Sunday, January 30, 2011

Top Spot - The 'Clint' of 1958?


"Comics aren't just for kids any more" was the type of statement that you may have read a lot over the past 25 years in various articles on comics, most recently with the launch of Clint. Truth is, comics for adults aren't a recent phenomenon. As most readers of this blog will know, the very first British comics were aimed at adults. Over the years it became accepted that children were a more viable audience and the tone shifted, but from time to time there have always been various attempts to target the adult market.

One such comic was Top Spot, a weekly published by the Amalgamated Press in 1958. Like many attempts to capture the adult reader it didn't really catch on, lasting just 58 issues before merging into Film Fun. However, it was a curious item that deserves to be remembered.

The target audience for Top Spot was adult males, specifically late teens, early twenties, and to attract this demographic the paper (for it was more than a comic) used a mixture of tough comic strips and prose stories, articles on such items as jazz and sport, jokes, and titillating photos of glamorous models. Just look at the cover to issue 4 below; Brigitte Bardot's cleavage, sport, a bloke getting his head kicked in, and a robot looking at a lady's frillies. Could a comic be any more manly than that?


Inside, Top Spot ran a strip featuring Fabian of the Yard in Manhunt, with such tough talking dialogue as "I want him on the end of my fists before I dock him!" which probably means something entirely different today.


Other comic strips would feature topics such as war, sport, westerns, true life adventure and historical drama. They even ran The Monty Story in photo and picture strip before Eagle's better-remembered Frank Bellamy version of a few years later.


The tone of the strips was more mature than those seen in the children's comics, with slightly more complex plots and wordier dialogue. The illustrations were top quality, though sadly uncredited. Here's a snapshot of The Greedy Gun from issue 4, by Italian artist Renato Polese...


The writers and artists often didn't miss a trick to show a bit of female leg where possible, such as in Ten Little Soccer Boys with artwork, I think, by Geoff Campion...


Even an adaptation of P.G. Wodehouse's A Bacon and Egg Affair by Cecil Orr featured a hint of a see-through nightie...


Covers of the early issues featured various glamour models...


...as did the centrespread pin-up (not so glamorous with rusty staples, admittedly)...


...and other pages would feature photos of models alongside jokes and comic strips...


Some features engaged the readers with believe-it-or-not type stories of other cultures, such as this item about zombies in Haiti!


I don't want to give the impression that Top Spot was a sleazy publication though. From the few issues that I have it appears to be a well produced comic paper, only slightly risque, with a higher standard of writing and art than many other comics of the time.


Top Spot tried to be all things to the young adult male readership it was pitched at, and was no doubt enjoyed by many. Perhaps it would have endured a longer run had it not fallen victim to the printers strike of 1959. That summer saw Top Spot and other publications appear infrequently, and when it returned to regular publication it limped on for a few months before merging into Film Fun in January 1960.

Most of the strip content was adventure based, although it seems there were some humour strips at times such as this one drawn by Paul White...


The early issues featured around 22 pages of comic strips out of 32 pages. By issue 13 it was down to 9 pages out of 28. Later in 1958 it was up to 15 pages of strip out of 28, so the content did seem to fluctuate with the comic changing direction slightly during its run. Later issues saw comic strips appear on the cover as it geared up for its merger with Film Fun...


Would Top Spot have survived for longer if it hadn't been affected by the strike? Impossible to say. Perhaps readers didn't like the mix of comics and cheesecake and it would have folded anyway? Perhaps lads in 1958 with fourpence ha'penny to spend would rather put it towards Tit Bits or Blighty, thinking themselves too old for comics? Who knows? Personally I would have loved a comic like this when I was 17. It's a shame that Top Spot didn't last as it may have encouraged a few other comics to gear their material towards an older readership. As it was, the 1960s and subsequent decades saw most publishers stick to their course of aiming comics at an increasingly younger age group, for better or worse.

There's more information about Top Spot at this excellent website:
http://www.dandare.info/history/TopSpot-notes.htm

17 comments:

Chris D said...

Very interesting. I'd never heard of it. I think any comic aimed at 18-21 year olds will only work if the actual readership is 12-16 year olds.

John Barleycorn Must Die said...

I remember my sisters boyfriend giveing me a pile of old, top spot's, for my comic colection when I was about six years old. My mum took them from me. I never did get them back.

Lew Stringer said...

Very true Chris. Kids like to feel they're not being talked down to, plus it helps to have the added factor of them feeling they're reading something a bit dangerous and grown up. Weekly UK comics used to have the attitude that if they were aimed at 7 to 11 year olds you wrote for the 11 year old and the younger ones would catch up. In recent years it's often the reverse; make sure that 7 year olds can understand every word, which unfortunately means the 11 year olds drop it for being too "babyish".

Anonymous said...

Lew

All I previously knew about Top Spot was that it existed, and was aimed at an older audience, so many thanks for this post.

David Simpson

John said...

Hi Lew,

Perhaps you will find some interesting info on Top Spot here:
-http://www.dandare.info/history/TopSpot-notes.htm
and here:
-http://www.technodelic.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk/Interviews/BrianWoodford.htm

Playhour editor David Roberts was the genius behind Top Spot, and for a couple of weeks he had his own page, interviewing celebrities before 'he fell ill' and moved on to other projects.
You will find some photographs of him talking to Diana Dors and other famous stars in the first couple of issues.

Brian Woodford said...

While David Roberts did indeed write some interview articles in the early days of Top Spot he was not its creator. TopSpot was the brainchild of Leonard Matthews and the original concept was for it be a male counterpart to the very success Valentine published by AP. I worked on TopSpot as an editorial assistant from its first issue when we had an extensive staff and put together the last issue as editor when we were down to just two people...myself and staff writer Edmund H. Burke.

