On a day that marks the sixty-six years since Eagle first appeared on the nation’s bookstalls, we’re delighted to present this article by David Slinn on the enormous impact the boys’ paper made on its debut in April 1950. Not least later on, leading to his own career in publishing; initially, as a freelance lettering artist on Eagle and its companion papers, while eventually contributing illustrations to the Hulton Press titles and other children’s publications.
Although only recently introduced to many downthetubes readers, he has quietly helped document the world of British comics for many years, both at Book Palace Books with Ron Embleton’s Wulf the Briton collectors’ edition, and in collaboration with Steve Holland on a number of Bear Alley Books projects: co-authoring, Ranger: The National Boys’ Magazine and, along with David Roach, providing research assistance on some of Steve’s other recommended titles, such as Lion: King of Picture Story Papers and Boys’ World: Ticket to Adventure.
This feature was originally published in the much-missed British comics magazine Crikey!, first launched by Brian Clarke in June 2007 and, over three years, ran to 16 issues. Edited by Glenn Fleming, it was he who encouraged David to write a series of articles for Eagle’s 60th Anniversary in 2010; only for the title to sadly cease publication later that same year. These recollections appear here, in advance of a planned full interview with David about his experiences of comic life…
Eagle: A Boy’s Eye View
Long considered possibly the definitive British adventure comic, right up to the eve of its launch in the Spring of 1950 – despite the continual vigilance of rival Fleet Street publishers – the Eagle remained a largely well-kept secret. The extraordinary impact of that first issue, and the subsequent early developments, are recalled here by David Slinn who, with a 13-year-old schoolboy’s rash optimism, almost overnight decided what the future held…
66 years ago, unlike now, on Good Friday most businesses, offices and shops would be closed for the day, and no national newspapers were published. The solitary newsagent’s shop, in our small Sussex village, was just across the road from the lychgate of St Peter and St Paul.
So, almost the only sign of life that morning was an intermittent trickle of parishioners quietly making their way to and from the early Holy Communion services, then Matins and, commencing at noon, a three hour service of devotions The Stations of the Cross.
Midway through the latter, the choirboys changed shifts with one group replaced by an equal number to pipe their way through the final 90 minutes when, in turn, they too could escape back to the carefree joys of the three-week Easter school holiday.
In all probability, it must have been on the Bank Holiday Monday. Like youngsters of every generation complaining there was nothing to do, I found myself idly turning the pages of the Radio Times. In those days, a somewhat utility letterpress publication with a weekly circulation in excess of 8.5 million, listing the BBC sound and television programmes primarily intended for grown-ups. Therefore, it was quite a surprise, to suddenly be confronted with this whole-page advertisement for a children’s comic.
With hindsight, the line drawings appear no better or worse than those to be found in the current issues of Rover, Wizard or Champion, while the gist of the accompanying text went some way to justify the claim: “SOMETHING EXCITINGLY DIFFERENT FOR CHILDREN – EVERY FRIDAY 3d.”
Unfortunately, my enquiring eyes were drawn like a magnet to two things in particular: the word “PARENTS” and the small visual representation of the new paper’s front cover.
Neither seemed to bode well and, on reading the small print again more carefully, a promise of “… twenty big pages, eight of them in full colour…” would, I reasoned, invariably turn out to be no bigger than a school exercise book with either just red and blue, or a sort of ration-book green and orange, each haphazardly out of register. Newsagents, railway station bookstalls and Woolworths, up and down the land, were well acquainted with such comics often at twice the price.
The erratic lettering, announcing: “Great News for Children! EAGLE is here!” and “Colour! Adventure! Sport! Interest! Fun!”, simply added to the scepticism; but, without doubt, it was the slipshod hand-drawn artwork of the comic’s cover that decided it. There was no way they were getting threepence of my pocket-money – and, that settled, I thought no more about it.
