We’re sorry to report the passing of Garth artist and former Daily Mirror strip editor John Allard, an unsung hero in the character’s success, not just in Britain, but in terms of his popularity wherever his adventures were re-published across the globe, including Australia and India.
John played such an important part in not only the early Garth artwork but in the overall development of the strip. In the years leading up to his retirement, John became the Cartoon Strips Editor at the Daily Mirror, where his influence and knowledge of newspaper cartoons helped reinvent the page.
Here, in a feature encompassing the entire history of the much-loved strip, Garth writer Philip Harbottle pays tribute to John, who worked at the Mirror for over 50 years, outlining his huge contribution to Garth‘s enduring success…
Artist and editor John Allard: Philip Harbottle reflects
It was a privilege to have worked with John Allard on Garth. He was one of the four key figures without whom the strip would never have developed or lasted so long as it did – an unbroken run over 50 years.
The other key figures were the strip’s artist-creator Steve Dowling, and its first two long-service scriptwriters, Don Freeman and Peter O’Donnell. Allard stands equally alongside all three.
In 1943, Dowling’s workload with his two strips (Belinda and Ruggles) for the Daily Mirror was considerable, and with the demands of his Home Guard duties to contend with, he was ready to take on an assistant. Step forward 15 year-old John Allard. Leaving school at 14, he had begun working at the Inland Revenue. However, art was his great passion, and he had been drawing his own comics since his schooldays.
“I submitted samples of my art to the Mirror offices and as luck would have it, I was invited down for an interview,” John told me.
“I started work there as an assistant to Steve Dowling a few months before the creation of Garth in July 1943.
“Steve was a great admirer of Milton Caniff (creator of the US strip Terry and the Pirates) and the mysterious Far Eastern worlds that Caniff involved his characters in and he wanted to emulate this approach to storytelling in Garth.
“Therefore the opening adventure of Garth was set in a mythical Lost Horizon type of world, as the concept of Shang-Ri-La was popular at the time.
“Steve also asked me to copy Caniff’s inking style, which in the early days of the strip is very evident.”
So it was that Allard was taken on as Dowling’s assistant in 1943, aged only 15. Dowling became his mentor, not only in the art of strip cartooning, but, I believe, in his personal outlook. When I asked John for his further recollections of those early years, he told me:
“Steve Dowling was the gentleman cartoonist. He took me on as his assistant in 1943 when I was aged 15. He was a charming person, gentle in his relationships with other people. He was certainly extremely patient with me, and it was typical of him that, when I came back out of National Service, and the Daily Mirror was rather mean about my salary, he gave me extra out of his own pocket.
“Always well dressed, he had a twinkle in his eye and a hat at a jaunty angle. He rode horses and shot rabbits on his small country estate. He had a very happy family life, with his wife Dolly and two children, Joy and Philip, in a small village near Hastings.”
The writing of Garth was soon passed on to another Mirror staff writer and trouble-shooter, Don Freeman. John Allard remembered why: “This was after [Mirror chairman and fellow artist] Guy Bartholomew decided that he did not like the way the strip was shaping.
For example, in the first story, published in 1943, Dowling and co-creator Gordon Boshell had given Garth the ability to talk to animals, by eating strange seed pods given to him by Gala. “You will remember that in the early part of the story the High Priest talks to a lion,” John recalled, “and the lion answers back!”
Freeman was asked to steer the story on a less mystical course.
Don Freeman (full name John Henry Gordon Freeman) was born on 23rd April 1903, and had worked at the Mirror since 1918. He quickly gained a reputation as a reliable trouble-shooter, first taking over the writing of “Uncle Dick’s Children’s Corner” feature in 1938 when its creator, Bertie Lamb died. Before long, he had also taken over the writing of the Mirror’s most famous strip, Jane, and also Belinda.
He came to be regarded as the Mirror’s staff strips scriptwriter, filling in on all their strips (including strips such as Pip, Squeak and Wilfred) when the original writers were indisposed. He was the ideal man to reshape Garth, and seamlessly continued Dowling’s plotline, which, as with the art style, had been greatly influenced by Terry and the Pirates.
“…Terry and the Pirates was my great influence, if anything,” Dowling admitted to comics archivist and publisher Denis Gifford in an interview. “I was rather interested in Tibet, and the Forbidden City, and the magic that was there. For instance, in the beginning Garth was resuscitated by the kiss of life from a rather attractive young woman called Gala. Well, the kiss of life was not known here [in the UK] then, but I had read about it in a book on Tibet.”
Allard’s contribution to the evolution of the Garth strip has been vastly under-appreciated. At the time Allard joined Dowling, that artist had actually been involved on three strips, two of them long established: Ruggles and Belinda, and the newly created Garth. Had not Allard linked up with Dowling, Garth might have had to be dropped because of Dowling’s excessive workload. As it became clear that Garth was a success, a new artist was found for Belinda, and Dowling and Allard were able to concentrate on Ruggles and Garth.
