(Updated 24/2/14, adding David Hunt’s comments on Tony’s passing): We’re sorry to report the passing of comic artist Anthony John “Tony” Harding, whose credits across over 30 years in British comics included work for both DC Thomson and IPC Magazines, on comics such as Bullet, Scorcher, Hornet, Action, Roy of the Rovers, Victor and Scoop.
Tony, who died in January aged 72, specialised in football stories and is perhaps best known for his work on the controversial “Look Out for Lefty”, one of the more controversial strips that featured in the boy’s comic Action, published by Fleetway in the 1970s.
Born in West Ham, Tony Harding joined Link Studios in London as an apprentice at the age of 16, and began work as a comic artist for DC Thomson and IPC Magazines in 1962 while studying at Saint Martin’s School of Art in the evenings. By day, he played football – a lifelong passion – for Gartan Sports FC in East London, helping them to win a host of trophies. He was also a talented boxer, athlete and singer.
He was only 20 when his agent at Link Studios agreed that he could he become a freelance illustrator, having proved himself as a worthy, talented and reliable apprentice working on The Hornet and other magazines.
Tony’s earliest credits include ”Wonder Man” for The Victor in 1961-62, a revival of on an old prose serial from The Rover from 1946, that starred H. K. Rodd, a young man raised by scientists to be the perfect athlete. He moved to Guernsey in 1963, where he played for St Martin’s FC helped that team win several titles and trophies between 1963 and 1965 , and met his future wife Ann, who he married in 1967.
Another early credit at that time was “Bouncing Briggs”, which first appeared in The Hornet in 1963. The story featured Bernard Briggs, a young scrap metal dealer who became goalkeeper for Blackton Rovers after calling at the club grounds to collect some iron railings, and criticising their goalkeeper so loudly the team challenged him to have a go himself. The strip ran in The Hornet until 1976, and from then in The Hotspur until 1980.
He also drew episodes of “Alf Tupper, Tough of the Track” and “Terry’s Tornados”.
Returning to London to live in Stoke Newington, and then moving to the Isle of Wight in 1972, he also drew ”Twisty” for Bullet in 1977 and “The Goals of Jimmy Grant” for Victor.
At IPC, he drew “Bobby of the Blues” for Scorcher in 1970 and 1971, and a number of strips for Roy of the Rovers such as “The Footballer Who Wouldn’t Stay Dead” and “The Safest Hands in Soccer” between 1976 and 1993, drawing “Roy of the Rovers” strips for the comic’s annuals.
In 1976-77 he drew the controversial football strip “Look Out For Lefty”, written by Tom Tully, for Action, taking over from his friend Barrie Mitchell. The strip, which followed the adventures of schoolboy Kenny ‘Lefty’ Lampton as he carved out his footballing career thanks to his powerful and accurate left foot proved controversial, with as many scrapes off the field as on it, including an ongoing feud with spoilt rich kid and hopeless First Division hopeful Sid Smythe. Lefty had a skinhead girlfriend and an evil temper, which could often be his undoing.
On his Sevenpenny Nightmare site charting the rise and fall of Action, Moose Harris notes the strip was very well received by readers, but as the story progressed, and reflected the true violence on the terraces of the time, Lefty ended up sailing too close to the wind.
“Writer Tom Tully was told that the strip was becoming boring, and was asked to liven it up a bit, and take it back to its roots. Tully rose to the challenge with great effect. The Football Association and the tabloid media took great exception to an incident where a bottle was thrown onto the pitch by [skinhead girlfriend] Angie, striking a player in the head. Tully then compounded this incident with a scaled-up repeat performance just a few weeks later. The second time, rival hooligans known as the Rotherfield Rippers threw a barrage of missiles at Lefty during a match.”
Tony regarded it as a “cheeky”, humorous story, but objected to some of the things he was asked to draw, for example refusing to depict Lefty sticking two fingers up to the crowd.
The furore over strips such as “Look out for Lefty” eventually led to Action being banned, but the strip returned after the comic’s enforced hiatus, albeit in a much sanitised form and Tony continued to draw it. ”[Lefty's skinhead girlfriend] Angie became progressively more bland and eventually disappeared from the strip completely, to be replaced by a returning Sid Smythe in pantomime villain mode,” notes Moose . “… The story ground to a premature halt as Action folded, the strip being unsuitable for the style of Battle Action.
“In its original form, “Lefty” had the distinction of being a truly original football strip, with some realistic and sympathetic characters. Its transformation into another Tiger-styled Roy of the Rovers wannabe is rather sad.”
Tony continued to play football for the Isle of Wight team Rookley FC. His obituary in the Isle of Wight newspaper County Press notes he played over 300 games in total and won many more trophies. He was voted Life President of Rookley Football Club due to his many years of faithful service as player and captain. He was voted player of the year in 1976-77 and club man of the year 1982-83.
When the British comics industry began to falter in the 1990s, moving in the main toward licensed rather than original comics strips, Tony became an arts teacher, using art to help people recovering from strokes and worked with people with disabilities at Meadowbrook Day Care Centre, where he founded the Re-Cycle project, collecting over 1000 bicycles for Africa.
Although he continued to work on comics part time through the 1990s, on DC Thomson’s Football Picture Story Monthly and a soccer comic in the USA, he eventually left comics altogether in 2000.
“Tony was not only a tremendously talented artist, he was also one of the nicest contributors I had the pleasure to work with,” recalls former Fleetway editor David Hunt. “It was always good to speak with or to see Tony … be it on the phone or at the office, he always made one feel you were in the presence of a very modest and warm human being. My sincere condolences to his family and, I’m sure, his many, many friends.”
• Anthony John “Tony” Harding: 9th January 1942 – 12th January 2014, survived by his wife, Ann, son Antony, three daughters – Suzanne, Claire and Laura – and three grandchildren
• “Does Your Dad draw Roy of the Rovers?”
Antony Harding remembers his father and his work
• “A Lovely Bloke…”
Fellow artist Barrie Mitchell pays tribute to Tony Harding