Valiant now has 250 issues under its belt and a stable line-up, which still includes five features from its first issue. Issue 251 is cover-dated 22 July 1967. The Summer of Love is in full swing, psychedelia and flower power are in the air, I am about to end my first year at Grammar School. All’s well in the world, for now.
Let’s remind ourselves of Valiant‘s line-up as we hit Part 4.
We continue to be 40 pages for 7d. The only colour is on the cover, offering the recent They All Laughed, But… Inside is Captain Hurricane (4½pp), The Crows (½p), The Nutts (1p) Kelly’s Eye (2pp), Operation ‘Rescue’ (1p), Legge’s Eleven (2½pp), letters page It’s All Yours (1p), The House of Dolmann (4pp), The Steel Claw (2pp), The Astounding Jason Hyde (3pp), Mytek the Mighty (2½pp), Billy Bunter (2pp), The Wild Wonders (3pp), Lords of Lilliput Island, the newest series (2pp), The Laird of Lazy Q, another new series (2pp), Tatty-Mane, King of the Jungle (1p), and Sam Sunn (1p). Sporting Roundabout (½p), which had been a feature of the comic almost since it began, was left out, but was back two weeks later. And ‘Gabby’ McGlew, His Yarns aren’t True (1½pp) was the bad penny. Even the atrocious Sporty kept coming back.
Two issues into the new instalment and The Steel Claw was struck another idiotic blow. Not content with equipping him with a superhero costume, the creators stuck him with, wait for it, a teenage sidekick, by the name of Blackie Morris, another of those handy orphans who swan around looking for father-figures to get them into extreme danger: where were Social Services, I ask you?
Looking at Lords of Lilliput Island after it had had a decent chance to impress, I’m going to repeat what I said in the last instalment: the series that are built around a situation instead of around recurring characters are vastly inferior. I can’t summon up any interest in goings on amongst the midgets and the good and bad boys on Mayo Island, none of whom have any afterlife. They aren’t conceived as characters and thus have very little of it.
Much the same could be said of The Laird of Lazy Q, which was also a one-off story, and done by issue 258 (9 September) but McGregor had got character, and he could easily be seen capable of returning in future stories, which makes this series considerably more involving. It was replaced by When Britain Froze, another situation story about… well, if you can’t guess… This was a mere 1½ pages but was unusual in its heroes being brother and sister: that’s right, a girl. The first one since Diana Dauntless.
I’ve already expressed disappointment in The House of Dolmann, which has good, strong art but little else but some of its stories veered into the horrible territory of Jerry Siegel on the later Spider, or, even worse, Gadgetman and Gimmick Kid. A villain named the Ghastly Gardener who dressed like a scarecrow and whose tools were oversized gardening equipment was so far beyond the Pale that the Pale couldn’t be seen from Jodrell Bank.
Sporting Roundabout in issue 261 (30 September) threw up another of those mini-features whose significance only arrives in retrospect, matching Bobby Charlton (41) and Jimmy Greaves (44) as the only two footballers to have scored over 30 goals for England, and wondered if one of them would be the first to score 50 goals. We know now that neither would, but who could have guessed it would take another fifty years before that landmark arrived?
Lords of Lilliput Island was progressing in the same repetitious manner that The Last Boys had, an endless series of potential advances constantly anticipated and shot down by Tug Wilson, sending everything back to zero again.
The Steel Claw’s battle against the crystalloid invaders of Earth was unworthy of the series in every respect except the continually excellent art. Blasco’s line-work was perfectly detailed and his mastery of shadow absolute, making this Valiant’s best strip by a mile.
The Xmas issue, no 273 (23 December) saw When Britain Froze expand by half a page to 2 pages, but not improve in dullness. Since it was back at its normal length for the last issue of 1967, that extra half page was clearly just a Xmas bonus…
And we moved on into 1968 with the end of Lords of Lilliput Island and the news that it was being replaced by a feature that stood a decent chance of being decent, a revival of the popular detective, Sexton Blake. When Britain Froze then put in another two page shift to spoil my little joke but its kid-heroes finally found their father who unwittingly had invented the antidote to the freezing frogs, which raised hope that that too would soon melt away. It only took two more instalments.
Sexton Blake’s debut, linked to the then-successful lTV version of his adventures that I used to watch so avidly, was promoted on the cover on issue 276 (13 January 1968). Once again, the comic’s term for it was ‘picture-story’ and once again I wonder. But this was a one-off, and They All Laughed was back a week later.
Unfortunately, Sporty was starting to appear more regularly again, and in full page stories. The strip’s biggest problem, apart of its completely predictable unfunniness, was that Reg Wootton’s art was not only ugly but looked completely out of place, a stranger from a distant decade with no correspondence to the year 1968, or indeed any year in which Valiant’s target audience had ever lived.
