Tag Archives: Sandy James

RiNG RAiDERS #2: IN THE BATTLE ZONE

I’ve a distinct memory of reading this issue of Ring Raiders on the school bus and hearing one of the older kids behind us proudly proclaiming, “I’m Joe Thundercloud!” at the top of his voice. Ian Kennedy contributes that sole figure with the free poster taking centre stage. (You’ll see #3’s poster next time.) They were proper gift posters, separate from the comic and I had mine up instantly. My collection of planes was growing, I knew certain large boxes in my parents’ bedroom were bases for Christmas and this was my first reserved issue the comic. These things had me hooked.

Inside things kick off with a new multipart tale written by editor Barrie Tomlinson and drawn by Carlos Pino, Battle Zone ’99. The Skull Squadron pilot causing havoc here is Skull Commander Chiller and with this story he immediately became my favourite baddie. I’m sure I wasn’t alone. What kid wouldn’t love a jet with a sci-fi freeze ray? Chiller would love experimenting with various killing methods involving cold and ice and it would appear he fired up the imagination for the writers too, as he would star in more stories than anyone else.

Launching an attack on a futuristic gravity-powered submarine by freezing it, making it brittle, then destroying it with a well-placed missile, he kills the entire crew. This toy comic wasn’t afraid to show its baddies actually being bad and killing innocents to meet their foul goals. In the year 2057 aboard the Air Carrier Justice the Ring Raiders get a warning that a moment in history is being changed by the Skulls and they set off to rescue the second submarine.

There was going to be a Northern European Republic and Scotland was very much a part of it. It feels somewhat prescient.

Interestingly, it appears they can’t just set their time travelling planes to appear at any moment they want for fear of altering history further. Instead, once the alert is received via their rings that particular moment in time continues to play out as our heroes scramble. Fans of Doctor Who will know all about how she can’t mess with moments in time once they’re in motion and it’s interesting to see this was also part of the rules here.

In this version of our world there was going to be a Northern European Republic and Scotland was very much a part of it in 1999. The Victor Vector strip later in this issue is set just one year prior and there’s an appearance by the British RAF. So I can only assume Scotland had become independent and joined the European Republic, with England (and maybe the rest of the UK) outside of this union. It feels somewhat prescient, doesn’t it?


“Some people believe that Sea Hunter is capable of operating underwater… and I’m one of them!”

Ring Commander Victor Vector

Moving on to the second strip and it’s the phenomenal Trackdown written by Angus Allan and drawn by John Cooper. Professor Deke Martin‘s Doomsday Device is thankfully mobile and the unnamed toy pilot Freddie Riley is taking it and the professor deep into the woods to buy time while his wing, led by Thundercloud, tries to dispatch Havoc Wing. By the end of the story two planes have been destroyed and another original comic character is out to track down the device. It was always a thrill when the comic created these characters for our other toys!

What stands out the most is the amount of ground action that occurs and the level of characterisation being slipped in, in just four pages. The military characters interact realistically, grounding the fantastical set up and giving the aerial action a real feeling of danger. Especially when we’ve seen so many shot down already! We also see Wing Commander Thundercloud break off and order his men to return to base and all we’re told is that his instincts have come into play. So for now his apparent abandonment of Freddie is a mystery. Colour me intrigued by this layered storytelling.

Back then, leader characters in our toy ranges and cartoons were somewhat clichéd, a caricature of what either side stood for. Compare the 80s cartoon Optimus Prime to the nuanced, troubled version from the movies and you’ll see the difference. Ring Raiders is off to a good start in this regard. The complete story here is all about a moment from Ring Commander Victor Vector‘s past and showcases his strategising and leadership qualities in a unique way; he’s on holiday from the British Royal Air Force (in the comic he’s British it would seem) before his Raiders days when Skull Squadron attack the French side of the recently completed Channel Tunnel in the year 1998.

In the real world the tunnel was completed in 1994 so it wasn’t a bad prediction and I remember the regular British tabloid attacks on its construction being headline news around the time of this comic. With no plane at hand Vector befriends a local deckchair salesman who leads him to one. Sort of. I laughed at this I’ll admit, and I mean today as I read this as an adult. The comic wasn’t short of well written humour.

