Eagle – Volume 3 (1952/53)

A Harold Johns Dan Dare

Volume 3 was the last of Eagle to encompass two calendar years. It also represented three major steps towards the comic’s classic shape, with one change of artist and two new series during its twelve months, though there was an equally major step backwards, arising from another, thankfully temporary, change of artist.
Taking these advances in order of appearances, in issue 7 Frank Humphris succeeded Angus Scott as the third, and eventually permanent artist on Riders of the Range. As much a Western enthusiast as writer Charles Chilton, and a fanatic for accuracy to warm Frank Hampson’s heart, Humphris was the perfect choice for the series. Daniels was too stylised, Scott too cartoony: Humphris represented the photo-realistic approach Eagle required for its adventure strips.
Humphris took some time to settle in, especially in his colouring choices, but long before the end of his first story, he’s close to achieving his mature style. In response, Chilton seems to relax, confident that his artist can handle longer stories, whereas the efforts completed by Daniels and Scott were brief and brisk.
In the centre-pages, Tintin continued until issue 5, completing ‘King Ottokar’s Sceptre’. The experiment was not repeated, for reasons unknown: perhaps the licence from Darguad cost too much, or perhaps the series was not as popular with Eagle‘s readers as was hoped. After all, it was another six years before Hodder & Staughton began their series of Tintin books, and translators Leslie Lonsdale-Cooper and Michael Turner began their long association with the Belgian boy reporter.
Tintin was replaced in issue 6 by a one-off feature intended to run as a twelve-week stopgap. Instead, Luck of the Legion stayed until Eagle’s second major redesign, in 1962, and in popularity polls of the readers, it came second only to Dan Dare.

Trenet and Luck: an annual story

From the outset, Luck was the work of its long-term creators, writer Geoffrey Bond (who would go on to produce six ‘Sergeant Luck’ novels), and artist Martin Aitchison. It stood out among Eagle‘s features for its resolutely horizontal format, which restricted Aitchison unmercifully, but which he never allowed to defeat him.
The series starts with Sergeant ‘Tough’ Luck’s promotion from Corporal and immediate secondment to a secret mission for which he can handpick his men. The first person he turns to is Corporal Trenet, a Belgian, but this is not the Trenet we know so well. He’s fresh-faced, round of features and he isn’t wearing his moustache! He’s also cheery, sunny and completely helpful, though this is because the team does not have it’s third component, Legionnaire 12345 Bimberg, the butt of withering abuse from Trenet for his fatness, greediness, sleepiness, laziness, stupidity and many more characteristics.
Indeed, Trenet is shot during the first story, saving Luck’s life, though the disappearance of his body clues us in to the fact that he will return, deus ex machina-like, in the final episode, leading a rescue platoon to Luck’s besieged men. And he turns up with his immaculately groomed little moustache that is not a million miles away from that of Pierre Lafayette in Dan Dare, and his face is a little thinner. The reason for growing his facial hair? When he was shot, he fell and cut his lip!
The second story, incomplete at the end of the volume, still features only the two characters, though there are a small band of relatively anonymous legionnaires in two, one of whom has the luck of a proto-Bimberg, and pops up occasionally making the kind of remarks Bimberg might make, only not quite so comic: he’s heavy faced, and clearly older and more realistic, but he has the curly moustache and the crumpled kepi, and is given to the odd ‘Caramba’, which makes the connection even more pointed.

A future Eagle novel

The third advance was in a way a two-step forwards, one step back motion. Having been in existence for over two and a half years, the one genre Eagle hadn’t tackled was a school series, and this was much bruited on the debut of Peter Ling’s Three ‘J’s of Northbrook, a serial set in and around Northbrook School.
We’re immediately presented with the Three J’s themselves, John, Jimmy (aka ‘Specs’) and Jacko, their hated opposite, Fifth Form bully Bradbury and his two henchmen, the wise and perceptive Headmaster, Mr Ravenshaw and the irascible Fourth Form Master, Mr Wakefield. The story centres upon John Allen being accused of stealing the Football Cup, when this has been thrown out of the gym by Bradbury as a joke, only for it to be found by a tramp and sold, and the bulk of the story is about finding out what’s happened, trying to get the cowardly Bradbury to confess and ultimately exposing the spivs, who are blackmailing him, and recovering the Cup.
The J’s themselves were archetypes: Allen the athletic leader and hero, Specs the bespectacled clever kid and Jacko the cheeky, face-stuffing comic relief: almost Bimberg before Bimberg! The thing was that, after a ten week story, The Three J’s disappeared, and were replaced by a Rex Milligan serial (a change of pace after several more one-off stories throughout the volume). They would return, for a much longer run.
I mentioned above a second change of artist. This was on Dan Dare itself, where ‘The Red Moon Mystery’ rolled on towards a scientifically ingenious solution, including the destruction of the Moon itself, creating an explosion that overwhelms the flagship, sending it to crash on the surface of Mercury.
This allowed Frank Hampson to segue directly into a new story, ‘Marooned on Mercury’, in which the Mekon would return as villain. Unfortunately, as ‘Dan Dare’ fans know, Hampson was only able to complete two weeks of the new story before succumbing to the first of two lengthy, illness-related absences from the series. The Reverend Chad Varah took over writing ‘Marooned on Mercury’ and Harold Johns took on the drawing, being credited every week at the bottom of page 2.
What’s intriguing is that Johns has clearly been the principal artist for several weeks at the end of ‘The Red Moon Mystery’. Hampson almost certainly was directing the conclusion of the story, and I can only assume that, to give himself time to plan the sequel, he had left the main art to his senior assistant (I’m betting Hampson still prepared the colour roughs that were the first stage in the preparation of the pages).
I’ve discussed ‘Marooned on Mercury’ elsewhere at greater length, so suffice to say here that Johns, who went on to be a noted watercolourist, is poor on faces and figures, and gets worse as the story goes alone, and that Varah does not have Hampson’s knack for building a string of incidents into a cohesive story. It makes me wonder if the fact that Hampson’s absence had no apparent effect on circulation figures encourages executives to think of him as dispensible when, many years later, a crunch would come.

Frank Humphris and Jeff Arnold

PC49‘s adventures with the Boys Club rolled on entertainingly. Much of the volume was taken up with ‘The Case of the Little Black Prince’, which has become a rather problematic story with the passing of the decades.
The basis of the story is pretty simple. 49 is due a fortnight’s leave, which he intends to spend in peace and quiet, camped out at the isolated Loch Laggmore in Scotland. Unfortunately for him, two crooks are bound for the same spot, to dig up loot buried under the ruined castle, and further disturbance is ensured by the titular character, his Uncle and two rivals for leadership of his tribe back in Africa, intent on kidnapping Prince Mongatiki in order to foment a rising that will enable them to take leadership of the tribe.
Mongatiki, his Uncle Abawi and the two brothers, Umtogo and Mambata are black. In a story published in 1952/3 in an English boy’s comic.
It’s fair to say that the story is not overtly racist. Eagle was edited by a liberal CofE Vicar, and would not have allowed a directly racist line. But at the same time, the story is coloured by the instinctive attitudes of the time.
Mongatiki, or Tiki as he became known, was to become a fixture in the Boy’s Club for the rest of the series, and never would he be treated with anything less than complete respect, nor did any of the other Club members – universally white – treat him in the least different from each other. But Tiki’s character is quickly formed in his debut: a sober, serious, mature young boy, aware of his duties as Prince of his tribe and determined to live up to them.
Artistically, Worsley draws him with slightly thicker lips than the other boys. It’s not the blackface caricature we are so heartily sick of seeing, but it’s not untouched by it. It’s more prevalent on Uncle Awabi, another serious figure, who is immaculately besuited throughout, but it’s even more pronounced on the villainous Umtogo and Mambata, who are also depicted as being slightly naïve as to British ways and prone to superstition, which Tiki rejects.
I admit to being biased in Eagle‘s favour. For me, the story treads the line throughout, but manages, just, to stay on the side of innocent ignorance rather than casual racism. Others may disagree, and I wouldn’t take arms opposing them. We are talking about an entertainment for younger readers that was written and drawn sixty-five years ago. That doesn’t excuse it, and you may very well argue that it is what we show and tell to our children at the age when attitudes and beliefs are being formed that requires the greatest caution of all, and I would wholeheartedly agree with you.
But the intention is good, and to me the proof comes when the Boy’s Club (now led by Toby Moore) arrives in Scotland to surprise 49 in his holiday, find Tiki in danger and without a second’s hesitation, put themselves at risk to save him. They don’t draw a distinction based on colour, not then, not ever.

