Important: This page contains the article on the history of British Adventure Comics that originally appeared in the Red, White & Blue issue 1 (new series). That version of the article was 2.1, this article has now “overtaken” the article and should be considered to be the most correct version. Further revisions will be made as new details come to light / new, significant comics are discovered or published. This version of the article will also have a steadily-increasing number of pictures that did not appear in the printed version, due to time constraints. Most of the pictures are photographs / scans from my own collection. Other sources will be clearly credited. If you have any additions, corrections or pictures of rare publications, please send them to me.
Introduction & The Early Days.
British adventure comics can broadly be separated into three distinct eras – Penny Dreadfuls, Story Papers and finally Comics. It must be stated right at the start that these terms are far from concrete. Many of the early story papers were lumped in with penny dreadfuls by angry parents. Also most early adventure comics were half filled with text stories. There are other people who insist that the term comic should only apply to comical publications such as The Beano, and that adventure comics ought to be called Picture Story Papers. To muddy the waters further other terms such as Penny Bloods, Tuppeny Bloods and Slicks existed.
Penny Dreadfuls flourished in the 19th Century, from the 1830’s onwards. They were primarily horror stories filled with vampires, werewolves, pirates, highwaymen and so on. Many stole the plots of more famous horror stories. Story Papers began around the 1860’s and were broadly similar to the Penny Dreadfuls, featuring text stories with block illustrations (in the early days literally carved into blocks of wood for printing). Comics featuring adventure stories began in the 1920’s and became the predominant form in the 1950’s. Before we begin, however, we must consider a fourth era, The Early Days.
One of the earliest British children’s papers appears to have been The Young Gentleman’s Magazine, published for six months in 1777. Very little is known about this, and copies are extremely rare. It is possible that it did not contain any fiction. It was called The Young Gentleman’s Magazine because at that time it was only the sons of rich parents who received an education. However as the 19th century began things were gradually changing. Through the church, workhouse and charity schools working class children gradually became more literate. A few magazines aimed at children cropped up during this time, but generally contained only articles, poems and so on. Stories were usually limited to biographies and historical accounts. One of the earliest of these was The Youth’s Magazine, or Evangelical Miscellany, which began in 1805. In 1817 there came The Youth’s Instructor and Guardian and in 1833 The Children’s Weekly Visitor. One early publication known to contain fiction was The Boys’ and Girl’s Penny Magazine which first appeared in 1832. These were aimed at Sunday school pupils, and contained grave Christian morality tales. While their parents may have approved, the children themselves wanted something more exciting…
Penny Dreadfuls were regularly published (usually weekly) serial stories. They generally came in 8 – 16 page parts with a lurid illustration and were sold, as the name implies, for a penny. This low price put them within the means of working class children, who with little else to do (and unable to afford ‘proper’ books) devoured them in their hundreds of thousands. The penny dreadfuls evolved from Chapbooks (a contraction of cheap book) that had been sold by wandering traders.
As their name also implies, the penny dreadfuls were… dreadful! The publishers aimed at the lowest common denominator, filling the pages with tales of famous criminals such as Dick Turpin. They also brazenly stole the plots of more famous stories (and added extra horror and violence). Some of the earliest of these dreadfuls were published by Edward Lloyd. His father had died at a young age and he left school early to sell newspapers. He eventually moved into publishing and was responsible for two of the earliest penny dreadfuls: History of the Pirates of all Nations and Lives of the Most Notorious Highwaymen, Footpads and Murderers (both 1836). These titles ought to give a decent idea of what penny dreadfuls became infamous for! Lloyd made a great deal of money from these tales, and also from blatant copies of the works of Charles Dickens, for instance The Sketch Book by Bos (1837) and Oliver Twiss (1839). There was a free-and-easy attitude to copyright in those days, and Dickens himself once complained that when he took these imitators to court he was Treated as if I were the robber and not the robbed! Another common plot in the thirties and forties was that of the young heir to a fortune being cheated out of his money by scheming relatives. His quest to regain it would inevitably lead to weird and uncanny encounters in abandoned monasteries and haunted forests. Stories in this vein included Almira’s Curse, or The Black Tower of Bransdorf (1843) and The Black Monk, or The Secret of the Grey Turett (1844). These stories were often historical, for instance the latter was set during the time of the crusades.
The following year would see Lloyd’s publishing empire begin one of the most famous of the penny dreadfuls and one of the longest continuous stories of all time Varney The Vampyre, or The Feast of Blood. This was written by one of Lloyd’s most prolific writers James Malcolm Rymer. The story ran for 109 weekly parts and in all is 220 chapters long, a recent paperback reprint runs to over 1,150 pages! The story was probably not originally intended to be this long, but at the time publishers would insist on a popular series being continued for as long as possible. If people were happily paying for a familiar name why stop them? This practice continues in the Japanese comic industry today. As I write the pirate story One Piece has ticked over to chapter 658!
Varney The Vampyre ran from 1845 to 1847 and gave us many familiar tropes that are still used today. The killed creature revives time after time by the light of the moon. Investigators discover his empty coffin in a gloomy crypt and an angry mob of peasants with pitchforks marches on his castle. It is clear that Varney had more than a little influence on Count Dracula, written over forty years later! Of course it is Dracula that is remembered today because that book was published in a thick cover on high-quality paper, whereas Varney appeared as a cheap serial for the working class. This is the origin of a disgraceful form of anti-comics snobbery that still persists in Britain today, and which has steadily demolished our home-grown industry. Ironically the worst of this snobbery comes from left-wing news sources who usually try to oppose such behaviour.
One of the penny dreadfuls that escaped the ‘confines’ of this snobbery and has become regarded as a literary classic is Brett’s next smash-hit. Originally published in a short-lived paper containing multiple serials called The People’s Periodical & Family Library, the story The String of Pearls: A Romance was the first appearance of Sweeney Todd. The original version of this story was a brilliantly-written, well-paced thriller with that shock ending. The tale proved so popular it was re-launched in 1850 as a standalone dreadful under the title The String of Pearls, or The Sailor’s Gift. This version of the story, possibly by James Malcolm Rymer or another prolific author called Thomas Peckett Prest, was 92 parts long and contained many new characters and extra scenes. This version of the story is considered inferior, but the reading public were not deterred it wouldn’t have been allowed to run that long without the sales! Despite the immense fame this story has achieved (it has been adapted in every form you can imagine, including blockbuster films with A-list casting) the original author is unknown. It’s probable that the original was edited down from the true original before publication, making the story people actually read the work of multiple authors. 1820’s police reports from Paris suggest that a similar demon barber (as Sweeney Todd would come to be known in a later reprint) really existed there. It is possible the original writer was an Englishman who lived in that city, but nobody knows for sure.
Edward Lloyd’s successes in the penny dreadful trade made him enough money to move into respectable publishing around 1860. An often-repeated but unproven story has it that in later life, ashamed of his beginnings, he hired agents to buy up and destroy copies of his dreadfuls. While nobody knows if this is true or not, original copies of these stories are now incredibly rare.
George Purkess Snr. was another prolific publisher of penny dreadfuls through the middle of the 19th century. One of his popular publications being The Life and Adventures of Jack Sheppard (1849). This recounted the highly-fictionalised exploits of an 18th century criminal. When George Purkess Snr. died his son took over the business, starting The Illustrated Police News in 1862. This publication reported on the deeds of famous criminals, but the reports were so edited with lurid details as to be virtually fictional. It was one of the origins of tabloid news reporting, and made vast profits reporting on Jack the Ripper in later years.
A further publisher of this period worth noting is Edward Viles, who put out probably the longest penny dreadful tale Black Bess, or The Knight of the Road from 1863. This story ran for 254 issues and recounted the story of the famous highwayman Dick Turpin (in fact, it may be the reason why he is better remembered than any of the other colourful characters who terrorised the roads of the 18th century!). The real Dick Turpin was a brute who stole horses, tortured home owners and robbed the rich and poor equally. However in the various penny dreadfuls in which he featured he was transformed into a Robin Hood figure, battling the forces of injustice. Other dreadfuls featured highway women such as May Turpin and Starlight Nell. May these be considered the origins of girl’s adventure comics?
The most famous penny dreadful publisher in the latter part of the 19th century was Edwin J. Brett. He was one of a number of men who created the Newsagent’s Publishing Company, which cornered the dreadful market from the sixties onwards. Once again the titles give an indication of what was on offer, with names such as Black Rollo, The Pirate and The Skeleton Horseman, or The Shadow of Death. One of Brett’s most famous early stories was The Wild Boys of London, or The Children of the Night from 1866. Instead of a historical or ghostly setting, this story featured stories of violent crimes committed in contemporary London. It spawned a range of imitators, including The Mysteries of London by G.W.M. Reynolds. This contained some passages which could easily have been interpreted as calls for revolution. There was, as might be expected, deep controversy surrounding such stories. In fact when The Wild Boys of London was reprinted in 1877 the police became involved! Another notable Brett serial was Springheeled Jack, The Terror of London from around 1864. Spring Heeled Jack was the UFO sighting of the time. A strange creature said to attack people with long claws and leap over houses with a single bound.
Through the 1860’s Brett maintained a bitter rivalry with another publisher called Hogarth House, run by the Emmett Brothers. Their offices were on opposite sides of Fleet Street and there are reports of them shouting insults at each other out of the windows! The rivalry spilled over into their publications too. In 1866 Brett started Boys of England, and in 1867 they replied with The Young Englishman. The one-upmanship continued and reached it’s absurd peak on 11th March 1872 when Brett’s Rovers of the Sea and Hogarth’s The Rover’s Log made their début on the very same day! As the sixties and seventies went on Brett gradually removed the overt horror and crime from his own papers, and began to create what would eventually become the story papers (see next chapter). Hogarth House went the other way, increasing the blood and terror. It didn’t help them much, as they pandered to the poorest classes who could not always afford to buy a copy every week. The broader appeal of Brett’s papers, on the other hand, found them homes among the aspiring middle class too. Hogarth house went bankrupt around 1874, but was taken over by Charles Fox. He, and the Emmett’s, began to put out a bewildering array of penny dreadfuls and higher minded papers into the eighties, including Tom Wildrake’s Schooldays (1870), a prototype for the boarding school stories that were popular for the next 60-70 years. Also of interest were Ching-Ching’s Own (1888), which featured a Chinese character and Broad-Arrow Jack, which was presumably a prison tale containing a powerful undercurrent of sadism and cruelty that caused some trouble with the press.
By this time printing techniques were improving, and coloured plates were being given away with dreadfuls to attract new readers. A new story would give away plates regularly, but they would become rarer as it went on. Some dreadfuls, as well as being published in weekly issues, would also be published in monthly compilations with a coloured cover. The full run of a particularly rare story with all it’s coloured plates included can fetch tens of thousands of pounds today. In time some stories would give away the second part gratis with the first. Another common ploy was to give away the first part of a new story with the last part of an old one. Finally some stories were sold with penny plain, twopence coloured card figures of the characters, who could be used to enact the story in toy theatres. These are the origin of the free gift given with comics a trend that many feel has gone too far today, but that is more than a century ahead!
Mention should also be made of the Aldine Libraries. These were almost entirely British reprints of American Dime Novels (their version of penny dreadfuls, with a similar reputation). The free-and-easy attitude to copyright persisted, and the Aldine company are unlikely to have paid any royalties to the American writers! Often stories would be edited heavily, either to disguise Americanisms, or to make longer stories fit the page count. Apparently this would usually ruin the plot, rendering the stories an unreadable mess. Research conducted in the 1980’s discovered that Aldine rarely made a profit, though their attractive colour covers were still to be found on news stands in the early 20th century.
The Early Story Papers
One of the earliest story papers did not, initially, contain any stories. It was called The Boys’ Own Magazine and was published by Samuel Beeton from 1855 to 1874. The first yearly volume had sold 10,000 copies, but it needed to sell three times this amount to be profitable. To attract more readers, a serial reprint of Edgar Allen Poe’s The Gold-Beetle began part-way through the second volume.
It should be mentioned at this point that many early story papers, especially those aimed at a middle upper class audience, were sold in three forms. Weekly, Monthly – which were the preceding 3-4 week’s worth, often in a coloured cover – and Yearly. The yearly volumes were big hardback books containing the preceding 12 month’s weekly issues sometimes complete, though often with adverts and even covers removed. The paintings that had been used on the covers of the monthly editions were sometimes included as plates. Of course, the yearly volumes survived the test of time much better in their thick, hard covers. This makes papers sold in this form a lot easier to collect today even quite old material can be bought for about £10. Though you have to be in the right place at the right time! Incidentally the second volume of The Boys’ Own Magazine from 1856 is the oldest item in the archives of 1910 Press.
The title page to the Boys’ Own Magazine volume 2 (‘book form’ reprint), 1856
At sixpence per monthly issue The Boys’ Own Magazine was well beyond the means of working class children, it existed in a different world to the penny dreadfuls. Other early attempts at high-minded story papers included Every Boy’s Magazine and Young England, both from 1862 and The Boys’ Journal from 1863. The latter two ought not to be confused with later publications of the same name. All of these papers were monthly, printed on quality paper, and expensive. But changes were on the way.
Chatterbox was founded in 1866 by Reverend Erskine J. Clarke. It was aimed at quite a young age group, the reverend hoping to steer their towards more wholesome reading matter at an early age. Priced at a halfpenny, and containing a long serial story as well as informative articles, poems and lots of illustrations, Chatterbox was a runaway success. It was also published in monthly and yearly volumes and these annuals, especially from after about 1905, can still be bought relatively cheaply today. Chatterbox ran into the 1930’s in weekly, monthly and yearly form, but by the end of that decade it was only an annual. It is something of a tradition in British comics to keep a series of annuals running long after the weekly has folded. The Chatterbox annuals ran until 1955!
A Chatterbox from 1875 (the issue numbers were restarted every year)
In the same year that Chatterbox began, Edwin J. Brett bought out his own story paper, Boys of England. This ran until 1899 and imitated the style of popular magazines for working class adults. This was part of Brett’s move to clean up his act and avoid a looming moral panic against the penny dreadfuls. Unlike the dreadfuls, which usually only contained an instalment of one story, story papers contained one or more serial stories in addition to articles, poems or short, complete stories. Story paper serials were almost always written with serialisation in mind ending each part with a cliffhanger, for instance. Reportedly some of the penny dreadfuls simply ended when the writer ran out of room, even in the middle of sentences!
