My very favourite non-OiNK comic from my youth may have only lasted six fantastic issues and one brilliant special in 1989/90, but that didn’t stop me from being hyped to read Ring Raiders again as an adult for the blog. They may have been based on obscure toys that weren’t the success they were expected to be, but the comics hold up incredibly well today, full of character, fun stories and high octane action.
In the then-near-future of the late 90s Skull Squadron were a terrorist organisation on the brink of world domination. Capable of time travel and made up of the most sinister of pilots plucked out of various eras they planned to use this ability to destabilise the world order, with them in control. In response, the governments of the world formed the Ring Raiders, an elite airforce formed in a similar way, each equipped with a special communication and energy ring.
The gotta-collect-’em-all toys came with small comic books featuring basic dogfights, but it was no small feat to transform those little plastic Matchbox planes into compelling strips with fully formed characters. While the toys may seem to limit what a comic could do, the opposite was true of that background storyline which was almost endless in scope. Fleetway Publications were going to need a top editor to craft their new fortnightly comic, so they naturally turned to Barrie Tomlinson (Eagle, Tiger, Wildcat).
Barrie formed a team of the very best in British talent; Ian Kennedy, Carlos Pino, Angus Allan, John Cooper, Scott Goodall, John Gillatt, James Nicholas (Tomlinson), Don Wazejewski, Tom Tully, Sandy James and Geoff Campion. I must’ve read each issue dozens of times and was gutted when it (and the toys) ended so prematurely.
The Ring Raiders comic genuinely surprised me with just how brilliantly it read for the blog reviews. It was exciting and had masses of potential to explore an epic storyline. Within its short lifespan it covered World War II, Vietnam, the threat of nuclear annihilation, futuristic sci-fi battles, murderous back stories, civil wars and even an homage to a certain 80s 3D movie I’m a big fan of. I loved the range and I think as an adult I appreciated the character development at the centre of such fanciful tales even more.
I was so excited when Barrie agreed to answer some questions for me and I came away from our chat delighted at how proud he was of this licenced comic fave.
OiNK Blog: Hi Barrie, can you remember what made Fleetway choose the Ring Raiders licence? Looking back they were just tiny Matchbox planes with only minimal character drawings on the packaging.
Barrie Tomlinson: Fleetway Publications was a massive organisation. The first I would hear of a new licence would be from the Editorial Director. It would have been negotiated by a non-editorial department and presented to us. I just had to grab all the info I could find about the storyline and characters and make myself an instant expert on the subject.
OB: There’s a similarity between Ring Raiders and Wildcat. Both have an anthology feel while wrapped up in an overall theme. Was this a conscious decision or was it just befitting the licence?
BT: It wasn’t a conscious decision. I would have just wanted to use the characters I had been presented with and turn the comic into something which was liked by British readers.
OB: Were you personally responsible for selecting the writers responsible for fleshing out these characters?
BT: Yes, I would have been responsible for selecting the writers. It’s really unfortunate that the detail books for Ring Raiders were not kept. They would provide a wealth of information. My son James, who wrote under the name ‘James Nicholas‘ was one of the writers. He was a natural, as he is an aviation fanatic! I’ll have to guess at the others. Probably Tom Tully was one. I can’t remember writing any of those scripts myself… but I probably did! (He did indeed as we later found out during the read through, as well as the names of the others – Phil)
OB: There were some mature themes in there, such as Vietnam. This strip in particular wouldn’t have looked out of place in a classic IPC war comic. The setup allowed stories set in the past, present or future, time travelling, fantasy of historic tales. It sounds like a writer’s dream title! Did you feel you had that freedom in a licenced comic?
BT: Everything we did had to be approved by agents of the copyright holder. Each script and piece of artwork had to be submitted and approved so we always had to stick closely to the original material we had been sent.
OB: There’s a feeling of a larger scale story developing in the background too. Was anything worked out in advance or were you winging it (pun not intended) and seeing how they developed over time? Can you remember any plans you had if the comic had continued?
BT: There were not any massive plans. It was always a rush producing titles like this as everything had to be approved. Once we had taken on board all the story/character details it was just a question of talking to writers, recruiting artists and getting on with it. I was pleased with the high quality artwork we achieved on this title, using artists who were greatly experienced in working for my department.
OB: A cartoon series was also in development which was very different to the comic in basically every way, going down a more sci-fi route with clichéd characters. I preferred the flawed characters in your comic by far.
BT: We didn’t have any contact with the cartoon series. We could develop the characters to a certain extent but everything would have to be approved.
(Below, Castle of Doom was written by Barrie’s son James and featured plenty of time travel and the beginnings of a larger overall story arc.)
OB: Speaking of those approvals, were there any requested changes or outright rejections? There was very little established in the toy line so for me the comic was really creating these characters.
BT: Occasionally, they would ask for alterations. Nothing too much. Some of the other toy comics were much more hands-on. I had to train people doing the approving that it was a comic. At first, they were looking at each individual frame as if it was a one-off poster. Eventually they got to realise these were small frames and the slick comic artwork was very different to that used in a giant poster or on a toy product. As I recall, we didn’t have that problem with Ring Raiders.
OB: It seemed at one stage almost every comic I began collecting got cancelled very quickly. Having read back over some of those titles it certainly wasn’t because of a lack of quality! Why do you think so many excellent comics were cancelled so early in the late 80s and 90s?
BT: I think it was just that the comic era was coming to an end. Television and computers were taking up children’s time. Once upon a time, the delivery of the weekly comic was a big event in a child’s life. It was delivered with the morning paper. Dad read it as well. Then children became more sophisticated and they wanted something more than a comic. They were growing up faster.
OB: Finally, the late Ian Kennedy always said his favourite subject to draw was airplanes, especially fighter planes. Ring Raiders seemed like a perfect fit for him. Was he contracted to work on covers for Fleetway or was he selected by you personally? Can you remember any comments from him on his time working on Ring Raiders?
BT: Yes, I would have selected Ian to work on the title, he wasn’t contracted for covers. I think I remember him being disappointed when Ring Raiders came to an early conclusion.
I was delighted that Ian worked on Ring Raiders and other titles in my group. His recent passing was a sad occasion for the world of comics. Greatly missed but his art will live on!
OB: Thanks so much for your time and insight Barrie, it’s been a pleasure to read this comic again, thank you for producing such a quality read for fans at that age.
BT: It’s great to know that the title is so well remembered. It’s a great tribute to the writers, artists and editorial staff who worked on Ring Raiders. It may not have lasted long but I think it looked good as a comic in its own right.
If you’d like to find out more about Ring Raiders and read the real time reviews just click here.
At the time of writing the final edition, the whopping 64-page special will be reviewed later this month and next week watch out for a wonderful, lengthy interview with Barrie’s son and Ring Raiders writer, James Tomlinson (or James Nicholas as he was known at the time).