Creating Comics: An Archive Interview with Roy of the Rovers co-creator Frank S. Pepper
The Continuing Adventures of Frank S. Pepper
This feature offers the full text of an interview Andrew Darlington conducted with the legendary writer Frank S. Pepper, extracted from a long series of correspondence, exactly as it was published in the ‘alternative’ arts-magazine Ludds Mill no.9 in September 1973. Andrew has resisted the temptation of amending or updating the text, but some minor edits for this site’s style have been made.
A prolific author, in comics Frank co-created space hero “Captain Condor“, with artist Ronald Forbes, for Lion in 1952, and football hero “Roy of the Rovers“, with Joe Colquhoun, for Tiger in 1953, although he only wrote the first four episodes. (After that, Colquhoun wrote it, under the name Stewart Colwyn, from Pepper’s outline). Other credits include “Danny of the Dazzlers” and “Rockfist Rogan” originally as text stories for Champion; “Olac the Gladiator“, with Don Lawrence, for Tiger (1959 – 1960), “Jet Ace Logan” for Tiger (1959); episodes of “The Spellbinder” in Lion (1969 – 74) and “The Steel Commando“, drawn by Alex Henderson, for Thunder, Lion, Valiant (1971-74).
THE STORY SO FAR
Chances are you don’t know his name. Yet the chances are just as certain that at one time in your life you have read, enjoyed, probably been enthusiastic about his work. Remember “Roy Of The Rovers”, “Dan Dare”, “Spellbinder”, or “Captain Condor”? These and many other characters have benefitted from his amazingly prolific pen.
Roy Lichtenstein made comic-strip art respectable, heralding, with his ‘blown-up’ frames, the whole Pop-Art genre. Stan Lee, a Marvel cult figure in his own right, has been accorded the ultimate accolade America could bestow upon him, an interview in Newsweek, while in the UK ‘Melody Maker’ lavished a double-page spread on ‘Stan The Man’.
British comics have received less attention. Notoriously, IPC regards its ‘juvenile publications’ sector as a poor relation, while DC Thomson’s security rivals that of Howard Hughes, or Nixon’s Watergate connections. American Steve Ditko is perhaps the best-known creator of comics in Britain, his work appears in reprint magazines such as Tales Of Suspense and Tales To Astonish. Frank Hampson is known as the creator of “Dan Dare”. Frank Bellamy, an example of whose work – a frame from “Heros The Spartan”, including over two-hundred figures, was exhibited in the New York academy, is known for his work on “Garth” and “Doctor Who”.
The other Frank… script-writer Frank S Pepper, is not so familiar. Now in his early sixties, Frank lives in the ‘Old Vicarage’ in a small Devon town where he produces ten scripts each week…
NOW READ ON…
ANDREW DARLINGTON: Your stories have always impressed me with their plot complexity and thematic originality, right from the earliest I remember – the Science Fiction strips “Jet-Ace Logan’ and “Captain Condor”.
FRANK S PEPPER: It leaves me slightly punch-drunk to find anyone interested in these long-forgotten items, because one works all the time feeling that one is producing something purely ephemeral, which will be thrown away and forgotten as soon as the succeeding editions appear on the bookstall.
AD: The logical place to start would seem to be the beginning.
FP: From 1930, when I began writing, until about 1952 I wrote nothing but text stories. Millions and millions of words. I still write some. My longest running text-story was before your time, “Rockfist Rogan“, which I started in Champion in 1938, with the original intention of running it for twelve weeks, but which I actually kept going every week without a break for 22 years in Champion until its final issue, and then for a few years more, in Tiger.
I did a number of text-stories about “Captain Condor“, after the picture series had to come to an end for lack of a suitable artist. I have also done, in annuals, text stories about “Dan Dare“. The trouble with some of the annuals which are associated with the weeklies, is that they tend to be used as ragbags, to provide markets for new, inexperienced writers to serve their apprenticeships on, or as an outlet for people who are not quite first class, but need to be kept employed.
AD: In what way does writing scripts for picture-strips differ from writing text stories?
FP: The technique of the text story is obviously entirely different. You can create atmosphere by the right choice of evocative phrases, by varying the lengths of sentences, and so on. You can describe a character’s thoughts, and his state of mind. You can build up character, and situations, through dialogue.
