Tag Archives: John Gillatt

RiNG RAiDERS SPECiAL: SPECiAL iNDEED!

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.

This would’ve sealed the deal for Ring Raiders as one of the very best action adventure comics in the UK

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.

Using the ring has consequences and must be used sparingly, unlike the cartoon version

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.

I think it could’ve reached beyond those obsessed with the toys if given the chance

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.

Proof that licenced toy comics could be taken seriously and produce excellent results

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.

RiNG RAiDERS #6: FiNAL BOARDiNG CALL

This is something of a bittersweet review. On the one hand it’s the best issue of Ring Raiders the team produced, but it’s also the last. I can remember back in 1989 I’d always go and check out the shelves first before asking for my reserved copy, and my heart sank when I scanned through this exciting looking latest issue and saw the announcement. At this point it really did seem all the comics I was interested in weren’t lasting long at all. I was devastated with the news for this particular one.

What a cover to kick off my favourite issue, Ian Kennedy really showing he understands the subject matter, his love of aviation clearly apparent. Skull Leader Wraither was one of my two favourite characters and to see my favourite toy planes on the cover was a thrill. It still takes me right back now. Inside, two new serials and a new regular feature begin. It’s obvious this was never planned to be the last issue. However, it may be the final fortnightly but it wouldn’t be the finale. More on that below.

But let’s not be down, there’s more of the finest 80s licensed action strips to enjoy and there’s been a bit of a shift about inside to keep things fresh. Where previously Battle Zone ’99 introduced us to each issue, it’s replacement story is moved so that Tom Tully‘s Freedom Flight, rattling along to its big finish can take point, opening the comic with some blistering action that’s been building since #1. Sandy James‘ colour work makes quite the impact as the first thing we see inside, it’s just a shame something went wrong with the printing process with several pages of this issue.

Skull Squadron‘s plan finally gets revealed as Calvador is the perfect place for them set up a power base to take South America. The rebels are fully aware a heavy price will be asked of them for this help but they continue regardless. It’s clear this is only one part of a much bigger plan and interestingly leader Scorch is monitoring from thirty-two years into the future. Obviously (much like Doctor Who) in the world of Ring Raiders time is fluid, always in flux. I appreciated major plot details only coming later rather than being laid out in the first episode too. Despite being based on toys, the comic told its stories in a mature fashion, treating us as readers with attention spans who’d stick with them. I appreciate it all the more now.

The first of two new stories is Castle of Doom , written and drawn by the same team as the previous Bomber Blues, James Nicholas and Don Wasejewski respectively. It takes Trackdown‘s previous position as the second strip. Trackdown always felt like the main story, even though I’d no idea just how long it would last. It felt like it had deliberately slower pacing to begin with, like it was building tension and settling in for a long run. So when Castle of Doom took its place it instantly felt like an important story. I wasn’t wrong.

Set in 1789 it sets up a fascinating plot involving my two favourite characters. Wraither (from the cover) in his P51 Mustang ‘Galloping Ghoul’ appears in the skies over a hauntingly atmospheric castle proclaiming to be a sky demon. The owner of the castle is already a disciple of this winged deity, but the local mayor sees him as a threat. After Wraither fires upon him, pushing him over the edge of the castle turrets he turns on his hypnotising mind control ray over the assembled masses, instructing them that on this exact night two hundred years hence their descendants must rise up and assassinate every single person in the castle.

Returning to the skies he and his Vulture Wing prepare to exit through time again. Wraither and his dark, faceless persona is the perfect Skull Squadron leader for this mysterious tale and I was just as excited to see the Raider sent to investigate would be none other than Wing Commander Yasuo Yakamura in his cool X-29 ‘Samurai Flyer’ jet. These were my first two toy planes and perhaps as a result of them being bundled together in one of the Starter Packs they seemed destined to be mortal enemies in the comic.

Certain scenes remained tucked away in my memory refusing to leave because they had such an impact on me, they were that amazing to this Ring Raiders fan.

Skull Squadron targeting this particular castle in this particular time zone for just a few moments has the Ring Raiders completely confused. Yasuo is on standby and in his X-29 can get there quicker than anyone. I can still remember the palpable excitement of this first instalment as a kid thanks to the characters involved, but also because James sets up a genuinely interesting mystery here.

