Beyond the endless TV mags, titillating rags and metrosexual men’s handbooks, I spied a tiny handful of what used to be called comics on the newsstand the other day. All bar one notable exception appeared to be movie merchandise, just another spin-off with the same limited shelf-life of the film they were promoting. How different from the reading material today’s parents, grandparents and great-grandparents were brought up on, for one British industry that benefitted from the immediate post-war baby-boom quicker than any other was the comics business. A sudden upsurge in the audience for its output sent circulation figures soaring in the 1950s; the two pre-war instigators of the fast-paced speech bubble form of strip, The Dandy and The Beano, were selling 4 million copies a week between them throughout the decade. Characters such as Desperate Dan, Korky the Cat, Lord Snooty and Biffo the Bear were joined by Dennis the Menace and his female tomboy equivalent Minnie the Minx as well as the Bash Street Kids to usher in a golden age for the Great British Comic.
Dundee’s DC Thompson was the publisher of several Scottish newspapers and periodicals and had a strong, moralistic streak born of its Presbyterian roots, which makes it all the more surprising it should give birth to so many anarchic characters in the pages of its comics. For a company that didn’t even allow unions, let alone credit artists while owning full copyright of their material, DC Thompson attracted a quietly radical group of subversive cartoonists whose furtive imaginations created anti-authoritarian figures that got away with things their readership never could. Pillars of the adult community, whether teachers, policemen or simply parents, were all outwitted and made to look idiotic by the mischievous kids conceived by the likes of Dudley Watkins, Leo Baxendale and Ken Reid. At a time when a clip round the ear or six-of-the-best were what children could expect as an adult response to even the most modest inkling of rebellion, it’s no wonder they took these little libertines in stripy red-and-black pullovers to their hearts.
The Dandy and The Beano as well as DC Thompson’s post-war additions to the comic catalogue, The Beezer and Topper, were within every child’s pocket-money range, always the most affordable publications on the market and specialising in a uniquely British form of entertainment. Following the moral panic over the imported EC horror comics in the early 50s, the embargo on US titles was waived at the end of the decade when the two great publishing houses of American comics, DC and Marvel, unleashed their output on the British market. They boasted full colour and primarily featured strongman superheroes in tights, but were smaller, more expensive and monthly with it. British comics were cheaper and weekly. Joining DC Thompson in a booming industry during the 60s were the likes of IPC and Odhams, publishers of Buster, Wham!, Pow!, and Zip. They didn’t all specialise in humour, however; comics here catered for every taste, every contemporary childhood interest, and both genders.
There were the boys’ comics that capitalised on the fascination with the war their readership had missed out on – Victor, Battle, Commando and Warlord, as well as ones that covered a wider spectrum of adventure, such as The Hotspur, The Hornet, The Wizard, Jag, Jet, Valiant, Lion and Tiger; there were ones that blended action with C-of-E-style educational aspects such as The Eagle and Look and Learn; there were ones that drew on the first real competition the domination of comics faced in the 60s, television – TV Comic, TV Century 21, TV Tornado, TV Action; there were comics aimed at pre-school children, such as Jack and Jill, Teddy Bear, Bobo Bunny, Robin, Playhour, Playland and Pippin as well as ones that were particularly for pre-school girls, such as Twinkle and Bonnie; and, of course, there were numerous comics aimed at those Daughters of Eve already enrolled into the school system, all of which upheld the curious tradition of being named after girls – Judy, Jinty, Bunty, Tina, Tammy, Mandy.
Comic sales in this country reached their final peak in the early 70s, when ten million a week were flying off the newsstands. Demand was so high that a flurry of new titles were added to an increasingly-overcrowded market, including such memorable ones as Whizzer & Chips, Cor!, Knockout, Shiver & Shake, Whoopee!, Krazy, and Roy of The Rovers. After the likes of late 60s titles Fantastic and Terrific had reprinted stories starring some of their more celebrated superheroes, Marvel established their own British branch in 1972 and quickly flooded newsagent’s racks with a range of popular titles that introduced many readers to the Marvel universe, increasing the strain on pocket-money. Like many children belonging to the comic generations, choosing which weekly to splash out 3, 4 or 5p on was a constant conundrum. I used to chop and change from month-to-month, figuring if I couldn’t buy them all every week I could at least sample as many different titles one at a time within a calendar year. There were also the holiday specials during the summer, larger and thicker editions of the regular weeklies, and not forgetting the hardback annuals that were usually the most eagerly-awaited Xmas gifts.
The alternatives to comics as the 1970s progressed widened to encompass the teen end of pop culture, especially where a female readership were concerned, and pop elements crept into most of the girls’ titles as well as dominating the likes of Jackie as puberty beckoned. Look-in enjoyed a long run by blending pop with TV, attempting to exploit the popularity of two entertainment mediums that were sucking away the lifeblood of the comics industry. A pointer to the future for the genre appeared in the mid-70s when IPC unleashed a notoriously violent weekly called Action, one that appeared to reflect the times a little too closely for moral watchdogs, who brought pressure on the company to cease publication of a title that had aimed to approach comics with a more adult sensibility. A couple of years later, IPC solved the problem by placing their cynical vision of the 70s in the future and calling it 2000AD, a title that remains the only survivor from the last golden age of British comics.
The talented team of young writers and artists that worked on 2000AD, including Alan Moore, helped pave the way for the arrival of the graphic novel in the 80s, at a moment when the traditional British comics industry was sliding into terminal decline. All long-running titles bar the twin foundation stones of the format, The Dandy and The Beano, had disappeared by the end of the twentieth century, and even the former finally vanished into cyberspace come 2012. Political correctness didn’t affect the success of the graphic novel, but it impacted on the remaining comics aimed at children. No longer could Desperate Dan guzzle a dozen cow pies or Lord Snooty gorge himself on a mouth-watering banquet amidst an obesity epidemic, no longer could Dennis the Menace receive the slipper or the Bash Street Kids receive the cane. Now that adults had been stripped of the authority these kid’s heroes had always rebelled against, how could children rejoice in characters getting away with what they themselves were now able to do without much in the way of opposition?
Despite the fact that comics always seemed to be dismissed by parents as being responsible for filling their children’s heads with too much imagination – outrageous! – they were an extremely canny vehicle for kids to learn to read. I could read before I started school mainly because I devoured comics ravenously. I don’t recall much talk of poor literacy levels back then. From the first issue of The Dandy in 1937 to the first issue of 2000AD in 1977, British comics were integral to British childhoods, especially when there were few other outlets for escapism on offer. Computer games may take today’s children into worlds that their parents and grandparents could only visualise in the pages of 2000AD or The Eagle, but the variety available within those pages encompassed a far wider world of possibilities for the infant imagination than slaughtering zombies. Not for the first time, I’m glad my childhood took place a long, long time ago in a universe far, far away.
PS: For further reading, this website is pretty indispensable…http://www.comicpriceguide.co.uk/