Eagle – Volume 3 (1952/53)


A Harold Johns Dan Dare

Volume 3 was the last of Eagle to encompass two calendar years. It also represented three major steps towards the comic’s classic shape, with one change of artist and two new series during its twelve months, though there was an equally major step backwards, arising from another, thankfully temporary, change of artist.
Taking these advances in order of appearances, in issue 7 Frank Humphris succeeded Angus Scott as the third, and eventually permanent artist on Riders of the Range. As much a Western enthusiast as writer Charles Chilton, and a fanatic for accuracy to warm Frank Hampson’s heart, Humphris was the perfect choice for the series. Daniels was too stylised, Scott too cartoony: Humphris represented the photo-realistic approach Eagle required for its adventure strips.
Humphris took some time to settle in, especially in his colouring choices, but long before the end of his first story, he’s close to achieving his mature style. In response, Chilton seems to relax, confident that his artist can handle longer stories, whereas the efforts completed by Daniels and Scott were brief and brisk.
In the centre-pages, Tintin continued until issue 5, completing ‘King Ottokar’s Sceptre’. The experiment was not repeated, for reasons unknown: perhaps the licence from Darguad cost too much, or perhaps the series was not as popular with Eagle‘s readers as was hoped. After all, it was another six years before Hodder & Staughton began their series of Tintin books, and translators Leslie Lonsdale-Cooper and Michael Turner began their long association with the Belgian boy reporter.
Tintin was replaced in issue 6 by a one-off feature intended to run as a twelve-week stopgap. Instead, Luck of the Legion stayed until Eagle’s second major redesign, in 1962, and in popularity polls of the readers, it came second only to Dan Dare.

Trenet and Luck: an annual story

From the outset, Luck was the work of its long-term creators, writer Geoffrey Bond (who would go on to produce six ‘Sergeant Luck’ novels), and artist Martin Aitchison. It stood out among Eagle‘s features for its resolutely horizontal format, which restricted Aitchison unmercifully, but which he never allowed to defeat him.
The series starts with Sergeant ‘Tough’ Luck’s promotion from Corporal and immediate secondment to a secret mission for which he can handpick his men. The first person he turns to is Corporal Trenet, a Belgian, but this is not the Trenet we know so well. He’s fresh-faced, round of features and he isn’t wearing his moustache! He’s also cheery, sunny and completely helpful, though this is because the team does not have it’s third component, Legionnaire 12345 Bimberg, the butt of withering abuse from Trenet for his fatness, greediness, sleepiness, laziness, stupidity and many more characteristics.
Indeed, Trenet is shot during the first story, saving Luck’s life, though the disappearance of his body clues us in to the fact that he will return, deus ex machina-like, in the final episode, leading a rescue platoon to Luck’s besieged men. And he turns up with his immaculately groomed little moustache that is not a million miles away from that of Pierre Lafayette in Dan Dare, and his face is a little thinner. The reason for growing his facial hair? When he was shot, he fell and cut his lip!
The second story, incomplete at the end of the volume, still features only the two characters, though there are a small band of relatively anonymous legionnaires in two, one of whom has the luck of a proto-Bimberg, and pops up occasionally making the kind of remarks Bimberg might make, only not quite so comic: he’s heavy faced, and clearly older and more realistic, but he has the curly moustache and the crumpled kepi, and is given to the odd ‘Caramba’, which makes the connection even more pointed.

A future Eagle novel

The third advance was in a way a two-step forwards, one step back motion. Having been in existence for over two and a half years, the one genre Eagle hadn’t tackled was a school series, and this was much bruited on the debut of Peter Ling’s Three ‘J’s of Northbrook, a serial set in and around Northbrook School.
We’re immediately presented with the Three J’s themselves, John, Jimmy (aka ‘Specs’) and Jacko, their hated opposite, Fifth Form bully Bradbury and his two henchmen, the wise and perceptive Headmaster, Mr Ravenshaw and the irascible Fourth Form Master, Mr Wakefield. The story centres upon John Allen being accused of stealing the Football Cup, when this has been thrown out of the gym by Bradbury as a joke, only for it to be found by a tramp and sold, and the bulk of the story is about finding out what’s happened, trying to get the cowardly Bradbury to confess and ultimately exposing the spivs, who are blackmailing him, and recovering the Cup.
The J’s themselves were archetypes: Allen the athletic leader and hero, Specs the bespectacled clever kid and Jacko the cheeky, face-stuffing comic relief: almost Bimberg before Bimberg! The thing was that, after a ten week story, The Three J’s disappeared, and were replaced by a Rex Milligan serial (a change of pace after several more one-off stories throughout the volume). They would return, for a much longer run.
I mentioned above a second change of artist. This was on Dan Dare itself, where ‘The Red Moon Mystery’ rolled on towards a scientifically ingenious solution, including the destruction of the Moon itself, creating an explosion that overwhelms the flagship, sending it to crash on the surface of Mercury.
This allowed Frank Hampson to segue directly into a new story, ‘Marooned on Mercury’, in which the Mekon would return as villain. Unfortunately, as ‘Dan Dare’ fans know, Hampson was only able to complete two weeks of the new story before succumbing to the first of two lengthy, illness-related absences from the series. The Reverend Chad Varah took over writing ‘Marooned on Mercury’ and Harold Johns took on the drawing, being credited every week at the bottom of page 2.
What’s intriguing is that Johns has clearly been the principal artist for several weeks at the end of ‘The Red Moon Mystery’. Hampson almost certainly was directing the conclusion of the story, and I can only assume that, to give himself time to plan the sequel, he had left the main art to his senior assistant (I’m betting Hampson still prepared the colour roughs that were the first stage in the preparation of the pages).
I’ve discussed ‘Marooned on Mercury’ elsewhere at greater length, so suffice to say here that Johns, who went on to be a noted watercolourist, is poor on faces and figures, and gets worse as the story goes alone, and that Varah does not have Hampson’s knack for building a string of incidents into a cohesive story. It makes me wonder if the fact that Hampson’s absence had no apparent effect on circulation figures encourages executives to think of him as dispensible when, many years later, a crunch would come.

