The Lion in it’s glory – an overview

I was harsh about the Lion of the Fifties, and I’ve been even harsher about the Lion of the Seventies, but have I been fair about the history of Lion overall? Given that it is all more or less a matter of opinion, the answer depends, I suppose, upon how far you agree with my conclusions.
In writing an overview, there are two very relevant factors to bear in mind. The first is that Lion ran from February 1952 to May 1974, twenty-two years and three months and however many generations of British boys that you choose to count poring over its pages. Collectively, they read the whole of Lion over twenty-two years: I did it in a matter of months. If I found the comic stale in its final years, how much of that staleness came from me?
And let’s not forget that I am an unabashed Eagle fan, which makes me guilty of expecting standards and intentions that Lion was never meant to embody.
Lion was, from first to last, a much less ambitious title. It was the classic cheap’ncheerful British boys comic, printed in black and white on cheap newsprint, it’s sole intent (apart from turning a profit) to entertain its target audience, of seven to twelve year old boys, once a week.
Eagle‘s aim was always that little bit higher, above their audience’s presumed heads: not by so much as to bore or confuse them in pursuit of their parents’ approval, but to stretch them, to inspire them, to make them aspire to something better, and to educate them in the best possible manner. In contrast, Lion was pitched straight at their adrenal glands: make them thrill, make them gasp, make them laugh and, above all, make them come back next week.
If too many of them don’t, the comic eventually doesn’t either.
That Lion lasted so long, and swallowed up so many failing rivals along the way, is testament to how well it did that.
The Fifties Lion was nevertheless dull, in thrall to the old way of making comics, pinched and pawky, stiff and awkward, long, rambling stories with no greater purpose than setting up the next cliffhanger.
The Seventies Lion was even worse. It had outlived its period of genuine glory and lost its way between features that had long since flensed all creativity or inspiration and inadequate ideas with no originality or scope. It’s only thought was to provide exactly the same elements, every single week.
But for nearly ten years in between, from that first extensive 1958 revamp that brought Lion in style and approach into the modern era, to somewhere around 1968 or1969, Lion was something else. I’m tempted to point the finger at the week in 1969 when Lion absorbed the poison pill of Eagle, a comic that had been resented by its own management for nearly a decade itself, but that’s too obviously prejudice.
The Sixties Lion was brilliant. It was loud, it was confident and it had the chops to back it up. Tight, well-written stories in a variety of genres. Well-drawn, in a variety of styles, especially by Don Lawrence and Reg Bunn. Not afraid to cherry-pick European strips, both adventure and humour (though I don’t hold with the re-naming of Lucky Luke, not when it had a good Anglo name already: Modeste and Poupee was a gallic horse of a different colour). There was a magic about the comic in those years that entitled Lion to its proper place in the outflowing creativity and optimism of the legendary decade. There was definitely something in the air, then, or was it in the water?
Above all, I’ve been reading Lion in all its phases as a 60 plus year old man, not the excited pre-teen of the audience it was geared to. Nostalgia played its part, but it was a kettle upon a low light that rarely if ever boiled hot enough to brew a proper cuppa. I simply enjoyed the Sixties Lion as I would any great piece of work, as if I was coming to it for the first time. After fifty years, I might well have been.
So that’s that. Coming up at some point will be six years of Valiant, 1962 to 1968, where I will be reading for the first time. I only ever saw this comic intermittently as it was never one of mine, just something I occasionally saw at friends. I have high hopes of it though, especially in those years.
That’s for the future, mind. Valiant is too much like Lion for my immediate comfort and I don’t want to come to it stale on that kind of title. Let me take a trip down a different Nostalgia Avenue first, into the vastly different world of Supermarionation, Gerry Anderson and TV Century 21, which I did get for years.
But when Lion was good, it was very very good, and when it was bad it was, mostly, just dull. That to me is a deserving enough epitaph.

6 thoughts on “The Lion in it’s glory – an overview

  1. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I’ve made previous attempts to write my views on the ‘Lion’ of the 1960s, and they’ve vanished, so here goes again, Martin.

    I began reading the Lion in 1961, aged 8, and continued with it until ’69. Since then, I’ve managed to get and read most of the issues from beginning to end of this comic, either by finding originals, or getting discs to view online. Most of what you’ve written I agree with, but there are some notable exceptions which I’ll come to in due course (I feel you’re Overview is spot-on, btw: the ’50s and ’70s were far inferior to the golden years of the 1960s).

