Looking Back: Exploring The World of Tomorrow in DC Thomson’s “Big Five” boys comics

Adventure Issue 1100 - Cover

Notoriously secretive DC Thomson still publish Beano and Commando, but their past comics included The Dandy and weekly anthology titles aimed at boys such as Hotspur and Adventure

These specialised in sports, school and war stories, but also, occasionally, there was SF too…

Adventure 988 - Cover

“SUPERSPEED EXCITEMENT WITH THE MEN OF THE PLANET PATROL…!”

The dramatic cover illustration of Adventure, cover dated 5th October 1940, shows the “Wardens Of The Worlds In Space“, two grim space-suited figures on a lunar world, with a spaceship marked Space Patrol 41 standing in the background. The blurb announces the all-text story to be found within as “The Amazing Story Of Life As It Will Be In The Year 2040”.

Oddly, we are now closer to that speculative future date than we are to the time of the story’s publication. And yes, we’ve witnessed figures moving on a lunar landscape not unlike the one the uncredited DC Thomson artist visualised. Their future happened. If not always exactly in the way they envisaged.

Operating from Dundee, the notoriously secretive anti-union DC Thomson most famously invented Dandy (Number One, cover dated 4th December 1937) and then Beano (Number One, cover dated 30th July 1938), but before that they’d created “The Big Five” –  story-papers that kept boys enthralled for nigh on three decades.

Fan and archivist Terry Jeeves recalls “how Adventure hit the newsagents every Monday, Wizard arrived on Tuesday, Rover on Thursday, Hotspur on Friday, and Skipper on Saturday.” Apparently, London rival publisher Amalgamated Press had staked out Wednesday for their pale blue Boy’s Cinema, first published in 1919, retelling film plots complete with stills and star pin-ups, while some Lord’s Day Preservationists probably put the frighteners on publishers to deny them Sunday. (To say nothing of what DC Thomson’s conservative owners of the day might have thought of such an idea).

But prior to TV – never mind games-consoles, those two-penny story-weekly’s appeared chock-full of solid-text exploits, each issue made up of intimidating prose-blocks extending to full novel-length. Largely, they specialised in sports stories, school stories and war stories, but occasionally there were forms of SF too.

Travel in Space, DC Thomson style

"Lost Men in Space"
Of course, pre-World War Two, despite the success of films such as Metropolis and Alexander Korda/ HG Wells’ Things to Come, readers would not necessarily be expected to be as familiar with the conventions of SF as they are now. So it could be argued that fantasy story-elements were more usually introduced as plot-gimmicks into conventional settings rather than as pure SF. After all, for most of the period concerned, Britain did not have its own dedicated SF magazine.

Scoops Issue One, published in 1934
Scoops Issue One, published in 1934. Image for 2017 Adventure feature by Andrew Darlington.

Published by Pearson  the pioneering juvenile Scoops lasted for 20 issues in 1934, then Tales Of Wonder, published by The World’s Work, a subsidiary of William Heinemann, survived for just 16, from 1937 to 1942.

As a result, for DC Thomson’s ‘Big Five’, even unfamiliar extraterrestrial themes were introduced obliquely, cushioned by means of genre cross-overs, a practice that continued post-war despite growing interest in SF.

The Last Six Hundred
In “S.O.S From Planet X” (Hotspur, 1954), two young disgruntled Scotland Yard police sergeants, John Horton and Scottie Grant, answer a newspaper ad for “experienced, keen police officers with modern ideas… to combat a crime-wave on Planet X”.

Suspecting some kind of hoax, they nevertheless rendezvous with Mr Monuk, an enigmatic “foreign gentleman” in Room 456 of the Trebizon Hotel. He offers them £200 a month – several times what they were now getting, for their services.

To their amazement his spaceship Planet-rover then takes them to Maxos, capital city of a previously crime-free planet, which is inexplicably enduring a reign of criminal terror. They solve the murder of Senator Carasos, then, “this is where our job really begins” says Horton, neatly combining crime-detection with SF.

"Bull Raiders From The Red Orb" (Adventure, 1945)
A similar kind of fictional conjuring lay behind a curious hybrid extravagance called “Bull Raiders From The Red Orb” (Adventure, 1945), which was billed as “A Wild West Story A Million Miles From The Wild West!” Readers might not be too familiar with SF, but they certainly knew all about cowboys. Hence, four men from the Circle-7 Ranch in Texas pursue pesky cattle-rustlers who just happen to come from “one of the lesser-known planet”’ known as the Red Orb, which lies “nearly a million miles away”.

A million miles probably sounds like a long way to an impressionable 1940’s school kid, although in solar system terms it’s practically our backyard! The odd adventurers use a crashed alien ship re-equipped by scientist Professor Hamilton, and – to represent the reader’s juvenile point-of-view, they unwittingly carry 14-year-old stowaway Davie Baird with them.

"The Warning Voice from Space" (Adventure)
A somewhat intriguing new twist on the war story also made its appearance in Adventure – in 14 hefty text episodes from the issue  cover dated 24th March 1945. “They’ll Try It Again” tells of a resurgent Nazi army invading America in the then-far-future of 1965, the heading illustration showing a column of World War Two-style Wehrmacht winding their way from a burning city, while slim war-machines anticipating those from George Pal’s War Of The Worlds movie hover above them.

In what would now be considered an “alternative history” tale there are obvious comparisons to be made with Philip K Dick’s Man In A High Castle, or the Robert Harris novel Fatherland (1992), and, perhaps, the John Milius 1984 film Red Dawn which also conjectures an invasion of the United States, albeit by Russians. Or maybe such analogies are to rate the story too highly? After all, it’s essentially a war-story, with a twist. And even at the time of publication, the theme of invasion was hardly new.

"They’ll Try It Again" (Adventure)
It could be traced back at least to George Tomkyns Chesney’s agitational 1871 story The Battle Of Dorking, intended as a fictionalised warning to a complacent populace about the dangers of Prussian militarist ambitions. In “Britain Down – But Never Out” (Skipper, 1937), Britain is invaded by an eastern race called the Mangoths, following a devastating plague that has weakened national defences.

With “Britain In Chains”, Bill Hutton leads the fight-back against Dictator Genghis… much as Bill Savage would do against occupying Volgans in 2000AD, many years later.

(Because conservative, and conservation-minded publishers, seldom waste a strong story-idea. “Hitler Lives” was a strip that ran in The Crunch (until 14 July 1979), in which Nazi fanatics raise the Fuehrer from suspended animation to wage war anew, and “regain world domination”).

"Lost Men in Space"
The marked preference for gadget stories, when combined with a school setting, forms a “perfect storm” of familiar-plus-novelty elements. The “At School In 1975” series in Hotspur’(1936) was set in Bankfield College where teachers have been replaced by desk-screens that notify pupils “Do One-Hundred Lines”. Or the cover-story “The World Of Tomorrow (published in Adventure in 1944) which predicts “moving pavements will abolish walking”, “the breakfast of the future! two highly-concentrated pellets”, and “this is what the servants of the future will look like” showing a rather clunky robot.

But the schoolroom is there too, where “Teachers will give lessons at school through two-way television sets, controlling hundreds of pupils at one time”.

Monkton Powers in a fix (Hotspur)
Hotspur’s “Lost School On The Whirling Planet“, running through the first half of 1941, transports schoolboy Neil Bain and his pals to the “whirling planet”. Once there, they seek the assistance of Qu to aid their friends the Frankites’ in a “great revolt” against Molok and the Masters. But it is the alien-slanted school structure that is central to the serial.

The long-running “Iron Teacher” best typifies the equation, beginning with “The Iron Teacher Speaks” debuting in Hotspur in 1941 with the vaguely western setting of Comstock, Nevada. It was successful enough for him to return battling Nazis, then a 1950 cover shows him fighting a sabre-toothed tiger.

“The Iron Teacher” was reconfigured into strip-form in 1972, but was subject to evolutionary upgrades in the process, until the robot teacher is radio-controlled by Special Agent Jake Todd, and his adventures take him as far as a hidden South American valley where prehistoric beasts prowl.

Monkton Powers battles alien nasties (Hotspur)
There were to be numerous other robotic variants throughout the evolution of DC Thomson’s spread of titles, from Doctor Doom’s invincible “Smasher” set on world domination, or Starhawk’s droid companion in 1979, through to the straight comedy of “Tin Lizzie’”and “Clanky The Cast-Iron Pup“. Of course, to call them all Sci-Fi is to stretch definitions a little too far, even as a validating excuse for introducing novelty. After all, elsewhere, no such excuse is needed. A chimpanzee for a sheriff? why not (“The Hairy Sheriff” in Skipper, 1940). A walrus for a Teacher? of course (“Our Teacher’s A Walrus” in The Dandy, 1939).

