Eagle Volume 20 (1969)


Eagle 20 - 3

Eagle‘s last, and shortest volume consisted of only 17 issues before its cancellation by merger with Lion, this latter much to my chagrin as I was getting both papers, and was not granted dispensation to replace Eagle with anything else. The cancellation was known a long way in advance, as demonstrated by the sudden shortening of Rogue Planet, starting only a couple of issues into the new Volume.
Blackbow’s stories were also radically truncated. A new feature, drawn by Tom Kerr, started in no. 5, The Day The World Forgot. If it seemed unfamiliar, that was because it was the first of a half dozen features created in preparation for the merger, so that none of Eagle‘s own characters save Dan Dare would survive to appear in the merged title.
It was followed in no. 6 by Speed Mann, a troubleshooter, which also saw the last instalment of Quarrel. Wild of the West, boxer, debuted in no. 8. Yet all of this was being done without removing any of the regular strips, just yet: a case of quantity but not quality. But the exodus couldn’t be postponed any longer. Mickey Merlin ended in no. 10, to be replaced a week later by Lightning Strikes Back. The Mark Mystery reprints were curtailed by a caption jump to the original end of the series in the same issue.
It looked like Speed Mann wasn’t even good enough for Lion as his story lasted a measly six issues before making way for The Gladiators. The Hornblower reprints sailed away in no. 13 and The Waxer, most ghastly of all the new creations, started in no. 14. The last Blackbow story began in the same issue, but Frank Humphris had left early, to beat the rush. The next issue featured the last Cut-Out, Ashwell-Wood coming through as he had done for nearly twenty years.
The Guinea Pig got out in the penultimate issue, and that meant that Eagle‘s final issue, Volume 20 no. 17, cover-date 26 April 1969, the 993rd issue of all, saw the end of the truncated Rogue Planet, but also the ends of Blackbow the Cheyenne and The Iron Man. The Circus Wanderers bit the dust, taking Wild in the West and The Day Time Forgot with them.
And that was the end of it all. You may think that I’ve given unfairly short shrift to this last volume but that’s not the case. Even Blackbow’s last few stories were inadequate and as for all the rest, there was literally nothing to write home about. The story of Eagle‘s last four months is one of a once-superb comic being strangled to death by mediocrity, the final exercise of power by a Manager who resented the comic’s very existence as the refutation of everything his own career in comics had been, and finally diminishing it to the point where it could no longer survive.
The last months were just dragging the humiliation out until no-one could deny that Eagle was unsavable. I was right not to collect further copies after my pre-set endpoint, and I should perhaps have stuck to my guns and stayed away, because satisfying this particular curiosity has indeed been painful. I’m sorry for the 13½ year old boy who had to endure that. It hastened the moment when he gave up comics altogether, though we now know that that didn’t last all that long. It was only a decade to the Dragon’s Dream republication of The Man from Nowhere…

Eagle Volume 19 (1968)


Eagle 19 - 4

The writing had been on the wall for Eagle ever since its major cheapening in Volume 18 no. 37, so it came as some surprise that the title survived through a final full volume of 52 issues. Even more surprisingly, for a comic that was clearly being done cheaper every week, it retained a solid core of series that had been stalwarts for several years: Dan Dare, Hero of the Spacefleet, The Guinea Pig, The Iron Man, Blackbow the Cheyenne were all standing in no. 52.
Dan Dare started the volume with the second episode of his last original adventure, Underwater Attack. It ran only four episodes all told, including one black and white internal page, revealing at the last second that its invading ‘aliens’ were actually naval men testing a new underwater exploration suit. Not worthy of comment.

The rest of the year was given over to classic reprints, of The Man from Nowhere, seguing into Rogue Planet. Reprint it was, and not always treated with the respect it was due – squashed up pages, one or two in black and white, bounced all over the title – but this was prime Frank Hampson, and at the time it was my first ever exposure to the work of the great man, and with all that Eagle did to it, it was still glorious, and head and shoulders above anything else the title offered us. Indeed, for most of The Man from Nowhere, the original gap for the old Eagle title-box was ingeniously filled by newspaper headlines, recapping the story to date.
Of the other regulars, only Blackbow was worthy of serious consideration, and although the pseudo-horror/magic stories were mostly now a thing of the past and the stories more grounded, it was still only Frank Humphris’ art that deserved attention. The last full serial of the Volume, from no. 44 to 51, was drawn by Eric Kincaid instead.

Eagle 19 - 19

As for The Guinea Pig and The Iron Man, neither were worth reading. Though the former was now popular enough to spend most of the Volume in colour, albeit a flashy, splashing colour that looked to be the work of a hyperactive fourteen year old, the stories had nothing new to offer, whilst the Iron Man was formulaic and as grey as its monochrome art. The same beats – Robert is temporarily taken over, is set upon killing Tim, the villain is ultimately defeated by discovering The Iron Man is a robot and falling off a mountain in shock – repeat ever more frequently in shorter stories that suited the attention span of at least one reader whose letter was printed.
Sadly, I cannot avoid mentioning Mickey Merlin, which lasted the whole volume, though after the first two or three weeks I wasn’t even skimming it. It was nothing but a Cornelius Dimworthy-manque and you know how I felt about that series. Stupid beyond belief.
Of the other series tagging on from the previous year, Grant CID went backwards when the Zetans turned up to temporarily restore Smokeman’s powers, but the long and inglorious career of Grant and Bailey, in all its myriad forms, came to a greatly-overdue end in no 16, whilst Jennings’ serial, the last to feature in Eagle, wound up in no. 5.
Jennings was succeeded by Eagle‘s last individual sequel, The Spook Commando, in which Major Guy Haslam takes a team of commandos to his ancestral home, where has has never lived, for exercises to narrow them down to a special, stream-lined unit, psychologically as well as physically solid. The former castle is haunted. Though the serial wasn’t credited, it had the feel of more work by Donne Avenell, and the spooky stuff harked back to things like Runway 13 and High Quest – respectable antecedents indeed. It was overall a decent, if not first class adventure, mainly marred by crossing it over with a grounded spy b-story.
Grant CID was replaced by a new cover feature, Sky Buccaneers. Like Mickey Merlin, I had absolutely no memory of this, nor any great expectations. And evidence supported that theory: two pilots, Red Morgan and Ben Kidd (of course) were acting as the aerial arm of a submarine-based pirate crew.
Or were they? They and their boss, Blackbeard, talked and acted pirate-like but the story had them invading the secret island base of someone called Veldez, a South American dictator or a revolutionary if I ever heard of one (revolutionary). The problem was that the series was neither fish, fowl nor good red meat. Were Blackbeard and the Buccaneers 100% genuine pirates or were they antiheroes foiling a dangerous villain? The only question the series engendered that I could confidently answer was, did I care? And that answer was No.
Three weeks of Sky Buccaneers then gave way to round-robin cover stories. On any given week, any of Eagle‘s features – including Dan Dare – might be on the cover in full colour. To me, this smacked of desperation, of throwing things at the wall to see if anything stuck.

