Penny plain, Tuppence coloured

I recently found a cool blog about Japanese comics (mainly!), Three Steps Over Japan:

http://threestepsoverjapan.blogspot.co.uk/

The writer likes to collect and make “papercraft” free gifts, which regularly come with comics over there. This got me thinking about the “penny plain, tuppence coloured” toy theatres that used to come with the Penny Dreadfuls, and which were the origin of the free (and not so free) gifts in British comics. Of course many people think that the trend of gifts has gone too far in British comics, often it’s more like you are paying for the toys and the comic is the “gift”! Still The Dandy included some cut-out cardboard papercraft items for Christmas a few years ago, which ought to be applauded, as at least it gave an artist a job!

Anyway just today I took delivery of 6 month’s worth of The Boys’ Friend from 1909. And what did that give away for Christmas that year? A model theatre and “actors”!

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The cover of that issue – a double number!

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The “theatre” itself. It’s on glossy(ish) paper and was difficult to photograph decently.

It also came with comprehensive instructions and a bit of extra background scenery. The story was in prose form, as that issue’s complete. Every issue of The Boys Friend contained at least one, of around 10,000 words in length.

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Stan Dare: Boy Detective

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Could he have been the grandfather of the famous Dan? Well his adventures were began in the Amalgamated Press story paper Pluck in 1903. And the descendants of Amalgamated Press eventually came to possess Eagle too!

Pluck was a paper that was founded in 1894, and was in a similar style to the Halfpenny Marvel and Union Jack, 16 half tabloid pages for a halfpenny. The other two began with a complete story and an editorial page (occasionally less than a page), I presume Pluck was the same. However by 1903 all three featured a complete story and 1 – 2 serial stories. In these issues of Pluck (I have the first 6 months of 1903) there are two serials running, the “newer” one being given longer installments than the “older” one.

Pluck’s complete stories, whilst being complete in each issue, were also organised into loose ‘series’ with recurring characters, and that is the form in which Stanley Dare appeared. I own the first five stories, though his adventures appear to have continued sporadically into at least 1911. All five of these first stories appear to be written by Alec G. Pearson (though the first is uncredited) and feature a few recurring characters. Apparently in later stories he was helped regularly by a Professor MacAndrew, though that character does not appear in these five.

The five stories are also a fantastic microcosm of the tropes of the detective stories of the day. Our hero roams around “large, old fashioned houses” with “queer, rambling passages”. These regularly burn down, their “elderly timbers” being “as dry as brushwood”. We meet a young apprentice criminal who wants to go straight, we sneak into the meetings of masked and robed secret societies. Stan is flung from a speeding train, trapped in endless secret chambers and drowned in a murky swamp yet always shows up in time to frustrate the villain’s plot. Not bad for somebody who today would only have been out of school a year!

The Shadow of Guilt – Pluck issue 431, 23/02/1903

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“Pluck” is an old-fashioned word for bravery

Stanley Dare is  a clerk at the Capital & District bank when we first meet him, he is falsely accused of stealing a large quantity of money from the vault of the bank, having been the only person to be left down there on his own. However most of the managers and staff don’t really believe he is guilty, but the evidence is too strong. They don’t press charges in the hope he can get a job somewhere else. He decides to do some detective work and try to discover the real criminals.

He investigates the vault and finds footprints that are made of clay, as you’d find on the shoes of somebody who had been digging a deep hole. He searches the surrounding area for evidence of digging, but can’t find any. Then he spots a man with the same sort of clay on his boots and follows him. This man goes to a house, then appears at the window looking completely different! He must have been walking around in disguise, which nobody honest would be doing.

Stan sneaks into the empty house next door, and discovers that the criminals have found an old Roman aqueduct under their house, and are using it to get around London unseen. He makes his own way down into the aqueduct, but the rope he is using snaps. He then blunders into an ancient well but is rescued by a mad old man who also found his way down there somehow. This man then leads him right into the clutches of the criminals!

The criminals know who he is, but ask him to join them, because he knows about bank vaults and their locks and so on. He pretends to be considering it, while they make a plan for a second robbery on the Capital & District. Then he smashes the lamp they are using in the room (which is an ancient and dried-up Roman bath) and escapes.

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That could be an ancestor of Judge Dredd in the black hat!

Stanley runs around the tunnels for a while, but is trapped in a dead end, which was once a secret room. The criminals shut the door and leave him to starve. However the ceiling has fallen in and he is able to escape back to the tunnels after many hours of crawling. He then creeps up into the criminal’s house and out into the street. He tells the managers of the Capital & District of the coming robbery, and the criminals are caught in the act. The inspector who had originally arrested him helps him to set up as a private detective.

Shadowed! – Pluck issue 435, 28/03/1903

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Hey modern American comic makers, THIS is how you do a cover!

