(NOTE: The Valiant referred to in this article is the IPC boys’ paper of the 1960s and 70s),and has no connection with the Valiant line of comics founded in the US in 1989)
Valiant, launched in 1962, was the most successful of IPC’s stable of boys’ comics during the 1960s and 70s (Lion coming a close second),and was clearly regarded as the company‘s flagship. This was demonstrated by the fact that other comics tended to be absorbed into it whenever economies needed to be made, rather than the other way round. It devoured successively Knockout (1963),Smash (1971),TV21 (1971),and Vulcan (a comic composed entirely of reprints from other IPC publications)(1976). It finally met its match in the autumn of the latter year when swallowed up by the war comic Battle. Valiant summer specials continued to appear until 1980, and annuals until 1984.
My association with the comic lasted five years, from 1971 to 1976, with two short intervals the first of which, in September 1972, was connected I think with some misdemeanour on my part. The reasons for the second, which lasted from August to December 1973, I cannot now remember. In May 1974 occurred a “night of the long knives” in which many of my favourite characters were axed as part of a drastic re-vamp of the paper. I now realised the significance of the little box in which readers were invited to write down their three most favourite features, before cutting it out and posting it to the editor. In what I regard as the most traumatic experiences of my childhood Yellowknife, Raven, Tim Kelly, Janus Stark, the Wild Wonders and the Swots and Blots all disappeared from Valiant’s pages, though some of them later made occasional guest appearances.
However I continued to get the comic until late 1976, in the hope that my old favourites would permanently return. I expect I would eventually have got tired of the waiting, or grown too old for comics in any event. What precipitated my decision to stop buying it, being an unusually puritanical child, was the quite shocking violence many of the strips – in particular one about a wild dog called Paco – were displaying. This was part of a trend affecting the character of many new and existing British comics at this time, notably 2000 AD and the notorious Action. Valiant had been stuck for too long in a tame, and anachronistic, Boy’s Own Paper mould; for that IPC were now making up with a vengeance.
Of the features which appeared in the comic, those I find myself remembering most are:
World War Two soldier Captain Hercules Hurricane (note how comic characters frequently seem to be christened with names which by a remarkable feat of prescience match the superhuman characteristics they later, whether by natural or artificial means, acquire) was a sea captain who decided to join the Royal Marines after his tramp steamer was torpedoed by a German U-boat, as a way of getting his revenge on the dastardly Krauts. His assets were courage and an astonishing physical strength, particularly when sufficiently annoyed by something to go into one of his “Ragin’ Furies.”
Hurricane was always regarded as Valiant’s flagship strip. The title character featured on the cover of the very first edition, urging “Thumbs Up for Number One”. He appeared on the front of most of the annuals and summer specials, while the strip always occupied the first few pages of the comic after the cover (which usually featured a quiz of some sort, or an item of educational interest). I myself was never particularly keen on it, amusing though it frequently was (among the humorous touches, Hurricane’s diminutive and much put-upon batman “Maggot” Malone would occasionally astonish everyone by having a “Ragin’ Fury” of his own, while the supremely brave and apparently indomitable Captain was terrified of his elderly Aunt Harriet). To me, adventures set in the Second World War hold less excitement and drama because obviously we know that the Allies defeated the Axis powers and everything turned out right.
The strip was unsatisfying in another important respect; all Hurricane had to do to save the day was get sufficiently upset about something to have a “Ragin’ Fury” and he would become possessed with a superhuman strength that enabled him to overwhelm the enemy, whether Germans, Japanese or Italians, without the aid of guns or tanks. In this respect it resembled the TV series The Incredible Hulk.
