GRAPHIC NOVEL and TRADE PAPERBACK (TPB) REVIEWS

by The Masked Bookwyrm

Miscellaneous (non-Superhero) - "A" Page 1

Adam Strange: The Man of Two World 2003 (SC TPB) 160 pages

Written by Richard Bruning. Illustrated by Andy Kubert.
Colour: Adam Kubert. Letters: Todd Klein. Editor: Mike Carlin.

Reprinting: The three issue prestige format mini-series, Adam Strange (1990)

Rating: * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Mildly suggested for mature readers

Additional notes: intro by the author

Published by DC Comics

In the 1950s and 1960s, Adam Strange appeared in DC Comics' science fiction comic, Mystery in Space. A throwback to pulp and comic strip heroes such as Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers, Adam was an earthman transported to the planet Rann -- a world of scientific marvels...and plenty of menaces such as monsters, giant robots, and would be conquerers that he tackled with his wits, a rocket pack, a spiffy red spaceman's suit, and his beautiful Rannian wife, Alannah, at his side.

But Adam's popularity waned and he was reduced to an occasional guest star status in other comics (appearances few and far between since he did, after all, have his adventures on a distant planet).

In 1990, with DC in the midst of its, at times, indiscriminate re-writing and re-working of its characters, came this attempt to re-ignite the character.

Adam, whose visits to Rann are only temporary (he gets zapped by a Rannian sent Zeta Beam which transports him to Rann, but only until the energy wears off, then he reappears back on earth) is told that a new beam will whisk him to Rann, permanently. He returns to earth one last time, to set his things in order, and to visit his ailing father in hospital. Meanwhile, trouble is brewing on Rann. Seems the planet isn't quite the idyllic world it appears. There's social strife, people bitter at the undemocratic ruling council that is comprised of clones of, and answerable to, Sardath (Alannah's seeming nice guy father). Trouble ensues, things blow up, Adam spends time as a fugitive and, by the end, a considerable amount of the basic premise of the series is altered.

There are two ways to write a story -- character-driven (where plot and actions are secondary to the personalities) and story-driven (where the action-adventure of the plot is paramount). Here writer Richard Bruning seems to be trying a third style: attitude-driven. This was during the dark n' gritty phase comics went through in the late '80s/early '90s (a phase that has become increasingly mocked...even by its chief practitioners). Indeed, this three part, prestige format, slightly mature readers mini-series followed on the heels of Mike Grell's commercially successful three part, prestige format, mature readers mini-series Green Arrow: The Longbow Hunters, which was a gritty re-invention of Green Arrow wherein, like Adam, even his costume was changed. Bruning seems to have gone into this, less with a vision of character, or of plot, and more with a vision of making his mark by kicking the franchise in the teeth and seeing what got spat out.

For example, Adam goes temporarily insane in one scene, a plot device leading to his becoming a fugitive. But why does his madness manifest in violence? How does it stem logically from the character and the situation? If he's going to go temporarily crazy, why doesn't he, I don't know, don a dress and think he's Eleanor Roosevelt? The answer, I guess, is just that that wouldn't be gritty n' edgy. And that seems to be so much at the heart of the changes Bruning envisions...that they stem not from a logical extrapolation of the characters and the established reality, but from a desire to prove how gritty the book can be.

The underlining concept (at least, what may be an underlining concept) is that Adam doesn't really know his adopted world half as well as he thinks he does -- and it could be interesting. But too much of it seems to come out of nowhere (not that I'm enough of an expert on Adam Strange that I can say that with impunity). Adam was the so-called Champion of Rann...yet in Bruning's version, no one except Alannah and Sardath seems to even like the guy, let alone regard him as their champion. Much of their animosity stems for old fashioned bigotry (Adam being an alien). But, come on, don't you think Adam would've had some inkling of that if true? For that matter, wouldn't you realistically expect public opinion to be, at least, divided, with Adam still having some supporters?

