Doctor Who: Mind of Evil

Mind of Evil is the second serial in the 8th season of the television series Doctor Who, broadcast in the UK in six weekly episodes between 30th January and 6th March, 1971.

 

Plot Summary

The Doctor and Jo visit Stangmoor Prison to witness a demonstration of the Keller Machine, invented by Emil Keller, which extracts the negative (or evil) impulses from the human mind. But Keller is really the Master in disguise, and the machine contains an alien mind parasite that feeds on living minds. The Master is plotting to start World War III by destroying the World Peace Conference with a stolen nerve gas missile, after using the mind parasite to murder the American and Chinese delegates.

At Stangmoor Prison in England, the Master is posing as Emile Keller, a Professor of Criminology who has supposedly invented a machine which removes the negative (or evil) impulses from the minds of hardened criminals, but which actually contains an alien mind parasite that feeds on these evil impulses. He is plotting to start World War III by destroying the World Peace Conference in London. To do so, he plans to employ a nerve gas missile, stolen for him by the prisoners.

UNIT is handling the security for the Peace Conference. Posing as Emile Keller, the Master secretly supplies guns to the prisoners, and uses the mind parasite to start a riot by stirring up hostility among them, in which they take control of the prison. He plans to use them to seize the nerve gas missile which UNIT is arranging to have dumped at sea, as these weapons are now banned.

In case his plan to hijack the missile is thwarted, he intends to use the mind parasite (once it has fed sufficiently) to wreck the Peace Conference by murdering the American and Chinese delegates, who are to be killed by the mind parasite’s telepathic powers.

 

Technical Notes

This serial was formerly lost from the BBC’s television archive, the colour PAL videotapes on which it was made having been wiped in the 1970s. Only a monochrome telerecording, made on film for overseas sale of the programme, survived. But the serial has been restored using advanced computer technology to recolour one episode (by manually colouring key frames, then applying motion estimation to recolour the other 90%) and by extracting a colour signal – thought lost, but recorded by accident onto the monochrome film negatives – to restore colour to the other five episodes.

 

Critical Analysis

The plot of this serial contains a number of structural flaws, which were a significant contribution to the decision by the Doctor Who production office not to commission any further scripts from writer Don Houghton.

Firstly, it had been established in the previous serial, Terror of the Autons, that the Master’s TARDIS is no longer working. Indeed, in Mind of Evil the Master actually recovers his missing circuit at the end of the final episode: this is a major plot point in that episode. However, in Episode 1 the only practical way in which the Master could have impersonated Emile Keller (to install the Keller Machine at Stangmoor Prison a year earlier) was to have gone back in time by a year, using his TARDIS – which is not functional at that point.

Secondly, with his TARDIS out of action, how does the Master travel to the unnamed alien planet and collect the mind parasite? This unresolved problem is carefully side-stepped at every point: the Doctor is never allowed to consider where the creature actually comes from.

Thirdly, why does the Master bother to set up the elaborate scheme for murdering the Chinese delegate, so as to sabotage the peace conference, when he is arranging to destroy the conference with the Thunderbolt missile? Put another way, why is he going to so much trouble to hijack the missile (involving seizing control of the prison, and installing the mind parasite in the Keller machine there), when he is so close to breaking up the peace conference by the simple expedient of murdering the delegates? These two aspects of the Master’s plan are irreconcilable: either plan, on its own, is sufficient to achieve the Master’s goal, so the other is redundant.

Fourthly, why does the Master need a huge gang of criminals to hijack the missile, which he knows has a minimal escort, instead of simply adopting his usual technique of hypnotising the tiny UNIT force escorting it?

Fifthly, how does the Master know, a year in advance (when he installs the Machine), that the missile’s route from its Army storage facility to the dumping site at sea will take the convoy close to Stangmoor Prison? If he is relying on stolen information from the Time Lords’ files (as in Colony in Space), how does he obtain it with his TARDIS out of action? And the fact that he goes to the trouble of eavesdropping on UNIT’s communications implies that he does not know the convoy’s route at all. These facts are irreconcilable.

Finally, why is the Doctor suddenly and unaccountably interested in prison reform, such that he attends the demonstration of the Keller Machine in Episode 1? This is not a subject on which he shows interest in any other serial: not even in the one other serial, The Sea Devils, which explicitly involves a prison. Also, if he sees the Keller Machine as a threat, why has he not investigated the process during the year-long trial which has already been running?


The View from the Boundary

This serial is one of my favourite Pertwee stories, and as it unfolds the viewer is swept along by the events depicted, which create a tense and action-packed six part adventure. Not until it is all over does it become apparant that certain loose ends remain, and I have summarised some of them in this blog. They do not detract from the story, because they are so well concealed by the writer, assisted by script editor Terrance Dicks. It should not be assumed that I did not enjoy the serial.

Long ago, I even met writer Don Houghton and he discussed some of the points I have made, but he accepted that he didn’t tie up these loose ends. He was ordinarily, in his “day job”, script editor on the ITV soap Crossroads. He and Terry Dicks had met because Terry had written some episodes of Crossroads for Lew Grade’s ATV in the late 1960s.

There was a strong connection between Doctor Who and Crossroads in the years 1968-71. Terry Dicks had been either assistant script editor or full script editor on Who throughout that period, whilst also doing some scriptwriting for Crossroads. In 1968, Peter Ling, the man who co-created Crossroads with Hazel Adair, was invited to write for Who, and wrote the serial The Mind Robber for Patrick Troughton’s final season. Don Houghton was then invited to write for Who the following year, Jon Pertwee’s first season, and contributed the 7-parter, Inferno. Don then followed that up with Mind of Evil for Pertwee’s second season. In addition, another Crossroads script writer, Malcolm Hulke, was co-author of The War Games for Troughton’s final season, and wrote two serials for Pertwee’s first season: The Silurians and Ambassadors of Death (the latter without a screen credit), going on to write four more serials for Pertwee: Colony in Space (1971), The Sea Devils (1972), Frontier in Space (1973), and Invasion of the Dinosaurs (1974).

