I was planning to get some pictures up yesterday evening of the comics fair at the Royal National but when I got back home I found there was an interesting e-mail waiting for me from Romano Felmang asking about a series of British comics that had appeared in the late Sixties. It just so happens that I picked up about half a dozen of these only recently to add to my (still very incomplete) collection.
(And yes, I recognised Romano's name immediately -- he's very well known in Italy as the artist of The Phantom amongst other things, although I believe only one episode has ever appeared over here in the UK when Wolf Publishing produced a short run of Phantom comics in the early 1990s.)
The series Romano mentioned was the Fleetway Super Library which appeared in 1967-68 and which has some claims to being Britain's first ever series of original graphic novels. These were an experiment based on the already established pocket library which had been appearing in the UK since April 1950 and the debut of Cowboy Comics. The format itself -- roughly the size of a digest paperback -- dates back even further but had previously only been used for text stories; some of the more famous titles include The Boys' Friend Library (which launched in Sep 1906), The Girls' Friend Library (Dec 1906) and The Sexton Blake Library (Sep 1915) which varied between 64 and 128 pages. The pocket library format for comic strips was firmly established with Cowboy and the titles that immediately followed, Thriller Comics (Nov 1951), Love Story Library (Aug 1952), Super Detective Library (Apr 1953) and True Life Library (Aug 1954).
The boys' adventure libraries (Cowboy, Thriller and Super Detective) were a mixture of original and reprint material (primarily the former, but also drawing on newspaper strips and serials reprinted from the weekly comics). The romance libraries, however, were all-original and perhaps are also contenders for the title of the first original graphic novels series. Each contained 64 pages of a single story strip plus a cover; the format, although flimsy, had a spine down which the title was printed.
I guess it depends how you define 'graphic novel'. What we think of today as a typical pocket library (Commando being the obvious choice as it is the only survivor but true of many of the libraries that appeared in the 1970s) contains two panels per page with the occasional full page illustration giving roughly 135-140 frames per story. In the 1950s it was more common to have 3 panels and even 4 panels per page, or between 160-180 frames per story; generally there was also a lot more text in the dialogue and descriptive captions.
If length is a criteria, the Fleetway Super Library series has a better claim as each issue was advertised as "132 pages of action pictures" -- actually 128 plus four pages of a thin card cover. The main story ran to 122 pages, the rest of the title filled out with humour strip reprints, a quiz, feature pages or a short complete 6- or 8-page story. Those 122 pages contained some 255 frames and the strips were all new.
The Fleetway Super Library actually encompassed three series -- Stupendous, Secret Agent and Front Line -- with two titles appearing a month for each series.
The first two episodes were given the title 'Fantastic Series' but this became 'Stupendous' with the second month's output. The two characters were already established in the weeklies: The Steel Claw had been appearing in Valiant since 1962 and The Spider in Lion since 1965. The Steel Claw stories were drawn primarily by Studio Rosi (pencilled by Giorgio Cambiotti, inked by Sergio Rosi with backgrounds and inks by Massimo Belardinelli), Carlos Cruz and the strip's original artist Jesus Blasco. The Spider had a rather more diverse set of illustrators including Francisco Cueto, Gerogio Trevisan, Silio Romagnoli and Aldo Marcuzzi.
The Steel Claw yarns also featured one of my favourite cover artists, Carlo Jacono, who is well known in Italy for his 'giallo' artwork (I may be wrong -- and I'm sure someone will correct me if I am -- but I think the name comes from a specific series of covers with a circular image in a yellow background) which I think of as crime noir -- iconic images of (usually) guns and dames that would look good on any Chandler novel.
Front Line series
This series introduced two brand new characters, Maddock's Marauders (named, no doubt, after the American commando unit known as Merrill's Marauders) and Top-Sergeant Ironside. Maddock's Marauders were a small, special unit led by Captain Matt Maddock which consisted of oversized Dutchman Jan Smit, the incorrigible French jester Jules Garceau and the tough little Polish count nicknamed 'Mick' Paulski. Sergeant Ironside, meanwhile, was a veteran with the US Army who welded his force of rookies together with his ice-cool command and bravery in the line of fire.
Most of the early episodes for both series were the work of various Creazioni D'Ami artists, including Ferdinando Tacconi, Gino D'Antonio, Antonio Canale and Giorgio Trevisan.
Both character survived beyond the Front Line and transferred to Battle Picture Library in February 1968 where they continued their adventures for some years, Ironside last appearing in 1974 and Maddock's Marauders in 1975.
Secret Agent series
Johnny Nero, the first of the two Secret Agent series characters, was actually a former MI5 agent who had left after inheriting a fortune; finding life as a rich industrialist boring, he was often tempted back into the world of spying by his one-time boss, Colonel Jason. On his adventures, Nero was often accompanied by his shapely secretary, Jenny Bird.
Johnny Nero alternated adventures with Barracuda who, under the title 'Code-Name Barracuda', had first appeared in Lion in September 1966. In the tradition of the James Bond movies which had helped establish the names Smersh and SPECTRE in the public's mind, Barracuda and his sidekick Frollo fought an unceasing war on behalf of a secret committee of the United Nations against WAM, an international criminal organisation who had no allegiance to any country or cause, only for power and money... hence their name, War Against Mankind.
Just to keep you on your toes, the usual alternation slipped out of sequence with issues 11 and 12 (the latter featuring Johnny Nero, who usually starred in the odd numbered issues). I've also seen one Barracuda issue which accidentally printed pages from that month's Johnny Nero yarn, a problem the printers resolved by doing an insert with the correct pages. (Presumably there is also a Johnny Nero adventure with Barracuda pages.)
For Romano, here are a couple of internal pages drawn by Antonio Sciotti (Johnny Nero) and Paulo Montecchi (Barracuda).
All three series began publishing in January 1967 and came to an end after thirteen pairs of issues in January 1968. All titles were printed by Gibiemme, in Milan, Italy, and the series appeared throughout Europe, perhaps elsewhere too. I have a copy of Main d'acier, the French language version of The Steel Claw, published by Editoriale Gemini in Italy for distribution in France, , Belgium, Algeria, Switzerland, Marocco and Canada. Beginning in June 1968, this series continued well beyond the 13 issues published in the UK, using reformatted material from Valiant, eventually running to 48 issues before coming to an end in 1975; it was replaced almost immediately by Collection Main d'acier (1975-77) which reprinted the early issues. The interesting thing about the original series is that (at least some of) the stories were abridged from 122 pages to 106 pages by removing various frames or even whole pages.
The Italian version was L'Artiglio d'Acciaio which went through at least a couple of publishers (Ed. Agena, 4 issues 1967, and Ed. Bianconi, 9 issues, 1967-68) with covers by Carlo Jacono and Pino D'Angelico. In Spain, the Claw appeared as Zarpa de Acero but I'm not sure whether these were reprints of the Fleetway Super Library stories or episodes from Valiant.
The term 'graphic novel' is used so broadly that reprints of Ally Sloper way back in the 1870s could be called graphic novels, but by the simplest definition -- a complete single narrative that has not been previously published -- I think the Fleetway Super Library has a good claim to the title of being the first series of original British graphic novels.