Radio Fun Annual, 1950

As the “first edition” (well, and many subsequent reprintings) of Boys Will be Boys by E.S. Turner laments, British comics in 1948 were in serious trouble, as their audience was being stolen by the convenience, accessibility and sheer excitement of the radio adventure serial. Surely British comics were doomed, now that the wireless had a firm place in every home? Well, things didn’t quite go that way, and television didn’t seriously threaten the popularity of British comics, either. Apparently videogames and the internet will, though. Comics only thrive in Belgium, France, Italy, India, North Korea and Japan, all countries without videogames or the internet. …Well, okay, that is actually true in North Korea.

But anyway, comics of the 1940’s responded to the threat of the radio, by producing comics about the radio! Radio Fun was born, and with it came an annual:

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Certain British comic collectors just let out a gasp, as they recognise that as the the infamous Tommy Handley cover. Who was Tommy Handley? He was a famous comedian on radio in the 1930’s and 40’s. He died unexpectedly in January 1949 which, as you can probably guess, had implications for his appearance on the cover of a 1950-dated annual (it also shows just how far in advance they were working on it! Unlike today, annuals in those days appeared around late September, to be bought for Christmas. These days, the following year’s Beano annual is out in May). Different people tell different tales of how a few editions of the Tommy Handley annual “escaped”. Some say they were a handful of printers’ proofs / copies for salesmen who went round the newsagents. Others say that the earlier cover appeared on editions sent out to the colonies, as these were sent out even further in advance. One website (I think it was the currently-defunct Comics-UK Family Tree) claimed there’s only three copies of this annual in the world! But, as this one cost me £50, I doubt it’s that rare. Still, it’s not in brilliant nick, either.

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The inscription from the shop

But we’re not here to discuss values, we’ll leave that to fluff pieces in the Mail, we’re here to discuss stories! I’ve not really seen a copy of Radio Fun weekly (at least, I don’t own one. No doubt Lew Stringer’s put at least one in my subconscious before now, though), but I believe it to have been a mixture of comedy and adventure strips, along with comedy and adventure text stories, and maybe some factual content (though I should think that took up no more than half a page). The annual is much the same. Most of the strips and stories are based on contemporary radio shows, though some were created just for the comic / annuals. Others have only the loosest connection to “radio”.

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It opens with an introduction from the editor, who writes as if he’s in a studio, about to begin a grand live variety performance. A faint “7/6” can also be seen, an old shop’s stock number? An old price? Or maybe both! The following page is a full-colour picture, and then we’re in to the “colour” comic strips. These only have red and white, as the ink shortages and style of the times dictates. Most of the comic strips are in “colour” like this, though some are also black and white. Colour is generally reserved for the comedy strips, to make them “more jolly”, I suppose.

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Now, while I know more than most people about 1940’s British radio, that only amounts to having listened to a few episodes of Much-Binding-In-The-Marsh, so for most of these characters and stories I’m just going to have to guess what their shows were like. Mind you, a lot of the comedy strips just seem to be generic comedy strips of the time. The Wilfred Pickles one opposite being a case in point. He could easily have been switched for Charlie Chaplin, or some totally made-up character. A lot of British humour strips of the 40’s and early 50’s were not about their characters at all, they were just jokes about the life of austerity people led, and the pompously-inflated authority figures they ran up against. There’s a reason Dad’s Army was such a hit, 20-something years later! Oh, also, after Tommy Handley died, the replacement cover had Wilfred Pickles on it. Perhaps simply because he was the star of the first strip!

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The next strip could, again, substitute virtually any woman as the main character. But as it is, we get Gracie Fields, today best remembered for that “sing as you go” song, which was actually the theme-song of a film about a factory worker, starring one Gracie Fields. Here she’s making a jelly in a children’s hospital.

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This spread has a huge lump ripped out of it, but the first strip is Charles Cole and his Magic Chalks. He draws things which come to life! There’s several strips on the same theme, though I don’t know if he also had magic chalks in whatever radio show he appeared in. Though these radio stars appear in photos at the top of their stories, the artist has gone for only a rough representation of them in the strip itself. They are as detailed as the other characters, which works far better than the celebrity appearances in the Beano, when I was reading it. Usually, when a real person showed up in the 90’s Beano, they would have a super-detailed face, often too big for their body. It just looked bizarre next to the likes of Roger the Dodger or Ivy the Terrible.

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There’s a few apperances of this two-page strip, called Our Brains Trust (which might even be the origin of that phrase?). I’m assuming it was a sketch that was part of a larger show, though I suppose the format of a panel of people telling funny anecdotes could itself be extended into a full half-hour. Here they talk about the relative merits of front or back brakes on a bicycle. I wonder if the actual show had “real” letters from the public, and the comedians had to improvise a story to fit?

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Here’s some more general humour strips with radio characters. Actually, as there’s no picture of Vic Oliver, he might have been an original character, invented for the comic. I expect “Jewel and Warriss” were a cross-talk duo, like Morecambe and Wise. But you can’t really do crosstalk as a comic strip.

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Issy Bonn and his Finkelfeffer Family was apparently a sitcom-type show about a Jewish family, with various stereotyped accents and exclamations. Naturally that’s been quietly knocked on the head, much in the same way as Love Thy Neighbour went, and Citizen Khan will go. Laughing at our differences must be stamped out, everybody must be the same. It’s the only way to preserve diversity! Anyway, this particular one is actually one of my favourite late 40’s / Early 50’s strips. Most of the gags in other publications of the era, like Comicolour, are pretty forgettable.

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Another spread of radio characters. Jimmy Durante seems to be some gentleman adventurer telling tall tales about his adventures around the world. For some reason he speaks in what might be described as a “black” accent (the way black people talked in British comics at the time, anyway), even though he’s white. Avril Angers is, presumably, somebody whose innocent misunderstandings of simple instructions make other people angry. Or that might have been her actual name. Cool name!

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Ethel Revnell and Gracie West are “radio’s chirpy cockney kids”, though there’s nothing very cockney about this particular strip. It’s another one that could easily be about anybody.

Opposite, we have one of the serious text stories. So let’s take this opportunity to move on to those. This one is called In The Lamp-Light’s Glow. Presumably that was also the title of the radio show on which it is based, dramatic stories, recounted by only one person. Perhaps as if meeting in a dingy pub? It saved on the budget, anyway. Only needs a writer and a reader, not a full cast!

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Westerns were incredibly popular, at the time, so it’s no surprise there was western radio shows. I wonder how convincing the American accents were? Anyway, Big Bill Campbell’s Rocky Mountain Tales probably followed the same format as the show above, one man recounting a story, as if in a saloon in the wild west. Though this one might have had a bigger cast.

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Targa The Untamed is one of those “white man in the jungle” stories. And is probably one that’s been written for the annual, rather than being based on a radio show. These had reasonable popularity at the time – Strang The Terrible was reasonably regular in the DC Thomson story papers.

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The Haunted Tunnel is a detective story about Peter Wilmot, perhaps a radio-drama detective, or one created for the comic. It’s written as if he’s solved a lot of crimes down the years, so he must have been a recurring character, somewhere.

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The Deserter is about a member of the French Foreign Legion deserting, thinking of ambushing an “Arab” (who turns out to be Irish), and being hailed as a hero for returning to warn the fort of an impending attack. It’s probably another one-off story, written for the annual, rather than based on a radio show.

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Inspector Stanley “writes exclusively for Radio Fun!”. But that doesn’t mean he didn’t speak for the radio itself! I expect he had a show a bit like Dixon of Dock Green on the television, a copper telling stories of the crimes he has investigated. Perhaps as a warning to younger listeners.

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As this is a unisex annual, it also has a few romantic stories, including some that are apparently “from the pen of” Vera Lynn. While she was an extremely talented singer, and maybe did write stories, too, I doubt her pen came anywhere near these. As I mentioned at the start, the fact these stories were supposedly written by a singer is all the connection they needed with “radio” to find a place in the annual XD.

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There’s also some comedy text stories. This one is about Petula Clark, “radio’s merry mimic”. In this story, she replaces a famous Spanish guy who was going to visit her school, but had to cancel. Presumably she was an impressionist on the radio, though I don’t know if she was in a show set in a school, or if this is simply a fictional story about her schooldays. Mind you, she looks pretty young. Maybe she was a child star?

