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.

The Children’s Annual

The Children’s Annual 

By Alan Clark (Boxtree)
ISBN 10: 1-85283-212-9

The comic has been with us a long time now and debate still continues about where, when and exactly what constitutes the first of these artefacts to truly earn the title. There’s a lot less debate about the children’s annual, a particularly British institution and one that continues – albeit in a severely limited manner – to this day.

It’s a rare person indeed who never received a colourful card covered compendium on Christmas morning, full of stories and comic-strips and usually featuring the seasonal antics of their favourite characters, whether from comics such as Beano, Dandy, Lion, Eagle and their ilk, or television, film or radio franchises or personalities such as Dr Who, Star Wars, TV21, Radio Fun or Arthur Askey. There were even sports annuals and beautifully illustrated commemorative editions of the fact and general knowledge comics such as Look and Learn, and special events such as the always glorious Rupert Annuals.

The history and development of this glorious holiday tradition are lovingly shared by the enthusiastic and erudite Alan Clark in this wonderful book. Never lapsing into too much detail, Clark introduces his subject, always lavishly illustrated, gives a taste and then moves on. His goal is always achieved. Once you’ve seen, you will want to see more. This kind of nostalgic paean is our industry’s best weapon in the fight to build sales, both of new material and back issues. When was the last time you bought something old or untried at a comic shop? Give your Nostalgia Vision a workout for a change, and if you’re still a little dubious a book like this should be your guide to tip the scales.

© 1988 Alan Clark.

The Steel Claw

The Steel Claw 

By Ken Bulmer & Jesús Blasco (Titan Books)
ISBN 1-84576-156-1

One of the most fondly remembered British strips of all time is the startlingly beautiful Steel Claw. From 1962 to 1973 Jesús Blasco and his small studio of family members thrilled the nation’s children illustrating the breakneck adventures of scientist, adventurer, secret agent and even costumed superhero Louis Crandell. Initially written by science fiction novelist Ken Bulmer, the majority of the character’s career was scripted by comic veteran Tom Tully.

Our eventual hero began as the assistant to the venerable Professor Barringer working to create a germ destroying ray. Crandell is an embittered man, probably due to having lost his right hand, which has been replaced with a steel prosthetic. When the prof’s device explodes, Crandell receives a monumental electric shock which, rather than killing him, renders him invisible. This change is permanent. Electric shocks cause all but his steel hand to disappear. Kids, don’t try this at home!

Whether venal or simply deranged, Crandell goes on a rampage of terror against society culminating in an attempt to blow up New York City before coming to his senses. The second adventure pits the Claw against his therapist, who in an attempt to treat him is also exposed to Barringer’s ray, becoming a bestial ape-man who frames Crandell for a series of spectacular crimes. Bulmer’s final tale begins the character’s shift from outlaw to hero as the recuperating Crandell becomes involved in a modern day pirate’s scheme to hijack an undersea weapons system.

More than any other the Steel Claw was a barometer for reading fashion. Starting out as a Quatermass style science fiction cautionary tale the strip mimicked the trends of the greater world, becoming a James Bond-like super-spy complete with outrageous gadgets, and a masked and costumed super-doer when Bat-mania gripped the nation, before becoming a freelance adventurer combating eerie menaces and vicious criminals.

The thrills of the writing are engrossing enough, but the real star of this feature is the artwork. Blasco’s classicist drawing, his moody staging and the sheer beauty of his subjects make this an absolute pleasure to look at. Buy it for the kids and read it too; this is a glorious book.

© 2005 IPC Media Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

The Spider

King of Crooks

King of Crooks (The Spider) 

By Jerry Siegel, Ted Cowan & Reg Bunn (Titan Books)
ISBN 1-84576-000-X

and a winner of a Comics Creators Guild Award for Outstanding Achievement.

I find myself in a genuine quandary here. When you set up to review something you need to always keep a weather eye on your critical criteria. The biggest danger when looking at comic collections is to make sure that the guy typing isn’t looking through the nostalgia-tinted spectacles of the excitable, uncritical scruffy little kid who adored and devoured the source material every week after – and often during – those long, dreary school days.

However, after thoroughly scrutinising myself, I can hand-on-heart, honestly say that not only are the adventures of the macabre and malevolent Spider as engrossing and enjoyable as I remember but also will provide the newest and most contemporary reader with a huge hit of superb artwork, compelling caper-style cops ‘n’ robbers fantasy and thrill-a-minute adventure. After all, the strip usually ran two pages per episode so a lot had to happen in pretty short order.