We’re all allowed one big mistake? For, the following Friday, 14th April 1950, the morning’s activity had very definitely shifted to the opposite side of the road. Mr Selby’s regular customers, calling for their daily papers, were augmented by a succession of breathless small boys anxiously proffering tightly-clenched fists, holding an assortment of copper coins, across the counter. Every last one of them, hesitantly, gasping variations of the same request: “Eagle, please?”
Whether they, too, had actually seen the advertisement – or, like me, were simply tipped off as a result of a pal’s earlier purchase – it was a moment that was to stay in the collective memory for years afterwards. The briefest glimpse of Dicky Medlock’s, carefully folded, brightly coloured acquisition as he urged me not to delay a moment longer was, on its own, enough to overcome those previous forebodings.
On reflection, all too often it is the “product” which fails to live up to the “promise”. Here, was that rare occasion where the situation had been completely turned on its head.
Similar in size to a modern tabloid newspaper, across the top of its front cover ran the legend ‘EAGLE – THE NEW NATIONAL STRIP CARTOON WEEKLY’. Directly below: a huge scarlet panel, bearing a black and gold eagle flying above the title Eagle, in bold white lettering, was positioned alongside a picture of equal size showing an aerial view – in real full-colour – of the headquarters of The Interplanet Space Fleet.
This, together with the following sequence of seven frames showing the launch procedure for the spaceship Kingfisher, as it took off on a vital mission to attempt to reach Venus – a distant planet, readers would learn, from which previous expeditions had failed to return – bore very little resemblance to the front cover depicted in the advertisement.
Any lingering misgivings were soon banished, however, by the young man wearing a smart green Space Fleet uniform, gazing skywards as the craft lifted-off the launch ramp. Colonel Dan Dare raised a distinctive eyebrow… and life for hundreds of thousands of British schoolboys – and, as it turned out, their sisters too – was never to be quite the same again.
Space adventures were relatively uncharted territory, so the impact of “Dan Dare: Pilot of the Future” continuing in full-colour on Page Two, was considerable. Here, “A week later – in Dan Dare’s quarters…”, we meet the colonel’s Lancashire-born batman, Digby, serving a breakfast of vitamin blocks. Thus, helpfully, providing Dan with an opportunity to explain why the Venus expedition is crucial to solving the world’s catastrophic food shortages – but he is interrupted by an urgent message to report to the Space Fleet Controller, Sir Hubert Guest. Leaving us with a whole week to speculate on what has happened to the Kingfisher?
On the black-and-white page opposite, perhaps offering a partial explanation for the Radio Times advertisement, were “The Adventures of P.C.49“. Again, it was something of a novelty to have a picture-story based on a popular adult radio series. Most boys, if given a choice, would probably have opted for, the more macho, Dick Barton – Special Agent; especially as, this nightly serial’s 15 minutes of mayhem, often attracted criticism in Parliament, and also from busybody educationalists or various do-gooders.
Consequently, initial reactions were understandably confused as to the early possible fate visited upon the small boy on crutches, Jimmy, who while showing kindness to a stray mongrel is run down by a bank robbers’ getaway car.
Perhaps some had an awkward moment or two, but the prospect of the weekly antics of the slightly inept police constable, Archibald Berkeley-Willoughby, were infinitely preferable to another alternative contender from the wireless.
Namely, Norman and Henry Bones the Boy Detectives, whose annoyingly twee exploits were broadcast on Children’s Hour. Against sound effects of wind whistling through rustling bushes, hooting owls, crunching gravel, creaking doors and echoing secret passages, the older schoolboy sleuth was played by, a thirty-five-year-old, Charles Hawtrey while Patricia Hayes provided the treble voice of his younger cousin. Simply, no self-respecting lad openly admitted to listening to the tea-time programme.
“Plot Against the World“, a text serial written – so it appeared, at first glance – under a nom-de-plume, took up most of the following two black-and-white pages. Across the foot of the second of these, a certain “Captain Pugwash” set sail on his – not entirely convincing – maiden voyage.
