The Mirror Classic Cartoon Collection

The Mirror Classic Cartoon Collection

By various, compiled by Mike Higgs (Hawk Books)
ISBN 0-948248-06-8

The Daily Mirror has been home to a number of great strips over its long history – beginning with one of the Empire’s greatest successes Tiger Tim, who debuted there in 1904 and culminating with the likes of the war-winning nymphette Jane, The Perishers, Garth and Andy Capp. The latter two feature in this beautiful compilation from Mike Higgs’ Hawk Books which has done so much over the years to keep British cartoon history alive.

This particular effort collects sample selections from the newspaper’s back catalogue in a spiffy hardback that is stuffed with fun, thrills and quality nostalgia.

Garth is the first star featured in an adventure from 1957 by series originator and longest serving creator Steve Dowling (1943-1969 – succeeded by his assistant John Allard, then Frank Bellamy and finally Martin Asbury). Garth is a hulking physical specimen, a virtual human superman with the involuntary ability to travel through time and experience past and future lives. This simple concept lent the strip an unfailing potential for exotic storylines and fantastic exploits.

‘The Captive’ – written by Peter O’Donnell and illustrated by Dowling and Allard – is a contemporary tale with our hero abducted from Earth as a prize in a galactic scavenger hunt instigated by bored hedonistic aliens who don’t realise quite what they’ve gotten themselves involved with… A second adventure, ‘The Man-hunt’, is the last that Frank Bellamy worked on. The astounding Bellamy died in 1976 whilst drawing this story of beautiful alien predators in search of prime genetic stock with which to reinvigorate their tired bloodlines. Written by Jim Edgar, the strip was completed by Asbury who took over with the 17th instalment. This tongue-in-cheek thriller is full of thrills and fantastic action, yet never loses its light humorous touch.

Andy Capp is a drunken, skiving, misogynistic, work-shy, wife-beating scoundrel who has somehow become one of the most popular and well-loved strip characters of all time. Created by jobbing cartoonist Reg Smythe to appeal to northern readers during a circulation drive, he first saw the light of day – with long-suffering wife Florrie in tow – on August 5th 1957. The volume reprints 37 strips from the feature’s 41 year run, which only ended with Smythe’s death in 1998, but the sheer magic of this lovable rogue is as inexplicably intoxicating as it always was, defeating political correctness and common decency alike: A true Guilty Pleasure.

Romeo Brown began in 1954, drawn by Dutch artist Alfred “Maz” Mazure, and starred a private detective with an eye for the ladies and a nose for trouble. The feature was a light, comedic adventure series that added some glamour to the dour mid-1950s, but really kicked into high gear when Maz left in 1957 to be replaced by Peter O’Donnell and the brilliant Jim Holdaway, who would go on to create the fabulous Modesty Blaise together. The strip ended in 1962 and is represented here by a pair of romps from their penultimate year. ‘The Arabian Knight’ and ‘The Admiral’s Grand-daughter’ combine sly, knowing humour, bungling criminality and dazzlingly visuals in a manner any Carry-On fan would die for.

Useless Eustace was a gag-panel (a single-picture joke) that ran from January 1935 to 1985. Created by Jack Greenall, its star was a bald nondescript everyman who met the travails of life with unflinching enthusiasm but very little sense. Greenall produced the strip until 1974, and other artists continued it until 1985. The selections here are from the war years and the 1960s. Another comedy panel was Calamity Gulch, a particularly British view of the ubiquitous “Western” which invaded our sensibilities with the rise of television ownership in the 1950s. Created by Jack Clayton, it began its spoofing and sharp-shooting on 6th June 1960, and you can see 21 of the best right here, Pardner.

A staple of children’s comics that never really prospered in newspapers was the sports adventure. At least not until 1989 when those grown up tykes opened the Daily Mirror to find a football strip entitled Scorer, written by Barrie Tomlinson and drawn by Barry Mitchell, and eventually John Gillatt. Very much an updated Roy of the Rovers, the strip stars Dave ‘Scorer’ Storry and his team Tolcaster F.C. in fast, hot, sexy tales of the Beautiful Game that owed as much to the sports pages it began on as to the grand cartoon tradition. ‘Cup Cracker’, included here is by Tomlinson and Gillatt from 1994, and shows that WAGS (Wives And GirlfriendS, non-sports fans) were never a new phenomenon.