A man called Harper Wayne receives a coded letter in a mysterious manner, and then loads of people try to kill him. His cousin, who looks similar to him, is murdered. He had given this cousin a little watch chain ornament he had found, a black snake. Stanley realises that the coded message belongs to a gang called “The League of the Black Serpent” (NB – Actually this name is not used in the comic, but is far cooler than just “The Serpent Gang”, which is!). All the police forces of Europe have been trying to capture this gang, but none have succeeded.

Stanley decodes the message and finds it relates to a secret meeting, which he attends in disguise. The League all meet in black masks and hooded robes. However when “too many” members show up Stanley is exposed, but is able to brand a man with a red-hot poker before he escapes. Oh and the house is set on fire in the initial struggle and burns down.

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For a while at primary school a load of us wanted to be “gangsters” (inspired more by Grease than gangsta rap). We ought to have called ourselves The League of the Black Serpent!

He later tracks the branded man down on a train, but the man see’s through his disguise. After a struggle over a poison dart gun Stanley is thrown off the train, directly into the path of another! The League arrive at their destination. Walsingham Grance, which they intend to rob. They creep in and, having overpowered a man sleeping in the same room as the safe, are about to finish him off when Stanley shows up with a posse of constables!

Stanley had escaped by twisting as he fell, and then had laid huddled up between the two rushing trains. As he goes to walk out of the tunnel he was dropped in, he finds the poison dart gun. It’s handle is a storage compartment which contains a piece of paper with a message relating to “the broken post”. By some contrived luck he discovers that there are some valuable diamonds at Walshingham Grange, he also discovers a broken post nearby and is able to ambush the Serpents. Their leader, Michael Scarfe, escapes at the last minute. He says he’ll meet Stanley again, but doesn’t in any of the stories I have.

The Vanished Heir – Pluck issue 437, 11/04/1903

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The amount of clinging fog rolling across the scene is left for you to imagine.

The description calls this “The Boy Detective’s Strangest Case”, actually it’s probably his most ordinary one! Colonel Thurston calls Stanley in when his son mysteriously disappears. He was dressed in a fancy costume for a party, but a servant claimed to see him in the grounds dressed normally only a few minutes after he was last seen, which is impossible. The colonel leaves and Stanley returns to his room (which is in a “rambling” and “old fashioned” hotel). He spots a shadow and a secret panel in the wall, somebody had been listening to the meeting!

He visits the colonel the next day, and that man says he was attacked while driving home from the hotel, but drove off his assailants. They then investigate the grounds and Stanley discovers and obvious clue, one that the original searchers ought to have found. It seems that the missing son was still in the house to start with, and was taken away afterwards. They walk further and see an old mansion which is now being used as a school. The headmaster passes by, Stanley notices strange dust on that man’s clothes. He decides to investigate the school later that night, but is tricked into an old shed, knocked out, and thrown in a nearby stagnant pool.

The story then switches to a school story for a bit. A new boy called Samuel Flopp arrives at the school, which is not a very good one and rife with bullies. The new boy beats up most of the bullies single-handed, which earns him respect from the other pupils. After being at school for a while he goes for a midnight wander to an unused, forbidden wing of the mansion. There he finds somebody is being held prisoner. He is almost caught by the one other teacher, but escapes into the night.

Later Stanley is back at the colonel’s house, explaining that he landed on an old tree that was submerged in the pond, and his dog rescued him. He also says that the colonel’s new footman, who claimed to see his son in the garden on the night of the disappearance, is one of the villains! They surprise this man as he is trying to destroy some evidence, and he is arrested.

Samuel Flopp shows up at the school assembly the next day, and accuses the headmaster of being a kidnapper! The police them march in and Samuel Flopp is (surprise surprise) revealed to be Stanley Dare! The headmaster ruses off to murder his captive, but Stan is quicker because he rushes around the outside of the building and climbs a ladder into the room where Harold Thurston is held. He arrives just in time to save him from the headmaster, who throws a bottle of chemicals onto the floor that burst into flames.

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The headmaster goes mad and then collapses on the fire. Stanley picks up Harold, shoots the lock off the door and collapses into the arms of the policemen, waking up again outside as the burning school collapses.

The Crimson Clue – Pluck issue 438, 25/04/1903

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More secret rooms and trapdoors

A farmer called John Norton brings Stanley a note he found tied to the foot of a pigeon. It is addressed to the boy detective by a dying man, and is written in his own blood! The man writes that his daughter is in peril and mentions a grey house. He also says he has been mortally wounded by “an awful, unaccountable thing”, adding to the mystery.

