A Buzz around the Hornet: Part 3

Third time round for The Hornet, the D.C.Thomson stable comic, issues 201-300, covering the paper’s life from 15 July 1967 to 7 June 1969.
Though it’s 1967, the summer of psychedelia, Procol Harum at number 1 for six weeks, free games for May and Strawberry Fields Forever, Hornet shows no signs of stepping out of the time-bubble in which it is enclosed. It is not keeping up with the Sixties because it has never yet arrived in the Sixties. Of its line-up this time, there is little to enthuse me, just two of the comic’s round of regulars, a Rob Higson Runs that Count, introducing big, burly, ball-bashing, bird-watching batsman, Bert Bunting (another tone-lowering, independently minded scruffpot) and the start of a new Bernard Briggs serial, The No-Goal Goalie.
Bernard’s moved to the two-club Midland town of Stockley, bought a house that comes complete with a gasworks attached, and signed for the posh boys, Rangers on condition that they pay their down-at-heels neighbours Rovers £1,000 for every shut-out Bernard produces. You know where the money’s going.
The only other series of any distinction at this point is Laramie, an adaptation of an old TV Western, cancelled four years before – but only of its sole season in the Fifties!
Nor was the mix improved by the first new series of this batch, a run-of-the-mill World War 2 story replacing one about hunting King Solomon’s Treasure with a cheat ending. It’s Runs that Count completed its run in issue 207 (26 August), leaving cricket to be replaced by football in the familiar-sounding Ball of Fire, about centre forward Wally Brand. I didn’t recognise it as such, but it ploughed an enjoyably familiar trough with the forceful Wally another of the independent kind.
And a third new series in four issues was another enjoyable returnee, Jim Ransom, the Big Palooka, this time tackling American crooks muscling into Britain as from issue 210 (16 September), though only for a ten week run.
Two more new starters were lined up for issue 212 (30 September), both returnees. One was a repeat performance for one of the more abysmal SF series but the other, about due a revisit, was Wilson, though not my long anticipated Ashes Test story. How much longer before Nick Smith again?
Wilson’s new serial, It’s Wilson Again, saw him back in Africa searching for a lost city that turned out to be a Greek colony that had erected a replica of Athens that wasn’t all ruins. As ideas go, it was horribly trite. As for Nick, he wasn’t showing up just yet but the flood of new series swept in the Deathless Men again, in a V for Vengeance series titled ‘M’ Marks the Spot.
I haven’t had a jump of nostalgia for quite some time now and in issue 215 (21 October) it came in the unexpected place of the prose serial, which I’ve been guilty of ignoring since the first Nick Smith and Rob Higson because, well, they’re not worth reading. But Kid Laine the Dixieland Drummer, about a fourteen year old dockloader called Leo ‘Kid’ Laine who would go on to be a groundbreaking jazz drummer, and lead the massively successful and influential jazz band, The Big Five, was a tonic for the troops. Like some of Eagle’s serials, this was obviously being read by someone who knew what they were talking about, in this instance both jazz and drumkits.

Still the new series kept on appearing. After a long run, Laramie went back to the bunkhouse to free up space for a second go from ex-Special Air Service Greg Stewart, whose bag was finding antiquities for the Military Museum.
Briggs’ latest improbable season ended in issue 222 (9 December) whilst the Deathless Men finally got the British Agent to the crashed plane to destroy the secret papers. That left room for two new stories, one of which was the return of the unimpressive Limping Man, but the second ws another right from the memory bank, The Goals That Nobody Cheered. Stan Rankin, centre forward for Hampton Town was forced out of the game when he accidentally killed two goalkeepers in successive weeks, each by a kick to the head (this was a series for kids?). But Stan came into a large sum of money, enough to buy a majority shareholding in Hampton and reinstate himself as Player-Manager. Except that the fans boycotted him and the first team, leaving Stan with the hard task of winning them back around.
Two more new series arrived in issue 224 (23 December), with Wilson and the crap SF series ending to accommodate them. They were neither of them worth mentioning, but they were followed in Xmas week by several things I surprised myself by recognising.
The first was the cover story, about the amazing Xmas match between Charlton Athletic and Huddersfield Town. Reduced to ten men, Charlton were 2-0 down at half-time and 5-1 with half an hour to go, and their left-winger Johnny Summers was wearing brand-new boots, when he went on a spree that saw Charlton win 7-6 with the last kick of the game, including five goals from Summers, all scored with his ‘wrong’ foot. No, this wasn’t fiction, though I remembered the one-off Ball of Fire story, which was.
Last of all was a new series, Crazy School, starring young Jimmy Bell, sent to a snooty private school where everyone down to the porter boy was a snob out to make him feeling unwanted. Unpropitious stuff, and nothing to write home about… until I recognised every single stunt, because Jimmy has fantastic hypnotic powers!
