Showcase Presents Challengers of the Unknown volume 2


By Arnold Drake, Ed Herron, Bob Brown & various (DC Comics)
ISBN13: 978-1-4012-1725-9 (TPB)

The Challengers of the Unknown was a bridging concept. As superheroes were being revived in 1956 here was a super-team – the first of the Silver Age – with no powers, the most basic and utilitarian of costumes and the most dubious of motives… Suicide by Mystery.

Yet they were a huge hit and struck a chord that lasted for more than a decade before they finally died… only to rise again and yet again. The idea of them was stirring enough, but their initial execution made their success all but inevitable. Springing from tireless and inspirational human hit-factory Jack Kirby – before his move across town to co-create the Marvel Universe – the solid adventure concept and perfect action heroes he left behind were ideal everyman characters for the tumultuous 1960s – an era before super-heroes obtained a virtual chokehold on the comic-book pages.

Kirby had developed a brilliantly feasible concept and heroically archetypical characters in cool pilot Ace Morgan, indomitable strongman Rocky Davis, intellectual aquanaut “Prof.” Haley and daredevil acrobat Red Ryan. The Challengers of the Unknown were four (extra)ordinary mortals; heroic adventurers and explorers who walked away unscathed from a terrible plane crash. Already obviously what we now call “adrenaline junkies”, they decided that since they were all living on borrowed time, they would dedicate what remained of their lives to testing themselves and fate. They would risk their lives for Knowledge and naturally, Justice. They were joined by an occasional fifth member, beautiful (of course) scientist June Robbins in their second appearance (‘Ultivac is Loose!’ in Showcase #7, March/April 1957), and she became a hardy perennial, always popping up to solve puzzles, catch criminals and generally deal with Aliens, Monsters and assorted supernatural threats.

A number of writers, many sadly lost to posterity, wrote these tales, including Bill Finger, Ed Herron, Jack Miller, Bob Haney and Arnold Drake, but one man handled the artwork: Bob Brown.

Brown was born August 22nd 1915 and he died in 1977 following a long illness. He studied at Hartford Art School and Rhode Island School of Design, and worked with his showbiz folks and sister in a song-&-dance act from 1927 onwards. He was drafted in 1940 – the year he also began working as a comics artist and scripter for Fox, timely/Atlas. As the war intensified, he was an aircraft radio operator, an aviation cadet and served in the Pacific as bombardier and navigator in B-29 bombers, earning six air medals and a Distinguished Flying Cross.

After jobbing around the industry during the late 1040s and 1950’s Brown settled at National Comics/DC, co-created the long-running Space Ranger, drawing Tomahawk, western hero Vigilante, Batman, Superboy, Doom Patrol, World’s Finest Comics and a host of other features and genre shorts. He moved to Marvel in the 1970s where he drew Warlock, Daredevil and the Avengers among others.

He was a consummate professional and drew every issue of the Challengers from #9 – 63: almost a decade of high-adventure ranged from ravaging aliens, cute-and-fuzzy space beasts to truly scary supernatural horrors.

The Challengers followed Kirby’s model until cancellation in 1970, but, due to a dispute with Editor Jack Schiff the writer/artist resigned at the height of his powers. The King’s exuberant magic was impossible to match, but as with all The King’s creations, every element was in place for the successors to run with.

Challengers of the Unknown #9 (September 1959) saw an increase in the monster-heavy fantasy elements favoured by Schiff, and perhaps an easing of the subtle tension and inter-group fractious bickering that marked previous issues (Comics Historians take note: the Challs were snapping and snarling at each other years before Marvel’s Cosmic Quartet ever boarded that fateful rocket-ship).

This second cheap-&-cheerful volume collects the contents of Challengers of the Unknown #18 – #37 – spanning February/March 1961 through May 1964 – and opens with ‘The Menace of Mystery Island’ which finds the team fighting crooks on a tropical island that contains a crashed alien probe. This accident has deposited a test animal with uncanny powers…

In the manner of the times, the tenacious troubleshooters adopt the fuzzy li’l space-tyke and name him Cosmo.

The second story of the issue offers darker fare, however, as the team are then shanghaied through time to save ‘The Doomed World of Tomorrow’.

In the ‘The Alien Who Stole a Planet’, the heroes aid refugees from a doomed world, but things turn sour after one of the survivors decides Earth would be suitable replacement home, whilst in ‘The Beasts from the Fabulous Gem’, a soldier-of-fortune uses a stolen mystic jewel liberate monsters imprisoned within it in ancient times. Their very own super-villain then resurfaces as ‘Multi-Man Strikes Again’ in issue #20, and June shows up for a spot of beastie-bashing in the hectic riddle of ‘The Cosmic-Powered Creature!’ In the next issue it’s apparently just the lads who are shanghaied to ‘The Weird World that Didn’t Exist’ but she plays a major role in the follow-up tale when Cosmo returns in ‘The Challengers’ Space-Pet Ally’.

‘The Curse of the Golden God’ proffers the usual action-packed crime-drama in the South American jungles, whereas #22’s second tale hits much closer to home as the squad’s secret base is compromised by ‘The Thing in Challenger Mountain’ and the team find that ‘Death Guarded the Doom Box’ in the form of ancient but still deadly mechanical devices, after which more aliens kidnap humans to ‘The Island in the Sky’.

In ‘The Challengers Die at Dawn’, the hunt for a swindler leads the team to a lost tribe of oriental pirates in the South China Seas, but the big story in #24 is ‘Multi-Man, Master of Earth’: a grand, old-fashioned battle for justice against a seemingly unstoppable foe. Although the stories were becoming a touch formulaic by this stage, the equation was a trusted one, and Brown’s art was constantly improving.

Challengers of the Unknown #25 (April/May 1962) was right on the cusp of the moment full-blown superhero mania hit the world and, although ‘Return of the Invincible Pharaoh’ is a story of ancient mystery and slumbering menaces, its plot of a lost secret bestowing superpowers was to become a recurring staple for “normal, human heroes” such as the Challs, Blackhawk – and even in the Batman titles.

The second tale, ‘Captives of the Alien Hunter’ features another thieving extra-terrestrial up to no good and once more both June and Cosmo are required to foil the fiend.

‘Death Crowns the Challenger King’ is a bizarre variation on the Prisoner of Zenda’s plot: set in a hidden Mongol city with Prof. replacing the true ruler in a series of ceremonial ordeals, whilst the rest of the gang run interference against the scurvy villains, after which a flamboyant impresario is shown to have an out-of-this-world new act in ‘The Secret of the Space Spectaculars’.

Issue #27 led with ‘The 1,001 Impossible Inventions’, wherein two convicts bamboozle a wounded alien into using his advanced science for crime, whilst ‘Master of the Volcano Men’ (the first story for which we have a confirmed writer – Arnold Drake) introduces another perennial villain: rapacious marauding lava beings from the centre of the earth.

It was once more rebellious robots causing a destructive fuss in ‘The Revolt of the Terrible FX-1’, but the real show-stealer of #28 is a classic time-travel romp sending the team back to ancient Egypt to solve ‘The Riddle of the Faceless Man.’

The next issue brought ‘Four Roads to Doomsday (again by Drake) wherein satellite sabotage draws the team into a plot by alien criminals to conquer Earth, whilst the raucous, antagonistic nature of the team is highlighted in Ed “France” Herron’s ‘The War Between the Challenger Teams’, as Ace and Red battle Prof. and Rocky to end a war between two sub-sea races.

‘Multi-Man… Villain Turned Hero’ turned out to be just another evil ploy by the shape-changing charlatan, but #30’s real treat is the introduction of Gaylord Clayburn (Don’t. Just don’t. Grow up): a spoiled multimillionaire playboy who wants to become ‘The Fifth Challenger’ and is prepared to go to any lengths to achieve his ambition…

‘The Man Who Saved the Challengers’ Lives’ in #31 is the first full-length story since 1960; impressively retelling their dramatic origin, and revealing the debt they possibly owe to a shady industrialist, whilst #32 declares business as usual in Drake’s ‘One Challenger Must Die!’

Here the boys fiercely compete to learn who would sacrifice themselves to stop another rampaging Volcano Man, before rediscovering the power of teamwork, which was just as well since the second tale reveals how and why ‘Cosmo Turns Traitor.’

Each an expert in some field of human endeavour, in #33, the Challs are confronted by a superior individual in Drake’s ‘The Challengers Meet their Master’, but as with ‘The Threat of the Trojan Robot’, teamwork proves the solution to any problem. Ed Herron scripted terse thriller ‘Beachhead, USA’ which opens #34, as a U-Boat full of Nazis frozen since World War II tries to complete their last mission – blowing up the East Coast of America, with only the Chall’s in place to stop them.

Multi-Man then discovers that no matter how smart you are, building the perfect mate is a very bad (and tasteless) idea in ‘Multi-Woman, Queen of Disaster.’

‘The War Against the Moon Beast’ is a spectacular sci-fi yarn, balanced by the quirky prognostications of a carnival seer whose crystal ball predicts an adventure of the ‘Sons of the Challengers’.

One of the death-cheaters became a monster in #36’s ‘The Giant in Challenger Mountain’, but is recovered in time to join the others as ‘Bodyguards to a Star’ on the location of a dinosaur-infested movie-epic.

This splendidly daft second volume ends with #37 and ‘The Triple Terror of Mr. Dimension’ – a cheap thug who lucks into a reality-altering weapon, with Herron scripting the taut drama of ‘The Last Days of the Challengers’ wherein the team struggle to destroy giant robots and thwart an execution-list with their names on it…

Challengers of the Unknown is sheer escapist wonderment, and no fan of the medium should be deprived of the graphic exploits starring these ideal adventurer-heroes in the evocative setting of the recent now; a simpler, better world than ours. Reader-friendly to anyone with a love of wild thrills (or Saturday morning cartoons), these long-neglected tales would make the perfect animated kids show too…
© 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964, 2008 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

The Complete Peanuts volume 4: 1957-1958


By Charles Schulz (Canongate Books/Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-84767-076-2 (Canongate) 978-1-56097-670-7 (Fantagraphics)

Peanuts is unequivocally the most important comics strip in the history of graphic narrative. It is also the most deeply personal.

Cartoonist Charles M Schulz crafted his moodily hilarious, hysterically introspective, shockingly philosophical epic for half a century. He published 17,897 strips from October 2nd 1950 to February 13th 2000 and died from the complications of cancer the day before his last strip was published…

At its height, the strip ran in 2,600 newspapers in 75 countries, translated into 21 languages. Many of those venues are still running perpetual reprints, as they have ever since his departure. Attendant book collections, a merchandising mountain and television spin-offs made the publicity-shy artist a billionaire.

None of that is really the point. Peanuts – a title Schulz loathed, and one the syndicate forced upon him – changed the way comics strips were received and perceived by showing that cartoon comedy could have edges and nuance as well as pratfalls and punchlines.

Following an incisive and analytical Foreword by Jonathan Franzen, exploring which characters most reflected the true “Sparky” Schulz and exploring the importance of the material in this hugely enticing tome, the endless days of play, peril and adroit psychoanalysis resume in unprepossessing monochrome…

Our focus (we just can’t call him “star” or “hero”) is everyman loser Charlie Brown who with increasingly high-maintenance, fanciful mutt Snoopy is increasingly at odds with a bombastic and mercurial supporting cast who are hanging out doing kid things and becoming unique comedic archetypes of their own.

The daily gags, as always, centre on playing, playing pranks, playing sports (such as archery, tennis, football, golf, baseball, swimming and croquet), playing musical instruments, teasing each other, making baffled observations and occasionally acting a bit too much like grown-ups. The ferocious unpredictability and wilfulness of seasonal weather begins taking on a malicious life of its own in these years…

Mean girl Violet, infant prodigy Schroeder, “world’s greatest fussbudget” Lucy, her strange baby brother Linus and dirt-magnet “Pig-Pen” all add signature twists to the mirth: each sufficiently fleshed out and personified to generate jokes and sequences around their own foibles.

