Saturday, 29 January 2011

SWIFT MORGAN: FIRST COMIC-STRIP BRIT IN SPACE!



‘SWIFT MORGAN’
:FIRST BRIT IN SPACE…?

He was Britain’s first genuine picture-strip SF Hero –
his adventures launched in far-off 1948, visualised by
the legendary Denis McLoughlin. Now – for the first time,
ANDREW DARLINGTON explores the full, complex,
and fascinating history of ‘SWIFT MORGAN’...


‘FAST ACTION IN THE WORLDS OF THE FUTURE’
“Chin Up Silver! We’ve Got Out Of Other Tough Spots…!”

A roundly solid blue spaceship with galleried nacelles and screaming rocket-thrusters lifts off from a cratered lunar landscape as it’s simultaneously ray-blasted by a stubby red assailant slashing in from the right-hand stratosphere, all set against the glaring orange disc of a rising ringed Saturn. That’s the eye-grabbing cover of the ‘Swift Morgan Space Comic’. It’s impossible to visualise now how breath-catching that vivid image must have been at the time, first glimpsed across the counter of the newsagent’s kiosk. The lure of interplanetary strangeness, the prospect of bizarre new worlds, the hideous threat of combat beneath the lurid swirl of alien constellations. Today, it’s everywhere. Then, in the drab austerity of the post-war years it provided the promise of shiny new futures luminous with wonder.

Denis McLoughlin’s ‘Swift Morgan’ was Britain’s first Science Fiction picture-strip hero, as early as 1948. There was no ‘Dan Dare’, not yet. No Captain Condor, Jeff Hawke, Jet-Ace Logan, or Jet Morgan. Swift was something new. ‘Swift and Silver, aboard a new rocket air-ship, are in grave danger when, out of control, their ship plunges towards a lake in unchartered territory at terrific speed.’ Soon the intrepid pair find themselves imperilled by prehistoric orange-and-green monsters. ‘By the…!’ blonde rugged Swift exclaims (self-censored) ‘a flesh-eating tyrant dinosaur!’ (as in ‘Tyrannosaurus Rex’?). Dramatic stuff, and a thrilling visual debut for a six-year series of occasional comic-books that take Swift from adventuring in lost prehistoric worlds, across the solar system in his ship – ‘the hornet of the spaceways’, to Mars and Jupiter, and beyond.’ Denis Gifford, in his comprehensive ‘Encyclopedia Of Comic Characters’, also takes time to point out that ‘unchartered’ blooper in the opening text-box.

Swift may have been something new, but his derivation is not too difficult to determine. Think ‘Flash Gordon’. Flash=Swift. Gordon=Morgan. Alex Raymond’s hero and his outlandish exploits on the planet Mongo had reached British comic-book readers through the full-colour back page of ‘Modern Wonder’ as early as 20th May 1937. The war years, and paper rationing intervened, until low-budget independent publisher TV Boardman took advantage of the lifting of paper-restrictions to launch a new series of two-tone photogravure titles aimed at thrill-starved post-war youth. Piloted by the art-skills of a young Denis McLoughlin. He was born 15th April 1918 in Bolton where he won an art-scholarship, he graduated into Mail Order catalogue illustration-work and hence, aged just twenty, to TV Boardman who were then busy reprinting American cartoon-strips in licensed UK editions, the art and covers requiring subtle tweaking into their new format. Although he also contributed to pioneering Lad’s-mag ‘Stag’ and woman’s journal ‘Minx’, as well as other publishers, he was subsequently contracted to Boardman for twenty years (his contract coming up for renewal every three years!), with his bold uncompromising art soon forming a distinctive part of their visual identity, clear through to the company’s eventual demise in 1967.

