It’s September 1971, the 11th to be precise. Issue 455 of what is now officially entitled Valiant and Smash is published, a British boys weekly comic of 36 pages for 3p, decimalisation having supplanted the old cover price.
The paper’s current cover feature is still Who Is It? Its contents consist of Captain Hurricane (4½pp), The Crows (½p), The Nutts (1p), Janus Stark (2½pp), Wacker (1p), Raven on the Wing (3pp), The Swots and The Blots (2pp), The Return of the Claw (2pp), letters page It’s All Yours (1p), Kelly’s Eye (2pp), The Wild Wonders (3pp), His Sporting Lordship (2pp), The Ghostly Guardian (2½pp), Sporting Roundabout (1p) and Billy Bunter (2pp). Of the original line-up from 1962, only four features remained, though Louis Crandell, after a hiatus, had returned under a new title.
There had been many changes since I last listed a contents, with stalwarts like Mytek and Dollman having been lost along the way. The staleness that had set upon Valiant had been dispelled by the new series, and especially the merger with Smash, though Tim Kelly and Dr Diamond were still flapping around in time and boring the pants off at least one latterday reader, and The Wild Wonders’ madcap antics were also getting a bit long in the tooth.
On the other hand, Raven on the Wing had its repetitive tropes – the gypsy boy’s superstitions – but had to be praised for keeping most of it stories focused on the football, instead of just using it for background to idiot threats.
But the Valiant and Smash era was to be short-lived. For issue 457 (25th September), the comic was back to being just Valiant, but that was for one week only, for the issue contained the announcement that Valiant was taking over none other than TV21, in one of the most bizarre and unlikely death-by-mergers there could be.
The survivors from the once great TV21 numbered only two: The Tuffs of Terror Island, four kids stranded on an island of prehistoric monsters (oh great, that again) and Star Trek, which broke with Valiant’s history by being two pages of colour! Kelly’s Eye finally got back to England only to find Tim and the ‘old faggot’ wanted by the Police. Nothing got left out of Valiant, though after all these years, Captain Hurricane lost his half page.
The following week, Star Trek took over the front and back pages of the comic, which made sense as far as the colour was concerned. The Steel Claw story took a turn for the better when a wounded Louis Crandell found himself reunited with Professor Barringer, the man in whose laboratory Crandell had had his famous accident, and who had believed in the Claw in his megalomaniac phase. It was a welcome good moment in a stupidly fantastical story.
And, like Japanese knotweed, Sporty was back…
Then, to accommodate the latest free gift of soccer stickers, Star Trek was beamed back inside (I’m sorry, that was going to happen once, but I promise not to do it again), giving the distinct impression that nobody had any idea what was going on.
The Nutts had been moved out to the back page but the big surprise was issue 461 (23 October) when they appeared in colour after 460 b&w pages. And this was permanent… for three weeks at any rate.
The set-up with The Nutts was that when the comic had a back page ad, they would sit inside, in black & white, but if the page hadn’t been sold, they would feature there in colour. The strip was no more funny than it had been in 1962, but the colour work was superb, and perfectly in register.
His Sporting Lordship finally won the last championship he needed to bring us relief from this repetitive story in the Xmas issue, no 470 (25 December). It’s New Year replacement was Yellowknife of the Yard, a not-at-all cliched story about um Red Indian Brave who becomes a Scotland Yard Detective Inspector in the most realistic manner, yeah, right. This one didn’t even get to page two before I had its number.
Valiant and TV21 had certainly escaped the staleness I complained of, but the number of pages not worth reading was still increasing. Even Star Trek was dull, with skimpy, bland art in which more effort went to drawing likenesses of the cast than making the tale exciting. Captain Hurricane never varied from its formula, the Steel Claw looked gorgeous each week but was next to unreadable, and Janus Stark the most satisfying feature. Unless you counted Jo Hagan, who seemed to spend her whole life in the tiniest of shorts.
Something went badly wrong with the cover colouring in issue 476 (5 February 1972). It didn’t look so bad on the Who Is It? cover (Marty Feldman, incidentally) but it ruined The Nutts, which looked as if at least one colour level had been left out entirely.
Two issues later, the comic underwent only its second ever increase in price, from 3p to 3½p. This level would not be held for anything like as long.
Yet another Tim Kelly Time Clock story ended in issue 482. Yet another Tim Kelly Time Clock story started in issue 483 (25 March). I assume they go on forever. Two issues later, the latest in the list of supposed comedy strips debuted, Sir Moone Lyte (Knight), which is such a pain to type, I won’t mention it again.
Issue 488 (29 April) saw a change of artist for Janus Stark, eschewing the thick black lines of the original for a scratchier style with increased use of white space which did not seem so well suited to the series, though his regular artist was back two issues later. At the same time, Louis Crandell set himself up to make money out of his Steel Claw, by becoming a paranormal investigator.
The Tuffs of Terror Island, which I never bothered to read but which appeared to be just an excuse for cliffhangers to prevent a story developing, finally got off the island in issue 489 (6 May), making room for Kid Pharaoh. This was Zethi, cursed to inanimation in darkness, sealed in a pyramid for centuries, re-awoken by archaeologist Frank Jennings and introduced to the modern world. The problem was that Zethi conked out every time it got dark. Nevertheless, this actually looked interesting, though it looked obvious that Zethi would run up against a modern reincarnation of his curser, Thotek.
