The Lion in the Sixties – Part 2


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

Zip Nolan by Reg Bunn

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

The Priceless Puss

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

breath-takingly good art by Arturo del Castillo

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

A powerful, ongoing serial

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

Maroc the Mighty

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

The Lion in the Sixties – Part 1


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

Paddy Payne – Lion’s most popular strip

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

A very different Sandy Dean and Bossy Bates

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

Keith Watson on Captain Condor

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

No longer The Jungle Robot

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

Reg Bunn art: shame about the story

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

Don Lawrence – wow!

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