Saturday, April 28, 2007

Space Invader

Apologies for the lack of blogs here this past week. I've been busy with work plus setting up accounts with MySpace and ComicSpace. Check them out for a few samples of my pages, listen to some of my favourite music tracks by clicking on the titles, and add yourselves my friends lists if you have accounts there!

Normal blog service will be resumed here soon. :)





Saturday, April 21, 2007

Dalekmania!

The Daleks are back! On telly tonight! Doctor Who, BBC1, 6.35pm. Fantastic! Some people are already claiming it's Dalek overkill, complaining the metal dictators shouldn't be in every series of New Who. Overkill? I lived through Dalekmania mate! Now that was overkill. And we loved it!

"Dalekmania", as it came to be known, was the huge push for Dalek merchandise that took place in the 1960s after it became clear that the tin pepperpots were the biggest thing since The Beatles. There'd be other "manias" to follow (Batmania in 1966, Monkeemania in 1967, and so on) but Dalekmania was probably the first tv-related merchandise boom in history. From battery-operated toy Daleks to Dalek soap, the shops were full of strange little collectibles.

Here's a few examples from that period. Click on each photo to enlarge it:



The Dalek Book: Published in 1964 by Panther Books this hardback annual was the first time The Daleks had appeared in comic strip form. Written by Doctor Who scriptwriters David Whittaker and Terry Nation, this fully authenticated book showed the Daleks in flight over 40 years before they'd gain that ability on tv. (Although in the comics they flew by means of their "Transolar Discs" but the imagery of the flying Dalek armada is clearly what inspired the similar scenes in the 2006 Doctor Who tv episode Doomsday.) The artwork shown here is by Richard Jennings and the opening pages to the lead strip are shown below:

Jennings was also the first artist chosen to illustrate the regular weekly Dalek strip on the back cover of the new comic TV Century 21 in January 1965. This first episode, shown below, reveals the origin of The Daleks years before tv's slightly different origin story Genesis of the Daleks.
With smoking not the social sin it's considered today, confectionery known as "sweet cigarettes" were popular for any kids who wanted to emulate their parents' addiction. (They're now called Candy Sticks, but are still white and come in a packet.) In 1964 Dr.Who and the Daleks Sweet Cigarettes had a nice box design inspired by the Dalek Book and each packet contained a free picture card featuring a fairly windswept and active Doctor.
Doctor Who Give-A-Show Projector was a must-have toy for Christmas 1964. Containing a plastic projector (a fancy torch with a lens, basically) and numerous short complete comic strips to feed through by hand to see them projected onto a wall. Eee, the things that pacified us in the years before video! Box and one of the strip-slides shown below. As you can see, the quality of the script wasn't great, but we didn't mind. This was Doctor Who to watch when you chose to, on your wall! The future had arrived.

I remember the black and gold Dalek Badge shown below being sold in Woolworths, although I assume it was sold in other places too. A nice item, although I can only assume the word DALEK was embossed across it for the benefit of thick kids who somehow hadn't noticed the other zillion items of Dalek merchandise on the shelves.

There were several Dalek toy figures produced during the height of Dalekmania, from battery operated bump and go toys to virtually indestructible durable plastic ones you could throw down the stairs without causing a scratch. A very collectible version however were the Dalek Rolykins; inch-high models with a ball bearing in the base which enabled them to glide along a flat surface when gently pushed. The colours available were silver, red, and black, one per box, but I painted one gold to emulate the Emperor Dalek from the comic strip. (Not knowing that by 2005 gold Daleks would be the standard in the revived tv series.)
This has been just a small selection of the many Dalek items that were available in the mid-1960s. No doubt the new Dalek merchandise of today will be equally as collectible!

One thing occurs to me though: today we have brand new Dalek toys, three different Doctor Who magazines, and even two Doctor Who annuals per year (by different publishers) but where are the Dalek comic strips? Surely it's time that the classic TV Century 21 Dalek strips were reprinted again? Or perhaps a reproduction of The Dalek Book similar to last year's facsimile copy of the first Dandy Book? Who owns the rights to those strips now? The gap in the market is surely there!

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

What Charlie did next

From Dandy to dolly birds...
Charlie Grigg swiftly became the definitive Korky the Cat artist when he took over the artistic duties from James Crichton on the cover of The Dandy in the early 1960s. Instantly making Korky a friendlier looking figure, his covers for the weekly, and the Dandy Summer Specials and annuals, were some of the finest pieces of humour art DC Thomson were producing at that time. No wonder that DC Thomson chose him to draw Desperate Dan for the specials and annuals following original artist Dudley Watkins' death in 1969.

