TV21 – 2069

Now it’s 2069. This is TV21‘s last year in the form that we have known it. Before September ends, it will undergo another merger in which technically it will be the senior partner, but in fact the comic will die in any fashion that we’ve known it.
The other half of that merger is Joe 90, which starts in January 1969. Joe 90 is the new Gerry and Sylvia Anderson series, and it’s another step on the slide towards the end of the Anderson puppet series era. Captain Scarlet saw a dip in popularity from Thunderbirds and Joe 90 sees a big dip in quality. This series is aimed firmly downwards, to a younger audience than anything since the Andersons were still with Granada and producing Four Feather Falls.
It’s interesting that Joe becomes the lead of his own title rather than launching in TV21, as did Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet. It makes me think that sales were already slipping, and that doubts as to the comic’s permanency were already in management’s minds.
So: What was TV21 and TV Tornado in issue 207 (4 January)? Captain Scarlet, 4 pages, in colour on the cover, in black & white inside, Project SWORD, 1 page including large b&w illustration, The Saint, 2 pages, Shades of Opinion, a letter’s page, The Munsters, 1 redundant page, Thunderbirds, 2 pages still in colour and still by Frank Bellamy, the last Spectrum Shades Club page, Secret Agent 21, 2 b&w pages, Zero-X, 2 brightly-coloured pages still by Mike Noble, Tarzan, 1½ b&w pages, and a big colour photo of Joe 90 on the back page.
The Shades of Opinion page was closing because Captain Scarlet and Spectrum were on the wane. It was replaced by a resumption of Contact 21, under the ‘control’ of Agent 21 again. Joe was being teased for ‘exciting’ news in issue 209 (18 January), which was the new Joe 90 comic, already out, price 8d, as opposed to TV21‘s consistent 7d.

The newbie

Frank Bellamy stopped by to do Captain Scarlet’s colour cover for issue 210 (25 January), whilst Joe’s succeeding issues kept getting plugs on the back page: there’s a certain kind of serpent’s tooth irony to that… By 212 (8 February), a bit more of TV21‘s old self was restored, with a still of the indestructible Captain on the cover, and his story now cut to three, all b&w pages. And Joe surrendered his back page plug for a hint at a forthcoming series, part of the changes advertised for issue 215 (1 March). Another couple of issues were missing from the DVD then the revamp was put back, this time to issue 218.
The retrogression continued in 216, with the real remanifestation of the newspaper cover.
When the ‘new look’ came in 218 (22 March), it was the old look, with the original TV21 masthead. Agent 21 moved back onto pages 2-3, though he was only allotted half the page, vertically, on the second of these. Captain Scarlet moved back to follow this, with The Munsters next.
The only new series was Department S, the ATV Saturday night spy thriller that introduced Peter Wyngarde as Jason King, in two single B&w pages, separated by the full colour Thunderbirds, now restored to the centre pages, but still drawn as two pages instead of the old centrespread format. The Saint survived, as did Zero-X andTarzan, whilst the ongoing series of Saturn paintings found its way to the back cover.
As revamps go, the word ‘underwhelming’ seems inevitable, the unlucky series squeezed out being the long-since meaningless Project SWORD. The daft decision to split Department S around the centre pages was rectified a week later when it got its two pages consecutive. Project ‘Shindig’, the Saturn expedition, came inside for a news page, and photos of some of the puppet crew, whilst the new Space Info page recalled the comic’s original intentions.
This was the replacement for the uninvolving Tarzan. For, of course, 1969 was the year, the year of the Moon Landings. Space Info took up that story. And TV21 would live long enough to see fiction turn into reality.
As for the new kid on the block, Department S only lasted five weeks before being reduced to one page in issue 223 (26 April). The next three issuing are amongst those missing, as is issue 228. Issue 227 (24 May) however leads with a big picture of George Best and a plug for the new feature inside, Football United, one of a series of sports features included by reader demand, though all it was in Part One was a fact sheet, down to the Old Trafford telephone number!

The big mistake

And football once again incongruously dominated the front cover of issue 229 (7 June), heralding Leeds United as the English Champions.
Sports was the new thing. Issue 231 saw the introduction of the new feature, Super League, a football strip starring up and coming strikers Vince Hammer and Bill Cullen, who are wanted by the Manchester Eagles, except that Vince’s father intends him for the Army. There were only two drawbacks to this series, the subject was completely out of place in TV21 and the artists had no idea how to draw footballers in action, neither their body movements or their physical relationships on a field. As for which Manchester club the Eagles derived from, their stadium was the Busby Bowl: as Stan Lee used to put it, ’nuff said.
Meanwhile, Agent 21 had gone from being the head of the USS to being a mere Agent again, without any warning or explanation, and, after one dead woman, one dead man and a traitor, his new assistant was a robot dog. The comic’s quality controls were going into a tail-spin.
The date of the Moon-Shot, the real Space Expedition, was now almost on us. Issue 235 (21 July) featured Mission Commander Neil Armstrong, the man who would be first to step on the Moon. I don’t believe I was still reading TV21 by now, though I do recognise the name of the Manchester Eagles, but re-running towards that moment is something I find intensely gripping. The world was changing about us in these very pages.
Only a week later, a half page black and white feature on the back page, Nature’s Flying Machines’, looked exactly like one of the old George Cansdale features from the Eagle. It was a one-off, with issue 237 (2 August) opening up the notebooks of Wilson of the Wild, big game naturalist.
TV21 was now in its dying weeks. Captain Scarlet defeated the Mysterons at last, shutting down their power of retro-metabolism, recovering Captain Black’s body and seeing then evacuate Mars. Thunderbirds wrapped up their second consecutive story pitting them against superstitious, primitive tribes fearing Devil-Gods (in 2069? What is this, Robot bloody Archie at its most colonial?) The innovative football strip had the two youngsters promoted to the First Team and arousing the enmity of an established forward who swears to destroy their careers: never seen that before. Odd little prose features started turning up. The Moon Landing, after all its build-up, went by without acknowledgement of it happening, a colossal disappointment. There was even a Kit Carter’s Clarks Commandos comic strip advert, drawn by Tom Kerr, turning up with two issues to go.
TV21 ended with issue 242 (6 September ‘2069’). Every series wound up (Zero-X got out with a week to spare). Surplus pages were filled with Thunderbirds photos of the models. And it was announced that in order that readers wouldn’t have to ask for both TV21 and Joe90, the two papers were merging. There was a gap of three weeks before the new paper, renumbering from issue 1, appeared, and when it did, not one series from TV21 remained, unless you count Kit Carter. Tarzan and The Saint returned, but both series were rejigged from their brief period in TV21.
Only Joe90 remained of the Anderson-verse.
The DVD contains just over half of the first 105 issues of the Volume 2 comic. The title reverted to just plain TV21 with issue 36, and became TV21 and Valiant with issue 105. Given the paucity of available issues, looking at this phase of the comic’s existence is not a priority with me: maybe one day when I’ve run out of other things to re-read and write about.
So, the short life and mostly decent times of TV Century 21, ending in collapse of purpose and identity. Frank Bellamy and Mike Noble lasted to the end, as did John Cooper, but by then even their efforts were being dogged by poor writing and inadequate stories (there is a case for saying that Zero-X never had an adequate story but let’s not be harsh). Not quite five years.
Personally, having breezed through those years in short order, I think the big mistake was to go so totally overboard on Captain Scarlet and Spectrum, especially to the extent of abandoning the future newspaper concept. Once this had been so thoroughly played out, the title lost its way, and blurred its own focus. But it offered some brilliant art for a good number of years, and if none of the Anderson series ever quite matched their TV originals, they had a damned good go at it. Not a bad epitaph.