Eagle - Sky Buccaneers

There was another new feature started in no. 7, running through to no. 48, an American import that for all its qualities did not sit easily alongside the rest of the inherently English features. This was Tales of Asgard, and it was Jack Kirby’s back-up series in Marvel’s Thor reprinted in black and white without any acknowledgement or credit beyond a small copyright notice.
For the past eighteen months or so, Odhams had been pushing a line of comics – Wham!, Smash, Pow, Fantastic and Terrific – based largely on Marvel reprints, advertising each one in Eagle for several weeks as it debuted. My parents had refused to let me have any of the first three, regarding them as too childish, but I was allowed the (very) occasional copy of the last two, no doubt with reservations. The bottom was obviously falling out of the market because already in 1968, adverts had plugged Wham! and Pow‘s merger, rapidly followed by that of Fantastic and Terrific, so perhaps it made sense to try putting less directly connected material into Eagle, as a well-established title being slowly ridden into the ground.
Though it was another example of the ongoing decay of the comic, there was nevertheless something primal about Tales of Asgard. Though its outlines were simplistic and its stories confined to two pages at a time, this was pure Kirby, and little or no trace of Stan Lee, and it was superb stuff, dealing with genuine Norse myth.
Unfortunately, even that degenerated after a while, abandoning myth for adventures of Thor with the Warriors Three. Some episodes of this were astonishing powerful, but it was not quite the same.
The Spook Commando ended in no. 21, to be succeeded by Eagle‘s last prose serial, Cue in… Quarrel. Quarrel, or Cue Quarrel to give him his full, unrealistic name, was a roving TV reporter, heading a three man technical team, with a mission to find trouble spots all round the world and send back exciting TV programmes. He was as unconventional and capable as Nick Hazard, without the criminal aspect, and the format was the same linked short-serials of Horizon Unlimited.
But the problem with Quarrel was that it was predictable. It lacked the flair of Nick Hazard and the range of Horizon Unlimited. It was a we-have-been-here-before kind of thing, and that made it dull.
No. 30 offered me a moment of personal significance of which I was not aware when I read it so long ago, not knowing that the reprinted episode of Dan Dare was that which appeared on the Eagle of the day of my birth, not thirteen years previously. Then the very next week, the art got squashed down into crudity again, so it didn’t have to fill two whole pages. Sigh.

Eagle 19 - 39

Eagle introduced a eight page soccer special feature in no. 32, complete with an additional colour strip in the centre spread, Circus Wanderers. Bankrupt Shelford Wanderers fall out of the Fourth Division and its players all quit. Player manager Tim Masters inherits a bankrupt circus whose performers all love football. Put the two together and maybe you’ve got something fit for Lion in a weaker year, but Eagle? Throw in a Director who wants to close the club and use the ground for his factory and it’s pretty much Carson’s Cubs all over again, though with far less actual football. The club has to battle for survival, at which it succeeds.
The second serial, starting in no. 52, was another out of the Carson’s Cubs playbook, this time the eccentric trainer with their nutty methods that disrupt everything. So what if this was the new scientific doctor with curious notions and potions, the template was the same.
Sky Buccaneers passed on, unmourned and unloved, with no. 36, with no-one the wiser as to what it was all supposed to be about.
Right at the end, that writing on the wall suddenly became all but luminous. Tales of Asgard, after a week’s gap, was replaced by Mark Mystery, or rather, as older readers knew him, Mark Question, a second reprint feature to join Dan Dare. And the issue after that, Hornblower was back, across the centre spread, multiplying the reprints even further. Two more pages of cheap copy, and two fewer pages of advertising: it is as clear as can be that Eagle is being run down to cancellation.
The only consolation was to be that this embarrassment would soon be over, as Eagle was prepared for the slaughter in its shortest and final Volume.

Eagle Volume 18 (1967)


On the other hand, an insatiable curiosity can only be disposed of by satiating it.

In three and a half storage crates in a corner of my pokey little flat there is a massive pile of paper and print that represents the fulfilling of an ambition I never expected to complete. It is the Eagle, the home of Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future, my first and favourite comic book hero. It is Eagle Vol. 1 No. 1 to Vol. 18. No. 1: in print, intact, entire. All the great stories, all the great characters from my childhood and before, complete.

It only goes as far as Vol. 18 No. 1 because that was Dan Dare’s swansong, the last original page – well, not quite but good enough for me. Beyond that was nothing but reprints. Beyond Dan himself was nothing of interest save more Frank Humphris art on Blackbow the Cheyenne: good enough, but not enough to justify more hours combing eBay for yet more copies. I had what I wanted, and I was content.

But the curiosity persisted. That’s why it’s called insatiable. Which is why I ended up with a set of three DVD-ROMs containing Eagle Volumes 18-20. I read these a very long time ago, between 1967 and 1969. They may not be much cop, in fact I expect them to be not much cop at all, especially the further we go along, but I am a completist at heart, so let’s sit down with the last throes of a once brilliant comic that gripped my imagination, and relive those days, without which the tapestry is not complete.

Eagle 18 - 1

For most of the year, Eagle managed to maintain – and in one case improve upon – the reduced standards it was setting by the end of 1966. The big exception to this was the obvious one – Dan Dare.

Ironically, the comic’s signature series offered original work in the first and last issues of the Volume: Keith Watson’s final page of art in no. 1, and two pages of Eric Kincaid art in no. 52, about which I shall have more to say in relation to Volume 19, where the majority of the story, ‘Underwater Attack’, appeared.

In between times, Odhams went back into Dan Dare’s past, reprinting the 1954/5 story, ‘Prisoners of Space’, as drawn by Don Harley and Desmond Walduck, which introduced ‘Flamer’Spry. It ran under the rubric of Dan Dare, Hero of the Spacefleet, which was one thing, but it was treated with disrespect throughout its reprint run. The series may have ben given the same 50 week run as its original, but it suffered under a multiplicity of formats.

Firstly, from no. 2 to 7, the serial was split between page 16 and the back cover, page 20. Then, from no. 8 to 27, it was crushed into a corner of the centre spread, aligned to the top left corner but reprinted at a reduced size that took up no more than two-thirds of the actual space available. Then, when Eagle underwent its last and most regrettable revamps, the serial was further degraded by being restored to the split scenario, but with the top tier of page 2 surgically attached to the internal page and the remaining two tiers taking up no more than half the back cover, one week in black and white.

Do you wonder that I refused to give house-space to the comic that perpetrated this?

Next, let’s remind ourselves of what Eagle contained. In terms of strips, the best of the rest of the bunch was still Blackbow the Cheyenne, for Frank Humphris’s art and little else, though one short story of twelve weeks duration was started by Humphris but had the majority of its episodes drawn by Harry Bishop. Story-wise, there was still nothing to touch Riders of the Range, but the silliness and the fantastic elements were turned down to a degree by writer Ted Cowan, of Robot Archie fame. One story did rather telegraph its villain, as early as its fifth episode of fourteen.

But if I were to rack the other four strips in descending order of quality then I would struggle whether to cast The Guinea Pig or The Iron Man in third place. Mike Lane’s adventures as chief tester for Professor Dee’s stupid inventions were complete nonsense (an undersea craft that promptly ended up being used on land was the Sea-Landing Under The Tide, otherwise known as the SLUTT: someone was taking the piss), but at least had the merit that several of them were over in a mere two or three episodes, whereas Robert the Robot was not merely dull but long-winded.

After disposing of Zadak the Evil (no comment) in no. 1, the next serial ran for 29 issues. It felt like a throwback to the Lion of the Fifties and those endless stories that dragged from cliffhanger to cliffhanger with no story development, just dragging the story out week after week. It involved a villain called Maskface (seriously) who was trying to prevent the car Robert and Tim Branton were driving in an international rally from winning and depriving him of a fortune. At a plot a week, the villain must surely have spent more failing than he could ever hope to have made, and he died without our ever finding out who he was, why he was doing this and how he was supposed to get rich out of it, which says all you ever need to know about the Iron Man and his stories.

Eagle - Iron Man

Beware, we are now getting to the real crap. The only reason I place Smokeman, UFO Agent next to bottom is because Cornelius Dimworthy was still going (I must have found that stupid at age 11, please tell me I loathed it at age 11).

Smokeman still had the benefit of brightly coloured art by Jose Ortiz, who signed his work prominently throughout the run, and it was popular enough to take over the cover from no. 8 onwards, until no. 29. It was still a stupid series, an ineffectual attempt to do superheroes by a writer who couldn’t lend the concept any conviction: if he had, would he have been writing about a hero whose superpower was to turn to smoke?