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I’m sure I’ve heard references to Will Hay and St Michael’s before. Though The Magnet and Gem had both vanished in 1940, the boarding school story remained popular for years afterwards (Charles Hamilton wrote several books about the characters from those papers, after the war, too). This was, no doubt, the radio-based “replacement” for the weekly school story-paper.

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Jerry Jones and Uncle Bones is a comedy story that appears to have been written just for the annual, it’s mostly about a boy and his parrot, which gets him into trouble. But I found this picture amusing XD

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Now on to the serious strips. And here’s another western! This time it’s about Roy Rogers, who was an American western star with his own radio and TV show. I don’t know if the BBC just used the American recordings, or produced their own. Either way he also had his own annuals and comics on both sides of the Atlantic. “Brand identities” weren’t as closely guarded in those days (and things were so much the better for it- The Thing will never take on The Hulk in Hollywood), some executive in America probably rubber-stamped a “do what you like” license, and an Amalgamated Press team was given a brief to “tell any old cowboy story, but use these names for the characters”. No back-and-forth approvals of every little thing!

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The Falcon was, I imagine, a full-cast radio drama, about a freelance crook-catcher who is a master of disguise. This appears to be the end of a longer story. Perhaps the whole thing was originally a serial in Radio Fun, and they’ve reformatted the final parts into one four-page story? Also “colour” has been added, if it was in the weekly, it was probably pure black and white.

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Here’s a comedy adventure strip about some sort of colonial officer in Africa. The “bush telegraph” songs, explaining what is happening, were probably popular musical interludes in the actual show. There’s also some talking animals, and various stereotyped people of different nationalities. Much of the tracking of escaped crooks is actually done by an ape!

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And here’s another comedy adventure, called Pitch and Toss. It’s about sailors, but the most interesting thing is the very plain-looking title. I should imagine it’s a reprint from the front and back covers of a comic (maybe Radio Fun itself, or maybe something else), the “empty space” would have originally contained that comic’s masthead.

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There’s also some feature and puzzle pages. This is a combined code and treasure map puzzle, where you have to figure out a pirate’s directions, then compare them to a map to find the treasure!

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Another, erm, “factual” feature

Some of the features were more serious than others! The Mutiny on the Bounty is also covered.

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Cadbury’s had some sort of tie-up with Amalgamated Press, clearly. Bournville Cocoa was advertised on the back of annuals for years over the 40’s and 50’s. Still, it is just the thing for cold winter nights! Sweets were still rationed in 1949/50, maybe kids got a tin of that, instead of solid chocolates?

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I’m moving to Japan soon, and I need every penny, so I am selling this book on Ebay… or I was, seemed like nobody wanted it, so I’ll keep it after all XD

Marvel(ous) Miracle!

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One of the most famous of Britain’s home-grown superheroes is Marvelman, who has a long and pretty complicated history. He came about when National Publications (later DC Comics) threatened to sue Fawcett Publications, the owner of Captain Marvel, because he was considered to be too similar to Superman (later, DC simply bought out Fawcett instead).

Captain Marvel was an ordinary boy, who was chosen by an ancient wizard to become a mighty hero (with the powers of various Greek gods) when he said the word “Shazam!”. Much later, the Captain Marvel comic was actually named Shazam!, due to legal threats from Marvel comics.

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In the UK, Captain Marvel had been a big seller, so Len Miller and Mick Anglo created their own version, called Marvelman. Marvelman was the alter-ego of Micky Moran, who transformed when he said “Kimota”, which is Atomic backwards. Marvelman also had a slightly more “scientific” basis, as opposed to Captain Marvel’s mythical basis. The character first appeared in “issue 25” of Marvelman, so numbered because there had been 24 issues of Captain Marvel before it. Mind you, it wasn’t unusual for the one-shot and short-run comics of the late 40’s and early 50’s to begin with high numbers, to make them look more “stable” and “regular” than they were.

The series came to an end in the 50’s, but was revived in the early 80’s in Warrior, written by Alan Moore. This carried on, but a battle over pay saw the series end abruptly 5 issues before Warrior itself ended. Then an American publisher called Eclipse Comics got hold of the character, and Neil Gaiman started to write an epic story, continuining on from the Warrior stories. But then Eclipse comics went bust before it could be finished.

After some back-and-forth legal battles, it was discovered Dez Skinn, who started Warrior, had never actually bought the rights to the character anyway, so Mick Anglo still owned them. Marvel Comics jumped in and bought the rights for themselves – so we can finally enjoy complete reprints of the stories, sold in large numbers from shops – without any worries of legal wrangles / bankruptcy causing the character to vanish again!

The first issue of the new Marvel title. which is still called Miracleman, as that’s the name American readers are more familiar with, came out in January, containing the first two parts from Warrior, three old stories, a (new?) introduction story, and some short articles and unadulterated art board scans.

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We start with the introduction story, a tale which leads into the first part of the Alan Moore version. With depressing inevitability, it’s been done in a “retro” style. The colouring is done in that ‘deliberately bad’ way, which can also be seen making Batman ’66 unreadable. What makes it even worse is the fact that, as we learn from the pages at the back of the very same issue, the original stories were not even in colour! The story is about the original Marvelman of the 50’s, who encounters time-travelling villains from the utopian future world of 1981. They invade “Cornwall” (which is full of American soldiers), and are able to fight our heroes using “magnetic gas” which is fired from “video rings”.

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After they are defeated, we jump into the Warrior story, which is set in 1982. But this time it’s the 1982 we remember (well, people who are old enough to XD), with lots of eco-warriors protesting against nuclear power stations. Now Micky Moran is a middle aged journalist, who is covering one of these protests when terrorists appear and herd everybody inside the power station’s canteen. Micky feels ill, and collapses, so they drag him out. On the way, he spots “Atomic” written on a glass door, but as he’s on the other side it reminds him of “Kimota”, the magic word from his recurring dreams about superpowers. He transforms into Marvelman, easily defeats the terrorists (they only bought AK47’s with them) and goes home. He starts to tell his wife all about his super-adventures, but she just thinks they sound stupid. Then “the big bad” turns up.

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After that, we get some short interviews and articles about the original Marvelman, and some reproductions of the very gaudy covers (with far superior colouring to the “retro”, “deliberately bad” colouring of the introduction story).

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Then we’re onto the good stuff – the 50’s stories! These short, wacky tales treat superheroes as the ridiculous concept they are, every one featuring some pantomime villains planning to steal this, or blow that up. One of the first things you’ll notice about these 50’s stories, though, is how they’re all talking about “malt shops”, “bucks” and “autos”. That’s right – THEY’RE SET IN AMERICA! The fact the “modern” version is set in Britain really highlights the spitting contempt in which our modern wannabe-yank creators and fans hold old British comics. They’d probably just guessed the old Marvelman stories were set in Britain, because those tweed-wearing, pipe-smoking chaps from the 50’s couldn’t possibly have written anything set in johnny foreigner land, eh? What good was the 50’s anyway? There was all racism, and it was illegal to be gay. There was even near-full employment, chances for promotion and ‘social mobilty’ for talented members of the working class, living wages for most workers and railway lines that went everywhere. They even built flood defences after a major storm surge, rather than just telling people they were going to be sacrificed. Thank god we live in more civilised times now, eh?

I Lived in the Desperate Days

Like The Last Men Alive, this is another story set in a world after a nuclear war. However, whilst that one was set only a few weeks after the “balloon went up”. This one is set around 500 years afterwards! It was published in The Wizard in 1959. When people talk about the DC Thomson “Big Four”, they generally talk about the pre-and-during war years. But The Wizard, Adventure et al were fine, high-quality publications in the 1950’s too! After more than a decade of so-offensive-it-goes-all-the-way-around-and-becomes-funny-again racism on the covers:

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The Wizard started to use the covers to promote the exciting stories within:

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Or else provide interesting facts. These were usually related (sometimes pretty vaguely – facts about 18th century sailor’s superstitions tied in with a story about modern trainee submariners, for instance!) to one of the stories inside.

