Sunday, August 31, 2008

Classic UK reprints hit the shelves this week


The 14th book in Titan Books' ongoing and much appreciated Modesty Blaise collection has been published. Green Cobra collects three complete newspaper strip serials from 1979-80 written by Peter O'Donnell. Artists this time are John Burns and Pat Wright.


As with previous volumes, the book features relevant anecdotes and bonus material. Lawrence Blackmore recounts the strange story of the Evening Standard editor suddenly and inexplicably demanding John Burns be sacked from the strip, a demand the same editor then repeated in regards to Burns' replacement Pat Wright. (The next book in the series will feature the artwork of Neville Colvin who replaced Wright.)


It's another worthy collection for any fan of classic newspaper strips. The scripts carry the story along effortlessly and the artwork by Burns is superb. (Wright's style takes a little getting used to, coming in halfway through a serial, but is nevertheless slick and professional.

Collectors of classic British comics material are spoiled for choice these days, compared to how the situation was a few decades ago. Of course, 30 or 40 years ago we had a thriving comics industry so most fans were too busy buying the new stuff, so perhaps the current crop of books are trying to fill that gap in the market.


However, it's more likely that the following four books (all launched this week) are trying to appeal to a wider audience than the hard core comics enthusiast. Why else would Hospital Nurse Picture Library: Love on Ward B be published, if not to appeal to an audience looking for a "gimmick" gift, perhaps a post-modern irony Christmas present for a nurse or doctor friend?


Another book collecting vintage material from Fleetway girls' titles is The Best of Boyfriend which, at 144 pages, is thinner than Love on Ward B's whopping 400 page brick, but is in hardback. Again, more likely designed for its "cheesy" appeal than for anything else, but perhaps worth a look to see which veteran Fleetway artists are involved?


A book more likely to interest mainstream comic fans is The Best of 2000AD. This 384 page hardback reprints selected episodes of many of the older strips from 2000AD, such as Harlem Heroes, Shako, Flesh, and, naturally, Judge Dredd amongst others.


If classic war books are your thing you may be interested in Commando: Bandits at 12 O'Clock, published by Carlton Books and reprinting another batch of DC Thomson thrillers.


If that wasn't enough to burn a hole in your wallet, another War Picture Library collection is already out; Against All Odds is a massive 776 pager, edited by comics historian Steve Holland.

Lastly, not a book but a monthly comic, the latest issue of DC Thomson's Classics from the Comics, out now, includes the first Tough of the Track episode from Victor, way back in 1962.

Soon, The Best of Battle and the 1950s Roy of the Rovers Archives collection are due, along with a second Look-In book. It's a pity DC Thomson's Comics in the Classroom is seemingly the only classic humour collection this year so far, - but next year may see a Best of Buster compilation from Titan that will hopefully redress the balance.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

More from Look-In


As the blog on the early years of Look-In was so popular I've decided to do a follow up, showcasing some more of the great artwork that appeared in the comic in the 1970s.

Freewheelers appears to have had several artists on it throughout its run in the early issues of Look-In. The marvelous example below is from the late great Brian Lewis (Look-In No.10, 1971).


The Fenn Street Gang was a television spin off from the popular Please Sir! series. The strip version was initially drawn by Tom Kerr (below).


Although I was fairly dismissive in my previous blog of the "popstar" focus that Look-In took from late 1972, the comic still continued to feature top comic artists. The following page is an example of John Burns' work on The Tomorrow People from 1974. John of course is still active in the industry today, as a contributor to 2000AD.


That same issue (No.12, 1974, - Look-In renumbered itself at the start of every year) began the Kung Fu strip with artwork by Martin Asbury (who would take over Garth in the Daily Mirror after Frank Bellamy's death).


By 1978 Mike Noble was drawing The Famous Five, embellishing it with a grey wash. Noble is an artist perfectly suited to dynamic action, but these pages below show how he can even make a domestic scene capture the interest of the reader. This is basically a "talking heads" episode but by changing the angles, and with his slick inkline, Noble gives it character and warmth.



How the West Was Won, also from 1978, sees John Burns using a darker, grittier style than readers were used to on his Tomorrow People work. Over the course of Burns' career he's often experimented with different techniques to suit the theme of the story and this savage style was ideal for the Western setting.



The Six Million Dollar Man and its spin-off The Bionic Woman had both been given their own strips in Look-In during the late Seventies. By 1979, with their tv popularity waning, the characters were teamed up in Bionic Action drawn by Ian Gibson. (The artist would go on to greater heights with Robo Hunter and Halo Jones for 2000AD.) There was never a tv series called Bionic Action but the characters had of course co-starred in each other's individual shows on occasion.



