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Thursday, 6 September 2012

Greek Mythology Began For Me...

...In Nineteen Hundred and Sixty-Three; unlike the poet Philip Larkin who had a wholly different reason to regard that year as his Annus Mirabilis. What's more I was only seven years old, so I'd say that it came at just the right time for me!

More specifically it began in the January of that year with dramatic footage of a storm-tossed galley seen on our old, black and white television. This was live-action footage - presumably taken from some old Hollywood blockbuster - but then, as I watched, it magically transformed into a comic strip image, though the noise of howling winds and crashing waves continued unabated.

This, I was informed by the voice of an excited announcer, was a scene taken from 'Wrath of the Gods' - a story to be found within the pages of a brand new comic called Boys' World which was "on sale at all good newsagents" even as he spoke. Though I vaguely remember some mention of other stories such as 'The Sea Ape' and 'What is Exhibit X?' there's no doubt that it was the sight of that singular, doomed vessel with the strange eyes painted on its prow that instantly captured my attention and left me desperate to know 'what happened next'.

Sure enough the very next day saw me scuttling home from Mr Norbury's paper shop with the comic in question clutched greedily in my hands. I was, however, surprised to discover that this was the second issue of Boys' World and not the first. Presumably any TV adverts for no.1 had been shown while I was otherwise engaged or the set was tuned to BBC: such are the vagaries of fate from which our destinies are woven.

Boys' World no.2 - My first issue!
Boys' World no's 3,4,5 & 6 with 'slice of life' covers in the style of adult magazines such as John Bull (later issues displayed a feature called 'What Would YOU do?')

The legendary First Issue - for over twenty years this remained a kind of personal 'Holy Grail' for me until I suddenly came across two copies within weeks of each other (of course, this was long before the world wide web and eBay!)

In those days it was common practice for the first three issues of a new comic to contain a 'free gift', and Boys' World was no exception. The 'Magic Note Pad' which I found loosely inserted within the pages of my new purchase by the newsagent (there were no pre-sealed polybags back then) turned out to be a neat little card with a kind of grey 'screen' in its centre upon which endless drawings or written messages could be 'magically' inscribed with a stylus, only to be deleted with a deft waggle whenever they were no longer required. I was fascinated by this relatively primitive arrangement of cellophane and carbon paper which, in retrospect, seemed to anticipate something of the style and function of modern iPads by nearly half a century!

In other respects, however, Boys' World was very different from most comics then being published. For one thing there were only four traditional comic strips inside, with the rest of the pages being devoted to educational features and text stories (a combination that had been successfully pioneered a year earlier by Fleetway's Look & Learn). In many ways it was a cross between a traditional boys' comic and a high quality magazine: an impression that was strengthened by the use of full bleed printing and painted covers.

Surprisingly this bold new venture didn't originate from within the ranks of Odhams' existing editorial staff; instead it was the brainchild of an inspirational American named Jim Kenna who'd only recently arrived on these shores looking for work. According to Michael Moorcock, who wrote many of Boys' World's early text features, Kenna was hired in the hope that an infusion of new blood would translate into commercial success. Even Robert Bartholomew - the more conventional editor of Odhams' venerable Eagle - concedes that Kenna's ambition was impressive, reminding him of Eagle's legendary founder Marcus Morris. For Moorcock he was a breath of fresh air amongst the rather 'dull and self-satisfied' types who were beginning to predominate within the industry. At one time he and Jim even came up with an audacious scheme "to offer a real B-52 as a prize in a competition, knowing no parent would allow their kid to have it in the back garden." As they expected this proposal was instantly squashed by the powers that be!

Along with Moorcock and his writing partner Barrington J. Bayley, Kenna assembled an impressive stable of freelance writers that included his friend and fellow American Harry Harrison, as well as a number of reliable industry veterans such as Tom Tully and Donne Avenell. Unfortunately comic strips were rarely credited in those days so the creative team behind 'Wrath of the Gods' - Boys' World's full-colour centrepiece - had to remain something of a mystery for the first few weeks.

And make no mistake - 'Wrath of the Gods' was the jewel in the crown of this new title! Just as those initial glimpses on the TV screen had captured my attention, the sight of my first full episode was enough to make me cancel my regular order for TV Comic and replace it there and then with Boys' World.

