How It All Began…
I’d always wanted to work on adventure titles, but it took a while. A five-year stint at London’s IPC Magazines – then the world’s largest commercial publisher – was my training ground as a sub-editor and occasional scriptwriter. I’d arrived (fresh-faced from Doncaster Newspapers) as something of an oddity in the eyes of management – I actually cared about comics!
But I didn’t head straight to IPC. Their somewhat traditional Days-of-the-Empire approach didn’t appeal to this lad who’d been weaned off such in his youth onto the four-colour delights of American comics when they suddenly appeared in British newsagents. So I’d grown up devouring everything I could find, from Atlas/Marvel monster and cowboy comics to Charlton’s poorly printed war, westerns and sci-fi, from ACG’s invariably disappointing ghost and SF titles to Gold Key and Dell’s sugar-sweet humour and somewhat staid adventure line (always a letdown after drooling over their fabulous painted covers). Heck, if they were cheap enough on the local second-hand market stall, I even bought the somewhat banal Archie humour comics and insipid superhero titles and the dull but worthy Classics Illustrated. The excitement of seeing new piles to browse through was my ultimate high and the anticipation of discovering an unread gem unimaginable.
The market stall holder, another Derek, got to know me so well as a passionate buyer (who would return to his stall several times each market day of Wednesday and Saturday in case more gems had been brought in) that he kept any comics handed back in exchange for me to look through before putting them out on display. I was probably his best customer, but I couldn’t stop myself, I was addicted to the entire medium. And I never EVER took them back to him!
But in 1960 when US comics suddenly started to pop up over here (beginning with the November 1959 cover dated issues) , it was DC’s superhero fare which ruled my roost. They were so good I sometimes bought them at brand new cover price – no other publisher merited such an indulgence! As my purchases grew, so did my appetite, soon to embrace the “Marvel Age of Comics” but still retaining top spot for my first love of Superman, Batman and their Justice League buddies at DC. Years passed, but not my love for comics. Not that I was a nerd! Let’s dispel this myth with a couple of photos and a bit of background…
Outside of my passion for comicbooks, I had a pretty normal upbringing. At 16 I bought my first scooter (a Vespa 150 Sportique, for record keepers), by 17 I’d met my first love, Ann Dalby. Following school I did organic chemistry at college and became a laboratory assistant. First mistake. I failed in every lab, from metallurgy to general research, the lot. In fact I ended up as a human lab rat with them testing instant suntan lotions on me!
The director who had taken me on at Croda Chemcals, one Stan Cressey by name, was aware of my prolific fanzine output and discretely suggested I may be better suited to a career in journalism.
The Doncaster Evening Post may have thought so too, but after six months there, I wasn’t too sure (especially when the wind changed and blew the smell of the nearby DeMulders Fatty Acid Factory in our direction).
But a comic came to my rescue, a bizarre new British monthly fresh on the newsstands entitled Super DC, editorially produced by one Mick Anglo. See below for the (frighteningly similar) covers to the first six issues. One lesson I was soon to learn was that you NEVER produce similar consecutive covers. You vary the colour schemes and the content to make it abundantly clear to newsagent buyers that they haven’t already got that one.
Looking back, it’s not difficult to see why publisher Top Sellers Super DC monthly failed in its attempt to duplicate the success of British Marvel reprints, with covers which reflected the somewhat staid contents. It was a reprint title enhanced with a few text stories and non-related photo features, with editorial packager Mick cutting and pasting US proofs of Superman, Batman and friends with their nine frames a page into the larger UK format and squeezing in 12 to 15 then copying a few visuals to make up the cover. Little did I imagine how important both the publisher Top Sellers and the all-rounder Mick Anglo would be in my future!
But here was a comic that 20-year old me foolishly believed would benefit from my encyclopedic knowledge of DC. How could he refuse me? So I headed down to London, tracked down his office, offered my services… and he did. Refuse me, that is. But with far more grace than I later heard he had treated some people (one freelance artist retained memories of being forcibly ejected down a flight of stairs for decades after!).
Mick was essentially a one-man band, he’d cut and paste things up with a touch of redrawing where required, then bash out a feature or letters column to pad it all out. The last thing he needed was an eager young assistant.
So he sent me off to Marts Press, then publishers of the Gerry Anderson-themed TV 21 weekly comic. A bigger outfit, but again with no vacancies. They in turn suggested IPC/Fleetway who were so massive they must surely need staff.
By the time I reached their New Fleetway House (an imposing 1960s built six-floor monolith, complete with military-suited doorman and open reception area by two lifts), it was 5.30pm on a Friday. I was asked if I had an appointment and replied “No, but I’ve only come down from Yorkshire for the day so I can’t come back Monday!”
