A Literal Cliffhanger

Every year, in December, St Barnabas CofE Church, Openshaw, Manchester would hold a Bring and Buy Sale on a Saturday afternoon. As both my parents were then quite active within the Church – Dad being a sidesman, whatever one of those is – we would always be down there, with me running around checking out all the stalls and working out what I could buy with the limited funds available to me. An almost complete set of American Civil War bubble-gum cards for 3d was one coup I recall with pleasure: collecting bubble gum cards was always difficult when your parents wouldn’t give you money to buy bubble gum, and you hated the taste of it anyway.

One year, 1963 to be precise, things had entered the wind-down stage, when most of the assembled multitude had brought and bought and bought and gone, their husbands anxious for the football results. At this lethargic time, with incredible bargains available on an anything’s-better-then-nothing basis, I acquired a dozen or more copies of the Eagle.

I have the impression, vague though it is, that this wasn’t actually my idea. If it was my Dad’s inspiration, then it was a well-judged one. Even though Eagle was in definite decline from the heydays of the 50’s, when it had regularly sold 750,000 copies per week, and deserved to, it was still a cut above the run of boy’s comic: full colour, glossy paper, intelligent stories and some of the best artists Britain’s ever produced.

I tend to suspect it was a deliberate ploy on my Dad’s part to move me on to the next level of comic reading, and if so, it worked immediately. I asked for Eagle to replace the most disposable of whatever I was then reading, and from the first week of January 1964 until it’s death-by-merger into Lion in 1969, I was an avid reader.

Whether girl’s comics were cut from the same template, I wouldn’t know, but the formula for boy’s comics included the token story-without-pictures. In later years, Eagle would frequently include serialisations of the forthcoming Anthony Buckeridge Jennings book, but when I became a regular, the written slot was offering Horizon Unlimited, the adventures of a small-time charter plane outfit, working their way round the world, in three, four and five part instalments.

Immediately before Horizon Unlimited, we had had High Adventure, an eight part ghost story set in the Alps. My Treasure Trove of Bring and Buy back issues included four chapters: nos 2, 4, 6 and 7.

Cambridge scientist John Killick, run down after illness, goes on holiday to convalesce. On impulse, having recently read a library book about the incident, he goes to Chamonix in the Alps where, 70 years earlier, his grandfather Henry, a noted Victorian gentleman-climber, disappeared whilst attempting the still-unconquered North face of the Henker. Killick Senior was climbing with a fellow Englishman, Albert Blythe, a self-made businessman and ex-steeplejack: when their guides turned back in atrocious cloud conditions, Killick and Blythe went on and were never seen again, although the guides reported seeing a body fall past them as they were descending.

In Chamonix, Killick Junior is surprised to encounter an Army Sergeant of his own age, on leave. The soldier is Albert Blythe’s grandson (peculiarly, no first name is given!), drawn here himself by a press cutting about John Killick’s ‘pilgrimage’.

As the story develops, it becomes clear that, coincidentally or not, young Killick and Blythe are repeating everything their grandfathers did, culminating in an attempt on the North Face of the Henker. By now they have discovered two important facts: Henry Killick and Albert Blythe, who came from two different social classes, hated each other with a vengeance. And one killed the other.

By Chapter 7, the contemporary Killick and Blythe are climbing on alone, the guides having turned back in atrocious cloud conditions. Both are possessed by the ghosts of their grandfathers. Killick, leading, feels Blythe’s weight as a drag on the rope, threatening to pull him off the mountain to his death: on reaching a narrow ledge, he tries to cut the rope to free himself. Blythe, reaching the ledge, assumes Killick is trying to kill him and grapples with him. Blythe wins hold of the knife and Killick falls from the ledge, bringing up short at the end of the rope, twenty feet below.

The shock has driven Henry Killick out: it is John Killick, in mind as well as body, who dangles helplessly, but it is Albert Blythe who, grinning unmercifully, brings the knife towards the rope…

That was 1963.

I don’t know how often I read what parts of High Adventure I had, but each time I came to what was, after all, a very literal cliff-hanger, I would wonder how the story had come out. But there were no back-issue shops in those days, no comic book shops at all: the week after it had come out a comic was gone for good unless your mate had it and was prepared to swap. I knew I’d never finish the story.

Some time in the early 1970’s I finally disposed of my Eagle collection to a local hospital, the place all the old comics went to die. Little did I know I’d want them back some day, or how much they’d cost to replace!

But time went on. I wasn’t reading comics at all then, having outgrown them as you do, moving on to, successively, football magazines, the rock press and (rather later than you’d imagine) Mayfair. But a combination of unlikely circumstances and coincidences started me looking at the American comics again. My life has never been the same since.

In the late 70’s Roger Dean’s publishing company Dragon’s Dream, announced plans to reprint Frank Hampson’s Man from Nowhere Trilogy. The Man from Nowhere had run in the mid-50’s, and been reprinted in the late 60’s, where I’d seen the first two parts before Eagle’s demise. Naturally, I fell upon the reprints with delight, luxuriating in the quality.

Many years later, with a series of facsimile Dan Dare reprints under way from Hawk Books, I discovered that Manchester’s Central Reference Library had bound volumes of the first ten years of Eagle. This gave me the idea of writing a book about Dan Dare, an idea that was eventually still-born, although not before I’d started collecting 60’s Eagle’s, the ones Central Ref didn’t have.

It wasn’t as easy as it might have been ten years earlier, when Fantasy World in Hanley had whole years’ worth for sale as a package (didn’t have the room to keep them then, sadly). I got a fair few through a Liverpool-based dealer, who put me on to the Old Magazine Shop in Sheffield. My first visit there was in the summer of 1991.

I came back with a good run from 1963, including most (but not all) of my original Treasure Trove, and several more from the same time that hadn’t been scooped up by my Dad that Saturday afternoon. Back home, I sorted everything into chronological order, settled into the proper comics reading position – lying on your stomach – and plunged in.

After a time, I turned a page to discover a new serial, starting this week: High Adventure. I’d forgotten it ever existed, but the memories came back in a flash, including the most suddenly crucial one of all. I scrabbled for the pile I’d yet to read, counting desperately. Yes! I’d got the last part! After 28 years, almost, I was going to find out how the story finished!!

So I put the comic back and settled to finding out in good time. Checking back, I found I had the full run, all 8 chapters of the story, so even though I now remembered that cliff-hanger with such precision that I could almost have recited whole paragraphs from it, unseen, I wanted to read the full story, from the beginning, before approaching the conclusion.

It had waited 28 years, after all. Another half hour wasn’t going to kill me.

(You may, although I doubt it, wonder how Killick got out of it after dangling helpless at the end of the rope for so long. What he did was try to reach Blythe, the friendly Army Sergeant, by shouting to him in 20th Century slang, language the ghost of Albert Blythe wouldn’t understand. ‘Come on Blythe, you clot,’ he shouted, ‘Snap out of it.’ And Blythe did, threw the knife away and hauled Killick up. So they climbed a bit further, beyond the point their grandfathers had ever got, and therefore beyond the ghosts’ reach. After a bit they went on and completed the climb. So that’s all it took, calling someone a clot. I never thought of that.)

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