WARNER BROS (WILLIAMS)Back to… »Page one: Making Magic, MAD and Monster Mag
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Getting on track with The House of Hammer
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For the initial board presentation about starting a horror magazine, I was still working with my original Chiller title. I’d mocked up a very rough dummy to visually back up my pitch, taking one of the old Skywald US horror magazine covers and slapping a new title logo on it.
Possibly because of the company having had a positive experience with their short-lived Psycho and Nightmare reprints and off the back of Monster Mag doing well, I got the green light so I scurried back to my office to develop it further.
Looking back, it’s hard to believe it didn’t occur to me earlier. Every lunchtime I would stroll down Wardour Street to my chosen pub, walking past Rank Film Distributors and Hammer House… Hammer House? The home of Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy and all the rest? Why on earth did I want to name the magazine Chiller?
The thought excited me so I went without lunch and quickly stuck together another mock-up cover, cutting up a Marvel Dracula title this time, but with the new logo: The House of Hammer. The use of their name hadn’t been approved yet, but you always start with a visual, it helps focus your thoughts. Having a cool title helps too!
As an aside, Artist Adrian Salmon recently asked why I chose Dracula AD 1972 – nowhere near Hammer’s first Dracula film – for a cover mention on the dummy. Answer: Because it fitted. This was a Letraset and marker pen mock-up, so I cheated! For all I knew it would never happen, so save those problems for later.
I sometimes wonder how much money is put into creating new titles these days. House of Hammer can’t have cost more than three cut-up magazines and a bit of cow gum! But it did the trick.
So after a successful presentation to the directors, a meeting was set up between us and Hammer Films. An amazing bit of happenstance was that our publishing consultant Dick Kravitz had a daughter who shared a flat with the son of Hammer Films’ managing director Michael Carreras. Not the most important factor, but a damn good omen!
Present at the meeting, held in Hammer House, were Michael Carraras and his script editor Chris Wicking (best known for having previously scripted Scream and Scream Again and later to co-write Absolute Beginners). On the other side of the table Dick Kravitz, me and the mock-up dummy. But within minutes, before Dick, Michael or I could speak, Chris floored everybody by saying Hammer should be “in good hands with Dez”! Apparently Chris was a comics fan and had been a regular reader of my Fantasy Advertiser fanzine (which I’d only ceased producing a year earlier) and he appreciated both my work and my passion. Amazing. So it was an instant done deal. From that meeting Chris, who sadly passed away in 2008, became a firm friend with us wasting many a lunchtime in local pubs discussing the intricacies of cinema and comics!
Now the work really got under way. It was one thing cutting and pasting together a dummy – now we had to produce the real thing, to a deadline! I’d had my heart set on a nice painted cover, to add a touch of class beyond the invariably small choice of often-seen film stills available. Only problem was that all the colour artists I knew specialised in humour.
Then one of the guys in the office mentioned a painter he knew who had done some heavy metal LP sleeve art and SF book covers, US-born London resident Joe Petagno. They say your first is your worst, because of lack of experience, and sadly this was true with House of Hammer. Joe did a fine job of it, but it wasn’t quite the look I was after. The cover was presented at the next board meeting, much to the dismay of the sales director, John Gibbins. “Red and yellow” was John’s clarion call. To him, these were the ultimate selling colours for a cover. “But this is a HORROR magazine, John. Green and black are nice and creepy…”. “Red and yellow sells!” came the reply. But I was totally outvoted, so red and yellow it became. That was the last time I showed any cover layouts to the directors.
As for the contents, the features part was easy to fill. Having assembled a talented team of film buff writers on Monster Mag, I was able to give them far more space in this 48-page magazine than in the 8-page single side of a poster mag. Special effects expert John Brosnan (the worst person to sit next to at a screening – he would constantly want to point out back projection and glass shots while you were trying to watch a film) launched his Effectively Speaking column, while fellow Aussie Barry Pattison (author of The Seal of Dracula) began his Horror around the World column.
My girlfriend’s old college chum, John Fleming, loved Spanish and Italian horror so he was more than pleased to contribute. Tise Vahimagi was an ex-Cardiff friend of old IPC colleague Rob Lee and proved to be a walking encyclopedia of film, so he was another worthy addition. As was old IPC and fanzines comrade Steve Moore, who came on board to write the Dracula tie-in vampire overview feature, Drinkers of Blood… Stealers of Souls. In addition we had the inevitable news section Media Macabre (complete with a sneaky plug for The Monster Times which I was more-than-coincidentally importing and distributing around specialist shops at the time) and the feature section was rounded off with an exhaustive Christopher Lee filmography.
Historian Denis Gifford – who I’d previously worked with on Whizzer & Chips where Denis had been wearing his cartoonist head – came aboard with issue 2. Denis was a huge fan of the early days of horror films, so his book-in-chapter form Golden Age of Horror was a natural, as was the soon-to-follow History of Hammer.
I borrowed Game Magazine‘s Graham Marsh to create the design look for this launch issue, while Parade‘s Dave Ashmore produced the finished layouts and BrownWatson’s John Barraclough took the associate editor title. The reason for all this pinch-hitting is simple, unlike IPC’s extravagant approach – where you have a full staff from day one – Williams realised that only some of the new titles would succeed, so they didn’t want to commit to having a dedicated staff until they saw some sales figures!
