Oh TV21, you strange, magnificent beast. You took our beloved Supermarionation/Century 21 shows and did things to them we could only dream of. You took our favourite square-jawed, fair-haired, all-American heroes and gave them drama and character. You illuminated the comic book world with tales of action and adventure almost unparalleled. Overall, you gave us some of the best stories in sci-fi comics.
But you also gave us “The Giant Ant Invasion”.
This bizarrely bad Fireball XL5 story pits the XL5 crew against an growing army (ba-dum-tsh!) of human animals who become giants and proceed to terrorize the Earth thanks to a couple of disgruntled aliens who wish to destroy the planet – because aliens are baddies! Or something.
This is normally where I expand on the plot and dissect it, analysing the good, the bad, and the ugly about the strip. But honestly, “The Giant Ant Invasion” is hopeless to the point where it just doesn’t lend itself well to such scrutiny. Right from the off, you can almost feel how buggered this strip is, with that classic opening line in the first instalment “It’s got me… The Mouse… Aaagh!”. Things don’t get much better from there onwards.
The plot itself spends most of it’s time pitting Steve Zodiac against various enlarged dogs, cats, birds, and of course ants, who are the only animal here that carry any sense of danger. The large dogs and cats just look like, well, large dogs and cats, and don’t have much menace to them at all.
It’s such a shame that this sort of story had to be delegated to Fireball XL5. As I’ve previously discussed in “The Vengeance of Saharis” and “Electrode 909”, Fireball XL5 became a darker and arguably better beast in comic form away from its TV counterpart. Here however, the reverse happens. There’s no palpable feeling of tension or danger for our heroes, the plot is executed in a mundane manner, and the dialogue is utterly wretched. “This whole ship reeks of death!” is Steve’s reaction on killing a massive mouse and an overgrown butterfly, both of which decrease to their normal size upon death. Hardly a cause for such an outburst!
If one can take anything away from “The Giant Ant Invasion”, it could be that this strip does have something of a textbook element to it. “The Giant Ant Invasion” is everything a TV21 strip shouldn’t be, it may even be the nadir of TV21. Then again, we’ve really yet to grips with Stingray on this blog…
For now however, this is one Fireball XL5 strip that, much like the enormous ants featured in this strip, you would be best to steer clear from.
Have you read “The Giant Ant Invasion? What did you make of it? Let us know in the comments section or send us a Tweet! You can read “The Giant Ant Invasion” in Egmont’s The Gerry Anderson Comic Collection (?!) and Century 21: Classic Comic Strips from the Worlds of Gerry Anderson Volume 2: Invasion in the 21st Century! (?!?!)
Artists: Frank Bellamy (#83 – #92), Don Harley (#93 – #98)
I guess it was only a matter of time before we got round to reviewing this juggernaut – seriously, this strip is HUGE! It ran for nearly twenty issues in TV Century 21, that’s five months, nearly half a year! The fifth TV Century 21 adventure for International Rescue, “Solar Danger”, aka “Destination Sun”, “Operation Sunburst”, and “That One with the Giant Space Monster and the Sort of XL5 Crossover”, offered readers a dizzyingly fun début adventure for Thunderbird 3, but how does it stand up?
Pretty darn well, if you want a short, sweet review – but let’s expand!
“Solar Danger”, not unlike the first TV Century 21 tale for the poor man’s Tracy brothers those square-jawed space daredevils in Zero-X, “Solar Danger” is essentially two stories in one, with the first story aflame with some badass cosmic rescuing as Alan and Brains attempt to stop the sun from creating a meteorite colossal enough to destroy Earth. Spiralling out from their efforts, story number 2 then sees Alan and Brains having to tango with some Jurassic Park-worthy space monster on Venus.
From my perspective, it’s rather difficult to review this as one story, because both the tales presented to us here are vastly different, even though one directly following on from the other, but the division between stories is heightened by Bellamy taking on the actual sun-based part of the story whilst Harley tackles the Venus half. It’s not quite as loose as how “Talons of the Eagle” sequels “Mission to Africa”, but it’s close. Because of this, I’d be tempted to give “Solar Danger” a thumbs down. Was Fennel so excited at the thought of Thunderbird 3 getting its own adventure nearly a year after Thunderbirds had been introduced in TV Century 21 that he thought “F**k it!” and gave us two stories at once?
Mind you, both of these adventures are equal in their enthralling level of entertainment, the one thing TV Century 21 constantly mastered (put your hand down Joe 90, we’re pretending you don’t exist), and it’s hard to imagine a better opening blast for Thunderbird 3 in this comic.
So let’s make things easy for ourselves and make this our own two-in-one offering for you. First up, “Solar Danger: Part Bellamy”!
