TORNADO: SEXTON BLAKE'S LAST GASP
by Mark Hodder
An offshoot of 2000AD comic, TORNADO appeared in 1979 and ran for 22 issues. Upon opening the cover of number 1, readers were confronted by this face:
It was, they quickly learned, Victor Drago: "A name that struck terror into the most hardened of evil-doers — from the slums of London's East End to the teeming waterfronts of Shanghai, Drago was the private detective who never gave up a case — often succeeding where the toughest policemen failed!"
But anyone with a discerning eye could see that this was, in fact, Sexton Blake. So what happened to turn him into Victor Drago? Some commentators have suggested that the editors had, at the last moment, come to the conclusion that Blake was too old-fashioned for a 2000AD-related title. But the truth is that a copyright problem had arisen after it was discovered that Fleetway had inadvertently signed away the rights to produce new Blake material (this occurred in relation to ITV's Sexton Blake television series in the 1960s). There was no choice: they had to alter the name.
For Sexton Blake fans, though, 'Victor Drago' is simply a pseudonym ... and these comic strips represent the great detective's last gasp: a final blast of glory courtesy of writer Bill Henry (aka Jack Adrian) and artist Mike Dorey. After this, for Sexton Blake, the printing presses ground to a halt.
Notes: London, February 1929, and a gang of villains are rowing across the river, transporting a crate. But when they reach dry land, they find Victor Drago waiting. They attack but are set upon by Drago's assistants Spencer and Brutus the bloodhound; thinly disguised versions of Tinker and Pedro. Once the gang is rounded up, the police arrive, led by Detective-Inspector Carter, who looks identical to Sexton Blake's friend, Detective-Inspector Coutts. Carter breaks open the crate and finds that it is filled with dope. Drago, Spencer and Brutus return to their Baker Street headquarters where they receive a telephone call; a man named Moffat pleads for them to come to Troll Island, off the coast of Cornwall. Before the caller can explain further, he is cut off. The next panel reveals that this is a trap. The detective duo begin their journey to the South West is Drago's Rolls Royce, the Silver Lady. Just four panels later, this vehicle is referred to as the Grey Panther, which, of course, is the name of Sexton Blake's Rolls. Just in case there's any lingering doubt that this strip was originally intended to be about Blake, the car's number plate is SB 192. They reach the island in a thick fog. As they drive across the causeway, a figure stumbles into view and collapses: he has been shot with a crossbow!
Notes: The dead man is Moffat. As Drago and Spencer drive forward in search of the killer, the man they are after creeps out of the fog behind them and throws Moffat's corpse into the sea. Meanwhile, the detective duo reach the house of Edgar Hollis, an eccentric thriller-writer who is famous for losing a fortune gambling on horses (just like Edgar Wallis). Hollis has two servants, named Lofts and Adley (a reference to Blake scholars W. O. G. Lofts and D. J. Adley). He denies any knowledge of Moffat but invites Drago and Spencer to join his house party and continue their investigations there. Hollis reveals that he doesn't write his own stories; his party is made up from his team of six ghost writers - one of whom is named Jack Hamilton Teed (after Blake writer G. H. Teed). The butler, Adley, secretly warns Drago that the group plans to murder him.
Drago and Spencer follow Adley down to the cellars to learn more. But, while there, a crossbow is fired from the shadows at the top of some stairs. The detective duo chase the killer through a warren of dark passages but lose his trail. When they return to Adley, they find the butler dead. The party guests are informed of the murder and one of them, Kevin Minelli, spots the crossbow lying on a box in the garden. He hurries out to fetch it but it is booby-trapped; when he picks it up, the box explodes, killing him instantly.
Notes: Drago decides that it's time the police were called but when he picks up the telephone he finds that the lines have been cut. He and Spencer try to leave in their car but nails have been placed on the causeway and their Rolls Royce suffers two punctured front tyres. With a storm raging, walking across the causeway is out of the question. They walk back to the house. As they reach it, a large stone ornament is pushed from the roof, narrowly missing the detective. They rush up to the top floor where they find a secret panel leading to a warren of secret passages. In one, embedded in the wall, there is a television (which, this being 1929, Spencer doesn't recognise - Drago has to explain what it is). On it, they watch as Sydney Golt, Hollis's secretary, is murdered. Then the floor opens and Drago and his assistant plummet into darkness.
