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Saturday, July 25, 2009

John Ryan 1921-2009

Cartoonist John Ryan, most famous for his creation Captain Pugwash, has died aged 88.

John Ryan was born in Edinburgh in 1921 and fought in Asia in World War Two, where his skill at caricaturing his commanding officers sometimes led to him being reprimanded. After the war, he became a school teacher, and married in 1950. That same year, in order to earn extra money, he came up with the character Captain Pugwash which he produced as a comic strip for the early issues of Eagle.

The comedy adventures of Horatio Pugwash, Captain of the Black Pig, and his pirate crew including Master Mate, Barnabas, Willy, and Tom the Cabin Boy, only took up a modest amount of space on an Eagle page, and ran for just 19 issues before the editor cancelled it for allegedly being too juvenile. However, greater recognition was to come. Ryan revived the character years later for a series of children's books beginning in 1957 and a new strip in Radio Times. Even more significantly, 1957 also saw the BBC commission Pugwash as a new tv series; short cartoon films with Gordon Murray (later to create Camberwick Green, Trumpton, and Chigley) as producer.

Ryan created the artwork for the five minute cartoons using a very basic but mesmerising technique. Cardboard cutouts of the characters were laid on painted backgrounds and their arms and mouths moved with levers. This was filmed in "real time" like a puppet series, rather than traditional (and more expensive) animation. Peter Hawkins provided the voices.

The Captain Pugwash series was a hit with young viewers and totalled 86 cartoons in all, the last produced in 1975. John Ryan continued producing the Pugwash books too, totalling 21 by 1991.

The often-repeated sour urban myths that the cartoons featured characters called Seaman Staines and Master Bates were unfounded and Ryan successfully sued the newspapers that printed the suggestions in 1991. The comedian Richard Digance claimed he made the names up and had a 25 year injunction against him performing material about them. This expired in 2008. John Ryan also appeared as a guest at a UKCAC (UK Comic Art Convention) event in the 1990s and during the talk he strongly denied the salacious myths about his characters. This was clearly something that had, quite understandably, offended him.

John Ryan's other memorable character was Harris Tweed, Extra Special Agent, which also appeared in Eagle in 1950, replacing Captain Pugwash, with a full page devoted to his adventures. This pompous British agent who got his man by accident rather than design, was the sort of comedy-adventure hero who perhaps later inspired such characters as Eagle-Eye and The Cloak.

Ryan's work in television continued in the 1970s when he devised Sir Prancelot and Mary, Mungo and Midge. The rights to Captain Pugwash were bought by HIT Entertainment in 1997 and a brand new Captain Pugwash cartoon series was created, this time more sophisticated, but somehow lacking in the original charm.

With his work in comics, books, and tv, John Ryan was a "multimedia" pioneer before the term was invented. The distinctive style and gentle comedy of his creations entertained millions of children and, with the Captain Pugwash books still in print, will no doubt continue to do so.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Breaking News: Mick Anglo sells MARVELMAN to Marvel Comics

Just announced at the San Diego Comic Con: Marvel Comics have acquired the rights to 1950s British comics character Marvelman!

Marvelman was created by Mick Anglo in the 1950s as a replacement for the British reprints of the American Captain Marvel comics, when Captain Marvel was forced out of existence by DC Comics over its alleged similarity to Superman. Marvelman was revived in the early 1980s by Alan Moore and Garry Leach (followed by Alan Davis) for Dez Skinn's Warrior comic. When the character was reprinted in the USA by Eclipse Comics, more litigation (this time by Marvel, over the name) saw the superhero rechristened Miracleman. Bizarrely, then Miracleman itself later became subject to copyright wrangles by various people who had been involved with it.

However, apparently Mick Anglo still owned the rights to "Marvelman" and within the last hour, Joe Quesada, Editor In Chief of Marvel Comics, announced that Marvel have now bought the rights from Mick and will be publishing the character in the future. Whatever that form will take, whether it be reprints of the Warrior & Eclipse material or brand new comics, or (my guess) both, remains to be seen.

More news on the acquisition on the Comic Book Resources website:


Update: Judging by the banner on the Marvel Comics home page (below) it looks as though Marvelman merchandise is already on the cards in the form of a T-shirt. Expect more to follow....

The new illustration of Marvelman on the left of the banner is by Joe Quesada.
Marvel Comics website:

Monday, July 20, 2009

Moon Madness in 1966

With this being the 40th anniversary of the Moon landing I thought it would be appropriate to look back at one of the strangest adventure strips to appear in British comics. Moon Madness from Smash! in 1966.

Issue No.9 of Odhams' new weekly (dated 2nd April 1966) boasted a slight increase in pages and a couple of new strips, one was The Legend Testers (which I'll cover in a future blog) and the other was Moon Madness, illustrated by Brian Lewis, a superb artist already known for his work at Fleetway. The Odhams adventure strips were often a bit quirky, but Moon Madness would prove to be completely barmy!

The story began with the announcement that "Russians Land on Moon". Not a Cosmonaut though; just a space probe. Clearly based on the actual spacecraft Luna-9, which the Russians had successfully landed on the Moon on January 31st 1966. As it "transmits energy" to Earth, dogs and cats across the UK begin to howl and screech, a portent of things to come. Next day, a strange raised shape appears in a farmer's field in Perthshire, taking the form of a giant arm. Before long the arm springs to life and crushes the life out of a bull with its mighty clawed fingers.

Chapter two, the following week, saw the arm pulling itself across the countryside and smashing a village in its path. This episode also introduced us to Professor John Silverlight, who escapes the clutches of the arm and would eventually become the hero of the story. The chapter ends with a discovery on Salisbury Plain, - this time a pair of giant hairy legs "that seemed to have stepped straight from a nightmare"!

Who knows what Brian Lewis made of these scripts? He clearly gave his all to the artwork so one assumes he probably loved the craziness of the concept. The detail Lewis put into the pages was wonderful and it certainly came across as the work of someone who enjoyed what he was doing. A regular on Smash!, Brian Lewis was also the artist of Space Jinx and on many episodes of Charlie's Choice, proving he could also handle humour strips with ease and without any of the awkwardness that is sometimes evident when adventure artists try to do more cartoony material. He truly was one of the greatest artists of British comics and it's a tragedy he died so young, at just 49 in 1978.

With chapter three, the arm scuttled towards England, confronted by the army on the Forth Bridge who were unable to stop it. Meanwhile, an earnest caption tells us "The giant legs were striding across the Hampshire countryside!".

With chapter four the air force are brought in to tackle the rampaging thing. "Our orders are to attack those legs - and utterly destroy them!" barks a pilot in all seriousness.

The attack proves futile. "We might just as well have been using pea-shooters" says another pilot. Meanwhile, John Silverlight, who seems to have developed a mental connection with the creature, wakes from his delirium in hospital and cries "The Old Man! Go to the top of the Old Man!" The military have realised the arm and legs are heading in one direction, towards the Lake District and a mountain called The Old Man.

Chapter five shows what lies on the summit of the mountain; a torso and another arm! "It - it's unbelievable!" gasps a military officer, as though the preceding hours had been normal. The legs arrive, join with the torso and arm, and retrieve the other arm as it approaches. Now the creature was complete, except for its head.

Chapter six has the creature continue its path of destruction, trampling villages under its feet. Following its progress, John Silverlight sees it walk into the sea and submerge itself beneath the water. Three days later Whitehall decides the menace is dead, but Silverlight has a different opinion: "Don't you see - that thing has walked into the sea for only one reason... it's seeking its head on the bed of the sea!"

True enough, two weeks later, a mighty hand reaches up out of the North Sea sinking a trawler, and the creature emerges... complete with head!

That chapter promised us a surprise ending... one we received the following week in Smash! No.15, although kids who may have been expecting a big battle scene would be disappointed as the conclusion was quite low key. Suddenly we were expected to feel sympathy for the creature which we're told is "alone amid a bewildered terrified mankind which prayed for its destruction" and that it's "like a lost and frightened child seeking help".

John Silverlight confronts the creature, having formed a bond with it because (we're now told) the monster's spiky fur punctured his skin. Silverlight senses that the creature came here via electronic impulses so he finds a way to send it back to the Moon. Leading the now-passive creature to a telegraphy station, the process begins to make the monster vanish, as it breaks down into radio waves and is transmitted back to its Lunar home.

Curiously, the strip ends on a teaser. With his blood stream tainted by the creature's fur, we're informed that Professor Silverlight now has a connection with the Moon. "One day," states the final caption, "the strange, almost unbelievable story of Silverlight the Moon Man may be told. And if told it is, it will be in the pages of Smash!"

However, that's the last we heard of the character. If a series of Silverlight the Moon Man was ever on the cards it doesn't seem to have developed any further than that brief mention. The following week Odhams introduced their first Marvel strip - The Hulk, which instantly delighted many of Smash's readers.

Over the last 43 years fans have fondly remembered Moon Madness, even though they often forget its title (referring to it more often than not as "the one about the giant arm and the legs"). The strip was written by the group editor of Odhams' comics Alf Wallace and I'm sure it was done tongue in cheek even though the tone was deadly serious. Even though the strip appeared for only seven weeks its concept was so uniquely outlandish, and Brian Lewis' artwork so powerful, that it made quite an impression amongst kids of the Sixties.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Heyday of the Summer Special (Updated)

A recent blog on The Guardian website lamented the demise of the traditional comic Summer Special, and they were right to do so. After almost fifty years, the bumper seasonal editions seem to have finally ceased to be. D.C. Thomson hung on the longest, but the Beano Summer Special closed a few years ago, replaced by the monthly BeanoMAX, and last year's Dandy Summer Special appears to have been the last one. What went wrong? Apparently today's retailers dislike them because they occupy valuable shelf space for too many months. The other reason is down to how comics themselves have evolved. 

(UPDATE 2021: Summer Specials took a temporary hiatus but they returned, and the Dandy and Beano Summer Specials have been a fixture in WH Smith for a few years now, albeit in a new A4 size 68 page bookazine format. Rebellion have also published many specials since they acquired the rights to the old Fleetway/IPC comics. Bear in mind this article was written in 2009 before the specials returned.)

