Like a Hurricane


A Sixties Comic

In the beginning, there was a dreamlike quality to it.
Reading an Ursula le Guin essay, I had a lightning flash of memory: a comics version of Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur’s Court in a boy’s weekly comic in the Sixties. I wrote about it the same day, bemoaning, mildly, that I’d never get to test my sudden and shining recollection.
The same day, I had a comment from David, who identified it for me: the comic was Hurricane, the strip was a reprint of an Italian series, written and drawn in the Fifties by Lino Landolfi, and there were DVDs of the whole run of Hurricane on eBay. I didn’t look immediately, but when I did, I found one immediately. Any doubts about buying it disappeared when I recognised Hugo Dinwiddie.
Within ten days of remembering it, I was reading ‘A Yankee at King Arthur’s Court’. And ‘Sword for Hire’, which was Dinwiddie’s series. And, bloody hell, ‘Skid Solo’ too! I was in my nostalgic element, and I was going to write about this. The enthusiasm, the liveliness, the real, surprising quality of some of these series, written and drawn at a time when my gold standard Eagle was getting more and more hit and miss. Why on earth had I forgotten ‘H.M.S. Outcast’? I was in delight.
But the story turned out to be far different. Hurricane only lasted 63 issues in total, 29th February 1964 to 8th May 1965, and that bright, bouncy, confident paper that hit the market lasted less that a third of that run. As early as issue 19 (4th July 1964: there were no issue numbers but I’ll use them for ease of reference), Hurricane underwent a massive revamp, with half its features cancelled, ‘Yankee’ among them. Two of the replacements either were, or appeared to be, reprints of old series owned by Fleetway.
And that was to be the story. Three times again during the remainder of its run, Hurricane tried to reinvent itself into something that would sell better. More and more of its series were an obvious attempt to cut costs with reprints. Less and less of the comic holds any appeal for the adult me, who read the original run, week after week, from being 8 to 9, who remembers almost nothing of Hurricane that I haven’t already mentioned here, although in that first eighteen week run I kept coming across panels from practically every series that aroused shouts of delighted recognition. Writing about Hurricane was not going to be the joyful explosion of enthusiasm I expected, except in the beginning.
(I should mention that, as David has also pointed out, I could put names to what I describe, and convert guesses into facts by buying Steve Holland’s book on Hurricane. Much as I’d love to, I have other commitments at present, so I’ll be going on perceptions, as I usually do! All mistakes are the product of ignorance and are apologised for in advance.)

For its first six weeks, Hurricane ran 32 pages per week, before settling into a 28 page length thereafter. Typhoon Tracey, who was as much the flagship character as Dan Dare was for Eagle, decorated the first cover, which featured a big red logo across a bright yellow strip, giving the comic a vibrant recognisability. Hurricane was also plugged as ‘a companion paper to Valiant throughout (though when it demised, that wasn’t with which it merged). From issue 6, it distinguished itself with a ‘panoramic’ cover, a single widescreen illustration stretching across front and back.
There was no colour inside, just eight black-and-white features, ranging from one to four pages each week. There were three serials, ‘Yankee’, ‘Two Fists Against the World’ and my favourite rediscovery, the wonderfully daft ‘HMS Outcast’. Everything else managed complete stories each week.

Let me list that debut line-up, in order of appearance. Upfront was ‘Typhoon Tracey’, very much in the Captain Hurricane mould, a big, blond, burly trouble-shooter who loved nothing more than a good punch-up. Tracey’s four pages were drawn in a quasi-realistic cartoon style ideally suited to the broad comedy and executed with great vigour. In contrast, ‘Skid Solo’ (3 pages), adopted a more detailed and realistic style that looked darker. Skid – which seems to have been his real name – was an aspiring racing driver living with his Aunt Mabel. Skid narrated his stories in a happy-go-lucky manner.
Next was the aforementioned ‘Two Fists’, a decent but unspectacular 2 page series with decent but unspectacular art. This starred Jim Trim, an aspiring bare-knuckle prizefighter in Regency Britain, and was told in a series of short phases, or what we now call ‘arcs’, overcoming various obstacles.
This was followed by ‘Yankee’. I was delighted to find that this was every bit as quirky, visually delightful and wonderful as by first recollections had told me. The art is a version of the ligne clair style, very clean and crisp in both its dimensions, and the adaptation is a very straight one from what I can recall of the original novel. It’s been brought up to date, in that Hank Morgan is very much a motor mechanic of our present day and not that of Twain, but there is very little writing down to the young audience it is produced for.
The openly cartoonish art has a completely different quality to the other strips, a clarity to the linework that I find very effective, and I also have to praise the quality of the reproduction on the DVD. Given the paper quality these were printed on, it’s nothing short of brilliant, with no bleed-through from the opposite page.
The same can be said for ‘Sword for Hire’ (4 pages), set in Roundhead London during the Commonwealth. Captain Hugo Dinwiddie was a Cavalier who, after King Charles was executed, took up residence at the Blue Boar Tavern where he offered the services of a swordsman who had never been defeated to help people in trouble. It’s the classic freelance troubleshooter set-up with its infinite flexibility, but with highly detailed and very realistic art, complex, vigorous and either well-researched or a superb bluff. And not just the art. Dinwiddie had the true Cavalier’s outlook on life and swordfighting, an enthusiasm and a joie de vivre that came through in spades. ‘Sword for Hire’ was something Eagle could not have done, not then, and probably not before, but its enormous buoyancy deserves to be far better known.
In contrast, ‘Rod the Odd Mod… and his old pal Percy Vere’ was a piece of crap, a repetitious and unfunny one page cartoon. Rod was no Mod, just this guy who, each week, bought some new, with-it or trendy thing or gadget, expecting to impress the girl next door with it. And each week, it would backfire in some slapstick way. Half the time, she’d end up going out with Percy, which was odd in that he was only about three feet tall. I hope the eight year old me didn’t find it funny.
Artistically, ‘The Worst Boy in School’ (2 pages), was a great let-down. This was about Duffy (no first name), who had been brought up in the circus and thus was high-spirited, unpredictable and undisciplined. However, in order to inherit the circus from his uncle, Duffy to undergo education at Camborne School. This was just a bog-standard chaos-causing schoolboy strip, lacking even the distinction of Billy Binns or Cornelius Dimworthy and cursed with some scruffy, scrappy art that tried to create a kind of impressionist realist view but just looked ugly and unfinished.
Apart from the odd panel here or there, I had no memories at all of ‘HMS Outcast’, which I could look at as if for the first time. I loved it. It was a gentle, comic gem. The series was set in 1942, and starred Lieutenant Wildbloode, an amiable, grinning, wide-jawed bloke with serious competence issues.
As punishment for being pretty useless, Wildbloode was given his own command, HMS Outcast, the oldest ship in the Navy. His orders, the true import of which were known only to his efficient second-in-command, Lieutenant Fitzjohn, were to take Outcast to the breaker’s yard. Instead, Outlook got lost en route, wound up in the middle of a German fleet and, by a mixture of Wildebloode’s innate sneakiness, opportunism, luck and the kind of inspired chaos the ship drags in its wake, captured them all. It was wildly improbable, yet fantastic, and the art, a delightfully sketchy realistic impression, was perfect for something so inspiredly silly.
Last of all, but not least, was ‘He Rides Alone’ (4 pages) a western strip. For its time, the series, starring the soft-spoken, immaculately dressed, short in stature but tall in the saddle Drago, was wonderfully sophisticated. Drago was a complete mystery, appearing out of nowhere whilst casting a long shadow before him, righting wrongs before riding away again, alone. There was a strong elegiac element to the narration, like a campfire telling of old stories of a man forgotten, save in these, and whilst the art was not especially distinguished in terms of linework, the artist was a genius at layout and atmosphere, in perfect harmony with the narration.
So there it was, Hurricane, a happy rediscovery, a comic for eight to ten year olds, with a wide variety of stories, well worth time time of an old nostalgiac who could enjoy this work in its own right.

