Over on his Blimey comics history blog, Lew Stringer has been running his now traditional Christmas Comics feature showing the Christmas covers from the comics of yesteryear. We aren’t about to try to compete with Lew but did think that we would add just one of our own.
Back in 1969 Tesco was not the dominant force in retailing that it is today but, for a while at least, they were also a comics publisher with the nursery title Tesco Fun’n’Games. The first issue was dated 18 October 1969 and came with a free Milky Bar while this Christmas issue, which is number nine, is dated 27 December 1969. It is worth noting that despite both issues 1 and 9 saying “Every Week” on their covers if the title had been on a weekly schedule from the start then the cover date on issue 9 should have been the date for issue 11.
Tesco Fun’n’Games was made up of a selection of single page stories, formatted in the typical nursery format of panel illustrations with text below, along with a selection of puzzle pages. The characters were themed or named for supermarket products including Magic Jack who is full of (Heinz) beans, or the Robertson’s Jam Golly. On the whole the artwork was workmanlike except for the covers which were typically fully painted single image illustrations of the boy and girl characters of Johnny and Jane. The strip that stands out in this issue as having by far the best artwork is “Captain Birdseye’s Island” where the Captain and his young crew are getting ready for Christmas while waiting for their fish fingers to cook. The artist is Don Harley, a familiar name here at downthetubes given that Frank Hampson once described him as “the second best Dan Dare artist”, and here he is showing off just how diverse his post-Eagle career was.
The comic is very poorly documented in British comics reference guides, it does not feature in the Nineties editions of Duncan McAlpine’s Comic Book Price Guides while it does get a mention in Denis Gifford’s 1985 Complete Catalogue Of British Comics which gets the cover date of the first issue wrong and states that there were only three issues. Indeed the highest issue number referenced anywhere is in a brief thread about the title in the Comics UK Forum where issue 38 is mentioned which, based on a weekly publication after issue 9, would have appeared in mid July 1970. However whilst details of its ending are lost in the mists of time, its creation, surprisingly, is not.
In the 2014 obituary for Rita Lewin in The Independent we are told that she devised the title for Tesco and sued the retailer when it tried to claim ownership. Tesco then “gave her a contract”, presumably to produce the comic for them, and that it sold up to 150,000 copies weekly, an impressive number given that it is reasonable to assume that it was only available in Tesco stores. Lewin had previously created the teen girl’s title Boyfriend but is much better known these days, under her professional name of Roberta Leigh, as the creator of the Gerry Anderson puppet series The Adventures Of Twizzle, Torchy The Battery Boy and her own puppet series Space Patrol. The comic’s editorial character is Auntie Jan which does lend credence to the idea that Lewin/Leigh may have had at least some form of editorial control given that the editorial characters of most British nursery comics were normally either children or anthropomorphic animals.
There are no credits in the issue, or signatures on the artwork, but the copyright is “A Tesco publication, produced and published by Arly Consultants Limited, Church Road, London, NW10” whilst the editorial address for its readers to write in to is the Congregational Hall Studio in the same Church Road.
It is worth pointing out that several years back our own Richard Sheaf discovered the dummy of Whacko!, a similar advertising comic featuring J Lyons & Co products, albeit in a more humour style format than the nursery style Tesco one. Richard contacted former IPC staffer Dez Skinn about this dummy to get his take on the concept that did not reach the publication stage and he wrote it up as a feature over on Steve Holland’s Bear Alley.
Tesco Fun’n’Games is an unusual piece of British comics history. If you can shed more light on it then please leave a comment. In the meantime have a Merry Christmas from all of us here at downthetubes.