Third time round for The Hornet, the D.C.Thomson stable comic, issues 201-300, covering the paper’s life from 15 July 1967 to 7 June 1969.
Though it’s 1967, the summer of psychedelia, Procol Harum at number 1 for six weeks, free games for May and Strawberry Fields Forever, Hornet shows no signs of stepping out of the time-bubble in which it is enclosed. It is not keeping up with the Sixties because it has never yet arrived in the Sixties. Of its line-up this time, there is little to enthuse me, just two of the comic’s round of regulars, a Rob Higson Runs that Count, introducing big, burly, ball-bashing, bird-watching batsman, Bert Bunting (another tone-lowering, independently minded scruffpot) and the start of a new Bernard Briggs serial, The No-Goal Goalie.
Bernard’s moved to the two-club Midland town of Stockley, bought a house that comes complete with a gasworks attached, and signed for the posh boys, Rangers on condition that they pay their down-at-heels neighbours Rovers £1,000 for every shut-out Bernard produces. You know where the money’s going.
The only other series of any distinction at this point is Laramie, an adaptation of an old TV Western, cancelled four years before – but only of its sole season in the Fifties!
Nor was the mix improved by the first new series of this batch, a run-of-the-mill World War 2 story replacing one about hunting King Solomon’s Treasure with a cheat ending. It’s Runs that Count completed its run in issue 207 (26 August), leaving cricket to be replaced by football in the familiar-sounding Ball of Fire, about centre forward Wally Brand. I didn’t recognise it as such, but it ploughed an enjoyably familiar trough with the forceful Wally another of the independent kind.
And a third new series in four issues was another enjoyable returnee, Jim Ransom, the Big Palooka, this time tackling American crooks muscling into Britain as from issue 210 (16 September), though only for a ten week run.
Two more new starters were lined up for issue 212 (30 September), both returnees. One was a repeat performance for one of the more abysmal SF series but the other, about due a revisit, was Wilson, though not my long anticipated Ashes Test story. How much longer before Nick Smith again?
Wilson’s new serial, It’s Wilson Again, saw him back in Africa searching for a lost city that turned out to be a Greek colony that had erected a replica of Athens that wasn’t all ruins. As ideas go, it was horribly trite. As for Nick, he wasn’t showing up just yet but the flood of new series swept in the Deathless Men again, in a V for Vengeance series titled ‘M’ Marks the Spot.
I haven’t had a jump of nostalgia for quite some time now and in issue 215 (21 October) it came in the unexpected place of the prose serial, which I’ve been guilty of ignoring since the first Nick Smith and Rob Higson because, well, they’re not worth reading. But Kid Laine the Dixieland Drummer, about a fourteen year old dockloader called Leo ‘Kid’ Laine who would go on to be a groundbreaking jazz drummer, and lead the massively successful and influential jazz band, The Big Five, was a tonic for the troops. Like some of Eagle’s serials, this was obviously being read by someone who knew what they were talking about, in this instance both jazz and drumkits.
Still the new series kept on appearing. After a long run, Laramie went back to the bunkhouse to free up space for a second go from ex-Special Air Service Greg Stewart, whose bag was finding antiquities for the Military Museum.
Briggs’ latest improbable season ended in issue 222 (9 December) whilst the Deathless Men finally got the British Agent to the crashed plane to destroy the secret papers. That left room for two new stories, one of which was the return of the unimpressive Limping Man, but the second ws another right from the memory bank, The Goals That Nobody Cheered. Stan Rankin, centre forward for Hampton Town was forced out of the game when he accidentally killed two goalkeepers in successive weeks, each by a kick to the head (this was a series for kids?). But Stan came into a large sum of money, enough to buy a majority shareholding in Hampton and reinstate himself as Player-Manager. Except that the fans boycotted him and the first team, leaving Stan with the hard task of winning them back around.
Two more new series arrived in issue 224 (23 December), with Wilson and the crap SF series ending to accommodate them. They were neither of them worth mentioning, but they were followed in Xmas week by several things I surprised myself by recognising.
The first was the cover story, about the amazing Xmas match between Charlton Athletic and Huddersfield Town. Reduced to ten men, Charlton were 2-0 down at half-time and 5-1 with half an hour to go, and their left-winger Johnny Summers was wearing brand-new boots, when he went on a spree that saw Charlton win 7-6 with the last kick of the game, including five goals from Summers, all scored with his ‘wrong’ foot. No, this wasn’t fiction, though I remembered the one-off Ball of Fire story, which was.
Last of all was a new series, Crazy School, starring young Jimmy Bell, sent to a snooty private school where everyone down to the porter boy was a snob out to make him feeling unwanted. Unpropitious stuff, and nothing to write home about… until I recognised every single stunt, because Jimmy has fantastic hypnotic powers!
The Dixie Drummer ended its first series in issue 227 (13 January 1968) with Kid Laine joining the British Army to fight in the Great War, but there has to be at least one more series to come because I remember the Big Five’s reunion in No Man’s Land. That left just two decent strips, and a couple of real SF schtumers: Hornet could not do SF to save its life.