So why comics in a film magazine? We now would call it the USP, the unique selling point. But back then, it meant I could combine my twin loves of comics and films and hopefully reach two audiences by having enough to appeal to each. Sure, I’d considered the Italian fumetti approach, photo-strips. There’d even been a precedent for such in America a decade earlier. But if anything, that warned me off from taking such a path…
Famous Monsters of Filmland publisher Jim Warren had published this back in 1964. OK, wasn’t bad. Lots of great photos, albeit not the best example of sequential storytelling and sometimes blurry and out of focus. But the overabundance of sound effects showed that as with the pun-riddled Famous Monsters, Warren had little respect for horror film material appealing to anybody over the age of 12.
But sales warranted more and quickly showed the weakness in using this format…
I mean, really? From classic Hammer films directed by Terence Fisher to a Del Tenney B-movie, which he himself described as “a take-off on beach parties and musicals”. Considered by many to be the worst horror film of all time!
And the cheesy 1956 last gasp at horror from Universal… The Mole People? Hardly worthy of Warren’s series title “Famous Films”. And those sound effects everywhere. Arrrgh! Shame on art director Wally Wood!
Who can say why Warren jumped from an old Hammer classic double to a then contemporary teen musical spoof and then Universal’s final fear flick. But the word “desperate” leaps to mind.
This was a trap I was keen to avoid: lack of suitable film stills in sufficient quantity to do Hammer’s films justice. So, despite using a medium ironically considered juvenile when compared with actual film stills, I was determined to use sequential art to convey the atmosphere and pace of these horror gems.
Now all I had to do was find artists good enough to overcome the British prejudice against comics…
So for the comic strip adaptation in issue one I again called on an old friend. I’d known Paul Neary since my teenage years in Yorkshire. While at Leeds studying metallurgy, he’d impressed us all by getting a regular art gig with, of all people, Famous Monsters publisher Jim Warren.
Fanzine artist turned professional, Paul had drawn the Hunter series for Warren Publishing’s Eerie, adapting his original Carmine (The Flash) Infantino-influenced style into a more Spanish look, fitting in perfectly alongside the likes of Esteban Maroto, Pepe Gonzalez and Luis Bermejo. So Paul took the task of drawing Hammer’s original Dracula (1958) and immediately set a benchmark of quality for the magazine.
But back in 1976 it wasn’t easy to access old movies. So the decision to start with a Dracula adaptation was in part influenced by the fact that BBC1 was about to broadcast it!
Not wishing to land anybody else with the task, and aware of keeping nicely within budget to help make the first issue’s profits shine, I put my tape recorder next to the TV, audiotaped the entire film then set to transcribing and editing it down to 19 pages of script for Paul to draw up.
But I knew from the onset that I didn’t want the comics part of the magazine merely to bask in Hammer’s glory, I wanted to go beyond their back catalogue and add something new to the mix. Van Helsing’s Terror Tales was an obvious add-on. Not only did it give us the chance to produce O Henry-style twist ending shorts, but 3-4 pages were the perfect length for trying out new artists or providing busy artists with little top-up commissions for a rainy day. Using Peter Cushing’s Van Helsing character as narrator gave us the obligatory Hammer link and with Cushing having played various descendants of the character we could run contemporary stories as well as period ones.
Angus McKie, who like Paul Neary had worked with me on fanzines, did a superb job in his zombie love story for issue one. But he also provided me with an extra task. Knowing how he loved playing with colour overlays, I’d suggested he provided tint overlays on this strip to add a greyscale depth to the end product. Back then this was achieved by using a clear or light blue piece of film, on which red and blue areas were painted. The repro house would then shoot the colours as 10% and 25% grey tints and the three pieces of film would be combined to make a half-tone end product.
It was great that Angus did his own overlays, but with no staff at this early stage, muggins me had to provide overlays for the other 26 pages, finishing the task late one December day while everybody else was enjoying the company’s Christmas party!
Another job was dealing with those narrative boxes in the top left corners of most frames. For some reason I wanted them to be 25% smaller type and reversed, white lettering out of black – possibly to throw them back as secondary and not overburden each frame with too many non-art white shapes. But letterers didn’t do reverse so outside photo labs took that job on and I had to cut them out, felt tip blacken the edges (so there wouldn’t be any white shadows) and paste them down. Sometimes an editor’s job can offer a surprising amount of diversity!
Ian Gibson, who did such a splendid job for me with Sinbad, rounded out #1’s art contingent. I was adamant that the content should be a good balance between features and strips, in an attempt to appeal to two audiences – horror film fans and comics fans. Comics were not to be a token offering and features were not to be mere padding, each had to be fully represented by the best possible contributors available.
So, to further bolster the sequential element, I hit on one of Hammer’s most under-exploited properties: 1974’s Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter. At the time a recent release, this Brian Clemens-penned and directed tale featured Horst Janson as a master swordsman and former soldier, aided in his quest to destroy vampires by his hunchbacked assistant and brains of the outfit, Professor Hieronymous Grost. I gave Steve Moore the job of writing a further Kronos serial while Ian and I sorted out visual references. As well as the press pack of film stills, we were delighted to discover the film was playing at Portobello Road’s quirky Electric Cinema – thus providing us with a night out on company expenses!
