REFLECTIONS OF A 60’S UK DC COMIC COLLECTOR
by Bob Mandry
In January 1960 a new box was to be found at the leading newsagents in the centre of my home town, Southend. No big hype, no flashy display stand but an assortment of DC comics packed in two dozen (24) bundles with a selection of the leading DC titles of the time. Each comic had a black circular 9d stamp on its cover to enable comic readers know how much they had to pay for the 10cent cover price books. This was part of the first batch of US comics to be unleashed on an unsuspecting British public.
But this was to be a revolution for British comic readers. Our comics were generally much larger in size, without glossy covers, one of the features starting on the cover page and all the inner pages of the comic in black and white. Most UK comics were published weekly and not monthly as in the USA. The idea of a cover picture, to draw you inside the comic to the story featured, did not exist in post-war Britain. Also the features in British comics of the time were mainly two to three page self-contained adventures or two pages of a serial that continued from issue to issue for a period of up to a year. There were two page narrative stories and the necessary adverts, perhaps a news column and a quiz or games section. Most of the strips featured funny animals (e.g. Biffo the Bear), naughty schoolkids (e.g. Dennis the Menace and Minnie the Minx) or sports stories (e.g. Roy of the Rovers). Very little Science Fiction featured in any of the comics. The only British comic of the 50s to have broken away from the mainstream publications was The Eagle, and with its SF hero Dan Dare, had been a runaway success. However The Eagle had peaked n about ’57 & ’58 so there was a gap just waiting to be filled in British comic readers’ lives.
Examples of British comics of the 50s & 60s
Australian versions of the DC range had been in circulation for a couple of years but they again followed the UK tradition of colour covers (not full colour however) and Black & White pages for the rest of the comic. Distribution was very patchy, the comics turning up in sweet shops and other non- newsagent outlets. These did not reproduce the all the contents of the American issue but featured the cover story and then other stories spanning a range of characters. Thus, finding the real American DC comics which had three eight page comic strip stories all devoted to your favourite hero, and in full colour throughout, was mind blowing!!! Set against this background, the cautious experiment that the importers had implemented became an overnight success and soon corner shops and newsagents all over the country had boxes and newsstands with these DC gems on prominent display.
The very early batches that came across were, almost certainly, returns from the States stores. The cover dates of the first two batches were October 1959, 3 months behind the chronological date and were a very random collection of titles, no one two dozen batch being like the next one. Consequently some titles were very rare in the UK, Showcase 22 being a classic example; in fact it was almost non-existent, obviously due to the high take-up in the US stores. Brave & Bold 28 was distributed but again, because of the demand in the US market, much smaller numbers came across to the UK. Gradually as time went on and the success of the venture was assured, the batches became more consistent, with the bundles of comics having the same spread of titles throughout the bundle. Possibly the print run may have been slightly increased to reflect what was entering the UK market. At that time in the UK these early issues commanded quite a premium amongst collectors, which only lessened in the 70s & 80s with the advent of specialised comic shops, conventions and finally the internet and sites like Ebay. Around the end of 1962 the batches became a little inconsistent. For some unknown reason Atom 1 did not arrive over on schedule and was still not here when Atom 2 arrived. We assumed demand had been high in the US and thus we would be unlikely to see it in the UK. Suddenly after Atom 4 had arrived, large supplies of Atom 1 appeared. Similarly the first Brave & Bold Strange Sports arrived after the third issue.At this time we lived with a great amount of uncertainty as to what would appear in the UK and what we would miss, but then things began to settle down again.
Most comic readers in my area were content to buy the comics, read them and then pass them on or sell them to second-hand book shops. However, over the course of the first couple of years about six of us in our locality got to know each other well. We began to seriously collect runs of titles and share information, what little we had, with each other. We struggled to find other sources of the comics. I had cycled round my town noting all the newsagents selling US comics and made a regular fortnightly tour of them all to ensure that we had all the available titles as the batches came in. Most of the shops had the spinner racks that, I think, were provided by Thorpe & Porter the importers & distributors at the time. Other shops laid them out on the lower magazine shelves where they were right in the sightline of youngsters and teenagers. Being a seaside town various shops along the seafront had supplies in the summer months but the spinner racks were out on the pavement in front of the shops. If you didn’t reach these shops quickly for the new batches of comics the sun and wind plus the sea spray rapidly produced faded, crinkled and browned copies, certainly not something that in later years was going to be CGCed!!
