Well this is indeed a very bittersweet post. My favourite of the fortnightly issues of what was (and continues to be) my favourite non-piggy comic from my youth, also happens to be the final such issue. But what a stunning cover to say goodbye with!:
|I longed for this to be turned into a poster.|
I have very clear memories of running to my local newsagent to buy this all those years ago, when I'd go and see it on the shelf first and flick through it before running to the counter and asking for my reserved copy. One of the first pages I turned to in that shop was the "Special Announcement" and my heart sank. I'd already noticed the blanked out 'Next Issue' box on the rear cover but figured it was a mistake. Not so. But let's not get down, there's one more stupendous special finale still to come in a few months, but we weren't 100% certain of that at the time of course. In the present day let's just get stuck in and enjoy the finest slice of 80s action Ring Raiders produced. Ian Kennedy yet again kicks things off with a beautiful cover, this time featuring my favourite villain, the ghostly Skull Leader Wraither in his 'Galloping Ghoul' P51 Mustang aircraft.
It certainly set the tone like no other issue before it. Inside, Wraither took over the letters page, his plane was the subject of the first fact-file page and he was the star of a brand new story which would go on to become my second favourite of the whole run. More on each of them below, but first up there's been a little bit of a remix to the pages inside. Freedom Flight from writer Tom Tully and artist Sandy James moves up to become the first story and the bold artwork really makes an impact the moment you open this issue.
Mako and Wing Commander Kirkov are still battling it out in the skies above Calvador, where Skull Squadron are attempting to change history for their own nefarious needs. In fact this part of the story finally sets out in no uncertain terms the exact reason why they're attempting to do so and why it's so important for the 'Raiders to stop them. It comes from a little bit of exposition on the part of leader Scorch, who is gorgeously brought to life by Sandy in a strip at last (after doing so in a toy advert in a previous issue):
|Sandy's Scorch gave the original toy depiction and|
the cartoon version a run for their money
Sandy's depiction of Scorch is far and away my favourite and a lot more menacing than even the one on the actual Matchbox toy packaging. It's interesting to see with hindsight how the reason comes now in part six of this story. The comic treated us as having actual attention spans, as readers who'd stick with the stories and who didn't need everything laid out in the first episode. I really appreciate that now as an adult for obvious reasons, but as a child I loved having revelations like this in later parts of the stories as it made it all the more exciting to see what was to come next!
PERFECTION IN STRIP FORM
In Freedom Flight we see Skull Squadron's plans for world domination actually had structure to them, albeit they could execute these plans out of order in their own time, in the grand scheme of things everything was to fall in place across time zones in a very ordered way. In the first of the two new stories, Castle of Doom this was taken a step further with Wraither going further back in time than ever before to plant seeds which, we find out later, could see them get a major advantage! From the same team behind the previous Bomber Blues (writer James Nicholas and artist Don Wasejewski) it's taken Trackdown's place as the second strip and it makes a grand entrance! Just look at that gorgeous brickwork and the detail on the guest characters:
|An epic setting for the start of another epic story|
Wraither is the perfect fit for this tale right from his first appearance. He returns fire on the castle, but carefully misses all those present. He does take exception to the Mayor (the rotund fella in panel two) and fires upon him at close enough range that he falls over the edge and down the cliff face. Returning to the skies above the castle he switches on a mind control ray of some sort and mysteriously plants an order in the minds of the unwilling recipients, one that is to be subconsciously passed down from generation to generation: "Two hundred years from tonight these future generations will rise up and assassinate every single person in the castle!". He's gone to great pains to set this up before the story began, as you can read above, just so that he can plant this in their minds at a specific time. Why this particular castle and why that particular date? We're left not knowing at the end of part one.
But what we do see, which excited me no end at the time, was that the Ring Raider dispatched to investigate is none other than Wing Commander Yakamura in his 'Samurai Flyer', the futuristic X-29 which came with the Galloping Ghoul in my Ring Raiders two-plane Starter Pack! I loved how this turned my two favourite toy planes into mortal enemies in the comic and it was a great choice by the team. James sets up an interesting tale and part one's cliffhanger is Yakamura spotting the Mayor is actually hanging by a tree branch over the cliff, but if he attempts a rescue he'll be open to attack by all of Wraither's Vulture Wing! This cliffhanger and the intriguing story setup was agonising when I first read this issue, not knowing how long it'd be until I got the next instalment. If at all!
NEVER EVER SAY NEVER OR EVERS WILL NEVER FORGIVE YOU. EVER.
The complete character story this issue is for a pilot whose Wing I never owned and who never appeared in any other strip within the short run of the comic. Which is a shame, as here we have one of the heroic 'Raiders whose past clearly shows he was a complete wash out. Very original for a kid's comic at the time. "Never" Evers starred in Scott Goodall's Never Say Evers Again! which begins with him enrolled in N.A.T.O.'s flying school as an officer cadet:
|A few years later and Evers' character probably would've|
appealed greatly to the teenage me...
He's a fun character who finds himself under open arrest on the base where he accidentally stumbles upon his commanding officer hacking into top secret information for Skull Squadron, using Evers' love of loud music to his advantage. Deliberately placing Evers under arrest and shoving him into an isolated part of the base beside a records department, he knew he wouldn't be able to resist rocking out to his heart's content. When Evers' blows a speaker on his hi-fi system he overhears someone next door and investigates. This soon leads to an aerial dogfight above a nearby town which is excitedly drawn by John Gillatt:
My only complaint in this entire issue is that there isn't more of this particular aerial action in this story, as the brief bit we're given is great fun and if it'd gone on for longer it would've made for one awesome climax. It then ends with Evers blasting his music suddenly over an illegally installed music system in his aircraft right into Otto's communicator, causing Otto to crash land next to a busy motorway, taking out an electricity pylon in the process. As a kid I also remember being excited by seeing some of the interiors of Sky Base Freedom on the first page of this story, even if it was just a few walls and computer monitors. Owning the toys, it was always fun to see any of them in more detail than we could get in the toys.
THE COMMAND WAS IN OUR (TINY) HANDS
Before finishing off my coverage of the comic I wanted to make sure I showed you a bit of everything and up to now I haven't scanned in any of the letters pages. A couple of years previous to this I'd collected Wildcat. You can read about it in my original Beyond Oink! post and it's a comic I'll definitely be covering in the same way as Ring Raiders once I complete the collection. What I never knew until recently was they were both edited by Barrie Tomlinson. It's clear to me now when I look over the pages of reader content and what the readership was asked to send in, as they've basically both got the same ideas. Short stories, plane designs (when the Ring Raiders were in charge) or weapons designs (every other issue this is what Skull Squadron were looking for), recruitment drives and action scene drawings. Each guest hero or villain would introduce the issue even though this was in the second half of the comic, but this was the done thing at the time and they'd offer up different prizes for different entries, either a Battle Blaster Sound Machine or an aircraft set.
I never got around to sending anything in even though I'd made a habit of it with comics by this stage, but then again this one just didn't last long enough. I particularly liked the fact Skull Squadron would give readers an extra 5 words to write their story with! I think that's what I was planning on doing:
|Barrie always liked to involve his readers in more|
original ways than simply letters
The penultimate tale this issue is part six of the eleven-part Trackdown from the keyboard of Angus Allan and the inks of John Cooper. On the tail of Skull Leader Blackjack, Wing Commander Thundercloud can't shoot him down for fear of setting off the stolen Doomsday Device and for the same reason the device can't be beamed aboard the Ring Raiders' Air Carrier Justice. It seems all the Skull pilot has to do is wait it out, but suddenly he dives and stands his Harrier jet on its nose:
|Dramatic sky-high action was always the|
order of the day
In the toy line and already established in the comic last time, Blackjack can remotely control his jet. In this day and age of full-scale drones in wars and those silly driverless cars it's easy to forget this was something incredible in the late 80s, even more so than K.I.T.T. in Knight Rider. A remote controlled jet! The maniac tosses out the pilot of the biplane and takes his young son hostage, although he does tell him his dad had a parachute in order to get the kid to shut up. The blackmail then comes from Scorch himself to the Ring Raiders; "Your tame redskin (ouch!) stops following Blackjack - or else he rolls the boy out!".
Thundercloud's predicament is a particularly horrible one I have to say. He either follows the Harrier with the device onboard and abandons the boy, or saves the boy and the Skulls get the Doomsday device. In the end he makes the hard choice, it's the future of the world against one boy's fate and he announces over the airwaves he's going after the Harrier. The 'Raiders are horrified but can't think of there being any other choice. In the final panels Ring Commander Vector asks the professor, creator of the device, what would happen if they beamed the device on board and at the same moment took the Air Carrier Justice into the far distant future to try to save the people of earth. The cliffhanger gives us no answer other than possible suicide on the part of the Ring Raiders and, while saving present day earth, the destruction of whatever future population they transport to.
Can you imagine my reaction in not knowing what was going to happen next in a fortnight? Now, in hindsight it does make for phenomenal reading having all of the remaining five parts in the Special to come, but at the time this was unbearable. Believe me when I say the unpublished #7 would've had the single most exciting piece of strip action I'd ever have come across. You'll see what I mean in February.
A SUDDEN ENDING
As I mentioned above (and as you'll see in the final scan below) the 'Next Issue' boxes were still present but blanked out, although in some cases you could still just about make out what they said, adding to the frustration because what they were promising wasn't to arrive yet. Also, on the letters page Wraither talks about the next issue in a fortnight's time and the comic was still asking for contributions. But when I scanned the pages in the newsagents this stuck out like a sore thumb:
|Crushed. This last minute announcement was in place of|
the Next Issue panel and only said "they hoped" to produce
a special, so this was far from confirmation for me!
At the time I refused to believe it was due to bad sales with the way the first sentence was worded and over the course of Christmas my parents kept clippings from newspapers etc. talking about the mini-planes on rings being a huge hit with toy shops across the country. It just didn't make sense to me. Now of course I know the toys were successful that Christmas here in the U.K., but they were an American brand and there (and elsewhere) they'd unfortunately not proven themselves against the competition. The American cartoon series never got passed the five pilot episodes and a lot of the planned bigger pieces of merchandise (which I'll show you in the New Year) didn't come to fruition. That doesn't mean some smaller things didn't make it to market though and you can see the wide selection that was available in my original post from two years ago.
Ring Raiders felt like a very British product in much the same way as my brother's collection of Matchbox toys based on British cars and trucks felt, which might account for how well they did here, but even then the comic faced issues. As Barrie has said in his book Comic Book Hero comics of the day were failing no matter how good a quality they were. Television and the new videogames were replacing comics in the eyes of many young people and indeed my own first computer would see me go the same way in 1991. Comics publishers were also releasing titles based on nearly every new toy or cartoon product out there in order to make sales! For a market already facing decline, it was spreading itself too thin and so no individual comic made a sizeable enough amount of sales to keep going.
By 1989 and the time of Ring Raiders publishers had become more ruthless and if a comic wasn't a runaway success straight away it was canned. With this being a British comic and the toy proving popular with British kids that Christmas, would it have been a different story if it had been allowed to continue until the New Year with all those potential new readers joining in the aerial fun on Christmas Day? Or if it had launched in January 1990 in the first place? We'll never know. As it turned out a second (and I found out recently, even a third) series of planes, bigger bases, new merchandise etc. made their way to the shelves over the course of the next year. But by the time Christmas 1990 came around the whole range was discontinued.
After Christmas I still received some new toys right up until the beginning of the summer but I stopped just before the second series came out. Still full price I remember, so they were still selling among collectors. The comic, then Christmas and the big bases I received, then the Special in February all kept me very much in that world but I was soon moving on to the next big thing too. If the comic had continued I know that wouldn't have been the case. I'd loved it that much and the comics of other toys kept me locked in for years!
WRAPPING UP THE RINGS
But ending it was and in the last issue I cut out the Ring Raiders Club coupon that had been in the pages since #3, thinking if the comic was ending at least this would be something else I could look forward to and hopefully have something to read. I never heard back. I asked Barrie recently if he knew anything about it, but as far as he's concerned this was run by Matchbox so unfortunately I've no information about it at this time:
|I will find out one day what this was meant to entail|
The issue was certainly never intended to be the last when being put together and that fact-file page I mentioned at the top was to be the first part of an ongoing series. As I've mentioned several times before it was amazing to see these teeny, tiny toy planes brought to life (as it were) as big, life-sized machines in the comic strips, right from that very first issue and Riley's dramatic plane crash. Now James Nicholas was going to be treating us to real-life photography and details of these aircraft every fortnight. At least, that was the plan:
|A great addition to an already great comic|
James' series would return in the Special and not long after Ring Raiders finished a new partwork appeared called Airplane which I bought the first dozen or so issues of. Whether deliberately or by coincidence, the first issues were all military craft which had featured in the Ring Raiders toy range and the comic, but it wasn't long until each weekly part was focussing solely on commercial airlines and I became bored and cancelled it. Hey, I was 12 years old!
So that's the extra features wrapped up and the comic as a whole. Just one more strip to finish both the issue and the run off with and, ironically it's a brand new story. Fans' favourite bad guy Chiller would make his return in the segments of the story still to come. He may not appear here but it was clear he was behind it from the moment I read the title and I looked forward to seeing what his plot was this time. It all kicks off with a somewhat familiar sounding cruise ship and its parent company, even its original port and destination seem to have been based on certain real-life events and as a native of Northern Ireland I particularly liked this little nod:
|Aha! Another anonymous toy plane pilot gets|
name checked, right in the final panel of the
final page of the final regular issue
It would end up introducing the Skull Squadron base for the first time in the timeline of the Ring Raiders pilots (even though we'd seen it already in the comic) and the timing would've been perfect for the Christmas issue and all those collectors opening it from Santa Claus. Written by editor Barrie Tomlinson himself and drawn by Carlos Pino, the team behind the previous Battle Zone '99 produced one of my favourite strips from the whole run and I've certainly fond memories of this particular tale in the Special. It was an intriguing start and with the shifting of strips, the new stories, new features and the all round quality of this issue, if it hadn't been for the abrupt cancellation I'd be saying this was the issue where a new found confidence came to the fore and it really started to take off after establishing itself. No pun intended. Much in the same was as #6 of Oink! in fact!
Before I sign off I just wanted to mention one little thing I've found particularly great recently.
As I've been reading and writing about these comics I've been posting up photos on my Instagram and it's been heartening how many people remember these toys, liked the photos or commented. (I even had one person on Twitter singing the theme of the cartoon and my most popular tweet I've ever written was to link to my video preview of the Ring Raiders Reference Guide!) Anyway, I've noticed just how many commercial pilots have been liking my photos, which can't be a coincidence. I like the idea of these little toys leading some to follow their heroes into the air...
For now, look out for a special interview in December with a Ring Raiders toy collector and in the New Year I'll be chatting with none other than James Nicholas himself before covering said Reference File and then the Special. I'm certainly not done yet with this superb comic!
More Ring Raiders coverage coming in 2018!