My introduction to the world of Arion the Greek

Finally, on the editorial pages of Boys' World no.14 the mystery was solved when Kenna took the unusual step of crediting the writer/artist team behind 'Wrath of the Gods' in his response to a reader's letter:

A mystery solved on the letters page of Boys' World no.14
The men behind 'Wrath of the Gods' - Writer Willie Patterson and artist Ron Embleton
By 1963 Ron Embleton had already established himself as an expert visualizer of the ancient world having recently finished an acclaimed run as writer and artist of 'Wulf the Briton' for Express Weekly, as well as producing superbly researched illustrations of other historical periods for Fleetway's newly-launched educational magazine Look & Learn.

By contrast, writer Willie Patterson was mostly known for his collaboration with fellow Scot Sydney Jordan on the Daily Express's science fiction strip 'Jeff Hawke'. Unlike the workaholic perfectionist Embleton, whose steady path of self-improvement never faltered until his too-early death in 1988, Patterson's career blazed brilliantly for just a few short years before he was overtaken by a debilitating illness in the late 1960s that left him unable to work. Nevertheless, for a period of just over ten years he managed to craft some of the most original series that ever appeared in British comics - including such memorable tales as 'The Phantom Patrol' for Swift, 'The Guinea Pig' for Eagle and 'What is Exhibit X?' - also for Boys' World.

In spite of his aptitude for Science Fiction Patterson had an omnivorous mind that devoured Latin and Greek literature with as much enthusiasm as he studied Astronomy or Physics. As a result his scripts for 'Wrath of the Gods' captured the authentic 'feel' of Greek Mythology, even as he played fast and loose with the archeological facts. Thus, the whole series is structured as a classic quest in which each week's episode opens with a fresh wonder that the hero Arion has to overcome before he is sent on the next leg of his journey with a new instruction from the gods. And while Embleton later confessed to being unhappy with the historical inconsistencies that he had to negotiate, his ability to bring a sense of realism to the most fantastic scenes proved a perfect counterpoint to Patterson's soaring imagination.

One by one, Arion and his comrade Pollodor were confronted by legendary beings such as Charon the boatman, Circe, Cerberus, Medusa, and the terrifying Minotaur - and I gazed on each of these fabulous creatures with wide-eyed astonishment. Out of all of them, however, there were two that are still capable of sending a thrill down my spine some fifty years later.

The first was the imposing sight of Atlas, groaning in agony as he held the secret pillars of the sky on his shoulders - a burden that Arion himself had to share for a brief moment! In the sequence shown below it's possible to see the thrilling way in which the final panels of one week's episode would invariably anticipate the next week's dramatic opening.

Arion and Pollodor gaze in awe at the towering figure of Atlas

The other sequence which burned itself into my memory was a perfect example of Patterson's deliberate blurring of history as Arion - introduced in the very first episode as a veteran of the Trojan Wars - gazed on the fabled Colossus of Rhodes: one of the so-called 'Seven Wonders' of the Ancient World that shouldn't even have existed for another 900 years! The statue's dramatic location astride the harbour entrance was also something of a invention, though in this case Patterson was simply following an error that had arisen in Medieval times (and one which supposedly inspired Shakespeare's description of Caesar 'bestriding the narrow world').

Arion enjoys a preview of one of the Seven Wonders of the World!

In the event, Arion and his shipmates were forced to take their leave of Rhodes with undue haste, which led to a desperate race against time as the galley's oarsmen strained their muscles in a futile attempt to clear the looming giant before its engineers could unleash their terrible weapon: a gigantic bowl of burning oil capable of turning the harbour entrance into a wall of fire!

Arion loses yet another ship!
Strangely enough I recalled this sequence just a few months later when my Dad took me to see Ray Harryhausen's classic film 'Jason and the Argonauts' at Stoke's Esseldo cinema. In fact we were so impressed by the Argonauts' battle with the bronze giant Talos - especially the part where they tried to escape by rowing beneath his legs - that we sat through the beginning of the film for a second time (not to mention the rather dull support feature 'Siege of the Saxons') in order to watch it again!