 

Advertisements
Posted in Doctor Who | Leave a comment

Smash! : The IPC Years – Part 5: Cancellation

Summary:

‘Smash!’ was the most successful of the five ‘Power Comics’ published in Britain in the 1960s by Odhams Press, a division of IPC. Targeted at boys aged 10 to 14, it was published from 1966 to 1971. This article is part of an analysis of the causes and consequences of the comic’s relaunch in 1969; a case-study of the economic pressures affecting the UK publishing industry in that period.


Merger with Valiant

In mid-November 1970, production on Smash (and many other IPC titles, including Valiant) came to a halt due to a printers’ strike, and no editions were produced for the following three months. By the time the strike was settled, in February of the following year, irreparable damage had been done to the comic’s circulation, as its young readers had turned elsewhere in the intervening 12 weeks. Similar harm had been suffered by Valiant. In consequence of this latest financial disaster, after eight issues, in April 1971, the two titles were merged. For a brief time the merged comic was entitled Valiant and Smash, before reverting to simply Valiant.

Some of the strips from Smash survived in the new comic, including His Sporting Lordship, Janus Stark and The Swots and the Blots, but most were lost, although the Smash Annual continued to appear for many years afterwards (continuing, in fact, until the 1976 Annual, published in the autumn of 1975). Most of the strips thereby continued to appear each year, including many which had not even survived into Valiant, long after Smash had ceased publication as a comic.

The sports themed His Sporting Lordship had enjoyed perhaps the greatest popularity, surviving the shake-ups of 1969 and 1970, and then surviving even the merger with Valiant, though it was to last only a few months in its new home, finally ending in December 1971. However, it was revived in the 1972 Smash Annual, published at Christmas 1971, and returned year after year: becoming the regular cover feature of the Annuals.

Despite all of the changes, the new Smash had lasted only two years. Maybe it was only marginally profitable, but no title could have survived such a lengthy loss of production. Its demise was directly attributable to the strike.

Smash was the last attempt in the UK market to publish a general boys comic, mixing adventure, sports and humour strips. Subsequent comics would survive only by ruthlessly focusing on narrow, sectional interests: such as all-sports, all-war, or all-humour; just as the American market had already specialised into all-funnies, all-horror, and all-superhero titles. The writing was on the wall for non-niche comics in the UK, for, in the face of the competition from television, even IPC’s flagship, Valiant, ultimately could not survive.

 

Posted in British Comic Books | 1 Comment

Smash! : The IPC Years – Part 4: Changes, More Changes!

Summary:

‘Smash!’ was the most successful of the five ‘Power Comics’ published in Britain in the 1960s by Odhams Press, a division of IPC. Targeted at boys aged 10 to 14, it was published from 1966 to 1971. This article is part of an analysis of the causes and consequences of the comic’s relaunch in 1969; a case-study of the economic pressures affecting the UK publishing industry in that period.


Changes in August 1969

After 22 weeks, in August 1969, Nutt and Bolt, the Men from W.H.E.E.Z.E. was dropped, and replaced from the 23rd issue by a more serious World War Two strip entitled Send For… Q-Squad, drawn by Eric Bradbury, which dealt with the adventures of a hand picked group of six specialists, who were assigned to unusual missions that required special expertise both in the air and on the ground. This, too, in keeping with the need to cut costs, was a reprint strip, originally published in Buster in 1960 under the title Phantom Force 5, which was also apparent from the artist’s unique style – which was both different from, and grimmer than, all the other strips. Whereas Sgt Rock emulated Lord Henry (and Janus Stark), by maintaining a huge and confident smile, regardless of how much trouble he was in, no one in ‘Q-Squad’ ever stopped looking worried.

Its reprint status is also indicated by the fact that Q-Squad is plainly not the original name of the team. Some panels show evidence of the name having been inserted over the previous one; there is a change in the lettering style for the name ‘Q-Squad’ and any adjacent words, which use a different handwriting in a cruder style wherever the name appears, but nowhere else. All adjacent words in the same line also change, in an identical manner, and none of the other lettering in the strip employs that style.

In the same issue, a serious footballing serial entitled The Handcuff Hotspurs began, replacing the departed World Wide Wanderers. Hard-as-nails former prison sports instructor ‘Toff’ Morgan (so called for his habit of always wearing a top-hat) took over the management of ailing First Division side Haversham Hotspurs. Morgan began to rebuild the team by ‘framing’ ex-criminals who he’d known while working in various prisons, forcing them to sign on with the club in order to make use of their dishonest skills as footballing talents. These convicts became the ‘handcuff hotspurs’ of the title. The club’s former manager, Reg Jessup, tried constantly to sabotage Morgan’s efforts, in order to persuade the Directors to re-appoint him instead.

TouchlineTearaways
Six months earlier, various humour strips had been introduced as replacements for the (far more surreal) humour of Ken Reid, whose strip The Nervs had so disturbed IPC’s management. Now another was forthcoming, and one which reflected the pervasive sporting theme of the new Smash. This was The Touchline Tearaways, featuring three mad-keen supporters of Grimshot United: a totally useless professional football team, perpetually in danger of being relegated as it was made up entirely of ailing and decrepit players. Each week the Tearaways – Hairy, Lug’oles and Clever Dick – would execute some scheme from the touchline to help Grimshot win that week’s match, usually involving a battle of wits with officials from the Ministry of Football, who, not unnaturally, tried to put a stop to the Tearaways well-intentioned cheating.

