In my early teens I was aware of old (as I would've referred to them back then) children's programmes from the 60s made with puppets which were meant to be full of action and adventure and I had vague memories of Stingray as a much younger child. However in 1991 BBC Two decided to give over their 6pm Friday night slot to a complete rerun of Thunderbirds and so one Friday evening my mum, dad and myself sat down to watch something other than news programmes. A little while later and I was buying videos of the movies, building model kits and plastering my wall with the most fantastic posters from a brand new comic:
It was one of the very, very few programmes allowed to be on instead of the news at that time, and only one of two which didn't result in complaints from my dad because my parents liked watching it too. (The other programme was Saved by the Bell: The College Years, just in case you're wondering.) What grabbed me the most was the imagination on display and the suspense! Yes, this was all done with puppets and the most fantastic models you ever did see, but the stories had such great pacing and the guest characters were so well written and acted we cared about what happened to them; it just grabbed you. I can remember breathing in sharply towards the end of the first episode when Virgil's attempt at rescuing the crashing Fireflash jet seemed like it was about to fail and I knew at that moment the show was going to be a firm favourite. (So also was Randall & Hopkirk: Deceased which was on straight after.)
As I said the imagination used to create these was second-to-none and I loved how the vehicles, Thunderbirds craft and otherwise, all felt like they were real, with real weight behind them in a real world. The fact this near-thirty-year-old puppet show had me so enthralled was testament to its quality. Obviously I sat firmly in its main target audience, but my parents kept coming back every week too, out of choice and not because there was nothing else to watch. It appealed to all ages and was a runaway success all over again. It's incredible to think a series of repeats of a much older programme could generate such excitement to the degree Thunderbirds did, with the craze in the 90s being phenomenally huge and generating such a vast amount of merchandise for the kids all over again.
BREATHING NEW LIFE INTO MY COMICS READING
For myself, 1991 had begun with three regular comics in the 'B45 Boyce' box at the newsagents'. Then I stopped collecting Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles Adventures early in the year for the reasons outlined in the post from four weeks ago, I stopped my order for The Real Ghostbusters in July '91 so I could collect Havoc, and The Transformers had by that stage turned from weekly back to fortnightly and would continue as such until January 1992 and its final issue. With Havoc having been cancelled I was now only reading the Robots in Disguise until Thursday 17th October when I picked up my first edition of Commodore Format (#14) in anticipation of getting my brand spanking new Commodore 64 computer that Christmas. This was my first introduction to magazines and I was hooked on this exciting format. More on that at the end of the post and in the next Beyond Oink!.
But then two days later I went to collect the Saturday newspapers for my parents and spotted the first edition of the new Thunderbirds comic and it took some convincing to be allowed to get it. After all my parents had just spent a whopping £2.25 on Commodore Format which they knew I was really enjoying and I was still getting The Transformers. But they relented and I went back and bought it. Havoc aside there'd been nothing else new to intrigue me in a while but this comic just seemed so damn exciting!
But before we get into that, last time I teased as to what this latest Beyond Oink! title would be and it seemed to stump most, but not all. Before we carry on then here's that very technical jargon in context. A context it seems most of you would never have guessed; they were the technical specifications of none other than Thunderbird One:
As the comic continued I stuck these up along the very top edge of my bedroom walls until they went all the way around the entire space. It made for rather difficult reading when people saw them, but they looked absolutely spectacular. We'll get to more of them below, but let's take a look at the comic as a whole first.
COMICS ARE GO
Believe it or not this was the first time Thunderbirds had had their very own ongoing title. When the series originally aired they were the main stars of TV21 comic for a while, later getting their own one-off specials in the early 80s, but they'd never been the stars of their own regular title. With them due to return Fleetway stepped up and commissioned a brand new fortnightly Thunderbirds The Comic and it was to end up becoming a large part of the franchise's history. Hugely successful it ran for an impressive 89 fortnightly editions right up to March 1995. Not bad at all considering the series only had 32 episodes in total and so had finished its BBC run about halfway through the comic's first year.
A highly impressive team was brought together to assemble the comic with none other than a writer of the series on board as the editor! Alan Fennell had written ten of those stories I'd loved so much on the TV and on top of that had edited TV21 when the Thunderbirds had first become a cultural phenomenon. Of course at the time I was none the wiser for any of this but what I did know was how high a quality this comic was and it just felt 'different' to any other licensed ones out there.
