Saturday, 21 April 2012

Mr Wong in Sleepytown

"You are feeling very sleepy. You are feeling very sleepy. You cannot keep your eyes open. Listen to me very carefully. You will be shown five Mr Wong films. Afterwards, you will awake feeling refreshed, but you will remember nothing."

You may recall my previous post in which I remarked upon the fact that life would not be worth living if it were not for the filmic work of that master of the macabre, Bela Lugosi. It's more likely that you may not, however, as it would appear from this blog's 'stats' that only 5 people ever looked at the page. Seeing as I looked at it a few times myself, to remind myself what a wonderful job I'm doing writing this stuff, that doesn't say much for poor old Bela's popularity, then or now. No wonder he only scored one acting job in 1937 (SOS Coastguard). Nonetheless, despite the fact that posts of that sort are obviously about as popular as the plague, I hope to alienate the few readers that may still somehow be out there with a few words about my other horror hero, Boris Karloff, and how he's helped me to conquer my insomnia.

But let's not talk about Frankenstein, or any of that well-known stuff. That's all too mainstream and exciting, and it might keep you awake. No, I'd like to have a word about something more restful. For I have recently discovered the tedious joys of Mr Wong, a brainy oriental detective in the Charlie Chan mould, played by Karloff five times around 1939 - 1940 in a series of cheapo Monogram whodunit flicks. You could probably score the whole set of Karloff Wongs for less than the price of a bottle of sleeping tablets, but a dose of Wongs is far more effective. I couldn't stay awake through any of them. 

I'm not saying that I didn't enjoy them. I did. But there was something heavily narcotic in dear Boris's soothing tones - as he gently spouted pseudo-oriental claptrap, making no attempt to disguise his usual speaking voice - combined with his dome-like forehead, dangling 'tache, and his blankly hypnotic stare through thick, bottle-glass spectacles, and the way he quietly fulfilled his contractual obligations with customary professionalism, without exerting himself in the slightest, that repeatedly lulled me into restful slumber.

I'd say that the first one in the series, Mr. Wong, Detective (1938), is the best one, but the least suitable as a sleeping draft. Admittedly, I slept through most of it when I first tried to enjoy it one evening, but on the second attempt, made early the next morning, determinedly fuelled by strong coffee and the sugar rush of chocolate digestives, I made it all the way through without losing consciousness, and was even able to grasp every nuance of the plot. OK, I must confess I felt a little sleepy when Wong/Karloff was lounging around in his luxurious Eastern deco apartment, in an ornate dressing gown, smoking cigarettes in a leisurely fashion, oddly clasped in the middle of his hand, puffing the fumes hither and thither, lingering inexpressively over the lines, like a fancy-dress funeral director, while the worn out 16mm print wearily hissed, groaned and crackled on. But I got past it.

"It doesn't matter whodunit...stare, stare at my unlikely are in a deep sleep..."

Yes, maybe I did nearly drop off into oblivion after he calmly advised a man under threat of murder to have a good dinner of roasted duck in almond sauce, because "he who dines well, rests well" (his advice may have been a bit off on that occasion, I think; I seem to recall its recipient was kidnapped and driven off to his doom in a fake taxi cab as soon as he got out the door). But I pulled myself together.

"Don't worry about the death threats...have some nice roast duck...then sleep, sleep...I have to make five of these films, you's not like the old days with Jimmy Whale..."

No, perky and alert-ish, I got to the end, and I have to say it was all pretty entertaining. The chap who plays the gruff, misery-guts policeman through the series, Grant Withers, is excellent; but his character gets progressively more toothless as the series progresses; which is a good thing really, because after a while he may have kept me awake.

I drifted in and out of sleep for much of the rest of this thoroughly formulaic by-the-numbers series, which has Wong inexplicably allowed to repeatedly meddle with police homicide investigations, aided by the aforementioned grumpy cop, and the inevitable wise-cracking girl reporter who sports some nice frocks and hats but gets into scrapes every five minutes. Each time I'd start one I was resolved that I couldn't possibly fall asleep again; come on, you're not that old, but about twenty minutes in, I would slide towards unconsciousness as Boris solemnly padded around whatever threadbare set he happened to be in at the time. I'd drift in and out, like a patient on a dose of filmic morphine, zoning in now and again, to see some glum fellows wearing stiff grey suits, which looked like they had the coat hangers left in, flatly delivering their lines, furthering, furthering the plot, without distinction; with Karloff remaining expressionless behind the specs, occasionally nodding, twitching his huge forehead occasionally, smoking in that odd way, stooping over, or moving his cane slightly.

