Jew Gangster

Jew Gangster 

By Joe Kubert (ibooks Graphic Novels)
ISBN 1-5968-7827-4

Joe Kubert is a comics legend who just seems to get better and better. This offering harks back to his early childhood to tell the simple tale of young Ruby Kaplan, a smart kid living a poor life in depression-era Brooklyn. Seduced away from his loving family by the easy life he sees the neighbourhood gangsters living, he becomes a rising star of the underworld, only to have it turn to ashes in his mouth.

The story is not new, and the iconic setting is one beloved of many comics legends including Will Eisner and Jack Kirby, whose creative sparks also first flickered in those ominous ghettoes in the 1920s and 1930s, but Kubert’s take is a pared-down, parable-like examination of roads not taken rather than Eisner’s scrutiny of the human condition or Kirby’s irrepressible faith in the human spirit to overcome odds. In such circumstances, anybody could have become Ruby Kaplan, and the creator probably had many friends who did.

As ever, the artist’s laconic mastery of black line, cinematic composition and especially individual expression are an effortless pageant of subtle efficiency. You don’t read Kubert, you breathe it in, all but unaware of the effect his art has on you till you blink again and realise that you’ve reached the end. Power, tension, action, empathy and terror all wash over you unbidden, as the ruthlessly pared down pages practically turn themselves. This is what comic storytelling should be, and this is a book you should know.

© 2005 Joe Kubert. All Rights Reserved.

James Bond: Colonel Sun

James Bond: Colonel Sun 

By Kingsley Amis (as Robert Markham), Jim Lawrence & Yaroslav Horak (Titan Books)
ISBN: 1-84576-175-8

James Bond proves he can never die as the first of the prose “continuation novels” is magnificently adapted by the regular strip-team of Lawrence and Horak. Unbelievably, by today’s publishing practises, when Ian Fleming died in 1964, there was only the unfinished Man With the Golden Gun to be eventually released. Bond books languished on hiatus until 1968. The story of how Kingsley Amis came to write Colonel Sun is a fascinating tale, and is fully recounted in this latest graphic collection from Titan Books.

What we all want though, is chills, spills, chicks and thrills and the opening reprint from the Daily Express in 1969 is American strip veteran Lawrence’s second all-original 007 script. And what a cracker it is! In River of Death Bond has to infiltrate the Amazon River stronghold of a maniacal oriental scientist. This madman is supplying trained animals to international criminals for the purposes of robbery, espionage and murder. Horak’s intense illustration is approaching a career peak and easily copes with action, mood, cutting edge science, beautiful women and exotic locales as diverse as the Alps, Rain Forests, London’s underworld and Rio de Janeiro at Carnival time. This is James Bond at his suave and savage best.

Colonel Sun might almost have been an anti-climax after such an auspicious run by two creators on such a visionary roll, but the sheer pace, complexity and action of Amis/Markham’s only Bond novel simply encourages them to up their game.

When “M” is kidnapped and 007 is too obviously lured into a rescue attempt in the Greek Islands it leads to an unlikely alliance with Soviet agents against a mysterious third force. These devils are not beyond using Nazi War criminals to achieve their nefarious ends, and this classic Cold War Spy-romp delivers a punch with every strip.

It must have hell on the nerves to follow this adventure in short daily doses, and doubly so at the week-ends. If ever comic strips become part of the National Curriculum we can only pray that this is the calibre of material on any reading list.

Strip © Express Newspapers Ltd. 1987. All Rights Reserved.

Hellblazer: The Devil You Know

Hellblazer: The Devil You Know 

By Jamie Delano & various (Vertigo)
ISBN 1-84576-490-0

This book begins by concluding an epic tale begun in Hellblazer: Original Sins (ISBN 1-84576-465-X) as the Resurrection Crusade attempt to re-enact the birth of Christ and the Damnation Army try to stop them, using Constantine as their weapon. Both sides learn that such a trickster is never to be trusted. ‘Sex and Death’ is by Jamie Delano with art from Richard Piers Rayner and Mark Buckingham.

