Saturday, 16 September 2017

RING RAIDERS #1: HIGH OCTANE, HIGH DRAMA, HIGH UP!


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.

Thursday, 14 September 2017

100 DAYS OF HAPPINESS

Just a quick tangent here on something else I'm doing over on Instagram (that camera logo beside the Twitter bird in the left column there) besides my Transformers UK comics run-through.

A few years back I was going through a particularly bad time in a job I hated and I spotted someone doing something called 100 Days of Happiness on the social media app/site.  They'd taken a photo of something which had made them happy that day and did this each and every day for 100 in a row.  The idea was to keep them thinking of the positives in each day no matter how bad it had been.  That's why I started it back then and it really worked a treat.



I loved it and since then I haven't needed to do it thankfully, but I still want to, but now it's used solely to count down to my very favourite time of the year.

That's right, things are good and I'm happy but I still do this every year once I know what my first day off for Christmas holidays will be.  This year that date is the 22nd December, which means today is the day to start my own unique advent calendar!  My 100 Days of Happiness has started and the countdown to Christmas 2017 has begun, which in itself is a reason to be cheerful surely, so my Day One is actually the fact I'm doing this again!


If you fancy following me as I make my way through it, if you want to see if it's something you'd like to do yourself, have a gander at my Instagram every day (you don't need an account to) or follow me on your own timeline.  Either way, expect to see lots of Smudge the cat, my crazy friends, loads of food, obviously this blog(!) and lots more randomness.  When it's all finished it's great fun to look back and smile about what made you the happiest each day, so I whole-heartedly recommend it.


The photos on this post are from last year and give an idea of what I'm wittering on about.

The blog shall resume it's normal service on Saturday with #1 of Ring Raiders!

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

NEW SERIES: RING RAIDERS A LA OINK!


In the summer of 1989 I came across small Matchbox toy planes, attached to rings which I could fly about on my hands in aerial dogfights.  The background story concerned the formation of the Skull Squadron, a band of extremely talented fighter pilots who could travel through time in their bid for world domination, and their enemies the heroic Ring Raiders, formed of the best and bravest pilots from the past, present and future.  This meant the planes could be based on classic World War II fighter planes, late 80s jets and even some brand new, still-in-development prototype American Air Force machines, all fighting it out side-by-side.  Each set contained four planes but only the leader craft had the image and name of its pilot next to it; the Wing Commander.


I was an instant fan.  Soon the adverts appeared on TV and to my young mind they rocked!  There were huge bases, larger bomber planes, battery-operated SFX boxes which attached to our wrists complete with a plane's joystick to activate the sounds, audio cassettes, medals, display stands, cartoon videos... and in September 1989 I was thrilled beyond belief when I nipped into the newsagent on the way home from school, only my third week of grammar school, and spotted a brand new comic dedicated to Ring Raiders, complete with an actual honest-to-gosh free toy plane on the cover!  I was sold.  More than that, once I read the second story I was hooked!  (Why the second story?  You'll find out when I write up #1.)

A couple of years ago (almost to the day) I wrote a detailed summary of this comic series from Fleetway, but now it's going to get the full Oink! Blog treatment, the first non-Oink! comic to do so.  This means each and every issue will get a full blog post all to itself, complete with scanned highlights.  But this means I actually have to start with Eagle!

Better late than never, only took
me 28 years to get it

When writing that original post I discovered for the first time there'd actually been a preview comic given away in some Fleetway comics I simply wasn't buying at the time, such as the one above.  What was rather disappointing was finding out it was only four small pages in length, but then I was eventually able to track one down on eBay and discovered it was all beautifully painted by Ian Kennedy!  It's absolutely gorgeous.  Ian would go on to produce the majority of the covers for the comic and, an aviation fan himself, his love of aerial combat shines from every frame.  It may be light on plot, but the point of it is to establish the high-octane action, superb artwork and, of course, that a comic based on the latest craze (or so we thought) had arrived!  It's certainly confident in itself!


If only it had gone on to be the best-selling comic on the shelves.  As you'll see when we go through the run of issues it's truly top quality stuff.  There's some real depth to the characters, which is no small feat given the outlandish setup and the toys, some hints of bigger stories in the background which could've been elaborated on, more action than any other comic and a great sense of humour.  It also never talked down to us and reading it now as an adult it's just as enjoyable as it ever was.

