The Lion in the Sixties – Part 3


The latest Lion relaunch obeyed the same rules as the previous one, just over two years earlier, with all serials resetting with new stories. But whereas January 1963 was overwhelmingly a relaunch, with only one new series, 13 February 1965 fell halfway between relaunch and revamp, with four new series, and the end of, amongst others, Lion‘s last original feature, Sandy Dean and Tollgate School.
Unfortunately, this relaunch involved a definite loss of quality, with two of the new series having very little potential for long-running series, and after the strong artistic line-up that had prevailed through 1963, some very rough and scratchy work.
Thank heaven for Don Lawrence’s ongoing excellence, as the ‘Maroc the Mighty’ series started a new story, ‘The Red Knights of Morda’, but as I said last time out, John Maroc’s desert environments offered far less scope for Lawrence’s beautiful visuals than the ever changing environments of Karl the Viking.
At least ‘Robot Archie’ was now firmly established in his role as an overt crime-smasher. We had left behind the various Jungles and wild countries of the world where the ignorant natives were forever misunderstanding and fearing the heap big metal ju-ju man, at long last.
At this time, Lion‘s most substantial storyline was Vic Gunn’s ongoing secret War against Britain’s Emperor-Dictator, Baron Rudolph, drawn by John Stokes. The serial changed title again for its third story, to ‘The Battle for Liverpool’, the story being set around that City’s determined bid to establish its independence and be a conduit for supplies from the outside world, where the legitimate Government was still based in Canada. The art was vigorous if not polished and the Liverpool scenes, of the Liver Buildings and Lime Street Station had the merit of being properly researched.

Zip Nolan continued to benefit from Reg Bunn’s art, though the Spot the Clue’ stories were only better than Bruce Kent’s old beat because Nolan had two pages available. There was still rarely more than the one clue per week, as the strip had to fit in the cliched clashes with Captain Brinker and Nolan’s all-action man role in foiling the dirty criminals at the end.
Paddy Payne continued to lead Britain’s World War 2 effort in the air, despite by this point having shot down approximately twice as many aeroplanes as the whole of the Luftwaffe and the Japanese Air Force combined, whilst ‘The Silver Colt’s odyssey from owner to owner took it to the verge of the Twentieth Century.
Of the new features, ‘Bill Duggan, Sapper Sergeant’ was easily dismissible as yet another attempt to create a prose series comparable to the standards the comics series could reach, whilst ‘Jimmi from Jupiter’ was easily dismissible as utter tripe. This was the new school series, though Jimmi was actually an alien from, guess where?, who was stranded on Earth and tried to fit in by going to school. As a Jupiterian, Jimmi had a ‘gamma’ power which, stop me if you haven’t heard this one before, sometimes went on the blink. Throw in school bullies, strict masters and the overly casual way Jimmi got himself taken in by a family of complete strangers and you will appreciate that no cliché was left unturned. To be fair, ‘Jimmi from Jupiter’ was better than Eagle‘s ‘Cornelius Dimworthy’, but then radioactive lint is better than Cornelius Dimworthy, and at least the series was keeping Typhoon Tracey’s original artist in employment, now that he was no longer being used at the soon-to-disappear Hurricane.
In contrast, ‘The Sludge’ was a serious serial, about some form of practically indestructible alien life that could take over inanimate objects and bring them to pseudo-life, though it drained them to dust whilst doing so. It was just a Monster story, though its Canadian reporter-photographer team, Bill Hanley and Rick Slade, were kept on for two more ‘weird’ stories.

These were the new relaunch features but, a fortnight later, another new series started, ‘Highway Danger’. This was a nominally motor racing series, with two young independents wrecking their home-built car to save famous racing driver Milton Halder from a vicious attack. But Halder was left unable to drive so Don Dentry was asked to take his place, despite the fact there was clearly something murky going on in the background that neither he nor his mechanic were to ask about. This was the worst of the new prospects for art, with scratchy and scrappy linework operating on simplistic backgrounds, though it was a match for the colourless story. And it would go on and on, in the manner of a Fifties series, forever chasing cliffhangers with no thought for the development of the overall story.
Overall, Lion‘s new line-up was its weakest since the late Fifties.
However, the new watchword was change, first the comedy back cover, with ‘The Lion Street Lot’ finishing their run on 17 April and replaced by ‘What did you do in the war, Dad?’ Marginally a step up, this was another comic formula, with Dad’s tales of his war adventures undermined by the art that showed him to be a useless idiot of more danger to his own side than the Nazis.
John Maroc moved to the front cover, and took on the ‘Maroc the Mighty’ title on 8 May, whilst Robot Archie returned to distant jungle climes where once again superstitious natives were referring to the white men and their metal devil. I know I have the advantage of speaking over fifty years later, but this colonialist shite had worn thinner than thin before Archie’s adventures in civilised countries and this backsliding was a massive disappointment.

