Thursday, December 04, 2008

Flagrant self-promotion: The Art of War

(* With Christmas approaching I'm planning to flagrantly promote some of my own books over the next few days just in case there are newcomers to Bear Alley who may not be aware of them and oldcomers who may still be wondering which books they want from Santa. Rather than just re-post the original columns for each book, I've expanded them with some mini-essays and other bits 'n' bobs which I hope you'll enjoy.)

The Art of War

Fifty years ago, Fleetway Publications let slip the dogs of war and unleashed a phenomenon. The year was 1958 and Britain's biggest publisher was the Amalgamated Press who, since the lifting of paper restrictions after the war, had been expanding the number of titles they published each month. One of the first had created a whole new way of printing comics: the pocket library. This was a handy format, about the size of a paperback and slim enough to slip into your jacket pocket during school. The A.P. had used it for many years for reprinting text stories from their story papers but never for comics… until 1950 when they wanted to launch a new title and found that the only printing machine with spare capacity was the one used for their romance and crime libraries.

Thus was born the “picture library”, launched without any publicity with the first issue of Cowboy Comics, which proved so successful that others—Thriller Comics, Famous Romance, Super Detective—soon followed.

Thriller was a notable success. Originally it had concentrated on the historical adventures of Robin Hood and Dick Turpin and adaptations of many classic novels. By 1956, tastes had veered away from historical yarns and a new band of adventurers were introduced, starting with Battler Britton, a World War II flying ace. Before long, he was joined by Dogfight Dixon of the Royal Flying Corps, who was essentially a Battler for the Great War, and wartime special agent Spy 13.

The popularity of these stories meant that tales of war began to dominate Thriller Picture Library. It wasn’t long before a new title, War Picture Library, was released to cash in on their popularity. It was an immediate success and was followed over the next couple of years by Air Ace Picture Library (January 1960), Battle Picture Library (January 1961), Commando (published by rivals D. C. Thomson from June 1961) and War at Sea Picture Library (February 1962). The monthly schedule for these titles—bar War at Sea, which folded after only 36 issues—also began to leap: starting with only two titles per month, War Picture Library expanded to four per month in February 1960, rose to six a month in 1968, eight per month in 1971, 10 per month in 1974 and peaked at 12 titles a month in 1975-80. To put this into perspective, in 1962 the libraries editorial team were responsible for 44 new issues a month containing over 2,500 pages of artwork.

The men behind the launch of War Picture Library included Editor Alf Wallace who had been with the firm for around twenty years, rising from the ranks of sub-editor on titles like Radio Fun and Comet. Val Holding, until 1957 to be found walking the floors at Gamages department store, added his first-hand knowledge serving with the Parachute Regiment to the team which also included ex-Fleet Air Arm pilot Trevor Newton who was responsible for the design of the new books.

They were soon joined by Ted Bensberg—a Sergeant with the Royal Signals during the war—who was the guide the War Picture Library through its heyday as editor and managing editor until the title folded nearly thirty years later.

The writers—ranging from Norman Worker, who spent his war years with the Royal Armoured Corps, to Colin Thomas, a colonel with the Ghurkha regiment in the Far East—brought their experiences to the page which added a level of authenticity not often found in modern war stories. The most prolific writers were Donne Avenell, A. Carney Allan (who had served with the Black Watch in World War I), Roger Clegg and Douglas Leach, all of whom turned out countless stories of astonishing action.

The artists were drawn from across Europe but particularly Italy where Nevio Zeccara and Gino D'Antonio set the standard for the many artists who followed. And who can forget the extraordinary talents of artists like Giorgio De Gaspari, Nino Caroselli and Allessandro Biffignandi whose artwork graced the covers of War Picture Library, capturing in a single image the pain and the glory that every Tommy endured to bring victory to the Allies in those dark years.

The success of these books was astonishing and it is worth examining them in the context of the times. The youngsters spending their pocket money on these books—which were quite pricey at one shilling (5p) each—were the baby boomers born during the increasingly affluent 1950s. It took almost a decade for wartime rationing to be dismantled and it was not until the mid-1950s that books began to appear in any number relating to events during the war. It is little wonder that children whose fathers and grandfathers had been through the war would be keen to get a taste of the action themselves. Every issue of the war libraries contained a complete thrilling adventure which, when finished, could be swapped for other issues.

The Amalgamated Press (later Fleetway Publications and, later still, IPC Magazines) eventually folded their range of titles in the mid-1980s, a reflection on the falling sales of all comics at that time. Higher production costs and more competition for pocket money meant that even reprinting old stories two or three times was uneconomical. Commando, from rival D. C. Thomson, continued and is still going strong, with over 4,000 issues under its utility belt.

In 2005, a reprint volume of old Commando stories entitled The Dirty Dozen became a surprise hit and has led to a steady stream of other reprints taken from the pages of Commando, War Picture Library and Battle Picture Library. The latest titles, Against All Odds, Panic at 12 O’clock and Let ‘Em Have It! are in the shops now and there seems to be no end in sight, with further new titles already planned for 2009.

Twenty years after the last of the IPC war libraries folded, a stockpile of original cover artwork was found in a warehouse; the artwork accompanying this article shows is from the original boards, photographed soon after their rediscovery. The artwork has subsequently been used as the basis for two books, Aarrgghh—It’s War and The Art of War.

Unlike a great many more modern war comics, quality and accuracy were the watchwords of the war libraries. Editors and sub-editors always strove to make sure that the right soldier was holding the right gun for the theatre of war they were in. Staff artists armed with photographs, file copies of Illustrated London News and copies of Jane's made changes where necessary. This attention to detail, the quality of the writing and the skill of the artists all combined to ensure that the war libraries contained some of the best comic strips ever published in the UK.

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