlds and realms. That might not have been his intention but it certainly helped keep the mage at the forefront of Lee’s efforts to break comics out of the kids-stuff ghetto…

This enchanting full colour compilation collects the mystical portions of Strange Tales #147-168, Doctor Strange #169-179 and Avengers #61, plus a minor mystic mirthquake from Not Brand Echh #13, collectively spanning August 1966 to May 1969.

The previous volume had seen Stephen Strange defeat his arch nemesis Baron Mordo, extra-dimensional overlord Dormammu, Mordo’s unnamed and now-unemployed disciples and sundry other minor menaces before the dark lord returned to seemingly destroy himself in a hubris-fuelled, suicidal attack on the omnipotent embodiment of the cosmos called Eternity

The cataclysmic chaos ruptured the heavens over infinite dimensions and when the universe was calm again both supra-deities were gone. Rescued from the resultant tumult, however, was the valiant girl Strange had loved and lost who finally introduced herself as Clea. Although Strange despondently left her in the decimated Dark Dimension, everyone knew she would be back…

This time-period – encompassing a full-blown Marvel expansion and Strange’s solo-star status – saw the magician entering a period of creative instability under a welter of briefly employed writers and artists after the originator abruptly left the company at the height of his fame and success in early 1967. The catastrophic cosmic swansong was Ditko’s last hurrah. Issue #147 saw a fresh start under the auspices of co-scripters Lee & Denny O’Neil, with comics veteran Bill Everett suddenly and surprisingly limning the arcane adventures. As Strange returns to his Greenwich Village abode ‘From the Nameless Nowhere Comes… Kaluu!’ sees sagacious mentor The Ancient One rush to his pupil’s side mere moments before an ancient enemy launches a deadly attack from beyond the unknown. O’Neil & Everett then trod new ground by revealing ‘The Origin of the Ancient One!’ even as the mysterious foe intensifies his siege of the Sanctum in #149’s ‘If Kaluu Should Triumph…’

Roy Thomas stepped in to write concluding battle bonanza ‘The Conquest of Kaluu!’ as Master and Student defeat the overwhelmingly powerful intruder through grit and ingenuity. ST #150 then wraps up on an ominous note as with Dormammu gone another ancient evil begins to stir in the Dark Dimension. Throughout his despotic reign the Dread One had apparently been keeping captive a being every bit his equal in power and perfidy and his superior in guile and cruelty. She was his sister and in #151 ‘Umar Strikes!’ returning scribe Lee & Everett document her ascent to the throne, revenge on Clea and plans for Earth before hurling Strange ‘Into the Dimension of Death!’ in #152. Naturally, she also underestimates the puny mortal and Strange begins his retaliation even as he finds himself traversing outer dimensions and ultimately ‘Alone, Against the Mindless Ones!’ The episode is notable for the pencilling debut of magnificent Marie Severin, who applies a sense of potent wonder and film-inspired kinetics to the storytelling. Strange Tales #154 sees Lee, Severin & Umar declare ‘Clea Must Die!’, but the task proves harder than imagined once Strange finds macabre and unlikely allies in the demonic dictator’s own dungeons.

Winning a temporary reprieve, Strange and Clea voyage to Earth where the Ancient One moves her beyond Umar’s reach forever, before ‘The Fearful Finish…!’ escalates the dark goddess’ determination and wrath. In #156 she resolves to dirty her own hands and all too soon, ‘Umar Walks the Earth!’ She is too late. Strange’s mentor has despatched him to a distant realm beyond all worlds on a suicide mission that could endanger all creation…

Artistic superstar-in-waiting Herb Trimpe signed on as inker for #157’s ‘The End of the Ancient One!’ as Strange and his unleashed secret weapon arrive back in time to see off Umar, but only at an unforgivable cost…

Bereft and aghast, Strange then faces alone the monster he has unleashed, unaware that his liberation of the beast Zom has not only sparked an awakening of mystic force all over the world but also invoked the draconian assessment of supernal arbiter The Living Tribunal who rules that Earth must die. With Thomas again scripting, the Cosmic Judge manifests ‘The Sands of Death’ to eradicate the destabilising wild magic infesting the planet but grudgingly accepts Strange’s plea bargain to save the universe from ‘The Evil That Men Do…’

This constant ramping up of tension proceeds as Strange enlists old enemy Mordo, who magnanimously agrees to absorb all that empowering evil energy the Doctor siphons from a legion of newly-empowered sorcerers.

In Strange Tales #160 Raymond Marais, Severin & Trimpe show what a bad idea that is as ‘If This Planet You Would Save!’ depicts the amped-up Baron turning on his benefactor, exiling Strange to a fantastic alien cosmos in #161’s ‘And a Scourge Shall Come Upon You!’ (Marais & new star-turn artist Dan Adkins). In that uncanny other-realm Strange meets former romantic entanglement Victoria Bentley before both are accosted by a macabre mystic tyrant offering aid against the nigh-omnipotent Mordo… for a price.

‘From the Never-World Comes… Nebulos!’ (scripted by James Bond strip writer Jim Lawrence & rendered by Adkins) sees Strange pull all the stops out: smashing Mordo, outwitting Nebulos and stymying The Tribunal’s ‘Three Faces of Doom!’ just in time to save Earth. As his reward, the Good Doctor is despatched by the Grand Arbiter into a ‘Nightmare!’ pursuit of Victoria, arriving on a monster-ridden planet ruled by a techno-wizard named Yandroth who declares himself Scientist supreme of the universe…

The subject of a case of hate at first sight, Strange endures more gadget-laden peril in issue #165 as Yandroth inflicts testing to destruction on ‘The Mystic and the Machine’. Defeated by the hero’s courage and magic, the bonkers boffin activates his doomsday scenario, stating ‘Nothing Can Halt… Voltorg!’ (Lawrence, George Tuska & Adkins) until science proves him wrong…

O’Neil & Adkins teamed up in ST #167 for ‘This Dream… This Doom!’ wherein Strange returns to Earth, indulges in a spot of handy resurrecting and tracks down still-missing Victoria Bentley. That excursion takes the Wizard of Greenwich Village deep into the realm of imagination where Yandroth is waiting for him. The end comes suddenly in #168 as ‘Exile!’ apparently sees the end of the villain and a quick return to home in time for a bold new start.

