Wednesday, January 20, 2010
45 years ago: The first issue of TV21
On this day 45 years ago, City Magazines launched the first issue of a bold new large format comic that would become one of the most fondly remembered titles in UK comics history. I am of course talking about TV Century 21.
The comic later officially simplified its title to TV21 although in fact right from the start the editors and their readers often referred to it by the shorter title anyway, so that's how I'll refer to it here.
With City's close association with Gerry Anderson's Century 21 productions TV21 was far more than just a comic that featured tv characters. The editor himself (Alan Fennell) was a scriptwriter on Fireball XL5 and Stingray, and Lady Penelope debuted in her own strip in issue one several months before the first episode of Thunderbirds ever appeared on tv. The comic also had access to exclusive photographs of the models and characters, which were ideal for the newspaper-style covers of TV21. All in all, TV21 was very much a part of the Gerry Anderson universe, and the exciting thing was that the comic presented all those tv shows as part of a shared universe.
As was the case for comics back then, ads for the new weekly appeared on tv. A dynamic full page advertisement also appeared in the Daily Mirror dated 20th January 1965 (seen above). However, TV21 had a turbulent start, becoming a victim of its own huge success as demand outstripped supplies. The full story of which can be read on the superbly researched Technodelic website here:
http://www.technodelic.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk/Upload02/YNToday01.htm (That website also gives incredibly in-depth details about the whole run of the comic and all the other Anderson-related strips so if you haven't already checked it out please do so. I can't recommend it highly enough.)
As TV21 was such a significantly popular comic I'm going to show issue No.1 in its entirety here. Not detailed scans of every page, as that would contravene copyright, but photographs of each spread to at least give you an idea of the look and presentation of this fine venture. Click on each image to see it larger.
What's notable about the cover is the mature approach taken in presenting it as a futuristic newspaper (dated 2065) rather than leading with a strip as most comics of the time did. Straight away this made the comic stand out from its contemporaries. Notice also how low key the free gift info is, tucked away in the bottom right hand corner. It's clear that Fennell knew it was Stingray that was selling this comic, not a cheap free gift. Today's "focus groups" and sales managers would probably hate this cover, as they'd perceive the headers "Stingray Lost" and "Steve Zodiac Dead?" as too "negative". In truth it's a very exciting cover that makes the reader want to know more about the story behind the headlines.
Regarding the free gift, the Identicode was superb. Every week the taglines at the end of each strip would be written in code, and the Identicode was used to decipher them. This reader involvement was great fun and at the same time not the sort of comic "activity" that was too dumbed down. Here's the very free gift I had 45 years ago today, somewhat worn with use those many years ago but still intact. And I never did get around to sticking my photo in it...
Leading off the interior strips was the non-Anderson, non-futuristic Burke's Law. A strange choice for starters perhaps but the comic needed its Anderson material to appear on the few available full colour pages. However Gene Barry's U.S. tv cop show was popular with a family audience so it couldn't hurt to begin with something more traditional.
Pages 4 and 5 really start the ball rolling with Fireball XL5 in full colour. These initial Fireball strips were drawn by Graham Coton, who would be replaced by the slicker and more dynamic style of Mike Noble with issue No.6. Presumably the decision to bring in Mike Noble had already been decided as you'll notice the title panel actually looks like Noble's work although he has apparently denied this.
You'll also notice that the tone of the strip is somewhat darker than the tv series was. The end of the first episode, with Steve Zodiac apparently dead, would be an unlikely cliffhanger for a children's comic today.
Over the page is the first of TV21's many articles on space exploration. TV21 really knew how to capture the mood of the times and for children of the Sixties, the optimism of space travel was an exciting prospect. On the facing page is the humour strip My Favourite Martian drawn by Bill Titcombe, based on the American tv series starring Ray Walston and Bill Bixby.
Page 8 is devoted to advertising space, but even that partially has an Anderson theme with its ad for a Fireball XL5 toy rocket. On page 9, Contact 21 is the reader's input page. Later issues would see the mysterious "Twenty One" gain his own comic strip as Secret Agent 21.