PC 49 on film: Brian Perks

One of the other regular strips underwent a change in this volume, and one that was, in a sense, ambitious, and in another, utterly ludicrous. This was Tommy Walls which, with effect from issue 5, after 109 single-issue strips, turned into a serial for the remainder of its run. Richard E. Jennings remained the main artist, but his stories in Volume 3 alternated with tales drawn by J. Pannett.
Whereas Tommy & Co’s adventures had been reasonably grounded and bordering on plausible in terms of how the lads so consistently got into scrapes, the serials abandoned any attempt to stick with realism. Tommy & Co started getting involved with serious organised crime, national security and the Secret Service. They were treated as being on a par with fully adult, highly-trained agents.
And the strip’s purpose as a promotion for Wall’s Ice Cream became utterly ridiculous as on multiple occasions through stories covering relatively short periods, Tommy & Co, not to mention the head of the British Secret Service, stuffed their faces with Walls Ice Cream or, if fitting a trip to a shop or a Wallsie’s van was just too outside the plot, they would yearn for the bloody stuff.
Oh, and maybe that far back ice cream was made with something that has since been removed from the formula, but all it took was a wrapping in newspaper and the ice cream would last forever without melting.
I’m sorry, the constant harping on ice cream as a source of energy, not to mention mental alertness, and the regularity with which it was consumed leaves me unable to take the Tommy Walls serials even remotely seriously. The Trade Descriptions Act is a long, long way off, I can tell you.
On the back page, ‘Louis the Fearless’ confounded my expectations by living a long life and dying of natural causes, outliving all those baronial opponents and championing the peasants and livestock to the end, only, unless I’m misremembering European History A Level studies (Grade A), it didn’t seem to have any longlasting effect on the poor buggers.
That was followed by ‘Deep Sea Doctor’, the life of Grenfell of Labrador, a Doctor who fought to raise standards of health in Canada, and then ‘Man of Courage’, the life of St Vincent de Paul, whose story reversed the trend of figures whose lives were getting nearer and nearer to modern times. This last carried over into Volume 4.
I’ve already mentioned the frequent prose appearances of Rex Milligan this volume, mainly in complete short stories, but in issue 49, the comic began serialising a book-length story, ‘Rex Milligan’s Busy Term’. This aside, the state of Eagle’s prose serials in volume 3 was not impressive, with the only homegrown serial being the brief and somewhat reptitive ‘Truants Abroad’, another scientist’s-son-is-kidnapped-only-they-get-his-friend-instead story.

This separated two serialisations of Eric Leyland novels about Flame & Co. I remember reading at least one of that series as a library book in the early Sixties and even allowing for nostalgia, they really haven’t worn well. It’s all fast action, constantly being told how tough/determined/skilful the gang are without every really waiting to show it, and David Flame’s manner of speaking will be very familiar to anyone who’s ever read a Leslie Charteris story.
The trend towards serialising stories about existing popular characters was extended at the volume’s end to its logical conclusion: after many reader’s letters, Eagle did a deal with Captain W.E.Johns to serialise his latest Biggles novel. It may have been abridged: traditionally (i.e., formulaicly), Biggles books start in the jungle somewhere with Ginger Hebblethwaite about to stand on a log that turns out to be a crocodile instead: Chapter 2, back in the Air Commissioner’s office, instructing Biggles on his latest case, but these story starts in the Air Commissioner’s office. A bit confusing, that, old boy.
I’ve not mentioned Harris Tweed: apart from John Ryan’s art softening slightly, and getting a little bit less grotesque, it was much the same all year.
One final word: Marcus Morris’s efforts to actively involve the readers continued unabated, one new development being the devotion of an occasional page to Readers Efforts, featuring short stories, cartoons, micro-crosswords, jokes and puzzles put forward by the readers themselves. Set against the professional standards around them, such things were almost never more than commendable for their age, but two efforts in different issues deserve a mention.
One was a short story by a young lady, 170 words in length, cute, stylish and florid, in which every word began with the letter ‘T’, a tremendous effort. The other was a notable cartoon, not very good in itself, of various Eagle characters, with heads swapped onto each other’s bodies: notable for the identity of its artist – Gerald Scarfe!
Such was Volume 3: we ended the volume with Dan Dare, PC49, Riders of the Range, Luck of the Legion, Harris Tweed and Tommy Walls, all of these with their permanent and best artists. But there was still more to be done, as will be seen in Volume 4.

The Infinite Jukebox: The Banana Splits’ ‘The Very First Kid on my Block’

By 1968, I was being exposed to some pop music. My parents still refused to have it in the house, the only bit I saw of Top of the Pops was the bit between the end of whatever ITV programme we’d watched and the start of whatever followed it on BBC1, and the only memory I have of all those snippets of Number Ones was of Arthur Brown arousing my parents’ joint disgust at the ‘gimmick’ of his fiery headdress.
But on Saturday and Sunday mornings I would switch on the old radio my Dad had built into my bedside cabinet at 8.00am, and enjoy two hours of Ed ‘Stewpot’ Stewart with Junior Choice. I was still only twelve and it was the children’s songs that I listened out for, but even then those four weekend hours were mixed in with Pop, and when I occasionally taped things off the radio onto the reel-to-reel tape recorder I had been given, one such thing was the Love Affair’s ‘A Day without Love’ that even now pulls me across time and space every time I hear it.
Though I doubt I recognised it as such, in 1968 I had another source of pop music, one night a week, after school, in the form of The Banana Splits Show. Once again, it wasn’t about the music, but the cartoons, ‘Danger Island’, Uh-oh Chon-go! and the anarchic doings of Fleagle, Bingo, Drooper and Snorky. And I was beginning to find absurdity and anarchic and craziness was my kind of funny.
I don’t think I even registered the songs as pop music. Certainly, the Banana Splits swept our year at School – Uh-oh Chon-go! – but I don’t remember anyone ever talking about the songs.
Nearly twenty years later, a qualified Solicitor, at my second firm, I looked in the TV listings and discovered BBC1 were repeating some old Banana Splits shows in the early afternoon, stripping them across the week. I phoned home, got the video-recorder set, and indulged in pure nostalgia, for what is better than the pure rush of a childhood memory that stands up in adult life?
There was one Banana Splits song I did love then, that then and then and now and still I cannot understand not being released as a single over here, for 1968 was the heyday of bubblegum music, and this was bubblegum at its sweetest and most joyous, a song made for that rarefied zone where the most commercial of intents produces pure art: of a specialised kind, but still transcendent. And that, by glorious coincidence was in that episode I phoned home to have taped.
But I’ve already expounded on ‘Wait til Tomorrow‘. I could do it all again, and say different things, link it to the theme I began to develop when writing recently about ‘Sunday will never be the same‘, about the deftness in which Sixties songs could sketch out a scene with the simplest of lines that nevertheless painted a complex emotional picture: ‘Wait til Tomorrow’s tale of love lost, love regretted and love that could be restored with patience and trust is another perfect example.
But though most of the rest of the Splits’ ouevre is cheap and cheerful, fun and unambitious, that wasn’t the only time that the songwriters and session musicians came up with something that spoke to deeper emotions, set to a perfect jangle-pop sound, and ‘The Very First Kid on my Block’ was another of those supposedly commercial products that broke through the unconscious shell I had built around me.
‘The Very First Kid on my Block’ immediately created an alien resonance: we didn’t think of Blocks over here, but of streets, at least I didn’t. I’d grown up in a back street terrace: though in 1968 we were in our second year of South Manchester semi-detached Suburbia, on a wide, long road, my definitions still went back to where I’d been brought up.
But if the terminology was alien, and the emotions a year or two (or more) beyond me, the sound thrilled me, the melody swept me with it, and if the lyrics were beyond my then comprehension, there was a trick to the song that won me to it, that I adopted myself in those years when I tried to write my own lyrics.
Because the song starts out by announcing that the singer was the very first kid on his block with a broken heart. And it goes on to detail the singer’s experience with a girl who only wanted to play with him, to use him for amusement and then move on, uncaring of the pains given, the emotions awakened and left unfulfilled, the need to hide real tears. Was the singer warning, or was he boasting? Or, difficult though it might be to comprehend, was it a mixture of both? Was there not an element of it being something to be the pathfinder, to be the boy this girl thought worthy of her attention, before all the other little kids, to be the first?
Because being first to have a broken heart was itself a rite of passage. This boy was singing from a place of hurt, and though the song was rhythmic and light, the voice was rueful and downbeat. And there was that trick at the end that made the song. Because this boy might still be broken-hearted and lost, but he knew that in a while he’d forget about her and then, tempered by the fire, he’d be the very last kid on his block to fall in love again.
First kid, last kid, topping and tailing the lyrics, giving the sense, plainly stating, that things had changed over the course of the 134 seconds this song lasted. I was to try to duplicate that effect, over and again, and sometimes the effect worked but more often it was too clumsy, awkward, forced.
But this was where it came from. And if I didn’t listen closely enough in 1968, something inside sensed that again a commercial product was straining at that uncertain boundary it shared with art, and was suggesting at things not spoken of, but curled up inside, fractal dimensions of the heart.
I was never going to be the very first kid at anything, whether on my block or any other place. But someone had to brave the danger, and come back alive to tell us.