This is great fun and involves Mako‘s Mig-29 ‘Flying Shark’ which (as I touched upon previously) was one of my top toys in the range because of its shark motif and the apparent ‘rumour’ it could be flown underwater. As you can see here it’s no rumour as he begins to drill down to flood the tunnel. Vector also believes it’s true after apparently shooting Mako down with a handheld rocket launcher, however it’s a fact the readers would be in on but the Raiders could never verify.

It’s written by Scott Goodall and expertly drawn by John Gillatt. It has a Flight of the Pheonix feel to it, with added sci-fi elements thrown in, that ghostly underwater sequence, great action, a topical subject for the time and a little bit of comic relief. I also love the ending when we find out the entire flying aircraft carrier makes a trip far into the future just to drop Vector off for his hols! It’s a shame we don’t get the chance for more development for him (or indeed, more development for them all) due to the short lifespan of the comic and the ensemble nature of the cast, but I have enjoyed this softening of his character.

Obviously there’s still no content for the letters page because of deadlines in getting this issue to print, so instead stars of two of the issue’s strips introduce one page apiece outlining the history of both sides in the conflict and requesting input from readers in all its various forms for editor Barrie and editorial assistant Terry Magee to sort through.

It appears the Ring Raiders were plucked right out of raging battles (which fits in perfectly with ‘Cub’ Jones’ affection for the bomber crews in the next story) and there’s a little hint for readers of some of the additional abilities of their rings, something toy collectors were already aware of but it’s nice to see a certain one mentioned given how this issue ends. The little throwaway line of how Skull Squadron recruits had been “twisted by war’s cruelties” hints at possible future character plots too.

Cub is back in the war he was plucked from in Bomber Blues which makes a surprise return as an ongoing story after last issue’s apparent one-off. Following what was now clearly a prelude, Skull Leader Hubbub‘s Rebel Wing return to take their revenge on the crew who rescued Hero Wing, unaware they were grounded after their fantastical tales to their superiors. Nor is he aware they’re also in possession of a signal ring to summon Cub and his team.

I’m so happy to see this story continue. The premise is just too good to leave at one issue. Writer James Nicholas‘ fondness for the subject matter and Don Wazejewski‘s art style are just perfect and there’s a true vintage war comic vibe going on here, even with the mixture of aircraft and electronic weaponry.

In the toy packs there could be a mix of prop planes and jets and I often thought how on earth did they fly in formation together? Well they don’t, instead each is used for a particular purpose. For example the prop craft often being brought in for low-flying raids on slow moving targets or navigating close over difficult terrain. This is what happens when someone who knows their stuff writes for us. I mean, just look at this glorious action panel!

The comic certainly wasn’t shy in destroying the planes we were playing with as kids either. Throughout this issue about half a dozen altogether are outright destroyed, giving an air of jeopardy to the stories. Instead of vast battles where no one actually gets shot down or injured as we’d have seen in our cartoons, here anything seemed to go!

Before the final strip we’ve an advert for the toys and a pin-up of Vector. The advert is very basic and appears to have been put together by the comic itself rather than Matchbox, but they’d get more creative in future issues, even incorporating new artwork by Sandy James. Speaking of Sandy that’s his work on the pin-up before the full-colour second chapter of his story, Freedom Fight.

As part two commences the fort’s soldiers are frozen in fear at the futuristic aircraft but the rebels, though just as confused, see their chance and charge the fort. What’s compelling here is finding out another rule to the overall story, and that’s how the Ring Raiders must never fire upon or harm anyone caught up in Skull Squadron’s plots, even if those people are firing upon our heroes.

This leaves Commander Kirkov in a predicament. How can he push back the rebels without opening fire on them? He can’t take sides, he’s just trying to preserve history as it was originally written. Writer Tom Tully uses the unique features of the plane mentioned on the toy packet to great affect here and has Kirkov blast the ground with his laser cannon, setting it on fire and stopping the advance. It reminds me of some classic set pieces from Airwolf, which is perfectly fine by me! Sandy’s bold colouring is spot on here.