An instructional sports strip, “How to Play Cricket with Leary Constantine“, occupied the upper half of Page Five; actually spelt, Learie – he was a much-respected West Indian Test cricketer who played for Nelson in Lancashire League Cricket. A couple of advertising features, “A Short History of Writing“, sponsored by Biro pens and “The Ovaltiney’s Own Corner of Amusement” filled the lower part. On the opposite page, a factual article “The Spies Who Saved London“, told the story of the German rocket base at Peenemünde. “Professor Brittain Explains: Radar” took up the whole of Page Seven and, despite the subject’s complexities, clearly described in both words and pictures how it worked.
A western story being almost obligatory in a boys’ paper, the middle four-page colour section opened with “Seth and Shorty – Cowboys“; even so, this colour strip provided a fresh perspective on an, otherwise, fairly familiar depiction of an encounter between ranchers and redskins.
But it was the centre-spread itself that delivered the biggest surprise: stretching across its full-width, a cutaway illustration showing a gas turbine-electric locomotive – with areas of the interior workings exposed and explained – thundering out of a railway tunnel. Unobtrusively, in a corner of this unusual combination of art and engineering, was the signature, L Ashwell Wood.
Below, slightly at odds with this technical innovation, was a humorous cartoon strip “Skippy the Kangaroo” – its origins partly given away by the strange Belgian syndication credits. Even odder, maybe, the kangaroo failed to put in an appearance at all.
The next colour page was also divided between two contrasting features. “Heroes of the Clouds” set out to tell the history of the development of flight; while the habits of the humble hedgehog came under scrutiny in “Discovering the Countryside” by John Dyke.
Then black-and-white pages begin again on Page 13, with “The Lost Liner” opening a series of “Real Life Mysteries“. Beneath this: Billy Steel, the Derby County and Scottish international footballer, advising “Here’s MY way to cross a road”, shared the space with ‘Cadburys Corner Quiz’. A couple of illustrated features take up Page 14, “Making Your Own Model Racing Car” and “Sporting Personalities“; the first sportsman chosen being, the Blackpool and England inside-forward, Stanley Mortenson.
Next came The Eagle Club and Editor’s Page, with an introductory letter from the editor carefully explaining the paper’s plans to involve readers through the Eagle Club and various special activities; this page also included ‘Competition Corner’ and, a three-panel cartoon strip, “Chicko” by Thelwell.
On the following page was Chapter One of a second text serial. Set in Australia, “Lash Lonergan’s Quest” continued over onto Page 17, together with advertisements for the “Army Apprentice School” and “Trick Time for Rowntree’s Gumsters.”
On the last black-and-white page, there was another adventure strip, “Rob Conway“: having earlier left little Jimmy unconscious, at the foot of Page Three, here we had a youthful ATC cadet rushing down a dark alley to the assistance of a one-armed man, who is being heavily coshed and robbed.
Below this feature, the more curious amongst us may have spotted in very tiny print, a little bit of a conundrum: “… EAGLE MAGAZINE with which is incorporated THE MERRY-GO-ROUND…” and that the comic was being printed in Liverpool.
However, it’s much more likely that everyone’s eyes had already been drawn to the full-colour strip story on the facing page.
In a suburban street a small group of spectators watch as a new jet airliner passes overhead during a test flight. Suddenly, it becomes obvious that the plane is in difficulties. A fair-haired boy, wearing Wellington boots, quietly detaches himself from the crowd, apparently deep in thought.
After shaping his thumbs and forefingers into a “W”, he immediately soars skywards to alight on a critically damaged wing and holds the jagged break together while the plane makes a successful emergency landing. Swooping through the air once more, now with the astonished pilot in tow, the pair swiftly detain the escaping spy responsible for the sabotage.
“Walls Ice Cream Presents: Tommy Walls the Wonder Boy“, clearly lived up to the Radio Times advert’s promise of “Something excitingly different…”. With sweets still rationed and requiring coupons, the appeal of Tommy’s astounding accomplishment being simply down to “…the extra energy from that super delicious Wall’s I had for lunch…” was an imaginative marketing campaign.
