Action and Adventure in the Comics - Part 1

Thu 01 Sep 2011

The Early Years - The Big Five and the Comics at War!

When "Commando" was launched back in 1961, it was a publication joining so many in a tradition stretching back to the middle of the previous century. This tradition - of thrilling tales of heroism, action, adventure, and pluck in the face of insurmountable odds, often referred to as "Boys' Own" stories - had been a staple of British magazines that grew throughout the latter part of the Victorian era, and continued to gain in popularity as the decades passed.

Part 1 MainCommando strides to the forefront of the ranks of action and adventure comics!

The "Boys' Own" label originated with "Boy's Own Magazine", whose 1855 debut was an attempt to provide more edifying reading matter for younger readers than the lurid thrills to be found in the cheap, mass produced "penny dreadful" magazines. It ran for more than three decades, inspiring many similarly titled publications along the way. The most famous of these, "The Boy's Own Paper", long outlasted its inspiration, running from 1879 up until 1967.

These titles were chiefly populated by plucky young chaps doing their best, Western lawmen protecting law-abiding folks, square-jawed detectives solving fiendish mysteries, courageous pioneers blasting off into science fiction dramas, and jolly good sports who won through by playing fairly - in short, real ripping yarns! These appeared alongside factual articles on sports, school life, true-life adventures, hobbies, and healthy outdoor activities similar to those advocated by the growing scouting movement (and more recently revisited in the likes of "The Dangerous Book for Boys").

Probably the most successful and well-remembered amongst these flourishing new papers were "The Gem", which launched in 1907, and "The Magnet", which arrived the next year. The main attraction in both titles were the long school stories - St Jim's in "The Gem", and the Greyfriars stories, which would make a huge star (literally) of Billy Bunter, in "The Magnet" - though each title also featured shorter adventure serials in weekly installments.

The Big FiveThe Big Five brought weekly doses of action from past, present, and future!

The first D.C. Thomson publication to tap into this thriving market arrived on September 17th 1921. Its title, "Adventure", gave potential readers an instant clue to the type of stories it aimed to bring them. Not to be confused with the similarly titled "Adventure Comics", which would introduce the world to "Superman" in 1935, "Adventure" was an anthology of text stories, usually with a number of large illustrations, centred around the by-now expected topics of sport, western heroes, mystery, and bravery.

"Adventure" proved so successful that, on March 4th 1922, it was joined by "The Rover", with "The Wizard" following on September 22nd of that same year. A third title, "The Vanguard", appeared in 1923, but didn't last beyond the end of the decade. There was the usual mix of genres in the stories that would appear throughout the run of both titles. There were sporting heroes like "Wilson", the mysterious black clad athlete, "Bernard Briggs", scrap dealer and champion amateur sportsman, and "Limp Along Leslie", whose love of football would overcome the lameness caused by a childhood accident.

There was a fair share of adventure, with "The Wolf of Kabul", featuring an undercover British officer and his cricket bat-weilding sidekick in tales from the Indian North-West Frontier, while the world's strongest man,"Morgyn the Mighty", faced the terrors of a mysterious island - before going on to face yet more monsters when he appeared in picture strip form in"The Beano".

And, of course, there were military yarns and war stories, with "Captain January" of the Military Police, "V for Vengeance", where masked concentration camp escapees formed a secret army of "deathless men" to fight back against the Nazis, and"I Flew With Braddock", chronicling the adventures of a no-nonsense fighter pilot.

Comics at WarThe war comes to "The Dandy" and "The Beano"... and "The Dandy" and "The Beano" fight back!

With the arrival of "The Skipper" on September 6th 1930 and "The Hotspur" on September 2nd 1933, the D.C. Thomson line-up of adventure papers was complete. These would become known as "The Big Five", and their success in capturing an audience of eager young readers would also lead to the creation of such perennial titles as "The Dandy" and "The Beano". Even these humorous titles would feature their own war stories, both comical and serious. With the outbreak of the Second World War, comic stars like "Big Eggo" or "Lord Snooty" frequently clashed with Nazi foes, "Addie and Hermy - The Nasty Nazis" in "The Dandy", and "Musso the Wop - He's a Big-a-da-Flop" satirised the enemy leaders, while adventure stories such as "The Wild Boy of the Woods" also pitted their heroes against the Nazi menace.

Ironically, it was the effect of the Second World War that saw the "Big Five" reduced to the "Big Four", with the final issue of "The Skipper" appearing on February 1st 1941. With many members of the original editorial and art teams in active service, and paper in short supply, this was just one casualty during these straitened times - "The Magic", sister paper to "The Dandy" and "The Beano", disappeared like magic from newsagents' shelves, and many publications saw their page numbers reduced and were forced to move to fortnightly rather than weekly publication schedules!

The War YearsWorld War II, as seen by "Adventure" - true-life adventure, tales of fighting pluck
and Nazi villainy, and appeals to reader loyalty in aiding the war effort.

Despite all this,"Adventure", "The Rover", "The Wizard" and "The Hotspur" soldiered bravely on, emerging into a post-war Britain where their tales of courage and fortitude were a welcome boost to the readers' morale in this ration book era. But, as Part 2 will show, there were big changes still to come.

(This article originally appeared as a tie-in to the National Army Museum exhibition Draw Your Weapons: The Art of Commando Comics - September 2011-April 2012.)

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