Now it’s 2069. This is TV21‘s last year in the form that we have known it. Before September ends, it will undergo another merger in which technically it will be the senior partner, but in fact the comic will die in any fashion that we’ve known it.
The other half of that merger is Joe 90, which starts in January 1969. Joe 90 is the new Gerry and Sylvia Anderson series, and it’s another step on the slide towards the end of the Anderson puppet series era. Captain Scarlet saw a dip in popularity from Thunderbirds and Joe 90 sees a big dip in quality. This series is aimed firmly downwards, to a younger audience than anything since the Andersons were still with Granada and producing Four Feather Falls.
It’s interesting that Joe becomes the lead of his own title rather than launching in TV21, as did Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet. It makes me think that sales were already slipping, and that doubts as to the comic’s permanency were already in management’s minds.
So: What was TV21 and TV Tornado in issue 207 (4 January)? Captain Scarlet, 4 pages, in colour on the cover, in black & white inside, Project SWORD, 1 page including large b&w illustration, The Saint, 2 pages, Shades of Opinion, a letter’s page, The Munsters, 1 redundant page, Thunderbirds, 2 pages still in colour and still by Frank Bellamy, the last Spectrum Shades Club page, Secret Agent 21, 2 b&w pages, Zero-X, 2 brightly-coloured pages still by Mike Noble, Tarzan, 1½ b&w pages, and a big colour photo of Joe 90 on the back page.
The Shades of Opinion page was closing because Captain Scarlet and Spectrum were on the wane. It was replaced by a resumption of Contact 21, under the ‘control’ of Agent 21 again. Joe was being teased for ‘exciting’ news in issue 209 (18 January), which was the new Joe 90 comic, already out, price 8d, as opposed to TV21‘s consistent 7d.
Frank Bellamy stopped by to do Captain Scarlet’s colour cover for issue 210 (25 January), whilst Joe’s succeeding issues kept getting plugs on the back page: there’s a certain kind of serpent’s tooth irony to that… By 212 (8 February), a bit more of TV21‘s old self was restored, with a still of the indestructible Captain on the cover, and his story now cut to three, all b&w pages. And Joe surrendered his back page plug for a hint at a forthcoming series, part of the changes advertised for issue 215 (1 March). Another couple of issues were missing from the DVD then the revamp was put back, this time to issue 218.
The retrogression continued in 216, with the real remanifestation of the newspaper cover.
When the ‘new look’ came in 218 (22 March), it was the old look, with the original TV21 masthead. Agent 21 moved back onto pages 2-3, though he was only allotted half the page, vertically, on the second of these. Captain Scarlet moved back to follow this, with The Munsters next.
The only new series was Department S, the ATV Saturday night spy thriller that introduced Peter Wyngarde as Jason King, in two single B&w pages, separated by the full colour Thunderbirds, now restored to the centre pages, but still drawn as two pages instead of the old centrespread format. The Saint survived, as did Zero-X andTarzan, whilst the ongoing series of Saturn paintings found its way to the back cover.
As revamps go, the word ‘underwhelming’ seems inevitable, the unlucky series squeezed out being the long-since meaningless Project SWORD. The daft decision to split Department S around the centre pages was rectified a week later when it got its two pages consecutive. Project ‘Shindig’, the Saturn expedition, came inside for a news page, and photos of some of the puppet crew, whilst the new Space Info page recalled the comic’s original intentions.
This was the replacement for the uninvolving Tarzan. For, of course, 1969 was the year, the year of the Moon Landings. Space Info took up that story. And TV21 would live long enough to see fiction turn into reality.
As for the new kid on the block, Department S only lasted five weeks before being reduced to one page in issue 223 (26 April). The next three issuing are amongst those missing, as is issue 228. Issue 227 (24 May) however leads with a big picture of George Best and a plug for the new feature inside, Football United, one of a series of sports features included by reader demand, though all it was in Part One was a fact sheet, down to the Old Trafford telephone number!
And football once again incongruously dominated the front cover of issue 229 (7 June), heralding Leeds United as the English Champions.
Sports was the new thing. Issue 231 saw the introduction of the new feature, Super League, a football strip starring up and coming strikers Vince Hammer and Bill Cullen, who are wanted by the Manchester Eagles, except that Vince’s father intends him for the Army. There were only two drawbacks to this series, the subject was completely out of place in TV21 and the artists had no idea how to draw footballers in action, neither their body movements or their physical relationships on a field. As for which Manchester club the Eagles derived from, their stadium was the Busby Bowl: as Stan Lee used to put it, ’nuff said.
Meanwhile, Agent 21 had gone from being the head of the USS to being a mere Agent again, without any warning or explanation, and, after one dead woman, one dead man and a traitor, his new assistant was a robot dog. The comic’s quality controls were going into a tail-spin.
The date of the Moon-Shot, the real Space Expedition, was now almost on us. Issue 235 (21 July) featured Mission Commander Neil Armstrong, the man who would be first to step on the Moon. I don’t believe I was still reading TV21 by now, though I do recognise the name of the Manchester Eagles, but re-running towards that moment is something I find intensely gripping. The world was changing about us in these very pages.
Only a week later, a half page black and white feature on the back page, Nature’s Flying Machines’, looked exactly like one of the old George Cansdale features from the Eagle. It was a one-off, with issue 237 (2 August) opening up the notebooks of Wilson of the Wild, big game naturalist.
TV21 was now in its dying weeks. Captain Scarlet defeated the Mysterons at last, shutting down their power of retro-metabolism, recovering Captain Black’s body and seeing then evacuate Mars. Thunderbirds wrapped up their second consecutive story pitting them against superstitious, primitive tribes fearing Devil-Gods (in 2069? What is this, Robot bloody Archie at its most colonial?) The innovative football strip had the two youngsters promoted to the First Team and arousing the enmity of an established forward who swears to destroy their careers: never seen that before. Odd little prose features started turning up. The Moon Landing, after all its build-up, went by without acknowledgement of it happening, a colossal disappointment. There was even a Kit Carter’s Clarks Commandos comic strip advert, drawn by Tom Kerr, turning up with two issues to go.
TV21 ended with issue 242 (6 September ‘2069’). Every series wound up (Zero-X got out with a week to spare). Surplus pages were filled with Thunderbirds photos of the models. And it was announced that in order that readers wouldn’t have to ask for both TV21 and Joe90, the two papers were merging. There was a gap of three weeks before the new paper, renumbering from issue 1, appeared, and when it did, not one series from TV21 remained, unless you count Kit Carter. Tarzan and The Saint returned, but both series were rejigged from their brief period in TV21.
Only Joe90 remained of the Anderson-verse.
The DVD contains just over half of the first 105 issues of the Volume 2 comic. The title reverted to just plain TV21 with issue 36, and became TV21 and Valiant with issue 105. Given the paucity of available issues, looking at this phase of the comic’s existence is not a priority with me: maybe one day when I’ve run out of other things to re-read and write about.
So, the short life and mostly decent times of TV Century 21, ending in collapse of purpose and identity. Frank Bellamy and Mike Noble lasted to the end, as did John Cooper, but by then even their efforts were being dogged by poor writing and inadequate stories (there is a case for saying that Zero-X never had an adequate story but let’s not be harsh). Not quite five years.
Personally, having breezed through those years in short order, I think the big mistake was to go so totally overboard on Captain Scarlet and Spectrum, especially to the extent of abandoning the future newspaper concept. Once this had been so thoroughly played out, the title lost its way, and blurred its own focus. But it offered some brilliant art for a good number of years, and if none of the Anderson series ever quite matched their TV originals, they had a damned good go at it. Not a bad epitaph.