British comics, Comic book, pocket size comic

Pocket book comics

With a few exceptions, when I was growing up, British comics had a different style and design from American comics.  Publications like the Beano, Topper, Victor and Valiant were weekly and were mainly B&W (or B&W + 1-colour) with only covers and sometimes centre pages in full colour.  The Eagle of the fifties had more colour than other UK comics (though it still carried B&W strips) but that was an exceptional comic.  I’ve covered these in a little detail in earlier blogs but have only briefly mentioned one typical British comic type so far: the pocket book comic.


I was first aware of these  as pocket-sized war comics – the above are two examples, one by Fleetway the other by Amalgamated Press (though a couple of years later they would be amalgamated – eh?).  One is tenpence (not 10p, 10d) the other a shilling – in todays money roughly 85p and £1.  In these days new US comics (e.g. DC/Timely/ACG/Charlton) cost 9d and were printed 3-colour – with varying degrees of print quality, DC usually being the best.  However the B&W pocket books held 64 pages, although there were usually only 2 largish panels to a page due to the small size of the books.  Still one was getting a bit more story in the pocket book.

The stories were distinctively British in style – World War II was very recent history and the stories reflected the British soldier’s part in this.  They were also a little more “gritty” than what one got in “tabloid” size comics like the Wizard and Victor.  They were so successful that DC Thompson produced their own similar publication Commando  which is, oddly, the only modern survivor of its type.

Note this pocket book is £1.50 and a current issue would be £2.00 – a modern equivalent of the original publication price (1 shilling) would be c. £1.00 but it has to be dearer as fewer kids read comics these days.

Other types of these books were produced apart from war comics: e.g. detective, adventure, space stories.  I don’t recall seeing the other similar books until some time later and then only space adventure stories, however my research has shown that in the early fifties the English pocket book publishers produced detective, western, legendary and historical characters (e.g. Robin Hood, The Musketeers, Pirates, etc.) among others as well as lines of detective series, including characters like The Saint, Bulldog Drummond and Sherlock Holmes.

Above are illustrations from the covers of two pocket-book comic collections of old 50s  issues which are still available today from Amazon.

One curiousity I came across in my late teens was a pocket-book superhero comic called  RADAR.  At the time I was unaware of the fact that these were UK reprints of an Italian superhero comic from the fifties and sixties and had no idea of its origin.  I only ever saw the few issues I read at railway station newspaper shops.

I never saw the first issue of this but it makes a nice illustration.

It was a peculiar production, mainly B&W but with colour pages every so often.  RADAR himself was bland and characterless but the stories were decent enough though run-of-the-mill.  One thing that I always wondered about was that his existence was supposed to be secret yet whenever someone was in danger they thought things like “Only RADAR can save me now!”  This was picked up telepathically by the superhero who could also fly and take any form.  I suppose it was a bit rubbish really but as a young man that was kind of addicted to comics, especially sci-fi and superhero comics, I found it readable enough.

I wrote a couple of paragraphs above on an obscure little comic – I’d need hundreds of pages, possibly 1000s, to write up every every title that DC Thomson, Amalgamated and Fleetway produced. This is because so many of the stories were one-offs, coming under the general titles like War, Battle, Air Ace, War at Sea and Commando. The only continuation seen in most of  them was thematic with particular kinds of stories seen again and again and by artist/storyteller.  Some of the older Fleetway/Amalgamated pocket books did have continuing characters who appeared in several issues: for instance the detective characters mentioned above and Rick Random Space Detective.    Several stories featuring this character are available in a collected book.  But in general every pocket book had a different story with different characters.

At various times characters from DC’s the Beano, Bunty, etc.  were produced as pocket-sized comics.  Stories like the one shown below were intended to create a female readership for pocket book comics similar to that of boys for Commando.

The girls’ comics were usually realistically-drawn adventure stories and they ran from 1963 well into the 1990s.  I do remember seeing them as a kid but don’t recall reading any issues (though I may have as I used to pinch my sisters’ comics). The series title was Picture Story Library for Girls and the main titles were  Bunty, Mandy, Debbie and Judy.  They were single complete stories often featuring charcters from the weekly comics but sometimes using new characters in original situations.

