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A Century Of Ripping Yarns & Wizard Wheezes

Celebrating A Century Of Ripping Yearns & Wizard Wheezes

by Paul Gravett & Peter Stanbury
Aurum Press
$35.00, £18.99
ISBN: 1 84513 170 3

Buy from:,

Great British Comics transports you through more than one hundred years of Britain’s bizarre weekly comics, newspaper strips, magazines and graphic novels from their secret origins to today’s cutting edge. On this journey you can step into the rural wonderlands of Rupert Bear and the blasted outback of Tank Girl, experience the glistening spaceships of Dan Dare and the Mega-City mean streets of Judge Dredd, and marvel at the knobbly knees of Dennis the Menace and the tight black leather of Modesty Blaise. Extraordinary, exciting, and often eccentric, many of these cartoon-strip stars have been exported and translated worldwide and adapted for radio, television, and movies, becoming timeless icons and familiar friends who accompany millions of readers during their childhoods and throughout their lives.

This engaging, lavishly illustrated survey reveals how the characters in British comics have reflected social and cultural revolutions from the nineteenth century up to the present day. With access to rarely seen artefacts and original artwork, this book also delves behind the scenes to explore the fascinating lives of the men and women who devised the comics, sometimes unnamed and unrecognised. Discover how they visualised the spirit and imagination of the nation, and how, like distorting funhouse mirrors, the panels in their comics show us our foibles, our dreams, our fears, and ourselves.

Contrary to some pundits’ claims that British comics are “pretty much dead in the water” or “down the tubes”, with my new book Great British Comics I want to show how British comics today have continued and, if you look, are thriving, not just on the newsstands but also via other channels, for example in graphic novels, the indie and small press, in strips in newspapers and magazines, new ‘Original English Language’ manga, or via American companies and of course online. Great British Comics is not a misty-eyed nostalgia trip; it looks back with a clarity of vision to the past and comes bang up to date to show the continuities and changes in themes and styles across a century or more. More…

Peter Stanbury and I have been brewing a book on British comics for several years now, but it has been difficult to line up a publisher here, as so many of them are reluctant to invest in creating such a highly illustrated book without the support of an American co-edition. Luckily, Aurum were not deterred when some US companies decided not to do the book, complaining, rather absurdly, that it was “too British”! I’m convinced that there is a real interest here in Britain, as well as around the Commonwealth, to support a book on our own comics culture regardless of the US market. As it turns out, at the same time Aurum are also releasing an annual-style book on British sports comics called Sporting Supermen and two slipcased facsimiles of the first Dandy and Broons annuals from D.C. Thomson. There does seem to be an overdue resurgence of enthusiasm and appreciation for our heritage.

Several new ideas went into creating this new book. One was trying to revive and make sense of comics from the past. To many readers, including British people, these old comics can seem pretty alien, almost as baffling as manga. We want to put them into their social and cultural contexts, so we’ve sourced some related photos, documents, toys, etc to show alongside them. Photo research turned up some amazing period pieces. The husband of a friend of my Mum’s had a photo of himself as a boy from the Daily Mirror queuing for “rationed” comics in 1943. We found a huge seaside promotional shot from 1955 of dozens of young Eagle and Girl readers waving their favourite weeklies on the beach. Time-capsule shots like these show comics as part of the everyday way of life.

Another innovation is showing original artwork. This has been tried a bit before in books on British comics, but I don’t know of any other book with such a range of original artwork, reproduced as crisply as possible so you can see loads of detail. Often a lot is lost in the repro process, especially on full colour painted art, and even more can go if you shoot from the printed page. Collectors, artists and publishers were amazingly generous in lending their gems, from Frank Hampson, Frank Bellamy, Ron Embleton, Dudley Watkins, John Millar Watt, to Leo Baxendale, Ken Reid, Davey Law, Sydney Jordan, Mike McMahon, Joe Colquhoun and more.

It’s also been a revelation discovering from experts like Alan Clark, Steve Holland, David Roach, Craig Conlan and others just who some of these artists are. A few artists were allowed to sign their work, others, say in Eagle or of course 2000AD, were properly credited. But for decades, artists (and writers too) often worked in total anonymity. The sad result is that a lot of truly amazing British talents are unnamed, unknown, unappreciated and risk being forgotten entirely. Some of them have no idea of the impact their work made on young readers and the following that is still out there for it. For example, I know readers would love to meet Shirley Bellwood, who drew the weekly covers and cover paintings for annuals for Misty, which terrorised girls, and some boys, in the 1980s. I’m so happy that nearly all of the artists with work in this book are identified, some properly for the first time ever in a mass-market book.

