Eagle Classics: Harris Tweed — Extra Special Agent

Harris Tweed 

By John Ryan (Hawk Books -1990)
ISBN: 0-948248-22-X

John Ryan is an artist and storyteller who straddles equally three distinct disciplines of graphic narrative, with equal qualitative, if not financial, success. The son of a diplomat, Ryan was born in 1921, served in Burma and India and after attending the Regent Street Polytechnic (1946-48) took up a post as assistant Art Master at Harrow School from 1948 to 1955. It was during this time that he began contributing strips to comics such as Girl and the legendary Eagle.

On April 14th 1950, Britain’s grey, post-war gloom was partially lifted with the first issue of a new comic that literally shone with light and colour. Avid children were soon understandably enraptured with the gloss and dazzle of Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future, a charismatic star-turn venerated to this day. The Eagle was a tabloid sized paper with full photogravure colour inserts alternating with text and a range of other comic features. Tabloid is a big page and you can get a lot of material onto each page. Deep within, on the bottom third of a monochrome page, was an eight panel strip entitled Captain Pugwash, the story of a Bad Buccaneer and the many sticky ends which nearly befell him. Ryan’s quirky, spiky style also lent itself to the numerous spot illustrations required every week.

Pugwash, his harridan of a wife and the useless, lazy crew of the Black Pig ran until issue 19 when the feature disappeared. This was no real hardship as Ryan had been writing and illustrating Harris Tweed – Extra Special Agent which began as a full page (tabloid, remember, with an average of twenty panels a page, per week!) in the Eagle #16. Tweed ran for three years as a full page until 1953 when it dropped to a half page strip and was repositioned as a purely comedic venture. For our purposes and those of the book under review it’s those first three years we’re thinking of.

Tweed was a bluff and blundering caricature of the “military Big Brass” Ryan had encountered during the war, who, with a young, never-to-be-named assistant known only as ‘Boy’, solved mysteries and captured villains to general popular acclaim. Thrilling and macabre adventure blended seamlessly with a cheerful schoolboy low comedy in these strips, since Tweed was in fact that most British of archetypes, a bit of a twit and a bit of a sham.

His totally undeserved reputation as detective and crime fighter par excellence, and his good-hearted yet smug arrogance – as exemplified by the likes of Bulldog Drummond, Dick Barton – Special Agent or Sexton Blake somehow endeared him to a young public that would in later years take to its heart Captain Mainwaring in Dad’s Army and, more pointedly perhaps, Peter Sellers’ numerous film outings as Inspector Clouseau.

Ryan’s art in these strips is particularly noteworthy. Deep moody blacks and intense sharp inking creates a mood of fever-dream intensity. There are nuances of underground cartoons of more than a decade later, and much of the inevitable ‘lurking horror’ atmosphere found in the best works of Basil Wolverton. Ryan knew what kids liked and he delivered it by the cartload.

When Ryan moved into the budding arena of animated television cartoons he developed a new system for producing cheap, high quality animations to a tight deadline. He began by reworking Captain Pugwash into more than fifty episodes (screening from 1958 on) for the BBC, keeping the adventure milieu, but replacing the shrewish wife with the tried-and-true boy assistant. Tom the Cabin Boy is the only competent member of the crew, instantly affirming to the rapt, young audience that grown-ups are fools and kids do, in fact, rule. He also drew a weekly Pugwash strip for the Radio Times for eight years. Ryan went on to produce a number of animated series including Mary, Mungo and Midge and Sir Prancelot as well as adaptations of some of his forty-plus children’s books. A few years ago an all-new Computer-based Pugwash animated TV series began.

In 1956 the indefatigable old cartoon sea-dog became the first of a huge run of children’s books produced by Ryan. At last count there were 14 Pugwash tales, 12 Ark Stories, and a number of other series. Ryan has worked whenever and wherever he wanted to in the comic world and eventually the books and the strips began to cross-fertilise.

The first Pugwash is very traditional in format with blocks of text and single illustrations that illuminate a particular moment. But by the publication of Pugwash the Smuggler entire sequences are lavishly painted comic strips, with as many as eight panels on one page, complete with word balloons. A fitting circularity to his careers and a nice treat for us old-fashioned comic drones.

We don’t have that many multi-discipline successes in comics, go and find out why we should celebrate one who did it all, did it first and did it very, very well.

Harris Tweed ©1990 Fleetway Publications. Compilation © 1990 Hawk Books.

9 Replies to “Eagle Classics: Harris Tweed — Extra Special Agent”

  1. I was never much of a fan of Harris Tweed. In actual fact, while I appreciate the importance of the Eagle, I don’t find much of interest in any of its features beyond the Hampson/Bellamy material. I don’t think it’s aged well.

    The same series of Eagle Classics had a volume devoted to Fraser of Africa by Bellamy — now that really is marvelous!

  2. Disagreement at last! Thank you! Although it’s nice to know we share opinions, I love it when our fascinations collide.

