80s Eagle issues 159-185

I didn’t become a regular Eagle reader until issue 159 (6 April 1985). As mentioned in previous entries, I was a subscriber to another IPC title which I didn’t much like – Tiger. Tiger was at this time one of the longest-running comics in the UK, having begun publication in 1954. It had begun as an action/adventure title, but a series of mergers, particularly with Scorcher in the mid-70s, had left it very much with a sports bent – and I didn’t like sports.

 

So why keep buying it, you might ask? Good question. I could have asked my mum to start getting something else for me, but there was a strip – Sintek – where I was gripped by the story. Sintek had had various limbs replaced by cybernetic parts which, this being Tiger, he used to cheat at various sports. Why this had me gripped, I don’t recall, having not read it in the 30 years since, but I tolerated most of the other strips like Hot-Shot Hamish and Johnny Cougar in order to get my fix of Sintek.

 

By the mid-80s, Tiger was perhaps beginning to struggle – I seem to remember a lot of re-print material – but still popular in some quarters. IPC seem to have been going through a process of rationalising, however, and reducing the number of titles they were producing, and so it went to the wall. (Many thanks to superb blog GreatNewsForAllReaders for helping me to get my facts straight on this.) Tiger would be merged with Eagle, and unusually, this would be a combination of equals – in the new Eagle and Tiger, both logos were given equal prominence. Eagle came first, and retained its numbering, but it seems as if things could easily have gone the other way. Most the the Eagle stories in the new comic started new plot lines, while most of the remaining Tiger strips just carried on without pause, leaving regular Eagle readers to struggle to pick up what was going on. A form of apartheid was maintained within the pages of Eagle and Tiger, as the Tiger stories had their own banner (‘A Tiger story’) and credit boxes, distinct from the Eagle ones. Eagle would survive – just.

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Incidentally, did these mergers ever work? I’m sure IPC bean counters thought it was a good idea – “instead of selling these two titles to 100,000 readers each, we can just produce one title and sell it to 200,000 readers!” I’m sure the new title settled down to selling 100,000 copies, and British comics continued their long, slow decline.

 

So anyway, Hot-Shot Hamish transferred directly to football title Roy of the Rovers, Sintek and Johnny Cougar went to the wall, and 4 strips transferred directly to Eagle and Tiger. My favourite of these was probably Death Wish, which started in another comic, Speed, back in February 1980. It starred Blake Edmonds, a racing driver who had his handsome face burned off in a crash, and from then on wore a mask to conceal his horrific injuries. Blake then announced he would take on any stunt – the more dangerous the better – in the hope of ending his life. At some point in his adventures, he met Suzie Walsh, who I think was a journalist or something. She sticks in my mind since, as drawn by Vanyo, she remains one of the most beautiful female characters in any boys comic of the period, and certainly used to get my teenage heart beating a bit faster whenever she was around. There was never any hint of sexual tension between Blake and Suzie in the storylines or dialogue, but reading it now, you have to think, “come on… they are… aren’t they?”

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By about 1984, writer Barrie Tomlinson was clearly struggling to come up with new death-defying stunts for Blake to carry out, and so the story began to stray into ever more outlandish territories, finishing its run in Tiger with my favourite story ever to appear within its pages – a 15-episode epic in which Blake crashes his bi-plane in the African jungle (after events in a previous story too unlikely to go into now) and gets taken to a mysterious building haunted by ghosts – good ghosts and evil ghosts! Eventually, the evil ghosts clone Blake, producing lots of evil Blakes, plus a giant Blake, who he pesuades to fight all the other Blakes, before they eventually explode! Susie Walsh gets approached by the good ghosts and goes out to rescue Blake, despite having no impact on events whatsoever when she gets there! Okay, in retrospect, I can’t remember why I liked this so much. Possibly because there was no sport in it. Also, the ‘good’ ghosts are quite charming and funny. None of which should distract from the sheer left-fieldness of all this: after 5 years of stunts and espionage, we get ghosts! Supernatural! Clones! And this even before Death Wish moved to Eagle.

