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!

The Case of the Nihilists Daughter – A Brilliant Union Jack

I recently read this tale, as a breaktime-filler at work, and just had to write about it, it’s brilliant!

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New Series number 606, May 22nd 1915

The story begins with a lengthy prologue, in fact it’s so long you forget it even is a prologue and wonder when Sexton Blake is going to show up!

As it is, the tale begins in winter in the Russian city of Petrograd. General Karoski is waiting at a resturant for Elga Seblinsky, the daughter of a count that he is deeply in love with. However she is engaged to another man, Boris Tchapernoff. But the general has an ace up his sleeve – he knows that Elga’s father is “The Wolf”, and a member of The Nihilists, a group that want to bring down the government of Russia. The general attempts to blackmail Elga, telling her he knows where her father is meeting that very night, and that if she doesn’t promise to marry him her father will be arrested and exiled – virtually a death sentence.

Just as the general loses his temper Boris Tchapernoff appears on the scene and knocks the general to the ground, Elga faints and by the time she has come around the general is long gone – to arrest her father! Boris races them to the meeting-place in his sleigh, but they are just too late – and they witness Elga’s father being led away in chains, never to be seen again. Elga wants to shoot the general there and then, but it would only result in them being arrested too, and Boris has to drag her away.

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Which can’t have been very easy in a Russian winter

During the earlier ‘scene’ Boris and Karoski had arranged to fight a duel – which is to take place in the gardens of a mansion during a masked ball. Elga drugs Boris and takes his place in the costume, eager to have her personal revenge. However the general cheats at the duel – turning and firing after only five paces instead of the agreed six. “Boris'” second. Alexis Irloff, pulls off the victims mask and discovers the truth, shortly before being shot himself. Boris, recovered from the drug, arrives just in time to swear he will have his revenge on General Karoski!

Five years pass, and the world is plunged into a devastating war. One that causes Tinker, Sexton Blake’s assistant, to compose a ‘touching ballad’:

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Tinker’s anti-German song!

 A woman named Enid Delane comes to visit the great detective – she is the victim of a blackmailer named Latham Gower, who has got hold of some silly love letters she wrote as a teenager, and is demanding ever-increasing sums of money not to send them to her husband. Gower has now invited her, and several other of his victims, to a party. Sexton Blake decides to accompany Miss Delane to the party, disguised as her father!

At the party two kinds of guests are present – high society, all of them Gower’s victims, and gower’s associates – dodgy bookies, loan sharks and the like. Enid and “Sir Thomas” Delane both arrive at the party, the latter engaging Gower in a protracted conversation about safes and burglars – in order to find out the location of Gower’s safe.

As the party wears on Sir Thomas, AKA Sexton Blake, slips away and breaks into the safe, collecting up all of the blackmail documents and burning them in the gas stove. Just as he is about to leave the room Gower enters and passes into a private office with one of his “clients”, the French Monsieur Leon. As Sexton Blake listens from his hasty hiding place the “Frenchman” begins to tell Latham Gower a ‘leetle story’ – about a murdering Russian officer who dissapeared, after wounding a woman severely in a rigged duel and driving her half-insane! For the Frenchman is really Boris Tchapernoff and Latham Gower is General Karoski!

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I swear an illustration very similar to this one has been used at times to represent both Sexton Blake and Nelson Lee! This was before the reign of Eric Parker, who gave Sexton Blake a defined image.

Boris demands that the general fight the duel that they could not in Russia, when suddenly Elga bursts in through the large windows. She has been free of her insanity – which comes and goes, and begs Boris not to murder the general, for duels in England are illegal. Sexton Blake decides to intervene – when a body thuds against the office door and slams it shut. Then there is another thud, a whistle, and a sucession of horrifying screams!

Blake forces his way in and finds Boris knocked out, an ugly wound on his head – Elga is in the corner, screaming with insanity, and Latham Gower is dead, with a knife buried deep in his heart! Of course Sexton Blake is still in disguise so has to leave with his daughter, who “is ill”, and then rush back to the mansion as his true self and “discover” the crime. Luckily a doctor arrived quickly while Blake was away and the scene has not been disturbed too greatly – but the mystery is baffling – Boris was knocked out before the murder, and Elga could not have been strong enough to do it. Besides which the knife is a huge showy Mexican piece, not the thing a Russian would carry around. Added to this are some strange animal tracks in the room.

Inspector Martin, one of the Scotland Yard officials that Sexton Blake is familiar with, arrives at the scene and immediatley arrests Boris. The robbed safe and burned papers only add to the confusion. Blake decides to proceed more carefully and has Tinker bring Pedro, their intelligent bloodhound, over from Baker Street. they set pedro on the trail of the small animal that had been in the room… and wind up at a circus! On the way the Inspector tumbles to the  fact that Sexton Blake had robbed the safe and actually heard the murder happen.  The trail Pedro follows ends up at a tent where Captain Emanuel Carlos, a famous Lion-tamer, is performing. He wants to try and enter a cage containing a dangerous untamed lion, but has not so far managed the feat. He also has a pet ferret – the mysterious small animal!

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Sexton Blake

Sexton Blake and Inspector Martin return to the mansion and search Latham Gower’s office to try and connect the lion tamer to the blackmailer. Eventually they find a hidden compartment in his desk with documents relating to Gower’s other, “official” business, as a moneylender with absurd interest rates. Emanuel Carlos is one of his victims. They need more proof, however, and Sexton Blake, disguised as a general worker at the circus, manages to enter the lion tamer’s caravan, and discovers that Carlos used to be a knife-thrower, and has 40 knives that are the exact duplicates of the ones that killed Latham Gower.

Sexton Blake and Inspector Martin go and watch the lion tamer, intending to arrest him afterwards. However the lion attacks him and he is fatally wounded – he makes a deathbed confession – he had originally borrowed money for his daughter’s medical treatment, but had got deeper into Latham Gower’s clutches. One night he heard that his daughter had died, and went to Gower’s house, taking advantage of the confusion of of the argument he witnessed to throw a knife through the window and kill the blackmailer!

In the end a friend of Sexton Blake performs an operation on Elga and cures her insanity – and later on her and Boris are married.

This is a brilliant story, with a lot of unexpected twists and angles. It goes off the boil in the end, though. The Lion-tamer’s mauling and deathbed confession is all a bit too neat and tidy – but space restrictions and wartime shortages applied. I wonder how much better this tale may have been if it had been extended and held over for the 60-80,000 word Sexton Blake Library, which began in September 1915?

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!

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

Comics in the Union Jack

The Union Jack was a popular storypaper from 1894 up to it’s end in 1933, for most of it’s life it contained Sexton Blake stories, and serials, articles and editorial focusing on crime and punishment. However in it’s early days it experimented a great deal, and the editorial often revolved around the Royal Navy, or else “fascinating facts”. In this issue, number 24 from 1894, they have even printed a comic strip! albiet a very short one.
Sandow comic in the UJ

NB: “Sandow” was a strong-man of the time who repeatedly advertised his muscle-building books in the Harmsworth/AP papers. In the UJ of 1906 there was even a series of short articles about (no doubt greatly exaggerated) events from his life, such as going to every gym in Paris and wrecking the weight-lifting machines as he was too strong for them to handle.