The Lion in the Fifties


The DVD collection I bought of Hurricane was a revelation, the realisation that my memories of long ago comics when I was a boy need only only be confined to memory, but might be recovered for a very small price. My next purchase was a five DVD set of Lion.

Lion has a big reputation, second only to that of Eagle, to which it was the biggest rival. It’s history includes classic series such as ‘Captain Condor’, ‘Robot Archie’, ‘Zip Nolan’ and ‘The Spider’. I still remember the last of these with great pleasure.
Lion didn’t appear until twenty-two months after Eagle, and it couldn’t have been more different in appearance: twenty pages in black and white with a limited colour cover, a smaller size and the traditional cheap newsprint paper that Eagle was such a reaction against. Put the comics side by side and Lion is clearly the downmarket neighbour. But it outlasted its rival, and even absorbed it, when the time came for Eagle to be put to rest.
The ‘King of Picture Story Papers’, as it advertised itself from the beginning, ran until 1974 and a total of 1,156 issues. That’s too many years and too many issues for a single post, so I initially decided to split things up into at least three, representing the Fifties, the Sixties and the Seventies.
But long-running series do not organise themselves that conveniently for the decades later blogger. DVD1 covers issues 1 (23 February 1952) to 496 (7 February 1961). It’s pretty comprehensive as far as issue 254 with few and usually limited gaps, but from then on the cover is pretty sporadic, with several long gaps, twenty issues and more at a time. And during these longer gaps, the comic underwent two revamps, one minor, one major, on unspecified dates.
So thematically, it makes more sense for this first post, notwithstanding it’s title, to cover the period until that major revamp, in 1959, and resume the story from there in the next post. Especially because, up till that point, the Lion in the Fifties was mostly pretty dire.
In deliberate imitation of Eagle, Lion‘s flagship character was it’s own space hero, Captain Condor, created by Frank Pepper. Condor appeared on the front and back covers until 1958, enjoying Lion‘s only page in colour, though this was a poor, mechanically processed colour, with a limited palette applied in visible dots and frequently off-register.
I read once that Frank Pepper (who also created Roy of the Rovers) had been given a very short deadline, and so relied on the somewhat hackneyed set-up of a good man wrongly imprisoned. The series was set in the 31st century, well beyond any connection with the modern day, Earth and its space empire was run by an evil Dictator, and Condor was imprisoned on a slave moon. So the Captain escaped in a stolen spaceship and spent the next three years slowly building up a rebellion that ended with the Dictator destroying his home city, himself and all his forces just to kill Condor (the way power-hungry Dictators are wont to do) only for Condor to streak away in the last split second.
Thereafter that, Condor (who was never given a first name) became Chief Pilot (oh, did he now?) of the Space Patrol.
It’s easy enough to call Captain Condor a pale imitation of Dan Dare but the truth is that beyond being a space ace, he didn’t have enough colour at this time to even be pale. Condor’s stories – and this is going to be a common complaint about so many of Lion‘s series – have no structure or coherent story to them. They begin with an objective that is finally achieved over many many weeks, but the intervening episodes just clatter along with no better intent than to provide an endless series of cliffhangers that spin the adventure out for as long as possible.
And Condor is dogged by poor art. It’s limited and crude beyond the generally dull art for Lion throughout this first era. It’s limited by poor basic drawing skills, a lack of any coherent design, a seriously diminished imagination for spaceships, space stations, uniforms and especially aliens. This, let me remind you, was the cover feature, yet it hard the worst art in the entire comic.