As I said above I never got my hands on the preview until recently, but from this Saturday 16th September I'll be rewinding the clock and taking you through all the actual issues, from scratch.  Yes, when I did this with Oink! I hadn't read those comics in many years, whereas with Ring Raiders I did in 2015.  But the same mindset applies, so I'll be discussing the experience of rediscovering this comic from a couple of years ago, I'll be going in-depth with each issue and giving frank and honest opinions from reading it now, as well as reminiscing about when I first read it in 1989, naturally.


208 pages in total, the first 24 of which will be winging (sorry!) their way to you on Saturday.  "The Command Is In Your Hand", so make sure you come back.

In the meantime, editor Barrie Tomlinson kindly answered this fan's questions on the topic of Ring Raiders and you can read this post from a few days ago, published to mark the arrival of his brand new book about his time at IPC and Fleetway!

Monday, 11 September 2017

HUGE NEW INSTAGRAM PROJECT: TRANSFORMERS UK


Anyone who has followed this blog for a while will know that back in 2005, after loving Michael Bay's first movie, I thought I could make some money and sell on the last 100 or so issues of Marvel UK's The Transformers which I still had from my childhood.  But upon checking them for damage I got sucked in and read a few issues... only to end up collecting the rest of the whole collection (as many as I could anyway) and I spent a very happy six months or so about ten years ago reading through the entire story.

Over seven years of disguised robots certainly makes for
an impressive shelf

As I mentioned on Saturday the Ring Raiders comic has its 28th anniversary this coming weekend and I'll be covering every issue of that just as I did with all 68 issues of Oink!, writing each up on their original release dates.  It's not alone in celebrating in September though, with The Transformers' own 33rd birthday being on the 20th!  Feeling old yet?  However, I'm not going to be giving it the full Oink! Blog treatment just yet because there are still issues missing in my collection, namely a good lot from the first year, a handful of the Collected Comics seasonal specials and the final annual.  I've been able to read the full story thanks to the specials I do have, which reprinted the strips from the first year and a friend let me read his final annual.  Extortionate prices for those missing early editions on eBay at the moment prohibit completing the set anytime soon though.

But here comes Instagram instead, or rather my Instagram account: @PhilEdBoyce.  I've every single regular edition from the start of the second year onwards (well, actually the unbroken run starts with the last couple from year one, but their dates have already passed) and you can also see the annuals in the photo above, which sit alongside other books and specials too.  So rather than write-up each issue in-depth, accompanied by scans like I did with Oink! and am about to do with Ring Raiders, I'm going to be showing off my own personal Transformers collection by taking photos of each issue on their original release dates.  Well, Instagram is a photo sharing social media app/site after all.


The first year was fortnightly but after that it remained as a weekly for an astonishing five years and four months, before returning to a fortnightly format for its final year.  So even though this is a photo-sharing project it's still a huge undertaking for me, dedicating myself to it for all that time!  Remember, when I started this blog I really thought it wouldn't last more than a few months because of my chronic attention span, but thankfully I think Oink! has improved that somewhat.  So what can you expect from this?


Each weekly issue will have a photo of the cover obviously, but thanks to Instagram's new ability to swipe through a handful of photos with each post, I'll also include a few personally chosen highlights from the pages within.  This could include a page or two of Transformers strip, or of the back up story, maybe a close-up on some particularly interesting frame of art, special features, editorials, fact-files... anything that really catches my attention from that particular issue really.  So yes, expect to see some brilliant 80s advertisements too, naturally!

Each post will go live every Thursday without fail (I hope) for the foreseeable future and beyond!  But to kick off the series there's a special selection of daily posts, which have started today!


To catch up on the first year and show fans the comics from those twelve months that I have I'll be posting up highlights from each one over ten days, then the first of my weekly posts will pop up the very next day on Thursday 21st September until... 4th January 2024!  Wow, that's scary thinking how long I could be doing this for!  But hey, why not?  Should be fun!