Stanley and the farmer track down the rough direction the pigeon came from, and walk until they hit upon a village, where a badly-mauled body has just been discovered. The victim appears to have been bitten in the throat by some sort of huge wolf, yet there are no tracks of such a creature. Stanley does, however, find horseshoe-shaped impressions several hundred yards apart along the road. Tracing these back he finds a grey house occupied by a Mr Moreland, and tricks his way inside past the hideous, hunchbacked servant. The pair hear a girl’s scream, but Mr Moreland says it was actually a Hyena that he keeps as a pet. Stanley notices revolvers bulging in the man’s pockets and they leave.

At midnight he and John Norton return and break in. They sneak into the cellars, but are suddenly dazzled by a bright light. Moreland and his servant are behind it, covering them with revolvers. However the current is interrupted and Stanley and John run further down into the cellars, where they are attacked by huge wolves. They fight these off, but are shut in the cellar.

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Screentone!

John Norton says he could easily break the door down, but then a panel opens and a gun is fired through it. John is wounded and Stanley, dodging, trips a secret trapdoor and falls into a deeper cellar with no exit! He is knocked out, but comes around many hours later and finds a note from Mr Moreland, saying he likes to keep people down there to see how long it is before they go insane. Stanley spends the whole day there, but when the servant comes to feed him he pulls that man down through the trapdoor, and climbs out.

He explores the house, and while looking through a window spots a huge bat-like creature landing in the garden and walking into the house. He hides as it passes him. He then steals some food, and also some “queer-looking apparatus”. Then he comes across John Norton, who is locked in a room but not badly injured. Together they rescue the woman, Marguerite Woodward, and escape the house.

By the time they have got the police, the criminals have discovered the prisoners have escaped, and have escaped themselves. However Stanley tracks them down to a dodgy guest house in London’s docklands where they are arrested. He explains that the “awful, unaccountable thing” that had been murdering people in the district of the grey house was Moreland, using spring-loaded shoes and bat-like wings to glide with.

The Clue of the Painted Face – Pluck issue 442, 16/05/1903

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Stanley is accosted by a Ramsay Marshall whilst out walking. Mr Marshall has been expecting a Niece, who he has never met or seen, to visit from Australia. However when her ship arrives he is told she left it in France, since then she has vanished. Then suddenly he gets a letter in her handwriting, telling him to go to a house in a run-down district. He does and finds a woman in a trance. He rushes out, runs into Stanley Dare and returns, only to find her missing!

Whilst the pair are looking around the room a painting is removed into the wall and a ghastly, corpse-like face stares out at them. Suddenly all the candles go out and by the time they are re-lit, the face has disappeared. Mr Marshall leaves the house, whilst Stanley searches further. He discovers a secret room, leading off from the room where the woman vanished. He climbs down into this and discovers an obvious secret door with a button to press, however the button is a trap, and a mechanical claw grabs his arm!

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Is he supposed to look Chinese or Jewish?

The man of the corpse-like face emerges from the shadows, and prepares to kill Stanley with a blow-pipe. However Stan has been fiddling with the secret door mechanism and it swings open, blowing out the candles. Stanley escapes through into the next room, which is a cellar with a window, and from there into the yard. He finds a lost wallet as he makes good his escape.

The next day he returns with John Norton, that worthy man itching for a rumble. The house is apparently back to normal. Suddenly “the real owner” walks in and threatens to call the police. Stanley tells him to go ahead as “we are anxious to meet with your late tenant, who took a great deal of trouble to try and murder me last night!”. No more clues can be picked up at the house, so Stanley then tracks down Jim Slideaway, the owner of the lost wallet. It was he who, whilst trespassing in the back yard of the house to find something to steal, was given the note by the captive woman.

Stanley then tracks down the man of the painted face and the woman to a seaside village called Rottingdean. This “old eccentric and his invalid niece”  are looking for a housekeeper, which job Stanley’s landlady Mrs Bowen applies for and gets. Slideaway Jim is posted in a tree outside the house, and Stanley soon has confirmation that these are the people he is looking for. However the man with the painted face, now “Doctor Marengo”, visits him in another disguise, as “Reverend Ingram”. The worthy reverend is going to prick Stanley with a poisoned needle hidden in a cigar case, but it is stolen from his back pocket by Jim, who is hiding in the cupboard.

John Norton is called in, and together they kidnap Ann Parsons, the mystery woman’s jailer. They then rescue her. As Stanley goes to leave the house he runs into Doctor Marengo, who throws a jar of chemicals to the floor, which burst into flames. Stanley, probably muttering “not again”, daringly escapes the blazing building and Doctor Marengo is consumed in the flames. The mystery woman turns out to be Violet Forsyth, the missing Niece. Doctor Marengo had planned to use her, in a hypnotised state, as a sort of remote control burglar. She is restored to her family, who also give Slideaway Jim the chance to “go straight”, working on their farm.

Odds ‘N Ends

Sorry I haven’t made any decent updates lately. I have a few ideas in the pipeline including some more reviews of serial stories (I have in fact taken the necessary pictures for a review of a 1930’s Girls’ Crystal serial and had them sitting around for ages!) and more looks at classic science fiction.

