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Friday, October 31, 2008

Firework Fear

Following my previous posting on firework comics I received an e-mail from Blimey! Blog reader Irmantas with attached scans of the 1970 firework issue of Buster. What makes this issue so fascinating is it shows the shift in attitude towards safety with fireworks. Had there been complaints about the previous year's Whizzer and Chips perhaps, showing kids holding fireworks?

Comics had published warnings before this, usually as notices on the reader's pages, but, to my knowledge, never so blatantly within the strips before. This Buster's Dream-World strip tries to be cautionary but it comes across as fear mongering and depressing. You can feel the humour leaving the comic as you read it. A very odd story indeed.

And what's that bit about not drying out fireworks in a gas oven? I'd never even heard of such a practice until I just read that strip. Talk about putting ideas into kids' heads! Any disturbed little perisher who enjoyed throwing bangers would have a field day being introduced to the concept of blowing up a gas cooker.

Thus began the gradual shift away from firework issues of UK comics. However, the last several years have seen the rise of Halloween-themed comics instead. This week's Beano has a special eight page Beanotown's Most Haunted strip by Nigel Parkinson, whilst The DFC carries a fantastically atmospheric strip by Ben Haggarty and John Welding titled Will Skoggin's Skull: One Man Short.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Firework Fun

As I covered Firework comics quite extensively last year (see here) I won't be going into them in any depth this time round. However, here are two celebratory "Bonfire night" covers for your amusement.

The 1969 issue of Whizzer and Chips above is not only the first Firework edition of that comic but is only the third issue of the long running title. (You'll notice my ten year old self scribbled "No.3" on the cover as IPC never bothered numbering most of their weeklies.) The artwork is by Mike Lacey. Note the kids recklessly holding fireworks in their hands. Whilst some fireworks could be hand-held (thanks to a wooden handle fitted to the end, - yes, wooden, and painted wood at that) the ones in the strip would burn the hands of anyone holding them that close to the flame. Yet as kids we knew that it was only comic fantasy. It's only in revisiting those strips with adult sensibilities and fears that they seem irresponsible. Real kids knew better than to imitate their comic strip equivalents.

Five years earlier, the cover of the 1964 Firework issue of The Beano (drawn by Dudley Watkins) had fireworks going off in all directions. It's a shame that knee-jerk fears of children copying comics led to the Firework issues fizzling out. A rocket streaming across a cover or "BANG!" sound effect was a good way to brighten up a strip.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Ken Hunter 1917 - 2008

Peter Gray on the Comics UK Forum reports the sad news that another veteran British comic artist died last week. Ken Hunter, whose strips adorned many issues of The Topper and The Beezer died on October 20th aged 91.

I'm afraid I know very little of the range of Mr.Hunter's work, but I do remember being completely absorbed by two serials he drew for The Topper during 1967-68. During this period the comic ran a full colour adventure serial on its centre pages and due to its huge tabloid format this allowed for large dynamic panels emphasizing the excitement.

The two serials I remember of Ken Hunter's were Circus of Fear and Back to Zero (which later became Back From Zero). Circus of Fear was the sort of mystery yarn that DC Thomson excelled at; an unknown saboteur was causing mysterious "accidents" at a circus and young Jimmy Comet, who had inherited the circus, had to get to the bottom of it. This gave Ken a fabulous opportunity to do great figurework on the circus performers and animals.

Back to Zero told of a tropical valley in Antarctica inhabited by prehistoric creatures and a race of ice men led by King Zero. This was a sequel to the discovery of the valley in Kingdom of Zero that appeared in the comic in 1957. Back to Zero (Topper 787, March 2nd 1968) began the story of the return to the valley in order to bring back a Pterodactyl to prove to the world the valley existed. Very similar to King Kong in plot, the pterodactyl eventually goes on a rampage in London. Again, the strip provided Ken with the chance to draw creatures in dramatic settings with large powerful artwork.

As well as his dramatic work, Ken Hunter also drew humour strips for DC Thomson in a similar but lighter style, such as Sir Laughalot and Big Fat Boko for The Topper. Amongst his other very popular adventure strips were The Iron Eaters and The Jellymen, for The Beezer.

See Peter Gray's blog for more fantastic Ken Hunter pages:

Super School does well in poll

Just a quick blog today to thank any reader of this blog who voted for my new strip in The Beano online popularity poll. In its first week of publication Super School had 23% of the votes! Billy Whizz just pipped it to top position with 25%, although his button is the default setting. (Dennis the Menace, Bash Street Kids and other well established strips are not included in the poll in order to give relatively newer strips a fairer chance.)

