TV Century 21 – 2065

I was lucky to grow up with generous parents.
Like any boy of my generation, I loved comics, and like any parent of their generation, they worried about letting me read them. In this I had an ally, in Mr Phillipson, he who got me into the Eleven plus when I should never have, and who changed my life. He pointed out, quite rightly, that my reading comics did not stop me being a voracious reader of books, and my parents need have no fears that the comics were stunting my mental growth.
I don’t know how closely the two may have been connected, but my parents decided, in their infinite generosity, to allow me six comics a week. Irrespective of their official publication dates, these were doled out to me one a day, Monday to Saturday, in a fixed rotation.
As time passed, and I got older, the titles changed. Things like Robin and Harold Hare Weekly, Beano and Dandy, gave way to older comics, like Victor and Hornet, Eagle and Lion. I was not allowed to chop and change frequently, and I could only swap, not add: for every new title I wanted, I had to sacrifice an old one, and sometimes the choice was far from easy.
Nor did I have a free hand. My parents held a right of veto over what I could select, and anything they decided was too young for me, or too anarchic in its sense of humour, would be refused. I never got to read Wham! or Buster. New titles were very difficult to get added to my list: offhand, I think the only one I did get to read from number 1, or very very soon after, was Hurricane, though I’ve no idea why.
Which meant that I did not get to read my second favourite comic of the decade until, I dunno, anything from 10 to 20 issues after it started, even though it was the only comic that offered production values akin to those of Eagle: clean white paper, photogravure reproduction, full colour and, what’s more, high-quality photographic covers. Even though it was made for me and a generation of boys hooked on Gerry & Sylvia Anderson’s Supermarionation SF series, Supercar, Fireball XL5 and Stingray.

TV Century 21 was ready-made for me and all the other boys and girls who loved Gerry Anderson’s puppet series, who sat glued to the set through every episode, who almost religiously came in from playing out to watch every second, who can even today recite every word of every introduction. It was even laid out as a newspaper from the future, dated a hundred years ahead, with full colour photos taken from the Anderson series’ every week. Why I didn’t get it from the first week, I don’t know. But I got it, and stayed with it until the days when I grew out of comics for good.
And now I have it on DVD, starting from the beginning.
TV21 debuted on 23 January 1965 but presented as a newspaper, Universe edition, with a publication date of 23 January 2065, and that would be the pretence throughout. The contents however were divided between stories set in the notional publication year, which were all presented in colour, and stories in black and white, set ‘historically’ in 1965.
Officially, the comic was TV Century 21 until issue 155, when it became simply TV21 but we all called it by that name from the start.
With one exception, all the series were directly based on television programmes, with four out of seven featuring Gerry and Sylvia Anderson characters. Fireball XL5, Stingray and Lady Penelope all appeared as two page full colour strips, with reproduction qualities equal to those of Eagle, with Stingray leavened with stills taken from the TV series in place of certain panels. Supercar, in contrast, appeared in black and white, set in 1965, and was played primarily as a comedy.
The back page was given over to a full-colour series about The Daleks, taking up their history from the war on Skaro with the Thals that devastated the planet and led to the construction of the Dalek machines, which in the beginning were merely casings and vehicles protecting a disgusting looking and small organic creature within.
The other two series are long-forgotten now, being a one-page comedy adaptation of the American sitcom My Favourite Martian and a two-page adaptation of the police procedural, Burke’s Law.

My Favourite Martian was one of my favourites of that early Sixties wave of American sitcoms that used to fill the schedules around tea-time. It starred a young Bill Bixby as Tim O’Hara, a reporter, and Ray Walston as Martin the Martian, who’d crash-landed on Earth and, to conceal his secret whilst he was trying to repair his ship, posed as Tim’s Uncle. Martin had various Martian powers, most often invisibility, and two antenna that grew out of his head.
Burke’s Law was a different thing. I don’t remember actually watching it, probably because it held down the 8.00 – 9.00pm slot, when 8.00pm was my bed-time. I do remember a part of its theme tune, the female, breathy cooing of the title. It was a vehicle for Gene Barry, as Amos Burke, a millionaire Police Captain in LA’s Homicide Division, who was driven around in a Roll’s Royce Silver Cloud, and who solved crimes and dropped pithy lines whilst his underlings ran round doing the work.
Both were reproduced as simplified stories in cartoon b&w doing a good caricature of the actors involved, and Supercar, despite being of the Anderson stable, should be grouped with them, but they were also-rans to the colour series, which were detailed and accurate representations of the puppets and the equipment. Mike Noble drew Fireball XL5, Ron Embleton Stingray, and Hampson Studio veteran Eric Eden Lady Penelope. The Daleks were drawn by former Storm Nelson and Eagle star, Richard E Jennings.
The comic was the creation of Alan Fennell, script editor for the Anderson studio, principal writer for TV21, and writer of a couple of paperback novels featuring Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet’s Angels, down the line.

The Eagle comparisons extended to more than paper quality and full colour art as the comic also featured factual articles on space, the oceans and countries around the world. There was also a micro-celebrity feature where Lady Penelope answered questions about TV stars. The space articles, by Roger Dunn of the British Interplanetary Society, were especially fascinating, coming as they did halfway between the first Apollo launches and the actual Moon landing, making them historical documents of the (simplified) development of space travel.
There was also a curious Eagle-like wildlife series, The World We Share, each week featuring a different creature, be it animal, bird, fish or snake. At least 80% of these fellow creatures turned out to be vicious, lethal predators of a kind you wouldn’t even want to share a pen-pal correspondence with!
Though it looked like caricatural cartooning from the start, it took me quite some time to see an increasing continental influence on Supercar, primarily in the poses and actions. The strip may not have originated in Pilote or Spirou (unless rights to Supercar had been sold before TV21 was a gleam in Alan Fennell’s eye), but I strongly suspect a French or Belgian cartoonist.