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(Will the Americans of 2059 remember to publish issue 3 of the Illuminated Quadruple Constellation?).

There was a great variety in the stories too, from the wartime adventures of V for Vengeance – surely a large influence on a certain other story – “Hard” Science Fiction (shortly to become science fact!) of The Ace of Space, and a series of “historicals” set in famous disasters of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Curiously, most of those are set in the USA.

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But on to the story itself. I Lived in the Desperate Days is set in 2492, on the small community of Land End, at the far southwestern corner of an island that, according to legend, was once called Eng, or Brit. Land End is the only fertile part of the island, the rest is made of fused, black rock and ash-like cinder sand, where nothing has grown for centuries. A nearby island called Ire is also made of nothing but this lifeless black rock. The Folk, as the population of Land End are called, number just 400. They have legends which talk of a time when Eng was home to millions of people, as were other lands around the world – though some of them don’t believe that any other land exists, and that Eng and Ire are all alone in The Great Sea.

The main character is called Jordon The Writer, who chronicles the events of the folk, and copies out their few books. He lives in the same house as Silas the Scholar, who teaches children to read and write. He also owns the few books that remain in the world, and Jordon is slowly copying them so there will be a second set, if anything happens. One of the books tells of people called Americans, who had ships that sailed under ice, Jordon thinks it’s an interesting story, but can’t possibly be true.

The first part of the story just gives an introduction to the Folk’s way of life. Their previous harvest was bad, and a harsh winter killed many sheep. Though they number only 400, the “Folk Father”, John Winter, decides that 100 people have to sacrifice themselves by going out into the “barrens”, as they call the melted and destroyed rest of the country. This is really a death sentence, as there’s no way of getting food out there. They draw sticks from a bag – white for life, and black for death! Jordon draws a black stick – though the people due to die are given a week to say goodbye to their families.

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Jordon’s friend, Bob Gray, has a small fishing boat, and all of his crew, including the villainous Zeke, are doomed to die. They decide to sail out and catch fish while they still can. Zeke is not happy about being merely one of the crew, but boats are worth their weight in gold, due to a severe shortage of wood, and the Folk Father and his council think Zeke is too irresponsible to have a boat of his own.

They sail out to look for fish, but are caught in a gale and blown close to Ire. Whilst sailing around the coast, looking for a place to land and repair the damaged boat (not to mention bury a dead crewman), they come across a huge “sea monster”, stranded on the rocks. Jordon, from his reading, realises it is a whale, and that it contains many tons of edible meat, which can save the doomed hundred! They also explore Ire a little, and in the meantime Zeke is left with the boat, which he almost loses. The damage takes several days to repair, and when they get back to Land End, they discover the rest of the doomed people have already gone out into the barrens. Bob Gray sails around to a bay further out into the barrens, and follows some tracks. Eventually they bring back around seventy of the hundred sent out to die.

A large operation (by the standards of a community of 370-odd with hardly any boats!) is mounted to go and collect the meat of the whale. While this is going on, Zeke decoys Jordon away from the harbour, and he ends up being left behind!

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Jordon spends a night on the coast of Ire, then wanders inland a little way to try and find fresh water. Instead, he falls through a crust of dust into a small cave, apparently once open to the air. At one end, he finds a heavy steel door, though after 500 years it’s so rusty he can push through it with his hands. Inside he finds a room lined with more books than he has seen in his life! There’s also a diary, with the last entry written in 1990. It says that nuclear proliferation had run out of control, and many nations had huge stockpiles of atomic warheads. When World War 3 started, the pulses of radiation from atomic explosions caused these stockpiles to detonate on their own (apparently this is theoretically possible – so real-life bombs are shielded against it). The huge fireballs quite literally melted at least Western Europe, apart from Land’s End. The writer of the diary didn’t know that, of course, his air purifier failed shortly afterwards, and he has long since died and crumbled to dust. The people huddled on Land’s End somehow survived the radioactivity (presumably many of the original ones died, and the few survivors have repopulated the area since), and the events of “the change”, along with details of the pre-war world, all faded into legends. Jordon lights a fire with the dead man’s ragged clothes, fortunately the crew of the fishing boat have come back for him, and spot the smoke. He is taken back to Land End, where Zeke is worried that his trickery will be exposed.

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Jordon sails out in Bob Gray’s fishing boat again. His leg was injured when he was a child (this is why he is a “writer”, not a farmer or something), but he can still haul on ropes and nets. Instead of catching fish, they spot something even more valuable – a huge tree! Quickly taking it in tow, they bring it back to Land End. It creates a sensation – if there’s huge trees growing somewhere, then there must be fertile land!

Jordon has been reading more about the old world in his newly-found books. He reads about a man named Christopher Columbus, who, 1000 years earlier, sailed west until he found a huge continent. Jordon comes up with a plan to use the wood in the tree to build a replica of Columbus’ ship, the Santa Maria, and try to find this continent again. Jordon even builds a model of the ship – but is betrayed by Zeke. Wasting wood is a terrible crime in Land End, and he is sentenced to be banished into the barrens. However, he overhears a conversation between the Folk Father and one of the farmers – a disease which killed many of the sheep the previous winter has come back! Of course, they have no medicines, and probably no medical knowledge beyond the absolute basics.

Jordon goes to sleep, but when he wakes up he finds he has been pardoned, and that the Folk Father has decided they must attempt to build a “Santa Maria II” and find new lands, or the whole human race might perish! The construction of the ship begins, though there is quite a bit of resistance – some of the “Fathers Minor” (who rule under the Folk Father) think there’s no other land in the world, and that stories of a ship a whole seventy feet long must be fictional. When the Folk Father commands every household to give up one blanket (and there’s precious few of those) to make the sails of the ship, there is a minor riot, stirred up by Zeke.

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The rioters accidentally knock out the Folk Father with a thrown rock – then sidle away, feeling guilty. They blamed Jordon, rather than him. After they have got over the shock, they riot again, this time trying to tear apart the half-built ship and take the timber away for other uses. Jordon sails out in another fishing boat and finds Bob Gray, who returns in time to stop the riot. He has also found another tree, which will serve for the ship’s masts, and there will be plenty of wood left over for other uses too.

Finally the ship is finished and launched. The crew, with Bob Gray as Captain and Jordon as log-keeper (plus Zeke, because he is “at least good at his work”) have to learn sailing from scratch, and panic when they make a mistake! A sudden squall from the wrong direction brings down part of the rigging, and knocks Bob unconscious. Fortunately Jordon remembers that a ship can be steered using sails alone, if you work them correctly. The second-in-command, a man called Clark, takes command just in time, and the ship avoids being wrecked on the coast of Ire.

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Now it’s time for the voyage to really start! Just before they set out, a weird light called “St. Elmo’s Fire” is seen on the mast. Many of the crew think this is a sign of bad luck, and Zeke stirs up a minor mutiny, telling the men that Jordon will bring disaster to the ship. Just as they are about to charge the poop deck, a stowaway – a condemned criminal – is found. Bob grants the man a reprieve, and later he sacrifices himself by swimming under the ship and jamming himself in a hole. He plugs it, but drowns in the process.

The journey goes on, an encounter with waterspouts almost wrecks the ship in mid-ocean, but the spout which sucks them up collapses just in time, though several of the crew are killed. Then they sight land! But it turns out to be a huge floating mass of seaweed and rotten trees. Worse, it’s infested with huge, carnivorous jellyfish! The story doesn’t make it clear if these are creatures mutated by radiation (or, rather, their descendants), or else freaks of evolution produced by the abrupt change in climate caused by the war (tests with fruit flies have shown that ‘random shots’ of evolution happen if their environment is changed drastically – meaning a new species may be created in tens of generations instead of millions, though many more of these ‘random shots’ are useless and fatal). Of course, the story is written by Jordon himself, and for all he knows, Columbus met creatures like this too!

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After fighting off the Jellyfish, the crew encounter some more sea monsters, including some kind of sentient seaweed, and a thing which looks like a flying Manta Ray with a spiked, razor-sharp tail. Several more crew members die during these attacks, and the ship suffers a lot of damage, but is still able to limp onwards.