The same team is responsible for ‘Newcastle’, ‘The Devil You Know’ and ‘On the Beach’. The first two (from issues #11 and 12 of the monthly comic) form an origin of sorts for the character as we flashback to 1978 and the punk rock singer John Constantine takes a motley assortment of mystic wannabees into a possessed nightclub for what they think will be a simple exorcism with catastrophic results. The second part features the wizards return and revenge on the hellbeast that shaped his life.

The next issue, ‘On the Beach’, sees him chilling after all the horror, but still sucked into an ecological nightmare. What follows is an epic tale of two Constantines as his ghastly heritage is revealed. Taken from the first Hellblazer Annual in 1989, ‘The Bloody Saints’ plays the modern Mage’s squalid existence against the history of Kon-Sten-Tyn, Merlin’s apprentice and putative successor to King Arthur.

A glamorous rogue and unprincipled cheat, he stole Merlin’s magic, made pacts with devils, pretended to convert to Christianity, assumed sainthood and generally did whatever he wanted. This dark, outlandish comedy terror is beautifully illustrated by Bryan Talbot. Also from that issue is an illustrated version of ‘Venus of the Hard-Sell’ originally recorded by Constantine’s punk band Mucous Membrane. Whatever you think it is, you’re wrong. Just get the book and revel in it and the wonderful creativity of Dean Motter.

The two part miniseries ‘The Horrorist’ fills the remainder of the book. Written by Delano and stunningly painted by David Lloyd, this bleak, cold fable has an emotionally paralysed Constantine hunting for the destructive force wreaking havoc throughout America by unleashing guilt fear and terror that can alter reality. All the trauma and blood of an uncaring world is the tool of a third world survivor and only more suffering seems to satisfy her.

Constantine is probably the most successful horror comic character ever, with mood and tension easily overwhelming mere blood and splatter time after time. Ambivalent and ever-changing the series never fails to deliver shock after shock. Every Fraidy-Cat and chicken should have them.

© 1988, 1989, 1995, 1996, 2007 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Hellblazer: Original Sins

Hellblazer: Original Sins 

By Jamie Delano, John Ridgeway & various (Vertigo)
ISBN 1-84576-465-X

You’ve either heard of John Constantine by now or you haven’t, so I’ll be as brief as I can. Originally created by Alan Moore during his groundbreaking run on Swamp Thing, he is a mercurial modern wizard, a chancer who plays with magic on his own terms for his own ends. He is not a hero. He is not a nice person. Sometimes though, he’s all there is between us and the void.

Given his own series by popular demand, he premiered at the height of Thatcherite Barbarism in England and the dying days of Reaganite Atrocity in the US. In 1987 Creative Arts and Liberal Arts were dirty words in many quarters and the readership of Vertigo was pretty easy to profile. Jamie Delano began the series with a relatively safe horror comic plot about an escaped hunger demon, introducing us to Constantine’s unpleasant nature and odd acquaintances such as Papa Midnite (see also Papa Midnite ISBN 1-84576-265-7) in a tale of possession and voodoo, but even then discriminating fans were aware of a welcome anti-establishment political line and metaphorical underpinnings. ‘Hunger’ and ‘A Feast of Friends’ also established another vital fact. Anyone who got too close to John Constantine tended to end very badly, very soon.

‘Going For It’ successfully equated the Conservative Britain with Hell, as demons traded souls on their own stock market and Yuppies got ahead in the rat race by selling short. Set on Election Day 1987, this potent pastiche never loses sight of its goal to entertain, whilst making its telling points.

Constantine’s cousin Gemma and slivers of his childhood in Liverpool are revealed in ‘Waiting for the Man’, a tale of abduction and ghosts that introduces fundamentalist Christians, the Resurrection Crusade, and the mysterious woman known only as Zed.

America is once again the focus of terror in ‘When Johnny Comes Marching Home’ as the Viet Nam war breaks out again in rural Iowa, then its back to Blighty for ‘Extreme Predjudice’. Skinheads, racism demons and more abound as Delano joins up lots of previously unconnected dots to reveal a giant storyline in the making. The Damnation Army are up to something, nobody knows who they are, everything’s going bad and somehow Zed and the Resurrection Crusade are involved.

