Peeps at foreign comics – comics from North Korea

 

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You may be surprised to hear that North Korea has an active comics “scene”. But when you hear that it’s all state-run, it’s not so surprising. North Korean kids are pumped with carefully-constructed propaganda from birth, and comics are considerably easier to make than edutainment iApps, especially for a heavily-sanctioned regime. If only our own government would “nationalise”, then print at-cost paperbacks of, our greatest, copyright-hell-stuck, comic heroes, eh?

But how do people from the capitalist west (and east, for that matter) get hold of comics from this secretive, insulated regime? Well, there’s three options. The hardest is going to North Korea itself. Visits are possible, though they’re heavily stage-managed, a “guide” takes you everywhere, and the secret police are always breathing down your neck. Tourism is one of their major sources of income, too, so everything is overpriced. Well, what you can buy is! Apparently there’s department stores full of fancy stuff, but it’s all for show, and the staff merely acting.

Anyway, the next option is “West Korea” aka Yanbian, in China. In the old days, this was a propaganda-filled enclave for North Koreans visiting the People’s Republic. Just to make sure they would keep worshipping the correct cult of personality! China is a lot more open these days, and “West Korea” is swarming with southerners, as well as Chinese, faintly amused at a living “theme park” version of their own country, a generation or two ago.

The easiest way to get these anti-Japanese-propaganda laced books, then, is to… get them in Japan! (That’s what true freedom of speech does for you – when will Britain see a true anti-censorship party?). Yes, Thanks to a “quirk of history”, Japan has a large community of people who align themselves with North Korea (though do not seem in a great hurry to go back – their children and grandchildren becoming naturalised Japanese citizens in ever greater numbers). Japan directly ruled Korea from 1910 until 1945, and many Koreans moved / were moved (depending on who you ask, and the historical period in question) to Japan. After World War 2, they found themselves in a sort of limbo, many either didn’t know where their ancestors came from in Korea, or else they’d come from the north, but now couldn’t go back from American Japan to Soviet Korea. When the country offically seperated into two, they became effectively stateless, in any case. They became known as Zaichini, and, a bit later, many became part of a community called Chongryon, which is aligned with North Korea. For a while, after the war, the political ideology was equally repressive in both the north and south, but the north had a better economy, thanks to Russia (and, to begin with, China) pumping in loads of money. Kind of like how the west made a showpiece of West Germany by funneling in money to “prove capitalism works”.

Anyway, the Chonggryon have continued to exist in Japan, running “North Korean” schools, teaching the language and producing propaganda (they run several of “North Korea’s” websites). As there’s no official relationship between Japan and North Korea, the Chongryon HQ is actually a de-facto “embassy”.

But, more to the point of this blog, the Chongryon also run a book shop, called コリアブックセンター, or “Korea Book Centre”. Students of Japanese will note that, for some weird reason, the name is neither Japanese or Korean, but “English”, written with Japanese letters! This is where you can buy the comics, there’s also various other books (including a load of heavy, brown leather-bound volumes on who-knows-what), CD’s, DVD’s and even some videos. All in Korean, though.

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Anyway, the shop is in central Tokyo (that is, inside the Yamanote line, tokyo doesn’t “work” like most other cities, so it’s actually in quite a quiet, deserted area). The nearest station is Hakusan, come out, bear round to the left, and go down a small pedestrianised street (with a number of comic-heavy Japanese bookshops. One has thousands upstairs! But they’re all run by the same 2-3 people, so aren’t always open). At the end, there’s an unnesescarily-huge zebra crossing. Cross that, and “double back”, a little to the right. Then discover the Korea Book Centre is closed, because it has bizarre opening times. It took me 3 visits to finally catch it! (Edit that is not an edit: I kept going in the morning, but have since found out it opens at 1 in the afternoon!).

EVEN BIGGER EDIT THAT IS NOT AN EDIT: Apparently the shop has closed down for good. Close Skyscanner now!

(“manually” shopping around airlines’ own websites, but on somebody else’s computer, is usually better, anyway).

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The shop is at the base of a big office / flat building, but is pretty small inside. When I went in a few regulars were popping in and out, all talking to the woman behind the counter in perfect, Tokyo-accented Japanese.

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There’s not much to distinguish the comics from various other thin propaganda books, and I nearly left disappointed (or grew a pair and attempted to ask where the “manga” was). But then I finally found them on the leftmost shelf, about halfway down the shop. Though that doesn’t mean there might not be others scattered around!

Anyway, the big handful I bought (altogether coming in at around the ¥5000 mark. I doubt a sen of that got back to the concentration campin’ regime, though. In fact, maintaining both their HQ, and this shop, in central Tokyo, probably costs them hundreds of thousands of yen a month.) includes a large number of what may be called the “old series”, and a couple of what may be called the “new series” of comics. Though the oldest one is still only from 2000. The old series encompasses the 2000’s:

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While the two new series ones are from the 2010’s. However the new series ones also have a Tokyo address in their copyright section. The older ones are pure Korean:

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The newer ones are on thick, glossy paper (which many non-me people would consider “better”). But they’re also drawn in a cod-“Japanese” style. In fact, they remind me of British small-press “manga”! Here’s a comparison:

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There’s actually some Brit ones that look even closer than this. But It’s the first one I grabbed from my box-o-small-press.

The old series ones are on thinner, matte paper, with lurid-looking covers and starkly black and white “Boys’ Own” type artwork in them (nb: except for some ones for young children, but I’ll get to that). If such an impoverished regime can still produce comics like that, why can’t we, eh? why can’t-

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Oh, alright then. To continue… I’m sure I read somewhere that North Korea “recently” (well, around 2010) bought some new printing machines, so it’s possible that the “new series” books are down to that. But then again, the Tokyo address, and Japanese-ish art style, makes me think they might even have been made in Japan by the Chongryon. I did briefly wonder if they were South Korean (they’re on historical themes, both sides of the border would teach their children about national mythology), but they have a 주체 (Juche) date, which is counted up from 1912, when Kim Il Sung was born (apparently on a mountain that borders China… but actually in Russia). The south wouldn’t put that on their books!

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I should state that several of the books (actually, the majority of the ones I have) are not true comics, but heavily-illustrated text stories. Some examples of both kinds have 그림책 (Geulimchaeg) written in the top right-hand corner of the cover. It means “Picture-Book”, and is Perhaps the North Korean word for comic. In South Korea, comics are called “Manhwa”, which is the Korean way of pronouncing the characters which say “Manga” in Japan. If the non-comic ones were aimed at very young children, I’d have called them “Picture books”, like the ones we have in Britain, but they seem to be aimed at an older / teen audience. Well, most of them.

They all appear to be one-off “graphic novels”, rather than ongoing publications, though one comic does appear to be part of a series. North Korea definitely has at least two regular story papers, though. Maybe some of these text-heavy stories originally appeared in one of those, as a serial, and is now available as a book. Or maybe they were all just written as books. We need a Korean-speaking comics enthusiast (with deep pockets – they overcharge tourists something rotten, I hear) to get over there and start asking their “guides” a few probing questions.

Oh, and as a quick warning: my Korean is about as good as my Welsh (oh, there’s another biiiig article incoming!), so I’ve just GUESSED what’s going on in all of these stories. Luckily, there’s plenty of pictures!

Anyway, let’s begin with the oldest book – dating all the way back to Juche (주체, the online translator says it’s “subject”, but it’s obviously “Self-Reliance”) 89, or 2000 to you and me. It’s one of the thickest ones too, weighing in at a “whopping” 124 pages (not including the covers).

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The title is 신기한 술법 (those scribbly covers are hard to read, fortunately the title is usually in clearer type on the “copyright” section), pronounced “Singihan Sulbeob”, and apparently meaning “Novelties Sulbeob”. There’s a few words that I couldn’t persuade Google to translate. North Korea uses a slightly different writing system to South Korea. The south uses Hangul, an indigenous Korean writing system, which is apparently the most logically-organised and easy to learn in the world. Mainly because it was actually created over just a few months, on the order of a liberalising ruler (does Korea have Kings or Emperors?), rather than evolving over centuries. Later rulers, either Korean monarchs, or the Japanese, realised that a literate populace could mean “dangerous” ideas being spread, and banned it in favour of Chinese-made-to-fit-Korean, or just Japanese. Modern South Korea uses mostly Hangul, with a FEW Chinese characters, though they are nowhere near as common as they are in Japan. North Korea uses pure Hangul, and the two countries also have a few different ways of spelling things (see the translation for Juche, above!). But, by and large, they can read each other’s writings without too much effort – though it’s illegal in both countries!

Anyway, this is possibly part of a series, being labelled “백두산녀장수절그림책 (5)” , which is apparently “Paektu lady longevity clause picture book 5”. I don’t think it translated properly. It’s published by “Literary Arts Publisher” (문학예술종합출판사). There seems to be several comic / childrens storybook publishing companies in North Korea, I’ve also seen “Venus Youth Publisher” and “Gold Star Children’s Press”. Though the identical art styles, paper, sizes and bindings hint at there really being only one publisher. The multiple names are just a blind, to give a faint illusion of a “free press”.

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To carry on with the review… this book contains multiple stories, some of them longer than others. One of them is even broken up into three chapters! Heres’s a quick translation of the contents page, though the names may not be particularly enlightening.

1 – 오산의 전설 = Miscalculation of the Legend

27 – 신기한 술법 = Novelties Sulbeop. In three chapters:

1) 류치장에 생게난 이야기 = Kenan (cainan) life on the type of story stucco (embellishment)

2) 공사장에서 구원된 칠성이 = Chilsung has been saved from the construction site

3) 상동마을의 “수호신” = “Guardian Deity” of the same village

63 – 사각장에 나타난 녀장수 = Ladies longevity appears in chapter square

87 – 마천령의 이상한 샘물 = Ma Chun-Ryung the court medic unusual spring water

107 – 다시 울린 종 = Bell Rang Again

I can’t tell anything at all about the first story. It appears to involve some sort of wise man, going around and talking about kings and things. There’s some nice scribbly-looking artwork of temples and houses. There’s also a turtle carrying a big slab on it’s back.

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He is possibly some sort of communist agitator. The story appears to be set in the past, maybe in 1917. As this was during the Japanese occupation, he’s probably talking about how great Korea used to be, and keeping their heritage alive.

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The next story is, erm, well…

Officially, North Korea has freedom of religion. Also officially, many people in North Korea willingly choose not to follow a religion, as they see it as a primitive superstition used to oppress the working class. Actually, the North Korean government have created their own religion, centered around worship of the “eternal president”, Kim Il Sung, who will one day return to life and lead the country to glory. Not that I’d object to a mass revival of Northern European Paganism in the UK, but with elements of Shinto ancestor worship bolted on, and even a deification of King Arthur. But anyway, when Christian missionaries first arrived in Korea, Pyongyang became a very Christian city, and this has not entirely gone away. The government of North Korea have neatly “snatched” Christian beliefs by, for instance, celebrating the birthday of Kim Il Sung’s mother on the 24th of December. As everybody will be “too busy” celebrating that, they’ll “forget all about” Christmas. Which is why you don’t see Christmas celebrations in the DPRK… it’s nothing to do with repression, honest!

Anyway. “Novelties Sulbeop” seems to borrow more than a little from the Book of Exodus, and parts of the Gospels, too! It starts off fairly ordinarily, though. A damn dirty jap is torturing an innocent Korean…

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“fairly ordinarily” for a North Korean comic, anyway…

He’s also seen intimidating people on the streets (apparently accusing an old man of being an arsonist, just because he happened to be carrying some matches). He then hears a voice ordering him to stand to attention, even though there’s nobody there. He doesn’t look too chuffed, but goes about his business of torture and intimidation regardless. Later he calls his officer to come and interrogate the old man, captured earlier. But when the opens the cell, it’s full of some sort of madness-inducing “gas”. Though that may just be representative of something that is invisible.

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The officer treats him in the usual manner of Japanese officers of the time. At least according to “more moderated” accounts of allied POW camps I’ve read.

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But the guy continues to go crazy, and wanders through the town, becoming a laughing stock.

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In the next chapter, a bunch of Korean prisoners are being forced to work on some big project (and you thought “construction site” was a mistranslation!). Their Japanese overseers stay in the huts, partying and drinking. One of the prisoners is looking up at the moon, when a magic bridge appears, leading over the fence, and to freedom! The prisoners all rush over it. The Japanese follow, but it vanishes when they’re halfway over.

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The escaped prisoners meet up with Kim-Il-Sung’s liberation army, having apparently been guided there by a myriad of sparkling stars. They see an apparently divine vision of a free, united Korea, covered in blooming flowers.

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They then meet a wise old man, who preaches to them under a tree. They are also given a lot of food – bread, and “something else”. They’re also next to a river at the time… hmm.

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After that, they go about carving messages (apparently also “divinely inspired”) on trees and rocks (people who have toured North Korea and Cuba have remarked on the natural scenery being blighted by carved slogans). These messages eventually being about the end of Japanese tyranny.

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There’s not much to the other three stories. “Ladies longevity appears in chapter square” is apparently about an oldish man standing around near some Japanese cavalry regiment. One of the horses escapes, and I think he volunteers to track it down, but doesn’t. Also one of the officers can’t sleep (or is maybe being haunted?). Apparently the horse running away inspired the guy to think of freedom. Or something.

 

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The next story is possibly an extension of the “biblical” one. The camping communist rebels have no water, but some “smoke” and sparkling “stars” lead a girl to a hidden well. She digs a little, then tells an old man about it. They go and dig further, finding a spring, so the rebels have their own, abundant, water supply.

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The last story is perhaps a ripoff of the American legend of the “liberty bell”, though not quite the same. It appears that a temple bell in a village must not be rung, the Japanese take a guy away for merely cleaning it. The man’s son and father are left there, but it rings on it’s own, for some reason, and everybody celebrates. Perhaps the spontaneous ringing was to symbolise the defeat of Japan?

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They appear to be ringing it with hammers, rather than a log on ropes, as in Japan. But maybe that’s the Korean way.

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This one is in a slightly smaller format to most of the others, and is called 살인자의 정체 (Sal-injuai Jeongche), or “The Identity of the Killer”. It’s published by “Literature and Arts Publisher” (문학예술출판사), a very similar name to the publisher of the previous book. The story is a thrilling, all-action tale of military… paperwork. It’s another of the “illustrated story” style books, and we catch all the action as our heroine bravely collates, files and, yes, indexes!

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Oh, and the illustrations are done with green ink

Well, okay, there’s a bit more to it than that. A one-eyed woman comes to the army / police, as she’s been attacked by somebody who looks like a ninja. He also kills another guy in a forest. It appears there’s been multiple murders, and we see some first rate pondering-over-ring-binders action.

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Our Lieutenant (an inconclusive Google image search shows that to apparently be her rank) wonders about the connection between various dead people (or at least, I assume that’s who they are). Then there’s a flashback to the Japanese occupation (oh yeah, this story is set in 1959). The one-eyed woman was then a servant to a cruel Korean couple, who were collaborating with the Japanese. Anyway, she didn’t serve them fast enough, so the husband poked out her eye with a big skewer (even the Japanese soldiers are shocked).

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The girl’s mum vows revenge, and it appears that the unseemly display scares the Japanese (and their money) off. The couple blame the mum and daughter, and they leave. It appears that the cruel wife is later beaten to death by other Japanese soldiers, or maybe the girl’s mother killed her, and the soldiers just found the body.

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Anyway, the girl grows up with one eye, and I think she falls in love with a guy, but the evil man has tracked them down, and pushes the guy off a cliff. Also a rioting mob attack his home, but somebody else gets him away in the bottom of a farm cart. I can’t even tell if this scene is set during the Japanese occupation, or the “present day”.

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The guy is still in hiding. The cop/soldier/both(?) returns to her office and selflessly goes through ledger after ledger. She also collaborates with a guy who specialises in box files, in the true spirit of socialist cooperation.

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I think I took too many pictures of this one

They somehow turn up a photo of the evil guy, and show the one-eyed woman. He is now running a collective farm, and pretending to be a good socialist leader, a mere advisor to his workers, with whom he is on equal terms, otherwise.

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Then… well, actually, he is rather undramatically arrested. The one-eyed woman finds a big knife, used by the “ninja” who attacked her before. Clearly the guy was trying to do away with all the witnesses to his previous collaboration. The cops also arrest some other guy (the one who helped him escape the mob?).

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The guy then tells his own tale, under interrogation. As I only have the pictures to go on, I can’t make this one out too well. I think he got another guy to help him with threats (the big knife is a bayonet off a Japanese army rifle), then hoarded loads of money, without the other guy knowing (but he found out, by spying though the not-quite-closed door).

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Then the glorious army of the DPRK, under the wise guidance of Kim Il Sung, single-handedly hurled the Japanese out and set up a socialist paradise, in which money has no purpose. The guy then started running a farm, and “doing in” everybody who knew about his past life. Beats me why he didn’t escape to the south during the Korean war, but I guess North Korea is so incredibly wonderful that he couldn’t drag himself away, even with multiple murder charges hanging over him.

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Yet more Japan-hate. I remind you which country I bought these in!

The next book is one of many that I have from “Venus Youth Publisher” (금성청년출펀사). It’s name is 성난 메아리섬, or “Angry Echo Isles”. It’s also the thickest one, at almost 200 pages! There’s actually two stories. “Angry Echo Isles” is “half and half” illustrated text and pictures (IE – Half of a page is text, and half is a picture). Part of it is printed in reddish-brown ink, and part in green ink. The change just occurs abruptly, in the middle of chapter 6 (though, as will be seen on my Things Japanese blog, North Korea isn’t the only country to do such things!). The other half of the book is taken up by a true comic strip, called 해돌소년, or “Haedol Boy”. They are possibly both about the same characters, though.

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Anyway, the text story appears to be set around 1598, when Japan briefly occupied Korea “on the way” to attack China. The king of Korea fled to China, and rallied an army, which counterattacked through Korea, all the way to Seoul, where the Japanese made a stand (Seoul is not far from the current border between North and South Korea, coincidentally). Then the Shogun of Japan died, and the council of five rulers, who temporarily replaced him, decided to give up.

But that’s got nothing to do with the story, which appears to be about Korean traitors collaborating with the Japanese, and a boy and girl going on adventures. The boy seems to be a young teen, and the girl is still little. They live in a village, and out hunting one day, meanwhile Japanese warriors apparently sack the village (or just kill the headman, who may be their dad).

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They also know Tae-Kwon-Do, and meet some guy who seems to be a high-ranking Korean (they had “cowboy” hats in those days, apparently). The boy is taught swordsmanship and, being hunters, they’re both handy with a bow. They then go on a long adventure, over hills, through swamps, and so on. Also they get a lift on a carriage, and later meet a “merchant”. The girl realises he’s the guy who attacked the village. They capture him, take him to another village and smear something sweet on his face, so wasps swarm around him and sting his face into a swollen mass.

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He is then beaten with poles by the villagers, and put in prison. The headman of the village (another guy with a “cowboy hat”, or maybe the same one) makes friends with the girl, but then is apparently turned, or maybe imprisoned, by some Korean traitors, or just Japanese guys in disguise. They let the prisoner out, and he becomes the new headman of the village. He’s also opened the village treasure chest, and is throwing the money in the air XD.

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But the girl has got away, takes a raft out to a ship, where the boy is fishing, and tells the crew. There may be a long-haired young guy, or another girl, on the crew. From this point, it’s kinda hard to tell how many Koreans are involved XD. Anyway, the village is occupied by samurai, but the crew start throwing rocks and arrows down on them, from a cliff. One of the boys / crew fights them with a sword, while the others sneak round behind, and stick them up with bows.

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Then the Jap-no, wait, it appears that, actually, it’s the village full of Koreans who get into boats and sail into the sunset. Dunno what’s going on there.

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The next story, Haedol Boy, may be about the same characters, though they are younger. Or it may be different, as the boy seems to be the same age as the girl. Anyway, they have an idyllic village existence, when the Japanese invade and kill most of the adult men. Some old woman also hates the boy, she might be Japanese, or maybe just a Korean collaborator. There’s also a man who is a collaborator.

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The boy swears to get revenge, and there’s some various scenes of adventure around the countryside, gathering men and weapons. Somebody else (his mother?) is caught in, or near, a Japanese guy’s house, and is attacked. Samurai chase her, and the only way to escape is to jump off a cliff. She is badly injured, and dies. He gets an axe from a nearby farm, planning to kill the Japanese official, but is talked out of it by a wise old man. He goes into some longwinded explanation (no doubt a propaganda-heavy overview of the occupation).

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Later, the boy and girl head into a seaside cave, and find a skeleton, scary daubings, and creepy echoes.

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They get out, and the boy, “through” the Korean collaborator, tricks the Japanese official, the collaborator, and some other people, into the cave. The scary daubings and echoes terrify them, the boy apparently keeps them talking about something, until the tide comes in, and they all drown. The Samurai outside spot the floating bodies, and run away.

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The sister is sad, but the old man gives her some speech, apparently about how this shows the Japanese can be “beaten” (even if somebody had to commit suicide to do it). Then there’s a montage of battle scenes, and a load of text over a peaceful countryside scene – no doubt showing how the sacrifice inspired the Koreans (with Chinese help… in real life, anyway) to fight back, and drive the Japanese out.

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This is one of the books which IS a young childrens’ picture book. But I may as well review all of the ones I have! It’s called 보약먹은 그림자 (boyagmeog-eun geulimja), which is apparently, erm, “Restorative Ate Shadow”. I think there’s probably words in there that are “supposed” to be Chinese characters, in South Korean! The book is part 5 of the far-more-clearly-translating “Korean Folk Tale Picture Book” (조선민화그림책) series, so these stories may also be available in South Korean versions. Bet the art isn’t as good, though. The illustrations in this book are a mixture of grey and red washes, and the text beneath is usually only 3-5 lines.

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It begins with some sort of introduction, dunno what that’s about. Then we have the nice-looking contents page. It contains four stories, of variable length, which are:

개구리바위 = Frog on a rock

보약먹은 그림자 = About eating shadow

은혜갚은 호랑이 = Grace Paid off Tiger

들쥐가 고른 사위 = Son-in-law Picked Vole

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Well it would be “nice looking” if I’d not cropped most of it, oops.

The first story, “Frog on a Rock”, is kind of hard to follow. It’s about a frog, who is a teacher, and a bird. The bird carries the frog around, while the frog pupils give advice to the bird (who appears to be trying to fish). The bird also gives the frogs a talking-to. The bird later carries the frog teacher up a mountain, where she can see a waterfall (perhaps the source of the river she lives in). Then she appears to sing / teach a ladybird, and, erm, the bird leaves her there.

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I think.

The next story is super short, only 7 pages (and a title). I think a man has lost something, and accuses a boy of stealing it. But actually the boy had found it, and was giving it back, so then man gives him money for food.

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The next story, “Grace Paid off Tiger” is about a boy who finds a man in the snow, when he’s out hunting. He carries the man to safety, and gets a coin as a reward. His mum is happy, and sends him out to buy something (I assume). On the way, a tiger leaps down in front of him, but it has a thorn in it’s paw. He takes it out, and the tiger runs away.

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Later, the boy becomes a rebel / soldier, and fights against some army (maybe Japan, or maybe some other war, between different kingdoms in Korea). He gets captured, and put in a cangue, a punishment which used to be used in the Far East. It’s similar to the Stocks, only a big wooden board is locked around somebody’s neck, and he has to carry it about / sit in a cell with it on. It makes laying down, or sitting against a wall, very uncomfortable. In China, people had to wear it out and about on the streets, often with their offence written on it. But in this story, the boy is locked up. He’s allowed to write letters, though!

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Anyway, it seems the leader of the bad guys intercepts his letter, and decides to execute him. He’s taken to the edge of a cliff, where it seems inept guards argue about who is going to prod him over. Then the tiger shows up and attacks them. The boy is set free, and spots the scar in the tiger’s foot, where the thorn used to be. The story ends with the boy once again going into battle… riding the tiger!

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The next story is also pretty short. It appears to be about a vole in love. He talks to other animals to gain confidence, then gets the girl. Erm, hooray.

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As this is book 5 in a series, the back cover contains something that is very daring for an official North Korean publication – advertising! Well, promoting other books in the series, anyway.

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Surely a reproduction of the cover of one the reader doesn’t have would be better?

Following on, a year later, another book in the same series, this time number 10. This one only has 64 internal pages, as opposed to 128, in book 5.  It’s also all one comic strip, printed with blue ink, rather than multiple text stories with wash illustrations. It’s called 해와달 (Haewadal), which is “The Sun and the Moon”.

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Anyway, this one’s about a sometimes-fighting, sometimes-friendly cat and dog, who are following a wandering trader around. A magical old man descends from the heavens (like ya do) and gives him a marble, which he puts in a jar. Later some guy steals the marble, and puts it in a jar at his house. The cat and dog steal it back, the dog tries to eat it, but spits it out, into a river. Presumably that was an accident, as they then start fighting.

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The magical old man later finds a boy, and lectures him on something. The boy, erm, goes for a long walk in the rain, and ends up very tired and muddy, then gets another lecture. Must be some sort of morality tale, probably with a heavily socialist tone about selfless work. The art style in this bit sometimes reminds me of early Tezuka!

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The third chapter, taking up half the book, is about an evil tiger menacing a family. He can also talk, and use tools. He’s looking for something, which they have presumably hidden. The boy and girl escape, and climb up a tree. The tiger spots them, and tries to climb up, but can’t do it. He pours something on the tree (oil?), and slips off even more easily. After a failed attempt at chopping the tree down, a rope appears. He tries to climb the rope, but it snaps, and he falls into sharp, chopped-down stumps.

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This book gives a subtle clue that all is not well in North Korea, the intensity of the ink varies through the pages, the middle pages are clear and dark, but those at each end are really faint – like they’re running the machine right down, before topping it up. You see that on some old British comics, too, but not quite as obvious (then again, most of the mass-printed ones were under 40 pages…. often well under), and not this side of 1960!

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Also from 2006 is one of the cooler-looking ones. It has a really “gritty” art style, which reminds me of one of the also-ran “Commando-like” war comics of the 1960’s (or, should that be “War Picture Story-like”?). It’s set in 1905, during the Russo-Japanese war, which was used as an excuse by Japan to further occupy Korea (at the time, coming more under Japanese, rather than Chinese, influence, though there was other foreign powers at play too, mainly Russia). While most land battles of the war were fought in Russia (several of the battlefields are now in China, it seems that the border was not entirely clear in those days, and the whole region was remote from both countries’ centres of government), the first one was at the Yalu River, the traditional border between China and Korea (today a terrifying moat, helping to imprison would-be defectors).

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The story is, again, about a boy and a girl, and, again, they’re Tae-Kwon-Do experts. At the start, they seem to be friendly with a Japanese naval officer, who takes them sailing, and talks about the war. The artist does not appear to have had much access to reference materials (which would probably have been published in Japan, so no wonder!). The naval officer’s uniform looks very ostentatious, with acres of gold braid – even Togo, admiral of the fleet, had a plainer one! Also, an image of the naval battles show a Japanese paddle steamer being hit. Paddle steamers were no doubt still in use, then, but every modern naval power would have long since dispensed with them as front-line vessels.

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I didn’t spread out my picture taking particularly well

Interestingly, the Japanese captain’s own yacht looks like a Junk, with the slatted sails, and the anchor at the rear. I don’t think Japan ever had ships like that – they always either bought, or copied, European designs. Anyway, the comic shows various scenes of Japanese atrocities, like executing injured soldiers, dressing as “anonymous thugs” and beating people up, or brutally suppressing peasant uprisings. The children meet an old Korean man, who witnesses one of these atrocities with them, and shames them into becoming Korean patriots. They go to pray at a temple, but hear a commotion behind them, after leaving. They go back, and find all the monks massacred. One of the victims tells them the Japanese did it, and there’s a huge fight. One of the Japanese guys is armed with a huge morning star, but the boy throws a big rock at it, and tangles the chain up.

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The boy and girl jump off a cliff, swim away, and intimidate somebody else, who spots them coming out of the water elsewhere. The scene then changes, apparently to several months later. Now the two are waging a successful guerrilla war against Japan, but the Japanese commanders have a description of them. They make and distribute “wanted” posters, and the story ends with two merchants in some town spotting the pair, and comparing them with the poster. Presumably it’s a to-be-continued… but I don’t have part 2!

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The next comic is another small one. I can’t make much sense out of it, but it appears to be a comedy. One blog I once read, about somebody’s trip in North Korea, said that you almost never hear laughter there, and comedy acts seem to be rare to nonexistent, even though they theatre, musicals and synchronised dancing. Well, here is some North Korean comedy… or, at least, people laugh in it an awful lot. It’s called 성천량반의 망신, or “Last Cheonryang Half Disgrace”, and is yet another one from Venus Youth Publisher.

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It has four chapters, or short stories… but I’ve been writing this post in bits and pieces for months now, so can’t be bothered to translate them (XD). Anyway, the chapters appear to be separate (and end with everybody laughing), but characters and locations carry over. The main character (who, I can’t help but think, looks like a Mexican bandit) appears to be some sort of wandering trader, going from place to place.

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You quickly learn the Korean sound for laughing

Having only the images to go on, I can’t be sure, but there seems to be a bunch of moral instructions in the stories, like “don’t gossip” and “don’t overload pack animals”. But they don’t seem to be dwelled upon.

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Towards the end, some other character shows up, but he has a bigger nose and more-slanted eyes. Three guesses as to his nationality. Anyway, he’s really arrogant, and eats loads of food… so they, erm, give him loads more, until he feels ill. Then laugh.

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I believe an old Vice article about a North Korean-sponsored theme park, in China, said it was “what only a nation of prisoners could confuse with fun”.

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Well, that’s the comedy over with. Time for more high adventure! This is yet another historical, called 명장의 장검 (myeongjang-ui jang-geom), or “Sword of the Masters”. Well, actually, Google translate called it “Sword of Scenes”, but 명장의, when on it’s own, becomes “The Masters”, and that seems like a far more likely title. Once again, it’s from Venus Youth Publisher, the blue box at the top of the cover says 조선력사인물이야기 그림책, which translates to “Korean history tale figures picture”. Perhaps about a real-life historical person? Unfortunately, I can’t see any obvious dates in the text, so I can’t go wiki-ing.

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The boy, the girl, the other boy (a smuggler?), the wise old man, and the evil king.

The book opens with the usual contents page, this time with pictures giving the names of the cast. The story opens with the boy and girl practicing with swords, under the guidance of a bearded master. They leave, but spot some sneaking figures, who turn out to be ninjas! In the following fight, somebody stabs the girl in the back. The boy vows revenge, but he doesn’t know the evil “king” (I think, anyway, same facial hair!) was the one who stabbed her.

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Anyway, the king/lord/whatever guy goes back to the palace, while the boy bothers the trainer (presumably for more training, so he can carry on fighting the Japanese). The trainer goes for a walk, and catches the king unloading treasure from a boat, with somebody else. Bribes from the Japanese, maybe? After some more mucking about, the trainer is injured at his day job (in a quarry), and laid up.

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The lord’s palace

While he is in bed, his wife hears something, so he goes out and confronts two ninjas, stealing from the village treasure house. He fights them, but also gets stabbed in the back. The boy comes along, and the dying trainer gives him some advice. The boy then apparently moves away to hide, but keeps training, to become a great warrior. Also, one day, he meets a woman and saves her from a tiger.

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Is there nothing Tae Kwon Do can’t solve?

The boy lives in some tiny village / farm, with an old lady, and some other guys, who seem to be archers. He’s later walking in the forest when he’s forced to fight another tiger. Some old hermit spots him, and takes him in, giving him even more training in the art of war.

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Which apparently involves massacring most of Korea’s wildlife

The boy later becomes a knight. He’s at a jousting contest one day, and impresses the “queen” who has organised it. The woman he saved before is the princess of this kingdom, and he later marries her. The other evil king is apparently oppressing his people, or else has risen against the overall rulers of Korea. The boy is now a prince, and a commander of the army sent to fight him. Some of their soldiers bathe in a deep lake, but all tread water, so it looks shallow. The enemy soldiers charge them, fall into the deep water, and get stuck. Then the rest of the prince’s army sweeps down from the nearby hills, and an epic battle scene ensues.

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This was North Korean culture’s Helm’s Deep.

 Anyway, after the villain is vanquished, the hero (who now looks very similar to his old trainer), is celebrated, and no doubt lived happily ever after.

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Onto the shiny-covered new series now. The previous one was from 2006, but this one is a jump ahead, to 2010. It’s also the first of the ones with a Tokyo address in the copyright section.

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Clinical computer colouring

The title is 성기, which apparently means “Genitalia”, though Google Translate also suggests “Consecrated Vessel” or “Wedding Day”. It also asks if I meant to say something else, with a very obscene translation! Anyway, none of the suggested translations seems to really correspond to what happens inside, so lets just carry on.

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It begins with a messy photoshop, and an introduction which suggests it takes place in 108-109 BC. The Roman Empire was still a big power in Europe then! Though, in the east, China was in control, and Europe was all but irrelevant. Anyway, it seems to be another boy-and-girl-in-a-war story, though with fewer notable incidents I can really pick out. The first part, going purely on the pictures, is just a bunch of talking and battles. Without being able to read the text, it’s hard to tell which character is which!

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Anyway, eventually some rhyme-and-reason emerges out of it. A bunch of soldiers are fighting bandits / another army in a forest, when they are saved by a hail of arrows fired by a load of “ninjas” (though they’re probably meant to be Korean; Japan-Korea rivalry was nonexistent in that remote era, and even North Korean propaganda can’t pretend it was!). The leader of the ninjas is a woman, and the main guy falls in love with her. There appears to be some recap, where she almost commits suicide, but he talks her out of it.

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After that, there’s something about rebels laying siege to a castle, and political intrigue on the inside ending with the assassination of the king. This may be a flashback to explain why the girl is an exiled outlaw. Or it might be that her and the guy are in a rebel movement against the current king. Also, another woman gets killed in a battle, and apparently has a baby.

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The siege

Anyway, the rebels apparently capture the castle, but the leaders of the government flee, and are defeated in a bunch of smaller battles. The queen, or princess, gets an arrow in the eye, but still tries to take on her spear-armed attackers with a knife. Another guy finds her body, and rallies the remaining soldiers in a last battle against the rebels. The rebels win, and the girl holds up her baby (or, maybe the baby of the other woman, who was killed earlier) to the sun, no doubt to symbolise the world of peace and hope he can grow up in.

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Before the final battles. Note the Chinese character in the background.

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Last one! This one is from 2012, and looks a little less “wannabe Japanese” than the previous one. The characters do all have big, shining eyes, though. Some of the background scenery – rocks, trees, grass etc, is very well drawn. It’s called 봉선화 (Bongseonhwa), which apparently means “Touch-me-not”. That name does kinda make sense, when you look at the story!

 

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Anyway, the actual story is a bit Snow White-ish, only with some differences. The main character is this girl, who is being treated as a slave by some people. Maybe her parents, or maybe she’s adopted. Anyway, they keep punishing her for not working hard enough. She goes to a secluded place near a waterfall, and dreams about comforting a crying angel. Then wakes up, and finds a shining comb in the lake. She takes it to various people nearby, but it doesn’t belong to any of them.

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Meanwhile, her-slave driving owners continue to beat her…

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“And there’s no such thing as magic!”

She goes back to the cove, and meets the angel from her dreams. The comb belongs to the angel, but she tells her about her harsh life, and the angel lets her keep it. She combs her hair with it, and becomes beautiful. She goes about her work with a smile, which makes her mistress suspicious. Somehow she works out the girl has something valuable, and steals the comb while she sleeps – replacing it with a different one.

The next day, the woman accuses her of theft, using the other comb as “evidence”, she’s badly beaten, right in front of everybody, and left crying against some big pots. The woman then tries to use the golden comb, but it makes her more ugly, instead.

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Later on, some guy is leading the girl away with a rope (to stand trial for theft, somewhere?). She decides to commit suicide instead, so breaks free, and jumps off a cliff. Another guy rescues her, but she dies from her injuries shortly afterwards. I also think her real mother finally discovers her, just as she’s dying.

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Anyway, the people who saw her die make a big burial mound, and plant a flower in it, which grows tall and blooms. Then later an old man is telling some children the story, next to the flower. The book ends with a “moral of the story” summing-up page.

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Profound.

And that brings us to the end of my North Korean comic collection. This entry took ages to do, I’d better bung out some shorter ones, just to keep the blog going! As the Korea Book Centre has closed down, I don’t know if I’ll ever get any more, but I’ll have a scout around when I’m next around Hakusan, or Tokyo in general. Chongryon people are bound to have sold their books to second-hand shops at some point, right? (I did, also, ask the guy from whose blog I learned about the Korea Book Centre if he’d “rescued” any comics, when it closed down. But never got a reply. Annoyingly, it closed down on the day I was supposed to arrive in Japan, but my flight was delayed, so I was actually in Rome that day. Not that I went there on my first day!)

More Wight Smiles

Unlike the previous post, this is not a foreign comic. It is from “overseas”, though!

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They’re trying to say “left”

More Wight Smiles is a collection of cartoons by Rupert Besley, which originally appeared in the local papers on the Isle of Wight. As the name implies, this is the second collection. I didn’t buy the first collection when I was there because it was rarer, thicker, more expensive and the satire in it was “ancient”, being 4-5 years old. Except now the satire in this one is 12-14 years old, so yeah.

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All predictions that proved eerily accurate

Being from 1998 – 2000 there’s plenty of references to the issues of the day, especially the Millennium, the Dome, Metric Martyrs and, of course, those phones!

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This book is what might be called “medium press”, you aren’t likely to find it on sale outside the Isle of Wight, but it could be found being sold in normal shops there (well, the gift shops at tourist attractions anyway). Despite being apparently aimed at tourists, it is a compilation of cartoons from the local paper, so there’s plenty of IoW (you pick up the lingo)-centric gags.

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There’s also several related to TV12, apparently an attempt at creating a TV station for the island, which had terrible reception problems – despite being aimed at the residents of an island only 23 miles wide.

Still, as it’s a seperate book, showcasing the artist’s skills, there’s several additional cartoons. Both in the same style as the newspaper ones, or larger, free form pictures.

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Obviously!

Of course, coming from the local paper, there’s also plenty of references to local news stories that even the people who lived through them can’t remember today. Several have short, explanatory text – though annoyingly this just makes you wish you could have read the original articles!

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Another one has “bowls hooligans”, invading the pitch and drinking tea without raising their pinkies.

I wish my local area had compiled cartoon books like this, but my local paper doesn’t actually have any cartoons! Well there is “Funny Business” on the money page, but that’s not funny, and so generic that it’s probably produced in a factory somewhere and sold all over the country. This book was an inspiration to me when I first got it, because I was creating my ultra left-wing, satirical webcomic Felney at the time. Later unsucessfully revived as another webcomic with an “actual” “plot”.

Hmm, maybe I ought to revive it again, and try and sell it to the local paper!

DK Graphic Readers

Last weekend, I took a wander into The Works in Cambridge. I saw a giant cloth-and-gilt bound book of Sherlock Holmes (weirdly, I’ve never read one of these stories in it’s original format) and also ran into the woman who runs Camcon. But more importantly, from the point of view of this blog, I found these!

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There was quite a few, your nearest branch may have some!

They’re called DK Graphic Readers, and are part of an educational series put out by that ubiquitous children’s book publisher, Dorling Kindersley. Though the series is quite large, only four of the books are part of the “Graphic Readers” range, all dealing with periods of ancient history. Several other books in the series feature American comic characters, such as The Flash and The Hulk, but I don’t know if they are in comic format. I doubt it, though. They are probably in the usual DK “diagram style” with a few bits of Marvel stock art stuck around.

The aim of the whole series is to get children to “work up” to reading books on their own, as explained in the introduction for teachers and parents. These comics are part of the highest series, rather than being shoved in at the bottom because they’re “only” comics – a step in the right direction!

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The books themselves are in a similar format to the modern, “British” Classics Illustrated, though are a little smaller. Apart from the inside of the covers they are full colour, which means I’ll have to show you the other two covers in black and white!

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Like so

The strips themselves are in full colour, and are written in a fashion that allows them to explain the culture of the society in which they are set. For instance, the story set in Ancient Egypt revolves around a “house of the dead” where mummies are made. The Chinese story involves a boy who is summoned before the Emperor to demonstrate his musical talents.

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Caught out of bounds, it’s just like The Magnet… except beheading is a bit more drastic than six of the best.

Both of the stories I have involve children / young adults getting into trouble by accident, giving an insight into crime and punishment in these ancient times (and, of course, things that were considered crimes at the time). This also allows for exciting chase scenes!

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 Sexton Blake must have done this at least once

 Yes, you’ve spotted it. The stories, as well-written and illustrated as they are, use that font.

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At the end of the books, there is an extensive illustrated glossary giving explanations of various terms used. Some sections are better than others. Marcus Morris would never have allowed Eagle to patronisingly explain what a port is.

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These books originally sold for £3.99 – dirt cheap for a square bound, full colour comic these days! The Works is selling them for only 99p (formerly £1.99). I trust many copies have already found their way into school libraries, but if any headmasters should be reading this, get down there now and buy an armful! You’re always looking for ways to get kids reading, interested in history, and balance the books, aren’t you?

A comparison

…of Japan’s best weekly adventure comic and Britain’s best (only!) weekly adventure comic.*

It’s no secret that I hold Japan up as an example of how the comic industries of all countries ought to function. Thick, cheap weekly anthologies with exciting serials, which are then collected into better-printed book form for fans to collect. I’m not suggesting that Britain ought to start copying the Japanese art style or stories, though. And our comics don’t need to be as thick either, if we’re going to stick with detailed Commando-type artwork. But they do need to exist!

With sales dropping or barely holding across the board (mind you The Beano did recently gain just over 1000, which is a step in the right direction.) some drastic gambles may have to be taken. And of course comic fans all need to do their bit to promote the art form to non-readers in everyday life.

But enough of that, on with the comparison!

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The Phoenix issue 8 and Shonen Jump issue 12 (for 2012)

Here are the covers, and I think The Phoenix easily wins out,  with a big bold image and minimal text, as opposed to the “bit of everything” Japanese clutter. Some otaku hold that Japanese writing** is “more artistic” and so cluttered covers work better in that language. Well actually in Japan it’s considered “artistic” to scatter odd English around designs (usually it makes no sense). Cluttered covers are just ugly whatever language they are in!

Of course, the ideal is to have a strip on the cover. But we just aren’t getting that these days.

But enough of the fronts, lets look at the sides…

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That’s about the size of it.

Yes, Shonen Jump is still a weekly! It can be such a huge size partly because of the style of manga art, with many panels featuring only talking characters with basic backgrounds. Also manga usually uses screen tone to add shading, rather than time-consuming cross hatching. Oh and of course (at least if Bakuman is anything to go on) artists and writers only work on one story at a time, for which they are paid a decent wage and also receive royalties from sales of the collected books. This means they can concentrate on “their” story entirely. Most if not all of them also have assistants doing the donkey-work of, say, drawing the windows on distant skyscrapers. It is in effect the famous “studio system” used on Dan Dare raised to a state of perfection.

This particular issue contains 21 stories in about 500 pages (most of them aren’t numbered). The Phoenix contains 11 stories in a mere 32 pages. Though of course the length, style and pacing of them is so completely different a direct comparison is meaningless. Also the Phoenix’s editorial content is a ‘story’ in itself!

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Like so

Starting off, we have the latest information on “Phoenix land”, with the ongoing case of the missing feathers. One of the fictional editors of the comic has been arrested on suspicion of stealing them, which has not gone down well with the rest of the team. And then we’re into the first story. The stories in The Phoenix are all full-colour and the paper quality certainly beats Shonen Jump hands down. Mind you I’m wrong in the head so I actually prefer thin newsprint, but I’m not going to start claiming it’s better!

The first story is Pirates of Pangaea, which is actually pretty close to the “sort of thing” you’d see in manga! A fantasy world of dinosaurs and crazy pirates. Mind you though Pirates of Pangaea doesn’t feature a mysterious child with an ancient power locked within him, or elaborate, wordy mind-games. No it features shooting at rampaging raptors with flintlocks and then running like mad!

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A blonde guy teamed up with a “dumb animal” that’s more intelligent than him, shades of Tintin eh?

The other ‘serious’ adventure story in The Phoenix is The Lost Boy. This one is actually drawn in a kind of combined British / Japanese style. And it also features a seafaring adventurer on a mysterious island!

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Sweet sugar lumps!

The other “flagship” adventure story is the more comedic Long Gone Don, created by The Etherington Brothers. This pair are for my money not just the most talented writer and artist working in British comics at the moment, but are among the best in the world! The complex and detailed art is a joy to behold, the dialogue is fantastic and the stories rattle along at a good pace. The one criticism I can perhaps offer is with art that deep and detailed they ought to go about including some “where’s wally?”-style mini visual gags. That’d make their work just about perfect, and would encourage people to stare at it for longer, too!

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Crazy invention time!

The Phoenix also contains some purely comedy stories, such as this one by Jamie Smart. To put it diplomatically Jamie is a “marmite” artist. A little like a modern version of Eric Parker, in fact, in that he sure can turn ’em out. He’s almost made The Dandy his own of late – which has bought about some highly polarised opinions. I’d better reserve my own judgement on the matter, lest accusations of jealousy start flying around.

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What would the Rev’d Marcus Morris have made of this?

One of my favourite parts of The Phoenix is the educational Corpse Talk. The basic premise is that the skeletal, rotted remains of famous historical figures are dug up and interviewed about their lives. Like ya do. This week it’s the Suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst, and previous bodies in the chair have been Marie Curie and Genghis Khan. I should think more than one kid has got better marks on their history homework as a result of this! Plus just look at how many panels have been crammed in, it’s like 1950’s Jonah!

The feature content of The Phoenix includes the usual “letters and pictures from readers” section that has long been a staple of British comics (though of course the best letters sections appeared before 1930). I can’t see anything that looks similar in Shonen Jump. The Pheonix also contains a series of articles about creating your own comics, and encourages children to have a go themselves.

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 Mind you this one is about sound effects, which are overused, over dramatic and over here!

To my mind this is the most important part of the comic. It will hopefully instill in the readers not only the desire to try it for themselves (all kids draw, but if my own experience is anything to go on very few of them attempt to make comic strips. Though to my own young mind it seemed the logical thing to do.) but also an appreciation of the art form of comics and of the effort that goes into making decent ones. If The Phoenix can be sustained (apparently it’s secure for two years… are you doing your bit to make it run beyond?) and if those kids can inspire others at their schools to draw comics too we might see the long-wished-for comics “revolution” in Britain within the next 15 years!

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More Etheringtonism

The Phoenix also contains puzzles, including the ongoing series The Dangerous Adventures of Von Doogan. Some of these are harder than others and really require you to get yer brain in gear. This issue’s are a bit easy though. Readers are invited to “help” the adventurer by sending in the solutions to the puzzles, and if “chosen” by him receive prizes.

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Yep!

Finally one thing Shonen Jump definitely does not have is text stories! Text-filled story papers were the predecessors of British adventure comics, and even once the adventure strips started to appear in the late 30’s there was a long crossover period of mixed text and strip content. By contrast I’m not sure Japan ever had what could be considered an equivalent to story papers. But then most histories of manga begin in the late 1940’s and ignore everything that went before as being “too nationalistic”. Mind you certain ivory-tower preachers are attempting to act like British comics only began in 1976 and nothing that came before is worthy of note.

Possible candidates for Japanese story papers include books called ‘Yellow Covers’ that first started to appear in 1775 (the first British story paper was possibly The Young Gentlemen’s Magazine in 1777, but very little information is available on it). After these there was a genre of serialised stories called ‘Books for reading’. I’ve also seen an issue of a 1920’s “comic” (as described by my girlfriend of the time) called Boys’ Club. But I can’t find any information on it, and it was locked in a cabinet at a museum with all of the other information about it in Japanese.

Anyway, the Phoenix text stories are often extracts from children’s books, which means I don’t bother reading them as I won’t be buying the books. Occasionally however they run complete stories or mini-serials (including an adaption of The Minotaur). More of those, please!

The Phoenix is completely free of advertising, because it is funded by “anonymous backers” (why anonymous though, surely not ‘shame’ at being involved with ‘mere comics’? Stand up and be counted, true patriots!). By contrast Shonen Jump has quite a lot of adverts, even in the form of fold-out “colour plates”!

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 FURUKOOOOOOOOOOSU!

These adverts are generally for action figures, videogames or anime DVD’s. Almost all of which are based on the stories that have appeared in Shonen Jump! And yet in this country when a British comic character is adapted into another form (rather than a TV show being made into a ‘comic’ with hardly any comic) it’s generally either ignored or is met with a disgraceful shower of hate from hack journalists who have suddenly ‘discovered’ that the comics they read as a kid 30 years ago have changed since then. And this from supposedly ‘patriotic’ newspapers.

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Hand!

By contrast to The Pheonix, Shonen Jump contains only 3 pages of comic in colour. They are the first three pages of Haikyuu!!, a school and volleyball strip. It’s apparently a new strip, so this could be the very first part and the colour pages serve to introduce it. Of course in issues where a new story is not beginning it’s probable that a popular one is randomly chosen for the colour pages.

The Phoenix does not have any sport stories, but they were once a genre that ebbed and flowed through British comics. The Boys’ Realm became a sport-themed paper towards the end of it’s life, and even launched a smaller spinoff called The Boys’ Realm Sports Library, which I recently bought 6 months of. This issue of Shonen Jump has two, Hakyuu!! and Kuroko no Basuke (Kuroko’s Basketball).

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 Is a small tsu in Katakana also a ‘sound extender’ like a line is?

Of course the staples of shonen manga (boys’ comics) are the adventure stories. There’s some comedic ones such as Toriko, which is about a “gourmet hunter” who tours the world looking for ingredients to create “the ultimate meal”. If British TV companies want to save a few bob they could always combine I’m A Nonentity Get Me Back On Telly (are you sure that’s right? -ed) and Masterchef into one show in this way.

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Also it has Mexican wrestlers

Another comedy adventure tale is the famous One Piece, which is about a crew of pirates captained by “Luffy”, who has some sort of superpower. In this issue we have the 657th (O_O) chapter…

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 With some English

…and you thought Varney The Vampyre ran for a long time! Like the early-mid 19th century Penny Dreadfuls, a successful manga will be extended and extended to make more money rather than allowed to end at the point the writers probably hoped it would. This of course usually leads to people beginning to describe long-running stories as “annoying” or “crazy” as the writers just stick in whatever they think up first, probably having long since given up caring.

Of course in Britain from about the 1860’s – 70’s onwards stories had a set length and finished when they finished. It didn’t do our industry any harm for the next hundred years! And of course a story ending doesn’t mean that the same characters can’t come back in a new tale later, but it does free up the creators to think of something totally different if they want.

The main stock in trade of the shonen story is, of course, giant monsters, giant lasers or, er, both.

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Oroboros? It always makes me think of Red Dwarf!

Some stories actually have quite a lot of detail despite still being 20-30 pages a chapter. There must be quite a crew of assistants working on Nurarihyon no Mago.

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Fields of swords!

And of course there’s the epic battles with magic energy beams. I wonder how people don’t get tired of this stuff… but then again somebody who can’t read English would probably consider every Commando comic to have the same story XD.

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 DOGOOOOOO. Mind you if the Treens were watching this they’d know not to mess.

Shonen Jump also contains a few examples of other genres, including one which was once very popular in Britain… up to World War 1 anyway, the “work” story. The Boys’ Friend used to be crammed with tales about boys who worked in mines, factories or shipyards. And the immortal Sexton Blake used to regularly go undercover in all sorts of industries. In today’s Shonen Jump we have Bakuman, a story of kids working their way into the manga industry. The old work stories in Britain were usually detective stories at their heart, with the hero overhearing some villainous plot and working to foil it.

Bakuman is instead basically a romantic story at it’s heart (well there’s not much scope for villainy in the manga industry, a serial pencil thief is not that threatening). Moritaka Mashiro dreams of being a manga artist, he loves Miho Azuki who wants to be a voice actress. They promise that when Moritaka has made a successful manga that is animated, Miho will play the woman in it, and then they can be married. But apart from that it also contains many other amusing characters and offers many insights into how the manga industry in Japan works (which is how I’m even able to write posts like this!). The Japanese books are currently up to 16, the English have just reached 9. This chapter will probably be part of book 17.

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“Everybody Listen!”

Other styles of stories include the purely humorous story, as we’d see in The Beano. Just longer, black and white and probably serialised to a degree (and later made into an animation without mouth-foaming, traitorous ravings in the papers).

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Teacups for heads? It’s PC gone mad!

One of the longest running comedy comics in Shonen Jump is called, and breathe in here: This is the police station in front of Kameari Park in Katsushika Ward. It’s been running continuously since 1976, and in fact the artwork still looks more like 70’s manga than the modern kind.

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“I’m gonna try and do 3 rotations!” “Aagh stop rotating!” …or something like that .

The story is probably more like Only Fools and Horses (or maybe Stop The Pigeon) as the characters try to use the latest fads or wierd inventions to either get rich quick, or catch criminals more easily. Of course these always go wrong. Also like the stories of Billy Bunter or Sexton Blake the main characters never age even though the world is changing around them. But actually in this story a few characters do age. A baby born in an early story is now a teenager, but his parents are still the same age.

This particular story appears to involve a pushy journalist constantly interfering with police work by trying to interview everybody. However he then helps them arrest an armed robber by popping up at the resturant he is holed up in and trying to interview him. While he is still wondering what’s going on he gets arrested!

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Myootsukee.

There’s also a school story apparently told from the perspective of the teacher. The only British example of that I can think of (except for maybe “Singled out: Teacher” Bash Street Kids episodes in The Beano from the 2000’s) was in The Captain in 1899!

You will probably have noticed that most of the print quality in Shonen Jump is not fantastic. That’s because these weekly anthologies are seen as ‘throwaway’, in fact the trains and stations in Tokyo usually have discarded copies laying on the seats. Of course in Britain for most of history comics were also seen as “throwaway” and were used to, say, light the fire once the kids were done with them. This has found it’s ultimate expression in the replacement of the printed US Shonen Jump (which was monthly and had half the page count… somehow) with “Shonen Jump Alpha”, which is at least weekly but ‘expires’ and deletes itself. Of course any comic that goes purely digital from print ceases to exist as far as I’m concerned. But having them ‘expire’ really is a step too far. I haven’t bought a videogame since 2009 because of the Orwellian excesses of that industry. It cannot be allowed to creep into comics too!

Of course, it’s okay to dispose of the weekly anthology copies in Japan because the stories that the readers like will come out in better-printed book form. Virtually every story will be printed in this way, whether they sell or not! It is of course these collected books that we get in foreign countries.

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But a little bigger

Of course this can help with Japanese study… an aspect of comics that must also be promoted by fans to the unbelievers, and a reason why it is essential that more countries begin to produce a wide range of varied stories in the manner of Japan, and export them!

Imagine the proliferation of enthusiasm for learning other languages and the cultures that go with them if all nations produced interesting-looking picture stories that people wanted to understand. Comics have advantages over plain books in that the pictures help to explain what’s going on, and the dialogue and descriptions are “broken apart” clearly.

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The English words actually seem to fit some of those bubbles better!

Of course book form reprints of stories from British comics are starting to proliferate now. But only haphazardly and occasionally in “best of” type books rather than full reprints. They’re also usually hardbacks with thick glossy art paper… even if the original artwork has been lost and the reproduction would have been just as good in lower-quality paperback. Of course this drive for quality of printing and binding drives the prices up to prohibitive levels, especially in a recession, and people stay away. Then series are left incomplete because of “poor sales”. Still if everybody reading this made up their mind to buy just one of the British comic reprint books this week…

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Serving suggestion

Of course it’s far more important that the risk is taken and that ‘vanished’ stories are once again reproduced thousands of times and distributed to the ends of the country, so that they may survive into future decades in an easily accessible form. But as usual those who “know the cost of everything and the value of nothing” win the day. Mind you unsympathetic shopkeepers don’t help. Classics From The Comics was just really getting into it’s stride, switching from purely reprinting 1/2 page humour strips to a little bit of everything from DC Thomson’s extensive back catalogue, even reaching back into the twenties! But bad distribution killed it off in it’s prime. It was probably the closest thing we have had to Shonen Jump, actually. Though only 100 pages and entirely reprints.

One other book Britain has had which was a bit like Shonen Jump was this one from 1989

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Intended as an annual, mind you.

It was a paperback reprint of a random selection of IPC / Amalgamated Press adventure comics from the 50’s and 60’s. It even had Jump-like print ‘quality’!

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A highwayman story probably originally from The Thriller Library

Even in 1989 this apparently didn’t sell well enough to be reprinted. But really it ought to point the way forwards, if the quality of the reprints is not going to be very good because of missing/deteriorated original artwork, cheapen the paper to match and knock it out for as low a price as possible! And of course all of us will then have to let other people know it’s out there!

It’s one thing to wish that we had regular big wedges of comic like Shonen Jump (not that thinner wedges of full colour like The Phoenix are a bad thing, we ought to be able to do both, really). But if we want it, all comic fans and creators have to stand together and do their bit!

*- Actually Doctor Who adventures is also weekly, and Doctor Who is an “acceptable” licensed character. But it only has 4-5 actual pages of comic strip per issue, the rest is dumbed-down articles with big pictures and “ooh scary!” captions.

** – The ‘fancier’ characters are actually almost all Chinese, though!

London SP Expo 2011

The UK Web & Mini-comix Thing is gone, but the London SP Expo is here to replace it! It’s run by the same people who started the Bristol SP Expo, which is a few years old and now runs over two days.

Anyway, the first one was held yesterday and I went to sell my comics. I didn’t get issue 4 of the Red, White & Blue finished in time. Even though my new year’s resolution was to take it bi-monthly, and the cover still actually says “Jan-Feb 2011” it’s still not done! I’d like to blame a cold I had late last month, but really I was just too lazy. I did have one new production, in the shape of issue 1 of The Trident. I finished this last year and it’s an unofficial continuation of the Sexton Blake Library and Boys’ Friend Library, ie one long text story. The first is about Sexton Blake in World War 1, I sold an amazing two copies! XD

But before setting out to the convention I had to make a “colours nailed to the mast” T-shirt to wear. Using rubbish print-yourself iron-on transfers, it didn’t go well. But then again it only had to last a day.

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First print a mirror image… (my dad inevitably had to point out that it was “wrong” in case I “hadn’t noticed”)

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Get yer amazing Tesco value t-shirt, and a mum with an iron

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One not-burned-down house later… The E was the corner I peeled the paper off first, and some of the red went with it. Also the far corner wasn’t stuck down.

 I’d been intending to stay up for “as long as it took” to finish issue 4, but it had got to 9 at night and I’d still not finished the (20,500 words so far!) Sexton Blake story, and not even started on the 5 pages of Tigers of Punjab (the three of issue 4’s short Speedway story took all of January). Anything produced that quickly wasn’t going to be any good, so I decided to not produce it at all and leave issue 4 out. The Sexton Blake story could do with some big tweaks too, if it’d printed it as-is it would have been very rambling and bland. So instead I packed what I had, printed the strips for issue 4 that did get finished, and went to sleep at a decent time.

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Stuff packed. I have some display stands this year!

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The finished material in a display book. I need to take my printer’s colour management in hand… things that are supposed to be darkish grey are almost-black purple! It will be sorted out for when the actual comics are printed.

As it NOT traditional for my comic convention trips, the transportation ran perfectly smoothly. Nobody had dropped a match at a station or anything. (Actually the fire that closed Cambridge station last year really was huge and could be seen over most of the city, plus a tall former mill was in danger of collapsing onto the station. But at the time I didn’t know that XD).

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Had to use the “London Overground”, I didn’t even know there was such a thing. I just thought it was a funny nickname for the parts of the Underground that aren’t actually underground (which is a surprising amount of it, actually). But the Overground is actually a seperate train with it’s own lines.

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Packed with convention-goers, as you can see.

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Is that some blue I see?

After arriving at New Cross station, apparently near Millwall stadium (they weren’t at home, I doubt supporters of a club with a reputation for hooliganism and long-haired comic con goers would mix!) I predictably got lost. At least the Thing was on a straight road from it’s station, even I can’t get lost on a straight road XD. I found the venue pretty much at 10 o clock when the event was opening to the public, though for the first hour it was pretty much just the exhibitors, still. Several wandering around and chatting to people they knew.

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What I could see. Opposite me were several DFC contributors. To my shame I never got that comic, but will certianly be getting The Pheonix, it’s “replacement”. Even if I hope to have emigrated by then I still will!

I just took lots of pictures… all of the architecture!

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Wanna see a huge organ?

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 All ceilings should look like this

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Balconies

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The top, sadly the windows are obscured by this horrible modern lighting rig. They ought to use ornate chandeliers. I’d love to be in this room alone when it’s raining heavily.

I also set up my table. The new stands make it look a lot better, but I really need an A5 one for The Trident (and, when it’s done, The Dragonfly). Also I’d hoped to have the A6 sized penny comics in a seperate box all jumbled up (the different stories will be different colours), but I’d only got one finished (-_- and that was a reprint) so into the stand they went as well.

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I later made a seperate notice pointing out the price of the penny dreadfuls which got a bit more attention XD

After that I took a quick run around the hall to look for the stuff I wanted to buy especially, but as I was in a hurry I actually didn’t see any of them. I did see  Yuri Kore but she didn’t have any new books out. But if you haven’t got the two she had released then buy ’em! One of them won a competition organised by the Japanese embassy!

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How do they work?

At 11 I phoned up my girlfriend, who is Japanese. I’d not had any contact with her since the earthquake but she said she was fine, just that she had to walk home from work which took 10 hours O_O. I also found a yen in my change bucket and gave it to some anime fans behind me. From about 11 on people actually started arriving and browsing. Though I didn’t make any sales til gone 12 I did give out a few hastily-made (they always are) free flyers.

There was also no less than three film crews wandering about at one point! Well this is in a university, I suppose the media studies students wanted to get their “interviewing” badge. “for some strange reason” they didn’t interview me. Oh well, I only would have said that a story paper that ended in the mid-1920’s was the best comic ever.

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“You’re sure that’s not a Tribble”?

As the day went on I handed out a few more free flyers, though oddly enough still had a few left. People won’t take shoddily-produced rubbish with silly puns in it even if it is free! No less than three people who came to see me had actually heard of Sexton Blake! The story paper revolution gains momentum, comrades! Around 1 I went off for food and then a longer wander around the hall. I found all the stuff on my shopping list, including (finally) some issues of FuturequakeOmnivistascope (both near-professional quality publications inspired by 2000AD’s heyday) and some Starscape productions, including the Starscape Storypaper! It’s A6 sized but what can ya do. It’ll while away some time at work. “For some strange reason” the guy at the Starscape stall thought I’d be older. Well I do mainly collect comics from before World War 2.

I also got the first two issues of Non-repro (a seperate post about this will be made eventually!). This came about when somebody posted on the forums of Sweatdrop Studios (a seperate post about them will be made eventually!) saying “Why isn’t there a regular UK manga anthology?”. The people who came to produce Non-repro said “Why isn’t there a regular UK manga anthology?” and made it!

Aand I also got “The Comix Reader” – 24 tabloid-sized pages on newsprint for a pound! There’s all sorts in it and some is not for children. Encouragingly it says “Issue 1” so unlike the similarly-formatted Gothic there will hopefully be many more!

I got heaps of other stuff too, and ought to blog about some of it eventually. I want to treat all British comics the same, whether they be million-sellers or photocopied pamphlets!

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Free advertising! Where’s me discount?

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Buys

Eventually the day came to a close. I’d spent a good 50-odd quid all in coins and sold about 10 comics, so my case was considerably heavier on the way out! One of the rules of this con, unlike the Thing, was that we had to help put away the tables and chairs too. I was half expecting a load of whinging and moaning and sudden development of bad backs, but actually everybody was making themselves useful and actually doing it. Then again contrary to expectations the majority of people at the con seemed to be working class, when you’d think a bunch of “creative types” would be airy fairy and middle class. Oh well, comics were always too good to be wasted on the likes of them!

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My real name is tarquin wetherby but I used my cleaner’s name to blend in.

Then it was time for the journey home, which was similarly uneventful. I’d used cheap Tesco deodorant which didn’t last the distance, luckily the trains weren’t crowded and stereotypes about comic con goers remained unproven to the public at large XD. Wierdly when I arrived at Ely station it was soaked and smelled like heavy rain, but the train had not passed through any rain, and my dad said our village hadn’t had any either. Very narrow band!

BICS bits

A few years ago i went to the Bristol comic convention two years on the trot. On both occasions i only decided to go the day before and thus was extremely tired and spend hundreds of pounds on train tickets and last-minute hotel bookings. Mind you the first year i went the hotel i got was actually closer to the convention than the official hotel.

Anyway, i decided to revive that tradition by deciding to go to the Birmingham International Comic Show less than 24 hours before the doors opened! Though i sensibly left out the hotel booking and just went for the Saturday… Birmingham doesn’t take the whole day to get to, after all. I also wore a black armband in tribute to Jose Maria Jorge.

In another tradition of me going to comic events i took NO pictures whilst there, so instead i’ll take a look at some of the comics i bought.

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Selected bits and pieces. I actually left out another one i bought there that i have been slowly collecting for a few years called Vampire Freestyle. It’s good so read it.

 Realms

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Fantastic cover, whoever designed this knew what they were doing.

A strange one this, a group who were selling some superhero type comic were giving it away for free. It dates from 1998, when self publishing was still just about in the photocopying and mail-order era, and when internet-capable computers were still not quite within the reach of everyone. To reinforce this fact it actually has no email address or website on it. The authors have actually put in a postal address to send comments and feedback to!

Oh, i suppose that isn’t “strange” after all, if they didn’t have a computer! Right, then, what about the stories – those are strange!

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My normal camera, itself from 2002, has given up the ghost at last so i have to use a more modern but far inferior one. The blurriness really doesn’t bring out the quality of this artwork.

The stories are very eerie horror tales, most of them have almost no dialogue and bizarre endings. The artwork is fantastic – very dark with acres and acres of hatching rather than solid black areas. It’s also very big and bold, this is an A4 sized comic yet has at most about 4 panels to a page.

Comics Forum

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A cover that would not disgrace a traditional British adventure annual!

The Comics Creators Guild is a sort of trade union of comic creators large and small (though mainly small!). They produce this book yearly. It’s not a half tabloid sized hardback like “proper” annuals, but you can’t have everything. It’s a real mashing together of disparate styles and genres within. Some familiar small press names like Space Babe 113 pop up regularly. These books are always worth buying!

 Alison’s Room

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Wooooo

I recently joined the forums of Sweatdrop Studios, a Cambridge-based comic creating group that i had somehow not had any contact with all these years (and who i ought to do an article about!). I bumped an old thread saying i was going to BICS and was anybody going – i got a reply from Yuri Kore. So i went to talk to her and bought this!

It’s an eerie horror story about a girl who believes that a monster lives in her wardrobe, and that if she doesn’t play with her dolls it will come out and get her. Her father is also dead and people blame her mother for the death. Various other characters pile on the pressure, scheming and backstabbing – all the while the monster in the wardrobe grows stronger and stronger. You can tell this won’t end well!

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Fantastic artwork once again. Also the book is tightly bound so i used the very professional journalistic device of “my hand holding the page open”. Come to think of it why didn’t i scan this? It’s not like it’s going to be damaged by being put in the scanner unlike the 100 year old bound volumes i’m normally delving in to.

London Calling

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A familiar look? If not, why not!

A new comic with art by Keith Page – who also works for Commando and recently completed The Iron Moon, a story about the British Space Empire of 1897! I actually went to BICS to get The Iron Moon (and some sushi), but the printers hadn’t come through in time (and i had a devil of a time finding the sushi restaurant too). Instead i got this, published by Time Bomb Comics who state that they specialise in “one shot” books.

The story in this is actually a little confusing, as it uses a character called Charlotte Corday who first appeared in a webcomic that i haven’t read. So searching that out first is recommended. The story revolves around Charlotte going on a secret mission in London, whilst trying to maintain psychic contact with her superiors in France. Also her enemies are vampires. And the police are after her with some odd listening equipment. And another police deparment want to fight the vampires… phew.

The story is also framed by a section set in a flooded modern London with Charlotte “making up” the story with her children. The actual story appears to be set in the late 1940’s – which means lots of lovely cars!

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Oh and did i mention her commander is a skeleton?

The back of the book says it’s for “all ages”, though really i think a “12” rating would be better. Mind you there’s no end of cultural references in it that will fly over the head of anybody not between the ages of about 40 and 60. Or else people like me who just live in an idealised version of the past.

Anyway, here’s the first page of that webcomic i haven’t read yet: http://dennisthedonkey.blogspot.com/2009/10/story-begins.html

Poot!

The image uploader has decided not to work for the picture of Poot… hurrah. Anyway it was one of the multitude of Viz ripoffs of the late 1980’s that died out within a few months (except for one called Smut that somehow lasted up until 2007, though i have no idea how, not even Borders stocked every issue… and it wasn’t funny). However now Poot is back!

Compared to Viz, Poot is more… silly. That might seem a bit strange since Viz has a bit of a silly reputation itself… but Viz also does some pretty vicious satire (like The Modern Parents) that i couldn’t see appearing in Poot. Mind you they do ridicule Macs and iGadgets a lot… which is a good thing.

I had a bit of a chat with them, but if i may i’ll hand over to Kevf off the Comics UK forum:

Another very positive stand was Poot! comic. I was pretty sure I’d not seen Poot! since I was was working for the comics that shared a shelf with it in the early 90s (the Viz-alike titles Gas, Brain Damage, Zit, UT, remember them?). And I was right. The guys had run Poot as kids, folded it when the bubble burst in 1991, got proper jobs as accountants and the like and, last year, revived the comic for fun. And now, after a dozen issues, they have a distribution deal with Seymour, they’ve been accepted by WH Smith’s travel outlets, and are currently selling 16,000 copies a month. On newsstands. I don’t know about you, but I find that one of the most heartening stories in comics I’ve heard this year. An independent publisher is selling a comics magazine, printed on paper, in good old fashioned newsagents, and people are buying it.

Their starting point was simply looking at the shelves, seeing that Viz was the only funny comic there, identifying a hole in the market, and filling it. They’re not making a fortune, but they are paying their contributors, breaking even, and enjoying themselves creating and publishing comic strips. If others could replicate this success I’d be delighted, and I get the feeling it’s possible.

Of course Titan ought to be trying to replicate that success by publishing Roy of the Rovers Volume 1.

I bought the latest issue, and also the “pilot issue”, which has much of the content of issue 1 (of the new version, not the one from the 80’s!) but a few different strips and layouts… might be worth a few bob one day!

Crikey!

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Ten pounds worth… but ‘worth’ a lot more!

Excitement abounded on Comics UK when it was revealed that a new magazine about British comics was to be released. Many people, including me, took out subscriptions… but were a little disappointed by the presence of several mistakes and also waffle-filled articles in the early issues. I allowed my subscription to lapse and largely forgot about the magazine (despite joining it’s forum and talking about Doctor Who on there, ahem). Until it was suddenly announced that issue 16 would be the final one!

Anyway, as a penance i bought several issues from the Crikey stall, and they certainly show a lot of improvement over the early ones! There’s also a nice article about Spaceship Away in one, and several ones that focus on some slightly more obscure comics that had my ebay bid finger itching.

I still feel like i ought to do more, mind you. Like start my own magazine about comics! Mind you it’d probably just regurgitate posts from this blog, come out once every decade, and only be available on one day of the year.

In all, a decent convention. Next up (maybe) is the London MCM Expo, the last weekend in October. This time i’ll try and remember to take some photos!

Farewell, Jose Maria Jorge

Last week saw the sad death of one of my favourite comic artists, Jose Maria Jorge. Hailing from Argentina, he worked for DC Thomson’s Commando comic, which is incidentally the last-surviving title in the Boys’ Own genre that is properly published in newsagents.

He specialised in flying stories (though occasionally did submarine stories too – and in “Fire over England” in the “True Brit” reprint book did both!). In 42 years he drew 163 issues. The final one of which was “Divided Aces”, Commando 4329, which appeared in September as part of the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain. He also had the honour of drawing issue 4000 – quite possibly the highest number any comic has ever reached!

He could turn his hand to flying stories of any era with equal skill. I’ll let the artwork speak for itself here, fans of classic warbirds might want to hang around!

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Starting off in World War 1 with Albatross fighters against “gunbus” pusher biplanes. This is from the story “Ace Versus Ace”, number 4091

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Into World War 2 now, with the story “Let Me Fly!”, number 4181. This story begins and ends with the air force but spends most of it’s time on the ground, with Germans fighting Russians. The uniforms and weapons no less authentically depicted. 

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Not bad at drawing explosions, either.

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Coming to the end of World War 2 in “Operation Extinction”, number 4144. Early jets could be bad enough to ‘just’ fly, let alone be shot at in! And just look at the attention to detail in that cockpit.

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And now it’s Sabres and Migs over Korea in “Iron Cross Yank”, Number 4104. Look at all the panels and rivets on the top of that Sabre! I bet a 1950’s American ground crew could find their way around this illustration!

Jose Maria also drew what is one of my favourite Commando stories of all time – “Aces Wild”, which is featured in the book “The Dirty Dozen” that can still be found knocking around in some book shops.  His artwork is good enough in the small Commando’s but really comes alive in those big books. In a just world we would, of course, have a big book dedicated to his Commando work as well as his paintings (mostly of classic motor racing) with lots of large-scale pictures. But i suspect instead the comics world at large will be left not knowing what a shining light it has lost just because he never drew Spider Man.

Proper British adventure comics are still around, if you know where to look – Part 2.

Yes, Doctor Who is all well and good, you may say. But he’s still a licensed character, albiet a brilliant one that lends himself to pretty much any story in any medium. How about a proper British comics character? How about somebody who is the very embodiment of the stiff upper lip Boys’ Own adventurer… how about Dan Dare?

Now, i know what you are thinking. Here is a character who has been cynically “updated” by men in suits who are only thinking of the money more times than you’ve had hot dinners.  Each time getting more and more remote from the brilliance of the original version – a version started by a man in a dog collar and drawn by one of the greatest comic artists of his own or any era. Who was incidentally pouring his heart and soul into every panel (well, the ones he did!) as if each one was a miniature masterpiece destined for a gallery wall.

Well fear not, for THIS Dan Dare is exactly like the original! Created as a labour of love by a small group of determined fans with a vision. This is…

Spaceship Away issues 1-7

I had been aware of Spaceship Away for ages. I even had a look through a few issues at the Bristol convention in either 2005 or 6 (but couldn’t attract the attention of any of the overworked people behind the table to ask the price!). However it took me until 2010 to finally order the first 7 issues. They were well worth it!

dfs

Aaand here they are. For some reason my memory remembered them as being “US Comic” sized.  Actually they are A4 sized. 

The first issue is actually a bit sparse. It is basically the first pages of the story that started the whole thing (called The Pheonix Mission)  and one long article about how the story was funded, drawn and gotten to press. This story is amazing in itself and deserving of some real recognition. And i don’t mean some afterthought “oh, yeah, and the best small press award goes to Spaceship Away, right, where’s the bar?” award either! The story took so long to get to press that it had actually been initially intended to be printed in New Eagle… a comic that ended in 1994! Issue 1 of Spaceship Away finally emerged in 2003. Sadly the artist who began the tale, Keith Watson, did not live to see it reach print.

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Article. Later on columns were added!

They rounded up assorted artists who had worked in Frank Hampson’s studio during the days of the Eagle, and got members of the Eagle Society to “commission” artwork from the artists on a page by page basis to get the story paid for. The result looks amazing… and because it’s printed using modern techniques direct from the boards (modern DD reprint books mostly have to make do with scans of the old Eagles) looks it’s absolute best!

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Oh yeah, they make the strip look as if it’s on the covers of the 1950’s Eagle too!

That was issue 1, one story (well also there’s the one-page strip Dan Bear on the back… which also has incredible artwork and it’s own interesting and cute story) and one article. However expansions and improvements were rapid. Lets jump up to the newest issue i have, number 7.

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Not quite “strip on the cover”, but it’ll do!

We now have six regular comic strips, as well as one-off funny strips. There is still articles but, with the story of Spaceship Away told, they are now either about Dans’ World, the history of the Eagle or the science behind the stories. Sadly i found several of these articles pretty dull or ‘fluffy’. But never mind them, we’re here for the comics!

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Rocket Pilot – Britain leads the way to the moon in 1970!

The Pheonix Mission has now given way to it’s much-longer (at the time of writing it’s still going!) sequel Green Nemesis. This tale features the villains of the saga, the Treens – and their leader The Mekon! It’s crammed with all the stuff that made the original Dan Dare so great – resourcefulness, never-say-die attitudes and a stern sense of duty. Qualities any former officers would no doubt have recognised in their son’s Eagle only five years after the war.

 We also have Rocket Pilot – originally a webcomic, this tells the story of Sir Hubert Guest, the commanding officer of Spacefleet in the first Eagle onwards.  In this story he has not yet attained this high position and travels on the first trips to the moon (in 1970) and mars (in 1988). It even briefly jumps back to his schooldays, when he looked up in awe at the RAF’s new rocket interceptors, based on German designs and developed by captured scientists.

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Crafty photo use, it’s like the 21st century (as Gerry Anderson imagined it) never ended!

At the far end of the scale we have Project Pluto. Set in the 2020’s, this has Dan himself as the commander of Spacefleet. However he is not content to sit around in an office and pops back and forth between the moon and space stations. Mind you with the advanced space drives of the time that’s probably easier and safer. However in the background shady politicians are trying to manipulate a war between Earth and Saturn(‘s moons – even when Dan ‘originally’ went there they knew the planet wasn’t solid).

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Airbrushes! It’s like Frank Bellamy… which is probably the idea

Ahh but did i not say yesterday that proper comics need some text stories too? Well here’s one! It’s set just before the Eagle story Project Nimbus which, i believe, was the first full story Frank Bellamy worked on, after Frank Hampson was unceremoniously given the boot. The story attempts to explain the various changes to costumes and spaceships seen when the artists changed. Apparently the government were angry at Spacefleet for wasting money, so they changed all their uniforms to look as if they were doing something! Looks like in the future (which is now the past) some things haven’t changed.

 In addition to the ongoing Dan Bear and humour strips, issue 7 introduces something new – a non Dan Dare comic strip! This is Journey Into Space, based on a famous radio serial. This strip was actually originally produced in Express Weekly, a “high-minded” adventure comic with expensive printing that was actually started to directly rival Eagle. To predict that the flagship strips of both would one day appear in the same comic would be like, i don’t know, predicting that Sonic the Hedgehog would one day appear in Nintendo games! Utter madness.

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Can Sonic run as fast as this, though?

 Later issues of Spaceship Away introduced even more non-DD stories including a CGI one called Space Girls, some more classic sci-fi characters in the shape of Hal Starr and Nick Hazzard, and also Garth, from the long-running Daily Mirror strip. However i don’t own these later issues – yet!

Proper British adventure comics are still around, if you know where to look – Part 1.

Well that title isn’t going to format well, is it?

Anyway, as the title implies, i have set myself up as the comic hanging judge, deciding what is worthy and what is not. So what do i consider a “proper” British adventure comic, then?

– Comes out weekly

– Printed on newsprint, or thin paper

– Black and white.

However those criteria are nonexistent today (though Commando comes closest!), so unfortunately must be ignored. Oh well, i don’t consider a car to be “proper” unless it’s rear wheel drive and has loads of chrome on it, but my own one has neither. Needs must in these dark, tasteless times. On with criteria we can fill…

– Original characters, or else characters that are not imported from some flavour-of-the-month American film, Japanese cartoon etc.

– Suitable for all ages

– Combined comic strips and illustrated text stories.

Now we’re getting somewhere! Titles that live up to these criteria can be had if, as the title says, you know where to look. Which brings us on to:

The Doctor Who Storybook 2007

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Remember “proper” annuals are dated a year ahead, so this came between the 2006 and 2007 series!

I had read a few times that these “storybooks” were better than the “official annuals”. Though not having seen any of the contemporary official annuals i can’t comment. I have however seen a scan of one of the 1970’s annuals (on a Doctor Who DVD! I wasn’t Warezing) and it was terrible. Mindlessley dull text stories, nonsensical psychadelic comic strips and about 75% of the book being general articles about space exploration. Mind you people were still going to the moon in the early 70’s.

Anyway, i came across this book in Mind for 20p, so i had to have it, and i’m glad i found out what I’ve been missing! There are several text stories, some “straight” but others presented in the form of diaries, ordinary people telling the story of what happened to them, and even an instant message conversation. They are also profusely illustrated.

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Most of the illustrations are fantastic…

For my money the first story (“Cuckoo-spit”, told as a diary written by a boy in the 70’s) and the last one (“Corner of your eye”, told as an IM conversation) are the best ones. Though one in the middle, narrated by the storyteller in an ancient European village, is pretty good too.

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And some aren’t.

 There’s also one long comic strip in the middle of the book which is also good. It’s set in “Venezia” but it’s not clear if this is Venice or an alien planet that looks like Venice! The inhabitants aren’t much of a clue, as everybody knows a good third of the intelligent life forms in the universe of Doctor Who look exactly like us!

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Also i’ve seen uglier bouncers on this planet.

About the only problem with this book is that it’s way too short! A single issue of the 1900’s Union Jack probably has the same word count and that came out every week. This comes out once a year… or should i say came out, as by the look of an Amazon search there isn’t one for 2011 (yet?). A lot of publishers are cutting back (ahem, Roy of the Rovers season 1), it will be a shame if this is a permanent casualty. Still that gives me another 3 to track down… and they are certainly worth more than just 20p!

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The room has two light switches. The room has two light switches. The room has two light switches…

In an attempt to update this blog a bit more often (i now have three ‘big’ articles i want to do but haven’t got around to!) i’ll post another part of this mini-series soon.

RIP Peter O Donnell

This week saw the death of Peter O Donnell, creator of one of the finest newspaper adventure strips ever – Modesty Blaise, at the age of 90.

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Typical Modesty action. The pair often avoided deadly violence except where necessary.

The Modesty Blaise comic strip ran in the London Evening Standard from 1963 until 2000. She and her sidekick Willie Garvin were former expert criminals who ran a large organisation known only as “The Network”, however before the stories begin she dismantles this and comes to live in London (where Willie was born) where she “goes legit” and helps to bring down crime syndicates or uncover enemy spies. Sometimes working for the government but other times falling into adventure by accident or in order to help out innocent people caught up in trying circumstances.

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One of the more bizarre and flamboyant villains – a man who attempts to recreate the “glory days” of Viking raids!

The back-story of Modesty was never revealed in any great detail, only that her origin is largely unknown and that she grew up in a brutal refugee camp which gave her an iron drive and determination to survive and succeed – first turned to crime and later to serving the forces of good. Her and Willie were, in the grand tradition of proper adventure stories, not lovers but merely worked together.

Alongside the comic strips a series of novels was produced with longer stories. These tales were often more violent than the comics (at least with regards to fatalities) and could ‘show’, by not showing, more sexual material. The first story is so far the only one i have read, but it’s a cracker – featuring a remote island stronghold and a madman with a private army.

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In addition, there was two Modesty Blaise films produced – the first appeared in the 1960’s and was of similar “quality” to the recent Sexton Blake radio serial and the 1960’s Casino Royale “Bond” film. And thus can be ignored. The second was made in 2003 and was a much more serious attempt – based on her early life before The Network. I haven’t seen either but believe the latter one to be set in the modern day – reviews i have seen of it suggest it was largely a missed opportunity. If there was any justice in the world there would, of course, be a big budget adaption with vast sets, a mad villain and it would, of course, be set in the 1960’s.

Happily, Modesty Blaise stories are pretty easy to obtain. The novels are in print and Titan books are reprinting the newspaper strips in large and lavish (if a little ‘scratchy looking’) volumes with additional story information and interviews. If you haven’t got any already start today, and get a look at the trunk of Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s family tree!