It’s just been announced that Albert Uderzo, co-creator of Asterix and Obelix with the late Rene Goscinny, has died at the age of 92. He’d long since passed the reins on Asterix to other hands, for good or ill. No matter that the strip was never as fiunny or sharp again after Goscinny, Uderzo had the absolute right to continue their creation, and his art never lost the confidence and seemingly effortless grace he brought to the Gauls. Quite simply, he was a genius and once again the world is colder and darker place without him.
I’m trying to think of a way to work a “These Romans are crazy” line in, but i can’t. It is us who are crazy, but no amount of tapping a finger against your head will make it funny.
The latest in my DVD collection of British Boys comics of the 1960s is one that’s a step into the unknown for me. Valiant, to which the short-lived Hurricane was a companion paper (i.e., you like that one, you’ll like this, except that not enough of them did) doesn’t exist in my memory like Eagle, Boy’s World or Lion. It was never one of the comics my parents would buy me, for reasons that seem inexplicable now. Certainly, in classic old features such as ‘Kelly’s Eye’ and ‘The Steel Claw’, it was as good as anything I read in those distant times, and in ‘Captain Hurricane’ it had a lead feature every bit as iconic, in a completely different way, as the legendary ‘Roy of the Rovers’.
No, I only saw Valiant sporadically, when I would read it at my mate Alan’s, whose parents approved of it for him. But in these days of being able to acquire great swathes of old stuff, in tiny packages for cheap prices, why not apply myself to things for which the nostalgia level is at its most minimal? Valiant made its debut on Monday 6 October 1962, published by the soon-to-be-reorganised Fleetway Publications, costing 6d for 32 pages, with full colour only on the front and back covers. The front cover featured a big thumbs-up from Captain Hurricane, the character most indelibly associated with the comic, and the good captain’s origin was told in the opening feature, 3½ pages, along with his batman and reluctant sidekick, the skinny Maggot Malone.
The rest of the line up consisted of The Nutts (1 page) a comedy about a skiving family, It Really Happened (1 page), illustrated stories of weird and wonderful happenings, Hawk Hunter and the Iron Horse (2 pages) a western about a 17 year old white boy brought up as an Indian becoming a trouble-shooter for the advancing railways, Paladin the Fearless (2 pages), a medieval strip about an old woodsman who rescues a baby from the invading Vikings and brings him up as his own, The Steel Claw (2 pages), anti-hero lab assistant Louis Crandell who becomes invisible except for his metal right hand on touching electricity, Percy the Problem Child (1 page), a quiz page in cartoon style, To Glory We Steer (3 pages), the life story of Admiral Nelson, Hey Presto and Shorty the Sheriff, two half-page cartoons, Blade of the Frontier (4 pages), Captain Brett Blade on the North Western Frontier in India, Sixer and The Crows, two more cartoon strips sharing a page, Kid Gloves (2 pages), about a mild-hearted boxer, Jack O’Justice (2 pages), a Highwayman style hero, and on the back page, Famous Fighters, this week the Red Indian.
Phew! That’s an impressively varied line-up for a brand new comic.
Of those debut features, Captain Hurricame and The Steel Claw were obviously familiar, and I’d heard of Jack O’Justice though I didn’t remember anything of it. But none of the other series meant anything to me. The cartoon style of Paladin the Fearless was rather European, so I’m immediately guessing it was adopted from something like Pilote or Spirou, though it used a much darker ink-line that most of the French strips I’ve seen.
And in a manner with which I should be familiar, there were new cartoon strips in each of the next two issues, first Tommy Hawk and Mo Cassin in issue 2, then Mark Tyme, the scruffiest soldier in issue 3.
The same issue saw the Famous Fighters transfer to the cover, giving up their back page slot to Soccer Roundabout, a kind of It Really Happened for football stories.
I decided I’d give Valiant thirteen weeks, to the end of 1962, before I commented on its contents, although with some of the series this was an unnecessarily generous allowance in coming to a conclusive opinion.
I didn’t find any of the comedy strips funny, and there were many more than the usual average of them for an adventure paper weekly. The Soppy Happorths was much the worst of them, two schoolkids, a weak and old joke and a final panel in which the joke-teller gets a punchline appropriate comeuppance, but nothing stood out in any way, at least not to the adult me: I might have been more amused if I were still under ten.
