Adventures in Pictures: From Sparky to Starblazer and Beyond

Bill McLoughlin

Bill McLoughlin

First Published 27th June 2008

Jeremy Briggs talks to DC Thomson writer and editor, Bill McLoughlin, whose career has covered text based story papers, as well as the comic strip humour, adventure and digest titles and who, at a time when more old DCT material is available in book form than for many years, now works for their Syndication Department.

downthetubes: When did you join DC Thomson?

Bill McLoughlin: September 12 1966

downthetubes: What comics or story papers did you enjoy as a child?

Bill: Topper, Beezer and Victor.

downthetubes: Which DCT titles did you work on and when?

The Rover Issue 1810 - 5th March 1960Bill: I started in The Rover, dealing with text stories for editor Tim Cunningham. In 1969 I was moved to a new project… the reintroduction of The Wizard to the comic market, this time as a picture story magazine edited by Harry Boylan.

In 1973 it was on to The Beezer as a script writer for editor Bill Swinton, then in 1975 I moved to Sparky, also as a script writer. The Sparky editor was Ian “Chis” Chisholm, a comic genius, and we worked on science fiction fantasy material for a potential publication. When Sparky ended I moved to the Topper which was edited by Doug Johnston. Chis told me to keep my head down and just wait, there was something in the pipeline.

In early 1978, out of the blue, I was approached about a science fiction magazine and spoke to the bloke whose baby it was, Jack Smith. We got on really well and that was the beginning of Starblazer. Jack was editor of a series of pocket book women’s stories and he did these as well as Starblazer. When Jack retired in 1985 I moved lock, stock and barrel to work with Bill Graham on Starblazer as well as a new project involving pony stories for girls. Starblazer folded in 1991 and from then until 2006 I worked with Bill on the Wendy pony series, while we both briefly did the Football Libraries until they folded in 2003.

Since 2006, I’ve been in the Syndication department which is concerned with copyright issues, permission to use material and processing orders for foreign publishers, and working on nostalgia books.

downthetubes: Rover was the second of DC Thomson’s story papers dating from March 1922 and it had absorbed its older brother Adventure in 1961. What type of stories did The Rover publish?

Bill: Rover had a mixture of war, wild west and football… period war stories as well.

downthetubes: Who were some of the writers of the text stories and did they write picture strip stories for other publications?

Private Soldier from Wizard

Private Soldier from Wizard

Bill: There were a few outstanding writers who wrote for both genres. Alan Hemus wrote such stories as “He Was Only A Private Soldier” for Rover and went on to write picture stories as well. WG Ede was another great writer I had the pleasure of working with.

The third issue of Wizard, published in early 1970

The third issue of Wizard, published in early 1970

downthetubes: By the late 1960’s, was Rover‘s text story format seen as old fashioned considering that the other DC Thomson boy’s papers of the time were Victor, Hornet and the picture story version of Hotspur?

Bill: I suppose the text story had reached the end of the road and a decision was made to bring out a new boys magazine with a more contemporary feel… and that was the revamped Wizard.

Wizard - 5th May 1973downthetubes: The first issue of the picture story version of Wizard was dated 14 February 1970, almost six and a half years after the text story version of Wizard had been amalgamated into Rover. When did you begin working on the project and how many people worked on it before its publication?

Bill: I started in 1969 just shortly after the project had been set up and along with other younger staff members prepared things for the launch. There was an editor and a chief sub editor followed by four others.

downthetubes: Why was the Wizard title resurrected for this new comic rather than a new title chosen?

Bill: I’m not sure, but the Wizard was probably the best remembered title from the heyday of boy’s comics and it may have been thought a good idea to continue the line.

downthetubes: The new version of Wizard included some text stories and humorous stories. How did Wizard differ from the other boy’s titles of the time and how did the amalgamation of Rover with it in 1973 affect the mix of stories?

Bill: I can’t really say how the mix was affected post amalgamation because I had moved on, but The Wizard differed because it was created by a new generation, for a new generation. The stories were created and handled by guys in their early 20s and most of the stories were less “fantastic” than their predecessors in other publications.

One story, “Slave Of The Ring“, about boxing was brilliantly drawn and had a strong, hard spine of a storyline. A lot of the football stories were more real in terms of content. Some of the heroes didn’t win things and for the first time stories became character driven rather that incident driven.

