I think I feel just as nervous with this first issue of Ring Raiders as I did when I wrote that initial post on this blog way back in 2013, when I worried about doing justice to Oink!. Well, the same applies here. This comic was and shall remain as one of my very favourite from my childhood, second only to the one in the title of this site, and it holds up perfectly today. So where on earth do I begin? Well, the first thing is to not repeat myself.
So to get caught up you can read a quick synopsis of the background story to the toys and characters, and thus the comic in the interview with editor Barrie Tomlinson, or for a full in-depth write-up you can check out the Beyond Oink! post from 2015.
Right. Let's get on with the show!
|A stunning introduction to the comic's world|
I have very clear memories of seeing this first issue sitting on the comics shelves of my local newsagent. I'd innocently asked for pocket money to go and buy some other comic, but it was quickly forgotten about when I saw the planes I was collecting at home tearing up the skies of this simply beautiful cover from Ian Kennedy (Commando, 2000AD, Eagle, Dan Dare). I was used to seeing these little Matchbox toys flying about above my fingers and using my imagination, but here they were as fully fledged, full-sized fighting machines, locked in the kind of aerial combat that seemed so dramatic! It's a dynamic cover and sums up the kind of action this comic would have in spades. I'd never seen anything like it and I was already collecting The Transformers from Marvel UK, so that should tell you what kind of impact this had.
Speaking of those planes attached to my fingers, I couldn't believe this 35p comic was giving one away as a free gift! Given how a 'Wing' of four planes could cost £4.99 in the toy shop this was just amazing. Each issue had a different plane on its cover in the shop and I remember sitting crouched on the floor examining each one through the clear plastic they were attached to the cover with. Eventually I chose the bright orange one because I'd never seen it before in the shops and thought it'd make a cool new addition to my ranks at home. When researching for my 2015 post I was surprised to see this plane had actually been the star of the very first television advert:
|I've had the theme from this stuck in my head for days! Days!!|
At 24 pages the comic was a little thinner than other Fleetway action comics of the day, but the glossy pages were huge in my tiny hands and today the A4+ Oink!-size pages still look highly impressive and it certainly had bags more colour than its contemporaries. Each issue contained five strips altogether: four serials made up of two full-colour 3-page stories and two black and white 4-page tales, with a complete 5-page story in full colour taking up the middle pages. There were also some black and white or two-tone pin-ups of characters or planes, a letters page and some adverts for the toys produced by the team behind the comic itself. It was a bargain.
This first issue kicks off straight away with the 3-page Shock Attack, which acted as an introduction to the characters. It was a quick fix of action, showing the Wing leaders in a battle with each other, rather than in their designated Wing teams like in all other missions they'd undertake. When I read this a couple of years ago I was initially disappointed to see the rings weren't the big selling point, after all they were a big part of the toys but in hindsight I had definitely missed the point in my old age.
However, upon reading this now it's clear the main selling point was the fact these planes and pilots were from all eras of time, brought together to fight across the past, present and future. That's the point of this set up and it's truly epic in scale. It was a nice story idea to be able to sell us all manner of models to collect, but obviously with the rings being such an important part of the physical toys they still had to have some meaning in that story. In pre-Bluetooth days they were mini-communicators (so cool to us at the time), they were a way of giving extra power to a plane by using its paired pilot's energy for a short burst and they contained other little Bond-like gadgets.
It's amazing what a couple of years can do and I distinctly remember as a young teen it was the time travel, the assortment of planes, the variety of characters and the scope of it all which excited us the most. I was a bit harsh then in my 2015 post when I said there was no real introduction, being so focussed on the rings as I was. Now, with a fresh perspective and in the proper context this story is the proper intro for readers unfamiliar with the toys, and the rings do feature in other stories anyway!
Although not fully explored, it also asked an interesting question of what would happen if a time-travelling pilot was shot down:
|Artist Carlos Pino (TV21, Commando, 2000AD)|
introduces readers to the comic strips inside
If the comic had continued this could've set up a brilliant way of "killing off" older characters. But unlike Transformers for example, which could be rebuilt over time, human characters are gone forever once disposed of. But having them shot down in another timezone could be a neat workaround, with the possibility of a return always kept open. As you'll see over this series there's plenty of characterisation away from the planes, so a pilot trying to fend for themselves in that situation could've made for an interesting story too.
But anyway, in a previous post I stated how it was the second story of this issue which really got me pumped. I already knew the setup to Ring Raiders and as much as I loved seeing the pilots above in artwork other than the one pose they had on their toy packaging, in part one of Trackdown we really got to see these guys come to life in a story which felt genuinely huge in scope. The first panel alone had me sold. These stories were going to be awesome and today this first page of what would become an 11-part, 44-page epic gives you everything you need to know:
|Trackdown Part 1|
I've previously showed all four pages of part one so I won't go into too much about it here again, but just to reiterate by the time this chapter ends the main character is actually an original one completely made up by the comic. Each Wing in the toy line only had the name of the Commander, but here Freddy Riley of Commander Thundercloud's Rescue Wing comes to the fore after his plane crashes in spectacular fashion and he takes off running into the woods with the inventor of the accidentally-created Doomsday Machine. One of Skull Leader Blackjack's wingmen also gets a namecheck at one stage. I don't want to give you a blow-by-blow of each story, each fortnight I'll focus mainly on one and then highlights from the rest, but to read part one of Trackdown just click here to my 2015 post and scroll down.
