Monday, 13 July 2009

It Came from Darkmoor's Marvel UK A to Z : C is for...

Welcome to the second of It Came from Darkmoor's Marvel UK A to Z columns. The intention of this column is to spotlight a few of the more obscure Marvel UK characters - the kind who are probably less likely to come up in conversation or whose overall contribution to Marvel UK has not yet been acknowledged by this Blog.

We continue, as would only be sensible, with the letter C.

So far we've had a doppelgänger hero from the 70s, and an adult-orientated fantasy character from the 90s. Our next entry shifts tone a little. The guy in question began his life in the 1980s. And despite never having headlined his own title he actually appeared in print continuously (And on a weekly basis) for far longer than many of Marvel UK's more recognisable characters...

In our alphabetical series...


Combat Colin was the creation of Lew Stringer, who during the 80s was responsible for creating half (and later full) page comic strips for back-up pages in Marvel UK's licensed comic books. Forget the state-side 'Mini Marvels', or other tiny strips which occasionally turn up on modern Marvel letters pages.

Lew was doing these 20 years ago. And arguably better than they're done today.

These would usually appear inside the back cover, sharing half a page with the 'next issue...' panel or possibly somewhere in the middle of the issue. A light-hearted, but often quite clever mix of concepts and puns, which were tailored to match the title they were appearing in. Stringer had created Robo-Capers for the weekly Transformers comic. A strip which varied in content somewhat across its life.

It's chief focus was on the Alien King, King No-Nose, and his Robot inventor. But every once in a while it would do stand-alone strips such as 'Transformers That Didn't Make The Grade'...

Or explaining editorial changes, such as changing the 'host' of the letters page from Decepticon tape recorder Soundwave to big dumb Dinobot Grimlock.

The strip was incredibly popular, and helped to build up the Marvel UK house-style, which really loved to involve letters pages and other items in a fourth wall breaking manner, in the 80s. And so it was decided that Stringer should create a similar strip for the new Action Force weekly comic.

(NOTE: For any US readers asking themselves "What the hell was 'Action Force'?" perhaps the easiest answer would be to say "It was G.I. Joe". Although that's not strictly true. ACTION FORCE began its life as a spin-off smaller figure line of late 70s big-toy-of-the-moment ACTION MAN. It even had it's own continuity and comic book through another publisher (Battle). Hasbro later bought Action Force and used it as a way of getting G.I. Joe into the UK and Europe. Which was not easy. "G.I." was a non-transferable US Army rank, and meant nothing in Europe. And the phrase 'Average Joe' was an Americanism that certainly hadn't been embraced in Europe in the early 80s. Nevertheless, Hasbro bought the line and integrated it into G.I. Joe, eventually changing the name in the UK and Europe towards the end of its original lifespan.

Perhaps "Officer Cadet Smith" would have been a more suitable translation? Or even "Combat Colin"? But somehow I think Action Force is a bit more dramatic, don't you... ;D

If you want any more info on that, click here: Action Force toy line - Wikipedia)

Combat Colin (Or Colin Doobrey-Smiff, as it was claimed was his actual name) was the result, making his debut in Action Force Weekly #5. Stringer had originally planned to call him 'Dimbo' but Richard Starkings (Editor of Action Force, and often letterer too) suggested 'Combat Colin' as a more lasting name which would not date so quickly. And it was the perfect fit for a comic which reprinted US G.I. Joe strips alongside UK written back-ups.

The character of Colin was one of those odd guys you encounter every once in a while. The kind who are in their mid-thirties into forties, still live with their parents, and collect all kinds of military memorabilia as a hobby.


And only collect.

Because, frankly there is NO WAY IN HELL they'd ever be let into the actual British Army. ;D

What a perfect antidote to the very serious strips appearing elsewhere in the book, with references to genuine war campaigns, Vietnam, etc...

Professional military vs military enthusiast.

Combat Colin's initial run started with some quite simple stand-alone half-page strips - building up to the pay-off of a final panel pun. But, as with Robo-Capers, it began to evolve into something a bit more complex. Along the way Colin acquired his side-kick, Semi-Automatic Steve, a short and bearded guy, whose dress sense seemed to have been inspired by Rambo.

Shortly followed by a move towards doing serialised strips, such as the fondly remembered 'One of our Milkmen is Missing' storyline.

Which also debuted Colin's first ongoing villain, Dr Nasty.

