The weirdness of British comics in the late 40’s is well-known, with hundreds of small publishers popping up and printing a few short-run, one-off comics before vanishing back into oblivion (or just changing their name in order to secure another paper ration). Most of the softback comics they produced are incredibly rare, if not entirely extinct, today. But a few companies also bought out hardback annuals, which have stood the test of time a little better. One of the best known is the Wonder Book of Comics from circa 1949.
This had a lesser-known cousin, also published by Odhams, called The Ace Book of Comics, which appears to be from the early 50’s. A time by which paper rationing had been relaxed, but had not entirely disappeared.
These “bit of everything” annuals, with colourful, simple and poetic strips alongside adventure text stories about the likes of Biggles served a useful purpose in their time. The baby boom generation were being born and learning to read, but their parents didn’t have much money and the country had few resources. No doubt such books also encouraged younger children to learn to read, when they saw their older siblings (or even parents!) enjoying the more sophisticated stories.
One of the earliest of these annuals was published just after the war. The Feathers Annual 1946 (possibly for Christmas 1946, rather than 1945 but “dated ahead”).
The back cover is the same
The book is extremely thin, and quite floppy for a supposed ‘hardback’. Though it has more pages, it is only about as thick as an issue of Spaceship Away or Strip Magazine, and is dwarfed by a typical traditional British annual
Against the Victor Annual 1992
As you can see from the side-view picture, the pages are all different colours. This is possibly a design choice, though more likely it is because the publishers had a hard time finding enough paper to produce a 96-page annual, so had to take whatever they could get! Still, the different colours and textures (a few pages in the middle are glossy, whilst most of the others aren’t) do help to give the stories aimed at different audiences a different feel. The book begins with a fairytale-style coloured plate, and the contents page hints at the variety of content within.
The first story is of the Boys’ Own kind, it features the two sons of a scientist, who is planning to explore a deep, mysterious well that has been found in a Docklands warehouse. Ominously, the room where the cover of the well had been hidden was bricked up, and eighteenth-century coins found on the floor suggest it’s previous occupant left in a great hurry! Anyway, when they explore they find a huge, man-eating monster living down there. Luckily, as it lives in the dark it’s blind, so they can escape it by moving quietly. Still you do wonder how these creatures survive for centuries without anything to eat.
Well unless there’s some tunnel that fish swim down to keep it going.
The next story is a boarding school caper in the style of The Magnet. A boy called Spadger receives a package of ants from his aunt, who lives in Africa. The ants turn out to eat wood, escape and begin to demolish the stage in the school hall, just as the fiery speech of one of the governors reaches it’s crescendo.
Abrupt colour change!
The next item is a short comedy play set on a desert island, all in verse. The stage directions suggest that “hornpipes or grotesque savage dances” may be added to make it longer!
Continuing the theme of party suggestions, several pages are filled with ideas for party games that can be played. Most of them only requring a few ‘props’, for instance some stones. It was an era when children had to make thier own fun, and materials of all kinds were still in short supply.
The next section of the book is a series of glossy, colourful pages with large writing – aimed at younger readers. It’s almost like another book in itself, complete with a ‘title page’
The stories in this section all revolve around imps, goblins, fairies and the like. It is followed by one of the longest stories, this time a school story aimed at older girls, and written on pink paper. The new girl at a posh school is acting suspicously, and is spotted visiting a fortune teller in the nearby town – a place normally well out of bounds. It’s up to the head prefect to work out what is going on, without getting the likeable new girl into too much trouble, which is difficult with the head nosing around!
With the back cover of the “book within a book”
Also on the pink paper is another fairy tale, this one aimed at slightly older reader than the previous set. It concerns various inhabitants of Toadstool Town going on a mission to the sun, which has mysteriously gone out. It turns out the sun is another planet, with a gigantic fire covering about a third of the surface, which always faces the earth. Where the wood comes from is another matter! Anyway the fire is re-lit, but unfortunately the intrepid astronauts left their rocket on it, and can’t get home!
Which begs the question, who came back to tell the tale?
The final section, on blue paper, is a series of puzzles of various difficulties, something to keep the children quiet until Dick Barton comes on the wireless.
So that was another look at the “something for everyone” books of the 40’s. A time when children of all ages would ravenously devour comics of any kind, and adults still bought regular, story-filled publications such as The Sexton Blake Library, as well as those magazines filled with newspaper-style gag cartoons. How times change, eh?