A Flight with the Swift: Part 4

Swift 1

This will be the final part of my review of Swift, the Reverend Marcus Morris’s fourth title in his little group of redtop comics published by Hulton Press, appearing between 1954 and 1963. Swift was aimed at boys and girls aged somewhere from seven to ten years old. It was intended as a stepping-stone from the little kids paper, Robin, to where its audience would divide on gender lines between the stable’s star paper, Eagle and its female equivalent, Girl. I’m working from a two DVD compilation that features some 174 issues in total, plus five random Annuals.
This final part begins with volume 5 no 32, cover-dated 9 August 1958. Swift consists of sixteen pages weekly, appearing on Tuesdays, in full colour on the front and back covers and the centrespread, the rest in black and white. As we rejoin the comic, it has just changed its front cover feature for the first time since it started, introducing Smiley, a young Australian kid who had starred in two popular kids comedy films.
Smiley got the Tarna format: a full colour cover page, a half page black and white, the rest of page 2 given over to adverts, every other week Dennis Mallet’s ‘Then and Now’, advertising gas in an amusing and entertaining manner. I’ll reserve comment on Smiley until I’ve seen more than one episode but as it started with a kangaroo getting shot for eating grass in a drought, it’s got an uphill climb.
Page 3 features television’s Dixon of Dock Green, using Jack Warner’s likeness: it was a sort of serious version of PC 49 in which Dixon’s cases would always have young kids getting involved. Meanwhile, page 4 continues the adventures of Our Gang, a veteran of issue 1, also the work of Dennis Mallet, an ever fresh comic strip featuring Tubby, Teena and Tich, which is outstanding in actually still being funny after all these years. Wyatt Earp occupies page 5 whilst the next page is a prose serial, featuring Babs, Mark and Debbie, plus their friends the twins – Peter and Paul (absent in this occasion to permit a competition to be run).
Jassy of Juniper Farm still runs on page 7, featuring Jassy and her brother Jack. It’s still undemanding and unexciting, offering very little story: it’s the last series to feature a female lead and I’m assuming it’s directed at girls who are believed to favour domestic, everyday farm-life stories.
The centrespread carries the life story of Tammy, a sheepdog (drawn by George Backhouse), which has long since lost all interest, the nature feature British Birds and their Nests and, across the bottom half the cleanly-drawn The Rolling Stones, Johnny, Pam and Midge Stone, who are part of a circus acrobat family.
Tarna Jungle Boy, a junior Tarzan, plus his pals Toto the chimpanzee, Zoro the black panther, and Peggy, another ten year old, who lives with him has been displaced onto pages 10 and 11 but still only gets a page and a half, now all black and white.
Sammy, a strip that’s modulated from earthbound adventures with his Speedsub to a full-blown junior Dan Dare space story with his cousin Jill lies opposite the editorial page. Page 14 is split between brief Great Lives and the half-page strip Roddy the Road Agent, which is rarely remotely funny but manages to remain palatable in its unfunniness.
The last two series are, like Tarna and Roddy, veterans from issue 1. Nicky Nobody and his dog Chum is an orphan living with Private investigator Sir Giles Horton, who assists him in solving crimes whilst the back page is a full page comic strip advertisement for Ladybird clothes that makes Tommy Walls of Eagle memory look like War and Peace.
This is Swift in the high summer of 1958. There are only three months of continuous issues left on the DVD, plus a handful of Annuals and a smattering of information about the remainder of the comic’s history.

