This interview was first published on downthetubes on 23rd September 2010.
DC Thomson’s monthly humour reprint magazine Classics From The Comics has been running for more than 14 years but, sadly, has just been sent to the great newsagents in the sky.
Jeremy Briggs talked to Classics editor Garry Fraser about the magazine as well as the rest of his career at DC Thomson which has included titles as diverse as Cracker, Warlord, Nutty and Football Picture Story Monthly.
BUZZ & CRACKER
downthetubes: Garry, your most recent work has been on Classics From The Comics and this actually harks back to your first jobs with DC Thomson.
Can you tell us when and how you joined Thomson’s and what were the first titles that you worked on?
Garry Fraser: I joined Thomson’s in November 1974 after working full time with Halfords when I left school. I had originally wanted to study music at University but didn’t get the grades. I saw an ad looking for comic editorial staff and the rest, as they say, is history!
My interview lasted three days and the last thing I had to do was tell managing editor George Mooney a joke. He laughed and that was my career off and running. The following Monday I was in the Buzz office, with Editor Roy Patterson giving me the sort of friendly welcome I needed as I was very, very green!
downthetubes: What prepared you to write humour comic strips – did you read the humour titles as a child?
Garry: Nothing really prepared me, apart from having a sense of humour that seemed to fit! By the time I arrived Buzz was on its last legs prior to Cracker. I didn’t script anything for Buzz.
My comic reading when I was a boy consisted of Beano, Dandy, Hornet and Hotspur and (whisper it) Whizzer and Chips and Buster!
downthetubes: Buzz was a Topper/Beezer-style tabloid that was published from January 1973 to January 1975 while Cracker was a Beano/Dandy size comic that ran from January 1975 to September 1976.
From the editorial side of things, what was the difference in the comics? Were they aimed at different markets or was Cracker a straight replacement for Buzz?
Garry: Cracker and Buzz were more or less the same content-wise, but Cracker‘s ‘Sammy Special Report‘ was different as was the inclusion of ‘Iron Hand‘, Paddy Brennan’s James Bond-type hero.
That was when my first-ever script was printed, a ‘Hector The Collector‘ story. I was as proud as punch!
downthetubes: At that time Thomson’s were publishing about six humour titles a week. How much cross over was there in editorial staff, writers and artists?
Garry: In these days, the staff stayed more or less the same but there was a cross over in artists. Guys like Dave Sutherland and Jim Petrie were exclusive to Beano, (Jim did ‘Sparky People’ as well though) but artists like Gordon Bell would contribute to most comics. Gordon was the man behind ‘Scoopy’ in Nutty, ‘Pup Parade’ in Beano, ‘Billy the Kid’ and ‘Fiends Beans’ in Cracker. Some staff stayed with the same comic for years and years.
WARLORD & BULLET
downthetubes: After Buzz and Cracker you moved over into the boy’s adventure titles. How did this move come about and what was the biggest difference you found between the humour and adventure titles?
Garry: I don’t know, to be honest. I was told I was moving and that was that. The difference was huge between fun and adventure but I adapted pretty quickly, I reckon, and enjoyed the boy’s paper scene very much.
downthetubes: So what boy’s adventure titles did you work on?
Garry: Bullet, then Warlord, Crunch and Champ. I also had a short stint on Victor and Hotspur annuals in their last days.
downthetubes: Presumably you were involved in the very beginnings of Bullet so would you like to let us in on one of the secrets of British comics – who was Fireball?
Garry: Fireball was the typical all-action hero, drawn by a variety of Spanish artists. Masip and Fuentes Man were two. He was young, good-looking, moustachioed, medallion-wearing and very macho. Editor Pete Clark thought it was a good idea if he became real.
There were five of us on the staff and only one, Ken Peters, had a mouser! But because I answered all the criteria required (apart from that!) I was chosen! Photos were taken and a black moustache added by re-touchers!
To say I got some stick is an understatement! (I have managed to retain all the negs for posterity’s sake!)
downthetubes: How were the photo shoots for the character organised and did you ever get recognised as Fireball since you didn’t have a moustache?
Garry: I would go to a room in the building and a staff photographer would photograph me in a variety of poses!
I once had to go down to a gents fashion shop and was pictured, dressed to the nines, with glamorous blonde as if I was the hip, smooth operator Fireball was! I was also pictured beside a Tiger Moth with full flying suit and very, very tight parachute harness!
Once, when I was standing at bus-stop one morning a wee lad came up, looked quizzically at me and said “Are you Fireball?” I mumbled something along the lines of “Don’t be silly, laddie!”
