Skull Commander Chiller pops up on the cover to the latest Ring Raiders introducing the free Skull Squadron poster, which I’ll show you later in the review. He’s easily the star inside too; a main character of two strips and he’s the pin up too. Chiller was a fan favourite, so much so that his Wing was hard to come by and in the end I wasn’t able to add him to my collection.
With a sleek plane equipped with a freeze ray and an equally slick haircut equipped with a cool white stripe he was the epitome of 80s villainy, probably more so than their leader Scorch at this early stage. Although to be fair the comic is slowing moving its way through the large ensemble cast and, instead of rushing, it’s taking its time with certain individuals. In the final issue we’ll start to see the second batch of stories begin and the focus moving slightly, so over time all of the characters would’ve received fair development.
In part two of Barrie Tomlinson‘s Battle Zone ’99 the remaining gravity-powered submarine is still under attack, as part of Skull’s aim to destabilise the governments of the world, a part of their overall goal of assuming control through a mix of all-out warfare and covert operations. Here, dozens are already dead but while trying to fire upon the sub Skull Leader Scorch accidentally damages Chiller’s F-104 ‘Ice Machine’ when Ring Commander Vector expertly dodges an attack, forcing his comrade to eject and abandon his awesome craft.
Adding insult to injury, Chiller is almost killed when his leader fires upon the sub again, not knowing he’s been pulled onboard and is assuming control. The episode is left with us unsure if Chiller is going to complete his mission or take revenge on Scorch! There’s a certain air of Starscream about the character. What I love the most is Carlos Pino‘s energetic, colourful art. In particular that panel of the F-104 being shot down. For my younger eyes his work was an action-packed start to each issue.
Apart from Thundercloud‘s Rescue Wing launching there are none of the toy range’s planes in the third part of Angus Allan‘s Trackdown. Instead the action takes part either on the ground or aboard (and hanging off of) a forestry service helicopter. A rather bold move for a tie-in based on those toys but it just goes to show the team wouldn’t confine their characters and stories to the cockpit.
It was exciting to see our Matchbox planes in action but look at that opening panel by John Cooper; the scale of these stories compared to what we might’ve expected (given the toy line) was incredible to our young minds. There’s a real feeling of confidence here, of being unrestricted and free to tell what the writer wanted to. Trackdown is the best example of how the writers weren’t being expected to shoehorn the planes into the stories. Character, action and story came first, and the planes became an organic part of the stories.
Our two original characters are still the stars, with Ring Raider Freddie Riley and the professor commandeering a helicopter to get above the mountains and radio for help. Runtz, however, clings to the side and the chapter ends with him bursting in and holding the professor by the throat! There’s a great little bit of humour there too from the Skull when he contacts Scorch. It’s an exciting read and, even though at this point we had no idea how long Trackdown would last, something in the way it was being told made it stand out as the main strip.
Trackdown might be the most fondly remembered tale in the whole run but this is the best strip in this issue. The complete character story is all about the leader of Bandit Wing, Chiller and it’s his turn to reminisce about an important part of his past to his wingmen. But first can I just point out he’s killed a Ring Raider! Max Miles has only appeared briefly and his Bravery Wing haven’t made the pages yet, but he’s definitely a man down, one of his pilots frozen into place in his cockpit, no parachute visible and the plane shattered on the mountainside. It’s dealt with in a throwaway manner but again backs up how the comic depicted the Skull Squadron, as I mentioned last time.
“You’re gonna stay down here and freeze like the scum you are!”Skill Commander Chiller
The story continues with its bleak theme and the bodies really do pile up! I know you’ll think I’m cracking a joke when I say it’s a chilling tale but there’s no other way to describe what is the best of these complete tales in the whole series. Writer Scott Goodall depicts Chiller as an average guy with a job as a freelance mail service pilot flying between the mountains and the sea. Bitter and angry it’s clear he has an issue with the wider world and, as well as beginning his obsession with the killing potential of cold and ice, this story appears to push him over the edge and become the kind of person Skull Squadron would appeal to.