Condor art

Let me expand upon that point about uniforms. Once Condor had overthrown the Dictator and became an official hero of the new (impliedly) democratic government, the Space Patrol had to be depicted in Space Patrol uniform. Frank Hampson based Spacefleet uniforms on British Army and RAF battledress, but Dan Dare’s future was merely decades ahead, not a whole millennium. Condor’s Space Patrol wore rounded metal helmets that balanced on top of their heads as opposed to covering them, bland tops and leggings and, most absurd in appearance, a kind of green tartan check… something around the loins and backsides, that didn’t really resemble any known form of human clothing, looked bulky and the very opposite of stream-lined (it was not so much a case of my bum looking big in this as in bums being swaddled beyond the point of any recognition.)
It looked amateurish and unconvincing, and it made a mockery of the reputation Captain Condor enjoyed.
Not that any of Lion‘s art was anything to write home about. There’s a curiously homogenous look to it, as if the comic was calling on a very limited pool of artists, who may have been drawing more than one series every week: remember that Eagle stood out for its non-professional insistence on paying its artists enough to live on for a week whilst drawing one colour page. The contrast is self-evident.
With the exception of the illustrations to some of the prose series, the majority of Lion‘s art is static and stiff, composed of regular panels in small and rigid tiers, bland drawings with no pretention to story-telling. Everything looks oddly rounded, and whilst backgrounds are not skimped, there’s an unnerving amount of white space on every page, as if the artist is not even using the full extent of the panel.
These criticisms certainly have to be said of the War Serial. That’s not its title, but it might as well be. War story succeeds war story, one after another, each operating to a formula that is only ever mildly tweaked to fit the service and the geographical setting: two British servicemen, from differing regiments or services, but always two, are either sent on a mission behind German lines or get stranded there and the story goes on for week after week after week until eventually the mission succeeds, but each week there’s a cliffhanger to make it carry on longer and longer without rhyme, reason or structure. All with the same, pallid art.
The War Serial is as much an ongoing feature as ‘Captain Condor’, which made it one of four such throughout the Fifties. Another such which, like Condor, survived the 1959 revamp, was ‘Sandy Dean’s Schooldays’ (‘Sandy Dean’s First Term’ on it’s debut). Clean-cut Sandy arrives as a new boy at Tollgate School, an old-style Public School with studies and dormitories. Sandy’s a Fourth Former (it’s always the Fourth Form, isn’t it? Never older nor younger) sharing with popular Jack Hardy and studious, chunky but still athletic Owl Watson.
Sandy’s natural enemy is bully Bossy Bates, with his cronies Spider Jessop and Gus Trevor. There’s firm but fair School Captain, Tough Talbot, unpopular prefect, Haughty Hawkins, big-headed Snooty Adams, even would-be detective Beaky Brown, until you start to feel sorry for Sandy and Jack for being condemned to having real names.
The whole thing has the feel of an archaic throwback. These are supposedly contemporary stories, as the serials about scientific inventions demonstrate, but the series screams of the milieu of Billy Bunter and Greyfriars. It feels stuffy at all times.
The art is a little more distinctive than the Lion norm, but is still bland in line and layout. And the series suffers from the usual implausibilities of long-running school stories, such as the sheer volume of sinister boys and sinister masters that pass through Tollgate, not to mention the fact that stories go on for months and terms end and start and nobody ever goes up to the Fifth Form. But what I found hardest to accept was that, over and again, Sandy, Jack and Owl prove themselves to be honest, brave, trustworthy, intelligent and, above all, unfailingly right, yet it only takes the least amount of framing for the Headmaster and Staff to automatically assume that they are lying, cheating hooligans and twisters. It winds me up.

There’s not a lot of varied art available for this period

The last long-running feature throughout this period was ‘The Amazing Mr X’, who is some kind of adventurer/troubleshooter who cannot reveal his real name as his enemies would strike back at his loved ones. X was not one of Lion‘s original features, but turned up during 1952 as a two page prose series, increasing the number of such from two to three. To be honest, I haven’t been able to get through even one such episode, nor could I summon up any greater enthusiasm when, as part of the 1958 revamp, the series was converted to a two page comic series, again complete in each instalment.
One series that began in issue 1 did amuse me. This was ‘The Jungle Robot’, about an amazing metal man being used to search for lost treasure in Africa. The robot was under the control of two friends, Ken Dale and Ted Ritchie, the former of whom controlled the mechanical marvel by means of a control pad he wore on his chest. And yes, the robot’s name was Archie. But this was a far cry from the Robot Archie everyone loved in the Sixties. The art was the same drab, limited stuff of every other series, the adventure dull as ditchwater, and Archie both silent and useless if not under control.
Once the serial was over, that was it. Except that Archie was brought back, years later, in 1957, once more assisting Ken and Ted in Africa. The art was no better, but this time the series went under the title ‘Archie the Robot’ (closer, but still uncatchy), and it was immediately followed by a serial set in the South Seas. It would get better.