Somehow that worked and next thing I was being interviewed in a second floor office by assistant publisher Ken Roscoe, who I obviously baffled enough for him to pass me up to editorial director John Sanders so I could tell him more of my love of comics and the resultant fanzines I’d produced for the last five years.
Back then this was unheard of, to such an extent that a few other IPC staffers with a similar passion stayed quiet about it. But my comics fanzines, probably in conjunction with having worked on a provincial daily newspaper seemed to do the trick! I was about to move to London and work in comics!
IPC: Working in New Fleetway House
I was ecstatic… until they put me on Whizzer & Chips as a trainee sub-editor. For my fanzines, I’d taken on the northern abbreviation of the name Derek that a Hull girl friend had landed me with, Dez (the Southern equivalents being Del or even Dirk). When writing about comics it just seemed more comicbook-y than the rather dull-sounding Derek Skinn (when Derek Bogaerde became an actor, he soon abbreviated it for his stage name!).
In Steve Moore, a fellow Whizzer sub-editor, I had found at IPC a kindred spirit. But as Steve had only known me through fanzines, when he was asked by the section’s group editor Bob Paynter to give me the guided tour around the offices he proceeded to introduce me to everybody as “Dez Skinn” and I didn’t like to correct him, so the name stuck! Years later I was being interviewed and the journalist concluded by querying my name, saying it couldn’t be real. I went into a rant about it being my father’s fault and Skinn being an old Scandinavian name when he interrupted me, “No, it’s not your last name I had the problem with!”
IPC was quite a melting pot at that time. With an expansion due a lot of new young staff was being recruited to be trained up during those first few months that I was there. So this lad from Goole found himself surrounded by a talented and international band of nascent creatives in a South African (Jimmy Hansen), a Welshman (Rob Lee), a Fijian (Graham Corbett) and fellow editorial bod Steve Parkhouse, fresh back from working in the States, for Marvel no less.
It was a steep learning curve for us all, working on boys’ papers. Yes, papers – not comics. They were never ever called by such a demeaning name. A holdover from the pre-war days obviously, from an era when most of the pages would have been illustrated text. Even on the printed page you’d never hardly see the word comic, whether an IPC/Fleetway title or a DC Thomson one. These were boys’ papers full of picture stories (or “jam-packed with exciting picture stories!” I should say). In fact, it sometimes got abbreviated even further. If you bumped into a sub you hadn’t seen recently, while queueing at Florrie’s Trolly for your elevensies, you’d be prone to ask “Which paper are you on now?”. Should they reply, “Ted Bensberg’s,” you knew they were doomed. Ted, an ex-Sergeant with the Royal Signals Corps, ran the Picture Libraries department, those nifty little 68-page digest titles like Thriller Picture Library, War at Sea, Air Ace and War Picture Library. But if anybody ended up in that elephant’s graveyard, you knew they’d made some colossal cock-up and were serving penance as most of the titles were reprints – deemed impossible for even the worst trainee to mess up! In fact they were so tucked away that in five years at IPC I never actually came across their offices.
There were also stacks of forbidden words, ones which should never make it into print, no matter how well-used they were in reality. Obviously no profanity or blasphemy (so Crikey! and Blimey! were out) but also no contemporary slang – we were trying to set a good example to that generation’s kiddie-winks after all. Besides, while adventure stories had their natural environment, World War II, outer space, wherever, humour strips were in a timeless period. Children all had neat and tidy hairstyles and wore short trousers, policemen still walked the beat without backup, or if mobilised rode bicycles, while teachers were never seen without their gowns and mortar boards. This of course made it jolly useful if an artist missed a deadline and you had to run with a reprint (the rule being that such had to be at least five years old, by which time the entire readership was believed to have turned over).
But the most important rule of all was to avoid two words, flick and Clint. So no references to flick-knives or Clint Eastwood in British comics, no siree bob. The reason was simple, most comics were printed letterpress, where fine lines would either blob out or disappear entirely and the space between letters often fill in. That’s why you invariably saw exclamation marks instead of full stops, punctuation was paramount and you’d no guarantee a lettered full stop would survive the presses.
But “flick”? Like “Clint” with lettering always created in upper case, the gap between the “L” and the “I” had a tendency to fill in, creating the appearance of a “U”. It became a regularly used expression among trainees if somebody was getting on your nerves, “Flick off, clint!” Tut-tut!
Naturally enough, I wanted more than a life of blue pencilling the work of others. I was quietly ambitious so I soon began submitting scripts to Bob Paynter. The additional freelance income would come in handy too! But for almost a year it was not to be. Bob said he liked my scripts, but they weren’t the humour of the 8-year old average reader. They were too clever. Eventually I started to get a few £4.50 freelance cheques coming though, once I dumbed the level down enough to suit Bob, much to the detriment of my social life. It was difficult to readjust out of work once I’d got it right – some who’ve heard my sense of humour might argue I never did! Here are a few examples of my early scripting fare (kicking off with a fanboy crossover for the kiddies between a Whizz-kid and a Chipite in Angel Face & Dare Devil)…
With the 1970 launch of Cor!! I was moved over to the new title. I think everybody was amazed by the choice of title. IPC had a strict “offend nobody” policy with its kids comics and blasphemy of any sort was a definite no-no. The Cockney slang word “cor” – as in “cor, blimey!” – derives from “God, blind me” so, unbelievably, the puritanical and mighty IPC was actually launching a nationally distributed comic named GOD!!
