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Thursday, November 29, 2007

The Dandy adventure strips

The world's longest running comic The Dandy is 70 years old any day now. Issue No.1 was cover dated 4th December 1937, which means it would have been in the shops a few days before that.

A proper history and tribute to the comic would take more time and reference than I have, so as a nod of respect to the first comic I ever had (and which helped me learn to read) I just want to focus on a period in the mid 1960s. In particular the adventure strips that appeared in The Dandy at that time.

Adventure strips have been absent from the pages of The Dandy for quite a long time now, with the exception of Robin Hood reprints and the rather lighthearted Comet series, both last seen a few years ago. Apparently today's readers prefer total slapstick fun, but 40-odd years ago myself and many others eagerly looked forward to every Monday's installment of the latest serial, just as much as we enjoyed Desperate Dan or Corporal Clott.

There are four serials in particular that I'm going to spotlight here. There were far more than that over The Dandy's long history, but these four were the ones that I encountered as a child and are the ones I'm most familiar with.

The Crimson Ball: Dandy Nos. 1144 (29.10.1963) to 1174 (23.5.1964) Artwork by Jack Glass.
Having started reading The Dandy from January 1964 I came into this strip almost halfway through its run. Yet the impact of the bizarre premise hooked me immediately. The story concerned a mysterious large red sphere, apparently indestructible, which bounded into airfields to smash up our military aircraft. As the story progressed we learned that the ball was controlled by an swarthy masked enemy agent sitting inside the object (known only as "the master of the Crimson Ball" and his country of origin never revealed). Schoolboy Peter Jones took it upon himself to try and trap or sabotage the Ball, aided by the authorities.

The Red Wrecker: Dandy Nos.1190 (12.9.1964) to 1205(26.12.1964) Artwork by Charlie Grigg.
Helping his Dad in the garden, schoolboy Bobby Wilson opens a packet of seeds "with foreign words on it" and the wind blows them onto the garden. Huge red cacti immediately shoot, causing chaos and destruction. The situation worsens when it develops that a mysterious stranger is sowing the same sort of seeds all across town. Bobby, who accidentally discovers the formula for the only weed killer that can destroy the plants, becomes involved in the mission to stop the Red Wrecker and the "master criminal" behind it.

This particularly dynamic two page spread appeared in The Red Wrecker story from The Dandy Book published in 1964:

The Stinging Swarm: Dandy Nos.1224 (8.5.1965) to 1254 (4.12.1965) artwork by Jack Glass.
A gang of crooks with bee-keepers veils affixed to their hats use a swarm of bees with paralysing stings to help them commit robberies. The bees would appear in the unlikeliest of places; swarming out of pillar boxes or into cinemas, to temporarily paralyse their victims. Jack Glass' art, always fairly stiff but strangely appealing, was perfect to show people frozen in mid-run. Again, a schoolboy becomes the only person able to stop the menace because he's the one person the swarm avoid. Why? The final chapter revealed all; the bees didn't like his home-made hair oil!

The Umbrella Men: Dandy Nos.1255 (11.12.1965) to 1290 (13.8.1966) Artwork by Charlie Grigg.
A gang of crooks set out to rob and plunder, but these aren't ordinary bandits. Dressed like city gents in pinstripes and bowlers, the crooks zoom into action using their jet-propelled umbrellas! In this serial, Toby Judd is the schoolboy who sets out to thwart the villains, and he's aided by Gypsy boy Armand Lengro who has a radio that can tune into the bandit's frequency.

What all of these strips had in common was that the hero was always a schoolboy. Not surprising, as The Dandy's readership were mainly boys of that age. However, looking beyond that we see that although all four strips were totally different, they each share a similar tone; that of everyday objects becoming something menacing. A ball, a plant, bees, and umbrellas; all familiar to The Dandy's young readership but given a sinister twist to make them objects of mass panic. DC Thomson scriptwriters were always very good at creating a scenario the kids could relate to, even in fantastic situations such as these.

Curiously, The Beano in this same period had a completely different approach to its adventure strips. General Jumbo, The Iron Fish, The Q-Bikes, and Billy the Cat for example were all about children using technology or abilities to help people. The threats in those four Beano strips were comparatively minor; small time crooks, bullies, escaped zoo animals etc. Over in The Dandy, the heroes were ordinary children with no special abilities or gadgets, facing threats to the entire city from technology and science gone wild. While The Beano was showing how technology could be beneficial, The Dandy was showing it to be a threat. (Admittedly at the start of the sixties The Beano ran the serial The Great Flood of London, - recently reprinted in Classics from the Comics, - but for the most part The Beano of the sixties was fairly tame in its adventure strip subject matter.)