The name of the club, Grimshot United, was a humorous indicator of the fact that the team was not very good (i.e. that the players were “grim shots”). Each strip featured a single match, with a plot based around helping the team overcome that week’s opponent. Clever Dick masterminded all the ploys used in helping Grimshot, and apart from occasional words of congratulation or encouragement he was generally the only “Tearaway” who had dialogue in the strip. Hairy and Lug’oles tended to be merely a pair of walking visual gags; Hairy’s features were perpetually invisible behind a vast mass of long black hair that covered his entire face and head, and Lug’oles had a pair of enormous ears.

Thus within six months a number of the new strips had already bitten the dust. And more changes were looming.

 

The 1970 Revamp

The most obvious problem faced by the new-look Smash was the constant “churn” : the incessant turnover of strips. Its new editorial staff seemed pathologically incapable of settling on a fixed line-up.

In the aftermath of the changes made in August 1969, further changes made at the start of 1970 left Smash looking very different from its appearance in the wake of the relaunch just 12 months earlier. Only half of the strips introduced in March 1969 survived, although the continuing strips did include Master of the Marsh, Janus Stark, His Sporting Lordship, Battle of Britain, Eric the Viking, Wacker, The Handcuff Hotspurs, The Swots and the Blots and Percy’s Pets – the latter two now the only remaining Odhams strips.

Discontinued in the spring of 1970 were King of the Ring (last survivor of the serious strips from the Odhams era), Sergeant Rock – Special Air Service, and Cursitor Doom. Three of the strips only recently introduced were also dropped, namely the wartime Q-Squad, British superhero Tri-Man, and the humour strip The Touchline Tearaways.

The first changes to occur in 1970 were in the issue dated 24th January, when three new strips appeared: The Kid Commandos, Consternation Street (reprinted from Buster), and Monty Muddle – The Man from Mars (which was also a reprint from Buster, originally titled Milkiway – The Man from Mars).

The Kid Commandos was a war story about three cockney children stranded in occupied France in World War Two. The Sparrow children, Tommy, Jan and Podge, were on the run from the Germans each week, in a single page strip set in 1940.

In Consternation Street (the title spoofed that of the popular television soap opera, Coronation Street), usually a one-page strip, a collection of unlikely neighbours rubbed shoulders in a very small street. Watched over by the dim-witted Constable Clott were the Snobbs and the Ardupps, Colonel Curry & Caesar (his dog), Miss Primm and her pets, Cutprice the Grocer, and Roger the Lodger. Curiously, adverts which appeared the week before the strip began featured Mr Ardupp and Miss Snobb, instead of the family Ardupp and the family Snobb, suggesting the final contents of the strip had featured some very late changes.

Monty Muddle

Smash issue 247, 24 October 1970

A half-page humour strip, Monty Muddle – The Man from Mars, recounted the misadventures of spaceman Monty Muddle, who flew about in his small bubble-domed spacecraft trying to make friends with the Earth people. However, due to his misunderstanding of Earth customs, his every attempt at contact ended in disaster; and each strip would end with the catchphrase, ‘I’ll try again next week!’

Further changes occurred in the 7th February issue, including a new cover feature. The Warriors of the World covers had run into a problem, in that war stories were not a strong element of the relaunched Smash, which had dropped the humour strip Nutt and Bolt, the Men from W.H.E.E.Z.E. some time earlier. When it was decided to also drop Sergeant Rock – Paratrooper (by then renamed Sergeant Rock – Special Air Service), and Q Squad, the cover feature had to go too. It was not practical to advertise war stories on the cover if there were actually no war stories inside!

The newly added Kid Commandos did not count as a war story in this context, since the three fugitive children did not do any conventional fighting. The strip was more like a souped-up version of the discontinued Rebbels on the Run.

After forty six weeks, therefore, the Warriors of the World covers were ended. Instead the issue dated 7th February 1970 began The Thirteen Tasks of Simon Test. Henceforth each week’s cover featured a full-page splash advertising the task which Simon Test would undertake in a new adventure strip on the inside pages. This strip proved so popular that when the original thirteen week series was completed (featuring one task each week), Simon Test was given a new series of adventures, extending his hold on the cover indefinitely. He would prove particularly enduring, being one of the few strips to ultimately survive the merger with Valiant in 1971.

The Thirteen Tasks of Simon Test saw Test undertake a quest for immortality by attempting the thirteen tasks of the Pharaoh Thot, believing this to be the only way to save his life, having been deceived by the sinister Jabez Coppenger into believing he has only a few months to live. The aged Coppenger secretly desired Test’s death as a means of restoring his own youth. This serial introduced the mute servant Karka, who would ultimately become Test’s friend and assistant.

Simon Test

Smash issue 247, 24 October 1970

Test then went on to the more lengthy series of adventures entitled Simon Test and the Curse of the Conqueror, where he battled the evil Ezekiel Spar, the self-styled Conqueror. This pitted him against twenty athletes and champions, each of whom was under the hypnotic control of Spar, who implanted in them an in-built impulse to kill Simon Test.

New supporting strips were also introduced in the 7th February issue, including Threat of the Toymaker, The Pillater Peril, Birdman of Baratoga, Nick and Nat – The Beat Boys, and three humour strips with a supernatural content: Sam’s Spook (drawn by Leo Baxendale), The Haunts of Headless Harry, and Ghost Ship.