A week later, Lion expanded to its biggest ever size, from 28 pages to 40, and an increase in price to 7d.
Most of the new pages were taken up with short comic and cartoon strips, few of which were of any value. ‘Tug and Tich’, two incompetent handymen, was basic slapstick, ‘Charlie of the Chimps’ was a fish out of water series about an airman being turned into an apeman, to replace the original jungle lord (no prizes…) who’d scooted off to America to make movies. Sir Munchkin – Have Lance, Will Travel was just unimpressively silly.
It was still a couple of years before ITV would introduce the racially sensitive tailoring sitcom, ‘Never mind the Quality, Feel the Width’, but the principle was clearly in operation.
Nor were the two adventure series anything distinguished. ‘The Plants of Peril’, featuring Triffid-like plants, was a vegetable re-run of ‘The Sludge’ and ‘Law of the Legion’ was a straight rip off of ‘Luck of the Legion’, with dull art like another Fifties throwback. The most distinguished aspect of this first expanded issue of Lion was when Diana Rigg picked up a copy of it in The Avengers.
But comedy was now a strong element. ‘Tich and Tug’ lasted two episodes. ‘Andy’, about a bloke who goes around picking things up, also lasted two episodes, dropped out for three weeks, then returned for three more. On the other hand, ‘Sir Munchkin’ ran on and on, with a dry, droll tone and a neat running gag that each time the half-pint knight produced his card, it had a different legend appropriate to whatever spot he was currently in, but it doesn’t really do anything unpredictable.
‘Charlie of the Chimps’ had recognisably strong European cartoon art, the forerunner of a number of series that would be translated from, in two cases certainly, in the rest probably, France’s Spirou or Pilote. Unfortunately, it suffers from appallingly racist imagery with its native African characters, not to mention a pretty girl supporting character who isn’t even given a name.
And yet another comedy, this time of two pages, arrived on 29 May, ‘Lord Harry of Hardupp Hall’, about a guy who inherits a title, assumes he’s going to live a life of luxury but finds he’s even more stony-broke. This ran for about six weeks before disappearing, only to return, three months later, and again briefly in 1966.
The stable line-up of 1963 was very much a thing of the past, though Lion still had its quota of fixtures. Paddy Payne stayed stable, ‘Highway Danger’ droned on and on, and Vic Gunn went from place to place and new title to new title: Rebel Island (the Isle of Wight), Castle of Secrets (Edinburgh) and, lastly, The Battle for Britain, in which the legitimate Government organised a Normandy-style landing on the south coast, which would ultimately lead to Baron Rudolph’s toppling.
But not so elsewhere. ‘Maroc the Mighty’ lost Don Lawrence when he went off to draw ‘The Trigon Empire’ at the newly-launched Ranger, leaving another vigorous but cartoony artist to struggle in his wake over scripts by no less than Michael Moorcock. ‘The Silver Colt’ fell to earth, unnoticed, on a WW1 German airfield and was replaced by ‘The Catapult Kid’, one of the most stupid ideas for a series ever, about a schoolmaster in the Wild West who was crap with guns but shit-hot with a catapult, which he used to tame a town: it’s a wonder the pages didn’t turn brown and curl up in embarrassment.
Messrs Hanley and Slade were not the only unlikely characters to become serial stars. ‘The Garden of Fear’ was at first sight a domestic retread of ‘The Plants of Peril’, with reporter Pete Reynolds and teenager Tim Stevens getting shrunk to 2” in height and having to cross a garden, but they were resurrected immediately into Secret Agents in ‘Mission of the Mini-Men’.

Zip Nolan lost Reg Bunn at the same time Don Lawrence left, and on 23 October was sent to England for six months to study British Police methods. Captain Brinker went with him, so the formula didn’t change, and very little British stuff got past the background.
But Reg Bunn didn’t leave Lion. Instead, he found himself drawing one of the comic’s most memorable series ever. 26 May 1965 saw the debut of ‘The Spider’.
The Spider was one of those iconic characters I looked forward to every week, one of the very first I associate with Lion. The Spider, created and written by Robot Archie creator Ted Cowan, and drawn superbly by Reg Bunn throughout his career, appeared as a criminal mastermind, intent on becoming King of Crime in America, and starting by breaking out safecracker Roy Ordini and genius explosive expert ‘Professor’ Pelham as his chief assistants in his Army of Crime.
The Spider was a new highlight, and from his third adventure, starting on 8 January 1966, he acquired a new writer. I did not know this at the time, nor for decades after, and I still find it next to impossible to get my head around the fact that one of my favourite series in my British boy’s weekly comic was being written by none other than Jerry Siegel, creator of Superman. It just seems too incredible for words, even now, and a sad commentary on the treatment Siegel and his co-creator Joe Schuster received from the American comics industry.
Cowan had set The Spider up as a criminal mastermind, with two Police detectives, Pete Trask and Bob Gilmore, investigating his first case, but Siegel had them permanently assigned to The Spider. There were early signs that the villain had something resembling a decent side when in his second adventure he saved them from death. By then, he’d already been up against his first rival criminal mastermind, the Mirror Man, and Siegel was on home turf introducing Dr Mysterioso.
The Spider was an unequivocal success, but the stories around it were unquestionably mixed and the overall standard low. John Maroc’s journey home was reminiscent of the weird geography of Robin Hood Prince of Thieves. For example, he left Spain for Devon but ended up in Germany (which didn’t exist then) on the Rhine, then was kidnapped to China and abandoned there, further from home than ever.
Captain Condor, once more united with Quartermaster Burke, returned from a very long sabbatical for two more serials, taking him to the end of this section. Hanley and Slade’s third adventure saw an upgrade in art but was a retread of an old Rory MacDuff story (the one running when I started getting Lion as a kid) at greater length. ‘One Man and his War’ was supposed to be an ordinary soldier’s realistic WW2 experience but turned into one of those stupid fantasies about a band of survivors of all nations evading the Japs in the jungle. ‘Wildfire’ was a dull Western about breaking in a wild horse.
The cover was redesigned on 31 July, to a dull flat logo, the image turned to an heraldic lion above a poster-style drawing referencing true-life weird stories inside.
As well as Siegel’s arrival, 1966 saw two more new series begin. ‘Quest of the Firebird’ made an unpropitious start, setting up a maverick and a middle-aged Professor pilot to be framed for a massive and bloody robbery and going on the run in their Supercar-like craft, the Firebird. ‘Mild Bill Hiccup’ was another comedy feature, 1½ pages of clearly French art on a funny Western theme . Mowser was expended to a full page and ‘Sir Munchkin’ saw off ‘What Did You Do In The War, Dad?’ on the back page. Jimmi from Jupiter disappeared without trace.
At least the pace, or frequency, of change eased off a bit. In February, Hanley and Slade’s series was replaced by ‘The Amazing Jack Wonder’, another superheroesque feature in which a South Sea trader was subjected to an experimental drug that gave him the power to change his body into inanimate objects, which he promptly put to use against the Germans in the Second World War, but it was another month before the arrival of ‘The Mystery Speed Racer’, another in the ongoing line of Fifties-style throwbacks, this one set in the world of speedway racing.
After eleven months, Sir Munchkin ended without fanfare, with the worthless ‘Wildfire’ following it a month later but, to great surprise considering that it had been Lion’s most popular series, taking Paddy Payne with it.

