STEVE WINDERS EXAMINES THE UNUSUAL CAREER OF EAGLE'S SUPER HERO FROM THE 1960S AND THE BACKGROUND TO HIS DEVELOPMENT IN THIS ARTICLE THAT WAS FIRST PUBLISHED IN 2006.
In Volume 17 No.3, dated January 15th 1966, EAGLE launched a new science fiction strip called U.F.O.Agent. It replaced Can You Catch a Crook?, a contemporary police series, where readers were encouraged to spot the clues in the pictures, which enabled Sergeant Dave Bruce of Manningham C.I.D. to catch the villains. U.F.O. Agent also initially included clues for readers to spot, as the strip's heroes, Major Grant and and his friend 'Boffin' Bailey fought terrorism around the world as the human agents of a benevolent alien race called the Zetans. The new series was originally illustrated by Paul Trevillion, who had been the principal artist on Can You Catch a Crook?. It also occupied two pages in black and white and each week told a new complete story.
Starting in a 'free gift' issue, which was a strategy used to attract new readers and encourage newsagents to take more copies, EAGLE obviously had high hopes for U.F.O. Agent. the free gift of a 'Morse Code Flasher' sounded a lot more promising than the disappointing card and tinfoil gift that readers actually received, but the 'flasher' was strongly promoted in an impressive full page cartoon, drawn by Leo Baxendale, the week before.
The first episode of U.F.O. Agent was no let- down however. It introduced the two heroes and their alien allies and set the scene for the series that followed. The story begins with Grant and Bailey racing in Grant's sports car towards an old mysterious house in answer to an intriguing call from a professor Galbraith, who said that it was vital to the world's security that they meet him. Arriving at the dilapidated house, Grant and Bailey find a clue, which readers are invited to spot. Observant readers could see that the clue is strange circular indentations in the grass beside the house. The circles are quickly revealed to be the supporting legs of a flying saucer, as one now flies into view and catches our heroes in a paralysing beam as the try to run for cover. Happily, the saucer contains benevolent aliens who watch over Earth from 'Satellite Zeta'. These aliens land and declare that they have chosen Grant and Bailey to be their agents on Earth to combat the forces of evil. The Zetans are humanoid in shape, but slightly smaller in height. Their heads, concealed by space helmets with dark visors, are apparently oval shaped and larger than human heads. They seem to require spacesuits on Earth, for they are never seen without them.
The Zetans aim a beam at Grant and Bailey, which enables them to use and understand their advanced technology. Grant is given a telescopic power-stick that enables him to defy gravity and which he can also use as a weapon to stun enemies. Boffin is given the ability to control and pilot their flying saucers. A second saucer arrives to take the Zetans back to their satellite and Grant and Bailey fly the first one to a volcanic island in the Pacific Ocean, which will be their base.
The introductory episode covered all the background to the series that followed. Always a capable artist, Paul Trevillion put more detail into this important opening instalment than in his work on Can You Catch a Crook? and he adopted a finer line in his drawing throughout his time on the new strip. He created a simple but effective design for the Zetan flying saucers, with a ridged dome like a beehive above a central saucer section and a circular cabin with a flatter base beneath. His Zetan spacesuits are ribbed at the shoulders and elbows and from the waist down. The alien nature of the Zetans is conveyed by the large egg-shaped white/silver helmets and the mysterious dark visors.
Trevillion's Grant is similar in appearance to his Sergeant Bruce. With a firm jaw and no large distinguishing facial features, he actually resembles most EAGLE heroes! Grant is dark haired, while Boffin Bailey is fair and bespectacled. Bailey is tall, with a lean athletic figure and Grant has a slightly more muscular build.