What’s it all about? The Spider is a mysterious super-scientist whose goal is to be the greatest criminal in the world. As conceived by Ted Cowan (who also created the much-revered Robot Archie strip – and kudos to Titan and Comic Historian Steve Holland for finally laying to rest the 40 year confusion that often gave that credit for the Spider’s creation to Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel in the lavish historical section of this grand hardback album) he begins his public career by gathering a small team of crime specialists before attempting a massive gem-theft from a thinly veiled New York’s World Fair. It also introduces Gilmore and Trask, the two crack detectives cursed with the task of capturing the arachnid arch-villain.

The second adventure, “The Return of the Spider”, also scripted by Cowan, sets the tone for the rest of the strip’s run as the unbelievably colossal vanity of the Spider is assaulted by a pretender to his title. The Mirror Man is a super-criminal who uses optical illusions to carry out his crimes, and the Spider has to crush him to keep the number one most wanted spot – and to satisfy his own vanity. The pitifully outmatched Gilmore and Trask return to chase the Spider but settle for his defeated rival.

“Dr. Mysterioso” is the first adventure by Jerry Siegel, who was forced to look elsewhere for work after an infamous falling out with DC Comics over the rights to Superman. The aforementioned criminal scientist was another contender for the Spider’s crown and their extended battle is a retro/camp masterpiece of arcane dialogue, insane devices and rollercoaster antics that showed again and again that although crime does not pay, it certainly provides a huge amount of white-knuckle fun.

The book concludes with a short reprint from the 1969 Lion Annual, entitled “The Red Baron”. Whilst not up to the standards of the regular strip the accent on straight action provides a welcome change to the Machiavellian skulduggery and cliff-hanger narrative.

A major factor in the strip’s success and reason for the reverence with which it is held is the captivating, not to say downright creepy, artwork of William Reginald Bunn. His strongly hatched line-work is perfect for the towering establishing shots and chases, and nobody ever drew moodier webbing. Bunn was an absolute master of black and white art whose work in comics was much beloved. Once the industry found him he was never without work. He died on the job in 1971 and is still much missed.

The Spider is back and should find a home in every kid’s heart and mind, no matter how young they might be, or threaten to remain.

© 2005 IPC Media Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

Modesty Blaise: Mister Sun

Modesty Blaise: Mister Sun 

By Peter O’Donnell and Jim Holdaway (Titan Books)
ISBN 1-84023-721-X

The second Titan volume collecting the adventures of Britain’s Greatest Action Hero (Female Division) expands the supporting cast whilst dropping Blaise and her devoted urbane psychopath partner Willie Garvin into the heroin trade pipeline and the then escalating Viet Nam conflict to deal with the eponymous oriental master criminal. The action is rational as well as gripping and there is more character development in this forty year old strip, served up in 3 panels per day continuity than most modern comic books can manage in entire issues. Only 100 Bullets on its best day even comes close. Modesty Blaise keeps her cool and her mystique in every manner of hairsbreadth situation and surely the charismatic Garvin is the prototype for all those “tortured, civilised beast” funnybook anti-heroes such as Wolverine and the Punisher – though he’s never yet been bettered.

The strip’s horizons broaden exotically in the second story, “The Mind of Mrs Drake” as the duo complete, with their usual lethal dispatch, the mission of a murdered friend. Said chum fell foul of a spy ring employing a psychic to steal state secrets, but the villains never expected the likes of the reformed super-crooks to cross their paths. Following that, they return to more mundane menaces with a blood-curdling battle of wits and weaponry against mobster vice-lord “Uncle Happy” and his sadistic trophy bimbo/wife.

As always, O’Donnell’s writing is dry, crisp and devilishly funny, accepting that readers want a thrill-ride but never assuming anything less than intellect and not a hormone balance drives his audience.

Jim Holdaway’s art went from strength to strength at this time, scenes plastered with just enough detail when required, but never drowning the need to set mood and tone with dashing swathes of dark and light. On a newspaper page these panels would jump out and cosh your eyeballs, so the experience is doubly delightful on nice crisp white pages.

Absolutely Recommended.

© 2004 Associated Newspapers/Solo Syndication

Modesty Blaise: The Gabriel Set-Up

Modesty Blaise: The Gabriel Set-Up 

By Peter O’Donnell and Jim Holdaway (Titan Books)
ISBN 1-84023-658-2

Titan Books has re-released new editions of some classic British newspaper strips over the last few years. Amongst these masterpieces are the collected and chronological adventures of Modesty Blaise. The legendary femme fatale crimefighter first appeared in the Evening Standard on May 13th, 1963 and starred in some of the world’s most memorable crime fiction, and all in three panels a day.