The Beano and Dandy type pocket books (also known as known as Comic Libraries) came much later in the 1980s and featured stories with one character or strip title from the weekly comic.  So if you were mad keen on say the Bash Street Kids you could get a booklet crammed with their stories only.   They lasted into the 90s and were relaunched in 1997 as “Fun Size” comics and then ran until 2010.   Another comic which ran in my adulthood and which I was quite keen on for a while – I used to have a reasonable collection – was Starblazer. This was a late entry by DC Thompson into the comic pocket-book field.

This was originally a purely Sci-Fi comic but later branched out into Fantasy stories. It was aimed at young teens to young (minded) adults and ran some very decent stories often well illustrated.  The illustration shown above reminds you that it was a Scottish publication.  I long ago gave away  or sold most of my individual comics collections but I wish now that DC Thompson would publish some StarBlazer collections along the lines of the Commando one they have produced in the last few years.





Before my time

My comic reading started about 1957-1958, and although limited by pocket money I managed to read a wide range of comics.  But a lot of classic comics ran before that time.  Now I am aware of many of them nowadays from my reading of comic history and the collected reprint volumes of old comics from the early 50s and 40s.  But long before this some of it seeped into my consciousness even when I was no more than an avid boy comic book reader.  (Note: this post concentrates on US comics only).

No this isn’t me. I just couldn’t find a suitable picture apart from this.

One way was with the comics themselves which sometimes referred back to their earlier histories.  Usually this was in a small way with brief retellings of the origins of characters and backstory that might have been missed by newer readers.  Sometimes this was a bit casual, resulting in what is now called retconning though it wasn’t really (what actually happened  was the writer forgot or didn’t know the history of a character so rewrote it unintentionally).  Though genuine retconning did occasionally happen, for instance in the re-imagining of Lex Luthor as a boy scientist and former friend of Superboy.

A little while after the rebooting of Flash and Green Lantern, DC introduced the notion of an alternate world where the old 40s characters existed as different versions of the “real” superheroes.  This had the added conceit that on one Earth the superheroes of the other Earth “existed” as comic book characters (hence the reimagined Flash was inspired to be “The Flash”  by an old comic book showing the 40s version of the Flash).  Later on, “classic” comic stories were reprinted as fillers in new comics – especially annuals.  In fact annuals became a great source of old comic reprints.  As comic readership was believed to have a turn-around of 5 to 7 years (starting at 7 and stopping in early teens)  it was believed that stories 5 or more years old would be new to most readers and those that had read them wouldn’t remember them – comic collection not being a great thing then.  But even then they would slip in a really early story from the early 50s even the late 60s.

batman-annuals  superboy-ann  flash ann

Of course a big source of old stories were to be found in the second hand book shops.  Small bookshops selling cheap imports and second hand books abounded in the 1950s and 1960s.  My mum used to take me and my sister regularly to a second hand shop on Maryhill Road where we hunted through old comics while she searched for old Agatha Christie and Erle Stanley Gardner paperbacks.

The old bookshop where I used to get second-hand comics was somewhere here on Maryhill Road.

Most of the comics were only a few months or a year or so old but occassionaly there were much older ones to be found.   Early DC comics were quite common – I recall an early “Challengers of the Unknown” pencilled by co-creator Jack Kirby (I was of course unaware of him at the time though the story stuck in my mind to such an extent I recognised it decades later when I read the book collection of the title) – and old titles from other comic publishers like Charton, ACG and Timely were also to be found.  Two comics that made lasting impression (and I still remembered many years later) were Plastic Man and Doll Man.   The original publisher of these characters had gone out of business a couple of years before I started to read so I only ever came across them in the used comics stacks.  But they really impressed me. 

Both characters – and Blackhawk – were taken over by DC comics though initially only Blackhawk continued to be published.  You may be thinking – wait, I remember DC using Plastic Man but never Doll Man. However when DC revived their old character, the Atom, they based him on Doll Man (they had the rights for the character anyway).  The old Atom had no shrinking power and his costume was mainly yellow.  The new Atom (new in 1962 anyway) could shrink and had a blue-and-red costume, the Doll Man colours.  He could shrink to any size while the original Doll Man could only make six inches (Mae West comes to mind here) but his favourite fighting size was six inches and much of the action showed him at this size.  Some of the character of the original was kept too in the slightly humorous predicaments both heroes got into.  The situation shown in the Doll Man cover above was replicated (almost) in issue 2 of the Atom in the 60s.

