Tag Archives: Julia Round

Comics Jam: Preserving British Comics

Yes, good pun, I didn’t notice it myself until the suggestion that the next follow up should be a Dundee-based one called Comics Marmalade. (Note to the unknowing – Dundee is famous for both marmalade and comics.)

On Saturday I went to the Cartoon Museum in London, to a small but perfectly formed event (follow link to Down The Tubes for fuller description). I feel very lucky to have gone: the numbers were limited due to the venue size, and I believe also the key person behind the gathering was keen to keep it sharp and focused. Many thanks indeed, therefore, to David Roach for suggesting me as an attendee and to Peter Hansen for finding a slot for me to join in. The event was called “Comics Jam” and the aim of it was to discuss ways to preserve UK Comics History (though the subtitle actually used was just the straightforward descriptive phrase, “British Comics History”).

The event started at the beginning of the afternoon: 2 pm, to allow everyone  time to get there from far-flung locations (Dundee, Bournemouth, Wales, and indeed Peter Hansen himself is primarily based in Vancouver, Canada). Peter gave a short introduction of how he came to become a collector (recounted in more detail in a video included in the Down The Tubes link above) and we also saw an amazing short video walking us through his collection. The collection consists of a very large number of old comics of course (Peter shudders at the number of rusty staples he has pulled out of comics over the years, to prevent them from deteriorating further). Perhaps not entirely surprisingly, it also includes a large amount of original art work – but I think no one would expect the sheer number of pages of physical artwork that he has collected, which certainly numbers in the tens of thousands, stored in folders and on pallets.

Amazingly though, the collection also includes even rarer material. Tin plate adverts hung up outside newsagents, and a very few surviving paper adverts; leaflets and other promotional items including free gifts; dummies of comics never launched: all of great interest in giving a context to the business of publishing comics, of course. Best of all, the real holy grail for those of us who want to credit the creators behind it all: editorial correspondence, editorial bound copies of comics with annotations, and even pay books with information about who created what, and how much they were paid.

I hope the video, or a similar one, can be released at some time for wider appreciation. There is nothing quite like the impact it makes on the viewer as we watch Peter walking us through a simple door into a Tardis of comics ephemera: down corridors, along shelves, across pallets, peering into and out of art folders and banana boxes, and thence around many corners, up various stairs, and finally into a calm area where he catalogues his material. I was relieved to know that there is an electronic catalogue of the archive in spreadsheet format and that it’s not purely hard-copy, but it surely can’t be a complete work at this point as it consists of just Peter’s own labours rather than a joint effort or one done by someone brought in to complete this mammoth task. (Given that the event was co-organized by a number of academic bodies, perhaps this will change and a PhD student might end up with this task, or some part of it? Or Peter, please do correct me if I am wrong in my assumption about the completeness of it!)

Once we’d recovered from gawping at the Aladdin’s cave on the video, we had two discussion panels: the first was the one I was on (“The Story of British Comics: a round table discussion on the history of British comics, featuring Julia Round, Chris Murray, Jenni Scott, John Freeman, and David Roach, chaired by Phillip Vaughan“) and the second ranged from further historical discussions to information about what Rebellion and others are doing right now that will help to preserve this important part of cultural history. (“Celebrating and Preserving British Comics: a round table discussion on comics archives and preserving collections for the nation – featuring Peter Hansen, David Huxley, Rob Power, and Hannah Berry, chaired by Steve Holland”). Finally, we had a short trio of celebrities talking about their youthful memories of comics: Dave Gibbons and his youth as a comics reader and of course comics creator, Posy Simmonds on her early years reading both British and American comics (courtesy of a nearby USAF base) and Jonathan Ross talking eloquently on the rich texture of cultural history that a collection like Peter’s can hold for ordinary punters and for the research community alike (drawing on his experience as a governor for the BFI there).

Without going into detail of who said what and when (I didn’t take any notes for myself), I remember the discussion covering the below areas and more.

