Saturday, 16 December 2017

Before Faceache - Ken Reid, the Power Comics Years Part 2.

In the first part of this post I wrote about Ken Reid, one of the greatest cartoonists Britain ever produced.  His work for D C Thompson on the Beano and The Dandy set standards and influenced styles in a way that can still be seen today.  His later work for IPC is currently being celebrated in the publication of a hardback collection of his excellent Faceache strip from Jet and later Buster.  

But often forgotten are the very few years where he worked for the Odhams group on three weekly comics that allowed their artists a degree of freedom unknown in the British industry at the time.   In the first part of this post I covered Frankie Stein and Jasper the Grasper from Wham! the first of the Power Comics line and ended by asking the question, what would come next?

What came next, in 1966, was Smash!, a companion comic to Wham! probably best remembered today for the strip featuring, arch-villain Grimly Feendish who turned up in Alan Moore’s Albion or for its later, much duller, IPC incarnation which while featuring Janus Stark and Cursitor Doom was not a patch on the Odhams issues. 

For Smash! Reid re-visited some old Beano territory with “Queen of the Seas”.  The maritime adventures of the ‘Buoyant Queen’, her Captain Enoch Drip and one-man-crew Bertram Bloop.  The strip had the look of his classic Jonah stories but, to start with at least, Reid was given two whole pages to work with.  

The stories were bizarre, often not making a huge amount of sense, but they were funny in a way that recalled The Goons and pointed towards Monty Python.   There were elements of ‘The Navy Lark’, a popular radio comedy of the time, and of Laurel and Hardy in the team of Drip and Bloop.  If anything Reid’s art was even more free and wild, for the first 16, two page, episodes he used the extra space to continue his experiments with layouts that had begun on Jasper. 

Drip and Bloop

There were more of the impactful large panels which were all the more effective when contrasted with his habit of cramming many panels onto a page.   The strip in issue 13 is one of my personal favourites.  It contained a page and a half of compact, perfectly drawn panels, 21 of them with the last half page having just two,  Those two panels, of a flood heading for an ark built by Scottish madman Noah McNoodle, had real energy to them.  The contrast was a wonder piece of dynamic storytelling. What’s more, they acted as a real cliff-hanger as the story continued into the next issue, something that was very unusual for a humour strip. 

From Smash! issue thirteen Reid at his very best.

With issue 20 Smash! underwent a major overhaul.  Hulk stories had started to appear in issue 16, but with the twentieth issue Batman newspaper strips took over the cover.  'Grimly Feendish' lost his colour back cover slot to Reid's 'Queen of the Seas' which shrunk to a single page.  The loss of the extra page was a disappointment, but the strip was just as wild and wonderful as before and was in a more prestigious place in the comic.  

The strip continued with continued stories but was much more frugal with his use of large panels,   
Reid ended the series in issue 43, with a story that featured a character calling for an end to violence in comics breaking the fourth wall.  He tried his hand at drawing a character who was supposed to be the hulk and ended the story of the "Queen of the Seas" its explosive conversion from ship to land based hotel on Brighton Beach.   By any measure Queen of the Seas was superb.   One of the highlights of those early issues of Smash!   But Batman and Hulk were probably the big draws for the comic and Reid was moving on again with another treat in store for us. 

The final episode of Queen of the Sea from Smash! 43

Pow! issue One
A couple of weeks after Queen of the Seas ended, the second companion comic to Wham! appeared.   With Spider-man on the cover and Nick Fury joining him inside there was no doubt that the superheroes were again to be the big draw in the comic called Pow!  

Pow! was untidy.  The layouts were messy and unprofessional, especially the re-organised pages of the superhero reprints.  Some of the strips, especially the UK originated adventure stories, were really, not very good and there was no Baxendale.  But there was Spider-Man by Ditko and from issue three on there would be Mike Higgs’ “The Cloak”, for the seven year old me that would have been enough, but Reid provided something very special.

Dare-A-Day Davy was the next Ken Reid creation.  Almost certainly based in part on the very wholesome ‘Deed a Day Danny’, a Boy Scout who featured on the front cover of Knockout weekly during the fifties.  While Danny had been a helpful lad, determined to do a good deed every day, under the control of Ken Reid, Davy walked a different path.

A reckless thrill-seeker, Davy accepted a challenge each week from one of the readers.   The author of the selected challenge getting a £1 reward for their trouble.  It was obvious that this strip was going to be very different from the very first episode.   Remember, this was in a comic for kids, eight, nine, ten year olds, but for Davy's first dare he had to ask out a "Smasher".  Obviously, it all ended in tears as the great looking girl turned out to be "Spotty Font" older, and equally spotty sister.

A pattern was set, Davy would take on a Dare, it would all go horribly wrong and he'd, usually suffer some dreadful injury and/or humiliation.  With the wildness of Reid's artwork that would have been more than enough to make this a worthy successor to his work in Wham!, but Red added some extra touches that made the strip even more interesting.