As Yasuo stalks the skies above Vulture Wing we see his inner thoughts trying to work out what’s going on. Even when he engages the enemy he remains a man of few words, thinking his retorts to Wraither instead of shouting them out over the radio like the other pilots. The cliffhanger has the mayor hanging on to a tree sticking out from the cliff face and Yasuo having to leave himself wide open to attack in order to save him. With my favourite planes locked in combat and an intriguing set up in play it was an agonising wait to see what would happen next. (If we even got to find out!)

The character flashback story this time centres around Wing Commander ‘Never’ Evers, in the appropriately titled Never Say Evers Again, written by Scott Goodall with John Gillatt back on drawing duties. This is the first we’ve really seen the character other than crowd scenes and I never owned his toys, both of which are real shames because he’s a fun character with an interesting past. Enrolled as an officer cadet in NATO‘s flying school he was cocky and lazy in equal measure. Caught skiving off sick from a routine training mission, his instructor puts him under open arrest.

Now, Evers loves his rock and rock and especially playing it so loud he annoys everyone around him. His imprisonment takes place at the far end of the base in unoccupied accommodation which just happens to be beside the records department for NATO. In the end we find out the arrest was deliberate, his instructor is working for Skull Squadron, and when Evers’ hifi speakers blow a fuse and silence engulfs the area he hears a noise and discovers the theft of computer records in process. His instructor was using Evers’ relocation and his loud music to cover his tracks you see.

Having a double-cross like this is similar to last time but Evers is such an enjoyable character I didn’t care, especially when it led to this final sequence. My only complaint is that there isn’t more of this particular aerial battle. The brief bit of action we’re given is fab and a great climax to a character study strip, but how I wish it was longer. Another aircraft that wasn’t part of the Ring Raiders toy line too, which was always a nice addition to the comic and heightened my interest in finding out more about them as a kid.

He’s on the cover, he’s the star of a brand new strip and now Wraither is also in charge of the letters page. None of the contributions mention him and he isn’t happy about it as you’ll see. This is one of the things I loved about our comics this side of the pond, how the characters would interact with us in often cheeky, sarcastic ways. I never sent anything in myself. It had become a bit of a habit by this stage but Ring Raiders simply didn’t last long enough for me to get around to it. This would be the last we’d see of the readers too, as the special the following year wouldn’t contain any more of these pages.

Part six of writer Angus Allan and artist John Cooper‘s Trackdown is our penultimate strip. Wing Commander Thundercloud is right on the tail of Skull Leader Blackjack, but can’t do anything except follow for fear of setting off the Doomsday Device if he opens fire. All the Skull pilot has to do is wait it out until he’s home free, but suddenly he dives and stands his Harrier jet on its nose! It’s a shocking move but in the end it shows how tactical and sadistic Blackjack can be.

Established in both the toy line and the comic, Blackjack can remotely control his Harrier. In this day and age of drone warfare and those silly driverless cars it’s easy to forget things like this and K.I.T.T. in Knight Rider were science fiction, and exciting sci-fi at that. So he ejects after aiming at a biplane far below, expertly manoeuvring himself so he lands on its tail. I love how this is depicted in the art, especially the angle from above the ejection.

The maniac tosses out the pilot of the biplane and takes his young son hostage, although he does tell him his dad had a parachute and will be safe, as will the boy if he just shuts up. He doesn’t intend to kill (although it’s meant to look like he could), just to use the kid as means of dropping his pursuing Ring Raider. Scorch himself radios through to the Air Carrier Justice, telling them Thundercloud has a choice; either follow the Doomsday Device to stop it reaching Skull Squadron, or rescue the boy.


“The future of the world against one boy’s fate? No contest!”

Joe Thundercloud

It’s a brilliant twist that I’d completely forgotten about, even though I reread these about five or so years ago. I remember the thrill of this particular chapter as a kid and it’s another key reason why this was my favourite issue; all the stories are firing on all cylinders, the comic had really come into its own, it was confident in its characters and the universe within which it was playing.

In the end Thundercloud radios in that he’s going after the device, that one boy’s life can’t compare to the whole world. The Ring Raiders listening in are horrified but Ring Commander Vector is defiant, he says he knows Thundercloud isn’t going to abandon the boy. So what’s he doing? Vector asks the professor what would happen if they beamed the device up but can’t get an answer. It seems everything is in Thundercloud’s hands. It’s an impossible situation he’s in as the Harrier and the biplane set off in different directions.

