By Tom Anderson
Mention ‘comics’ and, today, your first thought is quite likely to be of larger-than-life American superhero comic books. Yet the word ‘comic’ originates in humour, in comedy, and humour comics are also a longstanding tradition, particularly in the United Kingdom. That tradition now survives in rather few publications, with DC Thomson’s venerable The Beano as almost the last redoubt of what was once dozens or hundreds of titles. In this article we’re going to look at what was once the great London-based rival of Scotland’s DC Thomson: Fleetway, a publisher whose history is so long and confusing that it is difficult even to know by which name to call it.
The story begins with Alfred Harmsworth who (with his brother, who became Viscount Rothermere) founded both the Daily Mail and Daily Mirror newspapers at the close of the nineteenth century. At the time, those papers (today considered political polar opposites) were instead written based on audience demographics, with the former being aimed at office boys and the latter at women. (Ironically, today the Mail has the only majority female audience of any major British paper). Harmsworth, later Viscount Northcliffe, grouped together his publishing concerns as the originally-named Amalgamated Press in 1901. This already included some of the first comics produced in Britain, such as Illustrated Chips and Comic Cuts (both published 1890-1953).
It should be noted from the get-go that the second dates given in describing the run of any Fleetway comic rarely refers to it becoming defunct altogether, but rather it merging into one of the others. Fleetway comics rarely developed any kind of long-running continuity, sticking with the model (also popular in the Silver Age of US comics) that ideas could be reused after a few years because the audience had grown out of that comic and a new audience had arrived. Despite this, tracking the history of Fleetway comics is just as confusing as the continuity of US superhero comics, because of how many mergers and spinoffs there were. Occasionally a comic name could even reappear: Knockout ran from 1939 to 1963 (absorbing Comic Cuts in 1953 along the way), then merged into Valiant, and then re-emerged for a second run from 1971 to 1973 before merging into Whizzer and Chips. Merely tracking characters or strips does not necessarily help, as these were routinely changed as much over the course of a comic’s run as they were in the course of a merger. As with DC Thomson’s publications, it was also common for a comic to produce a Christmas annual even long after it had ceased to have an independent existence; I own a Knockout annual from 1978, five years after the second merger.
Amalgamated Press had many other interests besides comics, of course, its newspapers and magazines exerting influence over the political process in the UK, but we shall pass over these here. One of the most important Amalgamated Press comics in the interwar period was Film Fun, which featured ‘characters’ from popular films of the time (such as Laurel and Hardy, Max Miller and Buster Keaton) having adventures in print. Charlie Chaplin was among these star attractions of ambiguous adaptational authorisation, but perhaps that was all right, considering some believe he derived his iconic ‘Little Tramp’ character from the cover stars of the earlier Illustrated Chips comic, Weary Willie and Tired Tim. This would set an important precedent for later.
Alfred Harmsworth’s nephew Cecil Harmsworth King had helped make the Daily Mirror highly successful, and in 1959 his Mirror Group bought out Amalgamated Press itself, then based at Fleetway House in Farringdon Street. In 1963 he created the name International Publishing Corporation (IPC) as a holding company name for his various media interests. IPC’s comics line (part of IPC Magazines, also including 2000 AD) was sold to Robert Maxwell as Fleetway Publications in 1987, then on to the Danish company Egmont in 1991. The upshot of all of this is that nobody knows what to call these comics collectively—both Fleetway and IPC were used almost interchangeably, but discreetly, on the covers and advertising of the comics and annuals. Typically the comics emphasised their own independent identities, despite the near-constant mergers. Perhaps the most remarkable example is Whizzer and Chips, which was not the result of a merger, but a comic that was arbitrarily divided into two sections with their own characters, who had a rivalry and encouraged the readers to pick a side (“Whizz-kids vs. Chip-ites”). This interesting deliberate form of sectarianism was slightly spoiled when, inevitably, the comic picked up others through mergers (such as Krazy, briefly leading to the whole combination being referred to as WCK, and later Whoopee!).
There is much that could be said about Fleetway comics; many will have heard of them specifically because of their much-loved 1990s Sonic the Comic, as covered by Charles E. P. Murphy in a previous article in this series. Some of their humour comics began with themes, such as Monster Fun (1975-6) which used stock Hammer Horror style characters with a twist, or School Fun (1983-4) which focused on strips set in schools. However, the ensuing mergers meant that the surviving comics when the dust had settled, such as Buster and the aforementioned Whizzer and Chips, ended up with an endearingly eclectic combination of horror, school, science fiction and many more themes for humour strips. Buster, incidentally, was so named after the lead character, originally conceived as the son of Andy Capp, whom we met in my article about the origins of Apple Computer, before diverging. It ended up being the last comic of the humour stable standing after Whizzer and Chips merged into it in 1990, lasting another ten years (but shifting towards reprints) before memorably ending with the Millennium and a number of strips finally ending the stories of characters. By the time I was in a position to read these comics, I mostly encountered their characters through reprint compilations with titles like Funny Fortnightly or Big Comic Fortnightly. This means I know a lot about Fleetway characters, but never ask me to identify which comic they came from...