Even whackier humour applied to Plastic Man – e.g. Plastic man disguised as an armchair for a crook to sit on and be captured.  I remember being impressed by the combination of adventure and odd humour in this comic and was always on the look out to get more issues, not realising it had ceased publication and I would only ever get a few rare second hand issues.

Another way old comics were represented was in black and white reprints by UK publishers.  Two main companies doing this were Thorpe & Porter and L. Miller & Son.  Not that I was aware of these companies as a boy but did come across some of their issues in second hand bookshops.  Reprints of Crime and Horror stories, probably (IIRC) from such US issues as Crime Does Not Pay, Eerie and Forbidden Worlds.  One thing I do remember is recognising some typical ACG stories and styles (particulary Ogden Whitney) appearing in the black and white comics and realising they must be reprints.  I don’t recall often coming across these reprints often except in second hand shops.
Note this is priced 1 shilling – dearer than the usual ninepence but there were more pages, though B&W rather than colour.

This may have been because only a small proportion reached Glasgow and they were mostly sold down south or it may have been that I wasn’t able to find a bookshop or newsagent that sold them new (I was just a kid and couldn’t travel all over the city).  For back then different outlets would sell different sets of (US) comics.  Most outlets would sell Superman and Batman comics and second hand shops would sell almost every kind of comic but in between was great variety.  One shop sold a wide range of DC and Marvel (then Timely) comics and  one would also sell Harvey comics and I recall there was one nearby newsagent who was the only source for new Dell and Gold Key comics.  Another rather dingy shop sold only MarvelMan comics among a wide range of adult pulp magazines (True Detective and the like).  MarvelMan was my only contact with L. Miller publications.  I missed their Captain Marvel reprints (and never came across any second hand) and only saw the rip-off, MarvelMan.  In fact for many years I thought he was an original, British super-hero.

The comics I mention above were only a small part of the total output of the two reprint publishers and there were also other, smaller publishers who did such reprints. So I missed out on a lot of comics (some probably of low quality but no doubt I would have enjoyed them).  If you are interested in some of the stuff produced by these companies, try this book: The Pictorial Guide to British 1950’s Sci-Fi & Horror Comic Books by Mike Morley.

A final footnote: as an adult I would sometimes come across reprints of these reprint comics – yes, they used the old plates over and over again until you could eventually see the images fade due to wear and age!

British comics, Comic book, Comics

Artistic recognition

When we were very young comics were just easy reading and funny pictures.  But as we got older our reading got more sophisticated – Little Plum and Biffo the Bear gave way to Desperate Dan and Black Bob.   Superboy and Marvel Man gave way to The Flash, Green Lantern, Kelly’s Eye and the Steel Claw and other far more sophisticated material.  And as we began to appreciate these stories – written for the sophisticated readership known as ten-year old boys – we also began to appreciate the difference in quality and style between different comic book artists.

In fact just recognising different artists  was the beginning of learning.  Some comics had a deliberate policy of imposing a house style.  A team of artists deliberately developed and drew in a particular house style:  Harvey Comics and Disney comics are obvious examples of this and there the house style was so strong it was difficult for a non-expert eye to distinguish between the work of different artists.  The styles of story telling were very similar too.


All of the above characters came from different Harvey comic books and all are drawn in exactly the same style.  These are probably an extreme example although of course Harvey did also publish a few characters  such as Mutt and Jeff and Dagwood and Blondie which being on license from newspaper strips had to be in the style of the originals.  Disney characters appeared in comics too but it was natural they should closely follow the Disney art style and storytelling.

Other house styles that were less extreme could be seen in the Batman stories of the 1950s and early 1960s. Strictly speaking this was a studio style – the Bob Kane studio.  DC (or National as it was then) had a really wide range of characters and sold all kinds of comics so there wasn’t really a house style as such but there were different editorial teams working on certain groups of comics.   One team did Superman and his offshoot comics, another did the war comics like Sergeant Rock and there were others like the team  headed by Julius Schwartz that produced DCs Mystery and Sci-Fi comics (and eventually would revive the super-hero line with re-imaginings of the Flash, Green Lantern and others).