Anyway, for now here is an inspirational poem from The Juvenile Magazine for July 1886. Which also gives me an excuse to start an 1880’s category!

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No mention of Jesus, unlike almost everything else this comic printed.

Well the gap between 1870’s and 1890’s was annoying. The 1890’s is the start of my “normal” collecting era, so I won’t feature much from before then (well from before 1892 when Chums started, really). The broad type of comics I collect started in the 1860’s but I don’t own anything from that decade yet!

Today I got this, though. An issue of my favourite comic from my favourite decade… with appropriate jingo:

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New Series no. 56, June 14th 1902.

This is a special number to celebrate the coronation of Edward VII. It is also twice the size of a normal issue (and twice the price). Most issues of this era had black and white covers with part of a story on them, too.

This issue see’s the launch of two new serial stories – both with extra-long opening installments of several pages (tabloid sized pages with tiny print, the serials in The Boys’ Friend were truly “book length” ). It also has the usual installments of already-running serials, articles about the King, coronation ceremony and Britain in general. There is also an advert for issue 2 of The Boys’ Realm – which was a very similar story paper launched that year. In 1903 these two would be joined by The Boys Herald making a “big three” of tabloid-sized story papers.

Some Christmas covers

I did this before, right back at the start of the blog. My collection has expanded quite a bit since then, so it’s time for another gallery of Christmas covers!

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Ho Ho… ho?

Starting off right back in 1874 with Chatterbox. That’s not actually the fourth issue, the numbers were restarted for every volume. As you can see the cover is not particularly ‘festive’, but the 1870’s were puritannical times and perhaps a bird dying in the cold was supposed to remind readers to be miserable. The cover refers to a long poem taking up the first two inside pages of the issue within.

Chatterbox was one of the first story papers, starting in 1866. I distinguish these from the penny dreadfuls that were most popular from the 1830’s to 1890’s by the fact that story papers were not horror-focused, and often had more than one story in them (the penny dreadfuls were just a chapter of one long story – of course it was not only ‘dreadful’ stories that were published in this way, the work of Dickens was originally too!). Of course most, but not all, of the early story papers were Christian focused, or else they had only the loosest credibility by being published by the same people who were churning out the penny dreadfuls!

Chatterbox was a bit different, it had more high-minded, ‘straight’ adventure stories without ghosts or ghouls. It also had informative articles and shorter stories about naughty children repenting. It was started by a reverend – J. Erskine Clarke, M.A. so in a way anticipated the Boys’ Own Paper of 1879 and The Eagle of 1950. This 1874-5 volume is of course loaded down with Jesus, but later volumes became more secular, reflecting the attitudes of their age. The first really old book I bought was the 1908 volume of Chatterbox which is a great deal less pious. Chatterbox actually ran all the way up until 1955, though by the end it was just a series of adventure story annuals, and virtually indistinguishable from any of the other “Grand Book for Boys” publications.

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By Jingo!

It’s 1897 now, and this is the Christmas edition of The Marvel (which began in 1893 as The Halfpenny Marvel and gave us Sexton Blake). Where the older story papers were content to just be an alternative to the penny dreadfuls, Alfred Harmsworth’s halfpenny story papers were a clear shot across the bows of these gruesome horror stories. By 1900 the penny dreadfuls were holed below the waterline. Though in the early days of the Harmsworh papers the stories were not all that brilliant, and one wag wrote them off as “Halfpenny dreadfullers”.

Another way that Harmsworh’s story papers differed from the older story papers was their jingoism. By the 1890’s church had been replaced by state in the affections of the people and the empire had become something to be widely celebrated. Harmsworth’s papers captured the mood of this age, and  how better to show it but than with this cover? Santa does not introduce us to presents, or a dickensian scene, but to a host of British troops on the march, “Jack Tar” to the fore and surrounding Britannia on a white charger. We’ll not see the likes of this again until… well until i do a Christmas issue of one of my comics.

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Oops, no cover

Into the twentieth century now, with the 1901 Christmas issue of The Boys’ Friend – except the cover is missing! The Boys’ Friend only had black and white printing most of the time, but relatively frequent “double numbers” (the Christmas and Spring ones being regular fixtures) would have a beautiful colour cover, and double the page count (pst, and also double the price!). Double numbers were also chosen to introduce new serial stories.

The serial was the stock-in-trade of the tabloid-sized Boys’ Friend which started as a halfpenny paper in 1895. The serial stories, large size and cheap paper make collecting The Boys’ Friend very difficult today, may I add! Each issue also had a long complete story of 10,000 words, though, and many of these are great reads. The large size of the paper and tiny type used allowed for very long stories to be told, and also for large and lavish illustrations. To my mind this is one of the greatest of all British comics!