Not many people know this, but before I review an old book (which I arbitrarily define as something more than three years old) I try to locate copies on the internet. It’s a supreme disappointment then for me to admit that this wonderful and utterly British tome is readily available in France, Germany – most of Europe in fact (and you could order it from Amazon.fr for example), but not in any English-speaking nation that I could find. Perhaps that’s a testament to the book’s quality and desirability, and if that’s the case maybe The Mirror Group should expedite a new edition – or even a few sequels…

© 1998 Mirror Group Newspapers, Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

Ronald Searle: In Perspective

Ronald Searle: In Perspective

By Ronald Searle (New English Library)
ISBN: 0-450-06026-8

In a previous review of England’s greatest living artistic treasure (even though he has lived, worked and been properly appreciated in France for the last 25 years) I dwelt on his fantastic humorous qualities, and rightly so, because he is one of our greatest ever cartoonists and graphic satirists and the book in question was a collection of his early cartoons (Ronald Searle’s Golden Oldies 1941-1961, ISBN: 0-85145-102-1). I didn’t spend too much time on his other achievements – and I’m still not going to – 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.

This collection traces Searle’s career pictorially from his 1930s art school days to the 1980s, by which time 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 is a capital “A” Artist in the manner of Picasso or Hockney, and Scarfe and Steadman notwithstanding, he is 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 many previous collections and includes political illustration, war and travel drawings (including some moving pieces from his time as a prisoner of the Japanese in World War II), pure art-studies, nudes, medals he designed for the French Government, poster and paintings and of course, some of the most surreal, sardonic and grotesque funny pictures of the late 20th century.

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 as yet another movie of his St Trinian’s girls gets all the headlines: Not if I can help it.

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

© 1984 Ronald Searle.

George and Lynne ’89

George and Lynne ‘89

By Conrad Frost & Joseph Gual (A4 Publications)
ISBN: 0-946197-35-0

Comfortably middle-class, George and Lynne live on the river and have a great marriage. In brief daily instalments they deal with life’s little misfortunes and each others foibles, secure in the knowledge that nothing can ever go really wrong. And it doesn’t.

This is the comfortable comedy of the Terry and June set, with minor embarrassments and occasionally catty observations on the nature of “keeping up with the Joneses” replacing drama and conflict as narrative engines. They are fit, good looking and spend an incredible amount of time naked.

This strip collection definitely falls into the guilty pleasures category, with woefully lame gags and tired sexism counterbalanced by a gentle, natural married relationship idyllically portrayed in welcoming and accessible scripts, and illustrated by an absolute master of narrative drawing, and one especially adept at the unclad female form (I understand that many people like that sort of thing – I’m pretty sure I do…). I don’t know if Joseph Gual is the same artist that drew the James Bond Strip in Spain but I do know that he is very, very good at his job.

I can’t honestly recommend this strip to everybody, but if you love great drawing and don’t mind the odd bit of old-fashioned sexism this is a pretty and mostly inoffensive way to waste a few minutes.

© 1988 Conrad Frost Associates. All Rights Reserved.

A Tale of Two Mothers-in-Law

A Tale of Two Mothers-in-Law

By Patrick Wright (Heinemann)
ISBN: 0-434-87827-8

Patrick Wright is a cartoonist who is inexplicably not a household name. He’s been working for a couple of decades now, producing dark, savage, crushingly funny panels and strips for a variety of magazines such as Private Eye, and unlike most of his peers who fall into either the “good ideas/so-so art” or “great artist in need of a scripter” he can do it all and do it well.