Frank Humphris and Jeff Arnold

PC49‘s adventures with the Boys Club rolled on entertainingly. Much of the volume was taken up with ‘The Case of the Little Black Prince’, which has become a rather problematic story with the passing of the decades.
The basis of the story is pretty simple. 49 is due a fortnight’s leave, which he intends to spend in peace and quiet, camped out at the isolated Loch Laggmore in Scotland. Unfortunately for him, two crooks are bound for the same spot, to dig up loot buried under the ruined castle, and further disturbance is ensured by the titular character, his Uncle and two rivals for leadership of his tribe back in Africa, intent on kidnapping Prince Mongatiki in order to foment a rising that will enable them to take leadership of the tribe.
Mongatiki, his Uncle Abawi and the two brothers, Umtogo and Mambata are black. In a story published in 1952/3 in an English boy’s comic.
It’s fair to say that the story is not overtly racist. Eagle was edited by a liberal CofE Vicar, and would not have allowed a directly racist line. But at the same time, the story is coloured by the instinctive attitudes of the time.
Mongatiki, or Tiki as he became known, was to become a fixture in the Boy’s Club for the rest of the series, and never would he be treated with anything less than complete respect, nor did any of the other Club members – universally white – treat him in the least different from each other. But Tiki’s character is quickly formed in his debut: a sober, serious, mature young boy, aware of his duties as Prince of his tribe and determined to live up to them.
Artistically, Worsley draws him with slightly thicker lips than the other boys. It’s not the blackface caricature we are so heartily sick of seeing, but it’s not untouched by it. It’s more prevalent on Uncle Awabi, another serious figure, who is immaculately besuited throughout, but it’s even more pronounced on the villainous Umtogo and Mambata, who are also depicted as being slightly naïve as to British ways and prone to superstition, which Tiki rejects.
I admit to being biased in Eagle‘s favour. For me, the story treads the line throughout, but manages, just, to stay on the side of innocent ignorance rather than casual racism. Others may disagree, and I wouldn’t take arms opposing them. We are talking about an entertainment for younger readers that was written and drawn sixty-five years ago. That doesn’t excuse it, and you may very well argue that it is what we show and tell to our children at the age when attitudes and beliefs are being formed that requires the greatest caution of all, and I would wholeheartedly agree with you.
But the intention is good, and to me the proof comes when the Boy’s Club (now led by Toby Moore) arrives in Scotland to surprise 49 in his holiday, find Tiki in danger and without a second’s hesitation, put themselves at risk to save him. They don’t draw a distinction based on colour, not then, not ever.

PC 49 on film: Brian Perks

One of the other regular strips underwent a change in this volume, and one that was, in a sense, ambitious, and in another, utterly ludicrous. This was Tommy Walls which, with effect from issue 5, after 109 single-issue strips, turned into a serial for the remainder of its run. Richard E. Jennings remained the main artist, but his stories in Volume 3 alternated with tales drawn by J. Pannett.
Whereas Tommy & Co’s adventures had been reasonably grounded and bordering on plausible in terms of how the lads so consistently got into scrapes, the serials abandoned any attempt to stick with realism. Tommy & Co started getting involved with serious organised crime, national security and the Secret Service. They were treated as being on a par with fully adult, highly-trained agents.
And the strip’s purpose as a promotion for Wall’s Ice Cream became utterly ridiculous as on multiple occasions through stories covering relatively short periods, Tommy & Co, not to mention the head of the British Secret Service, stuffed their faces with Walls Ice Cream or, if fitting a trip to a shop or a Wallsie’s van was just too outside the plot, they would yearn for the bloody stuff.
Oh, and maybe that far back ice cream was made with something that has since been removed from the formula, but all it took was a wrapping in newspaper and the ice cream would last forever without melting.
I’m sorry, the constant harping on ice cream as a source of energy, not to mention mental alertness, and the regularity with which it was consumed leaves me unable to take the Tommy Walls serials even remotely seriously. The Trade Descriptions Act is a long, long way off, I can tell you.
On the back page, ‘Louis the Fearless’ confounded my expectations by living a long life and dying of natural causes, outliving all those baronial opponents and championing the peasants and livestock to the end, only, unless I’m misremembering European History A Level studies (Grade A), it didn’t seem to have any longlasting effect on the poor buggers.
That was followed by ‘Deep Sea Doctor’, the life of Grenfell of Labrador, a Doctor who fought to raise standards of health in Canada, and then ‘Man of Courage’, the life of St Vincent de Paul, whose story reversed the trend of figures whose lives were getting nearer and nearer to modern times. This last carried over into Volume 4.
I’ve already mentioned the frequent prose appearances of Rex Milligan this volume, mainly in complete short stories, but in issue 49, the comic began serialising a book-length story, ‘Rex Milligan’s Busy Term’. This aside, the state of Eagle’s prose serials in volume 3 was not impressive, with the only homegrown serial being the brief and somewhat reptitive ‘Truants Abroad’, another scientist’s-son-is-kidnapped-only-they-get-his-friend-instead story.


