By 1965, Gerry and Sylvia Anderson’s Supermarionation series had become something of a television phenomenon in the U.K., with Supercar, Fireball XL5 and Stingray all proving just as successful when it came to merchandising. This success would lead almost inevitably to a comic, and while TV Comic had run strips based on Anderson shows like Four Feather Falls, Supercar and Fireball XL5 among its other content it was felt that a new comic was needed that approached his shows in a more cohesive and exciting way. In keeping with the Andersons’ aim of not talking down to children, this new comic would be presented as a ‘newspaper of the future’, complete with a tabloid-style front page detailing the latest ‘breaking news’ developments from the storylines within. With Fireball XL5 and Stingray (then currently airing on television) serving as the main ‘star’ colour strips, with monochrome support strips from Supercar and other popular comedy and action series of the day, the stage was set for what would ultimately become one of the most successful British comics of all time – TV Century 21.
First published in January 1965 by City Magazines (and set 100 years into the future) TV Century 21 would feature stunning artwork in its strips by some of the most legendary names in the British comics industry, including Ron Embleton, Frank Bellamy, and Mike Noble. The comic’s striking tabloid front cover instantly made it stand out from the crowd while also giving the impression that the shows spotlighted thereon were all inhabiting the same shared universe, and this was an element the fledgeling comic very quickly embraced. Soon it wasn’t impossible for International Rescue to take a trip to Space City, for W.A.S.P. officers to fall under the control of the Mysterons, or for X-20 to team up with the Hood. On television, the varying proportions of the puppets would have prohibited attempts to crossover the various shows like this, but in a comic where all the characters shared the same realistic style, it was more or less inevitable. Additionally, the enemy nation-state of Bereznik was created to serve as an antagonist role in various stories across many of the series, bringing a further unifying element to the comic.
Thanks to Gerry Anderson’s involvement in its early development and with writer Alan Fennell serving as editor for the first three years of its life the comic also enjoyed a close relationship with the television shows themselves, with many specially created photos being taken of the puppets and models for various features. Even as the first issue hit newsstands Thunderbirds was already in production, and so the comic was in the unique position of being able to tease information about this upcoming mystery show immediately; Lady Penelope debuted in her titular comic strip nine months before she appeared on television, and was so popular she would eventually receive her own girl-oriented comic. Penelope’s departure from TV Century 21 coincided with the arrival of the Thunderbirds on television and in the comic, although details of the show and the International Rescue organisation had been gradually teased for several months before this.
When the Thunderbirds are Go! feature film was released in December 1966 the shared universe continuity that had been so carefully built up over the previous year was stretched to breaking point by the Zero-X, a spacecraft that according to the film was making the first manned mission to Mars…in a universe where Fireball XL5 had routinely been shown flying around all over the place and the Agent 21 strip (based on the adventures of the secret agent who ran the comic’s letters page) had already established that humanity had bases on Mars. Despite this discrepancy, Zero-X and its crew earned themselves a weekly strip in the pages of TV Century 21 that would turn out to be one of the highlights of the comic. That a relatively unsuccessful feature film could produce a strip that endured to the very end of the comic’s run speaks volumes about the quality of the storytelling and artwork it enjoyed, and it still stands as a highlight of the publication.
TV Century 21 was to receive yet another major shakeup in 1967, but as with Thunderbirds the introduction of Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons to the comic was handled gradually. In the months leading up the show’s premiere, the comic made mention of an expedition being mounted to investigate mysterious signals being detected on Mars, as well as teasing sightings of a UFO that would later turn out to be Cloudbase. All became clear in issue 140 with a full expose on the Spectrum organisation, and then issue 141 Captain Scarlet himself arrived on the front cover and in a full-colour comic strip that would initially take over the centre spread from Thunderbirds.
From issue 155 the comic became just TV21, with the tabloid front page dropped to make way for the first page of the Captain Scarlet strip (although it would later return near the end of the comic’s life), and changed names again to TV21 and TV Tornado from issue 192 following a merger with sister comic TV Tornado. Then, in 1968, along came yet another brand new Supermarionation series; Joe 90. Rather than stretch the comic’s already bloated internal continuity to breaking point by attempting to work incorporate a series that clearly wasn’t set in the same time frame as the other Anderson shows the decision was made to give Joe his own comic; Joe 90 Top Secret.
By this time TV21 and TV Tornado itself was also facing dwindling sales; the cancellation of the Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet television series left the comic without a hugely successful (and more importantly current) show to base a strip on, and its identity as a TV-themed comic was fast being lost in favour of football and other sports features. One by one the Anderson strips that had originally been its star attractions began disappearing from the comic; the Fireball XL5 strip was dropped after issue 154, becoming a series of text stories that finally concluded in issue 167 with the destruction of XL5 itself – and Robert too! Stingray (now in black and white since issue 141) drew to a close in issue 189 after a mammoth 34-week story that saw Troy Tempest go on the run after being framed for shooting down an aircraft. The now monochrome Captain Scarlet strip would remain with the comic until its conclusion, as would the full-colour Thunderbirds and Zero-X.
Ultimately the Joe 90 comic failed to find much of an audience, and would only run for 34 issues up to September 1969 when the decision was made to merge TV21 & TV Tornado with Joe 90 Top Secret and relaunch from issue 1 as TV21 & Joe 90 at the end of that month. The only Anderson shows to survive the merger were Joe 90 and Thunderbirds, but both were now in black and white as hot newcomer Star Trek took the centre page colour spread. From issue 37 the Joe 90 strip was gone from the comic (and its title), and with the end of the Thunderbirds strip in issue 38, all connection with the Anderson universe that had first spawned TV21 was finally over. This new incarnation would run for 105 issues before merging yet again, this time with Valiant in September 1971, and the new Valiant and TV21 would last until April 1974 when yet another merger finally lead to the TV21 name being dropped altogether, and thus to the end of an era.
The end of TV21 was by no means the end of Gerry Anderson comics – far from it. As the 1970s dawned readers anxious to enjoy further adventures from their Anderson favourites could find many of the TV21 stalwarts revived in the pages of Countdown comic, launched in 1971, and almost every television series he produced thereafter received the strip treatment in one form or another.
Despite these later publications, TV21 will always stand as a landmark in the history of Gerry Anderson comics, and thankfully its Supermarionation strips have enjoyed a long afterlife including multiple (though not always complete or even consistent) reprints in various forms across the decades. Their legacy will always be one of exciting storytelling and dramatic artwork, allowing fans to see new adventures from their favourite shows in full colour at a time when most were used to only seeing them on black and white televisions, and before they could own the original episodes for themselves. It is, therefore, no surprise that many fans still hold the TV21 adventures of International Rescue, Spectrum and the rest in as high a regard as many of the best episodes of the television series they were based on – and quite rightly so!