Big things were happening at Marvel in 1968. After years under a restrictive retail sales deal, The House of Ideas secured a new distributor and were finally expanding with a tidal wave of titles. “Split-Books” like Strange Tales were phased out in favour of solo series for their cohabiting stars and, for the Master of the Mystic Arts at least, that meant a bit of rapid reset. The expansion brought a measure of creative stability as the mystic master now explored the unknown in his own monthly solo title thanks to a neat moment of sleight of hand: assuming the numbering of Strange Tales under his own shingle.

To begin the new era of sorcerous super-shenanigans Thomas & Adkins resumed with a reworking of the Mage’s origins. Extrapolating and building upon the Ditko masterpiece from Strange Tales #115, ‘The Coming of Dr. Strange’ details how he was once America’s greatest surgeon. A brilliant man yet greedy, vain and arrogant, the healer cared nothing for the sick except as a means to wealth and glory. When a self-inflicted, drunken car-crash ended his career, Strange hit the skids.

Fallen as low as man ever could, the debased doctor overheard a barroom tale leading him on a delirious odyssey – or, perhaps more accurately, pilgrimage – to Tibet, where a frail, aged mage changed his life forever. Eventually, enlightenment through torturous daily redemption transformed Stephen the derelict into a solitary, dedicated watchdog at the fringes of humanity, challenging every hidden danger of the dark on behalf of a world better off not knowing what dangers lurk in the shadows.

The saga also featured his first clash with the Ancient One’s other pupil Mordo, revealing how Strange thwarted a seditious scheme, earning the Baron’s undying envious enmity…

The expanded exploration of the change from elitist, dissolute surgeon to penitent scholar and dutiful mystic guardian of humanity neatly segues into another clash with a lethally persistent foe as ‘To Dream… Perchance to Die!’ (#170) finds the Ancient One trapped in a coma thanks to the malevolent lord of dreams. To wake his master, Strange impetuously enters the astral realms and defeats Nightmare on his own terms and turf after which #171 introduces someone who will become a key contributor to the mystic’s career.

Pencilled by eventual inker supreme Tom Palmer, with Adkins supplying finishes, ‘In the Shadow of… Death!’ sees Strange lured away from Earth by news of long-lost Clea. To facilitate her rescue, the sorcerer unthinkingly calls on Victoria Bentley, unaware or uncaring of her romantic feelings for him.

Their trek through the outer deeps of The Realm Unknown is fraught with deadly traps and peril, but does lead to missing Clea… after Bentley is captured and Strange is ambushed by his most powerful and hate-filled foe…

A magical creative team formed for Doctor Strange #171 as Gene Colan signed on for an astoundingly experimental run, with Palmer now handling inks. Humanity is endangered by ‘…I, Dormammu!’ as the Dark Lord reveals how he has orchestrated many recent attacks designed to weary and drain Earth’s champion. The gloating fiend shares how his apparent destruction battling conceptual being Eternity in fact resulted in transdimensional exile and the subjugation of a demonic race dubbed Dykkors: now his eager and willing foot-soldiers lurk, ready to ravage the realms of Mankind. The Dark Despot has even suborned his hated sister and former foe Umar the Unspeakable to his scheme…

As always, Dormammu underestimates the valour and ingenuity of Strange. ‘…While a World Awaits!’, the monstrous conqueror leads a demonic army through the Doorway of Dimensions, leaving the human mage time to liberate Clea and Victoria, before engaging the fearsome forces in a mystic delaying tactic that again allows Dormammu to defeat himself…

With former associate Dr. Benton seeking to convince Strange to abandon crazy charlatanry for a life of respectable medical consultancy, #174 sees the Master of the Mystic Arts helping magical Clea adapt to mundane life on Earth. However, ‘The Power and the Pendulum’ also finds him accompanying brave, secretly despondent Victoria home to England, before being diverted to a foreboding castle where sinister Lord Nekron has laid an eldritch trap.

The crazed noble has made a bargain with hellborn Supreme Satannish, offering his soul for fame and immortality. Instead, the Lord of Lies devised a counter-offer, calling for the substitution of another mystic at the end of one year. With time running out and Strange fitted up for the switch, doom seems inevitable, but Earth’s champion has a timely trick to play…

The late sixties were an incredibly creative period and comics greatly benefitted from that atmosphere of experimentation. Colan used page layouts in wildly imaginative ways to stun readers, but that same expanded vision has often been cited as the reason for the title’s poor sales. I suspect the feature’s early cancellation was as much the result of increasingly sophisticated and scary stories from Thomas, who early on tapped into growing global fascination with supernatural horror and urban conspiracy such as seen in #175’s ‘Unto Us… the Sons of Satannish!’ – coincidentally, the last issue to carry the original title logo.

Just like Ira Levin’s 1967 book and hit 1968 movie Rosemary’s Baby, Strange’s next case involved devil-worship in safely mundane Manhattan, working in secret to achieve diabolical aims. Denied access to the film’s simmering sexuality and mature themes, Thomas, Colan & Palmer stuck to comic book strengths as Clea’s immigrant experience abruptly encompasses ostracization, isolation, suspicious reactions and even assault by ordinary New Yorkers. This leads her straight into the hands of hidden cult The Sons of Satannish, whose charismatic   leader Asmodeus deals with the devil, attempting to win ultimate power by eradicating Strange and replacing him in #176 which whilst sporting a new, eerie and abbreviated logo and masthead, asked ‘O Grave Where is Thy Victory?’

