When editor Barrie Tomlinson gave us the bad news that #6 of Fleetway‘s Ring Raiders was to be the last, he told us they hoped to produce a special the following year to finish off all the stories frustratingly left on cliffhangers. Given how comic specials usually appeared in April or May, and the fact I didn’t know it’d even been confirmed yet, you can imagine my surprise when my parents came back from the shops with this some time in February of 1990. With its gorgeous Ian Kennedy cover and a hefty weight to it, I immediately ran to my room where all my planes and bases could be found.
Also in my room were my comics and after giving the special a quick flick through and seeing glimpses of exciting aerial action I decided to spend the whole day with these characters and read through all of the previous issues, every single story, including the ones that had already finished, before settling down for the mammoth 64-page feast of an issue. The regular comic was 24 pages so this felt like a real treat! Especially when we got not one, but two covers from Ian.
Was #7 meant to be the start of the comic recolouring the logo each issue? Or was it just for this special? Who knows? But clearly Ian had finished the next two covers and I think this inner page (possibly #8) is just beautiful, evocative of the Commando covers he was so well known for, but with a modern (for the time) splash of colour on the Corsair. Wonderful. You’ll have to excuse the state of the pages though. This is my original comic and it was read so many times back then, devoured over and over. The creases and tears tell a story though, of a comic I couldn’t get enough of as a kid.
I really enjoyed reading through the fortnightly and was meant to cover this several months ago but had forgotten I’d let a friend borrow it (and the Super Naturals Adventure Book) and she’s not someone I see too often. But here we are at last. I’ve been looking forward to this. As you can see we kick things off with Operation Chill as colourfully brought to life by Carlos Pino, which only began in the final issue. When a cruise ship carrying a talented bunch of school kids crashed at its destination port with no one on board Wing Commander Max Miles and his Freedom Wing were dispatched to track them down.
His wing ended up over chilly Arctic waters being fired upon from an unknown source, with only giant icebergs beneath them. On the first page of this issue’s strip you can see gun ports in one of them and it’s on this that our ejected pilot Frank Turner finds himself. Another character named by the comic, Frank is soon set upon by Skull Squadron goons but he’s not as unarmed as it would seem, using another of the miniature gadgets the comic invented for the rings.
The iceberg is also on the move! At this point, as a kid, I had an idea of what was really underneath the ice and the next part of the story confirmed my suspicions. This particular segment would’ve been in #8 with a release date of 23rd December, the Christmas issue. If all had gone according to plan eager kids awaiting Santa would’ve read this just a few days in advance, and no toy in the series was more sought after than the Skull Action Assault Base!
While readers had seen the base in the Trackdown strip we have to remember these are time travel stories and so, much like with Doctor Who for example, timelines can be presented out of order. Even though this takes place a few years after Trackdown, this is clearly the mission in which the Ring Raiders themselves first encountered the base (unless it was kept hidden from the world up until now) and I think over time it would’ve been fun to piece together these events into a timeline.
The villain is of course Chiller, the most used in the comic and simply the most sinister and fun. The plan is to re-educate the kids as mind slaves but, even after Chiller takes to the skies with his new ice weapon and takes out two of the Raider planes, Commander Miles doesn’t give in, making the most audacious of moves by landing on the base. Staying inside the cockpit and using the plane’s weaponry to disable the base he soon overpowers the enemy and commandeers it.
This final panel has Miles posing as he does on the toy packaging. Hmm, he’s called Max Miles and his plane is the Knight Fighter… and in Knight Rider we had Devon Miles… oh I’m just overthinking that, right? Anyway, with the funny image of Frank using the Skull base’s facilities Barrie’s story comes to an end with four parts here, making five altogether, so originally due to conclude in #10. Who knows if the next story would’ve seen Skull Squadron coming for their base, but it would’ve made for an excellent battle if they did.
On to what was the main strip in the comic for me, the epic Trackdown written by Angus Allan and drawn by famous British artist John Cooper. It always felt epic in its scope, story, use of character and pace, but as it turned out it truly was as epic, with five four-page episodes here altogether it was 11 parts and 48 pages in length; beginning in #1 on 16th September 1989 it wouldn’t have come to its explosive finale until #11 on 3rd February 1990. Getting the final 20 pages here feels like a bit of a cheat, but these are the best pages in this special, and indeed the series.
In fact, the very first part here (which we would’ve enjoyed in #7) would’ve sealed the deal for Ring Raiders as one of the very best action adventure comics in the UK. The Doomsday Device is on its way back to Skull Squadron in Blackjack’s auto-piloted Harrier while he’s taken a young boy hostage in a biplane, threatening to throw him out. Wing Commander Joe Thundercloud of Rescue Wing can only chase one, but which one? Much to Blackjack’s surprise he takes off after the Harrier, or so it seems.
