Here’s the next 100 issues of The Hornet, the youngster of the D.C.Thomson stable, taking us from 14 August 1965 to 8 July 1967. It starts with series such as Muscles Malone MA, hiding his secret as an all-in wrestler to keep his job as a Form Master at a sports-hating Private School, the final episode of the current Nick Smith story, as he leads Kingsbury to the double of the Third Division and the FA Cup, The Bent Copper continuing his vendetta against the gang that framed him and the Second World War Private Army, the Deathless Men, in V for Vengeance. Will there be any nostalgic remembrance when we arrive in July 1967? Will I find I had given the paper up before then? Stick around.
Losing Nick Smith so quickly was a bit of a blow, and when The Bent Copper cleared his name in issue 103 (28 August), I was starting to think my reading material was getting thin, but I should have known better. Nick and Arnold Tabbs were back again next issue, under the It’s Goals That Count heading and, after an unprecedented fifteen week absence, so too was Briggs, Bernard the Boot, turning his multi-talents and mono-minded personality to Rugby Union. Something tells me I’m going to get the Tennis series in this tranche of issues.
For Nick and Arnold, it was the same old story, even though they were back in the First Division with Redburn Rovers, tasked with bringing the club the title and up against the usual self-important Director who thought Nick should have to defer his ideas to him, whilst Briggs’s new series set off on a slightly different tack. For once, Briggs was ignorant of Rugby League (I was surprised that we weren’t in the snootier territory of Union) and even had to practice a bit before he could kick the ball reliably each time. But after that, we all knew what would be coming…
Sadly, Muscles Malone was done the week after, when an understanding Governor secured his position as the new Headmaser. I could have stood a few more weeks of that.
Briggs’ story was a cut above his previous outings. For one thing, he had acquired an artist who could draw a normal sized mouth and jaw, and for another he was being a bit more humble than before. Though his kicking was every bit as pretenaturally good, he had a lot to learn about the game and for once wasn’t lording it over everyone else’s ignorance.
V for Vengeance ended on a panel I recalled in issue 109 (9 October), with a panicked Hitler trying to kill Himmler because news of the Deathless Men’s successes had been withheld from him. I’m hoping, indeed I’m pretty sure, it will be back: after all, this series didn’t explain why the Deathless Men take the name Jack.
This left Messrs Briggs and Smith to entertain me, plus a mixture of mildly interesting to dull series that left no great impression, and Smith’s latest series ended in issue 115 (20 November) on the dramatic point of working out goal difference to discover Redburn had won the League by one-hundredth of a goal. Oh what fun we had.
The popular The Swamp Rat was back again. I haven’t mentioned this before as I find it dull. It’s a Second World War series about an Australian jungle expert with multiple tattoos on his body, which obviously delighted the readers, just not me. And a new prose serial (yes, they’re still running) began, starring the mysterious Mr X. And no, this was not Lion‘s Mr X.
And as usual Nick Smith wasn’t gone long, returning in issue 117 (4 December) for the first in a series of complete stories drastically multiplying the number of clubs he played for.
Suddenly, it was old home week. A scar-faced RAF Corporal calling himself Greene undertook the task of first training POW Tom Vale to overcome a ‘dead’ leg and, post-War, to train him as a runner, all under the series title Has Wilson Come Back? (answer: yes, you fool) in issue 119 (18 December), whilst the following issue saw Bernard Briggs’ successful venture into Rugby League replaced by The Big Palooka in Chicago. And the unfunny Ugg, a neanderthal wrestler, also came back the same issue.
Once again, one of our comics reviews comes to 1966, to the year of the World Cup, and England’s Glory. Hornet began its celebrations with a World Cup wallet in issue 123 (15 January) and three new series, one and a half of them new. The wholly new was The Wonder from the Western Isles, another football strip from out of the recesses of memory, not for its star, 17 year old Rory Grant, but for Grant’s mentor, the Blind Laird, a man obsessed with reverting tactically to the days of the attacking centre half, and equally obsessed with down-at-fortune Longport Wanderers, for reasons that must already be obvious to anyone who knows boys comics.