  • None of us present needed convincing of this ourselves, but as we stated and re-stated, these are important cultural and artistic artifacts for a number of reasons. They are elements of a shared history that has shaped the readership and affected the nation, while they also reflect back to us the concerns and interests of the nation at that time; but they are also amazing creations of a high artistic standard, denigrated and overlooked at the time and since then. This is evidenced by the lack of printed credits throughout most of the time that British comics were published, but also by people’s attitudes to it and the lack of attention paid to the area since the comics stopped being published. The publishers were hugely cavalier about the original artwork (though to be fair, it constitutes a real physical challenge for archiving and storage if you are going to do it properly!), and the creators themselves downplayed what they put out, typically not thinking of it as art.
  • As a result, the history and the artifacts from that time weren’t carefully preserved, and the knowledge of what it was made up of was being lost even when the main movers were still alive, let alone now, when more and more of those primary sources have died. We have lost and are losing memories  and information as well as artifacts – who did what, but also how they did it, what it meant to the readers, what unrecorded processes might have happened as a part of the overall business of publishing. (That’s some of the meat and drink of the interviews on this blog of course: hearing that in-house people wrote stories as well as freelance writers, that in-house art editors shaped a lot of the look and feel of the resulting page.)
  • The knowledge or the information that is out there is very scattered and certainly isn’t brought together in any central way: the indexes and the archives that do exist need to be searchable, discoverable, queryable in ways that allow us to ask questions and perhaps get unexpected answers about the kinds of stories included in girls comics, or the numbers of women involved in girls comics as compared to boys comics, or any other similar question of interest that could be posed. At the most basic level, never mind those research questions: how about being able to refer to a complete bibliography of a high-quality but over-looked comics artist, or to be able to produce a complete list of all the stories written in a certain title?
  • The range of things we need to do is of course overwhelming, and one question I asked was about what will we do, how can anyone choose a priority to stick to (or does each person choose their own priority, maybe). Some voices were asking about digital formats and the archiving of that material – a physical lump of Bristol board is quite hard-wearing and withstands quite a lot of mistreatment, and concept sketches also can last well, whereas current creators probably don’t even keep their ‘draft’ digital files that show the processes they used in order to get to the final output. (And even if they did, would the storage media and the machines to run them on exist a few years later?)
  • We can’t do it all, though clearly different people will have different interests and aims – so what might or will we actually do, and what might happen first?
    • Rebellion are slowly going through their acquired archives to make use of it, seeing it as the valuable resource that it is; but the size of the challenge in front of them means they can only go relatively slowly if they are to do it right. Currently they are recruiting an archivist and sorting out things so that it will become somewhere that researchers and others can visit, but it isn’t at that stage yet. Peter Hansen also confirmed that there are discussions around Rebellion acquiring whatever IPC original artwork that he currently holds, because of course that would considerably reduce the work to be done by the Rebellion reprographics department, but that is still to come.
    • There is a consortium of interested parties working together to acquire Peter’s collection for the nation, but it would need substantial funding not only to acquire the material itself but also to make good use of it (storing it, recording it in some way, and making it available to the wider public and to researchers). Having said that, it’s not that this is all cost and no benefit – the recent Seven Stories touring comics exhibition, “Comics! Explore and Create Comic Art“, featuring art from Peter’s collection, has helped generate some £60,000 in income so far and over three years is expected to comfortably exceed that figure.
    • There were some digital archivists in the room so there is some interest in building up expertise in that area, but it is at a very early stage as yet.

Even what feels in comparison to be much smaller efforts, such as this blog, are part of the collective gathering of information and valuing of what was created – we are helping to show creators and readers from the time that it is worth bringing together, that it is worth preserving what we can of this. Not just the visible product of the weekly comic itself, but the invisible processes that went into it; the thoughts, the memories of how it was made, and how it was received by the readers themselves. After all, the Girls Comics of Yesterday blog made a great joint leap of attribution only the other day, bringing in not only the name of a really prolific writer – Marion Turner, writing under the pen name Fiona Turner – but also a long-sought-after name of an artist, Don Walker, given by Marion Turner’s son Philip. (Though I say ‘long-sought-after’ – seemingly the information must have been held at DC Thomsons all along as they are attributed with supplying the information to Philip in the first place.) So please, please keep writing in, anyone with any connection to the British comics publishing world!

 

IGNCC18, Bournemouth: Anne Digby

As promised, a few notes so far on the comics conference I am attending here in Bournemouth. Julia Round is one of the key organisers and as such it was always likely to have interest for girls comics readers as her own research interest at the moment is on Misty and the gothic. Also attending, speaking, and helping to organise the event are Joan Ormrod (who is interested in British weekly publications such as Mirabelle and Roxy) and Dr Mel Gibson whose “Remembered Reading” was discussed on this blog.