It wasn’t until issue 15, 1 May, that I recognised a couple of things: a line in Burke’s Law, the closing panel in The Daleks, which I already remembered and had been expecting. I don’t think that was necessarily my first issue, however.
Amos Burke received a new artist the next issue, one with a far more representational style which, given its similarity to one of the existing crew, I’m confidently ascribing to Gerry Embleton, Ron’s brother. The feature was also upgraded to a semi-serial, with each story now taking two weeks to conclude. Gerry Embleton, if indeed it were him, was excellent in realistically portraying Burke and his two side men, though as the weeks went by, he did seem to rely on a very limited stock of headshots for the trio.
The underlying idea was still the Supermarionation Universe, and the several series, Supercar aside, were treated as occurring simultaneously. This was primarily a background theme, more often on the newspaper cover than in the strips, where occasional mention was made of the other services, but there was an interesting crossover in issue 19 (29 May). The Fireball XL5 serial running featured an attempt to avoid space war with the adjoining Astran Empire (the Astrans looking like human-sized coloured jellybeans). Disaster was threatened in Fireball XL5 when the Astran Kaplan (or Emperor) was assassinated in Earth’s capitol, Unity City.
Fortunately, Lady Penelope and Parker were taking a week off between stories, and their strip saw Thunderbirds’ future London Agent track down and capture the assassin, leaving him tied to a lamppost for Steve Zodiac and Commander Zero to pick up! I don’t believe such a crossover had ever taken place in British comics before.
The story continued in Fireball XL5 the following week, with Steve and the Commander rammed off the road and the assassin being killed, but the thought was there.
Fittingly enough, the comic’s first new feature arrived in issue 21 (12 June), in the form of a one page b&w strip, 21. This was set in 2046 and featured toy salesman Brent Cleever of Century 21 Toys, a front for the Universal Secret Service. Cleever is Special Agent 21, already familiar to the readers as the seeming editor of the comic, Twenty One, bringing news, letters and quizzes to the audience and now being personified (artist John Cooper’s ‘likeness’ was, of course, no likeness at all, Twenty One being a highly secret figure.)

Meanwhile, the Astra assassination story took another crossover twist, with Stingray joining in for another one-off continuation, shooting down the villains as they attempted to flee underwater.
The Dalek strip on the back page was the justification for issue 28 (31 July) to break with the Anderson theme and feature the cinema Dr Who film on the photo cover. This was Dr Who and the Daleks, Peter Cushing’s non-canonical outing as the Doctor, with an annoyingly spoilery feature on the film, giving away the entire story, inside. The following week there was a poignant moment, as Roger Dunn’s space feature, working its way through the Solar System, reached Neptune. The page included a sidebar on real-life astronauts which, that week, highlighted a 34 year old back-up pilot for ‘a forthcoming Gemini mission’. The man was Neil Armstrong, who would become the first man to walk upon the Moon.
Agent Twenty-One established another link between the Anderson worlds when it was revealed that Brent Cleever’s boss, S, was former General Zodiac, namely the father of Fireball XL5’s Steve Zodiac: a decidedly Marvel Universe moment.
The same strip was given an upgrade in issue 37 (2 October) with a change of art-style to a superb, soft pencil shading technique, introducing a host of grey shades into what had been a plain pen-and-ink approach. This delicate style was toned down after only a week, though the series showed an admirable modernity by sending Twenty-One’s assistant in by parachute to save him, his assistant being Agent Twenty-Three, Tina, a woman!
And there was a switch of artists on Fireball XL5 in issue 40 (23 October) with Mike Noble’s clean and simple lines being replaced by an artist who was trying to render the crew’s faces more like-like than puppet-like, with varying degrees of success: almost perfect on Mat Matic, patchy with Steve Zodiac and bottling out of trying to depict Venus at all. This was only for a four part story, however, with Noble back for the new story starting in issue 44 (21 November).
This turned into another of those tales I remembered, as a new engine fitted to Fireball for testing saw it travel so fast, it went back in time. To the soon-to-come 1966…

Issue 44 also saw a foretaste of what was to come, as the Lady Penelope Investigates mini-feature was expanded to a page and filled with colour photos as the Lady investigated Thunderbirds over two weeks. The Anderson studio’s most popular and successful series had debuted on 30 September (the week of issue 36) in three ITV regions, and we of Granada had had it the next month. Lady Penelope’s series had been a foreshadowing, and it was plainly only a matter of time before the International Rescue organisation would make its debut in TV Century 21.
The Thunderbirds connection took another turn in the new Lady Penelope adventure, with the arrival of a mysterious torch at Creighton-Ward Manor drawing the attention of both British Intelligence and an exotic freelance spy, a bald man with bushy eyebrows going by the name of The Hood…
The same issue also confirmed that the Supercar strip, which had suddenly developed serial-like aspects, had undergone a permanent cutback to 1½ pages.
And in issue 46, the countdown began, the first of five full page colour photos of the Thunderbird craft and their pilots. 5, 4, 3, 2, 1… And or those with sharp eyes, a two-page boardgame space race was decorated by drawings of Thunderbird 1 and Thunderbird 5 from two angles, the artwork being identifiable as being by Frank Bellamy.
But the Thunderbirds countdown had only reached 2 when TV Century 21 reached issue 49, 25 December, bringing to an end the comic’s first year. It’s funny to think that, re-reading these issues in December 2018, I am slightly nearer the 2065 of the comic’s fictional era than the 1965 of its production.
What’s my impression of this first year, so much later? I’m sorry to say that I found most of it impressive but bland. There’s a high standard of full colour art, reproduced on paper fit to show it at is best, and the artists in use represent some of the best talents of their time. The imagery is clean and bright, the colours primary, and each of the Anderson series is a wonderful thing that I still love to this day.
But there’s something essential to good comics series that’s mainly missing from all the colour Anderson strips, and that’s living, breathing people. Let us not forget that these were all puppet series, in which the least realistic elements were the puppet people. They were all SF series in which the focus was on the machinery: it was Fireball XL5, not Steve Zodiac, Stingray, not Troy Tempest. The focus had to be on the equipment, because the only way to make the puppets remotely natural was to sit them down at pilot’s consoles.
And this carries over into the various comics series. The artists are forced to draw people who are based on puppets, artificial, caricatural humans beings, and are only being held to be successful by literal ten year old boys such as myself to the extent that the characters most closely resemble their originals.
Though it’s a comedy series, Supercar works the best because the characters are characters, no matter how much they are played for laughs, and Supercar itself is much the smallest part of the strip. And both Burke’s Law and My Favourite Martian are more substantial because they derive from real people and take on more substance by association.
Nor are the Anderson series done any favours by the brevity of their stories, allowing insufficient time and space for complexity to develop, because complexity can either enable more realistic character portrayals, or at least cover up their absence a bit better.
But this is merely the first year. Will we see an improvement when we move on into 2066?