It didn’t even last that long as Smokeman, since in no. 25 the Zetans returned, removed Grant’s powers (except for a few transitional goes) and installed Grant and Bailey as Detective-Constables with Belminster CID, the feature being variously renamed Smokeman CID, or Grant CID from No. 38, by which time it had developed the distinct feel of a Rory MacDuff story from the ghoulies’n’ghosties period.

That left the prose serial. We left Volume 17 with the latest Anthony Buckeridge Jennings serial, which ran through to no. 8 before being replaced by what was, frankly, the year’s highlight for me, being back-to-back Nick Hazard serials, running from no. 9 to no. 37 before disappearing for good.

Thanks to an editorial response, I now know the Nick Hazard stories to have been written by Donne Avenell, he of ‘High Quest’. First up was The Cat Has Nine Lives, just titled Nine Lives in its first two episodes. This I remembered, though only certain bits in any detail. It took up Hazard’s story nine months after The Croesus Conspiracy, with bribery and corruption keeping druglord Paul Bendix from conviction on evidence collected secretly by Hazard. Infuriated at seeing a naïve scientist sentenced to three years inside, Hazard breaks him out of Court, helps him rob the British Museum of a cat-shaped amulet and is rewarded by being shot in the chest at point-blank range.

And living.

Because the scientist, Nevil Wade, has turned the amulet into an invulnerability device. Whilst Hazard wears it, he cannot be killed or injured. So he chooses to fly out to Bangcock and use his invulnerability to follow Bendix’s pipeline back to England, destroying it step by step and finally ending Bendix. The bit I remembered clearest was an underwater cliffhanger. The Cat has just saved Hazard’s life for the ninth time and he’s musing to himself about whether it will only work nine times when his aqualung is destroyed. And a protective field against injury can’t full a drowning man’s lungs with air…

Of course Hazard won. And Avenell went straight on into a story of which I had no memories whatsoever. It featured reporter Gil Bennett trying to locate Hazard to get his life story, getting involved in another druglord-busting campaign during which Hazard related, Horizon Unlimited style, some short adventures from his past, setting up his career as a freebooter, before flying off into the night sky, never to return, more’s the pity.

Someone should have collected these Nick Hazard stories into books. I’d have bought them, and maybe I’d even have kept them.

Eagle guinea pig

Of course, Eagle was always more than just stories. Did It Ever Happen? stayed on the cover until no. 7, with the Yes or No answer on page 3. After Smokeman’s intervention, it would briefly feature Legends in their Lifetime, with a page inside about such folk as motor racer Tazio Nuvolari, Sergeant York, of legendary film status, boxer Joe Louis and fighter pilot Douglas Bader. |The series would run to the end of the year, even after losing its cover lead.

Bids for Freedom, with stiff colour art, limped on intermittently until no. 9, after which it was replaced by What’s in a Name?, looking into the derivation and famous examples of various surnames: they never featured Crookall, the buggers.

Ex-Pro’s sports page and the famous Cut-Out page, mostly but not exclusively by Leslie Ashwell-Wood also continued throughout the year, all at 7d per week, or 3p.

Curiously, the comic was still officially titled ‘Eagle and Boy’s World magazine, incorporating the Merry-Go-Round’: seventeen years on, the comic’s indicia still bore witness to the never-published device that provided a double paper ration to allow Eagle to print weekly.

Interestingly, despite the weekly signs of editorial incoherence, Eagle was a surprisingly stable comic throughout most of the year, that is, until no. 37. The following week, the comic underwent the biggest revamp of its history. This time it was less the contents that were shuffled than the physical comic. After over seventeen years, it was taken off the paper standard Frank Hampson and Marcus Morris had demanded for it. Eagle was reduced to newsprint, and its page depth was cut. After alternating intermittently between 20 and 24 pages, it jumped to 32 It was now the Modern Paper for the Modern Boy, though I doubt that very much.

It would remain in this cheap format for the rest of its life.

There was surprisingly little change to the features, mostly a shuffling. Somkeman CID was renamed Grant CID and pushed inside into black and white, whereas The Guinea Pig went into the centre-spread, in full colour, with a bit more space allotted to it than Dan Dare had had, but not full-size until no.46. Mike Lane’s first story involved him being affected by radiation that changed him into a yellow skeleton every time he saw a particular shade of yellow, including women’s blouse, and cured only by cold, such as ice cream lollies. So, no upgrade there.

Jennings replaced Nick Hazard just as Hazard had replaced him earlier on, whilst two new scientific features were introduced, Futurescope and Frontiers of Science, article and strip respectively, even if the latter was a Fifties reprint still marked with its original numbering.

The one big change was the replacement of Cornelius Dimworthy, put out of my misery at last, by Mickey Merlin. One panel was enough to tell that the nightmare lingered on: Merlin was ‘awkward’ as opposed to ‘dreamy and lucky’ but only the names had changed. Even though the second week clarified Merlin to be some sort of cross between Dimworthy and the long-gone Billy Binns, without artificial aids, it was just the same, all over again.

Futurescope caught my eye in No. 44, looking at the way we might live in the unimaginably distant future of, say, the Nineties in a world of home computers and the things they could do to order and run your life for you. The feature was over-optimistic, by two decades, but it was amazingly prescient. It even foresaw PINs, though it called them Secret Account Codes instead.

As Xmas approached, Eagle was full of adverts for Xmas presents. I was struck by memories of the Airfix Monte Carlo Rally set, with nearly nineteen feet of track and Alpine supports to create mountainous hairpin bends for the two Mini-Cooper model cars. I wanted it, but as I already had an Airfix set, I never got it. I look at the pictures now, and I want again, for the small boy within me and the adult I’ve become. If only there was time travel…

The Xmas edition Futurescope was another of the few things from 1967 that I remembered, positing a Xmas Day 300 years thence that had been transferred to the Winter Solstice, December 22, and re-named Nicholas Day, to enable Jew and Muslim to participate equally. For a comic founded by a Church of England Clergyman, this is astonishing, but to think that a comic in a nation that still thought of itself as impeccably Christian, such an ecumenical notion – such a notion of peace, love and acceptance between creeds and people – could be thought was astounding. Would that the people who thought this at Xmas 1967 had prevailed. What better a world would we be in now? For all my complaints about Eagle Volume 18, this piece earned the comic a massive tick-mark.

Eagle 18 - 38

A Pugwash Expedition


Let’s get the paranoia bit over first. It’ll never disappear but these days it’s dimming, thanks to mt increasing confidence in back-planning, otherwise known as I-am-catching-a-train-to-Southport-at 11.18am, when do I have to start to be there in time? Result? From shower at 9.47am to the Platform 14 waiting lounge at Piccadilly Station at 11.02am. The ticket has been bought (a whole 90p extra than if I’d bought it in advance, Crookall, you profligate fool!) and I’m already relaxing with the Southport train in red on the board.

I’ve been on an Expedition like this before, last summer, when travelling across West Lancashire to the Fylde Coast was a bit more of a daredevil process. The occasion then was a Dan Dare Exhibition at the Atkinson Gallery on Lord Street and I wanted to steal the framed original art for Frank Bellamy’s first episode of ‘Fraser of Africa’. Now, we’re free to travel wherever we want, with or without facemasks, and this year it’s John Ryan, cartoonist and cartoon-maker, an original Eagle stalwart, creator of the immortal Captain Pugwash, a most incompetent pirate. Joy it was in that dawn tp be alive.

So far, it’s been a mostly sunny day. It has rained, earlier, and there are enough grey-white clouds permeating the blue to suggest that’s not all for the day. I’ve read the Weather Forecast for Southport last night, but who believes weather reports? They’re about as reliable as Government explanations.

We’re summoned to Platform 14 just as a long, slow, container train is going through, its wheels squealling so loud that it’s going to take a ton of WD40 to cure. I never like this platform, too many memories of a near decade travelling to Bolton when I worked for the Council. We go through Bolton today: I will have my ears full of mp3s and my nose in a book.