Those aforementioned sales problems were not going away and #177’s concluding chapter ‘The Cult and the Curse’ addressed the issue in tried & true manner. Exiled from his own existence and persona, Strange saved Clea but could only strike back and reclaim his life by magically reinventing himself… by devising a brand new look. The mask & tights of a traditional superhero were apparently the only way to outmanoeuvre Asmodeus, but sadly, not in time to stop him activating a deathbed curse to destroy the world…

The super-suited & booted thoroughly modern mage needed information to proceed, and Dr. Strange #178 has him seeking to question the Satannish worshippers Asmodeus had cruelly banished. Once again exploiting poor Victoria Bentley, Strange recognises her new neighbour Dane Whitman as part-time Avenger The Black Knight and a plea for aid results in an assault on the dimension of decay-god Tiborro ‘…With One Beside Him!’

The saga concluded in Avengers #61 with ‘Some Say the World Will End in Fire… Some Say in Ice!’ by Thomas, John Buscema & George Klein. After Asmodeus’ recued minions reveal the cult’s failsafe spell unleashed Norse demons Surtur and Ymir to destroy the planet, Strange and Black Knight recruit The Vision, Black Panther and Hawkeye to help them save the globe on two fronts…

Although the comics spellbinding ends here, also on offer is the cover of Dr. Strange #179: a Barry Smith treat from 1969 fronting an emergency reprint of Lee & Ditko’s ‘The Wondrous World of Dr. Strange’ from Amazing Spider-Man Annual #2. It precedes one last strip surprise: Marie Severin’s cover of Not Brand Echh #13 (May) and comedy treat ‘Dr. Deranged vs Deadpan!’: a frantic spoof by Thomas, Colan & Sam Grainger with “Marble Comics’” madcap mage facing off against lampooned DC supernatural stalwarts Deadman and The Spectre (or Spookter right here, right then…). Also on view are the covers by Jack Kirby, Everett, Jim Steranko, Severin Adkins, Colan, John Buscema and Barry (not yet Windsor) Smith and a selection of original art, beginning with an unused try-out page by Palmer & Adkins, full pages by Adkins, Colan & Palmer and cover art to #174 and 175, topped off with a House Ad heralding the 1968 bifurcation of Strange Tales.

The Wizard of Greenwich Village was always an acquired taste for mainstream superhero fans, but the pioneering graphic bravura of these tales and the ones to come in the next volume left an indelible mark on the Marvel Universe and readily fall into the sublime category of works done “ahead of their time”. Many of us prefer to believe Doctor Strange has always been the coolest of outsiders and most accessible fringe star in Marvel’s firmament. This glorious grimoire is a miraculous means for old fans to enjoy his world once more and a perfect introduction for recent acolytes or converts created by the movie iteration.
© 2024 MARVEL.

Batman Beyond!


By Hilary J. Bader, Rich Burchett, Joe Staton, Terry Beatty & various (DC comics)
ISBN: 978-1-56389-604-0 (TPB)

The Batman Animated TV series masterminded by Eric Radomski, Bruce Timm, Paul Dini and others in the 1990s revolutionised The Dark Knight and led – with a tie-in monthly printed series – to some of the absolute best comic book tales in his 85-year publishing history. With the hero’s small screen credentials firmly re-established, follow-up series began (and are still coming), eventually feeding back into the overarching multiversal DCU continuity.

Following those award-winning animated sagas, in 1999 came a new incarnation set one generation into the future, following Bruce Wayne in the twilight of his life reluctantly mentoring a new teen hero picking up his eerily-scalloped mantle. In Britain the series was inspirationally re-titled Batman of the Future but for most of the impressed cognoscenti and awestruck kids worldwide it was Batman Beyond!

Again the show was augmented by a cool kids’ comic book. This inexplicably out-of-print collection re-presents the first 6-issue miniseries in a hip and trendy, immensely entertaining package suitable for fans and aficionados of all ages. Although not necessary to a reader’s enjoyment, passing familiarity with the TV episodes will enhance the overall experience. All stories were written by Hilary J. Bader and we open with a 2-part adaptation of the pilot, illustrated by Rick Burchett & Terry Beatty.

‘Not On My Watch!’ serves up glimpses of the last days of Batman’s crusade against crime before age, infirmity and injury slowed him down to the point of compromising his principles and endangering the citizens he’d sworn to protect…

Years later, Gotham City in the mid-21st century (notionally accepted as 2039 AD – 100 years after the Dark Knight’s debut in Detective Comics #27) is a dystopian urban jungle where angry, rebellious schoolkid Terry McGinnis strikes a blow against pernicious pimped-up street punks The Jokerz and is chased out of town all the way to the gates of a ramshackle mansion. Meanwhile, his research scientist dad has discovered a little too much about how the company he works for operates.

Wayne-Powers used to be a decent place to work before old man Wayne became a recluse. Now Derek Powers runs the show and is ruthless enough to do anything to increase profits… Outside town, Terry is saved from a potentially fatal Jokerz encounter by a burly old man who then collapses. Helping aged Bruce Wayne inside the mansion, Terry discovers the long neglected Batcave before being chased away by the surly saviour. McGinnis but doesn’t really care… until he gets home to find his father has been murdered…

In a storm of emotion, he returns to Wayne Manor as concluding chapter ‘I Am Batman’ sees McGinnis attempting to force Wayne to act before giving up in frustration and stealing the hero’s greatest weapon: a cybernetic Bat-suit that enhances strength, speed, durability and perception. Alone, untrained and unaided, a new Batman sets to enact justice and exact revenge…

In the ensuing clash with Powers the unscrupulous entrepreneur is mutated into a radioactive monster – dubbed Blight – before Wayne and Terry negotiate a tenuous truce and grudging understanding. For now, Terry will continue to clean up Gotham City as an apprentice- and strictly probationary-hero…

With #3, Bader, Burchett & Beatty began crafting original stories of future Gotham, commencing with ‘Never Mix, Never Worry’ wherein Blight returns to steal a selection of man-made radioactive elements which can only be used to cause harm… or can they?