Brett Ewins and Jim McCarthy replace regular artist John Ridgway for the first three pages of ‘Ghost in the Machine’, and then the beautifully restrained and poignantly humanistic style returns as Constantine further unravels the plot by catching up with the cutting edge of mysticism – Cyber-shamanism. In Delano’s world the edges between science and magic aren’t blurred – they simply don’t exist.

‘Intensive Care’ follows the drama at full gallop when the plans of Crusade and Army are revealed, as is the value and purpose of Zed, forcing Constantine into the first of many bad bargains with Hell. The volume concludes messily, with a diversion, due to the nature of periodical publishing.

The storyline in Hellblazer #1-8 ran contiguously, and converged, with Swamp Thing, in which the wizard lends his physical body to the plant elemental to impregnate its human girl friend. So for the ninth issue, there’s a kind of dissolute holding pattern in play to allow all the pieces to be suitably arranged. It makes for a decidedly odd ending, and I’d advise that you have the next volume (Hellblazer: The Devil You Know – ISBN 1-84576-490-0) to hand before you start.

These are superb examples of modern horror fiction, inextricably linking politics, religion human nature and sheer bloody-mindedness as the root cause of all ills. They make a truly repulsive character seem an admirable force for our survival and are beautifully crafted tales as well. The art is clear, subversive and, when not glossed up by Alfredo Alcala whose lush inking graces the last two stories, manages to jangle at the subconscious with its scratchy edginess. A real treat for fear fans.

© 1987, 1988, 1992 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Charley’s War: 1 August – 17 October 1916

Charley’s War: 1 August - 17 October 1916 

By Pat Mills & Joe Colquhoun (Titan Books)
ISBN 1-84023-929-8

The lavish second volume of Pat Mills and Joe Colquhoun’s groundbreaking anti-war strip sees likable everyman Charley Bourne slowly begin his descent from fresh-faced innocence to weary, battle scarred veteran as the war reaches beyond the cataclysmic events of the Somme and into the conflict’s most bloody events.

Closely following the actual events of the war is not the strip’s only innovation in the history of war comics. The highly detailed research concentrates as much on the characters as the fighting, and reveals to the readers (which at the time of original publication in the weekly comic Battle 1976 – 1986 were presumed to boys between ages 9-13) that “our side” could be as unjust and monstrous as the “bad guys”.

Picking up from the first book’s cliff-hanger conclusion, Charley is despatched as a runner to stop the Allied shelling that is inadvertently falling on British troops, and encounters still more Officer arrogance and stupidity before the battle ends. He and his surviving comrades suffer battlefield punishments and Military Justice before the introduction of Tank Warfare changes the world forever.

A fascinating sidebar is the strip’s concentration on the German reaction to this innovation. The Central Powers considered the tank to be an atrocity weapon in just the same way that modern soldiers do chemical and biological weapons. Nothing ever changes, and this would seem, more than anything else, to be the theme of Charley’s War. The book closes on another cliff-hanger as a much-heralded German counter-attack by the dreaded Judgement Troopers begins with a sinister infiltration…

Charley’s War is undoubtedly one of the greatest war-stories, let alone comic tales, of all time. I pray it finds an appreciative audience and takes its place among the accepted classics like Birdsong or All Quiet on the Western Front. But most of all I wish that volume III and beyond were out tomorrow…

© 2005 Egmont Magazines Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

Batman Chronicles vol 3

Batman Chronicles vol 3 

By Bob Kane & various (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84576-431-5

This edition of the economy collections of Batman’s early adventures takes us from December 1940 to April 1941. By reprinting the Caped Crusader’s exploits in chronological order this way we get to see the strip develop, but also learn that as he became more popular and his appearances more widespread, our yearly progress slows greatly.

Detective Comics #46 features the return (and last appearance until 1977) of our hero’s most formidable scientific adversary. ‘Professor Strange’s Fear Dust’ is followed by issue #47’s drama on a more human scale, ‘Money Can’t Buy Happiness’. This action-packed homily of parental expectation and the folly of greed leads into Batman #4 (Winter 1941) and features ‘The Joker’s Crime Circus’, the piratical plunderings of ‘Blackbeard’s Crew and the Yacht Society’; ‘Public Enemy No.1’ tells a gangster fable in the manner of Jimmy Cagney’s movies such as Angels With Dirty Faces, and ‘Victory For the Dynamic Duo’ involves the pair in the turbulent world of sports gambling.