Notes: Victor Drago and Spencer fall through the trap door into an icy underground stream which they follow out onto the storm-lashed coast. They see the body of Moffat on the rocks. Returning to Hollis's mansion, they start to search the library for the television transmitter. Lofts trieds to stop them but Drago fights him off. Later, the servant informs the investigator that Hollis would like to see him in his rooms. Drago goes up to the chamber but finds it empty. He spots a note on Hollis's typewriter... it tells him that a crossbow bolt is aimed at his head and he has three seconds to live.
Notes: Spencer arrives just in time to save his guv'nor's life and the two men follow the killer who locks himself in a room. Drago shoots the lock, they enter, and inside find Edgar Hollis, crossbow in hand. The famous author claims not to have known it was Drago he was aiming at and warns the detective, advising him to escape by air. He then passes out. The Butler, Lofts, reveals that there is a small airstrip on the island and a plane in Hollis's hanger. Blake tells the guests that he is going to take the plane and fly to the mainland for the police. But this is merely a lure to tempt the real killer out of hiding. He and Spencer head for the airstrip, only to find that someone is already leaving in the plane.
Notes:For the one and only time, Victor Drago features on the cover of TORNADO. Racing to catch the plane, the detective leaps onto the wing. The aircraft takes off but with the extra weight, the pilot cannot maintain control and crashes. Drago escapes without injury but the pilot is dead; the body is that of Sidney Golt, Hollis's secretary. His apparent death on TV had been a fake. Returning to the house, Drago reveals to Lofts that he knows the butler is actually a bodyguard and that neither he nor Hollis are responsible for the murders. Hollis, in fact, was being set up to be framed for killing Drago. The four remaining writers are the villains, and now they hold the detective at gunpoint. Together, Drago and Spencer overcome their opponents in a savage fist-fight and, when the storm finally clears, the police arrive to take the men into custody. "The idea of framing a crime writer with his own crimes was an ingenious one," says Drago... ...
With the end of the seven-part serial TERROR OF TROLL ISLAND, the Victor Drago series took off in a new direction in TORNADO issue 8. Replacing the comic strip, readers were treated to part 1 of an illustrated prose story entitled VICTOR DRAGO AND THE FLASK OF DOOM. This was almost a return to the Sexton Blake stories of old.
Notes: A terrified man — Chalky White — deposits a parcel at a railway station's lost luggage counter. Receiving a ticket in return, he posts it to Victor Drago of Baker street. Boarding a train just as it slides out of the station, he relaxes in an empty compartment. Suddenly, the door slides open and three men enter. They have been watching him and now want to know who he posted the envelop to — even if it means beating him half to death. The next morning, Drago receives the ticket and sends Spencer to the station to collect the mysterious parcel. Laying it on his desk, the detective carefully opens it and finds a vacuum flask inside. He unscrews the lid. Inside, packed in ice, there is a dead rat. Drago tells Spencer to make himself scarce then carries the dead rodent into his laboratory where he starts to perform an autopsy. What he finds shocks him to the core — but, before he can act on it a gunman enters the lab and informs Drago that he is about to be shot dead.
Notes: The thug facing Drago informs him that he had beaten the detective's address out of Chalky White. Seizing his opportunity, Drago disarms the man but two more of the gang are behind him and they knock him unconscious. They hide a time bomb under a sink and leave, believing the police will blame the explosion on an experiment gone wrong. A few moments later Spencer returns and finds his guv'nor recovering consciousness. Drago hears ticking. The two men run out of the room in the nick of time; the bomb explodes behind them. The villains, witnessing the blast, make off in their car. the detective and his assistant race to their own vehicle to follow.
Notes: Drago and Spencer follow the car out into the countryside, to a lonely barn-like building beside an estuary where a cargo ship lies at anchor. The detective watches as bulging sacks are unloaded from the vessel. Through binoculars, he lip reads as a bearded man meets the villains and asks whether they successfully killed Drago. They answer in the affirmative and all the men return to the ship. Drago and Spencer investigate the barn. He finds the sacks are full of rice &mdash infected with bubonic plague, as the rat had been! Spencer goes to call Detective-Inspector Carter. While Drago waits, a convoy of lorries arives. The detectivve confronts the gang and, in the ensuing struggle, he throws an oil lamp onto the sacks. They promptly turn into a raging inferno. Carter arrives in time to take the gang into custody.
