The Beano and the Dandy: Favourites from the Forties

By many & various (DC Thomson & Co)
ISBN: 978-0-85116-821-0 (HB)

I couldn’t let the occasion pass unremarked, so here’s a suggestion of better times and more carefree entertainments to celebrate Britain’s longest running comic. On July 30th 1938, The Beano was unleashed upon the Great British Public…

Released in 2003 as part of the DC Thomson’s Sixtieth Anniversary celebrations for their children’s periodicals division – which has more than any other shaped the psyche of generations of kids – this splendidly oversized (296 x 204mm) 144 page hardback compilation rightly glories in the incredible wealth of ebullient creativity that paraded through the flimsy colourful pages of The Beano and The Dandy during a particularly bleak and fraught period in British history. Tragically, neither it nor its companion volumes are available digitally yet, but hope springs ever eternal…

Admittedly the book goes through some rather elaborate editing and paste-up additions whilst editorially explaining for modern readers the vast changes to the once-commonplace that have occurred over eight decades, and naturally the editors have expurgated a few of the more egregious terms that wouldn’t sit well with 21st century sensibilities (Mussolini lampoon Musso the Wop becomes the far-less ethnically unsound “Musso”, for instance) but otherwise this is a superb cartoon commemoration of one of the greatest morale-building initiatives this nation ever enjoyed.

They’re also superbly timeless examples of cartoon storytelling at its best…

Until it folded and was reborn as a digital publication on 4th December 2012, The Dandy was the third-longest running comic in the world (behind Italy’s Il Giornalino – launched in 1924 – and America’s Detective Comics in March 1937).

Premiering on December 4th 1937, The Dandy broke the mould of traditional British predecessors by using word balloons and captions rather than narrative blocks of text under the sequential picture frames.

A huge success, it was followed eight months later by The Beano – which launched on July 30th 1938 – and together they utterly revolutionised the way children’s publications looked and, most importantly, how they were read.

Over the decades the “terrible twins” spawned a bevy of unforgettable and beloved household names who delighted countless avid and devoted readers, and the unmissable end of year celebrations were graced with bumper bonanzas of the comics’ weekly stars in extended stories in magnificent bumper hardback annuals.

As WWII progressed, rationing of paper and ink forced the “children’s papers” into an alternating fortnightly schedule: on September 6th 1941, only The Dandy was published. A week later just The Beano appeared. The rascally rapscallions only returned to normal weekly editions on 30th July 1949.

This superb tribute of Celtic creativity is packed literally cover-to-cover with brilliant strips and the mirth starts on the inside front with a wonderful Biffo the Bear exploit, illustrated by indisputable key man Dudley D. Watkins, followed by a sharp Korky the Cat gag-page by James Crichton and a listing of ‘Forty from the 40’s’, before the vintage fun properly proceeds, sensibly sub-divided into themed chapters.

Sadly, none of the writers are named and precious few of the artists, but I’ve offered a best guess as to whom we should thank, and of course I would be so very happy if anybody could confirm or deny my suppositions…

Then and Now offers a smart selection of comparisons to life in the past measured against 21st century existence, with hilarious examples and contributions from Lord Snooty – by the incredibly prolific Watkins – cowboy superman Desperate Dan at the doctor’s, ostrich antics with Big Eggo (by Crichton or perhaps Reg Carter), Wild West woman sheriff Ding-Dong Belle – from Bill Holroyd – and a glimpse at primitive fast-food courtesy of Dandy’s Bamboo Town duo Bongo and Pongo as limned by Charlie Gordon.

There’s medical mirth with Desperate Dan, wash day blues with Mickey’s Magic Book (Crichton?) and a prose yarn pinpointing the funnier points of the class war in The Slapdash Circus – with a stirring illustration by Toby Baines – before Charlie Chutney the Comical Cook (Allan Morley) plays pie-man, whilst Watkins produces another Biffo blast.

Next comes The Horse That Jack Built, a rousing medieval adventure yarn starring a clockwork charger by Holroyd, and the chapter concludes in another Desperate Dan fable about messing around growing vegetables…

Entertainment explores how fun was had in the war years – i.e. before television – beginning with a phonographic Korky yarn and the first fine example of licensed film feature Our Gang illustrated by that man Watkins.

In case you were wondering… Our Gang (later known as Li’l Rascals) movie shorts were one of the most popular series in Film history. Beginning in 1922, they featured the fun and folksy humour of a bunch of “typical kids” (atypically, though, there was full racial equality and mingling – but the little girls were still always smarter than the boys) having idealised adventures in times both safer and simpler. The rotating cast of characters and slapstick shenanigans were the brainchild of film genius Hal Roach (who directed and worked with Harold Lloyd, Charley Chase and Laurel and Hardy amongst many others) and these brief cinematic paeans to a mythic childhood entered the “household name” category of popular Americana in amazingly swift order.

As times and tastes changed Roach was forced to sell up to the celluloid butcher’s shop of MGM in 1938, and the features suffered the same interference and loss of control that marred the later careers of the Marx Brothers, Laurel and Hardy and Buster Keaton.

In 1942, Dell Comics in the USA released an Our Gang comicbook written and drawn by Walt Kelly who, consummate craftsman that he was, restored the wit, verve and charm of the cinematic glory days with a progression of short tales that elevated the lower-class American childhood to the mythic peaks of Dorothy Gale in Oz or Huckleberry Finn.

Long before then, however (1937 and in The Dandy #1, in fact), DC Thomson had secured the British rights to produce their own uniquely home-grown weekly escapades of Alfalfa Switzer, Scotty Becket, Spanky McFarland, Darla Hood,Buckwheat Thomas and the rest, such as the quirky keep-fit frolic included here…

Desperate Dan then endures some cool radio fun with Aunt Aggie whilst Keyhole Kate (Allan Morley) has trouble with a Magic Lantern show, and Biffo’s juggling act brings nothing but pain and strife.

As depicted by the wonderful Eric Roberts, Podge find drumming is unwelcome around the village and the not-so-wild animals of Bamboo Town strike up – and out – the band, after which both Biffo and Korky suffer terribly for their R-and-R.

