It’s 1964. Valiant and Knockout, to give it it’s official title, starts a new year. Let’s remind ourselves of what that means.
The comic is 6d for 28 pages, a reduction of four on its original count. It divvies these up between a front cover of Famous Fighters, Captain Hurricane (3½ pp), The Nutts (1p), Spotlight on… (1p), Kid Gloves (2pp), Kelly’s Eye (2pp), Billy Bunter (2pp), The Steel Claw (2pp), letters (2pp), Kraken and the Time Machine (2pp), Cars from A to Z (1p), Sporty (2/3p), The Duke of Dry Gulch (2pp), Soccer Roundabout (1p), The Crows (½p), Jack O’Justice (2pp) and Little Fred and Big Ed (who, we all remember are Asterix and Obelix), in full colour on the back page.
But a new comic, with which we’re already familiar, was in the works and in issue 73 (22 February), Knockout was credited for the last time, it’s place on the masthead the following week (a 29 February issue) being taken by the tag-line ‘A companion paper to Hurricane‘.
Internally, all ran smoothly, with no changes until issue 76 (14 March), when the Professors Kraken and Needler series, now amplified in cast to include young electrician Chris Blower, gave up the Time Machine. Re-named Kraken and the Giant Menace, the new story involved harvest mice of unusual size. But not just harvest mice: caterpillars and pigeons were also growing to giant-size, horrendously so in the case of the caterpillar: a disaster was brewing!
Change, once commenced, has a momentum of its own. Cars from A to Z reached W the following week, and with no cars beginning with X, Y or, sadly, Z, that was it. Jack O’Justice began a new story that was not a Dick Turpin, but rather an original, with a new artist and a Sixties style, though Moll wasn’t drawn quite as pretty as before. In addition, The Duke of Dry Gulch came to its end at the same time, to be replaced by a new ‘picture serial’ (as the editor described it: picture serial? It’s a comic, man, just say so), The Wild Wonders.
The new series was timed to run up to the Tokyo Olympics of that year, and involved the GB Athletics team – women as well as men, ooh mother – being stranded (deliberately) on a remote Hebridean island that’s supposed to have some sort of monster prowling it (would the GB Olympic Committee have chosen any other kind? Are there any other kind?). Needless to say, the rumours are true, but not as you might imagine, unless you were reading boy’s adventure comics.
The island would prove to be home to two wild boys, primitive humans, brothers, who only happened to be super-athletes. This is how you win big at the Olympics.
Though I would end up being very wrong in that respect.
The Wild Wonders was essentially a comedy series, about the two primitive brothers, Rick and Charlie, who were super all-round sportsmen, permanently in demand to help failing organisations, perpetually wanted to tackle impossible challenges, make unscrupulous people rich, overcome nefarious plans to make them fail, and ultimately, thanks to one of these adventures, miss the Olympics completely!
Tim Kelly’s latest adventure, which had begun by his becoming Britain’s first astronaut and which had developed into a world-threatening battle against sentient plants, started winding down when Kelly accidentally discovered the one thing that completely destroyed the plants. Rather bathetically, it turned out to be ordinary weed-killer.
Asterix… I’m sorry, Little Fred and Big Ed (they really worked on those names, didn’t they?) completed his first adventure in issue 79 (4 April) and was replaced by It’s A Dog’s Life. The little Gaul would return to Britain, in Ranger in 1966, still purportedly one of us, under the name of Beric in a cheerfully titled ‘In the Days of Good Queen Cleo’ (we know which adventure that one was, don’t we?) The new series was another French or Belgium import, in la ligne clair style, Larry the Dog in a family strip, vigorous and boisterous.
The addition of a page of the original on the file for issue 86 (23 May) confirmed that certain things, like Policemen’s helmets, were being redrawn for the Valiant version. I did some research and discovered that the strip was Belgian and had been running since 1959 as Boule et Bill, the work of Jean Roba, who continued the strip until his death in 2006. Four albums were translated into English between 2009 and 2012, as Billy and Buddy (and they’re delightful).
