As we are on the subject of Specky Hector aka Lew Stringer, here are the Specky Hector appearances in Buster on 26 May 1990, in honour of Buster’s 30th birthday.
Artist: Lew Stringer
As we are on the subject of Specky Hector aka Lew Stringer, here are the Specky Hector appearances in Buster on 26 May 1990, in honour of Buster’s 30th birthday.
Artist: Lew Stringer
For something completely different but still related to the subject, I have these two instalments of “Specky Hector’s History of Comics”. They appeared in Buster 1 September and 6 October 1990. Regrettably, I do not have the subsequent instalments. If anyone does have them, please drop a line.
Artist/writer: Lew Stringer (updated to add)
You may have seen that Terry Magee made a series of illuminating and interesting comments on the Len Wenn post: these described the processes and principles behind script conferences in more detail. To make them more visible and easier to find in the future, I repeat them here. Many thanks, therefore, to Terry for sending in these details!
Len had worked on Fleetway boys’ comics in the 1950’s – either The Sun or The Comet, knew artists like Geoff Campion and colleagues like the famous/infamous Sid Bicknell (Uncle Sid to some). Len was a very fair chap and encouraged me to write. He was a soldier in the North African desert in the Second World War, telling me some of his experiences such as having to dig trenches in the sand – with the danger of being buried alive, which he actually saw happen. He told me other things about the Fleetway crowd that I can’t repeat.
I lost track with Len after I went freelance, but I’m real glad he survived on Buster
and continued writing for Mavis on Jinty. They were a good team. As for their script conferences, they happened around every six weeks or so with just two writers on separate occasions – Frank Redpath (Lucky’s Livin Doll) and Jack Johnson (very talented writer and great bloke). I only ever was at one script conference, but didn’t contribute much as Mavis and Len were too good to keep up with!
Fleetway was a friendly company, the opposite to the dreadful DC Thomson. I never worked there, but heard tales from those who did, like John Wagner. DC Thomson was owned and run by two old brothers who were right control freaks – no staff allowed to use the phones unless with permission. The two brothers didn’t talk to each other for years, communicating notes slipped under doors and so on. They lived in a mansion outside Dundee, one in the east wing and the other in the west wing. A weird story itself! Shiver me timbers!, as Captain Hurricane would say!
(then a question from me)
Thanks for this, Terry! Can you tell any more details about the script conferences themselves – if writers weren’t normally present, then what was the aim of them – did Mavis and Len use them to write their own stories, or to decide general ideas that they would send on to freelance writers, or what?
My pleasure, shipmate (still talking as Captain Hurricane whose letter I used to write in Battle comic for some years)! I was only the one time in a script conference and that was In Mavis Miller’s office along with Len Wenn and the author Jack Johnson (might have been John Johnson). They discussed ideas and plots for Jack’s stories for June & School Friend. I think he wrote three of them every week. They were plans for something like next 6 weeks’ episodes. It was the same for Frank Redpath and Lucky’s Living Doll (the most popular number one in June & School Friend).
I used to hear them talking quite loudly and excitedly with lots of laughs through the wall of the office next-door. I was sub-editor sharing the office with Art Editor Colin Parker (we could see the Scales of Justice statue of the Old Bailey from our window). In the next office along was other sub-editor Jackie Davis, who was engaged to Colin (they eventually married) and art assistant Roger Prickett. Colin went on to become Art Editor on the Daily Express. His elder brother, Jack Parker, was Editor of Look & Learn. Very talented people.
Fleetway (basically still the former Amalgamated Press), was packed with gifted journalists, authors, artists, both staff and freelance. It was positive-thinking and forward-looking, which is why John Purdy was able to bring in new people like Gerry Finley-Day and Pat Mills with new ideas. Although it was done surreptitiously and that didn’t go down well at Fleetway. I was there and I saw it happen!
Other authors for June & School Friend were freelance and hardly ever came in to the editorial offices and sometimes never, as was the same for artists. Although Scott Goodall, freelance author, was often there, thumping away on a Bluebird typewriter at any spare desk going. They were referred to as authors in the Fleetway days, not writers, and the word ‘comic’ wasn’t used. They were girls’ papers or juvenile publications, sounding more adult and serious… Knockout and Buster were comics, due to their humorous strips. Freelances were also paid in guineas, not plain pounds. We were paid salaries, not wages, with accounts in Coutts Bank of the Strand, the Queen’s bank and very posh… Fleetway could be snooty copared to D C Thomson, who seemed more down-to-earth although weird as I eventually discovered. Fleetway/IPC artists were better, more arty and often really fantastic.