Raven On The Wing
This, in my opinion, was the best strip ever to appear in the comic. Raven was a young gypsy (sorry, traveller) boy from a tribe called the Lengros, who became left-winger for football club Highborough United and eventually their star player. The clash between gypsy culture and that of the “gawjos”, as the Lengros termed members of settled society (of a superstitious nature, Raven would sometimes refuse to play on a certain day if it was likely to rain, which brought him into conflict with the team’s management) provided much of the drama and human interest, although it is doubtful how much of the portrayal of Romany life is accurate. One of the most appealing things about the strip was that in addition to Raven himself it featured a rich variety of characters, such as the pompous Sir Mortimer Child-Beale, Highborough’s chairman; Morag, the Lengros’ wise woman and caster of spells, whose face was always obscured by a hood; the aristocratic and stuck-up Clive Manning, the team’s right-winger; and Highborough’s manager “Baldy” Hagan. The last-named had an attractive blonde teenage daughter called Jo who I confess I rather fancied. She featured more prominently in events than female characters in other strips but most of the time was still largely a cipher. On one occasion she appears with rather masculine features, which suggests the artist isn’t used to drawing ladies.
A good thing about some IPC strips was the tendency of main characters to experience some major crisis in their affairs and respond to it through a change in their career or some other crucial aspect of their lives. In 1973 Raven for various reasons became fed up with Highborough, and Sir Mortimer in particular, and left to become player manager of a team called Wigford Town. Baldy and Jo vanished from the strip, never to be seen again, and Raven’s new club became bitter enemies of Highborough. After all the latter and Raven had gone through together this turn of events still seems rather a pity; did the break with the past have to be quite so abrupt, or so acrimonious?
As Raven was the second most popular strip in the comic its demise in the Night of the Long Knives, with apparently less popular features being retained, seems hard to explain. Probably the reason was simply that its revamp, if designed to prolong its life, had failed to achieve its purpose and the strip had run its course in that the writers just couldn’t think of any more interesting storylines.
A rather priggish Victorian escapologist who was, it must be admitted, a genuine good egg. Deposited at an early age in a rather grim orphanage, he decided to rob the rich to give to the poor, using his talents to get in and out of various wealthy establishments from which he stole food so that he and his fellow urchins could enjoy a slap-up meal. They enabled him to make good in later life, but he never forgot his humble origins and would give performances for charity. He was skilled at contracting his muscles sufficiently to free himself easily when tied up, which came in very useful when captured by felons who sought to despatch him by binding him to railway lines, conveyor belts, waterwheels, or the bascules of Tower Bridge (“When it opens, the great Janus Stark will be torn in two!” Charming!). Not only that, but he would wriggle snakelike along chimney flues and narrow ventilation shafts which no ordinary human could negotiate. However likely this is, it would have been a lot more acceptable had Stark not also had a remarkable ability to defy the laws of physics. Thrown down a factory chimney by one particularly nasty villain (“You’re about to get a close look at the furnace I used to melt down that gold, Stark – a very close look!”),he has time to steer himself – despite being bound hand and foot and so unable to use his limbs for the purpose – towards an iron service door that someone has obligingly left open. He not only manages to hit the jackpot, and survive his collision with it, but appears to hang from the door by his chin before swinging himself out onto a ladder and safety. Hmmm…must try that sometime. The strip made no claim to historical accuracy: though Stark did not visibly age during its run, in one story Isambard Brunel (died 1859) is clearly alive and yet Tower Bridge didn’t open until 1894.
The comic fat schoolboy created by Frank Richards, aka Charles Hamilton, for the Magnet appeared in Valiant all through its life. He was a feature of Knockout from 1939 and was inherited by Valiant when it absorbed that paper. Although the strip was often very funny, the Valiant Bunter was quite frankly a poor imitation of the Magnet original. While the latter did have some redeeming characteristics, the former was little more than a bully, with Bunter’s form master Mr Quelch coming over in much the same light. Characters such as Harry Wharton, Bob Cherry, Loder, Coker and Dr Locke (the headmaster of Greyfriars) appear from time to time but are not really recognisable as themselves.
From my own point of view there was one positive thing about the Valiant Bunter. I happened to find out about the character’s previous career in the Magnet and was intrigued to learn that he had a pedigree going back to 1908. I was inspired to buy the Howard Baker reprints of the original Magnet stories, and found them immensely enjoyable. So I have something to thank Valiant for there.
