To the already overlong list of those we have lost this terrible year, yet another name has to be added. Artist and illustrator Martin Aitchison died on 21 October, a month before his 97th birthday, but I have only learned of this today from his belated obituary in the Guardian.
Aitchison worked for Ladybird Books as one of their most popular and reliable artists between 1963 and 1987, and was one of the two key artists on their Key Reading scheme series (also known as ‘Peter and Jane’) which helped teach so many children the fundamentals of reading.
But to me and those like me, we hold Martin Aitchison in esteem for the years he spent, from 1962 to 1963, as one of Eagle‘s regular and magnificent artists, primarily for the series that ran second only to Dan Dare in the readers’ estimation, ‘Luck’ of the Legion.
Aitchison, who had already contributed to Eagle‘s sister paper, Girl, was hired to draw the series from scripts by its creator, Geoffrey Bond. The new strip was originally intended as a 12-part fill-in, but instead the initial story ran twice that length and Sergeant Luck and his close comrades ran for over nine and a half years.
The series – a French Foreign Legion tale, set in an amorphous pre-First World war era – began with the elevation of the blue-eyed, fair-haired Englishman Corporal ‘Tough’ Luck to Sergeant, and his immediately being handed a mission to take a platoon to a remote and supposedly haunted Saharan fort. Immediately, he selects the fresh-faced Belgian, Corporal Trenet, as his second-in-command, and though Trenet is seemingly killed partway, he appears, deus ex machina-like at the end, sporting a small black moustache (covering a facial scar from his shooting) that changes his aspect completely, to become just as much a stalwart as Luck himself.
The team was soon increased to a trip by the addition of the Italian Legionnaire 12345, Aloysius Bimberg: fat, scruffy, hungry, decorated with curly moustaches and a permanently battered kepi. Bimberg was comic relief, but he was an essential part of the team, mostly brave, and frequently essential to missions that spanned every part of the globe to which the French Empire extended.
Like his fellow Eagle artists, Aitchison’s work was brisk, clear and detailed, sensational without being sensationalised. Though his research was not as comprehensively accurate as others – his tribesman apparently wear Saudi Arabian robes rather than the Algerian or Moroccan robes that would be appropriate – his imagination conjured forth exotic settings that nevertheless convinced the reader to the same extent as Frank Hampson regularly achieved on Luck‘s only better.
Needless to say, given the era, the strip is imperial in tone, though not directly racist. unsurprisingly, after ending his connection with Eagle, writer Bond emigrated to Rhodesia, a year before the white Government declared UDI, and became involved in Government broadcasting. Bond himself survived to a good long age, dying in 2009 aged 90.
Whatever we may think of the politics of Luck of the Legion now, it was undeniably popular, enough so that Bond wrote as many as six Sergeant Luck novels (two illustrated by Aitchison) which fetch pretty prices today. As much of that success is down to Aitchison’s art as Bond’s writing, especially as Aitchison had to work in a format no other Eagle artist had to cope with: instead of a vertical full or half-page, Aitchison’s work was stripped in two rows across the centre-spread, sharing the spread with, and sitting beneath the famous ‘Cutaways’, and not even getting a full half-page depth!
When Luck was cancelled in 1961, Aitchison remained with Eagle, drawing the short-lived Danger Unlimited, a contemporary thriller set in Jamaica, starring two young Queen’s Messengers recovering diplomatic papers stolen from them by force. When that ceased, Aitchison, who had also worked for Eagle‘s junior brother paper, Swift, moved on to Ladybird, a trail followed by Frank Hampson himself, and later Frank Humphris, artist on Riders of the Range and Blackbow the Cheyenne.
Truth to tell, I had no idea Aitchison was alive, but seeing his name, and seeing one of his Ladybird paintings, in today’s paper fills me with sadness. Though he lived to a great age, we who loved Eagle, who thrilled to Luck, Trenet and Bimberg, not to mention the unending stream of pets accumulated by the little fat man, mourn his passing.
We will not forget his like, though they are no more.