Modesty Blaise: Black Pearl

Modesty Blaise: Black Pearl 

By Peter O’Donnell & Jim Holdaway (Titan Books)
ISBN 1-84023-842-9

The greatest heroine in comics returns for four more high-octane capers and dark intrigues. Starting off with the classic, exotic mystery of “The Black Pearl”, the deadly duo move on to an almost science fiction driven thriller in “The Magnified Man”.

We return to basics with the all-action set-piece “The Jericho Caper” and the book concludes with the little known gem “The Killing Ground”. This was produced to fill pages in the syndicated Scottish periodical when industrial action hit the parent paper (the London Evening Standard).

O’Donnell and Holdaway produced some of the best comic strips in the world during their collaboration and these breakneck pace, subtly engaging tales show all their skills at their creative peak, whilst the captivating behind-the-scenes features are an absolute treat. A ‘can’t miss’ collection.

© 2004 Associated Newspapers/Solo Syndication

Marvel Masterworks: The Fantastic Four 1963

Marvel Masterworks: The Fantastic Four 1963 

By Stan Lee & Jack Kirby, with Dick Ayers and various (Marvel/Panini UK)
ISBN 978-1-905239-61-0

Here’s another cheap‘n’cheerful UK edition of early Marvel landmarks, this time starring the first family of super-heroics.

1963 was a pivotal year in the development of Marvel. Lee and Kirby had proved that their new high concept – more human heroes with flaws and tempers – had a willing audience. Now they would extend that concept to a new pantheon of heroes. Here is where the second innovation would come to the fore.

Previously, super-heroes were sufficient unto themselves and shared adventures were rare. Here, however was a universe where characters often tripped over each other, sometimes even fighting each other’s enemies! Even the creators themselves might turn up in a Marvel Comic! Fantastic Four #10 features ‘The Return of Doctor Doom!’ wherein the arch villain uses Stan and Jack to lure the FF’s leader into a trap where his mind is switched with the bad Doctor’s. Issue #11 has two stories, ‘A Visit with the Fantastic Four’ and ‘The Impossible Man’ as the innovations continue, in a travelogue and a baddie-free, comedic tale.

FF #12 features a crossover as the team are asked to help the US army capture ‘The Incredible Hulk’, followed by ‘Versus the Red Ghost and his Incredible Super Apes!’, a cold war thriller pitting them against a soviet scientist in a race to be the first on the Moon. This tale is notable both for the moody Steve Ditko inking (replacing the very adroit Dick Ayers for one episode) of Kirby’s artwork and the introduction of the cosmic voyeurs called The Watchers.

Issue #14 features the return of ‘The Sub-Mariner and the Merciless Puppet Master!’ followed by ‘The Fantastic Four Battle … The Mad Thinker and his Awesome Android!’. Number #16 tells of ‘The Micro-World of Doctor Doom!’ in a spectacular romp guest-starring new hero the Ant-Man, and that villain instantly returns with infallible, deadly traps in ‘Defeated by Doctor Doom!’ A shape-changing alien with all their powers is next to menace our heroes in ‘A Skrull Walks Among Us!’ and issue #19 introduces one of the company’s greatest super-villains as the FF become ‘Prisoners of the Pharaoh!’. This time travel tale has been revisited by so many writers that it is considered one of the key stories in Marvel history. Fantastic Four #20 introduces ‘The Mysterious Molecule Man!’, and the next guest-stars Nick Fury, fresh from his own World War II comic book (and soon to be the company’s answer to James Bond) to battle ‘The Hate-Monger!’ (inked by veteran George Roussos, using the protective nom de plume George Bell).

The rest of the book is taken up with reprinting the first summer Annual, a spectacular thirty-seven page epic battle as Atlantis invades New York City, and presumably the rest of the world, in ‘The Sub-Mariner versus the Human Race!’. Also included is the charming short tale ‘The Fabulous Fantastic Four meet Spider-Man!’, a re-interpretation of the first meeting between the two most popular Marvel brands from the premiere issue of the wall-crawlers own comic. Drawn this time by Kirby, Ditko once more applied his unique inking for a truly novel look. Here are also a swatch of pin-ups and information pages illustrated by Kirby and chums.

