I was lucky to grow up with generous parents.
Like any boy of my generation, I loved comics, and like any parent of their generation, they worried about letting me read them. In this I had an ally, in Mr Phillipson, he who got me into the Eleven plus when I should never have, and who changed my life. He pointed out, quite rightly, that my reading comics did not stop me being a voracious reader of books, and my parents need have no fears that the comics were stunting my mental growth.
I don’t know how closely the two may have been connected, but my parents decided, in their infinite generosity, to allow me six comics a week. Irrespective of their official publication dates, these were doled out to me one a day, Monday to Saturday, in a fixed rotation.
As time passed, and I got older, the titles changed. Things like Robin and Harold Hare Weekly, Beano and Dandy, gave way to older comics, like Victor and Hornet, Eagle and Lion. I was not allowed to chop and change frequently, and I could only swap, not add: for every new title I wanted, I had to sacrifice an old one, and sometimes the choice was far from easy.
Nor did I have a free hand. My parents held a right of veto over what I could select, and anything they decided was too young for me, or too anarchic in its sense of humour, would be refused. I never got to read Wham! or Buster. New titles were very difficult to get added to my list: offhand, I think the only one I did get to read from number 1, or very very soon after, was Hurricane, though I’ve no idea why.
Which meant that I did not get to read my second favourite comic of the decade until, I dunno, anything from 10 to 20 issues after it started, even though it was the only comic that offered production values akin to those of Eagle: clean white paper, photogravure reproduction, full colour and, what’s more, high-quality photographic covers. Even though it was made for me and a generation of boys hooked on Gerry & Sylvia Anderson’s Supermarionation SF series, Supercar, Fireball XL5 and Stingray.
TV Century 21 was ready-made for me and all the other boys and girls who loved Gerry Anderson’s puppet series, who sat glued to the set through every episode, who almost religiously came in from playing out to watch every second, who can even today recite every word of every introduction. It was even laid out as a newspaper from the future, dated a hundred years ahead, with full colour photos taken from the Anderson series’ every week. Why I didn’t get it from the first week, I don’t know. But I got it, and stayed with it until the days when I grew out of comics for good.
And now I have it on DVD, starting from the beginning.
TV21 debuted on 23 January 1965 but presented as a newspaper, Universe edition, with a publication date of 23 January 2065, and that would be the pretence throughout. The contents however were divided between stories set in the notional publication year, which were all presented in colour, and stories in black and white, set ‘historically’ in 1965.
Officially, the comic was TV Century 21 until issue 155, when it became simply TV21 but we all called it by that name from the start.
With one exception, all the series were directly based on television programmes, with four out of seven featuring Gerry and Sylvia Anderson characters. Fireball XL5, Stingray and Lady Penelope all appeared as two page full colour strips, with reproduction qualities equal to those of Eagle, with Stingray leavened with stills taken from the TV series in place of certain panels. Supercar, in contrast, appeared in black and white, set in 1965, and was played primarily as a comedy.
The back page was given over to a full-colour series about The Daleks, taking up their history from the war on Skaro with the Thals that devastated the planet and led to the construction of the Dalek machines, which in the beginning were merely casings and vehicles protecting a disgusting looking and small organic creature within.
The other two series are long-forgotten now, being a one-page comedy adaptation of the American sitcom My Favourite Martian and a two-page adaptation of the police procedural, Burke’s Law.
My Favourite Martian was one of my favourites of that early Sixties wave of American sitcoms that used to fill the schedules around tea-time. It starred a young Bill Bixby as Tim O’Hara, a reporter, and Ray Walston as Martin the Martian, who’d crash-landed on Earth and, to conceal his secret whilst he was trying to repair his ship, posed as Tim’s Uncle. Martin had various Martian powers, most often invisibility, and two antenna that grew out of his head.
Burke’s Law was a different thing. I don’t remember actually watching it, probably because it held down the 8.00 – 9.00pm slot, when 8.00pm was my bed-time. I do remember a part of its theme tune, the female, breathy cooing of the title. It was a vehicle for Gene Barry, as Amos Burke, a millionaire Police Captain in LA’s Homicide Division, who was driven around in a Roll’s Royce Silver Cloud, and who solved crimes and dropped pithy lines whilst his underlings ran round doing the work.