But that’s only the second part of the story. I have no idea what I thought then, but the announcement in issue 18 of so many new series all at once filled the adult me with misgivings. That kind of revamp spells only one thing: trouble. Circulation trouble. To need so radical a kick up the bum so soon was not good.
Gone were Rod the Odd Mod, who was no loss, and gone too was Jim Trim, but the two serious losses for me were Hank Morgan and Drago. Nothing that replaced these two could match up to them.

Even at the age of eight, I thought the ending of ‘Yankee’ to be oddly abrupt. The arc where Hank takes Arthur in cognito to see how his countrymen are treated ends with rescue in one panel, and the next says ‘The End’. It could easily be that the adaptation had ended, and certainly want remains of the novel could well have been deemed too much for its audience, but ‘Two Fists’s termination is equally swift: the current arc is resolved and suddenly, five lines are stuffed into the last panel to explain that five months later Jim Trim won the All-England title The End. Add to this that Rod the Odd Mod will come back much later and my conclusion is that this was all a bit of a rush job.
So what was Hurricane mark 2 like? Typhoon Tracey and Hugo Dinwiddie stayed where they were, Skid Solo moved back and HMS Outcast forward. What of the new features?
The first of these, literally, was ‘“Hurry” of the Hammers’, in full colour on the front and back covers. I’m grateful to David for spilling the beans that Hurry (which I not only remembered but associated with Hurricane all along) is really the early ‘Roy of the Rovers’ running as a disguised reprint. I loved it when I was eight, but then I never met a football series I didn’t like. At this distance, it’s more interesting for what it really was, and an interesting look at the early days of the world famous Roy Race: you’d have never have thought it would go on to be that big on this evidence.
On the other hand, ‘The Juggernaut from Planet Z’ (2 pages) was pure crap from start to finish. A giant, glowing sphere crash-lands in Britain, north of the Lake District and disgorges a fifty-foot tall cliché robot which immediately starts walking in a direct line towards London, heedless of what’s in its path, except when it heeds them. Two scientists assist the military in weeks upon weeks of trying to stop it in its tracks but every effort fails. Ultimately, it reaches Westminster, raises a ginormous fist and promptly explains it’s from Planet Z and is looking for help from Earth against a menace affecting the home planet, which is not only a complete let-down but begs the question that if Planet Z were clever enough to send a robot that could home in on London like that, why weren’t they clever enough to set it down in, say, Hertfordshire? It could have saved us nine weeks of rough-edged art for a start.
‘The Black Avenger’ (3 pages) was a like-for-like replacement for ‘He Rides Alone’, a lone-gunman Western long on cliché. Johnny Bishop grows up a top-notch gunhand but grows sick of having to be a gunfighter and settles down to ranch, gun-free, near the prairie town of Gunshot. But, once a week, bad guys come along so Johnny has to dress up as The Black Avenger and save the day. Judging by the small-panelled, square art, and in particular the appearance of the later supporting character, Miss Mary Dixon, my guess is that this is a Fifties reprint, probably from Lion. Either way, it lacks anything of Drago’s individuality, and is dull and repetitious.
Last, but not least, was ‘Paratrooper’ (4 pages), a success both artistically and popularly, lasting to the end of Hurricane and beyond, and another I remembered on sight. Each week, Sergeant Rock (no, not that one ) would relate a tale of a different Paratrooper during the Second World War and the actions in which he took place. The series was good and solid, with bold, realistic art, but its real strength was in the humanity of the stories. Each subject was a real person, complex, individual, facing one or other of the many aspects of War. Rock, a big, blonde-haired guy, was an able host, positive, serious and unstinting in his admiration for men who, in many different ways, proved themselves to be heroes.
So, one and a half hits out of four, and still a decent and settled line-up overall, even after ‘Sword for Hire’ lost a page to accommodate ‘Black Avenger’ going up to four. On a purely personal note, I was seriously disappointed by a Skid Solo story that depicted him as having some very seriously misogynistic attitudes, although to be fair, a few weeks later, he was complimentary about a female co-driver despite her being, well, a girl. Yes, I know, eight year old boys. That doesn’t change my distaste for it now.
This time, Mark 2 Hurricane only lasted twelve issues.

Second time around, the upheaval wasn’t so dramatic. Only two series ended, three if you count the renaming of Planet Z to ‘Peril on Planet Z’, a thankfully short sequel set on Planet Z itself and even worse than the original. But as the two series to be cancelled were ‘Sword for Hire’ and ‘HMS Outcast’, the effect was massive.
Four replacements arrived over the next four weeks, only one of which with any appeal. ‘When the Lights Went Out’ was a Fifties-style Disaster novel in comic book form: one day, all the electricity in the world just conks out, sending mankind back to a quasi-savage state. Philip Masterson, ex-Army Captain turned hermit after being cashiered over a superior’s mistake, undergoes many adventures before builds Britain back up again after many adventures and ultimately becomes crowned King Philip I of a United Europe. But there’s a heavily racist side to the story, with a Bandit Arab chief from a Saharan statelet sweeping all of Europe before him before being killed by Philip. Nasty stuff.

