Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Heyday of the Summer Special (Updated)


A recent blog on The Guardian website lamented the demise of the traditional comic Summer Special, and they were right to do so. After almost fifty years, the bumper seasonal editions seem to have finally ceased to be. D.C. Thomson hung on the longest, but the Beano Summer Special closed a few years ago, replaced by the monthly BeanoMAX, and last year's Dandy Summer Special appears to have been the last one.

What went wrong? Apparently today's retailers dislike them because they occupy valuable shelf space for too many months. The other reason is down to how comics themselves have evolved. With regular UK comics now being full colour glossies, how can a Summer Special stand out as "special"?

The idea of weekly comics having a once-yearly Summer Special spin-off only appears to have gained popularity in the 1960s. There was a glossy colour Mickey Mouse Holiday Special as early as 1937 (priced 6d - a small fortune for a kid back then) but British comics of pre-war years would sometimes have a themed summer edition as part of their regular run, in the usual 8 page format. Here's an example from 1934; the "Jolly Summer Holiday Number" of The Joker, published by Amalgamated Press. Artwork by John L. Jukes...


...and the "August Holiday Number" of A.P's Funny Wonder from 1939, with a wonderful cover strip by the great Roy Wilson...


Inside that same issue of The Funny Wonder, Charlie Chaplin indulges in some seaside slapstick...


As the 1960s rolled around, Fleetway launched a Jack and Jill Summer Special for the pre-school audience in 1961. The following year saw Odhams launch an Eagle special and also in 1962 TV Publications Ltd published a TV Comic Holiday Special; a 48 pager with mostly new material. Not to be left out, D.C. Thomson tested the market with a combined Dandy/Beano Summer Special in 1963 featuring reprints from the weeklies. That same year also saw City Magazines publish a Huckleberry Hound/Yogi Bear Summer Extra. These sharply printed photogravure publications established the format for such Specials for the next few years.

The Specials must have proven to be very successful. The following year (1964) saw Thomsons devote individual Summer Specials to both The Dandy and The Beano with brand new material, and TV Comic continued with its Specials too.


Trumpeting the comics as "special" certainly wasn't hyperbole. Freed from the limitations of the weekly newsprint format the Summer Specials offered painted full colour strips bursting with life. (Although my copy of the first Dandy Summer Special from 1964 shown here is unfortunately browned with age.)

This was the perfect time for the Summer Specials to arrive. With The Dandy going through a peak in 1964, the Special featured some of the best artists in the business. Here's Eric Roberts on Dirty Dick and Ken Reid on Big Head and Thick Head...


...and Bill Holroyd on Joe White and the Seven Dwarfs...


Charlie Grigg was the resident cover artist, always producing memorable images of Korky the Cat. Here's the cover for the 1966 edition ( a bit torn, sorry). The image featured an inventive but simple novelty. By holding the cover in front of your eyes and rotating it it seemed as though Korky's bike wheels were spinning...


...and another Grigg cover for the 1969 issue...


The back cover of the same special is a fine example of how the quality printing gave artists the opportunity to go to town with colour work, as this Korky the Cat strip by Charlie Grigg demonstrates. (Korky's brutal remark to the mice in the final panel is a cracker, and shows how much more abrasive the dialogue could sometimes be in comics of the 1960's)...


The Beano Summer Special had the benefit of the great Dudley Watkins on covers for its first few years. Here's the cover for the 1967 edition...


(Don't worry folks. Biffo wasn't plunging to his doom after all. The back cover showed he was only diving towards a trampoline!)

Inside that same issue, a fantastic centrespread story featuring The Iron Fish...


Usually the centre pages would be reserved for a board game, ideal for those wet days sat inside a holiday guest house. Here's one by Eric Roberts from the Dandy Summer Special 1969...


The Summer Specials were clearly intended to be read by kids whilst on holiday, and the strips reflected the holiday environment of the 1960s, whether it be a journey in a train carriage...


...or the favourite destination of the time, Blackpool...


...watching a Punch and Judy Show...


...building a sandcastle...


...going on the fair...


...having a donkey ride...


...or simply relaxing in the sun with a cigar. (Er, well, maybe the readers' Dads could relate to that one!)...


Both the Dandy and Beano specials featured 32 glossy tabloid pages; quite a leap from the 16 newsprint pages the weekly editions had back then. City Magazines also seized the potential of the Summer Special by issuing the 48 page whopper TV21 Summer Extra in 1965 which featured a free gift (the "Cosmic Capers Kit") giving it the advantage over its rivals.

