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British Comics:

75 Years of Fun & Thrills

The Royal Mail is issuing a set of ten stamps celebrating British comics on March 20th 2012, each showing a much-loved character with a cover of the comic they appeared in behind them. Here’s the cover-featured four-page article I was asked to write about these for the March issue of The British Philatelic Bulletin, Volume 49, Number 7, under the title ‘High jinx and spiffing fun!’ and illustrated here with images from the original artwork and comics. To discover much more about British comics, be sure to check out my profusely illustrated, oversized book with Peter Stanbury, Great British Comics: A Century of Ripping Yarns and Wizard Wheezes.

When exactly was The Golden Age of British Comics? One answer might be when you were 10 or 12 years old, or whatever age it was when you first discovered your favourite comic character. That early epiphany can be so powerful, it can imprint a lifelong companion in your imagination. Desperate Dan (The Dandy), Dennis the Menace (The Beano), Dan Dare (Eagle), Beryl the Peril (The Topper), Roy of the Rovers (Tiger), the Four Marys (Bunty), Buster (Buster), the Steel Claw (Valiant), Nurse Nancy (Twinkle) and Judge Dredd (2000AD) are the ten much-loved figures that appear on the Royal Mail’s new set of commemorative stamps. All have had an enduring appeal to their original junior readership, lasting well beyond childhood, and in several cases continuing across generations to today.

Another answer would be 75 years ago, the year when the canny family business and newspaper and periodical publishing giant, D.C. Thomson’s in Dundee, first tempted thousands of children to part with two whole pennies of their pocket money - which would have bought them a gigantic bag of toffees and gobstoppers - for a brand new weekly comic, The Dandy. This now seems an odd choice of name, as the word ‘dandy’ was still a derisive term for a narcissistc fop. This was the dawn of a Golden Age, as Thomson’s reinvented their proven weekly newsprint format with bright primary colours on the covers, which they had used since 1921 for their boys’ story papers, Adventure, The Rover, The Wizard, The Vanguard (dropped after two years), The Skipper and The Rover. The Dandy was the first of their weeklies to concentrate more on comedy and especially the popular illustrated cartoon strips.

Comedy was in the Scottish air. As well as test-running some humorous comics in their mostly text-based story papers, from the mid-1930s onwards, Thomson’s had found that the weekly strips in their Fun Section of The Sunday Post newspaper - famously the distinctly Scottish larks of The Broons and Oor Wullie, drawn by Dudley D. Watkins - were proving hugely popular with readers young and old. Keenly aware of their competitors, Thomson’s editorial team must have been aware of the soaring success of Mickey Mouse Weekly too, also priced at tuppence. This classy package, launched in luxurious, crisp photogravure colours and halftones by the American owners in 1934, mostly featured work by British cartoonists. 

Thomson’s knew that the timing of The Dandy‘s first issue was critical, so they released it on Friday December 4th 1937 - on the last weekday of school and just in time for the weekend - as an early Christmas gift for children to give to themselves, or ask their parents to buy for them. Significantly, they put a wordless comic on the front cover. Like a storyboard or stills from a short film, Korky the Kat, a feline counterpart of Mickey Mouse, as graphic, black-and-white and animated, steals a fish from a restaurant chef, replacing it with a stuffed, ornamental one from a display case. A fuming diner gets the stuffed version, while Korky enjoys the real thing. No matter what their literacy level was, any kid could enjoy the visual slapstick unfolding over the nine panels. Among the fresh characters inside was Desperate Dan, a superman before Superman, and a cowboy from Cactusville, part Wild West, part Thirties Dundee. Another attraction, of course, was the free gift, in The Dandy‘s case a tin whistle called the ‘Express Whistler’. The tradition of gifts continues in today’s comics, although they can often be bought more for their gift than for the magazine attached.

Countless characters before and since The Dandy‘s launch have built a loyal following for Britain’s comics, delivered to newsagents or dropping through the letterbox regularly every week, or fortnightly during wartime paper rationing. Thanks to the post-war baby-boom, there were even more children hungry for entertainment in the early Fifties. This Golden Age saw a new approach to humour in Dennis the Menace, who stormed into The Beano in 1951. The word ‘beano’ is short for a bean-feast, a colloquial term for a festive occasion. It is also the name of a dietary supplement used to reduce flatulence, but it is more likely that the former definition inspired the comics’s title. Dennis the Menace was drawn by David Law from a kid’s perspective and more rooted in young readers’ reality than magical fantasy. His success sparked hordes of mischief-makers, including the outrageously naughty, proto-feminist Beryl the Peril, also by Law, who arrived in The Topper in 1953.

Meanwhile, in the Eagle, launched in 1950, Dan Dare offered a vision of an optimistic, technologically advanced tomorrow, anticipating the space race. Frank Hampson and his studio of assistants painted in dazzling colours and with an extraordinary hyper-realism based on photo references of scale models and family and friends dressed in strange costume. Science fiction had never looked so utterly convincing. This ‘Pilot of the Future’ has lived on into the 21st century, through various makeovers to go on to star un computer-animated cartoons and hard-hitting graphic novels. Eagle raised the stakes in boys’ comics and among the rivals that followed was Tiger in 1954, whose biggest star was ace footballer Roy Race of the Melchester Rovers, another comics legend who survived losing his goal-scoring left foot in a helicoptor crash, going on to manage an Italian team. Roy became so popular that he spawned his own comic.

Comics specifically aimed at girls also blossomed in the Fifties, led by School Friend in 1950 and joined by Thomson’s Bunty in 1958, home to The Four Marys until the comic’s demise in 2001. In the same way that Dennis the Menace’s madcap pranks resonated with readers’ everyday lives, so this quartet of pupils - one aristocratic, two middle-class and one working-class, all at St. Elmo’s girls-only boarding school - came to reflect readers’ experiences of class difference. To target pre-school girls, Thomson’s also devised the charming Twinkle in 1968, in which Nurse Nancy and her grandfather ran a hospital for toys.

The Swinging Sixties brought yet another Golden Age when the cheeky cloth-capped Buster - unofficially the son of Reg Smythe’s Andy Capp in The Daily Mirror - arrived, headlining his own weekly. The superhero and spy crazes spawned a host of weird, uniquely British heroes, such as the stretchable Victorian escapologist Janus Stark, the pointy-eared super-fiend The Spider, the alternately miniature then monstrous Galaxus, and The Steel Claw, initially an invisible master criminal but later a costumed crusader, dynamically illustrated by Spain’s Jesus Blasco.

From his first appearance in the second issue of 2000AD in 1977, Judge Dredd was a striking symbol of a dystopian police state, and like the best science fiction an allegory for its times, in this case the climate that led to Thatcherism. Still relevant, Dredd’s haunting world sometimes comes uncomfortably close to our present day. There have been other excellent comics since 2000AD, from the adults-only cheekiness of Viz, launched in 1979, to the brand-new The Phoenix this year. But these Top Ten titles featured in the new stamp issue sum up perfectly all the Golden Ages of Great British Comics. They have lasted 75 years - and counting…

Posted: March 16, 2012

This article originally appeared in the British Philatelic Bulletin.


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