Sunday 24 February 2019

Comicbook History: 'SWIFT MORGAN'


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

“Chin Up Silver! We’ve Got Out Of Other Tough Spots…!” 

The 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 garish 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, vivid Sci-Fi spectacle is 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 (sic) territory at terrific speed.’ In his comprehensive ‘Encyclopedia Of Comic Characters’ – while noting Swift Morgan as ‘the most popular space hero of his period’, Denis Gifford takes time to point out the ‘unchartered’ blooper in the opening text-box. Nevertheless, crash-landing in a strange jungle realm the intrepid pair soon find themselves imperilled by prehistoric orange-and-green monsters. Blonde rugged Swift exclaims ‘By the…!’ – self-censored by three dots, ‘a flesh-eating tyrant dinosaur!’ – as in ‘Tyrannosaurus Rex’? It’s 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.

Swift may have been something new, but the derivation of his name is not too difficult to determine. There was always the American ‘Flash Gordon’. Think 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 20 May 1937. But the war years, and paper rationing intervened – an extinction event for so many magazines. It was not 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 15 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 work for 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 this new breed of British Space Hero? For Denis McLoughlin there were two distinct cultural traditions to draw from, with a clear transatlantic divide, interacting and feeding off each other. It’s worth remembering that Science Fiction – going back to Jules Verne, was a European invention. More specifically, from HG Wells on, it was British. So its picture-strip counterparts took their tone from those more measured text-based scientific speculations. That remains 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 triumph over adversity.

Britain launched its own first SF magazine with a juvenile slant, the twenty issues of the short-lived weekly ‘Scoops’, as early as 1934, spaced between 10 February and 23 June. With giant rampaging robots and futuristic cities, it announced itself as ‘Stories Of The Wonder-World Of Tomorrow’, with serialised 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.

Meanwhile, Hugo Gernsback’s earliest New York-based forays into SF magazine-publishing drew heavily on Verne and Wells original material, before evolving its own distinctive school of American fantasists. While American picture-strips took off by following the Edgar Rice Burroughs’ fantasy model, then by mutating it into the super-hero genre. So Americans already had Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, and Brick Bradford. For British SF strips, still finding their feet, there’s obviously got to be genre family-tree material there. But, because trans-Atlantic connections were not so immediate back then as they are now, and new fads travelled in distorted ways, taking on localised influences as they did so, there were other elements adding their inputs too.

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 had been 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 Morgan, 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 this is a H Rider Haggard ‘She’-variant hidden realm – echoing ‘Scoops’ contributor Conan-Doyle’s ‘Lost World’, or a portal through time 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, because 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’.

Swift and Silver 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, in their next tale, they’re off by submarine to Atlantis via the Canary Isles. ‘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. Their location is precisely pinpointed – Latitude 26N, Longitude 15.10W to be exact, for the convenience of expeditions yet to be mounted? Meanwhile ‘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). 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 broadcast and spin-off movie role-model – Carson, ‘The Best in Illustrated Detective Fiction’, 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...

‘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 his acceleration towards escape velocity may have been boosted by the supernova explosion of Dan Dare over at ‘Eagle’, launched just four months earlier (14 April 1950). So does that render Swift Morgan’s first-Brit 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 press-cutting from the ‘Daily Mail’. A detailed report of recent UFO sightings appendaged to the art, datelined ‘New York, Tuesday’. 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’. And 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. If Kids couldn’t relate to spaceships, they knew what the streamlined rocket images of the V2 look like.

The artwork uses a single colour-tint, which fortunately happens to be red. So that ‘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 one of those canals to Martinia, city of Emperor Meturas. Again, there is treachery. Secret Police Chief Staren is in league with invaders from Saturn, and he uses 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 Emperor 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,’ concedes the wise Emperor. Vindicated, and with Silver’s rescue accomplished, the courageous Earthling co-ordinates the planetary defences. Until ‘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. It’s 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 too – or, this time, the Saturians, in ‘The Robot Empire’ when Dictator Sol dupes the newly discovered planet Mekka into forging an alliance in order 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.

And the planet-hopping continues. 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 Strang, a barbarian of the saurian Booloo Tribe, 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’, 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.’ With spot-illustrations by Ron Forbes, the artist responsible for early ‘Captain Condor’ art in ‘Lion’, the text is credited to James Hart. There was a James Hart who published a few low-key SF tales around the time. Was it the same man? History is not exactly clear about these credits. Swift is 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! And more ‘unchartered (sic) territory’.