But Paddy had already been joined in the air by ‘The Flying Furies’, about ‘Jet’ Power and Terry Madden, new recruits to a United Nations fighter squadron. Though the art was largely serious, there was enough of a French cartoon realist style for me to immediately nominate this as another Pilote import, which an undeleted copyright notice would confirm in due course.
‘Mild Bill Hiccup’ was yet another of the uncredited French brigade, a comedy Western running about three months, but it was followed by a more serious feature, when ‘Texas Jack’ made its debut on 30 April. The title character was Captain Jonathan Morningstar, stationed alongside General Custer at Fort Starke and facing off against weekly Indian threats in Lion‘s biggest ever feature, complete six page stories every week.
The same week saw yet another short run cartoon, ‘Pooch’, which got the seemingly statutory two weeks, and then one extra after a month off. Meanwhile, Paddy Payne’s place was taken by the short-lived ‘Rockfist Rogan’, this one a prose RAF series reprinted from the old Champion comic of the Fifties and before. This makes me suspect that more than one of these Fifties-throwback series might have come from the same source.
Where Lion might have been going in this phase was brought to an abrupt end. Early in the year, Fleetway had launched another weekly comic, a new Champion, in the Hurricane mould. This was a disaster, lasting only sixteen issues. Where Hurricane had been crashed into Tiger, Champion would merge into Lion. Though the formal merger under joint names wouldn’t take place until 11 June 1966, four of Champion‘s refugees made an early start in the week before.
Thus we will end this chapter here, and take up the story with the official debut of Lion and Champion.

The Lion in the Sixties – Part 2


The Lion dated 19 January 1963 can’t be described as a revamp, not with only one feature disappearing and two new series started, but it has to be classed as a relaunch, eleven years into the comic’s existence. There was a high-profile, front-page promoted free gift, with further instalments over the next four weeks, and every single series starting new stories simultaneously.
The main newcomer was another of those series that I mistily recalled before launching into the first of these Lion DVDs, ‘Zip Nolan – Highway Patrol’. The title says it all: Nolan was a motorcycle cop in the American city of Pensburgh (was this a disguised Edgar Allan Poe pun, Pittsburgh to Pensburgh, The Pit and the Pen-dulum?). Nolan took over the complete-in-two-pages slot, although every now and then one of his adventures would be serialised over two weeks, never longer.
The stories was very formulaic. Practically every week, Nolan would let something get past him that he couldn’t realistically have been expected to stop, be chewed out for it by Captain Brinker, and would charge off alone to bring in the crooks, pretty much single-handedly.

Zip Nolan by Reg Bunn

I’m not sure why I remembered this series ahead of others with more elan, individuality or flare, because it’s pretty routine and Zip Nolan has the personality of a post-box. Probably it was the name: to this day, I have heard of no-one else being called Zip, not even as a nickname. The series also suffers from never having a regular artist for more than a couple of weeks running. Captain Condor’s dismayingly crude artist of the time served up a few episodes, Rory MacDuff’s Reg Bunn elevated the strip a few times with his customary atmospheric approach, but Nolan’s artistic level was up and down continually, and some weeks it was execrable.
But every other series was refreshed with what would nowadays be called a jumping-on point: new serials all round.
And for most of the rest of 1963, Lion offered a regular, unchanging set of features, jut as Eagle had in 1957. Except for Paddy Payne, on the cover, still drawn by the expert Joe Colquhoun and enjoying Lion‘s sole page of colour, the order would vary from week to week. But the readers, amongst whom I was now to be counted, could rely upon Robot Archie, frightening superstitious natives somewhere primitive; Karl the Viking, superbly executed by Don Lawrence; Zip Nolan; Spot the Clue with Bruce Kent; Captain Condor, whose artistic duties were, like Zip Nolan, never settled upon one artist for more than two stories running; Tales of Tollgate School, which had not forgotten Sandy Dean but which was mainly dominated by Bossy Bates; Rory MacDuff, for whom Reg Bunn delivered a credence the ghoulies’n’ghosties stories couldn’t; and the return of the prose series with an ongoing character, Tuff Dawson, yet another bloody Secret Agent.
I should also mention the two half-page comic feature. ‘The Backwood Boys’ was already established, a highly-stylised cartoon about PC One of the Mounties which was strangely charming and actually sporadically funny in a quasi-surrealistic manner. The other, which was Lion’s second new feature in January 1963, ‘Commander Cockle’, drawn in a more realistic manner except that heads were out of proportion to bodies, making everybody look like overgrown children. The Commander built a 14” dinghy on an upper floor of a block of flats, launched it out of the window and set off to sail round the world. As humour goes, the only possible word is feeble: feeble comedy featuring a feeble-brained character.

The Priceless Puss

This line-up lasted without change until 28 September 1963, when Lion was half-revamped, re-extended back to 28 pages, put up to 6d, with new stories again simultaneously, though only for Condor, MacDuff, Archie and Tollgate School, and three new features. Only one of these, ‘The King’s Musketeers’, a relatively short-lived adaptation, drawn with fragile detail by Arturo del Castillo, and with a surprising seriousness, freely but sympathetically adapted from the final third of the Alexander Dumas novel, The Vicomte of Bragelonne, pertaining to The Man in the Iron Mask, which gave its name to the later part of the story, was a comics series.
The others were a half-page boxing cartoon serial, ‘Bud and Boss’, which was not worthy of anything more than a cursory mention, and, replacing Tuff Dawson and leaving Lion without a prose serial for the first time since its inception, ‘What’s in a Name?’, brief life-stories of famous men as nominated by readers.
Though only three weeks would elapse before the line-up was joined by another short-run feature, ‘Morg of the Mammoths’, set in the Neolithic age, nine thousand years ago. Young hunter Morg spares the leader of a herd of Mammoths threatening his village, is thrown out as a consequence, brings its leader, who he names Karga, under his control and teamed up with him for two serials before the series was cancelled after six months, to nobody’s regret.
This stable period underwent one unwelcome disruption, when Don Lawrence took a sabbatical from ‘Karl the Viking’ for the story starting on 17 August. Practically any other artist would have been a disappointment, but the crudity of his temporary replacement was next to an insult, the art being little better than the worst and crudest art being wished on Captain Condor.
Ah yes, the Captain. Among old fans of British boys comics of a certain generation, Condor has a reputation second only to Dan Dare himself. Not that there were many such rivals, the only other serious contender being Tiger’s Jet Ace Logan. But after a decade plus of his adventures I have to ask why. Neither Condor nor his longstanding assistant Quartermaster Burke (what is an officer who organises stores doing as Condor’s assistant troubleshooter?) have an atom of personality, their stories do not rise above space opera, and there is neither continuity, logic nor any consistency between adventures.
Dan Dare lives a very full afterlife and has for decades: I’m not aware of any efforts to bring back Captain Condor, nor any reason to.
Lion‘s steadiness was not affected by the September 1963 semi-vamp, complete with more free gifts spread over a month, but once the comic had sailed on into 1964, its pages suddenly became prey to change after change after change, starting with the issue of 1 February.
The shift was not propitious. ‘Tales of Tollgate School’ was renamed ‘The Rock that Rocked Tollgate’, the serial format giving way to 2½pp short stories. The ‘Rock’ was a meteorite that landed in Tollgate’s grounds, with the power to grant the wishes of whoever touched it each week, wishes that faded away three panels from the end, leaving no memory of the disruption.
The following week saw the end of Commander Cockle after just over a year of wasted space and the debut of the long-lasting ‘Mowser, the Priceless Puss’. Mowser would appear sporadically over the next few weeks, as did ‘PC One – Top Cop of the Mounties’, the re-branded ‘Backwoods Boys’, as nobody seemed able to make up their mind what half-page laughter riots should appear.