At other moments I'd glimpse the sassy young reporter perching on the long-suffering policeman's desk for the thirty-fifth time, or see suspects pulling suspicious red-herring faces before Wong revealed who was the murderer. None of these films are bad; they're all pretty good. Unexceptional, but pretty good. Especially if you need a good kip. Even their interchangeable by-the-numbers titles and near identical title sequences lulled me towards the arms of Morpheus: Mr Wong, Detective; The Mystery of Mr Wong; Mr Wong in Chinatown; you could almost drop off just contemplating what they might be like.

"I'll light a nice'll help you sleep... don't worry about the plot...what does it matter?"

They tried to pep it up a bit with the snappier titles The Fatal Hour and Doomed to Die; but for me it was more like The Restful Hour and Doomed to Sleep, despite my noisy neighbours.  So, I'm a big fan of Mr Wong. I won't hear a word said against him, though his first venture is perhaps a little too lively for my taste. I will always have his films to hand alongside the Valium, whiskey and ear plugs here in THE HOUSE OF COBWEBS.

Friday, 16 December 2011

"The World Will End in 1983!" A Random Rummage Through My Comic Box

An anonymous commentator who has used my critique of Pudgy Pig for his research project into Charlton humour comics (a project he's mysteriously carrying out despite the fact he doesn't like them very much - I salute you, sir - and, though you don't specify, I'm somehow sure you're a sir rather than a miss) has stirred me to return to the 'blog-o-sphere', where we can all share that same joyous futility of expression, disguised by a nebulous idea of 'community', while never leaving our bedrooms. 

I note that while I was away 'Blogger' have fiddled with things to make it all a bit less straightforward to do, and it's all a bit uglier behind the scenes, but I remain undeterred. I will never alter my fonts, add fancy backgrounds, or make any kind of stylistic changes at all. The more obsolete this looks, the better I shall like it. So there. Meanwhile, while they come up with new ways to make it harder to keep things exactly the same, I'm easing myself back in with some brief rummages through the comic box. I had some crazy idea that I might catalogue all the rotting periodicals therein on a computer 'spreadsheet' (who says I'm not 'hep'?) Another glorious exercise in empty industry...I haven't got round to it yet.  But it's a good chance to pull a few comics out and take a look.

If you scoot back up to the top there you'll see issue two of the early 1970s Gold Key series, O.G. Whiz. As you can see, he is the boy boss of the Tikkletoy Company (reminds me of an episode of The Monkees where they used that idea) and you won't be surprised to discover that I bought this one purely on the strength of its bizarre cover. A reversal of the ol' secretary sitting on the boss' knee chestnut, but with a vaguely perverse twist which inevitably I find appealing. The comics inside are an entertaining late work by the legendary John Stanley (I think) but can't quite live up to the weirdness of the exterior.  Now, talking of weird exteriors...

Might I draw your attention to Exhibit 2 above? I don't know about you, but I can never resist comics with gorillas robbing banks on the cover. This is a British 1950s reprint of Australian Mandrake the Magician newspaper strips, by Lee Falk, I believe (that chap who famously did The Phantom - but I always thought Mandrake was a more interesting creation). In this case, the innards are just as odd as the outards, and I can heartily recommend this old nonsense. Note the claim that these are "new adventures" (they're not) and the wonderfully awful efforts of the editorial hacks at L. Miller (the British publishers) to resize a small panel of artwork to fit their superbly badly-designed cover template. Such charming amateurism is neither attempted nor accepted these days. I love the awful criss-cross lines on the 'floor', the bank clerk's swollen hand, and his glasses flying in the air. Splendid. I have another issue of this somewhere that, if I recall correctly, features giant worms. 

Here's another terrific cover. However bad Charlton humour comics were, you can't complain about their space/horror/mystery titles, which were invariably fascinating and often very good. As is this one, Space Adventures, a 1980s comic reprinting what looks like 1950s or 60s material. These were the kind they used to sell in the newsagent down the end of my road in the days of my youth; maybe I saw this one down there. I didn't buy this back in the day; this was a fairly recent purchase. I can't remember what's in it exactly, but I remember I enjoyed reading it. It probably includes a thinly-veiled story about the Cold War, and cautionary tales about the inhumanity of a giant computer and some robots, and a man who invents a time machine but then naughtily uses it to win on the horse races. You know the sort of thing. What a cover, though. I guess they're supposed to be fighting, but I prefer to imagine they're doing some kind of groovy extra-terrestrial disco-dance at the interplanetary palais, while a green-afro'ed dance-contest space-judge checks their moves and looks on approvingly.

