Showing posts with label Graphic Novels. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Graphic Novels. Show all posts

Saturday, May 25, 2024

Conan - Conan Volume 1: The Frost Giant's Daughter and Other Stories (Dark Horse)

In 2003, Dark Horse Comics launched their first Conan title after acquiring the rights to the character. Prior to the Dark Horse debut, Conan was featured prominently in Conan the Barbarian, Savage Sword of Conan, Conan the King, and Conan the Adventurer published by Marvel and Curtis. Dark Horse would later lose the character's licensing in 2018, returning the Cimmerian hero back to Marvel. As of this writing, Titan now owns the rights.

Like Marvel, Dark Horse launched several Conan titles and gained the rights to reprint the prior Marvel issues as omnibus editions. Under the Dark Horse brand, the titles Conan (2003-2008), Conan the Cimmerian (2008-2010), Conan: Road of Kings (2010-2012), Conan the Barbarian (2012-2014), Conan the Avenger (2014-2016), and Conan the Slayer (2016-2017) were created as brand-new comics created by a variety of writers and artists. Additionally, several mini-series titles were released over the course of the 14-year Dark Horse run.

I read several of these Dark Horse books when they first appeared, but eventually switched my reading to the stuff that normally appears here at Paperback Warrior – crime-fiction, action-adventure, and westerns. 2024 marks 20 years since Dark Horse published Conan #1, so I thought I would rewind, reread, and review these titles in order, beginning with the first series, Conan. Dark Horse has conveniently placed most of their Conan issues into trade paperback and hardcover editions. My first review is Conan Volume 1: The FrostGiant’s Daughter. This book includes Conan #0 through #7 (one-half of issue #7) and it was published in 2005. You can get the book for about $25 retail.

The issues collected in the book were drawn by Canadian artist Cary Nord, who stuck around to sketch most of the title’s first 44 issues. In an interview with the book’s writer, Kurt Busiek, Nord explained that he got into Conan through the Savage Sword of Conan magazine. In describing the Hyborian Age, Nord stated, “The world of Conan is visually stunning. Conan journeys through every environment you can imagine, encounters dozens of new cultures and races of men, sexy women, fantastic villains, apes, dragons, monsters, and he kicks ass through it all!”. His artistic style draws influences from Barry Smith and Frank Frazetta, two iconic artists associated with the Conan franchise.

Boston native Kurt Busiek wrote nearly all the title’s 51 issues, drawing from his 20 years of comic experience at the time. Busiek broke into comics in 1983 by writing a back-up story in Green Lantern. If you can name the title or character, there is a good chance Busiek contributed. He has worked for Dark Horse, DC, Wildstorm, Image, Marvel, Topps, Dynamite, and Eclipse. Prior to Conan, his most praised work was the team-up with Alex Ross to pen the Marvels limited series in 1993.

Another major addition to the book is the inking by Dave Stewart. One can easily see his careful treatment of Nord’s sketches. The inking, also done with computer, doesn’t cover up Nord’s lines and allows some interesting contrasts between the gray and darker tones. Often, Stewart will leave some aspects of Nord’s art faintly inked to suggest different scenes or story tones.

Surprisingly, the book kicks off after Conan’s death. In the first issue, which was #0 "The Legend", a Prince and his servant Wazir find an underground chamber that housed King Conan’s riches, complete with a large statue of the character seated on a throne. Later, Wazir recounts to the Prince that the Nemedians kept meticulous records and displays a scroll. On it is the familiar slogan, “Know, O’Prince, that between the years with the oceans drank Atlantis and the gleaming cities…”. The scroll serves the reader by outlining the various lands and their historic tribes and people including Aquilonia and the coming of Conan the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand. This page is a partial splash page with astounding art and inks. This issue ends with Wazir continuing to tell the Conan history to the Prince, which on the last panel begins with Conan at 16 years of age and venturing into the lands of the Aesir.”

The next portion begins with Conan #01 "Out of the Darksome Hills" and sets up how Conan became aligned with the Aesirs at the beginning of Robert E. Howard’s 1934 story, “The Frost-Giant’s Daughter”. Busiek is careful to gently explore the periods of time in between Howard’s stories. The writer makes it very clear in the letters section of these early issues that his focus is on the Howard stories with a complete disregard of Lin Carter and L. Spraguede Camp’s contributions (or anyone else for that matter). In “Out of the Darksome Hills”, the title page is a glorious splash of Conan decapitating a Vanirmen as he attempts to rape a young woman.

The story features the Vanirmen raiding an Aesir village, nearly burning it to the ground and slaying the women and children. The Aesir warriors are gone, so Conan, who just happens to be in the area, comes to the village’s aid in fighting off the Vanirmen. Later, Niord, the tribal leader arrives, and after Conan battles an Aesir, he invites Conan to spend the night in storytelling with booze. When Niord’s daughter Henga goes to Conan at night, Henga’s admirer Sjarl becomes secretly angry and begins to plot with another warrior on a way to betray Conan and either kill him or trade him as a slave. The following morning, a fully armored Conan joins the Aesir as they journey northward to attack the Vanirmen. Conan’s appearance here decked out in armor resembles the Barry Smith and Alfredo Alcala drawing on page 18 of Savage Sword of Conan #2. 

The book’s next section is issue #02 “The Frost Giant’s Daughter”. I won’t go into too much detail of the story, as you can read my review of Howard’s 1934 story HERE. But this comic adaptation stays very true to the original Howard story with beautiful artwork by Nord. He captures the ivory-skinned woman perfectly, with an emphasis on her eyes and the glowing sheen that captivates the weary hero. There is a gigantic splash page that introduces the two frost giants and rivals even the version from Savage Sword of Conan. I prefer the original treatment, but this is really something special between Nord and Busiek.

The events of issue two spill over into the opening pages of #03 “At the Back of the North Wind”. Like the early issues of Marvel’s Conan the Barbarian, the young Conan is wearing a horned helmet in these early Dark Horse stories. The opening pages feature a conversation between Conan and Niord that addresses the helmet. After Conan’s protective gear is broken in battle, he borrows some of the Aesir’s tools to fix the helmet. Niord scoffs at the idea and suggests Conan should just get another. The Cimmerian responds that the helmet was created by his father, a blacksmith, and then explains that his father said a man who treated his tools well would get good service from them in return. It is a really touching aspect that proves Conan is somewhat sentimental, exposing his human condition versus savage destroyer.

The next morning, Conan helps the Aesir with tracking a band of Vanirmen who have escaped pursuit eastward. Behind the scenes, Sjarl plans to ambush Conan and sell him to a slaver. The Aesir eventually catch up to the Vanirmen and begin the slaughter. However, the Vanir leader Tir offers himself up as a surrender, volunteering to be executed so his men can be enslaved instead of killed. Once the execution is complete and the prisoners are chained, all Hell breaks loose as the group of tired warriors are attacked by armored warriors wielding giant hammers (they resemble the crazed post-apocalyptic warriors of Mad Max: Fury Road). They soon overpower the group, Conan is betrayed by Sjarl, and the issue ends with the unconscious hero being drug on a sledge through the wind and snow. It’s a powerful finale that resonates with so much turmoil and iron-fisted fortitude. Yet, Conan’s downfall ultimately was a woman.

