Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Comicbook Hero: NICK SWIFT OF THE PLANET PATROL



NICK SWIFT OF 
THE PLANET PATROL 

 ‘SPACE, DETECTIVE, TRAVEL, FOOTBALL
 AND WAR-TIME THRILLS – 
‘ADVENTURE’ HAS THEM ALL’ 
(‘Adventure’ no.1466, 21 February 1953)


Three decades on from the launch of ‘Adventure’, the sudden explosive emergence of ‘Eagle’ shook up the cosy DC Thomson monopoly. ‘A is for ‘Adventure’ and ‘Adventure’ stands for the best reading you can get’ announces the promotional ad panel. The advert drew attention to three text-tales running in the current issue. The first one features Detective Dixon Hawke. Then there’s the Jungle adventures of ‘Tajar The Giant-Killer’. And thirdly the ‘Champ From The Covered Waggon’, a Cowboy Boxer tale. But there’s also ‘Two Terrific Picture Stories’. ‘The Fighting Falcon’ War-drama. And the ‘superspeed excitement’ of ‘Nick Swift Of The Planet Patrol’. Hulton’s new kid on the block also ran a mix of text short-stories and serials, including SF by Arthur C Clarke. Clarke’s involvement materialised most obviously in the inclusion of his short story “The Fires Within” in ‘Eagle no.17’ – 4 Aug 1950, an adaptation of an earlier story in which the discovery of a vast subterranean civilisation beneath the Earth has accidentally disastrous consequences. It appears as by ‘Charles Willis’ with some judicious Chad Varah’s sub-editing.

But soon Clarke was also there under his own name, contributing an article ‘Is Space Travel Possible? It Certainly Is!’ for the 1953 ‘Dan Dare’s Space Book’, illustrated by the influential Chesley Bonestell. Clarke also continued anonymously as a guiding force behind ‘Professor Brittain Explains...’ an illustrated facts-and-information column with educational texts on radar, telescopes, X-Rays, and Deep-Sea Diving. There were also text ‘Biggles’ tales by celebrated writer Captain WE Johns. Neverthless, it was the debut of ‘Eagle’ that switched the emphasis of boy’s adventure comics decisively away from dense pages of prose towards vivid picture-serials. With the glossy high-quality artwork of Dan Dare as the poster-boy of the new revolution.


DC Thomson was slow to react. Yet as early as March 1952 they devised ‘Nick Swift Of The Planet Patrol’, and promoted it in colour picture-strip form to the cover of ‘Adventure’. Set in the year 3023, the exploits are set within a federation of the five solar system planets inhabited by ‘thinking beings’, united by ‘Durando, the universal language’. The federation consists of Earthmen working in harmony with Neptunians, Venusians, Plutonians, and Martians who, due to ‘the terrible climate’ of their world, are ‘forced to live underground’. ‘It was hundreds of years since the governments of the various planets had combined together to smash the piracy which was then rife. At first their agreement had been only to put down those adventurers who, in swift spaceships, were preying on the great cargo-carrying space-transports which carried on trade between the planets. Gradually the agreement had been extended, until an interplanetary police-force was established – the Inter-stellar Police’.

So far, so promising. But actually, the strip appears in that curious hybrid form with rows of square-box speech-bubble-free illustrations with numbered text-boxes below running a full narrative commentary. In the evolution – some might say ‘devolution’ from solid-text to picture-strip format, it was most definitely a brief half-way house transitional stage. And, unlike the innovative colour-detonations splashed across ‘Eagle’ covers, the art-style for ‘Nick Swift’ is restrained and naively conventional. Even clunky. Their stubby red snub-nosed PP41 rocketship with its curved fins, ‘its rocket engines belching long tongues of flame through the astral void’, is clearly modelled on those in Dick Calkins ‘Buck Rogers’ strips. But they use an imaginative array of futuristic weaponry, such as solex-rays, Z-guns, neurite tube-guns, ray-rifles that touch off a lethal stream of electrons, and Nick’s ‘pellet-sized atomic grenades’ which cause ‘little or no explosion, but the charge of released neutrons blasted the (target) into instant senselessness’.


And the four-man personnel exhibit all the diversity of the crew of the ‘Enterprise’. In their matching red tunics emblazoned with yellow lightning-flashes-in-a-clenched-fist logo, as well as dashing hero Nick himself – a ‘keen-eyed husky young man with a shock of unruly hair’, there’s burly second-in-command Sergeant Bill Logan, plus a green-skinned Venusian called Triton, and Inky Johnson the tall jovial ‘negro radio-operator’. Despite his wince-inducing nickname it was innovatory to have a black character in a major role. And it was Inky’s spanner that saves the ship from disaster as early as the second instalment, and his solo venture on Jupiter’s moon Fragg that finally outwits the Venusian pirates.