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Finally, they sight land, real land! But, to their horror, it’s the same fused, black rock as Eng and Ire are made of. They anchor at this island to repair the ship anyway, though their supplies of fresh water and food are running very low. They also discover the island is infested with giant killer crabs! Jordon, trying to escape from these, accidentally falls into a pool of hot water, which he discovers is also fresh water! The crew also try to eat the crabs, but it makes them drunk, and the ship is almost set on fire. Fortunately some men stay sober, and are able to put it out. Instead, they try fishing, and find the sea around this island (it’s probably Iceland… which is made of fused, black, lifeless rock now, let alone after a nuclear war XD) is full of fish. With their supplies refilled, they sail onwards.

After many more days, they sight a huge column of smoke in the air – is it a fire lit by human beings? The ship sails at high speed, but the smoke only seems to come towards them very slowly. The wind drops at night, and in the morning it seems that the smoke has got further away. Again, they sail at high speed, but again the smoke appears to move away. The lookout then notices that the water around the ship is brown. Bob tastes a bit, and discovers it’s fresh! They are sailing in the current of a huge river, pouring out to sea. Altering course, they close in on the distant land – and run dangerously close to a mountain, which appears to be on fire!

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The Land Enders are terrified by the sight, though Jordon realises it must be a volcano, something the ancient books tell of. The coast of the country around it is the same black, lifeless rock as they have seen in other places – but then they spot several more huge trees floating out of the river mouth. Somewhere up there is the fertile land they dream of!

Anchoring the Santa Maria II, the crew take to the boats and row up the river – straight into the jaws of a sea monster! After an epic battle, in which Bob Gray is almost killed, the monster is killed. Later on Bob and several others row up the river in the two boats, whilst Jordon is left behind. Zeke comes back alone, frantically ranting about “giant birds” and how the others “disappeared in the trees”. Jordon and a few others row up the river themselves – spotting gigantic black birds perched on a jumble of giant logs. Bob Gray’s voice seems to come from below them – the crew of the other boat have fallen into quicksand, and have almost gone under! Most of them are saved in time, as is the boat itself. Bob had been trying to grab something when he went under, and he shows it to Jordon now – it’s heather, of the kind that grows in Land End. Somewhere beyond this swampy pile of logs is a vast land, more fertile than Land End and with enough room for everybody!

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Then… 1959, and my collection of Wizards, comes to an end! >.< Looks like I’ll never find out what happened to them – did they find an uninhabited land? Was it full of monsters? Was it full of hostile tribes? Perhaps the United States still exists, and has maintained a higher level of technology, but never realised anybody was still alive in Europe? I doubt I’ll ever read the end XD.

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The Last Men Alive

Just after the end of the war, “nuclear weapons” were seen as amazing wonder-weapons which could make battleships ‘melt and sink’ using ‘rays’ (as described in the last episode of The Yellow Sword, a Wizard serial from 1955-6). However, as time went on, people began to understand the real horrors of atomic warfare. In 1946, the New Yorker magazine ran a full-length article on the experiences of people in Hiroshima, which found it’s way to Britain as a Penguin not long afterwards.

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In 1954, a Japanese fishing boat called Lucky Dragon no. 5 sailed too close to an atomic bomb test, causing the crew to develop severe radiation sickness. At the time, the American occupational government were trying to play down the effects of radioactive fallout from the bombs. Even back at home, US Marines were performing manuovres in the immediate aftermath of a nuclear blast, as part of the “Desert Rock” project.

Going into the late 50’s, the consequences of an actual nuclear war were filtering down into the boys’ story papers, and in 1958 Adventure began a serial called The Last Men Alive, about the crew of a nuclear-powered (though it did not carry ballistic missiles. “Atomic torpedoes” are mentioned, but these were probably supposed to be smaller-scale kiloton-sized weapons for use on fleets of enemy ships) submarine in 1996. The sub, called the Argos (interestingly never called HMS Argos… a subtle assumption that the monarchy would have been abolished by the nineties?), is on patrol in the South Atlantic, during World War 3. Her mission is to prevent “the enemy” from sailing around the Horn of Africa. We never find out exactly who “the enemy” are, but can assume it’s the Soviet Union, perhaps allied with China.

The war is already about six months old when the story begins, though so far nobody has used nuclear weapons. The sub has not received any messages for almost three weeks, so they decide to surface and have a look around, as soon as they reach the surface, alarms start to go off – the air is dangerously radioactive! It looks like a nuclear war has been fought, after all.

The captain, Lt. Cmdr Vince Bryant, decides to sail back to Britain and investigate. On the way, they stop at St Helena, finding everybody on the island dead – apparently they dropped dead whilst going about their everyday lives. The air is still alive with radiation, and the crew can only go outside in special suits. They visit the “telegraph office” (now the story shows it’s age!), and find that three weeks previously, enemy bombers managed to avoid Britain’s radar and fighter screens, and drop “Hydrogen-Cobalt bombs” on London and other cities. Britain retaliated, and these new, powerful bombs somehow caused a ‘chain reaction’, which ‘set the upper atmosphere on fire’ and spread a huge amount of powerful fallout around the entire globe in only a few hours (the one realistic part, the jet stream races around the world at hundreds of miles per hour).

The sub sails further north, past “French Senegal” and the “busy port of Dakar”, now also ‘bleached’ of all human and animal life. Of course, Senegal was long-since independent in the real 1996! The journey also takes them past a number of lifeless, drifting surface ships. It appears that only submarine crews, safe under the sea, have survived. Eventually the Argos reaches Britain. There too, the coast is lifeless, deserted and radioactive. They sail into the Thames (“cl0gged with ships”, as are many other major rivers into the traditional port cities – by the real 1996 the advent of containers had rapidly decreased the number of working docks in Britain), to find that London has taken a direct hit, the few buildings left standing are roofless, blackened ruins.

The Argos sails south again, down the channel and eventually finds a Cornish village called Trelorna, where some freak of the wind has keeping the fallout away. The people here are isolated and starving, but fortunately the Argos carries a large supply of food, and is able to give them at least one meal. The crew begin handing out tins to the women of the village, though a big man called Black Jack pushes his way to the front and snatches a can from an old lady. Fortunately Vince Bryant is a champion boxer, and soon has Jack on his back!

Other villagers are more friendly, namely Henry Penkevil, the headmaster of the village school, and Tom Couch, coxwain of the local lifeboat, and expert fisherman. The crew of the Argos come up with a plan to use electric shocks, generated from the hull, to “herd” fish into the safe bay, where they can be caught by the villagers. It will keep them going until they can start to grow crops on the small area of radiation-free farmland they can access.

Tom Couch comes out in the submarine (“A unique and terrifying experience, even in the year 1996”! – though Eagle and other publications were predicting huge passenger-and-cargo carrying submarines, unaffected by storms), which dives beneath the surface as soon as it gets beyond the headland – where the radioactive zone starts. They find a huge shoal of mackerel with the sonar, and begin to herd the fish towards Trelorna bay, using electric shocks generated on the surface of the sub (supposed to be a futuristic ‘silent sonar’). However, the fish attract something else – a sea monster bigger than the sub!

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After a cat-and-mouse chase, Argos is able to fire off two “rocket torpedoes”, which curiously only have a thousand-yard range (surely traditional propellor-powered torpedoes can go for miles?). These hit the monster and it’s huge body goes floating to the surface. Is it a radioactive mutation? Nope! The story is more scientifically ‘accurate’ than that. It’s described as a creature from very deep in the sea, which has been attracted to the surface by the ‘turmoil’ of the nuclear war. As the crew watch it float, they notice bubbles coming from it. Suddenly it bursts open and sinks, as it lives in the deep sea, it’s body is under tremendous pressure. This pressure was held in by an exoskeleton, which the torpedoes broke open.

The crew can now get back to herding fish, and successfully drive them into the town, for now, the population have something to keep them alive! The schoolteacher has been surveying the boundaries of the radioactivity in more detail, now that he has protective gear from the submarine.  He tells Bryant there is a store of seed potatoes in a deep vault at St. Austell, and if people in protective clothing could drive there, they could bring them back and start to grow them. The crew set off, finding many crashed, or just stalled, cars, with dead drivers – people fleeing the cities who were caught out by the intense fallout. They reach St. Austell, described as “centre of the china-clay industry”. People in the 50’s couldn’t possibly have foreseen how quickly and completely British industry would be destroyed.

