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If you are interested in the history of comics fanzines, launchpad for many a top flight creator’s career, this promises to be right up your street! Get ready for an in-depth chronicle of its 1960s birth, with stacks of early covers and art. To whet your appetite before the history lesson, here are some pics and personal memories to get the ball rolling…
With covers by Sunderland-based Ken Simpson, Ka-Pow was quite probably the UK’s first attempt at comic fanzines. Produced by Phil Clarke and Steve Moore, it ran to only two issues in 1967/68 and was printed on a spirit duplicator (a Ditto machine, or what the States called a Banda duplicator). Because it used purple coloured alcohol instead of ink, the end product would have a pungent smell and could only be used for small print runs.
From these primitive foundations, things were to move on fast as these teen-aged editors explored the rapid progress in small scale printing technology.
But the king of 1960s comics fanzines on this side of the Atlantic was without doubt Dun Laoghaire’s Anthony Roche. I had the Avis Rent-A-Car position, I tried harder. Despite Tony starting out in 1967 with a cringe-inducing title, Merry Marvel Fanzine, within a year he had gathered a solid team of contributors and was producing Heroes Unlimited, a 44 to 48 page ink duplicated title. On the art side he added Paul Neary (who produced #2, 4 and 5 covers shown below) and Ken Simpson (a highly proficient contributor who sadly died far too young). Editorially Tony was aided by Peter C Phillips and Peter Simpson.
“B. H. Offley” proudly took cover credit for printing the above first two issues, using some technology now lost in the mists of time (but one which had that aged brown look even back then), however Tony went for the more practical electronic stencil approach with later issues.
But Tony must have discovered girls, because after seven well-written and well-drawn (but sadly not very well printed) issues, he was never heard of again. Which may be lucky for him, because once they’ve been unearthed the covers to Merry Marvel Fanzine will be appearing on here too!
Guess we all started going back to the barbers eventually (well, all except the hippie bloke in the middle of pic three!). Below is the before and after Brian Bolland from back then. Picture three also features Tharg-in-waiting Alan McKenzie (right).
Here are some fairly recent photos showing the locations of that first-ever UK fantasy and comics shop (with thanks to Tubbydog’s Photostream for these). Established in 1969 and expanded through larger locations until 1981, with its odd-sounding name taken from a wonderful 1949 Ray Bradbury short story… Dark They Were and Golden Eyed.
But it all came to an end with a huge window announcement… “14 Day Sale” with the tell-tale subtitle of “cash only!” in early 1981. I remember saying to a friend that Bram was obviously in trouble and that I bet he would do a runner by day 10!
As it happened he disappeared after only day seven, leaving the specialist retail crown to pass over to several of his frustrated ex-employees who by that time had already set up their own shop only a short walk away, in London’s “tin-pan alley” Denmark Street, using the 1956 Leslie Nielsen film title as its name… Forbidden Planet.
One of the unsung heroes of boys’ adventure weeklies, Joe Colquhoun (pronounced Col-hoon) produced a staggering volume of art from the 1950s Paddy Payne and Roy of the Rovers through to Johnny Red and Charley’s War.
While still producing fanzines in my spare time, I first got to work with Joe on Cor!!‘s Kid Chameleon. Two years later, when he was producing Zarga: Man of Mystery for Buster, I took the above shot from his original art for the December 23 1972 episode before the gaps were filled with lettering (and art assistant bodging!). I then asked him to provide a stylized signature so the page could accompany an interview I ran with him in Fantasy Advertiser. Five years later, he was another of my IPC contacts to turn up in House of Hammer, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
Back in the 1960s: First Efforts
I was in the middle of my third year at The Grammar School, Goole. One lunch time a friend had been looking for mail order games at bargain prices in the weekly Exchange & Mart classified listings magazine (imagine a print version of eBay with about 140 dense and smudgy newsprint pages).