Jason and the Argonauts face Talos in Ray Harryhausen's 1963 film

For years afterward I wondered if the remarkable similarity between these two scenes (both of which must have been in production at roughly the same time) could have been related in any way. Since then, however, I discovered that only two years earlier the young Sergio Leone had directed an Italian 'Sword & Sandal' epic which featured a very similar version of the Colossus, complete with inbuilt defensive weapons. If this rather embarrassing melodrama provided a spark of inspiration for both Patterson and Harryhausen it certainly wouldn't be the first time that dross had been turned to gold through a minor act of creative plagiarism.

Sergio Leone's 1961 epic 'The Colossus of Rhodes'

Sadly, Ron Embleton only remained with 'Wrath of the Gods' for the first 23 episodes - yet this first quest, in which Arion travelled to the land of the dead itself in order to recover the Lost Bow of Delos, led directly to a second adventure in which a young John Burns took over the artistic reins. In fact, Boys' World no.24 marked a major change in the title as it reverted from the stylish magazine format to a traditional Eagle-style layout with white margins around every page. At roughly the same time Odhams, alarmed that Kenna's singular vision wasn't being matched by equally extraordinary sales, decided to replace him with the much less maverick figure of Bob Bartholomew, who went on to edit both Eagle and Boys' World until the two comics were finally merged together in late 1964.

Amongst Bartholomew's changes were the introduction of two science fiction strips: 'The Iron Man', about a crime-fighting robot in human disguise (drawn by Ron's younger brother Gerry), and 'Brett Million', about an interstellar adventurer whose initial outing was adapted from Harry Harrison's first 'Deathworld' novel. And as Frank Langford's florid artwork for the latter series was granted pride of place in the comic's centrespread this meant that 'Wrath of the Gods' was relegated to a single page on the back cover.

John Burns' first episode as Arion embarks on a new quest
I can't help feeling that Gerry Embleton should have been the natural choice to take over from his brother (as he had done with 'Strongbow the Mighty' in Zip) - especially since John Burns' attempt to follow Ron on 'Wulf the Briton' in the last few issues of TV Express had proved anything but successful. Nevertheless Burns had clearly improved considerably in the intervening period so that his first Arion pages, though rarely spectacular, provided an acceptable approximation of the look that Ron Embleton had established, and the 'Quest for the Nameless God' turned out to be a worthy successor to the initial series.

Then bit by bit something strange happened as John Burns' own style began to emerge with ever-increasing confidence; and, as if in recognition of his growing mastery, 'Wrath of the Gods' was restored to its old position on the centre pages in time for the beginning of a brand new quest as Arion set out to help his friend Klobbax in a search for the Weapons of Ajax.

Over time Burns developed a real talent for dynamic penmanship (very different from Ron Embleton's brushwork) as well as an idiosyncratic palette in which dirty greens, browns, blues and greys predominated, yet out of which sudden splashes of red, yellow, purple or shocking pink could startle the eye at any moment with all the force of a lightning bolt in an overcast sky. In a way this technique was well suited to tales in which the mundane reality of the mortal world was constantly juxtaposed against the timeless magic of the gods. What's more, there was a sense in which the loss of Embleton's jewel-like colours was matched by the direction of the storyline for, having confronted all the most famous marvels of Greek mythology, Arion's fourth and final quest sent him far beyond the Pillars of Heracles and the sparkling blue Mediterranean, through grim northern seas to the mysterious, mist-shrouded island of Britain.

The Pillars of Heracles!
Here, in a land haunted by Werewolves and Krakens, Arion and his travelling companions found themselves at the mercy of a whole new pantheon of savage gods such as Wodin and the devious Loki as they sought to recover the Future-Stone, a powerful mystic artifact that had been stolen from Olympus itself aeons before. But all their previous trials paled into insignificance when the three Norns - almighty weavers of destiny for gods and men alike - rose up from their Cave of night, threatening Arion with horrors beyond imagining: even if it meant war in heaven.

And at that point the world came to an end...!

...Or at any rate Boys' World did (accompanied by the traditional announcement of 'Exciting News' for all readers!).

