Tag Archives: Sandy James

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.

SUPER NATURALS HOLiDAY SPECiAL: HiSTORiC HORROR

Welcome back to Ghostworld for the very last time. Just a month after the final issue comes Fleetway‘s Super Naturals Holiday Special for 1988, as ever edited by Barrie Tomlinson. Kicking off with a Sandy James cover which would’ve been fun for any kids who received the oversized Tonka trucks for Christmas, here we have 48 glossy pages which, much like the Adventure Book, focus more on the action aspects of the comic rather than the horror.

There are two exceptions, including a reprint from Scream! which checks the horror box for the young readers of Super Naturals unaware of the previous short-lived comic, but other than that it’s all licenced strips and extras. That means there’s no ventriloquist’s Doll or readers’ suggestions for Scary Cat, both of which were highlights of the regular comic so that’s a shame, especially knowing this would be the last publication in the series. But let’s not get too down, the idea of a Holiday Special was to have lots of fun one-off stories to read while off school. Let’s see how the Super Naturals fare with theirs, shall we?

It starts high in the air in SkyJack! The evil Super Naturals flub an attempt to transport themselves into our world, with only Snake Bite able to make it and imaginatively the strip has him crashing through a tiny airplane window, terrifying all the passengers on a transatlantic flight to America. Hypnotising the pilots, he shares his strength with them to save the plane, but only because he wants to use it to crash into Washington which would cause much more destruction in our world.

Snake Bite was always the most interesting of the evil characters and the set up for this story is great. We even have Hooter and Lionheart using the Ghost Finder to nudge the plane up just enough so that it’s trajectory is right for the pilots to take over before Lionheart slashes a hole in the fuselage and throws Snake Bite out, who loses his telepathic control as a result. I like how it’s not an easy, miraculous rescue plan, as Hooter bluntly states. It’s just a shame the artwork doesn’t match the exciting potential of the script.

It’s even more of a shock when you find you who the artist was. It’s Geoff Campion‘s work (Eagle, Lion, Valiant) which I’d personally adored in Ring Raiders, another of Barrie’s titles. However, here things feel somewhat rushed, even unfinished in places, such as when the Ghost Finder crew makes their entrance the buildings in the background look like rough layouts. As the story goes on more details are lost and backgrounds become even more sparse, almost like it was hastily finished for a deadline. It’s not the usual exemplary work we’ve come to expect from Geoff and I’m intrigued as to why, but unfortunately that’s a question lost to the mists of time. It’s still a fun story to open with, a really enjoyable complete tale perfect for a Holiday Special.

To make a special even more so, there are always a few extras. Inside we have new pin ups of the toys, some of the marvellous posters from the fortnightly have been shrunk down to A4 size, a one-page Ghostling Tale features a thief making his getaway only to board the Titanic and there’s a pretty poor quiz. Much like the one in the Adventure Book it’s just a series of strip panels and the questions are all a variation of “Who is in this picture?”. We do get some lovely reader art in Ghostworld Gallery including a superb rendering of Skull by David Round who was clearly a fan of Alan Langford‘s depiction of the character.

There’s also a page called Incident at Rock Canyon which looks suspiciously an unused cover. Drawn by Sandy James it clearly hadn’t reached the colouring stage yet when the comic was cancelled. To accompany it is a short story by way of explanation, reminding me of the inner front page to the Ring Raiders special printed after that favourite comic of mine also abruptly ceased. It’s a nice addition and always interesting to see work that was still in progress for future issues.

Next up is a Scary Cat Challenge story. The anthology story isn’t based on a reader’s idea like some of the very best in the regular series, instead it’s a reprint from Scream! #9. Part of the Library of Death series in the comic, Ghost Town was written by Fred Baker (Roy of the Rovers, Lion, New Eagle) and illustrated by Mike Dorey (Action, Warlord, 2000AD). An old Western town in America witnesses the arrival of its first automobile, which promptly has a brake failure and ploughs straight into a dynamite storage (of course it does), blowing it and the whole town up in a huge chain reaction of explosions. That’s just the beginning.

In the then-present day of the 80s two young lads pull up to a gas station in the desert and ask for directions, but there’s more to the little old man who helps them than they realise. They soon find themselves in an old fashioned town instead of back on the highway and are greeted by the sheriff. The only problem is he’s a waking, talking skeleton! Telling the boys they’re going to stand in a fair trial for murder, soon a whole town full of dead bodies with other ideas are chasing them down.