This sequence is thrilling today, so imagine reading this at 12-years-of-age surrounded by all the toy planes, including the one featured here! Scorch orders Blackjack to toss the boy out of the plane to his death, but Blackjack hesitates, just long enough for Joe to swing his plane round and come at the biplane at a 90 degree angle and slicing it in half, giving the Air Carrier Justice the order with split second timing to beam up based on his location. The boy (and half the plane) materialise on the Ring Raiders’ flying base whilst the rest plummets to the ground.
Where could this story go from here? Clearly anything is possible and next Angus has the Wing Commander catch up with the Harrier. With Blackjack out of the picture, Joe disables its engines and then picks it up with his own F-16, using the power of the ring to convert his own body’s energy into extra power and try to get the pilotless plane to the Justice.
But as a caption reminds us, “Use of the rings means terrible physical exhaustion” and, tapped into his mind as well as his body, Joe’s wish to protect those he holds dear and panic over the screaming engines accidentally sees him activate the time jump engines, ending up back in prehistoric times, flying above dinosaurs. As you can see the Harrier is no longer balanced atop his plane. The strain was too much for his body to bare and he lost control, the Harrier tumbling into the lake below.
How amazing was this scenario for young comics fans? Ring Raiders deserved a much larger audience than it got in the end, this was top comic action with or without the licence. But as a fan of the toys this was the most amazing thing I’d ever read in my young life as far as I was concerned! It was a story I’d replay with my Matchbox planes over and over. I think I even created a tiny biplane out of Lego so it could be cut in half, that’s how much I loved this.
Contacting the Justice over millions of years via more use of the ring (and nearly passing out as a result) the rest of the force arrives, giving Joe time to get his energy back and load up the F-16 with Super Sidewinder missiles which he uses to destroy the side of the lake (it overlooks a cliff), draining its water and exposing the Harrier with the Doomsday Device in its cockpit. But the sky suddenly fills with more explosions. Blackjack in his replacement aircraft and his Havoc Wing were tracking his original plane all along.
It may be black and white but that last panel of part nine (third episode here) exudes atmosphere. The sun feels hot, the Harrier ominously coming out of silhouette as Joe looks desperately for his arch enemy. My memory had this as a cliffhanger in the fortnightly, such was the impact it had on me, but nope it’s right here with the next part on the very next page. Simply gorgeous imagery by John Cooper there.
The characters having replacement back up planes may initially seem to ruin the drama and tension somewhat but it’s not uncommon. Later in Castle of Doom Yasuo needs his reserve machine in a hurry but the landing crew try to dissuade him as you’ll see. Clearly each character has their main craft and a reserve, which makes sense militarily and they’re never presented as a cheap way of continuing the action. It adds another layer of authenticity to something so fantastical.
The story comes to its conclusion as Blackjack steals the device back while Skull Squadron keep anyone from launching from the Justice with an all-out assault, but with the device dangling from a claw under Blackjack’s cockpit Joe blasts it, opens his own cockpit and uses the power of his ring like a form of tractor beam to pull it aboard. But the ring was never meant to be used that way and with too much toll on his body earlier he loses control. Scenes like this establish that the ring isn’t a get-out-of-jail-free-card, it has consequences and must be used sparingly, unlike the cartoon version.
The story constantly flips back and forth between which side is winning, every time success is within grasp of someone it flips again. It makes for genuinely tense, exciting reading, even as an adult. It’s also nice to see other characters milling about in the background or helping out here and there, giving more of an ensemble feeling to the cast than normal. Joe just about touches down without crashing and taking the future of the planet with him, then our inside cover star Salty Salton launches against orders, his slow but manoeuvrable F-4U Corsair making it to the ground just in time to punch a hole in Blackjack’s cockpit, making him scarper.
Salty uses the ring to reenergise Joe’s and in turn Joe himself, and the story wraps up with doomsday averted and the device launched into deep space. What a ride. Ever since those early episodes with Rescue Wing’s Freddie Riley and the professor it’s been non-stop, building and building, with high-flying, high-octane stuff fans of the toys longed to see, with one-on-one dogfights, crash landings, huge battles and at the centre of it all were two characters driving the story forward. The story was never forgotten for a single page, never sacrificed to show off the action. These final Touchdown chapters were a worthy climax to the comic as a whole, even though that was never the intention.