When he’d done with it, having found nothing of interest, he left it on a desk and I took a peek. I was delighted to find there was a section given over to Books & Magazines. Even better, there was one small private ad from a George Caven of Aberdeen saying he was looking to buy American DC comics. Wow – I had hundreds of them! I’d cottoned on that taking them back to the Goole market stall holder for “half back in exchange” was not a good deal. I’d paid as much as 2p each for them (6d old money) and I was going to sell them for the same… in hard cash!
I spent my evenings for the next week or so slaving over a Petite typewriter, compiling a list and two carbon copies (in case I spotted any similar ads in forthcoming issues!). This was no mean task either, as this was a children’s Petite typewriter (all I could lay my hands on!). That meant you had to turn a wheel in its middle for each and every letter, then thump the space bar and repeat. These were primitive times… Finally the completed 12 or so pages were mailed off and we went on our family two week holiday to Scarborough.
When we returned I was amazed to see a letter addressed to me… from Aberdeen. George Caven! And inside, together with a hand written list of comics he wanted, was a postal order for £1/17/6. In new money that’s not far shy of a princely two pounds, the equivalent at the time of almost 80 Mars bars, a pair of Levi jeans or six 45rpm singles (don’t ask). I was hooked. Here was a business opportunity where I could read stuff I enjoyed and then get my money back. Big business. At the post office when I was told the parcel would cost over a pound to mail I learned my first lesson… CHARGE POSTAGE!
Undeterred, I crossed off what George had bought (I’d asked him to return the list) added handwritten postal charges to the foot of each page and mailed it off to the next would-be buyer. My parents were probably very pleased to see me going to the local library on such a regular basis. But they weren’t to know it was because I’d discovered you could read the Exchange & Mart there for free. Over the next few months, I’d gathered a database of 20+ like-minded souls, people happy to buy my old comics. In fact I even took the plunge and began advertising my lists.
I kept this up for almost a year until I discovered that the school had a Gestetner rotary printing machine (or mimeograph printer, as they were known in the States) and the headmaster’s secretary was amenable to helping me out. So not only could I now print my lists faster and on a far bigger scale than carbon copies, but if I made up some sort of cover and – thanks to a slightly better typewriter – added a few articles, I could actually sell my lists too! So in 1967 The Derinn Comicollector was born.
For record keepers, the first issue cover was cut out from the back cover of an Odhams Power Comic but the people making the plate felt the cloak was too dark so, much to my disgust, they redrew it! I didn’t like making a fuss though so I put up with it. First lesson in publishing learned at an early age: If you’re paying the bills and don’t like something, say so!
In fact I was so disappointed with the end product for my first effort’s cover that I ran an illustration-free typed editorial as the cover to issue two. For the third issue, rather than spend money on inept outsiders, I painstakingly scratched out a traced image of The Hulk on to a thin wax paper-like Gestetner stencil, so the ink would go through the holes I made. Not easy!
With comic fans turned writers (well, writers for me, at least!) Alan Booth and Mike Cruden on board to help me flesh out some kind of editorial content between the ads, I was relieved to discover my first art find in Hounslow’s John Hudson, whose drawing of Captain America I felt worthy of the expense of another electronic stencil. In fact, by 1969 I felt confident enough to make the fanzine more than merely a catalogue and used this fourth numbered issue to launch Eureka. with John’s nifty title logo.
As well as John providing lots of art for later use, when I moved to London he introduced me to a young architectural draftsman from St Albans (right) who was passionate about drawing comics… named Dave Gibbons.
By the time my fifth issue came around, with Eureka now having spun off into its own title, it was September 1969 and not-so-impressive photocopying had been unleashed. Not-so-impressive because in these early days it couldn’t deal with solid black areas! Photocopy a black box and you would get a black edge and a pale grey box. But for those last two issues shown above I used photocopy covers to display a new art find in Greece’s Panos Koutroubousis, then living in London and quite a few years away from becoming the fine artist he now is. But Panos felt nervous about drawing copyright comics characters so he made up his own!