Cornered in the sheriff’s office with his guns, the young men have no choice but to try to shoot their way out and get back to their car, but they’re no match for one of the local gunslingers. Seeing the two innocent guys gunned down was quite the shock when I turned the page! I know it was created for a different comic but to see it in the pages of Super Naturals it makes quite the impact. I never owned this edition as a kid but if I had (and not knowing this was a reprint) I know I would’ve loved this story because of this horrific final page.

The next strip is the definite highlight of the whole comic, even though it only comes in at four pages. I believe the artist for The Making of Evil could be Keith Page though this is unconfirmed. The middle couple of pages are your typical tale of Skull and Burnheart causing terror and destruction as they set fire to a small Austrian town at the end of the nineteenth century. They’re defeated by Lionheart and Thunderbolt but our main focus is the young boy the evil Super Naturals crash in on at the beginning of the their story.

The strip doesn’t explicitly tell us his name but instead treats the young readers with the intelligence to either know straight away who this is, or to piece it together by the end. I was still in primary school when this was released so I wouldn’t have been taught anything about World War II at this point, but some slightly older readers may have, and even if they hadn’t a rereading in a year or two would’ve brought a fresh, terrifying perspective.

The boy’s reaction to Skull inspires the evil leader to bestow upon him unlimited power to score against those he hates, but even Skull can only hope the boy will spread some form of fear after they’re recaptured; he has no idea of what he’s actually created. For now we see the boy carry on with their work, helping spread the fire and blocking the streets from help. In the final issue’s review I said how it would’ve been great to see the Super Naturals interact with more myths from our past like they did with the Lady of the Lake, but to see a real-world evil inspired by Skull is something I didn’t expect! It’s a brave move by the comic and an inspired story that once again shows the potential of the franchise.

I also adore that awesome Tomb of Doom looming over the characters as they disappear back into Ghostworld, and I wish it had been depicted as such throughout the whole series. Then, after that somewhat creepy tale comes a bit of comic relief in the shape of Ghostlings, this time focussing on Hooter and Scary Cat and as ever it’s drawn by Anthony Williams. The slight plot sees the witch trying to wreck a bit of havoc by having lions escape a zoo close to a town.

Hooter tries to stop her by using his magical sleeping potion but he’s quite a clumsy wizard is our Hooter and he drops it in a mid-air kerfuffle between the pair. But luck is on his side and instead of Scary Cat being put to sleep the animals end up having a doze instead. But when Scary Cat transforms back to her witch form, their hard landing sees her join them in the land of nod. Our hero is then easily able to carry her back to the Tomb. Silly stuff, but then again the best Ghostlings strips always were, that was the whole point of them.

Racetrack Riot is the special’s prose story and follows F1 driver Alan Dixon as he test drives a new super powered engine, which of course Skull wants for his Bat Bopper truck. Alan and his team are kidnapped and forced to remove the engine from their car, however outside Lionheart, Thunderbolt and Hooter (who is making up for being underused in the regular comic by the looks of it) are watching closely. It’s our clumsy wizard who comes up with the plan and after transforming into his owl form he swoops in from the skylight on which they’re perched and seemingly attacks the F1 team.

There’s method in his madness of course. It looks like a regular owl, possibly nesting somewhere nearby, has flown in. So the evil characters simply ignore him while at the same time in this form he doesn’t inadvertently scare the humans into freezing in fright for once! Instead, they dive into the maintenance pit under the car for cover. This allows the main Super Naturals to launch an attack and duke it out without fear of harming anyone. It’s inconsequential stuff but entertainingly written by Barrie Tomlinson. Unfortunately though, we’re not sure who the artist was.

The final story in the comic and for any of these characters is Tooth and Claw and I believe it could be drawn by Keith Page. I’ve checked with some sources and parts of this (in particular the Super Naturals themselves) seem to be in his style but the jury is out for how the wild animals are drawn. So it could be Keith. Anyway, the story is set in an unnamed country suffering from a drought, its inhabitants hungry and the animals dying. Through a sacred temple emerge Skull, Snakebite and the underused Rags (as someone interested in Ancient Egypt I wish they’d used him more, he’s a Pharaoh who can turn into a cursed mummy) in the Bat Bopper and Lionheart, Eagle Eye and Mr. Lucky in the Ghost Finder.