Several elements of U.F.O. Agent are reminiscent of Gerry Anderson's television series Thunderbirds, which had begun three months earlier and was enjoying huge popularity. The 'Thunderbirds' also operated all over the world from a secret base on a Pacific island. Although they rescued people from major disasters rather than fighting crime, they too were directed from a satellite in space, which bore a significant resemblance to Satellite Zeta. They too used advanced technology, in the form of the 'Thunderbird' rescue craft and , while this was not alien technology, it was developed by their resident genius 'Brains', whose role in U.F.O. Agent was clearly taken by Boffin Bailey. As the strip developed, Boffin contributed new inventions to the fight against crime, which emphasised the similarity of his role to 'Brains'. Unlike Thunderbirds, Grant and Bailey's island is apparently volcanic. However the volcano is dead and the smoke that billows from it is provided by the Zetans. The base is inside the volcano. This idea was adopted later in the year for the James Bond film You Only Live Twice, which went into production in October and was released in June 1967. We will never know whether any of the film's production team got the idea from EAGLE, but it is certain that U.F.O. Agent got there first, as there is no secret volcano base in Ian Fleming's original novel of the Bond story.
In order to fit so much into the first instalment, the writer Edward Cowan ignored many details. Grant and Bailey are introduced simply as 'two superbly trained adventurers' who are now unemployed following the closure of the 'Ministry of Unusual Activities'. We never learn their first names or anything else about their backgrounds. Cowan also wastes no time on the Zetans' background either. They operate from their satellite, which we must assume is in Earth's orbit, but why they wish to help the Earth and where they originally come from is never addressed. They have chosen Grant and Bailey to be their agents and the pair accept this without question or even comment! Having been chosen, they acquire new knowledge and skills instantly. In one frame the pair are bathed in a light beam and in the next they can fly a Zetan saucer. Grant and Bailey then fly directly from the old house to their new base and no reference is made to them settling their affairs in Britain before they go. Having created the scenario, the following episodes settle into a familiar pattern, with Grant and Bailey, directed by the Zetans, using their technology and a little human ingenuity and muscle to tackle crime around the world. While Boffin controls the flying saucer, Grant usually flies down to the scene of the operation using his Zetan force stick. Occasionally, Bailey also assists on the ground and the saucer is either landed or left to hover in the sky. The crimes are usually carried out by a sinister organisation called Enemies of Society. In early episodes, Grant and Bailey rescue a president from kidnappers in the south Pacific, prevent a mail train robbery in England and recover a priceless ruby stolen from a pagoda in south east Asia.
Paul Trevillion illustrated seven episodes, with the old EAGLE stalwart, Richard Jennings, who had illustrated Tommy Walls and Storm Nelson in the 1950s, drawing ten. The strip was taken over by the Spanish artist Jose Ortiz in May 1966 and with the exception of one more episode drawn by Jennings and two by Luis Bermejo, he illustrated all the rest of the U.F.O. Agent saga.
The clues for readers were discarded after just seven instalments, although the single episode stories were maintained. In Can You Catch a Crook? clues had often emerged from suspects incriminating themselves when being interviewed by Sergeant Bruce. However in U.F.O. Agent, Grant usually arrived as crimes were in progress and did not need to question people. Can You Catch a Crook? also used many observational clues, such as revealing footprints and, while they were used in U.F.O. Agent, they did not fit as comfortably in a strip involving advanced technology and sophisticated international criminals as in a detective series. In order for the stories to maintain tension and excitement, the villains needed to be powerful and dangerous, or it would be too easy for the alien assisted Grant and Bailey to beat them. By giving away simple visual clues, the villains were shown to be inept and vulnerable in comparison to the powerful U.F.O. agents.
This change was actually the opposite to what had happened on Can You Catch a Crook? That strip had started as Sergeant Bruce C.I.D., a series of single episode police adventures without clues for readers, before the idea was introduced and the strip retitled.
Ortiz proved an excellent choice of artist for the strip. With a combination of fine detail and subtle use of different shades to set a scene, he could create interesting and evocative backgrounds, such as an eerie graveyard and dark haunted house in Volume 17 No.24. After fighting more conventional villainy in the early strips, Grant and Bailey were later pitted against apparently supernatural forces, such as spectral hounds and floating hooded figures, which always proved to be mechanically operated or projections, created by criminals to scare people away from the scene of their skulduggery, but actually having the opposite effect, because the U.F.O. agents arrived to investigate precisely because of the strange goings on! Ortiz also captured facial expressions well, using both fine line work and shade. His only weakness was his unfamiliarity with Britain at that time and this is most evident in his depictions of British vehicles. His cars are never specific models and tend to look more American in style and his London buses are badly proportioned. English street scenes are similarly devoid of authentic details and buildings are more continental than British in appearance. Ortiz was employed through the Bardon (BARcelona - LonDON) Art Agency and his work was posted to the Agency's London office from his native Spain, which was still ruled by the dictator General Franco and although increasing numbers of Britons were holidaying in Spain, it was not easy for Spaniards to travel abroad.