We were so tickled by this that a private mock-up was produced with GOD!! as the title logo, the free lemonade powder cover mounted gift receiving the revised text of “Have a drink on God”.
Among the contributors to Cor!! were Alf Saporito, who drew the cover star Gus Gorilla (from issue 2) and Brian Lewis, artist on Tomboy. Both would shine brightly for an older audience a few years later when I assigned them to producing cover paintings for MAD and House of Hammer.
With no exclusivity clause in its contracts of employment, as I became a more confident writer of humour strips, it meant I could begin to augment my salary with outside freelance work.
Four years and almost 200 issues later, Cor!! was merged into Buster, boosting the latter’s circulation considerably and taking me away from Bob Paynter to Sid Bicknell, the group’s assistant managing editor and head honcho of Valiant and the newly retitled Buster & Cor!!
This also meant I was no longer working in the monolith that was New Fleetway House, but in the adjacent converted Victorian hotel replete with wrought iron lift cages and a beautiful marble floored foyer. With its old bedrooms now offices, this was the original Fleetway House, home of comics since the 1920s!
Buster: Subbing the Son of Andy Capp
In the 1960s, before the mighty IPC was created out the the merger of rival publishers Odhams, Hulton, Amalgamated Press/Fleetway and George Newnes, each had its own comics divisions. One of the market leaders was Fleetway, who used “Five Star Weekly” as a branding for its titles. In May 1960 Fleetway launched a new large format weekly comic: Buster, subtitled Son of Andy Capp.
This came as a total surprise to Reg Smythe, the man behind for the amazingly popular Andy Capp strip, which had appeared in the Daily Mirror and Sunday Mirror since 1957. A loveable yet sexist boozing good-for-nothing Northerner, Andy’s name was a pun on “handicap” – a fine role model for the star of a children’s comic!
Although Andy had a few brief cameos in the strip’s early days, when Smythe quite justifiably maintained it was an infringement, the sub-title and all references to Buster’s dad were dropped. But Andy Capp’s ever-tolerant wife Flo continued to appear throughout the decades as Buster’s mum – obviously she wasn’t part of Smythe’s copyright! The title character was initially drawn by Hugh McNeill, before a decades-long stint by Bardon Art’s Nadal and finally the South African now Brighton-based artist Jimmy Hansen. Buster went on to outlast all other IPC humour weeklies, ending in 2000.
OK, the above might not be the funniest gag ever to appear in Buster, but I adored the character (another Baxendale creation of course) and loved getting the opportunity to write it, even when only a three-frame filler! And I still love Nelly, so here’s another one…
Made it up to a half page that time, so I’d have earned a extra two pounds or so that week! Somehow don’t think anybody would get away with a gag like that these days though, ending in somebody just screaming “You hear me? Fat! Fat! Fat!!”.
Somewhat frustrated by Sid’s hands-on approach, titular editor Len Wenn was old school. He would often tell me how adventure strip script-writing was being dumbed down to reach an ever-younger audience. Buster‘s gradual move away from adventure serials to an increasing number of self-contained single page gag strips underlined his belief.
As with Whizzer and Cor!! we had a lot to juggle. With 24 strips per issue, each with its own writer, artist, letterer and for some colourist, we were having to monitor no less than 75 elements a week, approving then chasing and checking them through, 52 weeks a year. On top of this, we had annuals, specials and the occasional spin-off. With sales in the region of 250,000 a week, the responsibility of getting everything in on time was a steep learning curve in the importance of deadline-keeping.But with Len focusing primarily on the scripts and me on the art and lettering, it soon became repetitious and creatively stifling. I’d taken on the role of IPC NUJ FoC (that’s the National Union of Journalists’ Father of Chapel, or union head at IPC Juveniles as the group was known) to add spice to my role and help get me noticed in a sea of subs but I craved more.
Getting to work with such icons of British comics humour as Leo Baxendale and Ken Reid was a highpoint though, even if most of the time it was only phoning them up to chase them or check their finished art had been mailed that week.
