NICK SWIFT OF
THE PLANET PATROL
‘SPACE, DETECTIVE, TRAVEL, FOOTBALL
AND WAR-TIME THRILLS –
‘ADVENTURE’ HAS THEM ALL’
(‘Adventure’ no.1466, 21 February 1953)
But soon Clarke was also there under his own name, contributing an article ‘Is Space Travel Possible? It Certainly Is!’ for the 1953 ‘Dan Dare’s Space Book’, illustrated by the influential Chesley Bonestell. Clarke also continued anonymously as a guiding force behind ‘Professor Brittain Explains...’ an illustrated facts-and-information column with educational texts on radar, telescopes, X-Rays, and Deep-Sea Diving. There were also text ‘Biggles’ tales by celebrated writer Captain WE Johns. Neverthless, it was the debut of ‘Eagle’ that switched the emphasis of boy’s adventure comics decisively away from dense pages of prose towards vivid picture-serials. With the glossy high-quality artwork of Dan Dare as the poster-boy of the new revolution.
So far, so promising. But actually, the strip appears in that curious hybrid form with rows of square-box speech-bubble-free illustrations with numbered text-boxes below running a full narrative commentary. In the evolution – some might say ‘devolution’ from solid-text to picture-strip format, it was most definitely a brief half-way house transitional stage. And, unlike the innovative colour-detonations splashed across ‘Eagle’ covers, the art-style for ‘Nick Swift’ is restrained and naively conventional. Even clunky. Their stubby red snub-nosed PP41 rocketship with its curved fins, ‘its rocket engines belching long tongues of flame through the astral void’, is clearly modelled on those in Dick Calkins ‘Buck Rogers’ strips. But they use an imaginative array of futuristic weaponry, such as solex-rays, Z-guns, neurite tube-guns, ray-rifles that touch off a lethal stream of electrons, and Nick’s ‘pellet-sized atomic grenades’ which cause ‘little or no explosion, but the charge of released neutrons blasted the (target) into instant senselessness’.
But first, the opening panel sets the scene. ‘At 100 miles per second the rocket-ship Planet Patrol 41 hurtled through space on one of its routine flights. With ten million miles of space-ways to patrol, the Inter-Stellar Police had no easy task. It took the toughest and smartest of men to hold down the job and the crew of PP41, led by Lieutenant Nick Swift, was reckoned to be the finest bunch of cops in the whole of the universe’. They answer an SOS from the small planet Draco where an Earth weather-station has come under attack from giant apemen. Where Draco is supposedly located is never quite clear, but shortly afterwards the hulking Sygno and ‘his savage mates looked up to see PP41 swishing in to make a landing’. After the Space Cops’ ray-guns swiftly quell the attack, they chain Sygno and prepare to take him to Mars where ‘a spell in jail will teach him not to make attacks on weather-stations’. After all, how dare a native species have the temerity to oppose human imperial expansion across the galaxy? But as Nick skilfully navigates the ship around Meteorite Z9 where ‘chunks of molten matter were continually being flung into space’, Sygno exerts his superhuman strength to break free. In the ensuing tussle ‘with no-one at the controls, the space-ship swings off course towards the exploding meteorite…’ and the plot momentum gathers.
Soon, the Spaceways cops are speeding to confront green-hued Venusian slave-trader Vaska and his evil scientist ally Terro, who are kidnapping Altairians to work his asteroid plutonium mines. ‘I’ll get that rat yet!’ grits Nick as he faces ‘The Menace Of The Phantom Globe’ and ‘The Torture Of The Petrifying Death’ in his battle with the ‘Lawless Bandits Of The Cosmos’. The exploit continues on Mersa, capital city of the nine moons of Jupiter where Nick assists King Soltan to triumph over his evil rival Narka – who is in league with Vaska’s pirates, in a quest to find the nine missing jewels of the State Crown. As Vaska operates from his giant orbiting spacecraft-carrier, there’s a final double-panel space-battle over the city of Ulid on the moon Fragg. It closes an episodic tale – made up of at least three distinct stories within its arc, and if it’s occasionally rather silly – especially the over-extended ‘living statue’ sequence, it’s relieved by humour such as Nick riding a flying bicycle through the skies of Mersa. But Nick will return, after a well-deserved break, the following year.
Again there’s a segmented story-structure. First, fed up with their period of leave, the four members of the Planet Patrol join elderly bearded research physicist Professor Cavendish as bodyguards on his expedition to Veerdon, the Peril Planet. Major Mann’s briefing warns them that it ‘lies in the zero belt, so beware of aerial ice-bergs’. This turns out to mean avoiding – or blasting their way through a ring of ice-asteroids, then gliding in for a safe pancake landing on the hazardous, but terraumin-rich world. ‘Hey, come and take a squint at this!’ says Nick as they look out in awe over the ‘grotesque rock shapes and weird tropical growths’. Then the ship is encircled by a hideous alien serpent. Nick uses the 200,000-volt asteroid-repeller to give its writhing coils ‘a hot reception’. With oddly coincidental timing, a terraumin tower they’ve spotted begins spitting ‘a deadly hail of rockets’ to bombard London.
‘Let’s get cracking – pronto!’ urges Nick, and they drive an amphibious mobo-sledge, braving attacks by a giant shaggy apeman, a monster crocodile, and a tregosaurous to reach the ‘roman candle’, use rotor-packs to descend into its nerve-centre and arrest the dwarf-aliens responsible. Pausing only for a football game on prison asteroid Astrid, and tackling a flock of giant eagles menacing astro-messengers, they’re off to investigate the disappearance of planet Terro. Tracking the deadly green ray to Frankel ‘the planet of the dead’. ‘Thick banks of mist ahead of the speeding machine parted to show the cruel outline of Frankel’s needle-pointed peaks’. They locate and short-circuit the beam-gun just as Vaska ‘arch-criminal of the universe’ – for it is he, targets Earth. A ‘blinding flash of light ripped apart the dark void’ and its curtains for Vaska and his planet… or is it?
We of the twenty-first century might have witnessed figures moving on a lunar landscape not unlike the one the uncredited DC Thomson artist visualised. But a funny thing happened to us on the way to that future. Their future happened. If not always exactly in the way they envisaged.