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PG Tips No. 31:

The Best of 2009: Classic Comic Reprints

Now that we are already one twelfth of the way into this Brave New Year, I can’t leave it much longer to wrap up my final Best Ofs for 2009. So here goes, first with my eighteen PG Tips for the finest reprints of classic comics from the recent and more distant past, in English with one in Dutch and two in French for good measure:

No 1:
Great British Fantasy Comic Book Heroes
edited by Phil Clarke & Mike Higgs
Ugly Duckling Press

Welcome to the wonders of Print on Demand: a 464-page dust-jacketed hardcover compilation of 75 stories starring Britain’s nearly lost superhero second-stringers from the Forties and Fifties, rescued and re-published by two founding fans, experts and collectors in an edition of only 100 copies. It’s inevitably pricey but a total labour of love and a feast of energetic, often overenthusiastic, if not always polished, performances, many in the spirit of Fletcher Hank’s Stardust. There are a few sharper artists at work here, notably Space Ace by the great Ron Turner of Rick Random fame, Dennis M. Reader’s strange angularity and sassy glamour, the McLoughlin brothers Swift Morgan, an uncredited Don Lawrence on a Marvelman Family, the Raymond-inspired illustration of Norman Light and Ron Embleton, and the nuttiness of Banger’s SuperStooge. Of course it would have been even better to have afforded to reprint those few colour pages in colour rather than grey tones, but that would have upped the price tag still higher, and it’s amazing to have access to so many of these rarities. And to top it off, the late comedian Bob Monkhouse’s testosterone-fuelled fantasy (signed “Ramon”) pitting The Tornado against aliens who look exactly like giant walking penises. How did he get away with it? It just shows how little editorial control there was, just fill those pages! True, a few of these knock-offs and one-offs are so bad, they’re… pretty bad, to be brutally honest, but as a whole these vanished Z-listers are never less than great bonkers fun.

Great British Fantasy Comic Book Heroes is available for £75 only from Blase Books, Hazelwood, Birchfield Road, Redditch, UK, B97 6PU or email .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

No 2:
The Toon Treasury of Classic Children’s Comics
edited by Art Spieglman & Françoise Mouly

Pure delight! Simply the pick of America’s greatest comic books for kids, from Carl Barks to John Stanley, beautifully reproduced as they should be from their four-colour newsprint pages. Proof that comics are not just for adults anymore.



No 3:
From Headrack To Claude
by Howard Cruse
Nifty Kitsch Press

Cruse is in control - America’s pre-eminent gay male comic artist is back with this weirdly-titled adult compendium. To clarify, Headrack was the artist pal of Howard Cruse’s Barefootz, whose story ‘Gravy on Gay” in the underground comic Barefootz Funnies in 1976 was his first ever gay-themed story. Claude, meanwhile, appeared in 2008 in the anthology Born To Trouble: Book of Boy Trouble Volume 2. Over more than three decades, a lot has changed, not least Cruse’s drawing style, once rounded, super-cute and eager to appeal, now self-confident, ultra-detailed and enriched, as well as in the position of gays in American society. In the absence of finding another publisher, Cruse took it upon himself to compile and release this collection of 24 of his comics “about the lives LGBT folk live and the politics they put up with.” Cruse is poised to get back into the spotlight with the new edition of his 1995 masterwork Stuck Rubber Baby out this year, with an intro by Alison Bechdel. Meantime, (re-)acquaint yourself with where he’s been before and since, supplemented by some new revealing commentaries and several never-before-reprinted stories.

As Cruse is self-publishing From Headrack to Claude through on a print-on-demand basis, with copies purchasable online from the ‘Lulu Marketplace’ and other online retailers, it is unlikely to be found at bricks-&-mortar bookstores. The book is priced at $19 and its ISBN number is 978-0-578-03251-1. For additional details contact the author.