To be clear, especially in the earlier years, these comics sometimes included more photorealistic-style action strips without so much of a humour theme (of course, the parent company also produced many grittier comics such as Eagle and Valiant, not to mention 2000 AD). Sometimes the line could be blurred, however, particularly when it came to strips about characters with superpowers or other abilities. A common gimmick for a Fleetway strip would be for it to be based around a young boy (or, less often, girl) who possessed some sort of advanced gadget, magical artefact, alien friend, superpower, etc. Examples of each include X-Ray Specs, Sonny Storm, Odd-Ball and Disappearing Trix respectively, of which the second case was a photorealistic action style comic but the others were more conventional humour comics in style. Rather than the greater scope which such a power would have in a US-style superhero comic, the protagonist would use it for mundane activities that a British schoolkid could identify with, such as finding a way to get a free feed after running out of pocket money, escape from a bully and ensure they get their comeuppance, etc. The number of variations on this theme the writers and artists could come up with was bewilderingly diverse (magic wellington boots, a ray gun capable of transmuting any element, a magic mixer that can combine any two things, a shapeshifting boy who can ‘scrunge’ his face into horrifying creatures, etc.) This was inevitably mocked in parody strips in the adult comic Viz, such as Felix and his Amazing Underpants.
Some characters blurred the lines between British mundanity and superheroism. The Leopard from Lime Street (1976-85) was one of the more blatant Fleetway ripoffs (of The Amazing Spider-Man) in which a (photorealistically drawn) British schoolboy named Billy Farmer is mauled by a radioactive leopard and gets superpowers as Leopardman (including ‘Leopard-sense’) and is always trying to convince the people of his local town that he is a hero rather than a menace. No, really. More interestingly, Knockout was fronted by the cartoonishly-drawn Super Seven, who used all the tropes of an American superhero crossover team (they even had a Sevenmobile) yet were comprised of typical British humour comics characters, whose special abilities were as mundane as being a good shot with a catapult or being able to whistle really well. Despite this, they ended up fighting Communist agents in Eastern Europe along with the more typical foes of bullies and so on. Another line-blurring character was Hit Kid, who took revenge on cruel or selfish adults on behalf of kids, who was drawn in an incongruously noir-ish style (fedora, dark glasses and turned-up coat obscuring his face) despite appearing in a cartoon-style strip.
Class warfare (and, less often, urban vs. rural) was also a common theme of Fleetway strips. This perhaps reflected a connection with the left-wing editorial position of the Daily Mirror, as well as the political views of some artist—such as Leo Baxendale, who formerly created some of the most iconic strips of rival company DC Thomson before suffering a breakdown from overwork and moving to Fleetway. Many Fleetway strips involved a never-ending war between representatives of the working and upper classes (The Toffs and the Toughs, Ivor Lott & Tony Broke, which eventually merged with the gender-swapped Milly O’Naire and Penny Less, etc.) These usually ended with the working-class characters coming out on top. A slight variation was Top of the Class, in which a long-suffering teacher attempts to keep working- and upper-class school gangs to focus on the lesson rather than beating each other up. Another was Store Wars, in which a capitalist department store owner always comes off second best to the traditional corner shop next door—even when “the Lady Mayoress, Mrs Hatcher” (a thinly disguised Margaret Thatcher) shows up with enthusiasm for Mr Superstore’s large-scale capitalism, as a grocer’s daughter she grows nostalgic for the rival shop.
The last example illustrates another common factor with Fleetway comics in this era: a cheerful willingness to write around copyrights and libel laws to feature anyone and anything they liked. I have often found this is a subject worthy of study for the Alternate History writer; true masters of the art, like the Fleetway writers and the creators of the Grand Theft Auto games, can effortlessly come up with names and concepts that are just different enough to avoid being sued, yet still immediately recognisable to the average person familiar with the original. Much the same strategy is useful to us when writing allohistorical references into AH stories, without unrealistically invoking the exact same people and shows as our timeline (and running into lawyers). Harry Turtledove managed to get away with ‘Kurt Haldweim’ in In the Presence of Mine Enemies, but not every example is so easy.
Not only did Fleetway strips routinely feature celebrity footballers or actors under suitably adjusted names, but they based entire long-running strips on unauthorised adaptations of then-popular TV shows. (In fact, some of the strips long outlasted the TV shows in question!) Fleetway did produce some comic adaptations with authorisation—for example, at the height of the 1970s British professional wrestling craze, they produced comics annuals starring Big Daddy (who even appeared in some of their other comics, his strip having the delightful title ‘Big Daddy At Large’). This was very much the exception to the rule, however. Both US and UK TV shows and films got the Fleetway treatment; no-one was safe. The Fleetway ‘adaptations’, besides suitably adjusting names, also often fiddled with settings and characters—not only to avoid the lawyers, but also to make them more relevant to the audience. Many US shows were re-set in the UK, and adult protagonists were usually, though not always, swapped out for kid ones.
