A comics company lives or dies by its catalogue, and back in the 1980s and 1990s Marvel UK, like others, was always considering new ideas from editors. Some fell at outline stage, such as my proposed roleplaying game magazine (suggested following the release of a licensed Heroquest one shot). Others, including several developed by Tim Quinn, got a little further down the line before falling foul of dark forces, otherwise known as the Marketing Department.
One such project was a monthly Just William title, based on the hugely successful books by schoolmistress Richmal Crompton, about a mischievous 11-year-old schoolboy and his band of friends, known as “The Outlaws”. The first short story featuring William, “Rice Mould Pudding”, was published in Home Magazine in 1919, and the first collection, entitled Just William, was published in 1922.
Crompton wrote 38 other William books throughout her life, the series originally aimed at an adult audience. The last, William the Lawless, was published posthumously in 1970. Although the character might seem mild in comparison with modern day schoolboy rogues, the books have sold over 12 million copies in the United Kingdom alone and the stories have been adapted for films, stage-plays, and numerous radio and television series (most recently by the BBC in 2010, adapted by Simon Nye, but the 1970s London Weekend series is perhaps better known, starring a young Bonnie Langford as William’s female foil, Violet Elizabeth – and older readers may recall Sweeny and Minder star Dennis Waterman played William for an earlier series for the BBC).
There’s no doubt the wonderful illustrations by the internationally-famous artist and contributor to Punch, Thomas Henry – who, surprisingly, Crompton only met once – contributed to William’s success, his work featuring in 34 of the novels, succeeded by Henry Ford.
(Comic artist Arthur Ranson also drew the character, too, for Look-In).
Given the character’s success in many media forms Tim pitched the idea of a monthly comic magazine featuring the Leader of the Outlaws – but it didn’t make it out of the starting blocks.
“My boss went for it and so did William’s publisher,” he recalls, and character sketches were commissioned from accomplished artists Maureen and Gordon Gray, sadly no longer with us, perhaps best known for their work on DC Thomson’s TV Tops comic and Look-In in the 1980s, whose credits include “The Fantastic Adventures of Adam Ant”, starring pop-star Adam as a time traveller, “Airwolf” and “The A-Team”.
“The intent was to update the look slightly from Thomas Henry’s original illustrations but not lose the tone,” says Tim of the Grays’ work. “We got it.”
The stories would have been set in the 1930s, the perfect era for the William tales. “It would have lost too much to have brought it into the 1990s,” Tim feels. “It might have been late Thirties so we could include the war years.”
Scripts were commissioned, all was well in the land – and then the project was dropped when Marvel’s brand new marketing person said that she didn’t think the character had longevity.
“As Just William had been running in book form since the 1920s and it was now the Nineties I felt it my duty to point out that the marketing person was a €•§@%,” Tim recalls. “However, marketing people are always listened to by middle and upper management, despite the obvious fact that not one of the €•§@%s has ever had a successful idea. And so the Just William magazine was dropped and some other long forgotten comic was put in its place.”
We think it’s a shame such a great idea was killed stone dead, so perhaps some more enterprising publisher might drop Tim a line via his web site and revive the idea? Although you might be hard pushed to drag him away from the fantastic creative projects he’s also involved in right now!
• The Just William Society can be found at www.justwilliamsociety.co.uk
The Just William Society is a group of friendly people united in their love for the immortal rascal created by Richmal Crompton. It is open to all William admirers young and old from all around the world.
• Just William (1940) screens at London’s National Film Theatre in January 2016. Full details here
There’s a WayBack Archive of a site dedicated to Thomas Henry’s work, created by one of his relations, here – note not all images are present due to the way the Wayback Archive operates
Thanks to Tim Quinn for the Just William images