His composition and economy of line, facial expressions, body-language and especially character designs are superb. This guy can really, really draw. And as I’ve said, his incisive observational skills combine with what I can only assume is a deep inner mean-streak to create brilliantly nasty cartoons that are the epitome of shared misery dusted with Schadenfreude. I’m pretty glad he hasn’t met me…

In such collections as Walkies, Worthless Pursuits, 101 Uses For John Major and Not Inconsiderable – The Life and Times of John Major his vented spleen has made me laugh very long and much too loud, and if you can find those, or better yet, this collection of beautifully illustrated thoughts on the “Eternal Struggle”, he’ll no doubt do the same for you. This is a chap sorely in need of a bumper 25 year retrospective book…

© 1983 Patrick Wright.

Father Christmas Goes on Holiday

Father Christmas Goes on Holiday

By Raymond Briggs (Picture Puffin)
ISBN 10: 0-14050-187-8 ISBN 13: 978-0-14050-187-2

Our industry seems to wilfully neglect this creator whose graphic narratives have reached more hearts and minds than X-Men or Judge Dredd ever will, but his works remain among the most powerful and important in the entire field.

In Father Christmas (ISBN 13: 978-0-14050-125-4) Briggs presented a marvellously crusty, utterly British character getting the job done, and he returned to the old fellow two years later in a much more whimsical mood.

In this 32 page sequel we find the old codger in a bit of a quandary. It’s time for his summer holidays and he doesn’t know where to go. It has to be hot. There should be good food, but nothing too fancy. No poncey, expensive hotels either, but not camping. And he doesn’t want to be recognised… And then it hits him. A touring holiday! By converting the sled into a camper van he can fly wherever he wants!

He starts off with France, which is beautiful but the food’s a little too posh – and costly, and that combined with campsite toilets… Well! It’s the last straw, though, when the kids find his reindeer and get suspicious, so it’s all aboard and off to Bonny Scotland!

This is much better, but there are still kids who recognise him, and it’s not exactly warm, so it’s away again to hot and sassy Las Vegas for some pampering before heading home, broke but refreshed, and ready again for that big night in December…

Despite being quite different in tone, the character of Father Christmas is still a warmly evocative reminder of times and persons sadly and slowly fading into history, but the real star of this book is Briggs amazingly versatile art; shifting from jolly cartoons to brilliantly powerful watercolour landscapes to sublime narrative sequences with dazzling ease. How many artists today (and tomorrow) got that first push of creative aspiration and desire from a gem like this?

This book is also available in a combined edition with its predecessor, Father Christmas.

© 1973 Raymond Briggs. All Rights Reserved.

Father Christmas

Father Christmas

By Raymond Briggs (Picture Puffin)
ISBN 10: 0-14050-125-8 ISBN 13: 978-0-14050-125-4

Our industry seems to cheerfully neglect Raymond Briggs’s graphic narratives which have reached more hearts and minds than Spider-Man or Judge Dredd ever will, yet his books remain among the most powerful and important in the entire field. This one for instance was awarded The Library Association’s Kate Greenaway Medal.

Father Christmas is a slim, slight children’s book from Briggs that has become a perennial delight. With its sequel (and there are editions available with both books combined into one package) it creates a warm yet curmudgeonly Santa who is gruff, curt, common, complaining, dedicated, competent and reliable – in fact the very image of the British worker from a time long gone by.

Created in the last days of the our post-war recovery, and before the infamous “Winter of Discontent” permanently tainted the image of the working man, this typical granddad mutters and putters but still gets the job done right and on time. The old duffer wakes up, realises the date, feeds the animals (dog, cat, chicken, reindeer), has a spot of breakfast and gets down to it. He lives alone in a brick two-up, two-down, (with attached stables, naturally) and once the sleigh is loaded up, he’s away!

Grumbling about the weather he drops off all the presents, stopping for a packed lunch, at the appropriate time, of course, and when finished heads home, nodding off a bit, with frozen feet, job done for another year.

The bright expansive and welcoming art is a seductive device that keeps this fantasy day-in-the-life thoroughly grounded in the everyday, and the total lack of saccharine and schmaltz is still a refreshing antidote to the paternalistic, condescending oaf the modern Christmas Industry foists on us.

