Chums: 1906/7 and 1932/3

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Having built up quite a collection of food, i was able to save some money recently. And, trying to ignore my need of new shoes (“the weather’s warming up anyway, it won’t rain much”) i decided to buy a Chums volume i’ve had my eye on. It was £45 (well, 40 as the woman very kindly gives a student discount), as opposed to £2.99 (and £10 delivery) for the 1906/7 volume… but then again that was from Ebay, which is often cheaper, and in horrendous condition. It even smells like it’s been near a fire at one point, my more adventruous nature would like to think it narrowly escaped the blitz, but more likely it was in an attic near where the chimney went up for many years.

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Anyway, Chums was initially started by Cassell & Co. in 1892, pre-empting the perhaps better-remembered Boys’ Friend for a large-format story paper with serial instalments, in addition to a complete story of decent length, and the odd factual article. Then again Chums was most likely a penny when it started, whereas the Boys’ Friend was a halfpenny in the 1890’s, that would have accounted for sales success.

Following the style of the times, the size of the paper was what we’d today call arbitrary. Or perhaps “two thirds tabloid”.

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Volumes of The Boys’ Friend 1903-4, Chums 1906-7 (the covers are only very slightly bigger than the comics within)  and a typical “half tabloid” (roughly A4 give or take a few mm’s – though older ones described as the same were actually a little bigger, especially in height, due to cheaper printing quality needing more ‘run off’ room.) comic.

The 1907 (i’ll call them by the later year now to save myself so much typing!) volume, despite being very rickety (it needed repairs i may cover in another post), contains a lot of fascinating material. The typical content of an issue seems to have been longish instalments of at least two serials, a complete story, sometimes a second complete story, as well as an “editors chat” (sometimes a page, sometimes two columns). At least one humourous comic strip, usually with it’s panels “scattered” on a text page and miscellaneous oddments of knowledge or snippets of interesting news and events.  A bit like a less-childish Chatterbox, really. Some issues would include a longer article in place of the second complete story, these articles usually profusely illustrated with photographs and related to some subject of direct interest to the readers, such as scouting.  Still more issues didn’t feature either, though, simply taking up the room with a lot of small articles or jokes.

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The 1907 volume also reproduces the covers and adverts, in fact it’s just the same as the paper that was sold individually in the shops. There is, actually, the possibility that this is a bound volume of the paper that was bought every week by somebody and then bound together using the “official covers” that could probably be bought seperately. However the beginning of the book (mainly the bit of ‘tracing paper’ over the contents, as was the style of the times) suggests otherwise. I’m sure the advertisers and cover illustrators didn’t complain about the extra exposure anyway.

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Two typical spreads from the 1907 volume. Note the comic strips (and the sometimes “scattered” layout of them), the short articles with bold headings and the adventure stories. Aside from the comic strips, covers and heading pictures for the stories (in a lot of serials this seems to have been the same each instalment) illustrations of the text stories are actually quite few and far between. The odd complete story seems to have quite a few, though. Perhaps it was just what would fit in once the story was done… or if the illustrators had time to provide any!

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Photographs are actually a more common sight in the older volume than the new. Several articles on ships (this the HMS dreadnought, the insitigator of a whole era of naval warfare) and monarchs / heads of state feature them. The reproduction is actually quite good compared to the high-contrast, murky reproduction in some other papers. (It’s certainly better than the flash makes it look in this picture!)

Onto the newer volume now, covering 1932 to 1933 (the volumes start from roughly September). This one features no covers or adverts reproduced, and judging by the contents the quantity of factual articles, sage editorial advice, comic strips and amusing snippets had been reduced to almost nothing, a whole issue could seemingly pass without any of those. To make up for this, the quantity of exciting adventure stories was greatly increased. Serials were still the norm, with complete stories appearing in every issue. The number of illustrations, especially in the complete stories, was greatly increased too.