You have to realise that in such simpler times, weekly comics were statistic nightmares. With the exception of drinking and cavorting buddy Johnny Aldrich, letterers were freelancers. none of whom lived “around the corner”. We were in London EC4, the heart (or heart bypass) of the city. Johnny for instance lived in Bellingham, deep in south east London so without his own desk in Fleetway House, he’d only have picked up artwork once or twice a week like everybody else. These guys got a meagre enough fee per page as it was, without spending unnecessary hours commuting.One uncredited claim to fame of Johnny’s was in helping start a future comics laureate on his career trajectory. Dave Gibbons was at the time, around 1971, producing comics strips for my fanzines (Eureka and Fantasy Advertiser) which I’d maintained publishing in my spare hours. Dave often bounced into our open plan office, greeting all and sundry with a loud “Wotcher!”, a wave and a big smile, as he delivered his latest amateur and unpaid artwork. Starting out as a would-be all-rounder, Dave would come up with a story, draw it up and then letter it. But king of the patch paper paste-up Johnny wasn’t terribly impressed with Dave’s lettering, which was done straight on to the art boards.
Almost drowning him with quick fire questions, Johnny asked, “How do you manage corrections if it’s not on patch?”, “What size nibs are you using?”, “Why aren’t you ruling pencil line guides?”, “What size line gaps are you leaving?”, “How are you doing the balloon shapes?” and so forth. Heart-on-his-sleeve Dave was visibly deflated until Johnny offered to show Dave how it’s really done.
When Whizzer & Chips editor Bob Paynter was on holiday a few weeks later, I gave Dave what was possibly his industry break… lettering a single page funny. Fortunately lost in the mists of time it wasn’t that good. In fact, Bob Paynter almost fired me over it.
For the record, the unmarried and carefree Johnny Aldrich seriously knew how to have a good time! Many was the occasion a naive young Yorkie ventured down to the dodgy drinking haunts of London SE6, caught up in Johnny’s slipstream as this lettering lothario charmed the pants of many a one-night stand.
Of course, when the initial small-talk question of “So what do you do as a job?” arose, he NEVER admitted filling in speech balloons with tidy little letters. On no, a writer – that’s what Johnny was!
And, like everybody else around that time, Johnny was in a band. Along with IPC stalwarts Alan Kirkham, Roger Noel Cook (who was so pleased with his new red Pontiac that it became the prop for the photo-shoot) and a couple of other guys, they called themselves Stud Leather. I remember one afternoon we were all dragged into Roger’s office to listen to his transistor. He’d been tipped that his band was going to be on a BBC Radio One show. We waited the full 90 minutes without hearing them. But I don’t think anybody else ever did either.
For posterity, below is Stud Leather, desperately trying to look cool. Roger, who ended up a successful music producer out in Marbella 40 years later, is the leather boiler suit-clad guy in shades, Alan is “Mister Wing Collars” while Johnny is wearing the striped roll neck. Far out, lads!
And left is a photobooth shot of the lad himself, hard at work on his latest conquest. Johnny proved an interesting teacher but I fear I soon got tarred by the same brush…
You have to understand the times… very early 1970s, still caught up in the swinging sixties, summer of love and all that… and here were half-a-dozen or more fresh recruits from around the world (South Africa, Fiji, Wales and Yorkshire, to name but four), all single, all shall we say… eager. So on the extremely rare occasion a young female was hired into our ranks, we all perked up.
The office junior was a rather pretty Cockney female, but as she was prone to uttering such gems (to me) as “Eeeya, say som’ink in Yorksha!” and “Eeeya, is it true all you Yorksha people ‘ave to ‘ave ‘olidays the same week?” beyond a curt “Aye, lass, ‘appen. Tha’s all in t’same factory up yon!” she was pretty much ignored.
But then, summer of 1970 I think it was, a stunning lass from up north joined us, following a successful interview with managing editor Jack LeGrand. And when I discovered she too was a fan of the Incredible String Band, I leaped in and asked her out (to see them at the London Palladium, no less). “Oh, no,” she rebuffed me. “Mr LeGrand warned me to stay away from you and John Aldrich.” Curses, foiled!
…But she did end up marrying another one of our team, which is nice.
Working with Comic Royalty: Leo Baxendale and Ken Reid
An amusing incident during my Buster days was to do with Leo Baxendale, at the time drawing Clever Dick and his daft dog Napoleon (he maintains this is apocryphal, but it’s a great story anyway)…
One day a parcel arrived on my desk, with Leo’s distinctive writing on the wrapper. But it certainly wasn’t his latest Clever Dick artwork, which would always be folded down into single banks with the envelope being a long thin affair. This was bulkier and softer. Upon opening, it turned out to have a pair of trousers in it! Leo was promptly phoned and asked why he’d sent a pair of trousers to Buster, to which he replied, “Oh dear. I must have sent Clever Dick to the dry cleaners!” Some wheezes are worth giving a contributor the extra deadline time!
