Monday, October 01, 2018

Black Max

A black-painted Fokker triplane wheels across the sky like a bird of prey. At its controls is Baron Maximilien von Klorr, a master pilot known as Black Max whose deeply scarred face is a constant reminder of his hatred for the British dogs who shot him down. Von Klorr's Bavarian castle contains a grim secret, kept from even the servants by their hate-filled master... a secret soon revealed to one pilot flying a patrol on the Western Front.

Only Morg, the ugly, massively-muscled servant shares the secret of the 'specially created triplane.

Recovered from his wounds, Von Klorr takes up his new command and before long pilots of the British pilots of the R.F.C. begin to fear the skies, wondering if some inhuman beast is tearing the planes of their comrades apart. One who discovers the truth is Lieutenant Tim Wilson, newly posted to the 14th R.F.C. Pursuit Squadron, a born pilot prone to stunting in his plane. On his way to join the squadron he sees a Camel attacked and destroyed by a monstrous bat in the control of Black Max. His own plane damaged, Wilson manages to land behind enemy lines.

He falls asleep in a cave... the very cave that Von Klorr keeps his killer-bat!

Escaping back to British lines, he is rescued by his C.O., Major "Groucher" Gromett, with whom he has a rocky relationship. Gromett (not surprisingly) refuses to believe Wilson's story of a giant bat and grounds the pilot; and things only get worse when Wilson steals the C.O.'s plane in order to chase down the bat and his master.

After their first encounter in the skies, Von Klorr realises Wilson knows his secret and Wilson becomes a marked man.

This is classic British comics at their best. The weekly anthology format sometimes worked against a strip developing as it stumbled from cliffhanger to cliffhanger, each week starting with a recap, a resolution, and only a little space for any plot to develop before it had to be wrapped up in such a way that you wanted to come back next week to find out what happened. It is not an easy format if you want to create memorable stories and was mastered by only a handful of scriptwriters – one reason why the same names appear time and time again when authorship of a strip is discovered: Tom Tully, Frank Pepper, Fred Baker, Scott Goodall and Ken Mennell being the leading lights of IPC's boys' adventure comics in the 1960s and 1970s.

In this instance, the creator of the strip was Ken Mennell, a fantastic ideas man at IPC, who co-plotted many of the finest weird menace yarns published in the pages of Lion, Valiant and Buster. Ideas would be thrashed out in the editorial office between Mennell, the editor and the writer who would eventually script the story. Mennell later scripted stories himself, many for Odhams and then for IPC, including the unforgettable "Black Max".

Talking of unforgettable, one of the reasons "Black Max" has survived in the memories of older fans is the artwork, a virtuoso performance by Alfonso Font, a young Spanish artist still in his early twenties, who picked up the gauntlet left by Eric Bradbury (who had drawn the first episode for the dummy that eventually became Thunder), and turned in one of the most visually exciting strips of the time. With Sopwith Camels and Fokker Triplanes reeling about the sky and Allied squadrons divebombed by giant bats from above and taking enemy fire from below, the action never lets up.

Thankfully, Tim Wilson doesn't spend the whole strip trying to convince the British brass that the bats exist, which frees up the strip and allows it to develop – once the secret of the killer bat is out, Von Klorr sets about creating a whole squadron of the winged furies to unleash upon his enemy. As is often the case with hero and villain, the latter is the more memorable of the two adversaries, with intriguing hints of his supernatural origins introduced along with his ghoulish grandfather, who reveals that the Von Klorr family is said to have been descended from "the bat people of ancient times ... Certainly we can speak to them, as no others can!" My nine-year-old self would have loved to have known more about this hint at vampirism.

Meanwhile, Von Klorr has trained his "devil's squadron" to strafe the ground, breaking up Sopwiths as they sit on Allied airfields ... a sinister Zeppelin rises out of the fog ... and Tim Wilson and "Groucher" Gromett are captured by Von Klorr ... just a few of the incidents that follow as this volume races towards its climax. The seven months' worth of strips here will keep you on the edge of your seat and the thrills are To Be Continued... but not next week. While this volume is rounded out with a couple of complete stories from the Thunder Holiday Special and Thunder Annual, we will have to wait for Volume Two before we discover how Von Klorr teams up with that other memorable villain from Lion, Dr. Gratz.

Black Max Volume One Ken Mennell, Frank Pepper, Eric Bradbury & Alfonso Font
Rebellion ISBN 9781781086551, 4 October 2018, £10.99. Available via Amazon.

1 comment:

  1. I could have sworn that I first came across this strip in the mid to late sixties rather than the early seventies. But all web sites seem to say it was the beginning of the seventies. Strange how time plays tricks on the old memory.



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