The cover of the Smash! annual 1969
|Publisher||International Publishing Corporation|
|Publication date||February 1966 – April 1971|
|Number of issues||257|
|Writer(s)||Various including Stan Lee, Al Plastino|
|Artist(s)||Various including Jack Kirby, Bill Everett, Wally Wood, Whitney Ellsworth, Leo Baxendale, Ken Reid, Mike Higgs, Mike Brown, Geoff Campion, Eric Bradbury, Solano Lopez, John Stokes|
|Editor(s)||Alfred Wallace (Alf), Albert Cosser (Cos)|
Smash! was a weekly British comic, published in London by Odhams Press Ltd from 64 Long Acre and subsequently by IPC Magazines Ltd from (initially) 189 High Holborn and (latterly) Fleetway House in nearby Farringdon Street.
It ran for 257 issues, between 5 February 1966 and 3 April 1971 (although, due to strikes and industrial disputes, publication was not continuous during that period). It then merged into Valiant. The Smash! Annual continued to appear each year until 1975; the final Annual, cover-dated 1976, was published in October 1975.
As with all of the Power Comics, Smash! included black-and-white reprints of superhero strips which had been originally published in America by Marvel Comics and DC Comics. The last of the American strips, the Fantastic Four, ended in issue 162 in the spring of 1969.
Smash! was sized 9.75" x 12" (#1-162) and 9.25" x 12" (#163-257), and had a four-colour cover and black-and-white interior.
- 1 Publication history
- 2 Odhams Years
- 3 SMASH after Odhams
- 4 Merger with Valiant
- 5 References
- 6 External links
- 7 Further reading
Smash was owned by IPC, the International Publishing Corporation, a company formed in 1963 by Cecil Harmsworth King, chairman of the Daily Mirror and Sunday Pictorial (later the Sunday Mirror), through a series of corporate mergers. All the comics published by IPC were under the control of one or other of the subsidiary companies brought together to form IPC, including Fleetway Publications Ltd and Odhams Press.
The Power Comics line, including Smash, was published by IPC's Odhams Press division under a three-man editorial team known as Alf, Bart and Cos. Alfred Wallace ("Alf") was the managing editor at Odhams, and Albert Cosser ("Cos") was the editor directly responsible for Smash. Major changes of editorial policy occurred in 1969 for financial reasons, and again in 1970 when IPC was taken over by Albert E Reed to form the publishing giant Reed International.
Launched on 5 February 1966, Smash became part of the Power Comics line during 1967. On 14 September 1968, with issue 137, it merged with Pow! (which had previously absorbed Wham). On 2 November 1968, with issue 144, it merged with Fantastic (which had previously absorbed Terrific), to become Smash and Pow incorporating Fantastic.
On 1 January 1969 Smash ceased to be published by Odhams Press Ltd, and was thereafter published by IPC Magazines Ltd (an IPC subsidiary formed during 1968). On 15 March 1969 it was relaunched without its American superhero strips. Further changes followed during the course of 1969 and at the start of 1970. The final issue was published on 3 April 1971. It then merged into Valiant, forming Valiant and Smash.
When the American run of Hulk adventures had been used up, Odhams turned to the Hulk's 'guest star' roles in Fantastic Four and The Avengers; these other Marvel heroes proved equally popular. Then, from issue 76 in July 1967, Daredevil replaced the Hulk, as Smash had exhausted all the original Hulk stories, from all sources, which Marvel had published in the USA up to that point.
Prior to this, however, a month after the Hulk's debut DC's Batman became the second American superhero to debut in Smash, crashing onto the front page of issue 20, in reprints from American newspaper strips: credited in-page to Batman creator Bob Kane but actually drawn by Whitney Ellsworth and ghost-written by Al Plastino. This was a response to the sudden popularity of the Batman television series starring Adam West. The enormous impact of this hit TV series led to the Batman strip retaining the front cover of Smash, in colour, for better than a year and a half, entitled 'Batman, with Robin the Boy Wonder'.
Initially, this syndicated newspaper strip adopted the camp style of the Adam West television series, with appearances by humorous guest stars such as American funnyman Jack Benny. In the later part of the run (which featured serious, rather than camp, stories) Batgirl, too, appeared in the strip, with Batman initially believing her to be a criminal rather than a crime fighter. Superman then co-starred in the strip, which was retitled Superman and Batman with Robin the Boy Wonder, as Batman and Robin attempt to save Superman from the diabolical Professor Zinkk who was secretly poisoning him with kryptonite.
In September 1968 the Fantastic Four began a brief six-month run, when Smash incorporated Pow (which had previously merged with Wham, in which the strip had initially featured). They were introduced to readers of Smash with the wedding of Reed and Sue from Fantastic Four Annual #3. Their adventures continued with 'Defeated by the Frightful Four', and ran through to 'Lo, There Shall Be an Ending' (the final Marvel strip to appear in Smash). Thor began a short run in November 1968, when Smash absorbed Fantastic. The stories, continued from Fantastic, began with 'The Ringmaster's Circus of Crime'.
The financial crisis which overtook Odhams in 1968, resulting in the closure of all the other Power Comics, now caused them to give up the expensive licence to reprint the Marvel superhero stories. This decision took effect in March 1969, when the licence came up for renewal; the final Marvel strips appeared in issue 162. The expensive Batman newspaper strip had already been discontinued, ending in issue 157.
Odhams Humour Strips
There were typically a dozen humour strips in each of the first 162 issues.
The initial line-up starred The Man From B.U.N.G.L.E., which usually occupied the front cover prior to issue 20, supported by seven other long-running humour strips (Charlie's Choice, Bad Penny, Percy's Pets, The Nervs, The Swots and the Blots, Ronnie Rich and Grimly Feendish - more about these below), and featuring also four strips which didn't last long, namely Danger Mouse, Space Jinx, Queen of the Seas, and The Tellybugs.
As the popularity of the Batman television series faded, Batman and Robin yielded the front cover to The Swots and the Blots, a humour strip in which the two rival gangs vied to outwit each other at Pond Road School, with 'Teach' caught in the crossfire. In subsequent years this strip, one of the few to survive all the changes at IPC in 1969 and 1970, reached a standard of excellence when Leo Baxendale began drawing it for the new-look Smash in 1969, but even during the Odhams years it had wit and a sense of style.
