Wednesday, 10 June 2015

BEYOND OINK! 1: THOMAS THE TANK ENGINE & FRIENDS

<< GO TO INTRODUCTION

Okay so that may not have been the title you expected to see as being the first one Oink! led me to.  After all, Oink! was aimed originally right at my age group, 8 to 13 year olds, while Thomas the Tank was definitely meant to be read by those a couple of years younger.  But there's a reason:


This is a common sight even to this day in my hometown of Whitehead where the Railway Preservation Society of Ireland have their headquarters.  Growing up and being exposed to this every weekend of the summer blew my mind as a young child and I fell in love with them and the books about trains with faces on sale in the gift shop.  Those books were The Railway Series by the Rev W. Awdry, a series which would eventually become Thomas the Tank Engine & Friends on TV.

I was obsessed.  Big time obsessed.  I had every last piece of merchandise my parents (and Santa) could get their hands on - including those finely detailed Hornby electric sets - and the most common sounds from my family home became that slightly out-of-tune theme music and the voice of Ringo Starr.  I had a huge collection of books too, like the Ladybird Tell-A-Tale ones which came with cassettes, I'd all the Grandreams annuals and of course most of The Railway Series itself.  But even though the programme started and became an instant phenomenon in September 1984 it wasn't until October 1987 that it became its own fortnightly comic.

It fell to Marvel UK believe it or not, known for its action series, to release the title onto the shelves.  I can still remember innocently walking down to Clark's newsagents in Whitehead to get my Oink!, I walked in front of the dozens and dozens of comics (remember those days?) to see if it was there and then stopped suddenly.  There was a new comic on the shelves and I jumped for joy!:


I grabbed my Oink! from the newsagent who had it behind the counter for me, ran home and told my mum who dutifully gave me 35p and I instantly ran all the way to the shop and back again!  As I've said before, this was the same price as the thirty-two pages of Oink! at the time, but this was a lot thinner at only twenty pages and on much smaller paper too.  But it was full colour, glossy and of course a licensed product so did I really care?  No.  Though my mum might've.

These aren't in great condition by the way, I've only got two issues remaining and they were very well read back in the day.  This one is also missing the bottom of the cover as inside there was a token to cut out to join The Thomas Club and receive a membership pack, which I would send off for the second I got my hands on the required three tokens.  I remember the 'emblem' was basically a bit of shiny card (like a badge without the safety pin) but the rest was very high quality for a freebie from a comic.  Also check out that subscription for a full year - only £9?  Now that'll make you feel old!  (It's actually a whopping 10p saving per year on going to the shop every other week, although Marvel always used to do this and the big saving was the postage, delivered to your door instead of paying the newsagent for its delivery service):


I remember reading this and knowing it was a comic for a younger audience than Oink! but that didn't stop me and a regular order was placed as I bought #1, before even reading it (and wrote the reservation name on the top of this one myself to match the rest).  It wasn't a comic strip format but rather a pictures-and-captions one like The Railway Series itself, with the two main stories (for the first year adaptations of the ones the TV series had covered) being made up of four pages - one large panel for the first page of each story and four panels per page after that.  They condensed the stories further and were quite simplistic in comparison to the originals or the TV adaptations but I still lapped them up.  There'd also be a two-page text story as well as activity pages, a letters page and a two-page pull-out mural in the middle which would connect on to the end of the previous issue's.  This ran for at least as long as I collected the comic, running right around my bedroom wall:


(I dutifully ignored the questions aimed at the younger readers and just concentrated on the ever-expanding drawing.)

After those simply amazing models on the original TV series and the beautiful artwork of The Railway Series books, the drawings in the comic were rather basic but it was creating its own identity and world, based on those stories on the TV which in turn were based on the books.  It was after all a comic and a comic should interpret the world in a comic form, which to my young mind was exactly what they achieved:

An original illustration from The Railway Series

Some of the stunning model work I grew up with on TV

Part of the premiere issue's first story

I've found out while doing a little research for this post the person adapting the stories for the comic was a man by the name of Andrew Brenner, who would also take to writing all of the original stories from #27 onwards when they'd caught up on the TV show.  The TV series was so elaborate to produce that we only got a new series of thirteen episodes - two stories an episode - every two years, so by the time even the third series premiered I'd grown out of it.  But instead of adapting further stories from The Railway Series the comic went off on its own, even creating new characters and giving the spotlight to those we'd only seen briefly before, as well as having multiple-part stories which would run for several issues.

Interestingly I found this snippet of information from www.sodor-island.net while trying to find the name of the writer and artist:

"... at the time of season three of the TV series, David and Britt (Allcroft, Executive Producers) were under contract at the time that new Thomas stories had to be in print before being adapted to television, hence why Christopher Awdry (the Reverend's son, who the tales were written for in the first place) wrote (the book) 'More About Thomas the Tank Engine' for series 2.  Instead, the producers opted to "borrow" some of Andrew's magazine stories to be adapted as TV episodes - with no credit given."

Ouch.  What a thrill to have your work produced for the TV show after adapting its tales for two years, but to get no credit?  Again, ouch.

The main artist for the comic was Tim Marwood and his artwork evolved as the title went on, with his own style coming through rather than copying the trains exactly from the show.  His Island of Sodor however always remained his own creation, but as a child I was already used to it being very different between the original books and TV.  This comic was probably his most prolific work as he stayed with it for a whopping twenty-one years until he passed away in 2008.  He brought much joy to my young life and the bright and breezy nature of his Thomas world was a delight.

By way of example, compare the first issue's drawings above with the one below from #31.  The buildings covered in snow are delightfully drawn and coloured and Thomas himself has slightly different proportions to his previous, or TV, incarnations.  It has more of a 'comic' feel to it now and is still a treat for even my now older eyes:


I collected the comic for at least two years as I think I can recall #50, but there are definite issues I do remember.  One of them was the first special which was called Collected Stories 1.  Marvel UK would have 'Collected Comics' for its action titles for each season of the year, reprinting stories into one volume.  I can remember staying over at my nanny's house and lying in her huge spare bed reading over that first special, with its incredibly glossy cover (it shone!  Think back to the Oink! Winter Special if you ever had it) and the thick, high quality paper inside.  I can even remember the smell of it strangely enough.

As I've discovered throughout this blog it's the most random of memories that can stay with us but the final one for this post is an obvious one.  A fortnight before Christmas 1988 this arrived on my lap (Marvel always dated their issues with the release date of the next one, kind of like an expiry date for the current issue):


I started to read it on the couch, my mum and dad were in the kitchen making lunch and then they were rudely interrupted by high-pitched squealing.  This noise was coming from yours truly:


It wouldn't be the last time I'd see my name in print in a comic or magazine but it was the very first.  I can still remember that excitement and there's my membership number for that club too!  I carried that membership card
e-v-e-r-y-w-h-e-r-e and even after getting in there as quick as I did there were still 10,000+ quicker kiddies.

My two remaining issues of this were kept because they were the premiere issue of a comic I held dear to my heart as a child and then of course because of my drawing.  Both are very tattered and their covers have come away from their spines, but I'll never bin them.  I've had to buy a few other titles for this series of blog posts but for Thomas they were already here and always will be.

Now seen as a magazine, meaning less stories and more activities etc and cheap free gifts, the title still steams its way to the comic shelves every fortnight to this day courtesy of Egmont.  According to their subscription page the current issue on sale is #693.  Blimey!  Have any other licensed titles ever lasted as long?  Of course the series itself is a lot different now, when I caught it a year or so ago when my nephew was watching it was all simplistic CGI instead of those fine models, they all had different voices and they bloody sang!  But hey, my Thomas was the one when I was the right age, the youngsters of today love what they're getting and I'm sure it'll continue to evolve to changing tastes.  Though it's pretty amazing for this British institution to still be going so strong I have to admit.

NEXT TIME

That's my first non-piggy flashback, but join me again in two weeks for the second part of this series.  My next comic would appear into my life a short five months after Thomas began and I also collected it from #1, which was released on 26th March 1988.  It ran for an impressive 193 issues and was again from the Marvel UK stable.  I've blocked out part of the title here, I'll reveal all in two weeks on Wednesday 24th June:


Each of the first eleven parts of this thirteen-part series will appear one week before and one week after each monthly Oink! so it works out to a nice fortnightly format, though there will be one exception when there's a five week gap between Oink!s, but oh well.  So come back next week for #64 of the regular Oink! and, oh yes, this weekend for the second part of the Holiday Special!

2 comments:

James Spiring said...

I remember having the Thomas comic, as well as the one for Rainbow, which was a similar format (pictures with captions, not speech bubbles). My issues would have been a bit later though - early 1990s. It was still Marvel at that point. It's odd that when it changed to Egmont, the numbering didn't reset. Maybe Panini sold the rights to Egmont after buying Marvel UK. Panini didn't do kids comics back then (but do now, they recently took over Doctor Who Adventures, which did have it's numbering restarted).

Phil Boyce said...

Hi James, yes it was pretty class to see them continue the numbering with the comic continuing to this day. Maybe they felt such a young audience wouldn't understand if they relaunched, though I personally can't see that same audience caring as long as it still came out.