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Friday, November 17, 2006

Richard Jennings

I've been doing some research for work into... ah, but I don't want to spoil it. Anyway, one of the alleyways I wandered down was the old Eagle strip, 'Storm Nelson', so I thought I'd jump ahead on my Swift Annual artists and see what I could find out about Richard Jennings, who was Storm's main artist for many years.

Richard Edward Jennings was born in Hampstead on 20 May 1921, and grew up suffering from asthma, although, as he later recalled, he still managed to scrape into the cricket eleven at school. At 16 he earned a free place at the Central School of Arts, although he was only two years into the course when the Second World War broke out. Jennings was keen to get into the Air Force but was grounded due to poor eyesight. He was shipped out to the Middle East where he worked with Air/Sea Rescue.

Back in civvies, he received a grant to continue his education but, having enjoyed the experience of travelling, he "packed a rucksack and hit the road," first working as a fisherman, spending his spare time painting murals in a boathouse. The owner of a large brewery saw these paintings and hired him to travel around Devon decorating pubs and small hotels. "That was living it up!" he later recalled. "With my paints and brushes (and dog!) chugging about on my old mo'bike -- and getting paid for it!"

After nearly two years he returned to London and, whilst delivering some artwork to an agency, he bumped into an artists' agent who broke the news that a new magazine called Eagle was just about to be launched. Jennings took over the 'Tommy Walls' advertising strip that appeared in colour on the inside back cover, his first episode appearing in Octoebr 1950. "From the start I was fascinated by Tommy Walls, wretched boy! He did all the things I knew I could do, if only I could get enough Walls Ice Cream!"

Jennings wrote many of his own scripts and remained on the strip for three years. In the early 1950s, Jennings was married. "My poor wife soon discovered that she'd also married TW... I even had to take my work and Tommy with me on my honeymoon! Of course there were many problems, mostly concerned with deadlines and printing dates, often working through the night on alterations -- all artists on Eagle were up against this problem of deadlines, and it is said that a small 'plane was on 'standby' to rush a Tommy Walls episode to the printers. True or false, I don't know."

In 1953, Jennings was offered a new strip: "Then came an idea from our brilliant editor, Marcus Morris. He called in Guy Morgan, the senior script writer of a famous film studio, to produce a new adventure series. I was asked to do the artwork and 'Storm Nelson' was launched. My experiences in Air/Sea Resuce during the War were a great help -- though I remember a furious letter from a retired Admiral. 'Damnit, Sir, don't ya know how an aircraft carrier should be moored!?!' In spite of his diagrams and the passing of years, I still don't know -- mooring aircraft carriers was never my strong point!"

Storm Nelson was a maritime adventurer whose adventures took him around the world. Launched on his first adventure on 2 October 1953, Storm would keep sailing his ship the Silver Spray through the pages of Eagle until 3 March 1962, with Jennings taking only a nine-month sabatical in 1955-56. After a while, Guy Morgan (writing as Edward Trice) left the strip and Jennings once again took up his pen to write the stories as well as producing the artwork.

"I acquired an old tub of a boat which, by coincidence, was already named White Spray. With the salt spray in my eyes, I kidded myself that I was Storm Nelson! Years passed and S.N. sailed on as the old Eagle suffered take overs and machinations of rival publishers." Eventually, a new editor put paid to Storm's adventures.

Jennings had also been drawing other features, including 'Seeing Stars' for Eagle, 'The Fighting Tomahawks' for Junior Mirror (both 1954), 'The Further Adventures of Robinson Crusoe' for Swift (1957-58) and various contributions to Swift Annual. Jennings also shared some of the duty drawing the advertising strip 'Adventures of the Bovril Brigade' (1961) with Frank Hampson.

With the end of 'Storm Nelson', Jennings switched briefly to scriptwriting only, adapting 'The Lost World' from the novel by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle for artist Martin Aitchison; he returned to drawing again with 'Island of Fire' which ran in Eagle between July and October 1962. After exactly twelve years on the paper Jennings found himself out in the cold.

He spent a year drawing 'The Daleks' for the back page of TV Century 21 in 1965 but drifted away from comics. "FOr 18 months [I] worked as a long-distance lorry driver. Not very exciting but I was broke! I took my ancient jeep up to the Yorkshire Dales where I travelled around painting pub signs and portraits. Obviously trying to recapture my youth!"

Jennings, with the assistance of his daughter, retired to Cornwall where he continued to paint and studied Eastern philosophies. He died of pneumonia at Camborne, Cornwall, on 19 January 1997, aged 75. He was survived by his daughter Ceilia who travelled back from New Zealand to be with her father in his last days. He was cremated at Kernow Chapel, Penmount, Truro, with one of his unfinished paintings.

Thankfully, Jennings was one of the handful of Eagle artists who was aware of the appreciation fans had for his artwork. He attended the Eagle Convention in 1980 where he was presented with an award from members of the Astral Group at the Convention dinner. Fifteen years later, he was invited by Howard Corn to pen a biographical article for Eagle Times (from which much of the above information has been drawn).

(* The Storm Nelson pic above comes from vol.4 no.31 (6 November 1953) of Eagle and is © Dan Dare Corporation Ltd. Some additional pictures can be found here, including some scans from an original 'Storm Nelson' board.)

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