TREASURY OF BRITISH COMICS WEEK! When a character’s first appearance was in a publication titled The Halfpenny Marvel you can be fairly sure they have had a long and rich history. Detective Sexton Blake first appeared in 1893 in a story by Hal Meredeth, just a few short years after Sherlock Holmes’ debut. His prose adventures would continue for decades, with Blake appearing in thousands of stories by over 200 creators in that time. The character was phenomenally popular in his heyday, spinning off into film, television, radio and comics adaptations. But in recent years he has faded from memory, remembered largely by dedicated enthusiasts only, his place in pulp detective fiction mostly lost to the mists of time.
At the end of 2020, though, Rebellion included a Blake entry in their annual line-up of Specials. The Return of Sexton Blake tied into their new range of reprinted Blake novels with a mix of classic and all-new comic strips, articles on Blake history, and some vintage prose fiction. It was a slickly presented package that was also nominated in the 2020 Broken Frontier Awards in the ‘Best One-Shot Anthology’ category.
The text pieces presented in The Return of Sexton Blake give context and provide an accessible entry point to the detective’s world. Mark Hodder looks back on Blake’s publishing history and the artists who illustrated his stories while Karl Stock looks at Rebellion’s contemporary approach to the character. There’s also an intriguing piece by Stock exploring the mystery behind Blake’s last comics incarnation in late 1970s British weekly Tornado where worries over rights resulted in the character being renamed Victor Drago at the last minute.
That reprinted Victor Drago strip is the highlight of the Special (with necessary changes made to give Blake his identity back again). Written by Chris Lowder (as Bill Henry) and illustrated by Mike Dorey, ‘The Terror of Troll island’ sees Sexton Blake and his assistant Tinker investigating a mystery at the remote mansion of an eccentric novelist. There a crossbow-wielding killer is stalking both him and his team of ghost writers. Lowder’s tale is full of twists and turns, a cast of colourfully idiosyncratic suspects, and plenty of cracking cliffhangers that would have hooked its young weekly readership’s imaginations in its original weekly incremental delivery.
Mike Dorey’s moody, atmospheric art, full of brooding menace and captivating use of shadow is the true star here though. The short-lived Tornado has never had much in the way of retrospective respect but its much-maligned reputation has never been a fair one. ‘The Terror of Troll Island’ is a fine example of how effective serialised comics of the day could be in capturing their audience’s imaginations and keeping them guessing for the seven days between instalments. Older readers may be disappointed that the opportunity was missed to include other Victor Drago material from the time but this nine-parter is far and away the pick of that output.
The new strip ‘The Death and Life of Sexton Blake’ is a short story by writer George Mann and artist Jimmy Broxton which begins at Blake’s funeral. Of course not everything is as it seems and the great detective’s legacy is about to be revealed in a frantic tale of car chases, rooftop pursuits and fisticuffs. With just 10 pages to play with Mann sets up and resolves a shorthand mystery with relish and efficiency, while Broxton’s period visuals and the sepia colouring gives the story a truly vintage feel.
The Return of Sexton Blake works as both introduction to the character for new readers and celebration of his history for the long-term fans. On the strength of the new material herein it is certainly to be hoped that Rebellion’s interest in the character will extend to further comics outings in the future to complement the novel range.
Chris Lowder/Bill Henry, George Mann (W), Mike Dorey, Jimmy Broxton (A) Rebellion/Treasury of British Comics, £7.99
Review by Andy Oliver