Monday, 14 May 2018

Nostalgic For My Childhood - Starlord comic at 40

In 1978, sci-fi was big in the UK following the release of Star Wars in January and nine-year-old me was eager to explore it as much as I could.  I'd already started reading 2000AD (and enjoyed it) and then saw ads for a new comic IPC were launching (they already published 2000AD but decided to capitalise on the craze and try to monopolise the market at the same time) and thought I'd give it a go...
The first issue of Starlord appeared on Saturday 6th May (cover dated as the 13th).  Originally planned as a monthly title, with longer stories and higher production values than 2000AD, the company got cold feet late in the planning process and changed their minds.  Lew Stringer reports he was told by an IPC editor that monthly comics were considered too risky back then, the thinking being the target audience, accustomed to weekly comics, would either forget the new issue was due out or lose interest between installments.  To accommodate the change, story episodes were shortened and the number of colour pages reduced but the better quality paper and printing were retained, showing a marked improvement on 2000AD’s newsprint quality.  This did, however, make Starlord slightly more expensive than its competition at 12p per issue - 2000AD was 9p while Marvel’s Star Wars weekly cost 10p.
2000AD’s then editor, Kelvin Gosnell, was asked to launch and edit the new title but apparently found it hard to keep both comics running simultaneously to the same standard.  “I allowed myself to be sucked into this Starlord bollocks,” Great New For All Readers reports him as saying, “when I should have stuck with the core characters of 2000AD, watched them, done the editor thing.”  With Gosnell occupied, chief sub-editor Nick Landau took over most of the responsibility for 2000AD which apparently didn’t make for an always happy working environment.

In keeping with 2000AD’s Tharg, the comic had a fictional editor and Starlord (drawn by Ian Gibson) introduced himself and warned readers of an imminent alien invasion but, on the bright side, they got one of six free badges (which were randomly taped to the cover).  The free gift on issue 2 was a ‘Space Calculator’, a cardboard slide giving information on the planets, whilst issue 3 had a ‘Starblast’ game, a version of Battleships with a re-usable wipe-clean laminated card.
The first appearance of Johnny Alpha and Wulf - written by John Wagner, art by Carlos Ezquerra
The first issue opened with “Planet Of The Damned”, written by R. E. Wright (2000AD stalwart Pat Mills), drawn by Lalia and it was followed by “Time Quake” , written by Jack Adrian and drawn (as beautifully as ever) by Ian Kennedy.  After an editorial came “Strontium Dog”, written by T. B. Grover (John Wagner, who also created Judge Dredd amongst many others) and drawn by Carlos Ezquerra - Johnny Alpha, the Dog of the title, would prove to be a hugely successful character who still appears in 2000AD now.  “Ro-Busters”, written by Pat Mills and drawn by Carlos Pino, takes up the remainder of the magazine (11 pages!) and would prove to be another successful strip (certainly it’s lead robot characters, Hammerstein and Ro-Jaws).
Ro-busters from issue 19, written by Jack Adrian, art by Pino.  The baddies name looks vaguely familiar, doesn't it?
Of the strips, “Strontium Dog” ran for the life of the comic with seven adventures, all written by John Wagner and all but the last drawn by Carlos Ezquerra.

“Ro-Busters” also ran for the life of the comic with eight stories written by Pat Mills (1, 2, 4), Bill Henry (3), V. Gross (5) and Jack Adrian (6, 7).  The artwork was split between Carlos Pino (1, 2, 4, 6, 7) and Ian Kennedy (3, 5).

“Planet Of The Damned” ran for 10 episodes, all written by Wright/Mills.

“Timequake”’s first story ran for three issues, it’s second (also written by Jack Adrian) ran for six and its third (written by Ian Mennell) lasted four.

“Mind Wars” debuted with issue 2 and ran for the life of the comic, written by Alan Hebden and drawn by Jesus Redondo.

“Holocaust” ran for nine issues from number 14, written by Alan Hebdon and a variety of artists.

