Children once grew up with comics where the words were stronger than pictures. George Edwards argues their main characters could still hook a new generation in primary schools into reading
They taught some of the worst elements of old-fashioned Britishness.
But some good ones, too. And they taught a patience with reading which schools now struggle to get from many boys. We are talking about characters like Alf Tupper, Matt Braddock, The Great Wilson, The Mighty Morgyn, and a hundred other names which still make men stand up and salute, years after they faded into history.
DC Thomson of Dundee launched Adventure in 1921, followed by Rover and Wizard in 1922, Skipper in 1930 and Hotspur in 1933 – known in the firm as the Big Five. Until they arrived, the boys' comics market was dominated by Magnet and Gem, from the Amalgamated Press, in London, which specialised in school stories starring the likes of Tom Merry, Harry Wharton, Billy Bunter and Hurree Jamset Ram Singh, the Nabob of Bhanipur (known to the chaps as Inky).
In an essay in 1940, George Orwell explained the impact of the new wave from Dundee by describing their cover pictures.
"A cowboy is clinging by his toes to the wing of an aeroplane in mid-air and shooting down another aeroplane with his revolver. A Chinese is swimming for his life down a sewer with a swarm of ravenous-looking rats after him. An engineer is lighting a stick of dynamite while a steel robot feels for him with its claws. A man in airman's costume is fighting bare-handed against a rat somewhat larger than a donkey.
A nearly naked man of terrific muscular development has just seized a lion by the tail and flung it thirty yards over the wall of an arena, with the words, 'Take back your blooming lion!' Clearly, no school story can compete with this sort of thing."
The German invasion of Norway, in 1940, meant paper rationing, and Skipper folded in 1941. But its stablemates hung on in, with intermittent appearances, and made a big comeback post-war, with the help of a whole new set of stories, about or inspired by the war, such as the long-running series about ace pilot Matt Braddock.
In Magnet and Gem, the working-class heroes tended to be scholarship boys, behaving better than the nobs but accepting their rules.
In the Dundee comics, especially post-war, they were much more confidently anti-establishment and sold to a more working-class audience. Alf Tupper, "the Tough of the Track", would stay up all night to finish welding a boiler, breakfast on fish and chips and then out-run the local Harriers in revenge for their sneering at his torn vest and rough talk.
The Great Wilson, the all-round athlete who lived in
a cave on the Yorkshire moors, poured scorn on the beginnings of academic sports science and proved it wrong by example.
Sergeant Braddock ambled through the war putting two fingers up to the military police and the officer classes but had to be forgiven because there was not a pilot like him.
This has to get personal. I am 56. I was bought my first samples of Rover, Wizard, Hotspur and Adventure, for a long train journey in 1959, and was immediately hooked.
Most of the stories were slabs of text, with just one or two drawings to give us a clue to the characters. But we were prepared to wade through them, in search of details about what life was like as a pilot, a cowboy, a champion athlete, a Marine, a Mountie, a yogic meditator, a fairground wrestler or one of several variations of Tarzan, such as Morgyn the Mighty.
These text-dominated publications were called "story papers", to distinguish them from the "comics", like Beano and Dandy, Topper and Beezer, which majored on "funnies", although they had some adventure strips, too. In the 1950s, Eagle, Lion and Tiger set up a middle ground – adventure-led but picture-dominated. And in the 1960s, they were joined by the breezier and funnier Victor, Valiant and Hornet, which turned some of the old text heroes, like Alf Tupper and the Wolf of Kabul, into picture strips.
Fleetway Publications was running the Cowboy Picture Library, starring Buck Jones, Kit Carson and Co, all through the 1950s, and the American superheroes were also filtering into the swapping market.
In 1961, DC Thomson launched the pocket-sized Commando series, telling war stories in pictures, and scored one of its biggest successes. Issue 4,000 is due in April next year. Hotspur went comic-strip in 1959. In 1961, Rover and Adventure amalgamated into Rover & Adventure. In 1963, Wizard was absorbed into Rover & Wizard. It was the beginning of the end for their particular kind of magic. The titles lived on for a while but picture-strips saw off the last of the text-led stories in the '70s.
I remembered these old story papers when I did
some reading work with primary school boys in
Leeds. The schools provided fairy stories. What the kids wanted, I felt, was Tupper or Braddock. I toyed with the idea of compiling a Boys Book of Reading and with that in mind started collecting instructions for making fishing rigs, fireworks and invisible ink involving poisonous chemicals.
But what I really needed, I felt, was an archive of the old-style stories from Rovers, Adventures, Hotspurs and Wizards. Googling around on the internet on night shifts, I found plenty of nostalgic references and eBay offers but not much archive – until I came across a website, britishcomics.20m.com, run by a retired London electrician called Vic Whittle. Vic, 62, is housebound by ill-health and five years ago started teaching himself website technology. For want of a subject, he began typing out and uploading stories from his collection of 1950s and 1960s Wizards and Rovers. His website now gets several hundred visitors
a day, plus suggestions and contributions, from all
over the old Commonwealth, and includes dozens
of sample stories from the post-war Big Four of the original Big Five.
