Scooby-Doo & The Creepy Cruise

Scooby-Doo & The Creepy Cruise

By Various (Titan Books)
ISBN 1-84023-884-4

An excellent paperback sized compilation reprinting tales of the legendary Scooby Gang culled from the pages of their long-running DC/Kids WB (Warner Brothers) comic. Just like the TV cartoons/movies, the plots and characterisations are cast in unbreakable concrete but the seven adventures rollick along at a gripping clip and the dialogue and artwork is of a very high standard. Older fans might get an illicit thrill seeing the latest work from veteran artists Joe Staton and Don Perlin or the scripting of Indie favourite Bob Fingerman. Buy it to get your kids reading comics, then confiscate for yourself.

© 2004 Hanna-Barbera.

Batman: War Games, Act Three: Endgame

Batman: War Games, Act Three: Endgame 

By various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 1-84576-122-7

Spoiler Ahead! Have you reviewed the other volumes of this storyline?

Rather than put you to the trouble of looking up the review of the previous volumes, please allow me to quote and paraphrase: Batman has training scenarios in place for every eventuality. One of them, in which he posits a takeover of all criminals in Gotham by his own undercover agent, has been activated by his current assistant Spoiler/Robin the Girl Wonder, leading to a gang war and general bloodbath. As the chaos ensues, sadistic mastermind Black Mask hijacks both the plan and Spoiler, whom he tortures near to death. He also kills Batman’s agent Orpheus and takes his place. All of Gotham is under fire and when the Dark Knight tries to take control of the police force. No longer an “Urban Myth”, Batman is now the focus of both police anger and public attention…

This volume of War Games serves to clear up and set the scene for another restart of the Batman Family, and I’m not going to reveal too much in case you want to read it yourself, but I will say that any new audiences that this kind of event garners – at least in Graphic Novel terms – must be supremely indifferent to many of the big thematic revisions touted in the periodical origins of the eight related series that make up this book. So nobody believed in the Bat and his buddies before this? The criminals certainly did. So he works outside the law now? Didn’t he always, at least, since the last time he didn’t? So some of his cast don’t survive? Nobody major — and who stays dead in comics?

I so wanted to be upbeat here. Individually many chapters from the forty or so assorted comics professionals working here are very good. It’s the marketing policy that falls down. The shouting of “milestones” and “turning points” and “major changes” never amount to anything and the illusion of change is just that, when looked at with the perspective of a little time and distance.

Wouldn’t it be better to get all these wonderfully talented creators to concentrate on simply producing good stories as they do in the course of their regular assignments and quit this relentless chasing of the cross-over cash cow? There could still be compilations and collections, but they’d have entertainment as their main concern, not traffic and continuity management. Don’t all these great characters and jaded readers deserve that at least?

© 2004 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

JSA: Black Vengeance

JSA: Black Vengeance 

By Geoff Johns, Don Kramer & Keith Champagne (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84576-256-8

The super-hero soap opera (originally published as issues #66-75 of the monthly magazine) steps into high gear as the younger stalwarts have to travel back in time to thwart a plot to prevent the Justice Society from ever coming out of retirement, after the House un-American Activities Commission and Senator Joe McCarthy forced them to disappear in the early 1950s.

This unassuming time-paradox romp serves to clear up a few long running plot-lines, as does the eponymous Black Vengeance sequence that follows when Atom Smasher and Black Adam debate the kind of heroics necessary in the modern world whilst the nigh-omnipotent Spectre attempts to destroy all magic (as seen in such Infinite Crisis series as Day of Vengeance) whilst asking a few questions about US imperialism as seen from the perspective of the citizens of fictional middle-Eastern nation Kahndaq, who are mere collateral damage statistics whenever super-powers come into play.

Despite the seemingly political overtones, this is still primarily a simple hero-fest for fans of that genre, and will deliver high quality escapism for the faithful, although the uninitiated might find the implied back-story a little hard to grasp.

© 2006 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Dan Dare: Red Moon Mystery

Dan Dare: Red Moon Mystery 

By Frank Hampson (Titan Books)
ISBN 1-84023-666-3

Dan Dare, his faithful crew and the Eagle were a part of British life almost from the outset and the secret is the sheer quality of the artwork and stories. Frank Hampson and his team brought joy and glamour into the lives of a weary nation and the gloriously lavish Titan books editions magically recapture it all!