HOW TO FOLLOW THE TRANSFORMERS

It couldn't be easier, even if you don't have Instagram.  If you do, search for me (@PhilEdBoyce) and click follow and that's it, I should pop up on your timeline with each issue in turn.  You don't have to be signed up to Instagram though, just go to https://www.instagram.com/philedboyce/ and you'll be able to see everything I post anyway as my account is public.  REMEMBER: It's started today already!

CATCH UP ON THE BLOG

As well as the weekly posts on Instagram I'll be doing a monthly round-up of the photos right here on the blog all the way through the project, complete with all the captions and maybe even a selection of the comments left on Instagram too.  So please chat away to me over there, I'm hoping it'll pick up a few regular followers and some discussions as time goes on.

So there you go, it's launched and all!  Join me weekly on Instagram or monthly here, either way I hope you do or Optimus might have words...


My original Beyond Oink! post is still up and talks about how I came to be a fan of the comics originally, their creators, epic stories, equally epic artwork and is also an in-depth overview of the most successful Marvel UK comic ever.

Come back tomorrow for a special look at the preview comic of Ring Raiders and a look forward to the new fortnightly posts for that comic too.  Also coming soon, much more Oink! goodness as well.  It's promising to be a busy autumn and winter here and I couldn't be happier about that.

Saturday, 9 September 2017

BARRIE TOMLINSON INTERVIEW PART TWO: RING RAIDERS



So today my copy of Comic Book Hero arrived and I couldn't be more eager to get stuck in.  But first, as promised, here's the second part of the chat I had with the book's author and former IPC and Fleetway editor, Barrie Tomlinson.  Last time we spoke about Wildcat, an originated comic conceived by Barrie and which is still enjoyed today by comics fans.  This time it's the turn of a licenced title and my very favourite (after Oink! obviously) comic from my youth: Ring Raiders.

The gorgeous Ian Kennedy artwork of #1

In the near-future of the late 90s the Skull Squadron had assembled themselves and were a lethal force to be reckoned with.  Made up of the most sinister pilots from across history, each of their planes could travel in time, meaning their plots for world domination could take place anywhere in the world at any moment.  Literally.  In response the governments of the world formed the Ring Raiders, an elite army of fighter pilots from across time, both past and future, to take on the might of the Skulls.  However, they didn't have the advanced technology to implant each plane with the power of time travel, so instead their mighty flying Air Carrier Justice would transport them altogether to whatever time period was in danger, and each pilot was given a special ring; a powerful piece of communication and energy technology to give them the upper hand.

In the summer of 1988 these were all set to be the next big thing for kids and so Fleetway were quick off the mark in releasing a comic based on the toys.  This was no small feat, given how these were Matchbox toys of fighter aircraft of all kinds, in different liveries and compiled into different wings, attached to small plastic rings by a clear tube, to be flown on children's fingers in daring bedroom/living room/garden missions.

It was always an exciting moment to
get a new "Wing" for your collection

The collect-'em-all toys came with small comic books featuring basic dogfights, but Barrie and his team of writers set about crafting proper three-dimensional characters, stunning battles and cliffhanger stories with real depth, twists and surprises, all wrapped up in simply stunning artwork from cover-to-cover.  It made a huge impact on me at the time and I was gutted when it was announced in #6 it was to end, albeit with a nice, thick special a few months later.  I must have read each issue dozens of times and reenacted the stories with my planes, or made up new ones based on how the characters were portrayed within the pages.  When I was preparing to write up the comic for my Beyond Oink! series I had no idea if they'd hold up today, being based on toys I obviously had grown out of decades ago.  Transformers had managed it when I'd read all of them about ten years ago and Ring Raiders didn't disappoint.

In fact, the comic surprised me at just how brilliant it still was.  Rose-tinted glasses can be a wonderful thing, but sometimes are a curse when they're taken off.  I needn't have worried though, as Ring Raiders was an exciting, fascinating read and I loved it all over again and now, as an adult, I think I appreciated the depth even more and I was certainly devouring each frame of sublime aerial art.  I was excited when Barrie agreed to answer some questions and thrilled to hear how proud he was of this licenced comic.  Here's what he had to say.