Lew Stringer said...

Thanks for the info, Brian. It's always good to hear from people who worked on those old titles. Any idea why Top Spot didn't last longer? Do you think the market was overcrowded or perhaps the format wasn't quite right (eg: would it have been more popular as a glossy perhaps?).

George R said...

Hi Lew. Many thanks for your interesting blog. I have fond memories of Top Spot. I used to buy it when I was 12 and felt REALLY grown up reading it. I've forgotten what exactly was in it - just remember I really enjoyed it and was sad when it stopped. So your article was a real memory jogger.

Dave Wessels said...

Hi Lew,
Thanks for that credit on Norman Fox's 'The Greedy Gun', which was (as I now know) done by Italian artist Renato Polese. Amazing stuff!
Love your blog,

Take care,

Dave Wessels.

Lew Stringer said...

Thanks Dave!

Brian Goredema-Braid said...

Is it possible to buy any back issues of Top Spot?

Thanks

Brian Braid

briangb@sky.com

Brian Goredema-Braid said...

Do you know if it is possible to purchase any old copies of Top Spot?

Brian Braid

briangb@sky.com

Lew Stringer said...

I bought my few copies on eBay, Brian, so that may be your best bet. I rarely see anyone selling them though.

Ron Tiner said...

Top Spot was a creditable attempt to make comics grow up with their readers and I remember the first few issues very well. I seem to remember an adaptation of Stevenson's Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde with very atmospheric Victorian London locations. In my unreliable memory it was drawn by Dino Battaglia, but I've just checked - it was Robert Forrest I now think(?). Here's why I think it failed, though: Two reasons - 1) it was poorly printed on the cheapest paper (Ah! Perhaps the first issue or two slightly better - can't be sure) That went against the "grown-up" image because we had got used to The Eagle by then - glossy and coloured) 2) Through Eagle (and Express Weekly, and others) we had begun to see a new approach to comics art from Bellamy, Embleton and others - the page layouts were more substantial, the drawing more sophisticated - and the editors had enough respect for their readers to give artist and writer credits.
Maybe there's another reason... I now recall that I was attracted to the digest-size picture libraries - they contained picture-adaptations of popular novels of that time - spy stories, thriller and crime stories - because they were complete stories in a pocketable format (TopSpot wasn't such a convenient format).
I also recall an enormous range of Italian (I think) reprints in this and similar formats you could buy in Woolworths, featuring Hugo Pratt's "Captain Moko" and "Anna of the Jungle" and Breccia's "Vito Nervio" and loads of other stuff.
So... why did British comics die? Artists came from all over the world to draw British comics then. Nothing remains. Where oh where did it all go wrong!
I was going to add a few examples here, Lew, but can't see a means to do it.

Lew Stringer said...

Thanks for commenting, Ron. I think your assessment of why Top Spot failed is sound. I'd also venture that perhaps comics and girlie pin-ups were an uneasy mix and some readers might either feel embarrassed buying a comic with cheesecake shots, or embarrassed to buy a girlie mag with comic strips.

I'd argue that British comics didn't die though, considering that myself and others still make a living out of them. The format changed, and comics themselves mostly evolved into graphic novels and indie comics, but there's still a lot of stuff around. One reason you won't see many in newsagents now is that the retail giants became too greedy; not content with a percentage of the cover price, they also now charge thousands just for shelf positions. The more a publisher pays, the more prominent their comics are on the shelf... in theory. They don't always pass that info on to the staff in each branch.

Regarding posting images with your comments; I'm afraid that's not possible on Blogger.

See you on Saturday at the Bristol Comic Expo!

Ron Tiner said...

Well now.. When Top Spot came along, there was definitely a very great number of comics in the newsagents, and when I said that nothing remains now, you claim British comics didn't die. No, you're right, not quite. But just consider what the comics display in a newsagent's looked like in that year - 1958. I've made a quick list - from what I remember plus a bit of internet checking up. This is not a complete list, I feel sure, but look at the number of titles:
The Comet, The Sun, Eagle, Girl, Girl's Crystal, Mirabelle, Robin, Swift, Romeo, Roxy, Rocket, Tiny Tots, Topper, TV Comic, Mickey Mouse Weekly, Express Weekly, Lion, Tiger, Hotspur, Rover, Knockout, Bunty, Judy, ... plus the picture libraries I mentioned - Thriller Pic Lib., Super Detective Pic Lib., Cowboy Pic Lib., True Life Pic Lib., Love Story pic Lib.,. On top of those we had Classics Illustrated, Tarzan Adventures, and a host of other minor titles from publishers such as Micron, Miller and Top Sellers (Pocket Chiller Lib, Pocket War Story Lib, Cowboy Adventure Lib. Crime story Lib, etc. and pocket reprints of American newspaper strips like Flash Gordon, Big Ben Bolt, Dick Tracy; I addition to these regular periodicals, a lot of daily newspapers ran strip serials daily, and so did many magazines such as TitBits. Comics were alive and well...
Tare just the ones I can recall. Not dead: You're right. But I was simply reflecting that we certainly had a much richer choice then than there is now - and these are just the ones I can recall. I'm sure there are a lot I've missed out
If you visit Italy, you'll find it's still like that - well, almost. The publications have changed and grown with the times. Here they never did. Top Spot is a sad reminder that, somewhere, someone at least, saw that comics needed to mature. They didn't get it right, but it was, at least, an attempt.

Lew Stringer said...

I've had similar discussions to this lots of times but I'm not saying the industry is as healthy as it was, just that it's not dead. True, there are far less comics in newsagents now, but that doesn't account for graphic novels sold in bookshops and comic speciality shops, or comics sold at conventions and in comic shops.

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