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Thursday, 10 September 2009

In Review: Milk by Stref

Reviewed by David Hailwood

Milk is a brand new anthology from Insomnia Publications, containing the works of Stref. It consists of darkly humoured horror and sci-fi oddities, three panel strip cartoons, abstract art, and a whole host of ‘bonus features’.

Inside, you will encounter interplanetary aliens running a mafia style protection racket, a cereal company that hires hit men to deal with the ‘lucky’ winners of their competition, an astronaut werewolf on a trip to the moon, zombies, vampires, and a whole lot more.

Although the anthology is aimed at an adult audience, it also contains samples from Stref’s five years working for D.C.Thomson, featuring popular characters like Winker Watson and Dreadlock Holmes.

Stref’s art style shifts seamlessly from the bright and colourful cartoon style of the children’s comic strips, to a more gritty, angular style used on the adult strips that’s at times reminiscent of Kevin O’Neill’s work.

On occasion the artwork gets a bit too abstract in places; in the case of a vampire strip titled ‘The Need’ (which Stref has also adapted into a thirteen minute short film) the fractured art complements the stories subject matter perfectly, but on several of the other strips it makes it difficult to work out what’s going on.

For the most part however, the artwork remains clear, dynamic and oozes emotion from every pore. The strips are confidently written, often containing a Futureshock-style twist at the end.

A hefty bonus section at the rear of the anthology contains a wealth of extra features, showing Stref’s progression as an artist over the years. These date right back to his thoroughly amusing teacher progress reports from maths class in the 80’s, one of which states: ‘Stephen has undoubted ability as a cartoonist, but this is of no benefit to his maths.

At any spare moment when he is not being closely supervised he is sketching; this has led to his poor grade.’

This is a feeling that I’m sure most comic artists can easily relate to, and serves to further highlight Stref’s dedication to the comic art world.

Hopefully this anthology will bring Stref to the attention of a wider fan base that lies beyond the child friendly pages of the Beano and Dandy.

Milk is 128 pages, contains both colour and black and white strips, and is priced at £19.99 for the hardback gallery edition, or £14.99 on Amazon.

Web Links:

• There is currently an exhibition of original art from the book which runs to the end of September; details are here on the Insomnia Publications web site

• A write up of the launch party can be found here on the Insomnia blog

In Review: Great British Fantasy Comic Book Heroes

During the Second World War, with imported resources costing ships and lives, paper was one of the many things that came under the ration. In Britain comics were not a wartime priority and publishers had to cancel some titles while reducing the page count of the survivors. Paper rationing continued after the war throughout the 1940s and while the big publishers slowly built up the size and regularity of their remaining titles, some entrepreneurs saw a gap in the market for more comics printed on any paper that they could get their hands on. These became what were known as the Pirate Publishers, small time companies that put out often one-off comics with lurid titles such as Dynamic Thrills, Oh Boy Comic or Electroman.

Today these comics are incredibly rare and in this book Phil Clarke and Mike Higgs of Ugly Duckling Press have pulled together a wide selection of these 1940s and 1950s titles into one A4 size 464 page hardback under the title of Great British Fantasy Comic Book Heroes. The majority of the stories reprinted in this title feature superheros with some science fiction heroes added in a special “Sci-Fi Thrills” section towards the end. In amongst forgotten stories of TNT Tom, Ray Spede, Superstooge and Ned Nomad are some rather more familiar characters such as Space Ace, Swift Morgan and Marvelman and it is the more familiar characters and those illustrated by familiar names that are the draw in this book.

After a detailed ten page introductory article on the history of the titles and the characters that are reprinted in the book, it is the three Marvelman, Young Marvelman and Marvelman Family strips that are perhaps the ones that will raise the most curiosity today. Are they any good? "Holy Macaroni!", of course not - at least not to our adult eyes more used to reading Alan Moore or Neil Gaiman Marvelman stories illustrated by the likes of Alan Davis and Garry Leach. These old stories are childish and illogical but it has to be remembered that they were successful enough in their day for the character to be revamped for Warrior.

