By Frank Bellamy & Clifford Makins (Dragon’s Dream)
ISBN: 978-9-06332-901-3 (PB)
Inexcusably absent as we commemorate the achievements and sacrifices of earlier generations are these twin neglected classics of British comic strip art, crafted by one of the world’s most talented narrative illustrators. These wonderful biographical series originally ran in The Eagle: the most influential comic of post-war Britain, which launched on April 14th 1950, to astound readers weekly until 26th April 1969.
It was the brainchild of a Southport vicar, the Reverend Marcus Morris, who was at that time concerned over the detrimental effects of American comicbooks on British children. He posited a good, solid, thoroughly decent Christian-inspired antidote and sought out like-minded creators. After jobbing around a dummy to many British publishers for over a year with little success, he eventually found an unlikely home at Hulton Press, a company that produced adult general interest magazines such as Lilliput and Picture Post.
The result was a huge hit spawning clones Swift, Robin and Girl (targeting other demographic sectors of the children’s market), as well as radio series, books, toys and all other sorts of merchandising.
An incredible huge number of soon-to-be prominent creative figures in many arenas of media worked on the weekly, and although Dan Dare is deservedly revered as the star, many other strips were as popular at the time, many even rivalling the lead in quality and entertainment value. As was the trend of the times, the content combined fact with fiction, stressing learning and discernment equally with adventure, thrills and fun…
At its peak, The Eagle sold close to a million copies a week, but eventually changing tastes and a game of “musical owners” killed the title. In 1960, Hulton sold out to comics megalith Odhams, who then became Longacre Press. A year later they were bought by The Daily Mirror Group who evolved into IPC. And so it goes in publishing…
In cost-cutting exercises, many later issues carried (relatively) cheap and oh-so-trendy Marvel Comics reprints rather than British originated material. It took time, but the Yankee cultural Invaders won out in the end…
With the April 26th 1969 issue Eagle was merged into Lion, eventually disappearing altogether. Successive generations have revived the prestigious glamour-soaked title, but never its success.
From its glorious Reithian heyday (“Educate, Elucidate and Entertain”) comes a brace of brief biographical serials devoted to two men who were crucial to the war effort that had imperilled the readership’s forebears, originally collected into a classy album by Dragons Dream in 1981.
The first half was reprinted in 2014 as slim scarcely seen paperback The Happy Warrior: The Life Story of Sir Winston Churchill as Told Through the Eagle Comic of the 1950’s (ISBN: 978-1-90650-990-3) with a scholarly commentary from Richard M. Langworth CBE, but we’re long overdue for the combined volume to resurface (you will never know the effort involved in not just saying “the Full Monty” there…)
In High Command, however, we can devour the life story of Sir Winston Churchill and the quiet general (both scripted by Clifford Makins), beginning with the icon of Bulldog Spirit. Originally titled The Happy Warrior, the prestigious full-page back cover feature (running from October 4th 1957 until September1958) was Frank Bellamy’s first full colour strip. He followed up with Montgomery of Alamein (volume 13, #10-27, spanning March 10th to 7th July 1962), delivering twice the punch and more revelatory design in two-page colour-spreads that utterly spellbound readers, whether they were war-fans or not…
Churchill himself approved the early strips and was rumoured to have been consulted before the artist began the experimental layouts that elevated Bellamy from being merely a highly skilled representational draughtsman into the trailblazing innovator who revolutionized the comic page.
The tireless experimenter also began the explorations of the use of local and expressionistic colour palettes that would result in the extraordinary Fraser of Africa, Heros the Spartan and the deservedly legendary Thunderbirds strips.
The Churchill story 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 and all hagiography.
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). This 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.