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Sunday, March 29, 2009

40 Year Flashback: TIGER AND JAG merge

Four decades ago today, the long running Tiger weekly absorbed the much newer Jag comic, less than a year after Jag's launch. I ran a brief history of Jag comic on this blog here so this time I'll just look back at the first combined edition.

The merger of Tiger and Jag was another step taken by IPC to boost up the comics they'd recently taken charge of from Fleetway and Odhams. A few weeks earlier they'd relaunched Smash! as a boys adventure title (see blog here) and combining Jag with Tiger would produce a stronger comic. This was just the beginning of IPC's dominance of the British comics market.

Tiger benefited a great deal from acquiring Jag. Previously Tiger had been a newsprint comic, but now it gained the better web offset printing process which Jag had been using. The better paper quality allowed for full colour artwork, rather than the flat colour overlay method of newsprint. Only a few of Tiger and Jag's 32 pages actually featured colour, but it did allow the artists the luxury of colouring their own work. The better printing was a bonus for the black and white pages too, with several artists now using a grey wash on their strips, - something that would not have reproduced well on newsprint.

Tiger also inherited the colour football pin-ups from Jag. This was a natural for the parent comic as Tiger had always featured a lot of sports strips in its pages. Over the next few years this would increase, with Tiger evolving into an all-sports comic in keeping with IPC's preference for "theme" comics.

Back to the contents of this 1969 merger issue. The first joint issue of Tiger and Jag kicked off with the perennial Roy of the Rovers on its cover. In subsequent issues Roy, Johnny Cougar, and Skid Solo would each rotate for the cover slot; a practice which lasted for a few years as I recall. (I think I'm in the minority but I always liked to see strips starting on the covers, rather than a full page symbolic shot. To my mind it showed they weren't afraid of being comics.)

Inside, a variety of adventure strips included David Sque's artwork on two strips; Custer and Black Patch the Wonder Horse. (Today, Sque is the artist on lowbrow t&a/soccer strip Scorer in the Daily Mirror.) Both were ex-Jag strips, and wouldn't last long in Tiger where sport was predominant.

Saber, King of the Jungle was a non-sports Tiger strip which had survived the merger. Its popularity no doubt due to it being a Tarzan rip-off and the new Tarzan tv series with Ron Ely was showing at the time. The strip had beautiful meticulous artwork by Dennis McCloughin who was a master of detail and usually used various line shading techniques on his pages, but was now able to use a grey wash as well. (Sadly this strip was ousted in November 1969 as Tiger and Jag moved closer to being an all-sports title.)

The centre spread of the early years of Tiger and Jag was taken up with the fantastic Football Family Robinson, drawn by Joe Colquhoun. The artist John Gilliatt would take over the strip later in 1969 and make it his own for many years but it was Colquhoun who designed the characters and who had established the strip for Jag.

Skid Solo was a strip that Tiger had inherited from its previous merger with Hurricane a few years earlier. This motor racing story was a huge favorite of the readers, due no doubt to John Vernon's clear artwork, and ran in the comic for decades.

Another ex-Hurricane strip was strongman trouble-shooter Typhoon Tracy which now occupied the final slot in Tiger and Jag. Tracy was illustrated by various artists during its run and at this stage was drawn by Graham Allen, usually noted for his humour work on strips such as Tuffy McGrew, The Nervs and Fiends and Neighbours.

I'm sure the merger of Tiger and Jag must have been a huge success for IPC. The improved printing and sports features certainly seemed to breathe new life into Tiger and raise its profile amongst readers and the sporting community. Sports personalities became involved, with the likes of goalkeeper Gordon Banks and later cricketer Geoff Boycott amongst others writing weekly columns for the comic and posing for exclusive photos. Over the years Tiger pretty much became IPC's flagship adventure comic and managed to clock up an impressive 31 years by the time it fell victim to a merger itself when it joined the new Eagle in 1985.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

CRAZY COMICS is coming!

This Wednesday, April 1st, (no this is not a gag!) Egmont UK publish their first brand new comic in years as Crazy Comics! is released as a supplement to this week's Toxic magazine.

Crazy Comics! is a glossy 16 page full colour humour publication featuring nine brand new comic strips. It's a special one-off comic, but readers get the chance to vote online for their favourite. The winning strip will then return in a future edition of Toxic.

Contents of the comic are:

Count Von Poo by Jamie Smart
Zombie Nation by Luke Paton & Laura Howell
Spooks in Space
by Paul H. Birch & Steve Harrison
Bovver Baby by John Freeman & Paul J Palmer
The Hoaxers
by David Hailwood & Paul Harrison-Davies
by Paul H Birch, Shane Oakley & John Erasmus
The Clump by Lew Stringer
Bad Robots by John Freeman & Paul Harrison-Davies
Simon Spectacular by Luke Paton & Stuart Arrowsmith.

The comedy in Crazy Comics! is, like its parent comic mag Toxic, a little ribald and even scatological in a few places, but the emphasis is on the "crazy" rather than toilet humour. With contributors ranging from long-established pros (eg: old fogeys like me) to newer talents, the styles are a mixed bag. Refreshingly there's no house style to the artwork so it's a lively mix.

In these credit crunching budget cutting times the issue of Toxic that Crazy Comics! comes with has less pages than usual, and none of its own regular strips (Team Toxic, Rex, and Robin Hoodie are all rested for one issue). However the 16 page comic supplement compensates for that.

Whilst there are no current plans to continue Crazy Comics! beyond this initial "free gift" edition it'll be interesting to see how the readers react, and which strip comes top of their polls.

Toxic No.137, bagged with Crazy Comics!, is on sale April 1st priced £2.99 from all good newsagents and supermarkets. (And I must emphasize again, this is not an April Fool's gag like my blog about Apollo comic last year.) Although Toxic is usually published fortnightly, this special issue will be on sale for three weeks, but don't delay, - support British comics and buy it!

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Dave Hine and Frazer Irving comic signing

Frazer Irving, artist of various UK and US strips such as Judge Death and From Grace, and writer/artist David Hine best known for his Strange Embrace graphic novel and his Marvel comic titles like X-Men:The 198 and Civil War: X-Men will be signing at Orbital Comics on Saturday 28th March from 3pm.

Date: 28th March, 3pm
Venue: Orbital Comics, 8 Gt Newport Street, London WC2H 7JA
t: 0207 240 0591

Creator websites:

Dave Hine's Strange Embrace website

Sunday, March 08, 2009

40 Year Flashback: SMASH! regenerates

Forty years ago today (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 back at the helm, 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 (I think) Lion). Most of the 40 page comic featured brand new characters, and even the cover numbering was dropped, effectively making the revamped 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 compartmentalize their comics, so the new Smash! was toplined as "Britain's Biggest Boys' Paper". The revamp also brought about other drastic changes, 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. (Rumour has it 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 drawing Space School for the new Whizzer and Chips. However it was an uneasy and short tenure as the editor wanted Mike to adapt to more of a IPC house style, which Mike was reluctant to do.

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, its sense of anarchy, and its unique identity. However with the 1960s drawing to a close changes were undoubtedly needed. Even today I'm not sure that making Smash conform to the template of a traditional boys' weekly was ideal, but presumably sales had been declining and a revamp was necessary. Bringing in editors from Fleetway, IPC tried to emulate the successful format of Lion and Valiant. As it turned out Smash! only ran for another two years before merging into Valiant.

In November of 1970 industrial action suspended Smash and several other IPC comics for a few months, and this obviously impacted on its profits. With readers having drifted away during the strike perhaps things never recovered when it returned in 1971 and the merger with Valiant was therefore inevitable. It's impossible to say whether Smash! would have survived if the strike 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 although it was completely different from its previous incarnation IPC's Smash! was a very enjoyable comic in its own right.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Watchmen fever grips commuters

Bus passengers across the UK looked more confused than usual today as they picked up their complimentary copies of Metro newspaper to find it transformed into a copy of the New Frontiersman. It may not have had the panic effect of Orson Welles' War of the Worlds broadcast but headlines such as Doomsday Clock 5 to Midnight caused furrowed brows and bewilderment amongst shoppers and commuters on the Number 48 bus from Nuneaton to Coventry, most of whom didn't have a clue about the original source material.

