The Western Chamber

The Western Chamber 

By Wang Shifu of the Yuan dynasty

Adapted by Hong Zengling, illustrated by Wang Shuhui & translated by Zheng Kangbo

(Hai Feng Publishing Company Hong Kong)

This beautiful fable uses the ancient plot of the hard path to true love to examine the nature of aspiration in a hidebound culture as well as the greater quest for personal freedom. The Western Chamber is adapted from a classic work of the Yuan dynasty, attributed to the dramatist Wang Shifu, and was produced in pre-Reunification Hong Kong.

The story tells of a bright, ambitious scholar named Zhang Gong, who called himself Junrui, and his fateful decision to go to the Capital and gain a government position. En route he visits a monastery where he accidentally glimpses Cui Yingying, sequestered daughter of the recently deceased Prime Minister.

The seemingly insurmountable obstacles of rank, wealth, pride, rivals, politics, potential mothers-in-law and even a marauding rebel army and its libidinous General all prove ineffective. We know that eventually love will conquer all and that the ending will be a happy one, but fans of beautiful drawings will delight in the fact that the adventure is delivered with the seductive mastery of line and black ink that epitomises all that is great in Eastern picture storytelling.

As with most oriental graphic novels The Western Chamber has been in print continuously since its release, and should be readily available from most shops in your local Chinatown.

© Hai Feng Publishing Company 1982. All Rights Reserved.



By Matt Wagner (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84023-892-5

Matt Wagner’s epic featuring what purports to be the initial adventure of arguably the three most recognizable comic characters in the world, is a classic and stylish romp relating the attempt by immortal eco-terrorist Ra’s Al Ghul, and the tragic, monstrous Bizarro to use stolen Atomic missiles to bring about a new world order.

There is always the dilemma when producing this kind of tale to trade on current continuity or to deconstruct and attain a more iconic, epic feel. Part-time and casual readers need not worry. Wagner has hewn to the ever-fresh basics to create a gratifyingly “Big” story that still manages to speak more of the individual characters involved than a years worth of most periodical publishing.

Trinity is a grand adventure, accessible, exciting and rewarding, with Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman as they should always be but so seldom are. Graphic Novels should all be this good.

© 2005 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Superman: Birthright

Superman: Birthright 

By Waid, Yu & Alanguilan (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84576-013-1

This wonderfully user-friendly re-tooling of the most rewritten origin in the history of comics pays loads of lip service to the most common modern conception of the first super-hero – that of the Smallville TV show – whilst still managing to hew closely to many of the fan-favourite idiosyncrasies that keep old duffers like me coming back for more.

Beginning with Clark Kent’s protracted “gap-year” when he wandered the planet, secretly doing good, through his early moments with Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen, Perry White, et. al., and ending with the saving of Metropolis, the calamitous – albeit temporary – downfall of Lex Luthor and the public acceptance of this “strange visitor from another world”, Mark Waid and Lenil Yu have produced a feisty reworking that shouldn’t offend the faithful whilst providing an efficient jump-on guide for any late-comers and potential converts. And it’s much more fun to read than this review, too.

© 2003, 2004 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Star Wars: General Grievous

Star Wars: General Grievous 

By Chuck Dixon, Rick Leonardi & Mark Pennington (Titan Books)
ISBN 1-84576-109-X

This slim volume is an intriguing attempt to tell a tale from the viewpoint of an inveterate, rather than misunderstood, villain. Grievous is a cyborg predator and his favoured meat is Jedi Knights. At the time of telling (two years after the Battle of Geonosis, for those of you who follow such things) he is cutting a deadly swath through the ranks of the Galaxy’s defenders. A small group of Padawans (apprentice Jedis) have decided to ignore their teachers’ warnings about succumbing to the Dark Side of the Force and attempt to assassinate the General.

Led by Flynn Kybo, who had just narrowly survived an encounter with the sinister villain, they embark on their mission of necessary evil only to become embroiled in an unwitting rescue of child Padawans (you can call them ‘Younglings’ if you want) that Grievous had kidnapped, with the intention of turning them into bio-mechanical hybrids like him/itself.

Fast-paced and action-packed, this tale falls a little short in its attempt to add flesh to what remains a rather two-dimensional arch-villain, and the themes of honour in war-time and expediency versus right are somewhat lost in the mix, but Leonardi’s art is, as ever, an absolute joy to look at and the story simply rattles along at a fine pace. Here be pure entertainment, accessible and fun, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

© 2005 Lucasfilm Ltd. & ™. All Rights Reserved.

Star Wars Clone Wars Vol 6: On the Fields of Battle

Star Wars Clone Wars Vol 6: On the Fields of Battle 

By John Ostrander, Jan Duursema & various (Dark Horse Books)
ISBN 1-84576-106-5

This instalment of Star Wars wonderment comes as the ongoing battle against Count Dooku’s forces compel the Jedi into fighting on many fronts. Mace Windu leads a daring raid against a horde of killers in “Show of Force” by the ever reliable John Ostrander, with art by Jan Duursema and Dan Parsons. Aayla Secura and clone trooper Bly challenge her former master Quinlan Vos in a race to recover plans for a world-destroying weapon (also by Ostrander, Duursema and Parsons), whilst Anakin Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi aid the beauteous Tohno in a tale of tragedy and sacrifice by Randy Stradley and Brandon Badeaux entitled “Forever Young”.

