The Lion in the Sixties – Part 1

I don’t know when Lion underwent its first major revamp. On DVD1, there’s a nearly six month gap between issues 373 (11 April 1959) and 395 (31 October 1959) in which the transformation is stunning, but I’ve no idea exactly when this occurred. Though as most of the stories inside seem to be in their very early stages, I suspect the change to have been very recent, quite possibly as early as the previous issue!

Paddy Payne – Lion’s most popular strip

Even though that was still 1959, I have no hesitation in choosing that off-stage revamp as the beginning of this second essay, as the beginning of the Lion in the Sixties.
Once the DVD resumes, however, it’s almost like reading a different comic. During this gap, Lion has absorbed the first of many other titles to suffer death-by-merger, this being something called Sun, whose name appears in rather small type under a bigger and more vibrant Lion logo, this time decorated with the spectacular head of a roaring lion. Though this is still, just about, the Fifties, the effect is to drag the comic into the Sixties. It looks fresh, modern and exciting, or should I say it looks what fresh, modern and exciting would have done to a boy of my age, picking it up then (or, actually, just a couple of years later).
The new Lion has now expanded to 28 pages weekly. It’s line-up is very familiar, with ‘Paddy Payne, Warrior of the Skies’, ‘Sandy Dean’s Schooldays’ and ‘Captain Condor’ still in evidence, Robot Archie is now finally running as ‘Robot Archie’, and whilst the prose series have been reduced to one, it’s still the already long-running Secret Agent Max Malone. New features include ‘Billy the Kid’, with which I’m already pretty familiar, since this is the series re-titled ‘The Black Avenger’ when reprinted six years later in Hurricane, and ‘Rory MacDuff – Danger Wanted’, about a two-fisted daredevil film stuntman/investigator which I remembered as soon as I saw it.
Add to that a plainly one-off serial about buried treasure in ‘Captives in El Dorado’ and the arrival of a back page cutaway feature that seems oddly familiar for some reason I can’t immediately recall.
But the major advance is that the old coterie of artists and that drab, small-panelled, rigid-tiered, stiff and stilted approach has been completed overturned. Every long-running feature has a new regular artist and not only is every single one far better in line and design, but they are now varying layouts, making more dramatic choices, and better still using bigger, more spacious panels that add an immediacy to every series.

A very different Sandy Dean and Bossy Bates

Nowhere is the effect more eye-popping than on Sandy Brown: the boys not only look more realistic, but they actually look contemporary. The whiff of cobwebs has been blown away: we actually look as if we are in the rapidly-approaching Sixties, instead of the Thirties.
Nor were the stories interminable any longer. There are still more gaps on DVD1, and after a run from 395 to 397, the next issue is 411 (20 February 1960). ‘El Dorado’ is still running but everyone else has moved on to new stories. And in Paddy Payne’s case, another new artist, easily recognisable as the great Joe Colquhoun, first artist on ‘Roy of the Rovers’ and later to be famous for ‘Charley’s War’.
As for ‘Billy the Kid’, this only lasted a few months before giving way to another western series, about a travelling boxer, ‘Best of the West’, which was no great shakes. But none of Billy’s Lion adventures were familiar, and their art was in keeping with the new approach, leading me to suspect that this feature (and the actual repeats) were a carry-over from the cancelled Sun, whatever that had been.
However, despite the new Lion‘s fresh slickness, we hadn’t seen the last of old drags. ‘Bruce Kent’s Spot the Pretty Obvious Clue’ was soon back and, by issue 429, so was Lucky Guffey: lucky for everyone but the readers. And not everything was progressive: writer’s credits vanished as if they had never been displayed at all, an unwelcome step.
Mind you, Bruce Kent did improve artistically as the series went on into the Sixties, though the stories were still penny plain and, to be fair, there were only a handful of Guffeys, probably unused pages from before the revamp.
I know from previous researches that, before returning to ‘Dan Dare’ in 1962, Keith Watson had been drawing ‘Captain Condor’, and this period began somewhere between issues 441 and 451. Watson did a bang-up job, drawing three pages a week initially, though this was later cut back to two.

Keith Watson on Captain Condor

And during this same break, a new series was added, ‘The Sword of Eingar’. This was about hard-fighting Vikings, centred upon Eingar’s ‘son’, a Saxon boy kidnapped on a raid many years earlier. As ‘Karl the Viking’ from the second story, with superb, highly detailed, indeed beautiful art from Don Lawrence, the series ran for years.
Like Eagle in its mid-Fifties heyday, Lion now had a settled, strong line-up of familiar characters, benefiting from good, clear, dynamic art coming from a group of artists who were energetic, inventive and superb draughtsmen. Mostly, the comic went for the same photorealism as Eagle, though coloured by the need to draw for black and white. Panels were detailed and forceful, and there was less of a sense of a ‘house-style’.
I’ve already mentioned Joe Colquhoun and Keith Watson, and I was 98% convinced that Rory MacDuff was originally drawn by Neville Colvin, one of the latter day artists on Peter O’Donnell’s ‘Modesty Blaise’, but his regular artist soon became Reg Bunn. Ted Kearon drew Robot Archie and Selby Dennison drew Sandy Dean.
The ‘new’ Sandy was an exception to the photorealism rule, as Dennison drew in a very flat, almost plastic style. There was no element of cartooning about it, and perspectives and backgrounds were always correct and realistic, but his figures, and especially faces were reduced to minimum elements, giving the art a very two-dimensional look.

