Even newer readers begin here: Between 1954 and 1963, the Reverend Marcus Morris’s little group of redtop comics published by Hulton Press had a fourth paper appear. This was Swift, a sixteen page, smaller-sized weekly comic, appearing on Tuesdays, aimed at boys and girls aged somewhere from seven to ten years old. It was intended as a stepping-stone from the little kids paper, Robin, to where its audience would divide on gender lines between the stable’s star paper, Eagle and its female equivalent, Girl. I’m working from a two DVD compilation that features some 174 issues in total, plus five random Annuals.
This third part begins with volume 4 no 26, cover-dated 29 June 1957, consists of sixteen pages weekly, appearing on Tuesdays, in full colour on the front and back covers and the centrespread, the rest in black and white. As we rejoin the comic, it consists of the following, starting with the front cover:
Tarna Jungle Boy, a junior Tarzan, plus his pals Toto the chimpanzee, Zoro the black panther, and Peggy, another ten year old, who lives with him. Tarna extends to half a page in black & white on page 2, shared with advertising space that ever other week features the fatuously drawn Koola Kids, suckers, literally, for Koola Fruta ice lollies. But just as we pick things up, a dumb cartoon about two sailors, Artie and Crafty, is restored, having had a four week run earlier in the year. It’s creators, Geoffrey Bond and Martin Aitchison, did far far better on Luck of the Legion.
Sue Carter stars on page 3. She’s a globe-trotting adventurer and righter of wrongs, currently in Crete, despite being only about nine years old. Next up is the long-running Our Gang, a cheerful cartoon strip about Tubby, Teena and Titch, drawn by Dennis Mallet: I have to admit thoroughly enjoying this far from one-note series, the only one for which I have any nostalgia.
Mountie Sgt. Samson, aka The Red River, offers a decent adventure series pitched a bit higher than the other features, but it’s backed by the prose tales of All About Dunkle, unending sub-juvenile ‘humour’ that I simply scroll past every time.
Page 7 Jassy of Juniper Farm is a nondescript and unexciting series that sees the title character and her brother Jack just back after running away from strict and mean relatives on a northern farm.
The centrespread splits between the life story of Tammy, a sheepdog (drawn by George Backhouse), which has long since gone all ‘Lassie’ and the nature feature Animals and their Young across the top, whilst the bottom half is still occupied by the cleanly-drawn The Rolling Stones, Johnny, Pam and Midge Stone, who are part of a circus acrobat family.
The great Frank Bellamy still occupied pages 10 and 11 with his second Robin Hood adventure, co-starring Maid Marion. Superb art not really being exploited, the strip works in discreet square panels, containing speech bubbles but with typeset narrative underneath. Rather too babyish for the work.
Sammy in Space, the follow-up to Sammy and his Speedsub sees Sammy and his cousin Jill having adventures on the Moon opposite the editorial page. Though no-one from the main continuity ever appears, this is obviously feeding off the Spacefleet of Dan Dare in Eagle, as may be imagined from a series drawn by Desmond Walduck and Bruce Cornwell, both sometime assistants to Frank Hampson.
Page 13 is split between brief Bible Stories, presently offering short Saint’s lives and the half-page strip Roddy the Road Agent, which is rarely remotely funny but manages to remain palatable in its unfunniness.
The last two series are, like Tarna and Roddy, veterans from issue 1. Nicky Nobody and his dog Chum is an orphan living with Private investigator Sir Giles Horton, who assists him in solving crimes pertaining to girls his own age – except that at this point, with a his new adventure, the girls disappear for good, unless the cat was female! – whilst the back page is a full page comic strip advertisement for Ladybird clothes that makes Tommy Walls of Eagle memory look like War and Peace.
This is Swift in the middle of 1957. From here to late November 1958, DVD2 is missing only two issues.
A week letter, to my surprise, Red Rider’s artist signed his name, not a usual Swift trait, so now I know the work to be by John Canning. Though he didn’t get away with it every week.
Dunkle went missing for two weeks, giving me hope, but it was only to accommodate competition pages, whilst Artie and Crafty were a recurring feature, presumably running in weeks when the comic failed to sell the advertising space. Sell better, you sods!