I rarely bought Look-In at all during the 1980s as comic strip versions of CHiPS, The Fall Guy, and Haircut One Hundred were not really what I wanted out of a comic (or out of my tv come to that). Perhaps I missed some great strips too though, so I'll be interested to see what the forthcoming book Look-In: The Best of the Eighties throws up. Seeing Magnum and Cannon and Ball on the cover I'm not too hopeful, but if the 1980s was your decade perhaps you'll get a kick out of it.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Look-In: The Early Years

Many people remember Look-In as a comic / magazine hybrid with an emphasis on pop music features. However, when it began, the publication was somewhat different and, in my opinion, a more enjoyable comic than the one it evolved into.

Look-In was launched in the first week of 1971, promoted by tv advertising and ads in the TV Times. Look-In was in fact sub-titled The Junior TVTimes and its design and format (glossy photogravure) was similar to its parent publication, although at 24 pages, the comic was significantly smaller in page count. Early issues featured photo covers, often staged exclusively for Look-In, similar to the covers of TVTimes, although this practice was later dropped in favour of illustrated covers by Arnaldo Putzu as the comic strip content was slightly increased.



Comics devoted to strips inspired by tv shows were nothing new of course, even in 1971. The 1950s/1960s had produced the first tv generation and publishers were soon capitalizing on that with titles such as TV Comic, TV Fun, and TV Century 21. What made Look-In different was that it had more of a balance of strips and features than its contemporaries. Unlike TV21 which had run items on space exploration, the features in Look-In were about television itself; the programmes, the stars, and the behind-the-scenes production. Truly a "Junior TVTimes" as the cover line promised. In a rather telling display of how society has changed, the page design and the tone of the articles in a 1971 Look-In seem more mature than those in the TV Times of today!


Running articles on tv shows in Look-In was a wise move by the publisher (Independent Television Publications Ltd). Falling sales of comics were partly being blamed on the distractions of the high quality of children's tv and early evening light entertainment at the time. It made sense to tackle this with a magazine that would capture children's interest. The editor of Look-In was Alan Fennell, who had previously edited TV Century 21 in its early, most popular, years. Apparently it was hoped that Fennell could work similar magic on a new tv title, - and he did.


Even the free gift in the first two issues of Look-In was designed to appeal to the new generation of tv savvy readers: a press-out cardboard model Magpie studio, complete with camera, boom, and presenters. (Magpie was ITV's answer to the BBC's Blue Peter.) The backdrop to the studio appeared in issue No.1's centre pages. Clearly Look-In expected its readers to be a bit more sophisticated than the ones who played with the free Thunder-Bangs or plastic whistles given in other comics.


As the comic was published by ITV, the strips and features within Look-In could only be based on ITV shows. However, this didn't present a problem as the 1970s were a prolific period for children's television and family entertainment. That said, only a third of the first issue of Look-In carried strips, although more strips were added later.

The standout strip in the early issues of Look-In was Timeslip, illustrated by Mike Noble. Mike had previously worked on TV21 and, highly regarded by Alan Fennell, the editor had invited him to work on the new publication. As expected, Noble's spectacular colour work was dynamic and exciting. Back then of course there could be no video or DVD reference sent to the artist, but when he appeared at a Bristol Comic Expo a few years ago Mike recalled how he had been invited to the studio during the recording of an episode of the ATV Timeslip drama in order to meet cast members Cheryl Burfield and Spencer Banks.





Another established artist working on Look-In from day one was Graham Allen. He had previously utilised his humour style for Odhams on strips such as The Nervs, Tuffy McGrew, and Kicks, and had develped an adventure style on Typhoon Tracy for IPC's Tiger and Jag. For Look-In he was commissioned to draw Please Sir!, a popular London Weekend sitcom starring John Alderton, and used an effective style which had just the right amount of caricature and slapstick.



Tom Kerr, another veteran artist of British comics, was the artist on Crowther in Trouble, featuring the comic actor Leslie Crowther. Kerr was another artist who could draw "darker" strips when required, but here he used his popular lighter approach. A good artist for drawing physical comedy.


Comics based on tv shows provide a good historical record of television history that might otherwise fade into the mists of time. For example, who can remember a tv series called Wreckers at Dead Eye? Not me for one, but the early issues of Look-In carried a single page serial of this relatively obscure pirate saga. Nicely illustrated, but I'm at a loss to identify the artist. Can anyone help?


Freewheelers was another well illustrated adventure strip in the early years of Look-In. Initially a two page serial drawn by Jorge Badia, who had previously illustrated romance comics for Fleetway. The strip later became an unusual mixture of text story and a few comic frames drawn by Mike Noble.