Boys of England, and other papers from the same presses such as Young Men of Great Britain (1868) and Our Boys’ Journal (1876) contained informative articles and advice on the jobs open to working class boys. Another addition to these papers was their patriotic tone. Previous stories, set in the past or else featuring criminals and monsters, did not really pay too much attention to national politics. But by the sixties a wave of patriotic pride at Britain’s expanding empire (no doubt helped by her technological dominance, and the invention of the telegraph which allowed news from abroad to quickly reach Britain’s papers) was exploited by Brett to great effect. Stories would feature adventures in far-away lands that, in those days of expensive and dangerous transport, the readers would probably never visit. (The writers had rarely been there either, mind, and made up most of their information on the spot, but it was a start!).
Despite Brett’s best efforts, even claiming royal patronage for Boys of England, everything he was publishing was lumped under the dreadful banner. This was possibly down to one of the most famous characters in Boys of England Jack Harkaway, written by Bracebridge Hemyng. While this character did not attain the literary fame of Sweeney Todd, stories about his rather vicious schoolboy pranks, and then ultra-violent adventures around the world (including in the Indian mutiny), ran for many years. The author made enough money to emigrate to New York and buy a large mansion, where he continued to write Jack Harkaway for an American audience. It’s also worth mentioning that Brett attempted to publish a story papers for girls, Our Girls Journal in 1882, but it was not a success.
In 1878, in a lecture at the headquarters of the Religious Tract Society, Lord Shaftesbury accused the penny dreadful of: Creeping not only into the houses of the poor; neglected and untaught, but into the largest mansions and astounding careful parents with it’s frightful issues. The message spurred the society into action, and in 1879 the first issue of one of the most famous British comics appeared The Boys’ Own Paper. This has since given it’s name to a whole genre of upright adventure tales. But the B.O.P. Was almost a flop. The directors of the Religious Tract Society insisted that it imitated the Christian magazines of the early 19th century, with puritanical articles and little fiction. Eventually, however, G. A. Hutchinson, the first editor, persuaded them that a paper full of exciting adventure stories and breezy articles could also have Christian morality skilfully woven in. In the end, he won, and was proven right when every single copy of the Boys’ Own sold out within three days. The paper was initially aimed at a general audience, and priced at a penny. It was the first real attempt to provide an alternative to the penny dreadfuls that their readers would actually enjoy. To introduce the first issue to children thousands of copies were distributed to London schools.
The Boys’ Own Paper secured the greatest writers of it’s time, including such 19th century household names as George A. Henty and R. M. Ballantyne. Before long writers such as Jules Verne and Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle, who are household names today, were appearing. One of the earliest serials was about a young boy working his way up the ranks of the navy during the Napoleonic wars, in From Powder-Monkey to Admiral. Articles on history, on hobbies and on science were written by recognised experts. Accounts of recent battles were written by the men who actually been there, and tales of exploration in foreign lands were written by the people who had themselves braved the trackless jungle. The boarding school story was present from the very first page, in the story My First Football Match. This was actually about Rugby, as the term football was used for both games at that time. The writer of this story, and the later serial The Fifth Form at St. Dominic’s,was Talbot Baines Reed. He had not actually been to a public school, but as extreme realism was not the aim that didn’t matter. The public school story was a popular genre because the small confines of a school allowed a cast of familiar characters to be maintained. It also allowed for values such as honesty, loyalty and fair play to be written into the tale in terms that the young readers would understand. The genre was to prove immensely popular well into the 20th century, and would produce some of the most enduring characters ever created in British comics.
The Boys’ Own Paper, and it’s sister The Girls’ Own Paper which began a year later, became the leading lights of story papers through the eighties. Some serious competition appeared in the form of Union Jack (1880 83) which was edited by G. A. Henty and a new version of Young England (1880) that ran into the 20th century.
Two official yearly editions of Young England (1900-01 and 1911-12)
Edwin J. Brett was not out of the game yet and launched Boys of the Empire in 1888. The quality of storytelling was not much different to what he had been printing in the sixties, what was different was the art it was full colour throughout! This was a daring gamble, but it did not pay off. The full colour printing pushed the price up to 1½d, and with plenty of competition on the shelves readers preferred to spend their halfpennies on a whole other comic. Boys of the Empire later dropped it’s colour and reduced in price to a penny, running into the nineties and absorbing Young Men of Great Britain in 1889.
The nineties saw a major upheaval in story papers, that would change the face of children’s periodicals for decades to come. Just prior to this Cassell & Co. published a story paper called Chums. This first appeared in 1892, and was in the style of the Boys’ Own Paper, though for the first year was a slightly larger size.
Chums issue 1
Chums was edited by Max Pemberton, and to begin with was not particularly successful. Later a serialisation of R. L. Stevenson’s Treasure Island, and Max Pemberton’s own The Iron Pirate gave the paper a vital circulation boost. Early issues were fantastic value for money, containing at least two serials, a complete story, interesting articles and even a comic strip! The quality of the illustrations was very high too. From 1907 it was briefly the official paper of the Boy Scout movement. With it’s reputation established Chums ran for many years, the weekly and monthly versions ended in the early 1930’s, but the annuals continued until 1940 (dated to 1941). The Iron Pirate, serialised in volume 1, was a prophetic tale of modern piracy on the high seas. It was reprinted as a book in the 1930’s and is well worth buying if you come across it. The hardback Chums annuals proved very popular throughout the paper’s life. Many of them have survived, especially those from after the First World War, and can be bought relatively cheaply today.
Chums annuals, earlier and later cover design.
The Amalgamated Press
Despite the existence of the Boys’ Own Paper, Chums a few others, the penny dreadfuls soldiered on into the nineties. One person made unhappy by this was Alfred Harmsworth. He had already published some humour comics in the form of Comic Cuts and Illustrated Chips (both 1890), which ran well into the 20th century. He would also be responsible for the Daily Mail and Daily Mirror tabloid newspapers from different ends of the political spectrum that are still running today.
Harmsworth decided that instead of producing a well-printed, high-and-mighty story paper to battle the penny dreadfuls, he would meet them on their own terms. His papers would also be 8 16 almost transparent pages, but they would contain good, healthy literature that readers need not be ashamed of reading. The first of these was The Halfpenny Marvel (1893), followed rapidly by Union Jack and Pluck (1894).
The first Halfpenny Marvel (note the cheap-as-chips printing has gone off centre), 1893.
An early Union Jack, 1897 (A detective story, but not a Sexton Blake one).
The first Pluck, 1894.
All of these papers cost a halfpenny, undercutting their rivals. Their stories were complete in each issue, allowing new readers to start at any point. Existing readers were constantly asked to tell their friends about the new papers. The first issues contained furious editorials about the evil influence of penny dreadfuls how they encouraged children to rob their employers, become back-street ‘highwaymen’ and so on. For all of the moral panic, Harmsworth’s early issues were not much better. The writing was clearly printed and the spelling and grammar were correct, but many of the stories simply lurched from one action scene to the next and did not make a great deal of sense. As one wag put it, Harmsworth killed the penny dreadful by creating the halfpenny dreadfuller!
The quality of the Harmsworth papers did steadily improve as the decade went on. Within a year they were being printed with smaller, clearer type that allowed room for a serial story alongside the complete tale. Better illustrators were sought (though their art still showed through the pages!) and some recurring characters were introduced. Harmsworth also had the advantage of being able to cross-promote any new paper in his already-successful newspapers and magazines. As more story papers were introduced they promoted each other constantly. The recurring characters would also be moved between papers.
The Halfpenny Marvel cannot be talked about without mentioning Sexton Blake. This character, originally a Sherlock Holmes imitation, went on to become one of the most famous fictional detectives of the twentieth century. He was created by a not-very-good writer named Harry Blyth, who sold Amalgamated Press (as Harmsworth Publishing became known) the copyright of the character along with the first story. Blyth died in 1898, but stories of Sexton Blake continued to be regularly published, in one form or another, until 1963! We will revisit him later.
In 1895 The Boys’ Friend was first published. This was a tabloid-sized halfpenny story paper of 8 green-tinted pages. It’s large size and tiny print allowed for the telling of long, book-length serial stories. Each issue also contained a complete story of 10,000+ words and big illustrations. The editor, Hamilton Edwards, used his own page to run a sort of agony aunt column – dispensing advice on hobbies, finding jobs, dealing with problems and so on. In my opinion The Boys’ Friend is the best British comic ever in a just world we would see huge phone books reprinting complete years of it. The editorials and stories within are an unparalleled insight into how society operated at the time. Sadly the lack of interest, unpleasant racial attitudes and expense of scanning and reproduction prevent this from being done. Given the cheap, thin paper and large size of The Boys’ Friend, old issues rapidly became torn or crumbly. It is probable that the only remaining copies of some issues are those in some dusty vault of the British Library and when that institution is short of space at some time in the future, will they bother to keep these worthless comics?
The Harmsworth papers, for all the variations in quality they experienced in their early days, were up to date. The 1890’s was a decade of astonishing progress. The telephone and electric light, which would have seemed like magic not very many years previously, were becoming ever more widespread. Ships and trains were regularly shattering speed records, the motor-car was becoming more reliable (though still phenomenally expensive). The radio and submarine were moving from the experimental to the everyday. Navigable airships were being constructed, and the aeroplane was not so many years distant. All of these discoveries were grist for the Harmsworth mill, and fanciful stories of flying machines, submarine treasure-hunts and even space travel were not uncommon.
The patriotism of the Harmsworth papers was also of it’s time. Whilst older story papers simply used the empire as an interesting place to set stories in, the Harmsworth papers featured stories about the early days of conquest that had created it. More contemporary stories told of daring explorers discovering gold mines and persuading native populations to raise the flag of the great queen across the sea. Pluck even printed an editorial calling for schools to run a course of empire-related studies, and for all British boys to be trained as army cadets.
By the end of the decade, most of the older story papers had come to an end. The Boys’ Own Paper, Chatterbox and Chums carried on into the twentieth century, having found popularity with a more upmarket audience. They were joined by The Captain in 1899, this was published by George Newnes Ltd and was aimed directly at wealthy boys who attended public schools. The Captain was a thick monthly paper and was also sold in hardback six-monthly volumes, which are cheap and relatively easy to find today. Many of the stories in The Captain were quite unconventional for their time. In war stories the hero may lose his best friends, or even his own life. Schoolboys who, in the Harmsworth papers would get away with a merry rag (or practical joke) were here caught and punished. In one early issue there was even a school story told from the teacher’s point of view! The Captain also contained interviews, in the early volumes there are chats with Max Pemberton, G. A. Henty, Tom Browne (who virtually invented the look of pre-Dandy British humour comics) and the legendary cricketer W.G. Grace.
An official half-yearly volume of The Captain. Many collectors appear to have bound their own volumes too, with plainer covers.
In 1900 (seen, at the time, as the last year of the 19th century, not the first of the 20th) Edwin J. Brett made one last attack on the news-stands in bizarre circumstances. He heard that the publisher Melrose were going to create a paper called Boys of the Empire the title he had used for his ill-fated full colour publication. He quickly rushed out a new halfpenny paper called … Boys of the Empire! For a few months two papers with exactly the same title, but a different price, were on sale. Eventually Melrose relented and re-named their paper Boys of our Empire, which ran into at least 1903.
The first issue of the Melrose Boys of the Empire. Later issues featured red lettering in the title.
Throughout the 1900’s most of the Amalgamated Press papers increased their price to a penny. The Boys’ Friend went in 1901, the Union Jack in 1903 and The Marvel (as the Halfpenny Marvel had been re-named) in 1904. All benefited from a larger page count and better quality paper. Union Jack was even, for a time, printed on ‘glossy’ paper. These re-launch issues are actually surprisingly common and well-preserved, when compared with others from later in the decade.
Issue 2 of the re-launched Union Jack (the Nelson’s Column motif was widely used in the advertising).
When The Marvel relaunched it was taken over by Jack, Sam and Pete, three daring adventurers. Pete was the comic relief a sympathetic black character at once progressive and horrifying for his ridiculous, stereotyped speech.
An early issue of the re-launched Marvel.
In 1905 Union Jack became Sexton Blake’s own paper, he would go on to appear in every single issue until it ended in 1933. It was in Union Jack that all of the important early developments of the Sexton Blake saga took place, for instance the introduction of his cockney sidekick Tinker, dog Pedro and bustling housekeeper Mrs Bardell. The pattern of daring detective, boy assistant and clever pet would be repeated hundreds of times in the comics of AP and it’s descendants Fleetway and IPC.
This was a boom time for the AP story papers. Lavish double numbers, with twice the page count and price, would appear for Easter, Christmas, Whitsun and other special occasions. In Union Jack this meant 64 pages with two long, exciting stories. In The Boys’ Friend this would mean a beautiful painted cover and the opening instalments of several new serial stories each kicking off with around 10,000 words of excitement. The Oxford and Cambridge boat race was another excuse for The Boys Friend to produce double numbers printed with blue ink! Harmsworth did not rest for a moment, in his ceaseless quest for readers at least one new paper was launched every year. Just some of these titles included The Boys’ Realm (1902) and The Boys’ Herald (1903) which were the same format as The Boys’ Friend.
The Boys’ Friend, Boys’ Realm and Boys’ Herald in the 1900’s
The Boys’ Realm eventually converted to a sport-themed paper whilst The Boys’ Herald became devoted to hobbies. There was also The Girl’s Friend which began in 1899. However at this time the story papers aimed at girls primarily focused on tragic romance in the Jane Austen style.
In 1906 a series of small pocket books called The Boys’ Friend Library began (a similar Girls’ Friend Library launched in the same year, without the coloured covers of the boys’ version). The first two issues (rather than being weekly, these small books were released in monthly batches of several issues at once, setting a pattern that continues to this day) were actually called The Jack, Sam and Pete Library. However from the second batch on the paper was given it’s more generic name and was used to reprint serials that had originally appeared in the weekly papers. Often these serials were edited to remove some of the ‘padding’ they had been given when first printed. The Boys’ Friend Library would actually outlive it’s namesake, running until 1940. Later issues do not seem to have been edited as carefully as the earlier ones. Some stories seem to have had important scenes removed. Others were obviously once several short stories that have been hastily joined together to make a longer tale.
