It's with great excitement that I welcome back the Ring Raiders and the Skull Squadron to the blog, almost with the same level of excitement as I had when this fell into my lap back in February 1990. Quite literally. I was quietly sitting watching some Saturday morning children's television when one of my parents arrived back from getting their newspaper and magazines and threw this down on top of me. I was overjoyed.
While the last issue of the comic had stated the team hoped to put together a special to wrap up the stories begun in the fortnightly, I expected it to appear in April around the same time as the Oink! Holiday Specials did during (and after) its run. So this was a very pleasant surprise and, after flicking through the big chunky comic and becoming quite overwhelmed with the sheer amount of Ring Raiders comic strip inside, I ran to my room, dug out my comics and read them all over again before settling down with this special 64-page final edition. I was not to be disappointed, other than to once again lament the cancellation of a comic that deserved much better. The comic I'm using here for scans and photos is the actual copy I received that day, so excuse the creases, this was read an uncountable about of times back in the day!
MORE IAN KENNEDY (NEED I SAY MORE?)
To begin with we've got two fantastic Ian Kennedy covers for your peepers. I assume these were for the next two issues of the comic, #7 and #8, with the front cover sporting a bold new colouring for the title logo. Was this a sign of what was to come? Was each issue going to add a different colour scheme to Ring Raiders' title banner? The back cover here has the same artwork but a different colouring again for the title, for example. The cover is a dramatic image of Skull Leader Chiller's F-104 'Ice Machine' nose-diving on two unfortunate military men, then on page two there's this beautiful painting of Ring Commander Salty Salton taking off from his World War II aircraft carrier in his F-4U Corsair 'Sea Dragon', complete with heroic pose:
As with the regular comic these aren't entirely representative of any of the actual stories inside, rather they're showing off the kind of aircraft and action contained within, but usually with a character who is featured inside to some degree. Certainly, both characters appear inside, Salty as a guest character who comes to the rescue at the end of Trackdown, while Chiller is once again the main protagonist in Operation Chill.
A CHILLING CONCLUSION
This story only began in #6 with the disappearance of a few hundred British schoolchildren from a cruise ship and Max Miles' Bravery Wing coming under attack from a mysterious source over an iceberg-laden ocean:
Written by the comic's editor Barrie Tomlinson (you can read my interview with Barrie here) and drawn and beautifully coloured by Carlos Pino, the 'Raiders have discovered one of the icebergs floating peacefully is actually packing quite a beat of heat. It's another story which also named one of the anonymous pilots from the toy range and for what would've been a 5-issue tale we were introduced to Frank Turner, whose Mirage was shot down at the end of #6. His wingmen are forced to take evasive action when a fierce wind blows him into their path, their jets then in turn forcing him down on top of the mysterious 'berg. Under attack from Skull Squadron gunmen we get to see Frank use one of the Rings' other features at long last:
It was clear there was more to this block of ice than met the eye and after using his Ring to send a telepathic message to his commander (pre-Bluetooth days folks) explaining he'd found the kids there's a sudden movement on the ocean surface. The ice was beginning to come to a halt in the current somehow. Even stranger, it was shrinking!
MERRY CHRISTMAS FROM MATCHBOX!
This story would've been published between issues 6 and 10, and #8 would've went on sale on 23rd December 1989 making it the Christmas edition. This was the first festive season for the toy range and whether by chance or by design the comic ended up revealing one of the most sought after toys in a most brilliant, and rather sinister, way:
Yes the Skull Squadron base had been seen in an early part of Trackdown already and that story was set in 1990, but we're dealing with time travel throughout this comic. Trackdown may have happened before Operation Chill in linear time, but for the characters in that former story they'd travelled back in time to 1990, to a time when no one knew of the 'Raiders and their mission. Operation Chill, while set in an unspecified year, has mention of the NYPD beaming newspaper stories aboard the Air Carrier Justice so it must be set at least in the late-90s, which was when the toys stated the force was assembled. It's also when the Skull Squadron revealed their new flying mobile base in the timeline of the characters, with Trackdown happening later in their own timelines but in the actual past. (Doctor Who fans will be used to this kind of thinking!)
Of course I could be reading too much into this, but if the comic had continued it would've been really interesting to see more of the timelines of the characters being told out of sequence for its readers to piece together themselves. There's a fantastic story taking up most of the second half of this special which travels much further back in time but focusses on events which led to the very formation of the Ring Raiders centuries later. It certainly makes me think of just how much of a detailed history (and future) was being built up already and how it all could've developed much further over the years. Not bad for a comic based on little toy planes, eh?
