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Imagine if you can a huge pantheon of comic book characters. Among their number is one with arachnid-like powers and another who is a flying Viking. There is also a wily magician and a metal man of action. I am not describing the heroes of the American Marvel universe, Spider-man, Thor, Dr. Strange and Iron Man. No, these characters are just a few of the many that populated the British Lion comic in its 22 years of life. Their names? The Spider, Phantom Viking, the Spellbinder and Robot Archie. The adventures of these classic characters sent excited children racing to their local newsagent every week.

Lion was originally conceived to be a rival for Hulton's massive success, the Eagle. It even featured on its front cover, Captain Condor, whose space adventures were obviously meant to mimic those of Eagle's hugely popular Dan Dare. I do not want to underestimate the popularity of Eagle comic at that time. At the height of it's popularity it sold 750,000 copies a week. An American title at that time would be lucky to sell that amount in a month. Eagle was a polished, beautifully drawn, photogravure publication. The Amalgamated Press Lion was printed on very poor quality paper and contained no interior colour. The Eagle, perhaps, suffered from being just too good. It had nowhere to go but down. After many years of sustained high production values, its quality did fall as did its sales. Lion, on the other hand, improved over the years, especially the 1960's. It never reached the heights of Eagle, but somehow managed to keep a healthy regular readership for some years longer. The Lion, cover-dated 3 May 1969, absorbed the Eagle, a comic it was merely meant to imitate.

The Eagle comic was not Lion's first victim, however. Ten years before Amalgamated Press Group had decided, after a printer's strike, that some of its comic publications could no longer survive. Their name, too, was changed to Fleetway Publications. The effect on Lion was that it became incorporated with Sun (which was a comic and not that well known daily) with the issue dated 24th October 1959. Thanks in part to a bunch of new artists that hopped aboard Lion's pages, it was ready to embrace the most exciting period of its life, the sixties.

The new artists on Lion began reinvigorating old characters such as Captain Condor, Sandy Dean (adventures of a schoolboy at Tollgate School), Robot Archie (who began in the first issue in a strip called Jungle Robot), Billy the Kid and many others. New characters were constantly appearing such as Rory Macduff. One of Rory's adventures involved 'The ghost of Jason Rollo'. I discovered this story in the early seventies, in 1968 copies of Lion which I found in a comic box we had in class at school (I now realise that this was actually a reprint and the story first appeared in Lion in 1963). I was absolutely captivated by this yarn and stories of this quality are why I still read comics. To this day I have still not read that story to its conclusion. I hope to at some point and no longer care if it is a reprint or not.

I began by comparing Lion with Marvel comics. This is because of the type of characters which populate both universes. Lion even had a barbarian character in 'Karl the Viking' (drawn mainly by the superb Don Lawrence) long before Marvel adopted Conan. I was never a fan of sports related stories and Marvel and Lion rarely featured them. One exception, however, was Lion's 'Carson's Cubs', which I loved. I think now that the main reason for my 1972 defection to Marvel comics was due to their interactive universe. Each character in British comics appeared to live in his own world, which was unrelated to that of the other characters in the same comic. Lion, however, bucked the trend in a small way. Some of the characters did feature in the other's strips. Robot Archie met the Sludge, a monster which had starred in its own story. Carson's Cubs played against and with Eagle's 'Circus Wanderers'. Doktor Ratz, a character from ' The Black Max' strip went on to become a star himself in 'Secrets of the Demon Dwarf'. The stories 'The White Eyes' and 'Shadow of the Snake' were continued as 'Masters of Menace', when these villains united. So Lion did, at least to a limited extent, have a universe where its characters shared their adventures.

Something else I've noticed while writing this is the amount of villainous characters Lion featured. The Black Max, The Spider, The Sludge, The Snake and The White Eyes were all characters of a dubious nature. Makes you wonder just what those writers for Lion were thinking about way back then.

Lion's next victim was Champion. This was the revived version of the Champion comic which had had a very respectable run of 1729 issues, between 1922 and 1955. This version (subtitled 'the companion paper to Valiant' (another successful Fleetway comic for those who don't know)), however, only lasted 15 issues before it became incorporated with Lion, 11 June 1966. Jet Jordan (a reprint from a Belgian comic) came with the merger. Jet was the son of an inventor of (you guessed it) jets. Jet's aerobatic team (in the British version) were known as 'The Red Bisons'. The already mentioned 'Phantom Viking' was otherwise known as the meek Olaf Larson (Don Blake, anyone?) who changed to the flying norseman after putting on his Viking helmet. He was the longest lasting survivor of this merger.