When Allard was obliged to take leave of absence to do his National Service, Dowling took on another assistant, Dick Hailstone, a veteran artist and cartoonist, whose work had been appearing in Punch and the Illustrated London News.
When Allard returned to resume his old job in the summer of 1948, he worked on Garth, with Hailstone remaining as assistant on Ruggles for the rest of that strip’s long run, (with occasional assists from Allard).
Both Allard and Hailstone worked in the same way – they did the initial penciling, and Dowling sharpened up and inked in the main figures, then his assistants inked in the backgrounds after approval or tweaking from Dowling. Allard’s initial pencil layouts were crucial to the success of Garth as the stories became more complex, spectacular and cinematic.
In the 1940s, they were obliged to provide four panels each day, to complement a good chunk of story development. Drawing an epic outdoor adventure in tiny panels was tremendously difficult, but Dowling and Allard became masters of the art.
“Steve was very workmanlike,” John recalled. “Cartoons were a job to be done in the most efficient manner… When summer holidays were coming up we had to work like Trojans to push the Garth and Ruggles strips a further three weeks ahead. ‘More big heads!’ Steve would say, as I did the pencil layouts. It was much quicker to draw big heads in close-up, than a scene!”
Aware Don Freeman was forever on the alert for new plot ideas, Allard’s most significant contribution to the evolution of Garth came about in 1944, because of his own personal interest in history. (In rare intervals when he was not working on story boards, he would pass the time by drawing historical scenes for his own amusement).
“I got on well with Don, and he used to stroll into the office used by Steve and young me for a chat when Steve was away,” he recalled.
“One day in 1944 I was amusing myself by drawing yet another historical battle scene when he said: ‘If I sent Garth back into the past, do you think you could cope with the reference?’ I responded enthusiastically, and Don went ahead and wrote “The Seven Ages of Garth” story. Don was keen on history, sending off Garth into adventures in the past on many occasions.”
I have gone on the record with my contention that “The Seven Ages” was the cornerstone of all Garth’s time travel adventures. Such storylines eventually became the mainstay of Garth, and without Allard’s initial inspiration and love and knowledge of history, that might never have happened.
Hugh McClelland’s 1952 story, “Invasion from Space“, has long been a source of speculation and mystery to serious devotees of the strip, because of its very distinctive artwork. Whilst clearly drawn by Dowling and Allard, it is somehow different – it has a sort of neat, meticulous look about it, a pleasing sharpness of line. The usual Dowling/Allard style was much looser.
When I came to work with John, I asked him in one of our many telephone conversations about the peculiar artwork to this story, and he revealed the surprising answer to this intriguing mystery!
McClelland was the Mirror’s strips editor at that time, so it fell for him to arrange for a new scriptwriter for the strip when Don Freeman fell ill. He solved the problem by writing the story himself – but he not only wrote it, but drew it as well!
“Steve was naturally pretty upset by this,” Allard recalled. “He thought McClelland was trying to put him out of a job!”
Dowling’s strong objections prevailed, and McClelland’s version was never used. Instead, Steve asked John Allard to redraw the strip in pencil in their usual style, which he then inked and revised. Dowling was careful not to look at McClelland’s version himself.
The result was a fascinating hybrid of all three style – McClelland, Allard, and Dowling!
As noted, the absent Freeman was also the scriptwriter for Belinda, and the Mirror brought in a new writer, Peter O’Donnell, on the recommendation of Ted Holmes (who was then scripting Just Jake), to write Belinda. He did such a good job of this that when Freeman returned, and resumed Belinda, the Mirror management asked him to hand over the writing of Garth to Peter O’Donnell.
Many years later, O’Donnell wrote about how he had been appointed to Garth, and suggested that it was because the strip at that time “was somewhat in the doldrums.”
That may well have been O’Donnell’s own perception at the time, but the statement was untrue, and an unfair slur on Freeman. In point of fact, prior to his illness, Freeman’s Garth had been on top form.
Soon after Garth began to be published, the strip had attracted the attention of overseas editors. It was not long before the strips were reprinted and serialised in Australia – initially in a weekly magazine, The Argus (in an interesting two colour version) and then in his own separate comic book in both Australia and New Zealand. The first foreign language translations were in France, and he quickly spread across Europe.
But the strip never cracked the United States. Here, the “superhero” exemplified by Superman, held sway. Although Garth had great strength, he was still essentially human, and did not have any fantastic super-powers, so beloved of the Americans.