Its origins lay in Baxendale's earlier classroom-based strip, The Tiddlers, which had run in Wham from 1964, and which had been similar to Baxendale's even earlier Bash Street Kids strip from The Beano. The Tiddlers continued in Pow when Wham merged with it in 1968, combining with The Dolls of St. Dominics characters, where the strip was renamed The Tiddlers and The Dolls.
Leo Baxendale's The Man from BUNGLE was a spin-off from his Eagle-Eye Junior Spy strip in Wham (which Smash absorbed during 1968), spoofing the popular TV series The Man from UNCLE. BUNGLE was a secret spy organisation in Britain, organised along more chaotic lines than UNCLE, featuring a secret agent who employed a wide variety of hugely unlikely gadgets in his fight against his humorous opponents. Baxendale only drew the first few editions, which appeared as large single illustrations on the early covers of Smash. After that, Mike Lacey took over the art.
A second spin-off from Baxendale's Eagle-Eye strip was Grimly Feendish, the rottenest crook in the world. Feendish had been the most popular character in the earlier strip, thanks to his ghoulish appearance, which was based on Uncle Fester in the American television series The Addams Family.
Bad Penny was another memorable Baxendale creation. The strip's title logo featured a portrait of Penny herself, alongside the 'Bad Penny' caption, and an illustration of a giant (pre-decimal) One Penny coin (this last suggesting the connection with the proverb from which the character's name originated). She had some similarities with Baxendale's earlier Minnie the Minx character in The Beano. However, Bad Penny was nevertheless so popular that she survived the changes of 1969, and continued to appear in the new Smash. When the strip was eventually dropped, in 1970, Bad Penny herself continued to appear in the new Smash, albeit infrequently, making occasional appearances in Baxendale's The Swots and the Blots strip, as a new member of the Blots.
As had happened in Wham, artists such as Mike Lacey were commissioned from time to time to "ghost" Baxendale's style, although Baxendale was allowed to sign his work on Smash so there is an easy way to distinguish which strips he personally drew, before he left Odhams. After Leo transferred to Fleetway he still submitted work to Smash!, but now 'undercover', without signature. In his autobiography 'A Very Funny Business' (Duckworth 1978) Leo explains, "I was in a delightful situation. Working under my own name, a lot was expected of me. Publishers expected me to cram my drawings with funny detail. A double standard operated. Working undercover, I was able to reduce the layouts to the simplest terms. Backgrounds were minimal or non-existent - just a horizon line. And there was no ancillary comic detail - just the characters acting out the story line against an empty backdrop." (p91 AVFB)
The most bizarre of the Odhams humour strips was The Nervs, about a group of little characters inhabiting a schoolboy called Fatty: the strip showed them running Fatty like a group of workers running a factory. Initially written and drawn by the ubiquitous Leo Baxendale, and for the majority of its run drawn by Graham Allen, in its final year of 1968-9 Ken Reid (who had earlier contributed the 'Dare-a-Day Davy' strip to Pow) drew this double-page feature. Reid turned it into an extremely surreal, even visceral, strip; achieving a rare level of hilarity and bawdiness, in a subversive presentation of comical horror - and in the process alarming IPC's management! 
The Cloak was another secret agent strip, continuing in Smash after the 1968 amalgamation with Pow in which it had begun. The Cloak was the top agent for Britain's Special Squad, nominally a part of Scotland Yard; but he usually operated from his personal headquarters, known as the Secret Sanctum. His ingenuity and never-ending supply of gadgets and secret weapons gave him the edge over his somewhat odd enemies (some were very odd, including Deathshead and various other agents of G.H.O.U.L.).
He had some equally odd colleagues. Assisted initially by Mole (the tall one with the bald head, big nose and specs) and Shortstuff (the short squirt with the hairy nut and big eyeballs), he then began having adventures in which he found himself also alongside the sexy and flirtatious Lady Shady, the shady lady. The strip benefited from the unusual, idiosyncratic drawing style of Mike Higgs, whose overt inclusion of pop culture imagery made the strip seem extremely modern.
Wiz War, drawn by Mike Brown, had also begun in Pow, and would be one of the handful of strips to survive the changes of 1969. Brown seems to have been unaware of the house rule banning artists from signing their work, as the strip often bore his name. The "War" in the title referred to a feud between two wizards, Wizard Prang and his enemy Demon Druid. Being a humour strip, the editorial staff allowed the hero the very silly name of Wizard Prang, a piece of RAF slang from the Second World War.
Other than the fact that Wizard Prang was robed entirely in white, befitting his status as the good guy, and Demon Druid was always in black, being the villain of the piece, their costumes were quite similar - a flowing wizard's robe with stars, and a pointed hat. They would fly around on broomsticks, zapping each other with spells: which turned the other into a toad, or something equally amusing. Wizard Prang was alternately helped and hindered by Englebert, his pet bird. The best feature of the strip was the sign above Wizard Prang's front door. This usually read "Wizard Prang is... In" (if he was at home) or "Wizard Prang is... Out" (if he was out and about); but if he'd had a bad time in the story, the sign would often make a humorous remark in the final panel, such as "Wizard Prang is... All At Sea".
Sammy Shrink was a humour strip about a boy who was only two inches tall. Sammy had the most chequered career of all the characters in Smash, having originated in Wham, then moved to Pow when they merged, arriving in Smash when it in turn absorbed Pow, and would subsequently be revived in Knockout, finally ending his career in Whizzer and Chips when it absorbed Knockout in June 1973.
Ronnie Rich featured the richest kid in the world, who stands to inherit a fortune if only he can get rid of the money he's got. Drawn by Gordon Hogg, each week Ronnie spent his every last penny, in some reckless or extravagant way, only to have his scheme backfire and make him richer than ever. He never did get his hands on the fortune.
Last, but by no means least, was Percy's Pets by Stan McMurtry (alias Mac) which would make sporadic reappearances from time to time in the new Smash, after March 1969. Percy was a small plump schoolboy, who filled his family's home with his exotic collection of pets. These included (from time to time) an elephant, a giraffe, a hippopotamus, a snake, an ape - in fact almost every type of animal that might be found in a typical zoo - together with a parrot, a tortoise, a white mouse, and a hedgehog; thereby causing a predictable degree of chaos for his long suffering mum and dad.
Odhams Adventure Strips
As Smash was essentially a superhero and humour comic, there were few adventure strips in it during the Odhams years; but a handful of strips do bear special mention.
