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.

Tuesday, 30 March 2010

"Measure the louse for the hot seat while I take these two babes out where they can fight over me!" Crime Mysteries No. 3, September 1952

What-ho, pals. Welcome back to the fusty virtual corridors of THE HOUSE OF COBWEBS. Where have I been? Never you mind. But, in the interim period between this and my last posting, I have been engaging in a possibly futile attempt to get my life together (cripes!) and sort out some important matters. I even considered putting my comic collection in alphabetical order. But it's trickier than you first think, when, flushed with the gay excitement of a new day, you first contemplate the hefty crates of decaying tat. Do you sort by publisher? Is there really any point in it? I came to the conclusion that probably there isn't. Though I had an entertaining time reacquainting myself with issues of Super Duck, The Partridge Family, and many others, I was forced to conclude that my collection is a bit of a raggedy-bag of low-grade, tatty, falling to pieces comics, the unavoidable consequence of many years of not having enough cash to secure the kind of 'key issues' that 'serious' collectors would, by now, have 'slabbed' in plastic cases with official CGC gradings (9.5, NM+). There will be little for fortune-seekers to flog some years hence when they cart my lifeless body from my garret.

But every now and again a collector on a budget manages to pick up a valuable item for much less than 'guide' price. As is the case with this issue of Crime Mysteries pictured above, snapped up for just five quid at one of those seedy comics fairs I so enjoy. What a terrific pre-code cover! Of course, it has nothing to do with anything within. So, let's take a look inside.

We begin with The Seance of Horror. Which isn't really a horror tale at all, despite this lurid splash-panel. In these days of post 9-11 terrorist anxiety, it's intriguing to recall there once was a time that you could travel on aeroplanes with toothpaste, pencils, bottled water, shampoo, and...ticking briefcases.

Artist Marcus Rocke (or Marcus? Or Rocke?) has his limitations (faces, human bodies, that sort of thing), but is splendidly adept at extreme close-ups of ill-fitting trouser wrinkles and shoes with no socks, something today's so-called 'artists' could learn from.

Yes, the evil medium blew up the plane. Time for crusading criminologist Lance Storm to do a flying rugby tackle at the turbanned ruffian.

And what is to be his punishment for blowing up a plane?

Yes, that's right, a sock on the jaw. Take that! Even if he has a girl's long nails. Next comes my favourite story in the issue, The Fantastic Dr. Foo.

Of course, the flatfeet are entirely incapable of sorting this out. They need to call on the services of the sagacious Dr. Foo, and his ward, the beautiful Nalya...

Hmm, yes, you sure have a way with words, Dr. Foo. You tell 'em. Whatever it means.

Seems like Nalya is something more than Dr. Foo's 'ward', don't you think? Various pseudo-oriental high jinx ensue, before the climax - featuring another great shoe-close up. With some baggy white sports socks in evidence this time.

But there's more to Foo than just this talk of worms and eagles. There's the helio-electric battery, for starters.

What else can you produce from beneath your robe, Dr. Foo? Or is that strictly between you and Nalya?

Yes, turn it on, I say! Turn on that helio-electric battery!

That's the stuff. Now let us turn our attention to the Glamor Girl of Hollywood, Queenie Starr.

The fascinating thing about Queenie is that she seems entirely blase about the whole 'casting couch' approach to stardom. She'll do anything for a whopperoo, even if it involves canoodling with sleazy murder-suspect film directors, seen here cravatted and crotchety after the leading lady is bumped off...

Admittedly, our saucy heroine does rifle through his drawers looking for clues, but, blimey, Queenie sure is devoted to her job...and, when she solves the mystery...

And maybe she'd better climb right up on Sol Arnim's knee, and all, because...that's Hollywood!

One breathless page later, here comes Jerry Jasper...

The story is nothing to write home about, but I do admire Jasper's pizazz when, having solved the crime, he gets the girl and the murderer's girl, who would seem to be just a tad fickle, in one fell swoop, the dirty dog...

Is it just me, or has there been some rather loose morality going on in this issue of Crime Mysteries? Is this a good example to set to the nation? We've had a mass-murderer punished by a sock on the jaw, Dr. Foo pimping his ward Nalya down by the docks, Queenie Starr smooching it up with all and sundry just to get ahead in Hollywood, and dear old Jerry Jasper cracking crime just so he can get it together for a three-in-a-bed with some sleazy dames. In fact, upon consideration, I feel positively unclean. Which must be why the last page of the comic features this public service announcement...

Well, I'm off down the church or synagogue of my choice. Praise the Lord! Please be seated. Today's reading will be from Crime Mysteries.

You'll find this reprehensible publication in THE HOUSE OF COBWEBS.