Tuesday, January 20, 2015

50 Years ago today: TV CENTURY 21 No.1

Note: This is a revised and updated version of a post I wrote five years ago for TV21's 45th anniversary. 

On this day 50 years ago, City Magazines launched the first issue of a bold new large format comic that would become one of the most fondly remembered titles in UK comics history. I am of course talking about TV Century 21.

The comic later officially simplified its title to TV21 although in fact right from the start the editors and their readers often referred to it by the shorter title anyway, so that's how I'll refer to it here.

With City's close association with Gerry Anderson's Century 21 productions TV21 was far more than just a comic that featured tv characters. The editor himself (Alan Fennell) was a scriptwriter on Fireball XL5 and Stingray, and Lady Penelope debuted in her own strip in issue one several months before the first episode of Thunderbirds ever appeared on tv. The comic also had access to exclusive photographs of the models and characters, which were ideal for the newspaper-style covers of TV21. All in all, TV21 was very much a part of the Gerry Anderson universe, and the exciting thing was that the comic presented all those tv shows as part of a shared universe.

As was the case for comics back then, ads for the new weekly appeared on tv. A dynamic full page advertisement also appeared in the Daily Mirror dated 20th January 1965 (seen above). However, TV21 had a turbulent start, becoming a victim of its own huge success as demand outstripped supplies. The full story of which can be read on the superbly researched Technodelic website here:

(That website also gives incredibly in-depth details about the whole run of the comic and all the other Anderson-related strips so if you haven't already checked it out please do so. I can't recommend it highly enough.)

As TV21 was such a significantly popular comic I'm going to show issue No.1 in its entirety here. Not print-ready scans of every page, as that would contravene copyright, but photographs of each spread to at least give you an idea of the look and presentation of this fine venture. Click on each image to see it larger.

What's notable about the cover is the mature approach taken in presenting it as a futuristic newspaper (dated 2065) rather than leading with a strip as most comics of the time did. Straight away this made the comic stand out from its contemporaries. Notice also how low key the free gift info is, tucked away in the bottom right hand corner. It's clear that Fennell knew it was Stingray that was selling this comic, not a cheap free gift. Today's "focus groups" and sales managers would probably hate this cover, as they'd perceive the headers "Stingray Lost" and "Steve Zodiac Dead?" as too "negative". In truth it's a very exciting cover that makes the reader want to know more about the story behind the headlines.

Regarding the free gift, the Identicode was superb. Every week the taglines at the end of each strip would be written in code, and the Identicode was used to decipher them. This reader involvement was great fun and at the same time not the sort of comic "activity" that was too dumbed down. Here's the very free gift I had 50 years ago today, somewhat worn with use those many years ago but still intact. And I never did get around to sticking my photo in it...
Leading off the interior strips was the non-Anderson, non-futuristic Burke's Law. A strange choice for starters perhaps but the comic needed its Anderson material to appear on the few available full colour pages. However Gene Barry's U.S. tv cop show was popular with a family audience so it couldn't hurt to begin with something more traditional.

Pages 4 and 5 really start the ball rolling with Fireball XL5 in full colour. These initial Fireball strips were drawn by Graham Coton, who would be replaced by the slicker and more dynamic style of Mike Noble with issue No.6. Presumably the decision to bring in Mike Noble had already been decided as you'll notice the title panel actually looks like Noble's work although he has apparently denied this.

You'll also notice that the tone of the strip is somewhat darker than the tv series was. The end of the first episode, with Steve Zodiac apparently dead, would be an unlikely cliffhanger for a children's comic today.

Over the page is the first of TV21's many articles on space exploration. TV21 really knew how to capture the mood of the times and for children of the Sixties, the optimism of space travel was an exciting prospect. On the facing page is the humour strip My Favourite Martian drawn by Bill Titcombe, based on the American tv series starring Ray Walston and Bill Bixby.
Page 8 is devoted to advertising space, but even that partially has an Anderson theme with its ad for a Fireball XL5 toy rocket. On page 9, Contact 21 is the reader's input page. Later issues would see the mysterious "Twenty One" gain his own comic strip as Secret Agent 21.
The centrespread is a wonderful Ron Embleton colour job for the first Stingray strip. Artists on TV21 were allowed some flexibility to make the characters look more realistic than their tv puppets. A wise move which lent the comic an air of
maturity that caricatures wouldn't have achieved. Note the use of a few stills from the tv show as part of the strip. This practice was soon dropped from the comic, although TV21 art editor Dennis Hooper would revive the idea for the first few issues of Countdown comic when he was its editor in 1971.