I realised that there may be a strong anti-comics contingent to our readership so, as you can see from the above three examples of comic art in the first issue, I wanted an almost cinematic flow between frames. I’d first encountered this technique in an American title, EC’s Impact #1, published a full 20 years earlier, in a superb example of storytelling by Bernie Krigstein for the story Master Race.
Ironically, this fragmented dialogue-free cinematic technique took almost another 30 years to actually be exploited in film, by action-master John Woo and derivatively in the “bullet time” sequence of The Matrix.
Such was the quality of the art in House of Hammer #1 that any fears I had about the inclusion of comics in a film magazine proved ill-founded when the letters of comment came flooding in. Hammer themselves were equally ecstatic, proudly displaying copies of the magazine in their reception area, and constantly asking for top-up copies.
Before moving on, a little historical background is required as the whole structure was very different in comics in the mid-20th century. Two words: art agents.
Anybody worth his salt, or wanting to be, had one! Almost without exception, art agents ruled. We had Pat and Danny Kelleher’s Temple Art (mainly humour artists), Barry Coker’s Bardon Art (mainly adventure), Bernard Thornton’s Linden Art (adventure), Luis Llorente’s Creaciones Editoriales (adventure), Billy Cooper’s Cooper Studios, Doris White’s Link Studios, Josep (although he was Jose back then) Toutain’s Selecciones Illustradas, Rafa Martinez’s Norma Illustrators… the list is endless. I can open my old address book at almost any page and see an art agent’s name. They all had different approaches, some looked after their artists better than others, some advanced page rates, some paid flat weekly “wages”. Some offered in-house desk space and tutoring (or assistants for those already well taught).
But they all took the heat off the artists by acting as go-between, and they also filled in for the overworked subs by making sure the work arrived on time. More importantly, they kept artists fed with work and knew the going rate so they could ensure nobody would be undervalued by any unscrupulous sorts out there. They also touted. End of digression.
Within days of House of Hammer #1 being distributed through national newsagents, I had a phone call and follow-up visit from an art agent, Young Bernand (there were two) from Linden Art. He wanted to offer a well-known but I believed somewhat old school artist’s work to House of Hammer.
This was a chap who I thought (somewhat rudely) had peaked in the late 1950s/early 1960s, having vague memories of his SF comic strips and magazine and book covers. Since then I’d only seen his humour art, when we’d worked together at IPC. I said as much to Young Bernard, adding that I didn’t think he’d sit well with the contemporary approach from all these young turk chums like Brian Bolland, Dave Gibbons and Paul Neary and Toutain’s Barcelona masters who I was in awe of. To the right are some of “his” covers from that “peak” period…
Had I been more familiar with the artist’s early 1960s science fiction strip art for the weeklies Lion and Tiger, I would definitely have been far less arrogantly dismissive.
But I wasn’t… and I was!
Fans of his subsequent (or prior!) work may get a good idea of who this mystery artist was from the Captain Condor (1962) and Jet-Ace Logan (1965) pages below…
But I remained in blissful ignorance of what I was passing up on. For my sins I must admit I also turned down Dave Gibbons’ young studio pal Mick McMahon a while later, not believing he’d be very good at drawing likenesses! Shortly afterwards Mick went on to draw the very first appearance of Judge Dredd for 2000 AD‘s second issue and, a few years later, a stunning Doctor Who Monthly strip.
But this “old school” Linden artist obviously had old school values and realised you sometimes have to put something in to get something out. So only a few days later Young Bernard reappeared, obviously having passed along my concern about the artist’s work being dated. He left me with the sample shown below, that the artist had whipped up hoping to allay my fears.
I’m not often speechless. But I suddenly realised that here, in London, was an artist of such high calibre that when he was advised a potential client liked “the Spanish school” he could blend the best of them into his own style and totally reinvent himself. You don’t see that very often.
I was like a kid with a new toy, oozing enthusiasm over this sample spread, showing it to anybody and everybody who passed within a yard of my office. So when Paul Neary came in, the very next day, I was still oozing. Now Paul has always been a studious pensive sort, not prone to wild outbursts or madcap behavior so he took my oozing in his stride and slowly, seriously, pointed out the individual art sources for just about every figure on the page.
Whether the star of House of Hammer #1 spotted potential competition here or whether he was merely offering friendly advice I never found out, but it mattered little.
Based on this sample and some tear sheets Young Bernard had dropped off, I immediately commissioned the born-again Brian Lewis to produce the cover painting for issue two and gave his agent a script for that issue’s back-up Van Helsing strip.
When the finished cover art arrived (following a few suggested changes to Brian’s pencil rough. see right) and we simplified the title logo to suit, I knew we’d found our man and immediately commissioned two more. And this time, the directors didn’t get to see ANYTHING before the printed copies!
By issue four we were really rocking. Out of the 30-odd titles the company was publishing (and I do mean odd, as already stated: from Cinema X and Parade to My Romance and Funny Half-Hour), House of Hammer was proving to be the runaway hit despite the somewhat pessimistic sales projection I’d produced as part of the internal “sales pitch” (see above) calculating the overheads, direct costs and percentage sell-through. In those days of typewriter, tab keys and calculators, there was a lot more to getting a magazine off the ground than having a “good” idea!