So what are the defining characteristics of the British Space Hero? Americans already had Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, and Brick Bradford. And there’s obviously got to be family-tree material there. But there were other elements adding their inputs too. And after all, trans-Atlantic connections were not so immediate back then as they are now. New fads travelled in distorted ways, taking on localised influences as they did so. And it’s worth remembering that Science Fiction – going back to Jules Verne, was a European invention. From HG Wells, more specifically, it was British. Later, Hugo Gernsback’s earliest New York-based forays into SF magazine-publishing drew heavily on original material from such writers, before evolving its own distinctive school of American fantasists. Meanwhile Britain was launching its own first SF magazine, the short-lived weekly ‘Scoops’, which arrived as early as 1934 (with twenty issues spaced between 10th February and 23rd June) announcing itself as ‘Stories Of The Wonder-World Of Tomorrow’, serialising text-stories by Professor AM Low (‘Space’), Arthur Conan-Doyle (‘The Poison Belt’), GE Rochester (‘The Black Vultures’), plus others of the calibre of John Russell Fearn. Later, ‘Modern Wonder’ also used Fearn’s text-fiction. So there were two distinct cultural traditions to draw from. It’s generally agreed that American picture-strips took off by following the Edgar Rice Burroughs’ fantasy model, then by mutating it into the super-hero genre. While its British counterpart, by contrast, took its tone from those more measured text-based scientific speculations. That remained true of Dan Dare, whose creative team even recruited Arthur C Clark as scientific adviser. Just as it’s true clear through to Judge Dredd. Its protagonists have no super-powers, they are ordinary men placed in exceptionally hazardous circumstances, in a recognisable universe that conforms to the hard laws of physics. They must rely instead on their heroic courage, fighting skills, and ingenuity to succeed.
Perhaps Swift Morgan is a more modest variant, true, but he has the excuse that he was the first. Check out Denis Gifford’s wonderful ‘Space Aces: Comic Book Heroes From The Forties And Fifties!’ (Green Wood Publishing, 1991). Denis – who once ran the 1952 ‘Space Patrol Official Handbook’, knows his stuff. And yes, there were previous inept one-offs, some of which – like Nat Brand’s ‘Crash Carew: Daredevil Of The Stratosphere’, almost achieve lift-off as examples of early fantastic strip-fiction. But Swift, in his neat red skin-tight one-suit and boots, is the first to survive into a distinctive series. His opening run of adventures sees him and partner Silver involved in the discovery of ‘Lost Worlds’ – Ancient Rome, Ancient Egypt, and up the Osumacinta River to a Lost City of the Incas. With limited space for plot-development the plunge into action is instantaneous. ‘Swift and Silver are exploring some ancient Egyptian tombs with a party of scientists when they get the urge to do a little exploring of their own. After leaving the main party they get lost in a maze of underground passages where Swift finds a door hidden in the rock walls. Pressure causes it to swing open and Swift and Silver pass through into a long corridor. They have gone but a few paces when the door closes behind them…’ All of which occurs in the opening panel! Already they’re thrown into a ‘Lost World’ of Ancient Egyptians. It’s not exactly clear whether it’s a H Rider Haggard ‘She’-variant hidden realm (echoing ‘Scoops’ contributor Conan-Doyle’s ‘Lost World’), or a portal into the past, as used by Leigh Brackett’s Matt Carse who takes a ‘few paces’ through time into the aeons-old prehistory of Mars in ‘The Sword Of Rhiannon’. It seems to be the former, but our dynamic duo ‘journey by chariot through Egyptian cities of long ago’ to Memphis where they get entangled in dynastic struggles across an epic scale. In a hidden world? Pharaoh Topi is assassinated by his vile High Priest Uni, in traitorous alliance with the evil Usek. But Swift assists Queen Nofret and young Prince Piop to escape on her royal barge. ‘As dawn breaks over the red sandstone cliffs at the edge of the desert Swift sees another sail in the distance’. His inventive naval strategy manages to outwit the pursuing war-galley, and they reach Armarna, from where they unleash their counter-attack, despite Usek’s men kidnapping Silver and chaining her decorously to the wall of the Temple of Rameses. In a final wide-screen battle between rival armies Prince Piop kills Usek – ‘the youth has the strength of a lion’ and the rebellion is crushed. As he prepares to leave, Swift suggests ‘you should seal the exit to our world, for our world would spoil yours’. Leaving the hidden realm intact. It’s a fairly detailed plot, and within the obvious schedule and format-limitations McLoughlin seems to have researched his illustrations above and beyond the call of duty. The war-galley, the temple interior, and Usek’s Memphis court are pretty damn impressive. And to clarify things, the lovely and courageous platinum-blonde Silver in her fetching figure-hugging Dale Arden-style tunic, rescued from certain death in each tale, is eventually identified in story no.2 as Swift’s fiancée. And to an enthusiastic Denis Gifford this ‘well-drawn, well-endowed young lady’ is ‘a pin-up in the best ‘Planet Comics’ tradition’.