breath-takingly good art by Arturo del Castillo

One more week, and Paddy Payne was booted off the front page, to be replaced by ‘Badges of the Brave’, a front and back cover feature on the histories behind famous badges, usually but not exclusively British Army Regiments. After a couple of episodes that I remembered, Joe Colquhoun was pulled off Paddy Payne to take the series over.
Rory MacDuff exposed one last supernatural event as being produced by more mundane means and he and Barney Lomax went back to being film stuntmen and having down-to-earth villains to overcome. This lasted until 22 August, when the feature disappeared for good.
A new one page comics serial, ‘Spy-Smasher Smith’ made its debut, about a middle-aged man who looked like a mundane Civil servant but who was Britain’s top spy, foiling the plans of the evil Doctor Skull. Needless to say, it was down to half a page in just over a month, and then re-named ‘Mr Smith of MI51/2’, competing with Mowser and the soon-to-disappear PC One.
Captain Condor was reduced to 1½ pages per week, and would go down further to a single page before being killed off as a comics series on 4 April, though he would return after six weeks absence, with the weekly prose story resurrected to tell the space hero’s ongoing issues, withut Quartermaster Burke but with Sergeant Willis.
‘The Man in the Iron Mask’ was faithful to the end to the spirit of Alexandre Dumas, if not the actual novel, in having the four Musketeers all die in the service of restoring Louis XIV to the throne of France. Re-reading those deaths reminded me of how how disturbing they were to a boy just turned eight, who was completely unused to the idea that the hero could die, even as he achieved his victory.
Morg and Karga ended after two serials. Bruce Kent’s appearances also became sporadic, until one Monday he pointed out his last clue to his perpetually oblivious assistant, Jim, and never came back. Zip Nolan merged with the concept on 9 May. Even Robot Archie finally came out of the jungle, battling crooks in a Thunderbirds-esque Mole in Paris and New York.

A powerful, ongoing serial

But amongst all this chopping and changing, Lion did gain a new major feature, on 29 February, that I had long forgotten but instantly remembered. Titled originally ‘Britain in Chains’, and renamed ‘Public Enemy No 1’ on 15 August, the series starred top secret agent Victor Gunn, and his West Indian assistant, Barrel. Gunn was assigned to investigate a group run by the seemingly eccentric Baron Rudolph, who was dedicated to ancient times. Gunn found that not only was Rudolph planning to overthrow Britain’s government and install himself as Dictator, but that he has been planning this for years, has very influential adherents everywhere, and a well-developed plan to paralyse the entire country whilst he takes over.
And the evil Baron succeeds. Gunn and Barrel become wanted men, threats to the new regime. They succeed in getting the real Government out of the country, to set up in exile in Canada, which was the climax of the first serial, under the original name. The pair then stayed on, to organise the fitful, passionate but incoherent Resistance, the serial hanging its name to suit. I remember further changes of name for later phases, but not how the series was ultimately resolved. I am very much looking forward to getting to that point.
But still the changes kept coming. On 11 July, ‘The Rock that Rocked Tollgate’ finished its pathetic run by being thrown down a well, paving the way for a return to serials, starting with ‘Tollgate at Sea’, and then ‘The Tollgate Treasure-Seekers’ as the entire school took to the waters and decided to sail round the world. After a dozen years, this latest switch starts ringing the alarm bells as to whether the series should be put out of its misery.
Another new series, ‘The Silver Colt’, debuted three weeks later, with no little potential. It centred upon the eponymous gun, made for a famous lawman, which had the unfortunate habit of being lost or stolen: the series followed the gun and its several owners, and what luck it brought to them. Though a strip, this series replaced Captain Condor (again). Don’t worry, the Captain was back on 14 November, albeit for a single week.
Whilst Victor Gunn and the Silver Colt were major series, and well-executed, the next new feature was considerably troubling. ‘Outcasts of Storm Island’, starting on 29 August, was a reprint of one of those awful stilted serials of the Fifties, complete with its dull, drab art. Lion had lasted twelve and a half years without needing to repeat any of its unworthy past. Doing so now seemed to be a very bad omen.
Worse still was the end of Karl the Viking, on 26 September, to be replaced by ‘The Hand of Zar’. Fears however were relieved when the new series appeared and was found to be more work by Don Lawrence. The series would be better known under its later name, ‘Maroc the Mighty’, but under either title, it starred Devon Yeoman John Maroc, outlawed during the Crusades for saving a man from his rapacious master, who came into possession of the hand of Zar, an amulet that,when exposed to the rays of the sun, gave him superhuman strength.

