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.