Partworks are a curious beast of the publishing world. We’ve all seen the commercials; “build your own model of the Isle of Wight ferry, complete in 150 issues – issue 1 just £1.99! (Regular price £7.99).” Either that or you’re being encouraged to buy a television series episode by episode for ultimately five times the price you’d pay for the complete boxset on Amazon, or to take up a new hobby that will last you until the shops stop carrying the title around issue 6 or 7 and it becomes subscription-only.
Partworks are also extremely popular, with the more successful titles ranking among the fourth or fifth best-selling magazines in the country, and there’s no denying that while many of them are just cynical attempts to make as much money as possible for as little effort as possible there are just as many that are the exact opposite. At their best partworks can be an invaluable reference guide, a definitive collection of classic material, or a showcase for talented artists and craftsmen to display their skills – and, when it comes to television and film-based titles, something of a gift to fans.
Curiously, while other franchises have spawned partworks of all kinds (I’ve totally lost count of how many Doctor Who has been the subject of since the show returned to television in 2005) there has never been a successful partwork series published in the UK based on any of the Gerry Anderson series. The closest we ever got came in 2004 (if I’m remembering correctly) when DeAgostini trialed a Thunderbirds partwork where each issue would have included a DVD and an accompanying magazine analysing each episode in detail. It’s a shame that one didn’t achieve a national release, as the same company later produced a similar partwork covering The Prisoner and Danger Man and it was one of the best examples of such a publication I’ve ever seen.
It came as something of a surprise in October 2013 when Eaglemoss announced the Gerry Anderson Vintage Comic Collection, a weekly partwork that would be reprinting the classic TV21 strips (alongside others from comics such as Countdown and Look-In) in a series of hardback volumes. Seemingly inspired by the success of Hachette Partworks’ Marvel Graphic Novels Collections, promotional material suggests that this was originally planned to run for at least fifty issues (presumably this would have been extended had the series been a success) covering eight Anderson television series as well as the Lady Penelope strips.
Each issue would showcase a particular series, and feature between three and five strips presented in their original publication order. It’s interesting to note that the title of the collection doesn’t include the words ‘complete’ or ‘definitive’ (although the latter word is used in the introduction to the first volume) as several Anderson series are noticeable by their absence; The Secret Service, The Protectors, Terrahawks and Space Precinct (and yes, if anyone points to the caption above that mentions ‘greatest TV series’ I will thump them). The most glaring absence from the line-up would have to be Zero-X, which despite being a spinoff from the Thunderbirds are Go! feature film rather than a television series was nevertheless a mainstay strip in TV21 for a number of years and has always been regularly included in reprints throughout the 1990s and 2010s. Again, had the collection been a success maybe Paul Travers and the gang would have appeared in due course – it’s hard to see why they would be left out!
As with the DeAgostini Thunderbirds magazine the Vintage Comics Collection received a limited trial run in only a few places (Southampton and Hampshire are two areas known to have carried it). This is an annoying although not uncommon practice for partworks; trial them in a small area first, see how they sell over half-a-dozen issues, then relaunch the title on a national level or drop the project entirely depending on how well it sold. Sadly, as with the Thunderbirds magazine, this title appears not to have sold well and the trial was suspended after just five issues.
These five issues included;
Volume 1: Thunderbirds – Blazing Danger, Mission to Africa and Talons of the Eagle.
Volume 2: Thunderbirds – Atlantic Tunnel, Solar Danger and The Big Freeze.
Volume 3: Stingray – The Monster Jellyfish, Curse of the Crustavons, The Atlanta Kidnap Affair and The Haunting of Station 17.
Volume 4: Captain Scarlet – We Will Destroy Unity City, We Will Destroy The Observatory Network, We Will Destroy Earth Communications and Secret Mission.
Volume 5: Thunderbirds – Operation Depthprobe, The Trapped Spy, Operation Earthquake, Tracy Island Exposed and The Revolution.
while the unproduced volume 6 would have included the Fireball XL5 strips Attack of the Batmen, The Vengeance of Saharis, and The Astran Assassination.
The first issue is an interesting oddity in this collection, as rather than just reprinting the first three Thunderbirds strip stories Eaglemoss decided to make a few changes to two of them (Blazing Danger and Mission to Africa). The first change is something that occurred pretty regularly when the TV21 strips were being reprinted in the early 1990s, that of colourising pages that had originally been printed in black and white. (For those of you who don’t know, these early Thunderbirds strips featured two full colour pages in the centre of the comic with a third page in black and white, and it’s these third pages that have been specially colourised). Rumour has it that although they were printed in black and white Frank Bellamy’s original artwork for these pages was in colour, but that that artwork has sadly been lost to time.