Meanwhile, Louis Crandell, who had now taken to referring to his modified and updated Claw as if it was a separate and sentient entity, gained a sidekick of sorts in Carol Dane, the first serious female character I can remember since Moll Moonlight/Diana Dauntless. On the other hand, there was a serious failure of imagination in having Crandell’s opponent refer to himself as The Stealer.
Tim Kelly’s adventures were now taking place in an alternate dimension he and Dr Diamond called ‘Earth 2’ (yar, boo, sucks, I know where you stole that from!) where Tim found himself press-ganged into being Robin Hood and having it go to his head and wanting to play.
Odd Job Bob appeared in issue 494 (10 June), another comedy strip: see all previous comments. Three issues later, he was joined by Joe’s Transport Cafe, drawn by the familiar Fiddy: see all previous comments (I’m too old for this stuff, seriously).
And though there was nothing out of the ordinary in it, let us pause a moment to record Valiant‘s 500th issue, cover date 22 June, 1972.
I know I moan about the comic strips in Valiant a lot and especially about the zombie that is Sporty, but issue 504 (19 August) took the biscuit, with the last six pages running Sporty, The Nutts, Joe’s Transport Cafe, Odd Job Bob and Billy Bunter, one after another: crazy.
Another issue is that I’ve wondered from time to time whether some of the long-running series were sustaining themselves on reprints. I never read Billy Bunter enough to recognise any story, and the same goes for The Nutts and The Crows, which are essentially repetitive. So too is Captain Hurricane, and in issue 507 (9 September), I am convinced I caught the strip in a reprint, albeit doctored to fit the four page format, and it wasn’t much first time round.
I’ll also confess to a growing sense of unease at the ever-increasing use of racial slurs directed at Raven and his fellow Lengros. Some of it is to be expected, as identifying the bad guys, but the latest story saw overuse by a bunch of lads who were being held out as semi-heroes, to the point where the balance of use felt as if the strip was endorsing the usage.
Yet another comic strip was poured in in issue 508 (16 September), Our ‘Great’ Grandpa, the fourth such in less than six months, though the tide is much more remorseless when you’re reading these in series. And One Man and his Dog, about a tramp, was added in issue 512 (14 October).
Soccer Roundabout continued to enliven nearly every issue, and every now and then an insignificant name might appear. Like in a piece about Bayern Munich being presented with a new mascot donkey for winning the German FA Cup and the Cup-winners Cup. They named it Sepp after their goalkeeper: Sepp Maier.
I mention issue 516 solely because it was cover-dated for my seventeenth birthday. Next issue, the list of helpless cartoons was extended by The Bungle Brothers. Leaving aside my personal prejudice against the unfunny crap, this was starting to smack of desperation, or at least indirection. What was the editor thinking? Was he thinking at all? Obviously not: issue 520 (9 December) Brain Drayne, making the third in the last nine issues. He was gone next issue, marking one of the shortest runs ever, but I doubted we’d seen the last of him: the idiot turned up again in issue 523 (30 December).
At this point, I’m up to issue 531 (24 February 1973). I’d like to take stock of the comic I’m reading. There are still 36 pages each week but, discounting adverts, I am actually only reading 17½ pages. There are a total of 23 pages devoted to serials, and a further 6½ in this issue for comic strips, including Billy Bunter, which I do not and never have read. Indeed, it’s arguable that Yellowknife of the Yard should be counted amongst that tally, but it does belong in serials, and is one of three I am not reading. To complete the tally, there are 5 full pages of ads, plus the letter’s page. The odd half-page, which I do read, is made up of Soccer Roundabout.
So that’s slightly less that half the issue that I scroll over unread. What I do read is the Who is It? cover-feature, Captain Hurricane (though I can’t think why: it is so bloody repetitive), Kid Pharaoh, Janus Stark, Raven on the Wing, The Return of the Claw and The Wild Wonders (which is not only repetitive but beyond far-fetched, but which survives on the sheer energy of Mike Western’s cartooning). Until the most recent story began, I would have included Kelly’s Eye but I have had enough of these increasingly ridiculous time travels. I am also bypassing Star Trek, for art that is so bland it slides off the eye, and characterisation that bears no relationship to the TV version: have you looked at what they have Mr Spock say?
It makes for fast progress through issues, but Valiant‘s Golden Age is long gone.
Just as I’ve said all of that, there was a shock in issue 532 (3 March) when The Nutts went missing and The Bungle Brothers got the back page in colour. But it was only a one-week vacation. And, would you credit it, there was another new cartoon in 534 (17 March) in Tubby, the All-Round Sportsman. Tubby was by Reg Woollet. Yes, that Reg Woollet, of Sporty. Add in The Wild Wonders going into space the same week, and things look even grimmer.
But that clearly wasn’t enough, because issue 537 (7 April) introduced Mickey the Mimic. I’m sorry, but so many new strips jostling for attention is unsustainable. The next issue’s Captain Hurricane was another I recognised as a reprint.
