Wednesday, 23 September 2015

BEYOND OINK! #8: TEENAGE MUTANT HERO TURTLES ADVENTURES

<< GO TO PART SEVEN: RING RAIDERS

As soon as 1990 began one of the biggest crazes of my youth hit CBBC.  A brand new cartoon featuring four reptilian mutants who happened to be trained in the way of the ninja and who would increase the number of pizza parlours across the land.  Along with their rat master and their all-American lingo the four "heroes-in-a-half-shell" won the hearts of children everywhere and became the number one show, number one toy range, number one... well, everything!

Not bad for four teenagers:


The TV show originally aired in the States in 1987 with a five-part story acting as a pilot for a possible series.  Proving massively popular it was picked up for the 1988/89 season but they didn't arrive on these shores until January 1990.  These days this is unheard of, when selfish pirates and illegal streamers could damage a property and its possible future if there's any form of delay, but in the 80s we didn't have to worry about that and so we could all enjoy the launch together.  Enjoy it we did!

Based on the original black-and-white TMNT comic created by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird which had proved only moderately successful up to this point, the cartoon series lightened the darker tone up considerably and changed a lot of the background elements in doing so.  Splinter's backstory had been that of a pet rat belonging to disgraced ninja teacher Hamato Yoshi, but in the cartoon he was Hamato Yoshi before the mutagen transformed him and some baby turtles someone had flushed down the sewers.  In the cartoon they immediately mutated into teenagers while in the comic Splinter had raised them by hand.  Krang, the alien brain we all remember from the cartoon also wasn't in the comic though a similar alien race was, the Turtles were now referenced by their full artists'  names rather than shortened nicknames and another example was the Foot Soldiers; robots in the cartoon, teenage delinquents in the comic.  Both scenarios may sound familiar because interestingly the first live-action movie in 1990, which was very much produced thanks to the success of the cartoon, changed these elements back.  I remember thinking the movie had changed things, or was incorrect at times, but I now know this wasn't the case.

However a couple more changes were to happen before the cartoon reached British shores, contributing to the wait being even longer.

While I haven't watched or read anything to do with the franchise since those early days, the recent live-action movie has proved popular (and I really must get around to watching it!), a sequel is in the works and for years now there's been various cartoon and comic incarnations all baring the name "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles".  But that's not how we knew them.  To us they were originally the Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles.

The word "Ninja" was deemed too violent for British and many European audiences when it came to cartoon heroes and so the title was altered along with the wording of the theme music and Michelangelo's nunchakus were edited out of every episode of the cartoon, even though they'd still appear in the toy line and in the comic for the most part.  Even the movie released that same year with the original title had quite a lot trimmed from it for the cinema and video releases.  So much so that many moons later around the year 2005 when I bought it on DVD, even though so much time had passed I noticed a raft of extra bits added back in again!

Not that any of this mattered at the time of course (though the ending of the movie had felt rushed and a bit confusing and we didn't know why), we loved every second of what we were allowed to watch and within four short weeks of the beginning of the series a brand new comic had already appeared on the shelves from Oink! publishers Fleetway.  Entitled Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles Adventures it was a 32-page fortnightly comic on very odd-shaped paper.  As tall as our piggy publication but a good deal thinner horizontally, this strangely tall, thin comic made for a unique look and feel, like it was even taller than its actual size, which made it feel like something unique and special:

The only non-comic strip page from #1

Just like Marvel UK's The Transformers the Turtles comic would alternate between bringing us the American strips and originated British material.  Unlike The Transformers however the British strips paled in comparison, for me anyway, and I couldn't wait until the next story from the USA.

In America alongside the original dark TMNT a comic entitled Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Adventures appeared, which was directly tied into the TV series.  Starting off with a three-issue mini-series which told the story of those pilot episodes across five chapters these were our first experiences of the Turtles in comic format.  Fleetway's first issues had no features and simply contained thirty pages of strip action, meaning we got the same chapters of varying length to this adaptation in each of our first three issues too.  Reading it now it rattles along and is light on characterisation and overly simplifies the fight scenes but I can remember loving this first issue in particular and reading it over and over.

Below are four pages where Splinter explains the origin tale to April O'Neil, their new reporter friend and I recall being particularly impressed with the mutation image on the second page here.  Adapted from the teleplays by David Weiss and Patti Howeth, the comic strip version was written by Michael Dooney who also pencilled the artwork.  Inks are by Dave Garcia, letters by Steve Lavigne and it's all coloured by Barry Grossman.  Here is a small section from part one of Heroes in a Half-Shell!:


The American comic strips were excellent at switching between the ninja action and the comedy at a moment's notice.  Below are four pages from later in the same issue which show you exactly what I mean.  April has got herself caught while investigating (something she had a habit of doing) and the turtles, in hilariously bad disguises, are searching for her in The Big Apple.  A deserted Big Apple I might add.  This was something which was glaringly obvious in the cartoons, the City That Never Sleeps was always handily empty whenever our heroes had to go above ground.

But anyway, back to the matter at hand.  As I mentioned above the Foot Soldiers had been changed to robots as part of lightening up the comic for TV and here's the comic book adaptation of their first encounter with the fantastic foursome, with some nice little quips thrown in for good measure and their first sighting of the mysterious Shredder, also played for laughs:


I loved everything about this comic from the very start, right down to the unique page shape and size it all screamed out as something special.  It was rare for a British comic to have cover-to-cover strips when usually they'd only take up a certain amount of space while the rest of the pages were filled with features and extra bits and bobs.  I placed a regular order and after those first three issues the comic moved on to publishing the regular monthly American strips every fortnight.  I was hooked, I even drew a picture of Michelangelo for it while babysitting one night and sent it in, but then with #15 something changed which should've been for the better.

British strips.  These first came to us in four special Poster Mag issues which instead of being the regular 32-pages in length folded out into a giant poster with a new story on the rear.  Obviously the American strips simply wouldn't fit so native creators to these islands brought us four one-off stories, which I remember as not that great, being too light and fluffy and feeling like filler material to prop up the poster.  I didn't really mind though, they were special issues and with #19 we were back to the original format and more from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Adventures strips from across the pond.

The American comic had diverged from the cartoon early on and gone down its own storytelling route with exclusive story arcs, its own recurring guest characters and a darker feel to it than the cartoon which saw it sideline Krang, Rocksteady and Bebop completely to concentrate on developing a darker and more honour-bound Shredder.  It never went back to the imagery of the original comic and kept itself strictly within the TV series' Turtles universe but it was definitely a grittier take while keeping the humour and flavour of what it was based on.  They were great stories and really felt like they were adding further depth to what we watched every week on the Beeb.

But from #21 the British strips returned and would alternate with their American cousins for page space.  Apart from the odd occasion when the imported strips ran for two issues in a row we'd mainly get a full American strip one issue, then two smaller one-off British ones the next.  But unlike The Transformers comic where the British strips added to the ongoing stories and eventually branched out into their own epics, these homegrown Turtles strips were a pale imitation of what we got to read from the USA and it was the need to go through these stories every-other-issue which led me to cancel my order less than a year into the run.