No longer The Jungle Robot

Ted Cowan’s dialogue had plunged headlong into the Sixties now, completely dispelling the archaic atmosphere of the past, and, for a wonder, it isn’t embarrassing to read since it’s rarely overdone. But somewhere along the line, Sandy and Co become ‘Dean and his Doomies’, at least to Bossy Bates, which is a bit off-putting.
Paddy Payne, Sandy Dean, Captain Condor, Karl the Viking, Rory MacDuff, Robot Archie, Bruce Kent. That’s a good deal with 4½d every Monday. I’ve left ‘“Sky-High”’s Tales’ out of that, since it was such a variable strip, ‘Sky-High’ Bannion being a resurrected character from the Fifties relating stories of adventure, some from his own past, others one-offs with the tang of being real-life incidents. The standard of these was pretty variable but the one thing all had in common was that, at 2½ pages, the endings always felt rushed and perfunctory.
But there was a serious dip in quality in the Sandy Dean story that started in the autumn of 1961 and ran up to 16 December that year. The idea was a little far-fetched in comparison to most earlier tales, given that it involved a secret formula for a dangerous explosive landing at Tollgate and being pursued by a pair of Foreign (Russian) Agents who get Bossy Bates on their side in trying to find it. Admittedly, they’ve offered him £40 which was bloody rich for those days, enough that Bossy goes OTT in his attempts to earn the bribe, but what was seriously OTT were the Agents, who to put it lightly were nitwits, clowns, bozos and ignorant beyond credibility (Boris Badenov and Natasha Fatale from Rocky and Bullwinkle looked like the KGB beside them). You might have gotten away with them in ‘Eagle Eye’ but they were a custard pie in the face of a supposedly serious series, and just as indigestible.
It turned out to be the last ‘Sandy Dean’s Schooldays’, for the series was then renamed ‘Tales of Tollgate School’. Though Sandy and his ‘Doomies’ were still there, the new title broadened the focus a little: not by much as Bossy Bates and Co now came to the fore.

Reg Bunn art: shame about the story

Rory MacDuff’s series changed emphasis, for the worse. Gone were the down-to-earth settings and the focus on Rory’s stuntman background, replaced by long story about things like Secret Worlds below the surface, and Vampiric hunters. More damagingly, the Scottish personality and epithets disappeared, leaving very cold and characterless dialogue from someone who was now an ‘ace adventurer’.
As the end of 1962 approached, a new Rory MacDuff story, about a ‘Phantom Legion’ gave me the first spark of genuine recognition: my time with Lion was nearing, for I remember reading the closing instalments of that serial.
Sadly for me, Keith Watson’s period as Captain Condor’s artist ended just before Xmas 1961, though that freed him up to return to Dan Dare the following year, as we already know. His immediate replacement was future Eagle stalwart Brian Lewis, but the stories were slowly running out of interest again. Frank Pepper still had no interest in producing anything more than two pages of spaceship adventure setting up another cliffhanger, and it was beginning to look like thin gruel once more.
‘”Sky-High”’s Tales’ transmuted into ‘The Amazing Adventures of Sky-High Bannion’: the same deal, the same narration and the same abrupt endings but now about Bannion’s adventures and his alone. Except when they weren’t and it was billed as ‘The Amazing Stories of Sky-High Bannion’. Who’d be an old comics blogger? This feature was now being drawn by a different artist nearly every week, each one of whom made Bannion look different, even down to switches between blonde and dark hair.
There continued to be the one prose series per week. Max Malone gave way to Dan Dexter, another second world war Secret Agent, who gave way to Grit Hewson, a would-be boxer taking on tough jobs to build himself up, but this gave way to Five-Star Stories, a different one-off every week, dipping into the themes of some of the Fifties series, though with the odd twist tale.
Artistically, the highlight every week continued to be ‘Karl the Viking’. Don Lawrence’s art was head and shoulders above everything else in Lion, in detail, drama, body language, expression and sheer beauty. Even on newsprint, his work stood out as a thing of great art.

Don Lawrence – wow!

Sadly though, the second DVD is missing nine consecutive issues, 20 October to 15 December 1962 inclusive, one of which is my first regular issue of Lion. It’s a pity I haven’t got the one where I came in. For a moment, I thought of using that as a convenient point at which to end this section of the story, but this was only short weeks from a point of relaunch. On 12 January 1963, every single serial in Lion, including the current Captain Condor, of which every single panel came out of my memory, was brought to an end, as were Sky-High Bannion’s adventures.
The following week, with the exception of the half-page comic serial, ‘The Backwoods Boys’, every series in the comic started afresh. And so will I in the next essay about the Lion in the Sixties.