The cliffhanger gives us no possible clues as to the outcome. Can you imagine my reaction to this knowing there wouldn’t be another issue in a fortnight? Only with hindsight am I able to say reading the Special (with another five chapters of Trackdown to read all at once) was incredibly exciting, and that if the comic had continued #7 would’ve contained the single most exciting piece of strip action I’d ever come across up to that point. That’s not just hyperbole, as you’ll see next time.

I’ll leave my final thoughts on the whole story until then but suffice to say Angus and John created something truly special for me with this. It’s a story that has stayed with me all these years, certain scenes tucked away in my memory refusing to leave because they had such an impact on me, they were that amazing to this Ring Raiders fan. The eleven chapters made this the comic’s first true epic at 44 pages in total.

This issue felt like the beginning of the next stage of the comic’s life.

This issue saw the first time new serials joined the fray, sitting alongside continuing stories. Others would end in what would’ve been #7. I was looking forward to seeing explosive finales and new beginnings, since each story could be so completely different than what came before. Each issue would’ve brought that sense of anticipation, never knowing when one would end or a new one begin. With this issue it felt like the beginning of the next stage of the comic’s life.

As I mentioned above the ‘Next Issue’ boxes were still present at the end of each strip but blanked out, although adding to the frustration was the ability in some cases to just about make out what they said. On the letters page Wraither talked about the next issue in a fortnight’s time and the comic was still asking for contributions. All of this just made the Special Announcement (in the space usually reserved for the Next Issue box) all the more shocking.

At the time I refused to believe it was due to bad sales with the way the first sentence was worded. It just didn’t make sense to me. The comic was too good for this to happen to it! The toys were on sale for Christmas, they were ace, how could it stop before all those new owners jumped on board? All of these thoughts went round and round in my twelve-year-old head.

Speaking with Barrie recently he told me the issue was already at the printers when news came down that the plug was being pulled. Needing to get an announcement into the issue but with no time to typeset anything he instead wrote the panel on his typewriter. It feels a bit like some wartime correspondence and very fitting for the comic. It’s just a shame about the news it carried.

The comic was too good for this to happen to it!

As Barrie says in his book Comic Book Hero, the industry was struggling as a whole at this time, many titles were failing no matter how good they were. Television and videogames were stiff competition and publishers seemed to be releasing licenced comics based on every new toy or cartoon product in a bid to try to reverse the trend. For a market already facing decline it was now also spreading itself too thin. Inevitably not many new comics survived.

I cut out the Ring Raiders Club coupon that had been in the comic since #3, thinking if the comic was ending at least I could join this. I never heard back. I asked Barrie if he knew anything about it but as far as he’s concerned this was run by Matchbox so unfortunately I’ve no information about it at this time. But let’s enjoy the rest of this fantastic final issue, shall we?

As I’ve mentioned several times during this series it was amazing to see these tiny toy planes brought to life, as it were. Now writer James Nicholas was going to be treating us to aerial photography and details of the real world aircraft every fortnight. At least, that was the plan but we ended up with just two parts in this and the Ring Raiders Special. But at least I did get to see a favourite character’s aircraft in this fact-file.

So our final strip is also a new story and while he may not appear in this part it’s clear from the icy cliffhanger and the name of the story, Operation Chill, who our big bad was going to be and I have no complaints whatsoever given how ruthless he’s been in previous stories. Living in Belfast now as an adult the not-so-subtle references which were lost on me as a kid are plain to see. On an unspecified modern day date a cruise liner of the Black Star line is travelling from Liverpool to New York when all radio contact is lost before the ship crashes through the docks.

Making clear references to the Titanic, writer Barrie Tomlinson and artist Carlos Pino return in what would turn out to be a fantastic story. It would be the mission that would introduce the Skull Squadron’s mobile HQ to the Ring Raiders, originally in a future fortnightly issue just in time for children like me to ask Santa Claus for it, potentially even the Christmas edition itself.

Yes, the base has featured in previous stories but remember this was a time travelling comic and it can tell its stories in any order it wished. We could see a character in action and then later down the line read about their recruitment, piecing together the timelines ourselves. The complex nature of the overall arcs could’ve made for excellent reading further down the line.

