Readers of Eagle issue 78 (17 Sep 1983) will have read on the last page that a new look was coming to the comic. Among the exciting features to come was a free potato gun, 4 extra pages and 9 ‘great’ stories. What was not mentioned was the two most obvious changes when issue 79 hit their doormats a week later (once they’d got past the excitement of their free potato gun, complete with thrilling elastic band) – the photostrips were gone, and Eagle was now being published on cheap newsprint.
The two were not unrelated. Most IPC titles at this stage, including 2000AD, Battle and Tiger, came out on cheap newsprint formats, utilising paper that seemed to go yellow almost immediately, and oily ink that would come off so easily that you could often find yourself reading the adventures of your heroes through the mirror image of what they were doing on the opposite page. Eagle had used a more sophisticated printing process on better quality paper, but that seems mainly to have been to accommodate the photostrips, and sales needed to remain very high for IPC to justify the extra expense. At the slightest dip, with typical ruthlessness, they replaced the expensive photographs wth cheap European artists printed on bog paper and left us to get on with it.
It wasn’t all bad. As usual with such a change, there were winners and losers. One of the main losers was Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future – actually just called Dan Dare from now on, fact fans. The enormous Return of the Mekon saga was just entering its final stages, but newsprint could not reproduce Ian Kennedy’s gorgeous painted art, so he had to render the last few episodes in the more usual line drawings, with simple washes of colour over the top, and occasional pages in black and white (the strip was now frequently getting the front cover, and another 3 pages inside, so had actually benefited in terms of page count). In this manner, the epic limped to a close after 19 months, ending more with a whimper than a bang.
Curiously, from the next story, ‘The Timads’ (issues 84-93), Dan Dare no longer carried any creator credits. The artist is clearly Oliver Frey, but the writer is unknown. It doesn’t seem to be Pat Mills, as ‘The Timads’ throws away all the character development we’ve seen up until this point. Dare is teleported across the galaxy to the planet Belendotor, where the timid Timads (see what they did there??) need his help against an unnamed race of alien invaders. Dare points out that he’s not a superhero, but they basically blackmail him, and with the help of a sophisticated alien gun, he does eventually triumph. What sophistication the story has is restricted to the final episode, where he persuades the Timads and the invaders that they’re not so different after all, and they should work together.
Issue 94 saw Kennedy back on art duties, with ‘Prisoners of Space’ (who came up with that title? wasn’t me.) This may just possibly have been by Mills, since it features Dmitri Prodkov, a fairly minor character from ‘Young Dare’ as well as the sleeper ships. It also sees another return of the Mekon, having stayed away for barely 10 episodes. The Mekon himself is the captive of another alien villain this time, Lord Baynor, who also captures the crew of an Earth deep space freighter and starts torturing them to death. No kidding. Meanwhile, Dare has been promoted to Colonel, and getting bored of all the paperwork, stows away on the ship (commanded by his old friend Major Prodkov) that’s been sent to rescue the human prisoners. Good of him to set an example, there. As usual, the crew are put into hibernation, although the writer seems to have forgotten what the point of all this is, as no more than a few weeks seem to pass for Baynor’s prisoners. Prodkov is killed, the Mekon betrays Baynor, and Dare does eventually rescue the humans, helped mainly by a bit of luck and the agency of Robo-One, a cute robot with emotional problems. It says here. Anyway, there’s nothing terribly wrong with either of these stories, they’re just not a patch on what had come before, and we would continue to see Dare bumble along in a very average fashion for some time to come.
One of the biggest winners in the format change was Doomlord, which returned in issue 79 with art by Heinzl – it was one of four photostrips to make the transition to an artwork format. Doomlord had always had a lot of fun with the photographic medium (Alan Grant himself appears during Doomlord II, as ‘man who walks in and gets vapourised’), but probably had the most to gain by moving to drawn adventures. Where Doomlord had previously been a comedy mask, he now has some expression in his face, and we can get a sense of what he’s thinking by looking at him. Heinzl’s artwork is workmanlike, but the visual continuity with the photostrips is very good – he obviously had plenty of reference material. Now bereft of numerals, the first story – ‘The Death Lords’ – features Nox making its move against Vek, by sending 3 Death Lords to kill him. These Death Lords have more abilities than Vek – their energiser rings with cool skulls on them have the ability to teleport at will. Vek’s own ring is destroyed early on, forcing him to steal one of theirs – part of a gradual change in image for the character.
