A Comics Collection for the Nation: An Interview with Peter Hansen
downthetubes is delighted to present both a video and text interview with comics collector Peter Hansen, whose extraordinary archive of British comic art, comics and comics ephemera is an incredible “Aladdin’s Cave”.
The Peter Hansen Collection has been amassed since Peter was a child in his home town of Byker in the North East and he has generously loaned artworks to exhibitions down the years, including the current Comics: Explore and Create Comic Art, from Seven Stories, the National Centre for Children’s Books, which is currently being hosted at the Coalbrookdale Gallery until 1st September 2019. (Read our news story here)
Art from his collection also featured in the upcoming Comic Creators, the Famous and the Forgotten exhibition at London’s Cartoon Museum, curated by Steve Marchant, which opens next month.
Peter Hansen is keen that his collection, considered by many, including leading academics to be of national cultural significance in Britain, be saved for the nation, in a space where the public are able to access and enjoy it.
Various attempts have been made to achieve this, with one ongoing, but if there are those out there interested in offering genuine support for a permanent archive, perhaps in Northern England, contact downthetubes and we will pass on appropriate enquires.
ABOUT THE COLLECTION
The Peter Hansen Collection offers a vital resource, especially given growing academic interest in comics research, which is focused on the socio-economic issues of the day, from the war years and their impacts, war series outside of the two world wars, the swinging sixties, anarchy of the late 1950s, love and romance, humour, adventures, exploration, space, history, anarchism, sport, and much more.
Peter’s collection also comprises an amazing range of comics related material, including girl’s and boy’s comics, teenage titles, and juvenile comics, annuals, flyers, original free gifts, advertising, toys and games related to the comics, original artwork, fanzines, memorabilia, artist’s archives, publishers archives as well as almost 900 bound volumes of British comics of which the majority belonged to the original publishers.
The number of comics totals over 40,000 and there are 20,000 pieces of original artwork. Most of the collection spans what is considered by many to be the Golden Age of British comics, dating from 1950-1975, though there is also material spanning from 1852-2008.
The collection also contains the first edition of every major comic during the during the focused time period and others outside of that period.
More significantly, perhaps, regarding the history and study of comics as a medium, Peter also has material from the publishers relating to sales, plans for new comics and correspondence with artists and writers.
Importantly, for those seeking to document the often largely uncredited comic creators of the past, he also has a dozen volumes of the publishers pay books from A-Z detailing listing who did what, when and how much they were paid. In particular of interest is the writers who were totally anonymous in the comics for the most part.
COMICS AND OTHER MEDIA
Throughout the 20th century, famous movie stars of the big screen and latterly the TV were portrayed in the comics. From Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, Norman Wisdom, Charlie Drake, Bruce Forsyth to the pop groups of the early from the 1950’s to the 2000’s, or Doctor Who, Thunderbirds, The Six Million Dollar Man, On the Buses and many more until the comics began to give way to the digital age. Quite often, the strips in the comics moved from a media platform into the comics such as Stingray, Jackanory, Bill and Ben, Star Trek, Lady Penelope, The Saint, and a plethora of others. In doing so, they found the most lucrative platform possible for advertising merchandise from the TV shows. As such, the collection reflects this connection also with toys, games, outfits and more.
I sincerely believe Peter’s incredible collection to be the most comprehensive and complete assemblage of British comic publications and memorabilia ever assembled.
COMICS AS SOCIAL HISTORY
“Historically documentation of any kind can be a vital window into both the gravitas and the minutia of any society also.” feels Peter. “Whether it is the writings of Julius Caesar, or modern everyday correspondence between shopkeepers and suppliers, or simply friends talking about their hopes, troubles and dreams on social media, documentation of all kinds, written or digital can provide crucial narratives into the way people live during any time period. In essence, comics are no different from any other printed primary publication in relation to social history. Since their earliest days they have also conveyed messages, whether political, social, emotional or economic, that contributed to forming readers’ views of the world in many ways. This is one aspect of what the collection can offer to both the general public and an academic audience.
In addition, having the collection available to academics would enable them to further share understandings of comics as an important way to communicate, and sometimes undermine, social ideas and values as well as comics being part of British popular cultural history.”
Peter’s experiences of comics as a young person and his life outside of them have helped shaped this Collection down the years.
“As a young child, I grew up in Byker, Newcastle in the 1950’s.” he recounts, “Like many other areas at that time, Byker was very working class and the majority of those who lived or worked there were shipyard or heavy industry workers, manual labourers, dock workers and their families. Our street consisted of ‘two up two down’ row housing with outside toilets and a back yard with a door leading to a cobbled back lane.”
“Most people were short of cash, so nobody had a lavish lifestyle, although as a family we were better off than most, because we were a bit more enterprising, as, for instance, we took in lodgers for bed and breakfast if they were working away from home, which was a bit of a squeeze, but we managed.”
“Other enterprises included buying department shop coupons or tokens given out from the shop to be redeemed for a certain discount on further purchase (such as Parishes, on Shields Road in Byker) from people in the streets around us for 6d for every shilling. Which meant at Christmas time we were buying presents at half price.”
“Before I was born, we had a small café.” he continues. “Just basic stuff for workmen really, bacon or sausage butties, full English breakfast, tea, that sort of thing. My mum was a pretty bad cook really, so she roped in some of the local women in the streets around the café and got them to bake the pasties, pies, cakes, scones, and bread and paid them for it and made a tidy profit selling her purchases in the café.”
“I took to the family ethos through innovative use of my sixpence a week pocket money, which was largely spent on comics. Many of my mates got threepence so they could only usually afford sweets.
Which comics did Peter read growing up?
My favourite comics were the Beezer and Topper, which were broadsheet comics costing four pence each. Even the Beano and Dandy were three pence, so typically I bought one a week. However, I started renting my old comics to my friends at school who only got 3d a week pocket money for a halfpenny a day or two and soon had enough to buy the Beezer and the Topper and the Beano!”
What else did Peter read?
“I was an enthusiastic reader, I read books lots of the Famous Five stories and others, as well as anything else that took my fancy. Comics took my fancy right away of course, mostly because of the artwork. It didn’t matter if the stories were well written, if I didn’t like the artwork I would just skip over it.
“I started actively collecting the comics in the early 1960s at about six years old,” he recalls. “Although I was already reading the DC Thomson comics, I picked up my first American comic, Adventure #304, containing the teenage “The Legion of Super-Heroes”, at the age of eight years old, which featured the death of Lightning Lad – and for the rest of my life American comics also became part of my world.”
“I must say I am resolutely convinced that the Legion of Super-Heroes “club” coloured the rest of my life, though I didn’t really come to realise this until many years later,” Peter feels. “When having retired at 55, I began to analyse my life and realised that comic changed me. During my childhood Byker was your stereotypical working-class area. Boys and girls, lads and lasses, men and women portrayed the stereotypical culture of the day. However, the Legion of Superheroes, was portrayed to be a thousand years in the future and was made up of teenage girls and boys with fantastic powers which of course they used only for good. Some were aliens from other planets, some were humanoid but from distant planets, some were yellow, black, red, or green skinned, the leader was originally a boy, but after his term expired the club elected a girl.
“I’m convinced this simple comic made me ignore colour, race, or sex in my adult business life. I wanted to hire the best candidate for the company irrespective of these so-called differences.”
When Peter passed the Eleven Plus, he was the first in his family to go to Grammar school.
“After ‘O’ Levels I decided that I wanted to leave school, but Dad thought I should stay and do ‘A’ Levels and go to University, something which no-one in my family had ever done,” he reveals. “However, I decided I was old enough to make my own way, so left home at 16 and moved into digs with a couple of much older lads. After applying for a job as an apprentice draughtsman in the shipyards, however, I was told there were no vacancies and eventually took a job as an apprentice engine fitter with Swan Hunters Shipyard in Walker, Newcastle just down the road from where I was born.”
The apprenticeship in those days was great for people like Peter, as it consisted of a year by year fixed plan of learning how to become a fully qualified journeyman whilst attending college at the same time.
“After the first year of apprenticeship I was moved up to the technician’s course from the regular craft course. From there I was placed onto an HNC bridging course, and next was offered a full-time place on the HND in Mechanical Engineering at Newcastle Polytechnic. This was three years full time, so I had to quit my job after only one year out of my apprenticeship to attend. On completion of my HND I applied and was accepted on the second year of the B.Sc. at Newcastle University and after that was finished my wife, Jill, and I immigrated to Vancouver, Canada (oddly to get into Canada I had to apply for entry as a journeyman as, ironically, they didn’t apparently need engineers!).
“After six months working on the tools I found a job as a project engineer, and then moved to a large shipyard where I was offered the position of assistant contracts manager, and then I became an Assistant New Construction Manager before taking the position of Ship Repair Manager.”
Then, Peter changed his career path completely, becoming a Chartered Engineer in 1986 and taking a job as a project manager with a new small (five person) environmental engineering start up. In four years as VP Engineering they had grown the company into five offices and about 70 staff. In 1990 enforceable Environmental legislation was introduced in the Province of British Columbia to address environmental clean-up problems and Peter left his employer and started his own company. 20 years later, he sold the company to a multi-national company out of Houston and retired at 55.
But what had become of his British comics collecting obsession?
“It continued throughout the last two years of my apprenticeship and into my whole working life,” he says. “Most importantly, it was really stimulated by a chance find at a comic mart in Newcastle in the late 1970s. Here I came across a book called The Great British Comic Catalogue 1874 – 1974 by the late great champion of British comics, Denis Gifford, detailing every known British comic he had identified over his incredible career as the first British comic historian. I was stunned when I read through it and realised the true extent of the long history of the British comic.”
“Even when we moved to Canada, my British comic collecting progressed and the collection expanded slowly, as I had never suspected for a moment how many British annuals and comics were shipped overseas over the years.”
It was at this point that Peter’s desire to develop a national collection of comics took hold.
“My interest in comics was further accelerated as the years went by, and my belief in the need for a national collection grew into a significant obsession, in response to what happened to Denis Gifford’s personal, very extensive, archive,” he reveals.
“After Denis’s untimely death his incredible collection ended up in the salesroom of a man that had spent his whole life collecting Rupert the Bear books and memorabilia. Who rolled up to Denis’s flat in London and chucked everything into boxes. His own specialisation of Rupert meant that he had no idea what he had taken on.”
“As a result, the salesroom staff were equally lacking in information and they also had no interest in understanding the difference between British or American comics. Original small press British comics from L. Miller, Anglo, Swan, Scion and many other publishers, for instance, were described as American reprint comics!”
“I bought what I could from the auctions, twelve in total,” Peter recalls, “but I didn’t have the funds to purchase in bulk, so could not save the collection, something which still distresses me. Amongst what I did purchase was a box of mixed British comics. Again, showing the lack of understanding of comics on the part of the auctioneers, at the bottom of it I found a copy of Radio Fun #1! A very hard comic to find.”
Equally reflective of their lack of care was the way that original American comics were mixed in with British reprint editions, and the fact that they had no knowledge of the existence of British original American comics (which all had a British price stamp on them).
“Key copies of American comics were reputed by close friends to be part of Denis’s collection too, as Britain’s foremost British – and- American collector,” Peter notes, “including Detective Comics #27 (the first Batman appearance), Action Comics #1 (first Superman appearance), and Marvel Mystery Comics #1 (first Sub-Mariner) – but they never appeared in the sale. Reputedly, they were not in great condition as Denis never cared about that if he had the comic. They must have gone somewhere, but no-one knew where they ended up.”
“The sale, as a complete debacle, spurred me into a frenzy of trying to reassemble a collection of British comic material of national importance.”
This keenness to ensure the development of a thorough and representative collection meant that years later in 2006, as Peter had access to more funds at his disposal, allowed him to rescue the comic art archives of IPC comics from a pigeon poop infested warehouse in East London. But what will happen to this amazing collection in years to come?
“As I am getting older, I fear time is running out to ensure the collection becomes a national comics museum or is held intact by a group of major institutions.” Peter worries. “The sheer scale of the collection has made the various national institutions I have spoken to unsure about their capacity to take it on.
“However, I contacted the Victoria & Albert Museum in London a few of years ago regarding them acquiring the collection rather than breaking it up and spreading it to the four winds as was the case with Denis Gifford’s collection.
“With the help of Elizabeth James there, and my friend and noted comic scholar Dr. Melanie Gibson from Northumbria University, through a very long and bureaucratic process we have now assembled a consortium of museums and universities from around the county who are working to pursue funding for the acquisition and storage of the collection.
CAN FANS HELP?
“The scale of this endeavour is huge quite frankly, and the large scale of the collection means that achieving my ambition remains a challenge, especially in the current economic climate,” Peter acknowledges. “Support from people in the public eye with a passion for comics, would really help in any form that help may take.”
If British comics fandom can get behind Peter’s project, and offer support for a bid when it is finalised, or publicise the project to save the collection for the nation on social media this will all help when the time comes… so watch this space for more news in coming months!
• If you want to support efforts to bring about a permanent collection, contact downthetubes and we will pass on appropriate enquires
My thank to Peter Hansen and his wife, Jill for their kind hospitality and to Peter fro showing us around his Collection in June 2019.
Video edited and produced by Graham Baines for downthetubes – much thanks to him for his eight-hour edit and more!