Red Dagger Cover Montage

Graphic Novels by any other name

Red Dagger CoversJeremy Briggs probes the mystery of DC Thomson’s little known title Red Dagger, and wonders why the company isn’t publishing something similar today…

“Graphic Novel” is a much abused term. While it really should refer to a single one off story told in comic strip form such as Art Spiegelman’s Maus, it is normally used as a short hand for compilations of previously published comic strips in a book format. These compilations have taken off in in the UK in recent years with Rebellion’s systematic reprinting of 2000AD stories, both from its early days with the Judge Dredd Case Files, or from its more recent history with such characters as Nikolai Dante, or with Titan Books publication of James Bond and Modesty Blaise newspaper strips plus Dan Dare, Charley’s War, The Spider and Steel Claw from the various weekly comics.

North of the English-Scottish border, DC Thomson continue alternating “Oor Wullie and “The Broons” as yearly reprints from The Sunday Post newspaper, as well as the annual Dandy/Beano-themed hardcover reprint books. However, considering the history of D C Thomson, which dates back over 100 years, and the wealth of characters and stories that are available, they have yet to truly embrace the graphic novel bandwagon. The recent hardback Commando compilations were licensed out to Carlton Books, while the Jackie tie-in books were taken from a magazine title.

An ad promoting Red Dagger in Victor issue 155
An ad promoting Red Dagger in Victor issue 155

Yet D C Thomson have tried a form of graphic novel before. Back in the early 1980s, when the fledgling Titan Books were only just beginning to publish selected Judge Dredd stories in softcover albums, D C Thomson was publishing a mainly bimonthly title called Red Dagger which ran for a total of 30 issues between October 1979 and June 1983. Subtitled “64 Page Action Stories For Boys”, this was the company mining its considerable archives for a selection of stories covering war, adventure, espionage and sport — something it has done little of in this format since.

Each issue was a story about the given character, reprinted from the weekly titles with the newest reprints dated from 1977 whilst the earliest were from 1966. These weekly strips were reformatted slightly before publication to remove the weekly title banner and introduction text box allowing the story to flow more smoothly. Since the majority of the chosen stories were originally internal strips from the weeklies this was not that difficult, with the only obvious “Page One’s” being in those stories that included an original front page from the weekly comic which consisted of only a splash panel.

Red Dagger covers were normally fully painted, often by Ian Kennedy, and were printed in colour on semi-gloss paper while the interiors where the newsprint typical of the time. Weekly comic size, sometimes perfect bound, sometimes folded and stapled, the war issues at least looked for all the world like large Commando comics. The closest modern equivalent would be the issues of 2000AD Extreme Edition which reprint a single story, although in their case of course there is no attempt at reformatting to remove the weekly story break.

Braddock strip in Red Dagger Issue 29
The “Braddock of Bomber Command” strip in Red Dagger Issue 29

Sergeant Pilot Matt Braddock appeared in more Red Dagger issues than any other character. The three stories, all set during World War II, were “Braddock and the Flying Tigers” in issue 12 which was originally published in Victor in 1967, “Braddock of the Rocket Squadron” in issue 19, from Victor in 1968, and finally “Braddock of Bomber Command” in issue 29, which came from Victor in 1969. The character originally appeared in a text story in The Rover 1414 dated 2nd August 1952 entitled “I Flew With Braddock” and was told from the point of view of his navigator, Sergeant George Bourne. This and some of other Rover text stories were reprinted in the 1959 DC Thomson/John Leng hardback book also titled I Flew With Braddock and the 1962 Red Lion paperback Braddock and the Flying Tigers, which were both credited to the fictional Bourne.

As the repetition of the “Flying Tigers” title shows, many of the Braddock picture strips in Victor were based on those original 1950s text stories from The Rover. Braddock flew bombers and fighter bombers for the Royal Air Force, always aircraft that required him to have a navigator in the form of George Bourne. This was unusual, as his compatriots from the other 1950s and 1960s comics such as Sun‘s “Battler Britton”, Knockout‘s “Johnnie Wingco” or Lion‘s “Paddy Payne” came from the more glamorous background of singled engined and single seat fighters such as the Hurricane or Spitfire, at least before their authors expanded their flying abilities. Matt Braddock also stood out from the crowd as being a Sergeant rather than an officer – Battler Britton for instance was a Wing Commander, many ranks Braddock’s superior. Yet in Braddock, Thomson’s editor William Blain effectively created a blue collar, rather than a white collar worker, who would continue through Rover and Victor and even on into the much more modern Warlord in the 1970s in strips such as Bomber Braddock.

Fighting Fury drawn by Ron Smith, as featured in Red Dagger #24
“Fighting Fury”, drawn by Ron Smith, as featured in Red Dagger #24

The Second World War was by far the most popular theme for Red Dagger, with a third of the issues having related stories from that conflict. In addition to Matt Braddock, pilots Killer Kane from Warlord and Fighting Fury (Hotspur), sailor Killer Kennedy (Hotspur), plus soldiers Sniper Kelly from Warlord and Tiger McTaggart from Wizard each had a issue to themselves, whilst the childhood of footballer Arnold Tabbs was covered in “The Blitz Kid” and the undercover fight of the “Deathless Men” in Nazi-occupied Europe completed the war theme.

