Being the only issue I somehow lost between childhood and bloghood this cost me a pretty penny a few years back but it was worth it to have the complete collection again. The superb Ian Kennedy cover featuring my favourite Skull Squadron aircraft, Skull Leader Mako‘s Mig-29 ‘Sea Hunter’ certainly softened the blow to the bank balance. Regular readers may wonder why the question on the cover is being posed when we’ve already seen the answer in #2, but that was a secret for the readers. As far as the Ring Raiders were concerned it was still unconfirmed and made Mako one to fear.
I love the details in the cockpit (something the toys simply couldn’t have due to their size) and the size and power Ian brings to his renderings of these planes. I also love that crosshatch effect for the sky which adds the illusion of texture to the glossy cover. Inside, editor Barrie Tomlinson‘s Battle Zone ’99 comes to its conclusion after beginning back in #2. A more lighthearted affair than the other strips, it’s acted as a great way to introduce the relationship between the calculating Skull Leader Chiller and his own leader Skull Commander Scorch, which comes to a funny conclusion on the final page.
Carlos Pino‘s work has been colourful and fun throughout, perfectly suiting the fast action script and bringing the comedic moments in the air to life. But in this final part there’s something of an anomaly. Chiller’s wingman just doesn’t look right, does he? It’s a mystery, the answers lost in the mysts of time that were the late 80s, but it looks like he’s been altered after the fact. Perhaps the wrong character was drawn originally?
As for the story, which started off with the death of so many sailors on board a submarine, it ends more like an episode of the cartoon series. Chiller’s wingman lands to rescue him but his plane is a single seater so instead of joining the fight on the ground he’s unceremoniously strapped to the prop plane’s tail while Chiller commandeers it. It may have been light on plot but as an action-packed way to kick off every issue it’s been a short, to-the-point bit of fun. With the comic introduced, Barrie and Carlos will team up again next issue for its replacement in a serial which features more plot and the return of Chiller as the lead villain.
In the continuing Trackdown written by Angus Allan and illustrated by John Cooper it looks like Freddie Riley and the professor’s adventure is coming to an end as they approach Wing Commander Joe Thundercloud on a supposedly deserted airstrip, unaware Blackjack and his Harrier ‘Battle Bird’ lie in wait. The panels showing the Ranger helicopter and then Riley’s point of view feel like the camera (for want of a better word) has zoomed inside in one fluid movement. Just me? Well, that’s how it felt to me. John Cooper was certainly cinematic in his storytelling.
In this episode the story transitions back to the characters from the toy line as Riley and the professor are beamed aboard the Air Carrier Justice where they watch the unfolding drama alongside Ring Commander Vector. As much as I enjoyed the comic’s original creations Riley and Runtz I never felt disappointed with the way the story changed its focus here. It was just the natural way for it to go when Riley’s situation was resolved. It’s a fast-paced story but it’s full of character and each issue brings another layer to the plot. It feels masterfully planned out, so kudos to Angus for doing such an amazing job with his first story for a brand new franchise.
As a kid I loved the scenes on the ground just as much as the air combat that was at the heart of it all. While they could be shot down, which we’ve seen plenty of in fact, there’s a feeling of invulnerability in the air and a vulnerability when they’re on their feet. Here it adds suspense as Joe lies unconscious, helpless as Blackjack does his cool vertical takeoff with the doomsday device, after confirming the ambush worked perfectly because he can radio control his bird on the ground. A nice little piece of information from the toys there.
(I have to admit I’ve always found the way Harrier jets take off and land just amazing to watch too.)
In pursuit, Joe can’t shoot down or even cripple the Battle Bird, not with the Doomsday Device on board. Unable to stop it being taken back to Scorch the strip ends with a feeling of complete helplessness. I can’t remember what happens next, so just as I had to originally I’ll be waiting two weeks to find out. One thing to note here, there are a couple of references to Thundercloud’s heritage which read rather differently today and which I’m ashamed to say I glossed over at the time. But given how they’re used by the Skull pilots it adds to their viciousness in the panels in which they’re used.
