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!