One final page of glory

Doomsday Clock 9

Doomsday Clock, DC’s on-going joke on its decreasingly loyal audience, was supposed to be complete in September or October 2018. It’s now reached its ninth issue, which was originally scheduled for February 6th, but which has been systematically, pathetically and farcically put back a week at a time for four consecutive weeks. Meanwhile, the rest of the potentially shrinking DC Universe gets put on hold whilst it awaits the signal for just when it can start joining the ‘future’ that it’s supposed to be mirroring as at issue 12, even as it awaits Geoff Johns telling them just what that future is supposed to be.

I know I whinged a lot about the haphazarrd sscheduling of Sandman Overture, but Doomsday Clock makes that look like a model of regularity, and anyway, it was set in the past and was independemt of anything else going on.

Doomsday Clock 9 has been delayed so long that I’d pretty near forgotten all about it, just written it off as something abandoned, incomplete, inessential. With still a third of it to go, it had gone beyond the great So What? Who cared if we got the rest of it, who cares what answers it will eventually provide, if we live long enough?

Having delivered myself of all that, I have to concede, for the second successive quarter, that this is a half-decent issue of Doomsday Clock, and for the same reason: the use of the Watchmen characters has been kept to a bare minimum, and Geoff Johns has not taken upon himself to (badly) piss all over them.

The only Watchman to appear this issue is Dr Manhattan, who finds himself facing battle from the entire DC superhero complement, bar two.

These are Superman and Batman, the victims of the supposed explosive end of Firestorm in Red Square. Superman’s in a coma in the Halls of Justice, with Lois as his only protector, Batman’s in bed at Wayne Manor, burned and banged and severely bruised. The world’s going to hell in a handbasket, Superman has compromised himself by siding with Firestorm against humanity, the President (an offstage Donald Trump, clearly) is throwing him to the wolves. Meanwhile, even without Batman, the Justice League has worked out that it wasn’t Firestorm that exploded but a frame-up, organised by someone on Mars: guess who?

Visually, the whole thing is a re-run of Watchmen 4, all pink sands and blue Manhattan.

Insofar as this is the DC superhero army gearing up to face a Universal threat, this is reasonable stuff, no better and no worse than any of Johns’ previous series’ (which, to be honest, don’t do that much for me, seeming to only ever be about setting up an ending that then leads into the next series). The start of the issue is incredibly static, consisting of pages and pages of three-tier single panels of groups of costumes flying to Mars, without even the banter.

Once they get there, everyone assumes Dr Manhattan is the villain and hostile, and some of the more hot-headed ones want to pile in and mix it up immediately. Some of the more stupid ones, such as Guy Gardner, are fixated on Manhattan being naked and his blue willy hanging out.

It ends up being a bit of a hodge-podge, because whilst this is going on, Johns is portraying Manhattan as he was in Watchmen 4, unanchored to linear time, though he doesn’t go to the length of duplicating the achronological sequence.

This is intercut with Lois on Earth, defending the unconscious Superman from an intruder who swears he’s only come to help, Lex Luthor, who turns out to be the one who’s sent her the Justice Society of America newsreel films, with Batman dragging himself out of bed whilst Alfred shrugs again, trying to get a message to Mars because he’s spotted something the rest haven’t and, finally, finally, getting down to this Superman Theory thing.

And Johns has rewritten Firestorm’s origin. Firestorm hasn’t actually been blown into smithereens but has been blown into two parts, Ronnie Raymond and Professor Martin Stein, both of whom have been kidnapped into space by the Justice League. Ronnie’s eager and thrilled, he has a name to clear, but the Professor is outraged, uncooperative, completely opposed, and refusing to take part even when Ronnie forces them into Firestorm again.

Then Dr Manhattan separates them again. And he takes Ronnie seven years or so into the past, to the day of the accident that created Firestorm. To eavesdrop on a phone call, by Stein, to an unknown authority. About how he’s selected Ronnie, determined he has the metagene, groomed him to be receptive, and plans to create the accident that will fuse the two together. So that ‘they’ can create a superhero – like they did with Jack (The Creeper) Ryder, Rex (Metamorpho) Mason and Kirk (Man-Bat) Langstrom – but with Stein on the inside, to spy on them…

And until now, Ronnie believed the Superman Theory was all a lie. Not that he believes the eevidence of his eyes and ears for a second. Well, you just don’t, do you? It’s always a ‘trick’, it ‘can’t be’.

Of course, we need a big ending to keep us going until another instalment of this crap arrives, which isn’t going to be any time soon since the date for issue 10 has not just been put back another week, again, but has been put back until no date whatsoever. Brilliant.

In case we’ve forgotten certain details since whenever it was the last issue came out, Johns starts by having Manhattan muse out loud whether Superman destroys him, or he destroys the Universe? Then he winds up Superheroes Assembled by showing them the last scene he sees, Superman, angry and bloody, charging at him.