From issue 144 Smash was the only surviving Power Comic, as this was the issue in which Smash and Pow merged with Fantastic. Three new adventure serials were introduced in this issue to plug the gap left by the loss of the withdrawn superhero strips, which had been major features of the four closed titles.
'At Night Stalks... The Spectre' was an adventure strip in which Jim Jordan, a crime reporter on the Daily Globe newspaper, had apparently been killed while investigating a news story. In reality he was now fighting crime, rather than merely reporting it, by using an array of gadgets which made it seem he was the ghost of the missing reporter. Hence his opponents were terrified to find that if they shot him he didn't die (a bullet-proof raincoat was the trick there). And he had a secret underground hideout beneath the statue erected in his memory, from which he would covertly and unexpectedly emerge, or disappear into, under cover of an artificial fog, to give the impression he was coming and going from the spirit world. His first case began in issue 144, in which he tracked down Black Murdo, the racketeer who the world believed had murdered him.
'Destination Danger', a motor racing serial, also began in issue 144. This strip was about a feud between a young English racing driver, Jeff Jackson, who was working for Puma Motors in the USA, and his enemy Vic Stafford, the Puma team's chief driver, who has taken a bribe to throw a forthcoming race.
Although new to Smash, the old-fashioned artwork in the strips 'At Night Stalks... The Spectre' and 'Destination Danger' marked them out as reprints. The use of reprints was a cost-cutting measure, indicating the straightened financial circumstances of Smash at this point - if any evidence were needed beyond the closure of all four of the other Power Comics.
An adventure strip with a sporting theme was the wrestling serial 'King of the Ring', featuring Ken King, who was a champion of the grunt-'n'-grapple game (although in the earliest strips he had begun as a boxer). As was not exactly uncommon in the Odhams years, there was a tendency to give the characters very silly names. The most outrageous example in this strip was King's manager, who was called Blarney Stone!
Blarney's real name was originally Tim Stone, and Blarney was only a nickname; but this was soon forgotten. In order to fulfil Ken's ambition to travel, Blarney agrees to manage him on a world tour, if he'll agree to fight his way round the world! This strip, too, commenced in issue 144.
The fourth was 'Brian's Brain', an adventure serial with science fiction elements, which was continued from Pow. This featured two schoolboys: the eponymous Brian and his friend Duffy Rolls. Brian Kingsley possessed an electronic Brain resembling a human skull, which he carried about in a box. It could communicate with him telepathically, glowing when active; and it could control the actions of animals if they were within a few yards, which was the limit of its brain-wave transmissions.
All of the four strips were serials, with cliff-hanger endings each week.
The Closure of the Power Comics
Following the initial success of Wham in 1964, Odhams launched four more Power Comics during 1966 and '67, including Smash, only to close them in quick succession: merging each in turn into the survivors, until by 1969 only Smash remained. Whereas 1968 began with all five Power Comics apparently flourishing, by the year's end only Smash was still being published. Even the sleepiest of readers began to notice that something was seriously wrong, as the increasingly frantic series of mergers resulted in ever more ludicrous titles, culminating in the astonishing Smash and Pow incorporating Fantastic (commonly spoofed as Smash, Pow, Wham, incorporating Fantastic and Terrific).
The question is why, in a limited market such as the UK, they took such a big risk as to launch five titles (which in hindsight looks an unwise decision by the Odhams management), if it was so quickly obvious the market could only support one. The answer lies in the economic crisis of 1968 that hit the British economy, resulting in the devaluation of the Pound. The economic chaos began with a Sterling crisis in Britain in 1967, leading to devaluation in the November. There then followed a crisis for the U.S. dollar in March 1968 which had a cascade effect on the international economic system: sending first the French franc and then the West German deutschmark into devaluation, and culminating in a new Sterling crisis in Britain in November 1968.
The fall in the value of the Pound against the U.S. dollar significantly increased the cost of publishing the American superhero strips, as these had to be paid for in dollars, and raised the spectre of further increases to follow if the Pound fell in value yet again. Increasing the cover price of Smash was impossible because of stiff competition, so the fall in the value of Sterling made the American strips unaffordable.
As an illustration of the nature of the UK market, when launched in February 1966 Smash cost 7d for 28 pages. By March 1969, although its cover price had not changed, competition from other publishers' titles had resulted in the page count increasing, such that each issue contained 36 pages, with a consequent rise in production costs and decline in profit-per-copy. The competitive nature of the UK's publishing industry meant margins were thin: a minimum number of sales each week were needed to reach break-even point, and the lower the cover price, the higher the number of sales that were needed to reach that point; but the higher the cover price, the fewer the number of sales that could actually be achieved.
The toughness of the competition is apparent from examining other contemporary titles. The first issue of its stablemate Fantastic, published in February 1967, cost 9d for 40 pages, a cover price which forced Fantastic to close within 18 months. Terrific also had a cover price of 9d, and closed even quicker. In comparison, the comics Dandy and Beano published by the rival DC Thomson organisation sold at a cover price of 3d. Fantastic and Terrific cost three times as much, which (even with a higher page count) proved unsustainable. This is not surprising, given that Wham and Pow each peaked at a cover price of 7d, and even that proved unsustainable.
The juvenile readers (or their parents) might be able to afford two or three comics a week, but by publishing five Power Comics IPC were effectively pricing themselves out of the market. For the situation in Britain was not like that in America, where, with comics published just once a month, a child might afford five titles. In Britain, comics were published weekly.
Under those conditions the Power Comics were effectively competing with each other, and they were also competing with IPC's other titles, including Lion, Valiant and Buster, thus potentially dragging the Group's entire line into bankruptcy. Rationalisation, by closing some of the titles, would produce an overall benefit, as it would dramatically cut IPC's production costs. Although it would mean fewer titles, since IPC's comics were actually competing against each other it ought to result in better sales for the survivors. In theory, there would be no overall loss of sales or revenue, provided readers switched from the closing titles to surviving IPC ones (rather than to rival DC Thomson ones).
Another factor Odhams had not anticipated was the distribution of American comic books within the UK. Although this had always been a consideration, the volume of such comics arriving in Britain had traditionally been small, and their distribution haphazard. In 1968, distribution and quantity suddenly underwent a marked improvement. Odhams' black-and-white Marvel reprints in their Power Comics range suddenly faced serious competition from four-colour Marvel and DC originals, and this began to harm sales.