Hank Morgan – From a collection of the Italian original

At least ‘When the Lights Went Out’ was a new strip. ‘Rob O’the Wood’, supposedly Robin Hood’s son with all the same Merry Men around (hey, you do know Robin Hood’s out of copyright, don’t you?) was pretty dire Fifties reprint material, dull as ditchwater and looking archaic.
This pair appeared together in issue 31 (26th September 1964), in which there were other changes. Hurry Cane was moved into the centrespread and reduced to black and white, whilst Typhoon Tracey was pushed right back and cut to two pages: in addition, it was turned into a serial, and assigned a new artist, whose style angled more to the cartoon aspects of Tracey and his world. Sergeant Rock became the star of his own stories, which became a bit more formularised as a consequence.
The other two new strips were a study in contrasts. ‘The Phantom of Cursitor’s Marsh’ was an atmospheric serial set in Georgian times: the Phantom was a seemingly spooky character plaguing a corrupt and rotten Newgate Judge who was ultimately revealed to be working for both revenge and justice using the pre-discovery of electricity. Long on atmosphere with art tending towards the impressionistic, this was the one qualified success of Mark 3.
The last, debuting a week later, was the return of the one-page, one-gag cartoon strip, with the highly-stylised ‘Sir Hector the Spectre… and his chum Duke Dim’. This was actually worse than Rod the Odd Mod, with it’s cash-strapped Duke deciding to open his home to coach-parties arousing the opposition of one of his ghostly ancestors.

The Mark 3 Hurricane had the longest run, just about, totalling 19 issues, though ‘When the Lights Went Out’ fell two short of that, giving way to ‘Carlos of the Wild Horses’, set in 16th Century Mexico: the eponymous Carlos is the eight-year old son of the Spanish Governor whose mare runs off with him to join a band of wild horses. This featured some stark and complex detailed art though the story was completely dull.

Sword for Hire

Two weeks later, the Phantom revealed his identity and Sir Hector rattled his last chain. Oddly enough, I remembered both replacements where I’d had no recall for these two. Sir Hector gave way to ‘Birk’n’Ed, the Mersey Deadbeats’, a one page cartoon about a pair of scouse layabouts trying to find a job they can skive at: I’ll bet Hurricane sales just shot up on Merseyside. The Phantom was replaced by ‘The Shadow’ (again, not that one), same era, just updated to the Regency. Though it’s once again nothing more than a Scarlet Pimpernel knock-off – foppish fool Basil Blythe is secretly the Shadow, feared underground fighter for Justice – it’s vigorously atmospheric art made it a more enjoyable feature whilst never producing anything original.
But by now, Hurricane was firmly on the skids. There were more attempts to halt the slide. ‘Rob o’the Wood’ inflicted his last tedious story on us in issue 56, his four pages going equally to ‘Brett Marlowe, Detective’ and ‘Danger Island’, both reprints from Lion in 1952, the latter as ‘The Naval Castaways’. Two issues after that saw the arrival of ‘Danny Jones and his Time Clock’, which didn’t have time to impress either way, though I was intrigued by the two-part story set in the hidden city of Tanilorn (sic), ruled by Rackham, an archer: Michael Moorcock fans will recognise the similarities.
Incredibly, issue 62 saw Typhoon Tracey and Skid Solo get their original artists back, and Tracey revert to four page complete stories. Even Rod the Odd Mod popped up, unchanged from the mark 1 Hurricane, leading me to suspect that that first revamp was indeed a last minute decision, leaving a couple of unused pages now being brought out of the drawer.
But only for two weeks. Issue 63 led with the announcement of Hurricane‘s merger with Tiger. The combined paper would offer 40 pages for only 1d more. Typhoon Tracey and Skid Solo would go on, as would Sergeant Rock, although the final episode of ‘Paratrooper’ saw the good Sergeant being recruited for the ‘Special Air Service’, in which form the strip continued in its new home. There was no place for ‘Hurry of the Hammers’ and why should there be? He was only ever a disguised reprint of ‘Roy of the Rovers’ and given that the real thing was running in new adventures in Tiger, who needed him?
I remember reading Sergeant Rock as ‘Special Air Service’ for a good long time, so I assume I was allowed to transfer to Tiger and Hurricane, though I don’t remember ever reading ‘Roy of the Rovers’ on a weekly basis. But I must have.
There’s no question about it, Hurricane flopped. It lasted fifteen months and after that initial, strong line-up, with which it’s been a delight to reacquaint myself, each of the increasingly desperate reboots made the comic progressively worse, duller and cheaper, with its growing reliance on Fifties reprints to help it limp along.
But it’s been worth it to re-read ‘A Yankee at King Arthur’s Court’ again.

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Steve Ditko R.I.P.


And then there was one.

Without wishing to slight the contributions of those others who were there in thee beginning, it’s inarguable that the success of Marvel Comics, and everything that has followed on from the extraordinary period of creativity, rests on the work of three men. You may dispute the order of importance on another day when such things can once again be debated, but these men were Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko. ‘King’ Kirby died long ago, in 1994, and now Steve Ditko has been found dead, in his apartment, aged 90. Only Stan Lee remains of that essential trio.

Ditko, who was famously private, indeed reclusive, was far less productive than Kirby, but was every bit his equal. It was Ditko who, when Lee was dissatisfied with Kirby’s first designs, took over the project, bringing to it his unique perspective, his odd, almost angular art and the sense of brooding and misery that Kirby, the boundlessly positive and elemental force could not provide. Stan Lee supplied the words, but it was Ditko who showed us Peter Parker, and turned him into the Amazing Spider-Man.

If that was not enough, and for the average creative person it would be a crowning glory, Ditko also created Marvel’s master of magic, Dr Strange, and the whole otherwordly realm of the fantastic that the Doctor occupied.

For all that the decades and countless contributors have added to the story, Spider-Man and Doctor Strange remain what Steve Ditko created them to be.