When Britain Froze was replaced by the first Western since The Laird of Lazy Q, in the shape of Red Kerrigan, Fighting Sheriff of Red Gulch. Unfortunately, all it took was a second’s look to spot that this was a reprint of some Fifties series, no doubt first run under a different name, and now filling space and looking wrong.
However, Kerrigan was only a short term stopgap, designed to fill a spot until issue 283 (2 February), when Valiant underwent its first ever full-scale revamp. Two long-standing stories, Legge’s Eleven and Mytek the Mighty finished, as did the unwanted Sam Sunn, and a horde of new series began. I know I’ve not said much about Mytek, but it was always a good, solid, entertaining series, with strong, if not exceptional art, and there’s just something so appealing about a 100 feet tall robot gorilla. I’d miss it.
They All Laughed ended in favour of a promo for the Red Arrow, the issue’s free gift of a plastic flyer, and would be replaced the following week by Is It True (no question mark), presenting odd incidents that the reader had to decide were true or false before page 12. Inside, it was all change. Tim Kelly and Dr Diamond’s increasingly dull time travel adventures took them to the Wild West and there were new adventures for Sexton Blake, the Wild Wonders, whose adventure looked like it was going to return to the original idea now that we were once again in an Olympic year, this time Mexico, and The Steel Claw,. Though still the art highlight of the comic, the series badly needed some better, i.e., less ridiculous storylines.
The new football series was Raven on the Wing, drawn by Tim Kelly’s creator, Francisco Solano Lopez, in which Baldy Hagan, the new manager of fading Highboro’ United, was trying to break through the Club’s high-minded chivalry by introducing a bare-footed gypsy boy with super senses into the team. Bluebottle and Basher was a new one-page cartoon about a small cop and a big crook. Little Orvy was a two-pager about a little boy’s imaginary adventures whilst learning at school. Credited to Rick Yager, it was an oddly drawn affair of highly-stylised cartoon realist art in tiny panels, and was a reprint of a short-lived American newspaper strip that had run from 1959 to 1963.
The Ironmaster seemed to be a Phantom Viking rip-off, with street kid Danny Ventor falling down a ventilation shaft, finding a load of strange gear and being transformed, in an electric shock, into an armoured gladiator, whilst The Shrinker was sinister little scientist Capek, who had invented a machine to, what else, shrink people, starting with RAF pair Squadron-Leader Flint and Sergeant Slake. This was a reprint of the series as it originally appeared in Buster, from 1962 onwards.
Finally, the new back page feature was Master Spy, the Schoolboy Secret Agent. I agree. Actually, this broke with back page tradition by being a serial, but that didn’t make it any better. At least I didn’t last more than a handful of weeks.
I began this read through with a two DVD set that only went up to 1968, but when the second disc proved to be faulty, I had to invest in a six DVD set that covers the complete run. With issue 288 (6 April), I’m moving into disc 3.
Issue 290 (20 April) seemed a good point to assess the state of Valiant and the new stories that had come in at the start of the year. Raven was the outstanding character, with a serious football story to tell, albeit through exaggerated positions and characters. Neither The Ironmaster nor The Shrinker had anything interesting abut them, whilst the new cartoons were as completely unfunny as those that had gone before them. Little Orvy had good art, and an educational aspect to it, but stood out more for how tedious everything else was than on its own slender merits.
It reminded me of reading Lion last year, and how the comic’s early, strong showing in the Sixties started to drain away in 1968, as the influence of superhero comics started to expand. The Steel Claw even offers a direct parallel to The Spider: great art, shame about the stories. There’s a sense that the comic may have peaked, and be entering into a decline. If so, I hope it will be at least gradual for some time yet.
The peripatetic Tom Kerr was now drawing Kelly’s Eye, though in a style that initially attempted to mimic Solano, but week in, week out moved closely to his own approach and linework. And time was up for Jason Hyde in issue 293 (18 May), closing his X-Ray Eyes for good.
There was good news in issue 296 (1 June) with the end of the unliked Ironmaster and the announcement of the return of Mytek the Mighty, though the fact that the enemy was the dwarfish Gogra yet again was boring: how come he kept surviving being stepped on by a gigantic robot gorilla? Meanwhile, the Sexton Blake series was getting a bit repetitious with Blake or Tinker or both of them falling through trapdoors at least every other week: did their villains not have the imagination, or perhaps not the money, to build anything else?
Dolmann continued on in the same way every week, but for at least one contemporary reader, Dolmann’s habit of throwing his voice into his puppets was growing somewhat irritating. Given that some of the little bleeders were quite openly nasty about each other, the practice grew increasingly schizophrenic, with the only interpretation that different sectors of Dolmann’s psyche were at war with each other. Or that the guy was plain nuts. Either way, it wasn’t the most mentally healthy set-up.