The centrespread is a wonderful Ron Embleton colour job for the first Stingray strip. Artists on TV21 were allowed some flexibility to make the characters look more realistic than their tv puppets. A wise move which lent the comic an air of
maturity that caricatures wouldn't have achieved. Note the use of a few stills from the tv show as part of the strip. This practice was soon dropped from the comic, although TV21 art editor Dennis Hooper would revive the idea for the first few issues of Countdown comic when he was its editor in 1971.
Embleton captured the design of Stingray perfectly. The 1960s were a marvelous time for UK adventure strips as larger and more experimental panel layouts became more commonplace, allowing for more dynamism in the comics.
Although the puppet shows were fantastic, the strips offered the kids scenes that could not have looked as convincing on tv with models, such as this dramatic giant jellyfish terrorizing the ship...
Page 12 gives us another article, the first in the Oceans of Mystery series. With Stingray being the main strip in TV21 it was probably assumed that kids would be interested in life under the sea as well as space exploration. On page 13, ads for Corgi Toys and the popular Anglo bubble gum.
Pages 13 and 14 feature Supercar. Interestingly it was treated as a comedy adventure strip in TV21, perhaps because by 1965 this earlier Gerry Anderson series was seen as less sophisticated than Fireball XL5 and Stingray.
Over the page, impressive artistry by Eric Eden for the first episode of Lady Penelope. This strip seemed an oddity for readers in January 1965 as Thunderbirds was still only in the production stage so we had no idea who she was. However, the opening episode introduced us to the characters and even showed us how Parker first met Lady Penelope. A year later Lady Penelope would spin off into her own highly successful comic for girls.
Interesting work here by Eden who manages to provide dramatic artwork whilst still retaining the distinctive qualities of the puppets. It was a great idea for these characters to have their genesis in TV21 before appearing in Thunderbirds and I don't think any other licensed comic has used this approach before or since.
On page 18, Cosmic Capers was a lighthearted feature to bring some lightness from the tension in the strips. (And, yes, the title did inspire me to come up with Robo Capers in the 1980s.) Zoony the Lazoon, who was the comedy relief in the Fireball XL5 tv show, was considered inappropriate for the more serious tone of the Fireball XL5 strip so he had his own humour strip here. Also featured is a regular Music Box feature by Barry Gray, the composer of the themes for Gerry Anderson's shows.
Note the introductory editor's letter below. Again, it's TV21 playing it straight with the readers, with editor Alan Fennell using his own name instead of the jokey pseudonyms used in some comics.
On page 19 it's the Corgi Model Club, - the only enduring feature of the entire run of TV21. Presumably City Magazines received some sponsorship fee for this as Corgi Toys were plugged on the cover of every single issue. Beneath that, another aquatic article.
On the back page, a strip that had no connection to the Anderson universe but still used popular tv icons, - The Daleks. The first Dalek comic strips had appeared a year earlier in Panther Book's The Dalek Book and the TV21 strip continued the aspects set up in that annual, some of which would later be adopted into the 2005 Doctor Who tv series (such as the Dalek's golden flying saucer design). In this first TV21 episode we're presented with an origin for The Daleks. The strip was written by Terry Nation and David Whittaker but Nation would contradict this origin somewhat with his Genesis of the Daleks serial for Doctor Who in the 1970s. Artwork here is by Richard Jennings.
I was five years old when TV21 was launched, so a little under the target age of 7 to 12 year olds. Nevertheless, like many kids, I was thrilled by this new comic. I became an avid reader of TV21 throughout 1965, and so did many other kids apparently, with the comic becoming the most successful launch of the period. (It's initial print run of 450,000 being insufficient to meet demand. Incredible, when comics today are considered a success for selling 60,000.) Its nearest rival, Eagle, was immediately made to look old fashioned by this modern looking newcomer. Sadly toward the end of the sixties, the quality of TV21 began to decline, and interest in "space" petered out after the first moon landing. By the time TV21 merged into Valiant in 1971 it was little different to any other boys adventure comic of the time. However, for today, it's time to remember when TV21 was fresh and innovative, and when "Adventure in the 21st Century" was something to look forward to every Wednesday.
Note: To see how much TV21 had changed by 1969, read my blog on the first combined issue of TV21 & Joe 90 here: