Available now from Telos Publishing is The Art of Reginald Heade, written by Stephen James Walker, a book about an artist renowned amongst vintage paperback fans and collectors as the pre-eminent British pulp fiction cover artist of the 1940s and 1950s – considered by some as the greatest British artist to work in this field.
He also worked on numerous comics and here, Stephen expands on his work for titles such as Comet and Answers, which included the strips “Mary Read – Soldier and Pirate” and “Journey to Jupiter”…
I have long been a fan of hard-boiled crime fiction, and I first became aware of Reginald Heade’s art when I happened to see, and promptly snapped up, a copy of the 1953 Hank Janson novel Vengeance while browsing at a London book fair in (if I recall correctly) the late 1980s. So began my decades-long fascination with the work of the man justly renowned as Britain’s pre-eminent pulp fiction paperback cover artist of the 1940s and 1950s.
While it is his superb, erotically-charged depictions of scantily-clad damsels and dames that have earned Heade his reputation, and that are the main focus of interest for collectors like me, a less well-known aspect of his career is that he also turned his hand to comic strip illustration. When I started researching my recently-published book The Art of Reginald Heade, I was determined to investigate the full extent of his contribution to this rather different medium.
As other researchers have discovered, definitive information about aspects of British comics history can be very hard to come by. More often than not the artists were uncredited, and what little contemporary documentation survives is not always reliable, so one is sometimes left having to make judgments based largely on the style of the printed artwork. The only previous publication dedicated solely to Heade and his work, Steve Chibnall’s invaluable booklet Reginald Heade: England’s Greatest Artist (Books Are Everything, 1991), had just these few words to say on the subject of his comic strip endeavours: “Additional work in black and white included comic strips supplied to the boys’ papers Knockout and Comet, featuring illustrations for a science fiction strip and the detective Sexton Blake.” Dennis Gifford’s Encyclopedia of Comic Characters (Longman, 1987) had just a little more information, stating that in 1952 Heade drew a strip story called “Journey to Jupiter“ in Comet, starting from Issue 202. And Alan Clark’s Dictionary of British Comic Artists, Writers and Editors (British Library, 1998) noted, “[Heade’s work appeared] in the 1940s and early 1950s in [Amalgamated Press’s] Knockout and Sun weeklies in comic strip form. These were: ‘The Saga of the Red’; ‘The Captain from Castille’; ‘Sexton Blake versus the Astounding John Plague’; and ‘Robin Hood’ (all Knockout: 1949).”
These relatively meagre details were the starting point in my research
I was quickly able to establish that Heade did indeed draw two of the Knockout strip stories mentioned in Alan Clark’s book. “The Saga of Eric the Red” – to give it its full correct title, although it was retitled simply Eric the Red part-way through – ran for eight two-page instalments from Issue 524 to Issue 531 in March and April 1949, and Heade was unquestionably the artist responsible, as he was actually credited on it.
“Sexton Blake and Tinker versus Plague of Crime” – retitled after its first instalment to “Sexton Blake versus the Astounding John Plague” – also ran for eight two-page instalments, from Issue 529 to Issue 536 in April and May 1949, overlapping with the end of “Eric the Red”. Although Heade was not credited in this instance, the style of the art clearly marks it out as his work.
Of particular interest is the fact that the character John Plague closely resembles a male figure depicted in a number of Heade’s later book cover pieces, and could possibly have been a self-portrait – although, as no photographs of the artist are known to exist, this will have to remain a matter of conjecture.
As my research progressed, it became apparent that the other information in Clark’s book was sadly more suspect. I discovered that it was not in 1949 but some two years earlier, between June and September 1947, that Knockout published a Robin Hood strip story, “The Adventures of Robin Hood“, which ran from #435 to #447. This would seem to have pre-dated Heade’s involvement with the comic, and the uncredited art does not look particularly like his work.
Similarly, the eleven-instalment “The Captain from Castile” – note the correct spelling – although it ran from Issue 541 to Issue 551 in the autumn of 1949, which puts it in the right time-frame, cannot have been entirely Heade’s work, as a different artist, Norman Pett, better known for creating the comic strip Jane for the Daily Mirror, was actually credited on the last five instalments. The uncredited art for the first six instalments could potentially be Heade’s, but it seems to vary in style somewhat between instalments, suggesting perhaps multiple contributors, and the only instalment I would feel fairly confident in attributing to him is the first.
On balance, therefore, it seems probable that Heade’s work for Knockout actually consisted of just “The Saga of Eric the Red”, aka “Eric the Red”; “Sexton Blake and Tinker versus Plague of Crime”, aka “Sexton Blake versus the Astounding John Plague”; and perhaps some of the early instalments of “The Captain from Castile”.
I have been unable to find any evidence of Heade having contributed to Sun, the other comic mentioned by Clark.
But what of Comet? This was published by the same company as Knockout and Sun, Amalgamated Press (which would later be taken over by the Mirror Group and renamed Fleetway Publications), and the art for “Journey to Jupiter“, the story cited in Dennis Gifford’s book, does indeed appear to be by Heade, although again it is uncredited. It therefore seems likely that “Journey to Jupiter”, which ran for four three-page instalments from Issue 202 to Issue 205 in May and June 1952, is the ‘science fiction strip’ to which the Steve Chibnall booklet refers. (I consulted Chibnall during the writing of this article, but he was unable to provide any further clarification.)
A thorough search through other late-1940s and early-1950s issues of Comet reveals only one or two other instances where, judging purely from the style of the uncredited art, Heade might perhaps have made one-off fill-in contributions to strips normally drawn by other artists. One of these came in Issue 78, dated 10 September 1949, on the final instalment of an Alice in Wonderland serialisation.
There is, though, a footnote to add here: by far the most obvious appearance of Heade’s work in Comet came when Amalgamated reused his full-colour cover art from their August 1955 Thriller Comics Library entry Captain Kidd – Buccaneer on the back page of Issue 511, dated 3rd May 1958, the year after the artist’s death. This was ostensibly to promote a short story inside the comic – although “The Bold Buccaneer” was really very short indeed, consisting of only five lines of text!
Heade unquestionably did occasional fill-in work on other Amalgamated titles in the late 1940s and 1950s – one example for younger children was a two-page instalment of “When Knights Were Bold“ in Playhour Issue 10, dated 13th December 1954 – but his most ambitious comic strip work was actually carried out for a different publisher, Associated Press, on their large-format Saturday paper Answers, marketed as ‘Britain’s National Journal’ – an assignment mentioned in none of the previously-published reference sources.
For this, he illustrated a story called “Mary Read – Soldier and Pirate“, based on the exploits of a real-life early-18th Century female pirate who spent most of her life masquerading as a man. There were twenty single-page instalments to this story, the first appearing in the 15th March 1952 edition and the last in the 26th July 1952 edition. Even here, though, the exact extent of Heade’s involvement is uncertain: although he is credited on the first 12 instalments, the last eight are uncredited, leaving open the possibility that the story might in fact have been finished off by a different artist copying his style.
The overall conclusion I have reached is that Reginald Heade probably made rather fewer contributions to British comic strip art than might previously have been supposed. This is a great pity, as the pieces he did produce are as outstanding as one would expect from an artist of his calibre.
One can only hope that additional examples are discovered through further research in the years to come.
• The Art of Reginald Heade is a meticulously researched, lavishly illustrated book is a glorious celebration of Heade’s work, and an absolutely essential addition to the bookshelves of anyone with a taste for classic pin-up and book cover artwork. The book will be welcomed by the many fans of his work as for many, beyond his published work, his life is quite a mystery
• Buy it from amazon.co.uk – using this link helps support downthetubes