Pretty much the same thing went for Captain Hurricane at first. The giant captain, first name Hercules, starts off as a rather callous tramp steamer captain whose craft is torpedoed by a German U-Boat, with all hands going down except the scrawny Maggot Malone, towards whom Hurricane has nothing but contempt. When the U-Boat captain leaves them stranded, Hurricane’s great strength rescues the pair, and they promptly join the Royal Marines. Two years later, Hurricane is a captain, Maggot his batman and the chance of revenge arises.
After that, the stories settled down to a seemingly unbreakable formula. The Marines are sent on a secret mission. At some point, something gets on Hurricane’s wick, and he gets a raging fury on, during which he basically smashes everything in sight. That was all, really. The raging furies all came about in the same way. Week in, week out. But with ten issues under its belt, the series started to play a bit more subtly with the giant Marine.
After Captain Hurricane, the strip I was most familiar with was The Steel Claw, but this phase is very different from the strip I read occasionally. At the beginning, Louis Crandell was a surly, selfish lab-assistant with a metal hand who discovered, thanks to a lab accident, that if charged up with electricity, he became invisible, except for his Steel Claw.
This version of Crandell immediately thought of the power he might accumulate from being invisible, and sets out to take over the world. Not only was he not very efficient at it, but along the way he demonstrated that he had the personality of wallpaper paste. The art, by Jesus Blasco, was good and would get sensationally better, but the story, by Ken Bulmer was a howler. Then the Professor dropped in a significant line about believing Crandell to have been mentally affected by the accident, no doubt some foreshadowing. Thank heaven I knew it was going to get better.
I had a very different response to Blade of the Frontier. This is Captain Brett Blade of the British Army, on the Northwestern Frontier in India, facing off against the hostile tribes intent on sweeping the Raj out of India. But this isn’t an India story, it’s a Western. It’s dynamics and its situations are those of a Western. And it’s not just a Western, it’s a very specific one: it’s Buffalo Bill from Comet, the one that was reprinted in Lion as Tiger Jack. I’d recognised the dynamics before I recognised the first of several stories that I remembered from Lion.
Whoever the writer was, he was recycling Buffalo Bill stories with minimal amendment. It made the series very weird to read, because Captain Blade is tissue-thin and the Western story is unignorable and the stories are a direct rip-off. It doesn’t have any independent life.
The other major series, Jack O’Justice, managed to run through its first story in only nine weeks. Jack’s a highwayman, described originally as a sword-wielding fighter for justice and later as King of Highwayman, and his constant companion (though they slept in different rooms) was Moll Moonlight, a very progressive step for 1962, especially in someone who was treated as all but equal to the star.
Unfortunately, the first story, featuring a Siberian Giant and the Eighteenth Century equivalent of a Mad Scientist, was a bit too much of a dip into the fantastic for the setting. I was hoping for something more grounded next. Instead, I got ghosts and phantoms, no Moll and a new supporting character described week in, week out as a Negro, and cursed with some of the most condescending ‘Lawdy Massa’ dialogue imaginable. Keep repeating: it’s 1962, it’s 1962…
As for the story itself, how good can it possibly be when seven consecutive episode end with the same ‘menace’?
Of the rest, Hawk Hunter was decent without being special, the Nelson life story well-portrayed, but subject to varying standards of art, and Kid Gloves – whoever seriously calls their son Kid, especially with a surname like that? – is a relatively unimaginative sports strip that at least reflects the era when sportsmen used to live amongst, and like, the rest of us.
As for Paladin the Fearless, which falls between the two stools, the more I see of this, the more I am convinced it is French. Indeed, there is a great deal of Albert Uderzo in the young blond giant strongman, Paladin, and almost an inversion of Asterix in his relationship with his adopted grandad, Cedric.
The first, purist incarnation of Valiant only lasted twenty weeks, and then on 23 February 1963, the fledgling paper proved its infant strength by taking over Knockout.
The survivors were Captain Hurricane, The Nutts, Kid Gloves, The Steel Claw (now transformed into a hero), The Crows (why that of all the awful options?), Hawk Hunter, Paladin and Jack O’Justice (reunited with pretty Moll): in short, practically all the comics and features, Blade of the Frontier and Nelson’s story, which completed in issue 20, were out.
From Knockout, which had been running since 1939, the merger imported ‘Battler’ Britton, RAF Pilot, to co-star with Captain Hurricane, Billy Bunter (which had been running since the days of the Magnet and still looked like it, From the Vaults of Time, a series about Professor Kraken raising prehistoric monsters that menaced the present day, one page cartoon strip Sporty (easily down to the level of those not missed), and the legendary Kelly’s Eye, featuring Tim Kelly, who was invulnerable as long as he held the Eye of Zoltec. Tim’s adventures, drawn by Francisco Solano Lopez, had first appeared the previous year.
