The Lion dated 19 January 1963 can’t be described as a revamp, not with only one feature disappearing and two new series started, but it has to be classed as a relaunch, eleven years into the comic’s existence. There was a high-profile, front-page promoted free gift, with further instalments over the next four weeks, and every single series starting new stories simultaneously.
The main newcomer was another of those series that I mistily recalled before launching into the first of these Lion DVDs, ‘Zip Nolan – Highway Patrol’. The title says it all: Nolan was a motorcycle cop in the American city of Pensburgh (was this a disguised Edgar Allan Poe pun, Pittsburgh to Pensburgh, The Pit and the Pen-dulum?). Nolan took over the complete-in-two-pages slot, although every now and then one of his adventures would be serialised over two weeks, never longer.
The stories was very formulaic. Practically every week, Nolan would let something get past him that he couldn’t realistically have been expected to stop, be chewed out for it by Captain Brinker, and would charge off alone to bring in the crooks, pretty much single-handedly.
I’m not sure why I remembered this series ahead of others with more elan, individuality or flare, because it’s pretty routine and Zip Nolan has the personality of a post-box. Probably it was the name: to this day, I have heard of no-one else being called Zip, not even as a nickname. The series also suffers from never having a regular artist for more than a couple of weeks running. Captain Condor’s dismayingly crude artist of the time served up a few episodes, Rory MacDuff’s Reg Bunn elevated the strip a few times with his customary atmospheric approach, but Nolan’s artistic level was up and down continually, and some weeks it was execrable.
But every other series was refreshed with what would nowadays be called a jumping-on point: new serials all round.
And for most of the rest of 1963, Lion offered a regular, unchanging set of features, jut as Eagle had in 1957. Except for Paddy Payne, on the cover, still drawn by the expert Joe Colquhoun and enjoying Lion‘s sole page of colour, the order would vary from week to week. But the readers, amongst whom I was now to be counted, could rely upon Robot Archie, frightening superstitious natives somewhere primitive; Karl the Viking, superbly executed by Don Lawrence; Zip Nolan; Spot the Clue with Bruce Kent; Captain Condor, whose artistic duties were, like Zip Nolan, never settled upon one artist for more than two stories running; Tales of Tollgate School, which had not forgotten Sandy Dean but which was mainly dominated by Bossy Bates; Rory MacDuff, for whom Reg Bunn delivered a credence the ghoulies’n’ghosties stories couldn’t; and the return of the prose series with an ongoing character, Tuff Dawson, yet another bloody Secret Agent.
I should also mention the two half-page comic feature. ‘The Backwood Boys’ was already established, a highly-stylised cartoon about PC One of the Mounties which was strangely charming and actually sporadically funny in a quasi-surrealistic manner. The other, which was Lion’s second new feature in January 1963, ‘Commander Cockle’, drawn in a more realistic manner except that heads were out of proportion to bodies, making everybody look like overgrown children. The Commander built a 14” dinghy on an upper floor of a block of flats, launched it out of the window and set off to sail round the world. As humour goes, the only possible word is feeble: feeble comedy featuring a feeble-brained character.
This line-up lasted without change until 28 September 1963, when Lion was half-revamped, re-extended back to 28 pages, put up to 6d, with new stories again simultaneously, though only for Condor, MacDuff, Archie and Tollgate School, and three new features. Only one of these, ‘The King’s Musketeers’, a relatively short-lived adaptation, drawn with fragile detail by Arturo del Castillo, and with a surprising seriousness, freely but sympathetically adapted from the final third of the Alexander Dumas novel, The Vicomte of Bragelonne, pertaining to The Man in the Iron Mask, which gave its name to the later part of the story, was a comics series.
The others were a half-page boxing cartoon serial, ‘Bud and Boss’, which was not worthy of anything more than a cursory mention, and, replacing Tuff Dawson and leaving Lion without a prose serial for the first time since its inception, ‘What’s in a Name?’, brief life-stories of famous men as nominated by readers.
Though only three weeks would elapse before the line-up was joined by another short-run feature, ‘Morg of the Mammoths’, set in the Neolithic age, nine thousand years ago. Young hunter Morg spares the leader of a herd of Mammoths threatening his village, is thrown out as a consequence, brings its leader, who he names Karga, under his control and teamed up with him for two serials before the series was cancelled after six months, to nobody’s regret.
This stable period underwent one unwelcome disruption, when Don Lawrence took a sabbatical from ‘Karl the Viking’ for the story starting on 17 August. Practically any other artist would have been a disappointment, but the crudity of his temporary replacement was next to an insult, the art being little better than the worst and crudest art being wished on Captain Condor.
Ah yes, the Captain. Among old fans of British boys comics of a certain generation, Condor has a reputation second only to Dan Dare himself. Not that there were many such rivals, the only other serious contender being Tiger’s Jet Ace Logan. But after a decade plus of his adventures I have to ask why. Neither Condor nor his longstanding assistant Quartermaster Burke (what is an officer who organises stores doing as Condor’s assistant troubleshooter?) have an atom of personality, their stories do not rise above space opera, and there is neither continuity, logic nor any consistency between adventures.
Dan Dare lives a very full afterlife and has for decades: I’m not aware of any efforts to bring back Captain Condor, nor any reason to.
Lion‘s steadiness was not affected by the September 1963 semi-vamp, complete with more free gifts spread over a month, but once the comic had sailed on into 1964, its pages suddenly became prey to change after change after change, starting with the issue of 1 February.
The shift was not propitious. ‘Tales of Tollgate School’ was renamed ‘The Rock that Rocked Tollgate’, the serial format giving way to 2½pp short stories. The ‘Rock’ was a meteorite that landed in Tollgate’s grounds, with the power to grant the wishes of whoever touched it each week, wishes that faded away three panels from the end, leaving no memory of the disruption.
The following week saw the end of Commander Cockle after just over a year of wasted space and the debut of the long-lasting ‘Mowser, the Priceless Puss’. Mowser would appear sporadically over the next few weeks, as did ‘PC One – Top Cop of the Mounties’, the re-branded ‘Backwoods Boys’, as nobody seemed able to make up their mind what half-page laughter riots should appear.
One more week, and Paddy Payne was booted off the front page, to be replaced by ‘Badges of the Brave’, a front and back cover feature on the histories behind famous badges, usually but not exclusively British Army Regiments. After a couple of episodes that I remembered, Joe Colquhoun was pulled off Paddy Payne to take the series over.
Rory MacDuff exposed one last supernatural event as being produced by more mundane means and he and Barney Lomax went back to being film stuntmen and having down-to-earth villains to overcome. This lasted until 22 August, when the feature disappeared for good.
A new one page comics serial, ‘Spy-Smasher Smith’ made its debut, about a middle-aged man who looked like a mundane Civil servant but who was Britain’s top spy, foiling the plans of the evil Doctor Skull. Needless to say, it was down to half a page in just over a month, and then re-named ‘Mr Smith of MI51/2’, competing with Mowser and the soon-to-disappear PC One.
Captain Condor was reduced to 1½ pages per week, and would go down further to a single page before being killed off as a comics series on 4 April, though he would return after six weeks absence, with the weekly prose story resurrected to tell the space hero’s ongoing issues, withut Quartermaster Burke but with Sergeant Willis.
‘The Man in the Iron Mask’ was faithful to the end to the spirit of Alexandre Dumas, if not the actual novel, in having the four Musketeers all die in the service of restoring Louis XIV to the throne of France. Re-reading those deaths reminded me of how how disturbing they were to a boy just turned eight, who was completely unused to the idea that the hero could die, even as he achieved his victory.
Morg and Karga ended after two serials. Bruce Kent’s appearances also became sporadic, until one Monday he pointed out his last clue to his perpetually oblivious assistant, Jim, and never came back. Zip Nolan merged with the concept on 9 May. Even Robot Archie finally came out of the jungle, battling crooks in a Thunderbirds-esque Mole in Paris and New York.