Each of these teams produced distinctive styles both in look – usually due to having a favorite group of artists they mostly used – and in storytelling.   They didn’t work to an exact template but usually there was a general “look” to a comic group which was recognisable. The artists working on Batman in the 1950s and early 1960s to a greater or lesser extent emulated the drawing style of creator Bob Kane while key writers like Bill Finger kept a distinctive storytelling style going.  Sheldon Moldoff imitated Kane  more exactly than other artists such as Dick Sprang but while Modloff’s figures were stiff and rather lifeless Sprang’s were full of energy and seemed more real – even though his own style was just as artificial as Kane’s or Moldoff’s (Below the order is: Kane, Moldoff, Sprang).

kane-batman_9      08moldoff-2-batman      batman0sprang

As a very young reader, distinguishing the Batman artists was my first step towards developing judgement in comic book artwork.  Batman was a favourite of mine when I was still pretty young: he was just as iconic as Superman but was human and vulnerable and one could relate to him more – and especially, as a young boy, to Robin.  Although for many years only Bob Kane was given credit, it became obvious to my young eyes that some stories were better illustrated than others.  As I learned about script/pencil/ink breakdown (from those few comic comics that occasionally gave this info) I at first guessed that different inkers might be responsible and to some extent this was true for Charles Paris often inked Batman stories and added quality to the artwork of whoever did the pencils. Then I realised there was actually a bunch of different artists working on the comic.

In my early comic reading days few artists and writers were given credits but I began to recognise artists in other comics who had a distinctive style, guys like Carmine Infantino, Gil Kane and (in Timely) Jack Kirby.   And of course the young reader couldn’t help but develop favourites: the aforementioned plus guys like Curt Swan, Murphy Anderson and Joe Kubert.  I also rather liked the early artwork of Steve Ditko on Captain Atom (though the stories looking back now were a bit rubbish) and some of his work for Timely – especially the little twist-ending gems co-created with Stan Lee – was truly wonderful.  Of course in my mind they were known at first as the “Flash artist” the “Monster book artist” the “Green Lantern artist” or the “good Batman artist”.   But gradually comics books started to give the names of the artists and writers who produced them  and I was able to put names to the work that I liked.  I even developed a preference for pencil/ink writer/artist combinations.  Often one would imagine what a comic book would be like if drawn by another artist – especially where one didn’t like the work of the artist who actually drew it.

kane sinks

Gil Kane with Sid Greene was a favourite, especially for the interstellar adventures of the hero, Green Lantern. Gil Kane and Infantino got much looser in their styles over time and I started to prefer them always to be inked by other artists.  Kirby almost never inked his own work (I was to discover much later that he hated doing so, perhaps because he always wanted to work fast) but there were certain artists I preferred inking him.  The best was Joe Sinnot: a lot of folk will agree with that but I recently reread Fantastic Four #5 and Joe Sinnot’s inking is wonderful, mainly because Kirby’s pencils are especially terrific in this issue.  His artwork is still realistic – he hadn’t yet the loose, somewhat over-exaggerated, even wild style he developed afterwards – but full of action and energy and quick worker as he was it is still quite detailed where it needs to be.  It took me a while to really appreciate Kirby (though I always realised he was good at action and good at monsters) but I think that was because he was iconclastic, always wanting to break the barriers.  Often what he tried didn’t quite come off but it was always worth seeing.

None of this applies to the modern comic where full credits are always given and (especially in collected series) biographies of artists and writers are sometimes supplied.  But we can still play the game of imagining what comic books would be like if done by different creative teams.

British comics, Comic strip, Comics

Adventure in Funny Comics

Back to British comics now.  I mentioned in an early post how comics like the Topper, Beano and Dandy were “funny” comics for young kids but each also – at least in their early days – ran one or two strips which were pure adventure.   One such I want to start with was King Solomon’s Mines which appeared in the Topper.  For years I’ve always had this memory of a three-colour front page with a big splash panel of Sir Henry Curtis swinging a huge battle axe against his foes.  Up until now I’ve found it fairly easy to find images (and information) on the web to confirm my memories and illustrate my posts.  In this case I found it almost impossible but after a lot of searching I finally found proof that I didn’t imagine it.