The crew soon find the seed potato vault, and open it. There they are attacked by a madman! He has been shut in there for 5 weeks, living on potatoes and condensation, and not knowing what had happened to the outside world. Rather conveniently, another protective suit and airtight cases for transporting the potatoes come to hand, and they all make their way back to Trelorna, where something else crops up – confused, meaningless messages in Morse are being transmitted from some elderly wireless set!

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On the way to find the source of these signals, they spot another sea monster through the periscope. This one has six huge legs, black scales and snail-like antennae. It was originally intended to walk around at the bottom of deep-sea canyons, but was drawn to the surface by the nuclear explosions. When it tried to walk on land, the radiation killed it.

The Argos carries on into St. Ives, where they find some minesweepers, an oil tanker and a couple of “tramp steamers”. Of course, by the real 1996 I doubt St. Ives had any industrial port facilities at all. But then again in the real 1996 the country hadn’t been at war for 6 months! They soon discover the morse code is coming from the oil tanker, and after breaking in, find a kid called Tommy Clarke alive below decks. He was shut in the deepest part of the habitable area of the ship, having been planning on stowing away for a ‘life at sea’ (hah, imagine a real British kid of 1996 doing that!). The rest of the crew had tried to make it home when the air raid warnings sounded, and had been killed. Tommy had food, water and power from the ship’s small generator (which had a whole tanker’s worth of fuel to run on!), so was able to survive.

With Tommy rescued, the Argos turns back, only now one of the artificers, called Dorsey, leads a minor mutiny. He and some other want ‘shore leave’ in St. Ives, even though they’d have to have it in cumbersome radiation suits. The Captain guesses they really want to loot beer from the pubs, and challenges Dorsey to a fight. Bryant wins, and the Argos continues with her mission, on the way back to Trelorna some whales are driven into the harbour and captured. Also they witness the detonation of a nuclear mine(!) which broke it’s moorings in a storm, drifted against the coast and detonated, incinerating many square miles and releasing even more fallout – good thing that didn’t drift into the harbour!

With a supply of food, and also whale-oil for fuel, secured, the survivors start to wonder if anybody else has survived the war. They reason that atomic research facilities and nuclear power stations (accurate prediction of the future! We only had one nuclear power station in the 50’s, and that was a small one, with production of material for nuclear weapons it’s main priority.) will have ‘safe rooms’ with radiation shielding, where there might be survivors.

Argos sets off once more, spotting a still-working lighthouse – which means it must still be manned (the story shows it’s age once again). Two of the men in the lighthouse have been killed by fallout, but the third is “naturally immune”, though he still has some radiation burns, and has gone mad. Bryant has to call on his boxing skills once more, and the mission proceeds. They also come across a drifting American aircraft carrier – sent to help Britain repel enemy bombers, but it didn’t get there in time. No doubt in a real nuclear World War 3 Britain would just be classed as an American aircraft carrier, but one crewed by foreigners, so it’s okay for the Americans to leave if it’s in danger of being ‘sunk’.

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The Argos carries on to the Mersey, finding Liverpool has taken a direct hit and has been entirely flattened. They sail to the other side of the river, get a lorry and start to drive towards a nuclear power station at a place called Werton. Before they get there, they find a car coming the other way! A few scientists from the power station have survived, but had run out of food and were going to search for more, using their own anti-radiation suits. One of them, Professor Woodley, has been working on a compound which neutralises radioactive fallout, but it’s still early days. The scientists are taken back to Trelorna and begin to work with the farmers on growing potatoes successfully in the irradiated soil.

The scientists need more information, so the Argos sets off to Plymouth to find some books. The town has not been hit by a nuclear bomb, though is as lifeless as everywhere else. They go to the library and start to fetch a load of scientific books, suddenly they hear the recall signal from the Argos – three shots of the deck gun! The story showing it’s age again – why would a nuclear submarine, able to submerge for months at a time, and with the ‘chivalry’ of the First World War long dead – need a deck gun? Even HMS Dreadnought, out first nuclear sub which entered service in 1959, didn’t have one. Anyway, the shore party race back to the dock, and find Argos has disappeared! The dingy which had been tied to the outside of the hull is floating freely – obviously she has crash dived in a great hurry.

One of the crew suddenly spots a submarine entering the harbour – but she is of a strange design, and has X7 painted on her conning tower – an enemy! The shore party get under cover, and watch as an enemy shore party enter the town and look around. Bryant knows something of “the enemy’s language”, and overhears them saying that the situation in Britain is “the same as at home”. They then console themselves with the fact that “the scientists who created these infernal bombs are dead” and go back to hunting for fish. The party from the Argos keep out of sight, they only have one revolver between them, and the war is not officially over. The enemy captain – Commander Stok – orders his men back on board, and they sail off. The Argos reappears, and they set off back to Trelorna, this time with the crew at action stations!

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Later, Argos is trying to navigate a horde of eels into Trelorna bay, but it is proving difficult – they have to chase them around the Scilly Isles several times. Just as they get into the channel, a huge blast of sound scatters the eels. It’s the X7! She hasn’t detected the Argos – she was instead trying to direct the eels with sound, rather than electric shocks. The Argos goes into stealth mode, and watches as the X7 battles another sea monster. The X7 fires two torpedoes at the monster, and Argos has to dash out of the way, in case either of them misses. The Argos is mentioned as travelling at 50-60 knots underwater, by contrast the Royal Navy’s Daring-class destroyers of the 1950’s could only do 30 knots on the surface (and our nuclear “fleet submarines” which were in service in the 1990’s, could do about the same underwater). One of the X7’s shots kills the monster, and she goes back to directing shoals of fish using sound waves, followed by the Argos.

Eventually X7 gets close to the Somme river, which is at low tide. Bryant orders the Argos to overtake the shoal of fish, and steer them into the estuary using electric shocks. With this done, the X7 races to follow, and jams herself in a mud bank. Bryant then calls X7 on the “undersea telephone” (at least there’s no “imagiser”, I suppose), and reveals the existence of the British crew. The X7’s immediate response is a pair of torpedoes!

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Bryant moves Argos into a position immediately above X7 and waits. Eventually Captain Stok agrees to a truce – the politicians who started the war are all dead, and it’s up to the two crews to work together for the future of the human race. X7 has been herding fish for two similarly-stranded colonies of people “a thousand miles away” on the other side of the North Sea. Assuming the enemy is the Soviet Union, these colonies could be in Poland or along the Soviet shore in the Baltic. Or, if this was happening in the actual 1996, there could be Russian survivors in Kaliningrad.

Argos prepars to take the X7 in tow, when another sea monster appears on the radar. It is heading towards the shoal of fish, which still swarm around the X7 in confusion. Argos disengages and fights the monster, Bryant has to be careful about when he fires the torpedoes, as the explosions might damage the X7. After a short battle, the monster is blown up, and X7 is successfully bought to the surface and towed to Trelorna.

The people of Trelorna are wary at first – they are the last British people alive, and any trickery by the enemy might result in the entire country being wiped out. But when they hear that there’s other desperate colonies of people just clinging to life, they accept the truce as real. Soon the X7’s crew are meeting the locals, and playing a football game, despite the language barrier.

Bryant, Captain Stok and some others are invited to Professor Woodley’s house, where he shows them some formerly-radioactive soil he has treated with his powder. It’s now completely inert, and safe to grow crops in. Henry Penkevil, who has his own gieger counter (with the threat of nuclear war, maybe headmasters would be issued with them – the balloon could go up at any time!), reports that the area of radiation-free land around the village appears to be slowly growing, too. Bryant looks forward to a future where these three small colonies of people will be able to rebuild human society, together and in peace.

The Headhunter of St. Hal’s

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By the mid-late 50’s, the writing was well and truly on the wall for story papers, as all-comic strip, “American” (sometimes) “style” (sometimes) “Slicks” began to sell in ever-greater numbers, the Beano and Dandy trampled what was left of the older humour comics into the dust, and Eagle gave Britain’s own adventure comic “style” a quality product to imitate.

