Saturday, February 25, 2017

Jeff Hawke Jnr

A welcome companion to Jeff Hawke's Cosmos, William Rudling has brought together all the episodes of "Jeff Hawke" from the pages of Junior Express—hence the "Jnr" in the title on the cover. The early issues of Junior Express—later Express Weekly and later still TV Express—are scarce and even fans of Hawke with deep pockets will struggle to find a decent run of the paper. Here we have all 83 episodes that made up four serial stories between September 1954 and April 1956.

The dates will probably clue you in to the truth that they are not the most sophisticated of stories. The opening panels echo the strip's first appearance in the Daily Express, in which Jeff is introduced as a pilot at Farnborough—as simply a pilot at an air show in the Junior version, rather than the pilot of experimental aircraft—before he flies off to encounter a flying saucer. In the Junior strip, Jeff is joined by a friend, Bill Judd, and his nephew, Dick Regan, who stowaway aboard his plane and are soon caught up in the adventure.

Shining aliens in both stories take Jeff into space before dropping him off on a planet. The stories diverge... for the more youthful reader, Jeff is led by a robot guide named Groka and asked to spy on the other inhabitants of the planet Rea under the rule of the war-thirsty Sator. Jeff, Bill and young Dick (no sniggering, please) train until they can pass as members of Sator's army and use a stolen aircraft to fly behind enemy lines.

Jeff's battle with Sator continued for 30 weeks and, whilst it could never hope to match the Daily Express strip for quality in both art and storyline, it was entertaining and the plot made good use of the fact that these early issues were printed in red and black, the former colour coming in quite handy when it came to identifying allied and enemy robots.

The red also gives colour to the flames of the Planet of Fire, the second story in this collection, although Jeff, Bill and young Dick (you've been warned!) are dropped off on the planet's seventh moon with the curious instruction to find "the people who dwell in caves". Led by Zirk the Black, the cave-dwellers turn out to be refugees making arrangements to flee the planet of fire, mining the moon for a rare metal required to build spaceships.

Returning from the ore-rich satellite, attempts to build rockets for Zirk's people are thwarted by earthquakes and attacks by other desperate inhabitants of the planet. Despite requiring 200 spacecraft, Zirk is forced to begin ferrying his people off-planet with only three in what seems to have been a very hurried ending to the story.

Story three involved two changes of artist, introducing George Stokes and Ferdinando Tacconi. The stories also improved dramatically as the previous premise was dropped entirely and Jeff's next adventure involves the building of a space station and Jeff is to be put in charge of a space fleet. Alien eyes watch, planning an attack. When a meteorite strike sends a spaceman floating off into the void—with Jeff in pursuit in a space taxi—they use the opportunity to help themselves to some captives via tractor beam.

Unfortunately, alien technology is as poorly constructed as Earth technology and the tractor beam breaks; the space taxi runs out of fuel; a young boy named Bobby spots the problem from Earth using his grandfather's telescope and his father is able to phone space control with the news. The boy subsequently stows away on the rescue rocket sent from Earth. I think I spoke too soon about the improvements in the quality of the stories.

But the quality of the artwork and layouts vastly improved with the arrival of Ferdinando Tacconi, who took the strip to full colour in early 1956. The strip was now published across two pages with a feature below them... and it's here that I disagree with the choice to break up the strip, varying the panel sizes to create patchwork pages rather than reprinting the originals. I don't have the original issues, so I don't know whether this would have created major problems with text dropping into the gutter, but the results aren't as satisfying as a straight reprint.

The final story begins with another new space station and an easy to spot villain by the name of Professor Bodkin, whose nephew, Scrubby, is one of the space cadets sent up to the station. To avoid being seen by his uncle, Scrubby hides in the hold of the ferry rocket where he stumble upon a bomb intended to sabotage the mission.

Threats are issued against the latest station that is being built but the satellite is completed safely – or so everyone thinks; two gravity bombs have been set to explode when the sun and the moon reach certain positions and even Bodkin cannot remember where they are planted.

As well as the four stories, Jeff Hawke Jnr has a wealth of factual material written by Duncan Lunan, Jeremy Briggs and others. These articles include a look at the Space Crewman's Log Book, given to members of the Jeff Hawke Spaceman's Club (and Junior Express readers) and the 25 cards that made up the Jeff Hawke's "Space Gen" card set.

Despite the poor storylines, it's great to see these strips collected. The Jeff Hawke Club have done an amazing job of pulling together the complete run of Jeff Hawke and Lance McLane strips and Jeff Hawke Jnr is the icing on the cake.

Subscription rates are £26 for three issues here in the UK and £34/38/41 for overseas subscribers, payable in a variety of ways. You can find more details (and back issues) at the new Jeff Hawke Club web page or by contacting william AT Contact William Rudling for details of Jeff Hawke Jnr

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