In many of the strips Davy is seen wrestling with himself, he hates the compulsion that forces him to take on the dares.  He is furious with the readers for sending in dare's that he knows will end in disaster.   His will-power, named 'willie' and depicted as a tiny cloud, is in a constant and fruitless battle with Davy Hyde, representing the forces compelling him to take on these tasks.

In one notable episode, in issue 19, Davy is dared to put hair removing cream in his mother's hair-spray.   This is a step too far, and he tries everything to avoid leaving his mother bald.  He still has to go through with the dare, but he finds a way to sabotage it so his mother will not be hurt.  As usual all goes wrong and Davy ends up totally bald himself sticking pins into a doll of John Holden who suggested the escapade.

The internal conflict in Davy is what made the strip so interesting.  It was something different for primary-school kids and it was very, very funny.  The strip ran for all 86 issues of Pow!, it survived the merger with the, by-now ailing Wham! in January 1968 before succumbing when Pow! itself was merged into Smash!

The final episode saw Davy stowing away on an amateur moon-shot in a daze of thoughtlessness under the influence of Davy Hyde.  The rocket, inevitably, failed, but Davy somehow found himself doused in a mixture of top-secret rocket-fuel and farm fertilizer standing in a water tank that shot into space.  Davy's final words to his readers were "Somehow I don't reckon I'll be back next week.  See you sometime readers.  I hope!”

It was a fitting end to what had been, in the words of Lew Stringer, ”perhaps the most subversive of Ken's Odhams Strips".  Davy was never to be seen again, well that's not quite true.  In 1968 David Britton, of the soon to be notorious Savoy Books, published the first issue of the fanzine/ underground comic, Weird Fantasy.  In it was a missing story of Davy that had been judged too gory for the readers of Pow!

At the suggestion of Vance Gledhill of Blackpool, Davy was dared to dig up Frankenstein's monster and bring him back to life through the kiss of life.  It's difficult to know what it was that the editors of Pow! objected to, there was so much to choose from.  Was it the desecration of a grave, or the re-assembling of a shattered skeleton, or perhaps the sight of a young boy kissing a corpse?  They had so much to choose from.

It has to be said that Odhams treated Reid properly, he was paid for the strip, and for its replacement, it just never saw publication in an Odhams magazine.  

A character obviously based on Davy did appear in Valiant from 1974 until the end of the Valiant run.  Challenge Charlie took the basic premise of 'Dare-a-Day', and the reader's fee had increased in line with inflation to £5.  But the inner conflict was missing and the level of comedic violence considerably toned down.  The art, by Frank McDiarmid was great, but it lacked the manic, anarchic wildness that Ken Reid had at its best.

I still recall getting Pow! as a kid, usually before we visited my grandmother on a Sunday.  Spider-Man may have been the first thing I read, but Davy was always second and there was something very special about him.  Something I was sure my parents would probably not approve of.

Next, Reid went back to Smash!, the only remaining title in the Power Comics Line*.  And that's an interesting story too.   Next time folks.

*yes, yes I know Fantastic was still going, but it was a different sort of comic altogether.


Wednesday, 13 December 2017

Before Faceache - Ken Reid, the Power Comics Years Part 1.

The release of Ken Reid's Faceache Vol 1 as Rebellion’s first foray into the humour archives of IPC for their Treasury of British Comics series is incredibly welcome.   

This is a book featuring one of the most creative and inventive artists ever to work in British comics, one of the true greats of the industry.  And Faceache is Ken Reid at what is, almost, his very best.  But the tangled web of rights that Rebellion have to negotiate their way through means that the very best of Reid remains unseen. 

I came across Reid's work for the first time as a seven year old.   I didn't know his name, but I knew his style.  There was something a bit different about Reid's strips, something special and a little bit naughty.  They were the strips you thought your mother might not approve of.  

I would continue to see Reid's work for years but from July 1964 until March of 1969, over three comics and five different strips Reid’s work hit a level of creativity, freedom and energy that very few British comic artists ever come close too.  The comics, Wham!, Smash! and Pow! are more often remembered for being the first place to deliver the Marvel Superhero to the readers of British weekly comics but they contained what is arguably the best selection of humour strips ever seen in British comics. 

It’s a tragedy that these strips are now caught up in the chaos around reprint rights and may not be seen by a wider audience until that gets sorted out.  But for comics’ fans of a certain age, The Power Comics line, as the three titles* were known are probably the best comics Britain has ever had to offer.   

From "Fudge in Bubbleville"

Ken Reid was already one of the true greats of British comics when he began to work on Wham!  Beginning his career in 1938 with “The Adventures of Fudge the Elf”, a newspaper strip in the Rupert the Bear format, which ran until 1963 in the children’s section of the Manchester Evening News.  He started working for D C Thompson in 1953, being the first artist on Beano icon, Roger the Dodger.    He drew “Grandpa” and “Jinx” for the Beano and “Little Angel Face”, “Bing Bang Benny”, “Ali Ha Ha and the 40 Thieves” and “Big Head and Thick Head” for the Dandy.  

