From Earth's End Spotlight: The Adventures Of Captain Sunshine
Above: The Adventures of Captain Sunshine #1 (1979) by Colin Wilson. Copyright Sunshine Watches Limited 2013.
Before New Zealand became a nuclear-free zone in the eighties, or promoted itself to the world as ‘100% Pure’, there was Captain Sunshine.
In the late seventies, Reuben Sandler and Roy Middleton were two young, environmentally aware entrepreneurs, looking to develop a project that would promote their ecological interests – solar power, saving the whales - and become a financially successful business. Together with their friend Peter Farrell, they brainstormed ideas. Middleton pitched the idea of a superhero mascot character 'Captain Sunshine', which Farrell immediately recognized as having potential as a marketing tool. “We were hoping to create a world-wide hero who was involved in fighting pollution and working for environmental goodness in general”, Reuben recalled. “Isn’t it nice to be young? We were also hoping to support ourselves financially from the project”.
Above: an advert for the Sundial Wristwatch(!), 1979. Copyright Sunshine Watches Limited 2013.
Farrell came up with the idea for a Sundial wristwatch to promote solar energy awareness, and the two concepts were combined. They formed the company ‘Sunshine Watches Limited’ and made plans to manufacture the Sundial wristwatches, which would be promoted in dairies and bookstores by a 32 page full-colour comic book, The Adventures of Captain Sunshine.
Above: Captain Sunshine in action! From The Adventures of Captain Sunshine #1 (1979), artwork by Colin Wilson. Copyright Sunshine Watches Limited 2013.
To create the comic book they needed an artistic collaborator, and approached artist Colin Wilson. Wilson had gained a reputation for his comics work as the editor and major contributor of Strips, New Zealand's first comics anthology since the early 1960s. He was interested, but daunted by the task that lay ahead, “back in those days I was up for just about anything. Of course I said yes to the work offer, but realistically there was no way that I was capable of turning out a 32 page full-colour comic by myself in the time we had available”.
Above: A painted sequence by French artist Jean-Luc Bozzoli, from The Adventures of Captain Sunshine #1 (1979). Copyright Sunshine Watches Limited 2013.
To meet the deadline, Wilson assembled a team of his best Strips collaborators to help him complete the task. Laurence Clark (credited as Helen Cross) came on board to handle the lettering. Joe Wylie pitched in on the colouring, and a visiting French artist Jean-Luc Bozzoli, produced paintings for the story’s underwater diving sequence, in which Captain Sunshine communicates with whales – it’s not a coincidence that the inside back-cover features an advertisement for the whale protection group, ‘Project Jonah’.
Above: The Splash page for The Adventures of Captain Sunshine #1, which was also used as a promotional poster, artwork by Colin Wilson. Copyright Sunshine Watches Limited 2013.
In addition to producing the comic’s interior artwork, Wilson also have to come up with in-store promotional items: a full-colour poster, and stand up display figures of Captain Sunshine and his vehicle, the Sunchariot spacecraft. With the deadline looming, the splash-page of the comic book was selected for the 2 X 3ft poster – with additional time lavished on the artwork; and the cover image of Captain Sunshine was blown up to created the standees.
The sundial wristwatch and comic book went on sale in November, 1979. The comic was well received, selling a staggering 100,000 copies, along with 20,000 watches. Considered a success, a second issue was quickly put into production, with an aim to be out by late February of 1980.
Completing the artwork for the second issue, Wilson departed for England to seek full-time work in the British comics industry. Shortly after his arrival, news reached him that the project was cancelled. “the first issue worked really well, and it was my understanding that it was the lack of success for the solar watch that finally torpedoed the whole operation", recalls Wilson. "No watch, no comic required”.
The artwork for the unpublished second issue has been lost over time. According to legend, there may still be a warehouse somewhere in Auckland filled with boxes of Captain Sunshine memorabilia: sundial wrist watches, comics, and standees destined for Australia, currently gathering dust. Wilson never wore a watch, so failed to keep any from the promotion, “which is a pity, as I’m sure that, like the comic, any surviving examples are real collector’s items now”.
Both Reuben Sandler and Roy Middleton went on to be involved in many entrepreneurial business ventures, some failures and significant successes. Looking back on Captain Sunshine, Sandler reflects, “we didn’t know any better. All great entrepreneurial projects work on misguided optimism. Many work out, more fail”.
Above: A double page spread of a gathering of intergalactic Sunshine protectors, heavily influenced by the art of Jean Giraud. From The Adventures of Captain Sunshine #1 (1979), artwork by Colin Wilson. Copyright Sunshine Watches Limited 2013.
Colin Wilson went on to become an internationally acclaimed comic artist. Starting in the UK, he draw Judge Dredd for the popular British weekly 2000AD, before moving to Europe to work alongside Jean Giraud aka Moebius, one of the artists who directly inspired Wilson’s artwork in Captain Sunshine.
Above: Caption Sunshine ponders his future on the last page of The Adventures of Captain Sunshine #1 (1979), artwork by Colin Wilson. Copyright Sunshine Watches Limited 2013.
"The whole project was a blur of excitement" recalls Wilson. "Looking at that first issue now, all I see now are the glaringly obvious shortcomings of a immature comic artist, but we produced New Zealand's first ecological superhero comic, and I'm sure proud of that. And 35 years later, people still remember Captain Sunshine, so perhaps, maybe, we actually got a few things right."
From Earth's End will be the first occasion an extended excerpt from The Adventures of Captain Sunshine #1 has been reprinted since it's original publication in 1979. Perhaps it's time this long forgotten kiwi comics icon had his rightful time in the sun...