The returnee was, to my delight, V for Vengeance, once more sacrificing to halt the Nazis, this time concentrating on the German Navy in Hamburg dockyard, whilst the halfway series was The Blitz Kid, starring Nick Smith’s best pal, Arnold Tabbs, as a 13 year old during the War. To escape the blitz on Rudley, Arnold is evacuated and placed with a mean, cruel, miserly couple (did any other kind take in an evacuee in the comic book version of the War?) Arnold runs home to Rudley only to discover his house has been bombed and everyone, including his dog, have been killed. This did not look like being a cheerful series.
Another new feature came on board in issue 126 (5 February), another War series about Captain Spencer, Britain’s top intelligence agent in the Middle East, aka The Limping Man. This is supposedly one of the classic Hornet features but I have no recollection of it and on the strength of the first couple of episodes, I can’t see why it’s so highly regarded.
Wilson finally admitted to being Wilson in issue 129 (26 February) in order to prevent a fraudster cashing in on his name, which made room for a new series the following week, The Blind Boxer, about a boxer slowly losing his sight but needing to keep boxing to pay for treatment for his sick son. And The Big Palooka brought down the Mr Big of Chicago before turning to England in the same issue.
It was another of those spells where most of the series were of little interest to me, just The Blitz Kid, the Wonder of the Western Isles and the perennially interesting V for Vengeance. Though there’s one aspect about the football story that has me reserving judgement: it’s one thing for the rogue to keep Rory’s real identity hidden from his bereaved father and another for Rory’s mentor, the Blind Laird, to do the same. Where is this going?
Having said that, V for Vengeance wrapped up in issue 134 (2 April) with the Deathless Men playing a vital part in the real-life sinking of the Bismarck, to be replaced, ‘like-for-like’, by The One-Pip Wonder. This was about a sharp Second Lieutenant taking over a Reconnaissance Patrol that had gotten sloppy, which was decently interesting.
And Rory Grant’s story ended in issue 136 with the Laird making a clean breast of everything, AND admitting he’d been a total bastard over the missing boy, which I didn’t expect. Oh yes, and winning the FA Cup too.
Just when it looked like I was in danger of running out of series to enjoy, an old favourite came to the rescue in issue 138 (30 April). The Forbidden Quest of William Wilson, set at a guess in the late Forties, concerned itself with Wilson’s desire to climb Mount Everest, via the then-primary route from Tibet. And the relief became a rush for, though Arnold Tabbs’ teenage years came to an end in issue 139, there was the simultaneous return of both Nick Smith and Bernard Briggs the following week and, yes, just as I predicted this was Briggsy’s stint as a tennis player.
The series went under the sub-title of The Roughneck of the Courts, and set Bernard up with two soon-to-be-competing interests: tennis and winning Lorry Driver of the Year. I remember a fair amount of this one. I don’t remember anything at all about the new It’s Goals that Count, but it’s got me hooked already. Nick and Arnold’s latest club are the English representatives in the new World League, a team of internationals except for J.P. Sedley, an unknown amateur brought in as right half, captain and tactician. Sedley, whose touch is cool, whose expression never changes, and who has all the unique skills of the former international Steve Woolmer, who vanished in the Blitz, but who would be over 60 by now…
And to cap it all, Rob Higson followed the list of stalwarts back into action in issue 141, in The Nameless One, another set-up I remember. The title character was Len Hamlet, a foundling seventeen year old super-cricketer from the Highshire groundstaff. But where was he born? Did he qualify to play from Highshire or did he belong to Broadshire? (This is the relic of the days when only men born within the County could play for the County Cricket Club).
The One-Pip Wonder ended in issue 146 (25 June), having proved to be a pretty decent, realistic War story, set in the Battle of the Bulge, though this was never referred to as such. A one-off story covered that slot, then in issue 148, three new stories started up. None of these looked immediately inspiring, and the SF one, The Purple Planet, paid all the attention to scientific and astronomic reality of Captain Condor at his stupidest.