Embleton captured the design of Stingray perfectly. The 1960s were a marvelous time for UK adventure strips as larger and more experimental panel layouts became more commonplace, allowing for more dynamism in the comics.
Although the puppet shows were fantastic, the strips offered the kids scenes that could not have looked as convincing on tv with models, such as this dramatic giant jellyfish terrorizing the ship...
Page 12 gives us another article, the first in the Oceans of Mystery series. With Stingray being the main strip in TV21 it was probably assumed that kids would be interested in life under the sea as well as space exploration. On page 13, ads for Corgi Toys and the popular Anglo bubble gum.
Pages 13 and 14 feature Supercar. Interestingly it was treated as a comedy adventure strip in TV21, perhaps because by 1965 this earlier Gerry Anderson series was seen as less sophisticated than Fireball XL5 and Stingray.

Over the page, impressive artistry by Eric Eden for the first episode of Lady Penelope. This strip seemed an oddity for readers in January 1965 as Thunderbirds was still only in the production stage so we had no idea who she was. However, the opening episode introduced us to the characters and even showed us how Parker first met Lady Penelope. A year later Lady Penelope would spin off into her own highly successful comic for girls.
Interesting work here by Eden who manages to provide dramatic artwork whilst still retaining the distinctive qualities of the puppets. It was a great idea for these characters to have their genesis in TV21 before appearing in Thunderbirds and I don't think any other licensed comic has used this approach before or since.

On page 18, Cosmic Capers was a lighthearted feature to bring some lightness from the tension in the strips. (And, yes, the title did inspire me to come up with Robo Capers in the 1980s.) Zoony the Lazoon, who was the comedy relief in the Fireball XL5 tv show, was considered inappropriate for the more serious tone of the Fireball XL5 strip so he had his own humour strip here. Also featured is a regular Music Box feature by Barry Gray, the composer of the themes for Gerry Anderson's shows.
Note the introductory editor's letter below. Again, it's TV21 playing it straight with the readers, with editor Alan Fennell using his own name instead of the jokey pseudonyms used in some comics.
On page 19 it's the Corgi Model Club, - the only enduring feature of the entire run of TV21. Presumably City Magazines received some sponsorship fee for this as Corgi Toys were plugged on the cover of every single issue. Beneath that, another aquatic article.

On the back page, a strip that had no connection to the Anderson universe but still used popular tv icons, - The Daleks. The first Dalek comic strips had appeared a year earlier in Panther Book's The Dalek Book and the TV21 strip continued the aspects set up in that annual, some of which would later be adopted into the 2005 Doctor Who tv series (such as the Dalek's golden flying saucer design). In this first TV21 episode we're presented with an origin for The Daleks. The strip was written by Terry Nation and David Whittaker but Nation would contradict this origin somewhat with his Genesis of the Daleks serial for Doctor Who in the 1970s. Artwork here is by Richard Jennings.

I was five years old when TV21 was launched, so a little under the target age of 7 to 12 year olds. Nevertheless, like many kids, I was thrilled by this new comic. I became an avid reader of TV21 throughout 1965, and so did many other kids apparently, with the comic becoming the most successful launch of the period. (It's initial print run of 450,000 being insufficient to meet demand. Incredible, when comics today are considered a success for selling 60,000.) Its nearest rival, Eagle, was immediately made to look old fashioned by this modern looking newcomer. Sadly toward the end of the sixties, the quality of TV21 began to decline, and interest in "space" petered out after the first moon landing. By the time TV21 merged into Valiant in 1971 it was little different to any other boys adventure comic of the time. However, for today, it's time to remember when TV21 was fresh and innovative, and when "Adventure in the 21st Century" was something to look forward to every Wednesday.

Note: To see how much TV21 had changed by 1969, read my blog on the first combined issue of TV21 & Joe 90 here:


Phil said...

F.A.B! Thanks Lew! I've never seen the Daily Mirror ad for TV 21. Was it a full page?

paddykool said...

Hi Lew .I remember very well buying the first issue when it came out.It seemed so bright , new and futuristic way back in the mid-20th century. The size in schoolboy hands was something but the quality of the artwork really shone out. This really looked like the future .It's funny now that we have caught up and surpassed the cover date. Looking back on it , I don't think comics presentation ever got any better than that . Can you imagine piles of a comic that size blazing out of today's magazine racks full of Hello magazine and the like?

Lew Stringer said...

We haven't quite surpassed the cover date yet, paddykool, unless you've sent that comment from the future. :) Yes, the whole design of TV21 was unique, and like you say it's size and bright colours really made it special. It'd be a hard slog to convince retailers to stock a comic looking like that today. They'd complain it was too big for their shelves, charge a fortune for displaying it (therefore pushing up the cover price), insist it should be bagged with a toy, and then the publishers themselves would want a 'busy' cover design and content that wouldn't confuse a six year old.