No 4:
by Hector Oesterheld & Solano Lopez
Vertige Graphic

Sorry this one is in French, but it’s an undisputed masterpiece of Argentine and indeed of World comics and its significance cannot be overstated. Solano Lopez is familiar, from his art but not his name (scrupulously removed from British weekly comics) thanks to exciting, eccentric series like Janus Stark, Kelly’s Eye, Galaxus, Raven of the Wing, and loads more. But this SF serial, started in 1957, is much darker, stranger and more meaningful, a chilling Wyndham-esque augur of Argentina’s own near future of the generals and dictators. This landscape format lets us finally see the full uncut story, most of it shot from the surviving original artwork, which only shows how muddy and filled-in the comics’ printing itself sadly was. A third volume just came out completing this first and greatest cycle of the saga. Look out on the Comica website for news on COMICA ARGENTINA, the exhibition and season I am co-producing of talks and screenings this June-July to coincide with Argentina’s Bicentennial of independence from Spain.

No 5:
Poem Strip
by Dino Buzzati
New York Review of Books Classics

It’s only taken forty years for this once scandalising Italian picture story to be translated and as part of the lofty New York Review of Books Classics series, no less. The main buzz about Buzzati has centred on his avant-garde writing but he was adept at drawing and painting too. So in 1969, inspired by Pop Art and Italy’s digest-sized, cheesy porno fumetti (where Manara was first toiling) and perhaps the innovations of Guido Crepax on Valentina, he fused these with a wild reworking of the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice transposed to the hip Sixties streetlife of Milan. Another graphic novel in all but name, it’s a consciously trendy, provocative, postmodern experiment, with all sorts of artistic and cinematic hommages, from Dali and Rackham to Fellini and Bava. It’s also part of the male-centric “Sexties” revolution as in Peellaert’s Pravda or Forest’s Barbarella with bountiful female flesh and sexuality on display. Not surprisingly the literary establishment were nonplussed by this oddity, though it did scoop the 1970 Paese Sera best Comic of the Year Award and built a cult following to this day. 

No 6:
The Brinkley Girls
edited by Trina Robbins

I once came across a scrapbook of black-and-white newspaper cuttings in a funky antiques store on the high street of Hudson, New York, and among them were several Nell Brinkley illustrations. I should have bought it, especially once I told cultural historian Trina Robbins about it months later and she confirmed how hard it is to track surviving copies of her output. Trina follows up her thorough biography of Brinkley (see my review here) with this oversized collection of Sunday “comics”, often more like ravishing illustrated romantic yarns of big hair, clothes and emotions, but stunning to linger over and revealing in their period mood and concerns.  In their time, Brinkley’s spirited, vivacious females were as iconic and inspirational in early 20th century America as the famous Gibson Girls before her. They truly deserve this gorgeous commemoration. Of course, there’s a host of other stunning reprints of American classic strips out there now, from The Upside-Down World of Gustave Verbeek from Sunday Press to ongoing complete series of Popeye, Prince Valiant, Peanuts and more from Fantagraphics, Dick Tracy, Little Orphan Annie and Rip Kirby and more from IDW, just for starters. We are so very lucky.

No 7:
The Collected Doug Wright: Volume One
by Doug Wright
Drawn & Quarterly

Speaking of stunning reprints… To be honest, I only properly came across Doug Wright in 2007 when I attended the Doug Wright Awards at the Toronto Comic Art Festival and discovered the genial genius of this British-born but very Canadian cartoonist. He’s most famous for the wordless kids’ strip Nipper, created in 1949, a year before Charles Schulz’s Peanuts. Here Brad McKay’s biographical intro and Seth’s design honour this cartoonist, and even if it results in a rather unwieldy, unshelvable art object, this man’s strips and illustrations deserve to be archived and appreciated anew. This is the Wright stuff.