It’s Archie, but not as we know him

As for the rest, these were much of a muchness. Same art-style, same rigid tiers of small, regular panels, same devotion to weekly cliffhangers that neither advanced nor built. They might be set in different countries, or different historical periods, they might be westerns, or about Red Indians, they might feature marooned sailors, sabotage-facing whalers, Britons unjustly condemned to the guillotine. They frequently featured sensible, competent, fair-minded leaders trying to rescue stranded parties in the face of the selfish determination of some thug or rich man to be top dog, come what may (this plot even turned up in ‘Captain Condor’). But at the end of the day, they offered nothing original, nothing exciting, nothing beyond the weekly gratification, at minimal invention of a small boy’s unstretched imagination.
Two such I was already familiar with, being ‘Brett Marlowe – Detective’, and ‘The Naval Castaways’, one of the interminable War Serials, both of which turned up as unacknowledged reprints (the latter as ‘Danger Island’) in Hurricane‘s final, desperate phase.
I’ve mentioned that, throughout this period, Lion had two, and then three prose series. These were equally varied, or perhaps unvaried, as the picture stories, and what’s more, where Eagle was deemed to be a bit imperialistic, Lion was decidedly colonialist. Adventures would be set in exotic locations, with Canada a particular favourite, with Mounties, trappers, trading post owners and even a Mountie’s Dog – Rory – knocking back what Simon Templar would call the ungodly on a weekly basis, and many of said godly being other than Anglo-Saxon.
There were Wild West Sheriffs, traders in the South Sea Islands, District Commissioners in Africa (one of whom was the White King of the Pygmies), and all manner of folk that, like Mr X, I found impossible to read. Though I do have to credit one thing about such series: each had an opening, larger scale illustration every week, frequently of a much higher and more detailed quality than the picture stories.
Not all the series were serious, at least in the first half of the decade. There was Jingo Jones and his Invisibiliser, about which it’s better not to ask, Wiz and Lofty, speed merchants and Don’s Diary, the weekly adventures of another schoolboy. These were an improvement on the adventure serials, but eventually were phased out in favour of the latter.
It’s a depressing picture to the older comics fan who is not fueled by nostalgia, nor was the position greatly changed by the 1957 revamp, which took place sometime between issues 282 (13 July) and 291 (14 September).
The most immediate difference was the replacement of ‘Captain Condor’ on the cover by ‘Paddy Payne’, itself an effective replacement for the War Serial. Payne, another of Lion’s long-running characters, was an RAF fighter pilot, at first working with his combat team-mate, Dick Smith.

Warrior of the Skies

At last we had an ongoing character, a long-term hero whose stories enjoyed a proper sense of narrative. Of course the cliffhangers didn’t disappear, but now they were linked to the long-term objective of the story, which was kept in mind, instead of being an end in themselves. And Payne enjoyed better art than Captain Condor thus far. It was still not brilliant, still basically timid in panel structure, but the thick outlines that characterised the basic art of the Fifties were replaced by thinner lines and a greater degree of subtlety. The episodes had a little bit more room in which to breath, with Payne getting three pages per week, including the cover – still the only colour page.
Captain Condor was moved inside but, but more importantly, he too was given better art. It was still not brilliant or innovative, but the newcomer was could actually draw real human beings, and that was a massive jump in itself. By this simple change, Condor’s stories became more realistic, and more entertaining.
There was one negative aspect to the revamp, and that was the addition of a one page comic series, usually but not always on the back page, about ‘Lucky Guffey – The Lad Who Always Laughs Last’. This was pure formula. Each week, Guffey would find something he wanted, volunteer to help or work to get it, completely misunderstand his orders due to an excess of ignorance, create a disaster, but unexpectedly and improbably avert an even bigger disaster and get what he wanted after all, as a reward. Dull stuff but supposedly ‘hilarious’. It’s the comedy strips that really really don’t survive the decades.
I’ve been pretty harsh on the Lion of the Fifties, but for good reason. It’s unfair to other comics of the time to judge them by Eagle‘s standards, but if Lion is typical of the standard boy’s ‘picture story paper’, then everything pales in comparison. Eagle aspired to excite and educate and in everything to avoid talking down to its readers. Lion did nothing more than offer what the Undertones once categorised as ‘dumb entertainment’, neither any better nor any worse than it need be, but certainly not any better.
As time would show, it could be better, it could be much better and after the 1959 revamp, it would start to be.
As a final point, and let credit be given where credit was due, from issue no. 1, Lion credited its writers on every story. We knew that Frank Pepper wrote Captain Condor, that E. George ‘Ted’ Cowan wrote Robot Archie, that Mark Ross wrote Paddy Payne and George Forrest Sandy Dean (though Lucky Guffey was anonymous). As were the artists, though that was probably no bad thing. Perhaps that concealed how many were drawing more than one story at a time?

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