And finally - an ill-fated but rather excellent Jack Kirby magazine-format comic book from the early 70s, Spirit World. There are some wonderful and experimental tales of ghostly weirdness and witches inside, yet for some reason the kids failed to dig it. I paid £3 for this (wondering at the time whether it was worth it) but I'm told this is quite a desirable and scarce item. Note that it has been reduced from twelve and a half new pence to five pence, and the relish with which the 'rubber stamper' plonked his 'brand' between the spooky eyes. Note also at least one prophecy which failed to come true on the cover. Sadly, my copy did not come with the free Giant Poster of the Occult World. If it had, you can be certain it would be straight up there on the wall next to my Cycling Proficiency Certificate. 

I hope you have enjoyed this brief rummage amidst the decaying newsprint...and that we might meet again some day, here in THE HOUSE OF COBWEBS. 

Friday, 18 March 2011

The Incomplete Buddy Holly

The second Buddy Holly LP I owned had 20 - yes, 20! - tracks. Some of them sounded a bit odd - "electronically reprocessed for stereo" - but it didn't matter.

One of the many scary things about this bloated modern computer world we live in, chums, is that you can have pretty much everything you want, right now, delivered to you in an instant (well, a few days) with just the click of a button. As you know, I'm a nutty, nerdy collector of old stuff, and I'm just as bad as everybody else, snapping up more books than I will ever read, more CDs than I can ever listen to, more DVDs than I can ever watch; but every now and then I suddenly find myself freaking out in a vague sort of way, staring at the piles of dusty old gubbins that fill my sordid garret, waving my hands and going "AAARGH!" as I realise that, once again, I risk being consumed by my own desire to possess more stuff than is good for me.

I'm not an acquisitive fellow in the usual sense - no property, no car, for instance - but I am a sucker for the kind of pop cultural bric a brac that I have previously written about here at this Blog. Yes, I love my stuff. But it strikes me that it's so easy to get everything these days that I don't quite always get the same kick out of the things I love as I used to back in those simple pre-internet days of yore.

Let me give give you an example. I am very keen on the music of Buddy Holly. I have been since I was a small boy (thanks to the influence of my Old Man, who, as well as sharing his worn-out collection of Coral 45s with the triangular centres, even used to have the same glasses as Buddy). Back when I was 8 years old, when I was given my first 'box' record player, something like a 1970s Dansette, orange, with cream lid and auto-changer, one of my first records to go with it was this cheapo Buddy compilation LP...

Things were so different back then. First of all, you could only buy LPs that you spotted in a shop - without going through a hefty printed catalogue, there was very little way of checking out all the releases by a certain artist. So your choice was limited to what the shop stocked. Secondly, there seemed to be far fewer 'oldies' records to choose from - unlike now, record companies generally couldn't be bothered to re-release original albums in their original format. All you got, a lot of the time, were strangely packaged compilations, which often seemed to have been flung together with a total disregard for whether the track selection was any good or not. Thirdly, if you wanted to find out more, you couldn't look up Buddy Holly on Wikipedia. You had to track down a book (which you had to go to a shop or the library to order). Often all you had were the notes on the back of the LP - an LP without them was always a disappointment.

So, I studied the notes on the back of this LP many times - soaking up as much information about Buddy as a I could from a dry bit of text by some chap called Roger St. Pierre (the web says he's a travel writer and /or cycling journalist, depending on which unreliable source you prefer) - and, meanwhile, as I didn't own many LPs, played the record over and over, all 12 tracks, the good tracks (Dearest, Take Your Time, That Makes it Tough) and the not so good (Love Me, Now We're One), pretty much until I learned the record.

Nowadays, I have oodles of records and CDs and packages from Ebay and Amazon turn up for me almost every day. I often get CDs that - on paper - are a hundred times better than crummy old budget LPs like this, and contain umpteen squillion more tracks, and booklets full of information, and yet somehow it's not quite the same. Many of them are listened to once, then set aside. Few of them give that raw thrill of my distant yoof.

For instance: recently, after many years of legal wrangles, MCA released Buddy Holly: Not Fade Away - The Complete Studio Recordings.