Many looked at Doctor Strange in the Sixties and concluded that Steve Ditko was one cool cat, and obviously familiar with the effects of such things as Lysergic Acid. But Ditko was the epitome of a conservative gentleman, short-haired, short-sleeved, personally abstemious. Some imaginations don’t need chemical stimulation and Ditko’s was as weird as they came, naturally.

In that, however, lay the seeds of the breach with Marvel. Ditko was a man of firm thought and principles, deeply committed to Objectivism, the philosophy spawned by Ayn Rand. The relationship with Stan Lee rapidly became untenable. Ditko started to plot and draw Spider-Man on his own. When he was due to deliver the completed pages to Marvel, Lee would take care not to be seen. It would be the first he knew of this month’s issue, and now he would add the words.

Then, one day, Ditko left Marvel. Delivered his latest Spider-Man, announced he wouldn’t be doing any more, left. He would return, much later, do other series for Marvel, create the cult favourite, Squirrel Girl, but never again enjoy the prominence and influence he had in those half-dozen years. There were stints at other companies, other creations. For Charlton comics (who may have paid the lowest rates but who didn’t interfere with his work to any appreciable extent) he created Captain Atom, the new Blue Beetle and another cult favourite, The Question, all of whom now belong to DC, for whom he created The Creeper and Hawk and Dove.

All of these would distinguish the record of a lesser man, though they were none of them Spidey or Doc Strange.

Much of Ditko’s work, and he remained prolific throughout his life, ended up self-published. He remained a master cartoonist, but devoted his time to things that expressed his opinions and his Objectivism, a philosophy that remains attractive only to a minority. It limited him, but it was Ditko is his most pure and refine, and at the end of the day it was the artist being true to himself at all costs.

Steve Ditko stayed away from fame and public exposure. He would not allow himself to be interviewed or even photographed. He was ‘featured’ in a Jonathan Ross documentary on comics for the BBC, but that meant that he agreed to meet Ross, alone, without cameras or recording equipment, and that Ross agree not to repeat anything Ditko said! True to his word, Ross disappeared into a Manhattan building, reappeared visibly thrilled, and gave nothing away.

And now there is only one, only the writer/editor/figure of some controversy, Stan Lee. But Marvel, and everything else, all across the field of comics, is a legacy with three pillars, and Steve Ditko will live in memory forever for being one of those pillars.

The Boy’s World Story, or, The One Without Marcus Morris


cover by Ron Embleton

Boy’s World, a Longacre/Odhams red-top boys weekly comic, joined the stable of titles originated by the Reverend Marcus Morris as editor in 1962, it’s purpose being to replace Eagle. Instead, it lasted 89 issues and disappeared in 1963, merging into Eagle for protection. Only one of its features lasted more than three months after its death.
Many years ago, on one of my many trips to the Old Magazine Shop in Sheffield, I bought a job lot of Boy’s Worlds, 64 in total, just under three-quarters of the comic’s entire run. My collection, which is in poor condition, each issue having been stapled together in from the spine, with staples that were rusty when I bought them, basically consists of a near-complete run from Volume 1 issue 24 onwards (when the title had clearly undergone a substantial revamp) to the end, with a missing five issue run early in Volume 2, and a handful of missing single issues.
I’ve seen the covers of some of those early issues, which present a much different comic: large, full-page, domestic boy scenes, full-bleed, the red-box title forming part of the image. The effect is of a magazine cover, not a comic, something simultaneously more serious and more parent-friendly, like it’s almost exact contemporary, Look and Learn (a brainchild of Leonard Matthews, the man who was determined to destroy Eagle, its first issue came out six days before Boy’s World‘s).
Without sight of any of that first five month’s efforts, I can only speculate. Certainly, what passes for an editorial in Vol 1 issue 24 makes it explicit that one of the title’s established series, ‘Merlo the Magician’ (a prose story of which was reprinted in the 1969 Hamlyns’ published Adventure Stories for Boys) was now being translated into comics form. Of the eight stories repeated in ASOB, seven originated in Boy’s World, including a Merlo story. Three of these come from the issues I possess, meaning four prose serials of varying length across 23 issues: it’s pushing it to assume they all ran serially.
There was two or three existing comics series that survived the revamp. I remembered ‘Pike Mason’, drawn mainly by Luis Bermejo in a wash-dominated black-and-white. This was a bit of a sub-Storm Nelson affair, a sea-adventurer, but with one sidekick, the Filipino, Quarro. And ‘John Brody’, a science reporter for a London Daily who kept encountering fantastic adventures: like a Dr Thirteen who didn’t debunk the impossible.
But Boy’s World‘s most prestigious series, it’s home-grown Heros, was the highly-regarded ‘Wrath of the Gods’. This starred Arion, a kind of mortal trouble-shooter drafted in by the Greek Gods to carry out fantastic missions. Written by Jeff Hawke‘s Willie Patterson, it had been drawn in those first 23 issues by Ron Embleton, across the centrespread, but now it was knocked back to the back page and given over to a young and, initially unimpressive John Burns.

John Burns’ first page

Three new series entered at this point, a revamp intended to mirror the still more successful Eagle. The longest-lasting of these was naturally ‘The Iron Man’, initially drawn by Embleton’s younger brother Gerry, who gave the robot a much more naturalistic look. This squarer-faced stockier version could well be mistaken for human, though Embleton didn’t last too long before Martin Salvador replaced him – Spanish artists were so much cheaper – and before long, the robot’s features became much more, well, robotic.
The second of these was ‘Billy Binns and his Wonderful Specs’. Apparently, this was a continuation from the initial strip, ‘The Boys of Castleford School’, focussing on just the one pupil. I mean, apart from Billy accidentally getting his miraculous spare glasses in the first episode preparatory to his discovering their wonderful powers in the second (at which point, the supposedly highly-intelligent swot utterly failed, then or later, to make the slightest connection between his radically differing states of confidence and athleticism depending on whether he wore glasses A or glasses B), it was undistinguished fare that never developed from one week to another. It’s neatly drawn – far better than the unspeakable ‘Cornelius Dimworthy’ – whilst the stories are generally unexceptionable but I can’t for the life of me understand how it’s supposed to be an utterly hilarious, laugh-a-panel comedy, which was how the comic kept billing it.
And third was ‘Brett Millions’. Though it’s not credited as such, both ‘Brett Millions’ stories are written by the SF writer, Harry Harrison, the first, ‘The Angry Planet’, adapted from one of Harrison’s own novels. This strip pushed ‘Wrath of the Gods’ out of the centrespread, though amusingly, once they’d finished the stories begun in issue 24, the same week, the strips swapped back! The second ‘Brett Millions’, ‘Ghost World’, was actually drawn by Frank Bellamy, and is probably the least known of all his Fifties and Sixties work. Aside from a couple of his ‘Great Adventurers’ stories from Eagle, it’s the only strip that hasn’t been reprinted, and it’s rarely mentioned.
Which is hardly surprising, since, apologies to Harry Harrison fans, the whole series was pretty poor. Millions, who starts off as a professional gambler but winds up an interplanetary troubleshooter, hasn’t an ounce of character, and Bellamy still has no more instinct for SF than he had on ‘Dan Dare’.

