Champion: Hardly…


renamed Jet Jordan

One of the many little ironies that make life bearable is the knowledge that back in the Sixties there were two British weekly boys comics that billed themselves as ‘Companions’ to Valiant, because they were produced by the same editorial staff. The first of these was Hurricane, that lasted for sixty three weeks across four distinct editorial phases. The second was an even short-lived title named Champion, that lasted a mere fifteen weeks before being cancelled.
Yet when the time came for each of these ‘Companions’ of Valiant to fold, neither merged into their senior stable-mate. Hurricane folded into Tiger, Champion into Lion. You have to wonder.
Now, courtesy of a tip from the invaluable David Simpson, I’ve been able to download the entire fifteen issue run of Champion and read the same, and to be frank, it’s not that impressive.
Champion debuted on 26 February 1966, costing 7d for a 40 page comic. It’s contents consisted of Jet Jordan (2pp, front and back covers, colour and b&w respectively); School for Spaceman (3pp); Return of the Stormtroopers (4pp); Knights of Konigsfeld (3pp); Lofty Lightyear (1p); War Eagle (3pp), Bartok and his Brothers (3pp, illustrated prose); Spider Webb – The Scrapper of the Scrapyard (2pp); Letters (2pp); When the Sky turned Green (3pp); Cosmic Nick – the Clot from Outer Space (1p); Hunters without Guns (2pp), World of Champions (4pp, featuring racing driver Stirling Moss this week); Boy Kidd (2pp) and The Phantom Viking (3pp). And already there were promises of new series starting in issue 2, such as Dr X and Jinks.
Some of these series I have already written about when reviewing the history of Lion, and I certainly don’t intend to repeat myself in the case of Lofty Lightyear. With the exception of the European material – and of course Boy Kidd is a translation of the 1962 Rene Goscinny/Morris Lucky Luke adventure ‘Billy the Kid’, with Luke renamed Buck Bingo – none of the comedy strips of the Sixties work for me and Cosmic Nick is no different.
One immediate problem is that, by the standards of what was being published at the time, and with particular reference to both Valiant and Hurricane, Champion looks cheap. There’s a greater use of white space on the cover, and minimal, badly off-register colour in the first Jet Jordan page. That is a decent flying adventure strip, but none of the rest are immediately appealing. The closest the title comes to a character-dominated series is The Phantom Viking, and meek, weak Olaf Larsen, the Viking’s ‘secret identity’ is scarcely adequate in that role.

renamed Buck Bingo

There’s an overload of what I defined as situation series, none more obviously so than When the Sky turned Green, a cliched disaster story about the crew of a submarine having to save the world because they were all underwater when the sky turned green: it took about three panels to see there was no chance ever of a new idea in its pages.
Return of the Stormtroopers, about a fanatical Nazi general awaking from suspended animation to attack the peace-loving world of 2046 and Hunters without Guns, about a family of wildlife photographers in Africa played with German war machines, though the latter had very outline art, whilst War Eagle was about an eagle becoming mascot and master technician to a WW2 RAF Squadron. Yes, you heard that right, tactician.
But Knights of Konigsfeld, Dr X and Hunters without Guns, like Jet Jordan, were all translations of European series, making Champion half bought in, a much higher proportion than anyone would have expected. Jet Jordan, which was the long-running ‘Dan Cooper’ series to the rest of the world, had decent, clean art (albeit resized and redesigned to fit the comic’s front page specifications) but the others suffered from quasi-cartoon art, all plain outlines and no detail.
Indeed the best art, detailed, carefully hatched and filled with depth, was on War Eagle, although it looked somewhat archaic. That the series was a reprint seemed clear from the different lettering in which ‘War Eagle’s name appeared, overwriting a longer name for the bird.
Wacker, another European strip (real name Starter), a two-pager, started in issue 3, with a noise-averse Liverpudlian looking for somewhere quiet in the country, only to get ripped off with a broken-down Hall.
After five issues – a third of Champion‘s life, remember – it’s already possible to come to a conclusion as to why it failed: it isn’t good enough. It looks and feels like the runt of the litter, fed the scraps and crumbs that weren’t considered up to scratch for either of its companions. The only decent strips are the continental ones: Jet Jordan, Boy Kidd, Jinx (Wacker isn’t up to their standard). Only The Phantom Viking has any credentials among the home-produced material, and its scratchy, uncertain art is a major hindrance.