Tales of the Gold Monkey: e11- The Sultan of Swat

Jake and Zita

It was a Boy’s Club edition this week on Tales of the Gold Monkey, with Sarah on another island for the week, and the only female role that of the young Zita Henriques, a sweet, fresh-faced, bare-legged native girl going around draping garlands round the neck of blokes like Jake Cutter, and the visiting Gamble Rogers (guest star John DiSanti) as a fairly blatant signal that she wants a damned good blessing from them.

Unfortunately, all young Zita (Nia Peeples) is there to do is to be raped and murdered to set off the story. It’s done with rather less lingering than we’d get in these modern times, but it’s the age old story: the woman has nothing to do but be the victim.

Those with even a passing knowledge of Baseball history will know that the Sultan of Swat was the legendary batter Babe Ruth. “Home-run” Gamble is an obvious take-off: 43, retired, big, boisterous, boozing, womanising and on a goodwill tour of Japan and its possessions. Gamble is Jake’s hero and he’s everything the legend says he is.

So when Zita is discovered in his bedroom, naked, raped and strangled with the light cord, he’s the obvious suspect. To everyone, that is, but Jake, who can’t believe his hero has that kind of feet of clay, no matter how strong the evidence (all of which is merely collateral).

There is one witness to the crime but he got kicked in the head, is concussed, and is barking funny, or should I say, howling? There are no straight answers out of Jack this week, not until nearly the end, when it doesn’t matter, though one has to sympathise with the American Secret Service agent who’s trying to keep Gamble out of scrapes, when he suggests that the testimony might not stand up in Court.

Jake’s determined to prove his hero is innocent, a task made more urgent by the fact that Zita’s father has made his mind up as to his daughter’s killer, and is determined on making him pay without benefit of trial.

Given its era and its underlying theme, this is not going to be an episode where Jake’s faith is shown to be misplaced. The real rapist/murderer is Gamble’s manager, another and less famous ex-player named Harvey Bean. Heends up shooting, and catching a bullet from Jake, which spares the island a trial, and also spares the writer a motive, since Bean dies without saying why he’s tried to frame Gamble – who he’s handed over to Henriques.

So Jake and Corky take to a motorbike and sidecar and interrupt the lynching, with the impassioned Henriques repenting immediately his nearly having executed an innocent man.

Cue closer where, in an impromptu exhibition, Jake is pitching to Gamble. He strikes out once! He strikes out twice! Corky as catcher signals a play. Jake overrules him. And “Home-run” Gamble swats the third pitch into the ocean!

All in all, a bit predictable, a bit perfunctory, a bit too boys only. There were the usual nice touches along the way, the sign of a show comfortable in its own skin, but this was a worryingly slight story to reach halfway.

I’m hoping for better next week, with Caitlin O’Heaney back in the action.

A Lycanthrope in Wolfe’s Clothing: Gene Wolfe’s ‘The Sword of the Lictor’

As with The Claw of the Conciliator, Wolfe begins the third volume after a gap of unspecified but certainly extended time. Severian and Dorcas are now established in Thrax, City of Windowless Rooms, straddling the river Acis in a narrow, steep-lined gorge.
They have continued to have adventures between leaving the stone town and arriving at Thrax, but Severian has presented his credentials to Abdiesus, the Archon, and taken over the Vincula, a prison consisting of diagonal shafts drilled into the rock, in which prisoners lie chained.
Severian has been engaged in his task of mastering and ordering the system for several weeks: given that his story takes approximately one year from his leaving the Torturers and his return as Autarch, this gap cannot be too great: two further months seems a reasonable assessment, given that the events of The Sword of the Lictor will cover perhaps two to three weeks in total.
Originally, The Book of the New Sun was planned to be in three volumes, but the last of these would have been approximately half as much again as either of the first and Wolfe resolved the issue of imbalance by dividing the last volume in two, around a conveniently-placed event, and building each half of the story up. That would seem to account for the ease with which the linear story in this volume can be summarised.
But first, we find ourselves reading of a growing unease in Severian’s relationship with Dorcas, one that has him fearful for its continuation. Dorcas, having no official position in Thrax, and thus no occupation, is finding that time hangs heavily on her hands when she sees so little of Severian. She is also the subject of comment among other women for being the companion of the Torturer, and is growing increasingly disturbed.
Though Severian tries to justify his role in life, and his suitedness for it, Dorcas reveals that her distress at what he is forced to do goes even deeper than he already knew. A visit to the Vincula has forced her – who fears water so much – to go to public baths to clean the effect of the prison off her.
And matters rapidly get worse. Severian uses an afternoon free of duty to tour Thrax. From the high point of Acies Castle, he sees Dorcas by the river, hunched over. She is all but catatonic, and Severian can only lodge her in an inn high on the cliff, to be cared for by the Inn-mistress.
Back in his office, he is invited by Abdiesus to a masque that evening where he will be required to carry out an execution, by strangulation. His torturer’s garb doubling as a costume, he encounters Cyriaca, a still-beautiful middle-aged woman, wife of a minor armiger. She is wearing a Pelerine robe, having once thought to join the Order, which initially takes in Severian.
When she faints at his approach, realising that he is not in costume, he tends to her. They spend the night in company, talking of many things, and end in making love. In the morning, Abdiesus finds them, and indicates to Severian that she is his victim, which he has already understood. Her infidelities have made a laughing stock of her husband, a supporter of the Archon.
But, for a second time, Severian betrays his Guild, and thus ceases to be a Torturer. He lets Cyriaca go, aids her towards an escape, and thus has to flee both Thrax and Abdiesus. Before leaving the city, he has things that must be done. He uses the Claw to heal a dying girl and a sick boy, evades narrowly death by a fire-like creature that has been pursuing him (it is a creature of Hethor, who he has now realised must be the old sailor that Agia said wished to marry her). And there is Dorcas.
She is awake and talking now. She and Severian hold their last conversation. Just as he must flee, and intends to go north into the mountains, she must head south, return to Nessus. At the waterside, she saw an old piece of furniture, looted downriver in the abandoned areas of Nessus, and recognised it, as hers. Hers in a long ago time. She vomited, and vomited leadshot, of the kind used to weight down the bodies of the dead in the Garden of Endless Sleep.
She cannot now avoid the understanding that she was dead, dead for many years, and that Severian, by the means of the Claw of the Conciliator, though he did not yet know he possessed it, had restored her to life, long after. Dorcas has to return, to find where the furniture was taken from, to find what she can of her former life, of the family she had, of who she was.
Severian gives her all his money and wishes her well. He will only see her once again. By the end of his story, he will have realised who she is, one of a very small number of instances where he sees what is about him. For the attentive reader, there are already enough clues to undo the puzzle.
Severian leaves Thrax and heads north, intending to find his way to and join the war. He keeps to the highest ground, avoiding roads and any places where the Archon’s troops may be able to find and capture him.
Eventually, both thirsty and extremely hungry, he descends to an isolated cabin, just below the tree-line. It is occupied by Casdoe, her son and father. Casdoe’s husband, Becan, is out hunting, and expected to return for supper. Severian may stay for a night. Casdoe’s son is also named Severian, and it appears that he has or had a sister named Severa. At any rate, Severian soon realises that there is another, presumably young woman hidden in the loft: she is revealed as Agia.
As night falls, danger approaches. The cabin is threatened by an alzabo, the animal from which the analyptic was taken that put Thecla into Severian when he ingested a part of her. The alzabo has eaten Severa, which enables him to access her memories and speak with her voice and thoughts: Becan has gone to hunt it, but has become its victim. When it speaks with his voice, Casdoe unbars the cottage.
Severian is forced to confront the alzabo, alone and in the dark. Agia deliberately betrays him, intent on his death, Casdoe out of fear for herself and her family. Severian negotiates an agreement by which the alzabo leaves for the night, on the promise of Severian leaving in the morning. Severian rather reneges on the spirit, if not the letter of the promise: when Casdoe and her family depart in the morning, he trails them, intent on intervening if the alzabo attacks,
Instead, the little party are attacked by zooanthrops. The father is clubbed down before both Severian and the alzabo can intervene. The zooanthrops are killed and the alzabo mortally wounded, but not before it has begun to eat Casdoe, reuniting her in some manner with her family. Severian is left to take responsibility for his little namesake.
They journey on together, Big Severian naming himself as his charge’s new father, Little Severian quickly growing to accept it.
In the forests, they are attacked by members of a tribe who practice magic. Little Severian is kidnapped, Big Severian disarmed and imprisoned underground. He pretends to be a great magician, greater in power than the village, which leads to a magical challenge. The villagers do have some form of magical power, though the challenge is rigged against Severian. But the contest is disturbed when the village is attacked by another of Hethor’s beasts.
The villagers believe the creature to have been summoned by Severian, and they bow before his power, letting him and the boy go on their way, undisturbed.
They head back towards the mountains, immense mountains that we slowly realise have been carved into the shape of men, former Autarchs of Urth. It is like Mount Rushmore, only that the carving is more extensive than mere faces and includes arms and hands.
An abandoned town lies near the hand. In a building, around which massive terracotta-esque soldiers stand, turning slowly to follow the sun, the Severians find the dessicated body of a man with two heads. They sleep the night, and in the morning discover that there is an apparent gold ring on one of the gigantic fingers. Eagerly, Little Severian runs ahead, but when he touches it, there is a blinding flash: he is electrocuted, his body turned to ash.
Alone and despairing, Severian is contemplating his future when he is found by the two headed man, who has been restored by the energy from Little Severian’s electrocution. The man, who is naked, is the ruler whose face adorns the mountain: Typhon, a tyrant who ruled a younger Urth when it was yet stronger than it is now, the Autarch whose scientists opened a black hole in the heart of the Sun, to extract energy, but who only began the darkening and cooling of Urth.
Too powerful for the weakened Severian, Typhon takes him to a chamber from which two empty windows overlook the Urth: they are the eyes of the mountain head. He explains that, in order to perpetuate his then reign, he chose to have his mind transplanted into a younger, healthier body. Since power resides in the face that can be recognised, his head was grafted onto the body of Piaton to take control of the motor functions. The other head, Piaton, cannot access the voice box: seemingly mad, it makes facial gestures, rambles silently.
Typhon intends to take control of the Urth again. Severian is to be his first lieutenant. He demands an all-encompassing, binding oath of loyalty, which Severian must either swear or be flung from the eye. Instead, lip-reading Piaton’s words, Severian strikes out, a blow intended to crush the nose and drive bone-splinters into the brain. Instinctively, Typhon raises his hands to protect his face, but Severian has struck at Piaton, whose death is sufficient to bring death to all the body.
Still weak for lack of food, near delirious himself, Severian descends from the mountain, coming eventually to the shore of Lake Diuturna. Attempting to browbeat the Shore People into food, drink and rest, he is instead drugged, to be taken to the lord of the Castle on the lake’s northerly shores. Severian is accompanied by the slave-girl Pia, of the Lake People, who live on floating reed-rafts, and who now suffer from the Shore People since the master returned to his Castle.
Severian exploits an explosive given by the Master to the Shore People to free himself and Pia for rescue. He finds himself expected to lead the Lake People in an attack on the Castle, futile though it clearly is. However, he must retrieve the Claw, which has been taken there. By taking charge, Severian secures enough trust to be allowed to make a solo scouting expedition, telling them to expect a lighted fire as the signal to attack.
The Castle has, hovering above it, an immense alien spacecraft. The Castle’s occupants are, of course, Dr Talos and Baldanders. The latter has been in contact with the three cacogens – Ossipago, Barbatus and Famulimus – for many years. They have given him scientific hints, drawing him onwards, enabling him to create Dr Talos and in turn to grow himself from a small size to the giant he has become.
The cacogens are delighted to speak to Severian. They talk as if they know him, and well, though this is his first meeting with them. Though Severian is mystified as to why, it is clear that they are abandoning Baldanders and transferring their sponsorship to the former Torturer.
Their craft leaves. A frustrated Baldanders refuses to return the Claw, instead hurling it from the battlements. It’s arcing path of fire triggers the attack. Severian finds himself fighting for his life against Baldanders as the Castle starts to burn. In the end, raising Terminus Est to block a mace-blow, the blade is shattered. But with the Castle facing ruin, Baldanders dives hundreds of feet into the Lake.
He does not surface, but Severian is by no means convinced the giant is dead.
Terminus Est is destroyed. Severian retains its hilt but buries what remains of the sword itself. As the Lake People celebrate, he goes hunting for the Claw. Eventually, he finds it, shattered into pieces. These he also buries, but he also finds a sharply hooked, claw-like jet thorn, which he senses is the Claw itself, the gem merely its casing.
Preserving it, he heads north, towards the War. Having carried his readers from fortress to fortress, should they not wish to plunge into the struggles ahead, he does not condemn them. It is no easy way.