Which leaves us ‘Merlo’. Merlo was both a highly-skilled, internationally famous stage magician and a highly-secret Interpol agent, tackling high power, fantastic crimes and criminals, usually backed by secret organisations. It was a very cleanly drawn strip, all black lines and white space and no shading, good but not outstanding. He’d actually been created by Harry Harrison but his last two adventures, in Vol 2, were written by Ken Bulmer.
What else went into this new Boy’s World mark 2? There was mild comedy from ‘Private Proon – the Barrack ‘Square”, the extremely short prose ‘Mini-Mystery’ starring Detective Inspector Nixon on page 2, in which the villain was almost always the only other person in the story, especially if the crime was murder, and a weekly prose feature called ‘Ticket to Adventure’, an historical feature homing in on famous events, written in such away as to place the reader in the middle of the action, all because he’d received his Ticket to Adventure. Week-in, week-out, this was consistently Boy’s World‘s best feature.
Vol 2 saw some changes to features. ‘Brett Million’ was replaced by ‘Raff Regan’, a WW2 RAF strip, which didn’t amount to much, whilst ‘Pike Mason’ went back to sea for good after issue 21, being replaced by a weird little series, ‘What is my Name?’, in which RAF Flight Lieutenant Jimmy Pierce is saved by a Scottish shepherd known only as the Nameless One, and in repayment has to find out the Nameless One’s name. The story soon started to get involved with supernatural stuff, drawings forecasting doom appearing in a blank book, and ultimately an ancient curse, little of which made any great sense, but which lasted until the somewhat abrupt decision to merge Boy’s World into Eagle.

Pike Mason original art

Let me not forget the other new series to start alongside ‘What’s in a Name?’. This was ‘Dr What and his Time Clock’, which was, as you’ve probably already guessed, a parody of Dr Who. In fact, it was the first ever parody of Dr Who, which is the only distinction it holds.
So, after only 89 issues the comic that was to replace Eagle was swallowed up by it. This was an unpopular decision in one boy’s household because at some unguessable point, I’d started getting Boy’s World, and I was not best pleased that two of my weekly comics were merging to one, especially as I (selfish) didn’t get a new title to replace it. As we already know, only ‘The Iron Man’ lasted, though oddly enough Boy’s World continued in Annual form, running parallel with the Eagle Annual, for far more years than the comic lasted, ending only in 1972.
I had a few of those Boy’s World Annuals too, and kept one longer than I would normally have done for some Frank Bellamy art, illustrating a short story about an ageing Matador. Browsing it, I happened to notice that writers of these short stories were credited, and one of them happened to be credited to Michael Moorcock! When I met him for the only time, going to a signing session for his novel, Mother London, I took the Annual along, asked if he minded signing the story. I didn’t actually write that, he told me: he’d been commissioned but hadn’t the time, so he’d passed it to Barrington J. Bailey, who needed the money. He still signed it, mind you, but with a proviso that Barry Bailey had written it!
Moorcock is reputed to have written a lot of small features for Boy’s World, including the ‘What’s in a Name?’ snippets, etymologising surnames: here was one instance when his name was taken in vain. Not that the editor knew…
I’d venture to suggest that the reason Boy’s World failed to make the mark it was expected to make was a combination of things: it was the wrong type of comic for an increasingly anarchic time, it was launching in a declining market and most of all it just wasn’t good enough. It lacked a strong editorial figure who could, perhaps, have imposed a greater vision on something that was largely conceived as a copycat. In short, it was the only one not to benefit from the editing of the Reverend John Marcus Morris.
I’ll just leave that one there.

Film 2018: Brazil


I never went to the cinema when I was on holiday in the Lake District. This had nothing to do with the puritanical belief that days on the fells and nights at the flicks didn’t mingle and everything to do with the way that the schedule of films at Zeferrellis in Ambleside showed that the film I wanted to see had been on last week, or was due next week (or, sometimes, both), but the one playing now wasa pile of poop.

Brazil was the exception, yet even that didn’t break the sequence. The film that week was indeed a pile of poop, but there was a one-off, late night showing, starting at 10.30pm and ending close to 1.00am. It was strangely fitting: a wide-open space, a small audience, a big screen on which to watch Terry Gilliam’s astonishing, coherent, fully-integrated vision unroll to its stunning ending, and coming out into the silent night, slipping quickly through empty streets I’d never seen at that hour before or since, into bed to get the hours needed before another day in the open air.

No matter how often I’ve re-watched it, knowing now where that unbelievable final section leads, Brazil never disappoints. Indeed, thirty-odd years onwards, in an era that makes its effects look primitive for all they are utterly convincing, it remains an immersive experience, one that takes several minutes to shake off after the credits finish running.

As a story, the film is surprisingly simple once dissected. Due to an unforeseeable error, the wrong man is arrested. Jill Layton, a neighbour, attracts suspicion by protesting this. Sam Lowry, a wilfully bored minor bureaucrat tries to save her from this attention. The outcome is disaster. Put like that, it’s an awfully skeletal story, but so is ‘A group of seven mercenaries, for their differing reasons, agree to defend a village from Bandits’, and we know what classic film was built on that foundation.

What Gilliam does is to bring an especially powerful visual imagination, allied to a hatred of bureaucracy, and bound into a hybrid of dystopian SF and slapstick comedy, to life on the shoestring of this plot. There are psychological levels driving the story, and changing its course, homages to other classic films, a strong cast (when Robert de Niro plays a bit part, you have a strong cast), and a complex mosaic of of incident, display and example that places the insane society of the film onto a well-grounded and completely believable footing.