Panels from "Slave of the Ring", as featured in Wizard Issue 14

Panels from “Slave of the Ring”, as featured in Wizard Issue 14

Beezer 804 - 12th June 1971downthetubes: You then moved on to The Beezer. Were the humour titles a different department to the adventure titles and how different was it to work on a humour title to an adventure title?

Bill: All the staff were under the same umbrella and it was common practice to move people around to gather experience. It was a completely different way of working on comics. On the Wizard, the stories were scripted by authors and then we subbed them before sending the stories to artists.

Once drawn, it was our job to tell the story in captions and speech balloons. With comic script writing it was a blank sheet of paper, certain parameters and a weekly deadline.

downthetubes: Were there any particular Beezer stories or characters that you regularly wrote and did you have a favourite amongst them?

Bill: I did “The Numskulls” on a regular basis and enjoyed that. “Little Mo” and “Hairy Dan” were others I wrote as well.

downthetubes: As a script writer, did you find humour scripts more of a challenge than adventure scripts, or did you write the junior adventure strips for the title?

Bill: Humour was definitely more challenging. We did features in the Wizard and it was all research… we did a series of boyhoods of famous players for instance.

Some panels from an episode of The Numbskulls as featured in The Beezer

Some panels from an episode of The Numbskulls as featured in The Beezer

downthetubes: The Rover and Wizard titles had been aimed at older boys, while Beezer was specifically “For Boys And Girls” of presumably a younger age. Did you find a difference writing for a younger more androgynous audience and was it initially easier or more difficult?

Bill: I never really thought about it. Obviously, the humour was more visual then verbal and that in itself is very restricting. It wasn’t any more difficult, just different.

Sparky issue 491 15 June 1974

Sparky issue 491 15 June 1974

downthetubes: Sparky began in 1966 and so was well established by 1975. How was it different to the other humour titles such as Beano, Dandy, Topper and Beezer?

Bill: The difference here was that the humour was both verbal and visual…more adult.

downthetubes: Again were there any particular stories or characters that you regularly wrote and did you have a favourite amongst them?

Bill: I did “Keyhole Kate” and “Hungry Horace“, which I hated… they were so, so restricting. But “Some Mummies Do Have ‘Em” was great. Okay, it was restricting as well, but the whole set up was surreal and the scope for humour much greater.

ThingummyBlob” was also great….thinking up more and different ways of annihilating a piece of animated jelly!

Sparky - "The Sparky People"

A panel from “The Sparky People”

downthetubes: Sparky had a humorous strip, “Sparky People”, set in its own editorial office with a never seen editor who was simply referred to as “Sir”. Was there a real “Sir” and were any of the other characters based on anyone in particular?

Bill: “Sir” was Ian Chisholm! Olive the tea lady was Olive the tea lady but she wasn’t the harridan portrayed in the comic. The strip was drawn by Jim Petrie and the resemblance between him and the artist in the strip is, well… identical!!! The others were amalgams of colleagues in other offices.

downthetubes: Sparky survived through the early to mid-1970s when the two short run humour titles Buzz and Cracker did not, yet in 1977 Sparky, like those other two titles was amalgamated into Topper.

Was Topper weaker sales-wise than Beezer and were these amalgamations an attempt to increase sales of Topper?

Bill: In all probability the reason to amalgamate was to take the best of both worlds and promote a newer version of the Topper. It was probably more of a plan to consolidate sales rather than increase them.

downthetubes: Sparky readers remember the title as having a more anarchic sense of fun to it that the other humour titles of the time. Is it surprising to you that some of its characters, such as “Puss’n’Boots”, outlived it and are still in use?

Bill: No it isn’t. Nobody really knows just how a character will go down. I’ve no doubt the editor of the Beano in 1951 had no real idea of what Dennis would become. “Puss’n’Boots” was by Jon Geering, the artist. John was a larger than life character with a surreal sense of humour and this spilled over into the strip!

The Sparky Artist from "Sparky People"

The Sparky Artist from “Sparky People”

downthetubes: Sparky originally had adventure style stories, albeit in a humorous view, such as “Invisible Dick”. Was there a reason that these latterly fell out of favour?

Bill: As with most stories that are dropped, it is really all down to popularity. I can only presume that stories such as Invisible Dick had ceased to be popular.

downthetubes: “Invisible Dick” was an update of a character originally created in text form in 1922 for The Rover and later turned into a comic strip in The Dandy in 1937. Was there an appreciation that there were some characters with long histories in the title?

Bill: Perhaps. Some stories are timeless and the invisibility theme is one beloved of kids.

Art from "Thingummy Blob" from Sparky

Art from “Thingummy Blob” from Sparky

downthetubes: Topper, like Beezer, at that time was still published in tabloid format rather than the more A4 size that was more normal for Thomson’s comics. Was there a reason for the size difference for these two titles?

The Topper Book 1978

The Topper Book 1978

Bill: I’m not sure, but at times the size of a publication was down to which machines were available to print.

downthetubes: Did the larger pages allow for more panels per page or, alternatively, larger speech bubbles in the panels?

Bill: This wasn’t the reason but it did give opportunity for different layouts.

downthetubes: Did the editorial teams who produced the weekly humour titles have any input to the annuals or the summer specials?

Bill: Yes…we did them all!!!

downthetubes: Later in their runs, Topper and Beezer were reduced to Beano and Dandy size, yet they still folded. Was there a reason other than sales figures for keeping the two older comics going while the younger ones were cancelled?

Bill: I presume it was not an economic proposition to keep the Topper and Beezer going. It wasn’t a case of one at the expense of the other… simply that the Beano and Dandy still sold more.

Starblazer Issue 1

Starblazer Issue 1

downthetubes: Most DC Thomson titles have included space or fantasy characters although there was never a Dan Dare style clone in the way that, for instance, Lion had Captain Condor. Yet when IPC published the first issue of 2000AD in February 1977 there was no direct response from DC Thomson. The first issue of Starblazer did not appear until April 1979.

Was Starblazer more of a response to the UK release of Star Wars in December 1977 and its popularity the following year rather than as a response to the success of 2000AD?

Bill: Yes, although while I was working with Ian Chisholm on the Sparky in 1976 we produced a dummy for an SF magazine, set more in the spooky area of SF, but it didn’t see the light of day.

At the same time, Jack Smith, in another department, had been pushing for a pocket sized SF publication and the success of Star Wars was the trigger to launch.

downthetubes: Since you were there at the beginning of the title, how was it set up and how did that set up differ to a weekly anthology title such as The Wizard?

Bill: Jack Smith was the editor and we talked things over. Jack wanted to go down the Star Wars line and this is what we did. Adverts for authors and ideas were put into national newspapers and the response was enormous. We sifted through all the entries and replied to them all. The best were sorted out and we arranged visits to them.

Starblazer 17

Starblazer 17

The ones I remember best were Ray Aspden, John Albert, Bill Reed, Tony Stent and the inimitable Alan Rogers. We were producing two a month but we had to set up a production line of authors and artists…it took roughly 12 weeks from coming up with the idea to finished job…but we made it.

downthetubes: A lot of early Starblazers used generic, and presumably bought-in, images as covers rather than have your own artists create something specific to the internal story. Was this a money or time saving procedure and why was it eventually discontinued?

Bill: We already used various agencies to supply covers for our women’s and romantic publications and had noted a number of SF illustrations. We looked through them, selected a number and wrote stories around them. Once we got up and running a number of artists were keen to turn their hand to doing covers and there was no necessity to hold stock.

downthetubes: Starblazer seems to have used a lot on new or aspiring scriptwriters such as Ray Aspden or Steve Holland, both of whom have spoken of the encouragement they received from yourself and Jack Smith or Bill Graham. Was there an editorial policy of encouraging new talent?

Bill: Sad to say a number of editors were resistant to new talent. But the three of us used the simple criterion…is it good? We also knew a number of the young writers and artists and had a good number of nights in the pub discussing and developing ideas. Alan Burrows, Colin McNeil, Ian Kennedy, Rob Moran, Alan Hemus, are a few who spring to mind.

Starblazer 276

Starblazer 276

downthetubes: What killed Starblazer in the end and was it wrapped up neatly with the Definitive History credits listing, or is there a 282nd Starblazer written and illustrated gathering dust in a Dundee archive?