Written by Angus Allan (TV-21, Look-In) and brought to life by the tremendous detail of artist John Cooper (Battle, Scream, Judge Dredd) the crashing of Riley's plane felt 'real'. Being used to the small toys, John's work gives the plane real world weight and brings a sense of danger to the cliffhanger and it's just as thrilling to check it out today. Across the page is the first of the complete tales and when seen side-by-side these two pages really aren't showing the good guys in a great light, as here too we've a Ring Raider pilot in a spot of landing trouble:
|Yakamura: The Commander from 2235AD|
When I discovered the toys in a local toy shop for the first time, long before I saw any adverts, there were a few Starter Packs alongside the complete Wings. With £2 to spend I had just enough to grab one of these smaller packs and eagerly chose one with "goodie" Yasuo Yakamura's futuristic X-29 'Samurai Flyer' fighter and "baddie" Wraither's classic prop plane, the P51-Mustang 'Galloping Ghoul'. I kept the cool X-29 for years and years and it may still be in a random box somewhere but everything else was passed on to a nephew years later. But I did find this photo on eBay of the planes, even if they are rather battered:
|Many fond memories come flooding back when looking at these|
I was staying at my nanny's house, as I did every Saturday night, and I can remember clear-as-a-bell going to sleep with these planes proudly displayed on their rings beside me on the bedside cabinet, ready to be flown again first thing the next morning. Thus started my obsession with all things Ring Raiders and Yasuo quickly became my favourite character, his Wing was the first one I bought, so you can imagine my joy when it wasn't the leader of the fleet who got the complete story treatment in #1, but Yasuo himself! Perhaps he was a fan favourite, or perhaps it was just a happy coincidence. Perhaps the fact he was from the future and so this opened it up for a proper sci-fi story of robots, aliens and bat-like aircraft made him the perfect choice.
Whatever the reason, he was indeed the perfect choice. Many of the complete stories were written by Scott Goodall (The Phantom, Commando, Scream) and drawn by John Gillatt (Tiger, Eagle, Wildcat) and this team could switch from sci-fi, to war drama, to horror from issue-to-issue. Even though we'd know which character was coming next, we had no idea what kind of story they'd be involved in. All we knew was that it'd be set at some point in that character's past and would define a certain aspect of their personality. For instance, Yasuo was known to embrace technology, his aircraft kitted out with the latest computers and software only he could control. At the start of his story we see him on Sky Base Courage defending the new robotic aircraft controllers against their irate human supervisor, after they'd malfunctioned and nearly caused Yasuo to crash. He then tells the tale of how he'd hated robots until he'd been forced to take an automated co-pilot with him on a mission back in his time.
Below, he'd just seen his best friend killed by an alien Draxion and his robotic partner was chastising him for seeking out revenge rather than an optimal target:
|Sci-fi futures were seamlessly woven into the comic|
Yasuo watches as the little robot builds a glider for him, only to stay behind and fend off the enemy alone, inevitably being blown apart. This set him on his course to master robotics and computers and become the logical, faultless pilot that the Ring Raiders would eventually recruit and take back into the past (our "near future" of the late 90s). The serials developed their characters too and none felt two-dimensional, but these complete stories were the perfect way to delve into how they'd become these fleshed out individuals in the first place, and they'd only get better as the comic continued.
No comic of the 80s would've been complete without a letters page and Barrie's titles never disappointed. In his new book Comic Book Hero (write-up coming soon) he tells us how he loved having various ways for readers to interact. This was certainly true of Wildcat and some of those ideas seemed to have spilled over into Ring Raiders as they're quite similar, albeit with a unique twist; one issue a member of the Raiders would take over the page, the next issue a member of the sinister Skull Squadron would be in charge. Hey, we were equal opportunity fans! I never got around to sending anything in before the comic was cancelled. Barrie was editing Ring Raiders freelance from home under Creative Editorial Services and had also brought in Terry Magee (Commando, Battle, Cor!!) to assist with editorials, and together they thought up some ingenious ways for readers to do so.
|A completely different letter answerer every issue|
There were chances to write in and state why you should be a member of either group, or you could design a new plane for the Raiders or a super weapon for the Squadron, or draw a battle scene with your choice of victor or even write a short story. A very short story mind you, with a 150 word limit... or 155 words for the Skull Squadron who boasted, "That's 5 more words than Ring Raiders allow!" The first issue has a double-page spread of the characters taken from the toy packaging, which even before finishing the first issue now look rather basic compared to how the comic had developed them.
Barrie's own son James Nicholas (Eagle, Super Naturals, Scream) is an aviation nut and was the perfect author of the next story, Bomber Blues which I've included all four pages of here because I just had to show off the incredibly detailed art of Don Wazejewski (Battle, Mask). In contrast to the two previous stories which saw the characters leave their planes on terra firma or on one of the bases, part one of Bomber Blues takes place almost entirely in the air. While we loved seeing more of the characters and seeing them develop away from their craft, I thought this was the kind of story we'd get from cover-to-cover when I picked the comic up originally.