Bruning seems to follow the lead established by Alan Moore in the seminal revisionist super hero saga, The Watchmen, of regarding old fashioned heroes with a kind of contempt. Here, Adam is portrayed as kind of pathetic, whose Rannian adventures are simply an adolescent fantasy made flesh, where Adam, as everything falls apart, childishly rants "this is the place where I'm the hero and everyone respects me" while on earth he shucks his responsibilities to his ailing father and his sister and cheats on Alannah. Adam barely seems like the protagonist, let alone the hero (in the middle book, he only appears on about 13 of 46 pages!) -- he's ineffectual, not accomplishing anything. If Adam had been removed from the story entirely after the first book, things probably would've transpired exactly the same way! Instead, much of the story concerns various Rannian characters and an earth lady doctor who, inadvertently, follows Adam to Rann. All that might be forgiven if Bruning had woven a complex saga of twists and turns and machinations, peopled by subtly shaded supporting characters. And, to be fair, he's trying. He just doesn't succeed all that well.

Again, it's because it seems as though the attitude is driving the story and characters, rather than the other way around.

And because Bruning focuses on brooding character introspection (not that I felt he realized his characters especially well) and political machinations, it means that the book doesn't even function on the basic level of the original series...as an adventure.

The art is by Andy Kubert, an artist with a style reminiscent of his dad, Joe Kubert. At first blush, it's a good choice, because Joe Kubert's scratchy, brooding art is associated with 1960s DC characters like Hawkman...but Adam Strange was the purview of Carmine Infantino, who lent a brighter, more clean- cut look to the series. Andy Kubert's art is brooding and atmospheric, but maybe Bruning's re-invention of the series would've resonated better if contrasted with bright art and clean lines. Still, the art is certainly decent enough.

Ultimately, The Man of Two Worlds seems too much like someone decided to shake up the character...precisely because no one at DC cared about him (making the dedication at the end seeming a touch insincere). And all they succeeded in doing is stripping the character and the comic of the things that made him interesting (if only as a nostalgic icon) and replacing it with, well, very little. And the experiment was, one assumes, pretty much a failure, as there was no follow up monthly series, and Strange's occasional appearances since this mini-series have generally ignored it (often being retroactive appearances, set before this mini-series). Nor does it entirely succeed as just a stand alone, sci-fi saga since, as noted, the heroes accomplish very little. It feels too much like the main point is simply to set it up for a new series...a series that, then, never materialized.

The most curious question is why DC Comics decided to collect it as a TPB now...some 13 years after it first saw print? (Though I think it might be because DC was starting up a new Adam Strange monthly comic).

This is a review of the story as it was originally serialized in the mini-series.

Cover price: $__ CDN./ $19.95 USA


Airboy

for Airboy stories, see Return of Valkyrie and Valkyrie!


Airboy Archives, vol. 1 2014 (SC TPB) 308 pages

Written by Chuck Dixon (with Tim Truman). Illustrated by Tom Yeates, Tim Truman, Stan Wochs.
Colour/letters: __

Reprinting: Airboy #1-16 (1986-1987) originally published by Eclipse

Rating: * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Mildly suggested for mature readers

Reviewed: Oct 2016

Published by IDW

Airboy first flew across the comic book pages for Hillman Publishing in the 1940s and 1950s. An aviation/adventure series (a sub-genre that included Blackhawk and other such comics) initially set against a backdrop of the world war, and which subsequently involved post-war thrills.

Airboy was Davey Nelson who flew about in his custom-built plane, Birdie -- whose distinguishing feature was that its wings actually flapped! He was called Air"boy" but was presumably a teenager or young adult. Certainly he had a bit of a romance with Valkyrie, the archetypal "bad girl" comic book heroine -- a raven-haired Nazi aviatress (of noteworthy cleavage) who quickly switched sides and became a good guy. (Valkyrie is heavily associated with the series despite, I believe, only making a handful of appearances -- most reprinted here).

The history of comic books is a history of reviving old properties, in the hopes that any lingering fame will translate into modern sales (and so a "new" series can start with a mythology already in place). So Airboy was resurrected by Eclipse Comics, a briefly successful company that flourished in the 1980s.