There were also several one-off stories.  “Good Morning, Sheldon, I Love You!” and “Earn Big Money While You Sleep!” were written by Wagner and drawn by Casanovas, while “The Snatch” and “Skirmish!” were written by Alan Hebden and drawn by Pena
from issue 1
Although it appears (as reported online) that Starlord was the better seller of the two comics, it was also more expensive to produce with its larger format, higher grade of paper and greater use of colour.  Since neither comic was a big success for IPC during the summer of 1978, the decision was taken to merge Starlord into 2000AD, after 22 issues for the former.  Although it could be argued that was the better decision (2000AD had a stronger format, with shorter serials and a younger target audience and merging the two helped it mature into the cultural icon it is now), at the time I was cheesed off.  In the late70s, most of the comics I enjoyed ended up merging into something else which often meant, within a few months, I found myself reading a comic with none of my favourite strips left in it.  Thankfully, as mentioned, that didn’t happen with Starlord as 2000AD successfully ported over Strontium Dog and Ro-Busters (leading onto The A.B.C. Warriors), where they ran for decades.
As the titles merged, Starlord’s final editorial (and the cover) announced that his mission on Earth had been successfully completed and he was heading off to battle the evil Instellar Federation on other worlds but urged us readers to “keep watching the stars”.  In 1999, a reader asked about Starlord’s whereabouts and 2000AD editor Tharg wrote: “While Starlord has not been sighted on Earth since 1979, rumours that he was seen in a McDonalds in Basingstoke cannot be entirely discounted.”  He also claimed, on another occasion, that Starlord was “out in the Rakkalian Cluster, singing lead soprano with an Alvin Stardust tribute band”.
Starlord ended its run with issue 22, dated 7th October 1978 though there were also three annuals (cover dated 1980, 1981 and 1982) and a Summer Special (in July 1978).

The end of the line...
One of the banes of my childhood life, as a much-loved comic gets absorbed into another...
I have very fond memories of the comic and the great cover art and stories still stand up really well, making for a thoroughly entertaining read.

Happy 40th, Starlord - keep watching the stars!

Great New For All Readers
Lew Stringer's Blimey blog
British Comics Wiki (annual information)

Tuesday, 8 May 2018

The 1978 Star Wars Annual

Star Wars mania was in full grip during 1978 and we fans at the time were so eager for anything associated with the film we grabbed it with both hands.  The Marvel comic (which I wrote about here) had already appeared, serialising the film in twelve black & white parts and Look-In (which I wrote about here) had done its best to keep the excitement going.

Then, in the summer, we got something else when Brown Watson released the first Star Wars annual.

Me, at Widemouth Bay Holiday Park, summer 1978.
Star Wars Annual not pictured...
As I’ve written before (see here), annuals were a popular Christmas gift for kids of the 70s and most of them appeared over the Christmas period.  I imagine, at some meeting, that was the original plan for the Star Wars annual but the pop culture explosion and the demand for new product must have been overwhelming and so this edition appeared around May.  My parents bought it for me when we set off on holiday that year, driving halfway down the country to Widemouth Bay in Cornwall and whilst I only have vague, fleeting memories of the holiday - the beach and Tintagel, mostly, as well as the holiday camp where we stayed - I clearly recall sitting in the back of Dad’s Ford Escort and reading this.

The annual reprinted the comics adaption (though left out Biggs and friends on Tatooine, Jabba meeting Han and all of the garbage masher sequence) but the bulk of it - from Luke encountering the Tusken Raider right through to the first wave of the Death Star assault by the Rebels - is in glorious colour.  And the colouring (credited to Marie Severin) is wonderful - Ben Kenobi’s hovel has purple, orange, blue and red walls and the Death Star often has dark pink floors.
Click on the image to see it more clearly
Even better than the adaption (which I'd already read, of course) - and perhaps the reason it was so truncated - were the behind the scenes articles, which I loved.

Another Time Another Space gives some background to the film and explains who the various characters are.  “Can our heroes triumph over such seemingly insuperable odds?  Do the good guys ever lose?  Read on… and may the force be with you!”
There are profiles of Alec Guinness, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford (who, I discovered, was older than my Dad!), Peter Cushing and ‘A Galaxy Of Co-Stars” (Kenny Baker, Anthony Daniels, David Prowse and Peter Mayhew).

Best of all, though, is Star Wars: The Evolution Of An Epic! which goes into a decent amount of detail (as much as it can over three pages) of the making of the film, from George Lucas’ path to starting the script, through the production, design process and the special effects.  Even read today - after the various Cinefex and Rinzler books - it still holds up well.
The annual cost £1.50 (you can probably still pick it up for that much from ebay today) and, to me, it was a solid investment especially since I used it to find new things I wanted to see (what was Night Gallery and 2001, how cool did Apocalypse Now sound, what on earth was American Graffiti and why didn’t I see Chewbacca in Sinbad & The Eye Of The Tiger?) and you can’t ask for more than that!

In the end, we Brits would get to enjoy nine annuals between 1978 and 1985 (along with an Ewoks one in 1988) while only three were released in the US (in 1979, 1982 and 1983).  I've read a few of them but none, to my mind, are a patch on that 1978 one, which I still proudly own.

My 1978 Star Wars Annual, by Brown Watson (all images scanned from this)

2017 marked the 40th anniversary of Star Wars, which was released in the US on 25th May though it didn't hit the UK until 29th January 1978 (following a 27th December release in London).  I was lucky enough to see it in early 1978 and it remains my favourite film to this day.

