Saturday, January 21, 2012
Review: Great British Fantasy Comic Book Heroes
I recently reviewed the new book The Pictorial Guide to British 1950s Sci-Fi & Horror Comic Books which is an informative showcase of hundreds of covers from that era but if you want to know what the actual stories were like Great British Fantasy Comic Book Heroes is an excellent companion volume.
Published by Ugly Duckling Press Great British Fantasy Comic Book Heroes is a hefty tome; a large format hardback containing 464 black and white pages of originated British hero strips from UK independent comics of the 1940s and 1950s. The compilation has been assembled by Phil Clarke and Mike Higgs (Mike also drew the cover) and is a wonderful compendium of characters long forgotten. For those of you who have wished for a collection of old British strips, this is ideal.
The book kicks off with a 10 page introduction detailing the circumstances which gave birth to these comics. It tells of how paper rationing during and after World War 2 imposed restrictions on established publishers but newcomers were exempt from the paper quota restrictions and were able to turn out titles on any paper available to them. By 1945 the government had also restricted the publication of new comics but the small publishers got around this by slightly changing the titles of their comics so they appeared like new titles to eager readers. Thirsty for American comics that were no longer being imported into the UK due to the war, kids lapped up the British reprints and home-grown superheroes. The article then moves on to focus on individual characters, adding more background to the strips selected and, where known, naming the creators involved.
Considering that many of these comics suffered from cheap printing, Mike Higgs has done a splendid job on restoration for this book. The fact that the strips appear considerably larger than their original published size is also very welcome. There's certainly a lot packed into the book as those old strips usually only ran to a few pages. The tone of the stories is certainly cheesy but that's all part of their charm. Collectors will be particularly interested in the early work of people such as Joe Colquhoun, Denis Gifford, Ron Turner and Denis McLoughlin.
Some of the British superheroes were clearly knock-offs of American characters. Marvelman (who is represented by a couple of strips in the book) is the well known one but there were others even more blatant such as Mr.Apollo whose costume was virtually identical to the one worn by Captain Marvel. However that only adds to the curiosity value of the strips in my opinion. It's good to see humour strips represented too, such as the distinctive work of Harry Banger on Stoogie the Super-Man...
One artist who I think was a great loss to the industry when he quit comics was Bob Monkhouse. One can't blame Bob for one moment for following his fortunes elsewhere but his artwork is definitely worth a look. This book collects one of his complete Tornado strips from Oh Boy! Comics, notorious for its phallic alien designs. How Bob got away with that remains a mystery to this day...
Many of the stories are lightweight in nature, with the heroes thwarting crooks or fighting alien menaces, so it came as a surprise to see one strip dealing with social issues. In Mick Anglo's Captain Miracle story Way Down South, the heroes battle the Ku Klux Klan in a tale opposing racism. Unfortunately the way the heroes go about it is a bit embarrassing today (they black up to lure out the racists) but its heart is in the right place.
Now for the price of the book. At £75 it's not cheap, however you have to bear in mind that this is a very limited collectors edition. Only 100 copies have been produced, making this a very scarce item indeed. (Considering that the Marvel Masterworks, with higher print runs, cost around £40 for around 280 pages the price of this book doesn't sound so bad.) You also get a free gift, - a randomly selected genuine 1950s independent comic. (I got Merry Maker No.3.)
You're unlikely to find this book in any bookshops due to its rarity but you can buy it directly from Blasé Books at £75 post free (UK only).
Send a cheque for £75 sterling payable to Blasé Books at:
Alternatively you can order it via PayPal. £75 to firstname.lastname@example.org
Please note: The post free price is only for UK customers. If you live outside the UK please e-mail Blasé Books at the aforementioned address for postage costs to your country.