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!

Proper British adventure comics are still around, if you know where to look – Part 2.

Yes, Doctor Who is all well and good, you may say. But he’s still a licensed character, albiet a brilliant one that lends himself to pretty much any story in any medium. How about a proper British comics character? How about somebody who is the very embodiment of the stiff upper lip Boys’ Own adventurer… how about Dan Dare?

Now, i know what you are thinking. Here is a character who has been cynically “updated” by men in suits who are only thinking of the money more times than you’ve had hot dinners.  Each time getting more and more remote from the brilliance of the original version – a version started by a man in a dog collar and drawn by one of the greatest comic artists of his own or any era. Who was incidentally pouring his heart and soul into every panel (well, the ones he did!) as if each one was a miniature masterpiece destined for a gallery wall.

Well fear not, for THIS Dan Dare is exactly like the original! Created as a labour of love by a small group of determined fans with a vision. This is…

Spaceship Away issues 1-7

I had been aware of Spaceship Away for ages. I even had a look through a few issues at the Bristol convention in either 2005 or 6 (but couldn’t attract the attention of any of the overworked people behind the table to ask the price!). However it took me until 2010 to finally order the first 7 issues. They were well worth it!

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Aaand here they are. For some reason my memory remembered them as being “US Comic” sized.  Actually they are A4 sized. 

The first issue is actually a bit sparse. It is basically the first pages of the story that started the whole thing (called The Pheonix Mission)  and one long article about how the story was funded, drawn and gotten to press. This story is amazing in itself and deserving of some real recognition. And i don’t mean some afterthought “oh, yeah, and the best small press award goes to Spaceship Away, right, where’s the bar?” award either! The story took so long to get to press that it had actually been initially intended to be printed in New Eagle… a comic that ended in 1994! Issue 1 of Spaceship Away finally emerged in 2003. Sadly the artist who began the tale, Keith Watson, did not live to see it reach print.

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Article. Later on columns were added!

They rounded up assorted artists who had worked in Frank Hampson’s studio during the days of the Eagle, and got members of the Eagle Society to “commission” artwork from the artists on a page by page basis to get the story paid for. The result looks amazing… and because it’s printed using modern techniques direct from the boards (modern DD reprint books mostly have to make do with scans of the old Eagles) looks it’s absolute best!

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Oh yeah, they make the strip look as if it’s on the covers of the 1950’s Eagle too!

That was issue 1, one story (well also there’s the one-page strip Dan Bear on the back… which also has incredible artwork and it’s own interesting and cute story) and one article. However expansions and improvements were rapid. Lets jump up to the newest issue i have, number 7.

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Not quite “strip on the cover”, but it’ll do!

We now have six regular comic strips, as well as one-off funny strips. There is still articles but, with the story of Spaceship Away told, they are now either about Dans’ World, the history of the Eagle or the science behind the stories. Sadly i found several of these articles pretty dull or ‘fluffy’. But never mind them, we’re here for the comics!

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Rocket Pilot – Britain leads the way to the moon in 1970!

The Pheonix Mission has now given way to it’s much-longer (at the time of writing it’s still going!) sequel Green Nemesis. This tale features the villains of the saga, the Treens – and their leader The Mekon! It’s crammed with all the stuff that made the original Dan Dare so great – resourcefulness, never-say-die attitudes and a stern sense of duty. Qualities any former officers would no doubt have recognised in their son’s Eagle only five years after the war.

 We also have Rocket Pilot – originally a webcomic, this tells the story of Sir Hubert Guest, the commanding officer of Spacefleet in the first Eagle onwards.  In this story he has not yet attained this high position and travels on the first trips to the moon (in 1970) and mars (in 1988). It even briefly jumps back to his schooldays, when he looked up in awe at the RAF’s new rocket interceptors, based on German designs and developed by captured scientists.

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Crafty photo use, it’s like the 21st century (as Gerry Anderson imagined it) never ended!

At the far end of the scale we have Project Pluto. Set in the 2020’s, this has Dan himself as the commander of Spacefleet. However he is not content to sit around in an office and pops back and forth between the moon and space stations. Mind you with the advanced space drives of the time that’s probably easier and safer. However in the background shady politicians are trying to manipulate a war between Earth and Saturn(‘s moons – even when Dan ‘originally’ went there they knew the planet wasn’t solid).

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Airbrushes! It’s like Frank Bellamy… which is probably the idea

Ahh but did i not say yesterday that proper comics need some text stories too? Well here’s one! It’s set just before the Eagle story Project Nimbus which, i believe, was the first full story Frank Bellamy worked on, after Frank Hampson was unceremoniously given the boot. The story attempts to explain the various changes to costumes and spaceships seen when the artists changed. Apparently the government were angry at Spacefleet for wasting money, so they changed all their uniforms to look as if they were doing something! Looks like in the future (which is now the past) some things haven’t changed.

 In addition to the ongoing Dan Bear and humour strips, issue 7 introduces something new – a non Dan Dare comic strip! This is Journey Into Space, based on a famous radio serial. This strip was actually originally produced in Express Weekly, a “high-minded” adventure comic with expensive printing that was actually started to directly rival Eagle. To predict that the flagship strips of both would one day appear in the same comic would be like, i don’t know, predicting that Sonic the Hedgehog would one day appear in Nintendo games! Utter madness.

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Can Sonic run as fast as this, though?

 Later issues of Spaceship Away introduced even more non-DD stories including a CGI one called Space Girls, some more classic sci-fi characters in the shape of Hal Starr and Nick Hazzard, and also Garth, from the long-running Daily Mirror strip. However i don’t own these later issues – yet!