August 21, 2013


50th Anniversary Edition
edited by Morris Heggie; foreword by Andy McNab
176 pages, Prion

Review by Pat Black

We’ve done 2000AD; we’ve done Roy of the Rovers. Now, Booksquawk turns to another great 20th century boys’ comic. One that’s just a little bit older and more forgetful, and prone to spilling dinner down his V-neck pullover - the Victor.

Launched in 1961, the Victor was part of Dundee-based DC Thomson’s stable – separate from the worlds of Judge Dredd, Dan Dare and Roy Race, which were part of IPC (the ITV, if you will, to Thomson’s BBC). Looking back, DC Thomson were a lame prospect compared to IPC’s swashbuckling, risk-taking, punk spirit of the late 70s and early 80s. But as a younger boy I devoured DC Thomson’s output, with my favourite comics being Spike, Champ and the Football Picture Story Monthly. Although only 2000AD remains as a weekly action staple, surviving on its considerable cult appeal, DC Thomson hangs in there, publishing the world’s longest running weekly comic for children, The Beano, clinging to life by the skin of Gnasher’s teeth. The war mini-comic, The Commando, which has lasted longer than any modern conflict, still continues to rattle its sabre in shorter form for DC Thomson, a cult all on its own.  

When I was mainlining British comics as a young boy in the 1980s, most of them still displayed a fascination with the Second World War. Warlord, Battle, Victor and toy spin-offs like Action Force continued to fight these haggard old battles, even as the Berlin Wall teetered and fell. In one way I can understand the fascination with the machinery of war; the beautiful planes, the engineering that went into the ordnance, the ultra lo-fi craft of code-breakers and spies. But in another way, it seems a ghastly throwback. When I was six I was bored with the Second World War stories. It wasn’t so much an appreciation of history; rather, it wallowed in military glories of the past. It was the kind of thing my dad might have liked.

The fact that SAS war-bastard-turned-author Andy McNab turns in a commendably knowing foreword to this volume should be a tip-off about its contents. Victor was primarily concerned with war picture stories involving brave British squaddies and fighter pilots and navy men. Its colour wraparound cover was still dispensing true-war stories almost up until the paper’s demise in 1991; the kind of stuff which today’s Help For Heroes crowd might read with some pleasure.

This collection makes the smart move of compiling stories as an entire run, spread out through the whole book, rather than snipping out strips here and there (aside from the odd one-off). Many of the staple front-cover true war stories are included, as well as complete story arcs from classic heroes such as Alf Tupper, The Tough of the Track. There’s aerial derring-do in I Flew With Braddock; many a goal net is burst by the outrageous shots of Gorgeous Gus, the footballing toff; and you can even take your shirt off and don your leopardskin loincloth in the straight-up Tarzan rip-off, Morgyn the Mighty.

One word of warning: just about every story included here is from the early-to-mid 1960s, Victor’s heyday, when it could rack up half a million sales per week without breaking sweat. When I read Victor in the 1980s it had a better spread of stories, with some decent football, sci-fi and fantasy tales as well as the war grind. Even to my eyes, the stuff included in this book seemed creaky.

Alf Tupper, the Tough of the Track, is perhaps the Victor’s best known character, and a type we’d see a lot of in DC Thomson’s world; the chirpy working class Joe who has the natural talent and grit to beat anyone on his day. Alf was an athlete, turning his hand to middle distances in the main. By day he worked at a scrapyard and slept in a bunker beneath railway sidings, scraping enough money for a pair of second-hand, mismatched running shoes with which to take on and beat his more well-heeled opponents. There must have been some kind of template in place, because I can remember a story in Spike comic about a goalkeeper called Charlie “Iron” Barr, who was similarly lunk-headed, working in a scrapyard and living in an old railway carriage while turning out for English First Division side Darbury Rangers. Was it the same writer?

Alf was a curious-looking character, lantern-jawed and spiky haired, a goofy expression on his big, open face. He was a far cry from the knitting pattern model heroes you usually got in these pages. He was uncouth, but honest; and his homespun tastes included tucking into his favourite meal, fish and chips, the perfect fuel for beating all comers on the track. In one story, an exhausted Alf is offered an injection by a doctor after running several races in one meeting – but refuses it, springs out of bed, and sprints down to the chippie. “This is the only cure I need!” he says, stuffing his face with chips.