The Dixie Drummer ended its first series in issue 227 (13 January 1968) with Kid Laine joining the British Army to fight in the Great War, but there has to be at least one more series to come because I remember the Big Five’s reunion in No Man’s Land. That left just two decent strips, and a couple of real SF schtumers: Hornet could not do SF to save its life.
After giving me a nostalgia jolt in its first episode, Crazy School ended in issue 230 (3 February) without ringing another bell. The same week, Stan Rankin was joined by another football series, Haddie, another amateur footballer who would end up dragging his club towards another FA triumph. Haddie, whose nickname came from his profession as a North Sea Fisherman, was a junior league Bernard Briggs, playing for fun and reserving his seriousness for his fishing.
And speaking of old Briggsy, the real thing returned in issue 234 (2 March), still scrapping but now scrapping, in the square ring that is. It was another of those times when new series seemed to start nearly every week. Stan Rankin was finally vindicated when television footage was discovered that exculpated him over the two keepers’ deaths, bringing the crowds back in to cheer his goals once more.
His replacement was Bring ’em Back Barney, another one that trips the memory. Barney Hines, the Mayor of Walla-Wogga, has opened a town museum that is empty, so he’s enlisted in the Aussie Army in the Great War to collect ‘souvenirs’ for exhibits. Why do I remember something like this when I have no recollection of The Devil Dogs of the Dravids in the same issue?
Also back the same week was Kid Laine in The Return of the Dixie Drummer, in France, in the War and about to be reunited with the rest of the Big Five. And one issue later it was time again for Wally Brand, the Ball of Fire, back in a new series in which, shock, horror, he’s still at the same club.
The Dixie Drummer’s second story ran until issue 244 (11 May) after which he gave way to Detective Paul Terhune, whilst Richard Sharp, The Blazing Ace of Space, also returned after a very long absence for more World War 2 RAF missions.
The next new series was The Fifth Wicket Fosters, a cricket strip. Unlike Bring ‘Em Back Barney, this was one of the series I had always remembered, and one I was looking forward to reading again. Peter Foster is the third generation of his family to bat at no 6 for Northshire, an attacking batsman. But he’s also a Special Ops Agent who, in order to stem an aggressive Dictator, agrees to appear a traitor delivering secret plans. The plot succeeds, but the Dictator susses that the plans are fakes and sends men in search of Peter, who, having undergone plastic surgery and been re-named Dave Palmer, applies to become a professional cricketer – at Northshire. An intriguing set-up.
It didn’t take long for ‘Palmer’ to give himself away, safely, to his younger brother John. John Foster suffered from a frozen right arm after a car accident but is secretly training himself to bowl left arm spin.
Another, if gentler, jolt of memory came with the debut of the Floating Man in issue 251 (29 June), about a salesman trying to promote a buoyancy suit that turned a man into his own boat, so to speak. A familiar panel, but nothing else was recognisable in the first episode, but it was recognisable to me.

Richard Starr’s second series and Bring ‘Em Back Barney both reached an end in issue 253 (12 July), with one being replaced by a nondescript treasure hunt series and the other a one-off war story. Meanwhile, The Fifth Wicket Fosters came to an end all-too-soon, with truth, exoneration and the County Championship all round, to be replaced, at last, by Wilson Did It. This is the Wilson Cricket story I’ve been waiting for all along, that I left unfinished when I gave up Hornet in 1968, the year of graduation from (most) comics to Football magazines like Goal, Shoot and Striker. An end is in sight.
The set-up is that the plane carrying the England Test Team, travelling too Australia for the Ashes, crashes in Arnhem Land, killing no-one but injuring every player. A second party crashes in the exact spot, where the Amazing Wilson is studying the Aborigines and their approach to cricket. Wilson discovers a dead Aborigine tracker, shot through the head, from a half-track vehicle that has vanished. A mystery.
Of the second party, the only player uninjured is our old friend Bert Bunting, the Highshire wicket-keeper (since when?). And there’s a double crossover when Rob Higson, not selected for either party, asks Wilson to lead a scratch English side in a charity match. When Wilson turns out to bowl at bat-smashing speed, Higson gets a fantastic notion…
The thought of completing the story after fifty years – a longer time by far than the Eagle serial I wrote about here (insert link) – makes every panel of this story a fascination, but I mustn’t forget the rest of the paper, not that the majority of the stories make forgetting them difficult. Two new series debuted in issues 257 and 258 (10 and 17 August), the first, Shawnee Fall Was Here!, a western about a small mining town that vanishes completely whilst Deputy Marshall Jubal Smith was away ten days, trailing a robber, and the second featuring the popular character, the Swamp Rat, this time revealing his real name of Peter Bold and how he got all his tattoos in The Badges of courage on Darkness Island: very boyhood of Arnold Tabbs with a soupcon of Lord of the Flies.
The same issue saw the rather lacklustre Bernard the Boxer end abruptly when he discovered his manager had been ripping him off, with the mildly interesting The Man in Black also concluding.
