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Sunday, December 07, 2014

This Was The Wizard by Derek Marsden & Ray Moore

Although they feel as if they were something enjoyed by your grandfather's generation, the text story paper did not disappear entirely until 1973. As the first boys' story paper debuted in 1863, that's a 110-year time span. The bulk of story papers—nicknamed penny dreadfuls and  tuppenny bloods over the years but these days treated as indistinguishable from comics—are long forgotten and academia seems to have taken little interest in them outside of as a way to guage historic attitudes to masculinity.

Social history aside, there has been little effort made to chart the history of individual story papers. George Beal's The Magnet Companion, for instance, was little more than a list of the lead Greyfriars/Billy Bunter stories, making no effort to index the back-up stories or features nor any attempt to trace the paper's history and influence. Two further attempts at listing the contents of long-running titles also fell short: Colin Morgan's The Rover Index because it covered only post-war issues and The Hotspur: A Catalogue by Derek Advley and Bill Lofts living too much up to its name and offering nothing more than a list of story and serial titles and dates with no attempt to describe the contents.

These were intended for the hardcore reader of those titles or the newcomer attempting to build a collection. And here is the first difference between these past attempts and This Was The Wizard: you don't need to own a collection of The Wizard to enjoy the book. Detailed introductions and a great many illustrations will give you all the context you need.

Launched in 1922, the third of Thomson's Big Five papers, The Wizard continued the trend already established in Adventure and The Rover for a mix of adventure and sport stories and serials. By rotating characters in and out of its pages, The Wizard was able to roll out a wide variety of characters. Air adventurers, footballers, detectives, cowboys, athletes... stories would be rested and the most popular ones revived for series after series.

Derek Marsden's introduction offers a flavour of some of the early characters, ranging from Bob Kennedy, the boy bosun, and his pal Ginger Cobb, who own a boat called the Firefly. "They are soon involved in a bitter battle between a couple of Tongs near the Philippines. Trouble in the shape of pirates also finds them in the Amazon, where Ginger has to rescue Bob from a snarling, and probably hungry, jaguar." Meanwhile, Montana Jack is investigating cattle rustlers and Joy Stick Dan Kelvin is ditching his seaplane in the icy fjords of Norway; Spring-heeled Ted is a 17-year-old apprentice engineer and runner... although he was destined never to have the staying power of another marvellous athlete in The Wizard, Wilson.

Wilson developed as a character under the guidance of Wizard editor Willie Blain, who took over in 1927 from Fred Tait. It was Blain who helped create some of the paper's most popular stars, including the Wolf of Kabul, the Red MacGregor, Red Star Roberts and Thick-Ear Donovan. Under Blain, the paper began phasing out school stories and introduced science fiction, including such characters as the giant robot 'The Smasher'.

How The Wizard dealt with the war is deftly told, as are the introductions of V For Vengeance in 1942 and Wilson in 1943. In the Fifties, under the editorship of Norman Fowler, The Wizard introduced sporting legends Gorgeous Gus, Limp-Along Leslie and Bouncing Briggs. As the decade turned and Tim Cunningham briefly became editor in 1961-63, The Wizard was still able to produce the occasional classic amongst the reprints, amongst them 'Kashgar the Terrible' and 'The Frozen Man on the Mountain', which introduced the character Jake Jeffords.

I have found only one minor factual error in Marsden's historical overview and it is of nit-picking unimportance: he states that there was  strike in March 1947, causing the paper to miss two issues, but it is more likely that this was down to the extreme weather experienced in the UK in February/March of that year.

Whilst the book is factually impeccable, there is a tendency to compartmentalise everything: the history of the paper is followed by a set of biographies of the editors, then of the artists who supplied the header illustrations; since the editors and their enormous influence is covered in the introduction, it would have made more sense to incorporate biographical details; similarly, the artists are separated from the discussion of the characters they helped define. The historical introduction is sparsely illustrated with tiny, uncredited vignettes but the author biographies have no illustrations at all.

The serial listing is illustrated by having sample header illos. all grouped together on a single page, 27 2-inch-wide pictures on one page but generally 21 tiny images per page. At the other extreme, the book scores highly with a couple of sets of colour inserts—ten pages each with 12 sample covers, 16 pages of promotional material and 12 pages of free gifts.

The index itself has lists of serials, complete stories, cartoons, free gifts, the annuals and an index of serials.

Having produced lists of contents myself, I have to confess that I prefer a listing that will group the appearances of each character together, rather than listing serials strictly chronologically. The problem, exacerbated by the fact that The Wizard ran for forty years and carried 831 serials, is simply that it isn't easy to locate each appearance. To take an example close to my heart: 'The Yellow Sword' (serial 644) is listed as "John Maitland: series 1", yet the sequel ('Will o' the Whistle', serial 697) is not "John Maitland: series 2"—Maitland isn't the central character—and there is no indication that a related series had previously appeared; nor, I might add, is there any mention in the text about the first series that a sequel appeared two years later.

Most of the above comments can be summed up as "that's not how I would do it," which doesn't make the format chosen wrong. Different strokes for different folks and, to me, only a minor problem for a book that has such a vast amount of information in it.

I only hope that it doesn't take nearly as long for Derek and Ray to get their next volume out.

This Was The Wizard is available from Border Bookshop, priced £25 + p&p, and also from 30th Century Comics.

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