Thursday, 24 August 2017

Combat Colin #1 by Lew Stringer

Lew Stringer has created many strips over the years for a huge variety of titles and publishers, but he's probably best known for his work for Marvel UK for various titles in the 1980s and early 1990s. Week in, week out he would produce a wonderful comedy strip appropriate to the themes of the comic in question. Many such as Robo-Capers, Captain Wally, Snail-Man or Macho Man are fondly remembered by readers to this day, but above all the top stand-out strip is Combat Colin. Created for Action Force weekly, the strip could have ended when that title died after just fifty issues but it instead made a transfer to Transformers (into which Action Force weekly was nominally merged) and lasted until the end of that title, even when the Action Force/G.I. Joe strip wasn't running in it. Recently Lew Stringer has produced the first of a series of collected editions of the strip, with issue #1 reproducing all of the strips from the Action Force days and today I'll be looking at that.

(A quick word on Action Force. This series was based on a toyline that has a somewhat convoluted history but by 1987 it was almost completely an import of the US G.I. Joe toyline in all but name with just a few changes to the character profiles to present them as an international unit. The comic combined reprints of the Marvel US G.I. Joe series with new British originated strips and the occasional other Marvel US strip as a back-up story. However, it didn't present the combined material as well as some other Marvel UK titles, resulting in a somewhat confusing continuity. Stuart Webb has written a fuller introduction as part of The Solar Pool blog.)

This reprinted edition is in black and white (apart from the cover). All the strips were originally printed in colour but it would appear that whilst Lew Stringer obtained the copyright on his own work, he does not own the colours - the introduction notes "Colours were added by the Marvel UK staff, as was the norm back then." However, as the strip would later go black and white for nearly half its run in Transformers this isn't much of a problem and in the long-run it will help to give a more uniform feel to the series. The strips seem to be sourced from a mixture of original artwork in plain black & white and some scans that have the colour burnt in as greyscale. Artwise there's a subtle development as first Colin and then Semi-Automatic Steve undergo slightly visual changes, mainly with their noses, before settling in as their most familiar looks.

The material reproduced here shows a strip that goes through a heck of a lot of development in just ten months. Early on the focus is on humour about Combat Colin, a military nut living with his parents in a somewhat surreal world that has such oddities as raining tanks and anti-tank guns coming in cereal packets. This oddness drops away as the series develops into a comedy action series with a mixture of standalone mini-stories and ongoing epics featuring daft characters but in a recognisable world. It's notable that even at this early stage Stringer is dropping in references to previous strips, with Captain Wally, Snail-Man and Macho Man all applying to be part of Colin's gang, only to be literally blown aside by the arrival of Semi-Automatic Steve. The introduction of a sidekick sees the strip step away from the earliest jokes, with the parents rapidly fading away, and instead it moves towards more ongoing serial adventures with Colin and Steve tackling menaces both at home and around the world.

The adventures soon establish a recurring foe in the form of Doctor Nasty, a mad scientist who initially rules the jungle kingdom of Evilonia but whose schemes range from conquest to mere destruction. There's something a little awkward about a white scientist ruling over a tribe, even though it's shown they are no primitives and apparently working on a YOP scheme (an anachronism even at the time as in the real world the scheme had been replaced four years earlier). Doctor Nasty appears in no less than four different multi-part stories, accounting for a total of sixteen of the forty-three different strips. This feels a little excessive, even when taking into account that the final three-part story in this issue is clearly a rush job to tidy things up before the merger and allow readers of Transformers but not Action Force to follow the strip without having missed too many key details. The only other significant villains introduced are Aunt Arctic, an eccentric villain with an army of Kung-Fu penguins, and Cap'n Barnacle, a latter-day pirate in a submarine. They are used more sparingly. Beyond that Colin faces the odd spy, but in a number of strips his biggest enemy is his own stupidity.

Some of the strips have not dated too well. Stringer admits as much in a footnote to "Combat Crush" where Colin falls for a woman without even having spoken to her and then proceeds to harass her first by phone and then by visiting her house. At first Steve has the catchphrase "Ja ja, mein general!" which feels very odd but is soon dropped. Elsewhere there's a suicide bomber on a plane, whilst some of the earliest strips derive their humour from Colin playing with guns at home (or using them as tools for such tasks as dealing with flies), or even taking them out and about. Possibly coincidentally there's a shift away from using guns in such domestic settings right around the time of the real-life Hungerford massacre, when public attitudes to weapons did noticeably shift. Had the series remained a pure gag strip it would probably have struggled in such a changing environment, but fortunately by this stage the adventures were increasingly established and thus able to make it last. By the end of this issue the series has clearly found its groove and even indulges in some of Stringer's notable obsessions, including a set of Dalek spoofs in the form of the Snowbots, or even a homage to a classic Marvel story when Colin and Steve defeat a villain in a great atomic explosion, "...but at what cost?" asks a cliffhanger ending.

The strips in this particular issue are contenders for the least well-known of Combat Colin's years at Marvel, given that Action Force weekly ended after less than a year. Thus, although this series as a whole will especially appeal to nostalgic readers from those years, these particular ones are an interesting curiosity as many nostalgic fans from later years may well not have seen them. As a result, this is a fun collection of new/old material that is definitely worth checking out.

And you can check it out at the Online Shop at Lew Stringer Comics & Cartoons.

No, I'm not getting any commission.

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