Bernard Briggs , as featured in Red Dagger Issue 26
Bernard Briggs , as featured in Red Dagger Issue 26
Cast Iron Bill, as featured in Red Dagger Issue 15
Cast Iron Bill, as featured in Red Dagger Issue 15

Five characters appeared in two Red Daggers each. Morgyn The Mighty was DC Thomson’s strongman character, Jake Jeffords was a British secret agent, “Cast Iron” Bill Steele was a goalkeeper, Bernard Briggs was an amateur sportsman who could turn his hand to any sport the story presented, and Alf Tupper was a runner better known as The Tough of the Track. Of the rest of the 30 issues, three had football stories, three other sporting stories, one issue was a western and three others had a modern day setting but a mixture of themes.

Terror in the Tower, drawn by Dennis McLoughlin, which appeared in Red Dagger Issue 9
Terror in the Tower, drawn by Dennis McLoughlin, which appeared in Red Dagger Issue 9

Like Braddock, a lot of DC Thomson’s characters predate the modern style of comics, consisting of picture strips and originated in the text story dominated comics known as the story papers. Some of Thomson’s best known and longest running comics titles such as Rover and Hotspur began as story papers before being reformatted into the more modern picture strips style. Even then, text stories would often appear in some of the Thomson weekly comics and their associated annuals right into the 1970s and the 1980s. Many of the characters appearing in Red Dagger had begun their lives in text adventures in the story paper, while one had even appeared as a picture strip in The Beano back in the days when humour comics would include some adventure stories and adventure comics would include some humour stories.

Morgyn the Mighty appeared in Red Dagger Issue 3, looking great for a character who first appeared in 1928.
Morgyn the Mighty appeared in Red Dagger Issue 3, looking great for a character who first appeared in 1928.

“Morgyn The Mighty” was Thomson’s Tarzan character and was billed as “the strongest man in the world”. His adventures were set in the modern day, often involving his journeys away from his Black Island home to the more remote places in the world such as South Borneo or Mongolia. The character first appeared as a text story in The Rover story paper in issue 304 dated 11th February 1928 and would continue to appear there throughout its life before transferring into picture strips in Victor in 1963. He even jumped ship in 1938 into the first issue of The Beano on 30th July 1938, in a typically DC Thomson move of swapping characters between ongoing titles. Like Braddock, he appeared in a Thomson/Leng novel-style hardback book, called simply Morgyn The Mighty, in 1951 with a colour cover and internal black and white illustrations by Dudley D Watkins. For a character who first appeared in 1928, it is remarkable that Morgyn was still appearing in Victor annuals into the 1990s – over sixty years later.

The two Morgyn Red Daggers and the Tiger MacTaggart issue were unusual in that they presented what were obviously two separate complete stories in each issue, tied together with a simple “several weeks” or “several years” later text box. The publication’s “64 Page Action Stories For Boys” actually consisted of a potential 60 pages of comic strip plus the front cover, the inside front cover normally a one page reprinted feature on a subject related to the main story, the inside back cover an advert for the next issue (with the exception of the last issue, which ran another one page feature here as well). The back cover which was a full page colour photograph.

Alf Tupper, as he appeared in Red Dagger Issue 22
Alf Tupper, as he appeared in Red Dagger Issue 22

Thomson’s ongoing stories, unlike the stories in Warrior in the 1980’s for example, were not designed to fit a specific page count and those that ran short, such as “Killer Kennedy” in issue 10, gained more one page reprint features within the main body of the story. Those that were too long to fit were often started partway into the story such as “The Black Sapper” in issue 20, which tells the story of the resistance against the Khansu occupation of the UK without actually showing the invasion. Other stories, such as “Midge Millar”, ended on half pages in their original comics and for Red Dagger often had their initial splash panels cut down or even completely removed. Others, such as “Cast Iron Bill”, dropped many week’s worth of individual stories to allow the overall story to come to a conclusion within the 60 page limit. (Click here for more information on how comic strip art originally published in weekly titles such as Warlord was converted for use in Red Dagger).

The colour photos on the back page initially tied in with the story with issue three’s “Morgyn The Mighty” gaining a picture of Soviet Olympic weightlifter Vasilli Alexeev, issue seven having a picture of the Hurricane aircraft that Killer Kane flew in the story, or Manchester United and England goalkeeper Gary Bailey on the back of issue six which featured a “Cast Iron Bill” story. However this was not to last. When issue 17 told the story of secret agent Jake Jeffords, it printed a picture of Swedish pop group Abba on the back. Singers Kim Wilde, Sheena Easton and Hazel O’Connor would follow before a less musical order was restored in issue 23 when the story of footballer Dozy Danny was backed with a picture of “Newcastle United’s Superstar” Kevin Keegan and all the remaining issues would feature footballers no matter what the type of story was featured.

