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Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Enter The Cloak

With issue 18 of Pow! (on sale 13th May 1967) The Cloak replaced the unpopular Jack Magic strip in the weekly. The Cloak was the creation of Birmingham-based cartoonist Mike Higgs, a lifelong fan of comics and pulp magazines. In 1964 Mike had produced a fanzine entitled The Shudder, a parody of pulp magazine legend The Shadow, and with a few tweaks this character became the inspiration for The Cloak strip that he submitted to Odhams.

The editors of Pow! liked what they saw. Their line of comics already had serialized spy strips (Eagle-Eye, Man from B.U.N.G.L.E. and Wee Willie Haggis) but clearly they saw that The Cloak was something unique. The other strips were in the Leo Baxendale mold (more or less the closest thing Odhams had to a house style) but Mike Higgs' work had none of that, being more influenced by Peter Maddocks and Elzie Segar. More importantly, his style looked very contemporary, very Sixties... and the one thing that set Odhams above their competitors was how much they reflected the "swinging sixties".

Kicking off with a three pager, The Cloak then settled into a regular double-page slot every week. The basic set up was that The Cloak, whose real name and origin remained a mystery, was an agent working for the "Special Squad", assisted by his partners Mole and Shortstuff. (Later, The Cloak would also acquire a partner / girlfriend by the name of Lady Shady, without a doubt the sexiest woman ever allowed into British humour comics.)

The Cloak and his team battled against bizarre villains (influenced by the fact that Mike was a big fan of Chester Gould's Dick Tracy) and each serial ran for around six weeks, with cliffhanger death-trap style endings at the end of each installment. (For avid viewers of the Batman tv show, as all of us were back then, this was right up our street.) The strip never sat still. Werewolves, robots, mad scientists, warlocks, monsters, aliens... The Cloak fought them all. (The strip was a huge influence on my work, Combat Colin in particular, and during 1983/84 I was honoured to work as Mike Higgs' assistant for a while.)

The Cloak became a hit with the readers of Pow!, even elbowing Spider-Man off the front cover for a few issues. When Pow! merged into Smash! in 1968, The Cloak was one of the strips to make the transfer. However, with the formation of IPC looming over the horizon things looked bleak for anything that didn't suit their formula. When IPC took the reins of Smash! in 1969, revamping it into a clone of Lion and Valiant, the humour content was cut back and out went The Nervs (by then superbly drawn by Ken Reid) and The Cloak.

IPC segregated their comics department into two divisions: humour and adventure. Sadly, this meant that the humour comics, heralded by Whizzer and Chips in October 1969, were a little "younger" than Odhams' approach had been. Although Odhams had a large following comprised of children and adults, (as clearly evidenced from the letters they published) the new IPC humour comics were firmly aimed at children. Most of their content became increasingly tailored towards the "kid with a gimmick" limitation (X-Ray Specs, Chalky, Val's Vanishing Cream, etc.).

With The Cloak suddenly canceled for no good reason, Mike Higgs was asked to work on a new strip for Whizzer and Chips called Space School. He stuck it out for a year, but the restrictions of the formula (complete one-page stories) and the insistence by the editor that he focus on classroom-based capers rather than expanding the environment as he had with The Cloak led to it being a very tame strip. (The editor was also trying to discourage Mike from using his own style and wanted him to draw more like house-style artist Reg Parlett.)

Although the new IPC comics were a massive hit with the readers, Mike felt unhappy with Space School being steered towards becoming something akin to The Bash Street Kids in space. As a result he quit after a year on Whizzer and Chips to work in newspaper strips (Moonbird, Baz & Co), Moonbird children's books, lots of commercial cartooning, and editing/designing the Dan Dare collection for Hawk Books. Subsequently, British comics have never seen anything quite like The Cloak since, and for many collectors it remains one of the most unique and enjoyable strips ever seen in the UK.

(The Cloak, and his creator Mike Higgs, turned up briefly in the Albion mini-series. See the Heroes of Albion entry on this blog for a review of the graphic novel.)


Anonymous said...

Indeed! "The Complete Cloak" would make a great TPB...

Lew Stringer said...

Very true, and as it'd only run to around 200 pages it would be feasible. Sadly, Odhams never returned the original artwork to Mike so if it did happen it'd have to be scanned in from the comics, necessitating a lot of retouching.

Anonymous said...

Lew, again you've taken me down a path I'd forgotten. Those old Smashs were so 'pulpy' they didn't like my travels around the world back then!

But the Man from B.U.N.G.L.E.!!! Wow, imagine. The Cloak AND the MFB in one book. Boy would that be a kick!

Thanks again

Lew Stringer said...

Personally I wasn't as much a fan of B.U.N.G.L.E. except for the very first ones which Baxendale drew. Maybe I'll showcase some of those here in the future.

Peter Gray said...

i can see a lot of your drawing style in the Cloak...did you used to copy it..or your cartoon design just happened.

Lew Stringer said...

I started drawing my own comic strips, for my own amusement, when I was 7 but I never used to copy anything because I saw that as cheating. Subsequently it took a long time for a professional style to develop.

I suppose certain styles did get absorbed though, just from being exposed to the comics: Mike Higgs, Leo Baxendale, Jack Kirby, Ken Reid, Roy Wilson, Jack Oliver...

When I worked as Mike's assistant in '83/'84 I had to ghost his style somewhat on LOTS of children's books. (We did about 100 I think: Moonbird, Dopey Dinosaur,House Mouse,... too many to remember. Some for the USA.) So obviously I picked up quite a bit of Mike's style then.


paulhd said...

Thanks for these articles, I never got the chance to read The Cloak and have only had a few tantalising glimses (seems sort of apt!), a TPB would be great, there's a lot of 'lost' British strips I'd love to see collected.

Anonymous said...

I read the Cloak all those years ago. if I remember he had a Cloakmobile. the car was based on a Cord 810 sedan, an American car designed around 1936.
Thanks for posting, no one I know has ever heard of The Cloak.

alanultron5 said...

I would only demur to one section of Lews great tribute- in that British comics never saw anything like the Cloak again. I was devastated when the Cloak finished in March 1969- but! Sparky comic had from just one month prior- began a strip called "I.Spy" and soon this bore many of the hallmarks of the Cloak strip. The I.Spy strip did tend to have rather more bizarre stories than The Cloak. But both are memorable. Alan Smith.

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