I’ve enjoyed the Robin Hood series, and King Arthur before it, as who wouldn’t when they were drawn by Frank Bellamy, but he was too good an artist to be left to the youngsters forever. Eagle was calling, and in no. 33, Robin Hood and Maid Marion was wrapped up and off he went. Sticking with classical characters and literature, his replacement was The Further Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, drawn by Storm Nelson’s Richard Jennings. The new series, which bore virtually no resemblance to the actual sequel of the same name from Defoe himself, followed the same format and started off with a touch of Treasure Island with a former pirate producing a treasure map that induces the now prosperous and settled (but clearly not that prosperous and settled) Crusoe to charter a ship again, along with his man friday, Man Friday. I fear the worst.
Nor was I wrong. After crewing the ship with old pirates who mutinied to take it over, Crusoe discovered that the ship’s doctor was his long-missing elder brother Tom, exiled from England for killing a man in a duel, ex-pirate and Jacobite who won’t return to the country under King William (IV): blimey, are you sure you haven’t left anything out?
I’m sorry to go on about this series but it’s astonishing that, with a mutinous crew surrounding them, the Crusoe brothers trust them and trust them and trust them again and again despite being let down, tricked, their weapons nicked and being drugged. They’re total nitwits and a very bad example to their readers.
All of this was just an extended prelude to getting everyone marooned on a desert island in no. 41: about time, it had taken eight weeks. Meanwhile, on page 2, both Artie and Crafty and the feeble Koola Kids had been missing for weeks: would that All About Dunkle would do one too. But it was not permanent. On the other hand, no. 44 bade farewell to Dunkle: for good? I held my breath.
In the meantime, The Red Rider reached the end of his run to be replaced on page 5 by Wyatt Earp, as advertised by Morris over the past couple of weeks, whilst Dunkle gave way to a serial, The Secret of the Big House, about five kids spending a six week summer holiday with Great-Uncle Saul whilst their parents were on a job in India: classic set-up, redolent of Penny Warrender in the Lone Pine books.
Only at this point, after far too long, did I suddenly recognise the art on Sammy in Space, confirming the men responsible from a Google search.
Just two weeks after this revelation, Sammy and Jill finished their adventure on the Moon and found themselves back on Earth, enrolled as pupils of the Space Cadet School, the series being renamed Sammy and the Missing Test Pilot.
But change was in the air after a mostly settled line-up covering the last couple of years for this was also the end of Sue Carter’s globe-trotting adventures. Her replacement, as trailed by Morris for the previous three weeks, was the adaptation of a BBC television series, the famous Dixon of Dock Green (evening, all). Dixon was a fixture of Saturday night early evening TV and I remember it’s introduction very well, though not so much of the programme, as its appearance was usually the signal for my Uncle to run my parents and I back to our home in Openshaw after spending Saturday afternoon with my grandparents in Droylsden. His story started in Xmas week and the next issue was the last of 1957.
I’ve not said much about Our Gang though it’s been consistently good throughout. The gang are Tubby, a stout kid with glasses, blazer, shorts and a smug superiority that is regularly punctured by Teena, a skinny girl with a black pageboy bob, wearing a hooped jersey and cut-off jeans and her younger brother Tich, with a blond tuft sticking up from under a bobble hat, wearing black dungarees. It’s a very democratic strip in that any one can be leading, or getting into trouble indiscriminately, though Teena and Tich usually stick together. For Xmas, Tich is determined to prove Father Christmas does come down the chimney, by mixing soot and water in the grate so that Santa will leave dirty great dirty footprints from there to Tich’s bedroom. So the other two team up to play a trick, in the grand tradition of the strip, only this time it’s covering the floor with newspapers and building a great big bootprint stencil so that when Tich wakes up on Xmas Day morning, he’s got the evidence he believes in. A lovely, friendly little tale, worth commemorating.
In the same issue Tammy the Sheepdog got home to Scotland and, instead of ‘More Next Week’ it was ‘The End’. Was it? No, just the end of this adventure, with a new one starting in the first week of the New Year, though The Secret of the Big House was resolved that week, and a new story in the wings to succeed it. No long, ‘complex’ serial here, it was over in two weeks. So was the next one.
Advertisers must have been pulling their horns in for 1958 because Artie & Crafty went on a long run with very few interruptions.
Robinson Crusoe’s story continued to meander, taking a fatuous turn in no. 5 when he had the option of being rescued from the island where he and his Jacobite brother Tom are marooned. A French ship lands and takes Tom and most of the crew off to France but fathead Robinson refuses a lift, not even to be dropped off in the Azores, because he is loyal to King William and therefore won’t accept a favour from a Jacobite. What a maroon!
Tammy’s new adventure was a bit of a disturbing one. Suddenly he’s mistaken for a sheep-worrier and local farmers want to shoot him, which is a bit grim. I wonder how disturbing it was to the audience.
