Back in 1989, it was easier to get “Holiday Specials” onto British newsstands – one shot publications usually tying in with regular titles from a comics publisher. Polystyle Publications, the publishers of TV Comic, were among those vying for readers. That summer, they offered comic readers of the day Zero G, a science fiction-themed celebration of the 20th anniversary of the first moon landing, which included some classic comic strip content by artists such as Martin Asbury, Jon Davis and Brian Lewis.
Offering a mix of features and fiction, this one shot Special is something of a curiosity, and only Lew Stringer seems to have posted anything about it in any depth online, on his Blimey! blog back on 1st April 2015, but despite the date of his post, it’s definitely a real title, and it has its own limited entry on GCD.
All the strips featured are reprints of adventures first published in the company’s Countdown comic, way back in the early 1970s, alongside a mixture of factual articles on space exploration. That title led with new strips based on Gerry Anderson properties, as well as reprints from TV Century 21, before morphing into TV Action.
But before anyone runs off to eBay looking for it, be warned this Special doesn’t include any of the licensed material Countdown is fondly remembered for, such as UFO – strips now being collected by Anderson Entertainment – or Doctor Who.
Alongside its better known strips, Countdown also published a number of one-shot SF adventure stories as part of its “Countdown Complete” section, and a strip titled “Countdown”, drawn by John M. Burns which was also original, but used vehicles featured in 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s some of this material that’s re-used in Zero G, including a “Countdown” text story for the 1972 annual, “Dangerous Friend”, with art from Martin Asbury (perhaps better known for his work on the Daily Mirror’s “Garth” and strips for Look-In.
“These early stories – they appeared intermittently at first, then more regularly between issues 25 and 37 – were rather juvenile and somewhat hit and miss in the early issues,” notes Steve Holland of the SF “Countdown Complete” stories in his brilliant book, Countdown to TV Action, “although later stories were of a higher quality.”
Although all the artists were originally credited in Countdown, whoever edited Zero G may have recognised that some stories were better than others, but chose to remove their details from the reprint.
“Space Tug“, a story drawn by Brian Lewis, centres on an attempted space prison breakout, first featured in Countdown No. 25.
“The Asteroid Affair“, first featured in Countdown No. 26, is also the work of Martin Asbury, a story of an asteroid that could provide unlimited power for Earth, with a touch of an environmental theme.
There are nods to 2001: A Space Odyssey in “The Minute Millennium“, too, in both the story, and the art from Brian Lewis, a powerful story of a world racing through its evolution, watched in fascination, then horror, by two Earth astronauts. The story first featured in Countdown No. 28.
We’re also treated to work from the brilliant Jon Davis, including the story “Murder on Ice” a particular favourite of mine first time around. The twist ending is worthy of a 2000AD “Future Shock”. That story first featured in Countdown No. 36, the penultimate story of these non SFTV tales to be published in the title, drawing to a close with the very next issue, No. 37, with “A Matter of Contact”, drawn by Rab Hamilton.
The Zero G Special is an intriguing mix and while its design is rather pedestrian, the concept and format offers a great example of how to “package” old strips for a new audience.
Quite coincidentally, Ethan Davis, son of the late Jon Davis, recently sent me some art he found recently of his late father’s, which carries no details of its origins, or indeed, if it was every published.
The content suggests it was destined for an SF title or an annual, perhaps. Given that is was drawn in colour, was it intended as a “Countdown Complete” story for one of the few Countdown annuals or specials, dropped in favour of a Gerry Anderson or Doctor Who story? We can only wonder! (If anyone recognises it as appearing elsewhere, please let me know!)
Countdown’s one shot strips are today owned by REACH, publishers of the Daily Mirror and Daily Express. It would be wonderful to see the stories featured in Zero G offered again today, and I’m sure there are plenty of John M. Burns fans who’d love to see “Countdown” collected, although that would involve discussion not only with REACH but Warner Bros., who handle 2001: A Space Odyssey as a property in the UK.
First published in 2014, this brilliant 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.
Countdown Complete Original SF Stories – A Checklist
• “The Orion Dust” – art by Malcolm Stokes – Countdown No. 9, cover dated 17th April 1971
• “The Investigators” – art by Malcolm Stokes – Countdown No. 17, cover dated 12th June 1971
• “Child’s Play” – art by Malcolm Stokes – Countdown No. x, cover dated XX 1971
• “Space Tug” – art by Brian Lewis – Countdown No. 25, cover dated 7th August 1971, reprinted in Zero-G, 1989
• “The Asteroid Affair” – art by Martin Asbury – Countdown No. 26, cover dated 14th August 1971, reprinted in Zero-G, 1989
• “The Minute Millennium” – art by Brian Lewis – Countdown No. 28, cover dated 28th August 1971, reprinted in Zero-G, 1989
• “Operation Disintegration” – art by Don Harley – Countdown No. 30, cover dated 11th September 1971
• “The Ktuman Invasion” – art by Rab Hamilton – Countdown No. 31, cover dated 18th September 1971
• “Dangerous Drive” – art by Rab Hamilton – Countdown No. 33, cover dated 2nd October 1971
• “The Wrong Bullet” – art by Malcolm Stokes – Countdown No. 34, cover dated 9th October 1971
• “Murder on Ice” – art by Jon Davis – Countdown No. 36, cover dated 23rd October 1971, reprinted in Zero-G, 1989
• “A Matter of Contact” – art Rab Hamilton – Countdown No. 37, cover dated 30th October 1971
With thanks to Ethan Davis and Lew Stringer