Charlie Brown has settled into his existential angst and is resigned to his role as eternal loser: singled out by fate and the relentless diabolical wilfulness of Lucy who now sharpens her spiteful verve on everyone around her. Her preferred target is always the round-headed kid though: mocking his attempts to fly a kite, kicking away his football and perpetually reminding him face-to-face how rubbish he is…

The Sunday page debuted on January 6th 1952; a standard half-page slot offering more measured fare than the daily. Both thwarted ambition and explosive frustration became part of the strip’s signature denouements and these weekend wonders gave Sparky room to be at his most visually imaginative, whimsical and weird…

By this time, rapid-fire raucous slapstick gags were riding side-by-side with surreal, edgy, psychologically barbed introspection, crushing judgements and deep ruminations in a world where kids – and certain animals – were the only actors. The relationships are becoming increasingly deep, complex and absorbing…

Sheer exuberance and a spontaneous tendency to dance at any provocation also became a solid standby with the strips re-presented here. Particular moments to relish this time include Linus and Snoopy’s extended Cold War duel for possession of the cherished comfort blanket; the terrible burden of winter clothing; the overwhelming influence of television; Schroeder’s eternal love affair with Beethoven and cold disdain of Lucy’s far-from-apparent blandishments. A general trend sees all the kids evermore often beguiled by stargazing and waxing philosophical at the heavens’ splendour…

Surely coincidentally is some of the series’ signature expletives and epithets also premiering in these pages… you Blockhead!…

To wrap it all up, Gary Groth celebrates and deconstructs the man and his work in ‘Charles M. Schulz: 1922 to 2000’ whilst a copious ‘Index’ offers instant access to favourite scenes you’d like to see again….

Readily available in hardcover, paperback and digital editions, this volume offers a rare example of a masterpiece in motion: comedy gold and social glue metamorphosing into an epic of spellbinding graphic mastery that remains part of the fabric of billions of lives, and which continues to make new fans and devotees long after its maker’s passing.
The Complete Peanuts: 1957-1958 (volume 4) © 2005 Peanuts Worldwide, LLC. The Foreword is © 2005 Jonathan Franzen. “Charles M. Schulz: 1922 to 2000” © 2005 Gary Groth. All rights reserved.

Daredevil Marvel Masterworks volume 8


By Gerry Conway, Gary Friedrich, Mimi Gold, Roy Thomas, Gene Colan, Alan Weiss, Barry Windsor-Smith, John Buscema, Don Heck & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-8841-4 (HB)

Matt Murdock is a blind lawyer whose remaining senses hyper-compensate, making him capable of astonishing acrobatic feats, a formidable fighter and a living lie-detector.

Very much a second-string hero for most of his early years, Daredevil was nonetheless a striking and popular one, due in large part to the roster of brilliant artists who had illustrated the strip. He only really came into his own, however, after artist Gene Colan signed up for the long haul…

The natal DD battled thugs, gangsters, an eclectic mix of established and new super-villains and even the occasional monster or alien invasion. He quipped and wise-cracked his way through life and life-threatening combat, utterly unlike the grim, moody quasi-religious metaphor he became under modern authorial regimes…

In these tales from the pivotal era of relevancy, social awareness and increasing political polarisation the Man Without Fear was also growing into the judicial conscience of a generation turning its back on old values…

Covering August 1970 to February 1972, this hardcover and digital compilation chronologically re-presents Daredevil #75-84 and includes the entire run of the Black Widow’s first solo series, which appeared in “split-book” Amazing Adventures #1-8. Those mini-epics kick off the Marvel Magic following scripter Gerry Conway’s introduction ‘Strange Days’ which shares memories of this transitional period whilst paying dues the superspy’s contemporary influences… Modesty Blaise and Emma Peel.

Natasha Romanoff (sometimes Natalia Romanova) is a Soviet Russian spy who came in from the cold and stuck around to become one of Marvel’s earliest and most successful female stars.

The Black Widow started life as a svelte, sultry honey-trap during Marvel’s early “Commie-busting” days, battling Iron Man in her debut exploit (Tales of Suspense #52, April, 1964).

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

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

Despite always being a fan-favourite, the Widow only truly hit the big time after the dawn of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but for us unregenerate comics-addicts her printed-page escapades have always offered a cool yet sinister frisson of dark delight.

The first of those was ‘Then Came…’ (Amazing Adventures #1, August 1970 by Gary Friedrich, John Buscema & John Verpoorten) as the agent comes out of retirement to become a socially-aware crusader, defending lower-income citizens from thugs and loan sharks. That act of charity leads her to help activists ‘The Young Warriors!’ as their attempts to build a centre for underprivileged kid in Spanish Harlem are countered by crooked, drug-dealing property speculators…

Gene Colan & Bill Everett take over the art with ‘The Widow and the Militants!’ as her actions and communist past draw hostile media attention, more criminal attacks and ultimately precipitate an inner-city siege, before the ‘Deadlock’ (scripted by Mimi Gold) comes to shocking end…

Roy Thomas steps in for a bleak and powerful Christmas yarn as ‘…And to All a Good Night’ sees Natasha and faithful retainer/father figure Ivan, meet and fail a desperate young man, only to be dragged into a horrific scheme by derange youth cult leader the Astrologer who plans to hold the city’s hospitals to ransom in ‘Blood Will Tell!’ (illustrated by Don Heck & Sal Buscema).

Convinced she is cursed to do more harm than good, the tragic adventurer nevertheless inflicts ‘The Sting of the Widow!’ (by Conway, Heck & Everett) on her ruthless prey and his kid killers, after which the series wraps up in rushed manner with a haphazard duel against and Russian-hating super-patriot dubbed Watchlord in ‘How Shall I Kill Thee? Let Me Count the Ways!’ scripted by Thomas.

The Man without Fear finally makes an appearance with his own politically-charged tale from Daredevil #75 (April 1971): a period when the company was making increasingly determined moves to make the hero cutting-edge and relevant…

A drama of political intrigue and kidnapping begins as Murdock travels to the banana republic of Delvadia where ‘Now Rides the Ghost of El Condor!’ (Conway and the incomparable art team of Gene Colan & Syd Shores) offers a canny yarn of revolutionary fervour, self-serving greed and the power of modern mythology which concludes in ‘The Deathmarch of El Condor!’ – wherein inker Tom Palmer (perhaps Colan’s most effective inker) starts his long association with the penciller.

Guest stars abound in ‘…And So Enters the Amazing Spider-Man!’ when an uncanny artefact appears in Central Park, inviting DD, the webspinner and the Sub-Mariner to participate in a fantastic battle in a far-flung, lost world. The adventure concluded in the Atlantean’s own comic (#40) but as Daredevil didn’t join the quest, that sequel isn’t included in this tome.

Issue #78 returned to more traditional territory as ‘The Horns of the Bull!’ traces the downfall of petty thug Bull Taurus after enigmatic mastermind Mr. Kline transforms him into a savage beast and sets him upon the Scarlet Swashbuckler…

Friedrich scripted cataclysmic conclusion ‘Murder Cries the Man-Bull!’, but plotter Conway was back the following month to spectacularly reintroduce a vintage villain ‘In the Eyes… of the Owl!’: presaging a major format change for the series…

From issue #81’s ‘And Death is a Woman Called Widow’ (inked by Jack Abel), Soviet defector Natasha Romanoff burst onto the scene as the ubiquitous Mr. Kline is finally unmasked and revealed to be behind most of DD’s recent woes and tribulations…

Following a stunning pin-up of the bodacious Black Widow by Bill Everett, the conspiracy crisis continues with ‘Now Send… the Scorpion’, as Kline – AKA the Assassin – sets the manic artificial arachnid against DD and the Widow even as his Machiavellian master attempts to suborn Murdock’s greatest friend Foggy Nelson.

At the end of that issue the Scorpion was apparently dead and ‘The Widow Accused!’ by Nelson of the villain’s murder. A sham trial intended to railroad and pillory the Russian émigré ensues in #83, (rendered by Alan Weiss, Barry Smith & Everett), with the Assassin subsequently dispatching brutish Mr. Hyde to ensure his victory.

Against all odds, however, Murdock exonerates Natasha of the charges, prompting the hidden mastermind to take direct action in ‘Night of the Assassin!’ (Colan & Syd Shores). After attacking DD and the Widow in Switzerland – whence the jetsetting former spy had fled to nurse her wounded pride – Kline at last meets final defeat in a stunning and baroque climax to the extended saga.

Rounding out the comics experience here are bonus pages including the cover to all-reprint Daredevil Annual #3, a selection of house ads and a brief gallery of (pre-edited) Everett original art pages, revealing a little too much of the sexy spy, and which were toned down for eventual publication…

As the social upheaval of this period receded, the impressively earnest material was replaced by fabulous fantasy tales which strongly suggested the true potential of Daredevil was in reach. These beautifully limned yarns may still occasionally jar with their earnest stridency and perhaps dated attitudes, but the narrative energy and sheer exuberant excitement of the adventures are compelling delights no action fan will care to miss. And the next volume heads even further into uncharted territory…

Despite a few bumpy spots, during this period Daredevil blossomed into a truly magnificent example of Marvel’s unbeatable formula for success: smart, contemporarily astute stories, truly human and fallible characters and always magnificent illustration. These bombastic tales are pure Fights ‘n’ Tights magic no fan of stunning super-heroics can afford to ignore.
© 1970, 1971, 1972, 2016 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Asterix Omnibus volume 9: Asterix and the Great Divide; Asterix and the Black Gold; Asterix and Son


By Uderzo, translated by Anthea Bell & Derek Hockridge (Orion Childrens’ Books and others)
ISBNs: 978-1-44400-967-5 (HB), 978-1-44400-966-8 (PB)

Alberto Aleandro Uderzo was born on April 25th 1927 in Fismes, on the Marne, a son of Italian immigrants. Showing great artistic flair as a child reading Mickey Mouse in Le Pétit Parisien, he dreamed of becoming an aircraft mechanic one day. Albert became a French citizen when he was seven and found employment at 13, apprenticed to the Paris Publishing Society, where he learned design, typography, calligraphy and photo retouching.

When WWII broke out, he spent time with farming relatives in Brittany and joined his father’s furniture-making business. Brittany beguiled and fascinated Uderzo: when a location for Asterix’s idyllic village was being mooted the region was the only choice.

During the post-war rebuilding of France, Uderzo returned to Paris and became a successful artist in the country’s revitalised and burgeoning comics industry. His first published work, a pastiche of Aesop’s Fables, appeared in Junior, and in 1945 he was introduced to industry giant Edmond-François Calvo (whose own comics masterpiece The Beast is Dead is long overdue for a new edition…).

Indefatigable Uderzo’s subsequent creations included the indomitable eccentric Clopinard, Belloy, l’Invulnérable, Prince Rollin and Arys Buck. He illustrated Em-Ré-Vil’s novel Flamberge, worked in animation, as a journalist and illustrator for France Dimanche, and created vertical comic strip Le Crime ne Paie pas for France-Soir. In 1950, he illustrated a few episodes of the franchised European version of Fawcett’s Captain Marvel Jr. for Bravo!

An inveterate traveller, the prodigy met Rene Goscinny in 1951. Soon fast friends, they decided to work together at the new Paris office of Belgian Publishing giant World Press. Their first collaboration was in November of that year; a feature piece on savoir vivre (how to live right or perhaps gracious living) for women’s weekly Bonnes Soirée, after which an avalanche of splendid strips and serials poured forth.

Jehan Pistolet and Luc Junior were created for La Libre Junior and they devised a western starring a native hero who eventually evolved into the delightfully infamous Oumpah-Pah. In 1955 with the formation of Édifrance/Édipresse, Uderzo drew Bill Blanchart for La Libre Junior, replaced Christian Godard on Benjamin et Benjamine, before in 1957 adding Charlier’s Clairette to his portfolio.

The following year he made his debut in Le Journal de Tintin, as Oumpah-Pah finally found a home and a rapturous audience. Uderzo also drew Poussin et Poussif, La Famille Moutonet and La Famille Cokalane.

When Pilote launched in 1959, Uderzo was a major creative force for the new magazine, collaborating with Charlier on Tanguy et Laverdure and launching – with Goscinny – a little something called Astérix le gaulois

Despite Asterix being a massive hit from the start, Uderzo continued working on Les Aventures de Tanguy et Laverdure, but once the first Roman romp was compiled and collected as Astérix le gaulois in 1961, it became clear that the series would demand most of his time – especially as the incredible Goscinny seemed to never require rest or run out of ideas.