Deep Space Nine: s05 e07 – Let he who is without sin…

I make no comment

What an odd episode that was. It’s no surprise to me that, on reading up about it afterwards, I learned that writers, director (Rene Auberjonois) and producers all wanted to go back and have another crack at it, because they felt it didn’t work, which justifies me in feeling that it didn’t work, though I think I come to it from a slightly different standpoint.

The idea behind ‘Let he who is without sin…’ is pretty simple. Dax and Worf’s relationship is now well-established, enough that Sisko and Odo can joke about the number of minor injuries their violent love-making is causing to each other. That in itself fulfills the episode’s self-set brief, to address 24th century sexuality. But it isn’t the shocking thing it’s meant to be, partly because we are twenty years on and attitudes, understanding and acceptance are correspondingly more developed, but also because the open, and the early part of the episode are played so much for laughs, and character-driven laughs at that, that the idea is turned too far into a comedic element  and not as potentially transgressive.

But the differences in culture and personality between Dax and Worf are causing them some difficulties in that both are expecting something the other finds makes them uneasy. Worf’s uptight, Dax is free-spirited, to put this in Sixties’ terms, and each is simultaneously trying to change the other whilst refusing to budge from themselves.

The lovers are off on vacation to the pleasure planet, Risa, Dax to enjoy, Worf to talk about their relationship. Circumstances force on them Bashir and Leeta (another splendid guest appearance by Chase Masterson, here to show those areas of the female body that Terry Farrell can’t), and, more unpleasantly, Quark. He’s there to be a Greek Chorus, they’re here to conduct the Bajoran Rite of Separation, though we don’t learn this until halfway through (after this, Leeta is free to go and shag the brains out of, of all people, Rom.) All of them are really there to confuse and frustrate Worf even more.

And this is where the whole problem lies. Risa is a pleasure planet, supposed to be about sexual and sybaritic indulgence, under an artificial resort climate. It’s supposed to be decadent, it’s supposed to make the viewer think about the acceptability of that kind of lifestyle four centuries hence (after they’ve finished w*nking, of course).

But this is Prime Time American Network TV in the mid-Nineties, and there isn’t a hope in hell of getting to show anything that remotely indicates that kind of hedonistic lifestyle, and without that you have a colossal failure on your hands. People wander round in beach gear, and even then that means swimsuits for the women (I saw one extra in a rather unskimpy bikini in the background), with kaftan-like shirts tied round their waists. Decadent?

Oh sure, it’s implied that everyone’s having sex all the time, nonstop, except when the camera’s on them, which means that the imagination has to do what it can, unstimulated by the rather antiseptic atmosphere of the resort (even Southport is racier). But nobody except the most diehard of puritan is going to be shocked by something that is all Tell and no Show.

And, speaking of puritans, this paradise has to have them. They are the Essentialists, led by Pascal Fullerton (Monte Markham). They wear the guise of a political movement, fundamentalists harking back to the days of blood, toil, sweat and tears, by which the Federation was originally built in a hostile galaxy, and they are determined to return the Federation to that essential basis of fear, paranoia and eternal, rigorous watchfulness against its enemies. To them, Risa is a canker, the ruination of the Federation, an artificial pleasure world, softening, weakening, poisoning America’s… sorry, the Federation’s precious bodily fluids. To prove their point, they insist on dressing up in floor-length, full-body covering clothing in drab and dull colours, on the beach in direct sunlight.

In short, they are what every puritan has been since time immemorial: haters of fun, pleasure and enjoyment. They cannot stand to see people being happy, they insist on destroying it, they are the Daily Mail, and I am immediately and implacably opposed to them wherever they raise their hydra-like heads.

So it really doesn’t matter what clothing their arguments are dressed up in, they are the eternal enemy so far as I am concerned. It leaves me unable to take their arguments remotely seriously, which in turn weakens the drama as I cannot see them as more than straw men. And given that Worf, due to his strongly controlling instincts, not to mention a hefty dose of Klingon chauvinism, even listens to them, let alone goes over to their side, is enough to set a permanent block against him. How can Dax possibly forgive him for this?

We know she will though, and he does repent and return to the side of the angels, but it does him no favours to have this temporary aberration be the result of what is really only a fit of adolescent pique, a tantrum thrown by a teenager who hasn’t yet worked out that you don’t get to tell her what she can and can’t do all the time.

No, Worf’s dereliction is too offensive for me to forgive, and its rationalisation too unbecoming to accept. It’s also accompanied by the cliche of forcing Worf into the corner of having to reveal a deep-rooted childhood trauma that explains everything. It’s also an unfortunately ill-chosen story for a British audience since it involves the thirteen-year-old Worf playing ‘soccer’, going up for a header, scoring the winning goal but in doing so jumping so ferociously he clashed heads with the defender, broke his neck and the kid died the next day, and all the time I’m thinking, with that on his forehead, how the heck can he direct a header anywhere?

It really is a shame, because there were good ideas in this episode, and it did hit the funny-bone more consistently than any previous DS9 episode I’ve seen. Vanessa Williams was a Special Guest Star as Resort Director Arandis, ex-lover of Dax’s previous host, Curzon, and his killer (death by sex), but apart from tormenting Worf further by making him suspect a lesbian affair for which there were neither grounds nor any discernible sexual tension, her presence was wasted.

