In Memoriam: Comics Letterer and Designer Derek Pierson

Derek and Rita Pierson on their wedding day. Photo courtesy Rita Pierson and used with permission
Derek and Rita Pierson on their wedding day in October 1960. Photo courtesy Rita Pierson and used with permission

We’re sorry to report the passing of Derek Pierson, who once self deprecatingly described his comics career as “from Hulton’s to IPC Magazines with Fleetway, taking a chunk of the middle”. Aged 77, he had been ill for some time.

A backroom staffer and letterer of immense talent, his description of his working life, from what his friends tell me, does that career little justice – and I will miss his occasional contributions to many comic-related (and some not comic-related) discussions we had.

Jeremy Briggs and I interviewed Derek for downthetubes last year. Our intent was always to continue our interview beyond his Hulton and Eagle years, through his work for the Daily Express, TV Publications, Fleetway, Odhams and finally the one-size-fits-all IPC Magazines, but Derek’s ongoing battle with health problems delayed any resumption – and I’m sorry that we will now never have the opportunity.

Sorry I had to cut it short,” Derek wrote apologetically last June, wishing me well for the first Lancaster Comics Day, “but I don’t suppose I’m the first person to have something like this interrupt their cosy little life and I just have to take it all as it unfolds and cease being a control freak and place my life in someone else’s hands.”

In December 2015 however, he wrote a “resume” of his career for Roger Perry, in preparation of putting together a profile on him. We include information from that below, as we thought it would give you an idea of him that a straight obituary never would.

Hultons Header 2a

Born in Woodford, Essex, on 22nd November 1938, Derek cut his teeth in comics publishing at Hulton Press, publishers of Picture Post, Farmers’ WeeklyEagle, Girl, among other titles.

“I didn’t wait to sit my GCSEs,” Derek recalled last year, who was a pupil at St Barnabas Secondary School, Woodford Green, “as I wanted to get out into the world and earn some real money (as opposed to being a paper boy and earning peanuts, apart from having to get up early!).

“I was 15 when I left school at Christmas, and it was beginning to get too cold to face another winter of getting up at 5.30 and going out into the snow and ice to deliver papers. So I would imagine that was Winter 1953 and I remember the headmaster was less than pleased!

“But I did have eight jobs (all very junior and none of them promising me either the prospects or the money I was looking for), before I joined the staff of Hulton Press,  including insurance policy filing clerk, bakers’ assistants, warehouse worker (at Foyle’s), and messenger boy.  I must have been 16 and a half when I started there. Phew!”

The Evening Standard building on Shoe Lane, London. Graphic courtesy Roger Perry
The Evening Standard building on Shoe Lane, London. Graphic courtesy Roger Perry

When Derek joined Hulton Press in around 1955/1956, it was based in Oldbourne House on Shoe Lane, London, a building that belonged to the Evening Standard. Hulton’s occupied the wing of the building that fronted onto Shoe Lane, with the loading bays and garage for the newspapers right next door to the reception entrance for visitors and staff to Hulton Press Ltd.

Derek Pierson encountered Irish writer Brendan Behan, in the 1950s, seen here in Jackie Gleason's dressing room at the show Take Me Along in 1960. Photo: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection
Derek Pierson encountered Irish writer Brendan Behan, in the 1950s, seen here in Jackie Gleason’s dressing room at the show Take Me Along in 1960. Photo: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection

“After being a messenger boy in the Postal Department, I got selected to work on the front desk assisting Ron, a Sergeant in The Royal Corps of Commissionaires. There were quite a few of these ex-servicemen fronting establishments in major cities of Britain in those days and it may be that there still are, I don’t know. We got on well and had a laugh at some of the characters that came to the offices of mainly Picture Post, for interviews or to be photographed. For example Brendan Behan, the Irish writer who was making all the headlines at the time for all the wrong reasons, namely his drinking. He had evidently come in for an advance on his fee for giving an interview but how he had found his way to our offices, well …. it beats me!

“He staggered through the front door and up to our desk and ‘Phew!’ I thought, ‘His breath would peel the varnish off the wood panelling.’

Even at a young age, Derek was clearly a born joker, and recalled one early prank that got a little out of control with relish.

“There was also a certain Hollywood film star in town at that time – Marilyn Monroe. We had a cleaner who came in two or three times a day, who was employed by the Standard, and knowing he was a bit of a gossip let him into a secret that he had to swear he would not tell another living soul. After telling us our secret was safe in his hands, we let out that Miss Monroe was coming to Picture Post to pose for some pictures at 2.30 that afternoon.