One inspired deadline cruncher that Leo certainly did think up was the “diary” wheeze. Because his artwork would stay in production for a few extra days after he’d mailed it in, needing to be lettered, if it could arrive pre-lettered he’d have more breathing space. So just about every one of his ideas sooner or later featured a diary or notebook gag, one where the strip’s star would appear to have written the corner boxes and speech balloons in his or her childish writing – something Leo could easily add.
In fact, he even took it one stage further and produced some strips where the hero seemingly drew the story himself – that must have saved a few hours at the drawing board. Inspired, Leo!
Unlike most humour artists, but like Leo, Ken was an all-rounder. He almost always wrote and drew his strips, instead of merely visualising somebody else’s ideas. Left is a self portrait of the Pendlebury pen-pusher himself, from the episode of Dare-A-Day Davy in Pow! and Wham! No. 75 (June 22nd, 1968).
Every week his finished art would arrive, half the board devoid of ink but crammed with his suggested script, pencilled into the gaps for the letterer to ink over. Reams of text, usually far smaller than the standard lettering size… so Ken could cram in multitudes of colorful adjectives and idiosyncratic turns of phrase which, under orders, would be rubbed out and replaced with more simple prose before the letterer would see it. Oh, and SCRUNCH – Ken’s onomatopoeia to accompany Faceache’s warping into something monstrous. Me, I much preferred SCRUNGE. It somehow sounded more evil. So I dutifully changed it every week. No idea if the next generation of subs did likewise, but Ken never did.
Looking back, I see that Ken was right. SCRUNCH was actually more accurate, it meaning the noise made in crushing something. Whereas I’m embarrassed to admit SCRUNGE is defined as a frightening amount of pubic hair, as in “Woah, too much body noodles – I really need to shave my scrunge!”. (Hangs head in shame for teaching kids such words.)
As a sideline, in my evenings off Buster I used to import a few US horror magazines and distribute them around the few comics shops which existed in the UK back then. Among them was a little 1973 oneshot collecting some of Basil Wolverton’s freakiest creations, GJDRKZLXCBWQ Comics.
Looking at it, I immediately thought of Ken’s work and took a copy in to my editor Lennox Wenn. “I think Ken Reid would love this guy’s stuff, so I’m going to send him a copy.” I beamed.
“Oh, no. Please don’t,” Len replied with a groan. “He’s difficult enough as it is!”But trying to stay on top of all the individual pieces of artwork and lettering which would appear in Buster each week was seriously tough. Excellent training for the future, but seriously tough work for a title’s young sub-editor. Making sure that each script (all 24!) got to the artist on time. And that their artwork for the previous issue came back in on time. Then out to the letterer and the last week’s back from them… Working simultaneously on different production stages of four issues meant having 96 plates to keep spinning all the time. Every week. 52 weeks a year.
So any given week, I’d be phoning each of them to check their artwork would be on my desk the following morning so that when John Richardson, Jack Potter, John Aldrich or any of the rest of IPC’s army of letterers came in to deliver last week’s work and to collect next week’s, there’d be something to give them. Seriously tough.
Outside of the jolly japes of Fleetway House, there wasn’t much fun to be had in the UK in the early 1970s. There was a huge oil crisis and consequently an electricity shortage. Britain was struggling with massive inflation, its economy in tatters.
Edward Heath’s Conservative government tried capping pay rises which prompted militant action from the trade unions, worsening the fuel shortage as miners went on strike. In an attempt to reduce fuel consumption, in December 1973 Heath introduced “the three day Work Order” or three-day week. Suddenly offices would have rotating skeleton staffs, with each person only being present three days out of five.
The restoration of the normal working week was announced four months later, on March 8 1974, the day that Charles de Gaulle airport opened in France, but that final day was to prove memorable for a very different reason for the trimmed-down Buster boys.
Because Keith Robson and I were the only ones due in that Friday, Keith had the inspired idea to introduce me to one of his passions, war gaming. He arrived at the office with his full Napoleonic army and Wellington’s counter-force and we pushed our desks together to make a suitable battlefield. We’d been playing for about two hours when there was a sound like thunder and the office shook. I joked about Keith obviously having God on his side in our battle but he pointed out what appeared to be snow falling outside the window.
When we rushed outside we were witness to carnage probably not seen since the 1940 London blitz. Fleetway House was only 600 feet away from the Old Bailey law courts, which had just been the target of the first of the IRA car bomb campaigns in London. Like many other buildings, the Barclay Bros sandwich bar adjacent to our offices had its huge plate-glass windows blown out and, accompanied by the sounds of emergency services claxons, there were lots of people injured by the flying glass and debris everywhere.
When we returned to the office, we quietly packed the war games away.