Maroc the Mighty

But John Maroc was no substitute for Karl the Viking, nor were the Holy Land’s desert landscapes as fertile for Lawrence’s skill with atmosphere and landscape. The Hand of Zar amulet took the series too far into American superhero territory with that half-heartedness that characterised such a move.
In contrast, Zip Nolan benefited from Rory MacDuff’s departure by acquiring Reg Bunn as his full-time artist. The Tollgate series nostalgically returned Sandy Dean to the title, with two successive stories featuring, first, a Ghost Ship and then Pirates. A new comic feature with very old-fashioned roots arrived on 28 November 1964: ‘The Lion Street Mob’ harked more to ‘Lord Snooty and His Pals’ than its class contemporary, ‘The Bash Street Kids’, with a formulaic three panel set-up leading to a half-page multigag cartoon that to my eyes is overcrowded and confusing, but I rather think would have entertained my younger self very much more.
But this phase of Lion was now nearing its end, with another relaunch, like that which starts this essay, planned for early 1965. Before that, Robot Archie took over the cover from 9 January, replacing ‘Badges of the Brave’, and Rory MacDuff made a brief return, without his sidekick Barley Lomax, in a five week short serial with an artist I don’t recognise but practically every panel of which jumped out at me from my memory.
Sadly,DVD2 misses the last two issues of this run, mistakenly reprinting two recent issues, denying me the end of ‘Public Enemy No. 1′, which was a loss, and the last of Sandy Dean, Bossy Bates and Tollgate School afloat, which wasn’t. When the latest relaunch his the newsagents’ on 13 February, despite the persistence of Robot Archie, there were no Lion features left that could claim to have been there from the beginning.

The Lion in the Sixties – Part 1


I don’t know when Lion underwent its first major revamp. On DVD1, there’s a nearly six month gap between issues 373 (11 April 1959) and 395 (31 October 1959) in which the transformation is stunning, but I’ve no idea exactly when this occurred. Though as most of the stories inside seem to be in their very early stages, I suspect the change to have been very recent, quite possibly as early as the previous issue!

Paddy Payne – Lion’s most popular strip

Even though that was still 1959, I have no hesitation in choosing that off-stage revamp as the beginning of this second essay, as the beginning of the Lion in the Sixties.
Once the DVD resumes, however, it’s almost like reading a different comic. During this gap, Lion has absorbed the first of many other titles to suffer death-by-merger, this being something called Sun, whose name appears in rather small type under a bigger and more vibrant Lion logo, this time decorated with the spectacular head of a roaring lion. Though this is still, just about, the Fifties, the effect is to drag the comic into the Sixties. It looks fresh, modern and exciting, or should I say it looks what fresh, modern and exciting would have done to a boy of my age, picking it up then (or, actually, just a couple of years later).
The new Lion has now expanded to 28 pages weekly. It’s line-up is very familiar, with ‘Paddy Payne, Warrior of the Skies’, ‘Sandy Dean’s Schooldays’ and ‘Captain Condor’ still in evidence, Robot Archie is now finally running as ‘Robot Archie’, and whilst the prose series have been reduced to one, it’s still the already long-running Secret Agent Max Malone. New features include ‘Billy the Kid’, with which I’m already pretty familiar, since this is the series re-titled ‘The Black Avenger’ when reprinted six years later in Hurricane, and ‘Rory MacDuff – Danger Wanted’, about a two-fisted daredevil film stuntman/investigator which I remembered as soon as I saw it.
Add to that a plainly one-off serial about buried treasure in ‘Captives in El Dorado’ and the arrival of a back page cutaway feature that seems oddly familiar for some reason I can’t immediately recall.
But the major advance is that the old coterie of artists and that drab, small-panelled, rigid-tiered, stiff and stilted approach has been completed overturned. Every long-running feature has a new regular artist and not only is every single one far better in line and design, but they are now varying layouts, making more dramatic choices, and better still using bigger, more spacious panels that add an immediacy to every series.

A very different Sandy Dean and Bossy Bates

Nowhere is the effect more eye-popping than on Sandy Brown: the boys not only look more realistic, but they actually look contemporary. The whiff of cobwebs has been blown away: we actually look as if we are in the rapidly-approaching Sixties, instead of the Thirties.
Nor were the stories interminable any longer. There are still more gaps on DVD1, and after a run from 395 to 397, the next issue is 411 (20 February 1960). ‘El Dorado’ is still running but everyone else has moved on to new stories. And in Paddy Payne’s case, another new artist, easily recognisable as the great Joe Colquhoun, first artist on ‘Roy of the Rovers’ and later to be famous for ‘Charley’s War’.
As for ‘Billy the Kid’, this only lasted a few months before giving way to another western series, about a travelling boxer, ‘Best of the West’, which was no great shakes. But none of Billy’s Lion adventures were familiar, and their art was in keeping with the new approach, leading me to suspect that this feature (and the actual repeats) were a carry-over from the cancelled Sun, whatever that had been.
However, despite the new Lion‘s fresh slickness, we hadn’t seen the last of old drags. ‘Bruce Kent’s Spot the Pretty Obvious Clue’ was soon back and, by issue 429, so was Lucky Guffey: lucky for everyone but the readers. And not everything was progressive: writer’s credits vanished as if they had never been displayed at all, an unwelcome step.
Mind you, Bruce Kent did improve artistically as the series went on into the Sixties, though the stories were still penny plain and, to be fair, there were only a handful of Guffeys, probably unused pages from before the revamp.
I know from previous researches that, before returning to ‘Dan Dare’ in 1962, Keith Watson had been drawing ‘Captain Condor’, and this period began somewhere between issues 441 and 451. Watson did a bang-up job, drawing three pages a week initially, though this was later cut back to two.