They pass through a similar portal into the ‘Greek Wars’ while visiting an ‘Olympieian’ temple in the ‘colourful capital of Greece’, having been chosen with other ‘famous athletes to take part in the Olympic Games’. The Greek triremes they find there are equally well-observed, executed with a bold sureness of line, highlighted by dramatic cross-hatch shading. Then they’re off, by submarine via the Canary Isles, to Atlantis – Latitude 26N, Longitude 15.10W to be exact, its location precisely pinpointed (for the convenience of expeditions yet to be mounted?). ‘I’ll put her into a dive and we’ll explore the bed of the sea’ announces Swift, adding ‘we are too near the rock for safety’, ‘Do you think we’ll make it?’ gasps fair-haired Silver. Well – yes, the odds are favourable with her dashing fiancé around, ‘while their friend Professor Pickering is hoping to find some traces of Atlantis in the (Sahara) desert’. In these early issues McLoughlin alternates Swift’s adventures with those of ‘Roy Carson – Special Agent’ (1948-53), ‘The Best in Illustrated Detective Fiction’. Inspired by the near name-alike radio celebrity of ‘Dick Barton – Special Agent’, Roy opens for business in his own two-tone comic-book ‘Smashing the Crime-Wave’ in 1948. But unlike his broadcasting and spin-off movie role-model, Carson is a hard-boiled ‘tec of the Yankee mean-streets school accompanied by Silk, his sexy blonde secretary (who closely resembles Silver!), pitted against a bizarre series of villainous opponents ranging from the bird-costumed Condor to the masked Cheetah, Queen of Spies. Dialogue is supplied by the artist’s brother, Colin McLoughlin. Their work-load increases as, from August 1949, Denis is also illustrating ‘Buffalo Bill’ for TV Boardman too, beginning with the ‘Buffalo Bill Meets Yellowhand’ story...

‘WITH A TERRIFIC ROAR THE ROCKET
LEAVES ITS LAUNCHING PLATFORM…’
‘An article in the American magazine ‘True’ claims that
eight months’ investigation has shown that ‘flying saucers’
reported seen in all parts of the world were ‘space vehicles’
from another planet which has been watching the Earth…’

Swift Morgan first enters real interplanetary dimensions when brother Colin scripts a twelve-page journey to Mars for ‘Swift Morgan and the Flying Saucers’. Admittedly the acceleration towards escape velocity may have been boosted by the supernova explosion of Dan Dare in ‘Eagle’, launched just four months earlier (14th April 1950). So does that render Swift Morgan’s first-man claim invalid? I think not. Comic-book readers had already become familiar with his fantasy exploits, even when they occur in Lost Worlds rather than Outer Space. All the SF characteristics are already in place. Sure, there’s a collusion of influences. But the evolution is natural and smoothly accomplished. The opening panel is stylishly paper-clipped with a ‘cutting from the ‘Daily Mail’ appendaged to the art, datelined ‘New York, Tuesday’, detailing reports of recent UFO sightings. Swift and his silver-haired companion are testing Professor Dwight Mooney’s experimental super-jet aircraft over White Sands, New Mexico when they’re buzzed by ‘strange saucer-shaped objects’. Silver is abducted by midget Martians. Fortunately Professor Mooney also has an experimental rocketship, a ‘giant machine looking rather like a V2’ – this, after all, is within years of World War II when Von Braun’s doodlebugs were raining death on London. Kids could relate to images of the V2. ‘Two hundred and fifty days later, and the red planet is very close.’ ‘So this is Mars’ announces Swift. ‘Yes, and I see the canal theory is correct’ adds the Prof. The explorers are taken by canal to Martinia, city of Emperor Meturas. Again, there is treachery. Secret Police Chief Staren is in league with invaders from Saturn, using a supposed threat from Earth as a diversionary strategy.

The following interrogation panel manages to infiltrate a neatly-subversive Cold War moral. ‘Staren reported explosions on Earth as you prepared to attack us’ accuses Meturas. ‘They would be atomic explosions your majesty, which I regret to say we caused for the sole purpose of killing each other’ explains Swift. ‘Atomic bombs! of course. We Martians too, at one time, were barbarians.’ Vindicated, and with Silver’s rescue accomplished, the courageous Earthling co-ordinates the planetary defences. ‘A week later, the point of attack planned by the Saturnites is flooded from the canals and Martian troops are waiting’, the invaders are comprehensively vanquished. Not great SF, but – admit it, fairly inventive for its time, if a little scientifically eccentric. ‘Saturn is a planet of sand with no water, therefore the invaders can’t swim. Sometimes damp atmosphere will kill them!’ A planet of sand? Even a ‘Planets Of Our Solar System’ fact-file in the ‘New Spaceways Comic Annual’ admits that Saturn ‘is nine times the size of the Earth and is covered with many miles of ice and therefore there is no likelihood of any life existing’. But in those distant pre-probe years Saturn is also listed as having a mere nine moons.