Castle of Doom began in #6 and was instantly a favourite because it starred my two favourite characters, Wing Commander Yasuo Yakamura and Skull Leader Wraither, their planes being the first I ever purchased so I had a soft spot for both. Following on from the cliffhanger last time, how does a jet pilot rescue a man hanging by a branch on a cliff face? With this rather ingenious Rescue Pod above, that’s how. I love that.
This story has six parts here which would’ve taken it up to #11 with seven parts in total, so as you can see there was no standard length to a Ring Raiders story, which would’ve made for a wonderfully unpredictable reading experience if the comic had continued. Castle of Doom’s plot was all about using time travel to the past in order to affect future events, something which had always intrigued writer James Tomlinson (who went by James Nicholas at the time), and it’s clear he had great fun crafting this tale as it jumps about time zones within the isolated castle setting, layering the plot slowly over the first few episodes.
Basically, in 1989 (two hundred years hence) this castle would be seen as the ideal secure location for various governments of the world to gather and discuss the growing threat of Skull Squadron, a meeting which would be key to the formation of the Ring Raiders. So Wraither and Vulture Wing have ventured back centuries to hypnotise (using a nose mounted ray of some sort) the family living there, planting a seed that wouldn’t be activated until hundreds of years later in the minds of their descendants.
This manifests itself as a mass shooting in 1989, with the owners of the castle suddenly falling into a trance and opening fire with automatic assault weapons on all of the representatives present! Yakamura wins the day by using a low-yield missile to knock out a wall of the castle and take out half of the assassins, but the head of the family escapes and throws a grenade into an ammunition store. In the end the survivors evacuate just in time, with the rest of the assassins captured (I’d assume to come round later and be exonerated) and Wraither’s P-51 Mustang Galloping Ghoul shot out of the sky, the mysterious pilot left abandoned in that time zone until Skull Squadron come to rescue him.
That’s it pretty much summed up but there are two main reasons I love this strip so much, the fact it’s full of great action between my two favourite pilots and planes and how it was delving into some of the backstory, taking tentative steps at setting up some mythology. It reads as an important early chapter in what I’d hoped would be a long-running comic. Wraither and Yakamura were likely chosen because they formed a special two-plane Starter Pack (my Starter Pack in fact) and because of this it seemed they were destined to duke it out forever.
To the uninitiated it might seem daft to have two such vastly different planes engage in battle but it’s actually believable, with Yasuo’s jet unable to make the kinds of quick manoeuvres over short distances as Wraither but with speed on his side, and the latter’s ability to fly so close to the ground and mountains and use cloud cover to disappear and reappear at will. In fact, the Grumman X-29 is almost trashed at one stage and Yasuo has to time jump back to the Justice for his reserve machine.
Untested and with unfinished computer systems, which were such an integral part of his plane, it all made for a tense showdown with Yasuo outnumbered four-to-one against Vulture Wing, the castle under attack by assassins, his inability to land to help and the castle poised to explode, wiping out the Ring Raiders before they’re even formed. The last three chapters were clearly not finished by the time the comic was cancelled as they are combined into one, 12-page finale.
Artist Don Wazejewski again brought James’ script to life and there are some lovely atmospheric visuals here (my favourite being the panel of Yasuo “almost hearing” Wraither’s laughter above) and aerial battles that feel genuinely fast and exciting. I also like his chunky depictions of humans, especially on board the gigantic, high-tech Air Carrier Justice; there’s a certain Thunderbirds-esque feel to those particular pages. Over 24 pages it’s a real thrill ride and it’s such a shame this would be the last meaty read of the special and the last time I’d see these characters.
It hasn’t lost any of its ability to excite for this 44-year-old. But then again, all those happy childhood memories of favourite characters and those little toy planes all bubble to the surface when I read any issue of this comic.
To finish, in such a serious storyline, with the tension ratcheting up page after page, there’s a genuine laugh-out-loud moment during the fast-paced climax as Yasuo delivers the missile. The story had made a lot out of the supposed mystery of who, or even what, was behind the mask of Wraither and his sinister character is perfectly portrayed, making this moment towards the end of the story so much funnier for the fan in me.
After that momentous blockbuster we’ve only got two individual chapters to go. Next up is the seventh and final part of Freedom Flight. Tom Tully’s story involved Skull Squadron using a band of rebels for their own ends, assisting them in their attempts to overthrow a democratically elected government in South America. The story ended on a cliffhanger in #6 which saw Skull Leader Mako’s ‘Sea Hunter’ MiG-29 about to be blown out of the sky by ‘Raider Yuri Kirkov’s missile, fired from his ‘Comet’ F-4 Phantom.
