Story File: Strongarm Command Kart
Possibly because it was drawn by Mike Lacey, Strongarm Command Kart seems to me a sort of Sid’s Snake for the electronic 80s. The premise is much the same – ordinary kid has an unlikely, non-human pal that can do extraordinary things – only in this case, rather than a colourful python, it’s a shiny, robotic, sentient go-kart. Who actually looks a bit like Mek-Quake, come to think of it, but the inspirations are more likely to have been Metal Mickey and KITT from Knight Rider.
Also like Sid’s Slippy, it’s not entirely clear where our lad Sunny’s Strongarm came from. Even the story’s first appearance – in a preview edition of Nipper that was preceded the diminutive comic’s launch in January 1987 – provides no explanation. There is a suggestion at one stage that the machine was built by Sunny’s dad; at least, Sunny’s dad installs a phone unit one week, but on another occasion suggests Sunny takes Strongarm to a techy neighbour for repairs – at the same time as a broken VCR player, and I bet you can guess what happens next!
Strongarm’s a rather highly-strung character – jealous and impulsive despite his mighty intellect. When he’s not helping Sunny catch crooks, battle bullies and cheat on chores, he can be found sneering at other forms of transport such as bicycles and horses. There is a very mild and occasional story thread in which Sunny fancies Penny from school, while Strongarm despises Penny’s horse. But he is at least a very handy piece of kit. Over the course of the series’ twenty-one month run in Nipper and then Buster, various of Strongarm’s special functions are revealed, including: an in-built radar; an ejector seat; a computer screen interface; a water cannon; a printer; a siren, an anti-drag nose attachment; and a bathysphere. He also has a penchant for fancy dress, appearing as both a shaggy dog and this parish's Judge Dredd. Apart from his personality defects, Strongarm’s weaknesses seem to be limited to internal water damage and a low-life battery.
Notable episodes include Strongarm inventing a Scrappy Doo mini-version of himself, called Littlearm, who sadly didn’t go on to feature in further episodes, and a two-parter in which Sunny’s enemy Ronnie steals the blueprints for Strongarm and builds an evil twin version for himself, leading to a fun Robot Wars showdown.
The boy Sunny has the cheery disposition that his name suggests. His mum and dad make regular appearances in the strip, as does his grandfather on one occasion, with an interesting bit of character background explaining that he moved to Busterville, Britain, from India as a young man. Sunny’s ethnicity seems unusual within the larger period of 1970s and 1980s British comics that this blog surveys, but thankfully by the late 1980s he was one of a few non-white characters starting to appear a bit more regularly – if nowhere near proportionally correctly – in comics. It’s interesting to see what seems to have been a bit of indecision in how to represent his skin tone in the early episodes. For its first six issues, Nipper was printed in a smaller format on higher-than-usual grade paper which allowed for shades of grey. When it switched to its larger format on cheaper paper, Mike Lacey became limited to black and white line art and no greyscale, which made it harder to indicate differences in skin colour. For a fee issues, Sunny seemed to alternate between being drawn with line shading and no differentiating skin tone at all, before a decision seems to have been made to go with the former.
Strongarm Command Kart survived Nipper’s merge into Buster and ran for another year or so before being cancelled to make way for the arrival of new characters when Buster took over Oink! I don’t have all the issues of Buster that cover the story’s run, and I know it didn’t appear every single week, so the episode count on the Story File card below is an educated guess.