Sadly, Action Force weekly came to an end with issue 50. At that point the book went monthly, but this incarnation only lasted 15 issues before cancellation. At which point the US G.I. Joe stories, which had formed the lead story of Acton Force weekly, became the back up story in Transformers weekly.

And Combat Colin came along with them.

This did of course mean that Robo-Capers had to make way (Although, King No-Nose and his inventor did return for a one off crossover later into the run) but on the positive side allowed stringer to broaden Combat Colin's world, and pool of regular characters. Such as Semi-Automatic Steve's landlady, Mrs Frumpy,

Steve and Colin's delightful sometime dates, The Giggly Sisters,

Colin's Agent Roy L.T. Check, Sometime hindrance tabloid ace-reporter Headline Howard and even Combat Kate - Colin's representative for North of England.

And an increasing array of demented and ridiculous supervillains in his Rogues Gallery - from the diminutive Professor Madprof to the alien threat of The Brain.

On occasion some of these characters were even given the run of the strip, that week. Combat Kate had that honour one week, as did the Giggly Sisters, in the form of "The Giggly Sisters' NICE PAGE":

I particularly like the letters column ;)

And as the strip grew so did the page space it was given. Sometimes going into black and white for a while, but moving permanently from a half page at the back of the comic to a full pages in the middle. Serialised strips returned, sometimes growing quite epic in scale. And Colin was given a huge array of "Combat" Weapons, vehicles and Gadgets(Usually branded with a smiley face, with it's tongue sticking out) which he seemed to be able to produce at a moment's notice.

Many of these were later explained as being produced from his 'Combat Trousers' a gift from a visiting alien, and containing 'deep pockets', like a veritable pocket universe of storage space:

The stories also branched out in subject matter, exploring slightly bigger concepts, from obsessed criminal fans, to evil robot doppelgängers, to adventures through space, and time.

Entire stories were dedicated to such bizarre concepts as "Combat Rhyming Slang"

Which came complete with a phrase-list at the start of the story. Or "Combat Code" complete with decoder. Combat Code was, in fact, just a reversed alphabet, but even after the strip in question occasionally you'd come across the odd caption in 'Code'.

The strip was even used to explain away editorial mistakes...

Combat Colin had found his niche. ;D

And it thrived, toying with sci-fi concepts, superhero concepts, and throwing in pop culture references which doubtless went high above some of its younger reader's heads, but for those teen readers with a little more smarts about them they appreciated them. Nice touches like plastering over exploding brains with a picture of Kylie Minogue, or an editorial note in a 1960s flashback telling kids that

"*Note: This tale is set in the 1960's, when 75% of Boys were named 'Ringo,' after the great Pop Legend, Ringo McBingo. (Honest! Ask your parents!)"

And I'd love to know just how many young kids genuinely DID that!

But by far the biggest Pop Culture reference came in the form of the multi part storyline "Prisoners of the Place of No Return," in which Colin and Steve found themselves stuck in what looked suspiciously like (i.e. it WAS) the small village from TV series The Prisoner. Trapped there, at the will of all their many villains, amongst a number of Stringer's other characters who had been 'Retired' to this place.

Readers of Image Comics' Elephantmen will recognise Brickman on the end there...

The likelihood of any of the kids reading it being aware that the whole story was a Prisoner parody (Or of their having ever heard of The Prisoner, for that matter) were pretty slim. But that's certainly what it was. And a pretty good homage, too.

(And if anybody feels that they want to get hold of that story, it was collected a few years ago in Lew Stringer's "Brickman Begins!" (ISBN-10: 0974056782) where it was renamed as "Village of the Doomed".

Of course, back in the late 1980s Transformers was Marvel UK's flagship title. And while I'm not going to claim that Combat Colin was indispensable to the title, I do feel that from that one page weekly strip it actually did play a quite important part in the reinforcing of the Marvel UK tone and house feel. No matter how daft the stories were they were part OF a bigger picture.

Not just in cod publicity like that, though. It helped give this bizarre collection of licensed property books a common connection. And indeed a common connection with the greater Marvel Universe as well.

This was the late 80s. Marvel UK weren't reprinting US Superhero books with that great an ongoing regularity. But here in Combat Colin you were having occasional glimpses of Spider-man, references to other Marvel Heroes (Even if it was through analogue characters like Dr Peter Peculiar), mentions of Drawing Comics the Marvel Way and the like. At this time Combat Colin really WAS an ambassador for Marvel.

Heck, he even went up against Doctor Doom!

