A Classic Detective With A Taste For Adventure
Tripwire’s contributing writer Tim Hayes casts his eye over Rebellion’s The Return Of Sexton Blake…
The Return of Sexton Blake
Writers: Chris Lowder, George Mann, E Sempill, WW Sayer
Artists: Mike Dorey, Jimmy Broxton
When Rebellion finished buying up the old IPC archives in 2018, some of its acquisitions had a presence that went beyond comics. Sexton Blake, the detective character created in 1893 with a fairly clear visual debt to Sherlock Holmes but a more freewheeling taste for adventure and a greater willingness to throw a right hook, was one of those properties. Along with a multitude of pulp prose stories over many decades, Blake had also branched out into comics, eventually concluding his adventures under IPC’s control in 1979, itself coming shortly after one of the character’s occasional reappearances on TV via the BBC. This multimedia presence has given Rebellion the chance to do something out of the ordinary with The Return of Sexton Blake, a one-shot in the Treasury of British Comics series which collects one of the character’s most recent comics adventures from the archives and puts it alongside a newly commissioned strip, plus some text articles digging into the character’s background. It also includes a couple of the original prose short stories, from 1908 and 1925, to show where it all began and to tie in with the reprints of those stories which Rebellion’s book publishing arm has been putting out since earlier this year.
The reprinted comic, Sexton Blake and the Terror of Troll Island, ran in the launch issues of Tornado in 1979. Except it didn’t. A last-minute editorial concern about publishing rights led to the character being rechristened “Victor Drago” and the lettering altered accordingly throughout. By now reprinting the story as originally intended, Rebellion puts right one small but notable case of mistaken identity in the British industry’s history books. Written by Chris Lowder and set in 1929, the story has Blake and his assistant Tinker pulled into a murder mystery in an isolated mansion on a stormy night, a sequence of deceptions and threats that the pistol-packing Blake solves with his fists as much as his brains. The art is by Mike Dorey, whose heavily inked panels, looming black shadows and aggressive figures are ideal for the nocturnal atmosphere of the story and the constant threat of violence hanging around Blake himself, a dangerous man in a dangerous place.
The new, and briefer, strip is by George Mann and Jimmy Broxton and set further back in 1923, although the modernity of those two creators inevitably makes the story seem distinctly more ironic and up to date. A flashback structure offers up glimpses of Blake’s high-wire adventures and flamboyant casts – “Remain perfectly still Your Highness,” says Blake to naked man glimpsed for two panels tied to a bomb – and Broxton is a fitting choice as artist, already using his own textured style to create a more supernatural flavour of period menace in the 2000AD strip Hope, along with a proven taste for off-kilter history in the 1960s pastiche Goldtiger. Mann ends the story by having Blake drive off urgently on the trail of his next adversary, the approved exit for pulp-adjacent heroes from Sherlock Holmes to Doc Savage.
Alongside these two comic strips and the text stories, The Return of Sexton Blake includes articles by Mike Hodder, the editor of Rebellion’s Sexton Blake prose reprints, outlining the character’s origins and publishing history, putting Rebellion’s acquired property into its historical context in a way that previous Treasury of British Comics reprints have not on the whole attempted. There’s no shortage of territory to play with in Sexton Blake’s nearly 130 years of appearances, and for sure Rebellion spotted the chance for cross-promotion between readers of its prose books and its comics collections, where comfortable overlaps don’t always present themselves; but this particular corner of IPC’s heritage benefits from pulling its broader history into focus and showing what foundations the fine Mike Dorey artwork was building on.
The Return of Sexton Blake is out in newsagents now and comic shops from December