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Thursday 27 November 2014

Catch Me If You Can... Hunt Me If You Dare!

I grew up loving superheroes. The majority of my childhood was spent wanting to be a costumed defender of justice. American superheroes invaded my life since my visit to Florida in 1980. After that I consumed whatever comic-book I could get my hands on, eventually settling on a primary love of DC's Batman and Marvel's Spider-Man. Very mainstream, I know, but I guess that is just because both have a lot to say about the human condition. Nevertheless, there were other deviations and fascinations along the way. One muse I discovered when I was six years old came in the form of "The Leopard from Lime Street". The titular character was sometimes referred to as "Leopard Boy", probably due to his age, and occasionally as The Beast of Selbridge, which is probably a take on the Alien Big Cat urban myths that prevail around the English countryside. However, I mainly knew him as the Leopard Man. The character's origin was a blatant imitation of the Spider-Man story and some of his gadgetry, most notably his clawed leopard line, resembled items from Batman's utility belt arsenal, but he had many unique qualities too. So, a somewhat unbalanced merger of my two all-time favourite comic-book superheroes contained in the form of a relatable English school boy. Was it any wonder that it caught my imagination? 

I stumbled across Leopard Man or Leopard Boy at the beginning of our season on Clacton Pier in 1982.  To wax romantic, those were magical days for me. I spent a good amount of my summer exploring the pier and all its amusements. Even without money, it was a labyrinth of adventure for me. I remember the smell of the baked potato stall, and the noise and flashing animation of the alluring arcade machines. Mint Chocolate Chip Cornettos were officially my favourite ice cream by then, but I also recall being drawn to the Dracula shaped blood-red lollies that seemed to be all the rage at the time. That might have something of foreshadow of my interest in horror stories and films that came the following year. Although Blondie's cover of "The Tide is High" had been released two years previously, it is a song that often reminds of being on the show. I guess it was fairly appropriate too given my location. I lost a milk tooth on the pier and one stage I caught a skin disease from some adventure or other. If I wasn't playing with other circus children on the pier or off exploring on my own, I was back at the caravan site on similar missions. We lived amongst a tight community of people that looked out and after their young, allowing more freedom than I could ever allow my daughter. I went to school too, of course, and this was my penultimate one before I settled at the same primary school that my daughter would end up attending.

Our show would begin with a fakir act presented by Mr Swing out front of the show, made all the more thrilling by the fact the artiste had to go to hospital after one performance, and inside show we presented our variety of acts. These included my father's wild animal acts and my mother's dog act as well as aerialists, tumblers, jugglers and my cousin, Tom Fossett, the great clown Professor Grimble.  Our circus had ceased touring - what we used to call "tenting" - and we started taking seasonal bookings in buildings. Prior to this we only took these types of booking at Christmas, which is an age old tradition in circus. From no one, however, these bookings would see the last days of parents show and my life as a circus child. A spent a good deal of them - especially that summer - in superhero costumes. That year I began in a Superman outfit, had a Batman sleeveless top and winged cap, and spent a good amount of time in my Spider-Man play-suit often accompanied by a pair of shades. However, when we left Clacton what I really wanted was a Leopard Man costume. They did not exist. It would take my dear mother to find a child's cat costume pattern and some leopard print material for that treasured garment to materialize. The story's hero, Billy Farmer, also had to ad-lib with his own costume twice. First by adapting a Dick Wittington's cat costume and later by using a leopard skin rug he found on market stall. Looking back, I have never experienced so much freedom in my life as I did back during that time - prowling around in my six year old mind as Leopard Man.
Leopard Man was created for Buster comic in 1976 and was serialized in its pages until 1985. The story's lead character, Billy Farmer, is a 13 year old resident of the fictional town of Selbridge. Like Peter Parker, he is an orphan, a talented photographer who sells his photos to an antagonistic newspaper editor, Thaddeus Clegg) and is an exceptionally intelligent youngster. He also shares Parker's fate of being the target of bullies. However, from the first comic-strip onwards Farmer's bullies appeared to be more physical than Parker's and, on top of that, he didn't even have a kindly uncle. Billy Farmer's Uncle Charlie was an abusive bully, which gave the story a darker edge of sorts. His Aunt Joan, although kindly, is even frailer Peter Parker's Aunt May. Continuing the Spider-Man similarity, Farmer gains his powers after being mauled by a radioactive leopard and then makes the obvious super-hero decision to fight crime.

Being a traditional circus, we raised wild animals. If the parents rejected their offspring for some reason, we raised them in our living wagon. I have often referred to my upbringing as somewhat resembling Mowgli's from the Kipling's "Jungle Books", as I was an only child living with wild animal cubs. Around the time I discovered "The Leopard from Lime Street", I had fresh memories of mum raising a leopard cub and speculated that a playful bite from it might have infused me with feline powers! 

The strip was created by writer, Tom Tully and mainly illustrated by Mike Western. Although the sources for Tully's ideas on Billy Farmer's back-story are very obvious, the stories were quite different. After reading another person's edition of Buster, I got my first copy at the beginning of a tail where Leopard Man lost his costume. Unlike the common comic-book cliché of killing off character in order to preposterously resurrect them, we were all in on Leopard Man's apparent "death" and the story that followed made for quite a saga. Losing his mask whilst rescuing passengers from a truck, the Leopard man hides inside the vehicle shortly before it falls to its doom. He decides to leave his costume inside the truck as the gathered crowd would be looking out for an unmasked leopard man and would somehow not spot a skinny 13 year somersaulting out the other end of the vehicle in just his underpants. Cue me trying to recreate the story with my Spider-Man play suit and getting scalded for risking losing it by my long suffering mother.