Eclipse's Airboy ran 50 issues -- though experimenting with a bi-weekly publishing schedule (with a shorter page count) it only represents about two years of publishing. Re-imagined for the modern age, David Nelson is killed off in the first issue! Only to have his look-alike son, also called Davey, become the new Airboy. And the comic quickly assembled a supporting cast -- some, I think, new (Hirota, an aging Japanese aviator who acts as Davey's mentor) and others resurrected from old Hillman Comics, including Skywolf (another aviation hero, now old and crusty), The Heap (essentially a progenitor of swamp creatures like The Man-Thing and The Swamp Thing -- and drawn to look even more like the Man-Thing than it had originally). And Valkyrie who, thanks to suspended animation, is still young and beautiful.

The revival was the creation of writer Chuck Dixon with editor/co-plotter Tim Truman. And it was mostly drawn by Stan Woch (with Truman and Tom Yeates kicking things off).

This first volume reprints the first sixteen issues -- including the back-up flashback series which told tales of Skywolf just after WW II (and which worked in yet more old time aviation comic book heroes).

At first it's enjoyable -- simply being a little different from the super heroes that dominate comics. Airboy owes more to mercenary fiction and '70s paperback heroes. This is kill-or-be-killed action with Airboy and his friends getting into aerial dogfights with both third world fascist armies and drug dealers, and mowing down ground-level opponents with everything from machine guns to samurai swords. It's mostly "real world" type stuff, but with occasional fantasy, including Airboy's old nemesis, the supernaturally evil Misery, and another tale involving a werewolf!

The opening chapters are quite moody with Yeates' Joe Kubert-like finishes, but the visuals remain decent throughout with Woch's more straightforward line work also effective. The colours are also moody and atmospheric, a lot of scenes involving oceans or tropical jungles.

But it can get a bit bland after a while. Part of the narrative advantage to heroes who don't kill is it encourages slightly more interesting plots and action scenes. Heroes don't have to be clever when their chief strategy is to bomb and shoot their their opponents. It's mostly pretty straightforward with bad guys doing bad things and the heroes stopping them. It's not like there are a lot of hidden agendas to be uncovered or unexpected motives to be revealed.

Nor are the villains and guest stars that memorable. One story involves a werewolf -- an ex-WW II German nobleman who flies about in an airship and is basically an anti-hero rather than a villain. The credits list him as "Wolfmark, created by Tim Truman," as if this was testing the waters for a solo series -- but I'm not sure he ever reappeared. It's not that a werewolf anti-hero in an airship couldn't be interesting -- just that nothing here really makes one eager to follow him in later adventures.

Likewise Davey and his friends are adequate protagonists -- without really becoming that interesting or nuanced. A romantic complication is thrown in by virtue of the fact that Valkyrie has been in suspended animation -- and used to be in love with Davey's dad. But even that is inconsistent: in one scene Valkyrie comes on to Davey -- but he rebuffs her; later Davey acts sweet on her -- but she rebuffs him. And with neither of them being especially compelling personalities.

Admittedly, given the bi-weekly format these 16 issues are more like 8 issues, and Dixon was still developing the series and his characters. But Dixon's idea of non-action scenes is simply to have Valkyrie go shopping a lot (one half-expected, in an homage to old comics, for the comic to include dress cut outs of the clothes Val bought).

It isn't that I especially disliked this run of issues. The plots have action. But it's more of the kind like an old Chuck Norris movie, rather than a movie serial/pulp fiction flavour of twists and turns. And with the characters fairly vague and, I suppose, of a type.

One of the series' most controversial aspects may have been unexpected. The opening arc involves Airboy allying with rebels against a Latin American dictator -- and artist Tom Yeates throws in a panel where the dictator has a signed picture of then American president Reagan.

And the spit hit the fan!

More than a few of the letter columns were swamped by angry conservatives denouncing the comic -- some saying they would never buy any Eclipse comic again!

What makes the response so intriguing is the varied reactions. Some denounced the comic for besmirching Reagan (and thus America) by linking him to the villain; while others objected to the dictator being the villain, arguing the rebels are the real villains; while others argued American foreign policy should be about what's in American interests -- not abstract morality. So...they all agree the comics creators were a bunch of irresponsible liberal pinkos, but not on what, precisely, was wrong about the panel. And, reading between the lines in the editorial responses, I'm not sure this was anything more than the artist sticking something in on his own, and had nothing to do with writer Dixon!

