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Saturday, July 25, 2009

John Ryan 1921-2009

Cartoonist John Ryan, most famous for his creation Captain Pugwash, has died aged 88.

John Ryan was born in Edinburgh in 1921 and fought in Asia in World War Two, where his skill at caricaturing his commanding officers sometimes led to him being reprimanded. After the war, he became a school teacher, and married in 1950. That same year, in order to earn extra money, he came up with the character Captain Pugwash which he produced as a comic strip for the early issues of Eagle.

The comedy adventures of Horatio Pugwash, Captain of the Black Pig, and his pirate crew including Master Mate, Barnabas, Willy, and Tom the Cabin Boy, only took up a modest amount of space on an Eagle page, and ran for just 19 issues before the editor cancelled it for allegedly being too juvenile. However, greater recognition was to come. Ryan revived the character years later for a series of children's books beginning in 1957 and a new strip in Radio Times. Even more significantly, 1957 also saw the BBC commission Pugwash as a new tv series; short cartoon films with Gordon Murray (later to create Camberwick Green, Trumpton, and Chigley) as producer.

Ryan created the artwork for the five minute cartoons using a very basic but mesmerising technique. Cardboard cutouts of the characters were laid on painted backgrounds and their arms and mouths moved with levers. This was filmed in "real time" like a puppet series, rather than traditional (and more expensive) animation. Peter Hawkins provided the voices.

The Captain Pugwash series was a hit with young viewers and totalled 86 cartoons in all, the last produced in 1975. John Ryan continued producing the Pugwash books too, totalling 21 by 1991.

The often-repeated sour urban myths that the cartoons featured characters called Seaman Staines and Master Bates were unfounded and Ryan successfully sued the newspapers that printed the suggestions in 1991. The comedian Richard Digance claimed he made the names up and had a 25 year injunction against him performing material about them. This expired in 2008. John Ryan also appeared as a guest at a UKCAC (UK Comic Art Convention) event in the 1990s and during the talk he strongly denied the salacious myths about his characters. This was clearly something that had, quite understandably, offended him.

John Ryan's other memorable character was Harris Tweed, Extra Special Agent, which also appeared in Eagle in 1950, replacing Captain Pugwash, with a full page devoted to his adventures. This pompous British agent who got his man by accident rather than design, was the sort of comedy-adventure hero who perhaps later inspired such characters as Eagle-Eye and The Cloak.

Ryan's work in television continued in the 1970s when he devised Sir Prancelot and Mary, Mungo and Midge. The rights to Captain Pugwash were bought by HIT Entertainment in 1997 and a brand new Captain Pugwash cartoon series was created, this time more sophisticated, but somehow lacking in the original charm.

With his work in comics, books, and tv, John Ryan was a "multimedia" pioneer before the term was invented. The distinctive style and gentle comedy of his creations entertained millions of children and, with the Captain Pugwash books still in print, will no doubt continue to do so.


Rod McKie said...

Excellent piece, Lew. Thanks for the Pugwash strip, it looks marvelous and somehow the lines remind me of early Flook. I think a lot of us of a certain age will miss John more than others might. I loved his work.

Anonymous said...

I wasnt aware that the 'seaman stains' story was a myth, although Roger the cabin boy was another mythical character I heard. Cheers Lew, I will be able to silence people in pubs now whenever I hear it!

Anonymous said...

I wasnt aware that the 'seaman stains' story was a myth, although Roger the cabin boy was another mythical character I heard. Cheers Lew, I will be able to silence people in pubs now whenever I hear it!

Lew Stringer said...

Yes "Roger the Cabin Boy" was another made up name used to blacken the good nature of the cartoon. Pathetic really.

Anonymous said...

Cheers for clearing that up Lew, blimey I've been told the myth a thousand times as well, it so widely accepted. Pretty pathetic now I know the truth.

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