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.
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.
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.
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.
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.