Monday, 24 April 2017

Clerics, Critters and Daytime TV

Since retiring and becoming a gentleman of leisure, I have become quite taken with one or two Daytime TV shows.  Not Jeremy Kyle and nothing to do with antiques, house renovations or cookery.  No, my interest has been peaked by some of the original crime drama shows that BBC puts on in the afternoon.     Nothing too bloody or gory but some of the shows have real wit to them and some very good writing.

Our first glimpse of the poster
One show I'm particularly fond of is Father Brown, a (very) loose adaptation of stories by G K Chesterton and a show that is both gentle and entertaining.  I missed part of this year's series and am only catching up now.  While watching episode 14, "Lights in the Sky", I noticed something that may of interest to comic fans.

The story involves an Indian family, a murderous doctor and a locked room killing.   The usual fare for a weekday afternoon.  At one point we catch a glimpse of a science fiction poster on the wall of the young Indian boy who is always seen reading 'those dreadful comics".  Something about it caught my attention, I remember thinking to myself, "I know that picture", but where from?

And now in focus
Later on we get a much better, and in focus, look and all become clear.  The image is a version of the cover of Unknown Worlds of Science Fiction number one.  A Marvel magazine cover-dated January 1975.  A better view appears later in the show and we get to see the changes that have been made.

The poster now appears to be for a movie, "Monsters From Mars" and the whole thing has been reversed, forming a mirror image of the original cover.  The terrified couple, facing out towards the viewer on the magazine cover, are replaced by a slightly unconvincing man with his back to us.

The poster is nothing to do with the story, other than establishing that the kid had an interest in space stories.  In the end the plot revolves around a 'Chinese Lantern' that is advertised in the back of the some of the comics in the room which Father Brown is seen reading eagerly at one point.

There is, perhaps, a minor point being made about the moral panic that surrounded comics in the fifties, but overall this is yet another mild-mannered murder mystery totally suitable for watching with afternoon tea and a few nice scones.

The Freas/Romita collaboration
But this is not the first time that changes have been made to this painting.  "Unknown Worlds of Science Fiction" was  a strange comic.  It was created following the cancellation of the Marvel colour comic, 'Worlds Unknown', an anthology title that published adaptations of classic short stories from the Golden Age of the Science Fiction Magazine.  It had featured stories by L Sprague DeCamp, Theodore Sturgeon and A E van Vogt.  It also had an adaptation of the Frederick Brown story which became the Arena episode of Star Trek.

The colour comic failed and the Black and White magazine must have been seen as a rival to the Warren comics which had begun to feature a little more science fiction.

The first issue contained only a little new material.  A framing sequence based on Bob Shaw's 'Slow Glass' and the first part of two episode adaptation of "Day of the Triffids", probably intended for the cancelled colour comic, were all there was.

The reprints, however, were something special.  Taken from Fanzines and small print-run alternative comics were stories by Neal Adams, Frank Brunner and Al Williamson along with an early work by Mike Kaluta.

Admission of the changes from issue 3
All this behind a cover by one of the best known Science Fiction Artists of the time.  Frank Keely Freas' art had first appeared in Weird tales, over the next fifty years he painted covers for Astounding Science Fiction, Mad magazine and countless books and magazines.

He painted the insignia for Skylab, portraits of more than 500 saints for the Franciscans and the cover of Queen's album News of the World.  He was the winner of eleven Hugo awards, the science fiction equivalent of the Oscar, as best science fiction artist and yet when he handed in his cover for Unknown Worlds of Science Fiction issue one Marvel felt they had to change it.

The version published is credited to Frank Kelly Freas and John Romita and it is obvious that the couple cowering behind the wall as the freakish, and heavily armed, aliens approach have been added by Romita.   The team admitted as much in issue three when they published a look at the original version.  Perhaps the girl's mini-skirt was deemed too racy, but personally I think the style of the humans was simply too different from the Marvel style of art.

The 1979 Aussie Version
A better reproduction of the original cover turned up in an unusual place.  In 1979 the Yaffa publishing company in Australia published a complete reprint of Unknown Worlds of Science Fiction number one.  Somehow the wrong cover proof had been sent to them by Marvel and the original Frank Kelly Freas cover was published in full colour for the first time on the Australian edition of a comic that had been published in America almost five years earlier.

I find it fascinating that this cover was selected by art directors for different purposes over a space of almost fifty years and changed, twice.  First by Marvel comics, when the human characters were judged inappropriate in some way, and then by the art department on the Father Brown TV show.

Some of the modern changes were totally necessary, the seventies garb of the replacement figures would have been out of place on the wall of a fifties school-boy.  But I'm not quite sure why the image was flipped as if in a mirror.

It is interesting that all the way through the weird, frightening aliens that were a feature of Frank Kelly Freas' work remained unchanged.  Funny thought, I didn't see his name on the credits.  

