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Sunday, November 04, 2007

Gunpowder treason and plot

I'm not quite sure when the "Firework issue" became a tradition in British comics, but certainly by the 1960s most weeklies adopted the theme for the edition that came out the week before November 5th. The event was a natural for the visual medium of humour comics, with rockets whizzing through the air, bangers exploding, pyrotechnic effects, all guaranteeing a spectacular finish to the stories.

Today of course, our over-protective society has ensured that firework issues are a thing of the past. The anti-pc brigade may bemoan this fact, but were comics blameless in this? Or did they go over the top? Let's have a look at several examples (mainly from the 1960s when such stories were plentiful) to judge for ourselves...

The cover of The Dandy from 1964 (drawn by Charlie Grigg) seems innocuous enough. Delivering fireworks and needing to replace his tyres, Korky uses giant Catherine Wheels instead. Daft, but very visual. Sparks flying off like this being the traditional way that fireworks were drawn.

On the back cover of the same issue, the action is a bit more violent. After a series of firework mishaps, Big Head (of Big Head and Thick Head fame) feels the brunt of an exploding dustbin. (Drawn by Frank McDiarmid, ghosting Ken Reid who had left the strip a few months earlier.)

The cover of the 1965 firework issue of Wham! (below) by Leo Baxendale has a lively scene of The Tiddlers running riot brandishing fireworks and scaring Teacher out of his wits. Leo Baxendale could always be relied on to provide this sort of anarchic fun, and had also supplied an excellent firework cover to Wham! the previous year. (Which I don't have, but it's shown in Paul Gravett's book Great British Comics.)

That same issue of Wham! featured another artist who excelled at firework stories, - Ken Reid, whose Frankie Stein ended that week's episode with Dad suffering the horrors of sitting inside a box of live fireworks. The typical Ken Reid black humour has the addition of a great punchline, - Dad's son wants the fire brigade to wait until after the firework display's over before they save him.

The 1965 firework edition of Buster featured a Guy Fawkes Mask as a free gift. A similar mask was also presented with Whizzer and Chips four years later.

Valiant in 1965 didn't feature a lot of firework strips as the content was mainly adventure-based. The few humour strips the comic contained did focus on Bonfire Night though, including Billy Bunter's Mr.Quelch getting a rocket up his hooter, illustrated by Reg Parlett.

That same issue of Valiant had Tim Kelly of Kelly's Eye shove his arms into a fire to prove his invincibility. The story (drawn by Solano Lopez) had nothing to do with Bonfire Night but perhaps it wasn't the wisest thing to show in the firework issue.

The 1966 firework issue of The Beano dispensed with the usual Biffo the Bear cover strip to show a full page illustration by Dudley Watkins. (Notiice also the firework-decorated masthead.) Apologies for the condition of this issue. This special edition was a favourite of mine and my seven year-old self almost read it to destruction.

The same year (1966) saw Wham! present more chaos in the classroom with a cover by Mike Lacey. Here, a banger is thrown into some one's school dinner.

1966 also had a lively firework conclusion to a Nervs strip in Smash! Drawn by Graham Allen.

A year later, Ken Reid outdid himself with a wonderful Dare-A-Day Davy page for Pow! in which Davy plans to blow up Harold Wilson, the then Prime Minister of Great Britain. The plot backfires of course, literally, with Davy himself caught in the explosion, causing "multiple burns and a broken back". In Reid's hands, this strip was executed with skill and great humour, but it was probably one of the extreme examples that sealed the fate on firework stories.

A year later, in 1968, the merged mouthful of a title Smash! and Pow! Incorporating Fantastic featured more classroom anarchy with the Swots and Blots' teacher being chased by a rocket. Drawn by Mike Lacey.

The following year, Smash! had been revamped by IPC and Leo Baxendale was back drawing The Swots and the Blots. No sign of the firework fun being toned down at this point though, with the Swots on the receiving end of some firework-related bullying.

However, by this time the comics were starting to include warnings of the danger of fireworks, as this Smash! editorial from "Mike" demonstrated:

The 1970 edition of new comic Cor!! not only featured five new strips, but it was also the firework issue, making it particularly special. With the Odhams comics now gone, the strips within these IPC funnies were notably less violent. Cover by Alf Saporito.

The heyday of the firework edition was coming to a close. Perhaps the grim reality of the IRA bombings in the 1970s proved too unsettling to continue to show people in comics being blown up for laughs. By 1989, comics such as Buster only showed firework displays in the background, or with the characters at a safe distance. Cover by Tom Paterson.

Today, the firework edition has ceased to be. Were the comics themselves too irresponsible and guilty of the decline of the tradition? Parents, retailers, story-hungry journalists and vote-seeking politicians would probably say yes, but I was a child throughout those "violent" sixties comics and the strips never had an effect on me. Did I ever misuse fireworks? Never. Children understand the difference between cartoon violence and real life danger. With the demise of the "Grand Firework Number" comics lost a great resource for visual humour and sadly in trying to be politically sensitive have ironically edged a little bit further away from escapism.

However, the current issue of Titan's Superman Legends reprints a Grant Morrison / Frank Quitely story that features Superman on the cover tied to a rocket that's powered by loads of fireworks, - blue touch paper and all. Whether this cover appearing at this time of year is by coincidence or planned schedule I can't say but as a "firework cover" it's bang on. (Pun intended. ;-))


Tim Perkins said...

BlOOMING excellent Blog as always, Lew, mate...

Hope you are well.

Best Wishes,

Martin Gray said...

Did you ever get my comment on this, about Sid's Snake?

Lew Stringer said...

Not directly to this blog Mart, but I responded to one on the Comics UK forum about it.

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