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-1950s. His decline eclipsed by more famous Space Heroes with more ambitious colour-art, higher-profile distribution, and yes – superior tales. There were to be no revivals or reinventions. 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. What happened to Swift and Silver afterwards? We can but speculate. She was never the pushy Miss Peabody scientist type. Did they marry and set up that little homestead on the Syrtis Major Planum irrigated by the sweet meltwaters of a nearby canal, and raise strange children? I’d like to think so. We’ll never know.

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. As a child, I collected them, and loved them, especially the features on what we’d now term Native American history and culture. Although he was also responsible for painting the full-colour covers for as many as 700 paperback and dust-jacket novels, Cowboys and Romances. His art adorns 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 picture-strip 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 story-arc that begins in ‘Thunder’ (1970-71), then – following a merger, continues in ‘Lion’ (1971-72). The ‘family’ consists of escaped performance-beasts from Downer’s Circus, and the charismatic Fury who is able to speak the beast’s language in eloquent speech-bubbles declaring ‘Murb thoora jooka nij prakka!’ McLoughlin’s penmanship brings the characters to life, Chieftain The Lion, Rajah The Elephant, and a giant gorilla. Another much-admired strip carried by McLoughlin art is X-Agent ‘Jake Jefford’, whose Secret Service adventures begin with ‘Sign Of The Shark’ running in ‘Wizard’ from 14 June 1975-77. So he was working for both IPC and DC Thomson, for ‘Victor’ and ‘Bullet’, for ‘Warlord’ as well as the pocket-sized ‘Commando Library’.

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!


(No.2 – March 1948) SWIFT MORGAN: IN THE LOST WORLD3d ‘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.6 – July 1948) SWIFT MORGAN: AND THE ANCIENT EGYPTIANS(12-pages)


(no.16 – June 1949) SWIFT MORGAN: IN ATLANTIS’ 

THE SUPERCOLOURED COMIC ANNUAL no.1 (Moring/ TV Boardman – 1949) includes text-story “Swift Morgan: And The Antarcians”

(no.30 – August 1950) SWIFT MORGAN: AND THE FLYING SAUCERS (12-pages)

THE SUPERCOLOURED COMIC ANNUAL no.2 (Moring/ TV Boardman – 1950) includes previously unpublished “Swift Morgan: And The Knights Of The Round Table” and text-story “The Fortress Of Phantoms”

(no.38 – April 1951) SWIFT MORGAN: AND THE GREEK WARS’ 

SUPERCOLOURED COMIC ANNUAL no.3 (Moring/ TV Boardman – 1951) includes only Denis McLoughlin spot-art for text stories featuring ‘Roy Carson’ and ‘Blackhawk’

(no.50 – March 1953) SWIFT MORGAN SPACE COMICnew-format 6d ‘POPULAR PRESS’ 28-page with colour cover and black-and-white interior, includes “Planet Of Destiny” (16-pages) – ‘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”, the story opens ‘the year 1948, a flash high in the sub-stratosphere’ and a King-size monster grows in the African jungle. Art: Denis McLoughlin Story: Colin McLoughlin. Later reprinted in ‘GREAT BRITISH FANTASY COMIC BOOK HEROES’ (Ugly Ducking Press, 2011 Edit: Phil Clarke and Mike Higgs from ‘Blasé Press’, Hazelwood, Birchfield Rd, Redditch B97 6PU

THE ADVENTURE ANNUAL no.1 (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 and 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

(no.54 – 1954) ROY CARSON COMICincludes “Swift Morgan: On The Isle Of Giants”

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

see also THE COMIC ART OF DENIS McLOUGHLIN no.1: A COMICS MONOGRAPHS SPECIAL ISSUE(2007) 96-pages, includes ‘Swift Morgan And The Ancient Egyptians’, ‘Swift Morgan And The Flying Saucers’, ‘Swift Morgan On The Planet of Destiny’, ‘Swift Morgan And The Robot Empire’, ‘Swift Morgan And The Beast from Outer Space’, ‘Sam English: Museum Rover’, ‘Roy Carson And The Old Master’, ‘Roy Carson At The Festival’

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).

Revised and extended version
of a feature originally published in:
(UK – August 2006)

1 comment:

Mark Pontin said...


Scriptwise, the porridge of tropes and dodgy planetary science that are the mainstays of Swift Morgan, Space Kingsley, Captain Condor, et al, are all over almost all the Rick Random and Space Ace stuff, too. And why not? It's the late 1940s-50s in Britain.

But Rick Random and to a lesser extent Space Ace soar where Swift Morgan plods. And the critical difference, of course, was and is Ron Turner, who -- how strange to think about it this way, but there's no other way to put it -- was a great artist and visionary of the future.

It wasn't the future we got, of course. But while, for instance, those Turner spacecraft with the plating lines visible wouldn't actually have been feasible, one still feels they _should_ be.