Firstly, I should say I do not like football. I sometimes go see our local ice hockey team here in Belfast and every four years I become obsessed with the Summer Olympics, but aside from those I’m not what anyone would call a fan of sport. (Unless it’s Nintendo’s.) It’s important to state this before writing about this book because you’ll see there are a lot of sporting references within it which might put you off if you don’t like sport. But trust me, it shouldn’t.
Lion, Tiger, Roy of the Rovers, Top Soccer, 2000AD, Battle, Speed, The New Eagle, Scream, Mask, Super Naturals, Wildcat, Hot-Shot, Ring Raiders, Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles Adventures, Toxic Crusaders, The Big Daddy Annuals, The Geoff Boycott Annual, The Suzie Dando Annual, Johnny Cougar’s Wrestling Monthly, Scorer, one-off specials, magazines, World Cup poster magazines, sports quiz books, greetings cards, Ladybird books… this is a career which could take up several volumes.
Barrie Tomlinson is a giant in the world of British comics. Readers of the blog will be familiar with the name already due to coverage of three of his titles, namely Ring Raiders, Wildcat and Super Naturals. I remember some friends being obsessed with his Mask comic and later we all collected the Turtles together. These were only the tip of the iceberg of comics Barrie created and edited and this hardback book sees him take us on a very personal trip down memory lane.
Reading Comic Book Hero is like having Barrie sitting next to you, having a casual chat, reminiscing about his creations, his colleagues and friends, the personalities he met and all the fun he had along the way. The structure of the book adds to this cosiness, with no chapters as such, just the occasional comic name as a title here and there, which lends a personal diary feel to the proceedings. It’s a unique way of writing a book and it’s the perfect choice for Barrie’s particular style of storytelling.
And what a story he has to tell.
Barrie’s work with Fleetway Publications began in 1961 and this book covers everything he worked on right up to 2011 and his retirement. A large portion of the book is taken up with Tiger, the sports focussed action comic, but not before we’ve had some fascinating insights into how the comics of the day were edited thanks to Barrie learning from the likes of Bernard Smith. Even in times of high work volumes and obvious stress, Barrie is completely respectful and understanding of those he worked for and it’s refreshing to read a book which doesn’t relish in exposing or bitching in order to sell.
I found it fascinating to read how loved and respected Tiger was in the world of sport, with big stars contributing to Barrie’s comics as regular writers, in exclusive photos, meeting competition winners and appearing at the Tiger Awards events. The photos of these gatherings in particular are fantastic and it’s amazing to think of how all these celebrities, including personal favourites Morecambe and Wise came together in such a way for a children’s comic.
It’s sad to read how some of his contemporaries accused Barrie of only wanting to further himself by involving big stars, but as he explains it was all for the comics. It worked a treat too! Comics like Tiger and Roy of the Rovers enjoyed long lives and huge circulation figures and the exposure these guest stars brought certainly wasn’t to be sniffed at. But the book isn’t all about the glitz and the glamour (although a story about a naked radio interview has to be read to be believed), there’s plenty of insider comics information.
For particular interest to me were Barrie’s personal thoughts about Ring Raiders‘ short lifespan, taking the helm of the Turtles juggernaut in the UK and some wonderful insider knowledge on the creation of Wildcat. This takes the form of some Ian Kennedy sketches and the original synopsis for the script of the preview comic. What really surprised me was how much the creation of the sports comics interested me and I found it particularly fascinating to learn about Storm Force.
I’d seen adverts for its Battle comic debut in the pages of other Fleetway publications such as the piggy pink one this blog was named after. I knew it was a big deal to the publishers at the time but didn’t know why until reading this book. The contract to create Action Force comics had come to an end, with Hasbro taking over the toy line to relaunch it as the British version of G.I. Joe, the comics licence moving to Marvel. In response, Storm Force was created to fill that void. In Comic Book Hero we see some lovely design sketches and get plenty of insights into how it came about. I also agree with Barrie when he states the characters would’ve made good toys themselves.
This book covers a lot of comics from the 70s and early 80s, before the likes of OiNK came along, but even if you are of the same vintage as me I can promise you’ll find this an interesting and hugely entertaining read. I didn’t discover the joy of reading comics for myself until #14 of OiNK towards the end of 1986 so I want to categorically state that if you collected any comics from IPC or Fleetway in your youth you’ll love this. For one, I can almost guarantee you Barrie had a hand in what you read and even if you didn’t collect many of his titles you’ll love the insights into one of the biggest UK comics publishers, including the creation of the new Eagle and Scream!
