‘Smash!’ was the most successful of the five ‘Power Comics’ published in Britain in the 1960s by Odhams Press, a division of IPC. Targeted at boys aged 10 to 14, it was published from 1966 to 1971. This article is part of an analysis of the causes and consequences of the comic’s relaunch in 1969; a case-study of the economic pressures affecting the UK publishing industry in that period.
Odhams Humour Strips
There were typically a dozen British 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 four humour strips which didn’t last, 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, became Leo Baxendale’s greatest creation, 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 continued in Pow when Wham was merged with it in 1968, combining with The Dolls of St Dominics to become The Tiddlers and The Dolls).
The Swots and the Blots was one of the few strips in Smash to survive all the changes of 1969 and 1970, reaching a new standard of excellence when Leo Baxendale began drawing it for the new-look Smash from March 1969, but even during the Odhams years it had wit and a sense of style. In Baxendale’s hands it had similarities to his earlier classroom-based strip, The Bash Street Kids, in The Beano.
Leo Baxendale’s The Man from BUNGLE, spoofing the popular TV series The Man from U.N.C.L.E., was a spin-off from Baxendale’s Eagle-Eye Junior Spy strip in Wham (which Smash absorbed in 1968). 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 drew the first few editions, which appeared as large single illustrations on the early covers of Smash, after which Mike Lacey took over.
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, 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. 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 he had transferred to Fleetway, he still contributed strips to Smash, but now worked “undercover”, without signing them. He explained this in his autobiography, A Very Funny Business (Duckworth, 1978, page 91): “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.”
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. Drawn for the majority of its run 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 dog, a parrot, a tortoise, a white mouse, and a hedgehog; thereby causing a predictable degree of chaos for his long suffering mum and dad.