'Exciting News!' - The old lie dreaded by British comic readers

Fortunately Odhams allowed the storyline to continue for six more weeks in the pages of the combined Eagle & Boys' World where 'Wrath of the Gods' briefly rubbed shoulders with Frank Bellamy's 'Heros the Spartan'. Thanks to the intervention of the Greek Fates Arion and his comrades managed to escape from the Norns, allowing them to track down the Future-Stone in a Druid temple. No sooner did Arion hold the glittering jewel in his hands than he and his friends were transported instantly back to Greece and the throne room of Olympus.

All that remained was a procession of the mighty beings that Arion had contended with during the course of his four quests as each one in turn - from Atlas on his mountaintop to the Minotaur in his blood-soaked arena and Cerberus at the gates of Hell - saluted him one last time for his valour. Then, in the words of Zeus himself, Arion's tasks were finally over and the Wrath of the Gods was ended!

The Minotaur hails Arion for one last time (taken from the original art)
"The Wrath of the Gods is ended!" (taken from the original art)

Friday, 16 March 2012

Weird War Tales

Along with Sports and Westerns, War stories accounted for much of the content of boys adventure comics published in Britain while I was growing up during the 1950s and 1960s. Unfortunately I had little or no interest in any of these genres, and tales about World War 2 left me particularly cold.

It's not as though I was a born pacifist - more that I associated such tales with my parents' generation, and with the older members of the post-war baby boom who seemed to revel in boringly prosaic activities such as trainspotting, Meccano and collecting 'cutaway drawings' from the Eagle. For me, in those days, the Second World War represented the recent past, and its lingering traces could still be seen all over the landscape in the form of drab Nissan Huts, or disused airfields and pillboxes that were becoming ever more overgrown with each passing year. Along with a growing number of my immediate contemporaries I found myself increasingly attracted to the future instead of the past, and to the unearthly rather than the down-to-earth.

As a consequence the only war stories likely to attract my attention were those that included some kind of 'fantastic' element, so it was fortunate that round about the time I started to take an interest in comics a number of publishers began to explore the curious sub-genre of 'Weird War Stories'!

With memories of the 'doodlebugs' and 'buzz-bombs' that had terrified the southern counties of England during the latter stages of the War it's hardly surprising that one of the first types of Weird War Story to emerge involved the idea of Nazi Secret Weapons. These included everything from death rays to robots and flying saucers, allowing writers and artists to explore science fiction themes which made such comics appeal to me in a way that the more routine tales of blood and glory never did.

Whereas secret weapons were employed almost exclusively by Germans (generally portrayed as a nation of oafish brutes or brilliant madmen), however, the next category of weirdness was capable of causing combatants from both sides of the conflict to form temporary alliances against a far more terrible enemy - dinosaurs!!!

Supposedly classified and removed from all official accounts of WW2 this parallel battlefront was finally revealed to the public by legendary DC editor/writer Bob Kanigher who christened it the 'War That Time Forgot'. The combination of Nazis and Dinosaurs (possibly inspired by Edgar Rice Boroughs' WW1 story 'The Land that Time Forgot') proved to be an instant success and the series was soon promoted to the lead feature of 'Star Spangled War Stories'. Since then this winning formula has been revived on numerous occasions, and I've no doubt that it will continue to resurface in one form or another for many years to come.

Kanigher also played an important part in the third significant wave of 'Weird War Tales' that caught my attention during that period - this being the curious notion of 'Ghosts at War'.

Of course, the way in which comics on both sides of the Atlantic depicted supernatural themes had been radically affected by the mid-1950s campaign against 'Horror Comics', so that creatures such as Vampires, Wolfmen, Zombies and Frankenstein-type monsters had been specifically banned; the American 'Comics Code Authority' even deemed the very words 'Horror' and 'Weird' to be inherently unsavoury and outlawed their use on comic book covers. Fortunately ghosts - especially 'friendly' one's like Harvey's famous Casper - managed to slip through the net, and this left the field open for the appearance of a brand new genre of comics that replaced horror with a curiously benign eschatology that owed far more to Jimmy Stewart's 'Wonderful Life' than 'Dracula' or 'Frankenstein'.