Once again the comic ends on a riveting few pages, finishing with a cliffhanger of Kirkov’s ‘Comet’ F-4 Phantom on fire and plummeting towards the very fort he’s trying to save. The final caption simply reads, ‘In A Fortnight’s Time: Flying on ring-power!’ Look back at that letters page preview and you should know why I was so excited to get my hands on the next issue back in October 1989. In fact, I can’t wait for it now!

I think I can say with confidence Ring Raiders had a very firm foundation to its universe, characters and stories at this very early stage. Building on the basics from the premiere issue Barrie and his team were wasting no time in exploring different characters, scenarios and the various kinds of aerial action they could depict. It honestly feels like its writers and artists were having a whale of a time with the subject matter. I know I am.

Don’t be late for #3’s departure, right here on OiNK Blog on Thursday 14th October 2021.

RiNG RAiDERS #1: TiME FOR TAKE OFF!

Back in 2013 when I launched the first, smaller version of the blog I was nervous about doing my favourite comic (OiNK) justice. The same applies to this one. Ring Raiders remains my other very favourite comic from childhood, fondly remembered and frequently reread. Some might look at it and only see a short-lived comic based on a short-lived toy line and dismiss it, but over the next few months I hope to show it deserves to be remembered.

It began for me with this gorgeous cover by Ian Kennedy (Dan Dare, Eagle, Commando). I have very clear memories of discovering it in the newsagents, in awe of how my toy planes had been depicted. I went into this in more detail in the introductory post to this series, where you can also see which plane I got free (it’s the orange one that takes a starring role in the TV advert). I can remember spending a while sitting on the shop floor with all the issues in front of me, deciding which one I’d buy based on the planes. Happy memories.

At 24 pages it was a little thinner than other Fleetway comics but it was all gloss instead of the usual matt paper and contained a lot more colour. I remember the pages felt huge in my hands too. Each issue contained five strips; two colour three-page serials, two black and white four-page serials and a complete five-page colour strip in the middle, then a letters page, pin-ups and adverts for the toys and future issues. It felt jam-packed. So let’s take a look at each of the stories in turn.

Shock Attack is a quick one-off introduction to the comic written by editor Barrie Tomlinson and drawn by Carlos Pino (Johnny Red, War Picture Library, TV Century 21) and that first panel in the first story of the first issue is really rather good. The story is a quick fix of action which followed on from the preview comic and had the Wing Commanders battling each other again rather than with their designated teams.

Set in the then future of 1998 the Skull Squadron leaders are attacking a Euroforce base but the Ring Raiders swoop in to save the day and the Skulls retreat through time to the age of the dinosaurs. Followed by the Raiders and terrified of having to bail out in this time zone after two of them are hit, they flee.

If the comic had continued this could’ve set up a brilliant way of killing off (kind of) older characters while also keeping things open for a possible return. As you’ll see over these real time reviews plenty of characterisation is given to these pilots away from their planes, so having one trying to fend for themselves out of their time could’ve made for an interesting story later on.

It’s truly epic in scale. I distinctly remember its scope really exciting us.

Throughout all this, back in ’98 TV camera crews fill in their viewers (and the readers) on a brief history of the opposing sides. Skull Squadron were formed in the mid 90s and see themselves as a potential new world power, which they try to achieve by manipulating history to their advantage. The governments of the world formed the Ring Raiders and, upon learning of the enemy’s ability to time travel built the Air Carrier Justice, a massive flying base which also traveled in time and recruited the very best pilots from the past, present and future.

This was the main selling point of Ring Raiders, the whole point of this set up and it’s truly epic in scale. It was a nice story idea for the toys and acted as a way to inspire collection of every type of plane. For a comic, I distinctly remember its scope really exciting us.

The second strip is the first serial and would be the longest in the whole series at eleven episodes and 44 pages in length. Professor Martin has accidentally created a chain reaction capsule, a Doomsday Device which is being launched into the safety of space when Skull Squadron blow up Cape Canaveral in 1990. With the device now grounded permanently at the prof’s cabin Blackjack‘s Havoc Wing is dispatch to retrieve it. Aboard the Justice, Ring Commander Victor Vector (that’s him on the cover with Skull Leader Scorch) sends Joe Thundercloud‘s Rescue Wing in pursuit.

Apart from the tiny little fold out comics that came with the toys, up to this point all we really saw of the pilots behind the planes was the one pose each Wing’s leader had on their packaging. When I read part one of Trackdown for the first time it was such a thrill to see these guys come to life. More than that though, the comic starts to create its own characters for the unnamed pilots who flew the other three planes in each pack.

In fact by the time this chapter ends the main characters are both original comic creations by the name of Freddy Riley of the Raiders and Runtz, one of Blackjack’s wingmen. I certainly didn’t expect one of the hero planes to be shot down in the first issue. It’s a spectacular crash and a really exciting opening chapter, not just for this story but for the comic as a whole.

Trackdown is written by Angus Allan (TV-21, Look-In) and brought to life by John Cooper (Battle, Scream, Judge Dredd). As a child it felt like the battle and the crash of Riley’s plane had real world weight to them. This is in stark contrast to the cartoon. I’m reminded of how the G.I. Joe comics of the 80s would feature bullets and characters would often end up injured or worse, but in the cartoon every gun (no matter which model) fired lasers and no one was ever hit. The Ring Raiders cartoon was the same, so to see the toys being treated more seriously here made me an instant fan of this over the animated series.

Across the page from that cliffhanger is the first of the complete tales and when seen side by side the good guys seem to be having an off day, with this story beginning with another rough landing. Yasuo Yakamura was the first character to get a background story and I couldn’t have been happier because, as I’ve detailed previously, his X-29 came in the Starter Pack that began my collection and would remain my favourite, his Wing also being the first that I bought.

I was surprised the leaders weren’t the first to get this treatment but perhaps Yakamura was a fan favourite, or perhaps the fact his past would actually be set in our future, allowing them to have a full blown sci-fi strip for the premiere issue helped with their decision. Over the course of the comic’s life these complete tales would switch from sci-fi to war drama to horror and everything in between.

Yasuo was known for embracing computers, his aircraft kitted out with the latest tech only he could control. Written by Scott Goodall (The Phantom, Commando, Scream) and drawn by John Gillatt (Tiger, Eagle, Wildcat) the story focusses on why he defended the robotic landing system even though it nearly cost him his life. Initially distrustful of automated technology, during a war with an alien race called the Draxion in their Bat Wings he was forced to take a small robotic co-pilot after losing his partner.

Yasuo seeks revenge but the robot chastises him for putting that above the mission and Yasuo loses his temper, resulting in loss of concentration and they’re shot down. Left for dead by his human comrades he watches as the robot builds him a glider, only to stay behind and fend off the enemy alone, inevitably being blown apart. The story touches on how this set Yakamura on a path to studying robotics and computers and how he became the logical and cool headed pilot Vector would eventually recruit and bring back to our present day.

The serials would develop the characters further over time but these complete stories were the perfect way to delve into a particular aspect of their personality, helping to build layers across the various stories and issues.

No comic of the 80s would’ve been complete without a letters page answered by a fictional character who could be as cheeky or irreverent to the readers as they dared. Barrie’s titles never disappointed. In his book Comic Book Hero he explains how he loved creating various ways for readers to interact with his comics. He choose to have a different character in charge every issue, switching between the Raiders and the Skulls every fortnight.

Barrie was editing freelance from home under the name Creative Editorial Services and had brought in Terry Magee (Commando, Battle, Cor!!) to assist with editorials. Together they thought up some ingenious ways for readers to have their say. There were chances to apply to be a member of either group, or to design a new plane for the good guys or a super weapon for the bad, or they could draw a battle scene with their choice of victor or even write a short story. A very short story. There was a 150 word limit, or 155 words for the Skull Squadron who boasted, “That’s five more words than Ring Raiders allow!”

After a two-colour pin-up and the obligatory Next Issue/newsagent coupon page (boasting of the free posters to come in #2 and #3) we move on to the final two stories.

Barrie’s son James Nicholas (Eagle, Super Naturals, Scream) is an aviation enthusiast and this is clear in the strip he wrote, Bomber Blues. We’re not sure what began the fight between Wing Commander Cub Jones and Skull Leader Hubbub but it doesn’t matter. Appearing in the skies above the English Channel during World War II, this was just about as perfect an introduction to the whole concept as you could wish for.

