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Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Last chance to buy: Frontline UK

(* As this is the final week of our 25% off Sale of Frontline UK here at Bear Alley Books, here's a taster of the introduction which takes a look at the history of the strip...)


The comic strip ‘Frontline UK’ owes its origins to the youthful reading of one of D.C. Thomson’s editorial staff. At the age of nine, Bill Graham was a keen reader of The Wizard, with its regular cocktail of sport, western, war and adventure stories and where Wilson the wonder athlete, roughneck footballer Bernard Briggs and secret agent Bill Samson, the Wolf of Kabul, were among the paper’s most popular characters.

In the constant churn of stories and serials there was room for a little of everything and in the 1950s, science fiction was gaining a foothold in the pages of The Wizard: ‘The Crimson Comet’ had almost destroyed the Earth as early as 1946, and when ‘The Sun Turned Blue’ in 1950, it heralded an invasion of flying saucers.

While the creatures and plants of ‘The Purple Killers From Below’ and ‘The Monster in Hyde Park’ might be seen as typical of the science fiction in children’s papers, The Wizard also tackled more apocalyptic themes in ‘I Saw the End of the World’, which opens with a vivid flash in the sky when lightning detonates a cargo of hydrogen bombs off the coast of America, causing a five-mile-high wall of fire to sweep across the globe; and ‘Lost Men in Space’, in which the earth is suffering from the Great Blight, which stops crops from growing in earth’s soil—sixty years before this became a key ingredient of Christopher Nolan’s movie Interstellar. When a meteorite crashes onto a farm and plants begin to sprout again, an expedition is sent into space in search of the planet from which the meteor came.

In issue 1550 (29 October 1955), one of The Wizard’s regular authors, Gilbert Dalton, penned ‘The Yellow Sword’, a story that took as its premise an invasion of Britain. It was not a new idea: Sir George Chesney had imagined a German incursion reaching the heart of Surrey in his story ‘The Battle of Dorking’ in 1871, and many other foreign armies, usually German, marched through England’s green and pleasant lands, especially after the 1906 serialisation of William Le Queux’s The Invasion of 1910 in the Daily Mail.

Such stories became a staple of boys’ papers as early as 1897 when Hamilton Edwards’ penned ‘Britain in Arms’ and its immediate sequel ‘The Russian Foe’, which ran for 70 weeks in The Boys’ Friend. Even longer was the 100-episode epic trilogy ‘Britain Invaded’, ‘Britain at Bay” and ‘Britain’s Revenge’ that appeared in the same paper in 1906-08. Even after a staggering 700,000 words, author Sidney Gowing (writing as John Tregellis) would return to the theme again in 1912 with ‘Kaiser or King’ and its sequel ‘The Flying Armada’ and yet again with ‘The Legions of the Kaiser’ (and sequel ‘The Mailed Fist’), which was running when the Great War broke out in 1914.

‘Yellow Sword’ author Gilbert Dalton was certainly well aware of the history of this kind of literature, even naming a major character Major Chesney. Unlike many of his predecessors, however, the enemy was a fictional Asiatic country and two World Wars had already been fought. Dalton was well aware that an enemy blitzkrieg would put most of Europe under the control of Britain’s foes.

The year was 1968 and the story’s hero was John Maitland, who had joined the Royal Warwickshires in order to fight the invading Kushantis. However, after only a few months he is a broken man, trudging in his torn and dirty uniform back towards Hopebridge village in the Midlands where he was formerly a schoolmaster.

The Kushantis have landed at Dover, Folkestone and around Southampton. Maitland, grimy, nervous and injured, his left arm in a sling, believes he is the sole survivor of a battalion scourged by low-flying planes. Britain’s Navy has been reduced to sunken hulks, her aircraft shot down and her soldiers dead or captured, swamped by the sheer weight of numbers arriving from the East.

The British government has surrendered to the Imperial Kushanti Oligarchy and an occupying army arrives in Hopebridge, led by the ruthless Lieutenant Fang, who raises the black flag with its emblem of a yellow sword over the village.

Over the course of fifteen episodes, Maitland was able to pull together a small group from the villagers and his school’s pupils to help him defy the enemy and then to link up with the larger resistance forces in the surrounding area.

‘The Yellow Sword’—and its 18-episode, 1957 sequel, ‘Will o’ the Whistle’, in which, 25 years on, the Kushantis use gas to execute a bloodless coup—made a strong impression on young Bill Graham, who would grow up to join The Wizard’s publisher, Dundee-based D. C. Thomson.

(* You can read the rest of the introduction in Frontline UK, available from Bear Alley Books.)

(* Frontline UK © DC Thomson.)


  1. A fascinating introduction, Steve. I switched to the Thomson story papers as a youngster after the Amalgamated Press closed its last for boys, The Champion, in 1955. I still have my copies of the 1955-57 Rovers and Wizards, the latter, of course, with the text instalments of 'The Yellow Sword' and 'Will o' the Whistle'. I must have read tens of thousands of words by Gilbert Dalton without ever being aware that one writer was responsible for so many of the stories featuring the most famous of the D. C. Thomson characters: Wilson, Braddock, the Tough of the Track, to name just three.

  2. I enjoyed writing all the introductions for these books - far more fun than cleaning up the artwork, I can tell you! It's a shame other publishers don't go to town a little more on the history of the strips they're reprinting... but I guess it all depends on pagination and how much space they have left.