Monday, February 18, 2008
Things once common, now extinct. No. 4: Comics
Comics were rather frowned upon, when I was growing up. Not proper reading, you see. But there were degrees of non-approval, a distinction between the broadsheets and the red-tops as it were, and so discerning parents like mine might fork out for a subscription to The Eagle whereas The Beezer would have to come out of your own pocket money.
The Eagle was the senior paper in a little chain of sister publications: Robin, for very young children, then Swift, then Eagle. The same publisher also produced a girls' paper, called, imaginatively enough, Girl. The strip that everyone remembers from The Eagle is Dan Dare, of course. Wonderfully illustrated by Frank Hampson, and later by the equally great Frank Bellamy, this was classy stuff. I still rate the Mekon as the best space villain ever.
Other comics thought by parents to be more or less OK included Victor, Hotspur, Rover and Lion. For girls there was Bunty and School Friend. These comics contained short stories as well as serialised strips, and it was this wordage that gave them acceptability - plus the fact that the storylines in the strips themselves took a high moral tone. Blind and crippled kids abounded, plucky types from terribly deprived backgrounds somewhere in the north, orphans, deaf mutes, polio victims. Their parents would have been killed in plane crashes. All of them overcame their physical and social handicaps, not to mention bullying of the most vicious kind, and went on to dance, sing, and run for England. Then they would be adopted by wealthy foster parents. That's if they didn't turn out to have been aristocrats all along. Such stories were as good a grounding as any for future students of Dickens.
Down at the cheaper end we had Dandy and Beano. Even these contained strips that had longish paragraphs of text attached. Black Bob, for instance, the amazing sheepdog, who was forever preventing his little chum, Blind Billy, from falling down mine shafts. And General Jumbo, with his magical army of miniature robots. There was a good ten minutes reading material in each of these strips. You couldn't just look at the pictures. It was the same with the early comic annuals - far more prose than you see nowadays.
And then came the ruck: Beezer and Topper, where there was no text as such, nor ongoing stories, just speech balloons and the same cast of characters in a new adventure every week. Beezer and Topper were the equivalent of cheap candy bars, something to be gobbled down at a sitting, a quick sugary fix. And why not? I see now that the habit of reading itself, formed at an early age, is far more important than content.
I had no prejudice or particular preference that I can remember, but would simply pounce on whatever came my way - including my sister's comics. In fact I recall strips from Bunty quite clearly even now, and can list the names of all Four Marys, no trouble. (Mary Field, Mary Raleigh, Mary Simpson and Mary Cotter. Villains? Veronica Something-or-other and Mabel Lentham.)
Other obscure characters I can dredge up on the spot: Woppit, Alf Tupper (the Tough of The Track), Winker Watson, Ginger, Beryl the Peril, Nancy, Baby Crockett, Pop Dick and Harry, Roy of The Rovers, Harold Hare, Little Plum, Smart Art (he's quick on the draw!) Jonah, Corporal Clott, Foxy, Mustapha Phagg, Keyhole Kate, Billy Whizz, Dirty Dick, The Three Bears...
A boy reading a comic was a boy for whom a more useful occupation could always be found. Consequently a borrowed copy of The Beezer was something to be devoured in private, if not in secret. Comics were faintly subversive, but therein lay their great educational value; in order to enjoy them properly you had to be able to read fairly well. I wonder now if there wasn't some reverse psychology at work.
"Stephen! Are you reading again? Why don't you go outside in the fresh air and throw rocks at something instead?"
"OK, Mum. Just five minutes more..."
Oh, I forgot to mention Look and Learn. This was a very worthy publication, the only 'comic' that had the official stamp of approval from parents and teachers. But there was nothing comic about it, I can tell you, packed as it was with useful facts about Fridtjof Nanssen, and impossible instructions on how to build your own crystal set from a tin of pineapple chunks and a cello string. Pity the poor kid who had a subscription to Look and Learn every week. He'd be the one put off reading for life.