The New Fronteirsman was a fake newspaper cover with the usual issue of Metro inside. The four page spoof was a countrywide promotion for the Watchmen movie which opened in cinemas today. The Frontiersman being the newspaper from the alternate reality depicted in the film and from the original source, the graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons.

It's interesting to see a comic book movie being sold to the public in this way. Usually the non-genre fan wouldn't be exposed to such advertising, apart from reviews in the press or billboard promos which disinterested parties would avoid anyway. By wrapping the populist Metro in such an intriguing advertising campaign it perhaps holds the attention longer than a quick tv spot does. The longer Joe Public thinks about Watchmen the more likely he is to go and see it.

Whether this will also boost sales of the 23 year old graphic novel even more (already selling brilliantly apparently) remains to be seen, but I'm sure it'll turn some non-comic readers onto it.

Personally speaking, I sold my original Watchmen comics on eBay last week and I'm currently reading the Absolute Watchmen; a weighty large format hardback slip-cased collection that's worth every penny. I've always been a fan of the work of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons and I've known them both for over 25 years (although it's been nearly twenty years since I've seen Alan) but this is the first time I've re-read Watchmen since its original publication. I'm finding it even more amazing the second time around, and enjoying the pace of reading it as a graphic novel rather than as a serialised comic. Dave's artwork is always a joy, and this was one of his greatest works of course.

Having read a lot of modern American comics recently, with their heavy computer colouring obscuring much of the line work, it's a revelation to go back and witness the clarity of line and masterful narrative technique of Dave's artistic talents. The mark of a good comic artist isn't one who distracts you with technique. It's one whose work pulls you into the story so that for the duration of the reading experience you become absorbed and forget it's just ink on paper. Dave is such an artist. Everything is well drawn, not just the figure work (there are no awkward poses) but every aspect of the world, from the buildings, the furniture, down to a paperclip.

Re-reading the story I also realised just how much modern comics owe to Alan's plotting and characterisation of Watchmen, and how little Marvel and DC comics have achieved since. This is probably obvious to everyone reading comics today, and was to me too, but I didn't realise until now just how much of a template Watchmen had been to post-1986 American comics, and, sadly, how much that template had been misconstrued. DC's Identity Crisis? Marvel's Civil War? Fools gold. Accept no imitations. When it comes to deconstructing the superhero and approaching the genre in a mature way, Watchmen is the real deal. If you've never read the graphic novel, now is the perfect time to do so.

Beano No.1 sells for £3000

This blog usually avoids news items about comic values as they're often so misleading. A comic that sells for a certain amount is only "worth" that amount to the individual who bought it. It doesn't mean everyone will pay the same sum for an identical issue.

Proof being the sale of a first issue of The Beano on eBay today. In 2004 a copy of this 1938 comic sold for a record sum of £12,100. (See BBC story here.) Prior to that, £7,000 had been the figure a copy sold for.

Today on eBay, a Beano No.1 said to be "in fine to near mint condition" sold for a mere £3,127 - far below the price of a few years back.

On his eBay page the seller, from Brighton, said:

the comic has spent most of its life in my loft i found it a few years ago and thought it was worth something so i kept it for a few more years until recently."

Admittedly three grand is nothing to be sniffed at, especially for a comic the seller apparently found in his loft. Obviously every copy discovered devalues the rarity a little, but it does go to show that the valuation of old comics is an unreliable business.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

The DFC: Dead, Folded, Cancelled?

Sad news just in: what was considered to be Britain's brightest hope for the future of UK comics, The DFC, is up for sale and faces imminent closure if it can't find a buyer by the end of the month.

Launched amidst a blaze of media publicity in May of 2008, The DFC aimed to revive the weekly humour / adventure variety comic. It was a "proper comic" too; 36 pages of strips, with no DVD reviews, toy promos, or any of the other magazine material that has elbowed out comic strips in most children's titles. Just solid, well told, well drawn strips.
There was a little bit of "reinventing the wheel" type hyperbole from a few creators who didn't seem to know that anthology comics had existed in the past, or that comedy-adventure serials had already been done in British comics, from Harris Tweed to Combat Colin, but it was hard to fault their enthusiasm and top notch talent.