Part of the attraction is the subsidiary site he runs, about the Pocket Picture Library series which culminated in the Commando comics. The Commando fans tend to regard the other half of the site as the "old gits' section", he admits.
Publisher DC Thomson is famously protective of its back catalogues but permits Vic's operation, which acknowledges its copyrights. It has no plans at the moment to re-use the old story-paper material itself. And to be honest, on re-reading it, you can see why.
The best bits are the titles. Who could resist The Town That Died At Dawn; The Dread Days Of The Purple Scar; The Fights Of The Five Ton Ghost; The Secret In Six-Moon Swamp; The Coiled Snake; The Thing From Outer Space; or White Fangs Of Vengeance?
But once you get started, you can sometimes feel
the desperation of the typewriter jockeys who turned the stuff out to weekly deadlines. Nothing much is known about them but old DC Thomson hacks say it would not have been unusual for one man to write a whole edition; as Braddock's biographer in the morning; Tupper's in the afternoon; and the reporter from Six-Moon Swamp before catching the night bus home.
Orwell summed up the world as seen through the "twopenny dreadfuls" in 1940: "Frenchman – wears beard, gesticulates wildly. Spaniard, Mexican, etc – sinister, treacherous. Arab, Afghan, etc – sinister, treacherous. Chinese – sinister, treacherous, wears pigtail. Italian – grinds barrel-organ or carries stiletto. Swede, Dane, etc – kind-hearted, stupid.
Negro – comic, very faithful." And there was still
some of that kind of clumsy caricature in the
comics when Vic Whittle and I discovered them
as youngsters. But I don't remember any deliberately nasty racism – except about the Germans, no
doubt – and there was some education in the
bigness and wideness of the world, too. In our
small-town bedrooms, we learned that Eskimos
and jungle dwellers, Tibetan Buddhists and even Things From The Swamp, could have things to teach to open minds, and that the automatic prejudices of the British snob were what we really ought to laugh at. Come to think of it, that usually meant an English snob, as portrayed with relish by the penny-a-line writers in Dundee.
The attitudes to the world which offended Orwell were probably embodied in The Wolf Of Kabul, which began in Wizard in the 1930s and was repeated when the comic was given a last run in the 1970s.
The Wolf in question was a soldier, 2nd Lieutenant Bill Sampson, an agent for the British Intelligence Corps who more or less single-handedly held the Northwest frontier of the old Indian empire, now the Afghan-Pakistan border, assisted by Chung, his faithful bodyguard, who would go into Hulk-like rages with an old cricket bat he believed had magical powers and called Clicky-ba. It is true there was not much explanation of the point of view of the natives our heroes were beating up. But good old Chung, apparently a Tibetan, was at least as heroic a figure as the Wolf, as far as the readers were concerned.
It is probably pushing it to suggest that Wizard and the others were pioneers of multi-cultural awareness. However, they did give us a rough sense of history and geography – better, at least, than no reading at all.
And they did, constantly, encourage admiration for prowess of all kinds. We learned in some detail about the effort and pain which go into success in sport, or any other physical endeavour.
Football – played, of course, with a mud-soaked lump of leather which regularly knocked people out cold – was already a standard theme. So were running, cycling, weight-lifting, boxing, wrestling, judo, and even sand-yachting.
Every now and then, something truly unexpected would enter the mix. Vic Whittle's website includes an episode, for example, from Go Man Go: the story of a demolition man who is trying to make it as a guitarist and singer – a ham-fisted but surprisingly sympathetic attempt by Wizard, in 1958, to ride the skiffle boom.
Inevitably, many of the stories crumble when you take them out of their bath of nostalgia and examine them in the hard light of today.
Take this story summary for new readers from The Circus of Secrets and Shivers (Wizard, 1954).
"Jack Heaton, a talent scout who joins the Astor Circus in the guise of a labourer, has made the astounding discovery that Peter Nettar, The Boss, and his leading performers, are people from another planet, here to seek out Britain's military secrets. Jack gets into Nettar's caravan and secures a mysterious crystal box, which Nettar uses to communicate with his colleagues in space.
"Jack sets off for the police station, pursued by Nettar and Herma, the circus strongman. Jack hands over the crystal box. When the police examine it, it blows up. In
the confusion, Herma kidnaps Jack and takes him back to the circus. There, Nettar tells Jack he is to be fired in a rocket to the planet from which the circus performers came. Helpless in the power of PAX, the circus hypnotist, Jack is led into the ring, where the rocket is ready for firing."
It reads like the sort of plot a nine-year-old knocks up in Free Composition.
However, maybe that was the secret. Any nine-year-old would read on, wouldn't he? And once he did, he had to get through 3,000 words to be prepared for the next episode (this article is about 2,000).
You cannot wade through that sort of wordage without absorbing something useful, even if it is only spelling, and Vic Whittle's correspondents include at least one man who is downloading the stories to encourage his grandchildren to read.
The Education Department has spent millions of pounds on worse ideas, of course.