The Steel Claw
Following an accident, lab technician Louis Crandell realised he could become invisible if he received an electric shock through his artificial steel hand. Later, a further mishap gave him the ability to project charges of electricity with which to stun his enemies or destroy their fiendish inventions. Of course Crandell ended up spending most of his time dealing with criminals (though originally an offender himself, having realised that his new powers would come in very useful when robbing banks) and seekers after world domination. His particular problem seemed to be invasions from outer space, whether by Lactians, Lektrons (such originality in these names) or Anthroids. The strip began in 1962 and ended in 1973 (with a short interval in 1970-71, after which it returned bearing the title Return Of The Claw). It is notable that between the two dates Crandell’s clothes and haircut changed, in accordance with shifting fashions in real life (at one stage he wore a costume which gave him a striking resemblance to some of the Marvel superheroes). Another point of similarity to the latter – and particularly Spiderman – was the way Crandell felt trapped by his powers, which he felt made him an outcast from society. This gave the strip a moody character plus a depth which set it apart from many others. Crandell might be able to detach his sinister-looking metal hand, the “Claw” of the title, which he could operate by remote control and which was equipped with a variety of amazing gadgets, but it seemed always to be a part of him. I have never been able to establish why the strip ended (it was not replaced with another),although it did so fairly happily with Crandell, previously a secret service agent, quite content to make money from his exploits as a bounty hunter.
The Wild Wonders
As babies Rick and Charlie Wild, the sons of millionaire Arthur Wild, were shipwrecked on Worrag Island in the Outer Hebrides. Not only did their subsequent arduous childhood turn them into superb all-round athletes, but through their contact with the island’s fauna they acquired the ability to communicate with animals (including those unlikely to be found on a Scottish island!). Later the boys were found and taken back to “civilisation” by Olympic swimmer Mike Flynn, who became their guardian. Their natural rebelliousness as children took the form of refusing to accept the conventions of “civilised” society; they competed in bare feet, anticipating Zola Budd by 20 years, wore animal skins and lived in a tree house in Mike’s garden. One wonders what the Social Services would have to say about such things. Their appearances in major international sporting events provided an opportunity for patriotic plugs. We could have done with them at Montreal in ’76. An Irish influence on the strip is evident in Mike’s name, the obvious ancestry of his mother who said things like “Faith!” and “Begorrah!” and the boys’ pet Irish wolfhound Clancy. The latter was acquired on a visit to the Emerald Isle early in their career, along with a taste for pork sausages, which could always be used to get them to behave.
Nowadays two young boys running around dressed only in bearskins, bare-legged and bare-footed, would not be acceptable. Perhaps this was why the strip ended, although the spirit behind it was no doubt entirely innocent. Its demise was a pity on account of its sheer anarchic humour. Mike Western’s (always fine) style of drawing seems to have changed from early in the strip’s run, becoming rather more cartoony, but not necessarily to its disadvantage. The only disturbing element in the stories was Rick and Charlie’s tendency, under certain conditions, to revert completely to the “wild” state they were in before Mike “rescued” them, in which they would become a real danger to themselves and others.
The Swots And The Blots
Drawn by the great Leo Baxendale, these were two rival gangs of schoolchildren, one posh and the other rough, who would nowadays be called “The Chaps And The Chavs”, the former being led by David Cameron. I suppose it made me a bit of a snob but I always wanted the Swots to win (which they did only occasionally, the writer’s sympathies obviously being with tearaway types). A character is seen reading the strip in an episode of Porridge.
The hero of this strip, Tim Kelly, was evidently from his name another Anglicised Irishman. It was his good fortune, after being sold into slavery in South America, and escaping only to face hostile natives, piranha-infested rivers and other perils, to come across in some Inca ruins the fabled “Eye of Zoltec”, a jewel which made its wearer indestructible. This enabled him to roundly defeat villainous types whatever they might throw at him. Frequently an explosion or such like would leave him alive but stripped of his clothes, apart from those protecting his genital region. This raises the question of whether women in the same situation would have ended up topless, but it didn’t matter because they hardly ever appeared in the strip anyway. Tim always re-equipped himself following these sartorial mishaps with the same black sweater, and the Eye on a string around his neck – an inefficient method of wearing it since the string might be broken at inconvenient moments, and often was (although it seemed to survive the explosions OK).