Cue mass attack. Cue completely ineffectual attack. Cue dismissive wave of all massed superherodom. You know, this is not going to make the ending when Superman destroys Dr Manhattan, the one I predicted from issue 1, because Johns lacks the imagination, and certainly lacks the breadth, to give us anything but Superman killing Dr Manhattan, to secure a win over the Watchmen Universe the remotest bit more plausible.

I shall discurse further upon that topic when we are finally vouchsafed issue 12 which, if they can keep up this gruelling schedule, might even be this year, not that I would lay bets on anything but the contrary.

Heroes in Crisis 6

Six of nine. It’s a sad commentary on mainstream comics publishing today that the much-trailed Heroes in Crisis mini-series is slowly developing its own mini-version of the logical disasters that have most thrillingly contributed to the miserable buffoonery of Doomsday Clock. First, it was supposed to be a seven issue series drawn by Clay Mann but, once Dan DiDio, still pining for the misery of The New 52, managed to claw back sole control, it spouted two extra issues drawn by another artist, and all but officially designated as fillers, extra pages had to be shoehorned in to issue 2 by another artist to ram home the unconvincing death of Wally West, and now all we have of series artist Mann in issue 6  are a first and last page with all the stuff in between drawn by Mitch Gerads.

Still, at least the trains run on time. The consistent monthly schedule means we can put this turgid disappointment behind us in three months, whereas Doomsday Clock will still be with us when the sun has gone nova and all that is left of the Solar System is one cubic inch of charred Charonic rock.

I’m in two minds about this issue. Once again, we don’t move an inch forward. The story stops dead, if such a phrase can be applied to a things that has never once been alive. What we get are Mann’s two pages, showing heroes being questioned about how many people they’ve saved and giving different answers, whilst in between we’re treated to Sanctuary at work, in virtual reality settings, in the form of the sessions relating to Wally West, Poison Ivy joined by Harley Quinn, and Gnarrk, who is a thawed-out caveboy associated with the Titans, Teen or otherwise, a holdover from the very early Seventies. Despite the intelligence with which he is treated herein, he really is a case of scraping the barrrel.

It’s just more, more, more relentlessly slow and inert ‘insight’, and at the two-thirds mark another entire issue of it is amateurish story-telling and dire pacing.

Yet I have a smidgeon of respect for parts of this story, or rather one part, being Wally West. King reruns the DC Universe Rebirth moment when Wally finally gets Barry to remember him, to break him out of the Speed Force, and to reset the Universe to the tune of Hope that was Geoff Johns’ rationale both for Rebirth and the egregious Doomsday Clock. Typically, King reverses this completely. Wally is greeted by everybody as not just the symbol of hope but as Hope itself, but he cannot accept himself in this role, feels massively pressurised by it, because he has no Hope. He’s returned alone, without the love of the family that has been inttegral to him, with Linda Park, his lightning rod, without Jai and Iris, his children.

This part is good, is seriously good, and it holds within it something of the structure that could have underpinned Heroes in Crisis and made it work. If you had started from this, if you had made this the basis upon which the series was founded, if you had focussed on it and not diffused it with dozens of heoes undergoing trauma counselling that, even two-thirds of the way through, we are not seeing at work. All we get are gnomic utterances by superheroes, cryptic soundbites with very often the depth of a puddle, because King is using too many people to have the space for anything but shallowness, and because he’s still not leaving enough space for an actual story to clad itself upon these bones.

Simultaneously with this issue, I also picked up the four-part crossover story, ‘The Price’, running between Batman and The Flash, written by Joshua Williamson, which gets far more out of Tom King’s story than King has managed to do by concentrating upon living characters affected by these deaths and their implications, where King is concentrating upon characters who we are being told, unconvincingly, are dead, meaning that their issues and traumas haave ceased to have any meaning. Like the victims, the problems are dead. If anyone really is.

Do we have any answers appearing in the murk? I mean, we’ve already been shown Wally’s moment of death at the hands of Harley Quinn and now we see it at the hands of Booster Gold but for it to be either of them would be lame. One major news and gossip site still reckons it’s Wally himself, which at least has the merit of being stupid, but in that case why has Wally’s death had to be so blatantly inserted by DiDio’s decree?

I repeat, three months from now, the complete set, first editions, mint condition, will be going on eBay, unless you want to make a private bid in the comments? Exorbitant offers will be listened to most carefully.

TV Century 21 – 2068

Now it’s 2068. TV Century 21 underwent a major revamp, changing its title to the commonly used TV21, its logo-box from blue to red (or rather scarlet) and abandoning the pseudo-newspaper look in favour of the appearance of an orthodox comic.
Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons was now the cover feature, a banner headline, a couple of colour panels and continued inside. But if you thought the format of Keith Watson’s ‘hybrid’ year on Dan Dare in Eagle was weird, it had nothing on this, with the story getting two black and white pages, and then a third in colour. Art by Ron Embleton still, of course, but not being well-served like this.
TV21 Stop Press was next up, the last remnant of the ‘newspaper’, then Special Agent Twenty-One’s strip was thoroughly revamped and re-named Magnet. The period was updated from 2045 to December 2067, Brent Cleever has retired from being head of the USS to a remote farm in Gloucestershire, where he’s still working on deadly toys, and also a robot which turns on him.
The Munsters and Thunderbirds remained unchanged, but Fireball XL5 was reduced to a two page prose serial. Mike Noble was off Zero-X again, Stingray still in black & white, but cut to a page and a half. And the comic was back to 20 pages with the back page devoted to a Spectrum feature page. Bilko and Front Page were gone. Overall, rather a difference. Issue 155 (6 January) also included a sixteen page free giveaway fact file booklet on Spectrum.

