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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Christmas Comic Covers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Just another picture i had kicking around for size comparison