One Friday a call came in asking to speak to Fireball. My colleague, bless him, had the presence of mind to say that he was out on a mission! Apart from that, my alter-ego was never questioned!
downthetubes: With the editorial characters of Warlord and Bullet being uncle and nephew, how much of a cross over was there between the editorial sides of the two comics?
Garry: The only cross over was when uncle or nephew appeared in the other’s story, which was very rare. The other connection was Lord Peter Flint’s arch enemy was Gruber and Fireball’s was Reburg! Cunning word reversal! In fact they could have been uncle and nephew too, if memory serves.
downthetubes: Both Warlord and Bullet had clubs to join. How popular where the two clubs at the time and can you give us an idea of how many readers actually joined either of them?
Garry: Crikey, I have no idea how many joined either club. The Bullet club gave a Fireball pendant to its members. I still wear mine to social functions! (Only kidding!)
I think all clubs were run through our Prize Room Department, cos they would have been addressed to a PO Box in London and not to HQ in Dundee.
downthetubes: Battle was IPC’s answer to Thomson’s Warlord, while Action and Bullet were also very similar comics and, remarkably, Bullet and Action have the same cover dates on their first issues – Valentine’s Day 1976.
Were the Bullet staff aware that IPC was creating a very similar title, even down to the photographic editorial character?
Garry: I was not involved in the actual planning of the Bullet launch, but we were aware of the competition. In these days the market could tolerate two similar mags. Not today, I’m afraid.
downthetubes: Bullet folded into Warlord in December 1978 after almost three years of publication. This sort of news is normally only conveyed to the readership the week before it happens with the dreaded “Great News Inside, Chums!” or words to that effect.
How long beforehand would the staff know of the cancellation and amalgamation and how do they choose then what strips or features from Bullet would continue on into Warlord?
Garry: The staff would get an idea through circulation figures and would be in the know a good while ahead of the readers. Normally the strong characters and stories would be carried over, but not if they clashed in any way. There wasn’t room for both a full-length ‘Codename Warlord’ AND a full-length ‘Fireball’ each week, so I was binned!
downthetubes: Your alter ego did in fact continue on in Warlord as the much shorter ‘Young Fireball’ strip. Were you sad to see the back of the character when that strip eventually finished?
Garry: To be honest, when I moved on to other things I more or less forgot about it — unless someone came across an old photo.
It’s still a bit of a laugh, to be honest. Everyone else is just jealous!
THE CRUNCH, NUTTY AND CHAMP
downthetubes: After your work on Warlord, what was the next title that you moved onto?
Garry: The grey matter is struggling with this. I think I was on Crunch (1979) first before Champ (1984).
downthetubes: The Crunch only lasted a year before being amalgamated into Hotspur. How would you describe the comic to someone that has never read it?
Garry: It was meant to be hard-hitting sort of paper, with the ‘crunch’ effect coming into place in various situations and events. Every story was headed by ‘The Crunch for so-and-so’ to build an effect and atmosphere. Need to check the files and re-acquaint myself with it. It’s a while ago now.
downthetubes: The Crunch‘s editorial character was ‘Andy’ in the photographic shape of Beano editor-to-be, Euan Kerr. Was Euan on The Crunch staff and since he was portrayed as an agony uncle style character, was The Crunch aimed at an older audience than the rest of the boy’s titles?
Garry: No. I’d reckon it was aimed at more or less the same age group, teenage boys. One of the characters. called ‘Mantracker’, was drawn by Salinas. Great story, great artwork!
I’d forgotten about Andy, the first agony uncle. Euan was on the Beano staff at that time but must’ve had the kind looks of someone kids could rely on. I actually answered the questions, to the best of my ability. Thankfully there was never anything too awkward!
downthetubes: Bearpaw Jay, the bounty hunter known as ‘Mantracker’, must have been one of the more popular Crunch characters as he survived the demise of the comic in 1980 and appeared in a number of other boy’s titles and annuals.
So after The Crunch finished you seem to have lost your sense of adventure but regained your sense of humour, so to speak, when you moved onto Nutty.
Nutty is best remembered nowadays as the title in which Bananaman originated. What other characters were there in Nutty and were there any particular readers’ favourites, other than Bananaman?