Dave Sim’s Afterlife: Glamourpuss

From 1981 to 2004 I was an avid follower of Dave Sim’s Cerebus, a 300 issue black and white independent comic that’s a cultural landmark as the longest single comic book run written and drawn by a single creator. That’s twenty-three years in which I collected the issues month by month, in which they were the first thing I looked for and the first thing I read. Only R.E.M. have lasted longer with me than Cerebus.
When it ended, Dave Sim and I were both 49 (he is six months younger than me). Long ago, he’d been asked what he would do after Cerebus was completed and he was honest enough to say that he didn’t foresee doing anything of that size again, that Cerebus was pretty much his life’s work. He intimated he would probably retire.
But that was at a time when the comic was riding high, and Sim was pretty much rich from his own efforts. Though the title’s sales, even at its peak, were small in comparison with the numbers being done by even lower end DC and Marvel titles, the difference was that Sim owned his character, his company and his process. He kept everything instead of getting a page rate and royalties.
By the end of Cerebus and in large part due to his, shall we say for now, idiosyncratic opinions, expressed both publicly and in his work, circulation had dropped away substantially, to a point where Sim was making a loss on the title. His ‘retirement’ years have become a time of struggle.
So both financial imperative and artistic necessity combined to bring Dave Sim back to the business with his second series, Glamourpuss.
I described myself above as an avid follower of Cerebus until its final issue in March 2004, and I was. Avid, loyal, determined to get to the end. But not a happy follower in the end. For almost the last three years, from issue 268 onwards, I found the series to become dull, unfunny, strident, ridiculous and a trial to follow. My overwhelming response to issue 300 was relief. Relief that it was over and that I would not have to read any more of it.
Even now, nearly fifteen years later, I have only re-read Cerebus twice. So much of it is good, so much of it is brilliant, Sim is a maestro, endlessly inventive, endlessly fresh, endlessly finding new ways to convey his story. He is a master parodist, a master caricaturist, a master cartoon stylist, and let us not forget that for about three-quarters of the run, he had the blessing of Gerhard doing backgrounds for him, making everything look incredibly real and everywhere look stunningly beautiful.
But those last three years, those last 33 issues. In that, Sim loses all semblance of control. The story loses all semblance of coherence, becomes tediously unfunny and, in its extended Bible exegesis sequence (over half a year!), grindingly dull. With the end in sight, it is as if Sim decides that the gloves can come off and his anti-feminist message can be portrayed in the most indigo of humour, without the faintest attachment to reality.
It is an appalling ending to so brilliant a piece of work, and I cannot now read those many years of out and out genius without the pain that comes from knowing just what it is going to degenerate into. And there is no more appropriate word than degenerate.
So I was well-warned about starting to read another Dave Sim comic, self-warned, which ought to have been the strongest signal. It wasn’t as if Sim’s opinions had been ameliorated in any way. Between comics conventions and telephone calls to order the limited edition ‘telephone book’ collections, I’d spoken to him nearly half a dozen times, I have a signed and framed piece of original art, and in order to contact him, I would have had to sign a piece of paper stating that I did not think he was a misogynist. And I can’t do that.
But. This was a Dave Sim comic. A new Dave Sim comic. Even if all it was was equal parts curiosity, hope and the ingrained habit of twenty-three years, I started buying it. And I kept buying it, every other month, for the twenty-six issues of its existence. Now, seven years on from its demise, I’m putting my collection on eBay in the hope that someone will take it off my hands and free up space in my bookshelves.
Of course, I read it again before doing so, to remind me of its course, and to write this piece about one of the oddest comic books I have ever collected.

A manifesto, of sorts

The theme of Glamourpuss, which might not be obvious from its title, is the History of Photorealistic Comics, by which Sim meant, originally, newspaper strips, with particular regard to Alex Raymond and, subsequently, Stan Drake. Raymond was, of course, the creator of Flash Gordon but in the post-War period to which Sim was referring, he was responsible for Rip Kirby, a private eye strip distinguished by its avoidance of all the cliches of the form, as well as Raymond’s fine and highly-influential art.
Sim pursued this outcome in two widely contrasting manners. There was a highly analytical historical account of Raymond’s position in the industry, after the war, and the challenge his art posed to the prevailing Milt Caniff/Terry and the Pirates form of stylised realism, followed by a similarly detailed appreciation of the differing approach to photorealism taken by Stan Drake, following his debut in 1952 with the soap opera strip, The Heart of Juliet Jones.
The other aspect of this history was Dave Sim, a supremely talented stylised cartoonist, teaching himself photorealistic art by means of full-page drawings of models and supermodels, traced from fashion magazines.
It sounds bizarre. I mean, Dave Siim and fashion magazines? That is not a juxtaposition you can imagine going down well under any circumstances and yet, initially, it had its merits. Sim, in his devotion to not just Raymond but Hal (Prince Valiant) Foster and Raymond’s worshipful disciple, the extremely talented Al Williamson, accompanied his art with discursions on how hard it was to learn the techniques applied by these artistic giants, upon their technical approaches and their equipment, and upon the argument over whether inking is best with pen or brush.
And insofar as that was what Sim was presenting, it worked. It looked and sounded serious, because it was serious, to Sim. The audience might find it all a bit esoteric, and they might wonder why Sim was so taken up with something antithetical to the style he’d evolved and made so successful, but the artist must be allowed to develop as he sees necessary.
However, which sounds so much nicer than but, there was a but,and a big one. The marriage between Dave Sim and fashion magazines is not, after all, positive. Far from it. Sim invents two characters for the comic. One is Glamourpuss, the titular star, and the other is Skanko, her evil twin. Into Glamourpuss he pours ignorance, self-obsession and dumbness, all the things he attributes to models for being a) women, b) models and c) wearing the expressions models wear in fashion magazines, and she’s the ‘good’ one. Into Skanko he pours – well, what do you think he pours? And Sim wonders why only a tiny handful of people don’t think he’s a misogynist.
It’s there from the start and, this being Dave Sim, it only gets worse, although as Sim is now revelling in his position as comics’ official pariah, we don’t get a couple of decades of brilliant cartooning before it does.
That part of the comic becomes literally unreadable. But as Sim develops the unlovely technique of interleaving the fashion plates and the serious side of the comic, metamorphosing in its third part into ‘The Strange Death of Alex Raymond’, without warning which part of this schizophrenic title we might be reading on any page, it is necessary to look at every page instead of just turning to a handy page where what is worth reading can commence. Presumably, this is Sim aware that if he didn’t force his readers to do so, they wouldn’t look at that part at all. (Mind you, his dreadfully unfunny Cerebus in Hell collage book still appears, so maybe it’s just me.)