But all good series come to an end. The Nameless One ended with the inevitable revelation that Len Hamlet was qualified to play for Highshire, and his crazy father faced up to justice in issue 151 (30 July). A week later, Wilson reached the summit of Everest, not that he admitted it, and took a breather, though to my delight this made way for one of those features I’d never forgotten, Nightingale Nobbs.
Nobbs was one of those natural ideas, funny without being silly, and flexible. Nobbsy was a wrestler, a beaten-up bloke with a broken nose, two cauliflower ears and missing teeth, a real horrorshow. He also had the voice of and angel, you just couldn’t put him on stage. Ken Barry was a reporter. He had the matinee idol looks but couldn’t sing. So music Manger Mike Mason put Ken on stage miming to Nobbs, singing in the wings, a trick they couldn’t afford to have exposed. Except that Nobbs still had contract to wrestle and a list of names as long as his arm – in fact, it was tattooed on it – on whom he wanted revenge.
Nick Smith made it three out of three endings when Granton United won the World League and Sedley finally remembered which past footballer he actually was, though the mystery of the ice-cold skin was conveniently forgotten, naughty naughty (just like with Fergus). Not that it mattered because, after just one week’s absence, Wilson was back, reunited with his usual artist, in Wilson and the Black Olympics.
The title tempered my usual enthusiasm for a Wilson story and the opening episode was not propitious. In the London Olympics year of 1948, prominent white sportsman were being kidnapped, to Africa, where for propaganda purposes the ‘simple’ black natives would see their own beating the white man. This was an inherently dodgy subject.
The clean sweep followed in issue 155 (27 August) in the remembered fashion. Briggs reached the Men’s Singles and Doubles Finals at Wimbledon, dropped out of the former to win the Lorry Driver of the Year Competition instead and then carried his crocked partner to victory in the Doubles. This time, he didn’t even take a week off, following in Arnold Tabbs’ footsteps in The Boyhood of Bernard Briggs, little Briggsy aged 11.
This was the start of another fluid spell, with new stories starting singly practically every week, none of any great substance. The best of these was The Rifleman of the Rocks, about a sniper in Borneo, the sole survivor of an ambushed platoon, single-handedly holding up the Japanese advance, because this had Hornet’s best artist on it, with some beautiful detailed figurework and backgrounds.
Nightingale Nobbs’ fun little story carried me through to issue 167 (19 November) and Wilson’s Black Olympics lasted only a week longer. Though the subject was dubious and the outcome severely colonial, it was better than it could have been, and the Zulu leader Chaka, though a fanatic intending to raise the whole of Africa, was presented with dignity and as a strictly fair man. And the Rifleman completed his self-imposed duty in issue 170 (10 December, and the last I read at Brigham Street in Openshaw; so I did read Hornet past the move to Burnage Lane).
If I was taking the contents of Hornet as any portent, life in my new home didn’t get off to a great start, as Briggs’ boyhood was the only decent series, and that had settled into a repetitive round, plus one half-bearable football story that was neither funny enough nor sporty enough.
Fortunately for my 21st century interest, Nick Smith and It’s Goals that Count returned in issue 173 (31 December). Nick and Arnold were transferred to their umpty-gazillionth club (and it’s only 1958), newly bought by an American Corporation who reckon that a successful football club is the way to British hearts, even in a Rugby League town: Nick’s going to have a lot of explaining to do, isn’t he?
This is an aspect of the entire comic that had long been evident but which has only now been made explicit: there are absolutely no contemporary series. We are one page away from 1967 and the setting for Nick and Arnold is almost a decade before. Wilson hasn’t even reached the Fifties yet. Contrast this with Lion and Valiant, if not the futuristic TV21. The DC Thomson papers all occupy a very narrow range of styles and it cannot be coincidence that they refuse to enter the modern era. I’ve heard some things about hidebound management, and this is in keeping with those stories.