Scott Goodall‘s complete tale this issue focusses on the Skull star of the Bomber Blues serial, Hubbub the Skull Leader of Rebel Wing. We’ve seen him use his electronic weaponry in that story and here we learn of where his fascination with electricity’s power began. It all kicks off with this glorious splash page by Geoff Campion showing the kind of air battles only this comic could be capable of. The lightning, Vector’s stealth fighter powering into the scene, even another Harrier doing a daring manoeuvre with those vertical jets, it’s all there in one panel. Exciting stuff!
Originally the owner of a rigged slot machine parlour Hubbub thought he was a tough guy, emperor of his own little domain. He’s also a Vietnam vet. Having fought for America he’s been left damaged by the ravages of war. This theme of the Skull Squadron was pointed out in an earlier issue. We were used to our heroes in everything from The A-Team and Knight Rider to Airwolf and Magnum P.I. being veterans of that war and we learned how it affected them. To see it played out in my toy licence comic was great, especially how it told of the horrors faced during that war turned the vets into the bad guys instead.
With all of these little details building up issue-by-issue, character-by-character it’s all the more heartbreaking to know they didn’t get to flourish in a long-running comic where these various aspects of their personalities could have been revisited in future serials. However, it wouldn’t be the last time the ghosts of Vietnam would be felt in Ring Raiders, although you’ll have to wait for the special in the early months of next year for that particular story.
Surprisingly, when he’s robbed at gunpoint in his office we see how much of a coward Hubbub actually was in the days before Skull Squadron, cowering while the thieves use harmless pop guns to escape. The police don’t care either because they know he’s a crook himself (and actually in the end this cop is the ringleader of the thieves). Through contacts in Chicago’s rough South Side he’s able to stake out the next target and hide on the roof of their van while they make their escape.
Falling off when the driver loses control on the wet runway of the airport from which they’re going to flee the country with their last score, Hubbub finds himself at their mercy, outnumbered and this time their guns are very real. It’s at this point his life is miraculously saved and thus begins the creation of the character we’d grow to love (or love to hate); a sudden bolt of lightning strikes the metallic dish on top of the van the thieves had put there (to make it look like a repairman’s vehicle). The bolt blinds them long enough for Hubbub to make his move. We then finish things off with a little more of his history and a gorgeous final few panels as he rounds off his tale.
After Ring Raiders was cancelled the new year brought a new partwork to my newsagents called simply Airplane and I collected the first handful of issues. My interest was in no small part thanks to how the comic would treat these fantastical airplanes in as real a way as possible, always referencing them by their proper codes and names, and then there were historical scenes like above featuring Vietnam and other real world conflicts. A new series of pin-ups next issue heightened my enthusiasm too. I’ll talk more about that next time, but for now just look at those final few panels, making the transition from Vietnam to the world of the Skull Squadron via the aircraft Hubbub used. Beautiful imagery to end an engaging and fun little story with surprising depth.
After the letters page the Next Issue promo feels retro even for this 1989 comic. Featuring a biplane, a big banner to the left and a headline along the wings of the plane, it reminds me of what Barrie might have used to promote an issue of Battle for example and I love it! If the Ring Raiders toys had been more successful I honestly believe this comic could easily have been seen as a modern, high-tech version of those classic war comics. It certainly had the writing and artistic talent for it!
Moving on and another story comes to a rather sudden end in part five of James Nicholas‘ Bomber Blues, drawn by Don Wazejewski. It also includes what I originally thought were contradicting actions from Raider ‘Cub’ Jones. He begins by blasting a crashing Skull plane out of existence to save Hubbub who had ejected from his own aircraft last time and was standing in the crash zone. I like this; the Raiders have a code and will always aim to capture rather than kill.
But then on the very next page he inadvertently places innocent lives in danger. One of Hubbub’s wingmen sees an opening but isn’t prepared for Cub dropping his flaps and undercarriage to drastically reduce his speed, letting the Skull pilot fly past before returning fire. It’s a neat move and the pilot ejects to safety but the plane crashes right into the airfield below, the very one Cub had been trying to protect this entire time.
The World War II pilots run for their lives and barely escape. I remember thinking this went against that code I mentioned, so why did he shoot the plane down there? The key moment here is the Skull pilot’s final radio communication. “Double engine flameout! All power lost… entering terminal dive!” In other words, he’s known he was going down and at the last moment forced the nose down early, aiming the flaming plane towards the hanger.
