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!

1874-cbox.jpg

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.

1897-hm.jpg

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.

1901-bf.jpg

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!

1913-bf.jpg

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.

1914-uj.jpg

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.

1921-nl.jpg

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”?

1925-nl.jpg

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.

 1950-eg.jpg

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!

1952-eg.jpg

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!

The oldest item in my collection…

Is issue 11 of the Halfpenny Marvel, published on the 17th of Janurary 1894. Containing only the one story (later issues would also have articles and instalments of serial stories) called A Golden Ghost, or Tracked by A Phantom.

It is the third (of thousands!) published story of Sexton Blake. And is regarded, even by fans, as a “farrago of nonsense”. Written by the detective’s creator, Harry Blyth (using his real name here as opposed to Hal Meredith, as he did on occasion) the story is indeed rather messy, revolving around a gem stolen from a Malayan tribe called the Zeefri, which is hidden inside an iron cube. A rich financier (who funded the expedition to steal the gem) being blackmailed because he once used money intended to be given to a girl when she grew up to bail himself out. The girl in question being in love with the nephew of the adventurer who stole the gem. Told you it was confusing… such a complex plot might make for an exciting story in the hands of a good writer, but unfortunatley mr Blyth was far from that. This is a lot better than the first Sexton Blake story, mind.

That’s the underlying plot, as for the story itself, well it lurches from scene to scene with little regard for logic or sense. The colonel who captured the gem is lured into a trap by the “Golden ghost” of the title, which remains completley unexplained. He later escapes and turns up just in time to thwart the plans of the villains, casually explaining that the building in which he was being held prisoner collapsed for no reason. In another lengthy page-filling sequence (also providing several forced ‘action scenes’) the colonel’s nephew, Wallace Roy, travels to Malaya and is captured and then escapes from numerous bloodthirsty tribes and wild animals. eventually falling captive to pirates, but choosing an opportune moment to spring overboard and swim to a British man-o’-war. To fill up more space a bizarre sequence concerns the gem going missing, and the reason being Wallace was sleepwalking to the Captain’s cabin and hiding it in a secret drawer he had been shown during the night.

Despite all this page-filling, the story ends very abruptly. With everything straightened out and Wallace marrying his sweetheart, the colonel is sent a present of a wicker basket during the wedding. He opens it and is attacked by a boa constrictor. Saved in the nick of time by Sexton Blake, he then decides that the Zeefri, who have been desperate to kill him through most of the story, will never attack him again. Just like that. If you ask me the story was most likely written right up to the deadline and there was very little time for such fancy procedures as editing. But there you go!

Being Sexton Blake’s early days, the characters of Tinker, Pedro and the irrepressible landlady Mrs. Bardell are all absent. Instead Wallace Roy aids the detective in the case at some instances (as was the way in most early tales… meaning it always had to be a some strong young man commissioning the ‘tec). In others Blake merely talks to himself. Sexton Blake’s partner, Jules Gervaise, who was a feature of a few early tales and even had a couple of solo adventures (also written by Blyth) is notably absent, and not even mentioned. Presumably he is on a case of his own in France at the time.

The Halfpenny Marvel issue 11

Early issues used both orange and black ink, however this was later switched to single colours. Dark red for a time, and then dark blue for many years.

Halfpenny Marvel 11 - 01

The first page, with the large illustration used on Harmsworth/AP papers of this type. Almost being a secondary cover… which is handy as often papers where bound into volumes without covers, see my Union Jack Index blog for more of that! You can see the back of the cover here, with the ink showing through… even in 1894 publishing a 16-page storypaper for a halfpenny meant very cheap & cheerful printing quality, which also explains why so few have survived. Luckily this sturdy volume has preserved the books well. My UJ’s from the same year have not been so lucky, and are crumbling.

Halfpenny Marvel 11 - 02

Fancy illustrated lettering to open new chapters… this also vanished along with the two-colour covers. Presumably further cost-cutting… once the Halfpenny Marvel had become a sucess Harmsworth set about pumping out more storypapers, such as the Union Jack, Pluck and Illustrated Chips. And the money had to come from somewhere!

Halfpenny Marvel 11 - 03

The snake in the basket which is the Zeefri’s final attack on the Colonel. They decide to stop after this attack fails… why? well there was no pages left for a start…

Halfpenny Marvel 11 - 04

This is what Sexon Blake looked like in the 1890’s. This illustration was used in several stories, including “The Missing Millionaire”, the first story in issue 6 of the Marvel, and “Sexton Blake: Detective” in issue 2 of the Union Jack

Halfpenny Marvel 11 bcover

The back cover, showing all the previous issues and four cover illustrations. The two men in the hot air baloon basket (issue 7) was the second Sexton Blake story, and above can be seen the title of the first- The Missing Millionaire. I did once order issue 5 off Ebay, but the guy said i hadn’t paid when i had, and ignored my emails. So issue 11 remains the oldest item in the collection so far!

Other notes

New Accquisition: a volume of 1904 Union Jacks. No Sexton Blake stories amongst them, though. I’m going back to Lincoln for year 3 of university tomorrow, though. So they’ll arrive after i’m gone. But here’s the pictures from the ebay auction.

1904 Union Jacks 1

1904 Union Jacks 2

There’s plenty of secondhand/antique bookshops in Lincoln (the more suited to my needs, the higher you have to climb, though), so my collection will be expanded whilst i’m there, which will give me plenty more to write about!