With all of the schoolboys and crew missing Bravery Wing and their commander Max Miles get their first comic mission and come under heavy fire when checking out the location of where the ship last checked in. But below there’s only ice and open waters. Where is the attack coming from? The big reveal was another part of the Special worth waiting for if memory serves.

Much in the same way as #6 of OiNK, this issue of Ring Raiders felt like all of the pieces had fallen into perfect alignment, making the cancellation all the more heartbreaking. Would it have had better sales earlier in its run and been given a longer chance if released just after Christmas? Probably not, because as much as I didn’t want to admit it at the time the toys just weren’t the success they deserved to be. But that didn’t put me off. The following year I continued collecting planes and accessories, stopping just short of the second series’ release. Perhaps they’d been successful just enough for the next series or maybe they’d already been produced. Either way, all merchandise including the comic and cartoon had been canned.

Image taken from eBay

Not long after Ring Raiders disappeared a new partwork was published called Airplane and I bought the first dozen or so issues. If I couldn’t buy the comic anymore maybe I’d find out all about the aircraft to go with my toys. The first issues were all military craft which had coincidentally featured in the Ring Raiders range but it wasn’t long until it was focussing solely on commercial airlines and I became bored and cancelled it. Hey, I was 12 years old!

I’ve already mentioned the Ring Raiders Special and this came out in February 1990 so watch out for it on the blog a few months from now. Barrie wasn’t sure if it would see publication when he wrote the announcement, given how quickly it had to be written up. But he and his team did produce it in the end and all of the stories from this issue got the remainder of their full runs printed in one big issue.

That won’t be all you’ll read on the blog next year about this fantastic comic or the toys that inspired it. For now, make sure you check out the two remaining comics still being read in real time that make up the Barrie Tomlinson trilogy this winter. Wildcat and Super Naturals continue and are both excellent titles.

So long Ring Raiders, you will be greatly missed but all these decades later you remain a very favourite comic. I hope that shows how much of an impact your six issues made to this reader anyway.

SUPER NATURALS: BLOCKBUSTER ADVERT

When I was building up to OiNK‘s own read through I wrote about how IPC Magazines promoted its release in new ways compared to previous comics. These included a four-page ‘Blockbuster Advert’. Rather than a regular advertisement these actually added four pages to those comics and acted as a large pull-out promo which could be enjoyed separately, just one week after the preview issue had also been given away. By 1987 Fleetway had taken over IPC’s comics and decided to employ this tactic for Barrie Tomlinson‘s Super Naturals tie-in.

So, one week after the free preview comic and on the same day as the premiere issue went on sale (Hallowe’en 1987) came the Super Naturals’ own Blockbuster Ad. At the same bigger-than-A4 size of the comic itself it surely must’ve made an impact when Sandy JamesSkull fell out of readers’ regular comics. Unfortunately just like the preview issue this wasn’t given away with OiNK so I didn’t discover it until decades later. The exact range of comics that included this is unknown but I think it’s a given the likes of Eagle and the licenced Mask would have.

So it was included in the issues released on 31st October, the perfect day for some added spookiness to tempt new readers over. Inside, the layout shows off all the main highlights of the issue that was in stores that very day, including that bloody doll as drawn by Francesc Masi. (I mean this endearingly because I loved being scared by that thing.) A few of the toy characters are shown in their new comic form and there’s a preview of three of the strips, perfectly highlighting the creepy artwork to be found in this very different publication. I must admit though, I’m not entirely sure what the “Be Patient” is all about.

The back page highlights the free gift and the physical details of the comic. I always did love the way Fleetway would draw pages behind the cover, something they did with adverts for their annuals. It gives the impression of a thick, meaty read and that was no word of a lie with Super Naturals!

Back on Hallowe’en 1987 I discovered the comic by accident in the shop, but if this had fallen out of one of my OiNK’s I’d have been right back down to the newsagent straight away anyway!

There was definitely a big promotional push behind Super Naturals both in terms of the toys and the comic.  It was all set to be a hit for Tonka and Fleetway, but alas it was not to be.  But let’s not get hung up on that, Instead let’s enjoy the journey through all the regular issues and specials to come, with the review of #2 coming on Sunday 14th November 2021.