A selection from Ken Reid's work from The Beano and The Dandy

But it was the Beano based exploits of Jonah, a sailor so unlucky and incompetent that any ship he set foot on was doomed to imminent destruction that really stood out. Reid broke all of the rules of comics on Jonah.  He would cram up to 25 panels onto a small page, without any loss of detail or without the art seeming cramped or hurried.  He supplied manic story ideas, for which he was not paid, that made Jonah as surreal and weird as anything seen in D C Thompson’s flagship title.  

His characters on Jonah were grotesque and hugely exaggerated, in a way that would influence a whole generation of comics’ artists to come.  He was one of the undoubted stars of D C Thompson, but bridled at their draconian controls and the inability to be known by name as the Jonah artist. 

In 1964 he was persuaded to join Leo Baxendale on Leo’s pet project for the rival Odham’s publisher.  Wham! was to be a super-Beano.  Bigger pages, better printing, higher page rates and Reid would be allowed to write and sign his own strips and get paid for his ideas.   Gone would be many of the restrictions that Baxendale and Reid had toiled under at D C Thompson.  This was to be Baxendale’s comic and something Reid wanted to be involved in.

For Wham! Reid first created Frankie Stein.  Appearing for the first time in issue four, Frankie was the accidental result of Professor Cube’s attempt to create a blonde-haired little playmate for his son Micky who was constantly interrupting the Professor’s attempts to turn custard into uranium.   Despite looking like the iconic Boris Karloff version of Frankenstein’s Monster, Frankie was good hearted but clumsy, not knowing his own strength and driving his creator mad!

Most stories revolved around the fearful reactions of strangers to Frankie or to something he managed to break by mistake.   The artwork on these strips was to be seen to be believed, an enormous level of detail showing a real understanding of how far to take the horror elements and retain the fun and humour.  

Slightly naughty?  That's Frankie in a giant sock from Christmas 1965

 I remember seeing these strips for the first time a couple of years later, when I was eight and knowing there was something different about this strip.  It was anarchic, funny in a different way, ever so slightly rude perhaps just the sort of thing you imagined you parents not wanting you to read.   Frankie’s adventures ran in Wham! from the 11th July 1964 with the last episode appearing in issue 166, dated 19th August 1967. 
Towards the end of the strip things got weirder and weirder.  In the second to last episode, Frankie developed “German Measles” or “Nazi Pox” from his “tin tonsils” which had been made from a hammered out from a captured German helmet. And the final panel to appear in Wham! had his creator laying into his concrete encrusted stomach with a pick-axe.  It was a weird ending to an even weirder strip.

Frankie appeared in another couple of Wham! Annuals, but Reid was not involved.

Unsurprisingly the character was hugely popular and would be revived time after time.  First for Shiver and Shake, then for Whoopee and Monster Fun.  Frankie even got a few Holiday Specials all to himself.  But Reid was gone, the revivals were drawn by Robert Nixon.  A great artist himself Nixon made the character more popular than ever before, but for the Reid fans, the strip had been watered down, it was a good, strip, but there was most certainly something missing. 

For anyone else Frankie would have been a high-watermark in their career, but for Reid there was more to come and a move to another comic.  But before we get there we have to look back at an earlier strip for Wham!

Back in 1965 Reid had introduced a new character.  Jasper the Grasper was the nickname of Jasper McGrab, a miserly old man living in Dickensian times.  His inspiration was obviously Scrooge from the Christmas Carol, but I wonder if there was anything of Harold Steptoe in there as well.

An uncharacteristic half-page panel from the first episode of Jasper.
Jasper only lasted six issues, a mere 12 pages.  But he was something different for Reid.  There was more experimentation with layouts.  Reid’s work had never been static, far from it, but the first couple of episodes of Jasper had real dynamism in them. And he used the two page length to allow for larger, more impactful figures.   Jasper was different in some important ways, different but still with the same power and quality and the same attention to detail.  It was wonderful.

Another panel from the first episode of Jasper

Why it lasted only 6 issues, I don’t know.   But again, the character was so strong that he would be revived later.  This time in the pages of the Cor! Annual of 1972 where all six episodes were reprinted.  (A fantastic find for fans as the Wham! issues are so rare).   

Trevor Metcalfe's Jasper from Cor!
Later on Trevor Metcalfe would supply his own take on the character in the pages of the Cor! comic.  This wasn’t a straight copy of Reid’s version.   Metcalfe had his own style, influenced perhaps by Reid and Baxendale but not with the same level of detail or anarchy. 

Metcalfe made a huge success of Jasper.  The character surviving until the penultimate issue of Cor!  However enjoyable this version of Jasper the Grasper was, there is still the slight frustration that Reid abandoned, or was forced to abandon, the character so soon.  You can’t help but wonder what could have come next.

Next Time, a new comic, a new strip and Reid just gets better and better. 

* Yes, yes I know.  There were two other Power Comics, Terrific and Fantastic, but they did not have any of the British Humour strips that Wham!, Samsh! and Pow! featured so they don't count.