Monday, 27 April 2015

Doorway To Nightmare With Madame Xanadu

Madame Xanadu was a mysterious Mistress Of The Mystic Arts who ran a spooky curio shop in Greenwich Village, just around the corner from Doc Strange's place.
She was apparantly a rejig of this character, a spooky hostess Mike Kaluta had created for Forbidden Tales Of Dark Mansion and mostly just referred to as the Dark Mansion Witch.

Originally crammed into lower tier DC mystery book The Unexpected alongside a bunch of other homeless horror hosts, she got her own short-lived series in 1978, welcoming travellers into her store of mystery, and reading their fate in the Tarot cards she invariably had to hand.
Each issue was deliberately by a different creative team, which is a fun idea, but which probably contributed to the books' short 5 issue run.
There was also a later Steve Englehart / Marshall Rogers one-off comeback issue a couple of years later, and the obligatory guest slot in DC Comics Presents, before the Madame was relegated to occasional cameo appearances whenever anybody needed a spooky mystic.
Meanwhile, back at the curio shop, each issue can best be described as New York mystery romance, with Madame Xanadu portrayed as sometimes host, sometimes participant. Plus you get a superb Mike Kaulta cover each time out. It's a limited premise, but is great fun in small doses. Here's the first issue, from David Michelenie and Val Mayerik:

Friday, 24 April 2015

Sloane: Fistful Of Hate

What if Bruce Lee and Sergio Leone had teamed up and made a couple of spaghetti western movies back in the Bronze Age? That's basically where we are with Sloane, a brilliant chop socky cowboy series that unfortunately only lasted two books.
Obviously, as well as Bruce Lee, the publishers went for strong David Carradine recognition on the cover there, but Sloane is no Kwai Chang Caine, spouting cod philosophy and only using his fighting skills as a last resort. No, this kung fu hero is only too happy to snap spines and kick ass.

Sloane ( also known by the wonderful titles Sloane: The Man With The Iron Fists and Sloane: Fastest Fist In The West  ) is the origin story. Tod Sloane is a twelve year old boy, happily living with his Ma & Pa in their isolated farm in the desert. Until the day the circus comes to town.
Led by Carmello The Clown, a truly great hissable villain, the travelling circus also consists of knife-wielding whore Scarlet Blade, her brother Gambler Jack ( the knifeman ), her lover Fish ( the deadshot rifleman ), Crow ( the injun tracker ), Bull ( the negro whip expert ), Khan ( the mongolian strongman ) and Lucky Luke ( the baby faced lasso man ). Excellent one-note pulpy bad guys all, and every one a complete psychopath.
This gang of psychotic merry-makers have just raided a wagon containing saddlebags of gold belonging to the US treasury, and decide to stop over at the Sloane's for a little rape, murder and arson as an encore. Within five minutes of being invited in for a glass of buttermilk, the psycho circus are happily torturing Tod's Pa and raping his Ma, before setting fire to the old homestead, all purely for the fun of it.
As young Tod tries to escape into the desert, Fish even blows away his cute little dog Scamp. God knows how this bunch of lunatics ever get bookings.

Crow catches up to the boy and tramples him under his horses hooves, leaving him for dead. But of course, it's not gonna be that easy for the Circus Of Crime ( sorry, couldn't resist, they're not actually called that. )
Because as luck would have it, who else should be wandering the desert at this time but one-armed Kung Fu master Chang Fung, his wife Hsiao-Yu and their young daughter Su Fan, who rescue Tod, take him in and immediately start training him in the deadly art of Kung Fu. What are the odds?
Writer Lee briskly details the next few years, as eager to get on with Sloane's revenge as we are. The young Sloane finds time to fall in love with his adoptive sister Su Fan, and for Chang Fung to lecture him that vengeance is not the way, but we're in no doubt that skulls are gonna be cracked and spines are gonna be snapped, and in no time at all, Sloane the deadly killing machine has left his new family to seek out The Clown and his pals.

