Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Amazing Atlas website!





Just another short blog entry today to plug a website that is well worth a visit. Over at http://www.atlastales.com/ the webmaster has embarked on an attempt to catalogue all the Marvel (Timely / Atlas) comics from 1939 to 1960.

He's done an incredible job so far, (aided by numerous contributors) and the site features tons of information on the artists and stories, with over 4,000 cover scans. Some of the scans are "supersized", much larger than original size and at 300dpi to display every detail.

Marvel published a variety of comics back then: horror, romance, Western, humour, and of course superheroes. Some of the covers featured bizarre imagery (such as those above) compelling the reader to investigate the contents. (A far cry from today's fad of single character poses.) The standout titles of the 1950s though were the horror comics, and this site features plenty of them in their dark and disturbing glory. (Some interior pages are also featured!)

The website is well designed, and easy to browse. Well worth a visit for anyone with a genuine interest in comics history.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Lorna Miller's colourful characters




Just another short post today as I've used up all the pre-written material for the blog and I need to catch up on work after my recent / lingering illness. (Don't panic. It's just a severe chest infection.:)) However, I'd like to give a plug to an artist who makes my Team Toxic strip shine every issue: Lorna Miller, who colours the strip for Toxic magazine every fortnight.

Normally I'd colour my own work but Lorna was already colouring the artwork of the previous artist on Team Toxic before I took over the strip four years ago, so it was only natural and fair that she should continue with those duties. Not that I'm complaining, as Lorna does a fantastic job, often against the deadline, and I've never been displeased with her stunning work.

However, not only is Lorna Miller a highly proficient colourist, she's also a respected cartoonist / comic artist, from her self-published comic book Witch to exhibitions in Europe, the UK and the US. Her website is at http://www.lornamiller.com/ where you can view a great selection of her work. (Kids and "sensitive" adults take note: some of the strips are quite, "colourful" in their language and plots. Hey, you see what I did there? ;-))

As for Toxic, the latest issue (No.89, shown above) is out today, priced £2.25, bagged with a stack of free gifts. The official Toxic website is at
http://www.toxicmag.co.uk/

Monday, March 26, 2007

WAR! What is it good for? (Selling comics apparently)


Maybe the country's got war fever or preferably it's a thirst for nostalgia, because following the success of the two bumper Commando collections from Carlton Books, the company is now set to release two follow up volumes. These however originate not from DC Thomson, but from Commando's rival comic books Fleetway's War Picture Library and Battle Picture Library.

Although Commando is the sole surviving war digest being published today (8 titles a month) the original "picture library" comic in this format was War Picture Library, launched in 1958. The two £14.99 compilations from Carlton, Unleash Hell and Death or Glory each reprint 12 issues from War and Battle Picture Libraries respectively. Even better; the books will reproduce the artwork 25% larger than originally published, and Fleetway had some great artists on these stories!

More details can be found on the sites that broke this exciting news; John Freeman's excellent Down the Tubes website and Steve Holland's Bear Alley blog. (Incidentally, Steve is the editor of these collections and he knows his stuff. Check out that link for full front and back cover repros of the books.)

Friday, March 23, 2007

Britain's forgotten superhero: The Purple Hood






Blackpool, Tuesday 29th July 1969. Ten years old, I'm on holiday with my Mum and Dad and, being mad keen on comics, I'm looking through a seafront news stand for something to read. Holiday resorts were always good places to find comics that might not have good distribution inland. A comic catches my eye that I've never seen before: Purple Hood No.2. It's a British comic, similar in format to those Alan Class reprints, but the cover declares it's an "All Original Comic". The cover character looks intriguing; a superhero with a machine gun? The logo design is craggy and compelling. The strapline says he's a "Crime Fighter International". Sounds different and exciting. I buy it. It's too blustery to read it on the prom, so I wait until we get back to the "digs". The comic contains three long stories. The Purple Hood has no super-powers but is athletic and handy with his fists, being more like a British Captain America than anything. He's a Government agent and fights terrorists and mad super villains. The raw style of the artwork makes the comic look more like a mock up designed as a prop for a tv show rather than a genuine comic. Yet this unreal quirkiness is a quality in its favour because it is so different from comics I'm used to seeing. When I get home I look out for Purple Hood No.3. It never appears, nor do any subsequent issues. I store away the treasured unique comic, to ensure I didn't imagine it.