“In the late 1940s he drew serial comic adaptations of classic novels, including Treasure Island, Kidnapped and Oliver Twist, for Thomson’s magazine the People’s Journal, which were later reprinted in book form. In the 1950s Thomson launched a new comic, The Topper. Watkins drew “Mickey the Monkey” on the front cover, and his People’s Journal serials were reprinted in colour on the back.”

So my memory was … almost correct (if you scroll down on that page you will see King Solomon’s Mines listed as one of the strips reproduced in the Topper).  But it was a full-colour back page I remembered not the front.  Thinking back about this now I realise that in these early days comics weren’t split into young kids/funny versus older kids adventure.  The likes of the Beano, Dandy, Beezer and Topper usually had a couple of adventure strips although the bulk of their content was funny stuff like Biffo, Denis the Menace, Minnie the Minx, Little Plum, Lord Snooty, Desperate Dan and many others.  Since funny strips were no more than one page at most while adventure stories tended to be two pagers, this meant that adventure stories still made up a significant part of these comic books.  Of course these were often more light hearted adventure stories than the kind found in older kids comics such as Victor and Hotspur. (Although these more serious strips were nothing like the dark, adult comic strips often seen today).

iron fish

The  Iron Fish  shown here is a typical example where a sci-fi kind of super-machine is used by kids to engage in rather everyday kinds of adventures.  In earlier times – the early fifties – some more expansive and occasionally serious kinds of adventures were shown, like King Solomon’s Mines strip mentioned.  That of course was a reprint so that may have been why it was different – and maybe also because having originally been run in a newspaper it fit better into the Topper which had a larger page size than other comics then (with the exception of the similar Beezer).young dirky

Other adventure strips which come immediately to mind were Black Bob (a sheepdog), Wild Young Dirky,  Danger Twins, Red Rory of the Eagles, General Jumbo and Bushwhacker.


Other strips which impressed me back then (though I only came across them in old annuals of a friend – they weren’t running when I read these comics) were Jack Flash and Jimmy and his Magic Patch.

Jack Flash was unusual for British comics of the time in that he could be seen as an early superhero.  A boy from another planet, he can fly and move at terrific speed.  His adventures tended to be rather mundane though compared to the likes of Superman, Batman and the like.


He was originally drawn by Dudley D Watkins which just goes to show the range of stories he created from graphic versions of Oliver Twist, to Desperate Dan and Lord Snooty to Scottish historical stories like Red Rory, comedy strips for adults like Oor Wullie and the Broons, and fantasy strips like Jimmy and his Magic Patch.

Of course the reverse of what is described here is true and some of the mainly adventure comics would have the odd comical strip or at least some strips would have humorous elements to them, for instance Gorgeous Gus  ( a football strip -oh-oh) and Captain Hurricane.  I think one thing that stands out is that while the comics for older kids produced by DC Thomson were very like those produced by IPC in London, with War stories, Football stories and so on, many of these early adventure stories found in the likes of Dandy, Beano and the Topper had a distinct flavour all of their own.   I’m not sure what it was – maybe the fantastic, and at times frankly oddball, combined with the mundane.   Just like Desperate Dan (a funny strip) had a cast of Wild West characters living in an old fashioned Scottish town complete with street-lamps, post boxes and steam rollers (though with hitching posts for horses) so Jack Flash came from another planet with the power to fly and spent his time rescuing cats from trees in an ordinary little town.   Not all were fantastic – Black Bob was quite realistic – so it could be the old fashioned (even in the 1950s) but charming style of many of these types of story which gave them a unique flavour.  This was lost I think as time progressed though many of the strips still maintained a high standard which contributed to the long life of the comics.

Comic book, Comics, Covers

Classic … but not climactic … covers

When I started these blog posts on covers, I intended only to talk about comic covers that made a big impression on me as a kid.  I got detoured however  by thinking about the historical significance (comic book wise) of some of the stories contained within the covers. So getting back to my theme, here are more covers which really struck me as a kid.  First off, here’s something unusual.

