Action and Adventure in the Comics - Part 2

Thu 01 Sep 2011

The 50s and 60s - From Stories to Pictures and the Birth of Commando!

In Part 1, we saw how D.C. Thomson embraced the rise of the boys' story papers, and the effects of the Second World War on these titles. With the end of hostilities in 1945, many of the original creators returned to work on the publications, but the shortages caused by the war were still to limit production for many years to come.

Changing HotspurA new look for an old classic - "The New Hotspur" saw readers wave goodbye to the "story papers".

The contents of "Adventure", "The Rover", "The Wizard" and "The Hotspur" remained much the same as ever, with text adventures making up the bulk of each issue. But, as the 1940s gave way to the 1950s, the popularity of films - now in Technicolor - and the rise of television saw audiences clamouring for more visual thrills.

In comics, "The Dandy" and "The Beano" had begun to shift away from their original mixture of illustrated text stories and comic strips, with the comics taking prominence. The start of the decade had also seen the launch of rival magazine, "The Eagle", Hulton Press's glossy comic magazine headlining the outer space adventures of "Dan Dare - The Pilot of the Future", and further competition was to come from Fleetway's "Lion", featuring Dare lookalike "Captain Condor" and more science fiction action with "Robot Archie". The days of the story paper were numbered and comics ruled supreme!

The first of the original "Big Five" to fully reflect this change in tastes was "The Hotspur". Having reached 1197 issues on October 17th 1959, it was back to Number 1 again the following week for "The New Hotspur". A mid-50s outcry against American horror and crime comics in both the US and the UK that had led to worries about labelling a publication "a comic" saw the new version of the classic title billed as "a great new picture paper for boys!"

Changing BraddockThe changing face of "Braddock" - from "Rover" text story of the 1950s to picture strip in
"The Victor" in the 1960s, and on into the 1970s in "Warlord".

While the format may have changed, the spirit remained the same, and there were to be familiar faces still on show - "The Wolf of Kabul", who had appeared in "The Wizard" back in 1922, made a reappearance, now in comic strip form, in 1961, and would continue to make comebacks for new generations of readers in the 1970s in"Warlord" (in a prequel series, "Young Wolf") and 1980s in "Buddy".

Other text stories from the days of "The Big Five" would make the transition to the new comic format. "I Flew With Braddock" was a particularly successful example. The air ace had appeared since 1952 in "The Rover", with text adventures proving successful enough to warrant being reissued in a number of harback books - the opening chapter of the first of these can be read here - and his exploits were set to continue in comic form in the first of an all new picture paper that reached the shelves on January 25th 1961... "The Victor".

Victor 61The first of the new breed of boys' comics - "The Victor" flew into action in 1961.

Braddock wasn't to be the only familiar face who would find a home in this new, action packed publication. "Morgyn the Mighty", "Alf Tupper - The Tough of the Track" and "Gorgeous Gus" had all appeared in "The Rover" - the original publication having merged with the paper which had inspired it to form "Rover and Adventure" on January 21st 1961. The combining of two declining publications into one - halving production costs while, hopefully, retaining the readership of both titles - was common throughout the comic industry. Although the inevitable announcement of "Great news inside, chums!" on a comic's cover wasn't always greeted as great news by the readers when favourite strips went AWOL to make room for stories from another title!

"The Rover" would briefly re-emerge under its original title in October 1963 before a second merger, becoming "The Rover and Wizard" a month later - "V for Vengeance" and "Wilson" from "The Wizard" would switch to "The Hornet", whose first issue had appeared on September 14th 1963. This second union lasted until 1969, when the "Wizard" title was dropped and the final run of "The Rover" went on until January 23rd 1973. "The Wizard" would materialise again in February of 1970 and continue until June of 1978, leaving "The Hotspur" as last man standing out of the original "Big Five".

The new wave of picture papers also saw a fresh supply of girls' comics - "Bunty" leading the way for titles like "Judy" and "Diana". While perhaps chiefly remembered for boarding school japes with "The Four Marys" or tales of the ballet dancer "Moira Kent", there was also room for wartime drama - unsurprising since the editorial team for many of these publications had not only cut their teeth on the boys' story papers, but had also seen combat during the Second World War.

Girls ComicsAn unexpected source of adventure? " Bunty" and "Judy" in the 1960s.

Readers of these girls' papers were no stranger to grim tales of hardship and cruelty - there was a thriving market for stories set in bleak Victorian orphanages or featuring vicious guardians - but while the Nazis were invariably potrayed as vile and thuggish, the storylines themselves were more quirky than the standard war epics of the boys' papers. The circus performer heroine of "Marissa and her Doves" in the 1963 "Judy Annual" aids a British airman's escape by distracting the German search party with her performing doves, while "Bunty" readers in 1960 thrilled to "Leap-Along Lesley", the tale of a young girl who smuggles her scientist father's secret formula across war-torn Europe... inside a pogo stick!

But even while the story papers were still holding their ground, other new formats for telling exciting adventures had emerged. Amalgamated Press had released the first of their pocket book sized "War Picture Library" series in 1958, and followed it in 1960 with "Air Ace Picture Library". The clear attraction of these paperback sized comics amongst readers (ideal for slipping into a handy pocket or schoolbag!), plus the success of the new "Victor", confirmed a continuing demand for tales bristling with explosive action.

A demand that would inspire the creation of D.C. Thomson's most famous war comic.

Early Commando"Commando - War Stories in Pictures" - the early days.

Initially appearing at a rate of two titles each month, "Commando" was a sure fire hit with both children and adults. The combination of highly descriptive captions and action packed artwork gave them the feel of an illustrated war novel rather than a comic book. It wasn't long before demand for more "War Stories in Pictures" saw a doubling up to four issues per month. Having seen out the 1960s, this was increased again in its 10th Anniversary year to eight issues each month.

And, as Part 3 proves, while "Commando" marched boldly into its second decade, the story of D.C. Thomson's war comics was far from over.

(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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