Review by Karl Verhoven
Black Max typifies the nutty imagination applied to the more creative boys’ comic strips from the 1950s, perpetuated until the 1980s, these strips dating from the early 1970s. Baron Maximillien von Klorr is known as Black Max, a German fighter pilot during World War I, an era writer Frank Pepper lived through as a child. Von Klorr is accompanied on his aerial escapades by a giant black bat and frequently more than one.
As in Volume One, pilot Lieutenant Tim Wilson is the main British hero, now under the command of Colonel Hall, sadly nothing like Sgt Bilko’s flustered nemesis, but a man with a reputation who’s pursuing a vendetta. Hall is happy to risk lives of squadron members and take them away from life-saving duties in order to destroy Black Max, the pilot who killed his brother. The focus is now more on the British than the Germans, with Black Max a more distant presence, but otherwise it’s much the same as the first volume, with Wilson frequently stranded behind German lines, and plenty of aerial combat. Pepper packs a lot into every three page episode, and continues to come up with daft plot ideas like a British pilot hypnotised by excessive bat squeals, and attemtps to transform Wilson into a bat. He also enjoys giving Black Max cackling lines like “Were it not for Wilson, I’d be ruler of the Western front by now” or “Why you are right Wilson! Death would be more merciful, wouldn’t it? And where you are concerned I do not feel merciful at all!”
However, for all the camp laughs now to be had at Black Max, it’s not Pepper’s writing that elevates the feature into something better, but the glorious art of Alfonso Font. His sheer work ethic over the weekly three page segments puts most modern artists to shame. He packs the panels in, doesn’t cheat by telling the story via faces in close-up, and his standard viewpoint is the full figure. One seven-panel page features 25 biplanes seen from distance in dogfights, and every single page is as detailed as the sample art. Characters are easily distinguished, and his occasional townscape takes the breath away.
By the end Max has escalated his vengeance to a creature beyond even his control, we’ve met his grandfather, and Tim Wilson has escaped death more times than you’ve had a curry. He probably ended up in Last of the Summer Wine. It’s a collection to dip into every now and then, as Pepper, never realising his work would one day be collected, sticks to formula and repeats scenarios. A couple of episodes at a time are fun, any more are an overdose. Black Max is not done yet, though, and more episodes follow, presumably in a Volume Three.