Sunday, April 15, 2007
Summer Specials: A dying tradition
With the current Spring heatwave it certainly feels like summer has come early this year, until next week no doubt, when the weather will change again. However, one reliable aspect of British summers past, whether wet or dry, were the bumper sized Summer (or Holiday) Specials the comic publishers would publish between May and July.
Such specials are few now, with DC Thomson the only publisher holding the fort with summer specials for Dandy and Beano (and, I believe, a girls title or two) but the format is considerably less "special" now. Since the weeklies became glossy colour publications there's little to distinguish them from the Summer Specials.
However, a few decades ago the Summer Special / Holiday Special was a treat to look forward to. Here's a few examples of those summer days:
The Dandy Summer Special: The one shown at the top, with Korky on an inflatable horse, was the very first edition, published in 1964. (Thomsons had published a combined all-reprint Dandy/Beano special a year earlier to test sales, but 1964 marked the first individual editions.) Holidays abroad were not commonplace for British kids back then, so many of the stories took place on the beaches of recognizable UK resorts such as Blackpool (as above) or Brighton.
The other Dandy special shown here (from 1968) has a cover that could not possibly be published today: the comics' main character, Korky, happily smoking a cigar. (Incredible that this was published at the very same time that anti-smoking strips were regularly running in other comics!) Both of these Dandy special covers were drawn by the superb regular Korky artist, Charles Grigg, who after retiring from regular comics work in 1983 went on to illustrate more beach scenes, albeit for an older audience, by becoming an artist of seaside postcards.
It must be difficult for readers who were not there at the time to appreciate how impressive the DC Thomson specials looked back then. In the 1960s, the weekly Dandy and Beano only had 16 pages each, were printed on newsprint, and only had four pages in full colour (with a limited palette). (The rest being in black and white or red spot colour.) Their Summer Specials had 32 huge tabloid pages, glossy paper, and many pages in luxurious full colour.
Thomson's rival publishers didn't have the tabloid format (or even glossy pages in most cases) but they compensated by having more pages. The only "Power Comics" special, the mouthful of a title Smash! Pow! It's the Fantastic Summer Special in 1968 had 48 pages, a nice mixture of new funnies (such as The Cloak) and Marvel reprints. It even gave a tip of the hat to summer special tradition by featuring Blackpool on the cover, (and as Blackpool Tower is the highest structure there, presumably Spider-Man has attached his web to the regularly patrolling lifeguard helicopter).
IPC had their own way of making their holiday editions special, with each featuring a whacking 96 pages! Mostly black and white, but great value for money, even if 42 pages of the 1969 Smash! Holiday Special were reprints from the Fleetway / Odhams archives. (That's a great cover by Geoff Campion by the way. Just look at the work in that Indian head dress.) Likewise, the Buster Holiday Fun Special of that same year also contained a stack of reprints alongside the new material, but for a newcomer to Fleetway comics (as I was then) this was new to me. (Even though it was easy to spot the old material.) Cover of the Buster Holiday Fun Special above is by Reg Parlett, who worked regularly for the publisher for decades, until he was in his early eighties!
Therefore IPC's method to rival DC Thomson was to churn out chunky half-reprint specials. Over at Polystyle, the method was less "in yer face" than IPC's brash covers, and their TV Comic and Popeye specials only had 48 pages, although the paper was glossy, and the price was 1/6d, the same as Thomsons' titles. Popeye might seem an odd choice for a TV Comic spin-off today, but at the time (c 1969) the old Popeye cartoons were being shown on tv. The Popeye Holiday Specials are collectible today because they're full of the Bud Sagendorf American Sunday pages.
Another collectible item from Polystyle Publications was the 1973 Doctor Who Holiday Special. Without a doubt this 48 pager appealed to all ages, and its contents reflected this by containing comic strips, pin-ups, and even a photo-strip feature on the production of the series! (In many ways this special paved the way for what Marvel UK would do with their new Doctor Who mag years later.)
As the years passed, IPC's Holiday Specials had a reduced page count from 96 to 80 pages, then to 64 (and even 48 pages in the end), but there's still some interesting titles amongst them. Shown here are the Lion Holiday Special and the Valiant Summer Special from 1980, with covers by Garry Leach and Brian Bolland respectively. Thus the new generation of artists (who had arrived in British comics with 2000 AD) manage to link with the past and pay homage to the comics which partly inspired them. (The editor of these two editions was Richard Burton, who back then was sub-editor on Tiger and would also become editor of 2000 AD; another link between the old and the new comics.)
Those two editions proved to be the swansongs for Lion and Valiant Holiday Specials. However, as with many titles, the specials had outlived the weekly comics (as did many annuals). With their longer shelf-life, the summer or holiday specials had a better potential to attract readers. It would seem ideal to revive the concept today, but with the modern setup of retail giants imposing more and more conditions and charging "rent" for shelf space, it becomes less and less likely for publishers to experiment.