I know that I said, not that long ago, that I had no interest in investigating either of the D.C. Thomson comics, Victor or Hornet, that I read in that long ago childhood, but I did happen to come across a 3-DVD set of the latter, 648 copies for a mere £4, free postage. And it’s not like they take up that much space…
Hornet was a younger brother to Victor, which I discovered first, though I don’t know when. For some reason, I was under the impression that The Victor – to give it its formal title – had been around for years and years when it had first appeared on 25 January 1961, when I would have been jut turned five and still too young for it. The Hornet, to again be formal, did not debut until 14 September 1963, and I started getting it weekly with something like issue 27, making it seem like something much more new. I was then eight, and the right age.
How long I read both comics, I don’t recall. Did they survive our move from Openshaw to Burnage in December 1966? Surely they would have been swept away by my eager conversion to Football magazines in 1968? Will the comics on these DVDs give me any clues as to that? How many of these series will I remember?
And why, given its regimented layouts, homogenised art and structured stories, was Hornet the first comic to spark a thought about how these stories were drawn and who did it and how?
The first issue wasn’t much to write home about, nondescript characters, dated, small art reminiscent of the Fifties Lion, bog standard genres: Westerns, War, (both real and fictional), Comedy and Sport, a generous page allowance to each strip (guaranteeing hurried art if you’ve got to churn out five pages a week) and two prose serials crammed into a 32 page package with full colour only on the covers and one series allowed a red monotone.
On the other hand, that sports story featured a very recognisable figure I knew well and always read avidly. ‘Bouncing Briggs’ was Bernard Briggs, scrap dealer with a highly developed sense of ethics and over-developed natural athleticism and sporting ability. Briggs was the amateur’s amateur, refusing to be paid for playing football and becoming the independent goalkeeper for First Division Blackton Rovers.
This is only the first Briggs story and I’m not going to judge it that quickly, but it’s not quite my cup of tea yet. Briggs is drawn with an oversized mouth and jaw that makes him half a cartoon, and at this stage he’s a bit of a knobhead. The man’s a bombastic loudmouth, monomaniacal about himself in every respect except his football, and even then he carries the Laws of Football around with him on the field so he can pedantically correct everyone who gets something wrong. I hope he mellows.
We were only seven issues in (26 October) when another familiar series debuted. Dopey Dan was a prose series, the title character being 17 year old Dan Davidson, the founder, secretary and least athletic member of the Carthorse Club, an all-purpose amateur sports club, eager yet incompetent at everything. A bit like me, except for his lucky ability to come out on top despite being crap at everything: I never did that.
But I never saw Hornet remotely this early in its career, which means I am destined to see it again, as a repeat, somewhere nearer the mid-Sixties.
Ten issues in, I’m surprising myself by finding the most interesting feature to be Deeds of Glory, a true life feature oriented to War experiences and Victoria Crosses. The stories told are patriotic enough, but they give an immediacy to such scenes that I find extremely interesting, especially when they cross the same paths trodden by that noted Victorian Soldier Hero Harry Flashman…
A third of the long-term characters I recalled debuted in issue 13 (6 December) but in an unexpected format. Nick Smith was star of the series It’s Goals That Count, about his adventures as a top-flight inside left (that’s another one for your Grandad) but I wasn’t aware he’d first appeared as a prose serial, looking back after a late career FA Cup winning goal to his earliest days, as a ball-juggling circus boy, an orphan. It’s still only 1963 and that was three memories revived already.
There are no credits in a D.C. Thomson comic and there never will be, but the Slade of the Pony Express strip in issue 15 (20 December) looked to be the work of Tony Weare, who contributed to Moore and Lloyd’s V for Vendetta.
There had already been several changes of series already in Hornet, far too many to start recording in my usual manner, especially as the stories are equally uninspiring and the art nearly indistinguishable at this point, but the first Briggs story came to an end in issue 16, with Blackton winning the FA Cup. Don’t worry, Bernard would be back.
His replacement was The Wonder from Winter Island, 16 year old Gordon Jones, who developed an uncanny talent for crossing the ball on his remote and recreation-free island, based on a trunk of kit washed ashore and a handbook that gave him a very one-sided impression of football. I got the idea of something familiar about this which crystallised into near-certainty when Gordon, signed for Everley Rovers, got a heading partner in a Spanish lad, Pedro. This I am sure I have read, probably as soon as I started getting Hornet for I’m convinced I came in partway through this series. There’s a specific plot point or two I’m expecting to see.
One thing different abut Hornet, even as early as this, is that features tend to come and go quickly, and some, like Dopey Dan, drop in and out with no pattern.
