Valiant and TV21 – 31st March 1973

It’s that time again, lets grab a random single issue of a classic British comic and review it!

… last time I did this, I was pretty spoilt for choice, but this time, I really only had this one (or a bunch of recent Viz, Beano or Commando issues). I bought it from an antiques shop in Kyoto for ¥1000, though a comparable one bought in the UK would probably be no more than a quarter of that.

Anyway, Valiant is a well-known British comic, even amongst people who normally only like American ones. This is probably because most of it’s “serious” characters had powers, and these people can’t fathom the idea of a comic about ordinary people (unless it’s some small press pamphlet about a hipster’s life, which would have been better off as a blog entry).

TV21, on the other hand, ought to be a better-known British comic. It is, in conventional wisdom, the second best British comic, after the almighty Eagle. It contained stories of the various Gerry Anderson productions, the comic and television arms of Century 21 productions complementing each other perfectly, without the comic being some bland, hacked-out retread of the TV show with a bunch of clipart chucked all over it.

Ahem.

By 1973, and the merger, the stars of both comics had waned considerably, though as the senior partner, Valiant has retained a number of it’s classic characters. TV21’s only contribution is Star Trek, which occupies the coloured centre pages (but doesn’t really gain anything from the colour). Even before the merger, the latter day TV21 had long since relegated the Gerry Anderson material to black and white reprints, while the colour pages were occupied by strips based on imported TV shows (though at least they were hand-illustrated especially for that comic, even this would be a rare miracle in today’s Britain).

Anyway, in the style of a number of comics at the time, the cover is not taken up by some dramatic image from a story within, but with a “factual” page about a famous sports star. Valiant did a lot of this, and DC Thomson’s Victor ran “true war stories” for decades. A waste of the colour if you ask me, but it sold in numbers any publisher in the anglosphere would kill for, today!

The first story is Captain Hurricane, the long-running comedy war story in which a huge marine would go into a “ragin’ fury” and start punching tanks, calling the occupants “bratwurst-munching Brandenburg bootmakers” or “slant-eyed yellow weevils” every week. The people who sing Valiant’s praises as the “acceptable face” of retro British comics like to quietly pretend this story never existed. I, on the other hand, want a collected book of the funniest episodes. At least 300 pages, please!

Anyway, in this particular episode, Captain Hurricane’s batman, “Maggot” Malone, is writing his “memwars”, in which he calls himself a general, on the assumption he’ll have been promoted that far by the time the war ends. Some Germans assume he’s a secret agent writing a report, and try to capture him, one thing leads to another and soon the Squareheads are being shaken out of tanks like pepper.

The next story is Kid Pharoh, who is an ancient Egyptian who was cursed to “sleep while darkness reigns” by an evil wizard, then shut up in a tomb for thousands of years. Released by American archaeologists in modern times, he went to America and became a pro wrestler (that’s the first thing you’d do, right?). Anyway, the curse is still in effect, so he falls asleep the instant the lights go out, he’s also up against the descendants of the wizard, who are now his enemies in other ways (rival wrestling promoters, I’d imagine).

The next story is one of Valiant’s best-remembered ones, Janus Stark. He’s a famous escapologist from Victorian times, who is somehow never recognised by the various villains who keep trapping him in complicated ways and leaving him to a slow death. In this story he’s also clapped in irons by the well-meaning crew of a ship, but casts off the “mere trinkets” when he spots real saboteurs approaching. One thing leads to another, and he ends the episode tied up once again, this time watching the fuse on a barrel full of gunpowder burn down!

Yellowknife of the Yard follows. If we’ve had an ancient Egyptian wrestler, why not a Red Indian detective, still dressed in full regalia? Anyway, he’s captured by Count Terror (who looks like Count Dracula) and subjected to the “fear machine” which has already terrified several MI5 agents. Yellowknife, however, finds it “um heap big bore”, before rather conveniently escaping and lassooing the badmen.

Now it’s The Nutts, one of Valiant’s pure comedy strories, and only a single page long. It’s about a family living in a tiny house, the husband always has money-making (or saving) schemes that go wrong.