This was something I'd been hoping for for years. I couldn't wait to order it. Hundreds of tracks on loads of CDs. Everything that Buddy had ever done! Everything! It was going to be great! But when I received it - it wasn't. As I unwrapped the package, there was a strange sense of deflation, of ending. I felt hollow. As I checked out the back cover, and saw all the names of the songs, in neat chronological order, extra takes and all, I was overwhelmed by a sudden sense of sadness and disappointment. This is all there is. There are no more tracks by Buddy hidden away elsewhere, uncollected, unissued. There will be no more exciting discoveries. I need never again hear any more odd juxtapositions of Buddy songs on bizarre greatest hits compilations. Having it all there, in order, in front of me, killed the mood somehow. And as I listened to the discs, I realised that I didn't want Buddy's (sadly short) musical life story laid out in front of me in its entirety like a giant aural tombstone. Nor did I need to hear a pre-pubescent Buddy warbling a bad country cover on a now-wrecked homemade 78 (one of the previously unreleased tracks on Disc 1) or multiple bad incomplete takes of Mona in a row, none of which Buddy would have held on to or wanted released (though, undeniably, the collector in me nonetheless wanted to possess them). And then it occurred to me that if I could and would skip these tracks, as I loaded them into my fancy Ipod, why not skip all the ones that weren't quite of the highest calibre (something I would never have dreamed of doing as I played those old compilation LPs)? What was the point of it all? Looking at it all laid out before me, flat, dead, in a long list, with all the recording dates solemnly documented, was it still music to listen to spontaneously, and for fun, or had it become a historical artefact to be endured in its entirety? Is this what Buddy would have wanted?

I have not been able to answer these questions, and do not intend to, though they disturb me still. But the upshot of this is - even though I have The Complete Buddy Holly, I find myself wishing it was The Incomplete Buddy Holly. I don't want to know all there is to know about it. I want to return to random, badly-chosen compilations of the great man's music, even those oddly fashioned by cycling journalists; I want to savour strange mixtures of tracks, and experience that sense that - as you listen to a particularly uneven collection - something good has been forgotten - but something else you might have forgotten has crept up where you least expected it. They say that enough is as good as a feast - and maybe I don't need everything all the time. Where's the fun in having everything?

The Complete Buddy Holly is indeed in THE HOUSE OF COBWEBS, and, don't get me wrong, I'm glad it is, but so far it has has been played less than those budget compilations it was supposed to supersede. I wonder if Roger St. Pierre has a copy in his saddlebag?

Friday, 8 October 2010

Marvelman: not really that marvellous at all

It's been a while, but yes, against the odds, I have returned once again from the grave to bring you another edition of THE HOUSE OF COBWEBS. Aren't you pleased? Today let's rap about coal. Not just any coal, but coal in space. You dig?

I may have mentioned previously how much I like the 1940s-1950s Captain Marvel comics that were published by Fawcett (and later reprinted in Shazam! by DC). Eventually curtailed thanks to a legal action by the publishers of Superman, who claimed it was a rip-off of their precious goody-goody super-ruffian, Captain Marvel was in fact an inspired, magical, brilliantly entertaining send up of the whole superhero genre. Cap (the alter ego of newsboy Billy Batson, who becomes Cap when he says the name of ancient Egyptian wizard Shazam) is the only superhero (pre-Spiderman) who was entertainingly aware of his own failings and shortcomings, and who made mistakes. Yes, he was a tough bully-boy, but he knew it. He remains the only superhero to exhibit a dry sense of self-aware humour and sometimes displayed an ironic awareness of how freakish a 'superhero' actually is. Perhaps more importantly he was the only superhero to face a villainous worm who spoke through a radio set around his neck (Mr. Mind) and whose best friend was a talking tiger who worked as a museum guide (Mr. Tawky Tawny). His arch-nemesis was a bald bloke who looked like a dentist and went heh-heh-heh a lot, the immortal Dr Thaddeus Bodog Sivana. It was brilliant stuff, I promise you, and I wish those clowns at DC - who hold the rights to the back catalogue - would reprint it properly. I don't want no modern 're-imaginings' of it, no thanks. One of the blogs I link down the side over there - written by the mighty Captain Zorikh - is devoted to the Big Red Cheese - take a look.

Here I am rambling off on one again. This post isn't even about Captain Marvel. When Cap bit the dust, L. Miller, the British publishers of his comics, suddenly without American material to reprint, quickly filled the gap with a homegrown rip-off of their own: Marvelman. Starved of the genuine Fawcett stuff, British kids (or their parents, who bought the comics in Woolworth's) made Marvelman a success, and his adventures continued into the early 1960s.