Almost 40 years later I'm no wiser as to what the story was behind the publication of this comic.
The art throughout its 52 pages was by Michael Jay. To my knowledge, I've never seen his work anywhere else. As can be seen from the scans here, his style was quite crude and derivative, yet it had a simplicity and energy that propelled the story along. (The stories themselves were basic, to say the least.)

Several years ago I saw a copy of Purple Hood No.1 at a comic mart and snapped it up. Again, the entire contents were by Michael Jay. I also discovered a copy of Strange Stories No.5 at a mart; another Jay effort from the same era. Mark Tyme ("The Fantastic Time Traveller") was another of his comics, and I found a copy of No.2 of that in a newsagents, reissued with a 10p sticker covering the original 1/- price.

According to the indicia, these comics were published by John Spencer & Co, of London. The inside back cover of Strange Stories promotes three other titles: Macabre, Fantasy, and Spectre "Published at regular intervals". I've never seen them.

From what little information I could find, these undated comics were published in 1967 (so Purple Hood 2 had been hanging around the newsagents for two years before I bought it). Mark Tyme and Purple Hood never reached their third issues and remain Britain's forgotten superheroes. (According to Denis Gifford's Complete Catalogue of British Comics the mystery theme companion comics ran to six issues.) Presumably launched to rival American imports, these peculiar British comics never quite hit their target but they remain an interesting curiosity all the same.

Who was Michael Jay? (Was it a pseudonym?) What's the story behind John Spencer's comics? (Did he launch others?) If you have any information, or can remember these comics, (particularly the others in the series such as Macabre which I've never seen) please add to this article by leaving a comment below if you wish to.

UPDATE 27/3/2007: Comics historian Steve Holland has kindly solved the mystery of the John Spencer comics by providing background info and more cover scans of the comics line on his blog here: http://bearalley.blogspot.com/2007/03/john-spencer-comics.html

Thanks Steve! (And yes, Michael Jay's artwork may have been terrible, but as a ten year old I was mesmerized by its clunkiness. ;-))

Captain America Dead Again (for now)








It's been two weeks since Captain America was assassinated and at time of writing he's still dead. The death of the American super-soldier has been widely reported in the press, from the fictional newspaper the Daily Bugle (in reality a promotional freesheet for Marvel Comics) to the BBC News website.

It all makes for an entertaining story of course and hopefully sells comics to people who wouldn't normally buy Captain America. The issue where he pegs out is currently commanding high prices on eBay to speculators who think it'll appreciate in value in years to come. Maybe it would... if this situation was unique. What most media sources haven't mentioned, (preferring to run the PR piece without research), is that the Star Spangled Avenger has "died" at least twice before and returned no worse for wear.

For those who haven't followed recent events in the Marvel Universe, after a mission by a group of young superheroes goes tragically wrong, killing numerous civilians, the US government introduces the Superhero Registration Act. Basically this requires all superheroes to register with the government. The act fragments the superhero community into a "Civil War", leading to lots of excuses for Marvel to have comics showing heroes fighting each other.

Captain America, defender of liberty, is against the act, which eventually leads to fatal consequences for him. Although mainly a fight-fest designed to shift comics, the Civil War storyline has provided an interesting analogy to the real US Patriot Act and overall has been one of Marvel's better story arcs. (One interesting aspect has been the characterization of Tony Stark, Iron Man, developing him into a manipulative pro-registration character. One would imagine this would contradict his 40 year history, yet on reflection it all seems to fit.)

