Saturday, 28 October 2017

RING RAIDERS #4: SKY TIGERS AND LAKE SHARKS

Is this not your idea of a good night too?

<< GO TO ISSUE THREE

As we take off into the skies of the second half of the Ring Raiders run (already) the cover has a larger logo, glorious full-page Ian Kennedy artwork and altogether a confidence about itself that belies what would end up happening only four weeks from now.  But back at this point in 1989 I'd no idea about what was to come and this felt like a comic settling in for a long run:

From now on every cover would be
a Kennedy masterpiece

That really is a work of art.  Although from reading these comics for this series it initially seemed a bit strange to me how the covers don't actually correspond with any of the strips inside.  Instead the two-colour pin-up would act as the cover's counterpart inside for this and the next issue, with a paragraph briefly explaining the story behind the image on the front page.  Focussing on one character and their craft (for example above it's Wing Commander Cub Jones in his F5 'Sky Tiger' airplane) they were all absolutely beautiful and even as a child I really appreciated the hand-painted artwork from Ian, especially compared to the block colours of all the other comics I collected at the time.  It made Ring Raiders really stand out on the shelves and now, knowing how much of an aviation fan the artist is, it's clear an awful lot of love, care and attention went into each one, the details of the craft bringing these tiny little toys screaming into the real world every fortnight.

Inside, all of our stories continued apace beginning with editor Barrie Tomlinson's Battle Zone '99 which has been a fun slice of plot-lite action.  There's nothing wrong with that by the way; the comic has a great mix of scripts with some focussing more on the action, some on the plot and some on growing individual characters, with the best incorporating all three elements.  Here to kick off the latest issue for us young fans was a fun slice of action-packed goodness with the top Commander planes in the toy range, all facing off against each other without their accompanying Wings.

Skull Leader Chiller has been able to get inside the gravity-powered sub after subduing a few of her crew and made his way to the weapons controls (I'm guessing by foul means as the story doesn't show how he made it there without getting caught).  He fires off a handful of anti-aircraft missiles into the skies above where Ring Commander Vector and Wing Commander Miles are giving chase to his leader, the vile Scorch:

Carlos Pino's bright and breezy artwork was always
a welcome introduction to the issues

There's a degree of tit-for-tat between Chiller and Scorch after last issue's error on Scorch's part nearly wiped out the sub Chiller was standing on.  The above was also not deliberate but at the end of last issue's episode it was clear Chiller didn't care if his boss got in the way.  On the third and final page of this part, with the missile closing in Scorch makes a hair-raising stand-on-tail climb into the heavens and then nosedives towards the sub, aiming to manoeuvre out of the way at the last minute and have it blow up the target.  He's almost successful, it explodes right next to the sub, missing Chiller's face by a few feet.

This dynamic is an interesting one but unfortunately with the comic's short lifespan they never got the chance to fully explore this avenue, though Chiller does take the lead in another story to come as the leader of another diabolical scheme.  So perhaps in the long-term we'd have seen him take command more frequently, maybe ultimately making a move on Skull Squadron leadership.  There's a definite Megatron/Starscream feel to this.  Who knows?  There were no lengthy plans worked out yet for the comic's overall storyline, but even across these six issues and the special it's clear the comic would've continued to build upon the stories already told.  But as it stands, Scorch and Chiller's acrimony ended up simply making for a bit of one-off fun for us fans and collectors.

THE RING RAIDERS DIFFERENCE

Eagerly, I move on to part four of Trackdown from writer Angus Allan and artist John Cooper, a perfect matching of epic storytelling and realistic art.  This real-world feel of the human characters and their craft was key, because we were playing with tiny toy planes on our fingers and imagining them as giant, deadly machines.  To see them brought to life in this way was truly fantastic and today, without the youthfulness or the toy-playing anymore, it's this that keeps the comic from ageing to this adult fan.  Some comics could be painfully obvious that they were there to sell toys, the stories both reading and looking like they were taking place with the toys, but not Ring Raiders.  It's testimony to the creative team assembled here; the cream of talent from the British comics scene working on a subject which had actual potential for proper storytelling.

