Key Moments in My Comics History 10
In the Australian desert, comics to which one had subscribed didn’t appear through a letterbox to land quietly on one’s mat, but were hurled, tightly wound in an elastic band, from the passing car of the newsagent into the garden. One had to be watchful, and then had to emerge from the boiling hot house into the searing hot sunshine to recover them before they became uncomfortable to pick up (45 degrees Celsius in the blazing sunshine led to quickly heated objects). As it happened, my brother and I were such ardent comic fans that we underwent this ordeal every week, eager to unwrap the coiled magazines and begin reading.
Amongst the regulars was Smash! a weekly British comic book magazine, published in London by Odhams Press Ltd and subsequently by IPC Magazines Ltd. Between 5 February 1966 and 3 April 1971, a total of 257 issues, Smash!, with its eclectic mix of original and reprinted British stories, entertained us as we grew up in the distant, alien environment of Australia. Up until 1969, Smash! had featured a balanced mixture of British humour and adventure strips, including American ‘Batman’ newspaper strips, and Marvel reprints. Initially, it was part of a line of Odhams' products called collectively ‘Power Comics’, containing a range of black and white reprints of American super-hero stories from both Marvel and DC, including Thor, Superman, the Fantastic Four, the Hulk and many more. Power Comics provided many British children with their first introduction to these American characters as both Marvel and DC had not established reliable distribution lines into the UK at that time -and Australia was off their map just about entirely. It was a Golden Age of a kind.
It wasn’t to last that long. As children, we accepted at that time a practice which seemed natural then but which is perhaps rather transparent now, namely the process whereby comics that struggled to acquire or maintain readerships were ruthlessly combined with other comics. The theory was that loyal readers of both magazines would stay with the newly combined publication and so readerships would not only be retained but perhaps even grow. These decisions were quite cut-throat on the part of the publishers -apparently, if a title’s sales even looked like dipping, the order went out to merge it with a more successful title. For readers like us, the news was usually heralded by a banner at the head of the front page: ‘Great News Inside For All Our Readers!’ We came to recognise this, with dread, as the announcement of a merger: from our point of view, Terrific merged with Fantastic first, while Pow! and Wham! and Smash! all remorselessly combined. Favourite characters and storylines vanished forever: amongst the most fondly remembered was ‘The Cloak’, who, after the 1968 amalgamation with Pow! in which the strip had begun, eventually disappeared. The Cloak was the top agent for Britain's Special Squad, operating from his personal headquarters, the Secret Sanctum. His unique supply of gadgets and secret weapons gave him the edge over his strange adversaries, including Deathshead and various other agents of G.H.O.U.L. The intriguing drawing style and array of odd characters made the strip fascinating and irreplaceable.
At first glance, from a reader’s point of view, it might have seemed that all these mergers were part of some grand scheme, a precursor of Marvel’s hugely successful ‘mall’ strategy -namely, to build up to massive success by seeding the ground with a range of items, judging which ones are popular, and then slowly but surely drawing them together into one larger item. This is what Marvel has done and continues to do with its ‘Cinematic Universe’ -issuing a series of films starring solo characters, but teasing each set of followers with a grand ‘team-up’ centrepiece, in its case the ‘Avengers’ movies. Was Power Comics an early version of this? Were the scheming publishers luring in unsuspecting readers using American super-hero strips, then calculatingly switching to home-grown characters and stories, all the while culling the weaker issues and pulling greater and greater readerships together with a series of carefully-planned mergers?
Sadly, no. The whole thing appears to have been commercially driven, unbeknownst to us at that time. And there were other, cultural factors.
Firstly, by launching five Power Comics titles, some of which were expensively priced -up to three times as much as rival D.C. Thompson’s Beano and Dandy- Odhams Press had not fully realised that they were going into competition with themselves. Readers wrote in to complain that they couldn’t afford all five titles. This was the 1960s, and though wartime austerity had ended in Britain, 9d (the pre-decimal 9 pence) was a considerable amount to a child, and that was the cover price for one issue of Fantastic. At that time, detached three-bedroomed houses were selling for £3,000 and a weekly wage was about £20.