It’s certainly a dramatic twist, which makes the sudden ending all the more strange. Another wingman lands to pick up Hubbub who takes a leaf out of Chiller’s book from earlier in the issue and forces the pilot out, taking the airplane up alone to face off against Cub for the final fight (leaving the pilot in the middle of World War II I’d assume). There are some great acrobatics as his slow prop plane tries to angle itself into the path of the jet but ultimately he flies out of the time zone in retreat. We’re now down to the final few panels and Cub opens up a time jump too and signs offs!
He disappears, leaving the wreck of the airfield below him, telling the men he’s befriended that he’ll see them again when needed. He could at least have helped with the clean up. To be honest, Bomber Blues has been a blast from the start and Cub’s affinity for the people battling in the time zone he was originally plucked from was something I would’ve liked to see return in a later issue.
I do think this final chapter could’ve been split over two issues though so that it could’ve included at least a page of some kind of epilogue. As it stands, it’s still a great action-packed story notable for taking place almost exclusively in the air, the ending is just a bit rushed.
This issue’s advert hasn’t got much in the way of original art this time that’s for sure, just a tiny F-9 ‘Sky Tiger’ taken from Bomber Blues. But what it does contain is a lot of memories. Looking back at this I’m thinking, “Oh I had that, and that, and that!” In fact, I had everything shown here! Well, except my Battle Blaster was a Ring Raiders model not the Skull Squadron one.
I can remember opening the giant boxes for those three bases on Christmas Day, although unlike the photos here (or indeed the images on the box) my Sky Base Freedom was just the Sky Base Courage mould painted another colour with different guns. (I see in this photo some of those accessories are missing too.) Those are some very happy memories, only marred slightly with the knowledge the comic had already finished.
“Mako got Baker in that last scrap over the fort, Commander! Didn’t see him bail out!”Tremlet, Freedom Wing
While Mako and Yuri Kirkov both made the cover it wasn’t in relation to their strip. Perhaps that’s a sign they were arch enemies, destined to face off time and again. For now, Tom Tully‘s Freedom Flight continues with part six and the fort is on its last legs with Mako leading the rebel planes in a spectacular assault as presented here by Sandy James. Mako and his men easily take out the government planes, leaving the ground forces at the mercy of the rebels.
Kirkov’s plane is nearly repaired, catastrophic damage from Mako’s previous attack being averted thanks to his use of the ring last time, and he’s frustrated as he helplessly watches the battle unfold. Interestingly, he uses his ring to power the monitors and surveillance cameras of the fort which had lost all electricity. Getting impatient he finds out that repairs have stopped because of a very simple reason: It’s 1966!
His incredible F-4 ‘Comet’ is from another time and the ground crew have never seen anything quite like it. They’ve been able to slap together repairs on the physical damage but when looking at the hydraulics they come across computer circuits and controls like something that might as well be from a sci-fi movie for them. I liked this small bit of technical information and it brings up a conundrum with the whole time travel thing. Little scenes like this show the writers are taking the subject matter seriously. Yes, it’s all fun and far-fetched nonsense, but ground that nonsense with some moments like this and you can inject real jeopardy into the fantastical set up.
Kirkov takes a gamble, assuming that after the physical repairs all that’s needed is a little bit of power, something that normally would be out of the question but which the ring may be able to provide (as established with the fort’s equipment). There’s a rather corny caption to go with it, but apart from that it’s another enjoyable episode. It’s the only story so far to use the ring for its main purpose and we saw how it could have a detrimental effect on the pilot last issue. I’ll assume here it’s more like jumpstarting a car.
By this stage all of the members of Freedom Wing have been named and we find out Baker has been shot down, with no sign of a ‘chute. We’re left to presume one of the Ring Raiders has been successfully killed by Mako as they fly to a three-on-three battle next issue. High stakes indeed. In fact, Freedom Flight and Trackdown both have the highest stakes for our characters and a real feeling of peril, and it’s because of this that they’re definitely my favourites. So far anyway.
From memory the next issue is the best of the run but of course it would also contain the very worst news imaginable. You can see how it manages to both thrill and sadden when the review lands on the blog on Thursday 25th November 2021.