The rest of this story sees Frank captured and put on ice (literally) and Chiller takes on the remaining three jets of Bravery Wing on his own. Little do they know of his new ice weapons and he soon takes out two of the planes, the pilots ejecting at the last moment. I've only noticed reading through this issue now how the lettering changes somewhat for this last part, clearly being finished by a different person than the previous chapters. There's also a couple of instances where the artwork for Chiller's F-104 looks almost unfinished. Now it could simply be that he's far away, but given how the Skulls' base and icebergs are also meant to be that distance away it does look a bit off. Here's one example of the couple of times this happens in these final three pages:
With it all coming down to a dogfight between Chiller and Miles, the latter does the "very last thing he'd (Chiller) ever expect" and lands on the runway of the newly revealed HQ. Chiller obviously calls his skeleton crew out to take on Miles as he exits his plane, not knowing the SR-71 'Knight Fighter' has a concealed single under-nose cannon which he uses to blast the gangways above the exit used by the gunmen:
Taking out the remaining guards in hand-to-hand combat he then jumps into one of the base's cannon housings and blasts at Chiller who ends up with a damaged plane and hightails it out of there. With the school kids rescued and Turner thawing out in a hot bath (really), it's intriguing to see the Skull Squadron's base now in the hands of the Ring Raiders! Since it's appeared in other stories with Scorch et all at the helm it's clear they must steal it back again somehow but, unfortunately due to the cancellation of the comic, it was left up to fans to imagine how that would've played out with their toys. As we did.
TRACKING DOWN EXCITEMENT
Speaking of the base being back under the control of Skull Squadron and acting out scenes with our toys, it's time to move on to the second story from the special and my very favourite of the entire run of the comic; the epic 11-part Trackdown from writer Angus Allan and legendary British comics artist John Cooper. After the 12 pages of Operation Chill it was time to settle down to 20 pages and 5 parts of this tale which, when read altogether as one 48-page adventure really summed up the potential of this fantastic comic. My excitement as a kid couldn't have been at a higher level after reading these following pages and what would've made up #7's episode:
From Blackjack's characterisation and quips with the young boy he's kidnapped, to his second thoughts on following through with his threats and Scorch's blatant disregard for the kid's life, it built up superbly to that action scene which had 12-year-old me thrilled to bits! I may not have had a toy plane to chop in half but you can bet I often reenacted the piggy-backing in those final panels with my small Matchbox toys. I'm sure I wasn't alone. Yes it's all rather far-fetched but within the world of a time-travelling airforce using rings to help combat the enemy it all works perfectly.
RINGING IN THE THUNDER
Blackjack's Harrier was in an auto mode and cruising in a straight line and it'd keep that going without new instructions, so for Wing Commander Joe Thundercloud to get that Doomsday device out of harm's way he'd have to use the power of the Ring. Regular readers will know the Ring uses the central nervous system of its wearer to create extra power for their aircraft, such as when a plane is badly crippled and the pilot needs something extra in order to regain control and land safely, or to give a blown jet engine just enough juice to get it airborne again. This was seen on the blog in the post for #4 for example in the story Freedom Flight. But these main features always took their toll on the pilots and were only ever designed to be used for very short periods of time or else they'd black out and lose complete control, something seen in one of the episodes of the cartoon series.
Below is the sequence when Joe uses his ring to try to get the Harrier and its deadly cargo out of harm's way. For a youngster reading about their new heroes it was all rather dramatic, imagining the "howl of the overstretched engines" and Joe's own scream as the Ring takes its toll from expending what the airplane needs:
He had indeed disappeared and ended up in the age of the dinosaurs. The Rings used a mental connection with each individual wearer and plane, so Joe's thinking and his desire to get the device as far away from the population kind of backfired on him! What's more, after the sudden and unexpected time travel, an exhausted Joe found he couldn't hold his plane aloft much longer and ended up plummeting into a nose dive, the Harrier still on his back:
A moment's reprieve only leads to bigger problems. Reading through this now I can imagine the impact this ongoing story would've had on my younger self, reading each 4-page instalment every fortnight, witnessing the situation just get worse and worse for the 'Raiders, all hope lost over and over again. (It was certainly exciting when I read it all together back then.) I'd been reading Transformers from a year before Ring Raiders appeared on the shelves but still the stories here seemed to have a bigger impact on me. Looking back I can theorise as to why. Perhaps because Transformers was already established as a hugely successful franchise, containing many universe-spanning storylines with out-there characters my friends were already invested in. Whereas here was something new, with actual human characters flying realistic-looking craft (albeit it with the sci-fi liberally added on top to give the title its unique angle), but more than that I'd discovered them myself.