Indeed many of the stories reprinted are by artists that today would only be classed as producing bad fan art. It is too tempting to choose the worst art in the book with perhaps Hello Phantom Maid just pipping some others to the post.

However there are also early stories by some well known and respected names. Ron Turner is represented by three stories. Captain Sciento and Space Ace show typically stylish Turner art, with the Space Ace story being perhaps the best in the book, and a very early story entitled The Caverns Of Doom. Early Ron Embleton art is present in The Planet Of Doom and Captain Atom while Denis McLoughlin's detailed art is represented by Swift Morgan and The Beast From Outer Space.

However the one artist from that period and type of comic that deserves more attention is Norman Light. While his art style can be nicely summed up as "naive" it is also detailed and his spacecraft and other designs in Galactic Patrol have an enjoyable period feel to them. It would be good to see reprints of more stories written and illustrated by Light.

So while the contents may be hit and miss they do represent the Pirate Publisher comics of the time. The various stories have been digitally enhanced for the book and printed larger than the original comics and the reproduction is impressive. Of course there has to be a drawback and with this book it is the cost - £75 including UK postage. Collectors may consider buying such titles as Absolute V For Vendetta or the Captain Britain Omnibus for similar prices, titles that they will often already know, but for most this book will be a step in the dark.

So is it worth it? For those with a passing interest then probably not but for the collector it will be an impressive addition to their reference collection covering a barely known piece of British comics history and with only 100 copies of the book being printed it will remain almost as rare as the comics it reprints.

Great British Fantasy Comic Book Heroes is available for £75 from Blase Books, Hazelwood, Birchfield Road, Redditch, B97 6PU.

More details on ordering are available by e-mailing -

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

In Review: Strange Times

Reviewed by David Hailwood

The Plot:

A group of misfits are thrust together by forces beyond their control, and charged with the task of averting the destruction of mankind.

The Review:

Strange Times collects the popular web comics of Dave West, of Accent UK fame, and is almost worth buying for the cast list alone; there’s an ex-boxer who can communicate with inanimate objects, a prophetic rock that’s guiding mankind’s future, a young goth girl acting as a medium for two dead clones, a Dirk Gently style detective who notices every minute detail about the world around him but still fails to notice women, a brilliant scientist with a time machine in his head, a nerdy scientist with a suit that helps him run really fast and stop really slowly, and a robot from another planet who’s on a quest to get his stolen I-pod fixed.

Strange Times is about these characters, and more. As well as building up to the larger picture (an end to human evolution brought about by genetic manipulation, which the aforementioned characters might help avert) Dave West also takes a moment to dwell on the ‘little guys’ in the story, such as an unfortunate double glazing salesman attempting to sell his wares in a town where the windows never seem to break, and even a frog falling from the sky as part of a biblical plague gets to show his take on the situation.

The sense of humour throughout is very gentle, and the story deep and intelligent. Fortunately it is an intelligence that comes without a hint of pretentiousness. Due to Strange Times web comic roots, it’s broken up into short, manageable chapters, so there’s never an information overload.

If you need a comparison to the ‘big boys’ of the publishing world, Strange Times is the sort of offering you’d expect from Top Shelf or Slave Labour. It’s as professionally produced, skilfully plotted and definitely the best thing to come out of Accent UK’s stables so far. It deserves to be on everyone’s bookshelves, and in stores everywhere. For the time being however, it’s only available from the Accent UK website and at conventions, so be sure to seek it out at BICS if you have a tenner to spare.

Strange Times is 170 pages, black and white, with a hardback colour cover. It also contains a gallery featuring art from the likes of Garen Ewing, Shane Oakley and Andy Bloor.

Web link:

Monday, 7 September 2009

In Review: Phoenix: A Warrior's Tale

Reviewed by David Hailwood

Phoenix: A Warrior’s Tale is a brand new 52 page black and white comic from Adam Grose and Tony Suleri, creators of the popular Cosmogenesis saga.