Detective Comics #48 finds them defending America’s bullion reserves in ‘The Secret Cavern’, and they face an old foe when ‘Clayface Walks Again’ (Detective Comics #49, March 1941), as the deranged horror actor resumes his passion for murder and re-attempts to kill Bruce Wayne’s old girlfriend Julie.

Detective Comics #50 pits Batman and Robin against acrobatic burglars in ‘The Case of the Three Devils’, leading neatly into Batman #5 (Spring 1941). Once again the Joker is the lead villain in ‘The Riddle of the Missing Card’, and then the heroes prove their versatility by solving a crime in Fairy Land via ‘The Book of Enchantment’. ‘The Case of the Honest Crook’ follows, and it is one of the key stories of Batman’s early canon. When a mugger steals only $6 from a victim, leaving much more, his trail leads to a vicious gang who almost beat Robin to death. The vengeance-crazed Dark Knight goes on a rampage of terrible violence that still resonates in the character to this day.

The last story from Batman #5 ‘Crime does Not Pay’ once again deals with kids going bad and potential redemption, and the volume closes with the eerie murder mystery ‘The Witch and the Manuscript of Doom’, which came from World’s Best Comics #1 (Spring 1941 – and destined to become World’s Finest Comics with it’s next issue.)

These are the stories that forged the character and success of Batman. The works of writer Bill Finger, artist/creator Bob Kane and his multi-talented assistants Jerry Robinson and George Roussos are spectacular and timeless examples of perfect superhero fiction. Put them in a thrifty, nifty package like this, include the pop art masterpieces that were the covers of those classics, and you have pretty much the perfect comic book. And you really, really should have it.

© 1940-1941, 2007 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Inhumans: Culture Shock

Inhumans: Culture Shock 

By Sean McKeever, Matthew Clark & Nelson (Marvel Comics)
ISBN 1-84023-921-lllll

One of Silver-Age Marvel’s most venerable concepts got a partial Dawson’s Creek-style reboot for the teen-angster generation with this incarnation of Jack Kirby’s Inhumans.

Debuting in the 1960’s Fantastic Four comic and conceived as another lost civilisation storyline, the feature starred a race of fantastically varied beings that had been genetically altered by aliens in Earth’s pre-history, consequently becoming technologically advanced from the morass of stone-age mankind. Subsequently they isolated themselves from the world and barbarous humanity, first on an island and latterly in a hidden valley in the Himalayas. After knocking around the Marvel Universe for awhile, they relocated their entire civilisation to the Moon and gradually became known to the ordinary citizens of the world.

This is where we come in now. Rather than concentrate on the superheroic Black Bolt and the Ruling Family that had been the focus of previous series, the outing under discussion takes a disparate group of younger Inhumans, and, thanks to orders from their Government, dumps them at a mid-western American university as an interplanetary, interspecies cultural exchange, where they fit in like a Lear-Jet at Crufts.

Taking the teenager’s universal Betés Noir of isolation, insecurity and self-image, and applying them with a healthy dose of refugee chic to the inescapable twin crucibles of growing up and fitting in makes for a winning formula for the modern youngster/consumer. “Nobody understands me” and “Will you be my friend” may be sure-fire mantras for success but it never hurts to throw in some cool, sexy, outrageous, sympathetic and, of course, evil hidden-agenda-setting characters, of which we have a full complement, both Inhuman and not.

Sean McKeever’s script never falls into the mawkish, generic sentimentality that hampers so much of this sort of tale and never forgets that this is, ostensibly at least, a superhero-action vehicle. The art by Matthew Clark and Nelson is clear, precise and expressive: No mean feat when most of your leading cast are only nominally humanoid. This lets the story tell itself without intruding into the narrative contract.