Although possibly a little dated in tone, these are still classics of comic story-telling illustrated by one of the world’s greatest talents just approaching his mature peak. They are fast, frantic fun and a joy to read or re-read. This bright, joyous introduction (or even reintroduction) to these characters is a wonderful reminder of just how good comic books can be.

© 1963, 2007 Marvel Characters, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Constantine: The Hellblazer Collection

Hellblazer Collection 

By various (Vertigo)
ISBN 1-84023-979-4

When the movie was about to leap on us at any moment, DC were banging out huge amounts of Hellblazer material, which was of course only sensible. This collection continued the procedure created for the dire Catwoman movie by producing a bookshelf version of a recently released film adaptation padded out with a selection of reprints from the characters’ back catalogue.

I haven’t seen the movie yet, and after reading the frankly appalling adaptation reprinted here, I’m unlikely to. But in case you intend to, I’ll just say that Steven T. Seagle, Ron Randall and Jimmy Palmiotti have obviously done the very best they can, and if we’re all lucky they worked from an original script rather than a final cut of the movie. If they have, there’s an outside chance that the movie actually made some sense. By the bye, in case you haven’t heard, you shouldn’t have to suffer Keanu Reeves’ Scouse accent as Constantine’s a Yank here.

Filling out the book is “Hunger” from the first issue of the Hellblazer comic by Jamie Delano and John Ridgway, “Hold Me” from #27 by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean and “The Beginning of the End” by Garth Ennis and Will Simpson from #41. These are of course fine examples of the character at his best from some of the industry’s most talented creators, but that doesn’t make up for the fact that the stories are incomplete and if you wanted to find out how they ended, you’d have to get hold of the Original Sins and Dangerous Habits graphic collections which is, as you are also probably thinking, a bit of a cheek.

© 2005 DC Comics. All rights reserved.

James Bond: Casino Royale

James Bond: Casino Royale 

By Ian Fleming, Anthony Hern, Henry Gammidge & John McLusky (Titan Books)
ISBN 1-84023-843-7

In Casino Royale Bond is ordered to gamble with and bankrupt Le Chiffre, a communist agent who has embezzled his Soviet masters’ operating capital in a moody tale of tension that results in torture and violent death, heady stuff for newspaper readers of 1958, when it first ran. Live and Let Die has 007 and US agent Felix Leiter tackle Mr. Big, another commie agent, who rules the Harlem underworld through Voodoo, and Moonraker concerns the attempt by Hugo Drax, a Nazi officer who has infiltrated the British aristocracy to drop a guided missile on London.

These editions of Titan Books’ 007 newspaper strip collections come from a period when the dependable John McLusky was developing a less formal approach, before going on to produce some of his best work, illustrating adaptations of Fleming’s tales. Casino Royale was the opening strip in a nearly twenty-five year run, and the somewhat muted artwork here shows an artist still not completely comfortable with his task. It was adapted and scripted by Anthony Hern, who had won the author’s approval after writing condensed prose versions of the novels for the Daily Express. Live and Let Die and Moonraker are both adapted by Henry Gammidge.

As the strip settles in for the long haul, McLusky warms to the potentialities of the job with cracking tales of Cold-War intrigue and fast, dangerous living set in a multitude of exotic locales. This is a welcome return to public gaze of some of the most influential – and exciting – comic strips in British history.

