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It comes as something as a shock to realise that it is now more than two decades since the admittedly arbitrary point in the late Eighties at which - in retrospect - I consider the death of traditional British humour comics to have become imminent. Oh, the body kept moving for a while after the Beano's move to glossy pages and more colour in 1988, but from that point on the ever-dwindling band of comics that remained in print either aimed themselves at younger and younger readers with simpler and simpler stories, tried desperately to reinvent themselves as with-it "yoof" magazines, or - increasingly - gave up the ghost entirely. With a very few exceptions (one being the Beano itself), there's nothing now that really equates to the comics I read as a child in the very late Seventies and early-to-mid Eighties.
Graham Kibble-White (who I assume is related to the Jack Kibble-White who pops up in similarly retro-themed publications) has written what he calls "The Ultimate Book of British Comics". That's a rather grandiose claim, and I don't think this volume quite lives up to it, but it's certainly well worth a read. The basic setup is that the book runs through, in alphabetical order, all the significant comics of the last few decades of the "comic era". The subtitle on the cover promises "70 years of mischief, mayhem and cow pies" (the last being the Dandy's Desperate Dan's favourite snack) but actually that's a bit misleading, as coverage is heavily tilted towards the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties; the introduction is unapologetic about the book being aimed at today's retro market of people who grew up in those years.
I do think it's rather a shame that some of the earlier comics miss out almost entirely; for example, I know very little about the likes of Wizard (the title's Seventies reincarnation is here, but the original, which ran for forty years until the early Sixties, is given only the most cursory of mentions) and would have welcomed some coverage of comics of that sort. On the plus side, one omission that I did anticipate - decent coverage of comics aimed specifically at girls - is not in fact much of a problem; Kibble-White gives plenty of space to the likes of Bunty, Girl and Tammy. (The very much younger-audience Twinkle, however, *is* omitted, though to be fair so is the unisex Jack and Jill, which among other things was the home for many years of Tiger Tim and the Bruin Boys - among the last survivors of pre-World War *One* comic characters.)
As you would expect, not every comic receives the same attention, and the criteria seem to be a blend of how significant a comic is - Buster and the Eagle each get long sections - and whether or not Kibble-White finds them interesting - the latter is presumably the reason that there's quite a detailed piece about Wildcat, the short-lived late-Eighties publication that was just about the last of the "traditional" comics aimed at children aged more than about eight. I don't have any particular problems with this approach; the personal touch is generally a good thing and gives this book a bit more life (not to mention argument potential!) than it would have were it simply the bare catalogue that the author has set his stall out against it being. He leavens the tide of information (yes, mixed metaphor alert) with some nicely judged wry humour, in particular a running joke about the way in which the unwelcome news of a comic's absorption into another was so often announced by a determinedly cheerful "Important news about Zappo!" panel in what was to be the last issue of - as it might be - Zappo as an independent concern.
I was a bit disappointed with the paucity of illustration in a book trumpeted as an "Ultimate" guide. There's precisely one colour plate section, which shows off 16 comics' front covers, but apart from that all we get is a seemingly rather random selection of somewhat poorly reproduced monochrome illustrations within the text-heavy sections for each individual comic. Some really quite significant titles (Valiant, for one) are given no pictorial coverage whatsoever, which is frankly rather poor. It would appear, though the introduction doesn't actually state this, that Kibble-White has chosen only to show pictures from comics he actually owns, which seems slightly more show-offy than he probably thinks it is; would it really have been so difficult to get at least one photo of all but the most obscure comics' front covers? I understand there are copyright considerations, but other compilation books of this sort seem to manage.
Although I have whinged a bit above about a couple of things I'm not too keen on in the "Ultimate Book", I don't want to make out that I didn't enjoy reading it: I did, very much. Although it's not perfect, it's still a great deal of fun, and contains a lot of information that may well be known to obsessive collectors but certainly wasn't to me. (Did you know that The Goodies - yes, those Goodies - had a two-page strip in "Cor!!"?) Inevitably, it ends on a rather sombre note, with a postscript noting that of all the dozens of comics which feature in the book, only five remain in print* and even those few that have avoided closure generally sell a fraction of the numbers similar comics managed a few decades ago. Increasingly, British children see the word "comic" and picture American-style superhero comicbooks or perhaps manga. Kibble-White reminds us of a time when we still had our own distinctive take on what a comic should be. Not a classic book, but certainly one worth reading, especially if you can find it a bit cheaper than its £14.99 RRP.
* In case you're curious, they are: the Beano, the Dandy, 2000AD, its spinoff Judge Dredd Megazine, and perhaps the most remarkable survivor of all, Commando, now just one year away from its 50th birthday.