In issue 11, a new illustrated prose story begins; this one with a horror/Egyptian theme.
Notes: A terror-stricken old man rushes out of a doorway into the path of Victor Drago's car. Narrowly avoiding an accident, the detective leaps out to go to the aid of the man, who has fallen and knocked himself out. The doorway belongs to the old city museum and from it comes Forbes, the curator. He tells Drago that the exhibits are currently being packed ready for a move, as the building is due to be demolished. The stricken man — Simpson — had been working in a store room. Forbes heard him scream then saw him flee from the building. Simpson recovers and claims to have seen Ramtoth, a mummy, roaming the museum. Spencer calls for a doctor then joins his guv'nor in the building. They go to the room where Simpson had been working and there see the mummy in its sarcophagus. Suddenly the lights fail and Drago hears the lid of the coffin slowly creaking open. He snaps on his torch. The mummy lives!
Notes: The mummy flees past Drago and Spencer and out through the door into the museum. The detective and his assistant race after it as it makes for the roof. They chase it over the rooftops of adjoining buildings, leaping from one to the other. Drago retrieves a length of bandage which has been torn off the horrific figure. Suddenly a roof gives way beneath him and Drago falls halfway through. Spencer struggles to help him but before he can pull him out they both hear an engine roar into life. The mummy is at the wheel of a wrecking crane and begins battering the building in which Drago is trapped.
Notes: Drago and Spencer fall through into the attic below. They race out of the collapsing building in time to see Ramtoth dart into another of the condemned buildings. Seconds later, they catch sight of it leaping from roof to roof — how can it be in two places at once? Back in the museum, they examine the sarcophagus: Ramtoth is still inside! Drago establishes that the piece of bandage he retrieved did not come from this mummy. He instructs Spencer to fetch Brutus the bloodhound. He also sends for Inspector-Detective Carter. Brutus, upon arrival, is given the bandage to scent. He follows a trail down to a cellar and a hidden passage where the mummy is confronted. Drago wrestles it to the ground and finds that it has a zipper in the back. Holding his costumed prisoner at gunpoint, Drago proceeds further down the tunnel, eventually encountering two men digging at the wall. A second mummy appears, weapon in hand, but Drago knocks the gun away just as Carter arrives leading a group of policemen. The detective explains to him that the gang have been tunnelling through to a nearby Bank and used the mummy scheme to keep people away.
With issue 14, Victor Drago's presence in TORNADO is boosted by a new feature: VICTOR DRAGO'S BLACK MUSEUM OF VILLAINS. This double-page comic strip outlines the career of a different real-life villain each week. The issue also sees a return to strip format for the Drago story.
Notes: Spencer is in the Baker Street consulting room when a trapdoor opens and a Chinese man enters through the floor. Spencer holds the intruder at gunpoint only to discover that it's Victor Drago in disguise. He had the trapdoor — which enables him to enter and leave the house in secret — installed some time ago. He tells his assistant to telephone Sir Charles Newman and warn him that he is in great danger; but the line is dead. Leaping into Drago's car, they drive to Sir Charles' residence and arrive just in time to see him fly out of an upper-floor window. He has been captured, Drago tells Spencer, by Li Fang, an Oriental villain. The next morning, the investigators go to the Limehouse district where a Chinese festival is under way. Here they find Drago's contact — Wu Chan — dead, with the word 'TRAITOR' upon his corpse. The ink is still wet, suggesting that the killer has only just left. Drago and Spencer set off in pursuit.
Notes: A Chinese paper dragon is snaking through the crowded revellers and Drago spots that there are seven pairs of feet beneath it whereas, earlier, there had been six. He chases it into an ally but is forced to dive into a doorway when the killer shoots at him from beneath the costume. He and Spencer find themselves in a dark room in which a small cage sits with Sir Charles Newman inside. As they approach him, the floor falls from beneath them and they plunge into a cellar and are surrounded by Li Fang's henchmen. Drug-soaked pads are slapped over their faces and they lose consciousness. When Drago and Spencer revive, they are in a large chamber dominated by a throne upon which sits Li Fang. He orders them to be bound hand and foot and placed into a trunk. This is then taken out onto the Thames and thrown overboard.