Funnily enough, there is some more blatant left/liberal aspects as these issues progress (including a flashback tale with the heroes helping communist Chinese against the Nationalists) -- and one can't help wonder if Dixon simply threw that in to Troll his critics. Because an irony is that Dixon himself identifies as a conservative among comics scribes. So it's ironic that he takes it in the neck over a supposedly leftist/liberal agenda!

In more recent years, Dixon has even suggested his conservatism has actually hurt his career. But the problem with artists -- of whatever idealogy and discipline -- arguing discrimination is that one can point to any number of people who were big one decade -- and struggle to land gigs the next. Dixon's a perfectly capable writer but I find a lot of his stuff like this run -- decent in terms of pacing and action, but not necessarily graced by compelling characterization or clever plot twists.

One final political thought before we move on: those letter writers argued it was a pattern of left wing/anti-conservative bias in comics. But we all tend to focus angrily on things we disagree with -- and not notice the things we do. Because there have been plenty of comics portraying Republicans in a good light. Reagan cropped up in more than one comic in those days, mostly in a positive way (Batman: Ten Nights of the Beast being just one example). Because my review is based on the old comics, as opposed to the collected edition, I'm not sure what the reprint collection contains, but it would've ben interesting for them to have included the letters pages for modern day readers.

Rounding out this collection are the period Skywolf stories, set in the Asian Pacific at the end of World War II. Written by Dixon, but with other artists, it's a lot like the lead Airboy stories -- decent action tales, but not exactly full of twists and turns. Dixon dredges up some other Hillman-era aviator heroes -- and then for some reason kills some of them off perfunctorily.

Ultimately, this collection boasts good art and is fun to delve into just for being something other than a superhero comic. But you can finish it not necessarily feeling any need to continue collecting the subsequent volumes.

This is a review of the story as it was originally serialized in the comics.

Cover price: $__ CDN./ $__ USA


Albion  2006 (SC TPB) 140 pages

cover by Dave GibbonsWritten by Leah Moore & John Reppion (story by Alan Moore). Pencils by Shane Oakley. Inks by George Freeman, with Peter Guzman.
Colours: Wildstorm FX & Tony Avina. Letters: Todd Klein. Editor: Scott Dunbier, Kristy Quinn.

Reprinting: the six issue mini-series (2005-2006)

Additional notes: intro by Neil Gaiman.

Rating: * 1/2 (out of 5)

Number of readings: 2

Published by Wildstorm / DC

(When I first read this, I knew nothing about the era of British comic book characters to which this harkens. Subsequently, I did read old stories of a few of the characters used here...and then re-read this now armed with that new familiarity. But despite the two perspectives...my opinion didn't change much).

The plot for Albion was credited to comics legend, Alan Moore, but its actual execution Moore left to the next generation -- his daughter, Leah, and co-writer, John Reppion. But the premise is fully reminiscent of something Alan Moore would do, as it nostalgically harkens back to yesterday's heroes...even as, paradoxically, it delights in cynically deconstrucing such heroes. From the Mavelman/Miracleman stories he did in the early 1980s, to The Watchmen, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, The Lost Girls, to less cynical projects like Tom Strong and his work on Supreme, Moore's career has been largely obsessed with conjuring up -- and re-imagining -- old characters and archetypes (many of which are reviewed elsewhere on my site -- but I'm too lazy to create links right now). Albion even includes a few brief flashback snippets designed to evoke the old comics, again, a very Moore-sian trait.

In the case of Albion (Albion being an archaic term for England) the characters selected for dusting off this time are British comic book characters popular in the 1950s and 1960s, but little known on this side of the pond, and one suspects rapidly fading into obscurity even in England. It's an irresistible idea -- even admirable, in that it attempts to preserve a lost culture. As a Canadian, I'd love to see someone try such a project reviving old Canadian comic book heroes -- heck, I've got story ideas myself!