Joe Staton took over pencilling with #4 as a schoolboy nerd frees a devil from limbo and old man Wayne introduces the cocksure Terry to parapsychologist Jason Blood and his eldritch alter ego Etrigan the Demon in spooky shocker ‘Magic Is Everywhere’. That sentiment is repeated and reinforced when a school-trip to a museum unleashes ancient lovers to feed on the students’ life energy in delightfully comical tragedy ‘Mummy, Oh! and Juliet’…

This captivating compendium concludes in another compellingly edgy thriller as Terry stumbles into a return bout with a shapeshifting super-thief in ‘Permanent Inque Stains’, only to find there are worse crimes and far more evil villains haunting his city…

In 2000 Titan Books released a British edition re-titled Batman of the Future (to comply with the renamed UK TV series) and this version is a little easier to locate by those eager to enjoy the stories rather than own an artefact. Fun, thrilling and surprisingly moving, these tales are magnificent examples of comics that appeal to young and old alike and are well overdue for re-issue. They also prove the foundation concepts of Batman can travel far and riff wildly, but always deliver maximum wonderment.
© 1999 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Doctor Strange: Dimension War


By James Lovegrove (MARVEL)
ISBN: 978-1-8033-6257-1 (HB/Digital edition/Audio book)

Modern Marvel is a multimedia entertainment colossus but all those multitudinous branches and subdivisions ultimately derive from stories in comic books. Thanks to recent on-screen exposure, ultimate Marvel outsider Stephen Strange is now a popular hot property, which no doubt inspired this prose reinterpretation based on his founding exploits as originally detailed by Steve Ditko and Stan Lee…

Marvel’s sustained presence on non-graphic bookshelves really began in the 1990s with a string of hardback novels. Since then, those who want to supply their own pictures to MU exploits have basked in a procession of text-based thrills in all book formats. Of late, Titan Books has been supplying powerhouse prose publications and here addresses the interests of fans brought in by the recent movies as well as those lifelong devotees of the ever-enlarging continuity who can’t bear to miss a single instance of their fave raves.

Written by British author/designer/illustrator James Lovegrove (Hope, Redlaw, Age of Odin, The Clouded World, Untied Kingdom, Pantheon series, Firefly), Dimension War takes Ditko & Lee’s early episodic exploits of the “Master of Black Magic”: tweaking and shuffling them into one cohesive story arc detailing the coming of the mage and his accession to the role of Sorcerer Supreme.

By downplaying more esoteric episodes – such as battling Asgardian god Loki and stealing Thor’s hammer, rescuing Queen Cleopatra, banishing a sentient predatory house, evicting body-stealing aliens, battling decadence demon Tiborro and saving human burglars from enslavement in the Purple Dimension – the author delineates and extrapolates an intriguing ongoing war from Strange’s frequent clashes with rival student Baron Karl Mordo.

The origin is included and expanded upon as morally bankrupt, crippled superstar surgeon Dr. Stephen Strange finds new purpose after losing everything he thought mattered. By saving aged Tibetan mystic The Ancient One from his ambitious murderous disciple Mordo Strange dedicates himself to become a magical adept: resolved to save humanity from diabolical and extradimensional threats.

Focussing on the many battles with dream demon Nightmare, implacable Mordo and his extradimensional tyrant god patron Dread Dormammu as well as the start of a prolonged but doomed romance with beguiling alien witch-with-a secret Clea, the saga traces a far hipper and less aloof mage than most comics fans will be used to: one who tirelessly strives to keep Earth safe and frustrate demonic schemes of monsters consumed by avarice and arrogance and who ultimately learn there’s always someone bigger and stronger and that pride invariably goes before a great fall…

Reprocessing material from Strange Tales #110, 111 and 114-146, spanning July 1963 to July 1966, as an added treat, the epic ends in an epilogue as first seen in pictures in Amazing Spider-Man Annual #2 (October 1965). There and then the Good Doctor first fully entered the glamourous, bright and shiny superhero universe, joining the wondrous wallcrawler to defeat thieving wizard Xandu who ensorcelled thugs to make invulnerable zombies and purloined the terrifying Wand of Watoomb…

Slick and fast paced at the cost of much of the mood of the comics, the tale will certainly please movie converts and apostles, and should you wish to see the way it all began and unfolded in pictorial terms, the basis for all this arcane armageddon action can be found in Doctor Strange Epic Collection volume 1 (1963-1966): Master of the Mystic Arts.
© 2024 MARVEL.

Ruins (Paperback Edition)


By Peter Kuper (SelfMadeHero)
ISBN: 978-1-914224-18-8 (TPB/Digital edition)

Multi award-winning artist, storyteller, illustrator, educator and activist Peter Kuper was born in Summit, New Jersey in 1958, before the family moved to Cleveland, Ohio when he was six. Growing up there he (briefly) met iconic Underground Commix pioneer R. Crumb and at school befriended fellow comics fan Seth Tobocman (Disaster and Resistance: Comics and Landscapes for the 21st Century, War in the Neighborhood, You Don’t Have to Fuck People Over to Survive).

As they progressed through the school system together, Kuper & Tobocman caught the bug for self-publishing. They then attended Kent State University together. Upon graduation in 1979, both moved to New York and whilst studying at Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute and The Art Students League created – with painter Christof Kohlhofer – landmark political art/comics magazine World War 3 Illustrated. Separately and in conjunction, in comics, illustration and via art events, Kuper & Tobocman continued championing social causes, highlighting judicial and cultural inequities and spearheading the use of narrative art as a tool of activism.