But no, it didn’t work, it couldn’t have worked and it couldn’t work even now, because we’ve seen too much real, actual transgressive sex onscreen for Risa to shock us with its licenciousness, because long before it got near to a 2017 version of Shock, it would have been wading thigh deep in Disgust.

And no, I didn’t remember a bit of it.

A Lycanthrope in Wolfe’s clothing: Gene Wolfe’s ‘The Claw of the Conciliator’

Bruce Pennington’s covers

The Claw of the Conciliator followed a year later.
In Wolfean fashion, the abrupt end of the first book does not lead directly into the second. An unmeasured period of time has elapsed, and Severian has travelled an unspecified distance – far enough at any rate that the Wall is no longer visible, though it must be remembered that we are now beyond Nessus, and into the forests and hills, approaching the mountains – to the town of Saltus.
His only companion is Jonas, the middle-aged man with a metal hand encountered in the tunnel beneath the wall where Shadow ended. Severian has become separated from the rest of Dr. Talos’ troupe, most especially from Dorcas, though before the end of this volume we will learn that at first he headed in the same direction as Baldanders, albeit not at the giant’s instance.
Severian has been engaged to carry out two executions, one woman, one man. The woman has been accused of murdering her husband and children (though after she dies her rival admits to having framed her), the man is an agent of Vodalus. The Alcalde (Mayor) of Saltus, with an eye to the commercial aspect of things, has made the two executions the focus of a week-long fair.
The fair draws all manner of people to the area, including a column of soldiers marching towards the mountains, and, more seriously for Severian, Agia. She disappears before he can find her, but in the fair he visits the tent of a supposed Green Man, who is indeed green. He claims to be from Urth’s future, but though Severian does not believe him, he leaves him the means to break his shackles and escape.
Later that day, Severian performs the execution of Morwenna. That evening, in the lodgings he shares with Jonas, they are discussing his reactions when Severian receives a letter. It is from Thecla, describing how her ‘death’ was contrived by agreement with Master Gurloes, enabling her escape. She wants Severian to come to a secret rendezvous some miles away.
Driven by the thought of Thecla alive, Severian immediately leaves, stealing a magnificent destrier (horse) outside his lodgings. He gallops up the valley, until he reaches the mine entrance Thecla describes, after dark. There is no sign of Thecla, outside or in: the mines are dark, and populated by ape-like creatures, who surround Severian, in a hostile manner. He loses Terminus Est, but when he accidentally removes the Claw of the Conciliator from his boot, it glows with a clear blue light that illuminates the entire cavern and fascinates the ape-men.
Unfortunately, it also appears to disturb something monstrous deep in the dark. Severian retrieves his sword and flees. In the dark outside, he is shot at with a crossbow: his assailants are assassins hired by Agia. Once he hears her voice, he comes close to weeping, knowing that Thecla is really dead. With the assistance of a man ape whose hand he has severed, Severian kills the assassins and confronts Agia. She expects him to execute her, and asks only the boon of facing away from him. Severian cannot do it: he leaves her alone in the dark, silently.
Barnoch’s execution is planned to take place the following day, but Severian, still thinking about the man-apes, is consumed by his memories: unable to distinguish between those and what he is currently experiencing, he and Jonas are kidnapped by armed men, taken into the forests and placed aboard an elephant under guard.
The men are agents of Vodalus, who wants the torturer to prevent the execution of his man. Severian and Jonas travel a great distance to a substantial court in the heart of the forest, where Vodalus arrives. By taking advantage of his captor’s distraction, Severian retrieves Terminus Est, using it to kill everyone aboard, and bring the elephant to an obedient halt at Vodalus’s feet. He reminds Vodalus of their previous connection, in the necropolis.
This changes Vodalus’s thought: instead of simply killing Severian and his companion, he intends to use him as his agent. He has been tracking the torturer, and wishes to send him to rejoin his fellow troupers at the House Absolute, where he is pass on a message to another agent. Firstly, Severian and Jonas must undergo a horrific ritual that, even more than the oaths they are made to swear, is meant to bind them absolutely to Vodalus.
This far future of Urth holds a wild, bear-like creature called an alzabo that, when eating his victim, is able to assume its mind, voice and personality for a time. A drug extracted from the alzabo can duplicate the effect on humans. Vodalus’ ritual involves consuming the cooked flesh of a dead person and, temporarily, taking them into you. For Severian, the feast will involve the body of Thecla.
But Severian is incapable of forgetting. If he ingests Thecla under this drug, she will remain within him for as long as he lives.
The following morning, Severian and Jonas set off to ride to the House Absolute. Severian now has all of Thecla’s memories in him. Their journey takes several days, but as they near the grounds, they are attacked by curious creatures that resemble flat, black slivers. Jonas recognises them and urges flight. Severian can slash these creatures in two with his blade, but Jonas warns him against doing so: dividing them merely multiplies them and increases their speed. They are called noctules, and they seek human warmth.
The pair save themselves by inadvertently leading the noctules to an uhlan. The noctules overwhelm and kill him. Having rejoined, and being sated, Jonas is able to hook the noctule out entire, and seals it in a bottle, imprisoning it. Jonas rides ahead, but Severian stays to use the Claw, which awakens the soldier bodily, but leaves him dazed.
At this moment, Severian is approached by his follower Hethor, a stammering, wretched creature who has adopted Severian as his master, and who complains in his circuitous manner of the pains Severian causes in following him. Seeing something white amidst the trees, Severian spurs on to rejoin Jonas. He is bitter at the thought that, had he had the presence of mind to produce the Claw at the feast, he could have restored Thecla, though Jonas strongly denies that possibility.
The appearance of a path underfoot shows they are now on the grounds of the House Absolute. Thecla’s memories within Severian confirm this: not for the last time they threaten to overcome Severian, so that he is Thecla.
However, the duo are surrounded by a platoon and are brutally imprisoned, their belongings taken from them. They are being marched towards the House when they glimpse the rest of the troupe being escorted across the grounds. Before Jonas can even draw breath to call to Jolenta, he is brutally stunned. Two guards carry his body, oddly easily.
Inside, they are imprisoned in an ante-chamber full of prisoners of all ages, some of whom have been there for decades.
In accordance with tradition, two of the senior inhabitants take Severian aside for questions and answers. The torturer discovers, to his surprise, that the old woman, Nicorette, is not a prisoner, but rather an armigette who has chosen voluntarily to spend her life with the prisoners as a safeguard against their being completely forgotten (though many have) or being treated extremely badly.
Jonas is cared for separately. When Severian is reunited with him, Jonas is is a strange state. He has to escape or he will lose his mind.
Jonas’s travels among the stars have also been travels in time. We do not understand quite how far back he goes until he recognises the original Greek source of a tale Severian reads from Thecla’s book, and begins to talk of people in the antechamber who descend from times so ancient that their names are appropriate to the Twentieth Century. Moreover, he is not a man who has been fitted with a metal prosthesis, but a man of metal fitted with a biological prosthesis.
At night, the prisoners are attacked by young, drunken armigers and armigettes, delighting in torment. Thecla recalls at least one such occasion when she was among them, but this proves vital as Severian can now remember the secret door by which they entered, and through which he and Jonas exit when another strange, and dangerous beast begins to prowl the antechamber.
They take refuge in a chamber in which a machine of mirrors awaits. The light between it enables the ruined Jonas to depart, into time or space. He vows to return, for Jolenta, when he has again been made whole.
Severian, left alone for the first time since the inn where he met Baldanders, searches for Terminus Est: Having found it he seeks to be reunited with Dorcas. First, he encounters old Rudesind, the Curator, cleaning another picture as in Ultan’s Library years ago. Severian recalls that picture effortlessly: we realise that it is of the original Moon landings.
Invited to step back to properly see this latest photo, Severian finds himself passing into a hidden chamber, where he is met by the androgynous man who ran the bordello to which he was taken by Roche. This man is Vodalus’s agent. He gives Severian instructions: to continue to Thrax, to return the Claw to the Pelerines, if he can, to be prepared for the Autarch’s presence in the northern mountains, in a few months, where he must find a way to kill the ruler.
The androgyne is also, from Thecla’s knowledge, the Autarch.
Severian is led into the gardens and directed to find the players. Dr. Talos is first to greet him, but he has little time to talk to Dorcas before she is sent for water. She relates a vivid dream that hints at her lost past, and expresses her fear and hatred of water.
The play is to be performed that evening, with Severian again playing the multiple roles assigned to him. As the stage is being prepared, with Dorcas deeply involved in painting the set, he accepts an unspoken invitation from Jolenta to explore the gardens. The unfeasibly voluptuous woman is open about her intention to use her commanding appeal to ensnare someone high in the court, perhaps even the Autarch, so that she would have great wealth and power.
Jolenta has no sexuality in her, only a manipulative consciousness of her attraction to all, man or woman. The afternoon is hot and she cannot walk far due to her over-ripe thighs chafing. Severian takes her onto a boat on the river. Jolenta falls asleep and in her sleep, Severian unloosens her clothes and takes her.
This time, Severian recounts the play, as if in a script, until the same moment when Baldanders attacks the audience. But this time the audience includes cacogens, or aliens, and their strange appearances and their weapons beat back the giant amidst great confusion. Severian is forced to flee, cursing himself at having lost Dorcas again so soon, but after a night in the forests, he encounters his friends again.
It is the end of Baldander and Dr Talos’s journeys: they have raised the money they required and are now returning to Lake Diuturna, in the mountains. Everyone is paid off their share and Severian and Dorcas are intent on Thrax. Only Jolenta is distraught, when Dr Talos refuses to take her with them. When she attempts to follow, she is beaten and her money taken, forcing her to follow Severian and Dorcas.
At night, Severian and Dorcas make love again for the first time since before the Wall. Severian wakens to the sound of his name being called in a rich, deep woman’s voice. A gigantic woman lies in the river, beautiful but so large that she can only support herself in the water. She is a daughter of Abaia, one of the alien monsters that war on Urth, a swimmer between the stars.
She professes love, and a crown, claims that it was she who saved him from drowning in Gyoll in an incident immediately before the beginning of Shadow. She wants Severian to come with her: he will be made immortal, able to breath water as air, but first he must, effectively, drown himself. When he refuses, she tries to leave the water with disastrous effects.
Severian escapes, aided by Dorcas, who has come in search of him. Jolenta’s wrist is oozing blood. Severian attributes it to an animal’s bite. Never a hardy traveller, Jolenta now needs to be supported at every step. Her flesh and her beauty begins to dissolve.
They encounter a herdsman and his dead son. Severian uses the Claw to restore the young man, who recovers to fear him as the new lictor of the still-distant Thrax. Severian easily prevents the father from killing him and, in the morning, takes a destrier to carry Jolenta.
Their path leads to an ancient, abandoned stone town. All are weak for lack of food and water, and Jolenta is dying. On a rooftop they find two women raising a campfire. These are the Cumaean, the witch of the Botanic Gardens, and her acolyte Merryn, but they are being protected by Hildegrin the Badger. All three are here to raise the dead: Apu-Punchau, a sorceror of long ago. Severian, Dorcas and Jolenta – who is revealed to have been under a glamour part cosmetic, part-magical, part-illusion – are brought into the summoning that restores the stone to life.
Severian, seeing through eyes not his own, recognises the face of Apu-Punchau as that of the funeral bronze in the Atrium of Time that was his secret hiding place as an Apprentice. Hildegrin dives into the dead crown and grapples with Apu-Punchau, who resists. He calls for Severian’s aid but Severian finds himself seeing two Hildegrin’s, one whom he is fighting, the other fighting someone invisible. He defeats the first and is trying to aid the second when lightning strikes.
He awakes to find all things changed. Hildegrin, we must assume, is dead, the witches and the mounts have gone and only Dorcas remains, with the dead body of Jolenta, whom Severian finally recognises as the waitress from the cafe who chose to go with Dr. Talos.
Again, Severian lays down his pen, having conducted his reader from town to town. If the reader does not wish to travel further with him, he has no blame: it is not an easy road.