Heroes in Crisis 4

Still not convinced

Fourth issue. There’s a lot of typographical swearing in this one, including the title, the way you get it in mainstream comics. Can’t have everyone seeing the Black Canary saying ‘Fuck it,’ can we?

Once again, it’s too damned little and too damned slowly. Wonder Girl/Donna Troy/Troia/whoever the hell she is, hauls a pissed Tempest out of a bar, then has the first of three full pages of superheroine confessions. Donna muses about whether Paradise Island actually exists (just ask Diana, you clown). Batgirl says nothing, just pulls down her tights far enough to see the entry and exit wounds, sufficiently re-positioned from Killing Joke so that it didn’t actually sever her spine. Black Canary lastts three panels of a Watchmen nine-panel grid before saying whatever she says and walking, leaving six panels of an empty chair.

Batman and The Flash, the two best detectives, complete their investigation and proclaim the killer: Booster (Flash), Harley (Batman). The Flash swears (yes, even though he’s Barry Allen). Maybe he says ‘Shit.’

Lois Lanre slinks round the bedroom in Superman t-shirt, tiny red knickers and very bare and very long legs, giving at least one page a reason for existing, exchanging cryptic remarks about what she’s to do with these ‘Puddlers’ revelations.

Green Arrow threatens to pop an arrow into both heads and let the afterlife’s greatest detective work it out: a decent line, at last.

Batgirl catches up to Harley and has to prevent her now cowl-less head being smashed in until, one cat-fight later, she persuades Harley to jointly investigate the crime with her, to prove to Batman that they’re nt both broken, scared, scarred girls, leading to one very Poison Ivy-esque full body hug.

Booster reveals he’s passed the lasso of truh test, only that’s now no longer infallible, as apparently it can only tell that you think you’re telling the truth. He’s telling all this to Blue Beetle, the Ted Kord one (how long’s he been alive again? Do I care? You can answer that one yourself.)

And Superman pulls off a very blatant Ozymandias rip-off from Watchmen 11, letting Batman and Wonder Woman know about these videos Lois has been getting and that she’s going to print on them. Batty snarls, Wondy asks when, and Supes replies “35 seconds ago”.

This nonsense is now hard on Doomsday Clock‘s heels for most fucking awful piece of garbage going: I’d almost rather re-read ‘Gadgetman and Gimmick-Kid’. I’d better make a profit selling this on eBay when no 9 finally appears.

Dan Dare on Mars

I never expected to get to read this book, given that it is rare, in demand among Eagle fans and usually bloody expensive. But a copy in decent nick came up on eBay in the ruin-up to Xmas, with a cheap starting price and very little interest. Including the P&P, it cost me less than a tenner.

The book also doesn’t have a high reputation as either a Dan Dare adventure or an SF novel in general. Having read some of the criticisms, they are valid, but I did enjoy it and I have a better impression of it than the run of Eagle fans.

Basil Dawson was the real name of Don Riley, who received a one-week billing when he took over the writing of Dan Dare during ‘Operation Saturn’, when Frank Hampson’s second lengthy illness took him away from his artboard. Hampson had originally envisaged at anti-eugenics story, but all elements of that disappeared and the serial proceeded along more conventional lines.

Dan Dare on Mars was Dawson’s only novel. It’s set in 2002, after ‘Operation Saturn’ and before ‘Prisoners of Space’. That it didn’t come out until 19656, by which time Dan was on Cryptos, deeply involved with the Phant invasion, suggests to me that the book was held back for some time after its completion before being issued.

The book’s been described as basically a detective story (Dan paraphrases Sherlock Holmes’ most over-quoted line at one point) with a few, unimportant technical details added to make it appear SF. Whilst elements of that are true, I think it shortchanges the book to describe it thus.

The story starts with an utter disaster on Mars: all airtight domes are cracked open and the entire human population disappears, presumed dead. But there is a more serious problem over and above the colossal loss of life: apart from a few, decreasing sites on Earth, monopolised by the World Helenium Corporation, Earth’s major source of helenium are the mines on Mars. As Dan succinctly puts it, without helenium, there are no impulse waves, and without these, no fleets of ships bringing food from Venus daily.

Dan leads a task force to restore the mines and investigate the disaster. The civilian helenium experts are led by Torval, the senior engineer at the World Helenium Corporation. Right from the start, Torval rubs Dan the wrong way up, but only he suspects the man of active obstructions, despite a number of improbable events, including a messenger from Dan’s archaeologist Uncle, Ivor, still digging on Mars, being killed in the Chief Pilot’s office, nobody takes his concerns seriously.

Sir Hubert Guest is a background figure, and Professor Peabody (referred to only as Peabody throughout the narration) has a substantial supporting role as the liaison between the Spacefleet and civilian sides, but otherwise this is a two-hander for the Old Firm, Dan and Digby: there’s not even a passing reference to Hank or Pierre. And naturally, Dan turns out to be completely right about Torval’s motives: the man is out to render Mars helenium inaccessible permanently, in order to create an expensive monopoly and consequent overwhelming political power for his company.

The solution involves a decently clever insertion into Dan Dare’s continuity, albeit one that remains forever non-canon. There is a surviving race of Martians, the Pleons, who have been underground for the last 200,000 years. The Pleons were the smart Martians, the ones who saw the Red Moon coming and nipped underground to get out of the way.

Torval and co have been trying to whip the Pleons up into a war-like frenzy against the rapacious, militarised earthmen, coming to steal their planet and enslave them, and it takes all Dan’s efforts, aided by Uncle Ivor and the emollient Peabody to avert all-out planetary war, and reset things back to zero.