“Well, the crowds of newspaper delivery men outside in Shoe Lane built up, many of them equipped with cameras and autograph books, their vans were clogging up the exit from the loading bays and the foreman was trying, largely unsuccessfully, to get them back to work. Some secret!

“Now Ron and I were getting worried because as you may have gathered, there was to be no photo session with MM. Eventually, we had to explain to the cleaner that Marilyn had, which she was noted for, failed to turn up, citing a chill or some such excuse and we left him to pass the message on to all the disappointed drivers, who much to our relief, then drifted back to work.”

“It was policy at Hultons that you would work in the Postal Department until a vacancy came up and in those days they preferred to fill junior posts from the postal department,” he recalled last year. “… One of the funny things that happened in those days was that one of the publications that post came in for was Farmers’ Weekly and some of the packages that came in contained dead poultry which a farmer would send in to have a post-mortem carried out to discover the cause of death. Just one of the free services to the readers!”

He moved to the Art Department after being a messenger boy in 1956/57, working on Eagle, Girl, Robin and Swift, having turned 18.

Eagle Logo, 1951“After a few months on the front desk I had to move on,” he recalled, “and as a vacancy for a junior in the Art Department of the Children’s Group cropped up, I was asked if I would be interested, which I said I would, especially as day release at art college (St Martins in Charing Cross Road) and typography at the London School of Printing would be involved.

“And so that is how I drifted into the wonderful world of comics – starting at the top really as Eagle was a hugely read comic and in fact was the only one that many schools up and down the country allowed on their premises.

“It was there that I got to know Shirley Dean, having worked with her brother Brian (or Bernie as we called him) in the postal department.

Shirley Dean in the 1960s
Shirley Dean in the 1960s

Shirley and I often met up over the years as the roundabout went round and round – the last I saw of her before I retired, she was working on a new woman’s magazine . . .  Essentials, I think it was called.

“Eventually, I realised I didn’t have the natural talent to be an illustrator, and gave that up for another evening class teaching magazine design. This was naturally pre-computer so everything was planning and designing with a lot of type casting, where the “em scale” was the basis of page layout. In those days all type was either recognisable fonts (Times, Baskerville etc) or hand drawn display, which became one of my stronger points.

I became a brush and pen mechanic, i.e. making good artwork, when changes were made by the editorial staff, hand lettering titles, (there was no such thing as instant Letraset in those days, only a very cumbersome transfer system) and on the way graduating to balloon lettering the speech and thoughts on the strips.

“The best days were when the week’s artwork for ‘Dan Dare’ or the cutaway centre spread was brought in, usually by the artist himself,” he recalled of his “crazy” days at Hulton. “I used to wait patiently for the art editor to finish discussing the latest of the weekly masterpieces (because that is what they were) with the artist, and then slip into his office at the first opportunity.”

Eventually, Hulton Press had a new building erected in Fleet Street aptly named Hulton House, and the company packed up and moved to the new building (as related in Roger Perry’s “Eagle Daze” series).

“We moved into the new Hulton House when building was completed. As I remember, Derek Lord, and Arthur Roberts and his three art editors were still there,” he recalled. “Our new art studio was situated on the sixth floor at the back, because, it was said it had the best north facing light.

“The editorial offices were between there and the front of the building with the editors and art editors located in offices overlooking Fleet Street. I remember we were invited to watch the Lord Mayor’s Show parade along Fleet Street from above and very impressive it looked too … from above!”

After working at Hultons, he accepted a “better offer” to work on the Daily Express junior publications.

TV Express Issue 348 (cover dated 1st July 1961)
TV Express Issue 348 (cover dated 1st July 1961)

“Even though I was happy enough the money was not good and I asked for more as I was now engaged and wanted to get married,” Derek recalled of his move from Hultons. “As this was turned down, I had an interview lined up at Daily Express with Junior Express Weekly (their competitor to Eagle), and off I went! So I moved from Hulton House down the road to, I think, Poppins Court. That’s where I worked with A J Cosser, [editors] Alan Fennell, Dennis Hooper, et al.

“I had not been there more than a year when Lord Beaverbrook sold the two comics Junior Express [later, TV Express] and TV Comic to TV Publications and our offices shifted to High Holborn.

“While working there I also became friends with Johnny Aldrich, who was doing freelance lettering and artwork down the road at Fleetway. I used to go down and meet him for lunch in their basement and got to know some of the full-time staff there who asked me if I wanted to do any freelance work.