This separated two serialisations of Eric Leyland novels about Flame & Co. I remember reading at least one of that series as a library book in the early Sixties and even allowing for nostalgia, they really haven’t worn well. It’s all fast action, constantly being told how tough/determined/skilful the gang are without every really waiting to show it, and David Flame’s manner of speaking will be very familiar to anyone who’s ever read a Leslie Charteris story.
The trend towards serialising stories about existing popular characters was extended at the volume’s end to its logical conclusion: after many reader’s letters, Eagle did a deal with Captain W.E.Johns to serialise his latest Biggles novel. It may have been abridged: traditionally (i.e., formulaicly), Biggles books start in the jungle somewhere with Ginger Hebblethwaite about to stand on a log that turns out to be a crocodile instead: Chapter 2, back in the Air Commissioner’s office, instructing Biggles on his latest case, but these story starts in the Air Commissioner’s office. A bit confusing, that, old boy.
I’ve not mentioned Harris Tweed: apart from John Ryan’s art softening slightly, and getting a little bit less grotesque, it was much the same all year.
One final word: Marcus Morris’s efforts to actively involve the readers continued unabated, one new development being the devotion of an occasional page to Readers Efforts, featuring short stories, cartoons, micro-crosswords, jokes and puzzles put forward by the readers themselves. Set against the professional standards around them, such things were almost never more than commendable for their age, but two efforts in different issues deserve a mention.
One was a short story by a young lady, 170 words in length, cute, stylish and florid, in which every word began with the letter ‘T’, a tremendous effort. The other was a notable cartoon, not very good in itself, of various Eagle characters, with heads swapped onto each other’s bodies: notable for the identity of its artist – Gerald Scarfe!
Such was Volume 3: we ended the volume with Dan Dare, PC49, Riders of the Range, Luck of the Legion, Harris Tweed and Tommy Walls, all of these with their permanent and best artists. But there was still more to be done, as will be seen in Volume 4.

Eagle – Volume 2 (1951/2)


Dan Dare in ‘The Red Moon Mystery’

Eagle‘s second volume feels very much like an exercise in consolidation. There are no startling advances, just good, solid progress. Dan Dare completes his first, and longest, adventure, but the second proves to be just as good and as popular, despite an inexplicable backstage panic, whilst both PC49 and Riders of the Range change artists, the one to great effect, the other to marginal improvement.
Volume 2 started with a birthday issue, though in the comic this was represented by an extended Editor’s page with photos of the principal editorial staff and some of the main artists, and a full-page centrespread showing how Eagle is produced, from logging of trees in Canada to the newsagent’s shop.
I have to correct an error on my part in the last blog when I claimed Skippy the Kangaroo was replaced by another European strip: it was, but not immediately. First we had to experience the home-made The Legend of the Lincoln Imp, written and drawn by Norman Spargo: repeat after me, this is for the seven year olds, this is for the seven year olds.
The volume had barely started when Marcus Morris was making excuses for another increase in price, this one based on a threefold increase in the cost of paper. This time, the price went up by only a halfpenny, but that still made for a 50% increase in the price of Eagle in little over a year.
Dan Dare’s adventures on Venus continued until issue 25, making the overall story 77 issues in length: the longest Dan Dare story and the longest story in Eagle‘s history. Oddly enough, after the muddy and dull colouring I criticised in volume 1, several weeks of art go to the opposite extreme, applying light colours to a bleached background, as if there was an extreme light-source. I’m assuming that this was an aspect of Frank Hampson’s ceaseless experimenting.
But once the story returned to Earth, the colouring settled into a more naturalistic palette. Behind the scenes, Hampson’s tendency to overwork began to take its toll, and he was absent from the last four weeks of the story.
Apparently, the realisation that the story was nearing its end caused some panic in Eagle‘s offices, especially as it was realised that nothing appeared to have been done to prepare for a sequel. There were fears that a different story would be a flop, and some effort was putting into publicising the forthcoming adventure on Mars, but of course the panic was unnecessary. ‘The Red Moon Mystery’ was just as popular, and whilst the art retained a somewhat cartoonish edge, especially in Dan’s Uncle Ivor, it was stronger overall, with a bolder and more aggressive use of black lines. Hampson’s friend and chief assistant Harold Johns was, on a couple of occasions, elevated to the status of co-artist, his name signed alongside that of the master.

John Worsley’s PC49

After finishing off the absurd story with the midget and the giant, Strom Gould’s fourth and last PC49 story was the absolute nadir, though the blame for that goes to writer Alan Stranks. ‘The Curse of Killer’s Keep’ was a horrible and absurd mess from start to finish, with Joan Carr missing as 49 is knocked out and kidnapped to a remote island serving a ridiculous dictator going by the name of Napoleon Bloggs. It’s an idiotic story that’s completely wrong for a level-headed beat copper, but Stranks showed that he recognised it by taking a completely different approach with the very next story, which saw ex-POW John Worsley take over as artist for the rest of the run.
‘The Case of the Terrible Twins’ is everything PC49 hasn’t been before now, but will be until the feature ends. It’s down to earth, with an easy, well-developed flow, and it introduces the Boy’s Club who will effectively co-star from hereon in.
The ‘Terrible Twins’ are the Mulligans, Pat and Mick, a rowdy and rebellious pair of Irish extraction. They’re not bad kids, just wild, and irresponsible. 49 tries to take them under his wing at the Boy’s club, whose leader, Snorky, is the only one identified, but the irrepressible pair blot their copybook. Their wildness attracts the attention of Knocker and Slim, the first of Worsley’s gallery of grotesque baddies. This pair are street level crooks, breaking into factories, coshing nightwatchmen, that level of street crime, and they con the Mulligans into helping them. Only when the Twins start to realise what’s really going on do they start to repent, though they only really learn their lessons when Mick is captured and Pat wounded in the arm and the Boys Club rally round to help 49 bring down the crooks.
Worsley’s art is not quite as we will get used it it on this first story. He is far more polished than Gould, and his faces considerably more varied and, even when he is caricaturing crooks, more realistic. At this stage there’s a rounded fullness to his work that will later drift towards a more impressionistic style, and his backgrounds are far more detailed. It’s a tremendous improvement, and the change in direction for the stories is also positive.
His second story is set in and around the Docks, with 49 being assisted to bring down smugglers by cabin boy Toby Moore, but as the volume ends, the Club is ready to play a direct part, with the Mulligans and others identified.
Jack Daniels had already started his second and last Riders of the Range story when Volume 1 ended. Based on a true incident, ‘The Cochise Affair’ was everything the first story was in terms of art, though the colours were even more stylised this time, baked out under a desert sun. He was replaced by Angus Scott, whose approach was more conventional and whose cartooning was a little more realistic, but who was not much more than a cartoonist, his faces sketchy and angular. Scott was also give short stories to draw, and was into the third and last of his stint when Volume 2 ended.
We shall leave The Legend of the Lincoln Imp under its deserved shroud, because it and its predecessor were completely overshadowed by Eagle‘s second venture into the world of European comics. In Volume 2 issue 17, Herge’s famous Tintin made his first appearance in English.