Spectrum cover

The second week of the new comic started to develop things a little further. The scarlet theme of the first cover gave way to lightish blue: obviously we were going to cycle through, groan, the spectrum. Cleever’s robot blew up the moment it touched him, because the former agent had been transformed into a magnetic man. What else should I have expected? This was 1968, and all Britain’s boys comics were going to have to have superpowered characters.
I remember none of this, a process not aided by the sudden shrinking of the DVD copies, with certain issues having two pages crammed side by side in a narrower range, making the lettering unreadable.
A feature on The Inventors in issue 164 (9 March) confirmed that I hadn’t given the comic up yet as I distinctly remember reading about Percy Shaw, the inventor of the cats eyes road reflectors. I also remembered elements of the current Thunderbirds story, in which the Hood appeared to have killed Brains but instead brainwashed him to give up International Rescue’s secrets, and mounted an attack on Tracey Island.
At this point, after 165 consecutive issues, I hit the first gap. Only two issues, mind, but given the brevity of the stories in Captain Scarlet, enough to cause massive disruption to following the flagship series. I picked up again with issue 168 (6 April), with the mystery of Colonel White’s kidnapping resolved (and Mike Noble now assigned to an irregular run on Captain Scarlet). Magnet was ending its story, or so it appeared from what little I could make of the compressed pages, but Stingray and Thunderbirds were ongoing.
Sadly, another link to issue 1 had come to an end, as Fireball XL5 had given way to another prose series, looking into the further future of 3031AD., after Earth has been devastated by a meteorite, and is trying to reconstruct itself in colonies on the Moon. Single stories each week related to Project SWORD.

The Brent Cleever series rebranded itself Mr Magnet the following week. Perhaps Cleever’s magnetic personality was having a rejuvenating effect upon him because, although this was supposed to be taking place twenty years after his adventures as Twenty-One, the grey temples had disappeared, along with the lines on his face and he was being drawn just as young as before.
Issue 171 (27 April) opened up a new feature, ‘The Critics’, inviting TV21 readers to send in mini-reviews of books and films. Predictably, these were dumb: a book review in which the reader complained that there wasn’t action in every chapter, a book should have action in every chapter, except maybe the first, and a filmgoer criticising ‘A Man for all Seasons’ for an emotional scene between Sir Thomas More and his wife because it was soppy (I suppose it was, after all he was about to be beheaded, down with this sort of thing). It wasn’t repeated. Meanwhile Project SWORD had a splendid b&w illustration from Ron Embleton to commend it.
Embleton was back on Captain Scarlet a week later, in a new and once more disappointingly short story: even with four pages per week, two-parters were just not good enough. This was a serious case of dumbing-down beyond the level at which the comic had usually operated.

Mr Magnet – how the mighty fall

The full-scale reproductions were finally resumed with issue 173 (11 May), making the physical side of reading the comic easy again, though the long struggle, coupled with the constantly changing front page colour scheme were frankly offputting. TV21 had lost its freshness, and the way Captain Scarlet – the series where the Anderson shows plateaued, leading to the eventual fade – was dominating the comic, far more so than even Thunderbirds had, was starting to puncture its quality.
Unfortunately, this upgrade lasts only two weeks before the DVD reverts to the horribly compressed reproductions.
There’s a second and even bigger gap in the DVD record,with only four widely separated issues available between issues 179 (22 June) and 196 (19 October). At the start of this lacuna, Captain Scarlet had just lost his second colour page, reverting to b&w. By the time continuous coverage resumed, the comic had undergone substantial changes, as a result of a merger with TV Tornado.
I’ll return to them in a moment, but I do want to mention one disturbing thing in issue 188 (21 August). A letters page, entitled Shades of Opinion (readers were Spectrum Shades), had five short letters all addressed to Colonel White, three with answers. One of the two left without a response was from London reader William Saxby, writing about his next door neighbour, a ‘black boy’ from Africa. William plays with him most days and he’s stayed for tea many times, but some of his other friends’ parents won’t let him play with their sons because he’s black. William asked if other Shades have the same thing, and who they think is right?
To me, that’s the model of a letter than demands an answer, and a positive one to boot. The comic gets half a point for printing it at all, but several minus ones from shying away from a statement. Did William change his mind about his friend because he didn’t get the support that, in his honest confusion, he was seeking? How can we know? I’d hate to think of that African lad losing what sounded like a good friend because that kid started to feel awkward about treating him naturally.
But, to be fair, issue 193 (21 September) did include follow-up letters to William Saxby, three agreeing wholeheartedly that racism was stupid, and the fourth half-endorsing not treating black differently from white, though that followed a totally racist claim that blacks shouldn’t be allowed in the country at all (because they immediately get free stuff, etc.): but if they are here, oh well, treat them equally. That was one confused kid.

Mike Noble, still on Zero-X

The merger, which took place in issue 192, appeared to displace Mike Noble from Captain Scarlet, whilst condemning Zero-X to another art change, the result being flat, banal and poorly coloured. Stingray, after a long, multi-phase serial featuring first Troy Tempest then him and Phones as fugitives framed as traitors, was lost, ending the last of the original series, whilst two tv-based black & white series switched over from TV Tornado, in the forms of The Saint (Roger Moore, naturally) and Tarzan (the Ron Ely version).
Thunderbirds and The Munsters survived intact, unfortunately in the case of the latter, which had run out of steam a long time previously, whilst the TV series had been cancelled two years previously.
The case of Captain Scarlet was distinctly odd. There was a clear discrepancy between the artists on the colour cover page and the black & white interiors, and even without his signature, which adorned Thunderbirds every week, the covers to 192 and 193 are clearly by Frank Bellamy. Yet by issue 196, Noble is back again, with an intriguing opening episode in which Captain Black returns to Spectrum, completely human and completely unaware of the Mysterons, Scarlet completely destroys their city on Mars and, after six months peace and quiet, the World President announces that Spectrum is being completely wound up as a separate organisation as no longer necessary, its equipment and personnel to be reassigned among the other services. Do you smell a rattus norvegicus?
Of course it’s a gigantic bluff, and the moment Spectrum is gone (as is Noble again), with Colonels Metcalf and Svenson of the World Security Patrol off on a year-long mission in Fireball XL19, the Mysterons explode out of hiding to take over Earth. But the whole menace is defeated in the third week, as one Colonel Zodiac (aww, they remembered) retrieved Scarlet and Blue and the former faced down the Mysterons in their retrometabolised city by threatening to destroy their retrometabliser and kill everyone, himself included. Three weeks, for a story like that: pathetic.
After the merger, the Project Sword stories grew shorter and ever more trivialised, having no room to explore any of the future scenario. The Saint and Tarzan strips were similarly too short, at a page and a half each. Captain Scarlet continued to be far too short in episodes for a satisfactory story, and was now playing musical artists. A couple of episodes looked like the work of Keith Watson, whilst the colour cover on issue 203 (7 December) was by Special Agent 21’s John Cooper (who got his signature in), but not the rest of the strip.
Meanwhile, Mike Noble popped up back on Zero-X in issue 197 (29 October), with the last of his work for TV21 in any of its guises.
And that was the state of play at the end of 2068. Much of TV21’s distinction was lost in giving it over so wholly to Captain Scarlet and Spectrum, which on the tv screen was not proving to be the onward progression from Thunderbirds that had been expected. The abandonment of the newspaper format, the loss of Stingray, the merger that brought in inferior series that were not in keeping with the SF oriented Anderson-verse, these were all things that slowly flattened the title out. Retaining Zero X was one plus point, but only insofar as it allowed Mike Noble to strut his colourful stuff: the stories, the lack of any discernible character, and the stodgy ship itself did not make for a classic.
Time was limited for TV21. The comic would not survive to reach the 2070s in any form recognisable. The next essay will mark the end of the series.