The next section is issue #04 “Gates of Paradise”, featuring a drugged Conan imprisoned in a monolithic castle. The series thus far featured a through story of Conan aspiring to reach the land of Hyperborea, a place that the hero envisions as a utopian paradise where people can live eternally in a state of bliss and pleasure. However, Hyperborea’s creature comforts are only enjoyed by the sorcerers that rule the castle, a group of ancient beings that live eternally by capturing people, drugging them, and forcefully taking their souls. Due to the centuries of living this harmonious lifestyle, the sorcerers jump from the castle’s walls to their death in a ritual called the Day of Farewell.  

Conan is rescued from his drugged stupor by a Turanian woman named Iasmini. She provides a yellow lotus plant for the hero to grind up and drink. Soon, Conan schemes a way to free himself and the prisoners by giving the plant discreetly to the prisoners. This was such a colorful part of the storyline with the inking containing brilliant shades of green, yellow, and purple to match the tone. It is a graphic narrative that just transforms the pages into something truly special. While the storylines are different, the concept of Conan co-existing in a prison of slaves reminds me of  Roy Thomas’ “Lair of the Beast-Men”, a story featured in Conan the Barbarian #2. The Thomas story has more of an Edgar RiceBurroughs feel than Robert Howard, and oddly enough Nord harnesses that ERB vibe at the end of this issue and the beginning of the next.

In the title’s fifth issue, "Ashes and Dust”, Conan looks like Tarzan with his near-nakedness and muscular physique. The start of the story even features Conan fighting four hungry lions. When the hero makes his escape from that side of the castle, Busiak takes a moment to fill the reader in with the history of Hyperborea from the viewpoint of the supreme sorcerer. Other than the history of the land, there isn’t a lot that happens in this issue. The pages end with Conan and the prisoners rebelling and taking the attack to the sorcerers and their army.

The aptly titled “Day of Farewell” closes out this trade with the title’s sixth issue. The first page is an incredible splash of Conan’s face and right shoulder as he screams, “At them, men of Asgard! At them, free warriors!”. The eyes and blood-spattered hair convey so much brutality and savageness. This is Conan! The issue is action-packed as the Cimmerian fights the Hyperborean hordes to free himself and his fellow prisoners. There is a bit of sadness when Conan discovers that Iasmini sacrificed herself to free him. Page 13 is visually incredible as Conan’s back is against the edge of the castle’s walls, suspended hundreds of feet in the air. Page 19 is equally stunning with the hero surrounded by darkness and gloom while staring at the bones and corpses of the many who have jumped from the castle. Oh, and there are giant ants that Conan begins fighting. Page 22 emphasizes a part of the story where the Northmen believe that their burned bodies rise in the air on smoke, as if climbing a stairway to the realm of the gods. This is a splash page as Conan is burning the corpses and staring upwards out of the gruesome chasm. The book ends on a bit of a cliffhanger (or cliffclimber?) as Conan begins scaling the walls to go and kill the sorcerers. This trade does go into the first 14 pages of issue #7, but I stopped here because I want to read issue 7 in its entirety. I'm OCD like that. 

Unlike Marvel’s Conan the Barbarian, which I love, I felt that Busiak sticks more to the gritty Robert E. Howard storytelling. Conan isn’t cartoonish, nor is he the Hollywood “Ah-nold”. He is a grim-faced serious character that uses a combination of sharp cunning and backbreaking strength to overcome the most challenging obstacles. If I haven’t already overstated it, Nord’s artwork is marvelous and captures the Barry Smith look and feel of Conan – the Barry Smith that had reached his own identity after being heavily influenced by Jack Kirby in the early Conan the Barbarian issues. Both Smith and Frazetta had a unique wildness that Nord captures perfectly while also doing something wholly different when combining Dave Stewart’s phenomenal inks.

I forgot how good these issues were and I’m looking forward to reading more of them. Hopefully, you are on board for the journey through the Conan comics, including Marvel and Titan. 

Buy a copy of this volume HERE.

Saturday, December 23, 2023

The Adventures of Red Sonja - Volume 01

In the pulp magazine pages of Magic Carpet’s January 1934 issue readers will discover Robert E. Howard’s sword-mistress Red Sonya of Rogatine. She is the star of Howard’s short story “The Shadow of the Vulture”, described as a tall Russian warrior woman who fights with a dagger, two pistols, and a sabre. While writing for Marvel, Roy Thomas obtained a copy of the story from Glenn Lord, the literary agent for Robert E. Howard’s estate. Thomas, collaborating with artist Barry Smith, modified the story to introduce a new red-haired swordswoman, Red Sonja, in the pages of Marvel’s Conan the Barbarian #23 and #24 (1970). The rest is history.

To celebrate the early era of Red Sonja, Dynamite Entertainment acquired the rights to some of the character’s appearances in Marvel. These appearances are collected in a three-volume set titled The Adventures of Red Sonja. I borrowed a digital copy of Vol. 1, which collects the character’s appearances in Marvel Feature #1-#7, all published in 1975, plus the “Red Sonja” story from Savage Sword of Conan the Barbarian #1 (1974). Up until the Marvel Feature issues, the character had only appeared nine total times – five in Conan the Barbarian (1970), twice in The Savage Sword of Conan the Barbarian (1974), and twice in Kull and the Barbarians (1975). So, in essence, this collection feels like a terrific landing spot for new Red Sonja readers.

The collection begins with a three-page introduction written by Roy Thomas explaining how he created the character from Howard’s original “The Shadow of the Vulture” story. This intro is a great timeline of the early appearances of Red Sonja and Roy’s collaborations with artists like Neal Adams, Barry Smith, Ernie Chan (Ernue Chua), Dick Giordano, and of course, Frank Thorne. 

Roy’s commentary is followed by the eight-page story “Red Sonja”, which was originally published in Savage Sword of Conan the Barbarian #1 (1974). The original story was black and white (reprinted in color in Marvel Feature #1), and this new version is colorized by Glass House Color Design. I like all three presentations, but I find myself enjoying this new colorized version (why do I feel guilty though?). The artwork by Esteban Maroto, Neal Adams, and Ernie Chan is really something special. The story has Red Sonja on a mission to earn money working for King Ghannif in a teeming city state in Hyrkania. But the King wants to add the fiery-haired She-Devil into his harem, which backfires in a big way. Sonja is also forced into a fight with the King’s albino musclebound bodyguard. 