Features on June & School Friend were written by Robin May, who also wrote a lot
for Look & Learn. There were no restrictions on freelancing for publications. I wrote Tarzan and The Saint for TV Tornado while subbing on June & School Friend. Fleetway and IPC were always trendy, being in the centre of London where it was all happening (or supposed to be happening!). There were lots of women’s magazines in the building like Woman, Woman’s Own, Options, Woman’s Weekly and others I can’t remember, plus cool mags like Rave and Fab 208, so we’d often see famous pop stars like Marianne Faithful, The Beatles, Adam Faith and so on. It was glamorous!
Mavis Miller didn’t write any stories or features, she concentrated on the editing. Len Wenn didn’t write anything for June & School Friend. Maybe he did for his new paper Sally. Just remembered: staff member Cecil Graveney used to write Bessie Bunter and Sindy (toy doll). Cecil was old Amalgamated Press, in his late 50s or early 60s then. Mavis in her 30s and Len in his 40s (I think – I’m terrible at telling ages). One artist who occasionally drew illustrations for features was in his 80s. A jolly chap with a big smile who reminded me of Father Christmas. I regret not remembering his name. When you think about it, he must have been drawing for Amalgamated Press in the 1920s and have known people who were at the very start of ‘comics’ in the 1890s. His artistic style was still very 1920s. A real link with the past and great to meet him.
Of course, there were dark sides to Fleetway/IPC. Not sure if I want to go into that!
Thanks again to Terry for sending in these memories and explanations.
Len Wenn (1918 – 2003) wrote various stories for Jinty, as confirmed by Keith Robson in this comment. At present the list of his confirmed story titles is very minimal; if further information comes in we’d love to add to it in the future.
(with thanks to Keith Robson for the photo)
Len was the editor who launched the IPC girls’ comic Sally, which ran from 1969 to 1971; he subsequently edited the IPC boy’s humour comic Buster from 1971 to 1981. There are some references to Len, and to Keith Robson, in Dez Skinn’s article about his IPC Fleetway days here. Terry Magee also refers to Len Wenn and Mavis Miller holding script conferences in IPC during his time there (see subsequent additions to the Terry Magee interview): “Len and Mavis collaborated on scripts for June & School Friend and Sally. … Horace Boyten also used to join their script conferences before he retired in 1966. Horace was a very nice chap, quiet and modest, the writer behind “The Silent Three”. Len and Horace were very Amalgamated Press…easy-going kind of fellows. Probably too gentle for the challenging changes ahead.”
In fact the two stories we have confirmation that he wrote are not only solid, memorable Jinty stories, they have a lot of bite to them. “Go On, Hate Me!” is a powerful grudge/revenge story that wraps up well; the shorter, to-the-point “The Birds” has strong horror elements that make it genuinely scary at points. If he was too gentle for the changes in the working environment as Terry suggests, he certainly could write to the spec of the newer breed of comic that was represented by Jinty, Tammy, Misty, and the like.
The idea of multiple collaborators within the editorial office working on script conferences is intriguing. Alison Christie has confirmed in her interview that she had very little editorial direction, which I assume would be because she had already proved herself as a trusted steady hand, capable of delivering solid stories to schedule. Were the in-house script conferences to determine the suggestions that might be made to other less trusted writers, or to propose girls-story takes on big hits from books and tv, or just to write their own content? There were so many pages to fill alongside the comics stories, from ‘hints & tips’ features or non-fiction articles, plus text stories, that this must have kept the editorial team pretty busy in any case. The collaborative aspect of story writing in those conferences was a gift that must have been limited to only specific cases, given that most freelance creators never met each other.
This is the 250th post on this blog! After a slow season in the run up to Christmas, we have been blazing away. How better to celebrate than with another creator interview?
Keith Robson contacted us via a comment on this site: “I drew ‘The Birds’ so can tell you that the writer was ‘Buster’ editor Len (Lennox) Wenn. Before going freelance in 1975 I was a staffer so Len and I were old friends. Len also wrote ‘Go On, Hate Me’ and many other Jinty serials.” He kindly agreed to answer a few questions for this blog, illuminating various aspects of the life of a freelancer and staffer at the time and subsequently.
1 Can you please outline your career in British comics? For instance, how did you start, which titles did you write for, how long did you draw comics for? I have read Dez Skinn’s article about IPC Fleetway when you both worked there, and of course in your original comment on this site you said that you started as a freelancer in 1975, but it would be great to know what led you to go freelance (it seems to have been a step taken by a lot of in house staff?).
I got my start in October 1968 in D.C.Thomson’s Meadowside art department in Dundee. This was a wonderful training ground where I learned far more than I ever did in Art College! There were over 50 artists, letterers and layout people at the disposal of all the Thomson publications so almost anything could land on your desk to be drawn, quickly and accurately. In those early days I drew lots of text story illustrations for the boys’ comics – Rover, Victor, Hotspur etc. Pat Mills and John Wagner were there at the time though I never got to know them, and they left before I did.