Remember that “twisted by war’s cruelties” line from last issue’s brief look at the history of the Squadron? That rings true here. We’re not told (yet) what made him into the character we see here but perhaps if the comic had continued we’d have had a look further into his past. The person hiring him ends up forcing him at gunpoint to land on the Devil’s Throne mountain where his diamond smuggling partner crashed his plane, within which he still sits.
John Gillat‘s art certainly sent a shiver down my spine when I first read this back in 1989. It was the most adult tale the comic would produce in its short life and cemented Chiller as the best villain and the most defined. It looks like the Devil’s Throne is going to encase him and the criminal who hired him until he sees a mountain climber, dead and perfectly preserved in the ice. Chipping away with his knife for a long time he lets the smuggler (whose leg broke in their fall into a newly opened crevasse) endlessly tell him what he needs to do to lift him out.
“Time’s running out, Kirkov! You can’t fly on Ring-Power forever or you’ll burn out your nervous system!”Skull Commander Mako
Letting the man think he’s listening, he gets a sudden awakening as he watches Chiller climb out, leaving him to freeze to death. The takeaway from all this is how hardened it’s made a man who previously had a chip on his shoulder, but who wouldn’t necessarily have considered leaving someone to die. This was his tipping point and it’s expertly brought to the page as a tense little thriller. It makes me wonder if the people who actually created the Ring Raiders franchise ever saw where the UK team took their characters.
Leaving with the diamonds, when he was approached to join Skull Squadron he helped fund their efforts and I’m sure they welcomed him, given how his appearances seem to be amassing the biggest death toll in the whole comic. In addition, though it isn’t confirmed, the way he berates the American makes me think he’s actually British. Given his dress sense I think this could possibly be the case and I hear a British accent every time I read his stories. A brilliant character.
With this third issue some input from the readers has made its way on to the letters page and it’s been decided the Skull Squadron will get first crack at choosing who gets to appear. The opposing sides would take it in turns each fortnight, with the prizes also changing between those featuring the good guy or the baddies. The toy package images have also been replaced by a Sandy James depiction of the guest editor and who better to kick things off than the big bad himself, Scorch.
Just across from this is the first proper Next Issue promo and it looks like the plane stars will be back in full force in Trackdown. Just to answer the question posed here, yes my copy was on order at the paper shop, in fact it had been ever since I bought issue one, before I even took it home.
Just below this is a coupon for The Ring Raiders Club. This was just a preliminary coupon to show interest, a bit like when we sign up for updates on new websites or Kickstarters today. When the final issue of the comic arrived I was desperate for more Ring Raiders action and sent off my own coupon but I never heard anything back. With a different address to the comic this wasn’t a Fleetway Publications club and in fact I’m unsure who was actually planning it, but unfortunately it looks like it never took off (ba-doom-tish).
Moving on to writer James Nicholas‘ and artist Don Wazejewski‘s Bomber Blues and after a last minute pull out of a crash dive, ‘Cub’ Jones crashes through the air traffic control tower and has to pancake his F-5 ‘Sky Tiger’, destroying its undercarriage and rendering it unusable. The World War II airfield has been destroyed, the leader of Hero Wing is down and Hubbub‘s Rebel Wing are returning with replacement planes to attack at full strength and enact his revenge on the American pilots. He and his men could easily wipe them all out.
Don’s artwork is gorgeous here and oozes atmosphere, whether that’s on the eerie, flattened airfield or just a couple of panels later with the Air Carrier Justice cruising the night skies. Vector stops any rescue attempt, telling the other Raiders this is a personal mission for the new pilot Jones and it’s something he has to figure out for himself. Well, figure it out he does with a rather surprising moment you can see above.
