The Rise & Fall of TV21’s Sensationalist, Videcolor Covers

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One of the many enthralling, colourful covers of TV21 from its early days.

It’s quite easy nowadays to take for granted the precise, individual reasons why TV21 was such a popular read throughout the 1960s. A mixture of wide-eyed art and action-driven story-telling cemented TV21’s appeal in the minds of young readers, but what drew them into the comic’s stories in the first place was its exaggerated, sensationalist covers.

Tomorrow’s News Today

Stylised as a newspaper of the future, these front covers forged the shared continuity between the Anderson-themed strips found inside each issue. Dramatic, pulsing headlines condensed the action of the lead story inside each issue, with the copy highlighting the daring feats these Supermarionation heroes would undertake on a daily basis. They presented these stories in the present tense, as if these adventures were happening right now, adding to the sense of tangible excitement these covers were able to conjure.

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#52 introduces Thunderbirds, nearly four months after it premiered on TV.

Beyond such thrills and spills, the headlines would then be illustrated with full-colour photographs of the craft which the story was about, either original photos set-up exclusively for the comic or stills taken from the various TV shows themselves. This is the more under-appreciated aspect of TV21’s popularity, because these colour photographs adorning each issue’s cover marked the first time many fans would have seen the likes of Fireball XL5, Stingray and Thunderbirds in colour. To that extent then, it didn’t matter if eagle-eyed viewers could spot the difference between an original photo and a still taken from a TV episode. At long last, they were witnessing these shows as nature intended. Their intrigue ignited, the contents of the comic itself would send their imaginations skyrocketing.

“…With Gerry Anderson’s Captain Scarlet”

TV21 actively avoided genuine illustrations from its artists on its covers until Captain Scarlet came along. In the run-up to Captain Scarlet’s September 1967 premier, TV21 was in full marketing mode (an area we’ll explore in a later article), with front covers drip-feeding information to readers about a secretive mission to Mars, undertaken by an agent called Captain Black, whilst additional information was revealed about a handful of unknown fighter jets and a colossal aircraft carrier being spotted in the skies. Once Captain Scarlet premiered on TV, it would bring an immense and palpable shift to the already visually thrilling front covers of TV21.

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#155 of TV21, in which the strip itself formed part of the front cover.

Relying far less on filling out page space with colourful photographs, the front cover itself would now form part of Captain Scarlet’s ongoing strip. Photographs would still occasionally adorn these covers, but the new visual identity TV21 had created with the arrival of Captain Scarlet would now be sealed. When photographs would appear, they’d be exclusively of characters and mecha from Captain Scarlet, barring issue #177, which featured a dramatic shot of Thunderbird 2 relating to the then ongoing Thunderbirds story. The integration of photographs to set the tone for the strip itself, all on the same page, was a relatively seamless one.

Additionally, the shift to the front page being made up almost exclusively of comic strips made TV21 all the more valuable an item to buy. The photographs of the past would go onto have long and varied carries as interior/exterior covers for other Century 21 merchandise, but with this focus on the strip itself on the cover, readers were now picking up something truly unique. Only in the Captain Scarlet-led TV21 would you find these magnificent, evocative artwork that continued to free itself from the strings of Supermarionation. Amidst all of this change, the very name of the comic would shrink from TV Century 21 to TV21, which the comic nowadays is more commonly referred to as. The change in name altered the name’s appearance on the comic as well, removing the yellow-lettering, the distinct red arrow beneath the title, and the cosmic backdrop in favour of a more stripped back approach that allowed for more fluid alterations to suit the needs of the cover’s comic strip.

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#215 of TV21 would be the last to feature an original illustration.

The End of an Era

As the years wore by, Captain Scarlet’s cover star stance remained fairly constant during its two-year run in the comic. However, it wouldn’t last. From #215, in March 1969, an unpredictable mish-mash of photographs would be used to adorn TV21’s front covers. Covers would veer from relatively eye-catching photographs depicting anything from Thunderbirds to Captain Scarlet and Zero-X in action to dispensing with sci-fi content entirely, and focusing instead on football stars. This was somewhat foreshadowed with issue #192 (also when TV21 merged with TV Tornado), which came packaged with several free collectable cards of footballers. The foreshadowing was even less subtle between issues #194 and #195, which featured a football-themed Scarlet strip. Needless to say, these are not the most well-remembered covers the comic ever produced!

When looking at these covers compared to the far earlier ones, there’s a sense that the enthusiasm for producing the comic was beginning to wane. This is evident in the Anderson-themed photographs themselves. No longer taken from original photoshoots set up for publicity purposes, but now taken from standard promotional shoots or production stills from TV episodes themselves. #218 brought with it another adjustment of the logo, with the TV21 & TV Tornado logo now placed against a backdrop cribbed from the Century 21 sting that was opening Anderson TV and film productions at the time. The addition of the subtitle “First With The Space and Spy News!” feels like a throwback to earlier glories, and a desperate plea to readers that, despite the growing presence of non-sci-fi content, this was still the TV21 they knew and loved.

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The bland, unceremonious cover of #242, the final issue before the comic relaunched as TV21 & Joe 90.

Adding to this, TV21 neared its end when the decision was made to close down Century 21 Publishing by mid-1969. The last handful of TV21’s covers are abysmally lacklustre, often consisting of a sole image blown-up to encompass the whole page, to the point where barely any text was readable or, even worse, not included at all. After #242, TV21 would merge with Joe 90, and regain some of the visual enthusiasm that had inspired so many readers to pick up a copy in the first place. The first few issues were devoted, once again, to football, however the comic would go on to feature gorgeously crafted illustrations of Thunderbirds, and a Mike Noble-drawn Star Trek strip would also gain front cover status, injecting a bit of spark into things.

However, the eye-popping, quasi-newspaper nature of those first #242 issues, from TV Century 21 to TV21 and TV21 & TV Tornado, remain kinetic, potent and vastly enjoyable to watch unfold. Photos were rarely repeated twice on the cover, meaning that readers were wrapped in suspense as to what 21st century blitzkriegs would leap off of the cover of each issue.

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