Although a noted and true son of the Big Apple now and despite brushing with the comics mainstream as Howard Chaykin’s assistant at Upstart Associates, most of Kuper’s singularly impressive works are considered “Alternative” in nature, deriving from his regular far-flung travels and political leanings. Moreover, although being about how people are, much of his oeuvre employs cityscapes and the natural environment as bit players or star attractions.

When not binding his own “Life Lived in Interesting Times” into experimental narratives – such as with 2007’s fictively-cloaked Stop Forgetting To Remember: The Autobiography of Walter Kurtz – or bold yarns like Sticks and Stones (2005), Kuper created The New York Times’ first continuing strip (1993’s Eye of the Beholder) and regularly adapts to strip form literary classics like Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (1991), Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (2019), Kafka’s short stories  Give It Up! (1995) and Kafkaesque (2018) as well as longer works like The Metamorphosis (2003), all while creating his own unique canon of intriguing graphic novels and visual memoirs.

Amongst the so many strings to his bow – and certainly the most high-profile – was a brilliant stewardship of Mad Magazine’s beloved Spy Vs. Spy strip, which he inherited from creator Antonio Prohias in 1997, and he also chases whimsy in children’s books like 2006’s Theo and the Blue Note or experimental exercise The Last Cat Book (1984: illustrating an essay by Robert E Howard). Whenever he travelled – which was often – he made visual books such as 1992’s Peter Kuper’s Comics Trips – A Journal of Travels through Africa and Southeast Asia. Three years later he undertook a bold creative challenge for DC’s Vertigo Verité imprint: crafting mute, fantastically expressive thriller/swingeing social commentary The System.

Kuper’s later comics – all equally ambitious and groundbreaking – had to make room for his other interests as he became a successful commercial illustrator (Newsweek, Time, The Nation, Businessweek, The Progressive, Rolling Stone, The New Yorker, Entertainment Weekly and more), lecturer in Graphic Novels at Harvard, a teacher at Parsons School of Design and The School of Visual Arts and – since 1988 – co-Art Director of political action group INX International Ink Company. Translated into many languages, he has built a thriving occupation as a gallery artist exhibiting globally and scored a whole bunch of prestigious Fellowships and Educational residencies as a result.

He still finds time to pursue his key interests – such as contributing to benefit anthology Comics for Ukraine: Sunflower Seeds and cultivates a lifelong passion for entomology. This hobby infused 2015’s fictionalized autobiographical episode Ruins: an Eisner Award winning tome now available again in an enthralling trade paperback edition.

A passionate multilayered tale of crisis, confrontation and renewal infused by his ecological concerns, political leanings, rage against authoritarianism and love of Mexico, it draws from the same deep well as 2009’s Diario De Oaxaca: A Sketchbook Journal of Two Years in Mexico. Between 2006 and 2008, Kuper, his wife and young daughter lived in Oaxaca, absorbing astounding historical and cultural riches, beguiling natural wonders, hearty warmth and nonjudgemental friendliness. They also witnessed how a teacher’s strike was brutally and bloodily suppressed by local governor/dictator Ulises Ruiz Ortiz – AKA “URO” – in a series of events with a still heavily disputed death toll scarring the region and citizens to this day.

Part travelogue, part natural history call to arms and paean to the culture of Oaxaca, Kuper’s tale details a marriage in crisis played out against a disintegrating crisis of governance. Recently unemployed, socially withdrawn and emotionally stunted museum illustrator/bug lover George finally capitulates and voyages to the Mexican dreamland his wife Samantha has been pining for since before they met. Under the aegis of a sabbatical year taken to write a book on pre-conquest Mexico, she has dragged him out of ennui and churlish career doldrums to a place where he can indulge his abiding love of insects, if not her…

For Samantha, it’s a return to a paradisical place and magical time, albeit one where she loved and lost her first husband. That’s not the sole cause of growing friction between the increasingly at odds couple. The lengthy trip’s overt intention of reuniting them falters as she is drawn deeply into stories of how the Conquistadors destroyed Mesoamerican cultures they found and highlights parallels to her own plight. There are other earthier distractions she just can’t shake off too…

Slowly, George’s intransigence melts as he meets people willing to tolerate his ways, see beyond his shell, and share the history, geology, geography and serenely easy-going culture that eventually penetrates his crusty exterior. All manner of distracting temptations – like the infinite variety of cool bugs! – are endless and constant as he makes friends and finds healthier ways to express himself. He even tries to renew his constrained relationship with Samantha, but there will always be one impossible, impassable barrier to their future happiness…

… And then they’re caught up in the Teachers’ strike and extra-judicial methods Governor URO employs to end it even as George achieves the milestone life goal he never thought possible and visits the Michoacan forest where Monarchs come to breed and die.

… And finds it expiring from human intrusion…

Acting as thematic spine and tonal indicator for the unfolding story, each chapter follows – with snapshot scenes of changing, degrading landscapes – the epic flight of a lone Monarch butterfly, from its start in Canada, across America to the forest’s lepidopteran devotee George ostensibly left his comfort zone home to see.

With overtones of Peter Weir’s film The Year of Living Dangerously (and Christopher Koch’s novel too), Ruins layers metaphor upon allegory, distilling political, ecological and personal confrontation into a powerfully evocative account of people at a crossroads. Inspirationally visualised in a wealth of styles by a true master of pictorial narrative and classic drama, this new paperback edition also includes an ‘Afterwords’ where the author adds context to the still ongoing saga of the civil war crime underpinning his story.

Clever, charming, chilling and compulsively engrossing, this delicious exercise in interconnectivity is a brilliant example of how smart and powerful comics can and should be.
© Peter Kuper 2015. All rights reserved.