My section of the carriage is near empty, and indeed empties at Bolton, not to pick up another traveller until Apsley Bridge (you may say ‘where?’, if you choose). It’s not until then, from the signboard omn the station, that I discover we’re running ten minutes late. Despite the fact that we crawl into Southport Station so slowly that we could arrive sooner by moving the station towards us, we arrive only five minutes late.

I paid little attention. Beyond Bolton, my native county is both less familiar and less intyeresting. It’s flat, in both senses, and I am a creature of hills, fells and mountains. West Lancashire has little to offer the eye, even on the traditional road approach from the East Lancs Road via Ormskirk, though there’s a nice bit where we go over a canal bridge…

At Southport, the blue is bluer but the grey is greyer and it strikes me that both more sunshine and more rain is possible. One was right but the other raised its dreary head for five minutes when I was sat out on a bench. By now, I needed the loo but there were none in the station nor nearby. I found my memories easier to comprehend than the street plan opposite, which took me past The Monument Sports Bar. This pronounced itself NOT A PUBLIC TOILET and IF YOU ASK NO, but as long as you can hold it in long enough to consume a pint of lager and lime, they have no objections.

Liquid having been suitably transferred through my body, I headed for the Gallery. The exhibition was on the same small side-room on the second floor, called ‘The Discovery Box’, but I went in the proper way, to pass the permanent Dan Dare display, very much reduced, its original art being panels and half-paghes from ‘The Earth Stealers’, Don Harley and Bruce Cornwell’s last story, not that they knew they’d been sacked until scripts stopped coming. Don’t you just love the comics business?

Harris

The Ryan Exhibition is very limited for something with so many elements, and there was next to no original art. It’s built around Captain Pugwash, naturally, but proper regard is made to so many other elements of Ryan’s career, from Pugwash’s debut in Eagle no. 1 in 1950, to Ryan’s death in 2009, aged 88 and still a working cartoonist. Some, like Lettice Leefe and Sir Prancealot, were familiar to me, but there were more of which I was completely unfamiliar.

When Marcus Morris accepted Pugwash for Eagle, Ryan was art master at Harrow Public School and had had the character turned down a dozen times. It ran for nineteen weeks before being cancelled by Molrris for being ‘too juvenile’, but went on to a happy berth in the Radio Times. Meanwhile, Ryan had conjured up Harris Tweed, Extra Apecial Agent for Eagle, the features overlapping as Tweed, and his Boy, debuted in issue 16.

At that stage, Ryan’s art was harsh and angular, which made Pugwash look dark and hangdog to me, and not in the least funny. Tweed started off with full-page adventures, heavy on black ink and sinister happenings, for which Ryan’s original style was well-suited. By the time his work was softening to its more familiar, rounded, indeed almost cuddly style, Tweed was dropping into a half-page status to which the new approach was far more appropriate.

Ryan was a stalwart of Marcus Morris’s little stable of Red-top comics, contributing Lettice Leefe, the Greenest (i.e., most impressionable) Girl in School for Eagle‘s literal sister-paper, Girl, with his wife Priscilla designing the dresses for the Headmistress, Miss Froth, and then Sir Boldasbrass (who was left out of the Exhibition) for their younger brothers in Swift.

Lettice

Pugwash made his TV debut in 1957, as well as appearing in the first of seven childrens’ picture books. I was barely two then, but the cartoons were shown over and over until I was old enough to watch them. Ryan masterminded everything, in a limited animation style that made Hanna Barbera look like Studio Ghibli. Characters were made as jointed carboard cut-outs, poked up through slots in the backgrounds, their ‘movements’ being the manipulation up and down, and sometimes side to side, of limbs and mouths. The other genius of the programme was voice-artist Peter Hawkins, doing all the voices. This is the same Peter Hawkins who voiced, among many others, Bill and Ben, the original Daleks, Captain Haddock in the Tele-Hachette Tintin cartoons and Gromit in The Wrong Trousers, so we are talking god-like genius here.

It was all so primitive but we loved it then, and again in the mid- Seventies when Ryan re-made Pugwash in colour. They had a tape playing, including B&W and colour Pugwashes, with Ryan’s wit and imagination, Hawkins’ voices, that jaunty theme music and simple but wonderful stories that still had the power to make me laugh. We were so lucky to live then.

I’d forgotten that Ryan’s first colour commission for the BBC was Mary, Mungo and Midge in 1968, but that was my younger sister’s turn to enjoy his abilities. I got back with Sir Prancealot, in 1971, with its wonderful, sharp theme music and all the old Ryan tricks on a medieval theme. Not until today did I know it was also a comic series.

And there was The Ark Series, bible stories in which Ryan himself appeared as storyteller, St George and The Dragon, Frisco a nd Gred, about a reluctant astronaut and his dog, and what about his position as cartoonist for the weekly Catholic Herald, creating Cardinal Grosci, another Pugwash-substitute, this time in the Vatican. Ryan held that post for forty-two years. Imagine that.

Sir B

Despite all this, there was nothing to keep me more than half an hour, nor much in Southport I haven’t seen before to detain me long. I was feeling peckish by now, but I was not prepared to walk all the way out to Pizza Hut, which is way past the Marine Lake. Even with the surprising smell of sea in the air as far inland as Lord Street, I wasn’t going to trudge that far. I had seen a tight little arcade I’d not noticed before so I took a stroll down there.

There was a vintage collectable shop halfway down with an SF section. They had the complete set of all five Jane Gaskell ‘Atlan’ books in the matching Eighties paperback edition. I used to have the first four in the rather more impressive Seventies edition, all yellow covers and sexy bronze-skinned, dark-haired, long-legged and little clothed woman. The fifth I’d only ever read from the Library but that was seriously peculiar. I’d got rid at least thirty years ago but, at a fiver for the lort, I overcame my expectation that they’d still be a bit crap and bought them. The guy behind the counter told me I was lucky: he’d beemn going to change the prices. Upwards. If I believed him…

There being little now in Southport but a change of scenery, I decided to return to the Station. By this time, my pint had worked its way through and was calling for asttention so I returned to The Monument. No, they didn’t do bar food so I ordered and drank a half before leaving returns in the Gents.

I really do enjoy train rides home, for their peace and quiet and freedom from distraction. I can really get down for an extended session of mp3s and reading as we progress back across the flat bits to Manchester. And its Pizza Hut is a lot closer than Southport’s though they’re still not doing either tuna or sweetcorn. I had the pleasure of walking through Piccadilly Gardens at four-thirty, against the flow, but a flow of young women of all skirt-lengths coming out of work, intent on making an early start on Friday night. Another good day: where next?

An End to Things: Greta Tomlinson R.I.P.


It’s a terrible thing to wake and the first thing you learn is of the passing of someone whose work enthralled you. Today, I’m barely awake and I’m having to commemorate the life of Greta Tomlinson, Greta Edwards in married life, who has died at the afe of 94. With her has gone, to the best of my knowledge, the last link to those madcap days when Frank Hampson and a team of perspiring assistants, produced Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future in a more than overcrowded lean-to in alongside a Southport house.

Greta Tomlinson was one of the original team of assistants that joined Hampson in the Bakehouse, a few weeks into the life of Dan Dare. She was the youngest of his assistants, fresh from Art College, who responded to an ad that led her to Southport. There, she looked at Frank Hampson’s work and thought it fantastic, and that when Hampson she had to get involved in this.

Like all the rest of Hampson’s assistants she was overworked mercilessly, to the point where her exhaustion led her to hallucinate, but like the rest she bore up under the strain, because of her belief in Hampson’s genius, and becase he never asked her, or any of them, to do anything that he would not do, and indeed did even harder than them.

Greta formed a close bond with Hampson’s former College friend and senior assistant, Harold Johns. Together, they worked on several short stories for Eagle Annuals but, most notably, it was this pair who took over the third Dan Dare story, ‘Marooned on Mercury’ when Hampson worked himself to illness and was prescribed bed rest for months.