The reason for the apparent vanishing of the factual articles and such-like may be down to the fact this is a bound annual sold by the publisher, and not the individual issues. The articles may have been left out, providing only the stories. Or else the page count of the issues themselves may have been drastically reduced. The reasons for this are not too hard to work out – by this time Chums was published by the Amalgamated Press, presumably they had bought Cassell & co. out, and they wanted to run this “rival” into the ground. Or else sales were just dropping off anyway. That said the paper did seemingly continue into 1941 (so says a book i have), so perhaps it avoided “Graveyard week”. I bet the final volume, with inevitable war stories, makes fascinating reading! Another interesting note is that Chums’ seeming ‘main rival’, the Boys’ Friend, had actually vanished in 1927 (though if you ask me, from the limited exposure i have had to both, the Boys’ Friend was better!).

(Also – from the brief flick i had it appears that none of the AP staple characters of Bunter & co., Sexton Blake, Nelson Lee etc appared in Chums. I did notice the familiar styles of Eric Parker, illustrator to Sexton Blake’s golden age, illustrating a story though)

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The spines. Actually a terrible pic but you can just make out the publisher’s names – as well as the shiny new card of my home-made repairs to the 1907 volume. The spine was just a sheet of cloth and some very crumbly 101-year-old card when i recieved it.

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Two typical spreads, the short factual articles and anecdotes are now reduced to tiny box-outs that can be ignored. Comic strips are replaced by single “gag panels” too (not that the 1907 volume didn’t feature those in great number too, but in the 1933 one they are rarely seen at all). The rest of it is wall-to-wall swashbuckling adventure! The choice of these two spreads was actually not brilliant, as there’s hardly any pictures. They are a lot more common in this volume though – honestly!

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Another thing that is a great deal more common in the 1933 volume is coloured plates. Some do appear in the 1907 volume though, and not in an “even pattern” either, so it’s probable that they were lost (i’m sure there’s the odd page missing too, i havent read a great deal of it yet. Despite immense quantites of PVA glue not all the pages are attached). In the 1933 volume though they are all present. I don’t know if they were sold with odd issues of the weekly paper (Chatterbox was apparently often sold with an optional plate – and only some of these plates appeared in the published annuals, meaning private-bound volumes had more) or just specific to the annuals. Photographs seem to only appear on the rear of the coloured plates too, and not in the actual comics. 

The content of the adventure stories in the 1933 volumes has two overriding themes when you turn to a random page. Flight is the first, the 20’s and early 30’s being a golden age of aerial navigation, without ground control or radar anybody who could afford a flying-machine could take to the skies whenever the fancy took them, and charge about at leisure. A close encounter with another aeronaut being the occasion for a friendly wave and maybe a little stunt display – and not terrified screams from air-traffic control, perhaps the scrambling of fighters and a front-page headline “NEAR MISS DEATH MANIAC! – It wouldn’t have happened if we all had ID cards” on every paper the following day.

The other common theme is war, most especially “The World War”. The stories are somewhere between later reflections on the horrors of the trenches, and the stories of “Let’s get ’em! hurry up it’ll be over by christmas (notice we don’t say what christmas)!” that appeared during the conflict. So whilst the stories still provide the right amount of thrilling adventure and characters devoted to duty and doing everything they can to fight the enemy so long as they have breath in thier body, the tales still muse on the horrible toll, and the fact that not all of your friends, or you, will ever return home. Which if you ask me is the perfect balance – because if you want realism, go outside.

As an aside, just look at the picture below, taken from the very last complete story in the book – wouldn’t look out of place in Charley’s War, would it?

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A final oft-seen theme in the book, primarily in serial form, is the boarding school story. This was, after all, the age of the Magnet and Gem. No obvious Charles Hamilton spotted… but he had his hands full writing for the Magnet, Gem, Penny Popular and who knows what else each week. So i doubt there is any.

Another interesting thing that appeared in the 1907 volume is this fold-out coloured plate, that was just tucked in near the back. It appears to be from the Boys’ Own Paper? I might frame it one day, even with that crease.