Rounding off the line-up were the new features, Spotters’ Special and Cars A to Z, and the only all-new series, The Man Named 39 (Secret Agent Nick Shadow whose cover is as Convict 39, serving life at Fenmoor Prison. The art looked like Tom Kerr again to me, employing a more serious approach than his ‘Oddball Oates’ style of the other end of the decade.
And having recorded all that, it was frustrating to find Percy the Problem Child back the very next week!
Battler Britton’s role as second fiddle to the Marine Captain only lasted three weeks before it was back to business as usual, having demonstrated that a regular partnership was simply too awkward to sustain. But his appearance was popular enough to warrant handing him his own series again, replacing Hawk Hunter in issue 31. And The Crows’ unwarranted reprieve lasted only that same three weeks. However, their absence was anything but permanent.
Issue 35 (1 June) saw new stories for Battler and the rival Professors, Kraken and Needler, whose series was re-named Kraken and the Time Machine. This really was an oddball strip, with Professor Needler, the ‘good’ scientist being heavily overweight and possessed of a low-hanging double chin: what a model for a Valiant kid! Meanwhile, Jack O’Justice ended his third adventure, and prepared for another with a supernatural theme. And Battler was back in new action again in issue 39 (29 June), his stories being very much of the brief kind.
The Man Named 39 clearly didn’t go down well with the readers for Nick Shadow was retired after only one adventure. Paladin the Fearless followed him quickly afterwards. Their replacement, in issue 44 (3 August), was The Big Shot, a series about gangster and Public Enemy No. 1, Nero Cortez. The next week, a curious change of art-style, and a more cramped and crowded use of panels convinced me that the comic had gone to Knockout‘s vaults and was saving money by reprints.
So far, there’s been nothing to remind me of reading Valiant when I was a boy, but in issue 46 (17 August) came an exchange in Captain Hurricane that I did recall, with the big marine fulminating at bing sent on an admin course to learn about ‘Marine’s flamin’ bootlaces and Officers’ perishin’ pips’ only to be corrected by a jovial Aussie in admin-speak as ‘Laces, boots, flamin’, Marines and Pips, perishin’, officers for the use of’. Isn’t it funny what can stick in your mind for so many years? Valiant‘s first year concluded with issue 52 (28 September) and new series for Tim Kelly, Jack O’Justice and Professor Kraken. The Big Shot having come to a sticky end the week before, there was a new series, the first Western since Hawk Hunter was dropped. This was The Duke of Dry Gulch, another of the English Fish Out of Water brand of Westerns, starring Captain Basil de Montcalf, former Bengal Lancer and new owner of Dry Gulch. Ol’ Basil had the statutory monocle, foppish appearance, lazy drawl and punch like a mule-kick of the formula, but he also had a gigantic Indian servant, and not Red.
And there was a minor surprise in store as Battler Britton was once again dropped, and with him his four pages, with Valiant reducing to 28 pages weekly from this point.
There was a stunning surprise for me in issue 59 (16 November) with a new series, Little Fred and Big Ed, in colour on the back page. These were two ancient Britons defending an isolated village from the Romans. Little Fred was a half-pint with a big yellow moustache, Big Ed a rotund bloke with a red moustache and striped pants… Yes, you’ve guessed it, this was Asterix and Obelix, with a British debut preceding their appearance in Ranger, again as Britons instead of Gauls, under the names of Beric and Son of Boadecia. This was a reprint of the first Asterix adventure.
After fifteen months and sixty-five issues, with 1964 about to arrive, it’s time to take stock of Valiant, and try to give some reasoned responses to the comic and it’s major series. By this I mean the ones that have lasted which, from Valiant‘s debut consist of Captain Hurricane, The Steel Claw, Jack O’Justice and, though I don’t really class it as major, Kid Gloves, and from the Knockout merger, Kelly’s Eye. Nothing else from the first twenty issues lasted until the end of 1963 (I am purposefully excluding The Nutts and the irregularly appearing The Crows from this), and nothing really deserved to. The only other long-standing series were Battler Britton and the one featuring Professors Kraken and Needler.
Captain Hurricane’s original formularity did give way to a wider story approach, though every episode does include Ragin’ Furies, impatience with standard approaches, the alternate maligning and defending of Maggot Malone and increasingly improbable scenes off Hurricane beating up multiple enemies and equipment without even being scratched by their heavy armament: what the hell, this is more a cartoon than a realistic war strip, right?