The long term replacement for Briggs was another returnee, The Diggers in New Guinea, two Australian cobbers at war. And no less than three old favourites returned in issue 261 (7 September), with Briggsy back in goals for an American tour, the Deathless Men in a new V for Vengeance series and a long overdue second series for Muscles Malone.
Briggs was just Briggs in an American context, and funnily enough Muscles Malone was also Stateside, but I should have realised which V for Vengeance story this had to be, coming so close to the end of my experience with Hornet. This was the origin of the Deathless Men, beginning with the escape by captured and tortured British Agent Aylmer Gregson from a concentration camp, and his decision to start the Army of Vengeance, an Army of Jacks: like the little metal things that turned over a fallen tank, human jacks that would overturn the Nazis. It also introduced plastic surgeon Anton Gerhard, the never before seen Jack Two. After two substandard series, only one episode was needed to show that V for Vengeance was once more at a cold peak, by concentrating on its original format: of vengeance.
The Diggers’ series came to an abrupt end after only six episodes in issue 264 (28 September), but I was more concerned with the Wilson series, which began with something I well remembered, and ended with something of which I had no memory: was this the point?
Yes, it was. The next Hornet saw the introduction of a new cover feature, one I had never seen, The Hornet Gallery of Sport, kicking off with a very unlife-like George Best, and Wilson’s story moving onto territory I had never seen. That dates, very precisely, when I gave up Hornet. But not this account: I have at least one series to finish, don’t I?
By stopping when I did, I missed a fourth Big Palooka series, this one at the Mexico Olympics: oh no! That must mean the story was taking place in 1968! Oh, calamity!
The mystery of the two crashed airplanes in Wilson turned out to be accidental engine interference from machinery used by uranium prospects though that did not quite explain why they were planning to do it deliberately to a third MCC team. Which didn’t explain the shock I got from very clearly recognising incidents in the episode in issue 269 (2 November). On the other hand, I had no recollection whatsoever of the latest execrable SF series.
Briggs’ American tour ended in issue 272 (23 November) with the discovery that the statue of Sam Houston he’d been toting around was made of solid gold, solving all manner of financial issues sprung in the last chapter. And V for Vengeance also came to an end, a final end, with Hitler’s suicide in his bunker bringing to an end the need for the Deathless Men. Their replacements were one each of football and war, with the former having the more promising set-up. For a start, it was a second series actually set in 1968. Danny Hawke, manager of struggling Ashfield Rovers, had managed a massively successful England Schoolboy team five years earlier. Now he set off to scour the world to reunite his Eleven Little Soccer Boys to rescue Ashfield.
Meanwhile, Wilson’s Australian adventure was still going on. Hie team had been awarded the Test series and won the First Test in a most improbable manner, but an espionage element had come into play, a spy for an East European power seeking to extract secrets from the scientist Dr Moffin, who was behind the two MCC plane crashes back at the beginning of the series. Issue 275 (14 December) represented 22 episodes with no end in sight.
Of course, Bernard Briggs wasn’t off the scene long. The Goalie was replaced by the Boot as our favourite rough diamond joined the Great Britain Ruby League team for a tour of Australia in issue 278 (4 January 1969). And Wilson Did It finally ended in issue 280 (18 January). The Test series was won with two games to spare, Wilson was off to remotest Canada to further test his endurance, and the spy was dead of a heart attack without any explanation of why he wanted to crash two MCC touring parties: I expected no more. But at least I got to the end of the story, 51 years after I started it.
After 282 issues (1 February), Hornet surprised us by introducing a one page comic series, Phil the First, about a lad obsessed with being first at everything, in the style of those many dumb one-pagers in Lion and Valiant. In in the style of those comics, it was dumb and unfunny.

Post-Wilson, there wasn’t much to enthuse me, and there was one less when The Big Palooka went back to England in issue 284 (15 February). However, just two issues later, I discovered that I was wrong about V for Vengeance and the Deathless Men. So many Hornet series’ were comic strip adaptations of prose serials from the Forties and Fifties. I have often wondered if V for Vengeance was amongst them, and now I was answered with The Voice from Berlin, a prose serial about a plan to discredit and kill a fictional version of the infamous Lord Haw-Haw, Basil Royce, not William Joyce.
This also teased a connection I’d long since pondered from the beginning of Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s V for Vendetta. To the semi-coincidence of the title, this now added a reflection of the three-parter dealing with the fascist Government’s propaganda broadcaster, Lewis Protheroe: Voice of Fate, Voice of Truth. Intriguing.
A second one pager, Harry the Hitch, started in issue 288 (15 March) with no better quality. Meanwhile, despite the accent on melodrama, the prose V for Vengeance was much stronger, thanks to its ability to go into details that could not be portrayed in panels.
The modestly entertaining Eleven Little Soccer Boys finished in issue 292 (12 April), giving way to another football series, The Team from Trisidium, featuring a team of aliens to whom football was archaic war: just your average notion, then. And with Barnard Briggs ending his Australian tour two issues later (and no doubt starting a short countdown to his next series), for the first time there were no ‘picture stories’ to really interest me.
