Friday, March 24, 2023

Comic Cuts — 24 March 2023

I can finally reveal the title of our next book that we have been trailing for a couple of weeks. I wanted to celebrate the 12th anniversary of Bear Alley Books but knew there wouldn't be time to do anything with the comic projects I have been working on.

For the past couple of years I have put out a handful of novels and short story collections—the four novels featuring Hercules Esq. by Gwyn Evans, and the three Andrew Forrester collections—and when I was casting around for a birthday treat I remembered that I had a proof copy of another novel sitting on my shelves that I had never finished off.

Way back in the mid-noughties I was a member of a group dedicated to penny bloods and dime novels. I was keen to learn more of their history because of my interest in British story papers, especially children's papers from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

One of my discoveries at Chelmsford Library, not far up the road from where I went to school, was the Howard Baker reprints of The Magnet, with its tales of Harry Wharton & Co. I wrote to Howard Baker around the age of 11 or 12 asking about The Gem (was it an old magazine like The Magnet?) and where the rest of George E. Rochester's 'The Sea Spider' could be found (it was partly reprinted in one of the volumes... but where was the rest of it?).

Back came a reply, handwritten in green ink on my original letter. It was years later that I realised this had come from Bill Lofts, with whom I had been corresponding since my late teens. Bill got me interested in Sexton Blake and many other boys' papers, but I knew little about the origins of those papers, the penny dreadfuls of the 1860s. Which brings me back to the bloods and dimes group.

One of its members sent me the text of the novel you can see above, along with scans of the original illustrations. It wasn't long after that the idea of publishing some reprints of comics came to me and I started experimenting with print on demand. I tried a number of different formats that were on offer, one of which was to publish in hardcover with a nice dustjacket. It was only available in one size, known as American Trade, perfect for a reprint novel. So, way back in March 2008, I put together On the Queen's Service and had a proof copy printed off.

For various reasons—including moving house in 2010—it took three years to get the first Bear Alley book out. One of the first was a collection of essays that I published as a hardback with a very short print run. (They're damned expensive to produce.)

The proof of On the Queen's Service has sat on a shelf for fifteen years; I found it when I was putting together the bibliography of my work that was published on new year's day. The fates subsequently played their part, and Mel has found herself with some time on her hands and a need to keep busy in a way that can be put on a CV. So she is currently employed by Bear Alley Books as proof reader in chief. Today she completed proofing On the Queen's Service and with any luck we will have a final proof of the book within the next few days.

And early next month it will finally be available to buy!

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