What it also includes, as a standard feature, are racial epithets that in 2019 have me pursing my lips in disapproval. Hurricane’s exploits take place at random on various theatres of War, facing the Germans, the Italians and the Japanese, and wherever he is, Captain Hurricane is full of racist vitriol. It’s particularly noticeable in stories featuring the Japanese, since every insult is based in a supposed physical characteristic of the Japanese as a race. The Italians are addressed in stereotypes that are almost as blatant.
Oddly, though, I don’t feel anything like the same revulsion at the German insults. They just don’t register on the same scale, and I’m left wondering if I have just been too exposed to such things, from childhood onwards, so that I accept them as normal. And to be fair, whether they offend modern ears or not, all these insults are at least realistic for the War period, when nobody was concerned about the delicate sensibilities of the enemy.
The Steel Claw was one of the series I was really looking forward to reading, and I’ve already made it clear how disappointed I was with it at the outset. The artwork is consistently good, dynamic and detailed, but I found the idea of Crandell as an unthinking megalomaniac to be trite and cliched, and his competence a long way below what might be necessary to pull off his goals.
But we didn’t have to go too far into the first story before Professor Barringer, he to whom Crandell was lab assistant when the accident happened, was nervously opining that it wasn’t Crandell’s fault, that he was a good man really and that the accident had turned his mind. This would prove to be the case, though it didn’t do Crandell much good in his second story, when Doctor Deutz, who was supposed to be helping him, succumbed to a similar accident with electricity that turned him into a brutish apeman on incredible strength. Crandell naturally got the blame, which the not-so-good Doctor played upon by dipping his paw in aluminium paint to make it look like a steel claw.
Each story moves Crandell nearer to being a hero, though all he wants is the quiet life and not to be recognised. To defend a scientist friend whose invention is stolen by pirates, Crandell has to break his oath not to turn invisible again, this time on the side of the angels, but all that does is persuade him that he wants to just disappear. Tom Tully took over the writing at this point, bringing Crandell the final steps of the way into being a hero, as an Agent of British Intelligence’s Shadow Squad.
Jack O’Justice was something I knew only by name. I had no recollection of ever reading it, though clearly I must have. The title character is something of an anomaly: he’s a gentleman of the road, often described as the Prince of Highwaymen, but he and his companion Moll Moonlight are effectively crime-fighters, and when it comes to dealing with their arch-enemy The Spectre, they are treated as being as respectable as constables, not just by Prime Minister Pitt the Younger but also by His Majesty, King George III.
I give plus points to the series for having a female character who’s treated as more or less an equal to the star, though not enough to outweigh the awful black character in the second story. But the series suffers from its art, which is weak and lacking in detail or weight, because it’s actually re-lettered reprints of the Dick Turpin strip from the Sun comic in the late Fifties.
And the other major series is Kelly’s Eye, which has a lot going for it. It’s a good, vigorous adventure series that’s somehow reminiscent of Robot Archie when it’s not being stupid or colonial. Solano’s art is strong and active, and the story is pacey. Tim Kelly’s gimmick is the Eye of Zoltec: whilst this is on him, he’s invulnerable as well as being a bit superhuman, so the story’s only flaw is the necessary one of just how often the Eye comes loose, reducing him to the extremely vulnerable.
As for the rest, Kid Gloves is an amiable semi-comedy with nothing to distinguish it except for Kid (which is apparently his real name) having a girl-friend, albeit one with whom he doesn’t even hold hands, and her having the name Velvet Mittens (think about it).
The one about Professor Kraken and his rival Professor Needler is basically a dinosaur strip, mingled in with time travel to various dinosaur eras of the past, competently drawn but curiously unappealing, whilst Battler Britton, even before it went down the reprint route was neither better nor worse nor really different in any way from Lion‘s Paddy Payne (nor Victor‘s Braddock, or any RAF strip of the Fifties or Sixties come to that).
I’ve purposely made no comment on the Billy Bunter strip, which looks like a refuge from the Thirties and, for all I know, may very well be. It’s drawn in archaic fashion, it’s humour is dated and I just don’t find Billy Bunter interesting any more. Indeed, I don’t even read it as I scroll through Valiant‘s pages, any more than I do The Nutts.
Probably because I have no pre-existing emotional resonances to this material, I’m not yet over-impressed. But this is still the early Valiant: I’m expecting a mid-Sixties ‘golden age’ coming up that will knock my socks off. Here’s hoping.