As they give chase the good guys are surprised to see the villages have been left untouched by their evil counterparts, until they come face to face with a wild stampede. Hypnotised by Snake Eyes, the animals have either been forced into a frenzy to chase down and eat the human flesh of the nearby villagers, or into a made rage to stomp all over their homes and kill them underfoot in the case of the elephants. But the plan hasn’t reckoned on one simple thing, namely Lionheart’s third and final form.

It’s surprising to think the character hasn’t been placed into this kind of environment before now. It’s the kind of story which could’ve been developed into a serial to delve deeper into his mind, especially if he befriended other lions. After all, he was given this lion form by Specter for a reason, could he have found a kindred spirit in them? But then again, the comic was still in its infancy when it was cancelled, so who knows what could’ve happened. I have to say though, it’s fun to see him take to this form with relish, acting like an actual wild lion and fighting off the hypnotised, innocent animals (without killing them). Only a few characters got the chance for any kind of development by the end and unfortunately Lionheart wasn’t one of them. This is like a teaser for what could’ve been.

Before we sign off from the last ever edition of this comic there’s just time for a quick plug for some of Fleetway‘s range which may have appealed to he target audience. Battle had merged with the new Eagle after a phenomenal run, Roy of the Rovers was still going strong and another of their licenced comics, Mask had proved a lot more popular, lasting 80 issues and it was certainly a hit with some of my friends. These could be described as the Barrie Tomlinson range, as he edited all of these titles too.

A reprint of a Skull poster with the top and bottom chopped off to fit the inside back cover followed by the title logo on the rear round things off and that’s it. In an edition which contained a lot more fun and action-orientated strips, the horror stories of the Scream reprint and the Hitler tale really stand out. So does the action-packed Lionheart ending, if only to show what could’ve been and as a great example of the licence.

Never again would the young readers see these fun characters and the horror comics that came along with them for the ride. While there seems to be very little left to tell as memories seem vague when it comes to Super Naturals, keep an eye on the blog for some possible extra content in the future nonetheless. It’s sad to see the comic end and it will remain a treasured part of my collection, taking pride of place on the Barrie Tomlinson Trilogy Shelf. I hope I’ve been able to do my bit in helping keep the memory of this classic alive.

(Please note the Super Naturals Adventure Book review is yet to come, more information here.)

SUPER NATURALS #9: FiNAL FRiGHTS

This review was due on 20th February, click here to find out about the delay. More catch-ups to come this week.

Alas, we come to the end of a superb run of comics. Editor Barrie Tomlinson’s Super Naturals has been such fun and, while there are still two specials to come, the fact this is the end of all the ongoing serials is a sad moment. Things kicks off for the final time with this intense image of the doll by Francesc Masi and I’ve some faint memory of seeing this cover at a few friends’ houses at the time. They all loved being scared its story!

It’s not all an original, with the panel of David falling into the water taken from the strip instead. The image of the doll is one we haven’t seen before though. When you think about it, it’s a bold move to feature the non-licenced strip on the cover of a licenced toy comic. That beautiful bold logo aside there’s nothing associated with the Tonka toys on display. To me, this sums up the anthology feel of Super Naturals and its original approach to a licence title. But inside we start as always with one of the strips based on the toys The Legend of the Super Naturals, drawn by Sandy James.

It all begins with the good guys dealing with the aftershocks of Skull‘s attack on the English village last issue. But instead of the drama of trying to save the town while being attacked by the terrified villagers, the Bat Bopper and its crew simply swoop in and Hooter casts a spell. Poof! All solved. It’s clear this Excalibur story was to continue for at least another issue or two before moving on, but needs must, what with this being the final edition.

Eagle-Eye‘s selflessness in instantly transferring himself into battle in a weakened state doesn’t have the tension it should’ve had because his friends once again swoop in on their flying vehicle to save him and quite easily defeat the evil Super Naturals, even they’ve been pretty evenly matched with them since the outset. Meanwhile, Skull has gone ahead to the lake and summons King Arthur’s sword. It’s here we get some genuine comedic moments and an inkling of where the comic could’ve gone in the future.