The Spanish and Italian artists used by the girls’ comics did beautiful work, but they could never get British things like policemen, buses, taxis, pillar boxes etc. right, so a typical job would be Anglicising pages for Jackie or Romeo. (I also appeared in Romeo, as did many young Thomson staffers, photographed to illustrate readers’ letters and problems!) More often though, 39 pages of an old girls’ serial would land on my desk to be updated- all the hairstyles updated, skirts shortened, blazer badges changed and so on. Thus acres of magnificent artwork passed through my hands, and once in a while there would be the opportunity to actually draw some pages. My first girls’ stories were for Diana starting with a serial on the back page (in full colour!) called ‘Little Donkey’. Assorted other Diana features and annual pages followed but the bread and butter work of the art department was repairs and alterations. In all, I spent two and a half happy years in Meadowside learning from some wonderful mentors, but really wanting to draw my own weekly pages and not seeing too much future for that in the Thomson Art Dept.
In the summer of 1971 I was down in London (hoping to find an agent) and found myself passing the offices of IPC Magazines with a folder of artwork under my arm and the number of an ex-Thomson staffer now in Look and Learn… An hour later after a hilarious interview with legendary managing editor Jack Le Grand I emerged back on Farringdon Street with a staff job (and some freelance work on Look and Learn)!
I returned to Dundee, packed my bags, bade a cordial farewell to D.C.Thomson, and a fortnight later joined Buster working with editor Lenn Wenn and sub editor Dez Skinn. (A week later we were all on strike!)
A daily visitor to the Buster office was Mavis Miller, and old friend of Lenn’s (they started at Fleetway together) and we often all went to lunch. I acquired an agent (Dan Kelleher of Temple/Rogers) and started doing freelance for assorted publishers, all kinds of work with a view to saving enough for a deposit on my own flat. Through the good offices of Dan and Pat Kelleher, (and since I had parted amicably from D.C.Thomson), I began drawing for the Sparky – a series called ‘Mr. Bubbles’.
Friends in Dundee alerted me to a suitable flat for sale in Newport-on-Tay (across the river from Dundee) I was able to get a mortgage, and a few months later took the plunge, moved back north and went freelance, working for both Thomsons and IPC.
2 Which stories did you draw, in Jinty and on other titles? On my list of Jinty stories that you drew, I have “Jassy’s Wand of Power”, “Go On, Hate Me!”, “The Goose Girl”, “The Birds”, and various Gypsy Rose stories. Of the stories you drew, do you have favourites or perhaps ones you now recall with a bit of a shudder? Did you know ever know who wrote “Jassy” for instance, or the Gypsy Rose stories you drew? We know from Veronica Weir that there was at least one case of an artist who wrote their own story; did you ever do that, or did you know of other cases where that happened at all?
It was through Pat Kelleher and knowing Mavis Miller that I got my first Jinty serial – “Jassy’s Wand of Power’’ – which I really enjoyed. They never told me know who wrote anything, I only knew the stories written by Lenn Wenn, so I can’t tell you who did those Gypsy Rose stories – except for the one I wrote myself. This was one of the first scripts I ever had accepted. A girl encounters a photographer with a Victorian camera at a ruined castle. She later realises he must be a ghost and that she has taped his voice on her new cassette recorder! However when she plays it back there’s nothing. The twist comes when she does some research in the library and discovers a 100 year old photo – of herself! [This story is reprinted below]
I didn’t find out that Alison Fitt had written “The Goose Girl” until 2006 when we met at the launch of ‘Time Tram Dundee’, a ‘Horrible History’-type book I illustrated that was written by Alison’s son Matthew.
3 In your time doing these comics are there any kinds of stories that you would have liked to draw that you didn’t get the chance to?
I enjoyed all the stories I did for Jinty, and I always tried to put in as much background detail as I could. I would love the opportunity to redraw any of them again now (I cringe when I see some of the stuff I did in those days!). I especially liked stories with a distinctive setting and lots of atmosphere. I can remember “Save Old Smokey” the train story that Alison mentioned. I would have loved to have been asked to draw that one as I love steam trains! Deadlines were often a bit of a struggle, and in order to stay on schedule with “The Goose Girl” I had to take my pages with me on holiday, and it was while drawing an episode in a caravan in Anstruther that the news came that Elvis had died (16 August 1977).
4 We are always keen to know who worked on the various stories, as explicit creator credit was very rare. You have already helped muchly with your crediting of Len Wenn as writer on “Hate Me!” and “The Birds”, and via Alison Christie we now know that she was the writer on “The Goose Girl”. Do you know names of other people who worked on Jinty and related girls’ comics?