Still, some story papers were soldiering on – especially those from DC Thomson. Their first foray into the weekly story-paper market had been Adventure, which began in 1921, and really shook things up with it’s strange stories of super powers, time travel, space travel and sportsmen of amazing ability. Adventure, and three of it’s stablemates, were kept running throughout the war, whereas Amalgamated Press had killed off story papers wholesale – keeping their more modern, comic-focused publications for boys going instead.

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With the all-text style starting to look old fashioned at the end of the war, Adventure began to feature (very!) simple, four-colour picture strips on the covers. By the mid-50’s, these had increased in sophistication, and the centre pages featured a similar strip in black, white and red.

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Neither of these strips had speech balloons (and, of course, sound effects should be rare and unusual in British adventure comics anyway!), but were instead a series of pictures with large captions underneath, explaining the story. The frames were almost always the same size, though sometimes a new cover strip would be introduced with a large panel.

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Like the text serials, the strips were regularly changed around, in order to feature stories on different themes. These included wartime adventure with frogmen and Spitfire pilots, science fiction with deadly walking machines, early-Victorian boxing with Tinker Cobb and the strange tale of an RAF test-pilot who is also a first-division goalkeeper!

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The Headhunter of St. Hal’s was another of the red, white and black strips. This one is a boarding school story, a craze for which had been kicked off by Tom Brown’s Schooldays right back in 1857, and was only now starting to slow. Probably more through accident than design, nearly all boarding school stories appearing in British comics were text. Girls got a few strips, but boy’s ones were pretty rare. That makes this story quite interesting, even if it is pretty terrible! Also the tale is told from the point of view of the villain, which is pretty unusual even by DC Thomson standards (though characters acting in defiance of the law – like Tinker Cobb – were fairly common, they weren’t evil as such).

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The story begins with the headmaster of St. Hal’s recieving an evil-looking carved idol from his brother, who is exploring in Borneo. The head is reminded that a new boy, called Juma, who comes from Borneo, is starting at the school that day. He doesn’t yet know that the boy has been sent by his tribe to recapture the idol! The headmaster’s brother had stolen it, and had been tortured to death in revenge.

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The head sends Dick Donovan, the captain of the Fourth Form, to the station to meet the new boy. The ethnic majorities of Borneo are Malay, Chinese, Banjar and Dayak (who are apparently very similar to Malays). But Juma looks more like a Black African with the eyes of a cat. On the way back, they are attacked by some bullies. Juma pulls a knife and tries to stab one of them! Dick stops him in time, but Juma later threatens the porter in the same way. Dick tells him “we can’t have the law of the jungle at St. Hals!” XD.

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They go to the headmaster’s office, where Juma spots the idol and starts to worship it! The head arrives shortly afterwards and greets Juma, who notices a red stain from the idol on his hand. Any White man who touches the idol must die! But Juma decides to bide his time, and formulate a very over-complicated, messy plan XD.

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Dick shows Juma to his study, where some bullies later threaten him. But he knocks one of their caps off with an expertly-thrown knife, and they decide to leave him alone after that. Juma’s first day at the school passes normally, but that night he sneaks out of the dormitory and goes to the headmaster’s office. At the precise moment Juma looks through the wall, the head discovers a long-forgotten secret passage which leads out from a panel in the wall. Juma shoots the head with a drugged blow-dart, and locks him into some very convenient (and still working) old handcuffs that are chained to the wall.

Juma sneaks back out of the hidden passage, only to find a burglar who has just finished picking the lock of the head’s safe! Juma strangles him, and throws him off the balcony.

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Juma then opens the safe, but this sets off alarms throughout the school. The alarm needs to be deactivated by pressing a secret button, before the door can be opened. Juma quickly hides the idol on top of a cupboard, then joins in with the crowd of boys surging down the corridor. They find the dead burglar, and assume that he ran out of the window and fell when the alarms went off.

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Sam Taylor, the porter, finds the idol and hides it in his cottage, thinking it might be worth something. He assumes the burglar hid it on the cupboard, and with the headmaster missing, nobody will bother to look for it. Juma is angry at finding the idol missing, but thanks to it’s ever-wet paint, he quickly works out who has stolen it, darts the porter, and locks him up in the secret tunnels too.

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Two other masters are in the headmaster’s office, so Juma explores the tunnels further, finding another exit in a ruined castle near the school. He runs back, but is late for class, so is put in detention with Bully Bates, the boy whose cap he had knocked off earlier. The bully notices Juma is agitated and trying to escape, so follows him to the headmaster’s office when they are let out. But Juma has already ‘vanished’ into the secret tunnels!

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By this time, the porter has recovered from the drugged dart. Juma learns (by, lets not beat about the bush here, torture!) that the idol has been sold to an antique shop in the town. He tries to leave the school by the front gate, but is caught by some prefects and bought back.

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That night, Juma sneaks down to the tunnels again, intending to get out through the other end. Bully bates follows him and… (missing reel) …my volume has a few missing issues! Anyway, in the next issue he has captured Bully Bates, drugged the shop owner, and holds him up whilst “waving” with his arm to a policeman outside the shop! Juma can’t find the idol, so returns to the secret passage, pushing the antiques dealer in a covered wheelbarrow. Two tramps spot him and, no doubt because of his skin colour, assume he has stolen something.

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While Juma fiddles about with the door of the secret passage, the tramps look in the barrow, and see the “dead” shopkeeper. They run off before Juma comes back, and drags the shopkeeper into the school the hard way, adding to his collection of missing persons. Quite why all those chained-up people don’t shout for help at once is beyond me. The walls of the school can’t be that thick!

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Juma goes down the passage and frees the other door, but quickly closes it again, as he can see the tramps and several police on the other side! The next day, the police investigate the school, searching every study. Juma, for some reason, as the death mask of the headmaster’s brother in his suitcase, which would take a bit of explaining! A policeman is about to find it, so Juma does the sensible thing and… oh wait, he attacks the copper with a knife! He is quickly overpowered and locked in the detention room. But, would ya know it, he has a special weed which can be used to ‘hypnotise’ people!

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Mr Davison, the senior master, comes to check on Juma, and gets a face-full of the weed. Juma commands him to hand over the keys, then go to sleep. Soon Juma is running back to the antique shop, but the police, having found evidence of a break-in, and nothing but the owner missing, have rigged up an alarm system.

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Juma manages to grab the idol anyway (despite stopping to worship it once again), and only just escapes the clutches of the law. He runs back to the school and commands Mr Davison to go and tell the police he has been locked up in the detention room all night. What Juma doesn’t know is that Dick Donovan (remember him?) is hiding in the room too, and overhears what happens.

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With the police off the sent, Juma puts the master out of action again, with a kick to the jaw! Donovan follows him across the quad, and into the headmaster’s room, where he spots the secret passage. Rousing the Fourth Form, Dick leads an attack on Juma’s hideout just as he is about to start torturing the head with a red-hot iron. Juma is overpowered and all his prisoners set free. The headmaster congratulates dick, and promises to send the idol ba-what? no of course he doesn’t, he’ll have it put in the local museum. It’s well-known that tribes who consider an idol so sacred they will send one of their number right around the world to regain it, using deadly force if necessary, will give up if the first attempt fails XD.

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Armistice Union Jacks

For nearly a decade after the end of the First World War it was hardly mentioned in British comics. Any war stories were either set further back in time (for instance the Afghan wars), or else were about fictional conflicts set in the near future. Often against made-up countries presumed to be in some part of the dismembered Austro-Hungarian empire.

However by the second half of the twenties stories and articles about the war gradually crept back in. The Union Jack in November 1926 was one of the leaders of this trend with a series of three plates celebrating the armistice.

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I only have two of the issues though!

Normally I don’t care about gifts with comics. I buy them for the art and stories alone, in fact I prefer comics without their gifts because they are usually far cheaper! I got the first issue of the re-launched Wizard from 1970 for a tenner that way. But I made an exception when I saw the first of these pictures on sale…

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Wonder if this has been reproduced anywhere else?

The plates are accompanied by brief articles about them. These also contain plenty of reminders that no other paper has ever made such an amazing offer at the price, that demand is high and that a regular order should be placed. You’d think The Dandy would try this in these days of ‘pester power’ eh?

