Weird Science: Looking Back at “Von Hoffman’s Invasion”

Andrew Darlington revisits the first collection of Von Hoffman’s Invasion by Tom Tully & Eric Bradbury, released in 2018, a fantasy adventure culled from the pages of weekly comics Jet and Buster, the second volume still, presumably, in the pipeline…

Von Hoffman's Invasion Book One

The full-colour cover of Von Hoffman’s Invasion Volume One shows a giant wasp in brown and vivid yellow bursting free from the erupting rubble of a collapsed cottage, borne on a wingspan wide enough to spread corner to corner across the full page, while villagers armed with shotguns and pitchforks scatter in terror. Up in the left-hand corner, the perpetrator of this mayhem cackles with evil glee while brandishing a foaming test-tube of the noxious elixir responsible for such giganticism. This is Von Hoffman’s revenge…

Jet was a short-lived weekly comic title launched by IPC in 1971 – at a budget pocket-money price of three-pence every Thursday. The cover of the debut issue splashes the same manic mad scientist astride a giant eel surging through churning English Channel waters, silhouetted against the huge yellow disc of the moon. The banner-header yelled “Great New Picture-Story Paper For Boys”, with “Action-Thrills-Adventure” inside its generous forty-pages, plus “Free! Two Super Fruit Chews”. Which was surely more than adequate inducement to browse further?

Jet No. 1 - cover dated 1st May 1971
Jet No. 1 – cover dated 1st May 1971

Although Jet survived for only a modest twenty-one issues, during its abbreviated run readers could enjoy a mix of comic and adventure strips. Ken Reid’s “Faceache’ – the Boy With A Hundred Faces”, who would go on to greater things elsewhere, as would Reg Parlett’s “Bonehead, the Barmy Bulldog”. “Bala The Briton” was a strong blend of history and myth in the “Karl the Viking” tradition. “The Sludgemouth Sloggers” by Douglas Maxted took the reliable boy’s comic football staple and fused it with the Hi-De-Hi element of a setting in the Loneliest Seaside resort in Britain. “Sergeants Four”, from Fred Holmes, took a light-hearted glance at World War with a clumsily caricatured English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish protagonist given to uttering “Bejabbers, ye sausage-stuffin’ spalpeens”; plus a dubious full-colour centrespread, “The Kids Of Stalag 41”, which was a kind of Bash Street Kids set in a German prisoner-of-war camp. Personally, I never understood the fascination with World War, it was something that tedious old men talked about and demanded you respect. My future lay in weird science.

The beautifully-produced volume Von Hoffman’s Invasion from Rebellion’s Treasury Of British Comics imprint, valuably preserves the comic’s star strip. And it had its vague derivation in World War Two, also.

Von Hoffman was the evil Nazi scientific genius who invented a “new armoured rocket-firing flame-throwing” giant mechanical centipede, designed to burn allied regiments to cinders in a single devastating blow. But there’s a ludicrously powerful fantasy ingredient too. With his prototype destroyed by RAF Typhoons, and the mad scientist himself jailed for twenty-five years at what seems to be the Nuremberg trials, he’s eventually released from prison not as “the poor broken-spirited old wretch” the guards suppose, but sworn to vengeance against Britain in a one-man terror invasion.

Jet Issue 1 - Von Hoffman's Invasion Page 1
Jet Issue 1 - Von Hoffman's Invasion Page 2
Jet Issue 1 - Von Hoffman's Invasion Page 3
The first appearance of Von Hoffman, in Jet Issue One

Eric Bradbury’s art is cleanly defined, never venturing into the impressionistic smears of some flashily arty 2000AD practitioners, his frames are always unpretentiously drawn with strongly animated characteristics that fall exactly on the correct side of caricature. His detailed story-telling artwork was already familiar from the likes of “Mytek The Mighty”, the giant robot ape from the pages of Valiant, and he would go on to do standout “Doomlord” spreads for the relaunched Eagle. He would also, naturally, graduate into the Galaxy’s Greatest, to illustrate “Rogue Trooper” and “Invasion” for the Mighty Tharg.

There’s still a lingering discrimination against so-called “commercial” artists who work for magazines and comics, against the more prestigious fine-art artists who tend to wind up in galleries, yet I’ve always considered that distinction to be flawed. Eric Bradbury’s pieces have narrative, humour and character, as well as beautifully executed attention to detail, punctually and faultlessly produced to a three-pages a week deadline.

The plotline for “Von Hoffman’s Invasion” has roots in the old DC Thomson adventure-strips such as “The Black Sapper”, with a novelty central gimmick extended out over a long arc of interconnected sequences. Writer Tom Tully had cut his teeth on sports strips such as “Roy of the Rovers”, but went on to establish the long-running “The Steel Claw” series with artist Jesus Blasco, before going on to script for the relaunched “Dan Dare” for 2000AD, and “The Mind of Wolfie Smith”, initially for another short-lived weekly, Tornado, which jumped to 2000AD when the titles merged. Again, as with the old DC Thomson exploits, for “Von Hoffman’s Invasion”, Tully has the cranky adult villain opposed by two plucky young brothers, Barry and ‘Tich’ Joey Drake, perfectly attuned to the target readership for identification purposes.

