I’ve been following Steve Holland’s blog, Bear Alley, for several years for his daily postings on contemporary British comics and the wide range of British comics history he has researched. While there are a few places online that document the rich history of British comics, I’ve found Steve’s blog to be the most dedicated, with in-depth biographies, serialized strips, obituaries, cover galleries, and more. For the last few years, Steve has also been operating as a micro publisher, with Bear Alley Books producing books indexing the history and publication of various titles as well as reprinting whole comics that in some case had only previously been serialized in anthologies. While the American comics industry has many writers, books, magazines, and websites dedicated to its history, Steve is one of the few writers actively recording and preserving the story of the British comics industry, which has now largely vanished.
MATT EMERY: What were the first comics you read?
STEVE HOLLAND: The first comic I can remember reading was Valiant. In fact, I can even remember the circumstances: I was visiting the house of a school friend and his older brother had left his these comics laying around. There was one strip that gripped me straight away: The Steel Claw. In it, a young boy had been tied to the goalpost of a life-size, robot football game, and the hero of the story, Louis Crandell, had to prevent the robots from scoring, as a ball in the back of the net would blow the boy, Blackie, sky high. Crandell had a metal hand which was full of gadgets, including a gun. One of the robots let fly and Crandell, kneeling down, aiming carefully, fired into the ball, deflating it. It flopped into the goal but didn’t set the bomb off. I’ve remembered this scene since the moment I first read it and started buying Valiant myself shortly after. When I had spare pocket money, I’d also buy the 64-page pocket library war stories – usually Air Ace Picture Library, although they were quite expensive at a shilling, which was five pence more than Valiant, which at that time was seven pence. I also remember reading copies of TV21 – the paper built around Thunderbirds, Stingray, Captain Scarlet, and other Gerry Anderson TV shows. When Joe 90: Top Secret was launched I remember buying that as it contained a couple of my favourite (non-Anderson) TV shows: Land of the Giants and The Saint. By 1975 I had pretty much given up on comics, although there always seemed to be something: a pocket library (Top Secret, Starblazer) or weekly (Battle, Vulcan, Action) that kept my interest ticking along.
EMERY: When did you first get involved with writing about comics?
HOLLAND: One of the reasons I gave up on comics in the mid-1970s was because I switched to reading science fiction and began spending my money on magazines like Science Fiction Monthly and, later, American SF mags (Analog, Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction). What drew me back into comics was that my sister had been a fan of Billy Bunter, a humour strip in Valiant, and I’d passed on to her all the issues I’d kept when I moved out of the family home. When it came to her leaving home, she asked me what I wanted to do with this stack of old comics that I’d left for her. I planned to have one last, nostalgic look through them before dumping them, but when I next visited my mum, I ended up taking them with me to the tiny flat that I was living in. Unaware that there was any kind of collecting or fan scene, I asked a friend if he knew of any collectors. He mentioned Denis Gifford, who was, I was to discover, a walking encyclopedia about old British comics. He ran a group called the Association of Comics Enthusiasts (ACE) and issued a monthly newsletter. My first ever writing appeared in the newsletter in 1983, an article about the connections between old British comics and paperback publishers in the years just after the war. I had become interested in old paperbacks through my interest in science fiction and co-wrote a book, Vultures of the Void, completed just before my 21st birthday in April 1983 but which didn’t appear for some years. I started writing more about comics in the late 1980s, for fanzines like the ACE Newsletter, After Image, Golden Fun, Eagle Times, Comic Journal, Book & Magazine Collector and Paperback, Pulp & Comic Collector. I was also involved in the Comic Book Price Guide for Great Britain, which first appeared in 1989, and with Don Lawrence Collection the same year. Around the same time I tried my hand at writing comics, for the DC Thomson pocket science fiction library Starblazer. I managed to sell a couple of scripts before they folded… but I’ve talked about it at huge length elsewhere, so if your readers are interested they can find my Starblazer memories here. I guess there’s a second question that needs answering: “Why did I get into writing about comics (especially as my main interest at the time was science fiction and old paperbacks)?” The simple answer is that the ACE Newsletter wasn’t publishing anything about comics or artists that I remembered from the 1960s. Denis, bless him, was in a bit of a time warp and preferred talking about the comics from his youth, in the 1930s, and those he produced when he became a professional artist in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Denis allowed me a free advert for contributing an article, so I took the opportunity to ask if anyone was interested in old war libraries. A guy called John Clark phoned up; he lived locally, so we were able to meet up and chat about comics. John had a fantastic collection of comics from the 1950s and 1960s, and I plundered them for information, which was how I was able to write knowledgably about comics I didn’t necessarily have myself. It also meant I developed a much broader knowledge of comics than I might have otherwise had.