“Well by now, I was ready to make a change so off I went down to Fleetway to try my hand at freelancing.” He worked on the War and Battle picture library titles and early issues of Buster. “This was fine for a while, but then came a fall off in the work. This may have been due to the unrest that was going on with the printing side of it or a drop in circulations of some of the comics I was working on, I can’t remember, but it meant I had to take a change of direction and worked locally for Bristow Helicopters at Redhill Aerodrome.”

His role there was ordering spares for airliners for various companies around the world from telexed orders – which must have been a dull as ditchwater after his publishing experiences.

“I remember the Fokke Friendship was a particular favourite,” he recalled. “The money was terrible and by now being a married man, I moved to another local engineering firm as a progress chaser, as they required Saturday morning working at overtime rates! The wages were still low.

Dissolution and opportunity meant he returned to Hultons, by which time they were part of IPC and under the Odhams banner and by then they were heavily influenced by the Fleetway management with Alf Wallace as the Managing Editor.

“I couldn’t believe it when my wife phoned me to tell me I had had a telegram delivered from John Jackson, who was now Art Editor of all the old Hulton/Fleetway comics situated at 96 Long Acre, under Alf Wallace, who I only knew by reputation from my freelance work on the Fleetway Libraries.

“Well, in those days we only got telegrams for bad news, but this was different. John was asking me if I would be interested in a job at Odhams and if so to give him a ring. Well, I took a day off work and rang him to see what was involved. Well, Eureka! It was better than I could have expected, at twice the salary I was getting in Redhill (union rates now!) and he felt sure I would be ideal for the job.

“Little did he know that I hadn’t lifted a pen for the purpose of applying it to artwork for nearly two years, but at that sort of money I couldn’t turn it down. And so I had to de-clog my trusted old Graphos pen, buy some nibs and ink, dig out some old tacky back paper which I still had from my previous career and knuckle down to some moonlight graft, practising the disciplined art of not breathing until the end of a line. And so a couple of days later I nervously turned up in Long Acre with a fresh haircut, my wedding suit sponged and pressed and my samples of my lettering in my sweaty hand.

“So there I am all spruced up, nervous as hell, but I needn’t have worried – John and I had worked together for a short time at Fleetway House and had got on well. He looked at the results of my efforts, said that was great and when I explained I was a bit rusty he said that was OK – I’d soon get back into the swing of it and he wasn’t wrong. I was on the first rung of getting my wife and son, with another on the way, out of our 20 foot caravan and into our house where we still are.

“There were numerous new faces in the offices leading up to Alf Wallace’s office at the end, Bob Bartholomew being one of them,” Derek remembered of the building. “As for the ‘Dan Dare’ team working in the old Hulton House canteen, I really couldn’t say, but I wouldn’t be surprised. As I recall the canteen was on the top floor, above our offices and after lunch in the summer, we would go up on the roof and loll in the sunshine.

It was during this time that Derek would work with the likes of John Kingsford, Roger Barndon and Roger Perry, all working with John Jackson – and it was during this time that he would also get involved with numerous after hours antics and practical jokes at the expense, usually, of senior management. This included convincing editor Dan Lloyd a UFO Detector he’d come to own, the result of his working with Flying Saucer Review editor Waveney Girvan, was actually working.

Prankster and Eagle designer Brian "Benny" Green, Eagle's designer, who shared the same office as Dan Lloyd
Prankster and Eagle designer Brian “Benny” Green, Eagle‘s designer, who shared the same office as Dan Lloyd

Dan’s “detector” reacted to magnetic fields and he related how he was tricked into thinking it was working in the Summer 1999 issue of Eagle Times, eventually realising the ruse was the work of Derek and Brian “Benny” Green, who died last year.

“We nearly all knew about Dan’s detector and had it explained to us when we ventured into the Eagle office, so when I broke up this huge old-fashioned TV and saw these magnets… well the rest is history! It was too good to miss!”

Gerald Palmer (who is now in his eighties, lives in Jersey and is still painting and playing golf) was on the staff at the annexe,” Derek recalled of other fun in the office. “As I remember he was the designer of the weapon of choice for the after-hours cardboard pellet fights we used to have when everyone in the art studio had gone home.

“Believe it or not, we used to turn the lights off and armed with our cardboard guns, disperse around the studio, shooting at anything, or anyone, that moved. That was the forerunner to Paintball, although on hindsight it was probably more dangerous, because those pellets really flew when propelled by the large-size rubber bands we used!