In 1907 The Gem appeared. It didn’t look or feel much different to any of the other Amalgamated Press publications sixteen pages in a blue cover for a halfpenny. The first story was a desert island tale called Scuttled!. The second story was a western, but the third was called Tom Merry’s Schooldays. After alternating with conventional adventure stories Tom Merry began to appear in every issue from number 11 onward. In this issue the school he had been attending was closed down and he moved to another called St Jim’s, which had previously featured in Pluck. Here he made new friends (including a posh chap called Arthur Augustus D’Arcy) and together they would get into endless scrapes and adventures for almost 40 years! In common with many great British comic characters, Tom Merry and the rest of the inhabitants of St Jim’s never aged, though the world changed around them. There was never any real explanation for this, other than a jokey poem referring to the characters as Peter Pans.
An early Gem featuring Tom Merry.
The Gem proved successful, and the following year a companion called The Magnet was launched. From the very first issue The Magnet concentrated on school stories, set in an institution called Greyfriars. These initially moved around the school, focusing on different characters and the problems they faced, always with a strong vein of comedy. However one character in Greyfriars soon came to dominate Billy Bunter. Bunter was a fat, lazy, nosy and scheming schoolboy who would forever be trying to either steal food or swindle people out of their money. One of his more common tricks was to pretend to be expecting a postal-order from a rich relative, and asking people if they would lend him money until it arrived. As time went on the plot of virtually every Magnet story would hinge upon Bunter. His eavesdropping or trickery would end up creating or solving the problem that faced another character. The other ‘main characters’ of The Magnet stories were Harry Wharton and the famous five – boys in the remove, or lower fourth, form. Occasionally the stories would concentrate on other characters, but always with Bunter hovering about nearby!
Both The Magnet and The Gem kept up a consistently high standard of writing, with just the right balance of drama and humour. Whilst each story was complete they were usually organised into series of 5-10 connected stories, giving plenty of room for character development. The characters were fantastically drawn too, they all had their distinct personalities, with different strengths and weaknesses giving all of the readers somebody to identify with. The stories were able to maintain a high standard, and the characters maintained the same familiar personality for one very good reason – they were nearly all written by the same man! His name was Charles Hamilton, and he is one of the greatest writers in the English language. Aside from The Magnet and The Gem, his workload included school stories in The Boys’ Friend, the spoof detective Herlock Sholmes, Westerns featuring The Rio Kid and hundreds more. He also invented many other schools and outlined their characters (including a Bessie Bunter, Billy’s sister) before passing them on to other writers.
It is for The Magnet and The Gem, though, that Charles Hamilton is best remembered. His work was so fondly remembered that from the 1960’s to mid 1980’s these papers (most of The Gem, nearly all of The Magnet and selections of other titles) were reprinted in a series of hardback annuals. His stories remain so addictively readable that even these ‘mere reprints’ can fetch £25-30 today!
The march of Amalgamated Press seemed unstoppable. While other publishers tried to launch new story papers they virtually all folded within a few years. By 1910 Alfred Harmsworth’s dream of killing off the penny dreadfuls had succeeded beyond all expectations. Apart from The Boys’ Own Paper and Chums he dominated the field, and the papers continued to fly from the presses. In 1912 he launched The Dreadnought, a paper (except for a few early tabloid issues) similar in format to the early Gem, but filled with serial stories. There was also the Penny Pictorial, which contained a selection of short, complete stories, often about Sexton Blake and Billy Bunter. (Sexton Blake also appeared a magazine called The Penny Popular for many years. This mainly contained factual articles, but it is here that Blake faced the first of many recurring super villains in the vein of Moriarty from Sherlock Holmes). Finally there was The Penny Wonder, an attempt at a unisex story paper. Whilst The Halfpenny Marvel and others had claimed to be unisex, they were really aimed at boys. The Penny Wonder, on the other hand, generally contained a detective story, a girl’s adventure story (often with the girl being tied to railway tracks and rescued by her dashing lover, mind you) and a Gothic romance aimed at older women.
In 1913 The Boys’ Journal began. This was the same name as (but otherwise was unrelated to) a paper from the 1860’s, and even had a curiously old-fashioned masthead. It was the same format as Union Jack, with pink covers, but contained serial stories like The Dreadnought. Interestingly it also ran a series of progressive articles on Boy Slaves of Britain, condemning the dangerous, dead-end jobs that many uneducated boys found themselves trapped in.
Many story papers around this time, especially The Boys’ Friend, were running tales of fictional near-future wars against foreign countries. These usually depicted Germany as the enemy, though Russia, France and even Japan all Britain’s real life allies came under suspicion. One of these serials was The Peril to Come! from 1909, featuring German Zeppelins invading Britain. There was also a series of linked serials, featuring endless back-and-forth battles against Germany (with Britain being helped by France) by John Tregellis. These formed one huge, epic saga broken up into ‘smaller’ serials, each running over many months, with titles like The Aerial Armada, Kaiser or King? and The Legions of The Kaiser. The latter featured a fanciful plot of the Germans sailing around Britain and invading Ireland. It began in June 1914, the real world was about to overtake fiction…
A Boys’ Friend Library (circa 1913) reprinting the Kaiser or King? serial
A World at War
Modern commentators regularly state that the popular magazines of the first world war painted the trenches as a fun environment where plucky boys could enjoy rounds of cricket and football before marching down to account for a few of the marauding Hun. There is some truth in this, but such attitudes did not persist through the whole war, only lasting for the first few months. The story papers of this brief period, especially the Amalgamated Press ones, make for fascinating reading. The Boys’ Journal ran a serial called War to the Death, or When Britain Fought For Right! In this the Germans, who up until then had at least been portrayed as civilised Europeans fighting for their country, now became ludicrous pantomime villains cackling and joking as they prepare to bomb a Belgian hospital. Another passage features the British heroes leaping from their trenches with rifles clubbed, striking out at the fiercely-distorted, demoniacal faces of the Germans attacking them.
The Boys’ Friend went even further, starting an Anti-German League. It encouraged members to boycott all German products. A member reported looking for a good automatic pistol (gun control was far more lax in those days), but the stamp made in Bavaria put him off, and he bought a British-made revolver instead.
This type of storytelling could not last – as more and more brothers, sons and workmates were told that Tommy would not be coming home. Even by Christmas 1914, when the war was supposed to have been over, Union Jack was describing the trenches as Icy sewers of peril … there, where the Fusiliers had spent day after day, sleeping on the sodden ground, and standing to the waist in icy water, the only consolation had been that the enemy must do it too.
The Union Jack Christmas issue for 1914. The story had been written before the famous truce (and game of football) so the soldiers in it keep on fighting through Christmas day.
The shortage of paper in the first world war does not seem to have been as acute as it was in the second, for Union Jack still managed to print this story in a double-length Christmas issue. Even longer Sexton Blake takes were to come, for in 1915 the Sexton Blake Library was launched. This was a series of pocket books in the same format as the Boys’ Friend Library, and it ran until 1963! You could write an article almost as long as this one purely about Sexton Blake, so vast and varied was his saga. I will simply say that the first four issues of the Sexton Blake Library are regarded as some of the finest stories in the Blakian canon. Original copies are incredibly rare today, but in 1987 the four stories were reprinted in a hardback book (with larger type!) called The Sexton Blake Detective Library, published by Hawk Books. This is a lot easier to find and the stories are fantastic Boys’ Own yarns at their very best.
An early Sexton Blake Library (1917)
Also making it’s début in 1915, in a curious almost A5 format, was the Nelson Lee Library. Nelson Lee also began in The Halfpenny Marvel in the 1890’s, before appearing occasionally in Pluck. He later appeared in long serials in The Boys’ Friend, as well as The Boys’ Realm Football and Sports Library. This publication was a halfpenny sport-themed spin-off (of an already sport-themed paper!) which began in 1909 and eventually incorporated with the Nelson Lee Library. For most of the rest of the war Nelson Lee and Sexton Blake wandered about with magnifying glasses, peering at footprints and arresting German spies. In 1918, however, Lee’s path diverged rather dramatically.
The Boys’ Realm Sports Library, this issue from 1911. It was ‘still’ a halfpenny when most other story papers were a penny!
Nelson Lee and Nipper, his cockney boy assistant, needed to escape from an enemy, so hid themselves in St Frank’s School as a master and pupil… and didn’t leave for the next 15 years! From this point The Nelson Lee Library kept up a series of mingled boarding school and detective stories that are almost impossible to put down! The writer, Edwy Searles Brooks, is on a par with Charles Hamilton for creating likeable, distinct characters. But while the boys of Greyfriars might occasionally have tied a rope across the stairs to trip up a burglar, the boys of St Frank’s were drawn into plots involving the crazed Professor Cyrus Zingrave and his world-spanning League of the Green Triangle. The Nelson Lee Library was organised into series, like the stories in The Magnet and The Gem, but all of these series followed directly on from the previous one. At the end of one series the boys might set off on a journey home from Africa, and at the start of the next they are attacked by a rival form on arrival, launching us into the next plot. In effect, the Nelson Lee library was one huge serial that ran for a decade and a half! If we as a nation were truly proud of our cultural history, we’d be naming streets after these characters.
A Nelson Lee Library (1919)
Throughout the rest of the war the weekly story papers gradually reduced their tales about the conflict. They instead printed stories of historical adventures or more boarding school ‘ragging’. The stories of the war did not entirely vanish until the armistice was signed, but from then on it was barely mentioned for almost a decade. The nation much preferred to forget the tragedy. Amalgamated Press left the war in an even stronger position than they had entered it. The paper shortages had forced smaller publishers to the wall and the comedy escapism of Billy Bunter had proven enormously popular. AP’s editors must have felt complacent who could possibly challenge them?
The Challenge from Dundee
Quick! What was the biggest and bitterest rivalry ever seen in comics? Shueisha and Shogakukan? Not even in it. DC and Marvel? Close, but this one pre-dates the very existence of those two giants. It was the rivalry between Amalgamated Press and DC Thomson! If they didn’t shout insults at each other from their office windows, it wasn’t through want of trying!
DC Thomson, based in Dundee, had already published the successful People’s Friend (1869) story paper, aimed at middle-aged women. They had also launched a newspaper, The Sunday Post, and a rival to the Sexton Blake Library called The Dixon Hawke Library (1919). In 1921 they turned their attention to the highly-lucrative weekly boys’ story paper market, launching Adventure. The first issue of Adventure proclaimed it’s contents to be Lively, Healthy and Up-to-date. They were that all right! From the very beginning DC Thomson stories featured unconventional elements such as magic and super powers. Amalgamated Press, by contrast, had always tried to keep their own stories grounded in scientific reality, though not always successfully! Brilliant scientists creating some ahead-of-their-time invention was another common theme that had only been rarely touched on in the AP papers. There were also innumerable quests for X number of objects, and tales of men employed in strange jobs for instance collecting sound effects for films. In 1922 Adventure was joined by The Rover and The Wizard, all three having very little to distinguish them from each other.
DC Thomson also took a new approach to their serial stories. Rather than having a separate story so far section, the plot would be skilfully woven in to the opening paragraph. Every part of a serial would be the same same length of 2½ pages. Cliffhanger endings were almost unheard of. Instead every part of a story would feature a difficulty arising and being overcome, whilst also advancing the main plot. For example one of the objects the main character needs to find might be hidden at the top of a mountain. The idea proved very popular, as it allowed new readers to begin a serial at any point without the need for detailed knowledge of what had gone before.
DC Thomson provided the first real challenge to the dominance of Amalgamated Press. Their immediate response was the obvious one launching even more story papers! Their first response came in the form of The Champion (1922). This was a primarily sport-themed paper containing characters such as Rockfist Rogan, an RAF test pilot who was also a boxer. It also featured a detective called Panther Grayle, a copy of Sexton Blake. Amusingly the 1925 Champion Annual contains an article about fictional detectives, attempting to make out that Blake and his many imitators were more different than was actually the case. The Champion was a halfway house between the older style of story papers and the new DC Thomson kind. The next AP paper, The Triumph (1924), was an unashamed copy of the Thomson style. As was The Ranger which launched shortly afterwards.
The older AP papers such as Union Jack, Marvel (now a sport-themed paper with an emphasis on boxing) and The Boys’ Friend continued as they had before. The latter pair would come to an end in the mid-twenties, but fans of the Union Jack consider the twenties and thirties to be it’s “golden age”. It allowed in just a little of the supernatural and science fiction elements that made Adventure so popular.
Union Jack at it’s best!
The Boys’ Realm had gone on hiatus in 1916 but made a short-lived reappearance, as a smaller paper with coloured covers. Another interesting paper from AP, launched in 1922, was The Rocket. This was a slightly larger size (similar to Chums) but with colour covers and two complete stories in each issue.
One area where Amalgamated Press took the lead in the twenties (and arguably kept it for the rest of the century) was in creating comics for girls. Sadly the first world war probably did more to advance women’s rights than any number of suffragette protests. Either way the new flappers did not want to read yet another story of a serving-girl falling in love with a rich landowner, which could have been set anywhere in the preceding 200 years. These girls wanted to read stories of brave female detectives, pilots and racing drivers not to mention the merry rags of public schools. AP made a start with The School Friend (1919) which featured stories of Cliff House. Cliff house was the sister school of Greyfriars, and it is where Bessie Bunter, sister of Billy, was educated. The School Friend was relaunched as The Schoolgirl in 1922 and ran until 1940.
The Schoolgirl “issue 3” – following a second re-launch in 1929.
The Schoolgirl’s Own was a smaller paper that launched in 1921. This was run along similar lines to The Magnet, with complete stories of Morcove school in each issue, arranged into series. Morcove featured the adorably excitable character of Naomer Nakara, though she would be considered a horrible racial stereotype today. Just as long as you would work out what race she was supposed to be! Her habit of adding Bekas to almost every sentence is kind of catchy.
The Schoolgirls’ Own
Other AP publications launched during this period included Girls Favourite and The Schoolgirl’s Own Library (both 1922), the latter reprinted girl’s serial tales in pocket form. The Schoolgirl’s Own Library far outlasted it’s parent, running into the 1960’s!