By 1967 the strip occupied all Uderzo’s time and attention, so in 1974 the partners formed Idéfix Studios to fully exploit their inimitable creation. When Goscinny passed away three years later, Uderzo had to be convinced to continue the adventures as writer and artist, producing a further ten volumes until 2010 when he retired.

After nearly 15 years as a weekly comic strip subsequently collected into albums, in 1974 the 21st tale (Asterix and Caesar’s Gift) was the first to be published as a complete original album before being serialised. Thereafter each new release was a long-anticipated, eagerly-awaited treat for the strip’s millions of fans…

According to UNESCO’s Index Translationum, Uderzo is the tenth most-often translated French-language author in the world and the third most-translated French language comics author – right after his old mate René Goscinny and the grand master Hergé.

More than 370 million copies of 37 (soon to be 38) Asterix books have sold worldwide, making his joint creators – and their successors Jean-Yves Ferri and Didier Conrad – France’s best-selling international authors.

One of the most popular comics features on Earth, the collected chronicles of Asterix the Gaul have been translated into more than 100 languages since his debut, with a wealth of animated and live-action movies, TV series, assorted games, toys, merchandise and even a theme park outside Paris (Parc Astérix, naturellement)…

So what’s it all about?

Like all the best stories the premise works on more than one level: read it as an action-packed comedic saga of sneaky and bullying baddies coming a cropper if you want or as a punfully sly and witty satire for older, wiser heads. We Brits are further blessed by the brilliantly light touch of master translators Anthea Bell & Derek Hockridge who played no small part in making the indomitable little Gaul so very palatable to English tongues.

More than half of the canon is set on Uderzo’s beloved Brittany coast, where – circa 50 B.C. – a small village of cantankerous, proudly defiant warriors and their families resist every effort of the mighty Roman Empire to complete the conquest of Gaul. The land has been divided by the conquerors into compliant provinces Celtica, Aquitania and Amorica, but the very tip of the last cited just refuses to be pacified…

The remaining epics occur in various locales throughout the Ancient World, with the Garrulous Gallic Gentlemen visiting every fantastic land and corner of the myriad civilisations that proliferated in that fabled era…

When the heroes were playing at home, the Romans, unable to defeat the last bastion of Gallic insouciance, futilely resorted to a policy of absolute containment. Thus, the little seaside hamlet is permanently hemmed in by the heavily fortified garrisons of Totorum, Aquarium, Laudanum and Compendium.

The Gauls couldn’t care less: daily defying the world’s greatest military machine simply by going about their everyday affairs, protected by the magic potion of resident druid Getafix and the shrewd wits of the diminutive dynamo and his simplistic, supercharged best friend Obelix

Firmly established as a global brand and premium French export by the mid-1960s, Asterix continued to grow in quality as Goscinny & Uderzo toiled ever onward, crafting further fabulous sagas; building a stunning legacy of graphic excellence and storytelling gold. Moreover, following the civil unrest and nigh-revolution in French society following the Paris riots of 1968, the tales took on an increasingly acerbic tang of trenchant satire and pithy socio-political commentary…

By the time of the first tale in this omnibus edition was released Goscinny had been gone for three years and Uderzo soldiered on alone…

Asterix and the Great Divide was the 25th volume, released in 1980 as Le Grand Fossé, and in many ways something of a departure and stylistic compromise.

In another Gaulish village, internecine strife is brewing. Political rivals Cleverdix and Majestix have split the sleepy hamlet down the middle, with an election for chief ending in a dead tie. They then make the figurative literal by having a huge trench dug through the centre of town, cutting the tribe in two, with the population resolved into uncompromising Leftists and stubborn Rightists…

It’s a tragedy in many ways, with friends and families split into feuding camps, but the most heartrending separation concerns dashing Histrionix, son of Leftist Cleverdix and his one true love Melodrama, daughter of Majestix. Their warring sires refuse to concede or compromise and that simmering Cold War has frustrated their children’s happiness forever…

The lover’s pleas cannot move either deadlocked party leader and the intolerable situation is further exacerbated by the insidious, coldly calculating advisor to Majestix who secretly eggs on the old warrior for his own purposes.

Wily toady Codfix’s latest idea is to get their Roman overlords to intervene, installing Majestix as sole ruler by force. In return, Codfix would be given Melodrama in marriage. Of course, that would make him next in line for the ruler’s position. Codfix is both patient and ambitiously far-sighted…

When Melodrama learns of the plan, she immediately informs Histrionix and the prince tells Cleverdix – who knows full well he cannot resist the overwhelming might of the Romans. The former soldier then remembers an old war-buddy who still successfully resists the conquerors. His name was Vitalstatistix

As Histrionix heroically dashes to the village of Indomitable Gauls – everything he does is heroic – Codfix has gone to the local garrison with his request. Centurion Umbrageous Cumulonimbus, however, has his own problems: discipline is lax and the soldiers are grumbling because of the menial chores they are forced to perform. Codfix has the perfect solution. If the Romans put Rightist Majestix in charge, they could take the pacified Leftists as slaves…

In the meantime, Histronix has returned with Vitalstatistix’ best men. Asterix, Obelix and Getafix the Druid are discussing the matter with Cleverdix when Roman soldiers arrive. Codfix however, has overstepped himself and underestimated the nobility of Majestix…

The doughty Rightist refuses to let any Gaul be enslaved – even political opponents – so the uncaring Romans grab him and his followers instead. Impressed with his rival’s integrity, Cleverdix accepts Asterix’ offer of assistance and our heroes infiltrate the garrison as volunteer slaves using an elixir that revitalises the body but causes a touch of amnesia…

Having fun by exploiting these new Romans’ ignorance of their true identities, the infilitrators feed the imprisoned Gauls soup fortified with the Druid’s strength potion before Asterix and Obelix lead a mass breakout which soon finds the prisoners back in their divided hamlet but no closer to an amicable resolution.

And both sides know that the Romans will soon come, eager for revenge…

Codfix has sensibly stayed with the garrison and found the last of Getafix’ elixir, left behind during the liberation. When he sneaks back into the village, he also discovers a fresh batch of power-potion whipped up in advance of the impending attack… and steals it.

The next day, the Gauls wake to find invaders marching upon them, fortified by the elixir which has erased the punishing memory of their recent defeat, and simultaneously super-charged by power potion.

Left with nothing but Obelix and Gaulish courage, the villagers unite to fight and fall with honour, but are astonished when a bizarre series of transformations wrack the empowered Romans. It takes a long time to become a Druid and apparently the first thing you learn is to never mix potions…

Codfix has used the distraction to kidnap Melodrama. Demanding ransom and safe passage, he has not reckoned on Histrionix’ determination, Asterix’s ingenuity or Obelix’ strength and – after a climactic confrontation involving our perennially luckless Pirates – gets what’s coming to him…

With the Romans routed and Codfix suitably punished, Cleverdix and Majestix settle their differences with a traditional Gaulish duel after which someone else becomes chief of the reunified village. The former divide is transformed into an appropriate symbol of their unity and life goes on happily…

Asterix and the Great Divide was devised by Uderzo as a critique on current affairs and metaphorical attack on the Berlin Wall which had, since 1961, split the city physically, Europe symbolically and the world ideologically. His earnest tale was more dramatic and action-oriented than previous Asterix fare, with the regulars frequently reduced to subordinate roles, but for all that there are still cunning laughs and wry buffoonery in welcome amounts.

 

Asterix and the Black Gold (L’Odyssée d’Astérix) debuted in 1981 and again saw Asterix and Obelix embarking on a long voyage into the unknown, rife with bold adventure and underpinned by topical lampooning and timeless swingeing satire.

The 26th saga begins with a brace of wild boar demonstrating that they are canny opponents for voracious Obelix. Whenever the gigantic Gaul encounters these particular pigs in his daily hunts, they escape by leading him to the nearest Roman patrol. The only thing Obelix loves more than eating pork is bashing Romans…

Back in Rome, Julius Caesar is livid. He’s just received news that the insufferable, indomitable Gauls are training wild boars to lead Roman patrols into Gaulish ambushes…

The raging ruler’s continued attempts to end the aggravating resistance always fail and in a fit of fury he charges his chief of the Roman Secret Service M.I.VI (geddit?) with ending his galling Gallic grief – or else…

M. Devius Surreptitius has just the man for the job. Dubbelosix is of Gaulish-Roman extraction and has, by persistence and deviousness, qualified as a Druid. He is wily, charming, debonair and comes with a host of cunning hidden gadgets – and he’s also the spitting image of Sean Connery…

Dispatched on a mission to stop the French resisting, Dubbelosix is secretly working with his boss M to supplant Caesar, and also harbours ambitions to rule Rome alone …but first he has to destroy the infernal Gauls. His chance comes almost as soon as he arrives in that little village…

Getafix is in a near-panic. The Druid has been eagerly awaiting the arrival of Phoenician merchant Ekonomikrisis who is bringing a vital ingredient for the magic potion that keeps the Romans at bay. When the ship at last arrives and the peddler apologises for forgetting the fabled rock oil, the highly strung Getafix has a fit and passes out.

Luckily a young Druid dubbed Dubbelosix is passing and, after a minor skirmish with a Roman patrol, accompanies Asterix and Obelix back to their comatose friend…

The spy might be a double agent, but he knows his stuff and soon cures the ailing Getafix, who explains that the generally useless black ooze from the Middle East is vital to the potion: without a fresh supply they are all doomed…

When Asterix and Obelix – and faithful hound Dogmatix, of course – volunteer to obtain some of the crucial rock oil, Dubbelosix insists on accompanying them. But as they commandeer the Phoenician’s ship for the emergency mission, Getafix clandestinely warns Asterix to watch the too-good-to-be-true young Druid…

Expediting matters by selling off Ekonomikrisis’ wares at prices nobody – even Pirates – dare refuse, our heroes make their way to Mesopotamia, unaware that Dubbelosix, using his unique messaging service, has briefed Caesar and M to stop the ship at all costs.

After a succession of military vessels are sent to the bottom of the Mediterranean by the joyfully belligerent Gauls, the Ruler of the World is forced to change tactics and blockade all ports to prevent Asterix and Obelix from disembarking.

With time running out, Ekonomikrisis eventually sneaks the Gauls and Dubbelosix ashore in distant Judea. The trio travel overland to Jerusalem where they are befriended by the locals who have no love for the Romans. The oppressors are always just one step behind the voyagers, though. It is as if someone is telling them every time the questers alter their plans…

After a memorable night in a village called Bethlehem, the Hebrews’ attempt to smuggle the Gauls into Jerusalem is sabotaged by Dubbelosix. However, the Middle Eastern garrisons have never seen fighters like Asterix and Obelix and the doughty heroes escape, leaving the scurrilous double agent behind.

With time running out at home and no word of the fate of their friends, the Gauls are hidden by friendly merchants, and learn that the Romans have seized and burned all the rock oil in the city – and probably the entire region. Their only chance to secure some of the previously worthless black goo is to get it from the source – in Babylon, where it just seeps out of the ground…

Assisted by brave, helpful guide Saul ben Ephishul (a loving visual tribute to Uderzo’s deeply-missed partner René Goscinny, who was Jewish) Asterix and Obelix undertake another perilous journey into the deep desert, frolicking in the Dead Sea and encountering a procession of fanatical tribes all warring on each other for long-forgotten reasons in a savage lampoon of modern Middle East strife…

Eventually, the Gauls become completely lost; waterless and without hope under the scorching sun. However when little Dogmatix starts digging in the sand, the resultant oil gusher provides more than enough to buoy up their hopes and they battle on to rendezvous with Ekonomikrisis for a frantic return to Gaul.

Unfortunately, Dubbelosix has tracked them down again and has one last trick to play…

This return to the style and format of classic collaborations features hilarious comedy set-pieces, thrilling drama and a bitingly gentle assault on the madness of keeping ancient feuds alive, intransigence of religious tensions and the madness of recurring oil crises; lampooning ideologies and dogmas whilst showing how great it is when people can just get along.