Amazing Spider-Man Epic Collection volumes 9: Spider-Man or Spider-Clone? 1975-1977


By Gerry Conway, Len Wein, Archie Goodwin, Ross Andru, Gil Kane, Sal Buscema, Mike Esposito, Frank Giacoia, Dave Hunt, John Romita & various (MARVEL)
ISBN: 978-1-3029-4874-0 (TPB/Digital edition)

Amazing Spider-Man was a comic book that matured with – or perhaps just slightly ahead of – its fan-base. This epic compendium of chronological webspinning wonderment sees the World’s Most Misunderstood Hero facing even greater and evermore complex challenges as he slowly recovers from the trauma of losing his true love and greatest enemy in the same horrific debacle. Here you will see all that slow recovery comes unstuck.

Once co-creator Stan Lee replaced himself with young Gerry Conway, the scripts acquired a far more contemporary tone (but feeling quite outdated from here in the 21st century): purportedly more in tune with the times whilst the emphatic use of soap opera subplots kept older readers glued to the series even when bombastic battle sequences didn’t. Moreover, as a sign of those times, a hint of cynical surrealism also began creeping in…

For newcomers – or those just visiting thanks to Spider-Man movies: super smart-yet-ultra-alienated orphan Peter Parker was bitten by a radioactive spider during a school outing. Discovering strange superhuman abilities which he augmented with his own natural chemistry, physics and engineering genius, the kid did what any lonely, geeky nerd would do with such newfound prowess: he tried to cash in for girls, fame and money. Making a costume to hide his identity in case he made a fool of himself, Parker became a minor media celebrity – and a criminally vainglorious one. To his eternal regret, when a thief fled past him one night he didn’t lift a finger to stop him, only to find when he returned home that his guardian uncle Ben Parker had been murdered.

Crazed and vengeful, Peter hunted the assailant who’d made his beloved Aunt May a widow and killed the only father he had ever known. He discovered to his horror it was the self-same felon he had neglected to stop. His irresponsibility resulted in the death of the man who raised him, and the traumatised boy swore to forevermore use his powers to help others. Since that night, the wallcrawler tirelessly battled miscreants, monsters and madmen with a fickle, ungrateful public usually baying for his blood even as he perpetually saves them.

The high school nerd grew up and went to college. Because of his guilt-fuelled double-life he struggles there too but found abiding love with cop’s daughter Gwen Stacy… until she was murdered by the Green Goblin. Now Parker must pick up the pieces of his life…

This compelling compilation reprints Amazing Spider-Man #143-164 and Annual #10: collectively covering cover-dates April 1975 to January 1977, and confirming an era of astounding introspective drama and captivating creativity wedded to growing science fictional thinking. Stan Lee’s hand-picked successor Gerry Conway moved on after reaching a creative plateau, giving way to fresh authorial guide Len Wein.  Thematically, tales moved away from sordid street crime as outlandish villains and monsters took centre stage, but the most sensational advance was an insidious scheme which would reshape the nature of the web-spinner’s adventures to this day.

For all that, the wallcrawler was still indisputably mainstream comics’ voice of youth, defining being a teen for young readers of the 1970s, tackling incredible hardships, fantastic foes and the most pedestrian and debilitating of frustrations. Now its later and still-grieving Parker is trying to move on as we open with Amazing Spider-Man #143 (by Conway, Ross Andru, Frank Giacoia & Dave Hunt) in ‘…And the Wind Cries: Cyclone!’ Peter is in Paris to deliver a ransom and save kidnapped publisher J. Jonah Jameson but resorts to his arachnid alter ego to deal with a hyper-fast French supervillain. The run-of-the-mill tale’s real kicker comes from an overly-fond farewell expressed by “casual chum” Mary Jane Watson: a kiss that finally shifts traumatised Peter’s thoughts from his recently murdered beloved.

The creative team capitalised on the situation after Spider-Man saves Jonah and clobbers the kidnappers before Pete returns to New York and his usual daily travails as #144 launches a shocking new worry. ‘The Delusion Conspiracy’ (ASM #145) builds the tension and focuses on a baffled girl’s confusion and terror at everyone’s reactions when she comes home and the entire world screams ‘Gwen Stacy is Alive… and, Well…?!’

With Gwen somehow resurrected and Peter on the edge of a mental breakdown, Aunt May is hospitalised just in time for another old foe to strike again in ‘Scorpion… Where is Thy Sting?’, but the real kick in the tale is irrefutable scientific and medical reports proving the increasingly bewildered Miss Stacy is not an impostor but the genuine article…

In Spider-Man #147 Peter finds some answers as further tests prove Gwen is actually a true human clone (remember, this was new, cutting-edge stuff in 1975) but all too soon he’s distracted by another bad-guy with a grudge and hungry to prove ‘The Tarantula is a Very Deadly Beast’ (inked by Mike Esposito & Dave Hunt). It’s all part of a convoluted, utterly byzantine revenge scheme conceived by a malign enemy. When the hero is ambushed by a mesmerised Gwen at the behest of the archfiend, ‘Jackal, Jackal, Who’s Got the Jackal?’ at last discloses shocking truths about one of Peter’s most trusted friends prior to the Delusion Conspiracy explosively concluding in #149’s ‘Even if I Live, I Die!’ (Andru & Esposito art).

Learning he and Gwen had been covertly cloned by their biology teacher Miles Warren, the Amazing Arachnid must defeat his alchemical double in a grim, no-holds-barred identity-duel, with neither sure who’s the real McCoy. The battle eventually results in the copy’s death. Maybe. Perhaps. Probably…

The moment of unshakeable doubt over who actually fell informs anniversary issue Amazing Spider-Man #150, with Archie Goodwin, Gil Kane, Esposito & Giacoia taking the hero down memory lane and up against a brigade of old antagonists to decide whether ‘Spider-Man… or Spider-Clone?’ survived that furious final fight, before debuting regular scripter Len Wein joins Andru & John Romita Sr. to launch a new era of adventure…

After disposing of his duplicate’s corpse in an incineration plant, Spider-Man finds time to let Peter reconnect with his long-neglected friends. However, a jolly party is soon disrupted as blackouts triggered by a super-menace lead the wallcrawler into the sewers for a ‘Skirmish Beneath the Streets!’ It results in his almost drowning and nearly being ‘Shattered by the Shocker!’ (Esposito & Giacoia inks) in a conclusive and decisive return engagement before a moving change-of-pace tale sees a blackmailed former football star giving his all to save a child in ‘The Longest Hundred Yards!’ (Andru & Esposito).