The first two volumes saw our heroes broach the mysteries of Venus, meet and defeat the Mekon and his deadly Treens and literally save the world. Attempting to top that for sheer spectacle the creative team of Hampson and his associates (co-scripter George Beardmore and fellow artists Eric Eden, Don Harley, Harold Johns, Greta Tomlinson and others) craft a splendid blend of tension and action as a deadly wandering moon threatens to shatter the Earth! Gripping, beautifully illustrated and progressing at a breakneck pace this is a superb piece of end-of-the-World drama that matches the best of the post-war doomsmiths such as John Wyndham or J. G. Ballard. It’s got a happy – portentous – ending too!

Solid, clean wholesome entertainment that is timeless and produced to the highest standards, these books also contain a wealth of extra features that can’t fail to make the casual reader into a blithering fanatic like me. Get ‘em for your dad, get ‘em for the kids, and while we’re you’re at it, have some yourself!

© 2004 Dan Dare Corporation. All rights Reserved.

Batman: War Games, Act Two: Tides

Batman: War Games, Act Two: Tides 

By various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 1-84576-070-0

The middle Act of the 2004 Batman braided crossover, Tides focuses much more heavily on the personal costs that each hero must pay whilst attempting to stem the rivers of blood generated as the dwindling criminal factions consolidate into new power-bases. Gotham City is bathed in blood as a mysterious master-planner has engineered a scheme to tackle the crime situation by having the various factions destroy each other. Obviously the collateral damage is not a consideration for this ruthless mastermind- whoever he or she is. The volume ends with losses to the ranks of heroes – these things always do – in a set-up for the final book which will concentrate on the kicking of butts and taking of names.

I’m wanting desperately to be fair here. Individually many chapters from the forty or so assorted comics professionals working here are very good. It’s just as a product of a flawed and outmoded marketing policy that this story, like so many others that this tactic has spawned, falls down. The niggles that merely jar in the blur of weekly comic delivery stand out tall, proud and glaring when collected together in great big books.

Perhaps the final volume will pull it all together and produce sense out of nonsense…

© 2004 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

JSA: Lost

JSA: Lost 

By Geoff Johns & various (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84576-192-8

By the time of this collection of stories from the monthly comic featuring the Justice Society of America (issues #59-67) there have been six and a half years of continuous publication, including attendant Specials, miniseries, annuals and general cross-overage with the rest of the DC universe, plus whatever communal backstory the creators have chosen to access in their desperate strivings to bang out the next issue in the modern cut-throat comics marketplace. The advent of the trade paperback collection has given the periodical comic story another bite of the cherry, much as the rise of DVD sales has to cinema studios, but it’s still a tenuous existence for funnybook writers everywhere.

So this book is the result of one of those semi-regular clear-ups when a title attempts to pull together all the disparate strands that have sweetened the narrative pot in the never-ending struggle to keep the readers attention. The “Previously in JSA…” section is three dense pages of very small print. The stories themselves though, are a pleasant change of pace from recent efforts as they, by necessity, focus on the characters themselves rather than the ever-imminent destruction of the country, the planet and the universe.

Over the course of the series various characters have been lost to the vicissitudes of super-heroing and these stories concern the rescuing of some and the re-defining of others. First up is a tale which resolves a long-running grey area in the team’s morale. Stargirl is a fourteen year old girl and she’s been spending entirely too much time with the thirty-something Captain Marvel. Members are beginning to get a little worried. What they don’t know of course, is that the good Captain is also only a feeble teenager, albeit one who magically transforms into the hunky adult crime fighter. Geoff Johns writes and Sean Phillips illustrates a tale that really can’t have that happy an ever after.

A good old superhero punch up is the motivator of ‘Redemption Lost’ as a villain escapes from Hell, reanimating the dead in one last attempt to destroy the JSA. Credits are due to Johns as usual, with Don Kramer, Tom Mandrake and Keith Champagne making the pictures. ‘Insomnia’ clears up plot threads left hanging since the early days of the title and even as far back as the 1980s and 1990s as it attempts to reshuffle continuity regarding the various Sandmans (Sandmen?) as well as the amazonian Fury and the most recent incarnation of the magician-hero Dr. Fate, compliments of Jerry Ordway, Wayne Faucher and Prentis Rollins, over a jam-packed Johns script. ‘Out of Time’ features the final-ish fate of the three people who have been Hourman, and resolves a long, (long, long, long) storyline featuring the inevitable death of one of them at the end of Time, courtesy of artists Kramer and Champagne.

The volume concludes with a tie-in chapter of the braided mega-event Identity Crisis which impacted upon the entire DC continuity. If you followed the tale you know it all begins with the murder of a super-hero’s wife and consequently rewrote the ethical viewpoint of the superhuman community. If you didn’t I’m sure you couldn’t care less, but should at least be informed that this chapter features the JSA science types Mr. Terrific and Doctor Mid-Nite performing ‘The Autopsy’. Geoff Johns writes and Superstar Dave Gibbons draws with finishes by James Hodgkins.