Sadly, that artistc relationship resulted in their unjust dismissal from Hampson’s studio. Johns and Tomlinson could not be accomodated at Bayford Lodge in Epsom, the studio’s new and permanent location, and were based in town. Finding themselves under-used, the pair sought permission to take on outside work, permission reluctantly granted on the accepted condition that Hampson’s work came first, and then they were both sacked abruptly, for the crime of doing what they had permission for. It was a disgraceful and wholly undeserved ending, yet Tomlinson bore Hampson no malice.

I never met her, indeed I never met any of the Dan Dare team, though I would have loved to thank each and every one of them personally for what they did. My most vivid memory of Greta Tomlinson was in the lovely documentary, Future Perfect, that took her back to the Bakehouse and filmed her as she looked around, descrivbing cheerfully how it had been laid out as a studio, and who sat where, plainlyt seeing everyone around her, and suddenbly asking the Director to cut as those memories plainly overwhelmed her.

But Greta Tomlinson was more that just an artist, and more than just, I believe, the last one left of those men and women. As any Dan Dare fan knows, part of the strip’s success lay in Hampson’s use of his assistants to model panels in order to get exactly every nuance of expression, every shadow and every wrinkle of clothing. Some of his assistants and models were the exact model for characters in the series. Geta Tomlinson was Professor Peabody, the botanist, the scientist, the forthright, independent and highly intelligent feminist long before there were feminists. Greta Tomlinson’s passing takes Peabody with her: I mourn them both.

‘The Second Best Dan Dare Artist in the World’


It’s not been made the subject of any public announcement that I’ve heard or seen, but I’ve just learned from John Freeman’s ‘Down the Tubes‘ that Don Harley, Frank Hampson’s most skilled and reliable assistant on Dan Dare, has passed away earlier this week. It comes as no surprise as Harley was in his nineties – this year would have been the seventieth anniversary of his joining the team at Bayford Lodge – but any loss of a man so talented, and who brought imagination, colour, life and, most important of all, pleasure into the lives of so many diminishes us all.

It’s not to demean Harley that I quote Frank Hampson’s own words of tribute to him. There is no shame to being ‘The Second Best Dan Dare Artist in the World’ to Hampson himself. How many times, during the Man from Nowhere trilogy, did Hampson co-sign Harley’s name to his own as the artist of record? Who stayed on to assist Frank Bellamy? Who took over the strip himself, supported by Bruce Cornwell?

The good do not always die young, but they always leave a gap that cannot be filled.

Eagle 1964: A Mystery Half-Solved?


Some years ago, whilst reviewing the Eagle of 1964, I touched upon the mystery of the short-lived ‘Junior, Reporter’ series, two stories running over 40 issues, one excellent, the other far less so. The series wasn’t credited, though it was clear from just one look that it was a European import.
Not only was ‘Junior, Reporter’ not credited but, most unusually, it did not appear in ‘The Complete Book of Eagle Strips’, which provides comprehensive details of every series and feature to be printed in Eagle between 1950 and 1969. Unless I’m overlooking something, it’s the only Eagle feature to be missed out.
Nor could I find anything about the series on the Internet. A Google Search turned up no reference to ‘Junior, Reporter’ whatsoever. All I could do was go on my own impressions, and these led me to compare the art to the legendary Albert Uderzo, of Asterix fame, only a rather more angular version (exact words: ‘it’s a bit like a more angular Albert Uderzo ‘).
A couple of months ago, for no better reason than impulse, I repeated the Google Search. This time, the answer was absurdly easy to find, and I had my answer. ‘Junior Reporter’ was really ‘Luc Junior’. The artist wasn’t just influenced by Uderzo, it was Uderzo. And the writer was, with wonderful appropriateness, his partner in Asterix, Rene Goscinny.
I knew that Goscinny had teamed up with Uderzo at least once before coming up with their little fighting Gaul, on a Western series known as Oumpah-Pah the Redskin. Oumpah-Pah was a Red Indian in American Revolutionary War times, a proto-Obelix in terms of his size, strength and simplicity, though lacking the big Gaul’s genial lack of perception. I’d even had three or four Oumpah-Pah albums translated into English, slim volumes showing his meeting with eager but inept British Army Officer, Lieutenant Hubert Brussels Sprout.
Oumpah-Pah was interesting mainly in the sense of its status as an Asterix forerunner, and now I had discovered a second series by Goscinny and Uderzo. What’s more, from the article that identified that old Eagle series for me at long last, it was an easy step to discover Luc Junior Integrale via Amazon.fr. And as well as the complete Luc Junior, I also discovered a third pre-Asterix series by Goscinny and Underzo, also available in ‘Integrale’ fashion, Jehan Pistolet, a Pirate.
Thus the mystery was solved, with a pat on the back for my not-always-reliable ability to recognise an artist from his art. I ordered the book as a self-Xmas present, even though it is, naturally, in French, and my French-reading abilities do not go much beyond a Grade 4 O-Level which will be fifty years old this year. And thereby did I discover that only half a mystery has been cleared up, and half a mystery remains.
The first of Eagle‘s two reprints was the first ‘Luc Junior’ story: of course it had to be, the series starts with Luc’s first assignment as a journalist. It starts at the daily newspaper, ‘Le Cri’, whose editor. M. Bonbain is berating his staff because nobody has a story. Office Junior Luc Junior suggests a feature on a Day in the Life of a Press Photographer. M. Bonbain thinks the idea is wonderful and assigns Luc to to follow his top photographer, M. LaPlaque, around all day.
M. LaPlaque is less impressed with the notion and decides to be benignly uncooperative: his big photo is of a window box of begonias. But when developed, the photo captures a safe being cracked in an apartment building across the street.
Eagle took the story, in black and white as opposed to colour. It anglicised the newspaper to the Daily Globe, Luc to Junior (no other name) and LePlaque to Len Lenns (Junior’s big floppy spotted dog, Alphonse, remained Alphonse).
From such beginnings, the serial was reprinted complete, except for the final panel (which included a background cameo of Goscinny and Uderzo that no-one would have picked up on at the time), which was to become the traditional closing image for all seven stories. ‘Luc Junior et le Vole’ (Luc Junior and the Thieves) had run from 7th October 1954 to 3 May1955, nearly a decade before its appearance in English. And before I was on this Earth, too!
The second ‘Junior, Reporter’ story was nothing like as good. Junior and Mr Lenns are assigned to win a competition to be the first to get to Texas spending no more than 6d. First, they travel by raft then, when it sinks, they’re picked up by a millionaire’s yacht on which a rival is serving as drinks waiter, then they’re boarded by pirates and set adrift before hitching a lift off a rapidly melting iceberg that finally gets them there.
It’s a thin story that gets thinner as it goes along, as does the art. Intriguingly, despite the fact I cannot see more than a single page of the first story that I don’t recognise in the French edition, there’s clearly been some serious editing going on. ‘Junior, Reporter’ ran for forty weeks in Eagle, issues 6-45 of Volume 15, whereas Luc Junior et les Voles runs for thirty five weeks alone. And the race to Texas is far more than a mere five episodes.
It’s a mystery. But the real mystery is something else entirely, namely that the second story is not in Luc Junior, Integrale.
So only half the mystery is solved after all. Looking at the art of the Texas story, it’s immediately clear that, although the characters of Junior and Mr Lenns look the same, overall the art is much simpler, lacking backgrounds, especially as the strip goes on. The detail of the first story has vanished, yet Uderzo was always an artist who thrived on detail, and the absence of a realistic world around the characters emphasises that they are cartoons. Perhaps the series was continued after Uderzo (and Goscinny?) moved on, by lesser hands?
Maybe the other half of the mystery lies in the text of the book, in which case I need to educate myself past the standard of a fifty-year old Grade 4 O-Level to discover it.

