A British comic is a periodical published in the United Kingdom that contains comic strips. It is generally referred to as a comic or a comic magazine, and historically as a comic paper.
British comics are usually comics anthologies which are typically aimed at children, and are published weekly, although some are also published on a fortnightly or monthly schedule. The top three longest-running comics in the world, The Dandy, The Beano, and Comic Cuts, are all British, although in modern times British comics have been largely superseded by American comic books and Japanese manga.
In the 19th century, story papers (containing illustrated text stories), known as “penny dreadfuls” from their cover price, served as entertainment for British children. Full of close-printed text with few illustrations, they were essentially no different from a book, except that they were somewhat shorter and that typically the story was serialised over many weekly issues in order to maintain sales.
These serial stories could run to hundreds of instalments if they were popular. And to pad out a successful series, writers would insert quite extraneous material such as the geography of the country in which the action was occurring, so that the story would extend into more issues. Plagiarism was rife, with magazines pirating competitors’ successes under a few cosmetic name changes. Apart from action and historical stories, there was also a fashion for horror and the supernatural, with epics like Varney the Vampire running for years. Horror, in particular, contributed to the epithet “penny dreadful”. Stories featuring criminals such as ‘Spring-Heeled Jack’, pirates, highwaymen (especially Dick Turpin), and detectives (including Sexton Blake) dominated decades of the Victorian and early 20th-century weeklies.
Comic strips—stories told primarily in strip cartoon form, rather than as a written narrative with illustrations—emerged only slowly. Ally Sloper’s Half Holiday (1884) is reputed to be the first comic strip magazine to feature a recurring character, and the first British comic that would be recognised as such today. This strip cost one penny and was designed for adults. Ally, the recurring character, was a working class fellow who got up to various forms of mischief and often suffered for it.
In 1890 two more comic magazines debuted before the British public, Comic Cuts and Illustrated Chips, both published by Amalgamated Press. These magazines notoriously reprinted British and American material, previously published in newspapers and magazines, without permission. The success of these comics was such that Amalgamated’s owner, Alfred Harmsworth, was able to launch The Daily Mirror and The Daily Mail newspapers on the profits.
Over the next thirty years or so, comic publishers saw the juvenile market as the most profitable, and thus geared their publications accordingly, so that by 1914 most comics were aimed at eight- to twelve-year-olds.
The period between the two wars is notable mainly for the publication of annuals by Amalgamated Press, and also the emergence of DC Thomson, launching both The Beano and The Dandy in the late 1930s, which thrived during the Second World War. Their successful mix of irreverence and slapstick led to many similar titles, notably Buster, Topper and Beezer. However the originators of this format have outlasted all rivals, and are still published today.
In the early 1950s, “lurid American ‘crime’ and ‘horror comics’ reached Britain”, prompting what in retrospect has been characterised as a moral panic. Copies of Tales from the Crypt and The Vault of Horror, which arrived as ballast in ships from the United States, were first only available in the “environs of the great ports of Liverpool, Manchester, Belfast and London”, but by “using blocks made from imported American matrices”, British versions of Tales from the Crypt and The Vault of Horror were printed in London and Leicester and sold in “small back-street newsagents.” The ensuing outcry was heard in Parliament, and at the urging of the Most Reverend Geoffrey Fisher, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Major Gwilym Lloyd George, the Home Secretary and Minister of Welsh Affairs, and the National Union of Teachers, Parliament passed the Children and Young Persons (Harmful Publications) Act 1955; it prohibited “any book, magazine or other like work which is of a kind likely to fall into the hands of children or young persons and consists wholly or mainly of stories told in pictures (with or without the addition of written matter), being stories portraying (a) the commission of crimes; or (b) acts of violence or cruelty; or (c) incidents of a repulsive or horrible nature; in such a way that the work as a whole would tend to corrupt a child or young person into whose hands it might fall.” Although the act had a sunset clause, in 1969 the Act was made permanent, and continues to be in force today, represented, for example, in the Royal Mail prohibition against mailing horror comics and the matrices used to print them.
During the 1950s and 1960s the most popular comic magazine for older age-group boys was the Eagle published by Hulton Press. The Eagle was published in a more expensive format, and was a gravure-printed weekly. This format was one used originally by Mickey Mouse Weekly during the 1930s. The Eagle’s success saw a number of comics launched in a similar format, TV Century 21, Look and Learn and TV Comic being notable examples. Comics published in this format were known in the trade as “slicks”. At the end of the 1960s these comics moved away from gravure printing, preferring offset litho due to cost considerations arising from decreasing readership.
However, the boys adventure comic was still popular, and titles such as Valiant and Tiger published by IPC saw new adventure heroes become stars, including Roy of the Rovers who would eventually gain his own title. Odhams Press was a company which mainly printed new material that was adventure oriented, although it also reprinted American Marvel Comics material in its Power Comics titles including Smash! and Fantastic.
By 1970 the British comics market was in a long-term decline, as comics lost popularity in the face of the rise of other popular pastimes for children. Initially the challenge was the rising popularity of television, a trend which the introduction of colour television to Britain during 1969 set in stone. In an effort to counter the trend, many publishers switched the focus of their comics towards television-related characters. The television shows of Gerry Anderson such as Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons had begun this in 1966 with the launch of tie-in comics such as TV21 and Lady Penelope that included only strips related to Anderson’s TV shows. Polystyle Publications already published a TV-related comic for young children called TV Comic, and in 1971 moved into the older market with Countdown (later retitled TV Action). The teenage market saw Look-In magazine feature strips solely based on popular television programmes. Another strand of the reaction to television was the launch of comics focused entirely on football (soccer being as popular as television amongst boys), with titles such as Shoot and Scorcher and Score. Those comics which didn’t address the issue of television began to close, merging with the few survivors.