Fast, furious and funny-with-a-moral, this is one of the artist/author’s very best efforts and even manages a double-shock ending…

 

Asterix and Son was released in 1983, the 27th saga and another unconventional step off the well-worn path as it touches on a rather touchy subject…

One particularly fine morning in the Village of Indomitable Gauls, Asterix and Obelix awake to discover someone has left a baby in a basket on their doorstep. Nonplussed and bewildered, they try to care for the infant – much to the horror of the local cows who would be delighted to provide sustenance if milked in a normal manner – but human tongues in the village are beginning to wag…

Things only get worse after the feisty tyke develops a taste for magic potion and somehow keeps finding new supplies of it…

Determined to clear his name and find the real parents, Asterix begins his investigations at the four Roman Garrisons, even as Crismus Cactus, Prefect of Gaul begins a suspiciously sudden emergency census of the local villages…

Hyper-charged on potion, the baby keeps getting out and following Asterix and Obelix, who discover that the Romans seem to be looking for one child in particular…

After a painful encounter with our heroes, Crismus Cactus retires to his villa where a VIP from Rome is waiting. Marcus Junius Brutus is Caesar’s adopted son and is most insistent that the mystery baby is found and turned over to him – even if he has to raze all Gaul to achieve his aim…

The infant in question is still causing trouble for the villagers and Brutus marshals an army near the isolated hamlet, successfully confirming the child’s location with a rather inept spy. The kid’s treatment of the intruder prompts Asterix to seek out a nanny, but as the village women are still suspicious and condemnatory, he hires a rather unsavoury stranger named Aspidistra for the task…

This provokes even more vicious tongue-wagging amongst the women, who assume the worst of both her and Asterix. Inexplicably, nobody notices the ferocious childminder’s astonishing resemblance to the Prefect of Gaul…

Unfortunately, once Crismus has successfully infiltrated the village he can’t get out again, and spends a punishing time amusing the infant horror until his nerve breaks. Drained of patience, Brutus then attacks with the full might of Rome, torching the village and bombarding it with catapults.

As the men tank up on potion and counterattack, the village women head for the beach. Sadly, Brutus is willing to sacrifice his entire army, and is waiting to grab the baby…

Once the Roman Legions are crushed, Asterix and Obelix return and discover what has occurred. Filled with rage, they set off in deadly pursuit and save the child just in time for his real mother and father to arrive. Two of the most powerful people in the world, they are extremely angry with somebody…

Laced with a dark and savage core, this rollicking rollercoaster ride combines tragedy with outrageous slapstick, transforming historical facts into a compelling comedy-drama that is both delightful and genuinely scary in places…

Stuffed with sly pokes and good-natured joshing, featuring famous caricatures to tease older readers whilst the raucous, bombastic, bellicose hi-jinks and riotous action astounds and bemuses the younger set, these tales celebrate the illustrative ability of Uderzo, confirming his potion-powered paragon of Gallic Pride to be a true national and cultural treasure.

If you still haven’t experienced this sublime slice of French polish and graphic élan, it’s never too late…
© 1980-1983 Goscinny/Uderzo. Revised English translation © 2002 Hachette. All rights reserved.

Sword of the Atom


By Jan Strnad & Gil Kane, with Pat Broderick & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-1553-8 (TPB)

Wonderfully reminiscent of his superlative Blackmark paperback venture (collected in Blackmark: the 30th Anniversary Edition), supreme artistic stylist Gil Kane was a man inspired in this retooling of Silver-Age B-List hero The Atom. In a radical re-think co-authored by Jan Strnad, here the urbane scientific adventurer is removed from his comfort zone of cosy costumed crime-busting to become the sword-wielding champion of a barbaric lost kingdom.

Starting off with a 4-issue miniseries from 1983 and followed by three giant-sized annual Specials, the swashbuckling saga revitalized a once great character who had fallen on very lean times and set him up for his eventual return to the big leagues (I apologise for the puns – lowest form of wit, I know, but extremely hard to resist!).

Following the break-up of his marriage to ambitious lawyer Jean Loring, size-changing physicist Ray Palmer departs on a research trip to Brazil to ponder on his unsatisfactory life. Unfortunately, he falls foul of drug-runners who down his plane… To the world at large he appears dead, but in reality, the disheartened adventurer has stumbled upon an alien civilisation, populated by golden humanoids no more than six inches tall.

Lost for uncounted decades in the verdant vastness of the Amazon on a planet of giants, these alien outcasts and fugitives have built a city around the ruins of their crashed ship: a vessel powered by White Dwarf matter. Regrettably, since another batch of the incredible star-stuff powers and constitutes the Atom’s size-shifting outfit, the mighty mite finds himself trapped at the same diminutive height and must rely on his physical prowess, raw courage and flashing blade to survive…

In the epic manner of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars, Palmer rescues and woos exotic Princess Laethwen and saves the hidden city of Morlaidh from a usurping dictator in a classic romp of action-packed derring-do. It’s a fabulous dose of ultimate escapism, perfectly executed by Kane and scripter Jan Strnad, with the subsequent sequels continuing the stunning transformation.

Without giving too much away, the first of these sees a disgruntled and displaced Palmer returned to our world, longing for the simplicity of Morlaidh and the love of Laethwen; the second finds Jean doing her own size-shifting (probably when she learned the skills she used in equally-iconoclastic miniseries Identity Crisis, fans!) as the Tiny Titan is forced to choose between his old life and his current one. The saga concludes with Kane replaced by Pat Broderick & Dennis Janke for an overly wordy tale of despots, plague and monstrous afflictions devastating the hidden jungle kingdom which only the Atom can combat.

Despite it’s rather tame finale Sword of the Atom is a superbly dynamic, vital burst of graphic excitement that clearly shows what can be done with seemingly tired and moribund characters when creators are bold enough and given sufficient editorial support. It’s also a hugely enjoyable read that will make your heart race and your pulse pound – just like comics are supposed to.
© 1983, 1984, 1985, 1988, 2007 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Benson’s Cuckoos


By Anouk Ricard, translated by Helge Dascher (Drawn & Quarterly)
ISBN: 978-1-77046-138-3 (PB)

Here’s another superb example of sophisticated yet simple Euro-cartooning designed to charm and challenge in equal amounts.

Couched in terms of British television, this beautifully bonkers anthropomorphic fable of modern life is akin to watching David Brent guest star in Little Britain whilst apparently coming down off a mixed selection of unsanctioned recreational pharmaceuticals. However, for those with better things to do than stay glued to the goggle box, here’s a more informative, longer-winded appreciation…

Anouk Ricard is an extremely gifted storyteller, author, artist and animator who hails from Istres in the South of France. Her creative output is vast, ranging from puzzles to films, book and magazine illustration to science tracts and much, much more.

Her comic albums – both for children and adult audiences – have garnered many awards and nominations, with the all-ages Anna aet Froga series (Capsule Comique, 2004) and Galaxy Darling (2009, with Hugo Piette in Le Journal de Spirou) being particularly popular amongst critics and the public.

She was born in 1970 and graduated from the Arts décoratifs de Strasbourg in 1995 before beginning her multi-directional career. Now based in Lyon, 2012 saw Ricard win a raft of awards and honours for Coucous Bouzon, a wryly surreal anthropomorphic satirical parody of modern day office practice and politics. In 2014, GQ France magazine named her one of the 25 most humorous women in France.

The disturbing and hilarious lampoon delivered here is a calculatedly naïve, faux juvenile soap operatic melodrama. It’s one of her few translated works thus far, but one of the best……

Benson’s Cuckoos produces and distributes those bird-themed clocks loved and loathed in equal amounts by holidaymakers everywhere, and our cautionary tale begins when highly strung Richard (he’s the blue duck on the cover) attends an interview for an office position which has suddenly and mysteriously become vacant.

The encounter is a nightmare. Mr. Benson is erratic, unfocused and quite emotionally detached – and quite possibly completely mad. Told to turn up on Monday, Richard leaves the interview unsure whether he has got the job or not…

His first day is even stranger. For starters, he has to provide his own computer and the first colleague he meets threatens him sexually…

Dragged into a staff meeting within minutes of setting up, Richard meets receptionist Sophie who tells him how George – the person he’s replacing – simply vanished one day. She seems nice, but won’t let him sit in George’s chair…

The day goes downhill from there and the job appears less and less appealing as the endless hours pass. Almost everybody is terse and self-absorbed when not outright hostile, and Benson roams around wearing strange hats; alternately threatening to fire everybody and over-sharing uncomfortable personal observations.

Tuesday, pressured for a progress report, Richard opens a fresh can of worms when he innocently asks to see George’s old files. Amidst an aura of sullen intractability, Sophie takes pity on him and passes on an old one, but it mysteriously vanishes from his desk before he can read it…

Feeling disturbed, the new guy stops in for a session with his analyst but the self-absorbed charlatan just fobs him off with a fresh prescription for antidepressants. Desperate for a little respite when he arrives home, Richard collapses on the couch and turns on the TV.

There’s a Crimewatch style show on. Lost and Found is highlighting the case of a wife whose husband never came home from work. His name was George McCall and he was the Accounts Manager at Benson’s Cuckoos…

A film crew turns up at work the next day and all too soon Richard and Sophie are exposed to the harsh and unjust scrutiny of trial-by-media…

From there the strange tale inescapably escalates into a bizarre and paranoiac crime-caper punctuated by a succession of further odd events and mysterious disappearances which inexorably reduce our reluctant hero to the status of an alienated, disoriented and powerless player in a grand conspiracy.

Moreover, for Richard and Sophie the course of true love runs anything but smooth before the hyper-surreal and increasingly absurdist drama is concluded…

Moody, calculatedly deranged and feeling like Kafka seen through rainbow-tinted spectacles, Benson’s Cuckoos is a sublime psychological fantasy, an enticingly funny comic treatise on the hidden perils of being a grown up and a grand old-fashioned mystery thriller that will delight any reader smart enough to realise that ducks don’t use computers but can always find some way to get into trouble…
© 2014 Anouk Ricard. Translation © 2014 Helge Dascher. All rights reserved.

Showcase Presents Challengers of the Unknown volume 1


By Jack Kirby, Bob Brown, Dave Wood, Ed Herron, Roz Kirby, Marvin Stein, Bruno Premiani, George Klein, Wally Wood & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-1087-8 (TPB)

In an era where comicbooks had slipped into an undirected and formless mass of genre-niches, the Challengers of the Unknown were a bridging concept between the fashionably all-American human trouble-shooters who monopolised comicbooks for most of the 1950s and the costumed mystery men who would soon return to take over the industry.

As superheroes were being gradually revived in 1956 under the cautious aegis of Julius Schwartz, here was a super-team – the first of the Silver Age – with no powers, the most basic and utilitarian of costumes and the most dubious of motives: Suicide by Mystery.

Despite all that they were a huge hit and struck a chord that lasted for more than a decade before they finally died… only to rise again and yet again. The idea of them was stirring enough, but their initial execution made their success all but inevitable.

Jack Kirby was – and remains – the most important single influence in the history of American comics. There are, quite rightly, millions of words written about what the man has done and meant, and you should read those if you are at all interested in our medium. I’m going to add even more words to that superabundance in this review of one of his best projects, which like so many others, he perfectly constructed before moving on as he always did, leaving highly competent but never quite as inspired talents to build upon his legacy.

When the comic industry suffered an economic collapse in the mid 1950’s, Kirby’s partnership with Joe Simon ended and he returned briefly to DC Comics. Here he worked on mystery tales and the minority-interest Green Arrow back-up strip whilst creating newspaper strip Sky Masters of the Space Force.

Never idle for a moment, he also re-packaged for Showcase (a try-out title that launched the careers of many DC mainstays) an original super-team concept that had been kicking around in his head since he and collaborator Simon had closed their innovative but unfortunate Mainline Comics.

After years of working for others, Simon and Kirby had finally established their own publishing company, producing comics for a much more sophisticated audience, only to find themselves in a sales downturn and awash in public hysteria generated by the anti-comic book witch-hunt of US Senator Estes Kefauver and psychologist Dr Fredric Wertham.

Simon moved into advertising, but Kirby soldiered on, taking his skills and ideas to a number of safer, if less experimental, companies.

