Be warned, this is a long post. All these comics have been a joy to rediscover but this one in particular has nothing online to remember it by. This post is all there's going to be apart from an occasional sentence on a Wiki entry, so I wanted to do it justice and make it the most definitive post it could be. But still from that personal point of view of course.
Let's start this part of my Beyond Oink! series by going right back to the comic that started it all:
This series is all about the comics I placed a regular order for with my newsagents in Whitehead after Oink! introduced the eight-year-old me to the world of comics. When it closed its doors with its sixty-eighth issue in October 1988 I was now ten and alongside the now monthly piggy publication I was also collecting the fortnightly Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends and Big Comic Fortnightly and the weekly (by this stage) The Real Ghostbusters. Big Comic had been the latest addition, though it was such great value and kept me quiet for so long my mum didn't mind. When Oink! finished I did sample the comic it merged into (Buster) but didn't place an order and I'll cover that in-depth in #68's post when the time comes. So I was now one comic down.
Then from that final issue out plopped its free gift:
During the whole two-and-a-half-years of its publication we pig pals were treated to twelve free gifts, each one was a real special treat and unlike today they weren't taken for granted. So to finish with one was quite special. Now, do you remember right back at the very start of this blog I mentioned how Oink! was being marketed in a different way than most of the previous IPC comics with a special free preview issue rather than television advertising etc.? Well as a parting gift Oink!'s demise tied in with the release of a brand new title from Fleetway who had taken over as publishers from #35 and that final free gift was none other than a special free preview comic of it. You could say things had come full circle. It was almost like my favourite comic was passing the mantle. How could I refuse?
The new comic was called Wildcat (I loved it already!) and to anyone who watched the fantastic update to Battlestar Galactica a few years ago the premise will sound familiar, but back in the 80s the original BSG TV series hadn't exactly been a roaring success ten years previous, so to my young mind this was as original as it got! The first page of the strip inside (all drawn by IPC/Fleetway artistic supremo Ian Kennedy) completely shocked me, I just didn't expect it to tell a story like this. It'd grabbed me from the word "go":
The story in this preview edition is eleven pages long yet still fits in Turbo Jones' prediction, the selection of the humans who will leave the earth alongside him, his choosing of his seconds-in-command, the building of the enormous Wildcat spacecraft, their leaving and then the final outcome for our home planet. Quite a lot, eh? Indeed.
It does hurry through it but that's just my adult brain talking, as a ten-year-old I was engrossed. It was pitched as a science-fiction comic for younger readers to compliment such Fleetway titles as 2000AD which aimed at a slightly older age bracket. To be honest though I think this sold it short and in years since it's been lauded as a much stronger comic than its other stablemate Eagle, which it eventually folded into. You'll see below what I mean about the target audience. But first let's have a quick look at a couple of pages in this preview which caught my attention now. Below are two of them from different points, the first showing off the three characters who'd be the main stars of the ongoing title alongside Turbo and a rather convenient explanation for the funding of the project. Yes it's a bit daft now, but it wasn't something readers our age were going to worry about!
What's interesting is the mention of "lifedust" by one of the main characters. It's slipped in and not mentioned again in this preview and is the first hint of ongoing and developing story arcs to come. While this free gift's purpose was to set up the storyline so that #1 could start the action straight out the gate on a new planet, it's interesting to see a Babylon 5-esque little hint of things to come here in a supposed "younger" title. It's certainly intriguing; is one of our potential childhood heroes reliant on a drug of some sort?:
This then leads to us being told the four commanders will each lead exploration teams down onto the surface of this new world while the rest of civilisation wait onboard the Wildcat.
It's quite a brutal story for children. Our planet is gone, billions are dead and only several hundred were chosen by Turbo and his team to survive! That's all we have left to carry on the human race with, along with however many animals they brought onboard. That makes the genocide in Battlestar Galactica look like a walk in the Wildcat's luxurious gardens. The comic then ends with a few pages of previews of the monsters they'd meet on this planet and reading it nowadays my instant reaction was were they going to treat anything that looked different to us as a monster? It certainly seemed this way, rather than going to meet and greet any civilisation already on this new world. But there was a clever reason for this as you'll see below.
