The Best of Eagle

Best of Eagle
Best of Eagle

Edited by Marcus Morris (Mermaid Books)
ISBN: 0-7181-22119 (trade paperback) ISBN:0-7181-1566X (hardback)

A little hard to find but well worth the effort is this upbeat pictorial memoir from the conceptual creator of arguably Britain’s greatest comic. Eagle was the most influential comic of post-war Britain, and launched on April 14th 1950, running until 26th April 1969.

It was the brainchild of a Southport vicar, The Reverend Marcus Morris, who was worried about the detrimental effects of American comic-books on British children, and wanted a good, solid, Christian antidote. Seeking out like-minded creators he jobbed around a dummy to many British publishers for over a year with little success until he found an unlikely home at Hulton Press, a company that produced general interest magazines such as Lilliput and Picture Post.

The result was a huge hit spawning clones Swift, Robin and Girl which targeted other demographic sectors of the children’s market, as well as radio series, books, toys and all other sorts of merchandising.

A huge number of soon-to-be prominent creative figures worked on the weekly, and although Dan Dare is deservedly revered as the star, many other strips were as popular at the time, and many even rivalled the lead in quality and entertainment value.

At its peak 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 Odhams, who became Longacre Press. A year later they were bought by The Daily Mirror Group who evolved into IPC. In cost cutting exercises many later issues carried cheap 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 title, but never the success.

Here Morris has selected a wonderfully representative sampling of the comic strips that graced those pages of a Golden Age to accompany his recollection of events. Being a much cleverer time, with smarter kids than ours, the Eagle had a large proportion of scientific, historical and sporting articles as well as prose fiction.

Included here are over 30 pages reprinting short text stories, cut-away paintings (including the Eagle spaceship), hobby and event pages, sporting, science and general interest features – and it should be remembered that the company produced six Eagle Novels and various sporting, science and history books as spin-offs between 1956 and 1960. Also on show are many candid photographs of the times and the creators behind the pages.

Of course though, the comic strips are the real gold here. Morris has selected 130 pages from his tenure on Eagle that typify the sheer quality of the enterprise. Alongside the inevitable but always welcome Hampson Dan Dare are selections from his The Great Adventurer and Tommy Walls strips.

Other gems include The Adventures of PC. 49 by Alan Stranks and John Worsley, Jeff Arnold in Riders of the Range, by Charles Chilton & Frank Humphris, Chicko by Norman Thelwell, Professor Brittain Explains…, Harris Tweed and Captain Pugwash by John Ryan, Cortez, Conqueror of Mexico by William Stobbs, Luck of the Legion by Geoffrey Bond & Martin Aitchison, Storm Nelson by Edward Trice & E. Jennings and Mark Question (The Boy with a Future – But No Past!) by Stranks & Harry Lindfield.

There are selections from some of the other glorious gravure strips that graced the title: Jack o’Lantern by George Beardmore & Robert Ayton, Lincoln of America by Alan Jason & Norman Williams, The Travels of Marco Polo by Chad Varah & Frank Bellamy, The Great Charlemagne and Alfred the Great (both by Varah & Williams).

Extracts from Bellamy & Clifford Makin’s legendary Happy Warrior and the less well known The Shepherd King (King David), run beside The Great Sailor (Nelson) by Christopher Keyes, as well as The Baden Powell story (Jason & Williams) and even David Livingstone, the Great Explorer (Varah & Peter Jackson), and the monochrome They Showed the Way: The Conquest of Everest by Peter Simpson & Pat Williams makes an appearance.

The book is peppered with nostalgic memorabilia and such joys as George Cansdale’s beautiful nature pages plus a host of cartoon shorts including the wonderful Professor Puff and his Dog Wuff by prolific Punch cartoonist David Langdon. Also included is The Editor’s Christmas Nightmare by Hampson, a full colour strip featuring every Eagle character in a seasonal adventure that is fondly remembered by all who ever saw it…

These may not all resonate with modern audiences but the sheer variety of the material should sound a warning note to contemporary publishers about the fearfully limited range of comics output they’re responsible for. But for us, it’s enough to see and wish that this book, like so many others, was back in print again.

Text © 1977 Marcus Morris. Illustrations © 1977 International Publishing Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

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.

