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Saturday, March 11, 2017

The big SMASH! revamp of 1969

As this week marks 48 years since IPC redesigned Smash! into a more traditional comic I thought I'd re-present this old article of mine from several years ago, with a few revisions and additions...

This week, 48 years ago, (Saturday 8th March 1969) UK newsagents saw the launch of IPC's revamped Smash! weekly. The comic had been in continuous publication since early 1966 by Odhams, and had contained a balanced mixture of funnies, adventure strips, Marvel reprints and even included the Batman newspaper strip in most issues. Now under IPC's charge, radical changes had arrived.

The International Publishing Corporation (IPC) had begun in 1963 following the merger of three of the UK's major publishers, George Newnes, Odhams Press, and Fleetway Publications who joined the Mirror Group to form IPC. Five years later in 1968 IPC Magazines Ltd was formed to gather the comics and magazines it had acquired under one publishing company.

The IPC influence had been gradually infiltrating Smash! several months before the new look issue by introducing war strip Sergeant Rock Paratrooper and wrestling series King of the Ring. Before then, Smash! had pretty much ignored the traditional UK adventure fare of war and sport serials. The adventure series it had contained had been fantastic in nature, from the British superhero Rubber Man to the time-traveling series The Legend Testers. Smash! had been an escapist comic, non-establishment in many ways, and readers loved that aspect of it. IPC's takeover heralded a move to neuter Smash's maverick nature and turn it into a standard boy's adventure weekly.

Seven of the old Smash strips carried over into the relaunch issue: four funnies (Bad Penny; Swots and the Blots; both with Leo Baxendale now at the helm, plus Wiz War, and Percy's Pets) and three adventure strips (Bunsen's Burner; King of the Ring, and Sergeant Rock Paratrooper - the latter being a reprint from Lion). Most of the 40 page comic featured brand new characters, although some had been intended for a new comic called Blackjack that never got past the dummy issue stage. 

With the revamp, even the cover numbering was dropped, effectively making the redesigned Smash! feel like a totally new comic, as was the intention of course.Under Odhams, Smash! had been read by both boys and girls but IPC's attitude was to compartmentalise their comics, so the new Smash! was toplined as "Britain's Biggest Boys' Paper", effectively telling all the girls to push off, which seemed unfair. The revamp also brought about other strange decisions, such as dropping Ken Reid's The Nervs and Mike Higgs' The Cloak, - two popular and uniquely funny strips that didn't fit the narrower parameters that IPC had for their humour strips. (I was told by insiders that an internal memo went around IPC that The Nervs should never be reprinted in any of their comics because new management considered it too vulgar. Sure enough the strip never was reprinted or revived.)
A few months after The Cloak ended Mike Higgs was writing and drawing Space School for the new Whizzer and Chips. However it was an uneasy and relatively short tenure, with the strip only lasting for a year. The freedom that Mike had enjoyed on The Cloak, developing characters and serials, was denied him and as the editor wanted Mike to adapt to more of a IPC house style, which Mike was reluctant to do, he left the comic. It had been short-sighted and poor treatment by management towards such an inventive talent.
Although IPC still had a licence to reprint Marvel strips at that time, the Marvel material was also dropped for the Smash! relaunch. With a new logo too, the new Smash! was totally unrecognisable from the comic it had been just seven days earlier. However, despite all this, it was a strong publication due to the arrival of new characters and top quality artists who had never worked for the comic before.

Leading the comic were dynamic covers by Geoff Campion, one of Fleetway's major artists, illustrating the new Warriors of the World feature. (These were numbered, presumably in an attempt to fool newcomers into thinking Smash! was a new comic.) Inside, the first strip was Master of the Marsh, - a serial about unruly schoolkids being brought to book by "wildman of the fens" Patchman. It was drawn by Solano Lopez, known for his Kelly's Eye strip in Valiant.

The rest of the comic's new strips included the tepid World-Wide Wanderers about a football team comprised of racial stereotypes; Rebbels on the Run concerning the three Rebbel brothers who run away from the orphanage (nicely drawn by John Stokes); and His Sporting Lordship, drawn by Doug Maxted, which proved to be hugely popular as working class Lord Henry Nobbs embarked on numerous sporting achievements week by week.
However the two strips that remain memorable for most comic fans were Cursitor Doom and The Incredible Adventures of Janus Stark.

Cursitor Doom was a mystic investigator, fighting "foes beyond the comprehension of other men". It was drawn by long time Fleetway artist Eric Bradbury who drenched the series in dark brooding menace. An absolutely perfect choice to illustrate a series such as this.