But amongst all this chopping and changing, Lion did gain a new major feature, on 29 February, that I had long forgotten but instantly remembered. Titled originally ‘Britain in Chains’, and renamed ‘Public Enemy No 1’ on 15 August, the series starred top secret agent Victor Gunn, and his West Indian assistant, Barrel. Gunn was assigned to investigate a group run by the seemingly eccentric Baron Rudolph, who was dedicated to ancient times. Gunn found that not only was Rudolph planning to overthrow Britain’s government and install himself as Dictator, but that he has been planning this for years, has very influential adherents everywhere, and a well-developed plan to paralyse the entire country whilst he takes over.
And the evil Baron succeeds. Gunn and Barrel become wanted men, threats to the new regime. They succeed in getting the real Government out of the country, to set up in exile in Canada, which was the climax of the first serial, under the original name. The pair then stayed on, to organise the fitful, passionate but incoherent Resistance, the serial hanging its name to suit. I remember further changes of name for later phases, but not how the series was ultimately resolved. I am very much looking forward to getting to that point.
But still the changes kept coming. On 11 July, ‘The Rock that Rocked Tollgate’ finished its pathetic run by being thrown down a well, paving the way for a return to serials, starting with ‘Tollgate at Sea’, and then ‘The Tollgate Treasure-Seekers’ as the entire school took to the waters and decided to sail round the world. After a dozen years, this latest switch starts ringing the alarm bells as to whether the series should be put out of its misery.
Another new series, ‘The Silver Colt’, debuted three weeks later, with no little potential. It centred upon the eponymous gun, made for a famous lawman, which had the unfortunate habit of being lost or stolen: the series followed the gun and its several owners, and what luck it brought to them. Though a strip, this series replaced Captain Condor (again). Don’t worry, the Captain was back on 14 November, albeit for a single week.
Whilst Victor Gunn and the Silver Colt were major series, and well-executed, the next new feature was considerably troubling. ‘Outcasts of Storm Island’, starting on 29 August, was a reprint of one of those awful stilted serials of the Fifties, complete with its dull, drab art. Lion had lasted twelve and a half years without needing to repeat any of its unworthy past. Doing so now seemed to be a very bad omen.
Worse still was the end of Karl the Viking, on 26 September, to be replaced by ‘The Hand of Zar’. Fears however were relieved when the new series appeared and was found to be more work by Don Lawrence. The series would be better known under its later name, ‘Maroc the Mighty’, but under either title, it starred Devon Yeoman John Maroc, outlawed during the Crusades for saving a man from his rapacious master, who came into possession of the hand of Zar, an amulet that,when exposed to the rays of the sun, gave him superhuman strength.
But John Maroc was no substitute for Karl the Viking, nor were the Holy Land’s desert landscapes as fertile for Lawrence’s skill with atmosphere and landscape. The Hand of Zar amulet took the series too far into American superhero territory with that half-heartedness that characterised such a move.
In contrast, Zip Nolan benefited from Rory MacDuff’s departure by acquiring Reg Bunn as his full-time artist. The Tollgate series nostalgically returned Sandy Dean to the title, with two successive stories featuring, first, a Ghost Ship and then Pirates. A new comic feature with very old-fashioned roots arrived on 28 November 1964: ‘The Lion Street Mob’ harked more to ‘Lord Snooty and His Pals’ than its class contemporary, ‘The Bash Street Kids’, with a formulaic three panel set-up leading to a half-page multigag cartoon that to my eyes is overcrowded and confusing, but I rather think would have entertained my younger self very much more.
But this phase of Lion was now nearing its end, with another relaunch, like that which starts this essay, planned for early 1965. Before that, Robot Archie took over the cover from 9 January, replacing ‘Badges of the Brave’, and Rory MacDuff made a brief return, without his sidekick Barley Lomax, in a five week short serial with an artist I don’t recognise but practically every panel of which jumped out at me from my memory.
Sadly,DVD2 misses the last two issues of this run, mistakenly reprinting two recent issues, denying me the end of ‘Public Enemy No. 1′, which was a loss, and the last of Sandy Dean, Bossy Bates and Tollgate School afloat, which wasn’t. When the latest relaunch his the newsagents’ on 13 February, despite the persistence of Robot Archie, there were no Lion features left that could claim to have been there from the beginning.