Phil, yes it was a full page ad in the Daily Mirror that was out exactly 50 years ago today. I got it by paying a small fee to the Daily Mirror archive and searching through their pages for comic ads. Quite a few comics were advertised in the Mirror back then, which I showed on my blog a while ago.

Standby4action said...

Brilliant trip down memory lane Lew. I was a couple of years older than you (but younger now??) and LOVED this comic above all others. I think my brothers bought it as well as the Eagle and I could never get on with the Eagle at that time. I've since read loads but love my TV21s to this day.
I hadn't realised Bill Bixby was in My Favourite Martian! Off to YouTube to see this!
P.P.S. I agree with your Supercar comment - it did appear crude compared to Stingray! But I only saw one episode as my Mum insisted on the worthy BBC classic serial instead! 2 TV channels eh?

Lew Stringer said...

I have Supercar as a box set and still haven't got past episode 1. I liked it when I was about 4 though.

I didn't notice Eagle until 1968, way past its best years. Had one issue, didn't care for it enough to buy any more. I have quite a few now though, and can see why it appealed to kids in the 1950s.

Abu said...

Ace post Lew. I was too young for TV21 but I have bought some books and comics (Thunderbirds) that republish the stories. It's very high quality! I thought more websites would be talking about the half-century of TV Century but you're the only one. I hope the new Thunderbirds comic will be as good, or even half as good.

Lew Stringer said...

I'm sure the Gerry Anderson fan sites and mag will acknowledge the anniversary, Abu. I'd be very surprised if they didn't. Perhaps they're waiting until Jan 23rd, mistakenly thinking the cover date was the day of publication.

I expect the new Thunderbirds mag to be much younger in tone, as modern kids mags always are, but I could be wrong. We'll know soon enough.

Phil Boyce said...

Brilliant piece Lew, thanks for sharing this. Wish today kids comics would try something different like this to get them more interested in reading again. The 1990s Thunderbirds comic that saw some reprints within its pages, were they the TV21 strips?

John Pitt said...

Thanks for revising, updating and posting this post, Lew. I remember it from 5 years ago, but the 50th really does need marking. I was a bit late 50 years ago and didn't get it till #4, but I got my regular order in straight away. I cannot put into words how much I regret not keeping them. Thank goodness for the internet, where I can visit my old favourites!

Lew Stringer said...

I've heard from a few people today who missed buying the first issue John. I can't remember how I heard if it. I think it must have been via a TV advert and the ad in the Mirror.

Yes Phil. Thunderbirds the Comic reprinted loads of strips from TV21, as did its companion comics for Stingray, Captain Scarlet and Joe 90.

Mikeodee said...

I think it would have been the following Saturday that me and my older brother walked round the corner to Edgar Hill's newsagent to pick up a copy (each) of the new comic. Don't remember how we knew about it but it was a deliberate - and excited trip - to go and buy it Very happy memories....but 50 years!!

Lew Stringer said...

The emotion I associate with that issue is one of excitement. The Stingray strip in particular really grabbed me in a different way that Dandy and Beano did, but The Daleks on the back cover was my favourite strip. I wasn't aware of any other adventure comics at the time so TV21 had quite an impact on my 5 year old self.

Phil Rushton said...

Great post Lew - I wish I still had my own copy of that first issue! For all the fans of its cutaway drawings and strips like Riders of the Range I think it was always clear that the outer space adventures of Dan Dare were the main attraction of Eagle and a chief factor in its phenomenal success during the 1950s and early 1960s - all of which makes it hard to understand why it took 15 years for somebody to have the bright idea of filling a whole comic with similar science fiction strips. There's no doubt that the launch of TV Century 21 in 1965 was a Red Letter Day in the history of British Comics - unfortunately it was also an event that effectively signalled the death knell of its illustrious predecessor.

paddykool said...

OOps , Lew .You are right about the cover date , of course .I misread it. still...2015 seemed like a long time forward in the future to a young schoolboy of about fourteen back in the early 1960's.

Lew Stringer said...

I could be wrong but I'd guess that other publishers hadn't considered filling a comic with SF strips because they preferred to have variety in comics back then. Even TV21 didn't go the whole hog, offering us Burke's Law, which looked completely out of place. Admittedly it was a popular prime time show (I vaguely remember watching it) so it must have been considered a strong selling point for TV21.

Lew Stringer said...

Had you never noticed back then that the cover date of TV21 was 2065, Paddykool?

Marineville63 said...

TV Century 21 has never been surpassed as the best television themed comic and I often browse through my complete collection. A nice tribute Lew!

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