I wonder how Alf would fare in today’s world, with sports scientists and dieticians and training all set up to calibrate athletes to the maximum? I watched a documentary on Andy Murray just before Wimbledon this year. He said that after winning his debut senior match at SW19, he treated himself and some friends to a pizza. He looks back on this now with absolute horror. “I wouldn’t even dream about eating that after a match,” he says.

Different times, of course. Footballers probably had a smoke at half time in those days, the better to exercise their lungs. And this brings us to Gorgeous Gus, the toff footballer. Gus – or Lord Boote, to give him his proper title - buys an entire football team (“But… all these players combined would be worth a quarter of a million pounds!” says the manager, aghast at such unimaginable expense) and installs himself as centre-forward.

The story is played for laughs; Gus has his own “royal box” set up by the side of the pitch, and his Jeevesish servant attends to him at the sidelines, applying throat spray and offering his own special silken kit to play in. On one occasion, Gus returns to the field in only a dressing gown, after the manager tracks his star striker down to a Turkish bath house, where he is – no joke – congregated with a load of moustached men. The only reason any of this is tolerated is because Gus has a secret weapon; an almost unstoppable cannonball shot that smashes goalkeepers over the line when they’re daft enough to try to stop it.

Gus is a curiously effete addition to the canon of macho male sports stars in comics. This was something DC Thomson would repeat years later before my disbelieving eyes in a strip called The Potterton Pansies, when another British side is bought by a fussy Barbara Woodhouse-style battleaxe who insists that they play in spotty pansy coloured kit and hats that resemble petals.

What was the thinking here? I can see how you would wish to juxtapose the effete with the macho for the odd joke, but over an entire comic series? I would applaud the challenge to stereotyping, but it’s an odd quirk for the straight-laced DC stable.

I didn’t take to Gus, I have to say. Mostly I was bored with the representation of his crazy rocket shot, knocking goalkeepers into the net when they get behind the ball. It’s frustrating because it looks like the keeper’s saved it, unless both goalie and ball tear through the goal netting. It found it repetitive and boring. I know this would have irritated my seven-year-old self; briefly, we high-fived. 

Jingoism was standard in these comics, of course. Germans were “the Jerries”, and Japanese soldiers were “the Japs”. They were simply cannon fodder for our good old bully beef British blokes on the front lines. On the odd occasion the enemy got a line, it was to say “Teufeul!” or “Banzai!” or “Hande hoch, Tommy Englander!”, or to offer sporting appraisal of their bravery: “Mein Gott, these Britishers know how to fly!”

Andy McNab draws attention to this “dodginess”, but I don’t think it’s all that bad, here. It was the early 1960s, after all, and DC Thomson certainly did its best to include black characters in many of its stories when I was a lad.

Sadly, one of the worst examples of stereotyping is contained in the jungle adventure story, Morgyn the Mighty. The story here features the loincloth-clad jungle beefcake with a short back n’ sides, and not the hair metal poodle haircut he sported when I read him 20-odd years later. It’s a load of nonsense; Morgyn can “talk” to the animals through some kind of telepathy, although this only extends to cuddly mammalian jungle buddies like lions and monkeys, and not things like spiders, crocodiles and giant pythons. The story must be applauded for its environmental stance, which holds up well today; Morgyn is pursued by seven hunters, all competing for the £6,000 prize on Morgyn’s head. They slash and burn their way through the forest in order to capture him, slaughtering elephants and big cats along the way.  Morgyn hates killing for sport and nature being tampered with, so he faces off with the hunters one-by-one over several episodes.

But, it’s another Great White Man in Africa – perish the thought that this great African character should be black. Even worse is the awful depiction of the Zulus who help the hunters find Morgyn – bwana this, bwana that, bwana will be pleased. Surely the Zulus would be on Morgyn’s side, seeing the damage the white intruders have wreaked on their homeland? If we’re making excuses, this depiction of native cultures was absolutely endemic, from the Tarzan movies this strip was inspired by right through to any number of books and comics. “Political correctness”, as the ignorant sneeringly refer to common decency regarding minorities, was a long way away.

But at time of publication, Britain hadn’t long turned in the ration books, and memories of bombs and air raid sirens and PTSD-wracked men simply kicked back into society were relatively fresh. The wreckage still stood in parts of Britain in 1961, particularly in London, which the Luftwaffe did their best to flatten. We can perhaps forgive people, 50 years ago, for being a little bit obsessed with the war.