By now, print technology for we small-timers was really rocking. I produced one more Derinn Comicatalogue by scratching a Peter Cushing face onto a stencil – who’d have thought I’d end up having dinner with him and Jim Warren in Browns Hotel, London less than a decade later?
Then I gave up on such covers and such a daft title in favour of developing Eureka (“the new idea in fanzines”). One photocopied issue then the plunge… 1,000 copies professionally printed, offset litho throughout, a cover by a prominent Leeds-based horror fan Dave Fletcher and a slew of contributors including Massachusetts-based Comic Crusader editor/artist Martin L. Greim. Wow… the big time!
Seemingly putting quantity above quality, I teamed up with fellow fan Haydn Paul in 1968 to produce a third fanzine, Oracle. The comics news I’d been running had proven very popular, so in time honoured tradition, it got its own title as a newszine (don’t you just love them? An adzine, a fanzine and now a newszine!). Each 16-page issue was initially half foolscap sized and photocopied during my lunchtimes at Croda Chemicals when nobody was looking but when I jammed up the machine and had to fess up, it reverted to hand-cranked stencils done at home.
Because US titles were only distributed in newsagents at that time, three months after their US on-sale dates, news on forthcoming issues was easy for anybody with a kindly US pen pal. But among all of the news and reviews about comics, one issue had the following somewhat understated comment “There’s a new TV series coming in America called Star Trek, it sounds quite good”!
But production standards were evolving rapidly in that nascent UK fandom age. By 1971 instantprint shops were all the rage, offering an inexpensive form of offset-litho printing but with paper plates – perfect for small print runs.
…Amazing, considering this only a few years after hand-cranked stencil and spirit duplicators had been the norm.
Suddenly fanzine editors had the opportunity to design their pages with a little more flair (even if they were still typewritten with rub-down Letraset headers and biro borders). And knowing a few artists didn’t help either!
While I had a far bigger project – Fantasy Advertiser – waiting in the wings, in many respects my final issue of Eureka! represented a peak for my own fan publishing.
But then, it’s tough to top Frank Bellamy!
Not that the rest of the contents were at all shabby. In addition to well-illustrated text features on the rise and fall of America’s EC Comics and the history of Britain’s short-lived forerunner to Marvel UK, Power Comics, this issue also introduced Quest 2130 or Quest for the Flame Crystal as it had been initially titled.
Quest was a landmark comic strip serial kicked off by Leeds chum Richard Burn (who actually did call himself “Dick Burn” back then – ouch!) which was to run for a staggering 11 further installments in Fantasy Advertiser.
The issue was also notable for including a three page comic strip written and drawn by a young St Albans lad named Dave Gibbons. I was so impressed with his work that I even went to the extreme of paying IPC Magazines’ Johnny Aldrich to professionally letter it for us! For posterity, and much to Dave’s probable embarrassment, here it is…
Mentioning Power Comics – the line of exclamation-heavy weeklies Pow!, Wham!, Smash! and latterly Fantastic and Terrific – it wasn’t until the mid-1970s that I heard the genuine story of their somewhat abrupt demise. Before the company became part of the mighty IPC Magazines, Odhams Press had been responsible for the weekly comics line – created as a vehicle for Leo Baxendale’s genius, to lure him from DC Thomsons. But as it began to expand and acquire the Power Comics imprint, it became many British kids’ first viewing of Marvel super-heroes, its line increasingly including these cheaper black and white reprints to bolster the originated content.
By the time Odhams was absorbed into IPC, only Smash! remained, with the Marvel characters quickly disappearing in favour of more typical Valiant-style UK adventure fare. But as I discovered, the reason the line didn’t last was because of Odhams bizarre accounting procedure.
Quite a powerhouse, it was the company behind the massive selling Woman magazine, Ideal Home and Horse and Hound among many others. While it was running at a profit, it took an external auditor to advise them that they could make more money by actually cutting their output! Apparently, profits had not been assessed on an individual title basis, but rather in total, and nobody had realised that the Power line wasn’t working and was draining the company rather than helping it.