At the conclusion of Civil War Captain America surrenders when he realizes he's no longer representing what the people want. This led to outraged fanboys on the internet claiming "Cap's no quitter", ignoring the fact that the character had "quit forever" twice over the years, if not more. (See samples above.)

Anyway, Cap is currently dead. I say currently because we all know he'll be back. Marvel aren't going to let a property like Cap or his alter ego Steve Rogers fade out of copyright. Cap's "died" before, albeit only for a few issues. This time they'll drag it out longer, but, like Superman's "death" 12 or so years ago, nothing's ever final in superhero comics. (And if the Captain America movie gets the green light he'll definitely be back by then.)

After skipping a month (out of respect?) the Captain America comic returns in May to focus on the comics' supporting characters. So far this new run of Captain America (currently up to issue 25) by Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting has been the best handling of the character in decades. The early issues from their run are currently being reprinted in Panini's Marvel Legends monthly, available from newsagents.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

115 Year Flashback: Ally Sloper








The first thing that struck me about the above April Fool's issue of Ally Sloper's Half Holiday was: Was sending someone a dead cat ever funny? Yet cruelty seemed to be commonplace in this publication, and racism too.

Those were different times of course. The year was 1892, a society which when compared to 2007 would seem like another world. One benefit of collecting old comics is that they give us a glimpse into the past, sometimes warts and all.

As every fanboy knows ;-) Ally Sloper is, according to the late Denis Gifford's International Book of Comics, the world's first recurring comics character. Although I must admit that within the pages of the two issues of Ally Sloper's Half Holiday that I have, Ally doesn't actually appear in a strip himself. Instead, he reigns supreme as the cover star, and there are some witty short text anecdotes about the character inside.

Ally himself was a somewhat bawdy, boozy character, his name deriving from Victorians who "sloped" off into an alley when the rent collector was due. (A sort of 19th Century Andy Capp in respect. Also, as you can see from these covers, Ally was accompanied by his dog, predating Dennis the Menace and Gnasher by decades.)

This was an adult "comic". I use the phrase in parenthesis because the amount of strip material is minimal. Most of the 8 black and white pages are taken up with social and political items in solid text broken up with cartoons and a few short strips (some shown above). Similar in a way to the ratio of strips to features in some of today's UK comics. That said, it's closest descendant today would be Private Eye rather than Toxic. Nevertheless, Ally Sloper's Half Holiday was a major player in getting the ball rolling for the British comics industry.

The strips shown here seem very basic compared to today's comics. Yet what they display is true sequential art, and slapstick situations that still influence UK comics to this day. (Comics are a perfect genre for slapstick.) You'll notice that the strip A Moral Tale for the Young ends with the two mischievous boys receiving corporal punishment; a conclusion that would be repeated countless times in British comics for decades after. Here, the administering weapon isn't the cane or slipper of 1950's Beano times though; "Mr.Puffy" and his daughter lay into the kids with a mop and broom! The punchline: "...a sound lesson in honesty upon the young innocents which will last them until they find themselves in a reformatory or on the gallows". Blimey! And they call Judge Dredd pessimistic.

Unlike today's British comics, there were no free gifts taped to the cover of Ally Sloper's Half Holiday. No free whoopee cushions or League Ladders. Instead, those fun-loving Victorians gave away... a Railway Accident Life Policy for £150. Great News Chums! If you have a fatal accident on a train, and your cold dead body is still clutching that week's copy of Ally Sloper your next of kin will receive £150. Fun-tastic! (Okay, it wasn't exactly phrased like that but this is for real. See the actual notice above which ran on page two of the issues.)

Anyway, enough from me. Relax and take a look at the 115 year old artwork above, at W.F. Thomas' fine pen work on the front page Ally cartoons, and at these early examples of the genesis of British comic strips.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Classics from the Comics




Classics from the Comics, which is published on the last Thursday of every month, seems to be one of D.C. Thomson's most popular secrets. Like Fun Size Dandy and Fun Size Beano it is rarely, if ever, advertised in the weekly Dandy and Beano comics and its distribution is patchy to say the least, yet it has still managed to survive for over ten years.

For those who have never seen a copy (for so few newsagents appear to stock it) Classics from the Comics is a 68 page monthly reprinting strips from Thomson's old funnies: Sparky, Topper, Beezer, Buzz, Nutty, Cracker, and of course Dandy and Beano. Most of the stories are approximately from anywhere between 1959 to 1987, which means the collections often include gems from Leo Baxendale, Ken Reid and Dudley Watkins. (The current issue, No.131, features Baxendale art on Minnie the Minx and The Banana Bunch, plus three pages of Ken Reid's Jonah.)

A few months ago Classics gained a new editor, bringing in a bold new logo and cover design and a chattier editorial page. Readers are also encouraged to send in their suggestions for reprints and, as I imagine many of its readers are nostalgic adults, it's little wonder that strips from the 1960s and 1970s dominate.

If there's a criticism I'd level at Classics it's that often serials aren't run in chronological order. For example, they'll be a Winker Watson strip one issue, which is part of a "Winker's brother on the run" story, but the next issue might feature a Brassneck story instead which comes in half way through a serial about the robot boy being controlled by the school sneak.

This is only a minor criticism as at least the individual chapters of those serials are complete stories in themselves. What is pleasing is that currently Classics from the Comics is reprinting the 1959 Black Sapper serial (by Jack Glass) from The Beezer in full, with three chapters per issue.

For just £2.00 an issue, Classics is a bargain. Within its pages are some of the finest slapstick comedy strips D.C. Thomson ever produced. Artists such as Davy Law (Dennis the Menace); George Martin (Greedy Pigg); Eric Roberts (Dirty Dick) and Tom Bannister (Colonel Blink) all in their prime. For older readers it's a trip down memory lane but
for new readers it's an education into the history of British humour comics.

If you can't find Classics from the Comics in your area, click here to subscribe to it from the DC Thomson website.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Marvel UK: The early years












Reprints of US Marvel Comics for the British market had met with limited success prior to the 1970s. The 1950s had seen UK black and white versions of Human Torch and Captain America, the sixties had the Odhams "Power Comics" such as Fantastic (as well as the Alan Class titles such as Creepy Worlds) and even the latter issues of TV21 in 1971 had featured edited reprints of Silver Surfer, Spider-Man, Ringo Kid and the Western Ghost Rider.

After IPC published two annuals of Marvel reprints in 1971 and 1972 (called simply Marvel Annual) there was speculation that the company was about to launch a weekly. Whether this was true or not it never came to pass, as Marvel US was about to take charge of its own destiny where their British readers were concerned.

On Saturday September 30th 1972, the first issue of The Mighty World of Marvel took readers by surprise, heralding the start of Marvel's UK operation. (Even though, in those early days, the comics were actually edited in the USA by Tony Isabella but printed in England.) This 40 page first issue had real impact, kicking off with a cover by John Buscema and contents starting with the origin stories of The Hulk, The Fantastic Four, and Spider-Man its intention was clear, - forget the Marvel reprints of the past which were handled by others, this was a new beginning from day one with Marvel firmly in the driver's seat. To accentuate its authenticity it even contained an editorial from Stan Lee.

The comic only had four pages in full colour. The rest used spot colour (green, mainly for the benefit of the Hulk strip). It would be several years before full colour was used throughout Marvel UK comics. (By which time the original MWOM would be gone.)

Previous British comics featuring Marvel material had always used reprinted covers from US comics, but MWOM had the luxury of brand new covers, many, from issue two's powerful Hulk cover, were by a young Jim Starlin, who was also wowing his readers in the USA with his work on Captain Marvel. (Some of Starlin's covers for Mighty World of Marvel can be seen above.)

