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 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…!”
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.
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.
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.
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?
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...
‘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 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.
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’.
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’.
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.
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!
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’ (12-pages)
(no.9 – November 1948) ‘SWIFT MORGAN: AND THE FEATHERED SERPENT’
(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”
‘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 COMIC’ new-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
‘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 COMIC’ includes “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:
‘DREAMBERRY WINE (August)’
(UK – August 2006)