renamed Jinx

War Eagle only lasted five weeks before being replaced by a similarly old-fashioned looking War strip, The Fighting Fifteenth. Dr X was ended in issue 7, having totally lost control over what it was supposed to be about. It’s replacement, The Space Travellers, was perhaps emblematic of the type of story Champion was producing. A school teacher with a head full of science fiction builds a space rocket in his back shed running on cosmic radiation converted from sunlight. It accidentally gets launched whilst he’s showing it to a boy from the school and a reporter. They fly to the planet Centaur which has a identical atmosphere to Earth, and the same kind of cows. There is literally nothing about that that a boy aged over five can take in the least bit seriously, especially in a world where ‘Thunderbirds’ exists. What kind of idiot thought this workable I don’t know, but no comic can survive on stuff like that.
The second instalment makes out its a comedy. What’s the phrase again? Yeah, right.
The Fighting Fifteenth also lasted five issues and it’s replacement was RAF Pilot, Battler Britton, who would survive into Lion in the very near future. When the Sky turned Green bowed out in issue 14, beating the rush, the good guys winning the day by committing genocide (think of that, eh?) The Space Travellers decided to bugger off back to Earth at the same time.
And so, on 4 June 1966, Champion reached its fifteenth and final issue: a short life and a far from merry one. With the exception of the Knights of Konigsfeld, all the stories that didn’t make the cut fizzled out emptily, none more so than Spider Webb, which fell on its face. Jet Jordan, Battler Britton, Return of the Stormtroopers, The Phantom Viking, plus Jinx and Wacker lived on, the first three in mid-story.
In this necessarily brief survey, I’ve saved comment until the end on the one Champion feature I did remember before starting it, and that I had looked forward to re-acquainting myself with. Bartok and His Brothers deserves some kind of accolade for being the most disappointing memory in all the comics I’ve been re-reading this past eighteen months or so.

The series was set a century into the future, in a world dominated by a Chinese crime organisation, the Sons of Ying, led by the Master Dragon. After a Genghis Khan-like warlord sacks his laboratory in Central Asia, Dr Hans Bartok uses his Duplicator Machine to create four duplicates of himself, i.e. clones, to create a Brotherhood to fight evil. Each duplicate has a superpower but one of them is potentially evil. Bartok-2 is super-intelligent, Bartok-3 is super-agile and fast, Bartok-4 is, er, super-courageous and fierce (seriously) and Bartok-5 is super-strong. Hint, the evil one is… Bartok-4, who is reformed through hypnosis but he and Bartok-2 get killed at the end.
What I remembered of this, which included the designated powers, the deaths and Bartok-4’s treachery (which I resented deeply, having adopted 4 as my lucky number), was vivid enough, but where so many things have been good enough still to justify my lifelong recollections, the Bartok stuff is cheaply and badly-written, flavourless and melodramatic. The author was Michael Moorcock’s friend and near-protege, Barrington J Bayley. The one time I met Moorcock, he signed a Boy’s World annual story credited to him but actually written by Bayley, who needed the money. I make no comment.
Had Lino Landolfi’s ‘Connecticut Yankee’ been so much a let down last year as this is, I would hardly have bought another comics DVD, so I was lucky there. Champion was created cheap, it lived cheap and even its own editor was convinced it was created to fail, and be merged into something else to give that a sales bump. After fifteen issues, Champion‘s audience must have been more like a pothole.