I got my first piece of real fun out of The Champion Nobody Knew, which started in issue 23 (15 February 1964). This was a boxing strip, which centred upon Mr Pearson, an immaculately dressed man of faintly aristocratic mien who wandered into a boxing gym to hire a manager to manage him. Pearson was a complete novice who’d studied boxing scientifically but never boxed. And, of course, he was better at it than anyone, as well as being a total mystery. It’s a formula, and it’s easily recognisable, but the absurdity of it, and Pearson’s overwhelming competence had me chuckling. I was looking forward to reading this.
There was also something familiar about the art to my eyes. Though I can’t remember if it was in Hornet or Victor, there was a series called The Big Palooka, about a British Police Inspector on exchange duty in New York, and I suspect it might have been the same artist.
And exactly on cue, in fact in issue 27 (14 March), Gordon Jones and Pedro Alvarez combined inexactly the manner I remembered – and in practically the panel image I recalled – to identify this series as the story I thought it was, and this issue as the very one I first read. And the other twist I remembered was in issue 28, as were some familiar panels in Swim, Jim, Swim.
The Nick Smith series ended in issue 29 (28 March) to be replaced by the return of Dopey Dan and the Carthorse Club, answering the question of when I first saw them: not reprints after all. And my memory once again proved sharper than I had credited it to be, with another instantly familiar sequence, this time in Squadron X.
Bernard Briggs was back in issue 34 (2 May), this time as a cricketer, under the heading Briggs the Bowler. Briggs was still the same obnoxious arsehole he was as a goalkeeper, perpetually self-righteous about being right, to the point that I actually started sympathising with the toffee-nosed ‘gentlemen’ of his county, Camshire. Did I really love his stories when I was a kid?
The Champion Nobody Knew came to an end in issue 38 (30 May) with Mr Pearson’s retirement as undefeated Heavyweight Champion of the World and the revelation that he was really Sir Hereward Parkinson, genius Atomic scientist, working on top secret projects, who’d turned to boxing as a hobby, a bit of mental relaxation! Dopey Dan’s run also finished in that issue, and he was replaced by It’s Runs That Count, introducing Rob Higson as a young batsman trying to make his mark in cricket. Like Nick Smith, Higson would become a recurring stalwart of Hornet, in strip form.
There’s not much to say about most series, but a couple of them – The Secret of Jameson’s Schooldays, about a crooked private school headmaster trying to secure a legacy his school did not deserve, and Mr Frozen Face, a motor-cycling strip – both featured mystery men whose true identities were obvious, none more so than the latter, whose title character was expressionless due to plastic surgery, who called himself Jim Ellyk (you’ve probably got it already) who first appeared at the Jimmy Kelly Trophy meeting, Kelly having been a motor-cycling champion who’d disappeared after a bad crash… Must try seriously harder.
With issue 52 (5 September), Hornet completed its first year. I can’t pretend to have anything like the enthusiasm for it that I have had for most other comics I’ve re-read on DVD-Rom, and the reasons are fairly obvious. Hornet, like all the DC Thomson titles, is a cheap comic, printed on poor quality paper with poor quality art. It is aimed down at an audience that is presumed to have low standards. Though the differing art styles that have appeared over the first twelve months have surprised me by not being the homogenised style I recollected, neither has any of them been attractive. There’s an overall rushed look to practically every story, as if the artist has to rattle off each page quickly in order to draw enough of them to earn a wage. Story-wise, the paper is roughly split between war stories in different theatres and sports stories of different sports but always with an emphasis on football and cricket. Nor is the characterisation more than minimal and repetitive. The most distinctive character in the whole of year 1 was Bernard Briggs and I’ve already given my opinion of him. There’s a constant chopping and changing of series, sometimes so fast that it seems rare for a week to go by without at least one story starting. Nor do series develop in any great fashion, just piling up incident after incident until time is up, with no sense of climax.
On the other hand, I’ve been continually surprised at how many panels and moments I’ve recognised across the board, most often in the sports strips. And issue 52 saw the start of another familiar series, No Game for Jimmy, whose shape I could see instantly from its first episode, even as I recognised it for old.
But this was preparation for the biggie, probably the most memorable series to come out of Hornet, and one I am genuinely looking forward to reading. Issue 53 (re-)introduced Wilson. William Wilson, that is, the amazing athlete who ran in his black longjohns and broke record after record, not for fame or glory or winning but to test himself against records from the past that outdid the records of today – or rather just before the Second World War.
Wilson debuted in a story titled The Truth about Wilson. This had originally been told in prose in The Wizard in 1943, written by Gilbert Lawford Dalton under the pen-name W.S.K. Webb, and was now re-presented comics-style drawn by Jack Glass, a very rare instance of credits being available. Like Nick Smith and Rob Higson, Wilson would recur, over and over but this was his introduction to me and my generation, the template for the individual with immense sporting prowess.
