One of the most fun aspects of writing a column like Classic Comics Cavalcade is that it gives you a chance to discover great old comics that I may only have been barely aware even existed. That’s the case this week. For years I’ve seen an ‘80s comic called The Bozz Chronicles in the quarter bins and I’ve always passed it up. The comic was too obscure to buy, even for me, despite the fact that each issue has nice, painted covers and pleasant artwork.
Recently I had the chance to read the new Dover Books collection of The Bozz Chronicles and realized that I was wrong in skipping this series. This is a delightful collection, a thoroughly charming read with vivid lead characters, pleasingly interesting plots, and some gorgeous artwork. It’s one of the best obscure 1980s comics I’ve ever read, and it deserves a spot on your bookshelf if you like charming steampunk adventure created long before the term steampunk was coined.
Throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s, Marvel Comics used to have a sub-line of creator-owned comics called Epic Comics. Epic was the home for such popular comics as Groo and Dreadstar, but it was also home for more idiosyncratic creator owned comics. Steve Englehart published his surreal adventure comic Coyote through Epic; Ted McKeever his grand, surreal and deeply ugly post-apocalypse drama Metropol; Alan Weiss his oddball comedy Steelgrip Starkey and the All-Purpose Power Tool.
It was in that atmosphere of experimentation and high concept storytelling that The Bozz Chronicles was born. Written by the experienced David Michelinie and illustrated by phenom Bret Blevins, the comic is essentially a buddy comedy (or a buddy sci-fi series) set in Victorian England starring a former Victorian prostitute (because I guess any story with a lead female charatcter set in that era has to have a prostitute as a main character), a Texas cowboy sharpshooter… and an eight-foot tall, yellow-skinned alien with a tail named Boswell, the ‘Bozz’ of the title. Together the three heroes, sometimes with the help of friends, fight supernatural evils and mad scientists in a delightful six-issue romp.
In the first issue of the series, or first chapter of this book, the team defeats a member of Parliament who is able to manipulate electromagnetic fields and even resurrect himself from what appears to be death. Under Michelinie, the villain is a Victorian scene-stealer in the best possible ways. He speechifies, he acts superior and he treats everyone around him as inferiors in the sort of way only an oblivious Victorian aristocrat can do. Maybe best of all, Blevins brings the villain gloriously to life – in his top hat, enormous wraparound mustache and aristocratic body language, Blevins conveys character clearly and succinctly, adding a depth of characterization that adds real depth to the story.
Most fans don’t know Blevins’s art much unless they read New Mutants in the 1980s or Sleepwalker in the 1990s, but the work he delivers in this comic is gorgeous and smartly rendered. It’s striking how good he is at both characterization and at the supernatural. Both aspects of the work are important in a book like this, of course, but they’re especially important because of the character that’s at the center of the comic.
When we first meet Boswell, he has a noose around his neck and a look of despair on his face. As we soon find out, he’s an alien stranded on Earth, millions of light years away from his fellow creatures. He’s enormous both in height and weight, with an egg-shaped head, no hair, pointy ears and deeply sad eyes. He’s smart, in Earth terms, and can speak to animals, float in the air and is incapable of lying. Boswell also induces more empathy than most other aliens I can think of. We’re drawn as readers to Boswell’s haunted eyes and his eternal boredom but we’re also excited by his curiosity at the world around him and thrilled when his companion Mandy is able to bring him a detective case to explore. Though he’s an alien, Boswell is surprisingly, and delightfully complex. It’s easy to imagine him becoming a breakout star had this comic appeared at a better time (or received more hype).
Working with Boswell is former Victorian prostitute Amanda Flynn and cowboy Salem Hawkshaw. Mandy isn’t quite the classic prostitute with a heart of gold – she’s too tough and smart for that (and an encounter with her stubborn father in issue #4 gives more depth to that aspect of her story); she is a tough, bare knuckles fighter who deeply cares for Boswell. Hawkshaw is a headstrong, impulsive sharpshooter who loves chili and a great brawl. Together the three make a delightful, and disparate, team.
Michelinie and Blevins built character but they also built delightfully outlandish plots. In issue #2, the team encounter some demons from Hell that are drawn with a hysterically outlandish style, all vicious snarling teeth and elongated, terrifying limbs. Issue #3 delivers a twisty, winding tale of a whole civilization inside the London sewers, with a town full of lost boys running around and a complex time travel tale full of twists and turns. Issue #3 is almost too busy, with plots, subplots, characterizations and grand ideas all piled on top of each other, threatening to collapse on themselves like a metaphorical house of cards but instead reinforcing each other. It’s a sign of how much Michelinie was invested in this comic to look at just how much happens in this issue – it’s as if he desperately wanted to throw everything including the kitchen sink into a story and somehow managed to pull it off adroitly.
It’s that passionate energy, combined with a love for characters, that helps make this series so memorable. Issue #4, illustrated grandly by John Ridgway, takes our troupe of characters out of London to a small town in Southwestern England where we meet Mandy’s dad and (of course) find evil afoot. There’s some delightful business with a painting and a Pan-like creature and an imperiling devil that pulls the storyline along at a frenetic pace while keeping an emphasis on character. Ridgway’s art gives the book a different feel from Blevins, appropriate for scenes set in a different locale, and his depiction of setting is especially powerful. There’s a wonderfully-drawn scene in a tavern that looks like every British bar you’ve seen, and the town and its surrounding lake are vividly portrayed.
Issues #5 and #6 play a bit with British colonialism. In #5 there are some hilarious scenes that play strongly against the African warrior stereotype and are as funny now as they were 30 years ago. The satire of the British adventurer in issue #5 is a delight too – in his megalomaniacal short-sightedness, he seems to sum up all that is both great and regrettable about the British Empire. In issue #6, the team travels to Africa in order to track down another spaceship from Boswell’s race that crash-landed on Earth. Again the story is a wonderful mockery of Victorian morals and attitudes, with the arrogant and oblivious men proving to be their own worst foils and our alien hero finding a tragic ending to his story.
In a perfect world, we would have had another “season” of The Bozz Chronicles. This comic reminded me of classic Doctor Who at its best – light, clever adventure, with scene-chewing villains and heroes that we come to know and love. In his introduction, Michelinie reveals that Bozz was “one of only two Epic titles that was consistently making money – money understandably being a publisher’s major criterion for success. But because of unfortunate ‘creative differences’ (though not with [editor] Archie [Goodwin] or Bret), I decided not to renew the series for a second year, and my all-time favorite work remained unavailable for several decades.” It’s now one of my favorite works of Michelinie’s career, too.