When I launched the blog I was nervous about doing my favourite comic (OiNK) justice. The same applies to this one. Ring Raiders remains my other very favourite comic from childhood, fondly remembered and frequently reread. Some might look at it and only see a short-lived comic based on a short-lived toy line and dismiss it, but over the next few months I hope to show you it deserves to be remembered.
It began for me with this gorgeous cover by Ian Kennedy (Dan Dare, Eagle, Commando). I have very clear memories of discovering it in the newsagents, in awe of how my toy planes had been depicted. I went into this in more detail in the introductory post to this series, where you can also see which plane I got free (it’s the orange one that takes a starring role in the TV advert). I can remember spending a while sitting on the shop floor with all the issues in front of me, deciding which one I’d buy based on the planes. Happy memories.
At 24 pages it was a little thinner than other Fleetway comics but it was all gloss instead of the usual matt paper and contained a lot more colour. I remember the pages felt huge in my hands too. Each issue contained five strips; two colour three-page serials, two black and white four-page serials and a complete five-page colour strip in the middle, then a letters page, pin-ups and adverts for the toys and Next Issue promo. It felt jam-packed. So let’s take a look at each of the stories in turn.
Shock Attack is a quick one-off introduction to the comic written by editor Barrie Tomlinson and drawn by Carlos Pino (Johnny Red, War Picture Library, TV Century 21) and that first panel in the first story of the first issue is really rather good. The story is a quick fix of action which followed on from the preview comic and had the Wing Commanders battling each other again rather than with their designated teams.
Set in the then future of 1998 the Skull Squadron leaders are attacking a Euroforce base but the Ring Raiders swoop in to save the day and the Skulls retreat through time to the age of the dinosaurs. Followed by the Raiders and terrified of having to bail out in this time zone after two of them are hit, they flee.
If the comic had continued this could’ve set up a brilliant way of killing off (kind of) older characters while also keeping things open for a possible return. As you’ll see over these real time reviews plenty of characterisation is given to these pilots away from their planes, so having one trying to fend for themselves out of their time could’ve made for an interesting story on its own later on.
Throughout all this, back in ’98 TV camera crews fill in their viewers (and the readers) on a brief history of the opposing sides. Skull Squadron were formed in the mid 90s and see themselves as a potential new world power, which they try to achieve by manipulating history to their advantage. The governments of the world formed the Ring Raiders and, upon learning of the enemy’s ability to time travel built the Air Carrier Justice, a massive flying base which also traveled in time and recruited the very best pilots from the past, present and future.
This was the main selling point of Ring Raiders, the whole point of this set up and it’s truly epic in scale. It was a nice story idea for the toys and acted as a way to inspire collection of every type of plane. For a comic, I distinctly remember its scope really exciting us.
The second strip is the first serial and would be the longest in the whole series at eleven episodes and 44 pages in length. Professor Martin has accidentally created a chain reaction capsule, a Doomsday Device which is being launched into the safety of space when Skull Squadron blow up Cape Canaveral in 1990. With the device now grounded permanently at the prof’s cabin Blackjack‘s Havoc Wing is dispatch to steal it. Aboard the Justice, Ring Commander Victor Vector (that’s him on the cover with Skull Leader Scorch) sends Joe Thundercloud‘s Rescue Wing in pursuit.
Apart from the tiny little fold out comics that came with the toys, up to this point all we really saw of the pilots behind the planes was the one pose each Wing’s leader had on their packaging. When I read part one of Trackdown for the first time it was such a thrill to see these guys come to life. More than that though, the comic starts to create its own characters for the unnamed pilots who flew the other three planes in each four-plane toy pack.
In fact by the time this chapter ends the main characters are both original comic creations by the name of Freddy Riley of the Raiders and Runtz, one of Blackjack’s wingmen. I certainly didn’t expect one of the hero planes to be shot down in the first issue. It’s a spectacular crash and a really exciting opening chapter for the comic as a whole.