After announcing himself to the world by picking a fight in the first saloon he comes across, and decimating the local bullies, Sloane finds himself being followed, and repeatedly challenged by an angry young Chinaman named Ching Lei.
Ching wants to make a name for himself and, throughout the book, he pops up again and again to call out Sloane, and repeatedly gets his ass kicked for his trouble. But we know the way this kind of story works; Eventually the Kung Fu masters will form an uneasy alliance against Carmello and his Circus.
With no real clues, Sloane begins travelling from town to town, going anywhere where there's a carnival or fiesta, in hopes of finding The Clown and his compadres.
Luckily running across Bull Wray & Lucky Luke at a sideshow, he dispenses both in short order by means of strangulation, rattlesnake and dropping them off a cliff. Unfortunately, neither bad guy knows where Carmello or the rest of the circus are.
Fortuitously, the rest of the gang are still together, and are currently residing in the aptly named town of Hades.
The Clown has himself his own homestead in the town, called The Big Top Ranch, with matching trapeze and trampoline out the back. As you do.
Sloane finds an ad for Scarlett & Jack's knife act at the town theatre and is soon on his way to hell too.
Meanwhile, on hearing of Bull & Luke's death's, The Clown realizes that someone is after them all, and sets a trap for Sloane with the help of the knife-throwing siblings.
Our vengeful hero, though, is just getting creative. Tying Scarlet to the other side of the fence that Fish uses for marksman practice, thereby ensuring that she gets her head blown off by her lover, Sloane, almost as an afterthought, perforates Gambler Jack with his own blades and breaks Fish's spine with his own rifle.
As his gang are dropping like flies, and left with only strongman Khan, The Clown hires himself an army of mexican bounty hunters and chinese railroad workers, leading us all to the wham bang final confrontation back at The Big Top Ranch where, as predicted and looked forward to, Sloane and Ching Lei team up to take on all comers in a Kung Fu extravaganza of eye gouging, lung puncturing and rib splintering.
Pausing only to punch his way through Khan's stomach and pull out his innards, Sloane decides to end the book like a Jodorowsky movie, and he and The Clown engage in a swordfight to the death.                       On the trapeze.
Short, brutal and as fast paced as a bullet to the groin, Sloane does everything you want it to, and doesn't waste a second doing it. But, vengeance fulfilled, what does our Kung Fu ass kicker get up to next?

Well, here we are at the second volume, and already we've gone from 'the new kung fu western series' to 'the bestselling kung fu western series', something that's clearly not true or we'd have more Sloane books to enjoy. Whatever, Fistful Of Hate, apart from having the greatest title ever, is even more violent fun than it's predecessor.
In the Mexican village of Lascara, Don Luis Fernando, an aspiring revolutionary played by Ricardo Montalban, has stolen the village's holy relic, a jewel encrusted skull supposedly stained by the blood of Christ, and set himself up as the local cattle baron / protector of the people.
Two years later, returning home, Sloane finds a burnt out ruin, and the charred and mutilated bodies of his adoptive parents, Chang Fung & Hsiao-Yu. His lotus flower Su Fan is nowhere to be seen, but someone who is there is Billy Wang, another chinese Kung Fu master who tells Sloane that he was about to get married to Su Fan, and who missed the slaughter by being in town buying wedding gifts.
Discovering the family were killed by El Muerte, a legendary bandido with an army behind him who's merrily razing Mexico to the ground, Sloane swears vengeance yet again, the two team up, and we're all off on the revenge trail once more.

After some mystical adventures in the desert, including meeting Dred Jefferson The Bone Devil, a great, possibly imaginery character who collects skulls and sells them as ornaments, Sloane and Billy announce their arrival in Mexico by decimating another bandit gang in the first cantina they enter.
Meanwhile El Muerte has stepped in while Don Luis wasn't looking, and taken over the village of Lascara himself, and is running it as his own personal fiefdom.
With two bandit gangs taking it in turns to rape and pillage, it's fair to say no group of villagers ever had as much bad luck as the good people of Lascara.
The increasingly unhinged El Muerte has also, without so much as a by-your-leave, made off with the jeweled skull and is spending most of his evenings happily chatting to it as if it's his new best friend.

