Whatever degree of stability Eagle achieved in Volume 14 evaporated like the morning mist in 1964, the year I began my weekly association with the comic, delivered every Wednesday for the remainder of its life. There were two, or depending on how you define them, three revamps in Volume 15 alone, starting with issue 6, which saw the departure of the unloved ‘Mann of Battle’ and its replacement by no less than two new series, both of which were finished before the year was out.
‘Dan Dare’ was once again reformatted, finally making it back to two colour pages, this time wrapped around as front and back cover, the latter displacing the famous Cutaway – the only other remaining original feature – inside, never to be seen in colour again.
And poor Swift was dropped from the masthead with issue 38, just in time for another merger, as Eagle absorbed Longacre’s failed attempt at doing a red-top comic without Marcus Morris: Boy’s World didn’t even last two volumes before the stable-leader became Eagle and Boy’s World with issue 40.
This time, four of the latter’s features were carried over, which necessitated an increase to 24 pages to accommodate them all. It was discouraging that two of these series only lasted six weeks before cancellation, and a third did not last much past the end of the year.
Add to this the near-permanent reduction of ‘Can You Catch a Crook?’ to one page (and one clue), though the occasional page-and-a-halfer popped up, and the near-permanent reduction of ‘Roving Rporter’ to half a page, though the occasional full-pager popped up, stir in a bunch of half page factual strips, mostly drawn by Eric Kincaid, about Pirates, Espionage, Prizefighters and an erratic half pager by Paul Trevillion about eccentric modes of transport: no, if there was one word you could not use with a straight face about Volume 15, it is ‘stable’.
‘Dan Dare’ concluded its cycle of stories in the hybrid format by bringing ‘The Wandering World’ to a successful conclusion with the return to Earth and the twin captures of the Mekon and Xel. The latter then temporarily raised a rebellious teenage army in London in the nine-week ‘The Big City Caper’, an slight affair that was both uneasily reflective of the burgeoning, pop-influenced teenage culture and uncannily predictive of twenty-first century broadcast media.
The new, all-colour format began with my favourite ‘Dan Dare’ story of all time, ‘All Treens Must Die!’, a grandiose, sweeping tale built upon the planned genocide of the Treen Race and its intended replacement with a pure, unsullied, race of Treens, that also picked up on Alan Stranks/Frank Hampson’s dangling reference of six years previously to the ‘Last Three’: a trio of Supertreens, perhaps former Mekons, whose appearance on three successive covers impressed itself so firmly upon me at the time. All this in only twenty weeks! (Apparently, the story was originally intended to run twenty-two weeks but was cut short, presumably in response to the Boys World merger that it overlapped by three issues: David Motton has long since forgotten what may have been in those extra two weeks.)
‘Heros the Spartan’ continued to dominate the centrespread. Luis Bermejo saw out ‘The Man of Vyah’, but Heros and Septimus’s return to Rome was interrupted by the quest of ‘The Axe of Arguth’, which saw Frank Bellamy restored to art duties the same week as ‘All Treens Must Die!’ began. But that didn’t see out the year and it was once again Bermejo as the Volume approached its end.
‘Mann of Battle’ had finished after five issues: ‘Horizon Unlimited’ lasted a bit longer, but that too ended in issue 22. Eagle would rarely have such a long-running prose serial again. It was followed first by ‘Voodoo Island’, a ten-part Caribbean Pirate’s Treasure/Horror story, pleasant enough and clearly written by a scuba-diving enthusiast, like ‘Horizon Unlimited’s aviation-enthusiast author. This was followed by the somewhat oddball ‘The Outlanders’, a thirteen part serial of five Liverpool teenagers emigrating to Australia, and driving there across half the world in a beaten-up Land Rover.
After that, the Volume was seen out by the first of several serialisations of ‘Jennings’ books. Anthony Buckeridge had contributed Rex Milligan to Eagle a decade earlier, and now it was the turn of his more famous creation, no longer being serialised for ‘Children’s Hour’ on BBC Radio, to do the honours.
‘Blackbow the Cheyenne’ continued to give Frank Humphris employment drawing his favourite subject, though none of the stories could live up to the glory days of ‘Riders of the Range’, either in length, or subject. Already, there was a tendency to paint the stories with some kind of pseudo-supernatural edge. Tom Tully was doing this with ‘Heros’, where such things could be absorbed into the fantasy of ancient times, but it was unworthy of Humphris to lace good, solid Westerns with that sort of thing. Still, he had not lost any of his skill.
Of the new features, the highlight of these was ‘Johnny Frog’, drawn with a beautifully soft cross-hatched line by Ron Embleton. Visually, it was magnificent in its detail, the entire page a fine tapestry. Master Frog himself was a drummer boy in Napoleon’s army, a fluent speaker of English, or Scottish, rather, given a message by Bonaparte himself to deliver to Boney’s master spy in England, the Schoolmaster.
But Johnny’s a decoy, and an obvious decoy, meant to be tracked as a distraction from the real messenger, and he hardly lasts an episode before being spotted by an English spy, Lieutenant Alain Yeo of Naval Intelligence. Johnny’s determination and shrewdness sees him get to the Schoolmaster himself, only to be shot for his temerity, though barely wounded. At which point Alain outs him as the son of a French Count and an English noblewoman, real name Jean-Marie, Marquis of St Albans.
No sooner is Johnny installed in his new aristocratic life than Alain is borrowing him back for a secret mission to France, first to seed Dijon harbour with forerunners of mines, then to persuade the French fleet to leave Cadiz to present themselves up to the waiting British fleet off Cape Trafalgar…
All very ‘Jack O’Lantern’-manque, without the latter’s breadth and colour, but this was fitting given that the scripter was Jack’s creator, George Beardsmore. ‘Johnny Frog’ was as full of seeming authenticity as Jack Yorke’s adventures had been, albeit it in a far smaller scope, the three stories that went to make up the run being complete in only thirty-four episodes. The series ended patriotically, if not personally, with Lord Nelson’s death, with a slight air of rush. ‘Johnny Frog’ replaced ‘Mann of Battle’ and was ended to make room for the incoming Boy’s World features.