A long-running sub-plot seemingly closes as Anakin and Obi-Wan join Jedi renegade Vos to prevent a fleet of warships from falling into enemy hands. Vos then returns to the Jedi, revealed as a deep-cover agent in Ostrander, Duursema and Parsons’ “Dreadnaughts of Rendili”. But all is not as it seems…

These tales, reprinted from Star Wars: Republic #65-71 are set between Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, and are cracking space-opera adventures in the grand tradition. As is often the case, even when the films may disappoint, the comic spin-offs can offer a smidgen of hope for the fan and the casual browser alike.

© 2005 Lucasfilm Ltd & ™. All Rights Reserved.

The Spider

King of Crooks

King of Crooks (The Spider) 

By Jerry Siegel, Ted Cowan & Reg Bunn (Titan Books)
ISBN 1-84576-000-X

and a winner of a Comics Creators Guild Award for Outstanding Achievement.

I find myself in a genuine quandary here. When you set up to review something you need to always keep a weather eye on your critical criteria. The biggest danger when looking at comic collections is to make sure that the guy typing isn’t looking through the nostalgia-tinted spectacles of the excitable, uncritical scruffy little kid who adored and devoured the source material every week after – and often during – those long, dreary school days.

However, after thoroughly scrutinising myself, I can hand-on-heart, honestly say that not only are the adventures of the macabre and malevolent Spider as engrossing and enjoyable as I remember but also will provide the newest and most contemporary reader with a huge hit of superb artwork, compelling caper-style cops ‘n’ robbers fantasy and thrill-a-minute adventure. After all, the strip usually ran two pages per episode so a lot had to happen in pretty short order.

What’s it all about? The Spider is a mysterious super-scientist whose goal is to be the greatest criminal in the world. As conceived by Ted Cowan (who also created the much-revered Robot Archie strip – and kudos to Titan and Comic Historian Steve Holland for finally laying to rest the 40 year confusion that often gave that credit for the Spider’s creation to Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel in the lavish historical section of this grand hardback album) he begins his public career by gathering a small team of crime specialists before attempting a massive gem-theft from a thinly veiled New York’s World Fair. It also introduces Gilmore and Trask, the two crack detectives cursed with the task of capturing the arachnid arch-villain.

The second adventure, “The Return of the Spider”, also scripted by Cowan, sets the tone for the rest of the strip’s run as the unbelievably colossal vanity of the Spider is assaulted by a pretender to his title. The Mirror Man is a super-criminal who uses optical illusions to carry out his crimes, and the Spider has to crush him to keep the number one most wanted spot – and to satisfy his own vanity. The pitifully outmatched Gilmore and Trask return to chase the Spider but settle for his defeated rival.

“Dr. Mysterioso” is the first adventure by Jerry Siegel, who was forced to look elsewhere for work after an infamous falling out with DC Comics over the rights to Superman. The aforementioned criminal scientist was another contender for the Spider’s crown and their extended battle is a retro/camp masterpiece of arcane dialogue, insane devices and rollercoaster antics that showed again and again that although crime does not pay, it certainly provides a huge amount of white-knuckle fun.

The book concludes with a short reprint from the 1969 Lion Annual, entitled “The Red Baron”. Whilst not up to the standards of the regular strip the accent on straight action provides a welcome change to the Machiavellian skulduggery and cliff-hanger narrative.

A major factor in the strip’s success and reason for the reverence with which it is held is the captivating, not to say downright creepy, artwork of William Reginald Bunn. His strongly hatched line-work is perfect for the towering establishing shots and chases, and nobody ever drew moodier webbing. Bunn was an absolute master of black and white art whose work in comics was much beloved. Once the industry found him he was never without work. He died on the job in 1971 and is still much missed.

The Spider is back and should find a home in every kid’s heart and mind, no matter how young they might be, or threaten to remain.

© 2005 IPC Media Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

Ministry of Space

Ministry of Space 

By Warren Ellis, Chris Weston & Laura Martin (Titan Books)
ISBN 1-84023-924-7

This thematic and – artistically at least – stylistic revisitation of the glory days of British comic icon Dan Dare explores what might have happened if the ravaged and near bankrupt post-war Empire had captured those Nazi rocket scientists rather than the Soviets and Americans. By examining the rise of the UK Space Force and its ruthless creator Sir John Dashwood through the lens of post-Thatcherite cynicism, Ellis and Weston create a telling fable of patriotism and lost chances.

This is a sharp tale crisply told, and should be entertaining to long time comic readers and newcomers alike. In fact, no one but the most intransigent Dare fanatic or spandex junkie could find fault. I especially like the paper friendly, futuristic cover (is that Tyvek plastic? I’d love to know!).