    When assessing something like the Lion, I like to separate out how I viewed it at the time, as a wide-eyed 8 year-old, and how I see the thing now as an adult. The Lion of the ’60s, especially (in my opinion) the period of about 1960–’64, was an amazingly vibrant and hugely exciting story-paper. Even now, I get the impression that the writers and artists of that period were as enthusiastic about their stories as us kids were at reading them! There were four of us down my street who read it each week, and I’ve recently had enthusiastic conversations about it with them all—57 years on from when we first started!

    For my part, the reasons for this enduring affection is a mixture of things–the high quality of the artwork, and the plotting, but also the stage of development I happened to be at at that particular time. Take the ‘Robot Archie’ of 1961–I was a young boy then who didn’t even know what a robot was! I thought at first he was perhaps some sort of armoured twentieth-century knight. Then, when I realised he was mechanical–wow!–along came another, uglier robot in the very same adventure! Of course, if I came upon that story now, robots would hardly blow me away like they did the first time, though I still feel the artwork was very good in those stories–far superior to those Archie stories of the ’50s that I’ve seen since.

    As you’ve mentioned, the Lion had a major revamp sometime in ’59. Even the logo on the front got better–snarling images of lions that came in half a dozen different variations week by week, and I loved ’em all!

    I noted that you seemed to disapprove when Rory Macduff (in ’61) changed from being an investigator of fairly bog-standard crimes, to adventures that were a bit more left-field. We’ll have to agree to differ there, because I felt exactly the opposite. I’d only read a couple of issues by the time ‘The House of Doon’ started, and that adventure absolutely mesmerised me! I even had a nightmare about it that I can still recall well over half a century later–I was in my Nan’s rambling old house being chased by the Creature, except my legs could hardly move and he was about to get me, when I woke up in a cold sweat. Mind you, even that nightmare thrilled me. But even looking at that story now with an adult’s cynicism, the artwork was moodily magnificent, and there was something else that made a big impression on me.

    In earlier adventures, Macduff used to ‘laugh at danger’…..Why, was there something wrong with him? To me, Rory chuckling away whilst calmly staring Death in the face took away any tension. But if you study the ‘Doon’ story, you see some truly wonderful artwork realistically showing the fear etched on his face when he’s attacked by the creature; he even cries out in an understandable panic. I’d not really seen that in a comic before.

    You didn’t specifically say, but you probably didn’t like the following three Macduff adventures either, as they also deviated from normal crime thrillers. For me and my mates though, the Secret World simply blew us out of the water. Again, I still feel it’s a very good story even now, with very evocative artwork of the underground world. Because of the illustrations of the wooden stockades built for defence by the human inhabitants, I was forever drawing such stockades during artwork at school.

    The next adventure, ‘Village of the Lost’, was the first time I’d heard of zombies, so again, the story worked for me. The Isle of Fear left an interesting, permanent impression on me. The very first instalment featured some fugitives on said island, wailing in terror as dark clouds obscure the moon–and when the moon reappears, the men are no more. To this day, I’m always reminded of that scene whenever I see clouds about to cover the moon (but I have learnt it’s best not to wail in terror; people can be funny).

    Given that my wife is telling me now that a meal is getting cold, I’ll finish this as Part One, and aim to give my thoughts on ‘Karl the Viking’ tomorrow. I realise that much of what I’ve written above is both subjective AND objective about the stories, but that is how I view them now. I’ve recently re-read those Macduff stories (to the end of the Isle of Fear and beyond, and it’s the ones I’ve mentioned that I’ve still enjoyed even as an adult.

  2. There is always a subjective element to our responses to stories. When it comes to Rory MacDuff, I doubt we’d differ over the opinion that Reg Bunn was a brilliant artist and that no-one could have drawn the supernatural stories more effectively than him. And I’d still love to see all that story that was ending as I began reading Lion.

    But my re-reading this year meant that I first got used to Rory who laughs at danger, and his ebullient character and his Scottish shoutings, as my adult self, which made the change in direction, which was abrupt, hard to take.

    With the whole run under my belt, and having regard to the decline that kicked in from about 1968 – after the problems he was causing on The Spider, what possessed the editors to re-hire Jerry Seigel to write Gadgetman? – I’m more inclined to respect MacDuff’s ghoulies’n’ghosties phase. Heck, get Reg Bunn to draw it… I still think the removal of personality from the big feller was a serious mistake.

    Looking forward to those other points on which we differ: surely you agree with me on Don Lawrence and Karl the Viking? I think you’re dead right about that 1960-64 period, where eveyone was writing and drawing like men possessed.

