Sunday, May 10, 2009

J. T. Edson... stories and comic strips (part 2)

JT’s Victor: The Comic Strips
by Jeremy Briggs

As related in the previous part of this article, western author JT Edson worked as a freelance writer for DC Thomson in the early Sixties. In his collection of short stories, JT’s Hundredth, he discussed his work on text stories and comic strips which mainly appeared in The Victor. The previous article covered his text story work so this time we will look at his comic strips.

The Victor's original editor, Willie Mann, ran the comic from its inception in January 1961 until 1964 when James "Buff" Halley took over and it is notable that Edson’s final text story, the last part of “The Sheriff Of Rockabye County”, was published in The Victor issue 193, dated 31 October 1964. After that his work comprised completely of comic strips and Edson describes his work for these as "artist's scripts".

While writing the first Dan Hollick text series, Willie Mann sent him a comic strip and the script that it had been drawn from and asked if he could write stories in this style. Edson’s answer was yes and his first comic strip was “Johnny Orchid, White Hunter” which began in The Victor issue 149, dated 28 December 1963.

In describing the writing of a comic strip script for The Victor, Edson says, “In a script, the plot had to be set down in thirty or forty separate frames, with not more than three ‘forties’ in a twelve episode series. There was a limit to how much written explanation was permissible. Speech was restricted to two or rarely three balloons per frame – and then only if not more than a couple of short words were involved. The action had to be kept flowing and the amount of people, or background detail, one could use was not great. As far as the latter was concerned, how much appeared depended upon the artist assigned to illustrate the strip. With a few exceptions, I was fortunate in having my work given to excellent illustrators.”

Unusually for a short story collection, JT’s Hundredth reprints a Johnny Orchid comic strip, illustrated by Arnau whom Edson describes as one of his favourite artists. His comment about the inclusion of the comic strip in the book is “Don’t blame me. Transworld said they didn’t believe they could get the full script in.” What would have been a 4 page story in The Victor becomes an 8 page story in the trade paperback with the original pages split in half and each half page turned 90 degrees to allow for the largest possible printing. The first Johnny Orchid series, which follows the adventures of a modern day professional hunter in Africa, ran for 12 weeks into 1964 and was popular enough to appear in the 1966 Victor Book For Boys. A prequel, “The Making Of A White Hunter”, began a 13 week run in issue 291, dated 17 September 1966, while issue 308 on 14 January 1967 had a single one-off episode.

Edson states in the introduction to the book, "I was one of very few writers to have had three series running at one time in any of Thomson's boy's papers and quite often had two running concurrently in Victor" and this can certainly be seen in the dates of publication of his initial batch of comic strips. The first episode of “Johnny Orchid, White Hunter” was published one week ahead of “Guns That Won The West” which ran for 14 weeks and told stories of various types of firearms. Edson wrote the characters of Dusty Fog and the Ysabel Kid into several of these stories before they appeared in “The Town Tamers” strip which began in The Victor issue 191, dated 17 October 1964 and ran for 13 issues. Before “The Town Tamers” appeared, three more Edson comic strips were published. “Johnny Boyes Of Kenya Colony”, whom Edson describes as "a legendary character”, began in issue 166, dated 25 April 1964, and ran for 13 episodes. “Dawson Of Dumballa” began in issue 189 dated 3 October 1964 and also lasted 13 weeks. This was set in the early days of African safaris and Edson had originally entitled it “Fungua Safari” which is Swahili for Start The Journey. Also pre-dating “The Town Tamers” was “Cottrell of The Rangers” which was about the United States National Park Service Rangers and ran for 12 episodes beginning in issue 177, dated 11 July 1964.

After “The Town Tamers” ended in issue 203, the next Edson series was about a roving reporter for an American hunting and fishing magazine entitled “The Rifle And The Rod” which began in issue 205, dated 23 January 1965, and ran for 12 episodes. Issue 217, dated 17 April 1965, started the 12 part “It’s A Dog’s Life” which were individual stories of working dogs through the ages. Edson then moved his stories north to Canada for “The Boot And The Saddle” which told individual stories of the forerunners of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police with a selection of different recurring characters including Tex Yandel who began as a constable. 12 episodes of these stories of the Mounties began in issue 229, dated 10 July 1965, and were followed up in 1970 by another 14 episodes under the title “The Queen’s Cowboys” which began in issue 481, dated 9 May 1970. Both these series were reprinted intermittently as “Boot And Saddle” beginning in issue 859 in 1977.

