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Monday, May 11, 2015

Bruce Cornwell's Forgotten Space Captain: Jim Stalwart

BRUCE CORNWELL'S FORGOTTEN SPACE CAPTAIN :
JIM STALWART
by Jeremy Briggs

Artist Bruce Cornwell joined the Hampson Studio in 1950 and so worked on Dan Dare from the very first issue of Eagle as well as working on the Tommy Walls advertising strip. His forte was the drawing of technology so while other team members concentrated on figure work, colours or backgrounds, Cornwell often produced panels that included spaceships and other vehicles. Leaving the Dan Dare fold several years later he would return twice to Dan Dare, first in the 1950s when the Hampson team had moved from Southport to Espom where his model making skills were used to create reference models of spaceships and again in the 1960s when he teamed up with Don Harley to illustrate the strip after Frank Bellamy moved from Dan Dare in Eagle to Thunderbirds in TV Century 21.

In those intervening years Cornwell worked on a number of different projects including illustrating the Kemlo and Tas science fiction children’s novels of EC Eliott, where he was credited as A Bruce Cornwell, as well as the Journey Into Space comic strip in Express Weekly based on the BBC radio series. However one of the first strips that he worked on after leaving Dan Dare was a black and white science-fiction comic strip in the short lived weekly newspaper aimed at children, the Junior Mirror. That strip was Space Captain Jim Stalwart.  

The Space Captain Jim Stalwart strip began in issue 1 of the Junior Mirror dated 1 September 1954 and continued in all 75 issues of the publication with Bruce Cornwell illustrating the strip throughout its run. He recalled, “My agent came up with the project. I wasn’t too keen but I must admit that the money had an influence”. The strip told three sequential stories, The Fantastic Adventures Of The Missing S.200, The Green Star, and Pirates Of The Spaceways! This third story was still running when the paper was cancelled and rather than leave it hanging the a brief text conclusion was printed in its final issue.

Set on Earth and in the inner solar system at an undefined point in the future, Jim Stalwart was a captain in the Space Legion and the officer in charge of Space Station E.24 which was actually a ground base near London. He was a commanding officer who flew his own spaceships and lead from the front. With him for the three stories were his co-pilot Flight Sergeant Archie Harbottle (above), “a handy chap to have in a tight squeeze” and his rather over enthusiastic younger brother Space Cadet Tony Stalwart (below) who was enrolled at the base school. The stories made use of spaceships, space stations, moon bases as well as aliens from both inside and outside the solar system with Tony Stalwart invariably being on hand to give a character for the strip’s young readers to identify with.

The art chores were split between Bruce Cornwell and C Bannerman with CE Webber providing the lettering. Cornwall remembered, “I did all the layout and all the finished artwork. I would do the artwork in pencil and then pass it to Bannerman who would put in the figures that I had drawn in rough form; on its return I would then finish the frame in ink.” While he never met Bannerman, Cornwell worked to his strengths on the strip with spaceships, cars and lunar rovers and the artwork is at its best when he gets to provide large panels featuring technical detail of his vehicles. “The fundamental reason for splitting the strip up this way was because of the time element. I had other work on board and couldn’t cope with the technical demands of the script and the figure work,” said Cornwell. He also never met Webber, “His job was to put the lettering in the balloons. The system worked logically in drawing the frame I would draw the balloon and dialogue and when finished would rub it out, knowing that he had room to do his bit.”

The format of the strip was black and white line art in three rows which would take up around half of page eleven of the sixteen page paper, the same page that the three rows of Pip, Squeak and Wilfred were printed on. Early episodes were fairly consistent in their layout and tended to be made up of a title panel with three small panels in the first row while the next two rows consisted of either three larger panels or four smaller panels. The original artwork was produced half size up – 50% bigger than the publication size.

The format remained fairly consistent until the 2 February 1955 issue when The Fighting Tomahawks, illustrated by Richard Jennings, was moved into the Pip, Squeak and Wilfred slot. It stayed there for seven weeks until it was moved away and with the May 4 1955 issue Jim Stalwart was increased in size to fill the full width of the page rather than the outside three quarters as before. This was done simply by increasing the size of the artwork reproduction as the lettering accompanying the art correspondingly increased in size. The beginning of the third story, Pirates of the Spaceways!, was heralded with a full length figure of Stalwart taking up the left hand side of the strip and four rows of panels before the art settled back the next week to three rows with the figure of Stalwart in the title panel becoming two rows tall. It remained this way with Stalwart in various poses until the title’s final issue.