Boys’ Magazine, launched in 1923 by Allied Newspapers, is an interesting ‘third party’ publication from the period. It was quite small (close to the modern A5) but also quite thick. It contained several science fiction stories including Emperor of the World, where a mad scientist is awoken from a 200 year sleep and tries to conquer the earth, which has been devastated by the war of 1934. This was followed by a tale called The Raiding Planet, about the earth being attacked by a rogue planet called Thor in 1987. During the thirties The Boys’ Magazine also printed a text story version of King Kong.
In 1928 Amalgamated Press launched one of the most important inter-war story papers, The Modern Boy. This contained articles about the latest developments in motor cars, aeroplanes and ships, as well as speculation on the technology of the future. The Modern Boy also contained plenty of stories, one of it’s most popular characters being Captain Justice. The captain starts out as a modern-day pirate in the Robin Hood mould. He later becomes a multi-millionaire and sets up his own kingdom on Justice Island in the mid-Atlantic. As a private retreat he has the mile and a half high(!) Titanic Tower built elsewhere in the ocean. Captain Justice is ably assisted by Midge, a boy assistant, Len Connor, a wireless operator, Doctor O’ Malley, an Irish doctor and Professor Flaznagel. Credit for most of the captain’s victories against evil dictators, pirates and even aliens really ought to go to the professor. He constantly comes up with convenient inventions that give Justice an immeasurable advantage over his enemies. Some of these stories are excellent usually the ones where the professor takes a back seat. However far too many of them rely on Flaznagel creating some device that, say, turns battleships rubbery and useless. Often the writers would get stuck in a corner during a promising plot, and just take the story off on a completely different tack. Justice and his crew would regularly find themselves lost in yet another undiscovered cave network, battling giant insects, for instance.
The Modern Boy also published stories of a far more famous character Biggles. The first Biggles stories had appeared in a magazine called Popular Flying, but were probably more at home in Modern Boy. By the late twenties stories of the First World War were gradually re-appearing. The early stories of Biggles featured him learning to fly, before being hurled into battle over the western front. After the conflict he became a sort of freelance flying ‘detective’. His adventures continued long after The Modern Boy folded in 1940, through world war 2 and into the jet age! He was another of those characters that never aged. In the 21st century Cinebook, a company specialising in translating comic albums from the continent, even put the Biggles name on a book that recounted the Falklands War of 1982! Though he only appeared as the narrator. Later editions of this work dropped the Biggles name, becoming Cinebook Recounts-
As the roaring twenties gave way to the thrifty thirties DC Thomson launched two more story papers. The Skipper (1930) had little to distinguish it from the previous three but The Hotspur (1933) focused on school stories. The most conventional was Red Circle School, so called because it was made up of several red sandstone buildings arranged in a circle. However, being published by DC Thomson, The Hotspur also featured historical, science fiction and western stories – all set in schools! The writers had to perform amazing contortions to get all sorts of characters seated at their desks, resulting in tales such as Cadger Coggins The Tramp With the Old School Tie and The Invisible Schoolboy. Another story, rather wide of the mark in it’s predictions, was At School in 1975. Published in 1936, this featured a sanitised future where people only eat a nutrient-filled, tasteless soup, However an eccentric old teacher introduces a strange food called as smoked kippers into the school to the horror of the authorities!
The Skipper (this issue from 1932)
Amalgamated Press responded with The Pilot in 1935. Initially this featured vivid full-colour covers, but these were later replaced with comedy strips. Also launched that year was Girl’s Crystal. This was a girl’s story paper in the DC Thomson mould, though it’s two-colour covers marked it out as an AP product. the Girl’s Crystal endured several format changes, re-launches and re-names (at one point becoming The Crystal) through it’s life. It also spawned a series of annuals which far outlasted the weekly, running until 1976!
Outside of comics, things were not so rosy. The Wall St Crash of 1929 had sent ripples around the world, and in Europe Hitler’s provocative speeches and flouting of treaties edged the world towards another devastating war. Some effects of this can be seen in the story papers, Union Jack came to an end in 1933, transforming into Detective Weekly. This had larger pages, but the two-colour covers were not as impressive as the full colour Union Jack ones. In the late thirties Detective Weekly even lost Sexton Blake for several months. When he returned it was mainly in reprinted earlier stories.
The final Union Jack. “Sexton Blake’s Secret” was actually the theme of the first Detective Weekly, published the following week.
The Modern Boy was also reduced to much simpler looking covers, while The Magnet’s covers began to use blue ink on pink paper. Amalgamated Press were not giving up without a fight, though. In 1939, only weeks before the declaration of war, they launched a paper which outwardly resembled to The Pilot, called Knock-out. Inside, however, it was a different story…
The Early Adventure Strips
Up until the late thirties, the general rule was strips for funnies, text for adventure. Plenty of comedy text stories existed, but adventure strips were virtually unheard of. Even the adventure stories in comics such as Comic Cuts or Tiger Tim’s Weekly were in the style of the story papers.
A Tiger tim’s weekly from 1940. Note the text story on the left
This began to change in 1920 when another of the Amalgamated Press comics, Puck (began in 1904) printed Britain’s, and possibly the world’s, first adventure strip – Rob the Rover. This was in the form of a series of pictures with text captions underneath, which would become the model for most British adventure strips until the late forties. Rob was a boy who was found drifting on a raft by a fisherman named Daniel True. The pair went through a few adventures together before meeting Professor Seymour, who had created a go-anywhere submarine aircraft called The Flying Fish. The stories of Rob the Rover continued in Puck for twenty years and over 1000 pages, ending in 1940.
The number of adventure strips began gradually expanding during the thirties. Puck carried several, as did another comic called Butterfly. Many of the early adventure strips had inferior artwork in comparison to the text story illustrations. The panels would often appear stiff, lifeless and disconnected, in contrast to the action of the humour strips. One Puck strip that broke this mould was The Golden Arrow, from 1937. This had fast-moving, dynamic art, panels that varied in size and shifts of perspective dizzying camera angles inspired by the cinema. Unfortunately this remained the exception, rather than the rule, until after the war.
As an interesting aside, the American Superman comic strip was reprinted in The Triumph for a brief period in the late 30’s. One of the most famous comic characters in the world appearing in an obscure British story paper (a whole type of comic that is largely forgotten!), when only a few years old? It’s more likely than you think!
DC Thomson’s Big Five remained primarily text based, though in 1935 a strip called The Crimson Crusader was printed in The Skipper. From 1939 The Wizard featured a tremendously racist comedy strip called Spadger’s Isle on the cover for over a decade, though the adventure stories inside were still all text.
Spadger’s Isle on The Wizard (1947)
Adventure began to feature full colour adventure strips on it’s covers during the late forties. Initially they were very simplistic, but increased in sophistication over the following decade.
An Adventure from 1948. The only strip content was on the outer covers
Thomson’s newer publications The Dandy (1937) and The Beano (1938) both featured adventure strips from the very beginning, but were primarily humour comics. DC Thomson also launched a comic aimed at younger readers called Magic, but this did not have the chance to flourish.
The depression, the rise of the comic strip, and the increasing pressure from DC Thomson, did irreparable damage to many of the older story papers. Both Chatterbox and Chums cancelled their weekly and monthly editions, becoming a series of annuals. Strangely the final Chums annuals were just as thick as they had been when they were a compilation of weekly issues.
Chatterbox annuals for 1936 (when still made up of monthly parts) and 1944 (when ‘just another’ annual). Dean actually published many ‘one off’ text story annuals over the years, in the same format.
The Marvel and The Boys’ Friend had both fallen in the twenties, and it is reported that even sales of The Magnet were dropping dramatically. This was not for want of quality, though! The final complete series of stories (featuring one of the boys pretending to be an old man, to cover for the real old man, who is working as a spy in Germany) is as good as anything from the preceding 30 years!
With the declaration of the Second World War the supply of paper available for periodicals began to drop. At first the bigger publishers were able to cope, though some publications were forced to shrink or drop pages. The situation worsened considerably in May 1940 when Norway fell to the Germans. The extensive forests of that country had been the source of much of Britains paper, and without them strict rationing had to be introduced. The result was Graveyard week – When many weekly periodicals, including a lot of famous comics, abruptly ended. The Gem and The Magnet were both cancelled, as were Magic and Detective Weekly.
The last Magnet. It was the first (and only) issue in a smaller, paper-saving size. It was also the first story in a new series, which was never completed (though at least one further part was written).
The Boys’ Friend Library, which had only recently been renamed The Knock-out Library was also forced to close. The last Chums annual was published with a date of 1941, though would have gone on sale before Christmas 1940. It was just as bulky as the previous volumes, and had perhaps been printed before rationing began.
The papers that did survive suffered drastic page reductions, shrank in dimensions and became less colourful. Many of the dead Amalgamated Press titles were hastily incorporated into the survivors, though little if anything was actually moved over. The Magnet was incorporated into Knock-out, which was printing a series of Billy Bunter comic strips. At first these were comic adaptions of the Magnets text stories, but later became a simple slapstick strip with Billy on his quest for food and Jones Minor playing the straight man. This still proved popular enough for the comic to be briefly renamed Billy Bunter’s Knock-out.
One of the Amalgamated Press story papers that did survive (incorporating Triumph) was The Champion, it was even able to maintain a weekly publishing schedule, though with fewer pages. Being a sport-themed paper it tried to keep the nations spirits up, with comedy tales about naval football teams and so on. The Sexton Blake Library also continued, though producing only two issues per month instead of the usual four. Fans of Sexton Blake consider this period to be The Lean Years. No longer did the Baker Street sleuth battle theatrical villains with personal armies and dreams of world domination. Perhaps because just over the North Sea somebody was trying it for real! Instead Blake tackled more mundane cases of black marketeers, spies and murders in the blackout. To a younger generation, these stories of ‘everyday life’ during the war and the subsequent austerity years are fascinating in themselves. A vivid picture of a vanished Britain thats better than any statistic-filled history book!
In Dundee, DC Thomson’s Big Five became the Big Four, with the demise of The Skipper (the editor promised it would return one day and it did, as a single annual in 1949!). The other four papers became fortnightly, narrower and had fewer pages. Interestingly they were able to keep their full-colour covers through the conflict. Perhaps there was more coloured ink drifting around in Dundee than there was in London?
In December 1941 the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour, bringing the United States into the war. Stalin, the Russian leader, wished for a second front in Europe that would take the pressure off his own army. The US and Britain obliged on June 6th 1944, landing in France. In the months prior to this unfriendly invasion of German-held territory, the Americans carried out a friendly invasion of Britain, and they bought their comics with them! In addition to the famous superheroes such as Superman, Batman and Captain Marvel, they also bought a wide range of western, crime and horror comics. Most of these were in colour, and must have been a bolt from the blue to the hundreds of British children who got hold of copies from a friendly G.I.
The D-Day landings in the west, Stalingrad in the east and Midway in the far east signalled the beginning of the end of the war. In 1945 it was all over, and at last rationing in Britain was relaxed (though would not entirely end until 9 years later). The late forties and early fifties were one of the most exciting, hectic and downright bizarre times in the entire history of British comics. And the text-only story papers could already hear the nails thudding into the lid of their coffin!
The Comics Take Over!
In the immediate post war period the production of new periodicals was banned, as a paper-saving measure. However nobody seems to have told the publishers! And what publishers they were, with the departure of the Americans the supply of slicks (as the all-strip US style comics were called) dried up. DC Thomson had put basic comic strips on the cover of Adventure, and Knock-out was still rattling along, but the kids wanted more. Hundreds of wheeler-dealing spivs delivered. Anybody who could get their hands on a load of paper (never mind how!) would produce a comic it was the one thing that was guaranteed to sell. Unfortunately, that is far from the case today.
One of the ‘biggest’ of these publishers was Gerald G. Swan. They created papers such as Slick Fun, Cute Fun and Comicolour, containing a mixture of humour strips and adventure stories. These were mostly imitations of the American style, full of comic strips with minimal captions. Oddly G.G. Swan also produced a traditional-style text story paper called Scramble. Strangely this had colour illustrations throughout. Today it is one of the easier forties comics to find, as are the hardback annuals the company produced.
They reflected their parent comics, the Scramble Annual was all text stories about boarding schools and adventures, whilst the (very thin) Comicolour Annual was a collection of comedy strips (almost all of them by a prolific artist called Harry Banger) in colour. Though not every colour was on every page!
Whilst rationing forbade the production of new, regular, comics, publishers got around this by creating one shot comics with only one issue. A few of these were even published whilst the war was still raging, for instance Funny Features from Martin & Reid. With rationing eased slightly after the conflict, and thus the ability to ‘reliably’ (there could still be many months between issues) publish comics, a few publishers avoided the ban by creating one-shot comics that were actually part of a series. They would usually have a different name, but with a common word in the titles. For instance a publisher called Scion produced Big Pirate Comic (1948) followed by Big Scoop Comic (1949). Oddly other publishers appear to have just ignored the ban and produced regular comics anyway. Soloway Publishing produced four comics that had both issue numbers and ‘volumes’. Even so, the total output of all four of these titles All Fun Comic, All Star Comic, Comic Adventures and Comic Capers amounted to just 27 issues. They also produced an All Fun Annual and All Star Annual, both primarily made up of reprints from the comics. The material on offer was a mixture of science fiction, comedy, western and superhero stories. Some of these were serials, in spite of the fact there could be a wait of months between issues, and with small print runs it was easy to miss them.
The hectic mood of comic publishing in the late forties was reflected in the comics themselves. Some were big tabloids whilst others, notably a series by Philipp Marx, were tiny – made by folding and cutting left-over strips of paper from the printers. Some of these were even printed on silver paper! Reprints and repackaging of American comics abounded, a few British publishers even tried to disguise their comics as American ones, by giving them prices in cents.
All of these short-run or one-shot titles were the anvil on which the British adventure comic for the post war period was forged. It is a shame that they are also some of the rarest and most expensive. Nobody, not even the British Library, has a complete collection, indeed nobody really knows how many there were. It’s quite possible that, given the small print runs, disrespect shown towards comics and a later moral panic that some issues have become extinct.