The key event on the first day of the conference was an interview session at the end of the day between Mel Gibson and Anne Digby. This was recorded by Alex Fitch (of internet radio channel Resonance FM) with the aim of transmitting it at a future date. Anne Digby talked about her start in working life, getting her first job at 16 as an editorial trainee or apprentice at Amalgamated Press in London, working on School Friend. This matched her early desire, from the age of 8 or so, to be a writer. Learning on the job and being paid to do so was right up her street. She had been a reader of comics and of School Friend itself as a child, so she was particularly thrilled from that perspective.

There was one other trainee when she joined the team, another young woman; they worked with an older lady, Isobel Winchester (corrected following confirmation with AD) who was an old hand and trained them in sub-editing tasks. In the talk, Anne didn’t go into lots of detail of what those tasks consisted of, but she did say that it included editing texts sent in by freelancers and other writers by tidying them up. Afterwards in separate conversation she also explained that it included the commissioning of work too, including the matching of artists to writers. It was very much a journalistic job, pulling together the finished creation that the reader consumes.

In case the above misleads on the prevalence of women in the comics business, Mel did ask about whether there were many other women writers or artists that worked at the time that Anne Digby was associated with the Amalgamated Press / Fleetway / IPC as it became over the years. Evelyn “Polly” Flinders, artist on the long-running girls school story “The Silent Three”, was an obvious example for her to mention; Anne had memories of her as a lovely person who didn’t look stereotypically ‘artistic’ (she wore tweeds and had her hair in a schoolma’arm bun). One interesting snippet was that Flinders was unusual in not having an agent to represent her, as the other artists generally did. (Writers did not have agent representation, but artists did.) She would turn up to deliver her art in person, carrying it in a large portfolio, so she was a regular figure to Digby. However, the number of women creative contributors engaged in producing the comics seems otherwise to have been relatively minimal.

The expectation in that job was that people would take the opportunity to do extra writing jobs on a freelance basis, and eventually transition to going completely freelance. Anne did indeed do this. She wrote text stories and comics for A.P. / Fleetway for some years, and children’s novels from the mid- to late 70s onwards. Indeed, her own take on why the comics market declined is precisely because of the rise of children’s novels at ‘pocket money’ prices – the Armada Lions and the like of the times expanded the market beyond what Puffin had done when they stood alone as the big name in children’s books.

Digby is clearly pleased with and proud of her work even at this distance in time; she has favorites that she happily cites (such as semi-supernatural story “The Dance Dream” and horse story “Olympia Jones”. This is as it should be, of course – her work was read by masses of children and stayed with those readers for a long time, and it stands up to the test of time on re-read. I hope that her wish to see “Olympia Jones” and other work re-issued will come to pass.

Further posts will follow, covering the David Roach talk in particular. However one thing I can quickly share is a photo of the script that Anne Digby brought along to the event: for a Strange Story called “The Cat”. The script was around 5 pages long but I didn’t photograph the rest of it. How lovely to see physical artifacts still around from that time, and still legible too!

Misty: Moonchild & The Four Faces of Eve (2016)

This is a review of the Rebellion reprint of two stories from Misty: “Moonchild” and “The Four Faces of Eve”. Many thanks to Rebellion for supplying this review copy.

The announcement last year that Rebellion were to reprint two classic stories from Misty was met with great excitement. How does the reality match to our heightened expectations? What might we like to see Rebellion do more of in any future reprints of IPC material, and what might we want them to avoid if possible?

Rebellion Publishing 2016

The two stories themselves are likely to be familiar to many readers of this blog and I won’t cover the content of the stories at all in this review. (Other reviews, such as this one on FA Comiczine, cover this territory.) “Moonchild” is a definite classic and would spring to most people’s minds when thinking of key stories from Misty. It also has the name recognition factor of Pat Mills; John Armstrong is probably less well known to those who are not already fans of UK girls comics, but is also familiar from Tammy‘s “Bella at the Bar”. “The Four Faces of Eve” isn’t one of the stories I would necessarily immediately think of when coming up with classics from Misty, but Malcolm Shaw can certainly make a tale speed along and the Brian Delaney art is stylish and beautiful. I don’t think any knowledgeable reader of UK girls comics would have a problem with these two stories having been chosen to represent Misty in the first modern reprint edition, though depending on individual preferences we might have made slightly different choices.