The only other source of US comics in the UK was via the American Air Force bases scattered throughout Great Britain. One of my fellow collectors in 62/63 had a contact up at RAF Mildenhall and obtained several copies of Superman ahead of the UK Distribution. These bases had also accounted for a smattering of DC comics in the UK ahead of the 1960 importation. Amongst our small collectors group was a total of three pre-distribution DCs, Action 220, Detective 236 and, amazingly, the 1953 3-D Superman (with original glasses!) which were held in very high regard and were considered very desirable by the rest of the group. The Action & Detective were in a pretty sad state but that did not discourage us at all. I eventually ended up owning all three comics as some of the others gave up collecting when they left for college or university.
Also, as time went on, the three second-hand book shops in Southend began to get quantities of American comics as other readers traded them in to have a few pennies to buy the latest issues. The smaller second-hand shops were generally better than the larger chain stores that had been established around the country particularly with a large number of outlets in Greater London. Unfortunately one group, called Bonus Books, put a large diamond shaped stamp on the cover of each comic giving the address of the outlet and stating that these comics were refundable at half-price once you had read them. The second-hand copies were mostly poorer quality and this large stamp usually meant the kiss of death as regards to a book being placed in a permanent collection!!
The three month differential continued for several years and was frustrating for early collectors. When we read the comics we naturally saw the adverts for different issues and then realised that in the U.S. the comics were released 3 months ahead of the cover date. This meant that in the UK we were running 6 months behind the USA. It became readily apparent that it would be of little use writing to the various letter columns as everything would have moved on significantly. Most frustratingly, when the Editors of The Flash started offering artwork for the best letters received, we knew we hadn’t a chance of getting our hands on this incredible material. We were also unaware of how recent an innovation the letter columns had been.
Because the venture was very experimental only certain titles came across. Whether the decision was taken in the States or in the UK we shall probably never know, but Superhero, Science Fiction and War titles made up the bundles of comics. Romance, Funny Animal and Western comics at that time were obviously not considered a viable option. Tomahawk was the only Western title to make the cut, but the powers that be must have got things right as it was not a popular title with the early collectors. Blackhawk was almost equally ignored by the early readers. Mystery In Space, Strange Adventures and Tales of the Unexpected were far more popular than My Greatest Adventure, House of Secrets and House of Mystery. Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman were very prominent and popular and, because Showcase & Brave & Bold were coming through, we received the titles that arose from those two trial comics. However it was very annoying when trying to build up runs of some titles as we were missing the first few issues with little or no chance of obtaining them. Flash started at 109 (105-108 missing), Lois Lane started at 12 and Challengers at 11. We had missed the start of the Sgt. Rock series by five issues, Adam Strange by two, Space Ranger by three and Supergirl by six. Most galling of all was a Green Lantern run with everything except Showcase 22!!!!
The biggest problem we had as collectors was establishing the history and timeline of the various characters within a series. The appearance of the 80 page Giant Annuals was a real boon to us as they gave us an insight as to what had gone on in the past. The small cover pictures on the back of several Annuals were wonderful and in later years I made a point of collecting the actual comics that had been featured on the Annuals. However, whether it was the recent past or the dim & distant past we had no idea – everything was on one plane only. The few facts we did pick up gave only a very hazy framework of DC history. Superman 1 came out in 1939, Superboy 1 in 1949 were two pillars of fact that we had to hang the rest of the information on. We had no knowledge of the crisis in American comics in the 50s regarding the publication of “Seduction of the Innocent” and also had, initially, no realisation of the Silver Age of comics that we were living through. Certainly the Golden Age was completely unknown. At the time, to a young teenager, 1939 seemed light years in the past and therefore there was no chance of ever obtaining any of this material. Now, on reflection, we were relatively close to the start of the American comics scene and 20 years should not have been so great an obstacle to overcome.
