Do you remember these Matchbox toys? Created in partnership with Those Characters From Cleveland (Care Bears, My Pet Monster, Popples) it felt like there wasn’t a single ad break without that catchy metal music in the latter half of 1989. Synonymous with miniature toy cars, Matchbox released Ring Raiders, an assortment of high quality, colourful planes of various types and configurations and presented each on a small ring perfect for my eleven-year-old hands. This meant they could be flown in formation around every room in the house, complete with annoying (for my parents) sound effects from my Battle Blaster joystick.
In the summer of 1989 I was captivated by the idea. I started off with a special Ring Raiders Starter Pack, a cheaper set of two planes (normally they came in sets of four) so kids could try them out and hopefully get sucked into collecting them all. Mine contained one from each side of the battle, the Ring Raiders themselves and their enemies the Skull Squadron. I can remember playing with them all the time, even setting them up on their rings next to my bedside lamp so they’d be the first things I’d see in the mornings.
With each pack came a mini-comic and the pilots behind these two planes soon became my favourite characters, something which continued into the pages of the comic.
The background story concerned the formation of Skull Squadron ten years into the then future, a band of extremely talented fighter pilots who could travel through time in their bid for world domination. Their aim was to manipulate events throughout history to change the world order to suit themselves. Formed to stop these terrorists were the heroic Ring Raiders, who created a massive time-travelling flying fortress which they’d use to recruit the best and bravest pilots from the past, present and future.
This was a neat set up to allow for the fact the toy aircraft could be based on classic World War II fighter planes, modern day jets or even some brand new prototypes, all fighting it out side-by-side. By Christmas 1989 the sets were being accompanied by large bases, those sound effect joysticks, audio adventures, medal and plane sets, a display stand and even a couple of videos of the cartoon episodes produced as a series of pilots (no pun intended) in the US.
I was a collector straight away and over the months my assortment of planes grew. Any visiting family members from the mainland knew what to bring with them, Santa stocked up for that Christmas and loved ones were secretly discussing which sets I had and which ones were already purchased as presents.
In the end I had numerous wings (the name given to each set of four planes, each with one named pilot, the Wing Commander) alongside three of the four bases, many medals, bigger bomber planes, the display stand, a Battle Blaster and one of the audio cassette adventures and a couple of VHS videos, one of which came bundled with limited edition planes. (The cartoon wasn’t great, except for one particular episode I remember having my mum and I gripped!) I can honestly say no other toy line excited me as much as Ring Raiders and every new plane acquired was an event.
Like more and more toy lines, Ring Raiders was created as a kind of ready-made franchise, with merchandise appearing right alongside the first series of planes. There was a big push by the creators to market The Next Big Thing to as many companies as possible, including Fleetway Publications. Editor of the Ring Raiders comic Barrie Tomlinson and writer James Nicholas sent me a wonderful licensee folder full of information on the characters, planes and possible merchandise, which I’ll show you at a later date.
The advertisement above is from an industry trade magazine from some time before the toys were launched, promoting the franchise to potential partners who’d like to jump on early. If they’d taken off (again, no pun intended) as they’d hoped I’d guess my own bedroom would have looked a little similar back then.
Plenty of companies saw the early potential and produced everything from lunch boxes and books, to Revel model kits and even Hallowe’en costumes, all of which were released in time to cash in on the Christmas rush.
They may have initially launched in the US and that was where the bulk of these items were available, but it was over on this side of the pond that collectors were treated to their very own comic, and what a comic it was. In fact, OiNK aside it remains my favourite childhood comic to this day. This is no small feat considering it only lasted for six regular issues and one special to wrap the stories up.
So back in September 1989 I’d just started grammar school and everything was new and different in life. I dandered into my local newsagent on the way home one day to pick up my reserved comics and to have a scan of the shelves like I always did. I was so excited when I spotted a brand new comic dedicated to the toy range I’d just started collecting a couple of months previous! Not only that, the cover was a spectacular Ian Kennedy creation and it came complete with an actual official toy plane! I placed a regular order before I even left the shop.
To see these teeny tiny planes painted up as full-scale fighting machines battling across the skies like this was a thrill. They looked so awesome! I ran home and devoured the stories over and over again for the whole fortnight. It was brilliant! On top of this was the feeling of jumping in right at the start of what I thought would be the next big craze and at the very beginning of what would surely be an epic new comic. I’d joined the readership of Transformers years after my friends had but this felt like it was all mine.
Unlike Transformers with its main strip and smaller back up for the majority of its run, Ring Raiders had no less than five stories in every issue; four serials and an ongoing anthology. Even in that first issue I remember the characters felt developed and the stories huge in scope. I was also excited to see they were all going to be multipart tales, unlike the tiny stories I’d been initially disappointed with in The Real Ghostbusters.
As a kid it was so cool to see, even with that very first issue, these brilliant characters and such dramatic, dynamic action come out of these Matchbox planes, and as the comic continued it was always extra exciting when one of the stories featured a pilot whose plane you actually owned.
I also loved how the rings themselves were integrated into this new world. While the cartoon also did something with them (so it must’ve been part of the franchise’s story to tie in the rings) in the comic they were even more important. Initially just a way of playing with or displaying the toy planes, they were woven into the very fabric of the stories and characters, which you’ll find out about just as I did, as we make our way through the issues.
No credits were printed in the comic but in recent years I’ve been able to find out who worked on Ring Raiders and the team assembled was second to none. Then again, in charge was legendary IPC/Fleetway editor Barrie Tomlinson, whose comics always had the best talent. Roy of the Rovers, Eagle, Speed, Tiger and Scream are just some he was responsible for, so my new favourite comic was in great hands.
Barrie would write some of the stories himself, joined by a writing team including his son James Tomlinson (who went by James Nicholas), Angus Allan, Scott Goodall and Tom Tully. On the artist front we had Ian Kennedy providing more gorgeous covers (aviation art being a favourite of his, Barrie said Ian was disappointed when Ring Raiders was cancelled) and inside we’d be treated to the work of Sandy James, Carlos Pino, John Cooper, John Gillatt, Don Wazejewski and Geoff Campion. Editing Ring Raiders freelance from home under his Creative Editorial Services Barrie also brought in Terry Magee to assist with editorials.
If it sounds like I’m excited to take off with this comic again (okay, that one was intended) then you’d be right. But it’s only one part of a very special winter on the OiNK Blog. Over the next several months, alongside the (at the time of writing) ongoing real time read throughs of OiNK and Jurassic Park will be The Barrie Tomlinson Trilogy, as I am now officially calling it.
Ring Raiders, Wildcat and Super Naturals. Only in recent years have I found out three comics from my youth were all edited by the same person. They may be very different titles but take a closer look and you’ll see similarities in how they were put together, read them and you’ll get the same high level of quality in their storylines and characters, look at the superb artwork in each and you’ll be equally wowed.
It all kicks off with the Ring Raiders Free Mini-Comic given away in Barrie’s own Eagle comic. Containing a full-colour strip drawn by Ian Kennedy, a closer look will be on the blog tomorrow (Thursday 9th September 2021), 32 years to the day the news of this brand new and exciting comic was broken. Issue one will then be reviewed just one week later before going fortnightly for its run. Discovering the first issue on the shelves I never knew of the preview at the time, only picking it up a few years ago to complete my collection.
Since those childhood days most of my comics were binned by my parents when I moved out of home in my early 20s. Even my OiNKs weren’t safe. Only first issues and a select few hand-picked editions or books survived those culls, but the one exception was Ring Raiders. Apart from accidentally losing one issue (#4) I chose to keep them all. The issues in these reviews are the originals I bought back in 1989.