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How, um traffic was a nightmare

Now it’s 1913 and time for another lavish Boys’ Friend double number. This one with it’s wonderful cover intact. The content inside was much the same, a long complete story, ongoing serials, new serials with extra-long opening instalments, and the Editor’s page. I ought to say something for the editor’s page of the Boys’ Friend (and very-similar Boys Herald and Boys’ Realm, which started in the 1900’s and were cancelled in the 20’s), the editor would give well-meaning, and well-researched advice to his readers. He would also give long and friendly replies to readers, try to help them with problems (usually this help involved the purchasing of other Amalgamated press publications or books, ahem) and regularly advise on the dangers of smoking, drinking, gambling, rash emigration to the colonies and going to sea “for an adventure” without thinking it through – all pitfalls that it was all to easy for children to fall into in those days!

Compare this for a second to the letter’s pages of the comics i was growing up with in the 90’s – that is The Beano, The Dandy, Sonic the Comic and a bit later the Judge Dredd Megazine – in those readers were lucky if the reply to their letter was more than a single line. And that single line usually just contained some terrible pun. The Boys’ Friend – Best British comic ever.

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Anyone for footer?

Followed closely by this one! The Union Jack started in 1894 as a virtually-identical story paper to The Halfpenny Marvel. In 1904 it became “Sexton Blake’s own paper” and that detective featured in every issue from then on. Now 10 years later Europe is in the grip of a huge war that many people predicted would be over by Christmas. It wasn’t, as this issue shows! The story revolves around a gentleman falling into disgrace and joining up as an ordinary soldier to seek his own death.

This paper gives the lie to the oft-repeated notion that “popular magazines” during the World War 1 would portray the trenches as a grand life of camping, cricket and then short, easy battles where you would get to “account for” scores of the beastly Hun. This was only the case for the first month or so of the conflict, as it drew on writers became a lot more realistic. The stories in this issue certainly don’t make life in the trenches sound desirable – if anything they exaggerate the horrors! One passage talks of soldiers “fighting for hours waist-deep in freezing water”, which they couldn’t have really done, it’s biologically impossible! Unless you want your legs sawn off afterwards. It’s not exactly discouraging either though. There was after all the need to actually win the thing, so the story emphasises that whilst you may not like your duty, every patriotic Briton must do his best to discharge it.

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For the glory of the School Soviet, comrades!

Now it’s 1921, and the Nelson Lee Library. This was an odd one – a size roughly equivalent to the modern(ish) A5 and with quite a high page count, it carried complete stories about Nelson Lee in each issue. Nelson Lee was a detective who first appeared in the 1890’s, and was not greatly different to Sexton Blake at the time. However by the 1920’s things have rather changed a bit! Nelson Lee is now working as a schoolmaster at St Frank’s boarding school. He isn’t undercover – everybody knows he is a detective, and his boy assistant, Nipper, is a pupil at the school.

This unique setup allowed for the stories to waver between “Billy Bunter”-esque dorm feeds and practical jokes, to serious stories of solving murders and foiling gangs, with ease. Often these two elements would coexist in the same story, and the various boys of the school (not quite the fantastic characterisations of Charles Hamilton, but very close) would often take a hand in the solving of the mystery. Another remarkable aspect of the Nelson Lee library was that it was one huge serial – for decades the main story (it also carried more conventional serials – often 2 or 3 at a time!), while complete in each issue, followed on from the previous one and anticipated the next. Of course these were split into ‘series’ too (in the same way as some, but not all, Sexton Blake stories in the Union Jack were in the 20’s and 30’s) but even then a minor plot element in one series would become a major focus in another.

Oh, yeah, this particular issue is part of one of the more famous series in the Nelson Lee’s history – the “Schoolboy Soviet” series, in which a few boys, inspired by the revolution in Russia, turn the school into a communist state! Of course this descends into tyranny and starvation and they eventually welcome their rightful ‘rulers’, the teachers, back. Unfortunatley I don’t own the whole of this series, so i can’t read it, yet! Anybody got the issues that came directly after the one that was actually named “The Schoolboy Soviet”?

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The flash and old ink is only partly responsible – the cover really is that gloomy!

Now it’s 1925 and we’re back with the Nelson Lee Library. “Snow on the logo” is a long-standing British Comic tradition but in some of these old publications it looked like the wrong kind of snow – not the  soft white stuff you can look out at from your warm room on Christmas day, but the freezing, slippery stuff that your car skids on as you slowly crawl to work on a gloomy November’s morning.

