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Sunday, December 11, 2016

John Gillatt (1929-2016)

For over sixeen years, John Gillatt charted the adventures of Billy Dane, whose extraordinary footballing talents were channelled from ‘Dead-Shot’ Keen through the soccer legend’s beaten-up pair of football books. As with any comic strip story, the real excitement came from the numerous ways scriptwriter Fred Baker separated Billy from his boots, forcing the horrified youngster to play using only his own meagre footballing skills.

Although he was not the first artist on the strip, Gillatt’s arrival on the strip in October 1971 in the pages of Scorcher and Score brought together the story’s perfect team. Gillatt and Baker went on to follow Billy’s soccer and cricketing adventures through the pages of Tiger, Eagle and Roy of the Rovers before Gillatt finally departed in January 1988.

Gillatt left the strip to take up the challenge of drawing Dan Dare in the pages of the revived Eagle, which he drew for almost a full year. This was a return to science fiction, which is where Gillatt had started his career thirty-one years earlier when he began drawing Jet-Ace Logan in April 1957. “Jet-Ace” was a pilot with the R.A.F. of the future, battling space pirates and aliens on the interstellar space lanes in the pages of Comet and Tiger. An excellent draughtsman, his work—drawn twice-up—received praise from many of the writers he worked with, including Frank Pepper, who took over writing Jet-Ace in Tiger, who considered him the best of the Jet-Ace artists.

Gillatt was born in Peterborough on 17 August 1929, the son of Oswald Belton Gillatt, a master mason, and his wife Hilda May (née Hooke), who were married in 1918. John was the youngest of four boys and attended. Apart from his National Service and a period studying at Leicester College of Art, he lived in Peterborough his whole life.

Educated at Deacon’s School, he became a fan of comics whilst through reading American comic sections sent over by an American pen-friend during the Second World War, becoming a fan of Milton Caniff’s “Terry and the Pirates”; he was also a follower of Alex Raymond’s “Rip Kirby” when it appeared in the Daily Mail. However, his first employment was not in comics but as an illustrator with an advertising agency and as a draughtsman with the engineering firm of Perkins Diesel.

He was married to Josephine Wright in 1956 and their first child was born in 1957. To provide for his new family, Gillatt found work drawing comics and, thanks to his regular weekly output on “Jet-Ace Logan” he was able to give up his day job after only three months. He earned £1,000 in his first year.

His early work was meticulous, at first taking six days to produce the pages for Jet-Ace, although when Comet merged with Tiger in 1959, he simplified his style for the sporting paper’s larger pages. With only the occasional break, he continued to draw Jet-Ace serials until 1963

It was in Tiger that Gillatt first turned his hand to sporting strips, taking over (from Geoff Campion, as he had Jet-Ace Logan) the artwork for wrestling Native American “Johnny Cougar” in 1963. In 1966 he took a break from the strip to draw “The Forest Rangers”, based on the Canadian TV series broadcast on ITV, and “The Black Archer”, a caped crime-fighter with a crossbow. In the guise of the Archer, Delago City’s clumsiest young TV reporter, Clem Macey, was able to battle fabulous villains like The Remover, who could alter the size of objects, and The Weatherman, who could use weather phenomena to aid his criminal activities. After a brief spell drawing “The Great Thesbius” (a former stage actor and illusionist who turns to crime when his fame wanes), he returned to “Johnny Cougar” until 1969, when he took over the comedy-adventures of the Robinsons, who ran and played in a unique family-owned football club, Thatchem United. Gillatt produced “Football Family Robinson” in colour for three years before switching to line and wash.

During his time on “Football Family Robinson”, Gillatt added “Billy’s Boots” in Scorcher and Score to his weekly schedule, and kept both strips going until the latter merged with Tiger in 1974; further mergers saw Billy switch to Eagle in 1985 and Roy of the Rovers in 1986. Written by Fred Baker, who managed to find innumerable ways for ‘Dead-Shot’ Keen’s boots to be lost, damaged or stolen, it was the only strip to challenge Roy of the Rovers for the top spot in Tiger and became that paper’s unchallenged top story when Roy moved to his own title.

Although Billy Dane’s adventures came to an end in the early Nineties, reprints of Gillatt’s years on the strip remain popular in Holland where it was known as “De Wondersloffen van Sjakie”. In one instance, where Billy played a match in Holland, Gillatt had to redraw the strip for its appearance in Sjors and Dutch-born Sjackie hitch-hiked to the match in a lorry instead of arriving by ferry. 24 volumes of Sjackie’s adventures were reprinted featuring Gillatt’s artwork, with Gillatt providing new cover artwork.

Gillatt’s move to “Dan Dare” coincided with the merger between Eagle with Battle and an almost year-long adventure ensued for the pilot of the future as he battled the flesh-eating Drakken and a miniaturised Mekon in full colour. This was a rocky time for British comics, with many titles folding and merging: Gillatt found himself briefly drawing “Magic Man” for Hot-Shot! and “Ring Raiders”, based on the animated TV show, in an eponymously titled—and abruptly cancelled after only six issues—comic. The short-lived “My Pet Alien!” in Eagle in 1990 proved to be his last regular work on weekly comics, although he produced new covers for the Johnny Cougar’s Wrestling Monthly reprint magazine in 1992-93. Around the same time he produced a number of educational strips for Young Telegraph on subjects ranging from the Eifel Tower to Einstein.

Gillatt found a new market in the Daily Mirror where former Tiger editor Barrie Tomlinson was writing a daily football strip, “Scorer”. More adult-themed storylines required Gillatt to add elements that had never been aa requirement in his previous comics. “Johnʼs Scorer illustrations were, of course, brilliant,” Barrie Tomlinson has said. “The story needed an artist who could illustrate football action and also be able to draw beautiful women. John could do both those things and I felt honoured that my scripts could be turned into such excellent works of art which made the story so popular that it steadily increased in size on the Mirror cartoon page. When we later added photographic and computer effects, John adapted with ease and worked in close association with David Pugh, who did all the computer work. They were a great team. Johnʼs work was always delivered on time and always to the same high standard.

“Tall, bespectacled, articulate, softly-spoken and a man who could deal with any challenge, John was a pleasure to work with and to be with. He was a perfect gentleman.”

Gillatt suffered a stroke in 2003 and retired from “Scorer”. He lived in Eastfield Road, Peterborough, where he suffered another stroke in May which left him paralysed down one side and unable to speak. He was cared for at Philia Lodge Rest Home, where he died on Friday, 4 November, aged 87. He is survived by his three children, Simon, Matthew and Rachel.

3 comments:

Kid said...

Another giant of British comics gone. Such a shame, but, cliche as it may be, his work will live on - as will his name to those who read his strips in their youth.

Matthew Gillatt said...

Thank you for your kind words. Matthew Gillatt

Steve said...

Hi Matthew,

Thanks for taking the time to comment. Perhaps you could drop me a line directly (my e-mail can be found under the photo, top left) as I'd love to know more about your dad's career.