With a gorgeous hand-painted Ian Kennedy cover and a larger logo there’s an air of confidence about this issue, the fourth in Ring Raiders‘ short life. It really felt like it was settling in for the long run. But just look at that piece of art! The covers don’t actually relate to a particular strip inside, but this was never an issue for us readers. We just wanted glorious, attention grabbing art like this every issue and that’s exactly what we got, with every one by Ian from now on.
While the pin up inside would tell a short story explaining the cover image, the covers for the likes of Mask, Super Naturals and even Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles Adventures (all edited by Ring Raiders’ Barrie Tomlinson) would instead highlight some of the characters (or planes) featured inside that issue rather than a particular plot point. Known for his love of painting aircraft, Ian is the perfect cover artist for Ring Raiders and never fails to bring the little toys to spectacular life.
Inside, all of our stories continue apace beginning with part three of Barrie’s Battle Zone ’99, drawn by Carlos Pino. The comic has a great mix of scripts with some focussing more on the action, some on the plot and some on individual characters, with the best incorporating all three elements. The comic likes to kick off with pure action. Skull Leader Chiller has been able to get inside the gravity-powered sub after subduing the last of the crew and made his way to the weapons controls, firing off the anti-aircraft missiles. When the Ring Raiders fire their flares the missile is blinded and locks on to the first thing it detects, Skull Commander Scorch!
There’s some funny tit-for-tit between the two Skulls, their leader expertly evading the missile and setting it on a course for the sub, where it passes metres above Chiller’s head! Summoning his Bandit Wing through time the stage is set for a final confrontation, but is it going to be between the two sides of the conflict, or the two Skulls who, through one misunderstanding after another believe they’re firing upon each other? There were no lengthy plans for the comic’s overall story yet but throughout the run it does seem Chiller would like to assume control, and with some of his schemes he could be manoeuvring himself to make a play for Scorch’s position. An interesting dynamic, played for laughs in this story.
Eagerly I move on to part four of Trackdown from writer Angus Allan and artist John Cooper and the tension is building. Upon first reading we may have thought this was building to a climax but in reality it’s far from its conclusion. With Blackjack‘s Havoc Wing lying in wait to ambush the Ranger helicopter occupied by Riley, Runtz and the professor, Riley’s commanding officer Joe Thundercloud and his men swoop in to save the day. In the chaos Riley overpowers Runtz, knocking him unconscious and using his radio.
“Housed in Sky Tiger’s forward underbelly, Tigerclaw is a retractable pod of 25 miniature missiles that can each be remote controlled by the plane’s on board computers.”Those Characters From Cleveland/Matchbox
With no radio on board the original plan had been to pass one from one aircraft to the other so that the Air Carrier Justice could triangulate their position and beam them and the Doomsday Device safely to the landing bays. There’s also mention of using the telepathic circuits inside the rings, which is the first they’re officially mentioned. They’ve been hinted at, that somehow they can communicate with each other using them and how the rings can send warning signals through time, but this is the first we’ve discovered the pilots can speak to each other in a kind of Bluetooth fashion (before it existed) via the high-tech jewellery.
But, with communications back thanks to Runtz’s radio the Raiders no longer need to make such a dangerous play, much to the chagrin of their Wing Commander.
I really am enjoying the original character of Riley and the brilliant writing (only four issues in) has me believing these men really do have a solid friendship and history together, despite very obviously coming from completely different backgrounds. With the Ring Raiders assembled from various points throughout history and from all across the globe they were an extremely diverse bunch. It was one of the things I liked about the set up as a kid and, I have to say, still do.
The humour between them is very natural and I think it’s wonderful how the wing’s leader, such a noble warrior on the surface, just wanted to show off. Some comics could be painfully obvious in being licenced fare, their one purpose being to sell toys, the stories feeling little more than action figures moving about in long, elaborate adverts. But it’s a testament to Barrie as the driving force and his assembled creative team that Ring Raiders feels like it’s an action adventure comic first, a licenced title second.
