Lion and Eagle. As an unreconstructed Eagle fan, even as one whose collection deliberately excludes the last two years and four months of its history, I cannot help but see that title as a tragedy. I received Eagle week by week from the first week of January 1964 until its last issue in the last week of April 1969, and I carried on with the merged comic for maybe another seven or eight weeks before ending my connection. I was growing out of comics anyway, I was getting football magazines weekly and monthly, I do not know if any other comics remained on my order. But Eagle was not recognisable as Eagle in any of this, and I did not wish to see more.
As for the host, there was a mass attempt to bring existing stories to a rapid, and in come cases, rushed conclusion. Some old favourites, and several new car-crashes came to an end: The Spider in the first category, the Captain Condor and Rory MacDuff reprints crashed, Andy’s Army, Wyatt Earp and The Mind Stealers were terminated.
In their place were a whole host of new series, all of them to the Lion born, and four transfers from the hapless Eagle, the most significant of which being Dan Dare, for whom the ‘Rogue Planet’ reprints had been cut to ribbons to allow the Pilot of the Future to start with a reprint of ‘Reign of the Robots’ to celebrate his new berth. Though celebrate was not the word: all the new setting did was to demonstrate just how integral the Hampson studio’s painted colour was to the art.
It was not long before faces were being touched up to render them more distinct for B&W and done pretty badly too.
Accompanying Dan was The Gladiators (drawn by Archie’s Ted Kearon), about six Gladiators from the Roman Arena who had escaped thanks to an old sorcerer, who had sent them 2,000 years forward in time, to the middle of World War 2, Lightning Stormm, about a wheelchair bound crime-fighting ex-racing driver, obviously inspired by TV’s Raymond Burr vehicle, Ironside, and The Waxer (with art by Reg Bunn), in which ex-cop Mike Martin tried to convince his old colleagues that sinister waxworks owner, Septimus Creech, was bringing waxworks to life to commit dastardly crimes.
Paddy Payne (going into reprints), Robot Archie, Zip Nolan and Carson’s Cubs all survived from Lion, as did Mowser. New series were Turville’s Touchstone, Gargan and Oddball Oates. The new mix was widespread and it would be some time before the value of these could be assessed. But in a single issue, what was Eagle was buried, deep and dead.
In traditional Lion manner, another new series turned up just four weeks into the merger, a one page cartoon with overtones of Charlie Drake’s sitcom, The Worker, in the form of Chester the Cheerful Chump. Like every such one-pager except the inescapable Mowser, this only appeared when they felt like it.
Frankly, I remember absolutely nothing about the other Eagle transfers, even though I was still reading the comic until the end. Discovering them now, as if anew, they are a mixed bunch. The Gladiators is actually quite entertaining. There’s is a pretty basic fish-out-of-water series, but the writer creates an authentic feel to the gladiators, their attitudes and their speech, that gives the story a strong underpinning.
The Waxer is cheerfully OTT on spookiness, but then if you have Reg Bunn as your artist, I suppose it’s only natural. The story premise is goofy and without Bunn it would probably be an ugly mess, but it’s atmospherics (and the fact that it is not as idiotic as The Spider, which it effectively replaced) sustained it in the first instance.
In contrast, Lightning Stormm is a real loser. It apparently ran in Eagle as Lightning Strikes Again. I don’t know how long it had been around but it was awful: ex-racing driver Dan Stormm, crippled and confined to a wheelchair, fights crime in the motor-racing game. The practically paraplegic Dan, sat ramrod still in his over-armoured Supercar of a wheelchair, was a ridiculous image and the strip no better.
The new series was a similar mix in quality. The best of these was Turville’s Touchstone, a comedy drama. Thomas Turville inherits the family mansion, which is dilapidated and badly run-down. There is a lost family fortune which ‘rascally’ Solicitor Crabtree is determined to get to first. Tom however is aided by his 16th Century alchemist ancestor Sylvester, possessor of the titular touchstone, who is not all that fazed by the difference between the world in which he was cursed and that in which Tom has awoken him.