I remember, when I was a kid, my old man showing me a few old copies of Marvelman that he'd saved from the 1950s. In my memory they were badly drawn, stiffly written, unfunny, and often swiped directly from superior Captain Marvel tales of days gone by. But he lingered in the pop-cultural consciousness. Intriguingly, Marvelman was unexpectedly revived by eighties comics genius Alan Moore in the short-lived British adult comic Warrior. I bought some of the issues at the time and seem to recall that it was quite good as you would expect but it's quite tricky to get hold of now, for Marvel Comics long ago decided that rule the universe and that they have the copyright in anything called Marvelman because it sounds a bit like Marvel Comics and Moore's effort had to be called Miracleman when it was reprinted some years back and then it was forbidden from being reprinted at all. You see? No, neither do I. But I have probably violated fifteen pieces of legislation simply by mentioning the matter here, and I await my imminent arrest.

Anyhow, Marvel Comics have suddenly decided to reprint the old British 1950s Marvelman. I can't imagine that they are doing this for any other reason than that they want to irrevocably establish copyright on the character, which I thought lay with old geezer Mick Anglo, now 94, the Brit comics hack who 'created' him back in the 1950s. Imagine my surprise at seeing loads of Marvelman comics in the local emporium, amidst the X Men and what have you. Could they really be as bad as I remembered? Maybe I'd been unfair on them. Anyway, I picked up a few to check them out.

I hadn't been unfair on them. But what I don't get is why Marvel are bothering to reprint this stuff at all. It must be the lamest old super-tosh ever consigned to newsprint. And worse than the ineptitude of its production is the namby-pamby nature of the stories. In the unlikely event that any contemporary child picked up an issue, and unwisely bought it before they had a look inside, they'd sure get a shock when they broke the seal on the mylar comic sleeve and discovered what lie within - for if there ever was a trades' description act for comics covers, this one surely broke it. On the front, your standard buff super tough-boy prancing po-facedly about through space:

Inside, though, it's a different story. Here you will discover the true tedium of Marvelman: dreary, grey, post-war England fittingly encapsulated in the flattest, feeblest, drippiest superhero tales ever written. All power to Mr Anglo, who I'm sure did his best, for hopping on the gravy train while he could - and presumably Marvel have handed him a sizeable cheque for the 'rights' to his rip-off? - but his story ideas were hilariously dry and dull. I can't quite believe that Marvelman ran into the 1960s but, somehow it did.

Displaying a distinct lack of irony or self-awareness themselves, Marvel are touting the Marvelman stories as Golden Age classics. They ain't.

Coal in Space is a thrilling tale of that most thrilling of subjects, coal mining, but in space. The chap with the glasses is Gargunza, Marvelman's foe. He decides to mine for coal in space. He mines coal in space. It's not illegal to mine coal in space, but Marvelman duffs him up at the end anyway, for importing it without a license.

Frustratingly, they only reprinted the cover of this one, so I didn't get to read Marvelman and the Map Makers. But I bet it's pretty thrilling. I expect he meets some map makers, and...they make some maps. And probably he duffs them up at the end...for making maps without a license.

If you can stand the excitement, check out this thriller involving Kid Marvelman, the junior version of Marvelman: The Park Thefts. It's serious stuff, involving damage to plants. If you're of a nervous disposition, look away now.

No wonder they tried to ban comics in the 1950s. A gratuitous depiction of a man in a demob suit pulling up a plant, while his evil associates push statues about, willy nilly. And they're enjoying it. Why, it almost borders on a transgression of various local bylaws. Here's the plot:

Yeah, yeah. Gripping stuff. The sack is the least of his worries: hope Ned gets a decent meal sometime soon, so his shoulders can develop properly. For naughty kicks, and a frisson of guilty excitement, here's a close up of the plant-defiler. Don't tell anyone I showed you this.

He's not enjoyed himself so much since powdered egg came off the ration. Anyhow, that's quite enough excitement for me for one day. You won't find these comics in THE HOUSE OF COBWEBS, or in any other house, I would suspect. But nonetheless I sure hope Mr Anglo made Marvel cough up big time.

Who let a dog in here?

