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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.