Around 1973 art agent Barry Coker of Barcelona and London based Bardon Art (hence the name) called me to his offices above Barclay Brothers with somewhat of a prophetic idea. As well as his stable of brilliant Spanish artists, he had added quite a few up and coming Brits including Brian Bolland and Dave Gibbons. Possibly because of their love of US titles and knowing I had the same passion, while it was a market totally alien to Barry, he saw the States as a potential new market. His idea was that I would run it for him, as a Stateside branch to Bardon (Bardonica? Amerbardon? Bardonus? The mind fairly boggles!).
Like most things, it came to nothing. At least for Barry and me it came to nothing. Brian and Dave did quite well there a few years later though.
To train staff and to keep titles fresh (or to minimise anything dodgy going on) it was IPC policy to move the sub-editors and art bods around from one title to another every couple of years. Frustrating for the individual, but advantageous for the company. When I started working on Buster, the art editor was a very talented erotic fantasy artist in his own right, Bill (“Keep Your Hand on Your Ha’Penny”) Ward, and his assistant was Yvonne Cash. But both were moved across for new launch Walt Disney’s Now I Know where they were joined by Helen Vintner as sub-editor and Paul Cemmick as second art assistant. Because of our friendship I ended up as a victim in an early reader participation page.
Letters pages, joke pages and the like have to be jump-started in new titles. Because most weeklies are produced at least four issues ahead of on-sale date, the earliest any reader should have anything in print is issue 5. But if nobody knows there will be a jokes page or letters page nobody will write in. Catch-22. Easily solved by getting the subs to make the first batch up to both set the tone and encourage genuine ones. Can’t remember which, but one girls’ paper timed it totally wrong with letters in its first issue saying how great this new title was. Oops!
But one should never underestimate how seriously these young readers took their weekly comics.
One week at Buster we got a letter in which a reader said how worried he was, because Spoilsport hadn’t looked very well in that week’s issue, adding that he hoped he’d get better soon.
What had happened was we’d had to run a stand-in artist’s work while the regular artist was on holiday.
That reader was obviously an art critic in the making.
Current SFX contributor Paul Cemmick’s apprenticeship was a few doors away from mine, alongside Hellie Vintner on Walt Disney’s Now I Know. But he found he had to contribute more than merely art bodging! Readers believed in the title so much that some would phone the office and ask to speak to Mickey Mouse. As Paul was the only one who could manage the squeaky falsetto, he’d be given the phone and have to be Mickey for a few minutes. Sadly, nobody could do Donald Duck, so any readers asking for him would be told he had gone to the toilet!
It may sound like a script from one of the old comics, but in the early part of 1975 the media reported there may be a sugar shortage looming. This led to such panic buying and hoarding that the shortage actually happened. Because we all had sweet teeth back then this created great consternation in the Buster offices. At least for some of us.
Sid Bicknell had a private stash in his office (exhibit A, right) while Bill Ward’s art replacement, Bill Reid, commuted by train every day and would pinch sugar lumps from the buffet car. That’s what he’s probably bragging about (left). We mere subs and bodgers had to go without.
But Sid was the toughest of taskmasters. I used to dread Thursday mornings, when the issue’s proofs arrived. I’d dutifully take them into his office, then wait for the call. He was only in the next office, nestled between Buster and Valiant editorial, with an adjoining door to each and would bellow at the top of his longs “DESMOND, bring the proofs, lad”.
With the exception of Buster editor Len Wenn, who was probably older than him, he called us all “lad”, managing to magic up an amazing amount of condescension into a mere three-letter word. He also knew my name wasn’t Desmond, but this was his ever-formal way. He was a man who arranged his desk’s pencils in order of height, who continually shuffled papers straight like a TV newsreader finishing a broadcast, whose desk only ever had a maximum of three or four things on it at any given time. And that would include his coffee mugs and pencils. A tightly suited and booted Brylcreem-coated stickler of the first order.
I’d turned up for work one day in an orange tee shirt and purple loons (they were hip-hugging flared trousers, for those not in the know) and Sid promptly told me that was not the attire expected of employees.
So, the proofs… on the Thursday 11:00 am ritual humiliation hour. I’d have presented Sid with his set an hour earlier and now he would call me in. Sid would have his set, laid out in front of him, I’d bring in mine. He’d sigh. He’d always sigh. In fact I don’t think I’ve ever known anybody who could sigh quite like Sid. If he were a comics character himself, the strips would be called Sid’s Sighs, and the least of them would be able to blow down a forest.
After three or four such weary expelations of breath, Sid would look up at me, facing him across his shiny empty desk, my eyebrows raised in fearful expectation. He’d plonk (good verb that, way too underused) the proofs down and speak. “Desmond.” (Dramatic pause, me dying to say “Yes Sidney?” but not daring.) “Do you know how far it is to Dundee, lad?”
This was his oft-used standard opener, his King’s pawn before-the-flood tease. For those not in the know, if you worked in comics back then, you were either in London England at IPC, or Dundee Scotland at DC Thomson. So maybe it was more of a galloping Rook attack than a mere pawn shuffle. But enough with the chess metaphors. Another gust of exasperation would follow, then, “Open the proofs, lad. Page four.” (for example).