The new prose serial, The Mysterious Island, started off with some disturbingly chauvinistic attitudes for a comic aimed at boys and girls equally, but was more of a proper story, doubling the two week mark. Meanwhile, Crusoe got rescued again, this time for good, ending his story in no 7. His replacement was ‘Son of Drake’, which sounded intriguing and trepidatious simultaneously. The son was Lance, an adopted heir, setting out on a mission to South America with Sir Francis, but getting separated and having to make his own way. At the same time, Dixon and Sammy (Jill gets no credit) started new adventures with Tarna following suit a week later.
Let’s take a moment out to note how Swift has changed. It’s supposed to be a comic for girls as well as boys, and there are still girls about: Peggy in Tarna, Jill in Sammy. But only Jassy is the star of a series. Sue Carter’s gone, as has Chickadee, and Nicky Nobody hasn’t bumped into a girl for several stories now (alright, there is one in his present tale but she’s bossy and unpleasant and he gets on better with her brother anyway). One of the comments I’d read about the comic was that it gradually de-emphasised the female characters, on the alleged grounds that girls grow out of pictures sooner than boys, and this is now evident. I foresee Jassy being the next to go.
No. 14 had a very unusual theme in Tarna. The current story has the Jungle Boy and Peggy returning a lost girl to her tribe, meaning Tarna has to pay especial attention to her, carry her on his back whilst swinging through the trees, the upshot of this being that Peggy gets tearfully jealous. Just think about that for a moment. It’s as utterly sexless as it could possibly be, yet it’s there, in a comic produced for a definitely pre-pubescent audience. It is, in fact, more ‘sexual’ than the entire nineteen year run of Eagle collectively.
The kids of Secret of the Big House were brought back for the next serial, The Secret of the Tin Mine.
The following issue, the advertising slot on page 2 saw the debut of Then and Now, and of Mr Therm, by Dennis Mallet. This was a clear forerunner of the long-running Gas Council adverts in Eagle, here in black and white but with the same rhyming approach. Once again, I query the approach of a cartoon gas advert being aimed at little kids who were not that likely to start badgering their parents for a heated bathroom cupboard as opposed to Ladybird sweaters but give how long the series lasted, it must have been seen to have some profitable result. In Swift it established a fortnightly routine. Even better, weeks were going by with no Artie and Crafty until it was clear that that particular low spot was done with.
Nevertheless, it was actually fun in itself, setting out how things were done in olden times that were now easy and instant with gas cooking etc., but Mallet never skipped on his attention to the past procedures, Strangely delightful stuff.
Another artist’s signature was spotted the same issue, that of Roland Davies on Wyatt Earp.
I haven’t mentioned yet that the Bible slot had turned to a long adaptation of the classic Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan’s Seventeenth Century allegory. It’s not a book I’ve either read nor wished to, and from the evidence here, that’s not a bad decision. On the other hand, it’s unfair to judge the book by a weekly half-page comic version aimed at little kids but the overall impression it left was leaden plainness, in which subtlety of any kind was definitely not the watchword.
It was the end, at least temporarily, of the Bible slot for the next week it was replaced by Great Lives, introduced by the life of the great former slave Booker T Washington. This looked promising.
The first of two single issue gaps covered the start of the new serial featuring the five kids, the Secret this time being the Captain’s Museum.
No 30. saw a new Nicky Nobody story start, featuring the return of self-confident, hyper-competent boy inventor Stanley Pettigrew, who’d obviously gone down well with the audience. Marcus Morris also announced the debut of Smiley for no. 32. Smiley was obviously a name expected to be familiar with Swift readers, a young Australian boy from Murrumbilla, out on the Bush, star of a series of films. He meant nothing to me, but Wikipedia was informative enough. There had been a successful comedy film based on the 1945 Moore Raymond novel, plus a sequel, and though the whole thing was Australian it had clearly had success in Britain. Incidentally, Colin Peterson, who played Smiley, later became the drummer with The Bee Gees when they were first big in Britain.
The five children were now well-established in the serial slot, with another eight part adventure coming. Curiously enough, though the Story So Far box referred to Mark (the oldest boy) and his sisters and friends, the tag advertising the next story named them as ‘Babs & Co’ (the oldest child).
What Morris didn’t reveal, until the following issue, was the biggest change in Swift‘s history to date, that Smiley was taking over the front page, with Tarna being despatched to pages 10 and 11, replacing the tedious Son of Drake after his adventure concluded. Which is an appropriate point to end Part 3.