Keith Watson on Captain Condor

And during this same break, a new series was added, ‘The Sword of Eingar’. This was about hard-fighting Vikings, centred upon Eingar’s ‘son’, a Saxon boy kidnapped on a raid many years earlier. As ‘Karl the Viking’ from the second story, with superb, highly detailed, indeed beautiful art from Don Lawrence, the series ran for years.
Like Eagle in its mid-Fifties heyday, Lion now had a settled, strong line-up of familiar characters, benefiting from good, clear, dynamic art coming from a group of artists who were energetic, inventive and superb draughtsmen. Mostly, the comic went for the same photorealism as Eagle, though coloured by the need to draw for black and white. Panels were detailed and forceful, and there was less of a sense of a ‘house-style’.
I’ve already mentioned Joe Colquhoun and Keith Watson, and I was 98% convinced that Rory MacDuff was originally drawn by Neville Colvin, one of the latter day artists on Peter O’Donnell’s ‘Modesty Blaise’, but his regular artist soon became Reg Bunn. Ted Kearon drew Robot Archie and Selby Dennison drew Sandy Dean.
The ‘new’ Sandy was an exception to the photorealism rule, as Dennison drew in a very flat, almost plastic style. There was no element of cartooning about it, and perspectives and backgrounds were always correct and realistic, but his figures, and especially faces were reduced to minimum elements, giving the art a very two-dimensional look.

No longer The Jungle Robot

Ted Cowan’s dialogue had plunged headlong into the Sixties now, completely dispelling the archaic atmosphere of the past, and, for a wonder, it isn’t embarrassing to read since it’s rarely overdone. But somewhere along the line, Sandy and Co become ‘Dean and his Doomies’, at least to Bossy Bates, which is a bit off-putting.
Paddy Payne, Sandy Dean, Captain Condor, Karl the Viking, Rory MacDuff, Robot Archie, Bruce Kent. That’s a good deal with 4½d every Monday. I’ve left ‘“Sky-High”’s Tales’ out of that, since it was such a variable strip, ‘Sky-High’ Bannion being a resurrected character from the Fifties relating stories of adventure, some from his own past, others one-offs with the tang of being real-life incidents. The standard of these was pretty variable but the one thing all had in common was that, at 2½ pages, the endings always felt rushed and perfunctory.
But there was a serious dip in quality in the Sandy Dean story that started in the autumn of 1961 and ran up to 16 December that year. The idea was a little far-fetched in comparison to most earlier tales, given that it involved a secret formula for a dangerous explosive landing at Tollgate and being pursued by a pair of Foreign (Russian) Agents who get Bossy Bates on their side in trying to find it. Admittedly, they’ve offered him £40 which was bloody rich for those days, enough that Bossy goes OTT in his attempts to earn the bribe, but what was seriously OTT were the Agents, who to put it lightly were nitwits, clowns, bozos and ignorant beyond credibility (Boris Badenov and Natasha Fatale from Rocky and Bullwinkle looked like the KGB beside them). You might have gotten away with them in ‘Eagle Eye’ but they were a custard pie in the face of a supposedly serious series, and just as indigestible.
It turned out to be the last ‘Sandy Dean’s Schooldays’, for the series was then renamed ‘Tales of Tollgate School’. Though Sandy and his ‘Doomies’ were still there, the new title broadened the focus a little: not by much as Bossy Bates and Co now came to the fore.

Reg Bunn art: shame about the story

Rory MacDuff’s series changed emphasis, for the worse. Gone were the down-to-earth settings and the focus on Rory’s stuntman background, replaced by long story about things like Secret Worlds below the surface, and Vampiric hunters. More damagingly, the Scottish personality and epithets disappeared, leaving very cold and characterless dialogue from someone who was now an ‘ace adventurer’.
As the end of 1962 approached, a new Rory MacDuff story, about a ‘Phantom Legion’ gave me the first spark of genuine recognition: my time with Lion was nearing, for I remember reading the closing instalments of that serial.
Sadly for me, Keith Watson’s period as Captain Condor’s artist ended just before Xmas 1961, though that freed him up to return to Dan Dare the following year, as we already know. His immediate replacement was future Eagle stalwart Brian Lewis, but the stories were slowly running out of interest again. Frank Pepper still had no interest in producing anything more than two pages of spaceship adventure setting up another cliffhanger, and it was beginning to look like thin gruel once more.
‘”Sky-High”’s Tales’ transmuted into ‘The Amazing Adventures of Sky-High Bannion’: the same deal, the same narration and the same abrupt endings but now about Bannion’s adventures and his alone. Except when they weren’t and it was billed as ‘The Amazing Stories of Sky-High Bannion’. Who’d be an old comics blogger? This feature was now being drawn by a different artist nearly every week, each one of whom made Bannion look different, even down to switches between blonde and dark hair.
There continued to be the one prose series per week. Max Malone gave way to Dan Dexter, another second world war Secret Agent, who gave way to Grit Hewson, a would-be boxer taking on tough jobs to build himself up, but this gave way to Five-Star Stories, a different one-off every week, dipping into the themes of some of the Fifties series, though with the odd twist tale.
Artistically, the highlight every week continued to be ‘Karl the Viking’. Don Lawrence’s art was head and shoulders above everything else in Lion, in detail, drama, body language, expression and sheer beauty. Even on newsprint, his work stood out as a thing of great art.

Don Lawrence – wow!

Sadly though, the second DVD is missing nine consecutive issues, 20 October to 15 December 1962 inclusive, one of which is my first regular issue of Lion. It’s a pity I haven’t got the one where I came in. For a moment, I thought of using that as a convenient point at which to end this section of the story, but this was only short weeks from a point of relaunch. On 12 January 1963, every single serial in Lion, including the current Captain Condor, of which every single panel came out of my memory, was brought to an end, as were Sky-High Bannion’s adventures.
The following week, with the exception of the half-page comic serial, ‘The Backwoods Boys’, every series in the comic started afresh. And so will I in the next essay about the Lion in the Sixties.

The Lion in the Fifties


The DVD collection I bought of Hurricane was a revelation, the realisation that my memories of long ago comics when I was a boy need only only be confined to memory, but might be recovered for a very small price. My next purchase was a five DVD set of Lion.