No 8:
Antonio Rubino, The Italian Maestro of Children’s Comics
by Antonio Rubino
Editions de l’An 2

I love exploring incredibly strange, loopily imaginative early newspaper strips like these, and Italy’s Rubino crafted some of the finest, especially his surreal geometrical comedy, Quadratino, a square-headed bambino who appeared in the children’s supplement Corriere dei Piccoli in 1910-11. Early 20th century Italian comics would remove the speech balloons from imported American strips and insist on rhyming typeset narratives beneath the panels. Those originating comics in Italy like Rubino had to conform to this as well. The only disappointment here is that his glowing, Liberty-inspired colour pages are shrunk too much on the page, to make space for unnecessary design and white borders - they cry out to be seen bigger, closer to their original printed size.

No 9:
The Sandman
by Joe Simon
& Jack Kirby


No 10:
The Best of Simon & Kirby
by Joe Simon
& Jack Kirby

Titan Books

See my in-depth double-review and prepare for Jack Kirby: The House That Jack Built, the exhibition I am co-curating this May 1-9 with Dan Nadel of PictureBox, as part of the Fumetto Festival in Lucerne, Switzerland. It’s going to be amazing.

No 11:
The Fat Freddy’s Cat Omnibus
by Gilbert Shelton
Knockabout Comics

It’s all here, gathered into one 368-page tome, all of Shelton’s fab feline funnies, a total comedy master at work. One of my favourites has always been the strip where Fat Freddy’s Cat is left alone in the house while The Freak Brothers go off on vacation. It’s only when they’re nearly back again that he realises he’s been sleeping and hasn’t misbehaved, and so sets about wrecking the place moments before they walk in the door, to keep up his bad, mad moggy reputation. Instead of that possessive FFC name of his (a joke in itself because this is one cat who doesn’t belong to anybody), as T.S. Eliot mused I can’t help wondering what his own secret, ineffable “real” name might be.

No 12:
by Jesse Marsh
Dark Horse

Lionised by Alex Toth and Gilbert Hernandez, Jesse Marsh illustrated the first original Tarzan comic books for Dell Comics. When I visited the major Tarzan exhibition last summer at the Musée Quai Branly in Paris, Hal Foster and Burne Hogarth were everywhere, so too Joe Kubert, John Buscema, Bob Lubbers and more, but not one original, or comic book I believe, by Marsh. Over time he built up extensive knowledge of Africa which lent his Tarzan output an extraordinary mood and authentic feel. These first comics by him pave the way.

No 13:
Blake & Mortimer Vol 6:
S.O.S. Meteors

by Edgar P. Jacobs

Finally in English fifty years after its first publication in Belgium, this science thriller is uncannily timely as Europe’s weather lurches out of control. Rather than blaming global warming, it’s a sinister techno-conspiracy that lies behind this climate change and our intrepid “rosbiffs” Captain Blake and Professor Mortimer investigate. A former operatic baritone, Jacobs is the genuine Fifties melodramatist, overwriting but to great stirring effect, and drawing with obsessive accuracy and flights of SF imagination. A true original.

No 14:
Arman & Ilva
by Thé Tjong-Khing & Lo Hartog van Banda Sherpa

My somewhat limited German means that I struggle to read the actual stories here in Dutch, although it seems they contain a lot of superfluous text due to being published in the Sixties and Seventies as daily newspaper strips. But what enchants me are Thé Tjong Khing’s drawings, and above all the faces and figures, so surprisingly quirky and human and alive on every page. I’m thrilled to find this Indonesian-born, Dutch-based artist’s work so lovingly republished in six limited edition, 500-copy landscape hardbacks, large enough to really do them justice. I briefly met Thé Tjong Khing in 1983 when I visited Haarlem to interview Joost Swarte for Escape #3. I was slightly familiar, having read some of his Storende Verhalen (‘Troubling Stories’) strips translated in the Seventies into French by Jean-Pierre Mercier’s company Artefact. Sherpa publisher Mat Schifferstein should be hailed now for this series and continuing with further volumes, and the rest of the world urgently needs to discover this artist, acclaimed these days for his wonderful colour illustrations for children’s books, but one of The Netherlands’ greatest, long-overlooked masters of sequential art.

