THE COMIC STRIPS PRESENT
From the screen to the page! In the second instalment of a major three-part retrospective, Alistair McGown celebrates the comic strip tie-ins that defined a decade...
The second part of our journey back into the realm of TV shows and movies turned comics reaches the ’70s. There will be beige.
THE UK COMICS INDUSTRY HAD wholeheartedly embraced small screen spin-offs in the 1960s, with the coming of the first TV generation. For SF fans that meant the likes of Doctor Who and The Avengers now appearing in the pages of TV Comic, though the big deal in TV tie-in publishing had been TV21, a legendary weekly promoting Gerry anderson’s futuristic puppet heroes.
By 1970 the comic was limping on but faced dwindling sales. it was TV21, Jim, but not as we knew it, determined to carry on without anderson, TV-RELATED strips Land Of The Giants and The Saint now nestling with scuba divers and Glaswegian footballers.
chief draw was Star Trek, then running on BBc1 for the first time. ex-TV21 illustrator mike noble provided glorious covers plus interior colour spreads, pearls among swine in the otherwise tatty comic. nigglingly, Kirk wore a mortality-baiting red shirt but then virtually nobody at home had a colour TV and would know any better.
noble found lucrative employment elsewhere, as we’ll see later, and was briefly replaced by ex-Daleks artist ron turner, then various lesser scribblers. new owners IPC eventually merged TV21 into the war heroes
and wizard wheezes of Valiant in october 1971, where Star Trek retained the colour pages and an excellent artist in John stokes. clearly someone at Valiant had a colour telly, as everyone’s shirts were at last the correct hues.
Star Trek finally beamed out of Valiant over christmas 1973.
meanwhile Polystyle’s TV Comic was plodding on with cartoon fare like Tom and Jerry. one fantasy strip bucking the trend since october 1968 was The Avengers, where John steed and doe-eyed acolyte tara King featured in high-camp hi-jinks, drawn usually by the over-enthusiastic John canning. clever storylines such as hypnotic ice lollies brainwashing cinema patrons into attacking a visiting president soon became too outlandish even for the avengers, involving giant beanstalks and pop broadcasts that made people dance uncontrollably. outlasting the TV show itself, the strip ran until summer 1972.
When new doctor Who Jon Pertwee debuted in 1970, TV Comic scriptwriter roger cook provided more twee fare concerning rioting schoolboys and giant insects. storylines improved under former TV21 editor alan Fennell, with the Brigadier and TV assistant Liz shaw also joining the line-up, but John canning’s third doctor remained a pop-eyed beanpole loon.
Fortunes changed dramatically in February 1971, when a TV Comic spin-off for space-mad older kids was published. Countdown tapped into the space race craze, presenting a mix of Tomorrow’s World-style science fact and post-TV21 science fiction.
a phoenix from TV21’s ashes, Countdown was edited by former TV21 art editor dennis hooper. Gerry anderson product was initially centre stage, with pride of place given to his live-action TV debut UFO. add the free transfer of a vastly improved Doctor Who from
TV Comic and success seemed assured. UFO and Doctor Who took the colour centrespreads and covers, the former drawn by Gerry haylock for a time, the latter initially by ex-Star Trek artist harry Lindfield. Problematically, the rest largely comprised earlier anderson hits and misses. his puppet shows were, by 1971, sunday-lunchtime rerun filler fare and a shortlived strip for 1969’s quirky but barely screened show The Secret Service failed to set the world alight. Before long, TV21 reprints of Stingray and Fireball XL5 proliferated. With apollo moonshots also winding down, Countdown came back to earth by mutating into TV Action in spring 1972, riding the vogue for action/crime shows such as The Persuaders! (already a Countdown regular), Mission: Impossible and
Hawaii Five-O. even Gerry anderson had decided “if you can’t beat them, join them”, with the start of his crimebuster series The
Protectors. the space-age UFO and Doctor Who remained chief attractions, however, the latter now beautifully painted by Gerry haylock on the front covers.
issue 100’s revamp deployed cinema-style cover paintings, yet not even the desperate inclusion of pop pin-ups of cat stevens and alice cooper could prevent TV Action’s disappearance in august 1973. Doctor Who parachuted back to the less glossy TV Comic.
speeding TV Action’s demise was Look-in, the junior spin-off to ITV listings magazine TV
Times. ironic, since it was the second phoenix from TV21’s ashes, created by former head honcho alan Fennell. With free TV advertising and TV Times’ vast resources behind it, Look-in proved a winner from new year 1971.
