Growing up in the 1960’s and 1970’s in England one of my favourite things was buying and reading comics. My favourite comic’s were Valiant, Victor, Shiver and Shake which were ones with War Stories, Horror stories or Science fiction stories.
In the 19th century, story papers (containing illustrated text stories), known as “Penny Dreadfuls”due to their cover price, served as entertainment for British children. Full of close-printed text with few illustrations, they were essentially no different to a book, except that they were somewhat shorter and that typically the story was serialised over many weekly issues in order to maintain sales.
These serial stories could run to hundreds of instalments if they were popular. And to pad out a successful series, writers would insert quite extraneous material such as the geography of the country in which the action was occurring, just so that the story would extend into more issues. Plagiarism was rife, with magazines pirating competitors’ successes under a few cosmetic name changes.
Apart from action and historical stories, there was also a fashion for horror and the supernatural, with epics like Varney The Vampire running for years. Horror, in particular, gave rise to the epithet penny dreadful. Stories featuring criminals such as ‘Spring-Heeled Jack’, pirates, highwaymen (especially Dick Turpin), and detectives (including Sexton Blake) dominated decades of the Victorian and early 20th-century weeklies.
Comic strips – stories told primarily in strip cartoon form, rather than as a written narrative with illustrations – emerged only slowly. Ally Sloper’s Half Holiday (1884) is reputed to be the first comic strip magazine to feature a recurring character, and the first British comic that would be recognised as such today. This strip cost one penny and was designed for adults. Ally, the recurring character, was a working class fellow who got up to various forms of mischief and often suffered for it.
In 1890 two more comic magazines debuted before the British public, Comic Cuts and Illustrated Chips, both published by Amalgamated Press. These magazines notoriously reprinted British and American material, previously published in newspapers and magazines, without permission. The success of these comics was such that Amalgamated’s owner, Alfred Harmsworth, was able to launch The Daily Mail and The Daily Mirror newspapers on the profits.
Over the next thirty years or so, comic publishers saw the juvenile market as the most profitable, and thus geared their publications accordingly, so that by 1914 most comics were aimed at eight to twelve year olds.
The period between the two wars is notable mainly for the publication of annuals by Amalgamated Press, and also the emergence of DC Thomson launching both the Beano and the Dandy in the late 1930s, as previously noted.
During the Second World War the Beano and Dandy thrived, due to the wartime paper shortage which forced many rival comics to close. It is these two titles, more than any other, that have come to define a comic in the British public’s mind. Their successful mix of irreverence and slapstick led to many similar titles, notably Topper and Beezer. However the originators of this format have outlasted all rivals, and are still published today.
During the 1950s and 1960s the most popular comic magazine for older age-group boys was the Eagle published by Hulton Press. The Eagle was published in a more expensive format, and was a gravure-printed weekly. This format was one used originally by Mickey Mouse Weekly during the 1930s. The Eagle’s success saw a number of comics launched in a similar format, TV Century 21, Look and Learn and TV Comic being notable examples. Comics published in this format were known in the trade as “slicks”. At the end of the 1960s these comics moved away from gravure Printing, preferring offset litho due to cost considerations arising from decreasing readership.
By 1970 the British comics market was in a long term decline, as comics lost popularity in the face of the rise of other popular pastimes for children. Initially the challenge was the rising popularity of television, a trend which the introduction of colour television to Britain during 1969 set in stone. In an effort to counter the trend, many publishers switched the focus of their comics towards television-related characters. The television shows of Gerry Anderson had begun this in 1966 with the launch of tie-in comics such as TV21 and Lady Penelope that included only strips related to Anderson’s TV shows. Polystyle Publications already published a TV-related comic for young children called TV Comic, and in 1971 moved into the older market with Countdown (later retitled TV Action).
The teenage market saw Look-In magazine feature strips solely based on popular television programmes. Another strand of the reaction to television was the launch of comics focused entirely on football (soccer being as popular as television amongst boys), with titles such as Shoot and Scorcher and Score. Those comics which didn’t address the issue of television began to close, merging with the few survivors.
However, the boys adventure comic was still popular, and titles such as Valiant and Tiger
Published by IPC saw new adventure heroes become stars, including Roy of the Rovers who would eventually gain his own title. Oldham Press was a company which mainly printed new material that was adventure oriented.
In the 1970s very few boys’ comics in the “slick” format were launched, although Countdown was one exception, launching in 1971 with content similar to TV 21 (which had closed by then) and TV Comic. Vulcan, a reprint title, was another, in 1976. Girls’ titles which had launched in the “slick” format in the 1960s continued in that format into the 1970s; and others, such as Diana and Judy, changed to become slicks. They found themselves in the same market as teenage titles for girls such as Boyfriend and Blue Jeans, which had changed their content and were featuring mainly product-related articles and photo-strips.
Viz began life in 1979 as a fanzine style publication, before, in 1989, becoming the biggest selling magazine in the country. Based upon bad taste, crude language, crude sexual innuendo, and the parodying of strips from the dandy (among them Black bag – the Faithful Border Bin Liner, a parody of The Dandy’s Black Bob series about a Border Collie), the popularity of Viz depended entirely upon a variant of Sixties counter-culture; it is still one of the United Kingdom’s top selling magazines.
The Star Wars magazine lasted into the late 1980s, although it changed its name in line with each movie release. In 1982 The Eagle was relaunched, this time including photo-strips, but still with Dan Dare as the lead story. The comic moved him from the front page to the centre pages to allow a more magazine-style cover.
In the 21st Century there have also been changes in the comics market with a growth in home-grown Graphic Novels and Manga.
There have been hundreds of comics in the UK, including the following A to Z:
2000 AD (1977–current)
Air Ace Picture Library (1960–1970)
Andy Capp (1957–current)
Battle Picture Weekly (1975–1988)
The Beano (1938–current)
The Beezer (1956–1993)
The Big One (1964–1965)
The Boy’s Own Paper (1879–1967)
Boys’ World (1963–1964)
Buster Classics (1996)
Classics from the Comics (1996–current)
Comic Cuts (1890–1953)
Commando Comics (1961–current)
The Dandy (1937–current)
Deadline magazine (1988–1995)
The DFC (2008–2009)
Dice Man (1986)
The Eagle (1950–1969) and (1982–1994)
Film Fun (1920–1962)
Funny (1989-early 1990s)
Fun Size Beano (1997–current)
Fun Size Dandy (1997–current)
The Gem (1907–1939)
Girl (1951–1964) and (1981–1990)
Heven & Hell (1990)
Illustrated Chips (1890–1953)
Jack and Jill (1885–1887) and (1954–1985)
The Judge Dredd Megazine (1990–current)
Knockout (1939–1963) and (1971–1973)
Linzy & Charcol (2006)
Look and Learn (1962–1982)
The Magic Comic (1939–1941)
The Magnet (1908–1940)
Mickey Mouse Weekly (1936–1955)
Monster Fun (1975–1976)
Night Warrior (2005–current)
Picture Politics (1894–1914)
Picture Fun (1909–1920)