 

The story may have been brought to a hasty conclusion, for the merger – dropping Eagle readers into all that would have been a bit much. After the move, Blake still seems to be magnet for the supernatural, as ghosts force him and Suzie to go after some gangsters who have robbed jewellery from graves.This leads them to Los Angeles and getting chucked into the Pacific with concrete boots on. Just another day in the life for Blake. Someone may have thought the supernatural elements had gone a bit far, as the next story (issue 171) is set in a more realistic world – by Death Wish standards, that is. In a return to the original format, Blake decides to do a really dangerous stunt – jumping out of an aeroplane without a parachute, and attempting to catch one suspended from a balloon.  Some other nutter has already died attempting this, and Suzie is worried enough that she tries to put him off by shooting him in the arm. She ends up in jail, and Blake goes ahead and does the stunt with one arm. The real break-up comes when Suzie calls Blake ‘ugly’ while he’s trying to break her out. He’s a sensitive soul, and leaves her to rot, which was a shame for Suzie fans like myself. Issue 176 sees him start a new adventure, in which an unnamed intelligence agency gives him a face made out of plastic and sends him to rescue an American agent from an unspecified East Asian country (but which bears a strong resemblance to Vietnam). I won’t bore you with details, but every week a bit more of Blake’s new face breaks off when he gets shot, scratched or – in one case – attacked by an eagle, with hilarious effect when you’re reading all the episodes strung together.

 

Tiger‘s most popular strip, although not with me, was Billy’s Boots, in which Billy Dane gets old of some old football boots, once used by Jimmy ‘Dead Shot’ Keen. When he’s wearing the boots, Billy can play genius football, but he’s rubbish when he doesn’t have them. Written by Fred Baker (with superb art by John Gillatt), it’s never made entirely clear whether the boots are genuinely magic, or whether the effect is entirely psychological. I found this intensely boring, as I didn’t like football, and Billy never started flying spaceships or anything. The strip debuted in Scorcher in 1970, and then ran for years and years, despite only really having one plot so far as I could see:

Billy’s got his boots – he can play football

Billy loses his boots – he can’t play any more

Billy finds his boots – hurrah!

 

I’m being a little unfair. Re-reading these strips as an adult, I find that they’re extremely efficiently written. In just 3 pages, somehow every episode crams in a conclusion to the previous cliffhanger, a development of the continuing storyline, some deft characterisation, and a new cliffhanger for next week, while still finding time to cram in some football. The strips in Eagle and Tiger come from a particularly fraught time in Billy’s life as his gran is in hospital in a coma, and he’s been put into a children’s home. He decides to run away with nothing but a few quid, his gran’s address book, his boots and a football. He then does remarkably well at looking after himself and finding people to play football with, despite the fact that everywhere he goes, he ends up bumping into shoplifters, burglars, smugglers, blackmailers and even potential murderers. Really, his luck needs to change sometime. But never does.

 

At the other end of the scale was Star Rider, a relatively recent Tiger strip about a young octopoid alien who comes to Earth, where he disguises himself as a human and adopts the identity of Terry Fenton. Once settled, he quite naturally joins the local BMX team and we get lots of stories about BMX bikes. It always slightly worried me however, because when Terry was in his alien form, he stood on what appeared to be a single stalk, so how exactly was he straddling his bike? Clearly inspired by E.T., Star Rider was one of the strips from Tiger that I liked at the time, despite not really having any interest in the sports elements. However, on re-reading it now, the scripts by otherwise unknown G Douglas are really quite poor. The rather uninvolving plot has Terry causing a fatal accident at a BMX race, which leads to his home planet of Cyton sending another alien to bring him back for justice or kill him or something. By the mid-180s, the Eagle style starts to take over, and Terry takes admits to his 4 interchangeable BMX mates that he’s an alien, and takes them back to his home planet to rescue his father. Naturally, they bring their bikes with them. The only redeeming feature is the art by Jose Casanovas, which is rather swish. Casanovas is another European artist, and one who does not seem to have done much research – his version of the UK is just slightly unconvincing. Things like trains and the countryside don’t look right – when the boys go to the Science Museum to retrieve Terry’s spaceship (naturally, after capturing it, the authorities have put it on display) Casanovas just draws a generic futuristic building in the middle of nowhere.

