How licensed annuals ought to be done

The “modern” form of comic annuals began in the 1940’s, though of course the history of annuals filled with fictional stories, some taking the names of weekly and monthly comics, goes back far further. Running alongside these, throughout their history, have been “standalone” annuals with strips and stories (particularly the output of Dean), annuals named after celebrities, based on radio shows, films and later TV shows. As time has gone on these have declined in quality. Today they are mostly worthless, dumbed down fare of as little as 64 pages, sometimes with a whole page occupied by a generic publicity photo or single, unfunny joke.

Of course, in better days an annual based on a TV show would be filled with exciting text stories and comics. For instance, the 1966 Z Cars annual!


 Presumed to be “the 1966 annual” because the copyright date inside is 1965

From cover to cover it contains nothing but action-packed detective stories (plenty of punch ups, just like the show! …or at least the clips I’ve seen) and a few comic strips. There’s hardly a publicity shot in sight, except on the endpapers, and to spice up the contents page.


It was called Z Cars because the cars they were driving were Ford Zephyrs. That estate one would fetch a pretty penny today!

The show was always in black and white, but the illustrations in this annual are all in full colour! It might have been exciting for the kids of the time to see their heroes looking closer to real life. I say might have been, because the colouring is, er, well…


All is forgiven, modern Classics Illustrated!

I believe this is called “the four colour method”, where the art has blobs of colour printed on it one after the other, which can be combined, or used as screentone, to produce other colours. Old US comics used it to great effect, producing the colourful spandex superhero costumes that endure to this day. This annual, though, appears to have slapped them down largely at random. Some of the resulting images are just plain bizarre:


All aboard the clown boat!

This weird colouring is also used in the strips, though on those it is slightly better. Can’t help but feel some grey screentone used to ‘suggest’ colours would have worked better, though.

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This annual is a good read, and doesn’t have a single jokes page or article. Mind you, if it did have a jokes page there would have been a good number of jokes, which would have been illustrated with newly-created art, for which an artist would have been paid. And if there had been articles, they would no doubt have been of a decent length and actually contained interesting information on police work. Mind you, though, the annual does cost a whopping 9/6! Apparently kids of the day felt like they could “buy the world” with a 10-bob note, so that must have been quite a bit.

For 2 shillings less, their parents could have got them a “proper” annual for Christmas. For instance, the first Hotspur annual!


There’s also an article about surfing on the inside, it comes and goes, like yo-yo’s

The Hotspur annual, reflecting the changes made to it’s parent weekly in 1959, is mostly strips. They’re much better drawn than the Z Cars ones too, though are not “full colour”. Instead they have blocks and tones in only one colour, but they are used far more intelligently, working with the black and white work, not burying it!

lao08.jpg  – lao10.jpg – lao12.jpg

Hotspur was mainly an adventure comic, though the annual (and, I’m assuming, the weekly) also contains a few gag strips and text stories. As the comic was an anthology, the stories are not all on the same theme, covering World War 2, the wild west, Victorian firemen, football and sailing. There’s also fictionalised accounts of real adventures, for instance the journeys of Earnest Shackleton.


Most of the stories in the annual appear to be one-offs (though I don’t own any weekly Hotspurs from 1965). One of them, though, is about the long-running DC Thomson character The Wolf of Kabul. He’s a British secret agent on the North-west frontier, forever “just before the First World War” (the war begins in this story, I suspect it’s not the only one where that happens!). The real star of the story is his native (though it’s not clear if he is an Indian or an Arab) assistant Chung, who wades into battle with a worn-out old cricket bat called “Clicky-Ba”.


Hilgay Haul

Today i went to a book fair at a village in Norfolk called Hilgay. The village is just off the A10 but the road leading to it is very narrow and bumpy. When i got into the village itself there seemed to be people out and about everywhere, not all just for the book sale but also for various sales of household stuff people had set up in thier front gardens… apparently this was an unrelated event to the book sale, what a community spirit!

Having winded my way down the long narrow road that ran through the village i found a small makeshift car park on a bit of muddy waste ground. Equally old fashioned and wonderful. The sale itself was in the village hall and packed with endless rows of books in plastic boxes on tables with very very narrow walkways between (made the UK Webcomix Thing – of which there will be no more, by the way 🙁 – look like Pyongyang!). It was also very well attended. A lot of the books i bought didn’t have prices on, but i’d taken £100 so wasn’t too worried. Here’s what i bought:

hilgay book salw may2010hbjh

The total for that little lot? £8!

The big red book is called Fifty Enthralling Stories of the Mysterious East which, I can now report thanks to a helpful comment, dates from 1937. The first story in it is by Sax Rohmer, famous for the Fu Manchu stories. The tales are mainly about Arabs or Chinese, with the odd Indian one (as India was controlled by Britain it was perhaps less ‘mysterious’!).

The Chatterbox annual, still with a similar covers to the first official Chatterbox annuals from the 1870’s (the paper started in 1866) is from 1921 and must have looked very dated by then. The content is pretty Victorian in tone too, with the usual mixture of a long serial story running through the whole volume (and thus a whole year when the papers were published weekly) as well as shorter stories in 1-3 instalments, pictures (no comedy cartoons), informative articles and poems. Chatterbox was aimed at younger readers than the ‘similar’ paper Chums was… and lasted (though by the end only in yearly annual form) right through until 1955! So they must have been doing something right.

There’s also Our Own Schoolboys Annual which is fairly predictable fifties stuff of adventure stories revolving around detectives, sport, boys on scouting trips falling into adventures and mild sci-fi. It’s mainly text stories with lots of line drawings but there’s also a comic strip.

The other thing relevant to the blog is Stories for Boys which dates from 1961 (the first edition anyway, i have a fifth edition from 1967). The inside of the dust jacket promises stories set all over the world from “the stirring days when Englishmen and Spaniards battled for supremacy on the high seas” to “the sky lanes of the future“. (I’ve been to the sky lanes of the future and they’re pretty boring really… and the food is horrible). The back cover promises “many exciting sketches” but there’s really only a few full-page illustrations which aren’t all that good.

The other stuff i got includes a few Edge novels by George G Gilman, these addictive and fun westerns are shot through with black-as-night humour and extreme violence. Apparently there was comics based on them made in Italy… if the “fan subbers” can tear themselves away from Japanese stuff for a minute i’d love to read one of those! Gilman also created a character called Adam Steele but i only got one of those… one thing at a time! There was also at least two Edge Steele books in which the pair teamed up to dispense lead-flavoured justice.

The final item is pretty interesting, it’s a nuclear conspiracy thriller with elements of small boat sailing… a 1990’s Riddle of the Sands? I was reading the foreword which, setting the scene for the story, implied that the striking coal miners, anti nuclear environmental protesters and Middle Eastern oil pipeline saboteurs were all one organised body in the pay of the Soviet Union… i like this guy’s style! (especially as the Mark Trant stories in my own comics will work on a similar idea, though in those the organisers will be British-based socialists).