By the mid-late 50’s, the writing was well and truly on the wall for story papers, as all-comic strip, “American” (sometimes) “style” (sometimes) “Slicks” began to sell in ever-greater numbers, the Beano and Dandy trampled what was left of the older humour comics into the dust, and Eagle gave Britain’s own adventure comic “style” a quality product to imitate.
Still, some story papers were soldiering on – especially those from DC Thomson. Their first foray into the weekly story-paper market had been Adventure, which began in 1921, and really shook things up with it’s strange stories of super powers, time travel, space travel and sportsmen of amazing ability. Adventure, and three of it’s stablemates, were kept running throughout the war, whereas Amalgamated Press had killed off story papers wholesale – keeping their more modern, comic-focused publications for boys going instead.
With the all-text style starting to look old fashioned at the end of the war, Adventure began to feature (very!) simple, four-colour picture strips on the covers. By the mid-50’s, these had increased in sophistication, and the centre pages featured a similar strip in black, white and red.
Neither of these strips had speech balloons (and, of course, sound effects should be rare and unusual in British adventure comics anyway!), but were instead a series of pictures with large captions underneath, explaining the story. The frames were almost always the same size, though sometimes a new cover strip would be introduced with a large panel.
Like the text serials, the strips were regularly changed around, in order to feature stories on different themes. These included wartime adventure with frogmen and Spitfire pilots, science fiction with deadly walking machines, early-Victorian boxing with Tinker Cobb and the strange tale of an RAF test-pilot who is also a first-division goalkeeper!
The Headhunter of St. Hal’s was another of the red, white and black strips. This one is a boarding school story, a craze for which had been kicked off by Tom Brown’s Schooldays right back in 1857, and was only now starting to slow. Probably more through accident than design, nearly all boarding school stories appearing in British comics were text. Girls got a few strips, but boy’s ones were pretty rare. That makes this story quite interesting, even if it is pretty terrible! Also the tale is told from the point of view of the villain, which is pretty unusual even by DC Thomson standards (though characters acting in defiance of the law – like Tinker Cobb – were fairly common, they weren’t evil as such).
The story begins with the headmaster of St. Hal’s recieving an evil-looking carved idol from his brother, who is exploring in Borneo. The head is reminded that a new boy, called Juma, who comes from Borneo, is starting at the school that day. He doesn’t yet know that the boy has been sent by his tribe to recapture the idol! The headmaster’s brother had stolen it, and had been tortured to death in revenge.
The head sends Dick Donovan, the captain of the Fourth Form, to the station to meet the new boy. The ethnic majorities of Borneo are Malay, Chinese, Banjar and Dayak (who are apparently very similar to Malays). But Juma looks more like a Black African with the eyes of a cat. On the way back, they are attacked by some bullies. Juma pulls a knife and tries to stab one of them! Dick stops him in time, but Juma later threatens the porter in the same way. Dick tells him “we can’t have the law of the jungle at St. Hals!” XD.
They go to the headmaster’s office, where Juma spots the idol and starts to worship it! The head arrives shortly afterwards and greets Juma, who notices a red stain from the idol on his hand. Any White man who touches the idol must die! But Juma decides to bide his time, and formulate a very over-complicated, messy plan XD.
Dick shows Juma to his study, where some bullies later threaten him. But he knocks one of their caps off with an expertly-thrown knife, and they decide to leave him alone after that. Juma’s first day at the school passes normally, but that night he sneaks out of the dormitory and goes to the headmaster’s office. At the precise moment Juma looks through the wall, the head discovers a long-forgotten secret passage which leads out from a panel in the wall. Juma shoots the head with a drugged blow-dart, and locks him into some very convenient (and still working) old handcuffs that are chained to the wall.
Juma sneaks back out of the hidden passage, only to find a burglar who has just finished picking the lock of the head’s safe! Juma strangles him, and throws him off the balcony.
Juma then opens the safe, but this sets off alarms throughout the school. The alarm needs to be deactivated by pressing a secret button, before the door can be opened. Juma quickly hides the idol on top of a cupboard, then joins in with the crowd of boys surging down the corridor. They find the dead burglar, and assume that he ran out of the window and fell when the alarms went off.
Sam Taylor, the porter, finds the idol and hides it in his cottage, thinking it might be worth something. He assumes the burglar hid it on the cupboard, and with the headmaster missing, nobody will bother to look for it. Juma is angry at finding the idol missing, but thanks to it’s ever-wet paint, he quickly works out who has stolen it, darts the porter, and locks him up in the secret tunnels too.
Two other masters are in the headmaster’s office, so Juma explores the tunnels further, finding another exit in a ruined castle near the school. He runs back, but is late for class, so is put in detention with Bully Bates, the boy whose cap he had knocked off earlier. The bully notices Juma is agitated and trying to escape, so follows him to the headmaster’s office when they are let out. But Juma has already ‘vanished’ into the secret tunnels!
By this time, the porter has recovered from the drugged dart. Juma learns (by, lets not beat about the bush here, torture!) that the idol has been sold to an antique shop in the town. He tries to leave the school by the front gate, but is caught by some prefects and bought back.
That night, Juma sneaks down to the tunnels again, intending to get out through the other end. Bully bates follows him and… (missing reel) …my volume has a few missing issues! Anyway, in the next issue he has captured Bully Bates, drugged the shop owner, and holds him up whilst “waving” with his arm to a policeman outside the shop! Juma can’t find the idol, so returns to the secret passage, pushing the antiques dealer in a covered wheelbarrow. Two tramps spot him and, no doubt because of his skin colour, assume he has stolen something.
While Juma fiddles about with the door of the secret passage, the tramps look in the barrow, and see the “dead” shopkeeper. They run off before Juma comes back, and drags the shopkeeper into the school the hard way, adding to his collection of missing persons. Quite why all those chained-up people don’t shout for help at once is beyond me. The walls of the school can’t be that thick!
Juma goes down the passage and frees the other door, but quickly closes it again, as he can see the tramps and several police on the other side! The next day, the police investigate the school, searching every study. Juma, for some reason, as the death mask of the headmaster’s brother in his suitcase, which would take a bit of explaining! A policeman is about to find it, so Juma does the sensible thing and… oh wait, he attacks the copper with a knife! He is quickly overpowered and locked in the detention room. But, would ya know it, he has a special weed which can be used to ‘hypnotise’ people!
Mr Davison, the senior master, comes to check on Juma, and gets a face-full of the weed. Juma commands him to hand over the keys, then go to sleep. Soon Juma is running back to the antique shop, but the police, having found evidence of a break-in, and nothing but the owner missing, have rigged up an alarm system.
Juma manages to grab the idol anyway (despite stopping to worship it once again), and only just escapes the clutches of the law. He runs back to the school and commands Mr Davison to go and tell the police he has been locked up in the detention room all night. What Juma doesn’t know is that Dick Donovan (remember him?) is hiding in the room too, and overhears what happens.
With the police off the sent, Juma puts the master out of action again, with a kick to the jaw! Donovan follows him across the quad, and into the headmaster’s room, where he spots the secret passage. Rousing the Fourth Form, Dick leads an attack on Juma’s hideout just as he is about to start torturing the head with a red-hot iron. Juma is overpowered and all his prisoners set free. The headmaster congratulates dick, and promises to send the idol ba-what? no of course he doesn’t, he’ll have it put in the local museum. It’s well-known that tribes who consider an idol so sacred they will send one of their number right around the world to regain it, using deadly force if necessary, will give up if the first attempt fails XD.