I'm really pleased that Super School did so well straight out of the gate and I hope that it can maintain its popularity in the weeks to come.

The third appearance of Super School can be seen in The Beano No.3456 this coming Wednesday (29th October) as they meet Gnasher! £1.25

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Les Barton 1923 - 2008

I'm sorry to report that cartoonist and comic artist Les Barton has died. He passed away at his Nursing Home yesterday (October 20th) after a long illness, aged 85.

I'm sure that other comic enthusiasts more familiar with his long career will be publishing their tributes to Mr.Barton, but to my mind he will always be "The I-Spy artist". Back in 1969, aged 10, I would look forward to every Friday to read the latest installment of comedy-action serial I-Spy in the Sparky. This was a strip in a similar vein to Odhams' Eagle Eye and The Cloak, but it had its own unique charm thanks to the clear penmanship of its artist Les Barton.

Remembered fondly by many, the mysterious I-Spy never showed his face. All we saw was the trenchcoat and hat, - and the countless gadgets and weapons that sprung forth for every occasion. Other artists handled the strip a few years later, including the excellent Brian Walker, but for me it was the original I-Spy artist Les Barton who set the premise and whose strips I remember most.

Moving on from I-Spy in 1971 Les began drawing a new strip for Sparky entitled The Wonderful World Inside Ma Kelly's Telly. This was a very similar concept to The Tellybugs that had appeared in Smash! five years earlier, although its roots can be traced back earlier to The Numskulls in The Beezer. In Ma Kelly's Telly, tiny creatures operating the tv and acting out its programmes from inside the box, whilst the viewers are oblivious to the proceedings.

Les also worked for the IPC comics in the 1970s but he was also very busy outside comics as a gag cartoonist. Recent years have seen his work in Private Eye but his long career included spots in Reveille, Blighty, Punch, Tit Bits, Men Only, Daily Mirror, The Oldie and others. He sold his first cartoon in 1944 and was one of the longest standing members of the Cartoonist Club of Great Britain, where he attended the first meeting (on April Fool's Day 1960) and held the position of treasurer for over 20 years.

During the final days of his illness, Les dictated a letter to his son to be sent to the Cartoonists Club of Great Britain in order to thank them for their "many cards and cheerful messages during my incarceration (care of Her Majesty's NHS)". It's a warm and heartfelt letter showing how much he appreciated the camaraderie of his fellow cartoonists over the years. It tells of the highs and lows as experienced by everyone in the business and ends on a positive note: "I wouldn't change a damn thing".

My thanks to Steve Bright for passing on this information and sad news.

More information:

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Review: The Bumper Book of Roy of the Rovers

Of all the compilations of classic British comic reprints that have appeared over the last few years this book is easily my favourite, - and I don't even like football! What makes The Bumper Book of Roy of the Rovers a standout volume is the attention given to its production. Editor (and ex-Oink! contributor) David Leach has lavished care over the book so that it actually looks and feels like an early 1970s Fleetway annual. From the hardback glossy cover, with its retro spine design, to the interior pulp paper stock, the book looks like it's just fallen through a time portal from the Seventies.

The contents are a selection of Roy of the Rovers strips and features from old annuals dating from 1958 to 1971. Considering the theme is solidly football, there's still a great variety of material here: several Roy strips, illustrated features, the Bobby Charlton Story, "Footer Giants of Foreign Teams", and even Roy Race explaining the offside rule from 1960. (A disclaimer in the indicia points out "football rules are not those of the present day".)

For added period charm Leach has included various advertisements from the weekly comics of the day, including one of those anti-smoking strips by Tom Kerr and a Wall's Shoot ice cream competition to "Win a Year's Free Comics!". It's a sign of the times that none of the six comics displayed exist any more, nor does Wall's Shoot. Whilst these ads never actually appeared in the annuals, their addition to this book is a welcome part of its nostalgia.

Unlike previous Titan reprint books which bleached out any defections and "tanning" from the old comics (and subsequently lost some of the finer lines in the artwork too unfortunately) The Bumper Book of Roy of the Rovers preserves the "tanning" in order to keep as much of the linework as possible. Some pages have also been toned deliberately I believe, but with subtlety. This, to me, is a bonus as it adds to the retro aspect of the book and actually makes it look like it's decades old. This technique has been used on some other books (such as the recent Eagle Cutaways one) but not so effectively and natural looking as it is here. These strips were designed for pulp paper and to have used a slick higher grade stock with defections bleached out would have ruined the presentation and defeated the object of it being a nostalgic item.