The Strange Death of Alex Raymond

And SDOAR, as everyone abbreviates it, is getting both increasingly intense and increasingly odd as Sim progresses.
I was completely unaware before Sim started this project that Alex Raymond had died at the age of 46, killed in a car crash whilst driving the car of fellow strip artist Stan Drake (a-ha!), in Westport, Connecticut. Sim has broken down the events of the day in a very painstaking fashion, supplemented by a great deal of imaginative reconstruction of the various participants’ thoughts, motivations and manipulations. Like Alan Moore in From Hell, Sim, who is acting as narrator in propria persona, explains how and why he has come to these conclusions, and the researches that ‘support’ them.
Unfortunately, even here he cannot help be Dave Sim in his attitude to the women involved, and the men’s responses to them. This is particularly pointed in the case of Drake, who at this time was working with the twenty-years-younger woman who would become his second wife, and upon a sequence in Juliet Jones involving Juliet’s younger and more vivacious sister, Eve, the strip’s unacknowledged but real star, that Sim interprets (convincingly) as a metaphorical playing out of Drake’s feelings towards his future wife.
And Sim portrays Raymond as potentially threatened both by a cartoonist turning out to be, naively, a potentially greater photorealist than himself but also a man in his forties capable of pulling young girls.
But most tendentious of all is something that Sim names ‘The Margaret Mitchell Glamour’, and which he interpolates into the whole incident as some form of mystical force, beglamouring Drake (in the oldest sense of the word) and practically causing the accident and Raymond’s death.
This is another of those areas where Sim told me things I didn’t know. Mitchell was, of course, the author of Gone with the Wind, my parents’ copy of which I struggled through over several weeks many decades ago, who died, aged 48, in a traffic accident. Sim portrays her as sexually promiscuous, an adulterer, and a wild child, obviously disgusting him: he even refers to her as a skank. He makes much of her death in a road traffic accident as linking to Alex Raymond, though gives no details, and the Wikipedia entry suggests she was an innocent victim.
But the real source for his bringing her into the story is that Mitchell supposedly contributed the idea for The Heart of Juliet Jones, and some of its elements, notably the initial portrayal of Eve Jones as a scheming villainous bad girl. Though Sim makes some very telling points about whether Mitchell could have been involved with Juliet Jones, he forgets this as he goes on to create this ‘Glamour’, built upon wild child Mitchell and a supposed affinity for car crashes, as playing an overwhelming unconscious part in the crash and Raymond’s death.
It’s a notion that would have worked perfectly in Cerebus, but in a final re-read it is out of place, and almost unworthy in SDOAR.
But at least it preserves a certain consistency between the madly mis-matching halves of Glamourpuss, which was cancelled with issue 26, for reasons explained at length by Sim as having been inevitable from the moment he only got 16,000 retailer orders for issue 1. He goes over his attempts to make the series financially viable and how all of these work, without once ever considering if his alienation of his once-large fandom has played any part in this, and the effect is of a long wallow in self-pity and, it has to be said, self-entitlement.
‘The Strange Death of Alex Raymond’ was unfinished at the cancellation of Glamourpuss: hell, we still hadn’t even got to the crash itself! Sim signed up with publishers, in a breach of his ethical stance that they were parasites and artists shouldn’t sign contracts, to publish SDOAR as first a comic book, then a Graphic Novel. This remains to be seen. Sim’s health has been uncertain in recent years, and he has mystifyingly refused to see Doctors, paying for an independent MHR scan. A wrist injury/condition has left him unable to draw for some years now (I am afraid that this news only led me to speculate whether the possibility that his highly-individualised God had finally gotten fed up with the shite he’s spouted in God’s name for too many years had ever crossed his mind), though apparently he is now able to do some drawing again. Sim has been working with other photorealist artists to produced a publishable SDOAR, but there is no word of when, or if, it will ever be scheduled.

Zootanapuss – you don’t want to know, honestly

For all of Dave Sim’s flaws, of its flaws, I think I would probably buy it if it ever appears, though the final decision would depend on the amount of non-comics supplementary matter from Sim that the book contains. I have read enough of Sim’s view of the world to last me a literal lifetime and want no more. But as a respecter of good art, I would like to see ‘The Strange Death of Alex Raymond’ completed. Even Dave Sim deserves that.
Anyway, even though it contains all of that story that has ever see print, I am putting the complete Glamourpuss up for sale on eBay. The space will go to something that contains less wildly-egregious and flagrantly misogynist stuff.

Happy Birthday to the King

This won’t be enough. It can’t possibly be adequate because I don’t know enough, I wasn’t there at any of the right times, and because I don’t have enough of the right temperament. But today is an anniversary, and because of who it is it demands recognition, even from those of us who can’t do the job justice.

Today is a birthday, the birthday of someone no longer with us, a man born Jacob Kurtzberg who achieved fame under an anglicised pen name which he later took officially as his own. He was Jack Kirby, and they called him the King, and rarely if ever has a nickname been more fully justified.

Jack Kirby was a comic books artist. Many would call him THE comic books artist, and if you restrict that definition to the superhero field that has dominated the form, for good or ill, for so long, you’d hardly find anyone to argue. In terms of dynamism, energy, imagination, inspiration, the King was unequalled. Whilst nt discounting Stan Lee, there are viable arguments that Jack Kirby was responsible for creating Marvel as it is. His characters dominate Marvel, and the number of creations that sprang from them will probably never be countable.