I love the way the mythical Lady of the Lake just plays with Skull before giving him a cheeky bop across the head. It’s a funny, surprising moment and it could’ve opened the door to these characters interacting with mythical, magical legends from throughout our history. I mean, the Super Naturals themselves fit that description, so why not? But for now this is all we’d see of this potential.

The Legend of the Super Naturals has been gathering pace in recent weeks, becoming the best of the licenced material by far, which makes the final page here all the more frustrating. I know it couldn’t be helped, the plug had been pulled and they had to try and wrap it all up. My frustration and disappointment doesn’t lie with anyone working on the comic, rather with the fact the comic was cancelled in the first place, putting the creative team in this position.

Between Mr. Lucky telling us the evil ones have been thrown back through the Tomb of Doom and Spooks mentioning what happened with Excalibur, both occurring off-page, it’s all a bit of an anti-climax. Then we see Skull, trapped in our real world with the Bat Bopper, which in itself could’ve made for an interesting tale, their leader trapped here with no way back and no henchmen to assist him. I think this serial would’ve been written by Barrie himself since it’s the main story, and he’s done everything he can to give us an ending, which is to be commended.

Next up are the reader contribution pages and as per usual there’s a page of drawings followed by the Letter From Spooks letters pages. There’s a particularly good drawing of Thunder Bolt from reader Christopher Evans which deserved to be a lot bigger so I’ve zoomed right in to show you it. Then the letters pages open with a sad note which I can remember bummed me out big time as a kid, even though I wasn’t a regular reader.

I’d been interested in the toys when I first saw the advertisements on the TV in the Autumn of 1987 and Santa did bring me a Ghostling (Scary Cat). But between seeing those adverts and Christmas itself Hasbro’s Visionaries had grabbed my attention and so I concentrated on them that holiday season instead. I did buy the first two issues of Super Naturals and really enjoyed them, but my attention was being pulled elsewhere. However, in the new year of 1988 my interest in Tonka’s toy line resurfaced. I knew the Visionaries line had been cancelled and when I saw all the cool looking figures and trucks on the back of Scary Cat’s packaging I wanted more!

I didn’t understand why it was finishing so soon. I just assumed comics kept on going.

I reread the comics I had and loved them, so one day on the way to the dentist I picked up the latest issue. It’s funny the things we remember, isn’t it? I have this memory buried somewhere in my grey cells of being in the back of my late nanny’s car, with my mum in the front on our way back home. I was excited because these toys and comics were going to be my new fascination and the first story (above) completely rocked! I loved it! I was convinced I’d found my new obsession, so you can imagine how gutted I was when I read Spooks’ introduction.

I didn’t understand why it was finishing so soon. I just assumed comics kept on going. I was in a household where my brother read the Beano and Roy of the Rovers (another of Barrie’s titles) and OiNK was still going strong at this stage. The previous magazines I’d collected had been Story Teller partworks which had a pre-planned run, but comics weren’t supposed to end, definitely not after nine issues. I was really upset and within the space of 10 minutes had gone from wanting to go to the toy shop to thinking there was no point, so I never did collect them.

This sad news is quickly followed up by this full-page advert for the Super Naturals Adventure Book (see here) as a way of perking up the readers and I’m sure for regular devotees it helped ease the pain. The thing is, as I now read through the rest of this issue nothing is jumping out at me with any form of recognition. It could be I simply don’t remember reading these stories, but I now wonder if I read them at all when I got home that day, knowing there were no more to come.

So while I did own this issue the rest of it feels brand new to these eyes. First up is the final Scary Cat Challenge. Genie is based on an idea sent in by reader Keith Scott and drawn by Alan Burrows (Beano, Red Dwarf, Transformers). It begins as we meet trespassing kid Jason Watkins just before he discovers an old lamp after falling through the roof of some buried Roman ruins. The genie that pops out is brilliantly snarky, a far cry from those we’d seen in movies up to this point (before Disney‘s Aladdin). Young Jason wishes himself out of the pit and is flown out by the magic of the genie. Awed by this, Jason starts to eye up what else he could wish for.

He sees some of the popular school kids nearby on their skateboards and wishes he had all the latest gear and the skills to match. Moments later he’s making new friends, whom he soon confides in by showing them the lamp. He begins to wish for treasure (“Getting greedy now are we?”, booms the Genie, knowing where this is headed) and then a palace with servants and everything. He demands his new friends kneel before him, and when they don’t he wishes for them to be thrown in the dungeon!