The film’s most obvious inspiration is 1984. The year is never given but the film was made in 1984 and released the following year, and Gilliam very intelligently places the look of the future in the style of the past, specifically that of 1948, when Orwell wrote his legendary book. Over this, he lays an Orwellian dictatorial bureaucracy, based upon suspicion and paranoia, Nazi-imagery in security uniforms and building construction, with an information technology equivalent to the then-modern age but expressed in Heath Robinson-esque equipment: small screen television style monitors fitted with magnifying glass screens, keyboards like pre-War typewriters and largescale cabling like gigantic spaghetti in its profusion, contained in ducts, ducts, ducts, everywhere.

Yes, and a fully-maintained pneumatic tube communication system, which is glorious.

What starts the insanity is the tiniest thing possible. This is a fly, that annoys an anonymous bureaucrat into swatting it. It falls into his machine, changing the name on an arrest warrant, from freelance Heating Engineer Archibald Tuttle to cobbler Archibald Buttle. Buttle is arrested, in an horrific scene of home invasion by gun-bearing, black-clad, jackbooted, black-helmeted officers, bursting through ceiling, door, window, wrecking a small, cheap apartment, fitting Buttle into a straitjacket, making his wife sign a receipt for him (in duplicate), and bearing him off, leaving his wife and two small children. The replacement hole-plug for the bored-through ceiling – which is the floor for upstairs neighbour, truck-driver Jill Leyton (Kim Greist) – is the wrong size.

This becomes a mini-theme for this world of bureaucrat, form-filling comprehensiveness. Quite apart from the obvious drawbacks of a fascist system, it keeps making minor mistakes. The nature of the system makes correcting them almost impossible, and indeed their effects multiply rapidly, and as we’ll see, fatally: there is no such thing as a mistake, it’s clearly enemy action, this Government has been fighting against terrorists for thirteen years. Bombs keep going off, but the terrorists are never seen, or identified. Their invisible presence means that anyone drawing attention to themselves in this horrific world is automatically suspected of being a terrorist. And, in a sadly accurate prefiguration of today, suspicion is proof of guilt, especially when interrogation is torture. The torturer, all white coats, surgical precision, happy, secure, family man, Jack Link, is played by Michael Palin, whose smiling niceness does nothing to hide his total amorality.

One of Jack’s friends is Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce in a role he says was the highlight of his career). Sam is a minor bureaucrat, a very clever one, with total command of all his systems, whose boss, Mr Kurtzman (Ian Holm) utterly depends on him. Sam is in an anonymous backwater and loves it: his mother (Katherine Helmond), who is otherwise obsessed with cosmetic surgery to reduce her age by decades, is ambitious for him and wants to get him promotions. Sam just wants to be left alone. He lives alone, isn’t interested in mother’s attempts to fix him up with the awkward Shirley, daughter of her best friend, wants to maintain the emptiness of his existence.

But Sam dreams and daydreams, and in his dreams he’s a flying warrior, in silver armour, soaring the clouds and coming to the rescue of a lovely long-blonde-haired damsel in distress, floating in the air, dressed only in a long diaphonous white dress. She’s constantly under threat, from escalating dangers that symbolise Sam’s real-life experiences. She is being played by the short, spiky-haired Greist in a floaty wig, which gives us a clue towhat’s going to happen.

The Buttle mistake results in an unprecedented thing – a refund cheque. It’s finagled into Kurtzman’s department where Sam, kind-hearted, agrees to get rid of it by the unorthodox step of actually taking it to Buttle’s widow and getting her to sign a receipt. Whilst there, he sees Jill, his dream girl.

In a subtle foreshadowing of the film’s ending, Sam cracks up. From here until the end of the film, he is driven entirely by obsession over Jill. She’s a perfect stranger, from an entirely different social strata, an American in Britain, and she has a phobia about having her personal space invaded on top of her loathing of the bureaucracy that has crushed the Buttle’s and which Sam represents, but she’s literally the girl of his dreams. Even if the girl of his dreams is a helpless, Rapunzel-like damsel, existing only to be saved.

But not only is Sam driven by his obsession with finding Jill, and protecting her from the state that sees her as a terrorist (and he can’t be sure she isn’t), but his every act is that of the noble warrior. He’s already living in a fantasy, of getaways and shoot-outs and the hero winning the day without any thought of the chaos he causes that has to be mopped up immediately behind him. Sam will save the girl, the day, the world.

Watching this morning, I began to wonder exactly when the fantasy takes over. Sam is knocked out and arrested for being too close to another bomb. He’s released (?) back to his new role in Information Retrieval, where he blows the pneumatic tubes, Jill turns up at his apartment all lovey-dovey, he takes her to his mother’s whilst he erases her from the system for her protection, comes back to find her in a long, flowing, blonde wig. They shag each other senseless.

Then, in the morning, the same home invasion scene is re-enacted. Sam is taken prisoner, processed through the system. His only thought is Jill. It’s all a mistake, he’s not a terrorist. The disabled Deputy Minister who’s been his (sinister) sponsor, Mr Helpmann (Peter Vaughan), tells him Jill was killed resisting arrest. Sam laughs it off: no, that was him. Oddly, she seems to have died twice… Then it’s torture at the hands of Jack, furious at Sam’s selfishness in putting him through this.

Until Jack is shot through the head. Tuttle and the resistance rapelle into the chamber from above, free Sam. There’s a running gun battle as the break out of the Ministry, a bomb to destroy it, triggered by a glorious old-fashioned plunger. Sam and Tuttle go on the run through a shopping centre, but the floating papers attach themselves to Tuttle, swathe him entirely, and when Sam tears them off, there is no body.

The black-clad troopers chase him to the funeral for his mother’s friend. His mother is surrounded by young men, eager for her rejuvenated body: she now has Jill’s face. Sam is surrounded and fall through the coffin into the streets of his daydreams, surrounded by nightmares. He steps through a door in a wall, finds himself back on Jill’s truck. She’s driving it. She’s alive. They drive off into the sunset, set up home in the country.

Until Helpmann and Jack’s heads appear across the sky.He’s got away from us, they sadly agree. And Sam has, in the only realistic way he could: into catatonia. It’s the ending of The Prisoner again, only this time explicit. The mind – insanity in an insane situation – is the only escape.