Sunday, 15 August 2010

Western Gunfighters: least popular of all Top Trumps sets

Greetings junk fans. I have been rummaging around in the splendid dustbin of my past once again to bring you another essential blog-broadcast from beyond the grave. Men of a certain age - I don't think any girls ever played this game, even then they had better things to do - will doubtless remember Top Trumps, the number one card game played at junior school on the last day of term before the summer holidays. It was purely a male thing. Ladies: if you played this game, please get in touch. I want to meet you.

You had a load of picture cards, which usually featured cars, tanks, aeroplanes, all that sort of rubbish, y'know, mechanised machinery, and you would try and outdo your opponent by reading out one of the statistics attributed to the machine depicted on the top card of your half of the deck. Understand? No? Well, here's an example. "Engine cylinders: six," you would whine nervously, perhaps clutching a crumpled depiction of a yellow Ford estate car; whence your oily opponent - a scrawny, pasty-faced boy who perhaps always had the faint aroma of curdled milk lingering about his person - clutching a superior Ferrari, would crow joyfully "cylinders: twelve!", and snatch your card. The idea was to get all the other player's cards. Yes, that's what we did for entertainment, circa 1979. There were no other options for amusement. None at all.

There were all kinds of sets, but only a very few that appealed to nerds like me, who couldn't care less about cars, one of which was Western Gunfighters. So unpopular was this set, I suspect that less than 10 sets were sold and very few still exist. Nobody gave a stuff about Westerns by then. Amazing that they bothered to issue it. It was about thirty years too late. My set was bought way back when for thirty pence from Western International Market in Cranford. I'd like to share a few of these cards with you. Do you remember? Read these notes first:

Yes, somebody, apparently, actually did some research before they came up with the 'stats' for these cards. Would you believe it? And that they were worried enough about kids' reactions to erroneous information that they would bother printing a card like this one? Did they think I'd write in and complain? Talk about attention to detail. They were different times. The 'facts' still all seemed like nonsense, though. But any young lad with a deck of these could - and would- proclaim himself an expert on the wild west. At least, I did. In practice, it was only I who could proclaim this, as it was only I who owned this deck. And, on the rare occasions I could persuade somebody to play (often my brother) it got so I could sneakily identify the gunfighter on the card from the information on the back...see if you can guess who this is:

Yes, that's right. It was the film director, Visconti.

Don't you love these terrific ultra-seventies line drawings? God only knows who hacked these out, but they're terrific. The rocket-powered chair flying through the air is a nice detail. Only 10 kills? The only weak spot on this card, which one of the strongest ones. It's all coming back to me now. At the start of the game, after you'd dealt, each player would quickly sift through their respective decks to see how many good and bad cards they had.

This one would always evoke a groan. Black Bart was considered the rottenest of all cards. If you had this one you'd be worried. You might wonder why, if the number of kills and age of the character could not be ascertained, he was included. Is this a game, or a history textbook?

And if you had Marion Hedgepeth as well as Black Bart, you might well have angrily thrown down the cards, refused to play any more, and gone off to for a game of Ker-Plunk with the other more normal children. If the stats aren't bad enough, worst of all, he has a girl's name.

This is more like it. John Wesley Hardin. In the seventies, gunfighters could be podgy and bald and still be ultra-cool.

The deck was a weird amalgam of shoot-the gun-out-of-the-hand wholesome style Western hero types and Spaghetti Western-esque characters, like Bloody Bill Anderson above. The artist even throws in a rather splendid lightning bolt. Very Gothic. I expect he'd rather be drawing the horror trumps (of which there were two sets, yes, I know).

It's only just struck me how many chaps named Bill were knocking about the Wild West...

A chap named Bill nice chaps....if you like that sort of thing...

Some other famous Bills Billy the Kid...and, most famous of all, the one you've all heard of...

Ah yes, the legendary Old Bill...nice purple pantaloons. But if you can't manage more than 6 kills by the age of 66, you're not much of a cold-blooded killer. Might as well pack it in, I say....

More popular non-mechanical Top Trumps sets were the horror sets, Dracula and Devil Priest. I have the Dracula set, but Devil Priest is ultra-rare. Perhaps we should have a look at those sets sometime...anyhow, before the internet, checklists were printed on small pieces of cardboard, with boxes to tick off the packs you had...

How lonely Western Gunfighters looks down in the left corner of this checklist, shoved under Soccer Stars Set 2. I'd like to get hold of World Record Holders (if it means men with beards made of bees, that sort of thing, not if it's more rotten cars), but if that was a pack you had to collect coupons for then I'm guessing it's rarer than hens' teeth.

