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Saturday, June 27, 2009

Biggles in The Cruise Of The Condor

Biggles in the Cruise of the Condor
by Jeremy Briggs

Captain WE Johns pilot character James Bigglesworth, popularly known as Biggles, is one of those fictional characters that has entered the British public consciousness whether or not they have read any of his novels or short stories. The first Biggles book The Camels Are Coming was published in 1932 in which he was a World War 1 pilot for the Royal Flying Corps and he would progress through various jobs and adventures in the inter-war years before returning to once again defend his country from the Germans during World War Two despite having barely aged along the way. Johns continued to write Biggles novels right up to his death in 1968 when the character had moved into the post war years.

The Cruise Of The Condor was the second Biggles novel, originally published in August 1933, with Biggles as an adventurer in peacetime. This was the story chosen by Juvenile Productions in May 1955 to turn into what we would now call a graphic novel but was then called a "strip book". Artist Pat Williams produced 46 pages of colour internal artwork as well as the wraparound cover for this annual sized hardback book.

Biggles and Algy visit the elderly Dickpa only to find his English house under armed siege by a gang allied to Silas Blattner who are determined that Dickpa will give them the location of Incan treasure in Ecuador. Escaping from the house, Biggles returns in an aircraft to rescue his friends and they organise an expedition to South America to recover the treasure. Once in Brazil they use a flying boat, which they name Condor, to fly over the rainforest and to land on the rivers as they make their way towards the location of the treasure. Followed by a larger flying boat carrying Blattner’s men, our heroes locate the treasure cave only to find it empty before eventually stumbling across a lost city filled with treasure and the bodies of its long dead inhabitants. Returning to the Condor, a volcanic explosion preventing them taking all but a little treasure, they take off only to be confronted by Blattner’s plane which attempts to shoot them down.

Pat William's art has that 1950s softness to it which is both comforting to look at but also annoying in its vagueness. Considering that Biggles books are known for their aviation themes, William's aircraft are ill defined. The plane used to escape from the besieged house is obviously a De Havilland Chipmunk, therefore setting the 1933 story in then contemporary times, but by no stretch of the imagination could this small trainer aircraft fly the Atlantic ocean to South America as implied by the script. The Condor itself is an unusual design with an interesting pusher/puller propeller arrangement immediately above the cockpit similar to a Dornier Do18 while the villain's flying boat is a larger four engined aircraft similar to a Shorts Sunderland and, it has to be said, rather impractical for landing on unexplored rivers in a rain forest.

The text in the speech balloons is all too often perfunctory and many panels are silent. Indeed the script has an annoying habit of describing almost an entire page's plotline in one long text panel and then leaving the next half dozen panels of artwork virtually silent as the visual story struggles to catches up with the text. This tends to suggest that the uncredited writer who adapted the story from the original text novel was not a regular comic strip author and while some story elements are dwelt on others are all too often rushed which adds to an overall feeling of unevenness. Dickpa is Biggles’ nickname for his uncle in the original novel but the comic strip version neglects to mention this rather important family connection leaving readers wondering why Biggles trusts this strangely named man so implicitly. Perhaps issues like this were part of the reason that there was no published follow up. In fact the UK had to wait until 1978 for the next Biggles graphic novels which were translations of several Swedish books by Bjorn Karlstrom.

The original price of the strip book of The Cruise Of The Condor was 2/6, which equates to 12.5p in modern money. Given the collectability of older Biggles books and the uniqueness of this publication, a typical price for buying this book in good condition today would be upwards of two hundred times that original price. Unless you are a Biggles collector then it is not really worth it.

Cruise of the Condor was the first Biggles graphic novel to be published in the UK. The latest UK Biggles graphic novel is Spitfire Parade and you can read Jeremy's review of it at downthetubes.

3 comments:

-= Steamboat Willie =- said...

Very interesting... Was Karlströms Biggles albums well perceived in the U.K.?

I presume that even though there were no graphic novels published, there must have been several Biggles dailies/sundays/comic strips published in the papers and syndicated?

Steve said...

I'll have to leave it to someone else to comment on the reception of the books, but on the second question: as far as I'm aware, Biggles was never published in a daily or Sunday strip. TV Express ran a colour strip in 1960-62 based around the Biggles TV show. And Biggles text stories appeared in many story papers, comics and annuals over the years.

Michael O'Brien said...

There was a long-running Biggles comic book in Australia. I used to read it in the 1960s.