At first, Kelly was really just another good sort using superhuman powers for noble ends. Realising this, the writers decided to give the strip a new dimension by having Tim’s scientist friend, Dr Diamond, accidentally whizz them both off in a time machine over which its inventor had no control and which might deposit them on any planet in the galaxy and any point in history. This certainly made things more interesting, and prolonged the strip’s life for seven years, until May 1974 when Tim and the Doc finally found their way home.
I imagine the politically correct lobby would regard comics such as Valiant, which present a patriarchal world where females are usually little more than auxilaries, as socially harmful. I believe it to be true, though, that boys below a certain age are not interested in girls or their exploits; all their heroes are male. There is however one feature of the comic, particularly in the 1960s, which is undoubtedly negative as well as extremely embarrassing to modern readers. In the Sixties Valiant tended to exhibit a vibrant patriotism. Such is not in itself a bad thing. But it was accompanied by a narrow and unflattering view of non-Anglo-Saxons; they tend at best to be loyal servants, and at worst sinister or unscrupulous. And when they’re threatened by tyrannical rulers or alien invaders, it’s invariably left to the plucky British to save the day.
Interestingly, there is some evidence that a very different, and healthy, trend later replaced this stereotyping. In the 1970s greater use of “ethnic” characters, portrayed in a more positive light, reflected the greater social awareness, relatively speaking, of contemporary Britain. Raven’s squad at Wigford Town included at least one black player. An example of the trend which sticks in my mind more than any other was a strip called “Kid Pharaoh”. The hero was an ancient Egyptian prince called Zethi, conned out of his rightful inheritance by a treacherous High Priest who sealed him inside a pyramid and cursed him to “sleep while darkness reigns.” He was revived when a modern archaeologist opened up his tomb. In the twentieth century he found fame as a wrestler; – the sport had been common among his people, and he himself excelled at it. From time to time he might also use his grappling skills to overpower crooks. As befitted one of royal blood, Zethi had a strong sense of honour. To him, wrestling was a noble sport, not the laughable affair it has become today.
Although not perhaps quite accurate in its view of ancient Egyptians (for one thing, if current theories are to be believed Zethi should have been black),the strip does herald an important change in the comic’s perceptions. Clapped on the shoulder in a friendly but rather rough manner, Zethi mistakenly interprets this as aggression and turns on his “attacker”, who angrily accuses him of being uncivilised. He retorts that his people had a civilisation when the inhabitants of the West were still going around in animal skins. Although of course Zethi is guilty of inverted racism, it is nonetheless commendable that the writer at least presents things from his point of view.
It is interesting to note that another trip featuring an “ethnic” character had begun just a few months earlier at the beginning of the same year, 1972. Yellowknife, a North American Indian (“Native American” if you prefer) who became an Inspector at Scotland Yard, was heavily stereotyped (he used smoke signals to communicate with his superiors, and when trapped by a fire was able to put it out by doing a rain dance) but as the strip never intended to be anything other than humorous (in which task it succeeded admirably; I regard it as the funniest ever to appear in the comic),and Yellowknife was clearly a good sort, one ought to be fairly tolerant towards it, while recognising that its like would not be acceptable nowadays.
It has to be said that ethnic minorities in Valiant never lost their habit of exclaiming “Aieeee!” when alarmed or excited by something. While on the subject of language in IPC comics at this time, nasty villains cried “Yaa haa ha!” when triumphant, while large menacing animals went “Bu-awwww” or “Raw-eeegh!” The Wild Wonders, whose command of conventional English when they deemed to use it would not have pleased Henry Higgins, often employed Cockney expressions like “Flippin’ Norah” or “Flippin’ Harry!” Some characters had catchphrases derived from past or current occupations: Frank Jennings, Kid Pharaoh’s archaeologist friend, might say “tottering temples” or “scarlet scarabs”, and Captain Hurricane “whirling windjammers.”
