Collecting vintage British comics

20 April 2021
Getting nostalgic over the history of often forgotten British classics
Collecting vintage British comics Images

Simply put, this article is intended to evoke those long buried nostalgic memories of your comic childhood and encourage you dear reader to ask questions, vent, or simply enjoy the history of British comics collecting.

The step into the unknown which resulted in me penning this missive was promulgated by a morning that I spent at the local comic club, which meets once a week in Gateshead, across the river from my home town of Newcastle. The host, Graeme Wilkinson, is a comic retailer, collector, and seller of back issue American comics. I asked Graeme if I could come along and chat about the fantastic history that is British comics and he graciously agreed.

So, armed with some of my best examples of British comic artwork, I turned up at his house to talk about British comics. The majority of the attendees were probably under 35 and consequently lifelong American comic collectors. I have no axe to grind with American comic collectors, I am one myself, I simply wanted to pass on a little knowledge about our own illustrious British comic history. First of all I was little disappointed by how little the attendees even knew about British comics. But in the end some of them, having seen the artwork, could see that the tradition of British comics had indeed produced some very excellent comic materials, so I left the meeting feeling relatively happy about my little show and tell.

What this little exercise brought home to me however was how little, even the older attendees who did buy British comics knew about their own comic’s history. So I decided this piece would be a British Comics 101 for those who may be interested. Don’t worry though, I’m not going to bore everyone with my definition of a comic, or with the history of the development of comic books from Ally Sloper, Britain’s first true comic character from the 1860s, through to modern times. I’m just going to focus on a potted history of British comics of the 1930s to the  late 1960s, though I must confess the era from 1952 to the mid 1970s is the one I consider, rightly or wrongly to be the Golden Age of British comics.

Up until the start of World War II British comics had evolved into two main types.  Comics that were called adventure story papers, such as the Boys Own Paper (BOP), Wizard, Hotspur, Rover, Skipper, Adventure Champion and what were universally known as children’s comics such as Beano, Dandy, Rainbow, Tiny Tots, and Mickey Mouse Weekly (MMW) etc. At the height of their pre- War popularity some comics such as Mickey Mouse Weekly sold in excess of 600,000 copies per week. Far more in fact than the biggest selling American comic of all time, Captain Marvel, which at its height sold an estimated 2,000,000 copies each month (or 500,000 per week).

The popularity of these comics is hard to deny with new children’s titles such as Golden, Happy Days and Magic Comic joining the other stalwarts in the final years before World War II hit the industry hard. New Acts of Parliament introduced in the early days of the war severely restricted the allocation of pulp available for printing to the comic publishers. As a result all three new comics previously mentioned were gone by 1941. The longest lasting being Golden whose publication run lasted for just 135 issues, Magic Comic lasted to only 80 issues, and Happy Days (with incredible covers on the first 25 issues by one Britain’s greatest humour comic artists Roy Wilson) was gone after just 45 issues. As such the scarcity of these comics makes them not only hard to collect, but worth more than most other regular long running comics of their day with perhaps the exception of the Beano.

The vast majority of these types of comics were newsprint editions, though Mickey Mouse Weekly launched in 1936, was the first ever British comic to be printed in full colour photo-gravure, as the Eagle comic was in the 1950s. So popular was this comic that the members of the Mickey Mouse Club exceeded the 700,000 mark before the outbreak of the war.

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The story papers usually consisted almost exclusively of adventure or detective type text stories with some spot illustrations. Rainbow, Beano and its ilk were typical “funny story” humour type comics, with the children’s adventure strips.

The paper used pre-War was of a  reasonably high quality, though it is still very unusual to find copies of these comics in excellent condition. Both types of comics typically had a coloured front and back page (2 colour or 3 colour), with mostly black and white or two colour (red & black) interiors numbering between 16 to 24 pages. All of the surviving wartime comics had to deal with the war restrictions on the amount of pulp they could use and as a consequence the page count of wartime issues was slashed in comparison to pre-War levels with reduced print runs that were normally no more than eight to twelve pages in total. Meaning sales to kids must also have declined dramatically with the recycling of comics amongst themselves a “must do” for all kids at that time. There was also the constant need for paper drives during the war to provide pulp for the great War Machine. Resulting in the wartime comics being much rarer than those either side of the war years and hence these command higher prices, particularly with regards to the Beano and the Dandy. Some collectors I know specialize solely in seeking out these wartime issues.

Although World War II hit the comic industry very hard, for some it was an opportunity to prosper. A small paper recycling and second hand book company run by and called Gerald Swan started a comic publishing business in 1940 to compete with established publishers such as D.C. Thomson, Fleetway, Amalgamated Press, Odhams and the other major publishers. Swan like most of the alternate small press of the day (Scion, Miller, Anglo, World Distributors, PM Productions, etc.) did not conform to the legal requirement provisions of the day, whereby if you published and sold material in book or comic form a copy of the publication had to be sent to the British Library. As a consequence you will not find many of his publications or those of the other small press publishers of the day at the British Library. His first comic title was called New Funnies (February 1940-), followed by Topical Funnies (April 1940-), Thrill Comics (April 1940-), War Comics (May 1940-), Slick Fun (June 1940-), Fresh Fun (June 1940-) and Extra Fun (July 1940-), all in a format similar to American comics. Swan continued publishing until the late 1960s before selling to rival World Distributors.

Bizarrely with the outbreak of the war, the first influence of American comic books began to become evident in the UK with “returns” of American comics being shipped to the UK as ballast in transatlantic vessels for resale in the UK. So as a side bar for you American comic fans, almost all of the original comics such as Batman #1, Superman #1, Marvel Mystery #1 and their ilk were sold on the market stalls in our port cities until their import was banned in about 1942.  Some British comics, such as Triumph even reprinted the Superman daily in comic book form as early as 1939.  One man, by the name of TV Boardman struck a deal with a number of US publishers, and began to import reprint material from US comics in the UK in 1937. Although some of these had colour covers, most were black and white inside.

During and after the war, the minor British publishers continued to reprint US comics and short run British style US comics. Some enterprising minor British publishers turned to producing eight to twelve page comics using some colour and a plethora of superhero, detective, and spy type heroes. All of these eventually failed, though some were very successful, such as the Sun Comic or Comet Comic Weekly, both printed by J.B. Allen (later acquired by Amalgamated Press) which focused on Western or historical themes, with the occasional sci-fi story and of course humour. D.C. Thomson on the other hand were still sticking to the boys “Big Five” story papers such as Adventure, Rover, Hotspur, Wizard, and The Skipper  which became a casualty of war in 1941. By and large however comics changed very little from the early days after the first world war up until the beginning of the 1950s when all hell broke loose…