Long before WWE in its present form and ITV’s Gladiators there was a wrestling star that outfought all his opponents – Johnny Cougar, a Canadian Seminole mat fighter, co-star of the long-running weekly comic Tiger alongside the likes of “Roy of the Rovers”, “Skid Solo” and “Martin’s Marvellous Mini”.
But did you know that. briefly, he had his own comic? downthetubes contributor Richard Sheaf did, and he recently presented the covers of Johnny Cougar’s Wrestling Monthly over on his own Boys Adventure Blog, a short-lived 1990s title capitalising on the wrestling boom of the period that lasted just six issues before its abrupt cancellation.
“This was one of the last titles I launched,” editor Barrie Tomlinson (who also wrote some of the “Johnny Cougar” strips) tells us. “The publishers wanted to cash-in on the popularity of wrestling and here was a good, cheap way of doing it.
“We reprinted the early adventures of ‘Johnny Cougar’, from Tiger – great quality stories by Tom Tully and drawn by John Gillatt. They still looked brilliant.
“Issue One, dated October, 1992, had a free Johnny Cougar badge and Issue Two offered readers a free wrestling transfer,” adds Barrie, who is currently writing his second book on his comics career, following up on the recently-released Real Roy of the Rovers Stuff. “The covers were new, by John Gillatt and were delightful pieces of artwork.
“I combined the stories with up-to-date wrestling photos, featuring such stars as Larry ‘The Cruncher’ Zbyszko, Papa Shango, Kamala, Lex Luger and Davey Boy Smith. Plus there were a few wrestling puzzles to keep readers entertained and I also published some reprint jokes by my old pal Styx!
“It was never expected to be a long running title but it lasted for six months and was fun to work on.
“Johnny Cougar is a character I am particularly fond of,” he reveals. “Tom Tully wrote the story for many years and then I took over as author and worked closely with Sandy James, who illustrated most of my scripts.”
Born of a time when wrestling had been popularised by ITV on Saturday afternoons, Johnny Cougar was a hugely popular character – for all his contemporary stereotyping that makes many a modern reader pretty uneasy now, and his increasingly unlikely adventures. Before the world delighted to the exploits of real-word wrestlers like Mick McManus and Giant Haystacks, Johnny made his living as a professional wrestler, accompanied by his decidedly dodgy agent and manager, Bill MacLean, and swimmer Splash Gorton (who also had his own strip, some reprinted in All-Action Monthly in 1987).
He first appeared in Tiger in the issue cover dated 31st March 1962, initially drawn by Geoff Campion, but the artist most associated with the character is, perhaps, the brilliant Sandy James, whose credits also include “Ring Raiders” and “Robot Archie”. John Gilatt (perhaps best known for his work on “Billy’s Boots”) also made his mark on the character with some tremendous work.
Johnny survived until the title was cancelled in 1985, after merging with several other comics along the way, including JAG, Scorcher, Speed and Hurricane. He was popular abroad, as well as in the UK, reprinted in titles such as the Swedish anthology, Serie-Magasinet. He also featured in Buster – not the English weekly, but as “Johnny Puma” in the sports comic magazine of the same name published in both Sweden between 1967 and 2005 and in Finland in the 1970s and 1980s.
(Most of the material for this comic was taken from the UK edition, but as time went on the magazine produced more and more original material, which included giving Buster himself a makeover, changing his appearance into a more typical sports-interested teenager instead of the son of Andy Capp. I don’t know if this included new adventures for Johnny, too).
From humble beginnings his matches became more and more bizarre, not only battling all human opponents, but animals too… and even aliens!
He even appeared alongside real-life wrestler Big Daddy in two Tiger strips. (Big Daddy also featured as a more comical character in Buster, too, and had his own annual).
In the 1990s, long after the demise of Tiger, as noted above, Johnny Cougar enjoyed a brief revival as a monthly comic, edited by former editor and script writer Barrie Tomlinson. Johnny Cougar’s Wrestling Monthly ran for six issues – a seventh was trailed in Issue Six, but was never published.
Several comics creators, noting perhaps the success of John Wagner and Alan Grant’s Rok of the Reds, nostalgia for Scorer and the continued popularity of The Sun‘s “Striker“, the creation of Pete Nash, have wondered if sports comics offer some way back into the mainstream for comics, beyond the retro market and older comic fans rose-tinted memories.
Along with many other sports comic strips, “Johnny Cougar” remains one of those long-running series that captured imaginations and remains fondly remembered by both comic fans and those whose interest in our medium is more casual. Back in 2004, the Daily Telegraph’s Brendan Gallagher remembered the big-hearted wrestler with affection when he interviewed longtime comics editor Dez Skinn about the power of comics nostalgia. He argued comics were swept away by the rise of computer games and mountain bikes, and included Johnny in his list of favourite sports comic characters alongside Alf Tupper, Wizard Wilson, Skid Solo and, of course, Roy of the Rovers.
“The best thing about Christmas past?” he opined. “Seeing that familiar shaped package under the tree and holding it to the light, when nobody was looking in the chaos of Christmas Eve, to confirm that a Tiger annual or a Victor Book for Boys was coming your way. Joy unconfined…”
I’d suggest, with some caution noting the costs and difficulties of “building brands” in the 21st Century, that sports comics (those owned by the more obliging of rights holders, of course) could appeal to wider audiences – and Barrie Tomlinson is of a similar view.
“There are a lot of sporting heroes from the comics who are still remembered today,” he notes. “Of course, Roy of the Rovers tops the list but there’s also a great following for the ‘Billy’s Boots’ story, for ‘Hot-Shot Hamish’, ‘The Hard Man’, ‘Skid Solo’, ‘Johnny Cougar’ and ‘Martin’s Marvellous Mini’.
“Folk still communicate with me about the Scorer strip, which ran in the Daily Mirror for 22 years.
“Does this mean that there is still a market for such stories? I think there is. First of all, with reprints of the original stories and then, perhaps one day, new stories of these established characters.
“If that happens, it will be ‘Real Roy of the Rovers Stuff!'”
• This post was promoted by series of posts by downthetubes contributor Richard Sheaf on his Boys Adventure Blog
• Artist Tony O’Donnell’s “Johnny Cougar” sample page, drawn to see if he could draw a page of strip in a day
• Johnny Cougar makes it into this Top 10 list of fictional comic wrestlers – one inspiring a real life wrestler!
• A short item on the Swedish Buster comic (in English)
• Barrie Tomlinson’s Real Roy of the Rovers Stuff is available now from all good book shops. Read Read his feature for downthetubes on the story behind this new book
• Wrestling Facts: the WWE can trace its roots back to 1952 and the Capitol Wrestling Corporation. ITV broadcast wrestling from its early days, through into the 1980s
Johnny Cougar © TimeUK | Roy of the Rovers © Rebellion Publishing Ltd