As the young readers could be fans of either side of the never-ending war we would sometimes see the cliffhangers sway towards Skull Squadron, although this was used sparingly in the issues published. Still, it made a refreshing change. Speaking of which, after 40 pages of beautiful black and white art, turning the page to see Sandy James’ full colour pages is a shock to the system, in the best possible way of course.
This being just the one, final chapter it’s basically the end of the battle that was raging months ago in the comic, so alongside the juicier stories in the special it unfortunately feels like a rather light affair. However, in actual fact, if read with the previous half dozen instalments, it’s the perfect exciting ending with Kirkov finally fighting back to victory after the hardships of other issues. His missile closes in on Mako, and he even sees off the wingmen who attempt to come to the rescue.
Usually this would mean the end of the plane and most certainly the character, what with him not bailing out before impact, but as we readers know and as Kirkov suspects, Mako’s craft can operate underwater, so the Ring Raiders must content themselves with the fact he’s escaped. Without the futuristic back up the rebels are soon defeated and our heroes travel back to the Justice to await their next mission, their work in the air complete.
But one page later Kirkov returns in the one-off character story we would’ve read in #7 and it’s quite possibly the best one of the series, or at the very least right up there with Chiller’s in #3. As usual it kicks off with an air battle against the Skulls. Wraither again actually. As he expertly uses clouds to vanish into thin air during battle, Kirkov is reminded of the mist covered skies of Vietnam through which he flew in his Douglas A-1 Skyraider after defecting from Russia to fight for the United States.
Those of us who grew up in the 1980s will remember most of our heroes in primetime television had fought in the war, each one suffering some degree of personal trauma (Thomas Magnum, Magnum PI), physical damage (Michael Knight, Knight Rider) or psychological issues (Stringfellow Hawke, Airwolf). So as a young teenager this lent a credibility to Ring Raiders, seeing a character caught up in a real world war, one that we were all too aware of at the time and the devastation it caused.
The story was a real treat and as the last strip the comic would ever publish it made an impact, its gritty, rain-and-mist-shrouded panels evoking the same atmosphere we were used to in flashbacks in those aforementioned television shows (and later in the 90s when Bravo showed Tour of Duty which I became completely hooked by). Reading it now, Scott Goodall’s well-paced script and John Gillat’s superb artwork take me right back to those times. In fact, it feels all the more mature reading it now when compared to the other strips in this issue.
The story is a bit well worn by now, with a mysterious character helping our hero in their desperate time of need, only for us to find out that person had actually died and it must have been an illusion of some sort (although implied to have been their spirit continuing to help people as they had done in life). It’s the fact this story is in Ring Raiders and is illustrated in the way that it is that makes it so very special.
The perfect way to wrap up Ring Raiders, not just this special but the comic as a whole. Not only is it a superb strip, it shows the real potential this comic had in the range of its storytelling and how I think it could’ve reached beyond those obsessed with the toys if given the chance. It’s heartbreaking to finish the final story but I think it just proves the point I’ve been making since the beginning. Rounding off the issue is the second Photo File by James, this time of the cover star’s aircraft, the F-104 Starfighter, one of James’ all-time favourites.
Well that’s it.
James and Barrie were able to tell me the names of some further adventures that we never got to see. Hill Kill was written by Scott Goodall so possibly another character piece, Viking Job was by Tom Tully and Sandy James (their follow up to Freedom Flight and most likely set in the distant past), Surprise Attack, Skull Surprise was by Barrie Tomlinson himself so most likely was to be drawn by Carlos Pino and there was an unnamed Christmas story by James Tomlinson and Don Wazejewski, plus another story by the same team called Blow Bubbles, whatever that was about. A Christmas issue of this comic would’ve been nothing short of awesome for me! Oh well.
Ring Raiders could effortlessly flip between the futuristic and the historical, the fantastical and the realistic, keeping its feet grounded with believable, likeable characters, hugely exciting action, superb art and interesting stories. If it had continued goodness knows how much better it would’ve got as it developed. It’s anthology style worked a treat and for those few short months I ran to the newsagents every other week to get my next fix.
OiNK aside, the fact this comic remains my number one from childhood with only seven issues to show for itself should tell you something.
Ring Raiders was a superb comic and is well worth picking up, although be aware issues can go for a pretty penny on eBay and you’ll be very lucky indeed to find this special. (There are also two annuals but they were by Grandreams, had nothing to do with the comic and are really poor, with no strips, just bad text stories and basic art). Ring Raiders was proof that licenced toy comics could be taken seriously and produce excellent results! Kudos to Barrie and the whole team, and thank you for the memories and the comics to this day.
There are still some treats in store for Ring Raiders fans reading the blog, so watch the skies for word on those in the future.