Eagle – Volume 2 (1951/2)

Dan Dare in ‘The Red Moon Mystery’

Eagle‘s second volume feels very much like an exercise in consolidation. There are no startling advances, just good, solid progress. Dan Dare completes his first, and longest, adventure, but the second proves to be just as good and as popular, despite an inexplicable backstage panic, whilst both PC49 and Riders of the Range change artists, the one to great effect, the other to marginal improvement.
Volume 2 started with a birthday issue, though in the comic this was represented by an extended Editor’s page with photos of the principal editorial staff and some of the main artists, and a full-page centrespread showing how Eagle is produced, from logging of trees in Canada to the newsagent’s shop.
I have to correct an error on my part in the last blog when I claimed Skippy the Kangaroo was replaced by another European strip: it was, but not immediately. First we had to experience the home-made The Legend of the Lincoln Imp, written and drawn by Norman Spargo: repeat after me, this is for the seven year olds, this is for the seven year olds.
The volume had barely started when Marcus Morris was making excuses for another increase in price, this one based on a threefold increase in the cost of paper. This time, the price went up by only a halfpenny, but that still made for a 50% increase in the price of Eagle in little over a year.
Dan Dare’s adventures on Venus continued until issue 25, making the overall story 77 issues in length: the longest Dan Dare story and the longest story in Eagle‘s history. Oddly enough, after the muddy and dull colouring I criticised in volume 1, several weeks of art go to the opposite extreme, applying light colours to a bleached background, as if there was an extreme light-source. I’m assuming that this was an aspect of Frank Hampson’s ceaseless experimenting.
But once the story returned to Earth, the colouring settled into a more naturalistic palette. Behind the scenes, Hampson’s tendency to overwork began to take its toll, and he was absent from the last four weeks of the story.
Apparently, the realisation that the story was nearing its end caused some panic in Eagle‘s offices, especially as it was realised that nothing appeared to have been done to prepare for a sequel. There were fears that a different story would be a flop, and some effort was putting into publicising the forthcoming adventure on Mars, but of course the panic was unnecessary. ‘The Red Moon Mystery’ was just as popular, and whilst the art retained a somewhat cartoonish edge, especially in Dan’s Uncle Ivor, it was stronger overall, with a bolder and more aggressive use of black lines. Hampson’s friend and chief assistant Harold Johns was, on a couple of occasions, elevated to the status of co-artist, his name signed alongside that of the master.

John Worsley’s PC49

After finishing off the absurd story with the midget and the giant, Strom Gould’s fourth and last PC49 story was the absolute nadir, though the blame for that goes to writer Alan Stranks. ‘The Curse of Killer’s Keep’ was a horrible and absurd mess from start to finish, with Joan Carr missing as 49 is knocked out and kidnapped to a remote island serving a ridiculous dictator going by the name of Napoleon Bloggs. It’s an idiotic story that’s completely wrong for a level-headed beat copper, but Stranks showed that he recognised it by taking a completely different approach with the very next story, which saw ex-POW John Worsley take over as artist for the rest of the run.
‘The Case of the Terrible Twins’ is everything PC49 hasn’t been before now, but will be until the feature ends. It’s down to earth, with an easy, well-developed flow, and it introduces the Boy’s Club who will effectively co-star from hereon in.
The ‘Terrible Twins’ are the Mulligans, Pat and Mick, a rowdy and rebellious pair of Irish extraction. They’re not bad kids, just wild, and irresponsible. 49 tries to take them under his wing at the Boy’s club, whose leader, Snorky, is the only one identified, but the irrepressible pair blot their copybook. Their wildness attracts the attention of Knocker and Slim, the first of Worsley’s gallery of grotesque baddies. This pair are street level crooks, breaking into factories, coshing nightwatchmen, that level of street crime, and they con the Mulligans into helping them. Only when the Twins start to realise what’s really going on do they start to repent, though they only really learn their lessons when Mick is captured and Pat wounded in the arm and the Boys Club rally round to help 49 bring down the crooks.
Worsley’s art is not quite as we will get used it it on this first story. He is far more polished than Gould, and his faces considerably more varied and, even when he is caricaturing crooks, more realistic. At this stage there’s a rounded fullness to his work that will later drift towards a more impressionistic style, and his backgrounds are far more detailed. It’s a tremendous improvement, and the change in direction for the stories is also positive.
His second story is set in and around the Docks, with 49 being assisted to bring down smugglers by cabin boy Toby Moore, but as the volume ends, the Club is ready to play a direct part, with the Mulligans and others identified.
Jack Daniels had already started his second and last Riders of the Range story when Volume 1 ended. Based on a true incident, ‘The Cochise Affair’ was everything the first story was in terms of art, though the colours were even more stylised this time, baked out under a desert sun. He was replaced by Angus Scott, whose approach was more conventional and whose cartooning was a little more realistic, but who was not much more than a cartoonist, his faces sketchy and angular. Scott was also give short stories to draw, and was into the third and last of his stint when Volume 2 ended.
We shall leave The Legend of the Lincoln Imp under its deserved shroud, because it and its predecessor were completely overshadowed by Eagle‘s second venture into the world of European comics. In Volume 2 issue 17, Herge’s famous Tintin made his first appearance in English.