I don’t normally cover adverts, but here’s one for some other comics! Battle Picture Library was, at the time, putting out eight issues per month, but unlike today’s Commando, they released them all in one bunch on the third Monday. Like today’s Commando, I doubt that was eight NEW stories per month! The descriptions make the stories sound far more interesting than they probably were. The best war picture library was, well, War Picture Library, but only up to the mid 60’s! After that, Commando was running away with the title, and it’s certainly the only one to have reached 5000 issues!

After that, another staple of British comics, a football strip! This one’s called Raven on the Wing, and is about a gypsy boy, with amazing ability, who signs up for Highborough United, aka The Toffs. Here another of his tribe, Spider Mulford, is competing with the team’s back-from-injury goalie, Lionel Jeeps, for custodian duties at an upcoming championship match. Other members of the tribe have got into the crowd and are trying to put the regular keeper off during the first half, but Raven, naturally, doesn’t want to see any of that, preferring a fair contest.

No doubt there would be howls of derision at such a story today, making as it does the stereotyped suggestion that gypsies have strong family ties, even though it’s true. Mind you, family ties among a lot of regular brits are pretty strong too, these days. They side with their own kids against teachers and the police, undermining social order… filthy savages.

After that, we have The Swots and the Blots. Which is a bit like The Bash Street Kids if the class goody-goody, Cuthbert, was mob-handed. It’s resemblance to The Bash Street Kids is mainly due to the fact it has the same creator! Leo Baxendale left DC Thomson in the 1960’s, after a disagreement about the scale he did his artwork at, and went to Odhams, who were later swallowed up in the IPC Empire. Anyway, the strip is across the centre pages, with a huge title, and centres around cooking class. You can well imagine the chaos that ensues!

After that, we get the, erm, “colour” strip, on the centre pages, and it’s a contribution from the junior partner, TV21! As I said before, the days of TV21’s gravure-printed Gerry Anderson epics were behind it even before the merger, but here we have a Star Trek story coloured (badly) with the four-colour overlay method. This story is really Star Trek in name only, it’s more like a World War 2 spy caper given a Trek coat of paint, just replace the Germans with Klingons and the Italians with thier Morkolian allies.

After that, the letters page, with some illustrated jokes (when I was young, I always thought the senders provided the illustration, too, and got quite dispirited that people the same age as me already had skills equal to the pros!) and an interesting notice about the introduction of VAT.

Now for another stone-cold Valiant classic (and one due a Rebellion reprint?), The Claw! This is about Louis Crandell, who has a mechanical hand, and also the power to become invisible when he gets an electric shock (no chance of something like this appearing in a kids’ comic these days!). While not a cop or secret agent, he keeps coming up against flamboyant super-criminals, enemy spies and so on, and must use his powers to bring them to justice. Here a man pretending to be a ghost has nicked the takings from a funfair.

One classic follows another, as the rather spoiled reader now gets their weekly dose of Kelly’s Eye. In this story, Tim Kelly is a time-travelling adventurer who ends up in various times and places. As long as he holds the Eye of Zoltec, a magic stone, he cannot be harmed by anything but a weapon made of gold. Guess what material the villains of the stories always had a fondness for forging their custom knife, sword or bullets out of! When that gimmick had been used too often, he would simply lose the stone instead. I believe the story began with him simply fighting modern-day crimes, but here he is travelling through time in “Doctor Diamond”‘s time machine. Though it also appears able to travel vast distances and land on inhabited alien planets, too. I presume alien planets are used as a shorthand for “the future”. Anyway, if I remember a randomly-purchased annual from later in the 70’s correctly, he later started falling through time at random, by magical means.

Anyway, in this story he and Dr Diamond have joined a rebel movement on the planet Lyrius, which is ruled by intelligent apes (because why nick ideas from just one franchise?). They are in the sewer system, which can amplify a whisper in one place into a shout in another, which doesn’t seem like a very safe idea, to me. A workman burping in the wrong place could devastate a city with the resulting earthquake.

After that, there’s a half-page comedy strip called The Crows, pretty standard material.