Lion has a big reputation, second only to that of Eagle, to which it was the biggest rival. It’s history includes classic series such as ‘Captain Condor’, ‘Robot Archie’, ‘Zip Nolan’ and ‘The Spider’. I still remember the last of these with great pleasure.
Lion didn’t appear until twenty-two months after Eagle, and it couldn’t have been more different in appearance: twenty pages in black and white with a limited colour cover, a smaller size and the traditional cheap newsprint paper that Eagle was such a reaction against. Put the comics side by side and Lion is clearly the downmarket neighbour. But it outlasted its rival, and even absorbed it, when the time came for Eagle to be put to rest.
The ‘King of Picture Story Papers’, as it advertised itself from the beginning, ran until 1974 and a total of 1,156 issues. That’s too many years and too many issues for a single post, so I initially decided to split things up into at least three, representing the Fifties, the Sixties and the Seventies.
But long-running series do not organise themselves that conveniently for the decades later blogger. DVD1 covers issues 1 (23 February 1952) to 496 (7 February 1961). It’s pretty comprehensive as far as issue 254 with few and usually limited gaps, but from then on the cover is pretty sporadic, with several long gaps, twenty issues and more at a time. And during these longer gaps, the comic underwent two revamps, one minor, one major, on unspecified dates.
So thematically, it makes more sense for this first post, notwithstanding it’s title, to cover the period until that major revamp, in 1959, and resume the story from there in the next post. Especially because, up till that point, the Lion in the Fifties was mostly pretty dire.
In deliberate imitation of Eagle, Lion‘s flagship character was it’s own space hero, Captain Condor, created by Frank Pepper. Condor appeared on the front and back covers until 1958, enjoying Lion‘s only page in colour, though this was a poor, mechanically processed colour, with a limited palette applied in visible dots and frequently off-register.
I read once that Frank Pepper (who also created Roy of the Rovers) had been given a very short deadline, and so relied on the somewhat hackneyed set-up of a good man wrongly imprisoned. The series was set in the 31st century, well beyond any connection with the modern day, Earth and its space empire was run by an evil Dictator, and Condor was imprisoned on a slave moon. So the Captain escaped in a stolen spaceship and spent the next three years slowly building up a rebellion that ended with the Dictator destroying his home city, himself and all his forces just to kill Condor (the way power-hungry Dictators are wont to do) only for Condor to streak away in the last split second.
Thereafter that, Condor (who was never given a first name) became Chief Pilot (oh, did he now?) of the Space Patrol.
It’s easy enough to call Captain Condor a pale imitation of Dan Dare but the truth is that beyond being a space ace, he didn’t have enough colour at this time to even be pale. Condor’s stories – and this is going to be a common complaint about so many of Lion‘s series – have no structure or coherent story to them. They begin with an objective that is finally achieved over many many weeks, but the intervening episodes just clatter along with no better intent than to provide an endless series of cliffhangers that spin the adventure out for as long as possible.
And Condor is dogged by poor art. It’s limited and crude beyond the generally dull art for Lion throughout this first era. It’s limited by poor basic drawing skills, a lack of any coherent design, a seriously diminished imagination for spaceships, space stations, uniforms and especially aliens. This, let me remind you, was the cover feature, yet it hard the worst art in the entire comic.

Condor art

Let me expand upon that point about uniforms. Once Condor had overthrown the Dictator and became an official hero of the new (impliedly) democratic government, the Space Patrol had to be depicted in Space Patrol uniform. Frank Hampson based Spacefleet uniforms on British Army and RAF battledress, but Dan Dare’s future was merely decades ahead, not a whole millennium. Condor’s Space Patrol wore rounded metal helmets that balanced on top of their heads as opposed to covering them, bland tops and leggings and, most absurd in appearance, a kind of green tartan check… something around the loins and backsides, that didn’t really resemble any known form of human clothing, looked bulky and the very opposite of stream-lined (it was not so much a case of my bum looking big in this as in bums being swaddled beyond the point of any recognition.)
It looked amateurish and unconvincing, and it made a mockery of the reputation Captain Condor enjoyed.
Not that any of Lion‘s art was anything to write home about. There’s a curiously homogenous look to it, as if the comic was calling on a very limited pool of artists, who may have been drawing more than one series every week: remember that Eagle stood out for its non-professional insistence on paying its artists enough to live on for a week whilst drawing one colour page. The contrast is self-evident.
With the exception of the illustrations to some of the prose series, the majority of Lion‘s art is static and stiff, composed of regular panels in small and rigid tiers, bland drawings with no pretention to story-telling. Everything looks oddly rounded, and whilst backgrounds are not skimped, there’s an unnerving amount of white space on every page, as if the artist is not even using the full extent of the panel.
These criticisms certainly have to be said of the War Serial. That’s not its title, but it might as well be. War story succeeds war story, one after another, each operating to a formula that is only ever mildly tweaked to fit the service and the geographical setting: two British servicemen, from differing regiments or services, but always two, are either sent on a mission behind German lines or get stranded there and the story goes on for week after week after week until eventually the mission succeeds, but each week there’s a cliffhanger to make it carry on longer and longer without rhyme, reason or structure. All with the same, pallid art.
The War Serial is as much an ongoing feature as ‘Captain Condor’, which made it one of four such throughout the Fifties. Another such which, like Condor, survived the 1959 revamp, was ‘Sandy Dean’s Schooldays’ (‘Sandy Dean’s First Term’ on it’s debut). Clean-cut Sandy arrives as a new boy at Tollgate School, an old-style Public School with studies and dormitories. Sandy’s a Fourth Former (it’s always the Fourth Form, isn’t it? Never older nor younger) sharing with popular Jack Hardy and studious, chunky but still athletic Owl Watson.
Sandy’s natural enemy is bully Bossy Bates, with his cronies Spider Jessop and Gus Trevor. There’s firm but fair School Captain, Tough Talbot, unpopular prefect, Haughty Hawkins, big-headed Snooty Adams, even would-be detective Beaky Brown, until you start to feel sorry for Sandy and Jack for being condemned to having real names.
The whole thing has the feel of an archaic throwback. These are supposedly contemporary stories, as the serials about scientific inventions demonstrate, but the series screams of the milieu of Billy Bunter and Greyfriars. It feels stuffy at all times.
The art is a little more distinctive than the Lion norm, but is still bland in line and layout. And the series suffers from the usual implausibilities of long-running school stories, such as the sheer volume of sinister boys and sinister masters that pass through Tollgate, not to mention the fact that stories go on for months and terms end and start and nobody ever goes up to the Fifth Form. But what I found hardest to accept was that, over and again, Sandy, Jack and Owl prove themselves to be honest, brave, trustworthy, intelligent and, above all, unfailingly right, yet it only takes the least amount of framing for the Headmaster and Staff to automatically assume that they are lying, cheating hooligans and twisters. It winds me up.

