Sandy James' poster can be seen behind
Ian Jackson's Commander Thundercloud
I have very distinct memories of reading this issue of Ring Raiders on my way to school on the bus just a few weeks after starting secondary school, and one of the older kids we were friends with sitting behind us proudly proclaiming, "I'm Joe Thundercloud!" at the top of his voice. The date on the cover indicates a Saturday release day, meaning these posts mirror the original comics even more than I was able to do with Oink! but my memory is telling me I bought this issue on the way to school that day. But approaching 40 I'm all too aware that memories are fickle things and I could simply have brought the issue to school after buying it on the Saturday. My mind has played tricks on me before!
But enough of all that, let's get stuck in and I'll start with that cover. The comic's regular cover artist, Ian Jackson contributes a sole Commander Thundercloud figure this time and will repeat this with a Skull Squadron leader next time, with the free poster taking centre stage. The poster itself was the size of a double-page spread and was a separate entity to the main comic and the glossy gift made it up onto my bedroom wall within minutes of getting it home. Along with my growing collection of planes, I knew certain large boxes in my parents' bedroom were bases for Christmas, and with various logos and 'Ring Raiders' titles from the cardboard backing of the toys stuck onto the door to my room, it was clear these things had me hooked.
The bold yellow borders used to squeeze in more of the poster certainly made the issue stand out on the shelves and, even though my copy was in a box behind the counter, I still glanced through it on the shelf before buying mine. It just stood out the moment I walked in so I had to take an impatient look. The first thing I noticed was that a brand new multipart story was sitting there on page 2, replacing the one-off Shock Attack from #1:
Chiller was definitely a fan favourite and a hard
toy plane to track down as a result
Still written by editor Barrie Tomlinson and drawn by Carlos Pino the character creating the havoc here was Skull Leader Chiller and his introduction cemented him as my favourite baddie straight away. His plane looked cool (no pun intended) and which kid in the 1980s wouldn't love a jet with a freeze ray? This was one example of the sci-fi weapons some, but not all, of the planes had added to them by the toy manufacturers and this character's fascination with killing through using various forms of cold and ice was something the comic's creators must've enjoyed too, because we'd see Chiller return in his own one-off background tale and in another multipart story later in the run.
Here, Barrie dispenses with the traditional Wings of the 'Raiders and 'Squadron just like in the previous issue's introduction and it appears Chiller is out on his own, but before the end of this three-page instalment we see he's being backed up by none other than Skull Squadron leader Scorch. Together they launch a surprise attack on Ring Commander Vector and Wing Commander Miles who have travelled from 2057 to stop Chiller from attacking another sub. The one you see him attacking above becomes brittle with the ice and a few missiles soon wipe it and its whole crew out in a huge explosion. This toy-based comic wasn't afraid to show its baddies being bad and killing for their foul means. Interestingly it's mentioned it was a "gravity powered" sub and not nuclear, though no more details emerge about how that'd work exactly!
There's also just a quick throwaway line by Miles when he asks his leader why the Skulls would attack these particular subs at all? It's not answered yet and I can't remember if it is, but so far it definitely feels like there's some specific plot afoot that the leaders would all be taking part. Or, of course, is it just a way of getting a lot of the actual named characters into a fight like the preview issue and Shock Attack? I'm not reading ahead so we'll see.
Back to the one epic story Ring Raiders produced, the phenomenal Trackdown which would eventually run to 11 issues worth of strip! Written by Angus Allan and drawn by Don Wazejewski, here's a sample of this issue's entry in the series:
More original characters interacting with the
established toy pilots
The Doomsday Device is in the hands of its creator, who has disappeared into the forest with Raider Freddie Riley, one of cover star Thundercloud's wingmen and an original creation for the comic. As I mentioned last time the toy line only named the pilot of the lead craft in each Wing so it was always thrilling to eleven-year-old me to find out who the other pilots were meant to be. The comic's team may have just been creating their own characters, but this is the official comic tie-in and everything needed approved (as Barrie mentioned in my recent interview with him, the owners of Ring Raiders were much more open and better to work with than some others), so they became those aircraft's official pilot names.
At the end of part two we also get to see Skull Leader Blackjack's wingman Runtz as he begins to track Riley and Professor Martin through the woods. It's an exiting four pages full of aerial action but it doesn't forget about the characterisation. Thundercloud breaks off the fight and returns to base suddenly and we're left wondering why, only being told his instincts are at play and there's some nice touches when leader Vector shows concern about Riley over the communicator with his pilots. It all helps paint this picture of a very complete world. Instead of disparate, two-dimensional characters going about their A to Z adventuring like a lot of toy-based comics, here it feels like these men all know each other, they interact realistically within this fantastical setting, and you come away with a real feeling that these two huge, military-based organisations are properly fleshed out creations.
A PHEONIX FROM THE COMIC SHELVES
The leaders of the 'good guys' and 'bad guys' can often be rather clichéd when it comes to children's toys; they have to sum up exactly what their teams are meant to stand for and so can come across as a caricature of that rather than an individual. Aside from the little bits mentioned above in Trackdown, so far we haven't seen much of Ring Commander Vector or Skull Leader Scorch to prove this comic was going to do anything different. But the development of other characters has been on point so far, which is a nice surprise taking into consideration we're only one full issue in! Even the renowned Transformers took a few issues to show us how it would begin to broaden its appeal beyond the action.
So with all this in mind, I approached the following strip with some trepidation. Last issue my favourite character, Yasuo Yakamura was the subject of the complete story delving into a moment from his past. This time around we leap straight up the ranks to the very top and Ring Commander Victor Vector - Commander of Ring Raiders. Like all of these tales it's written by Scott Goodall and expertly crafted onto the page by artist John Gillatt. With a Flight of the Pheonix feel about it, with some sci-fi elements thrown in for good measure, a ghostly underwater sequence, great action and a little bit of comedic relief, it's a fun read. Enjoy:
Yes, it's a pretty daft story and the actual logistics of a slow-moving plane with no wings taking on jets flying at supersonic speeds bent my own brain a little even as a kid, but damn it was a fun story! Seeing Vector in this situation was great fun, as up until now he'd come across as a super serious leader, the likes of which I was used to seeing on TV cartoons. For example look at the difference between the depth of Optimus Prime in the comics compared to the rather two-dimensional cartoon character, or compare that same cartoon character with the more fleshed out and flawed leader in the movies. My view of Vector as a boring leader character changed here and I looked forward to seeing more of him and how he commanded the vast fleet in future issues.
We did see him pop up in other characters' stories and in more action scenes obviously, but we never got to that stage of seeing more of the inner workings of the Raiders unfortunately. Although, a later story does start to explore their formation with a little ingenious time travelling. More on that when we get to it. Back to the present, in a matter of speaking and we're jumping back to World War II to further explore the Bomber Blues storyline which I'd originally thought was a complete story in #1. Just look at this beautiful piece of art from Don Wazejewski that kicks off this chapter:
Two weeks ago I showed the first full part of this story and the gorgeous detailed aircraft battles expertly crafted by Don. I was so excited as a child to see the story hadn't actually finished and here we see the base under attack from Rebel Wing and Skull Leader Hubbub, as he enacts his personal revenge on the heroic pilots who'd saved Hero Wing last time. But unbeknownst to him Wing Commander Cub Jones, a veteran of the war before being plucked out of time to join the Raiders, had left them with a signal ring and it's not long before he's leaping back through time to help save his fellow fighters.
One thing that did stand out in the toy packs was the fact there could be a mix of prop planes and jets and I often thought how on earth did they fly in formation together! Well part one of Trackdown and here in part two of this story it's clear they simply don't. Each craft is used for a particular purpose, with the prop craft often being brought in for low-flying raids or for navigating close over difficult terrain. It's clear writer James Nicholas is an aviation nut and it really pays off here! One of Cub's prop planes is blown out of the sky by a Skull jet as he flew close over the base, trying to protect the men beneath him. The comic certainly wasn't shy in destroying the planes we were playing with as kids. It leant an air of jeopardy to the stories, because instead of vast battles where no one actually gets shot down or injured, here anything seemed to go!
The part again mainly takes place in the air in one long battle scene, and ends this time with a Raider and a Skull both shot down. The Skull pilot commandeers the guns of a bomber plane and damages Cub's cockpit canopy, leaving him unconscious while his plane is in the air and Hubbub opens fire. I honestly can't remember how he got out of this situation but I'll find out soon. I hope it's nothing too convenient, as it does seem unescapable, though I don't remember being disappointed with the outcome...
The letters pages aren't filled with reader content yet, after all this issue will have been put together before any arrived in, so instead Cub and Chiller, two stars of this issue, introduce one page apiece with information on their planes, the names of main characters and the history of the Ring Raiders. Interestingly this sticks to the toy story of the Skull pilots all being from the then-present day with planes being capable of time travel, but with the Raiders only their Air Carrier Justice flying base can, whereas in the stories all their individual airplanes can warp through time. Maybe later we'd have got a story explaining how each plane was eventually retrofitted, but for now it's a key difference. We've also got another Sandy James pin-up which never failed to feel dramatic in their two-colour formats, and a rather dull advert for the toys.
In none of the issues do we see advertising from Matchbox themselves, rather we'd get pages made up by the comic's team and thankfully they'd get more exciting as time went on. Later Sandy would supply artwork that would sit alongside many various photos of plane packs and accessories, familiar to anyone who'd looked at the back of the toy packaging. This first "advert" isn't exactly inspiring to anyone who hadn't picked the toys up yet, but it's the only weak link I can find in these 24 pages.
A SOPHOMORE SUCCESS
Finally, Freedom Flight part two rounds off the issue in as equally an exciting fashion as it did a fortnight ago. The rebels were almost defeated in their attempt to overthrow Fort Massife in the now-named Calvador in South American in 1966, until the Skull Squadron appeared in the shape of Mako (who we saw above in the Vector story) and his Vicious Wing. A few missiles later and the fort was on its last legs within minutes thanks to the jet planes from the future. The tide of battle was about to change, as was history and we were still no closer to finding out why this particular point in time had been chosen.
As part two commences the fort's soldiers are frozen in fear, having never seen aircraft and firepower like these before and the rebels, just as confused, see their chance and charge the fort. Commander Kirkov was a character who had defected from the Russians and fought for America in Vietnam so was already a rather interesting character for us in the late 80s. So how could he defeat the rebels without opening fire on them? After all, he can't take sides, he's just preserving history and, unlike some modern movie heroes he can't just open fire on them indiscriminately to stop the larger Skull Squadron plan:
Sandy James' artwork making for another
superb climax to an issue
Writer Tom Tully uses the unique features of the toy to great affect here while Sandy James' artwork keeps the whole thing feeling like a realistic war strip, with bold colouring and solid line work that makes for a riveting few pages. Again. Kirkov's wingmen end up coming to his aid but all they can do is keep Mako at bay, but the damage appears to have been done. Calculating to the extreme, Mako has shot down Kirkov right above the fort and now he's plummeting towards it. This could be a double-win situation for the Skulls, but the 'next issue' box promises something more, with its "In a fortnight's time: Flying on ring-power!". This immediately brought back the memory of excitement and anticipation for part three that I had a whopping 28 years back. Trust me, it was a big deal for this young fan to read that at the very end of this issue!
So, reading this second edition now as an adult I can say with confidence Ring Raiders had the firmest of foundations at this very early stage. Already building on what had been laid in the premiere issue it was wasting no time in exploring different characters, scenarios and the various kinds of aerial warcraft it could depict. It feels like its writers and artists are having a whale of a time with the subject matter.
I hope fans are enjoying these flights down memory lane and I hope others are finding it interesting too! Feel free to let me know!
Issue three comes barrelling towards the blog on Saturday 14th October.