Comics archivist Richard Sheaf is a master at unearthing obscure, short run British comics, but Cosmic, one of his latest finds, is intriguing for all sorts of reasons – not least because it was published by major magazine publisher Bauer Media.
Perhaps best known for publishing titles such as Women’s Weekly and magazines that include Take A Break, which has long been the UK’s best-selling women’s weekly title, and TV Choice, the UK’s biggest selling magazine, while this major mainstream publisher has made a success of publishing “niche” magazines such as Modern Gardens in recent years, it has published very little in the way of comics, despite successfully operating in the UK since 1953.
Initially published monthly, the comic centred on Captain Cosmic, who travelled the galaxy with associates Sergeant Star and Commander Crabbe, Guardians of Universal Peace and all-round problem solvers. Along the way, they battled villains such as the cyborg, Roogal Van Cash, the daring interstellar thief, and the evil Lord Ska.
The Creative Team
The concept was the creation of writer and designer Guy Campbell, and artist Paul Moran, then partners in Twickenham-based Moran Campbell da Vinci, a design company launched in 1990 and continued in operation until 2013, launched with help from The Princes Youth Business Trust. They produced many of their first award winning designs, cartoons, puzzles, toys and artwork for clients around the globe, including Harrods, The Sunday Times, VIZ and were also the in-house designers for the toyshop, Hamleys.
Guy Campbell is better known today as the author of books such as How to Survive Anything, Anywhere and Do Elephants Ever Forget?, and comic strips including “Zatso” and “The Billericay Kid”. He still works as a designer.
Today, Paul Moran has many years of experience in producing artwork for books, magazines and toys using both digital and traditional techniques. His credits include illustrating the Sunday Times Bestseller Where’s the Unicorn?, along with other highly successful Michael O’Mara titles such as Where’s the Meerkat?, Where’s the Zombie? and Where’s the Llama?
Also heavily involved from the start was illustrator and inker Simon Ecob, today better known for his work on Panini’s Spectacular Spider-Man title and VIZ, but who has continued association with Guy. Simon was also part of the now extant independent Nucomix, working alongside creators such as Rik Hoskin and Simon Bowland.
Edited by former Marvel UK editor Stuart Bartlett, the 24-page Cosmic, which lasted for about two years, was launched with a giveaway “Issue Zero” in Take A Break, with Issue One following, cover dated 17th July 1997. It featured a mix of comics, educational features, activities, competitions, humour pieces, including, in Issue Four a spoof interview with Darth Vader.
Alongside the “Captain Cosmic” strip, readers were also treated to “Taliska’s Travels in Time”, starring a time-travelling teen who, spookily, looks like a young Jodie Whittaker, some strips later pencilled by Dave King and inked by Bambos Georgiou, and others by Adrian Salmon.
“Guy and Paul used to supply a short comic strip to Take a Puzzle, Bauer’s flagship puzzle title,” Sturt Bartlett tells us. “I can’t remember if it was half page or just three panels, but it was funny, and printed one colour/blue ink. Sometime in 1996, Bauer and Guy agreed it might be an idea to put out a comic expanding on the strip.
“The rough idea was to put out a children’s puzzle/comic magazine,” he continues. “The competition at the time was Disney’s Big Time, Keesing’s Quiz Kids, and Ace, a newly-launched children’s puzzle mag from Puzzler Media (then known as BEAP) which I’d been hired to launch (but it didn’t quite work out there).
“Through connections between BEAP and H Bauer, I’d had a few good words put in for me. I was hired Christmas 1996 to create this new magazine and launch it, which was no mean feat writing and designing it, initially by myself. It was to be a mixture of humorous strip, puzzles and features, and hopefully to be as educational as possible. Captain Cosmic was the lead character, and Guy and Paul also came up with ‘Taliska’s Travels in Time’, both strips of which contained puzzles within the stories. I created the rest, with occasional illustrations from Steve White, and pop interviews from Mike Gayle (who has gone on to be a very successful author).
“It was a mammoth task for Guy, Paul and Simon to produce that much comic strip as well, drawn, inked, coloured, lettered and sent electronically,” Stuart also acknowledges.
“I’d planned to launch it along the lines we usually did at Marvel UK, using free gifts with the first few issues to entice people in, then hopefully get a following. Unfortunately, we had just reached the point where virtually every comic had to have a free gift. I’d pitched it to the head of the company, but he had a different idea. Since it was under the umbrella of Take a Break, which in those days was selling something like 1.5 million per week, the idea was to give away Issue 0 free within the pages of the weekly, and thus give it a massive amount of exposure. It was a good idea on the face of it. Realistically though I’m not sure how many copies actually filtered down to the kids.”
Stuart says he’s unsure of the exact sequence of events leading up to the title’s launch.
“We did a TV advert, which I think went out on Cartoon Network,” he recalls. “We launched with Issue One, and then sales weren’t fantastic so subsequently put free gifts on the cover to try and attract more readers.
“I think we published it as a monthly for about a year, at which point the belief was a month was a long time to remember to buy it, and that a fortnightly might be a better bet. It was a good opportunity to redesign the concept and look of it, and it was made far more film/TV/pop-related, but same amount of strip.”
There was one drawback to the change in frequency, however.