Tintin in Eagle

The story chosen was ‘King Ottokar’s Sceptre’, though the title was never given. This was an interesting choice as the story had originally been serialised in ‘Le Petit Vingtieme’ in 1938/9, in black and white. By 1951, Tintin was starring in a magazine bearing his own name, but whilst Herge was undergoing periods of depression, his studio was busy reworking, polishing and colouring earlier adventures.
Nevertheless, this is still very different from the album version we now know so well. The translator (s) is unknown, but the legendary Leslie Lonsdale-Cooper and Michael Turner did not begin their long association with Tintin until Methuen started publishing the adventures in books in 1958. Certainly, none of the signature flourishes of the series are present. Tintin is given to be French (!), his dog is Milou as in the original, and whilst the Thompsons are indeed Thompson and Thomson, their humour is purely physical, with none of the malapropisms and careful manglings of the English language. The translation appears to be no more than literal and workmanlike.
For all that, Tintin is still head and shoulders above its predecessors, and it’s a feather in the cap for it to be Eagle who brought the famed boy Reporter to England for the first time.
As for the remaining strips, there’s little to say. Despite John Ryan introducing, late in the volume, a small amount of continuity, in the form of the Extra Special Agent spending four weeks on holiday in the Caribbean, Harris Tweed stuck to its formula of the blowhard winning by accident or the actions of the put-upon Boy, and coming up with some form of self-justifying pun in the final panel.
Equally, Tommy Walls stuck to its little model. Most strips were drawn by Richard E. Jennings, with the occasional interpolations by others, and every strip ended with yet more blocks of Walls Ice Cream, until you fear for the dental health of Tommy, Bobby, Lennie and Sue. In the back end of the Volume, there’s an increased presence by ‘Wallsie’, the name for any driver/vendor of Walls Ice Cream vans, just to render Tommy’s attacks on grown men slightly more plausible, though I do emphasise the word ‘slightly’.
The Great Adventurer only lasted a handful of issues into the new Volume, before ending with the rather unsparing detail of St Paul’s beheading on the orders of the Emperor Nero. It was succeeded by Patrick, Fighter for Truth, the life of St Patrick of Ireland, though the story risked confusion by referring to Patrick by his childhood name of Hygaid, and showing him as a spoilt half-Roman and all round nasty piece of work for the first couple of months.
By now, Norman Williams was well-established as the back-page artist, and once again the strip did not shirk unpleasant details, such as Patrick’s devoted sister and fellow-slave Lupait being beaten to death by her master.
St Patrick’s story was much shorter than that of St Paul, and we had time to start Louis the Fearless, about the French King who inherited the crown at an early age and, from his start, had a very socialist attitude in being for fair and decent treatment of the peasantry, causing much opposition from the Barons, who were very much of the ‘Keep the rabble down’ camp: I anticipate assassination in Volume 3.

Tommy Walls by Richard E Jennings

On the prose side, ‘The Scarlet Snuffbox’, a London-set carryover from volume 1, was aggressively anti-female in a way Eagle hadn’t previously been. In contrast, it’s successor, ‘North Wind’, featured a highly competent girl, who spent the entire story disguised as a boy until the final episode, when her true gender is revealed. Unfortunately, the moment she becomes a girl, she starts getting a bit soppy about how the British boy she’s been partnered with will react to the deception, but he’s more concerned with the person beneath than her superficial characteristics, so there’s not even the slightest hint of a romance blooming!
The serial was written by Geoffrey Beardsmore, and appeared as a complete novel after its serialisation was completed. This was Beardsmore’s first contribution to Eagle, but a few years later, he would become a permanent fixture in the comic, with more than one comics series.
‘North Wind’ finished in issue 26, but there was not another serial until Rex Rients’s ‘s ‘Nightmare Island’, which ran from issue 40 to 51. This was a much more conventional story, with an amusingly ‘Lost’-like set-up: plane off course in the South Pacific crashes on mysterious island, but the set-up was much more down-to-earth. Pirate treasure is discovered on the island, and a sleazy, dictatorial Brazilian and two scummy Americans team up with the intention of killing everyone else and keeping it. Needless to say, two teenage boys, one British and one Australian, foil them.
The rest of the time was taken up by Anthony Buckeridge’s Rex Milligan. Buckeridge, already famous for his Jennings and Darbishire stories both in books and on the radio, had been asked to contribute to Eagle and came up with his other popular creation specifically for the comic. Rex Milligan was a London-based Grammar school boy who, alongside his best pal, Jigger Johnson, was constantly getting into trouble – and getting out of it as the strapline on the series proclaimed. These were all self-contained stories, bright and breezy, and appeared throughout the volume in two separate tranches.
Otherwise, there was the usual assortment of short stories, no better and no worse than those that preceded them, although six were published under the heading of ‘The Merman of the Fijis’, about a wonderboy swimmer out in the South Pacific, frustrating the evil plans of a crooked boat-owner, who commits suicide by shark in the last paragraph.
One of the things that distinguished volume 2 was the increased intensity of Marcus Morris’s efforts to involve Eagle‘s readers, in games, competitions and events outside the mere reading of the paper. A small section for Letters was introduced, events and holidays organised, especially Carol Services around Christmas, with a special service for Eagle readers at none other than St Paul’s Cathedral. There’s a lot of energy going into the kind of extra-curricular things the readers would like, including the establishing of the first of Eagle‘s sister papers, sister being the operative word here, as Girl was established for readers’ sisters, in an effort to stop them pinching their brothers’ copies of Eagle.
So that was volume 2: more of the same, only different. Some incremental improvement, most notably in respect of PC49, but overall, the comic still has some way to go to hit its peak period. We’ll see how things progress next time out.