For example, the popular US action show The Six Million Dollar Man(1973-8) stars Colonel Steve Austin, who receives bionic implants that give him superhuman abilities and is employed by the fictional Office of Secret Inteligence (OSI) as a secret agent. In 1976 the Fleetway comic Krazy debuted with The 12½p Buytonic Boy, starring Steve Ford (Ford and Austin both being car companies), who buys a tonic from Professor Nutz for twelvepence ha’penny, giving him special powers. He works for the ESS (Everso Secret Service) whose possibly-Communist foes are the NME (a pun on ‘enemy’ and a reference to the New Musical Express magazine, also owned by IPC).
Other US action shows got similar ‘adaptations’, sometimes whether they saw long-term success or not. 1983’s Manimal, about a shapeshifting investigator named Dr Jonathan Chase, got a British schoolboy adaptation in Animalad—though the original show bombed in the ratings, in part due to being opposite Dallas. The latter’s extraordinary popularity in the UK led to the extremely-tenuously-linked strip Junior Rotter (i.e. a reference to ‘J.R.’), a young Texan stereotype and would-be capitalist who frequently attempts to exploit his sister Sue Helen (an in-name-only reference to Sue Ellen from the original show). One of the more interesting things about the strip was that it was set in an extremely British version of the USA, where almost everything except occasional nods to US currency and so on closely resembles the British setting of the other strips. (Remarkably, rival DC Thomson’s comic Nutty also had their own in-name-only J.R. character).
Some strips long outlasted their prototype TV shows. The Beverly Hillbillies (1962-71), about a group of rustic West Virginians who come into money and move to wealthy Beverly Hills as fish out of water, got localised to the UK as The Bumpkin Billionaires, which ran from 1974 to 2000! The latter, mostly drawn by Mike Lacey, changed the concept not only in setting, but also making the British rustics actually dislike their new wealthy lifestyle and try endless ‘get-poor-quick’ schemes to lose money—which predictably result in making them even wealthier. Similar variations were applied to other cash-in adaptations; for example, the blockbuster Jaws film franchise became Gums (1976-84), in which the deadly shark relies on his easily-lost false teeth in order to be able to bite anyone. The beach settings were also sometimes shifted to Australia in order to be more relevant to the British audience. Horror elements could also be injected to liven up an in-name-only parody, as in EastEnders becoming BeastEnders.
Indeed, British shows got unauthorised adaptations alongside their American counterparts. The sitcom The Good Life (1975-8) features Tom and Barbara Good eschewing the modern world in return for self-sufficiency in the London suburb of Surbiton, much to the bemusement of their neighbours Jerry and Margot Leadbetter. The Fleetway version was It’s a Nice Life (1979-87) in which Stan and Barbara Nice do much the same alongside their neighbours Ollie and Maddie Jones. However, the comics did innovate by giving both families children, and having the Nices working out of a caravan rather than their house. A less-well-remembered British show that influenced Fleetway was Here Come the Double Deckers (1970-1) which provided inspiration for The Krazy Gang (1976-1986), the lead strip of Krazy.
One might end this list scoffing at Fleetway’s seeming creative bankruptcy, yet generations grew up being attached to these strips-even kids too young to have seen the programmes they were based on. Today Fleetway’s humour comics are frequently little remembered, yet some try to keep the knowledge alive. In the 2000s Alan Moore, his daughter Leah and her husband John Reppion produced Albion, a celebration of IPC comics’ heroes. Though it emphasised the more action-oriented characters such as Captain Hurricane of Valiant, it also featured cameos from humour comics characters such as the shapeshifter Faceache, and had flashbacks drawn in the style of the Fleetway humour stable.
In 2016, Rebellion Developments (who already own 2000AD) purchased the rights to many of the remaining IPC/Fleetway comics characters. Since then, as well as more high-profile uses of the action-oriented characters, they have released specials featuring the return of Fleetway characters such as Buster, Hit Kid, and Ivor Lott and Tony Broke - but also Gums and some other TV and film influenced characters from back in the day. The specials even introduced a new unauthorised adaptation/parody for the 21st century - US outlaw motorcycle drama Sons of Anarchy has become the pig-themed Swines of Anarchy. 130 years after the first comics from the companies that became Fleetway, long live the memories!
Tom Anderson is the author of SLP books including the Look To The West series (Diverge and Conquer, Uncharted Territory, Equal and Opposite Reactions, Cometh the Hour), The Twilight's Last Gleaming, Not An English Word, The Curse of Maggie, The Unreformed Kingdom, and The Surly Bonds of Earth