Monday, June 25, 2007

Review: Fantastic Four Omnibus


Perfectly timed to coincide with the release of the Rise of the Silver Surfer movie, last week Marvel Comics published the second volume of the Fantastic Four Omnibus by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. This 832 page hardback (yes, that's not a typo: eight hundred and thirty two pages in glorious full colour) reprints issues 31 to 60 of the Fantastic Four comic from the swingin' sixties, plus FF Annuals 2, 3 and 4 the covers to all these comics, original letters pages, a spoof strip from Not Brand Echh, covers to the sixties reprint FF title Marvel Collector's Item Classics, and more besides.


The 1960s were the most definitive times for Marvel Comics. It's the period when the "Marvel Age of Comics" began, when their major characters were created, and when stronger characterization was introduced into superhero comics (characterization which we now take for granted). The Fantastic Four in particular was the flagship for the company and evolved more than any other American comic in this period. The first 30 issues of the FF (which were collected in Fantastic Four Omnibus Vol.1) show the evolution of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's script and art, but it's the second 30 issues where the comic matures.


Issues 31 to 60 of FF was an incredibly fertile run for the title, introducing recurring characters such as The Inhumans, the Silver Surfer, Galactus, The Black Panther. It's also the period where the comic became more cosmic (with the Galactus trilogy, and Kirby's use of photo-montages to depict alien worlds) and also where the comic focused on its humanity (the boyhood of Doctor Doom, the wedding of Reed and Sue, and the emotional journey of Ben Grimm in the story This Man, This Monster). The effect that these 30 issues had on comics are still in place today, and I would even say the influence they had on Hollywood and television is also often evident in today's SF films and tv shows. As Stan Lee used to say, if you only buy one book this month, this is the one to get, pilgrim!


Hold on though; isn't the reproduction in some of these classic reprints often a bit iffy, you may ask? True, some of the repro in the Marvel Masterworks hardbacks has been patchy; lost detail in fine line work, or muddy printing in other areas. Not this time! The artwork has been painstakingly remastered to try and capture every line in its original clarity, and has been recoloured to bring it closer to the original printing. (So no dodgy colour gradients that plagued past reprints.) With nice quality paper too, the Omnibus edition looks and feels like a labour of love. This goes some way to compensating for the hefty price tag: $99.99!?! That's a lot to ask, but when one breaks it down, it's not too bad, as the Masterworks cost $50 for 10 reprint comics, so twice the price for 30 comics, 3 annuals, and all the bonus features (plus the aforementioned quality reproduction) makes it sound like a bargain! (And for UK readers, it certainly is a bargain, as Amazon are currently offering it for a mere £42.90. Only three left, so order quickly!)


If ever there was one book which summed up the essence of Marvel Comics, this is it. If you're unfamiliar with Marvel Comics of the sixties and wondered what made them so great, this is the perfect place to find out. If you remember them as a kid, this volume will bring back nostalgic memories. A brilliant book.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Short run comics: Joe 90 Top Secret


Comics based on tv shows may dominate the market for UK comics today, but it's a genre that's been with us a long time. The 1960s were particularly fertile with such publications though not all of them enjoyed great success.

In 1969 City Magazines launched a Joe 90 weekly (or to use its full masthead title Joe 90 Top Secret, an attempt to cash in on the hugely popular spy genre of the period) as a companion comic to TV Century 21. The title character being Gerry Anderson's latest tv show after the successes of Fireball XL5, Stingray, Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet. Unfortunately, despite some quality scripts, Joe 90 never achieved quite the same popularity. Presumably Anderson's idea was that nine year old viewers would identify with nine year old Joe 90. Not so. In my case, being a nine year old at the time, I wanted heroes to aspire to, such as Steve Zodiac or Troy Tempest in their futuristic environments, not "identify" with a peer in a modern day setting. I imagine most kids my age at the time felt the same. Joe 90 was too much like the big-headed blonde kid at school.

Therefore when the Joe 90 comic came out I imagine we'd already built up a prejudice against this scrawny little swot. The comic led with a complete Joe 90 four-page strip which was okay as far as the limitations of its concept allowed. Luckily, the weekly contained a few other strips that were far more appealing to sixties kids. This was the first comic to feature a Star Trek strip by British creators.


Drawn by Harry Lindfield, Star Trek looked dynamic, although perhaps the writer had been briefed over a bad telephone connection because some of the early strips referred to Captain Kurt not Kirk! (If I remember correctly, the Star Trek strip, which proudly occupied the centre spread of Joe 90, began before the tv show was shown on UK television which may account for any inconsistencies in the scripts and art.)


The other notable serial in Joe 90 was Land of the Giants, based on Irwin Allen's tv series about an Earth spaceship being stranded on an Earth-like planet populated by giants. The first three issues of the comic ran a pleasing (albeit abridged) adaptation of the first tv episode, nicely illustrated by Gerry Haylock who remained the artist on the strip for the rest of the run in the comic.