 

Eagle – Volume 1 (1950/51)


Whichever point you choose to start from, it’s taken me a long time to come up with a complete collection of the Eagle (missing centrespreads and clipped coupons notwithstanding). Then again, it’s only in the last couple of years, and the belated realisation that I could acquire back issues through eBay for relatively cheap prices, that I’ve seriously entertained the thought that it was possible.
And now I’ve achieved that (missing centrespreads and clipped coupons notwithstanding). It’s not a complete collection, mind you. It stops at Vol 17, issue 1, the last original Dan Dare episode, after which Eagle went into reprints of classic Frank Hampson adventures from the mid-Fifties. I don’t count it from that point onwards: Dan Dare was not just the best thing about Eagle, as it always had been, but by then the only thing worth reading.
So, what’s the first thing you do when you complete a full collection? You read it, from start to finish. And what else do you do, if you are a blogger? Very good, but what are you going to do with the other two guesses?
Reading 52 issues of the Eagle takes a certain amount of physical time, as does commenting upon it, so I’m going to take it a volume at a time. I have already read Volume 1, and thus we will begin, as Mary Poppins so sensibly suggested, at the beginning.
Eagle no 1 was published by Hulton Press on 14 April 1950, a Friday. Its original publication date was a fortnight later but rumours had reached Hultons that a rival full colour comic was being planned as a spoiler, and publication was advanced, to ensure being first.
Just under a million copies were printed by Eric Bemrose & Co in Liverpool, using experimental printing equipment imported from Germany, which was still being constructed when the first sheets of paper were fed in. The comic consisted of twenty pages, five loose-leaf sheets, the cover and centrespread printed in colour, the internal pages in black and white.

Strom Gould art on PC49

Two of Eagle’s classic features were present from the start, three if you count the back page Lives of Famous Men series, starting with St Paul: the subject editor the Reverend Marcus Morris had insisted upon over Hulton’s reservations. The other two were Dan Dare, written and drawn in its first ten weeks by Frank Hampson alone, and on p3, PC 49, adapted by Alan Stranks from his already popular BBC Radio comedy-drama.
Another regular, but not so long-lasting feature, initially drawn by Hampson’s studio and signed by him, was the full colour Tommy Walls strip, the first and most prominent of Eagle’s many adverts in comic form, this promoting Wall’s Ice Cream.
For the first half dozen weeks, Eagle alternated between 20pp for odd numbered issues and 16pp for even numbered. Almost every week, Morris’s editorial comments upon the lack of availability to readers, which is down to the ongoing printing issues (after the near 1,000,000 copies of issue 1, only 300,000 copies of no 2 were possible). Eventually, it was announced that Eagle would be 16pp every week, to try and increase printing time and make more copies available.
The initial 3d cover price lasted until issue 18 when it was lifted to 4d, an increase of 33%! This was justified in the editorial as helping to get more copies printed and available to the readers. I have no figures for this particular time, but Eagle was known to have settled down to a steady 750,000 sales per week throughout the Fifties and there’s no reason to believe this wasn’t achieved during the first year.
Dan Dare’s first story, which carried no official name, ran throughout the first year and beyond. After Hampson’s initial solo run, his studio system was brought in, as was a writer, though he lasted only six weeks before confessing that, as he had had a classical education, of course he had no idea what to do. Hampson, who had negotiated no separate contract for scripting, was forced to struggle on, taking on writers to work under his direction, paying them out of his own pocket, and generally moving things along.
Dan Dare was the best thing in Eagle, but this was very much the strip’s primitive stage. Hampson was learning as he went along, and his assistants were all straight out of art school, except for Bruce Cornwell. The art was lively and colourful, though the colour palate was very subdued in comparison with the heights it would reach, and it looked muddied and dull throughout. There was still a large cartooning component to faces and, to a lesser extent, figures, but the danger in such criticism is that I am judging Eagle not by the standards of its contemporaries in 1950, but rather its own glories of 1955 and onwards, against which it is helpless.
Generally, it’s fair to say that Volume 1 is a learning curve, in all respects, and that there was much to learn, yet even the worst of the comic in this first year is an astonishing leap forward from its contemporaries.
PC49 suffered in its first year from very weak art by Strom Gould: awkward, bland, undetailed. Stranks was feeding off the continuity he’d established for the radio series, so Archie’s fiancee (and later wife) Joan Carr was always there in the background. Stranks got through two full stories in a year and was well-established in a third. The first was a nondescript affair of 49 pursuing crooks who knock down a crippled orphan with their car (thereby curing his bad leg!), the second involved secret societies, the Secret Service and lots of manic running around and the third saw a film star’s son being kidnapped by a circus gang that included a midget who appeared to be about two feet tall and perfectly proportioned. Nor was there anything of the trademark humour Stranks brought to the radio show, and would employ in the strip’s future incarnation.
The next band of strips etc. were part of the centrespread. Seth and Shorty – Cowboys was obviously a western, and was as nondescript as the name suggests. It ran sixteen weeks, without credits. The title characters were bland cowhands, there was a bit of rustling and they ended up with enough money to buy their own ranch. The dialogue was written phonetically, to some effect, whilst the art, which looked unformed and indistinct, does have the merit of a certain impressionism to its colouring scheme. It was a very minor series, but thanks to its art, retained some minimal charm.
Seth and Shorty lasted seventeen weeks and were replaced by a strip relating the Life of Cortez, Conqueror of Mexico. The art was ugly and ungainly, the story jerky, the colours muddy and the strip unforgivably paternalist towards the conquered subject people, the only pleasure coming from the abrupt ending in which Cortez lost all his looted money and died a pauper. This was written by Ronald Syme and drawn by William Stobbs.