With it also showing the minimum agreed royalty we were to pay Hammer Films, it finally sets to rest a bizarre concern one of the later artist recruits had. He recently told me he never believed it was an authorised title and thought we were winging it!
The spreadsheet also makes mention to a French edition. Since my teen years of letter writing to comics fan pen pals around the world, I’d been a close friend of Jean-Pierre Dionnet who had gone on to become an editor at Dargaud in Paris. Then in 1975, along with Dargaud artists Phillipe Druillet and Jean (Moebius) Giraud, he had set up Les Humanoides Associes to publish a groundbreaking independent comics magazine Metal Hurlant.
With us being such close friends, I was looking to Jean-Pierre to produce a French edition of HoH and while it never came to fruition I had the pleasure of several company paid trips to Paris to discuss such.
One such trip coincided with Jean-Pierre and his then wife Janique (who used the pseudonym Janic Guillerez as a colourist for Moebius) being guests at a convention in Metz. Janique didn’t want to go so Jean-Pierre asked me if I’d like to accompany him and take her place.
With a friend of theirs driving, we travelled by car to the German border town, a journey of almost five hours. Jean-Pierre immediately fell asleep in the back leaving me to talk in broken French with the unintroduced driver. After about 15 minutes, struggling to make conversation I commented on two toy cowboys on the car’s dashboard. “They’re for reference,” I was told. I made a few puzzled noises so he added, “For a comic strip that I draw called Lieutenant Blueberry.” Conversation livened up considerably now I knew our driver was Jean Giraud!
The convention, a film and comics affair, was an absolute hoot. Because I had Janique’s pass, Jean-Pierre took great delight in introducing me to everybody as “his English wife” but I had the pleasure of wining and dining with guests including Chris Foss, John Brunner and Harry Harrison. Chris Foss was a delight and I’d known John Brunner before from London but meeting Harry Harrison was a convention highpoint.
Not only had the man worked on 1950s EC horror comics and shared an art studio in Manhattan with the legendary Wally Wood, but he also had given a start to a young Italian American would-be artist. He told me how the guy had been in charge of their dark room but seemed to have more interest in enticing secretaries and delivery girls in there than in developing prints. “It’s no use. He’s never going to come to anything,” Harry had told his partner Woody, in despair. “We’re going to have to get rid of this Frazetta kid!”
European conventions are very different to US and UK ones. There’s often a lot of pomp and circumstance attached, usually with several formal dinners and the local mayor in attendance. This was very much the case in Metz with long-winded speeches having to be made to the local hoi polloi by all the official guests (thankfully I avoided that one!).
Much to the amusement of Harry, as each English-speaking guest had to be continually interrupted for a translation, it was a tedious affair. When John Brunner gave his entire speech in French, at the end Harry cheekily shouted out “Can we have it all in English now?”. Entering into the spirit of Brunner-baiting, I then called out “And then in French!”.
When Harry’s turn came, he seriously wasn’t up for it so we plotted. As he approached the stage I quietly slipped out and no sooner had he uttered his first few words than I ran back in shouting “Mr Harrison, Mr Harrison!”.
“Yes! Yes! Over here,” he called from the stage and I ran over. It was obviously a matter of great urgency as I whispered in his ear. “Great Scott!” he proclaimed and we both ran out of the hall. An hour or so later when the talks had ended, people plodded out, zombified by the tedium. Brunner spotted us both, laughing together and drinking in the sunshine and the alcohol. Realising it had all been a ruse he looked somewhat shocked. We raised our glasses and smiled.
My second attempt at a French edition was with the photographic magazine Zoom‘s publisher/editor Joel LaRoche, resulting in me ferrying prints by David Bailey, David Hamilton and the like to Paris. But perhaps the anecdotes about Joel should be kept in reserve, we are supposed to be overviewing the history of House of Hammer here…
So, getting back to the main plot (sorry about that), management was so pleased with sell through exceeding expectations that they offered to spend more on it (unheard of) by adding a varnish to the cover. And what a great one for such extra glossiness! After two Hammer classics and wanting to ring the changes, we moved up to date, adapting the 1974 film which added the then-current kung-fu craze to its monster mix, Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires – Brian Lewis’s first full-length extravaganza.
With no less than four published authors among our distinguished columnists and some top flight illustrators, sales were soaring. In fact, when the figures for #4 came in, li’l old House of Hammer was the company’s top title that month, outselling MAD, Sensuous (!), Tarzan, Game… the lot! Far out, as we used to say.
I’d like to think it was all the tender loving care that was paying off. I had been adamant that the illustrated content of House of Hammer wouldn’t be dismissed as “kiddie-fare” so I was choosy about getting the right artists. And enhancing the end product, despite all the extra man-hours such would involve.
And talking about getting the right artists, hot on the heels of Spanish artist Alberto Cuyas’s The Curse of Frankenstein via the cleverly named Bardon Art (as in Barcelona and London, their two bases) and old fanzine pal Trev Goring’s Van Helsing strip “Swamp Fever”, issue four premiered another of the new-found mainstays of the title, the amazing John Bolton. If you’ve not been skipping around this page, you’ll know John and I had worked together on the Magic oneshot and he had drawn some BrownWatson annuals for the guys upstairs. But he’d always worked in pencil, as he did on his House of Hammer tryout, the Van Helsing strip “Curse of the Leopard Men”. The ever-reliable Stan Richardson lettered it up and the five pager went off to the repro house… who went ballistic!