The bloke at the market who sold Western Gunfighters to me all those years ago seemed to have about a zillion packets laid out on his stall, and none of the other sets at I guess he might have acquired a ton of dead stock and that this might have been the least successful of all the Top Trumps sets. The Del Boy who sold them to him must have been rubbing his hands with glee. He probably claimed it was a crate of Military Choppers. Either way I'm glad I found these...and it's a relief to know that I still own this set. There's just one thing...nobody wants to play any more...not that they did then, come to think of it.

You will find these cards in the HOUSE OF COBWEBS. Reputation: 0

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

"Ho-ho! Now we're both eggheads!" Dandy 1496, July 25th, 1970

Hello again, pals. You may have noticed that I have been in self-imposed exile for some time now, only to be lured out of retirement by the fact that I have a whopping 21 followers. Intriguingly, the number of followers I have seems to grow at an inversely proportional rate to the amount I write. Or something.

Anyway, what could be a more entertaining way to briefly rouse me from my deathlike stupor than a little one-sided chat about that staple of the British comics scene, The Dandy. Nowadays, I understand, in a bid to boost flagging sales, The Dandy has been misguidedly redesigned to hide the fact that it is a comic, and looks pretty space-age. Yet no matter how futuristic it may now purport to be, I feel sure that it cannot compete with the out-there other-worldliness of this issue from 1970, which is, in fact, stunningly super-weird. Why the kids nowadays wouldn't want to buy this, I will never understand. Well, actually, to be honest, I do understand. But what I don't understand is why the kids would have wanted to buy it then.

Let us begin our journey into yesterday with Korky the Cat.

Page one, and we're already in a strange realm of the unreal. Putting aside for a moment the fact that this tale revolves around a sentient cat and elephant in a bizarre tit-for-tat battle of inter-species rivalry ultimately resulting in their becoming "eggheads", we are also asked to accept that Korky needs to find employment as a "death diver". If we're talking circus acts here, isn't being a giant talking cat enough? My favourite thing about all this, though, is not the splendidly contrived tale itself, but Korky's fish supper, neatly laid out on a cafeteria tray, with a nice cup of tea. How old is Korky supposed to be? He's like a pensioner on holiday, a wrinkled old duffer in a furry suit. I expect he paid for it with Luncheon Vouchers.

Now on to a work of considerable genius: Dudley D. Watkins' superb Desperate Dan. You can see that kids would have loved this, surely? Although they might have been freaked out by how exceptionally anachronistic it must have looked, even then. But feast your eyes on this fantastic artwork. Those splendid solid brilliantly funny. I love how Watkins juxtaposes the wild west with a grimy Glasgow of long ago.

Cramming the page with brilliant humour, Watkins effortlessly manipulates the comics form here, treating us to two panoramic cinemascope panels, to create a brilliant visual gag. Absolutely terrific. What care we that it would appear to be 1954 rather than 1970? Perhaps it's a reprint. Publishers D.C. Thompson were frugal that way.

Now on to Brassneck. The inspiration for Viz Comic's Tinribs, the original has a surreal genius all of its own...more fantastic artwork. I don't know who drew it. Here's a great sequence where the evil Swotty takes Brassneck to pieces. The (unknown, underpaid) artist seems to be enjoying himself here; perhaps relishing the chance to dismantle Brassneck for a few panels, at least.

I do not long for much in this world, but I want a Brassneck I can attach a microphone to the 'bonce' of. Notice, again, that it seems to be circa 1958 rather than 1970, though the mic itself looks like a contemporary Sure SM58 (good for vocals and robot brain manipulation).

And then along comes Dirty Dick, and we could almost be back in the days of rationing, were it not for the abundant Bunter-esque jam tarts. Note the distinctive lettering. I always wondered why the Dirty Dick artist was, unlike everybody else, allowed to do his own lettering. And I always shall. But it allows his speech bubbles to pop out of the pictures in a dynamic way.

What I'm digging the most is the portly chap's straw boater and moustache (bottom right), and how he's jammed into the picture to accentuate the gag. Fantastic.

Another comics genius is at work on the centre pages: Davy Law, better known for Dennis the Menace, but here drawing the lesser known Corporal Clott. Love the splurgey watercolour inks.