Oddball Oates, as the title implied, was a straight comedy series. Albert Oates is a mild-mannered, scrawny, bespectacled botanist who has discovered a wonder herb which, when smoked and sniffed, gives him wonderful athletic powers. Oates, who prefers to wander around in a caravan, becomes the target of Dr Vulpex, who wants to kidnap him, learn the secret of the herb and turn his country into a sporting superpower. This was a straight comedy, with exaggerated, quasi-cartoonish art and all sorts of sporting feats.
It’s not steroids, but the story rests on a very dodgy basis that you couldn’t write today. In Carson’s Cubs, at one point, Arthur Braggart calls Herbert Snook a Coke-head. Given that Oddball Oates was getting his ‘powers’ by smoking a wonder herb, and getting one heck of a high off it, I start to wonder just what the writers might have been smoking themselves.
The last series, Gargan, was a bust. Gargan was a big Yeti-type monster from the Himalayas, gentle as a lamb but looking like a monster. He and his sherpa boy companion Rhurki are kidnapped to America by a crooked circus owner who intends to exhibit him as a monster. Cash Maddack has a hold over Rhurki because he steals the magic mirror belonging to the ancient Reega the Wise, who is immortal as long as the mirror isn’t broken.
The series never rises above the predictable and, even as a ‘monster’, Gargan looks too silly to be convincing.
Of the Lion stalwarts, Paddy Payne reverted to reprints, and Robot Archie to the jungle, although without overwhelmed and superstitious natives. Zip Nolan was the same as it always was, week in, week out, as was Mowser, but with the excuse of being reasonably amusing. Chester the Chump totalled only four appearances, and was not a great loss, or any loss at all.
There were a few Reg Bunn Zip Nolans along the way, one of which I definitely recognised. These had to be reprints, leaving me to suspect that Nolan’s stories were the same every week because they were literally the same, reprints from years of formula tales impossible to distinguish any longer.
As for Carson’s Cubs, this had now gone stale as indicated by the fact that the stories were no longer about the Cubs’ progress on the football field but about the distracting shenanigans that took place off. It was rather like the Nineties’ TV series, Playing the Field, about a woman’s football team: two series about the club and its fortunes, and then it collapsed into a soap opera about a group of women whose link happened to be being in a football team.
The new line-up was pretty much settled for the rest of the year, but Lightning Stormm was the first to crack, lasting only twelve issues before transforming into Tales from the Tracks, a series of weekly motor racing stories narrated by Dan Stormm, which got rid of the embarrassing crime-fighter-in-a-souped-up-wheelchair aspect. These were actually surprisingly decent, but the feature was pulled after 29 November, making way for Drive for your Life.
This was a pretty implausible motor-racing story. Count von Drakko’s cowardice on the track causes a massive pile-up, as attested to by six fellow-drivers, resulting in his banning from racing. Six years later, all six drivers are kidnapped to drive a private race track designed by the Count, who means to show them what being scared really is: the track is a vicious obstacle race with fatal traps designed to kill five of the drivers. Only the race winner will survive, and it’s obviously going to be the American, Rev Ryder, because he’s the one with the stupid hero’s name.
The Gladiators had already lost both Ted Kearon and his successor when, on 4 October, The Waxer’s series lost Reg Bunn, and renamed itself Palace of Villainy. However, Bunn was back in harness ten weeks later, for the series’ next phase, When Midnight Chimes, The Waxworks Walk, which has to be one of the most stupid titles in Lion‘s history.
Gargan was now rambling with no real direction and Rhukri just whined all the time. Archie’s time-travelling adventures were having less and less point, and now the pals found themselves in some undated near future period battling the Sludge, that old jelly-like monster from 1964.
These changes apart, the Lion and Eagle line-up occupied the last months of the Sixties, and held over until the end of January 1970, but once again it was time for a revamp, with stories and series coming to abrupt endings and a new round of features starting up.