Notes: As the trunk sinks beneath the river, Drago takes a fountain pen from his pocket. It contains a miniature saw which he uses to cut his and Spencer's bonds. They swim free from the trunk and reach the shore. Back at Baker Street Drago receives a call from Scotland Yard; a message from Detective-Inspector Carter asking them to meet him at Sir Charles Newman's apartment. Drago realises that this is a trap set by Li Fang and decides to walk straight into it. Later, in Sir Charles' room, they hear a tapping at the window. When Drago looks out, a noose drops around his neck from the roof above and one of Li Fang's henchmen tries to haul him out. But the detective had been prepared for this and he and Spencer pull the man from the roof and in through the window. They bundle him into the car and drive towards Baker Street, taking a circuitous route that leads through the Limehouse district. In this crime-infested area, Drago purposely appears to lose control of the car, allowing the prisoner to escape. Releasing Brutus the bloodhound from the vehicle's boot, they use him to track the villain to Li Fang's lair where they interrupt the torture of Sir Charles. Li Fan is trying to get the secret location of a Mandarin treasure out of the old explorer. As Drago and Spencer invade the stronghold, they are joined by Carter and a team of policemen, but in the confusion Li Fang gets away and lives to fight another day.
It's back to the illustrated prose format for the final two three-part stories:
Notes: Victor Drago and his assistant, Spencer, are in a motor boat on a loch in the Highlands. They have been tracking a man through the mist but now, suddenly, they hear a terrified scream. Their quarry appears at the top of a crag, obviously frightened out of his wits, then he falls and is killed on the rocks below. Drago explains to Spencer that the man had been a reporter from The Daily Globe and had been investigating reports of a monster in the loch. His editor had suspected that the reporter had stumbled across something dangerous and had asked for Drago to follow him and, if necessary, protect him. From nearby comes the muffled sound of footsteps and voices. Three men emerge from the mist — apparently hikers — and, in response to Drago's questions, insist that they heard nothing. One of them asks whether the reporter had been killed by the 'goblin monster'. The detective and his assistant take the body back to the nearby hotel, where they have booked in under assumed names. It is swarming with tourists eager to catch sight of the mythical creature. The local police arrive to take charge of the body and are told by the hotel owner, Craford, that Drago and Spencer had been asking about the man earlier and are probably his killers.
Notes: Drago privately reveals his true identity to the police sergeant and explains his mission. "It seems to me there are only two possibilities," he says. "Either the reporter was silenced because he knew too much — or there really is a monster, and it killed him!" The next day, Drago and Spencer explore the area where the reporter had died. They find large areas of undergrowth have been trampled as if by a huge beast. But, as the detective is quick to notice, there is no trail to or from the area — it's as if the monster had landed there from the sky. Spencer spots that they are being spied upon through binoculars by the three backpackers they had met earlier. Later, in the hotel's dining room, Drago catches sight of a man he recognises: Stillwell, a craftsman who had once been involved in a blackmailing case. The former criminal has a quiet word with Craford and the two ascend the stairs towards the hotel manager's private apartments. These happen to be below the room occupied by Drago and Spencer. Rushing up to it, the investigator lowers himself on a rope of knotted bedsheets until he is close enough to the hotel manager's window to hear the conversation within. "I've come for me share," says Stillwell, "or I'll blow your racket sky-high." He gives Craford until the morning to decide, then leaves the room. The manager makes a telephone call and tells whoever is at the other end of the line that Stillwell must be done away with.