(Actually Ty Templeton did try doing something with Canadian characters with the short lived Northern Guard comic...but I'll confess that didn't really work for me). Anyhoo...

Subsequently we've seen series like Project Superpowers and The Twelve trying to re-invigour largely forgotten American super heroes. Though the trick to Albion is that the characters reflect a broader range of genres that they're trying to meld into a single reality -- heroes, anti-heroes, and even satirical and comedy-cartoon characters.

Unfortunately, as an actual story -- Albion is as off as pork left too long in the fridge.

These are British characters remembered largely only by a now middle aged generation of Britons, and almost completely unknown to North American readers. Which means they should factor that into the telling, to recognize that the lion's share of the readership will have no idea of the references and so would need these characters introduced and explained to them. I would guess that if Leah Moore herself grew up reading these characters, it was only because dad Alan had some old issues lying around the house. Yet the series is full of vaguely dropped names, cryptic allusions, "dramatic" revelations of characters...and one has no idea who these people are or why we should care.

So the foundation of the mini-series is a bit mushy. But the telling is even worse. For one thing...it doesn't really have a plot.

Oh, come on, I hear you say. Yes it does! See, we are told that these comic book characters were real, but now forgotten after the government rounded them all up -- heroes and villains alike -- and sequestered them in a gulag beneath a Scottish castle. A comic fan and a daughter of one of the not-so-fictional-characters have a chance meeting, and team up to free them all. There, you say, that's your plot.

And I'd argue, no -- that's a premise. The plot is what you do with it, the character development, the twists and turns.

There's a lot of repetition, cutting back and forth between scenes that don't really do much more than repeat earlier scenes, much of the time spent just tossing in appearances by characters we may -- or may not -- be intended to recognize. At the super human prison, a U.S. government agent has come to inspect the British facility. The cause for the inspection was a warning that a crisis was imminent. But that warning...makes no sense, other than as a narrative catalyst. Toward the end, an exasperated character even exclaims: "You can't just keep telling us 'something's' going to happen." But that's what the character does. And there are a few places like that, where the how and why of a plot progression just happens because the writers need it too, not because it makes plausible sense.

Other things seem to lead nowhere, like a villain, Spider, who's being presented as the cell block's Big Bad...but then never seems to do much.

And the characters are pretty non-existent: ill-defined and with little growth. And hard to even sometimes identify from page to page.

Which maybe is a good segue into talking about the art. Shane Oakley certainly has a distinctive, professional style, with George Freeman using a heavier inking style than I often associate with him (presumably to suit the pencils). Oakley's stuff reminds me more than a little of Kelley Jones, though with a harder edge than Jones' softer, more organic gothic style. Unfortunately, the Jones comparison isn't entirely a compliment. Oakley's panels are full of stylish distortion -- often drawing the scenes as if through a fish eye lense, with walls curling around the figures, or with smoke tendrils as geometric shapes, and with interesting angles, close ups, or showing an image via its reflection in another object. But though that means the panels can be visually interesting, even art...it doesn't mean they're great at simple storytelling which, after all, is what comic book art is about. And I didn't always recognize the characters from panel to panel.

The script wasn't doing a good job of distinguishing the characters, and neither was the art. Still, it's stylish and gives the story some personality.

There's also a punk sensibility at work, with protagonist Penny casually threatening to kill fellow protagonist Daniel if he doesn't help her (notice I say "protagonists" as opposed to "heroes") and all the characters talk in an unrelenting stream of euphemistic profanity (#$@!#) and sometimes not so euphemistic. I tend to find that distracting when used too frequently. Either make it a mature readers comic, and have them cuss a blue streak, or don't have them talk that way. But as well, it adds to the sense of padding to justify a page count -- if you took out all the $%##@, and then took out all the dialogue that simply existed to delivery the #$%@!, you'd probably lose a third of the verbiage!

And this grunge/punk attitude (which one sort of associates with British comics writers) tends to give the thing a kind of cynical air. I mean, on one hand a project like this is presumably fuelled by nostalgic affection...even as, in the telling, it will probably alienate a lot of the remaining fans, and would shock the creators of old.

