Wednesday, November 01, 2006

British Comics Cavalcade

There's been an avalanche of material about British comics out recently... a small avalanche admitedly -- not enough to ski on -- but enough to build a very small snowman or maybe a snow mouse. OK, let's forget about the avalanche. There is no snow and no avalanche. Let's say there has been some activity, instead.

First up, The Book and Magazine Collector 275 (Dec. 2006) has '50 Great British Comics' by David Ashford and Norman Wright. The choices are maybe what you would expect from David and Norman and I'm sure everyone will have their nit-pick at the choices: What? No Air Ace? No Smash? No Starlord? Four girls' papers out of fifty? I know someone who will argue that, pound for pound, the early issues of Famous Romance Library was the best illustrated British comic ever. No Adventures of Luther Arkwright? No small press stuff at all?

But, then, it's 50 Great British comics, not the 50 Greatest British comics.

Overall it's a reasonable list, sticking with the mainstream of British comics of the 1940s through 1970s, although I'd argue some of the facts: e.g. that Comet "was doing so well that the mighty Amalgamated Press bought it up" (they bought it because they weren't allowed to launch any new titles of their own and they needed the associated paper ration); the notion that "one artist stands out" on Commando Library, Denis McLoughlin, when Jose Jorge was, and is, the finest Commando artist to many fans; and Steve Larrabee (the cowboy star of Lone Star) was, as far as I know, not Australian but from Enfield, Middx. But these are minor points in a feature that runs to 28 pages. Lots of nice cover pictures with the very occasional internal spread. Two of the titles, Ranger and Swift, I'm now intimately involved with through LLM.

I mentioned Eagle Times fairly recently and I've now had a chance to read the latest issue, Vol. 19 No. 3 (Autumn 2006). The best pieces to my mind this issue were the opening episode of a new series about Frank Hampson's early career as an artist; not much in the way of new information but some nice photographs of the house Frank lived with for the first couple of years of his life (now celebrated with a blue plaque) and some early drawings from Meccano Magazine; Steve Winders' piece on the 'Smokeman' strip and the old articles that readers of Eagle Times continue to find that the magazine archives. The addition of colour has really lifted Eagle Times in recent years -- the last (summer) issue was 50% colour -- and clocking in at 56 pages an issue means there's plenty of room for a wide range of articles, centred on, but not exclusively about, the old Eagle comic.

Eagle Flies Again... well, how can you note that this is the last issue without some sort of joke about crash-landing. Issue 14 (Oct. 2006) is the grand finale. Articles include 'The Best of British', a top 10 of characters that's definitely up for debate [and it probably is at the EFA Yahoo group], an interview with John Wagner about the new 'Origins' story in 2000AD, features on Psi-Judge Anderson and the short-lived Scream!! comic from 1985, a lost 'Joe Soap' script from Alan Grant (Joe Soap was a photo story from the early days of the New Eagle) and a farewell from former Eagle editor Barrie Tomlinson who gets to say goodbye all over again. The writing is lively and editor Ian Wheeler has every reason to feel proud with the magazine he has been putting out for the past few years.

The reason for the magazine folding, stated bluntly, is that the licensing agents for the Dan Dare Corporation were asking for a license fee which made publishing EFA economically unfeasible. I've had no dealings with DDC so I can't really comment specifically on this. My general view on this kind of thing is that fanzines like EFA, with a few tens or (if they're lucky) a few hundred readers, costs the copyright holders nothing and, indeed, can prove quite useful in the long run. They fly the flag and keep interest alive, albeit in their small way, in characters who have been moribund for twenty, thirty or forty years. They're a great source of information: Titan, for instance, have been reprinting articles from Eagle Times in the introductory matter of their Dan Dare books. Interviews with old staff, artists and writers are invaluable: again, Titan have drawn on material from Comic Media for their Modesty Blaise books.

Comic fans aren't the audience these books are aimed at because that audience isn't big enough in the UK to support a commercially published book. Judge Dredd is being published by Rebellion, who own the copyright and don't have to pay a license fee, and D. C. Thomson recycle their old strips successfully because, again, they own all the rights. Dan Dare is the only series currently being licensed out to another publisher (Titan) and that deal has only just been resurrected after an eighteen month hiatus.

