The next phase of Lion began on 11 June 1966, with the formal merger of the title with Champion, cancelled after only sixteen issues. Four of Champion‘s features were brought over into the preceding issue, cutting off ‘Maroc the Mighty’ with no ending and ‘Captain Jack Wonder’ with no regrets, but the new paper saw another expansion, this time to a record 44 pages.
Lion and Champion‘s first official issue featured the following: Texas Jack (6pp), Return of the Stormtroopers (2pp), Lofty Lightyear (1p), Zip Nolan (2pp), The Flying Furies (2½pp), Jinks (1p), Robot Archie (3pp), Danger Man (2pp), Whacker (2pp), Quest of the Firebird (3pp), The Phantom Viking (2pp), Boy Kidd (2pp), Jet Jordan (2pp), The Mystery Speed Star (2pp), The Spider (4pp), and Mowser (1p). A total of eleven adventure series and five comic strips. And all still for 7d.
With the exception of ‘Danger Man’, a brand new series featuring the extremely popular ATV espionage series star John Drake, played by Patrick McGoohan (very recognisable, as if the artist was working from photographs), all the new features were decanted from the now-cancelled Champion, making the merged title a true merger. Taking these in order of appearance, ‘Return of the Stormtroopers’ was an almost immediate Vic Gunn retread, an ongoing story of resurrected Nazi Stormtroopers taking over Britain in 2046, the Vic Gunn role going to resistance leader Bill Churchill (but of course). ‘Lofty Lightyear’ featured a one hundred foot tall alien boy trying to hide on Earth from a mysterious spaceship.
‘Jinks’ was another one pager of Piloteish descent, ‘Whacker’ a two page cartoon serial in similar style, about two Liverpudlians. ‘Boy Kidd’ was taken from Spirou: the titular character was a bank and stage robber facing the attempt to catch him by one Buck Bingo, or rather Rene Goscinny and Maurice De Bever’s ‘Lucky Luke’. ‘Jet Jordan’ is a Canadian Air Force Pilot (from this point forward, ‘The Flying Furies’ Jet Power started to be called Jim Power).
The best remembered of the new series was, however, ‘The Phantom Viking’, another superhero-style serial. Meek and feeble schoolteacher Olaf Larsen has discovered an old Viking helmet belonging to a long dead ancestor that transforms him into the superstrong, flying, invulnerable Phantom Viking, as long as it’s on his head. A mixture of Superman and Thor, this famous series had surprisingly scratchy and weak art, but initially only hung around for half a dozen weeks.
Going through the various Lion revamp/relaunches, there seems to have been a tradition that after the line-up has been thoroughly re-jigged all at once, a new series gets launched two weeks later. This time it took four weeks before ‘Trelawney of the Guards’ debuted. It was a hard-headed, deliberately gritty series of complete stories featuring a hard-as-nails Army Sergeant in WW2 that looked to have enormous realistic potential.
The Jet Jordan strip was unremarkable, and rather slow moving, but it was interesting to note that rather than the traditional sidekick, and the interminable references to the pair as ‘pals’, Mr Jordan had a ‘girl companion’ by his side, in the form of the pretty blonde Francine. Based on that, and some elements of the art-style, I’d not be surprised to find that this was yet another continental import.
But though the number of Champion series loaded into the merged comic was impressive, and though the double-barrelled name was retained for a long time, by 10 September, a mere three months, all but two were gone. These were the two one-page comedies, Lofty Lightyear and Jinks, but whereas Jinks featured some brash ligne clair and a variety of themes, Lofty Lightyear was the same thing every week, and bland to boot. These and ‘Mowser’, whose strip had been retitled to co-feature his Enemy, James the Butler, were all that was left of the comedy phase.
Needless to say, the disposition of the ex-Champion characters, plus series such as Danger Man and The Flying Furies continued the chaotic run of change, change, change, and Zip Nolan ended his British exile and returned to Pensburgh, at which point the series became very much run of the mill, with nothing new to say or do.
