Normally, when you hear about a British comic being “back”, it’s either a point-missing American revival in which the main character is a psychopathic cannibal, a book of reprints, a one-off “funny” newspaper strip, or (in a depressingly-increasing number of cases) digital-only. Maybe even digital-only reprints, which are basically free to make and still sold for the thick end of a fiver. And people who are oh-so “aware” of “what’s going on in the world” lap it up. While, no doubt, sharing pictures on Facebook about how they don’t fall for “corporate propaganda”.
But when I say The Sexton Blake Library is back, I mean it’s BACK! New stories, printed on paper! Now, when the revival was first announced, I was hoping it would be this sort of size:
And this sort of price:
Was the announcement really that long ago?
And not this sort of size:
And this sort of price:
Well in size, it’s actually a hardback, of about these dimensions…
And as for price…
JESUS, IT’S TWENTY QUID!*
I was also hoping it was going to be sold in newsagents, perhaps near the My Weekly and People’s Friend story libraries, rather than in bookshops. But I haven’t seen it in either, it looks like it’s online ordering only, though it might turn up in bigger Waterstoneses. I’ll check when I go to London next… I just hope it’s in the Crime section, and not the Steampunk section.
But anyway, on to the content! As I said, often, when we hear about a comic or character being “back”, it often turns out to be reprints. But the new SBL is really NEW, and begins with a story by Mark Hodder, who is already well-known in steampunk circles (as well as, erm, running the biggest Sexton Blake website!). Resisting the temptation to “update” the character, with, say, an alsatian and a black Tinker (Though I had a plan to do that myself, many years ago!), the new story reads exactly like an issue of the SBL would have eighty-something years ago. It even has an “introducing” blurb before the story – common in both the Sexton Blake Library and the weekly Union Jack.
The story packs in all the usual Sexton Blake tropes – fiendish, untrustworthy master villains, disguises, escapes, sleight-of-hand trickery, betrayals and James Bond (or Captain Justice!)-esque “gadgets”, far in advance of the technology of the day. If that isn’t enough, the discovery of a priceless, bible-referenced treasure is slotted in as a mere scene-setter. There’s even an upper-class imperialist offering an actually-quite-convincing explanation of why the Middle East is always such a trouble spot! Remember, once upon a time, you could buy at least eight stories of this quality every month!
The first story ends with a quick explanation of the origin of the main villains (also returning from old stories, though one of thier associates, “The Gentleman”, is a new character). We are then treated to a reprint of their very first story, originally published in The Union Jack, in 1922. It’s by G.H. Teed, regarded by many as the best Sexton Blake writer (he was quite the “character” himself. A biography would be very difficult to piece together, but would make interesting reading). To Mark Hodder’s, and the new Library’s, credit, the style and pacing of the story are almost indistinguishable from the brand-new one that preceded it!
It retains the introductory blurb, and the sometimes-spoiler-tastic chapter titles. Unfortunately the illustrations are not reproduced. Shame, as they were almost certainly by Eric Parker, regarded by many as the best Sexton Blake artist! He’s certainly the one who gave him a defined image, anyway. It’s interesting to see the “origin story” of the three villains who we have just seen foiled in the main story, and it’s a great thriller in itself, though the ending is a little rushed. The Union Jack didn’t have a great deal of space, though!
The new SBL may be £20, but it is quarterly (for now…?), so you have time to save up. If every issue is of the same quality, it ought to do well! I do hope there’s stories set in several different time periods, though. In fact, I seem to remember hints that a story about “Silent Thunder” was going to explain how Sexton Blake, Tinker and Mrs Bardell lived right through from the 1890’s to 1960’s (and, unofficially, far beyond!) without ageing. That story was going to alternate between the early 20th and 21st centuries. The one in this volume, though, is set sometime around 1928, and is more “straightforward”. As straightforward as you get with Sexton Blake, anyway!
* – Also, I’d ignore that “one left in stock” message. The much older Zenith Lives! book, from the same publisher, says the same, even though I bought “the last one” ages ago. Hasn’t stopped somebody trying to re-sell their “rare” copy for £3000, though!