It doesn’t stop there. Comic Book Hero covers the formation of Creative Editorial Services when Barrie and his team worked freelance at home creating comics for Fleetway. To know favourites of mine such as Ring Raiders were created in the comfort of his own home makes me insanely jealous of Barrie’s job at that time! Also in here are the later publications Barrie created when he moved on from weekly and fortnightly comics, right up to the final episode of Scorer in the Daily Mirror in 2011 after it ran for an incredible 22 years. That in itself is a huge achievement. Indeed, the last section of the book is simply called ‘What A Life!’ and I couldn’t agree more.
From chatting with Barrie about the comics he worked on I can honestly say he’s an absolute gent. He’s always really open about his work and puts the fans first even to this day. This attitude and his friendly demeanour and devotion to the craft comes across on every page of this wonderful, personal book. For any UK comics fan Comic Book Hero is an essential read and since you’re reading this blog I’m going to assume it’s a safe bet you’ll love it too.
I was only one of countless people who grew up on the amazing comics of editor Barrie Tomlinson. Whether you were a football fan and followed Roy of the Rovers, engrossed in science fiction and fantasy and had a regular order for Eagle, or caught up in all the early 90s hype and rushed to the newsagents every fortnight for the next Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles Adventures. These were just three of a huge catalogue of comics Barrie brought to life.
Personally, it was three of Barrie’s shorter-lived titles that hooked me and you can read all about Ring Raiders, Super Naturals and Wildcat on the blog, their respective real time read throughs already completed. I’ve previously asked Barrie questions about Ring Raiders and now he’s kindly agreed to chat with me about the latter of those three terrific comics, the post-apocalyptic Wildcat, the whole premise of which Barrie created.
The very last issue of OiNK contained the free preview issue of Wildcat, like a passing of the baton for me, and I was hooked right away. It’s the year 2492 and Earth has been destroyed. Thankfully, the foresight of Turbo Jones meant several hundred humans were able to escape in search of a new home aboard the massive Wildcat spacecraft. After a long search a planet capable of supporting human life (and the comic’s stories) was found and we followed different teams as they explored the surface, as well as keeping up to date on the happenings back on the surprisingly dangerous living quarters of the ship.
The comic still feels fresh and original today. Barrie’s story is set up to allow five completely different stories every issue while also progressing an overall story arc. I was gutted when it all came to a premature end with #12 and merged into the pages of Barrie’s Eagle. It certainly wasn’t due to a lack of editorial quality, it just unfortunately never found its audience. But I’ve really enjoyed reliving it and to celebrate finally reading the Winter Special for the first time, let’s welcome Barrie back to the blog.
OiNK Blog: Hi Barrie, how did Wildcat first come about? It was marketed as a “younger person’s 2000AD”, but was this the intention? What were the reasons behind the creation of this very different comic?
Barrie Tomlinson: The management asked me to produce a science fiction comic for a younger group than 2000AD. I went away and thought about it and decided to have one storyline running through the whole comic. I thought it would make it a bit different.
OB: Can you tell us anything about the character choices? Wildcat showed true diversity which wasn’t as regular a sight back then as it should’ve been. Were they permanent characters or interchangeable as time went on?
BT: I thought up the characters and wanted to reflect what was happening at the time, which is why I created a black hero and a female warrior. Girls had not been featured very much in boys’ comics so I decided it was time that they were! The characters were intended to be permanent ones.
OB: Is it true Loner was created specifically with David Pugh in mind as the artist? Also, is it true he’s said Loner was his favourite character he’s ever worked on? I hope that’s true!
Barrie: I really wanted David Pugh to be one of the artists and the Loner strip seemed just right for his talents. I hope Loner was his favourite character. He did fabulous artwork on that story and on Dan Dare in Eagle. (David has confirmed Loner is his favourite character and spoke about drawing the strip in the introduction to the Wildcat: Loner graphic novel from Rebellion – Phil)
OB: Did you have an idea of how the story would pan out in the long term? Were they to settle on that planet, keep finding new places to explore on it, or even fly off to discover a new planet every-so-often?
BT: The plan was they would fly off to other planets and there would be a long search for the right one.
OB: Can you give us any insight into who was in the writing team behind the comic and if you wrote any of the strips yourself?
BT: I wrote the script for the preview issue, to set up the storyline and the characters. For the regular comic my son James (under the name James Nicholas) wrote Kitten Magee. I wrote Loner. Joe Alien was by a new writer, David Robinson (Eagle, The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Army of Darkness/Xena) who later changed his name and has done a lot of writing since then. I’ve been searching but I can’t find anything [about the name change]. If I do I will let you know.