Because I hadn’t thought to ask Stan to letter it on overlay, poor Laurie Dawkins could not isolate the half tone art from the solid linework lettering without a fortune being spent on separation masks. So, in those pre-Photoshop days, they had to go for a mid-point between the two. The end product was lettering which wasn’t quite black enough and art which was darker than John had intended. When we discussed it, I said to the artist he’d really have to ink his pencils in future. He admitted he’d never learned how to work in ink and I said he’d have to start if he wanted any more work! As I soon discovered, he was a fast learner!
Issue 5 was an oddball entry as I tried ringing the changes yet again. I knew there was a limited amount of Grade A Hammer available and didn’t want to use up all the Dracula and Frankenstein films too quickly. So we followed the kung fu vampires of issue four with a wacky Hammer sci-fi film – Moon Zero Two (with Warren Mitchell and Bernard Bresslaw in space!) drawn by Paul Neary – and more traditional horror fare in the back-up Martin (Garth) Asbury five page Van Helsing strip.
The features side of the magazine also wandered, covering Mexican monsters, Bela Lugosi, Deranged and John Brosnan on monster flops. Regular columns were also gaining in popularity, with Answer Desk, Post Mortem and Media Macbre all getting extra space, while our “Bargain Basement” mail order side was booming.
This issue it offered some of the company’s imported sales returns – an odd mix of DC superhero tabloids and Skywald horror magazines plus Movie Monsters, Quasimodo’s Monster Magazine, Monster Fantasy, sister company WH Allen’s The Doctor Who Monster Book and a pile of Christopher Lee Narrates Dracula LP records we’d unearthed in Hammer House. Pile ’em high, sell ’em cheap!
Then, only two issues after his tryout, John Bolton bounced back with his first inked work – something many still consider to be his finest ever – Dracula, Prince of Darkness.
Now working in pen and ink, but adding a far more subtle grey wash to his art than our red and blue overlays could ever achieve, John set the highest standard for film adaptations. More than ever before, I believed this strip justified my belief in not using film stills to tell a fumetti-style photo-strip. I reasoned that an artist could create mood and tension often far better than frozen frames of actors on film sets and achieve a far more fluid and dramatic narrative to the storytelling. While John relied heavily on whatever photos he could find to achieve likenesses, he also enhanced the end product in a way actors could never create. Can you imagine Christopher Lee managing that feral window ledge pose [below right]?
Probably the strongest confirmation of my belief to use comic strips to adapt Hammer films came from a non-comics fan, head of Hammer Michael Carreras himself who, when he saw John’s art for the final page of Dracula Prince of Darkness [right] said that he thought our adaptation looked better than the film itself!
But then many of our readers hadn’t actually seen the film, or any other Hammer output. It would be nice to rewrite history and say I knew it all along, but in reality it never occurred to me that what we were offering the bulk of our readership was… forbidden fruit! Back then you had to be (or appear to be) at least 18 years old to see any Hammer films, or you had to convince your parents to let you stay up until about 11.00pm to watch them on the TV.
But with House of Hammer, anybody with 35p in their pocket could buy a copy and catch up on all the tantilising Certificate X material we had on show. Is there any wonder our sales soared!
But I digress. There’s an interesting but rarely mentioned difference between many artists; some are naturals, who see the picture in their head and can go straight on to the board or canvas, while others produce countless roughs to try to find the best possible composition and content. Such a difference existed between House of Hammer‘s mainstay artists, Brian Lewis and John Bolton. Brian was a natural, it went straight from his head to the board. This was made apparent one evening when the lofty Association of Illustrators invited we mere “cartoonists” to one of their monthly meetings.
The Society of Strip Illustration (SSI) had only been recently formed at the time and probably hadn’t even been named. It was really little more than an excuse for a monthly get-together for an august band of chaps including the cream of British comic strip artists, two editorial bods and an historian.
Kicking off on Friday lunchtimes in Fleet Street’s private members Golf Club boozery, the stronger stomached among us would then saunter over the road to the even-more-private Press Club in New Fetter Lane which, because it was serving journalists, would stay open almost all hours.
None of us were members but good egg and damn fine comics scripter Angus Allan was and he’d said we could always use his name, provided he wasn’t already there! Attendees, at least for the start of the imbibing, often included Ron Embleton, Frank Bellamy, Don Lawrence, Martin Asbury, Brian Lewis, Frank Hampson, Leo Baxendale, Keith Watson and Denis Gifford (who usually ended up the subject of merciless ridicule from certain others after a few hours quaffing), plus editors Dennis (TV 21 and Countdown) Hooper and little old me. Plus John M Burns – who had founded the group as a would-be militant team of leading creatives meant to boycott IPC following John Sanders answering a question about why his IPC comics used so many foreign artists with “because there aren’t any good British artists!” This faux pas having been made at Denis Gifford’s convention Comics 101 – celebrating 100 years of British comics.