Now this might sound sacrilegious to readers of a blog which has spent these past few years celebrating the very best of British comics talent, and which recently has gone wild for the excellent UK creators who worked on the previous titles in the Beyond Oink! series.  So stopping my Turtles collection for this reason may sound just plain weird.  But I'll show you what I mean below.

However, let me skip forward a bit first.  It'd been about a year-and-a-half since I'd bought a single issue but I was still watching the cartoon and had really enjoyed the movies, so one day I wanted a comic to read and with my pocket money in hand I walked up and down the newsagents' shelves looking for something and decided I'd give the comic another go, even though it was an issue with two of the British strips.  This was that issue and while I had to buy the premiere edition above from eBay for this post, this issue below is my original copy:


For whatever reason I ended up not actually reading it all until a few weeks later, I forget why.  I'd read one of the strips and then a whole month passed before I picked it up again, to read in school during some free time we were being given that day and I can distinctly remember sitting and reading it and getting the shock of my life.  Why?  Patience...

First, let's have a look at the first of the two strips.  Called Robowar!, written by James Nicholas and drawn by Alonso, it's a 14-page complete story featuring Splinter and Krang's plan to use robots to infiltrate banks and steal the city's wealth.  However the robots are all distinctly humanoid with no special powers for the specific job they were created for and may as well have been the Foot Soldiers, and the Turtles win far too easily by simply reprogramming them in a matter of moments while the bag guys seemingly wait patiently.  The strip then ends with the supposedly fearsome Krang and Shredder sweeping the streets of New York while the Turtles make a corny gag.

The main thing about these strips was that they were very clearly aimed at a younger reader.  While the American ones were based on the cartoon and weren't as dark as the original comic, they were still written for the teenage fans who were surely the main audience given these were teenage turtles.  However whereas they were also suitable for smaller readers, the British ones felt very much like they were being written solely for a much younger group.

Plus British writers trying to write American teen lingo was painful!  A case in point is the (over)use of the word "geek" on this first page:


This jarring of the two different styles of strip didn't sit well with me or some of my friends who also collected it; one of them even cancelled his regular order and just picked up the ones featuring the ongoing American stories and arcs.  I'm not one to just sit here criticising, I'm very aware of who they were aimed at and I'm sure plenty of the younger readers really enjoyed them, they were of great quality for comics aimed at the younger market after all, so I won't take that away from them.  But to our age group they were just too simplistic and throwaway for us.

So anyway, back to sitting in that classroom and after being disappointed with the first strip I casually flipped the page, glanced down and gasped at what was on the bottom of the first of two letters/pictures pages:


I'd had no idea this was in it, so while the rest of the comic didn't change my mind about collecting it, obviously I was thrilled I'd decided to give it one more go!  That's why this issue has been in my possession ever since while the rest were given away, and to think it'd also sat in my bedroom for nearly a month while I unknowingly ignored it.  It was a hell of a coincidence picking up this one issue, especially given the length of time since I'd drawn the thing!

I was chuffed and eventually, after the comic got passed around a lot, I settled in to read the second strip, buoyed by the inclusion of my drawing.

I soon realised though the British strips hadn't really progressed any since the year before.  The second story was called Computer Chaos and was written by Andrew W. Donkin and Graham S. Brand, with the artwork by Morale.  The first few pages sets up a somewhat interesting premise of Shredder taking over the Wall Street computer systems, with his face plastered across every screen and locking out the traders.  Surely younger kids would have limited interest in that and we were going to get a slightly older-feeling adventure at last?  Nope, a page or two later and the old cliche of strapping a metal band around the heroes' heads and wiring them into a computer 'transported' them into a digital world to fight robotic-looking "machine coders" and "computer bytes", but not after jumping on a digital number and surfing it across the cyberspace.

Seriously.  I remember sitting there thinking this was ridiculous and what on earth did it have to do with the ancient fighting and honour elements of the Turtles; remember in the first story they'd won by reprogramming some robots far too easily as well.  Not exactly ninja-y!  Reading it now as an adult those same feelings came flooding back and reading only these two issues for this post they really are worlds apart in terms of what their target audience seemed to be:


Did you also notice the British strips have Mikey fighting bare-handed (or not at all) so as not to include those pesky nunchakus?  Even though they were there in every fight scene of the American strips.  That one element kind of highlights the problem with the comic.  The American strips were still continuing in the issues either side of this and I'm left wondering what on earth Fleetway were playing at.  Did they even read the stories they were importing so they could work out their own original contributions accordingly?  Did they know what to do with this unique martial arts-based and very American property?

It made for a comic of two distinct halves but it was definitely a success for those who didn't mind the mix and for those younger readers too of course.  As it turns out only two issues later the last British strips would appear, then the comic turned monthly from #73 onwards so that it could print the American strips without the need of new material at a time when the British comics industry was facing a bit of a crisis.  It also changed its front cover design to reflect this by using a top-corner boxout on the cover US comics like so much.  In addition all the covers from that point on were reused from those comics (including many by original Turtles co-creator Peter Laird) instead of the original British ones used up to that point.  Not necessarily a bad thing, seeing as how often the American strips would have a bright, cheery and quite childish cover in complete contrast with the darker contents within.

The comic lasted right through to #84 in January 1994 which isn't bad at all!  However it just ended.  No big finale, it just stopped with the story from #51 of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Adventures title, which continued in the States for another twenty-one months right up to October 1995!

It's certainly a little oddity in the history of British comics.  It's shape and size made it great fun to read the main ongoing storyline from the US and certainly those issues were simply superb, among my very favourite comics from my youth.  But by that stage I was now in grammar school and the homegrown strips just didn't feel like they were properly thought out in advance to accompany the imports, ultimately putting me off collecting the comic for its whole run.

Such a shame, as Fleetway could easily have had their own Transformers on their hands here, but I'm sure they were still very happy with the sales and the length of time the comic was published for.

NEXT TIME


Definitely a bit of a change of direction from the comics I'd collected before.  A mix of original and licenced characters made this anthology title a hit with me from the start.  I had never read anything like this!  It was certainly not what I expected from the usually squeaky-clean Marvel and that intrigued me as soon as I saw the first issue.  Surely this one would last?  Alas, no.  So I'm back in a fortnight to shed light on another forgotten title.  See you then.

Thursday, 17 September 2015

#67: THIS ONE IS FULL OF RUBBISH


Yes it really is a Rubbish issue.  But with a capital 'R' because it heralds the return of Rubbish Man to the pages of Oink! after a long, long break since the fortnightlies!  His last appearance on the blog was also way back in that last fortnightly issue when I gave him his own post for the superb New Years spread from #44, but he's been sorely missed ever since.  But fret not smelly readers because not only is he back in a brand new strip but it takes up a whole fifth of this issue with a whopping ten pages!  How do you like them rotting, decaying, blackened apples?