The series proved popular with readers and replaced Dan Dare on the colour centre-spread with the twenty fifth instalment, in the issue dated July 2nd 1966, although as the image shows, two short factual features occupied part of the second page. Ortiz rose to the challenge of colour. Using inks instead of water colours, he produced bright and impressive pages and his art continued to be a significant factor in the success of the strip.
The single episode stories continued until the issue dated October 22nd 1966. The following week, 'Doctor Satann, the evil head of the Enemies of Society organisation, made his first appearance and the story became a continuing serial. Boffin developed a new mode of transport called the 'Baffle Bubble', to replace the flying saucer. This was simply a transparent flying bubble, just large enough to carry the two agents on their missions. In the issue dated November 5th 1966, Grant and Bailey change from their ordinary conventional clothing to tight fitting one piece costumes. Grant's was blue and Boffin's was red, for easy recognition. Following these apparently minor changes, a major story development took place in the next issue, Volume 17 No. 46, dated November 12th, when Doctor Satann fires a vaporising gun at Grant and one of his Zetan allies, hitting them both with the blast. As a consequence of this, the vaporised forms merge and the Zetan passes his energies on to Grant, giving him the power to change into a smoke form at will. Thus 'Smokeman' was born. In his smoke form, Grant retained his human shape and was fortunately able to see, hear and direct his movements. He could flow under doors and up into the sky. He could also maintain part of his body in human form when the rest was smoke. For instance, he often kept a hand solid for opening doors, picking things up and punching villains! EAGLE had its own super hero.
It was unique in EAGLE's history for a strip to undergo such a significant change to its main character. Despite apprehending the most dangerous villains in post-war London, PC 49 remained a constable throughout his adventures, Luck of the Legion always remained a sergeant, as did Bruce of the C.I.D. While Jeff Arnold served time as a Texas Ranger, a Deputy Sheriff and an army scout, he always returned to work at the 6T6 Ranch at the end of each story; and although he saved our whole solar system from tyranny on several occasions, Dan Dare remained a Colonel until the very end of his adventures, when he was finally rewarded with promotion. U.F.O. Agent's contemporaries, The Guinea Pig and The Iron Man underwent temporary changes during the course of individual stories, but the status quo was always restored by the end. Major Grant however changed from an ordinary man to a super powered hero and consequently the mood of the strip changed, as well as the title.
This change was undoubtedly prompted by the success of the American television series Batman, which was shown in Britain from May 1966. Based on the long established DC Comics character, Batman did not actually possess super powers, although thanks to his array of impressive gadgets, his 'Batmobile' car and his costume and mask, he was certainly regarded as a super hero. Additionally in America, another comic publisher, Marvel, had boosted the popularity of comics and emerged as a rival to D.C. with a family of new super heroes created by Stan Lee. Anticipating the success of Batman on television prompted Alfred Wallace, the managing editor of Odhams juvenile publications, to negotiate with DC Comics to publish reprints of his syndicated newspaper adventures under licence in his recently launched Smash! comic. Wallace also negotiated with Marvel to reprint The Hulk's adventures in Smash! and this strip began in Issue 16, dated 26th May 1966, with Batman beginning in Issue 20, dated 18th June.