This sponsored strip also provided another first – the penultimate frame contained a neatly lettered signature: Frank Hampson. Of course, its presence had yet to take on any special significance.
It was certainly unusual for a post-war children’s publication to contain such a high proportion of advertising content. Though, in addition to the ‘Wall’s Ice Cream’ colour page, no less than four out of the half-dozen quarter-page adverts took the form of either an interest feature or some kind of entertainment.
After eagerly perusing these nineteen pages – variously offering: a glimpse into the future, adventure stories and features both past and present, a laugh or two, together with a look at science and technology – on the back cover, a tougher test of schoolboy susceptibility awaited.
“The Great Adventurer” abruptly faced us with a depiction of events leading up to the imminent stoning of Stephen, in a retelling of the story of Saul of Tarsus. Even so, those who initially weren’t sure quite what to make of it, ended up grudgingly admitting – a bible story, or not – it was none the worse for that.
On turning back to Page 15, it was easy to tell that The Editor had anticipated there might be some sort of reaction along these lines and, therefore, clearly understood just how essential it was to gain the readers’ confidence right from the start:
“EAGLE, as you can see, is an entirely new kind of strip-cartoon paper – and it looks as though there’s going to be a very big demand for it. So I suggest you ask your newsagent to order a copy for you each week. At the bottom corner of this page, you will find a form which you can cut out and hand to your newsagent. If you want to make sure of your copy fill it in straight away.”
The effect of this solicitous approach was immediate. As a result many thousands of corners were cut from the first issue and, alas, one-hundred-and-twenty-seven words of the quest Lash Lonergan set out on, also went walkabout to the chagrin of later serious comic collectors. However, it was the last eleven words in the next paragraph of these opening remarks that caught my imagination: “I’m sure you will agree that EAGLE is really good value for 3d. We are using only the best authors and the best artists.”
While there was no way of knowing whether the author of “Plot Against the World” was – nom-de-plume aside – “the best”, I’d recognised the illustrations as being by Alexander Oliphant, who contributed quite regularly to magazines like John Bull and Everybody’s Weekly.
The interest feature, “The Lost Liner”, struck me as very similar to the work of a book illustrator, William Stobbs. Also, both the drawings and signature, on the cricket strip and sports feature were familiar; this time from story illustrations attributed to Denis Alford in Woman’s Weekly. The writers, Alan Stranks – creator of P.C.49 – and Bernard Newman, an espionage expert, were well-established names; the latter also a regular radio broadcaster, tending to suggest the editorial claim was not exaggerated. Indeed, far from it, “the best” was yet to come…
Despite it being the last week of the school holidays, that following Friday morning couldn’t arrive quickly enough. The impatient rush to Mr Selby’s shop began very early – and just as well it did. Copies of Eagle No.2 were in short supply and, it was quickly discovered, had fewer pages as well: only 16, though still eight in colour.
Obviously, some features were missing, like “Professor Brittain” and the real-life spy articles, but with less to read everything else became examined more closely. My curiosity was aroused on finding that Frank Hampson’s signature was not only on the “Tommy Walls” strip, as our young hero dives into a fast-flowing river to rescue a drowning chum, but it also appeared on “Dan Dare: Pilot of the Future”, where the Kingfisher is lost in a devastating explosion. However, perhaps even more intriguing, it looked very probable that “Rob Conway” and “The Great Adventurer” were also being drawn by this same artist.
The second of L Ashwell Wood’s centre-spread illustrations, a cutaway of a refrigerated cargo liner, was even more impressive than the first. In extraordinary detail, both above and below decks, there were well over 2,270 individual items of cargo shown stored in the ship’s chilled holds; more than 500 sides of frozen mutton alone. Yet, as previously, not even a single kangaroo managed to hop across the cartoon strip below. Although, turning the page, a sheep, a cockerel and a duck find themselves lifting off aboard the Montgolfier brothers’ first hot-air balloon in 1783; while a moorhen has its habitat examined by John Dyke.