At £12.99 The Bumper Book of Roy of the Rovers is about twice as expensive as this year's annuals, but because of its retro authenticity is worth every penny. (I'm sure you'll find it cheaper online anyway.) I should also mention that the colours of the strips have the same sort of vivid style as those of 1950s annuals, - a printing technique I thought was almost impossible to achieve in modern books. I hope it proves to be a winner for Titan Books and that similar items in this format will follow.

The Bumper Book of Roy of the Rovers. 120 pages. RRP £12.99 Published by Titan Books.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Super School: Genesis of a new Beano strip

Over a year ago, in late summer 2007, I was contacted by Alan Digby, editor of The Beano, to enquire if I'd be interested in drawing a brand new strip for the weekly. Naturally I jumped at the chance, as long as I could fit it in with my other workload. I'd drawn a strip for the Beano only once before, - a fill-in on a Fred's Bed strip that eventually appeared in last year's Christmas issue. (Another fill-in, this time on Ivy the Terrible, would appear a few months later.) Several years ago I'd also contibuted several strips to the Fun-Size (digest) editions of Beano and Dandy, - and drew a few pages for a Beano Summer Special about 10 years ago, but that was my sum total of contributions for DC Thomson, which had always proven a tough nut to crack.

Alan explained that he'd been looking through my back catalogue (presumably my website and not a huge secret database DC Thomson keep on people) and he thought I'd be ideal to draw a superhero comedy strip they were preparing. The working title for the strip was The Ultras and basically it would feature a classroom of young kids learning to use their super-powers.

Alan's script arrived which set up the premise and he asked for character designs for the principal characters (above). At this early stage, the character who would become Waterboy was called Moon Boy (hence the crescent moon on his outfit in the early episodes) and the shape-changer was called Nature Boy (now Safari Sam).

Invisible Isobel was specified to be an ethnic character, which was a positive step in my opinion. Her design was the one I liked most. I based her hairstyle on that of Kym Marsh from Coronation Street, assuming it'd be a style the kids would consider "cool".

Stinkbomb was the class smelly kid, but he'd be using his powers for good. I gave him a skunk-like white stripe in his mop of hair. I suspect Stinkbomb may prove to be the most popular of the bunch.

With the character designs approved I penciled the first story (above). As with all new strips, I sent the pencils to the editor for approval first. No problems, so it was on with the inks (below) and colours. (I've only coloured the first two episodes. The rest will be coloured by Thomson's excellent in-house staff.)

A second script soon followed from Alan and I drew that up too. The modern method of DC Thomson comics is for new strips to be tested by a focus group. As I understand it, a dummy issue is presented to a selected class or group of children and they're asked their opinions on the new material. The findings on The Ultras were mainly positive, although a title change was suggested.

This initial process took quite a while, and Ultras didn't receive the final go-ahead until several months after I drew those first two episodes. Once the editor had the green light the strip was scheduled for the next "revamp" issue of The Beano, which wouldn't be until October 2008. Plenty of time to turn around the scripts that Alan was now sending to me on a regular basis.

The strip was still called Ultras in the scripts until a few months ago, and even mentioned as such in The History of The Beano as a forthcoming new series. Then the decision was made to change it to the more explanatory Super School (sub-tiled "Teaching Tomorrow's Heroes") and, with the new logo in place, the first episode was scheduled for The Beano No. 3454, dated October 18th 2008.

The first episode appeared this week in spectacular fashion due to The Beano changing format to a high gloss stock and sharper printing. The new paper defines the colours properly (the strip looks exactly as it did on my Mac) and overall is a brighter comic. The upgraded format has necessitated a price rise from 99p to £1.25 (yep, The Beano's broken the pound barrier) but a price rise was inevitable anyway, glossy printing or not. Hopefully the readers will still enjoy their brighter Beano and the stories within. (Cover for the current issue, below, by Nigel Parkinson.)

The first episode of Super School is introductory and the pace picks up in weeks to come. I can't divulge too much yet, but Beano tripe-hound Gnasher guest stars in a few weeks, and a brand new superhero joins the class as a regular character in the New Year. (One episode coming up in January features LOTS of new super-kids. It's going to be fun to draw but I reckon it'll use up a bottle of ink!)

I'm currently inking the strip for the Christmas issue. Sneak preview below! As you can see I've designed the logo for this one, complete with traditional snow on the lettering.

New strips that have longevity aren't that common in The Beano but hopefully Super School will prove popular with the readers. At present it's leading in the online Beano poll this week, but that could change at the click of a button. Whatever the outcome I'm having fun drawing it and I hope some of that enjoyment transfers over to the readers. As they said in the Sixties: Never Be Without A Beano!