Good old fashioned slapstick. Now we venture into a strange realm of dog-related soap-opera. As a kid I always hated Black Bob, the champion sheepdog/faithful border collie. I didn't like the way the story was written out in painfully flat prose in the corners of the panels, which always seemed to be in 'long shot'. And it was an interminable serial, which seemed to have no beginning or end, only an infinitely dull middle. It ran for ever and ever, didn't it? And didn't every kid, spotting the grinning mutt, the cloth caps, the shepherds' crooks and the acres of type, groan and skip this page? Oddly enough, though, looking at it now, Black Bob seems like some kind of impossible masterpiece of comic strip strangeness; an ultra-artificial Scottish canine melodrama, a Douglas Sirk film with dogs. And no women, of course. Just animals, wrinkled men, and young boys in shorts.

Take a look at the plot summary. The boys were on holiday from the city and knew so little of country ways that their grandpa thought they were cissies. The wee Sassenach bratties! So, quite rightly, they run away to show their innate manliness. But, meanwhile, their grandfather had been taken to hospital for an operation. Various nonsense ensues. But the main drama this week centres around a lamb that falls off a cliff. Can you imagine any of this in a kids' publication today? Splendid. Check out the following sequence - and the best thing is that Black Bob is so into his lamb-protection mission he's quite prepared to herd the wee laddies off a cliff, possibly to their deaths, to save it. For they are sissies, and deserve it.

Unfortunately, though, the small child does not die, and lambkins is saved. But, in the final panel, new intrigue.

Looks like they'll have to dash about amidst the heather for another week...and another...and another...forever and ever, amen. But I don't blame them. Grandpa looks a bit sinister and I bet he'd have at the little cissies with his stick. If he could see them. Which he can't. For another ten episodes, at least. It's all rubbish, really. Yet still I long to know what happened next.

Now, gather round, kids. Back before the internet, the letters page was a place where the readers of a comic could converge. Here - with the tantalising promise of a Bag of Laughs - a creepy aged schoolboy in rather close fitting shorts invites readers to write in with True Stories, Big Laughs, Funny Stories, though what you would actually end up getting were invariably Contrived Lies, Depressing Puns, Mirthless Incidents. But occasionally something a bit unusual would turn up - for instance this:

Shown around the set of a Norman Wisdom comedy film? Wow, how I wish I had been Timothy Snape of Lancs. But hang on a minute - this isn't just any old Wisdom vehicle - it's the brilliant 'adult' one that's never on TV - where wrinkly not-Pitkin unwisely gets his kit off and slides his spindle-shanks frame incongruously into the sack alongside the yummy Sally Geeson (rumoured to appear topless in the legendary 'export' cut). Blimey! No wonder Timothy Snape's so pleased with himself.

That's enough of that. Take a cold shower and return to the world of teachers in mortar boards, where you belong. Here's Greedy Pigg.

Pigg gives me the creeps. There's just something about him. Is it the striped trousers? The oddly swollen belly? The tongue? The way he surreptitiously prowls around the boarding school after classes stealing things from children? Couldn't Mr. Pigg afford his own cake? Shouldn't he prefer a stiff drink? Too many questions. We shall leave social services to investigate and linger here no longer. Flip the page for more mortar boards - as we visit an equally odd time-warp school to meet Winker Watson. He's a what? Oh, you said Wangler.

Another endless serial. Lots of running about, climbing over walls, that sort of thing, this week and every week. I always quite enjoyed Winker Watson - and do like the fact that Mr Creep wears his mortar board with his pyjamas - but I never seemed to locate the start or the end of any of the stories. The same artist as Dirty Dick, but here he's not allowed to do his own lettering. Why? This is the question that haunts me to this day.

And finally - another one that Viz ripped off - Bully Beef and Chips. The premise was simple enough. Every week Beefy would duff up Chips, but get his comeuppance at the end. Small recompense for Chips living his life in fear. But as we have learned the greatest of all crimes is for a child to be a cissie. Just ask the blind old git in Black Bob. A real-life Bully Beef would hopefully have been in an institution for young offenders. But this is Dandy world. More great artwork! Loud check demob suits all round - and supporting characters who look like George Formby film racetrack spivs - except for Beefy, who sports a Ramones haircut some years early.

July 1970. Not so long ago, really, in the scheme of things, yet so distant, so obscure, that it may as well be all eternity. How lucky we are to have The Dandy to give us an entirely inaccurate idea of how things were back then. And if you think all this is bewildering, you should take a look at The Dandy's early 70s companion paper, The Sparky. Especially the jaw-dropping title character, Sparky himself. No, you shouldn't. Don't even go there.

You will find this comic in THE HOUSE OF COBWEBS.