Frankly, Valiant was in need of a change in the drama department, to try to refresh its line-up, most of which had now outlived its appeal, but who at this point would trust any new series to be worthwhile?
There was a subtle change to The Wild Wonders in that suddenly their stories were much shorter. I’d like to know the reason behind the change: editorial direction? A new writer unable to sustain long sagas? None of the other serials had changed.
And it was noticeable now that after that insane welter of desperate cartoons, not only had there been nothing new for several months now, but that everything apart from Tubby and Mickey the Mimic had been dropped.
The Raven on the Wing episode in issue 556 (18 August) contained another of those rare moment between Raven and Jo Hagen. The story has Raven promoting football in Florida, with Jo roped in to be a lines-girl, wearing a bra-top and micro-shorts: our young gypsy’s response? “Cor!” The lad had his eyes open for once. And I spoke too soon about shorter serials, the latest Steel Claw wrapping up after only two episodes.
And I also spoke too soon about the cartoon strips, with another one tried out in issue 559 (8 September), Wally Whale and Willy Winkle: do you need more than the name?
But then there was a change in the line-up, and it was the least palatable one possible, as Louis Crandell, in search of peace and quiet, disappeared for a second and final time, the Steel Claw retiring for good after issue 566 (20 October).
There was no new series for ten issues and then, in issue 576 (5 January 1974), School for Spies debuted, with 12 year old orphan linguistics overachiever Danny Conway transferred to the title school, along with two other orphans, a kung fu expert and a pickpocket. They were not the Steel Claw’s belated replacements, but the successors to Star Trek, the extra two colour pages reverting to black and white. Despite this, the comic remained Valiant and TV21.
There was an oddity, as Valiant dropped to fortnightly publication from issue 577 (12 January) to 580 (23 February), a consequence of the Miner’s Strike and the three-day week. Weekly publication resumed with issue 581 (2 March).
I have to give the paper credit for going off at a radical tangent with Raven on the Wing. The gypsy boy fell for a trickster who conned him out of several thousand pounds, including £600 of the Lengros’ money, purportedly to buy them a permanent site. Raven was even conned into giving up football to become a filmstar, which was where everything blew up in his face. Highboro’ wouldn’t take him back, no First Division club would have him because he was unreliable, so Raven ended up at bottom Fourth Division club, Wigford Town, where he became player-manager, aiming to build the struggling club up so he could pay his debts. No Highboro’, no Baldy Hagan, no Jo Hagen (booo!), a complete change of scene. It was a fascinating rethinking of the series, and an approach many other things could have benefited from.
Issue 588 (20 April) was the last to bear the official masthead of Valiant and TV21, though the latter had been redundant for ages. The comic returned to its solo status until issue 593 (25 May), when the merger with Lion that we’ve already seen from the other side took place. This meant change, drastic change.
Valiant‘s survivors were Captain Hurricane, yoked (at least to begin with, whilst reader reaction was gauged) to Lion‘s Steel Commando, Kid Pharaoh, taking on a crippled kid as his second, Billy Bunter, and The Nutts. Apart from the Steel Commando, the transferees from Lion were Adam Eterno (which I still disliked), Spot the Clue with Zip Nolan (which I thought I’d gotten away from forever), and Mowser the Priceless Puss.
The new features were Challenge Charlie, a cartoon strip based on reader challenges, The Lincoln Green Mob, four kids with names from Robin Hood who discover a mysterious horn that freezes people, Valley of the Giants, about a lost Brazilian valley with extinct animals and dinosaurs, Trail to Nowhere…, pairing trapper Colorado Jones on a mysterious quest and spoilt brat Army colonel’s son Simon Grant, and Danny Doom, a 13th century boy sorceror transported to modern times.
This spelt finis for Kelly’s Eye, Janus Stark, Yellowknife, The Wild Wonders, School for Spies, The Crows and, the biggest loss of all, Raven on the Wing. Not one of the new series looked like they could hold a candle to the longstanding but now lost series (I obviously exclude Yellowknife and The Crows from that comparison.
A week later, the new cover feature, The Rivals, took over, comparing the Spitfire to the Messerschmitt 109 first off.
I’ll be looking at the new comic more closely in the next part but I’d like to record that the Captain Hurricane/Steel Commando merger immediately made the feature unreadable. Early impressions were distinctly unfavourable, especially on Valley of the Giants in which the non-white dago was cowardly, self-centred, vicious, stupid and out to kill and cheat the white men, just as any racist writer might have devised. And the combined comic had shrunk to 32 pages as well as gone up to 4p. Also, at least one of the Zip Nolan’s was another reprint.
The Captain Hurricane/Steel Commando mash-up only lasted four weeks before the big marine and his pint-sized batman were back to their solo formula, and in reprint. The Commando and his buddy, Ernie Bates, simply vanished, just like Battler Britain all those years and issues ago.
This chapter ends with issue 600 (10 August), and so did Valley of the Giants, which wasn’t worth eight weeks worth of paper. In the next instalment, I’ll look at the new Valiant and Lion in more depth. Don’t wait up.