PART TWO

Me: Can you remember what made Fleetway choose this particular licence for an ongoing comic series?  It never felt strange to me as a kid, but looking back these were Matchbox planes with minimal character drawings on the packaging, yet you were able to produce a fantastic comic full of character!

Barrie: IPC Magazines was a massive organisation.  The first I would hear of a new licence would be from the editorial director.  It would have been negotiated by a non-editorial department and presented to us.  I just had to grab all the info I could find about the storyline and characters and make myself an instant expert on the subject.

Me: There's a sort of similarity between Ring Raiders and Wildcat.  Both have an anthology feel to them but wrapped up in an overall theme.  While Ring Raiders characters were swapped in and out for new stories, to return at later dates and Wildcat didn't there's still a familiar feel.  Was this a conscious decision or was it just befitting the licence?

Barrie: It wasn't a conscious decision.  I would have just wanted to use the characters I had been presented with and turn the comic into something which was liked by British readers.

This action scene from Don Wazejewski is just one
of many we'd be treated to on a fortnightly basis

Me: Some of the artists signed their work and for my previous post Lew Stringer and John Freeman helped me identify the others.  But can you remember who any of the writers were and were you personally responsible for selecting them?

Barrie: Yes, I would have been responsible for selecting the writers.  It's really unfortunate that the detail books for RR were not kept.  They would provide a wealth of information.  My son James, who wrote under the name 'James Nicholas' was one of the writers.  He was a natural, as he is an aviation fanatic!  I'll have to guess at the others.  Probably Tom Tully was one.  I can't remember writing any of those scripts myself... but I probably did!

Me: There were some mature themes in there, such as one which included flashbacks to one character fighting in Vietnam.  This strip in particular wouldn't have looked out of place in something like Commando or a classic IPC war comic, rather than one based on toys.  The setup also allowed stories from the past, present and future, time travelling, fantasy-based stories or historically accurate ones.  It sounds like a writer's dream title!  Did you feel you had that freedom, to tackle the stories you wanted to in a comic based on toys?

Barrie: Everything we did had to be approved by agents of the copyright holder.  Each script and piece of artwork had to be submitted and approved so we always had to stick closely to the original material we had been sent.

John Gillatt's Vietnam artwork oozes the kind
of atmosphere that really surprises

Me: As a fan it's great to know the owners of Ring Raiders wanted something of such high quality rather than a quick cash-in.  Reading back as an adult there's a feeling of a larger scale story developing in the background too.  Was anything worked out in advance or were you winging it from story-to-story and seeing how they developed over time?  Can you remember any plans you had if the comic had continued?

Barrie: There were not any massive plans.  It was always a rush producing titles like this as everything had to be approved.  Once we had taken aboard all the story/character details it was just a question of talking to writers, recruiting artists and getting on with it.  I was pleased with the high quality artwork we achieved on this title, using artists who were greatly experienced in working for my department.

Me: A cartoon series was also in development which was very different to the comic in its portrayal of the characters and in how the ring aspect of the toys were worked in.  (The comic used it as a pre-Bluetooth communicator and as a way of draining energy from the pilot to temporarily control a damaged plane in distress.)  The cartoon had some similarities but went for a more sci-fi route of storytelling and more clich├ęd characters.  I preferred the deeper, flawed characters in the comic by far, so how controlling (or not) did you find the licence holders (Those Characters From Cleveland or Matchbox)?

Barrie: We didn't have any contact with the cartoon series.  We could develop the characters to a certain extent but everything would have to be approved.

From the very first issue the comic excelled in
its action, as seen here by John Cooper

Me: Did anything ever come back rejected or were there any requests to change what you'd created for these characters?  There was very little established in the toy line for the pilots, so for me as a child it felt like the comic was really creating these characters I loved to play with.

Barrie: Occasionally, they would ask for alterations.  Nothing too much.  Some of the other toy comics were much more hands-on.  I had to train people doing the approving that it was a comic.  At first, they were looking at each individual frame as if it was a one-off poster.  Eventually they got to realise these were small frames and the slick comic artwork was very different to that used in a giant poster or on a toy product.  As I recall, we didn't have that problem with Ring Raiders.

At this juncture, before the final Ring Raiders question, I want to print the second of the two more general questions I asked Barrie about his time on both comics.  The first can be read in part one and it dealt with what his overriding memories were of these comics, but there was something else I definitely wanted to ask in regards to them.