    I wholeheartedly agree that many older strips can appear dated and/or irrelevant. For the longest time I couldn’t recapture the zing that some DC Thomson strips had for me when I was a lad, but eventually my opinion changed again.

    I think that in the end it comes down to thinking of comics the way you’d think of cinema or literature. On one hand if you can read it in context, H Rider Haggard is no Dickens or Mary Shelley, yet much of their best work overlaps both chronologically and thematically, and on the other they’re all good and you tend to prefer one to another.

    I often find I’m fed up with one sort of strip – I’m re-reading my ENTIRE comic collection in chronological order at the moment (up to 1951and it’s taken two and a half years so far) but every so often you just have to see something else to regain perspective or simply just not to go nuts.

    All that waffle and what I meant to say was yes you’re right but then again no you’re not. I personally can’t read an entire issue of Eagle, Swift Girl or Robin in one sitting either, so I break up the experience. The art though, is always a treat to my old eyes.

    Thanks for enduring so much blather. I intend to get around to Fraser, the Garth books from Titan and the Annual collection soon, and Hampson’s Road to Courage too in the immediate future

    It all does come down to personal choice eventually, doesn’t it?

  3. Absolutely.

    The sheer craft that went into creating the Eagle and its stable-mates was astounding. Similarly a decade later with TV Century 21, and Trigan Empire in Ranger. How could people do such incredible, full colour, painted artwork on a weekly basis, week in week out?! It fair boggles the mind.

    I wonder what Reverend Marcus Morris thought of later comics that his brainchild spawned: Battle, Action and 2000AD..?

  4. Hi again,

    sadly I gather he was rather appalled.

    He caught the bug and stayed in publishing after Eagle was taken from him, and reading between the lines of The Best of Eagle (Mermaid Books 1977/1982) which Morris edited, he didn’t like how the medium developed. In fact all his choices for that “Best of” were from 1962 or earlier.

    As regards artistic output – remember that these guys were not getting paid much of a wage, which is why comics like Tell Me Why and Look and Learn, as well as ‘proper’ 1950s, 60s and 70s magazines, even “top shelf” publications, were stuffed with brilliant illustrations from the likes of Embleton, the Nobles, et al.

    If you couldn’t get or keep a decent newspaper gig it could be a pretty tense life. At least the Europeans appreciated and still appreciate high quality comic strip realism and adventure stories for all ages. Many of our greatest strips are still in print in foreign language album editions throughout the continent. Maybe they’re more in touch with their inner child…

    As to how, I just don’t know. I’ve tried constant stimulant ingestion, enslaving hungry and desperate art students and even magical elves, but my strips still pretty much suck in comparison.

  5. Sorry all, I’m afraid I must return to Harris Tweed. Now, I am a mere whippersnapper at 26, but I must say that John Ryan’s Tweed has influenced me tremendously. I still draw comic strips and find that very often John Ryan’s dramatic use of language and black and white crops up again and again. Why I think it’s so successful is because it manages to combine the sinister with the humourous. Many of Tweed’s enemies are quite genuinely frightening and yet as soon as he appears the menace is forgotten.
    I would love to hear from any fellow lovers of Harris – my e-mail is Sloofman@yahoo.co.uk

  6. I couldn’t agree more.

    In fact I’ve just listed Tweed in my “10 books most in need of Reprinting” Countdown for this years CCG Annual (Shameless plug!).

    It’s a masterpiece that should be as popular as Ryan’s Pugwash stuff and would be relatively cheap to repackage.

  7. I was very interested to read all the above comments as I wrote a letter to the Guardian, printed on 27 July, because I thought that perhaps more attention should have been given to Harris Tweed in their obituary of John Ryan. Tweed did feature in the Eagle for 12 years and was John Ryan’s second character after Pugwash.

    In my letter I did not wish to suggest that Inspector Clouseau was based on Tweed; clearly the two were both original creations. But I do think that Tweed was ahead of his time in the comic incompetent detective/spy field.

    What does anyone else think?

  8. I’m unsure about the Clouseau connection, although I will admit I’d like to see a League of Bumbling Detectives, each representing the best and worst of their cultural sterotypes…

    As regards Ryan, I consider him to be one of the greatest storytellers we’ve ever produced. If you thought Harris Tweed was ahead of his time, just think about Mary, Mungo and Midge: A kids/anthropomorphic scenario where the lead is a latchkey kid living in a tower block. How’s that for busting out of the cosy class walls of kids’ fiction? And all this in the early seventies when everybody else was ripping off Black Beauty and Alan Garner.

  9. Yes I think that Mary, Mungo and Midge was particulary notable for its realistic setting.

    Going back to Tweed, some of his adventures were also set against a contemporary background. The Festival of Britain, the Coronation, a visit to a Chinese restaurant, the new 3-D films – all these feature in episodes of Tweed.

    Apart from PC49, none of the other Eagle strip cartoons were set in modern Britain and PC49 always seemed a little dated to me.

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