When the Association of Illustrators got to hear of our little band and invited us over to their place, believing in strength of numbers, we joined forces with the Cartoonist Club of Great Britain (chaired by the hilarious Bill Tidy, of Fosdyke Saga fame). Probably because I already had some slides, I was asked to represent us all with an overview of European comicbook art (the French being particularly strong that year with Metal Hurlant’s launch featuring stunning work by Moebius and Phillipe Druillet). We all then scrummed down for the free drinks and sandwiches and Brian Lewis came over to show me a self-contained single page 17-frame strip he’d just finished pencilling for Starburst‘s first issue [finished art, right].
One of the illustrators looked at the work over Brian’s shoulder and gushed. He peppered Brian with questions about overhead projection, tracedowns, rough layouts, models, research and the like, finally asking how long such an exquisite piece had taken before pausing for breath. Brian, with all the grace and finesse of a bull elephant on heat, simply replied “Nah, none of that stuff. Didn’t have time. I knew Dez would be here tonight so I knocked it out this afternoon to show him.”
Now if only John Bolton had been there instead. Because John looks and sounds like an artist should! And he was meticulous about detail. For House of Hammer he would research and consider each and every frame before committing anything to the finished board – as I discovered a few years later, during a dinner at his place.
John had got through reams of paper producing rough sketches of different poses and angles for his Dracula strip. His wife, Liliana, would then put them to good use – writing on the back and leaving them as notes for the milkman. I saved what remained and put them to somewhat better use, printing them in the 1983 Dracula Special then selling the sketches on John’s behalf through my King’s Road shop!
Of all the back issues of House of Hammer, issue six stands tall as the pinnacle (if eBay prices are anything to go by, with it regularly selling for over £25/$40). And hardly surprising because not only did it offer John Bolton’s brilliant Dracula Prince of Darkness strip (adapted by the prolific comics scribe Axa‘s Donne Avenall), but Brian Lewis also excelled himself on a four page Van Helsing story “Malvoisin’s Mirror” [below], penned by another old IPC colleague, Buster‘s Chris Lowder, who I’d always respected and eagerly recruited in-house now that the magazine had proved viable enough for a staff.
By this time, HoH also had a dedicated art editor in Paul Harwood, yet another ex-IPC man, who had cut his teeth on Scorcher. There’s little wonder the comics industry is so poorly served in the 21st century without such a pool of talent as IPC once had to draw from. Most of its titles may have been somewhat soulless and lacking inspiration, but it was the best training ground south of the border. That being the England-Scotland border, with DC Thomson training up troops from the northern side.
Noticing from the photos that John Bolton was right handed and Brian Lewis left handed reminds me of a great DC Thomson anecdote. This one I got from Keith Robson, who journeyed down to IPC (of course!) for a few years before returning north to become artist on strips ranging from the science fiction digest Starblazer to The Dandy‘s revival of Ken Reid’s Jonah (he whose face could sink a thousand ships). When Keith had first joined the DC Thomson art pool (with rows of bodgers in an almost school-like setting while the head artist looked down on them from his slightly taller desk at the front of class) he was asked if he was right or left handed.
When Keith said that he was left handed, the art editor replied happily, “Ah good, we’re a wee bit short of left-handed artists!” and promptly placed him next to a right-handed artist. Why? As the art editor continued, “The pair of you will only be needing the one inkwell!”. Keith proved the point by showing me his left hand, still stippled with ink stabs where the adjacent artist had dipped only a second later and hit Keith’s already-dipping hand instead.
Another albeit minor extra which started with the sixth issue was genre advertising. Paid advertising, that is! To make the title more viable in the eyes of the directors, I’d been boosting the income and keeping office secretary Cathy Fox busy through the House of Hammer Bargain Basement, selling sales returns of both our magazines and ones the company had imported from America. But with paid advertising there was far less work!
There weren’t many specialist bookshops back then, so we only had ads from Birmingham’s Andromeda, New Cross’s Weird Fantasy and Soho’s Dark They Were & Golden Eyed. but these were supplemented by Fantasy Advertiser, a title I had spent five years producing. While I’d felt frustrated on humour comics at IPC, Fantasy Advertiser had been a worthwhile evening hobby. But now, doing the real thing, I was happy to hand it over to Colin Campbell.
The biggest genre advertiser we had back then grew out of our own reviews section. I realised that reviewing US horror magazines may have been newsworthy and informative to our readers, but it was also a terrible tease!
Now they knew they existed, how could they get hold of them? So I set up an outside mail order company to fulfill the need we’d just created. Sneaky, huh? Maya Merchandising, named after a tune by the Incredible Stringband plus my love of alliteration, was suddenly offering the very magazines we were reviewing. What a coincidence. I knew I didn’t have time for the day to day handling though, so I turned to the man who had taken Fantasy Advertiser off my hands, Colin Campbell. But even the initial response to the ads was so overwhelming that Colin couldn’t handle it all. Fortunately I knew a man who could in Mike Conroy for this, the first of many projects we were to embark upon.
With mail order, freelance contributors and staff now in place, and the ranks ever-swelling, things rattled on apace. Brian Lewis produced arguably his best cover of all for issue 7 [below] showcasing the adaptation of Twins of Evil by Chris Lowder and an artist who became better known for his fantasy paintings, Blas Gallego. Profiling the screen career of the werewolf, this issue also welcomed Dave Gibbons, as writer artist and letterer. Damn good all-rounder, that Dave!