The story in this issue is rather more lighthearted (well from the quick flick I had when i took it out to photograph it, anyway). Several of the boys from St Frank’s end up at an uninhabited stately home for Christmas, with only one butler and no food! But they suspect the castle is haunted – especially when a huge feast seemingly appears by a miracle on the dining table that was completely bare only half an hour before. I doubt it’s worth betting that the ‘ghost’ turns out to be Nelson Lee playing a Christmas prank and that a jolly holiday of crackling fires and gigantic cakes ends the tale.

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Christmas in space

Now it’s the 1950’s and we’ve never had it so good – Photogravure printing of art and writing that well deserves it, a genius artist firing on all cylinders and a minutely-researched science-fiction tale where British pluck, and not technobabble, reversed polarities and sonic screwdrivers wins the day! This is the first Christmas issue of The Eagle – a title that hardly needs introduction. It was created by a Reverend and intended to kill off the popular horror comics of the time. Sound familiar?

Of course I don’t own the actual issue, this is just a reproduced cover in a book about the comic’s most famous character – Dan Dare! They really pulled out all the stops on ‘decorating’ this cover, with holly between the panels!

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Ahh the festive tradition of poisonous gas – bring back the dying Robin!

Now it’s 1952 and Dan Dare still adorns the cover of The Eagle, which is still at the top of it’s game. It hit the ground running and barely faltered for 10 years! This issue isn’t quite so christmas-ey, no holly between the panels. Mind you the snow on the logo is now present and correct.

 Dan Dare and The Eagle copyrighted, trademarked and sole property of The Dan Dare Corporation PLC LTD KGB NKVD 1950-perpetuity. No infringement, expungement or disengagement of the copyright solely owned by the Dan Dare Corporation is hereby expressed, implied or implicated. Use of photographs of covers of The Eagle, copyright of the Dan Dare Corporation 1950-perpetuity, complies with the fair use law regarding critcism and/or review.

And I managed to make a whole post that didn’t involve Chums!

Something funny going on…

Let’s take a complete story from an issue of Chums at random, shall we? Hmm, No 736 from October 1906 looks good…

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‘Twixt Jackson and Barker

It’s the typical boarding school tale of the time. A boy called Jackson has some important news for his friends when his eye falls in a great new bicycle just received by one of them called Barker.  After admiring it he wishes he had such a machine: “what wouldn’t i do for a mount like that!“. Barker asks him what he would do for it, Jackson asks him to name his terms, these are:

-To climb to the top of the cathedral in the nearby town

– To persuade the timid science teacher to tackle a local ‘tough’, an ex-sailor called Jem Starbottle

-To cycle from Arlington to Greatthorpe, a distance of 5 miles, in 15 minutes

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A short story this, it’s only over two pages. Mind you the pages of Chums are pretty big. The illustration on the second is a cartoon and not related to the story.

The first challenge passes easily enough. Jackson and co. climb to the top of the acessible steps in the cathedral and then sneak out onto a narrow parapet. Jackson then climbs above this and stands up on the ball right at the top of the spire, with only the lightning conductor for support! He then descends but misses his step and has to circle the entire spire to find it again (this scene is not too well described XD). The first challenge is over, his friends say it was the easiest one but he says he wouldn’t do it again for a thousand sovereigns. His friend Burgess says he wouldn’t even watch the feat again for two thousand!

The next challenge is more difficult. Jackson, on the next half-holiday (a day with only half the amount of school work and the other half given over to sports/hobbies/free time, as these were boarding schools the pupils could not go home for short holidays) Jackson agrees to accompany the science master, “Smiley” on one of his long and invariably boring nature rambles. Meanwhile another of the friends named Timmins rushes off to find Jem Starbottle and tell him that a licking awaits him at such-and-such a place.

As Smiley comes to the end of the ramble, composing a poem about a Dandelion watched by Jackson and, unknown to him, the others hidden in a haystack, Starbottle comes along looking for his “licking” …and gets it! Much to the astonishment of all concerned. Jackson later explains that on the same afternoon the bike arrived the science master gave him a lesson in boxing: “You should have seen his arms – wire ropes!

The final challenge awaits, Jackson is lent the bicycle and travels down to the starting place with Timmins, who has synchronised his watch with Burgess who awaits at the finish line with Barker. He is a bad cyclist and knows it, he doesn’t expect to actually finish the course in the alotted time, to make matters worse the road is very bumpy. Still he decides to have a try at it, and sets off.

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As soon as he is out of sight Timmins is accosted by a local farm-hand, advising him: “Oi’d go b’train ef oi ere you, Wi’ Capt’in Symons tiger loose, the roads bean’t safe after dark“.  Timmins takes the advice. He’s no coward but the road is dark and “Tigers are tigers!“. Meanwhile Jackson is in the depths of despair, he has done the first mile and is already behind time and worn out beyond beleif. However suddenly the tiger leaps out behind him and starts to chase him. With this ‘encouragement’ he rushes the rest of the course and finishes it in record time, winning the bike! Towards the end the tiger, seeing the lights of the town approaching, gave up the chase, leaving Jackson wondering if he had imagined the whole thing.