Silly jokes page aside (called Parker's Punchlines) it was packed with excellent material front-to-back. Printed on higher grade, thicker paper than its contemporaries it was made up of twenty-four full-colour pages with usually three strips, an editorial page, letters page and the cutaways. This latter feature was also accompanied by a strip page of some sort tying in with the image and a character profile or story. To begin with the strips were all reprints of those from TV21 and this was absolutely fine by me. I may not have known of where they originated but it was clear they were classic strips from the first time around for International Rescue.
Drawn unbelievably well by Frank Bellamy they always came in two-page chapters and depending on the issue we'd get anything from one chapter to a handful per story each time, each chapter still beginning with its original title and recap. Below is one such example from The Earthquake Maker complete with some truly dynamic illustrations of the Thunderbird craft. To begin with it was a bit jarring how Tracy family were drawn with facial dimensions similar to the puppets while anyone else was more realistically, but I soon got used to it and was swept up in all the action:
The strips were always referred to as "Picture Stories" which gave the whole thing a lovely retro feel in keeping with the whole premise being one from a few decades previous. The stories may have been reprints to begin with but the covers certainly were not and some amazing talent was drafted in to paint some exceptional images to draw potential readers in, or to get those of us who were already regulars all excited by what was inside. Below is the second issue's cover by Steve Kyte which draws upon what happened to Thunderbird 1 and Thunderbird 2 in the strip above to produce this masterpiece:
The new artwork was almost always signed which was strange for licenced comics from Fleetway and the artists would normally write the year next to their signature. This is something some comics artists may do anyway but I wonder if it was to make sure people knew their original pieces weren't reprints taken from classic comics years before.
A few issues in and the cover proudly proclaimed a new story was starting inside. It may have been new to the comic but it was actually an adaptation of the second episode of the TV show, written by Alan himself, Pit of Peril. It was drawn by Steve Kyte and he's got a lovely mix of bold outlined work and some beautifully painted panels, which seem to go hand-in-hand with each other, while he also maintains the panel design and page layouts of the Bellamy strips from the 60s. Below are two pages from the strip but note these aren't actually beside each other story-wise, there's another page which should be between them but I just wanted to show a couple of examples of Steve's amazing talent at bringing the programme to the page with such dynamism:
Stunning stuff. The newly commissioned strips kept all the human characters much more aligned to the puppetry and I didn't mind when it was done to such an incredible standard. But this story also highlighted something which made the comic a very different beast to the show; pacing.
As I mentioned above the TV programme somehow injected a real adult sense of pacing to its stories, with a great building of tension, a high level of character development (at least in the characters in actual peril) and at times it literally had me on the edge of my seat. How it managed this with puppets is a mystery but they did it! At least for us young fans anyway. But while it took real skill to achieve this with puppets, trying to do so with a comic strip was something else. As such the TV21 tales and the adaptations relied instead on the action elements of the stories rather than the drama and suspense.
Yes, they had cliffhangers at the end of each chapter but the two pages had rattled on at such a pace it was an action cliffhanger rather than a suspenseful one. I'm not complaining, as I loved this comic but even at that age I recognised how the stories had to be told a different way in this much shorter format. For the most part the comic succeeded and kept me glued awaiting the next issue for an adrenalin-fuelled jump back into the world of Thunderbirds, but the TV adaptations were unfortunately the weak link. Stunning artwork of course, but the forty-five minute episodes were cut down so much I remember thinking I'd have preferred more of the classic picture stories. The Pit of Peril story for instance was only eight pages long!
But that was just one small part of this excellent ongoing comic and before showing you more examples of the extraordinary strip work what about those cutaways?
A CUTAWAY SUCCESS
Below is the small strip which accompanied the poster for Thunderbird 4. Most of these strips showed the launch sequence of each craft and this was no different, bringing us the details of how TB2 launched the smaller submersible and the rarely-seen emergency one. On the back of the poster itself was a full-page profile of Gordon Tracy which made each cutaway a special 4-page pullout section of its own, which was also handy so as none of the strip pages would be missing when we stuck these up on our walls:
Graham Bleathman was the man responsible for these and also for the lovingly crafted cutaways themselves. You've seen the TB1 poster already but it was always a toss up between TB2 and Thunderbird 4 when it came to choosing a favourite on the TV. I've decided on the little yellow submarine for this post to show you just how much detail was crammed in even for the smallest of craft:
For any of the younger readers out there now it's important to note these are all hand-painted, there's no computer work involved here whatsoever in the pictures themselves. Graham painted these posters for each and every issue I collected and I was in awe at how one man could not only do so many of them but that each one was so intricate and technical. I mean just look at that above! Who knew Thunderbird 4 could be so complicated? Even as a youngster I was never really one for taking apart my comics with only the rare exception to the rule ending up on my bedroom wall. However it was this one which made me realise these were just too good to be kept inside the comics so I started the series of cutaways around my room, even though I wasn't quite sure what would come after the five main craft.
