By Clifford Makins & Frank Bellamy, edited by Steve Holland (Book Palace Books)
Retailer/art dealers turned Publisher The Book Palace (welcome to the jungle, chaps!) have done something all we powerless fans have always dreamed of: preserved a lost yet beloved portion of our comics heritage – because nobody else would.
Robin Hood hopefully needs no coverage here, but these strips of arguably Britain’s greatest hero were drawn by one of our nation’s greatest comics illustrators and have been long-neglected due, I suspect, solely to their point of origin.
When Eagle revolutionised the British marketplace in 1950 other companies soon followed suit. Keen to keep their newly won pre-eminent position, and never ceasing the march of expansion, Hulton Press’s Managing Editor Marcus Morris, steeped in religious tactics, designed ancillary titles to shepherd different segments of the child-consumers towards his confirmed goal – their hearts, minds and pocket money.
Eagle was a magazine with superlative production values aimed at boys. Morris followed this in 1951 with a distaff counterpart, Girl, before returning to his feathered theme with Robin in 1953 (intended for parents and toddlers) and Swift, (1954) which targeted 5-7 year olds of both sexes. The Hulton child would join for and with Robin, be trained and enlightened by Swift (which had many TV related and classical story features) before being confirmed as either an Eagle boy or a Girl… girl (the urge to type “chick” there was almost irresistible and I’m sure we’re all glad I didn’t).
All joking aside, Swift was an ideal example of the kind of publication we just don’t do anymore. Clear simple storytelling, fantastic art, games, puzzles and factual features tailored to a specific age-range and acuity, this sort of “younger-juveniles” publication elucidated, entertained, and best of all drew children into the habit of reading – both comics and books.
At the time Frank Bellamy was just starting his impressive career, but his raw ability is still astonishing to see. His facility with scenery and locations, historical research, staging, angles and especially expressions can all be seen in the two extended adventures reproduced here, although the “pic and block” format (each panel sat above a few lines of prose, with speech balloons included as necessary) mandated by the editors meant that the artist’s legendary layout and page design are not demonstrated.
After a fascinating background feature from editor Holland the first strip ‘Robin Hood and his Merry Men’ relates the tale of the Saxon Robin, Earl of Huntingdon, whose father was murdered and his lands confiscated by the Norman Robber-Baron Robert Braisse-Neuve – called “The Wolf”. Full of stirring fights and chases, this is very much a traditional Emerald Archer, even though the source material is apparently the 1940 novel Robin of Sherwood, written by Major Charles Gilson, rather than the traditionally “consulted” Merry Adventures of Robin Hood by Howard Pyle (ISBN13: 978-0451522849).
That first tale ran 42 two-page episodes and came to a perfect storybook conclusion, but was clearly popular enough for a sequel. ‘Robin Hood and Maid Marian’ at 25 instalments sent the newly restored Earl back to Sherwood Forest when his benefactor Richard the Lion Heart was killed in France and the feckless, vengeful Prince John assumed the throne.
Joined in the greenwood by Maid Marian and her trusty companion Gwen, the heroic band fought injustice and foiled the plots of John, The Sheriff of Nottingham and the Saxon turncoat Guy of Gisborne with dazzling skill and doughty hearts – and that’s where scripter Clifford Makins (Bellamy’s writer of choice for many years) wisely left them, carrying on into the eternal forever…
Written for a youthful general audience these good-old-fashioned tales of adventure are more accessible and welcome than ever and this beautiful black and white book is a pearl beyond price that every kid should be given as present – and you might as well have one yourself….
© 2008 The Book Palace. Introduction and all artwork © Look and Learn. Used with permission. All Rights Reserved.