We resume Lion‘s story with the issue of 31 October 1970. The comic is trundling along with a set of stories evenly divided between old stalwarts that have, individually and collectively, run out of steam, and relatively recent arrivals that offer little to justify their appearing in a comic that was now running in its third decade. Lion‘s sales are in decline, it has just shed its spectacularly badly re-drawn reprints of Dan Dare, and has one new series beginning, the peg on which this latest instalment hangs. On the positive side, it is still only 7d per week, though 3 New Pence now shares cover space in anticipation of the forthcoming decimalisation, and there are 40 pages weekly.
The current line-up consisted of: Carson’s Cubs (3pp), General Johnny (2pp), Spot the Clue with Zip Nolan (2pp), Oddball Oates (2pp), Paddy Payne (2½pp), Sweeper Sam the Mild Matman (2pp), The Boy from Jupiter (2½pp), Flame o’the Forest (3pp), The Spellbinder (3pp), Robot Archie (3pp), Britain AD2170 (3pp) and Mowser (1p). Paddy Payne was a reprint, as was the ‘new’ series, which had appeared in the Sixties as the tedious and unfunny Jimmi from Jupiter, who wasn’t even renamed here, unlike the Karl the Viking reprints. Zip Nolan was either a reprint or indistinguishable from one.
The only top quality art was the ongoing excellence of Reg Bunn on The Spellbinder, the only other art of distinction being the light, cartoony style on Oddball Oates. Flame o’the Forest had good clear art, albeit too slick and uninvolving, and the rest ranged from cheap to ugly. This included Carson’s Cubs, which had never been impressive to look at and, after all this time without improvement, was positively painful to the eye.
Mowser was all that remained of Lion‘s history of purely comic one-pagers, and this had long been another strip that had the same formula week after week, hitting the same beats in the same panels over and again. The line-up this week is that of a comic that was played out.
But Flame o’the Forest and Oddball Oates, who was after all, let us remember, a multi-sport drugs cheat, had only one more episode apiece, which meant two new chances to recapture that old energy and inspiration.
But let’s not get too hasty. The first of these was another reprint, Maroc the Mighty, with prime Don Lawrence art, under the title The Steel Band but the other was at least new. The King of Keg Island was about orphan Peter Cable, who inherited an island as he was running away from the cruel and vicious orphanage owner Simon Lashley, who plotted to steal Peter’s valuable inheritance from him. With this set-up, would this be just another compilation of cliches? Probably.
Unfortunately, there was a massive wait to see how that might develop, as a ‘production issue’ killed off publication of Lion and its companion papers until 6 February 1971. This isn’t referenced in Wikipedia, but I remember the first of the power cuts striking in December 1970, so I’m going to venture a guess that it was industrial action by the minors causing electricity shortages and badly affecting the printing industry. Whatever the cause, Lion had lost eleven weeks, not that the difference was apparent just going from issue to issue on DVD3.
Though it appeared I may have been overly pessimistic about The King of Keg Island, with Peter and his three mates holding on to their independence on the titular island, and seeming to dispose of Lashley’s menace incredibly quickly. Artistically, I kept detecting resemblances in line-work and faces to the artist who had drawn Oddball Oates, now adopting a more realistic style.
But changes were once again necessary. Another of Fleetway’s new weekly comics had failed rapidly, so with effect from 20 March there was another merger, this time into Lion and Thunder. Sweeper Sam was carted off from 6 March, making room for a six page Spellbinder episode to tie up the current storyline. General Johnny got sent back to school permanently, Paddy Payne was given an extended run out to end his reprint story and Britain 2170AD was left to re-establish civilisation in peace and quiet. Lashley’s overly rapid discomfiture signalled a rapid curtailment to the Keg Island story, with a handy deus ex machina, food-wise, and the Jimmi Jupiter reprints were returned to deserved obscurity.
But the biggest shock of all was that, from 6 March, Robot Archie was no more. He, and the pals, Ken and Ted, would adventure no more, after a run of fourteen years.
The new paper was left with Carson’s Cubs, Zip Nolan, The Spellbinder (though without Reg Bunn, who passed away in 1971, aged 66, after a long and honourable association with the comic) and Mowser. From Thunder came Black Max, about a German First World War Richthofenesque Air Ace and his overly large Bats, Fury’s Family, about a lad who had liberated his animal friends from a hateful circus, Phil the Fluter, about a lad with a magic flute that stopped time when it was played, a two page strip that broke with all Lion tradition by being in full and rather rich colour, The Jet-Skaters, a bunch of kids with jet-powered skates, The Steel Commando, a Second World War story about a metal version of Captain Hurricane and The Jigsaw Journey, in which traveller Dr Wolfgang Stranger took on a quest to find a lost city whose whereabouts could be located if you assembled a map cut into nine pieces.
