We have Lew Stringer to thank for pointing out that 45 years ago, City Magazines launched the first issue of TV Century 21 – a bold new large format comic that would become one of the most fondly remembered titles in UK comics history.
“With City’s close association with Gerry Anderson’s Century 21 productions, TV21 was far more than just a comic that featured tv characters,” notes Lew. “The editor himself (Alan Fennell) was a scriptwriter on Fireball XL5 and Stingray, and Lady Penelope debuted in her own strip in issue one several months before the first episode of Thunderbirds ever appeared on tv. The comic also had access to exclusive photographs of the models and characters, which were ideal for the newspaper-style covers of TV21.
“All in all, TV21 was very much a part of the Gerry Anderson universe,” Lew argues, “and the exciting thing was that the comic presented all those tv shows as part of a shared universe.”
While the comic’s success was in part due to the phenomenal popularity of the Gerry Anderson series it centred on – Stingray, Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet probably being the most memorable – it was supported by regular advertising on TV and more – something most British publishers can only dream of these days.
This was one of the comics I most remember reading growing up, followed by Countdown in the 1970s and Look-In; but it was TV21 that most captured my imagination, with its shared universe, stunning art and background features to the Gerry Anderson universe.
“I was five years old when TV21 was launched, so a little under the target age of 7 to 12 year olds. Nevertheless, like many kids, I was thrilled by this new comic,” Lew recalls. “I became an avid reader of TV21 throughout 1965, and so did many other kids apparently, with the comic becoming the most successful launch of the period. (It’s initial print run of 450,000 being insufficient to meet demand. Incredible, when comics today are considered a success for selling 60,000)… Sadly toward the end of the sixties, the quality of TV21 began to decline, and interest in ‘space’ petered out after the first moon landing. By the time TV21 merged into Valiant in 1971 it was little different to any other boys adventure comic of the time. However, for today, it’s time to remember when TV21 was fresh and innovative, and when ‘Adventure in the 21st Century’ was something to look forward to every Wednesday.”
Sadly, licensing costs mean there’s little chance of there ever being a title combining many different TV shows being launched today: the focus of publishers these days is very much on one show, such as with Doctor Who Adventures or Simpsons Comics.
You have to wonder, though, who might be drawing the strips of TV21 today if it had lasted: Chris Weston on Fireball XL5? Dylan Teague on Captain Scarlet? Garen Ewing on Lady Penelope? Neill Cameron on Stingray? Lee Sullivan back on Thunderbirds, a strip he drew for the Redan Thunderbirds comic? Lew Stringer drawing The Munsters and Kev F. Sutherland or Jamie Smart drawing My Favourite Martian? Who knows…
You can, of course, enjoy some of TV21‘s brilliant strips in the new Century 21 collections being published by Reynolds & Hearn: a third volume was released recently.
• Gerry Anderson’s Century 21: v. 3: Escape from Aquatraz is on sale 30 November: buy it from amazon.co.uk
• Lew has put together a potted tribute to this ground-breaking comic, which featured the work of artists such as Frank Bellamy, Frank Hampson, Don Lawrence and many other greats during its run. You can view it here on his as ever brilliant Blimey! blog.
• For an online history and guide to TV21, visit the superb The Gerry Anderson Comics Listing