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True Brits:

Taking Pride In The Best Of British Comics

There’s nothing wrong with a little bit of patriotic pride in our countries past glories in comics, although it seems UK comic fans often take this heritage too much for granted, or undervalue it, even dismiss it, preferring the latest imported comic books or manga.

Sometimes it is left to a few foreign Anglophiles, like DC’s Bob Wayne or Dutch Rob Van Bavel, to help us appreciate the treasures under our very noses.

Never underestimate the power of nostalgia, when it comes to those formative experiences of reading your first comics as a kid. I think this accounts for a lot of the buzz surrounding the six-part mini-series Albion from DC/Wildstorm, a plot by Alan Moore to resuscitate some of the long-lost heroes of IPC boys’ weeklies Lion, Buster and Valiant.

It’s about time someone got around to rescuing great British eccentrics like Kelly’s Eye and Robot Archie, lost in newsprint limbo for much too long. Goodness knows what American will make of these bizarre characters, but thousands of guys 30-something and over, in Britain and all around the Commonwealth, had their imaginations permanently warped by them and would thrill to see them in action again.

If the word gets out, could Albion tempt this potential audience back into comics? That is what Titan Books is hoping, when they launch a new reprint range with collections of The Steel Claw and The Spider.

So what were you favourites growing up? My Mum and Dad used to buy the weekly Look & Learn in the hope that my brother and I would read the educational pages, but for us the main attraction was always The Trigan Empire, an incongruous mix of swords and rocket ships, ancient Rome and space opera.

The Trigan Empire

After Don Lawrence had spent years painting two colour pages every week of The Trigan Empire for a flat fee and no ownership or royalties, he turned his back on the exploitive British publishers and found the rewards and recognition he deserved in the Netherlands illustrating the sumptuous SF fantasy Storm. Of his 80 or so Trigan Empire stories, only the first handful have ever been reprinted here in book form.

But Lawrence built up such a huge following across Europe, centred in The Netherlands, that Rob van Bavel, Dutch organiser of the Don Lawrence Fan Club, has launched a complete re-edition of the saga in 12 large-format deluxe hardbacks, two each year, to conclude in 2009.

This sort of quality doesn’t come cheap, but the standard of reproduction could not be better, the majority of pages pin-sharp and shot directly from the original artwork. Re-reading these tales, I can’t help noticing some glaring inconsistencies and dubious right-wing politics, but they don’t take away the warm glow of finding childhood memories again.

Lawrence’s admirers can see his original art and a recreation of his studio by visiting the newly opened Dutch comics museum in Gröningen.

Another Anglophile is American George Khoury, who has compiled True Brit, an overdue celebration, from TwoMorrows Publishing, of 21 of the UK’s greatest comic artists. While George shrewdly concentrates most of its pages on the more familiar current hotshots drawing for America like Frank Quitely and Bryan Hitch and the first Brit invasion of Brian Bolland, Kevin O’Neill, Dave Gibbons, David Lloyd and others, the interviews do make it clear how all of them have been inspired more or less directly by the massive heritage of British comics.

This is represented by David Roach’s concise, precise 30-page British comics history, by tributes to Leo Baxendale, Frank Bellamy, Ron Embleton, Frank Hampson and Ken Reid and short interviews with John Burns, Sydney Jordan, Don Lawrence (sadly, his last) and Mike Noble.

Let down only by a lack of colour (only four glorious pages), True Brit crams every page with information and imagery essential to appreciate the unique visions of British artists, past and present. The stellar roll call of those left out makes me cry out for a second volume, please!

Fortunately a few UK publishers see the value in recovering our classics for the next generation. The solid foundations of Titan Books were always their reprints of the best from 2000AD. This year Titan renewed their commitment to the past by releasing handsome hardbacks of Frank Hampson’s Dan Dare, his utterly convincing vista into the future begun in The Eagle in 1950 and light years ahead of anything seen in comics at the time, and of Pat Mills and Joe Colqhoun’s Charley’s War from Battle, surely the most moving record on a human scale of the First World War in English-language comics.

Dan Dare

Hawk Books’ Dan Dare collections are long out of print and now command stratospheric e-Bay prices, so these Titan versions are really welcome and come with extras, including a previously censored Hampson interview disclosing the tragedy of his attempted suicide. With Modesty Blaise and James Bond available again from Titan, it’s surprising how much female flesh gets bared in our newspaper strips.

By the Forties, Norman Pett’s Daily Mirror heroine Jane revealed far more than would ever be allowed in puritan America. Jane was censored and cancelled in the US, but over here she became the darling of the Forces.

Artist Pett came to rely on his life-model Chrystabel Leighton-Porter, photographing and sketching her in the nude. Chrystabel went on to perform for the troops and public with her faithful dachshund Fritzi, frequently upsetting local authorities with her cheeky revues.

Historian Andy Saunders has thoroughly researched Chrystabel’s life, and that of Jane and her creator, in Jane: A Pin Up At War, a fascinating
160-page feast of rare art, photos and anecdotes.


But Jane was a saint compared to the outrageous Fat Slags from Viz, whose live-action movie mercifully vanished from our screens in its opening week. It’s 25 years since young Chris Donald threw together the first issue in his bedroom and in Rude Kids he pens his candid and very funny 370-page biography and records the insane rise to "fame and fartune" of Viz, which peaked at 1.25 million copies. Now semi-retired, Donald works in a second-hand bookshop, which he admits is overrun with old Viz annuals they can’t sell.

There’s more Viz visuals, roughs and rarities, in William Cook’s silver-plated artbook 25 Years Of Viz. We wouldn’t have Viz without the DC Thomson institutions of The Beano and Dandy and as a final tip, don’t miss the Classic annual spotlighting the Fifties, when both weeklies could top two million copies, for pages of Davey Law, Leo Baxendale, Dudley Watkins and more in their prime.

Now imagine if Thomsons began complete compilations devoted to each of their much-loved masterpieces - well, I can dream, can’t I?

Posted: December 24, 2006

The original version of this article appeared in 2005 in Comics International, the UK’s leading magazine about comics, graphic novels and manga.


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Featured Books

True Brit
by George Khoury

The Steel Claw
by Ken Bulmer
& Jesus Blasco

The Spider:
King Of Crooks

by Jerry Siegel, Ted Cowan
& Reg Bunn

The Trigan Empire
by Don Lawrence

Dan Dare
by Frank Hampson

Charley’s War
by Pat Mills
& Joe Colqhoun

Modesty Blaise
by Peter O’Donnell
& Jim Holdaway

James Bond
by Jim Lawrence
& Yaroslav Horak

Jane: A Pin
Up At War

by Andy Saunders

Rude Kids
by Chris Donald

25 Years Of Viz
by William Cook