As I said above, the film takes a turn into a less certain reality even earlier. Clearly, Sam’s mind snaps at the moment Jack Link is ‘shot’. But Sam’s balance is lost, irretrievably, as soon as he sees Jill, and I now have trouble accepting that anything from his first knocking out until the moment he’s pleading with Jack to spare him is real, on the same level of reality as before.

If I’m right, then Gilliam has been even more subtle than I’d previously realised. The return to Information Retrieval, his destruction of the system, the lovely horribleness of Tuttle’s comeuppance for the two official Heating Engineers (Bob Hoskins in a very effective cameo), and the whole thing with Jill suddenly wanting nothing more than to be all over him like a cheap suit, that too is not real. It’s just a daydream. As Sam tried to take his daydreams into his real life, with disastrous results, now he’s incorporating his real life into his daydreams. But his success has a trap door in it: sooner or later, we always wake up.

No matter how little we want to.

Waking up from Brazil is a difficult process. Though it creates its effects by being an alternate past in an alternate future, like The Prisoner it is incredibly prescient about our real future and present. There’s a lot I haven’t mentioned, like the homages to The Third Man, and even Fantasia, which come in the reality-daydream sequence, and Battleship Potemkin, after that. And apparently Gilliam was unhappy with Greist, who was something like eighth choice for the part, and cut or edited some of her scenes, but I enjoyed her performance.

I enjoyed it all. From the Ambleside streets long after midnight to South Reddish on a cloudy Sunday, and everywhere between and to be. And why is it called Brazil? For that, you have to wait until the film’s very last word…

Eagle Volume 17 (1966)


One last time – great strip one

This is where I get off.
Though Eagle ran on into 1969, and Volume 20, and I faithfully read it, week by week, in those late Sixties years, my continuing interest in it ends here. Volume 17, and the first issue of Volume 18. With the last of these issues, Eagle ceased to feature new ‘Dan Dare’ stories, the four week ‘Underwater Attack’ excluded, choosing to reprint the series’ glorious past, starting from 1954’s ‘Prisoners of Space’.
Given that, by that time, the only decent feature left in Eagle was ‘Blackbow the Cheyenne’, for Frank Humphris’s art, and certainly not the stories, and that the comic was destined to experienced a further cheapening, transmuting to a smaller size, coarser paper, I have no interest in going further.
The Eagle story ends dismally, but then we all knew that from the beginning. By the last dozen or so issues of this Volume, my re-read was a skim. It had been a skim for most of the year, but until issue 37, there was at least one other feature that deserved proper attention.
Though ‘Dan Dare’ is usually the star of any volume of the Eagle, my nomination for most entertaining feature belonged to ‘The Croesus Conspiracy’, the first of three serials to feature adventurer, freebooter and ‘Saint’-alike, Nick Hazard, whose debut story ran from issue 3 to 39, making it the most substantial text feature since ‘Horizon Unlimited’.
Hazard is very much in the mould of The Saint, though without the romantic aspects. He’s an internationally-sought thief, one of those multi-talented adventurers, quick-witted, lawless, yet still bound by a code that prevents him from cold-blooded murder, even of those deserving, and with a hatred of the rich, powerful and arrogant. In ‘The Croesus Conspiracy’, Hazard has been brought in, entirely unofficially, by Superintendent Glanville of Scotland Yard, to put a spanner in the works of a plot by twelve millionaires to take control of the world. Hazard starts with a list of only five ‘confirmed’, and a couple of other suspected members of the plot. His approach is to get close to each in turn, learn his weakness and exploit that to gain the evidence that, if Hazard can beat an unknown deadline, will enable these millionaires to be taken down.
The story’s told in arcs of three or four parts, seguing into each other in the ‘Horizon Unlimited’ manner. It’s not by the same writer, but it’s in the Eagle manner of a strongly written thriller, and Hazard’s comprehensive skills push at the bounds of plausibility but never topple them. He’s forever falling into cliffhangers and getting out of these by forward planning, inspired improvisation or believable strokes of fortune.
Yes, it’s a juvenile thriller, but it’s a tightly-written one, it holds the interest even of jaded sixty-plus blokes, and it is by far the strongest thing in Eagle this year. Dan Dare certainly doesn’t have his best year. ‘The Singing Scourge’ works to an end, still dogged by murky colouring, obscuring the art. Watson tries a variation on his style for ‘”Give Me The Moon!”’, more angular in his line work, but the story is a load of sub-James Bond tosh, with a terrorist organisation called FIST demanding to be given the Moon (why?), led by a blind Spacefleet Commissionaire. Beyond bringing back Lex O’Malley, it’s a dumb story, falling far below even Eric Eden’s negligible efforts in its rooted objection to making the slightest sense. Several negative marks for ‘killing off’ Digby without anyone caring, and bringing him back between panels as if nobody cared.
But this was before ‘The Menace for Jupiter’, the last story, starting in issue 27. For this, ‘Dan Dare’ was reduced to one page, the same fate as ‘Heros the Spartan’, whose slot it took. Watson’s art got more solid, the colourist improved, but the serial rejects any sense of connection with what has gone before, as surely as any of the 2000AD versions did. Digby’s a cypher, he keeps calling his Colonel ‘Dan’, and not until the penultimate episode does he sound like Digby, or even like a human being instead of a plot function.
There’s little to say about the final six months of Heros. The outlaw story ended with his redemption, of course, but the following week, he was once again fighting for his honour and reputation under the evil Caesar’s hatred. At one page a week, the story had no room to breathe, and no more energy. It’s a compendium of ‘Heros’ tropes and the vindication of the Spartan’s courage at the end falls flat. The series gets a non-ending.