For Swift Morgan, there will be more voyages across the ‘wastes of space’, that ‘airless freezing dark void with brilliant constellations and planets on all sides’. There are more problems with those troublesome Saturnites – or, this time, the Saturians, in ‘The Robot Empire’ when Dictator Sol dupes the newly discovered planet Mekka into forging an alliance to conquer the Solar Federation using its ‘invincible robots’. After adventures on Saturn itself, and a trip to Mekka Swift exposes their evil machinations and convinces Emperor Markow to join the Federation instead. The planet-hopping continued. In ‘The Planet of Destiny’ the heroic duo have inexplicably morphed into Captain and Hostess aboard one of the spaceline’s largest interplanetary ships. But they find it a pleasant change to be ‘en-route’ for Mars in Swift’s specially designed minicruiser ‘Blue Light’. ‘We’ll soon be getting a nice space-tan relaxing on the artificial beach at Montula!’ enthuses Silver. Until an abrupt explosion trashes both their plans, and their mini-spacecraft too. Swift’s ship utilises tele-scanners and Stratio broadcasts, but inter-species communication is conveniently enabled by electronically-wired mind antennae. And in this way they learn they’ve become prisoners of malevolent Commander Tunis, ‘OC of all destinal research for Dictator Jodd of Jupiter’. ‘Oh Swift! Is – is it the end of the whole solar system?’ sobs Silver breathlessly. ‘Steady, Silver!’ he sensibly cautions. Finally, ably assisted by a barbarian of the saurian Booloo Tribe called Strang, they duly disintegrate the menacing artificial ‘Planet of Destiny’ and head for home aboard the spaceship ‘Observer One’.

Then, in the text-story ‘Swift Morgan And The Menace Of The Red Mists’, written by James Hart with spot-illustrations by Ron Forbes (responsible for the ‘Captain Condor’ art in ‘Lion’) Swift has become ‘the lean, keen-eyed, sun-tanned number one space pilot’ of the Planetary Patrol commanding Satellite Space Station X1 ‘far out in the stratosphere’. And he’s on a mission to rescue Professor Wallace from an ‘unmapped and unexplored’ Martian chasm ‘spoken of with fear by the aboriginal inhabitants of Mars that we found on our first landings’ – ah, that’ll be the UFO midgets then! In the ‘steaming jungle of death’ beneath the red mist they discover the besieged descendants of an original Martian race, ‘an advanced civilisation that flourished while we were still in the Stone Age’. With the Prof. rescued and the Martians saved, it’s home to Satellite X1. Then – in ‘Swift Morgan And The Pirates Of Space’, it’s across the ‘mighty near-vacuum of space’ (near-vacuum!?!) to apprehend cunning criminal Vorjak who has broken free from the Kosmos penal settlement. He takes over the human colony on Thanor, a ‘small new planet’, intent on using it as a base from which to wage a war of vengeance on Earth. Until he falls foul of the monstrous primitive beasts of Thanor, with Swift and Silver coming to a timely rescue. And eventually it’s ‘mission completed! All in the day’s work for members of the Space Patrol’.

In this tale, there’s a Federal Europe, a fairly prescient prediction for 1954. But Swift Morgan himself barely makes it into the mid-1950’s. His decline eclipsed by more famous Space Heroes with more ambitious colour-art, higher-profile distribution, and yes – superior tales. But Swift Morgan was the first picture-strip Brit in space. The first serial SF character. No-one can take that achievement away from him. Denis McLoughlin is now perhaps best-remembered for his highly-collectible series of thirteen ‘Buffalo Bill Annuals’ (from 1949 to 1961), beautifully illustrated with meticulously authenticated Western lore. Although he was also responsible for painting the full-colour covers for as many as 700 paperback and dust-jacket novels, Westerns and Romances, as well as a new edition of ‘Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde’ as early as 1946, plus TV Boardman’s ‘Bloodhound Mystery’ titles such as ‘The Canvas Coffin’ by William Campbell-Gault, plus books by Fredric Brown, Ed McBain, Jack Webb and Theodora DuBois. Later his distinctive artwork could also be found inking ‘Saber: King Of The Jungle’ who, with Umbala his Zulu companion, encounters lost plateaus, ruined cities and malevolently carnivorous plants (‘Tiger’ 1967-69, and ‘Vulcan’ 1975-76). ‘As proud and untamed as nature herself,’ any resemblance to Tarzan is, of course, purely deliberate. Then there’s the ‘Fury’s Family’ series, a ‘family’ consisting of escaping performance-beasts from Downer’s Circus, Chieftain The Lion, Rajah The Elephant, and a giant gorilla, a story-arc which begins in ‘Thunder’ (1970-71) to continue in ‘Lion’ (1971-72). The charismatic Fury is able to speak their language in eloquent speech-bubbles declaring ‘Murb thoora jooka nij prakka!’ Working for both IPC and DC Thomson, for ‘Victor’ and ‘Bullet’, ‘Warlord’ and the pocket-sized ‘Commando Library’, another much-admired strip to be carried by McLoughlin art is X-Agent ‘Jake Jefford’, whose Secret Service adventures begin with ‘Sign Of The Shark’ running in ‘Wizard’ from 14th June 1975-77.
Each of these – and many others that flowed from his prolific pen, have merit. But personally, I prefer to turn back to the ‘Swift Morgan’ adventures in ‘The New Spaceways Comic Annual’. Look at that cover! – see those three space-explorers in their shiny silver bubble-headed suits, one of them lushly blonde and feminine, retreating into their ship, one of them ray-gunning pursuing red-horned alien attackers – the Devil-Men of the Chasm of Red Mists, as another aquamarine spacecraft blasts on jets of crimson flame through the Martian skies overhead, who could resist? Certainly not me!