The Challengers of the Unknown were four ordinary mortals; heroic adventurers and explorers who walked away unscathed from a terrible plane crash. Clearly what we now call “adrenaline junkies”, they decided that since they were all living on borrowed time, they would dedicate what remained of their lives to testing themselves and fate. They would risk their lives for Knowledge and, naturally, Justice.

The Kirby tales of the team have been thankfully immortalised in full-colour archival print and digital editions, but the team captivated readers for a decade beyond those glorious beginnings, and thus far those tales are only available in these monochrome tomes. Hope springs eternal, though…

The series launched with ‘The Secrets of the Sorcerer’s Box!’ (Showcase #6, cover-dated January/February 1957 – which meant it came out in time for Christmas 1956). Kirby and scripter Dave Wood, plus inkers Marvin Stein and Jack’s wife Roz, crafted a spectacular epic as the doom-chasers are hired by duplicitous magician Morelian to open an ancient container holding otherworldly secrets and powers.

This initial story roars along with all the tension and wonder of the B-movie thrillers it emulates and Kirby’s awesome drawing resonates with power and dynamism. That continues for the sequel, a science fiction drama sparked by an alliance of Nazi technologies and American criminality which unleashes a terrible robotic monster. ‘Ultivac is Loose!’ (Showcase #7, dated March/April 1957) introduces beautiful and capable boffin (aren’t they always?) Dr. June Robbins, who becomes the unofficial fifth Challenger at a time when most comic females (and living ones too) – had been banished back to subsidiary domestic status in that so-conservative era.

The team didn’t reappear until Showcase #11 (November/December 1957) as The Flash and Lois Lane got their shots at the big time. When the Challs did return, it was in alien invasion adventure ‘The Day the Earth Blew Up’, with unique realist Bruno Premiani inking a taut doomsday chiller pinning readers to the edges of their seats even today, and by the time of their last Showcase outing (#12, January /February 1958) they had won their own title.

‘The Menace of the Ancient Vials’ was defused by the usual blend of daredevil heroics and ingenuity (with the wonderful inking of George Klein adding subtle clarity to the tale of an international criminal who steals an ancient weapons cache that threatens the entire world if misused), but the biggest buzz came two months later with the debut of their own magazine.

Issue #1, written and drawn by Kirby, with Stein on inks, presented two complete stories plus an iconic introductory page that would become almost a signature second logo for the team.

‘The Man Who Tampered with Infinity’ pits the heroes against a renegade scientist whose cavalier dabbling liberates dreadful monsters from the beyond onto our defenceless planet, after which the team are abducted by aliens to become ‘The Human Pets’.

The same creators were responsible for a brace of thrillers in #2. ‘The Traitorous Challenger’ is a monster mystery, with June returning to sabotage a mission in the Australian Outback, whilst ‘The Monster Maker’ finds the team seemingly helpless against a super-criminal who can conjure up and animate solid objects out of his thoughts.

The third issue features ‘Secret of the Sorcerer’s Mirror’ with Roz Kirby & Marvin Stein again inking the mesmerising pencils, as the boys pursue a band of criminals whose magic looking glass can locate deadly ancient weapons, although the most intriguing tale for fans and historians is undoubtedly ‘The Menace of the Invincible Challenger’.

Here team strongman Rocky Davis is rocketed into space, only to crash back to Earth with strange, uncanny powers.

For years the obvious similarities of this group – and especially this adventure – to the origin of Marvel’s Fantastic Four (FF #1 came out in the autumn of 1961) have fuelled speculation. In all honesty, I simply don’t care. They’re both similar and different but equally enjoyable, so read both. In fact, read them all.

With #4 the series became artistically perfect as the sheer luminous brilliance of Wally Wood’s inking elevated the art to unparalleled heights. The scintillant sheen and limpid depth of Wood’s brushwork fostered an abiding authenticity in even the most outrageous of Kirby’s designs and the result is – even now – breathtaking.

‘The Wizard of Time’ is a full-length masterpiece wherein a series of bizarre robberies leads the team to a scientist with a time-machine. By visiting oracles of the past, he finds a path to the far future. When he gets there, he plans on robbing it blind, but the Challengers find a way to follow him…

‘The Riddle of the Star-Stone’ (#5) is a contemporary full-length thriller, wherein an archaeologist’s assistant uncovers an alien tablet bestowing various super-powers when different gems are inserted into it. The exotic locales and non-stop spectacular action are intoxicating, but the solid characterisation and ingenious writing are what make this such a compelling read.

Scripter Dave Wood returned for #6’s first story. ‘Captives of the Space Circus’ has the boys kidnapped from Earth to perform in a interplanetary show, but the evil ringmaster is promptly outfoxed and the team returns for Ed Herron’s mystic saga ‘The Sorceress of Forbidden Valley’, as June becomes an amnesiac puppet in a power struggle between a fugitive gangster and a ruthless feudal potentate.

There are also two stories in #7. Herron scripted both the relatively straightforward alien-safari tale ‘The Beasts from Planet 9’ and much more intriguing ‘Isle of No Return’ with the team confronting a scientific bandit before his shrinking ray leaves them permanently mouse-sized.

Issue #8 is a magnificent finale to a superb run, as Kirby & Wally Wood go out in style via two gripping spectaculars (both of which introduce menaces who would return to bedevil the team in future tales).

‘The Man Who Stole the Future’ by Dave Wood, Kirby and the (unrelated) Wally, introduces Drabny – a mastermind who steals mystic artefacts and conquers a small nation before the lads hand him his marching orders. This is a tale of blistering battles and uncharacteristic, if welcome, comedy, but the true gem is science fiction tour-de-force ‘Prisoners of the Robot Planet’, with art by Kirby & Wally, and most probably written by Kirby & Herron. Petitioned by a desperate alien, the Challs travel to his distant world to liberate the population from bondage to their own robotic servants, who have risen in revolt under the command of fearsome automaton Kra.

These are classic adventures, told in a classical manner. Kirby developed a brilliantly feasible concept with which to work and heroically archetypical characters in cool pilot Ace Morgan, indomitable strongman Rocky, intellectual aquanaut “Prof”. Haley and daredevil acrobat Red Ryan. He then manipulated, mixed and matched an astounding blend of genres to display their talents and courage in unforgettable exploits that informed every team comic that followed, and certainly influenced his successive and landmark triumphs with Stan Lee. But then he left.

The Challengers would follow the Kirby model until cancellation in 1970, but, due to a dispute with Editor Jack Schiff the writer/artist resigned at the height of his powers. The Kirby magic was impossible to match, but as with all The King’s creations, every element was in place for the successors to run with.

Challengers of the Unknown #9 (September 1959) saw an increase in the fantasy elements favoured by Schiff, and perhaps an easing of the subtle tension and inter-group fractious bickering that marked previous issues (Comics Historians take note: the Challs were snapping and snarling at each other years before Marvel’s Cosmic Quartet ever boarded that fateful rocket-ship).

A number of writers, many sadly lost to posterity, stepped in, including Bill Finger, Ed Herron and possibly Jack Miller, Bob Haney and Arnold Drake, but one man took over the illustrator’s role: Bob Brown.

Brown was born August 22nd 1915 and he died in 1977 following a long illness. He studied at Hartford Art School and Rhode Island School of Design, and worked with his showbiz folks and sister in a song-&-dance act from 1927 onwards. He was drafted in 1940 – the year he also began working as a comics artist and scripter for Fox, Timely/Atlas. As the war intensified, he was an aircraft radio operator, an aviation cadet and served in the Pacific as bombardier and navigator in B-29 bombers, earning six air medals and a Distinguished Flying Cross.

After jobbing around the industry during the late 1040s and 1950’s Brown settled at National Comics/DC, co-created the long-running Space Ranger, drawing Tomahawk, western hero Vigilante, Batman, Superboy, Doom Patrol, World’s Finest Comics and a host of other features and genre shorts. He moved to Marvel in the 1970s where he drew Warlock, Daredevil and the Avengers among others.

He was a consummate professional and drew every issue of the Challengers from #9-63: almost a decade of high adventure ranged from ravaging aliens, cute-and-fuzzy space beasts to truly scary supernatural horrors.

‘The Men who Lost their Memories’ finds the team fighting crooks with a thought-stealing machine, whereas ‘The Plot to Destroy Earth!’ is a full-on, end-of-humanity thriller with monsters bent on carving our world into chunks for their resource-hungry alien masters. Only the guts and ingenuity of our heroes can save the day…

A destructive giant with a deadly secret is the motivating premise of ‘The Cave-Man Beast’ and #10’s cover-featured second tale sets another time-travel conundrum as the boys discover their own likenesses on a submerged monolith in fanciful thriller ‘The Four Faces of Doom’.

Issue #11 is an action-packed full-length interdimensional romp subdivided into ‘The Creatures from the Forbidden World’, ‘Land beyond the Light’ and ‘The Achilles Heel’, after which the two-story format returns for the next issue, which boasts ‘The Challenger from Outer Space’ – with an alien superhero joining the team – and ‘Three Clues to Sorcery’ with our quarrelsome quartet again forced to endure exotic locales and extreme perils to acquire mystic artefacts for a criminal mastermind. Even so, this time there’s a unique and deadly twist in this oft-told tale…

‘The Prisoner of the Tiny Space Ball’ see the team rescuing the ruler of another world, before Rocky is possessed by the legendary Golden Fleece, making him a puppet of ‘The Creatures from the Past’.

Issue #14 opens with one of the few adventures with a credited scripter. Ed “France” Herron was a 30-year comics veteran and ‘The Man who Conquered the Challengers’ is one of his best tales, with crooked archaeologist Eric Pramble stealing an ancient formula for “liquid light” which makes him functionally immortal. Moreover, every time he’s killed, he reanimates with a different super-power!

As Multi-Man, Pramble became the closest thing to an arch-villain the series ever had, and even graduated to becoming a regular foe across the DCU. Once again, cool wits and sheer nerve find a way to victory that sheer firepower never could.

In second yarn ‘Captives of the Alien Beasts’, all five Challs are teleported to another world by animals who have invaded a scientist’s laboratory. It’s a relatively innocuous tale when compared to #15’s all-out fight-fest ‘The Return of Multi-Man’ and bizarre offering ‘The Lady Giant and the Beast’, wherein June is transformed into a 50-foot leviathan just as a scaly monster cuts a swathe of destruction through the locality.

Issue #16’s ‘Incredible Metal Creature’ sees an Earth thug join forces with an escaped alien criminal. No real Challenge there, but a back-up yarn finds the team in Arabia as ‘Prisoners of the Mirage World’ facing knights who have been trapped there since the time of the Crusades.

This thrill-stuffed then tome concludes with #17’s supernatural crime whimsy ‘The Genie who Feared June’, and interplanetary mission of mercy ‘The Secret of the Space Capsules’; both solid pieces of adventure fiction that, if not displaying the unique Kirby magic, are redolent with its flavours.

As well as being probably (certainly at this moment, anyway) my favourite comics series, Challengers of the Unknown is sheer escapist wonderment, and no fan of the medium should miss the graphic exploits of these perfect adventurers in the ideal setting of not so long ago in a simpler better world than ours. If only we could convince DC Comics to give them the archival home in print and digital editions they so richly deserve, to match the constant re-imaginings the team and title regularly enjoy…
© 1957, 1958, 1959, 1960, 1961, 2006 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Black Panther Epic Collection volume 2 1977-1988: Revenge of the Black Panther


By Jack Kirby, Ed Hannigan, Peter B. Gillis, Jim Shooter, Chris Claremont, John Byrne, Jerry Bingham, Denys Cowan & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-1-3029-1542-1 (TPB)

Acclaimed as the first black superhero in American comics and one of the first to carry his own series, the Black Panther’s popularity and fortunes have waxed and waned since he first appeared in Fantastic Four. In fact, back then the cat king actually attacked Marvel’s First Family as part of an extended plan to gain vengeance on the murderer of his father. He was also the first black superhero in American comics, debuting in summer 1966.

