So far, we’ve travelled six and a half years and 350 issues from Valiant‘s debut in 1962. Issue 351 is cover-dated 21 June 1967. Only six months remain of the Sixties. There are still five series that appeared in issue 1. Thunderclap Newman’s ‘Something in the Air’ was the UK no. 1 single. I was coming to the end of my third year in Grammar School.
Valiant had now dropped to 36 pages for 7d. The only colour is on the cover, continuing Is It True? The contents consist of Captain Hurricane (4½pp), The Nutts (1p), Kelly’s Eye (2pp), Sexton Blake (2pp), letters page It’s All Yours (1p), The Crows (½p), Raven on the Wing (3pp), Sporty (1p), The Steel Claw (2pp), The Secret Champion (1½pp), The House of Dolmann (3pp), ‘Gabby’ McGlew, His Yarns aren’t True (1p), Billy Bunter (2pp), Mytek the Mighty (2pp), The Wild Wonders (3pp), Sporting Roundabout (½p), The Shrinker’s Revenge (2pp) and Bluebottle and Basher (1p).
But by now Valiant was feeling very stale. Tim Kelly had been trailing around behind Dr Diamond in time, and The Steel Claw trying to clear his name for well over a year each, with no sign of either story coming to an end. Even The Wild Wonders had been facing the same menace for months on end, coming to cliffhanger after cliffhanger, though their story at least had only two more episodes left.
Of the newest features, nothing was of any great worth. The Secret Champion had the feel of one of those cheap, nasty series introduced into Eagle at the end so that none of the still-decent series could remain to transfer into Lion. Meanwhile, Sexton Blake and Tinker kept falling through holes wherever they went: I know the series is supposed to be set in the Thirties, but the shoddiness of Planning Control is still frightful.
A couple of issues expanded to forty pages again, but only to present four page plugs for Fleetway’s new weekly football paper, Shoot: that’s another fond memory. Such magazines as that and 1968’s Goal were displacing my old line-up of British boy’s comics, and my comics-oriented enthusiasms were concentrating on DC’s full-colour floppies, albeit not for much longer.
Tim Kelly finished his adventure in the future in issue 362 (6 September) and set off back to the Twentieth Century. You’d think he’d have learned by now that Dr Diamond was a thoroughgoing shitbag and would take them somewhere else in time, and guess what the little weasel did? This string of stories, its complete lack of variety, and Kelly’s ongoing failure to stomp the treacherous little rat into a greasespot had by now ruined Kelly’s Eye, and further demonstrated Valiant’s determination not to come up with any new ideas. No doubt Gogra would be back the next time Mytek started a ‘new’ adventure.
The same issue saw the start of a new one page comic strip, Hymer Loafer, the Tiredest Man in Tennessee. I need say no more about this than I have about any of the other disastrously unfunny ‘funny’ features, save that this was another reprint from Buster, where it had run as Lazy Sawbones, though the look suggests it’s European in origin. Meanwhile, the Shrinker went on to the fourth of his reprints from Buster: there had only been five so the pain could not go on forever. As for The Steel Claw, his interminable story was rendered even worse by a change of artist: gone were the delicate lines, the confident composition, the mastery of chiaroscuro: in short, the art had gone crap.
Valiant had turned into a near-total mess. Sexton Blake got shot in the chest at point-blank range in issue 364 (20 September) but was only scratched by the bullet the next week.
But credit where it’s due. The Secret Champion was still pathetic but looked to be the latest home for Tom Kerr’s art, whilst Reg Bunn turned up on House of Dolmann. All was not yet lost. The Wild Wonders were once again being manipulated into advertising sports gear for a dodgy shop-owner, but the story took a dip into blatant racism territory again, by introducing an Indian fast bowler full of superstitions about what was evidently caste breaking.
The Shrinker in Space began in issue 368 (18 October). This was the last of the Buster stories: an end was in sight. And Hymer went missing after a half dozen episodes, no doubt to join the great unwashed mass of one-page funny strips that might come and go whenever the editor felt like it.
Tim Kelly finally got Dr Diamond ready to go home and insisted on setting the controls himself so there was no chance the bag of bones would aim somewhere other than 1969. Except that he promptly set the controls for pirate times himself, for reasons that had better be very good ones and not just a demented writer trying to drag things out just one more time. And The Steel Claw’s quest to clear his name somehow warped into defending Earth against alien invasion: are we sure Jerry Siegel wasn’t writing it?
But at long last the tale was told, and in issue 374 (29 November), Louis Crandell was free to start a new adventure. Unfortunately, the villain of this was a rock-faced individual calling himself the Boulderman. (It had to be Jerry Siegel). At this point, I disappointedly declare the series dead and received no reason to change my mind when, in contrast to the previous marathon, it ended in seven weeks.
The Steel Champion came to an end in issue 377 (20 December) to make room for World in Peril, another ‘situation’ series with indistinct characters, some of them children. And Tim Kelly finally revealed that he’d dropped himself and Dr Diamond in it to meet his pirate ancestor, Forkbeard Kelly. So that was not two long-standing series, great in their time, but dead of stupidity.