-gives first half of comic a quick skim through-
If people had a hard time swallowing the bitter pill that was Thunderbirds Are Go‘s take on real world physics, I dare them to read “Solar Danger”! The danger of the sun vomiting up enough physical matter to form a meteorite-type object capable of pulverizing everything in its wake is simple enough to digest, and makes for awesomely, stupidly fun reading, but if you didn’t enjoy how Thunderbirds Are Go tackled hydron colliders, you’d best find another comic.
Nevertheless, “Solar Danger: Part Bellamy” stands tall as not just another great example of what a fine working relationship they had, but illustrates how epic the proportions of their relationship could be taken. Bellamy’s depiction of International Rescue’s mammoth space rescue craft has such depth and scale to it, resulting in a story that’s dazzling to gawp at. I could almost let the included examples speak for themselves – I’m running out of ways to describe how awesome Bellamy’s artwork is!
Harley’s artwork on the other hand is, unfortunately, less impressive. Throughout “Solar Danger: Part Harley”, his take on the Thunderbird machines and the I.R. boys appear muddy and lack the intricacy of Bellamy’s renditions, but he still brings a decent level of life to Fennell’s constantly galloping script. Ironically perhaps, he fares better when doodling away at the alien landscapes of Venus, complete with bizarre vegetation and Fireball XL5-worthy monsters. Arguably, Harley’s artwork matches the speed of Bellamy’s script, with it’s attention to thick, bright colours and panel sizes that rarely stray beyond medium.
It’s an interesting juxtaposition against Bellamy’s far more direct and eerie take on Venus, but when you gaze at that ocotpus-like creature in the final panel of Bellamy’s half, which takes up almost half of the 10th instalment’s second page (and looks gorgeous against the gargantuan Thunderbird 3 on the other page), you’re bound to be left certain as to who was artist better suited to this story.
Bellamy’s script itself is a flaming fireball of fun, although the first half of “Solar Danger” fares better than the second, which has that rather tiresome plot device of International Rescue having to rescue International Rescue. “Solar Danger: Part Bellamy” also generates a genuine sense of frightening isolation for Brains and Alan as their attempts to battle against the sun puts them in life-threatening danger. There’s even a little cameo from Commander Zero and Space City!
“Solar Danger” as a whole also features plenty of action in its story for the mecha-heavy fans of Thunderbirds. All five get to shine in “Solar Danger: Part Harley” when Thunderbirds 1 and 2 have to be equipped for space in order to save Thunderbird 3 from death by alien sea monsters. Even though “Solar Danger: Part Harley” is something of a drag because of the aforementioned plot device, there’s still a lot of punch to it, but one can’t help but wonder why Jeff didn’t call for a bit more help from the World Space Patrol sintead of spending all that time kitting out Thunderbirds 1 and 2! Kinda making a plot hole into a plot crater when the W.S.P. made an earlier appearance!
But when you’ve got a story involving vomiting suns, ravenous alien monsters, and all five Thunderbirds getting some action, such balls-ups can be forgiven. It’s hard to imagine the TV show pulling this story off in screen form, which in turn gives us another example as to why TV Century 21 was such a hit. It remained extremely faithful to its source material and yet took huge plunges into the unknown, often trying to outdo what the TV show could deliver in terms of entertainment. It didn’t always succeed, but by golly it made for ruddy good reading, and “Solar Danger” is a great example of the mission TV Century 21 set out to accomplish.
Despite some jarring oddities in plot and artwork, “Solar Danger” continues to be one of the most exhilarating Thunderbirds adventures TV Century 21 ever produced. It sure ain’t perfect, and sometimes it’s a messy affair, but theirs buoyancy in the mess – it crackles with so much energy that once you’ve finished reading it, you feel the need to call International Rescue to come save yourself once they’re done on Venus.
Does “Solar Danger” get your blood pumping? Let us know in the comments section or send us a tweet! You can read “Solar Danger” in Gerry Anderson: The Vintage Comic Collection Volume 2, Century 21: Classic Comic Strips from the Worlds of Gerry Anderson Vol 4: Above and Beyond, and possibly Egmont’s upcoming second collection of Thunderbirds strips!
Implausible physics, shoot first ask questions later, and a dollop of raw sexism – no dear reader, this ain’t your bog standard Fireball XL5 episode, but a rather riveting TV21 adventure for Steve and the gang. TV Century 21 strips weren’t strangers to tackling such themes as deceit and treachery, just look at the Thunderbirds tale “Revolt on Jupiter” or Zero-X‘s double-bill of “Return to Mars/Prisoner of the Star“, and “Electrode 909” is another one of those stories.
“Electrode 909” sees a hapless handful of World Space Academy novices truly screwing up their training, with one particular student harbouring a maniacal agenda to prove to everyone that he has what it takes to be the best astronaut ever – even better than Steve Zodiac!
Dun dun DUUUUUUUN!
Rather than perform some act of pure heroism, Rod Snyder convinces a couple of unwilling chums to steal the space fighter Electrode 909. What exactly Snyder hoped to accomplish once the 909 is in his hands is never discovered, but once XL5 is sent to capture Snyder, there’s plenty of adventure to get lost in and make you forget that Snyder’s great plan may not have been that great.