Both were reproduced as simplified stories in cartoon b&w doing a good caricature of the actors involved, and Supercar, despite being of the Anderson stable, should be grouped with them, but they were also-rans to the colour series, which were detailed and accurate representations of the puppets and the equipment. Mike Noble drew Fireball XL5, Ron Embleton Stingray, and Hampson Studio veteran Eric Eden Lady Penelope. The Daleks were drawn by former Storm Nelson and Eagle star, Richard E Jennings.
The comic was the creation of Alan Fennell, script editor for the Anderson studio, principal writer for TV21, and writer of a couple of paperback novels featuring Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet’s Angels, down the line.
The Eagle comparisons extended to more than paper quality and full colour art as the comic also featured factual articles on space, the oceans and countries around the world. There was also a micro-celebrity feature where Lady Penelope answered questions about TV stars. The space articles, by Roger Dunn of the British Interplanetary Society, were especially fascinating, coming as they did halfway between the first Apollo launches and the actual Moon landing, making them historical documents of the (simplified) development of space travel.
There was also a curious Eagle-like wildlife series, The World We Share, each week featuring a different creature, be it animal, bird, fish or snake. At least 80% of these fellow creatures turned out to be vicious, lethal predators of a kind you wouldn’t even want to share a pen-pal correspondence with!
Though it looked like caricatural cartooning from the start, it took me quite some time to see an increasing continental influence on Supercar, primarily in the poses and actions. The strip may not have originated in Pilote or Spirou (unless rights to Supercar had been sold before TV21 was a gleam in Alan Fennell’s eye), but I strongly suspect a French or Belgian cartoonist.
It wasn’t until issue 15, 1 May, that I recognised a couple of things: a line in Burke’s Law, the closing panel in The Daleks, which I already remembered and had been expecting. I don’t think that was necessarily my first issue, however.
Amos Burke received a new artist the next issue, one with a far more representational style which, given its similarity to one of the existing crew, I’m confidently ascribing to Gerry Embleton, Ron’s brother. The feature was also upgraded to a semi-serial, with each story now taking two weeks to conclude. Gerry Embleton, if indeed it were him, was excellent in realistically portraying Burke and his two side men, though as the weeks went by, he did seem to rely on a very limited stock of headshots for the trio.
The underlying idea was still the Supermarionation Universe, and the several series, Supercar aside, were treated as occurring simultaneously. This was primarily a background theme, more often on the newspaper cover than in the strips, where occasional mention was made of the other services, but there was an interesting crossover in issue 19 (29 May). The Fireball XL5 serial running featured an attempt to avoid space war with the adjoining Astran Empire (the Astrans looking like human-sized coloured jellybeans). Disaster was threatened in Fireball XL5 when the Astran Kaplan (or Emperor) was assassinated in Earth’s capitol, Unity City.
Fortunately, Lady Penelope and Parker were taking a week off between stories, and their strip saw Thunderbirds’ future London Agent track down and capture the assassin, leaving him tied to a lamppost for Steve Zodiac and Commander Zero to pick up! I don’t believe such a crossover had ever taken place in British comics before.
The story continued in Fireball XL5 the following week, with Steve and the Commander rammed off the road and the assassin being killed, but the thought was there.
Fittingly enough, the comic’s first new feature arrived in issue 21 (12 June), in the form of a one page b&w strip, 21. This was set in 2046 and featured toy salesman Brent Cleever of Century 21 Toys, a front for the Universal Secret Service. Cleever is Special Agent 21, already familiar to the readers as the seeming editor of the comic, Twenty One, bringing news, letters and quizzes to the audience and now being personified (artist John Cooper’s ‘likeness’ was, of course, no likeness at all, Twenty One being a highly secret figure.)
Meanwhile, the Astra assassination story took another crossover twist, with Stingray joining in for another one-off continuation, shooting down the villains as they attempted to flee underwater.
The Dalek strip on the back page was the justification for issue 28 (31 July) to break with the Anderson theme and feature the cinema Dr Who film on the photo cover. This was Dr Who and the Daleks, Peter Cushing’s non-canonical outing as the Doctor, with an annoyingly spoilery feature on the film, giving away the entire story, inside. The following week there was a poignant moment, as Roger Dunn’s space feature, working its way through the Solar System, reached Neptune. The page included a sidebar on real-life astronauts which, that week, highlighted a 34 year old back-up pilot for ‘a forthcoming Gemini mission’. The man was Neil Armstrong, who would become the first man to walk upon the Moon.
