The one and only – Eagle.
I don’t have any clear recollection of the Eagle comic as a child. Of course its heyday was the early-mid fifties and I wasn’t old enough to appreciate it in that period. I believe I read it occasionally, as well as the odd annual, just enough for one or two of the characters to stick in my mind, like Harris Tweed and Pugwash (the latter more due to his TV appearances I suppose) and Paul – The Great Adventurer (the story of St Paul in pictures). The latter reminds us that Eagle was co-founded by the Rev. Marcus Morris with the intention of producing better quality reading for children, with a moral uplift – seen in the clean cut heroes and the biblical stories.
This impetus to do something good extended into the whole design of the comic and the quality of the atwork that appeared in it. In a period when comics were published on cheap paper mainly black and white with some colour (usually just on the covers though a few – like the Beano – had a full colour centre page spread) the bright and colourful Eagle stood out. Artwork in other comics was usually decent and functional though there were a few very good artists working then, usually if memory serves more in the “funnies” comics. e.g. Ken Reid, Leo Baxendale and Dudley D Watkins (who did both “funnies” and adventure strips).
The Eagle however had top-notch artists throughout, such as Frank Hampson, Keith Watson, Don Harley and the legendary Frank Bellamy. The Eagle did have a few humour strips over the years, most notably Harris Tweed by John Ryan but was in general a “serious” comic. One thing I do remember was the series of “cutaway” illustrations: centre-spread full-colour cutaway illustration of a piece of machinery such as a locomotive, aeroplane or motor-vehicle – occasionally static items like a tunnel, a bridge or a power station. Their big feature for many years – and most popular – was Dan Dare.
There’s no need to repeat what many others have said about this iconic strip, except that this was an ambitious work (really long story lines) and excellently illustrated, though it didn’t reach its peak for a few years. It was also innovative with large splash opening panels and using a ‘filmic’ style new to British comics, with high angles (often birds-eye views) and close ups. They also developed a signature feature of having one panel seem to burst out from the other surrounding panels and even characters burst out, delineated as if they were a human-shaped panel themselves. Even today its best period is still regarded as a high water mark of British comics.
The Eagle’s success led to the production of similar comics for girls and younger readers. Girl was the rather unimaginative name for the girls’ comic and Robin and Swift were the comics aimed at younger readers (Robin the youngest age range). None of these has left any great lasting legacy as the Eagle did; Girl at first attempted to imitate the Eagle with a front page “girl pilot” series. However this kind of strip wasn’t popular and was replaced by more “girly” stories.
Swift was basically an Eagle for slightly younger readers and had a mixture of adventure and humour. They did have some of the seriousness of the Eagle in the form of comic strip adaptations of novels like The Prisoner of Zenda and Swiss Family Robinson. One thing it was very notable for is that it is where Frank Bellamy worked on strips like Robin Hood and King Arthur, honing his craft to such an extent he was transferred to the Eagle to work on classics like Heros the Spartan, Fraser of Africa and the life of Churchill.
He had a short spell on Dan Dare as Frank Hampson had left and the publishers thought it needed revamped (there was a short spell when both worked on Dare when Bellamy was introduced). However despite his artwork being of its usual excellent quality, it was too much of a change of style too quickly and the revamp wasn’t a success**. The Eagle was to slowly decline in the sixties.
**Re-reading my Dan Dare collection recently, I was able to see that one real problem was that the “studio” was still around when Bellamy took over and they are not pure Bellamy productions: for every 2 pages maybe a page is pure Bellamy, the other studio artists using the old style. Sometimes there seems to be mixtures of both with for instance Bellamy pencils being inked and coloured by others and then Bellamy inking or colouring studio pencils and layouts. There can be seen variations of quality in the older Hampson-run productions due to different artists being used but there is never the same sharp variation in style that jumps out at you as with Bellamy. The stories are still pretty good though.
Look and Learn & Ranger
Now these are two comics I definitely do have a clear memory of. Especially Look and Learn which I loved. I thought the illustrations were terrific and when it first came out I was just getting to that age when one takes an interest in the wider world so found many of the factual articles of great interest. On top of that, being “educational” my dad would buy it for me leaving me more money for comics like the Valiant and the Victor. In 1965 (when I was now a teenager) Ranger comic came out. It was another glossy production with a mixture of factual articles, photo features and comic strips designed to appeal to boys.
Nowadays it is best remembered as the birthplace of the classic science fiction strip The Rise and Fall of the Trigan Empire originally drawn by Don Lawrence though Ranger only ran for about a year until merged with Look and Learn.
The strip itself ran continuously from issue 1 of Ranger until the final issue of Look and Learn in 1982. Being a SciFi fan back then I really lapped this one up. Great stories and great artwork by Lawrence which although a little stilted in style (this improved over time) was beautifully painted in full colour and fitted well into the high quality production of the magazine. A fine glossy production in the tradition of the Eagle’s great days. (There’s a wonderful – but very expensive – box set of the whole run by Lawrence, beautifully reproduced).