The other concept driving this was not to gaze wistfully into yesterday but to bring the story right up to date and counter the doom-and-gloom merchants who insist that British comics today are “pretty much dead in the water” or “down the tubes”. We may never get back to the earlier decades when a huge variety and volume of comics crowded the newsstands. But by looking a bit further afield, to the small press, newspapers and magazines, onthe internet or in the US market, you soon find all kinds of vibrant creativity out there. As far as I’m concerned, a lot of comics by British creators published in the US are culturally British rather than American anyway, so I’ve included great stuff like Paul Grist’s Jack Staff, Andi Watson’s Little Star, Grant Morrison and Philip Bond’s Vimanarama and others that are rooted in life and people here, but just happen to be put out by American companies.

Rather than attempting any sort of single, sweeping, encylopaedic, all-in-one condensation of comics history, which others have tried more or less successfully, Peter and I are seeing our books on comics as part of larger part-work, that will hopefully grow into a series of five, ten, or maybe more different titles, each on a different aspect but building up into a multi-volume set of comics history and appreciation.

Like many people in Britain, my earliest comics-reading experiences were of British comics - I grew up on Beano and Dandy before being dazzled by TV21 and Look & Learn - but so many British comic fans become British fans of American comics. 2000AD, first and foremost, and later Warrior, Escape, Deadline and others did dramatically change all that. For the first time, a new readership was admiring our own homegrown talent. I remember the buzz queuing up in Forbidden Planet to meet Bolland, McMahon, O’Neill to sign those first annuals. This was a new fandom and these were our own superstar creators. Even so, most comic shops in Britain today are essentially American comic shops. I hope this book, and the Comics Britannia BBC series, might encourage a few shops to try appealing to the public by stocking more British material, because there’s a grwoing wealth of first-rate reprints and brand new stuff to offer.


With thanks to contributions from David Slinn, David Ashford, Steve Holland and Marc-André Dumonteil.

Page 4:
Caption for photograph on Page 2, the date of The Beezer issue is 12 May 1956.

Page 6:
Boys’ World cover is drawn by Edwin Phillips.

Page 13:
Egmont’s Toxic has been running since 2002, not 2004.

Page 37:
The story that Graham Dury dropped The Fat Slags from Viz was apparently just a myth perpetrated by a maverick press officer.

Page 51:
Adam Ant illustrated is drawn by Maureen and Gordon Gray.

Page 69:
Tim’s real name is William Timym, not Timyn.

Page 88:
Sandy Dean’s Schooldays is drawn by Bruce MacDonald.

Page 113:
Cap Condor: Art by Neville Wilson

Page 114:
Robot Archie: Art by Ted Kearon

Page 138:
This particular Pansy Potter strip is not by Hugh McNeil. To be identified.

Page 140:
This particular ‘Four Marys’ is not by Bill Holroyd. To be identified.

Page 140:
Jill Crusoe: Art by Reginald B. Davis.

Page 142:
The Sue Day Annual cover: Art may not be by Bill Lacey. To be confirmed or identified. Cover of June and School Friend Library 455 is drawn by Peter Kay.

Page 149:
Slaves of War Orphan Farm is drawn by Desmond Walduck.

Page 158:
Dick Turpin (TPL 223) is not by Derek Eyles but by Stephen Chapman.

Page 161:
His Sporting Lordship: Art by Mike Western.

Page 164:
Shipwrecked Circus is drawn by Paddy Brennan.

Page 167:
Roy of the Rovers Annual 1982, cover and left spread drawing of the team appear to be drawn by David Sque. Tiger April 16 1977 page is drawn by Yvonne Hutton.

Page 177:
Charlie Peace is drawn by Jack Pamby.

Page 184:
The French name of ‘Gaty’ is Gatignol.


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My Books

1001 Comics  You Must Read Before You Die edited by Paul Gravett

Comics Unmasked by Paul Gravett and John Harris Dunning from The British Library

Comics Art by Paul Gravett from Tate Publishing

Featured Books

Great British Comics:
Celebrating A Century Of
Ripping Yarns
& Wizard Wheezes

by Paul Gravett
& Peter Stanbury

True Brit
edited by George Khoury
TwoMorrows Publishing