From prison, Von Hoffman goes directly to his gothic castle laboratory “on the outskirts of Berlin”, where his interrupted experiments remain undisturbed. There’s a straight line to be drawn back through the Hammer Horror movies as far as Mary Shelley’s Dr Frankenstein, as he obsesses with his bubbling vats and dripping pipettes in the vaulted fastness of his stronghold. From there, he takes a rowboat from the northern coast of France where a pellet-form of his serum creates a fantastic hundred-yard monster steed from a simple eel susceptible to his command, with which he wrecks a cross-Channel ferry, and eventually arrives in a small Cornish fishing village – as the page-header screams in block-black lettering “The Hate-Filled Nazi Avenger Had Landed In Britain!”

As in the war-comics Von Hoffman is given to “D-Donner Und Blitzen”, “Grosse Himmel” and “Teufel” expletives, and supposedly-Germanic speech effects – “the effect of ze gas has worn off! That accursed eel has returned to its normal size…!” And he’s adapted his battered brolly into a portable gas-gun which he uses on a crab in order to wreak devastation on the unsuspecting villagers, “the spearhead of a race of giants which will soon be swarming across England’s Green and Pleasant land! Ha! Ha! Haaa!”

Von Hoffman's Invasion - Sample Page (2018, Eric Bradbury)
Von Hoffman's Invasion - Sample Page (2018, Eric Bradbury)

From there, he escapes on a wasp as big as a helicopter. When that is shot down by a real RAF helicopter, he simply transfers to a giant frog – as featured on the cover of the 12th June 1971 issue, then uses a pack of giant dogs to destroy the “sleepy village of Little Upton.”

It’s here that Barry and Joey accidentally use a bottle of Do-it-Yourself X2-F04 insecticide to revert their dog Major to “his usual loveable, normal-sized self.” But possession of the antidote means that Von Hoffman must eliminate the “accursed brats”, as he switches his predatory attentions from a giant wood-pigeon to giant wood-lice in order to attack an experimental military base, from a Kong-like giant hairy monkey, to monster woodworm, he then uses a giant hare to escape.

Von Hoffman's Invasion - Sample Page (2018, Eric Bradbury)

There’s no clever subtext, no aspirations beyond “More Spine-Tingling Action” served up on a week-by-week basis. No adult content or pretensions, it’s strictly kid’s stuff. Von Hoffman himself is both a sinister figure and a comically demonic gnome. Radiocarbon-dating betrays its time-origins when the boys hide in an air-raid shelter, then use a soapbox cartie to carry their X2-F04 away. Hoffman seizes an itinerant knife-grinder’s bike, while speculating about how an army of giant moles ‘could dig ze (as yet undug) channel-tunnel.’ And later, villagers crowd around outside the plate-glass TV-shop window to watch Bobby Dare score the winning 3-2 goal against Germany at Wembley Stadium.

Then – abruptly, Jet ceased! Its 21-issue run, of course is the same number of issues for many “Hatch, Match and Dispatch” titles created at the instigation of John Sanders, his circulation boosting idea to create comics with the deliberate intent that it would either survive, or merge with a stronger-selling title, detailed in his book, King’s Reach. (Both Thunder and Tornado are other examples of this policy, which, ultimately, left fewer and fewer titles standing.

Von Hoffman's Invasion - Sample Page (2018, Eric Bradbury)
Von Hoffman's Invasion - Sample Page (2018, Eric Bradbury)

Some considerable time earlier, when IPC was still Fleetway, Buster had launched in May 1960, conceptually designed around a strip starring the son of the “Daily Mirror’s Andy Capp”, and the comic ate its voracious way through rival titles, absorbing Radio Fun (cover date, 26th February 1961), Film Fun (15th September 1962), The Big One (27th February 1965), Giggle (20th January 1968), and then, Jet (2nd October 1971). Other merger would follow, Buster surviving through 1902 issues until the issue cover dated 4th January 2000. And following a brief catch-up for new readers, safely ensconced within its new vehicle, Von Hoffman’s dastardly machinations simply continue on new tangents.

Von Hoffman's Invasion - Sample Page (2018, Eric Bradbury)

After commandeering a monster rat, a giant spider, a hedgehog and a coypu, he grows a mega stag-beetle into “a living six-legged Panzer” with a simple “THWAASSHOOM!”, then uses giant ants to attack Shenbridge Stadium where the Global Cup pitches the England team against Germany, and uses a giant budgerigar to snatch centre-forward Bobby Dare in order to ensure victory for the Fatherland.

Von Hoffman's Invasion - Sample Page (2018, Eric Bradbury)

By the Christmas issue, he was holed up in the Weldale Research Laboratory with only three pills of his enlarging formula left, guarded as he works on creating replacements by giant squids and a flock of giant birds. He escapes, with new supplies of serum, in the beak of a giant pelican – “Farewell Englander Dolts!”

Still undaunted, he meets eccentric inventor Peter “Potty” Potter and his robot dinosaurs on the threshold of new villainy just as the volume draws to a close, promising more in the still awaited Book Two. For Von Hoffman is still seeking revenge… meanwhile, this beautifully-produced volume valuably preserves the start of his story.

Andrew Darlington

Copies of Von Hoffman’s Invasion by Tom Tully & Eric Bradbury are still available from AmazonUK (Affiliate Link) | Rebellion Publishing, August 2018, £12.99 | ISBN 978-1-78108-626-1

Further Reading

The Vigilant - Collection

• Von Hoffman and other classic characters returned in The Vigilanthere’s our score card of other heroes and villains that feature, and their creators, here – and you can buy the collection here (AmazonUK Affiliate Link)

• See also: Rebellion – The Classic Comics (and characters) it now owns

• David Moloney analyses the good and the bad in Jet in this piece for Great News For All Readers

“Von Hoffman’s Invasion”, Jet and Buster © 2022 Rebellion Publishing Ltd

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