I’d slowly re-read page four. I’d have already read it at least twice, when the lettering came in a fortnight earlier then that morning, in proof form. Obviously I’d spot nothing I’d not seen before. So I’d look up, a pathetic Oliver Twist-like face, wanting more…
The ritual humiliation would then proceed along the following lines (I know because after oh-so-many mind-numbing weekly sessions, it’s deeply ingrained in me): “Second bank,” says Sgt-Major Sid, more in breathy fake frustration than voice.
“Bank” is part of the terminology begun in “boys’ papers” decades earlier, when pages were rigorously divided into four wide strips – banks – of three picture visuals – frames – with text – libretto – below each.
So I’d scour the second bank, mentally reading each word at the slow childlike pace I’d relearned, breaking each word into single syllables rather than the speedier word shape recognition that adults use.
Being basic letterpress printing, courtesy of IPC having acquired such creaky old printers as Odhams Watford and Fleetway Gravesend in their acquisition of various printer/publishers to create this publishing behemoth, proofs were a very messy sight. The plates they’d been run off from had picked up every impure grain in the artboards and various shadows from whiting out or patchpaper and title logo outlines. Each and every blemish was ringed in red with a line leading to one of those fancy Greek delta symbols (meaning delete) in the margin The end product somewhat resembles a cross between Clapham Junction train lines and the face of Spotty from The Bash Street Kids.
But still nada. Not spotted a thing. So I’d look up once more, my eyes pleading for mercy. But to no avail.
“Frame two, Desmond,” breathed Sid.
Horror? At IPC/Fleetway? Surely Not!
Despite the in-house rule that nobody under the age of 30 would be given editorship of a weekly, I felt I’d spotted a hole in the market and dummied up a new title, Chiller. Whether humour or adventure, horror strips (Rent-A-Ghost, Freddie Fang, Maxwell Hawke…) had always topped the weekly popularity charts that subs had to assemble from readers’ votes, so I felt a dedicated weekly would be a definite goer.
Observing protocol, I put the Chiller concept to editor Len, who passed it upstairs to assistant managing editor Sid Bicknell, who in turn handed it up to managing editor Jack LeGrand (who became known as Jack LeFortyGrand when he took early retirement). He passed it up to assistant publisher Ken Roscoe, who in turn told editorial director John Sanders. John put it to the board of directors and the result was then passed back down the line. Whew!
The weekly Chiller idea went upstream, what came back down was the annual Buster Book of Spooky Stories. Despite massive disappointment, and having cut my teeth putting together a couple of Buster spin-off summer specials, I managed to produce two such annuals before feeling I needed to escape from the hidebound institution of IPC Magazines.
Mentioning annuals, these generally hardbacked specials were a major earner for the company, explaining why for years after a weekly had been dispatched, its bumper annual edition would still be published. They were mainly made up of reprints, at least five years old because it was accepted that you had a complete turnover in readership by that time. But the annuals were a totally different shape to the weeklies, which were produced according to the size of the presses that IPC owned (at Fleetway Gravesend, Odhams Watford and so on). Outdated letterpress printers, they had first refusal on new launches and it was only when they were at capacity that outside printers, invariably far superior and usually more competitive, were brought in (on such titles as Speed and Starlord). This resulted in most of the line being time-locked antiquated-looking comics, operating under an arguably false economy of maintaining the IPC printers’ viability despite damaging the actual product. I dared question this situation once and was quickly reminded that my job was editorial!
The new material for these annuals was commissioned with an equally bizarre logic: writers and artists were paid by the frame rather than the page. So, as annuals had only six pictures a page as opposed to the slightly larger weeklies having 12, IPC got each page at half price! Naturally, the already hard-pressed weekly contributors wouldn’t work for such a rate, so what little new material the high profit annuals contained was by new and untested creatives and invariably below the usual standard. And then there were the reprints…
Fleetway House, along with the rest of that part of London EC4, had been built above the subterranean River Fleet – hence its naming, plus Fleet Street and the like. The largest of London’s underground rivers, it has been mentioned by many authors including Ben Jonson’s poem On the Famous Voyage, Bernard Cornwell (in Sharpe’s Escape), Dorothy L. Sayers’ final Lord Peter Wimsey novel (Thrones, Dominations), Christopher Fowler (The Water Room) and on TV in Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere and Doctor Who’s The Talons of Weng-Chiang.
Naturally, it is tidal and in part is only 40 feet below ground. Were you to build above it, a basement would be risky. A sub-basement would be nothing short of foolhardy. But Fleetway House had a sub-basement,where the overworked Bas Spratley and Martin Morgan grafted away. Their exhausting task was to file the red canvas- covered bound volumes produced of each title every six months and all of the original art.
