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Wednesday, January 20, 2010

45 years ago: The first issue of TV21

On this day 45 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 detailed 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 45 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:


Kid said...

Great stuff, Lew. Is that your original copy of #1, or a replacement? I was 6 years old when TV21 first came out (incidentally, the same week as SPARKY #1), and it really was a fantastic comic for its time. Amongst my relatively meagre collection of TV21s I have the first 4 issues, but not #5. Is there any chance you could send me a scan of the FIREBALL XL5 pages from this issue so that I can read how the story ends?

I remember having the cardboard model of FIREBALL from #2 (I think) and assembling it in class while teacher and pupils watched with rapt fascination.

I exchanged a few letters and 'phone calls with Alan Fennel in the early 90s - one of these letters is particularly poignant because, in it, Alan talks about having just returned from Derek Meddings funeral and remarks on the dwindling numbers of people he knew and worked with in bygone days.

Interestingly, it transpired that Alan and his wife used to visit friends near Glasgow in the mid-60s, and they would come up to my home town to use the ninepin bowling alley (THE OLYMPIA) just along the road from where I then lived. I wondered if he'd ever passed me in his car on the way there as I made my way back from the shops clutching a copy of TV21. We both pondered the ironic possibility. Alas, Alan is sadly no longer with us, having passed away about 10 years ago.

As I said, great stuff, Lew - keep it up.

Wil said...

In my head I can just 'see' a modern day TV21. Not a retro homage with Anderson shows (although that would be fun to do) but with new characters for today's 7-12 year olds. Alas, we don't have an Anderson for the 21st century with a popular body of work to draw upon and launch from but the whole structure from the newspaper covers to pulling the all shows together into a common universe and the more grown-up tone was genius. Truly a fantastic comic.

Anonymous said...

You obviously forgot to include the bellamy pages. I hear they were the best bits!!!!

Lew Stringer said...

Sadly Kid I threw away all my original TV21s but was lucky enough to obtain a near complete run in the 1980s. (I bought that issue 1 for a fiver from Nostalgia & Comics. The rest of the run, from another seller, cost me £25 for the lot. A bargain!) Don't have issue 5, but the Technodelic website I linked to gives details of all the stories if that helps.

Kid said...

Wow! You jammy b*gger, Lew. That was probably the bargain of the century (the 21st, of course). I paid more than a fiver for my replacement copy (£15-£20 at least) and it's not quite as good as yours. Swings and roundabouts, I suppose - someone let me have 2000 AD #1 for a fiver a few years ago, even 'though I told them they could probably get at least £30-£40 for it elsewhere.

Are you planning a celebration of SPARKY #1, which came out the same week (if not the same day)? DC Thomson probably only released it to steal some of TV21's thunder. There must have been a lot of kids who asked their mum to bring back "that new comic" (TV21), only to be surprised (at the very least) when mum brought back a copy of SPARKY.

On a completely different note - what do you think of the new-look DENNIS THE MENACE?

Kid said...

Correction: The cardboard FIREBALL XL5 was the free gift in #3, not #2. Incidentally, Lew - my #1 of the new series TV21 & JOE 90 sports the original date of 13th September, 1969 - whereas other copies I've seen usually have the date obscured by a black bar, with the new date of 27th September, 1969 printed underneath. Any ideas why my copy would still have the original date?

John Freeman said...

Brilliant, Lew! If only it was still going: I've suggested a creator line up in my own blog post here on downthetubes

John Freeman said...

Kosmikat, aka Wl Overotn, is being modest: he's already producing a vibrant comic in the format he's talking about, over at It isn't TV21, but it looks great!

John Freeman said...

One of my proudest possessions as a kid was the sendaway TV21 badge (it cost 2/6d!). They cost a fortune these days on eBay.

Lew Stringer said...

Kid, - No, I won't be covering Sparky's 45th as I only have a few issues so rather than do a half-researched blog I'll leave it until I can focus on the ones I have.
Re: New Dennis; never been a huge fan of the character so I'm a bit indifferent about the makeover.

Re: Your copy of TV21 & Joe 90. I guess it was just an issue that slipped through before they decided to redate it.

Anon: I've missed nothing out of issue one. Frank Bellamy didn't feature in TV21 until a year later.

Dave Whitwell said...

I really enjoyed this latest blog, especially as I don't have that many copies of TV21. It was nice to be able to see the complete comic alongside your accompanying comments and loved seeing the free gift too.

I did own the first issue when it came out, but sometime in the sixties my mum persuaded me to send it (and a pile of other comics of the time) to a distant cousin in Australia.
I was more interested in Wham!, Smash! etc, so I had to let TV21 #1 go instead!

Needless to say, I'm gutted now!!

Dave Whitwell said...

Was also interested to read about the date on Kid's copy of TV21 & JOE 90. I used to know a collector who apparently had an issue of Eagle #1 (1950s series) which was dated one week later than the official cover date. Have often wondered if this was a second printing, maybe?