And when the V for Vengeance serial ended in issue 297 (17 May), there were none.
There were also only three issues left to this instalment. Nothing changed in that time and thus another instalment is over.
I’ve outlasted the days of my original enthusiasm for Hornet, I’ve ended my interrupted story, and now it’s 1969, not that you’d ever known from within this comic. Time to look elsewhere. There are enough issues left on the DVD-Rom set for three more postings, but these will be reserved now to when I’ve run out of alternatives: I’ve had enough of the Fifties-style comics for a good time. We’ll be back to Adventure Comics next time.

A Buzz Around The Hornet: Part 2

Here’s the next 100 issues of The Hornet, the youngster of the D.C.Thomson stable, taking us from 14 August 1965 to 8 July 1967. It starts with series such as Muscles Malone MA, hiding his secret as an all-in wrestler to keep his job as a Form Master at a sports-hating Private School, the final episode of the current Nick Smith story, as he leads Kingsbury to the double of the Third Division and the FA Cup, The Bent Copper continuing his vendetta against the gang that framed him and the Second World War Private Army, the Deathless Men, in V for Vengeance. Will there be any nostalgic remembrance when we arrive in July 1967? Will I find I had given the paper up before then? Stick around.
Losing Nick Smith so quickly was a bit of a blow, and when The Bent Copper cleared his name in issue 103 (28 August), I was starting to think my reading material was getting thin, but I should have known better. Nick and Arnold Tabbs were back again next issue, under the It’s Goals That Count heading and, after an unprecedented fifteen week absence, so too was Briggs, Bernard the Boot, turning his multi-talents and mono-minded personality to Rugby Union. Something tells me I’m going to get the Tennis series in this tranche of issues.
For Nick and Arnold, it was the same old story, even though they were back in the First Division with Redburn Rovers, tasked with bringing the club the title and up against the usual self-important Director who thought Nick should have to defer his ideas to him, whilst Briggs’s new series set off on a slightly different tack. For once, Briggs was ignorant of Rugby League (I was surprised that we weren’t in the snootier territory of Union) and even had to practice a bit before he could kick the ball reliably each time. But after that, we all knew what would be coming…
Sadly, Muscles Malone was done the week after, when an understanding Governor secured his position as the new Headmaser. I could have stood a few more weeks of that.
Briggs’ story was a cut above his previous outings. For one thing, he had acquired an artist who could draw a normal sized mouth and jaw, and for another he was being a bit more humble than before. Though his kicking was every bit as pretenaturally good, he had a lot to learn about the game and for once wasn’t lording it over everyone else’s ignorance.
V for Vengeance ended on a panel I recalled in issue 109 (9 October), with a panicked Hitler trying to kill Himmler because news of the Deathless Men’s successes had been withheld from him. I’m hoping, indeed I’m pretty sure, it will be back: after all, this series didn’t explain why the Deathless Men take the name Jack.
This left Messrs Briggs and Smith to entertain me, plus a mixture of mildly interesting to dull series that left no great impression, and Smith’s latest series ended in issue 115 (20 November) on the dramatic point of working out goal difference to discover Redburn had won the League by one-hundredth of a goal. Oh what fun we had.
The popular The Swamp Rat was back again. I haven’t mentioned this before as I find it dull. It’s a Second World War series about an Australian jungle expert with multiple tattoos on his body, which obviously delighted the readers, just not me. And a new prose serial (yes, they’re still running) began, starring the mysterious Mr X. And no, this was not Lion‘s Mr X.
And as usual Nick Smith wasn’t gone long, returning in issue 117 (4 December) for the first in a series of complete stories drastically multiplying the number of clubs he played for.
Suddenly, it was old home week. A scar-faced RAF Corporal calling himself Greene undertook the task of first training POW Tom Vale to overcome a ‘dead’ leg and, post-War, to train him as a runner, all under the series title Has Wilson Come Back? (answer: yes, you fool) in issue 119 (18 December), whilst the following issue saw Bernard Briggs’ successful venture into Rugby League replaced by The Big Palooka in Chicago. And the unfunny Ugg, a neanderthal wrestler, also came back the same issue.
Once again, one of our comics reviews comes to 1966, to the year of the World Cup, and England’s Glory. Hornet began its celebrations with a World Cup wallet in issue 123 (15 January) and three new series, one and a half of them new. The wholly new was The Wonder from the Western Isles, another football strip from out of the recesses of memory, not for its star, 17 year old Rory Grant, but for Grant’s mentor, the Blind Laird, a man obsessed with reverting tactically to the days of the attacking centre half, and equally obsessed with down-at-fortune Longport Wanderers, for reasons that must already be obvious to anyone who knows boys comics.

