The accidental blocking of the Suez Canal in March 2021 by the Evergreen container ship Ever Given has stirred memories of the Thunderbirds strip by Alan Fennell and Frank Bellamy which was first published in July 1967 in TV Century 21. In the comic strip it was a new Nicaraguan Canal which was blocked by the atomic liner President.

The comic strip opened on the centre spread of issue 130 with a stunning splash panel of the atomic ship President leaving New York on its maiden voyage on 15 July 2067 . Frank Bellamy underlined the scale of the vessel showing a jet plane streaking beneath the prow of the liner. As the President sets sail for Australia, Scott and Jeff Tracy fly overhead in Thunderbird 1. Keeping high to avoid air corridors and recognition, Scott suggests they take a look at , “The new canal…another piece of engineering genius.” Jeff agrees: “The old Panama would never have been big enough to take ships as large as the President.”

The continuity informs us that, “past troubles in the Panama Zone forced the World Government to order the building of a new canal across friendly Nicaragua….three times the size of the Panama…and less trouble to control and navigate.”

In the real world, the U.S. control of the zone around the Panama canal had been challenged by nationalists, culminating in fatal riots in January 1964. Control of the zone would not be ceded to Panama until 1977, and it was only in 2014 that construction of a Nicaraguan canal was approved!

Frank Bellamy’s opening spread

As Thunderbird 1 flies over Nicaraguan towns and villages, Jeff comments: “Not thirty miles from here, millions of dollars have been spent on a new seaway, yet those hovels haven’t been touched in one and a half centuries! ” The timescale invokes Nicaragua’s Somoza dynasty, dating back to 1937 with the third member becoming President on 1st May 1967.

In a village below, three Nicaraguan’s gather: “While the government grows fat from the dollars paid by the ships on the canal, we starve in misery.” They agree it is time to make a big noise and in the final panel, the leader Juan delares, “I have it! The new ship. The President! We will blow her up.!”

In the second installment, Juan gathers supporters in his bid, “to tell the world of our poverty and the way our government is turning its back on us!” One of the villagers objects that destroy the big ship is wrong, but another responds, “Is it not also wrong for people to live in squalor like we do? Have we not tried everything else?” Gathering explosives experts and former construction workers, “Juan does not include bloodshed in his plans.” He tells them, “We will stop the President by blocking the canal. All the passengers and crew will be ordered to leave…then we will blow up the ship.”

But unknown to Juan, his plans are about to be disrupted by Casta and Golan, very much in the XL5 and Stingray vein of villainous duo’s. Fearing the troops will kill them, Casta argues, “We must form an army to protect ourselves.” Golan says he knows men “who think as we do.”Casta is engineer of a small tanker which rams the President. As the liner begins to take on water, it drifts blocking the canal. Juan gives orders for the ship to be abandoned but now, Casta and Golan threaten to shoot any passengers or crew who leave the ship.

With the President damming the canal, flood waters spread, threatening rural villages. The captain of the liner radios the World Maritime Agency saying his passengers and crew are under threat from armed men. The Nicaraguan government prepares to send in troops to put down the revolt. Jeff Tracy intervenes: “this calls for diplomacy, not guns” and International Rescue is given 24 hours to resolve the situation. “If you have not succeeded by then, the rebels will be put down!” In Thunderbird 1 Scott begins to rescue villagers as their homes are engulfed.

While Thunderbird 2 uses mechanical grabs to repair the breach in the canal, Thunderbird 4 examines the damage to the President. But then the liner keels over, trapping Gordon and Thunderbird 4. Juan dives into the water to help free Gordon while Thunderbird 1 and Thunderbird 2 attach cables to the liner and pull it upright.

Seeing Juan’s example, the rebels agree that co-operation is the best policy. Casta and Golan realise that, “this rabble will no longer hear us,” and make their way to the massing army where they tell the General that, “the rebels have been joined by foreigners in heavily armed aircraft.”

The army opens fire on Thunderbird 2 and the rebels. Scott blinds the army with a smokescreen from Thunderbird 1 while Gordon and Juan race across the firestorm to convince the officers that they’ve been misled by Casta and Golan. As the President resumes its voyage, Jeff tells Gordon that, “Juan and his men have been pardoned by the Government. The shattered villages will be rebuilt – and not as slums this time.”

The President storyline is one of the most ambitious of the Thunderbirds comic strips in TV Century 21. The contrast between the engineering marvels of the 21st Century and the poverty of the Nicaraguan region is dramatically rendered by Bellamy. The trigger for the action is unique – I can’t think of another story that directly referred to the real world this way. The undermining of Juan’s relatively peaceful plan by Casta and Golan is also quite bold. In some ways the two viewpoints are reminiscent of the peaceful Aphony and aggressive Titan in Marina, Girl of the Sea but again much more realistic.

The storyline ran from issue 130 to 136 of TV Century 21, and was reprinted in March/April 1992 in issues 11 to 13 of Thunderbirds The Comic. If you want to read the strips it’s probably easiest to get hold of the 1990’s Fleetway comics although you should bear in mind that the litho printing reproduces the art in a smaller size. To see Frank Bellamy’s art at its best (even yellowed by age) you really need to try and get hold of the original tabloid photogravure comics. However, issue 13 of the Fleetway comic does have the bonus of a cover by Graham Bleathman depicting the Thunderbird ships trying to right the President and an original centrespread cutaway by Graham Bleathman, based on Frank Bellamy’s design but showing all original interiors.