Kid said...

Regarding the bowling alley I mentioned earlier - I said ninepin, but perhaps it was tenpin. Anyone know anything about these things? Anyway, that was just an aside. Lew, I'm surprised you were never a fan of Dennis the Menace - I've got every Dennis Book/Annual ever printed ('though it only became an actual yearly publication in 1987/88) since the 1st one in 1955/56, and I have to say - the original Davey Law stuff is priceless. If you ever get the chance to pick up some of the early books at a reasonable price, grab 'em - they're worth having.

Robert said...

Thank you for this article, it was great. I did enjoy TV21.

As you pointed out in the article, there was the shared universe aspect, which I enjoyed a lot. I seem to recall enjoying a tale where the Mysterons had an agent in Marineville. It was great to see a Captain Scarlet story where the Mysterons were at work in Marineville as I did enjoy Stingray, too.

I'd always believed the shows had taken place in a shared universe, but TV21 actually presented it to us.

You know, I do feel some modern comics have dumbed down and don't give enough credit to the readers. Not all, but some. TV21 certainly wasn't one of those. It was very enjoyable.

Lew Stringer said...

Kid, - Oddly enough I've never been a big fan of the "naughty kid" strips, which is why I had Tom Thug presented as such a loser. I enjoyed Davy Law's Corporal Clott though.

Robert, - It's not so much that comics are dumbed down today, more that they're pitched at a younger age group than they used to be, ie: 6 to 10 year olds instead of 7 to 12. But I agree there is an aspect of aiming too low.

Time was when a comic for 7 to 12 year olds would be aimed at the 12 year end, knowing that younger readers could catch up. Problem now is a comic aimed at 6 to 10 year olds often pitches itself at the 6 year end so the young ones won't be put off, - but common sense should tell publishers that kids drop anything they thing is too "babyish" for them so the comic loses the older end of its target range. So one ends up with something that's little more than a nursery comic.

Kid said...

Regarding the Quercetti FIREBALL XL5 toy advertised in the pages of TV21, I actually have TWO boxed examples of this amazing toy. One is the version most people remember - the two-tone hull (silver and light gray) with two yellow FIREBALL JUNIOR nose-cones. (One with fins, one without.) However, I also have an all-silver version with only one orange nose-cone (with fins) - no alternative version of 'Junior' being mentioned in the instructions. I assume the one cone version is a later, cost-cutting release, but I could be wrong. Anyone know?

alcilan said...

Hi Lew, I'd just like to say how much pleasure I get from reading your blogs. This one is particularly fascinating and brings back great memories.

I loved TV21 and began collecting from that very first issue. All long gone now so it's a delight to see it here. Thank you.

I loved the photo of Stingray on the cover. It made it seem so real, so much so that when I first saw it, I naively thought they meant that the Stingray model used for filming had gone missing! It was quite a while later I learned about the multiple scale models used in production ;-)

Thanks again.

oversear said...

What amazes me is the sheer quality of the package and the fact that the strips have hardly dated in comparison to other comics from the same era.

Lew Stringer said...

You're right. TV21 was very ahead of its time, (appropriately so was the cover date).

I think the reason I never got interested in the Thomson adventure comics was because I'd been spoiled by TV21. After the dynamic full colour futuristic exploits of Steve Zodiac & co The Hornet seemed very old fashioned and mundane. (I know now that Thomson's adventure comics have their strengths but back when I was a kid they seemed way behind TV21.)

Trevor said...

Thank you sooo much, reading no1 of TV21 after all these years has made an "oldish" man very happy as I never thought I would see it again. And the free gift, at the time made me feel like I belonged to some kinda "special intergalactic club". Again thank you so much.
1 love

Lew Stringer said...

Cheers Trevor. Glad you enjoyed it.

Anonymous said...

Hi Great site ,can you print page?? years ago l won a TB2 and FAB 1 so l can see which issue in was Thanks Steve

Lew Stringer said...

Sorry? I'm not with you. What page?

John Pitt said...

Lew, your searchbox won't load on my screen, so I'm sending a message here. When I first read this post I didn't know how to submit comments!! Anyway, for its 50th I have been revisiting your old TV21 & related posts, but there a couple I can't find without your searchbox, so could you please paste me links to TV21 with the Marvel strips in and Joe 90 #1? Sorry to be a nuisance, mate! Cheers, John.

Lew Stringer said...

Have you tried refreshing the page John? I've never done a post about Joe 90 No.1 so you must be thinking of another blog. Anyway, here's the link to the Marvel strips that appeared in TV21:

Lew Stringer said...

This might be the post you're thinking about John. It doesn't show Joe 90 no.1 but it's about its early days:

Wilson Kemp said...

My 6 digit code number as a TV21 special agent has served me well whenever a 6 digit password is required in the internet era... well done TV21.

Lew Stringer said...

Good work, Agent 729965.

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