Derek Pierson: Supporting The Wings Of Eagles

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Documenting the history of British comics takes many forms with overviews of comics and strips or interviews with the artists and writers who sometimes got their names featured in the comics. However the most intriguing part can be talking to the backroom staff, those who worked uncredited in the editorial and art departments were the unsung people who made sure our favourite titles appeared week in week out.

When former Fleetway editor Barrie Tomlinson took ill last year a former member of the IPC art department, Derek Pierson, wished him well via our site. In correspondence that followed, Derek described his art department career to us as “from Hulton’s to IPC Magazines with Fleetway taking a chunk of the middle” and so we took the opportunity to ask him about it.

This interview with Derek was conducted by John Freeman and Jeremy Briggs and covers his early career at one of IPC’s predecessor companies, Hulton Press, which for us will always be remembered as the company that saw the potential in an idea brought to them by a Church of England minister called Marcus Morris. That idea was Eagle, the comic that the characters of Dan Dare and Captain Pugwash were created for in 1950 and which would also give us the first English language translation of Tintin in 1951.

Hultons Header 2a

downthetubes: How did you come to be employed at Hulton Press?

Derek Pierson: I left school at 15 as I wanted to get out and earn some money. Before starting at Hulton Press Ltd in Shoe Lane, off Fleet Street, I had a variety of jobs ranging from working in a bakery (I had chosen to take cookery as one of my subjects at school), working in an insurance office in Holborn, and working for Foyles Book Shop warehouse in Charing Cross Road.

Part of Foyles business was national book clubs where women across the country could purchase hardback novels, delivered through the post, by popular authors a year or two after their initial publication. Part of our job was loading up the Post Office vans with dozens of bags each containing 100 books. These were all passed up from the basement by a team of teenage lads who also distributed various technical and medical books to the appropriate departments in the store.

A strange coincidence was that we used also to have to store the forthcoming books for the book club in the basement below and at the side of the shop. These were large individual stacks of packets of books, large enough to leave a hollow in the middle of them which was designed to hold two or three likely lads in the dark for a 10 – 15 minute skive as the opportunity presented itself. Which it did regularly! There were probably a dozen or more of these stacks each with the designer alcove. It wasn’t until later while attending St Martins for life drawing and magazine design classes that I realised the basement I’d been stacking books in was just a few feet below where I sat a couple of years later.

Eventually, I realised that as a career it was going nowhere and so took myself off to the most wonderful establishment of the 1950s – the Youth Employment Bureau! They never let me down … always had a dozen or so job openings for a keen young chap, with a good (if unfinished) education. What a far cry from today. They had jobs in Fleet Street connected to the newspapers, but many of them were unsocial hours, so I opted for a messenger boy’s job in the postal department at Hultons Press.

I started with Eagle, Girl, Robin and Swift at Hultons in 1955/1956, joining the Art Department from being a messenger boy. It was policy at Hultons that you would work in the Postal Department until a vacancy came up and in those days they preferred to fill junior posts from the postal department.

Logo Eagle

downthetubes: What did a messenger boy have to do?

Derek: Before they moved into a new building in Fleet Street, Hulton had their publishing business scattered between half a dozen buildings and we postal boys had to distribute correspondence between the various departments in the main building in Shoe Lane, as well as walking around to the other buildings to deliver mail there. Because of the distance we were limited in the number of trips we could do but we must have walked a few miles every day.

One of the funny things that happened in those days was that one of the publications that post came in for was Farmers’ Weekly and some of the packages that came in contained dead poultry which a farmer would send in to have a post-mortem carried out to discover the cause of death. Just one of the free services to the readers!

downthetubes: How did you then move up to the Art Department?

Derek: As a postal boy moving around the building (I also did a stint on the reception desk), I guess I must have made a small impression on someone who thought I was worth a try. I was keen and willing to learn which helped. And so I joined the Art Department knowing absolutely nothing about art but plenty about comics, having delivered newspapers from the age of 11 until 15 – reading comic strips as I went!

downthetubes: And your favourite comic was?

Derek: Radio Fun.

Radio Fun 691 5 Jan 1952

downthetubes: So what art or design training did a messenger boy new to the Art Department get?

Derek: The start of the good old days… the money was rubbish but the firm paid for me to attend one afternoon day release art class at St Martins in Charing Cross Road, and two evening classes for typography and design at the London School of Printing in Back Hill.

Eventually, I realised I didn’t have the natural talent to be an illustrator, and gave that up for another evening class teaching magazine design. This was naturally pre-computer so everything was planning and designing with a lot of type casting, where the “em scale” was the basis of page layout. In those days all type was either recognisable fonts (Times, Baskerville etc) or hand drawn display, which became one of my stronger points.

Logo Girl

downthetubes: What sorts of jobs were you given In the Art Department?

Derek: I realised that I enjoyed most aspects of art in the comic world … but I couldn’t draw to save my life! And therefore I became a brush and pen mechanic, i.e. making good artwork, when changes were made by the editorial staff, hand lettering titles, (there was no such thing as instant Letraset in those days, only a very cumbersome transfer system) and on the way graduating to balloon lettering the speech and thoughts on the strips.

As my life plodded along I progressed from Eagle, where I did my early training, then moved on to Junior Express Weekly and then to Fleetway Press, initially starting as a freelance balloon letterer.

downthetubes: Back at Hutons what comics, other than Eagle, were they publishing at that time?

Derek: There were four comics in the group – Eagle, Girl, Robin and Swift. In those days they were printed by photogravure which I was to learn as I went along was the best process for long run colour process print jobs.

Incidentally, the artwork correction on an Eagle colour strip, for example, had to be done in a certain way due to the X-ray aspect of the camera in the platemaking and the area of the artwork to be changed had to be carefully cut with a scalpel and lifted out to be replaced by an exact copy piece of the top layer of a CS10 art board or whatever art board was used, and it would be this that would have the correction made on it. It was not possible to patch over it without the original artwork showing through.

Logo Swift

DTT: Was there anything like a typical day in the Art Department?

Derek: The best days were when the week’s artwork for Dan Dare or the cutaway centre spread was brought in, usually by the artist himself. I used to wait patiently for the art editor to finish discussing the latest of the weekly masterpieces (because that is what they were) with the artist, and then slip into his office at the first opportunity.

DTT: Were the writers and artists of the strips were staff or freelance? For that matter how much interaction with freelance artists did the Art Department have?

Derek: They were mostly freelance with the staff subbing their scripts and the art staff changing anything that needed changing as required by the editorial people.

There was quite a lot of interaction between the staff and the freelance writers and artists due to the fact that most of the artists were friendly, ordinary people who I suspect enjoyed the compliments they used to receive from the lesser mortals who inhabited the office. Also as they were handing in their work for that particular week the pressure was off and it came as a bit of light relief to have a chat over a cup of tea. Guys like Harry Winslade and Harry Linfield come to mind.

Eagle Group Art Editor Arthur Roberts, far right, helps judge an art competition

downthetubes: Were there particular staff members at Hultons you remember?

Derek: On the art side I remember Arthur Roberts was the Group Art Editor, Charles Pocklington was Eagle Art Editor, and the Girl Art Editor’s surname was Williams but I can’t remember his first name. The Robin Art Editor’s name was Glyn, a very quiet, unassuming guy who surprised us all one night in a pub when we went for a celebratory drink by sitting down at the pub’s piano and treating us all to a half-hour session of jazz, ragtime and jelly-roll. Needless to say the pints came rolling in. We were speechless!

The art editors sat together and would chat about anything involving their work and, of course, Arthur Roberts was giving an overview.

Logo Robin

downthetubes: Of the work that you did at Hultons, was there anything specific that you particularly enjoyed doing and anything that was particularly boring or repetitive?

Derek: I particularly enjoyed hand lettering titles for some of the strips as I became more proficient. The boring stuff came in when a sub would change the dialogue or punctuation in a balloon, only to have a senior decide that it looked or read better as it was and I had to change it back again which could be quite finicky.

downthetubes: What made you move on from your job at Hultons Art Department?

Derek: I had a better offer down the road at Daily Express junior publications and as I was getting married I regrettably had to move on. Mind you, I returned to Hultons a few years later, by which time they were part of IPC and under the Odhams banner and by then they were heavily influenced by the Fleetway management with Alf Wallace as the Managing Editor.

This particular period (around 1960 – 1970) was a bit hazy because there was a lot of change going on in the comic world, due to the growth of children’s adventure and cartoon in television. This was the era of Gerry Anderson which made such an impact on children’s entertainment. And my feet never touched (the ground), with falling circulations and closures and new magazines opening – I was log-jumping from staff jobs to freelance and back to staff jobs again!

downthetubes: Derek thank-you for taking the time to reminisce.

Derek: Phew! I hope you now have some idea of those times, it was quite crazy.

Sadly, Derek Pierson died after a long illness in June 2016 and in consequence we we were unable to continue the interview. You can read out tribute here

Derek’s wife Rita has asked that if you would like to remember Derek you can make donations direct to Cancer Research here

Categories: British Comics, Comic Creator Interviews, Comic Creator Spotlight, Comics, Creating Comics, Featured News

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  1. “Eagle Daze” Part Three: WHAM!, the end of Girl, and Max Clifford’s World of Pop |

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