All Superman’s friends and enemies seemed very well established and we, falsely, assumed that they had all been around for the whole period of his existence. It was a great surprise in later years to find out that Brainiac who was always referred to as one of Superman’s most fearsome enemies, on a par with Luthor, had only entered the DC framework in 1958, whereas Luthor had in fact been around since the early years. Similarly to us, Red Kryptonite was as old as Green Kryptonite – how wrong we were!! On reflection, it is disappointing that UK distribution was not started around 1956 as the period between then and 1960 was a very innovative time for the DC line of comics, particularly for their main character, Superman. Lori Lemaris, Kandor, Supergirl, Titano & the Legion of Super Heroes all made their initial appearances during this time.
Essential reading for early British comic collectors
The “imaginary” stories held a great fascination for us as they often revealed something about the existing framework we had not fully realised. Two comics that became almost reference books for us were Superman 146, retelling the origin of Superman, and Giant Batman Annual 1 that had a treasure trove of facts about the Batman framework. Also of great interest was the Secret Origins Annual in 1961 as this filled in a lot of the gaps we had in what was later to be termed the DC Universe. Unfortunately there was a very sparse distribution of this issue and it was not easy to find. Even in the 80s it was listed as a scarce comic in the British comic book price guide produced by Alan Austin.
Fortunately with many of the other titles, particularly those arising from Showcase or Brave & Bold, we were able to build up the history and framework relatively easily as we had not missed many issues. The Giant Flash Annual in 1963 was an absolute “gift from heaven” with the listing inside the back cover of all the Flash issues to date. For the first time we were able to put names to artists and writers, we had only a handful of covers signed by the artists - Kubert, Heath, Andru & Esposito being the main ones. Although we could spot different artist styles we did not know our Wayne Borings from our Murphy Andersons or Kurt Schaffenbergers!!! It was certainly a wise move by DC to put artist and writers credits to the stories in later years. As we gradually trawled the newsletter pages more names emerged, and pages such as the features inside Showcase 34/35 were eagerly “devoured” by our small group. It was interesting in the 70s, when pre-distribution comics were brought into the UK by various individuals, to see the early Brave & Bold comics with the giant banner logo, as none of these had previously been around and, again, we falsely assumed it had always been a tryout comic.
Having initially started by reading Superman & Batman titles, my reading interests gradually moved away from Batman to titles like Justice League of America and the Flash. Batman just didn’t seem right mixing with aliens etc. and it was no surprise when we witnessed the complete revamp of Batman in 1964. By this time I had a reasonable comprehension of the DC Framework and the various artists involved. Carmine Infantino’s superb artwork towered above all the others and it was always great to get his latest offering and see those little trademark touches to his panels – little hands holding text boxes etc. and his futuristic buildings and cities were wonderful. The Brave & Bold Strange Sports set was probably some of the best work he ever did, with the silhouette panels. Curt Swan, Murphy Anderson and Gil Kane were all artists whose work I admired, probably because of the precision with which they drew but I was never a great fan of Joe Kubert’s style. I thought Mike Sekowsky was rather sketchy but now looking at my JLA collection, the only ones I have are the first 35 issues and I would not want to see JLA drawn any other way (This is probably pure nostalgia emerging and not down to any reasoned argument for one artist’s talents over another!!). I preferred the clean artwork with either no speech balloons or just one or two. My favourite comics had been ones such
as Showcase 34, Hawkman 1, Green Lantern 8 and many of the beautiful Heath grey tone covers in Sea Devils.
Classic pure artwork on 60s DC covers
My first dalliance with DC comics was to last until 1967 when I left town to go to teacher training college and there were not the newsagents around with good supplies of comics. Also, by that time, DC was being seriously threatened by Marvel who were bringing new titles onto the market as if there were no tomorrow and everyone was a winner in the eyes of the growing army of UK comic readers. DC seemed to have no answer to the likes of The Fantastic Four, Spiderman, Hulk etc. etc. The Marvel covers were so different to the DC comics I had bought and admired as works of art and I never really latched on to Marvel comics.