I don’t usually cover adverts on my blog, because I’ll get braindead comments from people who are amazed that Matchbox cars used to cost “only” 16p (made you scroll up), as if inflation doesn’t exist and a new Ford Cortina wasn’t £1100 at the same time. But here’s an advert which is also a full-page strip. It appears to be the end of a serial, but that might just be to make it look “comic-ey”. It’s pretty fluffy, as these things are, but better than some generic clipart slapped on a page.

Brain Drayne is another comedy strip, in the Corporal Clott mould. He’s a tad more intelligent, though, coming up with half-baked “clever” ideas that cause more problems than they solve!

After a quick “soccer roundup” page, which reports the usual facts about the early days of football that were in every other one of these comics (fans used to bring planks to stand on because the field was muddy, etc), we get to The Wild Wonders, a comedy adventure strip about two amazing boy athletes. Here they have been tricked into blasting off in an experimental rocket, and have now landed on an “alien planet”, but some things don’t seem quite right…

And last, and definitely not least, we have Billy Bunter, who has hardly changed at all from his debut back in 1908. Only the 1908 stories were text, and Billy was not usually the main character (more of a force of nature that drove the plot). He’s still coming up with “get stuffed quick” schemes to secure a supply of food with minimal effort!

The full-colour back page of the issue is just used for another model car advert, so I’m sure I don’t need to waste your bandwidth with that 😉

Eagle and Tiger – one of the last throws of the dice

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Ahh, Eagle and Tiger. What great names, standing astride British comics like a gold-plated colossus. Eagle gave us the greatest space strip of all time, Dan Dare…

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The Red Moon Mystery is unbelivably good. It’s a shame you can only read it for the first time once.

And Tiger was the birthplace of the greatest football strip of all time, Roy of the Rovers…

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It actually started in the fifties too

However in 1985 the world of the weekly adventure comic was far from rosy. Lots of titles were being merged or cancelled, and the decision was made to put these two illustrious names together. The result was… er… oh dear.

The Eagle in question was, of course, the 1980’s New Eagle. Possibly started with noble(ish) intentions, it was nevertheless very far removed from the ideals set out in the 1950’s original which was started by Reverend Marcus Morris. I wouldn’t like to think of his opinions on Eagle and Tiger, I doubt the language would be fitting for a man of god!

The original and new Eagle both had a “real” editor. However the merged Eagle and Tiger went with that British comic trope, the fictional editor. In this case a homicidal computer that was originally created for a horror comic called Scream!

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We then move on to the first story, Doomlord. This was one of the star attractions of the original Eagle, and was originally a photo story featuring a bloke in a dodgy mask. Fortunately I have the merger issue which explains the back-stories to all of these characters! It seems that the original Doomlord was sent to “test” the human race to see if they were worthy of being left alive. He decided they weren’t but another “rogue” Doomlord thought they were, and won. But now the original one, thought dead, is back!

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Well he’s back eventually anyway, apparently he broke himself down into “bacteria” and then makes whoever he infects transform into him!

Later on we get some 80’s style enviro-preaching. Apparently mankind has “exploited the oceans for centuries” when in fact it was only in the 20th century that dangerously intensive fishing started. Before that a bunch of small boats would sail out and make their catches independently, rather than two huge ones stringing a mile-long net between them. Oh and also we did deforestation and nuclear bombs.

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Gee, ain’t we stinkers?

Next story is possibly the second most famous football strip of all time (Roy of the Rovers had his very own comic by this time), Billy’s Boots!

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Later to be found in Roy of the Rovers… probably, every other footie strip ended up there!

The basic gist of this story is that Billy, who can’t play football, has a pair of boots once owned by the famous international “dead shot” Keen. When billy wears the boots he can play as well as Dead Shot! This strip ran for years in several different comics despite the pretty limited story possibilities – those boots got stolen by robbers/dogs or acidentally thrown out/donated to charity shops hundreds of times!