I'd joined in from the very beginning. I saw these characters come to life from the word "go", saw the simple drawings on the toy packaging come to life in the comic and witnessed the potential new franchise start to establish itself. Eventually I came to love the Transformers characters just as much but it took a little longer to get to know them as they'd been established long before I'd joined in. With Ring Raiders I'd been there when the figurative blank slate was first drawn on, I'd made a connection with this comic and I can't tell you how crestfallen I was when it was cancelled so early. I understood why my friends were so heavily invested in their Transformers characters!
BIGGER THAN EXPECTED CLIMAX?
With the Doomsday device at the bottom of a massive lake, nowhere to land and the Skull Squadron closing in, Joe makes a last desperate attempt to use the remaining amount of energy he has to contact the Air Carrier Justice and call for reinforcements. I loved the way John Cooper would draw something disappearing or reappearing, such as the bi-plane above and now the massive carrier:
Able to land and refuel both the airplane and himself, Thundercloud and Vector discuss blasting the cliff face side of the lake so it would drain, then they'd be able to get down and recover the device from the sunken Harrier. All goes to plan and, with the crater created and Joe returning to base once more the day seems saved at last, until an explosion rocks him to his core and out of the glare of the sun comes Blackjack, superbly realised by Cooper here:
What an atmospheric and foreboding entrance. Great stuff!
Joe's wing leaps into action to protect him but Blackjack is not alone and his own team are soon running interference. But when I say he's not alone I mean it! This penultimate chapter sees a full-on assault from the combined might of Skull Squadron on the forces of the 'Raiders, penning them in and unable to take off and aid Joe in the mission:
The action seen in this story's final two parts, which would've been in issues 10 and 11, was the kind of high-flying, high-octane stuff fans of the toys longed to see, with one-on-one dogfights, crash landings, full-on assaults, team fights and at the centre of it all were two characters driving the story forward. The story was never forgotten for a single page, never sacrificed to show off the action and with the Ring Raiders kept busy Blackjack was able to hover his Harrier (something I was always fascinated about with that particular real-life jet) over his downed one and recapture the Doomsday device as you can see above.
From here it's stolen back ingeniously by Thundercloud who uses the laser in his Ring to snap the cable between Blackjack's plane and the device, then again used all his own internal strength to "grab" it from thin air and pull it into his cockpit, sort of reverse-engineering the power of the Ring we've seen in previous issues. His strength gone, he almost crash lands, then Blackjack (after getting attacked by a dinosaur!) homes in and sets himself up to land and easily beat the weakened Joe into submission and claim the prize. Thankfully Salty Salton flies off from the Air Carrier Justice against orders and, using the manoeuvrability of his F-4U Corsair (see the inside cover at the top of the post) is able to get himself away from the battle and save the day, firing upon Blackjack's cockpit and wounding the man himself who then takes off and escapes.
All that's left is for Salty to link Rings with Joe, using some of his own energy to replenish his comrade's. In hindsight not only is it a fantastic climax to Trackdown, but a worthy climax to the comic as a whole, even though that was never the intention obviously.
It's a superb story which I did say had everything back in my very first post about the comic back in 2015. In fact, now I've covered the complete tale here's what I said in that introduction to Ring Raiders:
"Trackdown features the Air Carrier Justice beaming half a bi-plane onboard to rescue a young boy after it's deliberately broken in half by a jet, a Skull Squadron plane flying by remote, that same plane being balanced precariously on a Ring Raider jet by the power of the Ring and nearly draining the pilot of his life in the process, a time travel jump to the age of the dinosaurs and the evil Blackjack's plane skipping across a lake and sinking in the climax. When listing all of that in such a way it may sound like it's a matter of throwing everything at a story for the sake of some random action for the kiddies, but I have to say it all works! There are reasons for all of this and it all develops out of the characters themselves and the situations they place themselves in, perfectly demonstrating the scale of the comic's potential. Not bad for a licenced title, eh?"
No, Phil from 2015, not bad. Not bad at all.
STILL TO COME
That's the first half of the comic (well, two pages over the halfway point) covered. There's still another 30 pages of goodness still to come, with 20 pages of my second favourite story, the lore-heavy Castle of Doom and then the final part of the colourful Freedom Flight. This is then topped off with the last character profile tale, this time centred around the latter's main 'Raider, the Russian defector Yuri Kirkov in an eerie Vietnam tale. I'm going to miss these characters so much, all over again.
The second part of this final edition of Ring Raiders will be appearing on the blog soon.