This is something of a bittersweet review. On the one hand it’s the best issue of Ring Raiders the team produced, but it’s also the last. I can remember back in 1989 I’d always go and check out the shelves first before asking for my reserved copy, and my heart sank when I scanned through this exciting looking latest issue and saw the announcement. At this point it really did seem all the comics I was interested in weren’t lasting long at all. I was devastated with the news for this particular one.
What a cover to kick off my favourite issue, Ian Kennedy really showing he understands the subject matter, his love of aviation clearly apparent. Skull Leader Wraither was one of my two favourite characters and to see my favourite toy planes on the cover was a thrill. It still takes me right back now. Inside, two new serials and a new regular feature begin. It’s obvious this was never planned to be the last issue. However, it may be the final fortnightly but it wouldn’t be the finale. More on that below.
But let’s not be down, there’s more of the finest 80s licensed action strips to enjoy and there’s been a bit of a shift about inside to keep things fresh. Where previously Battle Zone ’99 introduced us to each issue, it’s replacement story is moved so that Tom Tully‘s Freedom Flight, rattling along to its big finish can take point, opening the comic with some blistering action that’s been building since #1. Sandy James‘ colour work makes quite the impact as the first thing we see inside, it’s just a shame something went wrong with the printing process with several pages of this issue.
Skull Squadron‘s plan finally gets revealed as Calvador is the perfect place for them set up a power base to take South America. The rebels are fully aware a heavy price will be asked of them for this help but they continue regardless. It’s clear this is only one part of a much bigger plan and interestingly leader Scorch is monitoring from thirty-two years into the future. Obviously (much like Doctor Who) in the world of Ring Raiders time is fluid, always in flux. I appreciated major plot details only coming later rather than being laid out in the first episode too. Despite being based on toys, the comic told its stories in a mature fashion, treating us as readers with attention spans who’d stick with them. I appreciate it all the more now.
The first of two new stories is Castle of Doom , written and drawn by the same team as the previous Bomber Blues, James Nicholas and Don Wasejewski respectively. It takes Trackdown‘s previous position as the second strip. Trackdown always felt like the main story, even though I’d no idea just how long it would last. It felt like it had deliberately slower pacing to begin with, like it was building tension and settling in for a long run. So when Castle of Doom took its place it instantly felt like an important story. I wasn’t wrong.
Set in 1789 it sets up a fascinating plot involving my two favourite characters. Wraither (from the cover) in his P51 Mustang ‘Galloping Ghoul’ appears in the skies over a hauntingly atmospheric castle proclaiming to be a sky demon. The owner of the castle is already a disciple of this winged deity, but the local mayor sees him as a threat. After Wraither fires upon him, pushing him over the edge of the castle turrets he turns on his hypnotising mind control ray over the assembled masses, instructing them that on this exact night two hundred years hence their descendants must rise up and assassinate every single person in the castle.
Returning to the skies he and his Vulture Wing prepare to exit through time again. Wraither and his dark, faceless persona is the perfect Skull Squadron leader for this mysterious tale and I was just as excited to see the Raider sent to investigate would be none other than Wing Commander Yasuo Yakamura in his cool X-29 ‘Samurai Flyer’ jet. These were my first two toy planes and perhaps as a result of them being bundled together in one of the Starter Packs they seemed destined to be mortal enemies in the comic.
Skull Squadron targeting this particular castle in this particular time zone for just a few moments has the Ring Raiders completely confused. Yasuo is on standby and in his X-29 can get there quicker than anyone. I can still remember the palpable excitement of this first instalment as a kid thanks to the characters involved, but also because James sets up a genuinely interesting mystery here.
As Yasuo stalks the skies above Vulture Wing we see his inner thoughts trying to work out what’s going on. Even when he engages the enemy he remains a man of few words, thinking his retorts to Wraither instead of shouting them out over the radio like the other pilots. The cliffhanger has the mayor hanging on to a tree sticking out from the cliff face and Yasuo having to leave himself wide open to attack in order to save him. With my favourite planes locked in combat and an intriguing set up in play it was an agonising wait to see what would happen next. (If we even got to find out!)
The character flashback story this time centres around Wing Commander ‘Never’ Evers, in the appropriately titled Never Say Evers Again, written by Scott Goodall with John Gillatt back on drawing duties. This is the first we’ve really seen the character other than crowd scenes and I never owned his toys, both of which are real shames because he’s a fun character with an interesting past. Enrolled as an officer cadet in NATO‘s flying school he was cocky and lazy in equal measure. Caught skiving off sick from a routine training mission, his instructor puts him under open arrest.