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Christmas is Coming!

My apologies for the scarcity of posts on this blog of late. I'm currently snowed under drawing strips for the Christmas comics. ("Snowed under" - geddit? Oh yeah, you did. Okay...)

I'm just finishing the inks to a double-length Christmas Team Toxic story for Toxic No.130 (see the slap-up feed above) and then it'll be straight onto drawing the festive Super School strip for the Christmas Beano.

Then it'll be on with a non-festive Brickman, plus Mini-Marvels, then.... what's that you ask? What's Super School? Find out in tomorrow's bright new-look Beano (No.3454, dated October 18th) where the first episode appears of a brand new series!

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Photos from the Birmingham International Comics Show 2008

Another year another BICS (Birmingham International Comics Show). Amazing how time flies as this was the third annual event organised by the BICS crew. As with the previous year, the venue once again was the ultra-modern Think Tank at the Millennium Point just outside the city centre. Apparently numbers were up, with over 3,000 attendees. The atmosphere seemed very comfortable and laid back, which is a testament to the hard work of event organizers James Hodgkins, Shane Chebsey and Andy Baker.

2008 marked 40 years since Phil Clarke, Mike Higgs and Steve Moore organised the very first UK comics convention in Birmingham. Unfortunately there wasn't anything on the bill this year to celebrate that fact but that's only a minor gripe. (Phil and Mike were in attendance though, so there was a link to the original Con.) The weekend was efficiently run and carried a good variety of exhibitors and panel discussions to reflect the current comics scene.

I'm still catching up with work (and sleep) but here's a few photos from the weekend. As always, click on the photos to enlarge them, click on the lighlighted names to visit their websites...

1: Simon Woolford and Beano / Toxic / DFC artist/writer Laura Howell at the MC2 table.

2: Matt Yeo, editor of Toxic, showcasing the latest issue of new UK independent adventure anthology Bulletproof.

3: Tim Perkins (of the Wizards Keep website) sketching on the cover of the convention special issue of Bulletproof.

4: Gary Northfield at the book signing for his hilarious Derek the Sheep hardback collection.

5: The Kryptonite Factor teams embark on the entertaining comics quiz.

6: Roger Langridge with his excellent range of comics including Fred the Clown.

7: David Ballie and Sean Azzopardi at one of the small press tables.

8: Mike Collins, (artist of Classical Comics' A Christmas Carol) sketching Batman for a fan.

9: Dave Windett at The DFC table discussing his forthcoming strip Lazarus Lemming with a reader.

10: Part of The DFC panel: The Etherington Brothers, Emma Vieceli, and Andrew Wildman.

11: David Hitchcock with his latest publication Gothic, - a tabloid newsprint comic. (Yes, a "proper comic" like wot they used to be!)

12: Husband and wife writing team supreme John Reppion and Leah Moore at the Accent UK table.

13: A view of the convention bar during the day, practically empty, as all the fun happened on the evening pub crawl between Bennetts, The Briar Rose, and the all-night Subside rock bar.

14: If only Tony Lee could overcome his shyness. Bevis Musson (creator of the highly amusing Dead Queen Detectives) basks in his glow.

15: Hell, boy, it's Duncan Fegredo after a hard day's sketching.

16: The Exhibition Suite at the Think Tank on the Sunday afternoon.

17: Charlie Adlard and Phil Winslade (who were both part of the bostin' Giant Size Band Thing with vocalist Liam Sharp and Paul H. Birch on bass guitar at the launch party) sketching like demons on the Sunday.

18: The Exhibition Hall late on Sunday afternoon as the event began to wind down after a very busy weekend.

Above: Some of the items I picked up over the weekend. I'll be reviewing them (and the latest issues of the ever-improving Crikey!) on this blog soon.

Monday, October 06, 2008

New UK Marvel Comic launches

A photo-report on the Birmingham Comic Show will appear on this blog soon but for now here's news from the event of a brand new British comic coming out later this week. Marvel Heroes launches on Thursday! Published by Panini, the full colour comic includes all new comic strip material. As I understand it the comic will feature two seven page stories per issue, plus features, in a format similar to Panini's Eagle Award winning Spectacular Spider-Man. The contents will highlight the Marvel heroes who have appeared in Marvel movies of recent years, such as Iron Man and The Hulk. A review of issue one will appear on this blog soon.

Panini have been using the title for the Marvel Heroes Annual for the past few years. The latest edition of which is on sale now. (Although unlike the new comic, the strip material in the annual are reprints from the Marvel Adventures line.)

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