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Thursday, January 29, 2009

Great Expectations 1965

Fans and pros alike have recently been admiring the fantastic job John M. Burns did illustrating the adaptation of Jane Eyre for Classical Comics. However, this isn't the first time that John has illustrated classic literature, as we see here.

Back in 1965 John was the artist on a serialization of Charles Dickens' Great Expectations for D.C. Thomson's girls' weekly Diana. This 24 page large format glossy publication was launched in 1963, a year before its more famous sister paper Jackie. As with most D.C. Thomson adventure titles, the line up of strips changed frequently to keep the comics fresh. Great Expectations began in Diana No.105, dated 20th February 1965. It ran for at least eight parts, but I'm not sure when it concluded. (It had ended before issue 128 anyway.)

Diana was a high quality comic with over half of its pages in full colour. Printed using the expensive Photogravure process, the same as Look and Learn and Eagle, it allowed artists to produce full colour painted artwork, as opposed to the the flat overlays used in most comics of the time.

I understand that John M. Burns had worked for Diana two years prior to this, illustrating Emily Bronté's Wuthering Heights for the comic in 1963. He'd also drawn Kelpie the Boy Wizard in Wham! in 1964, so was fast establishing himself as a quality illustrator. Later years would see him work on newspaper strips The Seekers and Modesty Blaise, and, amongst his many other achievements, drawing the sophisticated Countdown serial for the comic of the same name, The Tomorrow People for Look-In, and in recent times drawing Nikolai Dante for 2000AD. He is without a doubt one of the most skilled and accomplished artists to have graced British comics.

John Burns has never been shy about experimenting with his colour techniques for his strips. In Great Expectations he used earthy colours, greens and browns, which suited the story well. It was, perhaps, a little too dark in places, but credit must be given to Burns and his editor for presenting the strip in such a sophisticated way. A lesser editor might have demanded bright primary colours in every panel.

The latest issue of Crikey! ran an article on The Avengers strip that ran in Diana in 1967. The feature was illustrated with original art from the D.C. Thomson archives. As the company usually hold onto all their artwork, it's likely that Burns' Great Expectations original pages are also still safely preserved in the Dundee vaults. It'd be great to see the whole story reprinted one day, but probably unlikely.


Incidentally, Classical Comics is to publish its own adaptation of Great Expectations in March, with artwork by another UK veteran, John Stokes (who drew Fishboy in Buster). Details here:

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Comic oddities: Smash Fun Book 1971

By 1970 IPC's intention to dominate the children's comic market was in full swing. Smash!, which they'd inherited from Odhams in late 1968, had been turned from a balanced package of superhero, adventure, and humour strips into a more traditional boys' adventure weekly with a few humour strips as light relief.

IPC's revamped Smash! weekly had debuted in March 1969 (more on that here in a few weeks) but with Annuals produced so far in advance of publication, the Smash! Annual 1970 published in Autumn of 1969 year still had contents that reflected the pre-IPC Odhams version. It wasn't until a year later that IPC's Smash! Annual 1971 had contents and format that looked more like the average boys' annual such as Tiger or Lion Annuals.

Smash! Annual 1971 was a 160 page hardback reflecting the adventure-dominated content of the weekly. However, that same year saw the publication of a companion book, - a 96 page softback, all-humour title called Smash Fun Book.

Smash Fun Book 1971 seems to be quite a rarity, with no mention found on a web search apart from a few old eBay sales. I imagine many kids of the time may not even have known of its existence, as IPC were involved in industrial action from November 1970 through to February 1971, which saw several of the weeklies suspended, including Smash! Therefore advertising in the comics to promote the book was less than usual, (it was advertised in Smash! just five times) as the comics themselves were in limbo during the Christmas period.

IPC's reasons for producing two different Smash! books that year are unknown. At a guess, I imagine they knew from the Odhams letters pages that many of Smash's old readers used to be divided over "funnies vs adventure strips" and wanted to cater for both camps. The standard Smash! Annual included funnies as well, but the Smash Fun Book was 100% humour material.

The budget on the Fun Book was obviously lower than IPC's standard annuals. Softback, and on pulp paper with some appaling off-register spot colour, the book was almost 50% reprint. Included amongst the reprints were pages from Wham! and Buster, just a few years old, with characters names changed in a vain attempt to fool readers into thinking they were new. Leo Baxendale's The Tiddlers and Super Sir from the early Wham! weeklies became The Horrors and Puffing Billy, The Wacks became The Beat Boys, The Humbugs was re-Christened The Terrible Twins, and General Nitt and his Barmy Army became Sir Hector and his Hardnuts. (The same practice had been carried out in the Smash! Holiday Special of that year and in the weekly itself.) The Fun Book also reprinted Elmer and The Terrors of Tornado Street from Buster as, respectively, Wacker and The Terrors.