But whatever you can say about Kirby’s approach to art, and many far better qualified than I to analyse it have worshipped at its feet and drawn untold inspiration, there is one aspect in which Jack Kirby can never be equalled. The man was a Creation Machine. He created more and more varied characters than anyone else, without stopping, almost without thinking. They just poured out of him, until the end of his life.

Kirby just was a marvel. He would have been 101 today. He deserved to be 101, to be physically immortal and not ‘merely’ creatively immortal.  And everyonee who met him to this day misses him like crazy.

Everyone in this picture. Everyone.

The Prisoner: Titan Comics Mini-Series

The only decent art in the series

Delayed from its original July date, the fourth and final part of Titan Comics’ The Prisoner mini-series is now available and it confirms what I’d long since surmised: it’s a piece of shit and anyone who thinks this remotely worthy of the original series hasn’t got a clue about the original series.

I am, admittedly, a very harsh taskmaster about such things, but I am old enough to recall the series going out and this has been a ridiculous piece of work on all levels, starting from the rough and inconsistent art by Colin Lorimar and going up to the nonsensical story by Peter Milligan, who is talented enough to do better. Beyond the superficial trappings borrowed for the look of it, there is nothing that Patrick MacGoohan would recognise as being related to his vision, and the final issue introduction of a Number One of sorts is an insult to the original. Even Deam Motter’s ‘Shattered Visage’ of thirty years ago did better with its empty philosophic of “Does the presence of a Number Two necessarily require a Number One?”

What we did get was a penny-plain spy story that mistook convolution for complexity. Breen, an Agent of the Unit, under section, loses fellow and temporary lover Agent Carey in the Middle East, believed taken by The Village, defined as a completely independent organisation beholden to no-one. Breen is ordered to steal a vital but undefined secret (named Pandora, fairly banally but you could have just said The MacGuffin for all the real importance it has) in order to attract extraction to The Village.

He undergoes interrogation, finds Carey has first defected to The Village, then she’s assisting his escape, then she’s the new Number Two by murdering her predecessor, then she’s electrocuted then she’s a Unit Agent with no hostility to him who’s never even seen The Village. Which one do you believe? Unfortunately, to believe you have to care and I didn’t.

The great revelation, which I’d leave out if I could, is that Number One is a punch-card driven old supercomputer acting totally at random. You can tell that Milligan is just punching the clock because he pretends to offer randomness as a Political system of serious merit.

The climax features Breen accepting employment as the new Number Two and having section kidnapped and installed as Number Six. Very witty.

The problem is that Breen’s a cypher, Carey’s a cypher, and Section’s a silly ass cypher. Lorimar finds it difficult to make people look the same two panels running – his Carey is a different woman every single time you see her – and the minimal plot is weighed down with so much faux reality that it chokes any effort to equate it to a series that was the complete antithesis of reality: surreal, glittery, absurd, constructed out of iconic imagery and above all clean. A twenty-first century grim’n’gritty Prisoner is a contradiction in terms, and if there’s a sequel series, I shalln’t be acknowledging it without a complete change of every creative person associated. The editor and original plot provider is David Leach: I’m sentimental enough to hope he isn’t the one I used to know in UK fandom in the Eighties because I liked him.

You may bid for the set on eBay as from Sunday, though I can’t in all conscience recommend you do, unless you feel sorry enough for me to want to help me recoup the money I spent on this, or maybe even turn a small profit. A large profit would be even better.


The Lion in the Fifties

The DVD collection I bought of Hurricane was a revelation, the realisation that my memories of long ago comics when I was a boy need only only be confined to memory, but might be recovered for a very small price. My next purchase was a five DVD set of Lion.

Lion has a big reputation, second only to that of Eagle, to which it was the biggest rival. It’s history includes classic series such as ‘Captain Condor’, ‘Robot Archie’, ‘Zip Nolan’ and ‘The Spider’. I still remember the last of these with great pleasure.
Lion didn’t appear until twenty-two months after Eagle, and it couldn’t have been more different in appearance: twenty pages in black and white with a limited colour cover, a smaller size and the traditional cheap newsprint paper that Eagle was such a reaction against. Put the comics side by side and Lion is clearly the downmarket neighbour. But it outlasted its rival, and even absorbed it, when the time came for Eagle to be put to rest.
The ‘King of Picture Story Papers’, as it advertised itself from the beginning, ran until 1974 and a total of 1,156 issues. That’s too many years and too many issues for a single post, so I initially decided to split things up into at least three, representing the Fifties, the Sixties and the Seventies.
But long-running series do not organise themselves that conveniently for the decades later blogger. DVD1 covers issues 1 (23 February 1952) to 496 (7 February 1961). It’s pretty comprehensive as far as issue 254 with few and usually limited gaps, but from then on the cover is pretty sporadic, with several long gaps, twenty issues and more at a time. And during these longer gaps, the comic underwent two revamps, one minor, one major, on unspecified dates.
So thematically, it makes more sense for this first post, notwithstanding it’s title, to cover the period until that major revamp, in 1959, and resume the story from there in the next post. Especially because, up till that point, the Lion in the Fifties was mostly pretty dire.
In deliberate imitation of Eagle, Lion‘s flagship character was it’s own space hero, Captain Condor, created by Frank Pepper. Condor appeared on the front and back covers until 1958, enjoying Lion‘s only page in colour, though this was a poor, mechanically processed colour, with a limited palette applied in visible dots and frequently off-register.
I read once that Frank Pepper (who also created Roy of the Rovers) had been given a very short deadline, and so relied on the somewhat hackneyed set-up of a good man wrongly imprisoned. The series was set in the 31st century, well beyond any connection with the modern day, Earth and its space empire was run by an evil Dictator, and Condor was imprisoned on a slave moon. So the Captain escaped in a stolen spaceship and spent the next three years slowly building up a rebellion that ended with the Dictator destroying his home city, himself and all his forces just to kill Condor (the way power-hungry Dictators are wont to do) only for Condor to streak away in the last split second.
Thereafter that, Condor (who was never given a first name) became Chief Pilot (oh, did he now?) of the Space Patrol.
It’s easy enough to call Captain Condor a pale imitation of Dan Dare but the truth is that beyond being a space ace, he didn’t have enough colour at this time to even be pale. Condor’s stories – and this is going to be a common complaint about so many of Lion‘s series – have no structure or coherent story to them. They begin with an objective that is finally achieved over many many weeks, but the intervening episodes just clatter along with no better intent than to provide an endless series of cliffhangers that spin the adventure out for as long as possible.
And Condor is dogged by poor art. It’s limited and crude beyond the generally dull art for Lion throughout this first era. It’s limited by poor basic drawing skills, a lack of any coherent design, a seriously diminished imagination for spaceships, space stations, uniforms and especially aliens. This, let me remind you, was the cover feature, yet it hard the worst art in the entire comic.