Notes: Drago orders Spencer to find and warn Stillwell but, before his assistant can leave the room, the lights go out. Screams and crashes arise from below: the monster has invaded the hotel! Drago shines a torch down the stairs and sees Stillwell. But in the confusion he loses his torch and stumbles. A massive, lizard- like form crosses the room in the shadows. Stillwell shrieks: "It's got me!" The creature drags him out of the hotel and across the grounds towards the loch. Drago and Spencer race after it and find Stillwell lying in a bloodied state near the woods into which the monster has plunged. While his assistant attends to the stricken man, Drago enters the shadows cast by the trees and listens. It has gone strangely quiet, but, after a few minutes, he hears some scuffling ahead. He creeps forward until he catches sight of the three hikers; they are folding material and cramming it into their rucksacks. Noticing his approach, they flee to a car which is driven away by Craford. Drago shoots out its back tyre, causing it to crash. The men are taken into custody. Later, Drago explains to Spencer that Craford had come up with the monster scheme to attract business and had commissioned Stillwell to build an easily dismantled 'creature costume'. After the three men who wore it accidentally frightened the reporter to death, Stillwell had tried to blackmail them, so they had decided to do away with him.
Notes: Victor Drago and his assistant, Spencer, arrive home to find their door smashed in and Brutus, their bloodhound, asleep — the victim of a drugged piece of meat. The door to the consulting room opens and a man wearing a gas mask peers out. Drago and Spencer rush forward to find a number of similarly masked men searching through the filing cabinets and drawers. Before he can intercede, a tear gas canister is thrown at his feet. The men flee, carrying a suitcase filled with stolen files, but Drago manages to catch hold of the last man out. He rips off the man's mask and finds himself looking into the deformed face of Scarlip, a notorious American gangster. Another of the raiders returns and knocks the detective senseless with the butt of a machine gun. When he recovers, Drago warns Spencer that London is on the brink of a terrible crime-wave.
Notes: Victor Drago concludes that the drug used to incapacitate Brutus must have been made up specially by a chemist named Silas Chugg. He and Spencer pay the man a visit and are given the name 'Jerry Karsh'; a small time messenger for a crime boss called Big Joe Bennett — who also happens to be one of the men whose files were stolen from Drago's office. Spencer is sent to track down Karsh and eventually finds him at Nigg's Place, a billiards club. He calls Drago who says he's on his way. But before the detective arrives, three thugs walk in and take Karsh away at gunpoint. They drive off just as Drago turns up and, after Spencer climbs into his vehicle, he gives chase. The thugs drive through London and onto the Hackney Marshes where they stop in a rubbish dump. They throw Karsh into a pit and, using a bulldozer, begin to bury him.
For the very last issue of TORNADO (before it merged with 2000AD), VICTOR DRAGO'S BLACK MUSEUM OF VILLAINS is dropped. The various stories in the issue either end or are to be continued in the new comic. Drago himself makes his final ever appearance.
Notes: Drago and Spencer have a gunfight with the gangsters. The driver of the bulldozer turns the machine towards the detective but Drago shoots the windshield out, peppering the driver's face with glass. He loses control of the vehicle and it plummets into a pit; the driver just managing to leap free. His fellows grab him, haul him into their car, and race away. Drago digs Jerry Karsh out of the pit — the small-time crook is unconscious but alive. Back at Baker Street, Karsh tells the detective that Scarlip means to take over Big Joe's opium-smuggling racket, making a big attack on his rival at Chamber's Wharf later that day. Drago instructs Spencer to call Chief-Inspector Carter and tell him to bring a squad of men to the Wharf. He heads there himself and arrives in time to see the attack commence. Drago starts shooting at the gangsters and holds them at bay until Carter and his men turn up to arrest the felons.
And with that, Sexton Blake, Tinker and Pedro — thinly disguised as Victor Drago, Spencer and Brutus — make their exit and are not seen again for the remainder of the 20th century.* It had been a long, adventurous, and astonishing journey from that awkwardly written hodge-podge of a tale, THE MISSING MILLIONAIRE, published in 1893, to these short, sketchy but stylish stories in TORNADO. But this isn't a bad way to end the saga ... for now.
Sexton Blake's last gasp, perhaps — but with the advent of a new century, reliable heroes are required ... and there was never anyone as reliable as the world's greatest consulting detective. Calling Sexton Blake ... Calling Sexton Blake ... Calling Sexton Blake ...
* Victor Drago returned in a couple of TORNADO annuals at a later date but he had a different artist and a different writer and was too far removed from Sexton Blake to be worthy of inclusion in this article.