In the turbulent economic conditions, any part of IPC's business which was loss-making had no future: losses on the four Power Comics that failed so quickly that year (Pow, Wham, Fantastic and Terrific) were unsustainable. The closures were a cost-cutting exercise, to reduce the on-going production costs by four-fifths. As for the accumulated losses, Smash, as the sole survivor, couldn't hope to generate enough income on its own to pay these off. But it didn't need to. The fortunate circumstance that the loss making Power Comics were all owned by Odhams Press Ltd, a subsidiary company with limited liability, meant that it was possible to ring-fence the losses within that one company, thus preventing its debts affecting the rest of the IPC Group (since IPC's other titles were all published by other IPC subsidiaries). Accordingly, with effect from 1 January 1969 Smash was transferred to IPC Magazines Ltd, a new IPC subsidiary formed during 1968, leaving the defunct Odhams Press to go bankrupt, while Smash started again from scratch.
Despite being the longest survivor, and inheriting the most popular of the strips from the other four titles, Smash was only a limited success. It was plainly on shakey ground: for, hard on the heels of the closure of the other titles, in the spring of 1969 IPC quickly made extensive changes to it, dropping the last remaining Marvel superhero strips, to shed the expense of the licensing fee for using them (having already dropped Batman), and dropping many other strips too.
In consequence of the decision to discontinue the American reprints, as each Power Comic closed its superhero strips were dropped. Only in the case of Fantastic, where the existing contract with Marvel had some months to run, were those strips transferred to the replacement, the merged Smash incorporating Fantastic, until the contract expired in March 1969.
Smash then introduced a new cover feature, new strips, and free gifts. In all but name it was a new comic. Even so, it required yet another major shakeup 12 months later, in the spring of 1970, when further changes of editorial policy were imposed by new owners Reed International, who had bought out IPC that year. This resulted, among other changes, in the dropping of the newly introduced 'Warriors of the World' cover feature in favour of a new lead serial: an adventure series entitled 'The Thirteen Tasks of Simon Test'.
Within the British market, boys' comics for the age group which was too old for titles such as Beano, Dandy and Sparky tended to focus around adventure, sport and war (in titles such as Lion and Valiant), or humour (in titles such as Buster). In abandoning its superheroes, Smash sought to attract readers of both types, by offering adventure as well as humour.
To place these changes in context, the Power Comics were not the only casualties of the turmoil at IPC in 1969. Hulton's long-running adventure comic Eagle was also cancelled, merging with Fleetway's Lion from 2 May 1969. The merged comic was known briefly as Lion and Eagle, but quickly reverted to simply Lion. The humour comic, Giggle, aimed at the slightly younger market dominated by Fleetway's Buster, was also dropped, being absorbed by Buster in the spring of 1969 to form Buster and Giggle. As ever, the name change lasted only long enough to absorb the discontinued comic's readership, with the reference to Giggle failing to see out the year; by December the title had reverted to simply Buster once more. Buster, like Smash, also now became a publication of the Group's newest subsidiary, IPC Magazines Ltd.
Turmoil in 1967
The events of 1968 were not even the first threat to the survival of the Power Comics lineup. Odhams had faced their first serious crisis in May 1967. The editorial page warned readers in issue 68 that Smash, initially printed by St Clements Press Ltd of London, had to find new printers within one month, or face closure. In the event, Odhams were able to sign a contract with Southernprint Ltd of Poole in Dorset in time to maintain publication.
SMASH after Odhams
In January 1969 Odhams ceased to exist as a publishing imprint, and Smash became an IPC Magazines publication. Most of the consequences of this change didn't become apparent until the 15 March issue, in which the comic changed drastically. In doing so, it became the last ever British comic to feature a variety mix of adventure, humour and sports-themed stories. Subsequent boys' comics contained exclusively sports, or war, or humour strips; such as Scorcher and Score and Shoot (which featured only football), or Action and Battle (which featured only war stories).
The symbol of the change was the new cover feature, Warriors of the World, replacing The Swots and Blots who had occupied the cover during the final part of the Odhams years. Happily, The Swots and the Blots survived (and prospered) on the inside pages, drawn by Leo Baxendale; where they attained a new, deliriously daft, high standard, one rarely approached by other strips.
With the first relaunch issue bearing a cover feature entitled Warriors of the World No.1, the practice of numbering the issues was discontinued. From issue 163 onward they bore only a cover date. To have continued the original sequential numbering alongside the 'Warriors of the World' series would only have caused confusion.
The revamped Smash, now comprising 40 pages, featured new all-British strips - adventure serials, humour strips and sporting strips - alongside reprints from Lion, such as Eric the Viking (originally 'Karl the Viking'), The Battle of Britain (originally 'Britain in Chains'), and Nutt and Bolt, the Men from W.H.E.E.Z.E.; and alongside reprints from Buster, such as Wacker (originally Elmer); but strictly no American superheroes. The number of reprint strips was another significant indicator of its troubled financial situation.
Of the former Odhams strips, only a handful survived. Humour strips which continued were The Swots and the Blots, Wiz War, Bad Penny, and Percy's Pets (though Percy did not appear every week). Much mourned were the loss of The Cloak and The Man from BUNGLE, dropped due to the waning popularity of spy spoofs (in 1968 even the TV series The Man from UNCLE had been cancelled); and especially mourned was the loss of The Nervs.
The serious offerings fared even worse. For although the survivors appeared to include Sergeant Rock - Paratrooper and Bunsen's Burner, in reality neither of these were genuinely from the Odhams era. Both had begun only a few weeks earlier, in issues 156 and 158 respectively. They were really a part of the relaunch, but were introduced slightly ahead of time to disguise that fact. The only genuine survivor from the adventure strips of the Odhams years was King of the Ring, although even that had only begun with issue 144, in November 1968.
After a few months, superheroes appeared to be making a comeback; for the Editorial column admitted receiving complaints from readers about the loss of the Marvel strips. Consequently, six months after the Fantastic Four and Thor had been dropped, in the autumn of 1969 an all-British superhero called Tri-Man appeared, and the character also featured in the Smash Annual that Christmas. Some indication of the effort put into this character is the fact that he was given sole possession of the front cover of the Annual! The adventures of Johnny Meek featured a hero who had triple-superpowers, hence the name Tri-Man. He leaped about rooftops (shades of Spider-Man, from the long-vanished Pow), and got his powers from a ray device once every 24 hours (shades of DC's 'Green Lantern'). But the character did not prove popular, and quietly vanished in the reshuffles of 1970.
