Mike Collins, John Ridgway and John Ross are certainly contenders for the honour but in 1976 the answer was much more clear cut – it was TV Comic artist John Canning who had illustrated strips featuring all four of the television Doctors to that date.
In March 1976 for issue 4 of his Tardis fanzine Gordon Blows asked Canning if he thought an entire comic devoted to Doctor Who would sell – his reply was simple, “I have my doubts as to whether it would work.”
Being able to readily purchase Doctor Who Adventures, Doctor Who: Tales From The Tardis and Doctor Who Magazine from newsagents today, plus an increasing multitude of Titan’s US format Doctor Who titles from comic shops, we can smile at that answer now but Doctor Who merchandise was much less omnipresent forty years ago than it is today.
downthetubes is pleased to reprint, with Gordon Blows’ permission, a very rare interview with 1960s and 1970s TV Comic Doctor Who artist John Canning.
JOHN CANNING INTERVIEW: TARDIS, ISSUE 4, MARCH 1976
For those of you who follow the weekly comic-strip adventures of Doctor Who in TV COMIC the artwork of John Canning will be familiar. He has been drawing the strip on and off for ten years — taking it over again last year when Gerry Haylock left the comic strip world. John’s style is unique, a very classical approach. His drawing ability is very much suited for the Doctor’s adventures set in the past, but he has a definite flair of imagination for the future.
“I first started drawing Doctor Who in 1966 (at this time the late William Hartnell was still in the role),” he told me. I asked him if he thought an entire comic devoted to Doctor Who would sell? “I have my doubts as to whether it would work,” he replied simply.
John is no newcomer to the drawing board: “My first strip was probably in ‘Junior Express’ about twenty years ago. Following that, my work appeared in ‘Penelopy’, ‘Look and Learn’, and ‘Treasure’.”
What is his favourite comic? “TV COMIC as it has been good bread and butter for me!”
Doctor Who is not the only strip John has done for TV COMIC. You may have recognised his style recently on the Laurel and Hardy page. Others include: Tarzan, The Milky Bar Kid, The Avengers, Skippy, The Maryland Gang, and The Sign Of The Scarlet Ladybird. He mentioned a couple I don’t recognise myself as being in TV COMIC: Battle Of The River Plate, and Moby Dick. Towards the end of 1969 he drew a serialisation of the remake MGM film ‘Goodbye Mr. Chips’, also for TV COMIC.
What kind of comic, I asked, would he think be most successful today? “I think one with the same mixture of comedy and series strips that TV COMIC has.”
At the time of writing things for the immediate future included: “…four pages in colour for the TV COMIC annual” and looking further ahead: “I have just started getting together an exhibition of landscapes and portraits.”
Finally I would like to thank John for his good wishes regarding “TARDIS”, and wish him the best of luck for the future.
By 1980 John Canning had joined the London-based Society Of Strip Illustration (SSI) along with many familiar names of the time including David Lloyd, Dave Gibbons, Dez Skinn and Alan Moore. For their November 1980 conference the SSI produced a brochure entitled Strips 80 which included biographical details about and artwork by then current members. Much of what we know of Canning’s background comes from that brochure which, while not direct quoting from him like the Tardis interview, obviously had major input from him.
Born in London in 1923, John Canning went to the Hornsey College Of Art in Haringey and during WWII he became an RAF pilot before transferring to the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm. After the war he did commercial work before moving to an advertising agency doing layout and figure work. During this time in the evenings he worked on illustrations for women’s magazines including Home Chat, Home Notes, Woman, Woman’s Illustrated, and Woman’s Own. He went freelance in 1948 and undertook work for Odhams Press, Link House, Amalgamated Press, and Newnes as well as for various advertising agencies.
Amongst Canning’s first comic strip work was the mid to late 1950s advertising strip for the Ladybird children’s clothing manufacturer in Swift, Eagle’s junior sibling, which, while it changed titles slightly over the years with Tardis referring to it as The Sign Of The Scarlet Ladybird, is best known as the more generic The Ladybird Adventure Club. As well as this strip for Ladybird clothes he also did advertising and fashion illustrations for the firm. TV Comic writer Roger Noel Cook was interviewed by Stuart Palmer for his excellent Altered Vistas site on Doctor Who comics. In that interview Palmer faces up to Canning’s dynamically loose art style with the comment, “He could be a bit scrappy at times, though, especially in the annuals” to which Cook replies, “Canning was guilty of appalling haste with the annual work which he dashed off for what he considered to be a pittance. Although TV Comic paid very well it could never compete with the kind of money Canning could command in the advertising market. He was paid fortunes by Ladybird and many other companies… serious money.”