Not massively brilliant by any means, but better than a lot of the weaker Eagle serials (unlike Eric Eden, Dawson at least knew how to handle an ending). I liked Dawson’s handling of the military and planning aspect of Dan’s task force, and I thought his handling of the relationship between Dan and Dig to be on the mark. He’s obviously no great literary stylist, but I found him proficient.

And of course this is a novel aimed at Eagle‘s junior readership, written in the 1950s and shot through with the attitudes of the time, not to mention references to people like Gilbert Harding. The worst you can say of it is that, given its context, it’s no better than you’d expect, but even from my vastly different perspective, I found it pleasant and not insulting light reading, and I welcome it from more than the completist’s stance.

The Lion in it’s glory – an overview

I was harsh about the Lion of the Fifties, and I’ve been even harsher about the Lion of the Seventies, but have I been fair about the history of Lion overall? Given that it is all more or less a matter of opinion, the answer depends, I suppose, upon how far you agree with my conclusions.
In writing an overview, there are two very relevant factors to bear in mind. The first is that Lion ran from February 1952 to May 1974, twenty-two years and three months and however many generations of British boys that you choose to count poring over its pages. Collectively, they read the whole of Lion over twenty-two years: I did it in a matter of months. If I found the comic stale in its final years, how much of that staleness came from me?
And let’s not forget that I am an unabashed Eagle fan, which makes me guilty of expecting standards and intentions that Lion was never meant to embody.
Lion was, from first to last, a much less ambitious title. It was the classic cheap’ncheerful British boys comic, printed in black and white on cheap newsprint, it’s sole intent (apart from turning a profit) to entertain its target audience, of seven to twelve year old boys, once a week.
Eagle‘s aim was always that little bit higher, above their audience’s presumed heads: not by so much as to bore or confuse them in pursuit of their parents’ approval, but to stretch them, to inspire them, to make them aspire to something better, and to educate them in the best possible manner. In contrast, Lion was pitched straight at their adrenal glands: make them thrill, make them gasp, make them laugh and, above all, make them come back next week.
If too many of them don’t, the comic eventually doesn’t either.
That Lion lasted so long, and swallowed up so many failing rivals along the way, is testament to how well it did that.
The Fifties Lion was nevertheless dull, in thrall to the old way of making comics, pinched and pawky, stiff and awkward, long, rambling stories with no greater purpose than setting up the next cliffhanger.
The Seventies Lion was even worse. It had outlived its period of genuine glory and lost its way between features that had long since flensed all creativity or inspiration and inadequate ideas with no originality or scope. It’s only thought was to provide exactly the same elements, every single week.
But for nearly ten years in between, from that first extensive 1958 revamp that brought Lion in style and approach into the modern era, to somewhere around 1968 or1969, Lion was something else. I’m tempted to point the finger at the week in 1969 when Lion absorbed the poison pill of Eagle, a comic that had been resented by its own management for nearly a decade itself, but that’s too obviously prejudice.
The Sixties Lion was brilliant. It was loud, it was confident and it had the chops to back it up. Tight, well-written stories in a variety of genres. Well-drawn, in a variety of styles, especially by Don Lawrence and Reg Bunn. Not afraid to cherry-pick European strips, both adventure and humour (though I don’t hold with the re-naming of Lucky Luke, not when it had a good Anglo name already: Modeste and Poupee was a gallic horse of a different colour). There was a magic about the comic in those years that entitled Lion to its proper place in the outflowing creativity and optimism of the legendary decade. There was definitely something in the air, then, or was it in the water?
Above all, I’ve been reading Lion in all its phases as a 60 plus year old man, not the excited pre-teen of the audience it was geared to. Nostalgia played its part, but it was a kettle upon a low light that rarely if ever boiled hot enough to brew a proper cuppa. I simply enjoyed the Sixties Lion as I would any great piece of work, as if I was coming to it for the first time. After fifty years, I might well have been.
So that’s that. Coming up at some point will be six years of Valiant, 1962 to 1968, where I will be reading for the first time. I only ever saw this comic intermittently as it was never one of mine, just something I occasionally saw at friends. I have high hopes of it though, especially in those years.
That’s for the future, mind. Valiant is too much like Lion for my immediate comfort and I don’t want to come to it stale on that kind of title. Let me take a trip down a different Nostalgia Avenue first, into the vastly different world of Supermarionation, Gerry Anderson and TV Century 21, which I did get for years.
But when Lion was good, it was very very good, and when it was bad it was, mostly, just dull. That to me is a deserving enough epitaph.