In a strip, you have to work visually. You are so restricted, in terms of space, that the amount of effect you can produce in the headings and balloons is very restricted, and although you can – to some extent control the pace of the story, and the rise and fall of the drama, by the way in which you relate the frames to each other, you are very much in the hands of the artist to create the right overall effect, and if you get landed with an insensitive one, who doesn’t have this feel for story-telling, and can’t appreciate what the purpose of each separate frame is, and the effect they are intended to produce when they are all linked together, the result can be very frustrating to the script-writer.
AD: How did you first become involved in picture-strip comics like Comet, Tiger and Lion?
FP: For the first few years after World War Two, the paper shortage was terrible. Big publishers, like the ‘Amalgamated Press’ as it then was, couldn’t put any plans for expansion into action because they were so tightly rationed that even their existing papers were little twelve-page pamphlets. But there were some small printers who were in a much better position.
The paper was rationed on a quota of pre-war consumption. Printers who had specialised in things like expensive catalogues, or other advertising material, were entitled to buy their percentage of whatever they had used before the war, even though nobody was bothering to produce catalogues because there was such a shortage of everything that advertising was a waste on money.
Consequently, these people had paper to spare, and many of them launched into publishing magazines, because there was such a dearth of periodicals that you could sell absolutely anything. Hence the era of the horror comic. Most of these printers knew nothing about editing magazines and didn’t even try, because there was an inexhaustible supply of ready-made material in America. You could buy a complete set of plates for an issue of an American horror comic for about £50, churn out a few thousand copies until your paper ration was exhausted, sell them like hot cakes at sixpence or a shilling a time, and make a bomb.
However, some small firms did make serious attempts to originate new papers, although none of them survived once the chronic shortage ended. One of these launched Sun and Comet. The ‘Amalgamated Press’, questing around for some means of expanding, bought the firm in order to get its paper ration. This was in 1948 or 1949.
The two papers were put under the managing editorship of Monty Haydon, who was responsible for Knockout, Sexton Blake, and magazines of that sort. The papers were supervised for him by Percy A Clark. I was contributing to Knockout, and so was asked to do some serials for them.
After a while the paper situation eased. First Lion and then Tiger were launched by RT Eves, for whom I had been doing a great deal of work since 1950. I became heavily involved in both these new papers, creating, among other things “Captain Condor” for the first issue of Lion and “Roy Of The Rovers” for Number One of Tiger. I kept “Captain Condor” going for about twelve years, and am still doing “Roy Of The Rovers” today!
WHAT MORE THRILLING DISCLOSURES ARE TO COME, PALS?
AD: What sort of basis did you use to create “Captain Condor“?
FP: When I was given the job I felt that our juvenile readers would be very unsophisticated so far as Science Fiction was concerned. It was necessary to give them a story with strong elements which they could relate to, themes they already knew. I therefore chose the one about the unjustly imprisoned hero who escapes from prison and becomes an outlaw. But instead of escaping from Alcatraz or Devil’s Island, I simply pushed the prison out into space.
There was also the problem of doing a script which would be within the capabilities of the artist. In fact the project came close to being abandoned at one time because of the difficulty of finding a man imaginative enough and capable of working fast enough to turn out a two-page set every week.
Ronald Forbes, who was eventually chosen, and who handled the job for several years, had never done any Science Fiction before. Forbes was succeeded by a man called Neville Wilson, then by Keith Watson, who had already done a lot of “Dan Dare”, then by Brian Lewis (who had illustrated beautifully surreal covers for Science Fantasy magazine).
But with every fantasy script one has to extrapolate from things already familiar to the reader. The “Captain Condor” story “The War In Space”, illustrated by Keith Watson, was a combination of World War Two themes projected into a space setting, we had Quisling invasion techniques, plus the fall of Singapore, and Pearl Harbor, plus a resistance movement, and the culmination in a sort of D-Day.
There were no writer changes on “Captain Condor”. I produced them all, both picture-scripts and, later text stories. In fact, as with one of my other long-running characters, “Rockfist Rogan”, I had a special contract which made Condor in some sense my property, and gave me a share in all exploitations – for example, I drew royalties on the sale of Captain Condor products like the watch produced by Timex.
AD: You mention the importance of illustrators. I was personally impressed by the work of John Gillatt during your “Jet-Ace Logan” series.
FP: All the “Jet-Ace Logan” weekly strips were drawn, so far as I know by John Gillatt, with whom I am still collaborating. I was immensely fortunate in having John to draw the strips. He is one of my favourite artist-collaborators, and we are at the moment working on a football story in Tiger called “Football Family Robinson” in which his immense fertility in creating characters is a great joy to me.
John seems to be able to get right into the spirit of a story, and to grasp the dramatic and pictorial possibilities in any given situation. John has the ability to invent extra little touches of his own which enhance the scene. This of course, requires an ability to get right inside the skin of a story. Another man might attempt the same thing, put in something wrong, and muck it up.
AD: What other illustrators have impressed you?
FP: Joe Colquhoun, I have known, and worked with, for more than twenty years. Along with John Gillatt and Geoff Campion, I count him among my favourite collaborators. He shares with them an imagination, and a touch of humour which he employs to add depth to any script he works on, unlike some I could name who simply draw what they are asked to, putting nothing of themselves into it, and slashing it out as quickly and economically as they can.
AD: You worked with John Gillatt on the “Jet-Ace Logan” series, which began in Comet and wound up in Tiger. How did that come about?
FP: I didn’t create Jet-Ace Logan. I took him over when he was transferred to Tiger. Amalgamated Press, who published Comet, was bought by the Daily Mirror group and became known first as Fleetway Publications, and later as IPC Magazines Ltd’ At that point, the juvenile publications were reorganised under the management of Leonard Matthews. Comet was merged with Tiger, “Jet-Ace Logan” was transferred to it, and I took it over.
AD: Michael Moorcock of Jerry Cornelius and Elric fame?
FP: Yes, Michael ‘Cornelius’ Moorcock. He was doing scripts for the “Fleetway House” juveniles at that time and it is likely that he was responsible for some of the early “Jet-Ace” ones, but I’m not sure.
]In this, Frank is incorrect. It’s true that Michael Moorcock lists ‘Jet-Ace Logan’ as one of the strips he worked on, but the character was created by Michael Butterworth, and scripted for the rest of his Comet story-arc by the inventive David Motton – Andrew]
The first story I did was about some aliens who turned a block of flats into a spaceship and carted the inhabitants off to an interplanetary zoo. When I was asked to take over Jet-Ace, several writers had been having a go, and there didn’t seem to have been enough liaison between them. There had been changes of editorship too, as we had been going through a period of shake-up on the staff. Before starting on the job, therefore, I laid down my own terms of reference.
I discovered, for example, that the story was supposed to be laid about a hundred years in the future. I decided that we would assume that the solar system had been explored, and the inner planets and moons had been colonised, but that Jet-Ace would be unable to travel to other star systems, except involuntarily. In the story for example, where he was carted off with a lot of other people to be exhibits in a galactic zoo, he manages to rescue them and bring them back in this alien Starship, but when he got back to Earth I made sure that the ship blew up, so that they were unable to learn the alien secrets of interstellar travel.
AD: Who has influenced your own writing in the past, beyond the medium of comics?
FP: The people one admires, the things that influence one are changing all the time as one develops. At twelve years old, Alexander Dumas was super. At twenty he was unreadable. Twenty years ago, I was fascinated to bits by television. Now nearly everything on the box bores me stiff and I can hardly ever be bothered to watch it.
AD: To what extent is the writer free to pursue their own ideas in comic-fiction? Have you experienced much editorial interference in your stories?
FP: Virtually none. Once a general idea has been fixed my editors just leave me to get on with it. After all, I’ve been at it a long time, and by now know all the tricks of my craft.
So far as “Jet-Ace” in concerned, I recall only one small incident. There was a sequence in one story where Jet-Ace and Plumduff were hunting for someone on the Moon… or was it Mars? They went to some Pleasuredome place where people could enjoy themselves floating about under low gravity…
AD: It was the Moon, in the “Invaders From Space” story.
FP: Anyway, the general idea fascinated me and I suppose I went to town too much on it, because Derek Birnage, who was then editing the paper, rang up and said it was all very interesting, but didn’t I think I was slowing the pace a bit too much, and wouldn’t it be better if I got on with the plot?
It was Derek, too, who rang me up one day, and said he was bothered by the possible title of a story, that was buzzing round in his head, although he had no idea what it should be about. The title he wanted to fit a story to was “The Emerald Planet”. I forget now what it was I came up with, except that there was something about aliens snatching things off the Earth and sending them back.
Apart from these two instances I can’t recall any examples if editorial intervention. As for editor Chris Lowder, he and I are in contact by telephone almost every day, since I am responsible for around ten pages of his paper – Lion.
AD: I notice that a number of your ‘vintage’ stories have recently been reprinted. This must be very gratifying to you.
