(* I'm pleased to welcome Steve Winders to Bear Alley with a review of the just-released Eagle collection...)
The new Eagle Annual: The Best of the 1950s Comic book is the latest in a growing line of nostalgia books celebrating comics and other periodicals of the nineteen fifties and sixties, which began about two years ago. Eagle's companion paper Girl has already received the treatment, as have Jackie and Look-In.
Of course we have already had a Best of Eagle book, produced nearly thirty years ago, well before the latest craze. Then, Marcus Morris and Denis Gifford included long extracts from Dan Dare's original 'Venus' story, Jeff Arnold's 'Arizona Kid' adventure and PC49's 'Terrible Twins' case, as well as shorter extracts from other popular strips, a selection of cutaway drawings, non-fiction strips, text features, readers' letters and a few advertisements to capture the flavour of Eagle.
The new 'annual' contains isolated episodes from stories rather than continuous runs and there are pages from seven different 'Dan Dare' adventures in the book. Jeff Arnold is represented by a page from 'The War with Geronimo', one from 'The Arizona Kid' and just half a page from 'The Cochise Affair'. PC49 is featured in a page drawn by Strom Gould and another by John Worsley, with a third containing brief extracts from two stories and a short commentary. The book also includes the first Harris Tweed strip by John Ryan and an episode of Storm Nelson, drawn by Bellavitis and not Richard Jennings, the regular artist. However, other popular characters such as Luck of the Legion and Jack O'Lantern are completely absent and there is a strong emphasis on some of Eagle's non fiction strips and features at the expense of the stories. There are no less than four instalments of both 'Railway Wonders' and the careers strip 'He Wants to Be..' and there are single episodes of most of the half page educational strips that occupied page ten before Jack O'Lantern started. Not surprisingly there are a lot of cutaway drawings, but the lower part of the cutaway pages, which originally contained Luck of the Legion are left blank, leading me to wonder whether Colin Frewin, the current owner of Eagle's copyright actually owns the rights to Luck and other absent characters.
Several Sports pages of historical significance are featured. These include a preview of the famous 1953 F.A. Cup Final between Blackpool and Bolton Wanderers and a feature on Manchester United's Busby Babes, before their tragic air crash. There are a lot of 'Letters to the Editor' and 'Letters from the Editor' and there are a great many advertisements, although surprisingly no 'Tommy Walls'. Despite the emphasis on factual pieces, only two of Eagle's famous historical and religious back pages are included. These are single episodes of 'The Shepherd King' and 'The Happy Warrior', both drawn by Frank Bellamy.
The 'Annual' is the same size as a fifties Eagle Annual, so the reproduced pages from Eagle comic are reduced from their original size which makes many text pages very difficult to read. This is compounded by the fact that many black and white pages are printed in a brown sepia like colour in the annual instead of a bold black. Having said that, the strips and other illustrations are reproduced much better here than in Morris and Gifford's Best of Eagle. The good quality shiny paper allows a sharper definition.
The cover of the new Annual is also a facsimile of the familiar fifties annual, with its large yellow and black eagle on a red background. The cover is also 'distressed' to look like an old annual with damaged corners and other signs of ageing from a distance. Unfortunately the inside pages are also distressed too. This is most apparent in the blank bottom halves of the cutaway drawing pages, where it looks like someone has wiped a load of … well let's not go there! This artificial ageing highlights the difference of purpose between this Best of Eagle and the Morris/Gifford one. This book focuses on the values and attitudes presented in Eagle, in order to show how things have changed since the fifties. The original book's aim was to celebrate Eagle and to give its readers a chance to see again the heroes and favourite features of their youth. To be fair, the editor of this book, Daniel Tatarsky is full of praise for the quality of the Eagle and never pokes fun at any of the content, but the choice of content follows the style of the books about Jackie and Girl, where there was a particular emphasis on the contrasting attitudes of then and now.
I enjoyed the new book, but I wish it had followed the approach taken by another new publication The Bumper Book of Look and Learn, where the pages are the same size as the original and the contents serve the same purpose they did when they originally appeared – to educate and entertain.