Under the editorship of Richard Hughes the American Comics Group produced a whole line of titles based on the existence of a quasi-religious, heavenly realm that he called simply 'The Unknown'. While ACG's ghosts made regular appearances in historical war zones, however, it was DC's Bob Kanigher who came up with the idea of an ongoing series in which the crew of a WW2 tank were watched over by the ghost of a Confederate General (albeit one who could only be seen by the tank commander!).

'The Haunted Tank' made its debut in G.I.Combat no.87 (April/May 1961) - exactly one year after the dinosaurs had taken up residence in Star Spangled War Stories. Thus I was able to rely on a steady supply of American comics to satisfy my taste for Weird War; what's more, I found that more and more home-grown, British comics were also beginning to feature ghostly storylines.

In the face of all these glamorous tales of monsters and marvels, who needed to bother with my father's mundane accounts of the flesh-and-blood enemies he'd encountered on his bloody trail from North Africa to the borders of Austria during those years before I was born? It wasn't until the 1970s, when growing pressure within the comics industry caused the Comics Code Authority to relax their rules, that I began to realize my mistake.

All at once the vampires, werewolves and zombies were back! Meanwhile, in the pages of DC's war comics it became possible to sideline the fanciful ghosts, dinosaurs and robots in order to re-establish an essential link between war and sheer, existential horror. As soon as I saw the skeletal german soldier lunging out of the cover of Weird War Tales no.1 in late 1971 I knew that things could never be the same again: this was a new kind of weirdness that felt, paradoxically, real ...in addition to which it stirred a faint memory I'd all-but forgotten!

...Suddenly, I was just four or five years old again - watching wide-eyed in the curtained gloom of my parents' bedroom as my father lifted mementos of his war service, one by one, out of a drawer.

Old ration books and his call-up papers.

Photographs of himself in uniform, standing alongside comrades who didn't all survive.

A German dagger in its sheath, emblazoned with the swastika.

A belt, bearing the motto 'GOTT MITT UNS'.

...And, lastly, a couple of yellowing leaflets that had once fallen like rain in the valley of the River Po.

In the event my father remembered crossing the Po against minimal opposition, but the graphic 'warnings' - a product of Herr Goebbels' Ministry of Propaganda - had clearly impressed him enough to warrant his carrying them for the rest of the war. For me, however, those dreadful illustrations were the stuff of nightmares: small wonder that I somehow managed to blot out their memory until Joe Kubert's cover for the first issue of Weird War finally brought them crowding back.

In retrospect, I guess it's hardly surprising that I preferred the dinosaurs...!

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Cover Recreation: Weird Science no.19

I produced this recreation of Wally Wood's amazing cover for Weird Science no.19 at the request of my nephew Tom. It measures just over 20in by 14in and was drawn by hand on rigid illustration board. I deliberately chose to execute it in black & white rather than colour so that none of Wally's obsessive detail would be lost.

A copy of the actual comic book from 1953

Friday, 3 February 2012

The End of the Horror Comic

By way of an addendum to the previous post (itself a holding entry until I have the time and energy to start blogging on a regular schedule) here are some scans from a copy of Picture Post dated Nov 20th 1954 that I recently acquired. This was the second time the prestigious magazine had turned its sights on the subject of comics (the first occasion being May 1954 under the headline 'Should U.S. 'Comics' be Banned?'), and it is noticeable that public opinion on the subject had become increasingly heated during the intervening period. Interestingly, the emphasis had switched somewhat from US comic books in general to the newly emotive concept of 'Horror Comics' - though the anti-American agenda of Communist Party activist Peter Mauger is still evident (the fact that the supposed degeneracy of these violent American titles was strongly contrasted with the natural 'goodness' of home-grown comics such as Eagle, Swift and Girl is hardly surprising when one considers that they were being produced by the same publisher as Picture Post itself!)

Elizabeth Taylor presides in regal splendour over a cover which asks the question
"Horror Comics: Is this the End?"

Editorial in which publisher Edward Hulton makes a clear distinction between the innate wholesomeness of his own line of 'children's comics' and the looming menace of a transatlantic 'traffic in filth'!