In the light of how few strips of any sort survived from the Odhams era, and given that none of the superhero strips survived at all (which, according to the Letters pages, were the most popular feature of the Power Comics), it may be somewhat stretching the truth to say that Smash inherited the best of the Odhams strips. Stylistically, The Swots and the Blots was the most creative and sophisticated Odhams strip (save only The Nervs), and it did survive. But it was only one strip. And The Nervs, which was objectively a more sophisticated strip in 1968, did not.
IPC Humour Strips
As under Odhams, humour continued to play a large part. With the relaunch, The Swots and the Blots (one of the handful of surviving Odhams strips) became a standard bearer for sophisticated artwork, as Leo Baxendale began a three year run (spanning both Smash and its successor, Valiant and Smash) by adopting a new style, one which influenced many others in the comics field, just as his earlier Beano work had done.
New humour strips featured in the relaunch included a half-page cartoon strip entitled Big 'Ead, detailing the humorous misadventures of a Mr Knowall character, summed up by the strip's catchphrase, continually bellowed at the lead character by his irate victims: "Have a care there, Big 'Ead!"
Wacker was a single page cartoon strip, subtitled He's All at Sea. It concerned the crazy antics in the Royal Navy of Mis-leading Seaman Wacker, who was forever driving the Captain of HMS Impossible towards a nervous breakdown. This strip was new to Smash, but had previously appeared in Buster, where its original title had been Elmer.
Another humour strip new to Smash was the World War Two spoof, Nutt and Bolt, the Men From W.H.E.E.Z.E. Set in 1940, this featured an English scientist named Professor Nutt, who was a boffin inventing eccentric secret weapons for a department of the War Office known as W.H.E.E.Z.E. (short for Weapon Handling Early Experimental and Zoning Establishment), who was kept out of trouble by his Army "minder", Sgt 'Lightning' Bolt. Nutt and Bolt were perpetually clashing with a cunning Nazi scientist named Doktor Skull. This was another reprint strip, perhaps from Lion. As its title implies, it was born out of the earlier popularity of the Man From UNCLE television series. However, the strip had only a short run in Smash, being replaced after just 22 issues.
Yet it was not only in the plainly cartoon-style strips that humour flourished in the new Smash. Many of the ostensibly more serious offerings were, in reality, humour strips: in particular, His Sporting Lordship and The World Wide Wanderers; but there was also a strong humorous undercurrent in the new lead serial, Master of the Marsh.
IPC Sporting Strips
Sporting strips were now the order of the day. Reflecting this, the new lead, on page 3, was Master of the Marsh, a sports serial about Patchman, a strange hermit who lived in the East Anglian fens. He was appointed as the new sports master at Marshside Secondary School, nicknamed 'The Marsh', as he was the only person who could control the kids - a group of hooligans known as 'the Monsters of the Marsh'. There was an association of ideas between fens and marsh, reinforced by the fact that Patchman camped in the inaccessible heart of the marshes. He was a burly woodsman who had always lived in the Fens, and could communicate after a fashion with the local wildlife, for whom he acted as a guardian.
The strip initially featured humorous stories about the attempts of Knocker Reeves - the worst of the 'monsters' - to get the better of the new teacher. But eventually it transpired that Patchman was secretly the guardian of a collection of relics left behind by Hereward the Wake, a warlord who had fought the Norman invaders in the Fens during the 11th Century. In this respect, the strip had an occasional tendency to embrace science fiction overtones.
Of all the sports-based stories, the only survivor from the Odhams years was King of the Ring, which continued to prosper. Possibly feeling that the strip was suffering in the credibility stakes, the new editorial team made a decision to change the name of King's manager, who bore the remarkable name (actually a nickname) of Blarney Stone! They threw Blarney out of the series and substituted a new manager with a less silly name. 'Ballyhoo Barnes' wasn't all that much less silly, but it's the thought that counts! Even so, Blarney reappeared after a few weeks, by popular demand.
The most successful of the new sports-based strips (certainly the most long-running!) was His Sporting Lordship. This humorous hit proved so popular that it ultimately became one of the few to outlast Smash itself. Henry Nobbins had been a labourer on a building site until he inherited the title of Earl of Ranworth and five million pounds. Before he could touch the money, however, he had to become champion at a number of sports. He also had to evade the nefarious attentions of Mr Parkinson, who was a rival claimant to the fortune, and Parkinson's villainous henchman, Fred Bloggs.
Lord Henry, as he had now become, was more than ably assisted by his Butler, Jarvis, who he had inherited from the previous Earl. And Jarvis proved indispensable. Henry was never portrayed as anything other than an able athlete and a good natured bloke, leaving Jarvis to supply the cunning which was (frequently) needed to defeat the dasterdly Mr Parkinson, and prevent Henry's ancestral home, Castle Plonkton, from being turned into a glue factory.
The relaunch included a short-lived football strip entitled The World-Wide Wanderers, about a League football team composed of eleven players from eleven different countries - not such a funny joke today! Football manager Harry Kraft found himself a passenger on a ship passing through the Suez Canal; ships from all over the world called there, and the crews conducted impromptu soccer matches to while away the time in port. Some of the crews had been stranded there, and constant soccer practice (since there was nothing else to do) had caused them to develop fantastic footballing skills. Kraft shipped eleven of them, from as many different countries, back to England; and they used their highly unorthodox individual skills to play as a team in the old Fourth Division.
IPC Adventure Strips
The other staple of the new Smash was adventure serials, and the most successful of these was The Incredible Adventures of Janus Stark, featuring an escapologist in Victorian London who appeared to be simply an unusual act on the music-hall stage, but who privately used his extraordinary abilities to battle against injustice. Stark had an unusually flexible bone structure, enabling him to get out of an astonishing variety of tight situations at need, thanks to training received in childhood from his mentor, Blind Largo. Drawn by Solano Lopez, there was more than a touch of Reed Richards, from the departed Fantastic Four strip, in Stark's uncanny abilities. The strip was one of the few to survive the merger of Smash into Valiant in 1971, and is still well remembered today.
This strip brings up the matter of economics once more. Solano Lopez was a foreign illustrator, born in the Argentine, who worked at a studio in Spain. For reasons of cost, IPC had taken a policy decision to source artwork from cheaper sources outside the UK. Along with the presence in the new Smash of reprint strips, this is yet another indicator of the financial pressure the comic was still under, and the absolute necessity of cutting production costs to the bone in order to make it financially viable.