"The Sun Turned Blue"
But where novel-technology was concerned, one of the most popular recurring characters was “The Black Sapper“, a caped black-clad criminal genius who, with his mechanic Marot, invents an amazing mechanical mole equipped with diamond-hard drills which he uses to commit his crimes. No bank-vault is safe against his Earthworm.

He debuts spectacularly in Rover in 1929 by robbing the Bank of England. He reappeared – in picture form, pursued again by the dogged Commander Ben Breeze of Scotland Yard – in Beezer in 1959, when he steals the Crown Jewels, only to return to the revamped Hotspur in 1971. Later, he saw the error of his ways, reformed and used his formidable talents on the side of law, and even to battle alien invaders from the planet Khansu.

The Bubble” was another weird tale that first appeared as a text-story in 1951 in Adventure, only to re-appear as a picture-strip drawn by Leo Rawling in Victor in 1968.

Monkton Powers lands on an alien world (Hotspur)
What set DC Thomson’s adventure yarns apart from their rivals were “the writers and editorial staff’s refreshingly improbable and often outrageous storylines, which truly stood the test of time by being revived, sometimes repeatedly, in strip form for decades after”, according to Paul Gravett (in Great British Comics, Arum 2006).

Gravett singles out the black-clad Wilson, in Wizard’(1943) as a prime example of this longevity. Billed simply as “The Greatest Boy’s Story Ever Written!’”– Wilson is a barefoot champion runner in knitted long-johns who prefers living rough on the Yorkshire Moors to a celebrity lifestyle. He ran the three-minute mile long before the four-minute barrier had been broken!

"The Sun Turned Blue"
Wilson’s only possible rival would be Alf Tupper, the “Tough Of The Track” in Rover (1949). A “hard-as-nails” working-class athlete from industrial Greystone, he prefers his fish ‘n’ chips to posh nosh. And just like its legendary star, the stories also ran and ran, with Tupper’s tales retold in Victor into the 1990’s.

Then there was HK Rodd, the “Wonder Man“, another Rover super-sportsman raised by scientists Professor William Graves and Dr Erasmus Codrington to be physically and mentally perfect. From yet another angle “Morgyn The Mighty“, the thrill-a-minute “Strongest Man In The World”, is a kind of Tarzan on steroids. Shipwrecked onto Black Island when the schooner Hebrides founders, his superior strength saw him triumph over adversity in many adventures. While “Strang The Terrible“, over in Adventure (from 1936), was a kind of Conan-esque rival with a big club who began by being carried down an underground river into a gruesome South American Valley Of The Giants, where prehistoric beasts and hairy man-apes roam, and where he searches for lost cities of fabulous golden treasures.

By 1951, he transferred to a cover picture-strip in which a “Black Sapper”-style boring machine takes him into the subterranean realm of the Tramons. All such characters enjoyed reincarnations as picture-strips. But so did Battle of Britain air-ace “I Flew With Braddock“!

"The Warning Voice from Space"

But Rover also ran future-war tales. “The Frightened Year Of The Fireflies” was a 1958 text-serial set in 1986, when an invisible electrical ‘ceiling’ protects Britain from world-dominating Klovanian ‘firefly’ rockets. A counter-attack ‘sparkler’ launched from Gibraltar defeats the bad guys with a single shock-and-awe Hiroshima rocket-strike, after which the bad guys sue for peace, “once more Britain had stood alone, and once more Britain had won”.

So who were these mysterious Cold War foreign invaders from the East who persist in threatening our freedoms? Which aggressive power-block is being alluded to? Maybe, as in BBC Light Programme’s Round The Horne, the Klovanians, Mangoths and Volgans all represented “an unnamed foreign power we’re not allowed to mention, Russia”?

"The Man Who Blacked Out the Moon"
However, in “The Ninety-Nine Deadly Days” from 1950 the attack comes from space, as Y-rays from the star Nimbis start melting the ice-caps. Working from a Hope Valley base in the Arctic, scientists have ninety-nine days to save the world from inundation by flooding. They construct pylons with reflector-dishes, but still find time to break for a Yorkshire-vs-Lancashire cricket match (resulting in a draw).