Now, Evers loves his rock and rock and especially playing it so loud he annoys everyone around him. His imprisonment takes place at the far end of the base in unoccupied accommodation which just happens to be beside the records department for NATO. In the end we find out the arrest was deliberate, his instructor is working for Skull Squadron, and when Evers’ hifi speakers blow a fuse and silence engulfs the area he hears a noise and discovers the theft of computer records in process. His instructor was using Evers’ relocation and his loud music to cover his tracks you see.
Having a double-cross like this is similar to last time but Evers is such an enjoyable character I didn’t care, especially when it led to this final sequence. My only complaint is that there isn’t more of this particular aerial battle. The brief bit of action we’re given is fab and a great climax to a character study strip, but how I wish it was longer. Another aircraft that wasn’t part of the Ring Raiders toy line too, which was always a nice addition to the comic and heightened my interest in finding out more about them as a kid.
He’s on the cover, he’s the star of a brand new strip and now Wraither is also in charge of the letters page. None of the contributions mention him and he isn’t happy about it as you’ll see. This is one of the things I loved about our comics this side of the pond, how the characters would interact with us in often cheeky, sarcastic ways. I never sent anything in myself. It had become a bit of a habit by this stage but Ring Raiders simply didn’t last long enough for me to get around to it. This would be the last we’d see of the readers too, as the special the following year wouldn’t contain any more of these pages.
Part six of writer Angus Allan and artist John Cooper‘s Trackdown is our penultimate strip. Wing Commander Thundercloud is right on the tail of Skull Leader Blackjack, but can’t do anything except follow for fear of setting off the Doomsday Device if he opens fire. All the Skull pilot has to do is wait it out until he’s home free, but suddenly he dives and stands his Harrier jet on its nose! It’s a shocking move but in the end it shows how tactical and sadistic Blackjack can be.
Established in both the toy line and the comic, Blackjack can remotely control his Harrier. In this day and age of drone warfare and those silly driverless cars it’s easy to forget things like this and K.I.T.T. in Knight Rider were science fiction, and exciting sci-fi at that. So he ejects after aiming at a biplane far below, expertly manoeuvring himself so he lands on its tail. I love how this is depicted in the art, especially the angle from above the ejection.
The maniac tosses out the pilot of the biplane and takes his young son hostage, although he does tell him his dad had a parachute and will be safe, as will the boy if he just shuts up. He doesn’t intend to kill (although it’s meant to look like he could), just to use the kid as means of dropping his pursuing Ring Raider. Scorch himself radios through to the Air Carrier Justice, telling them Thundercloud has a choice; either follow the Doomsday Device to stop it reaching Skull Squadron, or rescue the boy.
“The future of the world against one boy’s fate? No contest!”Joe Thundercloud
It’s a brilliant twist that I’d completely forgotten about, even though I reread these about five or so years ago. I remember the thrill of this particular chapter as a kid and it’s another key reason why this was my favourite issue; all the stories are firing on all cylinders, the comic had really come into its own, it was confident in its characters and the universe within which it was playing.
In the end Thundercloud radios in that he’s going after the device, that one boy’s life can’t compare to the whole world. The Ring Raiders listening in are horrified but Ring Commander Vector is defiant, he says he knows Thundercloud isn’t going to abandon the boy. So what’s he doing? Vector asks the professor what would happen if they beamed the device up but can’t get an answer. It seems everything is in Thundercloud’s hands. It’s an impossible situation he’s in as the Harrier and the biplane set off in different directions.
The cliffhanger gives us no possible clues as to the outcome. Can you imagine my reaction to this knowing there wouldn’t be another issue in a fortnight? Only with hindsight am I able to say reading the Special (with another five chapters of Trackdown to read all at once) was incredibly exciting, and that if the comic had continued #7 would’ve contained the single most exciting piece of strip action I’d ever come across up to that point. That’s not just hyperbole, as you’ll see next time.
I’ll leave my final thoughts on the whole story until then but suffice to say Angus and John created something truly special for me with this. It’s a story that has stayed with me all these years, certain scenes tucked away in my memory refusing to leave because they had such an impact on me, they were that amazing to this Ring Raiders fan. The eleven chapters made this the comic’s first true epic at 44 pages in total.
This issue saw the first time new serials joined the fray, sitting alongside continuing stories. Others would end in what would’ve been #7. I was looking forward to seeing explosive finales and new beginnings, since each story could be so completely different than what came before. Each issue would’ve brought that sense of anticipation, never knowing when one would end or a new one begin. With this issue it felt like the beginning of the next stage of the comic’s life.
As I mentioned above the ‘Next Issue’ boxes were still present at the end of each strip but blanked out, although adding to the frustration was the ability in some cases to just about make out what they said. On the letters page Wraither talked about the next issue in a fortnight’s time and the comic was still asking for contributions. All of this just made the Special Announcement (in the space usually reserved for the Next Issue box) all the more shocking.
