On Eagle’s Wings:
The British Comics Boom 1950-1969
As part of the Victoria & Albert Museum’s programme in this Olympic year, celebrating British Design 1948-2012: Innovation in the Modern Age, a small related exhibition entitled ‘On Eagle’s Wings’ was presented in Room 74 on Level 3 earlier this year (above), spotlighting British adventure comics from 1950 to 1969, the lifetime of the seminal weekly Eagle). In five glass-fronted cases were displayed both printed periodicals, most from the V&A’s own collections in the National Art Library, as well as Eduardo Paolozzi’s Krazy Kat Archive and the Renier and Rakoff Collections, and some original artworks including four pages lent from Peter and Susan Hampson’s collection of Frank Hampson’s Road of Courage biography of Jesus Christ in Eagle. Here’s an accompanying article which I was commissioned to write for the British Design Issue of V&A Magazine, No. 27, Spring 2012, published under the title (not mine) of ‘Dan Dare versus The Cheap Moral Values’.
Getting up early before school, cycling through all kinds of weather, lugging a heavy bag of newspapers and magazines, and avoiding snapping dogs and letterboxes were all part of a morning’s low-paid labour for a boy or girl with a paper round. But there was always the perk of reading the morning’s latest comics before anyone else, captured by Edwin Phillips in his cover for Boys’ World (above). As some of the first reading matter we choose for ourselves, as visual and verbal storytelling worlds we bring to life, British comics played a special and sometimes formative role in many childhoods. During the Fifties and Sixties, their sales could be phenomenal; in April 1950, the month when Eagle finally took flight, Dundee giant D.C. Thomson’s were selling 1.9 million copies of Dandy a week and 2.3 million of Beano. Hulton Press was a newcomer to the field, so to gauge how many to print of their fledgling title Eagle, they sent out a sampler. When newsagents showed this to their delivery boys, their reaction was so enthusiastic, it culminated in Hulton ordering 900,000 copies of Eagle‘s first issue which flew off the shelves.
While Dan Dare, P.C. 49, Jeff Arnold, Harris Tweed and others were there primarily to entertain, Eagle editor and evangelical entrepreneur Reverend Marcus Morris also positioned the ‘strip cartoon weekly’ to appeal to the conservative middle classes as the antithesis and antidote to the cheap moral values and production values of reprinted American comic books. Debated in Parliament as a corrupting influence, these were vilified by Morris, and by scare stories, for example in Picture Post, a highly popular Hulton Press magazine. In search of alternative models for juvenile comics to advance the mission of his Society of Christian Publicity, Morris may have taken heart from the French weekly Coeurs Vaillants, founded and funded by the Catholic Church since 1929, which republished the adventures of the Belgian boy-reporter Tintin in France. Morris was clearly aware of Hergé‘s wholesome hero, as Eagle was the first to translate him into English in 1951. Morris must have also studied how best-selling Belgian weeklies Tintin and Spirou were combining entertainment and education, including comic-strip life stories of inspirational figures. By adding overtly instructive and improving content, from illustrated back-cover biographies of Winston Churchill or Jesus Christ (Frank Hampson’s Road of Courage original art, above) to cut-away technical drawings (see original art to The Flying Dart by Leslie Ashwell Wood, below), Eagle became the only comic permitted in some households.
Enduring the drab days of post-war rationing and black-and-white television, it was Frank Hampson’s perfectionist and utterly convincing vision of a very British future on the large front cover that really caught a youngster’s eye and fourpence-ha’penny pocket money. Dan Dare was only one of several comics in the smartly designed weekly which were completely painted in rich colours and sharply printed in photogravure on quality paper, far superior to the smudgy, mostly monochrome newsprint of its rivals. There had been photogravure comics in Britain before, notably Mickey Mouse Weekly from 1934 and the post-War Comet and Sun (below). But Hampson and his peers, credited by name in a still largely anonymous field, brought a vibrant palette and painterly technique to adventure comics, unlike anything in the medium at that time. It became a distinctly British school, continued by master draughtsmen Frank Bellamy, Ron Embleton, Don Lawrence, and by their disciples to this day.