“All of the original art” might not sound like a lot, until you consider what it entails… About a dozen weekly boys’ comics plus four of five weekly girls’ titles with 30 pages per issue for starters. And let’s not forget that these strips were one or at most two pages each, so that’s 500 pages with almost each page needing to be slotted into its own separate section, grouped that way for ease of access when reprinting came around. Add around six educational and nursery weeklies and 10 monthly picture libraries (with 64 pages in each) and the total really grows. By my reckoning, that’s a tad short of 50,000 pages per year plus all the annual and summer special content! It was a very large sub-basement.
But it flooded every four years (without fail). So every four years (without fail) the urgent mandate would come down to Bas and Martin to move the volume binders up to the basement, and if they had time, save as much of the original art as possible. Then, when the flooding had subsided and the floor had dried out, they would religiously move everything back down there. Sheer madness.
I witnessed this first hand when I went down to retrieve the ER Cruz artwork for The Pillater Peril and Eric Bradbury’s Maxwell Hawke to recycle in The Buster Book of Spooky Stories. Fortunately, unlike the rarely needed Eagle artwork, these had been stored on higher shelves and had survived intact. At least, intact until our art department had to cut and slice them up to fit the proportions of an annual.
Yes, expense was spared back then! No photo-prints for hacking and slashing could be ordered. Instead, art assistants would attempt to match the linework of some of the best adventure artists as they chopped up the originals, stuck them on new board and added an inch or so to the top or bottom, or left or right, of each bank of pictures to make them fit. And this wasn’t even freelance work, they had to produce the annuals and specials in-house, on top of the regular 52 weekly issues!
I recently heard that when IPC Juveniles moved buildings to King’s Reach Tower there was no room for all the old artwork in their shiny new headquarters. So Bas, Martin and the most-likely-to-be-reused originals (along with the bound volumes) were relocated to a small warehouse in deepest darkest Deptford, London SE8. The rest, spanning over 60 years? It was piled into black binliner bags and thrown into skips.
But word got out and apparently several astute comics historians cum dealers, on hearing from concerned employees that this was about to happen, asked management if they could simply take the pages away. They were advised, possibly because IPC even back then wasn’t 100% sure it legally owned the originals, that couldn’t possibly happen. But were they to take the binbags out of the skip once they’d been dumped – that was fine! Unbelievable – you just can’t make up anything this insane!
And where did it all finally go wrong for the mighty IPC Magazines comics division? Well, outside of the all the political shenanigans between IPC, Maxwell and Egmont, below is a visual to give you a clue. From the early days when comics were firm sale (ie: the newsagent ordered ten, he paid for ten) and there were no unsold returns to act as a retail safety net, IPC matched and dispatched any weeklies which fell below a quarter of a million sales PER ISSUE!
Heady days. But it meant that each title could afford a full editorial staff of four trained journalists and designers. Plus they paid for the company’s ancilliary staff in such departments as production, competitions (yes, it had its own department – 2000 AD‘s first editor Kelvin Gosnell had previously laboured there for years!), central art (responsible for all those wonderful title logos and occupying the entire sixth floor of Old Fleetway House), advertising, colouring, promotions and the like.
And the quality and tender loving care showed in the end product. Even with the creaky old letterpress printers Fleetway Gravesend and Odhams Watford, the subtlety of Joe Colquhoun’s water colour art on the 1956 Roy of the Rovers cover strip was glorious (pic 1, below).
That it ended looking so crude and garish in 1985 (its final year, pic 9) is a perfect example of how dumbing down to readers is always fatal. And perhaps a perfect example of how the sole survivor of that era, 2000 AD, refusing vehemently to dumb down is still in print to this day.
If more proof is required, may I submit: The Eagle. Despite all that photo-strip nonsense, the revived bastion of British brilliance did include the ever-amazing Ian Kennedy painting the Pilot of the Future. But the printing? Oh dear…
From class to crass: At IPC, printing could suddenly switch from a commercial outside company to an old-fashioned in-house company, just to keep the IPC presses running at full capacity. Well, who else would pay for such horrible printing on such nasty paper? After all, the kids wouldn’t notice (oh, really?) and doesn’t everybody love a spud gun…
I have just learned that IPC dropped the quality of that bastion of British comics The Eagle to make way on the litho presses for an experimental photo-strip girls’ comic, Princess. Throwing the baby out with the bathwater, the experiment failed and Princess was matched and dispatched into Tammy six months later.
Showing how they were flailing around blindly, only one week after dumbing down Eagle, the mold-breaking forerunner to 2000 AD, Battle, succumbed to being transformed into a toyline promotional comic as Battle Action Force. Was time running backwards at IPC?
Quick – let’s move on to more positive stuff…
Next section: Warner Bros/Williams