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Saturday, May 09, 2009

J. T. Edson... stories and comic strips (part 1)

JT’s Victor: Text Stories
by Jeremy Briggs

A short time back I highlighted the JT Edson novel The Town Tamers which was based on the comic strip of the same name published in The Victor in 1964. As part of his interview with the British author in The Illustrated Comic Journal in 1998, Alan Smith indicated that “The Town Tamers” comic strip had actually been the basis of two JT Edson novels. The second title was not named in the interview and was proving elusive to find. Its title remains a mystery but the hunt for it has thrown up an even more interesting Edson book with connections to comics.

Firstly a reminder about the author; John Thomas Edson was a writer of westerns who had his first novel, Trail Boss, published in 1963 by the relatively small publisher Brown Watson. His popularity grew through to the end of the Sixties and reached its height in the Seventies when he was writing for the Transworld Publishers imprint Corgi. Published as a trade paperback in 1979, JT's Hundredth is exactly what it says on the cover, his one hundredth book and in it he was able to collate a batch of short stories each featuring one of his regular characters. However what makes it unusual is that Edson gave an introduction to each story describing the backgrounds and creation of the characters in each of the stories. As we already know, Edson had written “The Town Tamers” comic strip in The Victor and throughout the various introductions he mentions his work for comics which included both text stories and comic strips. What follows is an amalgamation of that information with dating information from The Illustrated Comics Journal.

Born in 1928, JT Edson was too young to fight in the Second World War but was called up in 1946 for National Service. He stayed in the army until 1958, serving as a dog trainer in the Royal Army Veterinary Corps and being posted as far and wide as Hong Kong and Kenya. It was in the army that he first began writing and on leaving he had several novels and various other stories written but unpublished. He sent a version of one of the chapters of Trail Boss to DC Thomson as a potential idea for a text western series in a boy's comic but received a rejection letter. Later, having had the novel version of Trail Boss accepted by Brown Watson, Edson tried DC Thomson again with an idea based on his army career.

“The Guard Had Pointed Ears” was set in Hong Kong and told the story of Army dog handler Sergeant Dan Hollick and his Doberman Pinscher Kano. The text story was accepted and this first Dan Hollick series, retitled by the comic’s editor as “The Dogs Of Kwang”, ran for a total of twelve episodes beginning in The Victor issue 82 dated 15 September 1962. During this time Edson was sending Thomson's three episodes a week with 3000-4000 words per episode. The first episode of “The Dogs Of Kwang” is reprinted as chapter 13 of JT’s Hundredth.

Another four series of Dan Hollick's adventures would follow. “Dan Hollick, Dog Handler” was a prequel telling how Hollick transferred into the RAVC, his training at the War Dog Training Wing in Sennelager, Germany and his promotion to Lance Corporal. It began in The Victor issue 103, dated 16 February 1963, and lasted 12 issues. “The Dogs Of Dan Hollick” took this a step further with his training with specialist dogs, his promotion to Sergeant and his introduction to Kano. It began in The Victor issue 122, dated 22 June 1963 and lasted 12 issues. “Tracker One, Shambulia” moved the story on from Hong Kong to the Mau Mau emergency in Kenya although once again its name was changed for publication to the previously used and generic “Dan Hollick, Dog Handler”. It began in The Victor issue 165, dated 18 April 1964 and lasted 10 issues. “The Saga Of Samburu Scouts” was the final Hollick series and was a prequel to the previous stories telling how he was posted to Kenya. It began in The Victor issue 206, dated 30 January 1965 and lasted 10 issues.

Edson's second text series for The Victor was “The Sheriff of Rockabye County”. This began as an idea for a modern western set in a sheriff's department that he had originally tried to interest Brown Watson in, but his editor at Brown Watson at the time was only interested in his historical western novels. Instead Edson sold the idea to The Victor and 16 episodes of the series appeared in 1964 in three batches beginning in issue 167, dated 2 May. Setting the series in Gusher City, he named his main protagonist Bradford Counter but this was changed to Mike Counter as The Victor’s editor didn't want a character with a name similar to DC Thomson's long standing pilot character Matt Braddock. After the stories had appeared in The Victor, Edson would eventually get the Rockabye County concept published as novels by Corgi. In these novels the renamed Deputy Sheriff Bradford Counter was shown to be the great-grandson of the Town Tamer character Mark Counter. There were a total of eleven Rockabye novels beginning with The Professional Killers in 1968.

A third text series entitled “Son Of A Yellow Cop” concerned an FBI agent hunting the criminal who could clear the name of his dead policeman father of cowardice. This series was accepted and paid for but, apparently, was never published by DC Thomson.

While the vast majority of his text stories appeared in The Victor, three others appeared in DC Thomson titles. The first was” The Sixteen Dollar Shooter” which appeared in The Wizard issue 1962, dated 21 September 1963 just after the third Dan Hollick series had appeared in The Victor.

The next came in 1964 after The Wizard had amalgamated into the older Rover. This was about the World War Two allied pilots who flew the RAF's Westland Lysander aircraft that were used to supply European resistance groups behind German lines. Edson wrote this story with a South African character called van Rensburg but this was changed to Finnegan by editorial decision and the story was published in Rover and Wizard dated 18 July 1964 as “Finnegan Flies The Black Phantom”.

The final JT Edson text story that DC Thomson published was “Long Bow”. This told the story of an American pioneer in the old West who preferred to use a bow and arrow rather than a rifle. It ran for 8 episodes in The Hotspur beginning in issue 271, dated 26 December 1964.

The final text stories that Edson wrote for comics appeared in the Boy’s World annuals published by Odhams. In 1968, after he had started writing novels for Corgi, Edson was contacted by the Boy’s World editor to see if he would write a western text story for the annual. This was “Black Hogan’s Mistake” and appeared in the annual for 1969. This lead on to him supplying a text story for every other Boy’s World annual – “Johnny Boyland and the Clonmel Code” in 1970, “Johnny Boyland and The Quail Hunters” in 1971 and “Sheriff Wendley’s Cannon” in the final annual in 1972. Johnny Boyland was a sixteen year old gunsmith in the old West who Edson based on the real John Browning, the designer of the Browning machine guns. The original idea for these four stories, which all featuring Johnny Boyland, had been submitted to The Victor as potential comic strips featuring Browning but was rejected. Not being one to waste an idea, Edson renamed the character and John became Johnny. “Johnny Boyland and The Quail Hunters” is reprinted as chapter 15 of JT’s Hundredth and it is worth noting that, when it was originally published in the Boy’s World annual, it was illustrated by Frank Bellamy.

Returning to Edson’s work with DC Thomson; while writing the first Dan Hollick series, Willie Mann, the then editor of The Victor, sent Edson a comic strip and the script that it had been drawn from and asked if he could write stories in this style, a style that Edson refers to as "artist's scripts". His answer was yes and he would be even more prolific as a comic strip writer for The Victor than he was as a text story writer.

The details of JT Edson’s comic strips will appear in the concluding part of JT’s Victor.

(* illustrations for "Dogs of Kwang" and "Samburu Scouts" © D. C. Thomson Ltd.; illustration for "Johnny Boyland and the Quail Hunters" © Octopus Publishing Group; cover for JT's Hundredth © Random House Group Ltd.)

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