Postscript

And maybe you just need a bit of perspicacity. A little bit more Googling and an answer presents itself. ‘Luc, Junior’ (later simply ‘Junior’) did not come to an end in October 1957, when Goscinny and Uderzo moved on but was transferred to ‘Greg’, the main pen-name for Michel Regnier, Belgian cartoonist and scripter (who wrote for Franquin’s Modeste et PomPom better know in the UK as ‘Jinx’ in Valiant).
Greg continued ‘Luc, Junior’ until 1965 when the series was finally cancelled, adding another fifteen stories to the seven from Goscinny and Uderzo. I found a list of ‘Luc, Junior’ titles online, with no description of the contents, but one was a 1961-2 story called ‘Junior, Globe-Trotter’, which seemed a definite possibility for the story Eagle turned to next.
And… There’s quite a few pages of Greg’s ‘Luc, Junior’ to be examined online through Google Images, and one of them is the cover for an album collection of ‘Junior, Globe-Trotter’ which I recognised instantly.
So the mystery is solved in it’s entirety, except for need to learn enough French to read Luc, Junior Integrale and fully enjoy the stories that weren’t translated into English for the delight of an eight year old boy with a long memory that stretches all the way back to 1964.

A Southport Expedition


It’s been a while, since Derby in January in fact, since I went anywhere further than Manchester City Centre, so the time seemed ripe for a day out on Friday. Even so, having survived six months of the pandemic, I’m a little twitchy about venturing further afield, especially given how much time that’s going to mean breathing through a facemask.

Nor did the lead up on Thursday make me feel calmer. I’d been encouraged by my manager to give myself a treat, take a day off to do something I wanted, and I wanted to do this anyway: a Friday off work, especially one that balanced out a Working Sunday I hadn’t been able to get out of, was tailor-made. I was up for it, psyched, ready, except that the leave hadn’t been put through. My manager works from home: I e-mailed him. No reply. Time passing. Oscillating between rising frustration and the fury I’m going to feel if it falls through.

It’s not as if I’m not worked up already. I got home Wednesday to a letter asking me to phone in to make an appointment for my flu jab this year except that they told me to ring an obsolete number then the transfer option kept telling me it had failed and cutting me off. I don’t need any more aggravation.

Eventually, I go to another Manager and between him and my very sweet Ops Manager, who’s an absolute darling, it’s agreed – but still not booked into my schedule when I leave at 9.00pm – and I am spared the horrendous Friday I would have inflicted on everybody within socially distanced reach.

Standard Operating Procedure gets me to Stockport Railway Station with only half an hour to spare, which is ample time for steady and serious rain to set in. This is August, isn’t it? The Friday before the Bank Holiday weekend? Of course.

There are two changes in the outbound journey, Manchester Piccadilly and Manchester Oxford Road. There used to be direct trains to Southport but no more. The journey will take nearly two hours. I could cut that down to eighty minutes and save 80p on the return fare if I spend ages on the bus and walking to travel from Manchester Victoria, plus having to get home from the City Centre on top. I am lavish, I spend the money.

As far as Bolton it’s a familiar journey, one I made five days a week for most of the 2000s, so I turn immediately to my big heavy book: there are few happy associations with that journey.

It’s a long, slow, stopping journey that stops everywhere but still manages to outpace the rain, if not the overhanging cloud. I get in a good long shift of reading as we cross the plains of lower Central Lancashire, the wet fields to each side, the numerous level-crossings in our favour, but my bum is sore from sitting by the time we reach Southport and I can stand up, shuffle and, once out of the station, pull down my facemask: the fresh air is a heady wine.

I have a long history with Southport. My parents hated Blackpool for its noisiness, its brashess and its crowds so this was my first experience of a seaside resort, with its long beaches and invisible seas. Here was where I played with my first camera, getting great shots without pointing. Here was where Dad and I spent one early morning before breakfast walking a mile out across the sands without reaching the sea. Here was where Mam would occasionally take my little sister and I to the seaside for the day: in 1968, the year I discovered Test Cricket and watched the Ashes avidly, we visited on the last day of the series, the one at the Oval, when hundreds of volunteers mopped the field dry to give England a chance of the draw, ten fielders crouched round the bat. At least every third bloke on the Front had a transister radio tuned to the Test pressed to his ear and I flitted from one to another, never more than thirty seconds away from the next update, until Deadly Derek Underwood took the last wicket. Was that the one where we got back to Victoria and found Dad there, straight from work, to run us home, the perfect end?

But I’m not in Southport for any of that, not today. I’m here because Southport is where the Eagle was created between Marcus Morris and Frank Hampson, and where Dan Dare was created at the latter’s kitchen table. It’s the 70th Anniversary this year, albeit not this time of year, and there’s an Exhibition. I head straight for the Atkinson Gallery to visit it.

The Dan Dare part is very small, far smaller than previous Exhibitions I’ve visited, basically one little room and an additional glass case as a component of a larger Exhibition dedicated to the Sefton Coast: Dan’s contribution is the ‘Inspirational Coast’.

There’s an array of books and comics, many of which are laid out in a bit of a jumble, all but a handful of which I have in my own collection. My copy of Eagle no. 1 is in far better nick than theirs though I can’t say the same for Annual no. 1.

But as always it’s the original art that makes the journey worthwhile and though the pages are few, they are especially wonderful. To my enormous glee Hampson is represented by a page from ‘The Man from Nowhere’, the cover of the issue of Eagle published the day I was born! There’s original art of Don Harley and Bruce Cornwell’s ‘The Platinum Planet’, misidentified as its sequel, ‘The Earth-Stealers’. And Keith Watson, on whose art I grew up, is represented by the last Dan Dare page he drew, the page that was the foundation for Spaceship Away.

Hampson’s pages intrigued me. Usually,  Hampson took the cover page and divided the several panels of page 2 between his assistants, but this is a paste down of individual panels in ones and twos. I’d love to know why.

But there’s more than just Dan Dare. There’s a Martin Aitchison horizontal ‘Luck of the Legion’ strip next to a Thelwell ‘Chicko’ cartoon, a superb Ashwell Wood Cutaway of the Naval Vessel St Kitts, Frank Humphris at his glorious best on ‘Riders of the Range’ and Frank Bellamy with a back page true story, ‘David – The Shepherd King’.

There’s another Bellamy original that troubles me deeply. Immaculately framed, it is the first page of ‘Frasier of Africa’, all yellows and sepias, and it disturbs me because I cannot work out how to steal it and get away with it.

It’s magnificent but it’s too scanty. The one I came to for the 40th Anniversary was nearly ten times as big and was so good I visited twice, once on my own then with a bunch of mates to whom I’d raved: four hefty fellers in a Volkswagen Polo that needed me to start braking a loooong way before usual.

After leaving the Gallery, I check if there’s still a Pizza Hut in Southport. There is, but it’s no longer on Lord Street, instead it’s way out to Hell and gone on the Front, which means a long walk, starting off along the pier, which forms a bridge over the Marine Lake – there has to be a Marine Lake or else the only water you’d see in Southport would be out of a tap – and through a shopping estate dominated by Matalan.

This is my first sit-down and eat-in Pizza Hut meal since before lockdown. They’re still operating on limited ingredients, no tuna for my favourite tuna’n’onions, no sweetcorn for my second favourite chicken’n’sweetcorn so I have a Hawaiian with garlic bread side. Nice and tasty and filling. And amusing to note that I finish five minutes before I would have logged in for Friday’s shift.

I have neither the weather nor the inclination to walk on further to see the beach, and neither would you in this early October greyness, so what is left is how much of a wander I feel like having. Today would have been an ideal time to pay a visit to the Bakehouse, the little lean-to where six artists crammed in to draw Dan Dare and the three other pages the Hampson Studio was committed to, but I didn’t think of that in time, and haven’t got the address on me, nor anything more than a vague idea where it is: another time then, again.