Grigg was also adept at illustrating "light adventure" stories for the publisher, with his most memorable sixties strips being The Red Wrecker and The Umbrella Men for The Dandy. (A more in depth feature on those strips will appear here at a later date.)

When Grigg retired from regular comics work in 1983, he turned his hand to illustrating saucy seaside postcards for Bamforth. These British curiosities were hugely popular decades ago, and could be found on spinner racks outside shops in every seaside resort. Sadly, by the time Charlie Grigg entered the field, the age of the postcards were heading for their last days. Today, Bamforths saucy postcards are considered a 20th Century collectible, supplanted by holidaymaker's text messages, although some shops do still have old stock.




Many of the Bamforths cards I used to see as a youngster were illustrated by the artist "Taylor" but I instantly recognised Charlie Grigg's work when I chanced upon his cards in the late 1980s / early 1990s. Signing them "Chas", they show the same rich colour work as he'd presented us with on his Summer Special covers, although the tone of the gags are noticeably more adult! In a way it seems odd to see a style so closely associated with children's comics depicting bawdy comedy, but by 21st Century standards the humour is fairly innocuous. If anything, it's the innocence of the humour that led to the downfall of the traditional saucy postcards, as double entendres went out of favour, replaced by blatant smut. Basically, the innuendo of these cards is considered too "soft" for today's seaside stag and hen party crowds.


Incidentally, Chas' card about the man stroking the sunbather's leg - shown below, - has been copied for a large display on Blackpool's Central Pier. The style is inferior to Grigg's, but it has been there for several years now. Thus a bawdy seaside gag has become a fixture of the town itself.


No doubt some may disapprove of the subject matter here but it can't be denied that they are excellent examples of artwork and, in an historical context, are an interesting sample of British humour.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Bring back horror comics!





Here's another selection of 1950s Marvel Comics covers from a few short years before the Comics Code Authority was set up. Bending to pressure from "concerned parents" about "juvenile delinquency" the formation of the CCA decimated the horror comics industry, (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comics_Code_Authority ) but did juvenile crime rates fall with the castration of comics? No, the opposite happened because comics never caused crime in the first place.

Today, American comic publishers are mostly free of CCA restrictions as it became a pointless exercise when Marvel and DC began aiming their product to an increasingly "sophisticated" audience (ie: 20 year old fanboys who mainly like superheroes). However, attempts to target the younger audience are still very tame affairs, and are more likely to involve titles such as Marvel Adventures and Archie rather than anything resembling a horror comic. Sure, there are horror comics for adults today (such as DC's Vertigo line and Marvel's ultra-violent Punisher) but back in 1952 the comics shown above were aimed at kids under the age of 14, and no such graphic horror exists in children's comics in the USA or UK today. I don't believe that's a change for the better.

Kids have always loved creepy stories and the trappings of traditional horror (skulls, bats, monsters, ghosts, etc). In an age where Halloween is merchandised more than ever it seems madness to keep such imagery out of the comics. (Yes, we show zombies and creatures in a humourous way in comics, such as my work in Toxic, but the black comedy is never depicted in a straight style, as in the comics shown here.)

Surely it's time for the horror comic to make a comeback for the juvenile market? Comics such as those shown here were prolific in the early 1950s, and reprints also appeared in UK newsagents. Artists such as Bill Everett and Joe Maneely (for Marvel) and Al Feldstein and Johnny Craig (for EC Comics) were masters of their craft, producing atmospheric and absorbing chillers with tongue in cheek graphics. There's no doubt that the talent for new horror comics for the kids' market is out there amongst today's artists too.

I believe that contrary to the public opinion of comics desensitizing children to horror, they actually achieved a beneficial opposite effect, and that the comics acted as a catharsis to any personal demons, making the readers less likely to be violent or callous. Children know the difference between fantasy and reality and, if anything, the excitement of reading a horror comic must stimulate the mind more than flicking through the bland "safe" activity magazines which fill newsagents shelves today.

Sadly, there's no chance that horror comics will be returning to the shelves of UK newsagents anytime soon. In this over-protective age, no publisher or retailer is going to risk the sort of media witch hunt that shut down some publishers in the 1950s, or the overblown madness that closed Action in 1976. (The way it works today is that if a parent complains to a retail giant about a comic, the shop pulls the title from its shelves to avoid scandal, then fines the publisher for lost profit! So everyone is on their best behaviour, producing and selling incredibly tame children's comics. Much as I detest the phrase, it is indeed "political correctness gone mad".)

The covers shown here are once again taken from the excellent Atlas Tales website. Have you visited it yet? It's well worth a look and showcases some of the most bizarre cover images ever seen on comics. With Marvel currently reprinting some of their Golden Age material in their hardcover Masterworks line, (such as this one) one can only hope they soon get around to covering the pre-code horror material too.