Me: It seemed at one stage almost every comic I started to love got cancelled and not just in IPC and Fleetway's range.  I've read back over some of them these last few years and it certainly wasn't because of a lack of quality!  Why do you think so many top quality comics, held in such high regard today, were cancelled so early into their lives in the late 80s and early 90s?  Was it simply a matter of there being too many comics that sales were diluted across the board?

Barrie: I think it was just that the comic era was coming to an end.  Television and computers were taking up children's time.  Once upon a time, the delivery of the weekly comic was a big event in a child's life.  It was delivered with the morning paper.  Dad read it as well.  Then children became more sophisticated and they wanted something more than a comic.  They were growing up faster.

Back to Ring Raiders and a favourite artist amongst any fan of UK comics.


Just look at that! Gorgeous final issue artwork
from aviation fan Ian Kennedy

Me: Finally, Ian Kennedy has always said his favourite thing to draw by far was airplanes, especially fighter planes.  Ring Raiders seems like a perfect fit for him after finding this out!  Was he contracted to work on covers for Fleetway anyway or was he selected by you?  Can you remember any comments from him on his time working on RR?

Barrie: Yes, I would have selected Ian to work on the title.  He wasn't contracted for covers.  I think I remember him being disappointed when Ring Raiders came to an early conclusion.

Me: You're probably regretting saying I could ask a "few questions" now, but thanks Barrie, I really appreciate it!

Barrie: It's great to know that the title is so well remembered.  It's a great tribute to the writers, artists and editorial staff who worked on Ring Raiders.  It may not have lasted long but I think it looked good, as a comic in its own right.

- - -

It certainly did Barrie, it certainly did!  Thanks again for speaking with me about both Wildcat and Ring Raiders and I'm looking forward to getting stuck into your book.

For blog readers you can expect a write-up on Barrie's brand new book, Comic Book Hero as soon as I've finished reading it.  I've had a quick flick through it and it certainly seems like it's going to be a fun read, so get yourselves on to Amazon and order up your own copy.  In the meantime though, as coincidence would have it, we're just a week away from the 28th anniversary of a certain comic, one which I just happen to own all the issues of.  So it's with great excitement that I'm announcing this:

NEW BLOG SERIES COMING NEXT WEEK!
HIGHLIGHTS FROM ALL THE ISSUES
ON THEIR ORIGINAL RELEASE DATES

Next Saturday 16th September the fantastic comic above will be the first non-piggy title to get the full Oink! Blog treatment!  Just like I did with the porky publication, I'll be posting about each issue of Ring Raiders on the date of their original release and each post will contain a full write-up, highlights from the comic, personal memories and maybe even some surprises.  I'm really excited about this new series and a special preview post will pop up right here this Tuesday 12th September, which will also contain the four-page preview strip given away in the likes of Eagle comic.

High-octane, high-drama and high up!  Ring Raiders officially joins Phil's Oink! Blog and Beyond in just a few days, so don't dare miss it!

Friday, 1 September 2017

BARRIE TOMLINSON INTERVIEW PART ONE: WILDCAT


Today sees the launch of Comic Book Hero from former IPC and Fleetway editor Barrie Tomlinson.  My copy is already winging its way to me from Amazon, being one of countless people who grew up on at least some of his amazing comics.  So, to celebrate the launch of Barrie's book I wondered if I could find out some answers to queries I had about two of my very favourite comics of all time, namely the fondly-remembered Wildcat and the Matchbox toy licenced Ring Raiders, which just so happens to still be my favourite childhood comic besides Oink!

Barrie very kindly agreed and so here we are with part one of a two-part chat with this esteemed gentleman.  This post focusses on Wildcat, the science-fiction comic released in October 1988, which I was introduced to via the final issue of Oink!, like a passing of the comics baton.


It's the year 2492 and Earth has been destroyed.  A giant spacecraft containing the very best of mankind is venturing into the cosmos to find a new home, with each of the main stories within following the leader of a group of explorers on a new, potentially dangerous planet.  Also included in each issue is a complete story set aboard the spaceship featuring different characters every fortnight.  At the time the whole thing felt so fresh and original, like an anthology but with each strip set within a larger plot.