Sportsmen were camera shy in these days.
Sportsmen were camera shy in these days.

Yup, that’s a whole comic full of weird and sci-fi SPORTS stories.  I think the concept as much as the cover illustration got me buying this.  Baseball?  Well actually, yes.  I was very aware of a great deal of daily life in the USA, absorbing it by osmosis through contact with American comics.  I guess this was true of a lot of kids.  I was well up on famous characters  in American history due to issues like this…

Yup, this is a diversion too so move on to the next cover

But that’s going off the point a bit.  Now not all my comic book reading was superheroes:  there were funny stories, westerns and mysteries. Some comics I read featured aliens  and science fiction like adventures.

With Murphy Anderson (this cover), Carmine Infantino and Gil Kane regular artists this comic and its companion Mystery in Space had some terrific covers.  Though I have to admit this one is also a bit weird.

One thing comics like this did was give me an interest in science fiction:  my early book reading was stuff like the Famous Five and the Hardy Boys.  Later, possibly piqued by comics like this I began to read books by E C Eliot (Kemlo series) and Angus MacVicar’s “Lost Planet” series.

Talking of series, these SF type comic books sometimes had series with continuing characters which I enjoyed reading and would look out for when I was skimming through comics.  The ones that stand out in memory are Star Hawkins, Star Rovers and the Atomic Knights. The latter was the only one of the three to get a cover appearance.

In case you didn’t want to buy the comic, the text balloons give you the whole plot: just fill in the details with your own imagination.

Men in medieval armour riding giant dalmatians?  Mole-men aliens with ray guns in the same story? What else would a boy want to read?   Two of the above covers are from the Sci-Fi story collection comic Strange Adventures.  A similar DC comic I read then was Mystery in Space.   Here Adam Strange hung out for several years, a much more long-lived series character than those mentioned above.

Not only did he last longer but Adam Strange also got more coverage (ouch).  Carmine Infantino – the classic Flash artist – drew the stories and designed some terrific covers.  The one above is chosen because it illustrates that he is a man of two worlds.

Another Sci-Fi series character that had a good run – and cover space – was Space Ranger.  The Adam Strange stories were (for kids comics) clever and had genuine, well worked science fiction plots.   With Carmine infantino and Murphy Anderson as penciller/inker they also had a sophisticated look.  Space Ranger on the other hand was old fashioned space-opera: goodies and baddies shooting it out in outer space – and weird aliens and monsters galore.

Cover for Tales of the Unexpected (DC, 1956 series) #51

As the series progressed he acquired an alien sidekick with shape-changing powers so that with the Rangers unique multi-ray gun they formed a kind of super-hero team.  Drawn efficiently and energetically by Bob Brown (who seemed to have a hand in a wide range of comics) the stories were rough-and-ready but great fun for kids.

Some covers though memorable were plain weird (see first Strange Adventures cover shown above) – DC in particular seemed to do this. Timely/Marvel could be silly but not with the same odd weirdness that DC often produced.  One comic that matched them is worth mentioning as it is pretty well unique: Herbie from the American Comics Group company.

Herbie was drawn by Ogden Whitney (who sounds like a character who could have appeared in the comic), who had a limited, rather odd stilted style which turned out to be a perfect match for the off-the-wall stories by Richard Hughes.  The thing works I think because to Herbie all the madness going on is perfectly normal.  Herbie though fat and insignificant to outward appearances has a whole range of mystical powers, able to travel in time and space among other things.  Naturally he eventually adopted a super-hero costume.

Since it would be hard to outdo these for weirdness I had better stop here and save some of it for a later blog post.

Comic book, Comics

Climacteric Covers

Yes, that is a real word: don’t say you don’t learn anything from reading this blog.

Continuing with the last blog’s theme, I’m looking at some classic covers.  I’m going to look at some covers which were and are true classics and also marked a key moment in comic book history.  We’ll start with this one.

For once the comic book blurb turned out to be true.
For once the comic book blurb turned out to be true.