DC Online: Doom Patrol

The other day, I broke my iron resolve and watched a trailer. I don’t do trailers, because if I’m going to watch something, I prefer to do it the old-fashioned way, with no prior knowledge of what’s coming up, so I can be surprised by surprises: not for nothing are trailers also spoilers.

But out of curiosity, I watched the trailer for DC’s latest Online superhero show, Doom Patrol, a spin-off from the existing Titans, about which I’ve heard nothing but good. And as a consequence, I’ve just watched the first episode (of fifteen). And I haven’t had this much fun from superhero TV in a long time.

Doom Patrol is very different from the watered-down stuff we get on network TV. As were the Doom Patrol of the comics. This is the serious stuff, for the serious fans, unmediated by the need to appeal to an everyday audience, and it can be fully the freakish heroes who were never massive stars but who were out of the ordinary.

The series bills itself as based on characters created by Arnold Drake, Bob Haney (both of whom were writers) and Bruno Premiani (artist), but it includes two characters, and a lot of scenes, drawn from the early Nineties, utterly fascinating Grant Morrison version of the series, though Morrison doesn’t get a credit. The Doom Patrol were freaks, a crippled, wheelchair bound scientist, Niles Caulder, aka the Chief, and three ‘superheroes’ whose powers cut them off from humanity, because they were just too damned scary.

These were: Cliff Steele, racing driver ‘killed’ in an accident, whose brain only could be salvaged and who was housed in a robotic body, aka Robotman, Larry Trainor, airforce pilot who, after flying through an electrical storm, found himself hosting a radioactive negative being that he can release from his body for limited periods without dying, aka Negative Man, and Rita Farr, actress who on a shoot was exposed to gases that made her able to stretch and elongate her body or any part of it, aka Elastigirl, and shucks to The Incredibles.

Add to them Morrison’s creations, Crazy Jane, an abrasive young woman who 64 distinct personalities, each of which has a different power, and Mr Nobody, a villain who only exists conceptually, and you have one interesting bunch of motherf*ckers.

Oh yes, this is not mainstream TV, so you get rude words. Not, as yet, too much action, in an opening episode that took its time establishing these characters, and the widely differing time periods they hail from. The CGI may be limited and in the case of Rita a bit unconvincing, but it’s effectively  used, especially on Mr Nobody, who hurts your eyes just to look at him (and who, incidentally, proves the show’s wonderfully cynical and self-aware voiceover narration).

It’s freaky, it’s authentic and it’s bloody good viewing, especially when I’ve given up all other DC superhero TV out of boredom, except for The Flash (massively insipid this year) and Legend’s of Tomorrow (very clunky and possibly past its best). This is the authentic stuff, by fans, for fans, and I’m here for the next fourteen weeks.

TV Century 21 – 2067

Stingray… and foreshadowing

It’s now 2067. TV Century 21 starts its new year offering a FAB1 cover and a headline suggesting the Hood has been killed as a tie-in to the newly-released ‘Thunderbirds are Go’ film.
Inside we find Secret Agent 21 and his assistant Jack Reed (no Tina, he) still escorting their SOFRAM Head prisoner through the organisation’s determined attempts to kill him, part 3 of 4 film still strips telling the story of the big film and Moonshot Apollo part 14, still telling the tale of the planned expedition to the Moon. Next, My Favourite Martian, some ads and Catch or Kill, bringing us the the Thunderbirds centre-spread with Frank Bellamy. After that, The Munsters, Get Smart! and Fireball XL5, all in black and white, and Stingray in colour. Finally a couple of feature pages before The Daleks on the back page. I retract my notion that the replacement artist could have been Eric Eden: this guy’s colours are far too garish and shouty for anyone brought up by Frank Hampson.
Issue 105 (21 January) featured a free gift and another mini-revamp. After two years, My Favourite Martian (which had been cancelled in mid-1966) was dropped, as were The Daleks. Fireball XL5 took over their back page slot, restored to colour but reduced to one page, whilst Mike Noble also popped up on the new series, Zero-X, featuring the Mars exploration craft from the Thunderbirds film, making a second trip to the Red Planet.
Moonshot Apollo, having run its course, was replaced by Countdown 54321 (or 54321 Countdown: the logo isn’t explicit), supposedly matching up 2067 technology to the 1967 developments that led up to it: an amusing conceit for the ever-interesting science features.
Issue 107 (4 February) introduced a new one page comic strip, Wright (C.H.A.R.L.I.E.), about inept scientist Professor Wright and the inept inventions he comes up with for Central Headquarters, Atomic Research Liaison for Industrial Experimentation. No trees were ripped up by the contents of this strip.
Two weeks later, art duties on Fireball XL5 changed again, presumably because Mike Noble was having difficulties producing three full colour pages per week (even two was double Frank Hampson’s maxim). The new artist had a good, softer line and produced impressive work on faces, but Noble was the classic Fireball artist and the standard by which the strip was to be judged. In fact, after a couple of weeks study, my educated guess is none other than Don Lawrence. Which was confirmed by a signature in issue 113 (18 March).