 

The fourth and last strip to transfer from Tiger was Golden Boy, which I had no recollection of until I read it again. It follows the adventures of Jamie Speed, the titular golden boy, who seems have grown up in the woods or something after the death of his parents, and has gone on to be an athlete and double Olympic gold winner. By the time the story hits the Eagle, this is already done with, and Jamie is being blackmailed to take part in the Suicide Games, a sports competition where every stage is likely to kill you. When the competitors enter a 100 yards sprint, the organisers will release a Cheetah to run down and eat whoever is slowest. We get told that it’s very popular with viewers, although even setting the story in Los Angeles doesn’t convince me that anyone would ever be allowed to do this – it’s basically snuff TV. The script is by “A Power”, whoever that is, and given the quality, it’s hard to see why anyone felt this was worth saving when Tiger went down the tubes. It can’t have been popular with readers, either, and the plot takes a couple of sharp changes in direction. Part of Jamie’s blackmail is that he’s being fed ‘clues’ about his parents’ deaths. These build up like a sort-of jigsaw puzzle, to construct a picture that will explain who is responsible. Its actually quite visually interesting, but a complete cheat, as it doesn’t go anywhere – before we can get the whole picture, the blackmail plot is abruptly wrapped up, and Jamie inexplicably decides to continue competing in the Suicide games even though he no longer needs to. A few episodes after that, in issue 185, the whole story is brought to a speedy conclusion, and Golden Boy is gone – the first Tiger story to get dropped from the pages of Eagle and Tiger.

 

As well as four stories from Tiger, four carried on from the previous version of Eagle. One was The Robo-Machines, which sailed serenely on before stopping rather suddenly in issue 175 with several plot threads unresolved. Then there was The Thirteenth Floor, which had a slightly unusual problem – its central character, Max the computer, had just been promoted to be the comics new fictional ‘editor’. This was quite common in IPC comics, with Tharg at 2000AD and Ghastly McNasty at Scream! Readers of Eagle had got used to Dave Hunt editing it under his own name – it seems he was still working on it, but we now get weekly messages from Max. Which is all well and good, but the Max of The Thirteenth Floor is really quite sketchy, entirely capable of scaring his victims literally to death, so suddenly having him as our genial editor completely undermines the character.

 

Perhaps realising this, writers Wagner and Grant take him in a new direction – just two episodes into the new run, police storm Maxwell Towers and switch Max off. When he is turned back on again, it is to find that he’s been bought by a department store, tasked with looking after the customers. His thirteenth floor is explained as having been the result of a “faulty I.F. module”. Max, of course, wastes no time in burning out his new I.F. module, and creating a new thirteenth floor at the top of the escalators, where he can send shoplifters, rude customers and basically anyone that he takes a dislike to. Even more surprising is when it turns out that the changing cubicles have got a secret entrance through to an MI5 base. Max wastes no time in joining MI5, but has trouble accepting authority, eventually turning in his new boss, Auberon Hedges, hypnotising him, and forcing him to do his bidding. Max decides that Hedges needs to be promoted, and so sends him off with mini-Max to assassinate oriental villain Lee van Choo on his death island. Ouch. Distressing Fu Manchu racial stereotypes aside, this is an entertaining, and indeed frequently hilarious adventure, with Max emerging true to himself, but in a slightly less horror-focused scenario. Wagner and Grant continue to produce the best and wittiest strips in the comic.

 

No exception is Doomlord, which is going from strength to strength in this period. Cleverly, Grant and Wagner choose to virtually reboot the concept in the first Eagle and Tiger by bringing back Doomlord Zyn from the dead and having him as determined to carry out sentence of death on humanity as ever. This time of course, Vek stands in his way, and the Doomlords must battle for survival. There are some striking sequences here, notably when Zyn kills a couple of policemen – one by throwing him against some power cables and the other by spearing him with a football pitch corner flag. Eagle was limited in how much violence it could show, and artist Eric Bradbury renders this scene with very heavy shadows, creating a series of images which have stayed with me through the 30 years since.

 

Even more epic is a new storyline beginning in issue 175, when Vek decides he needs to experience the human emotion of love, and so creates a son. He does this by injecting his blood (!) into a human ovum. I guess we don’t really want to think about what other… fluids he may have. The result is Enok, who comes to resent his own human half, and gradually turns to evil over a loooong sequence of stories which would take up much of the rest of Doomlord‘s run. Again, this is sophisticated stuff, as Vek feels no love for his son at first, but gradually parenthood begins to change him.