In the 1970s very few boys’ comics in the “slick” format were launched, although Countdown was one exception, launching in 1971 with content similar to TV 21 (which had closed by then) and TV Comic. Vulcan, a reprint title, was another, in 1976. Girls’ titles which had launched in the “slick” format in the 1960s continued in that format into the 1970s; and others, such as Diana and Judy, changed to become slicks. They found themselves in the same market as teenage titles for girls such as Boyfriend and Blue Jeans, which had changed their content and were featuring mainly product-related articles and photo-strips.
In 1972, Marvel set up a publishing arm in the UK, Marvel UK, reprinting American superhero strips. These proved extremely popular, and a range of weekly titles were being published by 1975. So much so that in 1976 the parent company briefly published a minimal amount of new material specifically for the UK market in Captain Britain. The American reprint material proved to be more successful, and continued to appear into the 1980s, at which stage Marvel UK also began diversifying into home produced original material, both UK originated strips featuring American created characters such as Captain Britain, the Hulk and the Black Knight, and wholly original strips like Night Raven. They also began producing television-based material, initially with Dr Who Weekly, launched in 1979.
In the late 1960s and into the 1970s, the underground comics movement inspired two new comics in the UK: Oz and Nasty Tales were launched with the Underground premise of counter-culture rebellion. Oz notoriously featured the children’s character Rupert the Bear performing sexual acts. Both magazines were tried at the Old Bailey under the Obscene Publications Act because of their content. The Oz defendants were convicted, although the conviction was overturned on appeal. The Nasty Tales defendants were cautioned. However, both these comics ceased publication soon after their trial, as much due to the social changes at the end of the counter-culture movement as any effect of the court cases. These were always adult magazines, not titles aimed at the mainstream children’s market.
In the mid-1970s, comics became more action oriented. The first such title to be launched was Warlord in 1974. Published by DC Thomson, it proved to be a success, and led to its then rival, IPC Magazines Ltd, producing Battle Picture Weekly, a comic notably grimmer in style than its competitor. Battle’s success led to IPC launching another, similarly styled title, Action, which became a success too, but also became controversial, due to its content. Complaints about its tone eventually led to questions being asked in the House of Commons. Although an extremely popular title, IPC decided nonetheless to change the content, which neutered the comic’s appeal, whereupon the title quickly declined and merged with Battle.
Action’s position as the most popular title was taken over by 2000 AD, launched in 1977 by IPC. Created as a comic for older boys and girls, it also held appeal for teenage and even adult readers. In the 1960s IPC began to source comic art from Spain, mainly for financial reasons. This trend was continued through to the launch of 2000AD. Carlos Ezquerra is the most notable Spanish artist to have worked in British comics, having worked on both Battle and 2000 AD, and is credited with the creation of the look of Judge Dredd. Judge Dredd and other 2000 AD titles have been published in a tabloid form known as a “programme”, or “prog” for short.
The Star Wars magazine lasted into the late 1980s. In 1982 The Eagle was relaunched, this time including photo-strips, but still with Dan Dare as the lead story. The comic moved him from the front page to the centre pages to allow a more magazine-style cover.
Dez Skinn launched Warrior, possibly the most notable comic of the period, as it contained both the Marvelman and V for Vendetta strips, by Alan Moore. Warrior was a British equivalent of Heavy Metal magazine. Marvelman was a Captain Marvel clone that Skinn acquired, although the legality of that acquisition has been questioned. In Moore’s hands the strip became an “adult” style superhero, and was later reprinted, with the story continued, in an American full-colour comic, with the name changed from “Marvelman” to “Miracleman” to avoid any lawsuits that Marvel Comics may have considered.
Adult comics also witnessed a slight resurgence with psst!, an attempt to market a French style monthly bande dessinée, and Escape Magazine, published by Paul Gravett, former psst! promotions man. Escape is the other notable comic from this period, featuring early work from Eddie Campbell and Paul Grist, amongst others. Neither comic managed to survive in the vagaries of the comics market, Warrior beset by copyright issues and Escape by lack of publisher interest. During this period a number of smaller publishers were formed to provide inventive publications appealing to niche markets. Congress Press was one of these companies, providing titles such as Birthrite, Heaven & Hell and a graphic novel, Spookhouse.
Most of the surviving titles published by IPC, Fleetway and DC Thompson were merged into each other in the late 1980s and early 1990s, as the popularity of comics waned further in response to a surge in the popularity of television and of video games. Although new titles were launched in this period, none seemed to find any sustainable audience. Notable comics from this period included Deadline, Toxic!, Crisis, and Revolver.
Deadline was conceived by Steve Dillon and Brett Ewins, and mixed original strips with reprints of U.S. strips, notably Love & Rockets, and articles and interviews on the British independent music scene of the time. Tank Girl was its most notable strip. Crisis was published by Fleetway Publications, a company formed from IPC’s comics holdings. It was aimed at readers who had outgrown 2000 AD, and featured first works by Garth Ennis and Sean Phillips amongst others.
One publication of that period did find an audience. Viz began life in 1979 as a fanzine style publication, before, in 1989, becoming the biggest selling magazine in the country. Based upon bad taste, crude language, crude sexual innuendo, and the parodying of strips from The Dandy (among them Black Bag – the Faithful Border Bin Liner, a parody of The Dandy’s Black Bob series about a Border Collie), the popularity of Viz depended entirely upon a variant of Sixties counter-culture; and it promptly inspired similarly themed titles, including Smut, Spit!, Talking Turkey, Elephant Parts, Gas, Brain Damage, Poot!, UT and Zit, all of which failed to achieve Viz’s longevity and folded. Whilst Viz is still one of the United Kingdom’s top selling magazines.