SWIFT MORGAN: STORY BY STORY…

(No.2 – March 1948) ‘SWIFT MORGAN: IN THE LOST WORLD’ 3d ‘TV BOARDMAN: ROTOGRAVURE SERIES’ of 12-page comic-books with two-colour covers and alternate cover-stars, no.1 Roy Carson, no.8 Buffalo Bill, no.11 Blackhawk, no.12 The Spirit
(no.4 – May 1948) ‘SWIFT MORGAN: AND THE ANCIENT ROMANS’
(no.6 – July 1948) ‘SWIFT MORGAN: AND THE ANCIENT EGYPTIANS’
(no.9 – November 1948) ‘SWIFT MORGAN: AND THE FEATHERED SERPENT’
(no.16 – June 1949) ‘SWIFT MORGAN: IN ATLANTIS’
(no.30 – August 1950) ‘SWIFT MORGAN: AND THE FLYING SAUCERS’
(no.38 – April 1951) ‘SWIFT MORGAN: AND THE GREEK WARS’
(no.50 – March 1953) ‘SWIFT MORGAN SPACE COMIC’ new-format 6d ‘POPULAR PRESS’ 28-page with colour cover and black-and-white interior, includes “Planet Of Destiny” – ‘Fast Action In The Worlds Of The Future’ ‘Two Complete Adventures In This Issue!’, the second is “Sam English: Museum Rover”, a new interplanetary adventurer based on the sub-tropical island of Mentos with his own sexy ‘Silver’ in the shape of Miss Vel Burrows
(no.52 – November 1953) ‘SWIFT MORGAN SPACEWAYS COMIC’ (Popular / Boardman) with “Beast From Outer Space”
(no.54 – 1954) ‘ROY CARSON COMIC’ includes “Swift Morgan: On The Isle Of Giants”
‘THE ADVENTURE ANNUAL no.2’ (1953) includes “Swift Morgan: The Robot Empire” set in the year 2102AD when Voss of the Saturn Secret Police kidnaps members of the Solar Federation Committee from Asteroid X, plus Denis & Colin McLoughlin’s “Roy Carson And The Old Master”, and non-Swift text-story “Operation Cataclysm” by Eric Leyland featuring Space Cadet Dick Benton on planet Uria
‘NEW SPACEWAYS COMIC ANNUAL no.1’ (Popular Press/ Greycaines – 1954) reprints strips “Swift Morgan: And The Flying Saucers”, and “Swift Morgan: And The Ancient Egyptians”, plus text ‘Swift Morgan’ stories by James Hart. Also other character strips, and Ron Forbes spot-art
‘SUPERCOLOURED COMIC ANNUAL no.2’ (Moring/ TV Boardman – 1950) includes previously unpublished “Swift Morgan: And The Knights Of The Round Table”
Thanks to Denis Gifford’s wonderful ‘Space Aces: Comic Book Heroes From The Forties And Fifties!’ (Green Wood Publishing, 1991), and his equally invaluable ‘Encyclopedia Of Comic Characters’ (Longman Group UK, 1987). Also to Steve Holland for his informative ‘Denis McLoughlin’ feature in ‘Book & Magazine Collector no.102’ (September 1992).

Published in:
‘DREAMBERRY WINE (August)’ (UK – August 2006)

2 comments:

peter hansen said...

For the most part Andrew I agree with your assertion that Swift was the first to have his own continuous series, however DC Thomson did run more than one space hero series in their boy's story paper comics prior to Swift hitting the newsstands. For some reason Dennis Gifford never really made much of an attempt to research the Thomson comics?

Peter Hansen

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