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They also contain previews of the next plate

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And remember that regular order!

The three issues are bumper numbers in other ways too. They feature the start of the serial The Three Just Men by Edgar Wallace. This was considered so important that the first two parts (and maybe more) take precedence over Sexton Blake and appear right at the front!

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I doubt that happened with many other serials.

The Three Just Men is the sequel to 1905’s The Four Just Men (yes the Four came before the Three, for reasons that will be obvious if you’ve read the first one XD). It features a group of highly skilled gentlemen who publicly sentence people to death and then carry out the promised assassination by some clever trick. Just like The Deathless Men and V would be doing in later decades. The Four Just Men was actually one of the first ‘really old’ stories I read. It was fairly hard going for me at the time but now I breeze through stories from 10-20 years earlier. Maybe I ought to re-read it.

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The copy I own is actually from the 50’s mind.

Sexton Blake is also on top form. The story concerns the return of one of his greatest enemies (and he wasn’t short of those in the twenties!) Leon Kestrel, the “master mummer”. A mummer was a kind of ‘quick change’ artist who with clever, quickly-applied makeup, could appear to be many different people on stage. Kestrel on the other hand could do this in real life, with disguises that couldn’t be detected even at close quarters by friends of the person being imitated. This of course led to fantastic stories where you never quite know who is who, especially if Sexton Blake also steps into one of his famous disguises.

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Kestrel also had a love of the theatrical. He would threaten to carry out seemingly impossible crimes – in this case stealing gemstones one at a time from a necklace (“pinching it by installments!” declares Tinker) despite the fact it’s inside a locked case and guarded round the clock. He would also steal valuable art treasures that it would be impossible to sell on simply for the fun of it. Not that he wasn’t also above swindling honest people out of large sums of money. Oh and of course his skills at deception, burglary and quick changes of appearance help him with an endless series of amazing prison escapes when he is finally captured!

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Oh and his wife/accomplice Fifette who is just as skilled as he is!

I don’t have the third issue of these armistice numbers, but the editorial further up mentions that it is the first issue to feature Dr Satira. I don’t think I’ve ever read one of his stories, but it says he has a personal army of ape-men so I expect it can’t be half bad!

Proper British adventure comics are still around, if you know where to look – Part 4

You may recall I started this series of articles in the middle of last year, anticipating the release of what it was leading up to. However my anticipation was, in fact, 11 months out! But on the second of this month it finally arrived…

Strip Magazine

Meet the newest comrade in the battle against boring comics, and one that has shot straight into my “regular buys” pile:

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(For some reason Cambridge Smith’s is only selling 3 Commando’s a time now)

Strip Magazine is an all-new monthly of 68 pages that costs a mere £2.99, which is amazing value considering what you get. It even “feels” longer than the Judge Dredd Megazine did in the good old days of 2004 when it was 100 pages long and cost £4.99! It’s also filled with newly-created characters that exist solely for the purpose of being comics – they aren’t just dumb toy adverts or TV show tie-ins.

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We start off with a comedy superhero strip (no don’t run, it’s only a page and actually funny!), which is promisingly advertised as “The only superheroes you’ll see in Strip Magazine”. The introduction doesn’t beat about the bush either. The publisher, Bosnian Ivo Milicevic, grew up reading classic British adventure comics such as Action and Valiant. He later discovered, to his horror, that there was no equivalent comic being published in Britain today. It’s nice to know that foreigners care about this vast, vanished part of our culture – even if British people don’t!

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Some of those parody heroes are a bit close to the bone! Lets hope Marvel/DC are able to laugh at themselves…

The first strip kicks off in fine style with a massive-explosion-to-page ratio of four in six…

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KATHOOOM!

It’s Black Ops Extreme, and features a team of mercenaries who have all been convicted of various crimes, and are now earning their freedom by tackling the dirtiest jobs in the world’s hotspots. In this first story blowing up a drug factory in the disputed Western Sahara region. It is, in fact, unintentionally similar to Commando’s “Convict Commandos” series. The characterisation in those stories is brilliant, but here it doesn’t really have a chance to get off the ground in only six pages. But we’ll see how things go on (oh if only this was a weekly!).

I’ll remain pessimistically optimistic that this story isn’t going to end up with them discovering that actually “western capitalism” is “the real enemy” and fighting against Britain / America. But we’ll see… elsewhere in the issue it is implied that they will at some point be off to Afghanistan, a current conflict that Commando has only slightly touched on so far.

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The comic also contains adverts for other Print Media publications, including this upcoming collection of a Croation comic called Herlock Sholmes. It sounds amusing, but there’s been some more unintentional sameness… for that was the name given to a comedy detective in Tom Merry’s Own annual from 1950!

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Which coincidentally had the same title as the first Sexton Blake story from 1893!

But I suppose the name is pretty obvious. As is “Sherlock Homeless”, who has been spotted in Viz but also as a comic created by Mashiro Moritaka in Bakuman when he was a child!

Next we have an article on Action, the infamous comic from 1976 that featured endless violence and gallons of blood. It was dubbed “The Sevenpenny Nightmare” by The Sun, Condemned by the Football Association for encouraging hooligans and even debated in parliament!

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Using, I notice, a picture from the newly-recoloured Hook Jaw and not the original…

For all it’s horror Action did pave the way for the long-running 2000AD. Horrific violence apparently isn’t so bad when it’s happening 130 years in the future, or to robots and aliens. The article does make the highly-dubious claim that Blackjack in Action was “the first British strip to feature a black lead character”. Even ignoring offensive stereotypes like Policeman Pete (“he takes care of the nigs”!) from Tiger Tim’s Weekly, I’m sure that can’t be right. Could this be a brief flash of Megazine Syndrome – IE completely writing off anything that came before Comrade Mills as worthless?

Promisingly this article is named “Classic British Comics” – could it be one of a series? If it is I expect we will be seeing features on non-Eagle, pre-Mills titles that are not also awash with “hurr hurr Danny’s Tranny they wouldn’t get away with that today!” ‘hilarity’.

Anyway the reason Action has been featured in this first issue is to introduce the newly-recoloured reprint of an infamous seventies classic – Hook Jaw!

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Crunch!

Written off on a certain forum I go to as “dated” (erm, yeah?), it’s actually one of the best strips in the comic! The new colouring is pretty sympathetic to the old artwork, but It seems to me that the gore has actually been toned down(!). I’m sure pictures I’ve seen of the colour Hook Jaw pages from the original printing in Action had far more blood. But of course only some of the pages were originally coloured, here they all are.

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The next strip is a prequel to The Iron Moon, which I shamefully don’t own yet! It’s done in the same delicate watercolour/pencil style, which looks wonderful. The main character is Charlotte Corday, a secret agent in some kind of mystic investigation department. She also showed up in London Calling, which I talked about here. The Iron Moon is actually set in a different universe to that story, but one that is no less bonkers! It’s set in the 1890’s, but Queen Victoria is both still alive, and apparently came to the throne in the 1690’s! Also the British Empire extends all the way to mars, plus France has been conquered too.

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The next story is Recovery Inc. What can I say about this one? Well it features a woman in a tight black leather suit narrating the story as she creeps around stealing stuff. It’s like they threw a bunch of recentish thriller DVD’s at the writer and said “make this”. It also features swear words “disguised” by random symbols. Except those random symbols are actually text speak for the actual letters of the word. This is possibly even worse than fake “futuristic” swear words like “Frell” and they’d better pray nobody at the Mail/Express has their reading glasses on. It smacks of being written into a corner, if Eastenders (or Action!) can manage without swearing so can you!

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Incedentally if it wasn’t for the explanation of what Recovery Inc is on the contents page I wouldn’t have had the faintest idea what this was even about.

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Next there’s an article about PJ Holden, the artist on Black Ops Extreme, which also goes over his work for Rebellion, Warhammer and some other small(ish) press stuff.

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The next strip is Warpaint, which smacks of the mystik faery spyrit type of stories that made me finally give up on 2000AD. It also features one of these narrating the intro, complaining about how “us people” “like stories that start at the beginning”. Actually from what I’ve seen of a lot of modern British/US comics they very rarely start at the beginning these days. Luckily the Japanese (and Commando and Spaceship Away) are there to put things right!