Strip © Express Newspapers Ltd. 1987. All Rights Reserved

James Bond: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service

James Bond: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service 

By Ian Fleming and Various (Titan Books)
ISBN 1-84023-674-4

There are sadly very few British newspaper strips that can rival the influence and impact of the classic daily and Sunday “funnies” from America, especially in the field of adventure fiction. The 1930’s and 1940’s were particularly rich in popular, not to say iconic, creations. You would be hard-pressed to come up with household names to rival Popeye, Dick Tracy, Buck Rogers, The Phantom, Mandrake the Magician, Flash Gordon or Steve Canyon, let alone Terry and the Pirates or the likes of Little Lulu, Blondie, Li’l Abner, Little Orphan Annie or Popeye and yes, I know I said him twice, but Elzie Segars’s Thimble Theatre was funny as well as thrilling, constantly innovative, and really, really good.

What can you recall for simple popularity let alone longevity or quality in Britain? Rupert Bear? Absolutely. Giles? Technically, yes. Nipper? Jane? Garth? I hope so, but I doubt it. The Empire didn’t quite get it until it wasn’t an empire any more. There were certainly many wonderful strips being produced: well-written, beautifully drawn, but that stubborn British reserve just didn’t seem to be in the business of creating household names. Until the 1950’s.

Something happened in the ‘fifties in Britain – and I’m not going to waste any space here discussing it. It just did. Now we’re moving on. In a new spirit that seemed to crave excitement and accept the previously disregarded, comics got carried along on the wave. Eagle, the regenerated Beano, girls’ comics in general, all shifted into high gear, and so did newspapers. And that means that I can go on about a graphic collection with proven crossover appeal for a change.

The first 007 novel – Casino Royale -was published in 1953 and was serialised in the Daily Express from 1958, beginning a run of book adaptations (by Anthony Hern, Henry Gammidge, Peter O’Donnell and Kingsley Amis) before Jim Lawrence, a jobbing writer who had scripted the aforementioned Buck Rogers, came aboard with The Man With The Golden Gun to complete the transfer of the Fleming canon to strip format, thereafter being invited to create all new adventures, which he did until the strip’s demise in 1983.

The art on the strip was always of the highest standard. John McLusky provided the illustration until 1966 and the conclusion of You Only Live Twice. Although perhaps lacking in verve, the workmanlike clarity of his drawing easily handled the immense variety of locales, technical set-ups and sheer immensity of cast members, whilst accomplishing the then novel conceit of advancing a plot and ending each episode on a cliff-hanging “hook” every day. He was succeeded by Yaroslav Horak, who also debuted on Golden Gun with a looser, edgier style, at once more cinematic and with a closer attention to camera angle and frenzied action that seemed to typify the high-octane 1960’s.

What’s in this volume? Possibly the two best novels adapted back to back. After a falling out with the Express’ owner, the Bond strip was missing from the paper’s pages from February 1962 until June 1964. The gap was explained as Bond’s year long search for arch villain Blofeld. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service has the agent finally discover his enemy and his perfect woman in a high-octane action extravaganza in the Swiss Alps. Closely adhering to Fleming’s script – as did the George Lazenby film version – the adventure ends with the wedding day murder of Bond’s bride, an atypically downbeat conclusion that directly leads into You Only Live Twice.

Eight months after the death of his wife, a broken Bond is called back from compassionate leave for a routine mission to Japan. Both he and ‘M’ know that this will be a make-or-break job for the demoralised super-agent. Initially indifferent, Bond warms not only to the culture but the characters of Japan, and when circumstances alter the mission into one of ultimate revenge, Bond is back with a vengeance!

Titan Books is re-releasing collected editions of these classic strips after an abortive first attempt in the 1980s. The utterly minor niggle that they’re not coming out in chronological order (I’m a fanboy too, so sue me) is easily countered by the informative checklist in each volume; and these are superb examples of the best of British – even if Lawrence is a damn Yankee and Horak an Ozzie by way of Manchuria. Get them all and sort it all out in a big leather chair over a Vodka Martini. You know the way it should be served… and by the time you read this it won’t matter anyway, so just remember your instructions. Buy them all!