OB: Do you have any specific memories of your time on the comics covered on the blog you’d like to share with readers today? Anything at all you could tell us to give fans a little personal insight into what it was like to work on them?
BT: It was great fun working on both those titles (Wildcat and Ring Raiders). Wildcat particularly so, as it was all my idea, they were my characters and my storylines. It was very rewarding when the whole thing came together in a good first issue. I particularly enjoyed designing the free gift, which was a giant poster of The Alien Zoo of Targon-5. Each fortnight, readers could collect stickers which they would stick on the poster. The artwork was by the brilliant Ian Kennedy and featured not only the zoo but also the main characters Turbo Jones, Loner, Kitten Magee and Joe Alien.
It was an absolute delight to be able to ask these questions of Barrie. As always, he was a complete gentleman and very enthusiastic about his comics, which I found wonderful. I’d originally wondered if he would want to talk at all about two comics which ended only a few months after they began, but Barrie was completely open about how proud he was (and still is) of both Wildcat and Ring Raiders, the interview regarding the latter you can also read here.
With this review we tie up the Wildcat real time read through. Yes, there are two recent graphic novel collections and the merge with Eagle to round up, but for the original comic this marks the end and I can’t help but feel a bit sad about that. The WildcatWinter Special has a lot to live up to then, it’s been a long time coming after all. The comic finished in March and we’ve had nothing since the Holiday Special in May. So did it satiate the cravings for fans?
Earlier in the year Eagle announced there would be a Wildcat Holiday Special and an annual. While the latter never materialised I think it’s clear the content for it ended up in the Winter Special instead. (Just like the OiNK Winter Special in that regard.) Things kick off inside with a reprint of the preview issue’s cover and strip, a black and white reprint of a formerly gorgeously coloured Joe Alien pin up by Ron Smith which results in his eyes looking hauntingly dead, and then two whole pages are taken up with a ‘Spot the Difference’, which boils down to a page from Eagle (I presume, I’ve never seen it before) reprinted twice.
In fact we don’t get anything new until page 16! Not a reassuring start for a special which cost a little less than the thicker, hardback annuals but it does come on lovely glossy paper throughout and a nice, thick (even glossier) cover, hence the price. I suppose we could call it a premium special of sorts (like the Super Naturals Adventure Book from the previous year) and various titles in Fleetway’s range would get one of these over the next few years. It’s strange reading the preview strip again, before the character of Turbo Jones softened and developed in the fortnightly. Here he comes across as a bit of a nonce.
The gorgeous new Ian Kennedy cover portrays the first original strip inside which stars all of our team leaders, the first time this has happened since the preview issue in fact. The Games, drawn by John Gillatt (Jet-Ace Logan, Billy’s Boots, Ring Raiders), is a six pager that is annoyingly split into two-page chunks throughout the first half of the issue. It quite clearly wasn’t written to be read this way, meaning it keeps stopping mid flow. Still, it’s nice to see the whole team together and the first couple of pages do get the blood pumping.
Unfortunately it never really develops beyond this initial excitement. The idea of aliens forcing the humans into a death match against their will isn’t original even for Wildcat. In the Holiday Special Loner was already put through something similar in a quite brilliant prose story and later in this special the same thing happens to him again, so the fact he’s caught up in a similar plot for the third time is damned bad luck on his part.
Pitted against some suitably retro-attired warriors, each member of the Wildcat crew takes it in turn to see off their individual opponents by using the weapons or skills we’ve seen in the regular comic. This and the reprint of the origin story seem to be introducing new readers to Wildcat, which is grand if this were indeed a big, fat annual for an ongoing comic. But by this stage only Loner’s story still continued in the pages of Eagle, so it feels like a lot of this special it so far isn’t really aimed at established fans.
At least fans do get to see more of Loner’s bullets at last. We knew his modified antique six-shooter Babe has a variety of different futuristic bullets so it’s fun to see the boomerang one here. Of course, we could’ve seen more of these in the pages of Eagle but I haven’t read those stories yet. I’ll explain more about that at the end of the review. In between the tiny chunks of this story are other complete tales.
First up is Turbo Jones who by this point feels like a completely different character to that in the preview’s reprint, such was his character development. Off on another mission illustrated by Vanyo, set some time after his first adventure, he and Robo are plucked from the air and dragged underwater by a mad alien who forces them to help him. One thing that immediately stands out here is the amount of story crammed into the six pages it takes up. It’s like the exact opposite of The Games.
