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.