Eagle was not alone in transforming comics in the new Elizabethan era. By 1953, veteran editors could no longer plead for a sentimental stay of execution of Comic Cuts, Illustrated Chips and Funny Wonder dating back to the Victorian period. In their wake came fresher titles and genres. Although some editors clung onto the outmoded typeset narration beneath the panels, even when speech balloons and visual storytelling above made them redundant, others like Amalgamated Press’s Ted Holmes developed new formats. He adapted the peculiarly British ‘pocket library’, originally used for text stories, into complete 64-page adventure comics, sometimes starring a single character (see below). These libraries’ many genres were enriched by a wealth of styles, including Septimus Scott’s elegant classicism and Eric Parker’s zesty panache.
Nevertheless, the mainstay of British comics was still the weekly anthology of serials and short strips, which proliferated as publishers catered for television viewers and the female markets. More women contributors started making their mark, such as Evelyn Flinders’ hooded investigators The Silent Three in School Friend and portrait painter June Mendoza’s Belle of the Ballet in Girl, illustrated under the unisex pseudonym Chris Garvey. Teenage girls and young mums loved the new romance weeklies like Romeo, Marilyn, Boyfriend, Valentine and Roxy, where British talents like Norman Lee and Rab Hamilton were spurred on by their stylish Spanish counterparts such as Julio Vivas and Ruiz Pueyo.
Eagle struggled to keep pace with the Sixties. Its demise in 1969 concluded two decades of remarkable production and innovation, when Britain was a world powerhouse of comics design and publishing, commissioning and exporting national and international illustrators as never before or since. An era to remember and celebrate.
Below, for the record and as no details survive on the V&A’s website, I’ve added the exhibition texts and captions composed for each of the exhibition’s five display cases, with some additional credit details courtesy of experts Steve Holland and David Roach.
The 1950s and ‘60s were a high point for British comics. The post-war baby boom created a growing audience of children. As rationing gradually relaxed, they had pocket money to spend again and a wide choice of weekly titles to choose from, many with a circulation of more than half a million copies. In the mid-1950s an estimated 14 million comics were sold a week, and many were swapped and passed through further hands. While old favourites such as The Beano and The Dandy remained popular, the market began to include a relatively new form - the adventure comic. Although British comics can trace their history back to the late 19th century, it was a surprisingly late idea that their content did not have to be ‘comic’. Adventure serials appeared in the weekly story papers, but the successful launch of the adventure comic Eagle in 1950 signalled the demise of the story paper and the rise of the picture paper.
Adventure strips began to appear in British comics in the 1930s. However they became popular during the Second World War when American comic books arrived via American soldiers. American comics were different from the home variety. They were colourful in look and content, and they included various and well established adventure genres. Independent publishers responded - despite paper and ink shortages - producing comic books in the American style into the 1960s. Amalgams of the British and American styles were produced too, notably The Comet, published by J.B. Allen in 1946. Allen’s titles were soon bought up by established comics publisher Amalgamated Press. In 1950 Cowboy Comics introduced a pocket-sized format borrowed from The Sexton Blake Library series of novellas. These ‘Picture Library’ comics allowed for longer, single stories attractive to older readers. The title Commando is still running today.
