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Sunday, November 10, 2013

Heros the Spartan

There's a temptation just to type "WOW!" and leave it at that.

This has been in the works since 2009. I remember cleaning-up a sample page just before Christmas of that year. However, it was only in 2011 that things really started moving. The fiftieth anniversary of the strip's debut came and went in October 2012 but its reappearance crawled ever closer. And, finally, one of the greatest of all British comic strips is here. And it has been worth the wait.

As one of the baby boomers of the early 1960s, I was too young to see Heros the Spartan first time around. Flicking through copies of Eagle at Westminster Comic Mart in the early 1980s was my first sight of the strip and looking through the Eagle's in the collection of my mate John Clarke the first time I had a chance to study the strip in any depth. For the last thirty years, if anyone has asked me what comic strip I'd love to see reprinted, I've always said Heros the Spartan.

And here it is, in all its finely imagined, beautifully executed, full colour glory. Although it contains only the stories drawn by Frank Bellamy – the brilliant Luis Bermejo is, sadly, reduced to a footnote in the history of Heros – fans who have been waiting as long as I have will not be disappointed. This is a big book, about 11 x 14 inches (28 x 36 cm), which is slightly larger than the original Eagle comic. The strips themselves, which were originally published across the centre pages of Eagle, are reprinted their original size, taken from original art boards wherever possible and with the artwork cleaned-up and colour corrected.

The major problem with Heros – and the usual reason given over the years for why the strip has never been previously reprinted – is that books are published in signatures and Bellamy's spreads have to be split into two. Most books have a gutter into which vital artwork or balloon lettering would normally disappear. Book Palace have gone the extra mile (and to the extra cost) of having the book properly stitched, so that this problem is reduced to a minimum as the pages can be held flat without breaking the spine of the book. There is a little loss of lettering on some pages, but not enough to spoil your enjoyment.

So what of the story? Heros begins with a brief explanation about how, as a young boy, Sparta falls to the Roman advance through Greece (around 145 BC). Arcus, commander of a Roman legion, admires his enemies even as he slays them and when a child survivor is brought to him, he adopts the boy whom he names Heros.

Heros grows up and is put in charge of his late stepfather's legion on the agreement that he conquers the Island of Darkness, a task other commanders have failed to fulfil. After his ships are destroyed, the survivors of the Roman legion are attacked by animal-like people and subsequently captured. Heros learns that a slave race is held in the thrall of priests of the Magus, fearing the anger of the god Dios whose sword they have lost. Heros decides to travel to the land of the Magus – a nearby island – and there discovers that the priests have the sword hidden in their temple. Heros realises that if he revealed to the slaves that the sword was not lost but held by the priests, they would revolt; by doing so, he might also save the remaining soldiers of his legion, also captives of the priests of Magus.

The dark fantasy elements of the story allowed artist Frank Bellamy full reign to his imagination, which really took off with the second story, which began as Heros returned home to Rome. Whilst he has been battling on the Island of Darkness, a new Caesar has been crowned – one who has chosen to remove all those who admired and befriended the previous Caesar. Almost as soon as his sandal touches the ground, Heros is kidnapped and thrown into the gladiatorial ring, masked in such a way that he cannot speak or be recognised.

Escaping, he is put in charge of the Fifth Legion, a rag-tag army of mercenaries and former prisoners, and sent to Gaul. The Fifth is destroyed to its last man, only Heros and the villainous Crassus, Caesar's close aide, escaping. Heros is forced to flee back to Gaul when Crassus condemns him as a coward who allowed the Standard of the Fifth to be destroyed. Heros knows that the Eagle Standard was stolen and promises to get it back, thus proving that Crassus is a liar. Aided by a former gladiator, Berbrix, Heros must face a sinister race of jackal-men who are pillaging villages for fighting men to create a barbarian army great enough to take on Rome.

This 34-part story was a triumph for Bellamy and author Tom Tully. The pace never lets up and Bellamy was able to craft some of the most memorable artwork of his career. One page, almost a Holy Grail among fans, saw the destruction of the Fifth Legion detailed across almost the full width of a centre-spread. This piece was once displayed at New York's Academy of Comic Book Arts and helped win Bellamy the Academy's Best Foreign Artist award in 1972.

After a year on the strip, Bellamy took a break during which he drew 'The Ghost World' for Boys' World. He returned to Heros in 1964 with renewed vigour and illustrated another supernatural masterpiece in which Heros is sent to Ireland to deliver an axe to the Valley of the Dead. After a second break, he returned for one final story, its setting the deserts of North Africa where Heros finds himself at the head of a slave army after gold miners revolt against their cruel master.

The quality of Bellamy's artwork never slipped. Even his work for the 1966 Eagle Annual – also reprinted here – was as high in quality as his work for the weekly. Indeed, the quality of his work from his very earliest to his later work can also be seen accompanying the extensive and fascinating interview that Bellamy did with Dez Skinn and Dave Gibbons in 1973, reprinted here in full, accompanied by a superb selection of Bellamy's artwork from across his career.

With an introduction by Norman Boyd and tributes from Dave Gibbons, John Byrne, Walt Simonson and others, this is a monumental reprint of a classic strip that deserves this kind of treatment.

Heros the Spartan by Tom Tully and Frank Bellamy. Book Palace Books ISBN 978-190708119-4, October 2013, 271pp, £95.00.  Limited edition of 600 copies.

Also available in a leatherbound, limited slipcase edition ISBN 978-190708120-0, 296pp, £265.00. Limited edition of 120 copies. Includes 24 pages of scans from original artwork.

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