In the wider world, Eagle No.2 was clearly living up to the phenomenal response to the first issue. Not just the subject youngsters were talking about, but increasingly discussed amongst adults as well. Such was the level of paternal interest that, without any pestering and a rare absence of even feigned resistance, the comic would be quietly added to Friday morning’s paper delivery.
In the half-page advertisement that appeared in the Radio Times, dated 28 April 1950, the copywriters set out compelling reasons why prospective readers should act quickly to avoid disappointment. Yet, this persuasive pitch is woefully let down by the use of the identical inaccurate hand-drawn “front cover” – leaving, even if unintended, an incongruous puzzle that endured for over five decades.
A possible explanation finally emerged, in the spring of 2008, as the result of a series of odd happenings at a Cirencester auction house. But that’s a story for another time.
Adding emphasis to the advert’s message, in Eagle No.3 the editor’s letter explained that a combination of demand and paper shortages meant alternate issues would be restricted to just 16 pages. Initially this caused some dismay, but few actual complaints – as long as the comic kept its Friday appointment with us, most were more than content to accept the promise to include extra pages as and when the situation improved.
This 20-page issue revealed that it was indeed Frank Hampson who was responsible for not only “Dan Dare” and “Tommy Walls”, but also the back-page story of Saul of Tarsus – perhaps not surprisingly, the “Rob Conway” strip was now being drawn by Harold Johns. On the cover, Dan, Sir Hubert and Digby, set off on a helicar journey that is destined to last the whole of Page Two, and most of the next week’s episode.
The second real-life spy story was illustrated by Winslade, another artist whose work I’d previously seen elsewhere. A new half-page humorous cartoon strip, “Grandpa“, stylishly drawn by Probyn, began. This week’s cutaway, again by Ashwell Wood, showed the inner-workings of a London Underground train. The following week, in Eagle No.4, he turned his attention to the new De Havilland “Comet”, producing an impression of the plane’s interior well in advance of it actually going into passenger service. Of the marsupial star of the “Skippy” cartoon strip there was no sign whatever.
Meanwhile, still piloting the helicar, Colonel Dare works out that it may have been impulse rays that destroyed the Kingfisher. Immediately, urgent work commences on building a new type of rocket ship which will use a different method of propulsion. Another landing will then be attempted by launching the craft from a mother space-ship, Ranger, in orbit around Venus.
Naturally enough, as the various stories and features became established, a few were clearly more popular than others. “Dan Dare: Pilot of the Future” provided the majority of talking points or implausible speculation – while Professor Brittain, the cutaways, the nature and sports features, together with the back-page bible strip, attracted the most favourable comments from suitably impressed schoolteachers.
During batting practice in the nets, the senior art master, Norman Dickinson wryly observed that, following a couple of weeks of studious defensive strokes, the late cut had suddenly become the chosen shot for even the straightest delivery. Having previously played cricket himself in Lancashire, he’d some first-hand experience of the legendary Learie Constantine and, as I later learned at his elbow, the world of advertising agencies and graphic illustration as well.
Also in the fourth issue, having chanced upon crooks about to derail an express train carrying gold bullion, Tommy Walls flies alongside the track to warn the driver aboard the fast-approaching locomotive of the impending danger. This second dramatic airborne dash was – as it happened – also his last levitation.
Henceforth, Tommy had to be content to hypnotise an escaping circus tiger by shining a torch in its eyes; save a sailing boat from sinking in a storm; prevent a conman from crashing a stolen turbo-car; and in his pyjamas, again with torch at the ready, bring the dazzled burglar down with a rugby tackle.
Around the middle of May, shortly after Master Walls’ own railway adventure, something that seemed very close to a real disaster occurred during the morning train journey to school. In Eagle No.5, the Dan Dare story had moved on three months. With the newly-built rocket ships now under test, Dan greets his old friends, Hank Hogan and Pierre Lafayette, as they arrive to join the Venus expedition. Leaving just a government appointed professor to turn up and, with Sir Hubert and Digby, complete the exploration team.