This the Genie does not obey and instead warns the boy that while no harm will come to the other kids, some harm will come to him if he carries on down this path. But Jason won’t listen, he knows the Genie must serve his every need. His final wish is to do something no human has ever done before, to travel at the speed of light. The genie all too happily grants this wish and we see Jason take to the sky, travelling faster and faster until his body starts to break apart! At this point the comic clarifies what has happened.

But just before his transformation into those zillions of particles is complete he screams one more wish to the Genie and it’s here we get our twist ending. Just as he’s about to disappear he wishes for everything to return to that moment before he found the lamp. It’s the last new wish he’ll ever make, because the genie places him back where we found him on that first page, unaware of what has happened and he stumbles upon the lamp all over again, thus beginning a never-ending cycle for all eternity.

So initially, I thought the strip would end with Jason alone and friendless. He’d be wealthy beyond imagination but would have learned the lesson that this alone can’t buy happiness. I should’ve known better than to guess where a strip in this comic was headed. Scary Cat herself returns to wish us harm instead of the usual request for more story ideas, and that’s the final reader story we’ll see. Such a shame. I’m not aware of how detailed the original ideas were, or how much of each plot was taken from the readers or crafted by the writer, but it’d be interesting to find out. When reading these strips and seeing the letters and drawings sent in it’s clear Super Naturals had fired some great imaginations.

Since it’s the final issue and the last of Sandy James‘ posters I thought I’d better show it off to you and Snakebite is the star of the middle pages this time. We don’t get to see his full snake form but it does seem the comic has settled on how to consistently refer to each form a Super Natural can take and in which order. That’s a brilliant shield totem design too.

So here we are then, the moment a lot of readers of these reviews have been waiting for, it’s the final chapter of The Doll! Will we get an ending? Will it be a satisfying one? Will it be left open-ended even though with hindsight we know the strip would never return? It kicks off with Simon saving his foster dad’s life when he spots a caterpillar on his hospital drip, a doctor confirming it had been tampered with. A few minutes more and Frank would’ve been dead.

Leaving the hospital with his foster mum Louise, Simon demands to know the truth at last about their previous foster son Alan. We’ve had hints of his story before but never all the details. Now we get to know all about the doll’s previous interference in their lives right before we see history about to repeat itself. I’ll admit there is a feeling of things needing to be tied up here rather than this being the natural ending point, but it’s a necessary evil in this case and it’s carried off more successfully this time.

We finally get to see just how crazed Alan became under the doll’s control, a stage that young David hadn’t gotten to until the final panel on this page. I do like the background of how the doll became a part of their lives. Alan’s dad was part of a travelling circus as a magical ventriloquist. (Obviously we know why he appeared to be so good at it!) But he died in a mysterious circus fire and when the doll is handed on to Alan the Marshal’s almost ended up dying the same way. This repeating of events is key here. It’s the doll’s whole MO.

Clearly not expecting them back quite so soon, the doll is taken by surprise during it’s final acts of destruction at the home before, I would assume, he was to set it alight. He bursts out through the window, David apparently willingly going with him. Giving chase, Louise and Simon are horrified to see David running down to the lock where Alan had died. David falls in, in exactly the same place but the key difference here is Simon being on hand and he dives straight in to save his brother.

We then get the obligatory family scenes of everyone together by Frank’s hospital bed. Everything is going to be okay again. A happy ending for all involved. Except, this is a children’s horror comic so we can’t just leave it at that, can we? Of course not. So the final two panels see the suitcase containing our murderous doll pop back up to the surface of the water down by the lock, an evil laugh emanating from within.

And that’s where the strip is left, never to return.

I don’t think it was meant to end quite so quickly. If this had all happened a handful of issues later, would the doll have been picked up by someone else to terrify anew? Or would we have had a brand new strip in its place, with perhaps the chance of its return at a later point? We’ll never know. This last chapter does raise some questions, ones which unfortunately will go unanswered.