Secondly, towards the end of the 60s, Britain was plunged into an economic crisis, part of which was the devaluation of the pound. Suddenly, the American reprints, already having to be paid for in expensive American dollars, became absolutely unaffordable. Odhams and its successor IPC let the licenses to reprint these stories drop away as quickly as they could. What looked to us like a burst of British creativity -in fact, by outward appearance, a comics renaissance in Britain- was being driven by the desperate need to find home-grown material to replace the Marvel and DC strips.
Economics was one invisible taskmaster: the publishers even changed the names of several stories and characters, including the long-running adventure strip was 'The Battle of Britain' (in which secret agent Simon Kane fought against Baron Rudolph, a usurper who had seized control of Britain using a secret weapon) which had originally ran in Lion from 1964, under the titles 'Britain in Chains' and 'The Battle for Britain', its hero being called Vic Gunn. We had no idea of any of this behind-the-scenes stuff, of course. Another ‘re-booted’ reprint was 'Send For... Q-Squad', about the adventures of a hand picked group of six specialists, assigned to unusual missions. This had originally been published in Buster in 1960 under the title 'Phantom Force 5'. Q-Squad was plainly not the original name of the team, with some panels clearly showing that the name had been inserted over the previous one. Publishers also farmed out work overseas, looking for cheaper rates. Brilliant and prolific artist Solano Lopez, born in the Argentine, worked at a studio in Spain and was less expensive than a British-based illustrator. IPC had taken a policy decision to source artwork from cheaper sources outside the UK, an indicator of the financial pressure the comic was under. All we readers saw was his inimitable shadowy characters and intriguing, smudgy panels.
Cultural changes, less visible, were also playing their part. In, March 1969, in consequence of the decision to discontinue the American reprints, Smash! became virtually a new comic, with a new cover feature called ‘Warriors of the World’, new strips, free gifts and a kind of ‘host’ or presenter called Mike. D. C. Thompson’s Beano, Dandy and Sparky were aimed at younger readers; Lion and Valiant tended to focus around adventure, sport and war; Buster was based around humour; but Smash! sought to attract readers of both types, by offering traditional adventure as well as humour. It was exciting and looked healthy enough to us, containing that wide range of story -we didn’t know that it had in fact become the last ever British comic to feature a variety mix of adventure, humour, and sports-themed stories, including (reprinted from Lion) 'Eric the Viking', and 'Nutt and Bolt, the Men from W.H.E.E.Z.E.'; and alongside reprints from Buster, such as 'Wacker' (originally 'Elmer'), 'Consternation Street', and 'Monty Muddle - The Man from Mars' (originally 'Milkiway - The Man from Mars'). Humour strips included 'The Swots and the Blots', 'Wiz War', 'Bad Penny', and 'Percy's Pets' but sadly not 'The Cloak' and 'The Man from BUNGLE'.
A few issues later, after a wave of complaints about the disappearance of the Marvel and DC heroes, an all-British superhero called ‘Tri-Man' appeared: Johnny Meek featured a hero who had triple-superpowers, hence the name Tri-Man. He leaped about rooftops, obtaining his powers from a ray device once every 24 hours like DC's 'Green Lantern'. It wasn’t popular -it read very much like a watered-down version of Marvel and DC characters- and quietly vanished soon afterwards.
IPC, the publisher, was in effect trying to repeat the success of Valiant and Lion by copying their successful formula. But all these publications were struggling in the face of a changing youth culture of the 1960s and 70s. The deferential, hierarchical and clear-cut divisions of the society were breaking down elsewhere with the sexual revolution, the growth of the so-called ‘permissive society’, the rapid transformation of the music scene with phenomena like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, and the immense popularity of, and easy access to, television. The same kind of thing was happening in children's comics: it was becoming harder to sell simple ‘good guys versus bad guys’ stories; cultural archetypes were shifting.
