We can all vividly remember the experience of reading crucial comics in our youth. To this day, I recall being so impatient to consume the bulky British shilling edition of Simon & Kirby’s Race for the Moon #2 (which was the US comic in black and white, bulked out to 68 pages with other Harvey comics reprints such as Bob Powell’s quirky Man in Black) that I couldn’t resist avidly reading it walking beside a railway track next to the towering walls of Walton Jail in Liverpool. Whenever I return from London to the town of my youth, and take a nostalgic walk along that track (now covered with weeds and graffiti), I can never do so without remembering myself as a boy first encountering one of Simon & Kirby’s greatest glories — well before I knew who the hell Simon & Kirby were.
I’ve just looked at that cover again – in this cherishable book.
Prepare for pleasure. It would be hard to overstate (for any British aficionado of the Silver Age of comic books) what a visual feast will be afforded by the illustration-packed pages of this compact (but sumptuous) volume, in which British comics expert Mike Morley gives us what is essentially a potted history of the UK comics of the era, both the reprints of wonderful American material and indigenous product, all lovingly illustrated with short explanatory notes by Morley on every single title. The selection of the cover artwork on display here is absolutely gorgeous, ranging from the very best of American talents such as Gil Kane on DC’s Mystery in Space (as reproduced in the chunky, shilling Thorpe & Porter British editions) to such unsophisticated icons as the British superhero Marvelman — but what everything here has in common is the sheer charge of pleasure: nostalgia, yes, for those old enough to remember these books, but also admiration for the sheer panache of the commercial illustration on display. Every cover has been restored to pristine freshness by Mike Higgs, who has performed a similar function for the publisher Blasé Books before, and the sheer skill of his work cannot be underestimated (Higgs designed and typeset all 288 pages of the book).
In the 1960s, many of us in Great Britain looked wistfully to the US as the font of many of the things we loved. We may have had Shakespeare and Dickens on our island, but for dirty-kneed schoolboys like me, that counted as little against the country that produced Superman, EC comics and such SF wonders as Mystery in Space. We may have had Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing duking it out in vividly-coloured re-makes of Dracula and Frankenstein, but Americans had the heady delights of Altair IV in Forbidden Planet, Gort the Robot in The Day the Earth Stood Still and Rod Taylor climbing aboard The Time Machine (we were able to take some pride in the fact that the latter originated in the mind of the greatest of all SF writers, the very English HG Wells). Certainly, though, for those of us who waited impatiently for the weekly delivery of comics at our local newsagent, it was the brightly coloured American books that really set our pulses racing. As the sour-faced newsagent, cigarette dangling from lip, cut the string on those comics parcels, patience became an elusive virtue.
In the early 60s, those bright colours could only be found on the covers of such books as Blackhawk and The Flash – the bulky content (68 pages of them, as the covers loudly proclaimed) were black-and-white reprints from the American plates. But did we care? Well — yes and no; we envied our American cousins their four-coloured delights, but – what the hell — the books were still wonderful, weren’t they?
Many a British comics aficionado first discovered such Jack Kirby treasures as his work for Harvey’s Black Cat Mystic as back-ups to a wide variety of material from differently sources in these 68-page giants. Similarly, the most imaginative work in Mystery in Space was the pre-Adam Strange material – and that continued to be the case even when the planet-hopping earthman took over the book. But Adam Strange’s hijacking only took place with the very last UK edition of Mystery in Space.
All these glories are celebrated in the colourful, glossy pages here, and it’s a genuine treat. There is one caveat, however – too many grocer’s apostrophes! Every time the possessive ‘its’ appears, it is spelt ‘it’s’ (which does rather leap out at the reader). But it’s a small complaint, and hardly compromises a wonderful-looking, totally comprehensive book. British comics enthusiasts need not hesitate. (The publisher Peter Crowther is performing similar excavation work with archive editions of such ACG titles as Adventures into the Unknown.)
The Pictorial Guide to British 1950s Sci-fi & Horror Comic Books Mike Morley, compiler is published by Ugly Duckling Press
The book can be obtained from Blasé Books for £14.95 with free postage in the UK. Overseas postal charges can be obtained by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org and payment can be made through Paypal or with a sterling cheque made payable to "Blasé Books". Blasé Books, "Hazelwood", Birchfield Road, Webheath, Redditch, Worcs. B97 6PU, United Kingdom.