Briggs’ Boyhood came to an end with an implausible twist in issue 175 (14 January 1967), which saw him set up for himself with business premises… at age 11? But I was more intrigued by the Nick Smith episode, and the unexpected appearance of Bert Bunting. Who? do you say? I have vivid memories of Bert, who is Rob Higson’s best pal at Highshire, his equivalent of Arnold Tabbs. It’s an unusual step for two separate series to have a crossover, but what concerns me most is that Bunting hasn’t yet been introduced in It’s Runs that Count. I want an explanation.
And five seconds research reveals the bitter truth that also accounts for the fixation with not setting stories in the Sixties: these are all bloody reprints! Nick and Arnold and Rob and Bert, from The Rover, at different times in the Fifties. What a chiz! (which is a swizz and a swindle, as any fule kno).
Bert turned out to not just be a bird expert who cured all the Blackford pigeons, but an enthusiastic supporter and a more than useful inside right, but I’m now waiting for his ‘debut’ where he really belongs, at Highshire.
For a few weeks, I only had It’s Goals that Count to keep me interested, and it’s not even that good a serial, but relief was on hand in issue 180 (18 February), with three new series, seeing the simultaneous return of Arnold Tabbs as The Blitz Kid, the ever-welcome Wilson and a third V for Vengeance. Arnold was now 15, homeless again and having to rebuild himself after his broken leg and blood-poisoning, Wilson was helping the British Government on an experiment in severe cold conditions and the Deathless Men were helping two British agents follow a trail of rare butterflies to rescue a third (no, seriously).
There was also a return from the Swamp Rat in issue 182 (4 March), even though the War in the Pacific was over, plus another in a recent run of gimmicky-boxing stories, this one with Tibetan overtones. And, to be honest, whether it’s a sign of the times now we’re solidly into 1967, or it’s me reading too many Hornets too fast, not only are the one-off series dull and uninvolving, the favourites are well below par this time. Only The Blitz Kid is maintaining the standard of its earlier run, and that consists of him being made homeless again every two to three weeks.
V for Vengeance came to an end in issue 188 (15 April) without the Deathless Men ever being more than supporting characters in their own series, a big letdown, and Wilson’s lacklustre story followed it two issues later. And I owe The Blitz Kid an apology for having prematurely accused it of being repetitive, for it did break out of the cycle of homelessness for Arnold.
There was a tremendous surprise in issue 192 (13 May), when Hornet entered new territory with an adaptation of the popular American TV Western series, Laramie, though appearances were kept up since the series had been off the air sine 1963 and the adaptation was of the first season, broadcast in 1959: never even unknowingly up-to-date.
Nick Smith ended his season in issue 196 (10 June), with another Double, Second Division Championship and yet another FA Cup (was there a season this man didn’t win the Cup?), making room for It’s Runs that Count, billed as starring Rob Higson and Len Hamlet, and introducing Bert Bunting. You really do wonder at times.
Arnold Tabbs’ back-story ended in issue 199 (1July) with his meeting with Nick Smith as seen so long ago, putting him into the First Division at the age of 26. Which ought to make him 40 at least when you count up the number of clubs he and Nick have been jointly transferred to by now, but who’s counting?
So another 100 issues goes by, with the teaser of a new Bernard Briggs story to lead off the next lot. This lot has been a mixed bag, with some glorious rolling in nostalgia giving way to a feeling of malaise. For the last half of this bunch, reading Hornet has been a mostly flat experience. After Nightingale Nobbs, there have been some series I have followed, but many more that, after a week or two, and several before the end of the first episode I have scrolled past.
Because this is a boy’s comic, and an archaic boy’s comic at that. It has no interest in reflecting its times, or in exercising the imagination of its audience. It is tied to the idea that what worked in the past is still the only way of doing things, and not even the only right way. It’s for kids, and no-one else, and it’s got more reprints than I realised, and the only reason I didn’t realise this sooner is because the new stories that wrap themselves round the reprints are created in the same mould.
I will produce a third instalment, though not necessarily for this slot next time. Two hundred issues in just over four weeks is a bit too much and I need to cleanse my palate a bit. And if the third instalment gives me the end of my Wilson’s Ashes story, it may be a long while before we see a fourth.