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Yes, you did just read that

The next story is the utterly bizarre Star Rider. A shape-shifting (often shifting back to his alien form at inopportune moments, naturally) alien journeys to earth to, erm, compete in BMX Racing. Because that’s what the kids were down with (or whatever they said in the 80’s) at the time. Oh he also has a ray in a watch/ring that can construct or demolish things at will. No doubt in other parts of the story (I only own four issues of this!) he uses this ability to foil crimes and that.

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Oh dear

Here’s where things go downhill. One of the limited and precious colour pages is used for a full-page advert. It’s not even a comic strip ad like Tommy Walls in the original Eagle! (or Cheese Strings in the 90’s Beano). The ad itself is for a crappy Transformers rip-off…

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Oh dear oh dear

 …which is also a story! And one using the limited and precious “black white and red” pages too. The famous comic Battle (later Battle Action) which gave us the seminal Charley’s War and Darkie’s Mob was utterly ruined when it became “Battle Action Force”, and little more than a toy catalogue with stories. It looks like they were dragging Eagle in the same direction. For a start kids can see through this “advertainment” nonsense in a flash, and also kids hate being “told how” to play with their toys. They want to make up their own adventures not be told who the goodies and baddies are and what their abilities are. No wonder Lego is so popular after all these years – it can be anything you want!

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Still a stamp collecting ad, though!

Here’s a reader’s page with “Super Dads” and “Glamorous Teachers”! The latter feature appears to be a chance for boys to send in pictures of the teacher they fancy! It only appears in one of the issues I have, and was another thing that Mr Morris would certainly not have been a fan of!

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Surely a North Sea Tunnel could be just about done with todays technology?

Now we come to the colour centre pages, and Eagle’s most famous creation, Dan Dare! The New Eagle initially featured stories about the grandson of the original Dan, but later bought the original back. This story is set in the 22nd century, so it must feature the grandson (the original Dan Dare stories of the 50’s were set around the 2000’s). However the original Dan’s batman, Digby, also makes an appearance:

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‘ad rather ‘ave a weeks worth o’ vitamin blocks

So who knows. The story doesn’t exactly look like it’s up to Hampsonite standards either, devolving into a galactic dogfight.

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The Mekon would never have been so vulgar

Also there’s another advert page showing another merger going on in the humour comics. Whoopee merging into the “two comics in one” Whizzer and Chips, creating an ungainly title.

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Does this mean that a “third party” “raided” both Whizz-Kid and Chipite camps?

We now come to yet another advertainment story – The Ultimate Warrior.  This one is a little better disguised, at least to begin with! It starts off with some ordinary boys, one of them wants to stay indoors and play computer games rather than play obesity-busting football. A sign of things to come!

Anyway the one staying to play video games has discovered “the secret code” that you can type into the computer (it’s “ULTIWAR” by the way) and it actually teleports you into the game! However he loses a game and is trapped in the computer (it’s just sitting there saying “YOU LOSE” on the screen). Thoughtfully he left his friend with instructions on what to do if this happens, and so the friend plunges into cyberspace to save him. Wonder what happens if there’s a power cut while they are in there??

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Wouldn’t happen today of course. Today the screen would say “EPIC FAIL”

Anyway, the third part of this story is probably one of the laziest comic strips I have seen in my life… and that includes the ones I have made! The kid sits in a basic “space invaders” type game shooting baddies… and then some more, and then some more. He needs to get 10,000 points, and is almost there when he shoots a friendly ship and loses 5000… and that’s the cliff hanger! “Join us next week for more of the same! bet you can’t wait!”

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Zap! Boom! Zap! Boom! etc

Next it’s Golden Boy. Another strip from the “sporty” Tiger, and quite a good one too! An orphan, befriended by a police sergeant, is persuaded to give up amateur athletics (despite having two Olympic gold medals) by an American millionaire in order to compete in a gameshow called “The Suicide Game”, which is like Takeshi’s Castle with spikes on. The American knows something about the fate of the boys’ parents but will only reveal the details a little at a time.

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Next we have an out-and-out horror story of the kind Eagle was originally started to suppress! It’s called Death Wish and is about a man who had a horrible accident, resulting in hideous deformities (and apparently plastic surgery was never invented). Because of this he wears a mask and constantly tries to commit suicide by doing dangerous stunts or testing new performance cars / aircraft. However his luck is amazing and he always survives the inevitable spectacular crashes, but his constant brushes with death make him somehow able to see and talk to ghosts!