In Threat of the Toymaker a criminal scientist named Doctor Droll escaped from Garstone Prison with the aid of an army of remote controlled mechanical toys he had constructed, along the way taking the Prison Governor’s children, Pam and Peter Keen, as hostages. Hampered by the children at every turn, Droll finds himself on the run, pursued by the Police wherever he goes. The use of radio controlled toys in the strip was scarcely original, since the idea was a straight lift from the House of Dolmann strip then running in Valiant, as well as from the General Jumbo strip in The Beano.

The Pillater Peril saw David Pillater return to Pillater House, his ancestral home on the Cornish coast, which he is to inherit on his 21st birthday. Along with his four cousins and his Uncle Bernard, David is imperilled by Francis Pillater, an ancestor who has seemingly returned from the dead. Francis had an evil reputation for his misdeeds in the 16th Century, but was thought to have perished in a shipwreck during a storm at sea. Blaming the family for his troubles, he sets out for revenge by kidnapping them one by one.

Birdman from Baratoga was an adventure strip about a boy who grew up on a Pacific island with only the company of birds, and learned from them the secret of flight. By the use of a feather cape, he was able to glide through the air like an albatros. When an English sailor is castaway on the island, called Baratoga, they escape together on a raft and set out on a series of adventures in the Pacific, beginning by hunting down the desperado who has stolen the man’s pearl-fishing yacht, Enterprise. Birdman from Baratoga was perhaps loosely based on a humour strip which had run in Buster during 1968: Captain Swoop – He’s Half Man, Half Bird, Half Wit.

In a very atypical move, prompted by IPC’s on-going financial problems (in the year in which they were taken over by the Reed Group), the editorial team now resurrected one of the old strips which had run in Wham under Odhams. Nick and Nat – The Beat Boys featured two young lads from Liverpool who fancied themselves as musicians, spoke in Liverpudlian slang, sported Beatles-style haircuts, and always carried guitars. Who were they based on, I wonder? This strip was a reprint of The Wacks, which had run in Wham in 1964, reprinted here with only the title and the names changed.

A common supernatural theme linked the three new humour strips. In Sam’s Spook, drawn by the ubiquitous Leo Baxendale, Sam was a schoolboy with a ghostly pal called Spooky, who used his powers to humorous effect on Sam’s behalf. The strip mostly consisted of Sam’s schoolfriends catching Spooky doing a bit of ghostly cheating in order to help Sam win at sports or football, and Sam doing a lot of running away to avoid a bashing.

The Haunts of Headless Harry featured the amiable ghost of a 16th Century soldier who had been beheaded. Harry’s head and body led separate but related ghostly existences, with the body carrying the head around everywhere, and both of them were able to talk. Harry’s humorous adventures invariably involved misplacing his head; such as going to the cinema and, on leaving, calling at the cloakroom to collect it (as though it was a hat), and being asked by the attendant to identify it among all the other ghostly heads left there during the film.

The other new humour strip was Ghost Ship, in which the spirit of an ancient galleon, and the ghosts of its pirate crew, sailed the Seven Seas making mischief, but usually coming off worst.

Further changes followed. In the issue dated 27 June 1970, a new humour strip began entitled Moonie’s Magic Mate, about a schoolboy, Barry Moon, who finds a Genie in a dusty old bottle. In the issue dated 29 August, a humour strip titled The Fighting Three began, featuring the misadventures of three men: McGinty, Hambone and Weasel are travelling the world, trying to raise money to start their own construction company, but get into fights – and jail! – wherever they go. Finally, the last addition before the comic’s closure, a strip entitled Tyler the Tamer was launched in early 1971, about the adventures of the greatest film stuntman in the world. Dropped to make room for these strips were Kid Commandos, Threat of the Toymaker and The Pillater Peril.

 

Posted in British Comic Books | Leave a comment

Smash! : The IPC Years – Part 3: IPC Adventure

Summary:

‘Smash!’ was the most successful of the five ‘Power Comics’ published in Britain in the 1960s by Odhams Press, a division of IPC. Targeted at boys aged 10 to 14, it was published from 1966 to 1971. This article is part of an analysis of the causes and consequences of the comic’s relaunch in 1969; a case-study of the economic pressures affecting the UK publishing industry in that period.

IPC Adventure Strips

The other staple of the new Smash was adventure serials, and the most successful of these was The Incredible Adventures of Janus Stark, featuring an escapologist in Victorian London who appeared to be simply an unusual act on the music-hall stage, but who privately used his extraordinary abilities to battle against injustice. Stark had an unusually flexible bone structure, enabling him to get out of an astonishing variety of tight situations, thanks to training received in childhood from his mentor, Blind Largo. Drawn by Solano Lopez, there was more than a touch of Reed Richards, from the departed Fantastic Four strip, in Stark’s uncanny abilities. The strip was one of the few to survive the merger of Smash into Valiant in 1971, and is still well remembered today.

This strip brings up the matter of economics once more. Solano Lopez was a foreign illustrator, born in the Argentine, who worked at a studio in Spain. For reasons of cost, IPC had taken a policy decision to source artwork from cheaper sources outside the UK. Along with the presence in the new Smash of reprint strips, this is yet another indicator of the financial pressure the comic was still under, and the absolute necessity of cutting production costs to the bone in order to make it financially viable.

Another long-running adventure strip was The Battle of Britain, in which secret agent Simon Kane fought against Baron Rudolph, a usurper who had seized control of Britain using a secret weapon. The weapon emitted a sound wave which paralysed anyone who wasn’t protected against it. Rudolph set up a police state, similar in emblems and uniforms to medieval England at the time of King John, and Kane led the resistance against him.