The book itself felt a bit thin when I took it from the (large) packaging, but that was slightly illusory: it’s a good size book, and the fact it combines two stories of a decent length means that you feel that it gives you enough to get your teeth into. However at 114 pages it still feels like a relatively quick read; fellow Rebellion title “Monster”, reprinted from Scream & the Eagle, clocks in at 192 pages so I think there is room to push the boat out and include more pages next time. The print and production qualities are high (much higher than the original newsprint of course), though there are some aesthetic choices that will succeed with some readers and maybe not with all. Specifically, the cover features beautiful Shirley Bellwood art, but the pink (on Misty’s skin and dress) has come out with the half-tone screen dots very visible: surely done on purpose as this is not anything constrained by current production processes. The title logo has also been re-designed, using a rather wiggly and wavy font: I don’t know why anyone would use anything other than the classic logo, unless the rights to that logo had not been acquired at the time? It’s not a bad choice in itself – I like the little crescent moon that tops the letter ‘i’ in the title – but it feels like a bit of an unnecessary change.

There’s a good amount of extra material inside. Pat Mills has written a foreword about the historical context of girls comics publishing of the time, and how the title Misty was originally created; generous credit given to fellow creator Malcolm Shaw in particular and many readers of this blog will be glad to see Mavis Miller get a namecheck too. At the back of the book, Dr Julia Round has written a lovely tribute to Shirley Bellwood, and there are brief biographies of all four creators (Brian Delaney’s is particularly brief but I suspect there may be limited biographical information available about him). Finally, there are one or two craft items included – how to make a witch’s hat, and how to make a tree-devil mask. I think these are a great touch: I suspect they were added for kitsch value but they bring something extra of their own to the reprint. More of this sort of thing in any reprint please!

Of course the key component to any such reprint is the treatment of the comic pages themselves. The printing is nice and crisp and you wouldn’t particularly guess it had been scanned from a published edition. Will Morgan makes the observation (in his review on FA) that John Armstrong’s art suffers because it includes so many thin lines, which are lost in the production: that’s true, but I think most readers wouldn’t notice, as they will be dragged along by the story. The faces and the other details in the story remain compelling – there are large standout images throughout, that arrest the reader’s attention regardless of individual fine detail elements that are lost.

I am also sure that hardly anyone would notice the fact that the Moonchild pages have been edited to fit a larger page size*: an extra two centimetres of art was drawn on the bottom of each page, to make it longer! It sounds absurd and obvious but in fact I have read exactly this edition (which was the version printed in the 1983 Misty Annual) more than once and have only noticed it now, when looking quite carefully. (This is just like what happened in the 1979 Jinty Annual, in the story “Trudy On Trial”.) Having said that, in some places this editing is pretty clumsily done: another time it would be far preferable to follow the model used in “The Four Faces of Eve”, where you can see the original logo from each weekly episode, and the original art dimensions are respected. (In the case of “Eve”, in particular, the story title logo and accompanying art is really beautifully done and is different in almost every episode, so it would be a real loss to miss this out.)

[*Edited to add: I should clarify here that Rebellion themselves haven’t edited the art to fit a larger page size, but they have chosen a source to scan from where this had been done, that is, when the story was reprinted in the 1983 Misty Annual.]

I know this review is a little odd in focusing so strongly on the editorial and publishing choices made when creating this reprint, rather than on the stories themselves. As you will understand, I am keen to understand what any future reprints from other girls comics could look like! Of course, the quality of the stories themselves is not anything I have any concerns about, but lacklustre publishing decisions can damn the best content. This first reprint from Rebellion isn’t perfect but it hits the right high notes. New readers will find plenty to love, while those who already know the content will be very happy to see a professional, competently-executed edition produced by people who perhaps are still figuring out some of the details of what will work best, but who are very much moving in a welcome direction. Here’s hoping it is the success it deserves to be!

Misty: Featuring Moonchild & The Four Faces of Eve. Rebellion Publishing, 2016. ISBN 9781781084526