Condor art

Let me expand upon that point about uniforms. Once Condor had overthrown the Dictator and became an official hero of the new (impliedly) democratic government, the Space Patrol had to be depicted in Space Patrol uniform. Frank Hampson based Spacefleet uniforms on British Army and RAF battledress, but Dan Dare’s future was merely decades ahead, not a whole millennium. Condor’s Space Patrol wore rounded metal helmets that balanced on top of their heads as opposed to covering them, bland tops and leggings and, most absurd in appearance, a kind of green tartan check… something around the loins and backsides, that didn’t really resemble any known form of human clothing, looked bulky and the very opposite of stream-lined (it was not so much a case of my bum looking big in this as in bums being swaddled beyond the point of any recognition.)
It looked amateurish and unconvincing, and it made a mockery of the reputation Captain Condor enjoyed.
Not that any of Lion‘s art was anything to write home about. There’s a curiously homogenous look to it, as if the comic was calling on a very limited pool of artists, who may have been drawing more than one series every week: remember that Eagle stood out for its non-professional insistence on paying its artists enough to live on for a week whilst drawing one colour page. The contrast is self-evident.
With the exception of the illustrations to some of the prose series, the majority of Lion‘s art is static and stiff, composed of regular panels in small and rigid tiers, bland drawings with no pretention to story-telling. Everything looks oddly rounded, and whilst backgrounds are not skimped, there’s an unnerving amount of white space on every page, as if the artist is not even using the full extent of the panel.
These criticisms certainly have to be said of the War Serial. That’s not its title, but it might as well be. War story succeeds war story, one after another, each operating to a formula that is only ever mildly tweaked to fit the service and the geographical setting: two British servicemen, from differing regiments or services, but always two, are either sent on a mission behind German lines or get stranded there and the story goes on for week after week after week until eventually the mission succeeds, but each week there’s a cliffhanger to make it carry on longer and longer without rhyme, reason or structure. All with the same, pallid art.
The War Serial is as much an ongoing feature as ‘Captain Condor’, which made it one of four such throughout the Fifties. Another such which, like Condor, survived the 1959 revamp, was ‘Sandy Dean’s Schooldays’ (‘Sandy Dean’s First Term’ on it’s debut). Clean-cut Sandy arrives as a new boy at Tollgate School, an old-style Public School with studies and dormitories. Sandy’s a Fourth Former (it’s always the Fourth Form, isn’t it? Never older nor younger) sharing with popular Jack Hardy and studious, chunky but still athletic Owl Watson.
Sandy’s natural enemy is bully Bossy Bates, with his cronies Spider Jessop and Gus Trevor. There’s firm but fair School Captain, Tough Talbot, unpopular prefect, Haughty Hawkins, big-headed Snooty Adams, even would-be detective Beaky Brown, until you start to feel sorry for Sandy and Jack for being condemned to having real names.
The whole thing has the feel of an archaic throwback. These are supposedly contemporary stories, as the serials about scientific inventions demonstrate, but the series screams of the milieu of Billy Bunter and Greyfriars. It feels stuffy at all times.
The art is a little more distinctive than the Lion norm, but is still bland in line and layout. And the series suffers from the usual implausibilities of long-running school stories, such as the sheer volume of sinister boys and sinister masters that pass through Tollgate, not to mention the fact that stories go on for months and terms end and start and nobody ever goes up to the Fifth Form. But what I found hardest to accept was that, over and again, Sandy, Jack and Owl prove themselves to be honest, brave, trustworthy, intelligent and, above all, unfailingly right, yet it only takes the least amount of framing for the Headmaster and Staff to automatically assume that they are lying, cheating hooligans and twisters. It winds me up.

