Sunday, February 13, 2011

40 Year Flashback: COUNTDOWN No.1

Four decades ago today, on Saturday February 13th 1971, Polystyle Publications launched their new science fiction weekly Countdown. With 24 glossy pages for 5p it may not have seemed the best value for money compared to many of its rivals (which mostly had 32 pages for 3p) but it did have the exclusive use of tv strips such as Doctor Who and UFO.

Countdown's main rival was Look-In, launched just a month earlier. Personally, although I bought both comics, Countdown definitely had the edge for my tastes with its emphasis on science fiction and fact. Look-In was very grounded. Countdown was sheer escapism.

The other tv adventure comic of the period, TV21, was still around in 1971, albeit heading towards oblivion later that year. A shadow of its former self, TV21 no longer had the rights to produce strip versions of Gerry Anderson's tv shows. Those rights had now been picked up by Countdown.

The editor of Countdown was Dennis Hooper, who had been the art editor on TV Century 21 in its earlier, and better, days. Alan Fennell had been the editor of TV21 back then and now by a twist of fate Hooper found himself competing with his old colleague, for Fennell was the editor of the new Look-In.

It was easy to see that someone with a creative eye was in charge of Countdown. It looked very modern and stylish. In many ways it was very similar to the early issues of TV21 but it also had its own unique gimmicks, such as the page numbering which ran backwards! Living up to its name, the pages began at 24 and counted down to the back page being 1. Don't worry; the stories themselves were not printed in reverse order.

The free gift in issue one was a fantastic "Giant Spacefact Wallchart" with the first set of stickers to adorn the edges of the chart. (Other stickers would be given free in following issues, thus hooking the reader into continuing with the comic.)


Inside the comic, Dennis Hooper greeted the readers with a message telling them how Countdown had the best printing. Perhaps not the best way to interest the readers but it was the first time I learned that such glossy printing was called photogravure.


On pages 4 and 5 (or 20 and 19 as Countdown insisted) was the first episode of the comic's Doctor Who serial. The strip had previously been running in companion weekly TV Comic for years but had always been very much dumbed down and often with scripts that were at odds with the tv show. With its leap to Countdown and, presumably, a slightly older target audience, the scripts became a bit more sophisticated. I'm sure the fact that Dennis Hooper was a fan of the show would have helped in this regard. The artwork also improved, with Harry Lindfield drawing it for the new comic. Here perhaps was Countdown's most important contribution to comics, for it actually credited its artists. Few British comics had done this before, and it was virtually unheard of for a comic of this period to do so. Rivals IPC and D.C. Thomson were making sure their artists stayed anonymous, but here was new upstart Countdown thumbing its nose at tradition and giving the artists the credit they deserved.


The following two pages gave us Think Tank, a place for readers to ask scientific questions, and for a lighter balance, Dastardly and Muttley, drawn by Peter Ford. (Sadly, it seems humour strips were exempt from crediting its artists.)


Page 8 (or 16) asked Do Flying Saucers Exist? Countdown was on the ball here, as UFO sightings, whether imaginary or not, were often in the news at the time. Such features would become a regular part of the comic, (although even when I was 11 I wasn't convinced by the photograph on that page because the "UFO" was clearly closer to the camera than the objects it was allegedly flying over.)


Page 9 (or 15) began a five page UFO strip based on the Gerry Anderson series that had started on ITV the previous year. Artwork was by Jon Davis, and it also used the technique that TV21 used in its early days, of integrating photographs from the tv show into the strip. I never felt it really worked, and perhaps Dennis Hooper felt likewise as it was soon dropped.

The next two pages continued the UFO strip and added a "Battleships" type game for readers to play, but with UFOs instead of ships.

The centre pages of the comic looked great. A stylishly designed feature explaining the setup of the Shado organization as seen in UFO.

The following two pages concluded the UFO strip. Another of Countdown's unique elements was that it would feature a different complete story every week of 5 to 7 pages. This would give the comic the opportunity to feature all of Gerry Anderson's shows (or at least the ones made after Supercar) as well as occasionally featuring new sci-fi stories.

Page 16 (or 8) featured Thunderbirds with artwork by Don Harley...