Marvel Feature #1 follows with Thomas using an unfinished Robert E. Howard manuscript called “The Temple of Abomination” to frame his eponymous Red Sonja story. That story, originally published in the 1974 Donald M. Grant hardcover Tigers of the Sea, featured Howard’s Conan-like hero Cormac Mac Art. But, Thomas’s version has Red Sonja in a rural stretch of Nemedia forest when she stumbles upon an abandoned temple. Inside, she frees an old man chained to the wall and battles a small army of man-goats (yes man-goats!) that are sacrificing people to a slithering monstrosity in a pit. The art was created by Dick Giordano, which according to Thomas, was a guy who loved drawing women.

Some of Red Sonja’s best presentations are through the creative hands of artist Frank Thorne. He collaborated with Bruce Jones on Marvel Feature #2 “Blood of the Hunter”, #3 “Balek Lives”, #4 "Eyes of the Gorgon”, and #5 “The Bear God Walks!”. Of these stories, I found “Eyes of the Gorgon” to be the best of the bunch. Thomas returned for #6 “Beware the Sacred Sons of Set” and that story's continuation in #7 “The Battle of the Barbarians”. This last story features Red Sonja competing with Conan and Belit on a quest to recover a page from the coveted Book of Skelos.

The major complaint this volume receives is that the last story, “The Battle of the Barbarians”, ends with a cliffhanger. The story isn’t continued in this volume because Dynamite didn’t have printing rights to Conan the Barbarian. The story was continued in Conan the Barbarian #68, published by Marvel in 1970. That story, which also featured Howard’s hero King Kull (and Brule), wrapped up the arc introduced by Thomas in Marvel Feature #6. So, it’s quite a letdown to get this far into the volume and discover it unfinished. But the second volume of The Adventures of Red Sonja features a written recap of those events.  

Overall, I’m delighted with his volume and found it a nostalgic and enjoyable romp through the ages with Red Sonja. If you are interested in more, The Adventures of Red Sonja Volume 2 features Red Sonja #1-#7 (1977) and Volume 3 features issues #8-#14. Dynamite also released a volume titled The Further Adventures of Red Sonja which features more appearances of her in later issues of The Savage Sword of Conan the Barbarian.

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Saturday, December 16, 2023

Moon of Madness, Moon of Fear!

Cleveland, Ohio native George Alec Effinger (1947-2002) won Hugo and Nebula awards for his 1988 novelette Schrodinger’s Kitten. Collectively, the science-fiction author wrote over 25 novels including four novelizations of the Planet of the Apes television series. Effinger contributed stories to magazines like Haunt of Horror and Fantastic. In the 1970s, Effinger authored comic book stories for publishers like DC and Marvel, including titles like Fantastic Four, Journey into Mystery, and Sword of Sorcery. My first experience with the writer is his story "Moon of Madness, Moon of Fear", originally published in the first issue of the short-lived Marvel Comics series Chamber of Chills (1972-1976).

The story begins in the gloomy hills of Bavaria as a young man is seen running from wolves in the forest at night. Effinger warns readers that old-wives’ tales might have a grain of truth. The story then goes back just a few hours and shows four young people preparing for a camping trip into the Bavarian wilderness. They receive a warning from an old woman that the residents live by the moon, including both man and wolf. 

Later that night, by the light of the moon, the four people come to the aid of a man found surrounded by wolves in the forest. They bring him to the light of their fire and the group band together to fend off a pack of snarling wolves that have surrounded them. But, as the first rays of sunlight pierce the sky, the young travelers meet their fate. 

The presentation is the team of Dan Adkins (Eerie, Creepy) and his assistant at the time, P. Craig Russell. This was one of Russell’s first comic jobs, as he would later go on to provide artwork for titles like Robin, Batman, Justice League, and Sandman. The book’s cover was penciled by Gil Kane. 

This was neat story with a unique twist on the werewolf formula. The traditional horror concept of a full moon transforming human to wolf is skillfully used by Effinger. The writing is short and to the point, with a careful emphasis on folklore underlined in a form of truth. An entertaining story plus terrific visuals makes this an easy recommendation for spooky 1970s comic book fans. 

Saturday, October 14, 2023

Lady Satan #01 - A Macabre Beginning

Warren Publishing experienced market success in the 1960s and 1970s with their take on the old EC black-and-white horror theme. At magazine size, their eye-popping roster of titles wasn't governed by the Comic Code, which allowed for more creative freedom. With magazines like Famous Monsters of Filmland, Creepy, and Eerie, the books proved to be an international success for most of its 25-year run. The publisher inspired countless titles and imitators, including Skywald Publications. 

Skywald was founded in 1970 by former Marvel Comics production manager Sol Brodsky and I.W. Publications owner Israel Waldman. During the company's short existence, 1970 to 1975, the publisher produced an assortment of horror anthology titles including Nightmare, Psycho, and Scream. Some of these titles included recurring characters, which was the case with Lady Satan.

Lady Satan, not to be confused with the 1941 character from Dynamic Comics, first appeared in the October 1973 issue of Scream. The character is featured on the issue's front cover, lavishly painted by Josep Maria Miralles (Creepy, Nightmare), and in the opening story, an origin tale called “The Macabre Beginning”. 

Readers are introduced to the young African-American woman named Anne Jackson. She lives in Massachusetts, was a high-school star athlete and academic, and is wealthy from an inheritance she received from her deceased parents' estate. With her friend accompanying her, the two drive into the city of Salem. There, they watch a macabre public performance of three cloaked men reenacting the Salem Witch Trials. In an impromptu audience participation, one of the cloaked men points to Anne to come on stage. But, when Anne walks on, she is immediately transformed into an entity known as Black Anne, the Queen of Salem Witches. 

As Black Anne, Anne Jackson discovers there is a witch in the audience, one of thirteen witches that live in a cave and worship her. When she journeys to the cave, she is provided robes and an awesome black leather outfit. She then takes the pledge to marry Lucifer and become the Bride of Satan! But, when the Devil appears, a tragedy occurs. The story ends on a cliffhanger. 

The story is penciled by the talented Ricardo Villamonte, who created amazing artwork for Secrets of Haunted House, Beowulf, Man-Bat, House of Secrets, and House of Mystery to name a few. His pencils on page six with the large panel of Jane's face is really something special. This story is written by Al Hewetson, who also worked as an associate editor at Skywald. Hewetson penned stories for Warren publishing, so his “horror mood” is certainly applicable for this ultra-dark Lady Satan story. Hewetson wrote hundreds of stories for Skywald using his name and a variety of pseudonyms. 

“The Macabre Beginning” is an excellent beginning to the Lady Satan character and possesses the same dark flavor as a Vampirella issue or an old Hammer Horror film. The character appears three more times in Skywald's comics, Scream issues #2 and #3 as well as Psycho #19. Thankfully, all of these stories are collected in one digital volume called Lady Satan 1974, published by Nuelow Games. Highly recommended, get it HERE.