While, following their ass kicking exhibition in the cantina, Sloane and Billy's reputation has, in the meantime, preceded them and they're welcomed as conquering heroes by Don Luis.
Once as evil as El Muerte, the cattle baron now seeks redemption for his sins. Unfortunately, the Church will only grant him absolution if he returns the skull.
Seeing his chance to use Sloane to rid him of the annoyance that is El Muerte, Don Luis reveals that it's he who has Sloane's lady love, Su Fan, locked up in his own jail. Kill El Muerte, bring back the skull, and you get your lotus flower back.
Billy volunteers to stay behind and protect Su Fan, while Sloane rides off to the village, making the biggest mistake of his life.
Don Luis plans to sell Su Fan to a gun runner, Sullivan, on The Day Of The Dead festival to be held in the village. And as if that wasn't bad enough, it turns out that Billy isn't Su Fan's prospective husband at all, but a Tong gangster who tried to take her by force, and was sent away with a flea in his ear by Chang Fung. Billy doesn't take rejection well, and is determined to claim Su Fan as his own.

While, down the trail, Sloane has located El Muerte's camp, and calls the bandit out in front of his men, nearly beating him, before being shot with a concealed pistol and almost buried alive. How lucky, then, that new pal The Bone Devil is hovering around the graveyard to nurse our harried hero back to fighting fitness in time for the finale.
Returning on the Day Of The Dead, Sloane dynamites the village, killing all the bandits, in a scene so Leone-esque you can almost hear the Ennio Morricone soundtrack playing in your head. He then stalks El Muerte through the dustcloud covered town, and cripples him limb by limb, before allowing the put-upon villagers to hack him to pieces with their farming implements.
To the surprise of no one at all, it turns out that El Muerte had been working for Don Luis all along and, before losing his marbles, had been setting up a new revolution for the Don.
Returning back to the baron's hacienda, Sloane annihilates all his henchmen in excruciating, testicle crushing action, before helpfully returning both the crystal skull, and El Muerte's head, in a scene involving a lit cigar and a cannon that again, will bring a grin of delight to every Spaghetti Western aficionado reading it.

Now realising the truth about his former partner, Sloane demonstrates The Ultimate Kick, his best party trick, and seperates Billy's head from his torso before ending the book by chasing off yet again after Su Fan, as Sullivan, who everybody's forgotten about in all the excitement, is already two days ahead on the trail to San Francisco with her.
All of which leaves The Bone Devil with a new pile of skulls to polish, and the reader desperate to find out what happens next.
Unfortunately, there were no more books in this series, which is a real shame, because Sloane Sloane: Fistful Of Hate are pulp trash at it's absolute finest. Fast paced, ultra-violent and completely, utterly, gloriously un-PC, with absolutely no redeeming qualities whatsoever and a fight scene every five minutes. Which is, of course, exactly what you want in your Kung Fu fiction. No, it's not big or clever, but it takes real skill to do this kind of thing this well.
Steve Lee was actually a movie writer named Michel Parry, who wrote loads of horror and action over the years, and who unfortunately passed away just last year. Wherever you are, Michel, you were one hell of a writer.

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Stewpot's Fun Book

I'd feel fairly secure in saying I'd be probably the only person who remembers this one, but let's see.
Ed 'Stewpot' Stewart was a Radio 1 DJ and ubiquitous face on '70's UK TV who had what must've been the lamest catchphrase ever: 'Mornniing!' and who reached a height of fame sufficient to allow this vanity project from Look-In, his very own fun book. 'Fun' being a word used here in it's loosest definition, as you'll see.
This is another one of those things I bought while on summer holiday because there weren't any real comics around ( nope, not even Alan Class comics! ), and the strips herein are about as teeth-grindingly, arse-clenchingly unfunny as any you've ever seen.
But what they do have is Trevor Metcalfe's gorgeously old fashioned cartoon style, making them beautiful to look at, even when you want to hurl the script across the room.
Plus Denis Gifford, Britain's longest serving comics historian, is involved, and I just can't bring myself to be mean to Denis Gifford.