Review by Peter Duncan
Having just read and reviewed the new Beano and The Dandy annuals, it was interesting to see independent publisher Volcano Comics entry into the humour comic field. Their Wallop! Annual is a colour, A4 hardcover in very much the same format as the classic DC Thomson books. It brings together thirteen new strips under the general theme of humorous adventure stories.
The cover is a good pastiche of old Annuals showing many of the characters that appear within, with ‘Captain Wallop’ taking centre stage. Inside, we have 13 stories, all but three written by Brian Clarke, one of the driving forces behind the production.
In truth, this presents one of the few issues I have with the book. There is a recognisable tone to many of Brian’s stories, and with five of them featuring the very distinctive art of John Jackson, and there is a danger of things being becoming a little bit predictable and samey. John’s jokes are often of the type that elicit groans along with the laughs, but that’s no bad thing for a comic of this type. Of the team’s strips, “Gary’s Gorillas”, a story involving a crack World War Two unit consisting, unsurprisingly, of gorillas, and “Detective Bumble”, which brings all of the comics characters together, are the most successful, with, I felt, “Captain Keelhaul” and “Cat Troop”, needing a bit more thought before the next outing.
Strangely enough, John Jackson reserves his best art for a strip he wrote himself, “Captain Chad Panther”, a rather inept jungle explorer, some extra variation in the backgrounds and fewer blocks of solid colour really brought out his figure work. Something of a lesson for the future, I feel.
Brian does seem to change his writing style when working with other artists. His western, “Sure Shot Suzy”, with art by Keith Robson, retains the terrible puns and jokes but adds a little bit more action and is beautifully drawn. Likewise, Mike Collins brings a different dimension to “Olden Daze”, a story of dragons and knights and a visit to Blackpool.
Alessandro Giampaeletti delivers a thoroughly professional and modern look to “The Twin Jets”. while Jim Tyson does a fantastic job on “Time Travelling Trevor”, which, out of all the strips Brian has written probably has the most legs for a return. It’s the story of a time traveller with a talking Dodo as a companion and features a great villain, who may well be based on a cross between Superman nemesis, Mr Mxyzptik and The Master from Doctor Who. Probably, John’s best work.
Not far behind, and drawn by the excellent Dave Windett, was the “Wallop Wonder Tale”, “Wrong Address”. Dave is great at drawing robots and kids, and his art adds a real charm to this story of intergalactic postal foul-ups.
It’s an illustration of just how difficult writing humour strips is, that it’s the old hands who deliver the real highlights. Kev Sutherland, who played a major role in persuading Brian and John to produce this lovely hardcover, has given them the real gem of the collection, “Space Elain” – basically, a “how to” guide to funny adventure comics for kids. It’s spectacular looking, funny and filled with action – and could usefully find a place in any comic for kids.
One final strip needs a mention, by father and son team Joe and Chris Matthews, who I’ve worked with myself. They’ve teamed up to give us “Hardman Jackson”, a parody of hardboiled detectives with added anthropomorphics that is right up my street and another story that provides a change in tone and works really well as a result.
Overall, the Wallop! Annual is a great read. It isn’t perfect, but these things rarely are first time out. Brian and John are learning their way with the format, but have put together a hugely entertaining Annual in the tradition of British humour comics, with great production values and a lot of laughs.
Some lessons have probably been learnt for next time. The involvement of more writers to give greater variation, perhaps a third-part editor to polish the dialogue, just a bit, and some thought on how extra detail on the backgrounds of John’s artwork would make it pop that little bit more. But this is a labour of love, and it shows.
Experience has told me that traditional-style humour comics are difficult to sell on the internet. They tend do much better in conventions where kids, and adults, get to pore through them. With no cons or shows, it’s been tough for Wallop and its counterpart from the Sentinel crowd, Crackpot, to get the sales their hard work deserves.
So, if old-fashioned humour comics are your thing, or you think you might like to support a group of creators trying to keep that tradition alive, then this is the book for you.