To begin with, Eagle was gone: we were back to being Lion again, until the next swallowing up of a weaker rival. Dan Dare, whose reprinted adventure had been chopped down into an unnaturally short four page finale to make room, was all that remained. Turville’s Touchstone was renamed Spellbinder and acquired Reg Bunn on art, although the boring rascally Solicitor Crabtree was kept on. Carson’s Cubs started a new story in which they found themselves playing the Circus Wanderers, that is the stars of the Eagle series that didn’t get carried over into Lion. Zip Nolan was no different, Paddy Payne was still in reprints, Archie, Ted and Ken finally got back to the right time and place but, as telegraphed the previous week brought The Sludge with them, Oddball Oates went Rugby League and Dan Dare brought up the rear with an untitled reprint of The Phantom Fleet. The quality of Frank Hampson’s art still shone through, but it was a close run thing, and as the story went on, it stopped being close and more often than not turned into a travesty. And Mowser rolled on, but James the Butler was demoted from co-billing.
Four new series of mixed quality began. Stringbean and Hambone was a comedy thriller about two mismatched wrestlers teaming up to tag-wrestle, with the unknown benefit of a magic wish-granting stone from China, which was marred from the offset with incredibly racist bullshit in the form of Chinese ‘dialogue’ in which no-one could plonounce the letter ‘R’. Yes, 1970, kids comic, blah-de-blah-de-blah, it’s still racist bullshit, and I simply refused to read it.
Flame o’the Forest was an altogether more serious affair, set just after the Norman Conquest, with a young Saxon sworn to vengeance on a vicious Norman baron who’d tortured his father to a premature death, whilst The Fugitive from Planet Scorr was a lumpen SF story about a rebel alien trying to stop his race’s plan to destroy Earth, only to be hated and feared as a monster whatever he did: like Gargan, then. As for General Johnny, this was an unwelcome re-run of Andy’s Army, with a schoolboy military tactician genius becoming a World War 2 General, about which you have to say it’s a wonder we won the bloody thing at all, given some of the notions weekly comics writers came up with in the Sixties. Except that Andy’s Army was actually better and more plausible than this.
This latest line-up was worse than weak, it was dull. Thanks to Reg Bunn, Spellbinder was visually interesting, but there was insufficient variation in the storyline, whilst Flame o’the Forest, after an initially interesting premise, got bogged down in having the Flame act like another superhero, as if this were still 1967. Lion had never pretended to be anything but a boy’s action, adventure and humour comic, but it had always had series, and frequently several off them, that proved interesting to an older audience. Now, the knack of spanning those generations seemed to have been lost. The title was lodged in a very narrow band of appeal, and its stalwart series had gotten very very tired indeed.
Reading it at this point is more of a chore than an enthusiasm. Nor am I surprised to learn that this is when the sales started to dip.
Apart from a run of poorly-reproduced Sky-High Bannion stories, billed as complete adventures, there was no change to the line-up until 25 July, when both The Fugitive from Planet Scorr and Hambone and Stringbean gave up the ghost together. Their replacements were Britain 2170AD, in which a four man spaceship crew returned from a five year mission to a Britain regressed to jungle primitivity and Sweeper Sam the Mild Matman, which I don’t even want to talk about.
Archie, Ted and Ken abandoned the time-travelling Castle at last as if it had never existed, for a trip to Mexico (superstitious peons, sigh), in search of a Golden City under the ocean whilst beating off a villainous rival who sticks at nothing to beat them to it, snore.
It’s not as if any of the new series had decent art, either. By now, only Reg Bunn’s pages for The Spellbinder were of any quality. Frank Hampson’s carefully prepared Dan Dare art was being trashed weekly by catastrophic cross-hatching and shading that looked as if it had been applied with a carpenter’s pencil, and whilst Flame o’the Forest’s artist maintained a decent smooth line, it was no better than bland. But bland was vastly superior to the horrifically scruffy art everywhere else.
At least Dan Dare was put out of its misery on 24 October 1970, when The Phantom Fleet reached an unabridged end. That was it as far as the old Eagle was concerned, and as far as this blog goes. I’ll make one new series an excuse for the next instalment.