Finally, they ‘bend’ the hostile rays back into space. Nimbis is destroyed.

But Earth could also be the unwitting aggressor. In “Experiment X” Professor Peter Orr carries out research into “celestial navigation” from a massive reinforced Atom City installation in remote Westmorland. He shoots an unmanned rocket into the moon primed to explode on impact so that its success is visible to Earth observers. Then he plans a more ambitious shot, to Saturn, for which a bigger more brilliant explosion will be necessary. Naturally, this prospect doesn’t particularly appeal to native Saturnians, and soon the experiment is troubled by an invisible saboteur.

"Crimson Comet" - Wizard, 1946
During its 1937 peak, the third of the ‘Big Five’ – Wizard – was selling 800,000 copies a week, at just two shiny pennies each. It ran a number of more ambitious sci-fantasy tales.

Crimson Comet” from 1946 opens with Clive Warren hiking in Wales when he stumbles upon secretive military installation “Zone X” near Snowdon. There he meets Sir Gavin Hamilton, the “leading British astronomer of the day” who gives him a crash-course in the structure of the solar system, including “recently-discovered Pluto”.

"Crimson Comet" - Wizard, 1946
Hamilton then reveals that Earth is threatened by the approach of a planet-sized Crimson Comet, and that Zone X is an emergency project designed to ‘move the Earth’ to avoid the imminent collision.

The situation is further complicated when, at the same time, an experimental spheroid crashes nearby, and a Venusian emerges. Argol is an arrogant, but not unfriendly Venusian nobleman who explains that “almost every educated Venusian knows English in order to listen to your radio”. Although they probably neglect to pay the BBC licence fee, he and his companion Beltair have become “electrically-charged by their voyage through space”. The obvious parallel to the tale is When Worlds Collide, but although the high-profile George Pal movie didn’t emerge until 1951, the novel on which it was based, by Philip Wylie and Edwin Balmer was first published in 1933, and its ideas had already influenced pop-culture of the day, to the extent that Flash Gordon’s first adventure began with the world threatened by imminent cosmic collision.

"Crimson Comet" - Wizard, 1946
Planetary extinction also threatens the world in “Last Rocket To Venus” (Hotspur, 1939), announced on the cover as “The Most Astounding Story Ever Told!” and set in the “terrible fear-ridden days” of the year 9939, as a new Ice Age encroaches and “everyone knew the end of the world was near”.

There’s a strange mish-mash of visionary far-future imaginings, the Earth’s rotation has slowed so that days are 48-hours long, the moon is orbiting ever-closer, and a fortified enclave in Wales stands against the ‘maddened hordes’ of surrounding anarchy. “There was no normal landscape. There were no trees or buildings, no telegraph poles, no roads or railways to be seen. Here and there the top of a building pushed a few feet out of the snow-drifts”.

"Last Rocket To Venus" (Hotspur, 1939)Yet in this bleakly nightmarish deep-future the characters have reassuringly solid Anglo-Saxon names: Toby Greaves and “brilliant young engineer” Gavin Ainsworth, who even take their snow-cat for a trip into nearby Merthyr!

From their enclave they have constructed a kind of mighty space-gun reminiscent of the one seen in the film Things To Come (1936), a giant steel tube sunk into the Snowdon mountainside which fires rocket-probes to “Mercury, to Mars, and to Jupiter”, and eventually decides to establish a base-colony of British pioneers on Venus.

The cover illustration shows the great projectile surrounded by a gantry of scaffolding, as the evacuation to resettle the new world is threatened by the arrival of the barbaric Black Burrell, Conqueror Of The Midlands, and then by the richest man in the world Herman Baskerville who demands passage to Venus – just as a fiery rain begins falling as the Moon disintegrates.

"The Last Six Hundred"
Venus was also the refuge of choice in “I Saw The End Of The World” (Wizard, 1951) when the accidental explosion of a cargo of hydrogen bombs in San Francisco harbour ignites a tremendous fire that could not be extinguished and threatens to incinerate the world. Spaceship Thunderbolt reaches our jungle-world neighbour where its crew encounter giant ants and snakes, as Captain Townsend plants the Union Jack on an island in the Venusian ocean and solemnly declares “I hereby name this island New Britain”.