This is such quirky, deceptively subversive and beautifully understated fun, that you must deck your shelves with this cracker.

© 1973 Raymond Briggs. All Rights Reserved.

Eagle Classics: Riders of the Range

Eagle Classics: <i>Riders of the Range</i>

By Charles Chilton, Jack Daniel & Frank Humphris (Hawk Books -1990)
ISBN: 0-948248-07-0

In the 1950s Cowboys and Indians ruled the hearts and minds of the public. Westerns were the most popular subject of books, films and comics. The new medium of television screened both recycled cowboy B-movies and eventually serials and series especially created for the stay-at-home aficionado. Some examples were pretty good and became acknowledged as art – as is always the way with popular culture – whilst most others faded from memory, cherished only by the hopelessly nostalgic and the driven.

One medium I didn’t list was radio, an entertainment medium ideal for creating spectacular scenarios and dreamscapes on a low budget. But the BBC (the only legal British radio broadcaster) even managed a halfway decent Western/music show called Riders of the Range. It was written by producer/director Charles Chilton and ran from 1949 until 1953, six series in total.

At the height of its popularity it was adapted as a comic strip in Eagle, which already featured the strip exploits of the immensely successful radio star P.C. 49. The hugely successful comic had already tried a cowboy strip Seth and Shorty, but promptly dropped it. Riders of the Range began as a full colour page in the first Christmas edition (December 22nd 1950, volume 1, No. 37) and ran until 1962, outlasting its own radio show and becoming the longest running western strip in British comics history. In all that time it only ever had three artists.

The first was Jack Daniel, an almost abstract stylist in his designs who worked in bold almost primitive lines, but whose colour palette was years ahead of his time. Crude and scratchy-seeming, his western scenarios were subversive and subliminal in impact. He had previously worked on the newspaper strip Kit Conquest.

Author Chilton had a deep and abiding fascination with the West and often wrote adventures that interwove with actual historical events, such as ‘The Cochise Affair’ reprinted here. This was the second adventure and had heroic Jeff Arnold and sidekick Luke branding cattle for their “6T6” ranch near the Arizona border when they find a raided homestead. A distraught, wounded mother begs for help and reveals that Indians have stolen her little boy. Taking her to Fort Buchanan, Arnold becomes embroiled in a bitter battle of wills between Chief Cochise and Acting Cavalry Commander Lieutenant George N. Bascom. The lean sparse scripts are subtly engaging and Daniel’s unique design and colour sense – although perhaps at odds with the more naturalistic realism of the rest of Eagle’s drama strips – make this a hugely enjoyable lost gem.

Angus Scott took over from Daniel with ‘Border Bandits’ (September 7th 1951), but was not a popular or comfortable fit and departed after less than a year. With only a single page of his art reprinted here, it’s perhaps fairest to move on to the artist most closely associated with the strip.

Frank Humphris was a godsend. His artwork was lush, vibrant and full-bodied. He was also as fascinated with the West as Chilton himself and brought every inch of that passion to the tales. From July 1952 and for the next decade Chilton and Humphris crafted a thrilling and even educational western saga that is fondly remembered to this day. His tenure is represented here by ‘The War with the Sioux’.

In 1875 gold was discovered in the Black Hills of Dakota and the resultant rush of prospectors resulted in the Cavalry being dispatched to protect them from the incensed Indians. Jeff and Luke are hired as intermediaries and scouts, but are helpless as the situation worsens, resulting in the massacre at Little Big Horn. There have many tales woven into this epochal event, but the patriotically dispassionate creativity of two Britons have united here to craft one of the most beautiful and memorable.

The day of the cowboys’ dominance has faded now but the power of great stories well told has not. This is a series and a book worthy of a more extensive revival. Let’s hope someone with the power to do something about it agrees with me. We’d all be winners then…

Riders of the Range © 1990 Fleetway Publications. Compilation © 1990 Hawk Books.

Commando: True Brit

Commando True Brit

By various (Carlton Books)
ISBN: 978-1-84442-121-3

DC Thomson is probably the most influential comics publisher in British history. The Beano and Dandy revolutionised children’s comedy comics, the newspaper strips Oor Wullie and The Broons (both created by the legendary Dudley D. Watkins) have become a genetic marker for Scottishness and the uniquely British “ordinary hero” grew from the prose-packed pages of Adventure, Rover, Wizard, Skipper and Hotspur.

In 1961 the company launched a half-sized title called Commando. Broadly the size of a paperback book, it had 68 pages per issue and an average of two panels a page. Each issue told a complete war story (usually of World War I or II – although all theatres of conflict have featured since) and told tasteful yet gripping stories of valour and heroism in stark black and white dramas which came charged with grit and authenticity. The full painted covers made them look more like novels than comics and they were a huge and instant success. They’re still being published at the rate of eight every month.

This volume collects an even dozen of these mini-epics, selected by series editor George Low, and although much of the collection’s marketing concentrates on the nostalgic element by exhorting the reader to remember dashing about the playground shouting “Achtung” or “Donner und Blitzen” and saluting like Storm-troopers, these tales – subtitled “The Toughest 12 Commando Books Ever” are fine and compelling examples of comic storytelling.

Because of company policy these tales are all uncredited, (and I’d rather not prove my vast ignorance by guessing who did what), so you’ll have to be content with the work itself, although the many fan-sites should be able to provide information for the dedicated researcher. So if you’re looking for a more British comics experience, well-written and wonderfully illustrated, check out ‘Guns on the Peak’, ‘The Fighting Few’, ‘Bright Blade of Courage’, ‘The Haunted Jungle’, ‘Tiger in the Tail’, ‘The Specialists’, ‘Mighty Midget’, ‘VLR: Very Long Range’, ‘Flak Fever’, ‘Fight or Die!’, ‘Fearless Freddy’ and ‘Another Tight Spot…’ in this brilliant compilation.

Let’s make it as traditional as watching The Great Escape on a bank holiday.

™ & © 2006 DC Thomson & Co. Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

High Command

The stories of Sir Winston Churchill and General Montgomery

High Command

By Frank Bellamy, scripts by Clifford Makins (Dragon’s Dream)
ISBN: 90-6332-901-6

Another shamefully neglected classic of British Comic Strip art is this wonderful biographical series that ran in Eagle from October 4th 1957 until September1958. Originally titled ‘The Happy Warrior,’ the prestigious full-page back cover feature was Bellamy’s first full colour strip. He followed with ‘Montgomery of Alamein’, delivering twice the punch and more revelatory design in two-page colour-spreads.

Churchill himself approved the early strips and was rumoured to have been consulted before the artist began the experimental layouts that transformed him from being merely a highly skilled representational draughtsman into the trailblazing innovator who revolutionized the comic page. He also began the explorations of the use of local and expressionistic colour palettes that would result in the extraordinary ‘Fraser of Africa’ (Eagle Classics: Fraser of Africa ISBN: 0-948248-32-7), ‘Heros the Spartan’ and the legendary ‘Thunderbirds’ strips.

The Churchill story, scripted by Clifford Makins, follows the great man from his early days at Eton through military service in Cuba as a war correspondent, and into politics. Although a large proportion deals with World War II – and in a spectacular, tense and thrilling manner, the subtler skill Bellamy displays in depicting the transition of dynamic, handsome man of action into burly political heavyweight over the weeks is impressive and astonishing. It should be mentioned, though, that this collection doesn’t reproduce the climactic, triumphal last page, a portrait that is half-pin-up, half summation.

Bernard Law Montgomery’s graphic biography benefited from Bellamy’s newfound expertise in two ways. Firstly the page count was doubled, and the artist capitalized on this by producing groundbreaking double page spreads that worked across gutters (the white spaces that divide the pictures) and allowed him to craft even more startling page and panel designs. Secondly, Bellamy had now become extremely proficient in both staging the script and creating mood with colour. This strip is pictorial poetry in motion.

