‘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.
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) moved from the front cover to the centre pages. Now drawn by Leo Baxendale, it became a standard bearer for sophisticated artwork. Baxendale began a three-year run on the strip (beginning in Smash and continuing in 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; and in the process attaining a new, deliriously daft, high standard, one rarely approached by other strips.
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 was in fact a reprint from 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 protector.
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 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.