Louis Crandell, or Shadow Five as we learned his code name, also started a new adventure the same week. This issue, no. 81 (18 April) had a one-off change of artist on Captain Hurricane, Typhoon Tracey’s artist on Hurricane doubling up.
And the changes kept spinning out. After 81 cover pages, the Greatest Fighters feature was replaced by The Greatest…, a series on World Records of all kinds. Six weeks later, Cars from A to Z was finally replaced by Crime-Busters, true accounts of famous Police exploits.
I’ve not had much to say about Reg Wootton’s Sporty. It’s repetitive and unfunny, and drawn in an horrible old-fashioned style that made Bully Bunter look up to date, but I can’t contain myself when it comes to the issue 88 (6 June episode), which featured some disgusting cartoon blacking up. Other times, other standards, I know, I know, but this was disgraceful and I cannot believe it was ever thought acceptable.
There was an unusual treat two weeks later when, as a one-off, the comic expanded to 32 pages to present a four page complete story set in Victorian London, featuring the face-changing master crook Charlie Peace. This was a plug for Mr Peace’s ongoing series, starting in the following week’s Buster, but would have made a fitting addition to Valiant, especially if it replaced Professor Kraken’s rather ponderous adventures.
Speaking of which, Kraken’s latest adventure, with The Curse from the Past, commencing in issue 97 (8 August) had a distinctly Tom Kerr look around the artwork: that man got around. And I’m pretty sure he took over Kelly’s Eye for a fortnight, the following week, instead of Solano.
By 29 August, Valiant had brought up its 100th issue, which I’m going to make an excuse for saying just how much I’m enjoying It’s a Dog Life: precise, simple but distinctive cartooning and vivid situations that never fail to come up with a final panel gag that leaves me laughing, there’s a beautiful innocence to it combined with absolute mastery. It’s been massive in Europe for decades: we can be so dumb sometimes over here.
Kraken’s latest adventure turned out to be his shortest, at a mere six weeks, for with issue 104 (26 September), two new series started. The first of these was another of Valiant‘s major features, Mytek the Mighty, whilst the second was a football strip, Legge’s Eleven. It wasn’t quite two-for-one as the horribly outmoded Sporty was also defenestrated, though it kept coming back on a sporadic basis, whenever there was space to spare (probably when the ad count was down).
Mytek was introduced as a hundred-foot tall mechanical gorilla created by Dr Arnold Boyce. The legend of Mytek was that he was the ape-god of the Akari tribe, whose war-like ways struck at Boyce’s laboratory, so he built an actual Mytek to get them to turn peaceful. Except that Boyce’s dwarfish assistant, Gogra, decided that he wanted that power for himself. Unlike the Steel Claw, however, Mytek would remain a villain under Gogra’s control at least to the end of the first DVD.
Legge’s Eleven was a different kettle of fish, a sort of Carson’s Cubs but without the (same kind of) crap art. Ted Legge, a very lanky and unorthodox inside left (what’s one of those, granpa?) was kicked out by a First Division Club on a free transfer and promptly snapped up by Fourth Division Rockley Rangers, whose chairman, Dusty Binns, made him player/manager and gave him ten weeks to form a new team, or else the club would fold. This was already obvious from the strip’s logo, with Legge’s face in the centre and ten question-marked silhouettes of faces flanking it. New face would be added with every new character.
The comic also chose to shift some of its series around, with both the Nutts and Billy Bunter bounced into the back half, though Captain Hurricane remained up-front and Jack O’Justice at the rear.
Tim Kelly’s new idea saw the introduction of something that would have to return, despite being destroyed at the end of the adventure. After years of using the Eye of Zoltec, Kelly learned for the first time that it was but one of two, the right eye, the good eye. The left eye was its opposite, a source of evil power. Tim immediately went in search of it, but found it already in the possession of the evil Diablo.