It’s a fun solution to the problem although my adult mind can’t help but think how that possibly worked? The bomber wouldn’t have been able to hover over the F-5 while they attached it, soo are they meant to have scooped it up on a flypast? Oh, who cares?! Given the set up for the whole comic I’m not going to get hung up on this! Plus, as a kid I loved this, it was genuinely surprising, I laughed and I do believe I reenacted it when the larger bomber toys were launched the next year. It’s fun! That’s the point and it certainly ticks all the boxes in that regard.
The Skull Squadron weren’t just the stars of the letters page, they also had a full page advert to themselves. With illustrations by Sandy James and some rather lacklustre toy photographs, it was still enough to elicit excitement for the upcoming Christmas season in this young reader. With my birthday four days before Christmas Day it was a bumper Matchbox festive season so these adverts were all hype to me, tying these tiny planes into the stories in the comic in brilliant fashion.
I do wonder if the comic and toys had carried on for longer (as they both deserved to) would we have seen this relationship develop further and where would it have led? Would we have seen Sandy’s artwork on the toy packaging? Would Barrie and his team have taken responsibility for the little comics we got with our planes? Just wondering aloud as a fan who really saw their potential and continues to do so to this day.
Chiller continues his comic takeover with this issue’s pin-up, also drawn by Sandy. In fact, the last several pages pretty much belong to Sandy as this leads on to the final strip, part three of Freedom Flight and his glorious, full-colour artwork bringing Tom Tully‘s script to life. It was a particularly exciting one for readers because this was the first time we saw a ring being used to connect pilot and plane.
As well as communicators or time-meddling warning signals the rings could be used to “receive improved flying skills in times of crisis”, to quote last month’s issue. By being inserted into a special part of the cockpit they flood the plane and its pilot with raw energy. At the end of last issue’s episode Commander Kirkov was plummeting towards the fort in his F-4 Phantom ‘Comet’, his death (and the destructive changing of history) seemingly imminent. Here’s how it’s picked up.
With the energy of the ring the plane gets a burst of power but in order to control it so does Kirkov. While the ring is inserted it’s obviously affecting his body too. (Each ring was programmed specifically for each pilot and their own aircraft.) While it could have other uses in other dire situations (perhaps for bursts of speed when ambushed for example) the fact it could be incredibly damaging to the human behind it means they’re only brought into play in absolute emergencies, as a last resort and can’t be used for long for fear of the pilot passing out.
Mako makes reference to this while he tries to gun down Kirkov, but the two men are such incredible pilots they can’t get a lock on each other. But this doesn’t matter to Mako, he knows all he has to do is keep Kirkov in the air long enough for him either to disengage the ring and lose control of the failing aircraft, or pass out and crash anyway.
In desperation Kirkov banks into the smoke-filled sky above the battle and loses his pursuer. But he’s still in a predicament and upon spotting a landing strip behind friendly lines he lands so quickly he does’t spot it’s about to be overrun by the rebels. It’s an exhilarating ride and all these years later a real thrill to see the ring power finally used in this way. There are so many fantastical elements to introduce in the world of the Ring Raiders it makes sense to do them a little at a time and this has been well worth the wait.
On a side note, in the cartoon the ring power was used to kind of ‘supercharge’ the planes and a previously unseen silver armour would slide out from hidden panels and cover the entire aircraft, even the cockpit. How did they see out? In this too I much prefer the comic’s version. Why would you want to cover these wonderfully designed decals?
There’s the free poster, up on the wall of my current home office. I’ve various free posters and the like plastered all over these walls, making it the perfect spot to write this blog and the Skull Squadron poster takes pride of place. Now if only I could track down the Ring Raiders one to go with it! It’s been lost over the years but one day I will reunite them.
So that’s it. The third issue of Ring Raiders comes to an end and it’s been a rollicking good read. I can’t wait for the rest of the series simply because I know it just keeps on getting better. You’ll see what I mean in a fortnight when #4 lands on the OiNK Blog on Thursday 28th October 2021.