In the Tardis interview the “…four pages in colour for the TV Comic annual” Canning refers to will be for the Doctor Who strip “The Tansbury Experiment” which appeared in TV Comic Annual 1977 and would have been published in Autumn 1976.
Returning to his early strips Tardis mentions Junior Express, perhaps best known as Express Weekly as well as by its later name of TV Express, and the misspelt ‘Penelopy’ which is in fact the TV21 girl’s title Lady Penelope. For this Canning provided black and white spot illustrations for the Lady Penelope’s Secret Files text stories in the first 23 issues of the comic from 22 January to 25 June 1966 plus some other text stories in later issues. While not mentioned in Tardis, we also know that Canning worked for Eagle’s feminine sibling Girl including a Real Life Stories in colour featuring the life of composer Antonin Dvorak.
As well as listing TV Comic strips that Canning worked on Gordon Blows was quite correct when he said that he didn’t recognise the Moby Dick and The Battle Of The River Plate strips as being from TV Comic, both of these were from Express Weekly. Moby Dick ran for six issues beginning in issue 114 (24 November 1956) while The Battle Of The River Plate followed it for six weeks beginning in issue 120 (5 January 1957) with the first issue having a full-page strip in colour while the rest of the issues had a three-quarter page of black and white artwork. Canning even signed one of the River Plate panels. These were both film adaptations, Moby Dick being the 1956 Gregory Peck starring, John Houston directing film of the same name while The Battle Of The River Plate was based on the 1956 Powell and Pressburger film. He would adapt a further Powell and Pressburger film over six weeks, the 1957 release Ill Met By Moonlight, beginning in issue 131 (23 March 1957).
He began a year’s run on the historical strip The Adventures Of Captain Kidd with issue 205 (23 August 1958) which continued through to issue 258 and the next week in issue 259 (17 October 1959) he moved over to the modern-day adventure strip Trouble Buster which took him through to issue 285. Further work for Express Weekly included a run on SAS: Men Who Dared for 17 issues beginning with 320 (17 December 1960) and at least one of the Colonel Pinto cover stories, a similar idea to Victor’s True Stories Of Men At War, in issue 375 (6 January 1962).
Perhaps more surprising looking through issues of Express Weekly is that Canning provided some of the colour diagrammatic/cutaway pages in them and we can be sure of that because he signed many of them. Issue 82 (14 April 1956) has Timing The FD2 which shows how the British Fairey Delta 2 jet was officially timed breaking the world air speed record on 10 March of that year, while issue 92 (23 June 1956) shows a cutaway and details of an RNLI lifeboat in To The Rescue. Later he illustrated a planetarium in Star Gazing in issue 188 (31 May 1958), an AA Patrol Car in issue 193 (31 July 1958) and a Fire Boat in issue 198 (5 July 1958). He is also credited with the two page colour spread in the 1960 Express Annual entitled Landmarks Of London showing cutaways of Big Ben, Tower Bridge and the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral. He also managed to include a cutaway in the episode of what was then entitled The Secret Sign Of The Ladybird Adventure Club in Swift Volume 5 Number 23 (7 June 1958) showing a fiction single-seater rocket entertainingly called a Stayputnik.
His SSI bio states that he worked on the monthly Do It Yourself magazine for some 15 years and some of the artwork covers for the title in the late 1960s and early 1970s do appear to be by his hand. Other previously little known work is highlighted by the mention in Tardis of his association with Look and Learn, and its junior sibling Treasure. This comes as something of a surprise as he is not an artist normally associated with either title and he is not mentioned on the Look and Learn website either in the image search facility or in the history of the title.
This all goes to show that even a short and seemingly inconsequential interview can do more than independently verify previously listed credits, it can throw up new information and also point the way to new paths of investigation.
This Words From Beyond feature continues with a VNR interview with John Canning in Part 2 here.
There are more details of John Canning’s TV Comic Avengers work on the Winged Avenger website.
There are full strips of TV Comic Doctor Who stories on the WhoPix website.
A full set of TV Comic Annual covers is available at Tonys Trading website.
Detailed information on all Doctor Who comic strips is available in Paul Scoones’ excellent The Comic Strip Companion – The Unofficial and Unauthorised Guide to Doctor Who in Comics: 1964-1979 which is published by and available from Telos.
With thanks to Jeremy Bentham, Gordon Blows, Ray Carnes, John Freeman, Chris McGregor, Richard Sheaf, Lew Stringer and Paul Vyse.