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Saturday, June 09, 2018

The Power Behind the Power Pack

As some of you will have heard, a plot has been hatched to bring back into print the whole of Ken Reid's Odhams output. Reid, one of the most popular and collectable of British comic artists, was active for fifty years as an artist, firstly in newspapers (his "Adventures of Fudge the Elf" running in the Manchester Evening News from 1938-40 and revived post-war in 1946-61, some adventures being reprinted in book form) and then in comics. He arrived in The Beano with a bang, drawing Roger the Dodger and Grandpa before creating the incomparable Jonah (1958-63).

Reid was then tempted by Leo Baxendale to work for what Baxendale described as a Super-Beano. Many of the artists he hoped to attract preferred the safety net of the decades old comics at D C Thomsons; Reid took the plunge, creating Frankie Stein, Jasper the Grasper, Queen of the Seas, Dare-a-Day Davy and The Nerves between 1964-69.

These make up the contents of The Power Pack, a two-volume set to be published shortly. The project is fan-led and fan-financed, the subject of a highly successful IndieGoGo project that just needs a little more of your help to get the printing of the book fully financed.

The brains behind the project is Irmantas Povilaika, a 51-year-old former cartoonist who nowadays works in the tourism sector. Married with two adult children, he lives in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, and has been actively collecting British comics for over a decade, having been introduced to them as a boy. Fans of British humour comics will know his Kazoop!! blog, but may know little about the man behind the blog, or the upcoming books. Well, here's your chance to meet...

Irmantas Povilaika:
The Power Behind the Power Pack

People will be interested to learn more about your early cartooning career -- I'm one of... well, probably everybody, who knows nothing about what Lithuania, so perhaps you could tell us something about the kind of comics or cartoons that were available when you were a boy. Were there any? Were they an influence on your desire to draw cartoons? Were cartoons a regular part of newspapers or magazines as they are (or at least were) here in the UK?

My comics reading era was in the ‘70s, and we had next to nothing in terms of comics as kids – we were part of the Soviet Union, and Russians didn’t like comics. They liked caricatures, but not comics, so that were very scarce. I remember there used to be a comic strip (without speech balloons) about a piglet in the children’s monthly magazine, and an occasional page or short series in the national bi-weekly humour magazine, mostly mocking greedy capitalists and evil army generals, etc., with two smart unemployed chaps as central characters. These were quite good, actually, and had every feature of a comic strip. I recently found out that the artist is still alive and has published a tiny run of a semi-complete collection of his comic work from that period, which I eagerly acquired for my archive.

Cartoon by Herluf Bidstrup
There was also a hard-cover book of strips by the Danish cartoonist Herluf Bidstrup. He was a devout communist, so the Soviets published a collection of his works, and it is still well-remembered by people who used to like cartoons back in the day. I also read some Disney comic books that I borrowed from a friend – he had an Aunt in the US and she’d sometimes send him a copy or two. And finally there was that issue of Whoopee! that I have mentioned in  other interviews. These were my only exposures to comics and cartoons, but they were enough to kindle my desire to try my hand at the genre. I used to draw after school for my own pleasure (mostly humorous cowboy and space adventure stuff) and my mates used to come to our place and read those hand-drawn comic pages quite frequently… I still have many of them.

My first experience with published comics work was rather unfortunate – I drew a page about classroom mayhem that usually took place when our biology teacher showed us educational films. She used a projector and screen, so it had to be dark in the classroom, and we did all sorts of naughty kids stuff when she turned off the lights. The reason why that first experience was unfortunate was because I made two mistakes in the strip: first was that I actually mentioned a biology lesson in one of the speech balloons, second – the drawing of the teacher looked a lot like the lady who taught us biology. When the page was published in the national school-children’s magazine, my name and the name of my school was printed underneath, so the poor lady’s colleagues from all over Lithuania called her to tell her she was now famous… The teacher got very upset and ignored me for few years afterwards. I felt bad about unintentionally offending the teacher who was a really nice lady.

Comic strip by Irmantas from 1991.
This taught me a lesson or two for my future life, but didn’t discourage me from drawing. More than a decade later when I was in university I started freelancing for the national humour magazine. Perestroika thing was in full swing. Lithuania was making noises about independence, and suddenly there was a demand for western things, comics among them, so I approached the magazine and they enthusiastically agreed to publish my work. I did a few series – the first one was about three blunderous wannabee gangsters, written by me.

Then I started working with a Lithuanian writer, transforming his humorous short stories and even a short novel into serialized comics for the magazine. The work was fun, but then other things took priority. I gave up drawing comics, and my interest in the genre evaporated. The humour magazine went out of business a few years later but I know there were some independent publishers releasing their own work or reprinting foreign comics – mostly American and French strips. I don’t know much about the current state of Lithuanian comics – I know there are some young artists who do “artsy” intellectual comics, but they are not my favourite type – I prefer humour.

You have mentioned having a pen-pal who sent you copies of British comics. Firstly, how did you hook up with a pen-pal from the UK? And how much of an eye-opener was it to receive a copy of Whoopee! What were your early favourites among the strips you saw?