Eagle Classics: Harris Tweed — Extra Special Agent

Harris Tweed 

By John Ryan (Hawk Books -1990)
ISBN: 0-948248-22-X

John Ryan is an artist and storyteller who straddles equally three distinct disciplines of graphic narrative, with equal qualitative, if not financial, success. The son of a diplomat, Ryan was born in 1921, served in Burma and India and after attending the Regent Street Polytechnic (1946-48) took up a post as assistant Art Master at Harrow School from 1948 to 1955. It was during this time that he began contributing strips to comics such as Girl and the legendary Eagle.

On April 14th 1950, Britain’s grey, post-war gloom was partially lifted with the first issue of a new comic that literally shone with light and colour. Avid children were soon understandably enraptured with the gloss and dazzle of Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future, a charismatic star-turn venerated to this day. The Eagle was a tabloid sized paper with full photogravure colour inserts alternating with text and a range of other comic features. Tabloid is a big page and you can get a lot of material onto each page. Deep within, on the bottom third of a monochrome page, was an eight panel strip entitled Captain Pugwash, the story of a Bad Buccaneer and the many sticky ends which nearly befell him. Ryan’s quirky, spiky style also lent itself to the numerous spot illustrations required every week.

Pugwash, his harridan of a wife and the useless, lazy crew of the Black Pig ran until issue 19 when the feature disappeared. This was no real hardship as Ryan had been writing and illustrating Harris Tweed – Extra Special Agent which began as a full page (tabloid, remember, with an average of twenty panels a page, per week!) in the Eagle #16. Tweed ran for three years as a full page until 1953 when it dropped to a half page strip and was repositioned as a purely comedic venture. For our purposes and those of the book under review it’s those first three years we’re thinking of.

Tweed was a bluff and blundering caricature of the “military Big Brass” Ryan had encountered during the war, who, with a young, never-to-be-named assistant known only as ‘Boy’, solved mysteries and captured villains to general popular acclaim. Thrilling and macabre adventure blended seamlessly with a cheerful schoolboy low comedy in these strips, since Tweed was in fact that most British of archetypes, a bit of a twit and a bit of a sham.

His totally undeserved reputation as detective and crime fighter par excellence, and his good-hearted yet smug arrogance – as exemplified by the likes of Bulldog Drummond, Dick Barton – Special Agent or Sexton Blake somehow endeared him to a young public that would in later years take to its heart Captain Mainwaring in Dad’s Army and, more pointedly perhaps, Peter Sellers’ numerous film outings as Inspector Clouseau.

Ryan’s art in these strips is particularly noteworthy. Deep moody blacks and intense sharp inking creates a mood of fever-dream intensity. There are nuances of underground cartoons of more than a decade later, and much of the inevitable ‘lurking horror’ atmosphere found in the best works of Basil Wolverton. Ryan knew what kids liked and he delivered it by the cartload.

When Ryan moved into the budding arena of animated television cartoons he developed a new system for producing cheap, high quality animations to a tight deadline. He began by reworking Captain Pugwash into more than fifty episodes (screening from 1958 on) for the BBC, keeping the adventure milieu, but replacing the shrewish wife with the tried-and-true boy assistant. Tom the Cabin Boy is the only competent member of the crew, instantly affirming to the rapt, young audience that grown-ups are fools and kids do, in fact, rule. He also drew a weekly Pugwash strip for the Radio Times for eight years. Ryan went on to produce a number of animated series including Mary, Mungo and Midge and Sir Prancelot as well as adaptations of some of his forty-plus children’s books. A few years ago an all-new Computer-based Pugwash animated TV series began.

In 1956 the indefatigable old cartoon sea-dog became the first of a huge run of children’s books produced by Ryan. At last count there were 14 Pugwash tales, 12 Ark Stories, and a number of other series. Ryan has worked whenever and wherever he wanted to in the comic world and eventually the books and the strips began to cross-fertilise.

The first Pugwash is very traditional in format with blocks of text and single illustrations that illuminate a particular moment. But by the publication of Pugwash the Smuggler entire sequences are lavishly painted comic strips, with as many as eight panels on one page, complete with word balloons. A fitting circularity to his careers and a nice treat for us old-fashioned comic drones.

We don’t have that many multi-discipline successes in comics, go and find out why we should celebrate one who did it all, did it first and did it very, very well.

Harris Tweed ©1990 Fleetway Publications. Compilation © 1990 Hawk Books.