Ahead of his first ever appearance at a comics event (Swapmeet #5 on Saturday 28th September 2019, in Watford) I caught up with one of the guests of honour, James Tomlinson.
James – son of Eagle, Tiger and Roy of the Rovers editor Barrie Tomlinson – has written the adventures of some of Britain’s most famous comics characters, however his work on these titles seems largely forgotten – so this is a great opportunity to shine the spotlight on him…
Richard Sheaf: So James, perhaps we should begin at the beginning with you and your life…
James: I was born at an early age in St.Albans, deepest Hertfordshire on 26th September 1964. I grew up in St.Albans and indeed I remained living in the City until 2018. I then moved to leafy Bedfordshire and now reside in Lower Stondon, Henlow.
My father is Barrie Tomlinson (a name which probably rings a few bells with comic fans!) and my late mother, Hilary, was a former nurse. I have a sister, Jennifer, who is an accountant in Essex.
My father Barrie had already been working in comics for a few years by the time I was born. Initially after leaving school he was a Police cadet, before doing his National Service in the Army Pay Corps in West Germany. It was the height of the Cold War and sometimes he did guard duty. Although without bullets in his gun!
While in the army dad first became interested in journalism. He set up the ‘Anti-Trombone League‘ and produced a regular magazine which featured contributions from celebrities. After leaving the Army, Dad moved into journalism full time, when he joined IPC Magazines. He later became Editor of several comic titles, eventually finishing up as Group Editor.
Richard: Eventually you would become a comics writer but at school did you feel that you ever showed any aptitude around writing stories / English as a subject – or perhaps you career choice ended up being a surprise to you as well?
James: I certainly showed no aptitude for maths! While struggling with sums, Geography and History were more to my liking, but English was indeed my best subject. In my last few years at school I really got into writing stories and achieved some top marks (although I was sometimes told I overdid the blood and gore!) So I guess it should come as no great surprise to anyone that I later became a writer…
Richard: How aware were you of comics when you were growing up? Did you end up with piles of freebies from your dad’s work?
James: I certainly grew up in a ‘comics’ household! Dad was always bringing home lots of comics as well as free gifts such as model kits and toys for ‘testing!’ Sometimes he would take me to visit his offices in London. IPC/Fleetway were based in a gigantic, super imposing skyscraper (or so it seemed to me…I was fairly small at the time!) called King’s Reach Tower.
(In reality – comics reality that is! – as we know from 2000AD, the building was actually a disguised alien spaceship!)
I always looked forward to dropping in on the various Editors to pick up comic back issues… and numerous other industry goodies!
The Editors’ offices were secretive, almost mystical places. They were like Aladdin’s Caves to me, wall-to-wall with artwork, comics, specials and annuals. The Editors seemed to be like royalty, presiding over their kingdoms which only a lucky few ordinary people (like me!) ever got to enter. Great memories!
I would also be invited along to special events, such as the launch of the new Eagle. I handed out copies of the first issue… disguised as none other than Doomlord! Impersonating a Servitor of the unnatural world of Nox probably wasn’t a wise move. I was lucky the real Doomlord didn’t turn up and disintegrate me with his energiser ring as punishment!
What comics did you read growing up?
James: I never had to buy a comic when I was growing up, that’s for sure! I regularly read Tiger, Roy of the Rovers, Eagle, Battle, 2000AD, Action, Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles and many others … all IPC/Fleetway titles of course!
Battle was probably my favourite, with legendary stories such as “Charley’s War“, “Johnny Red” and “Darkie’s Mob“. The fantastically realistic artwork of Joe Colquhoun was especially memorable!
Richard: What did you do when you left school?
James: After leaving school, I did some temporary work for a few months while I decided what I wanted to do full time. It was mostly fairly dull work on factory production lines and in loading bays. To make things less boring, I’d imagine my co-workers were really shape changing alien lifeforms. After a while, Dad suggested I try out writing for the comics and I jumped at the chance. I taught myself typing and started banging out sample scripts on an old manual typewriter. It was a good few years before I switched to doing scripts on a computer!
After a few not so great early efforts I started to got the hang of things. My work started to be accepted for publication. In due course it was amazing to see my efforts in print for the first time. A writing career was born!
Can you recall which was the first comic you ever wrote for?
James: Almost certainly the (new) Eagle! I’m pretty sure I wrote several complete stories for “The Amstor Computer” as my first proper writing job. I think the very first one was called “Second Time Lucky”, about an airline captain who was struggling to return to his flying job after a crash. He was certainly no Sully! As I’ve always been an aviation geek, it was ideal subject matter for this young writer.
