Category Archives: Interviews

WRiTiNG RiNG RAiDERS: JAMES TOMLiNSON iNTERViEW

With its huge ensemble cast, near limitless storytelling possibilities and its ability to turn small plastic airplanes on rings into thrilling war machines piloted by dynamic, three-dimensional characters Ring Raiders was (and still is) my favourite non-OiNK childhood comic. Editor Barrie Tomlinson had assembled the very best talent to bring my latest obsession to life in 1989 and this included his son James, who went by the pen name James Nicholas at the time.

James was an acclaimed writer for Eagle, Battle and Scream! and would be the person responsible for my one of my favourite stories in Ring Raiders. According to Barrie, James has always been an “aviation nut”, so surely this would seem like the perfect comic for James to write for?

“With the aviation connection, Ring Raiders really did stand out for me amongst so many ‘here today, gone tomorrow’ titles,” James told me. “This does bring back some great memories of marvellous times long ago. So good to hear that Ring Raiders was, and still is, appreciated so much by those that read, and continue to read, the title. It makes us writers (and artists I am sure) so nostalgic and proud. It was indeed so sad (I’d use the word tragedy, but that may be a bit too far!) Ring Raiders lasted only a handful of issues, it deserved a longer print run for sure. Many others clearly think the same!”

James very graciously (not to mention rather excitedly) agreed to answer some questions about this brilliant comic which unfortunately launched at a time when comic sales across the board were in decline, when it seemed no matter which one I started to collect it didn’t last long. The fact it remains a favourite all these years later is testament to its quality. So with an ace publication based on a childhood obsession and a fan of all things aviation at the helm of some of its top stories, I was really looking forward to this interview. James was not to disappoint.

OiNK Blog: It was great to hear you’re still an aviation nut and have fond memories of your time working on Ring Raiders. Were there any particular aspects of the idea behind it that stood out for you?

James Tomlinson: Yes indeed, I’m still very much an aviation nut after all these years! Rather than just one story, I think it was the whole concept that really stood out for me. Pilots and aircraft from different eras locked in mortal combat in contrasting time zones all over the globe. It really had the makings of a long-running and thrilling sky-based adventure which seemed to be just what the kids back then would have loved. Well, that’s what I think anyway!

OB: What was the process like when a new licence came through, to get up to speed on everything you’d need to know about something like Ring Raiders? I imagine it wouldn’t have been a very long timeframe before you’d start producing stories?

JT: With these sorts of stories, based on toy products, there’s really no definite answer to this one. It varied so much. Sometimes we were given a lot of information about the characters and storylines, other times there was much less for us to go on. Of course, in the latter scenario, this could be a good thing as it allowed writers to use their own imagination more and pad out things with their own ideas. Again, the amount of time we got to read up and prepare for something new like Ring Raiders varied hugely. Often there had to be a very quick turnaround with the stories, on other occasions we had months to get things just right.

OB: You very kindly sent me a folder from the licence holders you used (look out for this at a later date – Phil) and it was very scant on details for each character, basically consisting of the information on the toy packaging and focusing more on the decals of the planes. Did you get anything more to go on, or was it up to you as a writer to embellish them as you saw fit?

JT: From what I recall there was indeed not a great deal to go on with the characters from Ring Raiders, so it was a case of each individual writer embellishing the characters. Obviously, if the licence holders didn’t like what the writer had done with the characters they could object and ask for changes, which did happen on a fairly regular basis (although not so much, thankfully, with Ring Raiders).

OB: It was like an anthology comic in many ways. Who came up with the story ideas and chose the characters you’d focus on? Your first story was set during World War II at a time linked to the origin story of the ‘Raider featured, Cub Jones. It’s also chock full of B-17 Fortress Bombers fighting modern day jets and classic prop planes. How very you.

JT: I think most of the basic story ideas came from the writers themselves, apart from those that, say, focussed on the early life stories of the individual heroes and villains. Those were probably more down to editorial decisions. Bomber Blues was very much my sort of story, with all my kind of ingredients. I’d always been a fan of stories about the Flying Fortress of WW2. This big plane with a big crew and a ton of guns really caught my imagination. Searching my dusty old memory banks, I seem to recall there was a serial story in Battle about an American Flying Fortress squadron flying out of wartime England which I always enjoyed. To have a Flying Fortress going up against jet fighters from the future was just perfect in my eyes. I’m sure I had a lot of input into this story choice! 

OB: Both of your published stories were beautifully illustrated by Don Wazejewski, how did that come about? Did you write your stories and they were assigned to Don or did you work together more closely to produce the final product?

JT: It was just luck that a great artist like Don Wazejewski was chosen to illustrate Bomber Blues. Certainly, in my time writing I never worked closely with the artist who would eventually illustrate my work. We always worked very much apart. Many lucky artists lived abroad in the sun anyway and it wasn’t so easy to keep in touch as it is today; no internet, emails or social media back then! I always thought the many different artists who converted my (sometimes difficult!) ideas to a finished visual work did a superb job. I wish I could have produced work half as good as they did. Unfortunately I’ve never had any drawing talent at all (always a bit of a drawback if you want to become an artist). Artists like Joe Colquhoun, John Cooper and Sandy James were at the top of their game. (The latter two also produced some stunning work for Ring Raiders – Phil) I take my hat off to their much missed talents!