  3. I’m currently trying, and failing, to post my Part Two comments, which is why I’ve opened up a second window here to write this. I haven’t got time tonight to re-write what I’ve already written (it’s quite long again), so I’ll just wish you Happy New Year, and try again in a couple of days.

  4. Here’s my ‘second part’ of comments on your writings about the ‘Lion in the 1960s’ (And I’ve discovered now how to make sure my comments don’t vanish into the ether!).’

    I agree with you that Reg Bunn was perfect for the eerier Rory Macduff stories. And what a shame that you’re not able to get the beginning of your first taste of those stories (I don’t have those issues either, otherwise I could have somehow got them to you).

    Moving on to the magnificent ‘Karl the Viking’. As you suggested, this was indeed the artistic highlight of my week (and also the excitement highlight as well). The artwork and plotting of those stories showed utter brilliance, and they stand comparison with any graphic adventures penned anywhere, before or since. I was even happy to spend a small fortune on the boxed set that’s available now from Bear Alley.

    Probably my favourite ‘Karl’ story was the ‘Selgor the Wolf’ series. The sheer evil menace of Selgor gave the eight-year-old me another delicious nightmare; It was no doubt the thought of being held a prisoner at the mercy of the ruthless Berserk (just as Karl was his prisoner that very week; funny that). And what enabled Selgor to be so terrifying was the dynamic artwork portraying the characters so naturally in motion. The combat scenes just pulled me right into the action. Me and my three mates (mentioned in my part one) even tried to make our wooden swords in the shape of Karl’s ‘Sword of Einger’.

    The four of us did wonder more than once who did such wonderful artwork, but of course in those pre-internet days there was virtually no chance to find out. It didn’t occur to me to actually check the internet until I was in my early fifties, and I got a couple of shocks.

    I discovered that the artist was one Don Lawrence, and quickly realised he was pretty famous and highly regarded in artistic circles–but unfortunately, he’d passed away less than TWO WEEKS previously! And the second shock was that he’d been living less than 2 miles from me, in the adjoining village of Jevington! And the pub in Jevington is one where I’ve been going to for years with friends & family–I’d probably stood next to Don Lawrence more than once in the bar! Although it was great to finally find out who’d penned ‘Karl’ after all those years, it really saddened me that I’d missed out on a wonderful opportunity to tell him just how much pleasure his work had given us. However, I was pleased that his work was so well regarded, and in fact just before his death, fans in Holland had apparently queued for hours to have items of his work signed by the great man. But DAMN!

    Moving on to ‘Sandy Dean’s Schooldays’/’Tales of Tollgate School’. Another one of my favourites. I note that you felt the artwork seemed quite ‘flat’. Purely from my own viewpoint, I’d never noticed that. Or certainly not in the 1960s. However, I WAS quite shocked and disappointed when I first laid eyes on the older, ’50s artwork–that was too comically unrealistic by far, and I suppose was indeed without much depth. And interestingly, I have exactly the same thoughts as you about the daft ‘Spies’ story, which was simply too comic for a supposedly ‘serious’ series.

    I loved, and never forgot, the ‘Tales of Tollgate’ story ‘The Phantom Abbott’. You see for me, the artwork in that was very atmospheric, with the darkness of the abbey ruins contrasting well with the cheery brightness of Tollgate School itself. However, I hated the ‘Rock that Rocked Tollgate’, which was clearly an over-egged attempt to bring the series into the ‘Swinging Sixties’. It was even more comic than the ‘Spies’ story; not sensible at all with wishes being granted etc. I felt they’d sold out. Thankfully however, it did get back to a sort of acceptable reality in the last 8-9 months of its life. Although sailing round the world in a floating school was pretty far-fetched, the adventures themselves were not comical. And finally in the last-ever episode, and after a thirteen-year rivalry, Bossy Bates actually called Sandy Dean “Sandy”. I’d love to know whether much thought and discussion had gone into that by the scriptwriters–I find those little details fascinating. Even if I had names, there’s probably no-one left now to ask though, after 54 years! Unfortunately there was no mention of it in the excellent book, ‘LION, King of Picture Story Papers’ (hardly surprising, who else but me wants to know?). However, I did enjoy many other anecdotes in the book, such as the daily lunch-time games of office-cricket between the ‘Lion’ & ‘Tiger’ scriptwriters!

    I’ll continue in a day or two with my Part Three.

  5. Due to a change of role, I find myself earning about £200 per month less in bonuses, which puts things like the Bear Alley Lion book to the back of the queue for now. I’d probably be asking the same questions as you – though I missed the significance of Bossy’s last page words, which I can only see as being deliberate on the scripters’ part.

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