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Tuesday, March 27, 2007

John Spencer Comics

Lew Stringer has recently mentioned a series of mysterious old comics on his blog ('Britain's Forgotten Superhero: The Purple Hood') and asks for more information.

John Spencer & Co. was set up in the 1940s to exploit the shortage of reading material and began with the usual staples of gangster and westerns yarns. By the late 1950s they had evolved into Badger Books which ran with reasonable success until 1967. Towards the end, sales of their books were slipping badly and the company looked elsewhere for income. Alan Class had a steady sale in American reprints with titles like Creepy Worlds, Sinister Tales and Secrets of the Unknown throughout the 1960s and, in the face of declining book sales, comics may have seemed a viable alternative.

Spencers launched four titles in 1966: Fantasy Stories, Macabre Stories, Spectre Stories and Strange Stories, all of which were initially prepared by Mick Anglo. Anglo had edited comics for Paget Publications and Martin & Reid in the 1940s and had a long association with Len Miller & Co. for whom he created the Marvelman family of titles out of the ashes of Captain Marvel; Anglo had also edited the latter-day Classics Illustrated comics for Thorpe & Porter in the early 1960s.

The Spencer comics were something of a poor-mans Alan Class comics: priced at a shilling, they contained six or seven horror stories, most of which had little or no merit. The artwork compared to the Class comics (whose titles included reprints by some of the best American artists - Steve Ditko, Al Williamson, and many others) was atrocious, and the printing (initially done in Italy) was poor although the occasional decent cover did turn up.

They had little going for them and today are almost impossible to find. But they are interesting oddities. For instance, Anglo reworked a number of strips which Ron Embleton had written and drawn in his early career for Spaceman, published in the early 1950s by Norman Light. These stories featured Scientific Investigation Bureau mystery-solver Bill Merrill; the reprints were redrawn and (poorly) relettered as can be seen in the example below.

Another strip looks suspiciously like a rejigged Davy Crockett western and it seems likely that all the strips were reprints of one kind or another. Spencers, never ones to spend money where they didn't need to, also used reprinted covers: Spectre Stories no.1, for instance, was a Gerald Facey cover from one of their earlier horror magazine, Supernatural Stories no.3, redrawn to fit the cover to the story

Anglo soon left to take up the editorship of TV Tornado at City Magazines, and Spencers found themselves an artist in Michael Jay, whose work was terrible. Jay provided covers as well as (mostly unsigned) interior artwork, sometimes adapting stories from the Spencer Supernatural Stories series. The original stories were mostly written by the incredible Rev. Lionel Fanthorpe and the adaptations included at least one featuring his regular characters Val Stearman and La Noir.

Michael Jay was not the only artist in these later issues but all the artwork had the distinction of being universally terrible.

The four horror magazines all folded after six issues but Spencers were not quite finished. In 1967 they flirted with two more titles, The Adventures of Mark Tyme and The Purple Hood, both the work of Michael Jay.

Mark Tyme featured a time-travelling scientist whose first adventure (with Roman Gladiators) had damaged the wrist-watch sized device he needed to return to the present. After each adventure he was sent spinning into a new time period. In the companion title, the international crime-fighter The Purple Hood was Lee Briton, whose secret identity is known only to Sir Franklyn James, head of the most secret top level department for security in the country. Neither had much chance to travel far, as both comics folded after only two issues, bringing Spencers association with comics to an end.

3 comments:

Lew Stringer said...

Thanks for the background info on those comics Steve! I've added a link to it from the feature on my blog.

Yep, Michael Jay's art was terrible, but as a 10 year old in 1969 it had a mesmerizing clunkiness. :)

Best,
Lew

Anonymous said...

I happen to have picked up 22 of these magazines at a garage sale. They are mostly in pristine shape, most look as if they have never been opened. Does anyone have any interest in these? nbinpg@gmail.com

Nyle said...

I still have these comics. I picked them up in Portland, Oregon while I lived there and now I reside in Pleasant Grove, Utah. I think the story of how 22 pristine copies of these titles ended up in Portland is just as mysterious as the publishing of these comics in the first place. I still have them for sale if anyone is interested, but am absolutely flummoxed as to price.