Hit Me With Your Best Shot

Just in case any casual reader of this blog has not guessed, I am a big fan of British comics.  I will and do read anything and everything I can find about British comics.  This includes everything from social media posts to educational tomes that can feel like I am wading through the written equivalent of treacle.

However, the “light the blue touch paper” moment for this post was reading Michael Carroll’s post on his Rusty Staples blog about Hotspur.  Now what Michael says about Hotspur is partly true.  There were a number of serials that were instantly forgettable and some were hard work to get through at the time.  And with more than a few, age has not improved them… However, that is the same for many comics, no matter when they were published.  Before I go any further, my tongue is firmly placed in my cheek and Michael and I form a mutual appreciation society.

Let’s start with setting the scene for when Hotspur issue 989 was published.  It was September 1978.  TV had three channels and was not 24/7.  A fourth was available if you were rich enough to own either a Betamax or VHS video recorder.  Radio had four main stations at best and a number of local radio stations depending on your locale.  The country was struggling due to strikes and militant behaviour.  Maggie Thatcher was making the news as she did not sugar-coat her message of being willing to smash the unions.  Mary Whitehouse and her National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association had managed to lobotomise Action and put the fear of God into Fleetway’s Senior Editors to such an extent that 2000AD was scrutinised for 10 years in case they once again attracted the wrath of Mary Whitehouse and the negative publicity associated with it.

This lets you see, from 2019, that comics in the 1970s were subject to all sorts of pressures that a reader would not have been aware of.  Now that I have set the scene, let’s go back and look at issue 989.

First up is the cover. Someone is being killed. That’s intriguing isn’t it? The alliteration of Murder At Midnight also adds to the mystery.

What the cover does not make clear is that Jim Ransom is a member of the Military Police in post war Berlin leaving the series open to all sorts of diversions.  This is not a story arc that is designed to develop the character, but it does tell a morality tale in that the good guys will win out in the end.

Just to add to the feel, Jim Ransom is a character that originally featured in the text papers from 1958 and The Big Palooka is just another name for a big guy who is clumsy in thought and action.  This turns into an ironic joke as Jim Ransom turns out to be someone who is light on his feet and swift of mind.

The art on this episode feels like it is Ripoll dialing it in as Ripoll did a fair chunk, if not all, of the work on this story arc.  If you have seen Ripoll’s work on The Amazing Wilson, you will understand my disappointment at the efforts in this episode.

For anyone fond of TV detective shows, this was the story for them.  A murder, some detective work and voila, the murderer is unmasked.

Let’s now move to the first story that is actually in the comic which is Bouncing Briggs. Bernard Briggs is an all round amateur sportsman who is a scrap merchant always teetering on the edge of the fiscal abyss, but he always manages to scrape by in the end.

In this episode, we see him trying out weight lifting with 200 lbs on the bar, hooking a shot with left-handed clubs, using his welding skills to repair wheeled golf caddies and pole vaulting! I don’t know about you, but I am exhausted just reading that!

As I had one brother that was a keen footballer, could fix his own car, played crown bowls, darts and worked full time, Bernard was someone I could relate to.  To see someone in comics that was similar to a family member meant I connected with the comic.

If you also add that almost all the Bernard Briggs stories were illustrated by Tony Harding, they felt familiar every time I read them.  Tony was a freelance artist that seemed to specialise in sports stories.  He drew 53 of the main stories in Football Picture Story Monthly and a few in Mark 2 Wizard.

Next we come to Kiowa Creek Ain’t There.  This is a cowboy story mixed in with a mystery.  Jubal Smith is a teenage Deputy in a man’s world.  Jubal had been away from his home town tracking down a wanted criminal.  When he returns, he finds the town has vanished and finds it, after much searching, seven miles away from where it should be. It’s now a ghost town as all the inhabitants died over two years ago due to a typhoid outbreak.

