In the days before viral marketing and massive promotion budgets, one of the ways in which puppet science fiction producer Gerry Anderson tried to raise advance interest in his upcoming television series was through comics. When TV Century 21 was launched in 1965, alongside the familiar Anderson series Fireball XL5 and Stingray, and other TV stalwarts The Daleks and Burke’s Law (the detective series in which Anne Francis made her first appearance as Honey West) was what must have seemed a mystery – the futuristic adventures of aristocrat, journalist and spy, Lady Penelope Creighton-Ward.
A few months later, Thunderbirds appeared on television, and it all made sense. The puppet Lady Penelope went on to become one of Britain’s strangest ever sex symbols, which is saying something in a country that has produced such grotesques as Victoria Beckham and Jordan (though at least Lady Penelope was constructed mostly from natural materials).
If the producers of programmes like The Champions were restricted in the action sequences they could put on screen, how much more so was Gerry Anderson, his leading characters unable even to walk across a room convincingly, let alone run or jump or fight.
The Lady Penelope comic strip often reflected, rather than challenged, those restrictions, but this played well with Lady Penelope’s air of imperturbability.
Indeed, on those occasions when Penny behaved in a more physically aggressive manner, it seemed somehow undignified.
The Lady Penelope comic strip was successful enough for it to lead a spin-off comic of the same name in 1966, with the tag line “For Girls Who Love Television”. The Lady Penelope comic was to be the home of another strip intended to trail a new television series, in this case telling of the formation of the Angels fighter squadron that would appear in Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons.
At the same time, a series called The Mark of the Mysterons began in the boys’ comic Solo. The structure of the media of the day – only three UK television channels but as many comics as the market would bear – meant that girls and boys were expected to read different comics but to watch the same television programmes.
Sadly, the Gerry Anderson comic empire didn’t last. A third title, Joe 90 Top Secret was launched, but soon folded into TV21, which in turn, its Anderson-based strips already poached by another publisher, was swallowed up by Valiant. (In those days, a failing comic in Britain was not cancelled, but merged with another title, and the print runs and subscriptions added together to make the new combined comic more financially secure.) Lady Penelope was eventually transformed into Penelope, a more conventional girls’ comic with few links to its puppet past. So we never got solo adventures of Lieutenant Gay Ellis or Colonel Virginia Lake from UFO. A shame, that.
For more on the Lady Penelope comic strip, have a look at The Gerry Anderson Complete Comic History.
Lady Penelope “The Vanishing Ray”, art by Eric Eden, TV Century 21 issue 50, 1 January 1966, reprinted in Thunderbirds … Lift Off!, Ravette Books, 1992
Lady Penelope “Duel in the Jungle”, art by Enric Badia Romero, Lady Penelope Annual, Century 21 Publishing/City Magazines, 1968
The Angels, art by Jon Davis, The New Lady Penelope issue 55, 4 February 1967, reprinted in Action 21, issue 10, October 1989