All in all, a good beginning and a definite qualitative front-runner in this burgeoning genre of super-teen drama-roics. My only real quibble is the abrupt cessation of the story. But the next volume ought to take care of that.

© 2003, 2005 Marvel Characters, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Battler Britton

Battler Britton

By Garth Ennis & Colin Wilson (WildStorm)
ISBN 1-84576-560-5

Garth Ennis is the best writer of war comic books in America today. In fact, if you disregard the marvellous Commando Picture Library series published by DC Thomson (which you shouldn’t – but no one admits to reading them in my circle), he may well be the only creator working in the genre in the entire English Language.

His credentials are well established now and Colin Wilson has long been lauded for his superb illustration, so it’s no surprise that this re-visitation with one of British comics’ most gallant warriors is an absolute delight.

North Africa, October 1942: The dark days before Montgomery’s big push against the seemingly invincible Afrika Korps. Wing Commander Robert “Battler” Britton and his Flight are sent to train an inexperienced group of American pilots hidden behind German lines as a harrying force.

Tensions between smug Brits and pushy Yanks are high and at first it’s doubtful whether the allies or the enemy pose the biggest threat, but in tried-and-true tradition a growing mutual respect eventually leads to successful outcomes.

In spirit ‘Bloody Good Show’ is one of Ennis’ most faithfully traditional war strips. His love and reverence to the source material – which ran in various British weeklies from 1956 to 1967 – is obvious and there’s less of the writer’s signature gallows humour on view than you’d expect, but don’t think that this is watered down in any way. The dark, ironic madness of battle and disgust with the officialdom that instigates it without getting personally involved is present and potent. Idiots and worse make wars and then send decent people to fight and die in them.

This is a rare thing, here, a reworking of a nostalgia icon that will appeal to the greater part of audiences contemporary and ancient. That it’s a ripping good yarn also means that anybody could read and enjoy it. So you should.

Compilation © 2006, 2007 DC Comics and IPC Media Limited. All Rights Reserved.
Battler Britton and all characters used are ™ & © IPC Media Limited & DC Comics.

Batman: Dark Detective

Batman: Dark Detective 

By Steve Englehart, Marshall Rogers & Terry Austin (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84576-325-4

Many comics fans share a variation of the same dream. They will awake sweaty, desperate and poignantly despairing because they have seen, touched and read a lost issue, produced by their favourite creator or creators, from their most artistically productive period – which just happens to be the dreamer’s most well-beloved – only to awaken to the gloomy realisation that they already have a complete collection and the dream artefact will never be part of it. Spitefully, images and fragments of the lost issue will tantalisingly return to them for days and months thereafter.

In the 1970s Steve Englehart, Marshall Rogers and Terry Austin produced a run of stories in Detective Comics (collected as Batman: Strange Apparitions, ISBN 1-84023-109-2) that managed to be nostalgically avant-garde and iconoclastically traditional at the same time, setting both the tone and the character structure of Batman for more than a decade to come, and leading, indirectly, to both the award winning cartoon series and the blockbuster movie of 1989. What could be closer to that cruel dream than the reuniting of these talented artists to tell one more story their own magnificent way?

It must have seemed like a good idea at the time, and if I’m totally honest, there are oh, so brief moments where I’m a blown-away kid again, but mostly this feels like a school reunion where you forget yourself for a moment, then catch yourself pogo-ing to “God Save the Queen” in the bar mirror. That was then and you just look like an idiot doing it now.

This plot has once-in-a-lifetime romance Silver Saint-Cloud returning to Gotham City as the fiancé of an aspiring State Governor. She once more meets Bruce Wayne and they take up their old affair. She decides to dump her current man and stay with Wayne, whom she only originally left because she couldn’t cope with his being Batman. But events are further complicated by the Joker whose latest scheme can be best described by his own slogan “Vote for Me …Or I’ll Kill You”.

As well as The Joker’s gubernatorial aspirations Batman also has to deal with the Scarecrow’s unwitting release of Bruce Wayne’s repressed memories of a murder attempt upon himself the night after his parents were killed, Two-Face’s frankly ludicrous clone-plot and a cheesy dream allowing the creators to do their version of many of the Dark Knight’s Rogue’s Gallery.