Mainly set on earth, the story may have been originally conceived as a photostrip, but Alan Grant takes full advantage of the new format. After Doomlord III‘s disappointing confrontation with Zom, this is a full-on stand-up knock-down action piece, with 24 episodes of the Death Lords pursuing Vek and out-classing him at almost every turn. It features several moments which could not have been done – or at least done well – with photos, such as when in a desperate attempt to escape, Vek transforms into a dog, but with his own head. This story was eventually re-printed in a Best of Eagle magazine, and deservedly so.
Another beneficiary was Manix, which now had art by Carmona. No, me neither. Manix had been running out of stories, but now gets a shot in the arm with the greater scope offered by an artwork strip, and comes back with ‘The Hitler File’, in which he travels to South America, and finds – you guessed it – Hitler. As with Doomlord, there is an increase in the levels of action and excitement. Manix now has his fourth face, a new bald-headed version, but no more personality than before, and the burst of new ideas would not last.
A more awkward transition was for Walk or Die, which as an ongoing story, just picked up from where it left off, but now with art by another mono-named European artist, Escolano. Although the characters could now be more convincingly placed in a Canadian wilderness, the loss of the ensemble cast and replacement with some fairly bland drawn versions meant that the story lost something. Again, the action increases, with encounters with bears, horses and somewhat unlikely killer bees. When Jill Webster and the others are stung half-to-death, it is up to Jim Hardy, having inexplicably recovered from blood-poisoning, to save the day and go for rescue on his own. The story changes gear somewhat, as with Jim heading downriver on his own, we’re no longer seeing things through Jill’s eyes. Jim makes a suitably heroic figure here, as when he finally comes across some loggers, he gets his foot trapped between some logs, and looks as if he will drown. “You know what to do!” he tells them, “cut my foot off!” He must be the hardest boy that ever lived.
The fourth photostrip to gain artwork episodes was Sgt. Streetwise, which returns for short runs in issues 97-99 and 103-106. These also lack something, as our pretty-boy lead is replaced with some artwork that really doesn’t look much like him. The script reminds us of what he’s like by having girls walking past in the background going “cor, he’s nice”.
Two new strips debuted in issue 79.The first of these was The Amstor Computer, a new anthology series to replace The Collector. Created by Barrie Tomlinson, the conceit here was that readers themselves could programme which story the computer would tell, by choosing a number from 1 to 999,999. You would then be presented with a story which would presumably coincide with whatever the writers had come up with that week. More importantly, you’d win a fiver, so it wasn’t all bad. The end result is a rather good series, with an almost infinite range of stories which can be told, from sci-fi in ‘the Tragedy of the Trals’ (issue 82) to a traditional ghost story in ‘Mutiny’ (issue 93). Some are quite left-of-field, such as ‘Journey on the Junk Food Express’ (issue 83) in which a physically perfect aspiring star, riding the rails to hollywood, somehow gets locked in a storage wagon with nothing but baked beans to eat for a month – by the time he’s finally let out, he’s ballooned to about 30 stone. Occasionally similar to 2000AD‘s Future Shocks, Amstor frequently tells a good, satisfying story with a neat twist, often in no more than 1-2 pages.
Probably better known is The Fists of Danny Pyke, with superior story and art by John Wagner and the legendary John Burns. Danny is a heavyweight boxer, and I’m not a huge fan of sports strips, but for once, we can read a story that is clearly close to its creators’ hearts. Danny lives in a world in which reality is heightened, but not completely unrecognisable, and in the first 44 episodes, we get to follow him all the way from youth boxing clubs right through to becoming heavyweight champion of the world. During this time, he meets a girl (admittedly while saving her from a mugging), falls in love, and has a proper relationship which lasts across the length of the story. Wagner’s background was in girls comics, which had a stronger emphasis on character and story, and he brings those skills to Danny Pyke, showing that not all boys comics stories had to have unlikely scenarios and constant explosions to hold their readers’ attention.