One last time – great strip two

‘Blackbow the Cheyenne’ would go on, until the ultimate end. The thinking plant story that continued from the previous year was thankfully a nadir, and it was followed by a rather straight and non-fantastic story about a gang of thieves, but even that had to include the Hooded One, and it was too short overall, as the ‘Blackbow’ stories tended to be. After that, it was back to the silly stories again, with fantastic elements underpinning them. Poor Frank Humphris.
But that was Eagle now. Once, it had been the home of solid, thoughtful, exciting but utterly realistic story-strips. Only ‘Dan Dare’ was completely outlandish, and Frank Hampson was determined to make everything in the series believable. Now Eagle went in for short, sharp shock stuff, fantastic elements underpinning everything. ‘The Iron Man’ fought criminal masterminds with stupid names, who wore masks concealing only that there was nobody real behind them. ‘The Guinea Pig’ tested weird inventions with no scientific basis, and frequently solved the disasters they spawned in only two episodes.
And the kids wanted this sort of thing. Like ‘Blackbow’, these features went on to the end without producing anything that held the mind for more than the few seconds they took to read.
Nothing demonstrated this more than ‘UFO Agent’. ‘Can you Catch a Crook?’ lasted two more, desultory episodes at the start of the Volume before being replaced by this series, about which I can only reference a song from Neil Young and Crazy Horse’s 1994 album, Sleeps with Angels. Those familiar with the record will anticipate that I am thinking of the short, tight but completely apposite song, ‘Piece of Crap’.
Two former agents of the now closed Ministry of Unusual Activities, Major Grant and Boffin Bailey (sic), are summoned to become Agents of crime-busting Satellite Zeta, with their very own Flying Saucer and fantastic superweapons with which, each week, they defeat agents of ‘E.O.S.’ (‘Enemies of Society’). It’s complete garbage.
The strip started in black and white, initially with art by Paul Trevillion who, rather sadly, hung onto the did-you-spot-the-clue notion, whilst the clues got exponentially dumbed down. Before long it was being drawn by Jose Ortiz, with contributions from Luis Bermejo. The idea is moronic, its execution worse: all it does is demonstrate that it is impossible to tell even a quarter-decent story in two pages.
And ‘Cornelius Dimworthy’ continued to be Cornelius Dimworthy.
There was, of course, the traditional revamp. This took place exactly halfway through the year, in issue 27. ‘Dan Dare’ took over ‘Heros’s single page, ‘UFO Agent’ moved to the centrespread and was elevated to colour. What replaced ‘Heros’? That would be ‘Blunderbirds’.
The only decent thing you can say about ‘Blunderbirds’ was that it lasted no more than eighteen weeks, a clear sign that the kids rejected it. It was a cheaply obvious and obviously cheap parody of Gerry Anderson’s greatest and most popular creation, which was still soaring high, and I wonder if the readers made it plain that it just wasn’t wanted. We were talking serious ‘Cornelius Dimworthy’ territory here.
Oddly enough, ‘UFO Agent’ greatly improved in the centrespread, not that it was a full centrespread, merely full page three-quarter width, thanks to some eye-catching colouring that suddenly gave Ortiz’s art a fantastic range and a genuine visual appeal. The stories weren’t enhanced one bit, but the almost psychedelic intensity of the colour gave the retina something to take in.
Finally, the cover feature, ‘Arms Through the Ages’ caught up with the present day and was replaced by ‘Did it ever Happen?’, a primarily poster-sized feature on implausible situations, inviting the reader to guess whether these were true or a pack of porkies. A surprising number of them were, in fact, True.
The loss of Nick Hazard left Eagle with little but the token ‘Dan Dare’ page. A new Jennings serialisation, overlapping ‘The Croesus Conspiracy’ by two weeks, took over the prose slot, and what little enjoyment ‘UFO Agent’ provided died for good when Major Grant was evaporated along with a Zetan, merged with him and came back as Smokeman. At least Eagle was being honest by finally turning one of its strips into an actual superhero, instead of the half-hearted pretending that had gone on so far, but they were a very long way from knowing the remotest thing about doing a superhero effectively.
But I began with ‘Dan Dare’ and let’s end with him. The final menace was driven off in issue 53 by a rip-off from H.G.Wells’ The War of the Worlds. Keith Watson was given one page more, one panel rather, in Volume 18 issue 1, to depict Dan being congratulated by all his friends, or at least all the Hampson era ones, plus Wilf Banger, on his promotion to Controller of the Spacefleet. His first task? Write his memoirs. And so Longacre finally got out of paying anyone for Dan Dare stories or art, because all those Hampson strips were free.

One last time – great strip three

So my reviews end here, unlike Eagle itself. What have I left out? As I’ve already said, Blackbow, the Guinea Pig and the Iron Man made it to the end. Nick Hazard came back in volume 18, with back to back serials offering another 29 weeks entertainment. There was a fourth and final Jennings serial and a couple more serials of which I have no memory, even from the names.
Cornelius Dimworthy didn’t last through Volume 18, being replaced by Micky Merlin, about whom I have no memories whatsoever, whilst UFO Agent lasted into Volume 19, though it underwent multiple changes of title: ‘Smokeman UFO’, ‘Smokeman CID’, ‘Grant CID’ and finally just ‘CID’. I shudder.
Other strips had short runs: ‘Sky Buccaneers’, whatever that was, ‘Circus Wanderers’, which fifty years on I have still not managed to totally forget, and partial reprints of ‘Mark Question’ (as ‘Mark Mystery’) and ‘Hornblower’. There was even a run of Jack Kirby’s ‘Tales of Asgard’ short back-ups from Marvel’s Thor in Volume 19, strange as that is to recall. Not that they were advertised as reprints, no sir, this was a new Eagle feature so far as its audience was concerned.
But these things were beyond the end and beyond the pale. I have my Eagle collection, to my delight and continuing disbelief, and I’ve read the whole lot, and now I’ve written about it all.

A Connecticut Yankee in an old comic revisited


If there was ever a delightful case of casting your bread upon the waters…

It’s barely a week since I wrote about a chance nudging of a very old memory of reading a comic version of Mark Twain’s Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur’s Court. After an almost immediate response from my commenter David, alerting me to this having appeared in the short-lived Hurricane, I ordered a DVD ROM of practically the entire series.

By Saturday, I was actually reading this series!

There’ll be a longer article about Hurricane, and how I found it after 50 years, once I’ve finished reading the whole run, but thank you once again David, because I’ve already had a whale of a time, and I’m not yet a third of the way in!

The New Prisoner Comic 2


In which we see that Peter Milligan and especially Colin Lorimer do not have “have the chops to create the feel essential to making (Titan’s new The Prisoner comic) a success.”

All issue 2 is is 21st century ultra-cynical espionage without any new ideas or individuality, wrapped loosely in the clothes of the Village, and a piped blazer. Any resemblance to The Prisoner is a name.