After giving me a nostalgia jolt in its first episode, Crazy School ended in issue 230 (3 February) without ringing another bell. The same week, Stan Rankin was joined by another football series, Haddie, another amateur footballer who would end up dragging his club towards another FA triumph. Haddie, whose nickname came from his profession as a North Sea Fisherman, was a junior league Bernard Briggs, playing for fun and reserving his seriousness for his fishing.
And speaking of old Briggsy, the real thing returned in issue 234 (2 March), still scrapping but now scrapping, in the square ring that is. It was another of those times when new series seemed to start nearly every week. Stan Rankin was finally vindicated when television footage was discovered that exculpated him over the two keepers’ deaths, bringing the crowds back in to cheer his goals once more.
His replacement was Bring ’em Back Barney, another one that trips the memory. Barney Hines, the Mayor of Walla-Wogga, has opened a town museum that is empty, so he’s enlisted in the Aussie Army in the Great War to collect ‘souvenirs’ for exhibits. Why do I remember something like this when I have no recollection of The Devil Dogs of the Dravids in the same issue?
Also back the same week was Kid Laine in The Return of the Dixie Drummer, in France, in the War and about to be reunited with the rest of the Big Five. And one issue later it was time again for Wally Brand, the Ball of Fire, back in a new series in which, shock, horror, he’s still at the same club.
The Dixie Drummer’s second story ran until issue 244 (11 May) after which he gave way to Detective Paul Terhune, whilst Richard Sharp, The Blazing Ace of Space, also returned after a very long absence for more World War 2 RAF missions.
The next new series was The Fifth Wicket Fosters, a cricket strip. Unlike Bring ‘Em Back Barney, this was one of the series I had always remembered, and one I was looking forward to reading again. Peter Foster is the third generation of his family to bat at no 6 for Northshire, an attacking batsman. But he’s also a Special Ops Agent who, in order to stem an aggressive Dictator, agrees to appear a traitor delivering secret plans. The plot succeeds, but the Dictator susses that the plans are fakes and sends men in search of Peter, who, having undergone plastic surgery and been re-named Dave Palmer, applies to become a professional cricketer – at Northshire. An intriguing set-up.
It didn’t take long for ‘Palmer’ to give himself away, safely, to his younger brother John. John Foster suffered from a frozen right arm after a car accident but is secretly training himself to bowl left arm spin.
Another, if gentler, jolt of memory came with the debut of the Floating Man in issue 251 (29 June), about a salesman trying to promote a buoyancy suit that turned a man into his own boat, so to speak. A familiar panel, but nothing else was recognisable in the first episode, but it was recognisable to me.
Richard Starr’s second series and Bring ‘Em Back Barney both reached an end in issue 253 (12 July), with one being replaced by a nondescript treasure hunt series and the other a one-off war story. Meanwhile, The Fifth Wicket Fosters came to an end all-too-soon, with truth, exoneration and the County Championship all round, to be replaced, at last, by Wilson Did It. This is the Wilson Cricket story I’ve been waiting for all along, that I left unfinished when I gave up Hornet in 1968, the year of graduation from (most) comics to Football magazines like Goal, Shoot and Striker. An end is in sight.
The set-up is that the plane carrying the England Test Team, travelling too Australia for the Ashes, crashes in Arnhem Land, killing no-one but injuring every player. A second party crashes in the exact spot, where the Amazing Wilson is studying the Aborigines and their approach to cricket. Wilson discovers a dead Aborigine tracker, shot through the head, from a half-track vehicle that has vanished. A mystery.
Of the second party, the only player uninjured is our old friend Bert Bunting, the Highshire wicket-keeper (since when?). And there’s a double crossover when Rob Higson, not selected for either party, asks Wilson to lead a scratch English side in a charity match. When Wilson turns out to bowl at bat-smashing speed, Higson gets a fantastic notion…
The thought of completing the story after fifty years – a longer time by far than the Eagle serial I wrote about here (insert link) – makes every panel of this story a fascination, but I mustn’t forget the rest of the paper, not that the majority of the stories make forgetting them difficult. Two new series debuted in issues 257 and 258 (10 and 17 August), the first, Shawnee Fall Was Here!, a western about a small mining town that vanishes completely whilst Deputy Marshall Jubal Smith was away ten days, trailing a robber, and the second featuring the popular character, the Swamp Rat, this time revealing his real name of Peter Bold and how he got all his tattoos in The Badges of courage on Darkness Island: very boyhood of Arnold Tabbs with a soupcon of Lord of the Flies.
The same issue saw the rather lacklustre Bernard the Boxer end abruptly when he discovered his manager had been ripping him off, with the mildly interesting The Man in Black also concluding.
The long term replacement for Briggs was another returnee, The Diggers in New Guinea, two Australian cobbers at war. And no less than three old favourites returned in issue 261 (7 September), with Briggsy back in goals for an American tour, the Deathless Men in a new V for Vengeance series and a long overdue second series for Muscles Malone.