One of the first truly regular post war comics was Comet, published by Cheshire-based J.B. Allen from 1946. Possibly there was more paper available in the north, as at the time most major publishers were still London-based. A year later it was joined by the strangely-named Fitness and Sun. As rationing became more relaxed permission was given to revive pre-war publications. However there was nothing to say the revived publication had to be anything like it’s predecessor! Fitness and Sun had once been a sports magazine, but was revived as a comic – the Fitness and in the title was very small and later quietly vanished. To begin with both titles had only 8 pages and were published fortnightly. Both featured ‘colour’ adventure strips on the covers and black and white strips and text stories inside, as well as short articles about hobbies. Both would run into the fifties, becoming weekly and adopting an American-style format. In 1949 J.B. Allen was bought out by Amalgamated Press, and towards the end of it’s life Comet became part of their Five Star Comics line.
Towards the end of the forties, the American comics began to trickle back into Britain. With no submarines to worry about, imports of consumer goods such as radios from the US resumed. To protect these delicate goods worthless paper was stuffed between them in the crates. This worthless paper was often old comics, which later found their way into British shops (or were sold to fathers in pubs by the dock workers!). Who knows how many copies of the million-dollar first appearances of Superman and Batman got screwed up, battered, waterlogged, read to bits and were finally used to light the fire in a British living room? As well as the wholesome superhero fare, however, horror and crime comics were also finding their way into the bedrooms of British children. And when their parents saw them the seeds of moral outrage were sown…
Eagle and The Comic Boom
In 1949 a Vicar sat down at his typewriter and wrote an article for a newspaper called The Sunday Dispatch. His name was Marcus Morris, editor of a Christian magazine called The Anvil, and he was concerned about the effects of the American horror comics. His article warned that little girls in plaits and boys with marbles bulging in their pockets were being corrupted by a torrent of indecent colour magazines. In truth there was not really much to worry about. The villains in the crime comics were hardly glorified, usually ending their careers in a hail of police bullets. The crimes depicted were no worse than those being written about in The Sexton Blake Library and came nowhere near the standard of atrocity described in the penny dreadfuls of 100 years earlier. Likewise the horror comics were often extended, if gory, jokes with a be careful what you wish for punchline. But the damage was done, in some places angry parents heaped up their children’s comics on the village green and set fire to them. A chilling echo of the very real horrors visited on Germany less than twenty years before. Before long the newspapers were printing ridiculous scare stories about children hanging around graveyards, hoping to see a vampire.
We may perhaps forgive the Reverend Morris, however. His article continued: I shall not feel I have done my duty, until I have seen … A genuinely popular children’s comic, where adventure is once more the clean and exciting business I remember from my schooldays … There is a healthy humour that does not involve a bang on the head with a blunt instrument … [Children] will admire what they are given to admire. After failed attempts to get The Anvil into the newsagents, and to create a newspaper strip about a tough parson in London’s east end, Morris took a different tack. He, and the Anvil’s main artist Frank Hampson, bought several issues of the existing British comics and realised their artwork was inferior to the American material. They decided to create a well-drawn, cinematic comic that contained nothing but healthy Christian values; to drive a Rolls Royce into a scrapyard of rusty bicycles. What they eventually created was one of the best British comics ever Eagle.
If all of this sounds familiar, its because it was basically the same process that spawned The Boys’ Own Paper in 1879! The Boys Own was actually still running in 1950, though it had barely changed since the twenties and looked incredibly old-fashioned. Eagle, on the other hand, was bang up to date, and well promoted too. Cars with big eagle statues on their roofs toured the country, children who saw them were given coupons they could exchange for the first issue. That first number sold almost a million copies, and heralded a huge boom in British comics, which was helped along by the baby boom of the post war period. The early fifties were the most successful period British comics have ever had, with both the Dandy and Beano achieving circulation records that still stand today.
A large part of Eagle’s success was down to it’s cover star, Frank Hampson’s masterpiece Dan Dare. Dan was a pilot of the future in Spacefleet, an international space agency based in Britain. His mission in the first story was to fly to Venus, investigate a mysterious ray field around the planet and hopefully secure a supply of food for the starving Earth. He and his companions find Venus inhabited by two species, the peaceful Therons and the ruthless Treens. The latter led by Dan’s arch-nemesis, The Mekon. In the second story the Earth was threatened by The Red Moon, a roving planet inhabited by locust-like creatures who stripped planets bare. The strip had some of the best comic art of all time, and was meticulously researched. A lot of the science presented in the stories no longer holds water. For instance Venus is actually incredibly hostile to life, but the knowledge available in 1950 pointed in the opposite direction. For the early stories the science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke was hired as an advisor. Other early Eagle stories included The Great Adventurer, a tale of Saul of Tarsus and Riders of the Range, a western. A high standard of research and historical accuracy was maintained. The ancient Middle Eastern and nineteenth-century American clothing, scenery and architecture were all spot on. Other strips included translations of the Belgian Tintin serials and the first appearance of Captain Pugwash. The paper also contained educational articles, including the famous cutaway diagrams. The editor’s page did not talk down to the readers, instead treating them as intelligent and keen to better themselves.
Market research conducted shortly after the launch of Eagle showed that it had a large number of female readers. The publishers, Hulton Press, responded to this with Girl (1951). To begin with this featured the charter airline pilot Kitty Hawke & Her All-Girl Aircrew on the front cover. The management later decided this story was too boyish and moved it inside. Replacing it on the cover was Wendy and Jinx, a long-running school story.
Amalgamated Press had actually managed to pre-empt Girl, by re-launching School Friend (the paper last seen transforming into The Schoolgirl in the twenties!) as a comic in 1950. The School Friend Annual had remained in publication since the demise of the earlier version, though contained only text stories. It soon adopted the text and strip format to reflect the new weekly. A notable School Friend story was The Silent Three, probably the most famous of a wide range of The (thing) (number) secret societies that fought injustice at boarding schools. All of these societies would change into their robes and go roaming secret passages by night, punishing bullies and proving the wrongly-accused innocent. Another interesting strip was Terry Brent, a detective story that centred on his niece Paddy McNaught. She would help him arrange traps that would force criminals to give themselves away.
A School Friend from 1960
While the large-sized Eagle (and it’s main competitor, Express Weekly, with similarly high production values) was attracting all the attention, another type of comic slipped onto the stands almost unnoticed. Somebody at Amalgamated Press noticed the increasing popularity of westerns, in comics, books and on television, which was becoming rapidly more widespread. Several of the more ‘acceptable’ comics arriving from America were westerns too. AP thought it would be a good idea to start their own American-format western comic, but the costs of printing in this unusual (for Britain) size were too high. Then somebody suggested they try putting comic panels into the pocket library format. There would only be 2-3 panels per page, but with 64 pages the story would be about the same length as an American comic. From this idea came Cowboy Comics (1950), soon re-named Cowboy Picture Library. It was the first of the picture libraries a genre that was to become incredibly popular through the next two decades. In 1951 it was followed by Thriller Comics, later Thriller Picture Library, which featured stories of famous historical characters and adaptions of classic literature. In 1953 came Super Detective Library, featuring characters such as Sherlock Holmes and The Saint, it also contained original stories of Rick Random, a space detective!
Super Detective Library issue 1 (from a modern, scanned facsimile book. The original cover would have been slightly wider).
In the forties DC Thomson launched some of their most famous and long-lived adventure stories. One of the earliest was Wilson, making his appearance in 1943. The first Wilson story was set in 1938 and was supposedly written by a journalist who had witnessed his amazing athletic feats. Wilson would regularly break ‘legendary’ sporting records from the Georgian period, that were far in advance of the official ones. The story gradually revealed that Wilson was actually over 150 years old! He lived in a cave on the Yorkshire moors and his incredible longevity was down to the herbal broth he drank, a secret passed from generation to generation. The first series of Wilson stories ended with him enlisting as a Spitfire pilot, only to go missing during the Battle of Britain. He was far too popular a character to ‘kill off’, however. He later returned to train athletes for the 1948 Olympics, before going off on adventures in Africa (where he completed in a Zulu Olympics). He even discovered a lost city of Ancient Greeks in South America, accessible only by leaping over a broad canyon. A far more down-to-earth character was Alf Tupper, The Tough of the Track. First appearing in 1949, Alf was a down-to-earth lad who worked as welder but lived for running. In the beginning he was a member of Greystone Harriers, a posh athletics club, but after (rightly) accusing another member of cheating he was thrown out. That didn’t stop him, though, and he continued to live on a shoestring, hitch-hiking to race meetings and carrying home tea services for decades. Like Wilson, Alf never aged, unlike Wilson his birth date was constantly retconned forwards, keeping him at roughly 19 years old forever. Both of these characters, with their rough and simple lives yet determination to play the game and win through fairly, were an inspiration to the readers, who had to deal with air raids and rationing.
There is even the possibility that Wilson and Alf Tupper, with their cheerfulness in the face of snobbery and love of gatecrashing athletic events, inspired a real-life imitator. John Tarrant, the Ghost Runner, was barred from British athletics clubs (interestingly, the one he tried to join was also called The Harriers!) as he had once boxed professionally. Without a club he could not compete in recognised events, or ever hope to achieve his dream of Olympic gold. He didn’t let this stop him, though, and would gatecrash events around Britain anyway, bursting from the crowd as a race started. Did memories of those old DC Thomson stories inspire his antics in the late fifties? We will never know.
While The Big Four, Girl’s Crystal and The Champion trundled on (the latter having replaced Panther Grayle with another detective called Colwyn Dane, who was exactly the same) the major publishers were preparing comics aimed at rivalling Eagle. Amalgamated Press fired the first shot in the form of Lion (1952). The covers of Lion featured the astronaut Captain Condor an obvious Dan Dare imitator. Inside readers found an anti-hero called The Spider, who aimed to become the king of crooks in America. After his criminal allies betrayed him he turned his back on them and helped the police instead. On more traditional lines was Battler Britton, a World War 2 fighter ace who went through many improbable adventures. In a fairly typical story Robert Battler Britton landed his malfunctioning Spitfire on a Lancaster bomber, took over the controls and flew back to Germany, ‘throwing’ the bomb-laden fighter at a factory! Both The Spider and Battler Britton, plus other Amalgamated Press (later Fleetway, then IPC) characters have since been revived and modernised (ruined) in American comics. Their copyrights have been signed away to DC Comics, now part of the Time Warner empire. This vast company could not care less about classic British characters and simply sits on them, refusing to produce comprehensive reprints or sanction sympathetic revivals. That such a vast part of our nation’s heritage could be taken hostage in this manner ought to shame us all.
In 1954 the second big cat comic arrived in the form of Tiger. Like The Champion (which was cancelled in 1955) this was a sport-themed comic. The most famous story in Tiger by a country mile was Roy of the Rovers. This was a long-running Football strip that chronicled the life of Roy Race, the star player of Melchester Rovers. Roy had humble beginnings, joining the reserve team as a junior, but he ended up as the player-manager and led his men through decades of victory and defeat. Unlike almost all the other previous football stories in comics, the action did not begin and end with the game itself. Roy’s home life, the pressures of management and trouble with hooliganism or culture-shock on tour were all part of the story. There was even a romantic plot; Roy married the club’s secretary Penny Laine and had three children. Alf Tupper had touched on the idea of a sporting character’s home life, and older text stories about sports teams in schools or the army usually featured plenty of off-the-pitch adventure. But this soap opera approach was something new, and proved incredibly popular. Roy of the Rovers left Tiger in 1976, but the comic contained plenty of other popular stories including Johnny Cougar, the redskin wrestler and Skid Solo, a racing driver.
DC Thomson were slow to respond to the new adventure comics, though did add more ‘big caption’-style strips to Adventure. Instead they consolidated their dominance of the humour comics market with The Topper and The Beezer, tabloid-sized papers that contained a minority of adventure strips. In 1958 they launched Bunty, which contained a variety of stories including The Four Marys. This well-remembered strip was about four girls at boarding school, and appeared in almost every issue until the comic ended in 2001. By 1959, it was clear that the writing was on the wall for text-only story papers. In response, The Hotspur was converted into The New Hotspur (later shortened to just Hotspur), becoming a modern, comic-focused paper. DC Thomson also began to re-use the eccentric plots they had established in their text stories. Many of these had focused on a single character with some unusual or job, and so could readily be turned into comics with only minor updates. Other strips that had a defined historical / futuristic setting barely needed changing at all, though often the future would be moved further ahead!
At Amalgamated Press (re-named Fleetway in 1959, when bought out by The Mirror Group) the production of new picture libraries continued. In 1958 they launched what was to become one of the most famous of them all War Picture Library. This is often erroneously called the first picture library, an easy mistake to make as it spawned many imitators which were broadly similar. A lot of the writers and artists who worked for War Picture Library had actually been in battle themselves, and the early issues reflected this with grimly realistic tales. Whilst still maintaining a Boys’ Own atmosphere the War Picture Library tales often featured major characters meeting senseless, unheroic deaths. In a surprising number of cases the main characters themselves did not reach the final page. The house style of the early issues, with sharp contrasts, heavy hatching and drifting smoke perfectly captured the grimy nature of warfare. Many later commentators often repeat the lie that 50’s war comics were all about Tommies bashing the Squareheads. However issue 56, The Crowded Sky, featured one of the earliest, and best, examples of a British World War 2 story with a German hero. In this a cargo pilot named Rudolph Weymann flees Germany after learning that his family have been shot on trumped-up charges. He ends up joining the RAF, living a precarious double life before meeting a heroic end.
The Swinging Sixties were not so swinging for Eagle, the comic that had dominated the previous decade. In 1959 Hulton Press was sold to Odhams. At around the same time, Frank Hampson was becoming tired of his heavy workload and wished to take a long holiday. He had also wanted to try selling Dan Dare in America, but was angry to discover he did not own the copyright. The chaos of the takeover saw Dan Dare transferred to Frank Bellamy, part-way through the Terra Nova storyline. For the following story Frank Bellamy radically changed the appearance of the spacecraft and uniforms, the stories also became much shorter. Frank Hampson remained at Eagle to work on The Road of Courage, one of the best comic strips about Jesus ever created. In 1961 Odhams was itself taken over by Fleetway. Many of the staff who had been working on Eagle were demoted to less-important positions, in the hope they would quit. Fleetway also refused to fund the expensive studio system that Frank Hampson had been using. After a prolonged bout of illness the Fleetway executives effectively sacked him, considering him to have done no work for his generous pay. Eagle became ‘just another’ adventure comic, though it did have some flashes of brilliance left. These included Heros The Spartan and Fraser of Africa, both by Frank Bellamy. Dan Dare had become black and white, and then shrunken reprints crammed on an inner page. Eagle’s star character returned to the cover towards the end, in deliberately retro stories, but the comic was already doomed. It closed in 1969.
