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.
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.
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.