Bernard Briggs was back in issue 56 (3 October), as Briggs the Goalie again. After accidentally crocking the goalkeeper of Fourth Division prop-ups Blackstock Town, Briggs signed as the usual amateur, despite the club being ramshackle, badly run and lacking in players of spirit, let alone ability. You can almost smell promotion already.
With Xmas 1964 coming close, Nick Smith and It’s Goals that Count returned in issue 65 (5 December), this time in ‘picture-story’ form (practically every comic I’ve re-read seems to have an unbeatable aversion to describing its series’ as comics). As well as putting Nick in pictures, as he transferred to relegation-threatened Chidsea, the series introduced Nick’s co-star, Arnold Tabbs, left-half. Tabbs was the epitome of the kind of character British comics regularly threw up, working-class heroes, rough and ready, defiantly refusing to be looked down upon, blessed with natural ability that refused to allow itself to be stifled. Briggs is an exaggeration of the type into self-righteousness.
Still the unexpected memories crop up. Sergeant Leather Lungs was only a two-page complete story in issue 66, but I recognised it immediately and the last panel came out of my memories entire.
Bernard Briggs’ series came up with a dramatic idea in the Xmas issue (no. 68, 26 December). Now earning his living as a demolition man, Briggs found a dirty silver trophy hidden in the wall of a house he was bringing down. Now, I recognised it instantly, from the art as well as the memory, for this was the FA Cup, the legendary first Cup, stolen from a Birmingham shop window when held by Aston Villa and never seen again.
The first Wilson story ended in issue 70 (9 January 1965). His reporter confidant, W.S.K.(Bill) Webb had, the previous week, finally realised that Wilson must be over one hundred years old, and the several past feats of his ‘grandad’ were Wilson’s own. Now, in the last episode, Wilson related his origin and gave some idea of his methods. But War had been declared, and Wilson volunteered for the RAF. Only Webb would know that he had been born in 1795, and thus was 146 years old.
The final paragraph recorded the disappearance of Squadron Leader William Wilson, plane shot down, missing believed dead.
Perhaps because Wilson’s story was a serious tale that dealt in complete impossibilities, I found it the most interesting, and most strangely affecting in Hornet thus far. Wilson will return and return, and I relish reaching the next part of his story.
Briggs was on his way after issue 72 (23 January), having taken Fourth Division Blackstock to an FA Cup semi-final defeat (Briggs was off the field when the goal was scored) and left them solvent. But he didn’t leave them with the first FA Cup as that got restolen: a necessary but ridiculous outcome when you think what security would have been brought in if the real Cup had ever been found.
That left me with just two series of interest, It’s Goals That Count, and Deadline Dan, The Headline Man, about a go-ahead Australian Sports journalist with a promotional streak a mile wide that had already delivered me a few remembered panels. But suddenly I was swamped with memories.
It began in issue 74 (6 February). Suddenly, in mid-series, Nick Smith and Arnold Tabbs were both transferred to promotion-chasing Second Division Manningford City, a club that suddenly seemed struck by a hoodoo. Up popped the mysterious figure of Fergus, producing for them a goalkeeper signed months previously to fill a keeper-less crisis that had just happened. Who was Fergus? What was his secret? His story filled my head with wonder at age 9.
And only one issue later, after a mere four issue gap, Wilson was back, in The Further Truth About Wilson, developing into his ages-old history, and he was joined by another Hornet regular, The Big Palooka (a-ha!), bowler-hatted Scotland Yard Detective-Sergeant Jim Ransom, on loan to the New York Police, who expected him to be useless at their Law and who were going to be very surprised indeed. As for Fergus, there was an immediate and specific memory: the mystery man buys Manningford an international right winger out of his own pocket and poses for a picture with him. When the picture is printed, Fergus is not in it.
High Wire Needs Nerve, which started in the following issue, was another trip to the memory well, about a fourteen year old boy who comes into the family high-wire act, building up to where they can once again perform their big act, the Six (a 3-2-1 pyramid on the high wire, without a net).
Bernard Briggs was gone for only six weeks before being back in goal for First Division Blackton Rovers, this time in the European Cup: plenty of opportunity for continental scrap.
It’s Goals that Count reached the end of its first strip story in issue 81 (27 March), with Manningford securing promotion by the production of one last player by the mysterious Fergus, whose mystery went unsolved – indeed was clearly never meant to be solved, explained or given any kind of rationalistic basis – and was written off as a secret that should be best forgotten and as a man who would have been a great manager/coach but for “an appalling calamity in his private life”. My theory, at age 9½, based on his non-appearance in that photo, was that Fergus was actually a ghost. I can’t come up with anything better today.