Soon after that I moved on to soccer stories, in Roy of the Rovers if I recall rightly, which I found not so easy. After all I’m a long suffering Arsenal supporter so what do I know about football!
Richard: You then “signed for” new Eagle in 1990, working on “Ghostworld” and worked on it continuously until it closed in 1994, mainly on the “Computer Warrior” strip – what do you recall about the strip?
James: Yes, I did a long stint on “Computer Warrior”, which I really enjoyed! I believe some of the early stories were based on real computer games. I can’t say I was the biggest gamer back then, so it was a bit of an eye opener. Of course those old games were a lot more basic compared to today’s!
Later “Computer Warrior” adventures came totally from my imagination, with no resemblance at all to anything you could buy in the shops. But it did give me a lot of scope for different kinds of action on land, sea or in the air. I don’t know whether the young readers realised these latter “Computer Warrior” tales were totally fictionalised. I just hope no-one went out with their pocket money to try and buy non-existent computer games!
Richard: You worked on quite a few issues of Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles – how was it different working on a licensed title compared to a ‘normal’ strip – are there lots more restrictions on what you can do?
James: Working on a licensed title was always tough! Almost without exception the licence holders were extremely fussy. We had a ‘Bible’ that contained info about the characters and the basic storyline we had to closely follow. Bringing in our own elements was pretty much frowned on!
We had to submit our scripts at an early stage, so they could be very rigorously checked before going to the artist. Anything the powers that be didn’t agree with, like or understand had to be changed pronto. These changes often seemed minor, unimportant or even silly, but what did us mere writers know!
Sometimes, however, this system broke down and script approval took far too long. In order to meet print deadlines artists had to complete their artwork without script approval. Cue lots of shock and horror! This was especially the case when artists worked abroad… as many of them did of course! Everything had to be sent by post in those early days, a slow and frustrating process. Changing scripts was fairly easy. But once artwork was completed, any demanded changes were far too expensive and time consuming to contemplate. Or that’s what we always told those finicky licence holders anyway!
Richard: You worked on one issue of Scream – “The Punch and Judy Horror show”, published in Issue 7, a story that I loved. That was in 1984, what else were you working on, before you really got to new Eagle in 1990?
James: I worked a lot on Battle around that time. For example, I wound up the long running and very popular “Johnny Red” story and also wrote a number of “Charley’s War” stories for the annuals and specials. I penned many of the licensed “Action Force” stories, too, including one of my personal favourites, “Operation Deep Cover”. There was little I didn’t know about Baron Ironblood and his Red Shadows. Great villains!
After “Action Force” ended, I wrote extensively for our own in-house replacement, “Storm Force“. I helped to come up with the concept for this story, so John Storm, The Mole, Stiletto, Griffin and the other Storm Force characters are close to my heart. Was “Storm Force” superior to “Action Force”? Well, I’d have to say yes… but I’m probably more than a little biased!
There were other licensed titles around at that time which I worked on: Superhuman Samurai Syber Squad, Toxic Crusaders, Sky Dancers and M.A.S.K. The latter was great fun with lots of scope for humour, especially from a couple of clumsy bad guys with the unlikely names of Bebop and Rocksteady!
Richard: Were there any strips or characters that you ever wanted to write but never got the chance to?
James: As for other strips or characters I wanted to write for, not that many! Famous names like Dan Dare, Roy of the Rovers, The Mekon, Charley Bourne of “Charley’s War”, Johnny Red and of course Kitten Magee – well, I all wrote for in one form or other. But maybe it would have been nice to work on Judge Dredd… perhaps Darkie’s Mob or Strontium Dog… Hook Jaw and Flesh… Johnny Cougar and Skid Solo… and then there was Major Eazy…not to mention Rat Pack… I could go on! Great characters and great memories!
James, thank you very much for your time and thanks for sharing your memories of working on so many British comics!
• Commando and British Comics Swap-Meet, 10.00 – 5.00pm, Saturday 28th September 2019 79th Bushey & Oxhey Scout Group Headquarters, Park Avenue, Bushey, Watford, WD23 2BA | Tables: £7.50 for the day (all table proceeds will be donated to the Scout group, which has allowed the venue to be held in their headquarters) | Entry:- £1.00 Adults / Children Free | Facebook Event Page
All characters and strips featured © respective publishers including the Dan Dare Corporation and Rebellion Publishing
Richard Sheaf is a longtime contributor to downthetubes and has written for numerous magazines about British comics.