By 1950, Superman was a worldwide phenomenon and had spawned two Hollywood films: Superman (1949) and Atom-Man versus Superman (1950), which enjoyed success in Britain. It may have been the films that prompted the Mirror bosses to ask Don Freeman to inject some of the same qualities into Garth, in the hope that they might thereby gain US syndication. So, at the conclusion of the interplanetary story “Journey to Jason“, Garth was given some special apparatus by a Jasonian scientist to enable him to get back to Earth: a “Space-Time Cloak and Helmet.” Wearing these, Garth is insulated against excessive heat, cold, or friction, and a fourth dimensional “no-time” factor eliminates the need for breathing when travelling through space.
In the following stories, “Space-Time Traveller” (1951), “The Phantom Pharaoh” (1951) and “Wings of the Night” (1951-2) Garth is enabled to fly through space and time to visit the Kubla Khan in ancient China, and also ancient Egypt at the time of the Pyramids.
Wearing just the cloak, he can fly for short distances on Earth, whilst by adjusting the helmet time-travel control, he can become invisible by side stepping into the fourth dimension.
So it was that, in these three stories alone, Garth took on some of the trappings of the US superhero. However, at the climax of “Wings of the Night”, during an aerial battle with a human vampire, the cloak is ripped to shreds and the helmet broken and lost.
Shorn of his alien accoutrements, Garth returned to normal (relatively speaking). Freeman wisely terminated the short-lived experiment, possibly because the attempt at American syndication remained a failure.
Thereafter, Garth of course continued to have time travelling adventures, but this was either through science fictional means (time machines) or the supernatural/fantasy ‘time spiral’ developed by later writer Jim Edgar, or the reincarnation device (which had been originally developed by Freeman.)
After wisely ending the “Superman” experiment, Freeman had penned two absolutely cracking stories, “Space-Time Rivals” (1952) and “Flight into the Future” (1952).
The real reason behind the move was recorded by Freeman himself years later, when the Daily Mirror ran a tribute article and interview with him following his retirement after 50 years sterling service. In the article Freeman revealed:
“When Bart (Guy Bartholomew) went and Cecil King took over he thought that I had too much to do.”
The Mirror interviewer added:
“This was when Belinda was still going strong and Don was also writing the scripts for Garth. He gave up Garth but kept on writing about Belinda.”
The article paid this tribute:
“Don Freeman’s work for the Daily Mirror spanned 50 years and survived seven changes of editor. During that time he produced hundreds of plots and stories for characters that are known all over the world.”
O’Donnell’s debut story for Garth, “The Warriors of Krull” (1952) was an auspicious one, but was not without problems for Allard and Dowling.
“’The Warriors of Krull’ was the first story written by Peter O’Donnell,” John Allard recalled, “and he seemed to think he was Cecil B. De Mille doing a Hollywood epic. There were far too many characters, and too much spectacle, to squeeze into a daily strip.
“Later on, of course, Peter wrote some of the best Garth stories ever.”
In 1963, Garth was still at a peak of popularity, thanks to O’Donell’s brilliant scripts, and quality artwork. Letters poured into the Mirror offices, agonising over the vicissitudes of the characters. They were often a source of amusement to his creators, as Allard recalled:
“One particular story, “The Troll“, had Professor Lumiere falling in love with a woman who was an android and whose batteries, so to speak, were running down and the Prof knows that she is dying (whilst believing her to be human). It was written in such a high camp way as it had us falling about with laughter in the office when the letters of sympathy came in!”
High camp or not, “The Troll” was the story chosen to be re-run in 1968, when an industrial dispute prevented the running of new stories!
One great central paradox in the Garth saga is that if Garth is killed in his past lives as a young man without having fathered children, how come he has so many ancestors? He seems to simply be reborn in a similar body throughout history.
As noted, in “The Seven Ages”, Garth’s recollection of former lives was accomplished with Lumiere’s machine. Peter O’Donnell never attempted to continue this the theme in any of his stories. He elected to develop his own themes, making no changes, however, in Garth’s character, but dropping Lumiere’s eccentricity of being able to solve scientific problems by sleeping on them. He also (rather unwisely, in my view) totally jettisoned both Dawn and Karen, not even attempting to “write them out”.
O’Donnell left the Mirror amicably in 1966, owing to the tremendous success of his other strip creation for the Evening Standard, Modesty Blaise. When the character was filmed, and also spawned best-selling novels, O’Donnell earnings from it were so good, that he gave up writing Garth. He suggested his friend Jim Edgar as his successor.
It was an excellent appointment. Edgar was already a very experienced strips writer, and had also written radio plays. Some of his best strips included Matt Marriott drawn by Tony Weare (published in Evening News), Wes Slade, drawn by George Stokes (Sunday Express) and Gun Law, drawn by Harry Bishop (Daily Express).