Paul Anderson and Gordon Watkins chronicle the last days of the 'crude' and 'vulgar' Horror Comic (with particular reference to EC's Tales from the Crypt) - while finding time to applaud the many virtues of Hulton's own Eagle and Swift!

Communist Party activist Peter Mauger broadens the attack to those American comic books which feature "stories of crime, war, supermen who use their god-like powers to fight Evil, space-fantasies of war with the hostile (of course!) beings from other planets, and our old friend the Western in new and savage guise"...almost all of them in fact! Fortunately, there is just enough space left to mention those British comics which get an unqualified seal of approval from 'churchmen and teachers' everywhere - namely Hulton's own Girl and Eagle!

The second (and final!) British edition of Tales from the Crypt published by Arnold Miller (as referenced above) alongside the original US cover of EC's Tales from the Crypt no.41. Unfortunately Miller's deliberate addition of a 'not suitable for children' label was brushed aside as mere hypocrisy - as was the assertion by F. A. Thorpe (of publishers Thorpe & Porter) that "eight out of ten horror comics sold were sold to women, mainly married women".

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Why 'Things That Grip'? (...and what's the connection to the cover of Atom no.17?)

Round about the time I was being born in 1955 the John Bull Rubber Company of Leicester began an advertising campaign for a range of tyres which emphasized their superior road-holding ability with the snappy slogan 'Things that Grip!' Some of these adverts were quite unremarkable, comparing the 'grip' of John Bull Tyres to eminently sensible items such as a mountain climber's cramponed boots.

Others, however, took off in a wholly unexpected direction using surreal and horrific examples of 'Things that Grip!', each of them portrayed with gruesome humour by an unknown cartoonist who threw himself enthusiastically into the task of depicting the most blood-curdling images possible.

Though the artwork is relatively crude one can't help but feel it must have been influenced by the style of certain American comic-books - particularly the tongue-in-cheek brand of horror popularized in the pages of legendary EC titles such as Tales from the Crypt. The curious thing is that by 1955 this sort of fare could no longer be found in America itself because of an industry-wide code of self-censorship established by the main publishers who'd found themselves engulfed in a wave of paranoia which swept the country when it was claimed that such comics were corrupting the nation's youth.

In the United Kingdom, meanwhile, American comic books had already been officially unavailable for several years - firstly as a result of wartime restrictions on the importation of non-essential goods, and latterly because of the UK Government's response to a post-war balance of payments crisis (though limited quantities did occasionally leak out of American Air Force bases in some parts of the country). Nevertheless demand for US-style comics remained strong, leading a number of enterprising British publishers to produce black & white reprints of a range of popular titles. One of the most successful of these suppliers turned out to be a neighbour of the John Bull Company - Thorpe & Porter Ltd. of Oadby, Leicester, who made an early entry into the horror field with short- lived versions of Eerie Comics and Comics to Hold You Spellbound, closely followed by Simon & Kirby's Black Magic. However, when the latter series began to attract negative publicity they cannily allowed their main rival the Miller family of London to take over with the twelfth issue.

Some early British horror titles from Thorpe & Porter

Black Magic Magazine no.12 (British Edition) published by the Arnold Book Company - aka the 'Son' of L. Miller & Son

In fact, this negative view of popular literature was nothing new in Britain. As far back as the nineteenth century there had been a profound moral panic amongst educated classes about the corrupting effects of 'Penny Dreadfuls' on their social inferiors. In his spirited defence of such publications G K Chesterton observed in 1901 that it had become the custom, particularly amongst magistrates, "to attribute half the crimes of the Metropolis to cheap novelettes". In many ways these attacks reflected the country's long-standing class divisions which were themselves challenged by the existence of an increasingly educated proletariat. Once literacy itself had been the exclusive province of a privileged minority but now that even the meanest guttersnipe was learning how to read and write it became all-important to relocate the old class divisions in more intangible questions of taste and breeding!