FANTASY ADVERTISER – THE BIG ONE!
While my own efforts were shaping up nicely, I was always madly envious of Frank Dobson’s Fantasy Advertiser. Not so much for its content, which was basically Frank’s Gestetner-printed list of comics for sale with a few ads at the back. No siree, bob – it was the title!
Secretly we were all a bit embarrassed about reading comics as teenagers back then. So actually publishing a fanzine with the word COMICS in the title seemed like admitting to be King of the Nerds. But Fantasy Advertiser? Now there was a respectable-sounding literate title to have!
With my somewhat prolific fanzine output, bolstered by importing the US Comic Crusader, I was fast becoming one of Frank’s biggest advertisers by 1970. But his actual biggest was Paul (No, Not That One) McCartney, who was running several page list ads, thus bumping up Frank’s page count and giving him a second income. So I was pretty stunned when Frank suddenly announced in 1970 that he and his family were emigrating to Australia… and that Paul and I could take over his adzine.
Far out! We’d got the big one!
And a big one it became… Our first issue, totally rejigged of course, was a whopper. Over 80 A4-sized pages, packed with articles, artwork and, naturally, pages and pages of ads. In fact it was so big and chunky, I had to buy an industrial strength stapler to hold them all together! Ah, the hours we spent collating 500 copies of that monster.
Here are the covers of the first six gigantic issues…
In fact the collating and stapling was such a massive undertaking for Paul and me (in my pokey little third floor Belsize Park bedsit) that for the Christmas 1970 issue #35 I recruited help from two ex-Goole Grammar School pals who I’d bumped into on a Leicester Square elevator a few days earlier, Katherine Smart and Sue Revell. They probably assumed we’d be doing something a little more exciting that evening, but good sports that they were, they buckled down to the task.
We’d been wading through the countless reams of paper for a couple of hours when Katherine (who we always called Ben for some reason) said she could smell smoke. We checked all the ashtrays. No, everything was fine, no smouldering ciggies, so we carried on. Then Sue said the same a little while later. Paul and I looked around and were horrified to see smoke spiraling up between joins in the carpet… from the flat below!
We all charged down a floor and when there was no reply to our calls, Paul and I started shouldering the door. The noise of our pathetic attempts alerted the neighbour of the opposite room, a policeman as it turned out, who told us to stop before we fell into the room, and then gave it a strong sharp kick. The door fell in and smoke and flames gushed out.
We all cleared out, the Fire Brigade arrived and did their job, while I stood watching, aghast, barefoot and somewhat disheveled and dirty from all the smoke. We discovered later that the room’s inhabitant had turned his three-bar electric fire towards his bed “to warm the room up” for when he got back from the pub. Words fail me!
When Paul and I could get access the next day, we found the Fire Brigade has used my room to access the blaze from above, by making a huge hole in my floor. Of course paper was a fire hazard, so most of Fantasy Advertiser #35 went straight out of the window into the back garden. Astute London subscriber Jim Baikie mentioned when I next saw him how he thought the issue had a smokey smell when it plopped through his letterbox!
Getting the message that this was way too much hard work (and dangerous!), I switched to the half-size A5 format with #38…
I remember another subscriber, Frank Bellamy, getting quietly cross – Frank never got noisily cross – bemoaning that I never put issue numbers on the covers. To keep them in order, he told me he wrote the numbers on the top right corner of the covers. small and in pencil (he said he didn’t want to spoil them with ink). So, from #39, the issue numbers appeared on the covers, usually!
That last cover above, is from my final digest-sized issue (May 1973). By this stage it was becoming well established outside of the UK, with this issue containing one ad from Italy, three from Germany, four from the States and three from Canada. But it was also boosting its editorial content. In addition to a reprinting of the 7-page 1940 origin of the Spirit, Kev O’Neill’s EC homage cover was backed by a new six page strip written by Chris Lowder (under the pseudonym of Martin Bendel), drawn by Kev and lettered by Dave Gibbons. And here it is…
Below are three further pages from the Skinn and Gibbons space opera Quest AD 2130. The serial appeared across 11 issues of sweet F/A with its ultra-conservative black hero Alexander and his loony white part-machine sidekick Caiphus (surely a first as a pair of heroes?) accidentally destroying mankind in their quest for the Flame Crystal. Did I say heroes? Tut-tut, how careless.