Edgar’s debut story was a long, slyly humorous space opera, “The Brain” (1966) that was so well done, few readers could have guessed that O’Donnell had left the strip.
Jim Edgar soon further delighted devotees of the strip by returning to Freeman’s stories to find fresh inspiration and new directions, but sadly he too ignored Garth’s old girl friends, for whom O’Donnell had only contempt (the simple option of transforming them into something better, was never taken up).
Edgar reintroduced the reincarnation theme, and a variation of it, the time slip plot. To accomplish this he did not use mechanical means, developing a device first referred to by Lumiere in “Night of the Knives” (1966) as the ‘Time Spiral’. In a Whitechapel boarding house, Garth and Lumiere find a bag of surgical knives that had belonged to Jack the Ripper. They exude a tangible aura of evil, and Garth is thrust back in time to Whitechapel in Victorian times.
In masterly fashion, Edgar embroils Garth with Jack the Ripper’s victims, mixing it with another classic theme, that of Jekyll and Hyde. The Ripper is a doctor who carries out the murders in his Hyde persona. Dowling and Allard’s artwork was suitably atmospheric, making this one of the finest Garth stories.
Garth causes the death of the Ripper (under the wheels of a hansom cab) and with his passing, Garth returns to the present and to Lumiere. They decide to throw the bag into the Thames.
Edgar wrote a fine supernatural fantasy, “Mind Destroyers” (1969), which Steve Dowling knew would be his last Garth strip before his enforced retirement at 65. Despite this, John Allard recalled that Dowling “let me do some weeks of it entirely by myself – as Steve thought this would help in my obtaining the job of Garth main artist.”
So it proved, and in Allard’s solo art debut story, “The Rohan Legend” (1969) Edgar worked another variation. The story wove an intricate plot involving Sir Guy Rohan, a brutal aristocrat, disfigured by an ugly birthmark on his cheek. Fate brings him and Garth together and a mutual antipathy is immediately apparent. Garth learns that he is the double of Sir John Garfield, an 18th century aristocrat who clashed with Sir Clive Rohan. Garth undergoes a time slip, and finds himself back in the body of Garfield. He helps his friend Tim Cannon, a young highwayman and a girl, Katherine, who becomes Tim’s wife.
But Clive had his own evil designs on the girl. The story develops along classical historical adventure lines, with Bow Street Runners, Tyburn gallows, and jail, and other historical elements. Woven throughout is a brilliant sub-plot unravelling the events of the Rohan legend, which Sir Guy had outlined to Garth at the beginning of the story. Sir Clive whips Katherine’s face, and a crone whom she has been nursing puts a curse on Rohan that all his first-born children will bear the same mark on their face.
Garth, in this seminal time travelling tale, is fully himself. He saves Cannon’s life, taking his place on the gallows (derived from Freeman’s ending to “The Seven Ages” and in turn deriving from Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities) Garth, however, has reasoned that he has been sent back in time to fulfil a purpose and, at the moment of death, his mind will return to his own body. So it proves, but the story still has a final twist, with Sir Guy killing himself in the same manner as his ancestor – attempting to jump on horseback over a high wall, and breaking his neck.
Everything about the story is beautifully constructed, even the minor characters, who include a pretty prostitute, a one legged man, and a reincarnation of the crone who shares her predilection for gin!
Despite its complicated plot, the story unfolds smoothly, everything falling into its appointed place. Allard’s artwork is superb: robust and delicate in turn. He recalls that the then Cartoons Editor, Bill Herbert, “wanted the drawings for that particular story in the style of the 18th century artist and moralist William Hogarth (a pretty impossible order to carry out in the confines of a small daily strip, but I tried!).”
The only slightly jarring note in this otherwise perfect tale is that Garth deliberately sacrifices his life in the past (as Sir John Garfield) believing his own mind will return to his modern body at the moment of death. But he leaves Garfield’s body behind, dangling from the Tyburn gallows! However, if events are looked at from the viewpoint of the modern Garth simply reliving a past life, then Garfield took his own life.
Such paradoxes are at the heart of the fascination of Garth!
Often overlooked in the evaluation of comic strips is the role of the editor. I asked John Allard, the only man to have served under all of the editors during the run of the strip, for his comments.
“The influence of various Mirror Cartoon Editors is difficult to evaluate editor by editor,” he noted. “Obviously Herbert, who had been in the newspaper’s New York bureau, was extremely active, initiating two highly successful strips (Andy Capp and The Perishers), and injecting both story and drawing ideas into Garth.
“He suggested the quaint Amish setting for “The Living Mountain” (1960) – a setting used some 30 years later for the movie Witness with Harrison Ford.
“With other Cartoon Editors, the influence was more fitful. Charles Roger was taunted by a pretty girl reporter that Garth was gay, and he insisted on an explicit love scene being quickly inserted in ‘Sundance‘ (1971)”.