At the time I refused to believe it was due to bad sales with the way the first sentence was worded. It just didn’t make sense to me. The comic was too good for this to happen to it! The toys were on sale for Christmas, they were ace, how could it stop before all those new owners jumped on board? All of these thoughts went round and round in my twelve-year-old head.
Speaking with Barrie recently he told me the issue was already at the printers when news came down that the plug was being pulled. Needing to get an announcement into the issue but with no time to typeset anything he instead wrote the panel on his typewriter. It feels a bit like some wartime correspondence and very fitting for the comic. It’s just a shame about the news it carried.
As Barrie says in his book Comic Book Hero, the industry was struggling as a whole at this time, many titles were failing no matter how good they were. Television and videogames were stiff competition and publishers seemed to be releasing licenced comics based on every new toy or cartoon product in a bid to try to reverse the trend. For a market already facing decline it was now also spreading itself too thin. Inevitably not many new comics survived.
I cut out the Ring Raiders Club coupon that had been in the comic since #3, thinking if the comic was ending at least I could join this. I never heard back. I asked Barrie if he knew anything about it but as far as he’s concerned this was run by Matchbox so unfortunately I’ve no information about it at this time. But let’s enjoy the rest of this fantastic final issue, shall we?
As I’ve mentioned several times during this series it was amazing to see these tiny toy planes brought to life, as it were. Now writer James Nicholas was going to be treating us to aerial photography and details of the real world aircraft every fortnight. At least, that was the plan but we ended up with just two parts in this and the Ring Raiders Special. But at least I did get to see a favourite character’s aircraft in this fact-file.
So our final strip is also a new story and while he may not appear in this part it’s clear from the icy cliffhanger and the name of the story, Operation Chill, who our big bad was going to be and I have no complaints whatsoever given how ruthless he’s been in previous stories. Living in Belfast now as an adult the not-so-subtle references which were lost on me as a kid are plain to see. On an unspecified modern day date a cruise liner of the Black Star line is travelling from Liverpool to New York when all radio contact is lost before the ship crashes through the docks.
Making clear references to the Titanic, writer Barrie Tomlinson and artist Carlos Pino return in what would turn out to be a fantastic story. It would be the mission that would introduce the Skull Squadron’s mobile HQ to the Ring Raiders, originally in a future fortnightly issue just in time for children like me to ask Santa Claus for it, potentially even the Christmas edition itself.
Yes, the base has featured in previous stories but remember this was a time travelling comic and it can tell its stories in any order it wished. We could see a character in action and then later down the line read about their recruitment, piecing together the timelines ourselves. The complex nature of the overall arcs could’ve made for excellent reading further down the line.
With all of the schoolboys and crew missing Bravery Wing and their commander Max Miles get their first comic mission and come under heavy fire when checking out the location of where the ship last checked in. But below there’s only ice and open waters. Where is the attack coming from? The big reveal was another part of the Special worth waiting for if memory serves.
Much in the same way as #6 of OiNK, this issue of Ring Raiders felt like all of the pieces had fallen into perfect alignment, making the cancellation all the more heartbreaking. Would it have had better sales earlier in its run and been given a longer chance if released just after Christmas? Probably not, because as much as I didn’t want to admit it at the time the toys just weren’t the success they deserved to be. But that didn’t put me off. The following year I continued collecting planes and accessories, stopping just short of the second series’ release. Perhaps they’d been successful just enough for the next series or maybe they’d already been produced. Either way, all merchandise including the comic and cartoon had been canned.
Not long after Ring Raiders disappeared a new partwork was published called Airplane and I bought the first dozen or so issues. If I couldn’t buy the comic anymore maybe I’d find out all about the aircraft to go with my toys. The first issues were all military craft which had coincidentally featured in the Ring Raiders range but it wasn’t long until it was focussing solely on commercial airlines and I became bored and cancelled it. Hey, I was 12 years old!
I’ve already mentioned the Ring Raiders Special and this came out in February 1990 so watch out for it on the blog a few months from now. Barrie wasn’t sure if it would see publication when he wrote the announcement, given how quickly it had to be written up. But he and his team did produce it in the end and all of the stories from this issue got the remainder of their full runs printed in one big issue.
That won’t be all you’ll read on the blog next year about this fantastic comic or the toys that inspired it. For now, make sure you check out the two remaining comics still being read in real time that make up the Barrie Tomlinson trilogy this winter. Wildcat and Super Naturals continue and are both excellent titles.
So long Ring Raiders, you will be greatly missed but all these decades later you remain a very favourite comic. I hope that shows how much of an impact your six issues made to this reader anyway.