The next issue brought us fans the pullout for the space station Thunderbird 5 but obviously there wasn't going to be any launch sequence here so Graham painted the construction of the central hub to all things IR instead, as well as a look at the docking bay for Thunderbird 3. That second panel in particular I found fascinating as another example of how these fantastical stories and pieces of technology felt grounded in a real world:
The series continued with looks at Tracey Island, Lady Penelope's car FAB1, her mansion and the pod craft (see below for one example used) then the comic moved on to some of the technology which popped up in only one story on the TV. Such things as the Fireflash jet, buildings used by IR in other countries, the Sidewinder vehicle from Pit of Peril etc. My absolute favourite came in #10 which I unfortunately didn't get my hands on when putting together my research for this post.
Do you remember the episode in which they moved the Empire State Building a little bit down the road? I can remember watching that and being amazed at the thing the government was meant to be using to move the iconic building, thinking "hey that could work!" and being gripped by it when things started to go wrong. When I opened #10 and saw the cutaway of this incredible machine I spent a long, long time perusing over every last detail of the stunning artwork and I didn't even mind the fact the cutaway was in a different orientation to the rest (it was in a portrait orientation instead of landscape) as it just meant it stood out even more, high up on my wall. Though I think in the end, since there were no others which were drawn that way, I moved it to its own individual position on the wall where it could take pride of place.
There's a website which was put together by Katie Bleathman containing a selection of these but unfortunately it hasn't been updated or maintained since 2006 and the scans are very small, but you can still get a taste of the Empire State cutaway and others in the series here:
|Even The Mole received a stunning piece of cutaway art|
Back to the stories now.
If there was anything else which was as big a craze in the 60s as the Thunderbirds it was anything and everything to do with spies and espionage, headed up by the start of the phenomenal Bond movie series. Quite early on in Thunderbirds The Comic a classic picture story was reprinted which brought together the two popular genres with a bang and it remained as my very favourite throughout the time I collected it.
The Trapped Spy was based in a fictional country with a fictional government from the future time Thunderbirds was set and it set up an intriguing dilemma:
I loved this idea of politics becoming involved in the world of Thunderbirds and it felt like such a grownup story to me. It was a shocking ending to the first chapter and the next two pages in the same issue showed how the story was going to develop. The U.S.S., which we were meant to think of as "the good guys" in the grand scheme of the world were going to force International Rescue into helping their man by foul means.
Parachuting in by cover of night their agents plant gas time bombs inside the building we saw above, then they wait until the daughter of the Bereznik leader is inside and they attack. The shield is forced up and another explosion takes out the controls, jamming it in place. They then release their gas bombs, forcing the country's government to call for International Rescue before all inside are killed. Finally, the U.S.S. radio on an open frequency and announce that if a rescue attempt is made by IR they must also rescue their agent or else any craft entering the area will be shot down.
It was clear to me the U.S.S. agency was meant to be the future version of our own governments so it was shocking the comic, especially the classic strips, would have them hold our heroes to ransom like this. It made for a thrilling tale and one which I eagerly anticipated the next few chapters of.
A few issues later we also saw just how much those governments could regret messing with IR! Something the Thunderbird crafts contained but which we rarely saw was actual weaponry. Obviously these were only ever used in self defence or to blow up something that was standing in the way of them rescuing someone, but in this later chapter of The Trapped Spy we see them out in force! Some could argue whether they'd use them this way but for me it felt like they had no choice but to fight in order to be able to do their job and save lives:
I was actually saddened when the story ended. It'd only appeared in three issues, with two chapters in #4, only one in #5 but a whopping five full parts in the excellent #6! It could be frustrating some issues when your favourite at that time was given less space than others, but when you could also see a huge ten pages (basically half the comic after the pullout was removed) given over to it two weeks later it kept you on your toes! Each issue's strips were always of varying length, which kept things fresh and stopped the format from going stale, with each story given the best cliffhanger possible and just the right amount of forward momentum to keep us coming back for more.
I did love this comic but no other story was quite like The Trapped Spy in the way it grabbed me. It was the closest the strips came to that sense of suspense, not through the rescue itself but through the background story and the developing tension between enemies with IR caught smack in the middle. Excellent stuff!
