With acknowledgement to Steve Holland
When I was young and first discovered the Eagle, it was years past the days of Frank Hampson and that glorious mid-Fifties line-up of strips that is the comic at its peak. I knew nothing of that then, and I loved the Sixties Eagle for what it was in my eyes, the best comic around. I didn’t, and couldn’t, know any better.
In those days, the three biggies, all in full colour, were ‘Dan Dare’ (inevitably), ‘Heros the Spartan’ and ‘Blackbow the Cheyenne’, a Western with slight superhero overtones, written, not that I then knew it, by Ted Cowan and drawn by Western expert Frank Humphris. I loved all three strips, and though Dan was my favourite I was no less obsessed by the weekly adventures into the faintly supernatural that caused such nonstop havoc for the folk of Powder Creek, and their mild-mannered, cheerful Doctor, Jim Barnaby who, in secret, was Blackbow, the last of the Cheyenne, solver of mysteries, righter of wrongs, keeper of the peace out there in the old West.
What I didn’t know then, and not until this present decade, was that ‘Blackbow’ did not just spring whole and entire onto the pages of Eagle in 1962, transferring in when Eagle absorbed its younger brother, Swift, but that the Last of the Cheyenne had actually emerged almost fifteen years prior, somewhere completely removed from Hulton Press, and that he had already had lots of adventures under at least one prior name, not to mention an entirely different tribe.
For this information, and for access to the stories I’m about to discuss, I am indebted to Steve Holland, comics historian, of the Bear Alley site who, in 2021, told the whole story in a two volume reprint of Blackbow’s surprising pre-history.
The story goes back to 1946, to Sale, in Cheshire, and printer-publisher John B Allen, who foreshadowed Hulton’s trick of ‘merging’ Eagle with the non-existent Merrygoround to claim two allocations of paper and put out the former weekly instead of fortnightly. By claiming one was a merger of a local newspaper and the other a relaunch of a pre-War title, Allen was able to introduce two new boy’s comics, The Comet and The Sun (no relation to any other publication of similar name).
These titles were taken over in 1949 by Associated Press, looking to rebuild its position, and both soon adopted strong Western series, ‘Billy the Kid’ and ‘Buffalo Bill’, which would both be reprinted in the Sixties under other names. But for our purposes we must jump to August 1953, and the debut of Blackbow’s ultimate forerunner, Strongbow the Mohawk.
The character was conceived by Comet editor John Holmes but developed and written by Mike Butterworth, famed for The Trigan Empire, a writer with an interest in history, though by all accounts he didn’t use that on Strongbow. The story is very familiar: a baby falls from the covered wagon of white settlers, is found by an Indian chief whose own son has lately been killed, and is brought up to be a great Indian Warrior. When all his tribe but himself is wiped out, he is taken in by a white Doctor, trains in medicine and becomes the highly respected Town Doctor whilst trouble-shooting dangerous incidents in his ‘secret identity’ of Strongbow, the last of the Mohawks.
All very stirring, enough so to be the ‘origin’ of all three versions, but in location and historical terms practically every detail was inaccurate. Still, Strongbow was popular enough to run until 1957, in a variety of formats, before being cancelled. Butterworth only stayed with the series for three months, ten complete one-off six page stories, but in that period established all the essential details about the character. Art on Strongbow’s origin issue was by Geoff Campion, who would go on to be one of Captain Condor’s better artists as well as drawing Captain Hurricane.
This is where the story starts to get a little unclear. Swift was created in 1954, the fourth and last of Marcus Morris’ little stable of children’s comics. It was created to fill the gap between Robin, for the little kids, and the boys and girls who read Eagle and Girl respectively, and was published at a slightly smaller size.
As we all know, Odhams Press bought out Hultons in 1959, with what consequences for Eagle we are sadly cognisant. What’s usually overlooked is that Odhams didn’t limit the changes they sought to the flagship of Morris’ stable but wanted wholesale change. At this distance it’s safe to say that Odhams had no concern for quality, and certainly not the notion of paying for it. Their measure was cost-cutting, everywhere they could and everywhere they should never have trodden. Swift was no different. Granted, it was re-formatted to print as the same size as Eagle and Girl in 1961, but otherwise it faced the same urge towards cheapness.
The comic merged with Odhams’ (about which I know nothing at all) and took on some of its features, but more germane for our purposes, Odhams started reprinting some of the Fifties series it owned, and therefore need not pay for again, as if they were new. In October 1961, Swift started the adventures of Blackbow the Cheyenne.
(There is a point of terrible confusion here. The images above are of the two volumes collecting the stories that appear in Swift, but it is clearly about ‘Longbow’. This will be explained and the answer is not something I regard at all highly).
The first fifteen Blackbow adventures in Swift were all based very closely upon the same number of Strongbow’s appearances in The Comet. Given Odham’s aims, one might have expected straight reprints, but whereas Strongbow’s stories had been given six pages at a time, Blackbow was only allowed three. Re-sizing the art was not a feasible option, so the new stories would be re-drawn, based very heavily on the originals, cramped into four tiers instead of the original three, and edited as necessary.