With regular UK comics now being full colour glossies, how can a Summer Special stand out as "special"? The idea of weekly comics having a once-yearly Summer Special spin-off only appears to have gained popularity in the 1960s. There was a glossy colour Mickey Mouse Holiday Special as early as 1937 (priced 6d - a small fortune for a kid back then) but British comics of pre-war years would sometimes have a themed summer edition as part of their regular run, in the usual 8 page format. Here's an example from 1934; the "Jolly Summer Holiday Number" of The Joker, published by Amalgamated Press. Artwork by John L. Jukes... ...and the "August Holiday Number" of A.P's Funny Wonder from 1939, with a wonderful cover strip by the great Roy Wilson... Inside that same issue of The Funny Wonder, Charlie Chaplin indulges in some seaside slapstick... As the 1960s rolled around, Fleetway launched a Jack and Jill Summer Special for the pre-school audience in 1961. The following year saw Odhams launch an Eagle special and also in 1962 TV Publications Ltd published a TV Comic Holiday Special; a 48 pager with mostly new material. Not to be left out, D.C. Thomson tested the market with a combined Dandy/Beano Summer Special in 1963 featuring reprints from the weeklies. That same year also saw City Magazines publish a Huckleberry Hound/Yogi Bear Summer Extra. These sharply printed photogravure publications established the format for such Specials for the next few years. The Specials must have proven to be very successful. The following year (1964) saw Thomsons devote individual Summer Specials to both The Dandy and The Beano with brand new material, and TV Comic continued with its Specials too. Trumpeting the comics as "special" certainly wasn't hyperbole. Freed from the limitations of the weekly newsprint format the Summer Specials offered painted full colour strips bursting with life. (Although my copy of the first Dandy Summer Special from 1964 shown here is unfortunately browned with age.) This was the perfect time for the Summer Specials to arrive. With The Dandy going through a peak in 1964, the Special featured some of the best artists in the business. Here's Eric Roberts on Dirty Dick and Ken Reid on Big Head and Thick Head... ...and Bill Holroyd on Joe White and the Seven Dwarfs... Charlie Grigg was the resident cover artist, always producing memorable images of Korky the Cat. Here's the cover for the 1966 edition ( a bit torn, sorry). The image featured an inventive but simple novelty. By holding the cover in front of your eyes and rotating it it seemed as though Korky's bike wheels were spinning... ...and another Grigg cover for the 1969 issue... The back cover of the same special is a fine example of how the quality printing gave artists the opportunity to go to town with colour work, as this Korky the Cat strip by Charlie Grigg demonstrates. (Korky's brutal remark to the mice in the final panel is a cracker, and shows how much more abrasive the dialogue could sometimes be in comics of the 1960's)... The Beano Summer Special had the benefit of the great Dudley Watkins on covers for its first few years. Here's the cover for the 1967 edition... (Don't worry folks. Biffo wasn't plunging to his doom after all. The back cover showed he was only diving towards a trampoline!) Inside that same issue, a fantastic centrespread story featuring The Iron Fish... Usually the centre pages would be reserved for a board game, ideal for those wet days sat inside a holiday guest house. Here's one by Eric Roberts from the Dandy Summer Special 1969... The Summer Specials were clearly intended to be read by kids whilst on holiday, and the strips reflected the holiday environment of the 1960s, whether it be a journey in a train carriage... ...or the favourite destination of the time, Blackpool... ...watching a Punch and Judy Show... ...building a sandcastle... ...going on the fair... ...having a donkey ride... ...or simply relaxing in the sun with a cigar. (Er, well, maybe the readers' Dads could relate to that one!)... Both the Dandy and Beano specials featured 32 glossy tabloid pages; quite a leap from the 16 newsprint pages the weekly editions had back then. City Magazines also seized the potential of the Summer Special by issuing the 48 page whopper TV21 Summer Extra in 1965 which featured a free gift (the "Cosmic Capers Kit") giving it the advantage over its rivals. Here's the cover to the 1966 edition... Inside, the adventure strips had little connection to a holiday theme but at least the "special" aspect was evident in futuristic articles such as this spread (by Eric Eden I think)... Odhams also joined the party, releasing the Fantastic Summer Special in 1968, a 52 pager. Although mostly Marvel reprint, it did feature a handful of new pages including The Cloak by Mike Higgs... Fleetway decided to hop on the bandwagon on Thursday June 23rd 1966 with the publication of the Valiant Summer Special... This policy continued when Fleetway came under IPC control in 1968. The format IPC chose was different to the now-standard tabloid glossy. Instead, they went for quantity (sometimes over quality) with chunky 96 page specials, mostly in black and white. Here's the Lion Summer Special for 1969... A large percentage of pages in the IPC specials were filled up with reprints from old Fleetway weeklies, sometimes with the characters' names changed in a futile attempt to make the strips seem new. However, the reprints were not entirely unwelcome as they collected together serials into nice complete chunks (albeit edited for space). Ideal summer reading indeed. Here's the first Buster Holiday Fun Special, (1969), with a cover by Reg Parlett... Reg also contributed new material inside, including this seaside two pager featuring Freddie (Parrot Face) Davies, a popular stand up comic of the period... A striking Mike Western cover to the Valiant and Smash Summer Special 1971... Inside that same edition, Banger and Masher, an often overlooked Ken Reid strip... TV Comic continued its run of Holiday Specials throughout the Sixties and right up to 1986. Here's the cover to the 1970 edition by Dick Millington... Inside, the traditional board game, with artwork by Barry Glennard... From these early days, the Summer Special became a familiar sight in newsagents throughout the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. Seaside resorts would order extra copies as they were guaranteed sellers. (I remember bookstalls along Blackpool's prom selling them in the Sixties.) So popular were the specials that they'd often carry on for years after the parent comic had folded. Sadly, the demise of the specials has been on the cards for several years and now, with the format eclipsed and sometimes bettered by the regular comics themselves there seems no place for them in the 21st Century. A great shame, as for many of us they definitely made our summers special. Further reading: What became of comics' summer specials: A blog on by David Barnett: Summer Special cover gallery: Thanks to Ray Moore for the updates and corrections on the 1961/62 information. 

 UPDATE: Some publishers have launched the Summer Annual, - hardback books in the traditional children's Christmas annual format, albeit thinner. Egmont currently have several out, tied into licensed properties, including the Power Rangers Super Legends Summer Annual and the Disney Princess Summer Annual. (My thanks to Rik/KlownKrusty for this info.)

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