After the remains of the costume are found in the exploded truck, it is assumed by everyone present that Leopard Man is dead. Farmer, suffering similar mortal limitations as Spider-Man, cannot afford to replace the costume and has to assume other aliases until he finds a means to make a new costume. Meanwhile a new villain takes the streets, calling himself "The Ghost of Leopard Man". He walks on air and can do various other apparently supernatural things. Eventually Farmer sees a leopard rug on a fair market stall. He combines his humble earnings with cash prizes he wins using his leopard powers of superhuman strength and speed to buy the rug, which is converted into his new costume. He then tracks down the "Ghost", uncovering most of the tricks he has used to create the illusion. The story's strength  was in the way it maintained interest for many issues without actually featuring Leopard Man. This is a trick that has evolved throughout the fantasy genre. The object of the true fantasy craftsman is the ability to suspend belief.

Stephen King gives credit to the authors who can sew a relate-able and commonplace world with the uncanny. Some of my favourite examples of this genre are true experts in achieving this skill. Emily Bronte was a master in the way she used the tools of the Gothic in "Wuthering Heights".  George R. R. Martin goes so far as having characters that are so engaging, intriguing and fascinatingly complex that you are not waiting for the next fantastical element to happen. The TV series, "Gotham" really seems to have got this idea of the working the "slow-burn" effectively by carefully building up a world that could plausibly create a Batman character. Unfortunately there are plenty of examples of this going wrong too. The first film version of Captain America was a feature length bore-fest with a meandering and dragging story that resulted in a small and unsatisfactory pay-off. The Captain didn't even get his proper costume until just before the closing credits.

Anyway, "The Leopard from Lime Street" was a shining example of how to maintain tension and build up a good story whilst not getting the reader too frustrated for the big pay-off. It also really made a difference to what would become greatest comic book bugbear, "The Comic-Book Death". Leopard Man would go through several developments, even becoming more aggressive. This trait, which was never rectified, as Billy Farmer grew canine fangs and appeared with luminous feline eyes, set him aside from many other superheroes of the 1980s. The abusive uncle angle was also never really dealt with and lent itself to the British Kitchen Sink Drama tradition of "Kes" and other downbeat children's fiction. Within its entire run the series also somehow staved off the need to create over the top other supernaturally empowered villains and interplanetary stories. This rare type of restraint really should be given more credit in the fantasy serial genre. With a few other noteworthy exceptions, "The Leopard from Lime Street" was dark children's entertainment before it was cool.

The last time I saw him was in the Buster Annual, where he was rescuing some leopard cubs. A version of him was apparently killed off in a "gathering of heroes" episode in 2000 AD's "Zenith". I will always remember Tom Tully's creation as another example of the creative Anglicization of a powerful US import. We saw how wonderfully this was done with Ray Galton and Alan Simpson's development of the US sit-com for a British audience.Tully took the story of Spider-Man and some attributes found in Batman, and applied them to the world of a 13 year old boy. Looking at the concept it could go quite a long way if it were turned into a novel of some sort, exploring the metaphors of adolescent changes in males. The increasing animalistic aggression Farmer would show in later episodes could be comparable with the burgeoning hormones in a teenage boy, as he asserts his place in the pecking order of society. His antagonism could be heightened by that very society. In the microcosm he has his abusive uncle, tyrannical boss and the school bullies. In the macrocosm he has his dour near destitute environment. Young Farmer was always struggling with finances. His eventual ambition was to be a reporter, but his childhood ambition was to make 25 pounds from his photos. Farmer couldn't even afford a replacement costume. How many superheroes have this problem? The story suffered to a certain degree in the same way as the penny dreadfuls suffered in the 19th century by drawing a tale out a little too far and inevitably creating a few plot holes and deviations that were never resolved.

However, for the most part the bullied youngster stands alongside the children of C.S. Lewis's Narnia and many other variations on this theme whereby he has secret and wondrous separate life. Billy Farmer's world tended to be accessed through his bedroom window (I always wanted the type of sliding window he had ever since I saw it in that comic-strip). In this world, he was a superhero that could go on many perilous adventures and often make it home for dinner. The bleakness of his own world and the fact that he was only 13 years old made the juxtaposition that much more magical. As I returned from our season in Clacton and we looked towards one final year of circus I would often find myself to be a loner at school and there was certainly something comforting in the world of Billy Farmer and his spotted alter-ego.

Recommended Links: 

Bronze Age of Blogs discusses the Spider-Man template used in "The Leopard from Lime Street", including the very mortal clumsiness of Billy Farmer. Again, another thing I could relate to and still can, even now as an ex-performer and a martial arts teacher. The clumsy gene is always there ready to pounce like a... well, a leopard. The blog's author also muses on the 1980s downtrodden working class environment that Billy Farmer grew up in, which I think is a major difference with Peter Parker's more archetypical middle class lifestyle. 

British Comic Art calls "The Leopard from Lime Street", "an interesting mix of Stan Lee and Charles Dickens",

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