In spite of the title, the strip had no connection with the Second World War! Drawn by John Stokes, it was in fact a reprint; hence it, too, was an indication of the comic’s troubled financial status (reprints being cheaper than new strips). It originally ran in Lion from 1964, under the titles Britain in Chains and The Battle for Britain, where the hero was called Vic Gunn. The editorial staff of Smash took a decision to change the names of the leading characters from Gunn and Barrel (i.e. gun barrel), to slightly less absurd ones; and so were born secret agent Simon Kane and his assistant Tubby. This had been a very long-running strip in Lion, such that Smash actually ceased publication – in April 1971 – before it had reprinted the entire run from Lion, and in the final issue created a new ending to the serial.

Rebbels on the Run was another adventure serial, featuring three young brothers whose surname was Rebbel, who had run away from an orphanage to avoid being split up. After a few months on the run, the strip took an amazing turn and – renamed The Rebbel Robot – became a science fiction serial, when the boys discovered that their late father’s mind was preserved within the brain of a robot, which became their unofficial guardian. With it they embarked on a quest to track down a criminal known as The Genie, who had murdered their real father (who turned out to be an undercover agent for the Government).

Two of the new adventure strips – Sergeant Rock, Paratrooper and Bunsen’s Burner – had been introduced five or six weeks early, in an attempt to conceal how few Odhams strips had actually survived, by making these appear to be existing strips although they were not. World War Two was the setting for the former, which recounted the adventures of the ‘Red Devils’ of the Parachute Regiment. Initially, Sgt Rock was merely a narrator, introducing stories featuring other characters, so that it was actually tales-of-the-parachute-regiment, rather than tales of Sgt Rock himself. Presumably this was a device for reprinting old war stories from other comics. The strip was reasonably successful, running for a year, and eventually featured Sergeant Rock as more than just the narrator, sending him into action with the SAS, and marking the change by altering the title to Sergeant Rock – Special Air Service. It was noticeable, also, by a change of artist; seemingly – from the similarity of style – to whomever had drawn the discontinued wartime strip Nutt and Bolt – The Men from W.H.E.E.Z.E..

Bunsen’s Burner was a short-lived strip, lasting just a few weeks. This was an adventure yarn with humorous overtones, about Ben Bunsen, the owner of a vintage car. The car was known as “the Burner”, because it was so old it was steam-driven! Like an old-fashioned steam train it had a boiler which had to be stoked, as it ran on coal instead of petrol. Ben and his pal had to drive the Burner around the world, as a condition of Ben inheriting his uncle’s fortune; but a rival claimant (shades of His Sporting Lordship!) was secretly out to stop them.

Cursitor Doom

Another adventure strip which had a sadly brief run, lasting only 46 weeks, but which is very well-remembered today, was Cursitor Doom. In this spooky and atmospheric series, Cursitor Doom, master investigator of the strange and mystic, who openly practiced sorcery in the strip, battled against the dark forces of evil, ably assisted by the pounding fists of his assistant, Angus McCraggan. Doom battled against genuine spirits and sorcerers, in tales including The Case of Kalak the Dwarf, The Sorcerer’s Talisman and The Dark Legion of Mardarax, in the latter encountering a haunted (and unstoppable) Roman Legion brought back to “life” by the evil Mardarax. Doom’s pet Raven, Scarab, who could write messages in the dust for Angus McCraggan, by scratching with his claw, was often of more help to Doom in these serials than was the perpetually baffled McCraggan.

The Cursitor Doom strip was drawn by Geoff Campion (including The Return of the Hunter) and Eric Bradbury (including the atmospheric Dark Legion of Mardarax).

 

Posted in British Comic Books | Leave a comment

Smash! : The IPC Years – Part 2: Humour and Sporting strips

Summary:

‘Smash!’ was the most successful of the five ‘Power Comics’ published in Britain in the 1960s by Odhams Press, a division of IPC. Targeted at boys aged 10 to 14, it was published from 1966 to 1971. This article is part of an analysis of the causes and consequences of the comic’s relaunch in 1969; a case-study of the economic pressures affecting the UK publishing industry in that period.


IPC Humour Strips

As under Odhams, humour continued to play a large part.

With the relaunch, The Swots and the Blots (one of the handful of surviving Odhams strips) moved from the front cover to the centre pages. Now drawn by Leo Baxendale, it became a standard bearer for sophisticated artwork. Baxendale began a three-year run on the strip (beginning in Smash and continuing in its successor, Valiant and Smash) by adopting a new style, one which influenced many others in the comics field, just as his earlier Beano work had done; and in the process attaining a new, deliriously daft, high standard, one rarely approached by other strips.

New humour strips featured in the relaunch included a half-page cartoon strip entitled Big ‘Ead, detailing the humorous misadventures of a Mr Knowall character, summed up by the strip’s catchphrase, continually bellowed at the lead character by his irate victims: “Have a care there, Big ‘Ead!”

Wacker was a single page cartoon strip, subtitled He’s All at Sea. It concerned the crazy antics in the Royal Navy of Mis-leading Seaman Wacker, who was forever driving the Captain of HMS Impossible towards a nervous breakdown. This strip was new to Smash, but was in fact a reprint from Buster, where its original title had been Elmer.

Another humour strip new to Smash was the World War Two spoof, Nutt and Bolt, the Men From W.H.E.E.Z.E. Set in 1940, this featured an English scientist named Professor Nutt, who was a boffin inventing eccentric secret weapons for a department of the War Office known as W.H.E.E.Z.E. (short for Weapon Handling Early Experimental and Zoning Establishment), who was kept out of trouble by his Army “minder”, Sgt ‘Lightning’ Bolt. Nutt and Bolt were perpetually clashing with a cunning Nazi scientist named Doktor Skull. This was another reprint strip, perhaps from Lion. As its title implies, it was born out of the earlier popularity of the Man From UNCLE television series. However, the strip had only a short run in Smash, being replaced after just 22 issues.