Our Gang strip from Swift

The new prose serial was The Secret of The Indian Queen. The was the fourth ‘Secret of…’ serial, but up until now Mark, the oldest boy, had been referred to as if he was the leader. Now, suddenly, his older sister Babs was given pride of place. That ties in with the comment I referred to last time, about how though Swift was meant for boys and girls, it started to sideline its female characters into prose as it was believed girls grew out of pictures sooner than boys (the readers of Girl, not to mention Bunty, Mandy, Tina, Jinty and countless others may wish to be heard upon this theory).
To my horror, just when I thought it had been killed off long ago, the horrendously unfunny Artie & Crafty, an appallingly bad cartoon about two sailors, reappeared after several months to share Tarna’s second page. Let this be a one-off, please! But it wasn’t.
The Nicky Nobody story took an unexpected turn in no. 35. It was ingenious to use marbles as a smuggling device but when they contained a bitter white powder suggested to be a drug, that was just as much a strange step as Peggie getting all possessive and huggy over Tarna had been. Who’s the audience again?
Changes, once begun, have a habit of accumulating. Both the ‘Secret of…’ serial and Jassy came to an end in no 37, and, less prominently, so too did Tammy the Sheepdog, whilst a Smiley free gift was promised for the following issue. It appears to have made that particular Swift very popular and as a result rare for it is the last gap in the DVD (PS, it was a boomerang. What else could it have been?). The new serial, The Call of the Drum, was set in Napoleonic times about Tom Sharp, who ran away from home to become a drummer boy in the Army, searching for his father, missing in Portugal and the school story that replaced Jassy was Castle & Co, three boys at what looked like boarding school. So the last female lead lost her series, and the gang with two girls disappeared as well. Interesting.
As for Tammy, his corner spot went to Wizard, the Wolf Dog. Oh dear. Another surprise was to find that The Rolling Stones had their space cut by a quarter to make room for a four panel, colour revival of… Captain Pugwash! Yes, John Ryan’s classic creation, by now a BBC animated short, was back.
So, what about Smiley? All I can say is, I hope the film (and the original novel) was better. The comics series is dull and lifeless. All Smiley’s got going for it is that it’s Australian, so we get kangaroos, aborigines, stockmen and the odd use of cobber and bonzer, but nothing happens to get interested in. The guy who shot the ‘roo in the first episode has a grudge against Smiley but is bloody useless at doing anything about it.
The only problem with Stanley Pettigrew is that he’s too clever. He outsmarts everyone and, thinks at least three episodes ahead, which means that he takes over the story and makes Nicky redundant. If I didn’t know better I’d be expecting him to take the strip over himself. Castle & Co was lively, drawn in an unfussy sketchy style and dull as ditchwater.
With no. 46, The Call of the Drum went into its ninth instalment, with no sign yet of an ending. That made it Swift’s longest running prose serial so far. But so far, for my purpose, comes to an end a week later, volume 5 no. 47, cover date 22 November 1958. Smiley’s pet kangaroo is shot by his enemy, the incredibly boorish and boring Kafkey. Dixon of Dock Green starts a new story. Tom Sharp drums on. Castle & Co and Tarna progress. Sammy ends his adventure on Ceres. Nicky Nobody’s story ended ludicrously, with an appalling racial stereotype Chinaman and the ‘drugs’ turning out to be castor sugar, smuggled to avoid wartime rationing which had ended years before: apparently the crooks hadn’t noticed that the War had ended a mere thirteen years earlier. Oi vey.

Swift 3

But this is the last of the all-but continuous run of issues on the DVD. Swift has been around for just over four and a half years. It will run for just under another four and a half years before its death by merger into Eagle. Information about the second half of its run is scanty to say the least.
What I do know, from Wikipedia primarily, is that in 1959 the comic transferred from Hulton Press to Odhams, along with Eagle and its other stablemates, and that shortly after Marcus Morris departed, leaving Clifford Makins to take over as editor. Sometime about August, Swift absorbed Odhams’ comic Zip and inherited some of its features. These would have included the Don Lawrence drawn ‘Wells Fargo’ and ‘Pony Express’, both westerns, and ‘Strongbow the Mighty’, itself a reprint from Comet, which would go on to have quite a different history.
The partial list of Swift features in Wikipedia makes reference to ‘Ginger & Co’, drawn by future Modesty Blaise artist Neville Colvin, appearing 1960 – 62, an adaptation of The Prisoner of Zenda in 1961, and the undated strips ‘Lochinvar’s Ride’ and Gerry Embleton’s ‘The Phantom Patrol’, both presumably from that era.
Further, in 1961 the comic was re-sized to match Eagle’s tabloid layout and shifted further upmarket to appeal to the same audience age range. Probably around the same point, the last vestiges of any female interest were eliminated: Peggy in Tarna would be ousted in favour of a male friend to wing through the jungle with. Perhaps one day I will get my hands on a DVD of this period of the comic’s history.
For now, all that is left are four random issues and five (out of nine) Annuals to glean any evidence from.
The first two issues are consecutive ones from eleven months later, 10 and 17 October 1959. Oddly enough, the cover still has it published by Hulton Press (and it’s still 4½d). The line-up is still very familiar at the start, though new arrivals Wells Fargo and Nigel Tawney, Explorer, another Zip alumnus, occupy pages 5 and 6 and the school story on page 7 is now Merrick of Merryhill. The Rolling Stones still occupy the centrespread but yet another dog has the top left corner: there is no Pugwash. Peggy’s still hanging around Tarna but there’s a new full page cartoon serial on page 12, The Bouncers. They really didn’t think much of their audience with this one.
Morrison’s editorial confirms what I’d already suspected, that this was indeed the merger with Zip issue. Skippy, also from the latter, it’s former cover story, got half a black and white page on page 14, coupled with Showbiz Notes from the then famous Jimmy Hanley (whose hotshot blonde daughter Jenny would grow up to co-present Magpie in 1971 in hotpants and boots: irrelevant but memorable.) Nicky Nobody was immovable but now the back page was given to Captain Grant’s Children, a well-drawn full-colour serial set in South America, some time in the past, it seemed.

