The character of John Steel first appeared during 1959, in the 157th issue of Super Detective Library, a twice-monthly British comic series that featured a rotating cast of characters and stories. First portrayed as a secret agent during World War 2, he moved on to private detective work during the sixties, in then-contemporary settings amid backdrops of political turmoil as well as, somewhat uniquely, the jazz scene of the day.

Though the creators were uncredited on these stories, the Special’s brief introduction identifies the artist of the two included strips as the late Luis Bermejo, whose superb art graced the pages of comics from a huge variety of titles and publishers for several decades. The writer(s), however, remain unknown.

First up is the story Bullets in the Sun, which may be an apt title for the first few pages but soon becomes a bit of an odd name for the story – considering the fact that it takes place mostly at night and generally in urban settings, rather than the opening’s desert backdrop. A courier carrying papers detailing explosive political revelations relating to a small South American country is murdered by bandits, with his papers making their way to a British MP who looks to reveal the contents of the documents live on television. Seeking to silence him, a shadowy group kidnap his son – and John Steel is quickly hired to save the day.

The writing style is overwrought and heavy -handed, with the art rarely allowed to speak for itself. The plot seems hinged on contrivance and coincidence, making Steel’s involvement and planning to be more about luck and far-fetched developments, which make the entire affair less than satisfying to read. The fresh colouring – by Pippa Bowland – adds superbly to Bermejo’s wonderful artwork, but the weakness of the story does unfortunately overshadow it and make the strip quite heavy going. It’s not helped by some very outdated cultural stereotypes, which we are at least forewarned of in the introductory page.

The second story, Play It Cool, sees Steel looking to solve the mystery of a missing US Senator’s missing son in Paris. It suffers from the same dated style issues as the first tale, but is again accompanied by Bermejo’s brilliant art. Pippa Bowland’s colouring again gives the art a great, more contemporary feel too. As in Bullets in the Sun, Steel is accompanied on his journey by young jazz musician Riff Morgan – who seems to speak solely in hilariously dated slang, which would likely have felt bang up to date at the time of the strip’s original publication. The fact that he keeps calling Steel ‘Dad’ and ‘Daddy’ adds a hilariously unintentional homoerotic element at times, especially in a scene that shows the duo – ahem – ‘freshening up’.

Though it’s very dated and has its weaknesses, the Special is a fascinating look at the John Steel stories. As is customary for Rebellion, it’s a well produced magazine but it does also suffer from having a lack of supplemental material, with only the single page of historical information accompanying the stories, which are otherwise left to speak for themselves. Of the Rebellion Specials I’ve read this year, it’s unfortunately the weakest.

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