I have a soft spot for this story for several reasons. One is that I remember the story when I first read it as a 9 year old and I was very taken with the art which indicates the second reason I love it.  With Jim Bleach’s art, it didn’t matter how toffee the plot was, I was going to enjoy it anyway.  A third reason for this story having a special place in my collecting mind is that it was the first story that I discovered was a text story retold in pictures.  For the others such as the Alf Tupper, Braddock and Wilson stories, I was advised by the experts such as Ray Moore, Steve Holland and David Roach and a few other.  So to think I had discovered one myself, put me at least in the same post code as these experts.

Next up is an unusual take on World War II.  As you may be able to tell from the art, the hero of the story is an American citizen.  Just in case the Stetson, the gunslinger belt and colt pistols weren’t enough of a clue, they stuck a bucket of stars on his shirt so that he looked like a badly dressed tourist!

The story featured an under-represented aspect of World War II, the Air Transport Auxiliary.  The ATA transported planes around the UK so that the minimum of pilots were lost from front line duties to carry out this vital but mundane task.

In this series, the problem is that Wilbur is supposed to stay out of trouble, but he has an uncanny knack of either being able to find it or trouble finds him! There is little pretence that this story is about character development and is one of those instantly forgettable stories, but there was always a nice light touch to the writing which kept the story this side of becoming complete farce.

This is one of the many styles where I still need to identify the artist so that I can credit them.

What can I say about Dan’l Sprockett? Another western story but an out and out comedy with a bit of casual racism thrown in for good measure.  Dan’l Sprockett is obviously a send up of the Dan’l Boone backwoodsman story.  But adding in a Red Indian sidekick called Yellow Streak? Oh dear!  The only meagre defence I could put up could be it’s a bit of poking the opposition a wee bit as they ran a strip called Yellowknife Of The Yard in Valiant and this could be seen as poking fun at that story.

One of the few saving graces for this story is that this follows what I think of as the “Hong Kong Phooey model”.  For those of you too young to remember the show, your main character was supposed to be this superhero who would save the day.  In reality, he would achieve this half the time by sheer luck and the other half when his sidekick Spot the cat would pick up the pieces but the hero would take all the credit even when he wasn’t sure of how the day had been saved.  This story was purely for laughs and you will still groan out loud at the plot in a 1970s kind of way.

The artist is James Malcolm and he had been contributing to British comics since the 1950s.  This is where I will read a comic and find out that there is work of his from even earlier!  James was a freelancer and worked for both Fleetway and Thomson. He also worked on Inspector Bonehead in The Wizard, Whacko in Radio Fun and a Wacky Races style story that was also in the Hotspur.  Thanks to Lew Stringer for helping me find the name of the artist.

Officially I am showing you this advert to show how D C Thomson would cannily use available space in their comics to advertise other comics that readers might be interested in.  Free gifts were a rarity in comics up to the 1990s, so they were a good way of enticing new readers.  The free gifts were normally scheduled to featured when a number of new stories were beginning.  This would allow a new reader to jump in with a minimum of feeling as if they have missed out on several other stories.

Oh, who am I kidding?  The real reason for posting the advert is that I can never pass up a chance to post any of Ian Kennedy’s art.  That Spitfire is one of Ian’s and could have featured in either Warlord, Hotspur or Commando.  The fun will be figuring out exactly where and when it first appeared!

This is the second episode of V for Vengeance.  Even though this story first appeared in the Wizard during WW2, this was my introduction to The Deathless Men.  From the start, I loved the idea of a faceless resistance group within Nazi Germany.  Rather than try to explain the origin, I have snaffled a frame from issue 988 that explains the origin much more succinctly than I could.

This was heady stuff for a 9 year old kid.  Even now, I get a frisson of excitement when I find a Deathless Men story.  In the 1960s the scripts were re-edited and published in Hornet drawn by Frank Alan Philpott. I like Philpott’s art but it was knocked into a cocked hat by this 1970s re-interpretation.