The Lion in the Sixties – Part 4


The next phase of Lion began on 11 June 1966, with the formal merger of the title with Champion, cancelled after only sixteen issues. Four of Champion‘s features were brought over into the preceding issue, cutting off ‘Maroc the Mighty’ with no ending and ‘Captain Jack Wonder’ with no regrets, but the new paper saw another expansion, this time to a record 44 pages.
Lion and Champion‘s first official issue featured the following: Texas Jack (6pp), Return of the Stormtroopers (2pp), Lofty Lightyear (1p), Zip Nolan (2pp), The Flying Furies (2½pp), Jinks (1p), Robot Archie (3pp), Danger Man (2pp), Whacker (2pp), Quest of the Firebird (3pp), The Phantom Viking (2pp), Boy Kidd (2pp), Jet Jordan (2pp), The Mystery Speed Star (2pp), The Spider (4pp), and Mowser (1p). A total of eleven adventure series and five comic strips. And all still for 7d.
With the exception of ‘Danger Man’, a brand new series featuring the extremely popular ATV espionage series star John Drake, played by Patrick McGoohan (very recognisable, as if the artist was working from photographs), all the new features were decanted from the now-cancelled Champion, making the merged title a true merger. Taking these in order of appearance, ‘Return of the Stormtroopers’ was an almost immediate Vic Gunn retread, an ongoing story of resurrected Nazi Stormtroopers taking over Britain in 2046, the Vic Gunn role going to resistance leader Bill Churchill (but of course). ‘Lofty Lightyear’ featured a one hundred foot tall alien boy trying to hide on Earth from a mysterious spaceship.
‘Jinks’ was another one pager of Piloteish descent, ‘Whacker’ a two page cartoon serial in similar style, about two Liverpudlians. ‘Boy Kidd’ was taken from Spirou: the titular character was a bank and stage robber facing the attempt to catch him by one Buck Bingo, or rather Rene Goscinny and Maurice De Bever’s ‘Lucky Luke’. ‘Jet Jordan’ is a Canadian Air Force Pilot (from this point forward, ‘The Flying Furies’ Jet Power started to be called Jim Power).
The best remembered of the new series was, however, ‘The Phantom Viking’, another superhero-style serial. Meek and feeble schoolteacher Olaf Larsen has discovered an old Viking helmet belonging to a long dead ancestor that transforms him into the superstrong, flying, invulnerable Phantom Viking, as long as it’s on his head. A mixture of Superman and Thor, this famous series had surprisingly scratchy and weak art, but initially only hung around for half a dozen weeks.

Olaf Larsen and Helen

Going through the various Lion revamp/relaunches, there seems to have been a tradition that after the line-up has been thoroughly re-jigged all at once, a new series gets launched two weeks later. This time it took four weeks before ‘Trelawney of the Guards’ debuted. It was a hard-headed, deliberately gritty series of complete stories featuring a hard-as-nails Army Sergeant in WW2 that looked to have enormous realistic potential.
The Jet Jordan strip was unremarkable, and rather slow moving, but it was interesting to note that rather than the traditional sidekick, and the interminable references to the pair as ‘pals’, Mr Jordan had a ‘girl companion’ by his side, in the form of the pretty blonde Francine. Based on that, and some elements of the art-style, I’d not be surprised to find that this was yet another continental import.
But though the number of Champion series loaded into the merged comic was impressive, and though the double-barrelled name was retained for a long time, by 10 September, a mere three months, all but two were gone. These were the two one-page comedies, Lofty Lightyear and Jinks, but whereas Jinks featured some brash ligne clair and a variety of themes, Lofty Lightyear was the same thing every week, and bland to boot. These and ‘Mowser’, whose strip had been retitled to co-feature his Enemy, James the Butler, were all that was left of the comedy phase.
Needless to say, the disposition of the ex-Champion characters, plus series such as Danger Man and The Flying Furies continued the chaotic run of change, change, change, and Zip Nolan ended his British exile and returned to Pensburgh, at which point the series became very much run of the mill, with nothing new to say or do.
And there was a round of line-up changes in September, with The Phantom Viking returning for an extended run, this time with better art, The Mystery Speed Star coming to an overdue end and two new stories, one of them too be very long-lasting, in the spy thriller, ‘Code Name – Barracuda’ and the football strip ‘Carson’s Cubs’.
Add in ‘Swords of the Seawolves’ from 1 October, and suddenly Lion had it’s first truly settled line-up since 1963.
Carson’s Cubs was, I was surprised to realise, Lion’s first football series, after fourteen years in existence. Indeed, it was the comic’s first genuine sports series, in that it was about football, and not about some secret formula or crime-busting operation for which the sport was really just the peg.
But Carson’s Cubs was the real thing. It’s premise may have been gimmicky – old pro returns to failing Third Division club Newton United and revitalises its fortunes by cramming the side full of multi-talented schoolboys – but it was about the football, and the time dedicated to action on the pitch was correspondingly the greater proportion of the strip.
The villains are those who stand in the way of the club’s inexorable rise back to the First Division. At first, these included inside-forward Nick Lacey, who’s determined to make the experiment fail and get the Newton crowd to turn on the kids, but who’s out of the team pretty quickly, and the rather more long-term opposition of Director Arthur Braggart, who regards the whole idea as making the club into a laughing stock, no matter how much onfield success the Cubs bring.
Apart from the absurd premise, the Cubs themselves are eccentrics and improbable, especially the likes of Tiddler Smith and Swotty Brayne, who collectively look incapable of standing up to a gentle zephyr if it blew at them sideways.