Here's the cover to the 1966 edition...


Inside, the adventure strips had little connection to a holiday theme but at least the "special" aspect was evident in futuristic articles such as this spread (by Eric Eden I think)...


Odhams also joined the party, releasing the Fantastic Summer Special in 1968, a 52 pager. Although mostly Marvel reprint, it did feature a handful of new pages including The Cloak by Mike Higgs...



Fleetway decided to hop on the bandwagon on Thursday June 23rd 1966 with the publication of the Valiant Summer Special...


This policy continued when Fleetway came under IPC control in 1968. The format IPC chose was different to the now-standard tabloid glossy. Instead, they went for quantity (sometimes over quality) with chunky 96 page specials, mostly in black and white. Here's the Lion Summer Special for 1969...


A large percentage of pages in the IPC specials were filled up with reprints from old Fleetway weeklies, sometimes with the characters' names changed in a futile attempt to make the strips seem new. However, the reprints were not entirely unwelcome as they collected together serials into nice complete chunks (albeit edited for space). Ideal summer reading indeed.

Here's the first Buster Holiday Fun Special, (1969), with a cover by Reg Parlett...


Reg also contributed new material inside, including this seaside two pager featuring Freddie (Parrot Face) Davies, a popular stand up comic of the period...


A striking Mike Western cover to the Valiant and Smash Summer Special 1971...


Inside that same edition, Banger and Masher, an often overlooked Ken Reid strip...



TV Comic continued its run of Holiday Specials throughout the Sixties and right up to 1986. Here's the cover to the 1970 edition by Dick Millington...


Inside, the traditional board game, with artwork by Barry Glennard...


From these early days, the Summer Special became a familiar sight in newsagents throughout the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. Seaside resorts would order extra copies as they were guaranteed sellers. (I remember bookstalls along Blackpool's prom selling them in the Sixties.) So popular were the specials that they'd often carry on for years after the parent comic had folded.

Sadly, the demise of the specials has been on the cards for several years and now, with the format eclipsed and sometimes bettered by the regular comics themselves there seems no place for them in the 21st Century. A great shame, as for many of us they definitely made our summers special.

Further reading:

What became of comics' summer specials: A blog on guardian.co.uk by David Barnett:
http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2009/jul/13/comics-summer-specials

Summer Special cover gallery:
http://www.comicsuk.co.uk/Specials/SpecialWhole.asp?FirstTime=Yes


Thanks to Ray Moore for the updates and corrections on the 1961/62 information.

UPDATE: Although the Summer Specials are no more, some publishers have launched the Summer Annual in its place, - hardback books in the traditional children's Christmas annual format, albeit thinner. Egmont currently have several out, tied into licensed properties, including the Power Rangers Super Legends Summer Annual and the Disney Princess Summer Annual.
(My thanks to Rik/KlownKrusty for this info.)

24 comments:

Peter Gray said...

Lovely to see..
so glad I was in the era of Summer specials the 80's..

Its very hard to read the Beano summer special on a windy beach:)

You are right they are great to read on holiday...can remember doing this very well...
I went to Bournmouth with Grandparents..Uncle...Aunt..Cousins..sister..Mum and Dad 5 years in a row..though they were simple I loved them...life was simpler then..

jon haward said...

my brother and i always looked forward to the summer specials as kids seeing some of those covers brought a smile to my face .
cheers for that lew

noah said...

Wow! The Iron Fish - must have seen a reprint of that in the mists of time....goodness!

I remember the type of paper too, the Beano specials were printed on a sort of thin glossy effort....

Zokko said...

Summer for me meant three things - no school, lots of ice cream, and the Popeye Holiday Special. Bliss!

KlownKrusty said...

Hi Lew,

Sorry to rain on anyone's parade here, but Summer Specials are more alive and well than I've seen in many years. Egmont have just released a whole host of them, now called "Summer Annuals", they're 64 page hard covers and are getting serious high street window display promotion in Waterstones, etc., far more so than ever before.

See the splendid Disney Princess one here:
http://www.amazon.co.uk/Disney-Princess-Summer-Annual-2009/dp/1405245174/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1247823238&sr=8-1

There are maybe a half dozen of these, covering popular characters. I was quite surprised at the scale of the launch.

Great blog, by the way - always an essential read.

Best,

- Rik

Lew Stringer said...

Yes, the Summer Annual has been around for a couple of years now. Usually tied in with a licensed property and mostly feature-based. I suppose it's a way to get into bookshops and away from the increasing restraints and problems of the news trade.

KlownKrusty said...