The Lion in the Seventies – Part 3

The last part of this series has to cover just over two final years of Lion. By now, it must be obvious that I’ve lost my enthusiasm for the comic, and I’ll be grateful for the chance to move on to one of the other comics DVDs I’ve collected this year. What Lion has become by March 1972 is a collection of formulas, lacking any real inspiration. The vividness of even the average series of the Sixties has been lost and the sole purpose of any of the stories is to provide the same thing week in, week out. Back in the Fifties, Lion‘s stories dragged on uselessly, forever racking up cliff-hangers whose only purpose was to grind another week out of a story that had lost all point but continuation. Now, the stories were shorter, but dragged out the same few ideas over and over, like Hollywood, terrified that the audience won’t accept something they haven’t seen over and over and over.
As we resume, the line-up consisted of:Carson’s Cubs (3pp); Dr Mesmer’s Revenge (2pp); The Last of the Harkers (2pp); Fury’s Family (2pp); The Spooks of St Luke’s (1p); The Spellbinder (3pp); Black Max (3pp); The Can-Do Kids (2pp); Watch Out for the White Eyes (2pp); The Steel Commando (4pp); Zip Nolan (2pp); Adam Eterno (3pp) and Mowser (1p).
Other than the still excellent art on Dr Mesmer, nothing of that line-up impresses me. These are stories for boys, and old-fashioned to boot. Nor are there any standards: having entered a form of Highland Games, Joe Harker suddenly reveals the unsuspected ability to elasticate and lengthen his limbs. Watch Out for the White Eyes reached its predictable end on 14 April, only for a new story to start two weeks later, under the title The White Eyes Strike Again. Did I say anything about dragging the same few ideas out over and over?
But first, the comic heralded The Return of the Spider, billed as a new story but as with Paddy Payne’s continual returns, a reprint of the original second story, with the character still a criminal mastermind. Only the villain’s name was changed, to the Mirror Man. At the same time, Carson’s Cubs underwent its first change in years, with the ‘rascally’ Braggart and Snooks sacked and Newton Town taken over by millionaire Colonel Fisk, bent on running the club on military lines, and installing ex-Sergeant Major Bligh to run training on military discipline. It wasn’t a propitious change, in fact it was all about getting the Cubs to lose and Joe Carson sacked, but any change was welcome. How permanent it would be I’d have to wait and see, but as the story progressed, a couple of the Cubs were injured and two new players were brought in. This was beginning to resemble a real shake-up, but the two new Cubs disappeared as fast as they’d appeared and with less fanfare, and the series just kept along the same old groove, the secret identity of the villain just as obvious as always. And who were on their way back in the last panel?
The Spooks of St Luke’s vanished without trace one week, only featuring at long intervals afterwards. The White-Eyes story turned into another repeating formula, from outbreak to temporary reversal. Zip Nolan finally went into official, full-time reprints as opposed to odd ones here and there. The Reg Bunn era was chosen, giving Lion several pages of top quality art, for a time, at least. It would be nice to think that his family received royalties for such use of his work, but we know better, don’t we, boys and girls?
It seems to have been a long-time in coming but eventually there was another reboot on 28 October 1972, with new stories and new series in the old manner. The White-Eyes were finally vanquished, Black Max apparently killed, Fury’s Family went home and Dr Mesmer’s Revenge finally back-fired on him.
In their place were four new features. The Shadow of the Snake introduced a strange, scaled-skinned villain preying on other criminals and Lab Assistant Mark Bowen coming to work for kindly, charitable scientist Professor Krait: can you spell blatant tip-off? ‘Stop this Man’ say the Camelot Clan was drawn by Fred Holmes, the Carson’s Cubs’ artist (and every bit as badly) and set in 1994, when the World Council has just approved a five year plan to turn Britain (the whole island) into a Gasworks: this heinous plot is to be opposed by raising King Arthur (again). Noah’s Ark featured wild animal collector Noah Sarker, with his floating house saving his wildlife collection from a brutal crew determined to wipe them out: why bother cancelling Fury’s Family? And Secrets of the Demon Dwarf was a Black Max spin-off, with the lead turned over to dwarfish inventor Doctor Gratz, emerging from suspended animation after 54 years and hell-bent on revenge against Britain.
What was worse was that Braggart and Snook were back in Carson’s Cubs, awarded South American military ranks and installed as manager and trainer with Joe Carson as Braggart’s assistant. If it weren’t for the fact that this was a completely retrograde step, it might have made for a fresh slant, but basically it was the same old shit again, and I do mean shit.
The Spider reprints stayed, now going over to Jerry Seigel’s first story, before his stuff got completely nonsensical. An issue later, The Spooks of St Luke’s made a surprise return after months off. And when Mowser suddenly started sharing title credit with James the Butler again, it looked like our chirpy cat was the next to succumb to reprint fever.
The new series were neither good nor popular, and by Xmas the editor was asking for reactions to them all. The Snake and Noah’s Ark were merely flat and dull, the Camelot Clan was nonsensical and ugly and Doctor Gratz was ploughing the same furrow Black Max had been left in for far too long.
And some feature’s lives were limited. The Camelot Clan came to an abrupt end on 17 March, Noah’s Ark came to land and Doctor Gratz was crushed to make way for three new stories, or rather two, and the return of Robot Archie, in what was billed as a new story. We’d heard all that before, but this time it was specifically denied this would be a reprint. And so it was, with some metafictioning as Archie complained about not appearing in Lion any more and what had the Steel Commando got that he hadn’t?
But only one of the two new stories made it alongside Archie. Stitch in Time, starring tough street kid ‘Stitch’ Cotton (oh, Lor’), one of two boys (the other a stretchy alien) who steal a time machine from its owner, a would-be evil master of the Universe. The art looked very familiar, though I can’t place where I might have seen it before, my guess being something like 2000AD, which, let us not forget, was only four years away from its first appearance.
What The Shadow of the Snake had that the other three terminated series hadn’t is impossible to determine, but it carried on. Archie’s new adventure revealed itself to be anything but new by week two, with the Robot and his pals winding up in a lost world under the surface of the Earth (another one?) dominated by a would-be Nazi world conqueror (another one?). The belated new arrival was The Flying Fortress, in which two English students, stranded in a rainstorm in Central Europe, take refuge in a Gothic castle only to find themselves imprisoned when it flies off. It did not get off to a flying start (apologies) with a change of artist in week two, and the introduction of a villain named Doctor Skurge (honestly…).
Stitch in Time quickly revealed itself to be directionless. Robot Archie ran the Steel Commando gags into the ground by repeating them every week, as if Ted Cowan was bitter about his creation having been squeezed out for so long. Even the Commando’s own strip suddenly went flat, reduced to three pages and losing all sense of pacing, especially as regarded endings.
The Last of the Harkers was drifting too. Like Carson’s Cubs, it had lost its original point, the reclamation of the Harker family trophies and spent most of its time now fending off Bert and Alf Swizzel’s inept schemes aimed at getting into Harker Hall for its treasure in silver.
The Flying Fortress proved to be a failure, ending on 30 June, after only three months. It’s replacement was Marty Wayne – He’s heading for Fame, giving more exposure to Fred Holmes’ art on a comedy series about a young impressionist and ventriloquist who wanted to be a TV star, but got swept up as an MI6 Agent. As an idea, it actually had potential, but such ugly and misproportioned art made it difficult too read at all.
And after far too many years, there was a sea-change in Mowser, with the tatty old puss suddenly getting the blame for the weekly disaster at Crummy Castle.
Another new series was to follow it on 28 July, a new football series. To make room for it, after many years, Carson’s Cubs fell by the wayside, with a total and unbelievable reversal of opinions by Messrs Braggart and Snooks, turning into fans of Joe Carson and the Cubs. It was a weak ending, albeit to a series that had run out of ideas long before. Its replacement was The Team Terry kept in a Box, in which Terry Turner, fan of the once-legendary, now bankrupt Anstey Albion, discovered a box of stereoscopic photos of old photos once owned by his grandfather, an ex-manager. But when viewed, the footballers came to life…
Incidentally, I haven’t had much good to say about Lion and Thunder this time round, so it’s only fair that the same week’s The Spellbinder was genuinely hilarious: Thomas and Sylvester have wound up in a form of Roman arena and Tom’s being faced by two lions when Sylvester magic’s him into understanding their growls as speech, and finds out they’re weary old pros who are fed up with their job…
DVD5 starts with the week of 11 August 1973, less than nine months from the end. Stitch in Time went to its meaningless end a week later, making way for The Treasure-Hunt Twins, who were given an unusual 2½ page length, not seen since the last Paddy Payne reprint from that era. The Twins were 13 year old orphans who ran away from their orphanage rather than lose their pet labrador, and who were given a broken-down old canal boat on which they found a treasure map. The feature was well-drawn, down-to-earth and, despite offering a trail of clues that could be spun out near-indefinitely, was decently readable.
There was a string of changes as The Shadow of the Snake’s time was up, on 15 September, to be ‘replaced’ by Masters of Menace, which saw the return of Ezra Creech, the villain of the second and third White-Eyes serials. But replaced goes in inverted commas, as Creech was there to team up with Professor Krait – the Snake – and the villains to be chased by their collective nemesii. A new Robot Archie story did not end the monotonous and by now extremely silly references the the Steel Commando in almost every instalment.
Decent as it was, the Treasure-Hunt Twins didn’t last, a mere seven episodes and then rewarded to be replaced on 13 October by Lost in Limbo Land, about a young, book-loving boy catapulted into the Norse myths of his current reading matter thanks to a Barry Allen-style bolt of lightning. Drawn in a confusingly dark-style by the same artist, the story rapidly proved to be directionless. So was Marty Wayne, on which the art was getting more and more inept by the week, whilst Masters of Menace showed the teamed-up villains to be twice as bad together than each had been separately.
On 8 December, the comic underwent its final price increase, a half-pence to 4p. It sounds very reasonable now, but with sales declining, it was a further step towards eventual ruin. Lost in Limbo Land came to an end the same week, having lasted only nine weeks. But the artist was retained for Sark the Sleepless, a serial about two young boys disturbed to learn that their ‘world’ was actually a generation starship that had overflown its destination by a 1,000 years.
Lion‘s last Xmas was marked by the foreshadowed reprint of The 10,000 Disasters of Dort, no more interesting than first time round, and displacing the Spider reprints. This was the last change of strip.
Going into 1974, the title was hit by the industrial troubles of the last days of Edward Heath’s Government, the Three Day Week making the title irregular of publication through January to March.
And finally, the end came on 18 May, 1974. Lion, that had swallowed up so many other titles, that still shared the masthead with its last ‘victim’, Thunder, was itself to be taken over and becoming the bottom half of Valiant. The survivors were Mowser, Zip Nolan, Adam Eterno and The Steel Commando, though only as half a series, merging with Captain Hurricane. I have a future appointment with the good Captain, and Valiant in its heyday, on another DVD. The Spellbinder settled for peace and quiet, Marty Wayne appeared on This is Your Story, Creech and Krait died again (or did they?), Robot Archie exposed The Smasher as who we’d suspected all along without one reference to the Steel Commando, Sark saved the ship, Terry’s Team in a Box stopped in the middle of nowhere and the last of the Last of the Harkers saw Joe claim his hereditary peerage.
The last page was Mowser.
Twenty-two years and three months and over 1,100 issues wasn’t a bad run, until the final years. Given the poor quality of both story and art since the absorption of Eagle, Lion‘s cancellation came as no surprise, but it was a shame to see its standards fall the way it did.
Look out for a change of style, when I start reliving another comic of my childhood.

