The more we lose ourselves in this digital age where we expect all forms of entertainment to be readily available to us, the more incredulous we’ll become about how people acquired their films, television shows, and comic books. Even more disbelieving will be the generations after us who will try to ascertain how people entertained themselves before the internet.
For young people in the 1960s, going to the pictures was perhaps seen as something of a luxury compared to how we devour the cinema nowadays, and television was still in its infancy, which left the comic book medium as a key source of enjoyment for kids. A great many classic titles emerged from post-war Britain, and none was perhaps more popular than TV21, born as TV Century 21, the official comic book spin-off from the worlds of Supermarionation master Gerry Anderson.
Where a large handful of British comics were indulging in producing strips based on the two World Wars, such as the various Picture Libraries from Fleetway, TV21 instantly took things further with its first issue in 1965. Snatching the retro-futuristic tales of adventure in Stingray, Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons, Thunderbirds, and more, and securing them in the bright, vibrant form of a comic book made the title immensely popular, at its peak shifting a million copies a week.
Unrestricted by the Supermarionation character’s lack of convincing movement, TV21 took the Anderson shows in frighteningly adventurous directions in terms of plot, action, and scope. More than 50 years since the first issue blasted off, and in no particular order of favouritism, let’s countdown 10 of TV21‘s greatest stories!
10. “Escape from Aquatraz” – Stingray
For some bizarre reason, Stingray always drew the short straw when it came to quality adventures. Whilst the strip’s artwork, produced by Ron Embleton, gave the strip a warm appearance, the many plots found in the Stingray strips were often without enthusiasm found in other TV21 strips, some felt more like leftover television scripts. Nevertheless, Stingray found its footing somewhat with the two-part adventure “Escape from Aquatraz”.
Essentially two stories tied together by a driving finale, the story saw Stingray villain Titan hatch a devious and complex plan involving capturing an atomic-powered submarine and harnessing its power to create an unstoppable army of Terror Fish. The sub in question just so happens to contain a distinguished general in the care of the W.A.S.P., and once Titan captures the sub, the general wastes no time in causing panic in Marineville over what he sees as Troy and the Stingray crew failing in their job to protect him.
“Escape from Aquatraz” may still suffer from a general feeling of dullness, particularly in its first half, but it’s still the best Stingray strip we ever got out of TV21. A cleverly thought-out plot mixing high drama and explosive action, not to mention painting the ever-camp Titan in a truly villainous manner, made this a thrilling tale to read.
9. “Mr. Steelman” – Lady Penelope: Elegance, Charm, and Deadly Danger
Lady Penelope and Parker made their debut long before Thunderbirds actual appeared on television. They first appeared in TV21‘s first issue in January 1965, a whole eight months before “Trapped in the Sky” blasted off. Their debut in the comic was also their first time meeting each other, as “Mr. Steelman” introduces readers to Penelope recruiting Parker from a life of petty crime to become her butler.
What follows may not exactly be the most riveting of TV21 strips, but a story that personifies 1960’s camp,and is a pleasantly low-key spy-fi ramble in its own right. Having joined forces before the strip’s first instalment reaches its end, the duo embark on a mission to destroy the blueprints for a hydromic device which, in the wrong hands, could destroy the world. In true 1960s fashion, we’ve got a villain after the exact same plans – the brutish robot Mr. Steelman!
While “Mr. Steelman” may lack any genuine conviction or sense of threat, it makes up for these things in its easy-going nature. It also stands as a high-point of the forward-thinking nature of TV21 editor Alan Fennell and the Anderson team in getting the most out of their creations as much as possible.
8. “Chain Reaction” – Thunderbirds
Rightly hailed as the last great Thunderbirds story in TV21, “Chain Reaction” gave International Rescue a genuinely world-threatening adventure, as a crashed space freighter threatens to trigger volcanic activity in the South Pacific that could spread to nearby San Francisco, but not before endangering an island inhabited by tribesmen oblivious to the creeping danger.
The use of such a victim in need of rescuing may not be the most politically correct by today’s standards, but it’s harmless enough, and lends the strip a strong vintage flavour. Across it’s eight well-paced instalments, it’s a heart-stopping fiasco for the Tracy family, as all five Thunderbird vehicles scramble to stop nature take its course.
Sadly though, this would prove to be the final great adventure for Thunderbirds. The dwindling interest in Supermarionation and lowering editorial standards of TV21 meant the comic would only last a few more months after “Chain Reaction” before merging with the dull-as-dishwater comic Joe 90 (having already joined up with TV Tornado the year before), spun-off from the Anderson show of the same name. It wouldn’t be until 1971 that TV21 would finally call it quits, with those last two years being a slow, painful death indeed.