However, it’s left to Spider-Man to make the true computer-crook culprits pay, after which #154 reveals ‘The Sandman Always Strikes Twice!’ (with art by Sal Buscema & Esposito) – albeit with little lasting effect – until devious murder-mystery ‘Whodunnit!’ (Buscema & Esposito) cunningly links three seemingly unconnected cases in a masterful “Big Reveal”…

A long-running romance-thread culminates in the oft-delayed wedding of Pete’s old flame Betty Brant to reporter Ned Leeds, but the nuptials are sadly interrupted by a new costumed crook in ‘On a Clear Day, You Can See… the Mirage!’ (Wein, Andru & Esposito), even as a sinister hobo who was haunting the last few yarns strode fully into the spotlight…

In the past, a protracted struggle for control of New York between Dr Octopus and cyborg gangster Hammerhead escalated into a full-on gang war and small-scale nuclear near-disaster, with Spidey and his aunt caught in the middle. The devilish duel concluded with an atomic explosion and the seeming end of two major antagonists. However, #157 exposed ‘The Ghost Who Haunted Octopus!’ as the long-limbed loon turns again to May Parker for salvation.

With Peter in attendance, the many-handed menace seeks to escape a brutal ghostly stalker tormenting him, but their unified actions actually liberate a pitiless killer from inter-dimensional limbo in ‘Hammerhead is Out!’, leading to a savage three-way showdown with Spidey ‘Arm-in-Arm-in-Arm-in-Arm-in-Arm-in-Arm with Doctor Octopus!’ to save the horrified Widow Parker.

Courtesy of plotter Wein, scripter Bill Mantlo and Kane, Esposito & Giacoia, a new insectoid archfoe debuted in Amazing Spider-Man Annual #10, where ‘Step Into My Parlor…’ depicts obsessed Spider-hater J. Jonah Jameson hiring outcast, exceedingly fringe-science biologist Harlan Stilwell  to create yet another tailor-made nemesis to destroy the webslinger.

Meanwhile, the detested hero is ending a vicious hostage situation manufactured by psychotic Rick Deacon, but when the killer escapes and breaks into a certain lab he’s transformed into a winged wonder hungry for payback on the webspinner in ‘…Said the Spider to the Fly!’

In the monthly mag Wein, Andru & Esposito fired the opening shot of an extended epic as a criminal inventor – and one of the wallcrawler’s oldest enemies – recovers Spidey’s long-ditched, satisfactorily drowned “Spider-Mobile”, tricking it out to hunt down its original owner in #160’s ‘My Killer the Car!’

Having narrowly escaped doom and debacle in equal measure Spidey met a new friend and clashed with an old one, although rising star Frank Castle was reduced to a bit-player in Amazing Spider-Man #161-162 (October & November 1976), as the All-Newly-Reformed X-Men were sales-boosted via a guest-clash in ‘…And the Nightcrawler Came Prowling, Prowling’, wherein the Amazing Arachnid jumps to a completely wrong conclusion after a sniper shoots a reveller at Coney Island. By the time moody mutant Nightcrawler explains himself – in tried-&-true Marvel manner by fighting the webspinner to a standstill – old skull-shirt has turned up to take them both on before mutual foe Jigsaw is exposed as the real assassin in concluding episode ‘Let the Punisher Fit the Crime!’

The mystery villain behind much of Spider-Man’s recent woes is at last exposed in ‘All the Kingpin’s Men!’ as a string of audacious tech-robberies lead the hero to another confrontation with the deadly crime lord. This time, however, the Machiavellian mobster is playing for personal stakes. His son has been on the verge of death for months and his remedy is to electronically transfer the Spider-Man’s life force into the ailing patient. Discarded after the process, Peter Parker’s impending ‘Deadline!’ is extended by old friend Curt Connors until they can explosively set things right…

To Be Continued…

As always the narrative delights are supplemented by added extras which this go-round include contemporary house ads, Romita & Joe Sinnott’s cover/back cover, frontispiece, contents page and double-page cast pin-up from 1975 tabloid edition Marvel Special Edition #1: The Spectacular Spider-Man, and the Andru- & Esposito-rendered entry for The Mighty Marvel Bicentennial Calendar 1976 (June) and Ronn Sutton’s cover for George Olshevsky’s 1982 The Marvel Comics Index: The Amazing Spider-Man and the 1985 Frontispiece by John Allison. Also on view are Andru’s prankish private joke pencils for the big reveal in ASM #144, editorial ‘Of Jackals and Juxtaposition’ from The Spider’s Web column in #153, and original art pages by Punisher design sketch by Romita and original art pages by Kane, Romita Andru & Esposito.

Blending cultural veracity with superb art, and making a dramatic virtue of the awkwardness, confusion and imputed powerlessness most of the readership experienced daily resulted in an irresistibly intoxicating read, especially when delivered in addictive soap-styled instalments, but none of that would be relevant if Spider-Man’s stories weren’t so utterly entertaining. This action-packed collection relives many momentous and crucial periods in the wallcrawler’s astounding life and is one all Fights ‘n’ Tights fanatics must see…
© 2023 MARVEL.

Jamie Smart’s Looshkin: Honk If You See It!