I don’t remember seeing the first “silver age” Flash appearance so I can’t start with that.  Instead, this one from 1961 is one I clearly remember.  And it was the first time that the concept of “Earth-2″was introduced.  A young reader of Flash might vaguely remember that Barry Allen was inspired by an old comic book featuring a character called “The Flash” and was thus inspired to become a “real world” Flash. More likely he wouldn’t and would be very curious about this other Flash with the odd costume.  All would be explained within…wouldn’t it?

Note the artist (Infantino) has drawn the heroes with normal, average human proportions and physique. They are runners, not musclemen.











This was so successful that eventually other revived golden age characters such as Green Lantern and the Atom met up with their original versions and meetings between the Justice League and the earlier Justice Society became a regular event.

Later other “Earths” would be revealed, even one with an evil version of the Justice League.  Of course, never overtly stated but implied – remember that first (silver-age) Flash reading an old golden-age Flash comic? – definitely implied to the reader was the notion that, OK these heroes might be fiction in our world but in an alternate Earth somewhere they really did exist.

To take a break from DC for a moment we’ll look at Marvel (or Timely as earlier known).  Back then I was only really interested in their monster and western comic books – but by the time I was about ten, the creative juices of Lee and Kirby were starting to gel and we got this weird story.

Yes it looks pretty silly now but it seemed brilliant back then.  For some time Lee and Kirby had been producing monster stories like this…

Wait a minute … where have I seen this guy before?

These monster stories were great fun and you can see the creators were having lots of fun too…especially in working out how silly a monster they could invent and  yet still be a feasible thrill for kids.  The Rawhide Kid story above shows this monster line intruding into their westerns.

The Rawhide Kid comic round about this time had been revamped to create a novel kind of cowboy hero.  This Kid was small, thin – and red-haired.  He was the usual clichéd fast as lightning on the draw but as drawn by Jack Kirby he was acrobatic and feisty and could beat a man – heck, several men – much bigger than he was.  Of course being drawn by Kirby helped – he could make that look real.  And there was a touch of humour in it too.  With its wild, over the top fight scenes, this was a precursor to what they would do with the super-hero genre.

rawhide kid

Compare that to any super-hero fight scene by Jack Kirby – or by any artist later on: Kirby’s work from here on  would be a template for other artists in the genre.  Of course, talking about super-heroes, here is one of the most iconic covers of all time…

I remember, aged 10, looking through the window of a second-hand bookshop near my school (which also sold new comics, no doubt due to being near the school) and seeing the cover above.  Several things struck me right away.  The huge block of white in the top half of the cover, with the rather untidy looking “Fantastic Four” title.  The huge monster bursting out from below and looking genuinely ferocious rather than simply odd, as DC monsters and aliens tended to look.  Then the heroes:  four – 1, 2, 3 … 4 new super heroes in one comic!  Of course there was the Justice League before this¹ but that was a conglomeration of heroes who already existed in their own comic books or shared a comic with other heroes.  Fantastic Four was introducing four new heroes at once.  But where were their costumes?  Two of them didn’t even look human, one a living flame the other a monstrous .. thing.  I won’t bother going into details of the contents now as they’ve been covered a thousand times in other places.   But that cover must have attracted thousands of kids like me and the story and characters in it were so different (although I soon recognised my favourite Marvel Timely Monster comic team as being behind it) it became an instant hit.  Certainly a climacteric comic!

And almost a year later came an equally – possibly more – iconic comic cover.  For you non comic-historian Spiderman fans the title here maybe requires a little explanation.

In the same comics as the Kirby-Lee monster stories appeared, there would often be little, queer, twist-ending gems of stories that stood out from the other filler material that usually backed up the main feature.  Reader feedback must have been favourable about these because they started a new comic (or rebranded an old one, much the same thing) , Amazing Adult Fantasy, filled with these little Lee-Ditko stories.

The cover of the comic carried the motto “The magazine that respects your intelligence.”  I must admit I felt quite chuffed and grown up reading this comic.  It didn’t last long – though it seemed long enough to me; kids’ months are like adult years – but the completely new type of superhero character who appeared in the final issue was to carry on in his own magazine and become Marvel’s iconic character.

So there you have it for now. It would be hard to top these ones so we’ll leave more covers for another blog.

