These days, we don’t appreciate how lucky we really are. TV, films, the internet, consoles, PCs, mobile phones, the imminent release of jetpacks, there’s always something to keep us occupied. When I was growing up, the options were limited, and I found solace in the old pile of comics and annuals handed down from my brother or mysteriously bought by my mother (church jumble sales they turned out to be, the eBay of their time).
I revelled in British ‘anthology’ comics of the 70s – Lion, Tiger, Valiant, Thunder and other such manly-named publications of the time. They were usually fronted by pictures of fighter planes, warships or giant creatures, and packed with high-concept characters telling their stories in three to four pages at most, usually with phrases including ‘Aiieeee’ or ‘Aaargh’ when people died.
I recently had cause to revisit those childhood tomes, and was relieved to find they still have the power to entertain and capture my imagination. Here are just a three of the characters I became reacquainted with.
We’ve all done something a bit daft at work – sent an inappropriate email to 4,500 people by accident, inadvertently made commercial loans to companies who could never pay them back, that sort of thing. But Adam Eterno, assistant to Alchemist Erasmus Hemlock (excellent name for a folk band that), found himself cursed to roam through time, virtually immortal, after he drank some of the old fella’s Elixir of Life (good name for first folk band album).
I say ‘virtually’ because while he could be stamped on by mammoths, run through by Spanish Conquistadors, or even gunned down by Chicago Mobsters and still survive, were he to be stuck a by a weapon made of ‘purest gold’ then he would be a gonner.
Adam’s adventures consisted of him arriving ‘through the winds of time’ to a usually quite famous and dangerous point in time (WWI, the Stone Age, the day before the Great Fire of London) where he’d fight on behalf of a plucky ground of underdogs, slaves and downtrodden people against an evil businessman, king or duke – usually with an equally evil beard and a weapon that had somehow had gold added to it: gold sword, gun with golden bullets, box of Terry’s chocolates, that sort of thing.
Along the way he’d always be ‘killed’ in some fashion, but people would then be amazed – usually though the medium of ‘the gasp’ – when he appeared a bit dazed from being run over by a steamroller and shook it off like he’d just had hiccups rather than a nasty case of deathliness. And he’d always be shown thinking to himself something along the lines of “were that a steamroller made of gold, I would surely have been killed” – reminding us of his severe reaction to the precious metal. Every time.
It was a silly, clearly Doctor Who-influenced strip, with a hero who looked like a tramp and spoke like an am-dram student reading Shakespeare. Yet Adam Eterno was an utter treat. I scoured bookshops to find copies of the annuals he appeared in, which usually reprinted the most well-known strips – like the time he landed in Pompeii and had an uncanny feeling that something was going to go wrong with the big smoky mountain. There was always a brush with gold, and the bad guy ended up getting his just desserts in all manner of ways (crushed by treasure, eaten by shark, arrested on tax evasion charges) and Adam would disappear into those time winds again.
A constant tale of mortality and morality, I don’t think there was ever a concluding part – and often, at night, when I hear the wind, I wonder if it’s the winds of time and Adam is set to appear. It isn’t. It’s just the wind.
The Gauntlet Of Fate
I envy short story writers – good ones that is. I’ve tried writing suspenseful tales before and failed. The Gauntlet Of Fate contains that classic short story staple: the haunted item that somehow has powers beyond this world. This one is a magic justice-dispensing supernatural glove.
Those words alone make me feel warm inside, as do the various tales of how said hand furniture dispenses judgement and delivers fate to its wearer. The back story is covered in the very first tale, where a banged-up hardened criminal (the magnificently named ‘Rube Crawley’) finds a glove that looks just like the one he’s seen in an old painting in the prison. See, the gauntlet belonged to legendary Judge Flint, and he was a stickler for ensuring people got their just desserts.
Despite the glove appearing to fly towards him, and the stitched message stating that ‘He who dons The Gauntlet of Fate shall gain his just reward’, Rube pops on the mighty magic mitten. Next thing, he’s able to scale walls single-handed, smash through walls, hide under boulders by holding them up with his hand, and even hold back cars.
As ever, it looks like the gauntlet’s going to help him, until he tries to uncover his buried treasure – you know, the one the police never found – which he’s hidden in an old clock tower. Just as he uncovers it, the gauntlet grabs the rope to the bell tower and forces him to ring the bells, handily attracting some local constabulary. They capture him, get the loot back, and a disgusted Rube throws the gauntlet into the sea where it drifts off to who knows where. Well, to a fisherman who is trying to kill his brother (spoiler alert – he doesn’t kill him, he gets arrested).
That’s pretty much the model, but The Gauntlet Of Fate gets bonus points for sometimes helping good guys, too – old Judge Flint was clearly a benevolent spirit. A strip notable for characters providing loud exposition as the Gauntlet performs its magic along the lines of “Impossible! That glove… it stopped a bullet!” or “My stars! It’s like the old glove has a life of its own”.
Ludicrous, hammy and wonderfully drawn, The Gauntlet Of Fate stands up way better than many of those old mystery theatre TV shows (he’s an alien, the man ate the gun, they were all ghosts – you know the sort of thing). Plus, you’ll never look at a spooky old judge’s gauntlet in the same way again.
The reason for my return to these old comic strips was thanks to Alan Davies mentioning Janus on a recent episode of QI. Obviously on first name terms, the character was the first Stark I ever really knew – I had no conception of an American arms manufacturer and his improbable suit of power at that point.
Janus Stark was creepy. A Victorian adventurer, detective, but with a twist. An actual twist. He was a rubber bodied contortionist, quite something to put on your CV. Again, from the pages of Valiant, and also the magnificently bombastic Smash, Stark’s day job was a music hall escapologist – but that masked his true adventuring and detective skills of having a rubber bone structure.
As a result he could squeeze, in a Eugene Tooms, Reed Richards, Flat Stanley style, into the smallest of spaces, contorting his body like a snake through rabbit holes, prison bars, cracks in walls – you name the confined space, Janus could get through it. Which was fortunate as, every single issue, he was required to use his bendy biology to get out of villainous traps, rescue orphans and save swooned ladies. One time, he even wrapped his rubbery physique around a do-no-gooder until the police arrived.
And then he was gone, with the authorities standing around foolishly searching only the spaces that normal people could inhabit, rather than chimneys, dumb-waiters or drainpipes.
Oh, and his limbs could get incredibly hot so he could melt ice, if he was ever stuck in it (which he was, frequently as I recall). Having all this power would mean he could yell tremendous phrases such as “Behold, Janus Stack – Master of Illusion, Son of the Unknown! No lock can fetter me… no rope or chain can bind my limbs!”
If all that wasn’t enough, he had a cracking back-story involving his lock-picking mentor who was called Blind Largo. Seriously, names were way better back then.
There are plenty more I characters I could bang on about, but you’d be better heading off and tracking down some old annuals in your nearest second hand book shops, or googling Lion, Tiger or Valiant comics. That way you can recreate just what it was like for the 10-year old me all those years ago.
Just be wary way of ludicrous gold weapons, improbable gloves and bendy detectives while you are at it, eh?
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