(Oh, please excuse the rips along the top there.  I do try to take care of my Oink!s but that was Lew Stringer's fault.  I was so eager to read his Brickman comic (see here) I didn't realise I'd put the protective sleeve down, sticky tape and all, right on top of this Oink!  So yes, all Lew's fault for creating such a fun looking comic that I took my eye off the ball for a moment.)

In a story featuring the then President of the United States, as well as a new kind of crazy for a super villain, a humungous planet devouring... um, slimy thing and even a few of our favourite guest superheroes all playing pool together in their own unique way, it's a recipe for success.  I'll let you read it first though, so meet me a little bit down the page after you've enjoyed this final Rubbish Man of the regular Oink!s from an artist who brought much mirth to every single issue of the comic, Haldane:


It's a belter of a story, containing most of the things we've come to expect from a Rubbish Man strip such as complete and utter randomness and lunacy.  But I couldn't help feeling there was something missing when I read through this again as an adult.  Could it be the fact it feels very spaced out?  Haldane always filled his Rubbish Man strips with a load of panels and there was always a lot going on in each one.  In contrast this one does seem to be rather spread out over the ten pages when his usual style could've told this exact story in half that space, or he could've treated us to twice the story.

But even with that, it's something else.  Where's his mouldy cold custard flying out of his nostrils?  Or the mushy peas spraying out from his fingertips?  Or his rancid feet knocking his enemies unconscious?  See what I mean now?  While it's still a funny strip and the kind we'd only see in a Haldane Rubbish Man story, none of his powers are present.  As kids that's what we loved the most about him, just how utterly disgusting he could be in saving all of us.  Hence why his good deeds went unappreciated by those bystanders we'd see walking away with clothes pegs on their noses while giving him a sarcastic "thank you".  Ridiculing Ronald Reagan (and can you tell who Dr Blip is based on?  Brilliant!) in such a way is an indicator of Oink! going after that slightly older teen-and-upwards market, but surely teens and students would be the ideal target audience for someone so smelly and devoid of hygiene?  (It's a joke, don't write in.)

Nevertheless it's still a funny strip which wouldn't have worked with any other character and Haldane's weird and wacky imagination is still second-to-none.

Now do you remember a few months back in #64 we were given some sage advice in Ten Things You Need to Know About the New Poll Tax?  There's a famous story surrounding Oink! about how one of its issues made its way into the House of Commons.  It should come as no surprise the Poll Tax parody was that very page.  One Oink! reader approached an MP (or, his "pal") with it and some highlights were read out as a way of showcasing just how ludicrous the opposition to the tax felt it was.  Originally written by Howard Osborn (and it's only through this next scan I've finally been able to credit Howard with the original piece in #64's post) it certainly made for possibly the only time the House of Commons had anything read out that'd please the public.

Of course the other side just accused Jeff Rooker MP of wasting his time reading comics instead of doing his job, completely missing the point of the Oink! article in the process.  Or rather just wanting to sweep it under the carpet.  Here's how it was reported:

Order Oink?  Hmm... (see the final paragraph of this post)

It's been quite a while since we saw another Oink! favourite, though this time I mean in the cartoonist department.  Andy Roper contributed some stunning work for previous stories, the most memorable being The Spectacles of Doom where he brought a great action-adventure comic style to the proceedings while keeping in tune with the very comedic script.  It was a blend he perfected masterfully with those strips and it was a delight to see him reappear here with a one-off story written by Lew Stringer.

This reminds me of one of the TinTin books I used to love as a child, when he went exploring in a mechanical submersible.  The story here sees two young children the likes of which we were very familiar with from comics, books and early morning movies at Christmas-time; annoyingly too squeaky clean for their own good, they'd end up getting handed some magnificent 'thing' which allowed them to go on some wild adventure, during which they'd continue to irritate the reader or viewer (please note I'm not describing TinTin this way!).  The fact Lew has named them Danny and Penny Cretin shows to me they're very much meant to fall into the same category.

But the spoof element here seemed very focussed and so I asked Lew if it had been inspired by a real children's story and he confirmed it had.  In the 1960s one of his favourite adventure strips in The Beano (yes, it did adventure strips) was The Iron Fish and after asking him about his inspiration Lew wrote up a full post about these original stories on his Blimey! blog, which you can read by clicking here.  Go and read that first, it'll make what's up next even more enjoyable.

As you will have read there Lew described the original kids as a bit "wet" and thus the surname used in this issue of Oink! becomes ever more descriptive.  Meaning well but ending up causing disaster after disaster and getting on the nerves of everyone and everything they encounter, here they are in their Iron Salmon!

The fact the original mechanical fish seemed to have 'eyes' is captured brilliantly here by Andy who doubles them up with the lights and portholes, seemingly (somehow) capturing the character of the story in the inanimate object.  Right down to the way the captions seem to recall those used in the early adventure strips from The Beano and The Dandy, this is a great take on the classic genre and any fans of The Iron Fish should find this extremely gigglesome:


Last month we welcomed Weedy Willy back to our screens and here he is again in a strip which is fondly remembered by many Oink! fans if the Facebook group is anything to go by, even if it did coast over my head at the time.

Back in #63 Mark Rodgers and Michael Peek brought us the lyrics to a new hit single by Boarrissey, a simple but effective take on the singer Morrissey whose music had a certain tone and was accompanied by a certain kind of lyric.  As I mentioned at the time I wasn't really aware of his music but I certainly knew who he was by the name they used.  I didn't have this luxury when it came to the following Willy strip, but then again I was only 10!:


Written by Kev F this time and drawn by regular artist Mike Green, the identity of the stalker in the last panel may have been a clever and funny ending to many but to me I'd simply no idea who it was.  Of course it reads much better (and funnier) to me now!  It's one of those strips which, to those pig pals who got it, stayed with them to this day and it's been reminisced about more than once over on the aforementioned social media group, so there was simply no way I could not include it.

Lew is back again after the fish course above with his main dish and it's a wonderful three-page Pete and his Pimple this time.

Out of all the contributors to Oink! I do feel with hindsight that Lew really was the one who made the most of the extra space the monthlies afforded.  Every page was always filled to the rafters with the same amount of laughs and cracking artwork we'd come to expect from his single-page strips previously.  So when we saw a larger Stringer strip we knew we were in for a treat.  Have a look at last issue's Pigswilla if you haven't already and you'll see what I mean and the same is true below.

With three pages it's three times the pimply goodness and if anything it actually feels like he's squeezed (no pun intended) even more into each page than he normally would.  Which is saying something!

Still taking suggestions from the readers on how to cure his zit problem, Pete stumbles upon the "simple" idea of time travel.  As you do:


Did you spot the 2000AD reference?  More significantly, as another example of the shift in tone for Oink!, how about that 'Claws 28' joke?  It's clear it means something but my young mind simply put it down to a name for the mechanical claw used to grab Pete; it's getting across there's no way out because of the amount of claws watching their every move and this is just adding to the silliness, right?