Tintin in Eagle

The story chosen was ‘King Ottokar’s Sceptre’, though the title was never given. This was an interesting choice as the story had originally been serialised in ‘Le Petit Vingtieme’ in 1938/9, in black and white. By 1951, Tintin was starring in a magazine bearing his own name, but whilst Herge was undergoing periods of depression, his studio was busy reworking, polishing and colouring earlier adventures.
Nevertheless, this is still very different from the album version we now know so well. The translator (s) is unknown, but the legendary Leslie Lonsdale-Cooper and Michael Turner did not begin their long association with Tintin until Methuen started publishing the adventures in books in 1958. Certainly, none of the signature flourishes of the series are present. Tintin is given to be French (!), his dog is Milou as in the original, and whilst the Thompsons are indeed Thompson and Thomson, their humour is purely physical, with none of the malapropisms and careful manglings of the English language. The translation appears to be no more than literal and workmanlike.
For all that, Tintin is still head and shoulders above its predecessors, and it’s a feather in the cap for it to be Eagle who brought the famed boy Reporter to England for the first time.
As for the remaining strips, there’s little to say. Despite John Ryan introducing, late in the volume, a small amount of continuity, in the form of the Extra Special Agent spending four weeks on holiday in the Caribbean, Harris Tweed stuck to its formula of the blowhard winning by accident or the actions of the put-upon Boy, and coming up with some form of self-justifying pun in the final panel.
Equally, Tommy Walls stuck to its little model. Most strips were drawn by Richard E. Jennings, with the occasional interpolations by others, and every strip ended with yet more blocks of Walls Ice Cream, until you fear for the dental health of Tommy, Bobby, Lennie and Sue. In the back end of the Volume, there’s an increased presence by ‘Wallsie’, the name for any driver/vendor of Walls Ice Cream vans, just to render Tommy’s attacks on grown men slightly more plausible, though I do emphasise the word ‘slightly’.
The Great Adventurer only lasted a handful of issues into the new Volume, before ending with the rather unsparing detail of St Paul’s beheading on the orders of the Emperor Nero. It was succeeded by Patrick, Fighter for Truth, the life of St Patrick of Ireland, though the story risked confusion by referring to Patrick by his childhood name of Hygaid, and showing him as a spoilt half-Roman and all round nasty piece of work for the first couple of months.
By now, Norman Williams was well-established as the back-page artist, and once again the strip did not shirk unpleasant details, such as Patrick’s devoted sister and fellow-slave Lupait being beaten to death by her master.
St Patrick’s story was much shorter than that of St Paul, and we had time to start Louis the Fearless, about the French King who inherited the crown at an early age and, from his start, had a very socialist attitude in being for fair and decent treatment of the peasantry, causing much opposition from the Barons, who were very much of the ‘Keep the rabble down’ camp: I anticipate assassination in Volume 3.

Tommy Walls by Richard E Jennings

On the prose side, ‘The Scarlet Snuffbox’, a London-set carryover from volume 1, was aggressively anti-female in a way Eagle hadn’t previously been. In contrast, it’s successor, ‘North Wind’, featured a highly competent girl, who spent the entire story disguised as a boy until the final episode, when her true gender is revealed. Unfortunately, the moment she becomes a girl, she starts getting a bit soppy about how the British boy she’s been partnered with will react to the deception, but he’s more concerned with the person beneath than her superficial characteristics, so there’s not even the slightest hint of a romance blooming!
The serial was written by Geoffrey Beardsmore, and appeared as a complete novel after its serialisation was completed. This was Beardsmore’s first contribution to Eagle, but a few years later, he would become a permanent fixture in the comic, with more than one comics series.
‘North Wind’ finished in issue 26, but there was not another serial until Rex Rients’s ‘s ‘Nightmare Island’, which ran from issue 40 to 51. This was a much more conventional story, with an amusingly ‘Lost’-like set-up: plane off course in the South Pacific crashes on mysterious island, but the set-up was much more down-to-earth. Pirate treasure is discovered on the island, and a sleazy, dictatorial Brazilian and two scummy Americans team up with the intention of killing everyone else and keeping it. Needless to say, two teenage boys, one British and one Australian, foil them.
The rest of the time was taken up by Anthony Buckeridge’s Rex Milligan. Buckeridge, already famous for his Jennings and Darbishire stories both in books and on the radio, had been asked to contribute to Eagle and came up with his other popular creation specifically for the comic. Rex Milligan was a London-based Grammar school boy who, alongside his best pal, Jigger Johnson, was constantly getting into trouble – and getting out of it as the strapline on the series proclaimed. These were all self-contained stories, bright and breezy, and appeared throughout the volume in two separate tranches.
Otherwise, there was the usual assortment of short stories, no better and no worse than those that preceded them, although six were published under the heading of ‘The Merman of the Fijis’, about a wonderboy swimmer out in the South Pacific, frustrating the evil plans of a crooked boat-owner, who commits suicide by shark in the last paragraph.
One of the things that distinguished volume 2 was the increased intensity of Marcus Morris’s efforts to involve Eagle‘s readers, in games, competitions and events outside the mere reading of the paper. A small section for Letters was introduced, events and holidays organised, especially Carol Services around Christmas, with a special service for Eagle readers at none other than St Paul’s Cathedral. There’s a lot of energy going into the kind of extra-curricular things the readers would like, including the establishing of the first of Eagle‘s sister papers, sister being the operative word here, as Girl was established for readers’ sisters, in an effort to stop them pinching their brothers’ copies of Eagle.
So that was volume 2: more of the same, only different. Some incremental improvement, most notably in respect of PC49, but overall, the comic still has some way to go to hit its peak period. We’ll see how things progress next time out.


Cozy Cumbrian Thrills: The Coniston Case by Rebecca Tope

This image has no bearing upon the story

Having time to kill yesterday, whilst waiting to see Valerian, I spent sometime in the Library. I glanced at the SF/Fantasy section, then turned to crime, where a very familiar word caught my eye: Coniston.

I’ve never heard of Rebecca Tope, who seems to be one of those very prolific crime fiction writers who turn out a book a year, in long-running series. Her main series is the Cotswold Mysteries, now running at something like twenty books, all centred upon Thea, a professional house-sitter, who encounters murder wherever she sits in a way that immediately makes me think of Jessica Fletcher in Murder, She Wrote.

The Coniston Case is the third of, to date, five books set in the Lake District, so Martin Edwards no longer has a monopoly on my beloved country. Rebecca Tope’s books are rather more concentrated in area, centred upon Windermere and basing themselves around events in nearby villages, all within a ten mile radius.

The heroine of this series is Persimmon ‘Simmy’ Brown, and you’re right, it’s an awful name and the Simmy bit, with its overtones of antisemitism, is a constant distraction. Simmy is a florist, with a shop in Windermere Village, where she’s assisted by twenty-year old Melanie Todd, hotel-management trainee with an artificial eye, and pestered by self-confident, highly-intelligent schoolboy, the seventeen-year old Ben Harkness.

The ‘gang’ is completed by DI Moxon (revealed in this book to bear the first name of Nolan) who investigates the crimes that Simmy somehow, and very reluctantly, gets involved in whilst selling flowers. Moxon appears to have personal feelings for Simmy, who is probably somewhere around forty, divorced after losing an unborn child, and is nowhere described in the book. Neither are Melanie nor Ben, cometo think of it. It’s that kind of book.

Tope is firmly in the ‘cozy crime’ category. There’s no swearing, no violence, nothing too exciting. It’s all very much what I imagine Midsomer Murders must be like, and it’s meant for an audience that doesn’t want to be upset when reading about death and murder. I’m not a crime fiction buff to begin with, and this is not the kind of crime fiction I would choose, preferring stuff with either a greater or a much lesser connection to reality. With this kind of book, you never really get the sense of the passions and emotions that drive people to take another’s life.

The plot’s not really all that important. It’s set around Valentine’s Day, which has Simmy heartily sick of Red roses. She’s getting a spate of anonymous orders, cash, no sender’s details, cards whose messages upset the recipients something chronic, and gets pulled into a case when one of the recipients commits suicide, and his landlord is found murdered.

All the flower incidents turn out to be red herrings, sheer coincidences, and whilst the suicide is as a twisted result of a joke, the psychological basis is a long way from being convincing. Simmy’s friend Cathy comes up from Worcester because her daughter Joanna is sleeping with her tutor Ben and they’re doing some climate-change project on Coniston Old Man (Ms Tope, in this book, comes over as very much a sceptic). Ben, who carries a knife that we’re meant to assume is the murder weapon, is a self-centred obsessive who has spotted a new seam of copper on the Old Man that he expects will make himself rich, and kidnaaps Kathy for forty-eight hours.

But he’s not the murderer, and he’s pretty incomprehensible when it comes to human motivations, and the murderer himself turns out to be someone occasionally mentioned as a background character, about whom Simmy makes an ‘out of thin air’ deduction right at the very end.

I found it disturbing that in the case of both villains, their girlfriends make an instant decision to stand by them, despite the fact of their crimes being perpetrated against each young woman’s own family. One, maybe, as evidence of the peculiarity of human behaviour, both both? Too much like a trope, and it’s an unpleasant, outdated and pernicious one, that when a woman falls in love, she stands by her man, no matter how much of a moral sludge it makes her.

But you all know why I read the book, right? The same reason I read all six of Martin Edwards’ Lake District Mysteries: because it’s the Lakes. And is Rebecca Tope better at setting her books in South Cumbria than Mr Edwards?

Well, yes, though the difference is merely one of degree. Tope uses the real geography, without making up non-existent places, and unlike Edwards, she’s aware that fells and mountains and lakes exist, and can be seen, overshadowing places. Coniston Village is perpetually under the shadow of the Old Man, and the Yewdale fells.