No 15:
The Misadventures of Jane
by Don Freeman & Norman Pett
Titan Books

The Forces’ Sweetheart, The Daily Mirror’s blonde bombshell and Britain’s greatest secret weapon during the War returns in this suitably slim and beguiling 160-page hardback. I still have that fab phonebook-sized paperback reprint from the Seventies, and the repros here are not a lot better, but the real pluses here are the opening article, a fascinating reprint of a vintage magazine feature, and the reprints of Norman Pett’s colour painted strips and pin-ups from his self-published Jane’s Journal series. Let’s see if we get any more than this modest first sampling, but meantime, if you’re keen to learn more, do check out Andy Saunders’ Jane: A Pin-Up at War, (see my review here) reissued in 2005 in paperback.

No 16:
Century 21:
Classic Comic Strips
From The Worlds Of Gerry Anderson

by Ron Embleton, Mike Noble, Frank Bellamy and others
Reynolds & Hearn Books

A study has found that a little nostalgia does you good, so snap up these three volumes and bring back the glory days of TV21, the Sixties weekly dated one century in advance, which my brother and I used to adore. Before the internet, DVDs or even videos, you had to watch your favourite TV shows when they were broadcast. But between shows, TV21 enabled you could to enjoy new adventures of Fireball XL5, Stingray, Thunderbirds, Captain Scarlet and Zero X whenever you wanted. And unlike those television tales, these were all photogravure printed in glorious painted colour. R&H have done a superb job remastering these pages, many shot from the original artwork by Ron Embleton, Mike Noble, Frank Bellamy and more. F.A.B.!


No 17:
The Complete Trigan Empire
by Mike Butterworth & Don Lawrence
The Book Palace

And another huge childhood favourite of mine, the biggest attraction each week in Look & Learn magazine, this glorious space-age Roman-empire-style saga, mixing swords and togas with rockets and monsters, gets the ultimate deluxe archival treatment. Twelve giant hardback volumes, limited to 500 copies each, with over 750 of the 950 pages of Don Lawrence’s spectacular painted comics shot directly from the originals, all for a mere £699.


No 18:
Four Frightened Women
by George Harmon Coxe
Pure Imagination

From the topless ‘tec on the cover painted by Robert Stanley, this might pass for a regular, slightly trashy, text-only crime fiction paperback, but it’s in fact a “Kent Murdock Murder Mystery Told In Pictures”, and Greg Theakston offers a facsimile of one of the prototypes of the graphic novel from Dell Publishing in 1950. The scant few copies that survive trade for hundreds of dollars so this reprint makes it affordable again. The selling name on the cover is George Harmon Coxe, largely forgotten today but a prolific scribe in his time, whose novel from 1939 is adapted here by an unnamed, rather clunky imitator of Milton Caniff. With mostly two and never more than four panels per page, it’s been super-streamlined, hard-boiled boiled down even further. I like the back cover hype: “Over 500 Vivid Pictures Tell The Story. Right before your eyes, in expertly drawn realistic pictures, you will see the story unfold. You’ll be able to follow every action as a spectator of every scene in the book. You’ll thrill to the excitement of seeing with the artist’s camera eye what happens in the hysterical, quarreling household, and be present at the final solution of the crime.” No masterpiece - the original It Rhymes With Lust by Arnold Drake & Matt Baker, reprinted by Dark Horse, is far superior - but still this is a fascinating curio, a what-might-have-been if the Fifties American public had jumped on the graphic novel idea in the paperback format.

Posted: February 7, 2010


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Comics Art by Paul Gravett from Tate Publishing

Comics Unmasked by Paul Gravett and John Harris Dunning from The British Library

1001 Comics  You Must Read Before You Die edited by Paul Gravett