Other strips in Joe 90 Top Secret were The Champions (based on the ITC tv series) and an unappealing football strip called Ninepence + Tenpence = Sport. Ninepence and Tenpence being two lads from Greenland who spoke in a poorly written idea of Eskimo diction ("M-maybe Eyetooth hlappy now, b-but we vella ill! So hot!") Forgettable strip.

The rest of the 20 page weekly was taken up with sports pin ups, short fact features etc. All in all, not a very substantial comic. Star Trek and Land of the Giants obviously being the main attractions (and both superbly drawn) but even they couldn't help the comic survive more than 34 issues; its imminent cancellation perhaps being a combination of falling sales and the editorial and design being taken over by Martspress. Although according to Howard Elson who worked in editorial, Joe 90 was selling better than TV21 at that time. Nevertheless, it merged with TV 21 to relaunch as TV21 & Joe 90 with a new No.1 in September 1969. The Joe 90, Star Trek and Land of the Giants strips all survived the merger, with Star Trek having the most longevity as it also survived the later merger of Valiant and TV21.

There was one Joe 90 Top Secret Annual published (1969) which is well worth seeking out for anyone interested in the artwork of Ron Turner. This hardback contains 19 pages of Turner artwork as he tackles Star Trek, Land of the Giants, and The Champions, making the latter look far more visually exciting than the tv series ever was.


There were two other Joe 90 Annuals published around that time but they focus solely on Joe 90 and are not really spin-offs from Joe 90 Top Secret.

A more detailed look at Joe 90 comic strips can be found at this excellent website:
http://www.technodelic.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk/Upload01/Joe90TS01.htm

If any readers of this blog are interested in collecting Joe 90 merchandise I currently have the Dinky Toy Joe's Car in superb condition for auction on eBay HERE.



Combat Colin Returns!


Twenty years after his first appearance in Marvel UK's Action Force comic, the bobble-hatted adventurer Combat Colin returns to the pages of a comic this summer! The rotund Rambo wannabe appears as a guest star in the Brickman strip in Image Comics' Elephantmen No.10 scheduled to appear in July.

Combat Colin first appeared as a half page humour strip in the back of Action Force in 1987, then moved to Marvel UK's Transformers fortnightly when the two comics merged. For four years the strip became a popular feature of the comic, growing to a full page, and developing its own continuity and supporting cast (which is unusual for a humour strip).

When
Transformers ended, so did Combat Colin in an explosive climax, but Marvel gave me copyright on the strip and I revived him for a couple of fanzines in the 1990s.

Combat Colin and Brickman have met before, back in the
Transformers days in the Combat Colin five-parter The Place of No Return in which Colin was trapped in a mysterious isolated village along with several other comic heroes. (Yes, it was a spoof of The Prisoner tv series.)

Why does Colin turn up in the new Brickman stories in
Elephantmen? Divulging that would reveal too much of the plot (hence the blacked out words on the panel above) but you'll find out soon when the comic is released. (Colin will also feature in issue 11. After that, the regular Elephantmen comic goes on hiatus for three months, replaced by the three-issue Elephantmen: War Toys mini-series. A three-part back up in this comic will also feature Brickman and Combat Colin!)

Elephantmen No.10 also features the most important turning point in the Brickman saga in 28 years! An important NEW character premiers! Someone gets their head pulled off! And you thought Captain America No.25 was a key issue? HAH!

Elephantmen No.10. Published July 2007. On sale in specialist comic shops such as Forbidden Planet, Nostalgia & Comics, Gosh!, Page 45 etc. (Best to order a copy if you want one as shops stock low on this title!) $2.99. More details of that issue here:
http://www.hipflask.com/issues/elephantmen10/

Danger Man in comics


The current issue of the top UK news magazine for the comics industry, Comics International (No.202) includes a five page article on the history of Danger Man comic strips. The well-illustrated feature covers all the British and American appearances of John Drake in comics and children's annuals, including items such as unseen character sketches. Most interestingly, the "dummy cover" of a late 1980's Danger Man comic book is shown; a comic which was never published due to a change in editor. (Had it been released, it would have reprinted the 1966 Danger Man comic serials from Lion weekly drawn by Jesus Blasco.)

The next issue of Comics International (which should be out in July) will spotlight The Prisoner comic strips and spoofs.


Comics International
No.202 is only available from comics specialist stores (such as Forbidden Planet). This issue features four alternative covers to choose from, one of which highlights Danger Man. The 100 page magazine costs £2.99 / $4.99.