Ultimately, it isn't that the premise isn't potentially interesting, although it's hardly original. Gulag's for super beings? Been there, done that. Which is why the details, the "how" of the telling, is so important. Yet there's very little attempt to embellish beyond that core concept. Nor is there much sense of themes and subtext. It's as if the premise is so cliched, the writers don't feel the need to even justify it with some sort of metaphorical patina.

The protagonists want to break open the gulag...but an awful lot of the people there really seem to be dangerous, crazy villains that pose a threat to the public. I guess the message is: better anarchy -- and even homicidal villains running loose -- than oppression. Which was kind of the message of Moore's V for Vendetta (and though a valid debate -- I'm not sure if victims of said homicidal villains would say you've done anything more than replaced one tyranny with another).

Even the basic "reality" is kind of vague in the sense of how it was that the collective memory of these beings was so effectively expunged from the public's consciousness. Perhaps part of the problem is that the creators haven't fully settled on whether this is meant to be read "realistically" or as a purely self-reflective comment/in joke on the comics biz. When a character decries a comical villain who starred in his own series (but is here re-imagined as a creepier figure) as being a corrupter of youth and the villain himself sneers that watching Teletubbies has made people soft, one can't help but feel the sub-text has supplanted the text -- that Moore and Reppion are arguing modern kids' fiction is too bland and safe.

Despite the fact that I didn't like Albion, I'm not wholly prepared to dismiss Leah Moore (and John Reppion) as writers. I mean, the basic dialogue is okay (#$%& notwithstanding) and maybe they just need to find a project that better fires their imagination.

But as I say, the whole feels rather undeveloped -- a six issue mini-series with barely enough plot to justify two or three. An homage to old comic book characters that, strangely, doesn't really give much sense of these characters (or their stories) if you had never heard of them, and will unlikely resonate much if you are familiar with them as they often seem out of character (and even out of their genres). Indeed, cynically, one might wonder if the reason Alan Moore "plotted" it, but didn't write it, was because even he was stumped for what to do with it. And Leah Moore and John Reppion scripted it because, well, who wouldn't want to participate in an Alan Moore headlined project possibly positioning itself as the British Watchmen? But the end results feels like everyone was keen for the idea of resurrecting these old British characters -- in the abstract -- but were a bit more uncertain when it came time to do the deed.

The whole thing ends almost as if it's supposed to be the start of a whole new era (kind of like Project Superpowers), as the characters are freed, and second generation characters introduced -- without really seeming as though Moore or anyone seriously intended to follow up on it.

The one positive thing that came out of this was that it did serve to shine a light on some once-popular, now obscure characters. Not a very good light -- we actually see very little of the old characters, and you won't read this and come away with any sense of what the old stories were actually like. But at least you'll now know the names. Because of Alan Moore's name on the cover, industry watchers were presumably assuming this project would be more successful than, I think, it ultimately was. But anticipating a resurgence of interest in the old characters, other companies (like Britain's Titan Books) have released a few collections of some of the old stories, including Steel Claw, Spider, and the multi-character Albion Origins (reviewed below).

(Actually, a few years earlier, another comic book series -- Jack Staff -- also paid homage to some of these characters with thinly veiled dopplegangers).

This is a review of the story as it was originally serialized in Epic Illustrated

Cover price: $__ USA.


Albion Origins 2007 (HC) 112 pages

Written by Tom Tully, Scott Goodall, Ken Mennell. Illustrated by Francisco Solano Lopez, Eric Bradbury.
black & white. Letters: various.

Reprinting: stories from various British anthology comics circa the 1960s/1970s.

Additional notes: foreward by Leah Moore & John Reppion (writers of the Albion mini-series); intro by Steve Holland; commentaries on the various series.

Rating: * * 1/2 (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Published by Titan Books

Reviewed March 5, 2010

The Alan Moore conceived mini-series, Albion (reviewed above), drew its inspiration from old British comic book characters -- fondly recalled by some, forgotten (or never heard of to begin with) by many others. I hadn't thought Albion worked, but it did succeed in instilling in me a certain curiosity about those long gone characters -- nostalgist and pop culturalist that I am. And clearly Britain's Titan Books hoped a few readers might be likewise intrigued, releasing a few hard cover collections re-printing comics that in many cases hadn't been published in decades (including Steel Claw and Spider: King of Crooks).