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Sexton Blake news – Good, Bad and Amazing

It’s been an interesting time on the blakiana front in the past month or so. Starting with the website of that name at www.sextonblake.co.uk, a greatly-expanded and improved new version is reportedly on the way very soon. Part of that new version is already online, an interactive and user-created site located at http://sextonblake.ning.com/ which will eventually be integrated with the main site. Parts of it already link “in one direction”.

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In even better news, some of Sexton Blake’s finest adventures are returning to print in a new anthology! Apparently priced at £2.99 (i can’t beleive that, they must mean £12.99) the book will contain 7 vintage stories from the Union Jack, primarly from the 1910’s, but also one from the 20’s, the undisputed height of the detective’s golden age, and a trio from the 1900’s. According to Amazon, the stories are…

The Slave Market – From 1907, Sir Richard Losely and Lobangu are both under the powers of a ruthless slaver called The White Death in Africa, and Sexton Blake has to ride to the rescue

A Football Mystery – Sexton Blake and the beautiful game! a team made up of dastardly foreign types is cheating it’s way to the top. Sexton Blake has to discover thier secret and then take to the field himself, where he puts in a performance that could teach a certain Roy Race a thing or two.

The Man From Scotland Yard – The introduction of George Marsden Plummer, a brilliant detective in the official police who uses his knowledge of thier methods to turn to a life of crime. The police, in turn, call upon the best detective in the world to catch him…

The Law of the Sea – Sexton Blake is sailing on a huge, four-funneled transatlantic steamer deemed to be “unsinkable”. You can probably guess the rest, and won’t need telling that this is from 1912.

The Brotherhood of the Yellow Beetle – Prince Wu Ling, a chinese criminal with aims of world domination, appears in this story.

A Case of Arson – Deception, theft, insurance fraud and other vices intertwine in this story. Sexton Blake has a lot of unraveling to do! Also features Dirk Dolland, who would later play a part in the epic Criminal’s Confederation series.

The Black Eagle – A man who has been wrongly imprisoned on an isolated island is free – and out for murderous revenge!

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And now, in not-so-good Blake news, comes the announcement of a new radio series. Perhaps inevtiably it is going to be an “oh so hilarious” (read: predictable* and insulting) parody rather than actually good. As if it couldn’t get any worse it’s produced by a company with the ‘raaandom’ (you can just see them now, can’t you?) name of “Perfectly Normal Productions”. Jesus christ… Just look at the description from the press release:

SEXTON BLAKE! A name that spells thrilling adventure for fans across the world,many of whom are still alive.

SEXTON BLAKE! A name that spells certain doom for villainy, no matter how fiendish or dandied.

SEXTON BLAKE! A name that spells mild, lingering confusion for country vicars advertising for a general officer.

A baffling crime — a hapless victim — the cry goes up, “Call SEXTON BLAKE! also some kind of medical representative.”

Now, exactly thirty-eight years, four months and eleven days after his final broadcast,the world’s mightiest and most popular detective returns to the air in the all-new THE ADVENTURES OF SEXTON BLAKE. Accompanied in his breakneck hurtle to justice by doughty (not doughy) assistant Tinker, Sexton Blake battles diabolical masterminds — beautiful jewel thieves — mechanical Stalins — in locations as exotic as a portable Congo — a second, secret London Underground — an uphill avalanche. Encountering peril at every turn, only Blake can save the day and solve the case by outwitting his enemies in the head and outpunching them in the jaw.

Yeah, Jesus christ

* – Top three predictions!

3 – Sexton Blake hilariously works out that some people in the distance are not British. When his companions ask how he can tell he hilariously points out that they aren’t wearing hats.

2 – Some “savages” are encountered who hilariously turn out to be more intelligent than anybody else.

1 – A couple of gentlemen who call each other “chum” and “old chap” hilariously turn out to be gay.