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Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Mike Western (1925-2008)

Sad news reaches me that one of the giants of British comics has laid down his pen for the last time. Mike Western died late on Tuesday, 13 May, at the age of 83. It's no secret that I was a huge fan of Mike's work and over the last few months had begun putting together a new edition of The Mike Western Story.

Mike's career as a comics artist dated back to the early 1950s when he began working on Knockout at the suggestion of Ron Clark. The two had met at GB Animation in Cookham where Mike had worked as a clean-up artist. After the demise of GB Animation, he worked for Anson Dyer Studios and on the Hallas & Batchelor production of Animal Farm.

After leaving GB Animation, Ron Clark had established himself at Amalgamated Press as a script writer and sub-editor, teaming up with Eric Bradbury (another former GB Animation artist) and inviting Mike to submit samples. It wasn't long before Mike established himself as a first-class adventure artist, quickly losing the rough edges and initial nervousness seen in the Western strip 'Lucky Logan', on which he alternated with Bradbury. In 1954 he graduated to his first solo strip, 'Johnnie Winco', the flying adventures of an ex-RAF pilot working for a small airline company, which ran for six years, and proved so popular it was Knockout's cover strip from 1957.

A change of direction in 1960 led to Mike seeking work on TV Express where he drew 'No Hiding Place' and (in colour) 'Biggles', both based on popular TV shows of the day. In 1962 he began drawing for Buster and, a few months later, for the newly launched Valiant, a paper he was to be associated with for the next 13 years. In 1964 he drew 'The Wild Wonders', the story of two young brothers who had grown up on a remote island with only animals for company who, when discovered, proved to be champion athletes. The mixture of action and comedy kept the strip running for a decade during which time Mike also drew countless covers, fill-in strips, annual and summer special stories and was often called upon to establish characters for new papers.

With the Wild Wonders he developed an attractive cartoony style which was the perfect visualisation for Tom Tully's scripts. It was, however, a style that was much copied (a result of Mike being asked to produce visuals and first episodes of new strips) and which some felt was old-fashioned at a time when comics were struggling against falling sales.

Valiant changed editorial hands in 1975 and, not long after, folded. After a nervous few months, Mike re-established himself in Battle Picture Weekly, reverting to the more realistic style of his early strips. This suited the grittier storylines now being produced and many would argue that his finest work appeared in this later period: 'Darkie's Mob' (1976-77), 'The Sarge' (1966-78) and 'HMS Nightshade' (1979).

Mike switched back to sporting stories in 1980 with the launch of Speed which proved short-lived before merging with Tiger where Mike spent some years drawing 'Topps on Two Wheels'. Tiger merged with Eagle where Mike was best seen on 'The Computer Warrior'. For Roy of the Rovers Mike drew 'Billy's Boots' for four years before landing the 'Roy of the Rovers' daily strip for the Daily Star (1992-93).

Retiring, Mike was able to concentrate on painting, which he had done intermittently over the years. Landscapes and local characters sold well. His last strip (which I'm pleased to say I had a small hand in) appeared in a magazine promoting theatre entitled Theatre Mask in 1997-2000 and he continued to produce monthly illustrations until 2003.

Eagle Flies Again published a tribute issue to celebrate Mike's 80th birthday in 2005; sadly, he suffered a heart attack in 2007, followed by a stroke, which meant he was confined to bed during his last few months, looked after by Enid, his wife of 56 years, and children.

I had the great pleasure of corresponding with Mike for some years although constant deadlines and various changes of circumstances meant that I'd not been in touch for some while. Now comes the sad news that Mike has died and I'm sure you'll all join me in sending his family your best wishes. Mike still has a lot of fans and, whether he realised it or not—and I hope he did—he brought a lot of laughter and thrills into our lives through his work.

(* My thanks to Enid and Pete Western for the photos of Mike, seen in the 1940s and 1980s; the column header was an illustration Mike did for the second edition of The Mike Western Story in 1992; the first encounter with the Wild Wonders is from the opening episode in Valiant, 28 March 1964, © IPC Media; the opening page from 'HMS Nightshade' is from Battle Action, 6 January 1979, © Egmont UK Ltd.)

10 comments:

Rufus Dayglo said...

Steve, this is very sad news. i worked with Pete, Mike's son in animation.

Mike was one of my childhood heroes, and I was so honoured to correspond with him.

If you can, please forward me an address to send a card to.

Yours, rufus

crow said...

That is such sad news.

I first became aware of MW's work in Battle. He was a great adventure artist and his war stories had a starkness and grittiness to them that made them 'feel' quite real.

To me, Darkies Mob was the pinnacle of his career. Surely, it's time for someone like Titan to re-publish this strip?


Thanks for everything Mike!

Lew Stringer said...

Very sad news. I loved the clarity of his artwork and his bright distinctive style. Those many Valiant covers he did had excellent composition too. A true giant of British comics.

bristle said...

Thank you for the rich tapestries of movement and expression you laid out across my weekend's reading, which sucked me deeper into the stories.

Thank you for the grit and the realism you threw onto your pages, which made me believe in the action you captured.

Thank you for throwing your eye around your subjects like a camera on a crane, which opened my eyes to seeing a story from a different perspective.

Thank you for smearing my hungry fingers with so much ink, so much thick black ink!

You have given so many people you have never met so much pleasure, so to you we raise a glass in thanks, in salute, in remembrance :-)

jon haward said...

very sad news ,mike is one of my all time fav british comic artists , he made a 10yr old boy cry when darkie died in the jungle way back in the 70's i loved his style and he could draw anything from humour to action to drama ,very sad news but he leaves us all wonderful memories and his fantastic art .

Chris Weston said...

Bummer.
Mike Western was a great artist, vastly underrated. There was so much life and dynamism in his art.
I'm truly saddened.

Ciaran said...

Genuinely sorry to hear this.

Mike Western, along with the late Joe Colquhoun, John Cooper, Jim Watson, Carlos Pino and Geoff Campion, was one of my favourite artists growing up, mostly on Battle-Action. I can still remember some self-portrait he did for Battle, complete with pipe in mouth. He always brought a great energy to his pages, Darkie's Mob (such a sad and moving end to that story that sticks with me still) and H.M.S. Nightshade stand out in my mind, and could be picked out a mile away. I'll have to check and see if I've still any old Battles around, just to remind me of the good old days.

RIP, Mike, and thanks indeed for everything. I can't put it better than 'bristle' did above. Nicely phrased, sir.

Ciaran said...

P.S. I wouldn't be certain that it's entirely legal, but you can read all of Darkie's Mob, right up to the very end, over at http://bestofbattle.sevenpennynightmare.co.uk/strips/darkiesmob/darkieindex.htm

Peter said...

Steve - thanks for this marvellous obituary to my Dad and thanks to everybody who has added their own tributes to Mike.

He would have really appreciated all these kind words.

Pete Western

Anonymous said...

As a young boy Mike Western Darkies Mob brought so much joy every week as I would draw the most adventures moments of the story and keep them in a sketchbook there are still there.
Even looking at my drawing skills today at 43 there is still some of Mikes style in them.

Brendan Rowland