This here is the oldest comic book I own, not in terms of publication date, but as to how long it's sat on various family bookshelves, and is a real childhood favourite.
Alix: The Black Claw came out in 1971, and is one of only two English language appearances for this long, long, long running Franco-Belgian strip. If my parents thought about it at all, they probably bought it because it looked historical, and therefore vaguely educational.
I, of course, wanted it because the bad guy crouching in the trees there looks more than a little bit like The Black Panther.
Alix is kind of a Roman Age Tintin, a former slave from Gaul, who's been adopted by a high-ranking Roman family, and now enjoys some level of social status and fame. That, or like every Boys Adventure hero, adults just unaccountably listen to his opinion for no other reason than that he is the hero.
He's a real take-charge kinda guy, always rushing into dangerous situations and leaving befuddled grown-ups in his wake. He's also, on occasion, a bit dim, as you'll see.
Creator Jacques Martin draws in the 'Ligne Claire' ( clear line ) style pioneered by Tintin's Herge, as did every Belgian cartoonist of the time. It's a way of drawing I never liked as a kid, finding it flat and unexciting, but as an adult am coming to admire immensely.
The story starts in Pompeii, with a nice travelogue around the town. Alix apparently was always historically accurate, and from the first panel, you absolutely get the feel of being in the Ancient World.
Alix is in town to visit his cousin Petronius, but almost immediately, danger lurks!
The mysterious prowler attacks noted Senator Flavius with his poison coated Black Claw, leaving him completely paralyzed and condemned to a living death.
When, at a feast to welcome Alix to Pompeii, the prowler strikes again, doing the same thing to Petronuis' old friend Sulla, it's clearly time for action for the comic world's other Gaulish hero.
Alix gives chase, but soon loses the lurker in the maze of streets around the city. Trying to make sense of it all, he comes across Egyptian sidekick and best pal Enak, hanging around the local cemetery. ( Love that panel of Alix moodily looking out over the scenery, by the way )
In the cemetery, Alix & Enak find the scroll guides them to yet another paralyzed body. It's Senator Marcus, another friend of cousin Petronius, laid out on the slab for all to see.
But when the boys lead Petronius back to the graveyard, the body has vanished. Petronius, by this point, is starting to suspect what's going on, but won't talk, so Alix sneaks into Marcus' house to find the villain of the piece, who seems to be drawn by C.C. Beck:
Enak breaks Alix out of his trance just in the nick of time, and the pair are rescued from the Wizard ( named Rafa ) by Servio, a slave who happens to have the perfect name for a slave, and who belongs to a tribe that are sworn enemies of Rafa, and who handily possess an antidote to the paralyzing poison.
Returning home, Petronius finally admits that the reason people are dropping like flies is that Rafa is after him and his four friends, for having led the legion that massacred his city 20 years before.
Racing to the last surviving officer, the equally C.C. Beck-like Gallas, they find out that Rome ordered the town destroyed for the supposed murder of a shipful of Roman soldiers. Gallas helpfully fills in the the rest of the story:
So the whole thing was a huge mistake, and the missing ship crashed on the reefs nowhere near the town, meaning Petronius and pals massacred a whole city of completely innocent people. Some days nothing goes right.
All through this, Gallas' beloved nephew Claudius has slept through the revelations about his uncle, and when the Black Claw makes a play for Gallas, Alix fights him to a knockout before making the single dumbest mistake any hero made ever:
That's right. Of all the places you could put a poisonous claw, he puts it....on the pillow next to a sleeping child. I mean, look at the previous panels, there's tables and chairs all around the room, for Jupiter's sake.
While Alix is busy being a doofus, Rafa sneaks back in and murders Gallas, drowning him in his ceremonial pool, before running for the safety of an old, unused temple. The townspeople corner him there, and:
Rafa escapes the city, and Alix swears revenge. Eventually he traces the wizard to Africa, where Alix, Enak, Servio and a whole Roman Legion merrily set up a camp and go looking for a) water and b) Servio's village so they can get the antidote. If they happen to bump into Rafa along the way, that's nice, but they don't seem unduly bothered about that.
All while, back at the camp, his beleaguered pals are staving off repeated attacks from Rafa's army, led by crony Niarcus:
Eventually, Alix manages to scare off the tribesmen by escaping onto 'The Accursed Mountain' in this wonderfully creepy scene:
And are free to get to Servio's village for the antidote. If only things were going as well back at the camp:
On his return to the camp, Alix is nearly trapped by Naircus' cunning plan ( which basically consists of hiding ):
But is rescued by his pal's in the ship, who've been moored behind some trees Niarcus didn't bother checking. Then, Alix realizes he's made his second bonehead play, having lost the phials of antidote in all the excitement. Luckily though, Enak & Servio both have theirs. Well, until a bunch of pirates attack the ship. Life for an Ancient World hero is never easy.
Finally, the gang make it back to Pompeii, and give the only remaining antidote to Claudius, 'cos, y'know, children are the future, and all's well that ends well. Except for the still paralyzed victims. And the fact that Rafa basically got away scott free. And the fact they're living in a world where slavery seems like a good idea. And...
Alix is great fun, total Boy's Adventure, and it's a shame that in it's nearly 60 year history, it's never been made fully available in English. But wait, I've just come across this:
It's a bit weird seeing Alix all grown up, in his '50's, and with a modern style of art, as for me this character is completely frozen in time. It's like seeing Winnie The Pooh as an adult or something. Presumably though, his and Enak's son there regularly go off and get into the kind of scrapes he used to, so some things never change, I guess.