Amusingly, real life personalities sometimes made thinly disguised appearances in the stories. In one Raven On The Wing strip the England manager is called Ralph Hamsey (Alf Ramsey, get it?). The late Sid James, or someone looking remarkably like him, pops up twice; in a 1975 strip about the motorbike racing business, whose name I can’t remember, and as the manager of crooked disc jockey Bootlace Bodkin who in a 1972 Wild Wonders strip tries to do Rick and Charlie out of the money they have raised for charity through various sporting events, and even contemplates their murder at one point. This isn’t very complimentary to James and one wonders if there was an element of anti-Semitism somewhere (he was Jewish). At the same time, though, Germans didn’t come off very well either. It is obvious that a number of the writers of Valiant (along with at least one of its editors) served in the Second World War where they did not form too favourable an opinion of the enemy; the pages of the comic are populated by villainous Japanese and Germans who, if not actively seeking to establish the Fourth Reich are nonetheless attempting to perpetrate some evil or at least prove they’re better than anyone else, seeming to want to do down the British in particular (no doubt from sour grapes at having lost). Captured by Gogra, controller of Mytek the Mighty (see below),along with other scientists who the evil dwarf needs to help him build his new super-robot, Dr Otto Schultz protests his captivity more indignantly than the rest because “I am a German citizen!” He gets half drowned for his pains. In one (particularly good) Wild Wonders story, the boys are competing in the Olympic Games (I think they were supposed to be that),which are being held in the South American republic of Molivia. Molivia is ruled by General Zardoff, who wants the home team to do better than anyone else and sees the British as the main threat to this goal. He accordingly drugs their entire team, except for Mike Flynn and the boys who he has tricked into going on a perilous “endurance test” in the Amazon jungle, from which they return to find that victory is down to them alone. It’s the Germans and Japanese, the old wartime adversaries, who openly scorn the attempt by the courageous Brits to compete with just three people. This ignores the fact that after the highly traumatic drubbing both nations received in the war neither, in fact, was really inclined to throw their weight around that much. War crimes notwithstanding, it all comes across as rather distasteful.
One gets the impression that Valiant writers usually tended to come from working-class backgrounds. A recurring motif in this and other boys’ papers of the period is the working-class hero who gets what he wants through determined struggling against pompous, snobbish middle- and upper-class officialdom: Alf Tupper, first of Rover and then of Victor, is the prime example. As in Alf’s case, the battle often took place in the field of sport; an area where, along with popular music, working-class people were often seeking to make their name since other avenues were closed off to them by class barriers, and where they had to contend with the snooty aristocratic “gentlemen” who made up the club’s top management (having set it up years ago when things were less vulgar). Raven’s difficulties with Sir Mortimer Child-Beale are an obvious example, even if Raven being a gypsy is not part of the establishment in any case. Although one ought to have an at least sneaking regard for the rebellious underdog, it has to be said that the class stereotyping of figures like Sir Mortimer, with their old-fashioned dialogue and dress, anachronistic by anyone’s standards, which had probably gone out long before the sixties is not only unfair but sometimes damages the strips’ credibility.
In my opinion the quality of the stories in Valiant, at any rate during most of the sixties, is not high. People get into, and out of, tight situations far too easily. Cliffhangers often seem contrived. At the end of an instalment of Kelly’s Eye, one of an army of giant carnivorous alien plants is about to wreck Salisbury Cathedral. Will our priceless heritage be destroyed? Find out next week! Valiant’s concern for the best of our built environment is commendable, but in the circumstances comes over as laughably twee. There is quite a lot of recycling of plot ideas. Many of the 60s strips resurfaced in the annuals and summer specials, or the comic itself in reworked form, during the following decade. I imagine it was felt safe to do this since the first generation of readers would by now have matured and be no longer reading the comic.