HOLLAND: I had been working for Look and Learn (http://www.lookandlearn.com/), a picture library that launched in 2005 based around the old educational weekly magazine. One of the things I worked on was a little presentation of some books that could be generated from the material that the company owned. I took it to Titan Books, but it wasn’t their cup of tea. I worked with Look and Learn until January 2008 but have continued to do odd bits and bobs for them ever since. However, I did have time on my hands and a need to earn a living, so I was doing freelance editorial work for various people, mainly for Carlton (for whom I edited 13 books), Book Palace Books (8 books), and the Don Lawrence Collection (for whom I’ve worked on over 30 books since 2004). The original idea for Bear Alley Books was as a way to get some of my old comics’ indexes back into print and possibly to reprint some comic strips. There was a bit of a false start which fizzled out when we discovered that we were being kicked out of the house we’d lived in for seventeen years. I managed to pick up the thread again in late 2010, when I put together the Hurricane / Champion index and published a collection of essays that had originally appeared in Crime Time magazine. That was back in March 2011. In under three years, I’ve published 20 books – book #20 is The Man Who Searched For Fear, published on 31 January. That was part of the attraction for me: I can write, design, publish and market a book without any need for meetings, memos, and having people breathing down my neck. I’d expect that working on a title for a mainstream publisher is tougher because you’re risking more: you have up-front royalty payments to make and your print run is probably in the thousands of copies. You spend months selling the book to the distribution trade to guarantee you’ll see a return for all the money you’re shelling out. Bear Alley Books, on the other hand, can turn around a title in a couple of months, from me thinking “I’d like to work on that next,” to printed book available via the Bear Alley Books website. Mind you, although sales increased last year, there’s still a long way to go before I can actually make a living from it. There are still plenty of downsides to being a small publisher. Although I don’t have the problem of warehousing books and having potential profit tied up in unsold copies, small print runs means higher costs per book and smaller margins than a regular publisher would accept. Being a one-man operation can also mean I’m spread quite thin. On the latest book I wanted to get information out to readers, so I had to stop designing the book to write publicity material; I had planned to write the introduction the next day, but I had to push that back in order to finish designing the book and sort out everything needed on the website through which we take orders. Finally, I got the introduction written and designed on the Friday that I was sending the book off to the printers in order to get a proof copy made… and managed it by the skin of my teeth. Something I’d like to think about in the future is perhaps getting a few other authors involved. There’s no money in it, but it’s very satisfying.
EMERY: Of the Carlton comic reprints that you’ve edited, do you know how successful these were? I wondered particularly about the High Noon and Rick Random collections that reprinted material originated by Amalgamated Press, now owned by DC Comics / Warner Brothers.
HOLLAND: As a freelancer I’m not privy to the sales figures of the books I worked on for Carlton. The fact that they didn’t come back for a second volume of High Noon or Rick Random probably tells you all you need to know. The problem with those books was that they were just too big – they were about two inches thick. A shop like W.H. Smiths is interested in maximising its profit, and if they can display two or three books in the same space, they will. That’s one of the reasons why the later volumes were slimmer.
EMERY: Do you know the extent of what was sold to Warners Brothers / DC Comics of the IPC catalogue? Do you know if they have any interest reprinting or doing anything with this material?
HOLLAND: DC Comics hasn’t bought the old IPC material: their parent company, Time Warner, owns IPC Media, and DC simply took over the licensing of the British comics. I don’t think there’s a lot happening at the moment with the comics; the last reprint I had any involvement in was a Steel Claw collection in Finland in 2012. Obverse Books have a license to produce new Sexton Blake stories, which they will be launching this year, but that’s text rather than comic strips.
EMERY: In a golden age of reprints of comics / newspaper strips / foreign translations, there’s a vast amount of British comics that are inaccessible, other than tracking down the comics themselves. Is there still an audience for this work?
HOLLAND: I think there is, but because we don’t have that tradition of reprinting comic strips in the UK, most of the comic strips haven’t been in print for thirty, forty, and fifty years. The characters you and I might remember from the 1960s won’t mean anything to anyone under 50. Even The Steel Claw and The Spider, which you could call the jewels in the IPC crown, folded after a volume each when Titan tried reprinting them in 2005 / 2006. Despite this, I still think that reprints will work with print runs of a few hundred. Unfortunately, that figure isn’t very attractive to the people who own the single copyright, who like big print runs, because it earns them bigger royalties. Nor is it attractive to mainstream publishers, because they, too, need big print runs to drive down their unit costs.
EMERY: Do you know any of the circulation figures of British comics during their heyday? I always thought taking into consideration the amounts that were sent to British colonies, beyond the domestic distribution, would produce some impressive figures?