However, this gave way to the third of Eagle’s classic series, Charles Chilton’s Riders of the Range. Like PC49, this was a successful radio series, adapted by its creator, and I assume with similar initial fidelity. Hero Jeff Arnold appeared to be a full-time Texas Ranger, sent out to deal with a rustling issue which took him towards the 6T6 Ranch of J C MacDonnell, his daughter Mary and Luke, the Old-Timer. Arnold, the fastest gun in Texas, appeared to know the 6T6 bunch, but at this stage, he wasn’t employed there, as became the norm in future stories, nor is Luke the full-time sidekick he was obviously designed to be.
Art at this stage was by Jack Daniel, heavy on atmosphere and deliberately stylised, lurid in colour. Frankly, I don’t like it, though I’m heavily influenced here by what the strip later became, under Frank Humphris, who doesn’t have the same fame as Eagle‘s two big Franks, Hampson and Bellamy, but who was as good an artist as either of them, in an understated, photorealistic manner. I still find it impossible to reconcile Daniel’s awkward, elusive approach with the interest and enthusiasm of the comic’s intended audience: it’s a radical style geared to adult appreciation.
Riders of the Range started in issue 37 and still managed to get into a second story by volume end.
The format of the centrespread was fixed from issue 1. This was the home of the famous Cutaway Drawings, primarily from L. (Leslie) Ashwell Wood. Nearly two dozen artists would contribute to this concise and immaculately factual series, but Ashwell Wood would draw over ten times as many cutaways as the next most prolific contributor. Wood’s detailed and meticulous full colour drawings extended across the centrespread, occupying just over half the image area, and was supported underneath by a slightly smaller strip.

Skippy and Sir Marlborough Mouseworthy

Through Volume 1 this was the unprepossessing and utterly forgotten Skippy the Kangaroo, a cartoon adventure series from, probably, France or Belgium, produced by Danet, Dubrisay, Genestre, about whom I can find nothing whatsoever on-line, except in relation to this. It’s drawn in a pre-ligne clare big-eyed style, with rounded characters and featured famed Big Game explorer Sir Marlborough Mouseworthy being commissioned to go out and bring back a tiger. Our hero wound up in a jungle on the edge of a desert and had to be rescued from the tiger by a tribe of talking kangaroos, one of whom, Skippy, is the titular hero, a multi-talented, mischievous and pretty damned reckless marsupial, who captures the tiger, then accompanies Sir Marlborough back to civilization, by which time the poor, put-upon baronet wants nothing more than to get rid of him, and frankly, so do we. Repeat after me, this is one for the seven year old audience, this is one for the seven year old audience and no-one else.
The fourth page of the spread was split between one historical and one nature series, the latter of a kind Eagle would produce time and again: experts in their field condensing information into a few panels, educating the readers with beautiful work, though once again, the heyday of these features was yet to come.
Morris’s Editorial and Eagle Club page followed, as did one of the comic’s least-remarked upon features. A three panel silent cartoon strip filled with remarkable pantomime notions, starring a small boy named Chicko. It’s very dated by modern standards, but this too was a landmark, being the first regular work of Norman Thelwell, going by his surname only. He would go on to become of of England’s most loved cartoonists, for his long series of cartoons featuring little girls and stubby ponies. Chicko was done whilst he had a full-time job teaching illustration and design at Wolverhampton College.


The Hampson studio’s weakest work was in the black and white strip in the back half of the comic, about Air Cadet Rob Conway. Hampson signs the art in the first three weeks, then his friend and assistant Harold Johns does the next three weeks, after which all credits disappear (presumably out of embarrassment) and some really ropey art that has never been within a hundred miles of Southport appears. The strip is a nothing: Conway comes to the help of a one-armed man being attacked in an alleyway, discovers he has a treasure map to a lost city in Tibet and joins an expedition to find it. It limped increasingly through fifteen weeks before being written off, and replaced by John Ryan’s Harris Tweed, Extra Special Agent.
Ryan was represented from issue 1 by his more famous Captain Pugwash, a half-page strip about the meek and ineffectual pirate, his enemy Cut-throat Jake (who is blown to pieces in the last instalment) and his domineering and considerably more efficient wife. The latter didn’t survive into the popular BBC cartoon, by which time Ryan’s art had developed into the soft-edged, rounded style we recognise today. Both Pugwash and Tweed, which overlapped by two weeks, were drawn in an unattractive and very angular style, that shows little command of figures and movement, but Ryan would improve rapidly after the first volume.
At this stage, Tweed’s misadventures were given a full page, in which the bumbling, self-important blowhard would usually come out on top either by sheer, implausible chance, or else unacknowledged assistance from the Boy, a youngster in Tweed’s charge who was usually treated with callous disregard by the master detective: Social Services would have had a fit!


