(No, no art like this ever appeared in a D C Thomson comic, but I needed a Sohrab and Rustum illustration from somewhere)
Referencing Matthew Arnold’s epic poem Sohrab and Rustum as I did recently, in relation to the imaginative sub-structure in Katherine Hull and Pamela Whitlock’s The Far-Distant Oxus, has reminded me of a couple of vivid and memorable stories long ago in the classic D C Thomson weekly boys adventure comic, the Victor.
Before I go any further, I want to thank the poster Phoenix on the UK Comics Forum (http://comicsuk.co.uk/forum/index.php) who identified these stories from my very imprecise descriptions of them, and who was equally invaluable in correcting my naïve recollections of the second of these.
I remembered the unlikely adaptation of Arnold’s poem into a Victor series, which appeared under the title “Sohrab the Warrior” between August and November 1965 (issues 233 – 246), and ending the week before my 10th birthday.
Victor (established 1961) was one of two such D C Thomson comics I was allowed on a weekly basis, the other being its younger – but virtually interchangeable – brother, the Hornet. Each provided a weekly diet of two page serials covering all sorts of exciting subjects: war, sport, westerns, adventure, crime. Neither were noted for historical adaptations of epic poetry, which makes “Sohrab the Warrior” stand out from the offset.
I am not familiar with the poem other than to understand that it tells of the fateful, fatal meeting between two Persian warriors, the veteran and famous Rustum and the young, dashing Sohrab. Unbeknownst to either in their epic battle (Rustum is incognito, and has last seen Sohrab as a baby that he abandoned to his mother) the combatants are father and son, a fact only revealed to them when one lies dying from a mortal wound, and the other is grieving.
“Sohrab the Warrior” was, to my recollection, faithful to the premise of the poem: the young man Sohrab leaves his mother to search for his warrior father and present himself for approval. He has weekly adventures, during which he gathers a band of equally young allies, frequently derided for their youth, but always prevailing due to Sohrab’s valour and leadership. Whether any of the action was faithful to the poem, I really don’t know, but given the difference in target audiences, I really suspect not.
Thus far, and without being kind, we have a story much like the hundreds of others I read in Victor or Hornet: exciting, entertaining and lacking in distinction. After all, my main memories of the D C Thomson stable are the recurring characters, who would go on for series after series: the mysterious Wilson, the Tough of the Track, war-hero pilot Braddock, footballer Nick Smith and cricketer Rob Higgs, lorry-driving sports natural Bernard Briggs, Scotland Yard Detective in New York, The Big Palooka.
But episode thirteen turned up an ending that would stick in my mind forever, for this was when the series caught up with the poem, and Sohrab met Rustum.
It’s a basic plot of literature (and life) that the son grows to overthrow and replace the father. It’s one of Heinlein’s three basic plots: A Boy Becomes A Man. At the age of nine I had neither the breadth of reading nor the experience to understand that, but I’d read enough comics to know the simplest Truth: The Hero Wins.
So when the story was faithful to the poem, when Sohrab clashed with a powerful, incognito warrior, who suddenly ripped off his mask and proclaimed himself to be Rustum, I had nothing to prepare me for the sick shock of Sohrab dropping his guard in surprise – and the villainous opponent slashing his sword down into Sohrab’s stomach and dealing him a fatal wound.
From there to the end of the story was mere panels, enough to sketch out recognition between victor and vanquished, Sohrab to die and his body be taken away, leaving at least one nine year old struggling to process what he’d seen. The Hero Wins. He doesn’t take a sharp one to the stomach and die. He Wins. Only he hadn’t.
Thus the story stayed with me forever, for being perhaps the first I’d read that was utterly honest with me.
There was another Victor story that had a similar twist ending that has also lodged itself indelibly in my mind, but which, to my surprise, had come before this tale of Sohrab and his fate.