Agent Twenty-One established another link between the Anderson worlds when it was revealed that Brent Cleever’s boss, S, was former General Zodiac, namely the father of Fireball XL5’s Steve Zodiac: a decidedly Marvel Universe moment.
The same strip was given an upgrade in issue 37 (2 October) with a change of art-style to a superb, soft pencil shading technique, introducing a host of grey shades into what had been a plain pen-and-ink approach. This delicate style was toned down after only a week, though the series showed an admirable modernity by sending Twenty-One’s assistant in by parachute to save him, his assistant being Agent Twenty-Three, Tina, a woman!
And there was a switch of artists on Fireball XL5 in issue 40 (23 October) with Mike Noble’s clean and simple lines being replaced by an artist who was trying to render the crew’s faces more like-like than puppet-like, with varying degrees of success: almost perfect on Mat Matic, patchy with Steve Zodiac and bottling out of trying to depict Venus at all. This was only for a four part story, however, with Noble back for the new story starting in issue 44 (21 November).
This turned into another of those tales I remembered, as a new engine fitted to Fireball for testing saw it travel so fast, it went back in time. To the soon-to-come 1966…
Issue 44 also saw a foretaste of what was to come, as the Lady Penelope Investigates mini-feature was expanded to a page and filled with colour photos as the Lady investigated Thunderbirds over two weeks. The Anderson studio’s most popular and successful series had debuted on 30 September (the week of issue 36) in three ITV regions, and we of Granada had had it the next month. Lady Penelope’s series had been a foreshadowing, and it was plainly only a matter of time before the International Rescue organisation would make its debut in TV Century 21.
The Thunderbirds connection took another turn in the new Lady Penelope adventure, with the arrival of a mysterious torch at Creighton-Ward Manor drawing the attention of both British Intelligence and an exotic freelance spy, a bald man with bushy eyebrows going by the name of The Hood…
The same issue also confirmed that the Supercar strip, which had suddenly developed serial-like aspects, had undergone a permanent cutback to 1½ pages.
And in issue 46, the countdown began, the first of five full page colour photos of the Thunderbird craft and their pilots. 5, 4, 3, 2, 1… And or those with sharp eyes, a two-page boardgame space race was decorated by drawings of Thunderbird 1 and Thunderbird 5 from two angles, the artwork being identifiable as being by Frank Bellamy.
But the Thunderbirds countdown had only reached 2 when TV Century 21 reached issue 49, 25 December, bringing to an end the comic’s first year. It’s funny to think that, re-reading these issues in December 2018, I am slightly nearer the 2065 of the comic’s fictional era than the 1965 of its production.
What’s my impression of this first year, so much later? I’m sorry to say that I found most of it impressive but bland. There’s a high standard of full colour art, reproduced on paper fit to show it at is best, and the artists in use represent some of the best talents of their time. The imagery is clean and bright, the colours primary, and each of the Anderson series is a wonderful thing that I still love to this day.
But there’s something essential to good comics series that’s mainly missing from all the colour Anderson strips, and that’s living, breathing people. Let us not forget that these were all puppet series, in which the least realistic elements were the puppet people. They were all SF series in which the focus was on the machinery: it was Fireball XL5, not Steve Zodiac, Stingray, not Troy Tempest. The focus had to be on the equipment, because the only way to make the puppets remotely natural was to sit them down at pilot’s consoles.
And this carries over into the various comics series. The artists are forced to draw people who are based on puppets, artificial, caricatural humans beings, and are only being held to be successful by literal ten year old boys such as myself to the extent that the characters most closely resemble their originals.
Though it’s a comedy series, Supercar works the best because the characters are characters, no matter how much they are played for laughs, and Supercar itself is much the smallest part of the strip. And both Burke’s Law and My Favourite Martian are more substantial because they derive from real people and take on more substance by association.
Nor are the Anderson series done any favours by the brevity of their stories, allowing insufficient time and space for complexity to develop, because complexity can either enable more realistic character portrayals, or at least cover up their absence a bit better.
But this is merely the first year. Will we see an improvement when we move on into 2066?