Other notable strips in the early (1971/72) issues of Look-In include....

On The Buses drawn by Harry North. The sitcom was a massive hit for itv although its humour was often too bawdy and sexist to transfer to a children's comic. Nevertheless, the strip version was fun in its own right, and North's artwork was superb.


Superflop was a comedy sketch on the Les Dawson comedy show Sez Les. Dawson portrayed a blundering British superhero and the comic strip version was drawn by Brian Lewis.


Brian Lewis was one of the rare breed of comic artists who could turn his hand to cartoony slapstick with equal accomplishment as his adventure strip material. Truly a highly talented creator. He also drew Mark Strong for Look-In, a strip based on a Mattel action figure.


Look-In had a rival in the form of Countdown, launched a few weeks after the ITV publication by Polystyle. Although the content of Countdown was more appealing to the sci-fi fan (including as it did Doctor Who and UFO) it was sadly out of its time and too 1960s and similar to the now-failing TV21.

Personally, I was an avid reader of both Look-In and Countdown, but a development would happen with the comics that would put me off both of them. In 1972, Countdown moved away from all sci-fi strips to become TV Action, including strips such as Hawaii Five-O and The Protectors. I didn't mind that so much, but what did put me off was the later inclusion of pop star pin-ups.

Look-In moved into similar territory (before TV Action) in September 1972. The first noticeable change was the paper stock. Photogravure was gone, replaced by a glossy (albeit better quality) stock for the colour pages, but a rough litho stock for the mono pages. However, the biggest change was the arrival of the "free" 4 page extra - a pullout devoted to pop stars.

Previously, Look-In was exactly the kind of tv comic/magazine I wanted, until the new look came along. It had always been aimed at boys and girls although in fairness it was probably pitched more for the male market. Now the balance appeared to be tipping the other way. The strips and tv features were still there but the magazine seemed to be dominated by that pop pull-out. I was never into the glam rock music of the day, so a cover and pull-out poster of Marc Bolan were waste of pages to my mind.

The second "bigger and better" issue was even worse. The centre pages featured a huge face shot of Donny bloody Osmond. Next issue promised "a four page extra on the fabulous David Cassidy". Look-In had always been aimed at both sexes but now it felt like it was turning into Jackie. I was 13 years old and wanted Look-In to feature pin-ups of Penny Spencer from Please Sir! or Gabrielle Drake from UFO, not some poncey posing lads with blow waves. Grumpily I dropped Look-In like a stone and probably went back to reading Valiant or something, whilst eating Marmite sandwiches, and watching Benny Hill just to really assert my Gene Hunt status.



I still bought Look-In occasionally over the years, if a Kung Fu or Blondie cover caught my eye, but never on a regular basis again. Obviously the decisions by ITV (and later IPC who took over the mag) were correct as Look-In enjoyed a long a very successful run. My reluctance to buy the mag on a regular basis meant I missed out on lots of artwork by John Burns, John Bolton and the like but Look-In was a relatively expensive comic for the few pages that appealed. The last issue I bought was in 1984 for Mike Noble's new Robin of Sherwood strip but the accompanying Bucks Fizz comic strip and Nik Kershaw pin-up made sure I didn't buy another. Although by then I was 25 so it's hardly surprising Look-In had lost its appeal.:)

Last year, a book was published collecting some of the Look-In pages. It focused too much on the late seventies for my tastes, but if you're interested it can be ordered from Amazon.

Fans of the Timeslip tv series may be interested in this website: http://www.timeslip.org.uk/

Look-In archive:
http://www.lookinarchive.com/

More Look-In archives:
http://www.geocities.com/juniortvtimes2006/

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Blatant self-promotion blog


Amongst the mass of bagged comics cluttering up retailer's shelves as mentioned in the previous blog is currently one which I've helped pad out. The latest issue of Toxic (No.122, £2.99) not only features my regular Team Toxic strip (below) but also contains six free gifts, - one of which I did the artwork for.


The Skull-Bat (or "Bat & Eyeball" as they eventually called it) is a variation on the old bat and ball toy. In this instance the bat features a gruesome zombie skull and the "ball" is its dislodged right eye. I had to work to an odd shaped template, hence filling the spaces with spiders and webs. Should give the readers nightmares for weeks. (Colourist Chris Watson did a fantastic job on the bat.)