Narrator Peter Howard is there as a planetary Noah’s Ark transfers examples of Earth-fauna to its new home. He “saw a red ball blazing in space like a huge exploding star. The Earth was finished, but on Venus a new life was about to begin, and the skies were bright with the promise of the future”.

"Crimson Comet" - Wizard, 1946

Exploited hack staff-writers were churning out thousands-of-words of such prose without ever seeing the satisfaction of their names in the by-line. It’s easy to conjecture their ideas being commissioned, switched around, lifted from whatever sources came to their attention, and pressed into service for the next epic.

A possible inspiration for some of the DC Thomson SF tales? The cover of the US SF magazine Startling Stories (November 1939)
A possible inspiration for some of the DC Thomson SF tales? The cover of the US SF magazine Startling Stories (November 1939)

For example, there’s an “Ark Of Space” cover to the US pulp-title Startling Stories, dated November 1939, showing animals going two-by-two up a curved ramp – lions, elephants, giraffes, into the hold of a giant rocketship, as armed troops hold a mob at bay. A glimpse of this cover alone could have prompted the inspiration for either tale. Or perhaps the idea was just in the air at the time?

 "The Fires Beneath The Desert" (Wizard, 1943)
Space was not the only place for thrills. Subterranean journeys had been a setting for fictional adventure at least since Jules Verne, and Edgar Rice Burroughs. In “The Fires Beneath The Desert” (Wizard, 1943) two geology students, Jess Warden and Doc Stratton use asbestos “Stratton Heat-Resisting Suits” to enter the Bernardino Caves in the Colorado Desert earthquake-zone, penetrating down into realms of volcanic fire, and the “Demon Of The Flame”.

Then, in “Neptune’s Chimney” (Hotspur, 1952) the mutinous crew of the Anglo-American research vessel Sea Roamer casts our heroes ashore on a remote unnamed Pacific volcanic island. Once there, young Ken Palmer finds webbed footprints on the sandy beach. Then Jim Cook, Dan Gilbert and Captain Blake warily return to the ship which is still moored in the bay, to find it abandoned and the mutineers vanished. They take the research helicopter from the deck, and while ascending over the island’s peak they notice a strange green glow emanating from the crater interior, and investigate.

Deep inside the mountain the shaft opens out into ‘a cavern so enormous that they could not see the limit of it’. It contains a city built of red rock, or coral. This, they discover, is a city of fishmen whose skins shine like scales. Although not SF, it is a classic fantasy adventure.

"The Lost Men in Space"
And there are intriguing one-off stories within the DC Thomson fictional multiverse, such as “The Boy Who Slept 100 Years” (Skipper, 1934), a juvenile take on HG Wells’ dystopian 1910 novel The Sleeper Awakes – or maybe just Rip Van Winkle?

Young Bob Gable goes to sleep in a cave in 1934, and wakes up in May 2034. Much as the first Buck Rogers In The Year 2429AD had done, in his January 1929 US newspaper strip. Leaking gas had put them both into a suspended animation state.

“I must be going dotty” he says as he wakes with his clothes reduced to ageing tatters. Emerging from the cave, he discovers rubber roads that lead towards the gleaming lights of Bradford, and bullet-shaped cars that flash past “at something over sixty miles per hour” (was that really considered fast in 1934?).

Soon, he meets young Frank Holmes in his zippered grey one-suit. After they exchange a few biffs to the nose prompted by their mutual suspicions – something that was obviously regarded as a kind of bonding ritual – Bob accepts that he’s become “a vagrant from another century”. Yet there’s less futuristic thrills as there are chases and encounters with criminal bad guys in the ensuing instalments…

"The Puppets of Peril"

All images © DC Thomson (except Scoops and Startling Stories)

Andrew Darlington

Andrew Darlington

Andrew Darlington has had masses of material published in all manner of strange and obscure places, magazines, websites, anthologies and books. He's also worked as a Stand-Up Poet on the ‘Alternative Cabaret Circuit’, and interviewed very many people from the worlds of Literature, SF-Fantasy, Art and Rock-Music for a variety of publications (a selection of favourite interviews collected into the ‘Headpress’ book ‘I Was Elvis Presley’s Bastard Love-Child’). His latest poetry collection is ‘The Poet’s Deliberation On The State Of The Nation’ (Penniless Press), while his new fiction collection ‘A Saucerful Of Secrets’ is now available from Parallel Universe Publ. Website: www.andrewdarlington.blogspot.com

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