Trackdown is written by Angus Allan (TV-21, Look-In) and brought to life by John Cooper (Battle, Scream, Judge Dredd). As a child it felt like the battle and the crash of Riley’s plane had real world weight to them. This was in stark contrast to the cartoon. I’m reminded of how the G.I. Joe comics of the 80s would feature bullets and characters would often end up injured or worse, but in the cartoon every gun (no matter which model) fired lasers and no one was ever hit. The Ring Raiders cartoon was the same, so to see the toys being treated more seriously here made me an instant fan of this over the animated series.
Across the page from that cliffhanger is the first of the complete tales and when seen side-by-side the good guys seem to be having an off day, this story beginning with another rough landing. Yasuo Yakamura was the first character to get a background story and I couldn’t have been happier because, as I’ve detailed previously, his X-29 came in the Starter Pack that began my collection and would remain my favourite, his Wing also being the first that I bought.
I was surprised the leaders weren’t the first to get this treatment but perhaps Yakamura was a fan favourite, or perhaps the fact his past would actually be set in our future, allowing them to have a full blown sci-fi strip for the premiere issue helped with their decision (complete with lovely retro 80s futurism). Over the course of the comic’s life these complete tales would switch from sci-fi to war drama to horror and everything in between.
Yasuo was known for embracing computers, his aircraft kitted out with the latest tech only he could control. Written by Scott Goodall (The Phantom, Commando, Scream) and drawn by John Gillatt (Tiger, Eagle, Wildcat) the story focusses on why he defended the robotic landing system even though it nearly cost him his life. Initially distrustful of automated technology, during a war with an alien race called the Draxion in their Bushido Bats he was forced to take a small robotic co-pilot after losing his partner.
Yasuo seeks revenge but the robot chastises him for putting that above the mission and Yasuo loses his temper, resulting in loss of concentration and they’re shot down. Left for dead by his human comrades he watches as the robot builds him a glider, only to stay behind and fend off the enemy alone, inevitably being blown apart. The story touches on how this set Yakamura on a path to studying robotics and computers and how he became the logical and cool headed pilot Vector would eventually recruit and bring back to our present day.
The serials would develop the characters further over time but these complete stories were the perfect way to delve into a particular aspect of their personality, helping to build layers across the various stories and issues.
No comic of the 80s would’ve been complete without a letters page answered by a fictional character who could be as cheeky or irreverent to the readers as they dared. Barrie’s titles never disappointed. In his book Comic Book Hero he explains how he loved creating various ways for readers to interact with his comics. For this comic he chose to have a different character in charge every issue, switching between the Raiders and the Skulls every fortnight. Instead of letters, issue one had this introductory spread with images taken from the toy packaging.
Barrie was editing freelance from home under the name Creative Editorial Services and had brought in Terry Magee (Commando, Battle, Cor!!) to assist with editorials. Together they thought up some ingenious ways for readers to have their say. There were chances to apply to be a member of either side, or to design a new plane for the good guys or a super weapon for the bad, or they could draw a battle scene with their choice of victor or even write a short story. A very short story. There was a 150 word limit, or 155 words for the Skull Squadron who boasted, “That’s five more words than Ring Raiders allow!”
After a two-colour pin-up and the obligatory Next Issue/newsagent coupon page (boasting of the free posters to come in #2 and #3) we move on to the next two stories.
Barrie’s son James Tomlinson (Eagle, Super Naturals, Scream) went by the name ‘James Nicholas’ at the time and is an aviation enthusiast to this day. This is clear in the strip he wrote, Bomber Blues. We’re not sure what began the fight between Wing Commander Cub Jones and Skull Leader Hubbub but it doesn’t matter. Appearing in the skies above the English Channel during World War II, this was just about as perfect an introduction to the whole concept as you could wish for.