Back to the strip at hand and with Runtz and Riley facing off in a helicopter tensions are high with Runtz is control, holding the professor and the Doomsday Device in his possession and instructing Riley on where to land.  Riley's Wing Commander, Joe Thundercloud is on the way back from the Air Carrier Justice and intercepts Blackjack's Wing just as they're setting up an ambush to meet Runtz.  With communications between them and the chopper down, Thundercloud tells his wingmen their only chance is an air-to-air transfer of a new handset, which "won't be easy".  One of his team asks about using the rings to talk to Riley telepathically but this is rejected as too risky given the situation.

However, as the story rattles along we find out there may have been other intentions behind the risky plan.  In a section of the story which perfectly shows off how humour was an important part of the comic and its characters, this funny little section brought some light relief to the action:


Great stuff!  I really enjoyed Riley as a character and the interactions between Thundercloud and all his wingmen, hopefully he would've returned at some future point.  What's particularly interesting to me in this part of Trackdown is the mention of some ring technology.

The rings' main attribute was their ability to use the inner energy of the pilots to (very) temporarily power their individual planes in times of emergency or when a boost was needed.  But, already established as also being pre-Bluetooth comms devices this is the first we've heard of how they communicate messages.  Apparently they actually send signals directly into the body rather than through what I assumed would be tiny speakers.  But, looking back at previous issues when Ring Commander Vector received some strange "signal" from his ring that a pilot was in trouble, that now makes sense.  A shame this wasn't established first, but now it is, it could've opened up more possibilities for future storytelling.

RING RAIDERS 3D

We've a change of artist this issue for the complete character-based tale in the middle of the comic.  While the previous stories were all drawn by John Gillatt, this time around "Salty" Salton: Super Stunt Pilot from 50 Years Ago gets brought to life by another member of Barrie's regular team, Geoff Campion (Lion, Battle Picture Weekly, Knock-Out) and, whether deliberate or simply his style, it brings a lovely classic feel (beyond the fact the comic is already 28 years old obviously) to proceedings.  This perfectly suits the character, a prop plane stunt pilot picked up by the Ring Raiders in the late '30s and who is just full of retro comic-style gung-ho adventure!

In this particular flashback, after freaking out when Miles produces false teeth at the canteen table Salty relates a story of the death of one of his stunt partners and his discovery of a secret Skull Squadron base under an idyllic, quiet lake.  Quiet for now, but with a history of freak waves and mysterious deaths.  He just about escapes from the jaws of a giant shark that jumps out of the water to taken his small bi-plane.  After he crashes he finds a small cave entrance and soon finds himself in a  test and repair centre, full of planes from his future.  You can see this in the first panel below and I love the grand James Bond-esque nature of the discovery!

Below that is the final page of the story.  Now, here I should add my favourite film of all time is Jaws and I also love its second sequel, Jaws 3D.  Finally released for the home in 3D last year (not seen in its intended format since lucky people got to see it in the cinema in 1982/3) I have to say it's the best 3D I've seen in film format.  It's what you'd want from a 3D film, with stuff floating in your living room, jumping right out in front of your face, feeling like you could touch it... anyway, I digress.  I do that.  But yes, in the second panel below we've a huge mechanical shark swimming towards a large glass window in the background of the action, then it smashing through towards the reader.  It's all very familiar... I do wonder what the inspiration was:

Was Scott Goodall channelling his inner
Carl Gottlieb when writing this tale?

Great stuff!  I didn't click as a child but now I don't think any of it is a coincidence, rather a fun homage.  A fun, silly (in a good way) and outlandish story with the above as its equally outlandish ending, I think fans of the film would appreciate this.  Definitely the highlight of the issue for me!

Moving on and part four of James NicholasBomber Blues story once again takes place almost completely in the skies of World War II.  After turning on his jamming system at the last second, Skull Leader Hubbub has avoided certain death at the hands of Wing Commander Cub Jones and is back on the offensive.  This story has really turned into a battle of wits between these two characters.  As we pick up the action for this page below, Hubbub has not only jammed Cub's missile but has also taken control of it and sent it straight back to its sender:

Missiles ahoy!

That missile pod is something new!  It couldn't have been something the comic just made up, it seems a bit too 'out there' for that, although obviously the toy planes were far too small to have such a hidden contraption.  But was it still a feature of the plane mentioned in the toy line?  I've an exciting development in my coverage of this comic which I'll be sharing with you extremely soon, which should shed some light on this.  In the story after this, Hubbub lands feet first onto some poor chaps on the airfield, and lands hard!  He's not beaten yet.

While artist Don Wazejewski's pilots always looked rather big in their cockpits I always thought the way he drew people gave a lovely Thunderbirds-esque quality to the story.  I mean this in the highest regard, obviously.  When you see his human characters running about on the ground their bodies are slightly shorter and their heads slightly bigger.  It's a beautifully characterful style he has, full of dynamic movement and facial expressions and perfect for the action-packed scripts of James'.  Even in moments of pure action they can come across as more three-dimensional than some other comics thanks to Don's artwork and his ability to convey so much from the characters.

If that feels like I'm exaggerating simply because I'm a fan of this comic, go back and read the complete first part of this story in #1's write-up or bag yourself a complete issue online (though be prepared to pay a bit for them) and you should see what I mean.  Or at least what I'm trying to say in my usual waffly manner!

Commercial break time:

Much better advertising now the comic
is more established

As you can see when comparing with previous issues, the adverts produced by the comic's team are becoming more elaborate and a far cry from the rather dull one in the first issue (which was unfortunate in the issue people who may not have been collecting the toys would've tried out).  Sandy James returns again to add the comic's more elaborate version of the Ring Commander Victor Vector figure to a promotion of the Wing sets, all three of these I actually owned I recall.  I can't remember exact numbers, but looking at this and an advert from an upcoming issue full of extras and merchandise I must've had a hell of a lot!  You'll see what I mean next time, believe me.

Next to the ad is this issue's pin-up, again drawn by Sandy and with that aforementioned cover story explanation:

An intriguing character, I'd have been very
interested to know more of Cub's WWII background

Looking back on the series as a whole, from this issue onwards the covers show off one particular character and their plane, working their way through the huge array of pilots one at a time.  While it may not have been representative of a particular battle or scenario inside, that character was always in a story so it all made sense to us.  It also gave Ian Kennedy the freedom to produce elaborate pieces of art without constriction of what he could show, after obviously consulting with Barrie on what they wanted from the cover.

Finally this fortnight the fourth chapter of Freedom Flight continues the Sandy James theme, meaning the last five pages all featured his artwork.  Written by Tom Tully, last time we'd finally witnessed the rings being used for their main feature; to use the energy of the pilot on the airplane itself, in this instance to land the crippled craft.  Yuri Kirkov has unknowingly landed in rebel territory though and quickly finds himself surrounded.  In a weakened state from the use of the ring he's easily captured, but his fellow Freedom Wing (the story name has a clear double-meaning) are soon flying in to assist and it's lovely to see more anonymous toy pilots being name-checked:

The bright and bold livery of Freedom Wing
is replicated throughout the rest of the art

With Bomber Blues only calling wingmen by an identification number, I wasn't sure if the comic would expand on what Trackdown had started with naming Riley and Runtz, but I'm glad to see they were planning on doing so.  It would've been great to see, if the toys had proved more popular in their home country of America (they were a bigger hit here but ultimately pulled), if the copyright holders Those Characters From Cleveland and Matchbox would've added these names to the toy packaging, or started using the comic's artwork or maybe even brought in Barrie's team to do the mini-comics.  I doubt it would've happened, but from speaking with Barrie it seems they were pretty free to expand on what the toys had set out character-wise and story-wise and were very happy with what was being produced.  Maybe in some alternate universe, eh?

After seeing off the terrified rebels, Malloy and Baker land to rescue Kirkov but his Comet needs repaired, so they have to look on when they hear a roar from the sky and see Skull Leader Mako in his shark-motif Sea Hunter leading the rebel planes into battle with the government forces.  Planning to see off all of the fort's aircraft defences with his far more advanced craft, while the rebels attack the fort and change history forever, all seems lost.  The next issue box simply states, "In a fortnight's time: No Match For Mako!", so there should be plenty of action and a cunning 'Raiders plan next time around.  The situation looks to be so much in favour of Skull Squadron and Mako that he's got the cover all to himself next time:

I remember being particularly excited to see the next cover

The next issue was the only one from my original collection I'd lost over the years and had to track down online but I'll chat more about that next time.  Until then, keep the command in your hands and keep an eye on the blog, some brand new comics based on other classics and favourites coming up soon!

The elusive Ring Raiders #5 lands on Saturday 11th November.

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