The preview issue was rather small (about the height of an Amercian comic and a bit wider) but the new title was going to be much bigger. They really made a big deal out of this on the back page:
There was good reason for this. Most of Fleetway's range was on newsprint and on smaller pages, something which happened to Oink! back in #36 but here we were returning to those same big, glossy pages we'd enjoyed before. Even 2000AD was on smaller newsprint and pales in comparison aesthetically, page-wise:
Even compared to today's Progs Wildcat stands out. In my smaller days it was massive and made the action feel like a big-screen adventure in my hands. In fact, as we move on to the premiere issue let's do so with a big, bold picture shall we?:
Boom! Wildcat had landed. Figuratively speaking.
It only includes a one-page recap of the preview issue and instead jumps right in with five great stories. Four of these would be ongoing tales, five pages an issue from the characters introduced previously, with the final one being a six-page complete tale set aboard the spacecraft itself. After all we couldn't have a comic named after this ship and not actually have any action on it!
This is another comic I unfortunately never kept any of from my childhood for whatever reason (probably because it merged with another comic before the stories finished) and so I bought the issues you see here from eBay for writing this post. What strikes me as it goes on, along with how much came back to me about later issues and stories, is how we can already see it developing its plan by the end of issue three.
But first, a quick comparison.
I'm currently on volume three of the Judge Dredd Complete Case Files, a superb series of books collecting together all of the Dredd stories ever since his first appearance in the second issue of 2000AD. Reading those early stories it's shocking to see how brutal its storytelling was at times, with a lot happening in five pages, but also the attitude of this hard-nosed hero was striking even by his own standards today. For any Dredd fans compare the pace of those pages above in the preview issue of Wildcat, it sets up this epic tale in no time at all, sometimes taking liberties (the funding for example) to move it along to the stage the creators wanted it to be at so they could get down to the nitty-gritty. Compare them with how the big Dredd epics such as The Cursed Earth and the robot war were set up within about five pages, so that the epic tales could then start for real and be told over many, many issues.
Then, just to ram the point home, compare Dredd's early days demeanour and especially his treatment of Walter the Wobot (no, not a spelling error for any non-Dredd fans) with the way Turbo Jones gets on here in the first page of part one of his epic story... alongside his half-robotic chimp assistant:
Feel familiar? Being the man in charge of saving our race and having it all on his conscience would make anyone a bit cranky, but we do see him start to mellow out (in particular towards Robo) as time goes on. In the first few issues we see him and his men set upon by aliens and instantly they're identified as the enemy as they have weapons pointed at the humans. In this first issue (as I read it now as an adult) I felt this was a bit off. We didn't know they were evil, they were assumed to be simply based on the fact they were a bit horrible to look at. Is this the right thing to teach the kids? No, it's not. But this is where Wildcat's plan comes into effect.
By the end of the third part of Turbo's story in #3 (funnily enough) he's discovered these people are a peaceful race stuck in an endless conflict with an enemy they can't possibly defend against. As the story goes on further into the comic's run we also find out the two races signed an anti-nuclear treaty but have started training the planet's equivalent of dinosaurs against each other (they're not extinct there) and there's more to the conflict than at first thought. But we started off with action and that's what we readers wanted: non-stop action! We got it. But as we continued to read the intricacies started to come out.
The comic had a clear plan with its stories and it's one which the other main characters would keep to as well - there's more to things than meet the eye and don't judge people or events at first glance. Turbo slowly learns even the baddies have motives which, while he may not agree with them, he can understand. Then there's those dinosaurs. Above Ian Kennedy drew the first part of the tale but he'd pass the mantle to equally prolific comic artist Vanyo,(real name Eduardo Vano Ibarra) but who can complain when you get covers like this! (Kennedy would continue with some of the covers too.):
Apologies, my scanner is A4 so these amazing covers are trimmed a bit.
But isn't that just the perfect front page for any young boy? Vanyo is a world class illustrator and in the world of comics was known for being a major contributor to a lot of Fleetway's catalogue (as were many of the artists on Wildcat) for example Death Wish (Speed), Judge Dredd, Storm Force (Battle) and Ghost Squad (Eagle).
