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Friday, October 26, 2007

Eagle Annual: The Best of the 1950s Comic

(* 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.

4 comments:

Norman Boyd said...

Excellent review Steve and Steve. Very fair.
It's interesting how there still seems to be an embarrassment towards, what we believe to be, quality UK products and the fact that that contrast has to be made between then and now rather than allowing the items to stand alone on their own merits. After all they are being published here in a straight, non-mocking fashion so they must still have something!
Well done!

Steve said...

Hi Norman,

I can't blame any of the publishers currently experimenting in comics for choosing the nostalgia market. After all, that's the market they've tried and tested and know.

I've always argued that European comics survived the years better than the UK comics because they reprinted the better comic strips they published in album form after they'd appeared in the weeklies. In the UK you disposed of your comic after a week and newcomers had no way of catching up on earlier stories of characters they discovered unless you had a friend or older sibling who kept back numbers. With albums, European fans could always catch up on the adventures of their favourite characters. And if you discovered the characters in book shops rather than the newsagents, you might be tempted to pick up the new adventures as they appeared in the weekly comics.

At least that's how I imagine it worked.

Over here there was an expectation in comics that sales would slowly decline until the title wasn't making any profit. Then it would be merged into another title. That's one reason why we had a steady schedule of new titles coming out all the time. The other is that younger siblings would have their own title to read rather than having to wait for the castoffs from older brothers or sisters.

But without that comics album tradition, publishers like Titan and Carlton are having to produce reprint volumes in a way that they believe is profitable for them. Thus Titan have their hardcover Spider and Steel Claw reprints and Carlton have their flexiback Commando, War and Battle volumes. That's what works for them.

For all I know they've looked at publishing slimmer, cheaper softcover volumes and the figures just don't add up. One reason for that is that they don't own the comic strips and have to license them in from IPC and DCT.

So the solution seems pretty clear. We fans are going to have to club together and buy IPC Media from Time-Warner and start publishing out own comic reprints. T-W paid £1.15 billion for IPC so I reckon we need to raise about £1.5 billion if we're going to have any chance at all.

If I set up one of those PayPal Donations links, whose with me?

Anonymous said...

The Eagle book doesn't sound all that interesting actually.
I'd probably rather buy the Titan Dan Dare reprints if I want to see "the best of Eagle".

The Look and Learn Book has just arrived here in New Zealand and is being pushed as Xmas stocking filler....the Commando collections were huge here last Xmas, with newspaper articles and all. It looks gorgeous I must say. I think I need to have a chat with with the family re pressies :-) Almost a "coffee table" book..with the bonus that you can actually read it too..

I could probably find and photocopy one of the articles if you'd like to see it. I'll keep an eye out for any "Look and Learn" articles for you too.

John

Steve said...

John,

Glad you're enjoying the Bumper Book of Look and Learn. I know Stephen Pickles put a lot of effort into making it the best book possible. Plus we had a slight advantage over similar compilations in that we could go back to original art boards in a lot of cases which has made the reproduction of illustrations superb -- better, in fact, than when they originally appeared. It's a book I find myself dipping into just to look at the beautiful pictures, which is saying something as I'm dealing with similar pictures daily; there's just no comparison between looking at scans and looking at them in printed form.