Yet it was not only in the plainly cartoon-style strips that humour flourished in the new Smash. Many of the ostensibly more serious offerings were, in reality, humour strips: in particular, His Sporting Lordship and The World Wide Wanderers; but there was also a strong humorous undercurrent in the new lead serial, Master of the Marsh.

 

IPC Sporting Strips

Sporting strips were now the order of the day. Reflecting this, the new lead, on page 3, was Master of the Marsh, a sports serial about Patchman, a strange hermit who lived in the East Anglian fens. He was appointed as the new sports master at Marshside Secondary School, nicknamed ‘The Marsh’, as he was the only person who could control the kids – a group of hooligans known as ‘the Monsters of the Marsh’. There was an association of ideas between fens and marsh, reinforced by the fact that Patchman camped in the inaccessible heart of the marshes. He was a burly woodsman who had always lived in the Fens, and could communicate after a fashion with the local wildlife, for whom he acted as protector.

The strip initially featured humorous stories about the attempts of Knocker Reeves – the worst of the ‘monsters’ – to get the better of the new teacher. But eventually it transpired that Patchman was secretly the guardian of a collection of relics left behind by Hereward the Wake, a warlord who had fought the Norman invaders in the Fens during the 11th Century. In this respect, the strip had an occasional tendency to embrace science fiction overtones.

Of all the sports-based stories, the only survivor from the Odhams years was King of the Ring, which continued to prosper. Possibly feeling the strip was suffering in the credibility stakes, the new editorial team made a decision to change the name of King’s manager, who bore the remarkable name (actually a nickname) of Blarney Stone! They threw Blarney out of the series and substituted a new manager with a less silly name. ‘Ballyhoo Barnes’ wasn’t all that much less silly, but it’s the thought that counts! Even so, Blarney reappeared after a few weeks, by popular demand.

The most successful of the new sports-based strips (certainly the most long-running) was His Sporting Lordship. This humorous hit proved so popular that it ultimately became one of the few to outlast Smash itself. Henry Nobbins had been a labourer on a building site until he inherited the title of Earl of Ranworth and five million pounds. Before he could touch the money, however, he had to become champion at a number of sports. He also had to evade the nefarious attentions of Mr Parkinson, who was a rival claimant to the fortune, and Parkinson’s villainous henchman, Fred Bloggs.

Lord Henry, as he had now become, was more than ably assisted by his Butler, Jarvis, who he had inherited from the previous Earl. And Jarvis proved indispensable. Henry was never portrayed as anything other than an able athlete and a good natured bloke, leaving Jarvis to supply the cunning which was (frequently) needed to defeat the dasterdly Mr Parkinson, and prevent Henry’s ancestral home, Castle Plonkton, from being turned into a glue factory.

The relaunch included a short-lived football strip entitled The World-Wide Wanderers, about a League football team composed of eleven players from eleven different countries – not such a funny joke today! Football manager Harry Kraft found himself a passenger on a ship passing through the Suez Canal; ships from all over the world called there, and the crews conducted impromptu soccer matches to while away the time in port. Some of the crews had been stranded there, and constant soccer practice (since there was nothing else to do) had caused them to develop fantastic footballing skills. Kraft shipped eleven of them, from as many different countries, back to England; and they used their highly unorthodox individual skills to play as a team in the old Fourth Division.

 

Posted in British Comic Books | Leave a comment

Smash! : The IPC Years – Part 1: Smash! after Odhams

Summary:

‘Smash!’ was the most successful of the five ‘Power Comics’ published in Britain in the 1960s by Odhams Press, a division of IPC. Targeted at boys aged 10 to 14, it was published from 1966 to 1971. This article is part of an analysis of the causes and consequences of the comic’s relaunch in 1969; a case-study of the economic pressures affecting the UK publishing industry in that period.

‘Smash!’ after Odhams

In January 1969 Odhams ceased to exist as a publishing imprint, and Smash became an IPC Magazines publication. Most of the consequences of this change didn’t become apparent until the issue cover-dated March 15th, in which the comic changed dramatically. IPC had waited three months to relaunch Smash, because, on the one hand, it needed some lead-time in which to ready new strips, and, on the other, Spring was traditionally considered in the publishing industry to be a good time to launch a new (or, in this case, virtually new) comic.

With the re-launch, Smash became the last ever British comic to feature a variety mix of adventure, humour, and sports-themed stories. Subsequent boys’ comics contained exclusively sports, or war, or humour strips; such as Scorcher and Score and Shoot (which featured only football), or Action and Battle (which featured only war stories).

A hallmark of this policy was to be the even-handedness with which the editorial staff would draw the multitude of reprint strips which featured in the new Smash from both Lion and Buster, in seeking to appeal to readers of both (i.e. mixing serious and humorous strips without discrimination).

The symbol of the change was the new cover feature, Warriors of the World. This now replaced The Swots and Blots, who, drawn by Mike Lacey, had occupied the cover during the final part of the Odhams years. Happily, The Swots and the Blots survived (and prospered) on the inside pages.

With the first relaunch issue (issue 163) bearing a cover feature entitled Warriors of the World No.1, the former numbering was discontinued. To have continued the original sequential numbering alongside the ‘Warriors of the World’ series would only have caused confusion.

The revamped Smash, now comprising 40 pages, featured new all-British strips — adventure serials, humour strips, and sporting strips — alongside reprints from Lion, such as Eric the Viking (originally ‘Karl the Viking’), The Battle of Britain (originally ‘Britain in Chains’), and Nutt and Bolt, the Men from W.H.E.E.Z.E.; and alongside reprints from Buster, such as Wacker (originally Elmer), Consternation Street, and Monty Muddle – The Man from Mars (originally Milkiway – The Man from Mars); but strictly no American superheroes. The number of reprint strips was another significant indicator of its troubled financial situation, reprints being significantly cheaper than commissioning new strips.