Why did the doll come back to this particular family? Was it hiding out in the basement waiting for another susceptible foster kid to turn up so it could take revenge out on the family? Why was the basement all sealed up tight by Frank? If he thought the doll would return why not just move home? Why did the doll make both Alan and David run for the lock? Was that simply its best means of escape since it worked before? (Also, last issue we saw David fighting the doll’s grip but we never got a chance to see that elaborated on.) Don’t get me wrong, having so many unanswered questions isn’t a slight on the writing here, not at all. I’m positive these mysteries were laid out with full intentions of being answered later if not for the comic’s cancellation.

What we have ended up with though is a 38-page children’s horror masterpiece (it began with five pages per issue but quickly became four) which deserves to be reprinted in its own graphic novel, perhaps with some of the better Scary Cat Challenge strips to make the page count up. It’s been full of suspense, some genuinely creepy moments even for this adult reader and plenty of thrills worthy of all the playground talk at the time. It was definitely a surprise for it to be part of a licensed toy comic, but let me put a certain myth to bed right now. No, The Doll was not made for another publication and then shoved into Super Naturals. It had a perfectly timed Christmas episode, interactive elements for readers to send in suggestions for and a conclusion in the final issue. I personally think it was a genius move to include this in Super Naturals, it hooked a few of my friends into buying (and reading) the whole comic who had no interest in the toys!

While The Doll was clearly brought to an earlier end than originally planned, it didn’t detract too much from the impact of its final chapter. Such a pity the same can’t be said of Ghostlings. I still love Anthony Williams‘ art but I’ve not been particularly enamoured with this story I have to say. The cliffhanger happening out of shot last time didn’t build confidence for the conclusion and I’m genuinely sad to say I was right.

To get things back to some form of status quo Weird Wolf is thrown off his clifftop perch and by complete coincidence the Tomb of Doom appears beneath him, doors open for him to fall into. Then the huge battle of the beasts is discussed by Spooks and (the brilliantly drawn) Thunder Bolt and that’s pretty much it before they disappear through the Tomb too. There are one or two action panels but for all intents and purposes the story is basically concluded with a, “oh well, nothing we can do, let’s go home”.


“Open the coffin and release the dreaded curse of Britannicus that will destroy these British Islands!”

Skull

Let’s hope for more than this from our final strip, The Curse and the spooky Victorian setting is still oozing atmosphere thanks to artist Alan Langford, so its conclusion is off to a good start anyway. To speed things along the slightly harder edge Alan’s strips have had has been somewhat lost. Although things do start off excitedly enough with Skull and Burnheart looking likely to succeed in releasing the curse of Britannicus upon the UK.

The wall they came up against last time did indeed unleash a torrent of water, which both the good and bad vehicles barely escape. It’s all ready for an epic confrontation. They’ve been fighting over this ever since Christmas after all, but in the end one panel showing Lionheart and Eagle Eye bopping their evil counterparts is all the battle we’ll get. In the background, Spooks loads the coffin onto the Ghost Finder and Skull just admits defeat. He even tells his cronies to stop fighting and retreat.

But outside, the military have set up a line of defence against all of the Super Naturals. But hang on, weren’t their memories wiped by Eagle Eye back in #7? We’ll just assume it’s a different bunch of soldiers who still witnessed the horrors in previous issues. The church within which Lionheart and his men have been valiantly fighting is levelled, giving Skull a chance to escape in the confusion. The story ends back in Ghostworld where the coffin now resides, unable to be used because no fighting or advantageous actions can be taken there.

Add in a corny 80s cartoon-style ending and it’s all over. Again, it had to be done. Things had to be wrapped up and concluded, what with the comic not merging into any other title and the upcoming Holiday Special was already complete so they couldn’t have continued there either. I wonder if the story had been allowed to continue was there ever the intention to show us the Curse of Britannicus? As it stands, all that mystery and intrigue around the coffin in previous issues was for nought and it now feels more like a McGuffin for all the running about rather than anything substantial.

At least we got to see Alan’s superb depiction of Skull a few more times before we bid adieu. A temporary adieu, what with that Holiday Special still to come (and the delayed Adventure Book). When all of the editions have been reviewed I’ll take a proper look back over the entire series, but as I close over the final issue I have to say I’ll really miss my friendly fortnightly frights. It’s been a very different reading experience to anything else and a great example of a licence taken in an original direction. Quality-wise it really paid off.

For now, The Great News For All Readers is the Holiday Special review will be here from Thursday 26th March 2022.