T.V.'s Danger Man, drawn by Jesus Blasco (who drew the excellent 'Steel Claw' in Valiant), also featured in the newly combined Lion and Champion. This was an unusual move for Fleetway as they did not often feature TV related characters. This task was usually left to comic publications such as TV Century 21 and TV Comic. The main reason for this is that it was far cheaper to create a similar character than to pay for the right to feature TV characters. After a thirteen week run, that is exactly what they did. Danger Man was replaced by Lion's very own 'Code Name- Barracuda'.

In 1966 Lion introduced the football strip ' Carson's Cubs'. This story ran for seven years and was popular with readers. Despite it being football related, there was always a background story that involved Joe Carson and the kids, giving an added interest to those not really fond of the beautiful game.

May 1969 saw Lion make its biggest kill. Lion became merged with Eagle. Four Eagle strips survived the merger. They were 'Dan Dare', 'The Gladiators' (fighters from ancient Rome's Coliseum who had been transported through time to WWII), 'The Waxer' (who was yet another Fleetway criminal starring in his own strip) and 'Lightning Stormm' (a disabled, crime busting ex-racing driver). For me, however, the best strip to grace this first merged issue was 'Turville's Touchstone', a strip that would later be renamed 'The Spellbinder'. This was to be an enduring and consistently popular story. It was drawn by Geoff Campion and sometimes Reg Bunn. I loved this story. I remember tracking down a copy of the first Lion and Eagle in a second hand shop while on holiday on the Isle of Wight in 1971. I remember reading as Tom Turville, an orphan, inherited sprawling Turville Hall. The artwork was so good I could actually feel cobwebs on my face as Tom took a torchlit tour round the old mansion. He found his ancestor, Sylvester, who had been sleeping for centuries and whose life was extended thanks to his wondrous jewel, the philosopher's stone or touchstone. This yarn captured my young imagination like none before. I kept wondering just what it would be like to own my own touchstone. I probably would have wished for all the Lions I was missing in my collection for starters.I found many of the early Lions in second hand book shops, where I confess I spent much of my time.

The first new issue of Lion I bought was a relaunch issue dated 7 February 1970. Please forgive me if I become a little more passionate about this particular comic. It really was something of an event for me at the time. George Best featured on the cover in a Manchester United strip. Fleetway comics (Valiant, Smash, Tiger, etc.) were doing a football album and cards promotion at the time which is probably what encouraged me to buy Lion (and the other titles). The comic contained a bunch of new stories. Each one was numbered. For example 'New story No.2- England invaded by brutal Norman knights' was the banner for the first episode of the beautifully drawn 'Flame o' the Forest'. This story featured a medieval masked character who fought against the conquerors. 'The Fugitive from Planet Scror' was another new story. This tale saw Karg, a Scrorian who was less than happy with his people's plan to destroy the Earth. He fled his ship with a key which was vital to operate the bomb ship. Most of this story involved the pursuit of Karg by his erstwhile shipmates. Another new story was 'General Johnny', a kid who had somehow developed incredible military acumen and became adopted by the war office. Finally, 'Stringbean and Hambone'. These inept tag-team wrestlers suddenly became successful after unknowingly procuring a magic eye. It was hidden in a lamp aboard a Chinese junk ship they possessed.

After reading this comic I decided Lion was the comic for me and I gave up TV21. In retrospect I realise just how impressed with Lion I must have been. TV21 was still lavish, colourful and graced with excellent artwork. It also featured, in the main, well-known and popular TV characters. Despite this, I had been won over by the much poorer quality, letterpress Lion. I would stay with the title for another two years and as many back issues as I could find.

A few months later Lion was given another revamp issue. The issue cover dated 25 July 1970 again featured numbered new stories. For me the best of these was (because I love science fiction; remember vintage Star Trek was a new programme back then) 'Britain A.D. 2170'. This story, like 'Fugitive from Planet Scror', was drawn by the Lopez Studio. It featured the return to Earth (after a five year mission, honest!) of the probe-ship EXPLORER. The trouble was there had been some mighty big changes on the mother planet in that last half decade. I will mention the impressive cover of this particular issue as it featured the 'Britain.....' story and showed London's Trafalgar Square in overgrown ruins. I was a nine year old filled with excited anticipation of the latest Lion's contents after receiving this comic through the letterbox one Saturday morning back in 1970.