‘Revenge!’, All True Crime Cases No. 30, November 1948, Leading Comic Corp., New York (part of Atlas Comics), Rakoff Collection
Whiz Comics No. 103, 1948, L. Miller & Son, London, Renier Collection
‘The Swiss Family Robinson’, Art: Bob Wilkin, Fitness and Sun No. 1, 11 November 1947, J.B. Allen, Sale, National Art Library
‘The Golden Scarab’, Art: R. Beaumont, The Comet No. 71, 31 May 1949, Amalgamated Press, London, National Art Library
‘Westward Ho!’, Art: Eric Parker, Knockout Comic No. 416, 15 February 1947, Amalgamated Press, London, National Art Library
‘The Euston Road Mystery’, Art: Eric Parker, Sexton Blake Library, 3rd series, No. 148, 1947, Amalgamated Press, London, Renier Collection
‘Davy Crockett: Indian Fighter’, Art: Sep E. Scott, Cowboy Picture Library, No. 255, 1958, Amalgamated Press, London, Renier Collection
‘Queen of Darkness’, Top Three No. 101, 1965, Famepress, London, Renier Collection
‘Age of Agony’, Tales of Terror No. 10, 1966, MV Features, London, Renier Collection
‘Low Level Lanc’, Art: Ken Barr, Commando No. 263, 1967, DC Thomson, London/Dundee, Krazy Kat Arkive
‘Lieutenant Trouble’, Art: Lopez Espi, Commando No. 370, 1968, DC Thomson, London/Dundee, Krazy Kat Arkive
The new direction in comics was not seen by all as a positive development. A Merseyside clergyman, Marcus Morris, was appalled by some of the content but inspired by the imagery. Together with artist Frank Hampson he set out to use comic-style artwork to tell the ‘clean and exciting’ adventure stories typical of the story papers. He persuaded Hulton Press, publisher of Picture Post magazine, to back him. The result was Eagle. Tabloid-sized and in colourful photogravure, Eagle would have stood out on newsagents’ shelves even without a confident marketing campaign. It sold out its print run and opened up a new market for boys’ comics. The undoubted star was Hampson’s Dan Dare, who led a strong line-up of strips and features. Also important was the Eagle Club which engaged readers and promoted a code of behaviour.
‘Dan Dare: Pilot of the Future’, Art and Story: Frank Hampson, Eagle 21 April 1950 No. 2, Hulton Press, London, National Art Library
‘Dan Dare: Pilot of the Future’, Art and Story: Frank Hampson, Eagle 10 August 1951 Vol. 2, no. 18, Hulton Press, London, National Art Library:
‘Dan Dare: Pilot of the Future’, Layout: Frank Hampson, Eagle 29 September 1950 No. 25, Hulton Press, London, National Art Library
‘Underground Train Control’, Art: Leslie Ashwell Wood, and ‘Luck of the Legion: Malagasy Mask’, Art: Martin Aitchison, Story: Geoffrey Bond, Eagle 3 July 1953 Vol. 4, no. 13, Hulton Press, London, National Art Library
‘The Happy Warrior’, Art: Frank Bellamy, Story: Clifford Makins, Eagle 23 August 1958 Vol. 9, no. 34, Hulton Press, London, National Art Library
‘Readers’ Efforts’, including submission by Gerald Scarfe, Eagle 7 November 1952 Vol. 3, no. 31, Hulton Press, London, National Art Library
Christmas supplement, Eagle 28 November 1952 Vol. 3, no. 34, Hulton Press, London, National Art Library
Dan Dare Rocket Gun, Merit, Krazy Kat Arkive
‘Dan Dare: Pilot of the Future in Safari in Space’, Art: Frank Hampson, Story: Frank Hampson and Alan Stranks, Eagle 14 March 1959 Vol. 10, no. 11, Hulton Press, London, National Art Library
‘Dan Dare: Pilot of the Future in Safari in Space’, Art: Frank Hampson, Story: Frank Hampson and Alan Stranks, Eagle 28 March 1959 Vol. 10, no. 13, Hulton Press, London, National Art Library
‘Flying Dart: the Shape of Things to Come’, Art: Leslie Ashwell Wood, Eagle, 10 February 1962 Vol. 13, no. 6, Longacre Press, London, National Art Library, and artwork.