I’ve already mentioned Tommy Walls, which was initiated by the Hampson studio, and Hampson himself, at the specific request of Walls, but soon shuffled off to Richard E Jennings, as artist. Each week, the strip featured Tommy and his little gang coming across all manner of crimes and disasters and saving the day, thanks to the additional energy and intelligence they get through stuffing themselves with Walls Ice Cream all the time.
At first, Hampson portrayed Tommy as a Popeye-like character, deriving superhuman powers from his Walls Ice Cream, but this was soon toned down and Tommy became merely a Boy Wonder. He was aged somewhere around 12/13, the leader of a small gang of similarly aged boys, but his range of abilities, agilities, strengths, speed, intelligence are phenomenal. And his ability to knock out grown men with a single punch has to be seen to be believed…
That leaves The Great Adventurer, whose adventures lasted throughout the first volume and beyond. This was the fifth page of art, four of them in colour, required by the Hampson studio, and given that Frank Hampson’s maxim as Art Director was that no artist should be required to draw more than one page of full colour art per week, it becomes easier to see why the master’s complex, unwieldy and overworked team were called into existence. At various times, several studio members, and non-studio artist Norman Williams worked on the story.
Eagle’s mainly known as a strips and cartoon paper, but from the outset, it had its fair share of prose. Issue 1 featured two serials, ‘Plot against the world’ by the Reverend Chad Varah in the first half, and Moore Raymond’s ‘Lash Lonergan’s Quest’ in the back half. The first was an excitable, fast-moving and fairly wild story about a secret organisation, known to itself as ‘The Peacemakers’ but to governments around the world as ‘The Conspirators’. Jim, a teenager of indeterminate age, gets drags into the action by trying to save a man in a coal cellar, who is an atomic scientist working with the Peacemakers to establish world peace. Jim’s cousin Ray, believed dead two tears before, is the main hero, but the cast expands wildly to include a phlegmatic Lancastrian garage owner, an excitable Doctor, a robust vicar, Jim’s pal Ken and his younger sister Pru, a somewhat tomboyish character who whacks Jim with a cricket bat in episode 1 and gets kissed by him, whilst asleep, a couple of episodes later (racy!)
It’s madcap, unstructured, and increasingly unrealistic the longer it goes on, but it’s oddly fun. The kids of 1950 must have loved it!
‘Lash Lonergan’s Quest’ was set in Australia and is gloriously as Australian as it can get, in slang, actions, names and everything. The hero is Australia’s champion stockbroker, who heads home to Coolabah Creek (I told you!) and his Uncle Phil’s ranch. But Uncle Phil is dead, clutching a chunk of opal, and his foreman, Dago Messiter, has taken over the ranch, claiming Lash was disinherited, so Lash and his friends, the stockman, Rawhide O’Reilly, and the kid, Squib, plus the faithful aborigine, Mopoke, must fight to recover Lash’s rights.
Again, it’s goofy and unselfconsciously Australian in every way, and the slang is refreshingly inventive and probably all a terrible cliche, but it’s energetic fun and the serial format keeps it from ever getting tedious.

The Walls Wonder Boy

The fourteen weeks of ‘Lash Lonergan’s Quest’ was the only time Eagle ran two serials simultaneously. Chad Varah’s tale was succeeded by another thriller, by Ronald Syme, ‘The Secret of the Mine’, about two young English lads assisting a delightfully drawn Arab Detective-Sergeant to prevent the bombing of the Straits of Gibraltar and the creation of a new country in the Mediterranean basin, and this was followed by ‘Thunder Reef’, about three English children (the oldest of them a fifteen year old girl) on holiday in Brittany, and running into smugglers.
But the second serial slot went over to complete short stories instead, entertaining enough but none particularly memorable, until, in the last quarter of the volume, we were introduced to MacDonald Hastings, Eagle Special Investigator.
Hastings, a war veteran, was a Fleet Street Correspondent who took on exciting and sometimes dangerous tasks to report upon to Eagle’s readers. He was open about the risks he faced and his own nerves and failings (which sound to my ear as if he was gently exaggerating), but he took the kids into adventures they could only dream of having themselves.
So that’s Volume 1. Even without anything to directly compare, it’s clearly head and shoulders above anything around it. But it’s still disappointing in its overall quality, if measured against its own standards. Dan Dare is the most successful feature, and that is still in a primitive phase.
But remember that this was the work of amateurs. Gifted amateurs, amateurs not bound to any preconceptions as to what did or didn’t, or could or couldn’t work. They didn’t know what was possible, they were learning on the job, they were upgrading all the time. PC49 and Riders of the Range would massively improve with new artists, and the egregious error of Skippy would be gloriously corrected by the similarly-European feature that succeeded it.
It’s good, but it’s going to get much better.

 

The Eagle Has Landed


It serves me right, really. I ought to be celebrating, achieving the implausible, the last Eagle, bought and sent and collected and opened and read.

And incomplete.

Yes, that’s right. I swallowed my ethical objections and bought the vastly over-priced missing one. And the centrespread is missing.

No cutaway drawing.

No Riders of the Range.

No Luck of the Legion.

No Jack O’Lantern.

No enjoyment of the achievement. Just one sheet of paper and half the regular serials gone, just like that. As completely not mentioned in the eBay item.

As the seller is a PowerBuyer, I cannot leave anything but Positive Feedback for seven days, to enable the seller to placate me in some way. I have vented my feelings in a message that makes it plain I have no intention of returning this for a refund. So, what reply will I get? And will it keep me from a Negative (the horror! the horror!) review?

Gee, what a way to complete a collection.

The Last Eagle


People, I have an ethical and economic dilemma to consider this weekend.

My long quest for a completion collection of the Eagle (until they stopped doing original Dan Dare adventures) is almost at an end. I have one to go, one issue. True, some of my collection is in poor condition, and some are incomplete, with the centrespread and the famous cutaway drawings of L. Ashwell Wood removed, and I will keep an eye open for upgrades, but I’m down to the last Eagle.

And there’s one on e-Bay.

Technically, there’s two. One seller is offering the individual issue, whilst another is offering the complete volume, a full year’s worth.

On the surface, this is a no-brainer to beat all no-brainers. Buy the comic, dum-dum, and cease wasting our time. For what possible reason would you want to pay more money to buy several dozen comics you already have?