HOLLAND: The best-selling comic in the UK was The Beano, which hit a high of 2 million copies a week in the early 1950s. Film Fun reputedly sold 1.75 million copies a week at its peak. All of the popular weekly comics probably sold over 300,000 during the 1950s, although this began to fall away in the 1960s. A popular comic probably sold 200,000-300,000 by the end of the decade; these would have been sustainable levels had the oil crisis not hit in the early 1970s, pushing up costs dramatically. The price of a comic doubled in a matter of a few years, and pocket money didn’t keep pace.
EMERY: Can you tell me a bit about the cartoonist Bill Lacey and the contents of your most recent book, The Man Who Searched for Fear?
HOLLAND: The Man Who Searched for Fear originally appeared in Look and Learn in 1973-74. It ran for 43 weeks, so it must have been quite popular. I read it a couple of years ago when I wanted to find something for the Bear Alley website – I don’t always have time to write something new each day so I’ll often run a comic strip – and it struck me that the premise was an old one from the early 1930s, a story called The House of Thrills, which ran in a boys’ paper called Bullseye. Bullseye was filled with gothic thrillers – headless horsemen, escaped convicts, masked murderers and the like – and this particular series featured a character named John Pentonville, who invited people to his creepy house to tell him stories. Pentonville, like Hugo Masterman in the comic strip, had been mauled by a lion and had lived through such horror that he felt he would never feel that rush of terror again. So Pentonville – and Masterman – offer a reward, which is the jumping off point for a series of thrilling little tales featuring murderers, mechanical marvels, dinosaurs, and plenty of other weird and wonderful things. They’re uncanny in the same sense of Roald Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected. There are two other stories: Agent of the Queen, which is a rollicking spy series set in the mid-19th century, the first story about an attempt to assassinate Queen Victoria at the opening of the Great Exhibition; and an adaptation of Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations. The artist throughout is Bill Lacey, whose work I first came across in Valiant where he was drawing Mytek the Mighty, about a giant mechanical ape. He drew for British comics for over 30 years and was always incredibly reliable. He was never overly flashy, but there’s always a wealth of detail in his panels, and I’ve always had a soft spot for him.
EMERY: You’ve published a few books detailing the histories and lifetimes of certain British comics – Ranger, Lion, and Boy’s World, and others – what are the some of the difficulties you’ve faced in trying to piece together largely undocumented parts of comics history?
HOLLAND: I remember someone telling me that it was like trying to write a history of the Second World War based solely on interviews with a few soldiers! There has been little in the way of organised fandom when it comes to British comics. Eagle / Dan Dare fandom is relatively well organized, and there have been some good fanzines covering a wider variety of comics, but in truth there has been very little what you might call coalface research. For my indexes I try to have access to good runs of the comic in question, as most of the information comes from the comics themselves. I spend a lot of time trying to track down any surviving staff members or the families of late staff members because it’s nice to know something about the people – writers, artists, editors, designers – who entertained many millions of people over the years. It was trying to learn the names of artists whose work I enjoyed as a kid that started me researching comics in the first place. Even a relatively short-lived paper like Boys’ World had over 260 contributors to the weekly and the annual. With almost no records available, trying to identify artists can be a real chore. Sometimes I spend weeks just scanning pictures and sending them around to friends who have a talent for spotting artists’ styles. It’s a painstaking process, but I’m pleased to say that when we’ve been able to confirm information, our guesses have been more often right than wrong. The only other problem then is to try and make the introductions entertaining. By their very nature, they’re quite densely packed with information, and they often introduce dozens of characters the reader may never have heard of. That’s why the indexes are so heavily illustrated, because I like to show at least a couple of panels of every strip. I also try to give each of the books their own unique look… but that’s a layout rather than a research problem. The worst problem is frustration: spending a whole day looking for information on someone and finding nothing. You can’t help but feel it’s a day wasted. But the opposite can happen, too. You can stumble across a name completely unexpectedly: a friend copied me in on some correspondence he was having with a Canadian collector who was interested in Starblazer. He was an animator and mentioned in passing that he had worked with a British artist who had drawn comics in the 1960s before moving to Canada. It was an artist I’d never heard of, but whose work I instantly recognised. Moments like that make up for the days when I feel like I’ve been banging my head on a brick wall.
EMERY: Can you talk a bit about books you have coming up on your publishing schedule? I know you’ve mentioned that an updated edition of the Mike Western biography you published in the ’90s is forthcoming.
HOLLAND: I’ve a few books planned that I want to get working on in 2014. Now that The Man Who Searched for Fear is out, I’m starting work again on the Countdown / TV Action index. Waiting in the wings is my Mike Western biography, which has been partly written for a couple of years. There’s the Valiant index and a couple of collections of strips that I’m waiting on the OK from copyright holders. I rarely know what I’m going to do next. While I’m working on one book, something will pop up – contact with one of the editorial staff, for instance – that will make me bring forward a project and make that the next one to work on. Otherwise I work in blissful ignorance of what I’m going to be doing next.