Wednesday, June 18, 2008
Flashback: This week in June 1968
For those of us in our late forties, British comics of the sixties occupy a fond place in our hearts (not to mention occupying any space in our spare rooms if we have back issues). It was a busy period for the UK comics industry and a lot of memorable material was produced, but was it all as great as we remember? Let's take a look back to five comics dated June 22nd 1968 to see what the newsagent's counter had on offer 40 years ago this week...
TV21 No.179, 20 pages, City Magazines / Century 21 Publishing. Price 7d
Only three years into its run TV21 was already on the decline. The arrival of the Captain Scarlet strip several months earlier had slowly caused an editorial shift in the comic to replace the unique mock newspaper covers with comic strip. Even so, four pages of Mike Noble artwork were nothing to be sniffed at. A pity the same couldn't be said for the Stingray strip, which now concerned Troy Tempest as a fugitive on the run and the submarine Stingray itself absent from some episodes.
Nevertheless, TV21 still had Frank Bellamy illustrating Thunderbirds every week in gorgeous full colour, but a two page Project S.W.O.R.D. text story and Jim Watson drawing Zero X was no compensation for the loss of The Daleks and Fireball XL5 which had been two major attractions of the first couple of years of the comic. TV21 was now, to use a phrase, "not as good as it used to be" but was still a quality comic compared to its final descent into standard adventure strip and Marvel reprint in its final days two years hence.
Smash! No. 125, 24 pages, Odhams. Price 7d
Another comic slipping past its peak, by mid 1968 Smash! had lost its initial momentum, but was still a lively variety package. Batman (now an interior strip) had been replaced on the cover by The Swots and Blots, drawn by someone ghosting Leo Baxendale who had left the comic many moons before.
Charlie's Choice, previously by Brian Lewis, was now drawn by Gordon Hogg and Daredevil occupied the token Marvel reprint space. The Rubber Man continued his quest to find a cure for his condition, and The Nervs was superbly drawn by its regular artist Graham Allen. Stan MacMurty illustrated Grimly Feendish, on the back page in full colour.
Pow! No,75, 24 page, Odhams. Price 7d
By this time, Odhams' first Sixties humour comic Wham! had merged into Pow! and although budget cuts had obviously been implemented (50% of this issue is Marvel reprint) the comic was a worthwhile read. A striking cover by Mike Higgs (marred only by muddy green ink on the newsprint paper) heralded a new adventure for The Cloak inside.
Further in the comic, past the Lee/Kirby Fantastic Four reprint, the adventure serial The Two Faces of Janus continued on its convoluted but fast paced way. The premise of this strip made little sense (cursed to turn ugly, the public assume Janus is evil simply because he looks it) but it was always an enjoyable action saga for kids, which was its main intention of course.
With the demise of Wham! and the cancellation of the Frankie Stein strip, Ken Reid devoted more of his manic energies to Pow's Dare-a-day Davy page. The Sixties showed Ken Reid at the peak of his abilities, with a degree of black comedy and slapstick cruelty never seen in British comics before or since. Any lesser artist would have made the strip bland or unfunny, but under Reid it's a masterpiece. This week's strip (above) even includes a self-portrait of Ken Reid and an appearance by Dare-a-day-Davy scriptwriter Walter Thorburn. This kind of informal jokey insight into the creators was common in Odhams' "Power Comics" and something that set them above their more conservative peers at Fleetway who wouldn't even let artists sign their work.
Fantastic No.71, 40 pages, Odhams. Price 9d
Following its absorption of Terrific several months earlier, Fantastic was now the only all-Marvel reprint weekly on the stands. Unfortunately its new cover design, using head shots instead of Marvel cover reprints, was insipid and unrepresentative of the energetic content.
Inside, packing five 20 page Marvel strips into 40 pages meant that each strip had to be chopped into serialized segments, not always conducive to cliffhangers. The Hulk had returned a week earlier, but now it was in Fantastic instead of its original UK home in Smash! readers were probably not too happy about it.
The Dandy No.1387, 16 pages, D.C. Thomson. Price 4d
It's easy to see from this issue why The Dandy remained a consistently high seller throughout the sixties. The design was bright and easy on the eye, and the artwork was top class throughout. This issue saw the debut of a brand new strip, Super Sam, illustrated by Jack Prout. Sam was an alien from an unspecified world and the caption informs us he's here "to find about all life on Earth". It's an abrupt start for a DC Thomson strip. We don't see the alien land. He's just here and the first reaction of a headmaster he meets is to try to cane him. Cue "Boris", Super Sam's thuggish slave who stops the head by grabbing him around the throat.
Super Sam didn't quite work in my opinion. The lead characters are unsympathetic and it's understandable why it only ran for 15 weeks before vanishing into obscurity. However the luxury of an anthology comic is that it can afford to experiment with new strips because the regular characters will retain the loyalty of the readers. In this case, the perennial Korky the Cat, Desperate Dan and Corporal Clott (amongst others) kept the readers entertained throughout 1968.
One new strip that had proven to be a hit with Dandy readers was Spunky and his Spider, drawn by the excellent Bill Holroyd. Although the strips' title (and its lead character "Spunky Bruce, the lad whose queer pet was Scamper the giant spider") was a source of playground sniggers, the strip itself was highly entertaining and amusing, as Bill Holroyd's strips always were.
These are the only five comics I have from this particular week in 1968. There were of course many more, such as TV Comic, Lion, Hotspur, Eagle, Buster, Sparky, Tiger, Bunty, Beano, the new Jag and numerous others. Sales were still high, but generally it was an unremarkable period. Shake ups were on the horizon, and by the following year the Odhams comics would be gone, and IPC would begin their domination of the market.