THE STORY OF THUNDERBIRDS THE COMIC
Later in the run from #33 the comic also began brand new exclusive stories drawn by the likes of Keith Page, John Cooper and Mike White, there were collections of strips in special editions, summer and winter specials and the poster magazine fad continued here as well. After Thunderbirds finished its run on BBC Two Stingray returned to our screens but it wasn't for me and neither was Captain Scarlett, Joe 90 or indeed any of the other Supermarionation series the Beeb brought back after the success of the flagship series.
Thunderbirds was unique for all those reasons I've mentioned throughout this post and while the other series were still top quality children's shows they lacked what made this series so unique for me. They were more action based and so felt very much like any other adventure series aimed at kids, albeit amongst the very best, with none of the drama and tension and great sense of slow-build storytelling I'd become accustomed to. Some of these series also received the Fleetway comic treatment but none were as successful and from #67 the comic was renamed The New Thunderbirds The Comic featuring Captain Scarlett and Stingray. A bit of a mouthful and the name reverted to the original from #82 when other strips joined and left again, but basically the others had folded into the main one in much the same way as the publisher's humour comics all seemed to fold into Buster.
|The comic's covers would sometimes feature|
brilliant model shots from the show...
|... but the majority were still the stunning|
hand-painted masterpieces like this one
A particularly intriguing addition was entitled The Complete Thunderbirds Story, which grounded the history and formation of International Rescue by mixing it with factual articles on space exploration and the like. It told of how Jeff's dream became a reality one little section at a time and we'd be treated to his early concept drawings of the Thunderbird machines, blueprints and prototypes. It built right up to the start of the first episode when the fictional world was introduced to the team for the first time.
One thing I'd completely forgotten about was the inclusion of a Lady Penelope strip which began quite early in #9. Strangely she'd appeared in TV21 from the first issue, before Thunderbirds had even made it to the air yet. When the Tracy family came on board she moved onto her own weekly comic and Thunderbirds The Comic reran some of these too, the first part of which is right here. While it does contain The Hood I'm not sure what readers of TV21 would've made of it before they were introduced to her on the TV:
Before I round off I just wanted to make you aware that Egmont's Classic Comics range has released digital collections of the TV21 Thunderbirds strips on iTunes as well as some superb hardback books. Unfortunately their website no longer seems to be getting updated but if you click on the logo below it'll take you to the Waterstones homepage where you'll see a fantastic selection to choose from! This includes the Thunderbirds Comics Collection volumes one and two and you should recognise the cover art, because while the covers boast they contain the 1960s strips they also have Graham's stunning cutaways from the 90s:
In fact if you're particularly interested in the cutaways you may like to try out this great book cheekily made up like a Haynes motorcar manual. Be prepared to lose hours of your life just looking at some incredible artwork. The cutaways have been updated somewhat by Graham but they're no less spectacular and if anything include even more detail now!:
Finally, for a look at Thunderbirds comics over the decades and right up to the present day look no further than this post on Lew Stringer's Blimey! comics blog:
THUNDERBIRDS FANS WERE GO!
To finish I wanted to share a couple of images which stuck with me all these years and the first is of a fan-made model. The young readers were quite ingenious, always sending in ideas of new craft, stories and the like but this particular reader and his father took it one step further. Quite a large step further. Following nothing more but Graham Bleathman's cutaway picture they crafted this simply superb model of Thunderbird 1!:
The other thing which stuck with me was this:
Now, now, before you all laugh (which I admit I did when I first saw it back in the day) have any of you been to see Starlight Express, the musical where each person is actually playing the part of a railway locomotive? They skate about the stage with models of the trains they're representing on the top of their heads and you know what, it works and you get sucked into the story. But that above is still a strange picture. I wonder what the actual show was like?
So there you go folks, my whirlwind of a tour through Thunderbirds The Comic and I hope you thought it was FAB. Sorry, had to get it in there somewhere. I stayed with the comic until around its 30th issue or so, always looking forward to new stories, seeing what would be the next cutaway and piecing together the background stories of these marvellous characters. In the end it was nothing the comic did that made me stop my regular order. After the cancellation of The Transformers this was the only comic I was still collecting as I moved on into the world of Commodore 64 and magazines rather than comics and that was the main factor. I'd simply moved on from comics.
Or so I thought. But that's a tale for another time, a tale for another fortnight in fact. So come back on Wednesday 4th November to see what title, several months after my final issue of Thunderbirds, stood out enough for me to venture back into collecting a regular comic once more, in the final edition of Beyond Oink! covering the comics of my youth.