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Explorers On The Moon:

Nemo, Tintin, Jeff Hawke & Sky Masters

Forty years ago last Monday, on July 20th 1969, mankind first stepped foot on the Moon. But comics had got there long before Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin took that “one small step”. One of the most famous to do so was Tintin. My first exposure to Hergé‘s quiffed hero was not the books, but the serialised animated adaptations from Belvision. And the story that gripped me and my brother right away, shown on BBC1 in the mid-Sixties, was Destination Moon and Explorers on the Moon. Tintin’s thoroughly convincing moon mission, based on Hergé consultations with experts on the latest scientific research, originally ran in Tintin Magazine in French between 1950 and 1953. They were published by Casterman in two albums in 1953 and 1954 and both were later translated into English by Methuen in 1959.

I particularly like the cover above, showing America’s astronauts being welcomed by Tintin, Snowy, Haddock and Calculus who preceded Armstrong and Aldrin by years. Its title, translated as They Walked On The Moon, harks back to the French title of the second book. This interesting 1985 Casterman book in French combined a short documentary comic about the Apollo missions with a survey comparing the real mission with Hergé earlier speculative representations.

Long before 1969, there have been numerous other examples of comics characters landing on the moon, such as Little Nemo in this eighth episode dated Sunday December 3rd 1905 from the glorious, super-sized Sunday Press Books 2005 collection So Many Sundays.

But surely one of the most uncanny instances, as covered in my book Great British Comics, must be the prediction in the British science fiction newspaper strip Jeff Hawke by Willie Patterson and Sydney Jordan of the actual date of the eventual real-life lunar landing to within a couple of weeks. Jordan later recalled, “To come within fourteen days of the event from ten years previously was a happy chance, but my choice of the year 1969 was based on my knowledge and understanding of the potential of American and German spaceflight engineering.”

“On August fourth, Earth year nineteen hundred sixty-nine, the first being set foot on the moon at this point. His name was Homo Sapiens.”
Jeff Hawke, published 21 November 1959

Before Armstrong and Aldrin, one adventurous astronaut who got to the moon in American newspaper strips was Sky Masters. When their mission to orbit the moon went wrong, he and his crew had no choice but to attempt a landing. They touched down in the Sunday page dated May 17th 1959. The following Sunday saw them walking on the moon. Their first words as they step onto the surface were not historic or heard back home. Sky asks, “Any comments?” to which a stunned crew member replies, “I - I can’t find words, Sky…”. Sky snaps back, reminding of them of their predicament: “Well, I’ve got something to say! We’re not here to waste time, food or oxygen! For us, it’s ‘condition red’ all the way! Until relief arrives, our primary job is survival!” So how did this little-known, superbly crafted space-race thriller get off the ground?

It’s like one of those classic ‘Imaginary Stories’. Just imagine how different comics history might have been, if Jack Kirby had not jumped ship to struggling underdog publishers Atlas in 1959, blasting off the Marvel Age of Comics two years later with Stan Lee on the Fantastic Four. Kirby’s career, and the evolution of comic books, might have taken a very different path, had he stayed on at DC Comics (then National Periodical Publications), where he had been working again since 1957. Maybe he would have stayed on his creation, the adventure team Challengers Of The Unknown, and unveiled further characters in Showcase - perhaps updating his and Joe Simon’s Sandman or Manhunter or unleashing his own versions of Thor or Ant-Man for DC? But as Simon recalls in his Comic Book Makers memoir, "Kirby wouldn’t or couldn’t return to DC comics", and the Sky Masters newspaper strip was the reason why.

In January 1958, only a few months after the Russian launch of the Sputnik satellite, DC’s managing editor Jack Schiff had been approached by the George Matthew Adams Service, a newspaper syndicate, to dream up a serial strip that could tap into the public’s new interest in the space race. Science fiction was now becoming science fact; Schiff knew they didn’t want Buck Rogers fantasy. Permitted to develop the concept outside of DC, he sounded out freelancers Jack Kirby and his Challengers collaborators, the Wood brothers Dick and Dave - as writers, and Wally Wood, no relation, as inker. They ran with the idea and sold the Sky Masters strip, agreeing a percentage for Schiff for arranging the deal. Unfortunately, disputes between Schiff and Kirby and the Wood brothers over the terms of this cut escalated into lawsuits, culminating in a decision in the New York Supreme Court in December 1959 in Schiff’s favour. Kirby had to pay up. With Schiff still at DC, how could Kirby work there again? It would not be until 1970, after Schiff had left, that Kirby came back to DC.

Through all the legal wrangles and hard feelings, Sky Masters ended up as Kirby’s only sustained and successful newspaper strip, running in apparently over 300 papers, from September 8th 1958 to February 25th 1961. Greg Theakston has painstakingly compiled for the first time all 773 dailies and 53 Sunday pages into one volume. Thanks to Wood’s trademark rocket interiors, letratoned starscapes amd moody spotting of blacks, the Kirby-Wood art team never looked better. After Wood’s departure, Kirby inked himself before being joined by Dick Ayers.

A time capsule rooted in the late Fifties, the Sky Masters stories, eleven daily and five Sunday, avoid the bug-eyed monsters of space opera and focus instead on the thrills and plausible problems, technological and human, of exploring space. Those pesky Reds get mentioned a few times, but the strip is surprisingly restrained in its Commie-bashing. Engaging themes include the psychological strains of space travel, radio messages from extraterrestrials, man’s first moon landing and space station, the sassy Mayday Shannon, first woman in space, even ‘atom horses’ to chase meteors and a runaway lunar construction robot.

The wackiest tale must be about an astronaut whose personality is taken over by a London conman, Alfie, down to a Cockney accent, whenever his orbit crosses England. In one of the less convincing pieces of technobabble, it is explained that the two men share identical body chemistry and that ‘the cosmic radiation belts that Lt. Marek orbited through somehow smelted their bodily chemistry into a mental and physical union between the two men’. Right…

This is prime Kirby drawing for an adult newspaper readership, trying to break away from the declining comic book market, finally fulfilling an early ambition of his to helm his own syndicated strip, crafting some of the finest science fiction/science fact comics ever. Highly recommended.

Posted: July 26, 2009

Part of this article orginally appeared in 2003 in Comics Forum.

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