There was little character development in this story as many were already shaped by their experiences in the concentration camps that they had escaped from.  Not to mention that most members of the Deathless Men were marked for death in their assigned missions.  I think the Red Shirts on Star Trek had a better survival rate.

This story is the reason I resisted reading V for Vendetta by Alan Moore for a number of years as I was disappointed that the story was not an additional Deathless Men story.  I did overcome my resistance eventually and read the seminal work in 2004…

Getting advice from David Roach, we think the artist for this seminal series is Francisco Cuteo.  As Francisco worked on Commando, it is no great stretch to consider that he may have worked on the weeklies.  After all, many regular contributors to the weeklies also worked on Commando.

The Ball Of Fire is another sports story.  The sport in this case is football and the central character is a no-nonsense footballer that plays hard but fair.  I know this story ran with the others but I have absolutely no recollection of it from the time.

Wally Brand is another character that was originally a text story character in Rover and reads fairly well, but it feels dated in a way that other stories do not.  After all, who can imagine Messi or Ronaldo turning up at a local superstore the day before their match?

Looking at the story, it feels like a 1950s drama where a group of kids rush up to the hero and ask him cheekily for a couple of bob guv’nor.  It also has quite a moralistic tone that is not as well hidden as it is with other Thomson comic stories.  You can almost hear a teacher pontificating to their class of how this is an example of how life is a case of work hard, stay within the rules and you will prosper.

I can’t even give you any clues about the artist.  It is not a bad style and shows a good understanding of perspective.

Our final story is TNT Telford. TNT Telford is a demolitions expert who decided to remain in Crete after the German airborne invasion of the island.  He fights with a partisan band who are always ready to take the war to the Germans.

In this episode, the Germans are closing in on the band of freedom fighter and their only option is to escape the island and make for Cyprus.

Again, TNT Telford is short on character development but big on action. There are explosions and deaths galore. The art shows Ripoll’s understanding of narrative and this is why I was annoyed at his efforts on The Big Palooka.

As Michael said, this traditional style war story would not have looked out of place in Battle, Action, Victor or Warlord.  However, the strength of the anthology comics such as Victor and Hotspur was that they were such broad churches where any action / adventure story could sit comfortably.

Last but not least is the back cover feature.  All of Thomson’s weekly comics used a feature page when it helped to keep the page count even.  The subject’s selection was on the simple premise of whatever they could get the most information on is the subject they would do a feature on.

This feature is on the venerable Fairey Swordfish, a plane that was used to astonishing effect during World War Two.  It was slow, easy meat for the enemy, but still the pilots and aircrew flying them showed incredible bravery during the years of the war flying almost to certain death in some cases.

The art is by one of my favourite staff artists, Jeff Bevan. Jeff contributed lots of these features to D C Thomson over his 30 year career at the company.  He was also a dab hand at the covers and weekly serials.  Calum Laird rated Jeff highly and said Jeff was in his element when creating reference work on ships and boats. Jeff had spent some of his youth on the dredger boats that had worked to keep the Tay River clear for sailing. It was obvious in his work on all things nautical that this was a special subject for Jeff.

Overall, this is Hotspur in her twilight years. There are still flashes of excellence as evidenced by V for Vengeance, Kiowa Creek. But as both scripts are retreads, it is concerning that Hotpsur is relying on past hits to keep it going.

At the time, the stories were new to me so I didn’t care.  I recognised the art styles on Bouncing Briggs, The Big Palooka, Kiowa Creek and TNT Telford as the artists had contributed before to Hotspur, Victor and Warlord. By this time, Hornet and Wizard had been and gone.

This is not a bad issue of Hotspur but neither is it a great one.  However, in another 11 weeks, Hotspur would reach issue 1000.  With that milestone, we would see the welcome return of Ron Smith working on King Cobra, the sequel to Kiowa Creek would begin, the humour strip the Coonskin Grenadier would be back with Pete Sutherland drawing the strip and Bernard Briggs would be learning judo.  Now that is a classic issue.

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