Whoopee! Xmas number for 1976
It was quite unusual to have a pen friend in Britain in those days. However, we had a brilliant English teacher and she had a friend in Leeds who taught at Shakespeare Middle School. The two of them got an idea that their pupils could become pen friends. Mine was an Andrew Green, and we exchanged letters for quite a few years. I must have mentioned my interest in comics to Andrew, so he mailed me a few. The issue of Whoopee! was an eye-opener. I was particularly fascinated by the idea of the same characters appearing on a weekly basis. Scream Inn, Frankie Stein (by Robert Nixon), Scared-Stiff Sam, Bumpkin Billionaires, Fun Fear, Spy School, Lolly Pop, World-Wide Weirdies  – I thought they were all hilarious. As a matter of fact, I still do today - Whoopee! had a fantastic team of artists then.

I don’t recall the exact timeline, but it is quite possible that my first ever published work was in the UK! The school in Leeds that I mentioned had their own magazine – it was called “As We Put It” or something along these lines, and contained pupils’ contributions – stories, letters, drawings, short articles, puzzles, quizzes, etc. At some point I wrote a fairy tale and made it into a small colour book with a drawing in the top half of every page and my hand-written text (in English) underneath. I sent it to Andrew with one of my letters. He showed it to his teacher, and she shared it with the editor, who reprinted my whole book in the school magazine! I was thrilled!  I must have been 10 or 11 at that time…

Sweeny Toddler, art by Leo Baxendale
Did you like the work of other Whoopee! artists? Reg Parlett, Terry Bave, Arthur Martin were producing rather more traditional British humour strips, but Whoopee! also the likes of Brian Walker on The Ghost Train and Tom Patterson's Sweeny Toddler.

I did, indeed. Brian Walker, Robert Nixon, Mike Lacey, Reg Parlett and Ken Reid were my favourite artists (I didn’t know their names then, of course). I also liked Terry Bave, and I can see traces of his influence in my comic work, alongside with those of Robert Nixon and Mike Lacey, although the latter two were a lot more difficult to imitate than Terry Bave.

You obviously became a fan of British comics, but when did you start collecting them seriously. What kind of collection have you been able to build and what do your family think of your obsession with what most people (even here in the UK) think of as ephemeral and maybe a little childish?

It all started when the name of Whoopee! comic accidentally popped up in my mind and I looked it up on eBay in the Spring of 2007. My collection is now rather big. Apart from all Power Comics, I also own complete runs of most IPC titles – Whoopee!, Cor!!, Shiver and Shake, Monster Fun, Cheeky Weekly, Krazy, Jackpot, School Fun, Wow!, Jackpot, Smash! (the IPC run), Jet, Jag, Scorcher, Misty, Valiant... My collection of Buster is now just 3 issues short of the complete 40-year run! Although I prefer IPC to DC Thomson, I also have quite a large collection of the Beano and the Dandy from the ‘50s and the ‘60s, and the complete collection of the two titles from 1970 until the last newsprint editions in the late ‘80s which proudly sits on my shelf in the form of bound volumes – with colour covers and dustjackets! I am still looking for just 2 more issues of Sparky to complete the set of my favourite DCT title… My family respect my hobby (I wouldn’t refer to it an obsession :) ) but we don’t discuss it at home.  I keep my collection neatly organized – all comics are bagged and boarded, with two comics per bag (one on each side of the board), all in boxes, so although it is rather big, it doesn’t take up much space or interfere with home life.

Do you have any particular favourite comics - either titles or maybe even individual issues -- in your collection? 

As you can probably see from the list of the titles that I collect, those published by IPC in the 70s and later on are my favourite ones.

Whoopee! celebrates 500 issues with issue 494!
Can you recall your first contact with other comics fans? Was it through the internet? What inspired you to launch Kazoop!! in 2012? Your love of the various comics and their strips comes through very strongly across the whole site, but also a very high level of knowledge. Has contact with other collectors helped build your knowledge about artists and the history of the various comics. Have you had any contact with artists who worked on the comics themselves?

My first contact with other comic fans was through the internet. I follow ComicsUK Forum and occasionally post there too. I found out a lot about British comics by reading various blogs, and they were my inspiration to start Kazoop!! blog in 2012. The original idea was to take one title at a time and cover it in detail in a series of posts – the general overview, yearly overviews, a separate post for every strip and feature, followed by separate posts for every Holiday Special and Annual of the title. I have covered three titles so far, and they are Cor!!, Shiver & Shake and Monster Fun Comic. One day I will get round to starting a similar exercise involving all 11 years of Whoopee! – the comic that I blame for starting it all for me.

As for the source of my knowledge – it all comes from reading things online and in books, and of course the comics themselves :-)

I have indeed had a few brief contacts with some of the artists, including  Trevor Metcalfe (now a follower of my blog) and Tom Patterson. I am in touch with Ken’s son Antony J. Reid, who was very helpful when I was preparing the reprint books – THE POWER PACK OF KEN REID.