Of the former Odhams strips, only a handful survived. Humour strips which continued were The Swots and the Blots, Wiz War, Bad Penny, and Percy’s Pets (although Percy did not appear every week). Much mourned were the loss of The Cloak and The Man from BUNGLE, dropped due to the waning popularity of spy spoofs (in 1968 even the TV series The Man from UNCLE had been cancelled); and especially mourned was the loss of Ken Reid and The Nervs.

The serious offerings fared even worse. For although the survivors appeared to include Sergeant Rock – Paratrooper and Bunsen’s Burner, in reality neither of these were genuinely from the Odhams era. Both had begun only a few weeks earlier, in issues 156 and 158 respectively. They were really a part of the relaunch, but were introduced slightly ahead of time to disguise that fact. The only genuine survivor from the adventure strips of the Odhams years was King of the Ring, and even that had only begun with issue 144, in November 1968.

After a few months, superheroes appeared to be making a comeback. The Editorial column admitted receiving complaints from readers about the loss of the Marvel strips; and, in the autumn of 1969, six months after the Fantastic Four and Thor had been dropped, an all-British superhero called Tri-Man appeared, and the character also featured in the Smash Annual that Christmas. Some indication of the effort put into this character is the fact that he was given sole possession of the front cover of the Annual! The adventures of Johnny Meek featured a hero who had triple-superpowers, hence the name Tri-Man. He leaped about rooftops (shades of Spider-Man, from the long-vanished Pow), and got his powers from a ray device once every 24 hours (shades of DC’s ‘Green Lantern’). But the strip did not prove popular, and quietly vanished in the reshuffles of 1970.

In the light of how few strips of any sort survived from the Odhams era, and given that none of the superhero strips survived at all (which, according to the Letters pages, were the most popular feature of the Power Comics), it would be stretching the truth to say that Smash inherited the best of the Odhams strips. Stylistically, The Swots and the Blots was the most creative and sophisticated Odhams strip (save only The Nervs), and it did survive. But it was only one strip. And The Nervs, which was objectively a more sophisticated strip in 1968, did not.

Moreover, the publisher was taking a significant risk by re-launching the former Power Comic as, in effect, a clone of IPC’s most popular titles, Lion and Valiant. The publisher felt it could repeat the success of Valiant and Lion by copying their successful formula. Nevertheless, without its discontinued superheroes Smash had nothing unique about it, that might attract new readers, compared to its stablemates (featuring as it did a mix of strips reprinted from, or based upon the style of, Lion and Buster).

 

Posted in British Comic Books | Leave a comment

Smash! : The Odhams Years – Part 4: Crisis in 1968

Summary:

‘Smash!’ was the most successful of the five ‘Power Comics’ published in Britain in the 1960s by Odhams Press, a division of IPC. Targeted at boys aged 10 to 14, it was published from 1966 to 1971. This article is part of an analysis of the causes and consequences of the comic’s relaunch in 1969; a case-study of the economic pressures affecting the UK publishing industry in that period.

Closure of the Power Comics

Following the initial success of Wham in 1964, Odhams launched four more Power Comics during 1966 and ’67, including Smash, only to close them in quick succession: merging each in turn into the survivors, until by 1969 only Smash remained. Whereas 1968 began with all five Power Comics apparently flourishing, by the year’s end only Smash was still being published. Even the sleepiest of readers began to notice that something was seriously wrong, as the increasingly frantic series of mergers resulted in ever more ludicrous titles, culminating in the astonishing Smash and Pow incorporating Fantastic (commonly spoofed as Smash, Pow, Wham, incorporating Fantastic and Terrific).

The question is why, in a limited market such as the UK, they took such a big risk as to launch five titles (which in hindsight looks an unwise decision by the Odhams management), if it was so quickly obvious the market could only support one. The answer lies in the economic crisis of 1968 that hit the British economy, resulting in the devaluation of the Pound. The economic chaos began with a Sterling crisis in Britain in 1967, leading to devaluation in the November. There then followed a crisis for the U.S. dollar in March 1968 which had a cascade effect on the international economic system: sending first the French franc and then the West German deutschmark into devaluation, and culminating in a new Sterling crisis in Britain in November 1968.

The fall in the value of the Pound against the U.S. dollar significantly increased the cost of publishing the American superhero strips, which had to be paid for in dollars, and raised the daunting spectre of further increases if the Pound fell in value yet again. Increasing the cover price of the Power Comics to compensate was impossible because of stiff competition, so the fall in the value of Sterling made the American strips unaffordable.

The toughness of the competition is apparent from examining other contemporary titles. The first issue of its stablemate Fantastic, published in February 1967, cost 9d for 40 pages (due to its very high content of American superhero strips), a cover price which forced Fantastic to close within 18 months. Terrific, having the same high content of American material, also had a high cover price of 9d, and closed even quicker. By contrast, the comics Dandy and Beano published by the rival DC Thomson organisation sold at a cover price of 3d. Fantastic and Terrific cost three times as much, which (even with double the number of pages, compared to many DC Thomson titles) proved unsustainable. This is not surprising, given that Wham and Pow each peaked at a cover price of 7d, and even that proved unsustainable.

Smash had launched in February 1966 with a cover price of 7d for its 28 pages. By March 1969, although its cover price had not changed, circumstances had conspired to increase its page count, such that each issue now contained 36 pages. In fact the page count had jumped overnight from 24 pages to 36 pages (a fifty percent increase), with a consequent sharp rise in production costs, and hence a marked decline in profit-per-copy.