You can read all about this bold comic venture in my first post about it in my Beyond Oink! series from 2015.  I wanted to do justice to a comic which was criminally lacking any real internet presence, so I went into depth on each aspect and it ended up being quite the long read.  But that's okay, I'll wait for you to pop back and catch up on Wildcat before going on.

Wildcat didn't do things by halves!

Okay, so you're back, now it's time to chat with the man behind the 'Cat, so please put your trotters together for Barrie Tomlinson.

PART ONE

Me: How did Wildcat first come about?  Its publicity at the time states it was a "younger person's 2000AD", but it's been mentioned online that this may never have been the intention.  Was it?  What were the reasons behind the creation of this very different comic?

Barrie: The management asked me to produce a SF comic for a younger group than 2000AD.  I went away and thought about it and decided to have one storyline running through the whole comic.  I thought it would make it a bit different...

Me: Can you tell us anything about the choice of characters to head up the strips?  Wildcat showed true diversity which wasn't as regular a sight back then as it should've been.  Also, were they permanent characters or were they to be interchangeable as time went on, with favourites returning for new adventures at future points?

Barrie: I thought up the characters and wanted to reflect what was happening at the time, which is why I created a black hero and a female warrior.  Girls had not been featured very much in boys' comics so I decided it was time that they were!  The characters were intended to be permanent ones.

Loner, created and written by Barrie himself for superlative artist David Pugh

Me: I've read Loner was created with David Pugh in mind as the artist, that the character was specifically created for him, is this true?  Also, is it true he's said Loner was his favourite character he's ever worked on?  I hope that's true!

Barrie: I really wanted David Pugh to be one of the artists and the Loner strip seemed just right for his talents.  I hope Loner was his favourite character.  He did fabulous artwork on that story and on Dan Dare in Eagle.

Me: After the cancellation everything is left up in the air.  Did you have any kind of idea how the story would pan out in the long term?  Were they eventually going to settle on that planet, or keep finding new places to explore on it, or even fly off to discover a new planet every-so-often?

Barrie: The plan was they would fly off to other planets and there would be a long search for the right one.

Me: Can you give us any insight into who the writing team were behind the comic and if you wrote any of the strips yourself?

Barrie: I wrote the script for the preview issue, to set up the storyline and the characters.  For the regular comic my son James (Nicholas) wrote Kitten Magee.  I wrote Loner.  Joe Alien was by a new writer, David Robinson, who later changed his name and has done a lot of writing since then.

Kitten Magee as written by Barrie's son James and drawn by Jose Ortiz

Me: Do you know what David changed his name to so I could check out what else he's written since Wildcat?

Barrie: I've been searching but I can't find anything.  If I do I will let you know.

After asking questions about Ring Raiders as well (which you'll be able to read in a few days) I finished off with a couple of more general queries.  Here's one of them, with an answer specific to Wildcat.  The other will be at the end of part two.

Me: Do you have any specific memories of your time on either comic you'd like to share with readers today?  Anything at all you could tell us to give fans a little personal insight into what it was like to work on these titles?

Barrie: It was great fun working on both those titles.  Wildcat particularly so, as it was all my idea, my characters and my storylines.  It was very rewarding when the whole thing came together in a good first issue.  I particularly enjoyed designing the free gift, which was a giant poster of The Alien Zoo of Targon-5.  Each fortnight, readers could collect stickers which they would stick on the poster.  The artwork was by the brilliant Ian Kennedy and featured not only the zoo but also the main characters Turbo Jones, Loner, Kitten Magee and Joe Alien.

- - -

It was an absolute delight to be able to ask these questions of Barrie and he was a complete gentleman about it and very enthusiastic about these comics, which I found wonderful.  I'd originally wondered if he would want to talk at all about two comics which ended only a few months after they began, but Barrie was completely open about how proud he was (and still is) of both Wildcat and Ring Raiders.  Next time I'll be asking him about turning small plastic planes attached to children's fingers into compelling stories and also about why he thinks neither comic lasted as long as they deserved to.

The next part will go up when I receive my copy of Comic Book Hero and don't forget to orders yours too!