So I stroll back to Lord Street and wander northwards under the old-fashioned continuous glass canopy that accompanies the shore-side shops. A couple of times I wander into Charity Shops to fruitlessly peruse the cheap DVDs and every time I come out it takes ages before I remember I can pull down the facemask.

I went as far as a sign for Stockport Samaritans, which was apt: the Samaritans were created by the Reverend Chad Varah, who wrote adventure stories for Eagle, and Dan Dare himself for all but the first two weeks of ‘Marooned on Mercury’.

But there’s not much to look at, or smell, except cafes, restaurants and feeding places: no shortage of these in Southport. So I turn round and walk back an equal distance south but there’s nothing to attract my attention. Southport has always been an old people’s resort and whilst I might be an old person myself now, I’m not that kind of old person. The one I seem to be is the one with the arthritic right knee and hip and the lower back pain on the same side that’s exacerbating both and putting a severe crimp on how far I can walk.

So I slowly limped back to the Station. I’d tentatively identified the 15.43 for returning, a long way round via Liverpool so, with an absence of suitable attractions, I advance an hour and settle down for another long read. That’s actually been one of the best parts of the day. The isolation of a train is an ideal situation for taking a good big bite out of a long book, and I don’t get to do that kind of sustained reading as often as I used to. The train tracks down the coast, stopping everywhere, until Liverpool South Parkway interchange where I hope on a Norwich train and off again in Stockport, though by the time I limp heavily up our street I’m absolutely shattered – and it’s still only halfway through my shift…

The Last *Last* Eagle


About two years ago, I celebrated buying the last issue of the classic Eagle comic that I needed to build the collection I had long dreamed of. And how it was incomplete, missing the centre sheet.

When I set out to read Eagle in chronological order, I also started a list of those that were imcomplete, or badly damaged, or in just too poor a condition. There were about two dozen or slightly more of them.

Today, I have replaced the last of them, ironically from the same seller as last time. Volume 11, no. 1, whole, intact, complete. As is my collection.

What am I going to do now?

Boy’s World Revisited


I’ve already written about Boy’s World once, but that was based on two-thirds complete poor condition paper copies that excluded the first twenty-three issues of the comic that was supposed to replace the Eagle.
Why you should want to replace one of the most successful boys’ weekly comics that ever existed is a matter for speculation, but that was what Leonard Matthews, of Longacre Press, wanted to do from the first moment Eagle fell under his purview. But then again, Eagle was, even after three years in the hands of professionals like Odhams Press, the comic created by the amateurs, the C of E Vicar and the Southport Art Student, and a lot of people were put out by their success and thought it no more than one massive fluke.
So Boy’s World was going to be the professionals showing the amateurs how to do it. It would outshine Eagle, eclipse it and allow Longacre to close it.
We all know what happened. Boy’s World, which lost an editor before one copy was even printed, which had to be substantially revamped in less than six months, failed to last as many as two years, and suffered the ignominy of death-by-merger into Eagle, surviving only as a second name on the masthead of the comic it was meant to replace.
I find that heart-warming, don’t you?
This was my first chance to read the first twenty-three issues, which were missing from my original paper haul. Internally, there are no great differences between the original Boy’s World and the more conventional comic following the issue 24 revamp, but the provision of a full-bleed cover gives the paper a completely different feel. This first six issues featured boys in various, bright, shiny, ordinary circumstances that were more than a bit bland, then the ‘What would you do?’ series took over until the end of the run, dangerous real-life situations in which the participants only had a limited time in which to find a way out, a challenge the reader had to confront before turning page 2 and reading the solution.
The effect of the full-bleed is to make Boy’s World look more like a magazine than a comic, something simultaneously more serious and more parent-friendly, like it’s almost exact contemporary, Look and Learn (another brainchild of Leonard Matthews, its first issue came out six days before Boy’s World‘s).
For a comic, and one intended to usurp Eagle, with its long tradition of great and varied comics series, Boy’s World didn’t half carry a lot of print. An editorial page stretching over two pages, a short story series written by Donne Avenell, from the point of view of various animals, birds and fish, a prose serial, a complete short story AND the Ticket to Adventure series.
This left space for only four comics series, three at two pages, only one of which in colour, the last at one page. Taken in order, these were: Pike Mason, a sea-going adventurer with his Filipino assistant, Quarro, drawn in a dark and moody greywash style by Luis Bermejo: John Brody, science correspondent of the Daily Correspondent, a Dr Thirteen who didn’t debunk the impossible: Wrath of the Gods, a superb colour centrespread featuring all manner of adventures in Greek mythology, written by Jeff Hawke’s Willie Patterson and drawn by Ron Embleton; and The Boys of Castleford School, a conventional boarding school story with a suspicious new boy.

The Star Feature

Let’s be at bit more specific about these stories. Whilst the Brody, Wrath of the Gods and Castleford School stories were brought to a simultaneous conclusion in issue 23 (Castleford School in the form of a short second serial), Pike Mason’s adventure, ‘The Sea Ape’, couldn’t quite squeeze into that strait-jacket and needed a final episode in the revamp issue. It was well-drawn although its pages consistently looked dark and murky, but the story relied too heavily on superstitious primitive natives whose Gods could only be appeased by sacrificing white men (and Filipinos) for my liking.
Brody’s ‘What is Exhibit X?’ was about an invading intelligence trying to hypnotise and takeover the country, that could only be opposed by people who could hear ultra-sonics, whilst the Castleford School story featured the suspicions of Tom Bannister and Beefy Paget about their new study-mate, Benbow, about whom there was a mystery. Was Benbow a villain, working with crooks? No, he was the nephew of a British intelligence Agent, aiding Uncle to expose Diamond-Smugglers. The second, six week story, was about proving the local legend of the Phantom Rider true, though he was actually a guise to stop racehorse nobblers.
Both Castleford stories were straight schoolboy serials, neither better nor worse than any of their contemporaries, such as Sandy Dean in Lion, but their big problem was that this was 1964, and the boy’s boarding school story was all but played out. Castleford School would not survive the revamp, at least, not in this form.
Boy’s World‘s jewel was ‘Wrath of the Gods’. It starred Arion, a Greek warrior who, on finding his family and friends slaughtered in his absence at the wars, cursed Zeus and the whole rotten lot and found himself appointed a kind of mortal trouble-shooter drafted in by the Gods to carry out fantastic missions. But though Arion’s adventures were gorgeous to look at, the story seemed paper-thin. It had no structure beyond that of the daisy-chain: each week or so a new instruction o seek something else leads Arion into another encounter, with the Furies, the Minotaur, Atlas and so on. Willie Patterson is legendary for writing Jeff Hawke but I’ve always found everything else he wrote to be passionless and static.

Pike Mason

The revamp made no difference to the cover except to make Boy’s World look like a comic by introducing a half-inch band of white paper around everything. Inside, however, the number of comics series went up, although as the paper gained an extra four pages, this didn’t diminish the prose features.
Pike Mason, John Brody and Wrath of the Gods remained, although the latter was for some reason ripped out of the centrespread and dropped onto the back pages, with a young and initial somewhat rough and ready John Burns taking over art duties, albeit still in colour, as Arion found himself charged with finding the Nameless God in order to have the plague-carrying Chalice of Apollo destroyed.
For Mason, it was the same again, hired to find a lost civilisation’s treasure protected by the Curse of Zentaca, whilst Brody dealt with the House on Scar island, going ghost-chasing.
Castleford School wasn’t so lucky. In theory, it continued, but it underwent a comprehensive change of style, tone and art by turning into ‘Billy Binns and his Wonderful Specs’, a comedy strip about a useless, fumble-fingered swot who came into possession of a spare pair of glasses that filled him with confidence and overwhelming athletic prowess at every sport he tried. Benbow and Tom Bannister made a few token appearances in the early weeks but were rapidly forgotten as Binns became the target of the jealous school bully, Middleton, and his cronies.
It was undistinguished fare that never developed from one week to another, nor did the supposedly highly-intelligent swot, or anyone else at the school, ever make the slightest connection between his radically differing states of confidence and athleticism depending on whether he wore glasses A or glasses B. It was neatly drawn – far better than the unspeakable ‘Cornelius Dimworthy’ – whilst the stories were generally unexceptionable but I can’t for the life of me understand how it’s supposed to be an utterly hilarious, laugh-a-panel comedy, which was how the comic kept billing it.