The reproduction of some of the reprinted strips was poor, but the quality of the brand new material in the book was high. The busy Mike Lacey cover featuring all the characters echoed the sort of covers that the Odhams books had produced. Inside, the book featured a handful of artists tackling several different strips. Leo Baxendale contributed just two strips: the Bad Penny and Sam's Spook stories near the front of the book, funny stuff as always. (A panel from Baxendale's Sam's Spook is below.) Further on in the book the same characters were handled by Terry Bave.

Mike Lacey contributed a few pages for the book, including The Touchline Tearaways and The Haunts of Headless Harry. Veteran artist Cyril Price (below) had several pages too, producing some distinctive work on Percy's Pets. (Price had been a regular artist on Georgie's Germs for Wham! but his career had spanned decades.)

The most prolific artist in the Smash Fun Book though was Terry Bave. He had been a contributor to Wham! in the mid-1960s (taking over Sammy Shrink from Dave Jenner) so at this time was still at an early point in his career. His contributions to the IPC funnies would be numerous, becoming one of their top artists. Even here, in 1970, his work on the Fun Book showed his clear storytelling ability. It's some of his best work of the period I think, with the highlight being a four page Swots and Blots strip including a full page drawing of a robot rampaging through the class.

Although the Smash! Annual continued past the demise of the weekly and into a 1976 edition, there was never a second Smash Fun Book. Presumably sales were not great. A pity, as its tidy format (just 25.5cm x 19cm) made it a nice stocking filler, - or might have done had it been advertised more perhaps. However, compared to the sturdy, better printed, and more established DC Thomson annuals, this 8/6d softback with its off-register colour and patchy repro of the reprints may have seemed poor value, dooming it from the outset. Nevertheless, the book remains a fun read and worth seeking out to add to your Smash collection.

Monday, January 26, 2009

The Penguin Book of Comics

I was bitten by the comic collecting bug very early in my life. From about the age of eight I started saving my comics. At that time Marvel were publishing a 68 page reprint called Fantasy Masterpieces which represented Golden Age (1940s) tales of Captain America, Sub-Mariner, and the original Human Torch. I thought it was a great comic and it made me appreciate that there had been comics around long before I was born.

Fantasy Masterpieces had given me (and thousands of other kids) a taste of a sense of history about American comics but there seemed to be nothing similar to educate us further. That was, until I saw The Penguin Book of Comics in my local WH Smith one day in 1971.

The Penguin Book of Comics had in fact first been published in 1967, but it was the updated 1971 version that was my first exposure to it. The outstanding cover by contemporary pop artist Alan Aldridge was what first caught my eye. Aldridge had basically copied characters from various points in comics' history but the composition and colour he'd used for his cover was its strength. Never again, to my knowledge, would the Silver Surfer, Tiger Tim, Tarzan,Weary Willie and Tired Tim and more appear in one illustration.

The book itself, a 272 page softback, featured lots of Aldridge's work inside too, in monochrome, with illustrated chapter numbers and various full page drawings. However the main point of the book of course was its information on the history of comics written by George Perry, then assistant editor of the Sunday Times Magazine. As far as I know, The Penguin Book of Comics was the first book of its type to cover the histories of American and British comics. (I'm sure someone out there will correct me if I'm mistaken.)

I had the book as a Christmas present in 1971, but for weeks before Christmas I'd regularly venture into Smiths and browse through a copy, totally engrossed by the full page images of comics from long ago. Here was a book that treated all comics equally; British weeklies, American comic books, and newspaper strips from both countries, plus the alleged origins of the caricature dating back to cave paintings from 4000 B.C!

In retrospect The Penguin Book of Comics tried to cover too much in its pages. There were also glaring omissions too. Apparently neither DC Comics nor D.C. Thomson would grant permission for artwork to be used in the book. (Although there was some artwork from DC Comics used in the 1967 edition.) Nevertheless, the book was an excellent introduction to the history of comics and really fired me up to learn more. The fact that it treated UK and US strips equally ensured that I always considered them equal too, and thankfully never went down the "our comics are best" alleyway. I was however particularly interested in the chapter on British comics as they seemed to have evolved quite considerably for each generation.

The Penguin Book of Comics
was incredibly inspirational for me, cementing my interest in comics at an age (12) when I might have otherwise lost interest in the medium. Copies still turn up on eBay and I would encourage anyone with a curiosity of comics history to buy it.

Since then of course there have been numerous books published on comics' heritage. Some have chosen to focus more thoroughly on one area, such as Paul Gravett's Great British Comics but I think the closest in terms to the Penguin book is the excellent The Essential Guide to World Comics by Tim Pilcher and Brad Brooks. Published by Collins and Brown in 2005 this 320 page softback covers the basic histories of comics from Britain, America, Japan, Scandinavia, Europe, and beyond.