That was a pretty good story. I’m in the mood for some AP now, lets turn to an issue of one of thier “Big (in size!) Three”, The Boys’ Herald – No 215 from August 1907.

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The Feats of Tony McTurk

By L.J. Beeston, this is a typical boarding school story of the time. A boy called Pilberry has just received a new camera from his uncle, with all the latest improvements up to the very hour. The only one not enthusiastic about it is Pilberry himself, his only photographic expedition resulted in pictures of his coat. Well how he was he to know which way around it went?

Along comes Tony McTurk, a pupil of the same school who does like photography, but who could never afford such a “snapper” as this. He instead says “There’s nothing worth doing that I wouldn’t attempt to win that spanking camera“. With the gauntlet on the ground Pilberry decides to name his terms:

-To call the headmaster, Dr Twelvetrees, a giant of a man with a fierce temper, an ass to his face.

-Persuade the French master to leap from his study window, twelve feet off the ground.

-Cycle from the town of Claythorpe to the school, a distance of 5 miles, in 14 minutes.

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Three days pass in which Tony racks his brains for ways to complete these tasks. He evidently thinks too hard at them because he ends up working too hard on his French… so hard the one night his friends are awoken by monotonous chanting in thier dorm room… he’s sleep walking, and studying French while doing it! Fearful of waking the sleepwalker, they instead follow him… until he stops outside the headmaster’s door, his French verbs becoming louder and louder. The headmaster is roused to anger at first, but them realises what is happening and starts to gently shake the boy in order to wake him. This seems to bring Tony round and he remembers another task: “you – are – an – ass” he mumbles to the headmaster, before being woken up. “You were walking in your sleep, McTurk” the Headmaster tells him “You have been studying too hard, i will see that you have a holiday to-morrow!“. First task completed, and he escaped annihilation into the bargain. His friends aren’t impressed… but they can’t deny he did it!

Now he has to work out how to get the French master, Monsieur Duport to leap from his study window. A few weeks later a half-holiday rolls around and his friends are told to wait beneath the window for something to happen.  The Frenchman is annoyed by boys hanging around beneath his window and repeatedly tells them to leave, only for them to return soon after. As he ponders this he is visited by an inventor of explosives (another of the French master’s interests). This melancholy man is looking for funding for his new high-powered explosive, the stick of which he is carrying would obliterate the school. When the rather extravagant funding is not forthcoming the inventor wonders what the point of living is, and throws the explosive into the fire! Duport leaps! After a few minutes he realises maybe the “explosive” wasn’t so explosive after all. Of course the “inventor” is long gone… who was he? If any of the boys know, they aren’t telling!

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And now for the final challenge – the ride! Now, Tony is by his own admission not a very good cyclist, and also the road is in rather bad condition and has a couple of stiff hills. But he decides to try it all the same and, started off by a friend called Weekes, who has synchronised his watch with Pilberry. Tony begins the race… and as Weekes turns to walk back to the school he is informed by a farm hand to take the train instead… for a Jaguar which escaped from Bunkum & Barnaby’s circus is still on the loose! Now Weekes isn’t a coward, but “Jaguars are jaguars!“.

Meanwhile, Tony is already tired out, and behind schedule. The Jaguar on the other hand, is watching him closely… it hasn’t eaten all day and this strange whirling creature coming down the road seems just the ticket! It leaps to attack the creature from behind… Tony, glancing back, see’s it and starts to pedal like mad to escape certain doom!

At the end of the course, his friends are waiting with the stopwatch… will be do it in time?… listen, here he comes! Meanwhile, the Jaguar, tired out from chasing this strange, fast creature, dives through the hedge and disappears.  Tony crosses the finish line with seconds to spare, and wins the camera! After the race he wonders if he had been chased by some imaginary creature… but later reads of the eventual shooting of an escaped Jaguar… and trembles!

So, what’s going on?

Well, the first and most likely explanation is that the two stories were written by the same man – L.J. Beeston. However the earlier Chums story is uncredited, so this can’t be confirmed. While some papers undoubtedly had ‘staff’ writers, there must also have been a vast pool of freelancers. (for instance Harry Blyth, who created Sexton Blake for Amalgamated Press, also wrote for Chums, then owned by Cassell’s) This was, remember, the golden age of publishing, and to my mind the golden age of British comics! There was a bewilderingly vast array of titles all crying out for stories to fill their pages. With imagination and a typewriter there must have been a decent living in it… You didn’t even have to be particularly good (just read pretty much any Halfpenny Marvel for proof!). I only wish i had lived in that era.

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(The other alternative explanation, especially if these stories were not written by the same writer, is downright piracy!)