A new series, Voyage of No Return, arrived in issue 310 (7 September) as a replacement for Little Orvy: not so much like for like, though. Meanwhile, Raven on the Wing was going the way of all football strips: one story about football then straight into the same old nonsense about secrets and rich inheritances.
There was no need to wait nine weeks to assess Voyage of No Return: three were enough to mark it as crap. Indeed, but for the art, I’ve have assumed it to be a Fifties reprint. Perhaps it was a remake from the original scripts? The Shrinker returned to normal size in issue 312 (21 September) and made way for… Return of the Shrinker, tacking implausibility onto a weak idea with no room for development.
The new Sexton Blake adventure, starting the same week, suddenly dated Blake’s series to the 1930s, a more natural setting for him, but hardly one that had been noticeable thus far. And the villain in the new Mytek the Mighty story was… Gogra.
There was also a change of artist for the strip. The new man was another decent artist with a good and fairly detailed line but he assembled his pages in square and rectangular panels with clear gutters between them, in consequence to the other artists, the majority of whom blended their pages with overlapping dialogue bubbles, varied and angular layouts and partial or total ommission of panel borders. Mytek, in this style, felt hopelessly juvenile.
This was a period when the whole of Valiant was just jogging along, producing nothing demanding a comment positive or negative, so I find myself mentioning the issue 320 (16 November) Is It True? simply because it anticipates the plot for Jurassic Park… And despite my original assessment of its art, I’ve now come to the conclusion that Voyage of No Return, with its tiny panels and stilted dialogue, is an actual Fifties reprint, and further evidence that Eagle had the only good stuff of that decade. And a longer exposure to Sexton Blake half-convinced me that it too was reprint material, only for the length of Tinker’s sideburns.
Speaking of retreads, Sporty still kept cropping up irregularly, and even ‘Gabby’ McGlew was restored for issue 325 (21 December), just in time for Xmas (had it been in time for Easter, I’d have probably used ‘resurrected’).
Two issues later, Valiant entered 1969. Sexton Blake’s adventure with the Museum of Fear was going on longer than any of his previous stories, but only had three more instalments left. The Steel Claw’s attempts to clear his name of being a traitor were going on considerably longer, with no end in sight, especially when his quest to receive the Shadow Squad’s Code Bullets (what secret organisation worth bothering with conceals its list of agents in bullets?) were split up between three locations.
Still, the tedious Voyage of No Return reached a dull ending in issue 330 (25 January 1969), arousing hope for a better replacement. But the two-page River of Fire had the instant look of another Fifties wash-up.
And on the subject of art, there was a subtle change to that on Raven on the Wing in issue 334 (22 February) when, after one page of Solano Lopez, a new artist mimicking his style took over, and unless I’m very much mistaken, this was a return for our old friend Tom Kerr. And as a few weeks passed it became clearer and clearer that this was welcome back, Tom. As for Lopez, changing political conditions in his native Argentina had allowed him to return there from exile in 1968, though sadly not permanently, ending his association with Fleetway.
Return of the Shrinker, meanwhile, just dragged on and on through endless cliffhangers whose only point was to postpone the end of the series for another week, long past the point of any remaining interest. Even The Wild Wonders were starting to drag now, following the faceless criminal Number One around Australia without ever getting any nearer capturing him. Between this and Tim Kelly’s adventures in time, there was growing to be an air of staleness about Valiant, as though its writers had run out of new stories to devise.
At least River of Fire didn’t outstay its welcome, but its protagonist Chris Carron stuck around for a new story starting in issue 340 (5 April), Mission of Fear. This was no more enticing than Carron’s first, and underwent a radical change of art style as early as issue 342 (19 April). But Carron’s second outing only lasted until issue 346 (17 May), when it gave way to something that was at least different.
Return of the Shrinker saw Capek finally defeated in issue 343 (26 April), but, dismally, the editor saw no reason to end the series just because it was repetitious and the Shrinker re-returned for another adventure the following week, this time intent on shrinking people for The Shrinker’s Revenge. This was ridiculous. Valiant was providing far too many parallels to Lion‘s progression into doing the same thing over and over again.
The new story was a sports series, The Secret Champion, starring sports-mad, but sports-incompetent Mark Keen. Keen couldn’t play for toffee, so he became a sports reporter. He also became some ludicrous whiting out in captions since the series was blatantly a repeat whose original hero clearly had a longer name. But on assignment overseas Mark accidentally released a 2,000 year old Roman gladiator, Marcus Canus Brittanicus, a long dead ancestor, who swore to watch over him.
There’s not enough time to assess that one properly, though it looks initially like another deadbeat idea, for with 14 June 1969, Valiant hit its 350th issue, almost half its long run. This section has now run 100 issues, and it’s time for a breather.