Two curious things; first, the complete and utter absence of women and girls. I mean, there are none whatsoever in these pages, barring one depiction of football star Denis Law’s mother waving him off as he embarks on his career, far less spoken lines. This was the par for the course for boys’ comics; usually, girls were depicted as an irritation, either prim, soppy, flower-collecting creatures at school or annoying, battleship-breasted mothers, unfailingly in spotty dresses. It’s a man’s world. And true enough, we didn’t care about girls back then. None of that kissing stuff for you, m’boy!

Except, of course, we did care about girls, alright - mucky buggers that we were. I have a vivid memory of creeping into the big cupboard at my folks’ house at the age of maybe six and finding a stack of my sisters’ old annuals – the Bunty and the Mandy, the female flipside of Victor, Roy of the Rovers and the like.

I was quite turned on by one action-packed story – better than just about anything printed in this Best Of, I have to tell you – where a secret agent girl in a bikini tackles sharks, tigers and baddies on this tropical island. At the time I felt a fugitive glee in cracking open those annuals; it was forbidden. I could remember my dad shouting at me when I opened one of these up before they were put away in the big cupboard. They weren’t for boys! Had I been caught, I might have felt as ashamed as if I had been caught trying on a dress.

But, oh, you’ve got it all wrong, ye editors – boys were quite happy to look at girls in their comics, thank you very much. It’s a habit we tend not to grow out of. The American comics, with their busty super-vixens contending with the muscle-bound supermen, had this need pretty much spot-on.

As a side note, many of the British comics aristocracy including Alan Moore and Pat Mills have stated that they enjoyed writing for the girls’ papers – they had more freedom with these stories, with less of the kind of moral code the square-jawed, roughty-toughty heroes had to follow. Perhaps I sat there in the big cupboard with my nubbin trembling to one of Alan Moore’s earliest scripts? 

The other fascinating point is the comics’ treatment of bravery and cowardice. Both of these things are in great supply in Victor. It’s quite class-conscious, in its way, with many socially superior characters being the most treacherous. In one episode, Braddock the air ace spends more time trying to refute the false accusations of a cowardly officer than he does fighting off German planes. Alf Tupper is repeatedly sabotaged by an upper class rival, who throws his running shoes off a train and blackballs him from taking part in race meetings. Even Morgyn the Mighty, hilariously, offers his rivals a chance to use his knife when he takes them on in one-on-one combat. He does this twice. Both times he is double-crossed, and only just survives. Learn a lesson, mate!

At that age it’s good to have heroes. When you’re six, the anti-heroes, the double-crossers, the chancers - the ones you come to appreciate later, if not exactly admire - aren’t the ones to aspire to. DC’s heroes gave you good lessons in life. Do it honestly; keep your wits about you; and if someone hits you, you hit them back. And that’s all fine, but I am bothered that there’s so little fear in these strips.

In the opening true life panels, we are told the story of Bomber Command’s Flight Engineer Norman Jackson, who won a VC for climbing out onto the wing of a Lancaster to extinguish an engine fire mid-flight. There is no depiction of even the slightest discomfort as this boy dodders out, thousands of feet in the air, with tracer fire erupting all around him. We know Jackson actually did that in reality. But here, his face is expressionless, resolute. His inner thoughts, even when his parachute canopy goes on fire after he bails out, are a kind of wry, fatalistic shrug of the shoulders. “Oh, drat.” But the poor man must have been shiting himself! No-one with a full bag of marbles is that brave, or that cool.

Is it wrong to want a bit more realism in a comic aimed at very young, impressionable boys? It’s a moral conundrum we face at every point of our lives. Cowards behave in cowardly ways for one reason only: self-preservation. Graveyards are stuffed with people who did things like storming machine gun nests, climbing out onto the wings of burning bombers, tackling muggers and confronting vandals – but medals, civic awards and exciting picture stories aren’t much use to them once they’re gone. Their sweethearts may well have grieved, then moved on. Their bravery is reduced to an after-dinner speech, a glib quote from a CO who would struggle to recall their face, something shiny kept in the back of a drawer.

Somewhere in your genealogy, perhaps going over millennia, one of your ancestors probably moved out of harm’s way when others didn’t, or used a ruse of some kind to take unfair advantage, whether in love or war. It’s not a lesson you would teach your children; but it is innate. The animal kingdom understands cunning, conniving, duplicity and avoiding dangerous situations all too well. What we might term “risk aversion” has probably happened many times in your bloodline. You’ve almost certainly done it yourself, and I bet you can easily recall whenever you had it done to you. Think of anyone who uses gossip and lies to block love rivals, or undermines workmates with innuendo and slander, or employs any number of life’s everyday treacheries to get by or gain a simple advantage. I can think of examples. If you’re a goody two-shoes who read the Victor, you will lose out many times in your youth by applying the rules of boys’ comics to your dealings with actual people.