Major publishers (the Random Houses and Penguins of this world) aren't beating a path to the doors of the copyright holders to publish The Complete Roy of the Rovers or reprints of any other strip. Hawk Books spun off a few Eagle reprints whilst they were doing Dan Dare but the only other single character books published have been from Titan (Charley's War, Steel Claw, Spider) or from small press publishers (DLC's Trigan Empire, Hibernia's Doomlord).

So, far from pricing fanzines off the market, the owners of all this material should be nurturing fanzines and making material available to them. Perhaps Dan Dare Corporation have plans we know nothing of but, once The Best of Eagle is published and remaindered, where will that leave DDC and its properties except back at square one? Who will be talking up 'Heros the Spartan' (mentioned in Eagle Flies Again) or 'Doomlord' (inexplicably at #3 in the Top 10 Characters)? Who will they turn to when the next publisher asks "Is there a market for this stuff?" and they can't even point to even a current fanzine showing any interest? Believe me, publishers are very wary these days and losing that hardcore support is, I think, shortsighted.

Let me emphasise this: I'm not knocking DDC. Ian, of EFA has, and he has no axe to grind with them and it's not my intention to take up the axe on his behalf.

Rod Barzilay does deal with DDC and has continued to publish Spaceship Away, with issue 10 just out (Autumn 2006). Spaceship Away has grown into a fabulous magazine over the last couple of years but even with a cover price of £6.99, Rod is still subsidising the cost of the magazine out of his own pocket. In the summer he mentioned this situation and said "There is a limit to how much I can subsidise each issue, and how long I can continue to do so... it is becoming more and more important that I solve the shortfall soon." He mentions this issue that "we are making good progress between closing the gap between production costs and income" but clearly he is still subbing the price of the mag.

So, go away and subscribe. Go to the website and find out how you can send him some money. This latest issue has a number of continuing strips, mostly based around the exploits of Dan Dare and including the latest episodes of 'Green Nemesis' (or Nemisis as episode 14 is called), with Tim Booth filling in for an indisposed Don Harley, ' Booth's 'The Gates of Eden' and Keith Page's 'Rocket Pilot'. The magazine is also running reprints of 'Journey Into Space' (by Charles Chilton and Ferdinando Tacconi) and the all-new Sydney Jordan strip 'Hal Starr' (although he's used the name Hal Starr before, fifty years ago, these are brand new strips, beautifully coloured by John Ridgway). Pin-ups by Chris Weston and John Burns plus some fun strips by Ray Aspden and Andy Boyce, articles by Mick Baker, Jeremy Briggs (who was also a mainstay of EFA) and Joan Porter... it's a good mix of material and Rod is promising to add more in the future if the money can be found. So subscribe. Go on. Subscribe.

Random news notes...
  • Talking of small press, I hear that a reprint of Hook Jaw is heading into the shops shortly. Spitfire Comics (an imprint of Chris Smilie who also runs the web comic Starscape) are about to publish Collected Hood Jaw Vol.1, priced £12.99 but with a pre-publication price of £10. A first batch of the book is appearing shortly to cover pre-orders and reviews but the title will then be listed in Previews in December, so you can order copies through your local comic shop. I'll let you know what it's like as I've just ordered a copy.