Of course, I was very glad this wasn't the case but this is action-packed stuff and for this premiere issue it serves as the perfect introduction (probably even more so than Shock Attack) to the whole concept. High-flying action with modern day craft sharing airspace with a B-17 Fortress Bomber in the skies over World War II, what is there not to love? We even see a ring used at the end for one of its common purposes:
What brought about the initial battle between punk Skull Leader Hubbub's Rebel Wing and Commander Cub Jones' Hero Wing is unknown but we didn't care. What was interesting to me as a kid, and which I instantly picked up on this time around, was the date. This takes place in 1943, the exact year Jones was living in originally when he was beamed aboard the Air Carrier Justice to join the Ring Raiders and given his F-5 fighter. No reference is made to this yet (yet) but to those already in the know, or who had read the character profiles on the previous pages, it makes it that bit more special.
The only slight bit of disappointment is the way the leaders call their wingmen by identification numbers instead of actual names. It might not have been something to notice normally, but after Trackdown it feels a bit off.
It seems to round up nicely at the end and I was pleasantly surprised when #2 brought with it more Bomber Blues! This part therefore is just a little prelude to the main story to come, only hinted at in the small 'In 2 Weeks' box at the end there. In the cartoon Cub was changed from the toy outline to a modern day rookie pilot, used as a way of introducing the viewers to the story, but I much preferred this original version of him. Being plucked out of the war meant it never really ended for him and future instalments of Bomber Blues see him return to close off that chapter in his life. Excellent stuff to come.
The final story in #1 is Freedom Flight which is written by another long-time collaborator of Barrie's, Tom Tully (Johnny Red, Bad Company, Dan Dare). The art style will also be familiar to anyone raised on IPC or Fleetway licenced comics such as Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles Adventures or Mask, it being from the highly skilled Sandy James (see also Tiger). His colouring in particular always leapt off the page of those Mask covers I saw in my friends' comics collections and here you can see he kept to those exacting high standards for full strips too. It just looks magnificent!:
|Setting the scene for the issue's final strip|
This story's main characters are Commander Yuri Kirkov and his Freedom Wing who go up against Skull Leader Mako's Vicious Wing. The former was an instant favourite among fans, being a Soviet Air Force major who had defected to the Americans just before Vietnam. In the late 80s, when the Cold War was still in very recent memory he made for an interesting and much loved character. Mako was a personal favourite from the evil Skull Squadron, what with his "specially-adapted" MIG-29 being an aircraft I recognised from movies at the time, or maybe it was just because of the shark paint job that adorned it (and his helmet). It was also stated in the toy line that there were rumours amongst his enemies it could go underwater, which the comic picks up on later.
A fictional South American government fort is under attack and the history books tell of how they easily saw off the band of ruthless rebels. However, history is about to change with the help of Skull Squadron and, sent there on a whim by Ring Commander Vector, Kirkov soon discovers the tide of the battle is about to change when Mako launches a missile at the fort. After a direct hit the situation is a desperate one and the cliffhanger is left with this exciting aerial artwork from Sandy. These panels make up the bottom-right of page 24 (taking up about a third of the page) and it's a gorgeous display to end the issue on. The action, the distant fire, the detailed face of Kirkov compared to the basic toy design, as well as the interesting angles all beg for more:
|#1 signs off in style|
Thankfully more is what we got, just two weeks later. In Barrie's book he explains how 32-page Wildcat's fortnightly schedule was something interesting for an action comic and allowed for longer individual episodes every issue, compared to the typical 3-page strips in something like the weekly Eagle, which crammed in a lot more stories into its 32 pages. With two weeks to wait, it was felt the readers needed more for each instalment and it certainly worked a treat. Indeed, each of the five tales in Wildcat took up either 5 or 6 pages each, but here in Ring Raiders we've got 24 pages to fit in just as many stories, but we never felt short-changed with any of them.
Each story, whether it was 3, 4 or 5 pages had so much crammed in it didn't matter we had two weeks to wait! Full of character, great dialogue, interesting stories with plenty of twists and highly detailed artwork we could pour over for hours, the comic was a perfect fortnightly package. As mentioned above I was also collecting The Transformers at the time which was also 24 pages, albeit weekly. It had two main 5-page stories and a non-Transformers back-up of equal size. Ring Raiders felt like a much meatier read and after this first issue I was an instant fan. Not that there was any doubt, since I'd already placed the regular order with my newsagent at the same time as I bought this issue!
I really hope you've enjoyed this look at a comic which, to quote its editor "deserved better". I may not be able to do anything about its short run, but it certainly deserves to be remembered. With great storytelling and stunning artwork from the best in the field at the time, I hope I can do my little bit to ensure it has a place in British comics history.
Issue two comes to the blog on Saturday 30th September.
Special thanks to Barrie for all the info on the writers involved and all the brilliant insights he's given me into this great comic. I'll be sharing more as the series continues.