Makins doesn’t hang about either. Taking only three episodes to get from school days in Hammersmith, army service in India and promotion to Brigade Major by the end of the Great War, Monty’s WWII achievements are given full play, allowing Bellamy to create an awesome display of action-packed war comics over the remaining fifteen double paged episodes. There really hasn’t been anything to match this level of quality and sophistication in combat comics before or since.

If you strain you might detect a tinge of post-war triumphalism in the scripts, but these accounts are historically accurate and phenomenally stirring to look at. If you love comic art you should hunt these down, or at least pray that somebody, somewhere has the sense to reprint this work.

©1981 Dragon’s Dream B.V. ©1981 I.P.C. Magazines Ltd.

Eagle Classics: Fraser of Africa

Eagle Classics: Frasier of Africa

By George Beardmore & Frank Bellamy (Hawk Books -1990)
ISBN: 0-948248-32-7

Frank Bellamy is one of British Comics’ greatest artists. In the all-too brief years of his career he produced magnificent and unforgettable visuals for Eagle, TV21, Radio Times (Doctor Who) and graduated to the Daily Mirror newspaper strip ‘Garth’ in 1969. He turned that long-running but lacklustre adventure strip into a magnificent masterpiece of fantasy, with eye-popping, mind-blowing black and white art that other artists were proud to boast they swiped from. After only 17 stories he died suddenly in 1976 and it’s absolutely criminal that his work isn’t in galleries, let alone in permanent collected book editions.

He was born in 1917 but didn’t begin comic strip work until 1953 – a strip for Mickey Mouse Weekly. From there he moved on to Hulton Press and drew strips starring Swiss Family Robinson, Robin Hood and King Arthur for Swift the “junior companion” to Eagle. In 1957 he moved on to the star title producing stand-out and innovative work on a variety features beginning with the biography of Winston Churchill.

‘The Happy Warrior’ was quickly followed by ‘Montgomery of Alamein’, ‘The Shepherd King – the story of David’, and ‘The Travels of Marco Polo’, from which he was promptly pulled only a few months in. As Peter Jackson took over the back page historical adventure, Bellamy was on his way to the Front Cover and the Future.

When Hulton were bought by Odhams Press there were soon irreconcilable differences between Frank Hampson and management. The creator of Dan Dare left his super-star creation (see the review for The Road of Courage ISBN: 90-6332-801-X for a fuller run-down of those events) and Bellamy was tapped as his replacement – although both Don Harley and Keith Watson were retained as his assistants.

For a year Bellamy produced Dan Dare, redesigning the entire look of the strip (at management’s request) before joyfully stepping down to fulfill a lifetime’s ambition.

For his entire life Frank Bellamy had been fascinated – almost obsessed – with Africa. When asked if he would like to draw a big game hunter strip he didn’t think twice. ‘Fraser of Africa’ debuted in August 1960, a single page every week in the prestigious full-colour centre section. George Beardmore wrote the three serials ‘Lost Safari’, ‘The Ivory Poachers’ and ‘The Slavers’ and Bellamy again surpassed himself by inventing a colour palette that burned with the dry, yellow heat of the Veldt. The strip became the readers’ favourite, knocking Dare from a position considered unassailable.

Fraser the character is a man out of time. Contrary to modern assumptions, he was a man who loved animals, treated natives as full equals and had a distinctly 21st century ecological bent. For a Britain blithely rife with institutionalized racism, cheerfully promoting blood-sports and still wondering what happened to The Empire, Fraser’s startlingly ‘PC’ antics were a thrilling, exotic and salutary experience for us growing boys.

Notwithstanding the high quality of the stories, Fraser of Africa is a primarily an artistic landmark. The techniques of line and hatching, the sensitive, atmospheric colours, even the staging and layout of the pages, which would lead to the majestic ‘Heros the Spartan’ and eventually the bravura creativity displayed in the Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet strips for TV21, all were derived from the joyous stories of the Dark Continent.

Yet another one to add to “The Why Is This Not In Print?” Pile…

Fraser of Africa ©1990 Fleetway Publications. Compilation © 1990 Hawk Books.