That brings us neatly to the Power Pack books. What inspired you to try and put together this collection? What barriers did you find yourself facing as you worked towards putting the books together?

My inspiration was my passion for Ken’s work and the desire to bring it back into the spotlight.  Rebellion have started their Treasury line, the number of smaller publishers of archive material is slowly increasing so the tradition seems to be emerging, and I hope my project will help turn it into a long-standing and good one. British comics have a long history and a rich heritage of first rate material that deserves to be collected, and the interest appears to be there.

The biggest obstacle was tracking down the copyright holder. I was banging on the wrong doors for a while but then thanks to you I got in touch with Time Inc. (UK) Ltd, and things developed smoothly from that point. There were also certain “technical” issues that had to be addressed – the pages that will go into the books have been scanned from original paper comics. Printing quality wasn’t perfect back in the day, so remastering involved quite a bit of time and effort.

What made you think of gathering together Ken Reid's Odhams strips? This could be something of a golden age for Ken Reid collectors as Rebellion have just released a volume of Faceache... are there other Reid strips that you would like to see reprinted?

The reason I thought that gathering all of Ken’s Odhams strips together might be a good idea was because I believe it is one of the most interesting periods of his work. Talking to fans I realized that such an edition was something many people would like to own.

I am glad Rebellion released the Faceache book, and I hope that ‘Vol 1’ on the cover implies we’ll be seeing more of Ricky Rubberneck’s adventures in the future. I hope Rebellion’s next Ken Reid book collecting his Creepy Creations will be successful enough to make them consider releasing the complete edition of Wanted Posters and World-Wide Weirdies. As for his other strips - like many fans, I would definitely like to see Jonah collected together. A collection of Big Bang Benny, Ali-Ha-Ha and Big Head & Thick Head from The Dandy would also be something to look forward to.

This volume will include background material on Reid's days working for Odhams by yourself and by Ken's son, Antony. How important has Antony's support been in putting together the books? Have you been able to access lost or otherwise unknown illustrations by Ken? Are you including the banned Dare-a-Day Davy "Frankenstein" strip in the collection?

Antony has been very helpful. He wrote separate intros for both volumes and gave me access to his dad’s archive material – my ultimate resource when researching and writing the account of Ken’s life during his Odhams period (1964-69) that will be presented in the books. It will cover not just the strips featured in the collection but also many other projects that Ken pitched to his publisher during those years. Some previously unseen sketches and illustrations will be included as well, alongside with the ‘banned’ episode that you mentioned.

Tell us about the crowdfunding campaign that you have running to finance the printing of the book. What made you take this route and how has it been received?

Full details can be found in campaign description, but I will briefly mention that the Power Pack of Ken Reid consists of two hard-cover 200 page books. Volume One features Frankie Stein and Jasper the Grasper, with introductions by yourself and Antony J. Reid, plus Chapter One of The Odhams Years of Ken Reid – illustrated biography, written by me. It has a bonus section with reproductions of Ken’s hand-written scripts of the Frankie Stein episodes in Wham! Annuals 1966 and 1967 and some funny pencil sketches of Frankie and Micky. Volume Two features Queen of the Seas, Dare-A-Day Davy and The Nervs. It has introductions by Nigel Parkinson and Antony, and includes Part Two of the Odhams Years bio. Supporters of the campaign are offered the privilege of the slipcase edition and the free prints of original artwork. The books can be pre-ordered both individually and as a set, and I will post them to anywhere in the World.

Snapshot of the IndieGoGo page on Thursday.
The campaign is on IndieGoGo platform and the idea is to raise funds to cover production costs. The campaign was well received – supporters contributed more than 75 per cent in less than a week, so I am confident the goal will be achieved as there is still a month to go. The good initial response shows that there is a lot of affection for those strips, and looking at the geography of the supporters I can see it extends far beyond the UK – there are backers from the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, Greece and Germany! I think the crowdfunding model is a good way to reach potential audience. The enthusiastic response has substantiated my faith in the project and I will do my utmost to ensure that the final product is as good as it can be!

Is there any news of the biography you have been working with Antony Reid on a biography of his father's life and career?

The biography is work in progress and full details will be revealed in due course. I can say that it will be a detailed account of Ken’s life and work covering his entire career, with lots of previously unseen illustrations that we are sure fans will be delighted to see. Cartoonists of the yesteryear have been kept away from the spotlight by various publishers and little is known about their lives. The Complete Biography project will surely fill the gap for Ken Reid.

What have you planned for the future?  Any further collections if this one is a success? What would you like to see collected, whether by yourself or from another publisher.

I will take one step at a time. The plan for the immediate future is to make sure the fans of Ken’s work are happy with The Power Pack and the project is a general success. Apart from Ken’s strips that I mentioned previously, I would certainly like to see collections of Leo Baxendale’s strips from the Beano, and I am sure I am not alone here.  Scream Inn by Brian Walker is another big personal favourite of mine, and I hope Rebellion will find it worth their while to release it at some point.

My thanks to Irmantas for taking the time to answer my questions. I hope you'll support the campaign to get these books printed.

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