This initial volume introduces Modesty and her right hand man Willie Garvin, retired super-criminals who got too rich too young and are now bored out of their brains. Enter Sir Gerald Tarrant, head of a nebulous British spy organization who recruits her by offering her excitement and a chance to get some real evil sods. From that tenuous beginning in ‘La Machine’, the pair begin a helter-skelter thrill ride in the ‘The Long Lever’ and the eponymous ‘Gabriel Set-up’. Also included is ‘In the Beginning’, which was produced in 1966 as an origin and introduction to bring newly subscribing newspapers up to speed on the characters.

Peter O’Donnell and Jim Holdaway (who had previously collaborated on Romeo Jones – a light-hearted adventure strip from the 1950’s and itself well overdue for collection) produced story after story until Holdaway’s tragic early death in 1970. The tales are stylish and engaging spy/crime/thriller fare in the vein of Ian Fleming’s Bond stories (the comic version of which Titan also reprints) and art fans especially should absorb Holdaway’s beautiful crisp line work, with each panel being something of a masterclass in pacing, composition and plain good, old-fashioned drawing.

In an industry where comic themes seem more and more limited and the readership dwindles to a slavish fan base that only wants more and shinier versions of what it’s already had, the beauty of a strip such as Modesty Blaise is not simply the timeless excellence of the stories and the captivating wonder of the illustration, but that material such as this can’t fail to attract a broader readership to the medium. Its content could hold its own against the best offerings of television and film. Sydney Bristow beware – Modesty’s back and she takes no prisoners.

© 2004 Associated Newspapers/Atlantic Syndication.



By Alan Moore, L Moore & J Reppion, Shane Oakley & George Freeman

(Titan Books) ISBN 1-84576-351-3

Disappointing collation as the lost legends of British Comics – and if you’re under thirty you can be forgiven for not realising that there was more than Dan Dare, Judge Dredd, and Dennis and Gnasher lurking in our murky, cultural past – get one last outing. A selection of those lost marvels and mysteries of the Empire, culled from the pages of British weeklies of the 1950s 1960s and 1970s published and owned by IPC, “star” in this tale of conspiracy and shadow government oppression. Once again, if you’re too young to know about Grimly Feendish, the Spider, Robot Archie, Bad Penny and Charlie Peace, best go ask your dad. If you do have some knowledge of the aforementioned, be warned – this is not how you remember them. This a modern take, and that should be all the warning you need.

21st century Britain is a pretty crap place to live and there’s not much joy about – especially for young comic obsessed slackers like Danny. Imagine his surprise when he discovers that all the heroes and monsters in his collection were real and the US and British Governments have been keeping them locked away for decades. But it’s an even bigger surprise that he’s off on an adventure with a really cool hot chick! Things proceed pretty much according to formula from there. If it feels a little like the rebirth of Marvelman/Miracleman, that’s because it is.

The plot unfolds pretty much according to spec, although older lags who aren’t appalled at the very idea of a refit might enjoy some of the in-jokes. The writers have done the best they can with what is so patently a commercial, as opposed to creative, brief, and the art, I will admit, copes well with a lot of stylistic demands. I’m just baffled at who the publishers thought they were producing this for.

To add to the bewilderment, the book is filled out with thirty-plus pages of the original strips that featured in those long-lost periodicals, such as House of Dolmann, Captain Hurricane, Janus Stark, The Steel Claw, Kelly’s Eye and Zip Nolan, which only serves to emphasise the huge differences between contemporary and vintage comic mores. It certainly feels that any ciphers could have replaced the lost childhood icons misused here.

Best keep uppermost in your mind the fact that everything in the originals was produced for the average twelve-year old boy and no-one today is crazy enough to try and target-profile a modern comic reader.

© 2007 DC Comics & IPC Media Limited. All Rights Reserved.

Captain Britain Vol 1: Birth of a Legend

Captain Britain Vol 1: Birth of a Legend
Captain Britain


By Claremont, Friedrich, Trimpe & Kida

(Marvel/Panini UK) ISBN 1-905239-30-0


Marvel UK set up shop in 1972, reprinting their earliest successes in the traditional weekly papers format, swiftly carving out a corner of the market – although the works of Lee, Kirby et al had been appearing in other British comics (Smash!, Wham!, Pow!, Eagle, Fantastic!, Terrific!, and the anthologies of Alan Class Publications) since their inception.

In 1976 they decided to augment their output with an original British hero – albeit in a parochial, US style and manner – in a new weekly, although fan favourites Fantastic Four and Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. reprints filled out the issues. One bold departure was the addition of full colour printing up front for the new hero, and the equivalent back quarter of each issue.