Albion Origins is an anthology, collecting four separate characters between a single cover (and I'm not sure what copyright is involved, since this is published by Titan, but is explicitly marketing its connection to the Wildstorm/DC Albion -- even using the same logo).

As a Canadian, I hadn't even known there was a Silver Age of British comics. But I was interested both because of Albion, and after having recently discovered (and enjoyed) the British Dan Dare adventures. But that means I'm reading these without even the glimmer of nostalgia that a British reader might have, remembering them from his/her youth. As such, my reaction is somewhat...mixed. It's not that these are bad, as representative of their time, per se, or compared to contemporaneous American comics -- but for all the gothic artwork, and some quirky concepts, they don't really seem to reflect the growth and maturing American comics were starting to experience by the 1960s.

Perhaps (and I could be wrong) while by the 1960s, American comics were seeing their audience expand from kids to teens and young adults, and so were being written for that broader demographic, British comics were still seen as primarily for youngsters (even if they might well have had older fans, too).

Admittedly, British comics were a bit different from American ones, being more closely linked to the idea of newspaper comic strips. Featured in weekly anthology comics, the adventures were often told in serialized instalments of two-pages per week. Even the strips that do lean more towards self-contained adventures are still pretty short -- four to six page adventures (granted, at over-sized dimensions, a four page story here is more the equivalent of 8 pages US). As such, characterization is minimal to non-existent, and the plots can be rudimentary.

The four series represented here are "Kelly's Eye", a globe hopping adventure strip about Tim Kelly, a man whose mystic medallion makes him invincible; "House of Dolmann", about a government agent with assorted remote controlled puppet-robots; "Janus Stark", about a Victorian-era escape artist (with preternatural malleability) who fought crime; and "Cursitor Doom", a master of the mystic arts who fights supernatural evil. Although all have their fantastical elements, there is a variety to them -- at least, as much variety as can be expected when some of the same writers and artists work on the different series!

Admittedly, it's hard to gauge just how significant these series were, given most only ran a few years even in their heyday. I don't want to rain on British pride (after all, as a Canadian, I can look back with nostalgia for Canada's comic book Golden Age...which was even more problematic), but many of the commentary/introductions to these characters may be inflating their importance...and creative brilliance, seeming to suggest they were somehow better, more clever than American comics. But, I mean, how is Cursitor Doom really any more creative than Dr. Strange, or Dr. Fate, or even Dr. Druid? Sure, he's a curious visual type -- rather than a leading man, he's portly and bald (which may owe something to British egg head heroes like Dr. Who and Professor Quatermass). Even Dolmann, among the most eccentric of the concepts here, can be likened to DC's Dr. Magnus and his Metal Men. The weirdest idea is that the doll's aren't sentient, but Dolmann makes them seem that way with ventriloquism. A weird idea, to be sure, given he makes them talk even when he's alone -- but is that weird as in cleverly eccentric...or weird as in poorly thought out?

Head and shoulders the best series here is Janus Stark -- it seems the best conceived, in terms of plots, and with its historical setting, the most unusual, the gothic black and white art particularly good at evoking Victorian England. It's as if Charles Dickens had turned his hand to writing a proto-superhero (Stark's origin is even rooted in an Oliver Twist-y orphanage). Stark seems to have the most personality of the guys here, too -- though that just may be his weird visual design, looking a bit like The Sub-Mariner's distant cousin. Though he doesn't do much The Elongated Man wasn't doing across the pond.

A whole collection of Janus Stark wouldn't have been amiss -- unfortunately, he only gets seventeen pages, reprinting three separate adventures. But the fact that he enjoyed a post-British comics life (continuing in some French publications) isn't surprising.