Derek Pierson demonstrates "Tote" hand signals in a feature for Eagle Volume 17 Number 4, cover dated 22nd January 1966
Derek Pierson demonstrates “Tote” hand signals in a feature for Eagle Volume 17 Number 4, cover dated 22nd January 1966

“Gerald was the Art Department’s artist, and was highly talented and skilled. He was probably in the same position as Brian Blake was at 96 Long Acre. He was ideal for any alterations required to the quality artwork that was Hulton’s trademark in those days and his skills were obviously spotted by Frank Hampson presumably, as he later moved on to the team that produced ‘Dan Dare’. He was a trained aeronautical artist upon leaving college, so he was well suited for the job.”

Derek’s time in comics continued, but his memories of it were few, simply because he was so busy.

“This particular period (around 1960 – 1970) was a bit hazy because there was a lot of change going on in the comic world, because of the growth of children’s adventure and cartoon in television. This was the era of Gerry Anderson which made such an impact on children’s entertainment. And my feet never touched (the ground), with falling circulations and closures and new magazines opening – I was log-jumping from staff jobs to freelance and back to staff jobs again!”

In his tribute to Derek, Steve Holland notes that after his time on Eagle,Girl and Boys’ World, Derek later found himself cutting and pasting of US comic strips to make them fit the British format for the “Power Comics” titles – Wham!, Smash!, Pow!, Fantastic and Terrific –  managed by Alf Wallace, then would return to Fleetway to work on Jinty and other girls’ titles.

He ended his career at IPC Magazines, working in Bob Paynter‘s humour section, working on Whizzer & Chips and other humour titles, the group managed by Jack le Grande.

As a letterer, Derek happily acknowledged the skill of his contemporaries, among them Jack Potter. “Jack was the man, when it came to lettering! He was the man we all strived to match… but could never quite!” he recalled in a tribute to Jack for Bear Alley. “Johnny Aldrich and I and a few others admired his expertise and we used to copy every letter of the alphabet to try and capture his style.”

Derek Remembered

I shall always remember Derek for his great wit that helped make some of the lesser moments at Odhams bearable,” says former comics editor Brian Woodford.

“I was so sad and shocked to read that Derek has died,” says Shirley Dean (now Brieger). “It’s quite recent that he contacted me via Facebook and we had a great time thinking back over the early days of Eagle and Girl. My thoughts are with his family.”

“I’m so sorry to hear the sad news concerning Derek,” commented former Battle editor Dave Hunt. “We worked together on various titles during the 1970s at IPC Magazines and he never once let me down.

“He had a rare knack of getting to the heart of any problem with a wise crack, but nevertheless what he had just said had made a lot of sense and usually the problem was solved.”

All here at downthetubes extend our condolences to his wife, Rita, family and friends at this sad time.

Derek Pierson, born 22nd November 1938, died June 2016. He is survived by his wife, Rita and their children, Gary and Jacki, and a number of grandchildren

Read our interview with Derek Pierson here

Read Steve Holland’s obituary for Derek Pierson on Bear Alley

• Derek’s wife Rita has launched JustGiving Page in memory of Derek, to raise money for Cancer Research. If you would like to remember Derek you can, if you prefer, also make donations direct to Cancer Research here of  MacMillan Support here

My thanks to Jeremy Briggs, Roger Perry, Rita Pierson, David Slinn and others for their help compiling this tribute

John Freeman

The founder of downthetubes, John describes himself as is a “freelance comics operative”, currently working as a freelance editor for TITAN COMICS, as Creative Consultant on the new DAN DARE audio adventures for B7 Media, and on promotional work for the LAKES INTERNATIONAL COMIC ART FESTIVAL and LANCASTER COMICS DAY.

John has worked in British comics publishing for over 30 years, starting out at Marvel UK, where he edited a number of the Genesis 1992 books with Paul Neary. His numerous credits include editor of titles such as Doctor Who Magazine at Marvel and Star Trek Magazine and Babylon 5 Magazine at Titan Magazines, where he was Managing Editor.

He also edited STRIP Magazine and worked as an editor on several audio comics for ROK Comics, including TEAM M.O.B.I.L.E. and THE BEATLES STORY.

Most recently he is writing CRUCIBLE as a creator-owned project with 2000AD artist Smuzz, published on Tapastic; and DEATH DUTY and SKOW DOGS with Dave Hailwood for the digital comic 100% Biodegradable.

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