Nick Smith’s replacement was Johnny Guitar, another that I recognised instantly. I have to give Hornet for not being merely up with the times but ahead of it because there were none of the many comics I’ve re-read by now had a genuine pop music series by 1965.
Now the legend of Bernard Briggs has always been that he was the goalkeeper who never let in a single goal. I was convinced there had been one, and my conviction was justified in issue 83 (10 April) and exactly as I remembered: playing an away tie in Europe, Briggs deliberately conceded a goal from a diving header to prevent the centre forward continuing his dive into the post and breaking his neck. What a memory! (Of course, if I’d only been able to remember the important things…)
And then he went and conceded a second goal the very next week, a deflection off the referee. I didn’t remember that…
Meanwhile, Nick Smith was back in Nick Smith Builds a Team, taking on the player-managership at Kingsbury Town, Third Division strugglers, and up against a sloppy attitude in the team and an overly-dominant attitude among the Directors. And all without his best pal, Arnold Tabbs, at least to begin with.
Nick had been missing for just four issues. Add together Briggs and Wilson and it appears that the Hornet way was not to have ongoing series as such, crossing from story to story, but to have virtual regulars who would only take short breathers between tales.
And Rob Higson was back in issue 87 (8 May), now in strip format but with the surprising change of title to It’s Wickets That Count, which I remembered but hadn’t thought cam this early. The basic idea is that, due to injuries, Higson is forced to try out his fast bowling for England in India, and takes five wickets. Since they’re short of bowlers, Highshire play him as a bowler, dropping him down the order, and threatening his chances of keeping his Test place as an opener. Rob will have to fight to be accepted as an all-rounder…
As for Briggs, having won the European Cup for Blackton in issue 88, three years before a real English club did it, he qualified for another breather. This proved to be a more extended one that previously.
The Further Truth About Wilson, having carried the wonder athlete from his Yorkshire birthplace (bloody Tykes) in 1795 to his escape from the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 by not just swimming the Channel but also climbing the White Cliffs, came to an end in issue 95 (3 July), leaving only Nick Smith, Rob Higson (who was gone himself, two issues later, after winning the Ases with both bat and ball) and Johnny Guitar to amuse.
I don’t think I remember Muscles Malone M.A., which started in issue 96, but I liked the premise. Malone is an all-in wrestler of great strength tied to a contract that commits him to a fight a month, but he’s also a new Housemaster at a swanky Public School that sneers at sports, forcing him to pretend to be a weakling. How can he keep his two roles apart? It’s the first series not to trip a memory that I found interesting.
There was something of the feel of Nightingale Nobbs about this series. I hope I get to see Nobbs again soon, though he may have been in Victor: I always found the two titles interchangeable.
But there was a big moment for the nostalgia in me in issue 99 (31 July) with the first appearance of V for Vengeance, a Second World War story about The Deathless Men, an underground Resistance Army who called themselves Jacks, as in the little lever that lifts a car, organised by British Spy Aylmer Gregson, who had risen to a high position in the Nazi hierarchy. I used to love that!
Gregson, a plant in the Gestapo since 1936, was Colonel von Reich, second-in-command in the Gestapo, and the Deathless Man, who had all died before, were concentration camp victims, tortured and horribly scarred, supposedly dead and buried, who dressed in grey uniforms and wore grey masks hiding their faces. They had a list of brutal, vicious officials who they killed in turn.
Johnny Guitar’s band, The Signets, hit Number 1 in both Britain and America in issue 99, which saw their series to an end. There was another interesting story had started a week earlier, which I half recalled, The Bent Copper. Ex-Police Detective John Bright had been on the track of a gang when he was framed as a member and sent to gaol. Bright was free now and determined to bring down The Big Man’s gang secretly. After all, no-one trusts a Bent Copper, which was the symbol of his campaign, pennies bent in his strong fingers.
And then there were 100 issues. There aren’t going to be any convenient points at which to break up the commentary, no reboots or resets. Hornet changes series nearly all of the time, and there are no concerted moments. A decimal approach, breaking the title down into 100 issue chunks, is as good as any and that’s what I shall do: perhaps not for the entire run but for as long as the comic has something in it to interest me.
So this has been Hornet 1-100. It’s been an unexpected experience, with many more memories of many more series, and panels, than I imagined, and which have arrived earlier in the comics’ existence than I thought. And the variety of art has surprised me, though in afterthought it shouldn’t have. I am the boy who could not tell the least difference between any of DC’s artists: between Mike Sekowsky and Gil Kane. Or Carmine Infantino. Or Murphy Anderson. There are so many different art styles in Hornet, but I couldn’t tell back then.
Let’s see where the next hundred issues take me. After all, I have a vivid recollection of leaving one Wilson story incomplete when I made my decision to swap to a different comic, and I’m eager to finally learn how the story ended.