So, which is the better story? For my money it’s Tony McTurk! It’s quite a bit longer for starters (filling 3 pages and most of a column in the Boys’ Herald’s large tabloid size) and has more illustrations. The descriptive details are much better written (even the Jaguar is a character!) , the challenges and their solutions are much more imaginative and, of course, it’s a great deal funnier! The sleepwalking sequence in particular.

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Chums: 1906/7 and 1932/3

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The Post:

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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Christmas Comic Covers

As everybody else is doing it, here are some assorted covers of christmas issues from my collection. Most of the suff i had to hand is in bound volumes, so these are photos. Though i suppose i could properly scan the Victor’s at a later date (when/if i have that strange thing called “free time”).

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The Union Jack Christmas Double Number 1906. This is actually the first page, as when this volume was bound the covers were removed, seemingly a common practice with these old papers. The story is, as ever, a Sexton Blake tale, seemingly revolving around a VC-winning soldier now being literally “left out in the cold” and appealing to an old officer for help. I intend to read this one on Christmas Day this year, and a review will eventually appear in the UJ Index blog.

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1925 now, and Sexton Blake is still going strong in his golden era. The UJ by this time had colour covers, and was entirely crime-and-punishment related (the 1906 issue also contained a serial story set in the Zulu wars), containing a “detective supplement” with real-world crime information. The serial stories and “Tinker’s Notebook” feature were also firmly rooted in the world of detection. Nirvana was, if i remember the sextonblake.co.uk site correctly, a friend of Tinker’s whom he had known before he became Sexton Blake’s assistant.

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Back to 1906 now, this is an issue of Chums, a storypaper published by Cassel & Co. A company which also published the New Penny Magazine (a 1901 “volume” of which i recently bought, and which contains many fascinating articles). This paper is a curious size, being slightly under the tabloid size used in the Boy’s Friend, but still bigger than the “average” (if the huge variety of sizes in use at that time allows for such a word to be used!) comic. Aside from christmas wishes along the top, and a message in the editorial section within, there’s not a great deal to distinguish this issue. Unlike some publications which featured the traditional snow on the logo…

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…like this! This is the Christmas issue of Adventure for 1948. Adventure was the first of DC Thomson’s “Big Five” adventure story papers. In the early years it looked like any other story paper, but with the coming of comics it began to adapt, with these “full colour” strips on the covers. The interiors were still entirely taken up by text stories however. Wartime paper shortages continued into the late 40’s, so the paper was only published on alternating weeks (i beleive by this time it was moving back towards a weekly, though). The paper is very thin too, it’s no wonder so few wartime and 40’s issues of these papers have survived. A shame as many of the stories are excellent… the DCT papers had a way of always having serial stories, but each instalment was a good enough story on it’s own. Re-caps were often expertly fitted into the text where they would provide enough information for a new reader, but not irritate regulars. Getting the stories for these papers ‘just right’ must have been a supremely difficult task, which makes the complete lack of credits all the worse.

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10 years later, and Adventure now features much more detailed comic strips on the cover, with better art and bigger captions to describe the action (speech bubbles and sound effects did not exist in this paper!). The issues were a lot thicker too, and frequently boasted of “four extra pages this issue!”. Additionally a further comic strip, in the same style but using red spot-colours rather than full colour, could be found on the centre pages. The stories kept thier brisk and exciting style, but the days of the story-paper where coming to an end as the comics took over. The Adventure name, merged with Rover, would continue into 1963, when the merged paper reverted to being called The Rover once again.

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The Victor was another DCT publication, a comic this time (though i beleive early issues in the 1960’s featured a single text story). DCT liked to re-use characters who originally appeared in text form as comics, and Alf Tupper was one such character who made the transition. In typical British Comic style he never appeared to age but at the same time his “past caught up with him”. Some of these issues feature a story called “The Boyhood of Alf Tupper”, which appears to be set in the 1970’s. However in The Rover, where he first appeared, he was 18 in 1949! I originally found this selection of issues (in amazing condition) in a charity shop in Lincoln. However as most of them are Christmas issues i decided to wait until i was making a post such as this before posting them. They have colour covers and black and white interior work, the artwork of a lot of which appears to be (whisper it) a bit rushed. Then again the artists probably wanted to get finished in time for christmas! Some of the art styles are actually recognisable from my 1958 issues of Adventure, though in that they only had to provide one or two illustrations per story, so could take a lot longer over it. Victor was the last remaining of the “boy’s own”-type of weekly adventure comic, an attempted revamp with a lot more colour stories in the early 90’s failed to lift the slumping sales and it vanished from the shelves. The next generation along (of which i was a part) had to resort to creating thier own adventure/war comics (i even remember trying to start my own text-only storypaper! before i even knew what such a thing was), or else become superhero addicts. Thanks a lot, late 70’s/early 80’s-born people.

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Just another picture i had kicking around for size comparison