Moreover, this notion of the degrading nature of lower class literature didn't, by any means, limit itself to matters of 'blood and gore'. In a book published in 1949 Geoffrey Trease began something of a witch-hunt against Enid Blyton, of all people, whom he accused of polluting children's minds with anodyne fantasies which left them ill-equipped to deal with the real world. At the same time a Southport vicar called Marcus Morris launched an attack on contemporary comics which not only took in American imports but also home-grown titles such as J B Allen's Comet - and even nursery comics where "cute little animals seem mostly to be bashing each other's heads or stealing each other's sweets and cakes."

Not surprisingly the Reverend Morris was a self-confessed propagandist for Christianity and in 1950 he got his chance to produce a comic based on the sort of Christian values he'd advocated - as editor of 'the new national strip cartoon weekly' Eagle! In spite of his missionary zeal, however, Morris turned out to have surprisingly sound commercial instincts so that the space-going vicar called 'Chaplain Dare' who'd originally been slated for the all-important cover slot was converted into the more traditionally heroic 'Dan Dare - Pilot of the Future' before publication.

Morris's new breed of hero, as initially designed by his star artist Frank Hampson

Eagle was a phenomenal success, and it provided the template for a whole new generation of British adventure comics that were to make the 1950s and 1960s something of a golden age for fans of the genre. Unfortunately the myth of innocent young minds being polluted by an avalanche of American-style 'horror comics' had built up such a head of steam by this stage that there was no shortage of special-interest groups eager to jump on the bandwagon. Most surprising of all was a concerted behind-the-scenes campaign conducted by the Communist Party of Great Britain who hoped to damage Anglo-American relations by portraying US-style 'Horror Comics' as a perfect symbol of the fundamentally corrupting nature of American culture.

When a number of Communist activists moved to promote their cause by founding a pressure group known as the Comics Campaign Council in 1953 they were understandably eager to conceal their own political agenda. As a result they encouraged a wide range of concerned parents and teachers to spread the word about the threat British children were facing from such reading matter, and in due course one of the campaign's most effective lobbyists emerged in the person of a Sussex headmaster called George Pumphrey. Pumphrey was a tireless crusader who'd already made a name for himself by addressing meetings and writing articles on the subject for educational journals; in 1954 he was the author of an influential booklet called Comics and Your Children which was published under the auspices of the CCC.

In all this time the reforming headmaster never suspected that some of his principal backers viewed him as a convenient mouthpiece for the Communist Party. Ironically this makes him an easy target for the label of 'Red Dupe' - a charge that the increasingly-embattled publisher of America's EC Comics was even then leveling against his own critics in a memorable editorial which appeared on the inside front cover of his titles for August 1954.

EC Comics' famous 'Red Dupe' editorial, illustrated by Jack Davis

As Gaines put it, "some of these people are no-goods, some are do-gooders, some are well-meaning, and some are just mean." To be fair to Pumphrey I've no doubt that he fell squarely into the 'well-meaning' category, and it's clear to me that his opposition to so much of the popular literature he came across stemmed from very deeply held convictions about the potential harm it was inflicting on young and impressionable minds. In truth his objections to American comics weren't restricted to their depictions of lurid violence and criminality: indeed his complaint that Superman and Superboy "fulfill the wildest phantasies, and to the mature adult seem stupid and humourless in their fantastic adventures" recalls the terms of Geoffrey Trease's attack on Enid Blyton, and could even be linked to the uncompromising brand of cultural elitism that F R Leavis and his followers were earnestly fostering within Britain's academic institutions.

One of George Pumphrey's later books about British comics, published by The Epworth Press in 1964

Nevertheless Pumphrey was well aware that the popular view of American-style comics as purveyors of nightmarish horror was his most effective weapon in stirring up public opinion against them, even though he must have known that the majority contained little more than colourful western adventures; thus he was perversely "delighted" when he discovered a copy of The Haunt of Fear no.1 which seemed to be a perfect representation of the negative stereotype. Barely able to believe his eyes he said to himself "this it it, they have gone too far - this is something the campaign can really use."