Unremarkable even by its own standards at the time, this first compilation volume (featuring issues #1 through 23) of Captain Britain’s adventures reads quite well in the hyper-tense 21st century. There is a matter-of-fact charm and simplicity to the adventures that is sorely missed in these multi-part, multi-issue crossover days, and the necessity to keep attentions riveted and hungry for more in eight page instalments sweeps the willing reader along. Chris Claremont was given the original writing assignment apparently due to his being born here, Herb Trimpe the pencilling chores because he was actually resident here for awhile. Gary Friedrich eventually replaced the unhappy Claremont, but the artist, inked by golden age legend Fred Kida (Airboy, The Heap) provided rip-roaring art for this entire first volume. Future artists will include John Buscema, Alan Davis, and, if the publishers include the Black Knight strips from Hulk Weekly, John Stokes.

As for content, if you like old fashioned Marvel-style comics you’re in for a treat, as young Brian Braddock learns how to be a hero with help from the likes of Nick Fury and Captain America, not to mention Prime Minister James Callaghan, against the likes of Hurricane, The Vixen, Doctor Synne, Mastermind and even the Red Skull. The only possible quibble to endure is the petty annoyance of the volume ending mid-story, although the next volume is not too far away, apparently. If this sort of stuff doesn’t appeal, you might consider that these stories are pivotal to understanding the Alan Moore, X-Men and Excalibur tales of the last twenty years. Or the fact that there’s a free Captain Britain mask with the book. Not so easy to resist now, huh?

© 1977, 2007 Marvel Characters, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

James Bond 007: The Phoenix Project

James Bond: The Phoenix Project 

By Jim Lawrence & Yaroslav Horak

Titan Books ISBN: 1-84576-312-2

Titan’s run of the newspaper strip Bond nears its inevitable conclusion in these tales from the mid-1970s, but the superlative work of scripter Jim Lawrence doesn’t slacken its pace or its grip on our action-hungry imaginations. The Phoenix Project examines some of the super-agent’s darker edges as he deals with the threat of a technological battle-suit that could revolutionise the way war is fought.

The Black Ruby Caper once again features a black lead heroine in a convoluted yet enthralling tale of duelling subversive organisations and a mysterious plot known only as Operation: Black Storm. As well as the usual fights and chases Bond has to use blackmail and coercion to achieve his goals. The exotic locales of Zurich, Paris and Ghana are no challenge to Horak’s gifted pens and brushes, and the increasing abundance of beautiful, naked women (it is the mid-1970s, after all) keeps everybody’s attention focussed.

Till Death Do Us Part is more traditional 007 fodder, as Bond kidnaps/rescues the daughter of a foreign “asset” to prevent a scandal. This is notable more for the inevitable introduction of the eccentric gadgets that had become an increasingly large part of the film version than for the adventure itself, but there are still thrills and flesh aplenty on view.

The volume closes with the brief but enthralling The Torch-Time Affair, wherein the search for a list of Latin American communist secrets leads to bodies on the beach, breathtaking chases over roads and through jungles and an intriguing detective mystery as 007 must save the girl, get the goods and kill the villain. Or must he..?

All the glamour and menace of James Bond is here in abundance and the chance to see two comic strip masters at their peak is very welcome and oh, so satisfying.

© 1974, 1975, 1976 Glidrose Productions Ltd/ Express Newspapers Ltd.
James Bond newspaper strip is © Express Newspapers Ltd 1987. All Rights Reserved

Death’s Head Vol 1

Death’s Head Vol 1

By Simon Furman & various

Marvel/Panini UK ISBN 1-905239-34-3

Marvel UK had very few long-term successes in its twenty-plus years as a semi-autonomous company, but the robotic bounty hunter — sorry, free-lance peace-keeping agent — was certainly one of their most eccentric. Now the current regime have released the almost complete adventures in a cheerful bookshelf edition for your nostalgia tinged enjoyment.

Along with some welcome background on the big tin guy, there’s the very first one page adventure, the team-up with the Sylvester McCoy incarnation of Dr Who, the preliminary guest shot with the futuristic paramilitary sports team The Dragon’s Claws, and then the first seven issues of his own comic book series, all lavishly re-presented for a manic metal-head’s enjoyment. The only fault to find is the necessary exclusion of the battles against those other big robotic staples of the 1980s comic scene, The Transformers. Due to pesky copyright reasons the battles from Transformers # 113-151 have been left out, but this shouldn’t mar your enjoyment of this good old-fashioned comedy action-fest.

Always played as much for laughs as thrills and mercifully short on the breast-beating angst of his Marvel contemporaries, Death’s Head was created and written by Simon Furman, and this volume has artwork from Geoff Senior, Bryan Hitch, Lee Sullivan, Liam Sharp, John Higgins, Mark Farmer, Dave Hine, Paul Marshall and Jeff Anderson

© 1986-1989, 2006 Marvel Characters, Inc. All Rights Reserved.