As created and realised by Jack Kirby & Stan Lee, T’Challa, son of T’Chaka, is an African monarch whose secretive kingdom is the only source of vibration-absorbing wonder mineral Vibranium. The miraculous alien metal – derived from a fallen meteor which struck the continent in lost antiquity – is the basis of the country’s immense wealth, enabling Wakanda to become one of the wealthiest and most secretive nations on Earth. These riches allowed the young king to radically remake his country, creating a technological wonderland even after he left Africa to fight as one of America’s mighty Avengers.

For much of its history Wakanda has been an isolated, utopian technological wonderland with the tribal resources and people safeguarded and ruled since time immemorial by a human warrior-king deriving cat-like physical advantages from secret ceremonies and a mysterious heart-shaped herb. This has ensured the generational dominance of the nation’s Panther Cult and Royal Family.

Wakanda has never been conquered by outsiders. The primary reason is an unbroken line of divinely-sponsored warrior kings who safeguard the united, unified tribes. Another is that miraculous super-mineral found nowhere else on Earth. The top-secret “Vibranium mound” had guaranteed the country’s status as a clandestine superpower for centuries but in modern times has increasingly made Wakanda a target for subversion, incursion and even invasion as the world grew ever smaller…

In contemporary times the chieftain is T’Challa: an unbeatable, super-smart, feline-empowered strategic genius who divides his time between ruling at home and serving abroad in superhero teams such as The Avengers, Fantastic Force, The Illuminati and The Ultimates, beside the world’s mightiest costumed champions.

This trusty trade paperback (and eBook) gathers the entire blockbusting, mind-bending reinvention by Jack Kirby and others from Black Panther volume 1 # 1-15 (January 1977-May 1979), the continuation in Marvel Premiere #51-53 (cover-dated December 1979 to April 1980), material from Marvel Team-up #100 (December 1980) and a groundbreaking, 4-issue miniseries spanning July to October 1988.

Jack Kirby’s return to Marvel in the mid 1970’s was much hyped at the time but swiftly proved to be controversial. His new creations (2001, The Eternals, Devil Dinosaur, Machine Man) found friends rapidly, but his tenure on established earlier creations Captain America and Black Panther divided the fan base.

Kirby was never slavishly wedded to tight continuity and preferred, in many ways, to treat his stints on titles as a “Day One”. His commitment was to wholesome, eye-popping adventure, breakneck action and breathless, mind-boggling wonderment. Combined with his absolute mastery of the comic page and unceasing quest for the Next Big Thrill, it all makes for a captivating read, but will never satisfy those readers fully committed to the minutiae of the Marvel Universe.

Beginning here with Black Panther #1, what they got was a rollercoaster ride of classic Kirby concept-overload as the Hereditary King of a miraculous Lost Kingdom gallantly pursues fabulous time machines, fights future men and secret samurai clans, thwarts the plots of super-rich artefact stealers and foils schemes to nuke his hidden homeland, usurp his rule and even consume his faithful subjects…

This feline funfest is about frantic action and begins at full pelt with a re-introductory romp spotlighting diminutive treasure hunter Abner Little. This devious gentleman entices T’Challa into a search for ‘King Solomon’s Frog!’ after introducing himself as a friend and colleague of the Panther’s grandfather Azzari the Wise

Soon, the mismatched pair are in hot pursuit of a historical wonder machine that sows death and destruction in its wake. The ancient brass amphibian has the ability to open time-portals, bringing lethal threats from other eras, but its real capacity for catastrophe comes from Little’s rival Collectors, who bring astounding ordnance and unsurpassed riches into play in their own efforts to possess the mystic time-machine.

Most ruthless and relentless is Queen Zanda of Narobia, who expertly ambushes the questers with a highly-skilled mercenary taskforce before accidentally triggering the frog into shanghaiing a hyper-evolved walking WMD from his own far-flung future era. She also assures T’Challa’s continued assistance by targeting Wakanda with atomic missiles…

Reluctantly uniting to sedate ‘The Six-Million Year Man’, T’Challa, Little and Zanda then race to uncover King Solomon’s tomb where a twin of the Brass Frog rests. This particular item possesses the most welcome function of returning objects and creatures to their point of origin…

Their ‘Race Against Time’ is exacerbated when the groggy tomorrow-man revives just as the searchers locate the tomb. He angrily unleashes psionic hell and awakens King Solomon’s formidable funereal guardian Ogar. Thankfully, reluctant teamwork saves them and the newly-found second frog restores order, if not sanity…

Tragically for the tomb-raiders, the time to determine if they are ‘Friends or Foes’ swiftly passes, since the calamitous clashes have destabilised the long-lost treasury trove. With mighty explosions wracking the site, it is all T’Challa can do to drag his artefact-lusting companions to safety before Armageddon occurs…

Unfortunately for the Panther, he has proved his worth and – with Wakanda still a nuclear target – ultimate ineffectuality. When the assembled Collectors – Zanda, Count Zorba, Colonel Pigman and withered coffin-dodger Silas Mourner – see the warrior king in battle, they determine he must win for them the ultimate prize…

The ‘Quest for the Sacred Water-Skin!!’ begins as T’Challa and equally reluctant Abner Little set off to find a fabled hidden land where a sect of Samurai warriors have dwelt for centuries; sustained by honour, their martial arts and a literal fountain of youth.

Overcoming monsters and warriors, T’Challa establishes a bond of honour with the last proponents of Bushido, but sadly his venal companion upsets the applecart by secretly stealing A Cup of Youth’

Meanwhile in Wakanda, internal trouble flares when the Panther’s half-brother General Jakarra makes a power-grab, bolstered by a sacrilegious utilisation of unrefined vibranium…

Black Panther #7 sees the hero and his scurrilous sidekick escape the Samurai city even as ‘Drums!’ sound across Wakanda and the incredible secret origin of Panther Cult and Vibranium Mound are simultaneously revealed.

When the awesome sky metal first crashed to Earth in primordial times, it transformed many men into monsters. Thankfully mighty chief Bashenga – taking the black cat as his totem – created a force to destroy the creatures and police the metal: preventing alien infection from spreading and forever after shielding his people through a line of dedicated defenders.

As his latest successor heads for a final confrontation with the Collectors, King T’Challa has no way of knowing his devoted regent N’Gassi has been captured or that Jakarra has gained deadly power through exposure to the gene-warping force of raw Vibranium…

Having battled his way free, T’Challa heads for home. His people, however, are already suffering the increasingly crazed depredations of a Jakarra no longer even remotely human.

Further delayed by a mercy mission – plucking dying men from the sea – the king bemoans his absence whilst half a world away, N’Gassi takes a desperate gamble and “requests” that the sedentary royal cousins – Ishanta, Joshua Itobo, Khanata and Zuni – step up to lead the fight against Jakarra. But are they ‘Panthers or Pussycats?’

Surprising everybody with a show of solidarity and unconventional tactics, the ‘Black Musketeers’ manage to contain the monstrous usurper until T’Challa returns, but his arrival coincides with the loss of Jakarra’s last vestige of humanity. Now a shambling beast resolvs that ‘This World Shall Die!’ in an Earth-shattering detonation. The horrific abomination is barely defeated inside the Mound by a true Black Panther who does not escape the mineral’s mutagenic properties…

Issue #11 finds T’Challa recovering from his struggle against Jakarra and plagued by eerie recurring dreams of future battles. As citizens begin vanishing all over Wakanda – including Prince Khanata – the medical team reaches the conclusion that the king has developed some form of Extra-Sensory Perception.

This new gift – or perhaps curse? – promptly leads the Panther to the abductors’ HQ where phantasmal madman ‘Kiber the Cruel’ is converting abducted humans to energy and consuming them…

Following ‘The Kiber Clue’, T’Challa strives mightily to save his kinsman and subjects, but arrives too late for anything but vengeance…

As Jim Shooter, Ed Hannigan, Jerry Bingham & Gene Day take over from the abruptly departed Kirby, the saga swiftly wraps up with the true nature of Kiber grotesquely exposed and the Panther’s judgement delivered in #13’s ‘What is… and What Should Never Be’

With Hannigan scripting, the Black Panther rapidly re-entered the mainstream Marvel universe in ‘The Beasts in the Jungle!’ (#14 March 1979): opening Wakanda’s first Embassy in New York City, applying to the United Nations and rejoining his former allies in the Avengers.

All too soon smothered in red tape and diplomatic hurdles, T’Challa welcomes working with his superhero guests but is quickly embroiled in a deadly scheme by old enemy Klaw, the Master of Sound, and blithely unaware that other relationships are about to be renewed…

After the resurgent villain battles the World’s Mightiest Heroes to a standstill, T’Challa manages to inflict the ‘Revenge of The Black Panther!’ in the final issue (May 1979), yet leaves everything on a cliffhanging note as former lover and consort Monica Lynne breaks into the Wakandan Embassy…

When Kirby took over the character, Black Panther had just ended a highly-acclaimed run in Jungle Action. Following the epic ‘Panther’s Rage’ saga, scripter Don McGregor began an even more groundbreaking saga in ‘The Panther Versus the Klan’.

That convoluted yarn had been abruptly cancelled before conclusion the previous year, but the contents of Marvel Premiere#51-53 provided an ending to the Klan clash as well as an acceptable in-universe explanation as to why wise and noble T’Challa abruptly dropped his hunt for answers and abandoned his adored beloved Monica

Opening minutes after Black Panther #15 finished, ‘The Killing of Windeagle!’ sees T’Challa arriving back at his new American Embassy, only to be attacked by an unknown flying warrior who claims to be an old foe.

After subduing the assailant, the King experiences even more turmoil as Lynne and Georgia journalist Kevin Trublood accost him. Although his staff all seem familiar with the woman, T’Challa has no memory of either of them…

Granting an audience with the couple, the Panther hears how Monica’s sister Angela was murdered, and how the death seemed to involve both the Ku Klux Klan and rival offshoot the Dragon’s Circle. As he listens, T’Challa hears that for a time he was the prime investigator of the murder, but his mind is clouded and he recalls none of it. Suddenly Windeagle attacks again, but as the Panther fights back his opponent is assassinated by a sniper…

Working with the police, T’Challa uncovers the sordid history of a petty gangster who somehow became a flying fury and establishes links to yet another organisation: The Spiritual Light Society. At every turn, events seem to be pushing him towards one inescapable conclusion: Monica’s ridiculous, unbelievable story is true and someone has tampered with his mind and memory…

When they are ambushed again by armed thugs – later identified as Klansmen – their spirited resistance is supplemented by more sniper fire and the Panther’s ‘Journey Through the Past!’ impels him to invade a Klan gathering. This conclave is subsequently violently disrupted by a costumed maniac called Soul Strangler

Despite not remembering, the Panther believes he’s deduced the nature of the contemporary civil war between KKK and Dragon’s circle, and more importantly, who killed Angela. With resignation and trepidation, T’Challa, Kevin and Monica head for a showdown in the Deep South…

Inked by Alan Gordon, Marvel Premiere #53 delivered ‘The Ending, In Anger!’ as T’Challa visits Monica’s family home and the dam in his memory finally shatters. Acting with clarity at last, the Black Panther tracks down the villains who captured and brainwashed him during his previous visit, exposes a tawdry truth behind all the death and intimidation and brings a kind of closure to all the innocents touched by the tragedy…

With the major story-arcs at last concluded it was back to relative obscurity and bit-parts for the Panther, with the exception of a short tale that would have huge repercussions on the hero’s life in the future.

‘Cry… Vengeance!’, by Chris Claremont, John Byrne & Bob McLeod, first appeared in Marvel Team-Up #100 and saw African X-Man Storm targeted by assassins. Easily defeating her attackers, she learns they were hired by Boer hardman Andreas de Ruyter

This sends her mind winging back to her childhood journey across Africa as teenager: an arduous trek made easier after she linked up with a young boy on his own rite of passage ritual. His name was T’Challa and she learned that he was a prince only after South African mercenaries led by de Ruyter tried to kidnap the boy for political advantage.

After driving the thugs off, the youngsters spent a brief but idyllic time together before their paths diverged and duty pulled them apart.