Making its debut alongside ‘Johnny Frog’, and not even lasting quite as long was the half-page strip, ‘Junior – Reporter!’. I know very little about this except that even in 1964 I could tell there was something very different about this comedy series. Looking at it now, it’s as blatant a reprint from something like Pilote as there can be, screaming la ligne claire from the rooftops.
Artistically, it’s a bit like a more angular Albert Uderzo, for all its being presented as an English story. Essentially, in search of a newspaper story, the editor of the Daily Globe accepts the suggestion of Office Boy Junior of a feature on a day in the life of a Press Photographer. The idea is less impressive to the paper’s leading photographer, Len Lenns but, in sending up Junior by taking a photo of his window box of begonias, he accidentally takes a photo of a safe being cracked, leading to a comic investigation to foil a family of professional crooks.
As stories go, it wasn’t bad, but it was ten times better than its sequel, in which the pair took up a challenge to travel to Texas with only sixpence each, which rapidly degenerated into a pirate comedy, with increasingly skimpy and dull art, as if the uncredited artist was either very short of time or very short of ideas.
It was the first European strip reprint since that solitary Tintin adventure a decade earlier, and unlike those Hulton days, the fact that it had to be credited to someone else didn’t appear anywhere near the strip. And by some oversight, it’s omitted from Cliff Wanford’s ‘Eagle Collectors Handbook’, an otherwise comprehensive summary of everything to appear in Eagle. I am unable to find any information about it online.
Four series joined Eagle in issue 40 from Boy’s World. Both the popular Second World War RAF strip, ‘Raff Regan’ and the Greek Mythology fantasy ‘Wrath of the Gods’ were in mid-story, and both were wrung out and completed in six issues. So far as the former was concerned, this was no great shame, but the splendidly vigorous and boldly depicted latter, two full colour pages from Ron Embleton, would have made a superb addition to Eagle, though probably it was felt that this was too close in atmosphere to ‘Heros the Spartan’.
‘Billy Binns and his Wonderful Specs’ fared little better, though it did at least have the advantage of starting a new story. This was a one page black and white comic school story, so it will be pretty obvious to those who know the Eagle of this period why it didn’t last longer. Binns, a Fourth Former, was basically a klutz, especially sporting-wise, unless he was wearing his Wonderful Specs which, in some never-explained manner, gave him confidence, clarity of thought and implausible athletic ability at everything.
Frankly, it was the Sixties. You had to be there.
Actually, Billy Binns, drawn by Bill Mainwaring, had a life after Eagle. Longacre had launched a new comic in 1964, the semi-legendary Wham!, which may or may not have been read as a kid by Georgios Panyiotu. It was basically an anarchic juvenile paper that I wanted to read but which my parents would never let me because they decided I was too old for it. It was advertised practically every week in Eagle, non-stop and Billy Binns had been running there eve as he was appearing in Boy’s World, the only strip to have appeared simultaneously in two papers, as far as I am aware.
Last of the Boy’s World quartet, and certainly not the least of it in terms of success since it lasted as long at Eagle lived was ‘The Iron Man’, drawn by Spanish artist Martin Salvador and written by Ken Meneal. Nothing to do with Marvel’s slightly earlier Iron Man/Tony Stark, the central character of this page-and-a-half black and white strip was Robert, no other given name, and his constant companion, Tim Brunton, the only man in the world to know that the internationally famous crime-buster was secretly a fantastic robot, dressed in a plastic skin to make him look not very human at all. I’m sorry, but this was ghastly, tedious stuff that, aptly, smacked of the superhero, but completely lacking the brio of the far more successful types of story such as Robot Archie, Kelly’s Eye, Morgyn the Mighty and The Spider that thrived at the traditionally more downmarket Lion.
But when it comes to ghastly, the nail had already been driven into Eagle‘s coffin by the series that, more than any other, represented the failure of Longacre to understand what they still, barely, had. This series was introduced in issue 23, in the revamp, and it would run far too long. I speak of ‘Cornelius Dimworthy’.
I don’t intend to speak much of it. As we were reminded every week, ‘Corny’ was Mortlake School’s ‘dreamiest and luckiest’ schoolboy, dreamiest here not being used in the manner it was being used of the by now regular micro-features on pop groups and pop singers. No, Cornelius had his head in the clouds, meaning that he was utterly impractical, self-deluded, self-centred and convinced of his own incomparable abilities at everything, in a way that got the back up of everybody from the Head down to the school sneaks, Smythe and Sweeting (never have a pair of craven, vicious bullies been so thoroughly justified), but from which he was always rescued, half a dozen times every week, by eye-blinkingly implausible accidents.
I only have to look at this now to want to reach through time, grab my juvenile self by the throat and give him a damned good shaking for even reading this tosh, and I am gripped by the urge to apologise to actual tosh for making that comparison. It was, in short, ridiculous, and not in a good way. It was drawn by Frank McDiarmid and the writer’s identity is unknown and for good reason too.
Apparently, shortly after the series ceased in Eagle it was reprinted in Buster as ‘ Dizzy Dimwitty’ and good luck to all who read it.
Such was Eagle in 1964. Though I wasn’t conscious of it at the time, the rot had irreversibly set in. The comic had less than five years left to it, and although its big three strips, Dan Dare, Heros and, at least in artistic terms, Blackbow, still had much to give, its circulation remorselessly drained away, and its death was now inevitable. The last few years would be undeniably painful.