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

Gotham Central: The Quick and the Dead

Gotham Central: The Quick and the Dead 

By Greg Rucka, Michael Lark & Stephen Gaudiano (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84576-381-5

Gotham City is a bad place to be a cop – even a crooked one. If you’re a straight arrow it’s even worse because then both sides of the street want you dead. When Detectives Crispus Allen and Renee Montoya turn their attention to corrupt Crime Scene Investigator Jim Corrigan it sets them both on a path steeped in tragedy and loss. “Corrigan” (originally published in issues #23-24 of the monthly comic) is by the regular team of Greg Rucka, Michael Lark and Stephen Gaudiano.

The same team bring us “Lights Out” (issue #25) as, in the aftermath of the War Games (see Batman: War Drums; War Games: Outbreak, Tides, Endgame and War Crimes) event, new police commissioner Akins severs all official ties to the Batman and has the Bat-Signal removed from Police Headquarters roof.

“Keystone Cops” (issues #289-31) is another superb blend of the procedural and the outlandish as beat cop Andy Kelly is mutated by a super-criminal’s booby-trap whilst rescuing some kids from a fire. Montoya and Allen must cross jurisdictional boundaries and moral landmarks to obtain the assistance of deranged Flash villain Doctor Alchemy if there’s any hope of curing their comrade. With the most chilling exploration of a super-villain’s motivation in many a year and a generous tip of the hat to ‘The Silence of the Lambs’ this is a moody masterpiece with a unsuspected kick in the tail. Rucka writes and Gaudiano graduates from inks to pencils with the embellishing falling to the capable Kano and Gary Amaro in this fourth volume of the award winning series.

© 2004, 2005 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Gotham Central: Unresolved Targets

Gotham Central: Unresolved Targets 

By Ed Brubaker, Greg Rucka, Michael Lark & Stephen Gaudiano (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84576-130-8

There are two names synonymous with Gotham City, USA. If you’re a cop you keep your own opinions about the Batman, but it’s pretty much unanimous that The Joker is not someone you ever want to deal with. A madman with a homicidal flair for the theatrical, he loves a special occasion. It’s Christmas and it’s started to snow…

This third volume collecting the procedural exploits of the police of Batman’s hometown is tense and brooding, and manic and breathtaking by turns, as the poor officers of the Major Crimes Unit must catch a sniper who is randomly assassinating citizens – including the mayor. Even his early capture doesn’t halt the killings, since the proud culprit is the insane and Machiavellian Joker, who can seemingly now kill by remote control. This Yule looks to be the most memorable ever for the hard-pressed detectives in a tale entitled “Soft Targets” by Ed Brubaker, Greg Rucka, Michael Lark & Stephen Gaudiano (originally published in issues #12-15 of the monthly comic).

The second story, “Unresolved” by Brubaker, Lark & Gaudiano (issues #19-22) focuses on a cold case of fan-favourite character and all-around slob Harvey Bullock. When one of the maverick ex-cop’s old cases goes live again, the team must solve a high-school murder-bombing that somehow involves one of Batman’s weirdest foes.

Solid gritty police drama seamlessly blended with the grisly fantasy of the modern superhero seems like a strange brew but it delivers knockout punches time after time in this captivating series.

© 2003, 2004, 2006 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Batman: Scarecrow Tales

Batman: Scarecrow Tales 

By Various (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84576-063-8

As with the appalling Catwoman film, DC produced a fine volume of reprints featuring the comic book appearances of the Scarecrow to capitalise on Batman Begins. Although having a much shallower well to draw from, there are some wonderful tales on offer (and the occasional dog, it must be admitted) with various pin-up pages and a cover gallery.

The obvious kick-off is the first adventure from World’s Finest #3 (1941), followed by his third outing in “Fright of the Scarecrow” (Batman #189, 1967) wherein scripter Gardner Fox introduces his current Modus Operandi of artificially inducing terror, rather than the forties version which consisted mostly of shooting at you until you wet yourself.

