by Steve Holland
Publisher: Bear Alley Books
The Book: The latest comic index from Bear Alley Books covers the history and content of Countdown and TV Action, the Gerry Anderson-themed comic from Polystyle launched in the early 1970s. With the demise of TV Century 21, Polystyle stepped in to launch a comic based around the upcoming UFO TV series. Edited by Dennis Hooper, Countdown brought together some of the industry’s best talents—amongst them Harry Lindfield, Gerry Haylock, John M. Burns — to create a comic that is remembered to this day.
As well as UFO, Countdown‘s early issues included many of Gerry Anderson’s famous creations in its line-up: Thunderbirds, Lady Penelope, Captain Scarlet, Stingray, Joe 90, Fireball XL5, Zero X and The Secret Service. From its companion TV Comic – the two titles were edited out of the same Edgware Road offices — came Doctor Who, to star in some of the very best comic strip adventures of his career.
Over its run — during which the title morphed from Countdown to TV Action — the paper also featured the adventures of The Persuaders, Hawaii Five-O, Cannon and Alias Smith & Jones, plus the long-running science fiction epic, Countdown, created by editor Hooper and drawn by John M. Burns. With artists like Keith Watson, Brian Lewis, Frank Langford and Don Harley working on strips, the paper was always a visual feast.
With behind-the-scenes stories from some of the original editorial staff, this volume includes a detailed index to the stories and strips that appeared over the paper’s 132-week run and various spin-off publications, identifying artists and writers where possible.
Countdown to TV Action is the fifth volume of comics’ history published by Bear Alley Books, following the publication of Hurricane & Champion, Lion King of Picture Story Papers, Ranger: The National Boys’ Magazine and Boys’ World: Ticket to Adventure.
The Review: Steve Holland’s dedication to archiving the work and creators of British comics is always welcome, and never more so when it comes to a publication like this. At just over 200 pages, a large part of the title an exhaustive index of strips and known creators for the regular comic and its spin-off annuals and specials, Countdown to TV Action offers not just a fascinating insight in the making of this successor to TV Century 21. It also delivers information on the wider comic publishing situation for British comics in the 1970s, noting the huge success of Look-In, and the TV series that featured in Countdown as it was being published.
I’m old enough to remember finding Countdown Issue One on sale in my local St. Ives newsagents and being overjoyed at the discovery. While I’d read and been enthralled by TV Century 21 on and off in the 1960s and mourned its slow, miserable demise as it became a pale shadow of its original self, its cost made it impossible for my parents (or grandparents) to buy every issue. By 1971, I was able to afford to buy Countdown myself and did so every week, through to at least part of its TV Action period.
It’s intriguing for me to discover from Steve’s new book that Doctor Who played such an important part in the success of the title, although looking back now, and that the “Doctor Who” strip survived changes on the title from its SF focus to action adventure, I suppose I should have appreciated this sooner. There’s certainly no doubt the strips were of a high quality, much better than those that ran in TV Comic; but the absence of a TV set in our house the early 1970s in our house meant that I came to Jon Pertwee’s adventures late, and not until his final season. UFO, on the other hand, was a show I had seen and its concept had captured my imagination. Its presence in Countdown, alongside Thunderbirds, would have been more than enough to have me forking up five pence (five pence!) for every issue.
Countdown‘s other attractions, covered in detail in this book, included a regular feature on UFO sightings (a clever tie in with the fictional “UFO” strip) and detailed coverage of space exploration, particularly the then ongoing moon missions. Its occasional one-off SF stories, unconnected with TV shows (Think of them as the “Future Shocks” of their day) were also a welcome inclusion, even if some were a little childish. I think it was “Murder on Ice”, drawn by Jon Davis, had a particularly chilling ending as the time-travelling protagonists reveal their true identity to a bemused modern man.
The line up of artists was top draw for the time. Harry Lindfield and Gerry Haylock on “Doctor Who” and “UFO”; Brian Lewis; Don Harley on “Thunderbirds”; John M. Burns work on the “Countdown” strip – the title’s only ongoing strip, utilising vehicles from 2001: A Space Odyssey, which surely mean ever reprinting the story would be a rights nightmare. Steve Holland documents them all with a diligence that few could match.
While there are some tiny oversights (there’s no mention of the reprinting of some of the “UFO” strips in the Reynolds & Hearn Gerry Anderson collections, for example) these are minor nitpicks. If you read Countdown as child, you’ll be fascinated by this account of its making and many of the images and story titles will surely spark some happy memories. If you’re at all interested in the history of British comics, and the problems they faced even in the industry’s better days on the news stand, then this authoritative tome is indispensable.