In complete contrast, ‘Code name – Barracuda’ was a piece of crap. Barracuda, and his assistant Frollo, were the United Nations’ leading troubleshooters against the menace of WAM – War Against Mankind – the biggest criminal organisation around. Most stories lasted only a handful of weeks, the art was crude and unsubtle and so were the stories. Nor did things improve when Barracuda and his right hand man Frollo were given superhuman powers to try to turn over WAM’s conquest of the world under King Cobra.
And my parents opposed me buying American superhero comics, but were ok with me reading stuff like this?
‘Swords of the Seawolves’ was much better, as indeed it ought to be. It boasted Don Lawrence art for the first time in years, but that was no surprise, since it was nothing more than reprints of ‘Karl the Viking’, with new names: Karl was now Rolf.
The Phantom Viking’s second run was much longer and boasted better, more vigorous art. The stories were still not all that great, nor was the Viking himself, come to that: super-strength, flight, invulnerability as long as meek and mild Olaf Larsen had the helmet of his ancestor on his head, or at any rate the wind didn’t blow from the south. There were strong hints that Headmaster’s secretary Helen Yates would like to be a romantic interest for Olaf Larsen, if he wasn’t such a bloody wimp, not that she lasted long. It’s very formulaic, the only twist being that the Viking’s alter ego really is as helpless as Clark Kent and Don Blake pretended to be.
Trelawney of the Guards certainly lived up to its potential for several months, offering superb, tight cold-psychology war stories that week after week illustrated the professionalism of soldiering, from a writer who clearly was speaking from experience. But, just as ‘Paratrooper’ in Hurricane gradually morphed from war stories related by Sergeant Rock to comic book hero stories about him, the series gradually turned towards a more orthodox Trelawney-the-hero approach. It still had a gritty, realistic edge and great dark art but slowly lost its distinction by descending into into hero-worship. And even the realism was diminished as Trelawney increasingly used his rifle for swinging the butt at Jerry soldiers instead of shooting them.