After Jinty, I also did a serial for Penny called ‘The Blue Island Mystery’; again I was never told who the writer was, also a ‘spot the clue’ type detective feature called “Sharp-eyed Sharon” for the Summer Special [there were also two examples of it in the 1979 Annual]. My final girls’ serial was for D.C.Thomson in Mandy, which had been taken over by former Sparky editor, Iain Chisholm (shortly before he died). This was “Diana’s Dark Secret” – Blind Diana unexpectedly regains her sight in episode one, but because she fears they’ll take away Goldie, her beloved guide dog she continues (riddled by guilt) to fake blindness. Only the dog knows…
After Mandy, Thomsons moved me onto Topper (drawing “The Whizzers from Oz”) and Starblazer doing science fantasy covers, then on to their final two boys’ papers, Spike and Champ. When they folded I worked on school textbooks for Oliver and Boyd in Edinburgh, then over ten years on the Dandy writing and drawing “Black Bob”, and “Jonah” and “General Jumbo” for Beano. There was a brief return to girls’ type stories in the Dandy with a short-lived parody written tongue-in-cheek by Thomson staffer Duncan Leith called “Wendy’s Wicked Stepladder”.
5 In his article, Dez attributes the decline of comics to a contempt for the reader (and maybe also the creator?) that was down to a purely commercial vision – printing using old-fashioned presses, resizing artwork in a destructive fashion, and so on. Pat Mills also thinks similarly, talking of the hatch-match-dispatch process angrily. Of course the rise of competing claims on kids’ time and pocket money (computer games, tv) could also be held to blame. Where do you stand on this? Do you think the decline of the British comics industry was an avoidable misfortune, or inevitable in a changing world?
I feel it was very short-sighted that the comics were allowed to slide into decline. For sure, the rise of other media certainly played its part, but the publishers were always reluctant to invest when sales dropped, especially IPC with its hatch, match, and despatch policy. They never had much respect for the amazing pool of talent that they had at their disposal, and certainly never gave anyone credit. Payments hardly increased in the latter years, and our work was never returned. There was a constant anxiety that the comic might fold (they never told you that the end was coming) and there might be no more work…
Letterpress printing never did justice to the artwork and maybe, just maybe if they had gone upmarket into full colour and printed on decent paper, giving creators a name check they might have got a bit more attention and survived. Of course there was always a snobbery towards comics in this country, devalued and disparaged at the time by teachers, librarians etc. who thought they were just throwaway rubbish that would rot children’s brains.
Nowadays teachers are delighted to see children reading comics (reading anything!) and appreciate the creativity that goes into them. Thanks largely to ‘Time Tram Dundee’, I decided to qualify as a teacher and now have a whole new career (which I love!) going into schools and working with children to create and draw their own comics.
It surprises me that no-one has considered publishing some of those serials as graphic novels (suitably updated and with colour). I’ve worked with Alison Fitt on several projects and we’ve recently collaborated on a 72 page graphic novel ‘Nora Thumberland, Heroine of Hadrian’s Wall’ (yet to find a publisher) which 30 years ago could well have have been a Jinty serial…
Many thanks again to Keith for this great interview!
“Gypsy Rose: A Picture From The Past” published Jinty 3 December 1977
(Cover artist: Veronica Weir)
This issue of Penny marks the beginning of “Seulah the Seal” (posted above). The cover seems to have an error – isn’t a baby seal supposed to be called a pup? Seulah is the Penny serial that would conclude in the Jinty & Penny merger on 5 June 1980. Seulah must have been hugely popular if his serial lasted six months. Seulah is drawn by Veronica Weir, whose artwork would carry over to Jinty with the merger and illustrate the Jinty classic, “Girl the World Forgot“.
The issue also tells you something about the context behind the merger. When Penny began, she was printed on more expensive paper, similar to that of Girl (series 2). But by this time Penny was printed on cheaper newsprint, the same type of newsprint used for comics like Jinty, and so resembled Jinty more closely in appearance. The same shift in newsprint would appear again in Princess (series 2), which merged with Tammy in 1984. A shift to cheaper newsprint is a sign of cost-cutting, which implies that Penny was in trouble and not meeting costs of the earlier, more expensive production.
Penny gives the impression she was targeting a slightly younger audience than Jinty, what with her name, fairly lightweight fare and adaptations of popular children’s books, such as Heidi and the Secret Seven. Tansy of Jubilee Street was the best match for the merger, because the zany humour of Tansy suited the flavour of Jinty. One of Penny‘s most striking features was Blunder Girl, a parody of Wonder Woman. Blunder Girl was drawn by J. Edward Oliver, an artist more frequently seen in Buster. Sadly, Blunder Girl did not make it into the merger.