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Thursday, 10 September 2009

In Review: Great British Fantasy Comic Book Heroes

During the Second World War, with imported resources costing ships and lives, paper was one of the many things that came under the ration. In Britain comics were not a wartime priority and publishers had to cancel some titles while reducing the page count of the survivors. Paper rationing continued after the war throughout the 1940s and while the big publishers slowly built up the size and regularity of their remaining titles, some entrepreneurs saw a gap in the market for more comics printed on any paper that they could get their hands on. These became what were known as the Pirate Publishers, small time companies that put out often one-off comics with lurid titles such as Dynamic Thrills, Oh Boy Comic or Electroman.

Today these comics are incredibly rare and in this book Phil Clarke and Mike Higgs of Ugly Duckling Press have pulled together a wide selection of these 1940s and 1950s titles into one A4 size 464 page hardback under the title of Great British Fantasy Comic Book Heroes. The majority of the stories reprinted in this title feature superheros with some science fiction heroes added in a special “Sci-Fi Thrills” section towards the end. In amongst forgotten stories of TNT Tom, Ray Spede, Superstooge and Ned Nomad are some rather more familiar characters such as Space Ace, Swift Morgan and Marvelman and it is the more familiar characters and those illustrated by familiar names that are the draw in this book.

After a detailed ten page introductory article on the history of the titles and the characters that are reprinted in the book, it is the three Marvelman, Young Marvelman and Marvelman Family strips that are perhaps the ones that will raise the most curiosity today. Are they any good? "Holy Macaroni!", of course not - at least not to our adult eyes more used to reading Alan Moore or Neil Gaiman Marvelman stories illustrated by the likes of Alan Davis and Garry Leach. These old stories are childish and illogical but it has to be remembered that they were successful enough in their day for the character to be revamped for Warrior.

Indeed many of the stories reprinted are by artists that today would only be classed as producing bad fan art. It is too tempting to choose the worst art in the book with perhaps Hello Phantom Maid just pipping some others to the post.

However there are also early stories by some well known and respected names. Ron Turner is represented by three stories. Captain Sciento and Space Ace show typically stylish Turner art, with the Space Ace story being perhaps the best in the book, and a very early story entitled The Caverns Of Doom. Early Ron Embleton art is present in The Planet Of Doom and Captain Atom while Denis McLoughlin's detailed art is represented by Swift Morgan and The Beast From Outer Space.

However the one artist from that period and type of comic that deserves more attention is Norman Light. While his art style can be nicely summed up as "naive" it is also detailed and his spacecraft and other designs in Galactic Patrol have an enjoyable period feel to them. It would be good to see reprints of more stories written and illustrated by Light.

So while the contents may be hit and miss they do represent the Pirate Publisher comics of the time. The various stories have been digitally enhanced for the book and printed larger than the original comics and the reproduction is impressive. Of course there has to be a drawback and with this book it is the cost - £75 including UK postage. Collectors may consider buying such titles as Absolute V For Vendetta or the Captain Britain Omnibus for similar prices, titles that they will often already know, but for most this book will be a step in the dark.

So is it worth it? For those with a passing interest then probably not but for the collector it will be an impressive addition to their reference collection covering a barely known piece of British comics history and with only 100 copies of the book being printed it will remain almost as rare as the comics it reprints.

Great British Fantasy Comic Book Heroes is available for £75 from Blase Books, Hazelwood, Birchfield Road, Redditch, B97 6PU.

More details on ordering are available by e-mailing - blasebooksATaol.com.

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