Anyway this story features a girl called Mia, the same name as the main character of Recovery Inc! Her and a friend are stealing pipes from an old building to sell for scrap, when the security guard catches them. He is then eaten by the pipes and Mia is eaten by a coyote spirit… and no doubt will emerge with superpowers and fight against the evil forces that are working to tear Gaia apart at her ley lines by brainwashing earth’s chyldryen into driving cars, eating meat and wearing clothes. Or something.

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I’d say “Manga influenced” here… but I won’t because I’ve done more than idly flick through a few books in a shop!

Fortunately the next strip is far better! It’s the first winner of the Strip Challenge (don’t google that with safe search off). It’s self contained in six pages and so hits the ground running. Basically a secret agent in the future called Agent Syber rescues a kidnapped scientist from the baddies, and that’s it. Oh well, only six pages after all! I was actually pleasantly surprised to see a black and white strip. It shows that this comic is produced by people who love comics, not men in suits droning on that a lack of colour won’t appeal to the TV and Videogame generation.

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I want to draw a colour strip set in Britain’s countryside now!

The final adventure strip is Age of Heroes. It has utterly beautiful artwork, and features a wandering blind storyteller who, erm, tells stories. It’s set on another planet, and so features references to several made up heroes. One of whom is called Drake, who was a blind swordsman – like Japan’s Zatoichi! Anyway, the storyteller begins to tell his tale of an adventuring monk called Wex, who walks along a bit, and then decides to rest but gets a knife thrown at him. Erm, and then we have to wait for part 2. Again, if only this was a weekly!

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Finally on the back cover (on the cover! Told you this was a proper British comic!)  we have the other humour strip. This a comedy story about a faceless spy who looks very similar to the brilliant I.Spy of Sparky! Except this time he is up against evil intelligent apes. One of the hench-apes decides to change sides and help him (there’s no prospects for promotion in evil organisations), then they beat up the baddies. Well it is only a page!

Hilgay Haul 2: The Haulening

On Sunday there was another Hilgay Book Sale. They are definitely more regular than annually, but they don’t always put up a sign for it on my route home from work, and Hilgay is rather far to go of a Sunday on the off chance! (Mind you the road up that way is nice. I’d love to do it in a Morgan 3-wheeler, early on a summer’s morn, with no coppers watching!).

Anyway this time I actually saw the posters talking about the prices of the books, 50p for Thin and 90p for Thick! XD. But there wasn’t as many that interested me so I only got a few.

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As well as a couple of Edge books (I’ve only ever read one but have about twenty, time to get crackin’?) I got a Sabre Boys’ Story Annual. This has alternating stories, some are very short (2-3 pages) while others are very long (20-30 pages). The story-paper size of the book makes me wonder if they are reprinted stories from somewhere. One of the stories is by Robert A Heinlein and is very American. It mentions things such as “Teamsters” (a trucker’s union in the US, or so I wiki’d) without further explanation – possibly a reprint from a Pulp?

The book is undated but appears to be from the late 50’s or very early 60’s. It clearly once had a dustjacket which may have contained the date. Oddly despite the probably-reprint nature of most/all of it’s contents all of the illustrations appear to be by the same artist, and so were probably commissioned for the book.

The other book is called Adventure Story Book for Boys. It’s apparently No. 17 in a “Bumper Book Series”. The Friardale website has mention of such a series and says that Number 17 (which it gives no other information about) was published in 1955. It certianly looks 50’s anyway. It’s all text stories which are on the usual lines of boyish adventures, secret agents, pirates, cowboys etc.

The final book is an account of the battle of Singapore – from the Japanese side! My own comic will one day play host to a “Commando”-ish story about a Japanese Navy pilot from 1910 to 1945, so this ought to be useful. It’s written by one of the commanding officers in that campaign who at one point bemoans the number of times he leaves cars parked “hidden” somewhere, only to come back later and find a lucky shell has scored a direct hit on them.

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We haven’t got this one…. yet.

Life imitates art… again!

I saw this story in the paper a week ago:

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Which is refusing to post in clickable thumbnail mode

For anybody who can’t be bothered to scroll around the image, it is an article about a runner called John Tarrant who throughout the 50’s became infamous as “The Ghost Runner”. He had been banned from competing in athletics tournaments in Britain due to having once been paid for sport – as a boxer when he was young and desperate. Despite this he would pop up at major events anyway, leaping the barriers to join a race just as it was starting. It sounds just like a story from a comic… In fact it sounds just like two stories from a comic! Possibly the most famous athletics stories ever written. Just look at this:

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Does that remind you of anybody?

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From The Hornet via the Great British Comics book… phew

The one and only Wilson! This great character first appeared in The Wizard in July 1943. It chronicled the story of this mysterious athlete who became known when he leapt into a race, until then a foregone conclusion, and trounced the opposition. From then onwards he would crop up at different events up and down the country, not so much breaking records as tearing the book to pieces!

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As you may notice the story is called “The Truth About Wilson”, and what was this truth? It was the fact he was born in 1795 and had lived all those years thanks to a simple life living on the moors, sleeping in a cave and eating various herbal recipes that were actually the elixir of life! At many points throughout the story, chronicled by the journalist W.S.K. Webb, supposedly during the year before World War 2, Wilson would refer to old records from the early 19th century thought to only be legends. He would then set out to break these “impossible” records, which were far in advance of the accepted modern ones – and usually manage it! Of course later it is revealed that he was actually alive when all these supposedly legendary records were set up, without the aid of stopwatches!

The Wilson stories were initially “explained away” by the fact that they all took place before World War 2, and so Wilson’s amazing records were “forgotten” because of the war. But DC Thomson had created a juggernaut and couldn’t just stop at one series. So Wilson, supposedly “last seen” in a burning spitfire over the Channel, returned to “seek champions” in the late 1940’s for Britian’s olympic efforts. After this he discovered a lost Ancient Greek civilisation in Africa and competed in their olympics, before going elsewhere in Africa to compete in a Zulu warlord’s “black olympics”. Still later he made the transition from text stories to comic strips in The Hornet, moving eventually to The Victor. Also in DC Thomson’s more “hard hitting” 80’s comic Spike, he was bought back as the mysterious “man in black”. Readers were going to be let in to his identity and background story only at the end of the serial – however their dads, remembering Wilson from the old days, spoiled it for them after episode 1!

However, Wilson is not the only comic strip hero to defy the authorities and take to the track on his own terms. Over in The Rover a story called The Tough of the Track began in 1949. This featured Alf Tupper, a much more down to earth character who worked as a welder and ate cod n’ chips!

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This could be Alf Tupper! (Except he did reach the Olympics eventually)

Alf, too, was thrown out of professional athletics. But his fault was to catch out an upper-class cheat, and then to be too quick with his fists.

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 Again from the later comic strip. Alf Tupper also first appeared in text stories.

And he also decided to join in a race uninvited, and “ran ’em” all!

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Alf also had a long life. He started in 1949, but I have issues of The Victor from the late 80’s where he’s still going strong – and there’s also stories of his apparent childhood which is clearly set in the 70’s! The ageing patterns only comic characters (and James Bond) can manage! The final Alf Tupper story didn’t appear in a comic, but in a newspaper. It was 1992 and the Victor’s days were already numbered, the paper featured a short serialised strip showing how Alf made it to the Barcelona Olympics and “ran” the best athletes in the world to win gold!

Sadly Victor Tarrant didn’t have such a long life, dying at only 42 of stomach cancer. Like the comic strip stars he perhaps unknowingly emulated (mind you he was a working class lad in the 40’s, could he perhaps have had Wilson tucked away in his subconscious when he decided on his “pitch invasions”? We’ll never know) he was forgotten until a researcher stumbled upon his memoirs. They have finally been published as “The Ghost Runner” by Bill Jones. It is right and proper that such an unstoppable and eccentric character should be remembered. But what of the comic and story-paper versions? These tales entertained generations of readers for decades yet ask the average convention goer at Bristol and they won’t have a clue who you are on about. We have, in the words of Show of Hands, “lost more than we’ll ever know”.

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Oi DCT, reprint this!

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!