Danger Unlimited, by Martin Aitchison
'Luck of the Legion" (Eagle #39, 1959).

Martin Aitchison was a British children's book illustrator, best known for his work for the educative publishing company Ladybird Books. As a comics artist he is best known for 'Luck of the Legion' (1952-1961), a military adventure series written by Geoffrey Bond. At the time it was one of the most popular titles in Eagle and inspired several novelisations too. In the dawn of their careers, Aitchison and Bond also made 'Justin Tyme - ye Hapless Highwaymen' (1998-2003) for Eagle Times.

Early life
Martin Henry Hugh Aitchison was born in 1919 in Kings Norton, Worcestershire. His father was a chief metallurgist to the Air Ministry. At age five Aitchison got sick with the measles, which left him largely deaf for the rest of his life. He nevertheless discovered that he had a talent for drawing, which won him both junior competitions as well as the sympathy of his fellow pupils when he caricatured teachers. At age 15 he studied at the Birmingham School of Art and Slade School of Art and already exhibited his work at the Royal Academy when he was only 20 years old. Aitchison was not particularly interested in comics in his youth, though he did enjoy Norman Pett's 'Jane' and Alex Raymond's 'Rip Kirby'.

Military service
Because of his handicap, he wasn't drafted during World War II, but the young artist still wanted to do something for his fatherland. Aitchison offered his graphic talents to Vickers Aircraft at Weybridge, Surrey, where he illustrated service manuals for Wellington bombers. He helped Barnes Wallis to visualize his design for a "bouncing bomb" by drawing diagrams of it. The weapon was used during Operation Chastise on 16-17 May 1943, when the Royal Air Force bombed the Möhne and Edersee Dams in Germany, thus flooding the valley. This operation was later made famous in the war movie 'The Dam Busters' (1955).


'Flick and the Vanishing New Girl'.

Post-war illustration work
After the war Aitchison became a freelance illustrator for magazines such as Lilliput, Vogue, Picture Post, Punch and the comics magazines published by Hulton Press (which was take over by Odhams Press in 1959). First, he took over 'Kitty Hawke and her All-Girl Air Crew' from Ray Bailey, a series about female air force squadrons published in Girl. Aitchison furthermore illustrated 'Flick and the Vanishing New Girl' (1952) in the first Girl annual. From 1952 on, he was present in the boy's magazine Eagle.


'Luck of the Legion' (Eagle #1, 1957)

Luck of the Legion
In Eagle Aitchison developed his most well known and popular comic strip: 'Luck of the Legion' (1952-1963), for which Geoffrey Bond wrote the scripts (sometimes under the pseudonym Alan Jason). The first episode was published on 9 May 1952, where it replaced a translation of Hergé's 'Tintin'. Set at the turn of the 19th into the 20th century, 'Luck of the Legion' follows a squad of the French Foreign Legion in North Africa. Despite centering around a French military unit the protagonist is a British sergeant named "Tough" Luck. His best friends and subordinates are the Belgian corporal Trenet and Italian legionnaire Bimberg. Bimberg is a short and obese man with a curly moustache who is often hungry. He often provides the comedic note by bumbling along or making unthoughtful remarks. Most episodes take place in the Sahara desert, but Luck and his legion sometimes went on missions to West Africa or even Indo-China too.


'Luck of the Legion' (Eagle #3, 1954).

Aitchison mostly improvised his drawings because the Hulton Library could only offer about four photos about the Foreign Legion. Geoffrey Bond was knowledgeable about the topic too, but other than that Aitchison's only point of reference was a film called 'The Legion' (probably Hamilton McFadden's 'The Legion of Missing Men', 1937). Originally Geoffrey Bond only wanted to make a 12-part story with the characters. Yet readers enjoyed the comic so much that it eventually ran for more than a decade, always in the bottom half of the center pages of Eagle. In reader's polls 'Luck of the Legion'  was often voted second place in popularity, after Frank Hampson's 'Dan Dare'. The comic strip was adapted into a series of written novels as well, again scripted by Bond and illustrated by Aitchison. Two titles were translated in French. Despite its popularity with readers publishing company Odhams established a new editorial team in 1961 who cancelled the series.


'Danger Unlimited' (Eagle #2, 1962)

Other comics in Eagle
A follow-up was created, 'Danger Unlimited' (1962, written by Steve Alen, which was actually a pseudonym for TV writer Leonard Fincham), which cashed in on the popularity of 'James Bond'. Just like that franchise, 'Danger Unlimited' was a modern-day spy series. Aitchison illustrated the stories, but it didn't catch on. Most of his further graphic contributions to Eagle were comic strip adaptations of famous novels, such as Arthur Conan Doyle's 'The Lost World' and his personal favorite, C.S. Forester's 'Lt. Hornblower, R.N.' (1962). Together with Bond, Aitchison also created 'Arty and Crafty', which ran on a weekly basis in Eagle's junior companion magazine Swift. When the Daily Mirror Group took over Eagle in 1963, Aitchison had little hope that the magazine would survive and thus left to find another job.


'Lt. Hornblower, R.N.' (Eagle #32, 1962)

Ladybird Books
Between 1963 and 1987 he started a new career as children's book illustrator at Ladybird Books, because his father knew the editor, Douglas Keen. Aitchison quickly rose to become one of the company's most prolific illustrators, alongside other talents such as Robert Ayton, John Berry, Frank Hampson and Harry Wingfield, but none were as productive as him. Aitchison illustrated many stories in the 'Great Artists' and 'Great Composers' series, biographical children's books about historical characters, ranging from Leonardo da Vinci to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. He sometimes added comedic situations in his drawings, like Franz Schubert accidentally pouring ink over his composition sheet. Ladybird also published children's versions of classic novels, which Aitchison also livened up with drawings. Of all these titles, 'Gulliver's Travels' (1976) was the work he was most proud of.

However, most readers would recognize Aitchison's style from the 'Key Words Reading Scheme' easy-to-read books, popularly known as 'Peter and Jane', since they were the recurring protagonists. Atchinson illustrated dozens of books starring the duo, their cousins Simon and John and Peter and Jane's Irish setter Pat. The books have been translated in several languages and are still used by parents and teachers. Yet the illustrations were sometimes updated to change fashions or match present-day values. One time Aitchison had to redraw some ropes in a water colour drawing of a boy abseiling from a mountain, because experts told him that if someone used the same technique in reality he would surely plummit to his death. In a 2012 BBC interview Aitchison saw it as his "worst mistake ever."

During his time at Ladybird, Aitchison based most of his drawings on photographs. His wife Dorothy Self was the model for the teacher in 'Book 6A' and also scripted some titles in the 'Peter and Jane' series. Aitchison's father wrote the book 'The Story of Metals' (1971), which his son - naturally - illustrated.


'Peter and Jane'.

Other illustration work
Apart from Ladybird Books, Aitchison contributed illustrations to World of Wonder magazine and, from 1987 on, Oxford University Press. He also designed the cover of Brian Deakin's album 'William in London', intended to teach French school children English-language conversations.

Justin Tyme
In 1987 Aitchison left Ladybird, but didn't retire yet. He surprised many by launching a new comics series, 'Justin Tyme - ye Hapless Highwayman' (1998-2004), which ran in the fanzine Eagle Times for about six years. Geoffrey Bond returned as scriptwriter, but later his son Jim Bond took over the pen.

Death
Martin Aitchison passed away in 2016 at the age of 96.


Aitchison drew the Legion one more time for the Eagle Times in 1993.

Series and books by Martin Aitchison in stock in the Lambiek Webshop:

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