Two lesser efforts follow: “The Scarecrow’s Trail of Fear!” (Batman #262, 1975) is by Denny O’Neil, Ernie Chua/Chan and Dick Giordano and the frankly appalling duel with the Joker “The Scarecrow’s Fearsome Face-Off!” This turkey’s by Elliot S! Maggin, Irv Novick and Tex Blaisdell, and is from Joker #8 (1976). If you’re of the persuasion to think that some things can be so bad they become ‘good’ this one’s for you.

Gerry Conway wrote “The 6 Days of the Scarecrow”, beautifully illustrated by the vastly under-rated and sorely missed Don Newton, with inking by Dan Adkins (Detective #503, 1981) and Alan Davis and Paul Neary visualised Mike W Barr’s “Fear For Sale” (Detective #571, 1987). Next up is “Mistress of Fear” by Peter Milligan and Duncan Fegredo from the one-shot (Villains: Scarecrow #1, 1998), a truly exceptional psychological thriller, with “Fear of Success” by Devin Grayson, Roger Robinson and John Floyd (Gotham Knights #23, 2002) rounding out the volume.

As a trawl through the changing nature of the industry this book is quite illuminating and in all honesty there really wasn’t a lot of material to choose from, although one glaring omission is the ignoring of the great little stories featuring the character that ran in assorted issues of the TV Cartoon based Batman Adventures. Now those were thrilling…

© 2005 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

DC: The New Frontier, vol 2

DC: The New Frontier, vol 2 

By Darwyn Cooke with Dave Stewart (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84576-064-6

In the concluding volume of Darwyn Cooke’s tribute to the glory days of DC comics and idealistic Americana, the world teeters on the brink between a new age or ultimate destruction as a reptilian alien the size of Manhattan Island prepares to replace humanity with its own spawn. Only the small, brave band of heroes willing to defy a US Government banning order stand between humanity and a new holocaust.

This bright reworking of the 1950s, seen through twenty-first century eyes, and featuring all the stars of DC’s early Silver Age, manages to leaven our righteous cynicism about a truly dark, hypocritical and paranoid era of American history with a bright, child-like hopeful enthusiasm for a better tomorrow defended by better heroes. It is an absolute delight to see a worldly-wise but upbeat heroic tale.

It looks good, it reads good, and By Golly, it does you good!

© 2005 DC Comics. All rights reserved.

DC: The New Frontier, vol 1

DC: The New Frontier, vol 1 

By Darwyn Cooke with Dave Stewart (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84023-939-5

Ever since DC Comics retrofitted most of their first fifty years of story continuity with the incredibly successful Crisis on Infinite Earths they’ve apparently been seeking ways to get it all back into play again. Comics seem to work best when they access some component of nostalgia, and Darwyn Cooke’s tribute to the 1950s is a glorious blending of simpler times, two-fisted slam-bang action and the brooding menace of both Communism and McCarthyism delivered in the garish four-colour dreams of ten-year-old children.

All the DC greats come into play in a brand new yet refreshingly, comfortingly, old retelling of the archetypes of that era. There are aliens, monsters, Martians, test pilots, cars with fins, feisty reporters and Rock ’n’ Roll. The story is basic and simple, but never slips into pastiche or parody. Darwyn Cooke successfully manages to skate between and around the hurdles of kids with no access to the time period involved (nor indeed the characters) and the expectations of an older generation of readers who have spent such a long time wondering where “their” heroes went.

For my part, this is probably one of the best things I’ve read in the last ten years. Cooke and especially colourist Dave Stewart have managed to access and treat with respect an era that I’d thought gone forever, whilst at the same time concocting a cracking good yarn that seems genuinely timeless. My only quibble is that I have to wait for the second and concluding part, notwithstanding the fact that I bought the mini-series when it came out last year.

An absolute gem for kids of all ages; even casual readers who watch more movies than they read comics will be immensely satisfied.

© 2005 DC Comics. All rights reserved.