Briggs was just Briggs in an American context, and funnily enough Muscles Malone was also Stateside, but I should have realised which V for Vengeance story this had to be, coming so close to the end of my experience with Hornet. This was the origin of the Deathless Men, beginning with the escape by captured and tortured British Agent Aylmer Gregson from a concentration camp, and his decision to start the Army of Vengeance, an Army of Jacks: like the little metal things that turned over a fallen tank, human jacks that would overturn the Nazis. It also introduced plastic surgeon Anton Gerhard, the never before seen Jack Two. After two substandard series, only one episode was needed to show that V for Vengeance was once more at a cold peak, by concentrating on its original format: of vengeance.
The Diggers’ series came to an abrupt end after only six episodes in issue 264 (28 September), but I was more concerned with the Wilson series, which began with something I well remembered, and ended with something of which I had no memory: was this the point?
Yes, it was. The next Hornet saw the introduction of a new cover feature, one I had never seen, The Hornet Gallery of Sport, kicking off with a very unlife-like George Best, and Wilson’s story moving onto territory I had never seen. That dates, very precisely, when I gave up Hornet. But not this account: I have at least one series to finish, don’t I?
By stopping when I did, I missed a fourth Big Palooka series, this one at the Mexico Olympics: oh no! That must mean the story was taking place in 1968! Oh, calamity!
The mystery of the two crashed airplanes in Wilson turned out to be accidental engine interference from machinery used by uranium prospects though that did not quite explain why they were planning to do it deliberately to a third MCC team. Which didn’t explain the shock I got from very clearly recognising incidents in the episode in issue 269 (2 November). On the other hand, I had no recollection whatsoever of the latest execrable SF series.
Briggs’ American tour ended in issue 272 (23 November) with the discovery that the statue of Sam Houston he’d been toting around was made of solid gold, solving all manner of financial issues sprung in the last chapter. And V for Vengeance also came to an end, a final end, with Hitler’s suicide in his bunker bringing to an end the need for the Deathless Men. Their replacements were one each of football and war, with the former having the more promising set-up. For a start, it was a second series actually set in 1968. Danny Hawke, manager of struggling Ashfield Rovers, had managed a massively successful England Schoolboy team five years earlier. Now he set off to scour the world to reunite his Eleven Little Soccer Boys to rescue Ashfield.
Meanwhile, Wilson’s Australian adventure was still going on. Hie team had been awarded the Test series and won the First Test in a most improbable manner, but an espionage element had come into play, a spy for an East European power seeking to extract secrets from the scientist Dr Moffin, who was behind the two MCC plane crashes back at the beginning of the series. Issue 275 (14 December) represented 22 episodes with no end in sight.
Of course, Bernard Briggs wasn’t off the scene long. The Goalie was replaced by the Boot as our favourite rough diamond joined the Great Britain Ruby League team for a tour of Australia in issue 278 (4 January 1969). And Wilson Did It finally ended in issue 280 (18 January). The Test series was won with two games to spare, Wilson was off to remotest Canada to further test his endurance, and the spy was dead of a heart attack without any explanation of why he wanted to crash two MCC touring parties: I expected no more. But at least I got to the end of the story, 51 years after I started it.
After 282 issues (1 February), Hornet surprised us by introducing a one page comic series, Phil the First, about a lad obsessed with being first at everything, in the style of those many dumb one-pagers in Lion and Valiant. In in the style of those comics, it was dumb and unfunny.
Post-Wilson, there wasn’t much to enthuse me, and there was one less when The Big Palooka went back to England in issue 284 (15 February). However, just two issues later, I discovered that I was wrong about V for Vengeance and the Deathless Men. So many Hornet series’ were comic strip adaptations of prose serials from the Forties and Fifties. I have often wondered if V for Vengeance was amongst them, and now I was answered with The Voice from Berlin, a prose serial about a plan to discredit and kill a fictional version of the infamous Lord Haw-Haw, Basil Royce, not William Joyce.
This also teased a connection I’d long since pondered from the beginning of Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s V for Vendetta. To the semi-coincidence of the title, this now added a reflection of the three-parter dealing with the fascist Government’s propaganda broadcaster, Lewis Protheroe: Voice of Fate, Voice of Truth. Intriguing.
A second one pager, Harry the Hitch, started in issue 288 (15 March) with no better quality. Meanwhile, despite the accent on melodrama, the prose V for Vengeance was much stronger, thanks to its ability to go into details that could not be portrayed in panels.
The modestly entertaining Eleven Little Soccer Boys finished in issue 292 (12 April), giving way to another football series, The Team from Trisidium, featuring a team of aliens to whom football was archaic war: just your average notion, then. And with Barnard Briggs ending his Australian tour two issues later (and no doubt starting a short countdown to his next series), for the first time there were no ‘picture stories’ to really interest me.
And when the V for Vengeance serial ended in issue 297 (17 May), there were none.
There were also only three issues left to this instalment. Nothing changed in that time and thus another instalment is over.
I’ve outlasted the days of my original enthusiasm for Hornet, I’ve ended my interrupted story, and now it’s 1969, not that you’d ever known from within this comic. Time to look elsewhere. There are enough issues left on the DVD-Rom set for three more postings, but these will be reserved now to when I’ve run out of alternatives: I’ve had enough of the Fifties-style comics for a good time. We’ll be back to Adventure Comics next time.