Saturday, September 16, 2023

Paperback Warrior Primer - Claw the Unconquered

In the late 1960s, the publishing industry was abuzz with the reprinting of Robert E. Howard's Conan stories. Most of these had been missing from the commercial markets for decades, others had been collected in expensive hardback collections that fetched nearly auction-house prices. For the first time, the casual consumer could read these stories, including some that were previously unpublished, in affordable paperback editions courtesy of Lancer. With these new editions, authors like Lin Carter and L. Sprague de Camp were able to also contribute their own Conan stories as pastiches of Robert E. Howard's own storytelling style. 

Lancer, and later Ace, contributed to an influx of sword-and-sorcery pop-culture due to their paperback releases of Conan and other Robert E. Howard stories. The genre exploded with television, movies, and countless paperback novels featuring shirtless barbarians imitating Conan. By the 1970s, sword-and-sorcery was everywhere, so it was just a matter of time before the comic book industry seized their share of the market. 

With the success of Conan on the pages of Marvel, DC Comics became busy creating sword-and-sorcery titles that would compete in the hectic heroic-fantasy realm. In 1975, the company launched their creations, eight new titles that featured scantily-clad heroes holding sharp, gleaming swords. These books were Warlord, Beowulf, Dragon Slayer, Tor, Nightmaster, Starfire, Stalker, and today's topic, Claw the Unconquered

With Claw the Unconquered, the creative team made the decision to hone in on John Buscema’s Conan artwork. Who would be the best fit for Claw's artistic design and presentation? None other than Ernie Chan, an artist that spent the prior two years inking John Buscema’s art on Conan the Barbarian. Chan created the covers for the first nine issues, and penciled the interior pages on the first seven before giving the reigns to other artists like Joe Kubert and Keith Giffen.

Gracing the cover of Claw the Unconquered's first issue, titled “The Sword and the Silent Scream”, is a black-haired muscular barbarian carefully straddling a vulnerable young woman. Without the robust Claw logo, one glance would surely register that the book is another Conan issue. But, that was the point – to capture the dedicated readers of Conan the Barbarian and Savage Sword of Conan the Barbarian. Chan perfected this. 

Chan's co-creator of Claw was David Michelinie, who contributed to the creation of some of comics greatest characters in Venom, Carnage, War Machine, and Ant-Man. Michelinie and Chan had worked collectively on other DC books like House of Mystery and House of Secrets. Michelinie's concept was that Claw existed in a place called Pytharia, a land that resembles ancient Earth. Fans of Conan may see some similarities with Pytharia and Robert E. Howard's own landscape found in the Hyborian Age. In essence, it is a sprawling world filled with heroes and villains – noblemen, savages, evil sorcerers, terrifying creatures, and the obligatory beautiful women that need saving. 

At the forefront, like Howard's own stories, is the endless musical chairs played by politicians and their rivals. Conan, against his better judgment, seemingly always found himself embroiled in a political rivalry turned violent. Claw mirrors that same participation, which ultimately sets the table for the character's origin tale in the debut issue.

In the first three pages, readers learn that Claw's real name is Valcan and that he literally wears a red glove over his right fist, indicating early on that something is different about his hand. Claw is strolling through Ichar, the throne city of Pytharia when a thief attempts to rob him. Claw throws the poor soul through a window, then orders meat and wine. His muscles, good looks, and temperament gains an invitation from the attractive waitress to join her upstairs. But, she accidentally dislodges his glove and discovers he has a hairy hand with...claws! Later, it is revealed that the waitress was purposefully trying to verify Claw's identity in an effort to satisfy her master, an innkeeper named Tarmag.

In the streets, Tarmag has his henchmen attack Claw. Fortunately, Claw disposes of them all, but he mistakenly lets Tarmag live (a non-Conan move). The man journeys to Castle Darkmorn (what a name!) and tells (King) Occulas of the Yellow Eye the whereabouts of Claw. His reward? An instant fatal backstabbing by Occulas' guards. But why does Occulas want Claw? 

In a flashback from years ago, Prince Occulas is plotting to take the King's throne and learns from an oracle (named in the third issue as Miftung) that the only thing standing in his way is a man with a bizarre hand. Occulas has a peasant man tortured to learn that someone named Kregar of Kanon Wood has a funny hand. He bribes the King's men to go out and kill Kregar and his family. On page 13, where these events unfold, readers see that Kregar does have a hand that resembles Claw's. While Kregar and his family are all murdered, the men left behind a small infant that had a clawed right hand. Off the page, an angelic hand reaches for the baby and says that “your time is not yet come, for there are tasks awaiting that only you may perform.”

Occulas fatally poisons the King, snatches the crown, and for years thrusts Pytharia into desolate servitude. An older, crueler Occulas is then shown speaking to the oracle about a new threat that arises, a man named Valcan that has a deformity that has earned him the name Claw. Sensing this new threat, the story then circles back to the beginning (present day) as Occulas sends another of his henchmen to kill Claw. With the aid of the beautiful waitress, Claw is deceptively led to the Temple of Kann where a giant beast is awakened with a magical gem. Claw fights the monster, and then leaves the temple as the waitress is left to die. 

What readers gather from the first issue is that the through-story will be Occulas attempting to seek and destroy Claw as the hero journeys from place to place fighting the good fight for the people. The book takes on some other genres, like the traditional western monomyth, science-fiction, and fantasy. Additionally, Claw can't remember his past, so readers will be mysteified as to who the angel was that saved Claw from death as an infant. Through his journeys, he is searching to learn more about his origin and why he is destined to do great things. Magical elements regarding the claw and its purpose begin to shed some light on Claw's destiny. 

Like most of the other sword-and-sorcery books that DC launched, Claw the Unconquered was short-lived. The original run lasted just a total of 12 issues, ending in September 1978. The character made another appearance in 1981 in Warlord issues #48-49. 

Claw continues to exist in comic book continuity. He has randomly appeared in the modern pages of Wonder Woman, Justice League, and Swamp Thing. In a completely different character, there were elements of Claw used for the Primal Force comic also published by DC. The character was re-introduced to Conan fans through a rebirth by Dynamite Entertainment. Claw teamed with Red Sonja in the four-book miniseries Devil's Hands. Additioinally, there was a spin-off of that series simply called Claw the Unconquered, which ran a total of six issues and was written by Chuck Dixon. 