...continuing after the Brooke Bond Picture Cards ad on page 18 (6). The strip, with characters mainly in close up, seemed very confined and low key after years of dynamic layouts of Frank Bellamy's TV21 version. Perhaps Countdown's smaller page size (compared to those early TV21 comics) didn't help either.

The following two pages gave us a real treat, with episode one of Countdown, illustrated by John M. Burns. A totally new story, non-licensed except for using spacecraft as seen in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, but otherwise unconnected with that film. This saga would run for many months and was the most sophisticated strip in the weekly. Perhaps too sophisticated at times for the age group reading it. (I confess it went over my head some times and I lost track of it. I must re-read it.) Burns would use some interesting techniques on this strip and visually it was a highpoint of 1970s comics.

The final strip in the first issue was Captain Scarlet. It's obvious that page two was originally intended to run the following week, with the top tier adjusted to run an ad where the logo would be.The artwork by John Cooper uses lots of close ups, but it's understandable as he had a lot to fit into 13 panels on each page. It's strange that this strip should have so many panels but I presume it's because it was supposed to only be a single pager and they wanted to get as much story into a page as possible.

Incidentally, the typeface used for the strips throughout the comic would thankfully be replaced by hand lettering from issue No.2.

The back page ran an ad for Dinky Toys, which I thought you might like to see.

It seems Countdown didn't fare as well as Polystyle had hoped. It underwent several cosmetic changes as the year progressed, tweaking the logo, adding reprints from TV21, and eventually, a year later, changing its title to TV Action. Despite its modern look, Countdown was behind the times in some respects. Its focus on Gerry Anderson shows and spaceflight may have served TV21 well in 1965 but by 1971 such things were going out of favour. Man had walked on the Moon. The obsession with all things "space" wasn't as attractive as it had been ten years earlier.

As we now know, Look-In outshone, and outsold, its rival and thrived for many years. Even a change of title to TV Action and an emphasis on action shows instead of sci-fi couldn't save Polystyle's weekly, and it eventually merged into TV Comic in 1973. However Countdown should not be forgotten. It was a very good comic and I'll be spotlighting various issues again at times in the future.

11 comments:

Tony Howson said...

I've been waiting for this one to turn up. Can't believe it was so long ago as it sits comfortably in my memory of modern era recent comics rather than primordial influences (like Smash! and Pow!) You could have won serious money betting against me on the time differential between last episode of Legend Testers and first episode of Countdown (at least a decade in what passes for my memory).

Bought this for the wall chart (imagine something like that being given away today) and the UFO strip but the real highlight was John Burns work on the eponymous Countdown serial. His art was like nothing I'd seen before and I struggled to process it - some of the visuals actually hurt my eyes at the age of 11 - but my curiosity overcame all other obstacles. I persevered and around episode 15 I got into the rhythm of the strip and never looked back. I also learned a valuable lesson about not disregarding the new and strange - just as well considering that Chaykin, Sienkiewicz, Simonson, Moebius and Hicklenton were all waiting ahead for me.

Countdown was of the best serials in British comics for the 18 months it lasted. It was also the closest thing in tone to Dr Who or Quatermass that I ever saw in comics ("Governor, while you slept - we lost the moon!") It's only around 150 pages in total so it really deserves a collected edition.

I admit this makes me sound like a a philistine or a nazi in the context of this blog, but the only thing left of my weekly Countdown purchase is a complete collection of neatly torn out pages of the title strip which have been reread a lot in the intervening years.

It was also the last gasp of British comics for me. After it folded I stopped buying UK publications and only returned as an adult with the launch of 2000AD.

Bit of trivia - I seem to recall the creators of the Dr Who strip had good contacts at the BBC and the first mention of Galifrey is in Countdown (albeit on the letters page) about six months before it was named on the television series.

Lew Stringer said...

That's interesting! I didn't know that about the Galifrey mention.

Yes, Countdown deserves a collection. I'm not sure who owns the rights to the non-tv strips now though (and getting permission to use the Space Odyssey designs again might be an obstacle).

Anonymous said...

Ah Countdown! Wasn't that absolute perfection for an eleven year old at that point in time.

Sadly they went the same way as TV21 and were 'tidied away' by parents never to be seen again! However I still have a scrapbook which included all of the space race items such as Apollo moon landing etc. and I think the poster you mention has survived also.