TV Century 21: a media production
Many comics came and went in the decades from the fifties on: some lasted a good while, some had short lives and merged with other comics. Some were pretty good but most were standard British comic productions: cheap paper, mostly Black and White illustrations. The stories – even though some were very well done – were usually the standard UK fare: football, sports and war stories with the occasional SF/Fantasy series like the Steel Claw, Eye of Zoltec and Janus Stark. None however matched Eagle type quality until TV Century 21 came along.
TV Century 21 lasted right through the sixties. Ranger on the other hand merged with Look and Learn after only a year’s life. This is basically because despite it’s quality production Ranger, with the exception of the unique Trigan Empire, was much too old fashioned. It’s creators, though well intentioned, hadn’t realised that the new generation of comic book reader’s tastes were changing.
TV Century 21 had a guaranteed audience from the start because it was almost completely given over to strips based on the highly popular Gerry Andersen TV series, such as Fireball XL5, Thunderbirds, Stingray and Captain Scarlet. But unlike previous comics which based themselves on shows on the media – like Radio Fun, Film Fun and TV Comic – it didn’t rely only on the popularity of the TV shows. Instead it deliberately created a world in which all the Andersen characters co-existed and developed a line of strips using top artists of the period in a high-quality production.
Creators such as Frank Bellamy (who drew classic two-page-spread adventures for Thunderbirds), John Cooper, Eric Eden, Ron and Gerry Embleton, Richard E. Jennings, Mike Noble, Ron Turner, Don Harley and Keith Watson (the latter two once part of the Dan Dare studio). They produced well written, well drawn and beautifully coloured science fiction stories produced on a decent, slightly glossy paper which showed off the fine colouring of the artwork. The stories were able to add physical action and characterisation to the protagonists (not possible with TV puppets) to illustrated versions of the special effects, explosions and so forth of the TV series. So in a way were able to produce stories that were in some ways superior to their originals. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/TV_Century_21
Warrior – the last gasp
From TV 21 to the Warrior seems a big jump and in a way it is. However although printed all black and white Warrior was a high quality production both in art work and stories, in a different way as much a quality production as the works mentioned above.
A simple list of names shows how important this comic was. It didn’t last long – a little over 2 years – but it had a long term impact. Artists working on it included Alan Davis, David Lloyd, Gary Leach, John Ridgeway and John Bolton. Writers included Alan Moore and Grant Morrison and stories such as a revived Marvel Man (later Miracle Man and a precursor of new super-hero themes for decades after), V for Vendetta and Bogey were highly influential long after the comic book’s untimely demise.
Of course there were other comics at this period, some well worth a mention. None fall into the same high artistic quality of the above but some developed a new style and in some ways a new more mature (for children’s comics) manner of storytelling and this makes them worth mentioning here.
Warlord, Battle, Action Force and 2000 AD.
All these comics had their origins in the 1970s so why do they appear at the end here? Basically because the main theme is about quality art and production and these while all well made were not exceptional in that sphere. However they do represent an important change in comics for kids. They were obviously influenced by the trend in movies for a grittier realism and more realistic violence to be shown (which many kids would have seen, accompanied by an adult). This led to a more serious style of story than was usual in earlier children’s stories, sometimes ‘darker’. But it also led to some very good (and mature) storytelling as seen in Charley’s War, HMS Nightshade and The General Dies at Dawn.
2000 AD followed, cashing in on the new popularity of SF movies. 2000 AD stories often had a blend of action and horror with a touch of humour and irony (Judge Dredd is an obvious example). 2000 AD is the only one that has survived to this day having become something of a cult (which is probably why it survives where nearly all other British comics have died off). However these new (then) war and action themed comics and 2000 AD became a training ground for a generation of especially talented comic book creators, such as Pat Mills, John Wagner, Alan Moore and many others.
This included many later top artists. However I’m not including any coverage of what they did here because they really hit their stride when picked up by US comic companies looking for new talent. With the brief exception of Warrior there was no single ‘class’ comic – yes there were comics with some excellent stories and sometimes exceptional art but no comic that did that regularly and as a unity throughout. Perhaps it might have happened – in other circumstances this generation of comic talents might have created one or more comics to match the Eagle and the like. But comics in the UK were in a slow spiral of decay and the best prospects for these talents lay in the new US teen and adult market.
At the start of this blog I stated this isn’t a blog by an expert but, by someone talking about what he remembers of comics when he was a kid (and a big kid). A bit like the history of 1066 and All That – though I’ve double-checked my memory where I could (online and via books of collected comics I possess) so it’s a bit more accurate than that. Though probably not as amusing. So there are gaps in the info given in the various posts in this blog. To fill them, and give yourself a double-check on what’s in this blog, look out other blogs. One of the best is here: BLIMEY!