And there was a round of line-up changes in September, with The Phantom Viking returning for an extended run, this time with better art, The Mystery Speed Star coming to an overdue end and two new stories, one of them too be very long-lasting, in the spy thriller, ‘Code Name – Barracuda’ and the football strip ‘Carson’s Cubs’.
Add in ‘Swords of the Seawolves’ from 1 October, and suddenly Lion had it’s first truly settled line-up since 1963.
Carson’s Cubs was, I was surprised to realise, Lion’s first football series, after fourteen years in existence. Indeed, it was the comic’s first genuine sports series, in that it was about football, and not about some secret formula or crime-busting operation for which the sport was really just the peg.
But Carson’s Cubs was the real thing. It’s premise may have been gimmicky – old pro returns to failing Third Division club Newton United and revitalises its fortunes by cramming the side full of multi-talented schoolboys – but it was about the football, and the time dedicated to action on the pitch was correspondingly the greater proportion of the strip.
The villains are those who stand in the way of the club’s inexorable rise back to the First Division. At first, these included inside-forward Nick Lacey, who’s determined to make the experiment fail and get the Newton crowd to turn on the kids, but who’s out of the team pretty quickly, and the rather more long-term opposition of Director Arthur Braggart, who regards the whole idea as making the club into a laughing stock, no matter how much onfield success the Cubs bring.
Apart from the absurd premise, the Cubs themselves are eccentrics and improbable, especially the likes of Tiddler Smith and Swotty Brayne, who collectively look incapable of standing up to a gentle zephyr if it blew at them sideways.
In complete contrast, ‘Code name – Barracuda’ was a piece of crap. Barracuda, and his assistant Frollo, were the United Nations’ leading troubleshooters against the menace of WAM – War Against Mankind – the biggest criminal organisation around. Most stories lasted only a handful of weeks, the art was crude and unsubtle and so were the stories. Nor did things improve when Barracuda and his right hand man Frollo were given superhuman powers to try to turn over WAM’s conquest of the world under King Cobra.
And my parents opposed me buying American superhero comics, but were ok with me reading stuff like this?
‘Swords of the Seawolves’ was much better, as indeed it ought to be. It boasted Don Lawrence art for the first time in years, but that was no surprise, since it was nothing more than reprints of ‘Karl the Viking’, with new names: Karl was now Rolf.
The Phantom Viking’s second run was much longer and boasted better, more vigorous art. The stories were still not all that great, nor was the Viking himself, come to that: super-strength, flight, invulnerability as long as meek and mild Olaf Larsen had the helmet of his ancestor on his head, or at any rate the wind didn’t blow from the south. There were strong hints that Headmaster’s secretary Helen Yates would like to be a romantic interest for Olaf Larsen, if he wasn’t such a bloody wimp, not that she lasted long. It’s very formulaic, the only twist being that the Viking’s alter ego really is as helpless as Clark Kent and Don Blake pretended to be.
Trelawney of the Guards certainly lived up to its potential for several months, offering superb, tight cold-psychology war stories that week after week illustrated the professionalism of soldiering, from a writer who clearly was speaking from experience. But, just as ‘Paratrooper’ in Hurricane gradually morphed from war stories related by Sergeant Rock to comic book hero stories about him, the series gradually turned towards a more orthodox Trelawney-the-hero approach. It still had a gritty, realistic edge and great dark art but slowly lost its distinction by descending into into hero-worship. And even the realism was diminished as Trelawney increasingly used his rifle for swinging the butt at Jerry soldiers instead of shooting them.
Jerry Siegel’s Spider stories arouse mixed-feelings. On the one hand, he was brought in as it was clear that Ted Cowan had no real facility for direct superheroics. And Siegel, newly on the outs at DC after suing over Superman’s copyright renewal again, should have been a specialist. His first two stories continued the Spider-as-supervillain line, though the second of these saw the King of Crime up against the Exterminator, a super-assassin hired by Crime Incorporated to get rid of their greatest foe. The Exterminator could have done it too, but was deflected by the Spider offering to make him his partner. The two then whupped Crime Incorporated’s ass, until the Spider had lulled his ‘partner’ into a false sense of security and drained him. Enthralled by kicking crime, he then became a crimefighter.