Garry: ‘Snobbs and the Slobbs’ was popular, with John Geering artwork. I did ‘Wacky the Crackpot inventor’ for a while and ‘Big and Bud’, ‘Nipp and Rrip’ and ‘Peter Pest’. I’m not too sure if they were the readers’ favourites or not, but I liked them!
downthetubes: One of the reasons for Bananaman’s popularity was the animated series on BBC1. The original version of Bananaman in the comic was the skinheaded child Eric Wimp who became Bananaman when he ate any banana, but he gained hair and lost his surname when the cartoon series came along.
Did the Nutty office have any input into the series since, inevitably, the comic strip version would have to change to accommodate the series?
Garry: Not really. It was all done through management. I remember the Nutty staff gathered around a TV set to see the first run of the TV programme, to hear Bananaman and little Eric speak! It was quite weird!
downthetubes: Was the TV series beneficial to Nutty in terms of publicity or extra sales?
Garry: Most likely. Any exposure of a comic’s main character is bound to be for the best.
downthetubes: The other character from Nutty to survive down the years is the terrible toddler Cuddles, who started off in Nutty long before he became the brother of The Dandy‘s Dimples.
Did this rewriting of the various characters back stories pose a problem when you selected strips to reprint in Classics From The Comics? Did you, for instance, stick to the ‘current’ version of Bananaman or avoid older solo Cuddles or Dimples stories?
Garry: Not really. I’ll select what I think is best whatever the age and I can reprint anything that hasn’t already appeared in Classics. Some of the early John Geering ‘Bananaman’ artwork is excellent, as is Barrie Appleby’s ‘Cuddles’. We’ve used Cuddles on his own in Classics and with his brother. When it comes to other characters like, for instance the ‘Three Bears’, I’d happily use both Leo Baxendale and Bob McGrath versions as both are equally excellent.
downthetubes: Nutty lasted an impressive five and a half years before folding into the Dandy at the end of 1985. Where did you move on to then?
Garry: I left before Nutty‘s final demise, moving onto Champ. I was recruited because I was the only sub with experience on both boys’ papers and comics.
The Champ had a middle comic section with a ‘Dennis the Menace’ strip and ‘I Spy’. I scripted these and reprinted ‘Puss n Boots’ from Sparky. I had great fun with ‘I Spy’. The scope was amazing! I also subbed some of the non-comic stories.
downthetubes: Champ always seems to be something of an odd comic, not for its content but rather the fact that Spike, which had been running for over a year, merged into Champ when Champ was only at issue 11 in May 1984. Was Champ created to replace Spike and were the editorial teams the same?
Garry: There was no overlap of staff as far as I can remember and as far as Champ being created to take the place of Spike, I can only assume that was the case as quite often a ready-made replacement was waiting in the wings if any paper was struggling.
FOOTBALL PSM AND COMMANDO
downthetubes: Champ survived to October 1985 when it merged into The Victor. So what came next for you after Champ?
Garry: I went into an office with a diversity of functions. Bill McLoughlin was doing Starblazer and there were syndicated pony stories being done. That was when I fell heir to the Football Monthlies as the editor, Martin Lindsay, went to syndication and licensing. I also took over the editorship of the Topical Times Football Book which I edited until its demise about ten years ago.
downthetubes: Was the change to the 63 page stories of the Football Picture Story Monthly digest a challenge after the one or two-page stories of the humour titles and the three to eight-page stories of the boy’s adventure titles?
Garry: Not really. I enjoyed the change as I have all the changes I have experienced over the years – especially as I was more or less my own boss!
Football is my favourite sport. so working in that field was grand! I remember a boy being given a tour of the offices and came across mine with Football Libraries and Topical Times Football Book on the door. He said that must be the best job in the world and I said “Yes, it is!”
downthetubes: How much of a difference was there between working in the Football office and the Commando office? For that matter, were they different offices and editorial teams?
Garry: The only similarity was the 64-page format. I was a one-man band doing the football, although I could rely on colleagues to proof read or bounce ideas off. Bill Graham was always there.
The Commando office was a four-man team because of the eight issues a month (Football PSM was only two a month) and George Low was Commando Editor.
I’m the only one to have worked on both publications. On one occasion we were in the same open-plan office separated by a line of big filing cabinets!
downthetubes: How much background knowledge was needed to work on the two digests, particularly when subbing the scripts? Was it beneficial. for instance, to know the offside rule for Football PSM or the difference between Messerschmitt BF109 and BF110 fighters for Commando?
Garry: A good working knowledge of football was required for Football PSM, plus the ability to come up with ideas. The script writers would also be au fait with the subject.
One of the best was Fred Baker, sadly no more, with Neville Wilson one of the best artists. Trips to visit them were excellent, Fred in West Country and Neville in Heartbeat territory!
Each Commando script sent out was accompanied with piles of refs, and a background knowledge of the Luftwaffe, Wehrmacht etc came in handy, mostly learnt through experience. You soon could tell the difference between insignia and other minutiae necessary to make the stories water-tight.
If you sent a reference of a 109 and it was meant to be a 110, someone would notice (normally George!)
CLASSICS FROM THE COMICS
downthetubes: Your most recent work has been on the monthly reprint title Classics From The Comics, which ran for over 14 years.
Thomson’s published a few short lived reprint titles, such as the Best Of Beezer, before Classics was born. Can you tell us a little about the history of Classics?
Garry: It was started by Dave Torrie, one time editor of The Dandy. And when he retired, Jim Richards took over. Jim’s been off for a while so since then I have been editor. I was working with Jim on it anyway, as we used to pull together on it. Since then it’s been my pigeon.
downthetubes: Was your background in Buzz, Cracker and Nutty beneficial when it came to working on Classics?
Garry: Yes. I can’t imagine anyone without a working experience of comics doing this job. Morris Heggie (the DCT Annuals Ed) is a handy man to have around for any info I can’t source myself but I do it all if I can. It’s also handy when compiling or originating the features we carry.
downthetubes: What was the criteria for choosing the reprints that went into each issue and were they reprinted from the original art or from the comics themselves?
Garry: There was no real criteria. I try to get a good mix of stories, comics and years.
The pages are taken from old negatives which are stored chronologically and by comic in a store room, rack upon rack! I’m continually up and down steps taking negs from here and there. They all must be put back properly after use as well.
Anything pre-1959 has to be scanned from files or from artwork. I don’t think I’ve reprinted anything I wrote – I prefer to go for the good stuff! Some of the stuff from the 1950s and 1960s is brilliant, and I had great fun researching ‘The Three Bears’ for one of the last features. It’s amazing what you pick up as you go along.
downthetubes: As you mention, Classics had recently started to include features on the history of some of the strips and their artists, as well as adding some adventure strips into the title. Why were these introduced and did you have any feedback from readers on them?
Garry: My remit was to improve and enhance the publication. The introduction of text stories like ‘Dixon Hawke’ had proved very popular. We felt that the inclusion of boys’ paper heroes Alf Tupper, Braddock, Wilson etc. would add to the mix, so to speak.
The only adverse feedback is that some readers would like a longer series of adventures of one particular character. We tend to have short bursts of a variety of famous characters. They take me back to when I was young!
downthetubes: Other than Classics From The Comics, what else have you worked on in recent years?
Garry: I also edit the Dandy Fun-size monthlies and help with the weekly ‘Broons’ and ‘Oor Wullie’ Sunday Post strips. Plus various extras like puzzles for the Evening Telegraph‘s ‘Desperate Dan’ column. You could also say I work for the Courier newspaper due to my music reviews.
downthetubes: The Beano and Dandy digests have been around in one form or another for decades. Are the current Beano and Dandy Fun Size titles new stories, partial reprints like Commando or all reprints?
Garry: The reprints come from the original fun-size, with new covers. All are reprints, taken for discs stored in syndication dept.
downthetubes: You said at the start that you had wanted to study music at university but didn’t get the grades and applied to. Do you still have an interest in music?
Garry: A heavy interest both in participating and listening! I used to help out the Courier music critic on an ad hoc basis before he asked me to do half the reviews. Since he retired six years ago, I am 100 per cent the music critic and love it!
It’s great change from my 9 to 5 job – during the day it’s Beezer and Beano, in the evening it could be Brahms and Beethoven! I also play cello in a local orchestra and church organ on a Sunday. Music’s been a family passion for generations.
downthetubes: Returning to the comics, you have had a career that has taken in a wide variety of types of titles. Is there one that stands out for you as particularly memorable or enjoyable?
Garry: I would say my Nutty years were the most enjoyable because of the staff we had. We had a great social life out of the the office and went hill walking most months. Dave Donaldson was the editor and our office was always one of fun and hilarity and had some great comic writers.
Comic artist Steve Bright was one of the subs before his artwork career took off and he was handy for the odd alteration etc.
We had a reunion a few months ago, for all those who could put Nutty after their name! It was an excellent night out!
I obviously enjoyed my spell as Football editor and I was enjoying doing Classics very much indeed, but to be honest, I have enjoyed everywhere I’ve worked in DC Thomsons – and still do!
downthetubes: Garry, thank you for taking the time to talk to us.
Garry: My pleasure!
All comic images are © DC Thomson & Co Ltd