Each episode was identified with a letter and number code, the letter indicating the calendar year beginning with A in 1954 and the number indicating the issue number of the paper that the art was appearing in. Therefore the numbering system ran from A1 in the first issue in 1954 to C75 in the final issue in 1956, with A18 on 29 December 1954 being followed by B19 on 5 January 1955 and B66 on 28 December 1955 being followed by C67 on 4 January 1956.

To eyes used to craft from 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Wars, the designs of the spaceships and space stations now look as old fashioned as their better known Dan Dare equivalents, however Cornwell’s designs for both the earth based and the lunar vehicles remain remarkably fresh and the detail of the interiors still stand up to adult scrutiny over fifty years after they were drawn. Why have a simple doorbell when you could insert your hand into a “Foto Electric Bell Unit Mk 5” to announce your presence?

The figure work is generally good with the alien Tukanas (above) in the second story having a classy ancient Egyptian look to them. That said the Saturnian Satiks (below) who appear in the first and third stories look suspiciously like they could have come from an early episode of Doctor Who, created by actors in a radiation suits with metal claws for hands. Despite this the stories are surprisingly complex with plot points from earlier episodes only falling into place as the story progresses although the scripts do often rely heavily on meaningless technical terms to fill out the word balloons. “I don’t know who wrote the scripts and I must admit I never asked,” said Cornwell.

Yet it is hard to get away from the fact that the strip is a Dan Dare clone used by the Junior Mirror so that they would have a character similar to Eagle’s well known space pilot. While the fictional date of the Stalwart stories is never given, this is a world that has the same level of technology and a similar knowledge of alien cultures as the early Dare stories, with spaceships launching from ramps and space stations in orbit. Although at ten black and white panels per week it was never going to stand up to the two pages of full colour Dan Dare, in comparison to the early stories of that better known Dan Dare clone, Lion’s Captain Condor, the plotlines are more interesting and the artwork is considerably better.

The character was considered popular enough in 1955 for an actor dressed as him to open a space ship attraction in Hove near Brighton. The Junior Mirror dated 8 June of that year features a photo of the actor at the seaside resort surrounded by children and standing in the back of a three wheeled Bond Mark C Minicar (a predecessor of the better know Bond Bug) with prominent Junior Mirror advertising panels on it. “Free Taxi Rides For Readers” announced the photo’s blurb. “Junior Mirror taxi runabouts have made their debut for the summer season. Look out for them throughout the holidays. Use your Junior Mirror to flag them for free taxi rides.”

Indeed on the front page of issue 49 in August of that year the same Minicar from the photograph, registration 783 CML, was used for an advertising cartoon illustrated by Reg Smythe before he went on to create Andy Capp for the adult version of the Mirror.

Yet today the Junior Mirror is all but forgotten, along with its spaceman character, and even a search for “Space Captain Jim Stalwart” in google.com returns just one solitary hit, a passing mention in Steve Holland’s history of Look and Learn magazine. Perhaps because the strip was in a publication that was to all effective purposes a newspaper, there was no desire on the part of its original young readers to retain it as part of a collection that they would reread in the future.

This is a pity because it has deprived that future of an interesting period piece containing some lovely black and white artwork.

With thanks to Ray Carnes and Richard Sheaf, and especially Bruce Cornwell for his time and recollections.

(* At the time that this article was first published, in Eagle Times v23 #1 in Spring 2010, as the penultimate paragraph suggests there was next to nothing on the internet about the Space Captain Jim Stalwart strip. When I broke the news of Bruce Cornwell’s passing on downthetubes in March 2012 , I mentioned the strip amongst the others that he had worked on, while Steve Holland here on Bear Alley and Will Grenham on the Eagle Times blog also mentioned the strip in their obituaries for him. The details of those obituaries have since been included in various on-line bios of Bruce meaning that at least the title of the strip is now much more widely spread that it was when this article first appeared. Indeed you can now read some episodes of the strip from its publication in the Melbourne Argus newspaper on the National Library Of Australia’s Trove website. However rather than update the original article I have decided to leave that part of the text in its original form as it displays how little was available at that time.)

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