Also added to the title was Adam Eterno, about a gaunt 421 year old, time-travelling man who could only be killed by gold, which was written in a curiously lugubrious and stilted fashion.
It was a bit of a jolt, which was what Lion needed. But, as other mergers had amply demonstrated, which if any of Thunder‘s features would last more than a couple of months?
The tradition of adding a comedy one pager after a merger or revamp certainly continued, with the debut of The Spooks of St Luke’s, and also of Sam, making a delayed arrival from Thunder with pure Beano style art. Sam would only ever be an irregular features at first, but after several weeks on and off, The Spooks became a weekly affair.
The issue of 24 April 1971 sees me move on to DVD4. The comic has gone decimal, and costs 3p weekly. By now, it’s possible to see where the Thunder imports are heading. Phil the Fluter’s colour was very erratic to begin with, badly off-register most of the time, but it’s there to highlight the time-stopped panels, when everything is black and white except Phil himself. However, the Jet-Skaters is risible, with the four kids spending most of their time bent over with their arses thrust out in a manner that I cannot see any other way than as obscene.
Fury’s Family is also dull, with Fury a jungle boy with no understanding of the modern world and too prone to fly off the handle, albeit with the odd beautifully drawn panel of one or other of his animal friends, whilst The Steel Commando isn’t as funny as it would like to be, and certainly not original. But the widened range of subjects at least makes this period of Lion‘s history much more palatable than was the last, tedious phase.
There was a shock on 8 May as Mowser moved into colour (off-register, naturally), replacing the back page ad, though this was just a one-off. However, the colour Mowser was repeated in August and September, and became an occasional thing. Speaking of the tatty old puss, a letter published on 3 July, advocating dropping the feature, elicited the remarkable statistic that it was 8th favourite out of 13 in Lion, the only cartoon feature in any IPC adventure comic not to be least favourite.
To my surprise, the Thunder imports proved more long-lasting that their predecessors, with The Jigsaw Journey the first to conclude on 17 July. But this just gave way to yet another return by Paddy Payne, billed as being in a new story, but of course another reprint.
The problem was that, whilst the latest merger had given Lion a much-needed kick-start, before long all the new series had become just as repetitious and unimaginative as those they had replaced. Each one just recycled the same ideas, over and over again, like the utterly hollow Zip Nolan or the increasingly ludicrous Carson’s Cubs, which really, seriously needed to ditch the two rascally Directors, Braggart and Snook, and find a new threat. But you know they never would.
Not before time, another trio of new series arrived simultaneously on 16 October, pushing out The Jetskaters and, yet again, Paddy Payne. The new series were Dr Mesmer’s Revenge, about an Egyptologist whose home, a personal museum was robbed, and who sought revenge on the crooks by raising a mummy to life, The Last of the Harkers, about a big-eared lad who set out to restore his family’s sporting honour with the aid of a ghost of his ancestor, and The Can-Do Kids, about four school-leavers setting up an any-task business to raise funds to go round the world. One drama with mystical overtones and two comedies: what difference would these make?
Though it was the least propitious of the new series, and far too reminiscent of The Waxer in having one lone Policeman suspect and be disbelieved by everyone, Dr Mesmer’s Revenge proved interesting, thanks to some clear, crisp and solid art, realistic and detailed. It was the best we’d seen since Reg Bunn and Don Lawrence. And certain panels and settings seemed very familiar, leading me to initially suspect that the artist could be David Lloyd, of V for Vendetta fame, though according to Wikipedia, Lloyd didn’t start his career until much later in the decade.
The Can-Do Kids had a certain silly charm to itself but was spoiled by giving them an adversary in the form of an ex-Brigadier, still wrapped up in 1944, intent on driving them out of his neighbourhood. A little of stereotypes like that goes a long way, and a lot gets very dull very quickly.
The Last of the Harkers was a more overt comedy, drawn in a broad cartoon style, but it was set up to be inherently formulaic, and by this time, Lion just did not need more formulaic stuff.
As the comic passed over into 1972, approaching its twentieth anniversary, Paddy Payne was back yet again, with yet another reprint. And there was an interesting touch in The Spellbinder as Nyarlhotep was used as a magic world. Given that Sylvester Turville had already referred to a spellbook by one Al-Hazred, it leads me to wonder if the editor was aware of these Lovecraftian references. I doubt very much the audience were.
Phil the Fluter was dropped at the end of the month, as was the colour centrespread, to be replaced by a horror story called Watch Out for the White-Eyes, as a strange gas affects first a flock of crows then a mild-mannered schoolteacher, turning them into superhuman aggressors.
Another passing moment of note was in the final panel of The Can-Do Kids for 19 February, when a fleeing bystander was drawn as an obvious caricature of then American President, Richard Nixon. The next issue saw the official celebration of Lion‘s twentieth birthday, and the first absence by Mowser in years.
Which is as good a moment as any to draw a line under the penultimate part of this series.