John Brody

‘Brett Millions’ pushed ‘Wrath of the Gods’ out of the centrespread, though only until the stories began in issue 24 finished in the same week, whereupon they swapped back. This was written by SF writer, Harry Harrison, the first tale, ‘The Angry Planet’, adapted from one of Harrison’s own novels. It’s dull fare, drawn competently but to no better standard, and Millions has the personality of a pancake. He’s supposed to be a gambler, but turns into an interplanetary troubleshooter without any real qualifications.
What turned out to be Boy’s World‘s most successful series in terms of longevity was ‘The Iron Man’, who would survive for years once transferred to Eagle. The Iron Man, as I’m sure you recall, was an international crime-busting robot whose mechanical nature was concealed by an amazing suit of plastic skin. He was initially drawn by Ron Embleton’s younger brother Gerry, who gave the robot a naturalistic look that could be mistaken for human. For Robert’s second story, Embleton Jr was replaced by Martin Salvador – Spanish artists were so much cheaper – and the robot’s features slowly became much more, well, robotic.
Harry Harrison had a second string to his bow in the form of ‘Merlo the Magician’. Merlo was both a highly-skilled, internationally famous stage magician and a highly-secret Interpol agent, tackling high power, fantastic crimes and criminals, usually backed by secret organisations. He’d debuted in issue 13 as the second prose serial, but was popular enough with the readers to be retained as a page and a half strip, cleanly drawn, all black lines and white space and no shading, good but not outstanding.
One final new feature was the mild comedy from ‘Private Proon – the Barrack ‘Square”, about which nothing need be said. It was better than Eagle’s ‘Fidosaurus’ or ‘XYZ Cars’ but not as good as Lion’s ‘Mowser’, though equally as repetitive.
A couple of Boy’s World‘s minor features should be mentioned before we go any further, the first being the extremely short prose ‘Mini-Mystery’ starring Detective Inspector Nixon. These were micro Spot the Clues that were Howdunnits rather than Whodunnit, since the villain was almost always the only other person in the story. ‘What’s in a Name?’ was an etymological series in words and pictures about people’s surnames, though the honourable name of Crookall was never featured.
The Hand of Fate was a one (sometimes half-)page real lifestory whose theme was the intervention of Fate in unusual circumstances, usually but not exclusively to save the life of someone who would normally have been expected to die. And towards the end of Volume 1, the great Frank Humphris began a b&w half-page feature on real-life Western tales, ‘The Flaming Frontier’, which once again brought Humphris’ knowledge and enthusiasm into play.

Brett Millions

Last and best of these other features was a weekly prose account called ‘Ticket to Adventure’, an historical feature homing in on famous events, written in such away as to place the reader in the middle of the action, all because he’d received his Ticket to Adventure. Week-in, week-out, this was consistently Boy’s World‘s best feature.
There was another general change round in issues 45 to 47, new stories for Pike Mason, John Brody, Wrath of the Gods and Brett Millions, the latter two series exchanging places again to wind up where they first began. Merlo had only just edged into the Army of Crime. Ron Embleton returned to draw Arion’s latest adventure, whilst none other than Frank Bellamy was selected for Million’s ‘The Ghost World’.
It’s probably the least known of all his Fifties and Sixties work. Aside from a couple of his ‘Great Adventurers’ stories from Eagle, it’s the only strip that hasn’t been reprinted, and it’s rarely mentioned in bibliographies of his work, which is not surprising because Bellamy still has no more instinct for SF than he had on ‘Dan Dare’.
Boy’s World‘s first volume consisted of 49 issues, it’s second and last of 40, starting from the first week of January 1964. That the title was struggling could be seen when another free gift was given away in issue 18, and there was a mini revamp, with a temporary change of logo box, and new stories starting for Merlo and John Brody. The latter shifted to the back page and into colour, with art by Luis Bermejo, whilst Brett Million was replaced by Raff Regan, a WW2 RAF strip, which didn’t amount to much, certainly not in comparison to Lion‘s Paddy Payne.
A new prose feature debuted, featuring schoolboy dodger Tricky Jones: the name should be enough to clue you in to how awful this was going to be and it was not misleading, though I suppose the kid I was then enjoyed it.
Bermejo wasn’t called upon to draw two series for long, because Pike Mason went back to sea for good after issue 21, being replaced by a weird little series, ‘What is my Name?’, in which RAF Flight Lieutenant Jimmy Pierce is saved by a Scottish shepherd known only as the Nameless One, and in repayment has to find out the Nameless One’s name. The story soon started to get involved with supernatural stuff, drawings forecasting doom appearing in a blank book, and ultimately an ancient curse, little of which made any great sense, but which lasted until the somewhat abrupt decision to merge Boy’s World into Eagle.
Another, and final new series started alongside ‘What’s in a Name?’, Dr What and his Time Clock, which was a parody of Dr Who, In fact, the first ever parody of the classic BBC series. Sadly, nothing else distinguished it.
Other than some minor art changes – Frank Langford soon replaced Bermejo on John Brody, Eric Kincaid filled in on some Flaming Frontiers, Humphris drew one in colour – there was little else to the story.
Boy’s World ended on 2 October 1964, after only 89 issues: the comic that was to replace Eagle was swallowed up by it. This was an unpopular decision in one boy’s household because I was getting both, and I was not best pleased that two of my weekly comics were merging to one, especially as I didn’t get a new title to replace it. Gone for good were Merlo and Inspector Nixon, John Brody, Tricky Jones, Private Proon and Dr What. Billy Binns, Wrath of the Gods, Raff Regan and Th Iron Man carried over, although only The Iron Man lasted. Boy’s World continued in Annual form, running parallel with the Eagle Annual, for far more years than the comic lasted, ending only in 1972.
I had a few of those Boy’s World Annuals too, and kept one longer than I would normally have done for some Frank Bellamy art, illustrating a short story about an ageing Matador. Browsing it, I happened to notice that writers of these short stories were credited, and one of them happened to be credited to Michael Moorcock! When I met him for the only time, going to a signing session for his novel, Mother London, I took the Annual along, asked if he minded signing the story. I didn’t actually write that, he told me: he’d been commissioned but hadn’t the time, so he’d passed it to Barrington J. Bailey, who needed the money. He still signed it, mind you, but with a proviso that Barry Bailey had written it!
Moorcock is reputed to have written a lot of small features for Boy’s World, including the ‘What’s in a Name?’ snippets, etymologising surnames: here was one instance when his name was taken in vain. Not that the editor knew…
In the end, a comic stands or falls upon one thing: the strength or otherwise of its comics series. It’s what we buy them for. What failed Boy’s World more than anything else was that its stories just weren’t good enough. They had strong artists, but none of the characters were memorable in themselves and, with the exception of the entirely too prosaic Merlo, everything went too far overboard into fantasy. Even John Brody, supposedly a Science Correspondent, dealt only with the irrational and unreal.
And where it should have all have fit the best, in Wrath of the Gods, the stories were thin and lacking in any structure.
On top of this, Boy’s World was the wrong type of comic for an increasingly anarchic time, a time exemplified by the much ballyhooed Wham! (with which it shared Billy Binns) launching in the last three months of Boy’s World‘s life. It launched in a declining market, with a stodgy, stilted name, and it just wasn’t good enough. It lacked a strong editorial figure who could, perhaps, have imposed a greater vision on something that was largely conceived as a copycat. In short, it was the only one not to benefit from the editing of the Reverend John Marcus Morris.
I’ll just leave that one there.