On a personal note, the co-conspiratorial habit of naming Gotham locations after various Batman creators of the past was charming then, but it’s tired, over-used and not a little annoying now. Just let it go, guys.

Their vision of Batman is a unique and iconic one, and it should never have been shoe-horned into current continuity. It would have been fairer to position it, like many out-of continuity Bat-tales, in its own private universe, perhaps in those distant days of thirty years ago, or even the 1950s.

Not a hoax, not a dream, and definitely not a good use of some very talented people or my childhood memories.

© 2005, 2006 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Batman: Strange Apparitions

Batman: Strange Apparitions 

By Steve Englehart, Marshall Rogers, Terry Austin & various (DC Comics/Titan Books)
ISBN 1-84023-109-2

In the mid 1970s Marvel Comics were kicking the stuffing out of DC Comics in terms of sales if not quality comic book product. The most sensible solution seemed to be to poach the top talent. That strategy had limited success but one major defection was Steve Englehart, who had scripted groundbreaking work on the Avengers and Dr. Strange titles.

He was given the Justice League of America for a year but also requested, and was given the Batman slot in the flagship DC title Detective Comics. Expected to be daring and innovative, he instead chose to invoke a classic and long-departed style which became a new signature interpretation, and one credited with inspiring the 1989 movie mega-blockbuster.

Initially Englehart was paired up with artists Walt Simonson and Al Milgrom for the series. ‘…By Death’s Eerie Light!’ and ‘The Origin of Dr Phosphorus’ from Detective #469, May 1977, introduced not only a skeletal, radioactive villain but also the corrupt city council of Rupert “Boss” Thorne, and had the Caped Crusader outlawed in his own city. The team also provided the sequel ‘The Master Plan of Dr. Phosphorus!’ which introduced another landmark character, the captivating ‘Modern Woman’, Silver St. Cloud.

With issue #471 (August 1977) relative newcomers Marshall Rogers and Terry Austin took over the art chores and the magic truly began. As the scripts brought back golden-age and ‘A-list’ villains the art captured the power and moodiness of the strip’s formative years whilst adding to the unique and distinctive iconography of the Batman. Last seen in Detective Comics #46 (1940 and reprinted most recently in Batman Chronicles volume 3, ISBN 1-84576-431-5), quintessential Mad Scientist Hugo Strange came closer than any other villain to destroying both Bruce Wayne and the Batman in ‘The Dead Yet Live’ and ‘I Am The Batman!’ (Detective #471 and #472 respectively).

Robin returned to the strip in #473’s ‘The Malay Penguin!’ as the wily Napoleon of Crime challenges the Dynamic Duo to an entrancing duel of wits, and the next issue featured the second ever appearance of Deadshot (after an initial outing in Batman #59, 1950). So reinvigorated was this third rate foe by his treatment in ‘The Deadshot Ricochet’ that he’s seldom been missing from the DC Universe since, starring in a number of series such as Suicide Squad and Secret Six, and even in a couple of eponymous miniseries.

Englehart saved the best for last with all the sub-plots concerning Silver St. Cloud, Boss Thorne, Gotham City Council, and even a recurring ghost culminating in THE classic confrontation with The Joker. Detective #475 and #476, ‘The Laughing Fish!’ and ‘The Sign of the Joker!’, comprise one of the most reprinted Bat-tales ever concocted, and was even adapted as an episode of the award winning TV show Batman: The Animated Adventures in the 1990s. In fact you’ve probably already read it. But if you haven’t… what a treat you have awaiting you!

Having said all he wanted to say, Steve Englehart left Batman and quit comics for a good few years. After a reprinted story in #477, Marshall Rogers drew one last adventure (in issues #478 and #479). Len Wein scripted ‘The Coming of… Clayface III’ and ‘If a Man be Made of Clay…’ whilst Dick Giordano replaced Terry Austin as inker on a tale of obsession and tragedy as another Golden-Age villain got a contemporary make-over. Sadly it just wasn’t the same. The magic moment was over, leaving us all wanting more. And surely that’s how it should be.

© 1977, 1978, 1999 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.