While I can't speak on the title after 1978, I highly encourage you to read the full 12-issue run of the original DC comic. If you enjoy 1970s sword-and-sorcery literature, then this is well worth the nostalgic trip through time.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Saturday, September 9, 2023

Thane #01 - City of Doom

Warren Publishing experienced success with one of their flagship comic magazines, Creepy. The black and white magazine escaped the Comic Code Authority because their rules and regulations didn't govern magazines. While the book would mostly consist of traditional horror storytelling to match its title, by the late 1960s the contents began to alter. This era of comic and paperback publishing found success by concentrating their efforts on sword-and-sorcery tales. This was a fertile landscape dominated by the reprinting of Robert E. Howard's Conan stories in the Lancer paperbacks and the birth of the character in comic format. Additionally, this was the prime-time for artists to show off spectacular genre paintings that sometimes even surpassed the quality of the sword-and-sorcery stories they celebrated. 

In the June, 1967 issue of Creepy (#15, cover by Frank Frazetta), longtime Warren writer Archie Goodwin introduced a new barbarian for readers to cheer, Thane. This character debuts in “City of Doom” with artwork by Steve Ditko (Spider-Man, Daredevil). Uncle Creepy sets the table on the first page: “They had left Thane staked out to die on the black sand of volcanic wasteland, bait for the beaks and talons of the great albino vultures which hunt there.”

This story doesn't prove to be much of an origin tale as very little information is provided on where Thane lives and what role he serves. From the text, and the tradition of the genre, it seems as though he is an adventurer and mercenary. As the strip unfolds, readers learn that Thane was hired by Ultor, leader of a band of raiders called Scythians, to help them fight a battle. After the campaign ends, Thane was promised his share of the plunder. But, the Scythians double-cross Thane and leave him to die. Thane escapes being bound to stakes in the desert and trails his betrayers through the wasteland.

Thane is surprised when a woman calling herself Livia, the High Priestess of the ancient city of Kadith, appears on his path. She requests Thane's help in defending her city from the Scythian raiders. With a chance at vengeance, Thane follows Livia into a large fortress with plenty of winding stairways and dark halls. Soon, Thane realizes he has been betrayed again when he discovers that Livia is actually an evil servant of the city itself. Inside the fortress, the walls and floor come alive as writhing tentacles suck the flesh from bone. Thane finds Ultor being eaten alive by the hideous creature, then must find a way to slash his way through the monster to escape this terrifying living city. 

This is obviously Conan worship, with Thane displaying brutal tendencies, a fiery temper, and the typical dialogue that accompanies the Cimmerian. Like Conan exclaiming “By Crom!”, Thane declares, “By Thoth!” He also expresses his anger by calling his enemy “Scythian Dogs”, recalling Howard's hero throwing down "Stygian Dogs". Ditko's artwork, which is really the highlight, comes alive as Thane enters the dark passageways. His artwork on the bottom of page eight captures the hero's shock when he finds hordes of savages awaiting him. The wide panel on page nine showcasing Thane's sword slicing through the enemy is remarkable and reminds me of something more modern that I've seen in Conan comics (perhaps Dark Horse). The upper panels on page ten capture that same emotional intensity as Ultor screams while being eaten alive. 

This story was a lot of fun and launches what should have been a longer Thane serial for Goodwin. The character appears again in “Angel of Doom” (#16, August 1967, artist Jeff Jones), “Barbarian of Fear” (#27, June 1969, artist Tom Sutton), and “The Last Sorcerer” (#112, October 1979, artist Alex Nino). Additionally, these stories were reprinted in additional issues of Creepy. Three of these stories were completely written by Goodwin, with “Barbarian of Fear” being partially authored by Bill Parente (Vampirella, Eerie). Unfortunately, only a total of four original stories were created starring this character. While cookie-cutter at best, this hero is still entertaining in his own right. Or, I'm just sucker for this era of sword-and-sorcery.

Saturday, September 2, 2023

Dax the Warrior #01 - Dax the Warrior

There are a hundred or more Conan clones saturating pop-culture, including fiction, comics, movies, and games. These sword-and-sorcery stars were extremely popular in the 1970s and 1980s, pairing with the popularity of Lancer and Ace reprinting many of the Robert E. Howard Conan stories along with new entries by the likes of Lin Carter and L. Sprague de Camp. In addition, the great Conan comics emerged like Conan the Barbarian

Eerie, published by Warren Publishing Company, debuted a Conan-esque hero in the pages of their 39th issue, released in April of 1972. The story, “Dax the Warrior”, featured Esteban Maroto as both the artist and writer, a joint position that Maroto maintained for all of the early installments of the series. Maroto would later rise to prominence within the world of Conan, contributing to comics like Savage Sword of Conan the Barbarian and Savage Tales and creating awesome paperback artwork for Ace including Conan: The Flame Knife, Conan and the Sorcerer, Conan the Mercenary, and Conan: The Treasure of Tranicos. Needless to say, I was excited to recently discover this Dax series created solely by this talented artist.

"Dax the Warrior", later re-titled to "Dax the Damned", was Eerie's second serial after the short-lived Prince Targo. The character appears in Eerie issues #39, 40-41, 43-50, 52, 59, and 120. Oddly enough, ten of these dozen stories were re-written for Eerie issue #59, published in April 1974. While the reasoning isn't completely explained by Warren Publishing, apparently the company felt that these stories written by Maroto needed to be reprinted and re-written to centralize plots and to smooth out some of the hero's strengths. The artwork of these prior Dax stories remained for issue #59, but the stories are all written by Bud Lewis instead. I may be crucified for saying this, but I think Lewis is a superb writer and does a better job with these stories than Maroto. But, there is no criticism from me or anyone else in terms of the art. It is exceptional. Issue #59 also features Dax on the book's cover for the first time, appearing in an awesome painting by Ken Kelly (Conan, Molly Hatchet). If you want to read this character's stories, issue #59 would be the best. It features 10 stories over the course of 100 pages.

So, who or what is Dax exactly? That part of the story is mired in darkness for most of the series, including the character's debut in “Dax the Warrior”. In the opening pages, the swordsman is riding through a battlefield littered with corpses. The narrator states that Dax is returning to his native land now that the battle is over. He is tired and his horse is weary, but he hears a voice in the air coming from a young woman. He is excited to find her and says to himself he had almost forgotten that there were women in the world. 

Increasing the pace, the girl, who is known as Freya in this story, suggests that they both try to escape. Who the girl wants to escape from isn't clear, but suddenly the couple are attacked by a creature riding a large bird (reminding me of the Tarn on Gor) and the girl is taken from Dax. He swears to rescue her, so he pursues the pair into a dark gruesome lair filled with webs and bones. He is met at the passage's opening by a cloaked individual who warns Dax to never enter this place. He demands that Dax live with the memory of Freya and to leave forever. Ignoring the warning, Dax ventures further into the lair to discover its horrible secrets. The last panel is instrumental in setting the tone and ominous nature of these stories. 

As I alluded to earlier, this story was re-written for issue #59, including a splash of color on one panel to illuminate Maroto's excellent artwork. Again, Maroto's art remains intact throughout the story, but Bud Lewis re-writes the narrative. Freya's name is changed to Naiad and the story is re-titled to “Dax the Damned”, which suggests that Dax has somehow been transferred from the battlefield to some form of Hell. Or, it is honing in on the message from the last panel. It's not completely clear based on this story.