Next came “The Catchem Company”, individual stories of animal trappers based in Asia, Africa, America which began in issue 251, dated 11 Dec 1965 with a batch of 9 episodes (missing out issue 256) while another batch of 3 episodes began with issue 269, dated 16 April 1966. Two further one-shots appeared in issue 326 and 338 in May and July 1967. “Lord Of The White Highlands” began in issue 270, dated 23 April 1966. This 13 episode series was a tribute to Lord Delamere who opened up Kenya to European agriculture at the beginning of the 20th century. From Kenya to Florida and from farming to fishing, “Duke Farlow, Big Game Fisher” was a modern professional deep-sea fishing guide who began in issue 282, dated 16 July 1966, and ran for 13 episodes plus an appearance in the 1968 Victor Book For Boys.

Beginning in issue 242, dated 9 October 1966, “Rebel Of The Iron Road” told the 13 episode story of Lee Christmas, a train driver who got caught up in a revolution in Central America, while “The Building Of The Albemarle”, about a famous American Civil War warship and in which Dusty Fog reappeared, began in issue 296, dated 22 October 1966, and also ran for 13 episodes. Edson returned to his love of dogs with “Hounds Of The Hunter” beginning is issue 311, dated 4 February 1967, which spent 11 episodes with an American hunter and his hunting dogs. “Steamboat Jim” was Jim Bludso, a Mississippi river boat engineer from the 1880s, who first appeared in issue 325, dated 13 May 1967, and continued for another 13 weeks. Finally came a selection of single stories about Sam and Eddy Dayton, two brothers who were action cameramen for a TV company in the USA. The first story of “The Thrill Seekers” appeared in issue 414, dated 25 January 1969, with others following in issues 416 and 420 plus the 1969 Victor Book For Boys. A further batch of five episodes began in issue 692, dated 25 May 1974, with the others in issues 694, 695, 696 and 698. Edson makes no mention of any of these Thrill Seeker stories in JT’s Hundredth so we can only speculate why there was a five year gap between them.

The Illustrated Comics Journal, from which much of the dating information for this article originates, also lists “The Drainpipe Destroyer” in the 1975 Victor Book For Boys as being written by Edson. Edson does not mention this one himself and being a World War Two story it would be atypical of his output if it was indeed written by him.

As with his text story “Son Of A Yellow Cop”, Edson had a comic strip story paid for but apparently never published. “The Lunatic Line” told the story of the building of the railway from Mombasa to Lake Victoria. In addition to this he had at least two comic strip ideas rejected. “Bring Law To The Kenya Colony” would have been about the colonial Kenyan police force, while the stories of gunsmith John Moses Browning were reworked into the Johnny Boyland text stories in the Boy’s World annuals.

JT Edson stopped writing for Thomson's boy's papers because of a change in editorial policy which he does not detail. Since, at that point, he could not live on just the earnings of his novels he took a job as a postman. This lasted for three years until his writing could once again support him and his family as a full time job.

He describes the style of many of his comic stories as “factional”, fiction based on fact. Since his book readers would have known him as a western writer, in JT’s Hundredth he says of his comics writing, “I did very few Western scripts. "The Town Tamers", which DC Thomson & Co. Ltd. kindly permitted me to turn into the book of the same name, was one.” This would suggest that, after all, there was only one novel based on “The Town Tamers” comic strip.

Time will tell.

The information for these two JT Edson articles comes from the short story collection JT’s Hundredth, written by JT Edson and published by Corgi in 1979 and The Illustrated Comics Journal Issue 35 article/interview with JT Edson by Alan Smith with research by Ray Moore. With thanks to Norman Boyd.

For more information on The Victor comic, visit Adrian Banfield’s Victor and Hornet website.

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