By Jamie Smart with Sammy Borass & John Cullen (David Fickling Books)
ISBN: 978-1-78845-313-4 (TPB)

Since launching 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, growing legion of totally engaged kids and parents who read it avidly…

Devised by Jamie Smart (Fish Head Steve!; Bunny vs. Monkey, Corporate Skull and bunches of other brilliant strips for The Beano and more) from what I assume is close-hand observation and meticulous documentation comes another outing for Looshkin – a brilliantly bonkers addition to that vast feline pantheon of horrifying hairballs infesting cartoondom – featuring further “adventures of the Maddest Cat in the World!!” This new magnum (sweet, dark, nutty, creamy and constantly making your fillings hurt) opus shares fresh nuggets in the life of 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 hold…

Once upon a time Mrs Alice Johnson brought home a kitten from the pet shop. Not one of the adorable little beauties in the window though, but an odd, creepy, lonely little fuzzy hidden at the back of the store.

The Johnsons are not an average family – even for Croydon. Firstborn son Edwin watches too many horror films and keeps a book of spells in his room. Dad is a brilliant inventor who needs peace and quiet to complete his fart-powered jet-packs or potato-powered tractors. With a new cat now, those days are gone for good…

That sweet little daughter isn’t all she seems either: when kitten Looshkin attended her tea party in the garden, the toys all warned the cat of horrors in store. Making allies of teddy bear Bear and glove-puppet Mister Frogburt Looshkin was soon in his element and even escalated the carnage and chaos. He has found his natural home even though it’s surrounded by weirdoes like Great (and so very rich) Auntie Frank and her precious ultra-anxious prize-winning panic poodle Princess Trixibelle and neighbour/former TV host Sandra Rotund whose own cat Mister Buns is a force to be reckoned with.

Reality is notional at best around here, and many episodes adopt the conceit of being excerpts, articles or ads from magazines: frequently interspersed by hilarious pin-ups…

This outing spans a week – which is a long time in cat reality – and quite naturally begins with a recap/origin of sorts as ‘Looshkin: A Comprehensive Catalogue of His Rise to Infamy!!’ reminds the regulars and forewarns the new fools and curious what the feline is like via newspaper clippings from The Daily Pickles before ‘Beef’ sees kitty in full-annoy mode and testing the force of an unblinking stare, before triggering traffic conniptions, wedding woes, acting anarchy and another trip to the Society of Cat Brain Doctors…

Oddly, hypnotising the cat to think he’s a chicken is not the major therapeutic breakthrough everyone hopes it would be and results in a riot of farm vehicle spawned carnage…

With the media mad to find out ‘Who is Tractor Cat?’ neighbour Arnold Johnson is driven to distraction when Looshkin affixes ‘Fried Egg Wheels on my Bottom’ and plays kidnapper in ‘Family Ties’, after which a day dream of deadly ‘Danger Sausage!’ prompts the fuzzy blue fool to start ‘Piggy Piggle’ races and play ‘Hide n Seek’ with a 15 trillion year old dinosaur egg…

All intent to be good in his alternate ego of cosmic champion ‘Johnny Rad’ is doomed from the get-go, so the cat dials back and tries to help party performer Billy Crabs retrain for better jobs in ‘Tears of a Clown’. Shame about the guinea pigs though…

The dangers of Dress-Up-Like-Your-Favourite-Character-From-a-Book day manifest with a vengeance when Jonty-kins kits up like the krazy kitty in ‘Reluctant Reader’ before Frogburt announces ‘I hereby declare Looshkin to be an enemy of Frogtopia!!’ in a daring nautical tale before angry Arnold Johnson declares a poster war and more when Looshkin goes looking for his lost love ‘Sharon!’

More fabulously funny faux mag articles and ads segue swiftly into the cat and the bear auditioning a scatological skit in ‘Musical Number Two’ whilst time runs wild in ‘Eloh Kcalb Eht’ and a brief biography of ‘Bear – Treasure Hunter of the Sahara!’ broadcasts how to fight mummies, vampires and zombies with chicken nuggets and other party treats before feline goes fowl in ‘Metamorphoduck’

When the cat goes missing we discover why one must Honk if You See It! and discover more shocking stuff about pigs ‘In Which Looshkin Tries to do a Thing but it doesn’t work out and as ever Bear is the One Who Suffers’ after which Who is the Best Cat is determined by a ‘Big Race’ that doesn’t end well…

Massive amounts of money and power prove no hindrance or help to our cat and his family when they take a turn as ‘City Types’ before soap spoofery becomes Weird – and offensive – Science when the cat adopts some ‘Bum Angels’ prior to a little literary sabotage and cunning catfishing in maritime madcappery ‘The Old Man and Harold’

Looshkin’s love of melody and his bear overcome him in ‘Sing Da Song’ before he dabbles with bodybuilding in ‘Bros!’ whilst Frogburt whips up nothing like ‘A Lovely Dinner’ and that sweet little girl goes one step beyond with the class bunny ‘Dongles’ even as Looshkin evolves into ‘The Gigantic Head in the Sky!!’

It all gets a bit cosmic on Sunday when the teddy reveals he’s actually ‘Bear X’ on a secret space mission before the cat spoofs Speed driving a hijacked passenger vehicle and doing ‘Bus Stuff’ after which you’ll learn nothing useful but embrace full daftness in ‘How a Looshkin Comic is Written – A step-by-step guide!’ and enjoy a fake excerpt from a book that doesn’t exist in ‘The Cat with a Light Shining out of its Bottom.’

The cat faces replacement media property ‘Marmalade!!’ as this tome terminates, fighting off corporate ineptitude and media manipulation with one last murder-mitten Halloween swipe at ‘Telly!’ and, Fun Done, surrenders to a selection of handy previews of other treats and wonders available in The Phoenix to wind us down from all that angsty satirical furore…

Utterly loony and inescapably addictive, Looshkin: Honk if you See It! is a fiendishly surreal glimpse at the insanity hardwired into certain cats and other critters (probably not yours, but still…) and another unruly, astoundingly ingenious romp from a modern master of that rebellious whimsy which is the very bedrock of British humour.
Text and illustrations © Fumboo Ltd. 2024. All rights reserved.

Looshkin: Honk if you See It! will be released on April 4th 2024 and is available for pre-order now.