With the millions of comics published over the decades, and the thousands of creators involved, the story of comics will never be complete. Happily this means that there will always be new areas for comic history books to cover that we can add to our already creaking bookshelves. More importantly, the legacy of comics will be kept alive for new collectors to discover.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Catching up...

My apologies for not updating this blog for two weeks. I've been juggling work, the flu bug, and an ongoing family commitment so blogging had to take a backseat. I can't promise it'll be back to normal at present unfortunately.

However, here's a few quick news items for now...

Steve Holland's superb blog Bear Alley reveals the contents for two upcoming books which reprint classic strips from TV Century 21 and Lady Penelope weeklies. Published by Reynolds & Hearn, Century 21 Volumes One and Two will include material from the peak of the comics' runs, including Mike Noble on Fireball XL5, Frank Bellamy on Thunderbirds, and Frank Langford on Lady Penelope. Amongst these gems of the 1960s is the Invasion of the Ants story from 1965. Here's an episode from that story, from TV Century 21 No.30, artwork by Mike Noble:


Andrew Wildman, who was an artist on Marvel UK's Transformers 20 years ago (and has done loads of other things since of course) is currently appearing in The DFC. Frontier: The Weird Wild West is written by Jason Cobley and illustrated by Andrew, proving that the weekly children's adventure strip is far from dead. Check out Andrew's website here for more info.


Sad news just in: artist and tv presenter Tony Hart has died, aged 83. Many will remember him from Vision On, the Sixties tv series for deaf children that even people with hearing watched and enjoyed. Many more will remember his character Morph, the Plasticine stop-motion character that began on tv in 1977. What's less known of this popular tv personality is that he designed the original Blue Peter logo, and, of interest to readers of this blog, was apparently also a comic artist. He drew strips for TV Comic in the 1950s, including Sooty and, as seen below, Packi the elephant.

Now, some may consider the title of this 1957 strip to be racist in a modern light. However, from examples I've seen, the strip was very good natured and inoffensive. The name is that of the elephant, not the Indian boy accompanying him. Tony Hart spent four years in India, which no doubt inspired this creation. When Blue Peter begain in 1958 Hart narrated and illustrated Packi the Elephant stories for the programme.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Happy New Year 1947 - Chips style

A belated and brief blog for the New Year as I'm currently laid low with that winter bug. Rather than rattle on about 2009 I thought it'd be fun to slip back in time 62 years to look at the New Year's edition of Illustrated Chips and The Joker from 1947...

From here on I'll refer to the comic merely as Chips, as that was what it seemed to be mostly regarded as, by readers and editors. One of Britain's longest running comics, this issue was the 2,800th edition of Chips, - a record rarely matched by other comics. The cover stars were as always Weary Willie and Tired Tim, forever wandering from one fun adventure into another, drawn by Percy Cocking.

By this period in its life, Chips had undergone a few changes. Gone was the tabloid format (although it was still a bit larger than today's comics) and the pink paper had been replaced by red spot colour on its covers. This was no doubt in order to compete with The Dandy and The Beano, but Chips still lacked its rival's full colour covers. The most drastic change though was that by this time Chips was now a fortnightly comic due to wartime (and post-war) paper shortages.

Other than that, the format remained as it had ever been: eight pages including a 50/50 split of text stories and strips. This steadfast refusal to change was perhaps instrumental in why Chips would merge into Film Fun several years later.

The writing did seem to be on the wall for traditional Amalgamated Press comics thanks to wartime shortages. The long-running Joker comic had merged into Chips in 1940, bringing with it the popular strips Dickie Duffer and Alfie the Air Tramp. The Dickie Duffer strip above is by Albert Pease. Dickie's Teacher doesn't bother using the cane as corporal punishment in this episode, instead relying on the old slapstick favourite of a kick up the arse.

Dane the Dog Detective could easily give Black Bob a run for his money. Somehow though a "clever collie" seemed more believable than a walloping Great Dane.

The back page of this issue features the always-popular Casey Court. These intricate fun pictures fascinated young readers and the format would of course be used by many other comics, including When The Bell Rings in The Beano, The Banana Bunch in The Beezer, and Terrors of Tornado Street in Buster. (Not to mention my Super School page in last week's Beano!)

Beneath Casey Court is Alfie the Air Tramp, this time strangely without his mode of transport. Artwork was still by John L. Jukes I think. Identifying some of these artists isn't always easy as they were asked to draw in the house style. That said, their work was full of fun and period charm and the A.P. comics of this era were pure good natured entertainment.

Here's an interesting item above. Although Chips was no relation to IPC's later Whizzer and Chips except in name, the editor of the original, "Corny" (Fred Cordwell?) refered to his readers as "Chipites" - a term revived by Bob Paynter for the IPC version!

I'll cover the history of Chips in a little more depth in a future blog.
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