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I think this first started in a member of “The 22 Club” called Speed.

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Telling the kids of 1985 that night-time nagging works!

Now we come to the strip that stars the comic’s “editor”, Max the computer! For years he has run Maxwell Tower, a block of flats that boasts “computer control”, making people’s tea for them when they wake up and so on. However Max doesn’t take kindly to burglars and vandals, and lures them to the 13th floor, a place of his own creation where they are subjected to all manner of horrors! The ones that survive are then hypnotised to lead a life of good. As this story (re-)starts the police are finally on to Max and he is shut down. Then he is transferred to a department store and re-programmed to run the store… and not kill people. However the new owner inadvertently activates the old programme!

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My 90’s and 2000’s-upbought brain can’t help but see tower blocks as vertical slums no matter how nice they might actually be, mind.

In the 80’s computer games were rapidly gaining popularity, and this is also reflected in the “Max’s Micro Vault” feature. In 1985 people still cared about technical computer terms such as “microcomputer”, so machines such as the Spectrum and BBC were referred to as “your micro”. This page is mainly short game reviews (well it was 1985, there was only about 6 games being continually rehashed and given new names!).

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Oh and also “Ernie the Eagle”, a product of the New Eagle, supposedly about the mascot on top of King’s Reach Tower (aka Tharg’s spaceship… did he build Max?)

Of more interest, though, is this reference to “micro communication”, computers talking to each other by modems! This was already being used to create “Bulletin Board Systems” or BBS’s (mainly in the USA) and would eventually give rise to the internet.

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You can now have a 0.02kbps modem for only £550, that’s not much more than a video recorder!

There’s also this forgotten product, why wasn’t this repeated for Live 8?

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Interestingly, given the story about rubbish Transformers rip-offs, a full-page colour ad for the real thing appears! Well actually it’s a promotion for a watch you could send off for. Mind you I’m glad the Americanism “clip” as opposed to “cut out” has vanished from Britain. Still I think I’d rather have that than Labour supporters chanting “Four more years” in American accents. Well yeah as we aren’t in your beloved America it could actually be five or three years.

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Do kids ever actually wear these fancy (and heavy) watches for more than a couple of days?

Three of the four issues I have are from the merger in April 1985. The other is from later on, in October. Now the issue numbering (carried over from the new Eagle) has discreetly re-appeared. Plus Dan Dare is now all-colour (in the previous issues only the first two pages in the centre spread were colour).

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Ghostbusters on video! Watch it twice in one day… or three times if you want!

The Computer Warrior story has now dropped all pretence of being an adventure strip and is just an extended advert. It’s also still boring, I pity the writers who had to try and get an interesting story out of the gameplay of 1985 computer games! This time it’s a car race that no doubt involved keeping a dot in between two lines, avoiding other dots and occasionally avoiding touching a wobbling-about “police car”.

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Notice how the title of the story has shrunk and the title of the featured game has taken precedence.

And at the end of the story, a promotion for the game! You can win it, but if you don’t it’s on sale at all computer shops now! (which is no doubt a dingy family run shop with it’s sign painted in a “digital” or “data” font).

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The Activision company didn’t do so badly out of the deal, evidently.

Most of the stories in the earlier issues are still going, but there is one new one – following a New York police dog called Shadow. I never really liked stories that star animals, in fact the only one I do like is about squirrels and is in a 70’s Beezer Annual.

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Woof

We also have the end of the Golden Boy story. The boy in question wins the Suicide Game in America, but gives all his prize money away to the second-placed contestant, who needed it to help his crippled mother. In the end the boy returns to England and goes to live alone on the moors somewhere, shunning all comforts of civilisation. I wonder if he met a certain man in black out there?