1961 saw the launch of two of DC Thomson’s most important adventure comics. The first was the weekly Victor, which like Hotspur ran comic adaptions of old text stories. These included Alf Tupper and Morgyn the Mighty. The latter beinga strongman who lived in a jungle, and who had previously appeared in text stories, and also as basic strips in The Beano. Braddock V.C. was about a World War 2 bomber pilot, his exploits only slightly more realistic than those of Battler Britton. Gorgeous Gus featured the mind-blowing concept of a footballer who is a millionaire! Of course in those days footballers were paid much less. Gorgeous Gus was actually an aristocrat called The Earl of Boote who, fed up with the performance of his favourite team, bought them. He secured many excellent players, but reserved a place on the field for himself. During matches he would stroll around, not even breaking a sweat but when the ball came to his feet he’d kick it so hard it ripped the net! Another famous feature of the Victor was True Stories of Men at War. These were comic strip retellings of acts of heroism, mainly from World War 2, that appeared on the covers in full colour.
On the subject of war stories, 1961 also saw the launch of DC Thomson’s answer to War Picture Library – Commando. The early Commando stories were not quite as hard hitting as those in War Picture Library, but a little less realism made for a lot more excitement! Also the Commando stories did not deteriorate as War Picture Library did. A Commando comic from anywhere in it’s 50 year history is as good as any other! DC Thomson did not impose a house style on Commando, allowing the artists to do the best work they could. The fantastic, almost photographic, artwork of Ken Barr graced many of the early covers seeming to leap from the shelves. It certainly made Commando stand out from the crowd! The Commando formula worked well, in fact it worked so well that all of war-themed picture libraries ended up being labelled Commando comics, regardless of their actual title! The title was an immediate hit and, incredibly, is still running today! It is the last Boys’ Own comic on the shelves, has barely changed at all since 1961 and is so much the better for it.
(Modern reprints of) early Commando comics, with Ken Barr covers.
DC Thomson also bought out a companion for Bunty called Judy in 1960, and in 1963 followed up with Diana. The latter was aimed at the slightly older girl who was not yet interested in the romantic stories and pop features of Romeo. Another new arrival in 1963 was The Hornet, this was similar to Victor, and also borrowed from DCT’s back-catalogue of text stories. Wilson made his first comic strip appearances in The Hornet, the stories returning to the pre-war period. Another well-remembered Hornet story, which had originally appeared in text form in The Wizard, was V for Vengeance. This was about a band of resistance fighters in Nazi-occupied Europe who had the seemingly supernatural ability to be in many places at once, and pull off impossible killings. The twist in this tale was that the man charged with stopping these Deathless Men was also their leader! He was supposedly Colonel Von Reich of the SS, but was in fact British agent Almyer Griegson, who had assassinated the Nazi and taken his place.
Fleetway, probably in response to Judy, launched June in 1961. This comic contained some science fiction, desert island and secret agent stories. It also featured Bessie Bunter, though only as a female version of the still-running Billy Bunter slapstick comedy strip. School Friend was merged with June in 1965.
The Sexton Blake Library, given a controversial revamp in 1956, finally came to an end in 1963. After a year’s absence it returned as a series of paperbacks published by Mayflower-Dell. These were clearly aimed at a more adult audience, though the library had been drifting in that direction since the forties. Sexton Blake was given another chance to find a juvenile audience in Valiant (1962). Fans of modern (meaning American) comics consider Valiant to be the ‘acceptable face’ of old British adventure comics, mainly because most of it’s characters had powers. Among these were Kelly’s Eye (Originally from Knock-out, which merged into Valiant), which was about a man with a gem on a necklace that rendered him invincible. Another favourite was The Steel Claw, who could become invisible when his metal hand absorbed electrical current. Another interesting story was The House of Dolmann about an eccentric puppeteer who had created an army of small robots and worked as a secret agent. One of the most popular stories in Valiant at the time was Captain Hurricane, a comedy war strip about a huge marine who would go into a ragin’ fury and wade into the enemy, knocking them flying and shouting politically incorrect abuse. Sgt. Rock it wasn’t! Sexton Blake made his triumphant appearance in Valiant in 1968, tied in with a TV show that was being broadcast at the time (unfortunately almost all of this show has been lost). The strip had good artwork, but the stories were terrible! The plots were all stolen from Maxwell Hawke: Ghost Hunter in the humour comic Buster. Every story was like a serialised episode of Scooby Doo, with the ghost turning out to be somebody trying to scare people away from a hidden treasure.
In 1964 Fleetway published Hurricane, which lasted just over a year, but the Hurricane Annuals ran for a decade. Hurricane Annuals are quite thick and can occasionally be found in charity shops for 1-2 pounds. They are a good-value insight into the comics of the era.
In 1965 Gerry Anderson bought out a comic called TV Century 21 (later renamed TV 21). While it contained strips based on other TV shows, it focused on his own Fireball XL5 and Stingray. These flagship strips were printed in vivid colour and the comic itself was presented as a newspaper from the future, dated 100 years ahead. It also revealed that most of the Gerry Anderson shows were set in the same universe and time period, something barely mentioned in the televised versions. TV21 also contained a strip about Lady Penelope, one of the haphazard attempts throughout the 20th century at creating a unisex adventure comic. Lady Penelope had not yet featured in a TV show, but that changed a year later when Thunderbirds was launched. Of course a Thunderbirds comic strip also appeared in TV21, as did the later Captain Scarlet. The black and white pages of TV 21 were used for the strips based on other shows, but the coloured back page was given to The Daleks. A story of the famous monsters from Doctor Who, without the Doctor! The Daleks featured the first version of the ‘origin’ of the Daleks, as well as their mission to conquer the earth. Doctor Who himself had appeared in TV Comic (1951) since 1964, but as the Daleks have a separate copyright they could be used on their own. The high production values and intelligent writing of TV 21 made it the Eagle of the mid-sixties. Lady Penelope later appeared in her own comic, alongside characters such as The Angels, the fighter pilots from Captain Scarlet. Joe 90, another Gerry Anderson character, was also given his own comic, but this ran for less than a year before merging into TV21. The combined comic relegated the Anderson stories to black and white, giving the colour pages to Star Trek. Having also absorbed TV Tornado and Solo, other TV-based comics, TV21 was merged into Valiant in 1971.
Odhams, the company which had bought Hulton Press (and Eagle) before itself being bought by Fleetway, remained semi-independent in the mid-sixties. They launched a series of what were to become known as Power Comics. These lasted less than five years but their impact was immense, and they remain highly regarded to this day. The first to be launched was Wham! In 1964. To begin with this was a purely humorous comic created by disaffected Beano artist Leo Baxendale. Before long it began to print Fantastic Four strips, from Marvel Comics. In 1966 Smash! Appeared, initially a conventional humour/adventure title, it soon added The Hulk and later Batman to the line-up. In 1967 Pow! Arrived, containing a 50/50 balance of Marvel and British-made material. The same year saw the launch of Fantastic and Terrific, containing still more Marvel reprints, and even US-style overblown cover blurbs. The Power Comics proved the old adage that the light which burns brightest burns shortest, and a rapid series of mergers left only Smash!. In 1969 Smash! was completely revamped, becoming a conventional adventure comic in the style of Valiant. The same year had also seen the end of Odhams as a ‘separate’ company. The revamped Smash! did introduce two new characters who would become popular in their own right. They were the mystic investigator Cursitor Doom and Victorian master escapologist Janus Stark. In 1971 Smash! was merged into Valiant, where these characters slotted in comfortably alongside the likes of The House of Dolmann.
Another significant publication in the sixties was Ranger. This was an educational magazine that launched in 1965 and ran for just 40 issues. It contained several comic strips including adaptions of classic stories, but it also contained The Trigan Empire. This was a sweeping, epic tale of an alien civilisation loosely based on ancient Rome, but with futuristic technology such as anti-gravity vehicles. Ranger merged into Look and Learn in 1966, where The Trigan Empire continued for many years. The strip is as well-remembered, and parts of it have been reprinted many times down the years. A (very expensive) full, hardback reprint appeared in the early 21st century, and rumours of a Hollywood adaption continue to rumble on.
The Seventies Big Changes
The Wizard, one of the DC Thomson big four, merged with The Rover in 1963, creating Rover and Wizard. Following standard practice, the name soon reverted to The Rover. It had previously absorbed Adventure, and as The Hotspur was now a comic, The Rover was the last story paper. It finally came to an end in 1973, closing a chapter of British comics that began more than a century earlier.
In 1970, The Wizard re-appeared as a comic. It contained a lengthy football section (including a complete text story) and so was advertised as the two in one comic. Other stories in the early issues included Scrappy, A Boy All Alone a homeless orphan who is determined to make his own way in life. His ultimate dream is to be educated at a posh boarding school, but soon after gaining a scholarship there he is expelled for fighting back against bullies. A less depressing story was Soldiers of the Jet Age, a tale of army training in 1990. The heroes must learn to pilot jet packs, drive hover Jeeps and so on.
In 1968 Fleetway had become known as the International Publishing Corporation, or IPC. The new company was still very much a going concern in the comics market, launching Jet in 1971. This was a mixed humour and adventure comic that became an early member of British comics’ own 27 club, the 22 club! These were comics that lasted just 22 issues before they were incorporated into another. Another example was Thunder (1970), which gave the world Adam Eterno, an immortal warrior immune to all but a weapon made of gold. Through mergers he travelled from Thunder to Lion and eventually to Valiant. As well as living for centuries, he later gained the ability to time travel, finding himself aboard the Titanic one week, and in feudal Japan the next!. Thunder also introduced Black Max to the world. He was a mad scientist in First World War Germany, who controlled an army of gigantic bats!
The dozens of 22-issue comics created in this era were part of an IPC policy called Hatch, Match and Dispatch. First a family of comics was launched, all with similar themes but aimed at a slightly different audience. The least successful comics in these families would then be merged with the strongest title, ideally taking the readers with them. The mergers were often heralded with straplines such as Great news inside, pals!. Of course to the dedicated fans of a comic the great news was anything but! Some of these fans have been debating the reasoning behind the matches and dispatches ever since.
An example of this process can be seen in three Football comics, all launched in quick succession. Scorcher and Score ‘n Roar both commenced in 1970, the latter initially used the same two comics in one gimmick as Whizzer And Chips. Score n Roar used high-quality paper, allowing for vivid reproduction of colour photographs. Unfortunately this pushed the price up to 9d for two 16-page comics. Most other adventure and sport comics at the time had 32 pages for only 7d. The cost proved to be Score n Roars downfall, and it was merged with Scorcher in 1971, creating Scorcher and Score. The new title inherited the high-quality paper, but with less colour could be priced at 7d, though it sneakily rose to 3½p (closer to 8d) with the introduction of decimal currency. Unlike a lot of merged comics, Scorcher and Score retained its combined title until 1974, when it was merged with the much older, and better-known Tiger.
Tammy (1971) was the first in a series of IPC Girl’s comics that were a little different from the norm. On the surface Tammy looked like most other girl’s comics, but was a different story inside. It had a loose theme of dark, tragic tales including Slaves of War Orphan Farm, a story of evacuees during the war being used as slaves. Mam’selle X was the tale of an entertainer in occupied France, who was actually a top resistance agent. Tammy was joined in 1974 by Jinty, which had a focus on science fiction and fantasy. One example being The Human Zoo where aliens collect and display examples of all creatures on earth including people! There were some more conventional stories too, such as The Concrete Surfer, about the rivalry between skateboarding cousins. During it’s run Jinty absorbed the short-lived Lindy (1975).
Whilst Tammy and Jinty made waves in the world of girls’ comics, it was nothing compared to the earthquake that DC Thomson were about to unleash in boys’ comics. Far from driving a Rolls Royce into a scrapyard of bicycles, they drove a tank into it straight through the wall! The comic was called Warlord, first published in 1974. As the name implies it was filled with war stories. It is possible it was inspired by the success of Commando. Unlike Commando it followed the pattern of weekly adventure comics, allowing for serial stories and recurring characters. One of the lead stories was Code-Name Warlord, about Lord Peter Flint, a rich aristocrat with properties in both England and Germany. Shortly before the war he is handed a secret message by a dying friend and is told to take it to London. After an action-packed escape from the Gestapo he is recruited as one of Britain’s secret agents, but this means he can’t join the regular army, and is looked upon as a coward.
Another popular Warlord story was Union Jack Jackson. This was another DCT strip that was adapted from an older text story, this time about a British soldier forever temporarily seconded to the US Marines. These stories usually took place in the Pacific, but some were set in Europe. Other interesting characters included Kampfgruppe Falken, a German officer sent to a punishment battalion on the Eastern Front and Rayker, a black soldier in the US Marines who has enough trouble from his own side, let alone the enemy!
Warlord was a runaway success, catching IPC on the hop. One story tells of an executive slamming a copy down on the boardroom table and angrily demanding where’s ours?. Theirs was released the following year, and was called Battle Picture Weekly.Far and away the most famous story in this comic was Charley’s War. An intricately-researched, fantastically-drawn story of an ordinary Tommy Atkins in the first world war, it has been described by writer Pat Mills as an anti-war war comic. There was certainly none of the dashing heroism of other comic characters in this story, Charley spent most of the time terrified. The readers probably expected Charley’s friends, introduced early on in the story, to survive to the end. Instead they were all killed off in a rapid, senseless manner during the first days of the battle of the Somme. Charley’s War was relentless, none of the horrors of the trenches was left out men drowned in muddy shell craters, poison gas drifted across no man’s land, terrified horses bolted from bombed stables and cowardly redcaps tortured shell-shocked ‘deserters’. The story even showed the nightmarish underground battle as soldiers attempted to dig beneath enemy trenches and blow them up. Charley became mixed up in one of the British army’s biggest ever mutinies. He even went home on leave, to a no-less-accurate Edwardian London, and experienced the terrors of a Zeppelin raid.
