Comic Cuts

In which The Author watches a demonstration of paper-folding

The world of UK publishing passed another major landmark yesterday. D.C. Thomson of Dundee printed the last-ever copy of The Dandy, 75 years since it first tickled the ribs of children throughout the land. I say ‘printed’, because from next week this mainstay of British children’s comics will only be available online.
I’ve just tried four different shops in Aberdare trying to get hold of a copy without success. My last port of call was Gareth Rees’s shop, where Matt H. used to work. He sold all his stock yesterday, bar one copy which he’s keeping for someone. He said he’ll hang onto it until Saturday, and if the chap hasn’t collected it by then I can take a chance and call in. I’ll have to look in the corner shops on the way home. I’ve also asked my Facebook friends to keep their eyes open for me. One of them might find a copy in Pontypridd or Merthyr, after all.
Gareth said he expected everyone was buying it as a souvenir. I’ve got a funny feeling he was wrong. I wonder how many of his customers will actually put their purchases in plastic envelopes and store them away at the bottom of a drawer for their grandchildren to look at. On the other hand, I expect most of the ones which were snapped up yesterday will be listed on Ebay before the weekend. Oscar Wilde defined a cynic as ‘a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.’ Judging from the number of times I’ve mentioned my owning a rare book or a hard-to-get LP, and people have told me to ‘put it on Ebay!’, we’ve become an incredibly cynical society.
I actually do want to get hold of a copy as a souvenir. I grew up reading The Dandy and its sister paper The Beano, among others. There were loads of comics around when I was a kid: The Topper, The Beezer, Roy of the Rovers, Hotspur, Action, Victor, Warlord, Fireball, Battle Picture Weekly, Valiant, TV21, Tornado, Starlord, 2000AD, Look-in, Whizzer And Chips, Shiver And Shake
These last two were unusual; they billed themselves as ‘two comics in one’, and their USP was that they could be detached from each other by unfastening the staples. We didn’t buy them all every week, of course, as it would have cost a small fortune. Even so, over the ten-year period until I moved onto OMNI in 1980 I devoured far more than my fair share.
There were a few things we could take for granted in the world of D.C Thomson comics and their competitors:
  • Bullies never had the upper hand
  • No bad deed went unpunished
  • Nobody ever got seriously hurt
  • There was always a copper around when you didn’t want one
  • Any old bits of timber and a set of pram wheels could be turned into a ‘cartie.’
  • If your name rhymed, was alliterative, or was predicated on a bad pun, you were certain to get a mention.
A couple of months ago I was browsing through some old children’s annuals in Barbara’s shop, and memories came flooding back: there were my old friends Korky The Cat, Dennis The Menace, Desperate Dan, Biffo The Bear, Roger The Dodger, Minnie The Minx, Beryl the Peril, and a host of other characters I’d completely forgotten about.
There were Lord Snooty And His Pals, The Bash Street Kids (and their spin-off strip The Bash Street Pups), Brassneck (a malfunctioning and mischievous robot), and Screwy Driver (a young inventor whose Heath Robinson contraptions invariably ended in disaster) – not to mention the incredibly fat and fabulously un-PC Chinese spies Wun Tun And Too Tun (try getting away with that these days!)
Alongside these were the Numbskulls (who featured quite recently in the Sunday Times comics supplement, still inhabiting their Man’s head and getting him into trouble), Ginger, and Pansy Potter The Strongman’s Daughter. (Ken Bruce mentioned this last strip on his Radio 2 show earlier this year, pointing out that the title only rhymed if you said it in a Scottish accent.)
There are other characters and strips I vaguely remember, but don’t ask me which comics they appeared in: Grimly Fiendish, Horrornation Street, The Jocks And The Geordies, Bully Beef And Chips, Ivor Lott And Tony Broke. (These last two turned up in conversation a week or so ago. My mate Alun P. was doing the crossword and couldn’t get a five letter word which meant both ‘rocky’ and ‘skint’. I suggested ‘stony’, and then reminded him of the old comic characters. He still remembered them, and he’s ten years older than me!) There were ensemble pieces as well; one featured a gang of mice, including Cheddar George and Gordon Zola, who were always up to no good; another was set in a newspaper/comic production office and featured the wonderfully-named Throgmorton. I can’t remember the names of either of these.
Rather oddly, I’ve just recalled a particular incident in Whacko, a long-running strip about a medieval schoolteacher clad in a suit of armour. I’ve thought about it on and off for years, but it’s relevant for one reason. Faced with a very disruptive class, he fashioned each of his pupils a wooden mask, with a rod on the inside to serve as a gag. The conclusion of the story was a half-page frame of his class, all padlocked into these grotesque masks, doing their work in deadly silence. I was only about seven or eight years old, but I wonder if this was more early imprinting for my life-long fascination with masks (see Behind the Mask.)
The visual style of these strips was very distinctive and memorable. One former artist from D.C. Thomson was interviewed on Radio 4 over the weekend. He mentioned particular tricks, influenced by cinematic techniques, that they used to make the cartoons work on the page. As he said, there was a tremendous dynamism about the visuals. To me, it seems to have owed a great deal to the likes of Tom and Jerry. There were great fights, which consisted basically of loosely-drawn spirals on the page, with the odd hand or foot sticking out, and various BIFFs and OOOFs providing the sound effects. In the very next frame, the participants would be lying dazed, with black eyes, sticking plasters in a distinctive + shape, heads and legs bandaged, arms in slings – a rapid response time that the modern NHS can only dream of!
Abstract moods would be communicated visually in the tradition of animated cartoons. An unhappy or sulking character would have a black cloud over his head. Someone feigning innocence would look into the air with his lips pursed, a single musical note in a speech bubble communicating his jaunty whistling. The content of the bubble didn’t just denote speech: good ideas were illustrated by light bulbs; confusion was a sea of question marks; surprise was a double-take; shock was an exclamation mark; pain or anger was a string of characters we’d find nowadays in the Wingdings font. It was a conventional symbolic language, which we absorbed almost as if it were second nature to us.
In the 21st Century, we pepper our texts and emails with emoticons in order to flag up similar non-verbal content which might otherwise be lost. It would be interesting to know whether children on the autistic spectrum are able to ‘read’ the emotional content of comic strips like the ones I used to read. (If anyone wants to do the research, I want a credit in the finished paper! 😉 )
The cinematic parallels continued. Every so often a character would break through the ‘fourth wall’ and address the readers directly. (Similarly, Oliver Hardy used to break the first rule of cinema after some catastrophe, and turn his withering gaze to the camera, bringing us into the heart of the action.) Conversely, every so often, the ‘Reader’s Voice’ would address the characters from the edge of the frame. This early stab at ‘interactivity’, enabling a virtual dialogue between reader and character, was decades ahead of its time.
One very surreal strip in a comic (I forget which) was called ‘Orrible ‘Ole. It may have been loosely inspired by the Sea of Holes in Yellow Submarine – remember that brilliant moment when Ringo announces ‘I’ve got a hole in me pocket.’? ‘Orrible ‘Ole was a sentient hole, which could move around and change its size at will. This clever device enabled the artists to play with the conventions of the strip cartoon format – the hole would often vanish ‘through’ the page and turn up elsewhere in the same issue.
[A digression: A few months ago, maybe subconsciously influenced by ‘Orrible ‘Ole, I thought up the ultimate time-saving idea for the busy builder – holes of various sizes, which could be just stuck onto the masonry or timber and used to take plugs or screws. If I’d had some during my stay in Paula’s flat in September last year, they would have made fitting her cooker hood and those bloody IKEA mirrors a hell of a lot easier! They’d also be ideal for DIY duffers like Becky S., who tried to drive a nail into a brick wall a while back and then wondered why half the plaster had fallen off. I even came up with a name for my revolutionary invention: NO MORE BROKEN DRILL BITS. (Of course, there’s one major R&D problem I’d have to overcome before they hit the shops. How the hell would I package them?)]
I left old-school comics behind by the end of primary school and moved up a level. (Of course, I’d have a sneaky look at Phil’s Beano and/or Dandy annuals, which he always had from Mams for Xmas.) There was a fresh flurry of comics in the mid- to late-70s: Action, Warlord, Fireball, Tornado, Starlord, and 2000AD. Most of them came from the IPC stable, based at King’s Reach Tower in London – the same building which was home to New Musical Express. (Marvel Comics had tried to break into the UK market with Captain Britain, which I bought a couple of times, but it wasn’t my cup of tea.)
IPC’s offerings looked far more grown-up than D.C. Thomson’s, with none of the conventions I’ve referred to above. Instead of the animated cartoon, they were more like storyboards for a live-action film. The speech bubbles and sound effects were still there, but the visual style was much more naturalistic. A fight scene in (say) Action, would show a fist connecting with flesh and bone, rather than the familiar Lord Snooty-style dust-up.
The storylines were more adult as well – Action‘s first issue featured (among others) an ordinary man fighting against foreign invaders, a mercenary for hire, and an innocent guy who’d been kidnapped and whose face had been remodelled to look like that of a Mafia Don.
Warlord and its spin-off Fireball explored similar territory before merging. In fact, a lot of these comics had quite short lifespans before merging, with the loss of less popular strips and a subtle change of style. (In much the same way, UK book publishers have been merging for the past two decades, leaving only half a dozen big players dominating the high street shops, and the rest which struggle to get their output into Waterstone’s and rely on online business.)
The long-term survivor was 2000AD, which I bought weekly for at least two years from its launch.
Its characters were iconic, if not exactly original: Judge Dredd, Strontium Dog, ABC Warriors, M.A.C.H. 1… The artwork in the early issues was quite extraordinary, heavily influenced by SF cinema and the US comic book tradition. Frames would blend into each other, overlap each other, or cut across the previous one; speech bubbles would flow from frame to frame; every frame was filled with incredible background detail. For the most part the stories weren’t ground-breaking, but as a bridge between television SF and the novels which I moved on to, 2000AD was unbeatable.
The debt owed by 2000AD to great SF writers and cult films of the 1960s and early 1970s was never really acknowledged, except when they adapted Harry Harrison’s Stainless Steel Rat novels as comic strips. In spite of its shortcomings, the longevity of its strips is evinced by the fact that Titan Books have issued no end of reprints of the archives.
However, as a showcase for interesting ideas, the Future Shocks features were unbeatable. One-off stories with extraordinary endings, they were often contributed by V For Vendetta and Watchmen creator Alan Moore. There’s an anthology of his Future Shocks available, and I looked through it a couple of years ago. Unfortunately, Mr Moore didn’t write the one which really stuck in my mind. I haven’t been able to track it down anywhere.
Nor I have been able to locate Project Overkill, a terrific paranoid tale about a civilian aircraft which accidentally lands in a restricted USAF base, something like Area 51. I’ve found a few references to it online, but it seems that all copies of it have been eradicated. Ironic or what?
I stopped buying 2000AD when I decided that it was time to abandon ‘space opera’ and concentrate entirely upon the ‘New Wave’ of SF, in about 1980. My cousin Julian had carried on buying it, and I used to catch up every so often when we stayed at his house in Carmarthen. The last time I read it was staying at my mate Justin’s house one weekend, about 25 years ago. I don’t think I knew any of the characters by that time. It was like accidentally tuning into a soap opera after two decades and finding an entirely new cast in the place of the familiar faces. It was the first and last time I encountered Slaine the Berserker, who was similar to Conan the Barbarian. It was very disappointing. The wealth of detail I used to associate with 2000AD had gone, replaced by a far more impressionistic and American-looking style.
The visual style of D.C. Thomson’s comics was a massive influence on Viz, the self-styled ‘comic for older boys and girls’ which first erupted onto the unsuspecting streets of Newcastle three decades ago. Viz was brash, decidedly warped, foul-mouthed, iconoclastic, and definitely not suitable for children. It could just be a coincidence that its early career paralleled the rise of Alternative Comedy (see No Laughing Matter.) Or maybe, as with Newton’s and Leibniz’s independent inventions of Calculus, Viz was simply an idea whose time had come.
Its early characters included Biffa Bacon And Cedric Soft, Johnny Fartpants, Buster Gonad And His Unfeasibly Large Testicles, Paul Whicker The Tall Vicar, Sid The Sexist, The Fat Slags, Roger Mellie (The Man on the Telly), Fat Sod (he loves grub), and Postman Plod (he’s a miserable bastard.) The artistic debt owed by Viz to the D.C. Thomson stable was obvious. Visually, many of the characters wouldn’t have looked out of place in The Dandy or The Beano. Biffa Bacon, especially, was a psychopathic reworking of Bully Beef. There was even a one-off strip called Roger the Lodger, a clear homage to Roger the Dodger.
Its founding editor Chris Donald gave an interview to a music paper years ago, and mentioned that comics used to have a really ‘wordy’ story every week. He was referring to strips like Black Bob, the everyday story of a Border Collie sheepdog – a sort of British Lassie. Viz‘s own pastiche of this was the bizarre and beautifully-drawn Black Bag: The Faithful Border Bin-Liner.
I first got my hands on Viz in a shop called Forever People, on Park Street in Bristol. I bought four back issues and took them to the pub with me over the weekend. Phil and the rest of our mates were hooked immediately. (This was long before it became a national phenomenon, of course. The only place you would find it then was in specialist comic shops like Forever People and Forbidden Planet. Now you can buy it in just about any corner shop.) Once John Brown Distribution took it on, and it was available in Aberdare, I was able to turn a good number of the old Carpenters Arms gang onto it as well. There were a few imitators which sprang up in its wake, but I don’t think any of them survived very long. Viz was the original and best.
Last time I looked at Viz, one of the boys in work had left a copy in the Waterstone’s staff room. It wasn’t the same. Many of the old characters had gone, and it seemed to be aimed very squarely at a student market. It had become a monthly Rag Mag. The only thing that really made me laugh was Roger’s Profanisaurus, in which readers come up with filthy expressions for everyday things, or just offbeat definitions for rude things. The suggestion which had tickled me was:
WHAT’S THAT, SWEEP? – Something one says in order to cover up a really squeaky fart.
I relayed it to my mate Chris T. in the pub that evening; his wife later told me that he was giggling about it all night.
I haven’t seen The Dandy or The Beano for years. Listening to the radio feature over the weekend, I gathered that the visual style had changed radically recently. Instead of the vigorous energy and expression of the comics I knew and loved, they’d moved to a more American-looking artwork. Somebody they interviewed mentioned the Nickelodeon TV channel. (It could have been much worse, I suppose. They could have tried to crack the Manga market.)
Not long ago, Dennis the Menace was reinvented for the new century, with a baseball cap and a skateboard under his arm. Was it change for the sake of change? Or was it a last-ditch effort to try and reverse the trend of falling sales which had troubled the comic for years? Apparently, celebrities like Robbie Williams and Alexandra Burke used to turn up in The Dandy and The Beano now and again. Maybe it was time to admit defeat and pull the plug.
I think I’ll call into Barbara’s tomorrow and pick up one of the annuals dating from about 1973, when I was reading it regularly. I’m not going to put it on Ebay, though. I’m going to keep it for old times’ sake, to remind me of my childhood. I doubt if I’ll ever have grandchildren (at this rate it’s extremely unlikely that I’ll ever have children!)
Instead, I can show it to my honorary nieces and nephews and show them what comics used to be like in those far-off times: when men were men and the police arrested bullies; when teachers caned their unruly pupils before Dad gave them the slipper on their return home; when bits of junk could be made into a cartie or a robot or a boody-trap for your treehouse; and you could get away with calling a pair of fat Chinese spies Wun Tun and Too Tun. In other words, the time before British youth culture was swept away by a flood tide of Political Correctness and the Almighty Dollar.
It’s nearly 8 p.m. I wish I’d gone to Iceland earlier on. I really fancy a big pile of mashed potato, with Quorn sausages sticking out from it (‘like the horns of a Viking helmet’, as a contributor to a different radio programme on Sunday lunchtime said), as Desperate Dan had when he got fed up of cow pie. That was another reference which today’s TV-conditioned children simply wouldn’t understand. And with the passing of the printed Dandy, the Generation Gap just got wider.