Smash! was originally developed as a predominantly 'funny' comic, to be a companion for Wham!, a comic which began in 1964 to utilise the talents of Leo Baxendale, the famous humour strip artist, who had joined Odhams after becoming disillusioned with D.C. Thomson. By 1966, sales of Wham! were steadily declining and Smash! was undoubtedly created to grab a few new readers and then merge with Wham! Baxendale was offered a year's extension to his original two year contract and stalled on signing. When he touted a proposed new monthly comic among other publishers, Odhams withdrew their offer. Although they had gathered a number of other humour artists and writers over the two years of Wham! Baxendale's departure was a major loss and this may well have prompted Wallace to turn to American super heroes to fill his comics .
Enthused by the positive response of readers to Batman and The Hulk, Wallace negotiated with Marvel to reprint more of their strips. In August 1966, Marvel's Fantastic Four began in Wham! and in 1967, he launched three more comics, all of which ran Marvel reprints. Pow! began in January 1967 and ran Spiderman as its lead strip. Fantastic began just a month later and Terrific began in April. These last two were almost entirely composed of Marvel reprints and were produced in the same shape as the American comics, for easy reproduction. These five comics became collectively known as Power Comics.
As a well established British adventure weekly, EAGLE's style and pace of story telling was very different from American comics. Strips were divided into weekly instalments of one or two pages, with a cliff hanger at the end of each episode. American strip serials were published in monthly instalments and their comics usually contained just one strip, so each instalment was much longer and the cliff hangers were much reduced. Therefore a reprinted Marvel super hero strip would not have fitted well into EAGLE. Wallace addressed these problems in Fantastic and Terrific by producing them in an American style, with long instalments in each issue. In Wham!, Smash! and Pow!, the frames were edited into fewer but larger pages, so a substantial part of a story could be told in each issue. One Marvel reprint did find its way into EAGLE, but it was not a super hero strip and it did not begin until 1968. It was Tales of Asgard, a retelling of the myths of the Norse gods, which Marvel had produced to accompany their Mighty Thor super hero strip. This strip ran in EAGLE from Volume 19 No.7, dated February 17th 1968, until Volume 19 No. 48, dated November 30th and it fitted better than adventure strip would have done, because it had been originally written in smaller instalments; so with the artwork edited down to fill just two pages, it had episodes which were the same length as Dan Dare and The Guinea Pig. However, Tales of Asgard did not blend seamlessly into EAGLE. The Marvel house style of artwork, with its extremely bold lines and simple figure and detail drawing, lacked the sophistication of EAGLE artists. The dialogue was notably different too. Every single sentence in the speech bubbles ended with an exclamation mark!
While American super hero reprints were not suitable for EAGLE, Wallace clearly believed that a home grown super hero strip could succeed. The reason why U.F.O. Agent was developed into that strip seems fairly obvious. It already featured contemporary crime fighting heroes who travelled the world in extra-terrestrial craft, so Major Grant's change to Smokeman did not vastly alter the nature of the strip. Also, U.F.O. Agent was quite successful, without being long established and so the change could be helped by the audience's familiarity with the characters and situation, without being hindered by any deeply rooted preconceptions that long running characters engender.
Doctor Satann, the evil mastermind behind the Enemies of Society, was in many ways a pantomime villain. Bald and obese, he wore a tight red costume with a red cloak, like the clothing that his biblical namesake is often depicted wearing. He was clearly inspired by the comical villains in the self-mocking Batman television series. Some of these characters originated in the Batman comics, which were aimed at a less sophisticated readership than EAGLE, but all were made more ludicrous on television. However, Smokeman was not a parody and the Doctor needed to be powerful and dangerous to be a worthy opponent for the U.F.O. agents. Fortunately Ortiz rose to the challenge and in several impressive close-ups he depicts the character's gloating malevolence and gives him the required menace to prevent him from being ridiculous. The Doctor's power came from the fact that he had stolen Zetan technology, making himself their equal. Armed with this technology he tracks Grant and Bailey to their island base and inadvertantly creates Smokeman when he tries to kill Grant and his Zetan ally. The continuing story then takes the action all over the world as Grant and Bailey fight a running battle with the Doctor and his minions. Grant requires great concentration to change to Smokeman and sometimes struggles to do so, providing perilous situations for himself. Doctor Satann also develops weapons which manage to trap and neutralise him, but fortunately Grant and Bailey always outwit him, until eventually they chase him to his own lair and destroy it.