Fans of The Prisoner tv series may be interested to visit this regularly updated news site:
http://www.theunmutual.co.uk/

(Please note that The Unmutual Website is careful NOT to be associated in any way with the highly controversial Prisoner fan club society "Six of One"! For revelations of the society's dodgy deeds, visit http://www.sixofone-info.co.uk/)


Sunday, June 10, 2007

Crikey! No.1 reviewed


I had a pleasant Saturday morning yesterday when Crikey! number one arrived in the post. A very appropriate day for it to arrive, I thought, considering that Saturdays used to be the main day that weekly comics were published, and that Crikey! is a magazine devoted to those nostalgic days of the 1950s to 1970s. And, like all nostalgic comic memories, yesterday was a warm summer's day, - perfect weather for sitting in the back yard and reading the mag, just as I had with my comics in decades past.

Forgive the self-indulgent opening to this review, but that gives you a flavour of what Crikey! is mainly about. Far from being a serious examination of the comics genre, the aim of Crikey! is to be bright and breezy, tinged with the nostalgic recollections of its contributors.


However, that is both Crikey's strength and its weakness. Whilst the personal touch works on the whole, and helps to carry the reader back to those days, it can also distract from the focus of the articles a little bit at times. (Not enough to worry about though.) I also spotted a few errors that really should have been picked up: Wham! did not merge with Smash! in July 1968 for example. (It merged into Pow! in January 1968.) The Toymaker did not first appear in Smash! in 1965 (Smash! didn't come out until 1966!), he appeared in Buster.

Don't get me wrong, the light approach to the articles is refreshing and pleasant to read, but I was left wishing there had been a little more research done on some features. The article called The Terrible Toys of Dr Droll speaks of "the dark artwork" but doesn't bother to mention the artist's name (Solano Lopez). Crikey! is well illustrated throughout with pages and panels from numerous strips, but the images rarely feature artist credits or specific dates. Don't nostalgics want to know the identities of their anonymous childhood favourites?

There's a few other niggles too: a good article chronicling Leo Baxendale's involvement with Wham! is accompanied by artwork by Gordon Hogg, Mike Lacey, Ken Reid and others (all uncredited again) but none by Baxendale himself. On another page, an example of House of Dolmann artwork appears in the Terrible Toys article for no reason whatsoever.


That's the minus points out of the way. Thankfully Crikey! has many more positive than negative aspects. The design is good; lively without being cluttered, the layout is professional, and the printing is sharp and clear. There's an excellent mixture of content: nostalgic recollections such as Brian Clarke's My Comicy Saturday; a look at the history behind the anti- American comics campaign in Britain in the 1950s; an interview with Ken Reid (reprinted, I think, from a Fudge book); features on the origins of Wham! and the tone of Misty... all good stuff. Although an article on Jackie written by someone who admits to never having read it, seemed somewhat lacking.




Topped off with a great cover by Mike Kazybrid featuring tons of characters from the past (can you name them all?) Crikey! is well worth checking out. (Some will no doubt moan at the price for a black and white mag but remember this is a fanzine, with a far limited print run to things like SFX or Empire magazines. It's all about unit costs. You're getting a bargain here.) Despite my slight reservations on the lack of depth to some features, I would recommend the magazine to everyone who has a genuine interest in British comics.

Yes, the magazine has its annoying faults, but Brian Clarke should be congratulated for getting off his backside and producing what many of us have been wanting to see for years: a fanzine about UK comics! It's up to us to support it as much as we can. I can't see why anyone who really likes old British comics wouldn't subscribe to it. The focus of Crikey! is on a classic and prolific period in UK comics history so there's plenty to cover in future issues and I for one am eagerly looking forward to issue 2 (out in October).

Crikey! No.1 is out now, 52 pages for a very reasonable £3.99. Ordering details are at the official website here:
http://www.crikeyuk.co.uk/

Monday, June 04, 2007

CRIKEY! A new mag about British comics!


This news came as a total (and pleasant) surprise. There's a new quarterly magazine dedicated to British comics out now, with the superbly appropriate name of Crikey!

From what I can gather from its website, Crikey! The Great British Comics Magazine will mainly cater for the nostalgia market and focus on UK comics of the 1950s to 1970s (although hopefully it won't dismiss current British comics entirely as many comic "fans" tend to do).

The website tells us "
If you have a passion for the strange and the kind of humour that often leaves you laughing out loud when all around you are blank-faced and oh so silent, then Crikey! is the nostalgic magazine for you."

Edited my Brian M. Clarke, Crikey! includes professional contributors such as Mike Kazybrid and Joe Matthews who have given the magazine a striking look. (Nice logo, Joe!) Sounds like a nice summer's read! Issue one is already out apparently, with No.2 on the way. Subscriptions are available at £15.96 for four issues. (Cheques payable to: Brian M Clarke to 4 Hillsborough Drive, Unsworth, Bury BL9 8LE.) I'll be watching this exciting new project with interest. (Sending my sub off this week!) I'll be reviewing Crikey! No.1 here when it arrives.

Visit the official Crikey! website at http://www.crikeyuk.co.uk/


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