“Obviously Guy and Paul could not come up with that amount of pages a fortnight,” Stuart explains. “If I remember correctly, we advertised for contributors, and I think that’s how I discovered Adrian Salmon. I think we had a shortlist of potential artists, and Guy and Paul had the final say as it was their creation, and it was their style we were trying to emulate.
“Guy and Paul decided to hand over the reins of ‘Taliska’, which did involve a lot of reference and research, as well as skill in making the puzzles integral to the story and not just crowbarred in. Glenn Dakin wrote the scripts for that.
“It gets even more blurry after that,” Stuart admits, “trying to get an issue out every fortnight. Bambos Georgiou was inking, he was already doing spot illos for the Puzzles department. Dave King was involved too, to give Adrian a bit of breathing space between issues. [Former Marvel editor] David Leach came in to cover me on holiday too.
“I used to do the ‘Picture Arrowwords’ in it,” Bambos, today one of the team working on David Lloyd’s digital anthology Aces Weekly. reveals. “Cosmic itself only lasted a few years, but ‘Picture Arrowwords’ got its own magazine out of it and has been going in one form or another for 24 years and all featuring my artwork!
“It was a really nice package, and fun to work on,” Dave King recalls, “and it’s always fun to work with Stu and Bam.”
“I was hired as lead artist on ‘Taliska; after I was invited to do a sample page (a Victorian set story),” Adrian Salmon, today best known for his Doctor Who strip and horror illusTration work, recalls. “The original creators liked what I’d done and would continue to colour and letter the strip.
“The decision to make the comic fortnightly was the reason they drawing both strips,’ he recalls. I quit my job driving a van to devote full time to ‘Taliska’. Even then, I couldn’t keep up the pace, because the strips needed historical research. It was produced pre Internet), and featured puzzles that needed designing – although, in one way the lack of easy access to research materials meant you had to be more imaginative.
“Dave King was brought in to help us hit the deadlines, though Stuart gave me first choice on my next strip. I recall agonising over Aztecs or Egyptians! Aztecs won out.”
Sadly, the title was suddenly cancelled, to Adrian’s dismay.
“I was devastated when Bauer suddenly pulled the plug,” he tells us. “I’d started work on an Arabian Nights style strip and was loving the fact I was working full time drawing comics. It took me months to get over the loss. My design-led style suited the characters and puzzle aspects, which I believe led to me being hired.
“I’m pretty sure it lasted 8-10 issues, as I worked on it for about four months non stop. I think the fortnightly schedule did for it in the end, much like with Rugrats.”
“The research on this was pretty brutal ,” Dave agrees, “Reference books, trips to the library etc). Kids today and their world-wide interwebz don’t know how lucky they are!”
“They all did absolutely fantastic jobs,” says Stuart of the creators involved. “It was a really fun comic… but sales continued to dip, from a not particular big circulation in the first place. Finally, it was pulled… rather suddenly. I feel really sorry for Adrian, Dave, Glenn, and Bambos.”
The title might have gotten overlooked and had a relatively short life, but it’s fondly remembered by readers. Comic artist “Flops”, who provides art for Tony Foster’s History of Comics crowdfunded part work project recalls getting a copy inside his mum’s Take A Break magazine, then the spin-off first issue, “but never seeing it again. I looked in every shop!”
After the title’s demise, Bauer also published a spin-off book, The Adventures of Captain Cosmic, featuring four stories unused from the magazine, all created by Guy Campbell, Paul Moran and Simon Ecob.
The “Captain Cosmic” strip then resurfaced in shorter form as strips in the weekly magazine Take a Puzzle for several years, while reprints of Taliska’s adventures and other left-over strips were used in the Sainsbury’s tie-in, Kid’s Stuff, published in black and white.
What’s remarkable about Cosmic is not so much that it’s been missed by many a British comics archivist, but that, based on wider opinion on the costs involved in setting up a “comics department” within a publisher not known widely for publishing such titles, that it was published at all.
The assumed associated administration costs of publishing comics and having a “comics department” – one requiring not only editorial staff, but design, accounting, marketing and production support – have been cited as a major barrier to mainstream publishers giving the form a try. It’s a credit to Stuart Bartlett and team that he managed to persuade Bauer to at least give it a try.
It would be amazing , although probably very unlikely, to see such a hugely successful publisher re-enter the field.
COSMIC: ESSENTIAL DATA
• Volume 1 is thought to have lasted five issues (August 1997 to December 1997)
• Volume 2 appears to be just 13 issues long; monthly dated issues from January 1998 to December 1998 and then up to at least Issue 13 (which is cover dated 26 Pty November – 9th December 1998).
“I suppose there could be an Issue 14, which would be dated 10th December 1998 – 23rd December 1998, which seems an odd date to finish the year on,” notes Richard Sheaf. “I suspect there were only 13 issues as these could have been published four-weekly with then a ‘Christmas’ issue to make up the gap between publishing monthly and publishing every four weeks.”
• With Volume 3, Cosmic moved from being published “monthly” to being published every fortnight, the first issue cover dated, we believe, 1st January- 13th January 1999. Four issues are known to have been published
• Cosmic should not be confused with Andy W. Clift’s project “The Adventures of Captain Cosmic”, available to buy here
This article has been updated since first publication to incorporate Stuart Bartlett’s memories of the project