The letters page of Battle (as it was colloquially known through most of it’s run) began to print missives from men in their seventies and eighties, who had themselves fought in the trenches, praising the accuracy of Charley’s War. These men would have grown up on Union Jack and Chums and had probably hardly looked at a comic since talk about full circle! Most of the other stories that appeared in Battle have become classics in their own right. Johnny Red was a failed British fighter pilot who ended up fighting in Russia, with a stolen Hurricane! Paul Fallman was Fighter From the Sky a tough German paratrooper. The Bootneck Boy was a downtrodden, orphaned lad in a rough northern town who joined the Royal Marines. The Rat Pack were a bunch of convicts made to use their lock-picking, silent killing talents on suicide missions, and Major Eazy was a scruffy, lazy officer who ambled through the war as if it was all too much trouble.
Another Battle story, which almost equalled Charleys War in its depiction of the hell of combat, was Darkie’s Mob,a tale of the battle for Burma during World War 2. In fact it may possibly be better than Charley’s war in one way it ended! Charley’s war was dragged out in the fashion of the penny dreadfuls, Charley even found himself fighting in the Siberian Intervention, and went back to France in 1940 to look for his son during Dunkirk. Darkies Mob began with a small group of British soldiers cut off by the relentless Japanese advance through Burma. They are rescued by a mysterious man, in the uniform of a British captain, known only as Darkie. This mysterious figure is unlikely to be a real British captain, but he certainly knows a lot about jungle survival, and the Japanese army! The story perfectly captures the bitterness and savagery with which that hellish campaign was fought, and the feel the steaming green hell in which it took place.
Even with the success of comics such as Warlord, Battle and Jinty, overall sales were falling. The managers at IPC decided to launch a paper for the seventies, unlike anything that had gone before. The staff of the new title took their inspiration from the popular films of the day, Jaws and Dirty Harry. These were action packed, violent thrillers, so the name of the new comic was obvious Action. In the beginning there was a plan to make it look up to date by calling it Action 76, and updating the title each year, but this was abandoned. Action proved to be an instant hit, though several of it’s stories were rather too obviously imitations of films. Hook Jaw was about a shark with a snapped-off hook in his bottom jaw, clearly inspired by Jaws, but also with an ecological angle. An oil baron is determined to start drilling in an area frequented by sharks, and a stream of divers sent down to install equipment fall victim to Hook Jaw’s, erm, jaws. This story was given the colour pages in the centre of the comic, and the artists really went to town on the blood! Dredger was a secret agent, but otherwise owed much to Dirty Harry, when the going got tough he often fired first. This was controversial stuff, but another two stories made even bigger waves, and in effect signed Action’s death warrant. The first was Look Out for Lefty!, a football story about a not-so-clean-cut player who would think nothing of playing the man instead of the ball, if he thought the ref wasn’t looking. A controversial episode of this strip featured his girlfriend hiding among a group of opposing supporters and throwing a bottle at a player on Lefty’s team (who was in the way of the star player!). At around the same time a strip called Kids Rule O.K. began, with a disease rapidly killing off most of the adults in western society. The streets soon became the territory of vicious teenage gangs, armed with knives and petrol bombs. The Sun described the comic, which cost 7p, as The Sevenpenny Nightmare. The head of the F.A. angrily said the writers of Look Out for Lefty ought to be hit round the head with bottles themselves. Eventually WH Smith threatened to stop selling all IPC comics, and Action was swiftly cancelled, most copies of the 37th issue being destroyed. The comic returned several months later, but in a watered-down form. Several of the more controversial stories were quickly ended, or just disappeared without explanation. Their replacements were conventional fare that would not have been out of place in Valiant. The damage was well and truly done, and Action merged with Battle in November 1977. Interestingly the resulting Battle Action retained the merged title for many years.
In an echo of the Rover’s Log situation of just over 100 years previously, DC Thomson’s rival to Action was released on the very same day! It was called Bullet and billed itself as the rough tough action story paper for boys. It was in the modern style of Warlord, but had stories on various subjects including Twisty, a football story about a player with an injured foot who could twist the ball past any ‘keeper. Vic’s Vengeance was probably the most Action-like story, a boy’s father is killed by gangsters and he becomes a vigilante in order to pin the crime on them. The main story in Bullet, however, was Fireball. This was about a modern-day secret agent, who had been trained by his stepfather, Lord Peter Flint from Warlord! Despite Bullet’s rough tough billing it was much tamer than Action, and avoided most of the controversy. Unfortunately it also avoided most of the popularity, and merged with Warlord in 1978, taking several non-war stories with it. 1978 also saw the end of the more old-fashioned Wizard
While the football story in Action was getting all the headlines, a much older (and better!) football story was considered big enough for it’s own comic. Roy of the Rovers launched in 1976, both edited by and starring the famous Tiger football star. Curiously Roy also appeared in Tiger until 1978! Roy of the Rovers was probably the best football comic ever, mostly strips but with a little magazine content to keep the slightly older, more serious fan on board. Though mergers and transfers Roy of the Rovers eventually hoovered up all of the best IPC football stories. These included Billy’s Boots, about a boy who owns a pair of boots ‘haunted’ by a famous England player. When he wears them he plays like a professional! Hot-Shot Hamish was a comedy story about a giant Scot whose mighty shots would propel the ‘keeper through the back of the net it was more DC Thomson than DC Thomson! Another comedy strip was Mighty Mouse, about short, fat medical student who was somehow amazing on the pitch. Of course, it was the exploits of Roy and his team Melchester Rovers that took the headlining spot, on the central colour pages. The story ran in a soap opera one big serial fashion weekly until 1993, and then monthly until 1995.
Roy of the Rovers
At IPC the popularity that Action had achieved, with it’s up-to-date style and inspiration from films, had shown the way forwards. But at the same time they were anxious to avoid further controversy. They had heard of a science fiction craze building up in America. Later came news of some film called Star Wars that was apparently doing quite well. They decided to create a comic that had all the attitude of Action, but set it in the future, hoping violence against robots and aliens would be more ‘acceptable’. The new comic needed a name, at the time comics were being launched and then cancelled in periods of only a few years. Somebody jokingly suggested that they name the comic after a year in the future, a year it would never see 2000AD!
The most famous character from 2000AD (though he did not appear in issue 1) is easily Judge Dredd. He is a cop in the futuristic Mega-City One, always set 122 years ahead of the real world (the first story took place in 2099). In this story the Judges are also the police, able to sentence law-breakers on the spot. The world’s population is crammed into a few mega-cities, the rest of the planet reduced to a radioactive wasteland by the third world war. In these cities all the work is done by robots, leaving the ordinary people unemployed and frustrated. The Judges are needed to stop violent crime from spiralling out of control. Dan Dare also re-appeared in 2000AD, but this version of the character had been transported into the distant future and was a kind of bizarre superhero. Dan Dare was used to promote the comic in it’s early days, but his popularity waned and the strip was cancelled. By then 2000AD’s own stories could sell the comic well enough! Apart from Judge Dredd there was Invasion!, in which Britain is invaded by Volgans (Russians) and Flesh, in which time-travelling cowboys hunt dinosaurs to feed a hungry future world. There was also MACH 1, a secret agent story in the style of The Six Million Dollar Man.
2000AD’s success spurred on the production of Starlord in 1978. Envisaged as a full-colour fortnightly for older readers, editorial interference turned it into an expensive half-colour weekly. At 12p it was one of the most expensive comics on the stands, 12p a fortnight readers may have been able to manage, but 12p a week was another matter! Starlord had some fantastic stories and, allegedly, a large circulation in spite of the price. But in the end it joined the 22 club, merging with 2000AD. The most famous Starlord story was Strontium Dog, about a mutant bounty hunter called Johnny Alpha. This, and a story called Ro-Busters (later ABC Warriors) about a squad of ex-military robots, went on to become 2000AD classics, still making appearances today.
In 1976 DC Thomson published a short-lived horror comic for girls called Spellbound. This, plus the success of other ‘theme’ comics, persuaded IPC to try something similar. In 1978 they launched Misty. Unlike Tammy or Jinty (which it was aligned with in a three’s company promotion), Misty was more solidly themed. All the stories revolved around haunted houses, be careful what you wish for tales and so on. The editor was also called Misty, a pale, spooky woman who owed much to Italian horror films. One of the more famous stories was Moonchild, loosely based on the horror film Carrie. Misty proved to be a hit, and is fondly remembered by many fans. The fans were not all female either. Lucky was the boy who could borrow his sister’s Misty and Jinty… not that he would have admitted to it, on the tough playgrounds of the seventies! Unfortunately editorial meddling saw Misty become gradually less scary, and less exciting. Both Misty and Jinty had merged with Tammy by the end of the decade.
The seventies had been an exciting time for the British comics industry, and 1979 produced another long-runner. Marvel UK, who had produced numerous reprints of American superhero comics, as well as their own creation Captain Britain, obtained the licence to create a comic based on Doctor Who. With the masterful manuscripts of mighty Marvel (as Stan Lee would no doubt say) behind him, the Doctor was launched into a series of epic adventures on strange new planets. On the TV the Doctor was battling bin bag aliens invading with egg box spaceships. In the comic strip he was travelling through the dimensions to a high-tech, galaxy-spanning Roman empire in The Iron Legion. The humour of the fourth Doctor’s reign is present and correct, the first thing he does upon meeting one of the empire’s robotic soldiers is offer it a jelly baby. A later serial featured a totalitarian police state where all emotion was banned, and black-garbed moderators would jump on any violation. Judge Dredd was already influencing others!
IPC had some material left over from Action and Starlord, so created an interesting mixed-genre comic called Tornado in which to use it. The most interesting thing about Tornado was a detective story called Victor Drago. He was yet another imitator of Sexton Blake in fact, he was supposed to be Sexton Blake, but his name had to be changed at the last minute. This was possibly due to a copyright problem caused by the 1960’s TV show. Despite the hasty re-naming (Drago’s car registration is SB209!) many Sexton Blake fans consider this to be the definitive comic strip version. Unfortunately Tornado became another member of the 22 club, merging with 2000AD in August 1979. One story that carried over was Blackhawk, in Tornado he was a Roman centurion who put down a rebellion against the empire. In 2000AD he was beamed up by aliens and fought as a gladiator in an alien arena!
DC Thomson launched two further comics in 1979, the first was Starblazer. This was a science fiction picture library that is fondly remembered today, running until 1991. The second comic launched was a new weekly, The Crunch (occasionally, bizarrely, called The Crunch is Here!). One of it’s longest-lived characters was The Mantracker, a Blackfoot Indian called Bearpaw Jay, who worked as a bounty hunter. Far more interesting was Ebony, a female secret agent named Ebony Jones (I’ll leave you to guess her race). Reportedly she had been created for a proposed girl’s version of Victor that was, unfortunately, never made. If it had been it would probably have knocked the likes of Misty into a cocked hat, with with plenty of Modesty Blaise-inspired heroines. The Crunch ran for 54 issues, merging with Hotspur in 1980.
Decline and Fall
1980 saw the launch of another themed comic from IPC, This one called Speed. It’s theme was the world of speed and it featured a few interesting stories. The best-remembered of which was probably Death Wish. This was about a racing driver who, after a horrible crash, was left with a disfigured face. He wore a mask to conceal his injuries and constantly volunteered to test dangerous new cars, aircraft and so on, hoping to be killed. Of course he always ended up surviving by luck. Speed did not last long and merged with Tiger, Death Wish going with it.
In 1981 DC Thomson produced what might have been a very important comic, if only they had done it two or three decades earlier! It was called Buddy, and featured longer, slightly more mature tales of adventure characters from their humour comics, such as General Jumbo and Billy the Cat. This could have formed an important bridge between the ever-more-juvenile humour comics and the increasingly mature adventure comics. However by 1981 it was too little, too late and Buddy folded in 1983, having made a noble attempt.
Another noble attempt that was a bit more successful came from IPC in 1982. It was nothing less than a revival of Eagle! Dan Dare was again the star character, but this was not the original Dan. It was the blonde haired great-great-grandson of the original (the crazy 2000AD version was ignored). Earth’s arch-rival The Mekon was still around too (The Mekon is actually his title, and they live for centuries). The strip initially had a cast of diverse supporting characters, led by Dan in an epic struggle against the Treens (who had taken over the earth). Later on a series of new supporting characters appeared who were all very similar to those in the original Eagle, including a new version of Digby.
To begin with, the other stories in the new Eagle were photo-strips. This may have been just about acceptable in romantic comics, but in a boys’ adventure comic the dead-eyed, mid-distance stares and rubber masked aliens just looked ridiculous. Most of the strips were mercifully given drawn artwork within the year. Apart from Dan Dare, the most famous new Eagle story was Doomlord. This was about an alien assigned to destroy the human race, as punishment for their warmongering and polluting ways. However he has a change of heart and rebels against his superiors, who are then out to get him. By the standards of most eighties launches, the new Eagle had a long run. To begin with the editorial content lived up to the high standards set by it’s predecessor. Even the famous cutaway drawings returned, showing the innards of modern machines such as racing powerboats and F1 cars.
In 1983 Battle Action was ruined, becoming Battle Action Force a tragic sign of things to come. It was now a tie-in with the Action Force range of toys, a British repackaging of G.I. Joe. The quality of storytelling plummeted, as did the sales figures. As with all toy-based comics, the villains had horribly one-dimensional characterisation. Even the Germans from 1914 Amalgamated Press story papers were deeper! Charley’s War was still running, alongside the dumbed-down advertainment, but now Charley was in World War 2, looking for his son at Dunkirk. The comic was re-named Battle in 1986, but unfortunately IPC had not learnt their lesson. A month later it joined up with a different toy line, becoming Battle With Storm Force. A year later it was gone, merged into Eagle. Other short-lived toy-based comics produced by IPC (and marketed alongside Eagle as supposed equals where were the tabloids when this bit of disgraceful treason was being perpetrated?) during the eighties included MASK, which was a bit like Transformers, and Ring Raiders, which was a series of model planes that connected to rings.
