Regular readers will recall our coverage for a custom comic Ivory Castle Arrow, published in the early 1960s featuring art by Don Harley and John Michael Burns as part of promotions for The Signal Club, a product of Unilever‘s marketing machine to encourage sales of its toothpaste. But that title wasn’t the company’s first toothpaste-inspired custom comic of the 1960s. That honour goes to Signal, published between 1961 and 1963, running, it appears, for just four issues.
Comic archivist and artist Lew Stringer previously discovered and detailed the contents of Signal Issue Four back in 2016, but now downthetubes contributor Richard Sheaf has tracked down a copy of the first issue of the custom comic dedicated to promoting Unilever’s Signal toothpaste and “The Signal Club” – a title whose shorter run precedes Ivory Castle Arrow.
As we previously noted, Ivory Castle Arrow, which according to Denis Gifford’s Complete Catalogue of British Comics ran for 11 issues, was published between 1963 and 1966. It was commissioned by Unilever, the proprietors of Gibbs SR toothpaste (today known as Mentadent SR), through their advertising agency, Lintas.
The title was just one promotion for what was originally the Gibb’s Ivory Castle League, established in 1923 and which continued after the Second World War as the Ivory Castle Childrens’ Club. The British Dental Association notes the League was the first large scale dental health campaign, with teachers joining it and encouraging their pupils to become Crusaders to defend their teeth, ‘the ivory castles’.
Gibbs SR was the first product to be promoted on UK television back in 1955 and Lintas clearly had an impressive budget to promote the brand. It seems no expense was spared producing the eight-page Ivory Castle Arrow comic, published using photogravure, just like Eagle, Girl and TV Century 21 – as was its precursor, Signal.
At present, this is pure conjecture, but perhaps Signal and “The Signal Club” concept was an effort to reinvent the Ivory Castle Childrens’ Club with a new name? If so, it appears this wasn’t achieved, as its successor, Ivory Castle Arrow, clearly utilises the post-war name club name.
Offering a mixture of strips and features across eight pages, we can glean from the office address published alongside a message from Signal‘s fictitious editor, “The Signalman”, in Issue Four, that this comic was packaged by book publishers Max Parrish & Co. Ltd, who were based in Queen Anne Street, London.
They published a wide range of books for all ages, including illustrated books for children, such as The Ghosts Who Were Nearly Forgotten. (Their offices are now the location of The Queen Anne Street Practice for Psychological Therapies).
Presumably, the free comic, just like Ivory Castle Arrow, was given away in dentists surgeries, read while children waited for their check ups, others also given aways free on purchase of toothpaste in chemists.
Artist and archivist David Slinn has confirmed the front and back page adventure strip of Signal Issue Four, “Plotters on the Moor“, and “Holiday Adventure” in Issue One, is the work Don Harley – successfully adapting to the earlier loss of “Dan Dare”, his major weekly Eagle assignment.
(David also points out that although Keith Watson took over the weekly strip, written by David Motton, Don didn’t completely lose contact with the character he’d been involved with for some years, working under both creator Frank Hampson and his successor Frank Bellamy. He continued to draw the “Dan Dare” stories for Eagle Annual, where George Beal was in charge of the Books Department and, significantly, also edited this ongoing series of dental-orientated comics).
Pat Williams, who drew “The Avengers” for TV Comic, handled the art on Signal‘s “Castle Glorious and The White Knight” and, if you take a careful look on Lew’s post, also the centre-spread colour feature in Issue Four, “When the Zepps Came”, in “Britain’s Battle Line“.
“Captain Pugwash” creator and artist John Ryan is unquestionably the artist on the humour strip, “Little Ruth“.
Based on a competition end date in October in this first issue we know the first issue of Signal was released some time in 1961 and given Issue Four was published in 1963 it would appear the publication frequency matched the sixth monthly cycle for dentist check up appointments of the time.
As yet, no issue beyond Issue Four have surfaced and given the creative team on Ivory Castle Arrow is similar to that for Signal, with the later addition of John Michael Burns, this would suggest there weren’t any.
Amongst the illustrators involved on these projects was Gordon Hogg; and, perhaps, less immediately obvious, Gerry Embleton, Alan Jessett (on a strip titled “When Reptiles Ruled”) and Philip Mendoza (on “Hamlet”).
If so, what prompted the dropping of the Signal title and the move away from Max Parrish, Ivory Castle Arrow instead packaged by Odhams, under the direction of managing editor George Beal, who also had a hand in producing stories and scripts? Was there, for example, concern that the long term and good standing of the Ivory Castle Childrens’ Club was getting lost with a confusing name change?
Whatever the reasons, it does seems likely that Signal and The Signal Club was an experiment that didn’t work for Unilever or its advertising agency, and a decision was taken to take the best of the project and revamp it under the better-known Ivory Castle branding, with an amended take on content that seems to have included the introduction of regular characters for its lead strip.
(It’s no surprise Unilever were keen on continuing some kind of club, given the popularity of such things back then – after all, Radio Luxembourg had great success with its Horlicks club and Dan Dare-related giveaways, and a number of comics had their own clubs, too).
Both Signal and Ivory Castle Arrow offer an intriguing snapshot of Unilever’s marketing of its toothpaste products to children and their parents in the 1960s, when comics held more sway among young consumers.
The line up of artists over both titles – Don Harley, John Michael Burns, John Ryan et al – is also very impressive and it’s great to see such interest in these rare promotional titles.
Do you know more about Signal, Ivory Castle Arrow comic and The Signal Club? Do you have copies? Did you work on the comic, or Ivory Castle Arrow? Do you recall similar comics promoting leading brands? Let us know!
• In July 2019, the first five issues of Signal – covers wrongly attributed to Frank Hampson – were offered and sold on eBay for just over £250. Issue 1 was sold for £46.19 here | Issue 2 was sold for £38.09 here | Issue 3 was sold for £42.59 here | Issue 4 was sold for £60.00 here | Issue 5 was sold for £64.50 here (with thanks to Richard Sheaf)
With thanks to David Slinn, Richard Sheaf and Lew Stringer