Life imitates art… again!

I saw this story in the paper a week ago:

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Which is refusing to post in clickable thumbnail mode

For anybody who can’t be bothered to scroll around the image, it is an article about a runner called John Tarrant who throughout the 50’s became infamous as “The Ghost Runner”. He had been banned from competing in athletics tournaments in Britain due to having once been paid for sport – as a boxer when he was young and desperate. Despite this he would pop up at major events anyway, leaping the barriers to join a race just as it was starting. It sounds just like a story from a comic… In fact it sounds just like two stories from a comic! Possibly the most famous athletics stories ever written. Just look at this:

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Does that remind you of anybody?

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From The Hornet via the Great British Comics book… phew

The one and only Wilson! This great character first appeared in The Wizard in July 1943. It chronicled the story of this mysterious athlete who became known when he leapt into a race, until then a foregone conclusion, and trounced the opposition. From then onwards he would crop up at different events up and down the country, not so much breaking records as tearing the book to pieces!

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As you may notice the story is called “The Truth About Wilson”, and what was this truth? It was the fact he was born in 1795 and had lived all those years thanks to a simple life living on the moors, sleeping in a cave and eating various herbal recipes that were actually the elixir of life! At many points throughout the story, chronicled by the journalist W.S.K. Webb, supposedly during the year before World War 2, Wilson would refer to old records from the early 19th century thought to only be legends. He would then set out to break these “impossible” records, which were far in advance of the accepted modern ones – and usually manage it! Of course later it is revealed that he was actually alive when all these supposedly legendary records were set up, without the aid of stopwatches!

The Wilson stories were initially “explained away” by the fact that they all took place before World War 2, and so Wilson’s amazing records were “forgotten” because of the war. But DC Thomson had created a juggernaut and couldn’t just stop at one series. So Wilson, supposedly “last seen” in a burning spitfire over the Channel, returned to “seek champions” in the late 1940’s for Britian’s olympic efforts. After this he discovered a lost Ancient Greek civilisation in Africa and competed in their olympics, before going elsewhere in Africa to compete in a Zulu warlord’s “black olympics”. Still later he made the transition from text stories to comic strips in The Hornet, moving eventually to The Victor. Also in DC Thomson’s more “hard hitting” 80’s comic Spike, he was bought back as the mysterious “man in black”. Readers were going to be let in to his identity and background story only at the end of the serial – however their dads, remembering Wilson from the old days, spoiled it for them after episode 1!

However, Wilson is not the only comic strip hero to defy the authorities and take to the track on his own terms. Over in The Rover a story called The Tough of the Track began in 1949. This featured Alf Tupper, a much more down to earth character who worked as a welder and ate cod n’ chips!

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This could be Alf Tupper! (Except he did reach the Olympics eventually)

Alf, too, was thrown out of professional athletics. But his fault was to catch out an upper-class cheat, and then to be too quick with his fists.

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 Again from the later comic strip. Alf Tupper also first appeared in text stories.

And he also decided to join in a race uninvited, and “ran ’em” all!

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Alf also had a long life. He started in 1949, but I have issues of The Victor from the late 80’s where he’s still going strong – and there’s also stories of his apparent childhood which is clearly set in the 70’s! The ageing patterns only comic characters (and James Bond) can manage! The final Alf Tupper story didn’t appear in a comic, but in a newspaper. It was 1992 and the Victor’s days were already numbered, the paper featured a short serialised strip showing how Alf made it to the Barcelona Olympics and “ran” the best athletes in the world to win gold!

Sadly Victor Tarrant didn’t have such a long life, dying at only 42 of stomach cancer. Like the comic strip stars he perhaps unknowingly emulated (mind you he was a working class lad in the 40’s, could he perhaps have had Wilson tucked away in his subconscious when he decided on his “pitch invasions”? We’ll never know) he was forgotten until a researcher stumbled upon his memoirs. They have finally been published as “The Ghost Runner” by Bill Jones. It is right and proper that such an unstoppable and eccentric character should be remembered. But what of the comic and story-paper versions? These tales entertained generations of readers for decades yet ask the average convention goer at Bristol and they won’t have a clue who you are on about. We have, in the words of Show of Hands, “lost more than we’ll ever know”.

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Oi DCT, reprint this!

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