On the other hand, Tope avoids details, suggesting that she’s getting her background from a map rather than direct knowledge, and there are two straight-out flubs that had me howling. Simmy, who, for reasons not gone into, loathes the Windermere ferry, has to deliver a bouquet in Hawkshead, so drives round Windermere lake at its northern end, going through Ambleside and Rydal, before turning down the narrow road to Hawkshead. All well and good, except that Rydal is some four miles north of Ambleside and to go through it en route to Hawkshead, you haveto drive there and turn round, back to Ambleside.

(Tope also fudges the fact that, since I was a boy and for I don’t know how long before, Hawkshead has been banned to traffic and vehicles have to be left in an out-of-village and correspondingly expensive car park, which complicates the plot.)

The other flub is a reference to the Yewdale fells flaring in the east, which is flat out wrong. The Ywedale fells present impressive looking ramparts above Coniston village, behind which they become a tussocky plateau: they face east and there is nowhere, and especially no road, from which they could be seen to the east.

Similarly, the book is set in Cumbria, and Melanie and Ben are both stated to speak with the local accent, but Tope does not define that accent, and except for one phrase that confuses the Worcester-based Kathy, say nothing that suggests anything Cumbrian to their speech. And even that phrase is more Liverpudlian that Cumbrian.

So, my overall verdict is, better than Edwards, but still nowhere where I’d like to see a story set in the Lakes. I have three of those available through Lulu.com, if you’re interested, and whatever their merits as adventures, the locality is impeccable…

Uncollected Thoughts: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

Back from the cinema, my third visit in the last two months, and for me that’s prolific. Between the trailers I’d seen, and my recollection of having two, or maybe three of the Valerian graphic novels in the Eighties, when they were first translated into English, I was looking forward to what I got: good, fast-paced space opera, heavy on the CGI, check your brain at the door stuff, and none the worse for that if that’s what you want to see. Usually, I don’t, but so what?

Based on the critical and financial response to the film so far, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets looks like scoring high on both the Turkey List and the Flop List, which is a damned shame because I’d love to see a sequel. With the exception of one sequence that I’ll come to shortly, I loved what I was watching, and the only drawback was that by deciding I was just too knackered to go yesterday, I deprived myself of the chance to see the film in 3D. That would have been brain-stunning.

The film started off perfectly. Over a soundtrack of David Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’, we were treated to a sequence that mixed CGI construction and real footage, showing the building of the International Space Station and that first handshake in space as Russian docked with American, and built on that by upping the ante, as the station grew, as the greetings became easier and more direct, as more and more nations expanded into space, before switching to humanity greeting ever more exotic aliens, with everyone bringing more and more pieces to bolt on, until the ISS became Alpha, grew too big for Earth’s atmosphere and was moved out into the cosmos: a centre for an unbelievably shapeless construction that was home to millions of races, species, cultures, all mingling, sharing, interacting.

Bloody hell, it was quite emotional.

But within all apples,there must usually be a worm. There was a planet, of lean, graceful humanoids, a plant of oceans and beaches and peace, destroyed as the bi-product of a war between cultures that didn’t even care that these people existed. One, a Princess, dies and her telepathic emanation takes root on Valerian, en route with Laureline to a mission, but in the meantime relaxing on a holographic beach. Laureline, played by Cara Delivingne, is in a bikini: in fact, she spends much of the film relatively unclad, though the film doesn’t noticably linger on her (I’d have noticed, trust me, I’d have noticed). Valerian, unsurprisingly, is trying to get off with her: they’re partners (Major and Sergeant) not lovers.

I’ve decided not to dwell on the plot because this is not the kind of film where that’s essential, and anyway it’s more of a one-thing-after-another plot rather than a carefully constructed story. Basically, it’s a series of excuses to go wild with the CGI which, being European rather than American, constructs a completely different appearance. There’s no attempt to be shiny, or new, or natural: it’s all metallics, and lived-in griminess, dark corridors and such, and a colour scheme that applies bright, steely shades rather than anything naturalistic, which I found incredibly effective. It’s a space station: it’s supposed to be artificial.

There is a villain and for those who haven’t yet seen the film, he spends a lot of time offscreen, and he’s a pretty evil bastard at the end of it, and he doesn’t seem to be the only one who thinks that way. A lot of people have complained about the absence of a clearly-identified Big Bad that everyone’s conspicuously working against, but that would have been too much of a cliche: finding out what’s going on is a large part of the momentum of the film.

And the relationship between the two heroes has been substantially retained from the comics. True, Valerian is not quite the square-jawed dum-dum leading man, but Laureline is every bit as sceptical, independent and sarcastic as I could hope. True, she needs rescuing by Valerian from one of the more imaginative scrapes I’ve seen in a long time, but that’s only after she’s gone out and rescued him. People criticise Cara Delivingne’s acting, but it was plenty good enough for me.

As I said, there was one sequence that I didn’t like and that was when Rihanna played a cameo as a shape-shifting dancer. All very clever effects, seamless of course, but, come on, it’s bloody Rihanna, and that’s going to date worse that a corded telephone and besides it stopped the film dead. And I mean dead. It’s an intrusion, an insertion, two minutes in the same spot when all the time the film is moving, moving, moving.

At least she got killed off, but that stopped the story again.

So, I liked it. I got what I wanted and expected (except for the 3D). I’ve mentally ordered the DVD already. And I’m wondering where on earth I can put the books as I start collecting them. From the beginning, this time.


Tales of the Gold Monkey: e10 – The Late Sarah White

…deep plunging neckline

A change of scene this week, as the Monkey gang move 3,000 miles west (3,251, to be precise) to the Philippines, where it’s raining, and where General MacArthur is negotiating with the Moro guerillas. Why are we here? As the title suggests, our favourite red-headed spy is on a mission in the Philippines, to determine who’s leaking information to the (never defined) other side, and a telegram to Bora Gora has announced that she is dead, of hepatitis.

You’d think that an episode abut Sarah would be full of her, but Caitlin O’Heaney doesn’t have much to do at all this week. She’s in the undergrowth, taking photos of a MacArthur meeting with the Moros, for no easily discernible reason if she’s supposed to be finding the leaker that’s trying to ruin such negotiations, when the meeting is shelled and she’s last seen about to scream, with a machete at her throat.

And that’s it until the final scene, when Jake, Corky, Jack and Johnny Kimble (remember him from episode 4?) are captured trying to warn the Moros that a fake MacArthur with a truck of fake US troops is about to arrive and slaughter them. And who pops up, dressed in a sleeveless top with the Moro red bandanna around her forehead? Our favourite spy, of course, who has never been dead at all.

In between, it’s once again Jake’s show. Like everyone else on Bora Gora, he’s devastated by the wire announcing Sarah’s death, with the crucial difference being that, of course, he doesn’t believe it. In any other circumstances, this would be a clear case of wishful thinking, but of course heroes are always right about such things, and it’s Philippines ho!

It’s not a good time for Americans in the Philippines right now. They’re responsible for the islands’ security, though by this point MacArthur had resigned from the US Army, and was responsible to the Philippines government as a civilian advisor to the Army he’d organised. Jake and Corky are fobbed off by the Assistant American Attache, Horace Simmons (the bad guy), attacked in both street and bar, set to running and pulled aside by Kimble, who explains what is going on and what Sarah was doing.

Immediately prior to this, there’s an odd and utterly irrelevant cameo from Marta DuBois as Princess Koji, who may be a cast member but who usually only appears in the credits. Koji happens to own the bar where Sarah had been singing whilst under cover, which enables her to haul Jake and Corky out of the kind of brawl that, at home, sends Jake’s debt to Bonne Chane Louie soaring. But she provides no useful information, and does little more than unsuccessfully throw herself at Jake, with her deep plunge neck-line and her wraparound skirt unwrapping itself all the way to her thighs: the woman in seriously gagging for it. But you really do have to question why Miss DuBois is on board as cast when it’s obvious no-one has any idea what to do with her?

It’s finally proven that Jake’s gut feelings are right when Kimble helps disinter the coffin which has got a body in it alright, but it’s not Sarah’s, but that of a bloke who’s been shot (and who, despite having been in the ground for nearly a week, in the tropics, is astonishingly undecomposed).

So it’s down to the race against time that is naturally successful, and here’s Dougie!, i.e., the ‘real’ MacArthur, to continue negotiations with guerillas grateful for having been saved by friendly Americanos. Oh yes.

I’ve barely mentioned Jack so far. There’s a running gag all episode, with a distinctly risque twist, that he’s suffering from an allergy, and Leo the Dog is called upon to perform his new party-piece of sneezing at will over and over, to various choruses of ‘Bless you!’ and ‘Salut!’. Turns out it’s not an allergy but rather a sign that Jack needs a bit of doggie-style nookie. And despite Koji’s state of undress, and Sarah’s fetching close-fitting top, that’s the nearest you’re getting to sex this week.