“Electrode 909” has one of the most brutally breakneck plots of the TV21 strips – from XL5’s and 909’s initial battle in space, to the two of them crash-landing on some barren, alien world, to Steve’s near-impossible rescue, to Snyder’s utterly devilish plan in removing his 909 crew and the XL5 pack from the picture entirely, it’s all glorious stuff. They’d never have shown a guy like Snyder on television!
The script gives Mike Noble plenty to play with as well, and his depictions of a wrecked, Fireball Junior-less XL5 is intoxicatingly raw. What’s also raw is what poor old Venus gets up to, or rather what she doesn’t get up to.
The pre-Stingray years of Supermarionation were never the best for women in these shows, and Venus was no exception, often on the receiving end of some casual sexist remark from the World Space Patrol’s near-totally male staff. However, this strip came about in 1966, when women were getting a slightly better time in Anderson shows, but you wouldn’t think so seeing Venus in “Electrode 909”. The only thing she does of any interest is becoming crystallized by shards of alien rock, conveniently being shoved out of the plot’s way just as it reaches it’s peak of entertainment.
However, you still get one hell of a kick out of “Electrode 909”. There’s not a whiff of some malevolent alien menace to be seen, except for Venus’ weird crystal beings (maybe in that respect she actually did something useful?!) and yet “Electrode 909” has some genuine grit and drama to it. Snyder get this close, THIS close I tell you, in getting away with his insane ideology of being the best astronaut in the world – just how do Steve and Matt plan to take the guy down with only a battered XL5 body and no conventional means of blast off? Well, you’ll just have to read it and find out, won’t you?
Have you read “Electrode 909”? What do you make of it? Let us know in the comments section below!
You can read “Electrode 909” in Egmont’s The Gerry Anderson Comic Collection!
This Cold War-flavoured ditty is, in many ways, a perfect encapsulation of the Andersons’ Supermarionation spectacles. “The Vengeance of Saharis” focuses on a handful of aliens plotting revenge against the Earth after their home planet is attacked by a group of missiles launched from Earth. Unfortunately for Earth, it was an accidental assault, and the Fireball XL5 crew have to foil a a devious plan to annihilate the Earth seventy eight years in the making!
The fact that these strips were aimed squarely at a young audience doesn’t slim down the influence the Cold War and the threat of nuclear invasions had on them – indeed, “The Vengeance of Saharis” reads almost like a warning to kids on the dangers of this kind of conflict. The combined plot devices of accidental missile launches that seemingly renders an entire planet uninhabitable and the spy-like tactics of the Saharis’ plan to destroy Earth make for an immensely interesting read for a comic aimed at kids!
Such themes were nothing new in the worlds of Century 21 – there’s bags of episodes, particularly from the Fireball/Stingray-era, that take these concepts and trim them down into child-friendly, edible chunks of rollicking fun. What sets “The Vengeance of Saharis” apart then is that, when it came to Steve Zodiac’s on-screen adventures, the aliens were very much modelled as aliens, whereas the aliens in this strip appear 100% human in their physicality.
A lazy excuse to avoid designing a new species, or a further reflection of how in a Cold War scenario, the enemy can be more recognisable than you think?
But historical allusions aside, “The Vengeance of Saharis” is a blast of a strip. Each instalment, only two pages long, offers cliffhangers so snappy in their thrills that you’re more than likely to cut your fingers on flicking the pages to find out what happens next. The plot itself, like so many of the TV21 strips, reads as pure pulpy space adventure. Its finale sees the Saharis aliens managing to elude the XL5 crew, possibly thinking their plan went ahead a-okay. This provides the strip with a limp ending, but its still a fun read.
Another plot element that drives this story is the possibility that Steve has to destroy a space passenger liner that has a nuclear bomb attached to it in order to save the Earth. Something like this rarely occurred in the television series, and it separates the comic strip from its on-screen counterpart very well, giving the strip itself an extra boost of flavour and depth.
Mike Noble’s artwork is warm and rich, blending a fine array of bright colours with thick shadowing – his illustrations of missiles, XL5’s and space liners are dramatic and imposing, and lend a real sense of scope to the story, although his style in general is a tad more 2-D than Frank Bellamy’s Thunderbirds illustrations. But again, this fits in well with Fireball XL5‘s child-friendly nature, as Thunderbirds would go on to target a family audience while XL5 remained squarely aimed at a younger audience.
“The Vengeance of Saharis” is a fine addition to TV21’s early repertoire, and a thoroughly interesting expansion of its TV cousin.
Have you read “The Vengeance of Saharis”? What did you make of it? Let us know in the comments section below!
You can read “The Vengeance of Saharis” in Egmont’s ‘The Gerry Anderson Comic Collection’!
Taking you back to the yester-future strips of TV Century 21!