Graphic Novel Reviews

Century 21

Classic Comic Strips From The Worlds of Gerry Anderson

vol 1. Adventure in the 21st Century
(2009) Chris Bentley (ed.), Reynolds & Hearn, 14.99, trdpbk, 160 pp, ISBN 978-1-905-28793-1

vol 2. Invasion in the 21st Century
(2009) Chris Bentley (ed.), Reynolds & Hearn, 14.99, trdpbk, 160 pp, ISBN 978-1-905-28794-9


For this review you are going to need a bit of background, and here it is...

For a certain, specific generation of Brit SF fans, TV producer Gerry Anderson will always be something rather special: and I am not just talking about die-hard Fanderson fans, but a certain age of general SF fans at the end of the 1950s.   It began with the television series Torchy the Battery Boy and then in 1961 Supercar. It was all made possible by using puppets instead of actors and models instead of machines. For kids then aged five or six (born 1955 - 57) these were magic shows with Torchy being science fantasy and Supercar good old techno-hard SF (or should that be hard-techno SF?). Supercar followed the adventures of Mike Mercury who flew a 'Super car' up in the air and down under the sea. Supercar itself was designed by Professor Popkiss who was aided by Dr Beaker and the team operated out of a secret desert base.

Supercar series was really basic with the stories being really simple and, though fine for five or six year olds, they were not really engaging for even seven or eight year olds. Fortunately in 1962 along came the series Fireball XL5. Fireball XL5, of the series' title, was a lead XL spacecraft of the World Space Patrol (named after the real-life XL series of experimental US high-altitude aircraft?). XL5 had a rocket-sled assisted take-off, a planetary lander nose cone (before the Apollo programme and its Lunaer landing module) and a robot co-pilot ('Robert' possibly after Robbie in Forbidden Planet). XL5 was commanded by Colonel Steve Zodiac, and had a science officer in Prof Matthew Matic as well as a space doctor with Venus. This television series was also syndicated in N. America and has a small cult following over there.

In 1964 the next Gerry Anderson series took us under the seas with the super sub 'Stingray'. The series Stingray saw humanity protected from civilizations beneath the seas especially one ruled by the mighty, but evil, Titan. But Anderson's big success came in 1966 with Thunderbirds. This television series concerned a secret international rescue operation that used a series of magnificent craft (the Thunderbirds) to rescue folk in distress. It was more sophisticated than the previous series and had a larger puppet cast and a more involved back-story. It was just right for 10 - 11 year olds and spawned two feature films (not counting the post-2000 US bastardised Jonathan Frakes effort). One of these films concerned a Mars mission with the exploratory craft Zero-X (more of which later).

Then in 1967 there was Captain Scarlet. Scarlet (a code name for an agent) belonged to Spectrum, an organization dedicated to protecting the Earth from the Martian Mysterons. One of the special things about this series was that the puppets had near perfect human proportions: earlier series saw larger heads and progressively simpler sets.

Now the point of my dating all of this is to convey to you that there really was a cohort of children -- a generation in a narrow age band -- who grew up with Gerry Anderson. (Of course Gerry went on to more adventures with the high-point being U.F.O. but that was later.) These puppet series (and there were others - The Secret Service and Joe 90) caught kids' imaginations: they were a bit of a national phenomenon. What is certain is that you would not get a television channel today providing a succession of SFnal programmes for progressively older children over a decade or more; even if back in the 1960s this happened more by chance than design.

But the TV series were not just it, there were also the spin-off books and comic strips. The latter appeared first in TV Comic and then in a specific comic magazine for Anderson series called TV21.   TV21, or TV Century 21 to give it its full title, was for a few years itself a phenomenon with the circulation peaking at the best part of a million copies a week! Now, given that the UK population at that time was about 52 million and with life expectancy getting on for 80 years (say 650,000 population for each year of age), and kids sharing comics at school, it is easy to see from the numbers just how popular the series were with a certain generation.

All things come to an end. The Anderson TV repeats were never again shown coherently at a regular time slot, with successive series and over several years, for a new generation to pick up on in the same way as the 60s generation of kids had. What is more, Anderson's later series, post-U.F.O., were mis-managed by US television industry interference as UK money was lacking. TV 21 lost its way having tried to appeal to a broader new readership and so lost its core readers while failing to gain new ones. Its circulation collapsed. (Had it firmly stuck to its core themes it would undoubtedly have survived because over a decade later the comic Countdown went over some of the same Anderson territory with some commercial success for a couple of years but without the benefit of television support: so it was TV21 that deserted its market and not the other way around.)

TV21 was more than just a comic with strips based on the Anderson TV series: it actually sought to enhance the Anderson 21st century vision by joining some of the dots between the series by trying to embed them in a coherent future. Indeed some of the strips' adventures used to crossover. Some of the artwork was also excellent and vaguely reminiscent of Dan Dare. The strips included Fireball XL5, Stingray, Thunderbirds and the spin-off Zero-X. There was also another Thunderbird spin-off Lady Penelope and she even had her own comic that included another spin-ff strip Marina that came out of Stingray. These strips have largely been lost. The 1970s comic Countdown reprinted just a few TV21 stories in black and white (in addition to some new material of its own), aside from this only few kids had the sense to keep their 1960s original TV21s and if they did have such sense sometimes their parents did not. (Mine threw out my collection: had I still had them, at one point in the late 1980s those copies would have sold for 5 (5.00p) compared to the original 7d (0.03p) cover price, a potential 16,500% profit.)

Now a good number of these strips have been brought together in two marvellous graphic collections. They are large format but alas still smaller than the original (yes, I still have just a few copies of the original left for comparison) which somewhat belies the editor's claim that for the first time we are seeing the artwork as it was truly intended despite the decent quality paper. The only other problem with these reproductions is that the gutter (the unprinted gap) between two opposing pages is non-existent which means you cannot see the full artwork (and sometimes the text) where some of the pages join the books' spines. Nonetheless these collections are simply marvellous. The introductory articles also provide a fascinating insight into how the spin-off comics originally came into being and how the series and comics interacted. (Yes, the influence occasionally went the other way: comics-to-TV!) They also revealed, and enhanced a growing impression I have had over the years, that Gerry Anderson's own creative thoughts on product development (and SF) leave a little to be desired, fortunately he had help and, as indicated, the first few years of TV21 were hugely successful. Alas from what is said, in the volumes' introductory articles, suggests that there is little additional surviving material to mine. If true, this is a huge shame as more volumes would be most welcome.

Also, alas, publicity for these graphic collections seems very low-key and mainly restricted through specialist Fanderson fandom, yet I am sure that there would be a broader appreciative market to tap into had the publishers cast their promotional net wider. So if this is the first time you have heard of these collections and you belong to the Anderson generation then do not delay and miss the boat, order these volumes now. These collections are an absolute must-get for genre buffs of a certain age.

Jonathan Cowie

Stop Press: See also reviews of volumes 3 & 4, the 2014 Sam Denham The Gerry Anderson Comic Collection and the 2015 Marcus Hearn Thunderbirds: The Vault reviews.

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