The returnee was, to my delight, V for Vengeance, once more sacrificing to halt the Nazis, this time concentrating on the German Navy in Hamburg dockyard, whilst the halfway series was The Blitz Kid, starring Nick Smith’s best pal, Arnold Tabbs, as a 13 year old during the War. To escape the blitz on Rudley, Arnold is evacuated and placed with a mean, cruel, miserly couple (did any other kind take in an evacuee in the comic book version of the War?) Arnold runs home to Rudley only to discover his house has been bombed and everyone, including his dog, have been killed. This did not look like being a cheerful series.
Another new feature came on board in issue 126 (5 February), another War series about Captain Spencer, Britain’s top intelligence agent in the Middle East, aka The Limping Man. This is supposedly one of the classic Hornet features but I have no recollection of it and on the strength of the first couple of episodes, I can’t see why it’s so highly regarded.
Wilson finally admitted to being Wilson in issue 129 (26 February) in order to prevent a fraudster cashing in on his name, which made room for a new series the following week, The Blind Boxer, about a boxer slowly losing his sight but needing to keep boxing to pay for treatment for his sick son. And The Big Palooka brought down the Mr Big of Chicago before turning to England in the same issue.
It was another of those spells where most of the series were of little interest to me, just The Blitz Kid, the Wonder of the Western Isles and the perennially interesting V for Vengeance. Though there’s one aspect about the football story that has me reserving judgement: it’s one thing for the rogue to keep Rory’s real identity hidden from his bereaved father and another for Rory’s mentor, the Blind Laird, to do the same. Where is this going?
Having said that, V for Vengeance wrapped up in issue 134 (2 April) with the Deathless Men playing a vital part in the real-life sinking of the Bismarck, to be replaced, ‘like-for-like’, by The One-Pip Wonder. This was about a sharp Second Lieutenant taking over a Reconnaissance Patrol that had gotten sloppy, which was decently interesting.
And Rory Grant’s story ended in issue 136 with the Laird making a clean breast of everything, AND admitting he’d been a total bastard over the missing boy, which I didn’t expect. Oh yes, and winning the FA Cup too.
Just when it looked like I was in danger of running out of series to enjoy, an old favourite came to the rescue in issue 138 (30 April). The Forbidden Quest of William Wilson, set at a guess in the late Forties, concerned itself with Wilson’s desire to climb Mount Everest, via the then-primary route from Tibet. And the relief became a rush for, though Arnold Tabbs’ teenage years came to an end in issue 139, there was the simultaneous return of both Nick Smith and Bernard Briggs the following week and, yes, just as I predicted this was Briggsy’s stint as a tennis player.
The series went under the sub-title of The Roughneck of the Courts, and set Bernard up with two soon-to-be-competing interests: tennis and winning Lorry Driver of the Year. I remember a fair amount of this one. I don’t remember anything at all about the new It’s Goals that Count, but it’s got me hooked already. Nick and Arnold’s latest club are the English representatives in the new World League, a team of internationals except for J.P. Sedley, an unknown amateur brought in as right half, captain and tactician. Sedley, whose touch is cool, whose expression never changes, and who has all the unique skills of the former international Steve Woolmer, who vanished in the Blitz, but who would be over 60 by now…
And to cap it all, Rob Higson followed the list of stalwarts back into action in issue 141, in The Nameless One, another set-up I remember. The title character was Len Hamlet, a foundling seventeen year old super-cricketer from the Highshire groundstaff. But where was he born? Did he qualify to play from Highshire or did he belong to Broadshire? (This is the relic of the days when only men born within the County could play for the County Cricket Club).
The One-Pip Wonder ended in issue 146 (25 June), having proved to be a pretty decent, realistic War story, set in the Battle of the Bulge, though this was never referred to as such. A one-off story covered that slot, then in issue 148, three new stories started up. None of these looked immediately inspiring, and the SF one, The Purple Planet, paid all the attention to scientific and astronomic reality of Captain Condor at his stupidest.

But all good series come to an end. The Nameless One ended with the inevitable revelation that Len Hamlet was qualified to play for Highshire, and his crazy father faced up to justice in issue 151 (30 July). A week later, Wilson reached the summit of Everest, not that he admitted it, and took a breather, though to my delight this made way for one of those features I’d never forgotten, Nightingale Nobbs.
Nobbs was one of those natural ideas, funny without being silly, and flexible. Nobbsy was a wrestler, a beaten-up bloke with a broken nose, two cauliflower ears and missing teeth, a real horrorshow. He also had the voice of and angel, you just couldn’t put him on stage. Ken Barry was a reporter. He had the matinee idol looks but couldn’t sing. So music Manger Mike Mason put Ken on stage miming to Nobbs, singing in the wings, a trick they couldn’t afford to have exposed. Except that Nobbs still had contract to wrestle and a list of names as long as his arm – in fact, it was tattooed on it – on whom he wanted revenge.
Nick Smith made it three out of three endings when Granton United won the World League and Sedley finally remembered which past footballer he actually was, though the mystery of the ice-cold skin was conveniently forgotten, naughty naughty (just like with Fergus). Not that it mattered because, after just one week’s absence, Wilson was back, reunited with his usual artist, in Wilson and the Black Olympics.
The title tempered my usual enthusiasm for a Wilson story and the opening episode was not propitious. In the London Olympics year of 1948, prominent white sportsman were being kidnapped, to Africa, where for propaganda purposes the ‘simple’ black natives would see their own beating the white man. This was an inherently dodgy subject.
The clean sweep followed in issue 155 (27 August) in the remembered fashion. Briggs reached the Men’s Singles and Doubles Finals at Wimbledon, dropped out of the former to win the Lorry Driver of the Year Competition instead and then carried his crocked partner to victory in the Doubles. This time, he didn’t even take a week off, following in Arnold Tabbs’ footsteps in The Boyhood of Bernard Briggs, little Briggsy aged 11.
This was the start of another fluid spell, with new stories starting singly practically every week, none of any great substance. The best of these was The Rifleman of the Rocks, about a sniper in Borneo, the sole survivor of an ambushed platoon, single-handedly holding up the Japanese advance, because this had Hornet’s best artist on it, with some beautiful detailed figurework and backgrounds.
Nightingale Nobbs’ fun little story carried me through to issue 167 (19 November) and Wilson’s Black Olympics lasted only a week longer. Though the subject was dubious and the outcome severely colonial, it was better than it could have been, and the Zulu leader Chaka, though a fanatic intending to raise the whole of Africa, was presented with dignity and as a strictly fair man. And the Rifleman completed his self-imposed duty in issue 170 (10 December, and the last I read at Brigham Street in Openshaw; so I did read Hornet past the move to Burnage Lane).
If I was taking the contents of Hornet as any portent, life in my new home didn’t get off to a great start, as Briggs’ boyhood was the only decent series, and that had settled into a repetitive round, plus one half-bearable football story that was neither funny enough nor sporty enough.
Fortunately for my 21st century interest, Nick Smith and It’s Goals that Count returned in issue 173 (31 December). Nick and Arnold were transferred to their umpty-gazillionth club (and it’s only 1958), newly bought by an American Corporation who reckon that a successful football club is the way to British hearts, even in a Rugby League town: Nick’s going to have a lot of explaining to do, isn’t he?
This is an aspect of the entire comic that had long been evident but which has only now been made explicit: there are absolutely no contemporary series. We are one page away from 1967 and the setting for Nick and Arnold is almost a decade before. Wilson hasn’t even reached the Fifties yet. Contrast this with Lion and Valiant, if not the futuristic TV21. The DC Thomson papers all occupy a very narrow range of styles and it cannot be coincidence that they refuse to enter the modern era. I’ve heard some things about hidebound management, and this is in keeping with those stories.
Briggs’ Boyhood came to an end with an implausible twist in issue 175 (14 January 1967), which saw him set up for himself with business premises… at age 11? But I was more intrigued by the Nick Smith episode, and the unexpected appearance of Bert Bunting. Who? do you say? I have vivid memories of Bert, who is Rob Higson’s best pal at Highshire, his equivalent of Arnold Tabbs. It’s an unusual step for two separate series to have a crossover, but what concerns me most is that Bunting hasn’t yet been introduced in It’s Runs that Count. I want an explanation.
And five seconds research reveals the bitter truth that also accounts for the fixation with not setting stories in the Sixties: these are all bloody reprints! Nick and Arnold and Rob and Bert, from The Rover, at different times in the Fifties. What a chiz! (which is a swizz and a swindle, as any fule kno).
Bert turned out to not just be a bird expert who cured all the Blackford pigeons, but an enthusiastic supporter and a more than useful inside right, but I’m now waiting for his ‘debut’ where he really belongs, at Highshire.

For a few weeks, I only had It’s Goals that Count to keep me interested, and it’s not even that good a serial, but relief was on hand in issue 180 (18 February), with three new series, seeing the simultaneous return of Arnold Tabbs as The Blitz Kid, the ever-welcome Wilson and a third V for Vengeance. Arnold was now 15, homeless again and having to rebuild himself after his broken leg and blood-poisoning, Wilson was helping the British Government on an experiment in severe cold conditions and the Deathless Men were helping two British agents follow a trail of rare butterflies to rescue a third (no, seriously).
There was also a return from the Swamp Rat in issue 182 (4 March), even though the War in the Pacific was over, plus another in a recent run of gimmicky-boxing stories, this one with Tibetan overtones. And, to be honest, whether it’s a sign of the times now we’re solidly into 1967, or it’s me reading too many Hornets too fast, not only are the one-off series dull and uninvolving, the favourites are well below par this time. Only The Blitz Kid is maintaining the standard of its earlier run, and that consists of him being made homeless again every two to three weeks.
V for Vengeance came to an end in issue 188 (15 April) without the Deathless Men ever being more than supporting characters in their own series, a big letdown, and Wilson’s lacklustre story followed it two issues later. And I owe The Blitz Kid an apology for having prematurely accused it of being repetitive, for it did break out of the cycle of homelessness for Arnold.