Whether that’s true or not I don’t know (there was a booklet to accompany the first issue explaining all this in more detail but unfortunately I can’t find mine) but it’s interesting to jump forward to issue four where the black-and-white sections of the Captain Scarlet strips featured there remain monochrome. Either these strips were never originally drawn in colour and thus there was no need to ‘restore’ them, or it was ultimately decided that colourising was just too much trouble. While there are one or two problems with the colourising (usually involving mixups with the Tracy brothers’ sashes) on the whole it was very sympathetically done and a considerable improvement on previous attempts.
The second change is a much more controversial one. Since each chapter of the first two Thunderbirds strip stories ran for three pages (a centre-spread plus a third page) you either have to include an unrelated fourth page before starting the next chapter – or chop the next chapter’s centre-spread in half and begin it on page four, which is the approach Eaglemoss decided to take here.
It’s certainly an interesting experiment, and great care has been taken to move individual panels around the page without compromising the story, but it is…odd. It isn’t immediately obvious that anything is has changed and if you’re not familiar with the strips then chances are you probably won’t notice, but for those of us who’ve grown up with these stories the difference is rather striking.
The remaining four volumes reprinted the strips as we’ve always been familiar with them, often including various TV21 adverts of the time (“at last we’ve brought about world peace thanks to our STINGRAY ARM FINS!”) as well as other extras such as vehicle cutaways, profiles of the characters and a history of TV21 and the people involved in its creation. These features aren’t likely to tell you much you don’t already know, but they’re a nice little bonus and well-presented despite the occasional unfortunate spelling mistake.
Some bonuses were offered to those who took out a subscription to the collection; digital copies of the comics, a Gerry Anderson calendar, replica FAB 1 number plate and diecast models of Stingray, Thunderbird 2 and the SPV. The models in particular are worth mentioning, as they claim to have been specially made for the collection and yet they seem to be nothing more than previously-available models oddly photoshopped onto display stands – particularly noticeable with the SPV, which is shown at a totally different angle to the stand it sits on!
Some goods and bads of this range…
Goods; The fact that they even tried to launch a Gerry Anderson partwork. – why have we never had one, when there’s partworks for pretty much everything else ever? And why is such a vast body of brilliant work so consistently ignored?
The beautiful artwork on the covers of these books are another highlight. Lee Sullivan, probably better known for his Doctor Who work but who also worked on Redan’s Thunderbirds comic back in the early 2000s, provided five beautiful paintings of Stingray, the Thunderbirds and the SPV and Angels in suitably eye-catching action shots. It’s difficult to choose a favourite – volume 5’s Thunderbird 4 cover is stunning, but I can’t help but pick volume 4’s SPV cover as the best! In fact, the books were generally very nicely designed throughout.
Also, despite them ultimately not making any appearance in the range at all, it was nice to see that some rarer strips were planned to be included. UFO and Joe 90 reprints have been all too rare over the years, while as far as I know the Supercar and Space:1999 strips have never been reprinted in the UK at all. It isn’t clear whether the Space:1999 volumes were going to include the American comics or (more likely) just the British ones, but either way they would have made an extremely welcome addition to a lineup that might have felt just a touch too familiar without them. (Really, just how many times can we possibly read The Atlantic Tunnel?)
Oh, and after missing issue nine of the Captain Scarlet comic back in 1993 I’ve at last been able to read the Observatory Network episode I missed that week to finally find out how the good Captain managed to survive throwing himself through an electric fence. Turns out he survived because he’s indestructible. Really should have been able to work that one out for myself…
Bads; although I didn’t have to deal with them myself Eaglemoss received a lot of criticism over their handling of this series. Despite this only being a test publication they had a website up and running taking subscriptions even before issue 1 hit the streets, without any indication when they did so that this was only a trial run – so when it was abruptly cancelled there were quite a few complaints. Apparently their customer service wasn’t anything to shout about either.
The rearranging of the artwork in the first volume may have been a point of contention for some readers, and ultimately…yes, I think they probably should have left well enough alone there. Like I said it was well done, but ultimately unnecessary. Additionally the weekly publication rate may have made the collection prohibitively expensive for some, but I suspect that had this received a nationwide launch then it probably would have been released at a fortnightly rate.
Despite these problems…I would have subscribed to this collection instantly if it had taken off. The tantalising prospect of so many classic stories in one collection, reprinted in original publication order in themed volumes and with rarer material due in later issues…this could have been something very special. It’s long been an (admittedly-daft) ambition of mine to subscribe to a partwork and stick with it right until the end – and, for me at least, this would have been the one. Such a shame it wasn’t to be!
Although these aren’t the easiest titles to track down they’re usually pretty inexpensive when you can find them – for now, at least. I picked up the complete set of five at Andercon 2014 for a very reasonable price, and there were still some for sale at the 2015 event. They also occasionally turn up on ebay and Amazon too, but expect these to become harder to find before too long!