But things are more complex than they seem. I have long been aware of the availability of this issue. It has been offered for sale at a Buy It Now price over and over again over the two years I have been consistently combing eBay. This seller has dozens of Eagles for sale, and they circulate over and over, never, or at least rarely selling, because each and every copy they are offering are vastly over-inflated in price.

We are talking £23, £27, £30, even £50 for individual issues, each and every one one of which (except one) I’ve been able to buy for a fraction of those prices. The most I’ve had to pay for one of those issues on offer was only six weeks or so ago, when an auction copy came up and I secured it for £12.50, over a tenner cheaper, and that was far more than I’d had to pay for any of the others. Hell’s bells, I’ve bought complete volumes for as little as the prices this seller is asking for single issues. On auction.

So, I have a violent antipathy towards this seller, and towards rewarding them for this unrealistic and horrendous charge.

On the other hand, the full volume that includes my missing issue is currently under Buy It Now or Best Offer at over twice the price of the individual issue. A much higher outlay, a near year’s worth of copies I don’t need (my duplicates pile, which I’m trying to dispose of through eBay, is already about 250 issues strong, and I don’t need to add to it), the cons list is powerful.

On another other hand, this set may be in better condition than my existing copies. It may represent a partial or even complete upgrade. If I have any incomplete copies in this volume, or pages where coupons have been cut out, I may have an instant remedy. And I won’t be funding that rip-off merchant.

Before I take a decision, I’ll have a look through my existing volume, see whether there’s a substantial case for buying the bundle for upgrades, as opposed to cutting off my nose to spite my face. Either way, I’m nearly at the end of the road that, for literal decades, I never even imagined I could set foot upon, and before too long I will have laid my hands upon the last Eagle.

Postscript

A half day later, an inspection of the relevant volume confirms that there are no centrespreads missing, and only four issues from which coupons have been clipped. I’ve made a note of them for replacement but they don’t amount to enough to shift the balance. So, unless a third copy suddenly appears in the next few days, I think the decision has been made for me.

 

Not since the last century…


I’ve popped into Manchester City Centre today to post an item sold on eBay and to carry out my monthly visits to Forbidden Planet and Pizza Hut. The latter was distinguished by a very sweet young lady acting as my waitress, who made me wish that if only I was forty years younger… but then I remember what I was like back then and she’d still never have had anything to do with me (and she would have been right, dammit).

But I had a delightful surprise in the former where, in addition to my monthly copy of Astro City, they’d saved me a complete set of the DC/Looney Tunes crossover specials. Team-ups like Batman vs Elmer Fudd, Superman & Bugs Bunny and the one with the single greatest idea, Lobo vs the Road Runner, with Wile E. Coyote hiring th’ Main Man to assassinate ol’ Meep Meep. Tell me that’s not an idea of hilarious proportions.

I’ve loved reading them all, and, with the possible exception of Suicide Squad meet the Banana Splits, this set are universally better than the Easter-time DC/Hanna Barbera crossovers.

But the point is that this added up to 8 (eight) new comics in one session, and I’ve been wracking my brains to try to remember the last time I bought so many copies in a single purchase and I can’t remember any time this would have been viable in the last twenty years.

Not since the last century, then…

CI got the serious cover, not this one…

Uncollected Thoughts – Wonder Woman


Superman only lifts cars

The benchmark is still Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice. That, as you may recall, was the first and still only film where I have wanted to get up and walk out, bored, after only thirty minutes. Wonder Woman is nothing like that. True, I looked at my watch for the first of many times only twenty minutes in, but I did not feel the urge to walk out at any time. To have the film over a good hour before it finally stopped, yes, but not to leave before the end.

Because it’s dull, unstructured, painfully slow and if this is the best the DC Expanded Cinematic Universe can do, then I am already considering whether I do actually want to go see Justice League of America.

Perhaps some of it has to do with not being a woman and therefore not being capable of the kind of identification there must be to seeing a woman lead a major film, display superpowers, be so effortlessly superior to everyone about her with the exception of Ares, the God of War, or Truth, if you believe him. At least it manages this without any self-congratulationary stops to pat itself on its back over it’s women’s strength, the way Supergirl does.

Perhaps it has something to do with my not really having read that much Wonder Woman: the George Perez post-Crisis on Infinite Earths reboot was the only time I collected the title. But dammit, she’s part of DC’s Trinity, the Big Three, and she’s a bloody good character.

But DC still don’t know how to make successful films. There’s plenty of spectacle, seriously good CGI and battles galore, but they’re so widely spaced you could fall asleep in between, it’s all so bloody portentous and grim and foreboding, and despite what other people have said, I really don’t think Gal Gadot is that good an actress. Nor that beautiful a face (hey, I never fancied Linda Carter either: do you think it’s me?)

Yes, she’s an excellent action actress, but for everything else I found just just a bit on the wooden side.

Chris Pine as Steve Trevor was decent, whilst the comedy sidekicks were good but but wasted through not having anything of substance to do. For instance, Charlie the Scottish sniper was set up as being disturbed by his experiences: seeing ghosts, can’t actually shoot straight, know what I mean, all good character stuff and then it just gets forgotten, so why did we bother?

The only unalloyed glory about this film is David Thewliss, as Ares. Is this man capable of giving a performance that is less than superb, even when he’s dealing with material that’s beneath his talents? Only in the closing stages, when he’s CGIed into a metal helmet that you can barely make him out through does he lose the way, but by that point, acting is superfluous and nobody could make anything of that.

So, there you have it. It’s a massive success, it didn’t annoy the living hell out of me like Batman v Superman, and I didn’t want to walk out. In the DC World, this counts as a success to me. I just wish I could have enjoyed a DC film more than I did the trailer for the latest Spider-Man.