Lion's last merger before being consumed itself was with the relatively new comic, 'Thunder', 20 March 1971. Thunder had only enjoyed a short run of 22 issues between October 1970 and March 1971. It was apparently created with a merger in mind. Unlike the previous mergers, Thunder's strips dominated the new Lion and Thunder. Seven strips transferred into the new weekly. 'The Black Max', featured German air ace Von Klorr, who used his flying skills and giant bats to fight the allies in WWI. 'Fury's Family', saw the eponymous Fury and his family (ex-circus animals) travelling through Africa. 'Phil the Fluter', featured Phil who was able to freeze people in their tracks by blowing his flute. This came in handy if he wanted to gain revenge on people who had slighted him or stop criminals or accidents, etc. 'The Jet Skaters' were a bunch of kids who had been sent some powered skating boots by their film-producing uncle (they had been props from a movie that actually worked, despite no apparent power source). I remember a boy of more than dubious credibility, telling me at school how his uncle who worked on Star Trek would soon be sending us some phaser pistols. I am still waiting. 'The Steel Commando', was a British automaton weapon. This was more steeped in humour than Archie, the paper's other robot story. 'The Jigsaw Journey', was a quest type story in the mould of 'Journey to the Centre of the Earth'. The most important and longest lasting survivor of the merger was 'Adam Eterno'. Adam had drunk the elixir of life and could only be killed by a weapon of gold. After receiving a bash on the head by a golden weapon he found himself to be a nomad in time, jumping from adventure to adventure. Conveniently he would only disappear into space and time at the conclusion of each story.

I continued reading Lion and Thunder for some months after this point in its history. I enjoyed 'Carson's Cubs', 'The Spellbinder', 'Adam Eterno', The Black Max' and its sequel, 'Secrets of the Demon Dwarf'. Something was missing, however. I was no longer getting the same buzz that my first copy of Lion had given me or the back-issues I had managed to find. It was not because I was getting older either. I had started to pick up American comics. DC comics, to be honest (apart from the Jack Kirkby stuff) did very little for me, but I had become captivated by Marvel comics and Spider-man in particular. For a reader of comics at this time there was a massive amount of choice available. British comics covered everything from war to humour, science fiction to football. Adventure and knowledge publications for young people littered the newsagents every week. The American wave was coming, however. It would play a big part in sounding the death knell of the widely available British comic. I do feel a little guilty for being seduced by its call.

Lion continued after its amalgamation with Thunder. It retained that title until 18 May 1974. This meant that it had kept the 'Thunder' subtitle for over three years. No previous merger had been recognised for so long. On the 25 May 1974, Lion itself was consumed by its stable rival 'Valiant'. The only Lion strips which went into the newly merged title were 'Mowser', a humour strip, 'Zip Nolan', who asked you to spot the clue each week and 'Adam Eterno', the last survivor of Thunder comic.Valiant retained the Lion banner until 22 March 1975. There was some controversy about which comic, Lion or Valiant, had enjoyed the higher sales. The respective editorial teams disputed sales figures. Some believed Lion should have taken over Valiant. It really did not matter in the longer term as Valiant itself, was absorbed by 'Battle Picture Weekly' in 1976.

I felt saddened by Lion's demise, even though I was no longer a reader. Looking back at its content it seems very innocent and crude. Without doubt, though it had a charm which will probably never be seen again. Was this then, the end of Lion and its pantheon of characters? Not entirely. This being just a brief overview I have not mentioned the Summer Specials which continued until 1980 or the Annuals which went on until 1983. Certain characters have appeared in 2000 AD and its spin-off specials. You never quite know when a nostalgic writer might give Robot Archie or Sylvester Turville a much-welcomed appearance, by this fan at least.

I have drawn quite heavily from The Lion Index, by Steve Holland and Gary Armitage, while putting this article together. It is highly recommended and is available from A & B Whitworth. It is a wonderful production for those interested in that late, great British weekly, Lion, King of Picture Story Papers.

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