If you love 1970s sword-and-sorcery, then Dax should probably be on your radar. You can enjoy this series by purchasing Eerie trade paperback volumes, searching your comic store for back issues, or by reading the issues for free on Internet Archive. I've featured the “Dax the Warrior” story for you below:

Saturday, August 19, 2023

Please...Save the Children

William Dubay (1948-2010) was an editor, writer, and artist for Warren Publishing, excelling on books like Creepy, Vampirella, 1984, and Eerie. Later in his career, he wrote a story for Heavy Metal, became an editor of Archie Comics and edited titles for Western Publishing. Fitting for Warren Publishing, Dubay's writing had some seriously dark overtones, evident in the memorable, disturbing story “Please...Save the Children”, which was drawn by Martin Salvador and featured in the July 1977 issue of Creepy.

At the beginning of the story, readers see a condemned child-killer named Beau sitting in a prison cell awaiting execution on death row. A priest enters the cell to discuss the man's forgiveness, but instead he is treated to a bizarre conversation from this seemingly insane person. Beau explains that if the priest only knew what he knew, then the priest would become a baby killer too. Then, Beau begins to relay his personal history to the priest.

Beau explains that he was once a loving husband and father, but after spanking his three-year old daughter Cryssie, she wanders away from home and dies in a blizzard. At the funeral, Beau regrets his decision to punish his little girl and experiences traumatizing anguish knowing she died alone after thinking he didn't love her. This experience transforms Beau into a violent vigilante

Beau begins to watch parents in public dismissing their children, or simply neglecting or punishing them in cruel ways. In an effort to save the children from abuse, he goes completely Mack Bolan and murders these children with a gun. His reasoning for targeting the children he wants to protect? By killing the children, he ends their suffering. If he murdered the parents, which are his real victims, then the children would would continue to suffer due to the loss of their parents. It's a sick catch-22 where Beau deems himself a twisted psychotic savior. Ultimately, it is like an animal that eats its young to protect them from predators. 

These Creepy stories tend to have unique twists in the narrative and this story is no different. When Beau confesses to his brother that he has become this avenging angel, he finds himself captured by law-enforcement. But, the twist is learning who his brother really is. Salvador's accompanying artwork is simply outstanding, with the facial expressions of the characters resonating the tension, horror, and tragedy of the story. If you are looking for an intense narrative, look no further than this vintage short. You can obtain an old copy of Creepy for a few bucks on Ebay or comic shops, or read the story for free below:

Thursday, June 22, 2023

The Mark of Satan's Claw

Fred Ottenheimer was a writer and artist employed by various humor cartoons and strips in the mid-20th century. Along with working for Charlton Comics and Magazine Enterprises, Ottenheimer's most notable work was in the pages of Warren Publishing in the 1970s. Often listed as Fred Ott, he wrote for Vampirella, Creepy, and Eerie. My first experience with the writer is his story “The Mark of Satan's Claw”, which was the lead in Creepy's January 1972 issue. The story is beautifully illustrated by Spanish artist Jaime Brocal Remohi. 

In the story's opener, a journalist named Jonathan Howard has just arrived to the foggy village of Llangwell, Scotland. After meeting with a local innkeeper, Howard accepts a room while explaining to readers the reason for his arrival in this sleepy town. Howard is a true-crime writer and wants to delve into the recent string of child murders in Llangwell. The innkeeper warns Howard to stray from the town's business and attempts to convince him that there are no murders.

Howard meets with Llangwell's Chief Constable and learns more about the murdered children. The lawman explains that the murders have been taking place for years under the direction of a local cult of Satan worshipers. He then shows Howard the cult's symbol, which has been burned into his own chest. He explains he escaped the cult and volunteers to take Howard out to the moors to show him where the dead children turn up.

In a memorable panel, the police find a dead boy on the swampy rocks. Howard becomes shocked by the reality of dead children. But, a whisper from the darkness invites Howard back to a rural cottage where a man explains more about the history of the Satanic cult and provides instructions on a secret book that may hold more answers.

The combination of Remohi's gloomy pencils and Ott's dour narrative was enthralling. This is a rare monster story that blends a child serial-killer element with a fantasy outline. I was surprised with the story's twist and found the ending suitable, but not altogether satisfying. “The Mark of Satan's Claw” was just scary enough to be recommended, but the time-frame and artistic style – both in the writing and presentation – is truly the main star. I enjoyed it, and you can read it for free below:

Thursday, January 26, 2023

Battling Britons #04 - Future War Special

Paperback Warrior generally offers two types of reviews. The first, and most common, is the experienced examination of a novel or a story based on a prior history with the author, book, or series title. For example, we can talk for miles about Mack Bolan, Matthew Scudder, or Quarry because we have a fondness for the character, authors, and series and have read a great deal on the subject. The second type of review is what I refer to as the discovery review. This is our writings and musings of a book, author, or genre that we don't have as much experience with. Our discovery is more of an emotional thing – how it affects us directly and the interest it creates in pursuing the author, future books, or related series titles. 

This review is pure discovery, prompted by our genuine love for the fanzines and articles compiled, edited, and written by Justin Marriott and his colleagues. Marriott is a literary scholar of paperbacks, comics, magazines, and pulps, all of the stuff we live and breathe here at PW. Normally, we try to refrain from discovery reviews, but even more so, we generally don't review books about books. It seems silly to review reviews, right? But, Marriott's newest endeavor, his second run of a series of books called Battling Britons, prompted me to learn more about British war comics. Honestly, I had never heard the term until I read about Marriott's series launch a year ago. 

I ordered a copy of the newest issue of Battling Britons, number four, published in November, 2022. The theme for this issue is "Future War Special", covering a variety of war and science-fiction titles, comics, strips, and graphic novels. The only experience I've had with any British comics, sadly, is 2000AD character Judge Dredd. That's probably par for the course for snooty Americans like myself who solely dabble in the US branded comic companies like Marvel, DC, Dark Horse, Image, and Boom. In my defense, I only read books related to one title, X-Men. So, I'm a snoot among snoots I suppose. 

My first impression is that Battling Britons is a 160 page book with a kick-ass glossy cover and design created by Paperback Warrior reader and fan Bill Cunningham. This guy does fantastic work with everything he touches (like the MAM Quarterly books) and this is no different. I would also speculate that Battling Britons might be Marriott's most professional fanzine, a well-structured book that maximizes each page size with an abundance of book covers, columns, articles, and a whopping amount of information on the subject. Granted, the interior pages are black and white, but the content and scope of the material more than make up for that small nuisance. 