‘Jeff Arnold in Riders of the Range: Jeff Arnold and the Lost Bonanza’, Art: Frank Humphris, Story: Charles Chilton, Eagle 12 December 1952 Vol. 3, no. 36, Hulton Press, London, National Art Library
‘Dan Dare: Pilot of the Future in Operation Saturn’, Art and Story: Frank Hampson, and ‘P.C. 49: the Case of the Magnificent Mouse’, Art: John Worsley, Story: Alan Stranks, Eagle 13 November 1953 Vol. 4, no. 32, Hulton Press, London, National Art Library
The success of boys’ comics led to a title for girls. A pre-war story paper called School Friend was revived as a comic. The following year Girl - a sister paper for Eagle - was launched. School-set stories such as ‘The Silent Three’ in School Friend chimed with readers and Girl soon had its own version, ‘Wendy and Jinx’, who replaced aviator Kitty Hawke on the cover. Girl continued to pioneer strips based on work, but more often featured professions such as ballet and nursing. It also introduced the problems page with ‘What’s your worry?’ Sales of girls’ comics quickly outstripped those for boys. The next decade, however, brought a change as titles such as Bunty reflected social and cultural changes. They featured independent but put-upon heroines who became a regular feature into the 1970s.
‘The Silent Three in Switzerland’, Art: Evelyn Flinders, Story: Horace Boyten and Stewart Pride, School Friend 5 January 1957 No. 347, Amalgamated Press, London, Renier Collection
‘The Mystery of the Old Dutch Mill’, Art: Leslie Otway, School Friend 22 September 1951 No. 71, Amalgamated Press, London, National Art Library
‘Kitty Hawke and Her All-Girl Air Crew’, Art: Ray Bailey, Girl 23 November 1951 Vol. 1, no. 4, Hulton Press, London, National Art Library
‘Wendy and Jinx’, Art: Ray Bailey and Philip Townsend, Story: Valerie Hastings, Girl 2 February 1955 Vol. 4, no. 5, Hulton Press, London, National Art Library
‘Belle of the Ballet’, Art: Chris Garvey, Story: George Beardmore, and Letters page, Girl 23 June 1954 Vol. 3, no. 25, Hulton Press, London, National Art Library
‘Susan of St. Bride’s in Time for Study’, Art: Philip Townsend, Story: Ruth Adam, Girl 15 October 1960 Vol. 9, no. 42, Longacre Press, London, National Art Library
Diana 9 November 1963 No. 38, DC Thomson, London/Dundee, National Art Library
‘Alona: the Wild One’, Art: Leslie Otway, Princess Tina 2 December 1967, Fleetway, London, Renier Collection
‘Lady Penelope’, Art: Frank Langford, Story: Alan Fennell, Lady Penelope 3 December 1966 No. 46, City Magazines, London, Renier Collection
June, Art: Cecil Orr, 25 January 1964, Fleetway, London, National Art Library
Mandy 26 October 1968 No. 93, DC Thomson, London/Dundee, Renier Collection
‘The Four Marys’, Art: Barrie Mitchell, Bunty 1 February 1969 No. 577, DC Thomson, London/Dundee, Renier Collection
‘The Cat Girl’, Art: Giorgio Giorgetti, Sally 14 June 1969 No. 1, IPC Magazines, London, Renier Collection
Eagle‘s success led to imitation. An early pretender was Lion whose main character, Captain Condor, clearly owed much to Dan Dare. It might not have been as visually impressive as Eagle but it was cheaper and less high-minded perhaps, and it gained a solid readership. The rise of the adventure comic was the undoing of the story paper. Few survived into the 1960s but many of the heroes were adapted for picture stories. War stories became particularly popular as many comic creators were able to draw on personal experience. Meanwhile, Eagle‘s second decade was not as sure as its first. In 1959 its publisher was taken over and founders Morris and Hampson soon bowed out. By the late 1960s its place as the foremost quality weekly had been taken by TV Century 21, a spin-off from Gerry Anderson’s television shows. In 1969 Eagle finally merged into its long-term rival Lion.