We have a change of artist for the complete character tale this issue. ‘Salty’ Salton: Super Stunt Pilot from 50 Years Ago gets brought to life by another member of Barrie’s regular team, Geoff Campion (TV Comic, Battle Picture Weekly, Action Force). Geoff brings a lovely classic comic feel to the strip (beyond the fact the comic is already 32 years old), which is just perfect for a tale about Salty as a young gung-ho stunt pilot in his prop plane, a mysterious cursed lake and hidden underground lairs.
After being freaked out by a set of clockwork toy teeth in the dining hall of the Air Carrier Justice, Salty relates a story of the death of one of his stunt partners. Due to perform low-level aerobatics over the idyllic Murchison Lake in Wyoming, a local tells Salty of missing people, dead bodies on the shore and giant teeth marks on the sides of sunken boats. Not believing any of it, Salty watches in disbelief as one of his best friends flies behind an island in the lake and, instead of pulling up to do his stunt, his plane explodes while he’s out of sight.
One of the other stunt flyers had been in the air and lands safely but is terrified of going back out over the water again. Salty takes to the air to investigate and over the wreckage he gets the shock of his life as a giant shark, bigger than anything he could imagine, leaps out of the water and damages his plane, only his unique skills saving him from certain death. His inner thoughts echo those of his terrified friend. “It’s teeth… all teeth… and jaws!” That final word is important.
Crashing on the island and noticing a manmade cave entrance, Salty soon discovers a secret Skull Squadron base under the lake and a control centre for a huge robotic shark, used to terrify locals into staying away. This is all revealed through this wonderful panel arrangement above, the lair taking up the middle of the page while the story plays out around it. What a wonderful design and a fun way to tell the story as Salty programmes the shark to home in on the base and crash through the observation window, flooding everything. Below is part of the final page of the story and this is where that important word above comes in.
Firstly, I should explain my favourite film of all time is Jaws and I have a soft spot for its second sequel, Jaws 3D. I even upgraded my TV and BluRay player about five years back so I could finally see it the way it was intended. Hands down the best 3D I’ve seen in film. Anyway, at the end the giant shark in the film spots our heroes through an underwater observation window and swims straight through it, the gushing water scattering bodies everywhere. It’s also set in a fictional Sea World where underwater caverns are manmade and stunts are performed above on the water (and of course in reality the shark was mechanical).
The end of this strip feels very familiar, right down to the little details like the shark coming head on at the glass in the background. If intended (and I can’t see how it wasn’t) I personally think it’s a great homage. I can’t remember making this connection as a kid but now when I see my second favourite comic ever paying homage to a favourite film of mine, it just brings a huge smile to my face. It’s fun, silly (in a good way) and completely far-fetched. I think fans of the movie would appreciate it. Writer Scott Goodall is either one of those fans or is having a great time poking fun at the film.
After a page of letters we have a brief look at the next issue. No story details, just the fact Skull Leader Mako‘s Mig-29 ‘Sea Hunter’ is on the cover and that he’s the pin up. Of course, we know Mako is one of the stars of the ongoing Freedom Flight strip so his being on the cover makes sense, as I mentioned above. I have to say I’m looking forward to seeing his shark motif aircraft (this image below) painted in full colour by Ian Jackson.
The fourth part of James Tomlinson‘s Bomber Blues once again takes place almost entirely in the air, as Skull Leader Hubbub narrowly avoids death at the hands of the youngest Raider, ‘Cub’ Jones during World War II. Using his jamming system at the last second he sets the missile on a return course back to its sender, the decor of Jones’ plane suddenly looking less fearsome and more terrified!
I joke, of course. The strip is packed full of action and plenty of twists and turns, the reader never quite sure who’s going to come out on top. If there’s one thing the comic had taught us already it was the good guys can get shot down just as often as the bad guys. Even last issue’s cliffhanger for this story was the missile homing in on Hubbub, for all those young Skull Squadron fans. So the outcomes of individual battles was never certain.