Here's the thing. I have no Earthly idea what some of these columns are referring to considering I know zilch about British comics. But damned if my interest isn't peaked, and my education a little better after reading through the book. Titles like Commando, Starblazer, Rogue Trooper/War Machine, and 2000AD look absolutely amazing and I found myself questioning my existence for 46 years around the sun without having this stuff in my life. Where have I been? 

This series title offers eight regular columns and 14 features that are related to the "Future War" theme. 


“A Brief History of Time (Travel in British Comics)”, is four pages about comics and story arcs featuring time travel in world war settings. Starlord 1977's strip “Timequake”, for example, features a bleak alternative future where the Germans prevailed in WW2. Another variation of that comes in the form of “The Sentinels”, featured in Misty 1977. 

There are two articles with James Bacon discussing the reboot of Rogue Trooper, which was informative to me because I never knew about the first version. Now I know, and knowing is half the battle, right? 

“Savage by Name, Savage by Nature” is six awesome pages featuring a look at Bill Savage, a character that appeared in the early issues of 2000AD. The character and premise sounds cool as Hell. A vigilante -esque guy, Savage, is fighting a force called the Volgan who have invaded England. Double-barreled shotguns and grimaced faces make this one look like a must have.

“Pocket Rockets” concerns the anthology comic book series Starblazer, which ran 281 issues from 1979 through 1991. The article is written by Alan Holloway and reviews 18 stories appearing in the series in the 1980s. These stories range from classic science-fiction, fantasy, sword and sorcery, and even space crime-noir. These write-ups and the issue cover art makes me want to retire and just read Starblazer all day. 

Battling Britons was an unfamiliar, new journey for me, but one I'm glad I took. This was a resourceful, intelligent book about books designed in an easy to follow format. The amount of information collected on these British publications including titles, characters, history, writers, and industry was staggering. Justin Marriott continues to produce the best fanzines on the planet and Battling Britons continues his greatness. Recommended. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Friday, October 29, 2021

The Tomb of Dracula #01

In 1971, the Comics Code Authority eased its rules and regulations on horror comics publications. A lot of editors started testing the waters with different heroes and supernatural villains. Marvel Comics decided this would be the perfect chance to explore a more traditional vampire character. Discovering Bram Stoker's Dracula property in the public domain, the publisher developed The Tomb of Dracula. This series lasted from April 1972 until August 1979. I decided to check out the series debut. It was written by Roy Thomas and Stan Lee and penciled by Gene Colan.

Frank Drake inherited $1 million of his late father's money. He explains to readers that it took him a mere three years to blow all of it. Drake's lover is Jeanie, a beautiful woman who doesn't care about his lost fortune. When Drake talks about an old castle with his best friend Cliff, all three characters end up in a real estate quest. 

Drake explains to Cliff that he's actually related to the original Count Dracula. The lineage of his family can be traced back to the original Dracula family. When his ancestors moved out of Romania, they changed their name to Drake. What's left behind is an old diary and a monolithic castle in Transylvania. Drake's father failed in his attempts to sell the "cursed" property. Cliff suggests that this is a golden opportunity for Drake to cash in on his iconic Dracula heritage and open the castle as a tourist destination.

When the book begins, these three people struggle through the rain trying to locate the castle. When they stop in an old inn, they discover that none of the bar's customers are willing to discuss the castle. After failing to find a sufficient means of transport, an old man agrees to bring them by horse and carriage to the property. But, just outside of the castle, he becomes skittish and drops them on the road.

The narrative increases its pace with a heightened sense of dread. As the three investigate the ancient, abandoned castle, the tension and intrigue becomes a thick veil. In the castle's cellar, Cliff discovers an old skeleton with a wooden stake piercing its dry, brittle bones. Is this one of Drake's ancestors? When Cliff disturbs the skeletal remains, he awakens a fiendish vampire. Is this the Hellhound known as Count Dracula?

While this issue doesn't capture the true essence of a Hammer Horror film, the colors and the atmosphere certainly pay homage to the traditional vampire tale. As a story of origin, Lee and Thomas excel in creating a captivating story that is not as horrific as the legend of vampires itself. I understand that subsequent issues invoke a Hammer Horror feel, but for the most part this issue is a dramatic pairing of adventure and romance. By today's "scary" horror standards, The Tomb of Dracula pales in comparison. However, as a nostalgic return to a more innocent age, I loved it. 

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Chandler: Red Tide

James Steranko (b. 1938) could be considered a true Renaissance man. Early in his life he became a talented illusionist, magician and musician. By 1966, Steranko's comic book pursuits led to the iconic Stan Lee and Jack Kirby of Marvel Comics. He penciled and inked issues of
Strange Tales, Nick Fury, Captain America, X-Men, etc. In 1969, Steranko began painting covers for paperbacks and pulps, including Wildcat O' Shea and The Shadow

In 1976, Steranko's love of crime-noir and pulp-fiction led to a graphic novel called Chandler: Red Tide. Steranko penciled, inked and authored the book in a very specific format. Each page features 26 lines of text with two panels of art above each page. This is not to be confused with a standard graphic novel or comic because there are no dialogue bubbles. For all purposes, this is a unique novel with accompanying artwork, similar to a vintage pulp magazine. 

Set in the 1940s, Chandler explains to readers that he was originally a professional boxer. After a knockout defeat, Chandler stopped boxing and fought in the Mexican Revolution, became an arms dealer and eventually moved to New York City to become a skip tracer for a bail bondsman. Later, he became a special investigator for the District Attorney's office. When the new administration arrived, he was bounced. Now, he works on 47th as a private-detective, complete with a sexy secretary, long coat, and a Colt. 45.

An older gentleman named Todd approaches Chandler about finding a murderer. Todd explains that he was a guest on a yacht off of New York Harbor when a gangland slaying took place. Unfortunately, he was one of a handful of witnesses that saw the gunman. Now, the witnesses are being killed off and Todd is next. Chandler can’t protect Todd because his murder has already happened. Todd was poisoned, and, according to medical professionals, has 72-hours to live. Nearing his demise, Todd offers Chandler a stack of bills to find his murderer before he dies.

Chandler is a glorious nod to the early, hardboiled private-eye stories and novels. The hero's name is a tribute to Raymond Chandler, but the book's most striking resemblances are Dashiell Hammett's Continental Op and Carol John Daly's Race Williams. Chandler possesses all of the genre tropes: sleuth, big appetite, attractive, fighter. He is quick with a gun, smooth with the ladies and uses a lot of stealth and intuition to locate clues.

On a frenzied, shortened timeframe, Chandler paws through leads and interviews various people connected to the ship. The cold trail eventually leads to an old flame named Ann. Chandler rekindles a spark with her, but begins to suspect Ann's motives and network of associates. 

With intense gunplay, sexiness and a bold hero, the narrative moves quickly through New York’s brightly lit streets. The vivid artwork panels purposefully align with each page's dialogue and scene, enhancing what was already a rock-solid and compelling story. 