It was around this time that, despite our French edition of HoH coming to rien, I thought I’d try the States (a year or two before we decided to do it ourselves over there, but I’ll gt to that in due course). The result can best be summed up by the reply I got from Marvel’s UK manager…
I got to bring the subject up with Marvel’s Stan Lee face-to-face a few years later, within minutes of his enthusiastically buying the publishing rights to Starburst off me (get ’em while they’re in the mood, eh?).
For him it didn’t come down to such odd questions as “Does Carreras have an American operation” (a line which would have been better suited to Breaking Bad, anyway).
He said they’d not succeeded with the horror magazine experiment they’d tried with Monsters of the Movies, Tomb of Dracula, Monsters Unleashed and the rest, so he’d pass on our HoH.
Beyond Hammer House: Developing Father Shandor – Demon Stalker!
This was a first for the title as I indulged myself a bit. We dropped the Quatermass Xperiment film adaptation from being the cover visual in favour of a totally new story. This main strip was adapted by Les Lilley and impeccably drawn by Brian Lewis. The back-up Van Helsing was by Cor!!’s Kid Chameleon artist Joe Colquhoun and Jack Adrian (aka: Chris Lowder).
But top billing went to the lead six pages of the magazine introducing the first solo strip for Dracula’s protagonist when Peter Cushing was too busy to play Van Helsing in Dracula Prince of Darkness… Father Shandor.
When we’d sat through the movie (courtesy of Columbia-Warner’s preview theatre rather handily located on the sixth floor of the building we worked in) I was seriously impressed by the Andrew Keir character. I mean, who wouldn’t be? He played a priest who rode about on a stallion with a double-barrelled shotgun! You don’t get many cooler images than that. The fact that this iconic hero had never been reprised seemed a great waste. So we brought him back in an all-new story of how he came to be. I was always a sucker for “untold origins”.
Steve Moore, one of Britain’s most versatile yet underrated talents did a superb job of providing a backdrop, a reintroduction, a David Carradine/Kung Fu-like wandering monk premise and a new demonic nemesis for the battling priest. And he managed all this in six pages. Wonderful stuff.
There was, of course, only one choice of artist for the job, the man who had drawn Shandor (because we preferred the phonetic spelling to Sandor) in the film adaptation, John Bolton. His original character sketch is shown, left.
And what a stunning job John made of it. The first thing I saw was his six pages in pencil, for approval – hey, editors have to justify their keep! It was another speechless oozing moment. And a damn fine excuse for another visit to Hammer House and their drinks bar!
Michael Carreras and Chris Wicking were equally impressed, to such a point that Michael hit on an idea. Apparently he was about to leave for New York to put some ideas forward for funding new ventures. Looking at John’s art he saw the potential for the character that I’d seen when watching the movie. So I quickly ran through the storyline with him and the next day provided six full-size unlettered prints for him to present as “concept art” for a new film.
I discovered later from Chris that when he got there and presented the prints, Michael had totally forgotten the accompanying story (one of the problems of evening meetings, mixing alcohol with business). So he made something up on the spot! Totally different to Steve Moore’s script, but which fitted the pictures. Sadly, America wasn’t as impressed with Michael’s impromptu story as they were with John’s art so that was the last heard of Shandor’s cinema rebirth.
I always loved any behind-the-scenes work in progress, whether from the screen or the page. So as I’d seen and approved the pencil art for issue 10’s film adaptation and we had a couple of messy gaps in issue nine, I leaped at the chance to include a couple of John Bolton’s stunning pencilled frames from Curse of the Werewolf. You just knew your sales wouldn’t drop next month once readers had seen those!
On a personal level as well as a professional one, I was very pleased with a couple of coups in issue nine. A few months before House of Hammer had launched, I’d shared an office with an author/editor I greatly respected, Tony Crawley. With a few extra years on me and a heap more experience, Tony had just completed a book on Bridget Bardot (Bebe), he’d interviewed almost every living actor I’d ever heard of and he was prolific! The editor of Cinema X at the time, he wrote the whole magazine himself. He’d always be in the office before me, bashing out reams of type non-stop. By lunchtime, he’d maybe turn around from his window seat and talk for a while before returning for a full afternoon’s solid typing. A journalistic powerhouse.
So one morning, as I was going to see the new Brian de Palma preview without a contributor in tow, I asked Tony if he’d review it for HoH knowing it would be in his regular caustic style. But he enjoyed the film, Carrie, wrote a great review and became a regular contributor, both to HoH and its soon-to-be launched sister title Starburst.
In addition to Brian Lewis’s concluding part of The Quatermass Xperiment and a Van Helsing Terror Tale by another old pal, Jim Baikie, the issue also featured an interview with de Palma, John Fleming’s humorous look at The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue, The Making of King Kong (a comparison between original and remake) plus Seizure and Squirm.