With the success of Mighty World of Marvel, Marvel UK launched their second weekly on February 10th 1973. Spinning out of the pages of MWOM , Spider-Man became the star of Spider-Man Comics Weekly, which introduced Thor as a back up strip. The first issue was also used to promote Marvel's new fan club F.O.O.M. (Friends Of Ol' Marvel) with a 50p subscription form. It was now clear that Marvel saw the UK as a lucrative base to recruit new readers.

The emphasis wasn't all American though. Keeping up the British tradition of free gifts in first issues of new comics, MWOM had given away an impressive iron-on transfer of the Hulk. Spider-Man Comics Weekly promised a Spider-Man Mask! Excitement was short lived though when the "mask" turned out to be... a paper bag, which when worn looked more like a Klan hood (see photo).

Daredevil filled the space left by Spider-Man in the pages of Mighty World of Marvel, as the plan to gradually introduce more characters to UK readers took shape. The fact that all of these strips had previously been seen in the Odhams comics only a few years earlier apparently made little difference to the sales of the two new weeklies. Why were MWOM and Spider-Man Comics Weekly succeeding where previous Marvel reprints had failed? Perhaps because readers knew these were "proper" Marvel comics? Perhaps because they had lively attractive covers? Or possibly because the time gap between origination and reprint was wider now and these weeklies were the only opportunity of obtaining the early Marvel material.

September 15th 1973 saw the third Marvel UK weekly appear. Simply titled The Avengers its format was slightly different to its sister papers. Unlike MWOM and Spidey it had glossy covers, although this was at the cost of having no interior colour pages. (Although by this time the other two comics were also losing their spot colour interiors.) The back up strip for The Avengers was Doctor Strange, whilst over in Spider-Man Comics Weekly the 20 page Spidey stories were about to be halved to accommodate reprints of Iron Man.

Soon, Mighty World of Marvel and Spider-Man Comics Weekly both adopted the same format as The Avengers: 36 pages including colour glossy covers. They would soon be joined by an onslaught of companion titles; Dracula Lives!, Planet of the Apes, The Superheroes, Savage Sword of Conan and many more. Some would fail (Conan lasted just 18 weeks) whilst others would triumph (Spider-Man underwent many title changes and restarts and still survives today in the form of The Astonishing Spider-Man).

The Mighty World of Marvel had a long run, swallowing up various flailing weeklies from diverse titles as Planet of the Apes to Fury. Eventually, its own dwindling sales required it to have a revamp and new editor Dez Skinn simplified its title to Marvel. Perhaps the changes came too late, and it folded, but was reborn as The Mighty World of Marvel volume two, a monthly, in the early 1980s. Sadly, that failed, but the title was revived again a few years ago and The Mighty World of Marvel volume 3 (now published by Panini, who handle all Marvel's UK output) has been successful. The impressive 76 page full-colour monthly is now up to its 53rd issue. Together with its group of companion comics, from Avengers United to the newest title Marvel Legends, it would appear that Marvel are once again firmly established in the UK.

To find out more about current UK Marvel editions visit the Panini UK website:
http://www.paninicomics.co.uk/Home.jsp


Saturday, March 10, 2007

Junk food and the comics













Currently there's a campaign to ban all junk food advertising aimed at children. Ofcom want no tv ads for such foodstuffs advertised on tv until after the 9pm watershed, and the Advertising Standards Authority are pressing for a ban on unhealthy foods in the pages of children's magazines (which would include comics). Apparently 21st Century parents can't explain to their kids that sweets in moderation are okay because their 21st Century kids have such addictive personalities that they'll stuff their faces with chocolate and sweets until they turn into Jabba the Hut, and even then they'll still put their parents "under pressure" to buy them more. (Mind you; who's going to argue with a 70 stone kid?)

I have to wonder if any representative of Ofcom or the ASA has ever visited a newsagent. If they had they'd see kids spending ages staring at the chocolate selection whilst stuck in an indecisive zombie-state trying to choose between Milky Way, Curly Wurly, those penny chews that dirty-fingernailed scruffy kids fumble through or any other primary coloured confectionery. Surely if advertising was so potent as the pressure groups claim those kids would be in and out of the shop with SAS precision, chomping on their purchase while the tv jingle was still fresh in their ears.

Still, best not to admit that advertising isn't as effective as people think or we'll have advertising executives in rehab. Personally I like the idea of advertising in comics, as long as it's not at the expense of too much comic material. For one thing they provide the comic with revenue, but in a historical and social context they present us with a glimpse of the culture of the times. Take a look at the ads here for example. These are just a few from 1950 to the early 1970s when advertising confectionery towards kids wasn't looked upon as the scheme of a James Bond super villain. Let's go through them...

1: Ice cream keeps you fit. This was the moral of the Tommy Walls strips which ran in the early years of Eagle. Sponsored by Walls, these strips originally featured artwork by Frank Hampson and were later illustrated by the likes of Harold Johns and Richard Jennings (who went on to draw The Dalek Book in 1964). These two examples are from 1950. The second strip has some particularly nice imagery of life in Britain at that time. Favourite unintentionally funny line: "He was carrying a handbag. He's got away with it."

2: Mars feeds you goodness. Well, I don't know about that but it might make you feel good for a short while. Mars was always promoted as being good for "work, rest and play" in those days. I'm sure Mick Jagger would agree with the latter.

3: How times change. Today's society is on the verge of treating chocolate like hard drugs but in 1959 that bastion of the establishment Eagle had its own Fry's Fun Page to promote Fry's range of chocolate. Fry's Five Boys bar had its pieces embossed with the facial expressions of five schoolboys. No. I never understood why either.

4: "Suck it and see, it's magic!" said Crackerjack's Leslie Crowther. He was talking about Wiz, which was a very tasty banana flavoured lolly with soft toffee inside. Look at the image in the ad though: someone's bitten into the lolly when Leslie clearly said they should suck! Bloomin' sixties hippy anarchists.

5: Sugar Smacks (like Sugar Puffs but, in my opinion, tastier) had their finger on the hyperactive pulse of every sugar-addicted kid in the land, and were always running free gift promotions like this one which tied in with contemporary tv shows. Those free Captain Scarlet badges were great, and are no doubt highly collectible today.

6: Kinky! Yes, it's 1968. How did you guess? Walls launched their newest lolly covered in hundreds and thousands. Dozens of which fell off as you ate it.

7: Super Mousse was regularly promoted in comics during the early 1970s. Hey kids, you could send away for Apollo badges. Apparently you could wear them and be the "envy of your friends". A kid at our school had some. They were alright I suppose. I wasn't envious though. I wasn't. Honest.

8: Golly's Fun Book. Yes, it's Robertson's Jam trying to distract the reader's attention away from the racial stereotype with the chance of winning a chopper bike. These were a big craze in the early seventies you know. Okay, jam isn't exactly junk food unless you eat a whole jarful in one go but you still couldn't get away with this advert in comics today for obvious reasons. And rightfully so.

9: "It's frothy man!" So said the Cresta Bear on a tv promo that turned into a 1970s catch phrase. Fizzy pop, basically. The fizz went out of the catch phrase when adults started using it.

10: The Gumslinger used a rather flatly drawn but active comic strip to promote Rowntree's Liquorice Gums. Only 4d a tube in the days when comics and confectionery were around the same price.

11: Count Dracula's Deadly Secret. Yes, it's a 1973 lolly that turns you into a vampire, going by the advert. No chemical reaction caused buyers incisors to grow, but it was a refreshing taste. They should bring it back. I'm sure a black ice lolly would go down a storm with Goths.

Chances are advertisements like these will not be appearing in comics for the foreseeable future. For better or worse? You decide... or rather you don't, as bodies like the ASA, under pressure from the government, are deciding it for you.
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