Original Reg Bunn Art

Jerry Siegel’s Spider stories arouse mixed-feelings. On the one hand, he was brought in as it was clear that Ted Cowan had no real facility for direct superheroics. And Siegel, newly on the outs at DC after suing over Superman’s copyright renewal again, should have been a specialist. His first two stories continued the Spider-as-supervillain line, though the second of these saw the King of Crime up against the Exterminator, a super-assassin hired by Crime Incorporated to get rid of their greatest foe. The Exterminator could have done it too, but was deflected by the Spider offering to make him his partner. The two then whupped Crime Incorporated’s ass, until the Spider had lulled his ‘partner’ into a false sense of security and drained him. Enthralled by kicking crime, he then became a crimefighter.
By ‘The Spider vs the Crook from Outer Space’, his days as a criminal were completely forgotten. But the story is a terrible, herky-jerky affair, an endless string of unrelated episodes, with Siegel throwing in anything he can think of without the least trace of logic. These include the would-be invasion of Earth by, at first, an undersea race of mermen, then an alien space fleet, both of which being passing diversions. Then there’s the way both sides pull incredible weapons out of their ass at a moment’s notice, before immediately producing antidotes, cures and defences with equal lack of set-up. Frankly, it’s a story that would have struggled to pass muster in 1938. Did I really relish this stuff every Monday?
Robot Archie continued to ply his trade around the ignorant jungle savages of the world, with the predictable fear and superstition. Archie was now going on automatic brain more and more often, and his thought processes got to be more and more arrogant and amusing. Ken was now well-established as the more cautious of the pair of pals, often displaying a complete lack of confidence in Ted’s brainwaves.
This was self-evidently very popular, but I find the colonialist stuff sticking in my throat, and I just can’t write it off to ‘simpler’ times, probably because we are nowadays seeing an increasing number of people coming out of the closet to embrace the ultimately racist attitudes this represents. The difference is that Cowan et al. were unconsciously, almost ‘innocently’ racist whilst today’s bunch are wilfully so, but I find that distinction too subtle to make and it spoils Archie for me.
As an aside, I noted on 24 December a reference to a witchdoctor as ‘Old Rottenhat’, a phrase I’ve only ever otherwise come across in Robert Wyatt’s solo album of the same name. This is definitely not a Northern thing.
The big problem with this period of extended stability is that too many of the series’ were not as good as they’re remembered to be, or rather that instead of being stable, they were repetitive. And given that The Spider, Barracuda and Frollo and The Phantom Viking were all superheroes, whilst the increasing number of gadgets built into Robot Archie had now multiplied beyond all reason, there was insufficient variety between the stories any more. The only ones that stood out were Carson’s Cubs and, of all things, Jinks, which went missing for several weeks when the stable period finally started to crack.
Change came at long last on 28 July 1967, when ‘Trelawney of the Guards’ was renamed ‘Trelawney’s Mob’ and turned into a serial. The ‘Mob’ consisted of four of Sgt Trelawney’s men, Pyle, Cork and Kenny, who’d turned up are regulars many times and O’Rorke, a fighting Irishman. These five were sent behind enemy lines to protect a scientist looking for a German secret weapon. It was a little bit different but it also completed the downgrading of the series from the excellent and intelligent war psychology story it had been into just another Second World War serial.

Frollo and Barracuda

And a new illustrated feature, The Story of Football, made its first appearance on 18 August, taking its time to present a surprisingly comprehensive history in short chunks.
These were the herald for another revamp. The settled line-up lasted a year and a week, but on 14 October, with another set of football stickers, given away over six weeks, Lion and Champion, as it was still called, fifteen months after the merger, offered another round of new stories for its remaining stalwarts and two new series.
These were Jungle Jak, about a teenage Tarzan in Africa accidentally taken to Britain when trying to save his chimp pal from the circus, and Johnny Dynamite, embarking on a Boxing career to save his family business. Neither of them were particularly appealing, especially as the Karl/Rolf the Viking reprints were squeezed out to make room.
As for the rest of the crew, Robot Archie came back out of the jungle again, turning security guard in London, though I’m not betting against him going back to the superstitious natives, whilst The Spider found himself up against the Sinister Seven. This is the one I remembered most, the one that was all-out superheroics, with the Spider taking on other super-powered allies to battle a super-villain team. I’ll have more too say about this in the next instalment.
Trelawney’s Mob’s second outing was a ludicrous adventure bringing the team up against an Austrian Count who dressed his men in medieval suits of armour. It was the end of all credibility for the series, and a distinct blow to that of Lion overall. But the 4 November instalment did provide a moment of distinction: the first signed page of art in Lion‘s history, courtesy of artist Jose Ortiz.
Johnny Dynamite didn’t last long, racing to the British Boxing Championship in a mere ten weeks, and giving way to a new series in the first issue of 1968 which, in lieu of any more handy moment, is where this latest instalment breaks.