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Monday, March 23, 2009

The Origins of Thunderbolt Jaxon

Thunderbolt Jaxon was one of a number of characters revived by DC Comics in their Albion Universe line which appeared a couple of years ago. Much hyped, none of the titles performed particularly well and Thunderbolt Jaxon proved to be the least of them in sales terms despite having Dave Gibbons at the helm and John Higgins producing the artwork.

I never quite figured out why Thunderbolt Jaxon was picked for revival. Maybe because he was a typical superhero figure and thought to be a safe bet in the modern American comic book marketplace.

Beyond the name and the McGuffin origins of the character's superpowers—a mystical belt that belonged to Thor—there was nothing to compare it to the original strip. Beyond a certain naive charm, the original strips nowadays appear rather childish and obvious, the kind of strip where a crook is called Otto Krook. But you have to love a strip where crashes are accompanied by the sound effect "Crash!"—and other sound effects include the likes of "Zoom" and "Wheee"—and where people scream with the actual word: "Scream!"

However, put yourselves in the shoes of a young child in the year 1949, when adventure strips were primarily historical, Westerns and, occasionally, crime. Science fiction had yet to be discovered in any major way—Ian had landed on Mu in Mickey Mouse Weekly back in 1936 but there hadn't been many space-faring strips since. Some strips delved into the fantastic in a usually humorous way—The Beano had been featuring the time-travelling adventures of Jimmy Watson and his magic patch on his trousers for five years—but, apart from a few one-off strips in the post-war independents, you were still more likely to find an adaptation of a classic than a far-out vision of the future.

Superhero comics barely existed. Thanks to a ban on imports, British comics had been isolated since 1940 and developments elsewhere in the world, America especially, had almost no impact in the UK. Superman had briefly been imported (as were many US comics) as remainders in the late 1930s and had appeared (again briefly) in the pages of Triumph shortly before that paper became a victim of the paper shortage in the early months of the Second World War.

Thunderbolt Jaxon was almost unique in British comics in that his adventures were not initially aimed at British youngsters and the influences that shaped his development were due to events both here in the UK and half way around the world.

The paper shortage did not vanish overnight at the end of the war: restrictions on paper supply were still in place until 1950 as Britain limited imports in order to pay off the War Loan from America; rationing continued until 1954; the generation of baby boomers born when British soldiers returned for demob in 1945-56 grew up surrounded by reminders of the war, whether it was bombed out streets, slowly rusting Anderson shelters or sweet rationing. Many British comics were one-offs, produced by minor, independent publishers whenever they could find a paper supply; the two major publishers, Amalgamated Press and D. C. Thomson, had to publish their weekly titles in a slimmed-down form or fortnightly and few copies were available to export to the Commonwealth which, before the war, had imported British comics and story papers in large numbers.

Australia was one of the biggest of Britain's export markets when it came to comics but this all changed in 1940. Like Britain, Australia had been a dumping ground for remainder copies of American magazines (to the point where, in December 1939, a Senator in the Federal Parliament had claimed that imports were badly affecting the livelihoods of local writers and artists. Ironically, the situation was resolved by the war and Australia's own Import Licensing Regulations. Post-war, a new force in Australian comics emerged in the shape of publisher Kenneth G. Murray who, on the back of successful magazines like Man Magazine, launched a number of new, locally-produced comic titles and, in 1947, began reprinting American comics in colour. Early titles from DC Comics (at the time known as National Periodical Publications) and Quality Comics included Climax All Color Comics (featuring Zatara from DC's Action Comics) and Superman All Color Comic, establishing American superheroes in Australia. Printing in colour proved expensive and KG Murray eventually lowered his costs by turning them into black & white reprints of around 28-32 pages.

The situation was monitored in the UK by the directors of the Amalgamated Press who were still struggling with paper restrictions. One solution to fight off this American invasion of one of their traditional markets was to produce a comic—or series of comics—directly for the Australian market. Edward Holmes, the editor of the popular Knockout weekly, struggling along at between 12 and 16 pages at the time, was assigned to create new titles for Australia in a comic book format similar to Murray's American reprints.

Holmes was one of the more creative editors at Amalgamated Press, far more in touch with the market than many of his directors who, for the most part, had been with the firm for forty years and whose views of comics were shaped in the Golden Age of the 1920s. Holmes was keen to push adventure stories over humour in Knockout and his sensibilities could be seen in the line-up of yarns he began preparing for the A.P.'s new Australian venture.

By January 1949, stories and artwork was being commissioned and drawn and, directly influenced by the superhero comics then appearing in Australia, one of the first characters was Thunderbolt Jaxon.

Thunderbolt was, in reality, a young orphan called Jack Jaxon, unjustly accused of a crime that earns him a place at a harsh reform school. Jack discovers a belt of ancient and curious design—the magic belt of Thor, the thunder god of the ancient Norsemen—and, in a flash, skinny Jack becomes Thunderbolt, a muscular adult endowed with the might and magic of Thor.