Unfortunately, as remarkable as Chandler is, it didn't meet sales expectations. A planned story-arc for Penthouse never came to fruition and Chandler was shuffled into forgotten history. If you can get your hands on this masterpiece, pay whatever the asking price is. Steranko’s Chandler kicks total ass.

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Mansion of Evil

By the middle of the 20th century, publishers began experimenting with their consumers by offering different formats for books. Instead of relying on a slim comic book, the idea of a "graphic novel" developed. The idea was to offer more text and story, essentially creating a longer comic book narrative. These new graphic novels wouldn't possess the standard internal advertisements and predominantly were one-shots. They weren't necessarily part of a long, continuous series. With this new marketing, the dominant paperback publisher of the time decided to test the waters.

In 1950, Fawcett Gold Medal published their one and only graphic novel, Mansion of Evil. This 129th Gold Medal paperback was authored by Joseph Millard, a talented writer who wrote science-fiction, mystery, and westerns. His most popular literary work was the Man with No Name, an eight book series of westerns based on the three Spaghetti westerns starring Clint Eastwood.

In a clear tribute to author Brett Halliday (real name Davis Dresser), Millard's protagonist in Mansion of Evil is Beth Halliday. She works as an exhibitor at Melton's Art Gallery. Her fiance is a high-profile reporter named Larry Brennan. Beth's most recent art auction is the work of a notable painter named Maxwell Haimes. The artist stays out of the spotlight and remains secretive to many of his closest associates.

When Beth and Haimes are introduced, Haimes becomes excitable and slightly unstable. He advises Beth that she resembles his former wife. Additionally, he explains that his former wife, who was accused as a gold digger, was run off by his agent, leaving him heartbroken. A large portrait painting of her is left unfinished, but due to the remarkable resemblance Beth has to his wife, he can use her as a model to finish this masterpiece. 

In a fast-paced sequence of events, Haimes grabs Beth and promises to pay her $500 if she will quickly accompany him to his studio to finish the painting. Beth accepts the proposal, but becomes frightened when Haimes advises that she will be gone a few days and that she can't return to her apartment to pack any of her belongings. Escalating the fear, Haimes drives Beth to a mansion in the country - a mansion that he claims no one knows he owns.

Millard's mystery novel is a combination of suspense and horror with an overlapping central question - who is Laura? Readers are teased throughout the narrative as Haimes continues to refer to Beth as "Laura". Soon, Beth is spiraling into a sea of chaos as Haimes promises two associates that he will be throwing Beth down a massive staircase to prove her death was an accident. When a nurse sedates her, Beth realizes she's about to die in this mansion of evil. 

Millard's problem is that he doesn't provide enough information to keep the reader hooked. He ends each chapter with some captivating event that suggests all will be revealed in the next chapter. But, Millard hesitates to offer any answers to so many puzzling questions. It's written as though readers are waiting a full month before the next issue. Instead, it's just a page turn to the next chapter. I'm not sure why the story was structured this way or the reason why Millard leaves the carrot dangling for so long. By the time everything is revealed, I had lost all vested interest.

If you love mysteries where readers are totally baffled by the events for two-thirds of the book, then Mansion of Evil will please you. I needed something more to keep the pages turning. Instead of answers, there were just more questions. No thanks. You can read this book for free HERE.

Thursday, October 7, 2021

Reckless #01 - Reckless

Maryland native Ed Brubaker (b. 1966) is both an artist and comic writer. It would be difficult to browse any comic book store and not find a title written by him, or one to which he has at least made a contribution. Serial titles such as Captain America, Batman, Daredevil, X-Men and Sandman occupied Brubaker for more than thirty years. Beyond superheroes, Brubaker loves crime-fiction and what he describes as those painted cover paperbacks that his father liked to read. Due to his love of the crime-fiction genre, Brubaker teamed up with prolific U.K. artist Sean Phillips (Hellblazer, Judge Dredd) to write a number of awesome graphic novel titles like Sleeper and Criminal. One of their most recent collaboration is a graphic novel series called Reckless. I'm starting with Reckless Vol. 1., which was published in December of 2020 by Image.

The first thing you need to know is that Reckless was written for the 1970s and 1980s men's action-adventure and crime-fiction fans. If you love David Morrell, Robert B. Parker, Jon Messman, and Lawrence Block, Reckless is for YOU. The basic premise is quite simple. Ethan Reckless is the lone hero who performs complicated tasks for money. It's not that different than the 1940s and 1950s private-eye books, but Reckless isn't a licensed detective and he is mostly working illegally. Reckless is similar to Lawrence Block's Matthew Scudder character in that regard. The icing on the cake is that these books are set in California in the early 1980s.

Ethan Reckless became an FBI agent in the early 1970s. In flashback scenes, Brubaker explains that Reckless was working undercover to infiltrate a group of Vietnam War protesters. Mostly these groups were peaceful, but this particular assembly is planning on bombing large portions of the city. When Reckless attempts to stop a bombing, he's caught in the blast. The explosion creates some facial scarring and Reckless loses portions of his memory. After that incident, Reckless eventually finds himself at odds with his fellow FBI colleagues. He eventually quit with three years of pension. Once that ran out, Reckless began solving problems for people. In the early days he describes his "office" as just him and his surfboard.

Fast-forward to Los Angeles in 1981 and Reckless now works out of an old abandoned theater. He has a phone number that people can call to report their problems. His female punk rock assistant handles the calls and offers Reckless the job selections. Reckless is shocked when Rainy advises him that someone on the phone is asking for Donovan Rush. This was his old undercover name when he was working the protest bombings. 

After obtaining a time and place, Reckless arrives at a roadside diner to find that his old flame Rainy is the one asking for him. She was one of the protesters that Reckless fell in love with prior to the explosion. She explains that she was involved in a bank robbery in 1974. The group stashed the money with a promise that they would all lie low for a few years until the heat died down. Once she was able to locate her partner, Rainy learned that the money is gone and he's now living a posh life in northern California. She wants Reckless to retrieve the $100,000 she's owed from the robbery.

Reckless is a stylish throwback to the books we read, review, and love here at Paperback Warrior. It's smack-dab right in our wheelhouse. This first volume is 150 pages and is just a well-written, action-packed narrative with plenty of twists and turns. The art is exceptional with plenty of violent details - this isn't for the squeamish. The bank heist is really just a small portion of the book, instead the storyline weaves in and out of the FBI investigation, CIA drug runners, a phenomenal origin, sex, and a gritty, Hell-bent revenge angle. If you've been reading Paperback Warrior reviews (or listening to the show), trust me when I tell you to read this book. You won't be disappointed.

Note - The second volume of the series is called Friend of the Devil and is set in Los Angeles in 1985. Like the first volume, there's retroactive storytelling from the 1960s and 1970s that play a prominent role in the 1985 job. The third book is called Destroy All Monsters and will be released in October of 2021.