The next extract followed the reprinted material from Death Game 1999:
If you’re doing things in their proper order, you’ve just read the episode that came out on December 4 – and that is because there is a problem. It has proved nigh on impossible to reconstruct the lost pages of Death Game 1999. The story was not killed – it was continued immediately under the cooler title of Spinball But in the December 4 issue, the then-running story was brought hastily to a close, in a way that largely made a nonsense of all that had gone before. For this, most of the outstanding pages were cannibalised and reassembled with new dialogue, so that hardly anything remains intact in the archive. Only the bromides of the three pages for the intended October 30 issue survive to help us guess at how the story would have gone.
We learn almost enough just by comparing December 4, which you should have just read, with the original October 23 version. December 4 gives us freedom and glory, not a wound or bit of flesh in sight – and one discomfited prison governor. And how well things turned out for “our team”. Lucky that bomb didn’t go off! Pity the tyre burst, still it did wait till they’d already won! Good to know that underneath his snarling exterior Shroeder was all along basically humane! Nice to see Taggart and Yo-Yo get their freedom – they’d won it fair and square (though a lot of the others seem to have gone missing; perhaps they quite liked the prison now the governor knew better). Hmm.
October 23 was just a teensy bit different. That new man Belardinelli came in to work on it. His developing talents – severely misplaced on Green’s Grudge War – were about to flower. The issue had a Spinball cover by him. And that episode gave him the chance to show what he could do with a big splash panel. The story of that panel is interesting. By this time, recall, the pressure was really on IPC, even though John Sanders was publicly holding the fort. But internally, the new rules meant that all finished artwork had to be referred upwards to Sanders, for approval. When the October 23 artwork came in from Belardinelli, John Smith knew he had something a bit special. He took it up to show Sanders, who happened to have with him Leonard Matthews, old head of IPC from the time when it was caution personified. They looked at the artwork, and then they looked at John Smith – was he mad??? It couldn’t possibly be published like this – as, of course, Smith had known. But he so loved the quality of the artwork that he had the alterations put onto transparent overlay, to preserve the original underneath. This was the giant “BA-ROOM” that covers up Kruger’s end (giving a new meaning, perhaps, to the idea of a splashpanel?). Sadly, Smith’s efforts to preserve this memorable page came to nothing. The page has disappeared from the archive, though again the bromide copy has survived.
Kruger’s departure on October 23 only removed one of Taggart’s problems. The Karson team still had to win the game, to take the championship, to gain their freedom. That ought to have meant at least four more episodes of the actual contest. And bits of evidence suggest that it should have gone on that long. Certainly, as late as November 20, there was no hint on the surviving covers of a new Death Game story beginning. October 30 was the Hookjaw cover; November 6 was a composite for Kids Rule, Hellman and Lefty; November 13 was the ‘gutsy’ Lefty; and November 20 was a Kids Rule special, as we shall see. All of which led me to hope for a good deal of special artwork – Belardinelli just flowering – awaiting discovery. In fact, only the October 30 pages remain to fill in the gaps. Once again they show starkly the politics of the changes being forced on the editorial staff. In this original version, the prison governor remains what he always was – a vicious, hypocritical swine, determined to eliminate Taggart by any means that would leave his hands clean. He was backed by the government in this – look back to September 13 issue, page three. Compare that with the December 4 issue, page four. Hmm. And now we can understand the exploding Kruger – Taggart had suspected him all along, and switched bikes so Kruger literally blew himself up. But in what other fragments remain (of artwork, that is, not of Kruger) there is no easy victory. Meatface dies in grisly fashion. Taggart can only fight on, with just Yo-Yo in the end beside him. His only hope of life, let alone freedom, is to beat Alcatraz almost single-handed. And of course he had to – not cheerily, or easily, or heroically, just desperately. For Death Game 1999 was a story of massive desperation, of clinging on to dear life. I have nothing to say about its weak replacement Spinball, later Spinball Wars, that took over Taggart’s corpse after December 4.