But first, the opening panel sets the scene. ‘At 100 miles per second the rocket-ship Planet Patrol 41 hurtled through space on one of its routine flights. With ten million miles of space-ways to patrol, the Inter-Stellar Police had no easy task. It took the toughest and smartest of men to hold down the job and the crew of PP41, led by Lieutenant Nick Swift, was reckoned to be the finest bunch of cops in the whole of the universe’. They answer an SOS from the small planet Draco where an Earth weather-station has come under attack from giant apemen. Where Draco is supposedly located is never quite clear, but shortly afterwards the hulking Sygno and ‘his savage mates looked up to see PP41 swishing in to make a landing’. After the Space Cops’ ray-guns swiftly quell the attack, they chain Sygno and prepare to take him to Mars where ‘a spell in jail will teach him not to make attacks on weather-stations’. After all, how dare a native species have the temerity to oppose human imperial expansion across the galaxy? But as Nick skilfully navigates the ship around Meteorite Z9 where ‘chunks of molten matter were continually being flung into space’, Sygno exerts his superhuman strength to break free. In the ensuing tussle ‘with no-one at the controls, the space-ship swings off course towards the exploding meteorite…’ and the plot momentum gathers.

Soon, the Spaceways cops are speeding to confront green-hued Venusian slave-trader Vaska and his evil scientist ally Terro, who are kidnapping Altairians to work his asteroid plutonium mines. ‘I’ll get that rat yet!’ grits Nick as he faces ‘The Menace Of The Phantom Globe’ and ‘The Torture Of The Petrifying Death’ in his battle with the ‘Lawless Bandits Of The Cosmos’. The exploit continues on Mersa, capital city of the nine moons of Jupiter where Nick assists King Soltan to triumph over his evil rival Narka – who is in league with Vaska’s pirates, in a quest to find the nine missing jewels of the State Crown. As Vaska operates from his giant orbiting spacecraft-carrier, there’s a final double-panel space-battle over the city of Ulid on the moon Fragg. It closes an episodic tale – made up of at least three distinct stories within its arc, and if it’s occasionally rather silly – especially the over-extended ‘living statue’ sequence, it’s relieved by humour such as Nick riding a flying bicycle through the skies of Mersa. But Nick will return, after a well-deserved break, the following year.

 Again there’s a segmented story-structure. First, fed up with their period of leave, the four members of the Planet Patrol join elderly bearded research physicist Professor Cavendish as bodyguards on his expedition to Veerdon, the Peril Planet. Major Mann’s briefing warns them that it ‘lies in the zero belt, so beware of aerial ice-bergs’. This turns out to mean avoiding – or blasting their way through a ring of ice-asteroids, then gliding in for a safe pancake landing on the hazardous, but terraumin-rich world. ‘Hey, come and take a squint at this!’ says Nick as they look out in awe over the ‘grotesque rock shapes and weird tropical growths’. Then the ship is encircled by a hideous alien serpent. Nick uses the 200,000-volt asteroid-repeller to give its writhing coils ‘a hot reception’. With oddly coincidental timing, a terraumin tower they’ve spotted begins spitting ‘a deadly hail of rockets’ to bombard London. 

‘Let’s get cracking – pronto!’ urges Nick, and they drive an amphibious mobo-sledge, braving attacks by a giant shaggy apeman, a monster crocodile, and a tregosaurous to reach the ‘roman candle’, use rotor-packs to descend into its nerve-centre and arrest the dwarf-aliens responsible. Pausing only for a football game on prison asteroid Astrid, and tackling a flock of giant eagles menacing astro-messengers, they’re off to investigate the disappearance of planet Terro. Tracking the deadly green ray to Frankel ‘the planet of the dead’. ‘Thick banks of mist ahead of the speeding machine parted to show the cruel outline of Frankel’s needle-pointed peaks’. They locate and short-circuit the beam-gun just as Vaska ‘arch-criminal of the universe’ – for it is he, targets Earth. A ‘blinding flash of light ripped apart the dark void’ and its curtains for Vaska and his planet… or is it?


The adventure was followed by a long text serial, demoting our heroes from cover-star status into dense interior spreads, but carrying them through to the end of 1953. It opens dramatically on the orbital Astroglobe One HQ of the Inter-Stellar Police, where Earth receives an ultimatum from ‘Galaxion, Lord Of The Cosmos’. To prove his mighty powers, and as a warning demonstration, the ‘power-mad super-crook’ turns his super-science on Asteroid 37, a ‘miniature planet’ boasting vegetation and two lakes. In the Cosmora, a new ship fitted with an atomic-converter drive, and carrying Nick’s stowaway fourteen-year-old schoolboy brother Ed, the Space Cops investigate, to find the worldlet’s Martian colonists petrified into ‘marble statues’. Piecing clues together, Nick ties in Galaxion’s ultimatum with a spate of missing scientists, including Professor Zed and British Dr Renson, and is given ten weeks to thwart the cosmic megalomaniac’s tyrannical ambitions. Soon, they’re pursuing a mystery ship towards Nebula 14 located in ‘some unknown star-system far beyond Earth’s own familiar planets’. They find a secret domed base on barren Asteroid X with a huge saucer-shaped disc for projecting the paralysing ray.