Decades later, the villain is back and seeking vengeance, so Ororo reunites with the boy the world now calls Black Panther to end the maniac’s threat forever…

As the 1980s closed, the Panther made a dynamic comeback in 1988, courtesy of writer Peter B. Gillis and illustrators Denys Cowan & Sam DeLarosa…

The Black Panthers rule over a fantastic African paradise which isolated itself from the rest of the world millennia ago. Blessed with unimaginable resources – both natural and not so much – the nation of Wakanda developed uninterrupted into the most technologically advanced human nation on Earth, utterly unmolested by rapacious European imperialism. That did not mean that geographical neighbours were allies, however…

In ‘Cry, the Accursed Country!’ technologically-advanced white nationalist country Azania has subjugated and tormented its own black majority population for centuries whilst plotting the downfall of Wakanda. As global condemnation of the apartheid regime mounts, T’Challa learns that the Panther God has withdrawn his blessing and instead consecrated and empowered an imprisoned priest in Azania as a new Black Panther. When this savage avatar begins inflicting bloody retribution on the ruling class, the Azanians blame Wakanda…

Deprived of his feline gifts and herding war-hungry dissidents in his own nation, T’Challa faces a crisis of confidence – and faith – in ‘For Duty, For Honor, For Country!’ which is no help when Azania targets Wakanda with its own team of super-agents: The Supremacists

Soon T’Challa’s people face international condemnation and nuclear Armageddon after ‘The Moorbecx Communique!’ adds layers of espionage to the escalating crisis, compelling the outcast king to risk his principles and challenge his god to regain his birthright in ‘A Cat Can Look at a King…’

Most tragically, the Panther must defeat his dark mirror image and knows that win or lose, nothing will ever be the same again…

This collection is also augmented by Kirby-era Editorial pages, house ads, a potted history of the Black Panther from #14, the Rich Buckler & McLeod cover to the never-released BP #16 and unused Bingham pencil pages. Also on show, are info pages and maps of Wakanda from The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe, featuring T’Challa, Klaw, Klaw’s Blaster, Vibranium, and Kiber the Cruel.

There are also text features from Marvel Age #20 and #63; covering the much-delayed Gillis/Cowan revival, plus a pinup by Bill Reinhold, and Kirby/Ernie Chan and Al Milgrom/Klaus Janson original art pages as well as unused Bingham pencils to feast your eyes upon…

An explosive rocket ride of thrills, spills, chills and too-long delayed gratification, these long-lost classics confirm the Black Panther as one of the most complex and versatile characters in comics and simply scream “Read me! Read me!” So you should and you must…
© 1977, 1978, 1979, 1980, 1988, 2019 Marvel. All rights reserved.

Pogo – The Complete Syndicated Comic Strips volume 3: Evidence to the Contrary


By Walt Kelly, edited by Carolyn Kelly & Eric Reynolds (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-694-2 (HB)

Books of this stature and calibre are worth buying and reading at every moment of every day, and rather than waste your valuable time with my purely extraneous blather, you could just hit the shops or online emporia and grab this terrific tome right now.

If you still need more though, and aren’t put off by me yet, I’m honoured to elucidate at some length…

Walter Crawford Kelly Jr. was born in 1913 and began his cartooning career whilst still in High School as artist and reporter for the Bridgeport Post. In 1935 he moved to California and joined the Disney Studio, working on animated short films and such features as Dumbo, Fantasia and Pinocchio.

His steady ascent was curtailed by the infamous animator’s strike in 1941. Refusing to take sides, Kelly quit, moving back East and into comicbooks – primarily for Dell who held the Disney rights license – amongst many other popular properties – at that time.

Despite his glorious work on major mass-market, people-based classics such as the Our Gang movie spin-off, Kelly preferred and particularly excelled with anthropomorphic animal and children’s fantasy material.

For the December 1942-released Animal Comics #1 he created Albert the Alligator and Pogo Possum, wisely retaining the copyrights to the ongoing saga of two affable Bayou critters and their young African-American pal Bumbazine. Although the black kid soon disappeared, the animal actors stayed on as stars until 1948 when Kelly moved into journalism, becoming art editor and cartoonist for hard hitting, left-leaning liberal newspaper The New York Star.

On October 4thth 1948, Pogo, Albert and an ever-expanding cast of gloriously addictive, ridiculously exuberant characters began their strip careers, appearing in the paper six days a week until the periodical folded in January 1949.

Although ostensibly a gently humorous kids feature, by the end of its New York Star run (reprinted in Pogo: The Complete Syndicated Comic Strips volume 1) the first glimmerings of an astoundingly barbed, boldly satirical masterpiece of velvet-pawed social commentary had begun to emerge…

When the paper folded Pogo was picked up for mass distribution by the Post-Hall Syndicate, debuting on May 16th 1949 in selected outlets across the nation. A colour Sunday page launched January 29th 1950 and both were produced simultaneously by Kelly until his death in 1973 and thereafter by his talented wife and family until the feature was at last laid to rest on July 20th 1975.

At its height the strip appeared in 500 papers in 14 countries and the book collections – which began in 1951 – eventually numbered nearly 50, collectively selling over 30 million copies… and all that before this Fantagraphics series even began…

In this third volume (available as a hardback and in eBook editions) of a proposed full dozen reprinting the entire Kelly canon of the Okefenokee Swamp critter citizenry, undoubtedly the main aspect of interest is the full-on comedic assault against possibly the greatest danger and vilest political demagogue America ever endured (at least in the 20th century…) but the counterattack against witch-hunter Senator Joe McCarthy is merely one of the many delights in this stunning mix of free expression and wild and woolly whimsy…

This colossal and comfortingly sturdy landscape compilation (boasting three-hundred-and-fifty-six 184 x 267mm pages) includes the monochrome ‘Daily Strips’ from January 1st 1953 to December 31st 1954, and the Sundays – in their own full-colour section – from January 4th to December 26th of the same years.

Supplemental features this time comprise a Foreword from award-winning cartoonist Mike Peters (Mother Goose & Grimm); a wealth of deliriously winning unpublished illustrations and working drawings by Kelly and utterly invaluable context and historical notes in R.C. Harvey’s ‘Swamp Talk’ . This last also compellingly, almost forensically, details the rise and fall of rabblerousing “red-baiter” Joe McCarthy and how Kelly courageously opened America’s fight back against the unscrupulous, bullying chancer (and the movement for which he was merely a publicity-hungry figurehead) with an unbeatable combination broadside of ridicule and cool disdain…

The closing biographical feature ‘About Walt Kelly’ by Mark Evanier is supplemented by a comprehensive ‘Index of the Strips’ and a gloriously inspired selection of ‘Noteworthy Quotes’ to fill out the academic needs of the readers, but of course the greatest boon here is the strips and characters themselves.

Kelly was a masterful inventor of engaging and endearing personalities, all of whom carried as many flaws as virtues. The regular roll call (some commentators reckon to be as many as 1000!) included gentle, perpetually put-upon and bemused possum Pogo, boisterous, happily ignorant alligator Albert, dolorous, sensitive Porkypine, obnoxious turtle Churchy La Femme, lugubrious hound Beauregard Bugleboy, carpet-bagging Seminole Sam Fox, pompously ignorant know-it-all Howland Owl, sveltely seductive skunk Miz Mam’selle Hepzibah, long suffering matron Miz Beaver, maternal Miz Groun’chuck and her incomprehensible, bitey baby Grundoon plus all the other bugs, beasts and young’uns of the swamp, but the author’s greatest strength lay in his uniquely Vaudevillian rogues, scoundrels and outright villains.

The likes of Tammanany Tiger, officious Deacon Mushrat, sinister, sycophantic beatnik communist Catbirds Compeer and Confrere, sepulchral Sarcophagus MacAbre, sloganeering P.T. Bridgeport and a trio of brilliantly scene-stealing bats named Bewitched, Bothered and Bemildred were perfect confections to illustrate all manner of pestilential pettifogging, mean manners and venal self-serving atrocities as they intermingled and interfered with the decent folk volubly enduring the vicissitudes of such day-to-day travails as love, marriage, comicbooks, weather, rival strips, fishing, the problem with kids, the innocent joys of sport, cadging food, making a living and why neighbours shouldn’t eat each other…

In this volume the topics of exotically extravagant conversation include the longevity and worth of New Year’s Resolutions, the scandalous behaviour of Porkeypine’s kissing-thief Uncle Baldwin, a get-rich scheme involving dirt and opening shots at the burgeoning phenomenon of commercial television. However, the gradual conversion of the Deacon’s Boy Bird Watchers society into a self-policing vigilante committee looking out for strangers and making sure all the citizens are right-thinking and proper-looking would quickly insinuate itself into every corner of the feature…

The anti-foreigner sentiments peak following the arrival of Deacon Mushrat’s old pal The Hon. Mole MacCarony; a blind, self-aggrandizing politico determined to root out all (undisclosed) threats, enforce conformity and stamp out the diseases obviously carried by strangers.

The xenophobic dirt-digger was based on Nevada Senator Patrick McCarran who briefly shaped paranoid public opinion on a platform of severely restricting immigration and implementing the speedy deportation of all communists and non-Americans. Clearly and sadly, his poisonous legacy and methodology remains a valuable asset to many politicos and opinion-shapers today…

Things got much darker – and therefore more effectively ludicrous – with the arrival of Mole’s malicious and ambitious associate Simple J. Malarkey – whose bullying tactics soon began to terrify his fellow bigots as much as the increasingly outraged, off-balance citizens…

Eventually the villains fall out and trigger their own downfall, with the mortified Deacon sheepishly denying his part in the fiasco. Peace and (in)sanity return and with sunny days ahead weather-prognosticating frog Picayune debuts, only to suffer a great loss when Albert accidentally ingests the amphibian’s pal Halpha – an amoeba who actually did all the meteorological messing about…

Voracious Albert generally swallowed a lot of things, but his biggest gaffe probably occurs after meeting Roogey Batoon, a pelican impresario who – briefly – managed Flim, Flam and Flo: a singing fish act billed as the Lou’siana Perches

Many intriguing individuals shambled into view at this time: Ol’ Mouse and his tutorial pal Snavely (who taught worms how to be cobras and rattlers), cricket-crazed British bugs Reggie and Alf and family icons Bug Daddy and Chile, but the biggest mover and shaker to be introduced was undoubtedly a sporty Rhode Island Red chicken named Miss Sis Boombah.

The formidable biddy is a physically imposing and prodigiously capable sports enthusiast (and Albert’s old football coach), who wanders in as survey taker for “Dr. Whimsy’s report on the Sectional Habits of U.S. Mail Men” (a brilliant spoof of the societally sensational Kinsey Report on sexual behaviour in America) but her arrival also generates a succession of romantic interludes and debacles which eventually lead to a bewildered Mushrat proposing marriage before leaving her in the lurch and disappearing into the deepest parts of the swamp…

Mole reared his unseeing head again, causing merely minor mischief, but when the marriage-averse Deacon encounters the terrifying Malarkey lurking in hiding with sinister acolyte Indian Charlie (who bears a remarkable resemblance to then-current US Vice-President Richard Milhouse Nixon) the scene is set for another savage and often genuinely scary confrontation…

That’s also exactly what Miss Boombah has in mind as she sets out – accompanied by Bewitched, Bothered and Bemildred – to hunt down the scoundrel who left her in the lurch at the church…

Other story strands and insane interludes include such epic mini sagas as the search for an abducted puppy – lampooning TV cop series Dragnet – and a long session on the keeping and proper sharing of secrets, much ado about gossip and the art of being a busybody.

Most memorable of all though, are Churchy’s sudden predilection for dressing up as a pretty little blonde girl, perpetually visiting Martians and poor Pogo’s oddly domestic recipe for A-Bombs…

In his time, satirical supremo Kelly unleashed his bestial spokes-cast upon many other innocent, innocuous celebrity sweethearts such as J. Edgar Hoover, the John Birch Society and the Ku Klux Clan, as well as lesser leading lights likes Hubert Humphrey, Lyndon B. Johnson and – with eerie perspicacity – George W. Romney (U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Governor of Michigan and father of some guy named Mitt), but nothing ever compared to his delicious and devilish deconstruction of “Tailgunner Joe” in the two extended sequences reprinted here…

Kelly’s unmatched genius lay in his seemingly effortless ability to lyrically, if not vivaciously, portray through anthropomorphic affectation and apparently frivolous nonsense language comedic, tragic, pompous, infinitely sympathetic characters of any shape or breed, all whilst making them undeniably human.

