Writer: Don Freeman
Artist: Steve Dowling/John Allard
Published: 27/12/50 – 12/5/51 (J306 – K113)
Number of Episodes: 117
This story begins a three-story sequence in which, for the first and only time, Garth took on the trappings of the US superhero Superman. Despite what has been widely written and parroted, his origins in 1943 actually had nothing whatsoever to do with Superman. But now, “Space-Time Traveller” was clearly the start of an experiment to try and gain US newspaper syndication for Garth by the Daily Mirror.
Although Garth was being successfully syndicated all around the world – in Australia and New Zealand, European countries, India, and elsewhere – he had not cracked the most lucrative American market.
The story opens as Garth emerges on a mountain side over a desert on Earth, and at first thinks he has materialised in El Wadi, where his previous adventure, “Selim the Slaver”, took place. He caches his Space-Time helmet and cloak in some rocks, in case they reactivate and whisk him off elsewhere.
As he descends to the plain, he spots approaching riders, whom he assumes are friendly Arabs. But when they attack him, he quickly realises he is must be far back in the past, and that they are mounted Tartar warriors. He is actually in the Gobi desert, and by the look of things, around the time of Kubla Khan and the Tartar conquest of Cathay (China).
Garth runs back up the mountainside to retrieve his cloak and helmet. He struggles into his cloak, but before he can don the helmet, Tartar warriors again catch up with him. To escape them, he launches himself into space and glides down to the plain below, where he plucks the startled Tartar chieftain from his horse. A Tartar bowman takes aim at Garth, but the impressed Chieftain stops him, commanding that the flying “wonder man” be spared.
At this point, Garth discovers that the Thinker on Jason has somehow contrived things so that he can understand and speak the language of whichever country and time era in which he emerges. Utter fantasy of course, but at least author Freeman was recognising that Garth would not be able to communicate otherwise (unlike sloppy and cynical writers who ignore this basic axiom). Freeman knew that by his simply acknowledging the paradox, readers would be happy to suspend their disbelief and buy into the fantasy for the sake of getting on with an exciting story.
Garth tries to explain to the chieftain that he comes from a world beyond his ken, but the impatient Tartar cannot understand and asks Garth to join his force as a warrior. He, Tamar, a chieftain of the tents of Boriat (a family privileged to drink the milk of Imperial white mares) is leading an army of the great Khan, to conquer a province of Cathay. Before Garth can reply, a warrior arrives with Garth’s helmet. Garth demands its immediate return to him. Tamar asks Mangu, his magician, whether or not he should return the helmet. The sly magician counsels that Garth would likely work great evil with his “magic helmet”. Tamar concurs and decides to take the helmet and place it in a shrine at his encampment. Garth is obliged to accompany Tamar and his men.
At the encampment, Tamar invites Garth to go inside his tent, but warns him not to touch the threshold, because he regards it “as a bad omen.” Tamar questions Garth again about his origins, but Garth demands the return of his helmet before he will explain further.
Meanwhile, the superstitious Tamar has sent a guard to command Mangu to cast his spells to determine if the flying man is friend or foe. Tamar then tells Garth that they are to embark on a 30 day march across the desert to attack the city of Sair-Kin in Cathay. He wants Garth to travel with his cavalry. He is interrupted by the excited arrival of Mangu, who – afraid and jealous of Garth – claims that his oracles have decreed Garth as a foe who should be slain. But the unfortunate Mangu has touched the threshold of the tent. This enrages Tamar who orders that the transgressing magician be given the bastinado.
As night falls, Tamar takes Garth with him into the desert to pour his privileged family’s mares’ milk over the sands “to placate the demons of the desert who lure travellers to destruction with music and strange voices.” Garth explains that the so-called “singing sands” are just the wind blowing across the dunes as they cool after the heat of the day. Tamar protests by saying that he himself has seen “phantom armies” crossing the desert. Garth counters by explaining they were simply mirages. At that moment, the magician passes nearby, being carried on a litter after his punishment, and calls out that Garth is speaking falsely because a “phantom army” is even now passing their camp. Sure enough, a cavalcade of horses and a caravan is clearly visible in the distance.