Meanwhile, Jack O’Justice reverted to Fifties style art again for a couple of stories before rebounding up to date, in January 1965, with another Tom Kerr job, though Mr Kerr proved to be surprisingly poor at depicting the gallant Moll Moonlight, who certainly was not behind the door at having Jack’s back. You’d hardly think this was a boy’s comic at all.
There was a new cover feature in issue 126, 27 February, in It Happened This Week, whose title was self-explanatory. Though there always seemed to be an incident from the recent War, the feature roamed far and wide in time. Tim Kelly finally mopped up the Evil left eye of Zoltec, four weeks later, shattering into fragments that led to Diablo’s death, then dropping the pasted-together eye into the deepest ocean. From where, of course, it would never return. And if you believe that…
And a week later, the giant robot ape Mytek walked into the ocean with the evil dwarf Gogra in his control room in the head. Mytek’s creator, Professor Boyce and sharp-shooting game warden Dirk Mason had saved the day. But there was no new feature starting up…
We all know that Hurricane didn’t last more than fifteen months, but even before the plug was pulled on it, it ceased to be billed as Valiant‘s companion paper, last seen on the masthead in issue 128 (13 March). It’s formal merger with Tiger was not announced until issue 136 (8 May), the same issue that carried big news about Valiant itself, coming up one issue later. This was about an increase in price by one penny, to 7d, but also a massive expansion from 28 to 40 pages. Business was clearly booming.
The additional pages brought new features, starting with Master-Mind, a one page comedy strip about a supposed criminal brain, The Astounding Jason Hyde, Valiant‘s first prose series, about a man with x-ray eyes, Fort Navajo, a western strip that rung instantly to me as being a translation of Jean (Moebius) Giraud’s Mike Blueberry, What do you Know? a half-page snippets feature, Twelve Guilty Men, a crime story starring former Police Detective Rod Marsden, framed for corruption by Crime Incorporated and determined to identify their twelve chiefs (do convicted prisoners really get to wear suits and ties?) and ‘Gabby’ McGlew, about a story-telling blowhard. My deeply cherished It’s a Dog’s Life still occupied the back page but probably as a cost-cutting measure, was reduced to black and white.
Week two of the new paper confirmed my instinct about Fort Navajo when the irregular stranger actually named himself Mike Blueberry…
Six weeks worth of story were enough to confirm that Fort Najavo was the best new addition by a country mile, Giraud’s cynical Army Lieutenant putting a hard edge on the Western setting. Neither of the comedies were worth the paper they were printed on and Jason Hyde, like every other prose serial going, was cliche-rotten. Twelve Guilty Men had potential but was wasting it on indifferent art and perfunctory stories, as Marsden, with only one assistant, was taking out the twelve heads, each very rich and powerful men protected not only be the Police but their own criminal organisation, with an ease and swiftness that was ridiculous.
The strip did arouse some vague memories, but these could have come from any similar series, for this was not a unique premise – it wasn’t a million miles from the concept of the first Legge’s Eleven story, nor the later Carson’s Cubs in Lion. But as the series reached its climax – eleven heads captured, the twelfth a mystery man – there was a very direct recollection, as the twelfth man turned out to be the Chief Constable to whom Marsden took the signed confession to his framing.
Despite the last man getting the drop on him, it only took Marsden one more episode to win and get his CID job back, 21 weeks all told. The series was replaced in issue 158 (9 October) by Son of the Stars. The half-page ad for it looked well-drawn but archaic, and the concept filled me with dread.
My premonitions were fulfilled in the first episode. The art-style marked this as a product of the Fifties, and most likely the early Fifties at that. There was a strong Wally Wood influence to the art, and I suspect it to be an American reprint. The art, make no mistake, was excellent, and reproduced very cleanly, but it was so dated that, in late 1965, it stuck out like a sore tentacle but, unbelievably, it lasted only three weeks: I’m putting my money on it having been a one-off story from EC’s Weird Science.