Going back to Frank Bellamy (this is fast turning into the Bellamy and Gibbons show!), there was a funny event to do with him which happened in 1971…
Word had reached me that The Daily Mirror, for whom he was at the time producing the Garth daily strip, was giving away his originals to people. Never actually asked Frank what he thought about this but I did mention it to somebody else. I was great pals with the late British comic (of a different sort) Bob Monkhouse.
When I told him what was happening, Bob offered to get us both some originals by writing to the newspaper on our behalf. Great, thought I, Bob Monkhouse stands a far better chance of pulling it off than Dez Skinn does!
The end product of our scheming can be seen from Bob’s letters, below…
… We were looking for Bellamy’s Garth but got Dunkley’s Larks. Not quite the same!
Thanks to an “Instantprint” shop near to where I worked, by now I had gladly waved goodbye to the age of hand collating pages which had been cranked off on a messy stencil duplicator, so I switched back to the larger A4 magazine size with our fiftieth issue.
And what an issue it was. With a card cover drawn and montaged by Keith Robson, it boasted an extensive interview with Frank Bellamy… and a price rise! With most of the print run being produced for subscribers (who would have paid only 10p for this 30p fiftieth issue) I adopted the standard SF fanzine practice of making it a “double issue”, conveniently numbered #50-51, so I wouldn’t be too much out of pocket. Yeah, it should have been a triple issue, but there are limits!
Dave Gibbons and I did the interview, going over to Frank and his wife Nancy’s semi-detached three bedroom house in Morden, Surrey one Saturday morning in May 1973. There were the two of us so that Dave could cover any “tricky” art questions which may come up.
Left are the first two pages of my original transcript while above are three of the paste-up boards I had to slave over, warts and all. (Yes, I really don’t throw anything away – that’s why I need such a big house and a deep storage triple unit!)
With all those paste-up shadows everywhere, the repro house’s job making negative film for the printers must have been an absolute nightmare! It was a seriously long-winded process back then. The whole transcribed and typed up interview had been shrunk down by a pal in IPC’s photo lab (I slipped him a fiver for his efforts!). Then in some places I’d had to scalpel cut each word out separately, take the odd adjective out and then glue the rest back down to make a line or page fit better, remembering the rule of widows, orphans and running turns (don’t ask!). Rules and boxes were added in biro pen, while headers and tags were full size typewriter.
I think the whole job, excluding the waiting time for the reduced text and images to be delivered, took about four solid days of Cow-gumming!
Frank was, as ever, a genial and self-effacing host, seemingly oblivious to his standing as one of the all-time greats of British comics. As we spoke, his enthusiasm was apparent, undiminished by time, he was still able to be excited over the smallest of things. One example he scurried away to proudly show us was a letter from America. An editor at DC Comics had written, asking if Frank would consider working for them. While most historians and fans would consider this a retrograde step in his career, Frank was thrilled at the thought. But then he was genuinely unhappy drawing a newspaper strip, Garth.
Being restricted to three single boxed pictures in black and white for blotchy newsprint was bad enough for a man who loved exploding a magazine-sized centrespread in glorious photo-gravure printed colour, but off-tape he told us how it was even more restrictive.
The previous artist was on staff at The Daily Mirror, and as well as producing the strip’s lettering he also chose to box in the frames, perhaps to help justify his job, who knows! So instead of being supplied with a script, and being able to design the layout within this already confined space, Frank found himself limited to filling in the gaps between the speech balloons. Or at least that was the theory.
