Sad news reaches me that one of the giants of British comics has laid down his pen for the last time. Mike Western died late on Tuesday, 13 May, at the age of 83. It's no secret that I was a huge fan of Mike's work and over the last few months had begun putting together a new edition of The Mike Western Story.
Mike's career as a comics artist dated back to the early 1950s when he began working on Knockout at the suggestion of Ron Clark. The two had met at GB Animation in Cookham where Mike had worked as a clean-up artist. After the demise of GB Animation, he worked for Anson Dyer Studios and on the Hallas & Batchelor production of Animal Farm.
After leaving GB Animation, Ron Clark had established himself at Amalgamated Press as a script writer and sub-editor, teaming up with Eric Bradbury (another former GB Animation artist) and inviting Mike to submit samples. It wasn't long before Mike established himself as a first-class adventure artist, quickly losing the rough edges and initial nervousness seen in the Western strip 'Lucky Logan', on which he alternated with Bradbury. In 1954 he graduated to his first solo strip, 'Johnnie Winco', the flying adventures of an ex-RAF pilot working for a small airline company, which ran for six years, and proved so popular it was Knockout's cover strip from 1957.
A change of direction in 1960 led to Mike seeking work on TV Express where he drew 'No Hiding Place' and (in colour) 'Biggles', both based on popular TV shows of the day. In 1962 he began drawing for Buster and, a few months later, for the newly launched Valiant, a paper he was to be associated with for the next 13 years. In 1964 he drew 'The Wild Wonders', the story of two young brothers who had grown up on a remote island with only animals for company who, when discovered, proved to be champion athletes. The mixture of action and comedy kept the strip running for a decade during which time Mike also drew countless covers, fill-in strips, annual and summer special stories and was often called upon to establish characters for new papers.
With the Wild Wonders he developed an attractive cartoony style which was the perfect visualisation for Tom Tully's scripts. It was, however, a style that was much copied (a result of Mike being asked to produce visuals and first episodes of new strips) and which some felt was old-fashioned at a time when comics were struggling against falling sales.
Valiant changed editorial hands in 1975 and, not long after, folded. After a nervous few months, Mike re-established himself in Battle Picture Weekly, reverting to the more realistic style of his early strips. This suited the grittier storylines now being produced and many would argue that his finest work appeared in this later period: 'Darkie's Mob' (1976-77), 'The Sarge' (1966-78) and 'HMS Nightshade' (1979).
Mike switched back to sporting stories in 1980 with the launch of Speed which proved short-lived before merging with Tiger where Mike spent some years drawing 'Topps on Two Wheels'. Tiger merged with Eagle where Mike was best seen on 'The Computer Warrior'. For Roy of the Rovers Mike drew 'Billy's Boots' for four years before landing the 'Roy of the Rovers' daily strip for the Daily Star (1992-93).
Retiring, Mike was able to concentrate on painting, which he had done intermittently over the years. Landscapes and local characters sold well. His last strip (which I'm pleased to say I had a small hand in) appeared in a magazine promoting theatre entitled Theatre Mask in 1997-2000 and he continued to produce monthly illustrations until 2003.
Eagle Flies Again published a tribute issue to celebrate Mike's 80th birthday in 2005; sadly, he suffered a heart attack in 2007, followed by a stroke, which meant he was confined to bed during his last few months, looked after by Enid, his wife of 56 years, and children.
I had the great pleasure of corresponding with Mike for some years although constant deadlines and various changes of circumstances meant that I'd not been in touch for some while. Now comes the sad news that Mike has died and I'm sure you'll all join me in sending his family your best wishes. Mike still has a lot of fans and, whether he realised it or not—and I hope he did—he brought a lot of laughter and thrills into our lives through his work.
(* My thanks to Enid and Pete Western for the photos of Mike, seen in the 1940s and 1980s; the column header was an illustration Mike did for the second edition of The Mike Western Story in 1992; the first encounter with the Wild Wonders is from the opening episode in Valiant, 28 March 1964, © IPC Media; the opening page from 'HMS Nightshade' is from Battle Action, 6 January 1979, © Egmont UK Ltd.)