I suppose any attempt to rationalise or simplify continuities is ultimately foredoomed (and yes, that is a shot at Marvel’s Ultimates line and publishing strategy), since once you are two or three graphic volumes into a new run the problems you’re attempting to address start accruing all over again. Even so, writers don’t just make this stuff up. There is planning and there is editorial consultation.

Maybe if creators and publishers acknowledge that the eventual destination of all their labours is a honking great book (as the Europeans do with their Bande Dessineé) in a bookshop or library rather than the airtight caress of a mylar snug in a bank vault or the back-issue bin in the four-colour ghettoes we comic fans build for ourselves, the proper considerations can be incorporated to make graphic novels a more inviting prospect for the casual reader. If not, we can expect to have the current comics publishing phenomenon end as just another closed book for the rest of the world.

© 2004, 2005 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Daily Mail Nipper Annual, 1940 Facsimile Edition

Nipper Annual 1940 

By Brian White (B&H Publications/White Crescent Press Ltd.)
ISBN: 0-900804-31-9

Return with me again to the dark days of World War II and experience the charm and creativity of the English in the face of Hunnish disaster. Or perhaps I should say try and find this wonderful reproduction of one of the war years’ most popular strips, now all but forgotten.

Brian White first created this roguish charmer of a toddler in the 1930s and he outlasted the Nazis by a good couple of decades, but his pantomimic antics – most strips were slapstick gags without dialogue – were loved by children and adults in equal measure. The feature ran in the Daily Mail and even with wartime restrictions an annual was a foregone conclusion. The public demanded it.

Wartime utility still played its part in this edition, though. As well as the superb bold line artwork, there were plenty of fascinating advertisements for the grown-ups, pages for the kids to draw their own strips (ready-ruled with panels and borders – always the worst job as any cartoonist will tell you!), a calendar for 1940 – remember, Annuals were released around Christmas time and dated for the following year – and to top it off the entire package also doubles as a colouring book! What Larks!

Kidding aside, this is a wonderful insight into our comic strip past, by a master craftsman. That it has such entertainment and socio-historical value is a blessed bonus, but the real treasure is the work itself. All credit to those responsible for re-releasing it, and I fervently wish more companies would make similar efforts to keep our cultural history accessible.

© 1995 B&H Publications/White Crescent Press Ltd. – I presume.

Batman: War Games, Act One: Outbreak

Batman: War Games, Act One: Outbreak 

By various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 1-84576-044-1

One major difficulty with the periodic comic book insanity of multi-part crossovers is the sheer difficulty of repackaging them as graphic novels. DC attempted to defuse this with their 2004 Bat-epic by designing the event as three distinct Acts, each containing one month’s progression of participating titles (Batman, Detective Comics, Nightwing, Robin, Gotham Knights, Batgirl, and Catwoman), and each working as a dramatic platform for the succeeding volume.

Thematically, it’s business as usual for poor, beleaguered Gotham City. Death, destruction, lots of explosions, blood in the streets, and another perennial winnowing of extraneous cast members is well underway. Content-wise the catastrophe is human in nature, as the various criminal factions of the city are finagled into an all-out gang war, leading to martial law being declared and at one point Batman’s attempt to take over Gotham.

Just as a self-indulgent aside, could someone please explain to me why the decent, law-abiding folk who so often end up littering those mean streets don’t just get the hell out of Dodge? After two plagues, an earthquake and the total anarchy of No Man’s Land, all in addition to the everyday mass-murdering psychopaths who make the place their home what on Earth could induce anyone to live or work there?

For a fuller experience, non-regulars would be best advised to read War Drums, a prelude to the carnage unleashed in Outbreak. Without divulging too much of the story, Outbreak sets the ball rolling and positions all the major Bat players for damage control as the bloodshed escalates and the various criminals who survive the initial slaughter start picking each other off. As the violence spirals Batman and team must not only save lives but also deduce which mastermind is responsible for the devious plan that threatens to wipe out crime in the city, as well as all the citizens.

© 2004 DC Comics. All rights reserved.

JLA: The Tenth Circle

Jla: The Tenth Circle 

By John Byrne, Chris Claremont & Jerry Ordway (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84023-913-1

The X-Men team supreme were reunited for this supernatural adventure featuring the ‘world’s greatest superhero’ team. Comic fans love these sorts of stunts.

Sadly the results seldom live up to expectations and the result is a competent if predictable heroes versus vampires yarn most notable as a prequel and introduction to Byrne’s latest attempt to revive his childhood by reinventing the Doom Patrol.