 

Finally, there is Dan Dare, which now gets credit boxes for the first time since the days of Pat Mills, and we learn that the writer is “D Horton” – IPC group editor Barrie Tomlinson. In fact, based on stylistic similarities and so forth, I’d be willing to bet that Tomlinson had been writing the strip since at least ‘Prisoners of Space’ back in issue 94. As we’ve seen from Death Wish, Tomlinson was capable of writing some pretty mad stuff, and as Dave Hunt’s boss he could presumably do what he liked (although his Dan Dare scripts are a bit more restrained). Issue 159 saw a new story, ‘The Flesh Eaters’, which – disappointing to me at the time – is set on Earth, with Dan and professor Pinkerton on holiday in Africa. Meanwhile, in Great Britain, which is definitely not on the bottom of the sea where Pat Mills left it, workers digging a tunnel to Scandinavia under the north sea hit an ancient buried spaceship and release some jelly-like creatures. Clearly inspired by the film Alien, these are capable (in some surprisingly gruesome scenes) of sucking the flesh off a living creature’s bones in a few seconds, leaving just a skeleton. And they’re hungry. As attacks spread all over the world, the British Prime Minister is forced ti respond to the emergency, and although never named, bears a striking resemblance to Margaret Thatcher. I can’t help thinking that this suggests that the Iron Lady has somehow taken youth-extending treatment and continued her premiership on into the 23rd century – a frighteningly plausible scenario in the 1980s. Dare encounters the creatures in Africa, but never quite gets eaten. He has developed a cold at a convenient moment, and in a twist reminiscent of War of the Worlds, the aliens catch his sniffles and die. Dare gets to finish his holiday, and in a James Bond-ish final scene, we see him sat on the beach vid-phoning the PM while sat next to Pinkerton who is in a tiny bikini. Hubba hubba. In fact, this does seem to have got artist Carlos Cruz a little over-excited, as the way he’s drawn Pinkerton, her legs appear to be about 6 feet long.

 

In issue 173 begins ‘Planet of Animals’ in which Dare gets a new spaceship, the Z-100, and Robo-One returns with a new look. More significantly, we are introduced to Digby – the great-great grandson of the original Digby, he looks just like him, but without the thick Yorkshire accent. Digby immediately becomes Dare’s new side-kick, pushing Pinkerton even further into the shade. Tomlinson’s grasp of science seems to be a little shaky, as they track a missile which has been launched from the surface of planet Zarton and somehow drifted into Earth’s vicinity within a few months. The Z-100 flies to Zarton, where the animals – they look exactly like Earth animals, but in army uniforms – are engaged in an eternal war with the insects. After some mildly wacky adventures, Dare fails to persuade them to stop fighting, and they blow the whole entire planet. So let that be a lesson to you.

 

The 9th story in issue 159 was a new one and, perhaps significantly, came under the Eagle banner. From the fertile minds of Wagner and Grant, this was The Computer Warrior (originally inexplicably titled The Ultimate Warrior, although this changed after a few issues) and would stick with Eagle for the rest of its life. Teenage hero Bobby Paterson learns that his friend Martin French has uncovered a secret computer code that lets him play computer games for real, but having lost the ultimate game, has become trapped inside his computer forever. The only way Bobby can save him is to enter the computer himself, and beat 10 games on real-life mode to become the Ultimate Warrior (oh… I get it). This was a canny concept, as computer games were already eating into the boys comics market (and would eventually annihilate it) and so Eagle tackles them head-on. The real stroke of genius was that most of the games Bobby plays are genuine games (mostly for the Commodore 64) on sale in the shops, which the comic could then offer free copies of to lucky winners.

 

These days, when computer games are totally immersive and have the budgets of major motion pictures, it’s hard to explain just how exciting this was in the 80s. Something like Wizard of Wor would have been a simple 2D platform game, and even today it’s rather charming to see it turned into a series of real dungeons for Bobby to run around, shooting demons. Each game was usually covered in about 6 episodes, and Bobby’s life outside the computer also got quite complex, as his parents and everyone else refused to believe him when he told them that his missing friend was trapped in his computer.

 

A forced marriage with Tiger had undeniably weakened Eagle‘s USP, but it came with some benefits, too. For the first time in years there was no re-print material in the comic, and it also brought top IPC artists Sandy James and Mike Western to the title. Both of these got to work on Computer Warrior, alongside stalwarts Ian Kennedy and John Cooper as – in a neat stylistic trick – every time Bobby started playing a new computer game, another artist took over the strip. Computer Warrior looked great, and had a gripping storyline – it was an instant hit with readers, rapidly being treated to not exactly colour art, but a sort-of red wash. It looks nice. Honestly.

