CAN you remember running down eagerly to the newsagents on the corner every Tuesday (or Wednesday, or Saturday) afternoon, hot coins clutched in your hand, to seize your copy of The Dandy, the Beano, Girls’ Crystal, School Friend, The Eagle? And then taking it home and devouring every page, ignoring all calls to do your homework or lay the table for tea, until you had got right to the back page and the small ads? They meant nothing to you then, but you read them anyway. And next day at school you discussed the latest adventures of The Bash Street Kids, Lord Snooty, or Dennis the Menace. Would Roy of the Rovers score that vital goal? Would people one day actually fly into outer space, like Dan Dare? They opened up a magical world to our young eyes, those comics.
Light reading for children has been around for quite a long time, although the earliest publications would seem rather formal and serious to our television-jaded eyes now. Playbox, Mrs Hippo, Ally Sloper, would have been familiar to our grandparents, while young gentlemen being groomed at boarding school avidly read The Magnet, in which Billy Bunter, ‘the fat owl of the Remove’ first appeared.
The great golden age of comics, though, started in 1905 with an enterprising Dundee publishing house. The town became known for generations as The Three Js – Jam, Jute, and Journalism: for its marmalade, its sailmaking, and the publishing firm of D. C. Thomson. As well as a range of newspapers, Thomson’s brought out dozens of comic titles, two of which at least are still familiar to millions - The Dandy and The Beano, first appearing in 1937 and 1938 respectively. And weren’t the characters they introduced totally part of our lives? Dennis the Menace, Minnie the Minx, Desperate Dan, Korky the Cat, The Bash Street Kids, Roger the Dodger, Little Plum, Lord Snooty, Biffo the Bear? Quite often the characters were shown as misbehaving, or generally acting against adult advice, which was heady stuff for us back then. Earlier publications would have stressed good behaviour; now, for the first time, naughtiness was becoming the norm.
Older boys were delighted when Eagle first appeared in 1950. More upmarket than most, its biggest attraction was undoubtedly Dan Dare: Pilot of the Future. Oddly enough, Eagle was founded by an Anglican vicar who wanted to bring out a comic based on Christian values. At first he intended Dan Dare to be chaplain to an interplanetary patrol, but that idea somehow got sidelined as the excitement of space missions took hold of young minds. Dan’s exploits in outer space were so popular indeed that they became a serial on Radio Luxembourg as well. Who can remember listening to those thrilling episodes after tea, perhaps having nightmares afterwards about the frightening green Mekon, arch-enemy of the redoubtable pilot? Incidentally, a young writer called Arthur C. Clarke was a consultant on these programmes.
Other popular strip stories in Eagle which went on to become legends were Riders of the Range, P.C.49, Harris Tweed, Luck of the Legion, and more, but a big attraction to mechanically-minded boys was the centre section which had detailed cutaway diagrams of advanced machinery, so that the actual workings could be understood. And, with increasing commercialisation, there was a members’ club, and you could buy items related to the stories printed. How many parents were pleaded with, one wonders?
Knockout appeared in 1939, a rival to the Beano and Dandy. It featured The Steam Man (a robot), Sexton Blake, a revival of Billy Bunter as a comic strip instead of a text story, and, perhaps best remembered, Our Ernie – Mrs. Entwistle’s Little Lad. This was the enduring adventures of a Wigan child – at a time when most of us had no idea where Wigan, or indeed industrial Lancashire was – and every episode ended with his dad’s catchphrase, ‘Daft, I calls it.’
Tiger first came out in 1954, and was immediately popular for its comic-strip character Roy of the Rovers, a brave lad who played for Melchester Rovers and could always be relied upon to come through at the final whistle. Other popular strips in Tiger were Hot Shot Hamish and Jet Ace Logan.
Film Fun is a real oldie, first appearing in 1920, when the movie industry was barely getting to its feet, but continuing right up into the Sixties. Basically, it highlighted the comedy celebrities who could be seen in your local cinema, with skilful cartoonists emphasising their most instantly recognisable features. Kids of the 30s and 40s loved to see stories based around Old Mother Riley, George Formby, or Fatty Arbuckle, while Laurel and Hardy, one of the few duos to make a successful transition from silent to sound, were in every issue right up to the end, when the older stars were being replaced by the new breed such as Tony Hancock, Terry Thomas, and even Morecambe and Wise. At its height, before WWII, Film Fun sold around 800,000 copies a week. It also had thrilling detective stories, and tales about famous cowboy screen stars like Roy Rogers and Gene Autry. So while with Dan Dare you had the spin off from strip cartoon to radio, with Film Fun you had the leap sideways from screen to page.
That’s all very well, you might say, but what about the girls? They were not usually quite as interested in space travel or courageous cowboys, and football left them cold. So what did they read? Well, the range of publications for girls, whether young or teenage, was exceptionally wide.
Girls’ Crystal came out in 1935 as a story paper, but changed to comic format in 1953, with the increasing demand for less text and more pictures which characterised the new age. Regular strips included Princess Anita, a Ruritanian aristocrat who donned peasant garb and moved among her people in order to do good; Jill Crusoe, a castaway on a desert island who befriends a young native girl; and Dilly Dreem, the scatty schoolgirl. It merged with School Friend in 1963, when one of the real greats of the comic strip canon was born: The Silent Three. This was the long-running tale of a trio of well-bred boarding school girls who put on monks’ robes in order to solve mysteries and prevent crime, and it was hugely popular. That had a subsequent rebirth of an unusual kind when in May 1977 the renowned artist Posy Simmonds started a weekly comic strip for the Guardian, titled the Silent Three of St Botolph’s, showing what the girls had become in later life – middle class, middle-aged, somewhat disillusioned. It was a brilliantly witty series, and gathered later into several books.
Girl, which ran from 1951 to 1964, was created as a sister publication to Eagle, and was definitely intended to be more educational in outlook than the usual comics, with heroines who might get into scrapes, but also were involved in distinctly moral and indeed adventurous tales. Angela, Air Hostess; Belle of the Ballet; Claudia of the Circus; Robbie of Red Hall; and Lettice Leefe: The Greenest Girl in the School, who obviously competed with Dilly Dreem in Girls’ Crystal. It also featured the biographies of real-life heroic women, showing what you could do if you tried.
Ballet and horse riding were sure-fire winners with young female readers back then, and publishers knew this. Most girls’ comics featured either or both.
Judy became an instant hit with its first issue in 1960, which introduced Sandra of the Secret Ballet. Bunty, which came out two years earlier (they were both Thomson comics) had first Moira Kent, and then Lorna Drake, both appealing to youngsters dreaming of stardom in a sparkling tutu. Forbidden to Ride, featuring an amnesiac girl and the horse she loves, was another popular Bunty story.
There was such a range of weekly delights available, for boys and girls, from toddlers to teenagers, with an incredible variety of stories, be it about pet dogs (Black Bob, anyone?) or exotic locations, brave heroes or determined down and outs who somehow win through. There was something for everyone, and those brilliantly-drawn comic strips drew us into a world of dreams where anything might happen, and usually did.
And come Christmas, there was the joy of the annual, a full quarto sized book with all your favourite characters, just right for reading after dinner while the parents reposed. You might be given yours as a gift, or you could put some money down each week at a local shop like Woollams in MacCurtain St, and finally pick up the coveted volume on Christmas Eve. While the weekly papers rarely survive, and those which do can go for high prices, there are many of the old annuals kept lovingly tucked away at the back of bookshelves, memories of more innocent days when the violence and horror of modern TV were unthinkable.
What were the comic strips you most loved? Which ones do you still remember as if it were yesterday? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.