There’s not a lot of varied art available for this period

The last long-running feature throughout this period was ‘The Amazing Mr X’, who is some kind of adventurer/troubleshooter who cannot reveal his real name as his enemies would strike back at his loved ones. X was not one of Lion‘s original features, but turned up during 1952 as a two page prose series, increasing the number of such from two to three. To be honest, I haven’t been able to get through even one such episode, nor could I summon up any greater enthusiasm when, as part of the 1958 revamp, the series was converted to a two page comic series, again complete in each instalment.
One series that began in issue 1 did amuse me. This was ‘The Jungle Robot’, about an amazing metal man being used to search for lost treasure in Africa. The robot was under the control of two friends, Ken Dale and Ted Ritchie, the former of whom controlled the mechanical marvel by means of a control pad he wore on his chest. And yes, the robot’s name was Archie. But this was a far cry from the Robot Archie everyone loved in the Sixties. The art was the same drab, limited stuff of every other series, the adventure dull as ditchwater, and Archie both silent and useless if not under control.
Once the serial was over, that was it. Except that Archie was brought back, years later, in 1957, once more assisting Ken and Ted in Africa. The art was no better, but this time the series went under the title ‘Archie the Robot’ (closer, but still uncatchy), and it was immediately followed by a serial set in the South Seas. It would get better.

It’s Archie, but not as we know him

As for the rest, these were much of a muchness. Same art-style, same rigid tiers of small, regular panels, same devotion to weekly cliffhangers that neither advanced nor built. They might be set in different countries, or different historical periods, they might be westerns, or about Red Indians, they might feature marooned sailors, sabotage-facing whalers, Britons unjustly condemned to the guillotine. They frequently featured sensible, competent, fair-minded leaders trying to rescue stranded parties in the face of the selfish determination of some thug or rich man to be top dog, come what may (this plot even turned up in ‘Captain Condor’). But at the end of the day, they offered nothing original, nothing exciting, nothing beyond the weekly gratification, at minimal invention of a small boy’s unstretched imagination.
Two such I was already familiar with, being ‘Brett Marlowe – Detective’, and ‘The Naval Castaways’, one of the interminable War Serials, both of which turned up as unacknowledged reprints (the latter as ‘Danger Island’) in Hurricane‘s final, desperate phase.
I’ve mentioned that, throughout this period, Lion had two, and then three prose series. These were equally varied, or perhaps unvaried, as the picture stories, and what’s more, where Eagle was deemed to be a bit imperialistic, Lion was decidedly colonialist. Adventures would be set in exotic locations, with Canada a particular favourite, with Mounties, trappers, trading post owners and even a Mountie’s Dog – Rory – knocking back what Simon Templar would call the ungodly on a weekly basis, and many of said godly being other than Anglo-Saxon.
There were Wild West Sheriffs, traders in the South Sea Islands, District Commissioners in Africa (one of whom was the White King of the Pygmies), and all manner of folk that, like Mr X, I found impossible to read. Though I do have to credit one thing about such series: each had an opening, larger scale illustration every week, frequently of a much higher and more detailed quality than the picture stories.
Not all the series were serious, at least in the first half of the decade. There was Jingo Jones and his Invisibiliser, about which it’s better not to ask, Wiz and Lofty, speed merchants and Don’s Diary, the weekly adventures of another schoolboy. These were an improvement on the adventure serials, but eventually were phased out in favour of the latter.
It’s a depressing picture to the older comics fan who is not fueled by nostalgia, nor was the position greatly changed by the 1957 revamp, which took place sometime between issues 282 (13 July) and 291 (14 September).
The most immediate difference was the replacement of ‘Captain Condor’ on the cover by ‘Paddy Payne’, itself an effective replacement for the War Serial. Payne, another of Lion’s long-running characters, was an RAF fighter pilot, at first working with his combat team-mate, Dick Smith.

Warrior of the Skies

At last we had an ongoing character, a long-term hero whose stories enjoyed a proper sense of narrative. Of course the cliffhangers didn’t disappear, but now they were linked to the long-term objective of the story, which was kept in mind, instead of being an end in themselves. And Payne enjoyed better art than Captain Condor thus far. It was still not brilliant, still basically timid in panel structure, but the thick outlines that characterised the basic art of the Fifties were replaced by thinner lines and a greater degree of subtlety. The episodes had a little bit more room in which to breath, with Payne getting three pages per week, including the cover – still the only colour page.
Captain Condor was moved inside but, but more importantly, he too was given better art. It was still not brilliant or innovative, but the newcomer was could actually draw real human beings, and that was a massive jump in itself. By this simple change, Condor’s stories became more realistic, and more entertaining.
There was one negative aspect to the revamp, and that was the addition of a one page comic series, usually but not always on the back page, about ‘Lucky Guffey – The Lad Who Always Laughs Last’. This was pure formula. Each week, Guffey would find something he wanted, volunteer to help or work to get it, completely misunderstand his orders due to an excess of ignorance, create a disaster, but unexpectedly and improbably avert an even bigger disaster and get what he wanted after all, as a reward. Dull stuff but supposedly ‘hilarious’. It’s the comedy strips that really really don’t survive the decades.
I’ve been pretty harsh on the Lion of the Fifties, but for good reason. It’s unfair to other comics of the time to judge them by Eagle‘s standards, but if Lion is typical of the standard boy’s ‘picture story paper’, then everything pales in comparison. Eagle aspired to excite and educate and in everything to avoid talking down to its readers. Lion did nothing more than offer what the Undertones once categorised as ‘dumb entertainment’, neither any better nor any worse than it need be, but certainly not any better.
As time would show, it could be better, it could be much better and after the 1959 revamp, it would start to be.
As a final point, and let credit be given where credit was due, from issue no. 1, Lion credited its writers on every story. We knew that Frank Pepper wrote Captain Condor, that E. George ‘Ted’ Cowan wrote Robot Archie, that Mark Ross wrote Paddy Payne and George Forrest Sandy Dean (though Lucky Guffey was anonymous). As were the artists, though that was probably no bad thing. Perhaps that concealed how many were drawing more than one story at a time?