Doomsday Clock 8

Eating one’s words is never palatable, but I prefer being honest, so let me admit immediately that the eighth issue of Doomsday Crap was alright. It was even decent, and if the entire series had been pitched around the contents of this episode, I might even have been prepared to stretch to good. The reason for this is solely down to this being solely a matter of the DC Universe, with the Watchmen characters represented only by Ozymandias, watching what is going on on the first and last pages.

This goes to support what I’ve been saying all along, that Johns has fucked this series up right royally by all this shitting-on-Watchmen business.

The actual issue is more-or-less a three-hander, involving Superman, Firestorm and Batman, with a smaller role for Lois Lane, some Russian superheroes that we older fans will recognise, a couple of Daily Planet scenes and a substantial guest role for Vladimir Putin. We’re now dealing directly with the Superman Theory that’s been underlining things since the beginning, the fact that 97% of the planet’s metahumans are American and the allegation – which Putin is treating as truth – that they are part of a US Government programme aimed at world domination.

We start with Firestorm in Russia, panicking under attack from The People’s Heroes. Firestorm is back to being a teenage Ronnie Raymond and Professor Martin Stein, as in the beginning, except that the Professor is not contributing any advice. Indeed, he’s so silent, we’re being led to question whether he’s there at all, and Ronnie’s experiences of getting a response are delusions.

How long Firestorm’s been Ronnie Raymond again I don’t know, I haven’t been keeping up since he was killed in Identity Crisis, but here he is in Moscow, surrounded by crowds, panicking and, whammo! dozens if not hundreds of them turned into glass.

This is a serious matter, both in itself and because up to this point Firestorm’s powers don’t work on organic matter. Is this a substantial plot point or is Johns just making it up as he goes along, as he been doing with the Watchmen bunch?

Superman appoints himself as the investigator, as the only metahuman still trusted outside the United States. The big blue boy scout takes himself to the Kingdom of Kahndaq, which I am pleased to see is still being ruled by Black Adam, an which is still maintaining its strictly neutral status metahumanwise, established in 52. Superman and Adam treat each other with strict respect, and almost friendship. Firestorm’s not taken refuge in Kahndaq, but he’ll be sheltered if he does.