The Plot: Descending from the heavens, an ancient demon has returned to forge a new era of prosperity. After traversing through the universe, he now returns to where he was born to seed a new royal bloodline. One is born who may stand in his way...

The Review: Phoenix: A Warrior’s Tale is an onomatopoeia piece, meaning no dialogue, just glorious artwork. Tony Suleri, a man well known for his eye-popping attention to detail, uses a more simplified art style throughout, which helps maintain clarity and gives the comic an oriental flavour.

With silent strips the biggest challenge is to get the pacing right, as there’s no dialogue to slow the readers down. For the most part, Adam and Tony achieve this well; Tony uses four panels a page, which keeps the reading speed consistent. Adam gives events in the story plenty of room to develop, and has fun experimenting with various squidgy and squelchy sound effects.

The only part of the comic where the pacing is a little off is the last five pages, where the story flashes forward in time to show important stages of development in the warrior’s life. Although this sudden quickening of pace may cause a few readers to miss a few details, the rear of the comic contains various design sketches and character profiles, which explain the stories plot in full.

Without dialogue, Phoenix: A Warrior’s Tale is a quick read, but one I found myself gladly repeating (there’s enough burning peasants, sword wielding maniacs, bloody decapitations and evil possessed monkeys to keep anyone happy). Judging by the concept designs and research notes, this is just a taster of a much larger project (it has a distinct ‘prologue’ feel about it). With both Adam and Tony being in popular demand around the small press circuit, it might take some time for more Phoenix strips to materialise.

I’m sure it’ll be worth the wait.

Phoenix: A Warrior’s Tale will be released on the 13th October 2009, priced £3.95


Previews available here:

Available to buy at:

Or Amazon at:

Digital download available from:

Let's Talk About Jane

Janepett.jpgTitan Books will be releasing The Misadventures of Jane, an eagerly-awaited collection of the classic strip and other material featuring the World War 2 pin up heroine, later this month.

Charting the cartoon (mis)adventures of Britain's first and best-loved World War 2 pin-up - the scintillating, blue eyed, blonde-haired, clothes-phobic cartoon legend that is Lady Jane Gay - the book, edited by David Leach, looks set to be one of the best archive titles of British newspaper comic strip in recent years.

Created by Norman Pett for the Daily Mirror in 1932, using Chrystabel Leighton-Porter as the model, the ever patriotic Jane wasted no time in joining up following Britain's entry into the war. Following a brief stint as a chauffeur, secretary and with the W.A.A.F.S. Jane finally joined Army Intelligence in 1941 where she stayed off and on for the remainder of the war battling 5th columnists and Nazi spies. The original strip ran until October 1959 and has been revived and adapted into other media several times, but it's Jane's war record that is remembered most fondly by her fans: there are even rumours that after the character first stripped in full for the first time in 1943, her actions inspired the British forces in North Africa to advance five miles!

downthetubes caught up with the ever-busy David Leach for a quick chat about a project that has proven a real labour of love...

Jane by Norman Pettdownthetubes: If you’re talking to a comics fan who’s never heard of Jane and needs convincing to buy the collection, how would you pitch it?

David: Jane was the world’s first super-model, Page Three girl and pin-up. She predates the Vagas girls, Betty Gable, Rita Haworth and Lana Turner as the military’s pin-up of choice by a couple of years. Pilots painted her on the nose cones of their aircraft, she received wedding proposals, and van loads of knickers.

The Ministry of Defence recognised her importance as a troop morale boaster, so much so, advance copies of her adventures were printed so submariners could carry on reading her adventures, even at sea. She was read by over four million readers every day!

Jane was the envy of the American GI and the German high command and was the first cartoon character to go not only topless but nude in a national newspaper and yet she was never smutty or crude. Indeed there’s a strange chaste innocence about Jane and her penchant for losing her clothing at the drop of a hat.

downthetubes: How did you first come across the Jane strip (no double entendre intended...)?

David: As a lad aged 13 I brought the Jane at War book and read up about her. The then editor of the Daily Mirror was a friend of my parents and I talked to him about her. Then at Titan 33 years later I was made the editor of a new collection and started to do some new research.

downthetubes: What does this new Titan collection contain?