Garth warns Tamar that it is a real procession, and challenges Tamar to approach it and see for himself – unless he is a coward. Stung, Tanar calls for volunteers to join him in investigating, ordering Garth to be secured. If he does not return safely by dawn, Garth is to be slain.
When dawn breaks and Tamar has not returned, Mangu (who covets Garth’s “magic helmet”) orders men to kill Garth, only for Garth to escape into the air after donning his flying cloak. Garth finds that the cloak is only good for fairly short hops without being linked to the helmet, and eventually falls to earth. He is about to be shot by a pursuing bowman when the returning Tamar intervenes.
Tamar castigates Mangu, because it had been a Chinese caravan passing by. Garth had spoken the truth and the magician had lied. Tamar and his men had slain the Chinese party and taken booty, but he had spared a young boy who was wearing the imperial yellow. A royal prisoner could prove useful. Mangu is seized, his fate to be decided later.
Tamar rewards Garth by giving the royal captive to Garth’ care as his slave, until such time as the great Khan claims him. Garth is reluctant until he realises that the captive is actually a young woman. A tent is provided for Garth, and when they are alone Garth learns that she is the Princess Peach Blossom who had been crossing the desert for an arranged marriage to the young Prince Tao of Sai-Kin, the city Tamar is heading towards to sack.
Tamar summons Garth and invites him to give the word for Mangu’s execution by beheading. However, Garth insists that his life be spared. Tamar agrees, but then reveals to Garth that he was fully aware the ‘boy’ is a girl. He believes she can be a useful hostage and can be exploited when they reach the defended gates of the city. He hints that he can gain her co-operation by torture, but hopes that Garth can gain her co-operation by forming a relationship with her. Garth has no option but play along for the moment.
Tamar resumes his march on the city, Garth at his side, with his precious helmet in the care of Mangu, following behind the main army. The advance is known, and they encounter obstacles and ambushes. Garth has to side with Tamar and his flying power and physical strength rout the attacks, eventually helping them break through the great wall of Cathay. Garth gets the defenders’ lives spared, and tells them they must return to the Prince Tao in Sai-Kin and tell him that “the Bird-Man” will deliver the Princess to him safely. He must persuade the king not to resist the Tartars, and Garth will guarantee that he will live to reign over the city with her.
As they camp for the night, Garth tells the Princess that he knows it is fated that all Cathay will come under the control of the Tartars, so all he can do is to try and save as many lives as he can.
The next day, whilst awaiting the arrival of his main forces, Tamar reveals to Garth how he intends to capture the fortified city, which is surrounded by a deep river. He will send the Princess across the river with some of his men disguised as her Chinese retinue. When the gates open to admit her, Tamar will launch a three-pronged attack, put the defenders to the sword and sack the city.
Garth persuades him to first allow him to fly over the river and the city wall, and to try and bring about a peaceful surrender. He hopes to make Prince Tao persuade his old father the King to abdicate. Khan can then allow Tao’s homage.
On arrival in the city, Garth finds that King Tsu is a coward, and ostensibly ready to surrender if his life is spared. But that he should abdicate in favour of PrinceTao is problematical when he reveals the Prince is not really his own son, but that of a slave, secretly adopted and passed off as his son to avoid a civil war because he has no issue.
The watching Tamar sees a huge display fireworks exploding above the city, and Peach Blossom tells him that it portends that Garth has is either being welcomed, or they are celebrating his capture. Tamar can only wait impatiently whilst the matter is considered by both parties in the city.
That night, Peach Blossom succeeds in creeping away from Tamar’s encampment, and reaching the bank of the river. Her torch signal is spotted by Prince Tao from the battlements, and he picks her up by sampan.
The next day, the King tells Garth he agrees to surrender, and will let Tamar decide who will be the vassal king, always provided his own life is spared. Garth then returns to tell Tamar, leaving the palace by what he believes is a special gate…only to find himself trapped in a high-sided labyrinth of poison thorn bushes, on which are hung the bodies of the king’s enemies who attempted to escape. Garth does not have his flying cloak because it had been confiscated on his arrival in the city.
The treacherous king has Tao and the Princess seized and turned over to his torturers, who he instructs to first tear out their tongues. Tao is to be wrapped in Garth’s cloak, so that the king can subsequently claim to Tamar that he had killed Garth to gain the cloak.