It was all very inclusive, as the Marvel UK line was in general, at that point.

And you never knew which Marvel character would make an appearance at the Combat Christmas Party:

Got to love the Hulk in that final panel! ;D

Sadly, much as though many people out there felt that no Marvel UK book was complete without a Lew Stringer strip in there, things changed in 1991. Marvel UK was wanting to push towards a more serious house style - the kind which could compete with 2000 AD. And as part of those inner changes Humour strips were dropped. Which I have always felt was an incredible shame.

That was the end of Combat Colin. At Marvel, anyway.

Marvel UK did at least transfer the rights of Combat Colin, and his direct circle of characters, to Stringer. Sure, the stuff tied directly into Transformers and Marvel is always going to be tied to Hasbro or Marvel. But it is through that creator ownership that the character has survived.

Earlier I mentioned Richard Starkings' Elephantmen, which is put out by Image comics. Well, through the Brickman strip which Lew Stringer has been doing as a back-up strip in that book Combat Colin has been resurrected.

As Lew Stringer recently announced on his own Blog:


I would recommend that Blog, too. Stringer does a huge amount of work discussing British Comics, in all their forms, as well as posting up photos from Conventions in the 80s and the like. It's a great site to visit.

As for Combat Colin? I will always see him as an ambassador for a better time in comics. A time where Transformers, Death's Head, Knights of Pendragon and Doctor Who could all be mentioned in the same sentence as Captain America, Spider-man and the X-Men. They were all part of the same family, and Colin was some kind of older brother who liked to remind us all of the importance of the Marvel family, whilst subtly undermining it with a truly terrible pun or two.

I'd love to see a proper collection done some day. But due to its ties with Hasbro's products and Marvel's characters I doubt we'll ever see a complete collection see the light of day.

I'm very glad that he's still around, and I'm glad Lew Stringer is still producing new material, too.

It's Marvel's loss. It really is.

'C' could also have stood for:

Captain Britain - But that would have been far too obvious...

I'd rather go with his alternates:

Captain Granbretan - From Captain Britain (Vol.2) #13, and written by Grant Morrison.


Captain Airstrip One - Created by Alan Moore, from an Earth similar to George Orwell's "1984" (You can read the solo story Moore wrote for him Here.)

Charnel - An alternative Baron Strucker merged with the body of the original Death's Head, into a deadly cyber-organic magic entity.

Adam Crown - The spirit of King Arthur reborn in the body of teenage waster. Leading light of the Knights of Pendragon.

Next Week: Well, 'D' surprisingly... ;D


  1. Excellent entry on Combat Colin. I always enjoyed his strips (along with Robo-Capers and the short lived Macho Man).

    So next up is D...hmmm Fingers crossed it's everyones favourite freelance peacekeeping agent, yes?

  2. i picked up the brickman collection featured off of the back of this article, and its great! and i think i'm in love with tina trowel, which is very wrong! as it features Lew's very early work, it is a bit rough around the edges but its still a fun read and the village of the doomed story with CC in is great fun! track it down if you can! i got mine off amazon for a few quid :)

  3. I've just noticed this blog! I presume you're one of the fine folks I met at Auto Assembly the other day? Thanks for the kind words and the excellent summary on Colin's career! I'm really pleased to read comments like that because at the time I didn't receive any feedback at all. (I was told it was popular, but never actually saw any letters.) Dead chuffed that you "get" Combat Colin. Keep up the good work. I'll give your site a plug on my blog soon.

    Best regards,

  4. Hello Mr Stringer,

    Thanks very much for stopping by, and your kind comments. Sadly, I was not able to get to Auto Assembly, through work commitments. I also managed to miss finding you at BICS last year.

    I was a big Combat Colin fan, as this article probably makes clear, and I've been wanting to give the character some coverage on site for a while, now. He very much was as important a part of Marvel UK, for me, as a good many other properties and I was sad to see him (And yourself) part ways with Marvel UK in the early 90s.

    I am glad, though, that you have been able to continue with the character elsewhere. While you may not have seen letters regarding Combat Colin he remains a character remembered fondly (As were his supporting cast), and one I've received a fair amount emails about since starting this blog.

    Thanks very much for all those strips, and I'll always be looking out for more.


    Mark Roberts

  5. ooh, did you mean me, Lew? I met you at AA this year (er, along with quite a few others...)bonda! I came away with a smashing Combat Colin sketch that you kindly drew for me. I am looking after it nicely as it is great!