DC Thomson, not prepared to sell their souls to sweatshop-produced plastic junk, launched Spike in 1983. This was another hard hitting comic in the style of Bullet or Crunch. It featured a footballer called Iron Barr, who was a welder that went to collect scrap metal from the ground where another DC Thomson footballer, Limp-Along Leslie, played. Charlie Barr saw the club’s goalkeeper practising, and unguardedly said he could do better. He was challenged to prove it, and did! He signed an amateur contract on the spot. Spike also featured an interesting story called The Man in Black. This was about a mysterious athlete who gatecrashed a 1930’s athletics meeting, winning the big race of the day. The end of the serial revealed that this was Wilson, but most readers already knew it their dads had recognised him!
Spike only lasted until 1984, merging with another new arrival, Champ. This was DC Thomson’s final attempt at launching a new weekly adventure comic. Champ’s most notable story was We Are United, featuring a super-team of DCT’s best football characters. Each story would be introduced with mini programmes, talking about the teams United were going to play that week. There was also another Kids Rule O.K!, but it was nothing like the infamous IPC version. It was instead about a bunch of kids trying to save their school from closure. Unfortunately Champ was as short-lived as Spike had been, vanishing in 1985. This left Victor as the only weekly adventure comic DC Thomson produced, though Commando was still running steadily.
The mid-eighties were like a wall for most of the proper IPC adventure comics, Eagle incorporated them rapidly, absorbing the horror-themed Scream! In 1984 and the long-running Tiger in 1985. These two mergers created an Eagle that was edited by a homicidal computer (from Scream’s The Thirteenth Floor) and which took on board the grim Death Wish from Speed, now featuring ghosts tormenting the suicidal anti-hero. Whatever Marcus Morris thought about this has not been recorded, possibly because that sort of language was unbecoming of a man of God.
Eagle and Tiger
Eagle absorbed Battle in 1988, and for a brief period Charley Bourne and Dan Dare appeared in the same comic. Interestingly in 1989 the original 1950’s Dan Dare returned to Eagle, with suitably retro artwork. But by then the comic was in trouble, and became a reprint-filled monthly shortly afterwards. Publication ceased in 1994.
War Picture Library came to an end in 1984, the quality of the artwork had dropped dramatically. The house style was still enforced, and every story looked the same, a lot of the art looked like it had been done in a hurry. Perhaps the artists were fed up of the house style. 1984 also saw the end of Tammy. IPC had launched a new version of Girl in 1981, but it was a lifestyle magazine with only a minority of comic strips. Roy of the Rovers entered the eighties on a high, with quality storytelling and fantastic painted artwork. The popularity of football helped the comic to survive the decade, though it still lost readers, becoming a monthly in the early nineties.
2000AD had also lost readers, but it’s well-written, strongly-established stories gave it enough long-term fans to ensure it’s survival. It is perhaps the one adventure comic that really did well out of the eighties, with increasing print and paper quality, plus more colour. However it also grew up with it’s readers, and by the late 80’s was a lot more adult, aping serious(ish) political comics like Crisis, Revolver and Deadline. That puts it beyond the scope of this article, save to say that in 2012, well after it’s self-imposed expiry date, 2000AD is still going strong. Now published by the videogame company Rebellion, and with a promising Judge Dredd film in production.
Doctor Who Weekly became Doctor Who Monthly in 1980, and then Doctor Who Magazine in 1984. The page count increased, but the comic strips decreased, though they did not disappear entirely. Today it is published by Panini, who also handle the reprinting of Marvel comics in Britain.
In the early nineties DC Thomson revamped The Victor, with better paper and more colour pages. The real war stories on the cover were replaced with photos of football and extreme sports. All new stories were in colour, though some reprints were still in black and white. Unfortunately this failed to save the comic, and it was cancelled in 1992.
A late Victor
Eagle came to an end in 1994 and Roy of the Rovers, having gone monthly in 1993, faded away in 1995. And that was it.
The nineties was a flat spot in the history of British adventure comics. They had been replaced by short-lived, flavour of the month magazines based on the latest toy, cartoon or videogame. These usually had only one or two short strips, the rest of the pages being filled with dumbed-down articles and insultingly easy puzzles. Two of the licensed titles are worth mentioning, however. One was Action Man, which ran for a remarkable 10 years between 1996 and 2006. The comic strips were not very good, generally the one-dimensional villain (called Doctor X) would threaten to blow up, pollute or otherwise destroy something. Action Man would swing into action with one of his specialised outfits, and foil the plot. Doctor X would then escape, shaking his fist and promising revenge. The comic also contained action scenes – intricate, baddie-filled backdrops that could be removed and stuck to cereal boxes.
Sonic the Comic (1993) was an example of how licensed comics in Britain ought to be done. It starred the fast-running blue hedgehog from the Sega games. Sega could so easily have put a British price tag on the American Sonic comics (produced by Archie) and called it a day. But instead they decided to do it properly, commissioning IPC (who now issued their comics as Fleetway Editions) to create an all-new, British-made Sonic comic. Being British it was weekly, and featured several serial stories. It was also on high-quality, glossy paper and in full colour. It is a tragedy that just as the technology making it possible to produce an all-colour Eagle or TV21 became affordable, traditional British comics ended.
Sonic the Comic was truly a comic, with most of the pages filled with strips rather than stupid word searches. There was a mixture of styles to begin with, including the comedy-horror Decap Attack. Much more serious was Streets of Rage, a story of vigilante justice that would not have looked out of place in Bullet or Spike. Another of the longer-running strips was Shinobi, about a ninja on the trail of the evil Zeo Zeed yakuza family.
The real star was, of course, Sonic The Hedgehog himself. At first the 7-page stories were complete in each issue, but gradually they developed into one big serial, not unlike The Nelson Lee Library. As time went on the strips based on other games disappeared, and it concentrated on the world of Sonic. New characters were created, some based on characters in the games, others completely original. Their stories all showed different ‘perspectives’ on the same events as Sonic and his friends battled the evil Doctor Robotnik. In a bold, and probably unique, move for a licensed comic, they actually defeated him! In issue 100 his robot army was shut down, and he was sent to prison. Of course he escaped later, but before that entirely new villains, created for the comic, took his place. Sonic The Comic had a respectable run, but from 1997 reprints began to creep in. In 2000 the entire comic went over to reprints, and it was cancelled in 2002.
Another series of adventure comics were produced in the late nineties, but they slipped well under the radar. They were called Graffix, and were published as a series of books by A&C Black. They contained all of the expected tropes of British adventure comics science fiction, amateur detectives, football and romance. They anticipated by a few years the arrival of book-form Japanese comics in Britain. Unfortunately Graffix where nowhere near as well distributed, it appears most copies went to libraries and stayed there! How different things may have been today if Graffix had been shelved with manga during the boom times. There may have been a whole new generation of comic fans who consider the British and Japanese styles to be equal. Instead of the current situation, where fans of Japanese comics are barely even aware of their own country’s output.
Hope for the Future
Several reprint books have been published in recent years, showing there’s interest out there!
In 2003 Rod Barzilay, a fan of the old Eagle and Dan Dare, launched Spaceship Away. To begin with, Spaceship Away was simply a way of publishing a new Dan Dare story that had been in the making since 1991. Fans of the original Eagle had raised money and paid Keith Watson, a member of Frank Hampson’s studio, to draw a new Dan Dare story in the classic style. The story really was in the classic style complete with the logo of the original Eagle and it’s 4½d price! Sadly, Keith Watson died before the art was completed. Don Harley, another of the original studio, stepped in and the story, The Phoenix Mission, was finished. It had been intended to print it in the new Eagle, but that had long since been cancelled. After failed attempts to approach several publishers, the team turned to the small press, and Spaceship Away was born. It proved wildly popular, soon a lengthy sequel to The Phoenix Mission was in the works, a new story called Project Pluto was under way and comedy strips were rolling in. Before long Spaceship Away was publishing text stories, and reprinting other classic British science fiction such as Journey Into Space (from Express Weekly) and Nick Hazard: Interstellar Agent (originally printed by a small publisher called Harrier Comics). Yet more Dan Dare stories appeared, filling holes in the original continuity. With the blessing of the Dan Dare Corporation, owners of the copyright, Spaceship Away is still running today, at the rate of 3 issues a year.
Another comic to be launched in 2003 was Striker. This was a weekly football comic featuring the Striker strip, originally from The Sun newspaper. The main strip was created using a 3D modelling program, giving it ‘realistic’ full colour artwork. This was also used to produce glamour pin-ups of the female characters, well it had started in The Sun! Despite this the comic also contained reprints of classic football strips such as Billy’s Boots. This made retailers unsure of where to shelve the comic, and it became difficult to find, patchy distribution did not help matters, and the comic was in trouble by 2004. The publishers took inspiration from several smaller football teams, and sold the fans shares! This propped the comic up until 2006, a respectable run, all things considered. The Striker strip returned to The Sun, and later the Lad’s Mag Nuts.
Doctor Who returned to Britain’s screens in 2005, and a year later the BBC launched Doctor Who Adventures. Initially fortnightly, it was upgraded to a weekly in 2008.Unfortunately it contains only four pages of adventure strip, and more recently a one-page comedy strip. Most of the adventure stories are complete in each issue, though the occasional 2-parter appears. The rest of the comic is dumbed-down articles with big pictures, but it has still managed a run of 7 years and counting. Far better than this was a series of annuals called The Doctor Who Storybook. The first appeared in 2006, containing illustrated text stories and one comic strip. Unfortunately only three books were produced.
Doctor Who Storybook
Doctor Who Adventures was followed in 2007 by Robin Hood Adventures. This featured only two pages of proper (drawn) comic strip. For some reason the strip was pure comedy, the drama and action of the TV show entirely absent. Robin Hood Adventures also featured a photo strip retelling the episodes of the TV series, using stills. These were apparently put together by somebody who had never seen a comic before, not only was each panel numbered, but big cartoon arrows pointed out the reading direction. If that wasn’t bad enough, the tails of speech balloons touched character’s mouths. Unsurprisingly Robin Hood Adventures rapidly sank without trace.
In 2008 a publisher called David Fickling launched a new weekly comic called The DFC. Like older titles such as Valiant it was a mixture of humorous strips and adventure serials. To save money on what was a very risky venture for the twenty-first century, the comic could only be obtained by subscribing on the internet. The DFC drew the bulk of it’s creators from children’s book illustrators and the UK small press, giving it a look unlike any comic that had gone before. Unfortunately a lack of publicity prevented the comic finding enough subscribers, and it was cancelled after 43 issues. Several of the serial strips, such as Monkey Nuts by The Etherington Brothers, and Boys’ Own amateur detective yarn The Boss, have since been published in book form.
At around the same time, a publisher in Bosnia called Ivo Milicevic decided to check up on how his childhood comic heroes such as Adam Eterno and The Steel Claw were doing. He was horrified to discover that not only had these characters long since disappeared, but that there was no regular adventure anthology in Britain at all. It really says something when a businessman, from a country most Britons couldn’t point out on a map, cares more about our comics than we do! Mr Milicevic decided to launch his own British adventure comic, a monthly title called Strip Magazine (2011). For now it is only sold in dedicated comic shops, but from May 2012 will also be available in the high street.
Strip Magazine’s lead story is Black Ops Extreme, a frantic tale of secret missions undertaken by a group of disgraced special forces soldiers. Other stories include Warpaint, a story of a homeless Native American girl caught up in a battle between gods and Age of Heroes, about the tales told by a wandering man in a fantasy world. Strip Magazine is also reprinting the infamous Hook Jaw in full colour, and running a series of short stories sent in by readers.
Also launched in 2011 was Comic Football. It was primarily a humour title, but contained a more serious story called Young Guns. This was about a schoolboy beginning his slow climb up the football ladder. If it had been given a chance, it could perhaps have become the 21st century’s Roy of the Rovers. Sadly Comic Football was cancelled after only three issues, the company is now dedicated to providing cartoons, incidental art and one-off comics for clubs.
After the end of the DFC in 2009, the wealthy parent of a disappointed child arranged the funding for a replacement. The supermarket chain Waitrose generously offered the new comic shelf space, and so in 2012 The Phoenix rose from the ashes. Several people involved insist that The Phoenix is not a revival of the DFC, despite the fact it has the same editors, same creative team and is called The Phoenix. The comic itself is excellent, with adventure serials such as Pirates of Pangaea, a fantasy tale set on a a dinosaur-filled island in the early days of the British Empire. The Etherington Brothers are also back with Long Gone Don, a boy in a crazed afterlife, who becomes caught up in a rebellion against the evil General Spode. The Phoenix also contains some less serious comedy-adventure stories such as Star Cat. Harking back to 1970, The Phoenix also contains three column text stories! Most of them are extracts from children’s books, but others are original, complete stories. Two issues even had a serialised adaption of Theseus and the Minotaur.
And with The Phoenix, we have reached the present day. Between it and The Young Gentlemen’s Magazine there is, to quote The Captain in 1900, a great gulf fixed. But that gulf has been filled with some of the most breathtaking, epic, fascinating and downright weird stories ever told. British adventure comics are the best in the world!
This article would not have been what it is without the following books and magazines All come highly recommended to anybody who wishes to know more.
Boys Will be Boys E.S. Turner (Michael Joseph, 1948)
The Complete Catalogue of British Comics Denis Gifford (Webb & Bower, 1985)
Great British Comics Paul Gravett & Peter Stanbury (Aurum, 2006)
Football’s Comic Book Heroes Adam Riches, Tim Parker & Robert Frankland (Mainstream Publishing, 2009)
When the Comics Went to War Adam Riches, Tim Parker & Robert Frankland (Mainstream Publishing, 2009)
Penny Dreadfuls and Comics (Victoria & Albert Museum Press, 1983)
Tomorrow Revisited Alastair Crompton (PS Art Books, 2010)
Book and Magazine Collector issue 327 (December 2010)
The following members of the Comics-UK forum helped with factual, spelling and grammar corrections, as well as other useful advice and information:
Phoenix, Starboy, Alanultron5, Steelclaw, Philcom55, Digifiend, Asger, Paw Broon, Raven, Tony Ingram, Lew Stringer,
Several websites proved very useful:
The Albion British Comics Wiki
The UK Comics Wiki
The Magazine Data File
…and far too many blogs to list!