Posh poseur Swanky Lanky Liz (Charles Holt) comes a-cropper in a brace of telling tales after which the aforementioned dictator of Italy is mercilessly lambasted in a cruel quartet of Musso strips from Sam Fair, even as Charlie Chutney bakes to excess, Our Gang take vengeance on a bullying boxer and Podge foils a bunch of schoolboy cheats.

How the daily travails of conflict were relieved is examined in Wartime 1 with Jimmy and his Magic Patch (Watkins) accidentally visiting bellicose Lilliput, whilst Lord Snooty’s pals battle a Nazi spy and his pigeons and barmy barber Hair Oil Hal (by John Brown) cuts up in a clever quartet.

Sam Fair was in excoriating top form with the superbly manic Addie and Hermy slapstick assaults on Adolf Hitler and Hermann Wilhelm Göring/Goering, Meddlesome Matty (Fair or Malcolm Judge?) becomes a different sort of siren and Mickey’s Magic Book proves more hindrance than help during an air raid…

The complex world of Fashion begins with a plethora of Korky on parade, Beano’s Ding-Dong Belle offers some six-gun hints on good manners, Doubting Thomas (by Roberts) is overwhelmed by a shop dummy and Meddlesome Matty went shoe shopping… for a horse…

Hugh McNeil’s Pansy Potter, the Strongman’s Daughter was legendary for her unique looks – as seen in three strips here – but Swanky Lanky Liz, Charlie Chutney, Musso, Hair Oil Hal and Biffo all offer their own stylistic visions to round out this section before the un-PC past is more fully and shamefacedly explored in Out of Fashion. Here Biffo, Desperate Dan, Tin-Can Tommy, the Clockwork Boy (by the Torelli Brothers), Meddlesome Matty, Korky, Doubting Thomas, Bamboo Town and Mickey’s Magic Book all exhibit behaviours we just don’t condone nowadays…

Strips depicting Transport follow with Multy the Millionaire (Richard Cox), Korky and Biffo all experiencing some distress and delay after which Watkins displays his superb dramatic style for 1946 fantasy adventure Tom Thumb.

There are also more travel travails for Korky, Ding-Dong Belle, Doubting Thomas, Podge, Swanky Lanky Liz and Desperate Dan before a prose chapter from an epic Black Bob serial (a Lassie-like wonder dog illustrated by Jack Prout) precedes a Big Eggo pantomime romp and a 1944 Watkins spectacular starring Jimmy and his Magic Patch as a slave on a Roman ship.

Our trip down memory lane concludes with another bout of combat fever in Wartime 2, offering stunning contributions from Bamboo Town and Desperate Dan plus a treat for Pansy Potter fans: four fill-in strips illustrated by different artists who might or might not be McNeil, Basil Blackaller, Sam Fair, James Clark and/or Charles Grigg.

The campaign continues with a 1942 Tin-Can Tommy tale plus more Podge, Keyhole Kate, Doubting Thomas, Desperate Dan, and Korky strips as well as more Jimmy and his Magic Patch and a lovely Lord Snooty and his Pals yarn – with the kids helping the Home Guard – before Biffo ushers us out just as he had invited us in…

A marvel of nostalgia and timeless comics wonder, the true magic of this collection is the brilliant art and stories by a host of talents that have literally made Britons who they are today, and bravo to DC Thomson for letting them out for a half-day to run amok once again.
© 2003 DC Thomson & Co. Ltd. All rights reserved.


By Tom Gauld (Drawn & Quarterly)
ISBN: 978-1-77046-065-2(HB) 978-1-77046-299-1(TPB)

Everybody knows the story of David and Goliath. Big, mean evil guy at the head of an oppressive army terrorising the Israelites until a little boy chosen by God kills him with a stone from his slingshot.

But surely there’s more to it than that…?

In this supremely understated and gentle retelling we get to see what the petrifying Philistine was actually like and, to be quite frank, history and religion have been more than a little unkind…

Like most really big guys, Goliath of Gath is a shy, diffident, self-effacing chap. The hulking man-mountain is an adequate administrator but fifth worst swordsman in the entire army which has been camped in opposition to the Hebrew forces for months. Moreover, the dutiful, contemplative colossus doesn’t even have that much in common with the rough-and-ready attitudes of his own friends…

When an ambitious captain gets a grand idea, he has his titanic towering clerk outfitted in terrifying brass armour and orders him to issue a personal challenge to the Israelites every day.

“Choose a man, let him come to me that we may fight.
If he be able to kill me then we shall be your servants.
But if I kill him then you shall be our servants.”

The plan is to demoralise the foe with psychological warfare: grind them down until they surrender. There’s no reason to believe Goliath will ever have to actually fight anybody. It’s a bit like government policy, where announcing that something is being discussed to be actioned to be carried out is exactly the same as having done the task and moved on to the next crucial problem that needed fixing immediately, if not four years ago…

Elegiac and deftly lyrical, this clever reinterpretation has literary echoes and overtones as broadly disparate as Raymond Briggs and Oscar Wilde and, as it gently moves to its grimly inescapable conclusion, the deliciously poignant, simplified line and sepia-toned sturdiness of this lovely hardback or comforting paperback (unfortunately no digital edition yet!) add a subtle solidity to the sad story of a monstrous villain who wasn’t at all what he seemed…

Tom Gauld is a Scottish cartoonist whose works have appeared in Time Out and the Guardian. He has illustrated such children’s classics as Ted Hughes’ The Iron Man and his own books include Guardians of the Kingdom, 3 Very Small Comics, Robots, Monsters etc., Hunter and Painter and The Gigantic Robot. I particularly recommend his cartoon collections You’re All Just Jealous of My Jetpack, Department of Mind-Blowing Theories and Baking with Kafka
© 2012, 2017 Tom Gauld. All rights reserved.

London’s Dark

By James Robinson & Paul Johnson (Escape/Titan Books)
ISBN: 978-1-85286-157-5 (Album PB)

In this time of crisis, when every species of chancer and opportunist feels free to invoke a mythical and seldom accurate “Spirit of the Blitz” to silence debate and buoy up their own particular agenda, I thought it might be interesting to recall a cruelly-neglected early graphic novel that, whilst a mere flight of fancy crafted 45 years after the fact, still manages to capture the feel and the truth of what that period meant. And yes, I include myself here, but at least I’m not responsible for people’s lives and trying to sell an ideology often as callous, vicious and pernicious as the Great Foe back then. And no, I wasn’t there either. I did, however, have parents who experienced the war first hand on both sides and lost close family to both Nazi and Allied fire. It made for some truly memorable weddings, funerals and family gatherings in my own childhood…

When London’s Dark was first released in 1989 many people remarked that it was great to see a graphic narrative that didn’t easily fall into a well-worn industry pigeon-hole. Many more hoped the blend of the traditional and the innovative would lead to a grand new age of great graphic novels. Things have indeed grown and blossomed for readers of sequential narrative in the interim, and whilst we still aren’t done yet, this slim monochrome paperback volume nonetheless still stands out as a superb piece of story-telling well worth your attention.

It is the height of the Blitz and the Capital of the British Empire is being pounded and burned by the despised Luftwaffe. Still, even incendiary hell and random destruction from above cannot deter criminals with a quick profit in mind.

When a Black Marketeer has second thoughts in the commission of looting and is murdered for them, the deed results in an unlikely romance between Air Raid Warden Jack Brookes and professional Medium Sophie Heath.

Good-natured Jack thinks he’s simply testing and stopping a swindler, but soon he is head over heels in love with the exotic and fearfully convincing spiritualist. She, in turn, is genuinely in contact with the unquiet ghost of the murdered man. Eventually, Jack’s inept but well-meaning investigation turns over a few of the right rocks, blithely forgetting that the murderers are still out there…

Moodily atmospheric art and a light touch with period dialogue make this a surprisingly engaging read (despite the admitted fact from the creators that they were learning their craft on the job) and the blend of war-story, murder-mystery and true romance with supernatural overtones is one that has even greater resonance today. This is a book in dire need of re-release – especially in digital formats – and should be on every filmmaker and TV producer’s “must option” list…
© 1989, 2002 James Robinson and Paul Johnson. All Rights Reserved.

League of Extraordinary Gentlemen volume II

By Alan Moore & Kevin O’Neill & various (Americas Best Comics/WildStorm/DC)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-0118-0 (TPB)

The Victorian era saw the birth of both popular and populist publishing, particularly the genres of fantasy and adventure fiction. Writers of varying skill but possessing unbounded imaginations expounded personal concepts of honour and heroism, wedded unflinchingly to the innate belief in English Superiority. In all worlds and even beyond them the British gentleman took on all comers for Right and Decency, viewing danger as a game and showing “Johnny Foreigner” just how that game should be played.

For all the problems this raises with our modern sensibilities, many of the stories remain uncontested classics of literature and form the roadmap for all modern fictional heroes. Open as they are to charges of Racism, Sexism (even misogyny), Class Bias and Cultural Imperialism the best of them remain the greatest of all yarns.

An august selection of just such heroic prototypes were seconded – and slyly re-examined under modern scrutiny – by Alan Moore & Kevin O’Neill for a miniseries in 1999 that managed to say as much about our world as that long gone one, and incidentally tell a captivating tale as compelling as any of its antecedents.

In short succession there was an inevitable sequel, once more pressing into service vampire-tainted Wilhelmina Murray, aged Great White Hunter Allan Quatermain, Invisible Man Hawley Griffin, the charismatic genius Captain Nemo and both cultured Dr. Henry Jekyll and his bombastic alter-ego Mister Hyde. The tale also added cameos from the almost English Edwin Lester Arnolds’ Gullivar Jones, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars and even many creatures from C.S. Lewis’ allegorical sequence Out of the Silent Planet.

The idea of combining shared cultural brands is evergreen: Philip Jose Farmer in particular spun many a yarn teaming such worthies as Sherlock Holmes, Doc Savage, Tarzan and their like; Warren Ellis succumbed to similar temptation in Planetary and Jasper Fforde worked literary miracles with the device in his Thursday Next novels, but the sheer impetus of Moore & O’Neill’s para-steampunk revisionism, rush of ideas (and the stunning, startling visuals that carry them) make this book (and all the previous ones) form an irresistible experience and absolute necessity for every fiction fan, let alone comic collector…

In ‘Phases of Deimos’, as London rebuilds after the cataclysmic denouement of the previous volume, a savage planetary conflict on the fourth planet ends with the firing of gigantic projectiles at our fragile, unsuspecting world …

The barrage hits home in ‘People of Other Lands’ and the cohort of reluctant agents is on hand when hideous otherworldly invaders begin incinerating the best that Britain can offer. One of the operatives considers treachery as more cylinders arrive in ‘And Dawn Comes Up Like Thunder’ and acts upon the temptation as the incursion renders Earth’s most advanced defenders helpless…

With the Empire being dismantled by Tripods and other supra-scientific engines of destruction, ‘All Creatures Great and Small’ finds half of the chastened and dispirited agents seeking other allies and ideas, even as ‘Red in Tooth and Claw’ sees the traitor exposed and dealt with despite the inexorable advance of the Martian horde before the tide unexpectedly and shockingly turns in ‘You Should See Me Dance the Polka…’

This startlingly impressive and beguilingly effective interleaving of HG Wells’ landmark fantasy classic with the skewed but so-very plausible conceit that all the great adventurers of literature hung out together captures perfectly the feeling of a world and era ending. As one would expect, internal conflicts pull apart the champions – at no time do they ever even slightly resemble a team – and Moore’s irrepressible imagination and vast cultural reservoir dredges up a further elite selection of literary touchstones to enhance the proceedings.

Dark and genuinely terrifying, the tale unfolds largely unchanged from the original War of the Worlds plot, but a string of parallel side-stories are utterly gripping and unpredictable, whilst the inclusion of such famed and/or lost characters as Bill Samson, Doctor Moreau, Tiger Tim and even Rupert Bear (among others) sweetens the pot for those in the know.