The demise of the British adventure weekly has been blamed on a lot of things, mainly videogames and TV. But I think that’s only part of the story – adventure comics, and comics in general, are still popular in several other countries that don’t have any less TV or videogames. Looking at comics like these you can see that an atmosphere of apathy and laziness seems to have seeped into the editorial office. Writing stories based on toys (instant characters) or videogames (instant action scenes) is pointless –  the kids want to make up their own adventures with the toys, and they’ll play the videogames themselves rather than just read about them!

Comics should play the the advantages of the comics medium – trying to tell a comic story based on what happens in 1985 space war or motor racing videogames results in very boring stories! Dogfights against alien ships ought to borrow more from World War 2 dogfights, with ace pilots, the burden of command and so on. And motor racing stories are allowed to have such things as “corners” that the game apparently didn’t! The other stories (bar the robots) are a lot better because they don’t have this to burden them – but somehow they just don’t strike me as being as interesting as their equivalents from the 50’s or 60’s.

The School Friend annual 1957

Discovered in Oxfam’s “please read me one more time” box for a mere 50p (i wish the Bury branch would do the same thing!) this is a proper gem of a late 50’s comic/storypaper annual, with the strips and text stories alternating. I’m not too sure of the history of the School Friend, but i’m pretty sure it originated alongside the Gem and Magnet, so by the time the 1960’s where coming knocking it probably looked well out of date, even with strip content. The stories themselves are mostly the typical “Girls’ Own” fare that revisionists (some of them even self-professed “fans”!) would have you beleive entirely made up the girl’s comics of the time, however there are a few surprises. Another surprise is the prescence of not one but TWO colour strips! There is also a painted “coloured plate” on different paper in the front of the book, but the coloured strips are on the same thick pulp paper as the black and white pages, just with “dotty” colouring added. I actually like the look, and find myself wondering if it can be replicated for my own comics in photoshop.

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The cover, with one or two “improvements”. Probably added by Susan White, it’s evident second owner (the name is in biro) after Judith Fox, who’s name is on the title page in rather ornate handwriting. I beleive “The Millers” are a football team.

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“The Silent Three” appear to be the most famous characters of the School Friend’s comic strips (they are in that British Comics book with Korky on the cover, dontcha know). I think that in it’s earlier days the paper also contained Charles Hamilton stories, but there’s none of that in this book. The Silent Three themselves belonged to a secret society in their boarding school who put on robes and masks and fought against injustice (Kind of like a genteel version of V for Vengeance?)  Here they are on their summer holidays, but another school is still in session and Betty’s cousin, captain of the fourth, is upset at her form being framed for a series of pranks. The pranks turn out to be the work of a corrupt prefect who has found a clue to a treasure hidden within the school and wants to keep it for herself. Whilst this may not be by Charles Hamilton it isn’t straying too far from his territory! (Nb. British girl’s comics, and probably storypapers before them, where almost entirely written by men)

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This story is about Princess Anita. The young apparent monarch (presumably the actual King or Queen is “away” for extended periods) of “Sylvanberg”, a kind of idealised swiss/bavarian type country. She dresses up in peasant garb and goes amongst her people in order to discover their problems and then solve them using her powers as monarch. Here she is coincidentally saved by a “no good” man that a “well to do” woman wants to marry (against the wishes of her father). One awarding of a Legion d’honneur-style medal later and the lovers can live happily ever after.

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One of the colour strips, Jill Crusoe. In this her and her native friend M’lani live on “Paradise Island” in the 1890’s. A hot-air balloon accidentally descends onto a nearby island where cannibals keep the idol of their fire god. As the girls move to rescue him they use the exploding gas in the balloon to convince the savages that the fire god is angry with their plan to sacrifice the “sky demon”. Later on the airman is rescued by a passing ship but Jill and M’lani decide to stay on the island. How they avoid being eaten by cannibals is not adequately explained.

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A more tomboy-ish character, with a strange Irish accent. Her name is Paddy McNaught and she assists the detective Terry Brent. Here, believing crooks to be after him, he sends her out in his car with a waxwork model of him which happens to be laying around the office to throw them off the scent. She then realises they want to “settle for him”, but later finds out they knew the waxwork was a model all along. However a quick switch of the waxwork left sitting on a log with the real thing see’s the crims rounded up. It turns out some recently stolen