Saturday, February 28, 2015
John Cooper (1942-2015)
In 1975, John Wagner was appointed editor of the ailing Valiant, whose sales had fallen in line with many other comics during the turbulent early Seventies oil crisis. Cover prices had soared and Wagner was tasked with updating the comic for a modern audience. Wagner’s key creation for the relaunch was ‘One-Eyed Jack’, a tough street cop based shamelessly on Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry. Cooper took Eastwood as his model for the artwork and gave him Steve McQueen’s Mustang (from Bullitt) to drive. Wagner’s scripts were gritty, violent and often blackly humorous, a style of writing he would continue when he created Judge Dredd—another violent cop in an east coast American city—for 2000AD soon after.
Instead, Cooper was sidelined, drawing a handful of episodes of ‘M.A.C.H.1’ and some ‘Tharg’s Future Shocks’ for 2000AD. It meant, however, that he was able to take over ‘Johnny Red’, an already popular Second World War strip in Battle Action when the strip’s original artist, Joe Colquhoun, was seconded to another strip. By the time Cooper took over, two-year veteran Colquhoun had established a look for the strip: “I had to slightly imitate his style at the beginning, but I think I just became more like him as I went along,” recalled Cooper. “I liked to do dramatic close-ups but with [Colquhoun-styled] stuff in the background—you’d have someone stood next to a big gun, someone else queuing for the toilet, then there’d be all these building and maybe a burnt-out plane.”
The story was one of Battle Action’s finest, relating how Johnny ‘Red’ Redburn found himself in charge of a Russian flying squadron, leading Falcon Squadron with a battered old Hurricane. “It was gritty, really rough and ready,” recalled Cooper. “All his crew were unshaved, dirty buggers, the planes patched to hell… Tom Tully was a brilliant writer. He was like Wagner in a way: he went for the gut, didn’t pull any punches.”
Over the next five and three-quarter years, Cooper was able to make the strip his own, eventually drawing over 1,100 pages of Johnny’s adventures spread across 303 episodes in the weekly comic, summer specials and annuals.
After working for a shopfitters in Wakefield and for Falcon Studios in Leeds, Cooper decided to go freelance after a conversation with a patron at his father’s pub. He picked a London agent, randomly choosing Billie M. Cooper because of the coincidence of names, who soon found him work, his earliest illustrations appearing in Swift, Girl, Eagle and Boys’ World annuals in the early 1960s. Cooper then found work with a group of titles based around the puppet show creations of Gerry Anderson, his first strip (‘Agent 21’) appearing in the 1968 TV 21 Annual. After briefly taking over the lead strip for Lady Penelope in 1968, Cooper worked more extensively on ‘Captain Scarlet’ in TV21 and took over ‘Thunderbirds’ in the relaunched TV21 & Joe 90 from Frank Bellamy, drawing the strip for eight months.
Following Jack’s demise in 1977, Cooper drew ‘Gaunt’, about a British spy seeking revenge after his hand is crippled by an SS, before taking on ‘Dredger’ and ‘The General Dies at Dawn’ in the newly renamed Battle Action.
Always speedy and versatile, Cooper rarely limited himself to just one strip and he also drew number of war strips for D. C. Thomson’s Warlord, including ‘Sergeant Heavy’ and ‘The Wingless Hawk’, and complete stories for Eagle and Scream!!.
In 1983 Battle Action joined forces with Kenner Products to promote the Action Force toy line, eventually becoming Battle Action Force. Cooper became one of the main artists in the ongoing battle against Cobra for two and a half years.
During the Gerry Anderson revival of the early 1990s, Cooper found himself once again drawing Stingray, Captain Scarlet and Thunderbirds.
Following the publication of a short graphic novel Richard the Lionheart: The Life of a King and Crusader by David West & Jackie Gaff (Brighton, Book House, 2005), it was suggested that Cooper contact 2000AD again. This led initially to a one-off ‘Tharg’s Terror Tales’ episode in 2006 and then to taking over the futuristic crime drama (and Judge Dredd spin-off) ‘Armitage’ in 2008 in Judge Dredd The Megazine. His last episodes appeared in 2010.
In later life, Cooper suffered from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, which often left him tired and breathless. Although retired from comics, he satisfied his urge to keep drawing by producing maritime paintings, which found a ready market. In 2010, Cooper and others helped raise money to fund a new local RNLI lifeboat in Bridlington, which Cooper dubbed the Windsor Spirit at its naming ceremony.
(* The Action Force picture above was a private commission found here.)