To mark the anniversary, I ran a year-long blog thread about the film with new entries posted on the first Monday of each month.

May The Force Be With You!

Find all the entries in the thread here

Monday, 30 April 2018

Even More Movie Miniatures...

As regular readers will know, I'm endlessly fascinated by the behind-the-scenes process on films, especially special effects work with miniatures and/or matte paintings.  I posted my first miniatures blog (which you can read here) back in October 2014 and have subsequently written ones about the James Bond series, Derek Meddings, The Indiana Jones original trilogy and ILM (which can all be found on this link).

Miniatures are scale models used to represent things that aren't there, are too expensive or difficult to film in reality, or which can't be damaged (by fire, flood or explosion) in real life.  They've now largely been replaced by (often terrible) CGI but the old ways, the practical art, does seem to be making something of a comeback.

I thought it was about time to post some more so here's another selection, hopefully highlighting occasions where it's not immediately obvious that you're looking at a miniature.

Close Encounters Of The Third Kind (1977, directed by Steven Spielberg)
visual effects supervised by Douglas Trumbull
Greg Jein works on the roadway for the scene where Richard Dreyfuss looks at his maps
Moonraker (1979, directed by Lewis Gilbert)
visual effects supervised by Derek Meddings
Filming Moonraker 5 coming in to dock at the space station
Escape From New York (1981, directed by John Carpenter)
visual effects supervised by Robert & Dennis Skotak
Building Manhattan island
The Terminator (1984, directed by James Cameron)
visual effects supervised by Gene Warren Jr
Setting up for the truck explosion
The Abyss (1989, directed by James Cameron)
visual effects supervised by John Bruno, Steve Johnson (aliens) and Dennis Muren (ILM cgi)
Building the Deepcore miniature
Backdraft (1991, directed by Ron Howard)
visual effects supervised by Scott Farrar
Building a factory to blow it up...
Independence Day (1996, directed by Roland Emmerich)
visual effects supervised by Volker Engel, Ray McIntyre Jr., Douglas Smith and Craig Barron
A perfect example of an invisible effect - model aeroplanes, painted backdrop and great lighting
Con Air (1997, directed by Simon West)
visual effects supervised by Mark Dornfeld, David Goldberg and John Matakovich
Setting up the shot where the plane hits the Hard Rock Cafe guitar
The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997, directed by Steven Spielberg)
visual effects supervised by Dennis Muren (ILM)
The ILM model unit (supervised by Lorne Peterson) films the freighter crashing into the San Diego dock
Men In Black (1997, directed by Barry Sonnenfeld)
visual effects supervised by Rick Baker (creatures and make-up) and Eric Brevig (ILM)
Although the Arquillian and the jewellers head were created life-size by Rick Baker, the intricate puppeteering required a larger format creature be used for some shots.  ILM built the head casing, Baker the alien, a collaboration that works perfectly.
Armageddon (1998, directed by Michael Bay)
visual effects supervised by Craig Barron, Mark Dornfeld, Richard E. Hollander, Richard Hoover, Pat McClung, Erik Nash, Bruce Nicholson, Hoyt Yeatman and Ariel Velasco-Shaw
Lining up the shuttles
The X Files (1998, directed by Rob Bowman)
visual effects supervised by Mat Beck, Gray Marshall, Peter W. Moyer and John Wash
Blowing up the large scale miniature Dallas federal building
War Of The Worlds (2005, directed by Steven Spielberg)
visual effects supervised by Dennis Muren (ILM) and Ian Hunter (New Deal Studios, Inc)
Working on the church miniature for the first Tripod reveal
Skyfall (2012, directed by Sam Mendes)
visual miniature effects supervised by Steve Begg
Phew, it was a miniature...

There will be more miniatures posts...

Monday, 23 April 2018

The Art Of British Comics (in the 70s)

According to Steve MacManus in his excellent autobiography The Mighty One, the traditional age range for comics readers in the late 70s was the 8-12's (making my golden period 1977- 81).  Looking back for that period of British comics (when there were plenty of them about), there was a lot of impressive cover art and a lot of it remains vivid in my mind.  Mostly coming from DC Thomson or Fleetway, they were on newsprint with limited colour but delivered plenty of fun on a weekly basis.  Nothing like them really exists now (take a look at the shelves in any supermarket to see what I mean) and that, I think, is a great shame.
So to make up for the lack of hand-drawn colour on the shelves these days, here are a selection of covers from the 1970s.


My favourite comic growing up, I wrote a retrospective on Bullet which you can read here
The first issue of the "seven-penny nightmare" I remember seeing

The first issue of 2000AD I can remember buying...