Saturday, 23 May 2015

Stiff Upper Strips: part 3 - Eterno Affairs

Thunder might have only pealed for 22 weeks, but it made a respectable and lasting contribution to the Brit-zarre gallery of UK comic characters




I have to be honest.  I'm basing this post solely on my Thunder annual from 1974, and some half-remembered recollections of seeing the characters in strip form.  When I began researching and discovered that Thunder only lasted 22 issues, I thought a look at this title would be really easy.
But  taking a look at the labyrinthine world of British comics I see how wrong I am.  First of all, Thunder was actually gobbled by up Lion at least two years before this book was published (I refuse to say 'merged' anymore) and secondly, this brilliant hardback features possibly the greatest 'Boy's picture paper' character ever - but he was never in Thunder.

Self-confessed criminal mastermind The Spider in action
I'm referring to The Spider, a compelling anti-heroic fusion of Spider-Man and Mr Spock (although it's worth noting that his aural pointed-ness predated the Vulcan by a couple of years).  He has a beautifully-rendered and written two part strip adventure and an illustrated text story in my Thunder annual, but was actually created in 1965 for Lion, and the bulk of his continuing adventures were written by non-other than Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel. The Spider would go on to appear in other publications and even be reprinted in other countries (somewhat confusingly referred to as 'Spiderman').  So this appears to be a case of a defunct title not only having it's own annual (not unusual in itself) but borrowing the star of the comic which absorbed it.  There will be more on the Spider in a future post, for now it's time to look at what Thunder, and this annual specifically,  had to offer.

Adam Eterno - his immortality was kind of given away by the surname
The cover star is Adam Eterno, a former medieval alchemist's assistant 'cursed' with invulnerable immortality, drifting through time until he is manifested to battle evil in various different ages. In this annual he is drawn to adventures in Victorian London and 16th Century Panama - and both are cracking yarns.  As we are frequently reminded, the only substance which can end his existence is gold.  Eterno was to survive two title takeovers, finally disappearing into "the star splashed blackness of space and time" with final home Valiant, in 1976.  As far as we know, he's still waiting to be summoned to battle evil again - maybe in the 21st Century this time.

Black Max and his King Bats
The next most iconic character from Thunder was Black Max, a malevolent German WW1 flying Ace with a remarkable advantage in the air - command of a colony of gigantic bats capable of tearing british planes to pieces. Like the Spider, the question of whether Max himself is completely human is left ambiguous.  In this strip he needs to consult his sinister Grandfather, who looks distinctly vampiric.

These two strips were very atmospheric, leaning toward grim and violent in tone. But lighter-hearted WW11 adventures were provided by The Steel Commando, a British Army uniformed robot who seemed to make Lion's famous robot Archie somewhat defensive after Thunder was taken over.

The Steel Commando continues to give Jerry 'what-for', thirty years after the end of WWII
Elsewhere Fury's family, a troop of former circus animals able to communicate with their young guardian, satisfied my young fascination with wildlife, and the Spooks of St Lukes gave distinctly Shiver and Shake-esque chuckles.

Fury and some of his 'family'
But I'll end  with a nightmarish curiosity which would send shivers down the spine of many adult readers today: Dr Mesmer's Revenge. A creepy, once again marginally human-looking, Sorcerer steals a Neolithic artifact of great occult power with the help of his servant, Angor, a re-animated Egyptian mummy - but invokes the wrath of ancient spirits during at an ancient stone circle.
Brrrrrr.  I was at  the tender age of eight when I gleefully devoured this horror show - and some people wonder why scary films almost never bother me.

Dr Mesmer's Revenge - nightmare material

Like most British Boy's papers, the artwork throughout this annual is exquisitely detailed and realistic, a counterpoint to the far more stylised artwork we saw from American comics at this time. Artists were seldom credited in British comics, apparently as an attempt to prevent them being poached by other titles (and possibly to obscure the fact that many of them were actually South American).  But you can't hide genius - even at a young age I could recognise the different techniques and characteristics of these unsung heroes, who again unlike the States-side artists, drew and inked their own artwork.

In the concluding part of this look at British comics, we'll examining the strange rumours regarding the fates of this bewildering galaxy of Brit-zarre characters, who seemed to suddenly disappear without a trace in the mid-1970s.



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