In contrast to the other strips this one takes place entirely in the air and sees a B-17 Flying Fortress Bomber become accidentally caught up in the battle between the futuristic craft. Really, what is there not to love about this? We even see one of the Rebel Wing pilots parachute out, becoming lost in the past just as I theorised above. The action is intense and culminates in one of Cub’s wingmen colliding with the bomber. Damaged but now with a clear sense of sides, the bomber crew come to the rescue of the Ring Raiders. All of this great, original action is brought to detailed life by Don Wazejewski (Battle, Mask). Beautiful stuff.
Fans of the toys who had purchased Cub Jones’ Hero Wing or anyone who had closely read the introductory spread above will have worked out this was set in the same year that Cub was originally beamed aboard the Justice. There’s no direct reference made to this in the story but it’s no coincidence and Cub’s affection for the bomber crew is made abundantly clear in the final panels when he gives them a ring through which they can summon him.
The only slight disappointment is the way the leaders call their wingmen by their identification numbers instead of actual names, which feels a little off after Trackdown went to the trouble of creating new characters. But it’s only a minor quibble.
“Let’s give them a hand! All gunners open fire!”World War II F-17 Bomber crew rescuing the Ring Raiders
Apart from characters holding their ringed hand aloft as they head to battle this is the first time we see a ring properly mentioned. One of the many uses they had was as a communicator that could cross the globe and periods of time. When the comic was released I knew from the toys some of the other things the rings could do in the story but I like the fact the comic introduces these slowly one at a time. The same goes with the various characters and Wings.
As a result, nothing feels forced, nothing feels like it’s exposition and in that regard the series has a surprisingly mature way of layering in all the information needed to introduce this new world. As you’ll see across these six issues (which would’ve all been regarded as early issues if it had lasted, so kudos to Barrie and his team for hitting the ground running) the layers are added upon slowly, each new issue bringing new character, story and background developments. It’s a far cry from something like the early issues of Transformers five years prior which bombarded readers with everything they needed to know all at once, which felt very forced.
The final story is Freedom Flight, written by another long-time collaborator of Barrie’s, Tom Tully (Johnny Red, Bad Company, Dan Dare). Sandy James‘ art style will also be familiar to anyone raised on IPC or Fleetway licenced comics such as Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles Adventures or Mask. His colouring in particular is just magnificently bold.
Here the main characters are Commander Yuri Kirkov and his Freedom Wing, who go up against Skull Leader Mako‘s Vicious Wing. The former was an instant favourite among fans given how the final years of the Cold War were still playing out and Kirkov was a Soviet Air Force major who had defected to America before Vietnam. Mako’s MIG-29 was a personal favourite toy with its shark motif and the fact the info on his toy packet stated there were “rumours” it could operate underwater.
History books tell of a South American government fort which easily defeated ruthless rebels in 1966, however the intervention of Skull Squadron is starting to change history, potentially destabilising the future of the country. Kirkov discovers the tide of battle is about to change forever when Mako’s missile hits the fort. The situation is dire. While it’s only three pages a lot happens, with these gloriously dynamic final panels providing not only a superb cliffhanger but the perfect end to the entire issue.
These panels take up about a third of the back cover and it’s a gorgeous display to end the issue on. The action, the distant fire, the detailed face of Kirkov compared to the basic toy design, as well as the interesting plane angles all beg for more.
Barrie explains in his book how he found the fortnightly schedule of Wildcat interesting and wanted longer stories in its 32 pages to hold readers’ attentions for the two weeks, compared to the three-page tales of Eagle. As a result each of its stories were five or six pages in length. Ring Raiders was also fortnightly but had 24 pages to fit in just as many stories. But there was so much packed into each one that we never felt short-changed by any of them.
I was also collecting the weekly Transformers which contained three stories of roughly five pages each. Ring Raiders felt like a much meatier read and after this first issue I was an instant fan. I had already known I would be though and the regular order had been placed when I purchased the issue. I hope you’ll join me on a regular basis too and return on Thursday 30th September for #2 of a bloody brilliant comic.