There was a tremendous surprise in issue 192 (13 May), when Hornet entered new territory with an adaptation of the popular American TV Western series, Laramie, though appearances were kept up since the series had been off the air sine 1963 and the adaptation was of the first season, broadcast in 1959: never even unknowingly up-to-date.
Nick Smith ended his season in issue 196 (10 June), with another Double, Second Division Championship and yet another FA Cup (was there a season this man didn’t win the Cup?), making room for It’s Runs that Count, billed as starring Rob Higson and Len Hamlet, and introducing Bert Bunting. You really do wonder at times.
Arnold Tabbs’ back-story ended in issue 199 (1July) with his meeting with Nick Smith as seen so long ago, putting him into the First Division at the age of 26. Which ought to make him 40 at least when you count up the number of clubs he and Nick have been jointly transferred to by now, but who’s counting?
So another 100 issues goes by, with the teaser of a new Bernard Briggs story to lead off the next lot. This lot has been a mixed bag, with some glorious rolling in nostalgia giving way to a feeling of malaise. For the last half of this bunch, reading Hornet has been a mostly flat experience. After Nightingale Nobbs, there have been some series I have followed, but many more that, after a week or two, and several before the end of the first episode I have scrolled past.
Because this is a boy’s comic, and an archaic boy’s comic at that. It has no interest in reflecting its times, or in exercising the imagination of its audience. It is tied to the idea that what worked in the past is still the only way of doing things, and not even the only right way. It’s for kids, and no-one else, and it’s got more reprints than I realised, and the only reason I didn’t realise this sooner is because the new stories that wrap themselves round the reprints are created in the same mould.
I will produce a third instalment, though not necessarily for this slot next time. Two hundred issues in just over four weeks is a bit too much and I need to cleanse my palate a bit. And if the third instalment gives me the end of my Wilson’s Ashes story, it may be a long while before we see a fourth.

Unexpected Reversals – What I remember from the ‘Victor’


(No, no art like this ever appeared in a D C Thomson comic, but I needed a Sohrab and Rustum illustration from somewhere)

Referencing Matthew Arnold’s epic poem Sohrab and Rustum as I did recently, in relation to the imaginative sub-structure in Katherine Hull and Pamela Whitlock’s The Far-Distant Oxus, has reminded me of a couple of vivid and memorable stories long ago in the classic D C Thomson weekly boys adventure comic, the Victor.
Before I go any further, I want to thank the poster Phoenix on the UK Comics Forum (http://comicsuk.co.uk/forum/index.php) who identified these stories from my very imprecise descriptions of them, and who was equally invaluable in correcting my naïve recollections of the second of these.
I remembered the unlikely adaptation of Arnold’s poem into a Victor series, which appeared under the title “Sohrab the Warrior” between August and November 1965 (issues 233 – 246), and ending the week before my 10th birthday.
Victor (established 1961) was one of two such D C Thomson comics I was allowed on a weekly basis, the other being its younger – but virtually interchangeable – brother, the Hornet. Each provided a weekly diet of two page serials covering all sorts of exciting subjects: war, sport, westerns, adventure, crime. Neither were noted for historical adaptations of epic poetry, which makes “Sohrab the Warrior” stand out from the offset.
I am not familiar with the poem other than to understand that it tells of the fateful, fatal meeting between two Persian warriors, the veteran and famous Rustum and the young, dashing Sohrab. Unbeknownst to either in their epic battle (Rustum is incognito, and has last seen Sohrab as a baby that he abandoned to his mother) the combatants are father and son, a fact only revealed to them when one lies dying from a mortal wound, and the other is grieving.
“Sohrab the Warrior” was, to my recollection, faithful to the premise of the poem: the young man Sohrab leaves his mother to search for his warrior father and present himself for approval. He has weekly adventures, during which he gathers a band of equally young allies, frequently derided for their youth, but always prevailing due to Sohrab’s valour and leadership. Whether any of the action was faithful to the poem, I really don’t know, but given the difference in target audiences, I really suspect not.
Thus far, and without being kind, we have a story much like the hundreds of others I read in Victor or Hornet: exciting, entertaining and lacking in distinction. After all, my main memories of the D C Thomson stable are the recurring characters, who would go on for series after series: the mysterious Wilson, the Tough of the Track, war-hero pilot Braddock, footballer Nick Smith and cricketer Rob Higgs, lorry-driving sports natural Bernard Briggs, Scotland Yard Detective in New York, The Big Palooka.
But episode thirteen turned up an ending that would stick in my mind forever, for this was when the series caught up with the poem, and Sohrab met Rustum.
It’s a basic plot of literature (and life) that the son grows to overthrow and replace the father. It’s one of Heinlein’s three basic plots: A Boy Becomes A Man. At the age of nine I had neither the breadth of reading nor the experience to understand that, but I’d read enough comics to know the simplest Truth: The Hero Wins.