Another long-running adventure strip was The Battle of Britain, in which secret agent Simon Kane fought against Baron Rudolph, a usurper who had seized control of Britain using a secret weapon. The weapon emitted a sound wave which paralysed anyone who wasn't protected against it. Rudolph set up a police state, similar in emblems and uniforms to medieval England at time of King John, and Kane led the resistance against him.
In spite of the title, the strip had no connection with the Second World War! Drawn by John Stokes, it was in fact a reprint; hence it, too, was an indication of the comic's troubled financial status (reprints being significantly cheaper than commissioning a new strip). It originally ran in Lion from 1964, under the titles Britain in Chains and The Battle for Britain, where the hero was called Vic Gunn. The editorial staff of Smash took a decision to change the names of the leading characters from Gunn and Barrel (i.e. gun barrel), to slightly less absurd ones; and so were born secret agent Simon Kane and his assistant Tubby. This had been a very long-running strip in Lion, such that Smash actually ceased publication - in April 1971 - before it had reprinted the entire run from Lion, and in the final issue created a new ending to the serial.
Rebbels on the Run was another adventure serial, featuring three young brothers whose surname was Rebbel, who had run away from an orphanage to avoid being split up. After a few months on the run, the strip took an amazing turn and - renamed 'The Rebbel Robot' - became a science fiction serial, when the boys discovered that their late father's mind was preserved within the brain of a robot, which became their unofficial guardian. With it they embarked on a quest to track down a criminal known as The Genie, who had murdered their real father (who turned out to be an undercover agent for the Government).
Two of the new adventure strips - Sergeant Rock, Paratrooper and Bunsen's Burner - had been introduced five or six weeks early, in an attempt to conceal how few Odhams strips had actually survived, by making these appear to be existing strips although they were not. World War Two was the setting for the former, which recounted the adventures of the Red Devils of the Parachute Regiment. Initially, Sgt Rock was merely a narrator, introducing stories featuring other characters, so that it was actually tales-of-the-parachute-regiment, rather than tales of Sgt Rock himself. Presumably this was a device for reprinting old war stories from other comics. The strip was reasonably successful, running for a year, and eventually featured Sergeant Rock as more than just the narrator, sending him into action with the SAS, and marking the change by altering the title to 'Sergeant Rock - Special Air Service'. It was noticeable, also, by a change of artist; seemingly - from the similarity of style - to whomever had drawn the discontinued wartime strip 'Nutt and Bolt - The Men from W.H.E.E.Z.E.'
Bunsen's Burner was a short-lived strip, lasting just a few weeks. This was an adventure yarn with humorous overtones, about Ben Bunsen, the owner of a vintage car. The car was known as "the Burner", because it was so old it was steam-driven! Like an old-fashioned steam train it had a boiler which had to be stoked, as it ran on coal instead of petrol. Ben and his pal had to drive the Burner around the world, as a condition of Ben inheriting his uncle's fortune; but a rival claimant (shades of 'His Sporting Lordship'!) was secretly out to stop them.
Another adventure strip which had a sadly brief run, lasting only 46 weeks, but which is very well-remembered today, was Cursitor Doom. In this spooky and atmospheric series, Cursitor Doom, master investigator of the strange and mystic, who openly practiced sorcery in the strip, battled against the dark forces of evil, ably assisted by the pounding fists of his assistant, Angus McCraggan. Doom battled against genuine spirits and sorcerers, in tales such as ' The Case of Kalak the Dwarf', 'The Sorcerer's Talisman' and 'The Dark Legion of Mardarax', in the latter encountering a haunted (and unstoppable) Roman Legion brought back to "life" by the evil Mardarax. Doom's pet Raven, Scarab, who could write messages in the dust for Angus McCraggan, by scratching with his claw, was often of more help to Doom in these serials than was the perpetually baffled McCraggan.
The Cursitor Doom strip was typically drawn by Geoff Campion (including 'The Return of the Hunter') and Eric Bradbury (including the atmospheric 'Dark Legion of Mardarax').
Changes in August 1969
After 22 weeks, in August 1969, Nutt and Bolt, the Men from W.H.E.E.Z.E. was dropped, and replaced from the 23rd issue by a more serious World War Two strip entitled Send For... Q-Squad, drawn by Eric Bradbury, which dealt with the adventures of a hand picked group of six specialists, who were assigned to unusual missions that required special expertise both in the air and on the ground. This, too, in keeping with the need to cut costs, was a reprint strip, originally published in Buster in 1960 under the title Phantom Force 5, which was also apparent from the artist's unique style - which was both different from, and grimmer than, all the other strips. Whereas Sgt Rock emulated Lord Henry (and Janus Stark), by maintaining a huge and confident smile, regardless of how much trouble he was in, no one in 'Q-Squad' ever stopped looking worried.
Its reprint status is also indicated by the fact that Q-Squad is plainly not the original name of the team. Some panels show evidence of the name having been inserted over the previous one; there is a change in the lettering style for the name 'Q-Squad' and any adjacent words, which use a different handwriting in a cruder style wherever the name appears, but nowhere else. All adjacent words in the same line also change, in an identical manner, and none of the other lettering in the strip employs that style.
In the same issue, a serious footballing serial entitled The Handcuff Hotspurs began, replacing the departed World Wide Wanderers. Hard-as-nails former prison sports instructor 'Toff' Morgan (so called for his habit of always wearing a top-hat) took over the management of ailing First Division side Haversham Hotspurs. Morgan began to rebuild the team by 'framing' ex-criminals who he'd known while working in various prisons, forcing them to sign on with the club in order to make use of their dishonest skills as footballing talents. These convicts became the 'handcuff hotspurs' of the title. The club's former manager, Reg Jessup, tried constantly to sabotage Morgan's efforts, in order to persuade the Directors to re-appoint him instead.
Six months earlier, various humour strips had been introduced as replacements for the (far more surreal) humour of Ken Reid, whose strip The Nervs had so disturbed IPC's management. Now another was forthcoming, and one which reflected the pervasive sporting theme of the new Smash. This was The Touchline Tearaways, featuring three mad-keen supporters of Grimshot United: a totally useless professional football team, perpetually in danger of being relegated as it was made up entirely of ailing and decrepit players. Each week the Tearaways - Hairy, Lug'oles and Clever Dick - would execute some scheme from the touchline to help Grimshot win that week's match, usually involving a battle of wits with officials from the Ministry of Football, who, not unnaturally, tried to put a stop to the Tearaways well-intentioned cheating.