Jack uses his new power, which comes from simply putting on the magic belt, to vindicate himself and bring his wicked uncle Jasper to justice before setting out to become a champion of justice for all.

The storylines for the first issue (and two stories apiece in the second and third issues) were written by T. C. H. Pendower, at the time a popular writer of crime novels under his birth name, T. C. H. Jacobs. The stories were scripted by Leonard Matthews, former sub-editor and now full-time editor of Knockout. Edward Holmes scripted the majority of the remaining Thunderbolt Jaxon yarns.

Holmes was clearly keen on the character as he began featuring him in colour on the centre pages of Comet, which he was also editing. These stories, like the tales which ran in the Australian comics, were drawn by Hugh McNeill, better known as a humour artist in the pages of The Beano, The Dandy and especially Knockout, where he drew "Deed-a-Day Danny" and "Our Ernie" amongst others. McNeill wasn't known as an adventure artist, but could turn his hands to most things, switching from the knockabout humour he was generally known for to a rather more realistic style for the adventures of "Tough Tod and Happy Annie".

The Thunderbolt Jaxon strips usually ran to 8-9 pages and each of the Australian comics featured three strips per issue. Already stretched, McNeill could not draw every episode and other artists—Geoff Campion and Robert Rodger—were drafted in to fill the issues. Only a handful were ever reprinted in the U.K. (in the pages of Knockout Annual); the Comet strip ran for only a matter of weeks between August and November 1949 and the Australian comic stumbled in the latter months of 1949. It lasted only six issues and that could have been all that was heard of Thunderbolt had he not been revived in Knockout in 1958 where his adventures ran for just eighteen months, some early episodes drawn by Ian Kennedy.

Thunderbolt's Comet tales were reprinted with the character renamed Johnny Samson in Buster in 1964; since the Comet run was brief, the series soon switched to new stories after a couple of months. These came to an end in 1965 and nothing more was heard of Thunderbolt Jaxon (apart from a reprinted yarn in Hawk's Giant Holiday Fantasy Comic Album in 1990) until his revival forty years later. The fun-filled, cartoony adventure tales drawn by Hugh McNeill and the gritty, street-wise storyline of the 2006 revival couldn't have been more different, but perhaps the failure of previous attempts to revive the character should have been a warning.

The character seems to hold a fatal attraction for editors looking for characters to bring back and it's probably only a matter of time before Jack Jaxon once again dons the magic belt of Thor.

(* Thunderbolt Jaxon © IPC Media.)

6 comments:

Rafiq Raja said...

Thanks for a detailed review on an unknow comics hero like Jaxon, Steve. I wouldn't have even known about his existence, if you hadn't enlightened. This history behind the series, does make it look a good source of inspiration which build the Australian Comics Revival.

By the way, how come IPC Media owns the right now for an Australian Comics ??

ÇómícólógÝ

Steve said...

Rafiq,

The comic was simply printed in Australia: it was conceived and edited in the UK by the staff of Amalgamated Press, who are now IPC Media.

Phil Rushton said...

Interesting to hear that MAN magazine should have been instrumental in the growth of Australian comics. I recently obtained a number of 1950s issues of this publication and was utterly knocked out by the quality of the illustrations (it's hard to believe that such a comparatively small population could produce so many wonderful artists!). If you ever get the chance I'm sure it'd make a fascinating subject for one of your future blog entries.

- Phil Rushton

Steve said...

Phil,

If you care to cobble together some scans I'll be more than happy to post something. Man isn't something I've really come across so I don't have any examples. And if they're good, I'll break my all-British rule which I try to stick to (but find myself breaking all the time; there are plenty of other blogs covering the rest of the world and they're doing a far better job than I ever could).

The Clever Pup said...

I just stumbled upon your site in the literal sense of the word.

It's a great blog. We adore Rupert, The Beano and Tintin in our household. I wrote a little piece in November on Rupert and Herge.

I saw a great birthday card today that was a repro of Robert Leighton's The Cleverest Chap in the School. It's a great image for my blog, which is called The Clever Pup. THAT'S how I found you.

Chap O'Keefe said...

I would back what Phil Rushton says about the Aussie men's mags. Among the pin-ups (very tame by today's standards) and the cartoons, there were some great story illustrations in Man, Man Junior, Adam and Pocket Man.

The Aussies were still reprinting US comics without the colour right into the seventies. Several of the yarns I contributed to the Charlton Comics "ghost" titles were reproduced in a slightly larger page size, black and white only, in short-lived Aussie titles like Pit of Evil.

Hugh McNeill was indeed prolific and versatile. In the 1950 AP Sun Comic, he appears page after page, using many different styles, including adventures serialized from popular movies of the time, like the historical actioner The Fighting O'Flynn starring a recognizable Douglas Fairbanks Jnr. and Helena Carter. Elsewhere, in the same issue, McNeill would have a beautifully executed strip version of The Wind in the Willows and the vastly different, cartoonish Adventures of Lancelot Lake -- sharing the same page!