You can never have too much Frank Bellamy

Both up front stories were rocked by serious developments as Twenty-One’s former assistant Tina seemingly came back from the dead, only to prove to be a foreign agent to absolutely no-one’s surprise, and Captain Paul Travers was sentenced to death for wilful disobeyance of an order and would up on the run trying to uncover a world-threatening conspiracy. Travers ended up proving the existence of a would-be world-conquering conspiracy and getting both reprieved and reinstated.
But Twenty-One’s luck with assistants continued to be bad as Jack Reed was killed in issue 124 (21 June).
Given that Lady Penelope’s adventures during TV Century 21‘s first year were planned as a lead to Thunderbirds, there was a moment of retrospective recognition on the following issue’s cover, an above the headline announcement of a new expedition to Mars and the Rock Snake Hills that caused so many problems to the Zero-X in ‘Thunderbirds Are Go’. It’s commander was a new member of a top secret organisation. His title was Captain Black…
Another new artist took over Get Smart! in issue 128 (1 July), reintroducing a more representational look, which in the case of Agent 99 (Barbara Feldon) was most welcome. Based on certain body poses used in the second week of his tenure, I suspect this to be Tom Kerr, later to draw Oddball Oates for Lion.
The new Stingray story starting in issue 129 (8 July) had me staring in disfavour, as typed narrative captions in the first three panels were credited with numbers, as was a fourth on page 2. All the other captions, much briefer than this quartet were in the traditional hand-lettering. This was either a sudden decision to treat the readers as infants who needed to be taught how to read comic strips, or else an embarrassing production cock-up.
The appearance of only one, unnumbered typescript caption, as an unboxed catch-up the following week would appear to confirm the latter.
The Countdown 54321 feature in issue 130 (15 July) had a visionary subject, as it looked at the use of solar energy in 2067, as it sprang from small beginnings a hundred years earlier. With an opening line of “Now that the Earth’s resources of coal, oil and natural gas have declined to practically nothing…”, it was both delightfully prescient and horribly depressing, when you remember that in over half that period in a children’s comic we have still to get to grips with that danger.
A week later, Agent Twenty-One and his Chief, S (Steve Zodiac Senior) foiled an attempted military takeover of the United States, intent on withdrawing it from the World Government. Both men were injured, and as a consequence, both were retired, S from the USS and Twenty-One from active service, to replace him as USS Chief. That looked like the end of the series, except that there was still a To Be Continued box at the bottom of the strip’s second page.
At the same time, Mike Noble vanished from Zero-X, after one episode of a new story: not permanently, thankfully, as he would be back after a four week absence. His replacement was sadly inadequate.
Countdown 54321 was renamed simply Countdown in issue 132 (29 July): Carol Vorderman was only six. But this was a one-week phenomenon. And Wright (C.H.A.R.L.I.E.) disappeared to be replaced by R.E.Cord, supposedly the amateur sportsman who’s always on the ball. In terms of both story and art it made the unlamented Professor Wright look like Thunderbirds.

The new Heroes

And Catch or Kill also disappeared without warning, though not John Burns, retained for Front Page. This new series, which had been subtly trailed for weeks, in a Contact Twenty-One feature about the staff of TV21, actually featured the magazine itself, as a 2067 newspaper. A mysterious stranger turns up at the editorial offices, claiming to dream disasters (i.e., past TV21 stories) the night before they happen, and predicting a fire at Liverpool Spaceport that duly happens.
The following week, the comic led with a ‘news’ story, and a blurred photo, of two unusual aircraft piloted by women pilots, attacking a British target jet. Like the Captain Black newsflash, there was nothing about it inside, but the ground was very definitely being prepared for something that would appear on ITV Midlands the following month.
And inside, an advert on page 8 told us to Beware the Mysterons, though it directed us to Solo, a short-lived boys comic, for the details.
Countdown 54321 in issue 134 (12 August) was another of those still rare moments that I remember from the Sixties, comparing jet-liners, with 1967’s Concorde being set up as a forerunner of the already known Fireflash.
Twenty-One’s elevation to chief of the USS lasted only until issue 135 (19 August), when the status quo ante was restored. Simultaneously, Mike Noble resumed duties on Zero-X, and Countdown 54321 was re-named Then and Now. The following week, John Cooper left Special Agent 21 in the hands of someone completely inadequate to replace him.
Issue 137 (2 September) devoted its entire front page to foreshadowing the newest Anderson series. Captain Black’s Mars Expedition was announced lost, an artist’s impression of something we would very soon recognise as Cloudbase was shown and an ‘editorial’ demanded answers about a new, super-secret organisation, identified by a stylised S badge. Spectrum was very nearly here.
And there didn’t look like being much longer to wait. The current Front Page story ended in issue 138 (9 September) with reporter Pete Tracker being summoned back for an urgent assignment in Nice, investigating a mysterious craft 50,000 feet above Nice. Indeed, a week later, Twenty-One sacrificed his second page for the first official announcement of Spectrum, without, as yet, any mention of any other Captains in the organisation.
The same issue added a most improbable third TV cartoon page, in the form of Sgt. Bilko, another one-pager looking to be drawn by Tom Kerr. Properly The Phil Silvers Show on TV, Bilko had no more fantastic content than had Burke’s Law, but the timing was also implausible: the show had originally been broadcast in America from 1955 to 1959, and had been a staple repeat on BBC1 from 1961 until March 1967. It’s appearance as a British produced strip six months later in an SF comic is completely inexplicable. Maybe Alan Fennell was simply a Bilko fan? (I know I was). Actually, it was a refugee from the aforementioned and now failed Solo. At least it replaced the hopeless R.E.Cord.
Issue 140 (23 September) was a set-up for change. All serials came to an end. Captain Black’s disappearance on his return to Earth was woven into and explained by Front Page, leading to the scoop headlines of the previous week. Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons was advertised as a new TV in October and a new strip in issue 141. It was not a revamp as Lion did them, but another new TV21 was on the way.
Captain Scarlet was on the cover. Stingray suffered another loss of prestige, moved to pp 2-3 but reduced to B&W with yet another art change. Front Page was hauled back to one page and The Munsters had another change of artist. Captain Scarlet’s series leapt into the centrespread with a very welcome return for Ron Embleton. Fireball XL5 moved inside again, and like Stingray was also converted to black and white: either I’m very mistaken or Tom Kerr was being kept very busy by the comic. Thunderbirds, at any rate, kept its page length, its colour and its artist, though Frank Bellamy had to draw two individual pages now. Special Agent 21 got his second page and John Cooper back, whilst the back page was a 3D Spectrum photo from the TV series.
And, for the first time since its inception, TV21 got an increase in page count, to 24, and still for the original 7d!
Indeed, I was right about Tom Kerr on Fireball XL5 because the following week, he was allowed to sign his page.
Moving on to issue 145 (28 October), this was another of those rare instances where I have a recollection, and for me a poignant one. The Then and Now feature compared rock-climbing in 1967 and 2067, and it was a feature that caught my mountain-climbing Dad’s interest. I remember him poring over it, impressed. I’ve been waiting for that page to appear.
Meanwhile, Tom Kerr didn’t last long on Fireball XL5, replaced in the same issue 145, the change being a clear downgrade to someone who did not have the facility of converting puppet faces into realistic-looking ones.
As the year wound down, issue 150 (2 December) saw the newspaper concept extended into a wraparound, incorporating the back cover. This made room for a mention of a Lady Penelope assignment, presumably tying in with her ongoing series in her own title.