Those who aren’t you can always consult A Blazing World: the official companion to the drama…

This book is an incredible work of scholarship and artistry recast into a fabulous pastiche of an entire literary movement. It’s also a stunning piece of comics wizardry of a sort no other art form can touch, and as with the other Moore & O’Neill collaborations there are wry visual supplements (including, activity pages, puzzles and mazes, faux ads and a board game) plus a substantial text feature – The New Traveller’s Almanac – at the back, in-filling the alternative literary history of the League.

It is quite wordy, but Read It Anyway: it’s there for a reason and is more than worth the effort as it outlines the antecedents of the assorted champions in a fabulously stylish and absorbing manner. It might also induce you to read a few other very interesting and rewarding books…
© 1999, 2000 Alan Moore & Kevin O’Neill. All Rights Reserved.

‘There’s a Lot of it About’

By Geoffrey Dickinson (Columbus Books)
ISBN: 978-0-86287-253-3 (PB)

The government are keen on co-opting and channelling the “Blitz Spirit” these days to embody the nation’s resistance to adversity, but it wasn’t our dogged determination that pulled us though our darkest hours. It was the national ability to find humour in the most appalling circumstances that kept us going…

Since we’re all absorbed by snot and sniffles and sudden death, I thought I’d cheer myself up for a moment with this handy handbook of ailments and medical mis-practice from one of Britain’s best and most influential cartoonists and a time far less fraught.

Geoffrey Dickinson was a veteran mainstay of Punch, Time, The Financial Times and many other periodical venues. This is probably his best collection of gags but his second opinion on medical matters ‘Probably Just a Virus’ is almost as good but a lot harder to find these days…

British cartooning has been magnificently served over the centuries by masters of form, line, wash and most importantly clever ideas, repeatedly poking our funny bones, pricking our pomposities and feeding our fascinations, and nothing says more about us than our rocky relationship with the beloved yet criminally underfunded National Health Service.

Award-winning scribbler Geoffrey Samuel Dickinson was born on May 5th 1933 in Liverpool and studied at Southport School Art (1950-1953) before graduating to the Royal Academy Schools. Set on a career as a landscape painter, he taught art in Croydon, at Tavistock Boys School and the Selhurst Grammar School until 1967.

To supplement his meagre income – governments have never reckoned much to the value of teachers either – he freelanced as a graphic designer and animator for the BBC and began selling gags to Punch as early as 1963.

In 1966, his famous cover for the April 15th issue of Time Magazine was deemed to have officially launched “the Swinging Sixties” and London as the capital city of cool. A year later he took a staff position with Punch as Deputy Art Editor under the legendary Bill Hewison, but still found time to freelance, working for Reader’s Digest, Which?Esquire, Highlife, Hallmark Cards and many more.

In 1984, Dickinson left the humour standard to take up a position at the Financial Times, drawing cartoons for the daily and producing illustration material for the weekend supplement. He died far too young in 1988.

Within the pages of ‘There’s a Lot of it About’ – and following a pithy introduction from much-missed master of acerbic wit Alan Coren – the fit, the fat, the festering and the foolish will all learn the truth about the health of the nation in such chapters of chilling encounters and dodgy diagnoses as ‘The Waiting-Room’, ‘In the Surgery’ and ‘Sharp Practice’, before meeting stroppy secretaries, seen-it-all sawbones and formidably starched matrons, as well as the puling punks, cadaverous clerks and clerics, cocky kids, goofy old gaffers, loony little old ladies, brusque businessmen and other tedious time-wasters all abusing valuable visiting hours ‘On the Touchline’, ‘At the Barbers’ and ‘At the Dentist’

Moreover, as well as warning of ‘Student Doctors’, ‘Showbiz Doctors’ and the ‘Bogus Doctor’, we follow fully-rounded physicians into their private lives ‘On Holiday’, ‘At the Wheel’, in the garden with ‘Doctor Greenfinger’, at the ‘Doctor’s Wedding’, over ‘The Festive Season’ and on ‘The Morning After’, before examining doctors in love undergoing ‘Affairs of the Heart’

These kinds of cartoon collections were once ubiquitous best-sellers available everywhere, but these days are perennial library and jumble sale fare – in fact, I actually found this brilliant cure-all for the blues at a Hospital charity shop in the days before they became so frantically overburdened – but if you ever see a Dickinson (or indeed, any cartoon collection) in such a place, do yourself a favour, help out a good cause and have a healthy horse-laugh with these all-but-forgotten masters of illustrative mirth.

They’re really good for what ails you…
© 1985 Geoffrey Dickinson.

The Unadulterated Cat

By Terry Pratchett & Gray Jolliffe (Orion)
ISBN: 978-0-75285-369-7 (HB) 978-0-57506-104-0 (PB)
For the early part of the history of cartooning dogs ruled. For every Felix or Krazy Kat there were dozens of Dog Stars like Bonzo or Marmaduke, Snoopy, Odie or Fred Bassett. That’s because dogs are man’s best friends. They even share oxytocin responses with us. The poor saps are bound to us by their own treacherous body chemistry and millennia of shared evolution.

Towards the end of the last century, sly, cynical cats like Heathcliff and Garfield prowled onto the scene and rather took over. And that’s because they’re Real, Unadulterated cats.

Dogs have owners, Cats have staff. Or stooges. Cats run the house and rule the world, and no amount of cosmetic behaviour or slick PR can hide the ugly facts.

This hilarious book (uncannily out of print and unavailable in digital formats: how’s that for a feline example of “soft power”?) will strike a chilling chord with every cat owner, as much-missed author Terry Pratchett explains the ethos behind “The Campaign for Real Cats” who seek to reveal the sordid truth behind the fuzzy little darlings.

Cats are greedy, lazy, vicious, voracious, and need all nine lives because they take every slight opportunity to spectacularly end the one they’re living – you’re reading a review by a man who’s been regularly concussed by books dislodged from top shelves and had to saw his own drawing board in half to extricate an extremely ungrateful tabby from the parallel bar wiring. And don’t get me started on window blinds, either.

Brilliantly funny, this slim tome reveals the unvarnished truth about Felis Domesticus – and they’ll drink varnish too if you don’t watch ‘em like hawks… and then try to eat the hawks – written by a unparalleled comedy mastermind and brilliantly illustrated by the cartoonist who first exposed the wickedness of willies lo, so long ago – although I’m reassured that length has never been important…

This is a thoroughly British kind of humour soundly affirming the fears of cat-haters – and cat-lovers – everywhere, whilst making them all laugh loud enough not to care. The internet is your friend. Hunt for a copy of this and don’t be distracted by kitten pics of cat toy boutiques…
Text © 1989, 1996 Terry & Lyn Pratchett. Illustrations © 1989, 1996 Gray Jolliffe. All Rights Reserved.

The James Bond Omnibus volume 001

By Ian Fleming adapted by Anthony Hern, Peter O’Donnell, Henry Gammidge & John McLusky (Titan Books)
ISBN: 987-1-84856-364-3 (TPB)

It’s sad to admit but there are very few British newspaper strips to challenge the influence and impact of classic daily and Sunday “funnies” from America, especially in the field of adventure fiction.

The 1930’s and 1940’s were particularly rich in popular, not to say iconic, creations. You would be hard-pressed to come up with home-grown household names to rival Popeye, Dick Tracy, Buck Rogers or Flash Gordon, let alone Terry and the Pirates, Steve Canyon, or the likes of Little Lulu, Blondie, Li’l Abner, Little Orphan Annie or Popeye and yes, I know I said him twice, but Elzie Segars’s Thimble Theatre was funny as well as thrilling, constantly innovative, and really, really good.

What strips can you recall to equal simple popularity let alone longevity or quality in Britain? Rupert Bear? Absolutely. Giles? Technically, yes. Nipper? Jane? The Perishers? Garth? Judge Dredd?

I’d like to hope so, but I doubt it. The Empire didn’t quite get it until it wasn’t an empire any more. There were certainly very many wonderful strips being produced: well-written and beautifully drawn, but that stubborn British reserve plus a completely different editorial view of the marketplace (which just didn’t consider strips an infallible, readership-attracting magnet, as our American cousins did) never seemed to be in the business of creating household names… until the 1950’s.

Something happened in ‘50s Britain – but I’m not going to waste any space here discussing it. It just did.

In a new spirit that seemed to crave excitement and accept the previously disregarded, comics (as well as all “mere” entertainment media from radio serials to paperback novels) got carried along on the wave. Just like television, periodicals such as The Eagle, the regenerated Dandy and Beano and girls’ comics in general all shifted into creative high gear …and so at last did newspapers.

And that means that I can happily extol the virtues of a graphic collection with proven crossover appeal for a change. The first 007 novel Casino Royale was published in 1953 and was subsequently serialised – after much dithering and nervousness on behalf of author Fleming – as a strip in the Daily Express from 1958. It was the start of a beguiling run of novel and short story adaptations scripted by Anthony Hern, Henry Gammidge, Peter O’Donnell and Kingsley Amis before Jim Lawrence, a jobbing writer for American features (who had previously scripted the aforementioned Buck Rogers) came aboard on The Man With the Golden Gun to complete the transfer of the Fleming canon to strip format. Thereafter he was invited to create new adventures, which he did until the strip’s demise in 1983.

The art on the feature was always of the highest standard. Initially John McLusky handled the illustration until 1966’s conclusion of You Only Live Twice and, although perhaps lacking in flash or verve, the workmanlike clarity of his drawing easily handled an astonishing variety of locales, technical set-ups and sheer immensity of cast members, whilst satisfying the then-novel directive of advancing a plot daily whilst ending each episode on a cliff-hanging “hook” every time.

He was succeeded by Yaroslav Horak, who debuted on Man with the Golden Gun, offering a looser, edgier style, at once more cinematic and with a closer attention to camera angle and frenzied action that seemed to typify the high-octane 1960’s. Horak illustrated 26 complete adventures until 1977 when The Daily Express axed the Bond feature (with a still-running adventure suddenly switching to The Sunday Express from January 30th until conclusion on May 22nd).

Later adventures had no UK presence at all, only appearing in syndication in European papers. This state of affairs continued until 1981 when British paper The Daily Star revived the feature with ‘Doomcrack’.

Titan Books re-assembled those scarce-seen tales – a heady brew of adventure, sex, intrigue and death – into addictively accessible monochrome Omnibus Editions, (sadly not available digitally at the present) wherein a dedicated band of creators on top form prove how the world’s greatest agent never rests in his mission to keep us all free, safe, shaken, stirred and thoroughly entertained…

In this premier no-nonsense paperback gem adapting 11 of Fleming’s best, the frantic derring-do and dark, deadly diplomacy commences with ‘Casino Royale’ as British operative Bond is ordered to gamble with and bankrupt Le Chiffre, a communist agent who has insanely embezzled away his Soviet masters’ operating capital.

The moodily compelling tale of tension that results depicts torture and violent death as well as oppressively suspenseful scenes of graphic gambling: heady stuff for newspaper readers of 1958, when it first ran.

Without pausing for breath or a fresh martini the Bond briefing segues straight into ‘Live and Let Die’ which sees 007 and US agent Felix Leiter tackle Mr. Big, another scurrilous commie agent, a devious genius who rules the Harlem underworld through superstition, voodoo and brutal force before, ‘Moonraker’ details the attempt by ex-Nazi officer Hugo Drax to drop a guided missile on London: a task made far simpler since the maniac has infiltrated the British aristocracy…

These newspaper strips come from a period when dependable John McLusky was developing a less formal approach, before going on to produce some of his best work. ‘Casino Royale; was the opening strip in a near 25-year run, and the somewhat muted artwork shows an artist still not completely comfortable with his task.

It was adapted and scripted by Anthony Hern, who had won the author’s approval after writing condensed prose versions of the novels for the Daily Express. Live and Let Die and Moonraker were both adapted by Henry Gammidge.

As McLusky settled in for the long haul, he warmed to the potentialities of the job with cracking tales of Cold-War intrigue and fast, dangerous living set in a multitude of exotic locales, providing here a welcome return to public gaze of some of the most influential – and exciting – comic strips in British history.

The adaptation of ‘Diamonds are Forever’ pits Bond against an insidious gang of diamond smuggling criminals, in an explosive if uncomplicated all-action romp before shifting into terse, low-key thriller ‘From Russia With Love’ (both courtesy of Gammidge & McLusky). The artist hit a creative peak with ‘Dr No’ perhaps because of the sparkling script from Peter O’Donnell (before he sloped off to create the amazing Modesty Blaise) with Bond returning to Jamaica to investigate the disappearance of two operatives and stumbling upon a plot to sabotage the American rocketry program.

These stories come from an age at once less jaded but more worldly; a place and time where the readers lived daily with the very real threat of instant annihilation. As such, the easy approachability of the material is a credit to the creators.

‘Goldfinger’ faithfully adapts Fleming’s novel of the world’s most ambitious bullion robbery, so if you’re only familiar with the film version there will be a few things you’ve not seen before. The action fairly rockets along and the tense suspense is high throughout this signature tale.

Following that is ‘Risico’ as 007 is tasked with stopping a heroin smuggling gang whose motive is not profit but social destabilisation. Next is ‘From a View to a Kill’, a traditional and low-key Cold War thriller with Bond on the trail of a gang who have been stealing state secrets by ambushing military dispatch riders…

In the Roger Moore film incarnation Risico was folded into ‘For Your Eyes Only’ but here you get the real deal with a faithful adaptation of Fleming’s short story, wherein Bond is given a mission of revenge and assassination. Set in Jamaica with Nazi war-criminal Von Hammerstein as culprit and target for the man with a licence to kill, it is a solid piece of dramatic fiction that once again bears little similarity to the celluloid adventure.

The volume concludes with the then-controversial ‘Thunderball’ adaptation. That particular tale was savagely censored and curtailed at the behest of Lord Beaverbrook, owner of the Daily Express. Five days of continuity were excised but what remains is still pretty engrossing comic fare and at least some effort was made to wrap up the storyline before the strip ended. In case you can’t recall: When Bond is sent on enforced medical leave, he stumbles into a deadly plot to steal nuclear weapons by a new subversive organisation calling itself Spectre

These grand stories are a must for not only aficionados of Bond but for all thriller fans, as an example of truly gripping adventure uncluttered by superficial razzamatazz. Get back to basics, and remember that classic style is never out of fashion.

All strips are © Ian Fleming Publications Ltd/Express Newspapers Ltd 1987. James Bond and 007 are ™Danjaq LLC used under license from Ian Fleming Publications Ltd. All rights reserved.

The Wolf of Baghdad

By Carol Isaacs/The Surreal McCoy (Myriad Editions)
ISBN: 978-1-912408-55-9 (TPB) eISBN: 978-1-912408-71-9

Contemporary history is a priceless resource in creating modern narratives. It has the benefits of immediacy and relevance – even if only on a generational level – whilst combining notional familiarity (could you tell the difference between a stone axe and a rock?) with a sense of distance and exoticism. In comics, we’re currently blessed with a wealth of superb material exploring the recent past and none better than this enchanting trawl through a tragic time most of us never knew of…

Carol Isaacs is a successful musician (just ask the Indigo Girls, Sinead O’Connor or the London Klezmer Quartet) and – as The Surreal McCoy – a cartoonist whose graphic gifts are regularly on show in The New Yorker, Spectator, Private Eye, Sunday Times and The Inking Woman: 250 Years of Women Cartoon and Comic Artists in Britain. She found her latest inspiration in a two-thousand-year old secret history that’s she been party to for most of her life…

British-born of Iraqi-Jewish parents, Isaacs grew up hearing tales of her ancestors’ lives in Baghdad: part of a thriving multicultural society which had welcomed – or at least tolerated – Jews in Persia since 597 BCE.

How 150,000 Hebraic Baghdadians (a third of the city’s population in 1940) was reduced by 2016 to just 5 is revealed and eulogised in this potently evocative memoir, told in lyrical pictures and the curated words of her own family and their émigré friends, as related to her over her growing years in their comfortably suburban London home.

Those quotes and portraits spark an elegiac dream-state excursion to the wrecked, abandoned sites and places of a socially integrated and vibrantly cohesive metropolis she knows intimately and pines for ferociously, even though she has never set a single foot there…

As well as this enthralling pictorial experience, the art and narrative have been incorporated into a melancholy motion comic (slideshow with original musical accompaniment) that also demands your rapt attention.

The moving experience is supplemented by an Afterword comprising illustrate text piece ‘Deep Home’ (first seen in ‘Origin Stories’ from the anthology Strumpet) which details those childhood sessions listening to the remembrances of adult guests and family elders and is followed by ‘The Making of The Wolf of Baghdad’ which explains not only the book and show’s origins, but also clarifies the thematic premise of ‘The Wolf Myth’ which permeates the city’s intermingled cultures.

‘Other Iraqis’ then reveals some interactions with interested parties culled from Isaacs’ blog whilst crafting this book, whilst the comprehensive ‘Timeline of the Jews in Iraq’ outlines the little-known history of Persian Jews and how and why it all changed, before ‘A Carpet’s Story’ details 1950’s Operations Ezra and Nehemiah which saw 120,000 Jews airlifted to Israel.

Wrapping up the show is a page of Acknowledgements and Suggested Reading.

Simultaneously timeless and topical, The Wolf of Baghdad is less a history lesson than a lament for a lost homeland and way of life: a wistful deliberation on why bad things happen and on how words pictures and music can turn back the years and make the longed for momentarily real and true.
© Carol Isaacs (The Surreal McCoy) 2020. All rights reserved.

The Wolf of Baghdad will be published on January 30th 2020 and is available for pre-order now. Isaacs will be touring the motion-comic throughout 2020 at various venues and festivals around England. For more information please check her blog.

Batman: Knight and Squire

By Paul Cornell & Jimmy Broxton with Staz Johnson (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-3071-5 (TPB)

British Dynamic Duo Knight and Squire first appeared in the cheerfully anodyne, all-ages 1950s – specifically in a throwaway story from Batman #62 (December 1950/January 1951) – as ‘The Batman of England!’