I must admit it was always The Dandy's adventure strips that appealed to me more than The Beano's gimmicky heroes. The increased threat-level and bizarre situations of The Red Wrecker and The Stinging Swarm, with always one boy fighting overwhelming threats to the city, seemed to me to be more heroic than Jumbo Johnson using his army of remote controlled toy soldiers to subdue a bully. Sadly, neither Dandy or Beano publish adventure strips now, (with the exception of the odd annual strip) but they'll always remain exciting memories for those of us who were there at the time.

With thanks to The Dandy Monster Index by Ray Moore for the information on issue numbers.


Peter Gray said...

Good one Lew
I missed all those being an eighties kid...But just caught Black Bob the last of the picture wasn't the same when there was none...
feel like I've missed out on all the fun. Nipper comic had an adventure story and Buster reprinted Leopard of Lime Street which must of been the last one in fun comics...Bring them back..or at least in Classics

Anonymous said...

I was a huge fan of The Crimson Ball when I was a little kid. I even made up a song about it (somewhat in the style of The Tornadoes and The Shadows)!

Q-Bikes was my fave Beano strip.

Unknown said...

Couldn't wait for each Saturday to come to read the next episode of The Crimson Ball; I guess I must have read all the series but only have one copy of The Dandy from 1964 which features an episode. Seem to recall that the Master of the Crimson Ball was a disgruntled (to say the least) former employee of the aircraft industry. Glad I'm not alone in my fondness for the story

Rick said...

Sad story about the Crimson Ball...
I lived in a small village in Cumbria with one paper shop. I remember that getting the Dandy on e the first day the Crimson Ball appeared (I may have been about 4 -my mum had to helpme with the word 'Crimson'. I loved it -It was the most exciting story I had every read -possibly at that stage the ONLY story. Each week i dashed to the papershop deperate to know what happened next. I followed each discovery about the Ball -the weedkiller, the first sign of the masked man... The one week I saw the Crimson Ball bouncing over tyhe sea towards an aircraft carrier. At the botoom of ther page: NEXT WEEK -THE END OF THE CRIMSON BALL! But on the next week the papershop was closed for some readon! next day i want down and there were no Dandys! I was not possible for a six(?) year old to impress on my parent that this was a disaster. there was no where for me to go -no one to ask... I ached to know what happened. I still do. If anyone has a copy of 1174....please..for the kid I used to be can you let me know? Rick@linelive,

James Matthews said...

"The Stinging Swarm" and "The Umbrella Men" also appeared in the 1966 and 1967 DANDY annuals, respectively.

Did the DANDY or the BEANO have an adventure strip called "Peter Planet"?

James Matthews said...

"The Stinging Swarm" and "The Umbrella Men" also appeared in the 1966 and 1967 DANDY annuals, respectively.

Did the DANDY or BEANO have an adventure strip around this time called "Peter Planet"?

Kim said...

I remember the Crimson Ball. How I wish I could have held onto those comics. Such excellent stories and artwork. Happy days.

Does anyone recall a story at around the same time that I think was called The Purple Cloud? This was a gas released from the guns of an army of villains that could eat through steel and concrete. Anyone else remember this story?

Reg said...

The Crimson Ball - Amazing! Asked my workmates if they remember it and they looked at me as if I was mad.
Thought I'd never see it again. I was seven in those days and have just started collecting a few memories of my early life - The Crimson ball is up there with the best - so glad I found this and I'm not alone.

C Davies said...

"The Red Wrecker" was repeated in the weekly Dandy around 1979 / 1980. It was a particular favourite of mine at the time and has lodged in my memory. I clearly recall the exciting storyline and the wonderful large scale depictions of buildings crumbling beneath the super fast-growing plants.

Looking back, it's clearly a pretty naked metaphor for the threat posted to the West from Communism. As I recall, the foreign agent behind it, when captured, looked distinctly like Lenin! Great story though. Thanks for sharing it.

EMT said...

I thought I was the only crazy person who remembered the Crimson Ball and the Umbrella Men! Like Reg, my work mates thought I was making the whole thing up! The stories and artwork were wonderful, and formed part of my growing love for the written word and for art. Both these things remain with today in my mid-fifties and I stiil write and paint to this day. Classic work,by very talented people.

E M Taylor

Tony aka Pismotality said...

Toby Judd and the Umbrella Men loom large in my memory - glad to see reference to them online. Incidentally, I recently went to the Newspaper Library in Colindale to refresh my memory of the David Copperfield strip in Sparky a few years later. In my memory it was drawn by Dudley D. Watkins; in reality, as I found out, it was someone else, less subtle. But particular frames of that story have stayed with me even so.

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