The first Blackbow adventure, recapitulating his ‘origin’, was drawn by Geoff Campion from his original work eight years prior. All the historically inaccurate stuff was changed: there would have been changes made anyway, to pretend to the readers that this was all new stuff, and something a bit more historically and geographically appropriate was substituted. Strongbow became Blackbow, the Last of the Mohawks became the Last of the Cheyenne and, intriguingly, our hero’s white identity became Dr Jim Bennett of Powder Creek.
All true Blackbow fans will recall immediately that he was Jim Barnaby in Eagle.
Nevertheless, this can be left till later For now, let’s just record that Campion was only one of three artists working on Blackbow in that period, on a rotating basis with Keith Shone and the great Don Lawrence, of The Trigan Empire amongst other legendary series. Though he would frequently use Campion’s original panels as a template, Lawrence was in another class when it came to the art on Blackbow.
The Blackbow of Swift is a vastly different creature from the Blackbow of Eagle, the difference being wholly down to the format. In Eagle, Blackbow appeared in serials, in full colour, the majority of them having some quasi-supernatural element. In Swift, the series is a wholly grounded Western, never stepping outside Indian raids and wars, or crooks and robbers. It’s a series, each story complete in three pages, lacking the space in which to be complicated or outre. It’s aimed at a younger reader, deemed to require simplicity. And, worst of all, it’s repetitive. Awfully so.
In Swift, writer Mike Butterworth has to provide a beginning, middle and end every week, so every week popular young doctor Jim Barnaby must be on the spot where some form of trouble starts, or is at least reported, with the same improbable regularity as Jessica Fletcher turning up at murders. This monotonous formula undermines the plausibility of the series. Worse still, each week, without fail, panels must be devoted to to Barnaby heading off to Cheyenne Crest, to retrieve his Chief’s costume and his bow from the Sacred Tree, declaring his purpose to Manitou, and every single time this must be described as his ‘wonderful secret’.
This may well have been manna to Swift‘s younger brothers, delighted by familiarity, the equivalent of the launching of Thunderbird 1 in the TV series a few years after, but to the older reader, and especially one whose previous exposure has been to the serialised Blackbow of Eagle, where the cliffhangers may have been just as cliched but which were different every week, it’s a sag spot where the mind is jerked out of the story for the space of three panels, just as concentration ought to be focussing on the actions the Last of the Cheyenne will perform to save the day.
For all the ludicrous aspects of Ted Cowan’s work throughout the remainder of the decade, his and Frank Humphries’ Blackbow was much more satisfying.
After the first fifteen weeks, Butterworth stopped adapting strips from Comet though without any significant change to the series. Later, in 1962, a few more original Strongbow stories were adapted. Eventually, Swift succumbed to Longacre’s ministrations and merged into Eagle, where it was the only strip to survive the transfer, as one of its loyal fans complained a few weeks later.
But where does ‘Longbow’ come in? Who published his adventures?
The answer to that is terribly simple though it’s one I have great difficulty in believing as it goes against every principle of preserving the comic strips and stories of our past. Longbow never appeared in any comic book, from Hultons or their successors in title. Longbow exists solely in the two collections of black and white strips from Swift that were originally printed under the title of Blackbow.
Why was this? Why was Strongbow changed to Blackbow in the first place? Why can’t he be Blackbow in these books?
For the first answer, it appears that two factors came into play. For many years, it was rumoured that Strongbow lost his name due to the appearance of a certain heavily-advertised cider, but that wasn’t it. On the other hand, haven’t we several times already seen reprints from Comet and Sun turn up in Fleetway Publications under new names? The lightest of disguises to conceal a reprint. But that’s not entirely the story here: Blackbow’s stories were not straight reprints of Strongbow, but the Last of the Mohicans was being reprinted under that name in Knockout, that starting only two weeks after Swift‘s redrawn series began.
As for Longbow, a footnote in Steve Holland’s book 1 makes it plain that the name has been chosen to distinguish this phase of the series from its earlier and later inceptions, meaning Longbow only exists in these two books, down to the re-lettered dialogue and captions, and was never used in any comic. I have personally confirmed this by checking in a DVD collection of Swift that I have to hand. Whether this was Holland’s decision or something forced upon him as a condition of the reprinting rights is not stated: I suspect and hope it was the latter.
Either way, it diminishes the two volumes collecting the series. A revised logo has had to be created. Endless references to Blackbow and Jim Barnaby have had to be whited out ad re-lettered Longbow and Jim Bennett. This is not the original preserved. It is a character who never existed, who had no life, who’s been conjured into being, perhaps out of necessity, but not for good reason. Excellent collections as these are, they are falsities in my eye. It is such a shame.
One thought on “Strongbow, Longbow, Blackbow: the pre-History of the Last of the Cheyenne”