The Wild World Of Johnny Cougar

The wrestler from Tiger comic whose adventures sometimes went bonkers.

Johnny Cougar was a British comic strip about a Native American wrestler that had an impressively long run in Tiger from 1962 to 1985. Johnny was as tough as old boots, would refer to himself in the first person and would exclaim “By the spirits!” when something surprised him – like an opponent launching a flying kick, for example. Most of Johnny’s exploits were fairly standard fighting and fighting-related instalments, but occasionally the strip would go weird – sometimes very weird.

Tiger, in its various incarnations, often paired with other comics like Jag, Scorcher or Speed (“Two great papers join forces!” would be IPC’s spin on falling sales), generally offered eight sports stories a week aimed at boys between the ages of about nine and 13. But the publication frequently found it hard to resist leaning into science fiction, which was immensely popular in Tiger’s 1970s heyday. Consequently, the ‘Redskin’ wrestler would find himself battling some very curious opponents.

In February 1975 he took on an adversary, Grarg, who, “To the world of sport … was just an ordinary matman … But beneath an incredible plastic skin, Grarg was made up of countless electrical circuits. He was a robot!” He was actually very Six Million Dollar Man, a big hit with young audiences at the time, and something of a departure from Cougar’s regular foes.

Another unusual opponent was Stoneage Man, a neolithic, club-carrying brute that gave our heap tough wrestler a run for his money. There were also two vicious apes who fought Johnny and a tag partner, although they turned out to be men in gorilla suits. Then in February 1980, Johnny faced ‘the Mask of Zentor’, a terrifying figure who resembled a cross between Darth Vader and an American Indian chief. Zentor turned out to be… well, that would be telling.

But it’s the two occasions the strip went super-meta that showed it at its wildest. In April 1976 Johnny and his ‘beatnik pal’ Splash Gorton go into the offices of Tiger and talk to the editor! Johnny is dismayed when the editor tells him that his strip is not as popular as it used to be. “Maybe Cougar getting boring…” he ponders. We see King’s Reach Tower, the IPC building where Tiger was made (which I myself was chuffed to go and work in 21 years later) and its exterior on Stamford Street, SE1. Cougar was at this point being written by Tiger’s editor, Barrie Tomlinson, so we can guess that Tomlinson was tickled at his own idea of making Johnny go all meta. After Johnny and Splash exit the IPC offices, they run into some schoolboys who are Tiger and Scorcher fans: they tell a downcast Johnny that perhaps there’s been too much wrestling in his strip recently and he should try something different – and so at their suggestion, Johnny pauses his wrestling career and goes to teach gym at their school. Imagine that, a comic book character becoming one of your teachers.

Even better than that is the occurrence in November 1979. Johnny is challenged to a bout by a burly, bearded Scotsman and, seemingly terrified, takes to his heels to escape the challenger. Readers were left in suspense for a week, puzzled as to why the brave Seminole would scarper in such a fashion. The following edition revealed why: the challenger, Sandy James, was the artist who drew the Cougar strip! Johnny did not want to fight the man who drew him because he saw James as the man who made him famous throughout the world, and was a friend – and also that he feared that James would draw him badly if he, Cougar, won. How mad is that? And what an irreverent offshoot for a strip that mainly dealt in grounded, ring-based action. You wonder whether Tomlinson had read the August 1974 edition of DC’s The Flash, where writer Cary Bates travels to Earth One and teams up with his own character. Of course, there were also the times when Daffy Duck would confront the artist in old Looney Tunes cartoons, only to find himself erased.

Johnny and Sandy don’t end up fighting one another though – they team up and do combat with the arrogant Golden Boy and Chic Walters whom, naturally, they beat over a couple of issues. The creator (who was certainly a fine artist) and the created part on good terms. The comic asks readers if they think Sandy has done a good job at illustrating the action (“I’ll draw a masterpiece!” James tells Cougar).

Little after this was ever quite as meta, but the real world and the comic’s world did frequently overlap. In 1982, with ITV’s Saturday afternoon wrestling pulling in millions of viewers, Tiger brought Big Daddy into Johnny Cougar for grappling and giggles. A couple of years previously, Johnny had fought meanie ‘RJ’, a cowboy-hatted Texan who was a take-off of JR, the main baddie on the hugely popular US TV show Dallas.

But nothing ever quite repeated the madness of Johnny getting into the ring with the artist who drew him. By the spirits!

RUSSELL LEWIN

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