FP: When we reprint some of what you term these ‘vintage’ stories today, they stir up no particular interest. But this is not to say that the appeal of fantasy is dead. One of my most popular scripts at the moment, which has been running in Lion for three years, is called “The Spellbinder”. This is about an old alchemist who accidentally put himself into a trance several centuries ago. He has now been awakened by a youth, who accidentally stumbled across him covered by cobwebs in his vault. He works magic.
Since there is no need to explain how he works magic the themes are almost endless. One of the themes that has always fascinated me is the one about accidents in history which would have caused things to develop quite differently.
AD: You used the possibility of varying ‘presents’ resulting from historical accidents in an excellent story called “Sabotage On Ceres”.
FP: I am working on a version of this now, although it isn’t in print yet. A bit of magic has gone awry, and the Spellbinder has accidentally sent someone back through time, and his presence in the past keeps changing the course of history and the circumstances of the present.
It begins with the Nazis having won World War Two, and the resistance war still going on in Britain. But things become wilder and wilder, as our man blunders further into the past, prevents Michael Faraday from ever announcing his discoveries in electro-magnetic induction, is responsible for the Aztecs discovering Europe before the Europeans discover America, distracts Leonardo from painting the ‘Mona Lisa’ and sends him back to inventing a workable flying machine, and so on and so on.
AD: Finally, what are your opinions now about your ‘vintage’ strips?
FP: There are poor vintages as well as good ones, but I take it that what you mean is something to which age has imparted a slightly superior flavour. There is no element of that in my feelings of it.
To me, this stuff of twenty years ago seems now flat, out-moded and finished with. I am now 63. I find it impossible to get excited about the stuff I churned out yesterday and the days before yesterday.
What excites me is what I am going to do today, and, even more, the new things I am going to attempt tomorrow. In this, I feel, I am in accord with the current generation of young readers…
THE ADVENTURES CONTINUE…
If the most important function of Science Fiction is to raise questions – to increase the reader’s awareness of his own relationship to the cosmos – to instil in them an awakening of awe, then its comic-strip analog is of even greater importance. For it reaches young minds, as yet un-regimented by the mental straitjacket of conventional thinking. It can give a forming mind a basis of alertness to ideas before the education machine has a chance to deaden the receptiveness with multiplication tables, French verbs, dates of famous battles, and the other assorted irrelevance of examination-orientated education.
Frank S Pepper is a craftsman, instilling into his medium a plot complexity and sophistication of technique unequalled by his contemporaries in either the UK or the United States. The work he dismisses as “disposable ephemera” has a real value.
This interview was first published in Ludds Mill Number 9 (UK – September 1973)
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Jeremy Briggs takes a look at Issue 1471 of The Champion, cover dated for the week ending 8th April 1950 featuring “Danny of the Dazzlers” and “Rockfist Rogan” text stories
FRANK S. PEPPER: COMICS CHECKLIST
- “Captain Condor”, drawn by Ronald Forbes, Brian Lewis, Keith Watson, John Gillatt, Lion, 1952
- “Roy of the Rovers”, drawn by Joe Colquhoun, Tiger, 1953
- Sgt. Ron Noble in “The Great Invasion Mystery”, drawn by Terry Patrick, Lion, 1955
- “Secret Mission to Norway”, Lion, 1955-56
- “Gunsmoke Smith, Lion, 1956-57
- “Olac the Gladiator”, with Don Lawrence, for Tiger, 1959 – 1960
- “Jet Ace Logan” for Tiger, 1959
- “The Day the World Drowned”, Valiant, 1968 – 69
- Episodes of “The Spellbinder” for Lion, 1969 – 74
- “The Steel Commando”, drawn by Alex Henderson, Thunder, Lion, Valiant 1971 – 74
- “The Jigsaw Journey”, drawn by Massimo Belardinelli, Thunder, 1971
- “Zip Nolan”, Valiant, 1972 – 76
- “Noah’s Ark”, drawn by Sam Fair, Lion, 1972 – 73
- “The Flying Fortress”, drawn by Giorgio Trevisari, Lion, 1973
- “The Team Terry Kept in a Box”, drawn by Mike White, Lion, 1973 – 74
- “Sark the Sleeper”, drawn by José Muñoz, Lion, 1973 – 74
With thanks to Jeremy Briggs and Barrie Tomlinson for the picture of Frank S. Pepper
Captain Condor, Danny of the Dazzlers, Jet-Ace Logan, Rockfist Rogan, Lion, Roy of the Rovers, Tiger and other comics and comic characters mentioned in this feature © and some trademarked Rebellion Publishing Ltd.