Earl Percy Sheldrake and his son Cyril returned a few years later as part of seminal assemblage ‘The Batmen of All Nations!’ (Detective Comics #215 January 1955): a tale retrieved from the ranks of funnybook limbo in recent times and included in Batman: Black Casebook, with sequel ‘The Club of Heroes’ appearing in World’s Finest Comics #89, July-August 1957. That one’s most recently reprinted in Batman & Superman in World’s Finest Comics: The Silver Age volume 1.

The bold Brits had languished in virtual obscurity for decades before fully entering modern continuity as part of Grant Morrison’s build-up to the Death of Batman and Batman Incorporated retro-fittings of the ever-ongoing legend of the Dark Knight dynasty…

They floated around the brave New World for a while with guest shots in places like Morrison’s JLA reboot and Battle For the Cowl before finally getting their own 6-issue miniseries (December 2010 – May 2011), courtesy of scripter Paul Cornell and artist Jimmy Broxton (with some layout assistance from Staz Johnson).

In all honesty, they rather bit the hand that fed them by producing a far-from-serious but captivating quirky and quintessentially English frolicsome fantasy masterpiece.

It all begins, as most things boldly British do, down the pub. However, The Time in a Bottle is no ordinary boozer, but in fact the favourite hostelry for the United Kingdom’s entire superhuman community: the worthy and the wicked…

Hero and villain alike can kick back here, taking a load off and enjoying a mellow moment’s peace thanks to a pre-agreed truce on utterly neutral ground, all mystically enforced by magics and wards dating back to the time of Merlin…

As the half-dozen chapters of ‘For Six’ open, it’s the regular first Thursday of the month – and that’s an in-joke for Britain’s comics creator community – and the inn is abuzz with costumed crusaders and crazies, all manically determined to have a good time.

Cyril Sheldrake, current Earl of Wordenshire and second hero to wear the helm and mantle of The Knight, sends his trusty sidekick Beryl Hutchinson – AKA The Squire – to head off a potential problem as established exotics Salt of the Earth, The Milkman, Coalface, The Professional Scotsman and the Black and White Minstrels all tease nervous newcomer The Shrike.

The aristocratic avenger would do it himself but he’s all tied up chatting with Jarvis Poker, the British Joker

The place is packed tonight in honour of visiting yank celebrity Wildcat, and a host of strange, outrageous and even deadly patrons all bustle about as Beryl natters with the formerly cocky kid who’s also getting a bit of grief because he hasn’t quite decided if he’s a hero or villain yet…

She’s giving him a potted history of the place when the customary bar fight breaks out, and things take an unconventionally dark turn as an actual attempted murder occurs. It would appear that two of these new gritty modern heroes have conspired to circumvent Merlin’s pacifying protections…

Each original issue was supplemented with a hilarious text page which here act as chapter breaks, so after ‘What You Missed If You’re A Non-Brit’ (a glossary of national terms, traits, terminology and concepts adorned with delightful faux small ads), the tale continues as Beryl and Cyril spend a little down-time in rural Wordenshire where the local civilians tackle the insidious threat of The Organ Grinder and his Monkey so as not to bother the off-duty Defenders.

However, the pair do rouse themselves to scotch the far more sinister schemes of inter-dimensional invader Major Morris and the deadly Morris Men

That’s supplemented by the far-from-serious text feature ‘What Morris Men are Like’

The saga then kicks into top gear with the third instalment as Britain’s Council for Organised Research announces its latest breakthrough. C.O.R.’s obsessively romantic Yorkist Professor Merryweather had no idea that her DNA-reclamation project would lead to a constitutional crisis after she reconstituted Richard III, but it seems history and Shakespeare hadn’t slandered the Plantagenet at all. The wicked monarch is soon fomenting rebellion, using his benefactor’s technology to resurrect equally troublesome tyrants Edward I, Charles I, William II and the ever-appalling King John… even giving them very modern superpowers…

Of course, Knight, Squire and her now besotted not-boyfriend Shrike are at the vanguard of the British (heroic) Legion mustered to fight for Queen and Country and repel the concerted criminal uprising…

Following a history lesson on ‘Cabbages and Kings’, Beryl invites the Shrike back to the Castle for tea, teasing and some secret origins, but things go typically wrong when Cyril’s high-tech armour rebels, going rogue and attacking them all.

The text piece deals with ‘Butlers and Batmen’ before it all goes very dark after lovable celebrity rogue Jarvis Poker gets some very bad news from his doctor and a terrifying follow-up visit from the real Joker.

The Camp Criminal is desperately concerned about his national legacy but Gotham City’s Harlequin of Hate is just keen on increasing his ghastly – and frankly already astronomical – body-count. First on the list is that annoying Shrike kid, but the American psycho-killer has big, bold, bizarre plans to make the UK a completely good-guy-free zone…

Broken up with a two-part ‘The Knight and Squire Character List’, it all culminates and climaxes with a spectacular and breathtaking showdown after the malevolent Mountebank of Mirth goes on a horrendously imaginative hero-killing spree that decimates the Costumed Champions of Albion: a campaign so shocking that even Britain’s bad-guys end up helping to catch the crazed culprit…

Rewarding us all for putting up with decades of “Gor, blimey guv’nor” nonsense in American comics whilst simultaneously paying the Yanks back for all those badly researched foggy, cobbled-rooftops-of-London five minutes from Stonehenge stories which littered every aspect of our image in the USA, this witty, self-deprecating, action-packed and deucedly dashing outing perfectly encapsulates all the truly daft things we noble Scions of Empire Commonwealth love and cherish about ourselves.

Stuffed with surreal, outrageous humour, double entendres, quirky characters, catchphrases and the comedy accents beloved by us Brits – Oh, I say, Innit Blud? – and rife with astonishingly cheeky pokes at our frankly indefensible cultural quirks and foibles, this is the perfect book for anyone who loves grand adventure in the inimitable manner of Benny Hill, Monty Python, Carry On Films and the Beano.