I also asked John about his own editorship. He told me:
“After I ceased being Frank Bellamy’s assistant with the drawing, Charles Roger asked me to act as editor of Garth because of my long association with the strip.
“This meant that Jim Edgar’s synopses were passed to me for comment. However, I didn’t think this chore really warranted a byline and got it deleted eventually.
“At the same time the Mirror editor Mike Molloy had me doing line illustrations, especially naturalistic sketches of politicians for a daily news feature called “Close Up”, and trying to develop a strip based on a series of historical novels by Claire Rayner the Agony Aunt – which turned into a sort of Fosdyke Saga without laughs and was never published.
“Outside of the Mirror I was Press Officer of an outfit called ‘The Home and School Council’, editing their booklets and running a local educational pressure group – I had children of school age, of course, and my daughter was to become a teacher.
Edgar and Allard took Garth off into space in “The Playboy of Space” (1969), a cleverly plotted story, with strong humorous elements. The hero of an advanced galactic civilisation, the Dromedans, is one Ulgur the Mighty, a conceited muscleman who is champion of the Galactic Games. Learning of Garth’s prowess he is intrigued and jealous. He comes to Earth to fight Garth, but the two become friends. Garth goes back with Ulgur to Dromeda where he rescues his betrothed from the clutches of a super-scientist space pirate, Kroken (a Vincent Price lookalike).
Mention must be made of Allard’s artwork in this story, which was exceptional – everything on Dromeda had an ‘alien’ look about it, costumes, architecture, machinery, Allard following the great tradition of his collaborative years with Steve Dowling. Edgar too followed the formula of his predecessor, Peter O’Donnell. His story had lots of little sub-plots, and is slick and well-constructed.
However, a change in the formula was becoming apparent: Edgar sped up the action considerably. As a consequence, his space tales are not as memorable as O’Donnell’s, because his plot elements are not so fully worked out. Kroken operates from an artificial asteroid shielded by a force barrier; all of his operatives are robots – a fascinating set-up, but Edgar never tells us how and why it came to be. Garth, in typical form, manages to penetrate the barrier and destroy the base (and Kroken with it), all in the space of 30 or so strips, where O’Donnell would have spread the action over a longer period.
This was to be the pattern of most of Edgar’s science fiction stories – brimful of fascinating science fiction elements, but with few of them fully worked out. As the years went by, Edgar’s stories got faster and faster, using up dozens of science fiction ideas at an alarming rate. The ultimate was reached in “Voyage into Time” (1978), which compressed at least six different plots into one story. Martin Asbury clearly enjoyed himself with the artwork, each sequence vibrant and dazzling, but the end product was unsatisfying.
Generally, Edgar’s time tales, with less ‘throwaway’ plot elements, and a greater unity of plot, were the more memorable. “Hell-Ship” (1970) was a masterly variation on the ‘Flying Dutchman’ theme, with Edgar’s trick of blending in another classic tale, that of Moby Dick. Here, Captain Ahab is replaced by Captain Sharon. For good measure, Edgar mixes another plot, that of Mutiny on the Bounty. Edgar takes only the core idea of each plot, and weaves them together beautifully.
Here, Garth is a time traveller, as in “Night of the Knives“. During a storm in the Atlantic (where he is on a solo voyage) he slips back in time 100 years, and at the end of the story, another storm brings him back to his own time – to be picked up at sea in a Polaris submarine by an ancestor of Captain Sharon (the kind of extra detail and plot unity that helps make Edgar’s time tales memorable). John Allard’s artwork, dark and brooding at sea, and light and airy on the tropical island sequences, was never better.
In “Sundance” (1971), art by Allard initially, then by Frank Bellamy, Garth again undergoes a time slip, taking over the body of a cavalry man at the time of General Custer’s campaigns against the Indians. Garth falls in love with an Indian girl, Falling Leaf, and Edgar cleverly develops the sub-theme of the tragic and doomed romance, which is central to many of his time tales. Garth dies heroically in the Battle of Little Big Horn.
“Ghost Town” (1973) was another reincarnation tale set in the old west. Here, however, Garth does not ‘take over’ his earlier double, Tom Barratt, a western sheriff. The story is poor for Edgar: a tedious cowboy story straight out of 1950’s ‘B’ movies, and develops as a straight western. When Barratt is shot by a vengeful rejected suitor, Garth wakes up from his reverie in the present.
This story was reportedly Bellamy’s own favourite and was reprinted by the Mirror as a tribute, following his untimely death in 1976. Whilst it was very good Bellamy (his meticulous style bringing an authentic western period feel to the artwork) it was very poor Garth (who looked somewhat effeminate as a wasp-waisted cowboy with a dinky-looking mini-stetson).