Lois intervenes with the fatal suggestion that Ronnie might be in the one place no-one would think of looking for him, that is, still in Russia. And Superman finds him there, near hysterical over what’s happened and Professor Stein’s silence. And, lumme, he manages to convert back to life a small glass boy he’s taken with him.

The situation is reversible. Superman tells Firestorm to hang fire whilst he zooms to Moscow to defuse the situation. Unfortunately, the trust in Superman doesn’t extend far enough for Putin, or anyone in the crowd with a glass relative, to believe him. This against a background of Batman flying the Batplane and warning him, incessantly, not to talk to the Russians, not to take sides.

Sadly, Batman is very wise. Events overtake the sometimes too trusting Superman. He’s being bombarded with catcalls and questions, the Russian Firestorm is trigger happy (as you would be if Putin’s threatening to bung you back in state prison). Putin’s denouncing Firestorm as an American soldier, ordered to commit mass murder, he has evidence of this. And matters only get worse when Firestorm turns up himself, intent on saving everyone.

All that does is start a fight. With metahumans attacking Superman and Firestorm, with troops attacking, with the crowd rioting. And with stray bullets and manouevring tanks smashing into glass figures, and putting them beyond any reach of Firestorm putting them back together the way they were.

And Superman tries to intervene with the outcome that, to the entire world, he looks as if he’s siding with Firestorm, against Russia. That’s before Firestorm explodes, causing him and Supes to utterly vanish. And the twist is, as Bats realises far too late for it to be any damned good, it’s not even Firestorm…

Now I think we can safely mke a guess that the fake Firestorm is really everypone’s favourite naked blue guy and the whole impersonation has actually been about getting close to Superman in a moment of maaximum vulnerability, but that begs the question of why Dr Manhattan has to go all round the houses to do that when his true power level would enable him to pick Superman off whenever he felt like it. Except that Johns won’t ever let Manhttan be used at his true power level for that very reason…

All of which a satisfied Adrian Veidt observes, his plan working perfectly, whatever it is. Whatever is the sneaky, manipulative, from a non-optimistic Universe bastard planning now?

The other story-advancing twist this bi-month, if we can call a series crawling slower than a funeral cortege being advanced, is Lois received a flash drive with newsreel footage from 1941, as the Justice society of America go to war: who the hell are the Justice Society of America? she demands.

If you need an answer to that question, may I refer you to large chunks of this blog over the last seven years, but in the short term, it’s a single panel of seven of the eight founding members, the only absentee being The (Al Pratt) Atom.

I’d like to say we’re getting there, but seriously, we’re not. At least by the time things resume in February, Johns will surely be back to trashing things he doesn’t understand, but I’ll accept this issue as an unexpected Christmas present from him, even if I didn’t wait until the 25th to unwrap it.

The Lion in the Seventies – Part 2

We resume Lion‘s story with the issue of 31 October 1970. The comic is trundling along with a set of stories evenly divided between old stalwarts that have, individually and collectively, run out of steam, and relatively recent arrivals that offer little to justify their appearing in a comic that was now running in its third decade. Lion‘s sales are in decline, it has just shed its spectacularly badly re-drawn reprints of Dan Dare, and has one new series beginning, the peg on which this latest instalment hangs. On the positive side, it is still only 7d per week, though 3 New Pence now shares cover space in anticipation of the forthcoming decimalisation, and there are 40 pages weekly.
The current line-up consisted of: Carson’s Cubs (3pp), General Johnny (2pp), Spot the Clue with Zip Nolan (2pp), Oddball Oates (2pp), Paddy Payne (2½pp), Sweeper Sam the Mild Matman (2pp), The Boy from Jupiter (2½pp), Flame o’the Forest (3pp), The Spellbinder (3pp), Robot Archie (3pp), Britain AD2170 (3pp) and Mowser (1p). Paddy Payne was a reprint, as was the ‘new’ series, which had appeared in the Sixties as the tedious and unfunny Jimmi from Jupiter, who wasn’t even renamed here, unlike the Karl the Viking reprints. Zip Nolan was either a reprint or indistinguishable from one.
The only top quality art was the ongoing excellence of Reg Bunn on The Spellbinder, the only other art of distinction being the light, cartoony style on Oddball Oates. Flame o’the Forest had good clear art, albeit too slick and uninvolving, and the rest ranged from cheap to ugly. This included Carson’s Cubs, which had never been impressive to look at and, after all this time without improvement, was positively painful to the eye.
Mowser was all that remained of Lion‘s history of purely comic one-pagers, and this had long been another strip that had the same formula week after week, hitting the same beats in the same panels over and again. The line-up this week is that of a comic that was played out.
But Flame o’the Forest and Oddball Oates, who was after all, let us remember, a multi-sport drugs cheat, had only one more episode apiece, which meant two new chances to recapture that old energy and inspiration.
But let’s not get too hasty. The first of these was another reprint, Maroc the Mighty, with prime Don Lawrence art, under the title The Steel Band but the other was at least new. The King of Keg Island was about orphan Peter Cable, who inherited an island as he was running away from the cruel and vicious orphanage owner Simon Lashley, who plotted to steal Peter’s valuable inheritance from him. With this set-up, would this be just another compilation of cliches? Probably.
Unfortunately, there was a massive wait to see how that might develop, as a ‘production issue’ killed off publication of Lion and its companion papers until 6 February 1971. This isn’t referenced in Wikipedia, but I remember the first of the power cuts striking in December 1970, so I’m going to venture a guess that it was industrial action by the minors causing electricity shortages and badly affecting the printing industry. Whatever the cause, Lion had lost eleven weeks, not that the difference was apparent just going from issue to issue on DVD3.
Though it appeared I may have been overly pessimistic about The King of Keg Island, with Peter and his three mates holding on to their independence on the titular island, and seeming to dispose of Lashley’s menace incredibly quickly. Artistically, I kept detecting resemblances in line-work and faces to the artist who had drawn Oddball Oates, now adopting a more realistic style.