In contrast to the other strips this one takes place entirely aboard the planes and sees a B-17 Flying Fortress Bomber become accidentally caught up in the battle between the futuristic craft. Really, what is there not to love about this?

We even see one of the Rebel Wing pilots have to parachute out, becoming lost in the past just as I theorised above. The action is intense and culminates in one of Cub’s wingmen colliding with the bomber. Damaged but now with a clear sense of sides, the bomber crew come to the rescue of the Ring Raiders. All of this great, original action is brought to detailed life by Don Wazejewski (Battle, Mask). Beautiful stuff.

Fans of the toys who had purchased Cub Jones’ Hero Wing or anyone who had closely read the introductory spread will have worked out this was set in the same year that Cub was originally beamed aboard the Justice. There’s no direct reference made but it’s no coincidence and Cub’s affection for the bomber crew is made abundantly clear in the final panels when he gives them a ring through which they can summon him should they need him.

The only slight disappointment is the way the leaders call their wingmen by their identification numbers instead of actual names, which feels a little off after Trackdown went to the trouble of creating new characters. But it’s only a minor quibble.


“Let’s give them a hand! All gunners open fire!”

World War II F-17 Bomber crew rescuing the Ring Raiders

Apart from characters holding their ringed hand aloft as they head to battle this is the first time we see a ring properly mentioned. One of the many uses it has is as a communicator that can cross the globe and periods of time. When the comic was released I knew from the toys some of the other things the rings could do in the story but I like the fact the comic introduces these slowly one at a time. The same goes with the various characters and Wings.

As a result, nothing feels forced, nothing feels like it’s exposition and in that regard the series has a surprisingly mature way of layering in all the information needed to introduce this new world. As you’ll see across these six issues (which would’ve all been regarded as early issues if it had lasted) the layers are added upon slowly, each new issue bringing new character, story and background developments. It’s a far cry from something like the first issue of Transformers five years prior which bombarded readers with everything they needed to know all at once, which felt very forced.

The final story is Freedom Flight, written by another long-time collaborator of Barrie’s, Tom Tully (Johnny Red, Bad Company, Dan Dare). Sandy James‘ art style will also be familiar to anyone raised on IPC or Fleetway licenced comics such as Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles Adventures or Mask. His colouring in particular is just magnificently bold.

Here the main characters are Commander Yuri Kirkov and his Freedom Wing, who go up against Skull Leader Mako‘s Vicious Wing. The former was an instant favourite among fans given how the final years of the Cold War were still playing out and Kirkov was a Soviet Air Force major who had defected to America before Vietnam. Mako’s MIG-29 was a personal favourite toy with its shark motif and the fact the info on his toy packet stated there were “rumours” it could operate underwater.

History books tell of a South American government fort which easily defeated ruthless rebels in 1966, however the intervention of Skull Squadron is starting to change history, potentially destabilising the future of the country. Kirkov discovers the tide of battle is about to change forever when Mako’s missile hits the fort. The situation is dire. While it’s only three pages a lot happens, with these gloriously dynamic final panels providing not only a superb cliffhanger but the perfect end to the entire issue.

These panels take up about a third of the back cover and it’s a gorgeous display to end the issue on. The action, the distant fire, the detailed face of Kirkov compared to the basic toy design, as well as the interesting plane angles all beg for more.

Barrie explains in his book how he found the fortnightly schedule of Wildcat interesting and wanted longer stories in its 32 pages to hold readers’ attentions for the two weeks, compared to the three-page tales of Eagle. As a result each of its stories were five or six pages in length. Ring Raiders was also fortnightly but had 24 pages to fit in just as many stories. But there was so much packed into each one that we never felt short-changed by any of them.

I was also collecting the weekly Transformers which contained three stories of roughly five pages each. Ring Raiders felt like a much meatier read and after this first issue I was an instant fan. I knew I would be though and the regular order had been placed when I purchased this issue. I hope you’ll join me on a regular basis too and return on Thursday 30th September for #2 of a bloody brilliant comic.