More details of the Australian version of Unknown Worlds can be found on Daniel Best's excellent blog, 20th Century Danny Boy 

And in a case of great minds thinking alike, I discover that John Freeman has already covered the same story in his excellent Down the Tubes web-site, the most comprehensive web-site on British comics.

Saturday, 22 April 2017

SPLANK! The Comic

I began this Blog just over a year ago, on April 1st 2016.  It started with a post about Splank!, a totally imaginary Irish version of “Pow!”, one of a trio of unique and, by fans of a certain age, very fondly remembered comics of the sixties.

The three titles, “Wham!”, “Smash!” and “Pow!” were a mixture of anarchic humour strips by some of the best cartoonists the UK had to offer, some off the wall British adventure stories and one of the first regular and organised reprinting of the Marvel Superheroes.  

The first of title “Wham!, had its origins in an offer made to Leo Baxendale by the Odhams management in an attempt to lure him away from D C Thompson, publisher of the monsters of humour comics, The Beano and The Dandy.

Baxendale had totally revitalised the Beano with the creation of characters like The Bash Street Kids, Minnie the Minx, Little Plum and its excellent spin-off strip The Three Bears.  He had been one of a number of artists who had embraced a wilder style that had given British comics a fresh new look and who’s influence would be felt for many years.

But Baxendale still faced restrictions at the more conservative and controlling D C Thompson, and when he was offered a better page rate, more editorial freedom and a comic with bigger pages and better printing he jumped at the chance.
Ken Reid's Frankie Stein
Wham! kicked off in June of 1964 and Baxendale was tasked with gathering the talent to fill its pages.  From the Beano he brought Ken Reid, who drew the remarkable Frankie Stein, in his own grotesque style but Baxendale ended up drawing too much of the comic himself.  He felt he was compromising or repeating himself.  Readers were delighted, I recall a real thrill at the obvious difference between these comics and everything else that was available.  Even as a six or seven year old I could tell that these comics were special.  But for Baxendale the comics were not what he had envisaged. 

In his autobiography “A Very Funny Business” Baxendale’s frustrations with the politics and compromises of the Odhams group are made clear.  Wham! was never quite of the quality he wanted it to be and when financial issues caused the inclusion of Marvel Comics Superheroes, in the form of Fantastic Four reprints, he felt the title was spoilt.

Spy Spoof, The Man from B.U.N.G.L.E.
But Wham! was successful enough to spawn two sister titles.  Both Smash! and Pow! featured the same mixture of humour and superheroes.  Ken Reid provided a trio of the best strips with his career with “Queen of the Seas”, Dare a Day Davy and my own favourite “The Nervs”.   Baxendale gave us Grimly Fiendish, the spy spoof “The Man from BUNGLE and a number of successful riffs on his old Beano strips. 

There was also Mike Higgs and his superhero send-up, The Cloak, which to this day remains one of my favourite comics.   Mix that with Spider-Man, Daredevil and Nick Fury and you have the comics that I regard as about the best Britain has ever had to offer.
The Cloak, by Mike Higgs
My April 1st post was inspired by these comics and they deserve a much longer and more detailed article.  That will either appear here at some stage or as the boring bit at the back of my next project.  For while in reality, Splank! may never have appeared in the Sixties, I’m planning to bring it to life now.

Ideally I want to produce something in the format of the old British Annuals.  I've already begged, borrowed and, not quite, stolen strips from a number of top cartoonists including Belfast’s own Davy Francis.   From the Beano, Nigel Parkinson and Leslie Stannage have helped me out and, much to my delight, Mike Higgs who wrote and drew that very special Cloak strip for Pow! and Smash! has written a strip based on a plot which I put together.

I've got some excellent work from current masters of the self-publishing scene.   Andrew Pawley, creator of the GalaXafreaks comics and Marc Jackson, whose very distinctive style can be seen in the online comic Aces and in every issue of Comic Heroes, have both made excellent contributions.

I have a great set of designs for characters I’m planning to use in place of the Marvel Superheroes which Duncan Scott, the very talented former Dandy artist put together for me and I am already working with the creator of Captain Wonder, John Farrelly from Newry in Northern ireland 

But I’m greedy and I want more.  I’m asking comic writers and artists who would like to get involved in this project to contact me. 

I’d like to represent as many of the styles and genres of British comics as possible. The book/magazine will be printed in a mixture of colour and black and white and at A4 format. 

I’m looking for offers of contributions from writers artists or complete stories that fit into any of the following categories.

-          Humour strips, think Wham!, Smash! and Pow! but also Beano, Dandy, Monster Fun and the like. Be anarchic, bring old concepts up to date or hark back to memories of great strips of the past.  The Power comics featured spy spoofs that fed off the movie and TV craze at the time.  Something that mirrors that, or other TV memes that are current now.  I’m looking for single page strips, half page gags or longer stories where warranted.  I’m also looking for an artist to help me with a newspaper style strip that I may scatter through the pages.