There’s not a lot of varied art available for this period

The last long-running feature throughout this period was ‘The Amazing Mr X’, who is some kind of adventurer/troubleshooter who cannot reveal his real name as his enemies would strike back at his loved ones. X was not one of Lion‘s original features, but turned up during 1952 as a two page prose series, increasing the number of such from two to three. To be honest, I haven’t been able to get through even one such episode, nor could I summon up any greater enthusiasm when, as part of the 1958 revamp, the series was converted to a two page comic series, again complete in each instalment.
One series that began in issue 1 did amuse me. This was ‘The Jungle Robot’, about an amazing metal man being used to search for lost treasure in Africa. The robot was under the control of two friends, Ken Dale and Ted Ritchie, the former of whom controlled the mechanical marvel by means of a control pad he wore on his chest. And yes, the robot’s name was Archie. But this was a far cry from the Robot Archie everyone loved in the Sixties. The art was the same drab, limited stuff of every other series, the adventure dull as ditchwater, and Archie both silent and useless if not under control.
Once the serial was over, that was it. Except that Archie was brought back, years later, in 1957, once more assisting Ken and Ted in Africa. The art was no better, but this time the series went under the title ‘Archie the Robot’ (closer, but still uncatchy), and it was immediately followed by a serial set in the South Seas. It would get better.

It’s Archie, but not as we know him

As for the rest, these were much of a muchness. Same art-style, same rigid tiers of small, regular panels, same devotion to weekly cliffhangers that neither advanced nor built. They might be set in different countries, or different historical periods, they might be westerns, or about Red Indians, they might feature marooned sailors, sabotage-facing whalers, Britons unjustly condemned to the guillotine. They frequently featured sensible, competent, fair-minded leaders trying to rescue stranded parties in the face of the selfish determination of some thug or rich man to be top dog, come what may (this plot even turned up in ‘Captain Condor’). But at the end of the day, they offered nothing original, nothing exciting, nothing beyond the weekly gratification, at minimal invention of a small boy’s unstretched imagination.
Two such I was already familiar with, being ‘Brett Marlowe – Detective’, and ‘The Naval Castaways’, one of the interminable War Serials, both of which turned up as unacknowledged reprints (the latter as ‘Danger Island’) in Hurricane‘s final, desperate phase.
I’ve mentioned that, throughout this period, Lion had two, and then three prose series. These were equally varied, or perhaps unvaried, as the picture stories, and what’s more, where Eagle was deemed to be a bit imperialistic, Lion was decidedly colonialist. Adventures would be set in exotic locations, with Canada a particular favourite, with Mounties, trappers, trading post owners and even a Mountie’s Dog – Rory – knocking back what Simon Templar would call the ungodly on a weekly basis, and many of said godly being other than Anglo-Saxon.
There were Wild West Sheriffs, traders in the South Sea Islands, District Commissioners in Africa (one of whom was the White King of the Pygmies), and all manner of folk that, like Mr X, I found impossible to read. Though I do have to credit one thing about such series: each had an opening, larger scale illustration every week, frequently of a much higher and more detailed quality than the picture stories.
Not all the series were serious, at least in the first half of the decade. There was Jingo Jones and his Invisibiliser, about which it’s better not to ask, Wiz and Lofty, speed merchants and Don’s Diary, the weekly adventures of another schoolboy. These were an improvement on the adventure serials, but eventually were phased out in favour of the latter.
It’s a depressing picture to the older comics fan who is not fueled by nostalgia, nor was the position greatly changed by the 1957 revamp, which took place sometime between issues 282 (13 July) and 291 (14 September).
The most immediate difference was the replacement of ‘Captain Condor’ on the cover by ‘Paddy Payne’, itself an effective replacement for the War Serial. Payne, another of Lion’s long-running characters, was an RAF fighter pilot, at first working with his combat team-mate, Dick Smith.

Warrior of the Skies

At last we had an ongoing character, a long-term hero whose stories enjoyed a proper sense of narrative. Of course the cliffhangers didn’t disappear, but now they were linked to the long-term objective of the story, which was kept in mind, instead of being an end in themselves. And Payne enjoyed better art than Captain Condor thus far. It was still not brilliant, still basically timid in panel structure, but the thick outlines that characterised the basic art of the Fifties were replaced by thinner lines and a greater degree of subtlety. The episodes had a little bit more room in which to breath, with Payne getting three pages per week, including the cover – still the only colour page.
Captain Condor was moved inside but, but more importantly, he too was given better art. It was still not brilliant or innovative, but the newcomer was could actually draw real human beings, and that was a massive jump in itself. By this simple change, Condor’s stories became more realistic, and more entertaining.
There was one negative aspect to the revamp, and that was the addition of a one page comic series, usually but not always on the back page, about ‘Lucky Guffey – The Lad Who Always Laughs Last’. This was pure formula. Each week, Guffey would find something he wanted, volunteer to help or work to get it, completely misunderstand his orders due to an excess of ignorance, create a disaster, but unexpectedly and improbably avert an even bigger disaster and get what he wanted after all, as a reward. Dull stuff but supposedly ‘hilarious’. It’s the comedy strips that really really don’t survive the decades.
I’ve been pretty harsh on the Lion of the Fifties, but for good reason. It’s unfair to other comics of the time to judge them by Eagle‘s standards, but if Lion is typical of the standard boy’s ‘picture story paper’, then everything pales in comparison. Eagle aspired to excite and educate and in everything to avoid talking down to its readers. Lion did nothing more than offer what the Undertones once categorised as ‘dumb entertainment’, neither any better nor any worse than it need be, but certainly not any better.
As time would show, it could be better, it could be much better and after the 1959 revamp, it would start to be.
As a final point, and let credit be given where credit was due, from issue no. 1, Lion credited its writers on every story. We knew that Frank Pepper wrote Captain Condor, that E. George ‘Ted’ Cowan wrote Robot Archie, that Mark Ross wrote Paddy Payne and George Forrest Sandy Dean (though Lucky Guffey was anonymous). As were the artists, though that was probably no bad thing. Perhaps that concealed how many were drawing more than one story at a time?