Today, the closest title DC Thomson have to Red Dagger publishes is Classics From The Comics. which reprints humour strips and occasionally dips its toe ever so gingerly into the adventure stories. Yet DC Thomson do licence their adventure back catalogue for reprint, as can be seen from their syndication website, with artwork being offered in reformatted form and in colour if required.

Why is DC Thomson not publishing more reprint from its huge archive? Titan Books ongoing commitment to publishing Dan Dare and Charley’s War in their original page format shows that there is a market for reprint books of weekly stories without having to go to the expense of reformatting the artwork. Reprint books containing D C Thomson material have been published by Carlton/Prion and Aurum. Yet these are a just a drop in the ocean. Thomson could mine its vast back catalogue of characters and stories themselves, or alternatively “hide” behind their own John Leng imprint.

Of course, with the current reprint books, Thomson receive money from licensing the material without the financial risk of publishing it themselves, so a lack of their own reprint publishing program may just be a canny move on the Scottish company’s part, who seem unwilling to move beyond their modern weekly, monthly and annual publications.

Yet whoever was to publish it, just think how nice would it be to have a hardback Tough of the Track or I Flew With Braddock with a painted Ian Kennedy cover, a history of the character, and several reprinted text and comic strip stories waiting for you under the tree next Christmas morning.


 

Lucky Charm Issue 6 Cover
Lucky Charm Issue 6 Cover

Lucky Charm, the Red Dagger-style title for Girls

Red Dagger had a female companion in Lucky Charm. With the same format and published for the same length of time, it reprinted reformatted stories from Thomson’s girls comics and like Red Dagger its covers were often painted by Ian Kennedy. It contained stories like Trudy Ten Legs – “The Story Of An Out Cast Show Jumper”, Nellie-Never-Give-In “On the Long Hard Road to Wimbledon”, and even Out To Ruin St Roslyn’s – “A Cripple Girl With A Bitter Grudge”.


Adapting Comic Art

Examples of how comic strip art originally published in weekly titles such as Warlord was converted for use in Red Dagger

Warlord 155

Red Dagger Issue 4

THE SNIPER – RED DAGGER #4

“The Sniper” story reprinted in Red Dagger was drawn by Spanish artist Carlos Cruz. To turn the weekly strip, which was originally published in Warlord in late 1977, into a single Red Dagger strip the Sniper logo and initial text box had to be removed from each weekly title page. This was typical of the changes required for Red Dagger.

You can see below How the first page of the “Sniper” strip from Warlord 171 was adapted for Red Dagger Issue 4. This kind of work would usually be done in house, not by the original artist.

Sniper page from Warlord #171
Sniper page from Warlord #171
Sniper from Red Dagger Issue 4
Sniper from Red Dagger Issue 4

The first page featured above is from Warlord issue 171 dated 31st December 1977 and the second is page 61 of Red Dagger Issue Four. With the logo removed there is a gap of about a quarter of the page that needed to be filled. This has been done by expanding the art work. In the splash panel the Greek house loses its corrugated roof and gains an extra storey, the ground gains a weed and we see more of Colonel Ahlers’ holster and his subordinate’s boots. In the bottom left panel Kelly, who appears to originally have had his left hand on his belt gains his sniper rifle, albeit held in a very unbalanced position, whilst the final panel simply expands the roadway that the telephone pole is beside.

RED DAGGER ISSUE 20: BLACK SAPPER

The Black Sapper - Hotspur 622

The Black Sapper cover from Hotspur was adapted into a black and white page for Red Dagger.

The Black Sapper cover from Hotspur was adapted into a black and white page for Red Dagger.

“The Black Sapper” proved a different challenge as the strip drawn by British artist Terry Patrick in 1971 had been used on the front cover of Hotspur. The cover splash pages from “Black Sapper” are unique amongst the stories reprinted in Red Dagger and make it much more obvious throughout the issue were each week’s episode started.

The first page is the cover to The Hotspur Issue 622 from 18 September 1971 and the second picture is Page 59 of Issue 20 of Red Dagger. Britain has been invaded by the oriental Khansus and the Black Sapper stands beside “his amazing, atomic-powered machine, the Worm” with General Mac Challenger of the British Resistance, discussing the fleet of Khansu military aircraft bringing reinforcements to a battle-scarred London. Here the art is extended in the foreground of the scene by simply adding more rubble whilst the two main aircraft are moved upwards and extra planes are added in the gaps that have been left. The colour was not an problem as Patrick’s original art was in black and white and the page only coloured during production work on Hotspur.

While the additional art for Red Dagger as a whole was no doubt done in-house at DC Thomson, it rarely detracts from the plot. Without knowing the history of the story, the revised art would have passed by all but the most discerning reader.

• See also: Red Dagger – Issue by Issue

All artwork © DC Thomson

 

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Jeremy Briggs

News, reviews, interviews and features for print and on-line: Spaceship Away (since October 2005), Bear Alley (since February 2007), downthetubes (since June 2007), and Eagle Times (since October 2008). Plus Titan’s Dan Dare and Johnny Red reprints, Ilex’s War Comics: A Graphic History and 500 Essential Graphic Novels, and Print Media’s The Iron Moon and Strip magazine.

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