Boys’ World, Art: Edwin Phillips, 16 February 1963 Vol. 1, no. 4, Longacre Press, London, Renier Collection
TV Century 21 19 August 1967 No. 135, City Magazines, London, National Art Library
‘Thunderbirds’, Art: Frank Bellamy, Story: Scott Goodall. TV Century 21 16 September 1967 No. 139, City Magazines, London, National Art Library
‘Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons’, Art: Ron Embleton, Story: Angus P. Allan, TV Century 21 7 October 1967 No. 142, City Magazines, London, National Art Library
‘The Rise and Fall of the Trigan Empire’, Art: Don Lawrence, Story: Mike Butterworth, Ranger 2 October 1965, Fleetway, London, National Art Library
‘Captain Condor’s Robot Raiders’, Art: Ron Forbes, Story: Frank S. Pepper, Lion 8 January 1955 No. 151, Amalgamated Press, London, National Art Library
‘Paddy Payne: Warrior of the Skies’, Art: Gary Keane/Joe Colquhoun, Lion 29 December 1962, Fleetway, London, National Art Library
‘Roy of the Rovers’, Art: Paul Trevillion, Story: Derek Burnage, Tiger 29 July 1963, Fleetway, London, National Art Library
The Hornet, Art: Edmundo Fernández Ripoll, 12 September 1964 No. 53, DC Thomson, London/Dundee, Renier Collection
‘Tiger of Mysore!’, The Hornet, 27 February 1965 No. 77, DC Thomson, London/Dundee, Renier Collection:
Lion and Champion, Art: Reg Bunn, 19 August 1967,Fleetway, London, National Art Library
‘What Would You Do?’, Art: Geoff Campion, Lion & Eagle 12 July 1969, IPC Magazines, London, National Art Library
Teenage girls were served by their own new genre - the romance comic. Comic strips and occasional photo-strips told girl-meets-boy stories, alongside advice on style and the problems of growing up. Music was an important topic - pop-hits provided story titles and pop stars put their names to columns, even making guest appearances in stories. The popularity of this formula among younger girls prompted the launch of Jackie. Its comic strips would diminish over time as it concentrated on features and paved the way for the teen magazine. The regularity of references to music and television in both boys’ and girls’ comics suggests a greater competition for readers’ attention. The late 1960s saw the number of available titles rise, while overall sales were falling. Publishers in the 1970s would have to work harder to attract an audience.
Marilyn, Art: Robert MacGillivray, 16 May 1959 No. 218, Amalgamated Press, London, National Art Library
‘My Date Book’, Boyfriend 10 February 1962 No. 138, City Magazines, London, National Art Library
‘The Day Before the Wedding’, Romeo 2 April 1960 No. 136, DC Thomson, London/Dundee, National Art Library
Romeo, Art: Norman Lee, 21 September 1968, DC Thomson, London/Dundee, National Art Library
‘Ann and Pam’, Art: Rab Hamilton, Roxy 12 May 1962, Fleetway, London, National Art Library
‘Out of Time’, Art: Julio Vivas, Valentine 18 June 1966, Fleetway, London, National Art Library
‘Man of her Dreams’, Mirabelle 3 March, 1958, C. Arthur Pearson, London, National Art Library
‘You’re Not Going to Believe this…’, Art: Ruiz Pueyo, Jackie 3 June 1967 No. 178, DC Thomson, London/Dundee, Renier Collection
‘Dear Stevie…’, Valentine 30 January 1960, Fleetway, London, National Art Library
‘The Road of Courage’, by Frank Hampson, 4 framed original artworks, published in Eagle 1960-1961, From the collection of Peter & Susan Hampson.
Dan Dare newsreel film, 20 February 1956, British Pathé, British Pathé film ID 39.13Posted: July 16, 2012
This Article was originally published in the V&A Magazine. With thanks to Alastair Crompton, Steve Holland and David Roach, and to Andy Konky Kru for the photos.