The longest piece here, at over 40 pages, is Kelly's Eye, told in two page chapters, it basically resembles an American newspaper strip, or movie serial, in style. It's not bad, but its very length works against it. Sure, there is an endless amount of running about and death defying thrills (since hero Tim Kelly is invincible with his amulet...suspense is generated because he constantly seems to lose it at inopportune times). But as an actual plot, it can seem repetitious. This story has Tim in the Florida Everglades getting embroiled in an evil witch doctor's attempt to control the local Seminole Indians and send them on the warpath. Given Kelly's Eye was the longest lasting of the series here (around 12 years) one wonders why this story was selected above all others for inclusion here, particularly as it can certainly skirt the edges of racism...or at least, seem rather condescending. Maybe because the adventure takes place in Florida, the editors selected it hoping to appeal to American readers.

Although shorter, the Cursitor Doom story suffers from a similar problem of length as "Kelly's Eye". A single story serialized in short instalments, it doesn't really offer much in the way of plot twists to justify the length (heck, Doom spends most of the story in his spooky mansion, observing the villainy from a distance).

The six "House of Dolmann" instalments feature mainly self-contained adventures told in short, four pages each. Though the four pages can cram in more than you'd think, they're still pretty slender plots.

As I earlier alluded, part of the problem is there's no attempt to instill the plots with much depth or emotion, or characterization. Not in a way that was out of keeping with some American comics...but certainly falling short of the better American comics of the time. None of these guys really have much personality to speak of, there's little sense of humour or wit, nor is there much character interaction. Cursitor Doom does have a trusty legman, Angus McGraggan, but there's no effort (at least here) to create a relationship between them. Granted, maybe characterization was developed as the various series' progressed. And, to be fair, we are talking short instalments, where the focus is necessarily on the action rather than introspection. Nonetheless, it's a problem.

There's also a curious lack of women. Not only are there no romantic interests, few women appear even in bit parts! In the "Kelly's Eye" story, Kelly first comes upon the Seminole village populated only by old men, and wonders where the rest of the village is, only to discover the evil shaman has brainwashed and absconded with all the young, able bodied men -- but there are still no women! What -- did the British think North American Indians reproduced asexually? Actually, this may have been endemic of British comics in general, even moreso than U.S. comics. I recently read some reprints of old Marvelman/Miracleman comics -- this was a British series blatantly imitating (ripping off) the original Captain Marvel, including having a "Marvelman Family" of like heroes...except (in the reprints I read) there was no female Marvelman, ala Captain Marvel's Mary Marvel!

The art throughout is quite good, making striking use of the black and white for brooding, shadow drenched scenes. But even then, it suits some stories (like Janus Stark) better than others, depending on the underlining tone. Like a lot of British comics art I've seen over the years, the emphasis here is mainly on realism, on rendering faces that look like faces, on reasonably well proportioned bodies. But the actual composition isn't always that great, the sense of depth and positioning, nor the action scenes, that dynamically depicted. And there's a certain sameness to the art. Granted, that's because only two artists may be represented here. But even so, you could easily imagine it was just one artist!

It's perhaps unfair to be too critical, reading these not as a kid (they're presumed audience) but looking back on these stories as an adult and from the perspective of thirty or forty years. After all, these characters were frozen in time. Perhaps had these comics continued, these guys would've grown and been developed into richer personalities, as happened with many of their American counterparts. After all, one can read some 1960s American comics and enjoy them, partly because you are seeing the characters as they would become. Which is why the revival of them, in Albion, was such a disappointment...because all it would take is a writer to add a little spit and polish to make them intriguing. And Albion failed to do that.

And at the same time, I've read some older comics -- and newspaper comic strips -- that do hold up. Compare "Kelly's Eye" (or, at least, this adventure) to, say, "Johnny Hazard" or "Wash Tubbs" or "Terry and the Pirates", and it still comes out the lesser in the comparison -- despite having the more flamboyant concept of the mystical talisman!

And so...I end up mixed. From a nostalgic point of view, a collection like this provides a worthy peak back at a lost comics era from another country. The Janus Stark section was pretty good and I certainly wouldn't object to seeing more of his adventures reprinted. But most of the strips here are of interest mainly just as cultural curios.

Cover price: $ __ CDN



 

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