Also included are covers and variants from Yanick Paquette & Michel Lacombe and Billy Tucci & HiFi, plus a wealth of working art, character designs and sketches by Jimmy Broxton and an unpublished spoof cover in tribute to the immortal Jarvis Poker…

Whether you opt for the paperback or digital edition, Buy This Book. It’s really rather good. Oh, go on, do: you know you want to…
© 2011, DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

The Terror of St Trinian’s and Other Drawings

By Ronald Searle with Geoffrey Willans, Timothy Shy & others (Penguin Modern Classics)
ISBN: 978-0-141-91285-1 (PB)

Britain has a fantastic and enviable history and tradition of excellence in the arts of graphic narrative and cartooning. Whether telling a complete story or simply making a point; much of the modern world’s most innovative, inspirational and trenchantly acerbic drawing has come from British pens powered by British hearts and minds.

If you’re quietly humming Rule Britannia or Jerusalem right now, and or heavy breathing and fingering a flag, pack it in. This is not the tone we want. I’m just stating a few facts.

3 March 1920 Ronald William Fordham Searle was one of a very gifted few (in modern times I’d number Ken Reid, Leo Baxendale, Murray Ball and Hunt Emerson among them) who can actually draw funny lines. No matter how little or how much they need to say, they can imbue the merest blot or scratch of ink with character, intent and wicked, wicked will.

Born in Cambridge on March 3rd 1920, Searle studied at Cambridge School of Art before enlisting in the Royal Engineers when WWII broke out. When he was captured by the Japanese in 1942 he ended up in the infamous Changi Prison. The second St Trinian’s cartoon was drawn in that hell-hole in 1944 and it survived – along with his incredible war sketches – to see print once peace broke out. Searle was a worker on the Siam-Burma Railroad (a story for another time and place) and risked his life daily both by making pictures and by keeping them.

He became a jobbing freelance cartoonist when he got home, acerbically detailing British life. Perhaps that why he moved to France in 1961 and became a globe-girdling citizen of the wider world.

By the 1980s he was established – everywhere but here – as not only a cartoonist and satirist but as a film-maker, sculptor, designer, travel-writer and creator of fascinating reportage. This man was a capital “A” Artist in the manner of Picasso or Hockney, and Scarfe and Steadman notwithstanding, he was the last great British commentator to use cartooning and caricature as weapons of social change in the caustic manner of his heroes Hogarth, Gillray, Rowlandson, Cruikshank and the rest.

This volume includes selections from assorted previous collections and includes political illustration, social commentary, arcane mordant whimsy and some of the most surreal, sardonic and grotesque funny pictures of the 20th century.

I won’t spend too much time on his other achievements as his work should be seen and his thoughts and opinions should be understood in his chosen language: Art. At least, he still has enough fans to fill the internet with all the information you could need, so go search-engining after you read this if you wish.

Why his creations are so under-appreciated I do not know. Why this book is out of print: Ditto. That he will remain a relative unknown despite the clutch of movies about his St Trinian’s girls… Not if I can help it.

Anyone who considers themselves a devotee of the arts of graphic narrative should know of Searle’s work, even if not necessarily love – although how could you not? Just be aware of the tremendous debt we all owe to his vision, dedication and gifts.

This compilation traces the rise of his star following his POW years. Post-war, his mordantly funny cartoons appeared in venues such as Punch, Lilliput and The Sunday Express, and in hugely successful collections like Hurrah for St. Trinian’s!, The Female Approach, Back to the Slaughterhouse, The St. Trinian’s Story, Which Way Did He Go?,Pardong m’sieur, In Perspective and The Non Sexist Dictionary.

Searle’s work has influenced an uncountable number of other cartoonists too. His unique visualisation and darkly comic satirical cynicism in the St. Trinian’s drawings as well as his utterly captivating vision of boarding school life as embodied in the classically grotesque Nigel Molesworth quartet: influencing generations of children and adults, and even playing its part in shaping our modern national character and language.

And have I mentioned yet that his drawings are really, really funny?

This superb collection of monochrome cartoons samples choice cuts from a number of his book collections, all delivered with stunning absurdist candour and the peculiarly tragic passive panic and understated warmth that only Searle could instil with his seemingly wild yet clearly-considered linework.

Fronted by an impassioned Introduction from fan and proper grown up journalist/columnist Nicholas Lezard, this paperback and digital collection offers a sweet taste of dark design in haunting and hilarious images culled from a number of sources, opening (un)naturally with macabre treats from St Trinian’s: blending the comforting traditional bonhomie of a girl’s boarding school with the accoutrements of a sex dungeon, the atavists of a charnel house and the fragrant atmosphere of The Somme two days after all the shooting stopped…

Having proved that for some crime Does pay, focus shifts to Merry England, etc., where class, toil, occupations, hobbies, and the ardours of life are ferociously scrutinised before diverting into mirthful metaphysics with a damning disembodied judge dubbed The Hand of Authority

Mare satirical body-blows from Souls in Torment lead delightfully to a montage of misspelled madcap moments of terror-tinged nostalgia as Molesworth extracts snippets of sheer genius from the books he co-created with Geoffrey Willans for Punch and which were subsequently released to enormous success as Down With Skool!, How to be Topp!, Whizz For Atomms! and Back in the Jug Agane.

As I said, Searle was a devotee of satirist William Hogarth and in 1956 adapted the old master’s series of condemnatory cartoons (painted in 1732-34 and released as staggeringly popular engraved prints in 1735) to modern usage and characterisation. Included here in its entirety to conclude our fun, The Rake’s Progress follows the rise and fall of a number of contemporary figures – The Athlete, The Girlfriend, The Soldier, The Poet, The Trade Union Leader, The Actor, The Painter (he based this one on himself), The Don (an English academic, not an American gangster but such confusion is easy to understand), The Dramatic Critic, The Doctor, The MP, The Clergyman, The Novelist, The Humourist, The Master of Foxhounds and The Great Lover – with all the excoriating venom and wit you’d expect from a master of people watching…

Brilliant, Brilliant, Brilliant stuff! See for yourself, whatever side of the battle lines you cower behind…
© 1948, 1951, 1952, 1953, 1954, 1955, 1956, 1959 by Ronald Searle.

This selection © Ronald Searle 2000, 2006. Introduction © Nicholas Lezard, 2000. All rights reserved.