‘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.
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).