Doomsday Clock 6

At last we’ve reached the halfway point of this cardboard cut-out attempt to steal Watchmen‘s clothing. had this excuse-for-a-scheduling disaster that’s supposed to tie-in to the entire DC Universe been appearing monthly as it is still advertising in its indicia, we would by know be ‘enjoying’ issue 9, and the writers of DC who are not Geoff Johns would have a lot better idea of just what they are supposed to be gearing all their series towards.

In that respect, Doomsday Clock is an even bigger disaster than Sandman Overture, which took twice as long over half the number of issues, but was at least a standalone series, its ‘tie-ins’ being collections available for decades before hand.

That this is a cardboard cut-out is demonstrated by how formulaicly Johns follows the template of the series he evidently despises. This issue tells us the origin of Johns’ ‘creations’, The Mime and The Marionette, a straight-up rip-off of Punch and Jewellee with added psychopathia. This alternates with a very marginal advancement of the overall storyline to which I’ll come shortly, but that’s the purpose of the issue and it’s a copy of those historical issues of Watchmen, save that Moore and Gibbons’ accounts of the likes of The Comedian, Rorscharch and Silk Spectre were about life-times, and literally all Johns is interested in is the origin itself, with the most perfunctory of nods to the duo’s subsequent career.

Look, I hate to belabour this point but as I appear to be one of a very tiny minority of people who are not worshipping Doomsday Clock as the Greatest Thing in Comics Ever, it is very necessary, but this whole origin thing is yet more evidence for just how completely Johns does not, cannot or maybe even will not understand what Watchmen was about.

The Watchmen ‘Universe’ was a non-comic book world, built upon the reality and the limitations of human ability. It was given one comic book character and it was a study of what the existence of one such character might do to bend a real world out of shape. Johns’ conceit that he can add new characters to that world is shown as completely misfounded when he gives The Mime and The Marionette a 100% straight-down-the-line comic book origin, completely at odds with everything about Watchmen.

As for the story, our pair of villains have now fallen into The Joker’s hands and, under armed guard (which proves to be utterly ineffectual when they decide to cut loose), are being taken underground to a meeting of supervillains. Remember that the background to this story, to which everyone else is supposed to be writing if Johns ever tells them what it’s about, is the world-disturbing claim that all superheroes are US Government creations. Accordingly, the supervillains are getting a bit worried, and are talking about organising to resist (Credit-where-credit’s-due moment no. 1: The Joker’s sarcastic point about whatever they’re going to call themselves this time).

The Legion of Villainy’s being organised by The Riddler. This is the oooold Riddler, the one Frank Gorshin would recognise, all slicked-back hair, purple domino mask and the green skintight costume with the all-over question marks: nothing at all like the Tom King Batman version, which leads me to wonder if Alan Moore is the only other popular writer with whom Geoff Johns has problems.

Flight or flight? Team up against them, or scoot off to Khandaq? Suddenly, someone blows a hole through Typhoon’s head, killing him. It’s The Comedian. Eddie’s on the trail in good old shoot-first-and-don’t-ask-questions-later mode, blowing away Typhoon, a nobody from The Court of Owls and The Riddler’s right knee-cap (nothing left of that to reconstruct, in case anyone has any stomach for the kind of ground-level continuity Moore and Gibbons brought to you-know-what?)

Eddie wants one of our villainous but loving pair to take him to Ozymandias, who will lead him to Dr Manhattan, but falls foul of a joy-buzzer to the back of the neck off the Joker (remember: being from the DC Universe makes you automatically better than anyone from the Watchmen Universe unless, of course, Geoff Johns created you). End of issue 6 and aren’t you glad you paid so much for it? Mine are all first printings going straight on eBay the moment I’ve read issue 12.)

But Credit-where-credit’s due moment 2, and much more commendable. The moment The Comedian comes out of nowhere, shooting, Johns actually makes a meaningful moment. Immediately, The Mime stars dancing, calling attention to himself, attention that The Comedian is prepared to repay with another high-velocity rifle bullet until Giganta fetches him a ding round the ear.

The Marionette is furious with him. She drags him away, keeps him running, refuses to let himself offer himself as a target. He’s doing it to protect her. Psychopaths they may be, and psycopathy being the complete lack of any human empathy, this pair love each other. He is willing to sacrifice himself for her, and she will not let him do it. Not for her, not for anything. You are not going to die so I can run.

It’s a powerful moment of human love, a genuinely touching moment, and one that is not spoiled by the fact that the pair then promptly rip off their costumes, fuck each other passionately and let the Comedian get the world’s easiest drop on them whilst they’re still naked but for the facepaint. Well, it’s not spoiled if you’re prepared to chop the series up into individual pages or scenes in order to get anything halfway worthwhile out of it.

It’s exactly nine weeks until the next issue of this monthly series, about which the blurb is that ‘the truth behind Dr. Manhattan’s curiosity with the DC Universe is revealed’. I can barely contain myself waiting.

After Low

I am a devotee of Sir David Low, the New Zealand born political cartoonist who, for me, was the greatest political cartoonist of the Twentieth Century, and that even without the creation of Colonel Blimp.

Cartoonists today who are wise and understand their profession’s history, still call upon Low, to often devastating effect.

The latest is Chris Liddell, in tomorrow’s Observer. First, the original:

then Riddell:

Nice one, Chris.