Some stories and characters still live on in the memory nearly fifty years later, particularly the new lead serial, 'Master of the Marsh', which began as a sports serial about Patchman, a strange hermit who lived in the East Anglian fens, who is appointed as the new sports master at Marshside Secondary School, nicknamed 'The Marsh', as he is the only person who could control the kids - a group of hooligans known as 'the Monsters of the Marsh'. Patchman was a partly comic but also intriguing figure who camped in the inaccessible heart of the marshes where he had always lived. A natural woodsman, he could communicate after a fashion with the local wildlife, for whom he acted as protector. At first, like the older, simpler stories of the early 60s, the stories were all about the attempts of Knocker Reeves - the worst of the 'monsters' - to get the better of the new teacher, but gradually we found out that Patchman was secretly the guardian of a collection of relics left behind by Hereward the Wake, a warlord who had fought the Norman invaders in the Fens during the 11th Century. Living so far away from Britain, and feeling very homesick most of the time, this was a link with the homeland and its mystical and historical heritage -but it also signalled an attempt to bring a different kind of depth to a comic tale.
Another memorable strip was 'The Incredible Adventures of Janus Stark', all about an escapologist in Victorian London who appeared to be simply an unusual act on the music-hall stage, but who secretly battled against injustice using the extraordinary abilities given to him by an unusually flexible bone structure, which helped him to get out of an astonishing variety of tight situations. Though this became repetitive after a while, its original premise was intriguing.
'Rebbels on the Run' was another adventure serial. Three young brothers whose surname was Rebbel, run away from an orphanage to avoid being split up in a classic 1950s sort of set-up. Soon, though, the story takes an unexpected -and more interesting- turn: the boys discover that their late father's mind has been preserved within the brain of a robot, which becomes their unofficial guardian. The story changed its name to 'The Rebbel Robot' and became a quest to track down a criminal known as The Genie, who had murdered their real father -who also turned out to be an undercover agent for the government.
'Cursitor Doom' stands out as a spooky series. Doom, master investigator of the mystical, battles against the dark forces of evil, ably assisted by his strong-man assistant, Angus McCraggan. In such stories as 'The Case of Kalak the Dwarf', 'The Sorcerer's Talisman' and 'The Dark Legion of Mardarax', Doom also makes use of a pet Raven, Scarab, who can write messages in the dust. Mild enough when viewed today, this was breaking new ground in terms of presenting taboo material to children.
Though it didn’t seem so at the time, the content of the comic changed rapidly during this period. After changes made in August 1969, further alterations made in 1970 meant that Smash! was looking very different after only a year. At least favourites like 'Master of the Marsh', 'Janus Stark', 'Battle of Britain', 'Eric the Viking', and 'The Swots and the Blots' survived, while newcomer 'Consternation Street' (a parody of the popular television soap opera, Coronation Street), was worthwhile. But the 'Warriors of the World' covers were replaced with 'The Thirteen Tasks of Simon Test', in which Test, having been deceived by the sinister Jabez Coppenger into believing he has only a few months to live, undertakes a quest for immortality by attempting the thirteen tasks of the Pharaoh Thot, believing this to be the only way to save his life. More Simon test adventures followed, including 'Simon Test and the Curse of the Conqueror'.
To add to the behind-the-scenes woes, though, in November 1970, production on Smash! (and many other IPC titles, including Valiant) came to a halt due to a printers' strike. No editions were produced for the following three months. By the time the strike was settled, in February of the following year, irreparable damage had been done to Smash!'s circulation. After eight issues, in April 1971, the two titles were merged. For a brief time the merged comic was entitled Valiant and Smash!, before reverting to simply Valiant. A sad day.
With this change most favourites were lost. Although the Smash! annual continued to appear for many years afterwards, it too disappeared in 1976. The new Smash! had lasted only two years.
Smash! was the last attempt in the UK market to publish a general boys’ comic. After its demise, comics became more specialised: Action dealt with adventure stories, Battle with war stories, and the soon-to-be-born 2000AD took up science fiction and fantasy. These newcomers were all grittier, more blood-thirsty, more ironic, in keeping with the changing culture -and because their tone matched that of the society around them, they were all more commercially successful, with 2000AD surviving to this day. In the face of the competition from television and other aspects of a changing zietgeist, even IPC's flagship, Valiant, ultimately could not survive. It wasn’t just the growth of television, or even the commercial economics, that meant that Power Comics like Smash! were doomed: the society’s mood was itself altering and expectations of what would be considered entertainment were growing darker.