(Other strips in this issue of Toxic are Rex by John A. Short and Alex Paterson, Fanboy Roy by Simon Chadwick, and Robin Hoodie by John A. Short and Laura Howell.) Official Toxic website: http://www.toxicmag.co.uk/

While I'm in self-promotion mode I'll also mention that the other comics currently available featuring my stuff are Viz No.178 (£3.00) with The Pathetic Sharks, Spectacular Spider-Man No.172 (£1.99) with Mini-Marvels, and Elephantmen No.13 ($2.99) with Brickman & Trowel.


All are available from newsagents with the exception of Elephantmen which is an American import published by Image Comics and is only available from comic book specialist stores. (See here for the official Elephantmen website.)


More info on my work at my website: http://www.lewstringer.com/

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Falling Circulations

The always-excellent blog Bear Alley by comics expert / writer Steve Holland today features an item on the current circulation figures of British comics. The results make for depressing reading, with practically every title having a drop in sales. The Dandy, revamped as Dandy Xtreme last year in an attempt to ward off the decline, is now down 5,000 copies to 23,869. Even the high sellers Simpsons Comics and Doctor Who Adventures are down, with the latter suffering a massive drop from 154,989 to 93,791 in the last six months.

What are the causes for this continued decline in comics and magazine sales? Falling levels of literacy? The recession? Boredom? High cover prices? Or perhaps our climate of fear, where kids are no longer being allowed to go out and buy comics on their own, is responsible?

All valid reasons perhaps. Comics are considerably different to how they were 40 years ago, - and that's to be expected. British comics have always evolved with the times. Perhaps it's time they evolved again?

The current mixture of strips and lightweight articles / activities has been around for several years now. Perhaps this generation wants something new? Perhaps a generation in tune with soaps and reality shows wants more depth to the characters? More excitement and unpredictability to the stories? Perhaps they're bored with bagged free gifts and posters?

However, a comic can have as many revamps as it chooses, but if the kids can't see the finished product it's not going to attract them. Comics are gaudier, glossier, and bulkier (with gifts) than ever before, but when crammed into the shelf display of supermarkets and newsagents it's hard for individual titles to stand out. The displays often soon become untidy, with comics sprawling in all directions and even spilling onto the floor. Unless one is looking for a specific title it's very difficult for a comic to uniquely grab the attention of a passing customer. How is a child expected to discover The Beano or Toxic for the first time when comics are rammed into displays that are so overwhelming and unkempt? As retail giants charge a premium for front-of-shelf displays most titles are stuck at the back, in darkness in some cases! (See photo.)



(Interestingly, Viz, and 2000AD, which are displayed on other shelves, free from the clutter of the children's section, have stable circulations. However that could simply be because their readers are older and more inclined to buy out of habit.)

The DFC has made moves in a direction of a story-led comic, and is bypassing the retail trade by being subscription-only, but it's unlikely its sales are anything to shout about just yet. However, if it does build into a big success perhaps more established titles may follow the subscription-only route? The current downward circulation trend would suggest they may have nothing to lose by trying.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Jack's Back!


Even though I've been collecting comics for four decades the late Jack Kirby remains my favourite U.S. comic artist. To my mind his powerful imaginative images are completely perfect for the unique medium of comic books. Therefore I was pleased to hear recently that the British fanzine Jack Kirby Quarterly is to return later this month. Edited again by Chrissie Harper, and now published by Dez Skinn, the new edition (No.15) coincidentally celebrating 15 years since the first issue, is available to pre-order from Qualitywarrior on eBay for a mere £3.99.

The design is top class and the contents look fantastic.

Here's a more detailed description of its contents, taken from the eBay store promo:

GET IT FIRST!

Early orders are now being taken for this landmark title, available late August

From the originating publishers of Warrior, Comics International, Halls of Horror, Comix: The Underground Revolution, Miracleman, V for Vendetta and lots of other fine stuff, comes the 15th anniversary special of the world's first-ever magazine devoted to the work of the King of Comics: Jack Kirby.

Chrissie Harper's Jack Kirby Quarterly #15 is a special 68-page full-sized magazine, overviewing the entire 60+ year career of the master of US comicbooks, with contributions and insight from top comics creators and specialist journalists including Kevin Eastman, Mark Evanier, Paul Gambaccini, Paul Gravett, Nigel Kitching, Peter Laird, Bob McLeod, John Morrow, Dez Skinn, William Stout, Greg Theakston and Marv Wolfman.