When Garth fails to return, the angry Tamar shouts across the river to the King on the ramparts, threatening to attack. The King tells him that he is ready to surrender, but that Prince Tao had killed Garth and thrown his body in the river. To punish him, Tao’s tongue had been torn out, and he was scheduled to die.
But after the King leaves, the head torturer confesses to the Prince that he is loyal to him and cannot carry out his orders. Wearing the cloak, Tao flies over the maze to find and rescues Garth, warning the Princess to pretend to be dumb.
He finds that Garth has just discovered a trapdoor in the ground leading to an underground passage. It seems clear that it had been installed there by the King so that he could view the remains of his enemy’s bodies impaled on the thorns. Instead of escaping, Garth elects to descend into the passage with Tao, and to confront the King back in the palace.
Meanwhile, King Tsu has opened the gates to welcome Tamar and his men. Tamar demands to see the Princess, and Tsu – believing she has had her tongue removed – readily gives the order for her to be brought from the prison. But the uninjured Peach Blossom immediately begins to blurt out the truth of what has happened, and the discredited King realises he is doomed. But he still has another card to play: at his signal a trail of gunpowder leading to explosives hidden under Tamar’s chair has been lit. At that moment, Garth dramatically bursts into their room, and the angry Tamar leaps up from his chair to assist Garth in seizing the King. Trying to get away, Tsu stumbles across Tamar’s vacated chair and is blown to pieces in an explosion intended for the chieftain.
After some initial hesitation and misgivings, Tao becomes enamoured of the Princess and agrees to marry her and share the throne of Sai-Kin, accepting the Khan’s rule. With Tamar able to take the city without bloodshed, Garth’s bargain is fulfilled, and he demands the return of his helmet – only to learn that the traitor Mangu has fled to seek out the Khan in his city of Kanbalu, taking the helmet with him. Using his restored cloak, Garth flies off in pursuit.
The Khan has left his palace with his bodyguard on a tiger-hunting expedition, and Mangu has reached his camp, and been granted and audience as Tamar’s astrologer. Mangu claims that he fled from the traitor Tamar because he was in league with a white magician who had befriended Khan’s enemies. He has brought with him that magician’s “magic helmet” to prevent it being used against the Khan. However he goes on to elaborate that any wearer of the helmet is rendered invulnerable and can defy any death threats. Intrigued but suspicious, the Khan decides to put it to the test. He instructs his bodyguard to force Mangu – wearing the helmet – to enter the cave that is the tiger’s lair.
He is immediately attacked and savaged to death, but then the tiger suddenly emerges from the cave and leaps on the Khan. The flying Garth arrives at the same moment, and swoops down to grab the Khan’s fallen spear with which he kills the tiger, saving his life.
Garth then relates the full story of his exploits to the astounded and grateful Khan. The Khan decrees that Tamar shall be made governor of South Cathay and Tao can rule over the city as a free king. He wishes to recruit Garth as Chief of his magicians, but having regained his helmet Garth declines – the only reward he wants is to be allowed to go on his way in peace. He climbs to a mountain summit and then dives off – disappearing into the fourth dimension! His space-time adventures continue…
Mention needs to be made of Dowling and Allard’s exceptional artwork. Whilst still executed in Dowling’s usual deceptively straightforward and quickly-executed “workmanlike” and utilitarian style (Dowling was also responsible for a second Daily Mirror strip Ruggles, which he also wrote!) the inspired fantasy storytelling of Freeman here caused them to move it up several notches. The panels are punctuated with dramatic atmospheric black areas and silhouettes and astonishing cinematic perspectives, cleverly compressed into the four small daily panels, including some intricately detailed scenes akin to Chinese willow-pattern plates. The Garth strip had entered its golden age!
Synopsis by Philip Harbottle
In a feature encompassing the entire history of the much-loved strip, Garth writer Philip Harbottle pays tribute to artist and editor John Allard, who worked at the Mirror for over 50 years, outlining his huge contribution to Garth‘s enduring success
Strip dates given are those of their original appearance in the British newspaper the Daily Mirror, first compiled by Geoffrey Wren and Ann Holmes and updated by Ant Jones and Philip Harbottle
Garth © REACH/ Daily Mirror