I didn’t know the bit about the Valiant (which contained many great strips of those giddy days of Sixties yore) and Little Fred, but I sure as shooting remember Asterix in his very early guise as Beric, an Ancient Briton, in the pages of Ranger, though I read it in our School Library when I started at Burnage Grammar School, by when it had merged with the purely educational Look & Learn (though Ranger and its host studiously ignored each other, the comic being a pull-out supplement).
Yes, Asterix was Beric and Getafix was Doric, and Obelix was the wonderfully titled Son of Boadecia, and they were presented as Ancient Britons, not French, in stories titled ‘In the Days of Good Queen Cleo’ (Asterix and Cleopatra) and ‘No, Britons will never be Slaves’ (Asterix and the Good Fight) and this isn’t mere memory at work, but through the Stockport Freecycle web-site, in the mid-2000s, I once got a near complete collection of ‘Look and Learn’, and all the subsequent ‘Ranger’ supplements (whose comics section was, Beric and Doric aside, pretty naff.)
The translations were simpler and more straightforward, as befitted the fact that the stories were being aimed solely at children, and on account of the fact those early translators were not the sublime Anthea Bell and Derek Hockridge, but of course the stories were the same and the captions and dialogue strove to impart the same ideas, and it was all great fun, and I loved the idea of Son of Boadicea as a name.
And it’s nice to be reminded and to not be the only one who remembers ‘In the Days of Good Queen Cleo’.
Today sees the publication of Asterix and the Picts, the first new Asterix book in eight years. Rather more importantly, it is the first Asterix story not to be created by either Rene Goscinny or Albert Uderzo. Uderzo, the artist, continued producing stories after the tragically premature death of his partner Goscinny in 1977, but has announced his retirement (why not? he is, after all, 86). Controversially, however, unlike Georges ‘Herge’ Remi, who insisted that The Adventures of TinTin should not continue in others’ hands after his death, Uderzo sold his rights to Asterix to the publishers Hachette, and announced that the series would be continued by illustrators of his choice, who had been his assistants for many years.
Uderzo’s daughter publicly criticised him for doing this, but Goscinny’s daughter gave her blessing, selling her own rights to Hachette, who now control Asterix.
The new book is written by Jean-Yves Ferri and was originally to be drawn by Frederic Mebarki, although the latter withdrew, citing the pressure of following Uderzo, and the book has been drawn instead by Didier Conrad. I know nothing of any pre-existing work by these gentlemen and have no idea as to their capability at doing such a thing as Asterix.
By now, you should be aware that I have a very purist attitude towards the continuation of characters by other hands after the death or incapacity of their original creators. It’s a fact of life in the American comic book industry which, now again, more than ever, believes that the creative hand and mine that creates the work is interchangeable and unimportant compared to the characters themselves, which is an unutterably depressing situation to be back in. It’s been less prevalent in European comics, though I confess to being no expert. TinTin ended with Herge and there has been no sugestion in the nearly thirty years since that he will ever return. On the other hand, Edgar Jacobs’ Blake and Mortimer has been continued by several different teams since his death.
All my instincts yell at me to do as I always planned and ignore Asterix and the Picts. It’s not just a matter of principle, but of preference. I have loved Asterix for forty-odd years, since it was serialised in Ranger as In the days of Good Queen Cleo, and the characters were ancient Brits, re-named Beric, Doric and Son of Boadicea, but it’s the creative minds that have made me laugh. I’m not interested in anybody else’s Asterix: they’re not Goscinny, they’re not Uderzo, they don’t have that innate, instinctive understanding that belongs to the creator.
But the last remaining creator has chosen or, I would assume, at least approved of them. He wants to see Asterix live on. Should I at least attempt to read the new book? Let it fail me in its actuality as opposed to my anticipation? Surely that’s only fair?
On the other hand, I tried that many years ago, when William Horwood was chosen to write the official continuation of The Wind in the Willows. He was a good writer, I liked his books, he could make it work. And I threw The Willows in Winter across the room in anger before I got partway through the second chapter, because he’d got it so completely wrong.
Either Ferri and Conrad will produce a successful pastiche, because they’ve properly channelled Goscinny and Uderzo, or they’ll bring their own sensibilities to it, and it’ll cease to be Asterix. I imagine Hachette will have been very careful not to allow the latter, not until they’ve got two or three successes under their belts. But why read pastiche when the real thing is abundantly available?
I realise I’m talking myself into my original conviction here, but I’d be interested in hearing others’ opinions on this. What are you going to do?