By ‘The Spider vs the Crook from Outer Space’, his days as a criminal were completely forgotten. But the story is a terrible, herky-jerky affair, an endless string of unrelated episodes, with Siegel throwing in anything he can think of without the least trace of logic. These include the would-be invasion of Earth by, at first, an undersea race of mermen, then an alien space fleet, both of which being passing diversions. Then there’s the way both sides pull incredible weapons out of their ass at a moment’s notice, before immediately producing antidotes, cures and defences with equal lack of set-up. Frankly, it’s a story that would have struggled to pass muster in 1938. Did I really relish this stuff every Monday?
Robot Archie continued to ply his trade around the ignorant jungle savages of the world, with the predictable fear and superstition. Archie was now going on automatic brain more and more often, and his thought processes got to be more and more arrogant and amusing. Ken was now well-established as the more cautious of the pair of pals, often displaying a complete lack of confidence in Ted’s brainwaves.
This was self-evidently very popular, but I find the colonialist stuff sticking in my throat, and I just can’t write it off to ‘simpler’ times, probably because we are nowadays seeing an increasing number of people coming out of the closet to embrace the ultimately racist attitudes this represents. The difference is that Cowan et al. were unconsciously, almost ‘innocently’ racist whilst today’s bunch are wilfully so, but I find that distinction too subtle to make and it spoils Archie for me.
As an aside, I noted on 24 December a reference to a witchdoctor as ‘Old Rottenhat’, a phrase I’ve only ever otherwise come across in Robert Wyatt’s solo album of the same name. This is definitely not a Northern thing.
The big problem with this period of extended stability is that too many of the series’ were not as good as they’re remembered to be, or rather that instead of being stable, they were repetitive. And given that The Spider, Barracuda and Frollo and The Phantom Viking were all superheroes, whilst the increasing number of gadgets built into Robot Archie had now multiplied beyond all reason, there was insufficient variety between the stories any more. The only ones that stood out were Carson’s Cubs and, of all things, Jinks, which went missing for several weeks when the stable period finally started to crack.
Change came at long last on 28 July 1967, when ‘Trelawney of the Guards’ was renamed ‘Trelawney’s Mob’ and turned into a serial. The ‘Mob’ consisted of four of Sgt Trelawney’s men, Pyle, Cork and Kenny, who’d turned up are regulars many times and O’Rorke, a fighting Irishman. These five were sent behind enemy lines to protect a scientist looking for a German secret weapon. It was a little bit different but it also completed the downgrading of the series from the excellent and intelligent war psychology story it had been into just another Second World War serial.
And a new illustrated feature, The Story of Football, made its first appearance on 18 August, taking its time to present a surprisingly comprehensive history in short chunks.
These were the herald for another revamp. The settled line-up lasted a year and a week, but on 14 October, with another set of football stickers, given away over six weeks, Lion and Champion, as it was still called, fifteen months after the merger, offered another round of new stories for its remaining stalwarts and two new series.
These were Jungle Jak, about a teenage Tarzan in Africa accidentally taken to Britain when trying to save his chimp pal from the circus, and Johnny Dynamite, embarking on a Boxing career to save his family business. Neither of them were particularly appealing, especially as the Karl/Rolf the Viking reprints were squeezed out to make room.
As for the rest of the crew, Robot Archie came back out of the jungle again, turning security guard in London, though I’m not betting against him going back to the superstitious natives, whilst The Spider found himself up against the Sinister Seven. This is the one I remembered most, the one that was all-out superheroics, with the Spider taking on other super-powered allies to battle a super-villain team. I’ll have more too say about this in the next instalment.
Trelawney’s Mob’s second outing was a ludicrous adventure bringing the team up against an Austrian Count who dressed his men in medieval suits of armour. It was the end of all credibility for the series, and a distinct blow to that of Lion overall. But the 4 November instalment did provide a moment of distinction: the first signed page of art in Lion‘s history, courtesy of artist Jose Ortiz.
Johnny Dynamite didn’t last long, racing to the British Boxing Championship in a mere ten weeks, and giving way to a new series in the first issue of 1968 which, in lieu of any more handy moment, is where this latest instalment breaks.