What is a strip aboout a 1950’s American Army Sergeant doing in a mid 21st Century SF comic?

And then the year was over, in promises of a new look TV Century 21 coming in 2068. Get Smart! didn’t quite make it to the end, and all the series were run-down to the end of their current stories, some of them very brief, in readiness.
After just short of three years, TV Century 21 was well-established and still popular, thanks to the ongoing success of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson’s world of futuristic puppets and machines. 2067 was the year of Captain Scarlet. The comic didn’t go quite as overboard on him and Spectrum as it had Thunderbirds, but International Rescue were still, and have always been the Anderson’s biggest and most successful creation.
As the year went on, both Fireball XL5 and Stingray underwent further downgrades, unsurprising really given the increasing amount of time since they had ceased production and appearing on our TV screens. But it was surprising that the comic began to include more original features, away from the Anderson Universe. The success of these were mixed: Catch or Kill and Front Page were decent mainly for their art, whilst I won’t even deign to re-mention the two comic pages.
The Zero X strip was more like it, but even that was because of the scope it gave Mike Noble for his ebullient art. Zero X and its crew did have their roots in ‘Thunderbirds are Go’, but they had only a limited role, as victims, and not one of the four regular characters had the least personality upon which to build their own series.
But still my verdict is as before, to which I’d add the nuance that in general, TV Century 21 does help to blanderise itself by the length of its stories. Where Lion frequently made the mistake of dragging its stories out far too long, TV Century 21 keeps them short, far too short for anything except action. Six weeks or thereabouts is not enough to build a story of decent intricacy. The comic treats its readers as kids, which almost all of them were, anyway, but it plays safe of matters of their concentration, and lets them down in that sense.
Still, there would be changes made for the next year of operations: what would they be?

The Prisoner: Shattered Visage

I bought this when it first came out, four issues in the then new Prestige format, perhaps long enough ago that it was still being referred to as the Dark Knight format. I traded up for the graphic novel collection, getting it for free because the guy in the shop, a mate of mine, the kid who got me into writing for British comics fandom, hated the owner, and admitted that practically all of them did stuff like that from time to time, to fuck him over. I kept it for several years and then got rid of it, because despite being an Authorised Sequel, and Patrick McGoohan and Leo McKern consenting to the use of their likenesses, it simply wasn’t anywhere near good enough. When I was doing my series on The Prisoner some years ago, I referred to it under Other Media, feeding off twenty-odd year old memories. Now I’ve bought the collection again, cheap, decent but not excessive condition, to refresh those recollections and write about it properly. One day, I may be able to afford the Marvel hardback collecting their two efforts to adapt episode one of the series.

Yes, I am a completist.

Shattered Visage is still not very good. In fact, it’s a mess on many levels, and it totally fails to get either the atmosphere or ethos of the series. Reading it, I wonder, given the intensity of his involvement with his ‘baby’, just what McGoohan saw in the project that led him to authorise it as an official sequel, because I’m hanged if I can see it.

The story is the work of writer/artist Dean Motter, a Canadian creator then noted for his serialised work, ‘The Sacred and the Profane’, with co-creator Ken Steacey, and then for creating and designing ‘Mister X’ (originally written and drawn by Los Bros Hernandez). Motter wrote the story with Mark Askwith, a Canadian television TV writer and producer, and drew the issues with colour by David Hornung and Richmond Lewis. The series first appeared in 1988-89, as issues A – D.

The set-up for the story is that twenty years have passed since the Village was liberated by the Americans and its inmates released. The Leo McKern Number Two was imprisoned for twenty years, the Village fell into disuse and was left empty, but for the former Number Six, once free to go, elected to stay, and has remained there ever since. But Number Two is about to bereleased from prison. One of the conditions of his release was been he was allowed to write his memoirs about the Village (‘The Village Idiot’), although apparently its relevance to the truth, after Britan’s Intelligence Services have been over it, is tangential at best. It is feared that Number Two intends to return to the Village for revenge. It is intimated that there are still secrets in the Village.

So: an interesting angle in that we’re not trying for another ‘lost’ episode effect. It’s a genuine sequel in that respect, but it’s also a possibly unconscious admission by Motter and Askwith that they couldn’t do a ‘lost’ episode, that they couldn’t begin to capture that wholly Sixties mixture of paranoia and holiday camp absurdity. Because they certainly can’t capture anything of the series in what they produced.

To begin with, they can only create their story by denying the original ending, reducing Number Six’s experiences to a drug-induced hallucination, a fantasy. Secondly, by having him elect to stay in the Village once it’s liberated, may be superficially consistent with Number Six/Patrick McGoohan’s insistent upon the rights of the individual (My life is my own), but in practice it reduces the character to a contrarian, a figure without independent thought or opinion, merely a drive to do the opposite of everybody else.

But that’s before the story introduces its own characters and its contemporary view of espionage. The two most important figures are Alice and Thomas, the one a former spy for British Intelligence, the other still in the service, head of a small Department called Excavations, who seem to be a background operation. Aliceand Thomas were married but are separrated at Alice’s instigation, which seems to be linked to the reasons for her resignation. Alice has lost faith in what they do, affected by incidents that have happened to other agents: her reasons are only slightly more concrete than those of Number Six but seem to echo those he appeared to be about to expand upon in ‘The Chimes of Big Ben’. Late in the series, we will learn that Alice’s surname is Drake, but whether this applies to Thomas, or she has reverted to her maiden name (something her character portrayal strongly suggests she would do) we remain uncertainty.