Five issues later, in Volume 18 No.30, the strip moved back inside the weekly to occupy just one page, although still in colour. Reduction from two colour pages to one had previously proved to be the kiss of death for EAGLE characters in the mid sixties, with Heros the Spartan ending after a short period on one page. Even Dan Dare had just one adventure on a single page before the saga was brought to a close and replaced by repeats of his stories from the 1950s. However this was not quite the end of Grant and Bailey, who would undergo yet another change before their adventures finally ended.
As members of Belminster C.I.D., Grant and Bailey gained a human boss. This was Inspector Hanson, who bore a remarkable resemblance to the actor Dudley Foster, who regularly played police officers in television programmes. Whether Ortiz was sent Foster's picture as a reference or whether he chose to use the image himself is not know. Certainly programmes featuring him were shown on Spanish television. Hanson was unaware of Grant's powers or his unusual background and treated his assistants as inexperienced rookies. When they reported back on the strange phenomena they encountered, he invariably responded with incredulity and sarcasm. However, after they had demonstrated their ability to deal with such cases, Hanson always sent them to deal with the strangest reportIn the issue dated September 23rd 1967, (Volume 18 No. 39), EAGLE gained a new printer and underwent several changes. The page size became slightly smaller and paper quality was reduced, although the number of pages increased. There were also several changes to the layout and these included the final change to the U.F.O. Agent saga. The strip now occupied one black and white page instead of colour and was titled Grant C.I.D. because it also marked Grant's loss of the power to change to Smokeman. Obviously an editorial decision had now been taken to remove the advantage of super powers. The similar stories to Smokeman C.I.D. in other comics had all featured conventional heroes, who had to rely on their own normal strength and ingenuity to defeat their unusual opponents. The fact that these heroes were ordinary men gave the stories more tension. They did not have additional powers to get them out of a crisis and so the plots worked better.
All of this seems to be self evident in hindsight and begs the question why Smokeman was not given more powerful super villains to fight, instead of apparently supernatural forces. But at the time EAGLE thrived on such elements. In Blackbow the Cheyenne and Heros the Spartan, encounters with ghostly apparitions and legendary creatures had proved popular with readers and such stories appeared to be guaranteed successes. However, neither Blackbow nor Heros had super powers and in their adventures the writers tried to tailor the mysterious aspects to fit in with the times when the stories were set. For example, Heros featured druidic magic potions and Blackbow featured the legendary 'Bigfoot' and elements of Native American mysticism.
Grant's first black and white story was called The Island of Fear, as from now on each serial would have its own title. Our heroes investigate a mysterious island off the coast near Belminster, following the discovery of a plea for help in a bottle washed up on the beach. On the island they meet two frightened men in an old house and are regaled by eerie music and ghostly figures, before the two men are trapped in a giant spider's web. It eventually transpires that the two men are embezzlers who have cheated a film maker out of his fortune. The 'monsters' are actually mechanical film props and special effects, used to scare the two men into confessing where they have hidden the money and GRant and Bailey were lured to the island to witness their confession. This story ran for fifteen episodes and was well paced and intriguing, even though the end reveals that Grant and Bailey were never in any real danger. The basic premise was not original, with John Brody, Maxwell Hawke and Rory Macduff all having visited islands in similar circumstances. Before them, several horror films used the idea of luring villains into remote houses to take retribution for their crimes or to scare them into admissions of guilt. Good examples are The House on Haunted Hill and the Bob Hope comedy The Cat and the Canary.
The next story ran for just three episodes and was really a lead in to the third and final adventure. In The Haunted Highway, Grant and Bailey investigate ghosts appearing on the Belminster Bypass! A beckoning ghost leads them to the Zetans, who have set up the entire ruse in order to contact their agents. They warn them about a new and terrible danger to Earth, but do not know any more details! They return Grant's ability to become Smokeman, but this can only be maintained for periods of about thirty seconds. He is able to control his changes using a special wrist watch.