So when the story was faithful to the poem, when Sohrab clashed with a powerful, incognito warrior, who suddenly ripped off his mask and proclaimed himself to be Rustum, I had nothing to prepare me for the sick shock of Sohrab dropping his guard in surprise – and the villainous opponent slashing his sword down into Sohrab’s stomach and dealing him a fatal wound.
From there to the end of the story was mere panels, enough to sketch out recognition between victor and vanquished, Sohrab to die and his body be taken away, leaving at least one nine year old struggling to process what he’d seen. The Hero Wins. He doesn’t take a sharp one to the stomach and die. He Wins. Only he hadn’t.
Thus the story stayed with me forever, for being perhaps the first I’d read that was utterly honest with me.
There was another Victor story that had a similar twist ending that has also lodged itself indelibly in my mind, but which, to my surprise, had come before this tale of Sohrab and his fate.
I’m again indebted to Phoenix, not merely for identifying the series and its publication details, but also for a more precise recollection of the story that cuts across the grain of my very vague memories of it which, other than the last half page of the last episode, is non-existent. Nevertheless, I’m going to deal with the story as I remember it first, to account for how it got into my head.
The story was titled Crib Carson – Fighter, and it appeared in Victor 218 – 229, between April and July 1965, curiously ending only three weeks before “Sohrab the Warrior” began. Apparently, it had originally appeared in D C Thomson’s Adventure in 1957 as a text serial.
I certainly remember it ‘feeling’ older than 1965, in the two panels I can still clearly see in my head, and in those the look is even older, Thirties perhaps, the Depression.
Either way, as the title suggests, this is a boxing story. Crib Carson is an up-and-coming boxer who wants to get to the top: so, nothing new there. Unconsciously at least, I would expect the story to end with him as World Champion.
Crib’s gimmick was gamesmanship, which the late Stephen Potter defined as “The art of winning without actually cheating”. Crib was good enough, but would back himself up with all sorts of clever little tricks, wrong-footing his opponents and giving himself a winning edge.
Call me naïve, which I certainly must have been, but I remember the impression that we were supposed to applaud these little japes, these smart tricks. According to Phoenix, however, the introduction box regularly referred to these as “shady tricks” which, at one point, included rubbing sneezing powder into his hair, giving his opponent a faceful of it and polishing off the lad as soon as he became helpless.
I must have missed that distinction: The Hero Wins, remember? And therefore what the Hero does in order to win is right and proper, especially if they are only japes and pranks.
By this means, we got to the final episode. By now, Crib was firmly in the Big Time, and fighting for the British Championship, as preparation for the still-expected World Title. This week’s wheeze was to rub chalk-dust into his face, to make himself look white, like someone weakened by illness. It would lull the Champion into a false sense of security, enabling Crib to take him by surprise.
Only it didn’t. The Champion didn’t fall for it. Suddenly, Crib had to rely on his fighting prowess alone. With two panels left.
There came the most astonishing reversal I had ever read at that time, and one of the most astonishing reversals I have ever read in my lifetime. The first of those two panels was an angle from outside the ring, in the audience. The referee was seen, at a distance, pulling the fighters apart whilst the loudspeaker announced that the referee had disqualified Crib for sticking his thumb in the Champions eye! And next to it, the final panel, set several months later, showed a grimacing Crib, in flat cap and muffler, standing in the wind in an (unemployment) line. Two passers-by, in a background car, pick him out as the boxer who could have been Champion but who ruined his career by cheating.
That was a slap in the face, not just for Crib, but for everyone who had read that story, over twelve weeks, cheering on this clever hero, episode after episode, until this stunningly abrupt reversal when, in the last two panels, with a rush, we were told he was a cheat, which was the worst possible thing anyone could be in a sports strip.
Of course, that only applied to boys who hadn’t twigged that Crib was supposed to be an anti-hero, climbing ever higher so that his inevitable, and richly-deserved comeuppance would be all the more spectacular.
Yes, but in two panels? Only two panels?
I couldn’t understand it for a long time, and I lacked the critical equipment to understand why. I’d never before met an anti-hero, and wouldn’t have known what to call him if I did. It was, like Sohrab just a few months later, an ending that didn’t take. Stories in comics weren’t like that: The Hero Wins.
He certainly doesn’t have the rug pulled out from under his feet in only two panels.
It’s that very abruptness, the 180 degree reversal at the very last moment, unseen (well, by me) and unsuspected that, even more so than the soon-to-follow Sohrab, impressed this tale on me. As an adult, and a novelist myself (of whatever degree), it shouts of bad artistry to throw the precipice in so very very late, and with such finality.
But it hasn’t half had the effect the writer desired!
Two stories, almost fifty years ago, with two jolting reversals that flew in the face of the whole ethos of British Boys Comics of a certain generation. Better stories have vanished into the deep mists. But these haven’t.