OB: Your second story ‘Castle of Doom’ involved more time travel into the past and a plot by Skull Squadron to undermine the formation of their arch enemies. It seemed to be setting up a larger scale story in the background. Was this the idea, something you could return to at a later date? Or am I reading too much into it?

JT: Once again, Castle of Doom was just my cup of tea when it comes to a story. Travelling back in time to change what will happen in the future has always intrigued and interested me. Maybe because I watched a lot of Doctor Who and The Time Tunnel when I was a youngster! I really don’t recall if there was any plan to make this story part of a long-running adventure (like my story Operation Deep Cover which I wrote for Battle Action Force) but it’s an interesting idea. Perhaps you should have been on the editorial team and suggested it, Phil!

OB: Oh if only! Once the ‘Raiders perfect time travel I’ll see you back then!

OB: In that story the main characters are the Ring Raiders’ Yakamura (X-29 fighter) and Skull Squadron’s Wraither (P-51 Mustang). These two characters’ craft were in a two-plane ‘Starter Pack’ which was how I started collecting the toys. Was this deliberate?

JT: I’m almost certain that the Yakamura X-29/Wraither P-51 Mustang were deliberately chosen to go up against each other in this story given they could be bought together in a Starter Pack. The idea was probably to encourage youngsters (such as yourself!) to go and buy the X-29/P-51 combo (then available in all good toy shops) and re-enact the dogfights from Castle of Doom. Whether this decision was down to Those Characters From Cleveland/Matchbox/someone in editorial or even the humble writer is lost long ago somewhere in the clouds!

OB: My inner fan just grinned from ear-to-ear! For UK fans your comic was responsible for developing the characters beyond the toys. Did the licence holders ever request alterations that affected your work? Barrie has told me they were more understanding than most.

JT: I’m glad the then young UK fans appreciated our efforts to flesh out the characters from what was perhaps a not-so-detailed starting point. Licence holders could often be very fussy about things and ask/demand/insist that changes were made. Usually this was at the script stage although, when deadlines were tight sometimes the artwork had already been completed. I’m thinking of Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles Adventures here rather than Ring Raiders. Last minute changes to the actual artwork were usually impossible, given that many artists lived on distant shores and there was just no scope to alter things late in the day. We’d usually say we’d take on board their comments and make sure we did things properly next time!

OB: You were responsible for the Photo File series, which we only got two parts of in #6 and the Special, unfortunately. The comic seemed to get a new found confidence with that sixth issue so I was gutted it was the last one. Can you remember any plans you or the team had for stories or the comic as a whole beyond these early issues?

JT: Yes, I was behind the Photo File series, I’d produced similar types of aircraft fact files for other titles in the past. Again, this was right up my street as I obviously had more than a little(!) interest in the subject matter. I was disappointed only a couple of these were completed, the P-51 Mustang and the F-104 Starfighter, the latter for the Special. The Starfighter was another of my all-time faves, a really special plane which had the nickname ‘The Rocket With A Man In It’! I do agree that Ring Raiders was getting better all the time and the sudden end of the title was a real shock to us all. What the long-term future held for the title is difficult to say with any certainty. I would have hoped it would have gone from strength to strength as we got more used to the characters and expected storylines. There was just so much scope with all that dogfighting action through the centuries!

OB: Finally, Barrie gave me some details of unpublished stories which were being worked on when the comic was cancelled. There was apparently a Christmas story and another called ‘Blow Bubbles’, both written by yourself. Can you remember anything about them?

JT: There were at least three of my stories for planned future issues which were sadly unpublished. Apart from Blow Bubbles and the untitled Christmas story, there was also a story called Hijacked. Unfortunately, I don’t recall anything about any of them! I’m not even sure what stage the stories had reached, whether I’d finished or even started writing one, two or all three. I’m afraid the three tales have disappeared into ‘The Bermuda Triangle’ of unpublished writing!

Thanks so much to James for this brilliant interview and his detailed, enthusiastic answers. It’s been great to bring this comic back to life through the blog and to give it the appreciation it so clearly deserves. If it had continued I’ve every faith it would’ve evolved into an epic title to rival any licenced fare in the UK, including even Marvel‘s Transformers. Sadly, it was not to be.

But we’re here to celebrate this comic, not mourn it and I’ll leave the last word for James:

“It’s been a pleasure spending time revisiting the history of Ring Raiders. Those were great days!”

Just last week I published an interview with Ring Raiders‘ editor Barrie Tomlinson, and before the month is out the long-awaited review of the Ring Raiders Special, so stay tuned!