In Sign of the Crab, Grant is pitted against his most powerful enemy since Doctor Satann. Created in a research laboratory, the Jell is a shapeless jelly creature, which has the ability to control the mind of anyone it touches. The title comes from the impression of a crab which appears on the wrist of those controlled by the Jell. The creature takes control of Boffin Bailey, but as Smokeman, Grant avoids contact. His ability to change for such short periods causes problems and creates perilous episode endings throughout the story. Eventually he tries to evade the Jell by turning to smoke and clinging to an overhead electric power line with his solid hands. As he changes back, the Jell reaches up to grab him and touches the power lines first. Being in contact with the ground it is electrocuted and destroyed. Grant of course is not touching the ground and is therefore safe from electrocution. Watching from their flying saucer, the Zetans use an anti gravity ray to prevent Grant from falling to his death.
It is fortunate that the apparently invulnerable Jell is not resistant to high voltage electricity. In science fiction indestructible menaces usually have a single weakness, which saves the day at the end of the story. The most famous example comes from H.G Wells' The War of the Worlds where the unbeatable Martians are destroyed by tiny bacteria. This original use of the idea makes the important point that all the power of mankind has failed to defeat the Martians, but that they succumb to the tiniest and most simple form of life. Subsequently the single vulnerability idea has invariably been used just to solve the problem of how to beat the apparently unbeatable enemy. This is certainly the case in Sign of the Crab, although at least Smokeman makes a real contribution to the defeat of the Jell, as it is he who causes it to touch the cable.
The story ends with all the controlled humans recovering and Grant announces that this is the end of Smokeman. The Zetans gave him back the power temporarily to defeat the Jell and so its destruction evidently means that it will now be withdrawn. The last adventure ran for fifteen episodes, ending in Volume 19 No. 16, dated April 20th 1968, finally bringing this unique and interesting series to a close. U.F.O. Agent was featured in two four page black and white strips in the 1967 EAGLE Annual, drawn by the Turkish artist Sezgin Burak and Grant C.I.D. appeared in one six page colour strip in the 1969 Annual, drawn by Jose Ortiz.
"Grant - look out! I heard a switch pressed - gas!"
"Two men - frantic with fear!"
While it is reasonable to suppose that characters in perilous situations might speak in a kind of frenetic shorthand, Cowan often also included quite sophisticated words in their desperate cries:
"No Grant - wait! It's too late to save him. The ghastly weed shape has enveloped the whole boat!"
Cowan liked this word, so he used it again two weeks later:
"It's gone for Grant! He's enveloped by whatever it is!"
While it is commendable that Cowan helped his readers to extend their vocabulary, I do not think that a character in imminent danger would use a word like 'enveloped' in a desperate situation. Surely he would have said 'covered'. Similarly, in another incident when our heroes become entangled in wires, Boffin says "Web strands! They're like steel ropes. We're encircled."
Most people would have said "We're trapped!"
There is no doubt that factors outside EAGLE at least partly dictated the strip's fortunes. Just as the popularity of American super heroes begun by the Batman TV series was a significant factor in the creation of Smokeman, Batman's subsequent decline in popularity must have contributed to Smokeman's end. By April 1968, Odhams' five Power comics had contracted to three and all would merge into Smash! by October, which shows that they were losing a lot of money. While the falling value of the pound against the dollar at this time meant that the cost of licensing the American super heroes was steadily rising and therefore contributing to the Power Comics' problems, it is nevertheless clear that enthusiasm among British readers for super heroes was over, at least for the time being.
In terms of long standing popularity, the Smokeman saga does not compare favourably with other EAGLE strips of the time. Blackbow the Cheyenne. The Iron Man, The Guinea Pig and of course Dan Dare, were all running when U.F.O. Agent started and all survived Grant C.I.D. What set the saga apart was its unique rise and fall and the remarkable changes it underwent. While these were due to the fact that EAGLE could not find the right formula for the series and sometimes it failed quite badly, it was nevertheless sometimes original and innovative and could genuinely surprise the reader. Not many strips in the sixties could make that claim.
I am grateful to Lew Stringer for his scans of some of the EAGLE covers.