With issue 399 (3 January 1970), Valiant left the Sixties behind. By issue 380 (10 January), The Shrinker reprints at last were all used up, and the first new series of the new decade was The Lurking Menace. This starred hero frogman Tod Titan against a mysterious metal deep sea pirate menace, The Blue Shark, under the command of Captain Y.
Reg Bunn seemed to be hanging around Valiant now, contributing a few Steel Claw episodes (without Blackie Morris or that stupid copper mesh suit).
I’ve avoided mentioning Billy Bunter throughout all these years of Valiant but the strip forced itself upon me in issue 383 (31 January) with an abrupt change of artist, the series suddenly becoming 1½ pages, and the style even more archaic. Had a source of reprints run out, or one had to be introduced? Either way, the change was a one-off and the old format and artist resuming the next issue.
There was an even bigger surprise the same week, as Mytek the Mighty came to an end, the giant robot ape being released into the wilds of Africa to put his feet up, and a new series, billed both as College Cowboy and ‘hilarious’ (your heart just sinks, doesn’t it?) to replace it. It was a familiar formula: misfit attends public school to get the education that will earn him his inheritance. Presumably, dirty tricks will start to happen, caused by the alternative heir. The humour may have been more detectable when I was still fourteen, but it’s evaporated by now.
An early change of artist on The Lurking Menace (issue 384, 7 February) immediately aroused suspicions that this was yet another reprinted series as the style and look immediately took on the faint blurriness of some definite reprints, as if the original art was no longer available, as well as the look of the characters. And within a few weeks there were a couple of episodes that looked to be drawn by a less-polished Reg Bunn, cementing my opinion.
World in Peril came to an abrupt end in issue 394 (18 April). It was not replaced at first, but there was a partial revamp planned for issue 399 (23 May), with four new series. And for all I’ve said about it, I was still sorry to see The Steel Claw come to an end, with a couple of Jesus Blasco art jobs, after such a long time. The House of Dolmann was also cancelled, together with Sexton Blake, and The Lurking Menace came to an end. With all the other ongoing series clearing the deck for new stories, it was a full-scale renewal.
And an uncannily timely one. It must be obvious that I have not been enjoying Valiant for a long time now. I have said so many times that the comic has gone stale, unable or unwilling to come up with any new ideas, and I had intended to stop at issue 400 to comprehensively review the title and the failings I saw in it. For a long time, the comic had had no better idea than to be a replica of itself every week, to present the same thing over and over again, reliant on the innate conservatism of its boy audience in wanting familiarity, but which has become deadly to the adult mind.
I’ve compared Valiant‘s progress in the Sixties as resembling Lion‘s timescale, and I am aware that it fared no better in the Seventies, and by many accounts worse. But for the moment, it’s reacted to the drabness of recent issues, and dropped one of the five series that have run since issue 1 so, for the moment, let’s give it another chance.
The other new element in issue 399 was the start of the countdown to the 1970 World Cup, the only one England ever entered as Holders, with the cover, free gift wallcharts and stickers and a picture feature on the Squad. Otherwise, we were off to a bad start as Tim Kelly’s adventures obstinately refused to change as he was once again stuck in time.
The new quarter started with The Trouble-Shooters, friendly rival construction gang bosses, cheerful cockney ‘Knocker’ White and gloomy Welshman ‘Jinx’ Jenkins sent to clear up trouble spots for Anglo-Gobal, which The Ghostly Guardian featured teenage runaway Jim Frobisher and his dog Trap, running away from Jim’s hateful and grasping Alf Hudson, five years after Jim’s Captain Dad had disappeared and turning up at the derelict Frobisher mansion in Cornwall to find it inhabited by a pirate ghost.
Neither looked promising on first acquaintance but they were prime standard compared to Slave of the Screamer, a steaming great pile of cliches, but drawn by Jesus Blasco, poor sod. The last strip, Humbert Higgs, The Gentle Giant, immediately sold itself as a reprint from the model of the car washed-up boxer ‘Rocky’ Salmon (groan) sent off the road.
Issue 400 (30 May) saw a new cover feature, with the long-running Is It True replaced by Who Is It? a guess-the-famous-person idea, starting with boxer Joe Louis and another of those archaic Billy Bunters. But this seemed to be the order of the day now for the Fat Owl of the Remove. Issue 404 (4 July) introduced a new one-page ‘funny’ strip, Banger and Masher, about two feuding teenage terrors which, apart from a metafictional appearance by Valiant’s editor, had the usual square root of nothing going for it. There was also a new one-page oddball stories feature, going by Well, Fancy That, which was a lot more interesting.
A dozen issues on, I was no longer convinced that Humbert Higgs was a reprint, but I was convinced it was a rip-off of Kid Gloves from the comic’s early years, only horribly condescending towards the supposedly backwards Humbert.