The name of the club, Grimshot United, was a humorous indicator of the fact that the team was not very good (i.e. that the players were "grim shots"). Each strip featured a single match, with a plot based around helping the team overcome that week's opponent. Clever Dick masterminded all the ploys used in helping Grimshot, and apart from occasional words of congratulation or encouragement he was generally the only "Tearaway" who had dialogue in the strip. Hairy and Lug'oles tended to be merely a pair of walking visual gags; Hairy's features were perpetually invisible behind a vast mass of long black hair that covered his entire face and head, and Lug'oles had a pair of enormous ears.
Thus within six months a number of the new strips had already bitten the dust. And more changes were looming.
The 1970 Revamps
The most obvious problem faced by the new-look Smash was the constant "churn" : the incessant turnover of strips. Its new editorial staff seemed pathologically incapable of settling on a fixed line-up.
In the aftermath of the changes made in August 1969, further changes made at the start of 1970 left Smash looking very different to its appearance in the wake of the relaunch just 12 months earlier. Only half of the strips introduced in March 1969 survived, although the continuing strips did include Master of the Marsh, Janus Stark, His Sporting Lordship, Battle of Britain, Eric the Viking, Wacker, The Handcuff Hotspurs, The Swots and the Blots and Percy's Pets - the latter two now being the only remaining Odhams strips.
Discontinued in the spring of 1970 were King of the Ring (last survivor of the serious strips from the Odhams era), Sergeant Rock - Special Air Service, and Cursitor Doom. Three of the strips only recently introduced were also dropped, namely the wartime Q-Squad, British superhero Tri-Man, and the humour strip The Touchline Tearaways.
The first changes to occur in 1970 were in the issue dated 24 January, when three new strips appeared: The Kid Commandos, Consternation Street (reprinted from Buster), and Monty Muddle - The Man from Mars (which was also a reprint from Buster, originally titled Milkiway - The Man from Mars).
The Kid Commandos was a war story about three cockney children stranded in occupied France in World War Two. The Sparrow children, Tommy, Jan and Podge, were on the run from the Germans in a single page strip each week.
In Consternation Street (the title spoofed that of the popular television soap opera, Coronation Street), usually a one-page strip, a collection of unlikely neighbours rubbed shoulders in a very small street. Watched over by the dim-witted Constable Clott were the Snobbs and the Ardupps, Colonel Curry & Caesar (his dog), Miss Primm and her pets, Cutprice the Grocer, and Roger the Lodger. Curiously, adverts that appeared the week before the strip began featured Mr Ardupp and Miss Snobb, instead of the family Ardupp and the family Snobb; so the final contents of the strip had obviously featured some very late changes.
A half-page humour strip, Monty Muddle - The Man from Mars, recounted the misadventures of spaceman Monty Muddle, who flew about in his small bubble-domed spacecraft trying to make friends with the Earth people. However, due to his misunderstanding of Earth customs, his every attempt at contact ended in disaster; and each strip would end with the catchphrase, 'I'll try again next week!'
Further changes occurred in the 7 February issue, including a new cover feature. The Warriors of the World covers had run into a problem, in that war stories were not a strong element of the relaunched Smash, which had dropped the humour strip Nutt and Bolt, the Men from W.H.E.E.Z.E. some time earlier. When it was decided to also drop Sergeant Rock - Paratrooper (by then renamed Sergeant Rock - Special Air Service), and Q Squad, the cover feature had to go too. It was not practical to advertise war stories on the cover if there were actually no war stories inside!
The newly added Kid Commandos did not count as a war story in this context, since the three fugitive children did not do any conventional fighting. The strip was more like a souped-up version of the discontinued Rebbels on the Run.
After forty six weeks, therefore, the Warriors of the World covers were ended. Instead the issue dated 7 February 1970 began The Thirteen Tasks of Simon Test. Henceforth each week's cover featured a full-page splash advertising the task which Simon Test would undertake in a new adventure strip on the inside pages. This strip proved so popular that when the original thirteen week series was completed (featuring one task each week), Simon Test was given a new series of adventures, extending his hold on the cover indefinitely. He would prove particularly enduring, being one of the few strips to ultimately survive the merger with Valiant in 1971.
The Thirteen Tasks of Simon Test saw Test undertake a quest for immortality by attempting the thirteen tasks of the Pharaoh Thot, believing this to be the only way to save his life, having been deceived by the sinister Jabez Coppenger into believing he has only a few months to live. The aged Coppenger secretly desired Test's death as a means of restoring his own youth. This serial introduced the mute servant Karka, who would ultimately become Test's friend and assistant.
Test then went on to the more lengthy series of adventures entitled Simon Test and the Curse of the Conqueror, where he battled the twenty servants of the evil Ezekiel Spar, the self-styled Conqueror. This pitted him against twenty athletes and champions, each of whom was under the hypnotic control of Spar, who implanted in them an in-built impulse to kill Simon Test.
New supporting strips were also introduced in the 7 February issue, including Threat of the Toymaker, The Pillater Peril, Birdman of Baratoga, Nick and Nat - The Beat Boys, and three humour strips with a supernatural content: Sam's Spook (drawn by Leo Baxendale), The Haunts of Headless Harry, and Ghost Ship.
In Threat of the Toymaker a criminal scientist named Doctor Droll escaped from Garstone Prison with the aid of an army of remote controlled mechanical toys he had constructed, along the way taking the Prison Governor's children, Pam and Peter Keen, as hostages. Hampered by the children at every turn, Droll finds himself on the run, pursued by the Police wherever he goes. The use of radio controlled toys in the strip was scarcely original, since the idea was a straight lift from the House of Dolmann strip then running in Valiant, as well as from the General Jumbo strip in The Beano.
The Pillater Peril saw David Pillater return to Pillater House, his ancestral home on the Cornish coast, which he is to inherit on his 21st birthday. Along with his four cousins and his Uncle Bernard, David is imperilled by Francis Pillater, an ancestor who has seemingly returned from the dead. Francis had an evil reputation for his misdeeds in the 16th Century, but was thought to have perished in a shipwreck during a storm at sea. Blaming the family for his troubles, he sets out for revenge by kidnapping them one by one.