Part 4 of our continuing story index, for those who are interested. Anyone? Just me, then:
DAN DARE, PILOT OF THE FUTURE untitled (“The Timads”), 10 episodes, issues 84-93 (Oct. to Dec. 1984) Story by uncredited, art by Oliver Frey untitled (“Prisoners of Space”), 23 episodes, issues 94-116 (Jan. to June 1985) Story by uncredited, art by Ian Kennedy DOOMLORD The Deathlords, 24 episodes, issues 79-102 (Sep. 1983 to Mar. 1984) Story by Alan Grant, art by Heinzl MANIX The Hitler File, 10 episodes, issues 79-88 (Sep. to Nov. 1983) Story by Keith Law (Alan Grant), art by Carmona Project Sicilian, 6 episodes, issues 89-94 (Dec. 1983 to Jan. 1984) Story by Keith Law (Alan Grant), art by Carmona Peril of the Deep, 5 episodes, issues 95-99 (Jan. to Feb. 1984) Story by Keith Law (Alan Grant), art by Carmona THE FISTS OF DANNY PYKE The Fists of Danny Pyke, 44 episodes, issues 79-122 (Sep. 1983 to July 1984) Story by D Spence (John Wagner), art by John Burns WALK OR DIE art story, 18 episodes, issues 79-96, (Sep. 1983 to Jan. 1984) Story by Scott Goodall, art by Escolano THE AMSTOR COMPUTER 714299: The Computer Murder, issue 79, (Sep. 1983) Story by Barrie Tomlinson, art by Ortiz 36152: Shooting Star, issue 80, (Oct. 1983) Story by Alan Hebden, art by John Cooper 1846: They Were Caught with the Boot On!, issue 81, (Oct. 1983) Story by Chris Lowder, art by John Cooper 56292: The Tragedy of the Trals, issue 82, (Oct. 1983) Story by J Rimmer, art by Cam Kennedy 6746: Journey on the Junk Food Express..., issue 83, (Oct. 1983) Story by Alan Hebden, art by Redondo 1219: Second Time Lucky, issue 84, (Oct. 1983) Story by J Nicholas, art by Ron Turner 312: Bike-Man's Bluff, issue 85, (Nov. 1983) Story by A Stone, art by John Cooper 289301: The Hero, issue 86, (Nov. 1983) Story by J Louise, art by Ian Kennedy 1045: The Missionary!, issue 87, (Nov. 1983) Story by Barrie Tomlinson, art by Mike Dorey 162: “There's No Such Thing as Magic”, issue 88, (Nov. 1983) Story by C Potter, art by John Cooper 76580: Eye of the Bird, issue 90, (Dec. 1983) Story by K Armstrong, art by Chiari 221: Nightmare!, issue 91, (Dec. 1983) Story by Alan Hebden, art by Ortiz 854391: A Modern Christmas..., issue 92, (Dec. 1983) Story by R Preston, art by Ron Turner 689927: Mutiny, issue 93, (Dec. 1983) Story by B Burrell, art by Mike Dorey 45178: Space Invaders, issue 94, (Jan. 1984) Story by A Stone, art by Cam Kennedy 1005: Mercenary, issue 95, (Jan. 1984) Story by B Burrell, art by John Cooper 714295: Who Saved Me?, issue 96, (Jan. 1984) Story by A Stone, art by Ortiz 365841: Double Trouble, issue 97, (Jan. 1984) Story by Alan Hebden, art by Mike Dorey 75250: Monkey Business, issue 98, (Feb. 1984) Story by A Stone, art by Eric Bradbury 16925: The Forbidden Zone, issue 99, (Feb. 1984) Story by K Armstrong, art by Ortiz SGT. STREETWISE untitled (“River Rats”), 3 episodes, issues 97-99, (Jan. to Feb. 1984) Story by Gerry Finlay-Day, art by J Vernon