TV Century 21 (later just TV21) was first published in 1965 and quickly became one of the most successful British comics of all time, achieving record sales that remain unbroken to this day. One of the reasons for this success was in no small part down to an ingenious idea that reportedly came from Gerry Anderson himself; that of presenting the comic as if it were a tabloid newspaper from one hundred years the future, with headlines and bylines relating to the Anderson-related strips within. That in turn gave the impression that the events being reported all took place within the same fictional universe, and slowly but surely TV21 began to embrace that notion and all of the storytelling possibilities it provided. Although the comic included many strips based on non-Anderson series it was the Stingray and Fireball XL5 strips that were the mainstays of the initial issues, with Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet eventually joining the ranks too.
Combining all the various Anderson series into one cohesive universe was not something that had ever really been attempted on television (and probably wouldn’t have worked even if they’d tried) but somehow in the comic it made sense. If Steve Zodiac needed help tracking down underwater criminals he could call Troy Tempest and Stingray for help, and if Captain Scarlet was trapped on a rocket heading out into space who better to recover him than a fleet of Fireball XL ships? It wasn’t something that happened every issue or even every story but it was a regular enough occurrence and it added an enormous amount of charm to the comic.
This shared-universe style of storytelling occasionally made certain Anderson series as presented in TV21 feel somewhat different from their TV counterparts; Fireball XL5 often becomes much more compelling and exciting in comic form, at times feeling much closer in tone to the later Captain Scarlet series. At the other end of the Spectrum (sorry) the Thunderbirds strip would often go completely off the deep end and give us stories involving giant rampaging space monsters, time machines and armies of robot penguins that cried “WEEEEE-AINGGGG!!!” when they exploded (because of course they exploded) – all things that could never have appeared on television and would have felt totally out of place if they had, but which certainly have to be commended for their imagination nonetheless.
The runaway success of TV21 in the 1960s made plundering its archives for material to reprint in later Anderson-related comics not only logical but also cost-effective, with many of the more popular TV21 strips being reprinted regularly over the subsequent decades – most notably the Fleetway comics of the 1990s. Most of these titles were squarely aimed at children, but it wasn’t until the beginning of the twenty-first century that any publisher realised that this material might just have appeal for adults as well as children – and began to re-release this material for a more adult audience. Since then, most of the reprints of TV21 and other Anderson comic material have been aimed squarely at the collectors market.
In 2002 the first hardback book featuring reprints of TV21 stories was published in the form of Thunderbirds – Classic Comic Strips compiled by Graham Bleathman and Sam Denham. This 160-page collection showcased three Lady Penelope stories and four Thunderbirds stories alongside TV21–style mock newspaper covers, cutaways and original adverts. It was a nice way to get some of this material back on shelves, but sadly no further volumes were forthcoming and it would be another eight years before anyone would try publishing anything similar.
In the late 2000s, along came Reynolds and Hearn (a company well known for producing high quality TV and film-related books) with a plan to reprint collected volumes TV21 strips under the title of Century 21. Six Gerry Anderson titles would regularly appear in these books; Thunderbirds, Stingray, Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons, Fireball XL5, Zero-X and UFO (which appeared in later comic Countdown rather than TV21). Oddly Joe 90 and The Secret Service, both of which had strips published during the same era, never made an appearance in these books, and only two Lady Penelope stories were to be included.
The first two volumes (Adventure in the 21st Century and Invasion in the 21st Century) were published simultaneously in 2009 in both paperback and hardcover, and the third (Escape from Aquatraz) appeared later that year. As the titles suggest each volume collected strips from across the Anderson universe relating to a particular theme – so for instance Invasion in the 21st Century featured invasion and takeover stories. This approach usually ensured that each series would be represented equally in each book, though occasionally one would get less of a look in; the volumes dealing with space-related shenanigans were usually light on Stingray stories, for instance. Some well-written introductions from compiler Chris Bentley also shed some light on the history of the comic itself and the people involved, providing an informative history of the behind-the-scenes stories of TV21.
Volume 4 (Above and Beyond) was published in early 2010, and two further Century 21 collections were announced for that year; an annual in time for Christmas (exact contents unknown, although tantalisingly the cover promised that Supercar, a series which never appeared in the regular volumes, would be included) and a fifth volume of reprints entitled They Walk Among Us. Sadly Reynolds and Hearn soon got into difficulties and the company dissolved, with these two titles never seeing the light of day.
That might have been the end for the Century 21 reprint series, but a fifth and final volume in the collection did arrive in late 2011 when Menace from Space (curiously featuring no volume number despite obviously being part of the same series) was published by Signum Books in hardback only. It isn’t clear whether this collection is the originally-planned They Walk Among Us with a new title and cover art, although the background illustration on the They Walk Among Us cover comes from a Thunderbirds strip that does appear in Menace from Space so it’s quite possible that that is the case.
Menace from Space continued the lavish high standard of the previous volumes, but sadly there were to be no more titles in the series. It isn’t clear exactly what happened behind-the-scenes to bring the range to a halt, especially since all involved with these books were committed to reproducing this classic material in a higher standard than ever seen before or since, but it seems to have been down to simple bad luck on the publishing front rather than poor sales.
Some positive and negative aspects of this range;
Positives – wherever possible the stories were scanned directly from the original artwork rather than copies of the comics themselves, allowing finer detail and more vivid colours as well as some lovely enlargements of individual frames and panels used in the introductions and back covers of each volume. That, plus the quality of the paper used, means that on the whole the strips look better here than in any other reprint series. The variety of the Anderson shows and stories featured was another bonus – it wasn’t just the early Thunderbirds stories being reprinted for the umpteenth time!
Negatives – the random selection of the stories included in these volumes meant that after a while it became difficult to find your favourites! Above and Beyond also seems to have been printed on thinner paper than usual, so the book feels much flimsier as a result. Just the fact that they ended (with several planned titles unreleased) is the biggest negative of all!
Despite the collapse of Reynolds and Hearn these books are still relatively easy to get hold of considering their age, although some are harder to find than others and you may be looking at pay twice the original cover price for a copy today. However, they’re an extremely well-presented look back at one of the major success stories of the golden age of British comics, so if you have even a passing interest in these series or fond memories of the comics they’re all well worth picking up!
Next time; Eaglemoss picks up the Gerry Anderson comics reprinting baton, for an ill-fated partwork collection…