No, of course not.  I hadn't read this strip in twenty-seven years and when I did for the blog my instant reaction was to Bing "clause 28" and you can see what I found here:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Section_28

Obviously big news in 1988 it just wasn't on the radar of a young scamp of the age I was, having the complete disregard for the news we all had at that age.  However it's shocking to read back on it now in 2015 and to think this was added to the legislation of local authorities in the UK at all, never mind in my lifetime.  But kudos to Lew and to Oink! for getting their little dig in.

Last month I promised you the return of two things which have been sorely missed for a while now.  One was the artwork of Ian Jackson and the other was Oink!'s critic, the lady we all loved to hate, Mary Lighthouse.  Originally in every single issue either as part of Uncle Pigg's strip or in her own story, this regular routine was all dropped when we hit the weekly issues.  While the editor's strips did decrease in the fortnightlies he still had regular big outings and he was very much a large presence in all issues.  But even he saw the chop for the most part from #45 onwards.

Both characters were reduced to appearing in the corner of the Grunts letters page and only the very occasional guest star role elsewhere, and in these monthly issues the letters page is the only place!  (Grunts had now been renamed as simply Uncle Pigg's Piggin' Crazy Readers.)  Originally they were the glue which held it all together and the pig theme ran throughout with them, the plops and the Oink! office staff in there every chance the comic could squeeze them in.  It made for a wonderfully anarchic and very original feel.  Without all of this, and with only the occasional pig-themed spoof, I'm left thinking any new readers Fleetway were wanting to bring in may have been a bit confused with the name "Oink!" and why readers were always drawing pig-related celebrities.

But to long-time fans the return of Mary, even if it was for three-quarters of a page, was a welcome return to form.  Still no Uncle Pigg though:


Classic Lighthouse and no mistake and a nice bit of familiarity with Ian's work gracing the pages again too.  The name of the writer there is F. Jayne Rodgers who is editor Mark's younger sister and this appears to be her one contribution as far as I can tell, so a big thanks to Jayne for bringing back Mary just before the comic's finale.  Also a big cheers-and-thanks to Helen Jones for helping me with my query on this one!

Jayne and her daughter Bibi run the award-winning Veggie Runners blog which you can find by clicking right here.  Chronicling their marathon running and equally inspirational vegetarian cooking adventures it's a great read and I heartily recommend you scoot over after reading this post.  Helen also gave me a little bit more information on the Rodgers clan, and if you click here you'll open up the website for A Man Called Adam, the group of recording artists which includes Mark's youngest sister Sally.

It feels quite fitting to see Mary Lighthouse on form again after so long, knowing what the next issue would bring us.  Now don't well up, try to contain yourselves pig pals, I've got one more thing to show you first before I talk about the next issue (#sniff# #sniff# pass me a hankerchief):


This big, bold advertisement graces the back page of the issue and after the glorious Oink! Book 1988 pint-sized me was elated to see news at last of the next annual!  The previous year similar adverts had run in the regular fortnightly comic, building up a degree of anticipation that thankfully was matched (well, bettered) by the book itself when I got my hands on it that Christmas morning.

But thrills turned to confusion when I actually read the above.  Only 64 pages?  That was the same as the much smaller Marvel UK annuals.  The first Oink! book already had less pages than its stablemates from IPC/Fleetway but made up for it with the gloss and shine, the high quality of the paper and of course the contents!  It stood out and seemed like so much more than the books alongside it with higher page counts.  So while those other humour comics did have their annuals cut back a little for Christmas 1988, it seemed unfair to cut Oink! too.

But I still couldn't wait!  With the old logo, the same kind of physical cover and a fantastic J.T. Dogg picture taking a sinister twist on the idea of the first book's front page, I eagerly awaited Santa that Christmas and upon having a glance in the newsagents' it seemed to be chock full of the things I'd been missing from the monthlies.  How did it hold up after the wait?  You'll find out in about three months.

ARE YOU READY FOR THIS?

But for now we've got to come back to the present, or should I say October 1988 and the very final issue of Oink! is only four weeks away.  The next issue page this time was part of a Frank Sidebottom strip as he was to be the cover star and there was no indication of the sad news to come (athough I do now realise the reservation coupon on the letters page had been replaced by one for 2000AD).  I found out in a rather surprising way as you'll discover, so please do come back on Thursday 15th October and join me as we sadly have to face the music and bid adieu to the regular editions of the world's greatest comic...

Sunday, 13 September 2015

BRICKMAN RETURNS - AS DOES LEW STRINGER!


None other than Pete and his Pimple and Tom Thug creator Lew Stringer has just released Brickman Returns!, a small press comic collecting together twenty superb full-page strips of his longest-running character Loose Brayne and his daft alter-ego.  Originally created in a 1970s fanzine he's returned time-and-again across various titles and this second volume reprints his adventures from the pages of Image ComicsElephantmen! title.  But there's also a couple of other characters included which will please fans of Lew's work no end but we'll get to them in a second, first here's the opening strip from the main story which acts as the perfect introduction to anyone who hasn't read his previous stories:


Thanks Lew for signing this by the way!  Didn't expect that!

The first thing that strikes you about the comic is the superb finish it has.  It feels a lot bigger than its 32-page length, with lovely thick, glossy pages and a thin cardboard cover displaying that excellent cover, it's of an extremely high quality print, especially when you consider the great value price.  Inside the story rattles on with one-page chapters from each of the Elephantman! issues and it never fails to surprise you.  With Lew's imagination not only is anything possible, it's included!

The strips have Brickman teaming up with Tina Trowel as his crime-fighting partner (and more) and there's a whole host of superbly written baddies such as The Poker and The Ostrich, with one ludicrous scheme after another.  On its surface it's a Batman parody but in reality it has its own identity, as Lew explains:

"Although Brickman was a parody of Batman, I didn't want it to be too in-jokey.  The idea was to appeal to the general public ... so I only stuck to spoofing the basics of Batman."  He also points out how morally ambiguous the character is and it's through this we get some of the best moments in the comic.  He often makes decisions based on his own interests rather than the public he's meant to be protecting, which may sound like a simple idea but it's a great device for a supposed superhero and Lew takes this and runs with it.  But let's not forget the slapstick and some brilliantly judged in-jokes about superhero characters and comics fans.

It's pure, undiluted Stringer and also includes the return of Action Force and Transformers fans' favourite dimwit Combat Colin!

There are plenty of genuine laugh-out-loud moments in what is a truly nutty comic and one such moment in particular I roared at but I'd be spoiling your enjoyment of it if I told you about it.  All I'll say is it's Chapter 14.  Now go and buy it to see what I mean.

When you've finished the main story you've also got the extra feature mentioned above, three pages of a Combat Colin strip from Transformers (spot the cameo, pig pals) and a collection of mini-strips from his other creation, the Suburban Satanists who were created for a Norwegian comic and make their first honest-to-gosh UK (and English) appearance right here with a collection of their outings:



This is a great comic to enjoy for another reason - the Lewniverse, which Lew affectionately calls his own little universe where all his creations from across the many titles he's worked on can interact with each other.  It makes for a solid world in the Brickman stories in particular, adding a depth to the ludicrous (or is that Lewdicrous?) frolics of the brilliantly defined characters.  It has you analysing every panel and re-reading the comic for all the little references and background details for every last giggle.