¹And the Superman-Batman-Robin team in World’s Finest which had been running since the mid-fifties. But that didn’t really count for some reason, perhaps because it was seen as a duo (plus Robin) and besides only Superman was super-powered.  The team did have a sort of “family” feel to it as the characters were clearly good friends and many stories brought this out.  So in a way, like the Fantastic Four.
Comic book, Comics

Covering the field

I only have a small collection of actual comics these days and all of them relatively modern.  My comic collection however includes many more bound comic book collections – of all periods – as well as a number of genuine graphic novels.  Many of the book-collections contain reproductions of comics I read as a kid and going through some recently I was struck by how often a great comic story was accompanied by a great comic book cover.   I was quite surprised also to come  across covers which I remembered creating excitement in my childish mind many (many, many …) years ago.  Now what follows may not seem so great to some: but they are comics covers I remember being struck by when I was a kid with a kid’s sensibilities. Here are a few of them…

The speech balloon gives important information here.

There was always a problem with these old World’s Finest books in writing stories that kept Superman’s powers in check so that Batman was able to play more than a token part.  Here was possibly the most original and dramatic way of doing this – as the speech bubble tells us.  These old DC comics sometimes had really weird covers, for instance…

Here the text in the balloon is a bit redundant

….and these creatures looked even weirder inside the comic as drawn by Dick Sprang. The following cover is a classic now and has been played on by several later cover artists down the years but it genuinely struck me as unusual and thrilling as a kid although nothing is really happening in terms of action (in the above covers there is a threat to at least one of the team).

Yes, the terrible thing that is happening to Superboy is that these other kids won’t let him join their club!  But when I first saw this as a kid (in the little newspaper/magazine booth on the road running over the railway in Saltcoats (IIRC, which I may not)) I thought it was terrifically exciting.  To understand why you have to put yourself in the mind of an 8-year old (or thereabouts) reader of DC comics – the only comic of the time which still had a big output of superhero comics, though many of them were Superman and Superman-related comics. You see, apart from Batman and third-stringers like Aquaman, Green Arrow and the Martian Manhunter there was only one Superhero template – Superman.   And even when other super-characters appeared in these comics they usually had superpowers very similar to Superman’s.  (The Martian Manhunter started out with powers different to Superman’s but gradually became a bit of a Superman clone).

Third string heroes
Third string heroes

It was as if there was only one set of superpowers you could have – unless you were a third stringer. Then, out of the blue here was a comic cover showing Superboy facing three brand new superheroes – and each with a power completely different from him, though apart from “Lightning Boy” what these powers were was a mystery (as far as you could tell from the cover) but their names suggested unique powers.  Not only that, there was the tag “Featuring the LEGION of Superheroes.”  Wow!  A whole legion of them.  Well it turned out to be  a bit of an exaggeration but just think of the excitement that would entail to a kid back then. And on top of that the idea of being rejected by your peers is something that a child could understand emotionally and might have experienced in real life.  A kid could really relate to this.  A lot of Superman/Superboy stories of this period were like this.  Superman had become too powerful a hero for it to be easy to find him a real challenge; so stories that appealed at this kind of emotional level were quite common.  This cover is a bit dull but illustrates (ouch) my point.

You might notice that comic covers at that time could be pretty “talky” with speech balloons and thought bubbles sometimes plastered all over the place.  Kids might be attracted by a nice cover but they wanted to know what kind of story they were getting before they parted with a good chunk of their limited pocket money.  Another point about the cover above is that it plays on the reader’s knowledge of the superman mythos: his back-story and history.   I’m getting the feeling this blog topic could go on for a bit so I’ll leave off now with a cover that combines two of the things I’ve mentioned that made an effective cover.

As you can see this is strongly emotional: Robin, who kids are expected to identify with, is killed!  Now that would hit hard.  There is danger too – now over for the deceased boy wonder but still there for Batman, marooned on an alien world.  Actually this 1963 story was quite a clever, subtle one with the alien world … well you might want to read it for yourself.  If you’re not worried about spoilers then  I found this synopsis when I was refreshing my memory. Time for a break now.  I’ll continue with covers in a later post.