The one-and-only British Edition of EC's The Haunt of Fear

And use it they did! In the letter column of the Times Educational Supplement for 17th September 1954 Pumphrey wrote a blistering condemnation of this comic that generated a growing storm of outrage. In no time the controversy spilled over into other newspapers, and even led the powerful National Union of Teachers to mount a major exhibition of objectionable American comics which drew large crowds as it toured around the country. Even though The Haunt of Fear no.1, a single edition of Vault of Horror and two issues of Tales From the Crypt were the only EC horror comics ever to be officially released in the UK they were cited over and over again as prime examples of the sort of 'filth' that was being peddled to British children. In some ways the unusual skill of EC's writers and artists made their work all the more amenable to critical dissection - especially when certain sequences were highlighted and taken out of context.

Thus when the Conservative Government of the day was itself forced to take an interest in the matter George Pumphrey's own copy of Haunt of Fear was requested by the Ministry of Education for further study. In due course all this activity resulted in the passage of an official Bill to "prevent the dissemination of certain pictorial publications harmful to children and young persons". It is even said that when the Home Secretary Gwilym Lloyd George (son of the famous Prime Minister) introduced the Bill for its second reading on 22nd February 1955 he brandished a copy of Tales from the Crypt.

In spite of a heated debate in which it was subjected to a number of objections (notably from Michael Foot) the Children and Young Persons (Harmful Publications) Act 1955 was given the Royal Assent on May 6th 1955 and duly passed into law from June 6th 1955. Its provisions applied in full throughout England, Wales and Scotland (though not Northern Ireland) and it remains in force to the present day. The Act officially prohibited the sale or publication of:

"...any book, magazine or other like work which is of a kind likely to fall into the hands of children or young persons and consists wholly or mainly of stories told in pictures (with or without the addition of written matter), being stories portraying—

(a) the commission of crimes; or
(b) acts of violence or cruelty; or
(c) incidents of a repulsive or horrible nature;
in such a way that the work as a whole would tend to corrupt a child or young person (defined as being under 18 years of age) into whose hands it might fall."
Remarkably this meant that henceforth comic strips were singled out in law as being uniquely influential upon young minds in a way that didn't apply to any other form of literature or artistic expression!

This chain of events now brings us neatly back to the John Bull Rubber Company and their unusual advertising campaign, for it was on the back cover of Arthur Pearson's Men Only magazine for June 1955 (the very month that American-style horror comics were finally outlawed) that the following advert appeared:

If you click on the image you'll see that they're all there - the torture chambers and graveyards, the helpless women being threatened by leering mad professors and animated corpses, the vampire bats and bloody axes, the guillotines and gallows and the ghostly clutching hands! In short it is a love letter to the sort of comics that were even then being brutally surpressed by an adult world that just couldn't understand what children saw in them.

"...the horror comic (obsolescent) that holds its youthful subscriber (adolescent) in thrilling thrall; conjuring in his febrile brain a regular phantasmagoria of awful phenomena; gripping him with tales of ghosts and ghouls, lavishly illustrated with ghastly garishness..."

It is a glorious epitaph to a lost era - and as such I couldn't resist appropriating it for this blog's title and header.

...And what does all this have to do with the cover of Atom no.17? Beyond its obvious connection to the general theme of tyres and 'things that grip' very little really. Except for the fact that, like the diminutive superhero who inevitably manages to escape from his plight in the nick of time, the major American comics publishers also managed to avoid the threat of crushing legislation at the last moment by agreeing to censor themselves via their own 'Comics Code Authority' which they established at the end of 1954 (though it was a solution that failed to save EC comics).

Oddly enough, even though America and Great Britain dealt with their 'Horror Comic' question in very different ways, the net result was surprisingly similar on both sides of the Atlantic. In each case it was the minor publishers who bore the brunt of any measures taken while the major companies were almost completely unaffected. Indeed it could be argued that, by being forced to experiment with relatively uncontroversial superhero characters to replace the horror titles that had been their stock in trade, Stan Lee's 'Atlas' line eventually went on to become one of the most successful entertainment companies in the world under its new name of 'Marvel Comics'...!

  • (n.b. A significant amount of the information contained in this post - particularly anything relating to the activities of the Comics Campaign Council and their hidden links with the Communist Party - is taken from Martin Barker's seminal History of the British Horror Comics Campaign A Haunt of Fears, first published in 1984 by Pluto Press Ltd. This book is highly recommended to anyone who wants to study the period in more detail)