Edgar returned repeatedly to his time spiral theme (Garth finds an ancient weapon or artefact and undergoes a time slip to a point in past time when he wielded the said weapon, etc). In my opinion, the best Edgar and Bellamy historical combination was “The Spanish Lady” (1976), Bellamy’s last full-length story. Edgar employed his now familiar time spiral when Garth visits an Elizabethan inn and his mind goes back 400 years to become John Carey, a roistering adventurer and friend of Francis Drake.
Interestingly, Edgar makes Carey a man of his time, with definite character faults – drinking, fighting, and careless with money, but a formidable fighter and loyal friend (which is why Drake values his friendship and often bales him out of trouble). Frank Bellamy’s meticulous realistic style – often unsuited to science fantasy – was perfect for this historical tale: each panel, be it costumed figures or Spanish galleons, is rendered in masterly style. The story of a doomed love affair between Garth and his Spanish lady (condemned by Queen Elizabeth and the girl’s father) ends in sombre and impressive fashion.
When news of Bellamy’s death became known, several top artists (including John Burns) submitted samples, hoping to take over the strip. However, they were too late! As John Allard recalls, “The Mirror editor Mike Molloy never saw their samples because he had already appointed Martin Asbury, who had got his samples in double-quick.”
The appointment of Asbury was an inspired choice. After 1976 Edgar continued to wring variations on his fertile theme, too many to detail here, but including “Legion of the Damned” (1981; Garth as a gladiator), “Day of Anger” (1981; Garth meets Wat Tyler and the Peasants’ Revolt), “Seek and Destroy” (1982; Garth crossed with Biggles and Lawrence of Arabia!).
Perhaps the high watermark of these tales was reached with “Hammer of Throwald” (1983) and “La Belle Sauvage” (1983-4). In the former, Garth relives a previous life as a Saxon farmer in 800AD. Garth is captured by the Vikings and taken as prisoner back to their homeland, where he falls in love with Gretta, a Viking maiden.
This was an amazingly good story, strongly plotted, with heart-stopping action intermingled with poignant emotion: the story ends in ironic tragedy. The art was rendered in absolutely inspired fashion by Martin Asbury, who was never better. His art depicted beautiful fjords, rugged mountains, Viking longboats, and battle scenes in exquisite detail. He used a range of techniques, borrowing from both Dowling (large black silhouettes to suggest mood) and Bellamy (fine line for figure work), but rendered in his own now fully-developed vivid style. The sequence R133-R136, when Garth hurls himself off a cliff, encapsulates the style of all three men.
“La Belle Sauvage” (1983-4) was notable on several levels. At the beginning of the story, Garth finds a ship’s logbook, telling of the last voyage of the Esperanza out of Plymouth, captained by one Garth Tregorran, in the year 1693. But Garth does not undergo a time slip – the story simply operates in flashback, reconstructing the events leading up to and including the last doomed voyage. At the end we see Garth finishing reading the diary, and remarking, ‘A strange tale! But what happened to La Belle Sauvage?’ She is a beautiful female pirate (complete with eye patch) who operates in the West Indies.
In a rousing pirate adventure, Garth falls in love with her, but she rejects his offer of marriage, preferring her own wild life of savagery and danger. Asbury’s artwork remains inspired throughout, in his now perfected composite style.
Throughout the late 1970s, and into the ’80s, the storylines became increasingly sex-and-violence orientated, particularly through the introduction of regular crime and terrorism stories, reflecting aspects of society as it had actually become. The gentle humour and light fantasy of Freeman clearly had to give way as Garth moved with the times. Asbury’s art matched the stories, almost bludgeoning the reader with lurid visual imagery.
When Allard moved up to become strips editor, he not only kept a firm hand on Garth, but devised successful new strips such as Scorer, and eventually was able to restore the Mirror’s full page of cartoon strips, halting years of decline and retrenchment – a very considerable achievement, as other newspapers were actually cancelling strips altogether.
Then towards the end of the 1980s, under the editorship of John Allard, the stories gradually moved in a new direction. They still contained sex and violence, but dealt with it in a more restrained and acceptable manner. The stories also became less complicated. Allard’s changes were timely – elsewhere, newspaper adventure strips were being terminated as readers became unwilling to follow complex plots, with competing media – television, video, etc. vying for their attentions. But the essence of Garth remained undiluted, and the overall effect of the changes was beneficial.
Asbury’s artwork itself became more assured and less complex, recalling the pleasing fluency of the Dowling/Allard days. He had created his own distinctive style of art, but it was closer to the style of the old master, Steve Dowling, than that of Bellamy, whom he had assiduously imitated during his early years on the strip.