Turbo learned the creatures who captured him were actually good guys and they put him in control of their armies, after learning more about them and coming to a mutual understanding. Then he meets the supposedly evil creatures who are using dinosaurs as a form of military weaponry. Naturally then Turbo instructs his new troops to capture and train their own dinosaurs. One step forward from his initial reaction to the aliens, then two steps back by enslaving dinosaurs? Ah but it means we're back to the action you see... then eventually Turbo not only learns more about the enemy and why they're fighting this war, but further on he starts to develop a bond with the dinosaur that's been trained to serve him.
You can see what the comic is doing. It's pulling us kids in with the action but then showing us there's more to it than that and, while these adult characters should know better, it's a comic for children and so through these new heroes learning their lessons so were we. It reads as an entertaining and well thought out comic to this day. It was trying something different which isn't apparent from the outside, but I guess that's the whole point!
The other characters all followed suit but at varying paces so as to keep us on our toes. I loved the clear design of the comic too, so as well as Turbo Jones the three other strips were:
Loner would be my favourite by far so we'll leave him to last. Joe Alien's five pages would be the only colour ones inside the comic at all, alongside the cover and the back page which featured beautifully painted pin-ups of one character every issue. Joe was an alien from the planet Xganbe-4 and the last survivor of his race as far as he knows. He had extending limbs a la Inspector Gadget and while this was obviously a visual treat for us at the time and in how he used them (never for violence and he never carried a weapon) the thing that I found the most interesting was his intelligence.
His race had been so hungry for knowledge it got to the point where their bodies and brains weren't evolving fast enough and so they developed an external brain-pack. Of course this also had its comedic moments as he turned into a gibbering wreck if it was ever removed - queue the letterer having fun with random letters all over the place. It was also used, obviously, as a way of putting him in danger and his troopers would have to come to his rescue. His men were just random humans, which meant his intelligence was vastly superior but he cared for them and when his pack was knocked out they had to save him from the inevitable danger he placed himself in.
Joe was drawn by another incredible, well-known artist by the name of a certain Massimo Belardinelli. By way of example of his credentials the late Mr Belardinelli worked on Valiant and Battle Picture Weekly titles but is best known for his 2000AD work, being there right at the very beginning with Dan Dare, then with the second volume of time-travelling dinosaur-hunting tale Flesh and then later still he brought his considerable talent to Slaine as well. However he may be arguably best known for being the artist on Ace Trucking Co which was created for him and his particular skills by veteran writers John Wagner and Alan Grant. (This strip makes a comeback this year in the Prog by the way.)
So let's have a little sample shall we? Joe would always be the second strip, bringing colour to three pages but the final two would always be reserved for the middle spread so here it is from the inside of #1 and it's clear the hyper-intelligent alien has one obvious flaw... with all that brain power he still can't detect when a massive and very hungry alien tree is sneaking up on him from behind:
Our next character here is Kitten Magee and it's the turn of Spanish artist Jose Ortiz to bring his unique style to Wildcat. A Spanish artist whose British comic work includes a whole load of Rogue Trooper for Tharg's Progs (2000AD to the uninitiated) as well as the likes of The House of Daemon (Eagle) and The Thirteenth Floor for Scream!, Wildcat's younger audience were certainly being treated to some top talent. No wonder I enjoyed it so much, after being spoiled by Oink! it was a natural progression, eh?
Kitten managed a group of female warriors who went down to the planet to find somewhere to live for the colonists and, just like the other groups, lost contact with the ship soon after landing. For a comic named after the craft, to have them all lose contact from the first issue was a bold move. It also heightened the tension when they met the next set of aliens.
Like her fellow crew members Kitten would instantly be on the defensive against an alien threat when it appeared and in her first episode they opened fire on a few such creatures which were just going about their usual circle of life duties. Yes they were after a human meal but it did seem like overkill when I read it! Now it may have simply been written they were attacking and that was it, but it wasn't clear to me and the first issue's Turbo and Kitten stories did leave me thinking we're all doomed if these are our representatives! But temporarily putting myself back into my young mindset I saw the strip was doing that trick again I mentioned above.