There was a rather more unwelcome termination in issue 160 (23 October) when Fort Navajo came to an abrupt and rather unsatisfying ending that smelled distinctly of an editorial decision to wrap it up, though any such instruction could not have come from Valiant’s editor. Blueberry went on in France and other parts of the world, but that was the end for us, and he was replaced a week later by Jackaroo Joe, who sounded Australian, and was.
This was the first of two new series, and its formula was obvious. Australian stockman with kangaroo sidekick inherits Scottish lairdship and sets off for Britain whilst an alternate heir tries to drive him off. When he gets there, it’s bound to be fish-out-of-water time because he’ll insist on being Australian through and through (hey, you don’t suppose Paul Hogan read this before he wrote Crocodile Dundee, do you?).
The other was The Space Explorers, and half a panel was enough to show that this was from the same stable as Son of the Stars, with all the same failings.
Issue 162 (6 November 1965) isn’t a round number. Nor is it an anniversary, or the eve of a revamp, though as it happened, Jack O’Justice came to the rather brief end of his and Moll’s latest adventure. But it is the last issue on the first DVD, which makes it the end point for this second instalment.
After the end of Part 1, I pronounced Valiant a good, but not yet inspired comic. We’ve covered nearly two years in this essay, and even with the addition of a dozen extra pages in 1965, the comic is still dominated by most of the same long-lasting strips I talked about at the end of 1963. Kid Gloves and Professor Kraken have gone, and Mytek the Mighty has arrived, along with The Wild Wonders and Legge’s Eleven, but Valiant is still made up of Captain Hurricane, Tim Kelly, Louis Crandell and, though I shudder to admit it, Billy Bunter, The Nutts and The Crows.
There’s a good, solid core to the comic, based around its long-running strips. Captain Hurricane remains a formulaic cartoon with dodgy racial overtones whenever the mighty Marine faces the Japanese, whilst Kelly’s Eye tests the bounds of the fantastic over and over, but it’s quasi-primitive art and writing is vigorous and dynamic, enough to forgive the the repetitious ways in which Tim either doubts the Eye of Zoltec can save him this time or loses it temporarily.
The Steel Claw is running smoothly with Crandell as a (super)hero, and it frequently is filled with gorgeously detailed chiaroscuro art of sometimes delicate brilliance that cries out for reproduction on a higher grade of paper than Fleetway’s traditional newsprint, whilst Mytek is another of the primitive energy strips, full of shriekingly-large gestures. And Jack O’Justice is enjoying a high level of art under Tom Kerr, though the stories are getting a bit too brief for complete satisfaction: still, Moll is still being treated as an equal partner and not just the damsel in distress, which I find remarkable for 1965.
The Wild Wonders is another strip that rides the edge of goofy humour and succeeds thanks to an artist whose rounded style maintains a good balance between cartoon realism and cartoon exaggeration. There’s a fluidity to the approach that builds conviction, whereas Legge’s Eleven goes too far in the opposite direction. There’s no effort at all to make the footballers or the football even remotely realistic, and indeed some of the poses make me wonder if the artist has ever seen a human body in motion, let alone one stripped to shirt, shorts, socks and football boots. By its second story, the series had become boring and the third looks like going down a well-worn path that Carson’s Cubs will be taking: I know they’re not due for half a decade yet, but I read them first.
The comedy stuff still goes down like a cup of cold sick with me, especially Sporty. These are pages I just skim through, like the Jason Hyde serials, to get back to the good stuff. The glorious exception is still It’s a Dog’s Life. The jokes are still pretty basic and frequently predictable, but the strip’s lightness, and the panel by panel staging never fails to draw me into laughing. I wish it was still in colour, but I love it all the same, for its deft depictions of its small but brilliantly incarnated cast, and a tip of the hat to the translator, who’s handling the dialogue superbly.
Have I left anything out? Valiant at this point is rock solid and stable. If it lacks anything, it is just the tiniest of sparks of imagination. I’m hoping to see that in the next part, as we head into and through 1966.