Speaking of disappointing attitudes, Raven on the Wing was being consistently portrayed as something of a misogynist. Apart from him being a teenager, there’s no indication of how old Raven is, nor of manager Baldy Hagen’s blonde-haired daughter Jo, who was increasingly getting drawn in micro-skirts and knee-length boots. Raven’s attitude towards Jo was contemptuous at best from the start, he only ever calls her ‘yacky-chops’ and despite her friendliness towards him, with a hint of genuine affection underneath her frequent exasperation at his behaviour, he can’t be anything but dismissive and even aggressive towards her. I’m not expecting Friday night at the pictures or anything, but after a while it gets very noticeable. It’s a long time since Jack O’Justice and Moll moonlight, or even Kid Gloves and Velvet Mittens.
The increasingly difficult to maintain Humbert Higgs was abandoned in issue 417 (3 October) to be replaced by The Star of Fortune, a former western Sheriff’s star, magicked by Indians into enabling its wearer to foresee the future, and winding up in the hands of Texas schoolboy Willie Wilson. Meanwhile, The Troubleshooters, having started off with realistic, if broadly drawn characters running into mysterious obstacles, had now ‘progressed’ to equipping Messrs Knocker and Jinx with an egghead scientist and a robot plane. Two more pages to skim past without reading (though they did discover a monster in Loch Craggan , but not the same one as in the Eagle story about the same place!)
In a foretaste of the future, the following issue saw a dual-price on the cover, the traditional 7d and the forthcoming 3 new pence.
The miner’s strikes and powercuts of the winter of 1970-71 meant an eleven week gap between issues 423 (14 November 1970) and 424 (6 February 1971), though none of the stories were interrupted. What the suspension meant to Valiant‘s sales figures is anybody’s guess, but I imagine the comic lost a lot of readers.
Issue 427 (27 February) re-demonstrated my point about Raven. Determined to enter a team of his tribe’s boys in a National Youth Cup, Raven’s plans were stymied by Baldy Hagen, but Jo found a way round her father’s refusal to aid Raven. Her thanks? To be called ‘yacky-chops’, and get no thanks.
There were more changes on the way. First, the unfunny College Cowboy bowed out in issue 431 (27 March), then, the following issue, after nine years of unyoked existence, Valiant announced its first merger, taking over the cancelled Smash. The merged paper stayed at 36 pages, with four of Smash‘s features crossing over, which meant curtains for The Star of Fortune, Slave of the Screamer and The Troubleseekers.
The new Valiant and Smash debuted on 10 April. All the retained Valiant features reset with new stories. Incoming was Janus Stark, Victorian escapologist, the long-running classroom rivalry of The Swots and The Blots by the legendary Leo Baxendale, Simon Test, adventurer and His Sporting Lordship, commoner Henry Nobbins who inherited the title Earl of Ranworth but had to become champion in multiple sports before he could touch his inheritance of £5,000,000.
With the exception of the eternal Nutts and Crows, and the execrable Basher and Masher, none of Valiant‘s other comic series crossed the divide but never say never, especially in the case of Sporty.
The new blood did indeed invigorate the comic, though Simon Test, whose adventure was bland and art on the rough side, only lasted until issue 440 (29 May) before being dropped for the Return of an old favourite. His Sporting Lordship was similarly dull, but I found Janus Stark, with its bold, dark lines and heavy blacks, surprisingly enjoyable. Like House of Dollman, it went in for only short stories, yet unlike Dollman it did not obey a formula.
Yes the Return was a Return, Return of the Claw, a new series featuring Louis Crandell and his amazing Steel Claw, and the even more amazing Jesus Blasco, and apparently having returned to villainy. Needless to say, it was only the public who thought that, leaving Crandell to come out of his much-deserved retirement to clear his name.
Yet another new ‘comedy’ page debuted in issue 442 (12 June) in the form of Wacker, a simple sailor. By the name alone, this had to be a reprint, because the overuse of the Scouse term of endearment had died a death outside Liverpool by 1966 at the latest. And yes, the terror that was Sporty was back in the next issue…
To my everlasting surprise, issue 445 (3 July) featured Raven calling Jo Hagen by the name Jo! Was the Lengro going soft, or was he finally being influenced by her extremely short shorts? Sadly, it was just a one-off: despite her attempts to help him overcome a curse, she was yacky-chops again (the shorts were still shoooort, mind you).
Speaking of how people address each other, for some considerable time, Tim Kelly had been calling Dr Diamond a ‘silly old faggot’, which was hardly respectful (though what had the silly old faggot done to deserve respect?) but also something I know my parents would not have been pleased to know I was learning.
The Return of the Claw had been progressing decently, with a half naturally developing storyline until issue 449 (31 July) when the mastermind(s) were revealed to be two genius eight year olds set on luring Crandell out of a retirement for their ‘project’: immediate nose-dive.
The Ghostly Guardian, which had always reminded me in town of Lion‘s Turville’s Touchstone, was perpetuating the format of heir meets spook, but growing more ridiculous by the week.
Issue 454 (4 September 1971) marks the end of DVD3, and this part of the series.