For anyone aged 35 or over, the chances are that comics formed a big part of your childhood. If so, this is a book which might interest you, as recalls some of the best loved British comics from the 1940s onwards.
Although the book examines comics on a title by title basis, it also brings in wider considerations, such as the social context which led to a boom period for comics and the reasons behind their sad decline (so that today, only a small handful of British titles remain). Why did certain titles flourish whilst other (often very similar) ones quickly fail and be swallowed up by rivals? And just what were the reasons for the enduring popularity of comics over a 40-50 year period? All these issues are considered by this fascinating book - something which brings it out of the domain of the geek and makes it accessible to anyone with a passing interest in the subject.
The book is very well organised and easy to use. It's also nicely arranged to give you a choice of how you want to read it. Comics are ordered alphabetically by name so you can either read it from beginning to end, or simply treat it like a reference book, dipping in and out of it and only reading about the comics which you read as a child. When I first picked up the book, I did the latter, immediately turning to the entries for the titles I was most familiar with. The couple of entries I read, however, were so interesting and informative that I quickly decided this was a book I wanted to read from cover to cover. This was a hugely rewarding experience, since I was able to find out about comics I had never read (or had only read odd issues) as well as educating me about the mind-bogglingly large array of titles that have delighted generations of kids everywhere.
Understandably, entries vary quite considerably in length. For shorter lived comics, around a page is the norm, whilst bastions of the industry get as many as five or six pages devoted to them. This allows the author enough space to provide an overview of the comic, without becoming too bogged down in lots of geeky detail, or trying to look at every character that ever appeared.
Basic information for each entry includes who published that comic, the dates it was available from and its publication schedule (weekly/monthly etc.) Beyond that, consideration is give to some of the key stories and characters, looking at why they appealed to children. There's also consideration given to why even initially successful titles failed. It follows the often tortuous mergers between titles and the impact this had on the quality of the "victorious" comic. Sadly, with a couple of notable exceptions, such as Beano and 2000AD, all the titles ultimately failed. As the author acknowledges in his closing remarks, this makes it quite a depressing read at times, as an integral part of so many childhood memories have been lost in a flood of US imports involving superheroes. The quirky, British humour of the likes of Buster or the war obsession of titles like Battle or Warlord has been lost, and the comic scene is less rich for it.
Despite clearly being a massive comics fan, Kibble-White generally maintains the right tone throughout. Never obsessively geeky, you can't fail to pick up on his obvious love for his subject, and this enthusiasm transfers itself to you. Just occasionally (particularly when considering the factors behind why a particular title failed), he can be a little too smug and cynical, pointing out things which, with hindsight are obvious, but at the time were probably not. Although full of facts, the book remains readable by anyone, even if you have never read that particular comic. Kibble-White is a journalist by trade and this shows in the quality of his writing, which is always informative and engaging.
You might think that such a book would be aimed at men and would ignore girls' comics. In fact, Kibble-White gives these titles a fair crack of the whip, talking with just as much enthusiasm about titles like Mandy or Twinkle as when recalling the likes of Victor or Whizzer and Chips.
It is slightly disappointing that the book is so text heavy. Comics, obviously, are a very visual medium, yet there are only occasional (mostly black and white) pictures of the various titles under discussion. The various inhabitants of each comic are described in words, where a simple picture would have allowed the reader to see for themselves what they looked like, as well as breaking up the text. Obviously, adding pictures would have increased the size (and cost) of the book, as well as needing complex negotiations with copyright holders to reproduce them, so it's entirely understandable, even if a little disappointing. There is a sudden explosion of colour in centre of the book, with several glossy reproductions from some of the titles, but this is pretty much all you get.
Some people may criticise the book for not comprehensively listing every British comic from the last 40-50 years. In fairness, though, this is not the book's intention and the editorial decisions which decided which titles would appear are clearly laid out in the opening chapter. There's also a good index, so if you want to know if this is the book for you, have a look at that and see how many titles you recognise. That might influence your decision on whether or not to buy it - although remember: details of the comics you never read might be just as interesting as those you purchase every week.
Anyone who thinks comics "are for kids" will obviously not find this title appealing. If you are after information on American comics, this is not the place to look (there's a clue in the book's title). You also need to be of a certain age (35+) for the book to have any real meaning for you, but if you fit that profile then it will help you recall the sense of innocent excitement that the arrival of the next instalment of your favourite comic could induce.
With a retail price of £12.99 in hardback, this is pretty good value for money. A hugely informative book, it acts as both an interesting read and a useful reference book. It's one that you'll definitely want to refer to time and again to settle those arguments over what characters appeared in which comics. A niche title certainly, but a worthwhile one for adults of a certain age.
The Ultimate Book of British Comics
Allison & Busby, 2005
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