Friday, August 23, 2013

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...

- AK!


  1. Loved Captain Sunshine when I was a kid. Bought my copy from a dairy in Blockhouse Bay. Never got the watch, sadly. Got a copy of the comic again a couple of years back and quite a lot of the art stands the test of time really well. Shame we didn't pay attention to the Captain's message...

  2. I have to find out more about Wilson! I have been getting into Moebius in a big way and Wilson looks like he has a comparable style. I even see Arzach among the Intergalactic Sunshine Protectors! Might try and track this down and look into some of the 2000AD stuff and Blueberry (though I don't think any of that has been translated from the original French?). Thanks for the great post.

  3. I was *completely* obsessed with superheroes in 1979 and I quite vividly remember the buzz around Captain Sunshine. I bought a copy and really enjoyed the story, though I remember wishing it had been more NZ-specific and also picking up on the pretty overt Green Lantern story influences. I think I might have owned a Suntracker watch as well, though I do also recall seeing bargain bins full of Suntrackers in a Wellington department store.

    Tall poppy syndrome be damned, IMO NZ needs more superheroes to call its own. Here's hoping Captain Sunshine will make a comeback - or that one of his descendants will make his or her debut ...

  4. I worked with Peter Farrell at his Sydney "Sun Energy Corporation" and was involved in the prototype designs of the Sundial watch. I was working on a version that had a floating sundial width a magnet in it.

    Captain Sunshines belt buckle is the logo of the "Sun Energy Corporation". The Hexagons on his chess are my contribution (I was designing a hexagonal chess game at the time).

    Amazing times.

    Does anyone know where Peter Farrell is these days?

  5. Thanks for that info, Wolfgang! No unfortunately I wasn't able to track down Peter Farrell when researching my piece on Captain Sunshine, but I'm hoping he'll reach out if he ever comes across this, as it would be great to get his perspective on the whole venture.

  6. I had both the comic and the watch. I think I may still have the watch somewhere but the needle fell off the embedded compass. Not sure what happened to the comic. I remember seeing a box of unsold ones in a store. I have to say that the artwork was splendid. Way better than I would have expected for a local project. Way better than the Australians did with Southern Squadron and Dark Nebula. Back in 1979 I was aged 11, so any eco-message was going over my head. I was just into the comic. I think I even got my dad to make me a belt buckle disc out of wood (with the pattern drawn on in ballpoint). It's the shame the art from the second issue was lost.

  7. Back in '79 I was aged 12. I purchased the comic in late '79 and took it to boarding school where someone "borrowed" it, never to be seen again......BUT in 1992 I started a games shop called 'Dragon's Lair Games' and later bought into the Mark One franchise with a business partner in '94. In '92/93 a guy bought in about 50 of the comics which I gradually sold, but kept a few. One of the few items I still have left from those times is a dozen Captain Sunshine Comics still sitting downstairs in plastic bags. It's nice to keep something from your childhood :)