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.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Remember the Jellymen?


Over on the Comics UK Forum Phil Rushton has uploaded a few scans of a fantastically nightmarish old Beezer strip, The Jellymen! This bizarre and beautifully drawn strip, from 1960, is crying out to be reprinted in some form. Check out the forum for more samples here.

40 year Flashback: It's Terrific!





Still not recovered from illness so just a short entry today with comics I had to hand. Forty years ago today, Odhams launched the last (and least successful) of their "Power Comics" line. Terrific was, like Fantastic, a 40 page weekly reprinting three Marvel Comics strips but unlike its companion paper the new title was printed on slightly poorer quality paper.

Initially featuring Sub-Mariner, The Avengers, and Doctor Strange (with Giant-Man replacing Sub-Mariner when the reprints caught up with the American originals) Terrific lasted just 43 weeks before merging into Fantastic.

Amongst the reprints was one British strip which I believe was brand new: The Living Dolls. The hero of this two-page serial, Don Starr, later went on to feature in another serial Appointment with Fear, once Living Dolls ended.

I'll be featuring more about those back-up strips in a future blog hopefully. For now, here's a scan of one of the pages from the strip plus a small selection of Terrific covers.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Ken Reid and The Nervs








A strange popular sub-genre of British humour comics in the sixties were strips concerning microscopic inhabitants of the human body. The Numskulls started the mini-trend in The Beezer in the early sixties. A very simply drawn strip, it featured the inhabitants in various "departments" of a man's head (brain, eyes, nose, mouth, ears) steering or suggesting actions for him to take, dealing with his problems etc. When Odhams launched their rival comic Wham! in 1964, the Numskulls influence was obvious in the strip George's Germs. Odhams taking the concept a stage further than DC Thomson the microscopic "germs" inside Georgie's body often found themselves in pitched battle against invading ointment-microbes and the like.

When Wham's companion comic Smash! came along in 1966 the popularity of Georgie's Germs inspired a similar strip; The Nervs. Usually drawn by the brilliant but often overlooked Graham Allen, The Nervs immediately became one of the funniest strips in the new comic. Whilst The Numskulls inhabited the bland and nameless "man" and George's Germs inhabited the sympathetic George, The Nervs ran amok inside the obese body of the dim-witted "Fatty". A much crueler strip by far than its predecessors, putting Fatty through all sorts of ailments and slapstick situations, but definitely the funniest of the three.

By late 1968, with Smash! the sole remaining Odhams "funny", Ken Reid's strips Frankie Stein (Wham!) and Dare-A-Day-Davy (Pow!) had ended. Perhaps not wishing to lose Ken to Fleetway (where Leo Baxendale was by then finding work) he was given the artistic duties on The Nervs. This was the perfect vehicle for Ken Reid's gruesome "comic horror" and he completely revitalized the strip, turning the Nervs into blue collar workers and Fatty into more of an idiotic buffoon.

The strip shown above shows Ken Reid's original artwork for his final Nervs story,(given to me years ago by an IPC group editor) which appeared in the final issue of the first series of Smash! before the IPC revamp of the following week. The incoming IPC management hated the vulgarity of The Nervs and allegedly an internal memo was circulated within the company instructing that the strip be canceled and never reprinted in their new wave of comics (Whizzer & Chips, Cor!! etc).

Ken Reid soon found new work at IPC, drawing Sub for the new Scorcher weekly and Faceache for Jet (amongst other things), but I always felt that IPC's more conservative attitude visibly diluted Ken's IPC work, compared to his Odhams heyday. (Even so, he still produced some fantastic work, including some great creations for horror pin ups on the back of Shiver & Shake for example.)

So the pages above show not only the end of The Nervs (and without a doubt the most gruesome end for a children's comics character with Fatty swallowing raw sewage) they also mark the end of the short but memorable run of Odhams' "Power Comics". I've blown up some of the panels so you can see the detail of Ken Reid's work. You'll notice that he penciled in the lettering himself for letterer David Gould to follow over. (Apparently Ken never erased his pencils from his finished inked pages when he sent them in to Odhams, leaving that job to the staff art assistant or "bodger" as they were known.) You'll also see some of the "white out" where mistakes have been corrected.

Ken Reid usually signed his Odhams strips. Interestingly, this final work isn't signed. It's unlikely he'd have forgotten. Perhaps by then IPC's new policy of returning artists to anonymity was in force. Or perhaps Ken was too saddened by the end of this great era in his career to sign it. Either way, the work still stands up as a great example of Smash! at its best, and Ken Reid at his funniest.
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