Ah, Squirm… a “talker” screening had been arranged for our readers and we’d asked them a few months earlier to come in costume. To Leicester Square, at 10.00am on a Saturday morning! Here are some of the photos we ran…
Looking back, this was one of the high points of that time. Three weeks before Christmas 1976 and there was a bunch of loons prancing around Leicester Square in monster costumes, all heading for the Rialto Cinema. There’s a couple of great reaction shots in the above so I’ve enlarged them. Check out the expressions on the old dears on the bus (left) as they collectively hope the Frankenstein Monster isn’t about to board! And my absolute fave (right)… a city gent smiles as he sees his photo is being taken, totally oblivious to the Wolfman looming up behind him. Priceless! For you industry sorts, the bottom middle photo in the main batch features a young (and obviously foolish) Dennis Davidson, whose DDA film PR company is now the country’s biggest. On his right is his assistant, the young Penny Needham, best remembered for accidentally letting one of her boobs fall out at a Michael Winner premiere and getting him the biggest publicity he ever had, well in the tabloids anyway. In her defense, she refused to ever let such happen again (despite numerous requests)!
It was back to monthly for issue 10, headlined by another great Brian Lewis cover for Steve Moore and John Bolton’s much-anticipated adaptation of Curse of the Werewolf, arguably one of the best we ran.
By HoH #8, we’d found a great use for back covers. Linking in with Tise Vahimagi’s column on collecting film posters, we kicked off with two classics: Creature from the Black Lagoon and Curse of the Cat People.
But from #9 we ran the poster of the film actually being adapted (or in this first case the sequel too, as the original wasn’t too exciting!). We used the UK ones for #9, but with Curse of the Werewolf, we chose the more colourful Belgian poster, its title translating as the arguably more sinister Night of the Werewolf. Like Apes, Blood and Nurse (!), Night has long been identified as a crowd puller in a film title.
So, who’s up for Bloody Night of the Ape Nurse then?
Rounding out our by now themed issues, in addition to covering new and nostalgic film fantasy (from Fu Manchu to Close Encounters this issue), HoH #10 ran a centrespread Werewolf Gallery and a Steve Moore-penned overview of werewolves in fact and film with what I thought was a pretty stunning splash page and wonderfully dramatic title (left).
Ever wanting to ring the changes (and eke out the limited number of Dracula and Frankenstein films that were available) HoH #11 began a two part adaptation of the 1964 Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing Hammer film, The Gorgon.
Behind an editorial where I was expressing concern over the genre (“gothic horror seems to be hibernating”) in the face of big budget science fiction films, Star Wars, CE3K, Superman, etc, I was personally pleased to welcome another writer to the fold, a man I’d held in very high esteem at IPC, Scott Goodall.
An incredibly warm and witty Aberdonian, Scott had been one of the company’s mainstays, writing Fishboy, Galaxus, Captain Hurricane, Thunderbirds, Manix and suchlike, and had appeared more than happy to take time out to have lunch with me one day and offer sound advice when a few years earlier I was trying to sell my Tiger Boy of Burma as a WWII jungle superhero serial. For HoH, Scott adapted Terence Fisher’s 1964 The Gorgon in #11. For a fascinating anecdote-riddled interview with Scott, see here.
One aspect I’ve always had a fervent passion about is reader interaction. I still firmly believe there’s no better way of retaining your audience, and giving them some credibility than to interact with them. To this end, I’d say personal editorials – as opposed to the standard “we’ve a great issue for you” hype – go a long way towards that. They encourage response and familiarity, to know there’s more than faceless and interchangeable people putting a title together. So HoH strived to push this personalisation to the max.
Taking #11 as an example, naturally it featured a letters page, although the comments were edited down to fit in as many readers’ views as possible. But it also had a classified column – where readers could buy, sell or swap their treasured possessions. Answer Desk was a popular column where in #11 we managed to satisfy almost a dozen readers’ queries about everything from The Time Tunnel, George Pal’s The Naked Jungle and 16mm Terence Fisher films to The Night Stalker, Jacques Tournier’s Out of the Past and One Step Beyond. In addition Fan Scene by Tise Vahimagi and Benny Aldrich (me) reviewed a range of European and US horror fanzines which most readers had probably never heard of before. Remember, this was the pre-Google era, when most fans were completely isolated, both from each other and knowledge about their hobby. End of rant.
It took us 18 months to get there, with the title having been bimonthly before management had the confidence to double its frequency, but we made it to the end of volume one. Roll on the volume binders!
Next to my editorial was the usual Hammer Happenings coverage, as the film company fought for new productions. In the wake of the stalled Nessie and Vampirella, we said “Hammer’s latest movie, The Lady Vanishes, is now well into production. It is based – roughly – on the classic Hitchcock film… though with John Cleese in the cast, anything could happen!”. Vanishes indeed.
Editorially, Steve Parkhouse (another IPC escapee) joined our team with his Terror Tale homage to those wonderful samurai films. Author, reviewer and film critic for The Sun newspaper Alan Frank plus ex-Capital Radio broadcaster Mike Childs, Cinefantastique reviewer Alan Jones and US correspondent Bob Sheridan also swelled our ranks.
The splendid cover was backed by a six page feature, Frankenstein on Film, while the variety of content included reviews of Shudder and Exorcist 2: The Heretic, with Denis Gifford’s Golden Age of Horror reaching 1934’s Invisible Man, Black Cat, Supernatural and King Kong.
More recent retrospectives included Welcome to Blood City and Witchfinder General as part of of John Fleming’s series on director Michael Reeves. Ah, if only that last one had been a Hammer film, it would have made a wonderful adapatation!
For future reference, and as a perfect ending to volume one, we closed the issue with a checklist of all 12 issues.
Next section: House of Hammer Volume Two