From here it turns into a battle of wits between the two air aces. The missile is bounced back and forth until it’s finally destroyed by Jones blasting it out of the sky with his 20mm cannons. It’s at this moment the personal nature of this mission takes a hold of him. Plucked out of the war to join the Ring Raiders it’s like he has unfinished business in this time period, so he’s taking the chance to save those the likes of whom he left behind first time around. It adds an air of determination to the character so when he unleashes his ultimate weapon you know he’s here to end this once and for all.
Well that missile pod is rather unique! I’ve looked up the licence information Barrie and James kindly sent me (which I’ll cover in-depth at a later date) and while the toys were obviously too dinky for detachable weapons and hidden compartments, in the information provided was the following:
“But of all the modifications done to his F-5, the most hazardous to Skull Squadron planes has been its Tigerclaw mini missile system. Housed in Sky Tiger’s forward underbelly, Tigerclaw is a retractable pod of 25 miniature missiles that can each be remote controlled by the plane’s on board computers and used against air, land and sea targets.”
The little mini-comics we received with our plane packs must’ve contained these details, to ignite our imaginations while playing. This particular weapons system certainly sparked James’ imagination and results in Hubbub ejecting as his craft explodes, although he does make quite the impact (figuratively and literally) as he lands, thanks to artist Don Wazejewski‘s expressive faces. Details like this and James’ obvious enthusiasm for the subject matter, both in airplanes and the actual licence, shines through in a real treat for die-hard fans of the toys.
It’s commercial break time and another advert created by the comic’s creative team with a Sandy James drawing of Ring Commander Victor Vector and some Wings photos. Recently Barrie told me he couldn’t remember if these photos were taken in-house or supplied, but he did say if it had been up to him they would’ve been more professional. I never thought anything of it at the time, but now I can see they could definitely have been better. I think they’re just black and white photocopies of the colour images on the packets, resulting in a rather muted end result.
Next to this is the pin up I mentioned earlier. It’s also drawn by Sandy and then it’s on to the fourth chapter of Freedom Flight where he adds his particular style of colouring to the tale of a government on the verge of being toppled by a rebellious uprising, written by Tom Tully. Last time we saw Wing Commander Yuri Kirkov use his ring to energise his failing F-4 Phantom ‘Comet’ just enough so he could touch down on solid ground, much to the annoyance of Mako.
Kirkov has unknowingly landed in rebel territory and quickly finds himself surrounded. As explained before, when a ring is used this way it also floods the pilot with energy in order for them to be able to control the aircraft, but all of this drains the pilot’s nervous system, so Kirkov isn’t in any condition to make a run for it and finds himself captured. His wingmen are soon on the attack though, strafing the advancing troops and again it’s nice to see a strip namecheck the pilots who were left unnamed in the toy line.
From speaking with Barrie it seems Matchbox and Those Characters From Cleveland told him he was pretty much free to expand on what the toys had set out. Apparently they were very happy with what was being produced in the comic and when you have strips like this, who can blame them? I just adore Sandy’s colouring, with the bright, bold livery of Freedom Wing replicated throughout the rest of the art. I think this is really rather neat, his colour scheme for the whole strip centred around those of the toys (backgrounds, strafing gunfire, clothing etc.).
Thus ends another issue of a simply fantastic comic series. When you take a look at the comic as a whole it’s great to see so much strip content here for the licence. Marvel UK comics would have had one or two strips, maybe a non-related one as well and in some cases a small text story, the rest of the pages filled out with extra features. Some were great, some were fillers. Fleetway‘s own Super Naturals was more like an anthology comic, with two of its five strips not related to the licence. However, for Ring Raiders we got five superb strips, each taking us on completely different adventures with this huge ensemble cast.
The next issue was the only one from my original collection I lost over the years and I had to track it down online. It’s a corker and well worth the inflated eBay price. We’ll actually see some of our current stories come to their conclusions too. So check back on Thursday 11th November 2021 for #5.