Not for the casual bystander and no way to broaden the appeal or range of the comic experience.

© 2004 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Eagle Classics: Harris Tweed — Extra Special Agent

Harris Tweed 

By John Ryan (Hawk Books -1990)
ISBN: 0-948248-22-X

John Ryan is an artist and storyteller who straddles equally three distinct disciplines of graphic narrative, with equal qualitative, if not financial, success. The son of a diplomat, Ryan was born in 1921, served in Burma and India and after attending the Regent Street Polytechnic (1946-48) took up a post as assistant Art Master at Harrow School from 1948 to 1955. It was during this time that he began contributing strips to comics such as Girl and the legendary Eagle.

On April 14th 1950, Britain’s grey, post-war gloom was partially lifted with the first issue of a new comic that literally shone with light and colour. Avid children were soon understandably enraptured with the gloss and dazzle of Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future, a charismatic star-turn venerated to this day. The Eagle was a tabloid sized paper with full photogravure colour inserts alternating with text and a range of other comic features. Tabloid is a big page and you can get a lot of material onto each page. Deep within, on the bottom third of a monochrome page, was an eight panel strip entitled Captain Pugwash, the story of a Bad Buccaneer and the many sticky ends which nearly befell him. Ryan’s quirky, spiky style also lent itself to the numerous spot illustrations required every week.

Pugwash, his harridan of a wife and the useless, lazy crew of the Black Pig ran until issue 19 when the feature disappeared. This was no real hardship as Ryan had been writing and illustrating Harris Tweed – Extra Special Agent which began as a full page (tabloid, remember, with an average of twenty panels a page, per week!) in the Eagle #16. Tweed ran for three years as a full page until 1953 when it dropped to a half page strip and was repositioned as a purely comedic venture. For our purposes and those of the book under review it’s those first three years we’re thinking of.

Tweed was a bluff and blundering caricature of the “military Big Brass” Ryan had encountered during the war, who, with a young, never-to-be-named assistant known only as ‘Boy’, solved mysteries and captured villains to general popular acclaim. Thrilling and macabre adventure blended seamlessly with a cheerful schoolboy low comedy in these strips, since Tweed was in fact that most British of archetypes, a bit of a twit and a bit of a sham.

His totally undeserved reputation as detective and crime fighter par excellence, and his good-hearted yet smug arrogance – as exemplified by the likes of Bulldog Drummond, Dick Barton – Special Agent or Sexton Blake somehow endeared him to a young public that would in later years take to its heart Captain Mainwaring in Dad’s Army and, more pointedly perhaps, Peter Sellers’ numerous film outings as Inspector Clouseau.

Ryan’s art in these strips is particularly noteworthy. Deep moody blacks and intense sharp inking creates a mood of fever-dream intensity. There are nuances of underground cartoons of more than a decade later, and much of the inevitable ‘lurking horror’ atmosphere found in the best works of Basil Wolverton. Ryan knew what kids liked and he delivered it by the cartload.

When Ryan moved into the budding arena of animated television cartoons he developed a new system for producing cheap, high quality animations to a tight deadline. He began by reworking Captain Pugwash into more than fifty episodes (screening from 1958 on) for the BBC, keeping the adventure milieu, but replacing the shrewish wife with the tried-and-true boy assistant. Tom the Cabin Boy is the only competent member of the crew, instantly affirming to the rapt, young audience that grown-ups are fools and kids do, in fact, rule. He also drew a weekly Pugwash strip for the Radio Times for eight years. Ryan went on to produce a number of animated series including Mary, Mungo and Midge and Sir Prancelot as well as adaptations of some of his forty-plus children’s books. A few years ago an all-new Computer-based Pugwash animated TV series began.

In 1956 the indefatigable old cartoon sea-dog became the first of a huge run of children’s books produced by Ryan. At last count there were 14 Pugwash tales, 12 Ark Stories, and a number of other series. Ryan has worked whenever and wherever he wanted to in the comic world and eventually the books and the strips began to cross-fertilise.

The first Pugwash is very traditional in format with blocks of text and single illustrations that illuminate a particular moment. But by the publication of Pugwash the Smuggler entire sequences are lavishly painted comic strips, with as many as eight panels on one page, complete with word balloons. A fitting circularity to his careers and a nice treat for us old-fashioned comic drones.

We don’t have that many multi-discipline successes in comics, go and find out why we should celebrate one who did it all, did it first and did it very, very well.

Harris Tweed ©1990 Fleetway Publications. Compilation © 1990 Hawk Books.