In fact, I’d go as far as to say every couple of pages here could’ve been made into a full chapter in the original comic without feeling too padded out. It does feel a bit rushed as a result but that’s probably only because I was so used to the slow build and ever increasing drama of the fortnightly serials. That’s not an issue unique to Wildcat. I remember when I used to buy 2000AD how I’d sometimes feel a bit underwhelmed by some of the strips in the annuals or specials because I was so used to epic storytelling.
So Turbo and Robo have been captured to help this crazed alien with his insane plan to destroy the off-world mine where the materials to make the planet’s currency comes from. Initially I was confused. The comic told us way back in the second issue how a planet-wide lung condition stopped anyone from being able to live above ground level, so how could their currency be mined off world? Well, this is actually only one source of this material.
Anyway, the nefarious plot is right out of Goldfinger, which is not a complaint at all by the way. If the material, and thus the currency, is contaminated the economy tanks and the value of anyone’s own personal stash skyrockets. It’s an insane strip! It suits Wildcat perfectly and I’d have loved seeing this mystery play out over a serial. It’s fun and shows the potential of Wildcat to really tell any story it wanted to. This comic had no limits to its imagination.
In the Holiday Special there was something called a Robot File, a four-page feature of images from several different Wildcat stories all featuring the various futuristic companions humans are living alongside in their search for a new home, with small panels detailing each one. A fun recap for fans and a way for new readers to see some of the interesting storylines they’d missed out on so far. We get something similar here with the wide variety of friendly and not-so-friendly aliens the crew have met along the way.
It may be reusing panels from Wildcat and Eagle but it doesn’t feel like filler. In fact for me there’s some new material here from after the merge, like the end of the war and the fact The Brain had a body. This really would’ve been perfect in an annual too. I have to say that’s a fantastic selection of allies, friends, creatures and monsters, isn’t it? I’m going to miss this comic.
But let’s cheer up, we’ve got more goodies here and The Wildcat Complete (this time not given its own name) was always something to look forward to. This one even refers back to the stories in #6 and #8. In the second of those tales loveable Gliz sacrificed himself after piloting a shuttle to the far side of the first moon and getting hijacked by pirates. In the first we found out multiple crews had disappeared on the near side when they’d eaten poisonous fruit which mutated them, ensuring they were seen as threatening aliens and killed by rescue teams, who in turn would eat the fruit and continue the cycle.
Due to the horrendous weather pilot Tovey crashes on the surface just like Kurby did in #6. He notices he’s accidentally killed a lizard-type alien and then finds himself inextricably drawn to a distant hill. Everything seems very familiar but he can’t place his finger on it. Captured by aliens who plant a device on his head to speak, it’s soon clear they don’t exactly see him or the Wildcat as friends.
More horrifying is the side effect the translation device has on him! Breaking free, out of desperation Tovey discovers a dimensional portal generator the aliens happen to have nearby and throws himself through it. Flicking between different realities he finally seems to choose the right one. He’s back on the moon and sees a craft approaching. He’s saved! The Wildcat must’ve sent another rescue team. But as it approaches it’s clear it’s also been caught up in the weather conditions, and this isn’t the only bit of de ja vu for Tovey.
He sees it’s his shuttle craft, with him at the controls. As the caption points out time is the fourth dimension and it was on his fourth attempt that he ended up here. Again, the cycle will be never ending as he crash lands, kills himself and then ends up right back in his own path again. It’s similar in some ways to that earlier Complete, although it wasn’t time that repeated but rather the actions of the humans. It’s very, very similar to the final Scary Cat Challenge in Super Naturals#9 (also from editor Barrie Tomlinson) when a greedy boy wishing on a genie’s lamp ends up in a repeated cycle of time.
It’s a well worn story trope, I know, but to see it in two of my comics so close to each other, and when this was a sequel to a tale with a similar ending, it feels a bit underwhelming, the twist not really a twist anymore. Such a shame, because I’ve loved Joan Boix’s art on all of the Complete tales they’ve illustrated over Wildcat’s short life. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a bad story, it just feels a bit recycled.
What’s much more exciting is seeing a brand new Loner strip written by editor Barrie Tomlinson and drawn again by David Pugh! Barrie’s prose story in the Holiday Special was excellent but I missed having new art from David (the illustrations were lifted from previous issues) and by this stage in Eagle he’d moved on to drawing Dan Dare, an opportunity he just couldn’t pass up but which meant Loner, who had been created with David in mind to draw, had to be passed on to another artist.