The tipping point was issue 144, in which Smash, Pow and Fantastic were merged into a single title. The recently created Smash and Pow lost its Daredevil and Spider-Man strips, which together had comprised a full third of each 24 page issue, but now had to accommodate both Thor and Fantastic Four from Fantastic, plus a whole slew of new British adventure strips (which were being added in preparation for the comic’s impending transition to solely-British content).

All this could not be achieved within the standard Smash format of 24 pages. So IPC now “bit the bullet” and increased the page count, in a single bound, by fifty percent — a necessity if they were to achieve their intention of reproducing with Smash the successful formula which was buoying-up their most popular titles, Lion and Valiant, both of which were 36-pagers.

The competitive nature of the UK’s publishing industry meant margins were thin: a minimum number of sales each week were needed to reach break-even point, and the lower the cover price, the greater was the number of sales needed to reach that point; but the higher the cover price, the fewer were the number of sales that could actually be achieved.

The juvenile readers (or their parents) might be able to afford two or three comics a week, but by publishing five Power Comics IPC were pricing themselves out of the market. For the situation in Britain was not like that in America, where, with comics published just once a month, a child might afford five titles. In Britain, comics were published weekly.

Under those conditions the Power Comics were effectively competing with each other (a factor IPC was certainly aware of, as the letters pages in Smash, in 1968, actually carried readers’ complaints that they couldn’t afford all five Power titles); and the Power Comics were also competing with IPC’s other titles, including Lion, Valiant and Buster, potentially dragging the Group’s entire line into bankruptcy. Rationalisation, by closing some of the titles, would produce an overall benefit, as it would dramatically cut IPC’s production costs. Although it would mean fewer titles, as IPC’s comics were actually competing against each other it ought to result in better sales for the survivors. In theory, there would be no overall loss of sales or revenue, provided readers switched from the closing titles to surviving IPC ones (rather than to rival DC Thomson ones).

Another factor Odhams had not anticipated was the distribution of American comic books within the UK. Although this had always been a consideration, the volume of such comics arriving in Britain had traditionally been small, and their distribution haphazard. In 1968, distribution and quantity suddenly underwent a marked improvement. Odhams’ black-and-white Marvel reprints in their Power Comics range suddenly faced serious competition from four-colour Marvel and DC originals, and this began to harm sales.

In the turbulent economic conditions, any part of IPC’s business which was loss-making had no future. Standard industry practice was to close a comic or magazine if its revenues dipped towards the break-even point; publishers did not wait for a title to actually incur losses, if they could help it. Hence, merely to anticipate losses on the other four titles (Pow, Wham, Fantastic and Terrific) was enough to doom them. And the closures represented a major cost-cutting exercise, reducing the ongoing production costs on the Power Comics line by four-fifths.

As for actual losses incurred due to the sudden and unexpected nature of the problem, and the inability to quickly terminate the long-term contracts with the Americans, Smash as sole survivor couldn’t hope to generate enough income on its own to meet these. But it didn’t need to. The fortunate circumstance that the Power Comics were all published by Odhams Press Ltd, a subsidiary company with limited liability, meant that it was possible to ring-fence all debts on the Odhams publications within that one company, thus preventing any losses affecting the rest of the IPC Group (since IPC’s other titles were all published by other IPC subsidiaries). Accordingly, with effect from 1 January 1969 Smash was transferred to IPC Magazines Ltd, a new IPC subsidiary formed during 1968, leaving Odhams Press with no continuing titles, and Smash started again from scratch.

Despite being the longest survivor, and inheriting many popular strips from the other four titles, Smash was only a limited success. It was plainly on shakey ground: for, hard on the heels of the closure of the other titles, in the spring of 1969 IPC quickly made extensive changes to it, dropping the last remaining Marvel superhero strips, to shed the expense of the licensing fee for using them (having already dropped Batman), and dropping many other strips too.

In consequence of the decision to discontinue the American reprints, as each Power Comic had closed its superhero strips were dropped. Only in the case of Fantastic, where the existing contract with Marvel had some months to run, were those strips transferred to the replacement, the merged Smash incorporating Fantastic, until the contract expired in March 1969.

Smash then introduced a new cover feature, new strips, and free gifts. In all but name it was a new comic. Even so, it required yet another major shakeup 12 months later, in the spring of 1970, when further changes of editorial policy were imposed by new owners Reed International, who had bought out IPC that year. This resulted, among other changes, in the dropping of the newly introduced ‘Warriors of the World’ cover feature in favour of a new lead serial: an adventure series entitled ‘The Thirteen Tasks of Simon Test’.

Within the British market, boys’ comics for the age group which was too old for titles such as Beano, Dandy and Sparky tended to focus around adventure, sport and war (in titles such as Lion and Valiant), or humour (in titles such as Buster). In abandoning its superheroes, Smash sought to attract readers of both types, by offering traditional adventure as well as humour.

To place these changes in context, the Power Comics were not the only casualties of the turmoil at IPC in 1969. Hulton’s long-running adventure comic Eagle was also cancelled, merging with Fleetway’s Lion from 2 May 1969. The merged comic was known briefly as Lion and Eagle, but quickly reverted to simply Lion. The humour comic, Giggle, aimed at the slightly younger market dominated by Fleetway’s Buster, was also dropped, being absorbed by Buster in the spring of 1969 to form Buster and Giggle. As ever, the name change lasted only long enough to absorb the discontinued comic’s readership, with the reference to Giggle failing to see out the year; by December the title had reverted to simply Buster once more. Buster, like Smash, also now became a publication of the Group’s newest subsidiary, IPC Magazines Ltd.

 

Posted in British Comic Books | Leave a comment