De Partners - Het Ultimatum - 1979 -Cover

Johnny Nero’s strange new adventures in India: or, how Women’s Liberation helped a comics cheat

De Partners - Het Ultimatum - 1979 -Cover

In the third of a series of articles, publisher, comics creator and historian of Tamil comics Nathan Viswa reveals some more disturbing and bizarre instances of British comics conflagration and copyright theft on the Indian sub-continent…

In the previous case file of the copyright infringements of editor S Vijayan, we’ve seen that he had a hair-rising time with 1960s British comics hero Barracuda, a character who featured heavily in the monthly “pocket digest” title Fleetway Super Library, alternating with Johnny Nero.

Published between 1967-68, while Barracuda, as “Code-Name Barracuda”, first appeared in the weekly comic Lion in September 1966, Johnny Nero only ever appeared in the UK in Fleetway Super Library, a title that as Steve Holland notes over on Bear Alley, has some claims to being Britain’s first ever series of original graphic novels.

The covers of all of Johnny Neros’s original British adventures were rendered in oil by Italian artist Paolo Montecchi, who depicted the hero as having a striking resemblance to actor Marcello Mastroianni
The covers of all of Johnny Neros’s original British adventures were rendered in oil by Italian artist Paolo Montecchi, who depicted the hero as having a striking resemblance to actor Marcello Mastroianni

Johnny Nero was a former MI5 agent who had left after inheriting a fortune; finding life as a rich industrialist boring, he was often tempted back into the world of spying by his one-time boss, Colonel Jason. On his adventures, Nero was often accompanied by secretary Jenny Bird.

Only thirteen Johnny Nero stories were officially published in the UK in 1967 (reprinted in Europe in  Sweden and Holland);  but that minor issue with a character who proved popular in India was, as you’ve probably guessed, no restriction for the enterprising S Vijayan. When the original run and re-run of the Johnny Nero stories were done, our editor friend felt the pinch. With other stories published by him not exactly proving cash cows, he simply created a new Johnny Nero comics story – with stories and pictures taken from some other comics.

We’ve already revealed how British comic heroes such as the Steel Claw, The Spider, Barracuda and Frollo and Johnny Nero have been top-selling comics in Tamil. Johnny Nero, a millionaire turned spy, had a cool vibe to its stories, but when they ran out and reprinting those already published again would have gone down badly with fans, Vijayan was in deep trouble. So, he removed the “creative” barber cap that he had donned to create “new” Barracuda adventures from some of Gold Key’s Man from U.N.C.L.E. adventures and donned a new one.

This time, however, instead of falling back on US comics, he turned his attention towards Franco Belgian comic publications.

Well, after all, when you have more than one hundred copyright violations against your name, you just can’t source from the same market, can you?

Before we get into the hows and whys of Vijayan’s antics, we should know certain details. We have seen many mergers in British comics, usually when a magazine is struggling for sales. A title is usually merged with a stronger-selling magazine in order to tackle the dwindling sales. Likewise, when two Dutch comic magazines,  Pep and Sjors, were merged in 1975, the result was the launch of the weekly comic magazine Eppo, published by Oberon Publications. It was a title ran successfully from 1975 to 1988, and was revived as a title in 2009 as a fortnightly comics magazine , along with many of its original strips, including “De Partners” (“The Partners”).

"De Partners" a strip centred on former rich villain Danny MacDonald and countess Katia Diaghilev, first published in the Dutch magazine Eppo
“De Partners” a strip centred on former rich villain Danny MacDonald and countess Katia Diaghilev, first published in the Dutch magazine Eppo

“De Partners” is a strip centred on former rich villain Danny MacDonald and countess Katia Diaghilev, a crime/ thriller strip that simply exudes sheer brilliance. It’s the creation of two top notch comic creators, writer-artist Dick Matena (writing under the pseudonym Dick Richards) and artist Carry Brugman. Their collaboration on “De Partners”, its male leads inspired in look by actor Robert Redford and Alfred Hitchcock, its female led by Brugman’s sister-in-law was an assured success and continues to be popular in Europe to this day

The "Paralogap Payanam Hotline" pages for Muthu Comics Issue Number 194 announcing "new" Johnny Nero stories
The “Paralogap Payanam Hotline” pages for Muthu Comics Issue Number 194 announcing “new” Johnny Nero stories

When S Vijayan informed people about bringing back some favourite old characters to his comics, he also mentioned the comeback of Johnny Nero, initially in the editorial for Muthu Comics Issue 194.

Very cleverly, Vijayan also used the prominent images of Johnny Nero and his secretary Jenny Bird in advertisements featured in the same issue, in colour. There were further advertisements in other books books in black and white – but he made readers wait for the so-called comeback of Johnny Nero.

An advertisement for the new Johnny Nero in Muthu Comics Issue 194
An advertisement for the new Johnny Nero in Muthu Comics Issue 194

Some of the Johnny Nero stories that were published Tamil had a running continuity in the title. Most of them had titles such as “Johnny in London”, “Johnny in Japan”, for example, so it was no surprise the “new” story was titled “Johnny in Paris”.

There was just one problem with the story. While Johnny Nero’s 1960s British comic adventures portrayed his secretary Jenny Bird in a diminutive, flighty role, merely an assistant in his adventures, in “De Partners” the countess Katia Diaghilev commands equal, if not more character space. While Vijayan could explain the “new look” of Johnny Nero as the work of a new artist, regular readers would spot the story differences instantly.

Vijayan glossed over the story changes by explaining the change in the nature of the character, and “Jenny Bird’s” bigger role in the story as the result of the Women’s Liberation movement.

De Partners - Het Ultimatum - 1979 -Page 1

So, by explaining all the story differences as the result of a new creative team and aligning himself with Women’s Liberation movement, Vijayan published a European comic story as if it was a continution of a character created in the 1960s in the UK.

184-Thoongippona-Time-BombOberon, the publishers of “De Partners”, have several characters in their line-up and Vijayan has published one of their popular characters (Agent 327) in Tamil. The Muthu Comics version of Agent 327 is severely edited and many ComiRades who’ve read it, still wondering what exactly the story is all about.

Whether Oberon are aware of the re-publication is another matter – and only Vijayan and the publisher can answer that question.

What we can answer is, yes! We shall return next week with another one of the copyright-skimming adventures of the legendary editor Vijayan…

Muthu Comics Issue 187 - Johnny Nero
Muthu Comics Issue 187 – Johnny Nero

Web Links

Bear Alley: Britain’s First Graphic Novel Series?
Steve Holland’s overview of Fleetway Super Library

There’s more about Johnny Nero here on Comic Vine

There’s more on Eppo (in Dutch) on the Lambiek web site

• De Partners co-creator Dick Matena is online at www.dickmatena.com (site in Dutch)

Johnny Nero © TimeUK | De Partners © Dick Matena & Carry Brugman

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John Freeman

The founder of downthetubes, John works as a comics editor, writer, as Creative Consultant on the Dan Dare audio adventures for B7 Media, and on promotional work for the Lakes International Comic Art Festival. Working in British comics publishing for over 30 years, his credits include editor of titles such as Doctor Who Magazine, Star Trek Magazine and Babylon 5 Magazine. He also edited the comics anthology STRIP Magazine and edited several audio comics for ROK Comics. He has also edited several comic collections, including volumes of “Charley’s War and “Dan Dare”. He’s the writer of “Crucible”, a creator-owned project with 2000AD artist Smuzz, published on Tapastic; and “Death Duty” and “Skow Dogs” with Dave Hailwood for digital comic 100% Biodegradable.

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