The story is deliberately unclear about everything it possibly can be, even more so than the series.

Thomas has edited Number Two’s book, having practically rewritten it for him, to eliminate active security issues, which appear to be manifold and include all sorts of modern issues. But he’s concerned about The Village, Number Two, an Agent who’s following him, the approval of his mentor, the now bedridden Mrs Butterworth, and the refusal of his superior, Colonel J, to officially support him. So Thomas ropes in a freewheeling American agent called Lee West (a steal from Joe Don Baker as Darius Jedburgh, in Edge of Darkness).

Alice meanwhile is celebrating her freedom by going on a solo voyage around the world in a super-yacht with all modern satellite system guidance. To do so, she has to put her tearful Meagan (aged 8 or thereabouts) into the convent school that is Alice’s old alma mater, thereby making Alice a prisoner. (She also gets her hair cut and swaps her elegant calf-length skirts for shorts and bikinis: Alice may be a strong, independent woman but she’s also eye-candy, at least so far as Motter’s art permits). But Thomas distracts her long enough to enable Lee to mess with the guidance system, so that Alice’s course takes her past the Village.

That’s before the Hurricane that wrecks her boat, fries her guidance system and maroons her on the beach below the Village (now defined as being an island). Alice makes her be-shorted way through a dilapidated, boarded up, vegetation-shrounded Village, all the way to Number Two’s office (how does she know to go there?) where a heavily-bearded man sits in the Chair. He greets her, tells her she’s safe, and names her… (wait for it), Number Six.

The beareded man is our old friend, Number Six.

All of this so far has been set out in issue A. I’ve explained it in such detail because it’s been necessary to set up the premise of the story, and also because it’s a carefully-detailed, espionage oriented set-up. You can build a good story on what’s been laid out thus far, though little of it wuld have relevance to the series. But I shalln’t be going into anything the same detail for the other three-quarters of the tale because from this point onwards, the story falls apart like wet tissue-paper.

Number Two turns up in the Village (how? Don’t ask stupid questions). He’s older, fatter, bearded as well (though not with either of the beards Leo McKern wore in the series) and has bad teeth. He’s being served by the Butler, although as poor Angelo Muscat wasn’t around to agree, he’s only shown in shadow, with ratty hair and stooped shoulders. He’s there to provoke Number Six into a fight.

Not a psychological battle, a contest of minds trying to outdo each other, intelligence warring with intelligenceand sharp dialogue, but a fist-fight. If ever the limitations of comics creators’ mentalities was exposed, it is here. Number Six beats NumberTwo up and shaves off his beard.

By now, the Village has been invaded by two military forces, an unofficial one led by Lee, with Thomas, that exposes the true secret behind the Village, the thing that it’s all been about since the very beginning: a nuclear missile. You know, the very thing that was fired during the ‘Fall Out’ episode that Motter and Askwith dismissed as wholly a drug-induced hallucination in order to tell their story becomes their big idea. It’s pathetically weak.

The other invading force doesn’t get anywhere. They’re sent by Thomas’s superior Ross, D.Ops (Director of Operations) to retrieve all information and people they find, but they find nothing because the beaten Number Two sets off the missiles without opening the silo doors, so the Village is destroyed, as it was when the missile was fired in ‘Fall Out’ that Motter and Askwith dismissed, etc., killing everyone in the Village but not necessarily the maverick Lee.

There are two codas to this conclusion. One involves a shift in authority in British intelligence, involving a takeover by remote figures for whom, it appears, the seemingly detached Lee West was working: Ross is dismissed, gassed unconscious and removed in an undetaker’s hearse, presumably to The Village 2.0.

And Alice, who escaped with Number Six, is reunited with Meagan (whilst under surveillance), after a brief conversation with our erstwhile hero. She asks two questions which elicit two answers that sound clever but which, after the failure we’ve read, are functionlly meaningless. In reverse order, to a question about how Number Six knows his secrets are still safe, he answers ‘None of us would still be here if they weren’t’, whilst the the $64 Million Dollare question of Who was Number One, actually? we get the gnomic response, ‘Does the presence of Number Two… necessarily require the existence of Number One?’ It’s cute, it has its appeal, it could actually be the basis for a serious story if you produceit early enough, but in context it’s as meaningless as everything else: just someone thinking that they’re being clever.

According to the Wikipedia entry, the story was ‘thoroughly evaluated’ by ITC Entretainment, and every page of Shattered Visage (title taken from Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’) and every issue was sent to Patrick McGoohan, who signed off on it but offered no feedback: the only thing Motter ever got back was, apparently, “He didn’t hate it.” Leo McKern sent a note to say how flattered he wasto be a comic book villain for the first time. It’s a nice gesture, and I’m sure McKern was amused, but he did rather put his finger on it: Number Two is a comic book villain, with all the usual implications.

What of the art? Does this, in any way, make up for the inadequacies of the story? Unfortunately not: Motter’s art is sketchy and undetailed, his faces and figures awkward. He can catch enough of a likeness of McGoohan and McKern without being so simplistic as to topple into caricature, but his pages are open, lacking in detail, flat. There is no sense of depth to the panels, an effect muliplied by colouring that seems to be content with slapping wide expanses of plain, ungraduated pastels in sunshine, or muddle, lifeless shades in night conditions.

I’m torn over the decision to use treated photography for certain scenes, especially of the Vollage, and London, rather than have Motter draw these. Even with a deliberately degraded image, these scenes have too much detail to blend into Motter’s style, and the fact of their realness constantly drags the eye out of the story by reason of the contrast.

All in all, a pretty comprehensive failure, and called as such by most critics, especially among the especially fanatical fans, though the opinion is by no mean unanimous. In the end, the actual Village element seems like a sideshow beside the underlying story of power-shifts in British Intelligence. The twenty years on milieu, though an intelligence angle, provesto be determinedly anti-Prisoner-esque and thw two worlds are too far separated to ever meet on their own terms.

At least they got it published.