He used that gift to readily blend hard-hitting observation of our crimes, foibles and peccadilloes with rampaging whimsy, poesy and sheer exuberant joie de vivre. However, he usually toned down the satirical scalpels for the magnificently imaginative ‘Sunday Funnies’: concentrating instead on fantastic and unfailingly hilarious serial fables and comedy romps.

Some of the best he ever conceived conclude this volume, beginning with the epic saga of little faun Melonbone whose search for the Fountain of Youth inadvertently causes Sam Duck to revert to an egg. The distraught drake’s wife is not best pleased at having to hatch her own husband out at her age (after all, she’s no spring chicken)…

Churchy and Albert endure the ire of sharp toothed tot Grundoon as the kid’s inability to converse leads the alligator to accidentally swallow his turtle pal, after which the animal crackpots all get very lost for a long time in their own swampy backyard…

Howlan Owl’s latest get-rich-quick scheme – digging to China – results in his and Albert’s reluctant consultation of an Atlas and the shocking conclusion that the Russians have taken over Georgia…

The panicked reaction of the chumps precipitates their accidentally awakening an oversleeping bear who opts to celebrate Christmas in the middle of August. Eventually, everybody catches up to him just in time for the true Yule event…

After the usual New Year’s shenanigans, 1954 truly takes hold as everyone’s favourite alligator tries to recount the amazing exploit of ‘King Albert and the 1001 Arabian Knights of the Round Table’ – despite each listener’s evident and express disinterest – before Howlan and Churchy became compulsively embroiled in a furious feud over pugilism.

Soon thereafter Albert is mistaken for a monster after getting his head stuck in a cauldron. Sadly, once he’s finally extricated from the calamitous cookpot, other unhappy folk become the infernal alembic’s unwilling method of locomotion…

No sooner does that culinary catastrophe conclude than the whole sorry fiasco promptly kicks off again with a lovesick octopus now playing transient chapeau to a succession of unfortunate and duly startled swamp critters …

The hairy, scaly, feathered, slimy folk of the surreal swamp lands are, of course, inescapably us, elevated by burlesque, slapstick, absurdism and all the glorious joys of wordplay from puns to malapropisms to raucous accent humour into a multi-layered hodgepodge of all-ages delight – and we’ve never looked or behaved better…

This stuff will certainly make you laugh; it will probably provoke a sentimental tear or ten and will certainly satisfy your every entertainment requirement. Timeless and ineffably magical, Pogo is a giant not simply of comics, but of world literature and this magnificent third tome should be the pride of every home’s bookshelf, right beside the others.

…Or, in the popular campaign parlance of the all politically astute critters – “I Go Pogo!” and so should you.

Pogo Vol. 3: Evidence to the Contrary and all POGO images, including Walt Kelly’s signature © 2014 Okefenokee Glee & Perloo Inc. All other material © 2014 the respective creator and owner. All rights reserved.

Amazing Spider-Man Epic Collection volume 4 1967-1968: The Goblin Lives


By Stan Lee, Gary Friedrich, Arnold Drake, John Romita, Don Heck, Jim Mooney, Ross Andru, Larry Lieber, Marie Severin & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-1-3029-1780-7 (TPB)

Amazing Spider-Man was always a comicbook that matured with – or perhaps just slightly ahead – of its fan-base. In this superbly scintillating compilation of chronological webspinning wonderment, the World’s Most Misunderstood Hero survives another rocky period of transformation as the second great era of Amazing Arachnid artists moved inevitably to a close. Although the elder John Romita would remain closely connected to the Wall-Crawler’s adventures for a little time yet, these tales would be amongst his last sustained run as lead illustrator on the series.

After a shaky start, The Amazing Spider-Man quickly became a popular sensation with kids of all ages. Before too long the quirky, charming, thrillingly action-packed comics soap-opera would become the model for an entire generation of younger heroes impatiently elbowing aside the staid, (relatively) old thirty-something mystery-men of previous publications and hallowed tradition.

You know the story: Peter Parker was a smart-but-alienated kid bitten by a radioactive spider during a school science trip. Discovering he’d developed astonishing arachnid 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 self-important 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, discovering, to his horror, that it was the self-same felon he had neglected to stop. His irresponsibility had 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 Wondrous Wallcrawler tirelessly battled miscreants, monsters and madmen, with a fickle, ungrateful public usually baying for his blood even as he perpetually saves them…

The rise and rise of the Amazing Arachnid increased pace as the Swinging Sixties drew to a close. By the time of the tales collected in this fulsome, full-colour Epic Collection (available in ponderous paperback or ephemeral eBook formats and re-presenting Amazing Spider-Man #53-67, spurious spoofs from parody mag Not Brand Echh #6 and 11, plus an obscure thriller from Marvel Super-Heroes#14, and cumulatively spanning October 1967 to December 1968 and the usual basket of editorial extras), Peter and his ever-expanding cast of comrades were on the way to being household names as well as the darlings of college campuses and the media intelligentsia.

Stan Lee’s scripts were completely in tune with the times – as understood by most kids’ parents at least – and the increasing use of soap opera plots kept older readers glued to the series even if the bombastic battle sequences didn’t.

Thematically, there’s still a large percentage of old-fashioned crime and gangsterism and an increasing use of mystery plots. Dependence on costumed super-foes as antagonists was finely balanced with the usual suspect-pool of thugs, hoods and mob-bosses, but these were not the individual gangs of the Ditko days.

Now Organised Crime and Mafia analogue The Maggia were the big criminal-cultural touchstone as comics caught up with modern movies and headlines.

A multi-part saga began in #53 with ‘Enter: Dr. Octopus’, wherein the many-tentacled madman tries to steal a devastating new piece of technology. After being soundly routed, Otto Octavius goes into hiding as a lodger at Aunt May’s house in ‘The Tentacles and the Trap!’, before regrouping and finally triumphing in ‘Doc Ock Wins!’

The madman even convinces a mind-wiped webslinger to join him before the astonishing conclusion in ‘Disaster!’ as, despite being bereft of memory, the wallcrawler turns on his sinister subjugator and saves the day…

Shell-shocked and amnesiac, Spider-Man is lost in New York in #57 (with lay-outs by Romita and pencils from the reassuringly reliable Don Heck) until he clashes with Marvel’s own Tarzan analogue in ‘The Coming of Ka-Zar!’, whilst in the follow-up ‘To Kill a Spider-Man!’, vengeance-crazed roboticist Professor Smythe again convinces J. Jonah Jameson to finance another murderous mechanical Spider-Slayer and hunt down his personal bête noir…

With Heck still in the artist’s chair, Amazing Spider-Man #59 sees the hero finally regain his memory and turn his attention to a wave of street-crime in ‘The Brand of the Brainwasher!’ Here a new mob-mastermind starts taking control of the city by mind-controlling city leaders and prominent cops – including Police Captain George Stacy, the father of Peter Parker’s girlfriend Gwen…

The tension builds as the schemer is revealed to be one of Spidey’s old foes in ‘O, Bitter Victory!’ This revelation creates even bigger problems for Peter and Gwen before concluding chapter ‘What a Tangled Web We Weave…!’ sees our hero save the day but still stagger away more victim than victor …

Amazing Spider-Man #62 declaimed ‘Make Way for …Medusa!’ as Lee, Romita, Heck & Mike Esposito supplied a fresh change-of-pace yarn with the webspinner stumbling into combat with the formidable Inhuman due to the machinations of a Madison Avenue ad man.

Spider-Man’s popularity led to Marvel attempting to expand his reach to older readers via the magazine market.

July 1968 saw the launch of Spectacular Spider-Man #1 by Lee, John Romita & Jim Mooney: a lengthy political thriller with charismatic reformer Richard Raleigh ferociously campaigning to become Mayor. The run results in his being targeted and hunted by a brutish monster seemingly determined to keep the old political machine in place at all costs…

Rendered in moody wash tones, the drama soon discloses a sinister plotter behind the campaign of terror… but his identity was the last one Spidey expected to expose…

Also included was a retelling of the hallowed origin tale ‘In the Beginning…’ by Lee, with Larry Lieber pencils and inks-&-tones added by the great Bill Everett.

Back in the four-colour world, Amazing Spider-Man #63 saw the original elderly Vulture return to crush his youthful usurper Blackie Drago in ‘Wings in the Night!’ before taking on Spidey for dessert.

The awesome aerial assaults concluded with carnage on the city’s highest buildings in ‘The Vultures Prey’ leading to another art-change (with the sumptuous heavy line-work of Jim Mooney briefly replacing the workmanlike Heck & Esposito) in #65 as a wounded Spider-Man is arrested and has to engineer ‘The Impossible Escape!’ from a Manhattan prison, incidentally foiling a mass jailbreak along the way.

A psychotic special-effects mastermind returns seeking loot and vengeance in #66’s ‘The Madness of Mysterio!’ (Romita, Heck & DeMeo) as the master of FX illusions engineers his most outlandish stunt, whilst in the background amnesiac Norman Osborn slowly regains his memory.

Although the wallcrawler is subjected to a bizarre form of mind-bending it nevertheless results in an all-out action-packed brawl (rendered by Romita & Mooney) entitled ‘To Squash a Spider!’. Perhaps more interestingly, this yarn introduces Randy Robertson, college student son of the Daily Bugle’s city editor and one of the first young black regular roles in Silver Age comics.

Lee and his staff were increasingly making a stand on Civil Rights issues at this time of unrest and Marvel would blaze a trail for African American and other minority characters in their titles. There would also be a growth of student and college issues during a period when American campuses were coming under intense media scrutiny…

The magazine experiment then concludes with The Spectacular Spider-Man #2 (November 1968). To offset disappointing sales, Marvel had abruptly switched to a smaller size and added colour, but it was to be the last attempt to secure older-reader shelf-space until the early 1970s. At least the story was – and remains – top-rate…

Following monochrome recap ‘The Spider-Man Saga’ Lee, Romita & Mooney deal with months of foreshadowing by finally revealing how Norman Osborn shakes off his selective amnesia and returns to full-on super-villainy in ‘The Goblin Lives!’

Steeped in his former madness and remembering Peter Parker is Spider-Man, Osborn plays cat and mouse with his foe, threatening all the hero’s loved ones until a climactic battle utilising hallucinogenic weapons again erases the Goblin personality… for the moment…

Closing the drama division of this colossal comics compendium is a one-off yarn from Marvel Super-Heroes #14 (May 1968).

‘The Reprehensible Riddle of the… The Sorcerer!’ reads to me like an inventory tale rushed out to fill a deadline gap or printed just before its “use-by” date expired. Nonetheless, as crafted by Lee, Ross Andru & Bill Everett, it offers an enticingly different spin on the wallcrawler with an enigmatic psychic targeting Spider-Man using psionic strikes and voodoo tricks to draw the hero to New Orleans and a death duel with a synthetic, science-tinged homunculus…

Always fond of a giggle himself, the hero was a regular star of comedy vehicle Not Brand Echh. All romance issue #6 (February 1968) featured Gary Friedrich & Marie Severin’s ‘With This Ring, I Thee Web!’ as the young man pursues his destined true love only to suffer a tragic loss, whilst December’s #11 provided a trenchant fable decrying success and merchandising in Arnold Drake, Severin & John Tartaglione’s ‘Fame is a Cross-Eyed Blind Date with B-a-a-a-d Breath!’

Also on show are a wealth of art treats including original art and production photostats; unused pencil pages by Romita and Lieber; sketches and painted magazine covers by Harry Rosenbaum and Romita; house ads; character sketches and notes, and reproductions of earlier collection covers by Romita & Dean White.

Spider-Man became a permanent unmissable part of many teenagers’ lives at this time and did so by living a life as close to theirs as social mores and the Comics Code would allow. Blending cultural authenticity with glorious narrative art, and making a dramatic virtue of the awkwardness, confusion and sense of powerlessness most of the readership experienced daily, resulted in an irresistibly intoxicating read, delivered in addictive soap-opera slices, but none of that would be relevant if the stories weren’t so compellingly entertaining.

This book is Marvel and Spider-Man at their peak. Why not see why…?
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