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.
Commando strides to the
forefront of the ranks of action and adventure
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 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
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.
The war comes to "The Dandy"
and "The Beano"... and "The Dandy" and "The Beano" fight
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!
World 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
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.)