-          Adventure stories. Think the old British Hero sets, Robot Archie, Black Max, Janus Stark and Adam Eterno were my favourites.   I’ve no formal page limits at the moment, but think 7-8 as a sort of maximum with 3-5 being a norm.

-          Sports Stories. I always liked football comics more than I liked football. But a good sports strip would be a great addition.  My own preferred sport is Rugby Union and I think I could come up with a few good Rugby gags if I had an artist to work with, but I’d be delighted to look at ideas about almost any sport.  But please, bear in mind that any strip about international Rugby Union should end with an emphatic Irish Victory.

          Spooky stuff. I maintain that Misty, and to a lesser degree, Spellbinder were among the best comics produced in the UK. A Misty style ghost or supernatural story would be a superb addition and very much welcomed.

-          Factual strips.  Remember Look and Learn, Tell Me Why, World of Wonder?  Strips that tell stories from history or science or current affairs. 

-          Nursery Comics – I learnt to read with comics.  Things like Rupert the Bear and Tiger Tim.  I don’t want a strip for young kids but perhaps something that is done in that style would be interesting.

All of these are just ideas and I’m willing to look at anything.  I'm especially keen to get strips with female protagonists, so far I have none and it stands out like a sore thumb. 

I’m aiming for a PG-13 vibe so bear that in mind and if you have any questions please do contact me and we’ll see if we can bring Splank! back for the first time. 

All characters should be original, I’m not looking to tread on any copyrights here, and will remain the property of the creators.

If you are interested in becoming part of this project please do contact me.  Writers should send a proposal for their story or, get in touch to discuss what they might look at.  Artists should send some samples of their work and an idea of which story types they are most interested in working on.
This could be fun, let us see what we can do. 

Physical Samples (if your prefer) to:
Peter Duncan
16 Belmont Church Road
Belfast  BT4 3FF

Sunday, 2 April 2017

Dunce! A Comic Strip from Norway,

Cover of Dunce number One
It's almost exactly a year since I began this blog, in that time I've written almost exclusively about comics from the British Isles.  I'd always intended to extend the range a little, perhaps covering comics from Europe or the occasional American book that really caught my attention.  Until now I've managed to resist that temptation, but an e-mail from a Norwegian cartoonist about his recent (english language) self-published book has been enough to make me change that policy immediately

I'd held back because I've a big pile of books and comics beside, beneath and on my desk that I already want to write about.  Adding to the pile didn't seem like a good idea.  But the cover of Jens Styve's Dunce convinced me to change my mind.

Jens is 44, lives in Tromsoe in the far north of Norway and works in a 'creative house' with other 'creatives with an emphasis on working with young people.  He is a former Graphic Designer who, after years using a computer has returned to the traditional tools of the cartoonist, ink, nibs and pens. 

He has recently got a gig supplying a daily, colour strip to a leading Norwegian newspaper a job that will last for four months.  It’s a standard gag strip, normally four panels, about the lives of and relationship between a father and his son.  It's very well observed, especially if you happen to be one of those fathers who still likes video games and horror movies.  I found myself recognising a few incidents from my more pathetic parenting attempts and indeed from my own childhood as well.   At the same time the strip manages to be affectionate, heart-warming and most importantly funny.

Jens sneaks in at least one reference to world politics, which is very nearly the highlight of the entire book and did make me laugh out loud, something comics rarely do, no matter how much I enjoy them.  This is a strip that anyone who has had a child, or indeed a parent, will find themselves smiling at.

Quentin Blake at his very best
The art is stylish and distinctive, but forms part of a clear line of descent from older artists.  There are aspects of Jens’ work that point to influences he acknowledges as early inspirations.  Artists like English illustrator Quentin Blake and the creator of the Moomins, Tove Janson.  Like each of those greats Jens mixes the cute with the slightly grim and frightening and in doing so evokes the delight in a mixture of curiosity and anxiety that most people remember from their childhood.

There are clearly elements of Calvin and Hobbs and visually his figures have something of the look of another one of my comic heroes, Lewis Trondheim.  But there is certainly no deliberate attempt to look like these artists, I think we can say there is a definite Jens Styve style.

Jens offered Dunce through Kickstarter and the limited edition he made available in his campaign is gone, but by checking out his web-site you can get yourself a copy of a very singular, very accessible and really entertaining book.  I'm going to be watching for the next campaign and will let Splank! readers know when the time comes.

The Jens Styve webpage

The Jens K Styve web-shop


Jens has been kind enough to point me in the direction of some other cartoonists and I'll be following up on that information.  He has also reminded me that one of my favourite European cartoonists is also from Norway.  Jason, the pen-name of John Arne Sæterøy, produces sparse, minimalistic comics.  They are often wordless or at least contain very little dialogue and no captions at all.  They mainly include anthropomorphic characters and are often fantasies of one sort or another.  

I’ll get to writing about Jason at some time in the future but for now this gives me an excuse to include the cover of one of his best books here.  And you can try to imagine what it’s all about.