A few issues in Kitten and her group are apparently being set upon by a group of multi-eyed 'monsters' until she finally clicks that it's the (assumed) male leader of the group who is doing the fighting and it's a ritual to see who will be leader of the pack. The fight scene is fantastically drawn, though can I just say she's got an unfair advantage over the male here? Easy target and all that:
Kitten doesn't work with men. Ever. Well apart from Turbo of course but even then he was a means to an end and her long-term intentions remained unclear unfortunately, but there was definitely some larger plan and whether it involved the Wildcat and the males in its population or not will forever be unknown. But here she does win over the male tribe and believes she can work with them to forge relations - until two rather rotund aliens hovering above have their way of course. Again the action has grabbed our attention, but while Turbo learns more and more about the history of the war he's involved with and the beings under his control, and Joe and his group have to think their way out of dealing with a jungle of vicious plants who under the surface are just trying to survive, Kitten's story started with the same action but became something different again. Her story involved manipulations, double-crossing, secrets and lies and all wrapped up in a strong female lead. Good going for an 80s kids' comic, don't you think?
Below we can also see what happens when Kitten doesn't get her lifedust:
Jose's work perfectly captures the alien jungle setting here and his creations were always more grounded in reality than others. What I mean by this is that he didn't go overboard too much and so we believed the creatures were real. The tribe here is basically a jungle tribe with many eyes, the two overseers are the rich and powerful manipulating those people beneath them, engorged on their success. The story does develop very naturally as it goes and it's in this regard that I believe the comic is left short when it's discussed by comics fans. They see something advertised as a younger 2000AD, see the simple setup and the basic action tales of the first issue and they dismiss it. Such a shame.
But now on to this guy:
Loner was that old cliche of the man who'd had previous working partners and they'd all died, he blamed himself and swore he'd never work with anyone again. To me at the time he was like a hardened version of Michael Knight. He carried with him his antique six-gun which he'd "affectionately nicknamed Babe", converted into a multi-function weapon capable of firing assorted bullets. A handy plot device so we'd have a familiar character concept to look at and identify with? Probably, but who cares? It worked a treat and as I said above he was by far my favourite character. That's not to take away from any of the others featured here, I especially enjoyed Joe from the start but they all grew on me very quickly and each developed well, which was a feat given the short lifespan of the comic.
I think what drew me in to Loner to begin with was the stunning artwork by David Pugh, who was a staple of the Fleetway range of action titles, churning out hugely detailed, high quality work like no other. Best known for working with Pat Mills and reimagining 2000AD's Slaine for the 80s (as well as reinventing Dan Dare for Eagle after Wildcat folded), he worked on licenced titles too such as Mask and another one which I'll be featuring later in Beyond Oink!, lending a gravitas and some serious artwork to comics based on toys.
However, Loner was his favourite character of all! When I found this out it filled me with joy to have such a high profile artist hold this comic and one of its creations in such high regard, but then again Loner was created specifically for David. Amazing.
Reading these now it's clear David loved working on it. The amount of incredibly intricate detail, the fun designs of the furry creatures you'll see below and the beautiful lizard-type baddie... David must've had a lot of fun. In the 80s having a black man as this powerful action hero who has no need of an entourage of any kind, in a comic aimed at younger children which made no big deal about him being black, was a powerful thing in itself. (Never mind the fact it also had a strong female lead in Kitten Magee remember.) It all added up to something of real depth and as it developed the layers of the character and the story itself unfolded with ever more spectacular art. Just look at this page for example from #3!:
The basic story is that Loner has landed, lost communications with the Wildcat and the other parties and ends up falling through the ground to an underground cavern. Here he runs into little cute balls of fur, but ones which give out a small electrical shock if touched. At first friendly enough they start to attack, with many at once proving too much as you can see above. There's many varieties of them and everywhere he ran to before this encounter above he just came up against different kinds making it impossible to escape. However he never kills any of them, knowing they're just defending their home from this new, unknown - and much, much bigger - stranger carrying a weapon.
Of course it's not as simple as that and that guy above is soon discovered to have a psychic power over them, instructing them to attack all at once as you can see. Even by this stage all is not as it seems and you get the distinct impression this particular lizard is a bit on the daft side. It turns out he has actually gone crazy, trapped in this lair with no real minds to probe, something his race did to conquer and destroy throughout the galaxy:
The background stories were probably the only thing I now look back on and think could've been done better in the main strips. It's another of the things which contributes to the comic feeling very much like early Judge Dredd, with the backgrounds being told quickly to get them out of the way, adding depth and reason to certain story elements but leaving the main developments to be told in the present day of the tale. Doesn't that ship above just look glorious though?