If you occlude the moral principle at play, there is the uncomfortable fact that because of these and other instances of cowardice or mendacity, you exist.

When it plays with these themes, Victor is far more interesting. It features one famous shitebag – Cadman, the Flying Coward. He’s a World War One airman who is completely yellow, doing everything he can to get out of scrapes and leaving the dirty work to his batman. In Cadman, I recognised a similar character with a very similar name – George Macdonald Fraser’s Flashman – although I think Cadman predates that similarly-windy though far-more-randy literary rogue.

In a neat twist, Cadman, in trying to get out of meeting almost certain death on the ground or in the air, often ends up an unwitting hero. In the strip included here, he does all he can to dodge an aerial duel with the Black Baron, a German biplane ace who challenges him directly. But in his haste to get away from the Baron’s guns, Cadman inadvertently rams his plane, bringing his opponent down. It’s a subversive strip in a lot of ways, because you find yourself rooting for Cadman even though there’s nothing to like about him.

Even more interesting is the one-off strip included here about a young boxer – Crib Carson, Fighter. Crib is basically a cheat, working in sledges and ploys in a bid to get an advantage over his opponents. In one ruse, he puts on make-up to make himself look ill, then asks the opponent to go easy on him – and of course, he suckerpunches him. In his next bout, he keeps talking about a smell of gas in the ring, unsettling his opponent before flooring him too.

The story isn’t built on at all. The strip – the first of several episodes – ends with an old trainer warning Crib not to rely on ruses to win, as he’s a good enough boxer in his own right. Crib just laughs it off. Whether young Crib had the tables turned on him, or if he learned the virtues of fighting fair, this volume does not tell us.

What Crib has is the competitive edge – the psychopathic instinct – of many winners in life, especially in the sporting arena. Many great champions have employed obfuscation and distraction as a weapon. Think of Sir Alex Ferguson, haranguing referees; or John McEnroe, spitting fury at umpires – and always when they look like losing. Again, it’s not pretty, but it’s part of life. The virtuous and the craven alike would do well to bear it in mind.

The reprinted Matchbox car adverts and the letters pages are a delight – the stuff of young boys’ minds, indeed. A postal order went to John Broomhead of Bristol, for example, for this gem of wisdom: “The smallest monkey in the world is the six-inch pygmy marmoset, which is found in Brazil. It weighs about half a pound, and can sit comfortably in a spoon!” I always wondered, even as a lad, if any of the kids in the letters pages actually existed. In any case, the prizes on offer – Meccano sets and roller skates – are another quaint signpost of the times.

If it’s nostalgia you’re after, then you’ll have to be within a certain age range – 50-plus, at the very least, I think. Otherwise this stuff is a little too anachronistic, closer to Billy Bunter in tone and execution than Judge Dredd. It’s a shame, because, as I say, the later Victor did have some exciting adventure serials that stayed away from the Second World War.

I lament the fact that boys’ comics have all but died. I was there for their late-80s death throes, the desperate tie-ins with toy lines and celebrity endorsements (did Spandau Ballet’s Kemp brothers really sign for Melchester Rovers, or have I taken too many drugs in the intervening years?).

It wasn’t enough then to sell a comic with a cover featuring a monster, or a great goal, or knights in armour clashing swords. Trademarks forced their way in. It was about products, and not story. You knew deep down that it was phoney.

It’s a real shame the comic heroes are gone. Regardless of the ever-more immersive experience of video games and sports news presenters getting excited over transfer fees that you can turn upside down on a calculator to read a rude word, I think that people will always retain a fascination for thrilling stories and heroism. The dusty old boys’ papers, for all their flaws – mostly forgivable – were a window into bigger worlds and braver deeds, and they had a reach and scope back then which even the biggest movies of the time couldn’t muster. There were no barriers to the imagination other than the panels on the page.

And there are heroes, of course. Bravery exists. Perfidiousness may be the preserve of the everyday, and it might help you win. But the bigger events, the important ones, are almost always the preserve of heroism. It’s something to aspire to, and perhaps more importantly, it can represent progress. Defeating unpleasant concepts is as important as besting unpleasant people. Small wonder we celebrate the brave ones in our stories, whatever form they may take.

I do entertain a fond hope that one day a new boys’ comic, with original heroes, will appear and be a success among a new generation of youngsters. But it’s a forlorn one. The age of the mass market comic in Britain is long gone.

1 comment: