Monday, June 15, 2009

Reprint This! Update on Sam's Strip

Sam's Strip was the third newspaper comic devised by Mort Walker and Jerry Dumas, the team better known for Hi & Lois and Beetle Bailey. It ran for a little less than two years before the creators, unable to make much headway selling it, pulled the plug. It really is an odd little strip. Sam is a well-meaning grouch who's very much aware of the fourth wall separating his four panels from the rest of the newspaper funnies, and periodically interacts with his peers, with cameos by everybody from Charlie Brown to the character who'd later become Grandmama on The Addams Family.

Naturally, the strip became a fast favorite of comics afficionados, who enjoyed the in-jokes and what we might term as "metatextual commentary" if this blog was any more po-faced than it actually is. With regular asides to the readers, light commentary on current events and trips to a prop closet stocked with a variety of word balloons, Sam's Strip was lost on many comics page editors, and the strip never had more than 60 client papers.

Well, it might have been a failure in its day, but Sam's Strip has grown into a cult classic over time. Fantagraphics recently released a very nice paperback edition which compiles the series in its entirety. It includes annotations to explain some of the topical references of the early 1960s and commentary by Jerry Dumas. This may not be a book worth going too far out of your way to sample, but if you enjoy newspaper funnies, then this might be a very nice addition to your bookshelves. Give it a try!

Read more of what I've written about the publishers at A Journal of Zarjaz Things.

Read other reviews of this book:

Chris Barat at News and Views
KC Carlson at Comics Worth Reading
Allan Holtz at Stripper's Guide
Chad Nevett at Comic Book Resources
Andrew Williams at Den of Geek

The biggest news of the last month comes from the good folks over at Titan, who have finally confirmed the rumors - hardback editions of the terrific Johnny Red are in the works. The long-running series by Tom Tully and, initially, Joe Colquhoun, ran for a decade in the pages of Battle Picture Weekly. This is a big favorite of mine, and one of BPW's best series. I've been rereading the John Cooper-drawn era lately and it's a consistently wonderful strip which you should all check out. The first in what we hope will be an annual collection is due in September.

The second biggest news of the month - and any other month, it'd be the biggest - is that Steve Holland of the wonderful Bear Alley blog has formally announced he's going into the publishing business with Bear Alley Books, looking at doing small print-run, complete editions of classic British comics, done right. Holland has the knowledge and the commitment to make certain his collections are as comprehensive and good-looking as bookshelf editions can be, and I wish him all the success in the world with his new venture. First up from Bear Alley, later this summer: complete collections of the time-travelling war yarn The Phantom Patrol, with art by Gerry Embleton, and the excellent late sixties occult thriller Cursitor Doom, with art by Eric Bradbury and Geoff Campion. Steve's commissioned new covers by Chris Weston and John Ridgway for the titles.

In other news, as if you didn't have enough books to buy this year, the long-rumored Groo Treasury has finally been scheduled by Dark Horse. This 336-page collection of the earliest episodes of the comedy strip by Sergio Aragon├ęs and Mark Evanier is due in October, which is nice, because I was not keen on filling up on those little 80-page collections of the old Epic Comics series. That'd get a little expensive.

DC has announced they're releasing what might be the first-ever collection of Mike Grell's weird 1970s swords-and-lasers fantasy The Warlord, a title I enjoyed for about seven weeks when I was twelve, in their Showcase Presents line. The 528-page book, scheduled for September, reprints the character's debut in the anthology 1st Issue Special and the first 28 issues of his own book. If I was still in touch with a couple of guys I went to middle school with, I'd let them know, but I'm not, so I'm telling you.

So ten days ago, I was talking about how somebody needs to release more old Osamu Tezuka comics in the US. Well, the company Digital Manga Publishing is way ahead of me; there's a complete, done-in-one omnibus collection of Tezuka's 1968-69 serial Swallowing the Earth due in July! Great news, I am looking forward to seeing it. For more Tezuka, the wonderful Helen McCarthy is putting the final touches on a big, image-heavy coffee table biography of Tezuka for Abrams, the company that brought you Mark Evanier's wonderful tribute to Jack Kirby last year. The book is due out in October. And speaking of Abrams...

In another example of what's either a late April Fool's gag or definitive proof that everything that ever appeared in a newspaper is going to end up in a hardcover collected edition before much longer, Abrams is bringing out a collection of Stuart Hample's Woody Allen comic strip. No, I never knew there was a Woody Allen comic strip, either. It ran in the 1970s. The book is entitled Dread and Superficiality: Woody Allen as a Comic Strip and is due out in November. With an introduction by Buckminster Fuller. Oh, now I know this is a gag!

Finally this time, a couple of interesting Judge Dredd collections from Rebellion are in the pipeline for November. The 14th volume in their Complete Case Files series will include all the 2000 AD strips up to prog 700, including the epic "Necropolis" and all of its lead-in stories, drawn by Carlos Ezquerra. The collection won't include the separate serial The Dead Man, which ran for a few months prior to "Necropolis" and dumped readers on their heads with the beautiful revelation that the two strips were intricately connected. Happily, The Dead Man is getting its own trade collection alongside CCF 14, so new readers can enjoy all of its beautiful John Ridgway artwork and read it at the same time as the main Dredd strip.

That's all for this month! See you in July!

Friday, June 5, 2009

Reprint This! Ambassador Magma

Reprint This! is a periodic feature where I talk about some out-of-print comic book gems that are not available in collected form for readers to enjoy. This is hoping to let rights owners know that, yes, readers are out here, and we'd like to buy the things we can't get at this time!

Despite such an enormous variety of books available these days, and genuine efforts to present the material in reasonably-priced, archival volumes, there are still countless fabulous series from the US, Britain and Japan which are overdue for new editions. I've selected several titles which should be on bookshelves, but at this time are not.

Obviously, the Japanese artist Osamu Tezuka is a big favorite here at Reprint This! headquarters, and the good folks over at Vertical have done a lot in the last year or so to increase his presence on English-language bookshelves, adding his classic series Dororo and Black Jack to their lineup. This is really just scratching the surface of all the wild array of comics he worked on over his forty-year career. One missing gem is AMBASSADOR MAGMA, a terrific comic in which humanity gets caught in the middle of a war between a galactic conqueror and his army of dinosaur-like monsters, and a kindly wizard and his trio of super-powered robots.

Ambassador Magma's central characters were the Murakami family, news reporter Atsushi, his wife Tomoko and his son Mamoru. In the first episode of the comic, the villainous Goa transports their home back to prehistoric Earth in a demonstration of his power, demanding that Murakami tell the world to surrender or be destroyed. Young Mamoru snaps pictures of Goa before he returns them to the present day. As he's developing the photo, a rocket lands outside and transforms into a fifty-foot robot called Magma, who takes Mamoru and the camera to a remote volcano. There, the wizard Earth confirms that his old enemy Goa has returned and enlists the Murakamis as his new allies.

The series is remarkably fun wish-fulfillment for kids, particularly when Earth creates a new "boy robot" called Gam in Mamoru's image as a surrogate son for Magma and his wife Mol. Gam is just about the greatest best friend character in all of comics: a super-powered buddy who can turn into a rocket and take you anywhere, and then beat up legions of evil henchmen with his magma-fueled super strength. In each of Ambassador Magma's first two lengthy comic storylines, the heroes confront alien duplicates along with an array of terrifying giant monsters as Goa crafts new plans for his conquest of our planet.

Ambassador Magma first ran in the monthly magazine Shonen Gaho from May of 1965 until February 1967, by which time a well-remembered live-action TV series was running. After Tezuka concluded his work on the comic, his studio continued it for another six months, along with a companion tie-in feature (six-page illustrated episode recaps, apparently) that ran for a year in the pages of Shonen King. The TV show, known in the US as The Space Giants, is a downright terrific program. It beat the better-known Ultraman to the air by about a week, and made the most of its shoestring budget by telling its stories in four-part serial format so that they wouldn't have to build so many sets and monster costumes. This resulted in stories that have aged very well, with believable characters and downright fascinating imagery. If Ultraman was Japan's Thunderbirds, low on plot but high on spectacle and explosions, then the TV Ambassador Magma was its Doctor Who, where intricate storylines and character development made for a far more rewarding experience. When The Space Giants finally got a decent run in American syndication more than a decade after it finished in Japan, it gained a huge audience of kids who would have sold their younger brothers for some merchandising, but practically nothing was available back then, least of all the original comics.

In fact, the program seems to be caught up in one of those interminable trademark disputes between a company which has no visible intention of making any money from it, other than suing anybody else who tries, and people who've made efforts to obtain a license to make comics with the better-known American name on it. This probably shouldn't impact any potential English-language release of the original comics, which should be called by the original title anyway and not get embroiled in the squabble over trademark, but it's a real shame that the characters have faded from the public view since nobody other than us nostalgists have seen the gang except in passing for better than twenty years.

Many, many moons ago, I did some research into the production of the TV series and my job would have been a lot easier had SciFi Japan been around. There's a terrific guide written by Bob Johnson on their site now which focusses more on the program, but also has some background about the comic and the various configurations of the reprints available in Japan. I'm of the opinion that the whole series could easily be collected into a pair of large-format volumes, and they'd make a great companion to Vertical's Black Jack books. So how about it, guys? Then you could get started on Jungle Emperor and Vampire and Cyborg Big X and Princess Knight and Amazing Three and...