By John Ryan (Hawk Books -1990)
The son of a diplomat and irrefutable True Gent, John Ryan was born in 1921, served in Burma and India and – after attending the Regent Street Polytechnic (1946-48) – took up a teaching 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 legendary weekly comic The Eagle.
On April 14th 1950 Britain’s grey, post-war gloom was partially lifted with the first issue of a glossy new comic that literally shone with light and colour. Mesmerised 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 as well as a plethora of strips illustrating some of their favourite radio shows.
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 one. Deep within, on the bottom third of a monochrome folio was an 8-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 – an average of twenty panels a page, per week!) in #16.
Tweed ran for three years as a full page until 1953 when it dropped to a half-page strip and deftly 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. In gentler times the bumbler with a young, never-to-be-named assistant known only as ‘Boy’, solved mysteries and captured villains to general popular acclaim. Thrilling and often macabre adventure blended seamlessly with sly yet 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 demonstrated elsewhere by the likes of Bulldog Drummond, Dick Barton – Special Agent, or Sexton Blake somehow endeared the arrogant, posturing buffoon to a young public which 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, edgy inking creates a mood of fever-dream intensity. There are anachronistic echoes and nuances of underground cartoons of more than a decade later, and much of the inevitable ‘brooding, lurking horror’ atmosphere found in the best works of Basil Wolverton. Ryan knew what kids liked and he delivered it by the cartload.
This too-slim, oversized (324 x 234mm x) paperback compilation is all that’s readily available these days, but surely in these days of electronic publishing some enterprising fan with a complete Eagle Collection can link up with a perspicacious publisher someway, somehow and produce a comprehensive compilation of the nation’s most self-lauded sleuth?
I know a lot of aging 10-year olds and their grandchildren who would leap at the chance to see the old team back in action…
Harris Tweed © 1990 Fleetway Publications. Compilation © 1990 Hawk Books.