Birdman from Baratoga was an adventure strip about a boy who grew up on a Pacific island with only the company of birds, and learned from them the secret of flight. By the use of a feather cape, he was able to glide through the air like an albatros. When an English sailor is castaway on the island, called Baratoga, they escape together on a raft and set out on a series of adventures in the Pacific, beginning by hunting down the desperado who has stolen the man's pearl-fishing yacht, Enterprise. Birdman from Baratoga was perhaps loosely based on a humour strip which had run in Buster during 1968: Captain Swoop - He's Half Man, Half Bird, Half Wit.
In a very atypical move, prompted by IPC's on-going financial problems (in the year in which they were taken over by the Reed Group), the editorial team now resurrected one of the old strips which had run in Wham under Odhams. Nick and Nat - The Beat Boys featured two young lads from Liverpool who fancied themselves as musicians, spoke in Liverpudlian slang, sported Beatles-style haircuts, and always carried guitars. Who were they based on, I wonder? This strip was a reprint of The Wacks, which had run in Wham in 1964, reprinted here with only the title and the names changed.
A common supernatural theme linked the three new humour strips. In Sam's Spook, drawn by the ubiquitous Leo Baxendale, Sam was a schoolboy with a ghostly pal, called Spooky, who used his powers to humorous effect on Sam's behalf. The strip mostly consisted of Sam's schoolfriends catching Spooky doing a bit of ghostly cheating in order to help Sam win at sports or football, and Sam doing a lot of running away to avoid a bashing.
The Haunts of Headless Harry featured the amiable ghost of a 16th Century soldier who had been beheaded. Harry's head and body led separate but related ghostly existences, with the body carrying the head around everywhere, and both of them were able to talk. Harry's humorous adventures invariably involved misplacing his head; such as going to the cinema and, on leaving, calling at the cloakroom to collect it (as though it was a hat), and being asked by the attendant to identify it among all the other ghostly heads left there during the film.
The other new humour strip was Ghost Ship, in which the spirit of an ancient galleon, and the ghosts of its pirate crew, sailed the Seven Seas making mischief, but usually coming off worst.
Further changes followed. In the issue dated 27 June 1970, a new humour strip began entitled Moonie's Magic Mate, about a schoolboy who finds a Genie in a dusty old bottle. In the issue dated 29 August, a humour strip titled The Fighting Three began. Finally, the last addition before the comic's closure, a strip entitled Tyler the Tamer was launched in early 1971, about the adventures of the greatest film stuntman in the world. Dropped to make room for these three strips were Kid Commandos, Threat of the Toymaker and The Pillater Peril.
Merger with Valiant
In mid-November 1970, production on Smash (and many other IPC titles, including Valiant) came to a halt due to a printers' strike, and no editions were produced for the following three months. By the time the strike was settled, in February of the following year, irreparable damage had been done to the comic's circulation, as its young readers had turned elsewhere in the intervening 12 weeks. Similar harm had been suffered by Valiant. In consequence of this latest financial disaster, after eight issues, in April 1971, the two titles were merged. For a brief time the merged comic was entitled Valiant and Smash, before reverting to simply Valiant.
Some of the strips from Smash survived in the new comic, including 'His Sporting Lordship', 'Janus Stark' and 'The Swots and the Blots', but most were lost, although the Smash Annual continued to appear for many years afterwards (continuing, in fact, until the 1976 Annual, published in the autumn of 1975). Most of the strips thereby continued to appear each year, including many which had not even survived into Valiant, long after Smash had ceased publication as a comic.
The sports themed 'His Sporting Lordship' had enjoyed perhaps the greatest popularity, surviving the shake-ups of 1969 and 1970, and then surviving even the merger with Valiant, though it was to last only a few months in its new home, finally ending in December 1971. However, it was revived in the 1972 Smash Annual, published at Christmas 1971, and returned year after year: becoming the regular cover feature of the Annuals.
Despite all of the changes, the new Smash had lasted only two years. Maybe it was only marginally profitable, but no title could have survived such a lengthy loss of production. Its demise was directly attributable to the strike.
Smash was the last attempt in the UK market to publish a general boys comic, mixing adventure, sports and humour strips. Subsequent comics would survive only by ruthlessly focusing on narrow, sectional interests: such as all-sports, all-war, or all-humour; just as the American market had already specialised into all-funnies, all-horror, and all-superhero titles. The writing was on the wall for non-niche comics in the UK, for, in the face of the competition from television, even IPC's flagship, Valiant, ultimately could not survive.
- Smash! at the Grand Comics Database
- History of IPC on the IPC Media website
- Birmingham Mail article by Paul Birch
- History of Look and Learn
- Career history of artist Ken Reid at DC Thompson and Odhams
- Reed-Elsevier Group history on Reed-Elsevier website
- 1967 Ledger Syndicate newspaper strip
- History of Marvel UK
- The Power Comics: Wham!
- Ken Reid
- Career history of artist Ken Reid at DC Thomson and Odhams
- The banned Dare-A-Day Davy Frankenstein strip
- Sammy Shrink
- Stan McMurtry
- The Economic Crisis of 1968 - American Historical Review
- Eugene McCarthy, pivotal role in 1968 Political Crisis
- 40 Year flashback - Smash
- IPC Magazines Ltd
- The Power Comics: Smash!
- Smash! - Title Notes at the Grand Comics Database
- Smash after Odhams
- Janus Stark
- Merger with Valiant - Valiant and Smash
- Note: One trend in British comics was to ride the coat-tails of the success of television, which was gradually killing off comics, by specialising in strips based on popular tv shows: titles which attempted to ride the back of the tiger in this fashion included TV Comic, TV21, TV Tornado, Countdown and TV Action.
- The history of IPC
- Smash comic art
- Smash cover art at the Grand Comics Database
- Smash #150 cover art
- The Battle For Britain - Art by John Stokes
- Gallery - Valiant and Smash
- Baxendale, Leo - Images at Google.com
- McMurtry, Stan - Biography: Stan McMurtry (a.k.a. Mac) - The British Cartoon Archive
- Reid, Ken - Comics UK biography of Ken Reid (1919-87)
- Stephen Poppitt's Blog-o-Sphere
- Baxendale, Leo. A Very Funny Business: 40 Years Of Comics. Gerald Duckworth & Co., London (1978). Autobiography.