© 2005 Warren Ellis & Chris Weston. All rights reserved.

The Essential Monster of Frankenstein

The Essential Monster of Frankenstein 

By various (Marvel Comics)
ISBN 0785116346

There’s a tremendous amount of value in these phone-book sized cheap ‘n’ cheerful monochrome Essential editions. This particular collection reprints Marvel’s interpretation of the Mary Shelly classic from the early 1970’s when the censorious Comics Code Authority first loosened some of its strictures banning horror material from the pages of comics.

Much American comic art should only be seen in colour – that is after all how it was intended to be, but in this instance that moody – and economical – black and white only serves to enhance the groundbreaking artwork of Mike Ploog. A young find who had worked with Will Eisner, Ploog illustrated Gary Friedrich’s pithy adaptation of the original text before moving on to new ventures as the strip graduated to all-new material.

Ploog was followed by John Buscema and Bob Brown before Val Mayerik settled as regular artist and Friedrich gave way to Doug Moench, a writer once synonymous with Marvel’s horror line.

My only quibble in a book that re-presents the entire 18-issue run of the comic, plus the crossover from Giant-Sized Werewolf #2 and all the strips from the horror magazines Legion of Monsters #1 and Monsters Unleashed #2 and #4-10, is that a little more attention to publishing in chronological order might have made for a smoother read.

Taken all in all, however this is great treat for fantasy fans and should be a perennial favourite for introducing civilians to the world of comics.

© 1973, 1974, 1975 and 2004 Marvel Characters Inc.

Modesty Blaise: Mister Sun

Modesty Blaise: Mister Sun 

By Peter O’Donnell and Jim Holdaway (Titan Books)
ISBN 1-84023-721-X

The second Titan volume collecting the adventures of Britain’s Greatest Action Hero (Female Division) expands the supporting cast whilst dropping Blaise and her devoted urbane psychopath partner Willie Garvin into the heroin trade pipeline and the then escalating Viet Nam conflict to deal with the eponymous oriental master criminal. The action is rational as well as gripping and there is more character development in this forty year old strip, served up in 3 panels per day continuity than most modern comic books can manage in entire issues. Only 100 Bullets on its best day even comes close. Modesty Blaise keeps her cool and her mystique in every manner of hairsbreadth situation and surely the charismatic Garvin is the prototype for all those “tortured, civilised beast” funnybook anti-heroes such as Wolverine and the Punisher – though he’s never yet been bettered.

The strip’s horizons broaden exotically in the second story, “The Mind of Mrs Drake” as the duo complete, with their usual lethal dispatch, the mission of a murdered friend. Said chum fell foul of a spy ring employing a psychic to steal state secrets, but the villains never expected the likes of the reformed super-crooks to cross their paths. Following that, they return to more mundane menaces with a blood-curdling battle of wits and weaponry against mobster vice-lord “Uncle Happy” and his sadistic trophy bimbo/wife.

As always, O’Donnell’s writing is dry, crisp and devilishly funny, accepting that readers want a thrill-ride but never assuming anything less than intellect and not a hormone balance drives his audience.

Jim Holdaway’s art went from strength to strength at this time, scenes plastered with just enough detail when required, but never drowning the need to set mood and tone with dashing swathes of dark and light. On a newspaper page these panels would jump out and cosh your eyeballs, so the experience is doubly delightful on nice crisp white pages.

Absolutely Recommended.

© 2004 Associated Newspapers/Solo Syndication

Star Wars Rebellion Vol 1, My Brother, My Enemy

Star Wars Rebellion Vol 1, My Brother, My Enemy 

By Rob Williams, Brandon Badeaux & Michael Lacombe (Dark Horse Books)
ISBN 1-84576-460-9

The Good Imperial returns as Janek Sunber (see Star Wars: Empire volume 3 ‘The Imperial Perspective’ ISBN 1-84023-93-6, and volume 7 ‘The Wrong Side of the War’, ISBN 1-84576-457-9, amongst others) stars in this book set just after the destruction of the Death Star and explores his early years growing up with Luke Skywalker whilst telling a contiguous tale of spy and counterspy in that action-packed galaxy long ago and far away….

Echoes of the American Civil War abound as two noble young men find themselves on opposite sides in this dark espionage thriller. At Rebellion HQ a rescued Rebel strategist slowly recovers. Is his return a lucky break or has his mind been turned by the Empire’s brainwashing techniques? Meanwhile, “Tank” Sunber has approached Luke personally, claiming to be disenchanted by the methods used by the Empire and its minions. Can the young Jedi trust his oldest friend or is even childhood friendship a hostage to Imperial ambition? Is this all a plot by the awesome Darth Vader to crush the Alliance once and for all?

As well as providing intriguing insights into the formative years of these characters this story dishes out huge amounts of pulp-pounding fun, tightly scripted and lavishly illustrated. In a franchise with buckets of product available this collection is certainly a cut above.

© 2007 Lucasfilm Ltd. & ™. All Rights Reserved.