The new editor of Smash! probably expected Janus Stark to be a hit as the first episode ran to five pages, - an unusual privilege in those days. Episode one recounted the origin of the Victorian escapologist, with all the grime and poverty of the era superbly illustrated by Solano Lopez.
For myself (and others as I've since discovered) Janus Stark was the main reason to keep buying this new version of the comic. The Victorian setting added a mystique to the story and Lopez's depictions of the somewhat demonic-looking Janus Stark using his pliable limbs to escape imprisonment brought a real sense of suspense to the stories. Unlike previous Smash hero Rubber Man, Janus Stark didn't actually have rubber bones, so his feats of escapology were often difficult struggles that kept the reader engrossed.
Overall, Smash! had lost a great deal in the revamp, - its swingin' sixties demeanour, most of its pop culture references, its sense of anarchy, the chatty fan scene of its letters pages (replaced by standard reader's jokes) and its unique identity. Admittedly with the 1960s drawing to a close changes were undoubtedly needed, but even today I'm not sure that making Smash! conform to the template of a traditional boys' weekly was ideal. Unfortunately, sales had been declining and a revamp was necessary, so bringing in editors from Fleetway, IPC tried to emulate the successful format of Lion and Valiant

Ideally, it might have been better if the new editors had retained the talents of Ken Reid and Mike Higgs, instead of dismissing them for no good reason. Both creators had built up a loyal following only for them to suddenly have their income taken away on the personal whims of old-fashioned editors who didn't appreciate what inventive, funny, creators they had on their hands. (I don't think Ken was employed by IPC again until he created Sub for Scorcher, many months later.) 

As it turned out Smash! only ran for another two years before merging into ValiantIn 1970 industrial action plagued IPC, with various comics skipping occasional weeks. By November it caused Smash! and several other weekly IPC comics to vanish from the newsstands for two months, and this obviously impacted on profits. With readers having drifted away during the strike perhaps things never recovered when Smash! returned in January 1971 and the merger a few months later with Valiant may have been inevitable. 

In truth though, it's impossible to say whether Smash! would have survived if the strikes hadn't happened. IPC had clearly tried to make their version of the comic popular by using some of their top talents on it and, to be fair, although it was completely different from its previous incarnation, IPC's Smash! was still a very enjoyable comic in its own right. Perhaps, as kids, we would have warmed to it more if it had been launched as a totally new comic, and not traded on the name of one it no longer resembled? Even so, both versions of Smash! had their strengths and weaknesses and were both enjoyable on their own merits. 

UPDATE 2020: Rebellion are reviving Smash! in May 2020 with a one-off special. It'll be totally different from its two predecessors but it will feature new stories of the great UK characters such as The Steel Claw (from Valiant), Johnny Future (from Fantastic), and Cursitor Doom (from IPC's Smash!). Here's the cover to look out for...


Irmantas said...

Here are a couple of small details about the Nervs: Ken Reid’s notes say that on Jan 14th, 1969 Albert Cosser (Cos) told him on the phone that Fleetway cancelled The Nervs because they didn’t like the feature as such.

Ken surely wasn’t the only reason why they disliked The Nervs because he only illustrated the last 23 episodes and wrote none of the scripts: all were supplied by Walt Thorburn, except for the “Cigar” episode which, according to Ken’s notes, was by S. Jacob.

Lew Stringer said...

As The Nervs had been running for three years when Cos was in charge it sounds like Cos was doing the bidding of the management when he made that call. Same thing happened to Mike Higgs, except Cos got office junior Steve Moore to make the call because Steve and Mike were friends.

Very shortsighted of Smash's new management (Jack LeGrand I believe) to drop those strips, and those creators.

SID said...

Hi, Lew.

Not to knock the pre-vamp Smash!, I do like the revamp version. To me it was what an IPC comic should be. Sad that it had to be merged with Valiant

Lew Stringer said...

It certainly fitted the IPC formula, Sid. It's just a shame they felt it had to.

SID said...

I understand what you mean, Lew.

To me, it did look IPC really wanted to close the comic and launch a new one (Blackjack perhaps?) and then someone had the brilliant idea of completely revamping it instead. Possibly so that they can retain as much of the existing readership as possible rather than having to create a new one from scratch?

And if they had to mould Smash! into a more traditional style, would it have been better if it had fitted in with the likes of Buster or Whizzer and Chips?

John Pitt said...

Superb article, Lew, telling me lots of background information that I didn't previously know. I didn't actually buy a single copy of the new Smash, much to my regret now, as I have seen in the blogs just what an excellent comic it was in its own right!

Lew Stringer said...

If you find any copies at reasonable prices, John, they're worth buying if only for Leo Baxendale's Swots and Blots. Having said that, there were some fill-in episodes by Les Barton and Terry Bave so you have to make sure which issues are his. I'll post a list on this blog at some point when I have time.

Sid, from what I gather, Fleetway were going to launch Blackjack, and Odhams were going to launch Spitfire, but when IPC took firmer control both ideas were shelved. Yes, I suppose they thought a revamped Smash! would retain a lot of the readers, and I'm sure it did, but most people I know seem to have dropped it. (I was on and off with it myself but I have all of the issues now.)

