Fireball XL5: 60th Anniversary Comic Anthology (graphic novel review).

The ‘Fireball XL5’ comicstrip in ‘TV Century 21’ was far superior to the TV series, mostly because of the artistic hand of ‘M. Noble’, Mike Noble as we learnt later in life. Oddly, he didn’t do the first story, but Graham Coton. The TV21 Specials had other artists and only rarely was Noble relieved by Eric Eden and \Frank Hampson and then a run by Don Lawrence.

I can’t recall the Coton story ever being reprinted before. Over the stories, some things are remedied like the oxygen bills for living in space being pointed out for only short EVAs, therein allowing for them to wear a variety of spacesuits as appropriate and then solely which gave it the more authentic look. Considering NASA was getting people into space wearing spacesuits, ‘Fireball XL5’ had to evolve to show it was keeping up in the future.

There are two big nuisances from the start. Shaqui Le Vesconte’s introduction is spread throughout the book and writer/artist Lee Sullivan’s story involving XL5, Captain Scarlet, Thunderbirds and Stingray is also spread throughout the book. I think this was a mistake that I hope isn’t repeated in other volumes. These are the kinds of books that will be used for reference in the future. There’s going to be enough problems when we have the ‘Thunderbirds’ book because of the three page parts but at least the blueprints can be used to fill the off-page.

In the original TV21, ‘The Astran War’ included here had a similar spread sans International Rescue and Spectrum, as it hadn’t been created yet. I think it might have made more sense to have it put at the back of the book than this mish-mash, more so as its set when Zodiac is in charge of Space City and puts it in historical context. For Century 21 history, International Rescue has to be placed much earlier, more so as the Zero-X was the first visit to Mars which would contradict having a World Space Patrol. Who’s to say that a Lady Penelope and Parker from their time weren’t descendants from the International Rescue era?

Speaking of which, I always get a lot of satisfaction from reading ‘The Astran War’. Today’s read also shows how sophisticated it was at the time. I mean, we have an alien leader being assassinated and the shenanigans of, well, that’s spoiler unless you’ve read the story. Zodiac is in the lead throughout this story but the involvement of others, like Penelope and Stingray make it a satisfying multi-part plot. Although it didn’t connect me to the Kennedy assassination a couple years earlier in our own time, there’s a similarity in the city square scene. All right, so the Astrans look like jellybeans but, at the time, they were pretty unusual looking unique aliens and I never made the connection when young. Afterwards, the move to enlarged animals in ‘Giants In Space’ is a nice continuity and makes Piil and Truen, seen in an earlier story true terrorists.

The snowman story, ‘The Icemen Of Space’, is another one of the best where its down to intelligent thinking of the XL5 crew when they face off against the creatures of Uraniture when they are locating two scientists there. I remember reading it when it first came out wondering how they were going to overcome every obstacle but before them.

After that one, Noble took a break and Frank Hampton down the artistic reins for a story, ‘Emergency Landing’. XL5 lands on an asteroid for repairs. While Matt Matic and Steve Zodiac are busy, Venus explores and finds a derelict spacecraft and dead pilot and then finds there’s a powerful magnetic source preventing their own escape. Zodiac explores and gets caught in multiple traps. Post-Dan Dare, this is actually some good work by Hampton. I also suspect Noble’s work raised the standard of what could be achieved in TV21. I should point out that Ron Embleton was doing a similar approach with ‘Stingray’. In some respects, it’s a shame we never saw Noble do a ‘Thunderbirds’ strip. I have a poster he did of their vehicles and he had it nailed.

The ‘Timeslip’ story returns us to Mike Noble art and the XL5 testing out a new engine gets flung back to 1966 and a very upset American military and US President trying to capture them and succeeding. All of which is nicely played out and a twist at the end as to Zodiac’s original name.

I should point out that the stories don’t actually have names in their figureheads and given in the front index. Saying that, they are not consistent for all the parts.

If there’s anything that is consistent to Alan Fennell’s writing here is the fact that he doesn’t appear to be writing down to children. When you consider that I was pre-teen reading them originally, it was giving me a heavy dose of SF and problem-solving. He also explored different aspects of Space City, including the astronaut trainee programme in ‘Electrode 909’, when three disgruntled astronaut trainees don’t like being criticised by Steve Zodiac and steal a new armed prototype spaceship. The crashing by it and XL5 on a planet is ingenious for how they escape and even takes into account how many gees making Zodiac unconscious in the blast-off. You have to love the detail.

‘The Meteorite Menace’ could almost be a prototype for ‘Alien’, more so when you see what pops out of these eggs and are virtually unstoppable.

However, I do think ‘The Sword Of Damacles’ story as one of the best and one of the most ruthless organisations, although you do have to wonder at how they recruit considering death is given to failure, even to their leaders. Zodiac really was taking a big gamble with Venus’ life when he was ordered to go in and rescue the scientists captured to make copies of XL5.

‘The Planet Slavers’ has the XL5 crew having to stop the Femians from enslaving a primate society and who don’t take kindly when the World Space Patrol arrives. Nicely played out and gave Mike Noble a chance to draw dinosaurs.

Lest you wonder why I’m focusing mostly on Noble’s work here, it’s largely because he really was so far ahead of the other artists. I do think part of the problem was these comic strips were based on puppets and you needed some connection to them. The early samples from ‘TV Comic’ showed the problems without suitable reference. Noble kept all of that but made the characters more ‘realistic’, that is in terms of facial expressions and such. The number of times Zodiac took off his jacket to give himself freedom to move is about the same as the number of times his spacesuit gets shredded. Something that wouldn’t have been possible on the TV show. Looking at the material for the ‘Specials’, usually done under shorter deadlines and fewer pages lacked the same kind of attention and, alas, it does show. ‘The Planet Of Volkanos’ is one of the last solely done by Noble with an epic space battle and treacherous aliens, although with a serious need that couldn’t be resolved.

‘Architects Of Peace’ starts with Mike Noble and continues with Don Lawrence, who keeps pretty much with the former’s style for the next three stories although his XL5 has some differences at first. The problem with any comicstrip is we never really see what is going on behind the scenes in terms of does the writer script to the artist’s strengths or what they would like to draw. Equally, how much effort the artist gives. Of course, we have the transition scripts switching from artist to artist in mid-stream.

The last few stories from ‘Countdown’ don’t really make that much of an impression but you do have to think back to this was 1971 and TV show repeats unknown and the artists probably had to rely on memory and the odd photograph if they had any and a deadline schedule. Any wonder that we have Fireball Junior landing vertically.

Oddly, the one thing missing here was the material from the ‘Fireball XL5 Annuals’ and I’m thinking purely from a completist point of view. Granted not all of it was as good as ‘TV21’s material but it does deserve exposure, as does the annuals for the other shows as well. I did ask about that to Anderson Productions and its more a rights issue and they haven’t got them.

The way the Anderson Entertainment people are working their way through the shows here, I hope they don’t forget reprinting ‘Lady Penelope’, ‘Agent 21’ and the ‘Countdown’ stories as well, more so because it shows the quality of work was still there even in material not based on the TV shows.

This book is an enormous read and the main stories need to be savoured. I suspect some of you will have some of these stories in other collections but this one has them all which is the important thing. Don’t forget to sing the song at the end.

GF Willmetts

February 2023

(pub: Anderson Entertainment, 2022. 336 page graphic novel large hardback. Price: £39.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-91452-239-0)

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