How licensed annuals ought to be done

The “modern” form of comic annuals began in the 1940’s, though of course the history of annuals filled with fictional stories, some taking the names of weekly and monthly comics, goes back far further. Running alongside these, throughout their history, have been “standalone” annuals with strips and stories (particularly the output of Dean), annuals named after celebrities, based on radio shows, films and later TV shows. As time has gone on these have declined in quality. Today they are mostly worthless, dumbed down fare of as little as 64 pages, sometimes with a whole page occupied by a generic publicity photo or single, unfunny joke.

Of course, in better days an annual based on a TV show would be filled with exciting text stories and comics. For instance, the 1966 Z Cars annual!

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 Presumed to be “the 1966 annual” because the copyright date inside is 1965

From cover to cover it contains nothing but action-packed detective stories (plenty of punch ups, just like the show! …or at least the clips I’ve seen) and a few comic strips. There’s hardly a publicity shot in sight, except on the endpapers, and to spice up the contents page.

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It was called Z Cars because the cars they were driving were Ford Zephyrs. That estate one would fetch a pretty penny today!

The show was always in black and white, but the illustrations in this annual are all in full colour! It might have been exciting for the kids of the time to see their heroes looking closer to real life. I say might have been, because the colouring is, er, well…

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All is forgiven, modern Classics Illustrated!

I believe this is called “the four colour method”, where the art has blobs of colour printed on it one after the other, which can be combined, or used as screentone, to produce other colours. Old US comics used it to great effect, producing the colourful spandex superhero costumes that endure to this day. This annual, though, appears to have slapped them down largely at random. Some of the resulting images are just plain bizarre:

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All aboard the clown boat!

This weird colouring is also used in the strips, though on those it is slightly better. Can’t help but feel some grey screentone used to ‘suggest’ colours would have worked better, though.

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This annual is a good read, and doesn’t have a single jokes page or article. Mind you, if it did have a jokes page there would have been a good number of jokes, which would have been illustrated with newly-created art, for which an artist would have been paid. And if there had been articles, they would no doubt have been of a decent length and actually contained interesting information on police work. Mind you, though, the annual does cost a whopping 9/6! Apparently kids of the day felt like they could “buy the world” with a 10-bob note, so that must have been quite a bit.

For 2 shillings less, their parents could have got them a “proper” annual for Christmas. For instance, the first Hotspur annual!

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There’s also an article about surfing on the inside, it comes and goes, like yo-yo’s

The Hotspur annual, reflecting the changes made to it’s parent weekly in 1959, is mostly strips. They’re much better drawn than the Z Cars ones too, though are not “full colour”. Instead they have blocks and tones in only one colour, but they are used far more intelligently, working with the black and white work, not burying it!

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Hotspur was mainly an adventure comic, though the annual (and, I’m assuming, the weekly) also contains a few gag strips and text stories. As the comic was an anthology, the stories are not all on the same theme, covering World War 2, the wild west, Victorian firemen, football and sailing. There’s also fictionalised accounts of real adventures, for instance the journeys of Earnest Shackleton.

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Most of the stories in the annual appear to be one-offs (though I don’t own any weekly Hotspurs from 1965). One of them, though, is about the long-running DC Thomson character The Wolf of Kabul. He’s a British secret agent on the North-west frontier, forever “just before the First World War” (the war begins in this story, I suspect it’s not the only one where that happens!). The real star of the story is his native (though it’s not clear if he is an Indian or an Arab) assistant Chung, who wades into battle with a worn-out old cricket bat called “Clicky-Ba”.

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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!

Hilgay Haul

Today i went to a book fair at a village in Norfolk called Hilgay. The village is just off the A10 but the road leading to it is very narrow and bumpy. When i got into the village itself there seemed to be people out and about everywhere, not all just for the book sale but also for various sales of household stuff people had set up in thier front gardens… apparently this was an unrelated event to the book sale, what a community spirit!

Having winded my way down the long narrow road that ran through the village i found a small makeshift car park on a bit of muddy waste ground. Equally old fashioned and wonderful. The sale itself was in the village hall and packed with endless rows of books in plastic boxes on tables with very very narrow walkways between (made the UK Webcomix Thing – of which there will be no more, by the way 🙁 – look like Pyongyang!). It was also very well attended. A lot of the books i bought didn’t have prices on, but i’d taken £100 so wasn’t too worried. Here’s what i bought:

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The total for that little lot? £8!

The big red book is called Fifty Enthralling Stories of the Mysterious East which, I can now report thanks to a helpful comment, dates from 1937. The first story in it is by Sax Rohmer, famous for the Fu Manchu stories. The tales are mainly about Arabs or Chinese, with the odd Indian one (as India was controlled by Britain it was perhaps less ‘mysterious’!).

The Chatterbox annual, still with a similar covers to the first official Chatterbox annuals from the 1870’s (the paper started in 1866) is from 1921 and must have looked very dated by then. The content is pretty Victorian in tone too, with the usual mixture of a long serial story running through the whole volume (and thus a whole year when the papers were published weekly) as well as shorter stories in 1-3 instalments, pictures (no comedy cartoons), informative articles and poems. Chatterbox was aimed at younger readers than the ‘similar’ paper Chums was… and lasted (though by the end only in yearly annual form) right through until 1955! So they must have been doing something right.

There’s also Our Own Schoolboys Annual which is fairly predictable fifties stuff of adventure stories revolving around detectives, sport, boys on scouting trips falling into adventures and mild sci-fi. It’s mainly text stories with lots of line drawings but there’s also a comic strip.

The other thing relevant to the blog is Stories for Boys which dates from 1961 (the first edition anyway, i have a fifth edition from 1967). The inside of the dust jacket promises stories set all over the world from “the stirring days when Englishmen and Spaniards battled for supremacy on the high seas” to “the sky lanes of the future“. (I’ve been to the sky lanes of the future and they’re pretty boring really… and the food is horrible). The back cover promises “many exciting sketches” but there’s really only a few full-page illustrations which aren’t all that good.

The other stuff i got includes a few Edge novels by George G Gilman, these addictive and fun westerns are shot through with black-as-night humour and extreme violence. Apparently there was comics based on them made in Italy… if the “fan subbers” can tear themselves away from Japanese stuff for a minute i’d love to read one of those! Gilman also created a character called Adam Steele but i only got one of those… one thing at a time! There was also at least two Edge Steele books in which the pair teamed up to dispense lead-flavoured justice.

The final item is pretty interesting, it’s a nuclear conspiracy thriller with elements of small boat sailing… a 1990’s Riddle of the Sands? I was reading the foreword which, setting the scene for the story, implied that the striking coal miners, anti nuclear environmental protesters and Middle Eastern oil pipeline saboteurs were all one organised body in the pay of the Soviet Union… i like this guy’s style! (especially as the Mark Trant stories in my own comics will work on a similar idea, though in those the organisers will be British-based socialists).

RIP Peter O Donnell

This week saw the death of Peter O Donnell, creator of one of the finest newspaper adventure strips ever – Modesty Blaise, at the age of 90.

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Typical Modesty action. The pair often avoided deadly violence except where necessary.

The Modesty Blaise comic strip ran in the London Evening Standard from 1963 until 2000. She and her sidekick Willie Garvin were former expert criminals who ran a large organisation known only as “The Network”, however before the stories begin she dismantles this and comes to live in London (where Willie was born) where she “goes legit” and helps to bring down crime syndicates or uncover enemy spies. Sometimes working for the government but other times falling into adventure by accident or in order to help out innocent people caught up in trying circumstances.

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One of the more bizarre and flamboyant villains – a man who attempts to recreate the “glory days” of Viking raids!

The back-story of Modesty was never revealed in any great detail, only that her origin is largely unknown and that she grew up in a brutal refugee camp which gave her an iron drive and determination to survive and succeed – first turned to crime and later to serving the forces of good. Her and Willie were, in the grand tradition of proper adventure stories, not lovers but merely worked together.

Alongside the comic strips a series of novels was produced with longer stories. These tales were often more violent than the comics (at least with regards to fatalities) and could ‘show’, by not showing, more sexual material. The first story is so far the only one i have read, but it’s a cracker – featuring a remote island stronghold and a madman with a private army.

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In addition, there was two Modesty Blaise films produced – the first appeared in the 1960’s and was of similar “quality” to the recent Sexton Blake radio serial and the 1960’s Casino Royale “Bond” film. And thus can be ignored. The second was made in 2003 and was a much more serious attempt – based on her early life before The Network. I haven’t seen either but believe the latter one to be set in the modern day – reviews i have seen of it suggest it was largely a missed opportunity. If there was any justice in the world there would, of course, be a big budget adaption with vast sets, a mad villain and it would, of course, be set in the 1960’s.

Happily, Modesty Blaise stories are pretty easy to obtain. The novels are in print and Titan books are reprinting the newspaper strips in large and lavish (if a little ‘scratchy looking’) volumes with additional story information and interviews. If you haven’t got any already start today, and get a look at the trunk of Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s family tree!