Back in the 1970s, before the likes of Action and 2000AD bazooka-ed the British comics-reading consciousness for good, there was a popular weekly that didn’t concern itself with anarchic violence and future shocks. Instead, it peddled a formulaic but successful blend of sports-related adventure strips, gags, posters, quizzes and facts. That comic was Tiger (what a name!) and my pre-Dredd love affair with it began when my Nan’s neighbour gave me an enormous pile of them one summer when I was about 7. As Nemesis the Warlock and the ABC Warriors did later, Tiger strips like Skid Solo and Martin’s Marvellous Mini added a turbo-boosted charge somewhat lacking in current reading like The Beano, Buster and TV Comic.
It’s one of life’s lasting ironies that all kids want to be adults and vice-versa. Tiger straddled this challenge nicely by giving me adventures starring adults that my Dad happened to love reading. We bonded over the weekly quiz and poked fun at some of the daft photos of sporting luminaries on the back pages. Was there really a ‘Your Choice’ picture of John Hollins and Ian Gillard decked out in full QPR kit, sitting on motorbikes and reading their fave comic, Tiger? We’d also have a good old chuckle at the aforementioned Skid Solo strip, where evergreen F1 racing legend Skid Solo (Mrs Solo’s eldest) would tear-up the world’s most exotic racing tracks assisted by his loyal and dextrous crew: an excitable Scot called Sandy McGrath. What tickled us in particular was Sandy’s almost-weekly shout of ‘Hoots mon, ye’ve just broken the world lap record!’
Unashamedly comical was Hot-Shot Hamish, the hilarious and often pathos-strewn tale of a lovable lummox who sported a fierce blonde mullet long before the term was invented. Hamish Balfour played for Princes Park in a jersey five sizes too small and got cramp when he had to sign autographs. His manager, Mr McWhacker, would watch proudly as goalkeepers stood quaking between the posts in anticipation of the famous ‘hot-shot’ – a cannonball blast from Balfour’s boot that could send the goalie into next week’s strip. Aided by his pet ram, McMutton, the unwieldy Hamish wreaked havoc upon his rivals’ nerves until a case of the galloping yips would often send him into a softly-shooting slump.
Like a pre-Viagra loss of libido, a recurrent theme in Tiger was a sudden paralysing loss of ability, inducing a crisis of confidence that ultimately kept our characters both stoic and heroic. One such protagonist, who surely suffered more than all the saints combined, was Billy Dane, star of the excellent, long-running Billy’s Boots. A nice kid with zero talent, Billy lived with his poor, sweet Gran and tortured himself over dreams of sporting excellence. One day he found an old pair of ankle boots in the loft and discovered that they belonged to footie legend ‘Dead-Shot’ Keen. Trying the boots on for size he learned that they made him play exactly like Dead-Shot, leading him intuitively into goal-scoring positions for the school team and, against all odds, right the way up to England Schoolboys. ‘But what will Billy get up to in the summer holidays?’ we cried. ‘Fear not,’ said kindly Uncle Tiger; for once the soccer season ended, a benevolent cobbler gave Billy a pair of old white boots that conveniently belonged to Dead-Shot, who was, you guessed it, also a pretty wicked cricketer in his time.
Off the pitch Billy endured terrible luck and rarely received anything other than a knackered old turnip for Christmas. But on those occasions when the boots hadn’t been burnt, busted or bunged into a river by bullies, he ruled the football field like no other. Well, apart from Roy of the Rovers and ‘Nipper’ Lawrence, Tiger’s other great football strips of that era.
Generally, Tiger’s art was super-dynamic and made a feature of striking covers that burst brazenly from beneath the classic yellow logo. I marvelled at the discipline of those artists who produced such fine work on the same strips for so many years. For a long time my favourite was Sandy James, the artist on Johnny Cougar, who had a very clean, slick style – heavy on dazzling character portraits that practically leapt from the frame. ‘The Redskin Wrestler with the iron grip’ was a grim-faced hunk in a headband who terrorised wrestling rings whilst getting into all manner of fantastical scrapes. Aided (or jaded, as was often the case) by his crusty sidekick Splash Gorton, a beatnik with a pet penguin called Ice Chick, Johnny would fight anyone: wrestlers, crooks and even robots. The ‘injun matman’ had a neat line in lingo, usually think-bubbling ‘By Manitou!’ or ‘Wah! Heap big problem for Cougar!’ as an unscrupulous adversary sat on his larynx. Best of all, whilst deftly chuzzing an opponent out of the ring, was the lofty assertion: ‘Hookhai! The Cougar strikes!’ Once, when challenged to fight in a ring suspended perilously between two cliffs, Johnny fell to his apparent death. Cracking his bonce on the riverbed he then lost his memory and reinvented himself as a Country and Western superstar called Whistlin’ Kid Crawfish. Actually the last bit didn’t happen but it might have been a whole load more believable than my favourite ever Cougar tale where he battled against a fearsome opponent called Grarg. Bitch-slapped and humiliated by the taciturn foe, Johnny smelt a rat and did the decent thing by following Grarg to his lair, a remote castle complete with laboratory, where the reason for Johnny’s demise is breathtakingly revealed: Grarg is actually a robot! This strip really sealed the deal for me when I received that mighty Tiger-pile and I continued reading for long after.
In fact it only dawned on me recently that I stopped buying Tiger when my parents divorced and I went to live with my mum. Was it a coincidence that I pulled the plug on it once my Tiger-loving father wasn’t around as much? Well, not really. The truth is, by then Tiger had been wholly replaced by the thrill-powered 2000AD in my affections. I only continued buying it through sheer loyalty to the once-exhilarating publication that accompanied me through all those golden 70s summers of sport. Times had changed and by the 80s Tiger was slowly faltering. There were only so many stories where Skid could break another lap record or Billy Dane could utter, ‘Crumbs! I wonder where the old boots are taking me now?’’ I vividly remember my heart sinking one week when I saw Big Daddy lurching from the cover like a fat, sequinned zombie. Grarg the robot had been replaced with a real-life showbiz wrestler and the end was surely nigh. And so it was that in 1985, after starting in 1954 and roaring for an astonishing 1,555 issues, the once-mighty Tiger was finally swallowed by a revamped Eagle.
This article first appeared in the ‘Brits on Top’ series for the Broken Frontier comics website http://www.brokenfrontier.com/