David: The great thing is, there’s nothing new in it! I went the other way and discovered material that’s not been seen in over 60 years!

I discovered that Norman Pett, the artist had published several full-colour, war-time booklets called Jane’s Journal filled with glorious pin up art and full colour cartoon strips. I got permission to reuse some stunning artwork and cartoon strips.

Then I found an article written for the Canadian Armed Forces newspaper – The Maple Leaf – written about Norman Pett and got permission from the Canadian government to reprint that! And illustrated it with photos of Norman at work in his studio, sketching his model, Christabel Leighton-Porter.


Jane in a strip published on 9th May 1945. © The Mirror

downthetubes: How long has it taken to put this collection together?

David: Over a year! We’ve tried really hard to find the best source of material to scan from and the amount of correction we did was at times nothing short of heroic.

downthetubes: Are any of Norman Pett’s family or descendants still alive? Did you contact them?

David: No, alas not, however we did talk to ‘Don’ Freeman’s (the writer’s) family. They pointed out that Don was abbreviated from Gordon and not Donald.

downthetubes: What was the hardest thing when it came to sourcing material?

David: Finding good quality strip material, we had to use existing scans of the strips and also the Mirror’s own impressive digital archive.

Jane-03.jpgdownthetubes: What’s your favourite element of the collection?

David: The pinup art: I was so proud to have discovered it, I hadn’t realised it existed, I’d seen black and white reprints in a book about Christabel and went on to do some digging. Also, visiting the Mirror’s comic archive in Watford, I sent three blissful days just reading old archived comic strip. It’s as close to heaven as I’ve ever gotten.

downthetubes: There’s a lot of Jane material that has never been collected – are there plans for further volumes?

David: Well, if the first book does well, then there’s more than enough material to do more volumes, I’ve recently found another period feature on Pett and Freeman which I’d love to reprint and I’ve got lots more lovely pin-up art to use up. We’ve only scratched the surface of Jane – she started in 1932 and went on until 1959! That’s 27 years of material to reprint. And not forgetting the fact she, came back in the 1980s, although in a far more raunchy strip.

downthetubes: If Jane returned today, which British comics artist would you hire to draw it?

David: Well, John M. Burns drew her in the 1980s and no one draws comely women quite like John.


Jane strips bare for the first time - a first for a national newspaper. © The Mirror.

downthetubes: Do you think it’s true the British army advanced five miles in North Africa after Jane stripped in full for the first time in the Mirror?

David: Of course I do! Jane was a thoroughly decent gal and would never lie!

The Misadventures of Jane is on sale from 24th September.

The Unforgettable Jane: online article on GoComics

Sunday, 6 September 2009

Yet More Starblazing In Dundee

After the Starblazer calendar, the Starblazer Adventures role playing game and the Starblazer artwork exhibition at the Lamb Gallery in Dundee, the Starblazer bandwagon continues to roll on.

As we mentioned back in July, sculptor Trevor Gordon was working an exhibition of his sculptures inspired by DC Thomson's Starblazer comic. This exhibition will now take place at Dundee's Mills Observatory beginning with a preview on the evening of Wednesday 9 September after which the exhibition will be open to the public each day (except Mondays in September) from Thursday 10 September until Monday 30 November. In addition to Trevor's original sculptural pieces, the exhibition will include original Starblazer artwork from DC Thomson's archive. Admission is free.

Anyone unfamiliar with DC Thomson's science fiction digest should read the overview of the title written by its editor, Bill McLoughlin, on the downthetubes main site.

As the Mills Observatory remains a working observatory, its opening hours change and expand as the evenings draw in and so it is best to check with their website as the exact opening hours on any given day.

With a 2009 calendar on the wall, an impressive role playing game book and now two exhibitions, how much longer will it be until a publisher decides that reprinting some of the actual Starblazer stories would be a good thing?

There are more details of the exhibition and its opening times at the Mills Observatory's website.

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