  • And yet more old British comics resurfacing., which had a little run-in with Egmont a while back over scans of back issues of the girls' comic Misty, has finally published their 2006 Halloween Special -- absolutely unrelated to Misty... honest -- with a stunning cover from Misty regular John Armstrong, also reused as a poster in the mag. plus lots of short stories by a variety of writers and artists in the tradition of the old Nightmare stories that used to appear in Misty, which this magazine isn't anything to do with. The back cover is another superb John Armstrong illustration of 'Moonchild', a character he used to draw for... er... Misty. Darn. OK, I disagree with wholesale trampling of copyright but the old Misty website single-handedly raised awareness in the comic, which has resulted in it becoming one of the most collected girls' comics on eBay.
  • Some old comic art by Henry Banger (pronounced to rhyme with Ranger) is included in an
  • upcoming auction from Bloomsbury Auctions. Lots 743-747 if you want to check them out. Most of the boards seem to date from the mid- to late-1920s and includes some examples of Charlie Chaplin and Pitch and Toss.
  • Talking of auctions, the
  • Daily Record (26 October) carries a report, 'Jings! Oor Wullie Earns a few Boab' about a sketch by Dudley D. Watkins that sold recently at auction in Dundee for £1,500. BBC News (24 October). Another Watkins piece, this time some original artwork, had earlier sold for £1,050 according to the Glasgow Evening News (14 October).
  • Jordi Bernet ("One of the most popular and revered European comics creators working today") is interviewed in
  • Publisher's Weekly (31 October) by Chris Arrant. The article, 'Bernet Saddles Up With Jonah Hex' discusses his upcoming 3-issue origin of Jonah Hex series for DC Comics. He gets a mention because I like his stuff (although I've seen very little, mostly Torpedo) and he used to work for various UK publishers, including the wonderful 'Legend Testers' strip in Smash! which he sometimes signed using the pen-name Jorge.
  • Neil Gaiman writes for
  • The New York Times. His article 'Ghosts in the Machine' was published in their 31 October issue.
  • Obituaries (
  • The Independent, The Guardian) have been appearing for Tony Tyler, the former editor of New Musical Express, who died on 28 October. No mention of his brief comic connection. Tony's second wife was Kate Phillips, daughter of IPC director Ron Phillips, who briefly published reprints of Air Ace, War Picture Library and Battle Picture Library in the late 1980s/early 1990s with Tony involved editorially.

  • Nigel Kneale died on 29 October, aged 84. A tribute can be found at the Hammer films site, HammerWeb. His Quatermass series was pioneering TV back in the 1950s and the remakes produced by Hammer were hugely popular. Brian Lewis made a lovely job of adapting The Quatermass Xperiment for House of Hammer back in 1977.

  • And
  • , finally, want to star in your own photo-comic? Apparently this guy will turn your photos into a story for £20. No idea who kosher it is. But if anyone tries it, let me know how it turns out. Not that I want to star in a photo-comic but I was talking about them only the other day and saying with Photoshop and digital cameras you could produce some fantastic stories nowadays


  1. Steve,
    I totally agree with you regarding the heavy handed short sightedness (excuse the mixed whatevers!)of the big boys. I notice that L&L have made an awaful lot of info available but make it clear that payment is needed to use images etc. This can only do good in attracting my attention in the first place.

    DC Comics (in the States - not to be confused with DDC here!) appear heavy handed in shutting down fan sites sometimes and I can't see it does them any good at all. They should be working hard - like the music industry - to stop peer-to-peer sharing networks or bit-torrent scans etc. as they are more directly 'steals' of their product.

    Having said THAT, if they don't make available in reprint material I want, I can't see this will ever stop.

    Sorry for ranting a bit, but if the DDC are reading, I think they really should reconsider this very cheap means of keeping Dan Dare in SOME public's eye! After all, it's not as if he's on the telly every week ;-)

    Keep up the good work and thanks for the Book Collector alert. Even though our good pal Norman has stayed in the earlier part of last century he's always a good read - like yourself!

    Norman - the other one

  2. Norman,

    I think the difference between Look and Learn Magazine Ltd. (LLM) and some other folks are twofold: some companies have such an enormous stock of old magazines and characters they simply can't afford to do what we've done (the extensive scanning, putting lots of sample material on the web, etc.); that's a situation I can understand, although I still think they'd do better actively exploiting their archive rather than waiting for people to come along and cherry pick little bits of it.

    The second difference is that we are actively trying to promote the Look and Learn brand because we know it has being laying dormant for a long time. And that's where I think some companies are making a mistake -- not recognising the fact that two generations have grown up not knowing these old magazines. To my mind, any promotion of the brand is important as long as it doesn't damage or dilute the brand.

    Sorry to keep calling these things 'brands', but that's what they are. Eagle was a powerful brand name in the 1950s, as was Look and Learn in the 1960s and 1970s. The names meant something to their readers, a stamp of quality. And if re-establishing that stamp of quality means promoting the name and the material we own, LLM will certainly do it to the best of our abilities...





Click on the above pic to visit our sister site Bear Alley Books