When he had been producing his full colour extravaganzas, because of his meticulous professionalism, if he made a mistake Frank would not simply white it out. Working on coated heavy CS10 board (named after manufacturers Collier & Southey), he would scalpel out the shape of the mistake and peel it off its backing board. He would then make an identical shape on a spare piece of board, cut that out and burnish it down into the hole on the artwork and redraw the detail. As he told us, he wanted the editor to see the work exactly as it would appear in print.
Because the interview took the entire afternoon, it was decided we would do a second part another time, focusing on Frank’s later work. Sadly the opportunity never arose before his untimely death in 1976.
But there can be no doubt about Frank Bellamy’s world class status, though he would have laughed it off if he heard you mention such. Classic artists such as Flash Gordon‘s Al Williamson (below left) and Spain’s Esteban Maroto (below right) admitted to his influence and faced with any tricky visuals wouldn’t be above occasionally swiping a Bellamy pose.
Williamson, who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease and died in June 2010, had learned his craft when he moved to New York and was taught by Burne Hogarth. I discovered that Hogarth was also a Bellamy fan when I met him in 1972 at a Phil Seuling New York comic convention’s book launch and got him to sign two copies of his then new Tarzan of the Apes hardback.
Dedicating them, he asked what name for the second copy and when I replied “Frank Bellamy”, he asked if I meant the artist and then elaborated at length on how much he admired Frank’s work.
Needless to say, Frank was delighted when I got back and gave him the signed book. A huge western fan, he would have doubtless enjoyed Hogarth’s choice of bootlace ties too.
In true movie tradition, my girlfriend Niki had arranged a surprise 21st birthday party for me in 1972. She got my father down from Yorkshire, all my work chums knew, as did an assortment of friends from hither and yon. Among them were Frank and Nancy Bellamy (I remember Jim Baikie being pleased as punch to spend the evening at Frank’s table!).
So Frank produced a new water colour drawing as a present for me, of a gunslinger (left). Amazing, the best present (other than the surprise party itself) by far!
But every time anybody marvelled at his drawing that evening, Frank would admit he’d made a terrible mistake with it. He’d put the buckle on the gunbelt on backwards, so it wouldn’t work in reality, it would fall off (see close-up, right). Had my birthday been a few days later, I’m sure Frank would have completely redrawn it!
Nobody but Frank would have noticed of course, not even when a few years later I shared the piece with the world, as cover art on a Marvel UK special.
Afraid it’s a bit grainy, but the above photo from my 21st birthday bash shows some of the attendees. From left to right: Steve Moore, Frank Bellamy, Wendy Baikie, Nancy Bellamy and my dad, Roy Skinn.
Art portfolios were very much the order of the day during my time of editing Fantasy Advertiser. In issue 53, because we were all crazy about Toshira Mefune films and the Kung Fu craze had just hit, behind a “rising sun” cover I threw them both in together for the issue. Martin Asbury, at the time the Kung Fu artist on Look-In drew the Kwai Chang Caine intro page, while Keith Robson (who became artist on DC Thomson’s Jonah strip) showed his illustration ability with two Mefune visuals and Angus McKie went for a traditional samurai drawing. The portfolio header, courtesy of my girl friend of the time, was a rough translation of the words Fantasy and Advertiser into Japanese!
Below: Steve Parkhouse (who probably inspired the whole idea once I’d seen what he had done) let me run a great but unfinished wandering samurai strip he had been playing with while Denis Lee rounded out the portfolio with a Japanese-style piece of art.
So with Fantasy Advertiser #58, dated January 1976, my days of publishing fanzines ended. It had been an amazing nine years, I’d learned a lot – about planning out a magazine, about writing for an audience, about cashflow, basic printing and a lot more. And, as well as acquiring some great friends, I’d also built up an address book of some wonderful writers and artists who I would be working with on a somewhat more professional footing in the following years.
But there was also a new title I had launched during that last year of fanzines, one I would be returning to with a somewhat larger budget in the future…
Next section: Fanzines page two: Warrior: Take One