Bill: SF has never really been a British thing and the sales didn’t justify continuing. One problem was the format. Had we been able to go to A4 full colour then I think Starblazer would still be going now, perhaps in yet another guise, but still going.

About the time of Starblazer‘s demise, the graphic novel was establishing itself and we had four stories in a series with the generic title, Legends, produced. They were all drawn by Alcatena, scripted by Alan Hemus and coloured by Helen Black, an ex staff colourist who we persuaded to colour them freelance. She did a great job. However, the publication of these A4 gems was halted.

There are in fact five unpublished Starblazer stories sitting in a cupboard awaiting a message from beyond.

downthetubes: Were you aware of the various foreign editions of Starblazer?

Bill: Yes. We syndicated Starblazer to Holland and Italy.

downthetubes: Would you like to see a Starblazer reprint book in the same format as the Carlton/Sevenoaks Commando reprints?

Bill: Absolutely definitely! If Carlton were keen, then I think we could put together a class book.

downthetubes: Given the continued popularity of science-fiction, particularly Doctor Who, do you think a re-launched Starblazer might be able to find an audience?

Bill: This is a difficult one. Probably not! It goes back to SF never having been enormous in Britain. I just don’t think there is the audience for it.

Football Picture Story Monthly  48

Football Picture Story Monthly 48

downthetubes: How different were the football stories in Football Picture Story Monthly to the science fiction stories in Starblazer?

Bill: In the sense that they all had a beginning, a middle and an end, then they were the same in terms of work. In terms of enjoyment, about the same.

downthetubes: Was there a cross over of artists and writers between Starblazer and Football PSM? What writers and artists worked on the title?

Bill: Not really! A lot of the artists on Starblazer were Spanish or Argentinian and didn’t draw football. The scripters were SF and that was that.

downthetubes: Humour artist Steve Bright has fond memories of the DC Thomson staff football matches. Could you tell us something about them? Who takes part? Is it dept vs dept? Who would like to think that they are or were the best player? 

Bill: There used to be an inter-departmental league comprising half a dozen teams. The games were played on a Wednesday evening and then we adjourned to the pub. The league petered out years ago. However, since the mid 70s we have played 5-a-side at lunchtime on Wednesday…and believe it or not, there are still guys playing who played at the beginning.

Steve Bright played for a time, but like St Johnstone FC, disappeared (sorry, Steve). As for the best player, that’s a delicate question! The fairest is me… I kick everybody.

I’d have to say Steve Finan of The Sunday Post newspaper is the most entertaining and it is nothing to do with his football ability, the fastest Mark Watson, a layout artist on The Dandy, and the man suffering the most bizarre injuries would be John Barrie, layout man on The Sunday Post.

downthetubes: There have been a surprising number of digest sized picture libraries produced by DC Thomson, from the well known Commando to the less well known Star Romance, or the picture library versions of Dandy and Beano, and Bunty, Judy, Debbie and Mandy. Were these created as one group?

Bill: These publications were under the command of one department who scheduled the stories to fit into printing schedules.

Wendy - 31st December 1997

Wendy – 31st December 1997

downthetubes: Bill Graham has told us the history of the pony stories for Wendy, so could you tell us about the practicality of creating comic strips for foreign publication?

Bill: The practicalities are the same as for producing material for the domestic market. You have to know your audience and know what is or isn’t acceptable.

downthetubes: How much involvement does the editorial team of, for instance, Wendy magazine in Germany have in the creation of the end product?

Bill: The editorial team in Germany have a lot of input into the end product. They advise us of trends or give us details of what is coming up so that we can keep things current.

downthetubes: Are the strips written in the UK in English and, if so, how are they then translated into the appropriate foreign language?

Bill: The material is prepared in Quark and all the text is editable. The English is translated into German and with almost a click of a mouse the text is changed.

downthetubes: Have any of the Wendy pony stories seen publication in the UK, perhaps in the ongoing Bunty annual?

Bill: A version of Wendy appeared in Animals & You, but I don’t think there are any plans to publish stories here.

downthetubes: Could you describe what the Syndication department of DC Thomson does?