When his saucer crashes Nick gets an unexpected ally in Mutus, a silver spider from Aranda, ‘beyond the galaxies you know’. By hiding himself aboard Galaxion’s ship Nick captures the brown six-fingered hump-backed Plutonian, but the ship is holed by a ‘fragment of star-dust’. In the confusion it is explained that, although Nick ‘had dived into space, he did not fall. A man could not fall in space’. Spread out across fourteen-weeks the full word-count of the single linear adventure must surely total almost a novel’s-worth of thrills before Nick rescues the captured scientists. But details of which writer should be given credit, and the name of the artist who contributes the spot-illustrations are probably, unfairly, lost forever as, in the nick of time, the Space Cops escape before Minor, the tiny moon of X is drawn down out of its orbit by Galaxion’s gravity-ray. In the final catastrophic collision that brings his evil ambitions to an end, Asteroid X, Minor, and Galaxion himself are shattered into space-fragments. The crew of PP41 head back to Earth for some well-deserved juicy steaks.


For the fourth and final adventure the ace cosmic investigator and his crew are reinstated to the front-and-back cover-spread in picture form. A return announced as ‘Your Picture-Story Space Hero Is Back Today, In The Thrilling Story Of His Battle To Save The Universe From Disaster!’ In a new more streamlined ‘dart-like’ atomic-powered ship the foursome jet home after a six-month mission in outer space to find mid-summer London blanketed in ice. Earth has been forced off its axis so that ‘London’s now where the North Pole was!’ They back-trace the disturbing planetary influence to a giant space-station, a bulbous hulk of gleaming red metal which is using a latticed spider’s-web dish to ‘trap cosmic rays from the sun’ and beam them at Earth.


Before they can disable the mysterious Ray Station they’re attacked by Flying Saucers which emits lethal ice-weapons. They hunt down the troublesome yellow-skinned Volcans responsible to planet Hespia. The attached text-box tells how, with ‘powdery snow fountaining upwards, the skis of the space cruiser touched down amid the crags’. Once down Nick calls ‘Okay blokes, get into your space togs and we’ll see about finding the wise guys with the freeze-up beam’. As they explore, Nick saves a Hespian native from attack by a prowling Brontyl, the armour-plated cat-like sabre-toothed scourge of the planet’s polar regions. This heroic rescue makes allies of the initially hostile sparsely-clad ‘planet-dwellers’. Led by Gec, the grizzled old Hespian leader, they’re led to a vast cavern for a council of war, forming an alliance, and using fifty-ton dinosaurian Hurodons to fight back against the invading Volcans. More thrills follow as the aliens retaliate by deploying Saucers armed with coiling metal tentacles to snatch the pals, and whisk them away to their ‘modernistic’ city to confront the Five Giant Ruling Brains. The Overlords’ bodies so atrophied they must be carried on litters by their bearers. Escaping the Volcans execution vault, and fleeing the city in a stolen rocket-car, Nick crashes into a crevasse only to be carried off by a giant vampire bat, but survives to lead his Hespian allies as ‘the battle for the city was on!’


The Space Cops explode the powerhouse where technicians feed atomic fuel to the burners, then ‘borrow’ a rocket interceptor to destroy the ray-station, hence saving Earth too. But, ‘from amidst the debris of the shattered blockhouse, the sphere of armoured metal staggered aloft, flames flashing from the two rocket units which provided both upthrust and forward movement. Flashes of a more deadly kind came lancing from the numerous gun-turrets studded into the flying tank, scything into the advancing ranks of the Hespian battlers. The last of the Volcan invaders, their city destroyed and over-run by the rebels, had sprung this surprise weapon on the Hespians in their very moment of triumph’. The last Brain escapes, but is defeated by Nick in single combat on the outer skin of the space station over Earth, and drifts off into the void. ‘Right! Next mission – a month’s leave’ grins Nick. But although the single more-integrated story-line allied to improved art makes Nick Swift’s swansong probably his finest moment, he was never to return to active duty on the pages of ‘Adventure’.


Of course DC Thomson’s speciality had always been Sports stories, School stories and War stories. That wouldn’t change. Now declaring itself ‘The Boys Paper With Punch, Thrills In Print And Pictures’, there would continue to be occasional forms of SF too, and they’d certainly evolved since the dramatic 1940 cover illustration of ‘Adventure no.988’, showing the grim space-suited ‘Wardens Of The Worlds In Space’ on their lunar world. Nick Swift Of The Planet Patrol, even in his already-anachronistic hybrid form, was their first determined leap into genuine picture-strip SF. In truth though, his ‘Amazing Stories Of Life In The Year 2040’ lacked the authenticity – if that’s the appropriate term, which made rival-strips Dan Dare, Jet-Ace Logan, Captain Condor or Rick Random seem convincing. And DC Thomson would not evolve a wholly satisfying Space Hero until some years later, with Starhawk.

 We of the twenty-first century might have witnessed figures moving on a lunar landscape not unlike the one the uncredited DC Thomson artist visualised. But a funny thing happened to us on the way to that future. Their future happened. If not always exactly in the way they envisaged.


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