Ah yes, that does look lovely, doesn’t it? Welcome back Loner! Regular blog readers will know he was my favourite character in Wildcat and his first adventure was absolutely riveting. Unfortunately his second was less so, but here we’ve got a brand new one-off tale of him exploring the planet’s surface and once again he’s fallen into some trouble. I do like the way the sequence of him falling down that wheel mechanism is shown through clever use of a main panel and some smaller ones overlaid on top.
In the Holiday Special he’d found himself the prisoner of a group of aliens who captured creatures to force them into a kind of gladiatorial combat. (Just like The Games, above.) So what brand new adventure do we have here for our former mercenary? The hole he’s fallen into leads him to a group of aliens who sit on a kind of observation gallery, then behind him a trap door opens up and a huge, tentacled beast appears who they want Loner to fight in a kind of gladiatorial combat. Um…
Oh come on now, this is getting a bit ridiculous. While it’s wonderful to see David’s art again and there are some genuinely funny moments, such as Loner cursing the fact his first reaction to new alien beings often lands him in trouble and the quip above about arm to arm combat, the fact the same plot has been used for two of his stories in a row (and now two strips in this issue) is a real disappointment. It takes the edge off seeing him back in strip form. But that art is wonderful, especially when the big bad looks this good.
I just can’t quite wrap my head around the decision to basically rerun the same story twice over. As a kid I never had the two specials so I can’t say for certain if I’d have been as disappointment, or even have noticed, what with them being months apart. But as an adult fan the Winter Special isn’t measuring up to the incredibly high bar of the regular comic, not with reprint material and reused plot lines. Damn.
The second half of the issue has a full colour Joe Alien story split up into little two-page pieces just like The Games. While David Robinson‘s story isn’t technically a reused one, it does set itself neatly into the serial from the fortnightly, seeing as how Joe and his team were captured by the alien plant life on more than one occasion. Basically, they get captured again, Joe’s brain becomes disconnected again, then they escape again. But I find it strangely enjoyable.
I think because it’s more honest about the fact it’s not a new story, that it’s an additional chapter to Joe’s main strip. This approach is much preferred over the other strips so far. It also shows a lighter side to the character. He quips and shows proper affection towards the men he’s been fighting alongside. We also see how he eats through the vines when he’s lost his brain pack, making us wonder if there’s still some form of intelligence in there, only for us to realise he was just hungry in his crazed state!
Instead of regular Joe artist Ron Smith we have instead Keith Page and, while I do like his very alien main character, I miss Ron’s sharp lines and exaggerated action. José Ortiz returns for Kitten Magee though, his scratchy visuals once again the perfect fit for the jungle-based action written by James Tomlinson. This time our heroic female team are entering an area apparently guarded by the terrifying Ikarzeytak. But searching for a new home for the human race is more important than local legends, especially when it’s apparently already long dead.
I never expected a one-off strip in the special to advance any of the ongoing arcs but the Kitten Magee story certainly doesn’t disappoint with its always enjoyable characters and the next in its long line of original beasties to fight. In this case that skeleton was indeed the Ikarzeytak, which can regenerate from nothing but rainwater much to the surprise, and then horror, of the team. It’s ludicrous. But it’s ludicrous fun! That’s what Wildcat was all about and so the Winter Special ends on a high.
Kitten’s friends Cassandra, Bonnie and Aurora also star in the four-page Weapons File which follows the same formula as the alien and robot ones and then that’s it, Wildcat’s real time read through comes to an end. As I’ve previously said I never followed the characters into the pages of Eagle and, with over 50 issues of it to collect before I can read the end of all the stories I wanted to complete the read through of the main comic first. It felt right.
The Winter Special feels very much like a publication of two halves. Perhaps I’d overhyped it for myself in the intervening months, but there’s a disappointing amount of reprint material or reused story ideas, however even in those the art is superb and the remaining stories are all as excellent as we’ve come to expect. It feels like a premium comic in my hands and I think giving Wildcat this glossy treatment for its final ever edition was a great idea; the original was a lot bigger and brighter than its contemporaries after all.
Next year I’ll finally be able to see what happened next for Turbo, Loner, Kitten, Joe and the Wildcat, beginning with the Turbo Jones and Loner graphic novel collections, before I focus on those Eagle issues with the remaining Kitten Magee, Joe Alien and Wildcat Complete tales. Plenty to come then, but it’s still a sad moment to close the final issue from the 80s that’s 100% Wildcat from cover to cover. A childhood favourite originally aimed at younger readers it holds up incredibly well and I’d highly recommend any adult comics or sci-fi fan to jump in and take the ride.