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Sunday, April 03, 2011

Ron Embleton's first painted strips

Ron Embleton’s first painted strips
by John Wigmans

Almost two years ago, over at the ComicsUK forum, I raised a question regarding Ron Embleton’s first fully painted strip. This was the beginning of some in depth discussion with Phil Rushton and Steve Holland. Now that Ron Embleton’s Wulf the Briton: The Complete Adventures has been published, I thought it high time to add some information and new scans to the original post.

From an article by David Ashford and Norman Wright (Book and Magazine Collector No. 216; reprinted in their book Masters of Fun and Thrills), I took the following quotes:
1957 was a halcyon year for Embleton for it also saw him blazing forth, for the first time in full colour, on the front page of the new Express Weekly comic with Wulf the Briton.
and a few paragraphs further down
At about the same time [1956] Embleton painted an Arthurian strip, entitled 'The Story of the Boy King Arthur', for the nursery comic, Playhour. This finely painted, three part strip ran across the colour centre pages of the comic in August 1956 and was one of his earliest works to be signed in full: ‘R.S.Embleton’.
These inconsistent details about his early artwork made me wonder which of these could be considered to be his first full colour strip. So I did some research in the issues of Playhour in my collection.

Playhour was a beautifully printed British photogravure weekly with full colour covers and centre pages published between 16 October 1954 and 15 August 1987, a run of approximately 1,700 weekly issues. The comic was aimed at the nursery age group and, in a style by that time quite old-fashioned, avoided the use of word balloons common in contemporary British comics.

In May 1956, Playhour began featuring a series of colourful centre-spread adaptations of classic fairy tales and folk tales, including 'The Story of the Sleeping Beauty' (drawn by Portuguese artist E.T. Coelho) and 'The Story of Cinderella' (illustrated by Italian artist Nadir Quinto). Most of the early stories were illustrated by foreign artists, but at least three were done by Ron Embleton. The majority of the adaptations were scripted by assistant editor David Roberts.

'The Story of the Boy King Arthur' was indeed published in the Summer of 1956, on the full colour centre pages (4 August—1 September; 5 [not 3] episodes). A few months later the readers of this nursery weekly could feast their eyes on The Story of Beauty and the Beast (1 December 1956—5 January 1957; 6 episodes). This strip had ‘R.S. Embleton’ written, or rather drawn all over it too.

Few if any know that Ron Embleton could be hired to alter other artist’s artwork. February, 1957, saw him doing some chores on a new strip by Spanish artist Jesus Blasco: 'The Story of the Babes in the Wood', to be published in Playhour. The alterations to the original drawings of the first two instalments earned him ₤2-12-6 per episode, although it is impossible to see where Embleton put his brush to the paper…

In May 1957, Embleton took over 'Wulf the Briton' on a weekly basis. The results of this can be seen in the upcoming reprint. However, according to Peter Richardson's introduction:
As Embleton set about the rescue mission [to revitalise Wulf], it was in fact not his first encounter with Wulf and his cohorts, as he had provided the artwork for an earlier eight page story which would eventually see print later that year in the Express Weekly Annual [for 1958, published September 1957].
The above quote from Wulf the Briton: The Complete Adventures (p.7) implies that this short story might have been done before Embleton got stuck into Wulf on a weekly basis.

The Annual strip appeared shortly before another fully painted strip in Playhour: 'Tales from the Arabian Nights, No. 1: Judar and his Brothers' (5 October—30 November 1957; 9 episodes)

So his earliest full colour strips seem to be, in chronological order of publication:

1) 'The Story of the Boy King Arthur', Playhour, August/September 1956
2) 'The Story of Beauty and the Beast', Playhour, December 1956/January 1957
-) 'The Story of the Babes in the Wood' (alterations only), alterations to the original drawings by Jesus Blasco, Playhour, March 1957 (1st and 2nd instalment, but perhaps other episodes too?)
3) 'Wulf the Briton', Express Weekly, from May 1957
4) 'Wulf the Briton' (short story), Express Annual 1958, September 1957;
5) 'Tales from the Arabian Nights, No. 1: Judar and his Brothers', Playhour, October/November 1957

It is now safe to say that Wulf the Briton is not Ron Embleton’s first full colour strip, as was so boldly contended by Ashford & Wright. That courtesy title must go to 'The Story of the Boy King Arthur'. However, there is always a chance that earlier fully painted strips by this great British artist were published in other (obscure) comics or annuals. If anyone can supply additional titles or information on the above, please send details to Steve.

As a special treat: two pages from Fleetway’s Playhour Fairy Tales (British Library: 1968?; other sources: 1976), with a newly adapted version of 'The Boy King Arthur'. At least one of the illustrations was especially drawn for this book, but did Embleton do this himself? Compare the largest picture on page 32 with frame 6 of the original story…

(* Artwork from Playhour and Playhour Fairy Tales © Look and Learn Ltd.; Wulf the Briton © Express Newspapers.)


Anonymous said...

Interesting piece.
Another quote from 'Wulf the Briton: The Complete Adventures', page 317:
“Although ['Express Weekly'] issue 140 is regarded as Embleton’s official debut on Wulf, it was actually [an eight page] story appearing in the 'Express Weekly Annual 1958' published in autumn of 1957, that marked Embleton’s first rendering of Wulf and his comrades. Bearing in mind the long lead in time for artwork commissioned for annuals, it is more than likely that Ron Embleton would have undertaken this job when Ruggero Giovannini was still drawing the weekly strip. […]”
Sounds like solid proof to me.


Anonymous said...

This is the scholarship we love on Bear Alley. Well done John (and Steve)

Mike W said...

Very interesting & well illustrated research. Although Ron Embleton - who illustrated a set of Dickens' characters for This England died in 1988, his artist brother Gerry is still going strong. Ron is the father-in-law of Ian Robinson who was the final Rupert Bear Editor for the Daily Express.

Phil Rushton said...

A beautifully presented piece of research John. It seems to me that the likes of you, Steve, David and Norman are true Archeologists of the Ninth Art: Indiana Jones would be proud of you all!

Peter Richardson said...

Yes, I must add my congratulations to John for this brilliantly constructed take on this fascinating subject.

It makes one realize what a formidable undertaking a complete Ron Embleton check list would be.

The fear being that as one went to press, there would be yet more of his work being unearthed by scholars of Embletonia.

Steve said...

Fans of Embletonia might want to pop back tomorrow for some more early colour work.

Peter Richardson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Peter Richardson said...

In answer to the following question from John;

"As a special treat: two pages from Fleetway’s Playhour Fairy Tales (British Library: 1968?; other sources: 1976), with a newly adapted version of 'The Boy King Arthur'. At least one of the illustrations was especially drawn for this book, but did Embleton do this himself? Compare the largest picture on page 32 with frame 6 of the original story…"

I'd say a very definite yes, there are a lot of hallmark traces that make this very typical of the artist's increasing work load for the juvenile market that characterized a lot of his output through the latter stages of his career . I can only assume the reason for this new artwork would be down to the impossibility of cropping the original artwork to fit within the space provided. The reworking of the original image shows how far Embleton had moved away from the slightly stylized approach he employed on the original

Here I actually prefer the feel of the earlier work to the revamped version.

A very fascinating compare and contrast which all adds to the enjoyment of this post.

Many thanks guys!

Phil Rushton said...

It's worth pointing out that many of Ron's later fairy tale illustrations were reprinted from the outstanding picture strips he produced for Leonard Matthews' Once Upon A Time magazine.