Swift 4

There was nothing more to add from the following issue, after which there was a jump of more than two years, to volume 8 no 46, 18 November 1961. Swift is now 5d and it’s logo has been re-designed to the horizontal with, for some reason, an arrow through its letters. The cover is a full-colour though badly-painted plug for a feature inside.First up inside is the very familiar figure of Blackbow the Cheyenne, about which we know a tremendous amount. The final third of his last page explains the cover. Next up, Famous Flyers featured Alcock and Brown whilst pages 6 and 7 featured the final part of an adaptation of Rafael Sabatini’s classic pirate novel, Captain Blood (to be followed the next week by Rob Roy).The centrespread was completely remade, featuring the Prisoner of Zenda adaptation I mentioned above in full colour over one and a half pages, the rest being an advert. Nicky Nobody and Chum were still going, now separated from Sir Giles Horton, an orphan boy all alone in the world, making me suspect this to be a reprint from that first year of the comic that I don’t have. Tarna gets a single page, still with Peggy. No editorial but instead a full page ad, followed by real-life adventure Incredible But True.There was a new cartoon half-page on page 14, the slapstick silly Guy D Guide (Reg Parlett I presume), the aforementioned Ginger & Co, more school stuff and, on the back, it’s still the bloody Ladybird Secret Club! No Our Gang, no Rolling Stones: I was genuinely sorry to see these go.The final available issue was just over two months later, volume 9 no. 4, 27 January 1962, a little bit more than thirteen months from the end. Ironically, it featured the last episode of Rob Roy, which was appallingly badly drawn, whilst the centrespread was another last episode, of Robin Hood and Kazar the Turk: yeah, me neither. This was clearly the cusp of change because Nicky Nobody found a home (and not with Sir Giles – this one really puzzles me), to make space for, you guessed it, The Phantom Patrol. There’s a nostalgic full-pager for Our Gang, but that’s being replaced next week by an adaptation of Lochinvar’s Ride, a nostalgic half-page Roddy the Roadscout, whilst Tarna finishes his story, Peggy having been replaced by the larger boy, Tim Bourne.A full page plug promotes five new series the next week, the ones so far unmentioned being an adaptation of Max Bravo and yet one more new school story, New Boy. Plus four weeks of free gifts. This latter is to replace Ginger & Co. Lastly, the Ladybird adventurers are finally gone from the back cover, which features navy crests and flags of the United Nations. And that’s done.

Swift 5

Apart from a handful of Annuals, numbers 1, 4, 5, 7 and 9. Nor is there much to say about them. They follow the format of the Eagle Annuals in offering a roughly equal split between comic strips, prose stories and features, including games, and the strips roughly match up to what is appearing in the comic that year. Oddly enough, Annual 1 (1955) has a blue, not a red cover. It also contains a Tubby solo strip (with Tich as a silent character) as well as Our Gang. And in later years, just as Eagle had characters like Waldorf & Cecil, and Professors Meek & Mild, who only appeared in Annuals, Swift offered clumsy pirates Swash & Buckle, far funnier and far better drawn that Artie and Crafty ever were.
Still, one thing that surprised me was that the contents pages for each Annual included separate lists of all the contributors, writers and artists, in alphabetical order. There was nothing but any perception the reader might have to attach creator to creation but this was astonishing, given that no such facility was ever given to an Eagle Annual. I wonder why.
For me, though, the very last item on the DVD, Annual 9, for 1963, proved to be the treasure trove. I would swear blind to never having seen the cover in my life but once I opened it up, it was clear that I had once owned this. Practically every comic page, every panel, jumped out and bashed me in the eyeballs with recognition. I must have read it to pieces once. It was pure uncut crystal meth nostalgia.
A summary, then. Though I’m having to base this on what is not much more than a third of the comic’s run, I have to describe Swift as what I’ve said all along: a kid’s comic, exactly as intended. It was meant to be a bridge between First Readers and the pre- to early teenage audience who could be offered more complex stories that not only satisfied them but challenged them to think and dream further. Swift was limited, intentionally, and as such it’s insufficiently appealing to the older reader, being aimed too far beneath them.
And by older reader I don’t just mean adults like myself. It’s one thing to call Swift a kid’s comic, but then they all are. The better ones display an intelligence and a level of art to go with the craft, and can give enjoyment and pleasure to the adults in addition to the natural audience. Very few of Swift‘s features could have been transferred over to Eagle without looking out of place, perhaps only The Red Rider when Jim Holdaway was drawing it. And even so it would still have needed better, more character-oriented dialogue.
But it’s always good to know. And if anyone ever does make available a more comprehensive run, especially for 1959-1963, I’ll be back. At present, the only place I know that offers a complete set is the British Library, which is just not feasible on so many grounds, many of them being the number of pounds required to buy a train ticket…

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