This pivotal development in the story quickly became the hot topic. In the midst of the usual banter, Dicky Medlock quietly mentioned his dad had recently read, in the Daily Telegraph, something to the effect that the Hulton Press had announced the appointment of a clergyman to be the editor of Eagle.
For us, with not even half-a-dozen issues yet read, this quite unexpected turn of events seemed to imply significant – and, we vehemently agreed, totally unnecessary – changes were in the offing. Worse still, it didn’t take much imagination to fear what radical form they might take?
In that moment, it could be said that our amusement – at Sir Hubert’s cantankerous behaviour, in response to having a female scientist, Professor Jocelyn Peabody, imposed from upon high on the Venus expedition – swiftly turned into mutually shared exasperation.
13-year-old schoolboys – while, perhaps not particularly clued-up about the complexities of magazine publishing – did possess a rudimentary grasp of Greek literature. Euripides had, with astonishing foresight, jotted down on a clay tablet: “Whom the gods wish to destroy they first make mad.”
The despondent conclusion we reached was, that for some quite inexplicable reason, the management at the Hulton Press had apparently taken leave of their senses.
9th April 2016
Further Dips in the 1950s…
• There is more on the Dick Barton: Special Agent here. 338 recordings of the show were discovered in 2011, found in the vaults of the National Film and Sound Archive in Canberra, Australia. The BBC had archived only three of the 712 original episodes. Fans of the show should bookmark this BBC web page for new broadcasts
• Norman and Henry Bones the Boy Detectives, originally written by Norman Painting, featured as part of Children’s Hour and starred Patricia Hayes, who died in 1998, and Charles Hawtrey. Whatshisname: The Life And Death Of Charles Hawtrey by Wes Butters, published in 2010, documents the life of the actors once described as “The Man Who Hated Everyone”
• Before 1944 it was common for West End hotels to refuse accommodation to black people. In 1943 this happened to Learie Constantine, one of the world’s most distinguished cricketers. He sued the hotel and won his case. As CLR James put it, he revolted ‘against the revolting contrast between his first class status as a cricketer and his third class status as a man’. His legal victory was a turning point in the struggle against the humiliating forms of colour bar in Britain. His life is documented here on “100 Great Black Britons“, and you can watch a silent 1945 documentary featuring him here
• The Peenemünde Military Test Site was one of the most modern technological facilities in the world in the years between 1936 and 1945. The first launch of a missile into space took place here in October 1942. The web site for the Peenemünde Historical Technical Museum can be found at www.peenemuende.de/en
• Billy Steel, who retired from football aged 31, was one of Dundee and football’s greatest players and characters. He was a hero to many of the fans and is profiled here
• Legendary footballer Stanley Mortenson is profiled here on Wikipedia. His statue was unceremoniously dumped in a shed after the club removed it without explanation from outside Blackpool’s football ground last year ahead of fan protests about the running of the club, but was quickly returned
• Digital marketeer and storyteller Jonathan Crossfield documents the story of the advertorial comic “Walls Ice Cream Presents: Tommy Walls the Wonder Boy” here, noting how Wall’s Ice Cream beat Hasbro (who would license their toy line GI Joe into comics in the 1980s) by over thirty years. “Tommy Walls” ran in Eagle comic between 1950 and 1954 and, says Jonathan “serves as a fantastic example of how good native advertising can be”.
• Classic Bible Stories: David The Shepherd King, a collection that was also to feature “The Great Adventurer” was scheduled for publication by Titan Books in 2011, follow up on their release of The Road of Courage, edited by John Freeman. Although work on the book was completed, it was not published and the final version of The Road of Courage featured a number of changes to proposed plans for the book.
• The Smithsonian museum recalls the fate of the British-made de Havilland Comet here, the first jet airliner to delight passengers with swift, smooth flights until a fatal structural flaw doomed its glory. There are a number of photographs documenting the plane here on Plane Truth and the US Federal Aviation Administration documents the lessons learned from the crash of the of the aircraft on its maiden flight G-ALYV on its maiden flight in 1953 here