One of the many little ironies that make life bearable is the knowledge that back in the Sixties there were two British weekly boys comics that billed themselves as ‘Companions’ to Valiant, because they were produced by the same editorial staff. The first of these was Hurricane, that lasted for sixty three weeks across four distinct editorial phases. The second was an even short-lived title named Champion, that lasted a mere fifteen weeks before being cancelled.
Yet when the time came for each of these ‘Companions’ of Valiant to fold, neither merged into their senior stable-mate. Hurricane folded into Tiger, Champion into Lion. You have to wonder.
Now, courtesy of a tip from the invaluable David Simpson, I’ve been able to download the entire fifteen issue run of Champion and read the same, and to be frank, it’s not that impressive.
Champion debuted on 26 February 1966, costing 7d for a 40 page comic. It’s contents consisted of Jet Jordan (2pp, front and back covers, colour and b&w respectively); School for Spaceman (3pp); Return of the Stormtroopers (4pp); Knights of Konigsfeld (3pp); Lofty Lightyear (1p); War Eagle (3pp), Bartok and his Brothers (3pp, illustrated prose); Spider Webb – The Scrapper of the Scrapyard (2pp); Letters (2pp); When the Sky turned Green (3pp); Cosmic Nick – the Clot from Outer Space (1p); Hunters without Guns (2pp), World of Champions (4pp, featuring racing driver Stirling Moss this week); Boy Kidd (2pp) and The Phantom Viking (3pp). And already there were promises of new series starting in issue 2, such as Dr X and Jinks.
Some of these series I have already written about when reviewing the history of Lion, and I certainly don’t intend to repeat myself in the case of Lofty Lightyear. With the exception of the European material – and of course Boy Kidd is a translation of the 1962 Rene Goscinny/Morris Lucky Luke adventure ‘Billy the Kid’, with Luke renamed Buck Bingo – none of the comedy strips of the Sixties work for me and Cosmic Nick is no different.
One immediate problem is that, by the standards of what was being published at the time, and with particular reference to both Valiant and Hurricane, Champion looks cheap. There’s a greater use of white space on the cover, and minimal, badly off-register colour in the first Jet Jordan page. That is a decent flying adventure strip, but none of the rest are immediately appealing. The closest the title comes to a character-dominated series is The Phantom Viking, and meek, weak Olaf Larsen, the Viking’s ‘secret identity’ is scarcely adequate in that role.
There’s an overload of what I defined as situation series, none more obviously so than When the Sky turned Green, a cliched disaster story about the crew of a submarine having to save the world because they were all underwater when the sky turned green: it took about three panels to see there was no chance ever of a new idea in its pages.
Return of the Stormtroopers, about a fanatical Nazi general awaking from suspended animation to attack the peace-loving world of 2046 and Hunters without Guns, about a family of wildlife photographers in Africa played with German war machines, though the latter had very outline art, whilst War Eagle was about an eagle becoming mascot and master technician to a WW2 RAF Squadron. Yes, you heard that right, tactician.
But Knights of Konigsfeld, Dr X and Hunters without Guns, like Jet Jordan, were all translations of European series, making Champion half bought in, a much higher proportion than anyone would have expected. Jet Jordan, which was the long-running ‘Dan Cooper’ series to the rest of the world, had decent, clean art (albeit resized and redesigned to fit the comic’s front page specifications) but the others suffered from quasi-cartoon art, all plain outlines and no detail.
Indeed the best art, detailed, carefully hatched and filled with depth, was on War Eagle, although it looked somewhat archaic. That the series was a reprint seemed clear from the different lettering in which ‘War Eagle’s name appeared, overwriting a longer name for the bird.
Wacker, another European strip (real name Starter), a two-pager, started in issue 3, with a noise-averse Liverpudlian looking for somewhere quiet in the country, only to get ripped off with a broken-down Hall.
After five issues – a third of Champion‘s life, remember – it’s already possible to come to a conclusion as to why it failed: it isn’t good enough. It looks and feels like the runt of the litter, fed the scraps and crumbs that weren’t considered up to scratch for either of its companions. The only decent strips are the continental ones: Jet Jordan, Boy Kidd, Jinx (Wacker isn’t up to their standard). Only The Phantom Viking has any credentials among the home-produced material, and its scratchy, uncertain art is a major hindrance.
War Eagle only lasted five weeks before being replaced by a similarly old-fashioned looking War strip, The Fighting Fifteenth. Dr X was ended in issue 7, having totally lost control over what it was supposed to be about. It’s replacement, The Space Travellers, was perhaps emblematic of the type of story Champion was producing. A school teacher with a head full of science fiction builds a space rocket in his back shed running on cosmic radiation converted from sunlight. It accidentally gets launched whilst he’s showing it to a boy from the school and a reporter. They fly to the planet Centaur which has a identical atmosphere to Earth, and the same kind of cows. There is literally nothing about that that a boy aged over five can take in the least bit seriously, especially in a world where ‘Thunderbirds’ exists. What kind of idiot thought this workable I don’t know, but no comic can survive on stuff like that.
The second instalment makes out its a comedy. What’s the phrase again? Yeah, right.
The Fighting Fifteenth also lasted five issues and it’s replacement was RAF Pilot, Battler Britton, who would survive into Lion in the very near future. When the Sky turned Green bowed out in issue 14, beating the rush, the good guys winning the day by committing genocide (think of that, eh?) The Space Travellers decided to bugger off back to Earth at the same time.
And so, on 4 June 1966, Champion reached its fifteenth and final issue: a short life and a far from merry one. With the exception of the Knights of Konigsfeld, all the stories that didn’t make the cut fizzled out emptily, none more so than Spider Webb, which fell on its face. Jet Jordan, Battler Britton, Return of the Stormtroopers, The Phantom Viking, plus Jinx and Wacker lived on, the first three in mid-story.
In this necessarily brief survey, I’ve saved comment until the end on the one Champion feature I did remember before starting it, and that I had looked forward to re-acquainting myself with. Bartok and His Brothers deserves some kind of accolade for being the most disappointing memory in all the comics I’ve been re-reading this past eighteen months or so.
The series was set a century into the future, in a world dominated by a Chinese crime organisation, the Sons of Ying, led by the Master Dragon. After a Genghis Khan-like warlord sacks his laboratory in Central Asia, Dr Hans Bartok uses his Duplicator Machine to create four duplicates of himself, i.e. clones, to create a Brotherhood to fight evil. Each duplicate has a superpower but one of them is potentially evil. Bartok-2 is super-intelligent, Bartok-3 is super-agile and fast, Bartok-4 is, er, super-courageous and fierce (seriously) and Bartok-5 is super-strong. Hint, the evil one is… Bartok-4, who is reformed through hypnosis but he and Bartok-2 get killed at the end.
What I remembered of this, which included the designated powers, the deaths and Bartok-4’s treachery (which I resented deeply, having adopted 4 as my lucky number), was vivid enough, but where so many things have been good enough still to justify my lifelong recollections, the Bartok stuff is cheaply and badly-written, flavourless and melodramatic. The author was Michael Moorcock’s friend and near-protege, Barrington J Bayley. The one time I met Moorcock, he signed a Boy’s World annual story credited to him but actually written by Bayley, who needed the money. I make no comment.
Had Lino Landolfi’s ‘Connecticut Yankee’ been so much a let down last year as this is, I would hardly have bought another comics DVD, so I was lucky there. Champion was created cheap, it lived cheap and even its own editor was convinced it was created to fail, and be merged into something else to give that a sales bump. After fifteen issues, Champion‘s audience must have been more like a pothole.