The full flowering of this renaissance on the strip became apparent with John Allard’s own 1992 story, “Man on the Edge“. Coming to the end of his 50-year involvement with the strip, Allard had decided that the time was right to unify all of the disparate elements in Garth. “Man on the Edge” was a fascinating and audacious reworking of not one, but several different stories: “The Saga of Garth” (1946) and “The Last Goddess” (1957), with resonances from “Children of the Dawn” (1944), blending the seminal ideas of Freeman and O’Donnell into a unified whole.
The original stories were retold, very much condensed, in a flashback sequence, in the midst of a modern segment using Jim Edgar’s creation, the Great Beast. Garth is lured into the depths of a cave in South America, into a trap set for him by the Great Beast. Facing death, Garth recalls his past early life, finding the inspiration and courage to survive.
Whilst essentially faithful to the original storylines, some details were cleverly changed and updated to remove anachronisms (“Saga” had the young Garth fighting Nazis in the second world war, having been set in 1944).
Allard delighted older fans of the strip by deciphering the inscription on the sword found in his crib, and cleverly substituted the sword for the original O’Donnell Vulcan’s axe in his retelling of “The Last Goddess”. By doing so, he was able to tie in Astra and Baal to Garth’s early life, unifying the theme (developed by Edgar) that they are united through time and space to fight against evil, aided by Garth’s loyal friend, Lumiere, ‘a daring seeker after truths old and new.’ Special mention must also be made of the brilliant artwork by Martin Asbury, completely faithful to the original Dowling and Allard characters and backgrounds, but rendered in a style entirely his own.
The story and art were a triumph, serving to revitalise the strip, renewing it from the wellsprings of the past, and moving it forward. Whilst the story was running, I was in correspondence about Garth’s history with Allard, and he invited me to try writing a Garth story. The fantastic array of past stories by superb writers was both daunting and inspirational, and in “Twin Souls” (1992) I tried to bring something new to Garth, whilst Allard’s editing kept it within the canon.
Following this first sale in 1992, I had met John and he invited me to try writing further Garth scripts, despite the fact that I was past middle-age myself. My own impression very much paralleled those of the young Allard. John was very well dressed, utterly charming with a good sense of humour. Like Dowling he was a devoted family man, and had been on his way to Scotland for a family holiday. It was his planned overnight stay on Tyneside that have given me the opportunity of meeting him.
He was utterly professional, and had a complete grasp of all aspects of the mass media – books, films, and television, as well as newspapers. He was amazingly well-read, and continually seeking to find new writers and interests for his own satisfaction, as well as an aid to his job as the Daily Mirror’s overall Cartoons Editor and Supremo. He was also very much down to earth, and appreciated frankness and honesty.
But beneath his surface geniality and friendliness, there was a steely professionalism, even ruthlessness. It was clear that he did not suffer fools gladly, and had no time for self-seekers and disloyalty. His own promotions and career with the Mirror had been very hard earned and he had suffered and overcome numerous vicissitudes along the way. He knew where all the bodies were buried, and had learned how to survive in the newspaper jungle.
Although Allard had to retire in 1993, having reached statutory pension age, the Mirror gave him a contract to edit and supply the story scripts for another year. He very generously invited me to contribute further stories. I wrote the first draft, which he then revised and edited, allowing me to comment on his alterations before the strip was sent to the artist. Two collaborative tales resulted, “Warlord” (1993) and “Champions” (1993/94). Working with him was tremendously exciting and very instructional.
John also contributed a fine solo story as his own swansong – “Days of Doom” (1994) a Garth and Astra story.
After John’s year was up, I managed to place two solo science fiction stories following his precepts, “Twilight World” (1994) and “Devil Woman” (1995) to the Mirror’s new strips production supervisor and editor, Ken Layson.
After “Devil Woman” had appeared, artist Martin Asbury wrote me a letter apologising and explaining why he had felt it necessary to make alterations to my original script.
His main rationale, he explained, was that he passionately believed the writer of a strip story had to aim at some sort of excitement or cliff-hanger in every panel at the end of each day, rather than build up to it over two or three days.
Whilst I did not share his views, I had to respect them. I was acutely aware, as was he, that Garth was the only adventure strip still running in the Mirror, and indeed was the only such strip surviving in the country’s national dailies. Its existence, as Martin pointed out, was “fragile.”
Notwithstanding, I continued to contribute story ideas to Ken Layson, making the stories as fast moving and exciting as I could, whilst still telling a logical story. My third solo story, “INVASION” (in which Garth met Sherlock Holmes in a parallel world) was promptly accepted by Layson. The story had also been praised and approved by John Allard, with whom I had remained in private correspondence. But it never appeared, because shortly thereafter Martin Asbury persuaded Ken to let him take over the strip entirely, editing, writing and drawing it himself.