Publisher David Fickling, backed by Random House, intended to bring British children's comics back to basics, but with a modern twist, and in that respect they succeeded. The DFC refused to be yet another Beano or Toxic clone and established its own unique identity, allowing a wide variety of artistic styles to grace its pages. The result was a colourful, lively, and intelligent comic that many children eagerly looked forward to every Friday.

Philippa Dickinson, MD of Random House Children's Publishing, said: “We are very proud of the DFC and the reaction it received from families, schools and especially the children who have enjoyed reading it. It is an innovative concept which we have been very happy to back. There can be no successes without taking risks, after all. Unfortunately, in the current economic climate, we have decided that the DFC is not commercially viable within our organisation."

“David Fickling, the staff at the DFC, and all the comic’s contributors have worked tirelessly to produce what is an amazing weekly publication and we would be delighted if a buyer could be found who would like to take the DFC on as a going concern”

If no buyer is found, the title will close on March 27th.

So what went wrong?

Admirably, The DFC ignored the standard retail trade and its ever-expanding shelf-rent fees, in order to focus solely on reaching readers by subscription-only. Fantastic, if you can reach enough readers. Prior to, and during, its publication, The DFC was promoted via the pull out "The Comic" section in The Guardian on Saturdays. Perhaps this made The DFC's readership potential too limiting, particularly amongst the percentage of Guardian readers who are not parents?

Limited to just one avenue of distribution it was imperative that the subscription method should work. Sadly it was not infallible. I haven't mentioned this online before because I didn't want to jeopardise The DFC's chances, but as a subscriber I experienced problems several times with missing issues. The first 25 issues were impressively bang on time, every Friday morning. After that, things started to go wrong, with renewals not starting with the issues they should have, copies missing, and subscription confirmation emails not arriving. Other subscribers I've spoken to experienced similar problems, which makes me wonder just how widespread this problem was and how many subscribers it cost them.

I would have been happy to support The DFC every issue, but when too many glitches started hitting the subs, and the momentum of the serials was lost, I decided enough was enough. The final straw was the "four issue" promo over Christmas that only delivered three issues, to me at any rate. I gave up on the comic after that.

The quality of The DFC's material was very high, and it was great to see such a diverse range of strips in one comic. Although at times I felt the material was a bit too diverse. For example, having a joyfully innocent strip such as Vern and Lettuce and a dark, creepy strip such as Mezolith in the same comic made The DFC a tad schizophrenic.

One thing we learned from Oink!, and its mixture of traditional slapstick with knowing satire, was that it's downfall was partly because it fell between too stools. Although variety in a comic is good, and having humour and adventure strips in one comic can obviously work, (see numerous comics of the past), it's important to establish the same tone throughout a children's comic. Otherwise you end up with the younger readers being put off by the more sophisticated material, and the older readers finding the younger stuff too "babyish". (This is the same problem that footie comic Striker found a few years ago, with classic children's strip Billy's Boots reprinted alongside new pin ups of topless CGI models. Who exactly were they aiming at?)

I'm sure there were readers who enjoyed everything, but on the whole kids tend to like some consistency of tone throughout a comic. On their own merits all the strips in The DFC were absolutely brilliant, but perhaps they didn't sit well under one roof as it were.

In case this is perceived as kicking the comic when it's down I'd like to emphasize that I have the greatest respect for all the contributors, several of whom are friends of mine, and all of whom were clearly at the top of their game and having a ball with their work.

The DFC was a noble, unique comic that I'm sure would have worked if more kids had seen it! It'll be fondly remembered by its readers, and rightfully regarded with pride by its contributors. Sadly, its cancellation is likely to discourage other publishers from trying new comics. However those publishers should bear in mind that it wasn't the material that killed the comic, it was simply that it didn't reach enough readers. The subscription-only method was always going to be risky. Asking a parent to commit to a £30 (or more) subscription for a new unfamiliar comic was asking for a lot of faith.

Unless The DFC finds a buyer things look bleak for the title, but the talent and enthusiasm is still out there. Next month, on April 1st, (no joke!), boys mag Toxic gives away a free 16 page Crazy Comics supplement featuring brand new humour strips. It's just a one-off special, but it proves that in the ongoing history of British comics you never know what's coming next.

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