I’m again indebted to Phoenix, not merely for identifying the series and its publication details, but also for a more precise recollection of the story that cuts across the grain of my very vague memories of it which, other than the last half page of the last episode, is non-existent. Nevertheless, I’m going to deal with the story as I remember it first, to account for how it got into my head.
The story was titled Crib Carson – Fighter, and it appeared in Victor 218 – 229, between April and July 1965, curiously ending only three weeks before “Sohrab the Warrior” began. Apparently, it had originally appeared in D C Thomson’s Adventure in 1957 as a text serial.
I certainly remember it ‘feeling’ older than 1965, in the two panels I can still clearly see in my head, and in those the look is even older, Thirties perhaps, the Depression.
Either way, as the title suggests, this is a boxing story. Crib Carson is an up-and-coming boxer who wants to get to the top: so, nothing new there. Unconsciously at least, I would expect the story to end with him as World Champion.
Crib’s gimmick was gamesmanship, which the late Stephen Potter defined as “The art of winning without actually cheating”. Crib was good enough, but would back himself up with all sorts of clever little tricks, wrong-footing his opponents and giving himself a winning edge.
Call me naïve, which I certainly must have been, but I remember the impression that we were supposed to applaud these little japes, these smart tricks. According to Phoenix, however, the introduction box regularly referred to these as “shady tricks” which, at one point, included rubbing sneezing powder into his hair, giving his opponent a faceful of it and polishing off the lad as soon as he became helpless.
I must have missed that distinction: The Hero Wins, remember? And therefore what the Hero does in order to win is right and proper, especially if they are only japes and pranks.
By this means, we got to the final episode. By now, Crib was firmly in the Big Time, and fighting for the British Championship, as preparation for the still-expected World Title. This week’s wheeze was to rub chalk-dust into his face, to make himself look white, like someone weakened by illness. It would lull the Champion into a false sense of security, enabling Crib to take him by surprise.
Only it didn’t. The Champion didn’t fall for it. Suddenly, Crib had to rely on his fighting prowess alone. With two panels left.
There came the most astonishing reversal I had ever read at that time, and one of the most astonishing reversals I have ever read in my lifetime. The first of those two panels was an angle from outside the ring, in the audience. The referee was seen, at a distance, pulling the fighters apart whilst the loudspeaker announced that the referee had disqualified Crib for sticking his thumb in the Champions eye! And next to it, the final panel, set several months later, showed a grimacing Crib, in flat cap and muffler, standing in the wind in an (unemployment) line. Two passers-by, in a background car, pick him out as the boxer who could have been Champion but who ruined his career by cheating.
That was a slap in the face, not just for Crib, but for everyone who had read that story, over twelve weeks, cheering on this clever hero, episode after episode, until this stunningly abrupt reversal when, in the last two panels, with a rush, we were told he was a cheat, which was the worst possible thing anyone could be in a sports strip.
Of course, that only applied to boys who hadn’t twigged that Crib was supposed to be an anti-hero, climbing ever higher so that his inevitable, and richly-deserved comeuppance would be all the more spectacular.
Yes, but in two panels? Only two panels?
I couldn’t understand it for a long time, and I lacked the critical equipment to understand why. I’d never before met an anti-hero, and wouldn’t have known what to call him if I did. It was, like Sohrab just a few months later, an ending that didn’t take. Stories in comics weren’t like that: The Hero Wins.
He certainly doesn’t have the rug pulled out from under his feet in only two panels.
It’s that very abruptness, the 180 degree reversal at the very last moment, unseen (well, by me) and unsuspected that, even more so than the soon-to-follow Sohrab, impressed this tale on me. As an adult, and a novelist myself (of whatever degree), it shouts of bad artistry to throw the precipice in so very very late, and with such finality.
But it hasn’t half had the effect the writer desired!
Two stories, almost fifty years ago, with two jolting reversals that flew in the face of the whole ethos of British Boys Comics of a certain generation. Better stories have vanished into the deep mists. But these haven’t.