Thursday, January 22, 2009
Alan Hemus (1925-2009)
I'm sorry to announce that another comics legend has passed away—although his name is little known to those outside the offices of the publishing house where he worked for over 50 years. Alan Hemus died on 16 January, at the age of 83, after a short illness. Hemus was known as a tremendous storyteller amongst the editors at D. C. Thomson. To the modern audience his best-known work is probably the Starblazer buddy-cop series Grok & Zero, which contained all of the author's strengths: the stories were well-plotted, often with a serious undertone, which Hemus leavened with plenty of action and light-hearted humour.
Born in Birmingham in 1925, Alan C. Hemus served in the Army during the war, afterwards taking a job in local government. It was then that he took up writing, selling the occasional story to women's magazines such as Woman's Own. He was approached by Willie Blaine, the managing editor at D. C. Thomson, who was responsible for developing many of the best-known characters that appeared in Thomson's 'Big Five' story papers and, in the late 1930s, helped develop a new style of British comic when Thomsons launched The Dandy and The Beano.
Blaine had a talent for spotting new writers and he, along with editor Bill Mann (later to become the first editor of Victor and, ultimately, head of all of Thomson's juvenile publications), travelled down to Leamington Spa to meet Hemus. The result was a series based on Alan's wartime training as a sniper, "Vigils of Sniper Dennison", for Wizard, which would eventually run to some 200 stories (the character later became known as "Sniper Kelly"). Bill Mann later said that, after the first meeting with their new author, Blaine turned to him and said that he didn't think Hemus would stay with Thomsons for long because he was too good a writer.
Hemus, however, stuck with the publisher and soon found his feet in the Thomson boys' papers, contributing to Wizard, Rover and Hotspur as well as writing occasionally for their girls' titles. At his peak he was producing three or four 5,000-word stories every week on an Imperial 60 and filled three teachests and two suitcases with copies of his manuscripts. When Wizard folded in 1963, Hemus turned to writing scripts for Thomson's new adventure comics, Victor and The New Hotspur, one of his first contributions being a strip version of his Sniper Dennison character for Victor.
Over the years he was often called upon to take over stories when writers fell ill or passed on, contributing to some of the best known of all Thomson series, including "The Wolf of Kabul" and "Braddock", as well as new characters. Amongst the many dozens he created were Lord Cochrane (a soldier in Napoleonic times), Saul Sands (an Oxford-educated white hunter in Africa) and costumed crime-fighter Red Star Robinson and his robot sidekick Syrius Thrice. Editors at Thomsons who worked with Hemus recall that some of their own favourites were "Tom Smith's Schooldays", set in a modern boarding school; "The Warriors of the Painted Horse", based on the long trek of the Nez Perce Indians from Florida; "He Was Only a Private Soldier", set during the Zula Wars; and "Kampfgruppe Falken", which ran for many series in Warlord from 1977.
Another favourite of the author was "The Black Fin": "Bill Blaine asked me to turn out an epic about two feuding families in a Scottish fishing village (we were on a visit to Arbroath at the time). I came up with the notion of a Great White Shark deciding on the place as a feeding ground. Ten years later, Bill gave me a phonecall to say 'Some Yank has lifted your idea'. This became a film called Jaws. Bill offered to vouch that he had been at the railway station paper shop one day when a suspicious-looking American began buying up masses of copies of the Wizard, which carried the story (it ran to 20 episodes). Tempting, but I decided not to bother."
In the early 1980s—and having now retired his typewriter in favour of an Amstrad—he contributed regularly to Buddy, Champ and Warlord. When the latter folded in 1986, he began writing for Starblazer, creating the characters Grok & Zero, Skald and Solo, and writing many of the Mikal Kane (and spin-off Cinnibar & Rulf) stories. From 1990 he also contributed over 80 full-length stories to Commando, perhaps setting a record when three of his tales appeared in a single month (July 1990). Over the years he also wrote occasional romances for People's Friend (using the pen-name Lydsey Duff), semi-humorous women's stories for IPC and a number of unpublished children's novels. One boys' adventure novel, The Trust, with a cover and illustrations by Keith Robson, was published by the Scottish Children's Press in 1998. More recently, he had published a number of children's novels via POD, titles including The Far Land, Once There Were Wolves, These Old Stones and Night Walker.
Hemus lived in Cosby, Leicestershire, before moving to Cromer in Norfolk where Willie Blaine and various editors continued to visit him. These "story trips" occurred twice yearly, when editors from Thomsons would travel around the country visiting writers and thrashing out storylines. Bill Graham recalls, "We would stay in Norwich for two days and give Alan about 20 story ideas which he developed and wrote over a six month period 'till the next story trip."
Hemus later moved to Pitlochry and, finally, to Clun in Shropshire, where he continued to write to the end, despite failing eyesight. Hemus was a polite, modest man, whom I had the pleasure to talk to on a couple of occasions and I can do no better than close with the words of Bill Graham, who told me recently, "I have long held the opinion that Alan was one of the unsung heroes of boys' comics. I always thought that he could have gone on to become a 'proper' author, but he enjoyed writing the boys' paper stories and he was able to make a decent living from it. When Alan used to send in an episode of a text story to one of our old story papers like The Rover or The Wizard, the sub-editors used to fight over who got to read it first. There weren't many writers you could say that about."
(* All images © D. C. Thomson. My thanks to Bill Graham, Bill McLoughlin and Martin Lindsay, who all worked with Alan; and to Keith Robson and Peter Hansen for passing on the news.)