Valiant was also highly derivative. Hercules Hurricane is far too obviously based on Captain Haddock in the Tintin stories as his previous occupation, short temper and tendency toward exotic expletives (“blistering barnacles!”) testify. The Wild Wonders includes elements from Tarzan and Dr Dolittle. Mytek the Mighty, the giant robot gorilla, was clearly inspired by King Kong and The Steel Claw by The Invisible Man. Dr Diamond’s Time-Clock is Dr Who’s TARDIS, in the guise of a grandfather clock rather than a police box, and its elderly and crotchety inventor strongly reminiscent of the good Doctor as played by William Hartnell. Note also Diamond’s inability to exert any control over his machine; the TARDIS often proved similarly wayward. What did plumb the depths, at one point in the early- and mid-1960s, was the thin disguising of Asterix the Gaul as an ancient Briton called Little Fred, opposing the Roman occupiers from his banally titled village of Nevergiveup. Names of characters were often improbable – a case in point is the boxing hero Kid Gloves, whose girlfriend was Velvet Mittens! It does seem to me however that the strips gradually became less excruciating as time wore on. A 1975 strip entitled The Potters Of Poole Street, though somewhat stereotypical in its portrayal of a poor northern working-class family, was genuinely moving and thus more adult than most of what had appeared in the comic before then. I remember being deeply affected by the first instalment, in which young Alfie Potter comes home from school to find a policeman at the door with his mother, who tells him that they won’t be seeing his father, a steelworker, again because while at work “he slipped…fell a long way…” For a ten-year-old it was so different from the usual cartoon humour as to be something of a shock, indeed almost embarrassing, but the scene is no less creditable for that. Alfie is forced to become the family breadwinner, helping his mother bring up his kid sister Maudie to whom he acts as protector, although much of the strip concerned his efforts to save enough money to buy the new bike he’d always wanted for Christmas.
In late 1975 and early 1976 several new strips appeared which were even more realistic and adult, and strikingly sophisticated in terms of characterisation. The best was Soldier Sharp, about another Second World War soldier, Arnie Sharp, who works in Supplies and turns white with fright on learning he is to go into actual combat, using every trick in the book to avoid fighting, or at least risking his life unduly, while contriving to appear a hero in the eyes of his superiors. The “Rat of the Rifles” curries favour with the enemy when captured, fawningly cleaning a German general’s boots for him, to ensure he has a cushy war. He even tries to murder his best friend, Sammy Little, in order to cover up his cowardice. Totally unlike Bernard Cornwell’s Napoleonic warrior, in more respects than just the one letter, Sharp is treacherous, spineless, grovelling and wholly unscrupulous; but perhaps for that reason he is interesting, more so than many of the redoubtable good eggs who had preceded him. The writers evidently understood this, which makes the strip stand out.
I would describe Valiant up to 1975 as a colourful, exuberant comic. With a few exceptions I would not describe it as a major contribution to culture; the amount of derivation in it prevents it being that. But, as with all comics, it is valuable for what it says about people and the times they live in.
One final thought. Valiant died in its original form because it was rightly seen as too old-fashioned. As we’ve already seen, stereotyping extended to presenting aristocrats with monocles and handbar moustaches, who dressed and spoke in a fashion by then hopelessly outdated. The most excruciating of them is Baron Ludo, guardian of the young King Rudi of Veronika in a late Wild Wonders strip, who not only has a monocle but also a nineteenth-century style Ruritarian military tunic and a Kaiser Bill spiked helmet – this was in 1974! It couldn’t possibly have gone on like this for much longer, and indeed didn’t. Whether this excuses the violence seen in the comic’s final years is a matter of opinion. But although, in writing fiction whether of a popular or “literary” kind, we need to make some concessions to changing times and to general realism, we also need to bring to it again the cheerful, unabashed patriotism and high ideals for which the characters in Valiant (most of them, anyway) stood, and to show in an increasingly bleak and vicious world that it’s possible for brave and decent types to triumph over evil, as did Tim Kelly and Yellowknife and Janus Stark and all the others. After all, no-one ever said you SHOULDN’T have a happy ending.
This article is a revised and extended version of one which originally appeared in the Illustrated Comic Journal no.32 (1996-7). My thanks to the editor, Bryon Whitworth, and to the late Denis Gifford for valuable advice.