Yeah, I think the new Smash! would have been better had it been more like Buster, which had an even humour/adventure ratio like the Odhams Smash! had. Retaining The Nervs and The Cloak at the expense of The World-Wide Wanderers and Rebbels on the Run would have helped.

Turning it into a twee comic like Whizzer and Chips would have been a disaster in my opinion so I guess I should be grateful they turned it into a Valiant clone instead.

paddykool said...

I suppose by the time of the new Smash, i was too "grown-up" to notice . I was 17 by then and into my music and girls.My Marvels were in a box beneath my bed and I'd noticed that Steve Ditko was gone from Spider-man. The glory days of Wham, Smash, Pow , Fantastic and Terrific were over for me by then and Tony Roche had already done his final issue of "Heroes Unlimited". I was done! I dumped comics for a while before I discovered the undergrounds which by some magic revived my ideas about comics at art college.Years later while buying and selling on ebay I came across a cache of this new Smash and as you say , it was a very different animal to the one I had remembered.Not knowing the background politics , which you have kindly supplied , I had no idea what had happened. That is one of the joys of your blog , Lew...all that unknown detail.

Lew Stringer said...

Thanks, Paddykool. Yes, age certainly plays a difference. I stopped buying most UK comics when I was 16, simply because I'd grown out of them, and didn't start collecting them again until I was 22 and viewing them with a professional eye. I'd continued to buy American comics, undergrounds, etc throughout that period though.

The change in Smash! was very drastic from the last issue in "series one" (for want of a better term) and the first new-look issue. Initially I was swept along with the newness of it, but the realisation soon kicked in that my old favourites were gone. I was nearly 10 at the time so I was still the target audience.

Robert Carnegie said...

The Cursitor Doom page ( wonder what his parents were thinking) has a moment like the "Mr Benn" cartoon on TV, except that apparently came out 2-3 years later, so it's just coincidence... "Suddenly, as if by magic, the master appeared." Halfway down the stairs, so, I have an idea how the trick was done. He came down the stairs.

it seems that "Mr Benn" started out as a short series of books, but if they'd been a massive hit then the cartoon would have been on ITV. So maybe instead the premise of Cursitor was revised to make "Mr Benn".

Nutty Big D said...

2nd para should read "this week, 48 YEARS ago"

Lew Stringer said...

Ha! You're quite right, Nutty. How did I make that mistake? Thanks. I'll correct that.

paul Mcscotty said...

Great post on one of my all-time favourite comics . I loved Odhams comics (well Smash, Pow and Wham) as a kid (and still do even now, as an old git) they were so anarchic and I remember "older" kids loving the Odhams titles probably for The Cloak, Ken Reid and the Marvel reprints - which made it more exciting to like them as awe kid. Saying that I was never (at that age, abut 7-9 years old) a big fan of the Marvel reprints (despite a few years later with Mighty World of Marvel issue 1 being a “fanatic”) as there were too many panels all crammed into a few pages, and I preferred DCs Superman at that age - I much preferred the funnies and in particular Leo Baxendale and Ken Reid’s work (even although Kens works "scared" me a bit as kid but I loved it).

I vividly remember heading to the local newsagents with my mate Alan Gardner to pick up the first Fleetway edition of "Smash" and remember being surprised by just how much it had changed, all I was aware of was that it had a free gift and as a regular reader of Odhams "SMASH" I just picked it up as normal not really taking account of the "real" changes. Despite being miffed Ken Reid was dropped I loved the comic and got in most weeks up until it merged with Valiant (which I got every week anyway) In retrospect they should have kept Ken Reid and the Cloack (the latter having a cult status with students) but I can see now that the Cloak didn’t really fit with IPC/Fleetways ethos.

Lew Stringer said...

That's a fair point about cramming too many Marvel panels onto a page, Paul. The thinking behind it was to make the comic look better value for money, and more like a traditional British comic, by rearranging two American pages into one British page, but it wasn't what those pages were designed to look like. (Some of the redesign was very poor in places.)

It sounds like you may have enjoyed Fantastic and Terrific as those comics reprinted the pages as intended (albeit with some edits for Americanisms etc).

SID said...

Surely the prevamp version was nearer to Buster so I wonder why change it so drastically to bring it in line with Valiant and Lion and not Buster? Apart from keeping more of the female readership, more of the comedy strips (more popular than some of the adventure strips?) could have survived and ultimately benefitted Buster in case of a merger?

Or am I missing something here?

Lew Stringer said...

I think IPC probably wanted to build up their adventure comics line to compete with D.C. Thomson. Also, I've heard that IPC's editors hadn't thought a lot of the Odhams comics so wanted to get as far away from that style as possible.

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