Providing a heady weekly mix of glam rock pop posters, features on the latest kid-friendly ITV shows and a roster of a half dozen TV-BASED comic strips, Look-in could afford Britain’s finest illustrative talent, while chief strip writer was ex-TV21 scripter angus allan, his inventive plots often fuelled by a dram of his favourite whisky.
rarely without an SF strip throughout the 1970s, from Look-in’s debut issue mike noble provided six months’ worth of glorious colour serials based on children’s time-travelling saga Timeslip. never quite grasping the timeline complexities of its TV parent, the strip nonetheless had fun encountering robin hood, UFOS and deadly robots. With noble shifted onto other Look-in strips, various lesser artists followed, working in monochrome.
after running light fantasy strips for manky magician catweazle and teenage spy-fi series Freewheelers, Look-in was
quick to spot the popularity of The Tomorrow People, launching a strip mere months after its 1973 ITV debut. a record-breaking run saw the teleporting teens encounter satanic cults and robotic gorillas, and foil invasions by plant people and giant ants before jaunting out of
Look-in in spring 1978. superb black-and-white art came from mike noble, while John Burns provided episodes in retina-burning colour.
in september 1975, Look-in finally ran a Gerry anderson strip, based on his new show, the epic Space: 1999. the show’s thoughtful nature meant slightly more cerebral strips than usual, amid the occasional giant ant.
When, mid-serial and without explanation, the strip adopted Space: 1999’s radically reworked second season format and characters, it meant a more natural fit with the TV show’s new comic-strip, action-adventure slant. shape-changer maya became a vital element of
Look-in’s strips, before they abruptly ceased in spring 1977. noble and Burns again provided excellent art.
Look-in’s strip compared favourably with two american versions from charlton comics. John Byrne drew a more action-orientated comic book series, while Gray morrow was artist on a magazine strip for an older audience.
Latter-’70s fantasy on ITV was mostly glossy and american, and both cybernetically-assisted secret agents
The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman achieved hugely popular Look-in strips from 1975-9. the adventures of steve austin took a more pronounced fantasy bent than its parent show, memorably in strips featuring evil robotics genius the toymaker and eccentric magician the Great mandini, energetically rendered by expressive artist martin asbury: KerrUnchhh!!! Us fans, as with Space: 1999, again had two charlton comics series to enjoy.
marvel comics also published their own american versions of other Us fantasy series adapted by Look-in in the late ’70s (see box-out). dystopian chase movie spin-off
Logan’s Run was axed after just 14 episodes and Look-in’s strip version arrived as UK screenings neared completion in april 1978. arthur ranson provided some sparse, basic art with one of his earliest action strips and six brief months in Look-in were nonetheless twice Logan’s screen shelf life. the similarly shortlived TV adventures of web-fingered, sub-aquatic super spy mark harris, aka the man From atlantis, spawned just six months of Look-in strip during 1978, despite mike noble’s reliably brilliant artwork.
Us TV’s much-hyped Star Wars wannabe Battlestar Galactica was more badly fumbled. after ITV bought the 1978-9 series, rights issues with UK cinematic releases greatly delayed its airdate. a dynamic martin asbury Look-in strip thus ran from october 1979 without a TV series on air. the strip ended frustratingly in october 1980, just as ITV’s airings began. it was a British show that spawned one of Look-in’s very best strips however, after Sapphire & Steel brought confounding supernatural chills to ITV in summer 1979. arthur ranson came of age in this stunning, atmospheric strip, with nightmarish storylines including a creature residing in mirrors and the Pied Piper fronting a rock band. it ran for almost 80 episodes, to spring 1981. the ongoing adventures of tom Baker’s Doctor Who in TV Comic meanwhile resolutely failed to scale such heights. the Fourth doctor had run continuously since January 1975 in the by-now increasingly juvenile title. after a decent debut drawn by Gerry haylock, featuring alien killer plants, John canning soon assumed regular art duties, with variable results.
despite punting a freebie Doctor Who comic to accompany its tatty revamp as Mighty TV Comic in autumn 1976, cheapskate presentation meant continued underinvestment in the comic, other than including assistants sarah Jane smith and Leela. From June 1978 they all but gave up, and crudely drew tom Baker’s head and scarf over Jon Pertwee reprints. such parsimony extended to the similarly popular Star Trek, included in TV Comic as Gold Key reprints between 1976-8.
come the tail end of 1979 however, marvel UK looked to find the good doctor a new comic-strip home…
Next issue: The 1980s!