But changes were once again necessary. Another of Fleetway’s new weekly comics had failed rapidly, so with effect from 20 March there was another merger, this time into Lion and Thunder. Sweeper Sam was carted off from 6 March, making room for a six page Spellbinder episode to tie up the current storyline. General Johnny got sent back to school permanently, Paddy Payne was given an extended run out to end his reprint story and Britain 2170AD was left to re-establish civilisation in peace and quiet. Lashley’s overly rapid discomfiture signalled a rapid curtailment to the Keg Island story, with a handy deus ex machina, food-wise, and the Jimmi Jupiter reprints were returned to deserved obscurity.
But the biggest shock of all was that, from 6 March, Robot Archie was no more. He, and the pals, Ken and Ted, would adventure no more, after a run of fourteen years.
The new paper was left with Carson’s Cubs, Zip Nolan, The Spellbinder (though without Reg Bunn, who passed away in 1971, aged 66, after a long and honourable association with the comic) and Mowser. From Thunder came Black Max, about a German First World War Richthofenesque Air Ace and his overly large Bats, Fury’s Family, about a lad who had liberated his animal friends from a hateful circus, Phil the Fluter, about a lad with a magic flute that stopped time when it was played, a two page strip that broke with all Lion tradition by being in full and rather rich colour, The Jet-Skaters, a bunch of kids with jet-powered skates, The Steel Commando, a Second World War story about a metal version of Captain Hurricane and The Jigsaw Journey, in which traveller Dr Wolfgang Stranger took on a quest to find a lost city whose whereabouts could be located if you assembled a map cut into nine pieces.
Also added to the title was Adam Eterno, about a gaunt 421 year old, time-travelling man who could only be killed by gold, which was written in a curiously lugubrious and stilted fashion.
It was a bit of a jolt, which was what Lion needed. But, as other mergers had amply demonstrated, which if any of Thunder‘s features would last more than a couple of months?

The tradition of adding a comedy one pager after a merger or revamp certainly continued, with the debut of The Spooks of St Luke’s, and also of Sam, making a delayed arrival from Thunder with pure Beano style art. Sam would only ever be an irregular features at first, but after several weeks on and off, The Spooks became a weekly affair.
The issue of 24 April 1971 sees me move on to DVD4. The comic has gone decimal, and costs 3p weekly. By now, it’s possible to see where the Thunder imports are heading. Phil the Fluter’s colour was very erratic to begin with, badly off-register most of the time, but it’s there to highlight the time-stopped panels, when everything is black and white except Phil himself. However, the Jet-Skaters is risible, with the four kids spending most of their time bent over with their arses thrust out in a manner that I cannot see any other way than as obscene.
Fury’s Family is also dull, with Fury a jungle boy with no understanding of the modern world and too prone to fly off the handle, albeit with the odd beautifully drawn panel of one or other of his animal friends, whilst The Steel Commando isn’t as funny as it would like to be, and certainly not original. But the widened range of subjects at least makes this period of Lion‘s history much more palatable than was the last, tedious phase.
There was a shock on 8 May as Mowser moved into colour (off-register, naturally), replacing the back page ad, though this was just a one-off. However, the colour Mowser was repeated in August and September, and became an occasional thing. Speaking of the tatty old puss, a letter published on 3 July, advocating dropping the feature, elicited the remarkable statistic that it was 8th favourite out of 13 in Lion, the only cartoon feature in any IPC adventure comic not to be least favourite.
To my surprise, the Thunder imports proved more long-lasting that their predecessors, with The Jigsaw Journey the first to conclude on 17 July. But this just gave way to yet another return by Paddy Payne, billed as being in a new story, but of course another reprint.
The problem was that, whilst the latest merger had given Lion a much-needed kick-start, before long all the new series had become just as repetitious and unimaginative as those they had replaced. Each one just recycled the same ideas, over and over again, like the utterly hollow Zip Nolan or the increasingly ludicrous Carson’s Cubs, which really, seriously needed to ditch the two rascally Directors, Braggart and Snook, and find a new threat. But you know they never would.
Not before time, another trio of new series arrived simultaneously on 16 October, pushing out The Jetskaters and, yet again, Paddy Payne. The new series were Dr Mesmer’s Revenge, about an Egyptologist whose home, a personal museum was robbed, and who sought revenge on the crooks by raising a mummy to life, The Last of the Harkers, about a big-eared lad who set out to restore his family’s sporting honour with the aid of a ghost of his ancestor, and The Can-Do Kids, about four school-leavers setting up an any-task business to raise funds to go round the world. One drama with mystical overtones and two comedies: what difference would these make?

Though it was the least propitious of the new series, and far too reminiscent of The Waxer in having one lone Policeman suspect and be disbelieved by everyone, Dr Mesmer’s Revenge proved interesting, thanks to some clear, crisp and solid art, realistic and detailed. It was the best we’d seen since Reg Bunn and Don Lawrence. And certain panels and settings seemed very familiar, leading me to initially suspect that the artist could be David Lloyd, of V for Vendetta fame, though according to Wikipedia, Lloyd didn’t start his career until much later in the decade.
The Can-Do Kids had a certain silly charm to itself but was spoiled by giving them an adversary in the form of an ex-Brigadier, still wrapped up in 1944, intent on driving them out of his neighbourhood. A little of stereotypes like that goes a long way, and a lot gets very dull very quickly.
The Last of the Harkers was a more overt comedy, drawn in a broad cartoon style, but it was set up to be inherently formulaic, and by this time, Lion just did not need more formulaic stuff.
As the comic passed over into 1972, approaching its twentieth anniversary, Paddy Payne was back yet again, with yet another reprint. And there was an interesting touch in The Spellbinder as Nyarlhotep was used as a magic world. Given that Sylvester Turville had already referred to a spellbook by one Al-Hazred, it leads me to wonder if the editor was aware of these Lovecraftian references. I doubt very much the audience were.
Phil the Fluter was dropped at the end of the month, as was the colour centrespread, to be replaced by a horror story called Watch Out for the White-Eyes, as a strange gas affects first a flock of crows then a mild-mannered schoolteacher, turning them into superhuman aggressors.
Another passing moment of note was in the final panel of The Can-Do Kids for 19 February, when a fleeing bystander was drawn as an obvious caricature of then American President, Richard Nixon. The next issue saw the official celebration of Lion‘s twentieth birthday, and the first absence by Mowser in years.
Which is as good a moment as any to draw a line under the penultimate part of this series.