** Cover art by Jack Kirby and Bob McLeod

** Turtle Power! Kevin Eastman’s memories of Jack, plus Kirby’s version of TMNT

** Big Jack’s Pack: William Stout recalls one of Jack’s lesser-known art jobs

** The King of Comics and the King of Horror: Would ya believe: Kirby’s version of Dr. Phibes?!

** Opening Shots: A brief 1993 Kirby interview on Topps Comics and beyond

** Tune In, Man! Kris Brownlow looks at Kirby, drugs and hippie culture

** Kirby’s Mob: Nick Caputo dissects the crime classic In the Days of the Mob

** "I Always Tried To Do My Best": The ULTIMATE Kirby interview, 12 fact-packed pages!

** A Final Chat: One of Kirby’s last ever interviews, January 20th 1994

** Life After Jack: Jack’s widow, Roz, speaks after Kirby’s passing in April 1994

** San Diego 1995: Convention memories with Roz, August 1995, plus a superb photo gallery

** Battle for a 3-D World: 1982 stunner by Kirby and Mike Royer (glasses not needed!)

** Twice-Told Tale: Paul Gravett investigates Lee & Kirby’s Western, Rawhide Kid

** Drag Your Battered Bones: Mike Hill’s subjective, in-depth analysis of New Gods #8

** Heroic Grandeur: Fabio P. Barbieri assesses Kirby’s place in 20th Century art

** Undiscovered Particles: James Romberger plunges into Kirby’s psychedelic interzone

** Not Quite Definitive: Karen Hellman finds DC's Fourth World Omnibus series flawed

** He Still Rules: Marv Wolfman talks about Jack and their almost-collaboration

** Fantastic Four #1 Inker: Not-So-New News! The George Klein theory’s an old one, as Mike Lake explains

** Life and Truth: Tim Bateman reviews the philosophy of Mister Miracle #9

** London Tales: The April 2008 “Live From Kirby Plaza” event at the Institute of Contemporary Arts

** Cult Horror: Chrissie Harper examines the depths of 1983’s Silver Star #2

** Sez Dez – A Legend Hits Lucca: The return of comicdom’s best-loved column!

** Finishing School: Illustrated essay with Nigel Kitching on inking our back cover

... and even more. Hour upon hour of fascinating reading, with lots of rarely seen Kirby artwork.


*****************************************

As a topline to a Kirby Jimmy Olsen comic once declared: "DON'T ASK! JUST BUY IT!" Copies of Jack KIrby Quarterly No.15 can be pre-ordered now by clicking HERE.


Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Comics International No.206 - out now!


The UK's top comics newszine Comics International is available now at your local comic shop after a delay of several months. Issue 206 comes with a choice of four covers (shown here). Here's the official press release from editor Mike Conroy to tell us more...

WIN ORIGINAL ALAN DAVIS CLANDESTINE ART

COMICS INTERNATIONAL is offering its readers the opportunity to win a ClanDestine original specially drawn for the competition by Alan Davis, the creator of the Marvel series.


The art [shown above] can be won in the much-delayed issue #206 of Europe’s trade paper, which goes on sale week ending August 8. Featuring four alternate covers [pictured] and priced at the usual £2.99/$4.99, the special 116-page issue includes an interview with the British writer/artist about his plans for his superpowered family as well as a host of regular features and numerous other exclusives, among them:

Famed Cerebus cartoonist Dave Sim talks about glamourpuss – in which he takes a unique look at the fashion industry – and Judenhass, which shines a disturbing spotlight on the Holocaust..


Strangers in Paradise writer/art Terry Moore reveals all about his new self-published series, Echo.

Crime novelist Duane Swierczynski discusses Cable, his Lone Wolf and Cub-style reboot of Marvel’s time-travellin’ mutant bad-ass”.


Writers Dan Jurgens and Ron Marz discuss DC’s multiverse; specifically the restoration of the Tangent Universe in Tangent: Superman’s Reign.

Writer Joe Casey speaks about the challenge of resurrecting Rob Liefeld’s Youngblood, his own Image graphic novel, Nixon’s Pals, and writing The Last Defenders for Marvel. In addition, artist Chris Burnham talks about how Nixon’s Pals was developed.

Original Hellblazer writer Jamie Delano talks comics and in particular Narcopolis, the Avatar four-parter he describes as being “in the territory of adult horror/fantasy”.

From Four Feather Falls to Stingray... CI’s unique in-depth examination of TV SF in British comics continues with the second of six instalments focusing on strips based on shows from the man who made SuperMarionation a household word.


ABOUT COMICS INTERNATIONAL: Acquired by Cosmic Publications at the end of 2006, CI was launched in April 1990 to fill a need for a trade magazine for the US and UK comics industry. From its 48-page 4,000 copy debut, it has expanded to a 100-page monthly with many pages in full colour and a circulation in excess of 24,000. Read internationally by fans, collectors, publishers and creators, it is the independent guide to the world of English-language comics.
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