EDiTiNG RiNG RAiDERS: BARRiE TOMLiNSON iNTERViEW

My very favourite non-OiNK comic from my youth may have only lasted six fantastic issues and one incredible 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 held 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 themselves ready to fill the gap. In response, the governments of the world formed the Ring Raiders, an elite force 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 Matchbox plastic 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 reads today. It was exciting and had masses of potential to explore an almost endless array of epic storylines. Within its short lifespan it covered Word 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 love. I loved the range and as an adult I think 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 came away 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 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.

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 were 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.

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 at the time).

DESiGNING HAVOC: A CHAT WITH PAUL CHAMBERLAiN

Havoc may not have lasted very long but it left a lasting impression, introducing me to characters I’d never previously heard of as well as giving me the chance to see the comic strip adventures of a favourite movie and TV star. At the time of writing I’ve just finished a real time read through of the comic’s nine issues. during which I was able to have a chat with the person responsible for that terrific logo, Paul Chamberlain.

Paul is currently Creative Director at Pre-Flight Visual Communication Ltd, a company that seems to have designed pretty much every logo and front cover of every magazine I’ve purchased over the last decade! While chatting to Paul I discovered his inspiration behind Havoc’s logo, the other duties he took on and the string of Marvel UK and Fleetway Publications titles he worked on.

OiNK Blog: So Paul, you created the logo for Havoc. Is there anything about the process you could share with OiNK Blog readers? For example, how did you get the gig?

Paul: It was spring 1991 and I had just returned from backpacking in India and Thailand. Before I went on my trip I had been working with Bernie Jay, the then partner of Paul Neary, at Headway Home & Law developing an idea for a monthly consciousness raising magazine. Headway Home & Law at the time was also the home of Fleetway who were publishing 2000AD and Bernie managed to secure me a couple of freelance jobs with them.

Upon returning from my travels, Bernie got in touch to ask if I would be interested in a bit of freelance work with Paul Neary for Marvel UK. The first of these jobs was to design a logo for Havoc. I was working from home at the time and this was before the days of DTP (computerised Desktop Publishing – Phil) in comics so everything was produced by hand on a table in the corner of my bedroom. 

OB: The Havoc logo is made up of a five-pointed star and there are five strips in the comic. Was this part of the design process or just a happy coincidence?

PC: Sorry to say it wasn’t quite as deep as that and just a happy coincidence. It’s difficult to remember my thought process at the time but I do remember having a thing for circles and stars. When I submitted the design to Paul Neary I do remember him saying that he liked it because it reminded him of a gun. I have to say that had not occurred to me during the design process.

I wanted the logo to have a slightly dynamic feel, hence the slightly italicised type. The original type design was very squared-off and blocky which didn’t sit very well with me so I decided to round off the corners slightly and add subtle serifs. A lot about the design was lead by the resources available to me at the time – Rotring pens, a ruler, set of compasses and a drawing board. As we used to do all our colour separations by hand everything had to have a strong black keyline so that this process would work properly. 

The next job I did for him was to design the logo for Death’s Head II which was created in-house and I had the pleasure of sharing a studio with Liam Sharp as he developed the character visuals.

After that I was offered a full time designer post at Marvel UK where I stayed for an amazing three years before heading off back to India for more travels.

OB: After Death’s Head II what other titles did you work on for Marvel UK and what work besides logos did you do for them? Were there any Fleetway comics you worked on too? I was a big fan of both publishers at the time.

PC: So after Death’s Head I developed the first logo for Overkill and was Art Editor on that for some time. Along with another designer, Ed Lawrence, we became the design team for all the new superhero titles that came out of Marvel UK between 1991 and 1994 – Motormouth, Warheads, Hells Angel (which became Dark Angel), Super Soldiers etc. For Fleetway I produced the designs for The Judge Dredd Mega Collection with another designer, Colin Fox. Upon returning from my second stint in India I secured the post of Deputy Art Director at Titan Books where, amongst other responsibilities, I was the Art Editor for the official Lucasfilm Star Wars Magazine.

OB: Wow! That’s a wonderful selection of titles, it must’ve been such an amazing time! I’ve always been curious, for an ongoing reprint comic what does the role of an Art Editor entail, after all the initial titles and pages have been designed?

PC: You are right. It was odd coming from a consumer magazine background. It was mainly covers and house ads. With the reprint stuff there was some resizing of artwork and new title pages if it was a longer story being broken down. For the graphic novels and collections there were also end pages, chapter dividers and the likes.

OB: Ah right, of course, all those American strips being chopped up into parts in the UK comics. I also noticed new opening panels for some of the Havoc strips so would those have been you, creating them and resizing the original art around them, yes?

PC: As designers we wouldn’t be creating new art but definitely resizing and re-laying out. That would be the kind of thing, but I think Gary Gilbert was responsible for the ongoing design duties for Havoc (like the contents, letters and Eye Level news pages).

OB: Thanks so much for the chat Paul and the insight into one of my most fondly remembered comics.

PC: No problem Philip, anytime.

To read all about Havoc and begin the real time read through just click here.