In the end it becomes clear the wee fuzzballs have become his slaves and Loner takes it upon himself to set them free. They end up becoming his loyal friends and low-and-behold the first interplanetary relations had begun, with the critters living everywhere and proving a valuable resource. An odd set of friends (or pets) for someone like Loner to have but that added to his character later.
I just loved the fact we didn't need commentary from other humans - or even a narrator for the most part - the art told the story without the need for a load of exposition captions and Loner himself was such a strong character we got to know him through his own thoughts and actions. It's such a crying shame the title didn't continue as he could've been an absolutely classic British comics character and a bold, original move on the part of Fleetway.
Also in each issue the final six pages of strip would be given over to what became known as The Wildcat Complete, a self-contained story featuring different characters and scenarios every fortnight but always set in and around the spaceship itself. While they could easily have been told over several weeks at a much slower pace, with the mysteries unravelling bit-by-bit instead of feeling bit too quickly resolved, these were always still great and brilliantly dark. Right after reading Loner which in itself felt like a more mature strip, these complete stories brought a lovely creepy feeling to the story of the last remaining humans drifting in space around the dangerous planet below. They were brilliant at highlighting the isolation of being there and depicted life on board in a fascinating way - things had been designed to be as 'normal' as possible for living on the Wildcat but in reality it was a dangerous place and these stories highlighted how the ship was the only thing keeping them alive. This meant when something bad happened it made it all the more terrifying for those on board.
Also, what a body count they had! I'll show you some highlights of a later strip below to show you what I mean but first here's the complete Wildcat Complete from the premiere issue, a rather touching tale but in keeping with the tone of what was to come as the comic continued:
To me there's a Carlos Esquerra feel about the art here although I know for sure it's not him. But apparently (we're not sure) it could be Enrique Alcatena and until someone tells me different I'll be deferring to my source's vastly superior comics knowledge*. Of Argentine origin (Wildcat was quite the international pool of talent) Enrique was mostly known for his mythical comics creations in his home country but went on to work on titles such as Aliens for Dark Horse comics, Batman, Conan, as well as Predator vs Judge Dredd which was published by the aforementioned company and Fleetway.
I think his style suits the story above perfectly and as a first issue tale it brings a nice link between the then-modern day space programme (though still ten years in the future at the time) and the futuristic world of the comic. In fact every artist picked for this title brought a completely different style to the table yet each and every one suited the comic to a tee. I'll finish off the post with some superb examples from Kennedy and Pugh below to further illustrate (groan) my point. But first here's a few panels I selected from the third Wildcat Complete: The Invaders! to show you what I mean about how this supposedly younger comic, while never being unsuitable in any way, never talked down to its audience and knew the more horrifying (within reason) it could be with its stories the more we'd lap it up! Watch out in particular for the great reaction to a body being jettisoned into space:
By the end of its twelve issues it was a surprise to find anyone still alive onboard!
The artist here is Joan Boix, a superb Spanish artist who worked briefly for Marvel in the 70s and who also worked on Flesh in Tharg's organ as well as popping back onto the comics scene for Wildcat and Eagle.
But yes, end it did after only a dozen issues. What was the problem? To be honest I have no idea why it didn't sell better than it did. It was a quality comic, original and superbly put together by a team of craftspeople who wanted to create the very best new title they could. When it was coming out every fortnight I easily saw it continuing indefinitely, like a kind of 2000AD but where all the separate stories are linked together by one big epic arc. New characters could've been introduced and we may have see different ones come and go, with Turbo probably being a constant. As it was, the five characters above were still going strong when it hit its final issue.
There were no real endings/beginnings to separate stories as far as titles etc. went, each character simply finished off one scenario and then moved on to the next so perhaps they would've stuck with them and over time who knows how they'd have developed. It's a crying shame as the potential is there in spades and hopefully I've been able to show you some of that and how there was more to this comic than at first glance - though that first glance was mesmerising as a child!
Two weeks after #12 hit the shelves it joined forces with another title and Eagle and Wildcat was then out every week for a good while during 1988. I never went with it though. Oink! had finished and now a mere five or so months later another of my favourites had gone, so I kind of huffed (hey I was eleven) and I wasn't interested in Eagle itself anyway. However, a poster and stickers were given away with the first merged issue, the Wildcat characters often got the front cover spot and the consensus at the time from Eagle fans was that the Wildcat stories were sometimes actually better than the ones they'd been getting! Just shows you maybe it just simply didn't get to reach its full potential audience. Like Oink! it was originally aimed at a particular age bracket but appealled to everyone, however not a lot of people got to realise that. I suppose when you have Tharg the Mighty in 2000AD telling his readers this new comic was for "younger squaxx" it may have put many off.
The complete tales were dropped and the four main strips appeared alternatively (two a week, though Pugh handed over his favourite character to Eric Bradbury) in Eagle until the stories already planned out were complete. Then, even though they'd proven very popular in their new home, they were completely discontinued.
During its time in Eagle a separate holiday special was released for the summer and then later that year a winter special followed suit. This was at the same time as the Oink! Winter Special, both of which were much more expensive at £2.25 and contained 64 ultra-glossy pages and a thick, floppy and even glossier cover. Just as with Oink!'s, it's clear the Wildcat special's content was originally meant to have made up the first Wildcat annual. In addition Turbo Jones saw his stories reprinted in a special one-off from Fleetway and Loner's turned up in an American-sized monthly comic too a while later.
I just want to finish off with a couple of special pieces of artwork taken from this special:
First up, it's a bit of an odd special with a new Wildcat Complete, one-off tales for Turbo, Kitten and Joe, but a text story for Loner, a couple of reprint strips from classic comic Tiger (Jet-Ace Logan) and some features on robots from the comic, a look at the spacecraft and some pin-ups which were obviously meant to be back covers of issues which never made it to print. There was also a pin-up of this one which had already been a cover to #7 but with David Pugh's signature visible this time. I just had to include it because... well, surely I don't need a reason!:
Finally as a special treat at the end of the holiday special there was this following double-page spread and I thought it'd make for the perfect end to this post. It's none other than Ian Kennedy's initial design drawings for the Wildcat and her crew. What a bonus! Ian would also appear as the cover artist in every issue for a certain other short-lived Fleetway comic which became one of my very favourite comics of all time and I adored his work, so when I bought this recently it was very cool to see these:
There you have it. I hope I've been able to do justice to this wonderful comic which seems to have been criminally forgotten in the years since. With comics like Thomas the Tank Engine & Friends and The Real Ghostbusters, while they were obviously also favourites (I wouldn't have placed an order for them back then or be covering them now if they weren't) everyone knows what they're about. There was no need to explain the setup or who the characters were etc. Also Thomas' title is quite well covered elsewhere online and the Ghostbusters have their fan sites on the web too. Big Comic Fortnightly itself may not get a lot of coverage these days but the comics it reprinted are everywhere! With Wildcat none of this is true and so I've tried to make up for that here.
The length of the post shouldn't make you think I don't hold the other comics I've covered in just as high regard. I do, I really do. For example, my two absolute favourites (still to come) will be very different posts - one will be similar to those that have come before as everyone will know what it's based on, while the other will see another larger-than-your-average-bear one like this because of the very same reasons.
I hope you enjoyed this one though. (I certainly did and I loved reliving these few issues so much I'm awaiting the arrival of all twelve in a special bundle any day now and I just missed out on all the Eagle and Wildcat comics by 50p yesterday!)
I did say at the start of this series the posts would be fortnightly for the most part. Each one will appear one week before and one week after each monthly Oink!, so there's a little longer to wait this time. But I'm glad there's three weeks until part five as there's well over 300 issues to the next one. This may take some time.
* SPECIAL THANKS to Lew Stringer for identifying the majority of the artists here for me - the only one I knew was Ian! Also thanks to Steve Holland (whose wonderful blog Bear Alley Books you'll see appearing to the left with the others soon but in the meantime you can click here) for his help with the artist of the final Wildcat Complete above. So thanks Lew and Steve, I appreciate all the help and it wouldn't have been anywhere near the post it became without your input.