Lew,

That Princess Summer Annual is about half story content, maybe two-thirds. Haven't flicked through the others.

"... tied in with a licensed property"...? I'm not sure that's such a defining feature as it once was. Characters like Spider-Man and Dennis the Menace are mostly recruiting younger readers through their appearances in other media.

- R.

Lew Stringer said...

You win Rik. :) I've updated my blog with the info. Thanks.

I saw the Summer Annuals more as extensions of the Christmas annuals, rather than upgraded summer specials. However, as they're proliferating just as the summer special has died out I suppose it is really an evolution.

KlownKrusty said...

Hi Lew,

Thanks! I think "evolution" is a spot-on description of the transition from Summer Specials to Summer Annuals. And there was really no need to credit me!

I feel I should add that my point wasn't intended to belittle the excellent analysis you had originally made here. Your blog is a terrific resource, and it's always very well researched - I've been a reader for a long time.

I tend to find mainstream sources like the Guardian can be a little hasty in their clamour for the demise of comics, it brings out my feisty side!

Best,

- Rik

Peter Gray said...

now Iwant to see the back cover of the Biffo one on the trampoline...loved seeing the colour work on Korky under the sea..

love these kind of blog posts..
maybe a summer specials part 2
:) just showing how much I've enjoyed seeing this..

Lew Stringer said...

Some people are never satisfied Peter. :-) This has been a bumper blog and I've just updated it with a few more images so there won't be a sequel I'm afraid.

NP said...

Men's Health magazine (July cover date) decided to run a 'tone-up for the beach' special with a newly drawn fake 70's Summer Special cover on the lead page of the feature; so this may be he last ever 'traditional summer special' image to be published. No, I don't buy it myself, they sent me a free one for doing it!

Stephen said...

Thanks for a wonderful post, it brought back many memories.

I understand why the summer specials are no longer released, but it doesn't make it any easier to accept. I guess time stands still for no man, but when I think of the many wonderful memories I had of such summer specials, well it's just one more thing that has died out.

Lew Stringer said...

True Stephen, although no doubt there are other *new* things that today's kids will be getting nostalgic about in 40 years time. :)

Raven said...

Ooh, now I know the 1971 Valiant Summer special had a Ghostly Guardian adventure - one of my all-time favourite strips, beautifully drawn by Argentinian artist Julio Schiaffino, I think - I'll probably end up on a long quest to find an affordable copy. And hopefully it won't prove to be a text story! Or to have been, ahem, 'ghosted.'

I adored the chunky IPC Specials (lovely heady smell some of them had, too) but, for some reason, never bought the adventure ones pre-2000AD. Now they seem among the most appealing.

Lovely blog entry, this.

Lew Stringer said...

The Ghostly Guardian is a strip in the 1971 special, - but it's a fill in by Mike Lacey. Nicely done though!

Raven said...

Bumpkin Billionaires/Scared-Stiff Sam/Sid's Snake artist Mike Lacey?!

I think he was great, but I didn't know he did adventure strips, too. In Valiant, The Ghostly Guardian had a shadowy, macabre Lopez/Eric Bradbury look, so that's really interesting.

Lew Stringer said...

Gah! I meant BILL Lacey, Mike's Dad. I often get their names mixed up, sorry!

Raven said...

Oh, now I can see that. He drew Mytek the Mighty, didn't he? I can see his style fitting.

And I've just been picturing The Ghostly Guardian drawn in a Pete's Pockets stylee for the last half hour ...

Ted said...

Do you guys know that there's a Beano exhibition at the Comic Museum in London? It's to celebrate the 70th anniversary, starts July 30th as far as I know :)

Lew Stringer said...

Ted, that Beano exhibition was last year!

Adam said...

Hi there, sorry this is a comment on an old blog, but, I was wondering if anyone has any useful suggestions on how to store safely the Dandy Summer Specials as they are so large!

I would love to have them bundled in with my years worth of comics, but without folding them, I just do not have the space!

Any suggestions will be warmly welcomed!

Adam

Lew Stringer said...

I keep mine with my copies of TV21 and The Topper. If you don't have any other large comics, could you not place the specials across two equal piles of A4 comics? Or are your comics stacked upright?

Singlem said...

Wow, does this article about the comic summer specials bring back such happy memories for me! Growing up back in the late sixties, I was a complete comic buff, but what I especially loved was when the summer specials came out. And weren't some of them so wonderfully colourful too? I sometimes wish I had a time machine and I could go back to, say, 1969, to relive my comic-devouring childhood.

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