Best of Jackie - Cover

Best of Jackie


Bill
: We sell on our copyright material to other publishers, negotiate rights for images to be used in books or magazines, TV etc, deal with book companies in assisting to source material, deal with permissions to use our images in various ways, prepare editorial material for India, Norway, Bosnia, Russia, to name but a few. We are also in charge of the archive.

downthetubes: With the recent announcement of an Indian company reprinting Commando stories for their home market, what other countries are currently publishing DC Thomson comic strips?

Bill: Finland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Serbia, Bosnia, Romania, Malaysia, Emirates, Egypt, Greece, Spain, Portugal.

downthetubes: Are foreign editions of comic strips or text illustrations taken from the original artwork?

Bill: Yes, or digital versions.

downthetubes: From a licensing perspective is there a type of comic strip or text story that stands out as being universally popular around the world, pony stories for girls, war stories for boys, or romantic fiction for women perhaps?

Bill: Not really, although romance stories are in constant demand.

Commando spin-offs such as Carlton's Dirty Dozen have raised the profile of the Commando brand.

Commando spin-offs such as Carlton’s Dirty Dozen have raised the profile of the Commando brand.

downthetubes: The popularity of the Carlton/Prion Commando and Jackie reprint books seems to continue unabated with the sixth Commando and fifth Jackie books due out in September 2008. How were they initially conceived and how much input does DC Thomson have to the choice of their contents?

Bill: These are deals under licence and it was the respective companies who approached us. We do not impose editorial conditions on these companies.

downthetubes: Was the popularity of these books a surprise within the company and would it not be preferable for Thomsons to publish such titles themselves for the UK market rather than licensing them out to another publisher?

Bill: What has to be remembered is that we are not a book publishing company and not set up in the way Carlton are.

Jackie Knitting Kit

Jackie Knitting Kit

downthetubes: Licensed products such as Dandy t-shirts and Beano backpacks seem fairly obvious marketing opportunities, yet there are more unusual examples of DC Thomson merchandise such as the Lledo van range advertising story paper titles on their sides.

What was the most unusual item you have come across – has there been something more unusual that the Jackie Knitting Kit?

Bill: This is probably the most unusual and I’d be hard pushed to come up with something more quirky!

downthetubes: The beautifully produced Maw Broon’s Cookbook from Waverley Books drew a lot of mentions in the Scottish media.

Have there been any other particular licensed products that have drawn a lot of attention either good or bad?

Bill: We did a Broons Rabbie Burns special that was given away with the Sunday Post. It was so popular that some schools have now included it in their curriculum. The facsimile editions of the Beano and the Dandy did well… both under license as portfolio editions.

Most of the licensed products are in the clothing area and do well. I think there is probably a huge market in nostalgia stuff… like 1930s artwork reproduced on t-shirts.

Starblazer 82downthetubes: What’s the best thing about working for DCT… and the worst?

Bill: I’ve enjoyed the various magazines I’ve worked on and a lot of the people I’ve worked with… I’ll not mention the ones I could cheerfully strangle!

The worst thing is probably not being able to produce the sort of publication that you know would be best seller and also something you’d love doing.

downthetubes: What was your favourite comics title that you have worked on and why?

Bill: Starblazer, because of the people I worked with and because a lot of the stuff we were doing was the result of communal conversations, ideas whatever.

downthetubes: Bill, thank you very much for your time.

Additional questions from Steve Bright, Ray Carnes, John Freeman, Steve Holland and Ian Wheeler.

Web Links

Beano books and more on amazon.co.uk

Commando Collections on amazon.co.uk

Dandy comic annuals and more on amazon.co.uk

Jackie Magazine collections on amazon.co.uk

More on Starblazer

• Click Here for Jeremy Briggs article on Starblazer: Blazing Through the Secrecy

• Click Here for From the Command Deck: Starblazer editor Bill McLoughlin’s history of the title

• Click Here for Starblazer Ray Aspden’s feature on writing for the title

• Click Here for Starblazer Recalled: Forgotten Fantasy Fiction – With Pictures by series writer Mike Chinn

• Click Here for a complete Starblazer Cover Gallery (off site)

Starblazer Checklist

Issues 1 – 75 | Issues 76 – 150 | Issues 151 – 200 | Issues 201 – 250 | Issues 251 – 281Starblazer Abroad

All images © DC Thomson and Co Ltd. Image research by Jeremy Briggs

 

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