Free gifts (or supplements) in comics and story papers are as collectible as the publications themselves, and often far rarer due to them being discarded long ago. Therefore it's a pleasure to see Derek Marsden's Free Gifts In The Big Five, a hefty 256 page A4 softback book which relates in detail the history of gifts given away in the DC Thomson story papers.
Despite the "Big Five" of the book's title, the content actually deals with eight story papers, so we're getting even better value for money than we expected. Titles covered are Adventure, The Blue Bird, The Hotspur, The Red Arrow, The Rover, The Skipper, The Vanguard, and The Wizard. Each story paper has its own chapter, and the gifts are listed chronologically with a description of each item. The author goes into great detail on this and in lesser hands it could undoubtedly prove boring or stray off at tangents, but Derek Marsden (a semi-retired teacher) is a meticulous writer who hones in on the facts in a very precise and informative manner.
Mr. Marsden has certainly packed a lot into this book. The amount of research involved must have been very time consuming but the result is rewarding both for the reader and, I hope, for the author. The text is in a small type, but very legible, aided by the clear, unfussy layouts. There are numerous illustrations from comics and story papers of the day showing advertisements for the free gifts which are a joy to behold in their own right as they're so lively and well designed. In the centre of the book is a 24 page full colour section showing the gifts themselves, all with reference numbers (eg: H19 for the 19th gift given in The Hotspur) so that the reader can easily cross reference them with the descriptions elsewhere in the book.
What soon becomes evident from the glorious items on display is how superior they were compared to the cheap plastic toys bagged with modern comics. The gifts of the 1920s and 1930s were often informative (booklets, picture cards) and created specifically for that week's story paper. (Today's gifts are bought as a job lot and they often also appear with rival publications but with different packaging.) Even the less educational gifts way back when seemed to offer greater play value than the disc-launchers and plastic poo in modern comics. That said, to be fair, the story papers of the past were aimed at an older and perhaps more literate reader than the comics of today.
Naturally the passage of time has made some items seem unintentionally humourous today. Would a 21st Century kid be remotely interested in 'The Bumper Hill-Billy and Camp-Fire Song Book'? Could a comic now present 'The Queeriosity Book' without raising an eyebrow? On the other hand there is one gift shown that seems chilling today; an issue of The Blue Bird presenting a 'Lovely Gilt Swastika Charm' back in 1923 before the Nazis corrupted the symbol into a thing of evil.
Free Gifts In The Big Five is a fascinating insight into a time long passed and an essential purchase for anyone seriously interested in the history of comics, story papers and/or related ephemera. If you wish to order a copy through your bookshop the cost is £30 and the ISBN is 0-9551978-0-5. Alternatively you could purchase a copy directly from the author for £20 plus p&p by e-mailing him at email@example.com