For fans of Lew's Oink! work I can't recommend this highly enough and it's available through his shop for a paltry £6.00 which includes first-class postage in a sturdy, protective package:


Also available is the original collection of Brickman strips from 1979 to 1996 in the digest-sized 152-page(!) trade paperback Brickman Begins! which contains loads of strips and features, including contributions from some top cartoonists in the UK comics industry.  You can even pick both up at once for the special offer price of £13.00.  It'd be almost rude not to at that price.

While Lew does say this is the final swan song for the character he's also said that before, so here's hoping some time in the not-too-distant future we'll all get another invite to Guffon City.

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

BEYOND OINK! #7: RING RAIDERS

<< GO TO PART SIX: FUNNY FORTNIGHTLY


Remember these?  I certainly do!  They were billed as the "next big thing" and their creators Matchbox were certainly going into overdrive in the marketing department to ensure everyone knew it.  Instead of starting out with a toy line and reacting to the level of popularity, the company organised the selling of rights for everything from books, model kits and kids' costumes to an actual US cartoon series right from the offset!  Launched on both sides of the pond, it was only in the UK that collectors were also treated to their own comic and what a title it was.

This is the comic I've mentioned before, a criminally short-lived one which remains to this day as my very favourite (non-Oink!) childhood comic.  May I introduce you to the Ring Raiders:


With a spectacular Ian Kennedy cover I can still remember walking into the newsagents' and spotting this sitting on the shelf.  Previously unaware one was coming out I'd asked for some pocket money to go and buy a comic and this met my young eyes, complete with a free Matchbox Ring Raider plane on the cover!  It was hard to miss in an age when free gifts were rare, so a bulky one such as that really stood out.  I ran home and devoured the stories over and over again for the whole fortnight.  It was brilliant!

But what are Ring Raiders?  They were a range of toy planes which came in "wings"; collections of four planes each attached to a small ring via a clear plastic arm.  Kids could attach these to all four fingers, pose them in any way they wanted and then run around with the planes in flight.  Each wing also came with a mini fold-out comic book telling a tale of the Ring Commander of that particular group.  Initially proving popular in the summer of 1989 the range expanded for Christmas to include large bases, Battle Blasters (electronic SFX devices which attached to the wrist by Velcro and resembled flight sticks), display stands, medals with special silver planes, larger bomber planes on individual stands instead of rings and during the following year a whole second series of aircraft:

Some of the original wing packs

I started off with a special Ring Raiders Starter Pack of one plane from the good guys and one from the baddies, the Skull Squadron.  I can't remember if I'd seen the adverts or the toys in the shop first, but I do remember endless hours with these two planes and mini-comic.  (More on these two particular characters further down the page.)

Soon enough I was a collector and my assortment of planes grew.  Any visiting family members from the mainland knew what to bring with them, Santa stocked up for that Christmas and my brother and sisters began discussing behind my back which ones they were each purchasing for birthday and Christmas presents.  Along the way I had numerous wings, three of the four bases, many medals, bombers, a Battle Blaster and even the audio cassette and a couple of VHS videos, one bundled with special planes!  I distinctly remember being in a toy shop with my sister the following summer and she was very confused as to why I didn't buy an interactive toy like all the rest of the children, instead coming away with the official display stand!


There are some adult collectors to this day (those two planes above are from one such collection) but not myself I have to say.  Well, the rings don't fit anymore!  Seriously though, I have the comic and it's a delight to read but the toy range is firmly in my past.  But what a past!  I can honestly say no other toy line had me as excited as Ring Raiders and every new plane I acquired was an event.  To then see a brand new, large and glossy 24-page fortnightly comic from Oink! publishers Fleetway was the icing on the cake.  I'd jumped in at the very beginning of the next craze, or so I'd thought at the time, and the comic had such potential for big, epic storylines and loads of characters to explore.  An order was placed straight away.

With over half of each issue in full colour and artwork to swoon over it was an action-packed comic from the first page.  The story behind the toys was a simple yet effective one.  In the late 1990s (ten years into the future at the time) Skull Squadron was formed with the if-it-ain't-broke-don't-fix-it idea of aiming for world domination.  Formed by a band of pilots who had been left broken and bitter by recent wars, Skull Squadron discovered the secret of time travel which they installed into each of their aircraft.  As the situation became grim the leaders of the world (we all got on in that future) then banded together to form opposition.

The Ring Raiders were then formed but they were on the back foot!  They only had the technology to install time travel on one craft and so created the huge Air Carrier Justice (the one toy base I didn't have as it was MASSIVE and very expensive) which they then took through time to assemble a force of the very best pilots from the past, present and future, before using it to scramble themselves across time to combat the enemy.  Compared to the Skull Squadron pilots who were all from the future of the late 90s but who could all time travel, the good guys tried to balance the odds by calling upon various different flying skills from the very greatest aviators across time instead.

The elusive toy itself, which could link with the two bases I had
to form probably the biggest toy ever!

The characters all wore rings too, but while these were initially just a way to 'fly' the toy planes, within the fictional world of Ring Raiders they were used as a way to connect each pilot with their aircraft in a unique and personal way.  It could take the energy from the human behind the stick and for a small period of time transfer that to the plane, whether that was for a burst of speed, extra maneuverability or giving extra punch in the special weapons department, or trying to bring a crashing plane back under control just long enough to land.  Each ring would only work with that one character and their individual plane and they couldn't use it for too long or else they'd pass out, and then the recharge time for the ring was down to how long it took the person to physically recover.

In addition the ring was a way of summoning pilots (this was before bluetooth remember), warning them secretly of danger and could contain smaller gadgets like laser cutters etc.  Altogether it made for an interesting set-up for what may on the surface have looked simply like a toy-line of Matchbox planes in the same vein as the usual cars and lorries.

The comic was very definitely geared towards those who were already playing with the toys and familiar with the backstory, the rings and their limits.  For those of us already invested in Ring Raiders it made for thrilling stories that could concentrate on the action and characters, and let's not forget that superb artwork.  Below is the first part of Trackdown!, taken from the premiere issue.  Drawn by John Cooper it told the story of a race to secure/capture a Doomsday Device which had been accidentally created and which threatened to destroy the world, so was perfect to be held for ransom by Skull Squadron:


Reading it now as an adult it reads brilliantly and develops very organically over eleven fantastic parts, which is about double the length of many 2000AD stories!  It may have been a comic for younger readers but it didn't talk down to us and treated us as having actual attention spans.

What I love is the fact the first few parts focus on an original character created by the comic. In the toys only the Ring Commander got named, pictured and had a written profile (the human characters being designed by Those Characters From Cleveland), but here in the very first issue the team behind the comic bravely introduced us to a brand new pilot, namely one from the anonymous planes which made up the remainder of Joe Thundercloud's Rescue Wing.  Freddie Riley was very likeable and we were left hoping he'd return at some future point.  However, this story focusses on his leader Thundercloud for the most part, but side-lining Riley after a few issues doesn't feel like a cop-out and instead the story shows just how well the wing work as a team.