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A small change to the line-up came with issue 176, when Robo-Machines was replaced by Shadow. Shadow is a highly-intelligent alsation (german shepherd if you prefer), beautifully drawn by Mike Western, and reminiscent of Lassie or the Littlest Hobo. He is a New York police dog, who runs away when criminals kill his police handler, determined to take matters into his own paws and catch the murderers. Written by Wagner and Grant, it puts me in and of a canine One-Eyed Jack. The story does run out of steam a bit after he has brought the criminals to justice, and moves onto a farm in the country to live with a boy and his horse. Perhaps understandably, the story was not a long-runner, coming to an end in issue 200.

 

Eagle and Tiger was a hybrid comic, and understandably not entirely successful. It was an unusual experiment, virtually a partnership of equals, but things could not carry on that way indefinitely. With the cancellation of Golden Boy, the proportion of Eagle to Tiger stories went from 5:4 to 6:3 –  the big cat was slowly losing out to the … sharp-clawed bird. Oh, I dunno. I’ve pushed this metaphor too far, haven’t I?

 

The story index, issues 159-185:

 

DOOMLORD

untitled (The Return of Zyn), 16 episodes, issues 159-174 (Apr. to Jul. 1985)
Story by Alan Grant, art by Eric Bradbury

untitled (Son of Doomlord), 25 episodes, issues 175-199 (Jul. 1985 to Jan. 1986)
Story by Alan Grant, art by Eric Bradbury


BILLY'S BOOTS

Billy's Boots, 58 episodes (of many) in Eagle & Tiger, issues 159-216 (Apr. 1985 to May 1986)
Story by Fred Baker, art by John Gillatt


STAR RIDER

Star Rider, 53 episodes in Eagle & Tiger, issues 159-211 (Apr. 1985 to Apr. 1986)
Story by G Douglas, art by Jose Casanovas (eps 1-41, 45-53) and P Gascoine (eps 42-44)


DAN DARE, PILOT OF THE FUTURE

untitled (“The Flesh Easters”), 14 episodes, issues 159-172 (Apr. to Jul. 1985)
Story by D Horton (Barrie Tomlinson), art by Carlos Cruz

untitled (“Planet of Animals”), 15 episodes, issues 173-187 (July to Oct. 1985)
Story by D Horton (Barrie Tomlinson), art by Carlos Cruz


THE COMPUTER WARRIOR

The Ultimate Warrior, 4 episodes, issues 159-162 (Apr. 1985)
Story by D Spence (John Wagner), art by John Cooper

Wizard of Wor, 5 episodes, issues 163-167 (May to June 1985)
Story by D Spence (John Wagner), art by Ian Kennedy

Pastfinder!, 6 episodes, issues 168-173 (June to July 1985)
Story by D Spence (John Wagner), art by Sandy James

Rescue on Fractulus!, 6 episodes, issues 174-179 (July to Aug. 1985)
Story by D Spence (John Wagner), art by John Cooper

The Great American Cross-Country Road Race, 7 episodes, issues 180-186 (Aug. to Oct. 1985)
Story by D Spence (John Wagner), art by Ian Kennedy (eps 1-4) and John Cooper (eps 5-7)


GOLDEN BOY

Golden Boy, 27 episodes in Eagle & Tiger, issues 159-184 (Apr. to Oct. 1985)
Story by A Power, art by Mike Western (eps 1-15) & Sandy James (eps 16-27)


DEATH WISH

untitled (“Grave Robbers”), 12 episodes, issues 159-170 (Apr. to June 1985)
Story by D Horton (Barrie Tomlinson), art by Vanyo

untitled (“The Break-up”), 5 episodes, issues 171-175 (June to July 1985)
Story by D Horton (Barrie Tomlinson), art by Vanyo

untitled (“A New Face”), 13 episodes, issues 176-188 (Aug. to Oct. 1985)
Story by D Horton (Barrie Tomlinson), art by Vanyo


THE THIRTEENTH FLOOR

untitled (“The Big Store”), 9 episodes, issues 161-169 (Apr. to June 1985)
Story by I Holland (John Wagner & Alan Grant), art by Jose Ortiz

untitled (“Max the Spy”), 23 episodes, issues 170-192 (June to Nov. 1985)
Story by I Holland (John Wagner & Alan Grant), art by Jose Ortiz


SLEEPING BEAUTY

Sleeping Beauty, issue 165 (May1985)
Story by uncredited, art by uncredited


SHADOW

Shadow, 25 episodes, issues 176-200 (Aug. 1985 to Jan. 1986)
Story by R Clark (John Wagner), art by Mike Western

 

 

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