In 1966 DC came out with their checks on top of the comics and every cover seemed littered with explosion announcements or arrows posing questions for the reader. These cluttered the artwork for me and was probably one of the reasons I “grew out” of reading comics. I sold all of my original collection, with the exception of the Justice Leagues, to a second hand shop. I made a decision to collect the first hundred JLA, primarily to see what a great issue No. 100 would be – expecting lots of interesting features and pictures etc from the past. I was very disappointed!!! This batch of comics were put into my parents’ loft and I got on with my life and career, gaining a lovely wife and two children along the way.
Why did DC have to clutter their artwork with all these explosion announcements & question arrows?
In 1980 on a trip to London I discovered Comic Showcase and Forbidden Planet, two specific comic shops who were importing the latest American comics as they were released. They also had in depth back issues of pre-distribution DC comics, and seeing these pinned around the walls re-ignited my passion for DC comics. Comic distribution had certainly moved on in my absence!! I went on during the next 10 years to accumulate an even bigger collection than I had had originally. I managed to build up complete runs of Superman & Action comics from 1956 – 1964 in addition to all the titles I had collected in the 60s. They were now in Mylar sleeves as the world seemed to have woken up to significance of these early issues and their value had increased enormously. I still could not obtain the likes of Showcase 4 etc. as these issues were really selling at a premium. All the childhood memories came flooding back as I re-collected these little gems. I probably enjoyed many of the stories even more reading them for a second time. As there was no internet at the time, most of this collection were UK copies with the ugly 9d circular price
Two examples of the ugly price stamp applied to early UK distributed comics
stamp on the cover. This was in ink and while the importers tried to make it unobtrusive, often it was very heavy, sometimes smudged and in a prominent position. They obviously looked for a plain piece of cover to make it stand out, but it ruined the artwork that people like Infantino and Anderson had spent hours creating. I had never liked it back in the 60s and was pleased when in 1965 a smaller, less intrusive stamp was used. I was further encouraged in my second period of collecting, that these stamps had completely disappeared and that DC were either dual pricing covers or producing specific UK priced covers.
However in the mid-eighties I started collecting pre-war Hornby 0 Gauge tinplate trains which were also very expensive. A decision had to be made – comics or trains and I thought the trains had a greater longevity, I could handle them easier without damaging them and I could make a good layout in my office/den. So the second collection of comics was sold to Forbidden Planet in 1989. However I did manage to make a reasonable profit on them which was different to my first collection. I kept about 20 of my favourite issues and these were put away for safe keeping.
In 2001 I moved to London to work in my present position as Verger of Westminster Chapel. In 2005 I called in to see Paul Hudson’s latest Comic Showcase premises in Charing Cross Road. In there I discovered the first two volumes of the ‘DC Showcase presents’ series of reprints from the 60s. I was gripped once again, telling myself I could collect all my favourite stories for a fraction of the price of buying the actual issues. I started collecting these but they were no substitute for the actual comic. I have now re-collected, for the third time, over 800 of those early issues but this time have added classics such as Showcases 4,8,13,14 and 22 to enable me to have the runs that were not available to me back in the 60s. Also with the availability of the internet and sites such as Ebay, every comic in my collection is a States copy without the intrusive British price stamp. I have been able to explore in depth the pre-distribution issues and so, in what will hopefully be my final collection, have an interesting array of late Golden Age comics in addition to the Silver Age comics that have given me so much pleasure over the past 50 years. The cost of acquiring this latest collection has been enormous in comparison to what I paid out in the 60s and even in the 80s. However having collected to a minimum VG+ standard, they all look reasonable and should hold their value. It is interesting to note that when I go through the collection, looking at the covers of the ones I collected in the 60s, many of them bring back the time and place that I bought them. Snippets of conversations between the members of our group about our likes & dislikes of a particular issue resurface and I discover a hoard of precious memories of when DC comics were in their infancy in the UK. And there is a bonus, I’ve still got the Hornby trains, so I’ve ended up with the best of both worlds!!