Trackdown! features the Air Carrier Justice beaming half a bi-plane on board to rescue a young boy after it's deliberately broken in half by a jet, a Skull Squadron plane flying by remote, the same plane being balanced precariously on a Ring Raider jet by the power of the ring and nearly draining the pilot of his life in the process, a time travel jump to the age of the dinosaurs and the evil Blackjack's plane skipping across a lake and sinking in the climax.  When listing all of that in such a way it may sound like it's a matter of throwing everything at a story just for the sake of some random action for the kiddies, but I have to say it all works!  There are reasons for all of this and it all develops out of the characters themselves and the situations they place themselves in, perfectly demonstrating the scale of the comic's potential.  Not bad for a licenced title, eh?

Now, one of those two planes I got in my Starter Pack was this little fellow:

Image from eBay

This is the Grumman X-29 fighter and this particular one was codenamed Samurai Flyer and belonged to Wing Commander Yasuo Yakamura of Valor Wing.  It was both my favourite plane and favourite character and came with a P-51 Mustang which you'll see further on in this post.  Maybe it was because this was my first and introduced me to the whole line of toys, or because I'd never seen a plane like it before, but I also think he was a favourite of many fans.  This was probably because Yakamura was from the far future and got partnered up with the futuristic (but real) X-29 which in the world of Ring Raiders was filled with all sorts of computers and automated systems courtesy of the pilot's knowledge.

He was certainly the most interesting Ring Raider character and his plane the best looking of the line for me.  You can imagine how thrilled I was then to open the first issue and see a complete five-page colour story revolving around Yasuo.  Unfortunately only this first page features his aircraft but in the background you can see one of the bases I gratefully received that Christmas and the story itself was great fun.  It was the first in the series of one-off tales which would focus on one character per issue, of either the 'Raiders themselves or from Skull Squadron (a complete one of these is included in this post) by delving into a incident from their personal past, which could often be our future, and which explained one of their identifying character traits:


Drawn beautifully by John Gillatt this told of how Yasuo came to trust robotics and computers to the level where much of his Ring Raider airplane was controlled by them.  I remember as a kid thinking how cool it was with this first issue to have these brilliant characters come out of these toy planes, and as the comic continued it was always extra exciting when one of these stories would feature a pilot whose plane you actually owned.

The first issue left me gagging for more and I wasn't to be disappointed.  The next two issues featured free posters and the front covers are made up of images from them drawn by S. James with a figure standing in front by Ian Kennedy.  It feels very much like a comic in its early days and you'd expect that to continue for longer but it found its feet very quickly, as you'll see further down the page:


It wasn't actually until #4 that we had our first mention of how the ring's power could affect the human wearing it.  In fact this was the first time the ring was used as anything other than some sort of warning device.  Here, Yuri Kirkov's plane had taken a bad dive after an attack and he had to use his big bit of shiny jewellery to wrestle it to the ground, landing in a rebel enemy's territory as he did so:

Art by S.James

Not covering the rings properly for a few issues is a rather big failing of the comic I have to say, but only with hindsight.  Originally I was already up to speed with the set-up of Ring Raiders and so I never really noticed it but I did look forward to the first times the rings were used.  The comic used their powers sparingly, concentrating on the characters and their own flying abilities so the rings weren't seen as a gimmick, but now I can see there was never any real introduction for readers not accustomed to the toys.

The Transformers comic drew me in before I started buying the toys and other licenced comics set out their backgrounds too, but Ring Raiders took the leap of faith its readers would already understand and decided to tell the background story slowly, concentrating on the aerial acrobatics and developing the characters behind it first.  But I now feel it would've been a lot better to explain the set-up and the power of the rings in that first issue, for those picking it up who didn't already have some aircraft hanging off their fingers.

There was a small paragraph in the letters page of the first issue with the most basic of breakdowns of the background story and I see now as these issues developed we got to learn more about how Skull Squadron and Ring Raiders came into existence.  It's a mature way of doing it and is something we're all used to now in television ever since the likes of Babylon 5 introduced us to storytelling which slowly let us into the set-up as they went along.  By no means am I saying the comic should've held its readers by the hands with that first issue, as it would've come across as very childish indeed, but even the start of a multipart story about some of the background elements and having a ring used in the exciting way we toy collectors knew they could be would've gone a long way for curious readers looking for a new comic.

Then they could've developed things at their clearly preferred pace, with the ring usage back to being kept to a minimum for dramatic effect and the full details of the history of the story coming out as we went along.

But back to the positives and that fourth issue didn't only bring the first proper bit of ring-based drama, it also brought with it a confidence which is evident throughout it and the following issues.  The bigger and thus bolder logo and the exciting Ian Kennedy covers (all covers would be fully painted by him from now on) gave the impression of a comic which had already matured into its prime.  I really thought this was going to last for a long, long time; it was so full of great quality reading material, meaty and exhilarating and every issue was read several times before the next one appeared.  I'd spend hours playing with the planes afterwards, each issue at the time brought a level of excitement I hadn't experienced from a comic before (or since if I'm honest, in comparison).

Just have a look at these covers in all their Kennedy-glory:


That cover from #6 shows the P-51 Mustang codenamed Galloping Ghoul and flown by the ghostly figure of Skull Squadron Wing Commander Wraither, a mysterious figure of which little was known, even his true appearance.  I loved seeing this other favourite little tiny toy painted up like a big powerful, full-size plane in full-page glory, taking centre stage like this.

Skull Squadron often got centre stage billing like this as a lot of kids were fans of the evil group's planes and characters instead of the 'Raiders.  Indeed, the letters page would alternate every fortnight between one for the 'Raiders and one for the 'Squadron, hosted by different pilots every issue.  Skull Squadron even allowed 155 words for each mini-story submitted; "that's 5 more words than those Ring Raiders allow" they'd boast whenever it was their turn.

Some strips even ended with a cliffhanger of a Skull Squadron plane about to crash or being targeted by a 'Raider's missile and the character profile stories often centred on them too.  My favourite from this read through is definitely Skull Leader Chiller's and it's quite a harrowing tale for a kid's comic, which is probably why I loved it so much back then.  His plane was the most sought after when I'd finished reading this!  From #3 and drawn again by John Gillatt it includes deception, death, double-crossing and plenty of chills:


Chiller was a favourite amongst many fans due to his ice cold character and the freeze ray of his plane.  While the planes themselves were real-life machines and always given their proper names, descriptions and weaponry,  they obviously had to have something unique about them.  Something to set them apart from their real-life counterparts, to add a science-fiction-type element to them.

Chiller was the most calculating of all the bad guys and by the time the comic ended it hadn't gotten around to profiling their leader Scorch, concentrating on his troops first almost like the comic was working its way up to him.  In the meantime we looked forward to any story which had some form of ice threat in it and when one made references to a ship in the "Black Star Line" travelling from Liverpool to NewYork and coming a cropper you just know some form of icy death is going to be involved, as depicted through the art of Carlos Pino, the only artist who got away with signing his work:


Operation Chill would continue to intrigue, setting up a great little mystery which, while it's obvious Chiller is involved we're not sure why or how.  In real life the planes had proven to be successful and for Christmas the big bases were being released, including the Skull Squadron's Mobile Command Centre which was a brilliantly original toy.  Like Marvel UK's Transformers comic and its tie-in with Hasbro, the Ring Raiders title from Fleetway also had a job to do in promoting the new toys in Matchbox's range and what better way to introduce the new sky base than to have it appearing slowly from beneath a melting iceberg, bit-by-bit in all its creepy glory!  Worked for me:


Talking of promoting the toy-line, weirdly enough Matchbox didn't seem to think they needed to pay a marketing company to produce their print adverts and instead they only appeared in this comic, created by the editorial team at Fleetway!  These differed every issue, starting with very bland ones featuring a full-page image of some child's hand with planes attached to more elaborate ones as we went along.  Here's a couple of examples including one featuring artwork from S. James:


The Operation Chill story began in #6, rounding off my favourite issue of the lot as it featured Wraither's P-51 Mustang on the cover and the start of two brand new stories inside (one featuring a showdown between Wraither and Yakamoto!), showing to my young self the comic was in its stride and set to continue for a long time.  All stories in this issue are second-to-none even to this day, delivering quality characterisation and action the likes of which I hadn't experienced before as a child and which all hold up amazingly well today.

It was like an anthology comic but all tied into the Ring Raiders theme and the imagination on show to develop these toys into something substantial that would last is evident throughout.  You got the impression some of these characters could return later in new stories just like those in 2000AD keep returning, but on top of that they could also overlap and appear in each other's strips at any time.  It was a glorious package.

The issue also included the first in a brand new feature which I was very excited by:


These photo files were originally to continue with every issue, building a large resource of information on the real-life planes featured.  Just like the toys, the comic was very accurate in its portrayal of every plane and on the letters pages it's interesting now to read young children writing in and using the correct technical terms and specifications.  It certainly peaked my enthusiasm for all things fighter plane-wise and at around this time I started to collect a new partwork called Airplane because of Ring Raiders!  (I also think it's the reason I liked Jag so much when it appeared on TV six years later.)

With six great issues under its belt and growing ever more confident with each one the future looked bright.  Alongside the adverts filling up almost every commercial break during CITV, the toys packing out the shops and the Ring of Fire video being packaged with some planes by Matchbox it looked like they were here to stay!

Also released was a standalone video of two further episodes of the cartoon, which differed greatly from the comic and even changed quite a bit of what was established with the toys too (then again so did the Transformers cartoon).  It added two new female fighter pilots, the planes would transform into silver, armour-clad versions of themselves under ring power, some of the other characters' appearances were changed and Cub Jones - who was a World War II pilot in the toys and comic - was made into a rookie pilot for the first episode as a way of introducing the show.  But it had a rocking theme tune, even if it was different to the great one the adverts already used (and a different one was used again for the audio adventure Matchbox released!)

But this wasn't all that made it seem like the "next big thing" was indeed ring-powered.  The merchandise was already out in force:


In the 80s if you had a lunchbox and flask based on your intellectual property you were on your way to the big time!  These are just some examples (pulled from eBay) of Halloween masks, "Valentines"(?), Revel model kits, storybooks, cardboard models, bedsheets and even napkins for some reason(!) and there was plenty more.

How on earth then could this appear in that fantastic sixth issue?:


My heart sank.

I couldn't believe it, how was this possible?  Yet another comic of mine was being cancelled.  At the time I could only assume it was through poor sales but I find this hard to believe when I also now take into account the toy-line proved massively popular for Christmas 1989 yet also completely disappeared before the following one.  The promising cartoon series produced five episodes as a tester but was never picked up for a full series, the merchandising vanished and, despite a 'Series II' of aircraft being released in the spring of 1990 there were hardly any on the shelves and by the time the festive toys started rolling out the Ring Raiders were nowhere to be seen.

What happened?  I have no idea.  Were those "circumstances beyond our control" something more to do with Ring Raiders as a whole rather than the comic itself?  I'll probably never know but with such a hugely promising start it's criminal it was never given a chance to develop and evolve.  Fleetway did indeed produce the special for the following year and wasted no time in getting it out as it appeared in February when I was expecting it to be an Easter or Holiday Special and it's covered below.

The comic is of great quality and well worth picking up the entire run on eBay, though do be warned each issue can fetch a higher price than you'd expect (around £20 per issue) due to their rarity these days.  The two annuals produced also have nothing to do with the comic and are of relatively poor quality in comparison, with basic text stories and features and no strips included.

Reading over these comics it was a thrill to see certain images on the page which had stayed with me all these years in the foggy recesses of my memory, such was the strength of them.  From World War II bombers fighting 80s fighter jets and Mako's 'Sea Hunter' Mig-29 laying an underwater mine, to Blackjack reappearing into a story silhouetted against a blazing sun and a ghostly vision of Wraither appearing above my favourite plane in my favourite story.  Actually, why don't I show you what I mean:

Don Wazejewski
John Cooper

John Gillatt

Don Wazejewski

There was some simply stunning imagery in this comic and these are only the tip of the iceberg.  No, not that iceberg, we've covered that already.

So the comic ended up cancelled before all those potential new readers opened their ring-based toys from Santa that year, and he'd plenty of them to deliver; they proved very successful, so with that wonderful gift of hindsight the discontinuation of the toys and thus everything else based on them is a mystery I'll probably never know the answer to.  But I can still enjoy these wonderful tales and just imagine where they could've led.  One good example of how the comic's universe was being developed came in the aforementioned special which came as ever with another fantastic Ian Kennedy cover:


Actually, it came with two of them!  Cancelled very suddenly Ian had two completed pieces of art ready, so the inside front cover of this special edition contained what would've been #8's front page if it'd been published.  We'd already seen Ring Commander "Salty" Salton's one-off strip in #4 so there must've been a new multipart story featuring this World War II pilot on the way, but it's remained untold:


The Ring Raiders Special contained the final chapters of all the strips which had begun in the comic.  This meant there were actually almost the same amount of chapters to Trackdown! in this one edition as in the whole fortnightly run, with five issue's worth of Thundercloud and Blackjack madness present here.  We'd only been treated to the first part of Operation Chill so the final four are all here too alongside the concluding three pages of Freedom Fight which had begun in the very first issue.  Castle of Doom was also another one we'd only seen a few pages of to date but it'd already become my favourite as I'll describe below, so to have all five remaining episodes here was exciting stuff!

While none were the length of the epic eleven-part Touchdown! all of these stories varied in length from one another, meaning they'd all be ending and then replaced with new stories in different issues, which would've made for a hugely varied comic.  Perhaps the idea was to have at any one time a long epic and other shorter stories, or maybe we'd simply have seen it continue to bring us a lovely variation that'd have us guessing when each story would reach its finale.  It's all guesswork now.

But back to that favourite story of mine, Castle of Doom which is drawn in the wonderfully detailed stylings of Don Wazejewski.  As I mentioned, my first two planes belonged to Yakamoto and Wraither in that little Starter Pack.  Originally I thought these packs were a random selection of one leader from each opposing side, but upon reading the first part to this in the final issue it was clear these two characters were destined to be matched up again and again.  For me then, after only reading the first four pages of the story this just made the cancellation of the comic even worse!  I couldn't wait to see how my first two planes matched up in combat.

In reality a bi-plane and an experimental, high-tech jet would never amount to much of a fight but with these characters it was never going to be that simple.  Rumours surrounded Wraither in the fictional Ring Raiders world that he could make his plane disappear like a ghost, hence its Galloping Ghoul codename, when actually we see him use cloud cover and amazing aerial acrobatics to hide himself in plain site.  (Almost made a pun there, but it'd be too easy.)  It was speed versus maneuverability and the story kept me guessing as to how the Ring Raider would come out on top.

In the Special the final twelve pages, which would've made up three issue's of strip, hadn't been separated into chapters yet and so read as one explosive finale.  Here's the first four pages of that climax (part four if the comic had continued) and as you'll see the comic was taking its first steps into delving further into the history of the conflict and the formation of the Ring Raiders.

Wraither's Vulture Wing had appeared above a mysterious castle somewhere in Central Europe in the year 1789 and the 'Raiders had sent in Yakamoto on a lone mission to do recon but he ended up chasing down the Skull Squadron planes. Set up by Wraither, Yakamoto had to disengage from the pursuit in order to save an innocent bystander and Wraither and his team got away, with us none the wiser as to their intentions, other than it'd come to pass sometime in the future.  We pick up the action just as they've made their escape:


The story continues to include mind-controlled innocents opening fire within the castle on the very ones who'd eventually help save the world (by forming the Ring Raiders), with Yakamoto circling in his X-29.  How can he possibly save them from there?  Well I don't want to ruin it for you if you decide to give the comic a go so I'll leave you guessing there, but needless to say it's all rather ingenious stuff, as always.

Isn't Don's art just sublime too?  I love the very solid and slick inking style, his highly detailed backgrounds add a real sense of grounding the fantastical action in reality, the contrast of the science-fiction and the historical is particularly well handled and I even love the way he draws humans as slightly shorter than normal, which adds a kind of Thunderbirds feel to the proceedings.  I don't think there's any particular artist who suits the comic more than any other as each one's unique style brought so much to the overall package.  They seem ideally suited to each individual story being told!  Whether this was by chance or by design could be debated but I'd like to think it's the latter, otherwise the editorial team just got extremely lucky when pairing up each story with the person who'd bring it to life.

Thanks to John Freeman and Lew Stringer for helping in the identification of this particular artist and all those who took part in the discussion on Facebook when John shared the above with the readers of his Down the Tubes website.

Just wanted to include this one final page from Castle of Doom.  The comic was heavily action-based but it could also fit in moments of humour and unbelievably every one hit the mark.  You'd expect such a comic to perhaps make corny attempts at humour in much the same way as 80s action cartoons would, but as I said Ring Raiders never talked down to us and so any humour involved was aimed at readers of all ages.  Matching the pacing of the stories and the air battles themselves there were some classic moments of equally quick wit inserted here and there which only helped add further character to the comic itself, as well as to the pilots.  For example, Wraither was the ghostly, deadly pilot of Skull Squadron many had grown to fear (even amongst his fellow pilots).  He terrified innocent bystanders and used this to his advantage to get his way, controlling hearts and minds at a whim with complete disregard.  He was calculating and methodical in his plans and here he'd crafted the "perfect plot" to destroy the 'Raiders before they'd even been formed:


This Special fell into my lap as a complete surprise one Saturday morning when my mum came back from the shops and I jumped for joy, running to my room to read through all the previous issues before losing myself in the sixty-four brand new pages before me.  It was so good it broke my heart all over again, realising this was the very last time I'd ever get to enjoy reading a new Ring Raiders comic.  But not only did the short-lived series go out on a high with this edition, the Special itself went out on one too with the final one-off strip for one of the pilots.

Yuri Kirkov was the Ring Commander of Freedom Flight wing and had appeared in all the previous issues in Freedom Fight (I showed a panel from it above #4's cover).  Before being sought out by the Ring Raiders' leader Victor Vector he'd fought in Vietnam for the Americans after defecting from Russia.  Those of us who grew up in the 80s will know the 'in' thing was to have your hero damaged in some way by Vietnam, whether that was through trauma (Magnum PI), physical damage (Michael Knight in Knight Rider) or psychologically (Stringfellow Hawke in Airwolf) and it's clear to see why when you think back to those days.  However to see Vietnam crop up in more than a simple passing comment in a children's comic based on toys was something else.

Yuri was battling Wraither when the Skull Squadron pilot disappeared into the fog and a comment was made by one of Yuri's wingmen about the ghostly Galloping Ghoul.  This then prompted a flashback for our hero 'Raider and we were treated to some beautifully painted images of the war in a story which involved Kirkov getting lost in fog himself close to the Vietnam border and being assisted by a chopper pilot.  Upon landing safely and wishing to thank the pilot he discovered that same chopper had crashed and exploded a year or so earlier when the pilot had tried to help a fleet of bombers land in the same fog.  The fog-based part of the story is eery and the artwork suits it perfectly, but I wanted to show these particular war-based images as an example of what kind of stories this comic could've continued to tell:


Drawn by John Gillatt you can see in that bottom panel how he altered his style to indicate fog cover and it just works so well.

Ring Raiders could flip between the futuristic and the historical, and the fantasy and the reality so well, all through well developed characters, exciting action, superb art and great stories.  If it had continued goodness knows how it would've developed, it's anthology style worked a treat and for those two short months I ran to that newsagents every-other Thursday after school to get my next fix.  Oink! aside, the fact this comic remains my number one from childhood with only seven issues to show for itself should tell you something.

I never picked up the four-page preview comic but I was able to see it once and it's a beautifully painted strip by Ian Kennedy so well worth hunting down if you're interested.  I only lost one issue of those I originally collected but I was finally able to replace it a couple of years ago via eBay, though I do have a few doubles now because of it.  Even my Oink!s were mainly thrown out over the years since the 1980s and I've had to replace them all for this blog!  But Ring Raiders will always have a place on my shelves and every few years I'll keep taking them out of their protective, boarded sleeves (the only comics I keep this way), reading them and imagining what could've been.

NEXT TIME

In a fortnight I jump into a world which seemed to capture the enthusiasm of nearly every friend I had at the time.  The franchise could do no wrong but I fell out of love with the comic after only six months or so, bizarrely after the British strips started!  What?  Sacrilege!  But during those early issues I had a regular order and then a chance encounter with one single later issue brought much joy to my young self.  Come back, with pizza in hand, to find out what on earth I'm talking about: