Saturday, 11 November 2017

RING RAIDERS #5: JUST TAKE MY (PARENTS') MONEY

<< GO TO ISSUE FOUR

This was the only issue of Ring Raiders which ended up going walkies somewhere between 1989 and the time I read them again a few years back.  I was finally able to track it down on eBay in a bundle with the first three issues and I'll admit it cost a pretty penny.  But it was worth it to complete the collection (except for the preview issue which I didn't know about at the time, but have now acquired).  Or at least I kept telling myself that as my cursor hovered over the 'Pay Now' button on PayPal.  Now the wallet has recovered I can say it definitely was:

Like becoming reacquainted with an old friend

My favourite Skull Squadron plane makes it to the cover, with Skull Leader Mako's Mig-29 toy having a superb looking shark motif and anyone who knows me will tell you how obsessed I am with sharks!  The 'Sea Hunter' however had already proven its water wings to us readers in #2's story featuring a pre-Ring Raiders Victor Vector, so the question on the cover was kind of moot by even this early stage.  A shame really as I like the possibility of a mystery angle to this, but as a kid it felt like we were in on the secret, so to a young me this cover was like a cheeky nod to the readers that the Ring Raiders themselves may not even know the answer yet.  Either way, whether Mako was indeed blasting out of the ocean or whether he'd just performed a manoeuvre close to the water, Ian Kennedy's cover is just gorgeous.

I love the details of the cockpit, something which the toys didn't have, as well as the rough cross-hatching in his background which adds a lovely illusion of texture to the smooth glossy cover.  Ring Commander Kirkov's F4 'Comet' can be seen too and inside they'd face off against each other in the final strip, although disappointingly not above water.  Again, it was down to the pin-up to give us the tale behind the cover but in all honesty Ian could've painted whatever he liked as far as I was concerned!  Showing off a different character's aircraft each issue not only produced a superb work of art, it would also have been a great way of advertising the toy line over the run of a successful comic.  Let's open up and see what's happening inside.


NEW TOURS OF DUTY

Battle Zone '99 is the first of two strips to conclude this issue, which was exciting news!  The next issue would be the first time we'd have new serials since all the current ones began and as a fan I looked forward to seeing many new scenarios, never knowing when each new story would appear.  It felt like it was the next stage of the comic, settling in to a mixture of new and ongoing tales at any one time just like the comics my friends collected, such as 2000AD.  Little was I to know!  But back to the current issue and Barrie Tumlinson's tale comes to a strange little conclusion here.

After the seriousness of the submarines and the death of so many sailors, the story ends on a comedy note instead.   Chiller has summoned his Wing through the time portal to rescue him before he's stranded.  But when one of his (unnamed) wingmen lands Chiller knocks him out cold and ties him to the rear of the plane!  It's mentioned that it's a single-sea cockpit, so why did this plane land in the first place and not one of the others?  Or would there have been room anyway, so in that case why did Chiller do this?  But I'm thinking about this too much, the whole story was very much a plot-lite action-fest anyway and had been enjoyable.  More importantly, as a kid I found this funny.  But as an adult I must begrudgingly admit this finale hasn't held up too well.  Especially artist Carlos Pino's wingman!:


Carlos' character work had been grand up until now.  While not as detailed as the likes of John Cooper's or Don Wazejewski's they suited his bright strips very well, but it appears as soon as he didn't have a toy line face to work from that he didn't really know how to portray another Skull.  The line work to establish facial features or even the flight suit just aren't there for this one character.  Strange indeed and I have no idea why it ended up like that.  The story itself ends much like 80s cartoons did so at the time it was fine, but now it feels a bit out of place compared to the kind of action and less in-your-face humour evident elsewhere.  But it's still nice to have the variety of styles.  The team of Barrie and Carlos would return next issue for the replacement strip and I remember it being really rather good!

Next, Skull Leader Blackjack and his Harrier 'Battle Bird' lie in wait for new characters Freddie Riley (the Ring Raider wingman to Commander Joe Thundercloud) and his own Wing's unconscious Runtz in his attempt to steal the Doomsday Device.  As Riley's stolen helicopter lands at the pre-determined locale, Thundercloud lies in wait to take the device safely to the 'Raiders HQ Air Carrier Justice in his F-86 'Arrowhead'.  However, able to remotely control his Harrier, Blackjack springs the trap, Riley and the Prof are beamed to safety, and we see the story effortlessly transition back to the named characters from the toys in part five of Trackdown:

My favourite strip changes its line-up

If I'd known in advance Trackdown was an 11-part story and the fun new character of Riley wasn't going to be in the rest of it I may have felt cheated at the time.  To build up a new creation like that, just to have him replaced with the already established Ring Commander?  I may have felt that way, but when reading the story and seeing it happen this never occurred to me; it just felt like the natural way for it to go.  The device needed secured and a Mountain Ranger helicopter was always going to be temporary, with the plan to meet up with Thundercloud of paramount importance in previous issues.  It's a story which genuinely feels like it's developing and building upon itself each issue and has been masterfully planned out and written by Angus Allan.

After the above (dramatically drawn as ever by John Cooper) Blackjack knocks out Thundercloud, steals the device and takes off (vertically as Harriers do, which I still think to this day is awesome in the real world), abandoning Runtz.  Thundercloud awakes, gives chase but can't shoot him down for fear of activating the device.  Asking for assistance from the Justice, Ring Commander Vector tells him they can't, it's too dangerous to use the beam on the device if shot down.  With Riley and the Professor in the background Vector tells him they have no idea what to do.  It's an exciting cliffhanger and the story just gets moreso next time!

A FLASH OF INSPIRATION

Scott Goodall's complete tale this issue focusses on the Skull Leader star of Bomber Blues which also finishes this issue.  Hubbub, Skull Leader of Rebel Wing has already shown off his electrically-powered guns in that story but here we learn of how he came to love shocking his enemies.  Originally the owner of a rigged slot machine parlour he thought he was a tough guy, emperor of his own little empire.  But when he's robbed at gunpoint in his office we (surprisingly) see how much of a coward he actually was in the days before Skull Squadron.  Having no luck with the police who don't care about taking care of a crook, Hubbub's contacts in Chicago's rough South Side (I just love the little details in the character backgrounds in these stories) is able to pass on rumours of what the next target will be.  Hubbub lies in wait in a dumpster every night for a week outside a diamond merchant's until finally they turn up.

Hitching a ride secretly on top of their van he's soon discovered just as they're about to make their escape in their private jet, threatening to throw Hubbub out at thirty-three thousand feet without a parachute.  Done for, a flash of inspiration hits.  Literally:

John Gillatt is back on drawing duties this issue
after Geoff Campion's guest appearance last time

What's especially nice here was that he'd served his country in Vietnam.  At the start of the story he mentions he'd done so and then made his way back to Chicago to open up his gambling den.  There's some nice hints in the story that Vietnam damaged him in some way, as a lot of heroes (and villains) in 80s television and film had been, but this was the first time that background had made its way into my comics and, by being an official licenced product, into my toys as a child.  All of these little details building up, reading these back now it's all the more heartbreaking how these characters didn't get to flourish in a long-running comic where all these characteristics could be revisited in dramatic story moments.  It wouldn't be the last time the ghost of Vietnam would be felt in Ring Raiders either.

But let's not dwell.  As mentioned above Bomber Blues, written by James Nicholas and illustrated by Don Wazejewski, also concludes this issue and is a rather sudden ending while not feeling rushed.  Hubbub's wingman has ejected from his plane and it's crashing right towards the Rebel Wing leader.  Wing Commander Cub Jones can't let this happen though, it's not what the good guys would do after all; they capture, not kill.  So instead he blasts the crashing aircraft into pieces before it can take out his sworn enemy:

A refreshing take on an actual 'code' for the good guys...

I really like this.  It shows more of the code of the 'Raiders and it's refreshing to read this today after years of our heroes blasting the villains into oblivion.  While Knight Rider, The A-Team etc. would also capture their bad guys, Airwolf would simply blast them out of the sky every week, but even then we saw Stringfellow Hawke have a form of mental breakdown in the third season about all those he'd killed in the line of duty.  Those sorts of code don't seem to apply anymore to many movies and TV shows, even those aimed at families.  I'm not wanting to sound like an old curmudgeon, I'm not!  I'm not saying we should go back to the way it was in the 80s and we shouldn't (I'm not in denial about the world changing) but I guess it just adds to the feeling of nostalgia these comics have brought with them.

But then that all comes crashing down (pun very much intended) with the very next page!:

...hmm, then again.

So after saving Hubbub, Cub then blasts his wingman's jet over the airfield?  Yes, the pilot escaped as Cub would disable the craft in such a way that he could still eject, but he almost kills all of those men on the ground.  If there'd been any form of apology or acknowledgment of this being a mistake I'd forgive it, but there's not.  So it's a strange set of events I must say.  The story ends with Hubbub's one remaining wingman telling his leader to grab onto a wing to get them out of there, only for Hubbub to drag him out of the cockpit to take over (sound familiar?).  He then abandons him in the timezone as he warps out after being tricked into a failing air manoeuvre by Jones.  Without even landing (probably because he almost killed them), Cub sets off himself and radios the men on the ground to say he'll be back when he's needed in the war.  With Cub having originally been beamed aboard the Air Carrier Justice during this time, this affinity with the pilots of World War II would've been something I'd like to have seen return at a future point.

CHRISTMAS 1989 AND BEYOND!

Okay so before the final strip here's our fortnightly look at the advertisement for the Ring Raiders toys the comic's team produced and it's my favourite one yet.  No, it doesn't have the beautifully drawn human characters from Sandy James this time around, it's my favourite purely for nostalgic reasons.  When I turned the page and saw this I looked at each photo and thought "Oh, I had that... and that too... oh and that!... flip me, and that too!...".  I'd forgotten just how many Ring Raiders toys I'd had!  In fact, I had every single thing on this page:

There are collectors out there to this day tracking
all of this down

My poor parents.

After I bought my first couple of planes in a starter pack during the summer, I was bought a couple of Wing packs and then visiting family from Scotland also generously brought with them a special, giant Commanders set which had four Wing Commanders from each side.  There were a few different ways to collect these planes, the idea being you could end up swapping doubles with friends to complete your collection.  For Christmas I can clearly remember opening the boxes of the three bases above (although my Sky Base Freedom had been made from the same mould as Sky Base Courage, just painted a different colour) and over the course of the next half a year or so I'd add the rest.  Very happy memories of that time, especially Christmas, only marred slightly with the knowledge the comic had already finished.

Below you can see the pin-up for Skull Leader Mako I mentioned up at the top of this post.  It would appear the run-in Ring Commander Victor Vector had with Mako in #2 wasn't concrete proof after all.  Which is strange as, while Vector had originally "believed" the airplane was capable of it, what happened certainly seemed like concrete proof; he saw it dive underwater and resurface moments later after all.  Maybe because the proof wasn't recorded his claim was discarded?  But in the cover story here it simply states no one had yet discovered the truth, so perhaps it's just a slip in the editorial continuity perhaps?  I did say it was too soon in #2 to have a 'Raider see it happening, it would've been much better as a "secret" for the readers.  I'm not sure why that decision was made in that issue or indeed here, but it now appears Mako's arch enemy Kirkov "came closest" to affirming the truth about the specially adapted Mig-29 craft:

The two-tone pin-ups were certainly eye-catching

Finally for this issue Mako and Kirkov are back at it again in part five of Tom Tully's Freedom Flight and the final fight for the future of the South American country is upon us.  With Mako leading the rebel planes and easily taking out the government's defensive forces all the Ring Raiders can do is watch all hope disappear from the ground.  The fort, the last line of defence and the central hub of this whole story is on its last legs and can't take much more.  Kirkov was shot down but, using the power of his own body channelled through his ring, managed to land safely.  Now, using that same ring he's patched into some local transmissions of the battle.  This isn't explicitly explained other than to say he's doing it with "the mysterious power of his flight-ring".  I'd guess the idea was that the equipment being used in the abandoned airfield was capable of doing so but had no actual power supply.

Sandy James once more brings solid action to the comic

Desperate to get back into the air he checks in with the government forces working on his F-4 'Comet' and they've been able to repair the fabric of the craft but are lost when it comes to the hydraulics and the flight controls.  Again, Kirkov uses the power of the ring to "tidy up the loose ends".  For the computerised controls I can understand this in the same way as the transmitters I mentioned above, but not for the hydraulics.  Surely damage to them wouldn't be about power supply but rather a physical problem, and sticking his hand inside the plane somehow fixes them just enough to get airborne?  It's a strange one and unfortunately we'll never know how this could perhaps have been explained in a future issue, with the next being the last of the regular run.

For now Kirkov discovers one of his men, Baker, has been shot down and his other wingmen didn't see him bail out.  We're left to presume one of the 'Raiders has been successfully killed by Mako as they fly to a three-on-three battle for next issue.  Speaking of that next issue Trackdown would pull out all the stops over the rest of its story, with #6's cliffhanger being a particularly frustrating one for a final issue!  The wait for the Special next year would be worth it though and I'm really looking forward to re-reading the second half of this superb, epic tale again (it would've carried on all the way through to #11 remember):


That's us for now.  The final issue of Ring Raiders would see the comic go out on a tremendous high and I'm eager to get stuck in, so check back in a fortnight for what promises to be a somewhat bittersweet post.

My very favourite regular issue lands on the blog on Saturday 25th November.

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