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Sunday, July 15, 2007

The Forth Rail Bridge

(* We bid a welcome return to Jeremy Briggs with a piece about the Forth Bridge as seen through the lens of British comics and childrens' magazines. Coincidentally, the recent release of Hellblazer: The Red Right Hand, with its Glasgow setting, prompted Joe at the Forbidden Planet International to run some photos. Anyway, without further ado, here's Jeremy...)

The Bridge

As a memorial is unveiled to the men who gave their lives to build it in the 19th century, let us take a look at the comics history of the Forth Bridge. Locals simply call it The Bridge, but it is better known to the general public as the Forth Rail Bridge to differentiate it from its upstream neighbour the Forth Road Bridge. If you are not sure what it looks like delve into your pocket and take a look at the back of a 2004 pound coin.

Opened in 1890 to take the main east coat railway line over the Firth of Forth, the Bridge is one of the icons of Scotland carrying up to 200 trains per day. Located between North Queensferry in Fife (where Gordon Brown has his family home) and South Queensferry outside Edinburgh, the bridge is 2.5 km (1.5 miles) long and ,while the railway track is 46m (150 ft) above sea level, the top actually rises to 104m (340 ft). It is said that, technologically speaking, the building of the bridge was the 1880's equivalent of putting men on the Moon in the 1960's. The construction of the bridge lasted for six years when, officially, 57 men died to complete it. Today the Queensferry History Group puts the real loss of life much higher at around 98.

As an immediately recognisable Scottish landmark the bridge has featured in many comics over the years, but let us begin with its prehistory and the unusual name of its location. In the late 11th century, Queen Margaret of Scotland regularly used a ferry to cross the Firth at its narrowest point when travelling between the priory in Dunfermline and the castle in Edinburgh. Margaret died in 1093 in Edinburgh Castle and her body was carried on the ferry to be buried in what is now Dunfermline Abbey. The two ends of the ferry route took the names of Queensferry and North Queensferry, with the southern Royal Burgh of Queensferry eventually becoming today’s South Queensferry. Devoutly religious, Queen Margaret was canonised in 1290, the only Saint of Scots royalty. Her story was told in 'Royal Margaret' on the back page of Girl comic from Volume 1 Number 33, dated 11 July 1952 to Volume 2 Number 26, dated 22 April 1953. Alfred Sindall provided the colour artwork and it was, unsurprisingly, written by Chad Varah, just before he set up the Samaritans.

The village of South Queensferry was the setting for part of Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel Kidnapped, with the hero David Balfour being taken from the Hawes Inn and rowed out to the sailing ship Covenant moored just off shore where the bridge would now stand. The Hawe's Inn is a real place which now nestles in the shadow of the south end of the bridge and remains an inn to this day. Kidnapped has been adapted several times in British comic strips, including by Dudley D Watkins in the D C Thomson Told In Pictures series in 1948, but the latest version was the Alan Grant scripted and Cam Kennedy illustrated version for Edinburgh's One Book One Edinburgh literary event in February 2007.

The day to day running of the bridge is hardly the stuff of adventure stories but to the general public perhaps what the bridge is best known for is the folklore of its continual painting - a seemingly unending task being described as "like painting the Forth Bridge". Ian Kennedy did a factual strip on the men who work on high structures around the world entitled 'The Spidermen', and included the bridge painters in it. This was published in the Eagle Annual for 1987, although considering the amount of reprints in those late 1980’s Eagle annuals it could well have been a reprint from a much earlier IPC publication.

Ranger also covered the bridge and its painters in the 27 November 1965 issue in its 'Railway Days and Ways' back page article "edited by TV star and model railway enthusiast David Nixon" which, unusually, depicted it looking south. Most illustrations of the Bridge are from the South Queensferry waterfront looking north, however it is worth pointing out that the deep water shipping channel is under the north span and not the south as depicted in Ranger.

Yet adventure stories are the stuff of boy's comics and in 1971 D C Thomson's Hotspur rehabilitated their normally villainous Black Sapper character into a member of the British resistance army fighting against the occupation of Britain by the oriental Khansus. Set in the near future this story, with art by Terry Patrick, has the Sapper using his underground travelling machine, called the Worm, to attack installations vital to the Khansu occupation. This includes undermining the Forth Rail Bridge thereby causing its partial collapse and trapping the Khansu navy upstream in Rosyth Naval Base.

Slightly further into the future, although Gerry Anderson fans continue to debate if it should be 2026 or 2065, and this illustration of Thunderbirds 1, 2 and 4 taking part in the rescue of a typically Thunderbirds-like monorail train having plunged off the bridge. Painted as a commission by Anderson comic artist Graham Bleathman, the image is used by Graham on his website. (With thanks to Graham and the owner for permission to use the image here.)

Finally, and not withstanding underground machines or hovering Thunderbirds, we have the far future of the bridge. Starblazer was D C Thomson's science-fiction companion to the war digest Commando and issue 101, published in June 1983, told the story of the 'Forgotten World'. Written by R H Bonsall, this story was set on Earth in 3183AD after the Earth had been devastated in the Thermal Wars and was now a bioplanet for farmers. Artist Jamie Ortiz only portrayed the bridge in a single frame of the story without it even being mentioned in the printed text bar a vague reference to the "rivers of Old Caledonia", but that was enough for Scottish artist Ian Kennedy to once again revisit the bridge. This time he portrayed it as the dilapidated backdrop to what could easily be mistaken for a Dan Dare cover from the 1980's version of Eagle comic.

Today the Bridge stands proud as it receives its first new coat of paint in far too long, a coating which this time is expected to last twenty years. Over seventy years older than its Road Bridge neighbour, which is a mere youngster in its forties, the red Rail Bridge will undoubtedly still be standing after its grey neighbour has passed into history.

1 comment:

  1. Stumbled on this. My childhood was spent overlooking the Forth Bridges, (and reading TV21 magazine) so this entry has more than a little nostalgia. Thanks!