It was great to have new stories from TV favourites such as UFO mixed with 'factual' items on such exciting topics as flying saucers vying with comic strips for our attention.

We were lucky to have lived through that period at the age we were. We had all the great things: sixties music, ITC drama, Gerry Anderson, classic Dr Who, Batman, the space race, James Bond, 2001 and much more.

The 'alternative universe' around us, although we knew it was fantasy, seemed so real to us then. We kind of wanted it to real and so for those few precious years of childhood Tracy Island and Moonbase did actually exist. Countdown (and prior to that TV21, of course) were our news bulletins from this alternative reality.

Countdown No.1 - an anniversary that is up there with the most important milestones in our lives. Thanks for the reminder Lew.

mike said...

I love these articles on comics of our youth...you must have one hellva attic Lew!

Many thanks for sharing

Shaqui said...

The mention of Gallifrey was, I'm sure, during the 'TV Action' era (1973) so as some of the editorial staff (among them art editor/photographer Roger Perry) had been present behind the scenes for several Dr Who stories, it would seem someone had picked up on the planet's first mention in 'The Time Warrior', and that was how it got in the comic ahead of the story airing in early 1974. Unfortunately both mentions were forgotten for one of the early Tom Baker strips 'The Return of the Daleks', where the Time Lord's planet is referred to as 'Jewel'.

Sid Smith said...

Great post Lew - many thanks for putting this one up. Like Tony, I also remember the Countdown strip with great fondness. Sadly, unlike Tony, I never kept mine!I suppose the limited market and potential licensing issues prevent this strip from getting a reprint any time soon.

Great seeing that wallchart again as well.

Many thanks for sharing this.

Lew Stringer said...

Thanks for letting me know privately that the Anonymous post was from you Dave. When I saw the length of it I thought it'd been written by ol' trollboy again, but I realized it wasn't as soon as I noticed the friendly manner and the absence of insults or arguments. :-)

Thanks for the update on 'Galifrey' Shaqui. I have almost every issue (only missing one TV Action) so I'll check it out sometime. Now you mention it I remember that mention of the planet "Jewel". Sheesh. Glad the tv show never adopted that.

It occurs to me that one reason I liked Countdown so much, apart from the sci-fi/sci-fact elements, is that it avoided sport and war stories. Two subjects that I hated in comics when I was a kid.

Craigf said...

That is a beautiful cover. Thanks fro posting it, Lew.

John Freeman said...

The rights to Countdown the comic are a minefield. The licensed strips effectively belong to the rights holder, so anyone wanting to reprint UFO would go to ITV/Anderson Entertainment, which is what Reynolds & Hearn did.

Countdown was a stablemate of TV Comic and published by Polystyle, which was bought out by London and North Surrey Newspapers, which was bought out by the Mirror Group. So you'd assume they owned the non-license strips like Countdown, right? Well, that's where the mystery begins - because the Countdown artwork is in the archives of the Daily Express (or definitely was in 2008), along with a huge amount of TV21 and Lady Penelope art. It seems to have got there via an art agency the Express must have bought out in the 1980s. So the Express appears to own John M. Burns artwork - although of course, that's a grey area, too, if John never signed away rights of ownership to the physical art.

If you wanted to reprint 'Countdown' you would have to negotiate with the Express and confirm they owned publication rights, not the Mirror; with MGM and, possibly the Kubrick estate, because 'Countdown' features vehicles from 2001: A Space Odyssey; and if you were any decent sort of publisher, with John M. Burns to ensure he got something from the reprint, and with Dennis Hopper's estate, as it was editor Dennis who apparently wrote at least some of it.

Would anyone sane pursue a reprint in the face this minefield of rights issues?

Anonymous said...

I have every single edition of Countdown, TV Action, Annuals and the Wallchart (with all the stickers) from Issue No 1 as well.
I wonder what they are all worth forty years on.

Andy Mcduffie said...

Rather depressing to hear how tricky it would be to repring the "Countdown" title strip. This, along with the old TV21 Dalek strips would be like a holy grail for me. Ah well, my incredibly dog eared copies are in the attic somewhere. Guess I'll just have to put them in order and read through.......

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