The Mirror never wrote to inform me that my story – after having been verbally accepted by Ken Layson in a telephone call – was not going to be used. I only learned of Martin’s takeover much later, from John Allard.
I was shattered by the news – not least because I had already spent much of my anticipated fee! John was not happy either, but he explained that Ken Layson had been under tremendous pressures, along with all the Mirror’s features editors, because the newspaper itself was in turmoil following the death of its owner Robert Maxwell.
Asbury took the strip in entirely new directions. He had, in fact, been itching to take control of the strip for many years, but the scripting side of the strip had been rigidly controlled by Allard, as the Mirror’s strips editor and supremo. With Allard’s departure, his department was broken up and his post no longer existed in the same way as hitherto. Asbury seized his chance to take over the strip and imbue it with his own radical ideas, which he felt would ensure its survival.
He believed that there needed to be a fresh development of the action in every daily strip. His stories became faster and more episodic, with plenty of his trademark nudity, sex and violence and sometimes surreal visual imagery.
However at the beginning of 1997, the Mirror features editor decided that the new version of Garth wasn’t cutting it. The current story, “Dam Drivers“, was brought to a clumsily hurried conclusion on 8th February, 1997, after only 36 episodes instead of the standard 60, with the sinister legend THE END at the foot of the last panel.
However, it was not quite the end. Knowing the strip was to end, Asbury wrote and drew an utterly fantastic fantasy story called “Z Files“, plunging Garth into a surreal adventure in just 36 episodes, ending on a cliffhanger. The Mirror ran the story only in their Northern Ireland edition. Would this radical revamping save the strip, and prompt its continuation – perhaps in syndication?
Alas not: the Mirror features editor remained adamant that the strip would not be continued.
Garth was gone – but not forgotten.
It had been a privilege to follow his adventures from the earliest days, and to have played a small part in ‘The Saga of Garth’, surely the greatest adult daily adventure strip cartoon in the world.
Let us therefore salute artist Steve Dowling, the father of Garth, and his worthy successors, John Allard, Frank Bellamy and Martin Asbury (the longest-serving solo artist, who never quite got the recognition he deserved) together with Don Freeman, Jim Edgar, John Allard, and all the other fine writers who helped make the strip so memorable.
But speaking for myself, Garth began and ended with John Allard.
John Allard, born 1928, died Wednesday 7th November 2018
GARTH ON DOWNTHETUBES
• Ally Sloper #1 – Stephen Dowling Interview by Denis Gifford – published in Ally Sloper #1 in 1976 – interview by Denis Gifford (PDF)
• Reprints of Garth, coloured by Martin Baines, appear in the Mirror and on the paper’s online web site: www.mirror.co.uk/lifestyle/cartoons/garth
Philip James Harbottle was born in Wallsend on Tyneside, in 1941. On learning to read he devoured the Daily Mirror’s full page of comic strips, and was immediately captivated by the adventures of Garth. He began clipping and saving the strips assiduously. Other childhood favourites were Captain Marvel, Superman and Dan Dare, and his subsequent discovery of written science fiction in the early 1950s via the novels of “Vargo Statten” imbued him with a love of science fiction. The Radio Luxembourg adventures of Dan Dare prompted him to draw his own strip versions.Researching post-war British science fiction history led to his publishing The Multi-Man (1968) a study of the noted pulp writer John Russell Fearn, and to editing the monthly magazine Vision of Tomorrow in 1969, the same year in which he was married. He has contributed to many reference books and encyclopaedias, notably The Visual Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction (1977). In the 1980s, he returned to his first love, comic strips, to create the space hero Nick Hazard with John Lawrence as a vehicle for noted SF artist Ron Turner, together with adaptations of stories by Fearn, including The Golden Amazon (currently being serialised in Spaceship Away, coloured by Martin Baines.) This experience stood him in good stead when, in 1992, he was invited by Daily Mirror strips editor John Allard to write scripts for Garth. He sold five serial stories before the strip’s artist took over the writing. However, the lucrative assignment had enabled him to help his only daughter through University.
In 1998, following publication of The Tall Adventurer, his non-fiction study of E.C. Tubb (the prolific SF and Western writer), he took early retirement from Local Government when Tubb asked him to act as his literary agent. He is the heir and administrator of the literary estate of John Russell Fearn, and working from notes and unpublished mss left by both authors, he has posthumously collaborated on many new novels, and edited more than two dozen science fiction anthologies. His latest non-fiction book is Vultures of the Void: the Legacy (2011) a personalized history of British post-war science fiction publishing. He now runs the Cosmos Literary Agency, specialising in SF, detective and Westerns, and his clients include many of the most prolific British and American genre writers. Article copyright © 2018 by Philip Harbottle | With thanks to Ant Jones for the photo of John, used with permissionGarth © 2018 MGN Limited